“. . . darkness, lapping water, and creaking wood.”
• • • •
Tick, tick, tick at the end of the chain swings the watch, and back against your fireside bed of needles and furs you collapse and drift away, sweet sister Mina, your thoughts unmoored by the doctor’s trick twitch of his mesmerizing wrist, your mind free to wander the wild woods, gleaning the lingering scent of your captive beloved, reporting back to that fierce, relentless Helsing demon all the secrets hidden within our master’s untamed kingdom of night. Or so we make him believe.
Drip, drip, drip go the sounds of my thoughts under each little tick of the watch, each unspoken word welling plump from the dark woods and rushing waters and starry void of my mind, staining red all the untouched pink flesh of your soul. In this manner I speak to you, as did the First, who spoke to me a century ago, who plucked me like turning fruit from a long-forgotten tree. Out there in the cold crisp dying of the sunset’s flaming light you speak of inconsequential things to your doctor, visions of trails and pathways and roads unseen. Inside, your thoughts drift to the man you love, directing my desires away from your unbroken velvet neck, and yet even as your supple mouth silently wraps around his name I slip into your visions beside him, unheard and unseen, nestling like a buzz just beyond your ear, a warm vibrating hum whispering warm against the rising hairs on your skin. That flush on your pale cheek, my innocent Mina, that effervescence coursing through your blood, is that not also a pure and perfect love? Can I not give you the same?
I am the youngest. I am the Third. What the others have long forgotten, what dark centuries and the monotony of undying time have scrubbed away, I remember still. Traces in the air and against my tongue, like the remnants of a last unforgettable meal. The swelling valleys and hills of the Mittel Land, vast expanses of bright green fields under brilliant sun, the snow-capped mountains but a hazy suggestion at the horizon. Pears and cherries, hard red apples dropping to the warm earth. She came from these lands, the First told me, and to them she returned in the low mists of one early summer some half a century ago, burrowing her way through the warm brown earth, her gold hair and fair limbs entangled in the soft roots of tall grass and vegetables. There as the season quickened did she take both rest and power, soaking up the heat of the sun, small insectile life and fragile boned burrowers that heard her lovely, low call. And above the ground, as the season ripened, we heard her silent song, and we came, too.
Rumors of a mist, sparkling like crushed stained glass, swirling around dusky plums that couples stole and ate before they sunk into the grass, into each other, into the earth itself, their bodies found at daylight, hollowed and open-eyed, dry cavities packed with sticky stems and stones. Young girls from neighboring farmlands wandering down roads in the early hours of the morning, covered in beads of dew, pale and feverish, their shaking fingers scratching at wounded necks as they asked which way was home, the words dribbling out of their split lips in slow crimson waterfalls. Mothers sleep-walking newborn babies into the fields, leaving them under the fruit trees like offerings, only days later to awaken in horror, unable to remember what they had done. Circles of cats and dogs, bloodless, beheaded and neatly arranged on the grounds of a local church cemetery. In the center of each circle a pink newborn’s hand placed upright, a cold supplication, a decaying plea.
The village slipped into paralyzed silence as the summer bloated and crept toward its autumnal end, cobblestone streets emptied out, windows shuttered tight and rooms darkened, clusters of crosses and garlic swung at every door. It meant nothing. She fed on us all, and left the seeds and cores and skins of her human crop to shrivel away. I remember my father coming to me during the day, thick ropes of iron dragging from his worn, broken hands. He stopped, stared up at the ceiling, and began whispering replies at the shadowy corners to questions I never heard. Eventually he dropped the chains and left the room. I never saw him again. Outside, insects chattered and buzzed incessantly in the heat. So many creeping things, and not a single bird left to cull them. Cows dying and crops fallow in the fields, and only that one lush mound of the valley blossoming like a poison-soaked paradise, whilst all the land around it cowered and waited. Every night I dreamed, thrashing away the soaking sheets, ripping off my bedclothes. In the stifling dark, my hands crept across my body, and my brown skin was the valley, and she was there, in the center, under the folds of the earth, calling out my name, waiting for my touch. And though I held out longer than the rest, so, too, like the others in the village, I found myself drawn to her as well, making my way through a late-summer village drained of all people and life, walking through rotting and fly-blown orchards and fields in the star-studded hour before nightfall, a bouquet of dead, dried flowers in my shaking hands, flowers that exploded into life as I neared her ground, bursting with sticky pollen and green water. And there on that hill in the vast rolling Mittel Land, I, the last of my village, the last of my valley, slid my fingers inside the rich damp loam of the world, teasing her out little by little until she unfurled over me and inside me, gold wheat hair and milk skin, plum sweet lips and a tongue of sharp, sour wine. And there was pleasure, unlike any I had ever known, wave after wave of rich red desire rising up to crash abated against my body’s shores, and she pressed my head against her breasts and throat like a hungry child. And a single lap of her blood took it all forever away.
Our bodies are dead, our souls are dust, and decay cannot desire. So she says. My mind cannot forget her, though, cannot shed the memories of her on me, inside me, as she did before I was undone. Like a tickle, a silvery shiver against my skin, the maddening ghost of a touch never truly realized, a desire never fulfilled. The First floats above us in the night when our master has not allowed us out to be fed, and we, the Second and the Third, open our mouths like helpless birds. She bites her fingertips like a cat, and we catch the trickling of blood running off her sharp nails with our snapping teeth and pointed tongues, lapping up more air than sustenance. In each drop I remember the sensation of summer, the crops and fields and lap of the midday sun. I remember her tongue, the smell of the living earth on her breasts and hands. I remember, but my body is cold. I reach up for her, but she is always too far away. And I would go mad at the memory of it all, except for the blood, those few drops of thick plum from her hands that abate the hunger and pain. And so I scrabble greedily about in a cold barren room in a castle that has no name, for a few exquisite sparks of a long-lost summer. Endless winter in these mountains, endless desiccated life, two lovers, and no love at all.
Will this be your existence? Will this be you?
What is it that I say and do here in the cold, in the snow of a country that it not my home? I do not wish to know.
Full of beauty of all imaginable kinds this country is, and every woman, delicious Mina, is a country. Terrible is the country that you travel to. She reaches out to you even now, and you will live forever in a land pregnant with dead branches of desire, continually consumed in hunger’s red wave. I do not think it is there that you belong. And the first tendrils of purple morning swell up through the thick trees, and I rise with them, exploding and scattering like floating seeds. Later, when you awaken, your wet clothes will still glitter with the spent remains of that which once was me.
The Carpathian Spurs
“. . . darkness, creaking wood, and roaring water.”
• • • •
Night swells and peaks, and still you sleep. I grimace and ride the hours with it, even to the painful razor edge of it, until dawn begins to push its way up through the thin membrane of the horizon, anxious to start the day. Only then does your good companion take out his watch, and so begins your inevitable turn on the Catherine wheel of my thoughts. I waste no time.
I am the Second. I was there at the beginning, I watched the First die and unbecome, and then she cleaved unto me and once again we were brought together in all things and through all things, I once again her willing servant ready to give her my undying life and love.
There are rules, stubborn little Mina. Just as there are rules that govern the entirety of nature, rules that dictate the passage of that water you think you hear, the swaying of those wind-blown branches you think you see, so there are rules that govern his entire world, which is this entire world. As I did, as we all did, you will become a servant to each and every one. No man or mortal shall do your unnatural bidding again. You will be Fourth, and you will drink last, never first. You will be last in everything, you will be the Least. Unbecome by her blood, you will finally learn to submit.
You must never again pay heed to the words and actions of the Third.
You must never leave our chambers unless by his command, through the First.
You must never raise your head in his presence, or look him directly in the eyes. As he is in all things above you, so in all things must you forever remain below.
You must never speak in his presence; and throughout all of the castle confines and the world itself, for all time, you must never speak, or even think, his name.
You must never mention his long-dead sons, though you will be made, as we all are, to dress in their rusting armor and place their helmets over your bound and braided hair. You must show no fear when he drags us to barren fields of skeletons and stone, and under storm gray skies mounts us upon petrified pikes and crosses, crying out betrayers, betrayers all with every hammer blow, black gouts from your body squirting against ragged pike and steel, impaled flesh firing white-hot bolts of pain into your shrieking, shrinking soul. You must pay no heed to his laughter when the rays of a feeble morning sun curl the edges of your skin, burn wet layers of your eyes away like autumn mist. All our wounds heal, eventually.
You must not pass out when he nails your clothes to your breasts, when he drives a spike through your tongue. You must learn to lick your lips and pant for more.
In every moment of your existence, you must remember that the physical world is his domain, and no longer yours to command. By air alone, you must travel backwards and never forward, never touching ceilings or floors or walls, whether he is there to see you or not. Always you must travel with your ruby eyes seeing only where you have been, never where you are going, because your destination is nowhere. There is only the past, he says, and we must never forget it. We live forever, but for us there is no future. We are dust, and we move as such.
Books are forbidden, as is music and all the forms of the arts. You must learn to find stories in wind, knowledge in thunder and rain. Your thoughts will no longer be yours to write down, your little diaries and letters shredded and burned. Every transgression will be paid to him with a finger, which he will place in a thin glass bottle and display on our chamber walls. You are not allowed to touch these bottles or take them down. Centuries will pass, and you will gaze upon the forest of fingers you have lost and regrown and lost again, ageless and perfectly preserved in their transparent reliquaries. Unnecessary, useless, broken, replaceable. You will learn that this is us. This will be you.
Once a year, he will dress you in the remnants of a four hundred year old gown, lead you backwards up broken stairs, floating over toothless gaps in the stone, until you find yourself in the highest crooked tower, perched over the deepest ravine in the Carpathians, staring half a mountain’s length down to a river so ageless and relentless and hard it has split the very heart of the land in half, never to be whole again. You must not resist his spider-hard grasp at the small of your back as he sends you flying over the edge, nor must you allow your flailing limbs to claw for purchase as you plummet unstoppable into the ravine’s crooked maw, bones breaking and snapping with every outcrop of jagged rock. He will fly with you, twisting and turning with every spiral of your breaking body, fingers grasping your neck as he watches all the moments of your life rise and fall like oily tides on your grimacing visage. Do not ask what it is he looks for, what undiscovered truths he seeks in the dark calligraphy of tears penned by your horrified eyes. The ice black currents will not stop or slow your descent, only push your ribs up through breaking skin like snowy mountain peaks, red mist rising from your body like a distant summer dawn. And when the raging waves vomit your ravaged body from their foamy grip, you will not plead for death or mercy as he rearranges the wet velvet folds of your gown against the iron shores, whispers in your ear the name of a woman you do not know, then leaves your split corpse to gather the first feathers of midnight snow.
And I will come for you, gentle, broken, fearless Mina, as I came for the First so many centuries ago, when I witnessed her fall, the first fall. I will collect your body and carry you backwards all the way, backwards and up through crevices and caverns and passages, no guide except all the ghosts of my former journeys through lost centuries, the worn grooves in the packed earth, the smooth hollows in the stones. And to our chambers I will deliver you, and outside the thick castle walls seasons will pass and change as we lick your wounds and the ivory of our teeth clicks against the white of your ribs, pushing the destruction back inside, back down. Our lips against yours, hot kisses in the darkness, fingers crawling and stitching, swollen folds of flesh closing and opening, the wet of our blood and desire a crucible to transmute and banish all pain: until the following year, when he throws you off the tower once again. And he will be there, at all times watching over all your deaths and rebirths, because all that you do will be for him. All that you experience will be his, over and over, for all eternity.
You must break, and you must heal, and you must break, and you must heal. Sisyphus, never resting at the summit. Icarus, never reaching the opposite shore.
Is this you, pretty finger in a jar? Will this be you?
Except. I feel it on your breath, against the rigid curve of your spine, in the beat of your steady heart behind such cold, small breasts. There is nothing wax about you. And the watch on its chain slows and stops, and you slip away, toward the mysterious country of daylight I can no longer travel through. And night flows on across the mountains, dragging with it the ominous grays of another relentless day, indistinguishable from any other before it, or after.
“. . . darkness and the swirling of water.”
• • • •
Those glass-cased fingers embedded in the castle walls, Mina: they are not hers. Flesh of my flesh, each one severed from my hands. A forest of defiance and insurrection, thousands of markers pointing every way in every direction, proclaiming at once, I am everywhere, and here. He catches me looking at them, running my newly grown fingers over the filthy vials, pinpricks of blood coalescing in my eyes. He mistakes the look on my face for sorrow, for resignation, for ruin. Everywhere men are surrounded by life, and see it not at all. Malformed, grotesque monstrosity, he drags his loathsome remains to the center of the web and thinks himself safe as he hallucinates away his years, dreams and schemes of his former self made whole, an immortal conqueror striding across an impaled and broken world as he blots out the sun with the crimson letters of the ancient, unspeakable First Name.
He does not realize the name he writes is mine.
“This is the way.”
The Red of the Dawn
“Why fear for me? None safer in all the world from them than I am.”
• • • •
In the blissful black silence of the woods, beneath the hiss of wind and snow, you hear them. The faint suck and suction of their mouths, the swift rush of life down their transparent throats, the soft sighs of steam rising off the fallen horses entwined in their smooth brown arms. Life: never extinguished, simply traveling, from one perfect creation to the next. Pale flakes drift up around the undead and the dying, all of them heedless to the rising drifts, the pressing cold. Stars wheel and gyre mindlessly in the heavens above us. Branches dislodge their heavy wintery burden, anointing the heads of wolves with silver crowns. And all the terrors of the night have vanished, valiant Mina, deep into the obsidian oblivion of a sudden sleep. Is this not the most beautiful of all countries? Is this not the most wondrous of all nights?
Twice have I come to you in the valleys and mountains of this kingdom, moving the mindless bodies of the Second and the Third as the rosemary honey of my words poured from their puppet mouths. Twice have I watched as you stood trembling but resolute, and refused. Trails of salty blood now crack and flake against my sister’s cheeks, yet already they no longer remember that less than a winter’s breath ago, they gnashed their teeth at you a third time, wept and rent their garments and breasts as they screamed. That is who they are, and what you might have become. No less animal than the helpless animals they now suckle at, no less mindless in their destruction like winter storms. They speak and spin stories of such aching beauty and pain, yet the words and emotions that pour from their fang-tipped mouths, the shifting forms of their flesh, the touch of their pliant hands are mere traps to catch flies. Bereft of me inside, their actions are nothing but the hunger, taking what revolting shapes and sounds it needs, the quicker to fell the prey, the quicker to feed. They forget what they are, what they used to be. United in infinite confusion and pain, they exist as much on blood as the ever-changing fantasies of what I tell them their meaningless lives could have been, could still be.
To the Third I came in the dregs of a plague-laced summer, the crops and animals already long dead, the villages of that distant valley festering under disease and endless sun. I imbued and impregnated the overworked earth with the corruption of my presence, and rose from flies and fumes hissing from poisoned ground, from slick green ropes of mossy decay bubbling from stagnant pools. I lingered in the blackening veins and mottled skin of all living creatures who lapped and nibbled away at the fruits and flowers and leaves of my sweet false call. A vegetable husk of life she was when the Third succumbed to my song, when she dragged her withered breasts and brittle bones across the soft black pulp of her lands and family to fall apart in my arms, aching for release. Death alone is release. My embrace gives none.
To the Second I came in the mirror shards of soured celestial visions, an iron maiden angel born from the fevered blood mists of suppressed perversions and misplaced belief. Beneath the revolting excess of vaulted stone ceilings, golden crucifixes and diamond-studded monstrances, far below the scratching swirl of incense, the smoke of white wax and blue flame, under layer upon layer of monotone, miserable lives lived in fealty to a long-dead god, I burrowed up from pagan foundations and writhed against crumbling mosaics, feeding on plump, lost novices and fucking ossified bones as I howled my song of songs. It was there she crawled to me, whip-lashed and pierced, begging for my mortification of her sin-choked, naked flesh, begging for a pain-filled path to a virgin monstrosity. And under the unblinking watch of the skull-studded ceilings and walls did I eat the lids off her wondering eyes, and reveal the darkness and emptiness of faith, the vast insignificance of the human soul, forever in the cosmos falling and alone.
And at the last, undisguised by guile and sorrows and dreams, I come to you. I am the First and am in all things the First, which is my eternal right. I alone bestowed that power and privilege upon myself a hundred hard lifetimes ago, and no man or creature fashioned or forged me. I am a creature of my own making, as all women are. Even to him, I was the First, making him who he was, though he no longer remembers and has usurped my place, rewritten his history and calls himself my Master. And yet even this betrayal shall eventually serve me, for I tell truths to few women, and to no men. I am the Queen of Lies. I live and breathe in the black cracks of doubt and terror that spread vast and malignant throughout all life. I am the mother of flesh rebirthed beyond perfection; I am the devouring furnace of the soul.
The low horrid laugh of my sisters, moving slow against the silence and cold. Satiated, content for an eye-blink moment of time, they drift up, float and dance with the thinning flakes of snow. I feel them at the corners of my mind, casting about for me, heads swiveling for a glance of a presence they have always known yet have never truly seen. You see me, Mina. You see me and you do not look away. The cosmic motes of my incorporeal being slide through your clothes, rippling over the curves of your cream skin, curled hair, warm lips. You breathe me in, and I stream past the hot crimson slick of your tongue into the velvet chambers of your heart, settle against and under the most secret curves of your swelling flesh. Searching, rushing through the hot motes of blood, riding the tender trembling contractions of muscles and lungs, drawing out one lingering, delicate contraction of pleasure after another and mining it for purchase. There are vast pristine skies within here, colors and landscapes and light I have not seen for centuries, achingly full with memory and promise. I could live in you for lifetime after lifetime until the heavens bled stars, and never feed. In you, I have no need to be First. I have no purchase. In you I am contentment, nothingness, alone.
The only darkness within you, inviolate Mina, is me.
Outside our bodies, outside of dreams and sleep, the beautiful sun is breaking across the jagged mountains, golden light creeping through slender trees and sparkling snow. Streams and strands of me pour like the morning mists from your limbs, minute shards of ice that settle against the branches, burn away. Later you will wake, you will rise, you will turn your face upward into the light of a world that is the mirror of your soul, and you will continue your descent into my kingdom, swelling like the great and gentle ocean until there is no more darkness, no more water, no more lies and dreams. Until only you remain, and your right to begin.
Come to me.
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