Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Tea with the Earl of Twilight

For the first week, she thought he belonged to the power plant; after that she knew better. She had read the obituaries.

She saw him first as a silhouette, one more line of the industrial geometries overhanging the boardwalk of Broad Canal. It had been a wet, dispiriting winter full of gusts and mists, but with January the water had finally hardened into a thick pane of cormorant-black ice, chipped and glossed with refreezing like volcanic glass; it was pond-green at the edges of the channel where the stubs of older piers stood up like snags, but the snow lying over the floating dock of the canoe launch could still pretend to seasonal pallor if the fanned brown branches of the trees along the old towpath could not. Decades after the coal barges of the Cambridge Electric Company, she had been vaguely surprised that there were still girder-framed docks and doors at canal-height, but a sodium light burned above one recessed portal and the greenish silver of mercury vapor above the other and someone had put out a wheelie bin on one of the rust-sketched catwalks, just as if a landfill-bound tugboat might still chug by. On the other, a slender man in black was smoking. More than features or expression, she registered the pose: slouched lankily over the caution-yellow pipes of the handrail as if he had a view of something better than pilings, pedestrians’ feet, the algae-marked and iron-stained masonry on the other side of the canal. Whatever she saw of his face was pale and pointed, his hair rumpled dustily. He wore no coat in the cold, but she had been caught wrong-footed by climate change herself. He did not glance up at her as she passed, hard-heeled with her hands in the pockets of her pale raincoat; she was not sure afterward why she had thought he should.

If the biscuit-colored blocks and towers of the Kendall Cogeneration Station looked like a space-age set from the ’70s, Sid Eilerstein could not help thinking of the frictionless stack of glass cubes that housed her latest temp job as the apocalypse according to Ballard, all aquarium-windowed open-plan just waiting for the waters to rise. At least it left her full name off her ID badge, which spared her having to explain the kind of parents who named their daughter Siddony like the second coming of the pre-Raphaelites and got instead a two-time grad-school drop-out with a lavender-grey undercut and tattoos just far enough up her sleeves to pass as an acceptable office drone; she could take the bus on days when the Red Line preferred not to and she walked quickly enough to spend most of her lunch breaks by the Charles, the traffic humming across the metal decking of the disused drawbridge’s leaves. Daniel referred to all of her employers interchangeably as Veridian Dynamics. She reminded him that his radical queer game design brought in approximately enough to cover the cost of internet in Spring Hill, even on the third floor of a former Philadelphia-style so haphazardly converted that one of Daniel’s boyfriends had not entirely joked about raccoons falling through the ceiling while they fucked. It was better than medical transcription and waiting tables; she tried not to fall into hoping that it would last through the spring. She hurried with the rest of the nine-to-fivers through mornings as grey as salt-streaked concrete, dusks as drowned blue as a harbor’s underside, and sometimes she saw the man on the loading dock above the canal, smoking next to the sign that read PRIVATE PROPERTY. He looked more like an art student than a utility worker in his thin black sweater and dark corduroys, his hair ashy in the mercury light; a match-flare lit him from underneath like a storyteller at Halloween. After the third or fourth sighting, she wondered if he was watching people in his own covert way, or merely the motionless water.

In hindsight, she liked to pretend everything would have been different if she had actually gone out with Torrey that weekend night, but they were coughing their way through some kind of post-conference hell-cold and in the end she was just as happy to do nothing more strenuous than make skillet-griddled grilled cheese and curl up to read. Looks like your industrial sort of thing, Daniel appended the link with a name she did not recognize in the title; he was only at the other end of the couch, sharing the other half of the amorphous sage-colored throw against the perpetual draft from the windows, but Sid had learned within weeks of their friendship that her housemate would never read a sentence aloud when a swipe and click would do.

Geoffrey Axtell, portraitist of Boston’s waterways, dead at 79, read the headline on Universal Hub. The details in the Globe obituary were sparing, the accompanying headshot showed a sharp-faced man in salt-and-pepper middle age grinning at the camera, no tormented artist even with a half-finished canvas behind his shoulder. It looked blocky, architectural; all his paintings as she scrolled through a search had the same almost metallic crispness, bright flat pastels or unmixed oils sharpened the one degree past photorealism that made the Brutalist bricks of City Hall Plaza or the tumbling bronze dolphins of the old New England Aquarium seem to scratch their way off the screen. He painted the tideless chop of the Charles like steel-cut scales, the spill of sunset under the Lechmere Viaduct like cranberry glass; sunlight cross-hatched through the rusting trusses of the Northern Avenue Bridge as if it were being rolled and stamped hot. Human figures moved through his city like afterthoughts, brushstrokes for scale—an Esplanade dog-walker, Hull ferry commuters, the smoker by the factory-ripple of a canal.

Slack-jawed as a teen in some stupid found footage, Sid heard herself say, “Oh, shit,” so distinctly that Daniel mid-podcast gave her a quizzical frown. Between the hard blue planes of the water and the dirty orange static of sodium light, the figure in loose-jointed lines of black paint leaned on the rail where the reflection of the power station scattered in green and dun and sulfur, not yet shadowed by a boardwalk. The saffron ember of a cigarette smoldered in one hand. She read the title first, The Earl of Twilight, and then the date of completion, 1981, and she closed the profile or interview or gallery archive so fast, the rest of her tabs went with it. Her hands felt as cold as if she had fallen through the canal’s ice. For a moment she wanted to scream at Daniel, his ears obliviously stopped with eldritch horrors that could never be worse than fiction, but it passed, like the raw tin taste in her mouth, and after another moment she opened the picture again. It must have been twilight, that lowering ghost-blue air. She knew even then, as with every real haunting, it had always been too late.

• • • •

Soberly before a close-cropped angle on the Charles River Dam, the locks slanting away from the viewer in stripes of sheared grey and dimpled olivine, Torrey said, “It’s not a retro style at all, is the thing. It’s exactly the assumed nostalgia of Axtell’s neo-Precisionism that gives his work its disjunct charge, like a subliminal double exposure, as if his subjects were trying to project themselves forward into a past they’d already lived—or been built too late for in the first place,” and they squeezed Sid’s sweating hand.

She had known she would not be able to manage the show at 249 A Street alone, not when she had spent a week avoiding even the trains over the river in case she should glance back and catch, beyond the Strauss-trunnion and counterweight sentinels of the drawbridges that had not been raised since her childhood, the impassable waters of Broad Canal, but she had dreamed of the paintings too often to stay away. Absurdly and reasonably, in person they did not shift behind her back, the black-sweatered smoker flicking from canvas to canvas like stop-motion film, leaving only a spoor of dissipating nicotine behind as each bright-figured scene of Castle Island or Chelsea Creek sank inexorably into shadow like sea-rise, just as the crowd at the opening reception had more than the one snapshot of a face, even if a few of them were of an age to have shared co-op space with Axtell since his move to Boston, she gathered from the short biography on the wall, in 1981. Neither had she had a lover with her in the dreams, their tattooed fingers twined between hers like a grounding wire, improvising with deadpan expertise on a subject she knew for a fact they cared less about than Magic cards—she found it difficult to imagine a plainer declaration of unconditional love from Torrey Marcial than the willingness to attend a memorial exhibition of dead white cishet dude art, but they looked every inch the confident patron in their glitter-threaded blazer and peacock-sheen hair, saying in front of the brown dockworkers’ brick of Southie’s Our Lady of Good Voyage, “That so many of his locations are unrecognizable today—torn down, redeveloped, Boston consuming itself in the sterile alchemical cycle of an insensate ouroboros—only pulls the work further into a spectral modernity, the once and never city.” She muttered out of the side of her mouth, “Tell me you’re recording this.” Round-faced and razor-sharp, Torrey grinned and addressed themselves to the weathered oak of the fender piers under the Congress Street Bridge.

After half an hour surrounded by strangers with plastic cups of white wine and cheese plates, Sid could not quite relax into Navigating: The Memory of Geoffrey Axtell, but she had stopped flinching every time she stopped before a new painting, some as neatly miniaturized as tilt-shift photography, others as panoramic as skylines. Any body of water within city limits seemed to have been fair game for his explorations, from the marshes of Belle Isle to the still water of Cow Island Pond, but Axtell had returned most often to Boston’s urban waterways, dams and bridges, vestigial spurs of canals, the Lost Half-Mile. The Charles and the Mystic, Boston Harbor and the horizon-string of its islands. He had even painted the co-op itself, the long industrial block of the one-time Regal Lithograph Company cutting diagonally into view like the prow of an ocean liner, its burnt rose bricks glowing against a late sky caught over and over in its tall granite-silled windows, inlays of Bristol blue glass. The date was 2009, right on the cusp of the glass-shelled Seaport boom. She looked at Charlestown High Bridge, 1993, Rowes Wharf, 2000. The factual titles puzzled her even as some of the compositions approached abstraction and she drank a cup of wine from the refreshments table, never mind that anything less tannic than Shiraz always tasted to her like the smell of old keys. Torrey was still lazily playing cultural studies docent, Dante’s Virgil as distraction, when they stepped around a white-walled partition and said in their own voice, “Sid, it’s here.”

She had no idea why she had expected The Earl of Twilight to be life-sized, except that she had seen him and he was; it was about the dimensions of the lower sash of a window and it soaked all the light in the gallery into itself, vibrating even more deeply blue than she remembered from staring into her screen as if trying to memorize the picture, desensitize herself to it. She could almost hear the sodium buzzing, its seedy light the color of dead bugs and baby aspirin. The wet smell of the canal was stronger than the brassy tang of the wine. Close enough to the canvas to make out the grain of the paint, the smoker’s face was still a sallow blur, the struts and grates and cinderblocks that backed him more pristinely rendered, the night-reflections crinkled at his feet.

“He painted that for his brother.”

Sid felt Torrey’s hand jump in hers. The nightmare recollection of the escaped figure went through her like nausea, but when she turned, the old-school Boston contralto belonged to one of the artists she had seen milling around the official end of the reception—a glam grandmother in a loose white T-shirt and denim cargo pants, short white hair dip-dyed the same brilliant faience blue as her nails and the glass beads of the heavy necklace she wore like a gorget, all tangled silver wire and chips of nacre and the parhelion flash of labradorite. Her glasses were flattened octagons. Torrey said immediately, “You look spectacular,” and the woman smiled in appreciative return. “Sheila Francis,” she introduced herself; her handshake was dry and wiry, her other hand occupied with a bottle of Harpoon IPA. She gestured toward the painting with it, a motion a little like a salute. “You know, I thought of Geoff for years as the one that got away, but I couldn’t have told you from or with what. Maybe that was it. You know about his brother?”

Braced for a tidal flood of raconterie, Sid realized the woman was actually waiting for an answer; she must have managed, “No,” because Sheila Francis nodded, not judging and not surprised.

“He didn’t talk that much about it. I don’t know that he’d even have told me, except I’d seen the photographs. He was born in Bradford. In the UK, not in Haverill. You could hear the accent to the end of his life,” and Sid thought fleetingly of the difference between a Boston artist and a Boston artist, when she had been born like Jonathan Richman by the Fenway and never felt like a native Bostonian at all. “Hilary was maybe eight, ten years younger. They were both artists. Geoff went to the Slade, had his velvet waistcoat paisley period—eminent blackmail material, once the psychedelia wore off. His style was different then, a lot more fells and watercolors, like all he wanted to do was make up for Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious and all the rest of those autochthonous war artists being dead. Hilary dropped out of the Bradford College of Art, got himself a studio in a derelict mill that sounded more like a squat, and started making sculptures out of local scrap. That’s what I saw the photos of. Just a couple of Polaroids, I think that was all Geoff had kept. Vivid, angry little things. You couldn’t tell if they had screws or bones. Some of them had names, Geoff said, like he was building his own little retinue of demons, but either he didn’t remember or didn’t want to tell me what they were. I didn’t push. His brother was murdered.”

She said it flatly, an anti-punch line. What happened? Sid knew she was supposed to be asking, but the canal was at her back and twilight outside the windows and the nausea was making the taste of well-thumbed metal worse. She heard Torrey clear their throat and ask, mock lecturer to real audience in another of their seamless, not effortless code-switches.

“Queer-bashed, probably. He was funny and delicate and I don’t know if he was gay or not, but Geoff thought so, even if he never met any of his boyfriends. He was found—there isn’t a canal through Bradford anymore, Geoff told me, but there’s a kind of crossroads where the start of it used to be, a winding hole. He was in it, but he hadn’t drowned. Geoff had to identify him. He didn’t talk about that at all.” Behind the silver angles of her glasses, Sheila Francis did not look ghoulish, just sad, as if she might have liked the chance to know Hilary Axtell, too. “He moved here about a year later. He painted that picture. And then he painted water, everywhere in Boston, until he had the second stroke. It was quick after that.” In the silence that was no such thing with the rest of the reception chatting or condoling around them, she drank from her beer as if to both of their memories.

At least she had not been told that Geoffrey Axtell had been dredged out of the remains of the last canal in East Cambridge where he had painted his brother, or his brother’s demon, or whatever his art had made of both of them: Sid swallowed the last of the acrid white wine and said, “We didn’t know any of that. Thank you.”

Sheila Francis shrugged; the track lighting glinted off her ear-cuffs, more silver and pinpricks of blue. An avatar of winter mornings, fragile ice at the top of the world. “Geoff wasn’t big on memorabilia. I won’t be around forever. There’s not much of him left now, just that painting and his sculptures if he ever sold them and a police file in a box somewhere. Somebody should know.”

Out on the ice-plated asphalt of A Street, the wind came blasting off the channel like sandpaper below zero, but it was better than standing for another second in the co-op’s gallery, trapped between the gaze of something Sid could not trust to stay in indistinct paint and the friendly attention of a woman who had handed her a dead man’s memory like a party favor, as if she was not haunted enough. Maybe it was fury twisting her stomach after all, the hot-wired tremor in her hands as she fumbled with her scarf and her mackintosh and finally butted through the door with her coat flapping open, swallowed in the cold like a bloom of molten glass. The sky above the frontages of brick was bluer still than black, its crescent fleck of moon all but lost in the wing of seagulls lifting from the former Necco warehouse like a fountain of blown white paper, wheeling and drifting in the dusk. She heard their cries as distantly as something she had forgotten about. Past hipsters and ghost signs, she made it as far as the overpass with its roof of netted fairy lights—the eye-blurring blue of LEDs—before Torrey caught hold of her, let her gasp out the dry crack of breath that was not a sob on their smaller, stronger shoulder and then kissed her, cold-gloved, warm-lipped, as real as any urbex horror show.

“He fucking transplanted him. He must have known. All that water and industry, all that brick and steel, all the things his brother loved until they killed him, it can’t have been an accident. I can’t be the only one who’s seen him. Oh, my God, Sheila, does she know he’s there? Is that why she told me the story? Am I supposed to fucking exorcise him now?”

Her voice scraped and caromed off the underside of the bridge, a pigeon’s blundering wings; she was shivering in the circle of Torrey’s arms, the skunky leather of their back-patched bomber jacket and the white musk and red fruits of one of their antique perfumes. Their face in the mixed light looked as sculpted as Corinthian bronze and she shivered harder, thinking of Hilary Axtell’s art. In their rough-brushed, not entirely tenor voice, they were saying, “I don’t think you could see him till his brother died. I don’t think anyone could. I don’t know if you can exorcise him, either, if he was painted that deeply into the city, but I don’t think Axtell did it on purpose. It’s just that one picture. There’d be more if he’d made a spell of them,” as reasonably as if the question were algebra or anniversary restaurants, and Sid laughed suddenly, ribcage compressed with cold and love.

Above their heads, the huff and squeal of brakes meant the 7 bus was taking the same straight shot toward the Summer Street Bridge as Car 393 of the Boston Elevated Railway, more than a drowned hundred of years ago. Ghosts traced over ghosts, gentrification over projects, nineteenth-century fill of gravel and cellar earth under their feet and the sea rising to reclaim its stolen flats and bays. As close as she could get to Torrey’s academic voice, Sid asked, “The author has always been dead, but was the artist ever alive?” Someone threw a bottle from the top of the overpass and they ran on up the catwalk stairs, swearing, into the salt-black night.

• • • •

In the afternoon on Broad Canal, the only smokers in view were a couple of young professionals on different levels of the plaza’s granite steps, like a stock photo. Coming around the corner from Main Street with a sixteen-ounce of matcha latte and a pistachio cherry tart, Sid had not really expected anything else, but the vacancy of the scene still struck her without reassurance, sharp as pencil lines under the clarity of winter sun. The water beneath the span of the First Street Bridge shivered with reflection, mantis-green and sandstone-gold. Steam glittered like crumpled foil from the power plant. Her shadow flattening over the old stone blocks of the canal wall was black as absence, a stalker or a faceless conscience matching her pace behind a grill of shadow railing, between the frames of shadow light poles. Carefully as a confidence trick, she watched the pale bricks and the chimneys, the stratospheric blue of the sky. She saw the sodium light still burning, daylit as memory.

Until 1965, the canal had run as far inland as Portland Street, into the nascent heart of Tech Square with its MAC and CCA and IBM, the wave of the silicon future where an older wave of docks and wharves and factories had broken and dragged back—Torrey’s once and never city laid down in the littoral of time, and Sid allowed herself a moment between bites of marzipan crust to wonder what year it was where Hilary Axtell gazed out over twilit water, or whether the right question for a dead man in a painting nearly forty years old was how many. She had seen the maps to overlay office parks with ironworks, soap flakes intermingled with pharma R&D; it was an easier double vision than trying to keep an eye on both docks at once, like bones of bare stages where a wheelie bin and a frazzle of nylon rope were the props waiting for the one-man show. It still took an extra gulp of matcha to turn her back on them, her heart hammering faster than the green-earth bitterness under the steamed sweet milk. The dull steel railing chilled through her coat’s sleeves, her face and her fingers were already stiffening in the ice-clear air. She said aloud, as if she had not practiced the words in nightmares, “Why did he call you that?

The Earl of Twilight. That’s the part I keep wondering about. Was it a nickname? An in-joke? One of your pieces to begin with? There’s nothing about them online, incidentally. No photos, no descriptions, no mentions even in local retrospectives. I looked,” with Torrey in their sleeveless black sleep shirt nestled against her side, double- and triple-checking every possible lead until the search strings spun off into crimes she had never wanted to know were committed in West Yorkshire and even Daniel, disappeared into one of his deadlines so that Sid saw him almost exclusively at late hours when he ran downstairs to pick up his traditional marathon food of chicken tikka pizza, rattled his fingers on the door and stuck his head in, the classic undersunned geek with two or three piercings and a wing of Comet-green hair, to make sure she was all right. “Did your brother destroy them? His friend said he only kept a couple of snapshots. Did something”—she was not sure how paranoid she wanted to sound, even to a haunting—“happen to them? I couldn’t even find a picture of you. I can’t even be sure you really lived or died.” She said it deliberately, offensively, and nothing answered her beyond the turbines and condensers of the Kendall Cogeneration Station, the rumble-strip bump and rush of cars out on the Cambridge Parkway. Staring so hard into the Impressionist mirror of the water that it blurred without wind: “I think you did.”

Two days ago she had walked eastward over the Longfellow, not slowing or speeding even when her shoulders hunched like a blow against the slush-colored overcast; she had returned just as steadily, looking nowhere but straight down the track of the bridge where the Red Line racketed back and forth from the earth, and she had reached the turnstiles at Kendall sweat-soaked with the effort of not breaking into a run. I knew they were chasing me, she had tried to explain to Torrey afterward, hands wrapped hard around small hot cups of tea while the dan dan noodles she was still too jumpy to eat cooled between them, just like I knew the sun was setting and any second it would start to snow. I couldn’t outrun them, but I knew I had to try. I kept thinking the bridge was shorter, there couldn’t be much further to go . . . He didn’t even die here, it’s stupid, but he had brought his death with him as surely as Geoffrey Axtell had brought his memory and now none of them could be separated any more than I-93 could be unwoven from the Zakim or Government Center peeled off the scouring of Scollay Square. She dreamed of bricks and machineries overlaid like double exposures, different waters reflecting from the same angle. Sid had always wanted to get to the bottom of her city, but until she woke she could not remember which one. It was all the same to Axtell, both of them: a ghost that might only have been one man’s grief with another’s face. When the dams failed at last and the tide rolled up the Charles, would he still be there on his dock of weeds and heavy metals, his cigarette glowing under the dusk-blue water like a phantom light? She thought of cubicles of brackish salt, bridges skimming the storm-surge. The beacons of the dead like bioluminescence in the waves. The scratch of the match-strike was so brisk and dry, she almost could not place it; then she smelled the smoke coiling on the sunlit air.

She did not imagine for a second that she was hallucinating, watching Hilary Axtell flick a spent paper match over the rail of the boardwalk as if he had never heard of the EPA. His slouch and his black sweater were indelible, but his brother’s brush had never dressed him in that secondhand-looking navy duffel coat, looped a heather-red scarf around his neck and stuffed a black woolen hat in his pocket and left him bare-headed to the wind, his hair the silvering tousle of beech bark; even on clear evenings, she had never been able to look full into that tired, whimsical face. It was younger than hers, dented hungrily around the cheekbones, a glint under his hair that she realized was an earring of silver or steel. He looked pensive and windblown, the tip of his nose reddening prosaically in the cold. She could have drawn every loose-limbed line of him from memory. Close enough to be lapped in his envelope of old nicotine and rosin solder, she watched a man who had never been alive in the city of his death drag on his cigarette, exhale a stream of smoke that might have been warm as breath or merely ashes; she was not surprised, finally, which did not mean she was not terrified, when he rested his hand on the rail and looked over curiously at her.

His eyes were not filled with time, or twilight, or the trapped and restless water of lost canals; they were grey and Sid thought he might have needed glasses if he had lived. She had a sudden flash of his face behind a welding mask, metal-fleshed as any of his creations. How much of him are you? she wanted to ask. How much more or less if he had grown around an armature of iron instead of a shell of paint? As steadily as she had watched warehouses knocked to bricks and high tide curling through the streets of the Seaport, she made herself hold his dead man’s gaze and not think of a bridge half-recalled in snow and sunset, the night colors of a canvas that had made a city into a spell. His eyes narrowed a little, with the wind or astigmatism, but they widened in a surprise as candid as a clown’s as she reached over and took the cigarette from his hand.

She wanted to remember afterward if she had expected its paper to smear like turpentine or drowned rust between her fingers, if after everything she had still believed in a canal that could be restored to innocent emptiness like brownfields turned back to neighborhoods or a sea not yet swelled by the Anthropocene or if she had known even as she felt her heart beat faster than panic and keep on beating that all she might free him from was his stasis of paint. Lying awake in Torrey’s arms, Sid remembered only the iridescence of ice and oil, the canyon-shadows of old and young brick, the quick crease of laughter lightening a cold-pinched face while the traffic out on the drawbridges hissed like acetylene. She might have heard glass breaking, like a fever. All she had felt between her fingers was ash. She would never quite know, she thought, what she had unbound into her endlessly building, sea-dredged, sinking city, not unless she met him again under the water, in the twilight of the harbor or the river’s scrap-silted bed. She imagined him in mirror of his brother’s art, constructing the skeletal maps of Boston to come. No matter the innovations it boasted, she would not look for them in the district off Broad Canal. She knew the future had always been too late.

Sonya Taaffe

Sonya Taaffe (https://sonyataaffe.com/)] reads dead languages and tells living stories. Her short fiction and Rhysling Award-winning poetry have been collected most recently in the Lambda-nominated Forget the Sleepless Shores and previously in Singing Innocence and Experience, Postcards from the Province of Hyphens, A Mayse-Bikhl, and Ghost Signs. She lives with her husband and two cats in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she writes about film for Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/sovay) and remains proud of naming a Kuiper belt object.