Quarantined? Isolated? What a perfect time to read a horror short story. Everett finds himself trapped underground, prisoner of a most peculiar family, missing their sanity as well as a few other pieces…
Eyelids of an Aristocrat
This account exists, in various lengths, a hundred times over, and the world over at that too. I suspect this will be the longest version of it, and the most difficult to stuff in a bottle or box, but I’m going to bury it the deepest as well. It brings me joy to imagine the sense of reward of reading it to be directly proportional to the effort put in to acquire it.
Those who found the first versions, merely drifting on the water with nothing but a cork keeping them out, only got the confession. They got what I blurted after falling out of my hammock in the middle of the night, because the truth had disturbed the relative peace of my nightmares yet again.
This is the reflection rather than the outburst. This is what I found rather than what I saw, and as such is not to be taken lightly. I assure you everything you are about to read is true. So many times it has been written, but only to exorcise it, to cleanse my soul of the memories before they grow back. This time it is an investment in that man that grew from the experience, who acknowledges that he wasted his time in fighting off the growth of the new king of this body.
One hundred ten days after I was forcibly removed from my position as a sailor off the Eastern coast of my country, the United States of blessed America, new employment, albeit brief, was found thanks to an advertising flier in the streets of Montpelier. There was landscaping and gardening work that needed done, in harsh wilderness.
An advertisement is all the joys and delights of a job on a single sheet, yet this one saw fit to warn of the dangers, which intrigued me. As a sailor, which I will be until the day I die, I was more accustomed to traversing the wilderness than taming it, but I have a great deal less respect for raging leaves and thorns than I do waters, so I thought I could handle it just fine.
The man I met for the position was himself a lower employee; he didn’t even have an office for us to meet in. Instead we met with him leaning on the corner of a workman’s shed on the outskirts of town, with dirt trails lazily flowing across a field and into the woods, sometimes crossing through each other as if they couldn’t bear to be alone.
He retrieved from the shed a wheelbarrow full of tools: a shovel, a rake, and three similar things I’m ashamed to admit I could not identify. It was like being lost in a sea of specialized silverware at a fancy dinner party, but it felt all the worse because of the similar levels of our stations. Looking at them just made me hate being on land all the more.
The fellow did not ask about my previous employment, so I did not have to lie to him. Our exchange was brief. The land a little beyond the trees was set to be developed by a wealthy party into a set of three decadent mansions and a shared stable with pasture. The full crews wouldn’t arrive for weeks yet, but it was thought a little of the early clearing work could be done on the cheap by hiring the desperate and bored to hack away at the stubborn undergrowth. Enter yours truly.
The patch I was to clear would be marked by wooden posts in the ground, each with a red cloth tied about them. Since I had too much pride to ask the names of my tools, there was only one question that came to mind.
“The flier said something about dangerous terrain?”
“Oh that… strangest thing. One of our old maps says there’s already a house out there, but seeing as I’m the one who planted all them posts I can tell you there isn’t. We think one was planned, and they might’ve even broke ground. A couple guys have stepped on some broken glass out there and one of them took a tumble. Bosses figured it best to mention it.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad,” I said, rolling up my sleeves and picking up the wheelbarrow.
“What’s that?” the man asked, pointing at my left arm, just above the elbow.
“Oh that?” I said with a grin. She was the only story I had to tell; she was the good version of it anyway. She was a tattoo, green ink, about three beautiful inches long. A mermaid. Her tail fin was up, beckoning folk toward me. I never named her because I thought it might be bad luck, make the one woman out there for me think I was already spoken for. “These are my two loves,” I bragged. I pointed to her sharp eyes and knowing lips. “Women.” Then to her tail. “And the sea.”
“I love a ham sandwich but I’m not getting a pig-faced lady any time soon,” was all he had to say before he left me alone. They would pay me for three days, so the work needed to get done in three days. I headed across the field, picking a new trail each time one joined the old one.
It was seven hours into the second day when I stopped for a break, a cooling breeze insisting I do so. It had to work almost as hard as I did to penetrate that far into those woods. Only a few of the trees were huge, but their canopies seemed to stretch on and on into the tops of the smaller ones, like some bear-armed father wrangling his numerous kids by the scruffs of their necks.
My muscles burned, mostly in my arms and shoulders. There were tons of roots that had grown bored with the underground, slinking in and out in a way that made it very likely to catch the tip of your boot and trip you. My tool of choice for breaking them was, well it was like a few spikes twisting around each other. A hundred times I’ve written this and I still don’t have a name for that damn thing.
There was a crack like glass when I tossed the spike-thing away to enjoy my break. I looked at where it landed, but all I saw was leaves. He’d mentioned broken glass, so I didn’t think too much of it, but enough to investigate.
My boots were thick. They handled the few shards just fine, at least until the ground changed under them. Something automated made a clicking sound, and then all the leaves started moving in a straight line, like someone was pulling a rope from under them. As it passed by I saw it was clearing the brush off a giant panel.
When it got too close to my feet I stepped back, and then the crack made by my tool spread all the way to me. The few shards became many, a storm of them with me as its eye, and we all fell together. A broken back would’ve been my fate if I hadn’t bounced off something soft, though not as soft as it should’ve been. The thing whinnied in response and rolled me off its back.
With my breath gone and my hands cut up I elbow-crawled around for a few seconds, getting handfuls of soil and grass. The thing was still nearby, its feet heavy and agitated. Most of the light poured in through the hole I’d made; a shadow passed by. I think it was the leaf-sweeping machine returning to where it started, convinced I was properly swept away.
I tried to look up at the glass ceiling, but the thing towered over me. A demon. Worse than anything that ever came out of a red paintbrush held by a madman. It was like a horse, but all its skin had been peeled away. Lips blasted off to reveal yellow teeth like hammers. Nostrils acid-burned down to narrow volcanic tubes. Stiff, artificial, black blossoms around the lidless eyes.
Pale red muscles, like cured salmon, stretched above me as it reared up. Surely a demon, but its hooves struck much like the traditional ones. My mind went black, the last sound something unidentifiable, and though my guess sometimes changes I want to say it was the grinding of foreign objects inside the demon’s throat, things like glass and rocks that its mouth, without its probing lips, could no longer pass over effectively.
A place was set for me. The plates and silverware were sparkling and numerous, leading me to believe I’d fallen into that recurring fear, a dinner party with etiquette beyond my depth. There was a crystal glass of wine, but the color was terribly off, which I knew even as a man who prefers his ale and his simple lemonade on top of that. It was a shade of greenish amber, like it was made from white grapes just as they started to go to mush.
Through its color I saw the tablecloth, embroidered more than the wedding dress of any woman in my family a hundred years back. My heavy eyes followed it around the circular table, head still unwieldy on my simultaneously limp and stiff neck. Four glasses. Four deep plates. The food on each was still untouched, and even in my numbed state I assumed that was because of how disgusting it looked.
My own plate had a stew of brown slop, like potatoes boiled in fatty foam. Embankments of oil bubbles stood on the sides, bigger than oil bubbles were ever supposed to be, each holding a rainbow of swirling browns and yellows. Curiously, as foul as it looked, there was no smell, not even from the single piece of meat that sat like a sinking log in the center, which I guessed was the neck of a small elderly duck.
A cube of dark bread, dark enough to be earth a mile below the surface, spotted with some kind of tiny spherical white grain, sat on an adjacent plate like a fossilized piece of chocolate cake. Conversely, it had a powerful odor of dusty barnyard and sun-splintered wood. A full breath of that finally gave me the strength to lift my head.
Here is where your belief will be tested most; I know because I didn’t believe it myself. When unbelievable things start speaking to you, start trying to hand-feed you, you have little choice but to accept them.
“There he is! Come now young man, chin up. There are ladies present after all; there should never be a time you don’t look excited to see them.” The speech kept me too off kilter to scream, like the sound was waiting its turn in the back of my mind, burning its surroundings to the ground, and then to something beneath that.
The perfection of the man’s voice was made supernaturally loud by the missing pieces of his face, which is to say the entire top layer of his face and the next one down. Gnarled yellow webs of integument covered the hollow where cheeks should have resided. The teeth looked like entirely too many, though I’m quite sure now it was no more than I had.
Parts of his cranium were empty, holding only crisscrossing twine coated in something waxy that hung in tiny stalactites. Though far from a physician I knew there could be no more than half of his original brain matter left, and the piece that was visible was tanned and smooth like the preserved skin of a foetal pig.
While I absorbed his details like a sponge tossed into a bucket of chum he stared back eagerly, awaiting my response. His lidless eyes appeared almost mechanical, framed by a pair of blinders like those a horse might wear, buttoned into the bone of his temples. Strangely, their presence was the first thing I intuitively understood. Without eyelids he needed them to avoid distractions. This was why the horse demon had blinders like flowers, to cover all angles that its eyelids used to.
I was about to speak, more like croak unintelligibly, but then my mind caught up with what he’d said. Ladies. Two more plates unaccounted for. They were in the other seats around the table, both watching.
The first one’s expression was impenetrable, for she had minimal lip presence and no eyelids just like the man. Her eyes were yellow like maple wood, reflective not by the presence of tears but by varnish. Exactly how much of her mind was missing I couldn’t tell, as her cap was covered by a long brown wig, the braided length visible through several fissures in her neck, like when a tree grows around a metal pole and the pole is slipped out.
Her dress was very fine, though its white lace trim was stained yellow, equally likely to have come from her own monstrous humors as another applied coat of varnish. I took her to be the wife of the man, as they sat next to each other.
“Hello, pleasure to have you,” she recited, teeth clicking as her jaw flapped. There was a string going slack in the back of her throat with each word, and one shoulder of her dress moved as she spoke. It seemed her mouth had trouble moving on its own, so she pulled a line hidden under her clothes to make it go up and down.
She likely had less brain than her husband, as she barely moved after the greeting, like an automaton awaiting another inserted coin. Her stiffness caused my stare to linger, and it took a delighted giggle to tear my eyes away.
Even without any skin I could tell she was much younger, perhaps around my age. She was dainty, her silhouette all the more reduced by her lack of skin and hair. She had one hand on her cheek, her artificial stained glass fingernails playing with a fold of muscle that should’ve been forever hidden from the light.
More frightful than anything I’d ever seen in all my days before, she was still a relief compared to what I guessed to be her parents. Her body moved smoothly, her head comfortable holding the various tilts of a curious, to the point of disregarding respect, young woman. She still had lips, though their plushness was gone and they were the same color as the surrounding tissues. Her eyelids batted as if they had lashes to show off. She was smiling at me, and it felt like I was already wrapped up in her arms.
“I see you’re admiring our daughter’s eyelids,” the man said. “They are fantastic work; we’re so proud. She has the eyelids of an aristocrat she does! I’m sure they’ll be the talk of the town when we reemerge.”
“We’re delighted to have you,” the wife said without prompting. She might’ve been speaking to the slop on her plate that time.
“I’m Michael Humusly,” the father introduced. “This my wife Florence and my daughter Magpie.”
“Like the bird,” Magpie added. “Have you seen one?”
“Yes.” I was surprised I had answered, but quickly capitalized on the ability. “I’m… Everett Ramparsad. What… what has happened to you?”
“I know we must appear quite unorthodox, but surely Dr. Duykinck told you what to expect,” Michael clacked. He saw the confusion in my face, a most unfair exchange since I could see nothing of his mood in his stripped death mask. “Was it not the good doctor who sent you to retrieve us?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Truly I am sorry for you. I don’t know any doctor, certainly not one who could help you now.” Part of me was convinced I was watching them die, that their state was some kind of desperate measure to keep an infection of the skin from penetrating deeper, and that there was no way they could last long enough to empty their glasses.
“Ha!” Michael balked. “Help us he says!”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Florence laughed, like a ventriloquist dummy being operated by a three fingered hand.
“You’re the one that needs help young man,” Michael assured. “You’ll find yourself dreadfully behind the times before you know it. Dr. Duykinck’s work will be known the world over. Tell me, exactly how long has it been? It seems winter has passed twice, and he was supposed to visit us before that.”
“More than twice Daddy,” Magpie insisted before looking at me. “I’ve been counting; it was definitely more than twice.”
“Are… are you asking what the year is?” I asked, receiving three different unsettling versions of a nod in response. “It is the fall of 1909.” I recognized shock on Magpie’s face, and the closest approximation Michael could muster. He grabbed his wife’s wrist to steady himself. Whether or not she registered the information was unclear, her sudden vice grip on him seemed a reflex, as he wrenched his hand free while he spoke.
“By the sun in the heavens! Are you sure Everett?” I answered yes. “1909… to think we’ve been down here for thirty-four years! Ha! Thirty-four years and not aged a day!” This I did not understand, for they seemed to have aged all of the days, from god’s first thought to the strike of the flaming sword and the rise of the many-headed dragon.
“Daddy!” Magpie moaned. Her face contorted into a pout, neck muscles bulging as if someone squeezed the trunk of a dehydrating octopus. “All of my friends will be married now!”
“And old,” Michael added to calm her. “They will look on you with such jealousy my sweet.” He turned back to me. “Something terrible must have befallen the doctor! And to think it could’ve been as much as decades ago!” Something else occurred to him, something so deserving of rumination that he sat back, swirled his glass of discolored wine, and tilted his head back to an unnatural angle to pour it down his throat. I assume this was necessary, as with his cheeks he would’ve leaked like a sieve if he drank normally.
“We’re the only ones he ever completed,” he finally said. “If there were others they would be a common sight by now, and strapping Mr. Ramparsad here would not be so confounded by our appearance.”
“I have never seen… your like,” I confirmed. It was around this time I became aware of metal bindings around my thighs, holding me to the chair. My pulse throbbed against them.
“I knew it.” He tucked into his food, spooning chunks into his gullet and then tilting his extended head back and forth to slide it down. “To explain it as simply as I can, we have been immortalized by the surgical genius of a family friend. Duykinck was inspired by a museum’s specimen collection, and in his research developed a process to remove that which ages and toughens the exterior.”
“That’s why we look so young,” Magpie added with a smile. I saw every part of it stretch, like a hundred smaller sets of lips on her lips splitting open to reveal musty white underneath. “I’ll always look this way.”
“Why?” was all I could think to ask.
“There’s nothing more respectable than being the first to modernize!” Michael insisted. “We are the trial run for a whole new way of life, one that does not need such a vast network of servants and commoners to survive. This house is just as much a wonder as we are.” He raised his arms, encouraging me to look about.
Past the chandeliers were numerous copper pipes, and there was a layer of machinery above that, with cogs the size of the table turning. That was when I realized that the table had been brought into the foyer, as if they wanted my first sight to be the start of the tour.
Stairs rose behind Michael’s head, bookended by long flat machines that occasionally adjusted, making the stairs move up and down. The lamps on the walls had dials, and they all shone with the exact same intensity. Altogether it was much easier to understand than its occupants, though I didn’t find out how its various functions were achieved until later conversations.
There was an underground river feeding both the well and a turbine that generated power for all its inner workings. It ran like a clock, cycling water, opening and closing shuttered skylights like the one I had broken through, and keeping the temperature cool and stable. The biggest risk to the clock came from the flayed mice running around inside; if none of them were splattered between the gears it might complete its routine again and again for centuries without need of repair.
“-your upbringing won’t be a factor my boy. By discovering us you have proven yourself worthy,” Michael said.
“I’m sorry?” The house had distracted me from his last statement. “A factor in what?”
“In bringing you into the family!” he clacked. “There are always those who look down on working men, but not us. As we will surely be the talk of the nation you will be protected from their slanders. We’ll do it immediately, so that you may emerge with us.”
“Sorry?” I repeated.
“The wedding!” Magpie squealed, grabbing my hand. Her preserved hand muscles were like the wrinkles of a bellows. In recoiling, the skin of my thigh tore against my restraints; a trickle of blood went down my pant leg. It was the only part that could escape, but all of my insides cringed in fear. The last thing they wanted was to be associated with these inside-out exhibitionists.
“It was Magpie who found you in the hutch,” Michael explained, the excitement draining from his voice. I believe he finally recognized I was not enthused to be there, or in awe of their appearance. His stare was worse than mechanical, all of a machine’s rigid focus but pregnant with sharp intent as well. I think he could’ve killed me with his stare if he’d wanted to. “Excuse your bonds.” It wasn’t a request. “We thought it best to restrain you in case you were shocked.”
“Release me,” I said. If only I could’ve made it more than a request. Magpie pulled back slightly, a breath tripping in her mouth. Her exposed eyelids hung, heavy with wet sadness.
“This takes time to get used to,” Michael said. “You’ll stay with us for a few days. After that I will officiate the wedding, you two will be joined in eternal bliss, and then we will all emerge together, to amaze the world. Now eat.”
“Daddy I don’t think he likes m-”
“We eat!” he barked, teeth smashing together like a slamming door. Magpie practically dropped her head into her bowl, while her mother did it literally. With nowhere to go, and with Michael’s stare threatening to cut me open if I did not comply, I picked up a spoon and ate.
The flavor of the stewed mush was a blessing in its neutrality, like vegetables that had been boiled from green all the way to ivory white. The duck neck was the driest meat I had ever eaten, yet it was much softer than jerky.
It was the bread that no mortal man could handle. If the blandness of the stew was evidence that the ‘good’ doctor’s procedure had killed their sense of taste, then the chaos in my mouth when I bit into that dark cube was the nail in the coffin that should’ve contained the entire Humusly family. Only tongues that regularly took formaldehyde baths could be so deadened as to callously pass such a substance on to the throat.
As a tasting experience it was worse for my mouth and nose than seeing these gussied-up teaching cadavers was for my eyes. Equal parts soil, waxy mothballs, and dried moldy wallpaper from a flooded dollhouse, it took everything I had to disguise my distaste for it by adding stew to my mouth, mixing them, and letting the slurry drain back into my spoon, which I buried back in the bowl.
Magpie ate it like cake, and I couldn’t help but picture her standing next to a layered wedding cake composed of the stuff, undressed in icing. She was correct in assuming I did not like her, but that was not what would most keep me from marrying her. Nor was her appearance. She wasn’t either of my two loves; they were both far away from this hole.
What disturbed me most was that, from that depth, I couldn’t hear them calling out to me, as they always had.
Michael freed me from my bonds after that dinner, but I was not freed from his stare, even when we were not in the same chamber. I felt it through walls, at all times, and not just on my skin. He pierced me, and he wouldn’t blink even if he’d still had the necessary equipment.
It was effective in dousing my urge to escape, but such an ethereal tactic was unnecessary given how watertight a ship he ran. The clockwork house had no exits that I could find, either during the initial tour or when I was later permitted to wander on my own. All the windows held oil paintings, and just past them was foot after foot of solid earth.
Their food was grown in several chambers on the third floor, which would be considered the cellar of a regular home. This was essential, as the skylights fed their various gardens sunlight. I purposefully did not learn which plants were used to bake their devil’s bread, but I recognized potatoes, beans, trellises loaded with green grapes, and many herbs and spices. A shaft to the surface supplied them with pollinators, bees and butterflies, but it was too narrow for me to even get my arm up.
Livestock was kept in two skylight-chambers of their own. The one I had fallen into was primarily occupied by a horse that had undergone the same procedure as its owners: the demon that had broken my fall and possibly my sanity. It was an ornery creature named Mozart, though its foul attitude seemed to stem from its limited grazing and running space rather than its missing hide that was likely freer than its creator, living and working as a jacket or a pair of boots somewhere in the sun.
In the other chamber lived three goats that provided them with milk and a swarm of ducks concentrated in an artificial pond with lily pads and marsh grass. The water was regularly flushed out and replaced by the river, so the smell was pleasantly vegetal rather than strongly fecal. Only the horse had been flayed and preserved, and part of me wonders if it was because the ducks would sink like stones without their feathers and fats. I did spot one dark red thing wandering about on the bottom of the pond, but chose not to investigate.
I wish I had made the same decision for the equally red bust I found atop a pedestal in one of the hallways on the second floor. There was no better way to describe the human head than ‘exploded’. It was bisected vertically and then opened most of the way like a book, granting the viewer a detailed look at every curl and scrunch of the labyrinth that is the brain.
The eyes were extended out of their sockets but still connected, various tissues hardened into glossy cords that held them up like a snail’s eye stalks. One of them was bisected and opened as well.
Each layer of muscle and integument was partly pulled back, some even peeled away and held an inch from their neighbors by thin metal rods. Some of the teeth were in place while others were pushed out and held up by wire. The inside of the tongue had become porous like sponge, and when I looked close enough to get bitten it seemed as if the vacuoles were expanding and contracting.
“That’s Massimo,” Michael said, startling me so badly that I nearly knocked the exploded head over. He was in fine day dress, but he wasn’t wearing shoes and the lack of a sole had made his footsteps all the quieter. Little yellow stains on his collar. I had to look at anything but his beaming eyes, so I looked at those.
“Is this… a failed experiment of the doctor’s?” I croaked once I’d regained my composure.
“Failed!? No, of course not. Massimo was an early success. He’s Florence’s father.” I could not deny there was a family resemblance, as their tissues were the same shade.
“He’s… He’s not still alive is he?”
“You know, we’re not sure.” Michael leaned closer as if trying to see if a clock’s minute hand was actually traveling when it quivered. “His body was beyond repair, but the doctor moved a small package of stomach and two chambers of heart up into the base of his neck. Originally there was even enough of a lung for him to speak.”
“And he was… well?”
“You couldn’t quiet him! He was so fascinated by the doctor’s work that he begged for more. We trimmed here and there, but it was never enough. Even when he could no longer speak he would send us messages with the direction of his eyes, pleading to have his spirit lightened by another feather.
Perhaps he was a little too eager and has moved along, but perhaps not, so we take care of him and keep him out in the open so he can participate in family affairs. Using a dropper I coat his brain and throat in a nutrient rich fluid three times a day. With how little of it runs off, there is at least a suggestion of some activity remaining.”
Michael patted me on the shoulder, like five roofing nails wrapped in salt pork, and moved along. I could not. There was something about Massimo, something that suggested life, that made my skin crawl. Fearing it would abandon me and cover him, I finally uprooted myself and fled.
The bedroom I had been provided did not have a door, and I very much wanted to close one, so I moved one room down to Magpie’s. She was having her piano lesson with her mother, though at this point in their stripped lives the student was very likely teaching the master. Florence’s turn at the keys could be heard throughout the house, like hammers being dropped on them.
When I was alone, sitting on the foot of the bed because of the long leather bag under the covers that I assumed contained her leaks each night, I rolled up my left sleeve and looked at my tattoo, the last connection to my real life out in the water. The sight of her brought tears to my eyes, tears I shared with her by using a fingertip to transfer them.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that my education seems beyond that of many a sailor, and that is thanks to my father. He was a Navy internist, and it was upon his insistence that I attended higher school. Though I developed a more sophisticated vocabulary, the lessons did not sink in. When I returned from a stint aboard a steamer, tattoo fresh, my father attempted to scratch it off.
He was offended not by the act, but by the image. He respected the human body as an efficient invention of god, and thought it blasphemy I’d removed a woman’s birthing hips and replaced them with a fish’s tail. He called it perverted whimsy, and I told him that would be the name of the boat I eventually purchased.
It was not whimsy. There was nothing more serious to me, but I’d never had to explain it to anyone until that day underground, when Magpie surprised me with an early end to her lesson, thanks to one of her mother’s fingers bending the wrong way. She told me it happened sometimes, and it would correct itself within a few hours. Then she joined me in sitting at the foot of her bed, bare arms touching mine.
“Magpie, if I told you something, would you promise to keep it in confidence?”
“We are to be wed,” she said with a soft smile that crackled, “and there will be nothing more important than my husband’s confidence.”
“I feel a prisoner here. I want to leave. What do you think would happen if I attempted to do so?” She looked away, scanning the wall, as if trying to sense her father’s gaze behind it. When she took my hand I stiffened, but did not fight her though it felt like a cadaver trying to escort me to my grave.
“Daddy wouldn’t allow that,” she said, no hint of doubt. “He says that once the world sees what we’ve become they’ll put him in charge of medicine for the whole country. We’ll be like royalty, and everyone will have to do what we say, as we hold the key to their immortality.”
“Perhaps he’s right, but for now he’s just a buried man who has forgotten that being buried alive is most unpleasant.”
“You remind me of a fox,” she said to lighten the mood. “You have sly eyes and you’re a little jumpy. Foxes like being underground. It’s only for a few days.”
“So there is a way out.” She frowned and sighed through her putty nose.
“Well of course. We weren’t going to stay down here forever, just until we could prove the house and our bodies could go seasons without intervention. The floor in Mozart’s hutch, under the grass, is a ramp. There’s a machine that raises it so we can walk out.”
“How do you activate it?”
“Daddy has a key; I don’t know where he keeps it.” Perhaps she was lying about that last part in order to change the subject, but it was effective in lowering my spirits further. They’d just about caught up with me three floors below the sun. “Do you… not want to marry me? Am I not beautiful?”
I am a cruel man, for I could not bring myself to tell her that she was. I now think my silence was crueler than any excuse or deceptive phrasing, crueler even than saying no, for the silence implied pity. To make matters worse, she tried to convince me, fighting back tears that I don’t believe she was actually capable of generating.
“You know, my Daddy says that eyelids are the hardest part to preserve because, because they’re so delicate. He says, he says that I’m the only one where they turned out right, and that they make me the most beautiful girl…”
“You are not a problem,” I told her honestly. If she had been able to simply hand over the key I believe she would have. She looked away, neck bending unnaturally far, forcing me to realize how much sadness and shame a neck could express. A crueler aspect of god’s invention I think, the expressiveness.
“Magpie… my heart is already promised to someone. Here she is.” I pointed at my tattoo. “Most who know me think I’m insane, because I cannot help but answer her call. Her voice is in the sea, and that’s why I’ve spent most of my life out there. They tell me she’s a hallucination, a siren song, but I know better.
A siren song is a cast net, a call to all men separated from the women of the mainland. It’s mania meant to turn them into minced meat upon the rocks. Not the voice I hear. She knows my name. She calls to me specifically. When I dive her presence doubles in my ears. She’s out there, and though I have not yet found her, my heart is hers.
An insane man would not know how this sounds to others, but I do. She is only my experience, and the fact that she cannot be shared with others makes our bond all the more intimate to me. I hope, that in this strange place, in talking with another woman who would not be believed to exist by most, that she will believe me.”
“I do!” she whimpered after removing the hand that had been covering her mouth. “It all makes sense now Everett! Of course you find me beautiful, but you’re a man of integrity, and your spirit is already wed. It’s just… oh it’s rotten luck we didn’t meet before you learned to swim.”
“Yes.” While that was a shade untrue, nothing I said before it was. Yes, dear reader, I did hear a voice from the sea, think of that what you will. I need not approval. My only regret is in searching for her at times I should have been on duty, sometimes casting myself overboard, resulting in the severe punishment that sent me ashore looking for work. And I am absolutely in love, an emotion which is always sane because it is the only reason to live.
“Oh but… I don’t know what we’re to do about Daddy. He has his heart set on you.”
“Would it be possible to let him think the wedding is real, go through with it, and then simply allow me to leave when he wants to raise the ramp? There is official paperwork that must be filed for a marriage to be legal, so the ceremony itself is harmless.” The idea of having the wedding, even without the ensuing life, excited her.
I came to understand that she was without malice, but spectacularly lonely. She had drawn small faces on most of her belongings, but always hidden, like under the lip of her dresser. For years they were her only friends, and if her father caught her talking to them he was irate. While good listeners, these friends did not help her prepare for her real adoring public, which was just around winter’s corner.
She agreed to keep my secret and help me, but pushed me out shortly after that, insisting that she wanted to try on her dress and that I couldn’t see her in it until the big moment. Her happiness seemed genuine, I think because the secret between us was the most anything she’d had between herself and another person.
While there was no such thing as calm when I was so separated from the love of my life, I was as close as I could’ve been that night. Truthfully I didn’t know if it was night, but I was drained of at least three days’ of vitality, so I took to the bed they gave me and slept.
It could’ve been a nightmare, seeing Michael stand in the empty doorway and staring at my slumbering form.
He was there when I woke up, leaning in, deep in craftsman’s thought. His blinders had additional lenses attached, like spectacles, helping him examine the finer details of his work. In one hand he had a small metal hook used to pull material away so the tiny paintbrush in his other hand could coat the difficult to reach areas. The brush smelled of wood varnish. When he noticed my groggy eyes opening he sat back in the wooden chair he’d pulled up to my bedside.
“Ah, you’re awake. You can tell me what you think of it so far.” The thing he had made sat on a table also set next to the bed, a table with deep ridges around its edge to catch spilling fluids. On it was a long cut of meat that reminded me of a skinned rabbit leg, but it was much too large and the toes too long.
My first worry was that I was looking at breakfast and that it would be more of an ordeal than dinner. Though their food was evenly split between bland and foul, it generally smelled cooked, and this thing did not. Aside from the varnish and tinny instruments sitting beside it, the only scent was blood, but that was not fresh. It had crusted and cracked in the table ridges, like a trough filled with charcoal.
“I could’ve gotten more done,” Michael said when I didn’t respond, “but an interesting question arose when I reached this.” He grabbed my arm at the elbow and touched my tattoo. Were my mind less foggy I might have fought him off for touching her. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted to keep it, and I started wondering about ways to work around it so you could. It would be a new challenge, but I think we should try.”
It didn’t so much hit me as it did drip icily down the front of my brain. This was not breakfast; it was my left arm. I told the little finger to move, and it obeyed. Ring. Middle. Pointer. Thumb. The flayed pack all obeyed. They obeyed, but without passion. My sense of touch was gone. I had an arm, but it had no temperature one way or the other, no tingles, and no sensation that I would call ‘internal timbre’. I’d never known I had it until it was gone; it’s the feeling of a sound as your bone creaks, like a tree in the wind.
“What have you done to me?” was all I could manage, and only half the words came out as more than a gasp. Michael understood though.
“Didn’t think an old dog like me could learn Duykinck’s technique, did you? Haha! There were plenty of ducks to practice on, and once I realized we’ve been down here for decades I had to assume I had become an expert!”
“What have you-”
“Four stages,” he elaborated. “First I apply the soporific, which deepens the subject’s sleep and deadens all the nerves where it was applied. Then,” he picked up a scalpel, “we make the degloving incisions.”
He mimed what he’d already done, showing me that I’d lost the skin on my fingers and palm first, before he’d gone up my wrist, careful to avoid major arteries he pointed out, and slipped off my ‘sleeve’ with ease. He said he likely would’ve gotten the rest of the arm, shoulder, and part of my collar done if he hadn’t decided to stop at the tattoo. She saved me.
“Third is this device.” Michael pulled out something like an elongated fish bowl with a metal and leather collar and an attached bladder meant to be repeatedly squeezed. “I coated your arm in the preservatives and then placed it inside this vacuum tube, pumping out the air until the solution penetrated you.”
The device was glass, but I could not see through it, as the interior was coated with dark red gunk that had, until recently, been pieces of my body. At some point Michael would clean it out and discard the scraps, and I would forever be buried there with the rest of his mad medical waste.
“Fourth is the application of sealant,” he said, setting down his paintbrush, “which I have just completed. So, I’m all ears.” He put his hand to an ear that hadn’t been there for thirty years. “Tell me how much you love it.”
“How dare you defile my body in my sleep, like some loathsome imp crawling under my skin. I’ll-” His hand struck my chest as I tried to pull myself up. That one hand pinned me in place with stunning strength. There was no acid left in his muscles to tire them, no twitches to make their efforts waver.
My temper had broken; I was all shards of anger ready to spill every drop of blood I could find. None of it mattered in the peeled face of Michael’s madness. His stare pinned me deeper and deeper, just as much as his flat hand, the pillow swelling over my ears and the sides of my face.
“You have been helped,” the madman clacked, “and it would benefit you to act like it. I won’t have any hysterics in my house. The whole world will be helped, and be gracious, and it will start with you. Do you understand?” The lidless stare. The stare that had examined its own grave as one century ended and another began. A spider would refuse to build its web if he was watching.
Stuffed and Mounted
The varnish on my arm barely had time to dry before preparations for the ceremony began. While Michael and Florence readied the foyer, transforming it into an aisle so Magpie could have the train of her dress fall delicately down the stairs behind her, I was permitted to have the actual breakfast with my fiance: hard-boiled duck eggs occasionally containing a boiled hatchling with sealed dark eyes instead of a white and yolk.
I spoke in whispers, not wanting Michael to hear, but no matter how much I hissed I couldn’t convince her to moderate her volume. It was difficult for me as well, when I learned that she knew her father planned to partly flay me before it happened.
“You never said anything about not wanting that,” she said. “You just said you wanted to leave.”
“Why would I want this!? I wanted to be intact! To feel!”
“But if you let him finish you’ll live forever. It’s his wedding present to you.”
“You absolutely must tell me if he tries to finish it, do you hear me Magpie? You absol-” I stilled my tongue as her mother walked in. The reason for her doing so was unclear, as she lingered, stiff as a broom, next to the table, for several minutes.
“Is everything almost ready Mummy?” Magpie asked, back to bubbling mirth and fluttering eyelids.
“Yes dear,” Florence answered. “Come upstairs and we’ll get you dressed. Then you’ll be dressed and upstairs.” She snatched one of the boiled embryos and a few discarded bits of shell off the table, its limp neck dangling against her thumb. All at once she popped it into her mouth, ground it to pulp, and swallowed it.
No sooner had they departed than Michael’s hand landed on my shoulder. He had a spare outfit for me, and I was forced to change in a closet with him standing right outside. While in there, missing the days where the coats surrounding me were the only skins I would ever think about shedding, I decided that the escape had to happen that evening. Michael could not be given another opportunity.
My left arm felt like it was made of wood and cotton initially, but a pain crept in. Somewhere between a burn and a smolder, I felt it constantly all up and down the limb. It was so maddening that it successfully distracted me from much of the ceremony. One moment Michael was babbling through the closet door, the next I was walking stiffly down the aisle to stand under an archway of gray dried flowers, and the next Magpie appeared at the top of the stairs.
The white gown fit her well, but it clung to the surface of her bare muscles almost wetly, her collarbone jutting out most of all. The veil was already splattered with minute yellow stains. Yet she was all smiles, cherishing every step, laughing. It killed me to see her like this, still capable of happiness despite the twisted life she’d been forced to lead. It meant there was hope for her, unlike her parents, but the chance of that hope ever being fully attained was negligibly small, probably involving a well-paying freak show.
Without guests there was no need of chairs, but Massimo’s pedestal had been dragged down and set on the bride’s side so he could watch with his stalked and split eyes as she glided past on her mother’s arm.
The pain became delirium, and while I thought I was performing a simple blink, the next time I opened my eyes I was facing Magpie, we were holding hands, and Michael was halfway through officiating, reading some passages from the bible. Though it’s all a blur I think the verses were, for some reason I cannot fathom, Revelations.
“And now, without another year ado, Everett may kiss the bride.” Magpie peeled back her limp veil, heavy with stains. I was a fool, having never considered that this moment would be included in a sham wedding, but it would certainly disturb my captor to see me reject her on what was probably the happiest moment of her life.
She puckered, but without the outermost softness her lips were like two boot heels pressed together. The only thing giving me the ability to lean forward was the throbbing tiring pain, and I let it have its way to get my face close enough to hers.
Simple contact would’ve been enough, but Magpie had designs of her own. Her tongue parted my lips, forcing its way inside, flooding my mouth with scents and tastes that had me gagging. On its own her tongue was like the doorstop at a butcher’s: an inert leathery lump that had soaked up the bloody runoff of years. On some level she was aware the experience might be unpleasant, and had addressed that by, I believe, gargling with an entire bottle of perfume.
The floral sting in my nose and throat made my guts crumple and push upward, but I managed to swallow the egg slurry back down. Thankfully the kiss ended, Magpie holding my hand, swinging it back and forth, smiling at the floor bashfully as her father declared us wed.
“Wonderful! Now that’s out of the way let’s get you back on the table Everett!” That sentence snapped me out of my delirium, though it was Magpie who responded first.
“We can’t have him walking around asymmetrical!” Michael insisted, grabbing my by the shoulder before I could say anything. “We’ll take that other sleeve off and be done before dinner my sweet. Then you can have him for your wedding night.” She protested, struggling to come up with an excuse, but I was already being dragged toward the stairs.
As it stood the pain in my left arm might have become manageable, as long as the intact right arm was there to nurse it, to stand by its side despite its hardship. To think of both my hands screaming and burning for the rest of my life was too much; my plans vanished like the snuffing of a candle and I fled like the blazing moth that caused it.
At first I could not rip free from Michael’s iron grip, but we passed Massimo’s pedestal, so I desperately kicked it. The exploded head wobbled and then fell. Florence unleashed an unholy shriek at the sight of this, as if watching her living father falling from the tallest building, and only this prompted Michael to release me.
Up was the only direction I could think to go, so I ascended the stairs. The exertion made me feel strange, and twice I nearly stopped. There was a sound; I’d heard it before. She was calling to me. My love. If I’d seen her anywhere in that house I would’ve stayed, but with no sign of my elusive songstress I eventually had to continue, hoping it was just the melody of her watching over me.
Florence’s shriek stopped suddenly, so Massimo must have been resting comfortably on his pedestal once again. Michael would be after me in moments, and I was having no luck finding a place to hide. To save space, many of the closets arose from the floor on mechanisms, which I did not know how to trigger. The spaces under the beds were filled with ticking cogs and gears, like nightstand clocks knocked off, forgotten about, and left to grow monstrous as they scraped crumbs off the floor.
“Everett!” Michael snapped, just out of sight. “You’re embarrassing yourself! Come back here!” Instead of obeying I dove into the tall red curtains beside the largest oil painting in the house, of a crumbling watchtower deep in the woods. I think, when the painting was removed, you would be able to see several layers of the Earth, perhaps allowing them to judge some things about the season or weather above.
For now its only purpose was concealing a lost and desperate sailor. I swirled around inside to match the natural bunched-up shape and then stood on the tips of my toes, hoping the little bit of shoe poking out wouldn’t catch his eye. The sound of his footsteps came through not moments later.
“Everett?” I wanted him to check the duck pond. It made sense that I might go there, given that the plants, water, and hay for the goats provided some cover. If he did I could rush to Mozart’s hutch and try force the ramp open. He did not know I was aware of it. “We’ll see,” he muttered, words that speared me with terror.
There was no resisting the temptation to peek, and around the curtain’s edge I saw the back of his head. He was stood there, hands near his face. He took his blinders off.
In reading this you might not understand why this is even worth mentioning, but you have not felt the stare of proudly flayed Michael Humusly. A normal man has the corners of his eyes, where the lids meet, to give him comfort at all times, to assure him that he’s just one twitch away from a moment where he doesn’t have to see the horrors of the world.
Michael had to achieve this artificially, because without his blinders the whole world was practically siphoned into the chasm of his polished pupils. I had to stop peeking, because I saw the thinnest stripe of the white of his eye when the blinders came off. I felt, honestly felt, across what skin remained, that he could see the entire hallway.
It was a superhuman ability, more impressive than living like a root vegetable for decades. As he promised he did indeed see, the dust in the air, the curve of his own shadow, the wheels turning in the ceiling directly over his skullcap, and the half a toe of shoe sticking out from under the curtain behind him.
His talons wrapped around my shoulders through the curtains. I screamed, his pressure making floorboards creak under me. Wriggling like a fish got me nowhere, so I reached over my head and tried to grab the curtain with half the conviction he grabbed me with. Yanking with all my might, left arm stabbing me with its own screams of agony, broke the brass rings holding the curtain up. The whole thing came tumbling down over Michael’s head, and while the red ghost fought his way out of the folds I sprinted, first toward the duck pond, and then making a surprise turn and shuffling my way back toward the horse’s hutch, hoping the sounds would throw him off.
When I rounded the last corner I almost helped him with a scream, but Magpie stopped me with an absinthe-smelling hand over my mouth. She took my flayed wrist with the other one and quietly brought me into the hutch, closing the door behind us. Mozart was idly munching grass alongside shards of the skylight I’d broken.
There was the world, calling to me, breeze as tantalizing as any frothy wave I’d ever seen. Alas, it was far too high without the ramp, and Magpie, still wearing the wedding gown plastered to her like snakeskin, had nowhere on her to hide the key.
“I-I’m sorry I ruined your wedding day,” I told her, failure beginning to sink in despite my panicked swallowing breaths.
“No, it was perfect Everett. I had my first kiss, and for that I will be forever grateful, which will be at least ten times your forever.” She pulled me over to the flayed horse. “I had an idea while Mummy was screaming.” All ten of her fingers dove into a seam in the horse’s gut, between the muscles of the shoulder and the dried stripe of fat underneath.
She grunted as she pulled it open, revealing a space stuffed with damp blankets. She pulled these out, Mozart unbothered, like someone trying to pinch a fat grub out of its wooden tunnel. While she was tossing them in the back of the hutch, well out of sight, I instinctively leaned forward and looked inside.
Much like the heads of her parents, the animal’s gut space was mostly hollowed, but still holding its barrel shape thanks to the stuffing. Its stomach had been reduced and stapled as a chambered bag at the top. The space smelled like an attic filled with boxed scabs and jarred pus, so I pulled away almost immediately, and again nearly yelped in Magpie’s face.
“Quick, get in there!” she urged, pushing me against the undead beast’s flank.
“In there? Are you mad?”
“Daddy will never think to look in there!” she insisted. “When he puts the ramp up he’ll let Mozart out first, to test how we react to the world. When he gets out you can run away!”
“But… your father will just chase me. I have a feeling his legs do not tire.” A large part of me did not know why I was trying to poke holes in her plan, but it wasn’t in contact with the part that had smelled the steed’s interior. Magpie reached inside his belly and pulled a muscle near the front. The matching leg kicked, like a reflex.
“You can use these two like reins,” she explained. “I’ve done it before. Pat him here to get him to run forward, and kick back here to make him stop. Do you understand?” I nodded. “We’re out of time my love. I’m sorry these years kept us so apart that you became someone else’s. Remember me won’t you?”
“I could never forget you.” Then we both worked incredibly hard to stuff my body into the hanging horse cavity, where I held my breath. It only occurred to me later that I had technically been stuffed and mounted at the same time. She rushed out to divert her father’s suspicions. It was several hours I was left in there, the creature barely moving.
Breathing proved difficult, as the muscles tightened and made the space airtight if I did not regularly open a crease with one of my fingers, a dangerous proposition given that Michael was still roaming about with his expanded eyes. Mozart’s gut blocked out a good deal of sound, but not everything. People came and went, including, I believe, Florence, who stood next to Mozart petting him for an hour straight, singing something about skipping through a meadow backwards, which is to say the singing was backward, not the skipping.
The family spoke in my proximity several times, the words too muffled to understand, as I was unwilling to open a fissure any time it could have been the man of the house. Eventually, when my empty stomach’s growl was nearly loud enough to reveal me, there was a development. Mozart was escorted off to the side of the hutch, its gate closed to make way.
There was more conversation, and I convinced myself it had to be celebratory or congratulatory. Yes, that definitely was a laugh, and not a hallucination caused by inhaling too much petrified horse flatulence. Magpie must have convinced her father that I was still hiding in the house somewhere and that they could find me later. It was time to emerge, so the young bride could take other new steps.
Machinery clanked to life after the clink of a key into tumblers. It sounded like the raising of a drawbridge combined with the root-ripping of a shovel into untended earth. It excited me so much that I nearly ruined everything, kicking the back of the hollow and causing Mozart to whinny. Someone stroked the horse, which thankfully calmed it.
In position on my stomach, both hands poised to take up the sinewy reins, I had to carefully brace myself with my feet as my craft tilted upward. Patience. If I tried to make him bolt right away Michael might be patting his side, might grab on and be dragged along. Only when the forward tissues bent down, indicating Mozart was about to start grazing again, did I grip both muscles tightly and squeeze.
The ride was chaotic and painful as I was jostled and bounced in every direction. I didn’t know if the animal had sense enough to avoid all the trees or if it was just pure luck that the direction I’d chosen was free enough of them.
“Go you foul beast! Run your leather heart to straps! Run!” I roared from within. Perhaps the horse thought I was its conscience. That gut was a place of timeless rumination, so I had no idea how long or how far I had gone when I finally let go and kicked the back muscles. Thankfully it stopped.
When I pulled open the flank and flopped out I was in a field, a road with a weathered stone wall visible in the distance. It was not the same one I’d entered the forest from, but all that mattered was that every other animal there, the swallows in the sky, the chipmunks racing through the grass, and the bored brown cow licking salt from the top of the wall, had its hide intact.
Freedom washed over me as my stiff legs stumbled about like a newborn goat. At first the sun had seemed relentlessly bright, but I realized it was low in the sky and evening was nigh. I left Mozart there, he seemed quite content, and followed the road to civilization.
It has been more than a year now, and the world has not seen the revolution of Duykinck’s preservation method. I admit my own cowardice, as I reported the incident to no one, thinking everyone would hear soon enough.
But there were no articles. Not even rumors. I suspect Michael and his family made their debut in the town where I was hired… and that the residents swiftly killed them, thinking them demons, and buried them in their house before quietly building a new mansion on top of it. If that is the case my immense guilt over the fate of Magpie will remain, but there’s always the chance her hope, her lover’s soul, got the better of her and she went her own way before any such killings happened.
As for my own condition, I returned to work aboard a ship wearing a custom made glove that covered the entire affected area. It cost a loan from my father, but he was the only person I ever showed the injury too. We’ve never been closer, and I hope it’s not just because there’s less skin keeping us apart now.
Even covered, the pain remained. It dulled only in the sense that I grew accustomed to it, and for months I thought it unfair. Michael and the others never complained of pain, so why did I have it? Why was every handshake like squeezing a handful of thorns and lemon wedges? The obvious answer was that the process was never completed, and there was some conflict between the fragile and preserved parts of my body.
Over time the truth came to me, emerging from the forest fire of pain like a beautiful nymph. The sensation was a misunderstanding; I was simply overwhelmed by what could now freely emanate without muffling skin, hair, and oily sweat. It was the song, her song.
My whole life I thought it was the sea that made her melodies clearer, her devotion more tangible. The closest I could get was to dive so deep that it hurt; then I felt moments from materializing her before me. But she was always there, singing from within, my pulse her tempo. Being under the water intensified the feeling of my pulse in my temples. Running from Michael, blood rushing in fear, brought her near to me again.
She has always lived inside me, a secret person fighting against suppression. An inner being, blind, singing to build a world out of the echoes. I don’t know if everyone has this secret person inside them, but I do.
My arm doesn’t hurt anymore. My hands hold as we reach across our inner and outer worlds. Michael had built a bridge, but I cannot go back to him. There is, however, no record I can find for the death of a Dr. Duykinck. He’s out there, and I’ve already perfected the art of the longing search.
We will be together when I am ripped open, when my eyes can eat the world and her song plucks the fiber of my raw muscle.