laura mullen

 

from THE TALES OF HORROR

 

 

PASTORAL INTERLUDE Our patient sleeping at last, I have come out into the garden bringing this novel with me: I do not think they will think of looking for me here, and I shall be able, perhaps, in these stolen moments, to get down, on the copyright page or the blank flyleaf or crushed in the margins, my impressions of recent events and order my all-too-scattered thoughts. It is crucial I think clearly, I know that, now more than ever, and yet my mind will stray . . . ; how tall these walls of green are! How vividly each leaf in the hedge stands out, each gemmed with its single drop of water in this dense fog (O, the English summer!), in which I might be miles away from the house, so thoroughly is it obscured. I am sure they will not find me for hours; that is, I am almost sure . . . and this comparative peace and safety . . . but how can I expect you to understand how precious this time is: you, who are so far away from all that has occurred (you will find me much changed upon your return). The fog muffles their voices–I fear they have noticed my absence already–and somewhere close by in this blankness footsteps hesitate for an instant as though uncertain and then go quickly on. I don’t dare even a sigh of relief, lest they hear me (and I have no need, of course, to vent si vrai a feeling in so theatrical a way); I must think clearly: I must get down, as objectively as possible, the horror of the past few days . . . I no longer expect you to believe me (I feel I have given up–or do I flatter myself?–entirely that hope which had once been, I confess it, everything), but I must, if for my own sake . . . it will be a kind of record after all, a weak, flawed record (written crosswise over the other text), yes, in this woman’s handwriting–cramped and shaky–you must certainly despise, and yet there are parts of what I am going to tell you which may (and how my heart leaps at this thought!) be useful to you–and so, then, true . . . or do I mean true and then . . . ? If I am not careful everything will, in this fog, fade and blur. Already the outlines waver; I must hold onto something (I must take refuge in description, I must convince you–before it’s too late!–of my power to observe): the grey stone bench I sit upon, carved in its back, “Waiting,” the single word; the bench which draws up from the earth its damp chill; the inscribed seat of dove-gray stone, yellowed along its scrollwork by lichens and beribboned at its base by those glittering traces of their passage the snails scrawl. There. I feel as though I could go on now, I can and must go on. It was last night, you see, at dinner, in that house, yes, In that house whose baleful influence even here, even now . . . but I cannot, must not give into these fears, these–you would say–fantasies . . . for you I must be lucid and strong; I must say, I must write, that is, without trembling, without allowing the trembling of my hand in this handwriting to show, simply, “It was last night, in that house, at dinner, my duties over. . . .” It is much harder than I feared. (And there are footsteps, nearer.) I need time to get this down. There are waves of despair and doubt: you can’t know; I’m sure you will never believe me; I don’t think it possible, now, that you can return in time . . . ; these words will never reach anyone, or–if they reach you (too late of course)–will not, by then, mean anything. They will not mean anything: they will fail to awaken any emotion beyond . . . ; they will be as silent as I am, out in the garden (the formal garden, the heart of the maze), silent and still, only my eyes darting to follow the sound of those steps and the repeated low, sharp whistling–as though the keen edge of something (but what?) were being brought swiftly down through the air . . . and then the sound of this pen moving over the paper, sound I must pray no one hears. . . . I swear the events I am going to recount are not the product of my, as you’d say, over-heated imagination: all of this actually happened even if some of it is not strictly, by your standards, true. I know how you appreciate these distinctions and so I make them. Each leaf with its drop of water, et cetera, the crunch of gravel, the soft whistle a long, pointed blade might make if it were swept repeatedly through the unresisting air. I must not let my facility with language (what you once called my . . . ) run away with me (carry me away). I must stick to the facts. I must speak distinctly (clearly and with a certain volume, chest lifted, head thrown back) and to the point on those subjects for which I am qualified, my personal experience of which has undoubtedly qualified me to address: Falling Down Through a (Hidden) Hole in the (Apparently Solid) Floor; Going Out in a Rainstorm at Night to Explore a Strange Noise in Thin Attire and with Only a Guttering Candle; Empty Rooms: How Empty Are They, Really? (some examples from literature); Dying–or would it be Kinds of (ingenious, extraordinarily gruesome and noisy) Death–this last is rather suggestive . . . have I lost you? I must speak clearly, I must keep a certain distance, a certain objectivity. . . . I am afraid you will not even want to hear. . . . The whiteness of my hand on this white end-page; the blank wall of salty mist masking the house, as though someone had draped a huge sheet . . . –for what hideous birth, or bad joke about ghosts, or private examination?– . . . but no, I must stay away from the edges of metaphor (the deceptive edges of), I know that: it is the province of . . . “the deranged,” yes, I think you’d insist on that phrasing. You see how I expect you? But I won’t give in to these feelings of longing my efforts at perspective so thinly disguise. It is now some distance from dinner last night: years, years (you might think, by now, forgiveness was possible . . . you who weren’t there, you who don’t know . . . ), and the food we sat down to then–that feast of anticipations–has rotted with the bodies of the diners whose graves we decorate (“the joke died on his lips,” as we like to say, yes, all the jokes have . . . ); and surely I can think of it objectively, from here? We were at dinner, it was after the fish course had been thoroughly applauded: dull eyes goggled up from the tarnished face that finished off the cage of bone. In the silence which fell we heard the next course announced (the bell-like tones of those who waited on us still ringing in the air) and yet I would like to insist that we did not hear, really, or that we failed to comprehend what we heard; we were unprepared; our imaginations failed us. . . . I feel you doubting me as I write these words: I do not believe I can ever bring you to grasp the extent of our innocence, yes, even in the midst (or perhaps because?) of the atrocities which then . . . –but I insist on this: we had no idea, we could never have imagined it. And yet some one of us had been able to, that was really the . . . horror: that another human mind, heart, soul (I want very badly to say esprit here, but I’m afraid you’d only read in that the effect of that costly and “worthless” finishing school you delighted in paying for), had been able to imagine it, which surely meant that we too, sooner or later. . . . (I want to postpone that moment as long as possible.) Surely I need not be more explicit? Surely you have already seen it all (or enough, at least, to allow me to leave that all there, suspended–a rare specimen, discolored and long dead, of some almost-extinct, et cetera–in your suspension of disbelief)? Who could assert with any degree of assurance that the house was still there behind this fog which so completely veils it now, behind this breathing wall of white (which distracts, which urges forgetfulness), or do I mean to ask, Who could convince us now? Everything fades, blurs; what isn’t, as you once said to me, describing yourself, “hollowed out”? We were at dinner, we witnessed something, had to admit to the existence of something, have been forced to accept the fact of something we should have remained in ignorance of, we would have preferred to remain forever in ignorance of. Do you understand? Each leaf tipped with its single, tear-like (but no, not simile either) drop of water (I must hold onto this); the intricate turning, circle within circle (the going-back-over) which makes up the empty shell of a snail; the millions of sharp-edged, flashing fragments of proof we call the ground and walk on unthinking, which is not the same as “unconsciously.” At least I know I am not dreaming–so grateful to have found this moment of comparative safety in which to write you–the details are too clear, too singular; the time too brief. I am sorry to be so good at this task you hardly dared to entrust me with; I know that, if anything, it is this which keeps me from being what I had so longed to be: believed. And yet I feel as though I had had to relinquish that thin hope so long ago I shouldn’t even be able to recall having entertained it. What should I recall? The sound of footsteps approaching now, firmly (have I reached the end of my usefulness?), and the sibilant whisper, not of my name but of metal on air; that keen blade which does not find anything solid, which does not not find anything, that is to say, which resists it–you can see it all clearly now, can’t you? Can’t you? Someone is cutting this “fog so thick you could cut it with a knife,” with a knife. Now the uncut pages trapped below your thumb become the dumb evidence, damp warped: no need to read any deeper. . .