From the Inside:
LEFT HAND TREE AND OTHERS
PART ONE: THE COLLECTION
Nathan Satinet grinned at his friend.
Nathan, a large man with a barrel chest and very little fat on him, stood at the top of a short flight of concrete stairs. The stairs were wide and semi-circular in shape, like ripples expanding across a pond. The stairs ended at the front door of a large house near the top of a canyon road north of Browning City. Nathan’s friend stood on the step just behind his own six-foot-six-inch frame. They both waited for the heavy wooden door in front of them to open.
“You know, I envy you,” Nathan told his friend behind him.
“Why?” asked the friend. The friend’s name was Alex.
Nathan nodded at the house.
“Your first time seeing the Collection. By the time you finally tear yourself away from this place, you ain’t gonna be the same.”
“Wow,” said Alex.
Nathan grinned again, a lopsided, closed-mouth smile.
“I know,” he said, his soft Texas accent lilting, “You think I’m laying it on thick.”
“No, no,” said Alex in his own flat, nasal American Northwest inflection, “I believe you.”
Nathan stretched his arms, which, showing from the sleeves of his dark blue polo shirt, were each as tan and wide as the base of a Japanese maple. As Nathan threw his wide shoulders back, he said, “Now, I should warn you . . . David’s a genius . . . And, like some geniuses, he can be a little difficult to deal with at times.”
Alex nodded. Nathan turned back to the door.
After giving his arms a final shake, Nathan knocked again. The doorbell to the right of the door frame did not work; Nathan had tried it initially and only silence sounded from inside the house instead of the three-note chime he remembered from his visit a year ago.
No one answered. Nathan said, “Well, I hope we didn’t catch him while he’s out.”
Alex said, “Maybe he’s lying down?”
Nathan shrugged. He knocked again.
A voice, just behind the door, said, “What the FUCK do you want?”
Alex jumped. Nathan blinked.
Nathan cleared his throat and raised his voice.
The voice asked again, “What do you want?”
“David, this is Nathan Satinet! From Hackberry!”
The voice said, “Who?”
Nathan took a deep breath.
“Nathan Satinet, from Hackberry, Texas! You had me out here to the house just last year. We spoke, about a month ago, since? And we both made plans for me to come visit you again. Today!”
The voice said, “How did you get past the gate?”
Again, Nathan cleared his throat. “The gate was open! I assumed you left it open for my visit!”
“I didn’t leave it open!”
Silence. Nathan shook his head.
He said, “Look, David! If you remember, we met two years ago in Milwaukee! I was the one who wrote a story based on your painting, The Ones That Wait! It was one of your paintings in that show you held in the Planchette Room at Captain Howdy’s!”
Nathan faced the door. His big hands fidgeted in the pockets of his dark grey cargo pants.
He said, “I did try calling beforehand, but I didn’t get any answer!”
Nathan waited a moment. Then he turned from the door. He looked at Alex, shrugged, and moved toward the bottom of the steps with a heavy sigh.
A lock behind the door clicked.
Nathan and Alex turned back.
The door opened.
A man stood in the doorway. The man was a few years older than Nathan and his friend. Nathan and his friend were both in their sixties.
The man was short and thin. His skin hung loosely on his face, as if he’d lost much weight in a short time. His gray hair was cut to a line of stubble on his head. He wore a dark purple bathrobe, untied at the waist. He was shirtless, wearing only wine-colored pajama bottoms underneath his bathrobe. His feet were sockless and covered by dark leather slippers. Above the house, the afternoon sun shone an hour past its zenith.
The man looked at Nathan, then at Alex. He closed his eyes and sighed audibly.
“David,” Nathan said, “It looks like I might have come at a bad time.”
The man opened his eyes. He held a hand up.
“No. No. Come in. Please, come in.”
Nathan said, “Are you sure?”
The man nodded his head.
“Yes, yes. I remember now, Nathan. Yes, we did talk about you stopping for a visit.”
Nathan said, “But, if you’re not feeling well . . . ”
David Downe adjusted his bathrobe and tied it closed. He said, “No. I’m fine, I’m fine. I’ve just had somebody trespassing on my property for the last few days. It’s been extremely stressful.”
“Really,” Nathan said. David nodded his head again.
“Well, that certainly explains things,” Nathan said, “Who is this person, a kooky fanboy?”
David shook his head. “I’m not sure who it is.”
“Is it a burglar?”
David retreated into the house. Nathan and his friend followed.
David said, “I don’t know! It’s a long story and I’m tired of thinking about it. I’ve alerted the authorities, and they’ve been checking up on the place.”
David closed the door behind them.
Nathan said, “Well, that’s good. You can’t be too careful these days. There’s all sorts of nuts running around out there.” He added, in a lower voice, “You know, it might not hurt for you to arm yourself; maybe even get a dog.”
David turned to Alex.
“Who’s this?” David asked.
Nathan said, “Well, I hope it’s all right, but I’ve brought a friend here with me. David, this is Alex Minter.”
David looked at the man with Nathan.
Nathan said, “And Alex, meet David Downe.”
The man who had come with Nathan offered David his hand. David did not take the hand, but he nodded his head in Alex’s direction.
“I’m . . . pleased to meet you,” Alex said, lowering his hand and nodding back.
Nathan said, “Alex is a fellow writer like myself, carrying the torch of supernatural fiction to a dim and unimaginative world.” Nathan’s lopsided grin reappeared.
“But, I’m nowhere near as gifted as Nathan here,” Alex added.
David said, “Mm.”
Alex cleared his throat. “Nathan’s been telling me about your work base on the Book of the Left Hand Tree.”
They stood in a small, dark hallway. The hallway’s end was open. Alex could see a larger room beyond. The hallway was undecorated, except for a small painting on one wall. The painting was of a red, stylized letter or symbol set against a black background. The symbol consisted of a long, vertical line whose top third leaned leftward like a branch extending from the trunk of a tree. Halfway up the symbol’s ‘trunk’ was another, shorter line running horizontally to the left like a second, smaller branch.
David answered Nathan, “I see.”
Nathan said, “Alex here shares my interest in these kinds of things.”
David turned fully to Alex. He said, “And have you ever heard the story of the Bloody Man?”
Nathan grinned to himself.
Alex said, “Well, I haven’t actually heard it. But I do know it has to do with things mentioned in the Book of the Left Hand Tree.”
He said, “In the times before these, in a place beyond this one, there was and is the Old One. And with the Old One there was and is the One called Lord Sabaoth, who is the Old One’s offspring. And when the Old One made all that there is here, He also made the ones who are like you and like me. Now, the Old One was cross and jealous of all He’d made, and He locked it all up in a fine, fine cage, where He gloried over it all by Himself. But the one who sees from the darkness, the Bright Whisperer of Secrets who reveals hidden things, came forth from the lonely places in the world to tell the ones like you and like me about how to be free, about how to shake the chains of the Old One from ourselves and one day rise up and put the Old One down so we may all be Great. And the Old One heard about what the Bright Whisperer of Secrets was doing, and He sent Lord Sabaoth to stop the Bright One and keep the universe in its fine, golden cage. But the Whisperer stopped Sabaoth and sent Him to His grave, thus proving to us all that the Old One can be killed. But the Old One was crafty, and He cheated and broke His own rules and raised Lord Sabaoth up from His grave and sent Him out to once again keep the universe and its inhabitants enslaved. And now He is the Bloody Man, wandering the waste places of the world and seeking those on whom He may lay His red, dripping hands. Thus we must all beware the Bloody Man, or be driven mad by the sight of His gory shape.”
A phone rang in another part of the house.
David took a breath. He said, “Excuse me.”
He left the hallway.
Both men were silent for a moment. Then Alex raised his eyebrows and gave a short, soft whistle.
He asked, “Is he going to be okay?” His voice was low.
Nathan said, “I think so. You know, we won’t stay long.”
“And . . . he actually has stuff like that memorized?” asked Alex.
Nathan’s grin widened, showing teeth.
“Oh, yes!” said Nathan.
“Good grief,” said Alex.
David’s voice drifted into the hall from another room.
Nathan said, “So, let me tell you again in advance. You are going to leave this place looking at some things in this world in a very different manner.”
Alex looked at the man he’d come to the house with.
“So, does he actually believe in all . . . that?”
Nathan said, “I’d say definitely, yes.”
Alex continued looking at Nathan.
From the other room, David’s voice began to steadily climb.
Nathan’s grin remained. “I guess you could say I keep an open mind.”
Alex shook his head. “I can’t imagine you on the verge of getting religion.”
“No, not quite,” he said, “But I will say . . . there’s enough in this house to make me honestly consider the existence of other states of reality.”
Alex looked at the big man before him and blinked.
“Wow,” he said.
Nathan said, “Don’t get me wrong. I am a diehard skeptic and I’ll be one ‘til the very end. But the thing I like about David’s collection here is that it very simply affirms what I’ve always felt about the more established views of the supernatural since I was young. That it’s all just relative to how one looks at that sort of thing. The traditional religious responses to the unknown our generation worked so hard to get rid of are merely one way of looking at a universe that is much bigger than anything a handful of men behind pulpits can even guess at. So ultimately, we can call the shots of what’s real and not real ourselves. We don’t have to suffer under the burden of a worn-out system of beliefs to enjoy the mysteries of the uncharted places on the map of our existence.”
Nathan said, “So all those fake smiles, the finger-pointing, the sexual intolerance, and the general ugliness I and others left behind years ago are kind of like chaff that we’ve sifted from the healthy grain. In the end, those traditional concepts of spiritual ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ are better off left in the dust, simply because of their god-awful restrictiveness, both in real life, and in regards to the imagination. I mean, just think about it: is there anything truly uplifting in a cosmic sense about a Middle Eastern man fixed to a pole in the middle of a dirt road?”
Nathan leaned his wide frame toward Alex, his eyes fixed ahead of him as he brought his point home.
“If,” he continued, “Just think about this now--if salvation and damnation are simply words for things we can’t really understand, then how can we, in all seriousness, expect to react to those things in the mechanistic, uniform way those preachers from our past taught us to?”
David suddenly shouted from the distant room. Both men in the hallway turned at the sound.
“And I told you, if you want to press the issue, have your lawyer contact mine! I don’t have time to argue with you about this!”
Alex and Nathan looked at each other. Again, Nathan shrugged. They looked away as David continued to shout.
“Lady! For the last FUCKING time! It wasn’t my fault your dog hit my FUCKING car! If you don’t have the FUCKING sense to keep YOUR FUCKING mutt indoors, then I don’t see how it’s my responsibility to look out for the filthy little thing! So you--What? How’s that? Oh . . . ! Oh, bull-shit! I was looking when I turned—Oh yes, I did! Yes! I! Did! I--Let me finish! LET ME FINISH PLEASE—you fucking idiot! Now! I was looking that morning, because I look every morning, every damn time I pass by your house, because I never FUCKING know when you’ve got that little rat out running around! —AND! AND, when your dog bounced off the front panel of my car after running straight into it, that collision resulted in significant damage to my vehicle! Significant damage that I’M not paying for! So—”
There was a stretch of silence from the other room.
Then: “Look! You have your lawyer contact mine, please! DON’T call me again!”
There was the plastic clatter of a cordless phone handset being thrown, then a long spate of low muttering.
Alex heaved a short, deep sigh. Nathan was examining the painting of the red symbol on the wall.
David appeared at the end of the entryway.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “Give me a minute to gather myself and I’ll walk you both through the Collection.”
Nathan started to say something. David turned and left the entryway. The sounds of his muttering followed him.
Alex Minter stared at the painting. His eyes were wide and his mouth hung part-way open.
Nathan stood behind him and to one side. Nathan watched Alex’s face. Nathan grinned.
David spoke, standing a few feet away from them.
“That is The Dancers by Francis Styles Humboldt.”
Alex’s mouth moved. Nothing came out. He closed his mouth. His eyes didn’t leave the painting.
The painting hung on a dark mauve wall on the far side of a small, circular room. Track lighting installed above and below lit and accentuated details of the framed picture.
David said, “Humboldt was a British painter, an expatriate who lived traveling throughout Europe in the company of whatever patronage he could secure. The Dancers was painted in 1935 at the request of a gentleman who paid him an extraordinary amount of money and then disappeared, leaving Humboldt and his new painting in the middle of pre-World War II Austria. He lived in Austria for two years on the large sum he’d been given. Then, in early 1937, he was approached by Madame Helena Carnera on the strength of The Dancers, which he had on display in an out-of-the-way gallery in Grasz. He was to perform the task of painting the ceiling and various other parts of Madame Carnera’s Bright Shining Church in Hungary.”
Alex turned to David.
“Helena Carnera?” he said.
David said, “Yes.”
Alex said, “Helena Carnera was a work of fiction.”
David nodded. “That is what author Hawkins Owsley claimed for the better part of his life. But on his deathbed, he confessed that the central character of Madame Night was as real as he was, and that she had very nearly ruined him as a young man.”
Alex turned back to the painting.
David continued, “Madame Carnera had just finished construction of the church the previous year. Humboldt spent the next year painting its interior with scenes inspired by Carnera’s French copy of the Book of the Left Hand Tree. But a month after he finished the job, the church was destroyed by a sudden, unexplained explosion. There were a number of people inside the church when the blast happened. Humboldt, sadly, was among them.”
Alex slowly shook his head.
“This is amazing,” he whispered.
The picture was mostly black, with partially-defined objects painted in varying hues of dark red, as if the subjects of the painting were lit by a diffuse, reddish light. The objects were living things. They were human in shape, or at least the parts of the objects that were lit looked human. At first, Alex saw the whole painting as a jumble of disassociated parts: a flailing arm here, a twisting leg there, an open-mouthed face over there (Alex did not like looking at the faces after a while). But the longer he looked, the more he made out the whole of the scene. The picture showed a long, spiraling line of people, dancing in contorted motions toward a distant middle, like a whirlpool rushing to a dead, black center. At that center was a tiny reproduction of the red, tree-like symbol from the entrance way, hanging in blackness. Alex’s heart leapt at first with the strangeness of the painting. It was something odd and new, and otherworldly, and he responded to it with childlike fascination. But the more he examined the painting, the more he grew to dislike it, especially the howling, grimacing faces of the dancers. It filled him with emptiness and the unreasoning panic of someone who has suddenly, in the space of minutes, lost every bit of hope they’d held inside themselves.
Alex stepped back from the picture. He put a hand to his head.
“You all right, Alex?” asked Nathan.
“Yeah,” said Alex, quickly.
He looked down. Beneath the title, “The Dancers” on the metallic name plate under the painting were the following words, etched into the metal in italics:
J’ai regarde dans les tenebres
Et la je l’ai fait voir
Les Chers Disparus danse autour
L’arbe De Le Main Guache
“It has quite an effect, doesn’t it?” said David.
“Yes it does,” said Alex.
David moved from the room.
“This way,” he said.
They stood in a room larger than the first. It was painted a dark grey. On one wall of the room hung three dark red curtains, each about two feet wide and three feet in length from top to bottom. Each curtain hung in the middle of the wall. More track lighting lit them all from above and below.
“These are the highlights of my own pieces,” said David.
The men accompanying David stood behind him. Nathan continued to smile lopsidedly. Alex’s face was pale and the corners of his mouth were bowed downwards.
Nathan leaned toward his friend.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked quietly.
“If you want to leave, you can just tell me.”
Alex shook his head.
They had passed through two other rooms before the one they were in now.
The first room held a number of drawings and paintings from different artists depicting scenes and ideas from the Book of the Left Hand Tree. Some were crude and inexpertly done while others were created with great care and talent. All were filled with a malignancy that struck the viewer like a physical blow. Among the many works was a scribbled charcoal drawing called The Great Ones Gather, depicting indefinable forms cavorting in a kind of cave or underground passageway. The outline and attitude of those forms made a cold spot form at the back of Alex’s neck. There was also a beautifully detailed oil painting of a family of six gathered against a snowy backdrop of trees, holding hands around a seventh, prone, figure. The mother and father, the central figures in the painting, were unclothed, as were the other, younger family members standing in the group portrait. All were filthy and their bodies were twisted and marred with thick scar tissue and covered in splashes of dried blood; all had faces that were empty of everything but a single-minded, animal hunger that glowed from eyes that were no longer human and dripped from open jaws filled with rotten but sharp-looking teeth. The smallest of the group, a toddler, was gnawing at a bloody hand of the prone figure the family was gathered around. The name of this painting was Imago Dei.
The second room they’d visited before their current one was filled with artifacts from around the world. “Found art,” David called it. These were sculptures, carvings, peculiar devices, and decorative illustrations removed from larger surfaces upon which they’d been painted or drawn. There were also mounted photos cut from newspapers, magazines, and Internet printings. Like the previous room, Alex was overwhelmed by the number of items in the room and by the hateful intensity of each item. He forgot many of the items in both rooms by the time he left David Downe’s house, but one or two from the second room stayed with him. One item was an old, sepia photograph of a man and a woman dressed in Victorian clothing. Each had a dark substance covering their chin and lower lip and both were turned toward a chair in their midst. The chair was empty, but there was a figure, transparent as smoke, in the shape of a man, seated. Hanging in mid-air where the head of the figure should have been were two solid, human-looking eyes looking directly into the camera. The eyes were filled with an alien hate and hunger, as if the soul of a spider looked out from them. Written in a lower corner of the photo, in ballpoint pen, were the words, “Donald Motero, A SON of MADA”. Alex did not think the photograph was a fake. Another item was a seven-foot by four-foot section of wall, obviously taken from a house or other structure and mounted to stand on its own. Crudely painted in fluorescent colors on its surface was a scene, sealed in lacquer, depicting a gathering of men and women around a tall, stylized tree that leaned in a leftward direction. The people around the tree writhed and crawled on the ground while, descending from the tree and twining itself among them was a pale thing like an eyeless serpent. Above the tree was written “EL GUSANO” in a bright, painful orange-yellow. Covering the painting and sealed by the lacquer were several smeared hand-prints, some child-sized, made in a substance the color of old rust.
“Ready?” asked David.
His question brought Alex back to the present room. Alex looked at the three covered pictures hanging on the wall. He wanted to say no.
“Go ahead,” said Nathan, beside him.
David moved a corded pulley beside the leftmost painting and opened its curtain.
At first, Alex couldn’t tell what was in the painting. Muddy hues swam around two bright points of color near the middle of the canvas. Then he saw it, and he shut his eyes.
He heard Nathan turn to him. Alex turned his own head and opened his eyes. Nathan looked at him with concern, but a trace of a grin continued to lift one corner of his mouth.
Alex turned to the painting, though he did not want to. Embarrassment forced his gaze back. Ill fascination held it.
Something reptilian looked at him from the canvas. Its coils rose and fell behind its head in thick, ropy arcs. Pairs of clawed feet rested, splayed, at intervals. The head was all mouth and eyes. The tooth-filled mouth grinned, full of death. The eyes were yellow-gold globes, shot with red, surrounding dilated pupils that were black pits at the bottom of an ocean of madness.
“The Dragon,” said David.
Nathan said, “That is amazing. I just can’t believe I forgot how beautiful this is.”
Alex turned away again and saw David heading toward the right-hand painting. David opened its curtain and stood back.
“The Child,” he said.
Nathan made a sound. Alex turned to him. Nathan’s eyes were closed. Nathan shook his head, slowly. Nathan’s smile was a wide and satisfied thing.
Alex looked at the picture.
This time, his mind took it all in at once. His legs weakened when it happened. He shifted his weight, breathing heavily, to regain his balance.
A child silently laughed at him from inside the picture’s frame. Or at least it looked like a child, whatever it was—a small boy in dark clothing. One of its hands was pointed at him and its mouth was open in a sneering shout. But the lines of the face, unblemished and rose-cheeked, were ancient and full of poisonous knowledge, as was the small body. The eyes, blue and bright, were the dragon’s eyes, holding the same promise of insanity.
“Will you know the Wise One when you meet
Will you see his Eyes through the mask he
Will you embrace whatever whispered Secret he
David recited the verses as he moved toward the center painting. Alex continued to breathe heavily. Sweat, slimy and awful, ran down the sides of his face and the small of his back. He wanted to leave this place, leave it right now, before the curtain was moved from the final picture.
“Hey, Nathan?” he said.
“Just a second,” said Nathan.
David said, “Or would you know him, if you were blessed to behold the Bright and Shining One with all his masks removed?”
His hands moved the cords by the third picture. The curtains in front of it parted.
Like the painting of the dragon, it took Alex a moment to fully comprehend the middle painting. When he did, he stumbled backwards. He turned and quickly left the room.
David and Nathan watched Alex leave. They looked at each other. Nathan shrugged and raised his eyebrows. David’s mouth pursed.
“Sorry about that,” said Nathan.
David said, “Did you say he was a fellow supernatural writer, like yourself?”
Nathan said, “He tends to stick with the more safe, traditional stuff.”
David said, “Not everyone can endure the undisguised gaze of the Shining Whisperer in Darkness.”
He turned toward the third painting.
The picture showed an angelic figure in the midst of a vast field of blackness. The figure’s hands, feet, and face emerged from flowing robes of white. The entire figure threw off a nimbus of brilliant light. The face shone especially bright. Five rays of rainbow-colored radiance shot from the center of the face, two in a V-shape whose shafts extended to points above the head, two more in another, inverted V below the first two that extended below each of the figure’s ears, and one more shining straight down from the face’s center to a point below the chin. The mouth of the figure was open. It was filled with light that poured forth like a stream of shining smoke. The light from the mouth was not as lovely as the light from the rest of the figure. It looked dirty in a way difficult to grasp—dirty and venomous.
Nathan said, “And even you’ve got to admit that your work is extremely effective.” His voice trembled slightly as he said this.
David nodded once, acknowledging the compliment. His attention was still on the painting.
The eyes of the figure stared straight at the viewer. Like the paintings of the dragon and the child, they were the focal point of the piece. They were filled with everything the other eyes showed only slightly. They spoke without sound to the viewer about the goodness and rightness of the ending of order. They wordlessly declared that peace was strife, love was hatred, and joy was a neverending sorrow. They said that poison was a salve and slavery was sweet freedom. That madness was wisdom, truth was an illusion, and creation could only be enjoyed through its unmaking. The entire figure was overwhelmingly lovely and forcefully repulsive, a bright and shining cancer.
Nathan drew a deep breath. He exhaled through his nose. The breath trembled like his voice had earlier.
He said, “Well, I suppose I should see where Alex has fetched up at.”
He hesitated a moment more. Then he stepped back and left the room. He breathed heavily though his nose as he went.
David re-closed the curtains and followed Nathan from the room.
They found Alex in David’s workroom. The workroom was across the hall diagonally from the room they’d just left. Alex was standing in front of a painting on an easel. A white cloth covered the easel and the painting.
When David saw Alex, he raised his voice.
“Excuse me!” he said.
Alex turned to David. His face was white.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said.
“No one’s allowed in here! Please get out!”
Alex said, “I’m sorry. I’ll leave. I’m not feeling well.”
He began to shuffle from the room.
“I’m heading to the car,” he said.
Nathan said, “I’ll join you in a moment.”
Alex left the room.
“Will he be all right?” asked David. His voice was stern.
Nathan said, “I think so. I thought he was made of tougher stuff,
but . . .”
He nodded at the painting.
“Is this something you’re currently working on?”
David’s eyes went to the covered painting, then quickly left it.
“That’s nothing.” He began to retreat from the room.
Nathan paused. His eyes did not leave the white cloth.
He said, “Do you—”
David turned to Nathan and yelled, “Please get out of here!”
Nathan quickly turned to David. “Right . . . Sorry,” he said.
They were almost out the doorway of the workroom when the sound behind them halted them.
David turned around first. He made a low, pained noise in the back of his throat.
Nathan turned and looked behind him.
The cloth covering the easel had fallen to the floor.
Nathan started to say something. He stopped when he saw the painting.
The paints used for the picture were dark, but sharp. They’d been used to depict a lone figure standing against a black sky boiling with lightless thunderheads. A thin band of yellow clung to the horizon as the lowering storm clouds shut the last traces of sunlight from the scene. Around the figure were small, stunted trees and withered underbrush. The ground the figure stood on was dry and rocky. The figure itself was draped in a long shroud that covered it from its head to a point just above the sandy ground. The shroud was shiny, like satin, and was comprised of thick, alternating bands of dark purple and dark crimson that radiated vertically outward from the shroud’s center like sections of cloth sewn to cover the ribs of an umbrella.
Nathan found his voice.
“Lord Sabaoth,” he said.
David looked at him, then at the floor.
Nathan moved his ponderous self toward the painting. His eyes shone. He spoke as he went:
Raca I’ll call You!
Thrice-cursed Bloody Man Who lies in wait for
Those without the will to do and do with Greatness!
The universe made through You mocks You!”
David stepped forward suddenly and grabbed at him.
Nathan tore himself easily from the smaller man’s grip.
David screamed, “GET OUT!”
Nathan backed away from the man.
“I was only quoting—”
David rushed at him, howling.
Nathan hurried in the direction Alex had gone.
“All right—my apologies!” called Nathan as he walked quickly away.
“Fuck your apologies!” screamed David.
David heard the front door slam.
He stood a few feet away from the workroom door.
He turned back to the painting inside the room.
David Downe stared hard at the picture. His head suddenly snapped downward, turning his gaze to the floor as he’d done earlier when Nathan first named the figure in the painting. Just as suddenly, he brought his gaze back up to the painted canvas.
His breath came in shallow stitches. They deepened and lengthened as he continued to stare at the painting. His face turned a deep shade of red, then an angry purple.
A sound built in his throat. It started small and low and grew louder and higher, until he was screaming into the cluttered emptiness of the room.
David rushed into the workroom. He continued screaming. He collided with a small work table covered with brushes and tubes of paint. The table and its contents overturned. David roared and kicked at the scattered debris.
Something metal clattered from amidst the mess. David drew a deep breath. He saw a metal paint trowel glittering in the workroom lights.
With an animal grunt, he lurched forward and grabbed the trowel from the floor. He turned to the painting and howled at it.
“LEAVE ME ALONE!”
He took a step toward the picture. He stopped. His breath raged, in and out, from his lungs.
“Leave me alone,” he said again.
He said, “Do You think I’m impressed by You?
“Hanging there, looking at me with Your fucking doe eyes, weeping--Do You think I’m impressed?
“I didn’t ask for You! I don’t want You! I never wanted You!
“People threw You at me! Fucking grabbed me, and rubbed my fucking NOSE in You! And I’m supposed to be impressed by that? That’s supposed to make me get down on my knees and adore the ground You walk on?”
David spat at the painting.
“I’m free!” he shouted, “I’m free of You! I never needed Your help! No one does! You lie to keep us all afraid! All of us, crawling and crying and groveling, begging You for help only You can give! Only You can save us! LIAR!”
He took a deep breath.
“I saved myself! I save myself every day! I get up and I live and I go on living, despite You! I live, despite Your Big Lie! Your useless, weeping words!
“Weeping! Crying, all the time, crying! Crying about how much You love me, and when I come to You, boom! You’re right there with Your big sighs and Your disapproving looks and Your threats and condemnation! And where are Your tears then? Where are Your loving, open arms then, You MONSTER!”
David’s hand gripped the paint trowel tighter.
“And when I get sick of it and try to break free, You clutch at me with guilt! You show me Your wounds and Your blood, and You whine, ‘But you did this to me! How, oh how, can you leave Me?’
“And I believe You and I stay at Your side. Your precious, wounded side, and I kill myself all over again to please You! And there we are, the perfect pair, David and the horrible Bloody Man, both of us dead, dead, dead, dead—DEAD!”
David rushed at the painting.
He made a mad, whining noise and raised the paint trowel high over the picture.
His face twisted. He shouted. Spittle flew from his mouth.
His hand that held the trowel hung in the air. It did not move.
David shouted, again.
He cursed. He twisted his head up and around until he saw the trowel in his hand.
His hand stayed where it was.
He cried out yet again. His hand flew down.
The trowel bounced off the stone tiled floor, ringing.
David looked back at the painting that stood, unmarred on its easel, before him.
He cursed again and tore himself away from the easel.
He fled the room. Stumbling, he rushed through the hallways of his house.
He found the bedroom. The bedroom door was open. He stumbled inside.
David threw himself on the bed. He buried his face in the pillows.
He did not move for a very long time.
PART TWO: "YOU KEEP ON KNOCKING . . ."
The room was dark when David woke.
He snapped his head up. The silence of his house rang in the air around him.
His nerves rang in time with the silence. Something had wakened him. Some sound--
His breath stopped.
He heard the sound repeated, the sound he’d only half-heard in his interrupted sleep.
From a distance, three hard raps on a wooden surface.
David closed his eyes. He lowered his head back to the pillows.
Again, the sound of strong knuckles on solid wood. A quick, decisive group of three raps.
Knocking at the front door.
David made a high, despairing cry into the pillows.
He waited for the sound to come again.
He continued waiting.
He raised his face from the pillows.
Knock, knock, knock.
David cried out in the darkness.
He jumped from the bed.
“Not this AGAIN!”
He stopped himself.
He slowed his accelerated breathing. Slower . . . slower . . .
He said, “It’s Nathan. It’s Nathan and his friend. They came back—”
Knock, knock, knock.
He found the bedroom light and turned it on.
“They came back to apologize—”
He went into the hallway.
David headed for the front door. He turned lights on in the house as he went.
Knock, knock, knock.
He turned the light in the entryway on.
He approached the door.
He said, “Hello?”
No one replied.
David cleared his throat. He said, “Is that you, Nathan?”
Silence answered him.
He looked at the door.
Slowly, he stepped back from it.
He started to call out again when three more short knocks interrupted him.
He continued looking at the door.
He suddenly went to the door. He put his ear to the surface.
He heard nothing. He held his breath.
Not a trace of a sound.
He closed his eyes and exhaled.
Three loud knocks rang through the wood of the door, filling his ear, deafening him.
He cried out and stumbled away from the door.
Knock, knock, knock!
David stopped. His eyes were level with the door handle. Above that was the latch and chain. His eyes widened.
The door was unlocked. The chain was unlatched.
He made a high-pitched noise and threw himself back at the door. Three more knocks echoed through the wood. He felt them with his body.
His hands flew to the door handle. He locked it.
Three more knocks shook the door. He again felt them shiver through his own frame. He grabbed at the chain and secured it to the latch.
He flew from the door as it shook with three more knocks.
“GET OUT OF HERE!” David Downe screamed.
He was on the floor, looking up at the sealed entrance.
He sobbed. He put a hand to his mouth to stop it. He stood.
He looked at the door, now silent, for a long time. Then . . .
He spoke. His voice was low.
“No. No. No. Not another night. I’m not playing the fool again. Not another damn night.”
He carefully stepped to the door.
He said toward the door, “I’m calling the police, now! We can repeat this scene again if you want, as many nights as you want! Now, here I go!”
David turned from the door and headed to the kitchen. He muttered as he went.
“Don’t care if they treat me like an asshole. Don’t care that they don’t care. I’ve had it!”
He entered the kitchen. He went to the counter he’d placed the cordless phone handset on after he’d thrown it across the room earlier.
He replaced the handset’s rechargeable batteries in their compartment. He secured the compartment cover.
He turned the handset over and pushed the Talk button.
The handset’s buttons did not light up as they should have. He held the handset to his ear.
He made an unhappy, feline sound. He pushed the Talk button again.
Nothing. David turned the handset around. He played with the batteries for a minute. Then he tried to turn the phone on again.
The handset was dead in his hands.
“No,” said David, echoing his earlier declaration, “No. No. No, no, NO!”
Wishing fiercely for the first time in his life that he had a cell phone, he pulled and pawed at the cordless handset. He slapped at it. He banged it against his pajama-clad thigh. He thumbed every switch and pushed every button on its surface. He shouted and spat.
“I just--charged this—!”
He screamed and jumped, turning.
At the kitchen window behind him: three sharp raps on the glass.
He dropped the handset. Its plastic shell broke open. Its insides scattered on the kitchen floor beside him.
Tap, tap, tap.
The kitchen window’s drapes were pulled closed. David’s eyes caught a shadow of movement through them.
Tap, tap, tap.
Before he knew what he was doing, David charged the window. His middle collided with the edge of the counter top and the sink. His hands clawed at the curtains.
He threw the curtains open.
Nothing stood outside the window in the darkness.
He stepped back from the sink. His eyes were huge as they took in the empty night beyond the kitchen window glass.
From the other end of the house: Knock, knock, knock.
David Downe backed out of the kitchen slowly. His right foot slid through the pieces of broken cordless phone on the floor, scattering them further.
David thought, Do what you should’ve done last night! Take the keys and get to the car--
From inside the unattached garage, the horn of his aging Buick brayed for a full minute.
The horn stopped. In the following silence, his mind gibbered, Get out! Just get out! Run to a neighbor’s house, call the police, spend the night in a hotel!
He was picturing the sliding glass door that opened from the dining room onto the back patio when three sharp, glass knocks sounded from that part of the house.
David’s legs went numb. He swayed, but caught himself by throwing an arm against a nearby wall.
David spent several moments in that position, listening to a series of intermittent raps at the front door, the patio door, and the kitchen window. After ten minutes, he resumed backing out of the kitchen until he was in the hallway.
He turned and quickly walked to the hall bathroom, where there were no windows or skylights.
David turned the bathroom light on. He turned the fan on as well. He closed the door and locked it.
He heard three more knocks on the front door. The knocks were muffled, from distance, from his location, and from the white noise of the bathroom fan.
He sat down on the commode lid. He put his face in his hands.
Three more faint, faint knocks.
David’s hands squeezed the sides of his head. He moved them over his ears.
He looked up. He swiveled his head to the medicine cabinet over the sink.
David stood and headed to the cabinet. He saw a crazy man with pasty, yellow flesh and red, puffy eyes looking back at him in the large mirror on the cabinet door. He quickly looked away.
He looked ahead of himself again when he’d opened the medicine cabinet. On the second shelf down he saw the half-used bag of cotton balls sitting behind a large jar of Vick’s Vap-O-Rub. He moved the jar aside and grabbed the bag of cotton. He turned from the mirror after shutting the cabinet.
David heard three more muffled knocks from the other end of the house before rolling two balls of cotton into pill shapes and stuffing each into the deep shells of his ears. He thought, No basement and no attic to go to. No TV, stereo, or computer to play—I never needed any of them!
He thought, Maybe the police will come by, just to check things out.
After verbally abusing two patrol deputies from the Sheriff’s Office last night and one the night before, he knew they would not.
He thought, This is the best I can do.
David sat back down on the commode. He was enveloped in silence. He took a deep breath and relaxed. His breath was dull but loud in his cotton-closed eardrums.
He shut his eyes.
He said to himself, “I can stay here like this until morning. Maybe I can even sleep.” His voice was muffled and alien, someone else’s voice.
He dimly felt his head lower itself to his chest.
And he dreamed . . .
In his dream, David entered the tiny room connected to his bedroom. He slid the panel door that joined the two rooms aside. He turned the light on in the room and entered.
The cotton was gone from his ears. Outside, he could hear the coyote pack that roamed the perimeter of his neighborhood yammer and trill near his house.
He walked to the wooden stand that stood at one end of the room. He opened the thin but oversized edition of the Book of the Left Hand Tree he kept on the podium. The edition was in English. It had been purchased years before from a Mr. Ahriman who lived somewhere in northern Iraq. David had purchased a number of things from Mr. Ahriman, including a few pieces of the Collection. One such piece had caused a rift between the two when David wrote to Mr. Ahriman suggesting Ahriman refund at least a portion of the amount David had paid for the item due to damage sustained by the piece during shipping. Ahriman had responded by sending David a small scrap of paper in an envelope. The paper had one thing written on it: a strange, scrawled symbol. David had looked closely at the symbol when his vision grew suddenly dark. He spent half a day staggering, sightless, around his house, his mind a maelstrom, trying to find his telephone to call an ambulance. When his vision returned and his thoughts cleared that evening, he found the scrap of paper and destroyed it without looking at the symbol. He did no more business with Mr. Ahriman after that.
David turned to the middle of the leather-bound book. The lettering on the oversized pages was cramped and tiny. He leaned in to read a passage near the bottom of the leftmost page.
His mouth moved. He read the passage aloud. He didn’t hear his voice in the dream, but the words he spoke echoed through him like things shouted down a well.
Left Hand Tree of Greatness!
Right Hand Tree of Slavery!
Choose you the Left Hand,
Avoid the Right,
But most of all, avoid the Horror of
The Middle Tree!
The Middle Tree—cursed! Cursed be!
Cursed be the Way from the Left to the Right,
The Way paved by the Fool,
The Bloody Man,
The Old One’s Hypostasis.
Wretch! Monster! Fiend!
Sabaoth—cursed be He!
Hung upon the Middle Tree,
Seducing the unwary
From the Way of Greatness
To the Way of Servitude,
The Way of the Old One,
The Way of the Lie and the Cage!
Cursed be the One Who Knocks—the One Who Calls!
Cursed be the silken shroud that hides the bent, red Form!
Cursed be the One Who blasphemes the wisdom of the Shining Whisperer,
Who raises His hand against the Left Hand Tree
Still reading in his dream, David felt the words change. The book on the stand had changed. He was reading from a book he’d once vowed never to open again.
—his appearance was so disfigured
beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond
The book changed again. He now read from an old, water-stained text. It was a translation of the journals of Patience Martin, who broke away from Salem Village in Massachusetts in 1638 and became Brother Abaddon, founder of the ill-fated Good Tree Farm. The book was worn with time and use. Dark moisture stains made it very difficult to read. David’s mouth frowned fiercely as it moved to form the silent words,
Brother Malice has indeed warned me to be on my guard concerning these phenomena, reminding me of the Legend of the One That Knocks (cursed be He!). I have reassured him of my acquaintance with this narrative, and of my vigilance against the Enemy and His Offspring. However, no amount of reassurance will quiet the fretting of Goody Spite and Goody Puddock, who both claim to have seen glimpses of a shrouded Figure knocking at various points about my dwelling. I have seen no such Figure myself, but I have heard the persistent knocking at all hours of the evening. Even so, I steel my will against the Enemy, in the favor of our Master, the Bright Whisperer of Hidden Things and in the goodly shade of the Left Hand Tree, where I may resist the urge to open the door to the Cursed One. The worries of my brethren are unfounded, for I am all aware of the result of opening the door to Him. I know of the lifting of the shroud and the showing of the blood to the soul who opens, and the awful Choice that is put to the opener: Penitence or Death. As for me, let all the world know that I, Corwinus Abaddon, child and bond-slave of the Shining Teacher, am not penitent!
This entry was one of the last recorded in the text. David knew the popularly suspected reason. The final entry of Abaddon’s journals reads as follows:
Curse all! The Enemy has won! Again, again He has won! I must open--
David also knew the history of Brother Abaddon’s Good Tree Farm. He knew about the sudden appearance at Salem Village of one of Abaddon’s followers, Alice Cowper, re-named Sister Evenshade, bedraggled and raving of a nameless doom that had befallen Abaddon’s renegade colony before dying herself of a fever. He knew as well the story of Robert Tillinghast and his expedition to Good Tree Farm, miles to the west in the unsettled wilderness. Tillinghast and his men had found the colony entirely deserted with no signs of violence or struggle in evidence.
And finally, the manuscript in David Downe’s dream changed one more time. David held a single sheet in his hands, a page torn from an unnamed book. At the top of the page was the heading, “The Case of the Death of Peter Nazgul”.
An even stranger story [the page read] is that of the discovery of the body of Peter Nazgul of Kansas City in 1955. Nazgul, known by his neighbors as an ill-tempered recluse, was found dead in his apartment the afternoon of July 25th by one of his fellow renters who had noticed his door standing ajar for a protracted period of time. The neighbor, a gentleman who lived down the hall from Nazgul, knocked, called, and, receiving no reply, entered the apartment. What the neighbor found was Nazgul, lying dead on the floor of the central living area, his face twisted in an expression of extreme terror. Odder still, the body lay in the midst of a magic circle, or “pentagram”, drawn in chalk on the wooden floor, which had been laid bare by the throwing back of a large area rug along with several pieces of heavy furniture. Another, smaller, occult design had been drawn on the inside of the door above the cryptic message, “You will not enter!” Lying by the dead man’s hand was a piece of chalk, presumably the same piece used to form the message and the diagrams; also beside the body, the word, “NO” had been frantically scrawled on the floor in chalk at least a dozen times.
In his dream, a wind rose from an open window, threatening to blow the page from his grip. David swayed, confused. There was no window in the room he stood in. The wailing of the coyote pack rose sharply like an alarm. Then David woke up.
He stood outside, at the bottom of the steep, sandy hill his house was built on. A strong late-summer wind pulled at his bathrobe and at the small piece of paper he held in his hand. Behind him, the coyotes continued their ululations for a moment more before falling silent. David looked up at his house and the lighted widows shining distantly in the evening dark. His chest tightened. His breathing became painfully shallow.
David took a step uphill. He did not think about how he must have sleep-walked outside. He did not think about how he was now outside with whoever knocked steadily at his doors and windows. He concentrated on getting up the hill and back into his house. Then David stopped.
He thought, I’m outside.
He stood still. His thoughts continued: All I have to do is get past the gate, walk down to the highway and flag someone down!
Hope grew in him as he peered into the dusk in the direction of the high, metal fence with the sharp, ornamental spikes beyond the bottom of the hill. Then he stopped again.
In the distance, he saw the gate at the end of the driveway. Again hope died.
The gate was closed. He could tell, even looking through the evening gloom. Somehow, the gate had been open that afternoon, giving Nathan and his friend access to the property. But it had obviously shut sensibly behind them when they left.
He hissed to himself, “Shit.”
David did not know the six-digit code that opened the gate. The code had been changed by the installers who’d done repair work on it four years earlier. They had left him the temporary code, along with instructions on how to change it to his own choice of numbers, on a piece of paper that now sat near the bottom of a drawer in his kitchen, among old receipts and product manuals. He’d never bothered to change the code because he always relied on the automatic clicker he kept clipped to his car’s sun visor to open the gate whenever he needed to leave the property.
Climbing the high, spiked fence was an impossibility.
Terror, despair, and rage filled him. Hating himself and fearing his faceless tormentor equally, he turned and forced himself to walk uphill toward the house.
David’s smooth-soled slippers did not grip the dry, loose soil well, and his feet slid as he climbed.
Bending forward, he put a hand out to grab a small, scrubby bush to steady himself. His right foot slid violently behind him as he reached. He fell forward on his knees into the dry, thorny plant.
Cursing silently, David rolled off the plant. He looked around himself. He saw and heard no one approaching.
He raised himself to one knee. Doing so, he saw the small paper from his sleepwalking episode that he still held tightly in his hand. He stood shakily and looked at the paper.
It was something in-between a post card and a bookmark. On one side was a verse from the Bible. On the other was a reproduction of a painting. The painting was of a man standing outside a closed door. The man was dressed in flowing white robes. The man’s head, bearded and adorned with clean, flowing tresses, inclined toward the door He knocked on. The man’s eyes were the picture of gentle patience. David cast the paper from him, his teeth bared.
David stood. A small, sharp pain filled his right knee. He felt a tiny rush of coolness touch his shin. David looked down. A little hole had been torn in the right leg of his pajama pants. The end of a thorn from the bush protruded from the top of the tear. David plucked at the thorn embedded in the flesh of his knee. The pain flared, then subsided. A faint tickle of wetness ran down his shin from his knee.
David thought for a second. He kicked his bedroom slippers from his feet. He thought about bending and picking them up. He snorted impatiently and continued his climb up the hill.
His bare feet found better purchase in the sandy soil, but rocks and dry vegetation bit into his soles. His progress was slower than before as he gingerly placed one foot before the other on the bits of ground he deemed most easily traversed.
A single note rang out from the hills beyond the houses of his neighborhood: a coyote, sending its whinnying bark into the night. David looked up.
He saw the large, half-lit silhouette of his house looming at the top of the hill above him. As he looked, another, smaller silhouette moved to one side of the house.
The smaller silhouette seemed to be moving slowly away from the house. Another one-note call shrilled from the distant hills.
David watched the figure. It continued moving, a blot of shadow. David thought it might be growing larger, as if moving down the hill and nearer to him.
David turned and hurriedly plodded toward the back of the house, away from the path of the growing silhouette. His breath grew ragged in his ears as he went. Underneath the sound of his lungs, faint footsteps grew louder. David told himself the footfalls were his own so that the fear he felt wouldn’t render him motionless.
He stumbled through a patch of scrub plants. Several small, sharp pains filled his feet and a thin, fiery hurt flared deeply across his right ankle. He closed his eyes tightly and then opened them again. He did not decrease his speed as he struggled to reach his house.
The urge to turn his head and search for the possibly approaching figure grew strong. He concentrated solely on the house and the visible swathes of backyard shining distantly in the bright, yellow lights from his kitchen.
More of the thorny plants stretched before him. He shifted his course leftward to avoid them. As he went, the urge to look for his pursuer overwhelmed him, and in a moment of weakness, he turned his head and looked around him.
His eyes swam, unfocused from looking into the darkness after having them fixed on the lights of his house. He slowed as his eyes searched the lightlessness at his back, and his breath caught in his throat when he found himself looking at nothing but the arid, unfinished landscape at the edge of his property.
David stopped. He forced himself to resume breathing normally. He took a step forward, his attention now turned behind him.
He turned back. Nothing moved ahead of him. His house threw out its light at him, beckoning.
Again, he turned his head to look behind him. Again, he saw nothing, until his eyesight adjusted once more, revealing to him the figure standing still in the darkness, nearly invisible in the shadows several feet away; the figure was man-sized, though shapeless, as though curtained by some garment or covering that concealed its true outline. The figure’s posture was that of one crouching slightly in anticipation of discovery. Then it began to move forward, and David turned and covered the distance between himself and his house in a blind, staggering sprint.
His feet left the scrub and sand and found first the smooth solidity of the concrete walkway surrounding the lawn and then the cool softness of the well-clipped grass. He was conscious of none of these sensations, or of the sharp impact on his face as it connected with the glass of the sliding door at the back of the house that led to the dining room. A distant part of him felt the pain in his nose and the rush of wetness down the lower part of his face as the force of his running into the glass threw him backwards and onto his rear. He quickly stood again and rushed to open the glass slider. The glass panel did not move, so he tugged at the slider handle, again unsuccessfully. It was locked.
David looked at the entry for a second, then he scuttled away. His reflection in the glass stooped slightly in an apelike run beside him as he hurried around the house toward the front.
He did and did not remember locking and latching the front door, so the point was only half moot when he rushed up the front steps and grabbed the front door handle. The door did not open, of course, and he stood staring at it as he’d done with the glass slider in back before scrambling to the garage building several feet away.
He made it to the side door of the garage, which stood to the right of the vehicle roll-up entry. David tried the knob to the smaller door. It was locked like the rest.
Alarm flooded his body. Despair drowned his thoughts like a solar flare engulfing a radio signal. He rushed at the smaller garage door, trying to force it open with his shoulder. After four tries, he stopped. The door continued standing solidly in its frame.
David turned, his face shining bright panic. He looked around him but saw no figure, either moving or at rest.
Wiping blood from his nose on the sleeve of his robe that now hung untied around his naked upper torso, he ran around the house, trying to bring order to the shrieking chaos in his mind.
He stopped at the back of the house and looked at the sliding glass door. He thought, If I use a rock, I can break the slider. He then thought, If I break it, He’ll get in. The riot of his thoughts did not recall his front door earlier, standing unlocked while his visitor outside requested entry.
David ran around the house again, stopping frequently to look around him for signs of One he did not wish to meet.
Again he stopped, at a corner of the house. He looked up at a small, high window shining incandescent light from inside the laundry room. He thought, It’s not as bad as the fence—I could actually do it—climb up something and break that window, get inside, and pull what I climbed on in after me.
He thought of the extension ladder that sat, locked in the garage, and the two step-ladders that were locked in the house. His brain began to yammer and writhe inside his head until he willed himself to think slowly and calmly.
David cast his mind around his property, trying to visualize something useful to his predicament. Rocks and withered branches and piles of sand all came to his inner eye. He shook his head to clear it of the useless pictures.
He stood quietly. The sound of his breath entering and exiting his heated lungs filled his ears, as did the small, high singing of night crickets around him.
He moved, placing one wounded foot in front of the other, thinking.
He pictured himself standing on the extension ladder to reach the roof. This mental picture led to another picture of him standing on a step-ladder to change a light bulb inside. That led to a mental image of him standing on a dining room chair to reach the upper shelf of one of his kitchen cupboards--
He slowed. His eyes went to a spot far beyond the grass and the walkway of his backyard where four lawn chairs had been stacked and left to the weather two years before, where they still sat now, unused.
The desire for speed and the desire for caution warred within him. David moved steadily but warily past the lawn and the walkway, looking all around him as he went. His feet protested at the rocks and clumped sand they found themselves walking across once more. The pain in his nose also asserted itself more fully now that the initial shock and the adrenaline rush had begun to leave him. He continued walking gingerly to the edge of the downward slope of the hill.
He was craning his head about on his neck, trying to find the stack of lawn chairs in the darkness when he saw the sheeted shape stooping near to the ground in front of him.
David cried out. Then he closed his eyes and his mouth.
He walked to the stack of lawn chairs beneath their plastic covering just before him. He pulled the covering from the stack, dislodging two years worth of hardened dust from its surface.
David dropped the covering on the ground. He took a breath and put his arms around the stack of chairs. He tried lifting them and could not. Feeling the pressure in his wounded nose, he picked up the top two chairs from the stack and lifted them. Still moving steadily but cautiously, he carried them to the spot underneath the laundry room window.
David climbed onto the chairs and immediately saw he wasn’t high enough to reach the window. Sobbing a curse under his breath, he climbed back down and ran again to the back of the house, his eyes searching the darkness.
He picked the second two chairs up with a winded grunt. His lungs were on fire, as were his shoulders and his calves.
He placed the chairs he carried onto the first two. They made a stack that leaned slightly to one side.
Carefully, he placed one foot onto the top chair. He grabbed the right-hand arm of that chair and hoisted himself onto the stack. As he climbed, a corner of his robe snagged on one of the bottom chair’s legs, almost tipping the whole stack, and himself, over. He tore his robe from him and flung it to the ground with a coughing, simian bark.
The stack leaned.
David’s fierce demeanor fled. His breath shortened to tiny, shallow stitches. He raised his bare arms and commanded himself to be calm. His breath lengthened and deepened, just a bit. The chairs he stood on stabilized.
David looked up. The window shined its light upon his face. He almost smiled.
He raised his hands higher to see if they would reach the incandescent glass of the window, and then he realized that he’d brought nothing to break the window with.
David clenched his jaws and his eyelids. His thoughts resumed turning within their dark, inescapable whirlpool. He began to curse himself silently in a long, steady stream.
He lowered his arms. He bent his knees. He got ready to lower himself to the ground.
Again, the chairs shifted.
David cried out. He shifted his own weight in the opposite direction in which the chairs were leaning.
The chairs shifted violently underneath him. The stack began to topple.
David’s cry became a scream. His belly lurched within him. He became weightless and strengthless. He sensed the ground rushing up at him.
A jarring wave of black pain, shot with seething stars, engulfed him.
Feeling nothing, his vision dim, David heard the faint sound of bare feet slapping the concrete walkway behind his house.
David’s right arm was thrown half across his face. He tried to move it, but his arm wouldn’t obey him. A part of his mind pictured himself getting up and running away, but his legs and the rest of his body wouldn’t respond either.
The footsteps echoed louder. David listened to them approaching the corner of the house closest to where he lay.
David thought, I don’t want to see Him come around the house. I don’t want to see the Bloody Man coming to get me.
The footsteps drew to a point just around the corner. Black, screeching static rose in his mind, blotting out his senses as the footsteps finally rounded the corner and started toward him.
David stood in a wide, bright place his senses could not grasp. Because they could not grasp the place, they could not interpret it to his mind.
Something moved toward him. It looked vaguely human, but it walked on too many legs.
David screamed. He closed his eyes, but he could still see.
Someone said something to him.
David turned to run. He did not run.
He heard someone say, “Look.”
David turned back.
The thing stood before him. Wonder and a kind of mental revulsion filled David. A pair of eyes from one of the thing’s too many heads watched him as it stood next to him.
“Look,” the thing said again.
David’s body shook.
David moved his mouth and forced sound from it. He said, “I’m dreaming.”
The thing said from one of its mouths, “You are here in this place.”
David did not contradict the thing.
David asked, “Are . . . Are you . . . ?”
The thing answered, “I am not Him that haunts you.”
David said, “Haunts . . .”
The thing said, “My Lord seeks you out, as He seeks all with the Breath of Ywh in them, but who still lack His Spirit.”
A question as large as the place David stood in filled him. He asked, “What does He want with me?”
The thing told him, “You call Him ‘Sabaoth’, and that is one of His names.”
The thing said, “The name means ‘Rest’. That is what He wants to give you.”
Something crawled within David.
“He wants to give me death.”
“No. He wants to give you Life,” said the thing.
Then the thing said, “Let your eyes see and your ears hear, for before this you have spoken without understanding.”
Startled, David started to ask what it was that he’d said, when another Voice filled the place. The Voice was great and deep and terrible, and small and still and gentle, and it filled the air above him with its terror and its loveliness. At the same time, his vision shifted, and all at once he saw things surrounding him. He saw a tree of alien beauty countless distances beyond the brightness, a tree so large that it seemed to be standing nearby, though he knew it could not be. He saw an inestimable plenitude of figures dancing around the tree in movements full of order and joy. He saw many figures freely leave the concentric circles of the dance to do other things before returning to the dance once more. He saw a river flowing from somewhere near the base of the great tree, flowing deep and crystal clear, first in a gentle, straight line and then outward to points throughout the universe beyond in a manner he did not understand. All of this he saw in an instant, and at the sight, all parts of him longed to fall to the strange ground beneath him and worship all that he saw, the tree, and the figures, and the river, but the thing standing next to him stopped him with a motion from a portion of its limbs. With another portion, it pointed up.
David looked up and he again heard the Voice thundering, not only above him, but at all points around him. He fully understood the words the Voice said:
“HE IS THE LAPIS PHILSOPHUS, TURNING BASE METAL INTO GOLD.
“HE IS THE GRAAL, POURING FORTH LIFE ETERNAL.
“HE IS THE RENDER OF THE VEIL.
“HE IS THE GATE. HE IS THE KEY AND GUARDIAN OF THE GATE,
WHEREBY NONE MAY PASS, BUT THROUGH HIM.
“HE IS THE BRINGER OF STRANGE JOY TO WORLDS
BEYOND YOUR APPERCEPTION.
“HE IS THE VINUM SABBATI, PUTTING AN END TO ALL CORRUPTION.”
David screamed again and cringed from the Voice around him. He fell fully to the alien ground in an effort to bury himself in it, but the foundation was solid. Filled with a fear that towered far above the roofs of the universe, he drew himself into a ball and hid his face between his knees. Above him, the Voice spoke again, filling all of creation with a simple, quiet declarative that threatened to deafen galaxies and crush his own littleness to something less than atoms.
“REJECT HIM NO MORE!
“REJECT HIM NO MORE!
“REJECT HIM NO MORE!”
He continued screaming until he came to on the floor of his house, just inside the main entryway before the front door.
David sat up. He remained still except for his breathing. He looked down. He examined his frame.
His feet were dirty and bare, as was his upper torso. There were no cuts on his feet or scratches he could feel on his knees. His arms were filthy, but unmarred. David put a hand to his nose. His nose felt fine. He moved the hand lower on his face and found a thin crust of dried blood covering his mouth and chin.
David looked up.
Fear did not rise in him. No terror descended on him.
David looked at the doorknob and the latch. They were both unsecured.
David leaned back against a wall of the entryway. He heaved a great, deep breath. It felt to him like a cool wind in a salt basin.
His eyes shifted upward. They found the black picture on the wall with its red, leaning symbol. The right corner of his top lip and the nostril just above it curled upward slightly, baring one side of his teeth.
David’s eyes found the door again.
“All right,” he said, “Come in.”
The door flew open, stopping just short of the wall. Standing in the porch-light was a figure draped in a shroud fashioned from outward-radiating vertical bands of red and purple silk. The shroud stopped just above the ground, hiding even the figure’s feet. Blood fell in dark, raining drops from beneath the shroud onto the top concrete step.
Fear entered David’s heart. His breath stopped in him. His mind ceased to function.
The figure moved forward, stooping slightly, into the house. The little room filled with the sound of its bare, wet feet slapping quietly on the floor as it entered. A trail of red followed it in.
David’s gaze remained on the figure as it stood before him. His mind did not register the sound of blood falling on the tiles of his floor below it or the inhuman acclamation of the coyotes outside, but his eyes flickered once when he saw the figure bend forward to grab a handful of its covering . . . and then begin to lift the shroud upward . . .
PART THREE: THE UNVEILING
Nathan Satinet stood on the top step of David Downe’s house one year later. Excitement and uneasiness both waned and waxed within him.
He stood alone before the door. His friend Alex Minter was not with him. Alex had not spoken to him since their trip to David’s house last year.
Nathan raised his large hand to the door and knocked.
Inside the house, the high, shrill barking of a small dog rang through the building.
An older woman’s voice, also inside, called out, “Hercule!”
The dog continued barking. Nathan stared at the door.
Footsteps approached the front. Nathan braced himself.
A month before making his stopover, Nathan had made his customary phone call to David’s house. Nathan did not know what to expect after David’s behavior during last year’s visit. He’d considered forgoing his request for a stop-by before heading for this year’s Emerald City Horror Convention in Seattle, but David’s house full of black treasures was too much to resist. As he listened to the line ring on, he wondered if someone had finally called the mental health people on him.
David picked up and calmly answered. Nathan was struck speechless after hearing him. There was no latent anger in David’s voice, no undisguised tone of distracted irritation.
“David here,” David had answered.
“David,” Nathan said after a moment, “It’s Nathan Satinet, from Hackberry!”
“Nathan!” said David, “Hello! How are you doing?”
Again, Nathan was caught off balance. David Downe did not ask people how they were doing.
“I’m just fine,” said Nathan, “Just fine. And . . . how are you?”
“Lovely,” said David.
At that point Nathan concluded that someone had, in fact, called the wacky wagon. David was on medication.
Still, Nathan made arrangements to stop by the house, and David graciously helped secure the date.
As he stood before the door listening to the footsteps approach inside, he turned his head and noticed for the first time since arriving that the front of the house on both sides of the front door had been lined with a great variety of flowering plants. Then the door opened.
A woman in her seventies stood in the doorway, her face beaming a welcoming smile.
“Hello,” she said, “You must be Dave’s friend.”
The dog, still barking in another part of the house, went audibly mad.
The woman turned her head and called, “Will you be quiet, Hercule?”
The dog continued its frantic, high-pitched yapping.
The woman turned her smile back to Nathan.
“I’m sorry. That’s my darn little dog, Hercule Poirot. He’s named after the fictional French detective by Agatha Christie. Well, actually, he was Belgian, but, you know . . .”
She stuck her hand out to Nathan. Nathan took it without thinking. He’d noticed too late a number of blotches of multicolored paint on the hand.
“Oh. Sorry,” said the woman, taking her hand back and wiping it on the blue, paint-splotched apron she wore, “I’ve been out back painting with Dave all morning. He’s been teaching me how for a while now, and oh, he is so patient.”
“That’s . . . okay,” Nathan told the woman.
The woman moved aside from the doorway. She said, “David told me to tell you that he’s stepped away for a moment. But he’ll be back in a little bit.”
Nathan entered the house, wiping his hand on the inside of his pants pocket. “Okay,” he said. Elsewhere, the dog’s steady, monotonous barking had mellowed just slightly.
The woman said, “Oh! And he gave me this note to give to you.”
She handed him a folded piece of notepaper extracted from the front pocket of her apron.
Nathan opened the note and read it. It said,
I’m getting some things ready, so I won’t be right there to show you around the house like I usually do. If you like, you don’t have to wait, just walk around and enjoy things until I get there. Donna can get you coffee if you want any—just ask her and she’ll fix some up.
I’ve made several changes to the Collection, and I’m anxious to hear what you think of them!
The woman said, “I’m Donna Ellis, by the way. I’m one of Dave’s neighbors. What was your name again? Dave told me a bit ago before he left. But, with my memory--Hercule, please!”
The unseen canine stopped barking for a moment. It whined from its distant room and gave another, short yap. Nathan hesitated.
The woman turned to him and said, “Hercule’s actually a very friendly dog. He’s just curious to see who’s visiting.”
Nathan folded the note and stuck it in the pants pocket he’d wiped his hand in and said, “Ah, nice to meet you. I’m Nathan. Nathan Satinet.”
The Ellis woman looked at Nathan, holding her head at a knowing tilt.
“Now, with that accent, I’m willing to bet that you’re from somewhere down south of here.”
An unaccountable thread of disquiet entered Nathan’s heart.
He answered the woman, “Well, I’m from Hackberry. Hackberry, Texas.” He forced a corner of his mouth to lift in a grin he did not feel.
“I knew it,” said the Ellis woman, “Texas!”
“Yes,” said Nathan, nodding. The woman was irritating, undeniably. But there was an indefinable something else about her that made the displeasure he felt in her presence grow steadily more pronounced.
“Now, what part of Texas is Hackberry in?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s just a little-bitty town. There’s actually three Hackberrys in Texas—one’s in Denton County, the other’s in Edwards County. Mine’s in Maverick County, near the Mexican border—”
“You know, I’ve always wanted to go to Texas and see the Alamo,” the woman said suddenly, “I once told my husband--we’ve been up to see his family up in Saskatchewan I don’t know how many times--so I’d like to go someplace new the next time we do some traveling.”
“Uh-huh,” said Nathan. He began to sweat along his temples and at the back of his neck. Nathan looked around the entryway for the small painting of the Left-Hand Tree symbol. He did not find it, but he did find a larger painting of a sunflower done in the manner of Van Gogh. He peered at it for a moment in confusion. The leaves of the flower were strangely cruciform in outline.
The dog began to bark again, and the Ellis woman rolled her eyes.
Nathan took a small step backward, away from the woman.
Nathan realized why the woman discomforted him beyond her essential rudeness.
“Oh, that dog,” said the woman.
The eye-rolling gesture was one his late mother would make frequently. For the first time since he’d successfully banished it in his late twenties, the shade of Nathan’s mother came suddenly to him, unbidden, speaking sternly as she leaned over a twelve-year-old version of him, his latest forbidden treasure, usually a paperback edition of Lovecraft or Machen, held tightly in her fist. She was a tiny woman that could make herself as big as a juggernaut. ‘This is filth! Filth from the Devil! Why do you want to go and read devil’s filth like this?’
“Now, Dave told me that you were a writer,” said the woman.
“Yeah,” said Nathan. His bones were cold inside him. He tried to move farther away from the woman and found he could not force his size fifteen feet to budge from their positions on the stone flooring. His mind faintly registered the continued barking of the dog.
“Oh!” said the Ellis woman, “And what do you write? Fiction?”
The question was one he hated being asked by anyone, let alone this woman. He hated trying to explain to the uninitiated the narrative intricacies of working in the unappreciated and practically forgotten arts of cosmic fear and literary terror. But he felt no sense of quiet superiority or internalized indignation. He was instead consumed by an urge to blush and stammer.
Nathan fibbed, “Uh, well, mysteries. Mysteries, mostly.” Again, he tried to escape this woman’s presence and found himself unaccountably trapped by it.
“Really,” said the woman, “Like I’ve probably mentioned a million times already, I just love Agatha Christie! Murder on the Orient Express is one of my all-time favorites. Now, could you have possibly written something that I’ve read?”
Nathan thought of his latest short story about the serial killing preacher who struck in transgendered bathrooms and said, “Um, I really rather doubt it.”
The Ellis woman put a hand on his arm. Nathan somehow restrained himself from pulling away from her as if he’d been touched by something infected.
She said, “Well, Nathan, I’ll leave you to look around the house at David’s ‘New Collection.’ He said you knew your way around, so I’m going to go grab Monsieur Poiroit and head out to continue working on my underpainting on the patio.”
“Thank you,” said Nathan, nodding. Relief—and shame of that relief—filled him.
The Ellis woman removed her hand from Nathan’s arm. She turned and left after beaming kindly at him.
When she’d gone, Nathan closed his eyes. He mouthed the words, “Fuck me,” to himself. The oily sheen of sweat covering his face began slowly to dry as he got himself together.
Breathing deeply, Nathan moved from the entranceway. His gaze briefly found the picture of the sunflower again. As he did so, the mystery dog’s barking became hysterical.
Listening to the woman’s unsuccessful attempts at soothing Hercule, Nathan headed into the house. His pupils made a wide orbit around in their sockets as he went.
He stood before three curtained paintings in the room Alex Minter had fled from near the end of last year’s visit. Nathan looked around him, unhappily. The room had been re-painted in a lighter, reddish color, and the crimson curtains had been replaced with ones made from a royal purple fabric. The dark magic of the place was gone.
In fact, that was pretty much the state of affairs throughout the entire house. On his way to this room, Nathan had taken in what the Ellis woman had referred to as David’s ‘New Collection’. This turned out to be two rooms. One room was filled with paintings of flowers, fields, people, birds, and animals, as well as a lugubrious assortment of religious subjects. The other room was adorned with photos, paintings, posters, and collages of what a tattered piece of art paper, tacked above the room’s entrance, announced in ballpoint were, ‘Some old friends of mine, re-discovered’. These were pictures of poorly aging horror movie stars (a triptych in the middle of the room, recently-painted by David, depicted three examples of these, each done with eyes uplifted to diffuse lighting from above: Saint Peter, Saint Vincent, and Saint Christopher), also scenes from the usual stale leftovers from kiddie monster cinema, and mounted clippings of cheaply-reproduced horror comics from years gone by. Nathan had been particularly disgusted by this second room.
In the room he occupied currently, Nathan stepped to the first of the three paintings behind their purple covers. He put a big hand on the pulley cord that moved the curtains.
Before unveiling the picture, Nathan thought, David Downe, you are, perhaps, the greatest dark artist in the world today. No one can touch you. Not Sime. Not Goya. Not Dali, nor Bacon. Not Geiger in his day, nor Barker in his. You are the One! The Master! The man who stripped the scabs of mediocrity from off the deep, dark wounds of the universe and made them manifest before the world! You shook your fist in the face of God, thumbed your nose at His whining Son, and dared to raise the face of evil itself as something to be courted and caressed and adored! And, now. Now . . .this! This is you now! You went and, what, you sold your original Collection? Gave it away to charity? Or did you pile it all up, all those priceless treasures, and put a match to them? Did you have your own private Nuremberg Rally in your back yard, maybe roast some Kosher marshmallows over the whole damned bonfire while you and that ghastly woman sang hymns? And now, here you are, ready to give the world pictures of . . . puppies, flowers, and apostles! And do you know what? Do you know what I say to that, David Downe? I say that’s fine! That’s perfectly fine! But, for God’s sake, if you really did get rid of your Collection, all those things that I enjoyed visiting you for, then why in the hell didn’t you just tell me and save me the wasted fuckin’ time and money to come here and fuckin’ see them?
Nathan’s lips writhed silently as his mind turned. He opened the curtains on the first picture.
Nathan looked at the Sabaoth painting. Despite his irritation at David’s news and his disappointment with David himself, he had to admit to the power in the painting he now looked at. The lowering storm and the vanishing light filled him with a nearly apocalyptic melancholy, and the shrouded figure in the foreground had the attitude, if not the posture, of someone ceaselessly beckoning.
After looking at the painting for a long moment, Nathan moved to the third and rightmost set of curtains.
He pulled the cord and parted the purple fabric.
He turned away and muttered, “Bullshit.” He started to walk to the entrance of the room, still muttering.
Nathan stopped. He turned around and looked again at the second painting. There was disbelief and undistilled contempt in his gaze.
The painting revealed was a re-working of Warner Sallman’s Christ at Heart’s Door. Nathan recognized it from a classroom poster he would stare at, bored, on the Sundays Mom would drag him to Sabbath School. Nathan saw also that the unopened entrance the robed figure knocked at was the front door to David’s house.
Nathan breathed furiously through his nose. Again, after a long moment, he stepped to the middle painting.
“Suppose I should quote a psalm first,” he muttered.
Nathan readied his hand to pull the final cord. He hesitated.
Nathan seethed. He could picture his mother smiling down in approval from her egg-cup and tea-rose heaven, beaming brightly through her overly-lipsticked mouth.
“Well, let’s just see this damned thing,” said Nathan.
Nathan moved the pulley mechanism. The curtains opened.
Nathan looked at the painting. Nathan was unimpressed. He saw exactly what he’d expected he’d see. He saw a figure, human in outline, standing in darkness with its arms outstretched, every inch of its nude body covered in blood and wounded flesh—it looked like it had been tied to the back of a large vehicle and dragged from behind for miles. The figure was hairless, and its scalp and the places around its lower face were covered in bloody trenches where its hair follicles had been violently extracted. Its limbs were crooked, each one sitting at a disjointed angle to the rest of the body. Unbroken bones peeked, dirty white, from countless deep rents in its skin, and a large flap of tissue had been pulled from the skull by the remains of the circle of dried, thorny plants that had been jammed onto its head to a point just above its eyeline. Its mouth, filled with the broken stumps of its teeth, yawned open. One of its eyes was missing. The other eye, deep red from broken blood vessels, looked directly at the viewer.
“Well,” said Nathan, “Here we all are.”
He stood and continued looking at the painting.
A minute passed. Then two minutes.
Three minutes. His sarcasm was slowly replaced by confusion and alarm.
Because he could not remove his gaze from the figure.
Not knowing why he did it, Nathan stepped closer to the picture (something in him squirmed, unsettled, as he brought himself closer to the painting), and he bent forward and looked intently at the eye of the figure. There was something reflected on the eye’s discolored surface.
Again, Nathan moved closer to the painting and again something inside him jumped unpleasantly.
It was a face, tiny, pale and open-mouthed, painted in the tiniest of brush strokes. Horror filled the conglomeration of minute lines and swatches. The eyes were dark, diminutive points, but they were aware and filled with fear and misery. The mouth hung wide in a noiseless shriek. For a third time, something shifted sickly inside Nathan, and recognition filled his gaze. The tiny face was David’s. The horrible Bloody Man in the picture was looking at David Downe as the painter screamed.
Nathan stepped ponderously back from the canvas. With an effort, he finally looked away from the eye of the figure, though his gaze did not leave the picture itself.
As he breathed shallowly and rapidly, something in him realized that he was not now looking at the painting that he had prepared himself to see. He was looking at the picture as it actually was. Another, internal, set of curtains had been parted for him.
He stood, soul naked before an artifact from another reality, and a complete inability to understand the thing filled him with a fear that brought him physical pain. In an attempt to keep from looking at the figure directly, his eyes sought the darkness just beyond it. But even this was not a relief: he saw that the darkness was not a simple, featureless backdrop of black—there was faint pigmentation within that darkness, a suggestion of the colors of blood and dark bruising. The background was the red-and-purple shroud of the figure in the first painting, lifted to reveal what lay beneath. Words tumbled though his quaking mind, a mental misquotation of the closing of a story he’d first read when he was much younger: “My God . . . it was a picture from life!”
Those words caused another memory from his youth to emerge. As a child, Nathan had drawn his mother a picture. The picture was of the troll that he made-believe lived under the bridge that led from the north end of his hometown to the highway. He’d put love into every scale and bump and horn on his penciled troll, and then he gave the picture to his mother so he could see the gladness in her face when she saw it.
“Oh, Nathan, that’s disgusting,” his mother had told him. Her voice was very cross when she told him this, and she’d rolled her eyes and groaned before folding the picture firmly into fourths and talking to him about having a healthy, godly imagination. Later that day, he found the picture, still folded, in the trash bin, covered by a mound of used tea bags.
The figure in the painting that Nathan saw now was something he’d spent his entire adult life working hard to capture through the careful handling of words. It was the spirit of cosmic horror. It represented an outreach from beyond our frantically disordered little world that had been sharply, bloodily refused.
Nathan saw his troll in the maimed flesh of the silently howling figure on the canvas. He saw his reactions to the spurning of his childhood drawing, his wounded sense of entitlement to his mother’s love and acceptance, and his final act of emotionally neglecting her at the close of her life.
He saw a hundred equally cruel things that had been done to him, as well as things that he himself had done to others, all written in the violated sacrament of the figure’s body. But that was not the worst.
The crowning blasphemy was the air of malevolence those countless cruelties had made manifest within the figure’s frame. A body and a mind that had never once done a wrong was now polluted by the ethereal stench of those crimes against the very order of the universe called sins that had come, not from the One Who now bore it, but from Nathan himself! What was once pure and beautiful was now putrid and ugly and horrible beyond Nathan’s ability to describe. All the writhing monstrosities and blood-addled killers he had fashioned in his days did not come close to the lunacy and awfulness that confronted him now.
He dimly felt a presence in the room, and eyes on his shock-stilled form.
“I didn’t . . .” Nathan began to speak slowly and quietly, “I didn’t do that . . .”
But he had. The certainty filled him. That certainty, though laughed at and reasoned with, had still followed him throughout his life like a revenant.
“He didn’t have to . . . He didn’t have to . . . I didn’t do that to Him!”
A voice from somewhere behind him said, “We all did. He had to let us do it. Or we all would have wound up like that.”
“I DIDN’T DO THAT TO HIM!”
Despite his final denial, the sum of everything in front of him hit Nathan like a truck hitting a wall. His mind could not cope with it.
Nathan’s eyes rolled up into his head and his legs went out from under him.
David Downe, standing behind him, rushed forward. He caught Nathan’s massive frame in arms grown stronger over the past year, just before the fallen writer’s head could connect with the floor’s stone tiles.
When the ambulance left with Nathan, David Downe spoke briefly with Mrs. Ellis.
“I’m going to follow Nathan over to Northside General,” he told her.
They both stood in David’s back yard. Music from a Bose radio inside the house played quietly. Mrs. Ellis looked quite concerned for the stricken man as she listened to David.
She said, “I just feel so bad for him. He was so nice. And then to go and have this happen!”
“I know. But I did talk to the fellows in the ambulance, and they think that he’ll probably be okay.”
David had put on weight since Nathan’s last visit, but not an unhealthy amount. His gray hair was longer. His short but solid-looking frame was clothed in jeans, a white shirt with rolled sleeves, and a well-used pair of hiking shoes. His face was brown from much time in the sun.
“Well, I know there’s a lot going on right now, but do you mind if I continue working here?” Mrs. Ellis asked him.
“You still have your key, go right ahead,” David said. He looked at the painting she’d been working on.
The edges of her canvas were white with a covering of Gesso. Toward the middle, clouds of brown, orange, grey, and purple filled the center in a storm of rioting color. In the very center, the rough beginnings of a yellow lily emerged from the chaos.
Movement, close to the ground, brought David’s attention downward. A small, dark grey Scottie dog trotted to him, its tail wagging. The dog moved with a pronounced limp in its hindquarters.
“’Allo, Monsieur Inspector,” David said. He lowered himself and began to scratch the dog’s ears and neck. The Scottie enthusiastically licked David’s free hand.
David looked up at his own easel. There were three small canvases placed upon its horizontal plank. On the left was the red, leftward-leaning symbol, missing from the house’s main entranceway. At the opposite end: a similar treelike symbol, gold in color and leaning to the right, against a white background. The middle canvas, unfinished, featured the muddy beginnings of a cruciform shape against a bloody sky. The arms of the shape extended beyond the boundaries of its painted field and appeared to touch the outer two shapes. He thought about the list of people he would soon be calling to invite over to view his latest full-sized paintings as Nathan had just done.
David stood. “Well. I’ll see you later. I really don’t know how long I’ll be, but my cell phone will be on if you need to reach me. But no, please feel free to keep working as long as you need, Donna. Your painting is coming along excellently.”
Mrs. Ellis nodded as she applied more paint to the yellow petals at the center of her canvas.
“Well,” she said, “That’s to be expected. I have an excellent teacher!”