From the unedited manuscript, herein lies the ninth chapter from The Breaking of Worlds I: The Wedge in the Doorway, my first novel. (Reformatted for web presentation). This is posted as much for your review as it is for your comment—good or bad.
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After THE END lands in the document, a quick read-through and cleanup identifies a few mistakes here and there. Some details change along the way, a few tidbits succumb to deletion and a few tidbits appear in strategic locations, minor grammatical oversights get remedied, and residual artifacts from stream-of-consciousness outpouring vanish into the digital bit bucket. Compassion in Annihilation’s Caress hovers on the laptop’s hard drive in as complete a form as I can make it while getting it to Brody a day late.
I’m nothing if not consistent.
The document weighs in at a hefty 1,350 pages. While not my longest novel, it certainly counts as a hefty book by any measure. Copyediting and conversion ratios notwithstanding, the final tome should measure in at about 1,000 pages. That seems appropriate given the content’s depth.
Final versions of the document save to the laptop and to Carr Beholden’s digital library. Always keep backups. Another lesson Beth taught me.
I close the portable computer and set it aside. Still in the corner of the sunroom, I drink the last bit of ice water. The half-empty bottle of ale rests on the nearby table.
Ignoring considerations of the hour because the time does not matter, I nestle back on the couch to enjoy the blanketing night. Moonlight reflects clearly on the surface of the lake. Its glassy sheet of water offers little motion in the stillness. No wind blows and no cloud mars the sky.
Further manhandling the manuscript threatens to engage me; no one finishes a poem or a novel, but rather they abandon them lest they spend the rest of their days tinkering with something they can never complete. So I divert my thoughts as much to avoid that as to avoid facing the fact that I completed another book without Beth’s arms to embrace me afterward. Though not overwhelming, that thought nevertheless strikes a lonely chord.
The accomplishment pleases me as much as I felt pleased when finishing Are You Taking Desperation’s Call? mere months after she died, but it had grown halfway to adulthood before that fateful day. Afterward, however, it took almost twelve months of Herculean effort to finish Twilight Insurrection, my thirteenth novel and the first one entirely written after becoming a widower.
It’s too gloomy, I thought at the time. I pride myself in writing dark, unpredictable, twisted narratives that keep the reader guessing until the end, often discovering the last page reveals few answers, yet Twilight represented a completely different animal, something dredged up from the bottomless pit of my aching soul, a fictional work based on real pain. It came from me as catharsis in its inherent loneliness. I had expected the book to fail, perhaps because it seemed darker than my other works or maybe because it seemed too different. Imagine my surprise when it sold better than any of my previous works. And now riding its coattails comes Compassion in Annihilation’s Caress, a compromise between the spirits of what I wrote before Beth died and what I write now.
While writing Twilight Insurrection and Compassion, I feared dragging the stories through repressed despair and thereby shooting my career in the hand—shooting a writer in the foot is inconsequential unless his hands are already crippled. To my surprise, the quality of my novels remained high—remains high—and they do not drip melodrama bleeding through from personal life.
My creative works forever delve into lightless places where demons reign and the powerful use people as pawns on cosmic chess boards, places where sometimes only the bad survive since they wield greater power and sharper intellects than the good.
Because, damn it, the good don’t always win. Look at real life if you want proof.
These stories represent places where the worst can happen since in real life bad things do happen. Compassion and the thirteen books before it do not use gratuitous ickiness or farcical horror. They yank readers into the darker side of life, taking commonly accepted ideas and beating them profusely with sinister realities in which human understandings prove meaningless.
So following a traumatic loss and a major upending of life, part of me feels pangs of guilt for continued success. Maybe I stumbled insomuch as it took me longer to complete Twilight Insurrection than it normally would have taken. Otherwise, though, life goes on; Beth’s death freed me to move on, freed within me nothing more noisome or destructive than fitful sadness, a touch of lonesomeness from time to time, a tolerable and expected hint of melancholy if memories surface at the wrong moment.
However, that horrible loss has not driven my work to greater heights in the marketplace by awakening abyssal parts of my soul; it has not smothered my tempo or abilities either.
How can anyone feel at ease knowing their spouse died so horribly without causing major upset to the one left behind, that day by day time marched on and life moved forward and the deprivation became history?
Success included, I take comfort in the new me, the post-Beth me. The me of our marriage did not discompose me and neither did the me prior to meeting her. I miss her, sure, miss what we had and what we shared and what we became together, but I am not a glum loser, not a rundown miserable slacker who cries every night and most of every day. Life must move on, this I believe, for time takes everything and we can either wallow in that misery wasting our days or we can step forward to live.
But survivor’s guilt can be a bitch. If you’re not sulky a lot and if you smile more readily than you frown, it feels almost as if you didn’t learn something important from death.
“Holy cow!” I yell while sitting upright on the couch. Shock glows from the face reflected by nearby windows, mouth hanging open and eyes wide.
Thinking of her in an attempt not to think of her gave rise to a memory impossibly forgotten until now, another memory I should have already remembered, another inexplicably lost historical fact in a mind that forgets naught and enjoys full-text-indexed-database access to everything ever recorded.
My heart races and my breathing increases dramatically as imagery floods into my conscious mind.
Where is this stuff hiding? And why?
Beth rested next to me with her head on my chest as she read from a vintage copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. We often snuggled in bed, each with a book, spending hours reading before finally succumbing to lust or fatigue, or both in that order.
Glancing over her chestnut hair straight down the line of her nose, the book propped open on her flat tummy caught my eye. I looked at a random section of the page.
O trumpeter, methinks I am myself the instrument thou playest,
Thou melt’st my heart, my brain—thou movest, drawest, changest
them at will;
And now thy sullen notes send darkness through me,
Thou takest away all cheering light, all hope,
I see the enslaved, the overthrown, the hurt, the opprest of the
I feel the measureless shame and humiliation of my race, it
becomes all mine,
Mine too the revenges of humanity, the wrongs of ages, baffled
feuds and hatreds,
Utter defeat upon me weighs—all lost—the foe victorious,
(Yet ‘mid the ruins Pride colossal stands unshaken to the last,
Endurance, resolution to the last.)
“Ah, ‘The Mystic Trumpeter.’ Always a delight,” I remarked. Before she could respond, a hint of her citrus shampoo drifted into my nose, so I leaned my face into her hair, took a deep breath, kissed her head and added, “You’re always a delight, too.”
She tilted her head back and rolled her eyes. “I’m pleased I rate as well as a Walt Whitman poem,” she replied with a delicious smile.
“I bet he was nowhere near as good in bed as you are, so there you definitely rate better than the dearly departed Mr. Whitman.”
She gently elbowed my ribs before turning back to her book.
With my legs propped up, a copy of The Divine Comedy rested on my abs, leaned back against the sheet pulled up to my waist. I held the book expertly with my right hand so my eyes could fall upon it with ease and my left arm could stay wrapped around Beth’s midriff.
Although I had read the masterpiece three times previously starting in junior high school, development of my third novel, Sing Larentia’s Song, required intellectual and emotional familiarity with the work. Larentia, the main character, faced a spiritual battle unfolding on planes mirroring Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. If I had any hope of the novel progressing the way it should, it needed precise correlations. Readers familiar with the roles of Virgil and Beatrice would benefit most, but they would also spot even minute fallacies in Larentia’s world should they fail to darkly mirror Dante’s work. Those unfamiliar with The Divine Comedy would not find fault, yet they might stumble upon an obscure reference that seemed alien or out of place if the centuries-old epic imprecisely supplemented my book.
Though my first reading had recorded it indelibly in my mind, memorization—photographic memorization—does not equal feeling the tale as comes from a good reading. A fourth time enjoying Dante’s writ served both as entertainment and as a rekindling of its emotive fires.
Upon reaching the purgatory cantica I slipped my bookmark into the text, closed it and set it on the nightstand. Then I leaned against Beth for a second time.
“Did you enjoy the trip?” I asked.
“You mean to your parents’ yesterday?”
“Sure I did.” Her eyes never left the book held in front of her.
“You want to talk about the storm?”
Her body went rigid. “No.”
“Come on, Beth, you haven’t lost yesterday’s tension.”
“It’s not important.”
“Yes it is, honey.”
“No, it’s not.”
During our visit a thunderstorm developed west of the farm and rapidly moved toward us. We stood outside the house with my parents as it approached. A roomy chunk of sky filled with sinister tumultuous clouds scudding in as though Hell had unleashed its vengeance upon Earth. Weather fascinates me. Anything not mundane piques my interest and begs for monitoring. When television news warned of an impending storm, one capable of turning severe without notice, I stepped outside to watch. Beth and my parents joined me.
As it approached, she leaned against me. When the wind picked up, her grip on my hand became the bite of a great white shark. Lightning and thunder flared up to enliven the show; as they did, she released my hand and wrapped her arms around me.
Throughout nature’s presentation she repeatedly held tighter and closer. She seemed intent on crawling inside me. At one point I remarked that she neared breaking my ribs. Those words did not quell her angst. Inexplicable fear trembled in her eyes and quivered in her embrace.
We had known each other for almost four years by then. I had seen her reactions to the wild weather Texas threw our way. From tornadoes to hail storms to ice storms to droughts, none of it engendered such a reaction. She felt something real and different about that particular storm or that particular time. The event uncovered something important in her.
Wrapping my other arm around her, my face rested easily against her head, the scent of her hair once more filling my senses. I sniffed heartily before kissing her brunette crown a second time.
I knew there was more to the experience than she was saying, and I also knew she was not going to abstain from talking about it. I would not let the matter drop. After a brief pause I continued, “We can talk about it now or we can talk about it later, but we’re going to talk about it. You realize that, don’t you?”
Finally her book closed. She did not move otherwise, yet obviously something bothered her and she needed to talk about it. As her fingers played over the edges of the pages, her breathing became more deliberate, less relaxed.
She said, “I was having a bad day. Something about that storm at that time in that place … I don’t know what it was, Vey. It just bothered me.”
“I could sense that.” My grip on her tightened in a sign of support. “So let’s have a chat. Why not tell me about it?”
She drew in a deep breath, set her book on the nightstand, rolled on her side and laid one of her arms over my torso as the other one nestled between us against my leg. As that one began rubbing my thigh, the other one hugged me closely—gripped me firmly. Turning her head so her lips rested on my chest, she kissed me next to the nipple.
Beth loved touching and kissing me from head to toe. She often claimed great joy and fascination in how my skin felt and looked and tasted. I took the latter as a compliment meaning she appreciated clean skin more than filthy skin.
Her lips felt warm and moist. The heat pressed against my flesh enticed me. I imagined easily slipping into tranquil lust. As her naked breasts rested touching me and her erect nipples fueled my hunger for her, my excitement began to swell.
My wife embodied a constant source of sexual tension and enjoyment, a form so beautiful that her mere presence incited quivering. The slightest wisp of her breath or the simplest stroke from her ignited heated fervor. I could never resist her. And yet I had to suppress my own avidity for pleasure so I could focus on what bothered her the day before.
She paused long enough to make the kiss both passionate and heartfelt. It also held clear unease translated through the restless exhale. Her head dangled there for a few seconds as she collected her thoughts. I rubbed my hand up and down her back; she rubbed her hands on my thigh and torso. The whiff of her shampoo continued to fill my nostrils. And I waited.
With an unassertive voice disturbing for its lack of certainty, she said without lifting her face, “The storm bothered me. It’s hard to explain. In fact, you’ll think I’m weird. It’s about Irene. I told you about the Dreamdarkers. She said they were coming for us. When I’d ask if that meant they were coming for people, she’d cackle in that dismissive way that said I’d completely misunderstood her. Then she’d say they were coming for all us dreamers.”
I startled at the catch in her voice when she said “all us dreamers.” Beth had no superstitions. Disregard for her grandmother’s strange teachings ensured such drivel met with derision. We both supposed the various anecdotes and warnings resulted from one crazy old woman’s mental degradation.
Irene told my wife her first period meant she had committed an unforgivable sin, burying a chicken’s foot in the garden cured a wide variety of ailments, and crows perched on a rooftop foretold impending death. Calling the witch insane insulted crazy people—and witches. It troubled me Beth felt discomfited by a simple storm based on one of her elder guardian’s many ludicrous cautions. The story must be more complicated than I already knew.
Beth continued, “It’s silly, but she often said they would come with the storms. I was frightened of storms when I was young. I grew out of it, you know, but back then I would hide under my bed for fear of thunder and lightning. Seeing dark clouds approach sometimes turned me into a mouse locked in a room with ten cats—I’d run. If Irene found me under the bed, she’d upbraid me—sometimes she’d add a slap to the scolding—and she’d tell me to pray the Dreamdarkers hadn’t found me.”
She took a deep breath and laid her cheek on my chest, resting her head fully on me. I stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head once more.
In a voice quieter and more respectful she added, “I’ll be honest with you, Vey. It scared the hell out of me. I don’t know if I was more scared of her mocking me and punishing me, or if my fear stemmed from the storms I thought were bringing the Dreamdarkers. Either way, I was terrified sometimes. That’s why the storm yesterday bothered me. Call it a flashback. Seeing those dark clouds rolling over the hills toward us threw me back decades. There I was again, that scared little girl, a weak, pathetic, frightened child huddling under the bed after the first crack of thunder. I could see Irene kneeling in front of me swinging her old wrinkled hands trying to beat the scare right out of me. I don’t know if it was the idea of the Dreamdarkers coming with the storm or the idea of my grandmother making fun of me and punishing me for childhood phobias, but something struck me hard and sharply as we stood outside yesterday. It’s silly, isn’t it?”
“No, babe, it’s not silly. It’s normal. Doesn’t everyone carry repressed memories that pop up unsolicited in adulthood?”
“You don’t, you and your damn photographic mind.”
“In general, for most people. Stuff gets repressed, pushed back, forgotten so it doesn’t bother us anymore. And sometimes that stuff pops up unexpectedly. Don’t you think?”
“But it’s more than that. For the first time I can remember, I was convinced something was coming in that storm. It makes me sound crazy—”
“No more than normal,” I interjected.
She slapped my chest despite her giggles. Then she resumed, “Fine, smartass, I get the point. But seriously, hon, I stood there watching that dark patch of sky stretch toward us and I knew the Dreamdarkers had found me. It was so primitive. The feeling exploded within me, a sudden confirmation of the twaddle she’d fed me while growing up. It’s hard to explain.”
“I repeat myself—I bet it’s normal. Call it an off day or a memory leak, but it’s not out of the ordinary. Listen, your grandmother was unpleasant. She didn’t exactly treat you with compassion, and she damn sure tried her hardest to fill your head with foolishness. Why wouldn’t it surface from time to time when something catches your attention? I bet psychologists have a word for it.”
“Uh-huh. It’s called crazy.”
“Beth, that’s not what I mean.”
“But that’s how I feel.”
“Don’t,” I said with sincere love as I hugged her close. “It’s one of those things that happens. You were scared of storms, your grandmother made it worse with stories about boogeymen, she practically abused you physically and clearly abused you mentally and emotionally, and you remembered some of that when the right stimuli came together. You’re not any more crazy now than you were yesterday.”
She repeated the slap to my chest, but she did so with playful fervency. At the same time she leaned over and bit my nipple, gripping the piercing between her teeth and giving it a tug. Finally she looked at me with a wicked smile across her face. She added, “You better watch it, mister, or else I’ll have to hurt you.”
“Promises … promises …” I leaned down and kissed her full on the lips.
“Dreamdarkers,” I mumble. That name should have meant more the first time I remembered it. I chastise myself for burying so much under mountains of mental detritus. Drugs and drink and drift. I never stopped seeing the three doctors. That excuse helps explain away these memory lapses.
I should have remembered.
Dreamdarkers came from Beth on multiple occasions. It should have rang more bells than it did. Yet it did nothing of the sort. I initially remembered she said it; I had not remembered everything she said.
Sitting on the couch and staring ahead toward the blackness of the windows, my reflection floats superimposed on the shadows of trees and brush idle in the night beyond. The most witless observer would recognize the look of shock deploying unobstructed across my face.
“A ghostly encounter,” I offer to the visage staring back at me.
Why had I not thought of that before? Dreamdarkers. My dreams come from Beth, from remembering things she said that somehow I pushed out of my conscious mind. No wonder it disorients so. The answers stare me in the face and I look by them. Maybe my memory fails even at thirty-five years old, age combined with drink and drugs and drift. I would not be the first person in human history who stopped remembering things as easily once they reached puberty.
A hearty yet nervous laugh pours into the sunroom as relief ushers in a new understanding of my nightmares. Perhaps the three doctors have carried me toward insanity sooner than expected. More likely, perhaps my emotional state after Beth died prompted a bit more burying of the past as opposed to letting it slip away.
This no longer snowballs into a disastrous avalanche inside a pretty white room with padded walls. I can comprehend to some degree the provenance of my bizarre dreams. In fact, they echo her hallucinations of darkness with eyes and the feeling of being prey. Afterimages of my wife create them, attempts by the most primitive side of me to remember her by digging up misplaced moments. If that means scouring my deepest memories for the most obscure morsels and cooking them into visions, then so be it, or so my mind thinks.
I lie back on the couch. The world no longer seems so anarchic. Life appears a little clearer and a little less unbridled. I wonder if understanding a dream—or a nightmare—stops it from recurring.
An ease drapes me that has eluded me throughout the day. Unexplained and frightening delusions of my dead wife telling me about things she told me many years prior have lost their terror. Perhaps I can sleep restfully knowing I solved the mystery. Yes, perhaps.