Edition 2: Confinement by Kenneth Schneyer
Kenneth Schneyer’s Confinement was a shortlisting in the Story Quest Short Story Contest, and deservedly so. The judges were impressed with the supernatural undercurrents of his piece, and yet the stark realism of the contemporary setting and characters is a firm foundation. I find it hard to accurately classify, and recommended to the editor that it be considered a dark fantasy. Read it and test my assessment. GH
She first saw him while she was taking the long way to work to avoid the deformed children. For anybody else, the walk between South Station and the looming tower that enclosed the law firm would be a nearly-straight line, due north, fifteen minutes at most. But Tamara stopped treading that narrow path after the first time she attempted it, because she discovered that it required her to come face-to-face with Saint Drogo’s Infirmary for Waifs.
It wasn’t the building that hurt; it was the children. She had encountered Saint Drogo’s at the same moment as a mother with a cleft-palate toddler emerged, and through the open front door she had also caught a glimpse of the twisted back on a five-year-old. In her imagination, the dark building was bursting with lame, drooling, incontinent, gaping idiots, all children, all demanding attention and understanding, all needing her. Nausea had almost overcome her, and she hurried north to the protection of her own sterile cell at Rheingold, Granada & Pearce.
When she found herself unable to get its name out of her head, Tamara looked up St. Drogo’s. The resolute brownstone clinic had had its genesis a hundred years ago, to care for children no one wanted, who were so awful to look at that adults condemned them. Nowadays it also treated crack babies and infants born with AIDS, and even had a licensed adoption agency to place the many children who were abandoned on the doorstep. That was all Tamara needed to know; she promised herself she’d never see the place again.
So it was, at the blinding break of Midsummer’s Day, that she was taking the long way, the extra five blocks in the utter southern corner of downtown, when she passed him on the street.
He stood motionless in a cream-colored suit, frozen as he bent to pay a seated news seller, but his head jerked up and he glared into her face as if Tamara’s glance had pulled him on a string. His golden hair, twisted back out of his face, glinted fiercely in the merciless sun. His skin was polished and sallow, yet with a blush at the cheeks, small mouth and smaller, down-pointing nose. Delicate, impossibly delicate hands. He stared at her, unsmiling, appraising, ruthless, taking the breath out of her. She almost stopped, almost acknowledged him; then she hurried on.
That was the first time.
On the first chill day of autumn he appeared again, at the blustery Saturday farmer’s market near the North End, as Tamara was looking for apples. His thin, strong fingers stacked pomegranates on a table, a white-and-gold apron constraining him. The cool air made his skin look waxen; the breeze did not stir his hair.
He looked up from the red-speckled fruit and said, “You are well-favored.”
She thought his voice was masculine, but only barely so, and she had the irrational feeling that he hadn’t actually made a sound; when she tried, later, to recall the timbre of that voice, nothing came.
Again his face was solemn, intent, imperious; his eyes burned into her. She could not answer, but turned away and went to find, instead of apples, some bitter watercress or radishes. When it came time to pay the other vendor for them, as far from the golden man as she could manage, she involuntarily looked back in his direction. He wasn’t there.
The third time, a foot of snow hid lakes of slush that splashed on her calves as she sought refuge in the city mall on the East Side. Breathing more easily indoors, she strode through saccharin piped music, “What Child Is This” and the Coventry Carol, until she reached the electronics shop to find a replacement battery for her phone. As she looked up from the endless shelf, he materialized standing in the aisle, and it was impossible to tell whether he was a salesman or just another customer.
His left hand drooped, holding a thin software package between two fingers; his right finger was raised, pointed skyward but tilted in her direction. Again he did not smile, again she feared his face would suck her in.
“You are so fortunate, if only you knew,” he said, and his voiceless voice seemed to come from the shelves and the ceiling and the floor.
And that was when she finally realized who he was. Her breath caught in her throat; she dropped her package; she fled the store. Her heart did not stop pounding until she reached the café across the street from the mall, and there she downed the strongest, hottest coffee she could find, scalding her throat as she tried to breathe, tried to be sensible, tried to talk herself out of what had to be an hallucination.
She knew that face. Five years ago: the trip before law school, to help her forget what had happened in college. The Uffizi in August: practically the only thing open during Ferragusto, the Feast of the Assumption, when all of Italy seemed to come to a halt. She’d walked in the silence, the relative cool of the long galleries, hiding from the oppressive Florentine heat, hearing her footsteps talk back to her. Then she’d stopped in front of the tempera-on-wood panels, seven hundred years old, and the city had warped around her, snapped the way a rubber cap will snap itself back into shape after being forcibly inverted. The sign told her it was Simone Martini’s Annunciation (1333).
The image was heavy with gold, gold so overwhelming that it made the figures’ skin look grey and dark, as if they were in the last stages of a wasting illness, though their flesh was plump and smooth.
There was Gabriel in flowing robes a Pope might have worn, his cloak surging behind him as in an infernal wind, his wings raised powerfully like a bird of prey, kneeling but also leaning aggressively, his hand raised in a gesture of command, his face intent, insistent, pitiless, golden. There was Mary clad in black, her shoulders turned away from the imperious angel, her head unwillingly yanked back towards him, her eyes narrowed, her mouth in a scowl of mistrust and even loathing. There, unbelievably, were Gabriel’s words in gold, shooting across the room from his head to Mary’s like the bullets of a machine gun: Ave gratia plena dominus tecum. Hail, O highly favored; the Lord is with you!
But the Virgin did not feel highly favored, and the Lord was being forced upon her. Her hand still clutched the book she had been reading; her other hand was raised protectively to her throat—as if it would help, as if she had a choice, as if anything could save her. Wisely the artist had left out Gabriel’s next words, in which he will tell her that she is pregnant whether she will or no, that she has been taken by God, as Leda was taken by the Swan, as Europa was taken by the Bull, that she must live to flee her home and shame her husband, that she must watch her son be torn and broken, that through all of this she must remember she is blessed.
Like a branding iron, Martini’s cruel Gabriel and angry Mary pressed and seared into Tamara’s brain, never to be healed. For years it roused her from dreams of nausea, flashed before her eyes when she let her attention wander, appeared on television screens in the place of static. Every once in a while—once every month, or was it only when the seasons changed?—the Annunciation would appear with seeming innocence: on a postcard in a gift shop, in a book on the High Middle Ages, a page in a calendar, even weirdly on a sitcom. Each time it shocked her, made her turn the other way, made her want to run. A virgin’s wrathful, fearful, doomed, grey face.
And now this man, this angel, this creature manifested on Earth to pursue her.
She slept badly for the next three months, waking in a sweat with tears carving her face like stigmata. Food seemed too strongly flavored, and when she did manage to swallow she was likely to vomit it back up. Her doctor ran an encyclopedia of tests, all negative. Shivering as she left the clinic, she wondered why she’d bothered; man’s medicine could not minister to a diseased soul.
On the coming of the Vernal Equinox, Tamara spent the morning working in the county courthouse, on the western edge of town. Within this temple to man’s law and the incarceration of his passions, she felt safe. Then she filed her last batch of papers and headed for the door, and he was there.
This time he wore the raiment of the courthouse police, a holstered pistol at his side, but impossibly young and horribly ancient at the same time. As another lawyer bleeped through the scanner and the tall blond put his hand on the man’s arm, he said gravely, “No one gets through here until they get past me.” And then he turned to Tamara, his eyes widening, and said, “Not even her.”
Stifling a scream, she hurried down the steps and out onto the plaza, trying to remember the way back to her office.
But she did not make it back to the office, did not escape him this time. He appeared on the sidewalk in front of her, and as she turned sharply into an alley to avoid him, there he was again. The stern, golden man gave her no escape; his narrow eyes seared her face and bared her heart. Memories from which she had run and hidden now came streaming at her, in an arrow-straight line from him to her.
The college party, the vodka and the cocaine on a table half-hidden by smoke and flashing lights. The spinning room, the moving floor soiled and wet, the stumble up the stairs with the strong hand on her arm. The heavy lacrosse player who did not hear her refusal, did not stop, did not listen as she wept and screamed in pain. The blackness like a suffocating cloak thrown over her head.
And then the months in hiding; the lost semester; the lost summer. The hotel rooms and hostels, bad food and vile smells. The long coats and hanging dresses that hid everything from anyone who didn’t look too closely. And then—she fought against the memory, but the pitiless golden thing would no more listen to her refusals than the lacrosse player, than the Swan or the Bull would have listened—then the night alone, driven in a borrowed car over rocky ground to a forsaken hill in the woods; her cries, her blood, her shit upon the earth among the trees, and the wail of the child.
And then. And then she had walked away, as soon as she could wrench herself to her feet, walked away alone, left the child to the wind and the cold and the beasts, exposed it as the Romans would have exposed a deformed infant or a mouth they could not feed. She left it there in the woods, retreated, stumbling, listened to its cries until she was far enough away that her own cries drowned them out.
Now the tears poured down like blood. Her eyes burned; her hair burned. Her belly was on fire. Gabriel, if that’s who it was, grimaced in agony as her humiliation, shame and guilt swam to the surface like boils. He opened his mouth, and a cry came out. It was the cry of the infant in the woods. And it was her own cry. And Mary’s.
What could he want of her now? Was this his purpose, to torture her with memories she could not forgive, with the crime from which she had run every day of her life? Is that why he had sought her out?
No, she knew better. Gabriel always wanted something of Mary—no, was telling her something, imposing on her the duty she could not escape. You are highly favored, no matter that the favor tears you into a hundred pieces. The Lord is with you, whether you want Him or not.
“What do you want? What do you want?” she asked, trying to sound stern but whimpering as she spoke.
“Blessed mother,” said Gabriel, his nostrils flaring, his teeth sharp.
“No,” said Tamara.
“Blessed among all women,” said Gabriel.
“What can I do? Turn myself in? Plead guilty to murder? Is that what you want? Then will you leave me alone?”
The angel turned his head on one side, then the other, like a bird looking through one eye at a time. “Atonement before man is not atonement before God.”
Tamara wanted to run at him, to sink her nails into his face, to do anything that would make him go away. But he came closer, his eyes wide like a madman’s. “Then what, what, what?”
He turned his head on its side again, but this time the gesture meant: Follow. He strode out of the alley, seeming to leave it all at once. Unable to stop herself, she hurried after.
He walked slowly, or seemed to; his steps came down only once every several heartbeats. Yet he moved through space as quickly as she could run. She did not see him glide, nor perceive any moment when his strides appeared larger than any man’s, but he covered ground like a bounding lion. She found herself dodging traffic, cutting through alleys, stumbling over spoiled food and refuse, losing all sense of where she was.
Her breath came in buzzing, sickly wheezes, and bright spots bloomed in front of her eyes, when they finally stopped. She leaned against a brownstone wall and shut her eyes, hugging herself and trying not to pass out. Then she looked up.
They were standing in front of Saint Drogo’s Infirmary for Waifs.
It loomed over her like a hungry giant. Her heart struck blows against her chest. She glared at the inhuman master before her. He bowed his head, but would not release her eyes.
“Give what was taken.” His voice rang in her head. “Take what was lost.”
She could not move. She knew what was inside, the children too maimed and wounded to endure, the abandoned, the doomed. She could not turn away. She could not refuse. Redemption was here, even if it burned her. He released her as she climbed the mount of stairs, and the air turned golden around them.
Kenneth Schneyer forgot he wanted to be a writer for 25 years until he was ambushed by a gang of plot bunnies in 2006. Since then, his stories have appeared in Analog, Abyss & Apex, Clockwork Phoenix 3, GUD, The Drabblecast, Bull Spec, and elsewhere. He attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in 2009 and joined the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop in 2010. Born in Detroit, he now lives in Rhode Island with one singer, one dancer, one actor, and something striped and fanged that he sometimes glimpses out of the corner of his eye.