Edition 26: A Nightingale’s View of Autumn by Joseph S. Pulver, Snr
Joseph S. Pulver, Snr submitted this dark fantasy as an invited piece, unaware of how Skeleton would perfectly embody symbiosis within. SY
(for Brian McNaughton)
Read the book. Came away with paper cuts and a wounded heart. Maybe I had the wounded heart before. Hard looking that far back…
The book was A Nightingale’s View of Autumn. The cover whispered of dark skies. Fitting. And sad…Inside the black ivy on yellowing paper were questions of blood and The Day After, an underworld of blackness that rattled with mysteries. The forest inside was thick, fog-shrouded, and hopeless.
That was the name of the town, Hopeless. And where the sea’s oblivion waves came to lick its shore with ash, it was. Skeleton felt it. Breathed it in. Found himself drowning in it.
That’s me. Skeleton. Was. A few Thens (charged with the witching-whisper of twilight and the nightingale narcosis of black stars) have changed things, but that’s where I began that night. Stood on that rocky shore and heard the rain-lashed cries of the crow. Turned and followed.
Turned and saw her grey winter-lantern eyes and followed. In that lonely place what choice did I have?
In a stand of sour trees she turned to me and said, “I have walked with things not of this earth.” Cocked her head oddly and smiled. Seemed like a smile. A rather dark and sad one.
She opened her mouth. Her slow words were brittle, they had tasted poison. “The black deathbird and I have been shaped by the flowers of Midnight. The wind knows the strange whisperings in our hearts.”
With each word she grew thinner.
“What you seek is this way.”
Her feet in the groaning leaves she was off.
We walked under a sagging collection of surrendering boards and curved rope lines and iron strapping that must have been a bridge in years past. Rust, time, and throttling weather had eaten deeply. It would sustain no more, nor would it again laugh at children who said the sky was falling. The bridge would be extinct before another spring arrived.
“When The Door opened the girl was lost.”
Her reply was a glum smile, weaker than the last and draped in anguish.
Firm as teeth that will not be interrupted; her tiny, frail hand swooped toward me and dragged me along.
And I did.
By cracks in overwhelmed stone walls that reported, border to border, knives descended from Night’s heavy never been…By a cross-path of dry wreckage silent with happened and fragments no longer connected…We passed a tilted lighthouse with strange yellow lights in its many tiny windows. I could hear the broken shutters slap and flutter in the hurrying wind. I was drawn to it and stopped. Stained, embraced in a winter hunger that rose from the ground like a coiling serpent, I stepped toward it.
Beckoning fingers were on my shoulder and I could see the black feathers on the side of her hand gleam as the tongue of rushing air breathed the grammar of ascent.
“That place is not for you, Wanderer. Only the Grey Sisters of Vendren may enter its harbor. In the coma of the Bone Mandalas you would find madness…and departure.’
“Come. Your path lies in a different court.”
Again she began to walk, faster in the dry grass. And full of the rustling feathers of destruction, I matched her strides.
The curved paths of rock and broken shells we travelled were intersected by stands of crudely-hewn stones, each aligned to form an uneven X, and every pillar bore menus I feared to translate. The alien characters on the columns flowed like sweeping hair. Hair that promised dark pleasures.
In a voice overturned by the mindfire-labors of fear, she said, “Vhouls. They do little but stink up the air with their cadaver whispers.’
“Hurry. Their blind sonatas for fallen chestnuts are not for you.”
Her step was quick to extinguish my interest as we entered a darkness trembling with the wanderings of pale blue spiders.
Her eyes narrowed. “You must hurry.”
And I did.
Through their blindness, the blue spiders that owned the branches above us hissed at our backs.
We did not walk long. Our path, not wide enough for side to side, over rough surfaces of littered gravel and ash, ended suddenly.
The There at the end of her pale finger was a rotten place even the mist-cloaked trees leaned away from.
“Sealed within is The Madness. It flows from the tomb-river of Mother Night’s skirts.”
She pointed at a village of empty shacks cut out of the dead wilderness. They formed a ring of tiny, one room constructions that were little better than square huts ringing a pasture of dust. Made from mismatched pieces of wood, with some rocks at their base here and there, almost all of them had rusting tin roofs. A few had one or two small windows. Some of the windows were cracked, some broken. Many had screens, but raccoons or other small forest creatures could have easily entered by way of the large holes in the shredded screening.
The shacks were roughly five paces by five paces, barely enough room for a slender bed, a tiny table, and a small stove, but not one had a chimney or stovepipe coming from its low roof. The pieced-together roofs of tin were a head higher than a standing man’s head and no more.
All of the piecemeal structures, proof of reason outside the bonds common restraint, were dim and had been firmly grasped by the ill methods of a pale, glittering green fungus, except one. That one was the There she pointed to. Its door was yellow. No bright canary song, this color was bleached by things that expressed the glow of the graveyard, with leper madness, and ancient black fevers.
Dying hands built these shacks. Time and illness crawling with calendars of pain gnawed at them. Gnawed deep.
The hovel with the pallid yellow door had two windows which were shuttered with rusty metal slats and padlocked. And the door itself was padlocked. Lockjaw-rust owned the oversized lock.
Her hand dragging mine, she moved toward the door gruesomely-colored in uncontrollable woe.
“This one. This one.”
A few paces from the door there was a leaning trellis of flaking metal. It was hung with dry leaves that reflected the soft glow of the stars, and dead birds. My fingers reached out to test the metallic sheen of the leaves.
“Stop. The Mirror Leaves are poison. One caress and you will plunge into the cesspool of No Dreaming.”
My hand changed course.
“Your silver hands are needed elsewhere. Come.”
I wondered how she knew what lay beneath my heavy leather gloves. I searched her eyes.
As if she read my inquiry, she turned and faced me. “The waves showed me your poems, and your thorns…Please hurry.”
“What would you have me do?” I asked.
“What you must,” she said looking at my hands.
Again? The question a narrative stretched on invisible strings to memories. Memories that stalk my steps, memories of the Other Time and all the spheres of chaos and gloom I’d embraced since the night I abandoned my delirium in the halls of Dr. Trost’s facility for the misfortunate a hundred years ago.
That night, near the end of a vague life, as I lay immobile and unable to speak, the good doctor had, to save me, cleansed and transformed my body. My offending hands were removed and my blood replaced. From the doctor’s spiraling labyrinth of umbilical tubes and conduits flowed an alchemical mixture of mercury, tea leaves, and Phoom Root dust from the swamps of Ba-Benzala. My blood was vacuumed from one arm as the doctor’s potion was pumped into the veins of the other.
My hands. I have looked at these engines of change a thousand times in the last one hundred years. Watched them circle fire and spoil the laughs of pitch-horned manes thrusting sour storms of menace at small birds not fast enough to fly. Wondered about the hands I left behind. Gone the scars and hate they held. Replaced by intricate silver constructions; silver, mined from the Grand Vaults of Pengtin, and some brass. Tiny gears and sprockets of brass and internal tubes of copper give these mechanisms life.
I looked at my metal hands and removed my glove. One hand, the farthest from my heart, is called, Devil, the other is called, Angel. Dr. Trost named them. Named them well.
Soon it would be Devil’s hour. I knew it. The mechanical instrument affixed to the end of my arm knew it. I think even the restless moon knew it. Soon…
But Angel’s less savage qualities were needed first.
I unscrewed the sowing-thimble cover of Angel’s pointer finger. Its tip is a skeleton key like no other. Words from a horizon of different colors, the holy words of Ett, were infused in it as the key was formed in a small forge in the doctor’s theater of science and alchemical vision.
The great iron padlock glowed with starflame as Angel’s key invaded the keyhole and discharged. A loud click. Something within the rust-fastened barrier shattered. It was unlocked.
The door did not creak on its rotting hinges as I removed the lock and pulled to open it, the irregular boards of the door simply fell apart.
Stale, murderous tomb-air drifted out of the black doorway.
“She waits there.” It came out with the haunted frost of a lamentation.
I removed my eyepatch and with the Eye of Piron, another of Dr. Trost’s gifts (purloined by the doctor from Professor Archibald Campion before it could be revealed to onlookers at The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893), gazed into the blackness.
From the outside the shack appeared to be a very small hovel, but Piron’s eye of alchemically-altered, blue amber exposed a vast interior. The inside of the hut was a large bowl. Leading down the curved wall was a stairway of split and aged boards bound together with wire, bits of rope, shadows and cobwebs. My boots began their descent toward whatever tribulation waited below.
Down into the flavor of the grave, an unmarked grave. The air was bone dry and full of dreamless shadows as I made my way below. Alone, my beleaguered spirit guide, now awaiting grace, stood above at the doorway.
I arrived at the bottom of the considerable cavern of ashen rock and dust, a bare field, an autumn tomb that could not support dreams. One could drown in the language of emptiness that swarmed here. A framework of wood, not unlike the studding one finds when a house or room is first roughed out, rested in the lowest spot of the bowl-shaped noctuary. Hung from the wooden beams there were frayed and torn strings of what had once been brightly-colored paper, but the grim party they had graced was over.
And there was a bed. A dark and lonely bed of rusted iron and dry briar. Strapped to it with coarse yellow bindings was a tiny girl. She was thin, nearly an apparition. Motionless, leaden, just a doll haloed in misery, lost in the eternal nightshade of suffering. Her white bedclothes were heavily-soiled, the collar and sleeves threadbare, and they and the bed reeked of urine and decay.
Her once bright pigtails were cobwebbed and dusty.
“They wither…so slowly,” I whispered over her.
The girl’s eyes were a candle burning out. I reached out and wiped dust from her cheeks. As I touched the field of her cheek the leaves of her book opened to me.
In the afflicted child’s terror-salted dreams spiders screamed.
Her name was Penelope Nightingale. A poor orphan, shackled to knife-pointed wrongs in the grim, demon-blasted walls of Gridgerach Orphanage where every mirror was cursed with the scorching ice of terrible serpents, the sparrow had tried to escape.
Ran. Searing with the disease of fear, the child fled through the monstrous. Struggled. But stamped by bluster and rain, her eyes blinded by her own tears, she had found herself lost in the October Wood. Then, as night vibrated and pierced the primal woodland, came the raw howling of the Scarecrow Men as they rustled-wildly and pursued her. Over a rock shaped like doom she stumbled and found herself in the clutches of their night-souled hands, hands made from clusters of autumn leaves. Cut and bruised, and deeply-wounded with terror, she cried, as the Scarecrow Men bound her in vines woven of Nightfall dewberries and brought her here to trade to the ghost-hued Zporluk for Trakl roots to contour their autumnal magic with.
The scythe breathes here. Its night-tongue rants. Here in this prison-bed, she, rooted to the ashmouth of approaching oblivion, another voiceless bride of the Zporluk, had withered for two seasons.
I removed the worn leather glove that covered Devil. Uncapped its silver tube coverings. Devil’s bladed fingers were ready to dance.
“It is time.”
The girl opened her eyes and in voice as slight as the wings of a bird said, “Yes.”
She lifted her hand of desire. “Free me from the Devil’s wings.”
The shadows widen…
The nocturnal face opens its mouth…
The black reef…witchlike stars grazing…malefic signs soar…time has a taste…the hours are wolves…a storm of phantoms open their throats, their screams seep one drop at a time into the silt of consciousness…the spooled bells of the cosmos embrace the curve of unborn history…the circle is tireless…a smog of skulls and eyes littered with the pyre-stained margins of death language and reeking with an afterlife fitted with the indifference of war swells in the sky…
The vibrations of those stricken by vultures scorch my heart…
I take my last step in a sparse field of dust and briars…
I am thirsty and alone.
In a worm-plagued library of torn, yellowing wallpaper rests a book. The edges of its pages weep…
Her limbs are frayed, thin as spider’s legs. They are filled with tremors, tremors that are shimmering masses of bleeding colors…
One hundred years ago I stood before the Mirror of Ett in Dr. Trost’s study and I learned a song of balm. I let its tide roll over the blood-chaos poisoning her light.
“Torn, I can no longer see you…You are on a path where nightmare can no longer walk behind you.”
I applied the strokes of my brush.
With opening hands glowing with solace, I imagined a page no wormwood nails or frost of rust could taint with the bonfires of Nothing. Silence, light to bless skin and mind with angel acts, I swept the murmurs of dust from its margins.
The whisper of my silver hand gently lowered her into a dream of sweet stillness as I carried the child from that meadow of sorrows.
Gone the urn-poison that was spilled here.
Beautiful for a moment, the child.
With words of blue essence I gave the bird back its name.
The silk narration ends.
Another performance for Skeleton…
Bravery…or simply a recipe for more tears…
I signed the book with the blood on my hand…
Penelope Nightingale’s feathers have turned to moonlight. Her eyes are now the starmilk flesh of the heavens…
Death. Clean and simple.
Beyond good and evil…
A chain of stars breathes in the moon-bleached air.
I am standing by a pond. Quiet branches hang over a dry garden of brown leaves. The wind brings the sound of rustling pages. The thread of words inscribed on the whitening leaves carve tides of forgotten doors and beaches feathered in departed summers in my arteries.
I turn with my pen and walk. Another book of hurricanes and fences waits for my ink to write of the journey to The End…
The light changes. The clouds do not shout. The shadows do not dream…
I see a roofline…and a door painted with privilege…
Inside…A black hall. Rooms of dimmed moonlight, cold as sunless November, a labyrinth of autumnal shadows and dark cold wounds…There’s the muzzle of a lion from the black Beforetimes, its mouth clasped to the breast of a warm petal…
[Weather Report “Unknown Soldier”]
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. (born Schenectady, New York) is an author and poet, much of whose work falls within the horror fiction, noir fiction / hardboiled, and dark fantasy genres. He lives in Germany.
Pulver started his publishing career in the early 1990s with a number of short stories published in various American small press magazines, foremost among them Robert M. Price’s Crypt of Cthulhu. His tales cover subjects ranging from Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Robert W. Chambers’ “King in Yellow.”
Pulver’s professional debut came with the publication of his Lovecraftian novel, “Nightmare’s Disciple”. In addition to various American small press magazines, Pulver’s work has been featured in numerous anthologies in the US, UK, France, and Japan.
Pulver has also been the editor of “Midnight Shambler” and “Tales of Lovecraftian Horror”. He was also the co-editor for “Crypt of Cthulhu”, published by Mythos Books LLC working alongside Robert M. Price, Michael Cisco and David Wynn.
Find out more about his work and presence online at his webpage.