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Passages; or, Some Incidents from the Life of Mr. V—
A sorcerer approaching the end of his life attempts to capture his bloodstained legacy
Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Arizona and has published fiction in Lightspeed, Weird Horror, Black Warrior Review, Post Road, and elsewhere.
But when did he assume this old and haggard shape? When had he become this wizened thing whom everybody called Mr. V—, and when had the person he’d been, the real Mr. V—, faded away? That man had known such secrets as most of us have never even guessed. That man had been blessed beyond measure. His soul knew how vast its horizons were, and it flew through those infinite cerulean byways with ease.
But this man—this man was impoverished and alone and careening toward death. Ambling now, lost in thought, he moved down the street toward the shop he called his that was not his. He was going to work. If nothing else, he’d become a most marvelous finder of things, all things, and set them up for sale in the shop that was not his. All it takes to find things is patience, memory, and the gift of vision: simple attributes, but very hard to gain without a life as long and varied as that of Mr. V—, or whoever this old man was. But it seemed that even these gifts were beginning to fade.
Let the old man pass! Let Death take him in its firm but tender grip! Would Death caress him with a cold, putrescent hand? You see, Mr. V— was desperate to avoid it: the hand, the grip, the passage.
He despised this city and all the people in it. He despised himself and his frail body and his imminent grave. These people, if they came across a treasure such as those he offered in his shop, would toss it down and crush it with their feet, unless they could steal it and sell it in turn for a measly sum. He looked at his fellow denizens and scowled in disgust.
Mr. V— had come to own the curiosity shop quite by accident and continued to operate it through habit. Several years past, he had made the acquaintance of the shop’s former owner, a young man whose form he found appealing, not merely to the eye (though it was) but for his own arcane purposes, and he meant to take complete advantage. And, though one might think that his weakness for a comely youth would lead him astray—for passion does not endure longer than prudence, but the latter is easily bested—Mr. V— was a careful man whose many years had taught him disregard for such failings as typically blight our mortal forms. Always Mr. V—had lived according to a strict code of self-interested amorality, for he regarded morality as so much human weakness, distillation or misapprehension of old, old laws that were a hodgepodge from the first. Ethics, he told himself, is a system that prevents me from getting what I want. He followed his own laws, just as old and more useful by far, by which he pursued power and knowledge without end.
Mr. V— enjoyed the rewards of a rapid and successful seduction. When he had tired of the young man, he poked his thumb with a needle made of bone and uttered certain secret words. The young man’s soul was soon drained away, and his body destroyed, and Mr. V— felt himself grow young again. From the young man’s very fine bones he carved several more very fine needles, most of which he put aside for future use. Soon, he found that he had a shop on his hands, a junk store in a blighted town, and he decided—why not?—to give shopkeeping a try. And now he found himself stuck with it until he died, for he would certainly die.
He’d lived many different sorts of lives, and, at that time, this new endeavor seemed like nothing more than a novelty, a new way to pass the time as he pursued his more covert affairs. After all, such an occupation did, at first, have its pleasures. He would sometimes find particular trinkets that were useful to his experiments, and he occasionally unearthed a notable obscurity. He’d found a very fine copy indeed of the Reminiscences of Belial, a Demon, Written by Himself. Other mysterious books, too, came into his possession, such as first editions of both of the two books of one Mr. C. Morley. He had a pearl from one of Satan’s robes and a collection of wooden objects said to have been cobbled from the wood of a certain tree in paradise. In time, in certain circles, the shop became known as a respectable repository of the arcane, and he himself accrued a reputation as something of an authority on such matters. Even if he did despise the town and most of its people, visitors from elsewhere would seek him out and pay him well. So he had found a few reasons to appreciate his line of work. And he pursued this work for quite some time before the change occurred—before he consigned himself to an inevitable vanishing from the earth’s placid face.
At the time, he was undertaking the work of compiling his memoirs. Though he intended never to die, he recognized the value of recording his memories, his history, and doing something with them. Who knows? Perhaps he would publish them and pass them around in private circles. Perhaps one day he would find other things to do and let the legend spread, and he, unseen in the shadows, could watch and even stoke his legend’s flame. Days, he worked in the shop, begrudgingly selling a painting or a dusty glass plate to this or that poor soul who ventured in, and sometimes, more rarely, making a deal with a canny collector who was familiar with sacred talismans. Nights, he studied and thought and at last began to write.
For several nights he toiled away at the manuscript. He would write as many as ten or twenty pages in one go and then toss them all out, disgusted. He would work through the night and revise another set of pages and, likewise, find in the morning that it was utter, irredeemable trash. He was aiming for a perfect clarity and succinctness of expression for this little memoir, but he seemed to miss, every time; his aim fell short. He wanted his true essence to be captured in the book, which he found difficult to do with the feeble and deceptive medium of language. Mired in thoughts of his squalid childhood, his father, and the very first time he saw a needle made of bone, he was trying to decide what was worth preserving about the pathetic child who became Mr. V—.
Every now and then, his father would approach him and say, “Come on, then,” never any more than that, and then young Mr. V— would know that it was time to follow his father. They would don their coats and leave the house and go—somewhere. More often than not it would be a pub, where his father would order several beers for himself, nothing for young Mr. V—, and the latter would sit and watch his father pour the pungent liquid down his throat and learn that that was what it meant to be older. Sometimes, at that selfsame pub, his father would order a sandwich for himself and one for his son, and they would sit and eat in silence interrupted only by a woman who would appear at intervals like clockwork, a mechanism that young Mr. V— could not understand.
However unremarkable, these journeys always conjured the feeling that he was being inducted into a mystery. Indeed, everything about these excursions carried always a glimmering aura, shared by all things that cannot and should not be fully grasped: an unknowable world he could see only in part, through the most subtle and sidewise of glimpses. In the pub, he would look down at his plate, his sandwich with its beautiful stack of layers: he would take it apart before reassembling it and eating it. His father would scold him, and, chagrined, he would apologize; but he continued to do it every time, and to be chagrined accordingly, and he wished the world could likewise be unpacked so carefully. He wished he could scrutinize its secret springs.
Yet what his father told him was that it could and that he could. On one such excursion, when Mr. V— was about twelve years of age, having followed his father out of the pub, his father put an arm around his son’s shoulders, and they walked down the lane. It was a summer day, near dusk, yet still the sun pulled sweat in plump and salty beads from their skin. After a time, his father said, in a low voice, “There are some things you need to learn.”
Young Mr. V— looked up at him. It appeared to be one of his father’s bad days or, rather, bad weeks: deep-set eyes with a dark glint in them, bruised-looking bags of purple and blue sagging beneath. The eyes hung above his bruised fruit of a nose from which thick dark graying hair protruded, meeting the bushy worm that lived above his lip. His father’s face was alive but dank, putrid. He waited to hear more.
“Things,” he repeated. “You need to learn. I’ll show you.”
They continued down the sidewalk and took a left where they would, more typically, have taken a right and trod homeward. Today, they went down this other street, past the grocer’s, and took another turn into an alley. Though the day was bright, the nearby buildings’ height cast the alley in shade. Both of them felt relief from the shadow’s considerable cool.
Here, his father drew him closer and whispered, “Don’t tell your mother.” He delivered the remark with a smirk and a guttural chuckle. Then, his father removed from his pocket a needle, which he flashed to his son. The needle, young Mr. V— could tell, looked different from those his mother used, the needles that gleamed in silver as she drew them in and out of folds of cloth that became, through yet another mechanism he could not fathom, socks and scarves and blankets. In color and texture, his father’s needle resembled dirty teeth. Though it was cooler here in the alley, still Mr. V— felt sweat on his brow, the undersides of his arms, his legs. He frowned at the needle and met his father’s eye. His father winked.
Young Mr. V— knew not to enter the alley because his mother associated it with beggary: the stomping grounds of vagrants, it was strictly off-limits. Even now, as he squinted in the half-light, he could see a man sprawled on the ground, fast asleep in the hot and gloomy alley. His father drew near, and young Mr. V— followed, inhaling the sad and sweet odor of drink. His father quietly lowered himself to a crouch and leaned toward the oblivious vagrant, who snored. His father held the needle up and watched his son until he met his gaze, and then the eyes of young Mr. V— followed those of his father as they looked to the needle, which he lowered and pushed into the thumb of the vagrant. The vagrant’s eyes flew open, he yelped, and the sound, high and almost childlike, caused young Mr. V— to squeal as well. His father shot him a dark look, but he returned to the man whose wrist was now clamped between his fingers. He heard his father utter something strange, a language he did not know.
A foul and desolate feeling thrummed within Mr. V—. It began somewhere in the region of his heart and moved down to his stomach. It was, perhaps, the first blossoming of a delicate and sickening flower: the heat of shame and disgust, which dovetailed with a sort of satisfaction. He felt as though he was now being moved—no, pulled—toward the secret heart of things. One or two of the world’s outer layers were unpeeling before him, and he would see what lay beneath.
If he were still in the alley, he did not know it. If it were still day and the sun still shone upon him, if the world had not yet cast him or his father out in shame, he did not feel it. The patter of his father’s words formed an eerie and alien music as he watched the vagrant’s soul fly away. Young Mr. V— felt sick; he could not watch; he could not cease his watching. A susurrus came from the very air around them: many low and hissing voices. The voices amplified his father’s recitation. The susurrus grew louder and encompassed them within the private nowhere-world that contained only him and his father and this man who was becoming a corpse. Tears joined the sweat on the face of Mr. V— as he watched his father then take the same needle and prick his own thumb as he continued the indecipherable speech.
The vagrant passed. Limp, desouled, he lay with his eyes gazing up toward the sharp blue of the sky between high buildings. His father had an easy task in strangling him, killing the body for good. The murmuring ceased, and all was quiet.
The cast of his father’s face changed; the skin grew supple, the nose less swollen, the eyes less tired and more sure. His lips curled into a contemptuous and triumphant smile. Even the quality of his voice was different as he said, “You’ll learn it too.”
And in this way he learned how to do it before he wondered why he might.
What pleasure he soon found in those pale osseous needles. How long before his father allowed him to do it himself—did a whole year really pass? A whole year of sneaking, of moving past the pubs into the darkness of the alleys behind them, or to the edges of town where few made their homes, or even to the parks—wherever men lurked whom, his father said, would not be missed. A whole year of learning impassivity, of his father’s demands and of his testing himself to see how long he could bear it before he had to look away. A whole year of observing, at first with intoxicating dread and a sense of doom that he sometimes mistook for something like yearning, which overwhelmed his senses. The thickness of this doom formed a weight he could feel on his body. And when it happened he could see nothing whatsoever besides the needle and the bright drops of blood it summoned forth; he could hear nothing but the low tongue he was learning to recite. The scent of fresh blood covered the odors of the men. The words masked the sounds of their dying.
He learned to feel nothing before he learned his interest, before he considered that that which repulsed him could be held up and closely examined, like a grotesque little sculpture he could hold in his hands, bring close to his face, examining every facet and intricacy. The act brought terror and satisfaction both.
And when he did it himself, held the needle to the thumb of a vagrant not unlike the first one he had seen in a time and place that felt unreal, never mind it was but yards and only one year away, he managed to summon up a feeling of pride: pride in his work, in the fact that he could do it. The grin that spread across his face reflected his father’s. He pricked the thumb, he muttered the words, and he hurtled the man into that lowly passage. Unlike his father, Mr. V— could not strangle the ones he killed. His father liked the intimacy of it, of a warm neck between his hands whose pulse’s cessation he could feel. “It makes it real,” he would say. Mr. V— preferred more passive methods: smothering, and, later, injections.
Having done it once, then twice and more, he felt a prick that told him this was not enough. He saw his father’s pride and pleasure and felt, in turn, repelled. Such power his father held, which Mr. V— regarded as essentially sacred in its fundamental nature, and what did he do but continue to ravage his body? He had this wonderful secret, but why he continued to do it was utterly unclear. He seemed to desire nothing more, only to ensure that this sad life would persist forever, whereas Mr. V— found he wanted more, wanted everything, wanted every secret he could grasp.
Once, and once only, he tried to start a conversation with his father about it. He presumed his father would have no answer for why, but perhaps he would share how or where he learned. It was the longest speech his father ever gave, a rambling and incomprehensible story about an old man he’d met in his youth who knew the original language. “Pre-Adamitical,” his father called it. Mr. V— would never know whether the story was true. His father’s face betrayed nothing. At the tale’s conclusion, his father sat in silence for a while and then said, “You want to live forever too, don’t you, boy?”
Young Mr. V— stared. Then he nodded.
As he sat now in the throes of memory, his mind flashed to another secret, which came only a little while later. A needle poked inside a familiar thumb, the tired eyes that emptied out so rapidly, the body that collapsed for the last time. The soul that would be missed by no one, not even Mr. V—.
It was this being mired in memories of his squalid childhood and his inscrutable father that led him to a new thought. He wanted to capture himself. The book, his memoirs, should have something of his very own essence.
There he was in the room at the back of the shop, the room he had taken to using for his own private purposes. He sat at the large table he used as a desk, surrounded by the familiar parchment and scrolls and books, the bones from which he crafted needles, the phonograph he used to listen in on the chatter of the dead in their endless procession, the robes finely woven from the shining hair of long-dead princes, hard-won manuscripts composed in that pre-Adamitical language.
He held his own hand up to his face, stirred by this curious impulse. Perhaps some deep part of him longed to meet oblivion, he would later think. In time, he would curse himself, demanding to know why he should give in to such an impulse. But at the time it was almost as though he acted under the control of another—almost.
Then, he took a needle from the table and pricked his own thumb enough to squeeze some blood into an inkwell. He began to write in his own blood and found that, to his satisfaction, this was precisely what he had been missing.
But as he sat there newly absorbed in his work he suddenly felt a tremendous trill of pain, a pain he’d never before experienced. It was accompanied by a sound that he immediately recognized. The susurrus that bloomed into a chorus he knew as intimately as a lover. The sound of demons, hastening a soul into the dark; like birds of passage, he used to think, whose migrations he had learned to track. It was—he did not have time to think—not unlike a strike upon the ulnar nerve, but a feeling that rang through his entire body, a tingling that felt exquisitely giddy at the same time that it caused great pain. His own soul vanished and fled away from him, and as it happened he screamed.
Yet he realized that this, too, was a mystery. And it is possible that some deeply embedded portion of him—that part of him that had always been loyal to the nightmares of his choice—felt some satisfaction, some gratification at gaining still more knowledge from this new experience. That part might have marveled as he saw the shapes of the things that hissed and whispered about him, crowding nearer from every direction. They were indeed, he briefly thought, like birds, dark limbs like wings fluttering in air, moving down the passage that unites this world to the next. And those limbs as they danced, those voices as they uttered obscenities, helped to coax that sickening flower to its fullest and final bloom, whose rotting scent he could detect. That familiar mix of shame and horror and dank, dark delight overtook his soulless body. For the space of a few seconds, at least, he might have been said to be in awe.
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