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JM Hollwig

Summer’s End

As he took a long gulping pull on his Guinness, Chase Islington kept an eye on the band’s lead singer. She was dancing; she was bedeviling. Chase’s eyes were hidden, as always, behind smoke-tinted spectacles. He watched her dreamily with his English tweed cap pulled low, his silky white ascot swaddled round his throat, his charcoal-gray woolen greatcoat buttoned up. His gloves were black leather: his gloved right hand held his beer; his left, which he kept tucked behind him, was a mere crumpled knot. His deformities had made him a loner. In his coat pocket were his pills: Codeine, Valium, Ativan. Chase Islington was always tired, always in pain. He rarely slept. He took pleasure – what pleasure he had – in ale, music, books. These things sometimes worked. Not yet thirty, Chase had gone a bit paunchy. And a thick black beard hid, mostly, a crimson-and-pearly splotch that marked his chin, left cheek, and throat. He’d been living with his mutilation for ten years now.  

Tonight’s band was a trio that somehow seemed out of place here at the Black Watch. And although Chase stood leaning against the tavern’s back brick wall, in shadow, the band’s dancing singer, as if she were singing for him alone, still maintained a fixed eye contact. Chase knew neither this pale, pale woman nor her band  – Lucifer’s Children. Who were they? Lucifer’s Children’s sound was assaultive, dreamlike, seductive, blending together into a single, unending melody world beats and ancient chants. Remember all this, Chase told himself. The mood, the setting. The aural sorcery. The rich yeasty smell in the air of single-malt whiskey, haggis and stale unbuttered scones. He thought that he might be able to use all this later. Then his mauled half-hand – reflexively, uselessly – reached for a stenographer’s notepad and a Number 2 pencil that Chase Islington kept tucked in an Oxford shirt breast-pocket. Chase Islington was a writer. Every Thursday night now he had been coming to the Black Watch, and every Thursday night he’d left dejected. Whatever music he’d heard here hadn’t spoken to him; whatever woman he’d met hadn’t seared his soul. But what was it, exactly, that he’d been seeking? Oblivion, perhaps. On both his wrists ran a razor’s line. He’s never known intimacy. He’d been innocent before his maiming; he’s been an isolate ever since. A mere observer. His own life bored him. By day Chase worked as an underpaid copy editor and by night as an unpublished horror writer. He now, wholly, gave himself over to the night’s music. He nearly forgot his pain. Chase thrilled at Lucifer’s Children’s rare, menacing sound – as compelling as a cobra’s hiss – a sound unlike any that he’d heard before. Its rhythms, labyrinthine and alluring, told him that he was perhaps on the verge of something extraordinary tonight. 

Tonight he’d be lucky. 

Then abruptly, like a high fever’s breaking, came an intermission. The tavern’s house lights went up and the singer’s spell was broken. Delicate wood-framed mirrors etched in import brands and slogans – Harp, Bass, Watney’s – bounced this sudden glare around the room. Chase now made his way to the richly lacquered mahogany bar to order another draught. His fifth tonight. Alcohol and pills, these helped soothe somewhat his chronic nerve pain. His hand, his face. His memories. He was already, he feared, beyond redemption. All he really wanted was nothingness. Nothing that is not there, Chase said silently, reciting a line from a poem, and the nothing that is. What he wanted was no more time. The crowd at the Black Watch tonight, a sparse one, seemed oddly dazed; had the band’s strange melodies affected everyone else here too? Tonight was the autumnal equinox. Tonight was summer’s end. Ahead was a cold indeterminate darkness.

The Black Watch was a Scottish tavern in Crestline, a small dreary mountain town. Here, killing time was work.

Some freelance public relations, an occasional press release, articles published now and again in the local weekly on the mountain’s history, these spot assignments supplemented his income. Hackwork, he considered it. He wished instead for nobler, rarer work: a chronicler’s task. But what chance was there? He’d so far failed all life’s tests. What he knew was pain. 

Chase felt that he needed some air. He tried not to think about the many unfinished manuscripts that he had scattered about his rented unfurnished cabin. Instead, setting down his draught, he took out his writer’s pocket notepad, clumsily, in which he kept observations, character sketches, overheard conversational snippets, word lists, titles of books he thought he’d like to read, and miscellaneous sentences, literary excerpts and quotations. He looked at something that he’d jotted down earlier today, something that had stopped him cold – a moment’s uncanny self-recognition – when he’d come across it in a nearly hundred-year-old novella. The words were Katherine Anne Porter’s: “There is nothing better than to be alive, everyone had agreed on that; it is past argument, and who attempts to deny it is justly outlawed.” Chase felt that it was not past argument; Chase had made attempts to deny it. And so was he, he wondered, justly outlawed? What, then, would be his punishment? And who would deliver it? Any such punishment, he now felt, bleary with insomnia, pain and drunkenness, would be indistinguishable from a gift. Any such punishment would be a mercy.

He remembered his work again. His failed stories haunted him. All his failures haunted him. Chase Islington’s mind was in the past. All his horror tales – improbable Gothic concoctions – were tales set in the past. Chase had no interest in the present; the future, he feared. Tomorrow was his least favorite word. This was perhaps the reason why he wrote on a manual 1940s-era Remington typewriter. Chase had long ago taught himself to type dexterously albeit achingly with a mere forefinger stump. That’s all that he had left on his dominant left hand. He took a masochist’s pleasure in jabbing at the hard metallic clattering keys. His pain pills often let him work till he bled. 

Chase, slipping out an oaken side door, now stepped out onto a dim cobblestone courtyard lined on three sides by a spear-tipped wrought-iron gate that bordered an alley. Chase inhaled the chill evening air. He tightened his ascot. He smelled the sweet resinous tang of cut pine, sap and sawdust that arose from a logging depot in the woodland hills nearby. Sick and dead pine trees in the untold thousands had lately been felled here; a ten-year plague of pest, fire and drought had laid waste this inland forest. Chase took in the seemingly deserted courtyard. On an exterior stone and terra-cotta wall was a cracked, wind-gouged, nearly colorless mural in a triptych that illustrated three long-forgotten battles: Bannockburn (1314); Culloden Moor (1746); Ypres (1915). And in this third panel a Highland regiment in tartan kilt and tam, accompanied by pipers, march majestically out into a No-Man’s Land of mud, muck and wire. This, thought Chase, would indeed be a noble end. He wished that he’d been there. He wished that he’d been cut down out there in a swift final hurrah. But he was here. He was alone – alone, drunk and in pain. 

And what he had felt tonight had surely been an illusion. Too much Guinness. In the tavern’s courtyard was a fire ring enclosed by three semi-circular stone benches. There was no fire tonight. But the sight of this sooty brick and cast-iron ring brought to mind, for Chase, another fire pit in another courtyard. This was at a beach house in Cabo San Lucas. It had belonged to a high school classmate’s parents, a summer retreat, and upon graduation – Chase had attended a La Jolla prep school – Chase Islington and a handful of his friends had gone down there for a month’s let-loose sojourn before heading off that fall to their respective colleges. Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, Smith, MIT. And Chase himself would be going to Julliard. This had been his long-held ambition: to attend an elite East Coast conservatory; to train for a career in classical music; to be, perhaps, one day, a major metropolitan orchestra's first violinist. Chase had been a prodigy. But after what happened that summer, ten years ago, in Baja, California – a holiday’s celebration gone wrong – all those ambitions had come to an end. 

And ever since then, Chase Islington had been lost.

“Join us,” a woman’s voice said. At her words a screech owl sprang from the bordering evergreens and took flight. An all-white alley cat dropped a mole that it had been chewing, twisted sinuously, and ran. A coyote yelped. And Chase stared silently into the darkness. 

“Are you afraid we’ll bite?” she said in a cool teasing tone. Above, a three-quarter’s moon shone bright and low. Chase saw her now – the band’s singer. Elfin, petite and pale – so pale! – she wore a dove-gray peasant dress, a cameo brooch, and bobbed black hair. And her eyes – lavender eyes. And still she was dancing. Chase, touching his ascot, took a hesitant, unthinking step towards her – and then there stood there with the dancing girl two unsmiling men. All Lucifer’s Children. Chase searched his mind for small-talk. But before he could say a word the band’s drummer, a stocky skinhead, whose face, throat, arms were decorated with scars, began to lecture Chase on the majesty of war. The drummer spoke – ranted, really – in an impossibly fast delirium, at times interrupting his own bellicose thesis with mock laughter, at times punching the late evening’s air with his knotty tattooed fists. Was he mad? An amphetamine freak? Chase hurriedly stumbled backward. 

“Otto,” said the pale dancing girl, “your theories are so tiresome. Truculent folderol. Please save your rage for the drum kit.”

Chase tried to placate him. “I respect your drumming,” he said. “It’s textured. It’s polyphonic.” And this was the truth. Otto was indeed a virtuoso. His percussive range extended beyond rock to unnamable  rhythmic beats – on chimes, on triangle, on Oriental brass gongs – that seemed primeval and true. He had seemingly been born to hammer steel and skins.

“You’ve met our drummer,” the pale dancing girl told Chase. Her age, Chase thought, was impossible to guess. She looked twenty-two; she looked timeless. And her skin was somehow luminescent. “Now let me introduce our guitarist.”

She then held out a teacup-delicate tiny hand and pointed daintily at a man who was tall and silent. This man wore a long black poncho, his hood up, his coarse woven cuffs pressed together as though he were a monk who is lost in prayer.

“This is Taboo,” said the dancing girl. 

Chase began to offer this man his left gloved hand, his mere stump, a residual memory of his good manners, then hastily, awkwardly withdrew it. Such maladroitness shamed him. He had himself once been a musician; but he’d lost that self, ten years ago, when he’d lost his hand. He was now – what? A writer with no future. He put one gloved hand, protectively, to his bundled silk-swaddled throat. It was late September. And summer was now nearly gone; an hour left, perhaps two, perhaps three. Taboo looked past Chase Islington out into the night. The guitarist’s face was marble white; and his expression – as unreadable as a mausoleum’s weather-worn inscription.

“Taboo doesn’t speak,” the singer said. “He’s our mystic. As Otto’s our warrior.”

 

“And you?” Chase asked, his curiosity, his carnality, overriding his bashfulness. Ativan, ale and morphine swirling all in his blood tonight had made his mind delightfully porous. This girl, this band, his reeling, moonstruck consciousness recognized them. He had known them in his writer’s blocked imagination. Was this real or unreal then? Was there a difference?

“I am our poet,” she said. “All our words are mine. All our words, all our rhymes, all our silences. I’ve composed so many silences. What’s more expressive than nothing? A murmur, a sigh. A breath. A pulse beat. I am Paisley. And Chase Islington, it’s enchanting to see you once more. After so many years, after so many nights – nights lucid, nights eternal. And the night, Chase - trust me, it’s true – lasts forever.”

Paisley knew his name. But how? He had been a boy at the time, she explained. “Our show,” she told him, “is for you. Lucifer’s one rapt listener – Lucifer’s Children!. We sing always to the one who hears us. Who hears what’s behind the music. Who hears…”

“The rapture,” Chase said, without quite knowing what he was saying. He was at a loss. A dark cloud bank now cut slowly across the moon. Hushed was the alley beyond, hushed and sacred like a confessional. Like a coffin.   

“We know you, Chase Islington. I’ve heard you play the violin. Was it twelve years past? Thirteen? Fifteen? Such a gifted child! We marked you then. We’ve waited. You have talent.”

“Where have we been, Lucifer’s Children?” Otto now said, as if impelled to answer an unasked question. “Going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it.”

“Our travels,” said Paisley, “ought to be chronicled. Our concerts, our deeds.”

“Our crimes, our sins, our ecstasies” said Otto. “A chronicler is called for.”

Paisley told Chase that she’d read his work, his clippings, his publicity blurbs, his unfinished Gothic manuscripts. She had read it all. His prose was as fine as his music.

“My writing?” Chase asked. “My music? I am a cripple.” His leather-clad stump went to his collar. Chase Islington had not touched a violin since that summer in Cabo. And although he could no longer play an instrument, he had not forgotten that he’d once held reverently a rosin and bow. He had not forgotten, too, about the decision that he and his friends had made –  all émigrés for a season, all proud, all overachievers now turned reckless – in early July, ten years ago, to celebrate the Fourth in a foreign land with high-powered, chancy, black-market fireworks. Fireworks? No, these had been bombs: cherry bombs, firecrackers, M-80s. Never before had Chase seen or touched such things; these Mexican bombs had given him a liberating, nihilistic thrill. He’d been so weary of practicing, training, studying. All his days, a discipline. In his childhood, in his adolescence, and now, seemingly, on into his early adulthood. He was eighteen then. All his days ahead: tomorrow, and tomorrow, and…This was a future that, maddeningly,  he did and did not want. This fate, this gift. Already, for his art, he had sacrificed much. His art, then, was his passion, his misery. He knew that he did and that he did not want to be a concert violinist. His indecision, he knew, would soon rend him in pieces. Was it too late? Was there a solution? Was there no way out? In his deepest, most inarticulate self he had asked himself but would not truly acknowledge these questions. The answer was terror. His life had but music, and nothing more. He wanted more; he wanted less; he wanted nothing. H no longer knew what he wanted. On so the evening of The Fourth, in Mexico, Chase Islington had walked alone out of his friends’ beach house, come to the surf’s edge, and begun tossing lit explosives, one by one, in a fearsome sizzling arc into the black and briny Pacific. Each detonation was a wicked joy. This went on for nearly an hour. Then Chase took up a mad handful – M-80s , fireworks – cocked back his left hand, clutching close to his face these hissing, unstable ordinances, his eyes shut, thinking of nothing but freedom and the unseen sea, and –  held on a half-second too long. The blast maimed him. Three fingers and a thumb lost, a black-powder-burnt profile, and exquisitely harrowing nerve wreckage. All beyond healing.

Afterwards, mutilated, Chase had told everybody that it had been an accident. No one doubted him. But Chase himself knew that he had doubts. More than doubts. What had he really done? He wasn’t sure. The truth was unknowable.

Awful and unknowable. But Chase Islington knew all the same that his doubts – unexpressed, constant, insuppressible – would torment him the rest of his days. And so he finally came to want no more days. He wanted nullity. 

Again Paisley said, “Join us. Tell our story. Chronicle our witchery.” Then she recounted illustrious names: Herodotus, Tacitus, The Venerable Bede. Conquerors’ historians.

“Be a soldier of the night!” Otto told him. “Be bloody, bold and resolute.”

And Taboo, his black eyes unblinking, let his silence speak for him. A wordless invitation. An all-knowing blankness. A nothingness.

Chase said that he was confused. Join the band? Tonight? An historian?

Paisley then told him that Lucifer’s Children had not added a new member since the night that she had joined the band. A night in 1927, in a Chicago speakeasy. Paisley had been a flapper. A gangland chanteuse. A gun moll. And Otto? Taboo? They’d been a vaudeville act in a Southside music hall. “Yes,” Paisley said, “eighty-five years ago.” She slithered and slinked closer to Chase. “It’s time for new blood.” Her words were a whisper. A wind song. A welcome.

And, unaccountably, Chase felt elated, felt himself elected. All his twenty- eight years he had been seeking – in literature, in love, in the illicit – something exquisitely wrong. But Chase also knew that he was a man with two selves.

In his imagination, the dark, the grotesque held sway; in his daily habits, the sad, the staid. He was a man who recoiled alike from the real and the unreal. Such contradictions exhausted him. All he wanted was rest. 

“I was a Teutonic Knight,” Otto told him, “in the thirteenth century. And in battle in the Black Forest I met Genghis’s Golden Horde.” The drummer now looked a long while at the tavern’s courtyard mural. “A Tartar’s tainted arrow – it took me out of the fray. A wandering magus, though, healed me with his dark arts. With his necromancer’s lore.” The drummer turned from Chase, clomped heavily in his combat boots to the iron railing, and took hold of its spear-tipped top. He seemed to Chase as though he were searching for something unseen in the moon lit alley. “Afterward, for centuries,” Otto went on, “I roved the old world’s byways. And then in the last days of the Thirty Years’ War, in a ruined Albanian chapel, I came upon Taboo.” His rough, raspy voice now fell low. “Our silent, our ancient friend. Taboo had once been a Sumerian holy man almost five thousand years ago.” The drummer looked back, finally, to regard his listener with something close to sadness. “Time has turned him mute. Still, his lute’s chiming chords are as eloquent any orator’s syllables. As any wolf’s ravening cry.”

Chase Islington now caught in the night’s gathering wind a scent, at once heady and melancholy, of summer’s last wildflowers: sage, baneberry, feverfew. Such stories…such wonder, such horror.“Tell me more,” he said. He knew that this chance would not come again. 

Paisley came to him resting her head on his shoulder, coquettishly, and nuzzled his burnt, blanched skin. She held his ruined hand. And then she said, “You answer three questions.”

“First,” said Otto, in a stern soldierly voice. “Are you willing to kill?”

Chase’s answer was swift – and surprised even him. “Yes,” he said.

“Second,” Paisley said. “Are you in love with the night?” 

This was easy. Chase had always found wonder and beauty in the world after dark. A starlit, still rhapsody. “Yes,” he said. He was almost there. Almost across a last meridian.

Taboo now stepped forward and touched Chase on the chest, as a priest bless a condemned man, at the exact spot where Chase Islington’s thudding heart was.

“Third,” said Paisley, interpreting this mute sacramental act. “Are you ready to live forever?”

Chase now felt his stomach sink. He recalled his razor marks. His pills. His desolation. This chance – to chronicle a nightmare forever. It was a writer’s utmost challenge. Chase thought about the days ahead, the nights, infinite in number. He thought about recording them all. Numberless nights, numberless words. A Borgesian glory. He thought about this chance: to write an infinite book. An endless monument to memory. A record of all time to come. But he also knew the truth. He was sick of time. He’d had his fill. Infinity or the null set? At twenty-eight he was done. No more, no more. Was there no solution then? Was this his last moment? Chase waited. And he wished that he could tell a convincing lie – but he had only one answer. And it was an answer that Paisley somehow already knew. She’d lost him. She’d lost him to nothingness. 

“Chase, Chase,” she said. “What a pity, what a loss. It would have been enchanting. An endless escapade. A dark dance.

Truly, I thought you were the one.” Tenderly, Paisley put a lithe cold arm around Chase’s bowed head, loosened his silky coiled ascot and kissed his neck. Her lips parted. A last intimate act. And then two perfect alabaster fangs caught the moonlight. Her bite was a killing bite. A moment later Otto gathered up in his arms Chase Islington’s fallen, blood-emptied corpse, turned and heaved it out into the alley like a circus strongman chucking a medicine ball.

In the tavern’s cobblestone courtyard a dim red incandescent bulb now began to flash: on, off, on, off. Intermission’s end. And so it was time, once more, for Lucifer’s Children to play. 



 

JM Hollwig lives in the San Bernardino mountains in Southern California. He attended Brown University. He has studied the art of fiction at The Iowa Summer Writing Festival and at UCLA Extension. His work has appeared in The Beverly Hills Outlook, Santa Monica Review, and TImber Creek Review. His favorite Dark Fantasy writers are Clive Barker, Jeffrey Ford and Anne Rice. Bienvenue à la Danse, Jim.

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