LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

Rowena, by Sean Moreland

Rowena - Lackington's

When I was a small child, my father gave me a beautiful bird, with bright jade feathers, an ember-orange beak. I adored the bird, kept its gilded cage beside my bed. I would stroke its feathers, coo in response to its song, imagine that it sung meaningfully back to me. I spent some of my happiest days thus enthralled.

It sang but for two months, then fell silent.

I said nothing to my father or the nursemaid. I took the still bird from its cage, carried it with me on my wanderings about the estate. I took it from my pocket, lay its green body on the green grass, hoping the sunshine might revive it, hoping it would hear the song of its free fellows, be cheered back into breath. Play as it might over those jade feathers, the sun did not stir the bird’s form; still, I thought I saw a shimmer pass into the grass, as though the bird’s soul had fled its vessel. And maybe I did — for the soul’s wings spread after the passing of the flesh.

My love taught me nothing if not that.

*

My memory is a pallid songbird, sickening in a stone cage. It will soon fall silent. How, in so little time, through a voiceless song, will I make you understand? Father A. has done a kindness in bringing me these sheaves, this stylus and inkwell, and has sworn he will leave my testament, untouched and unadulterated, for you. But for his visits, the jibes of my gaoler, and your buried warmth, I am alone, cold, tired, but though my ragged body will soon be strung up and discarded, I remain unafraid. Outside, men howl for my death, call me witch and murderess, claim I have slain a nobleman. Their own laws deny they should have it at once, for my death would require yours, my growing innocent.

*

My name is, was, Rowena — Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine. The name is a relic of a green world gone. It says nothing of me, now. It belonged to another life, in which I walked through flowering fields, warm sun on my skin, swimming in misty dreams beneath skies of azure and cotton-cloud. All memory now, a gleaming bauble set high on a bookshelf, out of reach.

Tremaine was a life I passed from when I married the American, and took his name. I was brought to dwell with him in his drafty pile, the ancestral home of the Prynns. His grandfather had left to seek his fortunes in the New World; fortunate, since the rest of the clan fell prey to the wasting. Zebediah Prynn amassed a small fortune, passed it to his son, John, who amassed a larger one, leaving it finally to his own son, Edwin, my husband, the conveyance of my Angel.

Is Edwin still my husband, despite all that has elapsed?

No. There are bonds that death cannot dissolve — such as that which bound me to my Angel, such as that which binds me to you — but marriage is not among them. Still, his name, say the records, the courts, the gaolers, is yet mine. Or rather, I belong to it — Lady Edwin Prynn. They taunt me with his name — use it as one would a stick to beat a dog. How heavily it lies upon me, as his body once did, crushing the air from my breast. How can a name, so hollow, feel so heavy?

Against that weight, I reach back into the darkening corridors of my mind when for the first time I felt her weight upon me. Her supple spine, arcing, her inky spill between my fingers, against my cheek, her warm dry touch, the fire her unspoken secrets lit in my blood.

*

I knew that Edwin had been married before, that his wife had died. But I knew nothing of her until I found the book, the tracery of words that drew me to her across the chasm between spirit and flesh. So there is symmetry in my trying to reach you, the last living vestige of our love, through these words. Despite the feeble vanity of this ink, these hunched, hand-cramped, eye-sore hours… Despite the clumsiness of my fumbling with words, of which she was always master.

Besides, how else would I while these hours, withering away in this dank oubliette, waiting, wringing hope’s bony hands that I might be with her again in death, once you’re free of my flesh?

*

My rare and radiant Angel’s name was, remains, Ligeia. I knew it as a written invitation first, then heard it in my heart, where it hung like a bright moon, my every extremity howling at its beauty. Ligeia, my Angel, whose wings beat my blood, what can I write of you? I write instead of my father, and of the American.

*

I knew the man I would marry first as a name. Something in its sound touched me, it’s true. Edwin Prynn. It was a name that fell often from Father’s mouth, heavy with hope and fear, which I could sense despite his efforts to keep it hidden from me.

Even if I’d known then, as I do now, the emptiness of all names but hers, nothing would have been different. No, for it was written, in the cold stars, before time existed.

*

Names meant much to my father, his blue eyes paling, a cataract coming over them. Perhaps it was his looking always to the fortunes, the future, of the family, that finally brought on his blindness. Who can say? After the death of my brother, that future became a burden I was to bear.

Yes, I can recall my father, with his white crest of hair, bent over Prynn’s epistles, palsied hand clasping the Trevanion seal clotted with red wax, raised to stamp his letter, my life, with that fatal blot. His hair had once been a banner of gold, before age and grief bleached it brittle, as the sun does old bones. My hair was the same, a flag of innocence and health, the gold announcing our noble lineage, a gold shared by the lions that adorn our crest. They were noble beasts; I looked upon them with comfort. I wondered if their gilt coats had been woven from the gold that crowned our heads, or whether those enchanted beasts had loaned their manes to my family, a sign of their favour.

You will never see them, I suspect, as the Trevanion line is lost now. You will, I hope, find a home far from here.

*

Edwin was not your father. Understand that I do not write this out of hatred. Despite all that he did, all the pain he wrought, his weakness in the face of the demon laudanum, I do not despise poor, dead Edwin, who provided the conveyance that carried me to my Angel’s embrace.

I can recall with painful precision the moment I laid eyes on him, wealthy but sere, the American who would become my husband, my lord — and yes, my lover, though never my love. No, I shall only ever have one love, undying and true. But I cannot write of her yet, I am unready. See how thoughts of her unsteady my cramped hand!

*

Edwin arrived in the midst of a hazy spring afternoon. I first saw the carriage that bore him as I returned from my walk along the lake. Our remaining manservant ushered me into my father’s drawing room, where Edwin waited. That meeting was a sweetness barely tasted before it bittered upon the tongue.

His slightness surprised me. He was taller, true, than I, but by little. I had expected that Edwin would be a large man, grand. No — he was sunken, his complexion sallow, his eyes a vague blue, lids heavy, his forehead high, hair an autumnal red-brown, flecked with white and grey, as with the first snows that precede the fury of winter. He was aged beyond his years, if indeed he was but thirty-three, and his drooping moustaches increased the lugubrious cast of his visage.

More, though, I was seized by his haunted gaze. Something in the hungry way his eyes caught me brought heat to my cheeks, chest, shoulders — a flush whose fire clashed with the ice thickening my blood. His look fell upon me with such dreadful weight that I was overawed by it. There was in that gaze something not him, nor of man at all, but wholly, awfully other, something which struck me with a familiarity all unspeakable.

*

My father knew immediately — as, in my girlish way, did I — that Edwin was taken with me, and so, a mere two days after his visit, his letter of proposal came, borne by a brisk, cloaked courier who spoke barely a word. That proposal met, of course, with my father’s calculating assent. While we were of noble name, the Trevanions had little remaining wealth, whereas the Prynn estate was flush, for Edwin himself had increased the estate with his popular scribblings. He had, as my father told me nervously, returned to his grand ancestral home, but two hours’ ride from ours.

*

What lies my father told me! Within a fortnight, Edwin sent for his new bride; a noisy, heavily curtained carriage brought me, not to the handsome palace I’d hoped for, but to an ancient, sagging ruin, a shamble of damp stones, blankly shuttered windows, and stale incense. The Prynns, I learned, had procured the Abbey from the King two centuries ago, for services rendered to the Crown.

I was shocked, at first, that Edwin Prynn, with all his wealth, would choose to make his home in such a place. I soon came to understand.

He came here, to this haunted pile, in the hopes that its robbed and murdered monks might keep at bay the only ghost that ever frightened him: she, under whose shadow I unwittingly fell the moment I was born.

*

I was not entirely surprised that I was to sleep in a chamber of my own; truthfully, I was relieved. It was only after a month of marriage that my husband came to my chamber, desiring consummation. Once, I took comfort from the thought that she, too, must have endured this — but I soon realized that Edwin had always been far too afraid to lay with her. Her lunary perfection, her night-wide eyes, her magnificent mind held him at bay.

*

Fair-haired, trusting, open as a summer’s day, I was not so fortunate.

He pushed my white nightgown up until it bunched below my arms. I felt not the attraction I knew I should; instead, at his tremulous touch, my soul folded up within, a flower clutched by frost, and the sweat that stood on my exposed skin felt cold. The shaking of his thin limbs reminded me, horribly, of my father’s palsy, and I was grateful when his spent body fell from mine and he crawled away from me, furtively.

He lay, draped across the edge of the bed, and he muttered to me of her, without saying her name. He muttered of her beauty, of her mad pursuit of Truth, of how she hid from him behind fortresses of philosophy, theology, of how, like the night-blooming Nyctanthes, she wasted her perfume on the obscurity of metaphysicians… Of how he could never reach the penetralium of her soul’s palace.

I asked him her name, and his eyes stung me into silence. He stumbled from the room, in search of his Nepenthe, the laudanum he indulged in with ever-increasing regularity.

It was then, my maidenhead taken, that I found what she had left for me. As though, perversely, his penetration of my body made her penetration of my soul possible, mad as that must sound.

*

I was left, much of the time, to my own devices, as Edwin often travelled to London or Paris. It was during one of these absences that I sought solace in the large library wherein he often paced and dozed but rarely seemed to read.

Did I desire to construct my own armour of dry paper and abstruse erudition? Perhaps — I previously had no interest in such esoteric subjects. I told myself I was looking for some romance into which I could escape. Yet I was drawn, that day, solely to volumes venerable and ponderous. Finally, an urge unaccountable drove me to a weighty tome, its spine stamped with faded gold lettering I could not read. It was German, I believe, the work of some turgid scholar or divine. The virginal sheeting of dust told me it had not been touched since Edwin took residence in the Abbey.

Upon opening the tome, however, I realized it was an ingenious deceit, for after the frontispiece with its gothic script, the remaining pages were of newer paper, and inscribed in a fleeting, elegant script. I remember well the first phrase my eyes made out:

How is it that the absolute I goes out of itself and opposes a Not-I to itself?

It was thus that I first saw the flowing hand of the lady Ligeia.

*

Had I any doubts about the book’s nature and author, they were immediately dashed. Sweeping through the dusty pages, I came upon a portrait, sketched in ink, each line forceful, flawlessly evocative. The swept shadows of her hair, the high arc of her forehead, the sculpted cheeks and nose, and, especially, the wide wells of her eyes, impossibly lustred, sensually dimensional. I felt I could explore each feature with my fingers, although when I tried, they met mere paper.

But the inky eyes of the lady Ligeia gazed into mine, and I felt my heart would fail.

The book held many sketches by the lady and a river of her written thoughts, their elegance interrupted by lengthy quotations in Greek, Latin, French, German, and many strange tongues besides. Woven with these quotes were names I’d not read before: Plato, Plotinus, Glanville, Kant, Calmet, Schelling, Swedenborg. This flow of words was punctuated not only by sketches but also eldritch formulae and elaborate diagrams, their functions unknown to me.

Yes, this was her journal, hidden from Edwin, which I was fated to find. This was her invitation to me, from the far side of that chasm across which only the soul’s bright wings can carry us.

Had he brought it with him, unwittingly, from America? Had it preternaturally been made to appear here? I could not ask. I quickly closed the book and brought it to my chamber, fearful the servants should see me with it and report it to Edwin upon his return.

*

Once in my sanctum, I placed the book upon the writing desk, which I had previously used only to compose quick letters to my father, letters which never voiced complaint of the cold, lonely state of my married life.

I pored over her words until evening, which the return of my intoxicated husband served to further darken. Hearing him, I hid the book in a recession between the rear legs of my chamber’s great walnut wardrobe. It waited there, in darkness, for my return. My soul waited, too, in a darkness all its own, for what those words, the beating of their inky wings, could stir from its depths.

*

The Angel left for me the book, and the book brought to me the Angel.

I dreamt that night that my mouth, my eyes were sewn shut. Unable to see or speak, I sensed her presence. She came to comfort me. She kissed my face, her lips smooth and cool. Her tongue swept the stitches from my lips, which bloomed for her. She freed my tongue, which fast found hers. She kissed my eyes, opened those sealed flaps of skin gently. My blue eyes poured into her dark wells. Opening, her white form took me, hid me within her inmost matrix. She whispered my name, promised me that this dream was but the beginning, that soon I would awake within her, awake to have her within me.

My soul was a shimmering green bird, lifted from a grassy grave and made to sing.

When I woke that morning — and every morning after — the mysterious taste of her name remained in my mouth, her orchidaceous scent still laced my skin, ghost-fleshed by the miracles she drew from me during sleep.

*

While Edwin was travelling, or while he was in the library, ensconced in the laudanum’s embrace, I puzzled over the weighty passages of her book, which always seemed to open its dusty skin eagerly to my seeking eyes and fingers.

I had no education in these languages, and could at first but wonder at what secret their black script hid. Yet my tongue, teeth and lips felt drawn to pronounce these strange syllables, and I found their sounds gradually steeping my thoughts and speech. Plato calls this aletheia, I read, the word coming into my mouth like a gently questing kiss. Aletheia, the making-bare of truth. An Angel rose in my mind, unfurling the infinite words of her expanding wings, and standing naked, she awakened me to becoming.

These words she drew from a legion of writers, wove into a gown fit for the figure of deathless eternity! As my eyes devoured them, my lips moved over them, tracing kisses over this corpus as over her perfect, palpitating form, finding in each syllable the scent and taste of her every crevice and extremity.

Murmuring these words in a delirious chant, I imagined them falling from her mouth into mine, poured into my wide eyes and ears on the moist medium of her tongue. Reading her, being read, I tried to mouth the words silently, but now and then a moan must have escaped me. I was brought back to myself by the sound of footsteps in the hall, and I hid the book quickly, hoping my incantation had gone unheard.

*

I slept, my body coiled around her name. I felt sure, as sleep stole over my limbs, that I would awaken to a world in which she lay, bodily, beside me. Always, though, in the morning the bed was empty.

*

Then came the grave day I was awakened by a cry, and rose, blinking, to find Edwin crouched before me, dishevelled, his pupils contracted to furious points. His right arm was raised, an accusing claw pointed at my still-bare breast, on which slept the book, her pages dewed from the sweet sweat she drew from me in sleep.

I sought words to appease him, but could find none, as he lurched toward me, commingled terror and jealousy contorting his face. I was shocked by the speed and strength of the blow he struck, had never seen Edwin move so forcefully before. He tore the book from my hands and clutched it to himself, shuddering in his apoplexy.

He fled, bearing away the book. He locked me in my chamber, and I wept brokenly.

*

Nightfall found me feverish, listing into a sorrow-numbed swoon. It was then I realized the needlessness of my weeping. For though he had taken the book, he could not take her words from me; my passion had printed them upon my nerves. As sleep whelmed me, so did her soundless voice, whispering in my head, tracing secrets upon my skin. Every surface, every crevice of my body was pulsing paper on which her wisdom was writ.

*

I was unaware that my fever worsened, so interwoven was my every thought with her words. I was barely aware of Edwin’s presence. He wept, beseeched, raged at me, demanding I return to him. Something he murmured during one of my lucid intervals impressed itself upon my memory, although it meant little to me at the time:

“I wanted her, wanted her to want me… She was my wife, why did she not want me? The old man promised they would work, the rosary beads, he promised she would want me… They would have worked, would have, had the consumption not come on too soon… Even as she lay dying, I felt she would soon open to me, admit me, accept me into her… Now, I fear she will draw you, too, from me… My wife… I will not lose her…not lose…you… She will not have you… Mine…”

*

I awoke from the fever some time the next day, drained and disappointed to lose her delirious embrace, to gain only Edwin’s narcotized yet nervous form hovering over me. Staring up at this dissipated wreck, I could no longer understand what I thought I’d seen in his eyes. Had they not once drawn me in?

Now they were a watery, washed-out blue, pale and devoid of that powerful expression which first stirred my soul. I realized, nauseously, that his eyes were those of my father, and my blood flowed cold with this recognition.

*

As I became the book, Ligeia’s script beneath my skin told me much. Both my father and Edwin told me that she died of the wasting, and indeed she wrote of the weakness and nausea that had troubled her since childhood. But this disease had not led to her death.

Edwin had told me, in his opiated lubricity, of the distance he’d always felt from her. He’d mentioned rosary beads, which I took to mean he’d prayed for her affection, for intimacy, that her body would, like a nurtured orchid, open to him, at last.

But the beads he spoke of had nothing to do with prayer.

The physician had ordered her to take red wine, twice a day, every day, to raise her blood, and combat that anemia to which she had been, since childhood, subject. Edwin insisted upon serving her, refused vehemently when she tried to serve herself or asked the servants to do so. He always poured the rich red fluid into a goblet, crested with the griffin and staves of the Prynns.

For in the last month of her life, he’d added an ingredient of his own.

*

With caresses, she drew me to the kitchen. There, I discovered, amidst the rubbish, a handful of shattered red shells, broken rosary beads. Ligeia’s will burned brightly in my head, as she finally understood.

She led me to the library, to the botanical encyclopedia. The berries were widespread in the tropics, were known as jumbie beads to some, called rosary beads by others.

Edwin had returned from business in the tropics just a month before Ligeia’s death. There, he’d purchased the berries from some witch-doctor. They were reputed to be a potent aphrodisiac, but fatal in larger doses.

Her husband, my husband, had killed her. And, judging by the litter of blood-red berry shells we found, was now slowly killing me.

Ligeia seemed undisturbed by this revelation. Without knowing what caused her death, she had nonetheless known she must die. She must die, so that through me, she would be reborn.

But we could not let me die until that had been accomplished.

*

If only I still had the book. If only I still was the book. Without the book, her words, her presence, my mind is inadequate to the task of narration. Seven months half-starved in these stinking stone bowels have left little of my intellect intact.

I still feel as though much of what I read and saw is etched upon my nerves, yet I recall little when I try to write it down. The words, the images, flutter away, are choked back down my parched throat before I can utter them. They scurry away with the rats that share my cell before I can scratch them out.

Sometimes in this wet, waiting dark I doubt that I could have read them at all. Then, as you stir within me, I know this cannot be true, for I can feel her, her power, in your impatient vitality.

*

Edwin had been the instrument, however unwitting, of her death, and would serve the same for her return. She traced the plan, the ritual, along my belly, ribs, breasts, as I lay back against the bed, letting it trickle into me.

It tickled, and a fierce heat stirred my belly, just as you do now.

*

First, we found the cache of berries Edwin hid away in his chamber. We cracked them, ground their flesh, mixed in the contents of the brown laudanum bottle he’d left, half-drained, in the library.

We took the goblet with the Prynn crest, ground off the bas-relief griffin and staves, crushed the lead into powder. We mixed this with a handful of ground slate, slurried it with rainwater gathered from the throats of the Abbey’s gargoyles. We formed a smooth paste.

Then, Ligeia’s will warming me, I sat before my chamber’s mirror. Together, smiling at the reflection which ceased to seem mine and became evermore hers, I combed this paste through my hair until it fell full-black over my shoulders. We applied the powder to our face until it shone moon-pale.

Finally, the lovely face of Ligeia looked back at us. Filled with desire for ourselves and a sense of implacable purpose, we descended into the vaults to await our husband’s return.

*

Finding us missing from our chamber, he was quick to search the house, and our low moan drew him down.

The vision shattered him, as we knew it would. Seeing us, overwhelmed with terror and desire, he fell to the floor in a paroxysm.

The shroud which swathed us fell from our nakedness as we rose, and we moved to him, lowered our body upon him where he trembled and wept, struggling against himself.

*

For the first time, the lady Ligeia lay with the man who had been her husband. For the last time, I lay with the man who had been mine.

I had endured his touch before, but this time was different. I received it with rapture because, in the lines that grief, agony, and poppy-hunger had etched into his face, I could make out the tracery of her name. I received it with a scream of praise because I glimpsed her in his sunken eyes, dilated by ecstasy. Seeing that look, I understood what had drawn me to Edwin in the first place: her gaze, writ over his eyes.

*

Our body moved over him, I within her and she within me, our souls in exquisite concatenation. As we thrust down upon him, I saw her dark wells rush up at me from his slack face, felt my blue eyes run down into hers.

As we ground against him, I felt her feel his flesh driven deep into me.

On the cold stones, we came together, an uncontrollable mystery. Two bodies, three souls bent and bled into one. I felt her pleasure magnifying mine, and not the pressure of his jutting bones, the tacky clamp of his thin, greying hands, the poppied bitterness of his breath.

It was over quickly. I was relieved to have done with his body, but desolated by her receding will, which left me trapped in this flesh. Bereaved by her dark look leaving his pale empty eyes that began to roll insensibly up into his head. I left him there, waiting for the beads to finish their work.

Climbing the staircase, I could feel the string of his seed unwind within, but smiled, knowing its shivering trickle had nothing to do with him. It had been she who spilled this life within me.

You, my love, the angel of my Angel, were so conceived.

*

How incessant, the pain of these cold stones. I wish for the wingbeat of her words thrumming through this body once more, before we are forced from it, my love, before it is hung from the gallows, its eyes given to the black birds gathered outside, their rank wings fluttering against the barred casement, a dim omen of the wings that will bear my spirit up when flesh falls away, and my Angel comes.

I look forward to the revelation the end of that rope will bring. Let the crows have my eyes. Ligeia showed me that we do not need them. I will watch over you until the day you reach aletheia, my Ligeia, and know you were made whole again through the love of your mother, who was called Rowena.

*

For can there be anything more One than what has no parts into which it may be discerped? Or more subtile than what does not only penetrate Matter, but itself? Or at least other Substances of its own Kind. For a Spirit can penetrate a Spirit, although Matter cannot penetrate Matter.

—Glanville, Saducismus Triumphatus, XXXI

 *

Issue 2 (Spring 2014)

Story copyright © 2014 by Sean Moreland

Artwork copyright © 2014 by Tomasz Wieja

Sean Moreland’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in The Malahat Review, The Puritan, The Ottawa Arts Review, Bywords.ca, ditch, Pavor Nocturnus, Allusions of Innocence, Twisted Boulevard, and elsewhere. He also publishes scholarly non-fiction and has co-edited the essay collections Fear and Learning, Holy Terrors, and The Lovecraftian Poe. He is founder and fiction editor of Postscripts to Darkness (PstD), a serial anthology of weird fiction and art.

Tomasz Wieja is an illustrator, photographer, and art director based in Poland. A graduate of Fotoacademie Rotterdam, he combines studio and location photography with photomanipulation in order to seek out new undiscovered realities. His work has been exhibited in galleries in the Netherlands and Poland, printed in the prestigious GUPNew Yearbook, and nominated for the Dutch Photo Academy Award. He currently makes up part of the Treslettres Collective.

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This entry was posted on May 13, 2014 by in Stories.
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