by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by iron eater, 2013, and cerine
“All right,” said Malcolm, drawing his knees up to his chest, “who’s first?”
The bottle of brandy set in the midst of them had been pilfered from the dean’s private stash, but since he wasn’t strictly supposed to have it there in the first place, Reginald had argued, there’d be little chance of his making a commotion upon finding it gone. Of course, he’d made this argument only after showing up in the dormitory’s small third-story common room with the purloined spirits, at which point old adages about begging forgiveness and asking permission suddenly seemed quite relevant. He was the most rakish of the lot, and indeed of the whole college; he was here on scholarship, on account of his brilliance at engineering, which covered steep tuition the other young men’s parents coughed up every semester. The other lads never let him forget it, but he in turn never let them forget how his name looked listed above theirs when exam results were posted. He was there because his parents couldn’t afford the train ride home from more than once a year.
Gautam tossed another log on the fire, though it didn’t stop his shivering. “I don’t understand why we are doing this again.” He was there because by the time he’d traveled all the way home to Madras, he would have had only enough time to remark on how he didn’t celebrate Christmas anyway before turning on his heel and starting the journey right back to his volumes of poetry.
“It’s tradition, yeah?” Izzy was another non-celebrant, though Hebraic where Gautam was Hindu. He was also an American, though, and thus had similar reasons for remaining over the winter holidays, his nose in his books of anatomy. “Read about it. Dickens and the Ghosts of Christmas What-Have-You. Not such a thing back home, so far as I can tell, but hey, when in Rome, right?”
Malcolm was a pedant by nature, but nevertheless refrained from pointing out that they weren’t in Rome, but in Sheffield. He himself had no family to return to. “It’s a tradition,” he confirmed, reaching for the brandy and taking a swift swig. It burned inside him, sending warmth spreading out to the farthest reaches of his extremities, even though he knew it made his cheeks flush and all the freckles dotting his fair skin that much more visible. “It’s just what you do on Christmas Eve.”
“They’ve got to be real stories, yeah,” said Reginald, reclaiming his purloined prize. “But they don’t have to have happened, no, I don’t think.”
“But it’s better if they happened,” said Malcolm.
“But it’s better if they happened,” Reginald agreed.
“Must they be scary?” asked Gautam. He’d earlier made clear his intentions to abstain from the bottle, but he’d brought a pack of rough brown cigarettes. He’d offered them to the rest before lighting one and tucking it in the corner of his mouth, puffing away from it every so often; half-hidden beneath a mound of heavy wool blankets as he was, he had the appearance of a small, soft volcano.
Malcolm looked over at Reginald, to find that Reginald was looking back at him, waiting for his judgment. Very well, then, he was to be the arbiter of the evening’s festivities. He hadn’t dared hope for such a quorum when he’d gone around to each of them after supper that evening, as each sat alone in the cavernously empty dining hall, occupying their separate customary places, a small archipelago of life amongst the vacant chairs and bare tables. Frankly, he’d expected at least one of them to back out this time. He hadn’t dared hope again for Izzy’s bald enthusiasm, or Gautam’s willing curiosity, or Reginald’s indulgent smile, as each of them had told him yes, they’d be glad to convene again upstairs that night.
“Ah, no.” Malcolm cleared his throat, then shook his head for emphasis. “No, they needn’t. Some can be funny! But scary is also good.”
“And if we’ve told all our own already?” asked Gautam, puffing sweet-smelling grey clouds with every word.
“It’s all right to tell them about people you know, right?” Izzy reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a kerchief with various biscuits and sweets tied inside. Malcolm hadn’t asked anyone to bring anything, though he was now glad that his schoolmates seemed to have a sense of potluck propriety above and beyond his own. “The ‘I have a friend who’ business? Because in that case, I’ll go first.”
Reginald stretched back, crossing his long legs in front of him at the ankles. “This’ll be rich. I didn’t know Yanks had been over there long enough to have ghosts.”
“Are you kidding? There’s Indian ghosts all over the place,” Izzy said, glancing over at Gautam as Gautam’s eyebrow raised. “Our kind, not yours. But everybody else came to America from somewhere else, somewhere they had families, somewhere old.” The firelight shone off the thick black curls that framed his handsome, boyish face. “And sometimes, some old things came with them.”
Izzy’s Tale: The Dybbuk and the Ibbur
I can’t swear how true this is. I mean, you know, you hear things from people who hear things from people, people talk, people say things, people are people, right? So I can swear I heard it, but I can’t swear the person I heard it from was telling it just like it happened. Fair? This still count? Great.
It was my aunt I heard it from, my Auntie Goldie, who’s not my real aunt so much as– Anyway, doesn’t matter. Auntie Goldie was a real old-country woman, my mother used to say; she never learned more than a few words of English, just enough to get around Brooklyn, and she treats the Sabbath like … well, like our people are supposed to, but don’t. She won’t so much as look too hard at a dial on the radio from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. My own family, we don’t care so much about that ourselves, and my parents even let my middle sister marry a goyische dentist. Nice guy. Great teeth. Not the point. The point is that Auntie Goldie is from the old country, and she believes all the things the old country folk believed.
Long before she came to America, Goldie married and had two sons, Yoni and Zalman. Her husband died when the boys were small, so they’d been the men of the house from the time they were just barely old enough to know what that meant. Yoni was two years older than Zalman, and he had two goals in life: to take care of his mother, and to take care of his baby brother. Those boys were together almost every waking moment, and when they went to sleep, they tucked right up into bed like they were the last two sardines in a tin. Yoni was the kind of kid who took responsibility seriously.
Now, some years later she’d fallen on hard times, so Goldie had moved in with another family — her dead husband’s cousin’s wife’s brother’s something-or-other. You know. Family. Anyway, they had a whole mess of kids, mostly older, but one who’d been born the year right between Yoni and Zalman — a boy named Davit. He was smart, he had the brains to do anything he wanted, his mama always said, but he’d been born with his body all twisted up. His feet didn’t work right, and his hands couldn’t quite grip anything more than a spoon to feed himself, and his mouth slanted to the right — like this, see? — so that you could barely understand two words out of his mouth. But his brain was good! He was the smartest of all his mama’s kids. A good engine stuck in a bad machine, if you know what I’m saying.
Of course, he was ugly, so all the kids in the village made fun of him, because that’s what kids do, right? They’d throw rocks and call names, so he stayed inside his house most of the time. So when Goldie showed up to live there, she talked to Yoni and Zalman first about it. Be nice to zat boy– Christ, I’m not going to do the accent, you just imagine it. Anyway, she told them, you be nice to that boy, because God is watching, and God created all things large and small, bent and straight, exactly the way He wanted them to be. Even so, she didn’t have much hope, because kids are kids, and boys are boys, and boys rarely listen to anything their parents say about God. And she was half right, at least — Zalman didn’t want anything to do with this cripple who lived in his new house. He was polite, of course, because he knew deep down God was watching, but that only kept him from cruelty; it didn’t make him kind.
Yoni, however — well, he was a special boy, Goldie had always known that, and from the moment he met Davit, they were stuck together like glue. All the jobs that Davit’s mama had been doing before, they pretty soon became Yoni’s. He’d help feed Davit and bathe him, and he’d hold up the books so that they could read together. Yoni was a bright enough boy, but Davit was smarter, so Yoni wound up borrowing books far over his head just so that he could keep Davit happy. In no time flat, he was understanding everything that Davit said, even things Davit’s mother couldn’t quite make out. And when they all tucked down for sleep, half of Davit’s bed quickly became Yoni’s.
Of course, all Yoni’s time that went to Davit was time that used to go to Zalman. Oh, sure, they’d run errands together and do their chores together, but every second he had free, Yoni was now at Davit’s side. Now I’m just saying what Goldie said here, but she always said that Zalman’s heart was a tender little thing, and the problem with tender hearts is that they’re easy to hurt, and sometimes when they get hurt, they turn into rocks. And Zalman was only nine or ten when they moved in, still too young to understand a lot of things about how people work. All he saw was that this twisted boy had stolen his brother from him.
Things went fine that way for years, though. The boys grew and learned, and Zalman did his best not to be jealous. Because Yoni still spent time with him, anyway, and they went on long walks together and they talked together about the things they’d learned in school. But over time, all of Yoni’s sentences began to start with ‘Davit’. Oh, he’d say, that reminds me that Davit said– Or, Davit did a funny thing– Where Zalman thought he should have heard his brother say Zalman, Zalman, Zalman, all he heard was Davit, Davit, Davit. And there went that heart, turning a little more into a stone every time.
The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, though, was when Zalman woke in the middle of the night and heard movement from the other bed. At first he thought something had gone wrong with Davit, maybe he’d caught some illness or maybe his insides were as twisted as his outsides — but then he heard a laugh, muffled against a pillow, followed by another, deeper laugh he recognized as coming from his brother’s chest. He heard Davit whisper something, something garbled in the twisted speech Zalman had never tried to understand, and then he heard Davit whisper back, I love you too.
The next morning, Zalman got up, got dressed, walked out the door, and went down near the river to the place all the village boys gathered when they were up to no good. Okay, he said to them all, picking up a stone. I’ve got a plan.
A few days later, Yoni and Davit were walking together back from the baker’s house. Davit had crutches now, and leg braces that made walking possible, but it didn’t make it easy. Yoni didn’t mind, though, and they’d take it slow, step by step all the way back to their house. They’d made the trip dozens of times before. This time, though, Zalman came running up from the house and grabbed Yoni by the collar. You’ve got to come, he said; Mother’s taken a fall and is hurt badly!
Without even thinking, Yoni took off, running as fast as his tall, strong legs could carry him, with Zalman only inches behind. And once they’d turned the corner on the road and disappeared from sight, the other boys of the village descended on helpless Davit.
What happened next, nobody knows, because nobody wants to say, and all the boys were the perfect alibis for one another’s innocence. But suffice it to say, Yoni got back to the house and found Goldie standing by the stove, stirring a pot of stew, with no injuries about her at all. Yoni’s face went ash-white, and he turned around and sprinted back to Davit — but by the time he made it back, the boys were gone, and Davit’s body was lying crumpled by the side of the road.
He must have fallen, said the village doctor later; he’d probably just collapsed when one of his crutches gave way, taken a bad tumble, and hit his head on the stone fence that lined the road. A hardier boy might have been able to brush it off, but Davit had always been so weak to begin with. He lasted two more days — and Yoni never left his side, all the way through — before he breathed his last.
Goldie said that when Davit died, it was like a candle inside Yoni had been blown out too. He still did his schoolwork and his chores, but he did them like a machine, with neither joy nor anger. He went to services and he said his prayers, but without any indication he thought God might be listening. When the village butcher announced that summer he was looking for an apprentice, Yoni agreed to learn the trade, and he did everything he was asked, and he did it all perfectly. But Goldie said that it was like watching a body without a soul. She even began to worry that Yoni might do himself in, or stop eating or something, but he never did. He kept going, almost like he just couldn’t think of a good reason to keep living, but he couldn’t think of a better reason to stop.
And Zalman — well, that was when the trouble with Zalman started.
He’d always been a tall boy, and by thirteen he was the same height as his brother, and looked to be ready to grow even taller. But now he started walking with a hunch, complaining of backaches. Goldie had the doctor examine him, and the doctor said he was fine, his back and spine were all right, there was no reason he should be feeling like that. It didn’t matter; he began to slouch anyway, then to stoop. His shoulders hunched forward, sort of rolled like this, like he had some sort of big sack on his back at all times. He’d loved to run before, and he’d always been strong, but now that strength was sapping away from him.
He and Yoni still spoke to one another, of course, as much as Yoni spoke to anyone, but Zalman could see it, every time Yoni looked at him, that quiet blame. Zalman knew Yoni’d never accuse him or anyone else of causing Davit’s death, but the closest thing anyone ever saw to an emotion on Yoni’s face those days was when he looked at his brother with his hard, cold stare.
That was how it went for years — Yoni at the butcher’s, going through his tasks, coming home every night stinking of blood, speaking to no one, having no time for the pretty girls in the village who tried to catch his eye; Zalman growing ever more hunchbacked, pressed under some invisible weight that kept him from anything but the easiest of physical tasks, unwilling or maybe even unable to confess what he’d did.
And then one morning that spring, about the time the creeks had all started to thaw, Levi the Exorcist rode into town.
Everyone gathered around, because sure, everyone had heard tell of the itinerant Jewish exorcists, but only the oldest people in the village had ever seen one. He was a tall man, a head taller than even the tallest village youth, and his hair and eyes both were soft and brown. His saddlebags bulged and had weird symbols carved into the leather. His tallit had every inch embroidered with prayers and little bells hung from the tzitzit at the corners. When the children crowded around him, he gave them little candies and reminded them to say their prayers. Then he asked for a place to stay.
Davit’s mother offered him and his donkey space in the family’s barn, which back then was pretty good in terms of a guest room, and Levi followed them to their farm, out on the edge of the village. The second they turned up the path, though — and I mean, the second — Zalman appeared at the window and Levi stopped in his tracks. Is this what you brought me here for? he asked, clutching a big amulet around his chest.
Goldie and Davit’s mother both started protesting: no, no, they were just being hospitable to a stranger, they had no need of his services. But Levi walked on up to Zalman, and the taller Levi stood, the smaller Zalman seemed. He was still just a kid, pretty much, but he was all hunched over like an old man, until he’d had to start using Davit’s old crutches to get around for long distances. A dybbuk, said Levi, pointing at Zalman — and I’m not going to do the accent, not even going to try, don’t even ask — a dybbuk has bent this boy’s shoulders, and until it’s gone from him, he won’t be able to stand straight again.
So they took him into the house and they cleared the house’s one big table, then lit the Shabbos candles all around the room. Levi went to pray and wash in the river, since exorcists have to be clean too, or they’re in trouble. By they time they finished, it was well on past noon, which meant they had to hurry, because Shabbos would start at sundown, and that was when nothing could get done — not an exorcism, not anything. Levi didn’t want to wait for Saturday’s sundown, though; he said that now the dybbuk knew he was here, it might cause even greater misery with what time it had left. Hunched over and shaking, Zalman was brought into the room and laid on the table. Only Levi, Goldie, Davit’s mother, and Yoni were there. Through all this, Yoni had done everything Levi had asked of him, but had spoken only when spoken to, and not even shown a flicker of sorrow when he’d learned of his brother’s affliction. I’m sorry, Goldie said to Levi, he doesn’t mean to be like this; he used to be such a friendly boy.
What happened? asked Levi, looking Yoni up and down.
Davit’s mother told him: My son died, and they were such close friends, grief just stripped him of himself.
Levi looked from Yoni to Zalman and then back to Yoni again, then took his tallit and lifted it so that it covered his hair and fell down across his shoulders. The little bells jingled as he lifted his book to his chest and began to read. Goldie said she didn’t know what he read — back in the old country, all the business of reading the Torah was for the men, so most of the women either never bothered or never got the chance to learn more than the important prayers in Hebrew — but man oh man, did it do the trick. Zalman pitched and groaned on the table, thrashing about like he was being torn apart. He had to cling on to the edge of the table just to keep from being thrown off, and even so, this big oak table — just a huge thing, big enough for a dozen people and more — rocked back and forth on its legs. It seemed to go on for hours, praying and shouting and praying more, as a battle went on only Zalman and Levi could understand.
Goldie and Davit’s mother clung to one another; Goldie was crying now, seeing her baby in pain like that. Only Yoni looked on like nothing was going on at all, not scared or happy, not sad or mad, just … there. Like he was looking at a child’s toy or a plate of food, something interesting but not notable. Zalman shouted in pain and the women sobbed, but Yoni just stood there. Just like that. Like this happened every day.
Levi reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of salt and tossed it on Zalman, and Zalman hissed like he’d been burned with coals. Levi did it again several minutes later, and then a third time, and each time Zalman was howling louder and louder, until Goldie heard herself screaming for this to stop, just stop! She figured that as bad as life with a painful hunch would be for her boy, it was better than killing him!
But Davit’s mother held her back, and with one more toss of salt, there was a … a kind of ripping sound. Like the sound of cloth, or maybe the sound of skin. Levi held out his hands, and a little gold light flew into it as Zalman collapsed on the table. Goldie rushed to his side, cradling him, while Davit’s mother and Yoni stood by. What’s that? asked Davit’s mother, pointing to the shining little ball as it floated just above Levi’s fingers.
A soul, said Levi, peering around at all sides of it. The gold light sparkled off his eyes, and it was only then Goldie realized all the candles had gone out, and the only lights in the farmhouse were from the setting sun and the glowing orb in Levi’s hands. There’s a lot of anger in here, and fear. That’s why it became a dybbuk — it was afraid, and holding on was all it knew how to do.
Davit’s mother reached out, and little bits of the light floated toward her fingers, wrapping around them. Her eyes went wide. It’s my son, she said. It’s my baby.
For the first time in years, Yoni turned without being asked and looked, his eyes wide. What happens now? he asked, and hearing that startled Goldie; he’d spoken so little in so many years, and now the man’s deep voice that came from out his lips was all but unknown to her.
Levi looked Yoni up and down again, considering him with a gaze that saw more that normal eyes could ever hope to see. At last, he smiled and lifted the gold light over Yoni’s head, then let go. The light became rain, settling all over Yoni’s head and shoulders, glowing around him like fireflies until, one by one, they settled on him and sunk into his skin. It was almost too dark to see anything in the room by the time Yoni opened his eyes again — and he smiled, for the first time since before Davit died, he smiled.
He didn’t say anything after that, but he embraced Davit’s mother first, then did the same for Goldie as she wept into his chest. At last he came to his brother, who still lay sprawled across the table, exhausted and pale, but with his back once more straight. Zalman looked at Yoni with open terror on his face, but Yoni grabbed him and held him tight. I’m sorry, said Zalman again and again; I’m sorry, I was afraid and I didn’t want to lose you.
Yoni didn’t answer, but he kissed Zalman on either side of his mouth, then let him go and walked out the door with only the clothes on his back — and because the sun had gone down and it was the Sabbath now, no one could follow him as he strode off far down the road, step after purposeful step, and disappeared into the night.
Reginald frowned, half a biscuit still caught between his teeth. “…And then what?”
Izzy sat back down — the telling had brought him to his feet near the end, for dramatic effect — and took a long drink of the brandy before answering: “He went to America, as far as anyone could tell. Became a doctor, started saving lives. That was part of why Goldie came over years later, with Zalman and his wife and their children. She heard stories here and there, and she could never tell if they were true, but maybe he’s still out there. Maybe they’re still out there,” he added with a smile.
Malcolm drew a blanket around his shoulders to try and cover how the end of the story had made him a bit misty-eyed, but Reginald blew a raspberry. “That wasn’t even scary!”
Izzy rolled his eyes. “Of course it wasn’t!” he said, giving Reginald’s foot a friendly kick. “The lady who told it was three hundred years old! Grannies don’t exactly go in for the bone-chilling bedtime stories.”
“I liked it,” said Gautam, using the end of his cigarette to start a new one. Reginald extended his hand and wiggled his fingers rudely, and with a perfectly put-upon glare, Gautam put the newly lit cigarette in Reginald’s fingers. “And don’t smoke through all of these at once. They’re all I brought.”
“Much obliged.” Reginald gave as theatrical of a bow as he could manage while seated.
Izzy gave Reginald’s foot another kick, and then another, until Reginald sighed and handed over the cigarette. “All right,” Izzy said between puffs, “you got something scarier?”
“I got something scary and real.”
“Mine was real! Eat my ass.”
Reginald snapped his teeth in a way that made Izzy laugh his funny horse-laugh. Calling them friends would have been an overstatement of their relationship, but they had a way between them where they understood the line between friendly abuse and just plain abuse, and thus it was never crossed. They likely would never have been friends under other circumstances, Malcom knew, but Christmas Eve in the dorms wasn’t like other circumstances. “Actually, it’s occurred to me that I’ve never told you chaps what happened to me my first winter here,” said Reginald, glancing over at Malcolm. “Okay, he’s heard it, but if that’s not against the rules…?”
Malcolm shook his head. “Story’s a story.”
“Well, then,” said Reginald, lacing his fingers and cracking his knuckles in a series of horrifying pops, “I’d heard tell these old places were haunted years before I actually got here, but I’d always taken those as silly rumors meant to scare off the kiddies and let the uni boys study in peace. And then I built the radio.”
Reginald’s Story: The Gentleman Caller
There’s not much to a radio: antenna, to pick up the signal; tuner, so you can tell the antenna whereabouts it’s supposed to look; detector, which figures out the part of the signal that’s worth hearing; amplifier, to take the signal from a tiny thing to something you can actually hear; and speaker, to make the signal into sound. Built my first one when I was six or seven, with the help of a little diagram I’d found in the back of a boys’ adventure magazine. Promised to give me EARS TO THE WORLD, said the copy, only I was lucky if I could pick up half the shipping forecast on a clear day. Still, I knew if I could do it once, I could do it better the next time.
So for years, that’s what I did: built a better radio. Scraps and junk and whatever I could find. I found bits of wire and made them into the best antennas I could. Speakers were hard, but I could scavenge those. It became a thing I could do to get control — Mum’s crying, Dad’s drunk again, coppers are by for my brother Clarence, brothers Lawrence and Arthur are off in some bloody desert war or another, so what do I do? Build another radio. A better radio. I’d make it listen as far as it could. Some days I could even make it hear France. Let me know there was life out there, somewhere. I wasn’t alone.
When it was offered, I took the scholarship as fast as I could, packed all the things I’d need in one bag, and came here. ‘Course, one bag means one bag of clothes, not one bag of wire scraps and sad salvaged crystals. It took me almost a month to get all the parts I needed — not a lot of junk carts and scrap heaps out here in the country, I can tell you — but at last, I had what I needed. And one chilly evening, when I knew my roommate’d be out with his football pals, I cleared my desk and got to work.
It was an ugly thing, built of broken telephone parts and old bottles, and it was bigger than I would’ve liked, but the second I put my ear up, it was as good as if I’d dialed into France. I … well, fitting in here was a bit hard, and I knew it would be, I wasn’t pretending a bunch of public-school knobs would suddenly take me in like I’d grown up at high tea right at their sides, but there’s a difference between knowing you’ll be an outsider and actually being that odd man out. So I did the only thing I knew how to do, and when I heard that tinny, faint newsreader voice — ‘Warnings of gales in North Utsire, South Utsire, Trafalgar, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall’ — I right near broke down crying. I fell asleep like that, leaning on my desk, handset pressed to my ear, just listening.
What woke me was a faint voice: “Hello?” it said, closer and clearer than the distant broadcast. “Hello, can you hear me?”
Now, I was raised right, so of course when I heard that, I sat upright and said myself, “Hello?”
“Can you hear me?” asked the voice again.
“I can hear you,” I said in the the handset. “Can you hear me?”
“I can,” said the voice. The more it spoke, the more I could tell: it was a man’s voice, a young man, probably about my age. He sounded close, but he’d have to be for me to get a signal that clearly, and I thought he sounded rather posh, but who at this place (aside, of course, from me) wasn’t?
This was even better than hearing some stranger, far away; this was someone near, someone who understood, maybe a friend. “Have you got a radio too?” I asked.
There was silence for a moment, and I nearly fell into despair thinking I’d lost the signal, before I heard his voice again: “Who are you?”
So I told him, “I’m Reginald Clay. Who’re you?”
There was another pause, shorter this time, and then he said, “I don’t want to say.”
I don’t want to say? What on earth kind of answer was that? But of course, I was just so glad to have someone to talk to that I didn’t want to question, nor push, in case that might make him go away. And what did I know? Radios might have been illegal. The honor code they’d given us all to sign had looked three thousand pages long; I hadn’t read all of it. “Something I can call you, then?” I tried. “Something like … Marconi?” Thinking I was so clever, see, after the Marconi who’d build the first wireless telegraph and done most of the early work on radios.
“All right,” said the voice, after a second’s thought. “You can call me Marconi.”
“Marconi,” I said again. “I can’t tell you how good it is to hear a friend.”
“At least as good for me, if not better,” said Marconi. “It can get frightfully lonely here.”
“I know!” I remember sighing and slumping in my chair, on the verge of tears again to hear someone else say it. “God, I don’t know anyone, and they’re all perfectly horrid to me, and I’d want to go home except–”
“Except home’s frankly worse,” I told him. And for the next half hour, it must have been, I just talked: opened my mouth and let it all fall out, all about my family and how I’d been raised and what had come of it and how nothing I’d come from had been anything like what I’d found here. And I know he didn’t leave, because I heard him agree and sympathize every so often, and he even asked a few questions, he did, to keep me going. I don’t think at that point I’d ever talked so long in my life, and certainly not about myself. But once it started, I just couldn’t stop. Everything led into everything else.
I might have gone all night, in fact, if he hadn’t interrupted me in the middle of a breath, the first time he’d done so all night: “Your roommate’s coming back,” he said.
This was news to me; I hadn’t heard a thing. “How can you tell?”
“My–” Marconi cleared his throat, I remember that, a little pause that I didn’t think anything of at the time. “My room’s over the quad; I can hear them coming up the walk.”
A knife to the heart would’ve hurt less. But if he’d not wanted to give his real name to me, he surely wouldn’t want someone else overhearing. “Wait,” I said, nearly falling out of my chair as I sat bolt upright, “can we talk again?”
“Of course,” he said, and then the signal filled with static before fading into nothing.
Mere moments later, my roommate burst back into the room, took one look at my radio setup, called me queer for gadgets or some rot like that, fell face-first onto his bed, and passed out drunk as a lord. I listened all the rest of the night, but heard nothing more from my new friend Marconi. It was nearly dawn before I gave up hope and went to sleep.
It was only on waking that I realized what you’ve all probably figured by this point: of the five parts of a simple radio, not a single one picks up my voice. That’s a different rig entirely. So here was Marconi, and I didn’t know what he had in front of him, only I’d been thinking all night that he’d been smart enough to rig up something that could both send and receive. Except he could also hear me.
I took that whole radio rig apart and put it back together again five times, trying to figure out what the bloody hell I’d done, how I’d somehow managed to build a transmitter. I even took it to one of my lab instructors, who looked at it and proclaimed it a fine piece of amateur work, but looked very oddly at me when I asked how it might be that it could pick up my voice. “It can’t,” he told me, as though I’d somehow grown thick. And he was right, too; everything I’d ever learned about radios told me he was right.
My next thought was that I’d gone mental. Popped a screw, lost my marbles, gone ’round the bend, been so lonely that I’d imagined up an entire conversation. Except I hadn’t, I knew — he’d heard my roommate coming back long before I had; I hadn’t imagined that. So, fine: my radio was only a receiver, and I was still sane. But that only deepened the mystery. What the hell was going on here?
It was nearly a week before I has the room to myself again, and the second I did, I plastered the speaker to my ear. “Marconi?” I called, not knowing what else to do. “Marconi, are you there?”
“I’m here,” he said after a moment. By now, I knew that voice.
“How the hell are you doing this?” I asked.
From the other side of the connection, there was a sigh. “Look,” Marconi said, sounding sad enough that I could hear it all the way through the connection, “I really like talking to you. But you can’t ask me who I am, and you can’t ask me how this works. All right? It just … does. We’re here. That’s all.”
Now you chaps know, I’ve got the mind of an engineer. We don’t like ‘it just … does’ as an answer. I’d taken that radio apart to component parts and made myself look a fool in front of my instructors because I couldn’t accept ‘it just … does’ for an explanation. But when my choices were pursue this line of inquiry further or lose the first friend I’d made since coming here, well, it didn’t take me long to decide. “All right, all right,” I said. “All right. Just a … marvel of engineering.”
“Only a marvel,” Marconi said right back at me.
That settled, we talked all night. Or, rather, I talked all night, and he came in from time to time, but he didn’t seem put out that I was hogging the air space, and I was just glad to have someone to listen. I can’t tell you everything we talked about: the school, the area, the grounds, a few teachers we knew in common, weather, sports, a few books. He was studying maths, he said, and I remember thinking that was an odd choice for someone who’d built a radio, since most maths at higher levels seem more about theory then about practice, but I reckoned this might be something else in the category of things I couldn’t ask about, so I let it go. We seemed kindred spirits, even if we weren’t a great deal alike in interests, and most of all, he chased away the loneliness that had been gnawing at me from the inside out. Finally, something about this entire place had started to feel right.
When my roommate came back that night, I went to my own bed moments later, but instead of going to sleep, I lay awake thinking about Marconi. I was trying to imagine what he looked like — I knew what the real Marconi looked like, of course, but he was Italian, and I knew I didn’t have him on the line. All I had to go on was his voice, so I tried to picture someone posh. Ginger, I thought, for no good reason except it was what came to mind. Ginger and perhaps a bit short, with green eyes and a nice smile. Bookish and handsome. That was my Marconi.
Of course, too much thinking got me a bit riled up, and as such I was glad not for the first time that my roommate was a heavy sleeper and a heavier snorer. I tossed my shorts in the laundry pile afterward and fell asleep seconds later.
Time passed, as it did, and as Marconi and I talked once a week at least, I began to become more comfortable in general. I started speaking up and stopped caring what others thought about me. My grades improved, and soon I was besting even my classmates who’d had private tutors since before they’d been weaned from their mums’ nipples. But sometimes I’d wander around the maths building for hours at a time, keeping my ears open, hoping to hear that one particular voice. It was all I knew to do.
Then came the evening in early December when the furnace broke on full blast, sending waves and waves of heat throughout the building. I had the room’s window opened as far as it could go, but even though it was freezing just outside the window, the inside of my room was hot as Hades. I knew my roommate’d be gone all evening, since the football team had won the most points at doing something and thus had been given the honor and privilege of kicking a ball around several miles away for a change, and I was sweating like high summer, so I made the decision to strip. Not just to my pants, either: I was bare. And I tell you what, it did feel better. So settled as I was, I picked up the radio and called for Marconi.
“I’m–” he answered, but then his voice caught, sounding startled. “I. Oh.” He cleared his throat. “Am I interrupting?”
I laughed at that. “No, it’s just–” And then I stopped, and even though I was dripping sweat, I felt it all go cold. “You can see me.”
“What?” Marconi had always sounded so sure and confident when we’d talked before, but now I could hear him flustered. “Don’t be absurd. I can’t see you!”
I stood and looked out the window, but my room was on the far side of the building, and thus my view was a dense copse of trees; a squirrel might have peeped on me with some effort, but there were no other rooms facing mine. Holes in the walls? No, there was no sign of that, and even if there had been one too small for me to detect, I knew the boys in the rooms on either side of me, and none of them were Marconi. A crack in the ceiling? But we were on the top floor, and any hole that led to the roof would surely have made itself evident by the season’s rains. I was certain I could not be seen, yet I was just as certain that he could see me. “You can, can’t you?”
“Don’t be absurd,” he said again. “We’re on a radio! How can I see you through a radio?”
He had a point, but I had an idea. I sat back down in my chair, then took my hand and wrapped it around my prick. “Well, you’ve got me there,” I said, starting to stroke myself. I didn’t even know what the reaction would be; I just wanted something, anything, to prove me right.
I got it. “Of course,” he said, though his voice sounded strained and I could hear his breath was a little faster now, a little ragged. “That’d be ridiculous. Against science.”
That just made me laugh — considering the absolute impossibility of our conversation, I didn’t think science was a fallback he could rightfully use. So instead I decided to make even more of a scene of myself: I spread my knees wide and put my legs up on the desk, making sure that no matter what angle he was seeing me from, the show would be a good one. So here I was with my prick in my hand and half a handset in the other, baiting a voyeur by having a good hard wank. “Hey, Marconi,” I said, “are you a ginger?”
That made him cough and splutter. “How did you–?”
“You are.” I was wanking harder now, picturing the Marconi I’d dreamed up earlier, only now adding in details for certain. “Have you got green eyes too?”
“No,” he said, in a way that was actually yes.
“Are you handsome?” I asked.
“I’m not having this conversation,” he said, though I didn’t hear the static that usually told me he’d left the station. Instead, I heard his breath, heavy and sharp. I’d never even so much as fooled around with another boy at this point, but I knew what I sounded like when something had made me randy, so I knew I had him good to go here.
I decided to change tactics though: “Do you think I’m handsome?” was what I asked next, now that I’d established sure enough for myself that he was watching me.
He gave a little swallow. “…I can’t see you, remember,” he said, all posh even as I bet he was as hard as I was.
“All right, but if you could see me, would you think me handsome?”
He didn’t answer for a moment, but I could still hear him breathing. “I really can’t see you,” he finally said, though I didn’t believe a word of it by then.
So I just took my hand off my prick and left it standing there, upright as a soldier. “Well, all right, then,” I said, “you won’t mind if I stop.”
“Don’t stop,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation, and by God, I didn’t. I’d had wanks before — for Christ’s sake, I was nearly nineteen — but I’d never had an audience before, and all I knew was that I liked it. He didn’t say anything else, but I could still hear his breathing in my ear, and that was all it took. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before I was spilling all over my hand and thighs, getting some on the desk and even a drop or two on the radio. Damn right he’d seen that. I wished judges had seen that. I would’ve won some type of award.
A few moments later, I heard his little laugh in my ear. “Wow,” he said, just that, all sweet and soft.
“Wow,” I said, because it seemed the right thing to say. And then we didn’t say anything else; we just hung there on the line, listening to one another breathe.
Of course, you know what curiosity did to the cat, and I’ve always been feline-like in nature, so I couldn’t help it: I went to the library the very next day and hauled out the annuals. There were a few ginger lads in my year, but I knew them all, and none of them studied maths anyway. That left the upperclassmen, so I picked up the most recent annual and flipped through, looking for anyone who might be my Marconi. And it was foolish, I knew, since I didn’t know his face, only his voice, and there wasn’t going to be a voice in a photograph. And yet, I felt certain I knew his face, or at least I’d know it if I saw it.
But I went through the annual, front to back, and there was nothing. A few fellows were close, but they weren’t quite right. On a whim, I picked up the previous volume and looked through — nothing. The one before that, nothing still. And at that point, reason told me I’d run out of options, that anyone at the school would be in one of those books or not at all. But I went one more back anyway, then again, then again. Book after book, I plowed through, trying to find something, any hint that I hadn’t just gone mad and invented a handsome voyeur as a cure for my gnawing loneliness.
Book after book, back and back I went, until I’d run out of books. What then? I remembered that there were photographs hanging around the library, old class pictures from before keepsake albums were produced. I started at the most recent and traveled back, squinting at rows upon rows of faces, looking for any spark of recognition. I traveled decades back through those photographs, impossibly far into the past — until I got to the oldest of the photographs, the very first taken of the very first class, and there he was. Sitting on the front row, handsome and bookish and precisely the face I’d seen in my mind all those months since I’d first heard his voice: M.A. Baskin, my Marconi.
I took the photograph from the wall and carried it over to the librarian. “What can you tell me about the young man in this photograph?” I asked, pointing to Baskin.
The librarian pushed his spectacles up his nose and gave a long, hard look. “…Oh, the Baskin lad,” he said at last, his wrinkled face smoothing with recognition and sorrow at once. “Tragic case. I started out here as an assistant librarian the first year the college opened, and I remember him. Very polite, kind, a little sad. No one suspected a thing was wrong until he took his own life.”
I right near dropped the photograph with shock. “Took his own life?”
“So tragic.” The old librarian shook his head again. “Hanged himself in his room one night. The whole campus was broken up by it. We never found out why. No note or explanation. An orphan, no family, so we buried him in the cemetery by the chapel. A little stone marker there, I remember we lay, though I suspect time has taken its toll on that too.” He took the photograph from me with his shaking, wizened hands and gave a sigh. “Still a shame. Such a nice boy.”
I thanked him and replaced the photograph, then grabbed my coat and ran out into the night. I didn’t want to believe it, but even as I ran across the snow-covered yard and toward the little cemetery — ‘cemetery’ is a strong word for it, it’s little more than an ankle-high iron fence and a few decrepit stone markers — I knew what I was certain to find. The sun was going down, but even in the dim dusk light I could read the etchings on the headstones as I cleared snow off each one, until at last I had what I’d come to see. It was there, right as he’d said: M.A. Baskin, born 1877, died 1895. I’d found my Marconi at last, not on the air but in the ground beneath me, long beyond my reach.
“And he’d told you that before?” asked Gautam, looking at Malcolm.
“I’d heard it, yes.” Malcolm gave Reginald a shy smile, then went for another drink of brandy so that it might explain the flush he felt in his cheeks after Reginald’s tale. “It was a bit less theatrical in the telling, but that’s neither here nor there.”
Izzy gave a quiet round of applause. “All right, I’ll give it that was sexier than mine. Not scarier, though.”
“I was plenty scared at the time, I tell you.” Reginald swiped the bottle from Malcolm, and when he handed it back, he put himself so they were shoulder-to-shoulder, leaning on one another just slightly. “It was not an application of radio technology I’d considered, speaking to the dead.”
“Then perhaps I shall go next,” said Gautam, “as mine is a story of a man who did not need technology to speak to the dead.”
“Is it a true story?” asked Izzy.
Gautam smiled. “It is not an untrue story,” he said, lifting another cigarette from his case. “Like all stories, it tells us something we need to know about ourselves. And like the dead, it is still speaking.”
Gautam’s Story: The Empty City
Long ago, or perhaps last week, there was a man named Kukavi who wanted to become a poet. Now, in some stories, this would be a problem because the family would object; but no, Kukavi’s father was a man of letters who had wooed Kukavi’s mother with poetry, and both of them thought such a thing would be a fine profession for their son. In some stories, this would be a problem because Kukavi’s caste or destiny demanded other things of him; but no, he was not a man whose life had been predicted at birth and there were no restrictions of his lineage prohibiting him from choosing that path.
No, in this story, it is a problem because Kukavi was a lousy poet. He could barely read and barely write, and try though might, the best poetry he could produce was cheap doggerel, the kind one might find scrawled rudely on a wall by a toilet. He could not grasp even the most basic of poetic forms, he had no sense of rhythm, and when he did hit upon an idea of note, all he could say about it was insipid at best and insulting at worst. To use an English expression, he should not have quit his day job.
But he had more determination than sense, and so he went to the sadhu who lived inside the crematorium grounds. She was a nasty woman, tough as dried leather, and she lived among the dead to show how she had no fear of death. I want to become a poet, he told her.
She laughed at him, showing her rotted teeth. You? A poet? She had a long pipe in her mouth, and with it she puffed smoke into his face. I’ve heard your poetry. I hear the children shouting it as they mock one another. The dung beetles whistle it for worksongs as they roll shit. The hymns sung to Lord Shiva keep the universe in motion; yours are so bad they threaten to extinguish its fire entirely. And still you want to write?
Yes, he said to her. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.
Perhaps she took compassion on him, or perhaps she just wanted him to go away. But either way, she reached into one of the folds of her filthy sari and pulled out a scrap of leather on which she’d long ago drawn a map in her own blood. She handed it over to him, then took a seat among the ashes of a body that was still smoldering. Go to the city of Bhūtapurā, she said, pointing to the map. You will emerge as a poet or not at all.
His eyes went wide with excitement. There are poets there who will teach me to be one of them?
The sadhu stirred around in the ashes with her finger, then drew three lines on her forehead. For a price. And bless his poor head, Kukavi was so excited that he didn’t ask what she might mean by that.
She told him to go there straightaway, not to go back home and gather his things, but to go only with what had on his person then — for carpenters have their tools, soldiers have their swords, but poets have only what is inside their heads for their trade. Clutching the map, he set out to the west, toward the mountains behind which the sun set. So what if he’d been that direction many times before, but never heard of a city called Bhūtapurā? He had his goal and he was on his way.
At first he didn’t notice, excited as he was that his dream might soon be coming true, but as he walked on toward the direction she’d indicated, he began to realize something strange: He was the only person on the road. There were roads around with few travelers, but this was not among them; it was a wide, well-groomed road, on which all manner of vehicles and pedestrians could pass abreast without forcing either onto the shoulder. But now he walked down it alone, and he saw no other traveler, and he passed no other soul. When he began to walk, the sun was high overhead, but as he traveled, it traced a line down in front of him, until he had to walk with one hand shielding his face, lest he be blinded by its radiance.
His steps had grown so weary and his arm was trembling with the effort of keeping it raised when finally the sun sank below the line of the mountains — and as his eyes began to adjust, he saw the gates of an old stone city. He all but collapsed with relief. This must be Bhūtapurā! He’d feared it might be so far, and yet it was so near.
Reinvigorated by his discovery, he marched on toward the single gate in the otherwise-unbroken red stone wall that surrounded the buildings beyond. As he got closer, in the failing light, he could see a figure by the doorway. Closer still, and the figure became more clearly the shape of a man. At last, Kukavi stood at the foot of the steps that led up to the gate and could see there a handsome young man with ash-white skin, standing beneath the archway, carrying a lantern in one hand and grasping a tall staff with the other. He waved at Kukavi to come close, and Kukavi did, though it seemed that each step he took, the stairs grew longer, until he’d risen little more than his own height off the ground, but felt as though he’d walked another league. Greetings, visitor, said the man with the lantern. What brings you to our fair and noble city?
I’ve come to learn how to be a poet, said Kukavi, bowing with respect. I’m told there are poets that live in this city who will teach me how to be one of them.
The man with the lantern laughed and stood on one foot. No one lives in Bhūtapurā, he said with a curious smile, but there are indeed poets here. Do you wish to pay the price to enter, or the price to enter and then to leave again?
Oh, I need to go back home, Kukavi answered him. Otherwise, what is the point of being a poet?
The man with the lantern did not answer, but just smiled more, as though it had been a very good question indeed. He lifted the lantern and blew into it, and the lantern’s flame flickered to life. Then the first gift is your words.
My words? asked Kukavi. Won’t I need those to be a poet?
Still smiling, the man with the lantern shrugged. Then only the ones you don’t need.
Well, thought Kukavi, that was fine. He’d be a poet when he was done, so what did all the other words matter? He nodded his assent, and the man with the lantern leaned forward and kissed him deep — and as the man drew back, Kukavi could feel all the words drawing from his mouth, as smoke is drawn up an open chimney. The man with the lantern swallowed and smiled, and a long, silvery tongue flicked out to lick his lips.
Kukavi opened his mouth to ask what he should do next, only he found he was no longer able — he still had a mouth to open and his throat could still make sound, and his thoughts were as clear as ever, but there was no way to get the words in his head out of his body. His lips smacked and his tongue clicked, but nothing approaching language escaped his mouth. He had language, but his words, as promised, were gone.
The man with the lantern handed it over to Kukavi and pointed him on into the city. Night had fallen fast, and now the first stars were beginning to shine against the fading light of day. You may leave at any time, said the man named Aprasiddhapada, brushing his thumb across his lower lip. Just blow out the lantern and you will find yourself standing here. But if you leave too soon, you will never achieve your dream of becoming a poet, and you will have to return home a failure.
Kukavi, as you might have guessed already, was not a particularly bright man, nor was he a exceptionally educated man, nor was he an especially clever man. What he was, however, was a remarkably stubborn man, and when there was something he wanted, he was as like as not to die before he gave up. He tried to thank the man, but his lips flapped uselessly, so instead he clutched the lantern tight in his hands and began to venture into the city.
Once inside the walls, he began to realize that this was no ordinary city. Where cities of this size would even at dusk have still been bustling and full of life, and lights inside windows of shops and homes would have begun to glow, instead now he found no light but that which he brought with him. He thought at first the buildings might simply have had windows and doors shut against some unknown calamity, but as he grew close, he realized that all the doors and windows were open — in fact, there was no wood in the doorways and there was no glass in the windows. The empty entrances reminded him of nothing so much as the eyes of a skull, perfectly shaped but hollow beneath. The darkness inside the buildings was so deep, in fact, that the light from his lantern could not penetrate.
He was a determined man, though, and one thing he was determined was to not be afraid. Thus, he stiffened his spine and moved ever forward, keeping his eyes straight ahead, refusing to let his gaze dart to the flickers of movement he saw coming in and out of the corners of his vision. They were tricks of the light, he told himself, and nothing more.
At last, he heard the sound of rushing water, and so he followed it down streets and alleys, until he came upon a large courtyard with a tall fountain in the center. At the foot of the fountain, on a high stone ledge, sat an old man. His feet dangled in the water, and as Kukavi approached, he could see that the old man was kicking them, splashing and playing as though he were a boy. When Kukavi came close enough, the old man jumped up to his feet — not startled, but excited. He turned and pointed a finger straight at Kukavi’s chest. Come to be a poet? he asked.
Kukavi tried to answer, but of course he couldn’t, so he simply nodded. The old man cackled, showing his crooked, yellowed teeth. Five hundred years ago, there was a famine here. Ten thousand people dead in the span of a season. Poet, would you have saved them?
Of course, Kukavi wanted to say; of course he would have saved them. But even as he remembered he had no words, he realized an even bitterer truth: he had no skills that would have stopped a famine. He could toss seed on ground and sprinkle it with water, and he could feed a goat and milk a cow, but anyone could do those as well as he, if not better. He had nothing to offer people in such a plight. Thus, Kukavi closed his eyes and sadly shook his head.
The old man rapped him on the forehead with his knuckles. Fool! he said, laughing so loud the sound bounced off the walls of the empty houses. You cannot save their lives. Five hundred years? If they had not died of starvation, they would have died of something else: disease, perhaps, or cot death, or a marauder’s blade, or just old age. But you can save them still.
Kukavi shook his head; he didn’t understand. The old man rapped him again. The only immortality is a story, said the old man. The only incorruptible substance in all of creation is an idea. The only hope of eluding death is the poem. Poet, would you still save them?
Kukavi nodded; if that was what being a poet demanded of him, then he would gladly give it. The old man cackled and drew himself close to Kukavi, close enough that the light from the lantern illuminated every line in his gnarled face. The cost is your youth, said the old man, and when he leaned forward to kiss Kukavi, Kukavi bravely did not pull away.
The old man drew closer, until their chests touched and the old man’s hand rested on Kukavi’s hip. As their mouths moved against one another, Kukavi felt a change in himself — first in his feet, as he felt them twist and felt his toes curl inward. Then his knees began to weaken and bend, then his hips, then up his legs. The old man grabbed Kukavi’s free hand and pressed it to his own genitals, and as they kissed, Kukavi felt the old man’s shaft lengthen and his balls plump out even as Kukavi could tell his own were shrinking, withering as though from disuse — which was not, in fact, wholly untrue, as Kukavi had been so preoccupied with his failed attempts at becoming a poet that he’d never given thought to the pleasures of the body (which, between you and me, might explain at least some of his failures with poetry).
At last, they drew away from one another, and Kukavi saw standing before him not an old man, but a beautiful youth, with skin the color of river mud and eyes like two bright coals. The youth caressed Kukavi’s face, and Kukavi could feel how the youth’s fingers rode up and down the ridges that now lined Kukavi’s face. Consider eternity, said the man named Nityayauvana, before pointing to a tall tower in the distance and then fading into the dark night.
A tall branch lay on the ground, some ages-old forgotten walking stick, and Kukavi picked it up and pressed it beneath his free arm before he continued. Every step pained him, and he could feel the weight of decades in his brittle bones.
On he walked through the dark town, passing all the buildings with their open, unseeing eyes. He had brought no food and walked all day, and his empty stomach now gnawed at him. A famine had taken the town, Nityayauvana had said; there would be no food for him to find here. But food was a distraction from the work of becoming a poet, and so he decided he would not give into that need. His shoes, which had been little more than scraps as he had started his journey, were now worn to nothing, and his feet broke open and bled against the cobbled streets. The city roads twisted and turned, leading him this way and that, until at last he was certain he had lost himself completely — and at that moment, he looked up and found himself standing at the base of the tower.
Kukavi looked close and found the first door he’d seen since arriving in the town. He thought about opening it, but he was polite, so instead he raised his first and gave it three sharp knocks.
At the third knock, the door opened, and the most beautiful man Kukavi had ever seen stood behind it. He had skin the color of the night sky and eyes like stars. His lips were plump like dried apricots, and his body was strong and lean. Come in, he said, standing aside to usher Kukavi in like a guest. I am Madanakliṣṭa and this is my home.
Exhausted but without hesitation, Kukavi stepped inside — and found himself in a wondrous room, filled with pillows and low, long tables spread with nuts and fruit. He did not want to offend his host by seeming greedy, so he did not take what he was not offered, but he could not stop staring. Madanakliṣṭa took the lantern from Kukavi and set it on a table, then reached up to ease Kukavi’s travelling coat from his shoulders. He draped his arms around Kukavi’s neck, and he was so warm that Kukavi felt as though he were embracing the sun itself. You’ve done well to make it this far, said Madanakliṣṭa, and you have learned much on your way about being a poet. Now I have a choice for you: you can sit at my table, and have your belly filled and your bones rested, and when you are settled you can extinguish your lantern and return as though this were all a wondrous dream.
Kukavi’s empty stomach tugged at him, drawing him toward the promise of food; his old bones pleaded with him to sit and rest, telling him how soft those pillows would feel. But Kukavi shook his head and waited for the second part of the choice to be revealed.
Smiling, Madanakliṣṭa brushed his soft, plump fingers along Kukavi’s lips. Or you could lie with me and leave me your heart, he said, and Kukavi found that was hardly any choice at all.
Madanakliṣṭa tasted like plums as they kissed, and his skin was soft as silk under Kukavi’s mouth as their bodies tangled with one another. Kukavi felt the age begin to slip from his bones as Madanakliṣṭa’s hands ran over his skin, and when Madanakliṣṭa at last pulled Kukavi to the floor and invited Kukavi between his thighs, Kukavi’s shaft had no hesitation about rising to the occasion. He spent himself first rubbing against Madanakliṣṭa’s supple thighs, yet even as he finished spilling his seed over Madanakliṣṭa’s sky-dark skin, he found his hardness had not diminished. Madanakliṣṭa laughed a laugh like the sound of bells and rolled Kukavi onto his back, then positioned his hips over Kukavi’s shaft and slowly sank onto him.
They were like this the whole night through, making love incessantly. Kukavi spent himself time and again, yet never felt his own stamina diminished. He had Madanakliṣṭa every way imaginable — the sūtras tell of positions to bring body and mind closer to paradise, and Kukavi and Madanakliṣṭa went through every one that night at least twice. They did not even pause, but went from one sex act to another, using hands and mouths and pricks to bring one another as much pleasure as could possibly be drawn out of two bodies together.
At last, the light of dawn began to creep through the window, and Kukavi spent himself once more inside Madanakliṣṭa’s body, only to feel this time a deep exhaustion overtake him. He collapsed against the pillows, breathless, and gasped for air even as Madanakliṣṭa bent down to give him one last loving kiss. A fine poet, said Madanakliṣṭa against Kukavi’s lips. I hope you live to believe it was worth the price. And with that, Madanakliṣṭa leaned over to the table where he’d left Kukavi’s lantern burning so many hours ago, took a deep breath, and puffed its flame out.
When Kukavi came to his senses, he was standing on the road amidst a great number of travellers, all coming and going, none paying him more mind than to divert their carts around him. He was dressed as he had been when he’d arrived at Bhūtapurā, and when he opened his mouth to speak, he found no trouble making sentences. His body was as young as it had been coming in, and he felt no pain of age in any part of it. Quickly, he turned himself toward the rising sun and started his trip homeward to his parents, who wondered only why he hadn’t come home the night before. What could he say? So he said nothing.
And he did become a poet, in fact, and a great one, so great that he changed his name from Kukavi to Kavīśvara. He wrote epic poems of amazing length, memorializing time and again the lost inhabitants of cities both real and imagined, telling great histories that are still taught today.
But though he’d once been a man to chatter away the day with anyone, he returned a man of few words, speaking only as necessary, growing more and more silent with every year. He’d been a hale and hardy lad before, but now some days he did not even rise from bed. And though he had a great many marriage prospects over the years, from families who thought their daughters would do well to be married to a poet of such esteem, he never married, nor did he even lie with another for the rest of his days. Instead, when evening came he’d travel to the window and stare at the sky for hours. His assistants, on seeing him like that, described him as looking as though his heart were not there at all.
Reginald snorted cigarette smoke into the air. “Poets,” he said, as though the word itself were a concept absurd in and of itself.
Malcolm poked him in the side, a gesture easier now that they were leaning even more against one another. As Gautam’s story had gone on, Malcolm had tilted more and more in Reginald’s direction, until now his head had come to rest entirely on Reginald’s shoulder. On the other side of the fire, Izzy now sat with his long legs stretched across Gautam’s lap, and one of Gautam’s hands had come to rest on his thigh as though it simply belonged there. “It’s not his fault you’re entirely a Philistine,” said Malcolm, poking Reginald again.
“I’m sorry my story apparently wasn’t racy enough for you,” said Izzy with mock ill humor. “That having your lover literally inside you at all times wasn’t fit to keep your prurient interests, you perverts.”
Gautam pinched Izzy’s thigh hard enough to make him yelp and scowl. “That’s what you get for telling stories come to you from grandmothers,” he said, and when Izzy opened his mouth to retort, Gautam stuck the end of a cigarette in there, which silenced Izzy’s protests quite neatly.
“All right, then.” Malcolm sat upright and took another drink of brandy before clearing his throat. “Suppose I’m all we’ve got left.”
“This year, yes,” said Gautam. “I confess, I was surprised by how few of us remained this holiday.”
“Eh, I’m not.” Reginald shook his head. “People change. They move on. They find other places to be. Other homes to haunt,” he added, laughing at his own joke.
“But I’d rather be here,” said Malcolm, drawing the blanket around his shoulders. “Ghosts don’t usually get a choice. Most don’t even know they’re dead, so they try to do the same things they did while they were living, only to find themselves confused and frightened when everything isn’t the same. And when it happens that a living person can see them … well, he usually finds himself wishing he couldn’t.”
Malcolm’s Story: The Boy in the Window
Once upon a time there was a boy who nearly drowned. He was nine years old and his whole family was taking a ferry across a river to visit family on holiday, when the boat’s engine caught fire and the boat began to sink. It was the dead of winter, and so when he fell into the water, the cold alone stopped his heart. A rescue boat pulled him from the river and nearly gave him up for dead, but when they got him aboard, he began to cough and spit up water. He lay in hospital for three days before he was well enough for the doctors to tell him that he alone of all his family had survived the sinking.
He was still so weak that he couldn’t tell them, no, his family must have been fine, since his father and his older sister were standing just behind the nurse to his right. He even tried to point them out to the doctors, to say, look, they’re right there! But when he tried to sit up, all the blood rushed from his head and he passed out again.
In the days that followed, he came to realize that both he and the doctors were right: Yes, his family had all drowned in the accident; and yes, his various family members had been keeping shifts by his bedside. They even spoke to him as he drifted in and out of consciousness, telling him to keep his strength up and to get better soon.
He also came to realize something else, something worse: They had no idea they were dead. His parents did their best to hide their worried looks from him, but as the days went by, their faces grew paler and their expressions seemed ever more drawn. His little sister, however, was only five and thus didn’t know better than to worry her brother — Mummy, she said, pulling at her mother’s skirts, why won’t the other children on the ward play with me? Solicitors came to his side to settle matters of his parents’ finances and inheritance, while his father shouted at them about how he would file counter-suits and petition every judge he knew, but every time they came, he said the same things, and never once did he seem to remember he’d said it all before. His mother cried more now, weeping as she paced around the boy’s bed, and his sisters kept their own circuits at all hours of the day and night.
At last, he had the strength to speak, and when he did, he looked his father straight in the eye and said: You’re dead.
His father’s eyes widened — and then, as though the boy hadn’t said anything at all, he smiled and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. You’re going to be all right, son, he said. Just take things easy, and you’ll get your strength up.
No, said the boy, you’ve got to listen to me — you’re dead. You died in the river. They’ve had your bodies buried in the family vault. You’ve got to go and leave me be.
His mother grabbed his hand and kissed his fingertips. My precious boy, she said, you just rest now and you’ll be out of here in no time.
You’re dead, he said, not knowing how to put it any plainer. You can’t be here anymore.
We’ll all go home together just as soon as you’re better, said his father. Just as soon as you’re well, we’ll all go home.
As soon as he was well, in fact, the boy did go home — and along came his mother, father, and sisters, chattering beside him in the carriage, talking about all the things they’d be able to do again now that they were home as a family. Only the boy was silent, staring out the window as the solicitor explained to him the business of how trusts set up on his inheritance would pay for staff and tutors until he was eighteen and could legally gain control of his finances. His family didn’t seem to hear the solicitor, and the solicitor heard nothing the family said.
As the carriage traveled through town, the boy saw that there were people who walked the streets of London who seemed much like his own family did now: present yet insubstantial, and all but lost. They rarely addressed the living around them, and when they did, they received no reply. Some were dressed in modern clothes, while others wore much older fashions, strange ruffs and voluminous skirts he’d only seen in paintings.
After returning to the house, his mother, father, and older sister seemed to settle back in to their routines, moving about as though they’d never left. The worry that had plagued them began to vanish, until again they were all smiles with one another. The boy watched this all with quiet confusion, unable to understand what was happening, and equally unable to convince them of what he knew now to be true. He watched a maid move a heavy couch to clean behind it, and his mother walked right through it as though it didn’t exist. Heavy sheets were laid over the furniture in all the bedrooms but the boy’s, yet every night his family members retired without complaint.
His little sister, however, began soon to seem discontent. Instead of playing, she took to weeping, and when the boy approached her, she ran away. Until at last one night she crept into his room and crawled beneath his covers. He knew that he should be horrified, at having a ghost there with him — but she was also his sister, and alive or dead, he loved her.
We’re dead, aren’t we? she asked after a long, cold moment.
The boy nodded. You are, he said, but not me.
Oh, she said, just a little sigh, but it was as though a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders by that awareness. At long last, the boy fell asleep, and when he woke again, she was gone — not in his bed, not in the house, not anywhere to be found. Just gone.
He had no such luck with the rest of his family. He grew and changed, and they did not — and as the time went on, their contentment at being home began to slip first into confusion, then to fear. His mother at last noticed his little sister was gone, and would wander the halls some nights, calling for her youngest child. His older sister had once been very popular with the young men, but as no more came calling or sent her tokens of their affection, she began to grow hard and bitter, sick of anything that even suggested love. A maid brought in roses cut from the garden one day, and his sister crushed them in her hands until they were wilted and brown.
And his father took to his study, reading the same books over and over, as though looking for an answer to a question he couldn’t quite figure how to ask. He began to grow wild in there, his hair long, his eyes hard. One night there was a great crash, and the boy rushed into the study with the servants, only to find that every book had been toppled from the shelves and piled on the floor. His father stood in the middle of them, pitched and feral, his shoulders heaving with every breath. His hands had begun to grow long like claws, and when he opened his mouth to gasp for air, the boy could see rows upon rows of sharp teeth peeking out from behind his thin, pale lips. From that moment on, no servant would enter the study. The boy supposed he couldn’t blame them, even if they hadn’t seen a fraction of what he had.
The boy scarcely left his house, for as terrifying as his family had become, the world beyond the walls was even worse. He once had to travel to a nearby town to sign papers regarding land ownership, and he could barely concentrate on the matter at hand for all the screaming around him — six children, it seemed, had been caught in a fire there hundreds of years ago, and with no idea they’d died, they were stuck burning, burning. You don’t need to do this! he tried to tell them, excusing himself to the lavatory so he might have a chance to speak with them alone. You’re dead! It’s over! You don’t need to hurt anymore!
But it was no use; they had become so accustomed to burning that they couldn’t remember any longer that things had ever been different. He left the house in tears, frustrated by his own inability to save them from their torment. But the dead, he was learning, are not good at listening — no, not good at all.
At last, it was time for him to leave his house to pursue his studies elsewhere. He chose a college for its newness, hoping that a fresh building on fresh ground might be enough to free him, at least for a while, from his curse of vision. After all, he reasoned, a place dear to no one — and more importantly, where no one had died — would have no spirits attached to it. He could rest easily.
He sold the house to a baron on the sole condition that the baron tear the house down and build again from the cellar up. The baron was a modern man who desired a house with all the modern conveniences he could fit it with, and as such, this was an appealing deal. The boy went one more time around his house to say good-bye to his family. His mother embraced him for only a moment, staring at him with an instant of cold clarity, before she tore herself from his arms and began stumbling again down the hallway, looking in every room to find where her baby girl might be. His older sister sat out among the gardens, casting withering looks at the groundsman as he said sweet things that made one of the maids titter and blush; she paid no heed to her brother, not even when he stood in front of her and shouted out her name, not caring what that might sound like to the living servants in earshot.
His father … well, his father wasn’t there any longer, at least not in a way that anyone could have recognized, could they have seen what the boy did. His father was a shadow amongst the books now, a monster that crawled up and down the stacks and perched in corners. His long, beastly nails clicked across the wood and ripped at the edges of papers. The boy stood there for almost an hour, waiting for his father to notice him, to acknowledge anything about his presence. But at last he turned and left, and when he walked from the front door of the house for the last time, he did not once look back.
Once at school, he felt as though a great weight at been lifted. He began the delicate business of making friends, though he’d been so long without regular human interaction that he was clumsy at it at first. Fortunately, the other boys took this as endearing, not repulsive, and they took it upon themselves to make him feel at home. They teased, but it was all in good fun, and when he finally began to joke back, they were delighted! He felt the years of fear begin to evaporate, surrounded as he was by all these living faces.
His first few months at the school passed unremarkably. He was a diligent scholar, of completely average intellect, but he worked hard — and had the sympathy of his instructors on more than one occasion, if we’re being wholly honest here. From time to time, he saw the dead walking the edge of the grounds, milling about for one reason or another, but they were far away and he could reason that they weren’t his concern.
All was well, in fact, until a young lad named Bailey was called home on family business — his stepfather had died suddenly, tragically, and he was needed to attend the funeral and subsequent business. He was gone for two weeks, and when he returned, he was not alone.
The boy heard the shouts late one night from the room next to him. He tore out of his small room — at that time, there were few enough students that rarely did a student have a roommate — and ran in his nightclothes down the corridor to where he’d heard the noise. The rest of the floor was awakened as well, but the boy was the only one who knew what the sound had to be. He flung wide the door to Bailey’s room, only to find Bailey there, still beneath his sheets, curled into a ball, screaming again and again, don’t touch me, don’t touch me, you can’t anymore, you’re dead!
It didn’t take much for the boy to understand what had happened here. Working on blind instinct, he ran down the stairs of the dormitory to the common room on the ground level. A man was sitting there by the fire in a smoking-jacket, puffing from a pipe. Get out, said the boy, mindful of the hour and trying not to create a commotion. You don’t belong here.
The man — Bailey’s stepfather, the boy was sure — turned his head toward the boy, and as it turned, his shoulders and neck remained straight. The boy could see a large red gash just beneath the man’s jaw, a grotesque second smile. Sweet little lad, said the stepfather; he took a deep breath from his pipe and smoke poured out the rip in his throat. Tender little boys here, so many of them. Tasty little things. Wouldn’t everyone love to know.
Get out! shouted the boy, but the stepfather laughed and then vanished, sinking into the chair.
Some ghosts, it seems, were so wicked and corrupt in life — so vile and utterly monstrous — that sudden or violent death confounds them, but does not render them impotent. They find themselves in a curious position, where they don’t wholly understand what’s happened or what’s become of them, but all they can see from the situation is that they’ve suddenly become even more capable of carrying on their vile perversions, as they are now unfettered by so many of the rules that kept them in place during life. And so very often, like calls to like.
He began to hear whispers from the other boys, tales of bad dreams and eerie sightings. Bailey was so frightened he wouldn’t leave his room, shaking as he tried to explain that he knew it was madness, he’d seen the foul man’s bloodied corpse himself, but he was here. Another boy by the name of O’Hannagain swore that he was sane and sober, said he’d awakened from sleep and seen a pair of cousins who’d tormented him when he was young, both of whom had been sent to the gallows for crimes against women. A third, this one named Wheelock, confessed he’d been having dreams all of a sudden of being chased by men he didn’t know, but who seemed to know him all the same. The whole dorm was in knots about these stories.
Two nights later, the boy was awakened by the sound of footsteps down the corridor. They creaked and tapped up and down, then stopped outside his room. He closed his eyes and lay still, feigning sleep, and presently the door to his room began to creak open. He heard the steps come inside and the door shut behind him. He wanted to clench his body tight in terror, but he reminded himself to keep his breathing even, keep his body lax. Perhaps it would pass him over.
It was that thought, however, that propelled him awake — pass him over? to what end? If he lay still and the intruder moved on, what would become of the boy on which it finally pounced? He sat up and lit a candle, staring at the shadowy figure in the smoking-jacket. You’ve no right to be here, he said, angry even as he said it that the only weapons he had were words.
Sweet boy, I’ve every right, said the stepfather, kneeling astride the boy on his bed. I’ve the right of force, which is the only right in the world. The others here, so passive. I like you and your fight.
The boy swatted at the stepfather, but his hand went straight through — yet the stepfather grabbed the boy’s throat and it felt as though the boy had been shackled in iron. Sweet little boy, said the stepfather again, and now his real mouth looked as wide and horrible as the slit beneath his jaw. Dear little lamb. I’ll eat you right up and swallow you whole.
It’s … not important, what happened next. What happened the following day, though, was that the boy took to the library and went through every tome he could on ghosts — those purporting to be real, those that advertised themselves as fiction, novels, metaphysical treatises, scripture, anything that said what they were and what was needed to protect against them.
The books had all manner of remedies and folklore, but nothing sounded right to the boy. One book suggested hanging rosemary to ward off spirits, but he knew the kitchen at his house had had rosemary dangling from the windows, and it hadn’t stopped his mother’s circuits. Others had concluded that ghosts came from improper burials, but he knew that wasn’t likely so, and at any rate, he was far too far from the bodies of these offenders to entertain re-interring them as a viable solution. Some recommended holy water and holy ground, but he’d seen enough lost souls wandering in and out of houses of worship to know better.
At last, he came upon the story of an archaeological expedition which discovered a cave where, many centuries ago, thousands of angry spirits were said to have been locked up inside. The men found at the entrance to the cave the body of a red-headed girl, her corpse now little more than hair and bones tucked beneath shallow earth, and surmised that her body had been laid as some sort of guard. The men, of course, believed nothing of this and took her body with them back to their camp — and were from that moment on plagued by all manner of maladies and hauntings, so severe that two of the men on the expedition were hounded to their deaths. Only when her body was returned to its earlier resting place and a local shaman was called upon to do a funereal ceremony did the hauntings cease.
The boy thought about his friends in the dorm, how good they’d been to him, how they’d made the last few months of his life the happiest he could remember. They didn’t deserve this. They needed someone to keep them safe. It was the least he could do.
Once he’d made his decision, he found the process remarkably easy. Rope came from the groundsman’s shed. The bar that held the curtains over his window was sturdy, and he tested it to make certain it would hold his weight. He got his belongings in order, slipped the noose around his neck, and hanged himself before he could lose his nerve.
A silence fell over the room for several minutes after, broken only as Izzy lifted his head from where he’d pillowed it on Gautam’s thigh. “That wasn’t scary,” he said, pointing an accusatory finger Malcolm’s way. “That was sad.”
“Most good ghost stories are,” said Reginald. He took the brandy and offered it around before draining the last few gulps himself.
“But there’s a sort of happy end to it nonetheless,” said Malcolm. “From that point on, the hauntings stopped entirely — and in fact, none have been seen in those parts since. The place is calm and peaceful, and the young men there — and women, these days — are safe. Some few eagle-eyed youths have said they’ve spotted the boy making his rounds around the halls, but he’s always polite if he catches their eye, and if they go to see him closer, they find it was as though he were never there.”
Gautam frowned, tapping his lower lip as he thought. “Do I recall your telling that story last year?”
Shaking his head, Malcolm just laughed. “You must have heard it somewhere else, I guess. I hear it’s a fairly well-known story.”
Gautam nodded, though Malcolm could see from the frown across his forehead that he wasn’t quite convinced by the explanation. Further inquiry was preempted, however, as Izzy hopped to his feet and stared out the window. “Well, boys, this has been fun as always, but dawn’s coming, and if I want to get a Christmas morning streak across the quad in, I think now’s the time to do it. Who’s with me? Gauty?” Gautam nodded, standing. “Reggie? Mal?”
Malcolm waved his hand, a polite refusal. “I’d rather stay where it’s warm. But you lads have fun.”
“Happy Christmas,” said Reginald, making no move to stand.
“Yeah, you boys too,” said Izzy. He grabbed Gautam’s sleeve and tugged him toward the door, and Gautam followed him, smiling — though not without one last hard glance back at Malcolm, as though this time he might find something he hadn’t seen before. But Izzy yanked again, and presently they were both out the door and down the stairs, sounds of their footfalls and laughter ringing all the way.
Reginald sighed as he opened his arms, and Malcolm melted into them, resting his head on Reginald’s shoulder. Malcolm pressed his nose against Reginald’s neck. He loved the way Reginald smelled: smoke and brandy, to be sure, but beneath that nothing but clean, bright sweat. It was so very alive, despite everything else that had happened, that it was just one more testament to Reginald’s indefatigable spirit.
“You think he’s getting it yet?” asked Reginald after a long moment.
Malcolm nodded. “I don’t think he’ll be here next year. Izzy, though … well, he’s Izzy.”
“Americans,” said Reginald, and when Malcolm laughed, Reginald bent down to kiss him. He rolled them over so Malcolm was on his back by the fire, and Reginald was atop him, straddling his waist and running his fingers through Malcolm’s thick red hair. “I love your voice,” he whispered in Malcolm’s ear, punctuating the words with little nips along Malcolm’s earlobe. “I loved it first and I always will.”
Malcolm unbuckled Reginald’s trousers and slipped his hand inside, smiling as Reginald gasped at the touch. It was too cold to disrobe, despite Izzy’s intentions about streaking in the snow, but by the fire, this was nice too. He let his fingers slide up and down Reginald’s shaft, loving how uninhibited Reginald was with his responses. He wasn’t proper like Malcolm; he hadn’t been raised to believe that nothing good ever came of showing emotion, or sex, or showing emotion about sex. “You’re a rake,” Malcolm said with a wicked grin. “From the moment I saw you, I wanted to have you.”
“Lucky for me you like your trade a little rough.” Reginald ground his hips against Malcolm’s touch, then snaked his own hand into Malcolm’s pants, returning the gesture. Malcolm gasped, making Reginald laugh again. “Bet your tutors never taught you about this, did they?”
“As a matter of fact?” Malcolm braced his foot against the bare floor, then kicked off, catching Reginald by surprise and flipping them until Reginald was on his back and Malcolm was atop him, kneeling between Reginald’s spread thighs. “They did not.” He bent down to kiss at Reginald’s throat, stroking harder as he left little nips in Reginald’s soft skin. “I had to learn a lot of things on my own.”
“Such as?” asked Reginald, gasping. His own strokes at Malcolm’s prick were faltering and losing rhythm, which let Malcolm know he was doing well.
Malcolm bent down to purr against Reginald’s ear. “How to make a boy notice me,” he said, pressing against Reginald’s prick in a way he knew made Reginald squirm.
Reginald laughed louder now, grabbing at Malcolm’s hair even as he panted. “Oh, you were very good at that. Got my attention straightaway.” He thrust his hips under Malcolm’s hand a few more times before he came, still in uniform down to his jacket and half-loose tie, which made him look even more rakish and debauched than he usually did. Given how many young men were still gangly and awkward at that age, still setting into their own skin, Reginald was lucky that nineteen looked so good on him. It wasn’t all of what had Malcolm’s heart, but it didn’t hurt.
Reginald collapsed back against the floor for a moment, catching his breath before taking up the rhythm of his strokes again. He kissed Malcolm hard, sucking at his lower lip as he pawed at Malcolm’s body, and Malcolm came soon after, crying out as he rocked his body against Reginald’s. It felt foolish and young, being like this, having a tumble and clumsy groping instead of a proper shag — but they were foolish and young, and to hell with anyone who said otherwise. If this was their lot, then by God, they were to make the best of it.
The fire had started to die by the time Malcolm disentangled himself from Reginald’s arms, and the sky outside had started to color indigo up from night’s deep black. He rose and stood at the window, looking out at the courtyard below. Gautam and Izzy were nowhere to be seen, but joyful tracks traced circles in the otherwise pristine snow. Had they made the rounds nude? Likely, though Gautam had always hated the cold. Izzy could have sold snow to the South Pole, with that grin of his. He was always so hopeful, always so full of light, that it made sense in a sad way that he’d taken so long to accept it. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to remember the despair that had taken him to the roof of the library that February evening, high above the cobblestones below. Malcolm couldn’t blame him.
But Gautam was quiet, more circumspect — he had a poet’s heart, after all, and poets could understand things in ways few others could. He was full of questions and observations, and though he might not remember the pills, there was no way he had erased the memory of all the taunting and jeering that had preceded them. One day, likely one day soon, he would realize. Next year, they might be to three, then two, then maybe only one. Malcolm knew there was no escaping the day would come when they’d be down to one.
But Reginald walked up behind him and wrapped his arms around Malcolm’s waist, then put his chin atop Malcolm’s shoulder. He was so strong — he had had his moments of weakness, everyone had, and one in particular on a hopeless rainy night by the river, but he had been stronger than everything that had come since, and that meant the world to Malcolm. Reginald had saved him time and again, simply by being there, simply by making a world in which Malcolm was no longer alone.
“Happy Christmas, Marconi,” Reginald whispered, pressing a kiss into Malcolm’s neck, and when the morning’s first rays of sunlight peeked through the windows of the dormitory common room, they found no one there at all.