A man journeys to the "wrong side of the tracks" in search of something new -- only to find himself in the web of a curious seductress whose house (and identity) is not quite as it seems.
Broken bricks blossomed beneath his leaden feet, weighing down the feeble bones of his form. In recent months, he had packed on once wide, unfaltering shoulders a world of responsibilities, an Atlas of his time. Days had shortened, lengthened, unchanging at all really, marred only by flawed perception and an innate desire to please. Such had left him in an awful state of longing, weary nights rapping at the window of his psyche. The chills of regret, of lost time, danced sickly on his hunched spine and dug into it their patent heels, cyclical waltzes and sorrowful songs. It would change soon, as such emptiness within beckoned for a release of pent desire that welled at his loins.
The day died, autumn colors painted the sky. Youthful girls turned double-dutch upon fractured pavement, weedy parasites sunk deep roots in the shallow soil between. He walked onward, with each step, the world on his shoulders crumbled, leaving crumbs by which he would inevitably make his way home. The wrought-iron lamps hummed with life and lit his mapless quest onward into the encompassing night. Houses of ill-repute neared, multiplying by the block, all keeping the pleasant company of naked lawns and tattered fences. The lamps of before had given way to the sickly, rose-colored beacons that lured in men with money to spend. He felt another piece fall away, its invisible form shattered the dingy pavement behind him.
Tickled with the scent of solace and sin, he took an abrupt turn, following privy whispers of satisfied customers. He did not look like the men here, his pale flesh the stamp of a stranger in such a Technicolor world. However, under the harrowing red lights, all skin looked the same to untrained eyes. The men of coal black complexion sat on rickety porch swings and gambled loudly around makeshift card tables. They did not bat an eye at this stranger, not unawares of the unholy wiles he sought. Nearer still, he searched for his sign, its green face wearing one of sorrowful gray: South Street.
He turned on his heels and the dancing chills at his back stepped in unison to a faster pace, their long seductive strides more reminiscent of a rumba than a stuffy waltz. Two eyes watched him as he hovered at the rusted iron gate, beholding the scene, its face awash in a matching thulian hue. The house was “quaint,” a not so kind way of saying small, sad and draped in the airs of wear. The white trimmed door smiled in the obscuring light, shadows flickered behind curtained irises, pupils of a lover dilating in expectation and infatuation. The rusted iron brushed him excitedly, and his firm grasp reciprocated, leading it until its feet drug sturdily through the dirt. Forward toward the eerie smile, he made his way up the two-stepped tongue and wrapped his fingers into a fist.
The door grimaced, and limply swung ajar in awe. From around the edge, a curious eye peered, and a voice so saturated with sex and cigarettes it nearly broke, harked markedly, “How may I help you?”
It was an alien voice, neither presumptuous nor familiar in its quality or tone. Her tongue seemed heavy, plagued with a nondescript accent most probably from an obscure township in Mesoamerica. She spoke slowly, her words rolled like crashing waves over her sharpened teeth — perhaps they were not sharpened, just naturally animalistic, but enticing in a wholly carnal masochistic caliber, nonetheless. Black eyes darted, dissecting his ghostly face and locking mercilessly with his.
“Are you…” he began, a wavering uncertainty scratching at the base of his throat.
“I am,” she interjected, the hoarse nature of her voice softening the abrupt nature in which she answered. The mouth of the door widened and he could see more of her exposed flesh, “Come in, won’t you?”
Silently, he acceded, sacrificing himself into the belly of the beast. The parlor was small, though not unattractive. The floors were cherry-stained, and the overly decorated walls encroached thoughtlessly on their subtle beauty. His lips played with the idea of a smile, but thought best to avoid it. The room was short and narrow, almost square in construction. Before him was a staircase that bent at a harsh angle and reclined backwards onto itself. On either side of the room, was an open archway. She led him to the right.
A room hardly larger than the parlor awaited, at its heart a great and heavy wooden table, appearing as though it hadn’t moved even an inch in what may have been centuries. Atop ornately carved legs was an obscenely thick slab of a dark and dense wood, the surface adorned with an abundant amount of black lace, tied at each corner with red ribbon. The woman sat on the far side of the monstrous table, folding her long legs – clad in webbed hose — at the ankle and resting them neatly on the table’s edge.
She motioned with her hand for him to be seated before her. He did so, taking specific note of the grooves in which the chair legs had driven their way through, wearing into the floor two deep gashes. She smiled at him absently, the gold of her teeth refracting the mild light of the candles that burned on nearly every surface of the room, “What brings you to South Street, señor?”
Her tongue danced over her golden canines, flicking the taste of disgust from her mouth before conjuring up a robust laugh from her tarry throat. Crimson daggers played sweetly at her neck, tucking themselves under tresses of coarse black hair, so violently extending from the tip of each nimble finger. Around bare shoulders, she wore a handmade shawl, expertly woven of black threads befitting a Spanish mantilla. It fastened over the curve of her plunging neckline, golden bobbles calling to attention that which she so readily sold. He attempted to catch his voice that had since been lost within the machine of his mind.
“A friend of mine told me that you…”
“I am sure he did,” she interrupted again, an even more boisterous laugh expelled like smoke from her painted lips, “And this friend, he told you my… Price? Surely, yes.” She answered her own questions more readily than he could collect his own thoughts. A candle on the sill extinguished of its own accord.
“He did, yes, ma’am,” he struggled, nervously searched his coat pocket for the folded bills, drawing them out and laying them carefully on the neat lace. Her legs immediately fell to the floor, heels landing firm upon the wood. Her hands so swiftly took into them the exposed cash. She flipped through it and raised an eyebrow in an unwitting display of surprise. The full package?
“And you, you are prepared for what you wish for?” she asked, indifferent to his unspoken answer, “Because for this… You must accept the consequences. I will do the act, but you, you accept the…” behind her eyes, a silent mind wove lingual connections, “La deuda, debt, el sacrificio, ¿sí?” With an invisible precision, her nailed finger pressed the small lever atop the antique canister on the table, the walls opening and spinning like a centrifuge, from which she plucked a single, hand-rolled, black cigarette and introduced it to her lips.
She drug a match across the cover of its book, and cupped the flame within her hand, the other already in preparation to snag the cigarette from her lips. Billows of smoke rolled over her tongue, only to be caught again in flared nostrils.
She blew what little smoke remained into the stale air, leaning forward, her elbow poignantly resting on the lace cloth. Her black eyes narrowed upon him, searching his form up and down, the corners of her mouth twisting into a hellish, blood-tinted smile. She leaned back, the points of her heels gathering under her and lifting her olive-skinned body upon spindling legs. Gold teeth glistened again, the soot around her eyes engulfing what remained of them behind her pulled cheeks.
“Wait here while I gather my things.”
She vanished into the doorway on the left wall, the cracked plaster — though painted red — stained a sickly amber color from the ever-present smoke. He looked down to the table, knitting his fingers before him and searching the flesh nearest his nails for any signs of unkemptness. The candles that surrounded him slanted on edge at once and righted themselves again. There was an eerie hush about the house, and suddenly, from above he could hear the soft scraping of a rocking chair. Was it her above him so soon? Certainly not. Another of the flames extinguished on its own accord and the man turned to look in its direction.
Within the archway through which they had entered now stood a boy, slight in stature and young of face. He peered silently onward, black eyes just like the woman’s. He said nothing, a mess of black hair hung about his face, the rest of him unclothed and dirty. The man flinched, surprised at the presence of such a young soul in such an infernal place as this. The boy blinked his dark eyes and dashed the hair from his face, his head jerking almost unnoticeably, silently urging the man to approach. The man relaxed his tensed body, aiming his attention in the boy’s direction.
“Are you okay?” he said, reaching out a sincere hand to the boy, a rife blend of curiosity and concern emitted from his worried face. The boy said nothing and motioned again… Or did he? The man could not be sure. The lights of the candles were the only ones aflame, or even present by the look of it as the lamp overhead was little but a sad and broken glass shell housing the fragile exoskeletons of long-dead insects. The darkness of the hall tugged at the boy’s shoulders, urging him to return to the blackness from whence he came. He held strong.
“Are you aright? It’s okay, I’m a friend of the wom-”
The boy narrowed his eyes, malice spilled from his mouth in the form of unintelligible Spanish, his small hands balling into fists. Still the boy did not move, save his feet that turned out in a feigned machismo display of strength. The man sat still, and the boy ascended the staircase, shrouded in night. Hastily he stood to poke his head around the bend, hunting through lengthy shadows the phantom boy who had just as soon vanished as he had appeared. The house was silent again, save the rocking above.
Looking back to the dining room, he neither saw nor heard any cues that the woman would be returning soon and curiosity was getting the better of him. He held tight to the wall, his eyes maladjusted to the looming darkness. With the tip of his shoe, he felt for the first stair, nearly stunned upon feeling its rigidity against his shined loafer. He stepped up, then stepped again, climbing the hidden stairs as quietly as he could manage. When he reached the landing, he turned his head to find the faint presence of light spilling from under the door at the end of the hall. He climbed the next set of stairs even more guardedly than before, afraid that he should frighten whomever was rocking so fastidiously. In the single ray of light, the man could make out faint details of the hall. Two doors on either side, and one at the end – under which the light shone.
Small feet hit the wooden floor, creaking the worn boards and blocking the light from beneath the door. The man ducked his head for fear that he might be caught and hurried downed the stairs.
Just as he’d rounded the corner, the unmistakable echoing of heeled shoes clicked nearer through the opposing doorway. He fell into his seat and hid as best he could his red cheeks, abashed by his own curiosity. The shape of the woman was at the doorway, a large bowl in her sienna fingers. She balanced a number of things on her chest, held within both arms, the golden bobble necklace steadily chiming against the metal bowl with each step. She dropped her arm’s fill onto the table, bits of this and that rolling and clanging over the face of it. She gathered her hands, and distraitly searched the collection for her oblivious prey.
“Ah,” she remarked, taking between her fingers a small pebble no larger than a peso. She handed it to him without so much as a word and his eyes searched its façade for any clue as to its purpose. Moving the bowl to the center of the table, she placed therein a round cut of obsidian. It fit snuggly to the bowl’s metallic walls, conveying the illusion of bottomlessness in the scant candle-light. Taking her seat, she poured water from a Oaxacan pitcher into the vessel, liquid fingers clawing at the black disc below.
“Ahora,” she began, crowning the bowl with her red-nailed fingers, “You will tell me what you wish, ¿sí?”
His eyes transfixed the helpless stone between his fingers, seemingly unaware of her presence at all. He nodded, his cloudy eyes a telling sign as to the depth in which he searched the lowly quadrants of his tired mind.
“I wish-” he began, his voice low and dreamy.
“Aye, no! Do not tell me with your mouth, con tu alma! A la chingada…”
He sighed, clutching the stone close to his chest, breathing meditatively from his lungs. An abrupt chill took the house in a vice-like grip, foremost rattling the loose panes of the windows, then biting at his exposed ankles, flooding his legs and finally nipping at his nose and ears. His eyes darted behind closed lids, and his arm stretched forward, the stone between his forefingers. Drawing his fingers apart, the stone. At once, the vessel exploded with a frigid mist which rolled ominously over the outlying lips of the bowl. Through the fog, he saw the glowing ash of the woman’s cigarette caught within the water’s edge.
“Look to the bowl,” her voice was low, enticing, yet somehow more ethereal than it had since been. He did as she said, and cast his eyes upon the water’s surface. From within, a great fire burned within the bottomless hole, inviting him inward. His mind fell in upon itself, labyrinthine channels of thoughts bisected and converged before one great wish begot itself.
Around him, the woman coiled her body, netted legs and red nails lacing themselves around his chilled flesh. Under his finger her skin stung like fire. Like the fire in the pool, it raged: hungry for tinder. He gave himself into the cataclysmic wonder of her being, the callous caress of her fingers cutting like knives into the small of his back. Her gold teeth played the muscles of his neck like a harp, plucking tenderly at each string, resounding in cacophonous splendor.
Within her embrace, twisted and writhing around him, his eyes clouded as they had before and, drawn into the black looking glass, he found himself. A pressure built within him, clawing at the walls of his stomach, and down further still.
He could see in the darkness, the stairs before him. One by one he moved forward, he could not feel the sensation underfoot, merely adhere to the image of mind. Passed the bend in the stairs and upward still, waves of fire licked at the tips of his fingers, the soles of his feet. Euphoria abound, soaring inward, his mind rang like bells. Forward. He saw the light beneath the door, just as the ecstasy wrapped around his legs, bidding him forward. Forward.
His specter moved forth, the door to the left swung ajar and a cold, sterile light from overhead lit the macabre scene. That naked boy sat in the empty room, his native skin stained deep with vibrant arterial blood. His black tongue played with something between his sharpened teeth, the black irises had since grown to encompass the entirety of his eye. Cross-legged, the boy rocked side to side, gnashing on small bones and singing a familiar song. Where had he heard that song?
The man’s ankles weakened under the weight of her body, his thighs bearing the slack.
In his mind, he could not recall that rhythmic song, and it echoed, its haunting tune drilling channels into the matter of his brain. Where? Begging for release, his subconscious played the scene before him, the bloodied boy fell away and he could see the past alive once more. The girls from earlier, calling out words of wary, as they turned double-dutch. Were they daughters of the red-light? He could not hear their song. The boy’s eyes looking into him, unaware before, but now watching gleefully, bloodied saliva dripping from his agape mouth. His sharp teeth spit bone fragments over his lips, small pieces of besmirched ivory rolling across the bare floor to the man’s feet. A fire licked at his hand, he could not last much longer before the pleasure consumed him. The boy’s black mouth twisted into a wide smile, his teeth, like pincers, shifting in the white light. Above, the bulb sizzled, the filament within visibly burning white before the bulb shattered and the room was black again. The door slammed.
Repetitive, carnal, the lashes of his back began to bleed and the pain urged him forward. He was almost unaware of her now, her extremities searching for any flesh yet slashed with those daggers at her fingers. His heart thundered beneath his ribs, guiding his movements in time.
The door on the right opened, but unlike the last, the light within was warm, inviting. He saw the woman, the one he procured and still yet enjoyed, sitting upon the floor. Candles graced every surface and the room was decorated abundantly with shawls. A vanity on the far-wall was draped in heavy fabrics, the mirror of which was smashed and painted black, the fractured slivers were all that remained a sparkling silver beneath. Standing there, ignorant to his watchful eye, she spun to silent music, a beautiful ballet befitting baron‘s and their long neglected mistresses. Her harsh voice seemed sweeter there, innocent in its vapid decrees. Splendid giggles wracked her chest and he watched as she quivered, pulsated in the candlelight. Her body moved at such a speed, she was little more than a glow, the universe strumming her like a guitar string, her joyous song resounding like the bells of Black Mass. She spun once more, decorated in splendor, gold and woven fabrics from worlds away, before, with one great gust, all the candles extinguished. Plunged into the sticky confines of lightlessness, the warmth of slipped through his fingers, dead. The door slammed and his prying eyes were barred.
His body fell forward into her, his hands reached longingly for the wall. Cold sweat beaded on his abused skin, trickling into the scratches and bites, stinging playfully in tandem with the impending release. He felt the fleeting warmth of that room within her, the two arching their backs in unison.
One door remained. The light beamed as strongly as ever, as he looked straight to meet its solemn face, wise and pleading. The knob rattled, then was motionless once more. He could hardly separate this vision from his physical reality. It had to be fast. He walked to the door and felt the brass knob in his shaking fingers, charged with a warning jolt. The light beneath proving even more clearly that this vision was nothing but, as his body was without form or matter. The knob would not give. He knew there was no time, and he let the knob go to return to his reality. But just as brass fall from hand, the door opened, the light beneath having ceased entirely. He looked through the blackness, unable to make out what dwelled within the devouring void. The strings of a guitar resounded ominously, Spanish and melancholy. His eyes searched longingly for any figment to materialize, still unable to differentiate shadow from shadow.
His muscles tightened throughout his body and he drew in one final breath, lax fingers now rigid with promise.
A luminous haze overtook the room, spiraling beams originating at no one source. Through the dim, a figure, clad in black, took shape. She sat hunched and broken in a hand-carved rocking chair, the raw wood dyed with violet hues of mashed berries cooked in ash and fats, her face hidden discreetly under a black veil of mourning. Nimble fingers plucked and played at the strings of a guitarra, which balanced on her concealed knees. Her long, naked nails danced expertly over the sinew strings, a great and ductile feat for such gnarled and twisted hands. About her neck was a golden chain, on the end of which hung a small hourglass, golden arms followed the converging globes downward. The red sand therein seemed frozen, half of which still confined unmoving within the upper lobe. The woman rocked, her left foot on which the guitarra rested pedaling as her voice sang morose and poignant melodies. Perhaps it was the song the girls had sung, or the boy before. Perhaps it was the music the woman had danced to, that silent music that only she could hear. She plucked with yellowed nails that peeled like wallpaper at the cat-gut threads, black tears soaking the veil through with grief. The eerie haze coalesced, spreading from the center of the room at the base of the rocker and out to each corner before refracting back again. As the obscuring and bending light grew ever brighter, he could see a strange and fascinating thing. Silver strands glistened in the damp haze, the dense beams of which it was made condensed upon the binding threads. The fibers festooned at congruent points of the chair bloomed like dandelion seeds outward, weaving into one another and then parting once more, a prismatic web in which the fluid light bent. He stepped forward into the inviting scene, all the while the morose woman ceased neither her rocking nor her plucking of the chords.
He neared her, the concept of fear now alien in his expanding consciousness. Passing thoughtlessly through the diamond ropes, his form lacked substance, unaware of any danger. From the feeble woman’s chest, soft and sorrowful sobs wrecked her ribs which seemed to curve haphazardly with her bent spine. The planes had not yet converged, and he moved in spectral anonymity toward her shrouded face, seeking to lend a comforting wish upon her hanged head. Her sobs commingled with the reverberating strings, soft sighing transmuting into hushed and hoarse poetry. The door at his back joined in the symphony of sounds, singing a high soprano song as it closed on its own accord. Disillusioned, he turned to find a single picture hanging on the wall that had been hidden behind the open door, at once visible upon its untimely conjecture. He approached it haphazardly, consumed with the dreamlike splendor in which he found within the confines of (he presumed) his mind. Upon further investigation, he found that one of the encompassing threads hung loose on the picture’s face, a layer of dust and greasy smoke caked on the surface of the glass. The woman now behind him wailed her deathly song as he approached the wall, her once obscure words now crystalline in their clarity.
♫ Mi amor ♫.
She sobbed still yet as the tentative dissonance of her tone impeded his phantasmic aura.
He did not stop to look back at her, as the photo on the wall drew him nearer with a surreal magnetism unlike anything he had yet experienced. He found himself unable to resist its beckoning call, examining the filth upon the frame more closely now – through which he could hardly make out the scene therein, wishing for the first time that he had the substance with which to brush the impeding sediment away.
♫ Vuelve, mi amor… ♫
Her voice sent tremors through the floor, a callous reminder of her scorned presence. The frame rattled against the plaster, the loose filament no longer preventing its eternality. From the quivering baseboard and up through the ghostly white plaster, her tremulous voice bore fracturing gashes that crawled like Opiliones toward the guilded frame. The wall split up and the nail on which the picture hung teetered for a moment, the weight of the frame hanging heavy on the balance. The rattling boards died with her voice and the wavering nail-head graciously acceding to gravity. From the wall, the frame felled, shattered glass shards sailed passed him in lucid disarray across the bowed boards underfoot. Reduced to a heap of angled rubbish, the photograph once encased lay clandestine amongst broken pieces, face down in what remained. Upon the back, scrolled in erratic script was a message written in Spanish, billowing lettered sails carried on sepia waves. At once the esoteric words whirled at long last free of their cell, the unfamiliar gatherings reforming hastily into legible English: My Late Husband. He longed to turn the page, but able hands were no gift in such a realm of curiosity.
He turned away from the broken remains, eager eyes in search of a new scene to behold. Aware now that her rocking and strumming had ceased, he found that no longer was there a rocking chair, but a colossal spider’s web in which there was ensnared, wrapped in silken thread and long since dead, the shape of a man. From the web, the body hung crucified, thin mummified arms outstretched to either side, open wounds through which organs were drained pierced the hardened dermis like blasphemous stigmata nature’s proud renunciation of the pious. The Mother smiled on the hardy. Her sense of humor most evident that she should grace such a wistful and sickening scene with a monarch’s wings, golden and gamboge eyes, lifelessly reveling in the welcome blindness of ignorance at long last. Or perhaps they observed knowingly, still yet, a metamorphosis complete. Gashes festered black and rotting, a silken shroud was ceremoniously obscuring the man’s face, almost certainly unrecognizable beneath, given his emaciated condition. A well of fear bubbled within the pit of his turning stomach, hesitant to approach such a horrific scene. Uncertainty knotted his hands as they wrung themselves, his curiosity urged his feet forward and from the crown of the mummified king, he drew the funeral shroud.
His knees buckled, the fire of her touch engulfed him entirely and his hammering heart ceased, his cloudy eyes were white and lifeless beneath his heavy lids.
This couldn’t be right. His eyes locked with empty sockets that dripped black, adorned with ichor tears. Pulled taught over the skull, the victim’s skin was leathery, worn and forlorn, but within its face he saw his own reflection. Lips drawn up over sharpened teeth, it was unmistakable. He looked on to his own corpse solemnly, tracing the lines of his forgotten body with his own, phantasmal eyes. Silver strands wrapped the body like the delicate tethers that most assuredly hang the stars in the night sky. Tears welled in his eyes, but he brushed them away. The dead do not mourn for themselves. He thought back to the hourglass around the woman‘s neck, finding that he too lived now in a realm of frozen grains and rosso corsa sand. For one last time, he touched at his own form and drug his hand away, finding that his fingers made the most beautiful sound as they snagged the taut threads. They vibrated softly, a silken harp beckoning the widow back.
Turning to the door, he found he was not alone. The widow stood now behind him, her face still yet obscured by the veil akin to his corpsely hood, the hourglass nestled close to her neck. He looked to her, to her veiled face and worn hands folded at her waist, mourning his body as he had just done. A vibrato choir of melancholic melody burst from the strings, haunting like the chimes of a music box that same song as before. All fell silent, and within the confines of his ethereal being an anger brewed, a most powerful sorrow and fiery rage ignited. Tears of hate streamed down his cheeks and bounced like diamonds over the hard floor. He raised his hand high and brought it back to cross her face, but a sudden force stopped him and the frozen widow’s head twisted up, her ruby lips finally visible under the mantilla.
The woman raised her veil, her dark eyes painted with soot and satisfaction. Those prying black eyes looked into his, a cold gripping at his bones. The darkness writhed around her, enveloping her scant frame like a coiling snake at the ready.
It was her.
The woman from before.
Her wide eyes slanted under heavy lids, and like a camera lens, her retina flashed to life. That thick, black hair was spun in braids atop her head, and those gold teeth beamed a warmth so incongruous with such chthonic place. The gnarled hands broke and reformed into the youthful, blood-tipped daggers they had been before and her tired face lit with youth.
But which was her real face?
From behind the heavy woolen cloak, the boy emerged, his dark eyes timidly searching the man up and down. Without breaking eye contact, she laced one nailed-hand around the boys head and pulled him in close at the hip, an inconceivable, malicious jubilance in those twisting eyes. The boy looked on, his face still bloodied, his sharp teeth hidden beneath blood-stained lips. His face changed and the boy’s timid nature was overrun with a frightening, hungry glint, sharp teeth gnawing expectantly at his own bottom lip.
The woman broke the silence.
“It’s is your papá."