26. LA CHAMBRE GRISE – Purge

It became, in a word, Armageddon.

The Brown House exploded.

Fifty thousand propane kegs’ worth of fireball force, set off by a million kilowatts, burst the political power asunder, and a peal of thunder rocketed ‘cross the city, and was heard ‘round the world, and on the moon, and a remnant even rocked neighbor Mars. Surely the aliens felt it on their journey. Surely one would hope that the Flutoidans knew to turn away at the sight and its implicit threat of destruction. That would solve our central conflict…until their next ill-fated landing, if treachery were to prevail again o’er the good…

A fire was there—the immoral, amoral pyre.

Many civilians on the lawn had been jubilant before this moment, and their cheers were cries of victory, of purely conditional camaraderie. Now they knew not what to say. The fire had smacked their gobs. A hot fire blazed and they stood frozen.

They waited stupidly.

And then it became, in a word, Armageddon.

Opening wide, the earth spit its own explosions, infernal aftershocks. Fireworks from the underworld! Some shot in the air and sparkled—most landed, and seared, and blazed, and consumed, and the people screamed! Wailed! Ran and fell into a waterfire chasm!

The rising tide bore prisoners, too, who crawled up the cracks of hot earth, clinging like larvae to the unflared walls…and whosoever survived this flaming baptism would run, butterflies, to the city, to reclaim life, destroy the old, make it in a new image.

All as the mushroom creature, beaten but not murdered, impervious to flame, rose cloaked in bonfire before the remains of that Brown House, before ruined riches and smoking bone. And it grew even now! And the mortifying gasp it made was the tolling bell of all things—heralding the new birth, sending off the old!

And he who had wanted to wed had not, and he who had wanted to speak had not. Lo! the words, the vows, had to wait for another life!

***

Here is one fact of the vampire curse that has never been made apparent.

We can say that a memory is a golden coin; ignoring whether it is “good” or “bad,” it has doubtless made your fortune. Each golden coin accumulates in your store…or, no doubt it is better to say, they are stashed haphazard: in your dresser, under your pillow, beneath a flowerbed in the park you hold most dear. Everywhere we are making valuable memories, in every place, in every livelong day.

We forget. We misplace the tiny treasures. Some of us are forced to forget; some are robbed, particularly the old and vulnerable. Others run their hand against the dresser, smooth, only to feel the rugged edge of a coin—thereupon to remember the time they were dashed against that dresser by a former friend unkind. Now they dash that coin away themself; now they do all in their power to forget.

The way we all forget is through death, by which point the stash is as useless to us as real gold to a pirate’s skull.

But the immortal, the undying, who should by rights have the greatest fortune, is preeminently forgetful. He is constantly losing track of the little coins he has dropped, even among the crypts of his own home! As he struts through the hallway, he treads ignorant atop a shimmering road. His fortune is unmatched, it is a hoard, yet he holds but a few coins in hand at a time. Great folly! A planet’s worth of philosophy would be yours, if only you would pick up the pieces!

The human head is no boundless vessel; it cannot perceive all, nor can it contain all. It only has windows, tiny windows, which never exceed a few inches in width. What the vampire head retains of humanity lies in the shape of its skull and not much else.

Imagine that the vampire takes a coin and, wishing to have it in mind, drops it in through a window, a slot. The mind’s eye recalls, the heart’s drum is pounding—

The coin shoots through the slot, only to land with a clink among its brethren. These are the memories the vampire carries with him; many of them were gained, lost, recalled again, and again and again and again. Why do they not stay?

Look there—there is the reason. See that gulf! See all the coins hanging on the precipice! And see behind them the machine called Time pushing forward! This is its natural emptying of the memory bank—forcing the coins to sail out of his mind no matter how he tries!

This, my friends, is the coin-pushing machine of the mind, and for a vampire it is positively overloaded; there are jackpots all the time. Its scant domain is half the size of a card table, just as it is for you or I. The more he adds, the more slide off the edge. You can try to retain memories—you can try to retain the bedrock of your very self—but your mind is a mind encased in flesh vessel, not in a vacuum of aerious ether. Did you think that a vampire’s mind, being supernatural, would surpass all the bounds of nature? His flesh is still flesh, though so wickedly catalyzed! The foundation of his brain is but a man’s! Through his baptism he made a contract for longevity, not for wisdom; for strength of body, not depth of body.

The years lived by immortals streak by like a cosmic rain: beautiful, repetitive, heartbreaking, uncountable.

We dive now into a memory made ocean by rainwater. This memory, this suite of days, was unremembered by the people of the 31st century, having been a faintly curious side-note to the prelude of the second World War…unremembered, that is, except by three immortals. Each member of the triad held pieces that, like patchwork, might come together if they ever recommuned. That, however, was to prove a distant hope, seeing as we have just seen all three obliterated in a firecloud.

Rain pattered upon the roofs of Inverness. Quite a night for two vampires to make themselves known, the senior unafraid, his junior tentative, and what a city to test their mettle; as they walked from shadow to midnight shadow, carrying black umbrellas in their left hands and two valises apiece in their right, the judgment of a thousand churches seemed to be upon them, with spires tall and frequent.

They crossed a modernized bridge, treading the thin border between pavement and the edge. A horseless buggy rolled by, and they were splashed; the hunchbacked liege shivered and nearly dropped his bags, but he saw that his lord was still going, and so he could not pause. Already his legs, being so short and bent, were moving in double time to keep up with a man two feet higher than him. Below them was the Loch, which alone welcomed the rain; the waters went up and down, twinkling, like a river of keys jingled before a river of babies’ faces.

Igor would have preferred an inn, but Dracula, daredevil that he was, checked into the finest hotel available. It was white, chic, rigid and angular, a heap of blocks punched through with black windows. It promised the latest appliances, and the boy at the front desk talked up their complementary ironing boards.

“Any breakfast, sir?”

“No thank you.”

“Room service—”

“There will be no need.”

“I’ll write that down, sir, but if you have any problems, the maid’s on duty ‘til two at night. You can either knock at her door or call her using the in-suite rotary phone, or the telegraph.”

“Wonderful,” said the Count.

“Twin beds, then—one adult and one child?”

“Two adults.”

“Two a…” The boy leaned over his desk and, at last, saw more of Igor than the top of his head. “I’m so sorry,” he told him, and he meant for the message to be profound, healing, and new. The hunchback, for his part, could have yawned.

Up on the seventy-seventh floor, in the fifth suite—for the seventh was taken—two vampires swept into a bright yellow expanse, settled down, and rejoiced to feel radiators heat the rain out of them. They swooned in the glamor of both an AM and an FM radio, pondered the possibilities of a hair dryer, sighed with relief at the promised phones and irons…but neither one was truly excited until he eyed the power outlet.

A smile crept onto Igor’s face. Rarely had he gotten the chance to combine his scientific meddling with electricity, that jagged snake-tongue, tempter from the clouds!

As Vampire Senior and Vampire Junior stood beside the socket, the younger said, “Count Dracula, I apologize for the vindictive sins of my heart—inwardly I cursed you for bringing me here, but I see now there was a greater purpose to all of this, coming to this city of riches…” Partly to suppress his trembling, he gave a most humble bow.

The Count laughed aloud and rejoindered, “There is no such thing as sin to a vampire. Forget your sorries! We revel now in knowledge and in labor.”

“Way ahead of you, Count!” said Igor, and he was, with a valise wide open on the now-sopping bed. There were test tubes inside, and bottles, all corked, several fizzing, as though the fluids themselves were anxious to break out, and in the side-pockets were pincers, droppers, Bunsen burners, tiny engines, gearboxes!

Soon the faux-laboratory was all set up, its apparati linked by glass chutes, metal strips, and curling cords momentarily clipped from the backs of the radios. When table and bed space ran out, the ironing board came to the rescue, and it was by such means that Dracula and Igor were surrounded by test tubes bright as the freshest fruit, by their belches of sparks and flame, and by vital statistical papers.

As the Count set a burner alight, Igor peered into the microscope beside him. “It is just as I thought,” said Igor, “not a hexagonal chain, but a double helix…linking genes in a twisted ladder!”

“Ah, what a novelty,” said Dracula, charmed. Now that his burner was ablaze, he raised a marshmallow on a spit.

Igor spun on his heels. “No, not a ‘novelty’—a breakthrough!” he cried, frustrated with his partner but jubilant to discover. “It shows us the layout of the genes. We can map the whole genome. We can discover whether vampire genes differ from human, and, and—”

The door opened. The maid had opened it, though she was not supposed to have been on duty this late.

Those peepers of hers saw it all, albeit through milky cataracts, and the ears, drooping with age, could yet hear science sizzle. She was a tree of a woman, still tough, once mighty, her bark crumbling, petrifying even as she stood. Her eyes, so sunken in, seemed out of place, as if her face should have been blank and solid, as if the body should house its bird of a soul no more.

The old, old, old maid said, “What is that?”

They said nothing; they moved nothing.

Her interruption had made each vampire rigid for different reasons: mingled terror and curiosity swamped Igor like tremulous quicksand, but what swallowed Dracula was rage at the human’s impudence, only stifled with an effort.

She said again, “What is that?” This was how the enemy dug in her feet.

The opulent fiend gently pushed the ironing board aside, stepped toward her, and with elegance suppressed the anger within. “I understand you are the maid? Listen: this is our private business. We are neither criminals nor unsavories. When we leave, everything will be back in its proper place—it will be as if we vanished.”

This did not convince the maid, and she became downright defiant. The Count asked her, mellowly, to look in his eyes, and she thrust her head away, as if she had known they would hypnotize. As he reached for her chin…

“Count!”

He paused; Igor had run to his side and was pulling at his cloak. “Count, she only asked a question. Can’t we tell her the truth?”

“She will not understand it anyway,” he said with apparent disinterest, and reached for the maid’s chin again. She snarled at him—of all things! —and turned herself away.

“Miss,” said Igor, breathless, “we are researching genomes—that is, we are finding out the secrets of the body. Why we are born the way we’re born, why we grow sick, why we age.”

She replied, “Why we…look the way we look?”

All of a sudden, he saw her face. At least, from afar, it had seemed a face; now that Igor saw it up close, it came alive with a rainbow of crusted color, with swirling scars delicately pink, with scabs, with permanent greens, with patches going black, with spots of down. It became more like a dead tree than ever! Pity of a kind he never dreamed he’d feel swelled in Igor’s heart—a pity that assumed it knew the hardship of the downtrodden, a pity that called itself “savior.”

This was how they found themselves taking on a new project in Inverness. It was not the climax or the start of another evaded prison sentence, but the appearance of Igor’s first client.

She made him a request. He clasped her withered hands, became tearful, and promised her a few moments of normalcy before the grave. For a normal face, which immortal vampiracy could not grant, was all she wanted. She answered with a grin that cut her face, sprite-like, as though she had no doubt that he would do it.

Not a day later, Old Maid Helen was found dead in her shabby little chamber, and the handful of policemen and medics and employees who saw her remarked, rubbing their chins, “It’s as if she knew.” For they found her lying on top of her pallet, even on top of the covers, her hands folded across her chest. “Well,” they all concluded, “it was a good death.”

That body, however, was a dupe. The real Helen was not in that shabby wood casket, nor would she wish to have been. Few attended, fewer mourned; the hotel manager came for relief, of a sort, since the chance to guiltlessly replace her made him giddy.

Actually, she remained in that very hotel, sequestered under Igor’s bed whenever a new maid, by mistake, chanced to knock. She stayed away from the window, ate and spoke little, and that great tree of a maiden was as meek as a mouse; often as the men worked, conversed or debated, she deliberately parked herself in the corner, in the name of politeness toward them and a fear of herself.

Every day for the next six days, at midnight when the dark was deepest, Dracula opened the door and stole away, and Igor’s new work began.

He laid her on the ironing board, gave the kiss of chloroform, snapped on his gloves and grabbed his implements. Only after several tense minutes, when every last twitch in her body had stilled, could he pull and prod the bark. But though he knew medical rudiments, he was no trained doctor, and he could never staunch the preemptive guilt of one who has ruined another’s life. Had he been too bold by taking a dive into an unknown field—would he, worse than drowning, crash into plain earth?

At least this was not as arcane as gene splicery. This was the mad science of plastic surgery and, God willing, it would spare her organs if not her face!

Day by day, the face transformed. Igor could not say whether it changed for the better. He stared at that bizarre, crusted swirl for hours as it shifted, shifted, slowly as the haze of dreams, under his knife and picks. The closer he came to producing a shape not only human, but pleasing, the more impossible it seemed to make the final leap, as though, while his trek along the desert had but a mile to go, only at the edge of a pit could he see: it was a mile-long gap, and he was expected to leap!

Then came the seventh night, the final drop of his implements on the counter. Opening of a washroom door. Wiping off sweat. Peering in the vanity.

Having completed his labors, Igor, without warning, left the hotel.

He struck out across the tranquil Loch, through nigh-empty streets, locked doors and cheerless windows. Lining the city were guardian hills studded with castles and churches of stone, many fallen into disuse. It was in the doorway of such a sylvan church, garbed in moss-covered eaves, that Igor met his lord.

“Dracula!” he panted, and the vampire superior, who had been making his exit himself, stopped. “I am sorry to startle you like this, but I…I no longer know what I’m doing.”

A bat squeaked. It was within Dracula’s hand; he shifted his thumb over its mouth.

“Igor, your guilt is natural, I suppose, but in time, this too will go. Let your failure stand as a cautionary tale.”

All along, Dracula had seen Helen’s face metamorphose from afar, but had kept mum…never admitting to Igor that in making that gnarled face more human, he had made it still more dreadful. And now—now Helen was seeing that face for the first time since the surgeries started. Igor had showed her to the washroom mirror, and as the light of recognition dawned in her eyes, he—he could not bear to witness her reaction!

Therefore had he fled to his father. Now he sank to his knees in defeat.

“Did I fail?”

“Yes,” said Dracula, laying a bony hand on his back. “But let us return, and analyze this bat I carry.”

“What about Helen?”

“We will give her a second funeral, of course.”

The idea chilled him to the bone.

They moved sluggishly back into town, Dracula patting Igor’s hunch intermittently in the best display of affection and sympathy he could devise. The road wound its way to the hotel, and all was empty or shrouded and still.

The twin fiends were at the end of the bridge, facing the hotel, when the door opened and a guttural cry rang out. Igor stifled a shriek; his eyes watered.

“Come out, everyone!” an old woman began to chant. “Come out!” Clanging a pot and ladle together above her head, she turned and strutted down the main street. There went Helen, who had seen her new face—and loved it! The lost, deluded soul! Igor fainted on the spot!

“Ah, so she will summon her own funeral,” decreed Dracula—with a chuckle.

***

“CROWD THROWS ROCKS AT APPARITION OF OLD UGLY MAID

Agrees that said apparition is ‘even uglier’

“Last night, in the vicinity of the Hotel Brut, a banshee gave townsfolk a rude awakening, as dozens of witnesses report. While she entreated onlookers to ‘look at [her] beautiful, normal face,’ that face was anything but, and the ghost was summarily stoned. While the stones did not pass through her body, as with a run-o’-the-mill ghost, her physical description matched that of the lately deceased Old Maid Helen (although, according to the manager of the Brut, she was ‘even uglier, against all laws of nature’).

“When the stoning proved to be too much, the haggish ghoul dove into the Loch Ness, never to be seen again, it is hoped.”

Thus read the headlining article of the Inverness Crier…and even centuries on, rumors of an atrocious wail-woman in the Loch would sweep the globe, spawning a legend to rival Nessie.

If the reporters had asked Dracula what happened on that doleful night, he would have said the same of Helen. He may have added that Igor, his liege, had run off right after fainting at the sight of her—and in scarcely-believable fact, had run toward her. He, the Count, then lost track of both among the crowd. Searching the streets for nearly an hour, he could neither divine Igor’s location nor Helen’s (not that he had wanted the latter). Only when he returned to the hotel room did he find Igor sitting on the bed, weeping, over the suitcase of science he held on his lap, which he almost cradled.

If Dracula shared all of that, however, it would be highly suspicious.

Igor, who had his own unique perspective, would not have spoken at all. He would keep that night zipped in the back of his throat, no matter who should ask—and thankfully, Dracula was not nosy.

When he found the strength to run along the docks and find Helen, she was on the verge of leaping from a barge. The villagers had not been keen on chasing her, but only because they knew she would chase herself, diving into the sea. They figured it would be the end of her.

The old woman with the baby’s face set foot on the rail, but the sight of the ocean bade her pause…and a hand came gingerly onto her arm. Igor tugged lightly, and she let herself be guided.

As the ship’s planks groaned, he whispered, “I can make this right. I don’t know how, but science will find a way.”

She smiled and agreed; at the time he did not know this, but really, she surrendered. Whatever he intended, it was this or death—why not try again?

Thereby she agreed to a deep, long sleep, and to a coma spent stuffed inside of Igor’s valise.

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Author: Joi

I write, I draw, I do it all

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