BLACK ASHER SERIES #5
It seemed to Asher that his beloved’s eyes were still thoughtful. “I don’t need you.” They said. It was a kind of cool understanding between them. Seneca prowled among the chairs, along the corridors, and out along the stone wall, intent on learning the mind of butterflies, and Asher filled the dish every night, “just to supplement your diet” he would say, with a nod to her pride.
Asher wasn’t repelled that her skin was now cold. Family isn’t put off my fevers or chills, by the soil of life or even the loss of it. We live with one another in the thick of life’s spasms and detritus, in the thrall of death, and we hold to one another, while we take turns swatting at the dark. These were the thoughts coming like steam and rumbling off of the back part of Asher’s mind. The front of his thoughts was a wail of agony. “I am darker than the dark,” Asher tried to say, “and you stayed with me and fought it.” But it came out sobs, and not as words at all.
That morning the stump held a flower – where normally Asher laid a bowl of milk each night. Not for Seneca, but for whatever it was that watched over the Haunt. It was as if his quiet woods guardian were saying, “I know she’s dead. I know you love her. I don’t know what happened, and I would have stopped it, if I could.” And yet, Seneca had died in her chair – her chair – the one no one else could use, because it was solely hers – and he hadn’t taken her outside until now. How could the Gruagach have known? Unless it always was just the housekeeper. But Asher knew it wasn’t. She was too in awe of it for that.
The whole place, in fact, had the cloud of loss over it. It was like Auden. What did he say? “Pack up the moon. Take down the sun. They’re not wanted now. Stop the clocks…” Asher had done just that. He’d walked over, without thinking, still almost in shock, and had turned the key and stopped the swinging of the pendulum on the grandfather clock. In his younger years, it had been a grandmother clock, and Asher, when realizing this, decided he’d been gyped by the distributor and had it re-outfitted to make it a grandfather. The complaint department didn’t seem to like the word gyped, but Asher informed them that gypsies weren’t Romani, who were ordinarily wonderful folk, but were in fact people in call centers who answered phones for corporations and then explained away defects and scams with platitudes and pretended offenses, and kept checking orders in computers, only to find the same information each time, as a pretext for repeating it. “I’ll handle it, myself,” Asher had said.
All of Asher’s real companions were male, except one. The housekeeper didn’t count that way; she had her own house. And even Seneca, though showing up on her own and being quite apparently female, if one looked, was given a name that seemed more suitable. Asher almost called her Sand, except the cat would wander off when he started reciting poetry or singing, so he’d decided she was more suited to Roman drama than french novels. None of Asher’s guests ever seemed to notice. Well, except for the one who was not a male, who immediately asked “Why?” and made Asher blush, something he would never otherwise consent to do.
Asher’s thoughts were a retrospective of life’s ordinary things, as he dug the grave. Others had offered. “My own hands,” he’d said, and they hadn’t offered anything further. They would come when he was done. They would come and stand with him, when the hole was covered over. The earth was full of worms and roots and moisture, and so Asher made it larger, large enough for a crate. He hadn’t prepared, wasn’t particularly good at preparations when things were this immediate. He moved on something like instinct. If it had been anything else – if he had his mind – he would describe it as moving on emotions – something he only did when he wrote and when he made love. But Asher wasn’t really thinking. His thoughts were all like embers flying out of a dim but crackling fire. They were the random expulsions of grief, and glowing for a moment, and gone again, as he tried to place his insides in order to account for a reality too painful to accept.
“My darling. My baby. My child.” he said aloud. The air was slightly smoky, and here and there a brown leaf fell from a tree. The edge of Autumn. The edge of a precipice. The grave. Asher let the sweat run along his hair and into his eyes. He let the air and the moisture make him cold. It was better than warmth where there was no life. And when he had finished digging, he lifted Seneca. ‘Fallen comrade’ his mind said, and he wept. He carried her to the shop he’d made in the shed out back. He laid her in a wine crate – the best one – the best wine in his life. Then he despaired of what to bury with her. ‘What would she like?’, he asked in his mind. He shook violently, and sobbed, and wept, and wailed long and loudly.
After walking along the rock wall, looking at what might make her curious, he found it. A moth that had died somehow on the stones. He took that, and some blades of grass, and then thought ‘No ball of string for you. You were always fascinated, are always fascinated, by things that are real.’ So he took a piece of the wall that had fallen, and a new fallen leaf, and gathered the flowers that grew on their own, without attention, as Seneca had, and all of these things he laid with her in the case. Then he said prayers, long and many, and sealed the lid and chiseled a cross on it gently, patiently, as quietly as he could, before carrying her to her final spot to rest.
“You were never really mine,” he said, as he smoothed over the mound. “But I was yours. I think we belonged to each other.”
There would be a headstone in a few days. Asher would hound the stone cutter until it was in place. Besides, he owed Asher more than one favor.
“I’m not good company, yet.” Asher said. “I know it’s been weeks. I’m just not going to be all right.”
“I’m not leaving,” said Toade.
“And if he tried to leave, I’d eat him,” said Frost.
Vyse said, “You don’t have to be all right. You’re Asher.”
At that, Toade started to laugh, sort of hesitantly, and looking at Asher to be sure it wouldn’t hurt. But Asher smiled, so Toade grinned, and that got everyone laughing.
“That’s the first time I’ve laughed without crying.” Asher stoked the fire, to keep the heat high. Always high. It was the way Asher did everything: strong, dark, hot, cold, bright, loud.
Frost watched with something like happiness. “You’ll never be over it, Asher. We don’t expect you to be. Grieve, darling. Let it have you. And we’ll stay here, so you know that we have you too.” She winked when she said it. She almost never winked, and Asher tried not to blush, looking a little nervously at Vyse and Toade. Vyse was knocking a pipe, but Toade was watching Asher’s face and grinned even wider.
“So what shall we do?” Asher made himself say. It was too much to ask that they reach for life. To ask that it not all be the black sun that hung overhead, but that somehow there be new life. He was looking at an empty chair that sat, where it always had, near the fire. He smiled at it.
“Well, I think we should go for a walk in the woods.” said Frost.
“The woods. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“The woods? Well, it’s after dark, there’s no moon, and the wind is making everything creak. I was afraid you were going to say that.” Toade leaned back, like he did when he was going to let his belly do the laughing.
“This is going to take more than a pipe,” said Vyse, clipping a cigar that appeared from a jacket that Asher knew contained enough tobacco to sponsor a prison riot.
Toade had started to laugh the slow, boisterous gotcha laugh that was his trademark.
“Well, you don’t have to go, if you’d rather stay,” Asher said. “But I think I will. The woods are full of life.”
Toade’s eyes went a little ominous. “So you’ve said.” But he rand his finger and thumb along the brim of his hat, reached for his leather coat, and began reciting one of Asher’s lesser known stories in a cartoon voice – specifically a riske piece about a girl who goes alone into the forest to find love.
Frost laughed in delight, and Asher lunged for Toade, trying to cover his mouth, but Toade threatened to stick out his tongue, so Asher relented.
To Vyse’s quizzical expression, Toade said, “We’ll have to get Asher to read it to you some time. He’s really proud of that piece. Awwww.” This got the two of them in a wrestling match, which Toade won by being willing to hump Asher’s leg until he relented. “Toooaaddddd!” he croaked.
“Well, should I leave you gentleman to work out your affections?” Frost asked. “We can go to the woods another night.” The comment was categorically ignored, in favor of choosing the most interesting walking sticks near the door. Vyse decided he would go if, for no other reason, there was a straight, silver-tipped black cane that he wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to borrow.
“I could swear that’s him,” Asher exlaimed, trying to keep his voice low. “He just moves the same.”
“He’s probably a wild stray.” Toade said.
“She,” Frost reminded.
Asher wanted to turn and say, ‘You know very well that there’s only one woman that can live here.’ but he didn’t verbally acknowledge that even to Frost. She knew, of course, but that didn’t mean he was going to verbally acknowledge it. Not unless she won this confession fair and square in one of their witty arguments. ‘You have to take it. I’m not giving it up freely.’ he thought. What he said was, “If you say so.” knowing he would get out of it for now.
Vyse had never actually lit the cigar, but he kept it in his mouth anyway, waiting for someone to make up their mind.
“I’m going after her.” Asher said.
Frost chuckled delightedly.
“Him, dammit. I mean him.” And Asher’s intention, once an intention, was always a movement. He was already brushing aside limbs and moving like a rolling boulder down the hint of a path that probably wasn’t really a path in the sense of normal foot travel, but was just the route the rainwater had tended to take for a few seasons.
Vyse cursed, and said something about more wine. Toade seemed bent on keeping Asher in sight, but was also independently thrilled at the prospect of a game-like hunt. Frost, Asher knew, would find her own way and most likely be ahead of them shortly, with fewer scratches.
But after a few minutes, it was clear they weren’t following anything that was staying around to be followed, and despite having come through one valley and up out of another, they were not walking through the woods, but crashing through it. Not Asher’s usual style, certainly not Vyse’s, and even Toade was pretty sure there was no longer any object in running up the next hill.
Frost sat on a stone shelf a little ways above them, swinging her legs and looking at her unmarked knees, as thought they were bare (they weren’t) and she were a schoolgirl who had simply paused on her walk toward home.
“Well, do we go for our walk, or go back? I’m up for either.” Asher said.
Toade was about to speak when Vyse said, “Ask them.”
Eyes. And he meant “them” not because there were a pair, but many pairs.
Toade stiffened. They’d caught up with something after all. Or been lured by something. Several somethings.
Asher knew Toade was choosing to be motionless rather than get a full view. He didn’t know how he knew. He just knew. “Be still,” Asher said.
“How many are there?” asked Toade.
“What is cardinal, composite, and square,” asked Vyse?
“What?” Asher said, almost annoyed. “Still. Let me concentrate.”
“Sixteen,” Frost whispered. “He means sixteen. Eyes, not … ”
“They’re cats.” said Asher in a firm, loud voice. It was the kind of commanding, somewhat defiant voice he used after sizing up a possible opponent.
“Maybe the cat’s revenge on curiosity,” said Vyse.
“Cats eat toads,” said Toade.
“Just cats,” said Frost. “Hello brothers.”
“Sisters,” whispered Asher. He wasn’t going to miss a beat struggling with Frost. “Leave them be,” he said in the same voice as before. “They’re just cats, and we’re probably scaring the hell out of them.” Of course, he wasn’t ordering anyone around, and no one took it that way. But it suddenly made him feel a little self-conscious. “Weird, isn’t it?” he said in his normal voice.
“Creepy,” Toade said in the cartoon voice. Then he went one better and laughed his best eerie, ghoul-laugh.
Vyse said, “I’m glad everyone’s enjoying it. It’s so much better than walking down the ROAD.”
Asher laughed too, but was caught short when all the little lights went out. “Now THAT is CREEPY.” He laughed again, “If I were laughed at, I’d do the same thing, just for effect.”
They waited another moment. “Well, show’s over, it seems,” Vyse said. “Last one back to the Haunt gets to herd the little buggers.”
But they didn’t run, and they weren’t really afraid of anything. It was just what Toade and Asher had said it was. Creepy.
Frost was there first, again. She was standing by Seneca’s grave marker. The grave was undisturbed. “In case anyone was expecting the obvious,” she said.
Asher shook a little, and held himself, as the other stood solemnly by. “I’ll be with you forever,” he said. “No goodbyes, no matter what people may think.”
He didn’t mean his friends, but still Vyse said, “As long as there is anything.” and Toade added, “Amen.”
Frost didn’t speak. Asher knew already, and she knew, that they were of like mind when it came to living creatures. “They think, they feel, they want, they get lonely, they get depressed.” she had once said. “If that’s not a soul, then I don’t have a soul either.” Or maybe Asher had added that last part. He wasn’t sure.
“You know,” Vyse said, as they walked back toward the Haunt. “I’m already nuts. UFOs. The Kennedy Assassination. That’s small time, with me. So ghost cats? Well, it’ll just make for an excellent entry in the Cryptozoological Journal.”
“Watch it,” Asher said, “They take a dim view of comparing Bigfoots and Yetis to spirits from beyond.”
“Oh, there’s a small contingent.” said Vyse, smiling. “And you’re a writer, so your willing to stretch the ah… imagination too, sometimes.”
“So true.” said Asher.
Toede began reciting another passage from the embarrasing erotic coming of age tale Asher had once penned, but was caught up short by something on the back step. “Toad,” he said, “out of curiosity, rather than mischief.”
“Looks like someone has toaded us,” said Asher. There were eight bowls of milk on the step. Asher looked over at the stump, and he knew, without checking, that the bowl there was also full of milk. “My housekeeper.” But he also saw that there were flowers all around the bowl. And he knew, without counting them, there would be eight, and that the housekeeper hadn’t contributed that part of things.
“Keeping house a little late, I’d say,” Frost pronounced.
“No,” Asher responded thoughtfully. “She a house keeper. She keeps my house. Dusting it out once in a while, well, that’s probably just to give the fairies a chance to make more. She keeps my house from and for all kinds of things, it seems. Thank goodness. I wouldn’t know what to do with them all.”
“Haunt.” said Toade. “It’s Asher’s Haunt. A house just doesn’t explain it.”
“Oh, it’s a house of the oldest and best kind,” said Frost.
“I’ll have to talk to my housekeeper in the morning. She’ll fill me in on whether we’ve got a litter of ghost kittens, or whether Seneca’s living all eight of her other lives at once.”
“Where better?” asked Frost. “You’re a daddy again.”
“I’ll get you.”
“Huh?” asked Toede. Vyse just eyed Asher curiously.
“Oh. You know what I mean.” Asher answered.
Toede began to recite key turns of phrase from the more illicit parts of Asher’s embarrasing tale, dancing off, around the front of the house.
“Toad.” said Vyse, and smiled around a newly ignited cigar.
Frost smiled seductively.
“Indeed,” said Asher.
Asher wrote in large strokes. Normally, he’d use his little notebook computer, and write in front of the fire, but something about writing by hand seemed more appropriate to his mood. It was something older, more visceral. Keyboards have bold, italic, underline – but they don’t have the infinite variety that handwriting can convey, from the size and sweep of the letters, writ large and slowly, like a waltz, conveying his devotion and solemnity, to the dark, frenetic, almost madness of accomplishment his hand-scrawled notes displayed, when he could find them.
The housekeeper had come and gone. His friends and guest of the Haunt had taken their always temporary leaves, and all at once, to attend to matters that needed doing. Even Toede had gone back to his high-rise in the city, and he really only left for long stretches now and then, because too much proximity tends to make people grumpy if there’s not a break. They couldn’t live with him forever, could they?
“Well, some of us can.” said Frost.
“I wasn’t leaving you out.” said Asher.
“No. There’s the world, there’s your friends, who live a little out of sync with it, and then there’s me. I’m a friend, but…”
“Exactly,” said Asher. They had the same conversation many times, exchanging parts.
“What are you writing?”
“You’ll see when I’m ready.”
“I can look over your shoulder, easily enough, if I want.”
Asher grinned. Yes, but then I’ll be too…
“Shaken to the bone?”
“Mur fl ug”
Asher grinned. “This time.”
“Finish your writing. I want you to read it to me soon.”
Asher sighed. He knew he wouldn’t be getting out of it. Not sure he wanted to, but it was just so… anyway.
The way we know we’re alive is that we feel things, and our bodies follow suit. Our hearts race, our lungs pump faster, our eyes well up. We know we’re alive, because who we are, and what we do is connected. And if we could verify this, as though it needed any other verification, it would be by our interactions with one another. It’s not only that I become sad, or you become delighted. It’s that I make you sad, or I make you delighted. And you do the same to me. And we know, we recognize in one another… life. Something shared. Something essential. It might be that it’s hard to see, when we look at our differences. You are a woman, and I’m a man. You’re there, and I’m here, and the distance is immense. Even if you and I aren’t the same species… don’t we make each other feel, and don’t those feelings make our bodies respond? Doesn’t it mean we live, that we recognize the capacity to deeply affect one another? Even plants can affect us – who hasn’t, lying on his back, stard up into a tall oak, and felt… lifted. Even inanimate objects? Who hasn’t stared into the field of stars, and known some measure of hope and curiosity. If a team of experts were standing by, with sophisticated instruments, they could tell me what I already know – that it makes me feel a certain way, and that my body is responding. Even beyond the grave, we know there is life. And how do we know? Because you’re gone, and yet… you still affect me. You still have power over me. And it’s reasonable then, to suppose, that I still affect you. And so, I talk to the dead. And I listen. I sing to my animals, the ones people call “pets”, and I let them penetrate the part of me that’s I leave open, so they can make me feel… human. I’m more of a person, because of them. And sometimes, if I seem to talk to thin air, any rational observer, if he had reasoned through all of this, would assume that I could be talking to anything and everything, and that this is much more likely than that I’m talking to nothing.
And so, sometimes people ask the writer of ghost stories if he believes in ghosts. How can I answer this? What is a ghost? Is it what some “believers” say it is – the residual signals of some life that lingers until disspipated by time? The trapped and disembodied soul, heartbroken and anguished, until some temporal concern is set right? No, I don’t believe in ghosts. Not if that’s what they are. I believe in things much more fully animated than ghosts, and much more full of life. I know, I know the skeptics would say that these are just the remains of my own affections – another way of saying it’s sentiment. But if these things that cause my feelings to be what they are, happy, sad, joyful, and bereaved all at once – so that I sometimes stumble for the pain, and sometimes laugh uncontrollably for the ecstasy – if these are “dead”, then isn’t a part of me just as dead? If so, then I’m the ghost. And so yes, then I believe in ghosts. I believe in ghouls, and creepies, and hauntings, and I so want to go on being haunted across the void. The best ghost stories are true stories, and the truest stories don’t necessarily contain all the details of our lives, but they contain the truths, which can be expressed sometimes more loudly in other details. I’m also sometimes asked if my stories are true? I never really understand that question. As opposed to what? I can’t see the point in writing lies. All my stories are true stories. I don’t pretend they’re necessarily very good. My only claim is that, if you can hear me, I’m telling you the truth.
So now, let me tell you a story of a time my friends and I took a walk in the woods . . .
Asher Black has been in stasis for a long journey, and has recently been awakened. To those who were discouraged by the lengthy pause in his writing and presence, he offers not apologies, nor even much of an explanation. Instead, he shows up with what those who wanted him have asked for. More work. Submitted for your approval, as Rod Serling likes to say. The other Black Asher stories can be read in the MYTHOLOG serial archives. MYTHOLOG is a quarterly literary publication of which Asher was the chief editor for five years. Some readers claim that Black Asher is an alter ego of Asher Black. Others say it’s an entirely different person. Some say it’s the same person, different circumstnance. And most just say it’s a fictional character. Asher has been stoic and silent about all these claims, saying only that he prefers to let the writing be what it is, whatever the audience may say about it. That’s Asher all right.
Entire Contents Copyright Asher Black, 2009. All Rights Reserved.