“That is not dead which can eternal lie . . . ”
—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Nameless City”
My name is Caroline Eve Arkwright and I am thirteen years old. I prefer to be called Caro over Caroline and I don’t like the name Eve at all. I’ve insisted to Nan that I be called Caro because I’ve recently begun to learn my Latin declensions: caro, carnis, which means flesh, the body, and low passions. I don’t know much about low passions but I’m much more knowledgeable when it comes to flesh and the body. The body is the house in which the soul lives; and so I myself am like a house and I’m also the person living inside the house. This presents a conundrum, which I like very much. How can I be both a house and the occupant? Nan will not answer me. Nan has never enjoyed conundrums as much as I do.
Nan and I’ve always lived in the house and Nan tells me this is how it must always be. Our house isn’t like the houses in the village, Nan has told me, for it is caro, carnis as well. It is a big house. How shall I describe it? The walls are white, like the chalk cliff, but even more beautiful than that for they shine different colors in the light and are perfectly smooth. The floor is curved as well. From the outside the house appears as a giant hole opened in the cliff, but on the inside it has a series of chambers or cubicula, which spiral inward, each smaller than the last and curved as well. The house then is an orbis, which means ring, disk, coil—but most of all—world. I’ve spent many hours exploring the house but I’ve never gone beyond the eleventh chamber.
The village sits atop the cliff, not so close by, for the villagers are afraid of the ground giving way as it did once before. Their houses, which I’ve seen for myself, are neither orbes nor carnes but rather saxa, which is stones, and quadrata, which is squares. They have wooden roofs. They have windows in the attics with lights that come on and go off when I pass them. The people inside are caro or rather caro in saxo, but I am Caro in carno.
The way to the village is dangerous. The cliff is sheer and there are all sorts of other seashells and such visible there. None are as large as my house. The view of the ocean from the steps is very beautiful but if I’m not careful I could fall. Nan says this is what happened to Mother and Father, that they were not careful enough and so they fell. I don’t know if this is true but I’ve chosen to believe it. We must all choose to believe something, mustn’t we, even if it’s bad? Nan is too old to make the journey now and so I must make it alone. I try not to look down. Below me is mors, mortis which does not mean fall but death.
It’s my job to collect supplies from the village. Mostly this means onions and potatoes and flour and sometimes a pound of sugar and two pounds of coffee but these last are only for special occasions. I’ve been instructed to touch neither fish nor fowl, nothing that has lived and nothing that has died. I find these instructions somewhat confusing. Both the onions and the potatoes have lived, as I understand it, but Nan is firm that it’s not the same sort of living. She says this is an issue of vocabulary but I confess I’ve not pressed it farther. Without onions and potatoes our cellar would be very bare! But it does seem to me that there ought to be a word that says more than mors, mortis to denote the different kinds of death such as death by falling or death by disease. This could be done of course with the addition of further words but it would be much more elegant if one word encompassed all these meanings. Perhaps there’s such a word in Greek or Egyptian or one of the many other languages I shall learn but I’ve not come across it yet.
In the village is a grocer who weighs the sugar and the coffee. In return I must give him a small pouch filled with salt that we scrape from the walls of the house. I’ve been told to watch him very carefully. Sometimes, Nan says, he likes to put his thumb on the scale. If he puts his thumb on the scale, then either I must make a second trip to the village before the appointed time or else we must make do without sugar or coffee. The grocer has a boy who counts out the onions and the potatoes but Nan says I must not look on him lest I fall into caro, carnis, that is low passions.
Which is quite hard for he’s very handsome.
“Good morning, Caroline Eve Arkwright,” he’s accustomed to say to me. I think he likes that I have three names for no one else in the village seems to have more than one. He’s called Tom, which, I think, is an excellent name. “How are you today?”
“I’m doing very well, thank you.”
“And how many potatoes will that be? The usual number?”
“Not one more? Aren’t you a growing girl? It seems to me that you’re growing day by day!” Tom’s always saying something like this. I can’t tell if he’s mocking me. Although I think Tom is handsome, I keep close to my heart what Nan has said about the people from the village.
“The usual number, please, just as we have agreed. No more and no less!”
“Not an apple for the way back?” This is tempting. I’ve always thought that apples look very beautiful. They come in all sorts of different colurs. But I know that I must refuse.
But I don’t refuse, not yet. “Do the different colors have different tastes?”
Tom looks at me for longer than I’m used to and I find that I’m blushing. Sometimes I feel so ignorant around him and this is one of those times.
“This one,” he says at last, “tastes green. And this one? Red. Red is the best taste, don’t you think?”
“I’ve never tasted red.”
“Would you like to?”
Tom polishes the apple very carefully on his sleeve. Now the skin is red and gleaming. But he has a look in his eyes like perhaps he’s mocking me. Perhaps he’ll take the apple away if I ask him for it.
I can’t help myself. I take the apple from him. It feels very smooth. It is a beautiful feeling to hold that apple. I think, I can hold this but I must not eat it. Tom smiles as he watches me holding the apple and I smile at Tom. The skin of the apple reflects both of our smiles, like two crescent moons. But then Tom stops smiling and I’m left to wonder if I’ve done something wrong, if I should not have taken the apple, if he’ll take this as a sign that the contract is voided.
“My mother’ll be coming to you,” Tom says after a little while. “Will you take care of her properly? Do you promise?”
I’ve seen Tom’s mother before. Her hair is light and yellow and it drapes like silk all the way down her back. Sometimes she measures out the coffee and the sugar for me and she has never, not once, put her thumb on the scales. It makes me sad that his mother will be coming to me soon. I can see that it makes Tom sad as well. I touch his hand, very gently, in case he pulls it away but he doesn’t and so we stand like that together for some minutes.
“Thank you for the apple,” I tell him shyly. But I don’t put in my satchel. Instead I leave it on the porch of the grocer’s shop. I know now I should not have taken it. No more and no less!
But sometimes caro is no friend to Caro.
There is a large hoist at the top of the chalk cliff, which swings out over the ocean below. The supplies from the village are much too difficult to manage on the steps, and so I load them onto the platform beneath the lifting hook. Once I’ve lowered them to the house, Nan will carry them inside. Nan says that the villagers used to lower the supplies themselves once, but after Mother and Father died, they wouldn’t do it anymore. So now Nan or I must go to remind them, and since Nan can’t go anymore, it must be me. But this is good, Nan tells me, because the villagers ought to become accustomed to me. They do not suffer strangers very easily.
Nan is waiting for me at the bottom of the steps. She worries for me when I make the climb even though I’m always very careful. She has prepared coffee for me and so we sit together in the vestibulum, the largest of the chambers, where the mouth opens out toward the ocean. This is my favorite place because the noise of the waves is very soothing. Part of the cliff has fallen away on one side of the vestibulum and so the floor sticks out, smooth and gently crenellated, just like my lower lip if I’m sulking. Underneath this lip is the best place for gathering salt, though it can be got from further in the house as well, only with more difficulty. The floor isn’t very curved here. It is easier for Nan.
“The grocer’s mother will be coming to us soon,” I tell Nan.
“How do you know, Caroline?”
“Caro,” I remind her. She’s always forgetting
“How do you know, Caro?”
“The grocer’s boy told me so.”
“Well.” And after a time: “We will greet her when she comes. Are you ready? How are your Latin declensions progressing?”
“Optime,” I tell her.
“Then perhaps you ought to join me when we greet her.”
I don’t like this very much but there is nothing I can say. I shall try to do my best for Tom and his mother. I shall try to greet her properly.
Several weeks pass before Tom’s mother comes to visit, which is later than I expected. It’s almost time for me to return to the village again. It’s the sound of the winch that tells me she’s coming. Outside the noise isn’t so loud but when I’m inside the house the noises become louder and louder and louder, even as the chambers become smaller and smaller and smaller. Sometimes I think that if I were to come to the end of the house then the noise would be so deafening I’d die!
I run through the chambers as quickly as I can, but carefully too, for the floors are more curved where I’ve been working. Nan keeps our library far away from the vestibulum where the salt and rain would destroy our books. As it is, they aren’t in very good condition and the oldest of them have fallen to pieces. If I had string, I’d mend them, but we don’t have very much string, so the best I can do is to wrap them in strips of my old shifts. As Nan says, waste not, want not! And if we’re to want for nothing, then we must waste nothing.
The noise of the winch echoes like a screech as I make my way through the deep passages to the outermost chamber. My feet hitting the floor make a bum, bum, bum sound. When I reach the vestibulum, Nan has already begun to remove Tom’s mother from the platform. She’s covered in a pale blue blanket but I can see the edge of her hair draped over the heartwood.
“What is the word for death?” Nan asks me.
“Mors, mortis,” I tell her.
“Can you conjugate it fully as a verb?” Nan unhooks the platform from the lifting hook and I help settle it down. The platform is set on wheels so it can be more easily maneuvered into the house with us.
“Morior, which is I die, and then moriris, which is you die, and then moritur, which is she dies—”
“And if it is in the perfect tense?”
“—then it would be moriturus est, which is she has died.”
“Very good, Caroline.”
“Caro,” I remind her.
“Very good, Caro,” she says. “Now what does it mean that the grocer’s mother has died?”
This is more difficult for it goes beyond knowing the pattern of words to knowing the meaning of words. And I’ve only just begun this, but I will try. If Nan corrects me then I shall be wiser than before at any rate.
“Mori is a word used by the ancients to indicate the passage of a creature from one state into another. It’s something like transire, which is to go across but it isn’t about movement outside or over but rather movement inside.”
I’m very proud of this description. I look at Nan very closely to see if it has satisfied her but she’s busy with maneuvering the platform onto the rails that run lengthwise down the center of every chamber.
“This won’t last much longer,” says Nan as the wheels of the platform sing out an unpleasant note. She’s right. One of the wheels has gone wobbly and so the load is badly balanced. When it tips, Tom’s mother begins to slide toward the edge. I lay my hands upon the long folds of cloth in which she’s swaddled. The blanket is more brittle than I had supposed and much more coarse. At last, Nan turns back to me. “That’s a very good description of mori.”
“I’ve a question,” I tell her. “If mori means an inward movement, is it very like somniare, which is to dream? That’s like an inward movement too, isn’t it?”
“What do you dream about, darling?” She’s not looking at me but rather at Tom’s mother underneath the blanket.
“Sometimes I have a dream that I’m dead, or that death is a thing very close to me, but it isn’t so much a passage as . . . a breath, which is, I suppose, a movement of the air from inside to outside, and so it is like a passage.”
“And how do you know that you are dead?”
“Because a great voice whispers it to me. Moriris. You are dead.”
Now Nan looks at me very closely and I can see a strange yellowish cast to her eyes, which seem folded in dark and heavy flesh. “Each of those things is very like death, but it isn’t the same thing.”
“I’ve another question,” I tell her, “must all caro, carnis suffer from death?”
“All things suffer from death except salt.” She eyes me warily.
“Why not salt?”
“Salt has never lived.”
“I’ve another question,” I tell her, “if all caro, carnis must suffer from death and I am caro and this house is caro, does that mean that I’ve suffered from death and this house has suffered from death?”
Nan clucks again with her tongue, which is the sound she makes when she’s thinking.
“When your mother and father died, did you suffer?”
I think about this for a moment. I don’t remember Mother and Father very well. It has been Nan for so long that it may as well have been Nan ab aeterno, which is forever, like the salt. But then I think of the dream I’ve been having, and how the breath is very warm on my face and how it smells very nice and the dream whispers I am your mother but for some reason this isn’t a happy thought but a sad thought.
“I think I did,” I tell Nan.
“Then you have suffered from death.”
I can tell that Nan’s being wily with me. She has only answered a question very like my question but not my question at all.
The path through the house is long. There aren’t any branches in the path, no need to navigate—only the task of setting one foot in front of the other. We pass through the domus, which includes the pantry, and the sitting room, and the bedrooms, each one marginally smaller than the last.
“Would you come along the rest of the way with me, dear?” Nan asks in a kindly voice, for I’ve begun to fall behind her. I’ve never gone beyond the eleventh chamber before and the prospect of further travel frightens me a little although I can’t rightly say why. And Nan has never asked me to before. In fact, she often distracts me from the thought, saying I must learn the Latin, and then the Greek, and then the Egyptian afterward. Perhaps I’m progressing beyond her expectations.
Or perhaps it is something else. The grocer’s mother was much younger than Nan is now, and I’ve seen the hump growing upon her back. The way it twists her spine.
“Don’t fret, Caroline—”
“Caro,” I remind her.
“—I shall manage well enough without you, I suppose. The grocer’s wife isn’t so large as some of the others. But am I warm enough, do you think? It gets so very cold . . . ”
Nan glances down at the grocer’s wife, and, for a moment, I’m a little frightened that she’ll snatch the sheets away. Her hands are trembling.
“Take my shawl, Nan, I won’t need it. Not today. The weather hasn’t turned yet.”
“That’s nice, dear,” she murmurs as I tuck my shawl around her shoulders. She pats my arm very gently.
The days pass easily after that, almost indistinguishable from one another. Soon I’ve produced passable translations of Apuleius, Pseudo-Quintilian, Marcellus Empiricus, and Pliny the Elder—and then Nan tells me it is time to return to the village again.
The weather’s been growing colder and darker and so I must begin the climb early in the morning as soon as there is light. To avoid thinking of the fall, I repeat to myself another conundrum: If when I dream I can see figments, then is it possible those figments may also dream? And if so, isn’t it possible that I’m a figment of another’s dreams? This is very like the problem Plato proposed to Glaucon about the prisoners who saw shadows upon the wall of the cave for the shadows are very much like dreams. And yet Plato never asked if the shadows themselves perceive—but it’s certainly possible that they did!
I feel quite clever in coming up with this conundrum. I wonder if, perhaps, no one else in the world has ever thought this particular thought before.
“Hello, miss,” says Tom as he begins to count out my share of potatoes. He has on a black jacket, which I’ve never seen before. I confess it shows off his broad shoulders rather well. He has slim black trousers too and black shoes that shine as if he has polished them with his sleeve.
“You look uncommonly fine today, Tom,” I say to him with my best smile. “I would not have taken you for the grocer’s boy at all, but rather for a prince or perhaps for a duke!”
“That’s very kind of you to say, miss.”
It’s the second time he has said that to me. And, indeed, he has said nothing about my best smile. Perhaps he’s in a mood, and I may draw him out of it.
“May I ask you a question, Tom?”
“If you’d like.”
“It’s a problem, really, a very difficult one. One that takes ages and ages to solve. But I’ll tell you my conundrum because—” And now I feel quite shy I’ve begun this line of talk with him. “—because you yourself made me think of it.”
I won’t tell him the rest. I won’t tell him that sometimes I dream about him and that the things he whispers to me are very nice. Instead, I try to explain to him the conundrum about the dream and the dreams and the cave and the shadows but try as I might I can’t make it exactly clear what it is I wish to say.
But Tom seems not to notice my missteps. “We solved that one years ago,” he says carelessly. His eyes are a very delicate shade of blue. I’ve not noticed this before, but then I’ve not noticed how peculiarly changeable Tom’s moods may be.
“Will you give me the answer?”
“I’m near shocked you haven’t solved it for yourself, and you being so learned too, miss!” His tone is cruel. “We are the dreamers.”
“And me?” I’m trembling.
“You’ll see, won’t you, when we wake up! And we will, you know, we shan’t be so dozy about what goes on below us forever.”
His smile is quite terrible. He will not look at me, he only counts the potatoes, one by one and places them into the sack for me.
“Are you very angry with me?” I say softly.
“You’re a murderer,” he hisses
“But how can you say that, Tom? I’ve never murdered anyone!”
He glances at me, all sly now, like he’s playing a trick. “You wake in the night, don’t you? So there’s someone you’ve murdered, there must be!”
“Please don’t be so unkind, Tom, I can’t bear it, not from you!” I’m clutching at the hem of my dress now, just like Nan does. And then, softly: “I’m so sorry about the apple. I shouldn’t have taken it from you.”
“What apple, miss?” he sneers. “You didn’t carry off no apple of mine, did you? So there’s no debt between us, nothing exchanged except that which was promised. My mother’s gone to visit you, she’s gone down and down and into the mouth of that awful beastie. You’ve done with her what you’ve done with all the others, it’s monstrous!”
“It’s not monstrous what Nan did, I promise and I promise!”
“Oh, go on and take your potatoes,” he says, “go take them and feast on them, Caroline Eve Arkwright.” He’s shoving the potatoes into my arms and his mouth is so twisted, it’s evil-looking. “But just think on this, will you? I got these potatoes from deep underground, I dug them out special for you. These potatoes, they been growing amongst the worms and spiders and every nasty thing, and I just pray some of those nasty things’re living in there still, small and deadly, just like you, like you and her!”
I stumble away from him with my arms all full of potatoes. How I want to cry, but I mustn’t cry because Nan has told me I must never show the villagers I’m afraid of them. But what am I to do? Oh, Tom! I turn away from him very quickly. For a moment he looks as if he might strike me! And thinking that, I start to run—I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help myself. Dum, dum, dum go my feet as they hit the cobblestones but the noise is very little, almost nothing. I run for at least a mile before I can stop myself from running any longer.
It is only once I’ve reached the edge of the village that I remember he has not given me the onions at all.
Nan is disappointed with me, I can tell from the way that she scowls ever so slightly and clutches at the hem of her cardigan but she’ll not tell me that I’ve done badly.
“They’re a vicious lot, absolutely vicious! But they daren’t harm you, dear, not an Arkwright, whatever that boy might’ve said.”
“Then—you don’t think he might’ve put something in the potatoes? He was so angry!”
It’s this thought that has been haunting me, that perhaps he’s poisoned them.
“It’s not a thing to be worried at.”
“But you didn’t see him, Nan. Not his face, or his—his eyes! I’ve never seen him like that before. And he might’ve put something in them, mightn’t he? And if he did, what could we do? There’s little enough left from before and I didn’t even remember the onions, there’d be nothing at all to eat for days and days!”
“I expect we’d manage somehow. There are things you don’t know,” she says.
There’s a way Nan has of shaking her head when she has well and truly had enough of my questions so that the skin wobbles around her neck. This is the headshake she’s given me now but I can’t stop myself from going on and on.
“But how? What other provisions? Not fish, nor flesh, nothing that has lived and nothing that has died, nor any other thing but what they give us, isn’t that right?”
“Look to your studies, Caroline—”
“Caro,” I remind her.
“Shush now, granddaughter, I don’t like that other name! It isn’t a good thing, whatever you might think, and I shan’t call you by it. You’re far too loose with your words. A thing is what it is. You can’t change it just by asking and you are Caroline Eve Arkwright. Now enough of all this fretting, I’ll go to the village tomorrow and be straight with them.”
“But you can’t, Nan!”
Now I’m thinking of her shuffling walk. I’m thinking of the sound her chest makes when she breathes in and out heavily.
“I’m not so far gone as you would have me, not yet. There’s still some good I can do. It’s like when they put their thumb on the scale, they know it doesn’t break with the bargain. We’re allowed the onions and they must give them over.”
“But the potatoes?”
“He hasn’t poisoned the potatoes, Caroline! Now hurry along and fetch your books. We’ll try the passive periphrastic today. Your mother made such a fuss over that in her day, but we’ll see if you can’t master it quicker than she did!”
It has been three days since Nan went to the village.
For three days I’ve eaten little flour pancakes. To start with they were as big as my fist, but now they’re no bigger than a mussel shell. I tried to make the coffee just as Nan does, but my hands were shaking so badly that I spilled the grounds. I’ve tried to collect them, but I can see plainly that it isn’t only coffee I’ve got but salt too.
And I haven’t dared to touch the potatoes, whatever Nan said!
Nan came to visit me this morning. I’d been so anxious I could hardly look at my books! But then I heard the winch turning and turning and I knew it was her coming back to me at last!
The villagers wrapped her in a beautiful, winding sheet of red silk. I’ve only seen that color once before. Nan told me that it was called carmine and that it can only be made with the shells of certain insects. It’s very expensive.
The word carmine is very like the word carmen, carminis which is charm, prayer, or oracle.
Her body was very light, so light I thought, for a moment, that perhaps there was nothing wrapped in the silk at all—but when I moved her, the silk fell away and I saw her hand. The nails were a colorless yellow and the veins were a colorless blue and I’ve no other words for what I saw except that I knew the hand could belong to no other.
It was a kindness they did her, wrapping her up in red silk.
I took her in my arms very gently and still she was so light.
I unhooked that platform just as she used to do but Nan was so much better at it than I am! It’s very hard when you’re all by yourself. The hook was difficult to manage and the fourth wheel was broken off completely. But they wrapped her in red silk and that was kind, I think, for they mightn’t’ve done that.
They might’ve taken her away and never sent her back to me at all.
Still I can’t come to the thought properly.
She has died.
The platform moves very slowly.
It isn’t balanced very well but I don’t know how to make it better. I don’t want to touch Nan. I can’t bear the thought that she’s underneath the red silk. It’s as if she were sleeping and not actually dead. It’s as if she could wake at any moment. But when I touched her she didn’t wake up, when I shook her she was so still! Her skin was very cold and it made me think about what she said last time, about how it’s very cold where we must go and I take a blanket for myself and the blanket is pale green with golden flowers and it’s one of my favorites but then I think I don’t want to take my favorite blanket because then I’ll always be thinking on the red silk when I wear it, so instead I settle for my second favorite blanket which is old and gray.
But then the blanket is bulky and it’s difficult to move in. It keeps getting trapped under the wheels of the platform. At last I let it lie beside the rail. I shall return for it eventually. I must come this way again.
But am I being foolish?
“Will I be warm enough, do you think?” And then: “I’m frightened of the way. Please. Please wake up. I don’t want to go by myself.”
Her silence is terrible.
I decide not to leave the blanket after all. Instead I wrap it around myself the way I’ve seen the Romans in the pictures do it so that it falls like a heavy dress around me. If I had string I would cinch it around my waist but I don’t have any string.
I pass the pantry and the sitting room. The blanket catches again and I must adjust it. I pass the bedrooms. The sunlight is still very bright here. It echoes the way that sound echoes and sometimes the colors it makes upon the walls are beautiful. There are all sorts of colors but none is the same color of red as the winding sheet of silk.
And then we are moving into darkness—past the eleventh chamber where I faltered, past the twelfth chamber and the thirteenth chamber. I never asked Nan how far the way was. I never asked Nan what must come next. I don’t think I’m brave enough for this but I must be brave enough because there is no one else to do this for her, no one but Caro, Caro passing into car…
From the darkness comes a new kind of light as if the walls themselves have begun to shine very softly. They are all studded with silvery white blooms that remind me very much of the flowers I’ve seen in the village in springtime, all clustered together in little beds. Or perhaps these things look like teeth. Or snow. There are long shining spindles that hang suspended and I must be careful when I step underneath them. Some have broken away. Their edges look very sharp. When I look at them I can see myself carrying Nan reflected a thousand times, perhaps ten thousand times, but each image I see isn’t me exactly.
I touch my eyes. They begin to water and burn dreadfully. My hands are almost white, the silk sheet is almost white.
This is what death looks like, I think, and it is a very frightening thought: but I’ve never seen anything as white as this!
Around and around, through chamber after chamber, the walls shrink around me until I feel as if I could reach out on either side and touch them. At the same time they begin to feel larger and larger as if there were some method by which I can detect the dimensions of the room which relies upon neither my eyes nor my fingers. It is strange to think I’m perhaps not so very far from my own bedroom. I’m within the place I’ve always lived. It shouldn’t be frightening for all around me are the places I’ve walked all my life. But they aren’t this place, are they? This place stands in the center of all that. The air stings my eyes, it tastes like the ocean air but much sharper.
Now there is shadow, and with it, the sense of something deliberately obscured.
I feel very giddy. It is impossible to continue further.
But I remember what Nan said to me when I was afraid of going to the village the first time. She took my hands in hers, but they were warm then, very warm, and she said: “Listen, Caroline, no one there will hurt you, no one will touch you, I promise and I promise.”
“But they hate us so much!”
“Oh, no, darling, no, no—it isn’t hatred! It can’t ever be hatred, it goes beyond hatred or fear or even love what they feel for us. It is only that there is a voice that whispers to them in their dreams and it makes them all so terribly afraid. But they shan’t hurt you, they won’t, I will never, ever let them touch you.”
“But what does the voice whisper, Nan? What makes them so afraid?”
“It whispers morieris, dearest, which, as you shall learn, means all things must die. Caro, carnis. Everything dies except for salt.”
And I think perhaps it’s comforting, what Nan said, and I say to myself: “Don’t be afraid, Caroline, no one there will hurt you, no one will touch you!”
I even use my own true name just as Nan wanted me to.
But it doesn’t make me braver. For now there’s a noise I can hear or I’ve been hearing it for some time now, I can’t tell exactly. Perhaps it is only the sound of the ocean reflected inward, the deep and heavy huff of the waves. It sounds very much like breathing. But as I strain my ears, a second noise becomes clearer to me: a sharp tap-tap-tapping sound that I don’t like one bit, for it becomes louder and louder, maddeningly loud, so that I must press my hands against my ears lest I begin to shriek!
A hot blast of air gusts through the chamber, but from where it comes I could not say only that it’s as if I’m in my dream and this is Mother’s breath, warm against my skin and sweet-smelling.
“Mother,” I cry out. “Oh, Mother!”
But I can’t see her! It is as if the air around me has begun to heave and writhe. But it isn’t the air, it is clouds of white dust, sharp and stinging—the walls billow, but it isn’t the walls, it is clothes of all different colors, blues and oranges and purples and yellows and green and they are all fluttering around me as if I’ve become lost within a flock of birds!
Then the wind dies away and all the clothes come to settle once more only they don’t lie properly as they did before. I can see now, I can see what lies beneath them. Nan never lied to me! For here they are, just as she promised, the ones from the village—all our visitors! There are so many of them! Some I recognize like Tom’s mother with her hair as golden as wheat but there are so many of them and I think to myself that I could not possibly have seen so many for they go on and on and on into the darkness. Those closest to me are just as they were in life, all pale and pretty with white, white cheeks—but those further are as strangers to me. Their flesh has withered and hardened into a yellow-veined shell—like saxa, which is stone—and all I can see are their jagged teeth set in the widened, black circle of their mouths.
And one by one by one it is as if I can see lights coming on within.
They are tiny at first, the barest glow, but they become brighter and brighter, each of them smaller than my smallest finger, set in a gilded carapace like a Roman soldier! And they are moving, oh, they are moving! In and out they go, scuttling on a thousand tiny legs, through the mouth, through the empty holes of the eyes and the nose, over the fingernails and the ribs.
How enchanting these creatures are, how absolutely beautiful!
There is a part of me that has become very happy. I know I should be frightened but these little things with their tap-tap-tapping don’t frighten me one bit. How is it that I’ve not thought through this particular part of the conundrum? A person is not only a person, a person can also be a house. Caro in carno. Just like me. And all the villagers have become like houses, row upon row of tiny houses: each with their own towers and colonnades, their own hushed streets and marvelous gardens. It seems perfectly obvious to me now! The soul is merely a single occupant, and when the soul has fled, of course, something else shall come to lodge itself within them.
They are very small and even if there are so many of them all wiggling around I know that I could crush them if I wanted to, I could press my fingers down upon them until they bled. But I shan’t do that, shall I? I shan’t, even though I could. They are so little, just like babies! And they are mine, aren’t they? I am Mother to them—and it shall be my voice that whispers, “Morieris” to them in the night. But they needn’t be afraid, for perhaps death is not so terrible a thing, perhaps it is only an inward movement, the casting away of the veil of dreams.
And so I take Nan gently in my arms and I bury my fingers the smooth red silk of her covering. When I lay her upon the salt shelf I’m careful to wrap the cloth around her frail body. I loved her very much. But the world isn’t an apple. It isn’t sweet and perfectly formed—or if it was once long ago then it has fallen away into rot. It is a shell, a husk, an infinite spiral—caro in carno, all of it moving inward, passing over, ever slumbering, ever waking.
But I shall be Caro in carno no longer. I’ve heard the voice which whispers, you will die, and I’m not afraid; for to me it whispers sweetly, come to me, beautiful child, and I shall cradle you as you sleep, I shall watch over your dreaming and you shall at last be safe.
I’ve gone to the village for the last time now. It is true that I’ve come to love the stone houses with their pretty wooden roofs, their straight flowerbeds, the people all milling about, tending to the day’s business. There is a simple charm to the world they inhabit, how their years are governed by the planting season and the reaping season and yet it is amazing how little they know of the true mechanisms of the earth! But that is unfair of me for they are hardly scholars and perhaps only the barest gleanings of nature’s operations are enough for survival if one requires little enough.
The grocer would not look at me. His face was a red mask of suffering and I could see the way his fists clenched. He would have hurled stones at me if he could. “There shall be no food for you, Miss Arkwright, not ever again. So don’t you come back, d’you hear? No more of that devil’s bargain, there shall be nothing given between mine and yours, not ever!”
But I did not make the journey to speak with him and so his curses meant very little to me. It is as Nan said, they will not touch me, not ever—for it is they who are afraid and their fear is well deserved.
Tom has filled out very nicely even without his handsome black suit. His hands are strong worker’s hands with thick pad on his thumbs. He has been raised coarsely but even I can see there is finer stuff within.
“You there!” I call to him.
“What is that you want, miss?”
“I wanted to tell you about your mother.”
“My father is watching us right now,” he tells me sullenly. “He’ll go get the others if there’s any trouble. The deal’s broken now, isn’t it? We don’t want no more of it. You shouldn’t be here.”
But I ignore all this. The agreement isn’t necessary any longer. I’ve found a way to manage on my own. I have looked to my studies just as Nan said.
“Don’t you want to know what your mother had to tell you?”
He looks at me uncertainly. I know this is cruel, that I’m teasing him a little, but he was cruel to me once as well. I can’t help it.
“Very well then.”
“Wait!” he calls as I begin to cross the street. “Please! Wait, miss! What did she—” he’s almost shuddering now “—did she say something to me? Did she give you a message?”
I turn to look at him once more. He’s standing at the edge of the porch, straining forward. I can see that he’s breathing very heavily and his eyes are wet and shining like glass.
“She said she loves you very much. She says she longs to hold you in her arms once more. Will you come to her?”
I do not tell him the truth. I know what she whispers. She whispers, “Morieris”—and so it is, but not yet, not yet.
“I don’t know what you mean, miss.” I watch his Adam’s apple bob up and down.
“You know well enough, Tom.” His lips are very red. It is lonely without Nan, oh, not so lonely as you would think—I have my studies after all!—but still lonely enough.
“Come if you like, Tom,” I say, smiling my very best smile. From here I can almost taste the salt of his tears. How magnificent you are, I want to tell him! You carry within yourself the stuff of eternal life—and yet you shed it so easily! “The way goes down and down and down but it isn’t so difficult. And we shall be ever so happy to have you join us for a while.”
Originally published in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran.