God-King on the Hudson

Ellen Terris Brenner

Just because magicians are showbiz fakers doesn't mean there isn't magic in the world.

The man in the ecru polo shirt turned, cocktail halfway to his lips. Then he saw who, or rather what, had tapped his elbow, and the smirk froze on his face.

The pierced and tattooed gallery crowd turned to watch his embarrassment. I also watched, with a certain grim satisfaction. Mr. Polo Shirt had been irritating me all evening: gawking at my guests, ogling my photographs as if they were Times Square porn--even leering down my cleavage on the pretext of admiring my tattoos. So I'd decided to have one of my costumed performers pay him a visit--see how he handled it when strangeness ogled him back.

As I suspected, he could not handle it at all.

The alien creature regarded Mr. Polo Shirt out of blank glassy fish-eyes, bulging from a huge head whose otherwise featureless black surface merged necklessly into a pale armless torso. The appendage that had touched him was one of two stumpy black stalks jutting straight out from the creature's chest, terminating in chrome-plated pincers.

The creature flexed its pectoral muscles. The pincers clacked open and shut. Polo Shirt shrank from its touch and backed into the wall.

I crossed through the tittering audience to Mr. Ecru. "Don't be alarmed," I said. "It only wants some of your drink. See? Like this."

I held out my glass of pinot grigio. The creature turned on cue and took my glass in its right pincer. A tube-like proboscis uncurled from a slit where its mouth should have been and sank into the glass.

As the level in the glass fell and the creature emitted contented sucking sounds, Polo Shirt took the opportunity to bolt, fleeing out the door into the dubious safety of the East Village night.

Under a burst of laughter and applause, I murmured to the creature: "Well done. How are you doing in there?"

The surface of the head rippled gently--inside the latex, my performer was flexing her arms in the bonds that held them doubled up by her ears. "Just fine," came her muffled voice. "My boobies are beginning to get a bit sore, though."

I took the glass from her and stroked her tight-bound "appendage" appreciatively. "You'd best go backstage, then, and have Carlos let you out of these."

"Aw, but the bruises will look so chic when I hit the clubs later." She waggled her proboscis at me, like a kid sticking out her tongue. But she did turn and sidle on silver-clad legs towards our makeshift dressing-room out back.

I watched her go, feeling let down. There was, after all, no glory in freaking the Polo Shirts of the world.

The crowd had returned to their original activities: looking at the pictures, at the remaining performers/creatures, at each other, and (furtively) at me. One party-goer, however, lingered nearby. At first glance another too-straight interloper, his gaze was anything but furtive: a frank, burning stare out of deep-set eyes, shaded by brows much too furrowed for such a youthful man. But he did not gawk like the Polo Shirt boor. He stared as if to look beneath my tattooed skin, to read a secret I didn't know was inscribed there.

My memory stuttered that I knew him, and began to dredge up the how and where.

He approached, extending his right hand. "Madame Vosostris. Or should I say, Elisa Martz?"

The sound of my true name released my memory of his. "My god," I laughed, "I haven't been called 'Elisa' since I left college. Richard Masefield, isn't it? How in the world are you? Still studying folklore and mythology?"

As I took the offered hand, I noted that his left arm did not have one. A stump peeked out discreetly from the neat cuffs of shirt and sport coat. He certainly hadn't had that when we were in school. But there had been some incident about his left hand, hadn't there? My memory now got to work on that.

"I'm fine," Richard said. "Minding the family business, same as I was in school. And I've even found some use for the folklore studies." We both smiled; the dubious value of a Folklore and Mythology degree had been a running joke among the department's undergrad majors.

"And how about you?" he continued. "Your degree doesn't seem to have hurt your career any, from what I see. This show is astonishing."

I glanced around at the white walls and their shots of artfully staged atrocities. "Frankly, I didn't think you were into this kind of thing."

"You might be mistaken about that." His tone was light, but his eyes burned more intensely. "Remember that semester we took 'Lore and Gore' from old Sebastian?"

I found myself laughing again. "I haven't thought about it in years. But of course I remember; you were the only other student beside me who never once ran out retching. Even that day when the Old Bastard started carrying on about penile subincision rituals among the Australian aborigines."

"We were losing them right and left that day, weren't we? I never was sure whether the old coot was indulging some Freudian fixation, or just wanted to see all the preppies squirm. Some of both, no doubt."

His eyelids dropped, hooding the fire halfway.

"I am interested in your work, you know." His voice went low and throaty; the fine hairs on my thighs stood up. "Very interested. I would like you to give me a call sometime, so that we can discuss it."

He reached inside his jacket with his one hand and produced a card. Black engraving on cream; under the name and address was a ceremonial knife of a style familiar to me, its wide heavy blade more of a cross between a hatchet and a butcher's cleaver than a knife.

"Do please call me," he said, giving me one last look. "Any time."

He turned and slipped through the crowd and out the door.

I stood, silent amid the babel, looking at that card and feeling my brightly-inked flesh go all to goosebumps.

Much later--after I had helped the gallery owner lock up, made the rounds of various private clubs, and arrived home by dawn's smoggy light--I sat cross-legged on my bed rubbing baby oil into my tattoos, the 5 a.m. newscast mumbling on the TV as I pondered Richard's reappearance.

Further memories had surfaced: one of another lecture from Sebastian's grisly class, this one concerning those ancient god-kings who were periodically sacrificed to insure their people's prosperity. The Old Bastard was recounting a particularly gory East Indian version of the regicide ritual, in which the king mounted a silk-hung scaffold set up in the public temple court, took up a sharp knife, and there, before all his people, proceeded to dismember himself. Ears, nose, lips, fingers, feet--any and all flesh he could reach on his body--he'd cut and fling away, baptizing the crowd with his blood, until he became too faint to go on. At which point, with his last strength, he'd slash his own throat.

Sebastian's face gleamed with sweat as he stalked back and forth across the front of the lecture hall, describing this rite in its every excruciating detail. All around me students cringed in their seats, as if they themselves were being pelted with blood rather than words. I, meanwhile, watched in amused detachment, until my gaze met that of Richard Masefield, a classmate I barely knew outside of the impersonal camaraderie of candidates in a small obscure degree program. At which point I was no longer detached.

Richard's eyes were literally glowing. It was as if his entire body was in flames inside his skin, with the light escaping only out of his eye sockets. His gaze held mine only a split-second, then wandered around the rest of the hall. Yet even that brief glance had left me shivering and sweating.

Eventually he turned his attention back to Sebastian, staring as if the odious little monster were revealing the secrets of Richard's innermost soul. I, in turn, stared at Richard. I noted the clenched jaw, the shallow breathing, the hands clutching the seat arms so hard the lacquered plywood should have splintered in his grip. And that's when I spied the bandaged gap on his left hand where his index finger should have been.

Oh yes, I recalled thinking, I had heard something about that, an accident he had just a few days before. Some unlikely business about a kitchen mishap. My mind jittered an uneasy joke--imagine Masefield, this sober-sided industrial heir, severing his finger like Sebastian's god-king! But when I looked over at Richard, staring at Sebastian with those balefire eyes, my mirth faded into something more uneasy.

I snapped out of my reverie. The newscaster had just spoken Masefield's name.

"Millionaire industrialist Richard Masefield checks into a private hospital near his upstate New York home later this month, according to sources close to his family," the perky young thing was saying. "Masefield will have his left arm amputated at the elbow, in this latest of several operations to halt a rare bone cancer..."

As the newscaster gushed on about how Masefield's family firm had experienced a phenomenal previous quarter even while he endured this "latest episode in an ongoing personal tragedy," I pulled out Richard's card.

"Bone cancer my ass," I muttered, rubbing my thumb over the gleaming little black dagger. I dialed the number on the card.

The limo Masefield sent for me tooled northward through the Hudson River Valley. I sprawled in torn denims on the leather upholstery and stared out the gray-tinted window, watching the river unwind under overcast skies.

There are many tales told about this valley, including variants that, for understandable reasons, do not find their way into popular books. Washington Irving, for example, retold many quaint tales of such bogeys as the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow and Henry Hudson's ninepins-playing crew; but Irving glossed over such details as the truth of how the horseman lost his head, and whose bones and skulls went into making those ninepins and balls. And these were just some of the European contributions. The Algonquin and Mohawk had some legends that made the worst yarns of the white interlopers seem like nursery fables.

Such tales, of course, were not to be taken literally. Yet there was some fire behind their smokescreen. I had seen enough in recent years, attended (and photographed) enough rituals of darkness and blood, to know something of that fire firsthand. A certain energy attends such rites. Even my own tattooing sessions had carried a little rush one could not write off to mere endorphin release, for the effect was markedly stronger whenever my skin received a picture of a deity.

Neither I nor those I ran with, however, fully understood how to channel these energies. Whatever tribal chain of knowledge had existed to guide these arts had been shattered long ago. Even the most hardened leatherfolk I knew, even the ones who had also trained in the occult, still had to be counted as innocents, navigating through unknown and dangerous territories by sheer trial and error. And I? I just took photographs, mainly, hoping one day to capture on film whatever it was that breathed on us and through us during those scenes.

But here now was quiet little Richard Masefield, apparently taking these rites further, in his own quiet way, than anyone I had ever heard of, and perhaps discovering thereby what others could not.

The limo turned off the main highway onto a riverside road lined with mansions. Masefield's estate was enclosed by man-high brick walls, broken by a single oak-portaled gate. We passed within, purred down a drive roofed over by old chestnut trees, and halted before a rambling country house, dark and silent, built from the local brownstone.

The chauffeur let me out and led me across cobbles to an ivy-covered entrance-way. There he gave me over to a man in chinos and chambray shirt, with a cherubic pink face out of which peered eyes nearly as fierce as Richard's. He introduced himself, in a gravelly voice, as Charles.

I glanced about, ever the photographer, as Charles led me through the dim-lit heart of the building. Rooms clothed in burgundy wallpaper and mahogany paneling opened to left and to right. Through one doorway I glimpsed a massive collection of blades. On every wall hung knives and swords of every description--steel, crude iron, copper, bronze, stone, obsidian. Pride of place was given to a modestly-sized but authentic-looking guillotine. And I thought I saw the original version of the ceremonial knife on Richard's card.

We arrived at a surprisingly light and cheerful solarium facing the river. There, in a white-painted Adirondack chair, sat Richard, sipping coffee from a bone china cup only a hair more translucent than his skin. Charles brought another cup for me as I drew up a chair.

I sipped, then launched in without preamble. "It's all a cover story, then--the cancer, the private hospital?"

"No private hospital. It happens here. By my hand."

"And what is it that happens?"

He paused.

"That story Sebastian told us," he finally began. "About the sacrificial king. It was more than just a tale to upset the dull-minded. It was more even than the crudely powerful symbolism of concrete-thinking 'primitives.' It was, and is, real magic, one of the few magics that continue to work reliably even in this age."

His eyes flamed against the pallor of his face. "It works because it uses blood--the life force--freely sacrificed by a living victim. And because it's done not for one's own self-aggrandizement, but for the good of one's people. One's kingdom."

"Where do you come by a kingdom?"

He smiled. "What I have does count as a kingdom. There are plenty of businesses these days with a family name still on the logo, but the family members are usually either dead or bought out. Mine is one of the last actively run by its family, and it's hard to preserve--especially when I'm the only family who runs it. My father died while I was in elementary school. My mother, while I was in prep school. Heart attacks, both of them. Unconsciously, they may have been making the same bodily sacrifices I now do deliberately. I was their only child. So, young as I was, I picked up the burden from my fallen parents, and have carried it ever since.

"I stumbled upon the blood magic in college, about a week before that fateful lecture of Sebastian's. I had just gotten devastating news about an investment--a loss I couldn't possibly cover, that might sink the whole works. Terrified, I went to my dorm room to try and think, and instead fell into a sort of trance.

"I dreamed of the king on his scaffold. He stood on the platform and spoke to me in a serene voice, instructing me in the proper performance of the ritual as he carved at his flesh and showered me with his blood. The drops burned, but comforted me.

"I came to in the kitchenette on my floor, a bloody knife in my right hand and gore spouting from my left.

"I bandaged it as best I could and phoned Security, swearing I had done in my poor finger by accident. I had such a reputation as a sober, responsible sort that they actually believed me. And then the very next day, I received a phone call informing me that another investment I had made, a long shot I had dismissed as a tax write-off, had come through beyond my wildest imaginings. It not only canceled out the recent loss, but my losses for the entire quarter.

"The following week, I came into Sebastian's class, and heard him tell the story I had dreamed.

"I went from that class straight to the library, and began what turned into months and years of specialized study, taking me to some very strange libraries indeed. Plus I've conducted some further research on my own."

"And what did your research turn up?" I said, noting with surprise that my breath was coming in short fast bursts.

"Many things. The most important being that one does not have to go out in one Grand Guignol, like the original kings. One can stretch out the blood-magic over any number of years, sacrificing a member at a time. Kind of a carnal strip-tease."

He smiled, and held up the stump of his left arm. "One finger at a time, this was, and then the entire hand."

"At about what, twenty million a finger?" I blurted, trying, weakly, to be funny.

He smiled anyway. "I suppose I won't convince you it isn't about the money. It is about power, I'll freely admit that. It has to be power for my kingdom's sake, or as I said it won't work. But I reap other sorts of power as well--power I never dreamed existed until I started giving bits of myself away to it.

"Unfortunately," he went on, "I also discovered it weakens the magic to use any kind of mechanical compensation." He pulled up his right pants-leg to reveal a sophisticated-looking prosthetic. I shook my head; I had detected not the faintest limp in his walk. "As long as I wear this, I get almost no effect from this amputation. It only makes sense--it has to be a full sacrifice."

"So that means," I said, "you can't go too much farther with your strip-tease unless you go into seclusion."

"Exactly. But there's a paradox in that too. The magic is also greatly weakened unless there is an audience. Remember the king on his public scaffold?"

Every square inch of my skin began to burn, as if my tattoos had started to writhe beneath my clothes. "That's where I come in."

"Yes. I need a documenter." His eyes sparked like witchfire. We didn't have to speak to know we'd reached an agreement.

"The Project," as we came to call it, had some complex underpinnings. Richard had already put in years of preparations--picking staff, servants, agents, even intimates, whose loyalty to him would remain unshakable throughout the entire process. There were the legalities. Richard's lawyers and one of my own choosing labored until they were dead certain my protection from prosecution was airtight. And then there was the matter of finding channels for discreet distribution of the photos.

Finally, the day came when I headed up the Hudson again, this time in my weather-beaten van, its cargo deck packed with the equipment I would need.

The few pieces of furniture in the knife-collection room had been removed. The carpet had been taken up also, revealing a circle of slate set into the floor, a single unbroken slab a good nine feet in diameter. Elaborate patterns in colored sand decorated the rim of this circle; at its center stood a simple wooden chair and table.

On the table rested the ceremonial knife, its blade glittering.

Richard entered, balancing himself on a crutch--he had abandoned the prosthetic leg now that he'd officially begun his seclusion. He came over to give me an impersonal peck on the cheek. He wore only a plain white caftan and looked freshly scrubbed.

"Watch you don't smudge the sandpainting," he said, taking care himself as he hopped over it into his inner circle. He seated himself, laying the crutch on the floor by his side, and waited patiently while I set up tripods, positioned lamps, took light level readings, snapped trial shots with a Polaroid.

Finally I had all six of my Nikons properly set up on the programmed timer, and the control clutched in my hand. I looked at Richard sitting there, slight and vulnerable as a child, and felt my belly quiver.

"Okay, I'm ready," I said.

"Good." His glance burned into me as he pushed up his left sleeve and laid his already-mutilated arm on the table. His eyes grew unfocused as his attention turned inward.

His lips began to move, at first silently. Then I heard a faint whisper, which grew stronger until he was chanting in a low musical murmur. I caught a few syllables of what sounded like Sanskrit, but otherwise could make no sense of the words. The melody was singsong, serene--deceptively so, for as Richard chanted on, the room began to fill with a tension that started a cold sweat all over my body.

As I stood there, feeling chills on the backs of my knees, Richard started to glow. With my free hand I worked my light meter; no illusion, he really was emitting a faint halo of light. No way to adjust for it now, I thought distractedly, my teeth chattering as the energy in the room continued to climb. I'd just have to pray that it didn't mess things up--

Richard took the knife in his right hand.

Suddenly there were hundreds of voices chanting along with his, thousands, voices chanting down the millennia from times in which their owners wielded knives of bronze, of copper, of obsidian, of flint. My mind filled with visions of the chanting knife-wielders, adrift across time down a river of blood and fire, in boats of their own flesh and bone...

Richard raised the blade and held it poised over his left arm just above the elbow. His face wore an expression of rapture. The halo around him stood out to the borders of the sandpainted circle, vibrating like a living thing. The chanting voices shook the air like thunder.

The knife began to fall.

I bruised my finger mashing my control button. The cameras added the electromechanical racket of their shutters to the din.

With a thud that sliced effortlessly through the cacophony, Richard brought the knife straight down through flesh and bone, and into wood.

He started--not with pain, for he neither grimaced nor cried out. But his head jerked back and his eyes and mouth sprang wide open, and tongues of light like magnesium flares shot forth from them. Blood also shot from the severed arm--not as much as I would have expected, but enough to splash a spray of red directly at me. I raised my arm against it by reflex. Where the drops spattered my bare arm they burned like acid.

I barely noticed. I had forgotten about exposures and light levels. I had nearly forgotten my name, and Richard's. I was standing at the edge of a circle of power summoned by a god-king, a god-king now inhabited by something--someone--that was not of this world.

That Being looked at me. It was like looking into the sun. The rest of the world vanished. I vanished.

The moment passed. The light collapsed in on itself as the presence departed from Richard. He became a small bloodstained figure sitting limp in his little wooden chair.

I felt pretty limp myself. The room had gone silent. My forearm itched strangely. I looked down; the spots of Richard's blood glittered like rubies. Somehow I knew those spots were now as permanent as the rest of the color inked into my skin.

Gingerly I stepped over the sandpainting and knelt by Richard's side. I cast a glance at the severed segment of arm lying in a pool of blood on the table. Raw meat! my daemonic sense of humor tittered. I pointedly focused on Richard.

"I'm all right," he protested weakly. His eyes were slightly unfocused, and he shivered with what I took as the beginning stages of shock. He pulled the bloodstained sleeve up from where it had fallen down over the new stump. I gasped--the wound was already closed, the stump neatly rounded off, a narrow pink seam marking where the skin had drawn together over the exposed muscle and bone.

He shivered again, harder.

"Let me get Charles," I said.

"No need. I'll be fine. It's just the backwash..."

On an impulse, I slipped my arms around him. His body was as weak as ashes, and yet I could still feel the after-echoes of the Being that had inhabited him. A wet heat started up between my thighs. I lowered my mouth upon his.

His eyes widened. Then he began to kiss back. His tongue explored my mouth, then grazed my jaw to follow the curve of my throat.

Presently I scooped him up in my arms--he was surprisingly light, and I well-muscled from hauling my gear. His head against my heart, I carried him up to his bedroom, where we proceeded to kindle a more earthly kind of fire.

The cameras had captured the glow, all right. And in the exposure right after the blade fell, one of the six cameras captured something else. It took a good deal of digital post-processing to pull the image out of the wash of overexposure, and even after that all I had was a faint outline. But what an outline.

Richard just smiled and shook his head when I showed him that photo. He would not--could not?--name that Being for me. Not that a name would have made any difference. Just to know that the Being I had seen during the rite really existed was more than I had ever hoped for.

Richard slid the photo of the Being back into the envelope with the others, pulled me to him, and kissed me, and we talked no more about the image in the photograph that day.

That week, Richard's business earnings shot into the billions.

For the next ten years, I drove that route up the Hudson River valley, in every season and weather. I would turn down that lane to the estate by the river--that macabre burlesque on Versailles, complete with its own twilight Sun King, a ruler whose interior fire burned only more fiercely the more his flesh dwindled.

Not every visit was to document a ritual. Oftentimes Richard would entertain the small circle who were in on his little project. A bizarre lot we were. I suspect that under other circumstances I would have chosen to avoid at least a couple of them, and that a few of them felt the same about me. But over the years we drew together with a loyalty almost as bizarre as the secret which inspired it. We'd gather to pay court to our netherworld god-king, I bearing the unique double role of Royal Chronicler and paramour, which honor I wore like the growing number of ruby drops amongst my tattoos.

It was so easy sometimes to pretend that this could go on forever, and out of respect for our king we never questioned this pretense openly. But I remember one gathering during the seventh year, otherwise no more remarkable than any of our other odd meetings, when the reality struck home for me.

It was just past the peak of summer, when the first trees begin to turn to flame and the nights to turn chill with frost. A knot of us strange companions were gathered to sip wine as the sun dropped behind the mountains. Charles carried Richard down from the house. We stood by respectfully as the servant propped him up in one of the Adirondack chairs he so loved, tucked a lap-robe around the stumps of his thighs, and withdrew.

Someone placed a glass of wine in Richard's hand, and we took turns describing the sunset to him. He smiled, the ruddy glare lighting up his gaunt-grown face. For a moment I thought I saw, in the vacant sockets where his eyes had once shone, that other light that had only continued to grow stronger with my every photo of his rituals.

Charles came out onto the veranda to ring the bell for dinner. Gregor claimed the honor of carrying Richard back up to the house. The rest of us trailed behind, and I wound up bringing up the rear with Unia.

As usual, she was already loaded. "So," she asked me, trying and failing to sound as if her question was spontaneous and unplanned, "how do you think it's going to end?"

"I beg your pardon?" I said stiffly.

"Come now," she said, her tongue darting out unpleasantly to lick her upper lip. "You know what I mean. Not to be crude about it, but our fearless leader hasn't too many more parts left to spare. I suppose he could start working on his remaining arm by way of his guillotine. Or he might resort to cutting off his nose despite his face--ha! And then what? I presume his cock is still eligible, since you and he continue to have relations--"

"If you hadn't had so much to drink, Unia, you'd remember my photos of that particular sacrifice." I kept my voice light, but shot her a glare to singe her brassy blonde hair.

She reddened. "Was just a joke, can't you take a joke?" she mumbled.

I glimpsed the genuine grief and fear hiding behind her tactless attempt at humor, and relented. We walked the rest of the way in silence.

Later that night, after the others had left, I climbed into bed, wrapped my arms around Richard, and was mortified to find myself bursting into tears.

"Hush," he said, pressing my head against his chest with his one arm. He held me there for some time, stroking my hair while I finished crying.

"Don't you know," he said at last, "that you will never lose me now?"

"You're going to die," I blurted stupidly, tears welling again.

Emotions played across his face. "Yes. I will die. I will kill myself. But I will not be gone and done with. You know this to be true."

I ran my free hand over his mutilated flesh, feeling that familiar heat between my thighs. How little Unia understood. "I will miss this body," I said.

He sighed, his face pointing at the ceiling. In the darkness, the caverns of his eye sockets began to emit a glow, and I knew he was seeing... something.

"I will miss it, and be glad to be rid of it both," he said. "But come." He turned his head to find my lips with his. "We are wasting precious time. Which, as you have rightly pointed out, I have not much more of."

Later that night I dreamed of the Being, the phantasm I had continued to capture from time to time in my photos of Richard, though never more than in outline. I could not fully make him out in my dreams, either, but his terrifying presence was still a comfort.

That last night, winter of the tenth year:

I drove the valley alone, in my van, under a full moon. There had been an ice storm that day, and every twig of every tree was encased in a crystal-clear sheath, so beautiful in the moonlight, so deadly to the trees. The wind blew; the tree-limbs glittered and tinkled, a thousand ice-sheaths shattering with each motion. Every now and then a crack like a rifle report heralded the snapping of an overstressed limb.

The mansion was deserted, as Richard had ordered. I let myself in with my key, and made my way down the now-familiar hall, camera-bag slung over my shoulder. He waited for me in the solarium, where Charles had left him before he, too, departed. Limbless, sightless, nearly featureless, he sat propped up in the Adirondack chair, listening to the night wind, the chiming and clattering of the trees.

I kissed him, my tongue caressing his vacant mouth. When I pulled back, I saw the flames leaping in both empty eye-sockets.

"You don't have to go through with this, you know," I said.

He smiled, a death's-head grin. "Perhaps I never had to go through with any of it in the first place," he said, laboring carefully over the sounds. He'd taught himself to speak with lips alone, substituting for the sounds he could no longer make for lack of a tongue, and we in his circle had learned to understand him. "I could have let the family fortune fail," he said. "But as I said from the beginning, it never was about the money."

"I know." I picked him up, pressing his body against mine, and carried him to the hall of knives. The guillotine stood in the center of the sand-painted stone circle, a cot set up before it. I laid him on his back on the cot, positioned his head and neck correctly, and turned my attention to my cameras. When every last tripod and light and timer was in place, and the shutter control switch rigged to respond to the drop of the blade, I came back to his side one last time.

He smiled, accepted one last kiss, then opened his mouth for me to put the guillotine's pull-cord between his teeth.

Twenty minutes later, driving south along the highway, the river below an iron ribbon under the moon, I felt something strike me like a blow to the solar plexus. I barely managed to pull off to the shoulder. Clinging to the steering wheel, gasping for breath, I knew: the blade had fallen on Richard's flesh for the last time.

I looked up then. The moon had gone rust-red, and the river below to scarlet. A huge wavering figure came striding over the crest of the hill, only vaguely human-shaped, glowing like flame, walking at an impossible speed. It was the phantasm from my photos, contained within Richard all these years, free to fully manifest at last.

It vanished for awhile into the shadows under the tinkling trees, then reappeared by the river's edge. I saw motion on the water: a boat, blood-red and bone-white, moving on the water oblivious to the current, no oar or sail to propel her. The boat bore down on the shore, headed for the Being of flame. He waded out to meet it in the river of blood.

Just before boarding, the Being turned, as if toward me. It raised a hand, whether in greeting or farewell I did not know.

"Goodbye, Richard," I said, the tears sliding freely down my face. "I'll see you in my dreams...?"

The Being nodded, as if hearing and answering my question. The ruby drops burned on my body.

He boarded the boat, and it was off again, bearing its passenger away at a speed as unlikely as the Being's gait. Mist began to gather on the river, like curdles of steam on the surface of the blood. For a moment many more boats were out there, slipping into and out of the mist, all carrying strange passengers on their bloody decks.

Then the mist swallowed all, and when it blew clear again the boats had vanished and the river had washed out to its normal gray.

The trees tinkled like tolling bells as I pulled back onto the highway. A huge and comforting presence enfolded me as I continued on south to the city.

Ellen Terris Brenner (mizducky@drizzle.com) lives, works, plays, and writes in Seattle, WA. She is an alumna of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and has published a number of short stories and essays, including several pieces in InterText. By day she geeks at a large software company; by night she lollygags around the Internet and works on more stories.

InterText stories written by Ellen Terris Brenner: "Home" (v4n1), "Gone" (v6n2), "The Mirror of Aelitz" (v7n2), "God-King on the Hudson" (v11n1).

InterText Copyright © 1991-2001 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 11, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2001 Ellen Terris Brenner.