He sat at his hotel room desk, looking at the box in his hands, wrapped in old, faded Christmas paper—several rolls, by the feel of it. Over the years, it had been torn slightly in a few spots, but the holes only showed more layers of gift wrap. He shook his head. He couldn’t understand why the fuck any one would go to such extremes. He heard her voice, ancient, thin, almost a croaking whisper: Don’t open it. Ever. Toss it into the ocean, or burn the fuckin’ thing, just promise me ya won’t open it. Of course he gave her his word. He’d keep it, too. He always did, at least when it came to her.
He set it on the desk, got up, walked to the kitchenette counter to make himself a drink—green tea with a couple shots of Synfire to spice it up. He sat back down, took a sip, and looked at the box again. He wondered what was so important about the damn thing. Why didn’t she want him to open it? He drank his cinnamon whiskey infused tea, sat back in the hotel room chair, and remembered that last visit before she died.
His great-aunt Camille had been doing poorly for a while, gradually sliding down to taste death’s lips. He didn’t blame her. He was surprised she held on for as long as she did. Her children were dead, and some of her grandchildren were on the way out due to their own bad choices. She knew she shouldn’t have to bury her children, but she did. He always admired her. She might have been obnoxious, highly opinionated, and she could give a mule lessons on stubbornness, but she had one of the largest hearts he’s ever known. Shit. Her son came out in the 70s, and she just made sure he was happy and loved. This, in a time when so many of her peers were disowning their children for being who they were. Hell, she even loved his partner as if he were her own, and in a deeper way than blood, he was. She kept in touch after her son died, and cried at his funeral when he, too, passed. Until the day she went, she kept memorial pictures of both. He took another sip, felt the heat fill his mouth, slide down his throat. Then, he set the cup down on the desk, next to the box, leaned back, as he remembered that last day.
* * *
He pressed his lips to his fingers, and laid them on both portraits. She smiled. Then, he laid them on the third. Another cousin, her daughter. He never really liked her much, but she was still family. They had some good times, but she drove him away. In the end, she drove everyone away, including her own mother. But then, she gave up on life. She didn’t commit suicide, but she may as well have. She just laid there day after day in her room, never moving, until her organs shut down, one by one.
He looked at his aunt. She reached out her arms, “There’s my favourite nephew. How’re ya doin’, Connor?”
“I’m good, Aunt Camille. How are you?”
“Still breathin’. Not sure how much longer, but still breathin’. As Poppa always said: Any day above ground is a good day.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Mom used to talk about him all the time. She always got excited when he came over to visit.”
They laughed, and traded stories of the old times, the good times, the gone times. “I miss them, Aunt Camille. Every one. Shit. I miss those times—I mean, we still get together, sometimes, but to be honest, I’m jealous. They all have their families, they get to see their children grow up, take their steps, learn to talk, go to school, and eventually graduate, get married have kids of their own, and the cycle begins again. I don’t get to have any of that. Fuck. My exes and our kids live either overseas or back east. I missed out.”
“You’re still talkin’, right?”
“Yeah, we Skype, but it’s just not the same as being there, you know?”
“Suppose not. Just do your best, that’s all ya can do. Make sure no matter what, they still have ya.”
“I guess. It’s just hard to feel involved, like a decent father when my parenting is Skype and child support.”
“Doesn’t matter, just so long as ya do what ya can. Don’t let them think you love them, let them know.”
“Yes, Aunt Camille.”
“I know ya will. Listen, I wanna tell ya a story. ‘Bout your great grandmother. ‘Bout the day she died. Ya see, in that closet is a box, wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper. The story is ‘bout that box, and Momma. So sit your ass down, and listen.”
He plopped down in the chair beside her hospice bed. She didn’t look at him, but at the wall in front of her. His eyes, though, were upon his great aunt’s lips.
“Of course, it all happened a long time ago. I was 14, then, just a young thing. God, Momma was so beautiful, full of life, always laughin’. Ya knew she played the accordion at local dances, didn’t ya? She and Poppa, both played. He did the guitar, and she the accordion. Sometimes, they’d have me up there to sing, but never too late. Never so late that I’d see the whiskey and beer drunk men fight…but sometimes, I sang. It was magic, just like when you play your harp.
“Think it was at one of the dances she got it, that box. The same box on the floor next to ya. One of the townsfolk brought it in. His wife was a close friend of Momma’s, but she got killed a few months earlier in a car accident, drove right off the road, straight into the Kootenai, I think. Anyways, he brought it in a box, told her his wife wanted her to have it, but to please never open it. Then, he left. We heard later that night he ate a shotgun, if ya can believe that.”
“Did he tell her why she shouldn’t open it?
“Nope. Never said. Just told her that and left.”
“Course it’s strange. It was fuckin’ bizarre. We all thought so, but she put it in the back of Poppa’s Hudson. Later, I wished she’d tossed the damned thing in the river instead. She didn’t open it that night. In fact, I think she forgot all about it. It got buried by shit they put in the back for safe keeping. My brothers and sister were all grown, I was the only one left. So we traveled sometimes to see your grandparents, or visit one of my brothers, but usually the old Hudson was used to taxi musical instruments, and drunks.
“I found it a few months later underneath the passenger seat when I was washing the car. I picked it up, and brought it inside. Momma saw it, and laughed. I can still hear it. It was the last time her laugh was so free. She laughed later, but it was not the same…and it got worse as time went on. Anyways, she took it into their room. I’m not sure when she finally opened it, but I think it was that very night. She laughed less the next day, and less the day after.
“And like I said, it was always strained, forced, unnatural, though later it seemed more manic. Within a couple days, she was mumblin’ about some place called Carcosa. Never heard of it before. Couldn’t tell ya where it was. I asked a teacher, and she told me to quit makin’ shit up. Then, she started ranting about someone called the Yellow King, or the King in Yellow, or somethin’ like that. We couldn’t figure out who he was. We tried askin’ but she’d get more agitated. Then, one night in April, while it was pourin’ outside, the worst fucking rainstorm in years, she started screamin’. She stood up, started tearing off her clothes. Now, I don’t mean she undressed. I mean she was literally tearin’ her clothes off. Then, naked as the day she was born, she ran outside, into the rain. Poppa told me to stay in, just in case she came back. He went out after her.
“He came back several hours later, but without her. God, he looked defeated. Poppa was a happy man, but very strong. He never cried. He worked on the farm durin’ the week, hunted durin’ the winter. I heard that before I was born, a coupla guys tried to steal a few horses. He shot those fuckers, killed them. Then, he went to town, told the sheriff. The sheriff, and the town doctor came out with him. They just clapped him on the back, congratulated him on a good job, and took the bodies away. But anyways, I get off the subject. This time, he looked weak. I knew he was fuckin’ scared, worried for Momma, but it looked beyond that. I think I realized then that she was his center, that without her, he’d lose his way.
“Anyways, he stayed up all night drinkin’ whiskey, pacin’ the livin’ room, just in case she came back. She never did. The next mornin’, we both went out, lookin’ for her. We called and called for her, no answer. We went into the woods, nothin’. Finally, I went in barn, and there she was, huddled on the ground in hay, shiverin’, scared, and cold. I called Poppa. He came runnin’. He didn’t say a goddamn thing, just picked her right up and took her in the house, laid her down on the bed.
“He nursed her for several days, tryin’ to get her to eat, drink. But she refused. She got weaker. At first, she wouldn’t sleep, but then that was all she did, though I’m not sure you could call it a real sleep. Mostly, she just laid there, turnin’ her head, twistin’ her body, as she mumbled Carcosa…and the King in Yellow. After a week, she only mumbled, whispered, those words, each time with a weak scream. She no longer moved. She got weaker.
“The day she died, Poppa told me to stay with her, hold her hands, while he ran out to his car, sped into town to get the doc. He was gone for an hour. I sat with her to keep her company, holdin’ her hands. My god, Momma’s hands were cold. Ice wasn’t cold enough. I couldn’t see how she could be so cold and still breathin’, but I held her hands, watched her, whispered to her, prayed to her to stay with us, prayed to God to let us keep her, just prayed, while I held her hands in mine.
“Her pulse began to speed up, like one of those Indian drums, only with no rhythm. She opened her eyes, looked at me, and smiled. Then, she whispered somethin’ that made no sense at the time, though it kinda did years later when Poppa died. She told me to watch out for the yellow sign.”
“The yellow sign? What the hell’s that?
“It’s in the box. It’s also one of the reasons you’re to never open it.”
“You know just saying that shit will only tempt me more.”
“Probably. But you just do what I say. Burn the damned thing. Anyways, she told me to watch out for the yellow sign. She smiled at me again and her pulse stopped. I watched as her eyes faded. I never forgot that smile, it was almost like it was before she opened the package, back when she was herself. I held her hands in mine as they cooled. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt a dead person, but there is nothing like it. It’s a cold feeling, but more and less. It’s an empty cold, as what made them who they were is gone. At 14, I felt that coldness in my hands.”
“Jesus, Aunt Camille. I can’t imagine…Jesus. You know, I’ve never heard this before.”
“It’s not a common story, Connor. Most people just heard she got sick and died in bed, which is true, but not all of it.”
“So what happened next?”
“I just held her hands, feelin’ every notch in her fingertips against my palm, waitin’ for Poppa to come back. I didn’t cry. Not that whole fuckin’ time. Shit. I never cried, til Poppa came in with the doctor, saw her with me. He dragged me out of there. I still didn’t cry, but I couldn’t move on my own. It was like I was, oh fuck. I don’t know what I was like, nothin’ to compare it to, I suppose. I didn’t resist, just didn’t move on my own.
“Later, hours later, after they carried her away, we sat at the kitchen table, starin’ at the checkered red and white pattern on the table cloth, not paying attention. We each had a glass of whiskey in our right hand. Poppa figured I deserved or needed one. The doc agreed. Then, I saw it, somethin’ I never thought I’d see, never wanted to fuckin’ see, and hoped I’d never see again. It scared me.”
“What was it Aunt Camille?”
“Poppa cryin’. He just hunched his shoulders forward, put his head in his hands and cried. Then, I felt somethin’ melt in me, and I cried, too. I figure that once I ran out, the glass was half whiskey and half tears…or it would have been if we hadn’t refilled them.”
“Christ, Aunt Camille…I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine it. I know I took it hard when I lost Gramma, but, Christ. I can’t imagine going through that as a kid.”
“It’s not something you ever forget. I still see it, sometimes, when I sleep. That box. Don’t open it. Ever. Toss it into the ocean, or burn the fuckin’ thing, just promise me ya won’t open it”
“Sure. I promise, Aunt Camille. I won’t open it. I’ll get rid of the damn thing. But why didn’t you?
“I tried. My God, I tried, many times, but I couldn’t. It’s the last thing she touched before she went crazy, so I kept it.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Camille. Is there anything I can do?”
“Don’t worry ‘bout it. Nothin’ you can do anyways. ‘sides I’ll be with her and your Gramma soon enough.”
“Oh, come on now. I know you’re getting out of here in a couple days. I have a seat saved for you, front row, centre, at my show in Portland.”
“Heh. Don’t be an idiot. I’d be there if I could, but I ain’t gettin’ outta here. Least not walkin’.”
“Don’t talk like that, Aunt Camille. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Are you sure you don’t need anything?
“I know what I know, Connor. On second thought, yes. I do need something. Could you just sit there with me? Hold my hand? Don’t wanna be alone tonight.”
“Of course. I don’t need to be anywhere. Hell, even if I did, I would tell them to fuck off, because I’m spending time with my favourite aunt.”
He wrapped her hand in his, as she laughed. Then, they just sat there and talked, until she fell asleep.
It was just after one, when he noticed her breaths coming fewer and farther between. She’d breathe in, out, then nothing for several seconds, then breathe in, out for several more. He could tell she was going, as the seconds stretched longer and longer between each gasp, all the while holding her hand. Two hours later, she smiled, breathed no more. He sat there, still clutching her palm to his right, as the fingertips on his left wiped tears from his cheeks. Finally, he got up, laid her hand on her stomach, felt the touch of her cold, vacant skin upon his lips as he kissed her forehead. Then, he walked out the room, to get the hospice nurse.
* * *
He reached for his tea, but it was empty. He put the cup back down, picked up the box, and clutched it in his alcohol becalmed hands. He remembered that night. He watched them cart her out of the room, while the tears threatened to flow, but he held them back. He reached for his iPhone, made the required calls to his siblings, cousins. He smiled for a moment as he thought how pissed his tour manager was when he told her she would have to postpone his concerts, and process refunds if needed. She yelled at him for a good ten minutes before he told her to shut the fuck up, his aunt just died…and hung up. She kept trying to ring him back for the next four hours. Finally, she got the message when he refused to answer the phone.
He looked at the clock, two hours before he needed to be at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall, big show tonight. His harp was already there, of course. He rose, still carrying the box, walked to the window, and watched the people walk the streets of downtown Portland, the bums and gutter punks with their hands out to scurrying business men and women, the buses spilling diesel fumes along 6th Avenue. He turned back to the chair, sat down.
He dug his forefinger into the outer layer of Christmas wrapping, remembered her words, her dying pleas really, to not open it, but burn the damn thing or toss it in the sea. Then, he shook his head, unwrapped the box to find it taped shut. He sliced through the scotch tape with an elongated fingernail, and opened it.
Inside he found a book, much like the old diary books, with a clasp to keep it shut. The clasp showed some yellow wavy lines that seemed to move when he studied them. He shook his head, looked back. Damn, they were moving. He touched them, felt them wriggle beneath his fingertips. The walls began to close in, reaching dry walled fingers around his throat, clutching his windpipe, blocking the air from reaching his lungs. Outside, the sun darkened in time with the lamp upon the bedside table, light bulb flickering as if a candle stroked by a whisp of gale. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. Off. Off. The new born darkness squalled its infantile gasp inside him, first a whisper, hoarse from lack of breath, then to a full grown cry, as his locked emotions leaked from his eyes.
He wanted to curl on the bed, let the tears soak through the blanket, but he opened the book to the title page. The King In Yellow, subtitled Song of Chaos and Eternal Night. Hmmm. He considered himself rather well read, as well as well versed in old songs, but he’d never heard of it before. He turned the page. He saw with some disappointment that it was a single song. He thought it would be a new book, the book of Satan himself from the way his aunt described it. However, that didn’t stop him from reading it, studying the musical notation inscribed on its pages, listened to the tune inside his head, the beauty of melody was unlike anything he had ever heard, like something from the land of Faery, as his Gramma would have said, like Londonderry Air, a tune so delicate, there is no way it could have been composed by a human bard.
* * *
He shut the book, looked up briefly, saw the time. Forty five minutes to start time. Good…images swirled behind his eyes…thing…phantom instruments whispered siren tunes, beckoning him…the…his hands formed a claw…theatre’s…he pressed his fingernails into his flesh…close…scraped them along the skin…by…gouged furrows in his arm.
He shivered. He looked at the clock again. Shit. Better get going. He got dressed in his concert suit, black bowtie over white dress shirt. He grabbed his box of sheet music, ran out the door.
The hotel was just a few minutes from the concert hall. He arrived, a bit in a daze, confused as images of a yellow king floated in his eyes, foreign dulcet tongues flickered in his ears. The hotel staff thought he was drunk, or at the very least very high. The manager was highly concerned, but let him back stage anyway.
He was ushered to the stage, and pushed into his stool, next to his harp, mic clipped to his shirt. He sat for a few minutes as formless voices shouted over the PA, and palms clapped together while the curtain rose, spot light on him. His fingers by instinct brushed along the harp strings, he opened his mouth. Sang.
For to see Mad Tom of Bedlam
Ten thousand miles I travelled
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
For to save her shoes from gravel.
He watched as their faces changed, men and women dressed for a warm night of harp music, suits, dresses, fancy watches, pearl necklaces, and beautiful doctor moulded people of the upper class. They changed, faces twisted, deformed creatures of the King’s court. He was their bard, as he sang words unknown, but known, words that scratched murals into his skin, harmonised throat lacerating syllables.
He switches back, continues his song, this time in his native English.
I went down to Pluto’s kitchen
For to get me food one morning
And there I got souls piping hot
All on the spit a-turning
He watched their fingers grasp their hair, pull it in clumps, their faces distorted in voiceless screams. He blinked, his words that pure tongue of Carcosa. His eyes on the faces of the magnificent, their statuesque figures as they screamed, jeered at his song. He blinked. Watched the rich impale their own eyes, as the words sprung passed his lips, unable to stop…even if he wanted to. He giggled mid stride, sang, each verse, each line, each word, he played harder, til the strings cut through the calloused tips of his fingers, blood flung, powdering his face with each strum.
My staff has murdered giants
My bag a long knife carries
For to cut mince pies from children’s thighs
And feed them to the fairies
He blinked. He saw the unmarred, inhuman faces of the lords and ladies of Carcosa as they clamoured in their seats, pointing, laughing, and ridiculed him as expressions grated against the sharpened edges of his teeth. He blinked, back to the concert hall. He sang, strings snapped beneath the power of his touch. He saw empty screams on the faces of the audience as they clutched their ears, blood tears on their cheeks from puckered sockets. He sang.
No gypsy, slut or doxy
Shall win my mad Tom from me
I’ll weep all night, with stars I’ll fight
The fray shall well become me
He blinked. The death pale faery faces laughed, as blood spittle sprayed from his mouth while he sang. He blinked. He watched them die, one by one, the wealthy in their penguin suits, ballroom dresses, white lady gloves dyed red. They dropped in their seats, in the aisles, rows, section by section, they fell gasped, croaked, died. The soundboard of his harp creaked as he played. He felt his breaths tighten as he sang.
And when that I’ll be murdering
The Man in the Moon to the powder
His staff I’ll break, his dog I’ll shake
And there’ll howl no demon louder
He screamed the last line, as his harp gave one last shudder and snapped, thrusting splinters into his hands. He blinked, back in Carcosa, blinked again, back in Portland, and still he sang…with slowing breaths between each word.
For to see Mad Tom of Bedlam
Ten thousand years I have travelled
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
For to save her shoes from gravel.
He finished his song, surveyed the twisted bodies of the dead before him. Then, he began to laugh, drizzling misted blood over the remains of his harp. He was still laughing when Death’s maggot faced spectre came for him.
Nathan Tompkins is a poet and photographer living in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in several publications including Calliope Magazine, The Tishman Review, NonBinary Review, North West Words, and others. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Junk Mail of the Heart, and The Dog Stops Here.