This story is paired with “Repairer of Reputations” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
The sky that hung above the park was clear, giving full reign to the round white moon. Happy couples taking a nighttime stroll sighed as they gazed at it, believing such a beautiful sight could only be for them.
One of the radiant young pairs, no more than seventeen-years-old, turned up a path that led to the pristine, shining white marble building in the middle of the green. A series of spotlights reflected off the marble, catching the eye with flecks of pale pink and powder blue. There were heavy Greek columns protruding from the walls. The door was grand and had been carved with all manner of mythical beings. The door opened with a great hiss of released pressure, and the teenagers nearly jumped for joy, clinging to each other as they all but danced inside.
Other people strode by at a quick clip, oblivious to the youth’s happiness as they hurried to the cars and trains that would take them home.
The woman sitting on the bench at the edge of the park took all this in, her eyes searching. She sighed wistfully as the door exhaled closed behind the couple.
“Maybe I should go inside,” she muttered to herself. Everyone who went in seemed so happy. And it really was the only place in this world there was any security to be had.
The wind picked up, but the woman didn’t notice how cold it was, or how foul smelling. Her eyes had lost focus, unable to see the faces of the people who walked by twist in disgust as they shivered, their steps quickening to get away.
“Why don’t you go in?” a low, melodious voice asked from behind the woman. There was something silken yet sharp to the voice, just as there was to the thing that moved past her cheek, giving the impression of something moving through water that her face was immersed in.
“How can I?” she asked mournfully. “After those two walk in so happily. I have no one to go in with. Isn’t it pathetic to walk in by yourself?” She sighed again. Tears stung her eyes as she shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares anyway.”
The loud pop of a knuckle cracking jarred the woman from her self-pity. She looked up and saw a woman in a knee length black dress who was very tall and impossibly thin, struggling toward her on unstable legs. Pale, sagging skin hung off bones that seemed brittle as glass. The mouth set in its white face was drawn into the grimace of a person who had died of cyanide poisoning. Its legs splayed as the creature floundered onto the seat.
It turned to the woman on the bench and clutched her arm, the toothpick woman’s bony fingers gripping so tight it hurt. Wide eyes that bulged precariously from their sockets looked directly into the woman on the bench’s. “I care,” the stick woman enunciated carefully in a high, thin voice, as if it had just come from an elocution lesson.
The woman on the bench looked around and saw all the ordinary humans rushing about their business, completely oblivious to the toothpick woman who had just been among them. She looked back at the strange creature in wonder. She watched as the creature’s arm jerked, the elbow popping viciously. It reached into the small black clutch it carried. The violent twitches of its hand as it fished for something inside almost sent the bag toppling onto the ground. After a moment, it pulled out a book. Age, wear and tear had made the slim volume a brownish cream color. She couldn’t see a name on the cover. Several more snaps and spasms allowed the stick woman to set the book at the human’s feet.
“Speak,” the voice from behind commanded and a water current swished against the back of the woman’s head.
She didn’t notice the sensation this time either. The toothpick woman next to her pointed out to the park, her arm convulsing with a snap that sounded like the bone had broken. The woman’s eyes followed the motion.
A series of people dressed head to toe in black were scurrying about the grass, shouting incoherent directions. They pulled the interior of a house into view, as if it was a stage set being wheeled on. Next to that was brought the inside of a hospital room. There was more shouting as the people hurried off.
Into the hospital room, already containing a boy hooked up to machines lying in a bed, stepped an exact double of the woman on the bench and a man. They both took a breath, preparing themselves for the scene.
Then, on an invisible cue, the woman on stage threw herself onto the bed in great heaving sobs. The man turned to the wall, pressing an arm against it in an attempt to master his own grief. They were both silent, not a sound coming from the stage.
“My son,” the woman on the bench said, her eyes locked on the child. “Leukemia.” The desolation in her soul leaked out in her words
On stage, the man pulled himself away from the wall and went to his weeping wife. He gently gathered her up and took her to the house next door. Just as delicately, he tucked her into the bed. He kissed her lightly and went into the kitchen. He sat down at the table, took up the bottle that had been waiting for him and poured himself a drink. Then another. Then another.
“My husband went so cold,” the woman on the bench all but whispered. “It was like his soul just died with our son.”
In bed, the wife tossed and turned a few times. Unable to sleep, she went to the kitchen door and opened it just enough to peak in and see her husband drinking. She closed the door and pressed her back to it for a moment. She was still crying as she went to a door on the other side of the room. She opened it and a rather non-descript looking man entered. He latched onto the woman, obviously enjoying the work of undressing her far more than she did.
“So you decided bedding other men was the way to help him grieve,” the voice behind the woman said, its delight in her pain so tangible it pressed down on her head, bowing it further.
Just as the pair climbed under the covers, the husband in the kitchen found his bottle empty. He stood and walked into the bedroom. The couple in bed froze, the wife weeping again as she tried to mutely explain.
But the husband didn’t care. His expression unchanged, he walked to a nightstand, took the bottle sitting on it and left.
This was what the wife needed. The tears stopped abruptly. She nearly jumped out of the bed, wrapping a sheet around herself as she slammed the kitchen door open with a silent jerk.
The husband sat at the table, nursing a drink without a care as his wife screamed and threw things at him, not a syllable of what she said reaching the audience.
“Ah, you resorted to temper tantrums,” the voice condescended, giving her a palpable slap on the face when it did.
The woman on the bench’s hands clinched into fists. “My husband was a good man,” she growled. “He loved us, but he just shut down. I would have given anything for him to scream at me, or cheat on me, or do anything besides let that bottle kill him.”
On stage, the wife jerked open a drawer and pulled out a pen and a paper. She set them in front of the husband and crossed her arms. He signed it and refilled his glass.
The scene finished, all three actors stopped and looked at the woman on the bench.
She stared back at them defiantly. “He made his choice,” she said, her voice suddenly cold. “I didn’t have to stand by and watch him die.”
The three actors moved to the edge of the stage, bowing and curtseying. The woman on the bench jumped a little when she heard applause greet them. She looked about and saw a crowd of people just like the toothpick woman watching the stage. They turned to each other to chat about the performance, revealing grimacing faces covered in heavy stage make-up: Lips far too red, eye liner much too dark, lines drawn into the forehead to simulate age.
The applause died. The audience moved on and the woman’s eyes went wide in astonishment. They appeared to be fighting their limbs to make them work, as if the muscles were so stiff they had to be activated with a conscious effort of both mind and body. Their steps were slow and lumbering, their baggy clothes flapping about their stick limbs.
“Have you found it?” the toothpick woman’s squeak interrupted the other woman’s revelry. She looked at the creature, confused, and saw it watching her hopefully.
Before she could ask what it meant, a raindrop striking her forehead startled her. She looked up at the sky and was surprised to find no clouds but two moons shining down.
“Terrible indeed,” the voice from behind deigned to assault her again with a strike between the shoulders that made her lurch forward. “But it is not simply other people that gives one’s life meaning.”
Around them, the rain began to pour, the resulting roar growing in time with the woman on the bench’s anger.
“What does give your life meaning?” she cried into the flood. “My family has been torn apart, my job is gone…” The bile was too much for her. She shrieked as loud as she could, “why are you asking me this!”
The din of the rain drowned out all else for a moment, but then she heard something, so faint she shouldn’t have heard it at all. A trio of voices danced between the raindrops and to her ear. Soft, but clear as day, they sang, “because we want to understand.”
The woman looked to see the white building still in the park, but now it stood beside a lake that had been revealed by the removed stages. The rain slackened, and the bright light of the moons revealed three figures dancing on the surface of the water. She could make out that the middle held a large, pale yellow cloth that fluttered in the air. She twisted and turned, the cloth billowing as if there were no rain at all.
The rain halted as the trio stepped onto the shore. The woman could now see the Hyades fully. The rain nymphs were clad in soaked black fabric that hung limply about them like the rotted petals of a dead flower. It didn’t conceal much of their bodies, which were bloated as if they’d been immersed in water for a very long time. Their skin was stark white, but had a little grime on it, which didn’t hide the blue cast. Their eyes were bright blue, but covered by a milky white film. All three smiled as they approached, revealing not a tooth among them, only black, withered gums. Their cumbersome frames didn’t seem to hinder them as their limbs danced forward as lithely and skillfully as any prima ballerina.
Two of them danced to either side of the park bench, while the middle figure made one grand turn, holding the tattered yellow silk up to the sky in a glorious plume before she let go and lowered herself to one knee, allowing the cloth to slowly settle to the ground atop the book.
The woman on the bench sat in awe of this, not realizing at first that her view of the lake has been obscured by another set. The movement of two actors onto them caught her attention. She saw herself again, moving to one side of a desk and sitting opposite a man in a suit, who looked down at his clasped hands. He looked up at the woman who tried to remain calm even as she sat on the edge of her chair. The man’s expression was pure crocodile tears as he spoke. The woman’s face slowly changed to horror.
“I’m being fired,” the woman on the bench explained.
On stage, the woman began to question, gently at first. But the man shrugged and held his hands out in a gesture of helplessness as his lips worked soundlessly.
The woman on the bench smiled bitterly as she spat, “it was the first job I’d ever had. Twenty-five years with that company and what do I get?”
The woman on stage stood, shaking with the mixture of rage, hurt and fear that the woman on the bench was beginning to exhibit. She slammed her hands on the desk as she argued, bordering on frenzy. The man on the other side of the desk gave another helpless shrug, his attempts to keep the mask of concern on his face making it all the more clear that the emotion was fake.
The woman on the bench leaned over to the Hyade who sat at her feet. “You see, the company executives got larger than usual bonuses this year. And with my son dead and my marriage in ruins, they still have the gall to tell me the only way to save the company is to fire half the staff. We shouldn’t be selfish, after all. If the whole company goes down, then no one will have a job, so which is fairer?”
The frenzying woman on stage started to fizzle. Though still angry, she seemed to resign herself to her fate. She made for the door, but turned and faced the man before she opened it. She gave him a determined showing of her middle finger before wrenching the door open and slamming it closed.
Next to the bench, the nymphs tittered, covering rotted mouths with bloated hands coyly.
Both man and woman on stage stopped and took their bows quickly before the set changers hurried them apart.
The applause this time sounded strange, almost like the slapping of rubber against rubber. When the woman looked around, she saw that the toothpick people had vanished, replaced by bent creatures with cloven feet and skin that had a leathery, rubbery look to it. They had faces like pug dogs, flat and mashed, but the red eyes were keener, more cunning. Their arms seemed a little too short for their bodies and ended in something resembling paws. All that, combined with the sharply pointed ears and random patches of hair that might have been fur, made them look vaguely like dogs, but not quite.
Many of them sat on their haunches, watching the set changers take away the office. All of them perked up when the white building came into view again. In their excitement, they began to talk to each other, but all the woman could distinguish was incoherent gibbering.
“Have you found it?” sang the Hyades, drawing her attention to everyone who sat around her. Twice she’d been asked that question now, and she still didn’t know what it meant. She was about to ask when a screech jarred her. She looked up to see one of the dog-creatures chasing another. Beyond them and the lake was a castle, vast and ruined.
“Is that my home?” she asked softly, gazing at the building longingly.
The voice behind her laughed in ridicule. The derision settled onto her chest as if it were a nightmare trying to suffocate her. “Of course not. However, I’m sure it would serve you better to mope at home.”
She stared at the castle as she whispered. “I can’t.”
“I suppose you have no home to go to,” the voice taunted, as if it expected her to say yes and intended to glory in it when she did.
“Why are you mocking me?” she cried.
A plaintive little “meep” drew her attention to the dog-creature sidling forward. It approached and offered up a white, full-face mask with both paws. The dog-man placed it carefully on the still fluttering silk before resting its head on the woman’s knee. It gibbered at her and she blinked back, confused.
“He says we do not mock here, only accept,” the triad of nymph voices sang.
The woman sighed as she watched a familiar house block out the castle beyond.
She saw herself enter the house she had lived in with her husband, only now it was darker and messier. The home of a lonely woman who didn’t care about her surroundings. The woman walked into the kitchen only to start and turn to the door.
“I’d been avoiding the calls for months,” the woman on the bench explained.
The woman on the stage opened the door to a kindly looking man in a trim suit with a briefcase. He held his hand out for hers and she shook it. She offered him a seat, which he took. He opened his briefcase and pulled out a letter. His body language was tentative. He was bearing bad new.
“I let it go too long,” the woman on the bench said, her voice empty. “So they came.” The woman on stage read the letter as the one on the bench explained. “My husband wracked up a bunch of debt after the divorce. Couldn’t hold down a job. But the house was in his name.” She shrugged as her stage self pelted the lawyer with agitated questions. “We were going to change it after the divorce, but getting him to focus long enough to do something like that, it just wasn’t going to happen.”
The man in the suit sat back uncomfortably as the woman got to her feet, crying and begging, obviously for help. The kindly man tried to calm the woman down, but quickly found it only made her hysterical. He stood and took up his briefcase, backing toward the door in an attempt to escape. The woman followed, pleading all the while as the man opened the door and slipped out in terror.
The woman just stared at the door for a moment before she dropped the letter and crumpled to her knees, sobbing violently into her hands.
The applause sounded of cloth covered rubber as the man and woman on stage bowed.
The woman on the bench looked around and saw the dog-people, but now they managed to hold themselves almost completely erect and had spread out along the grass in front of the stage. Some were sitting, some were standing. Some were alone, some were in pairs. Some were female and some were male. The females wore trim, Victorian, corseted gowns, complete with large bustles at the rear. There was a riot of color as their dresses stood out against the night. The males wore neat, dark colored suits, complete with top hats, tails and gloved hands.
They all turned to her, the ladies under their parasols, the gentlemen with their monocles, the very epitome of proper people taking in an evening’s entertainment in the park, but for their flat faces, rubbery skin and cloven feet. She also noticed that the people on stage were staring at her too. She grew uncomfortable under so much scrutiny.
Searching for anything but the staring creatures to look at, she caught sight of a small old man, human as she was, his face pointed to the ground and his back bent from work. He took plodding steps toward the white building, a shovel balanced on his shoulder.
But the dog-man on her knee meeped at her. She looked at it and shook her head a little.
“He wants to know if you found it,” the Hyades sang at her.
Again, the bile rose. “Found what?” she demanded loudly, thumping both fists on her thighs, which made the dog-man yelp and scramble back.
“Why do you keep asking me that?” she raged at them all. “There’s nothing to find! My life is over, haven’t you been watching?”
A scraping sound drew all attention to the white building, where the little man stood, waiting for a door at the back to open. The grinding stopped and he took the shovel in hand. He stabbed it into a doorway they couldn’t see. His small body trembled as he lifted the shovel out, flipping a severed arm, head, and chunks of what appeared to have been a torso onto the grass.
The dog-creatures were mesmerized by the scene until the flesh hit the ground. Then all pretenses were dropped and the creatures rushed forward, screeching and fighting each other. The old man didn’t seem to notice. He simply kept shoveling as the things fought over every morsel before shoving it in their faces.
Under all the fuss, the voice from behind came to her, the words themselves pressing against her limbs and calling them to action. “There is one more act to this drama. Will you let it end in tragedy?”
“I have no choice,” the woman whimpered pitifully, giving way to her tears again.
The rotted smell washed over her as something slowly moved past her face. For a moment, she caught sight of mangled yellow silk that flapped lazily as if it floated in water.
“There is always a choice,” the voice said, tantalizing in its promise as the words worked against her body like a gentle current.
The dog-man reached down and took up the book. It held the tome out to her with a gibber. She swallowed back her tears as she took it. She looked at the cover and saw only a symbol. Three legs of different lengths curling out from a scalloped center, all yellow. She opened the cover and found a title page. The King In Yellow was all it said. She stared at the title as she asked, “how?”
“Look inward,” the voice coaxed. “Deep inside yourself.” The words pressed the book closed in her hands.
Only then did the set move, as the people in black pulled it aside to provide a path to the lake.
She hesitated, but everyone gathered around her took hold of her, urging her to her feet. She moved forward, clutching the book to her chest.
Everyone smiled and nodded encouragement as they pressed her forward.
She looked up at the stage as she passed, her eyes quickly returning to the ground when she saw the actors from all four acts watching her approach the water.
She came to the edge and sat down on her knees, looking at the dark surface and her face reflected in it.
“Life isn’t fair,” she moaned. “Every day, I tried so hard, and all I got was ruin.”
She stopped and really looked at her reflection. There was something in the crease of her eye. It looked like crow’s feet. She leaned closer to take a better look, but it spread with a snap, resembling a crack in a pane of glass. Her brow furrowed and with a pop another one appeared near her forehead. Then another across her cheek. Then another from her mouth.
“Do you see where you are fractured?” the voice asked as if it were right behind her, and the force of the words created a split across her eye.
“Yes,” she said breathlessly, the significance of what she was seeing dawning on her.
“Then shatter it,” the voice demanded, causing another crack down her neck.
She shook her head. “But that’s insanity,” she said uncertainly.
“And that is power.” The waters around the cracked glass rippled at the words, drawing the woman’s eye to the palace. “Think of all you have to gain. And what do you have left to lose?”
The words were like icicles stabbing at her, carrying their meaning into everything she was as they melted. The world had attempted to destroy her, and she was about to let it. The idea twisted her gut. She’d almost let herself be destroyed. She stared at the castle. After everything she’d lost, to find a new home, a new purpose, a new life.
Nothing to lose. Everything to gain. It was an easy decision once you stopped thinking about it. Once you stopped telling yourself what everyone else said was right when you knew it was wrong.
Her jaw set, her eyes narrowed. She raised the book over her head and swung it down with all her strength. There was a great crash as the glass shattered, sinking below the now roiling waters.
The woman leapt to her feet and spun to face everyone.
Actors, stagehands, Hyades and spectators watched her in anticipation. All of them, as she unwittingly had been, at the foot of The King In Yellow, the full white mask inscrutable, the shreds of his robe wafting sluggishly as if invisible waters flowed around him. He lifted a hand that was deathly white and so bloated as to be spongy.
“Have you found the Yellow Sign?” he asked, flourishing the hand in demand of an answer.
She took a deep breath and straightened to her full height before she said, clearly and calmly,
* * *
“Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King
Must die unheard in
* * *
There was a moment of stillness as everyone simply stared. Then the chin of the pallid mask lifted and the entire assemblage erupted in thunderous applause.
The Hyades danced forward to guide the woman back to the foot of The King. Together, the three of them took up the yellow silk on the ground and draped the robe over the mad woman’s shoulders. The toothpick woman smiled a wide, painful grimace as its limbs struggled to bring it forward and clasp the robe shut at the throat with a broach; a black stone with the Yellow Sign set in it. The dog-man gibbered as it reached up and covered her face with the mask. Finally, she stepped forward and bowed her head to the King, who placed a gold diadem on it.
She straightened and turned to the still enthusiastic crowd. She curtseyed and they fell silent. “I come as The King In Yellow, to find lost Carcosa!” she declared. “It is I who will being paradise to this unworthy world!”
There was more applause and adoration as she ran down the path away from the palace, eager to begin her work.
* * *
A few of the people crossing the park had stopped to stare at the woman screaming about paradise.
A woman heading downtown met the eye of the man going toward the subway station. She glanced after the mad woman and shrugged
The man nodded morosely, his hands shoved into his pockets. Then he jerked his chin at the white building. “Hey, is the lethal chamber up yet?”
The woman nodded. “Yeah, I just saw the maintenance guy leave. Some teenagers mucked it up. Dumb kids.”
“Thanks,” the man said.
“No worries,” the woman said, giving him a small smile and a pat on the shoulder. She headed off home while the man gave a defeated sigh and ambled up the path toward the beautiful marble building.
Dominique Lamssies was born and raised in Portland, Oregon but has spent large amounts of time living in other places, including New Orleans, Ukraine and Japan. Her non-fiction has been featured in Eye-Ai Magazine, a magazine about Japanese culture for expatriots living abroad. Her fiction has been featured in The Horror Zine.