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The Adventure of the Hidden Lane by Lyn C. Gardner
I’m placing this sealed manuscript with my solicitors on instructions that it be published at least seventy years after my demise, when all the principals are long dead and any rumour has passed into family legend. I trust that one day this tale will be welcomed among the rest.
If I return often in these annals to the days before my marriage to Mary Morstan, it is only because Sherlock Holmes and I spent so much time in company then. In 1887, Holmes was thirty-three and I thirty-five, and we seemed at the height of our powers. No problem was too obscure for me to attend along with him. In many ways, despite the strains on health and sanity, I look upon those days as the golden age: long nights prowling outside an abbey, waiting for a murderer to emerge in nun’s habit; grey afternoons watching the world stream past outside our train while we chewed over the case or enjoyed the companionable silence only two intimates can share. Whether we brooded over separate projects in the parlour or ran through fields in fear of someone’s life; whether Holmes filled the air with violin music or I, the minds of distant readers with the magic of his work, there seemed one great song between us.
Without a practice of my own, I’d rise in my dressing gown when Mrs Hudson brought our breakfast, and share the morning papers with Holmes. Even without a case, there were times when he hardly slept. I’d wish him good night and leave him brooding over the fire, then walk out yawning in the morning to find him staring into the street, waiting only my waking to play the violin. I’d trained myself to sleep through the stench of all but the most explosive chemical experiments.
“Anything on the fire this morning, Holmes?”
He didn’t turn from his contemplation of Baker Street. The medley of voices, the rattling percussion of hooves and carriage wheels, and the cymbal-like crashes of coal chutes all registered in a higher key as the threat of rain induced a more hurried tempo. I took the chair opposite his dirty dishes and tucked into my kedgeree. The haddock was tender and well-seasoned. Atop a stack of books, a telegram waited for me.
“Situation grave at Leidstone Manor near Reigate, Surrey. Your presence great personal favour. Forrester.”
“Forrester,” I mused. “The inspector we met in the affair of the Reigate squires?” Five months before, in April, I had convinced Holmes to leave the poisoned city air for some needed rest in the country. To his delight, theft and murder had broken into his vacation. The young officer in charge had been duly appreciative of Holmes’s talents.
“The very same.”
“What do you suppose it is?”
“I understand that Sir Hugh Syms-Caton has been ailing for sometime.”
“Syms-Caton. Why do I know that name?”
Holmes held up a slim volume that had been concealed between his body and the window. His finger still marked a page, but I could read the impress of gold upon the cover: Songs of Earth and Heaven by Catherine Syms-Caton.
“Now I remember. Sir Hugh’s niece writes poems; her brother writes adventures. What is his name–”
Holmes gestured to the table, watching me with the faintest smile. He said, “I took the liberty of running out to the bookstore on the corner while you slept.”
I hefted one of the books stacked beneath the telegram. The Squire of All or Nothing by Aubrey Syms-Caton. “Seems to promise a good sword fight to while away a fall afternoon. So, what’ll it be, Holmes? A duel upon the downs?”
“Hardly that, Watson,” he replied, and slipped into his coat. He tipped the brim of his hat toward me. “But a doctor’s services might be in order.”
My army training and Holmes’s austere habits made packing the work of a moment. I grabbed my valise and doctor’s bag. Holmes scooped up the books as we hastened out the door.
On the train, we passed the books back and forth. “Not bad, Watson,” Holmes commented as he handed me the slimmer volume. I’d got a fair way into one of the novels – murder, unjust imprisonment, and a case of mistaken identity – but I set it aside to see what had impressed my critical friend. The poems’ raw power clawed through the smooth veneer of form and sentiment. “Whoever inspired these is a lucky man.”
Holmes said thoughtfully, “There is something caged – something furious and helpless here that cries out and beats the bars.”
Inspector Forrester met us at the station with a brougham bearing Sir Hugh’s arms. A sober young man, Forrester looked smart in his inspector’s uniform, but concern had etched grooves in his narrow face. His wide brown eyes lingered, considering everything. A thick but precisely trimmed moustache paralleled a solemn mouth.
He said, “Thank you for coming, Mr Holmes. Dr Watson. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.”
Holmes and I shared a bench inside the brougham. Holmes said, “Pray tell us the trouble, Inspector.”
Though he sat with the sun in his eyes, Forrester’s keen face clouded. “When their father died fifteen years ago, Sir Hugh took on the role for his niece and nephew. Now he lies at death’s door –” His eyes shifted to me. “I’m glad you’re here, Doctor. It seldom hurts to have a second opinion, especially when all other hope is gone.”
I nodded, murmured “Of course.” But Holmes said shrewdly, “I take it there’s some trouble getting in to see him.”
“Not yet. But there might be. There are these manuscripts, you see –” His gaze slid to the woodlands rushing past. “Having unpublished manuscripts stolen is a terrible thing for any writer. But these manuscripts, sir – these manuscripts –”
“A little unusual, are they?”
Forrester said, “They don’t want their uncle’s last thoughts to be marred by – this situation. They’re concerned about the shock when his health is so delicate. They’re also afraid that in a moment of anger he might shut them out, and they’d lose their last hours with him.”
“You lost your own father early, Mr Forrester,” Holmes observed gently.
Forrester nodded, the underlying sadness rising to his face. “The day after the manuscripts vanished, they received an anonymous letter warning them that unless they comply with certain demands, their uncle will be shown the manuscripts.”
“And the conditions?”
Forrester growled, “Aubrey is to renounce his claims and leave the country. He and Kate must urge their uncle to adopt another heir. They’re to say their farewells and leave for his holdings in America.”
“What, both of them?” I exclaimed.
Holmes mused, “The sister must not inherit either. There’s someone else.”
“There’s a rumour that Sir Hugh has an unacknowledged son.”
Holmes stared out the window as the fields rolled past. I asked, “Could Sir Hugh’s wife be interested in the matter? Without children, she may worry she’ll lose her home when he dies.”
Forrester said, “If Lady Hilda’s aim were to disinherit her nephew, I don’t see how it could suit her purpose to withhold the manuscripts at all.”
I asked, “They’re that bad, then?”
Forrester said, “There are others who might be injured as well.”
Afternoon gilded the fields. I drank deep of country air. The great house stood atop a sloping lawn, facing the early afternoon sun. Forrester said, “My mother and I would be honoured if you’d stay with us tonight. The manor might be more comfortable, but with Sir Hugh’s health, it would be best not to strain the household further.”
I said, “I’m sure we’ll be quite comfortable. Thank you.”
We’d scarcely entered the house when two golden youths stepped into the entry hall, their curly-haired beauty shining like Apollo and Athena in the misty interior light. Forrester introduced us, then said, “I must return to my duties. Aubrey, Kate, I’ll leave you with your guests. Mr Holmes, Dr Watson, I’ll call for you at dinner time.” He nodded and left.
“We’re very pleased to meet you,” said Kate. Shadows lurked beneath her red-rimmed eyes and hollowed cheeks, but she made an effort to smile.
Aubrey bore the same marks of weariness, but his hectic energy demanded some object. “Come upstairs with us, Mr Holmes. It all begins and ends there.” He hit the stairs running.
“Pray excuse my brother,” murmured Kate. “He’s anxious to resolve this – there’s nothing else we can do to help Uncle.”
“Understandable,” said Holmes. His eyes brightened with the challenge. His long legs took the stairs two at a time, leaving Kate and myself to bring up the rear.
On the second floor, we entered a study lined with large, glassfronted cabinets filled with books and keepsakes. The wide oak desk stood with its left edge toward the window. Facing it, a smaller table held a typewriter, its keys shining with daily use. A brace of armchairs stood before two tall secretaries with a lamp between.
Kate locked the door behind us and settled behind the big desk. Aubrey perched by the typewriter, his wild curls bobbing as he showed off with a rapid burst on the machine. Kate set her elbows on the desk. “This is Uncle Hugh’s private study,” she said. “He’s let us use it since I was nine and Aubrey eight. We used to sit at those secretaries, completing our schooling while he worked. We seldom spoke, but we enjoyed being industrious together.”
“When we got older,” Aubrey said, “we learned that Uncle Hugh didn’t conduct his affairs here so much as he sought refuge. This was the place where he came to read romances –”
“– or write funny lyrics,” Kate said. “He’d slip them into our books to mark our lessons.”
“For a while there, Uncle Hugh and I had a poetry war going on,” Aubrey said. “We’d leave poems on top of important papers or hidden in drawers, composed in the most stately and serious manner. The trick was to break the other’s composure. We’d read them and go about our business, but if one of us laughed, or grinned, or shed a tear –”
Kate said, “Of course, I enjoyed it immensely. But I laughed so much they gave up surprising me. I’d get the one who wrote it chuckling, and that was a forfeit. So while they attacked their poetry with all the gravity of war, I sat in my corner of Uncle’s big desk, gazing out the window at my own dreams – and jotting them down.”
“It sounds like your writing is something of a family tradition,” I said. “Your uncle must be very proud of you.”
“Oh, he is!” Kate caught her breath. “When Uncle took to his bed, he asked us to keep writing for him. Every day, we come in here and –” She hung her head.
Aubrey said quietly, “We try to carry on. He likes to hear our work as we write it. It’s one of the fi rst things he asks – it seems to keep him going. But it isn’t easy, Mr Holmes.”
Kate said, “That’s why we’re so sick about the theft. We’ve lost work that represents time we could have spent with our uncle, even if it was his wish. If that time was wasted –”
Holmes stood, stretching his lanky frame. “Where did you keep the manuscripts? Looked up in this room?”
Kate said, “The typescripts are kept in the secretary behind Dr Watson, where we can get to them easily. The manuscripts are locked in the safe above the fi replace.”
Holmes rounded on Aubrey. “With so much at stake, you still think it’s worthwhile to lie to me?”
Aubrey blanched. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not.” Holmes off ered a wintry smile. “Do you think I don’t already know your secrets? Your sister’s romances are no doubt far more popular under your name than they would ever be under hers. As for your poetry, I’ve no doubt the man you love is well-placed, and neither one of you can bear the scandal.”
Kate gave a small cry. Aubrey stood with clenched fists, but Holmes continued relentlessly. “You take great pains to hide the holographs, yet the typescripts are kept in an obvious location, and the work itself is published for anyone to read. Typewriting may be a modern fad, but it’s more frequently done by those who must earn their wages. I asked myself why it was so important that the handwriting be hidden. If you’d stolen another’s work, the demands would include acknowledgement or restitution – even if the author wanted revenge as well. But if you were each the author of the other’s work, the secrecy would certainly be justified. It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for a woman to study fencing; but the poetry published under Catherine Syms-Caton’s name is erotically charged, and clearly written to a man. Since the manuscripts are so dangerous, why did you retain them?”
Aubrey said, his cheeks flaming, “We wanted to keep proof of our true authorship.”
“Pride,” Holmes muttered and bent over the typewriter, pulling the paper from the platen. “Has anyone ever seen you at work, other than your uncle? How did you explain this machine?”
Aubrey stood aside to give Holmes room. “Edmund had just learned, so we asked him to teach us. Since we’re writers, I don’t think he found the request unusual.”
“Edmund Percivale, Uncle’s secretary. He’s our friend. He’s only a year older than I am – Katie’s age. Really, we’re more like cousins.”
Holmes raised his eyebrows. He asked Kate for the anonymous letter and examined it. “How was this delivered?”
She said, “We found it sealed and lying in the middle of the desk when we got back from visiting Uncle yesterday afternoon. We tried asking around without making too much fuss, but no one would admit to putting it there.”
“Does your aunt ever use this study?”
“She has her morning room and the library. Why should she?”
“And has she ever spoken with you about your inheritance?”
Aubrey said thoughtfully, “Not directly. But – once or twice she’s made pointed comments about people who won’t produce heirs, and the line coming to an end. I always thought – she made me so angry, I thought she was criticizing Uncle Hugh –”
They looked at each other, dismay in Kate’s face, panic in Aubrey’s.
I said, “If there was a son out there, who would it be?”
Aubrey said, “That’s easy. Edmund. He’s always been treated more like family. He idolizes Uncle, and he works hard. But he sleeps on the third floor with us. He dines with us. Uncle called him up from the village when he turned eighteen, on no recommendation whatsoever. It’s always been something of a mystery. Edmund himself doesn’t know who his parents are. He lived with poor cousins until an unknown benefactor sent him away to school.”
Holmes muttered, “If a man needs an heir, he doesn’t usually deny his own blood.” Then he looked up from the pages. “Do you realize this note was typed on your own machine?”
“That’s not possible.” Aubrey frowned.
“The relative position of the letters is distinctive. Do you always lock this room?”
Kate said, “Uncle taught us.”
“Who has a key?”
“Uncle, Aubrey, and me. There aren’t any others. The fires are only lit or the carpets brushed when one of us is here. Uncle taught us that was the price for privacy.”
“And who,” asked Holmes, “has access to your uncle’s key since he’s taken to his bed?”
Kate was silent. Aubrey said, “Anyone who’s been in the room while he slept. He keeps his most important keys on a chain around his neck. He won’t be parted from them.”
Holmes said, “I’ll need to speak to your uncle. I don’t think it’s wise to advertise our purpose.”
Katie rose. “I have the perfect excuse. He loves the chronicles of your adventures. We invited the pair of you to cheer him up.”
On our way out, we glanced into the secretary’s office, but he was absent. Aubrey offered to retrieve him, saying, “He’s probably seeing to something about the estate.”
In Sir Hugh’s sitting room, we waited while Lady Hilda helped the nurse bathe him and change his clothes and dressings. As we sat there, I murmured to Kate, “The poems – from a woman, the tone borders on the scandalous. Didn’t you worry what your uncle would think?”
“A bit. I didn’t tell him at first. One day Aunt Hilda found a copy. She was outraged. She said a proper lady wouldn’t read them, let alone write them. Uncle Hugh looked stern. He asked me about the young man in the poems. I told him we’d broken things off. I was on tenterhooks – he could have demanded I marry. Uncle said, ‘Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk.’ Then he grinned. ‘Better to write about it and have your revenge, eh?’ He seemed quite pleased that I was following in Aubrey’s footsteps. He said, ‘Some parents don’t expect much from a girl except to love her. But these are brilliant, Katie, really. If a little unexpected.’”
At last Lady Hilda emerged, frowning at us until Kate introduced the great detective and his Boswell. She thawed a bit, greeting us and nodding in distracted fashion before she carried off an armful of stained and foul-smelling bedclothes, accompanied by an older woman similarly laden, whose upturned nose and sharp blue eyes spoke of the pert, birdlike girl still holding her own within the soft roundness years had provided.
We followed Kate into the room. The smell was stronger here, seeping into everything – the heavy, sweet-sour odour of impending death. Amid piles of pillows, a narrow face poked like a fi n, sharpened to a lustre by his illness. He formed an unnaturally long, bony ridge amid lumps of cushioning. Kate smoothed white hair whose long strands swirled across his pate, then cradled his withered hand in hers. “Uncle dear, we’ve brought someone to see you. Just think! It’s Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr Watson!”
Sir Hugh wet his lips. The jutting chin wobbled. Past all the gathered phlegm, his croak was diffi cult to hear. “I’m honoured to meet you, gentlemen. Your exploits have brightened many a dark night.” He reached out a trembling hand. Holmes shook it. He turned his watering eyes to me with a pained smile while I pressed his hand. “Since I’ve been ill, we’ve read your stories again and again. Excellently done, gentlemen – and excellently told. I don’t suppose you’d act out your own parts in one of my favourites?” He cast a mischievous look at Kate. “My niece can stand in for everyone else.”
I turned a look of amusement on Holmes. I could already hear the disgusted comment he’d make later about being forced to play the buffoon in one of my exaggerated dramas. But for Sir Hugh’s sake, he acquiesced with surprising gentleness. We dramatized favourite scenes from “The Speckled Band.” Sir Hugh choked with delight. Kate and I held him upright and repositioned the pillows so he could breathe more easily. The tumour was well advanced and had already begun to seep through the new dressings.
When we’d settled him, Holmes asked, “Miss Syms-Caton, would you leave us for a time?” She nodded, taking the current nurse. I heard the inner and outer doors close. Sir Hugh said, “Now, gentlemen, tell me the truth. I may be an invalid, but I’m not a fool.”
“Your friend Bob Forrester called us here,” said Holmes.
“He’s a good lad, Bob, a good lad. I always thought so.”
“There’s a plot afoot against your nephew – your niece, too, as it happens. An anonymous party threatens to discredit them to you if they don’t bid you farewell and quit the country.”
Sir Hugh cried thickly, “I won’t hear a word against Kate or Aubrey! What scoundrel –” he groaned and gritted yellow teeth, flopping like a landed fish as his body strove to slough off pain.
He panted. “What villain dares impugn those children while I’m trapped here like this!”
I said, “Someone interested in the inheritance, most likely.” I eased him back onto the pillows.
Holmes said, “Should you see or hear anything to alarm you, I would ask that you remain calm. Watson and I will handle everything. Accept nothing on face value. Time is too short to let anything separate you from your family.” Sir Hugh said harshly, “I’m not a fickle man. I love those children, and they’re all I have left of my dead brother. Nothing could make me abandon them.”
Holmes said, “Admirable sentiments, sir. Has someone been urging you otherwise?”
Mouth wide, Sir Hugh strained for breath. His torso twitched as though he fought to keep his inflating lungs from pressing the tumour. His face darkened to puce. I hurried to the washbasin steaming near the fire. Holmes stood back as I brought the steam and applied damp, warm cloths to loosen his chest. When Sir Hugh’s face faded to pink, Holmes said, “There’s speculation that you have a child in some other quarter.”
Sir Hugh growled, “People gossip when there isn’t a direct line. I inherited from my uncle, sir. I expect these children to do the same.”
“Please be frank, Sir Hugh. I must have the truth. Have you a son?”
Sir Hugh shook his head sharply.
“Has there been talk of adoption?”
I thought Holmes must mean the practice by which a childless man adopts a poor relative, bringing the young man up in his household under his name. But Sir Hugh closed his eyes. He whispered, “My wife, sir. You must understand. My wife is bitterly disappointed. But if I were to adopt, it might jeopardize Aubrey and Kate’s position, and I can’t allow that.”
I heard a muffled knock, and the outer door opened. Holmes watched Sir Hugh intently, as if reading a story in the lines of his pain-wracked face. What utter control that man possessed, to speak so rationally in the midst of agony. The inner door opened, and Aubrey stepped in, followed by a slight young man whose fine bones took strength from the resolution in his face. His wispy auburn hair hung round his head in a cloud of curls held back by a ribbon at the nape.
Sir Hugh looked straight at my friend and said, “I’m a dying man, Mr Holmes. I must entrust you with the lives of those I love. Please find a way to do right by them.” His glance fell on each of the boys.
“I’ll do everything in my power.”
Sir Hugh whispered, “You’re a discerning man. It won’t take you long to understand. But when you do – please don’t reveal the secret. That is another’s choice to make.”
Holmes bowed to him deeply.
Aubrey took his uncle’s hand. His companion, the skinny, ethereal youth I assumed was Edmund, drifted to the foot of the bed, where he watched the dying man with an expression of such love and pity I wondered that he, too, was not at Sir Hugh’s side. His big green eyes gleamed, yet no tears fell. He stood steadfast and solitary, his hands clasped before him as if they would not move until Sir Hugh gave them orders.
Aubrey said breathlessly, “I’m here, Uncle. I’ve brought Edmund. He was overseeing the estate, as you asked him.”
“That’s fine, Aubrey, fine. You are both good boys. I wonder sometimes – whether I did right by keeping you here. You should have gone off to school like Edmund.”
Aubrey said forcefully, “We’ve had the best education we could wish for, here by your side! Your library alone, Uncle – there’s more to learn here than shut up in university walls!”
Sir Hugh struggled with shallow breaths, watching his nephew closely. “But is it enough? Can you fi nd happiness here, with such limited horizons?” His brow furrowed.
“Yes, Uncle! If only I could tell you –”
They’d left the doors open. A dark shape slid between us and the window, and Lady Hilda stood at the foot of the bed with Edmund. She scowled at Holmes and Aubrey, the glare sharpening her delicate features and flashing green eyes. She looked like a furious bee. But her voice was gentle when she spoke to Sir Hugh. “That’s enough visiting for now, Hugh. You need your rest. Have you any orders for Edmund before we go?”
His voice drifted like a ghost. “No.”
She hustled us out, a tiny hand each on the shoulders of Edmund and Aubrey. Next to Lady Hilda, the secretary looked a full-grown man. Sir Hugh’s voice wavered behind us, “I want you to help these men however you can!”
In the antechamber, Lady Hilda said, “You must understand, Mr Holmes. His health is so delicate. I know it’s selfish to want him to continue when he’s in such pain, but we can’t – even a few hours –” She drew a shaky breath. “You’ll come back, won’t you? In the morning, perhaps.”
“Certainly, madam. I know the vigil must be exhausting. It must be a great strain to watch your husband suffering so, and keep up your spirits for his sake. I understand he was something of a writer himself, particularly in his younger days?”
Her face lit up. Forty hadn’t touched her auburn hair, though the worry-lines in her face said she was older. Her slim, graceful nose and delicate mouth were beautiful, but worry and grief had been scraping her cheeks from within. “Yes, he had a slim volume printed – a beautiful fable. The critics said it was too serious for children and too frivolous for adults.”
“I understand your niece and nephew are quite talented. Have they ever asked your opinion on their drafts?”
Her face shifted subtly. That shadow might have been exhaustion.
Holmes smiled and waved toward me. “Watson, here – when we’re home, he reads me his day’s labours, and when a case separates us, he copies out portions of the manuscript and sends them to me by post. Do you know who might have commented on Aubrey and Kate’s work?”
Her eyes narrowed. She said brusquely, “I need to get back in to him.”
“One more question, madam. Family history is a hobby of mine. I always make a point of getting the basic facts about the lineage of the halls I visit for my scrapbook. Perhaps you could point me to some documents in the library that would help me while away a few hours?”
“Ask Mr Percivale,” she said. “I haven’t time for such things.”
Holmes clapped a hand to his head. “Dear me! I almost forgot. We meant to autograph something for Sir Hugh – clippings of the fictional and journalistic accounts of one of our cases – I have them here somewhere –” Holmes fumbled in his pocket. Papers spilled out, notes and letters and the aforementioned clippings scattering over the floor. Near the top I recognized a sample poem Aubrey had given Holmes, untitled, unsigned.
She moved slowly, as if she recognized the ruse; but training is strong, and she knelt to help him gather the pages. For a moment, as she bent over, I caught the gleam of a pendant dangling from within her petticoats, its porcelain surface marked by heraldic paint. As she straightened, she tucked it quickly out of sight. Aubrey’s poem sat on top of the stack she handed Holmes. Three wet spots glistened on the page.
She said, “I can’t help you, Mr Holmes.” The inner door closed softly behind her.
We stepped into the hall. Holmes folded the papers and arranged them in his pocket. He mused, “There was something disingenuous about her tears.”
“Really, Holmes! Allow the woman her grief!”
“She saw the poem, Watson. There was recognition in her eyes. Yet she didn’t ask what I was doing with it. She clearly has something to hide.”
“And she just as clearly loves her husband. I don’t think a woman who feels that way would set about ruining his final hours.”
“Tut tut, Watson. Your outrage does you credit. But I warrant we’ll see the truth before another day is out. Time draws short for Sir Hugh. Our thief will have to act.”
Edmund and Aubrey stood up the hall, heads close as they confabulated. They glanced up with anxious eyes we approached. “Is everything well, Mr Holmes?” Edmund asked.
“Not yet, Mr Percivale. But we’ll do what we can. Is there somewhere we might talk?”
The young man led us back toward Sir Hugh’s study, then opened a door just beyond it. He walked toward the desk, then paused to put on a pair of spectacles. When he turned, the window at his back, his rusty hair floated like dust in the light. The gold-rimmed specs made his green eyes larger and more luminous. “Sir Hugh asked me to help. I’ll tell you everything I know,” he said softly. Aubrey frowned at Edmund.
Holmes said abruptly, “Please leave us now, Mr Syms-Caton.”
“Mr Holmes, there are questions I might –”
“Go, if you have any desire for us to solve this case.”
I watched with interest as Aubrey’s shoulders sank and he slunk out of the room.
Edmund visibly relaxed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I imagine this has something to do with the letters, doesn’t it?”
Holmes said smoothly, “What do you have to tell us?”
Edmund said, “I know a lot of what goes on around here. I have to, especially with Sir Hugh so sick. I know that Kate and Aubrey are dreadfully worried about something. They’re the ones who called you in, aren’t they?”
Holmes inclined his head.
“Well, what could it be, except the letters? I’ve been carrying them back and forth for two years. I’ve told no one. But I’m not the only one who knows. One evening I had to wait to go out. The rain was so thick I couldn’t see, and I didn’t want to risk the lightning. I put the letter in my room and was reading in the library. When it got late without the rain letting up, I went to bed. Lady Hilda was waiting in my room. She had the letter open on her knee. She must have noticed Aubrey and me exchanging them and got curious. She asked me to explain myself. When I stood mute, she said, ‘You’ll tell me or lose your place. How long has this been going on?’ The way she looked at me – I guess she recognized Aubrey’s handwriting and thought the letter was meant for me. Aubrey never addresses or signs those letters. Sometimes he lets me read them –” Edmund looked down at a stack of papers. “He’s asked my advice about the poems a few times. They’re really good – I would have been honoured if Kate had written them, and they were mine. But I was happy to cover for him, Mr Holmes. It lifted my heart to see two people so in love. You can imagine what it means to me. I lived so much of my life without anyone to care, until I entered Sir Hugh’s employ and gained the approval of the fi nest man on earth.” He looked up at Holmes and sighed. “Lady Hilda threatened to tell Sir Hugh, who’s as close to a father as I ever had. I didn’t tell her who it was, but I told her enough to convince her the letter was meant for someone else. She’s never mentioned it again. She’s even been kind to me, in her way.”
Holmes said, “You speak of Sir Hugh as a father. Have you ever wondered if that might be true?”
“You’re talking about the rumour? I admit, I had my hopes. From the time I was twelve, I had a mysterious benefactor. As soon as my education was complete, Sir Hugh asked me to work for him. From his interest in me and some of the things he said, I was convinced he’d been the one to support me all those years, though he’s never admitted it. He’s always been affectionate toward me – he treats me almost like a member of the family. When I heard the rumour, I couldn’t help but wonder.”
“You realize,” Holmes said gently, “that he doesn’t have a son.”
“I knew it,” he said simply.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“I know he cares about me. I feel as much his protégé as his secretary. I love the man. The rest doesn’t matter. Sir Hugh saw something of value in me and nurtured it. He had confidence in me.” He met our eyes frankly. “Let me be clear, gentlemen. He has given me all I need to stand tall in this life. I’ll serve him faithfully until the end, and after that I’ll live up to his memory as best I can. But to know he’s not my biological father – it doesn’t change anything. It just confirms that the mutual respect we share is by choice, not blood.”
“Yet there seems to be a mystery about you still, Edmund Percivale.”
The small man shrugged. “Life’s a mystery. I don’t mind.”
The rest of that afternoon and early evening we prowled the great house, unlocking doors, tracing hidden passageways, and mapping communicating rooms, such as Edmund Percivale’s office and Sir Hugh’s study, whose access was natural for employer and employee. We questioned the rest of the household, including Sir Hugh’s nurses, and pinned down schedules and locations for everyone, even Aubrey and Kate. Most people were anxious to help. Their worry made it clear how much they cared about Sir Hugh. Forrester returned at six o’clock. He collected Aubrey and Kate and took us out to the back garden. His mouth was a firm line beneath the trim moustache, his expression one of careful neutrality as he reached into his pocket. “This was on the tray when I entered the hall.”
Aubrey took the envelope. With Kate leaning over one shoulder, he read aloud, “You’ve failed your uncle and yourselves. Your presence here cannot be tolerated. Say farewell by this time tomorrow or Sir Hugh shall know the truth.”
Aubrey passed the letter to Holmes. “What are we going to do?”
“Holmes,” I ventured, “perhaps it would be best if one of us stayed tonight. I could keep an eye out for the thief, watch for further notes –”
“There won’t be any further notes, Watson,” Holmes said.
“Whoever wrote that is eager for the battle to commence. This is a shot across the bow.”
“But, Holmes! If that’s the case, you and I should be on hand, ready to defend –”
“Calm yourself, Watson. We’ll be where we need to be when the time comes. In the meantime, it would be extremely rude to refuse Mrs Forrester’s hospitality at the last minute.”
Holmes stood, taking up his walking stick. Forrester parted from Aubrey and Kate with an extra word of caution. Sir Hugh’s brougham carried us quickly down the hill and through the wood, around the bend to a cottage near the village road. At the door stood a woman in blue gingham, a crocheted kerchief covering grey hair. I recognized her as the nurse who’d assisted Lady Hilda with the bedding.
“Good evening Doctor, Mr Holmes,” she greeted us. She packed us into a warm dining room, cramped but bright, its pastel green walls loaded with shelves of keepsakes. Our hostess served a hearty meal with cajoling good humour, saying, “As soon as I heard that the famous Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were coming, I’d hear nothing but that you stay with us!” The homey way she bustled over our meal reminded me of Mrs Hudson, but there was a sharp gleam in her eyes beneath the country warmth. She waved aside my praise of the beefsteak and kidney pie; she hushed my accolades for her cinnamon apples. In retaliation, Forrester described how much she did up at the manor. When she’d lost her husband, she’d started as nursemaid for the young Syms-Catons, then continued as a general companion and help to Lady Hilda.
Thinking to please her, I said, “Your son seems quite the favourite at Leidstone Manor.”
After an evening of smiles, her acerbic tone surprised me. “He’s fraternizing with his betters, and that never led to any good.”
When she retired, Holmes retrieved his briar pipe and we moved into the parlour. Forrester lit the lamps and built up the fire against September’s chill. From the mantelpiece, he pulled down a battered wooden ship’s case that held two gin bottles. He poured for three.
“She’s been a good mother,” he said. “She always stood by me, always found a way to keep us afloat, and never complained. Did you know my father shipped under Aubrey’s? James Forrester was third mate to Captain Robert Syms-Caton, Sir Hugh’s younger brother – my namesake. When the ship went down, Sir Hugh offered my mother a position so we could keep the cottage. He even let her bring me along to play with Aubrey and Kate.”
Holmes sat with his back to the fire, his shadowed face further obscured by steepled fingers. “How long have you and Aubrey been lovers?”
Forrester started. “How did you –”
I exclaimed, “I thought it was Edmund! That talk of a third party seemed contrived.”
Holmes waved his hand impatiently. “Aubrey leads a fairly secluded life. You’re among his few friends. He’s very concerned with preserving his lover’s reputation, and the threat to your career is greater. But most telling is the care you take to appear disinterested toward him, even though you’re close to the family. Your eyes seek him when you think no one’s looking.”
Forrester leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “I knew you’d understand. Your adamant bachelorhood – your views on women – it struck me, sir, that in addition to your prodigious talents, you’d be sympathetic to our cause.” He settled back with a sigh. “To answer your question, we were like brothers as boys, despite the difference in station and the four years between us. Once I entered police training, I had little time, and we seldom saw each other. But when I made inspector, Sir Hugh invited me up to the manor to celebrate. Suddenly things were different. It’s as though we’ve loved each other all our lives, but only realized it two years ago.”
“It must be difficult to keep the secret. Particularly when neither of you lives alone.”
Forrester smiled. “Oh, we find ways to meet. And our letters are safe enough.” He spoke softly into the crackling fire. “Edmund has been a godsend to just about everyone in that house. He dotes on Sir Hugh, and he’s been a good friend to Aubrey and Kate. And to me.”
Holmes said, “Have you ever known any of your mail to go astray?”
A startled look touched his face, before his features hardened behind the moustache. “Only once, for a few hours. The letter appeared early the next morning.”
“Was it raining? Mr Percivale mentioned a night he couldn’t get through.”
“No. I don’t expect letters in foul weather.”
Holmes sat quietly and waited. I watched the inspector’s face change in the flickering light. Several times his glance strayed toward the stairs. At last Forrester said, “I’m all she has left, and I’m away so much of the time with my duties. I joined the police as soon as I qualified. She’s had to do it all herself.”
It must be hard for any man to speak against his mother, particularly when she’s been his sole support. I said, “One letter. That’s not so much to weigh against a lifetime of sacrifice.” Holmes said ironically, “One letter has been enough to break empires.”
Forrester said heavily, “That’s all right. I took my lesson when we met before, Mr Holmes. One note, treacherously written by father and son. Enough to cost a man his life. But my mother thinks Edmund Percivale wrote those letters, if she thinks of them at all.” When Holmes said nothing, Forrester continued angrily, “Very well. Even if it’s as you say, she might disapprove, but she’s not going to publicize my – oddity.” His mouth twisted. “Can you imagine?
She’s worked her whole life to get me here.” He gestured toward the uniform coat hanging by the door with its inspector’s pips. “Besides, even granting she knows it’s Aubrey – what interest does she have in advancing Sir Hugh’s mythical son?”
“True,” Holmes conceded, but there was that gleam in his eye.
“Well, I’m all in,” I declared. “If you wouldn’t mind lighting the way up to my room?”
“I’m afraid it’s Mr Holmes’s room, too. It’s a small house.”
Holmes observed, “I’m sorry to oust you from your bed, Forrester.”
He shrugged. “I’ve plenty of blankets, and the fire’s warm enough.”
The room was comfortable, but small. We sat side by side on the bed to remove shoes and socks. Stripped to union suits and wrapped in blankets, we discussed the case while my mind ran along another track. Down by the fire, Forrester had made an assumption that Holmes did not refute. Of course, Holmes did not always take pains to correct people, smiling to himself while they led themselves toward a confession. But I’d wondered myself. The concept of two men throwing their lots together was not a novel one for me. In army service, far from home and family, I’d seen men forge bonds far stronger than the marriage bed. Once back in the confines of civilization, their position was much more difficult. I murmured, “Society certainly has given them a heavy burden to bear.”
Beside me, Holmes sighed.
Darkness makes some things easier. But this was still dangerous territory. Despite his ability to charm women, Holmes referred to them as my department, praise I’d been content to live up to. Combined with this, my defence of women in response to his outrageous criticisms might have led him to the wrong conclusion. Life with Holmes precluded all other relationships. We were a duo, inseparable in deed and the public mind. Our brotherhood had been a sweetness to me in the wilderness of London, to which I’d returned an orphan and a stranger. His friendship was dear to me beyond all others, but was I prepared to go through life otherwise alone? Holmes had done so, up till now. Thinking of the solitary violinist, I realized that facing such loneliness night after night must take the greatest kind of courage. I said, “A lesser man might have given in and married for companionship, or form. A good marriage is so often necessary to advancement, in any circle. And his mother no doubt wants grandchildren, since he’s her only heir.”
Holmes said nothing. Perhaps he read no farther than my commentary on the case. It was his job to gather clues and make deductions; I surmised the emotional framework for the principal actors. Holmes’s decisions sometimes derived from my commentary, though he seldom acknowledged the debt. This silence seemed endemic to his nature, beyond his ability to overcome. A life companion would simply make peace with this and leave Holmes his privacy.
My heart beat fast for what I might lose. I tempered my sentiments at the last. “I’d never think less of a friend who walked such a hard path. I’d only admire him more.”
He didn’t answer.
“Well, good night, old fellow,” I said at last, and rolled over to face the wall.
My troubled sleep broke not with dawn but with Holmes’s hand on my shoulder and his familiar whisper, “Quickly, Watson!” I struggled to clear my brain, but already I was dressing swiftly. We crept down the dark stairs by the fire’s banked glow, then hastened after the gleam of a lantern in the woods. The moon dappled a narrow path, broken and indistinct, the occasional stone visible through fallen leaves. We stayed well back, hesitant lest the unfamiliar ground betray us.
At this distance, it was hard to distinguish the cloaked figure. Had Mrs Forrester hidden the manuscripts in the wood? I caught my breath as I glimpsed a structure ahead, half-hidden in the trees. The lantern disappeared. Drawing close, we found a faint glow through the ground-level windows of a decrepit house that might once have been a summer retreat. The path ended at its door – a gaping hole jagged with roof timbers. On either side, the forest pressed so close there was no passing the sagging frame.
Soft voices floated up, just loud enough to recognize as men. No matter how we crouched, the windows revealed only the flickering light upon the farther wall. The occupants must have positioned themselves cleverly under the windows. Then the moans began, and I started back with a burning face.
Holmes laid a hand on my arm, halting me before I made some inadvertent noise. Carefully, we edged away. The sound of youthful laughter rose from that dank cellar. I shivered. Holmes led me back to the house. We remained silent up to the room. Mrs Forrester had opened her door a crack, no doubt to catch what heat remained from the main chimney as the house grew colder. We did the same, and I lay staring into the darkness under sheets grown cold with our absence. I woke with the sun in my face and Holmes already out on the prowl.
After I finished breakfast, I walked up the winding lane to Leidstone Manor. I found Holmes in the library, Burke’s open on the table as he perused handwritten records of family genealogy. Near lunchtime, Edmund found us there. One look at his face, and I grabbed my doctor’s bag. We hurried to Sir Hugh’s side. There we found at last what we’d been looking for. Scattered about the bed and floor lay sheets covered with handwriting. One poem was crumpled in Sir Hugh’s hand as he shook, his eyes clenched tight. Tears trickled down his face and he groaned terribly, as if the knowledge had finally shattered the self-control that had held him together for so long.
While I hurried to do what I could, Holmes bent and retrieved a torn brown wrapper from under the bed. “Postmarked in Reigate. No return address,” he muttered, while I soothed the fevered man. Edmund must have gone for Kate next. She rushed in, knelt beside Sir Hugh, and held his hand. His breathing caught, so laboured it seemed impossible to continue. They whispered to each other. At last he croaked, “Where’s Aubrey, my dear? Is my boy coming to see me?”
“Yes, Uncle dear,” she said, laying her cheek on his hand and closing her eyes.
Lady Hilda rushed into the room, accompanied by Sir Hugh’s regular doctor. “Please leave,” she said to us, her eyes hard. Holmes and I gathered up the pages while she stared as though she detested us. But she made no move to stop us. Too many people rushed in and out, bringing hot water, bandages, brandy, ointments, wood for the fi re, and a hundred other useless things. From the hall, we heard Lady Hilda scream above the clamour, “He knows his uncle is dying, and it’s his choice to go gallivanting! That coward can’t even face him and apologize! If he ever does show up, you can tell your worthless brother to stay out!”
Kate ran out, tears streaming down her face. Holmes handed her the manuscripts. “Put these somewhere safe this time,” he said quietly. I wondered at his lack of tact, but the task seemed to steady her. She nodded, gulping down her tears, and hurried up the stairs. Edmund emerged from Sir Hugh’s rooms as Kate disappeared, his face pinched as he watched her go. “What can I do?” he muttered distractedly. “Lady Hilda wants me to stay with him, but Kate –”
“He’s asking for her brother. Help us look,” Holmes said.
We hunted high and low. Kate rejoined us and we prowled the passages, opening hidden doors and calling through cellars and gardens. Kate got more panicked by the minute, until Edmund volunteered to go to Forrester’s. We returned to the hall, and Kate sat with her uncle while Holmes and I conducted a different search – one that supposed the young man might be incapable of answering us.
We met Forrester outside Sir Hugh’s bedroom. Kate took one look at him and blanched. “Isn’t Aubrey with you? Uncle’s calling for him – he could die any minute!” She thrust a fist in her mouth, but the keening poured out anyway, higher and louder until Forrester gripped her shoulders. “Pull yourself together, there’s a brave girl.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find him.”
Edmund muttered, “I don’t suppose he’s out looking for you? Your mother brought him a note this morning.”
I saw it – the moment when the spark caught in Holmes’s eyes.
“I’ve been a fool, Watson!” He turned to Forrester. “What about that summer house? Is there a way in from this side of the wood?”
A dawning horror spread through Forrester’s brown eyes. He left the house at a run. Holmes ordered Kate and Edmund to stay with Sir Hugh.
We dodged through the woods, following a broken trail whose few discernible stones looked like the white flags we’d seen last night. We twisted among thick trees and slipped down steps cut into the hillside. We stopped at a retaining wall that blocked off a stone ditch, holding the hill back from the ruined house.
We dropped quietly into the ditch. A faint moan drifted through the broken wall. I peered through the gap. Inside the cellar, a woman spat on a prone figure. Amid the blood and dirt, I almost failed to recognize his golden curls.
As I crouched beside the hole in the wall, my hand knocked loose a fragment of masonry. In the dim interior, Mrs Forrester frowned and raised a pocket revolver. “Dr Watson. Why aren’t you up at the house with Sir Hugh?”
Forrester stood facing me, hidden on the other side of the gap.
Behind me, Holmes’s breath was soft upon my neck.
She already had me dead to rights, and Aubrey needed help. My right arm was hidden behind the gap, but she could shoot me before I’d cleared the wall to fi re. I lifted one finger from the wall and curled it, pointing toward my hip. Holmes gently pulled the revolver from my pocket. I edged into the room, my hands in the air, the doctor’s bag hanging from the thumb of my open palm. “Let me have a look at him, Mrs Forrester. He’s hurt.”
“I know that,” she snapped, the gun following me. “Stand clear, Doctor.”
“Let me help Aubrey. Please. His uncle is asking for him, and there isn’t much time.”
“No! This poof stays right where he is! I haven’t decided what to do with him yet.” She kicked his side. Aubrey grunted breathlessly, as if there wasn’t much left in him. In that moment of distraction, I hurled my bag at her face. She reached up instinctively and I ducked low, tackling her.
We went down. Behind me, Forrester howled, “Mother!” In the scuffle, a shot rang out, and the building groaned above us. Plaster rained down and the ceiling rippled, as though that small missile had been the breath that knocked a house of cards. As I reached for the gun, she brought it down on my head. Through the ringing in my ears, I heard a familiar roar – my old service revolver, followed by more hail from the ceiling and an ominous series of cracks and groans. Holmes’s voice rang cold and clear: “I would advise you to drop the revolver, Mrs Forrester.”
Mrs Forrester cried out in indignation as her son battered her hand against the fl oor until she dropped the gun. She punched and bit as he strove to pin her arms. It took both of us to get his Hiatt cuffs on her. By then the old house crashed like the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. A timber vaulted to the floor and I looked around wildly. Holmes had Aubrey’s head in his lap, wrapping his handkerchief around it.
“I’ve got her,” Forrester grunted. “See to Aubrey.”
I joined Holmes. Aubrey’s eyes fluttered. I checked him over quickly. The head wound was the worst, but he had a broken arm and a few cracked ribs as well. Behind us, a desk dropped through the ceiling, its heavy crash shooting splinters. Holmes and I carried Aubrey while Forrester wrestled his mother out into the ditch.
Holmes scaled the wall and helped lift Aubrey onto the grass, then did the same for Meg Forrester, holding her grimly by the arms while she writhed and tried to knock him into the ditch. Forrester and I climbed out and reclaimed our charges. The three of us navigated the steep stone steps up the hillside. We paused to look back as the roar rose to a crescendo with the thunder of weakened walls following the floor and pulling down more roof. At last the house settled into itself with a clatter and cloud of dust.
Forrester bent over Aubrey. Tears tracked his stern face. He groaned, “Mother, what have you done?”
She said, “I can’t believe I ever felt sorry for him – an orphan! You were as straight and true as your father until Aubrey Syms-Caton got his hands on you! I knew something was wrong when you’d say, ‘It’s late, Mother, why don’t you go to bed?’ – but it was half the night before you came upstairs, and you with work in the morning!”
Tears wet her rugged cheeks as she stood over Forrester’s bent form. “You were all I had, boy! Everything! My hope and joy, the only remnant left of your father! If you don’t have children, I’ll lose you both!”
Holmes said, “That was a handy revolver, Mrs Forrester. Belgian, if I’m not mistaken.”
She turned to him with pride, despite his tight grip on her arm. “My husband bought that for me on one of his voyages.” Her voice quavered. “He wanted me to be able to protect our family while he was gone.”
Forrester took Aubrey’s shoulders now, and Holmes propelled Mrs Forrester up the lane. “So you lured Aubrey here with a forged note.”
“I’ve saved every message my boy ever wrote me. The look of his writing has been graven on my heart since he was a little lad.”
“You timed your ruse perfectly.”
“With all the commotion up at the hall, I thought no one would miss him! Not till I’d done with him.”
Forrester said heavily, “What did you intend to do with him?” His deep voice sounded so tired.
She said evasively, “Once I’d captured him, there were endless possibilities. He’d poisoned my only son and broken my heart in that place. I fi gured if he met his end there, it would have been what he’d call ‘poetic justice,’” she finished with heavy sarcasm. Holmes said, “When did you mail the packet, Mrs Forrester?”
“As soon as I left yesterday afternoon – when you arrived! We knew time was short with Sir Hugh, and we couldn’t keep the papers at the hall, with you prowling around. I wanted to keep my eye on you, but that meant they weren’t safe at home either. What better place than Sir Hugh’s lap!”
“So you never intended to let the young Syms-Catons follow your instructions.”
She snorted and turned her head. “That wasn’t my idea.”
“Who is your confederate? It may go easier if you tell us now,” Holmes urged.
She laughed scornfully. “When I finally read one of those letters Bob’s always getting, I thought Edmund Percivale was behind it.
I confronted Lady Hilda and demanded she dismiss him for corrupting my boy. She wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted proof. When I showed her the letter, she recognized Aubrey’s handwriting. I told her she had to send him away or I’d tell Sir Hugh. Naturally she didn’t want anyone disturbing her husband in his precarious state. It was her idea to steal the manuscripts and type those notes. She had plenty of opportunities while Aubrey and Kate sat with their uncle. She said they’d do anything for love of him, and we’d both be satisfied. But that very night – even before you got here, Mr Holmes – Aubrey was seducing my boy, while his uncle lay at death’s door. Even the loss of his precious poems didn’t stop him. I knew then that no matter what Lady Hilda said, he’d never leave.”
When we reached the hall, Forrester sent one of Sir Hugh’s grooms to the police station for offi cers and a wagon. While I revived Aubrey and cleaned him up, explaining the situation, Forrester locked his mother in the pantry with a footman to guard the door. On the second floor, we propped Aubrey in one of his uncle’s Bath chairs. Forrester wheeled him into the inner chamber past a procession of local families, villagers, and servants who’d come to express their fondness for Sir Hugh. Lady Hilda must have sent out word soon after he collapsed. Sir Hugh gasped for breath, sometimes managing to murmur their names or squeeze their hands, sometimes simply acknowledging their sentiments with his eyes.
They parted for Aubrey. Tears stood on Sir Hugh’s cheeks as Forrester wheeled him to the bed. Aubrey bowed over his uncle’s hand. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Uncle. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. I never meant to deceive you, but I didn’t think you’d understand. I’ve been so worried it would do you more harm than good–” His voice broke. Sir Hugh reached out one trembling, featherweight hand to touch his hair, light as a leaf, his blessing. I caught my breath. Sir Hugh’s trembling lips formed the words, “I love you, son.” His eyes moved from Aubrey to Forrester. “Take care of my boy,” he whispered. Lady Hilda had been standing at the foot of the bed with her hand on Edmund’s shoulder. “My darling, won’t you please consider Edmund’s future, before it’s too late?”
Sir Hugh sent a faint smile to Kate where she stood by Edmund’s side. Out of sight of Lady Hilda, they were holding hands. Sir Hugh murmured, “I think Kate has something to say about that, don’t you, Katie?” Kate blushed, and the quick glance she exchanged with Edmund showed they’d been fond of each other for some time. When at last Lady Hilda stepped out of the room, Holmes took her aside. “Your grandmother’s name was Percivale, was it not? Pray, don’t deny it. I recognized the arms on your pendant, and it’s quite clear in the family files.”
She nodded stiffly, her hands knotting in front of her.
Holmes said, “I’m not here to expose your connection. I promised
Sir Hugh I wouldn’t even tell Edmund. He said there was only one person who had the right to divulge that secret, and I agree. However, I advise that you do so quickly, before he loses his chance to talk to Sir Hugh without any confusion about his parentage. He looks up to your husband as to a father. I believe it would mean a lot to him to know where he stands.”
Under the strain, she looked ill and old. “Hugh wouldn’t adopt my boy unless I told, and I didn’t want him to be ashamed of me. I thought adoption would provide us a new beginning – a chance to have a valid family connection without ever having to admit my sin. But Hugh feared it would displace his brother’s children,” she finished with a trace of bitterness.
“You must forget that now. Some things are more important than pride.”
She nodded quickly, as if afraid her resolution would run away from her if she didn’t act at once. We watched as she told Edmund. Hope rose up through his face like the sun. As he listened, he unconsciously straightened. Then he rushed back in to Sir Hugh, his face glowing.
We stayed for the funeral. In the end, Aubrey and Kate decided not to press charges against Lady Hilda for the theft. The secret was still more important than punishment. But Forrester had glumly followed justice to the letter with regard to the attempt on Aubrey’s life. He said he had all the more reason to remain staunch to the law, now that his own mother had crossed that unforgivable line. Despite their grief and anger toward one another, he knew his mother wouldn’t divulge her reasons: Mrs Forrester wouldn’t publicly besmirch her son’s name even to hurt Aubrey Syms-Caton.
We were glad to get back to Baker Street and rest. Holmes sighed wearily, leaning back in his armchair. “I’m so utterly sick of secrets, Watson.” He laid his head on the back of the chair and shut his eyes while the calabash smouldered in his hand. I fumbled for the words that might finally air the truth between us. I’m not sure I would have been able to speak if Holmes had his eyes on me in that moment. “Holmes, that night at Forrester’s house – what he thought about you – is it true?”
Without opening his eyes, Holmes said, “Does it matter? I can’t allow love to interfere with the pure science of reason. Having a friend like you is as close as I dare come.”
I knew how much he hated to make a false step. For Holmes to even raise a point, he must already be certain of the answer. I had to be clear. “I’m touched, Holmes. Believe me. Your friendship means more than I can say. But I’m not sure I can live this way forever. I’m the sort of man who needs a companion of the heart, not just the mind.”
“I’ll say this only once, my dear Watson. If there were anyone, it would be you. I’ve never found a better companion. Probably I never shall. But there are barriers that I cannot cross. I must bend my entire self to my will, to maintain absolute control.” In a rare gesture of affection, he touched my hand. “If this were a battlefield, I would give my life for yours. But I do not expect you to give up your life to share the loneliness of mine. Go out into the world, Watson, and find the love you need.”
There was such sadness in his eyes, such intensity. We both knew it, then – soon I would leave, so that we might continue as friends. Already I saw these moments with the painful pinch of something fleeting. In the very moment that I recognized our golden age, I knew that it was over. I told myself I was only setting aside those hopes which might have hampered our accord. Now that we had got such questions out of the way, we could concentrate on our partnership, professional and friendly. But I always wondered what mansions might have waited for us down that hidden lane.
All Lethe Press books, including A Study In Lavender, are available through the major online retailers and booksellers. You can also support the press and authors by buying directly from our website.
Every Thursday, Lethe takes a look through its vaults for its proudest releases. This week it's A Twist Of Grimm by William Holden. Giving an erotica gay twist to familiar fairy tales, A Twist Of Grimm was described as "stimulating masculine reading" by Out In Print. And -- tenuously linked we'll admit - for the holiday season, we're bringing you a story about elves.
Read the story 'Wicked Little Tongues' or listen to the audio version:
Once upon a time there was a talented shoemaker named Aldon who lived with his wife in a small village called Woodshire. In his youth he was well respected for his workmanship. People came from villages far, far away in hopes of obtaining a pair of his shoes. For twenty-odd years, Aldon worked night and day to provide for his wife, but for reasons no one could guess his business began to dwindle. At last he found himself poor, with barely enough food to quell their hunger.
One evening he set to work on another pair of shoes. “This time,” he said to himself, “I shall make a pair of shoes unlike any other.” After many hours, he sagged as sleep shaded his eyes and invaded his mind. With a yawn he decided to wait until morning so that he could be rested and his mind clear.
The next morning, Aldon awoke before the sun had brightened the sky and hurried down to his workshop to resume work on the new pair of shoes. As he sat down upon his stool, still muddled by sleep, he was startled to discover a pair of newly crafted shoes resting on his table.
He took them in his hands to study the craftsmanship. They were perfect, with not one missing stitch. He could smell the thick odor of new leather as something stirred deep inside of him. But he pushed the strange sensation out of his mind, so pleased was he to have a new pair to sell. He did not care where they came from or who might have slipped into his workshop while he slept to create such wonderful shoes. He hurried to open his shop. Before too much time had passed a handsome gentleman of the same age as Aldon came in. The old wooden floors creaked upon his arrival.
“I have heard from the people in my village that you make the finest shoes in all the land.” The gentleman came over to shake Aldon’s hand. His grip was firm and confident. Aldon soon found himself lost in the man’s deep voice. “I am Bartholomew, Lord of Brookshire. Are you the shoemaker?”
“Yes, I am he,” Aldon said absently, before restraining his wandering mind. “My name is Aldon and I have just finished an exquisite pair. Sit here on this bench and let me bring them for you, to see whether or not they fit.”
The lord sat down on the wooden bench at the center of the shop. Aldon placed Lord Bartholomew’s foot upon his leg and began to unlace his old, weary shoe. With the shoe off and set down beside him, Aldon adjusted Bartholomew’s stocking. His foot was large and carried with it a heavy, musky scent. Ordinarily the twenty-odd years Aldon had spent fitting shoes allowed him to accomplish his tasks by rote, but he soon found himself befuddled and a bit unnerved by the presence of this man. He smoothed and caressed Bartholomew’s stocking, enjoying the warmth and feel that the foot offered. Something stirred inside of him, a feeling so strange that he could not begin to unriddle it.
“These are quite impressive.” Lord Bartholomew remarked as the shoe was placed upon his foot. “They feel as if they were made just for me. Please, if you will, place the other one on and I shall carry them out upon my feet.”
Aldon was beside himself with joy as he watched the handsome man disappear through the front door, leaving behind a payment of more money than Aldon had ever earned from his craft. As he prepared to fetch more leather with which he hoped to replicate the wondrous pair, he noticed that his prick was heavy with urge. He slipped his hand beneath his trousers and found himself damp as well.
He ran to his bedroom chamber where his wife still lay asleep. “My dearest wife, I am thick with need.” He undressed himself and fell upon her, giving greedy kisses to her waking mouth. As he entered her, the large damp cavern of her privates did little to satisfy him. He closed his eyes against her willing face and soon his urge regained its strength from memories of Lord Bartholomew. His need soon built to dizzying heights as he let the touch, the smell, and the voice of Bartholomew come to his mind. He busied himself with his wife till both were spent and he fell upon the bed next to her covered in his own sweat.
I do not understand what happened this morning, Aldon thought to himself as he walked to purchase more leather. Surely it was the love and desire for my wife and not that of a man that urged me on. He tried to push the thoughts from his mind and soon, with new leather in hand enough for two pairs, he was feeling more like himself. By the time the gray of the evening turned to darkness, he had finished cutting the leather. Though he wished to finish, he once again surrendered to fatigue. He set his work aside and carried himself off to bed.
He awoke the next morning and hurried back to his workshop. There on his workbench stood a new pair of shoes and a pair of calf-high boots. They were of the same quality and detail as the pair from a day earlier. He opened his shop and before too long a strong and rugged man entered. He wore a loose fitting shirt that reminded Aldon of the stories of pirates he had heard in his youth. The stranger did not wear trousers, as would the gentry. Instead he wore a skirt to just below his knees. On his feet were calf-high leather boots.
“I hear you have the best shoes in all of the lands and I have come to be fitted. My name is Huxley. Are you the shoemaker?” He held out his hand and greeted Aldon with graciousness.
“Yes, I am he. Aldon is my name.” He motioned for Huxley to sit on the wooden bench while he brought over the pair of boots that had just been made as if someone knew Huxley would be arriving. “I venture to say that you will find no fit better than these.” His fingers began to twitch as he slipped his hands around Huxley’s leg. The man’s calf was strong and tightened with his touch. Aldon could feel the coarse hair that covered Huxley’s leg as he reached behind his calf to untie the leather strap. Again the strange longing crept into Aldon’s groin, tightening his furry sack and lengthening his prick. With trembling hands he began to unlace the boot. Once the last lace was undone, he slipped the boot off and noticed there was no stocking covering the foot.
Now Aldon, unfamiliar with such a crude dressing in his customers, wasn’t sure how to react. His eyes slipped down Huxley’s hairy leg as the strange sensation washed over him. He felt a fresh urge about him as his temperature rose. His eyes concentrated on the small dark hairs that lay across the top of Huxley’s feet and toes.
“Is everything proper? I bathed and manicured my feet for the occasion.” Huxley laughed as he raised his leg, flexed his ankle and wiggled his toes.
“Everything is….” Aldon’s words stopped short as his eyes peered under the skirt to discover Huxley’s nakedness. Aldon’s eyes fixed on the sight. His body quivered as he gazed upon Huxley’s prick, which lay in a dark blanket of curly hair. It moved on its own. It began to lengthen as if his eyes were somehow caressing it. Aldon marveled at the shape and size, comparing it to his own much smaller one.
“Is there something you see that you like under my garment?” Huxley grabbed the edge of his skirt and lifted it further up his legs. “Why don’t you get closer?” He reached down and pulled Aldon’s head between his legs.
Aldon could feel the heat of Huxley’s body surround his face. He inhaled and let the woodiness of Huxley groin cover his senses. The meaty prick stirred and drifted across his lips. It left a thin trail of moisture upon his skin that he hesitantly licked off. The taste was sweeter than any honey he had ever enjoyed. An urge unlike anything he had suffered before rushed through his body. He moved in closer and opened his mouth. The heft of Huxley prick slipped in with ease.
To Aldon’s surprise it continued to strengthen in his mouth, filling him. His tongue skirted around the silkiness of the skin, awakening his senses of taste, touch, and scent. He found himself pushing his face further between Huxley’s legs. The rough, curly hair that surrounded Huxley’s prick tickled his nose. He imitated the motions of his wife, motions she had used on him once long ago. His mouth was wet with Huxley’s need. He swallowed, savoring the sweet bitterness it offered.
Aldon reached between his own legs and felt himself. He had never before touched himself for his own pleasure. He untied his trousers. He slipped his hand around his prick. The feel of his own sex drove him to the edge of madness. A heat rushed through him. His body quivered as he released his seed. It splattered across Huxley’s feet. The prick grew again in his mouth. He could feel a pressure deep in his throat before his mouth flooded with Huxley’s warm elixir. So he swallowed all he could, and what little escaped, dripped from the edge of his mouth. Huxley’s sex began to wither. He let it fall from his mouth. Huxley leaned down and kissed him.
Upon Huxley’s departure, Aldon gathered up the new fee and stole from the workshop, wanting nothing more than to be alone with his thoughts. He walked for hours as he wrestled with the pleasures he had learned only that morning. He thought back on the previous two days when these desires first appeared, and soon realized that the fire in his belly began just when the shoes mysteriously appeared in his workshop. With this new knowledge, he ran to the nearest village to purchase more leather and set about his plan for the coming night.
As the evening turned to night, he slipped out of his bed without so much as a muffled noise and crept down to his workshop. The room was dark, but Aldon knew it well. He moved through familiar steps and stowed himself away inside a closet, leaving the door ajar to give him a view of his workbench. He sat quietly and waited.
As the bell tower in the village struck midnight, Aldon heard whispering and the sounds of tiny feet coming from the center of his workshop. The room began to glow with the light of several tiny candles. Aldon’s eyes grew wide in disbelief as he beheld a miraculous sight. Standing on the workbench were two tiny trolls. They were no more than six inches in height. Their faces were almost identical.
Each had small rounded ears and a nose that looked like it had once been pointed, but was now flattened at the tip. They had flowing silver-grey hair that fell to the middle of their backs. They were dressed in blue trousers that strapped over their shoulders. Their strange clothing fascinated Aldon, as he had not seen anything quite like it before.
They looked around the room as if they could sense Aldon’s presence. Then they tugged and pulled on the pieces of leather that had been left out on the table. Aldon was ready to expose himself to them, but stopped as he watched the two trolls begin to undress. Their bodies were covered in a fine white hair that trailed all the way down their tiny legs. Their pricks stood erect and glistened with dampness in the candlelight.
They knelt down upon the thick leather and began fondling their pricks. They watched each other with greedy eyes as they went about pleasuring themselves. The table began to tremble with their furious actions upon it. Aldon heard a whimper floating through the air. Then the noise grew louder. They began to pant like wild animals as they expelled rivers of their clear seed. They fell into puddles of their own release and massaged it into the leather. Aldon had found himself with urge once more and stood to face these two little men.
“I have caught you at last.”
“Yes, you have indeed. But it was not because of your trickery and cunning,” said the first troll.
“No, no indeed. You have seen us this night, because fate has demanded it,” said the second.
“Your words confuse me. What is this fate you speak of? I caught you according to my own plan, because I wanted to understand the cause of these urges in me. Urges for pleasure with other men are not of my own doing because I love my wife with all my heart.” Aldon noted a gasp coming from behind him. He turned to witness his wife, who stood there listening to his confession.
“Is it true what you have uttered from your lips?” she asked. Aldon only blushed. “Your silence has answered my question. Do not come after me, I will leave this house at once.” She turned and as quietly as she had approached she scurried up the stairs.
“You have been untrue to yourself for far too long,” replied the first troll. “These urges you speak of have been with you since birth. You have kept them locked away so that you would not have to face them.”
“It is not possible,” stammered Aldon.
“From where we stand, it looks to be true.” The second troll pointed to the rise in Aldon’s trousers. “We have come a great distance to find you.”
“I am a simple man and do not understand why you would come looking for me.”
“We have learned that there is a most handsome man in the next village. He has lived for years with secret lust and desire in his heart for you, but he lacks the rude boldness required to tell you. We have promised him that we would bring your hearts together so that the two of you might know joy and pleasure.”
“I shall never again join with another man. Huxley was a wicked trick for the two of you to play against me. I wish you to leave my workshop immediately.”
“We hope for your sake that you will have a change in your heart,” continued the second troll, “for if we leave your shop, we also take with us the talents for making the shoes that you have been so blessed to have sold.”
“You scoundrels.” bellowed Aldon.
“We are not the scoundrels you so rashly judge us to be.” The first troll walked to the edge of the workbench. “Scoundrels lie, cheat and steal to get what they want. We have dealt honestly with you from the beginning.”
“It is not in my nature to be as you are asking me to,” pleaded Aldon. “It may be true that I have been feeling strange of late, but only because of tricks played by you.”
“We have given you all we can for now. Go, sleep, and trust yourself that when you awake you will know in your heart what you should do. We shall stay here tonight and wait for your answer in the morning.”
Aldon hesitated. The future he had planned trembled with the news these trolls brought with them. He climbed the stairs without so much as a word and readied himself for bed.
He lay alone for the first time in fifteen years without his wife by his side. As he wrestled with sleep, his mind drifted to the question he hadn’t wanted to contemplate. Who was the man that lusted for him? When sleep did overcome him, his thoughts darkened into tormenting dreams.
He quivered beneath the thin material of the bed linen. His body was heated. Perspiration broke out across his skin. The pleasures of the previous night returned, but more powerful than he had experienced before. He opened his eyes to darkness, as if he were blind. He could not see who or what was causing these feverish moments. At first he wanted to fight it off, to expel from himself the wickedness and evil that had befallen him, but as the moments passed he began to enjoy the tickle, the titillation, the burning urgency that he was now learning. He blamed the trolls and their wicked little tongues for bringing this upon him. He awoke with a start as he reached the brink of his pleasure, showering himself with his own hot seed.
He leapt from the bed without so much as a thought for his nakedness and bounded down the stairs into his workshop. There he found the two little trolls making the finishing touches on four new pairs of shoes. Aldon stood in silence, his drying seed pulling and tugging on the hair that was scattered across his chest.
“Look my little brother,” remarked one troll to the other. “Our Aldon is in quite a state of misfortune.”
“He is indeed,” replied the second. “Perhaps we should have warmed him of our visitor.”
Aldon scanned the room and became flushed with embarrassment as he saw Lord Bartholomew standing in the distance. He grabbed a white rag that had been thrown onto a shelf and covered his nakedness in it.
“My beloved Aldon,” Bartholomew muttered as he walked towards him. “I have waited years to speak to you of what is in my heart. I had hoped for a sign from you the other day when you fitted me for my shoes, but you let me leave without one. There is no need to hide your body from me. Please remove the linen and let me gaze upon the heavenly sight before me.”
Aldon could find no speech. He looked upon Bartholomew with a new set of eyes and new warmth in his heart. He let the dusty rag fall from his body, exposing himself for the first time to another man.
Aldon glanced over to the two trolls who sat on the edge of the workbench. With giddy little smiles across their faces, they whispered wicked little words to each other. His eyes traveled back to Bartholomew who had stopped no more than a foot away from him. He could smell Bartholomew’s scent. His prick stirred with need. His eyes grew brighter as Bartholomew removed his garment and let the heavy material fall against the wooden planks of the floor.
Bartholomew’s body glistened in the dim light. A thin, dark trail of hair began at his navel and carried itself further down his stomach before spreading out and blanketing the thickness of his sex.
Their bodies came together. Prick upon prick, mouth upon mouth. They sank to the floor as each of them explored the other’s body. The trolls extinguished the flames that flickered atop the candles before settling themselves down for the night. In the darkness they could hear the gentle moans and sweet whispers of Aldon and Bartholomew as they acted out the secret pleasures of the wicked little tongues.
Every Thursday, Lethe takes a look through its vaults for its proudest releases. This week it's The Bears of Winter, one of the most recent releases from our Bear Bones Books imprints, edited by Jerry L. Wheeler. Collecting together a set of passionate and romantic stories of bears amidst the cold and snow, this collection is perfect for the winter months, and even better, it's just $10 for the paperback all week at the Lethe website.
Read the story 'The Psychometry of Snow' by 'Nathan Burgoine, or listen to the audio:
Almost everything has a voice.
It’s not what you think. I’ve done my research as much as anyone can. The theories are all right and mostly wrong. There are exceptions, but the joys of life settle far more often than the pain. I’ve touched real history in my travels, and I haven’t heard as many tales of blood and tears as I’d expected.
I have made a life from these voices. It’s an odd one that has forced me to adopt many names to disguise its levels, but it’s mine. I can and do help others understand what those voices say under one of my names, but mostly I use a second name to be a man who digs through random pasts. I have no real specializations, which rankles the academics. They cry I have no way to prove the stories I tell.
“He’s doing pop star history,” the grey-bearded men protest. “It’s entertainment, not archeology.”
Happily, so many lovers of stories enjoy being entertained and don’t care about proof.
My duffel is from World War II, and it’s mostly quiet these days, though the first time I lifted it to my shoulder, I felt the joy of putting it down and spreading my arms to hug a child I’d never even met but could now walk. I set it down just inside the door of my rented cabin and turn around to glance at the falling snow. Unable to help myself, I close the door and step back out into the flurries. I hold out a hand, and small white flecks land on my palm, melting just a second later.
Nothing. I love winter.
I smile and take a deep breath. I haven’t been here in nearly five years, but I love this mountain. It isn’t tall or sloped enough for skiing, but it has two dozen cabins for rental and a beautiful view. People rent the cabins and commute to the ski slopes a half hour away to cut their costs, which means for most of the day I can tell myself the mountain is mine. I rarely venture down to the main buildings, happy enough with the single room, kitchen, small bathroom, and large fireplace.
It’s calm. It’s quiet. No doubt there’ll be voices here, but they won’t be loud and won’t run deep.
I’m about to turn back to head inside when I hear someone come around the path, crunching through the snow.
“You’re not going skiing?”
I turn to the voice. “No, I —”
We break off and stare at each other. He is carrying a tied bundle of firewood in both hands. He wasn’t at the desk when I signed in. If I am honest with myself, I know I would never have missed his eyes, so dark brown his pupils are hard to spot, nor the neatly trimmed red beard he sports, or the way his neck widens into the collar of his coat. Barrel-chested, taller than me, and thick-shouldered, the bearded man is a lug, which is entirely my type. He’s handsome and masculine.
“I know you,” he says, and I’m a little off-balance. No one knows me. I’ve got three names and even if someone knows two of them, they never know the one I was born with. But this time his voice triggers a memory, and I fight off a wave of fear.
“You went to Oneida High, right?” I ask. It has been over a dozen years, and I can’t quite find his name in the gap, especially with the memories so blurred by chemistry.
“F…” He bites off the sound just in time and reddens. I know the name he almost says, and I flinch. How could I have forgotten my fourth name?
He tries again. “Luke, right?”
I feel a little sick. “Yes.”
“I’m Rick Barritt. You lived on the street behind me, I think.”
“You were on the wrestling team,” I say, remembering now. “And football with my brother, Alex?”
He nods, and a smile cuts through his short, neat beard. Despite the sickness in my stomach, I smile back. Another time, another place, and I would be happy to see him smile at me like that. But he knows me as someone I’d rather not have been.
Still, he’s definitely grown into his height.
“What brings you way out here?” he asks.
“Vacation. I came here once for work, and I kind of fell in love with the place.” It’s not entirely a lie, though I’m not sure I can really call it “work” since I didn’t ask for money. I never do when what I find is a body instead of a reunion. I pause. “You?”
“My aunt and uncle own the cabins. I’ve been working with them for two or three years now.” He puts down the load of firewood just beside the front door of my small rented cabin in a wedged-off area obviously designed to hold the logs. “I’m just bringing you wood.”
I try to fight off a snicker, and fail. He frowns. He has great eyebrows, thick and masculine, just like the rest of him, and I see the moment he realizes what he’s said. He smiles and shakes his head, rubbing his gloves along his jeans.
When he straightens, he doesn’t leave. “It’s been a long time. How is Alex?”
“He’s good,” I say. “Married, three kids, all girls. He’s a good dad.”
“And you? You’re doing well?”
I know what he’s really asking. I force a smile. “Don’t worry. I’m not crazy any more.”
He winces. “I didn’t mean …”
I shake my head. “It’s okay. Really. I remember, believe me.”
Rick Barritt regards me for a couple of seconds, like he wants to say more, then apparently decides against it. “Well. If you need anything else, you can call the front desk. If you’re not going to ski, there’s some great snowshoeing on the tree line.”
“I know,” I say. “Maybe I’ll try that tomorrow. It was a long flight.”
Rick nods again, then starts down the shoveled path back to the main buildings. I reopen my cabin door and am about to head inside when he speaks again.
I look up.
“You weren’t crazy.” It’s nice of him to say.
I nod once, then go inside.
It doesn’t take much to bring back thoughts of the time before I had a grip on what was happening. Words and memories chase themselves around in my head for hours before I go to sleep, and even in my dreams I am uncomfortable. Synaesthesia. Hallucinations. Schizophrenia. MRI. Algolia. Perphenazine. Clopamine. Institutionalization.
I’m walking through a street in a hometown I haven’t seen in years, and I’ve already lost my jacket and my shirt. I’m leading myself toward the stone of the statue in front of the courthouse. Words and voices and memories drill into my thoughts when I think about that statue, and it makes some of the other noises in my skull back off for a while. I close my eyes, and consider kissing the statue when I get there, but it’s taller than I am.
Instead, I decide to take off my pants.
I wake up with my hands closed tight and pressed to my chest, fingers aching from the effort of holding them closed. The sun isn’t up, but I know better than to try and get to sleep. I am three hours ahead of the day now and will be chasing the real hours for a day or two until my body catches up.
It’s chilly enough that I spend some time resuscitating the fire from the night before, and then fill the kettle with water and put it on the small stove to boil. I make a whole pot of tea and enjoy my first cup just watching the fire. There’s a striped hand-knitted blanket on the back of the small couch, and I smile when I tug it over my shoulders. Rick’s aunt made it, a way to use up old stashes of wool and add a homey touch to the cabin. Knitting it reminded her of her grandmother, I think, but I don’t press any further, and the blanket falls silent again.
The tea, the cabin, the fire. It’s exactly what I want. I take a deep breath and relax in a way I normally can’t. I’ll make breakfast in a bit, from the bits I brought with me and stuffed into the fridge yesterday without sorting. And I decide that when the sun does come up, I’ll head down to the main building and see about some snowshoes.
The older man at the counter comes out to meet me as I approach.
“You must be Luke,” he says, offering his hand.
I flinch. “Yes.” I’m not used to being recognized. Recognition has never been good.
“I’m Hal. Rick told us about you,” the man says, and I force myself to remain smiling as I shake his hand. I’m pretty sure Rick hasn’t told him much, given that the man isn’t treating me like I might explode or strip at any moment. Looking at him now, I can see a family resemblance in their stature, though I’m fairly sure that this man has never had ginger hair like his nephew, even before it turned white. He has the same dark eyes, however.
“Ah,” I say, out of my depth. I have to clear my throat. “All good, I hope?”
Hal laughs and nods. “He had a good childhood in Oneida. Before his parents.” The man nods at me like I know something I am pretty sure I don’t know. “Well. Years ago. What can I do for you?”
“I was hoping for some snowshoes,” I say. The snow is still falling lazily outside, and my short trek down had provided me with a gorgeous view of the mountain covered with the pristine whiteness. I am all the more excited about the thought of following the trail now that I’ve seen the snow in the daylight.
Hal agrees. “Perfect morning for it. Go ahead around back, right through there.” He gestures at a door at the far end of the large sitting room through an alcove from where we stand at the front desk. “Rick’s out there now. He’ll get you set up.”
“Thanks,” I say.
I find Rick outside, his wide back to me, looking out over the mountain. He holds a mug of coffee still steaming in the cold morning air. I clear my throat, and he turns. Again, he smiles, and again it feels uncomfortable. Why would he smile at me?
“Good morning,” he says. He isn’t wearing a hat now, and I can see the deep red hair that he’d always worn shaved short is even shorter now and greying a bit at his temples. “How’d you sleep?”
“It’s always hard with the time change,” I say, dodging the truth a bit. I am rusty at conversation. I spend most of my time alone.
“You’re still in Ontario?”
I nod. “I live there.”
“That’s right. You said you came here on work. What do you do?”
I hesitate, and he catches it.
“Sorry,” he says. “If you don’t want to…” He doesn’t finish the sentence.
If I didn’t want to what? Small talk? Discuss my job?
“It’s fine,” I say. “Mostly these days I write. I sort of freelance.” This is such a wild misrepresentation that I can feel my face burning.
But Rick smiles. “That sounds good.” He has the darkest eyes, and the years have drawn their first few lines beside their corners. Smile lines.
“I thought I’d give the snowshoe trail a try this morning,” I say, because this former friend of my brother is looking at me, and I’m enjoying looking at him far too much.
Rick puts down his cup. “That’s a great idea. Do you know the trail?”
I don’t. “Uh,” I say.
Rick smiles. “I’ll show you.”
I’m worried about more discussion, but instead Rick lets me set the pace and keeps the silence I obviously prefer. He walks with me, and we follow the tree line for a good twenty minutes. The slope is just pitched enough in places to make it a bit of a workout, but the view is worth it. Higher up the mountain, the valley suddenly appears around a short curve. I step out of the trees and see a beautiful white world below me, edged in rows of green trees and deep below the palest whites of ice and reflected sky in the river.
“Wow,” I say.
“It’s pretty amazing.”
I nod, not turning when I feel Rick move up beside me. He stretches his back, then points off to the left. “See those falls?”
I squint and raise my hand, trying to see where he is pointing, but I don’t find it. After a few seconds, he moves closer behind me and puts one hand on my shoulder, then points again, turning me slightly. The pressure of his hand, even with my coat and his gloves, is palpable. So is his strength.
“Cold?” he asks me.
“No, I’m okay,” I manage. I catch sight of what he was trying to show me. “Oh! There. You can see some steam or something.”
“It’s a natural spring,” Rick says. “Sometimes the falls freeze solid in the middle of winter, but right now they’re just iced over.” He pulls away, and I shiver again, though I don’t think he notices.
It really is like going back in time. At least out here, surrounded by snow, there are no voices.
“Ready to head back?”
I nod. “Sure.”
He pauses just a second, and the weight of it makes me look at him.
“Would you like to have dinner tonight?” he asks.
He laughs, a little scornfully. “Wow. I guess that’s a no.”
“No,” I say, then realize what that sounds like. “I don’t mean no, I mean…” I close my eyes. “Sorry.” I feel sick and a little dizzy. Thank God we’re alone out here, and thank God there is nothing out here with a voice I can’t ignore. I take a deep breath and look at the big man again. “I’m just not sure why.”
It is his turn to stare. “Why what?”
“Why you’d like to have dinner.”
“I thought we could catch up.”
Now I am even more confused. “Rick, you were friends with my brother.” We both know I mean more than what I am saying.
“Fluke…” he says, and then as fast as he can, he says, “Luke. I’m sorry. Luke.” He bites his lip, and his wide shoulders drop.
There it is: my fourth name. Fluke. An entire missed childhood and young adulthood all in one epithet. One insult. I am surprised to find it doesn’t sting nearly as much as it should.
“I’m ready to head back,” I say.
He leads the way.
If I press against the stone of the statue, I can feel the musculature of the horse being carved from solid rock. If I close my eyes, I can see a woman chipping away in a large empty room. When I rub my lips across the stone, I can even smell the smoke from a cigarette that dangles from the lips of this woman. These noises and feelings and smells are so fucking real, and there is a part of me that is desperately trying to tell me they are not. But pressed skin to stone, my eyes closed, reality is hard to understand.
Tiny pinpricks of cold are landing on my back and shoulders. It’s snowing.
I smile. Snow is always real. Then the smile fades, because real isn’t what I’d like. Real is pills and doctors and time in small closed rooms where I seem to get better just long enough to come back to the world and get worse again.
I hear a car, and I wonder if it’s a real car or not right up until I can see the headlights through my eyelids. I open my eyes, but I don’t turn my head.
Snow falls into my exhalations and melts in midair.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been out on the little porch, but the mug of tea I brought with me isn’t steaming anymore. I’ve been catching snowflakes on my fingertips all morning.
I didn’t hear him approach. I jump and turn.
“Sorry!” He raises his hand almost comically. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s fine,” I manage. He has something under his other arm, and when he pulls it forward, I blink in astonishment.
“I wondered if you’d sign this for me.”
I can’t breathe. I step back and bump against the railing.
“Luke,” he says again.
“How…?” I shake my head.
“I read it,” Rick said. He’s still holding out the book.
I catch my breath. “Come on in.”
Inside, I pour out my cold tea and refill the kettle while Rick hangs up his coat and tugs off his boots. When I come back into the room with the teapot and two mugs, he’s sitting on the small couch, and the book is lying on the little table.
“I really hate that cover,” I say.
“It’s a little pink,” Rick says, and I can tell he’s trying to be neutral.
Pink cover, a pile of random stuff that barely had anything to do with the content, red letters in a terrible font. A false name. One word.
“It’s ugly,” I said. “The second printing was much nicer.”
I cross my arms and look up. He’s sitting almost primly, his large hands clasped on his knees. His expression makes me laugh.
“You look so contrite.”
He blushes. It suits him. I try not to look at the dark red hairs that are visible where the top button of his shirt is undone, or the way the shirt is straining across his chest. I fail. I sit down beside him. God he looks good, thick and strong and so comfortable in his skin.
“So you read it,” I say, and to stop myself staring, I nod at the offensively pink book.
He nods. “A few times.”
“And you figured out it was me?”
“Class ring, missing student. You changed the name, the province, a bunch of stuff. But you kept the mascot.” He looks up at me, and I can tell he’s actually a little proud of figuring it out. He’s talking about one of the first chapters. It was the first time I realized what was actually going on with me, between two cycles of medication and one of the few times my mother had put her foot down and overruled my father’s desire to use every chemical option under the sun to make me “better.” I’d almost had my wits about me. Then Bailey Haliburton had packed a bag and gone missing, and her mother had come to our home to talk to my mother because they were friends. Bailey had left behind her class ring. They hadn’t even noticed me walk up while they were talking. I’d picked up the ring, and that ring had spoken to me.
“She swapped it for the ring he gave her.”
Both women had turned to stare at me. Mrs. Haliburton had looked uncomfortable, but my mother’s face was a practiced mask of gentle concern.
“Honey, do you need to lie down?”
“She’s in love with him. He’s tall. He’s native. They like the same plays.” I saw it all unfolding in my head, and even saw the very moment she put the ring on her bed to trade it for the plain band he offered her. It wasn’t as fancy as half the other jewellery in her room, but it made her heart so full. I heard her say “Yes.”
“Oh my God,” Mrs. Haliburton said. “Oh my God.”
They’d caught up with them both after that. Bailey Haliburton’s father had been furious about his daughter running off and marrying someone he felt was “inappropriate.” In the book, I’d avoided using the word “racist” on the advice of my lawyer and editor, and I’d changed all the names and places and every other detail they figured could possibly matter.
None of us had caught my inclusion of a teenager in a giant bird costume.
“Tommo the hawk,” I say. “Who’d’ve thought a stupid bird would out me?”
Rick smiles. “I’m sorry.”
“You talked about what it was like. In high school. When they were putting you on drugs, when everyone called you names…”
“Fluke,” I said. It hadn’t translated for the book under my pseudonym. I can’t actually remember what word they came up with that worked with Simon. Psycho? Sicko? Something like that.
“I’m so sorry.”
I looked at him. Really looked. His dark eyes were open, and I could see the sincerity. I wasn’t sure why in the world… Then I remembered.
“Rick… I was out of my mind. Literally. They had me on so many drugs, I had no idea what to think or do. You and Alex, you both got me home when I was pretty damn messed up…”
“And we made fun of you the entire ride home.”
I can’t help it. I laugh. It surprises him. “Rick, I was wandering around downtown in my underwear in the middle of winter.”
I lean forward. “Seriously, forget it. If you two hadn’t found me, I’d have had another visit with the cops.” I shake my head. “I had quite a few of those, before I got off the meds.”
Rick nods. “Okay.” I don’t think he actually believes there’s nothing to forgive, but it’s the best I’m likely to get. My mother was the same when she finally understood. My father was gone by then, and my brother still doesn’t quite get it.
He rises. “I should go.”
I’m not sure I want him to go, but I can’t quite think of anything to say. He puts on his jacket and boots, and I rise and stand in the door while he leaves. I hold my hand out into the air and catch a few snowflakes, enjoying their silence.
When I head back inside, the book is still on the table.
“Where are his clothes?”
The second voice is my brother’s, but the first is harder to place. I want to keep my eyes on the statue and the snow. I want to press against it and feel my skin touch the cold stone because then the carver woman is there, and she’s louder than everything else. One voice instead of dozens. It’s so much better, even if I’m shivering, and my toes are starting to hurt.
“C’mon, Fluke,” my brother says, and his hand is on my shoulder. He’s not gentle with me, and for a second I think about shaking him off; I’m already losing the voice of the woman who carved the statue, but his grip is too tight, and he pulls me back and down from the stone pedestal.
I lose the carver, and the rest of the world rises up in its usual chorus. I press my hands against my ears, but it doesn’t help. The voices aren’t from outside.
My brother gives me a shake. I try really hard, and make my hands move away from my ears. I listen as hard as I can to what he’s saying, and I try to ignore everything else.
“Where’s your pants? Your coat?”
I shake my head.
“Dude, he’s gotta be freezing.” I look at the other guy with Alex, and I can almost recognize him. He’s got red hair, and he’s taller and bigger than even my brother.
“I know,” Alex says. “He has to go in the back seat. He tries to grab the wheel sometimes.”
“I’ll sit with him.”
My brother’s hand is tight on my arm again. As he leads me to the back of his car, I try to say goodbye to the stone carver, but my brother tells me to be quiet, and that I’m coming with him.
They never understand who I’m talking to.
I’ve just caught a few snowflakes when he comes around the corner with more wood.
“You like to do that, don’t you?” he asks.
“Snowflakes are very quiet.” I smile at him, and I think of his copy of Psychometry and how often it looks to have been read. He knows what I mean.
He unloads the lumber onto my porch and wipes his hands across his jeans. His smile is almost lost in his beard. “And I guess they don’t last.”
I smile back. “They’re my favorite. Rain is good, but snow… I don’t know. It’s better.”
“Is it everything? Always?” he asks.
I look at him a long while, and I think we’re both wondering if I’m going to answer right up until I speak. “Yes and no. Everything has a voice, but sometimes there’s not much to say. It needs to matter to someone, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s not exactly purposeful, but there’s intent in a way.” This is the distilled version that I have used on my investigator friends and the rare police I have worked with.
Unlike them, Rick nods. “Like Bailey’s ring.”
“Yeah. I don’t have to listen if I don’t want to,” I add, because he knew me back when I didn’t know how not to hear everything at once.
He waits a moment, and holds out his own hand, catching some snow on his fingers. His hands look rougher than mine.
“About dinner?” I ask.
He turns. One eyebrow creeps up, and I see the smile lines beside his eyes. “Yes?” The deep rumble in his voice makes me shiver again.
“Did we skip the whole coming out to each other thing, or did I miss it?” I can feel my face burning.
“You missed mine,” Rick says. “But you told me you liked me quite a while back. I’m just running on the assumption that things haven’t changed, because that’s a good scenario for me.”
“I told you I liked you?” I try to remember, and I’m afraid I know when it was.
He confirms. “You were wearing little blue briefs at the time. It was memorable for me.”
I flinch. “The horse statue?”
He laughs. “Was it a horse? I was having a really hard time not staring at you in front of your brother and pretending everything was cool.”
“As I recall, it was freezing.”
He nods. We stand in a silence that is comfortable.
“Do you like steak?” he asks.
“Can you crank the heat? He’s really cold.” The red-haired guy beside me in the backseat unzips his jacket and holds it out to me. My teeth are chattering, but I don’t want to touch his jacket. I can already hear it humming and whispering. It wants to tell me something.
“It takes a second,” Alex says from the driver’s seat. Then he sighs. “I need to get him back in the house without my parents seeing him. They’ll flip out if they know he snuck out again.”
“Here,” the guy is saying, and now that the car is moving, it’s a bit easier to ignore everything else as the voices drop away behind us.
I look at his coat. “It’s too loud.”
“Fluke,” Alex’s warns. “Don’t be a jackass.”
“It’s okay,” the guy beside me says. His eyes are really dark. I touch his jacket and flinch.
“It’s hard to hide in a uniform all the time,” I tell him. He looks startled. I put the jacket on slowly, because it turns out that it’s the good kind of loud. It feels warm against my skin. “You’re not ugly,” I tell him.
From the front seat, my brother sighs. “Just ignore him.”
It takes me some time to get the jacket on, but when I do I tilt my head to listen as hard as I can. “It’s like a costume. For an actor.” I look at the brown and white bird on the front of the jacket, and I think of the same jacket on my brother. His jacket doesn’t talk like this. I look at the guy beside me, and he’s watching me intently. He’s a big guy, the kind of guy that most of the time I think I should be afraid of, but there’s a softness to him that makes me think he’d rather use his size to protect someone.
“We’re halfway home,” Alex says, turning a corner. I rub my temples a little with my cold fingers and lean back on the seat, closing my eyes. My hands drop. I’m so tired, and it’s nice to be warm.
“You’re not ugly,” I say it again, because the jacket is insisting the opposite, and it’s just wrong. “You’re strong and you’re nice and you don’t have to act forever.” I open my eyes just a bit and look at the man. “I really like your eyes. You’re handsome.”
“Okay, Fluke,” Alex’s voice is rising. “Enough.” He’s embarrassed. “He doesn’t really know everything he’s saying. He doesn’t mean to sound so faggy.”
“It’s okay.” The voice of the guy beside me is quieter than before.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I can keep secrets.”
I close my eyes again. I’m so tired. The voice in the jacket finally falls quiet. I sleep.
Rick brings the makings of dinner to my cabin — a bottle of wine, the steaks, and baked potatoes with all the trimmings.
“Are there more people coming?” I ask looking at the thick cuts of steak, but he just smiles at me.
“You could use a few good meals.”
He cooks on the small stove and grill of my rented cabin with an easy grace that I envy. I shouldn’t be surprised. What bear doesn’t know his way around a grill? The third time he catches me staring and smiling, he asks what I’m thinking and I say so.
“Woof,” he says, and when I laugh, a part of me completely relaxes for the first time in years.
We drink the wine, and eat the meal, and I eventually hand him back his copy of Psychometry with Simon’s name inscribed inside it.
“This is the only signed copy. You could probably get good money for that online,” I joke.
He shakes his head. “It’s a keeper.”
Outside, it has begun to snow again. Rick asks me about my jobs and for the first time in my life, I tell someone what I do for a living without euphemism or omission. I tell him what it was like when I touched Hadrian’s Wall and heard the voices of Roman soldiers, and that leads to more stories of the places I have been. He listens, and I realize how incredible it is to have that luxury. Even though it is cold, we go outside, and I catch a few snowflakes on my hand. Rick scoops up some of the snow and starts to pack it into a snowball, and I give him a wary look.
“Trust me,” he says.
He doesn’t throw it. He closes his eyes, and presses his hands against the snow, shaping it. He turns it over in his hands, and I watch his rough fingers work, and feel my skin shiver when I imagine those rough hands touching my skin. Arms like Rick’s would make you feel safe, if you were in them.
He doesn’t complain about the cold, and he works the snowball back and forth, alternating his hands, twisting and compacting. I watch, not sure of what he’s doing.
Finally, he looks at me. He holds it out, and I realize.
I open my hand, and he puts the snowball in my open palm.
“I’m going to go get him some pants and shoes and a shirt,” Alex says. “I’ll bring it back out, and then we can get him dressed and get him inside.” He scowls. “You okay to stay with him for a second?”
“Sure,” Rick says. “Don’t worry. It’s okay.”
Alex shakes his head. “It’s not. It’s all the fucking time.” But he gets out of the car and closes it as quietly as he can, and then heading off down the street toward his house.
Rick looks at Alex’s brother. Fluke is still fast asleep, burrowed up in Rick’s jacket. He’s cute. The thought comes faster than he can stop it, but this time the shame doesn’t show up on its heels.
“I won’t have to act forever, eh?” Rick says to the sleeping kid.
Every morning when he puts on his jacket, Rick thinks of it as a costume, thinks of himself as an actor playing a role. Hearing Fluke say that back to him was pretty intense. Rick swallows.
You’re not ugly. You’re strong and you’re nice and you don’t have to act forever.
Rick feels tears spring to his eyes, and he wipes them with his thumb. “Jesus,” he says.
I really like your eyes. You’re handsome.
Rick leans over and kisses Fluke’s forehead. Fluke doesn’t wake.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” he says, then waits for Alex to get back.
The snowball melts.
I touch my forehead.
Every Thursday, Lethe takes a look through its vaults for its proudest releases. This week, to coincide with the time of year, it's Jewish Gentle and Other Stories of Gay-Jewish Living by Daniel M. Jaffe, in which the author explores a multitude of aspects of gay-Jewish life.
From the collection, Lethe presents the story 'Telling Dad', which you can either listen to, or read below:
“Sorry to hear about your Dad. You Jews don’t got wakes, do you?”
The plain white sheet fastens itself too snugly around my neck; moist thighs stick to the leather seat; shorts ride up in a gradual, subtle attempt to constrict my crotch. The warm, slow-moving air wandering in through the open window sports the familiar fragrance of shaving cream, hair tonic and Pat’s Old Spice cologne. So very Dorchester. Old Boston.
“You don’t get to see him again?”
“Just the pine box.”
“Strange. Live and let live. What do you want done to you?”
Some long, some short black combs cluster in the lavender water of the glass Brylcreem jar. On a dusty ledge beside the cash register, a few pieces of Bazooka bubble gum soften in the sunlight. In their red, white, and blue wrappers they lie scattered like rejected offspring of the red, white and blue barber pole twirling outside.
The crowd roars on the old television reflected in front of me. The unframed tube still sits on that rickety platform in a corner behind the barber chairs. Growing up, I watched baseball only through Pat’s mirrored wall.
“The Sox are doing okay this season. At least they’re keeping their socks up.”
The first time I heard that stale attempt at humor, I giggled. Dad and I were both excited at my first barbershop haircut. “You’re a big boy of five, now. Time for a real man’s haircut. Just like Daddy.”
Dad hugged me on his lap. During the scissoring, he read to me from Tales of the Old West while I studied pictures of the cowboys. The sheriff looked like Dad—stern with a thin face, trim mustache, thick eyebrows, bushy sideburns. Then, as we sang “Hinei Ma Tov,” my favorite Hebrew song, I hardly minded the buzz of the electric razor.
“Remember that time your Dad bet me on the World Series?”
I smile for the first time since the interruption of last night’s kiss. Unable to ignore the shrill ring of the telephone any longer, I retrieved my tongue, smiled apologetically, and picked up the receiver. “…Okay, Mom, I’ll come home…. I know he didn’t mean to…. Okay.”
“Remember?” Pat repeated. “Only time I ever seen your Dad bet. He won, too. Ooops. Sorry for the nick.”
That sting. The same sting I felt sitting in this chair six years ago. Having just arrived back in Boston that morning for Passover, I decided to get a trim before Dad finished work. I was proud of those long, thick, Samsonesque locks, but a trim would make it easier on Dad, and on me.
For the most part, the seder was typical. Dad didn’t like the way I chanted the kiddush, the blessing over the wine. We engaged in our annual argument over the virtues of Sephardic versus Ashkenazic pronunciation of the Hebrew prayers. I registered my standard complaint that many of the ceremonial readings during dinner had nothing to do with liberation from bondage; Dad defended the unfathomable symbols of “the way it’s been done for generations.”
The only unusual aspect of the evening was Dad’s refusal to leave my hair alone. “Never when I was a boy did we wear such long hair.” Tug. “Only the maidlach, the girls.” Pull. “You should get it cut.” Yank.
I was not in a mood to expose my privacy then.
The next morning in synagogue, Dad wore Grandpa’s prayer shawl, shockling—swaying back and forth—as he prayed, the way his father used to. Even though we prayed in a different synagogue than the one Dad had attended as a boy, he still sat in the back, on the left, just where he and Grandpa used to sit in their synagogue.
When the new cantor introduced an Israeli melody for one of the traditional prayers of the service, Dad refused to learn the tune. He nearly stormed out in a huff when a woman stood before the congregation and opened the ark where the Torah resides. “It’s just a small change, Dad. Women are getting rights. Times are different.”
“Some things we don’t change. A little change here, a little change there…soon you don’t recognize anything anymore!” He agreed to stay through the service so that he could complain to the rabbi afterwards.
That was not the time to tell him.
Lunch was on the table when we walked in. He grumbled through the potted meatballs and potatoes. “What’s this?” he asked Mom, pointing to a chocolate-iced cake.
“It’s all right. No milk. It’s parve.”
“Of course! Thirty-five years I’ve been making Passover. I know which foods are allowed. It’s a new mix. Manischewitz.”
Dad ate applesauce.
That was not the time, either. I waited until after his nap. We went for a walk.
“You sure surprised me when you bet on the World Series. It was a great Series, wasn’t it?”
“That was months ago, half a year. Why now?”
He smiled and clasped my shoulder. “You think your father doesn’t know his own son anymore? Something’s troubling you, right? You want to talk about something, I can tell.”
“I knew it. You can live far away at college, but you’re still my boy. So tell me. A difficult course?… A mean teacher?… A girl maybe?… You turn red. That’s it, isn’t it? I told your mother when you started college that soon you’d be bringing home a maideleh to make your mother jealous. You have a little girlfriend and you want to invite her home? No prob—” He stopped and raised his hand to the side of his mouth, hiding his words from no one in particular. “She’s Jewish?”
“Dad, there’s no girl.”
“No? So what’s the problem?”
“It’s not a problem, Dad. It’s….” Blurting was the only possible way: “There’ll never be a girl.” I explained as best I could. I had been rehearsing this speech for years.
“First your hair, now this. It’s not our way. It’s goyish. I never heard of anyone Jewish this way.”
“You’re right, that was a good World Series game. I always liked the Sox.” He mumbled, “Only once I bet. Six months later, look what happens.”
“Dad, we’re not talking about the World Series.”
“That’s all we’re talking about. It’s the most important thing in baseball. That’s all you talked about today. I heard nothing else! Only baseball.”
Pat finishes dabbing the nick with an alcohol-soaked cloth. “Baseball’s what all the customers want to watch. It’s part of what a barbershop’s all about. Some kids say I should change it to a ‘hair salon,’ nix the TV, and hire a woman barber. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. Just different. Can’t get used to it.”
For six years, Dad refused to discuss the issue. I knew what was going through his head, all the religious prohibitions and condemnations. I tried to talk to him about it, but whenever I did, he left the room. So I wrote him letters explaining that I was violating only a minor proscription, not a major commandment, certainly not one of the Big Ten. The rule was put there to keep the ancient Hebrews separate from local peoples so they wouldn’t lose their identity. I’m secure in my identity. I keep kosher, go to synagogue, pray.
He never responded. It’s not that he ever stopped discussing baseball with me or refused to talk about academics or forgot to remind me of an upcoming holiday. He just never commented on the important issue.
But he always tugged my hair.
With a talcumed rag, Pat dusts off my face; flecks of hair drop to the floor like so many bomblets. “There you go. Looks neat, but it’s still awfully long. I mean, for a funeral. Sure you don’t want me to cut it shorter?”
“Your Dad never could get used to it. He told me once that he thought you looked okay with it, just that it was different from his picture of you. It’s not the way he knew you when you were a kid. That’s why he razzed you.”
Finally, a breeze blows through the open window. The sheet gently billows, thighs slide a bit, shorts stop their climb. I twist the barber chair to face the TV, and I watch the baseball game for a few moments.
“Okay, Pat, maybe just a little shorter.”
Every Thursday, Lethe takes a look through its vaults for its proudest releases. This week it's Minions of the Moon by Richard Bowes, a gay-classic-in-waiting described as "a terrific piece of storytelling" by Neil Gaiman and "powerful fiction" by Charles De Lint. Even better, Minions of the Moon is just $9 for the paperback all week at the Lethe website.
Read an excerpt from Minions of the Moon or listen to a preview of the audiobook:
My name is Kevin Grierson. If this were a twelve-step program for mortals haunted by doppelgängers, I would stand up now and say, “Hi. My name is Kevin. I’m fifty-four and I’ve been stalked by my own Shadow for as long as I can remember.” Then you’d say hello and we’d exchange stories.
In fact, I long ago learned to see my Shadow as the embodiment of my addiction, my will to self-destruction. The wise man who taught me to do that also showed me how to stay aware of the one he called my Silent Partner without dwelling on him.
After long mastery of that high-wire act, I grew confident, even, God help me, proud. Then the other night, I saw a kid get on a streetcar in Boston over forty years ago. The sight gave me pause, made me wonder if my time of grace was running out. And in that moment of uncertainty, I felt my Shadow close in.
I’d had a warning a week or two ago when Gina Raille, an old friend, said she had seen a guy around who looked like he might be my evil twin. But I had other things on my mind and things like this happened every once in a while. Not until last Saturday night and Sunday afternoon was I shown signs I could not ignore.
A toy merry-go-round on Ozzie Klackman’s work table was the first of those. Other business had brought me to his blowsy old apartment slightly above the riot that is Avenue A in August. Ceiling fans rotated. Decades worth of East Sixth Street curry hung in the air. Sirens wailed in the East Village. A boombox car bounced sound off the buildings. “LOCK UP THE FUCKING BANJA BOYS!” yelled a hoarse voice, a woman, or maybe a drag.
Ozzie, red faced and unshaven in paint-stained shorts and T-shirt, said, “You tell ’em, honey,” and drained a tumbler of fruit juice and vodka. Then he went back to demonstrating a Chatty Cathy. “I reworked it for this rich fetishist down in Pennsylvania.” Cathy still had her dippy smile. But now instead of inane talking-doll phrases, she uttered a string of obscenities in her dippy little voice. “It’s costing him plenty,” said Ozzie self-righteously, like overcharging the guy made him an agent of justice.
Every trade has its skullduggers, resurrectionists, procurers. Old toys is no exception. Ozzie Klackman is all those things and more. It’s why I had business with him.
Years of cruising and of buying antiques have taught me to nod, smile, and look with bland indifference at what interests me. The carousel was worn, wooden, American-made by my guess. The condition was better than I would have expected in a toy that old. The detail work too, with each horse a firebreathing stallion, and the decorative motif of smiling suns and frowning moons was suspiciously bright. Not one of Klackman’s master forgeries.
But it was its accuracy that made the hair on my neck stand up. To paint this, Klackman must have seen the real one as I had. He stopped talking. When I looked up, his small clever eyes were on me, measuring my reaction.
“You saw the original?” he asked. “I did. Years ago out in East Asshole, New Jersey. I was working for Augie Dolbier and he heard about this merry-go-round for sale. So he took me along and we barged right in. Real creepy scene. Like it was some kind of con game or rip-off. The carousel was the lure. The ones who had it weren’t interested in selling. Not to us. Recently I got reminded. I took this old beat-up toy and did it from memory.”
He waited like he expected me to ask questions. But I cultivate an attitude of professional disinterest and right then I was preoccupied with the present. “I’ve had a long day,” I told him and turned to go.
“Sorry I haven’t been to see George,” Ozzie said. My partner, George Halle, was at Cabrini Hospice in a terminal coma. I indicated the visit wasn’t necessary.
At the door, I handed him fifty dollars in tens and said, “Here’s your retainer. You’ll be at Masby’s Monday at eleven sharp, right? And you know what I want you to do?”
“Don’t worry, Kevin me lad,” he said in a Long John Silver voice. “Nighty night.”
Downstairs, yuppie couples scuttled home with Sunday papers and Kim’s videos. Over on Second Avenue, old guys with hats and cigars hung around newsstands eternally waiting for that final Brooklyn Dodgers score and a few hookers still operated in the shadow of the St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery baptistery.
But mainly it was kids. From New Jersey and the Bronx, by car and subway, they were outfitted like 1950s nerds, like cybersluts and MTV stars, in shorts and baseball caps, miniskirts and high heels, striped boxers and sneakers, souvenir T-shirts and envelope-shaped bell jeans, sporting crew cuts, beaded pigtails, wisps of Day-Glo green and blue hair that caught the streetlight like glaucoma auras.
I walked through them, middle age making me as invisible as a ghost at a tropical carnival. It amazed me that with everyone out of town for the weekend, the city could still be so crowded.
A bus rolled downtown. That summer they displayed Calvin Klein ads on their sides. Each was a row of photos of the same well-defined young man clad only in various undershorts. His expression varied from defiant, to dazed, to blank. It looked like the draft physical for the clone wars.
Actually getting force-stripped is disturbing, not sexy, a subspecies of rape, as I could testify. Fantasy, though, is something else. Klein’s genius is the exploitation of hustler poses, and August in New York gives everyone a horny itch. Normally I satisfied that itch through safe, clean call services.
Ozzie and his carousel had me thinking about the past when I stopped to pick up The Times. Just then, I noticed what looked like any club boy in his early twenties. His slightly glazed eyes met mine and held. The kid was for rent. Then his face lighted slightly. “Fred?” he asked. And I understood the kid had dealt with my Shadow.
Chilled but curious, I replied, “I have been. You and Fred are friends?” He indicated they were. I took the bait. Negotiations were fast. We were both pros. I said what I wanted and made an offer. He agreed and gave his name as Matt. I stuck with Fred, which had served my Shadow and me well enough in the past.
When we got to my place on Seventeenth Street, Stuyvesant Park across the way was still unlocked. Beneath the new moon, dogs and people moved under the lamp-lit trees, sat on benches waiting for love.
My building was quiet. Everyone else in the co-op is middle-aged too. My apartment is on the third floor and comfortable. On the living-room mantel I have assembled an antique toy zoo, animals behind bars, visitors pointing their articulated metal arms, an expensive whimsy. “The Heineken’s is cold.” I opened one for my guest and was not tempted. Once or twice in my past I have been touched by a grace so rare that it carries me through sordid passages and empty years.
I sat on the couch. Matt was cute in a dark buzz, shorts, and sneakers. I could remember when having to wear that particular outfit was a sentence to dorkhood. Of course, way back then we didn’t have the option of silver earrings and leg tattoos.
Matt swallowed some beer, stood in the center of my living room, and stripped when I asked him to. Ralph Lauren, Gap, Old Navy, Tommy Hilfiger—the layers fell away and revealed how skinny he was.
He glanced at my front windows and noticed they were uncurtained. He made an involuntary gesture as if he wanted to cover his crotch and eyes, then thought he shouldn’t. I felt a key turn in my heart even as I knew it was all part of the act.
Because of age and scars and a sense of aesthetics, I kept my shirt on. In the bedroom, the air conditioner played on our skin. I stroked his hair, which was as short and smooth as I imagine an otter’s to be. He smelled of smoke and booze, Obsession and sweat, the scent of nightlife. Wings were tattooed over his left nipple, a snake wound up his right calf.
Then we got down to business and for a time, with my cock being licked and tickled, my hand on another’s head, my mind sailed free with not a thought of who he was or who I was or what were the circumstances of this happening. It was like being a kid again.
To work completely, commodity sex should be emotionally self-contained and anonymous. Too much involvement makes that impossible. Matt had aroused my curiosity. And my empathy. Never underestimate a doppelgänger’s subtlety. This kid evoked my past.
When he got up and went in the bathroom, I looked through his clothes. Except for the sneakers, they had all been bought or boosted that day. Tomorrow if all went well for him, these clothes would be in the trash and he’d have a new outfit. He carried no wallet, seven dollars in change, a couple of pills I couldn’t identify, and slips of paper, most with names and numbers, one with just a Hell’s Kitchen address.
In a small shoulder bag he had underwear and socks, Vaseline, polyurethane and latex condoms, plastic gloves, dental and tongue dams, skin salve, and nonoxynol-9. My guess was that these were all his possessions.
When he was ready to leave, I gave him a card. The name and number of my shop were on the front and my name and home phone number were on the back. “Call me soon.” He nodded as I would once have done. “Since you used the name Fred, you must have met my imaginary friend,” I remarked.
He gave me a look that said my Shadow was at least as real as I was. Then the kid was gone. And since nothing of any consequence was on my answering machine, I lay down on the bed and started leafing through The Times.
The next thing I remember was a kid getting on a Boston streetcar. An ordinary enough child, blond and small, a very young twelve, he walked like he was wary of being hit. He sat at the back of the car and turned his face toward the window. Someone once said that when the Irish get hurt they stay hurt. He might have had in mind something like the way that kid moved and avoided eye contact.
The last streetcars in New York ran long before I arrived here. But deep in the night, I started awake. The Week in Review and Arts and Entertainment sections fell on the floor and it seemed as if I’d just heard a trolley bell clang at the end of my block.
Every Thursday, Lethe takes a look through its vaults for its proudest releases. This week it's Before and Afterlives, the Shirley Jackson Award-winning collection from Christopher Barzak (the author of the novel One For Sorrow, adapted for film as Jamie Marks Is Dead - The Love We Share Without Knowing and Wonders of the Invisible World.) Even better, Before and Afterlives is just $5 for the paperback all week at the Lethe website.
Read an excerpt from the story 'The Boy Was Was Born Wrapped In Barbed Wire':
There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire. The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters. But elsewhere, too, the wire curled out of the boy’s flesh, circling his arms and legs, his tiny torso. They didn’t cause him pain, these metal spikes that grew out of the round hills of his body, although due to the dangerous nature of his birth, his mother had lost a great amount of blood during labor. After delivery, the nurse laid the boy in his mother’s arms, careful to show her the safe places to hold him. And before her last breath left her, she managed to tell her son these words: “Bumblebees fly anyway, my love.”
They followed him, those words, for the rest of his life, skimming the rim of his ear, buzzing loud as the bees farmed by his father the beekeeper. He did not remember his mother saying those words, but he often imagined the scene as his father described it. “Your mother loved you very much,” he told the boy, blinking, pursing his lips. The beekeeper wanted to pat his son’s head, but was unable to touch him just there—on his crown—where a cowlick of barbs jutted out of the boy’s brown curls.
The beekeeper and his son lived in a cabin in the middle of the woods. They only came out to go into town for supplies and groceries. The beekeeper took the boy with him whenever he trekked through the woods to his hives. He showed the boy how to collect honey, how to not disturb the bees, how to avoid an unnecessary stinging. Sometimes the beekeeper wore a baggy white suit with a helmet and visor, which the bees clung to, crawling over the surface of his body. The boy envied the bees that landscape. He imagined himself a bee in those moments. As a bee, his sting would never slip through his father’s suit to strike the soft flesh hidden beneath it. His barbs, though, would find their way through nearly any barrier.
One day the beekeeper gave the boy a small honeycomb and told him to eat it. The comb dripped a sticky gold, and the boy wrinkled his nose. “It looks like wax,” he told his father. But the beekeeper only said, “Eat,” so the boy did.
The honeycomb filled his mouth with a sweetness that tasted of sunlight on water. Never before had something so beautiful sat on the tip of his tongue. Swallowing, he closed his eyes and thought of his mother. The way she held him in her arms before dying, the way she spoke before going away forever. The memory of his mother tasted like honey too, and he asked the beekeeper, “What did she mean? Bumblebees fly anyway?”
“Bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly,” said the beekeeper, closing the lid on a hive. Honeybees crawled on the inside of the lid like a living carpet. “Their bodies are so large and their wings so small, they shouldn’t be able to lift themselves into the air, but somehow they do. They fly.”
When the boy turned five, the beekeeper sent him to school with the town’s other children. At first the boy was excited, standing on the shoulder of the highway where the trail that led back through the woods to the beekeeper’s cabin ended. But soon the bus came and, as he stepped inside, he realized none of the other kids had been born wrapped in barbed wire. They were regular flesh children with soft hair any adult could run their fingers through. They looked at him, eyes wide, and said nothing. No one offered him a seat, so the boy sat behind the bus driver.
They all knew of the barbed wire boy, of course, from tales that had circulated since the day of his birth. But only a few had actually seen him. The one story the children lived on was told by a girl who had seen him in the fruit section of the grocery store late one night, shopping with his father. He had reached for a bunch of grapes, she said, but the grapes got tangled in the wire around his hand. His father bent down to remove them, carefully pulling the vines away, but several grapes remained stuck on his barbs, their juice sliding down the metal. “The manager made them buy that bunch,” the girl said with an air of righteousness. After all, those grapes were ruined.
On his first day of class, no one talked to him except the teacher, Ms. Morrison, who told him where he could sit. She pointed to a desk in the back of the room, far away from the rows of desks that held the other children. When he looked up at her, she could already see the question forming on the cage of his face and said, “For their safety, dear. And for yours.”
Ms. Morrison taught the boy how to read, how to write, and how to add numbers. He already knew how to subtract. His father had taught him that. So he was ahead of the class, or behind them, depending on your view of subtraction.
This is how the barbed wire boy learned to subtract:
“How old am I?” he once asked the beekeeper.
“It’s been four years since your mother died,” the beekeeper replied.
“Four,” said the barbed wire boy. “How much is four, Father?”
“Four is one less than five,” said the beekeeper. “Three is one less than four. And two is what your mother and I once were together.”
It was only once Ms. Morrison took an apple and orange and put them together that the boy realized things could grow in number.
The barbed wire boy kept to himself, but his solitude was not of his own choosing. The town parents had warned their children. “You could get hurt playing with that boy,” they said. “You could get tangled up in his barbed wire and then what would you do?”
The barbed wire boy understood their reluctance to engage him, but it would be lying to say he did not long for a friend. For someone to at least confide in. Day after day he sat on the teeter-totter during recess, waiting for someone to climb onto the side opposite, someone whose weight would lift him high into the air.
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