Blade Red Press is very proud of its first anthology of dark fiction, Dark Pages. Over the coming weeks we’ll be publishing here (and in various other places online) excerpts from all the great stories in this excellent collection. If you haven’t got yourself a copy yet, these previews are sure to convince you to buy a copy. You can get a copy directly from us or at Amazon and all other good bookstores. Click here for all you need to know.
Meanwhile, here’s the first excerpt. This comes from the opening story in the anthology.
The Stain of the Psychopomp King
by Lucien E. G. Spelman
I was a nervous wreck the first day I saw my father. He was at war when I was born and through most of my early years, and although he would write my mother concise letters every few months (a page or two of neat handwriting meant to reassure her that he was still alive), he never wrote to me. I never knew him. As far as I as was concerned, he was only a legend and a photograph. A stranger.
The last letter he wrote to her said he would be home before my sixth birthday.
He kept his word.
On the day of his arrival I paced around the front window, waiting and watching until I saw the old yellow taxi pull up to the curb. The back door groaned open and out came my father, followed by a large, rough-looking dog that I thought must be a gift for me. A thought which only served to increase my anxiety. My father stood staring at the house. Squaring off with it as though he might lay siege to it. As though it were an obstacle. After what seemed like forever, he ran his fingers through his thick hair, hoisted his duffel bag onto his shoulder, and started up the walkway with the dog padding alongside. The dog cast watchful glances here and there, but my father seemed so calm, so sure of himself, that I immediately wanted nothing more in the world than to be him. To be with him. At the very least, to be alongside him. Like the dog was.
He reached the top of the stairs and saw me peeking out from behind the curtains. He offered me a wink, but as soon as I knew I was spotted I panicked and snapped the curtains shut.
My mom threw open the door and wrapped her arms around him so desperately I thought for one horrible moment she was trying to strangle him. There was always a melancholy desperation in my mom. My father smiled, hugged her back, and winked at me again. But it was clear, even to an almost six-year-old, that he would never be all the way home. His eyes told a dark story. His eyes told the world that part of him would simply be somewhere else forever.
The dog walked through the door behind him, eyed me warily for a moment, and finally offered me his ear to scratch.
My father shook my hand, then kissed the top of my head clumsily.
As it turned out, the dog was not a gift for me, and my fears about him proved to be unfounded.
My father called him Hound (although he looked more like a shepherd) and he was a constant companion to our family, and a vigilant watchdog until the day he died.
Until the day they both died.
My father got a job as an ironworker at Yankee Steeplejacks and settled into postwar life the best he could. He went about his new life with gently imposing dignity, providing for my mom and me without complaint. He asked for nothing, rarely spoke unless spoken to, and in the evenings he played his trumpet in the basement. It was an odd choice of instrument for such a quiet man, but the type of music he played on the thing suited him well–wistful, melancholy strains and passages that would drift up through the heater vents. My mother and I would listen in the living room; she knitting; me alphabetizing my comic book collection on the floor, or petting Hound; each of us pretending to be doing something mundane, but in truth simply being carried away by the notes. Each of us trying to be near him.
He never mentioned the war or his experience there, but one sultry evening, there was a reminder of his time away. Suppertime; a staccato knock at the door; a man in uniform. My father spoke with him for a few moments in his own tongue. I had never heard my father’s native language before–only the residue of it when he flattened out his r’s or pronounced certain words with ”th” in them: zis and zat for this and that.
It was disconcerting. It seemed to widen the gap between us somehow.
As the man at the door spoke, my father became first crestfallen, then wistful, then determined. I watched the display with fascination. It was more emotion than I had ever before seen him show, and I could read it all without understanding a word. I suddenly hated the man at the door for his ability to move my father so deeply. Eventually, the man handed him a large map rolled into a tube, then saluted. My father returned the salute, barked out what sounded like an order, and firmly closed the door.
He excused himself from supper, and when my mother asked him what was wrong, he said a friend from the war had been killed, and then he said something strange: He said he would have to play him home.
He didn’t say anything more.
He went down to the little basement, and that evening he played all through the night and maybe even a little into the next day, because when I got up for breakfast, he was just coming up from the basement, eyes red, hair wild.
The first time I saw the stain, the tattoo, the whole tattoo, I was almost twelve. My father took great pains to hide it. He wore long-sleeved shirts all year long, even in the stifling New England summers, but even so, the marks and lines of it would peek out beneath his sleeves. He even hid it at home. He would dress in his room with the door closed, and he would never leave the shower wearing anything less than a long terry robe. It didn’t seem he was hiding it from my mother, though. Of course she had seen it. She could be in the room while he dressed. They even took a shower together once, on New Year’s Eve, my mom drunk and giggly from champagne. But he damn sure hid it from me. It was maddening. He was maddening.
After school one afternoon, sensing that the time was right, I rolled the dice and asked him flat out to let me see the whole thing. He glared at me at first, wounding me. Wasn’t I his son? Didn’t I deserve to understand his history? To be a part of his history? The hurt turned to anger, and I glared back. Fiercely (I thought). Piercingly (I hoped). And for some reason, that seemed to soften him. He broke from my gaze, shaking his head and muttering something to himself that I didn’t understand, and then finally let loose with a wide toothy smile. It was beautiful and terrifying. Like seeing a painting come to life. He laid the newspaper by his side and stood up. His callused hands worked the buttons of his flannel, seeming almost too big for the job. He folded the shirt neatly, laid it next to the paper, and then took off his undershirt. He stood for a moment regarding me, his undershirt balled in his fist, waiting for the inevitable reaction; his body was a mass of scars. The largest ran from his left shoulder across his chest and disappeared below the waist of his Levis. There were circular scars with pinched edges, tiny star-shaped scars in a constellation above his rib cage, a diamond-shaped scar at his throat. Each a secret history. He turned to show me the tattoo, and I was unsurprised to find more scars on his back, including one that looked like a burn running across the tattoo, warping it a bit. The tattoo was a line of music running from his left wrist to his right, across his shoulders and back. I knew the tattoo had notes of course, I had seen them on those rare occasions peeking out, but I thought there might be something more. A dragon or something. A mermaid. Felix the Cat. It was just music. He opened his arms out to straighten the staff, and let me have a good long look at the quarter notes and half notes scored in blue ink against his pale flesh.
Against the fading light from the window, he was a fleshy silhouette of a cross, scarred and irregular.
“Is it a song?” I asked.
“The bones of a song,” he said.
My eyes shifted from the music to the scars and back again. A few notes, the ones on the burned skin were difficult to read, compressed and discolored.
I soaked him in. I soaked in the notes. The lines. The bars. The fanciful “S” that I would learn later was a treble clef.
“Enough?” he said, breaking the spell.
“Enough,” I said, but frankly I could have looked at him forever. Each scar held a tale, and if he wouldn’t tell me, then I would’ve been content to stand there and make them up. Just to have the fable. Just to have the story of him.
He pulled on the t-shirt, grabbed the flannel from the couch, and patted me on the head.
“Why don’t you go play with your friends,” he said, and headed for his cave downstairs.
I pretended to leave, but when he was out of sight I went back to the couch and sat there watching the dust motes chase each other in the fading light and listened to him play.
My mother never helped when it came to solving the mystery of my father. She could be maddeningly obtuse when she wanted to. I would try and trick her into offering information about him, but she never took the bait. It became a kind of game between us. I once lied to her that kids at school were making fun of me because they thought my father was a German spy, and she said to tell them he spoke with a Scandinavian accent, not a German one, but if they wanted to discuss it further, she could send him down there if they liked. That put an end to that.
I was determined to solve the mystery of my father on my own, then. I would spy on him when he wasn’t looking, the scars and the notes and the war and the language framing him, gilding him sometimes: a warrior hero. Tarnishing him others: a Nazi spy. But mostly just blending together, creating a haze, making him more arcane, more impenetrable.
I did it on my own. I crept down the stairs, terrified that he would come home early and catch me. I pulled the chain on the single bulb hung from the floor joists, which seemed to cast as much shadow as it did light, and was almost disappointed with the simplicity of the room. A music stand with a tattered, leather-bound book of sheet music standing on a round Persian-style rug, threadbare where my father stood. His trumpet sat in an open, old brown and silver case next to the music stand, gleaming in the single light. As I crept forward, Hound moved from the shadows, and began to growl and whimper at me. I had no idea he was there. I had no idea even how he got there. When I last saw Hound he was in the kitchen, quietly napping by his dinner dish. I jumped, startled. Guilty. He must have snuck behind me. I spun around and caught his eyes, pleading with him silently not to make any noise. He ignored my pleas, and the growls and whimpers became barks. Loud and purposeful. I heard the kitchen door slam.
“Shit,” I muttered.
I executed a panicky about-face, and ran up the stairs, straight into my mother. For the first time in my life, I saw a flash of her anger. She grabbed me by the arm fiercely.
“Would you like it if I looked in your closet? Under your bed? Between the mattresses? In your secret places?” she said. She was shouting. She had never shouted before.
“No, Ma’am,” I said, flushing, eyes brimming with tears.
“Leave people their safety,” she growled.
I’m sorry! I thought, You never said it was a rule. Nobody ever said it was a rule that I couldn’t go down there, but I said nothing; I just looked at my shoes.
And then, all at once, the anger was gone and her face was round and soft and kind again. It was as if she were reading my mind. She brushed back my hair.
“Go and play outside,” she said, gently this time.
They always seemed to want me outside.
My secret, guilty pleasure was to go and watch him high in the buildings downtown, walking fearlessly across the beams. He would stop sometimes and gaze out into the distance, out to the sea, just standing there with one hand in his pocket and the other wiping the sweat from his brow. At those moments, from that distance, I felt closer to him than I ever had, my tiny little father up in the skyscrapers. He seemed vulnerable. At those moments I could almost imagine I knew his secret heart.
Once, on a particularly windy day, I played hooky and went to watch him. I was worried because another steeplejack had died the month before–buffeted by the wind until he lost his footing and slipped, prayers and admonitions splitting the air as he fell. I watched him fall, but never told my father. I wondered which was the last word to escape his lips as he landed between the tables at the outdoor café with a wet thump. God, probably.
I arrived at the worksite just as the lunch whistle blew, and my father turned and saw me. The blood drained from my face, and I ran away so fast I left my lunchbox sitting on the sidewalk. That evening when I got home from school, a note was sitting on my bed attached to the lunchbox, and next to a brand new King Silvertone trumpet. It said:
I would prefer you attend school. – Dad
I assumed he meant to give me lessons, but he never brought it up. Finally I asked him over dinner one night if he might be willing to teach me, but he said he didn’t know how to teach, and then changed the subject in his simple but firm way. My mom put her hand on mine under the table and held it like that until dessert, eating awkwardly. The next day there were three trumpet instruction books on my bed: 20 All Time Hits–b Flat Solos, Sugar Blues for Trumpet, and The EZ TRUMPET METHOD Instruction Book–Beginner to Advanced.
From that point forward, when he was playing in the basement at night, I would go practice in my room, leaving my mom alone to knit and listen to the strains of this discordant duet. Eventually I got good enough to be able to jam along with records, performing duets with Armstrong and Eldridge and James. But never my father.
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