For as long as I can remember I’ve dedicated my life to history and the antiquated artifacts that are its legacy. My parents were both affluent and educated; they had wanted for me to become a doctor or a barrister. It must have been terribly disappointing to them that I, like so many rebellious spawn before me, had a different destiny in mind. In truth, I should like to think that I warned them fairly. I never showed any interest in the subjects that captivated them. The tangled web of rules and protocol that formed the basis for the modern courts held no love for me. Nor did the complex workings of anatomy or biology. When we were at home in Bristol, England, I spent my days attempting to collect and catalogue older coins. I used what allowance my parents bestowed upon me at the local antique stores. When we summered in New England, I spent my days digging about in the dirt looking for arrowheads or musket shot.
I attended university in the States and graduated with high honors from Miskatonic U. My degree was in Art History. I afforded myself some time for romance and was married to an intelligent young woman shortly thereafter. I also opened a shop, which she named Clive’s Curious Curios. She was a creative writing enthusiast and happened to think that alliteration was the height of the English language. The name stuck, but the marriage didn’t. Irreconcilable differences. In the end, I was offered an ultimatum: the shop or her. Clive’s Curious Curios still operates on a lonely Providence side street just five minutes’ walk from the mall. I live above the shop, renting both the storefront and the one-bedroom flat above at a very generous discounted rate from an absentee landlord.
Five days a week I run the store personally, on the weekends I take the time to venture out to auction houses, second hand stores and foreclosures. The thrill of discovering a true forgotten treasure is intoxicating. There’s hubris there as well, the arrogance of recognizing the worth of something very valuable shoved into a one-dollar bin at a yard sale and cackling about it all the way home. Those circumstances are generally rare, but I do quite well for myself, despite not seeing much in the way of foot traffic as of late. Instead, I do most of my sales online on a site I had commissioned for my store. I had thought that the internet would offer an opportunity to ply my trade to a far broader client base, but instead, I find myself realizing more and more that it is a construct that has led to my obsolescence.
Years ago, it took knowledge and experience to do what I do. People would come to my shop and ask me how much certain bric-a-bracs were worth, or perhaps they’d like to learn the history of a family heirloom. These days those answers are a click away, usually far closer than a small, but cozy, shop on a quiet side street in Providence.
It was the clarion call that heralded an inevitable transformation from Antiquarian to common Shopkeeper. When people no longer had use of my knowledge, all I would be needed for would be to work the register. In many ways I despised the internet. Despite my hectic work schedule I managed to set some time aside for hypocrisy. I rarely purchased an item without first Googling it. Though I still loved my store, I was beginning to loathe what I was becoming. More than ever I resented the lack of a truly extraordinary find.
I was sitting in my office searching the web for auctions in the New England area when I heard the familiar tolling of my door bell. It’s solid iron and was forged in a factory in the Netherlands during the 1920s. I found a matched pair at a yard sale for a very reasonable price. The first I sold for nearly ten times what I’d paid for both, the second I hung on my door. I rolled my desk chair back along the wooden floor and made my way out to the front. Whenever I hear that bell I get genuinely excited. I enjoy my job and by and large my clientele are interesting, curious people with an appetite for conversation. I only had to take one look at the man standing in front of me to lose the enthusiasm that had carried me out of my office.
He was of average height and build, with thinning greasy black hair that receded into a deep widow’s peak. A long brown trench coat was draped over his gaunt body. His clothes hung on him; they were several sizes too large and dingy-looking. Dark circles surrounded his bloodshot eyes and he had a nervous, fidgety energy about him. He pretended to look at a few items on display before making his way towards the counter. I got his kind in here every now and then. Sometimes people attempt to foist stolen goods on me, like I was running a common pawn shop. My gut was telling me not to buy whatever this individual was peddling. I’ve always followed my instincts and so far they’ve served me well. He turned to look up at me and I caught the exhausted, haunted look in his eyes. With the recent downturn in the economy, I’d become familiar with the look of desperation. This man was beyond desperate. He stared in my direction at the counter. He didn’t say anything; for a while I wondered if he really saw me at all.
“Hello.” I forced a smile. “Can I help you?” There was never an excuse for rudeness, even when he continued to look blankly at me. “Can I help you, sir?” I repeated, a bit louder and slower.
“No,” he muttered, but blinked, his eyes focused on me finally. “I mean…maybe. I have something. I want to sell it.” He began reaching into the side pocket on his trench.
I held up a hand, shaking my head lightly. “We only buy antiques here.”
“It’s old,” he whispered. He produced an eight-inch long, yellowing, bone-white tube and hesitantly set it down on the counter. It reminded me of a rhino’s horn, with a wider base, narrowing to a tip. I adjusted my glasses and started to reach out towards the object. He flinched as my fingers got close, tensing visibly.
I had never seen an object like it. It was hollow and the outside had been hand-carved. There were figures etched into the side but they had worn over the years, become too faded to get a clear idea of what they were. It wasn’t ivory, but rather something that reminded me of an osseous material. It was bone of some type. I looked down the inside of the object. I noticed thin dark bumps spaced along the inner walls; something had grown there and been filed down, I wagered. There were three holes spaced apart in the middle of it, reminding me of a simple flute or pipe. Strangely, there were no signs that the holes had been drilled into the object. They looked like they had always been there. Perhaps time had worn them away, like the carvings. Certainly, there was no question that whatever this was, it was very old. More importantly, it may have been unique. I felt my heart palpitate as I realized what I was holding.
I looked over my glasses at the man. He had turned his eyes down to the floor. “Where did you get this?” I asked.
“I…my grandfather…it was his.” His eyes darted quickly to the corner of my store as he gasped. I followed his gaze over to a beautiful Persian rug I’d obtained at an estate sale. “H-how much will you give me for it?” he asked quickly. I wet my lips with my tongue and raised my eyebrows. I honestly had no idea. I couldn’t even pinpoint the country of origin.
“Oh, well…give me a moment. May I?” I lifted the pipe and he nodded quickly, but his eyes were welling up. I walked into my office, setting the piece on my desk as I searched the web for anything bearing a resemblance to the item. I found a dozen different ‘faux ivory’ antique smoking pipes from Japan and a few styles of bone-pipes utilized mainly in England during the middle ages, but nothing even remotely close to what this thing was. I nearly cried out for joy. Finally I had found something unique, something that the internet with all of its collected knowledge had never heard of.
The sound of the iron bell over the door broke me from my reverie. I looked back through the door over to the counter and saw that the man was no longer at it. I moved quickly back towards the front, to see the door had just finished swinging shut. I saw him moving on the sidewalk, looking one way and then the next. He walked like a lost man trying to figure out which way to go. I stepped out from behind the counter and started to head towards him. He had left the pipe with me. I was excited about the piece, but I was no crook. His eyes caught mine through the glass door. His face twisted into horror and he ran back into the street.
I’ll never know if he saw the delivery truck. I gasped as the large vehicle hammered into the man, dragging him down like a rag doll beneath its thick black tires. I heard the sick, wet slap of his body against the grill and the scream drowned out by the high-pitched squeal of the air brakes. The street was so narrow and the trucks always rushed down this road on their way to the next stop. I had said it would be a matter of time before this happened. I never thought that I would have witnessed it. My limbs grew cold with the realization that a man had just died, my stomach twisting into knots as the crash replayed itself in my head on an endless loop.
Why did he run?
I felt the weight of the pipe in my hand as I watched the slowly blooming puddle of crimson beneath the parked delivery truck.
“Oh my God! Are you all right?” Amy Carter’s voice slid like silk through the phone line.
“Oh, yes, I’m fine…a bit shaken,” I conceded. I had called her the moment the police left. They’d taken a statement from me. Amy had a way about her that made me forget that entire dreadfulness. She was the perfect companion for me. She was there when I longed for her and absent when I wanted to focus on my work. I believe she preferred it that way herself. She was far younger than me, a daughter of one of my classmates at Miskatonic. She had decided to forsake her father’s alma mater and attend Brown instead. Miss Carter had been told by my friend to look me up once she had gotten into the city. We slept together the first night we’d met. It wouldn’t be the last time.
“Did you want me to stop by after class?” she asked. I caught the tone in her voice. Our meetings had become more frequent since her father had tightened his purse strings. I helped lighten her financial burden whenever she stopped by. A part of me felt guilty over the nature of our association.
“Yes. I would like that very much.” I looked at the off-white pipe sitting on my desk. “I have something to show you, Amy. It…might be the single most important find I’ve ever had.”
“Clive, the professor just showed, I gotta go. But I’ll see you tonight? Okay, bye!” she whispered hurriedly. I heard the receiver click as she hung up.
I sat at the edge of my bed and held the pipe in my hands. Amy shifted beneath the covers. She hadn’t been as excited as I had been about my find. She had only been interested in the accident. I turned to look at her, letting my eyes travel over her soft, pale curves. Her fiery red hair glistened in the dim glow of the streetlights streaming through my blinds. She was beautiful. But my interest in her beauty dwindled with every passing moment, as it always did. I found her presence in my bed, my apartment, to be an intrusion into my privacy. It was an annoyance I had become accustomed to, but was never comfortable with.
How could she not have seen what an important piece this pipe was? I wondered when the last time it had been played was. What the tone of the instrument would sound like. It didn’t seem much different than the recorder I was forced to play in elementary school. I wet my lips with my tongue. As I raised the pipe to my lips I felt my stomach sink. My arms felt light and weak and a nervous, inexplicable chill spread through me. It was a primal dread, something I didn’t really understand. I tried to shake the sensation. It was ridiculous for a grown man to feel that way over nothing. I placed the cool lip to my mouth, forming a seal around the thin end. I held the object in front of me, gingerly setting my fingertips over the trio of valves that stretched along the top ridge. I inhaled through my nostrils and forced air through the tube.
I tried repeatedly: changing the angle I held the pipe, the position of my fingers, everything. I was becoming frustrated. The flared end was too wide to allow for the amount of air I was capable of pushing through it. An idea sprung into being in my mind, a memory of a trumpet I had purchased years ago. It had belonged to a jazz musician in the 20s and came with the bowler hat the man had used as a mute for the instrument. He would fit it over the top to change the timbre of the sound.
I pressed the wide end gingerly against my palm. I inhaled slowly and released the breath. And I heard it. The sound. It felt like a scratching deep inside my head, the kind of hard scrape that removes an itch, but left only raw pain. I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. My fingers spasmed over the valves. At first, I thought the walls were crawling. But it was the shadows. They were bubbling, shifting and twisting in murky vortices. I closed my eyes, but I could still feel the shadows, churning in the rasp of the pipe. My muscles seized. I was terrified. Why couldn’t I stop?
“Clive? Clive? Hey? How long have you been up?” Amy asked. I took a deep breath and blinked my eyes open. The sun was shining through the blinds. There were no shadows stalking across the wall. Had it been a dream? I was still holding onto the instrument. My lips were sore; my teeth had driven furrows into their inner folds. I swallowed, confused. Had I fallen asleep sitting up? Where had the hours gone?
“No…not long,” I muttered hoarsely. My throat was all glass and sandpaper.
“Oh, gee, you sound like you’re losing your voice? Do you feel sick?” She slid over to my side of the bed. She ran her fingers over my arms and back consolingly. “Mm. I hope I don’t catch it! Classes are really in high gear, I can’t afford to miss it.” She whispered into my ear. I turned towards her. “You’re really pale.” She tried to press the back of her hand to my forehead, but I flinched, brushing her away. I was fine. I didn’t need to be mothered by a girl as young as she was. It was insulting.
“I’m fine. You should get to class.” I turned from her, moving over to the bureau.
“It’s Saturday. I’m free all day. I don’t know…I thought it might be nice if we spent the morning together? I think it’s a good idea…I mean…after the accident and now, with you coming down with something. Might be nice to have a nubile young woman nurse you to health.” She smiled brightly at me. I looked away so she couldn’t see the disgust in my sneer.
“It’s all right. I’m fine. I’m going to be very busy today. Maybe we can get together tomorrow.” I attempted to placate her. I rifled through my top drawer and found the envelope with the money I’d set aside for her. “Here.” I forced a smile. “In case you end up catching whatever it is I’m getting ill with. You’ll have a little help paying the doctor’s office.” I tossed the envelope onto the bed. She looked down towards it. It always seems like she’s about to protest, but she never does. Her fingers wrapped around the bulging white envelope and she nodded.
“Thanks,” she whispered. She had more good taste than to count it in front of me. But she did take the hint, sliding out of the bed and towards the bathroom across the hall. “My dance class is going to be performing at the mall tomorrow. I was hoping you’d be there. It’s at one,” she called after me.
“I’ll try.” I set the pipe down on top of the bureau; my fingers ached. I stretched them out with a quick flex of my hand. The shower had turned on and Amy started to hum.
It was the same tune I had been playing. I knew it was disjointed, imperfect. The sound was wrong. Something was missing from the pipe. I had to find out what. My hand had muffled so much of the volume. There was a better mute for the ancient instrument. I needed to find out what.
I was right. The pipe called for a mute. It was designed with that in mind. I had taken it down into my workshop after Amy left. When I took the time to study the piece, I was amazed by what I found. Tiny thread-width holes lined the end of the pipe: something was meant to be sewn onto it to act as a buffer. I had also taken the time to make a charcoal rub of the engravings on the side. I had hoped it would have helped clarify when or where the pipe had been carved, but it only led to further questions. Three large ‘men’ appeared to be playing similar pipes. They were large and lanky, with thin limbs that bent at odd angles. They were all depicted as bald, with large sunken eyes. To the best of my comprehension, they were playing to kneeling, faceless masses beneath – to a crowd gathered around the base of a rocky outcropping. The faceless men were cast in a tableau of agony or elation, their arms thrown wildly in different directions. The rest was too worn to make out; a mass of strange cubes and cones in the background, perhaps.
The online searching didn’t reveal much, either. The police had released the name of the man that had been struck outside the store yesterday. Joshua Atwood. Atwood…the name seemed familiar somehow. I wished that I could have had just a few more moments to speak with him. There were so many questions I needed answered.
Something moved off to my left.
I stood, quickly, thinking it had been a bat or a rodent of some kind. It was high on my wall, in the corner. The deepest darkness in the room gathered in the corners. I suddenly felt sick, nervous. I felt like I was being watched. The delusions of an old man, I chided myself.
I flipped the switch on the wall, turning the fluorescent light on with a dull hum. The bright, harsh glow flooded the room. My eyes burned with the sudden flare, but my dread boiled away alongside it.
I was alone again.
Amy called to check on me. I hadn’t answered. I was too busy. The youth of today have no concept of responsibility. As the store was closed for the weekend, I was afforded some time to run errands and rearrange my flat. I made sure to complete my preparations before the sun set for the evening. Perhaps I had been pushing myself too hard. I’m not quite as young as I used to be. I could have sworn I was being followed. It’s the queerest sensation. I spent the afternoon looking over my shoulder and checking my rear view mirror. Maybe I was just nervous about carrying the pipe on my person. It was far too valuable to leave alone in my store. Now that I was back in my home, I felt much more comfortable.
I had cleared the space in the middle of my living room and set four halogen lanterns around me. When the sun went down I would want enough light to see every detail of the instrument. The bright white light of the lanterns would help me while I threaded the swatches of materials I’d purchased to the end of the pipe. I longed to hear it play like it was meant to be played. I might very well be the first person to do so in centuries. But first, I needed to find the right mute.
It was a painstaking task. Sewing was not something I enjoyed doing. It was tedious, repetitive and I truly despised threading a needle. In the several years since I attempted it last, I’d only become worse at it. Worse still, the smallest needle I owned wouldn’t fit through the tiny openings lining the rim. I was forced to press the thread through the holes one by one, thread the needle and finally push the needle through the patch of leather I’d cut.
It took me hours.
My fingers ached and my eyes burned, but at last the leather was fastened securely to the end. As I marveled at my work, I noticed that the sun was setting. Long stretches of shadow had begun to pull themselves across the floor towards me. I turned on the halogen lanterns, squinting against the blinding white radiance they shed. Each one did its part in casting the darkness back to the corners.
I was thankful for the light. The building was getting old. The wiring in my apartment had started to fail. The bathroom light no longer worked; neither did the one in the den. It had never bothered me. That is, until now. In my declining years, I’d become less apt to working late into the early morning hours. My nights were reserved for rest. But this artifact had me excited; there would be no sleeping. I needed to know as much as I could before I sought my colleague’s opinions. The more knowledge I had, the better. I examined my handiwork in the electric glare.
The leather was secure. I trimmed the excess gingerly with a modeling knife. One wrong cut and I might sever the thread, which would mean starting over. That sort of thing would drive a man mad. As I worked, I could see the etched figures move. They seemed to, anyway. A trick of the light. But at the edges of my vision I could see them flail and writhe to a sound only they could hear. But not for long.
I was ecstatic. I lifted the pipe to my lips and closed my eyes. It was strange how natural holding the piece felt. I had never had an interest in music beyond the occasional object of value to antiquity. I don’t even remember the lessons I had playing the recorder; it was just too long ago. Somehow, I knew it didn’t matter. My head wasn’t full of musical theory, my muscles weren’t trained to play and yet that made me all the more perfect for this. It was an ancient instrument, it deserved an unbiased audience. It deserved to be played without modern influences ruining its perfect tone. I needed to hear its perfect tone. I would know the moment I heard it. The leather had to be the missing component.
The sound of keys scraping against wood dragged me back to my room. The sun was shining through the open blinds. Somewhere outside, tires ground against the cement. My throat was dry. I was so thirsty. My hands were wrapped like claws around the pipe. My fingers were shaking. I arched my neck painfully. How long had I been playing? I could still hear the last note in my mind. Everything else was lost to me. The mute was wrong. Why would I be allowed to remember anything but perfection? I’d failed. The halogen lights buzzed at my feet. The door slid open.
“Hello? Clive?” Her voice welled up inside me, somewhere between hatred and desire. Amy. I couldn’t pull the pipe away from my lips; my arms were cramping. The muscles were locked like they’d been seized by an electrical current. “I tried to call, but all I got was voice mail. I…I missed you at the mall. I know you told me to only use the key in an emergency, but…I heard…something…up here.” Had she mentioned something about meeting her at the mall? I couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. Her voice was getting closer. “Clive?”
I heard her breath catch in her throat. I strained to look over at her, but my head refused to turn. My eyes were locked, staring into the corner.
“Oh my God, Clive? Clive! Are you all right?” She walked into view, wearing a dark leotard and a denim jacket. She leaned over me, her hands pressing against my shoulders. She stared into my eyes. Of course I was all right. Why couldn’t she see that I was working? Child. “Oh…oh…Jesus. You’re bleeding. Y-your mouth is bleeding,” she whispered. “Just…talk to me…anything? Do you need me to call someone?” Her eyes turned red as tears began to form.
She was nervous. She panicked. She grabbed the pipe She took no care to be gentle with it, she had no respect for the instrument. She tore at it with all her strength and dragged the mouth from mine. My lips stuck to it, even as she painfully ripped it from me. I was torn from the stool with the effort, my legs ignoring my commands as I collapsed onto the hardwood floor. I watched impotently as she threw the pipe down behind her. The tapered end was coated in dark brown, coagulated blood. I was horrified. She might have damaged it.
Her hands slid through my hair, but her touch was revolting to me. How could she have treated the pipe that way? I tried to talk some damn sense into her, but she wasn’t listening to me. Children always think they know everything.
“I…I can call an ambulance,” she began, reaching into the purse that hung at her side. It took everything I had to move my arm, my palm clasping down over the flap of her purse. I had startled her; the color drained from her face.
“N-no…ambulance. Help me,” I rasped. She pressed her hands to her face and wept into them.
“How? How can I help you? Please, just tell me!” Amy was overreacting. I looked past her, over to the pipe. I needed to make sure it was okay. I needed to hear it again. It was the single most important find of my life. Why couldn’t she see what it meant to me? She followed my gaze, watched me as I groped pathetically towards it. I think she enjoyed watching me like this. She didn’t really want to help me. Not really. “Would you forget about the goddamn flute!? Clive, you need a hospital! I’m calling an ambulance!”
“No. Hospital,” I struggled. But Amy had shut me off. She pulled her purse out from under my arm as she snapped to her feet. Her hands were shaking as she dragged her finger across the screen, unlocking her phone. I was livid. How could she ignore my wishes? How could she simply turn her back on me when I had asked her for so little? She started to walk away from me, leaving me there like an infant crying for his mother. I wouldn’t stand for this indignity. Not from her. I reached out to take hold of her ankle, trying one last time to instill some sense of respect into her.
It all happened so fast.
I grabbed her ankle, felt the skin-tight leggings in my hand as my fingers dug into her skin. She cried out in surprise and pulled hard against me. I couldn’t hold her; she twisted her leg with a sharp tug. I don’t know how it happened; perhaps she had pulled too hard or too quickly. She lost her balance. Her hair flew up like it was caught in a stiff breeze as her legs came up from under her. Her scream abruptly ended when her head impacted with a piano stool that I’d pushed out of the way earlier. It was a lovely eighteenth-century construction which retained nearly all of its original Spanish brown paint. I had loved it the moment I had seen it. My first thought was a pang of concern for the antique; it was nearly irreplaceable. But as I watched Amy lying there, I had a sudden, instinctive realization. I felt cold, nervous and nauseous. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t breathing.
Adrenaline surged through me; the weakness in my limbs was replaced with strength born of that numbing cold. I dragged myself over to her. I prayed to anyone that would listen that Amy was all right. I tried to convince myself that I wanted her to be okay for any other reason than the selfish one of saving me from having killed her. I was terrified that everything I had built for myself was going to crumble into dust over this. I wrapped my arms around her; I called her name again and again. Her eyes were wide, but they didn’t see. She didn’t move and although her body was still warm, the life had left her.
I sobbed uncontrollably. I apologized to her for everything; I couldn’t stop myself from rocking back and forth as I clutched her to my chest. I told her that I was sorry I hadn’t gone to see her dance. I wanted this to be a dream. But the icy pit in my gullet was a constant reminder that nothing I wanted would ever be mine again. I cried into her hair for a very long time. I caressed her cheek, my body remembering her heat and her soft, supple skin.
It struck me like lightning. How could I have been so blind? So stupid? I must be getting old. The answer was right in front of me all along. I gritted my teeth and failed miserably at choking back a peal of laughter. Oh, Amy. Thank you. Perhaps you knew all along just how to help me.
I held the pipe in my fingers once more. I was trembling in excitement. This was the key, the secret I had been missing for so long. Amy hadn’t bled as much as I had anticipated. The modeling knives worked so wonderfully upon her skin. It had the pliability I was missing with leather.
I wanted to play the pipe. I wanted to play for Amy. I couldn’t wait any longer. My ragged lips were only an afterthought – I pressed them into place. The musty air in my flat slid down through my nostrils and filled my lungs.
The sound was beautiful and terrible. The skin tethered to the end pulsed and vibrated. The pipe resonated against my fingers. It was perfect. The buzz of the halogen lights accompanied me as I tapped my fingers over the natural valves along the top. I changed the tone at random and I finally saw what had been denied me.
The corners. They had always hidden in the corners. They were formless, twisting and swirling into the shadows as the sound called them to me. No, that’s wrong. They were always watching, I just never noticed. The music allowed me to see them. They dripped into the oily darkness which bubbled off the wall. Tendrils of black coiled off the paneling, reaching towards me, recoiling only when they lapped at the edges of the electric haze. They groped blindly, dancing like smoke as they searched the room. The pitch in the corners spread like tar across my walls, languidly covering them in their entirety. It wasn’t long before they found Amy.
They danced with her. I finally got to see her dance. They gripped and dragged and danced. I would have screamed, if my breath hadn’t been necessary for the song.
The halogen lights were dimming. The batteries were at long last running out of power. They were waiting for me. I knew soon it would be my turn to dance with the shadows and with Amy. She would enjoy that. There were no secrets left for me now. All I could do was play. Weep and play.
Derek E. Ferreira has always found himself drawn to Lovecraft’s mythos. A Rhode Island resident and an employee of the Miriam Hospital in Providence, he has often wondered what resides across the veil of human perception. He speaks Portuguese and has worked as an actor, a counselor and a baker. His work has been featured in the July 2010 Ezine, Crossed Genres and in Crossed Genres Quarterly # 3.
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Illustration by Nickolas Gucker.