The beast came to me at midnight, as I assumed he would. I had been on a two-month excursion to Europe, with most of my time spent with an acquaintance in Italy, and I had returned with a fascinating little book and an unusual relic. I had enjoyed myself to the full – knowing that, due to my advanced age, this was likely to be my final trip abroad. I did not mind that this was so. My parents had brought me to Sesqua Valley eighty years ago, when I was but a child; ending my days within its fantastic shadow was a happy, peaceful thought. As long as the beast remained among us, my days would not prove uneventful.
“Agatha Norris – welcome home. I would have come sooner, but I have been away, to New England.” I had not heard him enter my abode, but I had sensed his presence in the room, and his peculiar odor. He smelled of the valley, a pungent sweetness that was quite outré compared to anything in the outside world. I had been absent from the valley long enough that the smell affected me, as it disturbs those outsiders who first encounter it. I turned and nodded to him as he leaned against the wall near to the French windows through which he had entered my cottage. Beyond the tall windows I could see the moonlit garden that spread behind my residence, the sight of which inspired me to walked past him and out into the moonlit patch. The perfume of the blooms helped to counter the syrupy tang of Sesqua Valley.
“I’ve been back for over one month, beast. To what do I owe this singular visit? You have rarely paid me any attention in all my years here.”
I did not look at him but heard him sigh. “I heard that you were visiting an alchemist in Italy. Such a magnificent country, so overflowing with elder ways and esoteric secrets. I am, of course, curious about anything you may have gleaned in matters of necromantic art. Is he profound in learning, this person you stayed with?”
I could not help but laugh a little at his method, it was so obvious. “Ah, but you know Andreas, Simon. You visited his abbey ruins in 1897. He speaks of it still, your performance quite startled him. He thinks you pilfered a book from his library.”
The beast discarded the accusation with an irritable sniff. “His collection was then magnificent. Andreas has a talent for sniffing out the remarkable thing. But he’s more a collector than a magus – preferring to sit in his soft chair and read the formulae to himself rather than conjuring forth their properties. I find it inexplicable – to have an interest in Outside matters that does not inspire one to speak strange language to the hills or make covert signals to the moon. What is the use of all that learning if one keeps it locked within one’s cranium?”
Reaching into the deep pocket of my dress, I fondled the small red book sequestered there. “He still has a knack for finding the fascinating thing. We went into an innocuous shop that sold old furniture, where there were some few antique pieces. There was this extraordinary thing, a combination of bureau and bookcase, fantastically painted. The seller had no idea of its age or worth and allowed us to plunder it. The doors to the bookcase portion, you see, had been sealed shut and were difficult to open. Andreas sensed something, his instincts had been aroused, and thus he began to work at the doors with the deadly ritual dagger that he is never without. At last, there was the sound of splitting wood as one of the doors cracked open. The noise alarmed the seller, but Andreas hushed him by producing a large wad of bills with which to purchase the piece. I could tell by the way my friend’s eyes burned that he had known that we would find the marvelous old book that rested on the topmost shelf behind the painted door. How the seller hooted at us as we departed with just the book, leaving behind the purchased bureau.”
I paused in my story and admired the way Simon’s eyes shimmered with lunatic expectation. And yet I had wearied of playing with the beast, and so I removed my hand from the pocket and held the small book to moonlight. “Ah!” he exclaimed.
“Alas, no. The book is in cipher, and we could not crack it. That it is some kind of alchemical journal, some necromantic diary, is obvious because of the way it excited my friend’s enthusiasm. He is far more remarkable a wizard than you give him credit for. But this thing – well, it’s inscrutable.” Shrugging, I tossed the item to him, and he hummed as he caught it and began to study its pages.
“Oh, but I have seen something similar to this, from the library of Curwen in Providence. He corresponded with many European alchemists. Perhaps…”
I shrugged again. “I have no use of it, and thought perhaps it may amuse you. Accept it as a gift from an ancient friend.”
“Many thanks. I will do just that.” He raised his eyes and sneered. “But this bright moonlight is too severe. I shall retire to my tower in the woods. I have acquired an excellent candle created from the flesh of a hanged hag. It will be the perfect radiance in which to study this rare text. Good day, Agatha Norris.”
“Good evening, beast,” I spoke as I bowed to him. I could have chuckled, I was so pleased with myself; but I did not want to give myself away, for the beast was acutely perceptive and would have noted any vibration of self-satisfaction. Returning into my cottage, I stood at one table and lit another candle. Dim flickering light moved shadows on the walls, yet the corners of the room remained in semi-dusk. I looked into the corner where my recent acquisition sat on a tall stand. This object was the reason I had stepped into the garden so that the beast would exit my home, and it was the reason that I had tantalized him with the proffered book. I did not want Simon to know of the weird relic that I had brought home from my sojourn in Italy, at great cost and bother. I walked to it now and removed the lace cloth with which I had covered the device. It was not my only music box; but the others were small objects that one could place on bedside stand on mantelpiece. The antique music box that I had shipped from Italy was of substantial size and played removable fifteen-inch metal discs. Working the lever, I wound the instrument and listened to its superb sound. For me, the playing of a music box was one of the few perfect pleasures in existence. As I listened, memory drifted back to when I had first heard the delicate playing of the gentle song.
We stood in one of the small and beautifully decorated rooms of my friend’s centuried abbey, and Andreas and I both prickled with excitement. We had located the antique music box in a secluded Italian shop, and we both sensed instantly that there was something about it, some hidden wonder, that would spellbind us if we could discover it. Andreas bought it at a good price and had his driver secure it inside the coach, and my friend and I kept ogling and bending to touch the thing’s dark wood as his horses took us to his home. We had not operated it at the shop, but I was familiar with the mechanics of the box, and once we had set it on a low table I put the crank into place and wound the device. We both stood, enraptured, as the delicate music filled the room.
Andreas turned his pixy eyes to mine. “I thought perhaps it was the tune that would prove the alluring factor; and it is certainly pleasant and enchanting – but not magical. No, there’s something else about the box that triggered our occult senses. Now – compared to other such devices that I have seen this box is of an expanded height. I thought at first that it contained a compartment in which to keep additional music discs, but there is no obvious cubical.” He paused, and his smile overflowed with suggestion.
“Aha!” I exclaimed, and closing my eyes I touched my fingers to the box’s dark wood, until I sensed the irregularity, which I pressed. Something clicked with unlocking, and a spacious drawer pushed out. We knew that the object sequestered there was magical, because candlelight dimmed a little, and the cries of the night-birds died away. The compartment was substantial, quite deep, and as we peered at the article therein we thought at first that it might have been the petrified remains of some queer black reptile. However, the longer we studied the thing the more we ascertained that it was of human design and craft.
I watched in silence as Andreas reached into the cubical and removed the apparatus. “It’s very light,” he told me. “One would think that the covering was black leather, but it actually feels like a kind of pelt, although from what sort of beast I cannot say. Such a curious design, like some coiled serpent. The tip is sleek to the touch – feels rather nasty, I confess. One would hesitate before placing it into one’s ear. Now, the inside of the bell, you see, is pearl in color, and you will note the outré sigils that have been etched or painted thereon. I’m certain I’ve seen those glyphs before – on a scroll that Simon once showed me.”
I reached for the object and touched it. “There is something alluring to its surface, something that instills queer desire. I am almost tempted to take it and smooth it against my naked breast.”
Oh, how the devil before me grinned. Reaching to my blouse, he undid its buttons and then touched the trumpet to my tit. I hissed and shuddered, and wanted to protest when he took it away. “For what does one listen with such an implement? Come, let’s step out into the moonlight. I want to listen to the stars.” We exited the habited part of the old abbey and stepped onto the grounds. The older portion of the edifice, which was in total ruin, erected its broken portions to the moon-drenched sky. Pale stretches of cloud hovered near the full lunar globe.
“Curious,” I announced, “I see no stars.”
“The sky is bright with moonlight – perhaps that has hidden the stars from view. Let us see if I can commune with them nonetheless.” He moved his opened hand to me, and I placed the ear-trumpet onto it. “How I love a new sensation,” he whispered, more to the darkness than to me. “Isn’t it peculiar, how dusky it is here, on this plot of earth, and how pale the light shines above us? As if the light of reason have departed from the earth and seeped upward? And thus we dwell here, in dark lunacy, and do the decadent thing. Too delicious.”
“You speak strangely, Andreas. I think the drugs you imbibed earlier are having their effect. They have infected your imagination.”
He shrugged. “I shall now step beyond imagination – into the pure unknown.” So saying, he placed the rubber tip of the instrument into his ear. I studied his handsome Italian features as he listened with the aid of the fantastic thing that we had discovered, and soon I saw his eyes darken and his mouth grow slack.
“Do you hear the song of starlight, Andreas?”
“I hear – that which pulses between the stars – and beyond them. I hear…” And then his voice contorted, and he began to gag unwholesome sound. It might have been a language, but if so it was like none I have ever encountered. As he vomited the alien tongue, I sensed the lunar light dim above us. Looking upward, I saw that the sky had now indeed grown black, and within it churned a movement composed of points of eerie light. A bank of darkness began to descend, looking like a solid floor that would crush us into pulp. I panicked and snatched the ear-trumpet from my friend, and then I shook his collar violently and screamed his name. Andreas awakened from his trance and gazed intently toward the surface of gloom that fell toward us, and then he smiled fantastically and raised his hands as if in salutation. “It comes to sup upon our hot mortal breath! And we shall partake of it, and feel its quintessence curl onto our tongues and coil toward our brains! And then, sweet Agatha, what dreams we will suffer!”
But I could not listen to him, for I was awestruck by the movement above me, which I felt so keenly on the surface of my eyes. I shut those eyes as the air around us turned frigid, as the descending opacity enshrouded me. The silence was intense, and for a moment I envied Andreas his ability to perceive the language from Outside. I reached out to where he was standing, hoping that he would hand me the ear-trumpet. For one long moment I sensed nothing – and then a pressure kissed my outstretched hand, and I experienced ecstasy as I have never known it. What had possessed the man? Hot breath fanned my face, and something soft and searing kissed my eyelids. I moaned his name and opened my eyes, but for some moments all I could perceive was a thick pervading cloud of darkness that saturated the spaces all around me. And then I saw an image through the cloud that resembled the dusky reflection on an antique mirror – an image of my friend far from me, unmoving on the ground. It had not been he who had attempted to seduce me. I shrieked his name, but he did not respond. The gloom, however, did, lifting above us and returning to its cosmic domicile. Crawling to my recumbent companion, I shook him, to no avail. I touched his brow and knew that he was not extinct, for fever burned his incarnate husk. Removing the ear-trumpet from his enervated hand, I placed it onto his chest; and then I took his body into my arms and carried him clumsily into the ruined abbey that was his home. He slept, unmoving, for three days, and then he awakened, smiling like a cadaver and shouting about the dreams that had possessed him.
Andreas is an expert at the transference of objects out of Italy, and so I relied on his skill and fortune in shipping my acquisition to America. Recollection faded as I stood there, in my cozy room. I had lingered there, daydreaming, for longer than I knew, and the music suddenly ceased. The music box’s melody had hypnotized me, and in this mesmerizing state I had walked to the device and pushed open the box’s secret compartment. I held the ear-trumpet in my hand. How sleek, the fabric with which it was constructed. How curious, as I fondled it, that I could sense Sesqua Valley’s awareness of its arcane properties. Yes, the valley had tasted it, and relished it potential. Thus was I coaxed, by the spirit of the vale, to exit my cottage and walk beneath the moonlight, to enter the woodland and follow a path that led to me to a hill whereon six figures were kissed by sudden gale. I climbed the hill and sighed into the rising tempest as something atop the valley’s twin-peaked mountain howled mournfully. How enormous the stars looked, lacing heaven with their winking points of light. I studied those diamonds in the sky for a little while; but it was not they that beguiled my interest, my intention.
I smiled at the figure nearest me, this concoction of rags and sticks and packed earth that resembled a cadaver encased within a shell of earth. The scent of that earth drove me slightly mad. This was not one of the tainted places of the valley, not one of those few patches of spoiled sod that are dangerous to visit. Yet, this was a place of secret ritual, where possessed denizens pranced provocatively as drool spilled from their foaming mouths, as blood seeped from inflicted wounds. I dropped onto that trampled land and put the rubber tip of the device I clutched into the cavity of my ear. Tilting lower, I touched the bell of the trumpet against the ground and held my breath. In time, the sensation sounded, at first as a dull and distant throbbing, like some atrophied organ that had been suddenly revitalized. I heard, as never before, the beating of Sesqua Valley’s supernatural heart. And I felt it, as never before, in the singing of my blood. It expanded, the daemonic sensation, and claimed me with its sifting soil. It lifted, like some wall of shadow, like unto the thing I had experienced with Andreas, and encircled me with particles of loam and blackness. I swallowed grit and could not breathe easily. My limbs were snatched by that in which I was boxed, and I was pulled, by flesh and hair, to a standing position. I trembled among the other figures, with whom I stood as some seventh eidolon of muck and magick. The diabolic dirt that was an essence of the valley worked into my thin elderly flesh, changing me into a thing of filth like unto the other figures. I opened my mouth in an effort to sing insanely, but nothing spilled out except stinking aether and liquid grime. I was able, somehow, to point the hand that still held the ear-trumpet to the majestic moon; but then a figure appeared before me and took the device from my weakened grasp. Smiling triumphantly, Simon Gregory Williams, the first-born of the valley’s shadow-spawn, ripped open my flimsy blouse and pressed the ear-trumpet to a place just below my left breast. He sang as he listened to the transition of my mortal throb, as I finally froze in place, a seventh figure on the hill, albeit one that lived in semi-sentience, and would remain thus until the valley wearied of its toy.
Wilum Pugmire spent this past summer writing his brains out and finished a new book, BOHEMIANS OF SESQUA VALLEY, to be published in March by Arcane Wisdom Press. For a forthcoming issue of FUNGI he has written a new novelette, his Sesqua Valley version of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear. His newest book, THE STRANGE DARK ONE–TALES OF NYARLATHOTEP, has just been published by Miskatonic River Press, and his book written in collaboration with Jeffrey Thomas, ENCOUNTERS WITH ENOCH COFFIN, will be published next year. He is presently working on his first novel, a Sesqua Valley version of THE LURKER AT THE THRESHOLD. You can browse and buy W.H. Pugmire books on his Amazon page.
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Story illustration by Robert Elrod.