He was the one who had to identify his daughter’s body in the morgue. He was all she had. She had been all he had. His wife, her mother, had hung herself eleven years ago when Aliza had been ten. Oskar had had to identify her body, too.
The sheet covered her to the waist, so he couldn’t see the wounds she had opened high in each inner thigh to sever the femoral arteries. Oskar didn’t ask to see them, didn’t know if they would be stitched up now or still yawning wide open from the elastic pull of her skin, anomalous deep canyons of raw red tissue in a landscape of smooth whiteness. He doubted seeing those new wounds would shock him any more than the old wounds he could plainly see on both her bared forearms. He drew in his breath sharply when he saw them, and that was when the tears fell, and when he realized he had neglected his daughter for too long.
Both of Aliza’s slim forearms were a mass of uncountable, overlapping raised lines; scar tissue so thick it was like a weave of armor…not to prevent blood from getting out, of course, but perhaps to prevent other things from getting in.
“It’s her.” Oskar wept, cupping her cold cheek in his palm. He said it as though that hadn’t already been established. He said it as though he had recognized her not by her unmarred youthful face, but by these scars he’d never seen until now. What made him weep so openly was that he did recognize the scars, had known they were there all along, though not in the physical sense.
The morgue attendant nodded, and drew the sheet up over her face again, like the edge of an advancing tide that would suck his daughter away to unknown and infinite depths.
Aliza had been living in the town of North Bend, which in itself had mystified Oskar. Previously, she had seemed so in love with Seattle, its music scene, its artistic vibe. It was Oskar’s understanding that she had relocated there to live with a young man she’d met at an art show in Seattle. Oskar couldn’t even remember the boy’s name now, though Aliza had mentioned him to her father in their infrequent, brief, and uncomfortable phone conversations.
Oskar had never visited her in North Bend, though she’d lived there eighteen months. Too absorbed in his work, and in his own relationship: a sordid affair with a much younger married coworker that had recently ended messily. Today was his first visit to Aliza’s apartment. The landlord had let him in.
It was a small white stucco building on a street corner; just a few floors above an antiques and curios shop. The floor creaked under his feet in the dusty silence. Oskar drew curtains aside to let light in, and looked out at the forested mountains, the wafting clouds crawling down their bristling flanks. The Snoqualmie Valley. The name meant “Moon, the Transformer,” in reference to Native American folklore and the imagined origin of the Snoqualmie people. Oskar didn’t know the full story and didn’t care to. It was bound to be as inane and deluded as any other human myth of gods, creation and afterlife.
He steeled himself, then turned for a closer examination of the place where his daughter had spent the end point of her life. This murky box held the diminishing tail of a comet, itself gone from view, not to come around again in his lifetime or any other.
He didn’t venture into the bathroom, though he had been assured the tub had been scoured by a cleanup crew.
Moving like a detective from kitchen, to living room, to bedroom, Oskar took in countless mundane bits of evidence of his daughter’s existence here, but he came across nothing to suggest the presence of her artist boyfriend. No one’s clothes or belongings beyond her own. So he had left her, then? At what point? Might that account for her desperate act? It made sense to Oskar, and as guilty as the feeling was, it came as a kind of relief that it was another man’s abandoning Aliza – not his, her father – that had inspired her self destruction.
He was familiar with this brand of guilty rationalization. It was akin to when he had told himself that chronic depression had been to blame for his wife’s suicide. He might even, if he gave in to the impulse now, blame his daughter’s suicide on genetics.
It was Aliza, aged ten, who had discovered her mother’s dangling body. Oskar had been staying late at work, but he had seen his wife later in the morgue. In red nail polish, on her naked chest she had painted ALL IS NOTHING…though she had presumably been looking in the mirror when she marked herself, because the words were written backwards.
Is existential despair, Oskar wondered, genetic?
He couldn’t realistically take all Aliza’s possessions back with him to his room at the McGrath Hotel…her clothes, her books and CDs, her makeup, her pots and pans. What was he to do with these things: bring them home to Seattle, to fill the empty place in his life she herself should have occupied? No, he had to distill her entire existence to a mere few items that he hoped defined her best – if not to herself, at least to him.
He uncovered several scrapbooks and a shoebox stuffed with loose photos, though he clapped the cover back on as soon as he determined its contents. He wasn’t ready to look through them yet; tears threatened to come again just at the thought of viewing them. He set aside her sketch pads and a few paintings, some unfinished and others completed. Also, a worn stuffed animal his wife had given Aliza: a Doberman pinscher that resembled their dog Luna, herself long dead.
In the bedroom, however, atop her bureau he encountered a number of items that perplexed him. The way they were placed — with candles and incense holders between them — or perhaps it was something in their esoteric appearance, made the bureau top seem like an altar. One item was a set of pan pipes made from ivory, or was it lengths of animal bone? Another was a pinecone, curiously blood-red, all the more curious for not appearing to have been painted. And then there was the stone statuette, a foot in height and stained green as if it had been stolen from a garden, or from deep woods, that portrayed a troll or gnome or other such creature, squatting on its bestial haunches with a wide impish grin on its toad-like face.
Oskar didn’t add any of these odd decorations to his pile of memento mori. He couldn’t associate them with his daughter, and wondered if they had been left behind by her departed lover. If so, that might explain why Aliza had showcased them in the manner of a shrine.
Having remained here as long as he could bear, at least for today, he gathered up his tokens in her own gym bag, which he’d come across in a closet. Then he left the apartment, leaving the door unlocked, as the landlord had said she would come by later to lock up herself.
Not knowing if he would be returning here tomorrow or if this was a kind of goodbye, Oskar descended the building’s stairs to a little front vestibule. Here, he saw the door to the antiques and curios shop that occupied the ground floor.
He hesitated outside the door, with its frosted glass panel. He saw a shadowy form pass across its pebbly surface. On a whim, but without enthusiasm — more like a sleepwalker — he reached for the door and pushed it open. Bells jangled as he stepped inside.
The figure he had seen passing as a watery silhouette turned toward the sound and met his eyes, and Oskar felt his lungs seize up like fists clutching his last intake of air.
It was a man, though so transformed as to almost represent some other kind of being. It was quickly apparent, though, that this man of indeterminate age had suffered terrible burning, with little reconstructive surgery — though Oskar couldn’t say what he had looked like before whatever procedures he might have undergone. The man looked to be wearing a stocking mask with lidless holes cut out for his watery, red-rimmed eyes, and another hole for his bulbous, immobile lips. He had mere slits for a nose.
When the man spoke it was with difficulty, owing to the tightness of his thick scar tissue, but Oskar thought there was a smile in his voice, if not on his face.
“Welcome,” the man said. “Can I help you?”
“I was…just…” Oskar cleared his voice. “My daughter lived upstairs, here.” He nodded toward the ceiling.
“Oh…yes, yes…Aliza.” The shop’s proprietor took a step forward, and now his muddied voice conveyed sympathy. “Poor girl. I’m so horribly sorry for your loss, sir.”
“Thank you. I was just, ah, wondering how well you knew her. And the boy who lived with her.”
“Oh…him.” Oskar couldn’t tell at all what the proprietor’s tone meant to convey. “Julian.”
“Yes, that’s his name. I’d forgotten. She told me, but I never met him. I was wondering if you knew whether he’d left her very recently.”
“Mm, it was recently, I’d say so.” The burned man turned to look off into space as if trying to pierce the past. “I can’t recall precisely the last time I saw him, but I do know he returned to Sesqua Valley.”
Oskar was confused. Had he heard the man correctly? “You mean Snoqualmie Valley?”
The proprietor met Oskar’s gaze again. “No, that’s here. Sesqua Valley is…another place.” Since they still stood near the open door, the burned man swept his arm toward the interior of his shop. “Please, let me get you a cup of coffee. I was just about to pour one for myself. I’ll tell you anything that you might find helpful.”
“Thank you,” Oskar said sincerely, and followed the man toward the back of the shop, which was a dusty labyrinth of dubious treasures. Furniture piled with knick-knacks, framed paintings and photographs filling every inch of wall space. Porcelain dolls and mounted deer antlers, Bakelite radios and books with frayed bindings. At last they reached a glass counter sheltering smaller, more easily-stolen items such as old watches, coins, straight razors, hairbrushes, and so on, in a museum-like exhibition. Atop this counter beside a modern cash register was a coffee maker, with a half-full pot. When asked, Oskar told the man he took his black.
The burned man made his own with heaps of sugar and far too much cream, and sucked it through a straw. Even so, his awkward lips became slick with his sweet concoction.
“What can you tell me about Julian?” Oskar asked.
“Not much, except I knew he was from Sesqua. He didn’t even have to tell me. Not with those eyes of his.” The man sounded positively wistful. “Beautiful silver eyes.”
Silver? Oskar was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable with his host, beyond his shocking appearance. “Do you know why they broke up, if not when?”
“Well, he did leave her, but it probably wasn’t a break-up in the sense you’re thinking. You see, as Julian told me, Sesquans do something similar to the Amish…when young Amish go out to experience the wider world for a time, before returning to their community. The Amish call it Rumspringa. They get all that yearning and youthful restlessness out of their systems before settling back in and accepting their own nature. I’m sure it was simply Julian’s time to return.”
Oskar found this explanation a bit hard to process. So had Julian belonged to some cult? Was that what this man was suggesting? “Are you sure you didn’t hear them arguing up there? They didn’t have a big blow-up, or anything?”
“Oh no, they were no bother. The only sound I ever heard from up there was Julian playing his pan flute, and I didn’t mind that at all. Such a lovely, melancholy sound it was.”
“I saw his pan flute upstairs. I think he left some other things, too.”
“He may have given Aliza the flute to remember him by, but if you saw other pieces from Sesqua Valley upstairs, I think you must be talking about the pieces Aliza bought from me herself, after Julian was already gone. Things she felt would keep her connected to him, I suspect.”
“A red pinecone? A funny statue of a little…satyr, or something?”
“Yes, yes, I sold those to Aliza. I’m very fortunate to have amassed a number of items from Sesqua Valley over the years, and Julian gave some of them to me himself when he needed money. Though sometimes he’d just trade them for some old books he wanted. Here…I’ll show you my Sesqua collection.”
Oskar meant to decline, as this was becoming a digression, but the scarred man was already moving toward another nearby glass showcase, and a moment later Oskar drifted after him. When Oskar had joined him, the man gestured proudly at the display.
“It’s like evidence of Atlantis. Proof of Leng, and Kadath. Look at it!”
Oskar barely glanced at the items within. “So where is this Sesqua Valley?”
“Huh,” said the scarred man, with a snort meant perhaps to be a laugh. “Where, indeed. You remind me of your daughter.”
“She too was curious about Sesqua, even beyond her love for Julian. She badly wanted to go there…all the more so, of course, after he disappeared…but I’m not sure she ever set foot there. I’d love to visit there one day, myself, but…”
“But?” Oskar was becoming irritated with the man’s eccentric nature. Had the fire that destroyed his face boiled his brain as well?
“As fascinated as I am by such obscure places, and the things that live in them, I confess to being rather apprehensive about venturing beyond a certain point.” He motioned toward his mask-like visage. “No doubt you’re wondering how this occurred.”
Oskar could only shrug.
“As a boy, lying in bed one winter night, I saw a strange, violet light fluttering through my window curtains. So, I got out of bed and went to the window to look outside. Our house was at the edge of the forest, and the light came from within the trees. As I watched, the light emerged in the form of a hovering globe, large enough to contain a person’s body…and I thought I even saw a body, curled inside it like a fetus in the womb, but it was indistinct because of the globe’s brilliant ultraviolet light. Or maybe the figure was indistinct because it was an unfinished soul, yet to be born into the material world…or else, a departed soul not yet ready for the spirit world. In any case, I was too amazed to feel fear, as this floating sphere moved across the back yard, closer and closer to my window. And then…” The proprietor blew both his hands open.
“What happened?” Oskar asked, trying to humor this person whom he now knew to be a madman.
“The sphere exploded in a blinding flash. There was no sound, and the glass of the window was unbroken, but this was the result.” With both hands, he touched his disfigured face.
“How do you account for that?” If there were anything at all to it, Oskar thought, he could only imagine ball lightning.
“I’m sure it was some manifestation that had strayed from Sesqua Valley. It isn’t so far from here.”
Oskar had to restrain himself from shouting when he asked, “So what is it about this Sesqua Valley?” If his daughter had become obsessed with the place, real or imagined, he now suspected it had as much to do with this man’s influence as Julian’s.
“People talk of places where the veil is thin, or the veil is ragged with holes, but I see it as a tapestry. Woven into the tapestry is a very realistic, mundane landscape that tricks the eye. But the tapestry is a curtain, and if you reach out and nudge it aside, you’ll find a doorway behind it.”
“A doorway to where?”
The proprietor attempted a grin, which made Oskar flinch in his guts. “Places like Sesqua Valley.”
“I’d better go,” Oskar sighed, and he started to turn away. “Thanks for the coffee.”
As if he hadn’t noticed his guest withdrawing, the scarred man said, “She couldn’t afford to buy it, but I let Aliza have a whiff of the air of Sesqua. A free sample, if you will. It’s all I’ve ever allowed myself, after all, and God…the things I saw, just from that one taste.”
At the renewed talk of his daughter, Oskar wheeled toward the proprietor again, and snapped, “What are you going on about now?”
The man pointed at an object resting inside the glass display case.
The object was in itself not so remarkable, and this was no doubt the reason Oskar’s eyes had merely skimmed over it before. A glass mason jar for canning, with a screwed-on metal lid. Yet on closer inspection, he realized the glass was not tinted with color, as he had at first thought. It was colorless, but trapped within the jar was a faintly stirring smoke or gas, mauve in hue. How was it possible to trap something like that? How long could it be retained? The mauve mist swirled subtly but restlessly, as though it wished to find a means of seeping out of its prison.
“Julian brought that to me. It’s a kind of fog that appears when new souls are born into the Valley, or vanish from it forever. Much concentrated, it’s the atmosphere…the very essence…of Sesqua Valley itself.”
“And you let my daughter breathe in some of this…this stuff?”
“Yes.” The burned man beamed.
“Yeah? Well, I think you’ve been snorting too much of it yourself. Or something else.”
“I told you, I’ve only ever had a whiff. I don’t blame you for not believing me, sir, but if you were only to experience it for yourself…” And having said that, an idea obviously occurred to the man, for he then said, “I’ll let you have a taste of it! A gift to the father of my sweet friend Aliza.”
Oskar was tempted to erupt again, but as he studied the old mason jar once more, he found himself mesmerized by the way this condensed fog churned, turned in on itself, as if billowing in reverse, like an amorphous flower blooming and decaying and blooming again in a never-ending cycle.
“Let me try it, then,” he murmured.
“Yes, please do! Here, sit down.” The proprietor dragged over an old wooden chair with an Art Deco design. Oskar did as instructed, while his host went behind the counter to slide open a panel and extract the glass jar. He returned to the front of the counter, set the jar down for a moment, and unscrewed the lid almost all the way. He had to strain at first, so tightly was the lid, with its rubber-rimmed seal, screwed on. Turning toward Oskar, extending the jar, the man asked, “Are you ready, then?”
“Are you certain?”
The burnt man gave the lid one last twist, uncovered the mouth of the jar, and thrust it directly under Oskar’s nose. Oskar jerked his head back a little, but before he could protest, or ask how he should do this — if he should draw in a big lungful — the proprietor was already snatching the jar back again, clapping on the cover and tightly screwing it in place.
“That’s…” Oskar began asking, but he never got to “it.”
When he opened his eyes, it was to find his forward view entirely occluded by roiling mauve-colored fog. So thick, he couldn’t tell immediately if it were close to his face, or if he were observing a wall of clouds miles away.
Having gained consciousness to discover himself squatting on his haunches, he leaned forward from this crouch, and in looking down he found that the fog lay below him, too. Vertigo swept over him, as if he teetered at the edge of a skyscraper’s roof, and he jolted back. His spine came into contact with an unyielding solid surface, and he twisted around to examine it.
Oskar found an immense black column at his back. It appeared to be covered in many layers of blistering and peeling black paint. As he watched, new tears appeared in the black skin, shredded strips falling away into the writhing mist below. But then he realized that at the same time, old tears were healing up and smoothing out. This continuous, seething phenomenon was like an endless process of growth and decay, creation and destruction, occurring simultaneously in an unknowable balance.
Looking up, he saw shadowy, dark limbs branching off from this immense central pillar. Chancing a look down again, as brief rifts appeared in the fog, he spotted similar branching limbs below him. It was then he understood that the vast column was in fact a colossal tree trunk, and he was balanced on one of its mighty boughs.
Though, he considered, maybe this wasn’t so much a tree itself as one great root of a tree, burrowing through a nourishing soil of ether, and feeding something much more vast up there beyond these clouds.
The restless black bark of the tree or root made no rustling sound, as he might expect, but he did begin to detect a sound from somewhere apparently high above him. It was faint, muffled by distance or the fog or both, but it seemed to be piping music, as from a flute or group of flutes.
The music inspired Oskar, as if its very intention was to call to him. He was reminded of Julian’s pan flute in Aliza’s apartment. In fact, might that even be Julian playing up there? If so, Oskar needed to see him…talk to him…
So Oskar looked around for smaller branches he might use like the rungs of a ladder, in order to climb higher into the fog. He didn’t find any, and the nearest bough was quite a ways above him. At last, though the thought of touching it with his bare skin initially repulsed him, he reached out and found handholds in the sloughing/reforming bark. Hoisting himself up, he dug the toes of his shoes into the bark as well. He pulled himself upward, one hand over the other. At one point, a wound in the bark began closing on his hand, tightening around his fingers like a mouth, so that he had to jerk his hand away violently lest it become trapped. He crawled up, up, until at last he reached that higher bough, and he threw a leg over it, swung himself up and straddled it, huffing from his efforts.
When he lifted his head to survey his immediate surroundings, he saw that he was not alone on this titanic tree branch.
A naked woman crouched on her haunches further away from the trunk than he. All around where she was hunkered, smaller limbs branched off from the bough like capillaries from a major artery, but none of them bore leaves. She held onto one of these thin branches with one fist to help support herself in her perch. The woman’s head was lowered so that her long, inky hair fell in curtains to obscure her face. The skin of her body was not just pale, but white as paper. Yet little black veins appeared and disappeared on her bare skin, looking like fleeting swarms of centipedes. Oskar realized it was a phenomenon like the tree bark: tiny cracks opening and just as quickly healing in the whiteness of her skin.
“You are lost,” the woman spoke from behind her obscuring hair.
“I’m following the music,” Oskar stammered, trying not to sound afraid.
“You must go that way,” the woman replied, pointing downward…back the way he had come.
“But what’s up that way?” Oskar asked, motioning at the mists above them.
She lifted her head, and the hair slid away from her face to reveal a beautifully formed nose and mouth, the latter with blue lips, but there was only blank skin where eyes should have been. Yet even as Oskar took this in, eyes did open in her face — not as if eyelids were parting, but more as if entirely black orbs had surfaced in a bowl of milk. There were three of them, the third obsidian eye forming in the center of her forehead.
“That is one way to Sesqua Valley.”
The sphinx answered him only with cryptic silence.
“Who are you to tell me which way to go?” Oskar asked, trying to sound challenging to bolster his courage. “Which way are you going?”
“Neither way,” she replied, staring unblinking with her three black eyes. “I am an In-Betweener.”
“Why shouldn’t I keep climbing?”
“It isn’t for you.”
“Maybe my daughter has gone up there.”
“She hasn’t. I’d have seen her.”
“Did you see Julian go that way?”
She tilted back her head to gaze upward. The shifting mists cleared somewhat between Oskar and the woman, and he realized that behind her white body two great wings were folded against her back, layered in feathers the same glossy black as her hair.
“I know that boy…but he went back to the Valley another way.” She fixed him with her eyes again. “You must return now.”
“Why?” he demanded.
The woman’s three eyes sank back into the bowl of milk. She lowered her chin to her chest, and the hair fell in front of her face. She answered, “Because the air returns to your lungs. The blood returns to your brain. Your eyes open to your world.”
Oskar’s eyes opened to see the terrible and tragic visage of the burned shop owner, hovering directly above his own face. Staring intently into Oskar’s eyes, the man asked, “Are you all right?”
“My God,” Oskar croaked.
“Mm,” the scarred man said, nodding in satisfaction. “You saw. You know it wasn’t just some drugged vision…you know it in your gut. Now you believe me.”
He moved back to allow Oskar to sit up. Oskar found himself on a narrow twin bed, in a room in back of the antiques and curios shop. It had the looks of being the shop owner’s own apartment.
Oskar lowered his head into his hands — his palms pressed into both eye sockets, his elbows propped on his knees — and sat that way for long minutes while the burned man silently watched him.
At last, Oskar said, “I never believed there was anything beyond here.”
“Make no mistake…there is no heaven, there is no hell. Not the way we were taught. It’s nothing like that.”
“But beyond here…” Oskar said again.
“Oh yes. Beyond here there’s so very much.”
“It’s where she wanted to go, to be with him. But she didn’t know the way. Or…or she knew the way, but that one taste you gave her…like the taste you gave me…it wasn’t enough to get there.”
“I’m sorry,” the shopkeeper moaned, spreading his hands. “If I’d have known what she was going to do to herself, I would have given her the entire jar — free of charge. I swear it!”
At last, Oskar sat up straight, removing his hands from his eyes. “How much do you want for it?”
“Well, I…” It appeared as though the man now regretted having said he would have given away the mason jar for free.
“Just tell me,” Oskar said firmly.
“Uh…so rare a treasure…”
“I said tell me.”
“Three thousand?” the burned man whimpered, cringing back a little as if he expected Oskar to explode in wrath.
Instead, Oskar only nodded thoughtfully and murmured to himself, “She never even thought she could ask me for the money.”
His sister and his niece did most of the work decorating the funeral parlor for the wake, mounting many of the photos Oskar had found on boards supported by tripods. Aliza as a baby in her dead mother’s arms. Aliza on a tricycle. A bicycle. Proudly leaning on her first car. Oskar ached to see how few of these photos included himself.
They had also mounted some of Aliza’s sketches and oil paintings. One of these showed a vast black tree, swathed in gauzy mauve mist, with a group of diminutive satyr-like beings clambering up its flaying/mending bark. Another painting was a portrait of a young man who was both handsome and odd-looking at once, in an indefinable way. When Oskar had first seen this in Aliza’s apartment, he had thought it was unfinished because of the boy’s seemingly empty eyes. Now he realized the eyes were not unfinished: they were meant to appear as bright silver.
With his own hands, Oskar had added only three items to the mementos present in the room. On a small table near the head of the casket he had placed a flute made from slender lengths of bone, a red pinecone, and an odd greenish-stained statuette.
Oskar and his sister wept in each other’s embrace. His sister, a Catholic, whispered in his ear, “She’s in a better place now.”
Years ago when his wife had taken her own life, his sister had tried to console him with these same words. At that time he had muttered back to her, “All is nothing.”
This time, he replied gently, “Not yet.”
When the viewing hours came to a close, Oskar told the funeral director that he needed a few minutes absolutely alone with his daughter, so he could say his personal goodbye. Of course, his wish was respected.
Alone in the room, Oskar stood over the open coffin, gazing down into his daughter’s face with some expectation he couldn’t fully define. As if she might yet open her eyes. She didn’t look as unnatural as some corpses he had seen at wakes. Those had been mostly old people who had succumbed to wasting diseases, their faces unnaturally packed and painted. Aliza didn’t appear joyful — which was what her name meant — but she did seem to be smiling in a very subtle and enigmatic way.
Oskar produced the glass mason jar from a pocket of his overcoat, and began unscrewing its rubber-sealed lid. As he did so, he said to her softly, “I don’t know where you are right now, my baby. But I know where you wanted to be.”
He held the jar close to her face, just under her nose, and then gave its cover a last turn.
The mauve gas billowed out eagerly, like a genie released from its bottle at long last. The mist obscured Aliza’s face entirely for several moments, like the caul sometimes found covering a baby’s head at birth, before it began to disperse. Oskar held the jar at arm’s length, and he held his breath until the mist finally thinned out and mostly vanished from sight. When he could no longer hold his breath, however, he gulped in a deep swallow of air.
Opening his eyes, Oskar found he was already situated on that higher branch upon which the In-Betweener squatted, as if he had earned a more advanced starting position as a return explorer.
“You again,” the woman said, her three eyes materializing out of blankness. “Lost again.”
“Not as lost this time,” he replied.
The entity nodded, as if she could see this. “A few moments ago I saw the woman you asked after last time.” She pointed into the swirling mists above their heads. “She was climbing in that direction.”
Oskar smiled. “Thank you,” he told her. “That’s all I needed to know.”
This time he knew better than to try climbing up in pursuit of that constant, distant piping. Instead, he sat on the bough to keep the In-Betweener company for a short time, until his lungs were clear, and the blood flowed back into his brain.
Curious about the long silence, the funeral director returned to the room fifteen minutes later to find Oskar slumped unconscious on one of the room’s leather-padded chairs.
“Sir?” the director asked, patting Oskar’s arm. “Sir? Are you all right?” He sounded increasingly frantic. “Should I call you an ambulance?”
Finally opening his eyes, from which tears had flowed down the sides of his face, Oskar looked up at the man and his lips spread in a tremulous smile.
“It’s okay now,” Aliza’s father told the man. “She’s found her better place.”
Jeffrey Thomas is an American author of weird fiction, the creator of the acclaimed milieu Punktown. Books in the Punktown universe include the short story collections Punktown, Voices from Punktown, and Punktown: Shades of Grey (with his brother Scott Thomas). Novels in that setting include Deadstock, Blue War, Monstrocity, Health Agent, and Everybody Scream!. Jeffrey’s other short story collections include Worship the Night, Thirteen Specimens, Nocturnal Emissions, Unholy Dimensions, and Encounters with Enoch Coffin (with W. H. Pugmire). His other novels include Letters from Hades, The Fall of Hades, Boneland, Beyond the Door, Subject 11, The Sea of Flesh and Ash (with his brother Scott Thomas), and A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Dealers. Thomas lives in Massachusetts. His website is http://punktalk.punktowner.com
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Story illustration by Steve Santiago.
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I’m delighted that you appreciated the effects I was aiming to achieve.
I liked this story a lot because of its emotive and lyrical mood. Bitter sweet and sad, what else should be ask for?
Glad to hear that — thanks for reading it!
Really enjoyed this story. Very nicely done.
Happy to hear it, Samuel; thanks for the great feedback.
I just want to say, Awesome! I enjoyed the tale immensely. Keep up the good work!
Thank you, kind sir! Let me take this opportunity to express my admiration for your own beautiful work!
Profound. It kept me thoroughly captivated. Excellent work!
Ah, the value of good “cover” art! 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting.
I don’t get to read Lovecraft Ezine as much as I would like, but the illustration was too intriguing to pass up. Little did I know what a haunting and beautiful tale lived behind the picture. Thank you.
Thanks for reading it again, and for your kind words!
A beautiful and haunting story. I’ve read this twice now and the perfectly judged ending really does stay with you. Excellent.
A truly haunting tale of a father’s love. Excellent work.
My first glimpse of Sesqua Valley seems like. a wonderful reflection. with Pan, the pied-pieper whistling melodies through a flute made of bones and faeries/elves dancing. The lair of the serpent guides lost souls. Oskar had. only one gift to give, All is nothing, and can live on in peace without empty condolences
Sorry! But thanks for your emotional investment, and your valued feedback.
Beautiful. Beautiful beautiful beautiful. It made me cry. That’s really all I can say.
Thanks. I tried to keep this in the spirit of much of Pugmire’s fiction, in which the characters are not destroyed by the supernatural, but embrace it, yearning as they do for liberation and transformation. It’s a given in the vast majority of horror short stories that the protagonist will be destroyed either physically or mentally or both, and that inevitability can get predictable and boring. So much more is at stake if the protagonist actually has a chance of coming out the other side of the adventure. It’s one of the things I like best about Pugmire’s unique work — that his characters might actually benefit from encountering the uncanny.
For something that is so clearly Lovecraftian, and about a suicide and a funeral at that – this is strangely optimistic. Lyrical and fascinating!
Haunting story, like Sesqua air.
And I really must commend Steve Santiago for his magnificent, sensuous, haunting illustration — it is perfect!
I’ve been looking forward to this tribute issue to Wilum since I first heard of it, and it was a pleasure to capture just a moment of your incredibly haunting story. Thank you!
“There is so much in this magnificent tale that are echoes of my artistic soul, and yet they are unique unto yourself.” Thank you! That was my aim. 🙂
Thank you all. Wilum, you make me proud; I am mighty privileged to be your friend and collaborator. You deserve this tribute, a testimony to your craft, your diamond-bright talent.
This is one where the atmosphere – particularly the one in the jam jar – was truly transformative.
Gradually working my way through this tale, just had to comment that I enjoy my morning sugar with cream and a little coffee through a straw as well, leaving tooth discoloration out of the equation entirely.
Oh, honey–this had me utterly captivated! You really are my soul-brother. This story shocked me in that it mention’d North Bend as well as the valley. There is so much in this magnificent tale that are echoes of my artistic soul, and yet they are unique unto yourself. Just the choice of the name “Oskar” is loaded with significance. I found this story mesmerizing, and it has sparked something I meant not to feel for a few years–an ache to write more tales of Sesqua myself. You know I feel the need for a rest from writing books–but you draw me in, you cast a spell that is one of ye essential magicks of the Sesqua series. I love, also, that you are holding ENOCH COFFIN in yr photo. I am very proud of having written that book with you! I kiss your eyes, my dearest.
So sad and beautiful.