I beg your mercy, You, all that I love,
Deep in the dim gulf where my heart lies now.
It is a world of doom with leaden skies;
Horror and blasphemy float in its night.
I took up the box of calamander wood and set it on my lap. The smooth wood, darkly striped, had an almost hypnotic effect as I stared and stared at its pattern. Finally, I opened the lid and, pushing aside the dried rose petals, took out my third thumb. I had had the digit surgically removed at age seventeen, and after it was embalmed I kept it in the antique box, nestled in its bed of petrified petals. As I held it to light its nail, buffed and polished, shimmered like some bit of dainty porcelain. I had had its stump fitted into a key-ring, and I wore it on my person for those occasions that I deemed especially significant – such as that afternoon, when I was scheduled to encounter my correspondent from India, Amos Capernaum.
It was a short trolley ride into town, to the old cathedral where we were scheduled to rendezvous. I ascended the pitted steps to the huge copper doors and entered in, walked past the archway that led into the nave. He stood just below the large round stained glass window, and he was so impossibly beautiful that he could have been one of the gorgeous saints depicted on that window, descended from the glass into shadow and incense smoke. I admired his black-clad body, which stood erect with weird rigidity as he scanned the decorative ceiling. I approached and knelt before him, unable to remove my eyes from his face, which was wan and hollow-checked yet still spectacularly lovely. The face was framed with wavy locks of sable hair, and his wide brow was marble white. Beneath delicate nostrils was a fine mustache, impeccably groomed. Finally, he lowered his head and peered at me, and I shivered at the sight of his purple-black eyes. His hand drifted to my chin, which he tugged so that I rose before him. Smiling, he spoke my name, and then led me from the coiling smoke and shifting shadow, into daylight. I had practiced my initial speeches of introduction, but when we linked arms and strolled to catch a trolley, I felt no need to prattle. We had no need of words – our eyes spoke volumes.
We stepped into my humble home, and he stood at my bookcase as I prepared our drinks. He carefully observed as I returned my third thumb to its wooden box, smiling slightly. “I’m so glad we have found each other, Samuel,” he spoke. “I knew from your book of verse that you were the exceptional fellow with whom I could companion. We are the queer souls in this neoteric age, where the thoughts of men are commonplace, where they dream of dull contemporary things. You and I see beyond the modern world – into the magnificent past and its potent visions. We realize that there is nothing but the past.” He shut his eyes for a moment, as if to conjure forth an added potency of language; and when he opened his eyes again, I was thunderstruck at the ebony luminosity with which they smoldered. “However,” he continued, “there is a cosmic past that even you, my heart, have not tasted. It is a place that I have sensed in night-tide apparitions. Alas, my psychic energy is not vital enough to carry me to that Outside plain; but with you beside me, Samuel, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”
Tilting to me, he touched his fingers to my lips. My kiss upon those digits was gentle. His face was very near my own, and I felt as though I might drown in the ambiance of his black eyes. As I studied the quality of those orbs, I suffered a momentary vertigo and felt as if I might slip from present reality, into some waiting dream. He took my hand and smoothed his thumb over the place where my third thumb had once protruded; and then he gazed quizzically at the box that I had set onto the sofa. Guiding me to that piece of furniture, he motioned that we should sit with the box between us. His hand let go of mine and reached for the wooden object, which he moved onto his lap.
“Ah, calamander wood. Very old wood, I perceive. Oh, the old, old things – how they speak to us.” Opening the container, he took my thumb from it and placed it on his palm as if it were some priceless relic. “I have learned many secrets from olden things, from books and scrolls and glyphs. My eyes have keenly penetrated the poetic mysteries of Al Azif, that tome that stole the light from out mine eyes. It taught me the signs by which its mad poet author crossed the threshold, into Outside Dimension. We, too, are poets, Samuel – and we wear our taint of lunacy. But madness need not be linked to foolishness or debauchery. With it we may be able to smash beyond the mirrored wall of sleep, into an antediluvian epoch unimaginable.”
“The mirrored wall…” I muttered.
My companion shrugged. “What are the dreams of most men but the dreary reflections of their dull lives? But we are poets, and we have intuited the echoes from beyond, the antique cosmic reverberations.” He closed his fingers over my third thumb and buzzed a strange old tune. Holding his fist to the sunlight that streamed into the room through the nearest window, he shook that fist at the sky, and then he lowered his hand and opened it so that sunbeams reflected on my severed digit’s polished nail. I watched, as he guided his hand to his forehead, clutched my petit appendage with the thumb and forefinger of his other hand, and pressed my severed thumb’s smooth nail to his forehead, whereon he etched an elder sign. When he then brought that nail to my face and dug it into my brow, I did not move or utter sound. His free hand dipped into a pocket, from which he took a small square of dark cloth that was folded onto my hand.
“Push this against your wound so as to stop its tiny trickle of blood. No, I do not bleed as you do.” He smiled at the drops of crimson that had slipped from my forehead onto his hand and the object that it held; and then he brought my third thumb to his mouth and kissed the blood away. Nodding, he dropped my digit into its box, the lid of which he shut. “Calamander. In Ceylon we call it kalu-medhiriya – ‘dark chamber.’ The place that awaits us, Samuel, is a chamber of vaulted darkness the likes of which you have never imagined. It is a timeless audient void that listens as we weep its praises. Ah, Samuel – you will see it with me, now.”
His hand took mine, and together we stood to face the light of sun. Those radiant beams seemed to melt into his eyes, whereon they were weirdly reflected. A cosmic cadence filtered from above us as a kaleidoscope of impossible color sparkled from my cohort’s eyes, tints that were of more than earthly hue. Tendrils of luminosity touched the sigil that had been etched into my temple, and we began to drift out of the mundane world, as if we were insubstantial matter. Onward – onward – through shimmering gulfs of embers that were stars. The daemon beside me clutched my hand, tightly, as he whispered outlandish language – potent idiom. My senses altered, and I could smell the dimension through which we drifted – the outré realm that carried an odor of agedness. It was as if we were water leaked into some primal cellar. I was aware of something that listened to him as all color diminished and we confronted a wall of shimmering obscurity. He did not shut his eyes, and neither did I, although I shuddered to realize that the reflective wall before us was of the same smoldering hue as the eyes of Amos Capernaum.
“We need to make one singular sign, and only you can do so. For know you, we have departed from your common reality and entered a place of dreaming; and it is here that you, my poet, are now as once you were. Only you can make the sign that will crack this galactic mirror and form the fissure through which I can filter. Your hand alone can accomplish the improbable task. You have performed the feat in dreaming, although you cannot recall it. Raise your hand, Samuel.”
I did so, and spread my fingers before me, on the hand that wore twin thumbs. I moved those digits weirdly, remembering hazily how I had performed the sigil in deepest dreaming. The wall of reflection waved before us, and I heard it crack. The cleft manifested, beyond which a blacker void apprehended us. I experienced a shiver of monstrous ecstasy as I prepared to sift through that fracture and frolic on the other side, hand in hand with my beautiful friend, for whom I felt an irrepressible adoration. I turned to gaze into his satanic eyes, wherein I saw my doom; for when I peered into his eyes, I saw that they were vacant of anything approaching human empathy. Whoever – whatever – he was, Amos Capernaum had no interest in me. He was replete with the void, in which he would find an eternal demesne, perhaps from which, millennia before, his essence had been formed, a quintessence that had lost its place. He did not smile as he released my hand and waved me away, and I screamed as, reaching for him, I hurled through gulfs of darkness, into light.
But I am not sad, for I am left with more than memory; for whatever thing he is, whatever force or dream, Amos was not a part of the human husk that had been his earthly host. He had told me himself, as we soared through starlight, that we would enter a realm of rich dreaming. My clumsy flesh had stayed earthbound, and only my psyche, or my dreaming mind, had soared with cosmic light into the eldritch dark, guided by the daemon that had need of me. His body was still seated beside me on the sofa when I awakened from the dream, his body that I have embalmed and placed inside a casket of calamander wood. And in that coffin, with my beauteous friend, I will one day be interred.
Wilum Pugmire has been writing Lovecraftian weird fiction since the early 1970s. Over the past decade he has concentrated on book production, and is the author of SOME UNKNOWN GULF OF NIGHT, UNCOMMON PLACES, THE STRANGE DARK ONE, and BOHEMIANS OF SESQUA VALLEY. With Jeffrey Thomas he wrote ENCOUNTERS WITH ENOCH COFFIN, and with David Barker he wrote THE REVENANT OF REBECCA PASCAL. His next book will be SPECTRES OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR, a collection written with David Barker.
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Story illustration by Nick Gucker.
It thrills and amazes me how your final twists encompass a dash of light and optimism. This story transported me, and your wonderful and inventive language was the vehicle.
Elegant, original, wonderful!
Goreous gorgeous gorgeous. Nobody make insanity and the abyss look so appealing.
Pure atmosphere…A monstrous miasma…
Wow. I really liked this story. It grabbed me up and didn’t let go.
The pithy poetics of W. H. Pugmire! What a great name: Amos Capernaum!
Another fine WHP short! I loved this one. Macabre yet with Willum’s grace. I hope this issue goes to print so I can buy it and keep it on the shelf!
Great story and beautiful prose as usual!
An incredible tale – poetry, lean and spare.
A beautifully written story with astounding imagery.
elegant and eloquent, words all necessary, nothing wasted, imagery perfection, a stunning read
Nice. Some unexpected turns and devices — the thumb is the best. perhaps it could be altered into a thumbnail drive. This is my first reading of the celebrated W.H. Pugmire. I wasn’t disappointed.
Another gorgeous gothic gem of a tale from Pugmire that expertly weaves the morbid with the beautiful. Like nodding off to sweet dreams at a funeral. Brilliant as always.
Short and sweet. The way you establish mood and atmosphere with such an economy of words is quite amazing.
Thank you for this wondrous tale, and for sharing the way to Sesqua Valley, the way home.
I first encountered you in the World War Anthology; I backed it on Indiegogo and got the ebook early, and I think To Hold Ye, White Husk is one of the best in the anthology.
If anything, this story is even better! I’m terrible at putting my thoughts on paper, but both stories have really managed to create an eerie atmosphere that is also really chilling and almost uncomfortable (but in a good way!)