D. Foy O'Brien
Excerpt from the novel Absolutely Golden. Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.
Clarence and I had spent many a windswept midnight trading horror stories. On one of these occasions, for instance, he told me about a museum in Guanajuato, Mexico that was stocked entirely with mummified corpses which had been exhumed from the surrounding grounds after the families of the deceased had failed to pay their five-year rents on the grave sites, and more, about how one day a visiting tourist had vowed not to go home with his usual souvenir, the hand-woven serape, say, or the blowfish, the dia de los muertos doll, and other suchlike banal stripe, but would return instead, like an emperor from his journey to the world’s farthest reaches, with something inconceivably unique. All this was fine, of course, but for one exception: search over hill and under dale, the tourist couldn’t find an object equal to such an exotic claim. The way my husband described it, it was only as the tourist had stood gazing into the rictus of one of these mummies that he was smitten by a notion that could’ve been Thor’s own hammer. It was one of the corpses themselves he wanted, by godfrey, yes, they were perfect, why hadn’t he thought of it sooner, yes, they were absolutely perfect, and what was more, who could stop him, propped along the walls as the mummies were, just waiting for him to do as he would, curled in boxes, some so tiny they hung from the ceiling by pieces of leather string? The tourist cast a furtive glance over his shoulder. Eureka! He was alone with the dead. In his excitement, however, he’d failed to consider that though he’d have no problem carrying the corpse, he couldn’t very well walk right out with the thing in plain view. And so quickly then he changed his mind. Whirling, he snapped off the finger of one, the toe of another. Then an ear, a nose, a tuft of desiccated hair. He filled his pockets with as many parts as they could hold, and then he left. At home, notwithstanding the protests of his wife, the tourist displayed these relics to his family and friends in a small glass box he’d had made especially for the purpose.
“Of course,” Clarence said, “he thought himself very clever, very daring. Without doubt he must’ve been quite proud. And yet.”
“And yet?” I said.
“And yet as it happens,” Clarence said, “several years later our tourist was born a child. This child, as you may well suspect, was far from ordinary. This child, in fact, was missing several fingers from each of its hands. Also, as the French would say, it was sans toes.” My husband paused here, dramatically, allowing the gravity of his words to take their desired effect. “That said, it should come as no surprise to hear that our little mooncalf was also born sans le nez.”
“No nose!” I said, playing into the tale now, horrified.
“Sans le nez,” Clarence said, snipping with his first two fingers at the tip of his nose. “Still, that’s not all. This infant, who by the way was a girl, had not a single strand of hair. She was, in fact, as bald as an earthworm.”
“Ghastly,” I said. “Incredibly unfortunate.”
“Believe it or not, there’s more.”
“In her later years,” Clarence said, and now his face had contracted into the thinnest of hatchet-like edges, “the child was prone to bouts of somnambulism so seemingly lucid that no one could tell whether she was waking or sleeping. During one of these, poor girl, a knife had somehow found its way into her hand such that, while her father lay deep in slumber, she did away with his unsuspecting sex. To his still greater misfortune, if you can withstand your doubt for yet a minute more, when the business was concluded, the authorities had determined the evidence to have been destroyed in the family incinerator. Later, however, the child’s mother herself was to find it, dried and shriveled as a dead baby mouse, on display in the same glass case her husband had made to hold his mummified relics all those years before.”
“How terrible!” I shouted. “How absolutely dreadful!”
“Cruel, I know, but somehow just.”
“Think of all the irony.”
“Yes,” Clarence said. “I rather like that story.”
Come my turn I told Clarence about a woman who’d taken certain distinctive measures to avenge herself upon an absconding lover. Five days after she’d dug up a coffin and removed all of its nails while incanting, Nails, I take you so that you may serve to turn aside and cause evil to all persons whom I will, her lover had his foot crushed so badly beneath an overturned forklift that it had to be amputated. The woman, it turns out, had incanted the phrase Pater noster upto in terra while driving one of the nails from the coffin into a footprint that the erstwhile lover had left in her yard.
Clarence was grimacing. “Apparently,” he said, “Sir Beelzebub found this little parody of the Lord’s Prayer a bit more than simply appealing.”
“Let that be a lesson,” I told him, and tickled his chin.
Doubtless my husband had to up the ante, as the expression goes. And so he did. The following night I was told a tale concerning a marvel known as the Hand of Glory. To begin with, Clarence’s story really lacks the impact it deserves if you fail to explain the provenance of such a hand. A Hand of Glory is one that’s been severed at the wrist from a freshly hanged man and then wrapped in a piece of winding sheet. Before that, though, or rather after it’s been severed and before it’s been wrapped, the hand must also have been thoroughly squeezed, to ensure that all of its blood is drained. Next, you must pound the hand with a veritable ragout of ingredients that includes salt, peppercorns, saltpeter, and a substance known as zimort, before proceeding to pickle the thing for fifteen days in an earthenware jar. According to Clarence, this hand must remain in the jar for exactly fifteen days, no more, no less. He was very adamant about this requirement, why I’ll never know. At any rate, once you’ve done this, you must then dry the hand in the heat of the hottest sun, preferably, and again, this is all according to my diabolically inventive husband, when the star Sirius is in the daytime sky. Failing this, you can heat the accursed thing in a furnace fed strictly by bracken and verain.
“The point,” Clarence said, “of this aspect of the preparation will be immediately obvious when I say that you must collect the fat which runs from the hand and then mix it with a wax that has itself been mingled with the powdered sperm of the man from which you severed the hand. Ghoulish in the extreme, I know, but absolutely necessary. For you see, this amalgam, shall we say, is imperative to the successful creation of a special candle, a candle, no less, that is in turn to be held by the hand itself, between its devilishly stiffened fingers.”
“I’m not sure,” I told Clarence, “that I want to hear the rest of this tale. It’s too horrific, even for me.”
“Come now, my dear,” Clarence said. “Let’s not be mawkish.”
“Why this foul detail about the hanged man’s seminal fluids? Why this candle, as you call it?”
“That should have been obvious, as I explained. Surely it makes sense that adulterating the wax with the sperm of the deceased would imbue it with an onanistically doomed quality, a quality of the accursed? Well, and this, it follows, in conjunction with the lifelessness and bloodlessness of the hand itself, endows the candle with the power to strike any person upon whom its light falls as blind and as motionless as the dead — if, of course, that is your will.”
“Of course,” I said, though I hadn’t the faintest idea where he was headed. “How silly of me. Still, do me the favor of indulging me for another minute or two and tell why the need to commit such an abomination in the first place?”
“Ah,” said Clarence. “That recalls to mind the words of Eliphaz the Temanite to Job in his anguish. How much more abominable and filthy, he said, is man, who drinketh iniquity like water?”
“Dear husband, really, I’ll love you so much the more when you cease to toy with me.”
“In the same way that Mallory mounted Everest simply because it was there,” Clarence said, “some men will commit evil merely because they can. It is almost, I’d venture to say, human nature.”
“Depending on who you talk to of course,” I said, “that’s debatable.”
“Perhaps. But let us proceed with our tale. Imagine, if you will, the power of the man who wields the Hand of Glory?”
“Or the woman,” I said.
“Yes. Think of the acts that he, or she, could commit with complete and utter impunity?”
“My god,” I said, “yes. Really, I suppose, the list is endless.”
“As endless as time,” Clarence said.
“The tale,” I said. “Knit.”
And so Clarence went on to explain that from as far back as the middle ages and right up until recently modern times, in fact, people have employed the Hand of Glory to achieve their nefarious ends. In the fifteenth century, for example, Petrus Mamoris speaks of people carrying the Hand of a Corpse unto which the Sacraments hath been applied and with which, over some Sleeper, and in reverséd fashion, they maketh the sign of the Cross, that it might causeth him to lie in profoundest Slumber for whole Days without waking, so that they might rob his House at leisure. In Philadelphia in 1939, an alliance of poisoners used the Hand of Glory to commit several murders and then collect the life insurance of their victims. Whereas the hand in question was real, severed from a corpse and then mummified, the gang who used it had dispensed with the stipulated candle. Instead they folded the thumb and the two middle fingers onto the palm and pointed the index and little fingers up like a pair of horns. Years later, Freddie the Bastard O’Callahan, the gang’s ruthless boss, was quoted as saying, Alls you’d have to do is shove that thing in their faces and they’d shrink back like you was the prince of darkness hisself. I seen them have strokes and mess in their pants even when they seen that hand we had. It was just the ticket for the kind of work we done all right. Clearly these tales are not for everyone. Still and all, they’re comparable only with those of such fabulators as sweet Dr Seuss and dear Mother Goose when set beside that which Clarence then went on to relate.
“There was once a man,” he said, “whose infinite love for the woman of his desire went unrequited for years on end. He’d tried everything to win her, from serenading her in the softest of moony lights to sending her gifts of silver and gold and other shiny things. He fought for her in the streets. He recited the love poems of Pablo Neruda and Rainer Maria Rilke from a megaphone in the plaza on Sunday afternoons. The woman, however, was as impervious to his tearful entreaties as a stone is to rain.
“At long last then, in his despair, the man consulted with a woman known in certain black circles for her wisdom in such matters as love and hate and vengeance. Immediately upon hearing his plight, for it was that obvious, the sorceress determined that the man should never prevail with the aid of some common panacea, nor, in fact, would he even begin to approach the remotest chance of success until he’d obtained none other than the one true Hand of Glory. Forget sweet balms, she told him, ointments and salves. Hope not for the miracle of Nepenthe or the oblivion of Lethe. King Mithridate cannot help you, for you are among the most forlorn of men. And yet beware too, she warned, the Hand of Glory you must, as beneath the aegis of the weak it can work the brightest of miracles or the heaviest of woes. By then, however, the man had ceased to hear her words. She’d spoken of this diabolical hand, so that now he needed merely to perform those deeds necessary to acquiring it. His love, you see my dear, was that strong.
“It began as you might guess, with his inveigling one of the homeless into his place of dwelling, where he then hung the man from the pipes in his cellar. According to the sorceress’s every letter, he severed the hand, he bled it, he pickled and cured and baked it. He followed the instructions perfectly until at last the hand was complete, ghastly as it was to look upon. To employ it upon his lady, though — then would his goal be realized! And so that night he crept into her room to wave it above her while incanting, Non nostrum tantas componere lites, non nostrum tantas componere lites!
“Lest I forget, allow me to mention also that prior to his embarkation upon this wretched endeavor, the sorceress had assured our man of the hand’s effectiveness, that its spell once cast wouldn’t fully take hold for several days. Notwithstanding her assurance, the man began to fret when his lady hadn’t rushed forth to pronounce her own undying love for him, much less to search him out. He sweated in his sleepless sheets, he wandered the automotive highways and byways, he smoked one monotonous cigarette after the other with never a thought for food. All for the love of a woman. All because he’d wanted for her to give him her heart, for her to take his own. These, in fact, had more or less amounted to the very words he’d been incessantly repeating for the last several months. Give me your heart for a day, beloved, he’d cried, and mine shall be yours forever! Now, though, he’d waited long enough. If in the next day or two she hadn’t come to him, he determined, he’d pray for more tenderness in the sweet by-and-by and then end his prolific misery. Life without love, he’d come to see, this life, was life without meaning.
“But then it happened. Suddenly and without warning, there amidst the waffle irons and egg beaters of a Sunday afternoon’s department store, an afternoon which like so many others in days past would’ve quietly expired, like the breath of an asthmatic child, his beloved appeared before him, her eyes moist with desire, her open red mouth so evidently yearning that he could no longer doubt himself. The lady was smitten to the core. She was his votary of ardor and sweetness come true at last. There was no one for her but him, no one for him, as ever, but her, and never a question to broach.
“Immediately she set her gaze upon him and began to advance, the turkey baster in her hand like some great truncheon of love. Titans in the blood, ogres in the heart! By the point of the bayonet? Dearest, these expressions were as useless as a cry in the cold of space when pressed to make meaningful this couple’s desire. They were, it goes without saying, ravenously eager. Indeed, had it not been for the haven of a nearby fitting room, those good citizens fortunate enough to’ve been standing nearby would’ve beheld an act of public copulation so violently unmarshalled, so undeniably canine, that it could only have surpassed any other of its kind, in any book or any history, though it be writ by the hand of one of the masters themselves, Boccaccio, for example, or Aretino or Rochester.
“This consummation was merely the beginning. As I’d hoped to suggest, their love for one another was in the extreme. It was, in fact, so far beyond the man’s expectations that he’d begun to feel happiness was a thing of tawdry obsolescence. For starters, they’d soon taken to the ways of the anthropophagi, to eating, that is, one another’s flesh. At first this only occurred during the course of their lovemaking, in measures small enough, naturally, to prevent either of them from suffering any real danger, and yet large enough to ensure that future days would not leave them unmarred. Considered in lieu of their physical intermingling, this mutual feeding had come to fill them with the sense that they were one eucharistic wafer to the other, so to speak, that, truly, with every successive meal their consecration was that much more sublime. Essentially speaking, what had in the beginning been the natural outcome of fiery eros was now a full-blown diablerie.
“Their obsession, however, couldn’t be satisfied by a simple draught of blood here, a morsel of flesh there, or rather, I should say, hers couldn’t. Whereas at least he could approach a region of satiation, her own longing was as endless as it was ferocious. Essentially, the woman rose each day from her exhausted slumber only to begin clawing at her lover’s chest, digging, as it were, toward his very heart. I must have it! she’d cry. Then, turning upon her own wounded bosom, It belongs as much to me as does mine to you! We must give ourselves to one another, completely O dearest radiance, and then we must die!
“Needless to say this unexpected development did not fail to engender in her lover a sensation not unlike grievous anxiety. On any given day the man could be sure to awaken beneath the bloody nails of his lady, his chest a veritable wormpot of muscle and flesh, and he did, repeatedly. And nothing he said or did could assuage her fever. Instead she grew worse.
“Finally, one dark and stormy night it came to pass that the man found himself submerged in a hideous nightmare. Through a tenebrous corridor enshrouded with a gossamer of moth-strewn webs and drooping roses, his lady, all covered in gore, advanced upon him with the measured shuffle of some cthonian zombie. He leapt from the bed screaming, but to his profound dismay saw that this evil vision was not of his dreams but of his waking truth. To make matters worse, if that were possible, as his lady drew nearer it became apparent that in one outstretched hand she held a slathering knife, while in the other she held none other than her own pulsing heart! On her chest, like a bottomless mouth, was a sucking wound.
“Once the man had stared into this wound, he could not look away. His gaze had been forfeited, his mind plucked like a nut from a shell. When at last he’d mustered the strength to avert his terrified eyes, it was too late. She was upon him. My sweet, she cried. I’ve given you all my love. I’ve given you my life, my soul, my very heart. Now, before I succumb to the pull of hell’s grim tyrant, you must share in my ecstasy and do as have I. And with that she placed her heart into the man’s disbelieving hands and plunged her dagger into his chest.
“It took only a moment before she’d come up with her trophy, and only another more before she’d sunk her teeth into it, gnawing and grinning until at last she passed into oblivion and fell upon her lover, the both of them gorgeously dead.
“Little did our man know,” Clarence said, “that it was he himself who’d sealed his destiny when on that fatal night he’d stood above his sleeping lover with the Hand of Glory, speaking the words he believed would make her his. Whereas he should have said, Let there be no love lost between us, he’d instead whispered, There was no love lost between them. And though he’d not paid heed, recall, he had been warned. Beware too, the Hand of Glory you must, the sorceress had told him, as beneath the aegis of the weak it can work the brightest of miracles or the heaviest of woes. Keeping that in mind, then, one shouldn’t wonder to hear that the man’s final, wavering glimpse was that of his lover’s oozing hand, triumphantly holding aloft his own dispossessed heart.”
“You, my husband,” I’d told Clarence, “are nothing less than a magnificent fiend.”
“And you, my wife,” Clarence said, “are a wonderful patron. You were as spellbound, it appears, as one who had looked upon the Hand of Glory itself.”
“That may be so,” I said, rubbing suggestively against him, “but it was no hand that ensorcelled this poor girl.”
“No?” he said.
“Trickster,” I said.
“Wench,” he said.
“Casanova,” I said.
“Lean back,” he said, “and close your eyes.”
“What will I see there?”
“Visions of sugar plums and fairy queens, me thinks. Lean back.”
I leaned back. “Transport me,” I said.
“Yes, siress. Your every wish is my command.”
“Now who,” I said, “is being mawkish?
“Forgive me, m’lady.”
“Never mind all that,” I said. “Just do as you promised.”
“Gladly, gladly.” He kissed me then, there, he let go with a deep hot breath that washed up through me like a wave of morphine. I shivered. “Are your eyes closed?” he said.
“Tightly,” I said. “Don’t stop.”