Words are not as adequate as teeth.
Incisors are incapable of lying. If I pressed them into wax or paper or fish or flesh you would know my meaning, the constraints of form, and every trivial fact there is to be found, distinguished in its context, beyond the obvious. Words are deficient, even impractical, when attempting to convey the substance of true (modest) self. Deed is definition. We are restricted by mind and voice but not in action, wouldn't you agree? That we can never completely express that which is within. That sometimes the very act of feeling isn't enough to encompass all there is to feel. Frenzy is trying to explain your behaviors to yourself. I suspect I have yet a long way to go at the art of becoming human.
Remember Schlagelford's great treatise on the fear of non-existence. He spent some thirty-seven years of his adult life with his left hand clamped to his left thigh (trouserless, of course). Despite his grip cutting off all circulation in that leg until it withered, blackened, and eventually had to be amputated (and the hand, no more than a frozen talon, had grown useless, and continued to squeeze the phantom limb), at which point he gripped his right thigh with his right hand and had to write his last major work, The Season of Femoral, with quill champed between adequate teeth, still he was content.
Satisfied in his knowledge of personal existence in a world without enough promise or structure.
Do you ever feel that way, Whitt?
There are orange sneakers on the gelded man in the corner.
Which do you prefer? Writing or biting?
The season of femoral begins again.
Do your hands shake?
The mama cultist told Eddie Whitt about the dead ballerina, a god named Mucus-Thorn-In-Brain, and the starving baby that had been stolen out of the back room.
She and her two lumbering middle-aged sons smiled at him. Whitt tried to smile back but the muscles in his jaw were so tight that he barely managed a grimace. It got like that sometimes, when he was forced to hold himself in check. Luckily these people were so caught up in their own mania that they hardly even noticed him while they prattled on incessantly. They gave him a cup of herbal tea that smelled like turpentine and he left it on the scratched table in front of him.
Except for the murders, they were about the same as any other cult members he'd met. Considering his narrow range of interests and social obligations, he'd actually met more than his share. Whatever the hell a man's share of cultists should be in this world.
The woman, Mrs. Prott, who introduced herself as the High Priestess of the Cosmic Knot, spoke with near-hysterical excitement about a new god being born in the back of her son Merwin's heart. Merwin, who had awful surgical scars covering his forehead, grinned stupidly and petted his chest like he was stroking a luscious woman's hair.
The other son, Franklin, was blind and kept flexing his hands like he wanted to leap out of his chair and tear something to pieces.
Whitt feigned interest in Mrs. Prott's sermon and looked at her star charts, notes, magazine articles, and photographs of the multitude of people who played some role in her ever-widening tale of religion, murder, and secret government experiments. She kept tapping a spot between her eyes, saying they'd shot her there and her brain had leaked out, which was why she sometimes got mixed up. Whenever she said the word "government," Merwin would stop stroking his invisible lover's hair and thump his head.
This house had been the dumping ground for members of the group for years. Whitt got up and wandered around while the woman talked, rifling through stacks of newspapers dating back three, four years. He saw himself on the front page of more than one, laid out mostly in the open, as if waiting for him.
A metal shelf unit held two dozen upside-down mason jars, each sealed with contact cement and sprinkled with a handful of salt. Words, possibly names, were scrawled in black marker on old yellow masking tape: Hogarth. Pedantry. Airsiez. Colby. Terminus. Kinnick. Insensate. Testament of Ya'al. Ussel. Dr. Dispensations. O'Mundanity.
She kept on preaching. It threw him off a bit, this lady's willingness to discuss such matters so openly, in her strange manner, as though she were telling only basic, incontrovertible truths. Speaking in a happily lilting voice, like she was overjoyed to find someone who actually had interest in her life, no matter why. Whitt nodded like an idiot and she nodded back. Was it only loneliness that drove people to such extreme acts?
"And she came to you for help," he said, sitting down again, trying to keep Mama on topic. "The ballerina."
"For the truth, yes. And for love. Everyone, always in such need of love. You see, she also had quite the nervous disposition. Emotionally she'd been tormented by her parents, who never responded to her with affection of any kind. They merely drove her ever more forcefully toward the perfection of her dancing. Into the arms of boys. That's what the child was. A symbol of her desperation."
"And you murdered her," Whitt said.
Telling it while fluttering her hand at him as if he were absurd, so silly. "What do you mean? Who?"
Whitt forced his breath out in a stream that blew ripples across the stinking tea. He remembered to make the effort to smile again. "The ballerina."
Head eased back, Franklin rolled his blank eyes up and let out a guffaw. It came from down low in his belly and the depths of his hate. Whitt wanted to hear what the guy's voice sounded like, but so far Franklin refused to make any comment beyond that sick laughter. If any trouble started, Whitt would take out the blind guy before anybody else.
Mrs. Prott said, "Oh yes, that one. The dancer."
The first thing you saw when you looked at Mama Prott was the jiggle of turkey neck. Even when she wasn't turning her head, that neck still flapped, vibrating with her breathing, always catching your attention. Whitt couldn't get over it.
The woman boiling with gaiety, heavy and earthen. She was someone you wanted to hug, really. Her expensive, chic clothing was mismatched and too tight. He figured she'd stolen them from ladies with taste in order to pretend she had some fashion sense herself. Lots of jewelry, most of it fake, but some pieces worth more than this shit hole's entire mortgage. She wore men's wedding bands on both thumbs.
Franklin's hands opening and closing in perfect timing to Whitt's pulse.
Mrs. Prott smiling, her teeth dark and crooked. "Well, no one actually killed her. You cannot destroy that which is obdurate
. You can only transform it. She wasn't human." Doing the fluttery finger thing again. "She was other
, and the purifying light of Mucus-Thorn-In-Brain struck her down when she tried to steal my breath one morning."
"I see," Whitt said.
"She climbed on top of me while I slept and tried to kiss me so she could steal the soulwind from my lungs. You can't call it murder to set right the karmic cosmic wheel again."
"I thought it was a knot."
"A knot that spins and spins like a wheel across the great ecclesiastical galaxy."
"Okay," Whitt said. "So what happened to her?"
"The only way to defend ourselves from a soulthief is to stab it thrice in the heart, with the point of the blade aiming north. Then the throat must be cut so its evil incantations will dribble to the floor instead of being raised to the cosmic masters. This is the transformation that must take place. Conversion. Reformation. Then the genitals must be removed or the seed may infect another vessel and give birth even in its dying throes."
"Dying throes," Whitt repeated.
"And we wouldn't want that. We could not bear that."
"No, we could not."
That blank gaze of the blind man landed on Whitt. Franklin's fists were grasping nothing. The other brother had his hand on his chest. Whitt whispered, "Government, government," and watched Merwin clunk his thatched head twice.
Mama Prott handed Whitt a series of graphs and charts that had been modified from the zodiac. Strange uses of cabalistic symbols, Teutonic characters, numerology, and scatterings of nonsensical pseudosexual terms, with an emphasis on bodily fluids and naughty bits. Phlegm in Hair. Whore's Bait. Orifice Eye. Mucus Desisting the Efforts of Knee. Failure of Urethra. The handwriting so crimped that it would take hours to decipher it all.
Pulling out one particular sheet, stained with pinkish fluid, "Here, here it is," she said, "proof that the girl was other. That the Sect of Purification and Consummation acted in protection of all the earth and humanity."
"So you're a branch of a larger–" What should he call this thing she believed in? He didn't think she'd take offense at the word "cult," but calling this a cult lent it too much credence. "–persuasion."
"Yes. We have nineteen more members back at the other house, where the majority of our communicants live, and where we hold our official ceremonies."
"Which house would that be?" he asked.
Pointing at the far wall, the mis-sized rings on her fingers jingling slightly. "The one on Carver Way, where most of the important rituals are held. This one here, we use it only every so often, to store our belongings. You're very lucky to have found us here this morning."
"Yes," he said.
It took another half hour of finagling, but Whitt finally got the ballerina's name out of her: Grace Kinnick. It was one of the names on the jars. What did the Protts think they had in there? Captured souls?
"And the child?"
"Stolen. That's why we need your help. The beget . . . the offspring . . . of the soulthief is still in its genuine form. It can be dealt with now. Sent back into the celestial continuum where it can once again rejoin with the great astral identiform."
"We have to have the child before midnight Friday night. You said you know who has it now?"
"That's right, it's with a friend of mine who works for social services," Whitt lied. He grinned at Merwin. "A government agency."
Merwin rapped himself in the head again, looking scared that somebody from the Pentagon might come take away more of his brain. And Whitt sitting here making a game of it. He had to have a little fun so he didn't go wild and start crossing the hard line, becoming what everyone told him he'd become.
"Oh, it's dangerous to have the beget loose like this," Mrs. Prott warbled, the neck going gangbusters. "Magic circles must be precipitated, the proper guiding influences invoked before the evisceration and following rituals."
Whitt said, "So the baby is other
. Genuine. It's blood-tainted. And must be struck down by Mucus-Thorn-In-Brain. And returned to the cosmic knot."
She broke into a delighted squeal that went on for too long. "Yes, exactly. Oh, you are adept. A true sensitive. You have the gift, do you realize that? I've never seen an aura quite like yours. You're exceptionally dark and very powerful."
"How often have you done this?" he asked. "Purified these . . . evils."
"Oh, we don't keep accounts of such things. This is a spiritual war we fight. There are many casualties sprawled across both sides of the veil."
"Fourteen," Franklin said, a wet chuckle easing from his chest. "The ballerina was number fourteen."
That voice, obscenely joyful, yet frothing with its hate. Whitt shifted to the edge of the chair in case he had to dive. Thinking that maybe now Franklin was about to use those hands. "What do you mean?"
"The ballerina was number fourteen," Franklin repeated. "The baby, it would've been fifteen."
Mama Prott smiled at her boy. Whitt thought about the dead, probably buried in the yard, hidden in the house. He stared at the spot between her eyes, where she said they'd shot her and her brains had leaked out, and wondered if he could drop, roll aside, draw his .32, spring to his feet, and hit the target, the way he'd been practicing.
"So, Mr. Whitt, can you help us retrieve the offspring?"
"Yes," he said. "I consider it my reverent duty."
"Glorious! We'll be holding services this afternoon at the other house."
"On Carver Way."
"Yes. Please join us so we can sanctify and protect you from harm. You'll never regret your initiation into that which is Mucus-Thorn-In-Brain and the clarity and peace you'll feel afterwards. We'll brighten your aura yet."
That thick neck wobbling. The blind guy glaring. The other one grinning, his scars thick and shining like leeches.
"I look forward to it," Whitt said.
He drove off, parked around the corner near a sump that doubled as a dump site, and waited until the woman and her sons left in their SUV with out-of-state plates. More stolen goods. Spoils of the dead. He returned to the house with a pickax, shovel, and flashlight and stepped in through the broken back door that had been tied shut with the elastic from an old brassiere.
He left the tools on the stoop while he searched the house for any other squirrelly cultists who might be hiding under a bed somewhere. Except there weren't any beds. The three upstairs rooms looked poisonous, toxic, the old paint peeling in strips and the plaster gouged by fingernails. He found bullet holes and dried spatters that could've been any of the bodily fluids the Protts seemed to groove on so much.
Whitt grabbed his tools again and looked for the cellar door. He found it hidden behind the metal shelving stacked with all the upside-down jars of trapped souls.
The old stupidity and lack of control overwhelmed him for a minute. He took great pleasure in smashing the glass containers and releasing Hogarth and Ussel and Airsiez and the rest. He held on to the jar with the ballerina in it and pressed it to the side of his head, knowing how insane it looked but feeling an urgency to will her to peace, if he could. You never knew what you could do when you put your mind to it. Finally he hurled the container against the wall with the rest of them and went into the basement to dig.
The body was in the corner of the dirt floor about three feet down, missing its genitals and wearing orange sneakers, just like Killjoy had said.
Brunkowski kept him waiting so long on the wooden bench outside his office that Whitt fell asleep seated next to a sixty-year-old Latino pimp. You'd think a pimp, even one from Nassau County, might be insulted by that. Yank a straight razor out of his back pocket and get to work with it, but the guy didn't seem to mind. In fact he shifted a little so Whitt's head fit comfortably into the crook of his arm. The pimp wore a chocolate silk suit and looked more like a Wall Street trader. Whitt lay there against the guy's shoulder dreaming of a playground covered with crows.
When his three whores were released on bail, the pimp gently woke Whitt and disentangled himself. The trio of white girls wearing transparent plastic blouses and thongs cackled, but the pimp said nothing. You could meet another member of the brotherhood of pain in a form and fashion you'd never guess possible.
Excerpted from The Dead Letters by Tom Piccirilli. Copyright © 2006 by Tom Piccirilli. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.