The eyes were dark, encircled in shadows cast by a prominent brow at the center of which was set a diamond-shaped green jewel the size of a thumbnail.
The laughter lingered for a brief time, quickly diminished to a whisper, and then vanished.
A Man of Light|
by Jeffrey Ford
As if arranged for a game of musical chairs, the furniture in the large parlor was all gathered in a tight oval at the center of the room where divan backs touched the backs of rockers. Between two chairs was a small table upon which the servant rested a tray of hors d'oeuvres and the sole guest his drink. Other than this clutch of seating and an opulent crystal chandelier of six lit candles and five hundred pendants hanging directly above it, the space was completely bare. The floor, consisting of cheap gray planks, the kind used to build fences against dunes near the seashore, was swept perfectly clean. The walls all around, interrupted only once by a small rectangular window that gave a view of the eastern side of the estate, reached to a height of fifteen feet and were devoid of paintings or bric-a-brac. Instead they were neatly covered, floor to ceiling, with a faux-velvet olive green paper.
A lone cellist played in the room above the parlor, and the quiet, contemplative tune seemed to filter down through the center of the chandelier and disperse itself in droplets of light. The servant retreated to some other room of the enormous house, and the single guest, a young man by the name of August Fell, a reporter from the Gazette, sat in a straight-backed chair, reviewing the list of questions he'd jotted in his notebook. The peaceful nature of the music's glow, the palliative effects of the wine, his awe at the prospect of having an audience with Larchcroft, caused him to whisper as he read aloud what he'd earlier written. If he managed to bring it off, this would be the only interview ever conducted with his host.
Young August knew as much as the man on the street about Larchcroft, who carried the moniker "Man of Light" precisely because he'd shown the world what could be accomplished by manipulating that most elemental of substances. For working his alchemy of luminescence, turning the grim beautiful, the threadbare new, the physical spiritual, and the false true, the world had paid him handsomely. He'd come to the attention of the public while still in his twentiesnot much older than August himselfby one night lighting, with five perfectly placed beacons, merely candlepower and large lenses, the local bank of his hometown so that the entire building, with its marble columns and decorative arch, appeared to float a good two feet off the ground. Since then he'd gained world renown as a visionary of illumination. Customers famous, infamous, and pedestrian patronized his services for a myriad of reasons. He utilized his expertise in all types of light imaginable, from sunlight to starlight, firefly to flame, to satisfy any and all requests.
One simple example of Larchcroft's magic was his personalized makeup regimen for discerning women. Of course this process didn't achieve the same level of international notoriety as his famous feat of lighting a battlefield to appear like Heaventhe corpses transformed into heaps of sleeping angels; an overturned war wagon taking on the very countenance of Godbut the secrets of his cosmetics had been revealed by him whereas those of his more flamboyant efforts had not. Patrons had written to him with the simple request that he use his art to make them appear younger.
He produced a makeup that directed light to magically vanish extra chins, smooth wrinkles, negate crow's feet, and offer up to the world the radiance of youth and health. The idea had come to him when his constant research led him to read that the old masters, in the production of their paints, ground substances to a certain coarseness or fineness with a mind toward how each would refract and reflect. These painters knew exactly what would happen to light when it came in contact with their homemade paint and through well-wrought strategies of intersecting beams were able to make their images appear to glow from within.
Larchcroft did the same with powder and rouge and eyeliner and for his efforts achieved even more remarkable results. Each patron's features were assessed by his people and prescribed an idiosyncratic formulation of makeup and a special plan of application. Crones appeared coquettes, and the plain-faced were transformed into sultry temptresses, so that by the end of an evening of socializing many a man found himself smitten with someone's grandmother. This rarely became an issue, for as many men purchased the same service, and since the process negated the ravages of age equally at all ages, the man finding a grandmother was more than likely someone's grandfather.
August, his notebook closed now, sipping port amidst the aural rain of light, could hardly believe his good fortune. All he'd done to arrange the meeting was write a letter to Larchcroft and request an interview. When he'd told his boss this, the older man laughed at him and shook his head. "You're a fool, lad, to think this man will give you five minutes," said his boss. For three weeks he was the laughing stock of the Gazette, until one day a letter arrived with Larchcroft's name on the return address. When it was opened, the shiny material inside the flap of the envelope caught the ambient light from the gas lamps of the newspaper office and shone back so brightly into the room that all present were momentarily blinded.
An hour passed in the vast parlor, and August began to wonder if perhaps the famous recluse had changed his mind. Then the music abruptly ceased. A door opened at the very northern end of the parlor, and a gentleman in evening wear, sporting a bow tie and a red carnation in his lapel, entered. He stood still for a moment, as if having forgotten something, and then, leaving the door open halfway, slowly walked toward the center of the room.
"Mr. Fell," he said and waited, even though he'd already captured August's attention. "Mr. Larchcroft will now speak to you."
There was a prolonged silence in anticipation of the great man's entrance through the far door, but seconds gave way to minutes. The gentleman with the carnation in his lapel stood perfectly still in a half-bow. Finally, August asked quietly, "Sir, are you Mr. Larchcroft?"
The gentleman sighed and said, "I am not. He's right over there." He turned and pointed behind him at a spot near the entrance. August's glance tracked the man's direction, and a moment later, two sounds followed. The first was a gasp, and the second, coming quickly after, was that of a wine glass smashing upon the wooden floor. The sudden panic that seized the young reporter found its impetus in the fact that floating gracefully through the room, close to the right-hand wall, was a disembodied head, its chestnut hair streaked with gray and combed back in waves, gathered behind by a length of silver ribbon.
August stood, took a step forward, and the head turned to take him in. The face wore a stern countenance, bearing a slight but by no means insignificant descent at the corners of the lips; a subtle arch of the brows. It was a generous head, with fleshy cheeks that sagged into jowls and a long nosebridge arched outward, tip pointing at the floor. The eyes were dark, encircled in shadows cast by a prominent brow at the center of which was set a diamond-shaped green jewel the size of a thumbnail.
The head finally stopped moving and came around to face August straight on. Its strict gaze shifted back and forth, as if sizing him up, and the young man believed he'd been, by his appearance alone, found wanting. Before he could look away though, the face of Larchcroft broke into a huge smile. His teeth gleamed in the soft light from the chandelier, and the entirety of his visage seemed to shine. "Thank you very kindly for waiting," he said. "I had an engagement in town earlier this evening that took me longer than I'd wished." August smiled back and took another step.
"Come closer," said Larchcroft, "and mind that you watch the glass splinters."
August began to apologize, but the head of the great man said, "Nonsense. It's not the first time that's happened." Then he laughed heartily. "Come closer, away from the glass, and take a seat on the floor."
Like a child at nursery school, the reporter sat on the floor but a few feet from the hovering visage, crossing his legs Indian-style. Larchcroft's head descended two feet, as if his nonexistent body was sitting onto an invisible chair. He stared up for a moment at the chandelier and then spoke:
"It's a strange thing to set out to learn about a Man of Light at night when the world is dark. But all things begin in darkness and far too many end there."
August simply stared, unable to speak.
"I believe you have questions?" said Larchcroft.
The young man fumbled with his notebook, flipping through the pages so quickly a few were torn off at the corners. He licked his dry lips and then repeated a question quietly to himself before voicing it. "Yes, sir," said August, trembling. "Where were you born?"
The head wagged slowly back and forth.
"No?" said August.
"No," said Larchcroft. "Everyone knows already where I was born. They've seen photographs of my parents in the newspapers. They've declared the hovel I grew up in a historic landmark, they wept at the early demise of my first wife, etc., etc. Look, son, if you want to get anywhere in life, you have to ask the big questions."
"You mean, like why are you only
a head?" asked August.
"Not bad for a start. Pay attention." Larchcroft's head turned to face the man with the red carnation in his lapel, who had gone to stand by the door at the far end of the room. "Baston," called the Man of Light.
"Sir," said the butler, looking up.
"Tell Hoates to play a few bars," Larchcroft called.
The man by the open door leaned through the entrance and yelled, "Hoates, a few bars, old boy."
A second later, the music again filtered down from the room upstairs. "Should I be listening for something?" asked August.
"No," said Larchcroft, "watching and watching intently." He then closed his eyes and hummed along with the tune.
August watched but was confused as to what he was supposed to be watching. This is certainly the strangest night of my life, he thought. And then he began to see something he hadn't seen before. There was a very vague outline descending from the bottom of the great man's head, where, if it had a neck, that neck would be. August squinted and saw more of this line and a moment later saw a line descending on the other side from the bottom of the head. More seconds passed and it began to become clear to himthe vague shape of Larchcroft's body.
At that juncture, Larchcroft called out "Enough" so loudly that the man with the carnation didn't have to transfer the message upstairs. The music ceased, and, when it did, the faint lines that had begun to define the Man of Light's body suddenly disappeared. August snapped his head back and blinked.
Larchcroft's eyelids lifted, and he smiled. "What did you see?" he asked.
"I began to see you," said August.
"Very good. I'm wearing a suit: pants, jacket, shirt, gloves, shoes and socks, all the exact same torpid velvet green as the wallpaper. The light acoustics in this room, if we can call them thatthe barren space, the grayness of the floor, the height of the ceiling, our mass, and, of course, the glow of the chandelier, soft as liquid fireconspire to make all but my head invisible against this background. But when Hoates plays his cello on the floor above, positioned directly over the chandelier, the vibration of the instrument travels through the ceiling and is picked up by the crystal pendants, which vibrate ever so slightly, altering the consistency of the light field and sundering the illusion."
"And you are sitting on a bench or chair upholstered in the same green?" asked August in an excited voice.
"Precisely," said Larchcroft.
"Ingenious," said the young man and laughed.
Larchcroft laughed uncontrollably for a time, and August thought the sight of it was both wonderful and somewhat horrible.
"You're a smart lad," said the head, nodding in approval. "I have every bit of faith that you'll come up with the right question."
At first August felt confident that he wouldn't disappoint. The question seemed right on the tip of his tongue, but after sitting with his mouth open for a time, he found it had never been there at all and the sensation of its presence dissolved.
Larchcroft rolled his eyes. His head lurched forward and lowered itself toward August. The mouth opened, and, when words came forth, the young reporter could smell the warm, garlic-laced breath of his subject. "The Creature of Night," came the great man's whispered message and was followed by a wink. Then the head ascended and moved back away.
"Can you please tell me about the creature of night?" asked August, bringing his pencil to the ready and resting his notebook on his knee.
Larchcroft sighed. "I suppose," he said, "although it's a very personal story, and I shan't tell it more than this one time. I will have to fill you in on some preliminaries first."
"I'm ready," said August.
"Well," said Larchcroft, closing his eyes briefly as if to gather his thoughts. "Light is a creative genius, an inventor, a sculptor. For proof of this we look no further than in the closest mirror, at our own faces, and precisely into our own eyes. Can you think of anything, my dear Mr. Fell, more intricately complex, more perfectly compact and thoroughly functional than the human eye?"
"No, sir," said August.
"I thought not," said Larchcroft. "Consider this though. Your eyes were created by light. Without the existence of light, we would not have eyes. Over the long course of man's evolutionary maturation to his modern condition, light sculpted these magical orbs, making subtle adjustments through the centuries, until now they are capable of the incredible process of sight. This most vital sense, not only a means of self-preservation but the single most important catalyst for culture, is a product of the inherent genius of light.
"In ancient times it was believed that our eyes were like beacons, generating beams that issued forth, mingling with the light of the sun as like is to like, to strike things and return to us a reflection that we would then register as sight. Now we understand that the eyes are only elaborate sensors by which light communicates with us. Make no mistake about it—light is sentient. It directs our will. Is both a taskmaster and a protective parent. This I understood very early in my investigation of it. From the time when I was five and I saw a beam of sunlight entering a room through a pinhole in a window blind, striking a goldfish bowl and being dispersed in the guise of its constituent colors, it was but a few short years of intellectual pursuit of the phenomenon before I realized that everything we see and seem is merely the detritus of pure light, or so I thought."
"One moment," said August as he scribbled madly. "You are saying that everything in existence is merely a product of the breakdown of light?"
"More or less," said Larchcroft. "This theory led me to a deep enough understanding of my subject to perform some feats of illusion that caught the attention of the public. But after I had gone to university and learned the mathematical formulas that neatly boiled down into numbers my youthful, groping discoveries, it seemed I could go no further with the subject. I'd come up against a kind of impenetrable wall, blocking me from the quintessential secrets. What it came to, I realized, is that light communicated with us through the eyes, but the eyes were merely receptors, so it could tell us, lecture us, demand of us, but there was no recourse for dialogue. I could manipulate the processes of light to some degree, as it would allow me, but the cold, hard fact remained: my relationship with the mind of light would always remain limited.
"Then, one night, during the months in which I was suffering a kind of depression from the realization of this limitation, after a late dinner of curried lamb, I took to my bed and had a vivid dream. I found myself attending a party in the one-room schoolhouse I attended when I was a child. There were about a dozen guests, including myself, and the teacher, who was no teacher I remembered but a very lovely young woman with golden hair and a peaceful countenance. All of the desks had been removed and there was only one table, with a punch bowl on it. We conversed for I'm not sure how long. The strange thing was, no candles had been lit, and we stood in the dim shadows, able only to see by the moonlight coming in the windows. Then, someone noticed that the teacher was missing. An old fellow with white hair went to search for her, and he soon came upon her lying next to a window, bathed in moonbeam. He called to us to come quickly, for it was evident she'd been murdered. There was blood all over, but this was weird blood with the consistency of string or thread, and it wrapped around her like a web.
"All present somehow came to the conclusion that I had killed her. I didn't remember doing it but felt very guilty. While the rest stood in awe, staring down at the odd condition of the body, I very quietly sidled away, one small step at a time. Upon reaching the side door of the schoolhouse, I silently let myself out, walked down the steps, and fled. I didn't run, but I walked quickly. Instead of heading for the road, I went in the other direction, behind the school, through the trees, toward the river. There was snow on the ground. It was chilly, and the night sky was brilliant with the full moon and thousands of stars. The silhouettes of the tree trunks and barren branches were so visually crisp. I felt great remorse as I moved toward the riverbank.
"Once at the river, I removed all of my clothing. I now found myself holding a very large, round wicker basket without a handle, its circumference wide enough to cover the area from my head to my waist. I stepped into the water of the river, which came to my upper thighs, expecting it to be frigid. It was not. Then I leaned forward onto the basket and let myself be taken by the flow of the river. I passed beautiful snow-covered scenery lit by the resplendent night sky above. This smooth journey seemed to go on for hours, and then I watched the sun come up before me, as if the river were leading directly into its fiery heart. The light from the sun washed over me and whispered that all would be well. I stood up and left the river and thought to myself, 'You've made it, Larchcroft, you're free.' Then I woke up.
"An odd dream, but no odder than most. The instant I opened my eyes, the thing I focused on was not its symbolic meaning. Instead I wondered, and this was the greatest revelation of my entire career as a lightsmith, 'Where does the light in dreams come from?' Within an hour of pondering this question, it came to me that there must be two types of light in the universe, the outer light of suns and candles, and the inner light originating from our own idiosyncratic minds. Eureka! Mr. Fell. There it was!"
August wrote madly for a time, trying to catch up with his subject's story. When he was done, he looked up at Larchcroft's face and said, "Excuse my ignorance, sir, but there what was?"
"Don't you see? I knew that for me to plumb the depths of the soul of light, I needed to somehow intermingle my inner light with the outer light. In order to, as I said earlier, ask the big questions. But how? That was the dilemma. As astonishing a creation as they are, eyes were no good for this effort, for they are strictly organs of reception. For a solid year, I researched this conundrum.
"Then one day while trying to rest my exhausted mind from the problem at hand, I flipped through a book of prints I'd purchased and never had time to peruse. There was one peculiar painting entitled The Cure for Folly. In this painting there was a man sitting back upon a reclining chair, and standing behind him was what I took to be a physician. This physician seemed to be performing surgery, making a hole with a small instrument in the supine patient's forehead. A stream of blood was coursing down the patient's face, but despite this harrowing operation, he was completely wide-awake. It came to me eventually that this was a depiction of the ancient practice of trepanning."
"Trepanning?" asked August. "Making a hole in someone's head?"
"That's the long and short of it," said Larchcroft. "The practice goes back to the dawn of humanity. Its medical purpose is to alleviate pressure on the brain from either injury or disease. In occult circles though, in the rarified business of shamans, seers, visionaries, this same operation was performed with the design of opening a large direct conduit to the universe. Reports of these instances are rare, but I'd read a few by those who had undergone trepanning for these purposes. They attested to having experienced a continuous euphoria, an otherworldly energy, a deep, abiding confluence with all creation. As for myself, I didn't give a fig for euphoria. What I wanted was a way for my inner light to exit the cave of my cranium and join in conversation with the outer light of the universe.
"I made up my mind to undergo the surgery and began searching about for a physician who could do it. In the meantime, I foresaw a problem. Once I had a hole in my head, how was I going to direct my inner light to flow outward? All of the testimony I'd read by patients of trepanning gave the impression that the aperture was a portal for the universe to enter. I needed some method of controlling my imagination. What I realized was that I needed to conceive of my messenger to the outside world in some symbolic sense, a figure for me to focus on and express my will through. So I sat down, and, with a modicum of grunting and a maximum of daydreaming, I impregnated my imagination with my desire." Here, Larchcroft went silent.
August looked up, scanned the room, and then directed his gaze back to the head. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
Larchcroft shook his head. "It's just that you must assure me that you won't take offense at what I'm about to say."
"Something about the nature of the messenger?" asked the young man.
"Well," said the Man of Light, "my imagination gave birth to the concept of a young man, much like youinquisitive, prepared to ask the big questions, toting a notebook made, like himself, from the substance of dreams."
"I'm not offended by that," said August. "It makes sense."
"Yes, but I don't mean to imply that you are merely a messenger. You're a reporter, and proving to be a good one at that."
"Thank you," said August.
"That said, yes, my messenger was a young man much like you, and once he materialized, I began thinking about him constantly, so I would not forget him and I could call him forth at a moment's notice. I gave him a name, and then, over the course of many nights, trained myself to dream about him. Once I could insure his presence in my dreams, I worked on taking into sleep with me a command to give him. And so it was in my dreams that I'd see him, walking along a street, sitting at breakfast, lying in bed with a young woman, and I'd say in a low voice to him, 'Take your notebook, go to the Master of Light, and ask him the questions you have written down. Receive his answers and commit them to the notebook. Then bring them back to me.' He would dutifully do as I'd instructed, passing old acquaintances of mine, blue poodles, snarling beasts of the night's devising, and all manner of dream images. Nothing would dissuade his progress until he'd come to a door, painted black. Try as he might, turning the knob, pushing and kicking with all he was worth, he could not open the door. This he repeated every night, and every night, without frustration, he'd come to the door and try to pass through."
"There was no exit as of yet in your skull. Am I correct, Mr. Larchcroft?" asked August.
"Well put," said the Man of Light. "Meanwhile, as I was training my messenger, I was given, by one of my many contacts, the name of a fellow who might perform a trepanning for purposes other than medical. There were surgeons close by to where I was living at the time who knew the procedure, but when I told them why I desired it, they refused to do the surgery, certain I'd lost my mind. The fellow in question was not a doctor at all but had battlefield experience and, as I was told, would perform just about any operation requested of him."
"But what made him well-suited for your situation?" asked August.
"Nothing, really, beyond the fact that he was down on his luck; an opium addict in need of ready cash. His experience having tended to the sick and dying in wartime inured him to the sight of carnage, left him with nerves of steel or such a lack of concern about the outcome that geysers of blood, gaping flesh wounds, and the ear-piercing screams of his patients never made him flinch. For all procedures, he'd offer the same anesthesiaa half bottle of Barcher's Yellow Gulley. Abortions and amputations for the frantic and destitute were his specialty.
"I met Frank Scatterill (an unfortunate name to be sure) on an overcast day in late autumn in the lobby of The Windsor Arms, a sort of house of prostitution/saloon/hotel. In describing him, the word that comes immediately to mind is tired. He appeared exhausted, his lids half-closed, his hands slightly trembling. Even his face sagged, adorned with a long, drooping mustache. With his sallow complexion and air of utter fatigue, he managed a yellow-toothed smile for me as I handed him the cash advance.
"He led me to a small third-floor flat, half of which he had rigged out as an operating den with a reclining barber's chair and a table full of instruments and candles and half-empty bottles of Barcher's. On the floor were old sheets, still bearing the dried telltale gore of his last operation. While I drank my half bottle of the Yellow Gulley, a piss concoction that never really dulled the pain but made me nauseous and tired, Scatterill explained the operation to me. He held up each of the tools he'd be using, the scalpel, for tissue incision, cutting and laying back the folds of forehead flesh; the trephine, like a corkscrew with a circular saw at the bottom; a Hey saw, which appeared a tiny hatchet with one serrated edge; a file for smoothing the edges of the opening; a bone brush for removing the skull dust.
"I asked him where the incision is usually made, and he pointed to a spot somewhat higher up on the forehead than I'd imagined, near the hairline. I told him I wanted it lower, directly at the center of my forehead in the indentation between the two ridges of brow. 'Whatever you like, captain,' he said in response. I also told him I wanted the edges of flesh cauterized so they would not grow back. I then took from my pocket the emerald you now see embedded in my forehead and instructed him to use it to stopper the hole with once the entire operation had been completed"
"Excuse me, Mr. Larchcroft, but the emeraldwhere did you come by that?" asked August.
"It was given to me in exchange for a lighting job I once did for a dead woman. A wealthy matriarch requested that I light her casket so that it appeared her cadaver's eyes were still moving back and forth during her wake. She wanted to give the impression to her grasping children that though she was gone she would always be watching them. The job was easily done with a couple of flame-powered paddle fans and the surreptitious placement of reflectors." Larchcroft pursed his lips and squinted, trying to remember where he'd been in the larger story.
," said August.
"Oh, yes. Scatterill shook like a dried cornstalk in a January gale," said Larchcroft. "It was obvious this was not from any nervousness associated with the task but from some physical ailment as a result of his affair with the poppy. He was so long at screwing that trephine, I thought he was heading to China. I can't recall the pain, although I know there was some. My blood flowed freely, and the Yellow Gulley nearly left the gulley of my stomach on more than one occasion. I passed out near the end of the procedure and woke a few minutes later to the fetid smell of my own seared flesh. As I roused, Scatterill positioned a hand mirror in front of my face and I beheld my blood-drenched countenance now transformed with a third eye of brilliant green.
"Baston ferried me home in a hired cab, and I took to my bed, sleeping straight through for three days. This time was not fallow though, for while I slept I dreamed constantly of my messenger, following him through his days, his comings and goings on the street, drinking in the ale house, quietly jotting notes for his future interview, and wooing a beautiful young woman named May. Funny thing, this figure of May was the same as the schoolteacher whom I'd supposedly murdered in the earlier dream. 'Soon, very soon,' I promised the messenger as he went about his mundane life."
"May?" said August quietly, staring at the wall behind the floating head.
"A common enough name," said Larchcroft. "And so the time finally came to intermingle my inner light with that of the universe." Here, he cleared his throat and waited for the young reporter to snap out of the sudden trance.
"Very good," said August, looking back at Larchcroft and applying his pencil to the notebook.
"On a gloriously bright day in December, I dressed warmly, mittens and scarf, leggings, three shirts beneath my coat, and stepped out onto the second-floor balcony of my home. There, I laid down on my back in the direct sunlight, unstoppered my head by removing the emerald, and fell into a deep sleep. As soon as my first dream coalesced, I caught sight of my messenger, notebook at the ready, heading down a long alleyway toward that door, which was no longer black but now a bright green. He had a look of determination upon his face and his stride was all business. As he approached the door, it swung open and a bright light filled the frame. He stepped through, into the light of the universe, and from that point onward I was filled with the most excruciating sensation of ecstasy.
"I awoke on the balcony after dark, shivering so badly I could barely fit the emerald back into the hole in my forehead. No matter all of the clothes I'd put on; while I'd slept, the temperature had dropped drastically with the onset of night. My joints had seized from the cold, and it was a struggle just to get to all fours, open the balcony doors, and crawl into the warmth of the house. A half hour later, once the more temperate conditions of the upstairs parlor had a chance to work on my bones, I was able to get to my feet. I struggled, to be sure, but the only thing I could think about was going back to sleep, locating my messenger in the dream realm and discovering what revelations he'd brought back from his interview.
"Once I'd removed all of my extra clothing and had a small glass of rye, I began to feel the effects of my foolish tactic of lying outside all of a winter's day. Although I was wide-awake, I felt feverish, and regardless of how well my plan had worked, a vague sense of depression and angst gathered around me like an autumn fog. To clear my mind, I decided to work on my accounts, the simple process of seeing which of my patrons had paid up and which had not, but I found the light of the candle I worked by irritated my eyes to the point where I couldn't concentrate. Instead, I retired to a dark corner of my office along with the bottle of whiskey.
"I drank in order to quell the rising sense of foreboding and to again achieve sleep. The former was undaunted and the latter was reluctant to come. I sat in a stupor until the sun showed itself through my office window, and the sight of it frightened me. I fled slowly to my bedroom, pulled the blinds down, the drapes over, and lay in darkness. I tossed and turned for another eight hours or so, shivering and sweating, before sleep finally descended.
"Once in dreams, I searched for my messengerby then this process had become second natureand found him, his collar turned up, walking along a cobblestone lane at night, toting his notebook beneath his arm. A wintry wind blew from behind and pushed him down the street along with old scraps of newspaper and dead leaves. I saw him stop and spin around to listen intently. Behind him, from the shadows, came the sound of footsteps. He turned and doubled his speed.
"There followed a period of time where the dream was unclear to me, and then it returned and I saw him again. He'd reached the front door of his boarding house. Opening it, he entered and quietly, as to not disturb the other boarders sleeping in their rooms, took the two flights of steps to his own. He entered and locked the door behind him. Once his coat was off, he lit a candle and sat at his desk, the notebook in front of him. He turned back the cover and a few blank pages, and at this point I was able to swoop down behind him and look over his shoulder at the results of his interview. To my surprise, and I could tell to his as well, the pages were perfectly black, as if covered from margin to margin with a layer of soot. He cursed loudly and slammed the notebook shut. The slap of it closing woke me.
"Something had gone wrong," said August, ceasing his writing for a moment.
Larchcroft nodded, and his countenance became stern. "Oh, something had gone wrong, alright. The worst of it wasn't blackened pages, I can assure you. When I woke from that dream, I stumbled out of bed and left my room. Out in the hallway, I was struck by the sunlight coming in the large window in front of me, and I let out a cry like a dying animal. The pain was intolerable, all over, and especially in my head, where it felt like my brain was on fire. I ran, growling and whimpering, down two flights of stairs to the cellar. There, in the darkness, I huddled in a corner trembling. It was as if I'd awoken from a dream into a nightmare.
"There I stayed. The thought of the merest spark of light filled me with paroxysms of fear. I slid to the floor and remained, passing in and out of consciousness. Baston, who had been searching for me, finally came to the cellar door and called down. The light that seeped in from the upper floors of the house clawed at my eyes, and the pain brought me around. I screamed at him to shut the door quickly. He brought me my meals down there. And it was only once the sun had set that my mind returned to its usual abilities of cogitation.
"After I'd eaten my dinner and drank two cups of strong coffee, I began trying to cipher out the meaning of my transformation. Retracing the events of the previous days, I believed I finally understood what had happened, and the realization, though in a way marvelous, was also quite disturbing. During my attempt to send the messenger of my dreams out into the world of light, I'd left the aperture in my head open too long. Night had fallen, and some creature of darkness had crawled inside of me like a mouse through a split in the clapboard on a winter's day, looking for warmth. Yes, the dark was inside of me, and it was growing, taking control.
"If any proof of my theory was needed, it was provided by the current plight I found my messenger in when I fell into a fitful sleep later on. The day had broken in his dream world, but I found him and the other citizens of his town frantic, because although the sun shone there, a sinister phenomenon had occurred. Pitch blackness, darker than night, had encircled the town and was closing in. The things it covered were not merely cast in shadow but were consumed. People had been swallowed, buildings negated, the landscape blotted out.
"Upon waking, I thought a cure might be, no matter how painful, removing the jewel from my forehead and subjecting my mind to an antidote of unfiltered sunlight. The problem with my plan soon became evident when I tried but found I could not command my hand to perform the task. The creature of the dark had insinuated its tentacles into the mechanisms of my brain and would not allow itself to be destroyed. I fell into the most abject depression and was powerless to conceive of any thought other than that of suicide. I cringe now at the thought of revealing this to you and ultimately your readers, but I actually began banging my head against one of the cellar's wooden beams, hoping to do myself in through severe head trauma. Ridiculous, no?" Larchcroft shook his head, smiling.
"Not at all," said August. "A desperate situation, I understand."
"Bless you," said the Man of Light. "I managed only to knock myself unconscious and back into the dream of my messenger. I found him at a bizarre juncture. Hand in hand with May, he ran through the streets of town. A crowd of those who had not as of yet been taken by the dark also fled to the center of the ever-diminishing circle of light. I watched this all with a placid sense of disinterest. At first I thought the young man and his girlfriend were running for their lives, but it soon became clear to me that he had a destination in mind, for he was searching the addresses of the buildings they passed.
"I realized he must have found the place, because he and May rushed up a set of steps and inside of a dilapidated old structure of five stories and crumbling brickwork. As they ran past the entrance, I read the chipped and fading sign, Windsor Arms. I tell you, my interest was roused. Without stopping, they ran through the empty lobby and took to the staircase. Up three flights they sped and came to halt outside a familiar green door. The messenger knocked, and there was no answer. Without hesitating, he turned the knob and pushed open the door. Inside the dimly lit room, they found a dream-world Frank Scatterill sitting in a chair, puffing away at an opium pipe, a blue cloud surrounding his head.
"What followed next was difficult to discern, as it happened in a blur. There was a great commotion out on the street, a chorus of abbreviated screams of anguish. Then total silence. The young woman, May, for some reason had disrobed and was standing, shivering, in the cold off to the side of the operating area. The messenger was reclining in the barber chair, importuning Scatterill to hurry. The dreary addict fumbled with some tools on his worktable. I believe I was the first to notice itthe dark began flowing into the room like water from the space beneath the door.
"'There's no time for that,' said the messenger just before he lay back and fell instantly asleep. May cried once and was consumed by the dark, which was filling the room. Scatterill lifted something off the table. I only caught the glint of it in the light from the single remaining candle. By this point he and the messenger on the chair were enclosed in a mere bubble of light. The surgeon held his hand out, aiming at the young man's forehead. I saw he held a derringer. As the dark's five hundred tentacles began to wrap themselves around Scatterill, he pulled the trigger, and his death cry was masked by the report of the weapon. A neat, bloodless, smoking hole had appeared in the center of the messenger's forehead.
"The dark closed in, but before it could eradicate the young man, a bright beam shot forth from the hole in his head as if his cranium had become a lighthouse. This brilliant light gathered itself together into a human figure without features. Its powerful glow pushed back the dark. The dark, for its part, sent forth a large glob of night, which also quickly took the form of human figure but remained connected to the greater darkness by a kind of umbilical cord. The light and the dark then came together and met in combat.
"My experience of this battle was hallucinatory, to say the least. Even in sleep I could feel my mind buzzing, my skull vibrating. I don't know how long the match lasted, but it was a brutal struggle for victory. Finally, after they had each managed to get the other in a stranglehold, their bodies thrust so tightly together parts of them appeared gray, there came an audible pop, and a moment later, all was returned to normal in the dream world. I looked out the window of Scatterill's room and saw a placid twilight. The dream citizens below on the street were passing to and fro on their normal business. The messenger awoke then, even though the bullet wound remained in his head. He sat up, and, when he looked around, I could tell he was actually seeing me. He scrabbled forward to the floor and found the surgeon's derringer, aiming it at me. I put my hands up in front of my face. He must have pulled the trigger then, because I heard a click. The weapon only carried a single shot and that had been spent, but that distinct sound woke me. I called for Baston, and he helped me up the stairs and into the light of day."
"A perfect ending," said August and reached inside his jacket. Larchcroft's eyes flashed, following the reporter's movement, and his mouth tightened. The young man slowly drew a handkerchief from his inner pocket and applied it to his forehead. Larchcroft gave a sigh of relief.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to inspect your notes," said the Man of Light.
August held his notebook forward. The head leaned closer, and there appeared a green-gloved hand against the back cover of the book as it was lifted away. As Larchcroft flipped the pages, evidently reading, he passed his other green-gloved hand once over each page as if giving his blessing to what had been written there.
"You never did get the answers to your questions, did you?" said August.
The eyes of the Man of Light remained focused on the pages, but he answered, "I gained answers to questions I never conceived of asking."
"May I inquire as to what you learned?" asked the reporter. "Or do you count this information a trade secret?"
"I learned that light is not the sole proprietor of the universe. One must count the dark as equally powerful. Knowing this made me more expert at my work than any specific answers the messenger might have returned with. If you want to know the truth about the light, you must ask the dark. Since this incident, I've become a willing student of the night, of shadows, of the cavernous recesses of my own mind. Terrible things lurk there, but terrible beauty as well. All this has made me the lightsmith I am today."
"The dark is half the story then," said August.
"Yes," said Larchcroft, "it's a willing teacher. All it asks is the occasional sacrifice." He let go of the notebook then, and it fell to the floor in front of August.
The reporter did not reach for it, as he was too deeply immersed in trying to encompass all he'd learned that night. Thought led onto thought and drew him spiraling down into his imagination. He couldn't tell how long he'd sat contemplating the struggle between light and dark.
"This interview is now ended," said Larchcroft, bringing August back to full consciousness. The reporter looked up to see that the room was now filled with the early light of day.
"What type of sacrifices?" August asked the visage.
"The dearest kind, my boy," said Larchcroft, laughing as a beam of morning sun shot through the single window across the room and struck him full in the face. He stared momentarily into August's eyes and then abruptly and completely disappeared. The laughter lingered for a brief time, quickly diminished to a whisper, and then vanished.
August grabbed his notebook, stood up, stretched his aching legs, and left the room by the way he'd come in. As he walked the hallways toward the front entrance of the mansion, the sound of his footsteps echoed throughout the stillness of the massive building. He wondered where Larchcroft and Baston and the servant had gone. When he reached the door, he noted with a smile that it was bright green, something he'd not remembered from the previous night upon his arrival.
August walked the entire mile and half from Larchcroft's estate into town, and when he arrived at the office of the Gazette,
he found it already abuzz with the day's activity. Because of the interview he now carried in his notebook, he felt none of the usual hesitancy in approaching his boss. He rapped on the old man's office door, and a gruff voice commanded him to enter.
"Where were you last night?" asked the editor. There were dark pouches beneath his eyes, and what hair he possessed was askew with wispy eruptions. It was unusual for him to be seen without jacket and tie, but August noticed both were missing. His white shirt was rumpled and ink-stained; one sleeve turned up in a sloppy cuff as the other was turned down and unbuttoned.
"I had the interview with Larchcroft," said August. "I'm sure you'll want it for the front page."
The boss shook his head, his expression grim. "Sorry, kid, but you've been trumped."
"What do you mean?" asked August.
"Early in the evening last night, just after dark, a young woman was murdered in town. The third floor of a dump over on Paine Street. The Windsor Arms. Nobody was around, I couldn't find you, so I had to go. Brutal. Somebody opened a hole in this girl's head, right here, and poured in a pint of India ink," said the old man, pointing to the center of his forehead. "Blood everywhere."
August sat slowly down in the chair across the desk from his boss. "What was the girl's name?" he asked.
"May Lofton. We don't know much more about her yet."
"Was she a schoolteacher?" asked August.
"She might have been. She definitely didn't seem to be the type to frequent a place like that. Why, you know her?"
"The constable found something interesting near the body though. Maybe they'll catch the killer
" The editor closed his eyes and stretched. "I could fall asleep right now. Anyway, what did you get?"
August reached across the desk to lay his notebook in front of the editor and then sat back into his chair. "This still might make the front page," said August. "A long and detailed recounting, basically, a confession, from the Man of Light."
The editor sat up straight and leaned over the desk, drawing the notebook to him. He yawned wearily, opened the cover, and flipped past the first few blank pages. A moment passed, and then his eyes fiercely focused, as if what he was reading had fully awoken him. He turned two pages. "Fascinating," he said. "You see this?" He lifted the open notebook and turned it to August.
The young man's jaw dropped and the color drained from his face as the editor flipped slowly through the pages for him. Each and every page he'd committed the interview to was covered from top to bottom, side to side, with pitch black, not the least speck of white showing.
The editor cocked his head to the side and paused before speaking. "I guess you know the clue the constable found with the dead girl was a sheet of paper, like this, but instead of writing, it was completely black."
August wanted to protest his innocence but found himself speechless due to an unfounded yet overwhelming sense of guilt. The editor's bleak stare seemed to drill straight into him, while outside the sky had darkened even more than was usual for a winter's day. Feeling the night closing in on him, he stood, turned, and fled the office. The editor yelled behind him for his other workers to stop the young reporter. Still August managed to escape their clutches and the confines of the Gazette. Outside, an angry crowd pursued, following him to the riverbank, where they found his discarded clothes, and later, at dusk, after searching all day, his lifeless, frozen body, pale as the light of the moon.