This story appears in the anthology She Walks in Shadows. Purchase it now.
“YOU CAN’T READ, can you?”
The undecayed Whatleys were possessed of an impressive fortune and a strict sense of philanthropy, which was how Lavinia Whatley, either afflicted or blessed — depending upon to whom one spoke — with albinism, came to be invited to the large house located on the correct fork of the junction of the Aylesbury Pike just beyond Dean’s Corners.
Despite fine intentions and enthusiastically mouthed better sentiments, all the older members of the Sound branch had, at some point, used phrases such as ‘Witch Whatleys,’ ‘Lesser Whatleys,’ and, perhaps worst of all, ‘Queer Whatleys.’ And they’d used them in their children’s hearing; children who stored spite in a more concentrated form, having not been exposed to the world and its doings, to learning things that sometimes diluted the acid of their malice.
Lavinia wasn’t hard to look at, although she was different. Bleached of skin and hair, pink of eye, with a weak chin, she’d nevertheless inherited some of her mother’s finer features: high cheekbones, pert nose, wide eyes, pouting mouth. At 34, her pallor kept age at bay, and in her tresses no trace of silver or gray showed. She was tall with good posture and a figure designed to draw attention.
With brows and lashes unpigmented, she looked constantly surprised, but she took care with her appearance. The frayed cuffs and hem of her dress were neatly mended and her floss of hair brushed into a thick, tight bun.
What she couldn’t help was the smell, though she’d bathed and bathed beneath the pump before setting off. The cloying scent of home never could be washed off, merely made faint, so it didn’t matter how she looked, really. Most of the family refrained from nose-wrinkling, but the youngsters, full of their superiority, their advantages and airs, did not bother with the good manners their parents had sought to inculcate in them. In the back parlor, where Aunty Abigail had directed her saying she was too young for the company of dusty folk, Lavinia had to deal with cousins Putnam and Wilmot, George and Rist. Sarah and Bealia, Mary and Alice, sat in a corner ignoring her.
“You can’t read, can you?” repeated Putnam, louder, as if she were hard of hearing.
Rist shook his handsome head. “Don’t, Put.”
“I can read.” Lavinia gritted her teeth, reminding herself why she’d come. Wilmot and George guffawed, flanking her. Rist stepped closer, trying to pull tow-headed George away, but the beefy youngster shook him off.
“But you didn’t go to school,” Putnam insisted. “How can you read? Old Wizard Whatley couldn’t have taught you. He’s mad as a cat in a sack.”
Lavinia grabbed a leather-bound book from the nearest shelf and opened it.
“Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather,” she read, realizing too late how badly she’d chosen.
The cousins shouted with laughter. “Oh, priceless! Witch Whatley, indeed!”
Pale cheeks burning all the brighter, Lavinia dropped the volume and pushed past Putnam. She tried for the front rooms, where the elders guaranteed safety from teasing, but the youths blocked her path — all but Rist — and herded her to the back door, sitting ajar and leading onto the wide rear porch. Lavinia didn’t care. If she could get out, then she could leave.
The bucket balanced above the door tipped as Lavinia pushed through. It was only water, not piss like Wilmot had suggested, but it was cold and drenching, and the pail itself hit her head, so she saw stars. She stumbled, caught in damp-heavy skirts.
“That’ll wash the sulphur stink off you!” Putman, George and Wilmot held each other momentarily before collapsing in a heap of snorting, farting hilarity. Rist stood frozen, face twisted; she thought he might cry. Beyond him, crowding around the doorframe were the girls, expressions horrified.
Rist knelt to help her. As soon as she was upright, she shook him off and glared at him, at them all.
“Lavinny,” began Rist, mistakenly using the back-country nickname her father did.
She hiked her skirts and ran down the stairs, stopping only to turn and lift one hand, folding the two middle fingers under the thumb, leaving pointer and pinky free. She shook the gesture at them, stopping even Putnam’s laughter. Satisfied, she spun away towards the tree line, towards where the woods closed in, brambles and vines grew wild, where animals darted and hid, where she knew her way better than anyone. Surefooted, she bolted, retreating to where the hills shivered and shuddered, and where whip-poor-wills perched and sang, waiting for souls to come within reach.
Lavinia wondered if the books might not be better off on shelves.
She thought about how orderly those in the bright, neat Whatley parlor had looked a few days ago. It would make a difference here, though she was not overly given to considerations of housework and such. She could charm Otis Bishop into building a few cases, surely. But then he’d have to be invited in to measure; then he’d go home and tattle to his mother about what he’d seen, heard, smelled. And then Mercy Bishop would blow her stack to learn he’d been near Lavinia, trying to find a way between her legs, which would never happen, though hope of it kept him compliant just as fear of it kept his dam in a simmering stew of rage.
And her father would be equally put out, to discover everything tidied away. He’d never find anything. As things were now, he could locate a particular volume mostly within seconds, pick out which teetering stack it inhabited, in which corner of which room. Their spaces were designated purely by what they called them, rather than by specialized function or furniture. There were chairs and there were books and there were tables everywhere, even in the kitchen. Though she had her own chamber equipped with a bed, said bed was crowded around by more tables and chairs covered with more monographs, octavos, and ledgers. The purpose of the house, Lavinia sometimes thought, was less habitation and more storage. She lived in a library.
She didn’t complain, though, because she loved the books, too, maybe even more than her father did; he saw them merely as containers of knowledge. She adored them in their entirety; embraced the dusty, musty covers, the brown-flecked folios, the pages with the ragged edges they’d cut themselves.
And she loved the promises they made.
They whispered to her of a power she might take, of an escape that could be hers. They vowed she could leave, leave home, leave Sentinel Hill, Dunwich and its surrounds. The tarot cards spread in front of her — colors faded, dog-eared, stained with the touch of many hands — told her the same thing: that he would make himself known by his actions. That he would reach out and take her from this mundane existence, from her father’s howling madness, from the taunts and torments, from the men who thought that, as a Whatley, she was fair game, an easy woods girl.
Lavinia had grown tired of waiting, she admitted. But her faith had been rewarded at last. Freedom was in sight.
She thought about Rist. He’d been kind, the only one to ever be so, to not demand something of her, though she knew he wanted what they all did. But he didn’t threaten, didn’t pester, didn’t press.
She wondered when he would come.
Rist had got himself lost.
It had seemed the simplest thing, to set off from his parents’ big house, carrying a basket of food as if visiting a sick relative rather than just a dirt-poor one. He knew the turning to take, too, the one leading into the village of Dunwich, small though neat, respectable in its economic embarrassment. There were some larger homes there, some of stone that weren’t strangled by weeds, windows uncovered and shiny bright. Others were borderline hovels if their owners but knew it, though the tiny gardens out front were carefully tended, both flowers and vegetables sprouting.
The loungers were outside Osborne’s General Store, nodding suspiciously-but-politely, watching as he passed. They recognized him, yes, and he was grateful he didn’t bear any resemblance to Cousin Putnam. That individual never made any effort to get folk to like him — indeed, went out of his way to torment and offend. One day, Putnam Whatley would get his comeuppance and Rist did not wish to be mistaken for him.
You couldn’t, he thought, treat people as if they were less than you — even if they were — it just didn’t do, wasn’t right. Behind him, one of the loafers said something he didn’t catch, but the group laughed, so he was glad. He hefted the basket higher, increased his pace, and looked out for the crooked tree he knew would put him on the path to Old Wizard Whatley’s house.
It was all right for a while. All right after he’d left the village and taken the scrubby dirt track rambling into the hills. Then, somewhere, he went awry, turned left when he should have turned right, or veered right when he should have gone straight. The trees grew closer together, branches reaching to embrace one another, making it harder and harder for Rist to pass between. The ground, covered with briars and creepers, was liberally littered with rocks and stones thrown up by the regular moaning and groaning of the earth; dangerous and unexpected obstacles to a man in his Sunday shoes, the shoes one wore to make an apology to someone.
And if that wasn’t enough, the whip-poor-wills had started their sweetly-dire chorus. He knew he was being fanciful as he wondered if they were waiting for him. A noise to the left, a clattering then a bleat, drew his attention: a goat perched on a hilly slope, watching him with flat black eyes. Rist thought of the Whatley ancestor, occasionally spoken of in hushed tones, whose perverse tastes led him to keep a magnificent Lamancha as consort for seven years before it killed him with a kick to the head. The billy bolted and Rist shuddered, stumbling to a halt.
He looked back the way he’d come, then forward again. There was little difference except one way sloped up, and the other down. He was lost, utterly, and the birds’ looping song seemed to swell the longer he hesitated. His heart beat harder and harder, a double-time thump that threatened to displace his ribs. The air seemed to thicken, the earth rumbled and shook, and the smell of sulphur and shit reached his nostrils.
The avian noise dropped, and another rose to take its place: a humming, a hissing, strangely human, and yet indecently not. Almost a hymn, a cacophony but bizarrely rhythmic. Through the trees, something moved, swiftly, smoothly, around him. Not the goat, nothing brown and hide-bound, nothing on four legs, or at least not consistently. Something pale as snow, pale as bone, pale as milk: the hint of a rounded hip, a nipped-in waist, a breast unfettered. He spun and spun, trying to keep it in sight, almost falling over in the attempt.
Then it was gone, leaving Rist bewildered and unbalanced.
He breathed heavily, turned to resume his trudging, and came face to face with his cousin.
Lavinia’s brown dress made her hard to distinguish in the lowering afternoon light, but her hair, in a loose ponytail, stood out like a beacon. She seemed as surprised to see him as he was her. This close, he could make out the fine lines on her high forehead, the crow’s-feet, and shallow furrows around her mouth. He did not think they’d come of laughter. He gaped, not managing a sound.
“What yew dewin heer?” Her accent, previously unheard, flowed thick as molasses, and they both startled. She tried again, carefully this time. “What are you doing here?”
“I came ….” He swallowed, lifted the basket. “I came to apologize. I’m sorry. I didn’t know what they were planning.”
“Would it have made a difference if you had?” she asked, scorn searing as she pivoted and headed down the incline.
He tripped, almost fell, but followed. “Yes! I’d have stopped them! Lavi — Lavinia, I am so terribly sorry. It was unspeakably cruel. I wouldn’t have let them do that. Please believe me.”
She didn’t say anything, but slowed, allowed him to catch up. They walked in silence for a few minutes, companionably enough. Then she gestured to the basket.
“Mother sent it, some fresh bread and biscuits, bacon and cheese,” he said eagerly, then caught her sharp look.
“Thinks we can’t pay our own way?” she asked, pulling a handful of gold coins of ancient design from her pocket. She hid them again before he could ask to examine one.
“Not at all —” he began and she shrugged.
“Matters not a jot — it’ll save me from going back to the store, so thank you. You can carry it, though, ‘til we reach the path.” She looked slyly at him. ”Got lost, didn’t you?”
He nodded, embarrassed. “And the birds ….”
“Not scared of those poor little things, are you? Don’t believe those silly stories about soul-stealing and such.” Lavinia put out a hand and as if by magic, one of the small, brown whip-poor-wills landed there. It did a jig, ducked its head respectfully, then flew off.
Rist had to close his gaping mouth. The woman laughed. “They’re quite tame.”
Rist asked, “How did you know to …?”
“Loafers outside Osborne’s,” she said shortly. “I knew you’d go astray, didn’t want it to happen in the dark. No one would find you in these parts then, except me.”
“You know the land well?” He thought of all the tales he’d heard of Lavinny’s traipsing the hills around Dunwich, of the times when her father took to Sentinel Hill to shout at the sky, of Lavinny’s mother lost then found, dead by terrible violence and the culprit never located.
“Have you not heard this called Lavinia’s Wood?” She thrust her receding chin forward and he knew it for pride. She didn’t seem to need an answer.
At the bottom of the slope, where the trees became less impenetrable, she pointed to the trail he recognized as the one he’d started upon hours ago, it seemed. He glanced up whence they’d come and marveled that he’d been able to make it as far as he had.
“There’s your way. You’ll be safe from here,” Lavinia said, and busily claimed the basket with something he thought might be glee.
“Thank you, Cousin Lavinia. I’d have been adrift without you.” He gave a smile, which she returned.
“You certainly would.”
He hesitated. “May I visit again?”
She raised a straw eyebrow. “Why?”
“To … to speak with you. I ….”
“Come back on May Eve,” she said, interrupting before he had to examine his wishes too closely; he even found her scent, much stronger this time, intoxicating. What had come over him? He’d be back at Harvard in a few days, back where the world was real and normal and solid, away from this earth where he’d been born, but did not belong. There, he would forget this strange pull towards he knew not what.
Her voice was pitched low and husky when she said, “Come then, Cousin Rist, and I’ll show you what the others don’t know and don’t care to know. Are too afraid to look upon. Come then, cousin, and I’ll show you everything you ever desired to see. Don’t tell anyone, though, or the deal’s off.”
And with that, she leaned forward, whispered something in his ear, breath tickling his skin and hair, and raising goosebumps on his flesh, and sending a rush of blood to southern climes.
As she walked away, he watched the slow swing of her hips and wondered what lay beneath. He would, he knew, return.
Lavinia had sat anxiously by the window all afternoon, peering through the thin, antiquated curtains. She’d made a special effort with her dress; it was her mother’s wedding gown, starched organdie, yellowed with age. The tiny brown spots on the hem were barely noticeable. Bell-shaped sleeves hung to the elbow. The bodice was cut lower than was strictly necessary, and three rows of once-fine, now-crumbly lace encircled the skirt. Still, she thought, it was pretty and the darkening of its tones meant she didn’t look completely washed out. And it was a size too big, giving her some room to wriggle.
She’d braided her hair around the crown of her head, so it looked like a coronet, and threaded crimson beebalm through it, bright as rubies, bright as blood.
He arrived at dusk and she’d had to keep calm, tamp down her relief. Lavinia watched as he hesitated at the edge of the yard, taking in his expression as he examined the lurching gambrel roof of the two-storied house, with its peeling paint and missing roof slates.
Lavinia left him to knock anxiously five or six times, before she stepped onto the porch, and gave him a cool smile and a chaste kiss on the cheek. He blushed, but it barely showed on his smooth, olive skin. He was so young, this cousin of hers, a good decade or more her junior, so well-raised. He’d brought flowers — What a lamb! — and not some common bunch either, not wildflowers picked from the roadside or garlands pilfered from the headstones of Dunwich’s bone orchard, like some had offered, trying to get into her knickers. No, it was a real bouquet, tied with a ribbon, a proper tribute! Lavinia’s heart sang in spite of itself.
She put the arrangement just inside the door and when he’d objected, “They need water,” she’d covered his mouth with her own to still further protest. When he’d grown quiet and hard, she broke away. Lavinia gathered up the brand she’d prepared earlier, one end wrapped around with hessian and soaked in pitch. She used the flint and steel to strike a spark and the flambeau burst into life.
Rist took the hand she offered and they set off towards Sentinel Hill, the flame dancing in the wind, throwing shapes and shadows before them, flashing in eyes that hid in the undergrowth and bushes on either side as they processed in silence.
The path was much easier than the one Rist had tried to blaze a few weeks before. Indeed, it seemed as if the foliage made a point of drawing back so as not to snag Lavinia’s ancient finery. He’d been worried sparks from the torch might fall onto her dress, turning her into a Roman candle, but the fire seemed respectful, too.
By the time they surmounted the summit, the flare was dwindling, almost spent, but Rist didn’t doubt that his cousin would have been able to negotiate the dark with her confident step and astonishing pink eyes. They entered the circle of standing stones with its table-like rock in the center. Lavinia didn’t waste any time, placing the dying brand on the mountain of kindling set closest to where the hill dropped steeply away, but still inside the stone ring.
She turned to face Rist, smiling as the balefire lit and leapt. Lavinia reached up and pulled the dress from her shoulders, sliding it slowly until she stood in a pool of sepia froth. She rolled her shoulders, making her breasts bounce a little.
Rist noticed only that, despite their heaviness, the bosoms still sat high, never having had a child to drag them down. He noticed only the tiny waist, the flaring lower hourglass of her hips, and the bushy white triangle at the junction of her sturdy legs. He was so distracted that he didn’t notice the malformations on her flanks, her hips, the myriad tiny eyes embedded there, blinking lashless lids in the flickering orange glow.
She gestured to the table-rock and watched as he disrobed clumsily, quickly, and came to her so she could maneuver him onto her, into her. He was a handsome boy, she thought, though one of the others, one of the shitty ones like Putnam or Wilmot or George, might have served better. Their natures might have been more fit for what was being done here this night. She did not regret having chosen him, though, as her first.
As the young man labored over her — in and out, in and out — the night sky gleamed, lightning tearing across the silvered black, the stars brightening. Nebulae formed and swirled, shot red and blue and purple like pinwheels, and a sort of ebony gold streamed into an enormous shape that was not a shape, that was form without form, with tentacles and eyes like Christmas lights which appeared then faded as fast as blinking. Rist reared up, unable to see what was occurring above and behind him, but sensing it. Though he couldn’t stop his rhythmic motion even if he’d wanted to, he tried to turn his head when he felt the cold fire that poured from the crack in the heavens touch his skin and seep in. Lavinia latched one hand to his jaw and held him there with a strength that, in hindsight, shouldn’t have surprised him.
“He must move through another,” crooned Lavinia. “Don’t be afraid, cousin. You’re greatly honoured to be his instrument, as I am to be the Lord’s vessel.”
The cold fire coursed in his veins, chasing Rist, or what was left of him, away; it was as though he fled through the tunnels of his body, until he was trapped in a corner of his own mind. Whatever had invaded him showed no mercy; it rushed in and slammed against the last of Rist just as he slammed into Lavinia, with no fear, only lust, the desire to achieve his end, to find its goal, to spill and soak the fertile soil.
In his last moments, Rist’s eyes darkened, took on the color of the stars and sky, the swirling vortexes of the nebulae above, and the being that had taken him showed its face for the first and last time to Lavinia. She felt her blood freeze, her limbs spasm, and, as the boy did his final duty, thought her heart was going to burst. Atop her, Rist disappeared, separated into his component parts, unable to contain any longer the thing that had breached and used him.
Lavinia lay, exhausted, simultaneously emptied and filled.
Her father appeared out of the shadows, old Wizard Whatley whose first name, if ever he’d had one, hadn’t never been Christian. Lavinia drew her legs together with difficulty, but remained where she was, breathless, aching.
“Yog-Sothoth might be key an’ gate, but he still needs a little he’p with the keyhole,” he said and guffawed heartily as he kicked at the young man’s pile of discarded clothes. Rist was utterly gone, returned to the dust that floated on this plane and the one beyond. “If this’un dun’t take, theys alwus another.”
But Lavinia knew there’d be no other, that her seducing days were over and all those suitors she’d turned from her door would not call again; congress with the unseen had its consequences. Her father couldn’t see her properly in the firelight. The dancing flames and shadows made it seem as though her face still had mobility, but she knew as surely as breathing that she’d suffered some sort of a stroke. One side of her face was numb and she couldn’t make it either smile nor frown, no matter how she tried. The pride she’d always taken in keeping her lips together to combat her weak chin so she didn’t look like the worst of the decayed Whatleys — like some inbred halfwit — would no longer be enough. Her left hand was clawed. Her left leg felt like a thick length of wood.
She’d followed the promise of the books, but who knew they’d tell only half-truths? Her days as she’d known them were over. Her hopes of escape were thoroughly dashed. Lavinia Whatley was going nowhere beyond the boundaries of her woods. Her father reached down to help her. She was shorter when she stood, unable to straighten properly. The weight of what had been planted inside her seemed heavy already, though she knew there were a good nine months between her and birth. Lavinia shifted her posture to accommodate it, slouched, slumped.
The whip-poor-wills sang a jaunty tune as father and daughter made their way down off Sentinel Hill.