The Drawer Where Dead Things Go
What mad impulse caused her to get off the train here, of all places, instead of her accustomed stop? She hadn't asked herself the question yet, but she would, and soon. And when she did, there would be no good answer.
Unlit and uninhabited, the derelict station looked as if it had been abandoned long ago. From a rusted chain, a sign banged in the hollow wind. But the name of whatever town had once been inscribed there was nearly erased by time and weather. The last disordered letters still legible formed no discernible appellation, not in English, nor in any other language meant for a human tongue.
What remained was a random combination of unpronounceable consonants. No vowels survived.
Odd that she'd never noticed this stop before on her daily commute, though she must have passed it at least twice a day, every working day, for the last fifteen years. Odd, but then again, as often is the case, a sensible explanation could be contrived.
At this point in her commute, she was usually napping, or deep into whatever book she was reading to pass the time. And whatever town--if you could call the empty habitation barely visible down the road in the fading light--would be easy to miss from the window of a train moving at speed.
And yet, even as she formulated this explanation, it struck her as the contrivance it was, as not the real reason that she'd impulsively disembarked from the train at this most unwelcoming of destinations.
She would have to wait for the real reason to reveal itself; if it ever did.
Perhaps, and here she was merely speculating once again, it had something to do with the book she'd just finished. It was titled"Noctuary" and it was a curious volume of stories and midnight mediations by a reclusive author who went by the name Ligotti. The circumstances by which she came to be reading this book, like the circumstances of her disembarking from the train, seemed random as well. For she had not chosen the book; she had never heard of Ligotti or his work before reading this particular book. Instead, in a way, the book had chosen her. It had been left behind on a seat by another passenger where she'd found it by chance only the day before.
However the book came into her hands, she fell under its powerful spell within the first few pages. She was completely taken in by the sensuality of its gloom, it's heavy air of dread, it's helplessly fatal attraction to decay. There was something erotically charged in the author's descriptions of ruined landscapes that themselves were suggestive of other, more ancient worlds which stood parallel with our own. These worlds could be but half-glimpsed through an ancient drapery of apprehension. Ligotti's baroque language was irresistibly seductive as he came close to describing unnameable horrors that could only be caught, but not quite, from the corners of one's eyes.
For the last eighteen waking hours, she had fallen under this Ligotti's unwholesome enchantment. There was no other word that described better the effect his strange little book had on her. He had hypnotized her into believing in the reality of this other world, a world of oddity and anomaly which he described so vividly, yet so elusively, that it seemed to be more real than the workaday world that up to now she took for the real thing. That was the main power of his spell. He left you, the reader, to fill in with your own imagination what he left blank. And, in so doing, you suddenly began to imagine what was real.
When she had finished the slender volume on the train that evening, she looked up and saw her own hollow, ghostly reflection on the window. And through her reflection on the glass she recognized what she imagined to be the very kind of place that Ligotti had described so obsessively, so painstakingly in story after story. Without thinking, she pulled the cord signaling the conductor to stop at the upcoming station. Against the shriek and pitch of the braking train, she gathered her possessions and made her way up the aisle, bent forward as if against a stiff wind. She positioned herself at the door, hand gripping the pole, balancing herself until the train ground to a stop and the door folded open.
Before she knew it, she found herself alone on the empty platform, the train receding into the distance. She watched it's lights until they were suddenly swallowed in the crouching darkness waiting for the train as the track twisted into the surrounding woods.
She felt as if she'd narrowly escaped some unnamed catastrophe.
And now, what? She descended the station platform not knowing where to go, what to do. The town which lay before her seemed to be set on a faulty axis. An air of vertigo prevailed in the very organization of the buildings, the lay-out of the streets. But the degree of error was so slight it was difficult to pinpoint what was wrong. She had read somewhere how only a few degrees of fever separated each of us from the hallucinating madman. Such was the case here. What she had taken to be the main street seemed to meander pointlessly, branching off into a meaningless network of back-alleys, dead-ends, and cul-de-sacs. The entire effect was ad hoc, labyrinthine without a goal, a jigsaw puzzle of forced pieces, as disorienting as if she were following the line of a mindless doodle.
There was scant illumination from the streetlights overhead, only one of every three or four lamps gave off any light at all. There wasn't much to see in what light there was. Most of the storefronts were boarded over, sprayed with indecipherable graffiti. Those that hadn't been covered revealed empty interiors behind blind windows grayed-over with grime. After half an hour of walking, she couldn't be sure if she hadn't circled back to where she'd begun. Had she seen these same stores before or did they simply look so generic in their diminished state that she could fool herself into thinking them familiar?
Beneath her feet, the sidewalk was cracked and buckled as if some great beast in the earth had once heaved restlessly in a sleep troubled by horrific dreams. She had to step carefully, watching where she put her feet for fear she might trip. When she did look up, she saw that the buildings rose several stories above the shops, providing what must be apartment space. But these apartments, too, looked long abandoned. The rows of dark windows no more than charred-looking squares stretching into a black infinity.
Suddenly, up ahead, one of the squares was illuminated and almost just as suddenly went black again, disappearing into the solid wall of night. Had she mistaken a streetlight flaring briefly back to life for a momentarily lighted window? Had she imagined, too, seeing the dark outline of a human figure standing in that anemic yellow light?
She stared intently at that square of darkness from which she thought she'd seen the apparition, until she might have convinced herself of anything, but the light did not appear again.
Then she walked on, the broken, heaving spine of concrete demanding most of her immediate attention.
She was looking for...what exactly? She couldn't say. No more than she could give a sensible answer to the question of why she'd gotten off the train. But is it so unusual not to know? Aren't we more often than not mute before the biggest questions of our lives? Why do we love those we love, for instance, and desire what we desire? Why do we dream our dreams? What is the origin of our fears. And why are we so often attracted to what is evil and unwholesome and not repelled as we were taught we should be?
These were all questions that Ligotti returned to again and again in the dark and unholy bible of stories that she had read. Against her own will and better judgment, she found herself more and more a believer, a disciple of his black revelation.
The clatter of a toppling garbage can startled her from these reveries. She had just tiptoed passed the dark fetid maw of an alley. Turning, her heart racing, she saw a black cat, at least it looked black against whatever light it stood against, crouched and staring back at her. The cat opened its mouth in a slow-motion, silent cry. Then it dashed off down the street, disappearing into another alley.
It must have been an after-image from her preoccupied thoughts that, free-floating before her mind's eye, superimposed itself upon the cat to convince her, if only momentarily, that the animal bore a human face.
Nothing but an apparition, she thought, and shuddered.
On she walked.
Up ahead she came upon what passed for the town square: a small park that might have once been carefully tended, but which now was a tangled mass of overgrown vegetation of no discernible variety or origin. It was a chaotic mass of growth that seemed destined to one day strangle itself with its own undisciplined vitality. Here, upon a splintered bench which the vegetation was already in the process of devouring, she sat down to take stock of her situation. That's when it occurred to her that soon, if not already, she would be missed at home.
Funny, how she hadn't thought of that before this moment. Before long her absence would be a cause of some concern, then genuine worry, and finally outright alarm. What time was it anyway? In the murky light, she couldn't read her watch. She instinctively reached for the cell phone in her handbag and realized that in her haste to leave the train, though she had gathered up her possessions, or so she thought, she'd somehow managed to leave the bag with her most precious personal possessions, including her wallet and her cellphone behind.
How could she have done such a stupid stupid thing?
Still, aside from the initial familiar jolt of adrenaline such "disasters" usually produce, she felt strangely calm about what ordinarily she would have considered to be a reason for justifiable panic.
"Silly me," she thought, and smiled uneasily, and left it, for the time being, at that.
She glanced up to see the stars for no real reason, thinking, if there was any reason to her looking up to them at all, that they might provide a sense of familiarity in this strange place. But the trees that surrounded the park had stitched themselves together, covering like a shroud the sky above. Instead what captured her attention was the stone face of the statue looming over her.
She hadn't noticed the statue before now.
How could she have overlooked it? It was larger than life, although one would be hard-pressed to identify anything that ever lived in its wildly chaotic shape. One might have been tempted to consider it a sculptural abstraction, but an abstraction of what? Besides, abstraction in art always had an organizing principle; this statue had none, or at least none that corresponded to any human sense of order. It seemed to be a fluid malignancy that was presented here. If the artist could have been said to have been working toward any discernible realization at all it was perhaps in capturing the very formless, amorphous, ever-creeping quality exhibited here in a medium as inert as stone. Film might have been a better choice for such an intent, a time-lapse sequence of a malignant proliferation of cells, perhaps, might have been a good approximation of what he'd accomplished.
It might well have been the fluid quality of the statue that had caused her to miss it's looming presence in the first place. For the statue seemed to blend in with the dark vegetation all around it, seemed almost to appear and disappear, playing a macabre game of hide-and-seek against the background of squat inky bushes and spidery trees reaching, squiggling, itching, moving in a breeze that could only be assumed because it couldn't otherwise be sensed in this enclosed and windless sanctum. Did some quirk of human vision itself, some explainable flux in the operation of the human eye, impart a life to even the dead world of statuary? Of course, the effects of imagination could not be ruled out, all the more so when it was under the influence of anxiety and fear, when it had been so recently fed by the words of Ligotti.
That would explain, then, the face she saw looking down at her from atop the monstrous statue. A half-familiar face that she could not quite identify before it was subsumed again into the black anonymity from which it momentarily emerged, like the face of a corpse rolling over in a bog, then turning face back downward into the muck again.
This, too, she knew, was all in her head. But what did that mean, what did that solve? This familiar form of reductionism was meant, since childhood, to absolve us from our worst thoughts, to free us from our most terrifying fears. But did it really? Think about it. Where else did we live but in our heads, when all was said and done. If it was only "all in our heads," then so was the horror, so was hell, and it was inescapable.
She felt suddenly exhausted, unable to move, and yet move on she must. She couldn't very well sleep here in on a bench in a dark and deserted park. Things hadn't yet come to that point, had they?
And yet she felt the most profound resistance to getting up. It was as if she were subject to an atmospheric gravity three times that to which she were accustomed. Only the notion that if she didn't get up now, right this very moment, it would only get harder, more impossible to rise at all. Only this saved her from spending the night where she sat. Using what she felt like was all her remaining energy, she heaved herself up from the bench and shuffled up the scant path that led out of the park.
Back out on the street again, she found that she felt better, though only marginally. The heavy atmosphere of gloom and inertia had lightened somewhat. Emerging from the other side of the park, however, the town looked even more derelict and forlorn. Here a municipal building of some kind, a gas station, a library all stood abandoned. On a whim, she peered into the window of a laundromat and saw several rows of grim silent machines. The round windows on each of their doors took on the appearance of blind cyclopean eyes in the underwater gloom. It struck her as an eerily melancholy sight, as if the washers and dryers were so many disconnected robots or life-support machines. But why that should be any particular cause for sadness would take some time to explain and she had none to spare. She might find shelter for the night.
She turned from the laundromat and her breath caught. She saw a figure stopped at the end of the street. He was observing her from the corner, standing by a graffiti-sprayed mailbox under one of the few working streetlamps. In one hand was a notebook and in the other a pen with which he was jotting down notes by the anemic illumination of the flickering lamp.
She raised her hand to hail him, but the moment she did so the man, for it seemed clear now that he was a man, looked up in alarm, as if he never expected to be seen, let alone discovered. He hurriedly pocketed the notebook and pen and rushed around the corner into the darkness.
She called out in desperation, without thinking, in violation of some unwritten code. This she felt instinctively. For without acknowledging it to be the case, it seemed to her unthinkable to break the oppressive silence of this place. No more would she considered shouting in a church or a cemetery. Even so, she cried out. Her voice sounded small and pitiful, growing smaller as it traveled down the avenue, ending in a question more than anything else. A question that went unanswered.
When her voice died away, she followed it down the street in the direction that the man had taken.
The district in which she found herself now was less developed. The lots between the buildings were larger and almost completely overgrown. The structures themselves, old factories and empty warehouses from the looks of them, had long ago crumbled into ruins. The ancient gloomy woods were reclaiming the land. Walls of brick stood around pits piled with debris. Thick mattresses of withered gray vines covered heaps of scrap metal.
Forgetting her exhaustion, she quickened her step. She tried not to look too closely at the shadows which now and then seemed to detach themselves from the general darkness. These shadows would dash briefly through pools of sickly light. Her eyes averted, she did not want to see the glitter of greedy eyes, the whispered whip of a long colorless tail.
She saw them, anyway.
Where had the town gone? It seemed to have simply ended--no sign, no warning. She turned and saw it behind her: a clutch of gray buildings bristling with a haphazard and broken vertebrae of utility poles, all of it loosely strung together by a falling network of decaying wires. It looked like a dead insect lying on its back.
She was acutely aware that it was colder here. The wind blew unimpeded from the east, over barren fields that may have once been farms. Flecks of ice and grit struck her face. A few trees here and there looked black and twisted, as if blasted by lightning. Somehow she didn't think she'd be too surprised to see a body hanging from the leafless branch of one of these grotesquely stunted growths. But when she did see the body and, staggering forward a few steps, recognized the face, she screamed all the same.
She screamed and screamed and sunk down into colorless bracken with her broken face in her hands.
When she was done screaming, the problem remained. And now, Where to go?
Her eyes had been playing tricks on her, that was all. Or was it her mind playing tricks with her eyes? This place, whatever it was, leant itself to dreams and memories. Whatever border between the past and present usually existed, between the normal and the grotesque, it was dissolved here. But that was nothing unusual, when you considered it carefully. Every night, as we slept, that border dissolved as well.
That is why she wasn't surprised to see the tall house rising out of the empty stubble field ahead. Like a wooden ship from the nineteenth century, it's masts stripped of sails, it sat stalled in the midst of an endless ocean of eerily becalmed waters. That is why she approached the house now without fear. Because she believed it could just as easily as not be a hallucination or a dream. Because desperation and exhaustion had made her bold.
And because, as she drew closer to the dark silhouette of a house, she saw a wan light glowing from one of the turrets. Every other window was black. She needed that light.
She would never otherwise have let herself inside unannounced. But she feared that if she used the old knocker or pulled the bell whoever was in residence in the turret above would douse the light and vanish once more. She was too tired, too hungry, too cold to play such games anymore.
The door, though heavy opened. It wasn't locked. The lock, in fact, had long ago rotted out.
Once inside, she climbed the buckling stairs, rising as if drawn through a crooked carpeted ascent of mold and decay. She reached the last of three pitched landings. She saw the light under the door at the end of a moldering lopsided hall. No other doors interested her. She didn't stop to look questioningly into the pictureless frames. She knew now where she was meant to go.
She approached the door and without knocking she threw it open and there he sat at a desk, the pen in his hand poised above the paper that lay before him. The sheet half covered with an illegible scrawl, the sentence he'd been writing, unfinished.
He didn't seemed startled or even surprised at the interruption. Instead, he seemed almost to be expecting her. His cold, phlegmatic eyes appraised her without seeming to come to a conclusion.
She had never seen him before in her life but she knew who he was. A recluse, he made only rare and sporadic, appearances in public, granted only the occasional interview. There existed, therefore, only the briefest descriptions of his physical appearance. These were provided by the chosen few who'd ever come to know him personally. This select handful had apparently felt compelled by loyalty and friendship to respect his secrecy. If they agreed to describe him at all, they did so only in the vaguest of terms.
A Google search for his likeness turned up gray, out-of-focus, no doubt out-of-date photographs that gave only the barest suggestions of what he must look like now. Looking at these always poorly-developed photographs, it was if he were, indeed, some sort of ghostly apparition. He appeared changeable, even within the same picture. You might as well have been searching for the suggestion of faces in the smoke of a cigarette.
Still, for all these difficulties, she knew without a shadow of doubt who he was upon first sight. He was the great and mysterious Ligotti, the writer whose works had so intrigued, so hypnotized her. The writer whose work had so irresistibly sucked her into his desultory and doomed world. She recognized him from earlier in the evening. She had seen him in the lighted window, in the form of the man at the end of the block, on the faces of the cat and the statue
He still hadn't spoken a word, nor did he seem inclined to do so. He gave every impression of a man who could sit silently for a thousand years or more without the least discomfort. His pale eyes continued to regard her without emotion. His wan and expressionless face showed no trace of recognition, nor of any interest in who she might be; indeed, it bore no sign of life whatsoever. It might have been a mask, except that it was even less human than even the most horrendous mask in it's absolute vacancy of any human trait whatsoever.
It was like the nothing behind a mask. The nothing a mask was worn to mask.
At last, it was clear to her what had happened. He had brought her into his world through one of his tales, weaving a story around her that he found he could not finish. His pen was poised above the paper, his scrawl broken off mid-sentence not because she'd interrupted him, but because he simply didn't know what came next. She realized now what he had done, what he had hoped for. Writers often say that at a certain point in every story the characters take over. He had brought her here in desperation, in the vain hope that she would take over. That she would know what came next. But standing there now, frozen and tongue-tied in the presence of the great Ligotti, she realized that she didn't know either. How could he have expected anything different? If he didn't know where to go from here, great author that he was, how could she?
He must have seen at that moment the great disappointment that came over her. Even worse, he must have seen the dawning of contempt in her steady gaze. If He doesn't know, how can I?
He hurriedly gathered up the sheets of paper he'd been working on, opened a drawer in the desk, and stuffed them in a folder with other similarly abandoned pages. Every author has such a drawer, even the great Ligotti. A drawer for stories that didn't work out, for characters that, for one reason or another, usually unfathomable, never came to life.
He slid shut the drawer--it was the bottommost drawer--and locked it with a key he kept in a secret inner pocket of his wallet.
On the train a handbag sat, left behind by a passenger, still undiscovered. Inside it, a cell phone rang and rang and rang. The caller on the other end could have provided an answer, at least a suggestion, of what came next. But there was no one to receive the call. And when, at last, someone did answer, it was the wrong person, someone who didn't know the woman the caller was trying to reach, who'd only come across the bag that moment and the phone by accident.
Shortly after that, the police would become involved and the real mystery of the woman's disappearance would begin.