Behind her, the rocks were slick. Slick with a salty liquid that came not from the sea but from a man. It was not the surging tide that gave to the rocks their darkened cast, but blood: the blood of Clinton Eastman, who’d been her closest friend.
Lucy picked her way across the jumbled boulder shoreline, testing with each trembling step forward the soundness of the ground beneath her. Her insides were just as wracked by nervous tremors.
In this wild spot, the furies of the sea came to hurl their wretchedness upon the shore. They’d find Clint’s body a more yielding target than the rocky cliff face. When the fisherman came puttering out of port tomorrow morning in the early gray pre-dawn light they’d catch more than cod in their trawling nets: they’d find a body battered by the pounding of the sea upon the shore, the coup de grace Lucy had delivered with a convenient chunk of rock indistinguishable from any of the other injuries. Just another drunk who’d stumbled out onto the rocks, lost his footing and died by his own folly. No reason to question these circumstances, was there?
But Clinton Eastman was no ordinary drunk. He was loquacious, vivacious and altogether dazzling. A weaver who snatched words from the air and spun them into an auditory tapestry. He was the favorite literary son of the tiny work-a-day hamlet of Northport. And he could not write a word when he was sober.
The residents of Northport — all the fishermen and maritime tradesmen who supported them — were a superstitious lot. Superstition was an existential imperative when one’s livelihood turned with the weather. Better a sinister cosmic plot than the cold, futile reality of a universe indifferent to its citizens’ suffering. The catch was poor? It was a slighted god seeking to punish his profligate disciples, not an unfavorable weather cycle and most definitely not any shortcoming in man’s ability to provide for himself and his community.
Yes, they would see some devious hand in Clint’s death. Which was exactly as he had intended.
“I’ve given my life for my art.” Clint had crowed as they sat, the evening after his doctor’s appointment, before the fire in his study.
Cirrhosis of the liver, an ashen-faced, grim-lipped doctor had pronounced. If Clint didn’t stop drinking, he’d be dead within a few months. But Clint had been an alcoholic so long it was impossible to tell where he ended and the effervescence imparted by the liquor began; it flowed in his veins, sparking the fire of his soul, as did blood in most people.
“I’ll have no wasting death. No slow sapping of my strength. No faltering of my faculties. I’ll not pass people on the street and be made to drown in the saccharine pools of their pity.”
He’d taken a great swig of his drink — a finely-aged single malt Scotch — and slowly run his tongue around the oval of his lips, savoring the rich, buttery flavor of each reviving drop. Then he’d turned to her, the firelight dancing in his eyes.
“You must help me with one final, crowning literary achievement. We’ll make my death the greatest story of them all. Something sensational and scandalous. Something this humdrum backwater will not soon forget.”
Lucy heard Clint’s great booming voice echoing now in the pounding of the surf upon the rock. It matched the pounding of her heart in her chest, as if, by a slow and concerted effort, the organ was attempting to hurl itself from her guilty body.
A man had a right to die by his terms, just as he had a right to live by them. Lucy believed that. She had always believed that. But the rational element of her mind lay dormant at the moment. And the emotional element was screaming: a babbling, incoherent torrent of visceral horror in her subconscious. Her fingers tingled with the sensation of the rock she’d put to deadly purpose. Each pounding crash of wave upon granite set the sounds of the death blow, the rattling gasps of life taking its leaves ringing in her ears. And suddenly, the wishes of the man seemed ephemeral and irrelevant. As if they’d melted into the ether alongside the soul that had animated them. That left only the cold, hard facts of physical things: of forces exerted by one object against another, of a corpse growing cold upon the rocks.
Lucy shivered in the wind and, unlike Lot’s wife, resisted the urge to look over her shoulder. For she knew to do so would be her unmaking. And her feelings mattered even less than Clint’s; the plot was in motion. It could not be rewritten.
“People will naturally be suspicious of my death. They will not to believe that I, who gives color to their dull lives, am governed by the laws of nature. If my imagination, my talent can fall foul of the vicissitudes of fate, the implications for the work-a-day lives is all the bleaker. They will look for a conspiracy. And we shall seed the ground. Nothing concrete: a whisper of discord between us, a planted clue here and there. Something that can be explained easily enough. But they will want no easy answers.
“And then — and this is the masterstroke, my dearest friend — a manuscript, to be discovered half-written beside my typewriter. A story of a falling out between friends, of a Montresor whose lips whisper sweet lies and lure poor, unsuspecting Fortunato to his doom. It shall appear fiction has leapt from the page and I have authored my own legend.”
He’d smiled as he said this, forgetting for a moment even the drink in his hand. And Lucy had found herself wondering, as she had on so many other occasions, whether this was truly madness. Or whether the moral nags and keepers of the public conscience were too narrow in the thinking. Self-destructive, oh yes, Clint was self-destructive. But at least he had the gumption to fashion a self that was all his own. Could those who ploddingly followed the old ways, merely because their elders told them they were the best ways, say the same? Could they claim ownership of a self that could be made or unmade?
And what of she, standing here frozen to the cliff, afraid to move forwards or back? Was hers a self-fashioned soul or one that trembled and cowered at the risk in great things? All her life she’d been a dreamer. Here, thanks to Clint, was her chance to be so much more.
“Why should I do this?” she had asked Clint.
It was a question not borne of revulsion at thought of the act he was asking her to commit, but curiosity. She needed to know her part in this was significant somehow, for he could just as easily set the stage without her and toss himself off the cliffs. Clint had smiled into the fire.
“Writers write what they know. Isn’t that what they say? You have always had an air of romantic tragedy to you. You’re the martyr who’s marched to the scaffolds by a corrupt regime. You’re the stoic wife of a soldier who watches her husband ride off to die, knowing he serves what’s right. You’re the maiden caught in the clutches of a power-lusty lord. But you live in a quiet, plodding place at the edge of the earth, where such battles are not fought. I will give you the role you were born for. You won’t need to turn sighingly to literature to find heroes anymore. I shall make that role for you. Many people wish to live in story books. But you alone will be able to. When outsiders hear of the events that have transpired here, of the aspersions cast against you by a group of superstitious villagers, they will champion your cause as the luckless hero. This is the greatest gift I can give you.”
The spindrift came suddenly flying up from the sea and sent a tinkling shower of water droplets to falling upon Lucy’s neck. She thought suddenly of the church services she’d been dragged to as a child, of priests flicking their wrists lackadaisically and sending a silvery cascade of holy water over their docile congregants. It was meant as a blessing there; it seemed a blessing here. At least that’s how Clint would have written it.
When Lucy rose, it was on joints steeled with purpose. She knelt down and gingerly grabbed the branch of a wild sea rose and hooked is thorns upon the hem of her skirt. The thin material hung limp upon the bush, its pallor looming against the backdrop of the dark foliage like a homing beacon in the darkness, luring lost souls towards safety. She plunged into the wooded underbrush, letting twigs bend and break against her body, letting blades of grass be trampled beneath her heel, and made her way home. All that was left to do was wait.
The tide would carry the body down the harbor. Tomorrow, some industrious fishing boat puttering out to greet the dawn would spot the brightly colored coat Clint had chosen as a funeral shroud bobbing in the water. Clint had not worried about the shock imparted to the man who hauled in his body. “I shall be the greatest catch of his life. The trawler that nets me shall have a part to play in legend.” he had crowed. Then the police, well aware of the sea’s propensity to regurgitate the objects it stole from the cliffs, would sweep the area and find the spot where his blood had worked it way into the very crystalline structure of the rock that had been his bier. They’d find a bit of cloth on a bush and a path trod in haste through the underbrush. And someone would remember the argument between Lucy and Clint, conducted loudly and publicly. And sooner or later, the police would come knocking on her door.
“Lucy, after it’s done, you must stay. They will suspect you, will drag you into the police station and question you. They may even try you, but there will not be enough to convict you. They will spit upon you and revile you, but you must stay. They must believe a great injustice has been carried out. For tragedy has much greater staying power than happiness.” Clint had said.
The next two days passed as in a trance. She felt as a background character in a play, biding her time, observing the others and waiting for her cue. There was an electric hum of speculation in the village. Clint, who normally spent his days puttering around the bookstore Lucy ran, was notably absent. Some said he was sleeping off another bender; some said he was licking the wounds from his falling out with Lucy. There was a certain acid note directed towards Lucy in these whispered speculations. It was unthinkable that Northport’s favorite son should be reproached. Lucy bore the poisoned looks quietly and, when her back was turned, smiled. They thought her a stagnant character, but they’d soon see their error.
The knock on her front door came at dawn the next morning. As she rose bleary-eyed in the chilly darkness and slipped into her robe, Lucy felt a curtain of cloud descend over her. She thought of the pale-skinned maidens with long-flowing hair who glided forlornly down drafty halls in Gothic mansions. In her mind she’d been transported many times to some lonely house on the moors where a cruel and overbearing man kept her locked away. She’d imagined how she would act, cool and aloof, how she would speak, biting and acerbic. And now, here she was, in the living embodiment of her mind’s eye. She found herself traveling down the hallway, but the locomotion of her feet, falling toe to heel in quick succession upon the rug, had at its source some alien consciousness. It was as if that ghostly alter-self that haunted her subconscious had broken free and seized control of her bodily impulses. Lucy turned her head and saw heavy candelabras, velvet curtains and somber paintings in gilt frames. She knew these were not the furnishings of her home, yet she was not surprised to see them there. For they had always existed in the shadow world of her mind.
She continued down the winding wooden stairs and into the foyer. The rustle of her silken nightdress echoed in the cavernous space; Lucy’s ears heard the whisper of destiny within the muffled sound. She felt the icy thrill of the flagstones like a thousand little daggers against the soles of her bare feet.
As she heaved open the great oaken door, it creaked upon its hinges with the rust of the ages. Lucy wondered what memories were contained in that shrill, shrieking sound. What unwelcome incursions and hostile invasions had that door borne witness to, unable to broadcast any warning of outer danger to its resident?
The policeman standing upon the portico had water cascading down from the brim of his hat. Fierce falling droplets cut through a soupy covering of ground fog. Off in the harbor, the foghorn let loose a plaintive moan. The sergeant’s voice was gruff and clipped, betraying the effort he was exerting to appear casual.
“Sorry to disturb you Miss Harrigan, but I’m afraid there’s been an incident. Mr. Eastman’s body’s been pulled from the harbor. I need you to come down the station and answer some questions.”
The early morning chill worked its way through Lucy’s night gown. She allowed herself to shiver. The sensation in her nerves was pleasurable, but she evinced a look of shock.
“Clint? Dead?” she stammered.
Sensory impressions suddenly overwhelmed her: blood viscous and warm clinging to her fingers, a bright red pool forming in the pitted rock face, like an algal bloom consuming a tide pool. The rattling wheeze of a choking last breath, the ashen cast of skin suddenly deprived of oxygen. The vile expression of muscles contorting, of nature asserting itself, even against the will of the spirit that inhabited the body. Clint. Dead. Inert. Transformed.
Lucy awoke in the drawing room. She was stretched upon the chaise lounge; she could feel the prickly texture of the velvet upholstery against her skin. She moaned softly at the staccato drumbeat that played in her head as she turned it.
“Miss Harrigan? You fainted, ma’am. Do you remember why I’m here?”
“Clint. Clint is dead.” Lucy wailed. She tossed her head from side to side and felt the freedom in the movement, in the delightful contradiction of a movement designed to look organic. The sergeant, she was sure, must think her mad. He standing there bristling with tension: all straight lines and rigidity, like a spring stretched out to its extreme limits, politely staring stoically ahead, apparently impervious to the display of emotion before him.
He coughed nervously.
“Yes. And we need you to come down to the station and answer some question.”
Lucy bolted suddenly upright. She felt two warm spots burning on the apex of her cheekbones. The eyes she turned to the sergeant were dark and glossy, as if veiled beneath a funeral shroud.
“Questions? Was his death unnatural?” she asked breathlessly.
She shuddered; her vision was, for a moment, obscured by a red mist. The sergeant continued to stare unblinkingly at the design of the wallpaper directly before him.
“I can’t say at the moment, ma’am. There’s just some details we need to establish. It seems you were the last person seen with Mr. Eastman.”
“I can’t say, Sergeant. We fought. He left me. To think now! Our last moments together hostile!”
Lucy let her spine collapse in upon itself, like Atlas collapsing beneath the burden upon her shoulders, and began to weep into her lap.
“I’m sorry ma’am. I can see you’re upset. But I really must insist you accompany to the station now.”
Lucy rose, her face drained of all color, but calmly resolved to bear the affronts the world had to throw at her. She allowed the serjeant to lead her outside to the horse-drawn wagon. Another serjeant waited outside; he held the door open for Lucy then clambered in behind her. His whole bearing broadcast his certainty of her guilt. He sat as far away from her as possible: his ample body crammed into the distant corner of the cramped carriage body. She could see his inner tension in the way his veins protruded from his hands clenched about his knees.
She sniffed diffidently and turned to look out the carriage’s barred window. A throng of stony faces stared back at her. It was as if the rain had washed away all color, all feelings from their figures. Dressed with Victorian decency in clothes that hid not only the body from prying eyes, but the soul as well. Now they stood grey and stiff, like statues frozen in time, a monument to a particularly blasé form of social condemnation. The kind that didn’t have the courage of its convictions: that cried the loudest once consensus had already been formed.
They were, Lucy thought viciously, only one-dimensional background supporting characters, forgotten as soon as the page was turned. Their morality was derived from their numbers: they were the majority, and that couldn’t possibly be wrong, could it? But their power was self-defeating. Its influence extended no further than its members.
Let them have their moment, then, Lucy thought. She sneered out at them and saw a brief glimmer of pleasure move like a kinetic wave through the throng, animating their otherwise dead eyes. They were like carrion birds licking their lips as they sat above an expiring animal. The gods need worshippers to exist; so too do the moral scolds need the sinners. Else what was the point of them? Very well. She would give them what they wanted. For, unbeknownst to them, they were giving her something too. And in the end, they would see their own impotency. She was beyond the worst they could throw at her now. Just as Cliff was. Cliff, who’d defied the world and fashioned his own reality. And who’d gifted her the ability to do the same.