Fiction - The Wormwood Collective, Absinthe Literary Review

Journal of a Mad Daguerreotyper
a short story by Dennis Mahoney 
   

2 Aug 1851

 

First portrait in the glass studio this morning. Photographed Alderman Green & daughter Charlotte. Green’s wife deceased a season now, killed by pox. A somber bloodless sitting with his monocle & pocketwatch. His eyes resembled oozing warts. Charlotte gave a smile & a warming one at that. I regretted how her hair was pinned. He seemed to have her pinned at every angle of her figure.

She did not reply to courtesies. The Alderman explained she neither answered nor inquired. “Deaf & dumb,” he said. “The better part is dumb.” Wretched man. In a moment of distraction, Charlotte kissed her little finger, pressed a print upon the lens & then departed with her father. I shall have to keep the lens.

 

6 Aug 1851

 

Mongrel Alderman perturbed to learn the portrait had been ruined, tho’ my offer of a second sitting, wholly free of charge, mollified his temper. Yet the portrait has survived, carried close at my breast. How his ears would turn to cinders if he knew my machinations. I have studied both her portrait & the finger printed lens. Every facet of her image, every coil of her print, thrills me powerfully…as tho’ I’d never seen a picture or a finger but for Charlotte’s. I have thought of little else.

 

8 Aug 1851

 

Second portrait today. Charlotte pinkened like a bud. She conversed in perfect silence with the color of her throat, the flicker of her lash, & her eyes, many spangled in the shadow of her father. Yet the Alderman’s impatience left us barren of enjoyment.

But before he stole her off again, I handed her a card—undetected—with my finger print. Beneath it, in a riddle, was a coded invitation:

 

10 o’clock, Crescent Hill, 11 August.

The moon will light your way.

--C. Nickelbach

 

She hid it in her bosom. We have now exchanged our fingers.

 

11 Aug 1851

 

Crescent Hill, above the valley at the border of the cemetery, lies within a maze of broken willow trees & nettles, not several minutes distance from the Alderman’s estate…so affording her a brisk & easy passage to our rendezvous. I pray we may converse in more than fingertips & glances. I am anxious with excitement & divert myself with cider, tho’ my ruined constitution takes it hard. Very hard.

Hope to photograph her sitting in the full moon’s light. We shall meet in seven hours. How the sun burns & dawdles, scarcely moving into night. How it glares upon impatience. Damned sun!

 

12 Aug 1851

 

She arrived at eleven, pale & lovely as a specter, & we gazed at one another many minutes on the hill. I requested her to sit before the camera I’d arranged. She was so completely still I might have photographed for hours. I entreated her to bare a single shoulder for the lens. She rewarded me with two. Then astonished me with more.

So enraptured by her form, I neglected other senses, neither hearing nor intuiting the motion on the hill. My beloved, hearing nothing but her everlasting quiet, was as powerless to recognize the Alderman’s approach. Finding Charlotte so exposed, he abused her in his fury, & he struck me on the temple with a polished stick of hickory. He smashed apart my camera & removed her from the hill, & she begged for his forgiveness as he dragged her by her hair. I attempted to pursue them but could not regain my senses, & the blood upon my eyes turned the moonlight red.

 

13 Aug 1851

 

The Alderman has sent today a lackey with a message, warning not to file grievance or pursue his daughter further, as his influence & allies would demolish me severely. As a token of his fervency, the lackey, with his knuckles, smashed eleven of my windows. He departed with a grin & very lacerated knuckles.

Yet a draught of bitter cider set my nerves upon their feet again. I do not fear the devil or his bastard vulgar minions. I would shatter every glass before abandoning my Charlotte. I shall send another note.

 

9 Sept 1851

 

A month of cruel suspense come & gone. Still I wait. I endeavored to communicate with Charlotte with a riddle. I had spied her in the mercantile, ordering a book, tho’ I kept myself concealed because the devil lurked beside her.

Spoke to Clarkson at the counter. For a dollar he agreed to slip my riddle in her book, & so he did when it arrived…where by now she must have found it. Past the fiend’s scaly eye! It conveyed an invitation for the evening of the tenth, once again at Crescent Hill, ‘neath the next full moon. How I hope she finds the courage. I will see in twenty hours.

 

11 Sept 1851

 

Went to Crescent Hill at nine & brought my new acquired camera, which was scarcely even utilized in intervening weeks. Charlotte failed to meet the rendezvous but left instead a letter, wrapped in silk upon a flagstone:

 

Dearest Mr. N,

 

I received your charming riddle and am heartened by your flattery. I must refrain from meeting you. Forgive me this fragility. Remember my affection. We shall meet whenever each of us reflects upon the moon.

 

Yours,

C

 

I could not have hoped for more. Tho’ she failed to steal away beneath the fiend’s jealous eye, she has promised—God be praised!—to meet with every ripened moon. Walking home along the road, I met a gathering of children. They were playing Wink’em Slyly, & I very nearly joined ‘em.

 

10 Oct 1851

 

Frequented the town in hopes of glimpsing my beloved. But the devil keeps her prisoner of the manor more & more. I imagine that she looks upon the slivers of the moon, while it nightly grows & beckons like a slowly opened portal.

More than twenty seven days. I neither sleep nor work in comfort, spending all my waking moments in reflection of her face. All my nights of awful solitude! I think I must be mad to pin my life upon her coming. I have dreamt of her incessantly, of chasing her forever, thro’ the willows, up the hill, into ghastly open spaces. I have scrutinized her portrait till the features seem to bleed. Time increases her but draws her ever further from my self, like a will-o’-wisp a will-o’-wisp pursues.

Pray she comes.

 

11 Oct 1851

 

Neither Charlotte nor a note. Saw the moon rise low, shining huge upon the fields. It diminished as it rose, drawing farther out of reach, till it hovered overhead & I reclined & felt dejected. Took a portrait of the moon. Left an hour after dawn. Passed a cartload of pumpkins overturned upon the road. Seemed the brains of many heads, broken orange in the cold.

 

9 Nov 1851

 

Charlotte failed to come again tonight. The cold was like a vein of ice fracturing a rock. All about me, ‘neath the hill, willows crackled in the dark, shedding bark, discombobulating.

Hours I insisted on a doomed, cheerless vigil, & the moon refused to show herself, brightening the sky & yet concealed behind the clouds, like a candle thro’ a curtain or an unformed thought. She appeared only once, glancing briefly thro’ the veil, in a moment I was peering down the hill to look for Charlotte. When I raised my head to see her, she abruptly disappeared. I imagined Charlotte turning & withdrawing from the hill, as capricious as the moon, having promised then revoked herself.

My nose has swamped my handkerchiefs. Neither dawn nor fire nor the mugs of boiled cider thaw the enervating chill that I have suffered overnight. And the Devil seems to cackle ever closer in my room. Charlotte’s portraits seem illusions I have conjured out of air.

 

8 Dec 1851

 

My blankets smell of shrouds. I will sleep if sleep will have me.

 

9 Dec 1851

 

Sleep will not.

 

6 Jan 1852

 

Direct appeal provoked the Devil & his wolves. I arrived today to find my precious studio destroyed. Every windowpane shattered, every camera o’erthrown. Tables smashed, jars exploded. All my spirit lamps demolished. Fuming alcohol & rottenstone & mercury dispersed.

I am ringed in lethal fragments strewn about me on the floor, & the Devil’s stern assertion rings & echoes in my memory—“I do not have a daughter.” So he said before departing. What malevolence & trickery! The cruelty of his words! Is my total desolation not enough to sate his anger? Must he leave me with the echo of his daughter being gone? Has he sent her off in misery, entombed her in the manor?

Both her portraits have been lost beneath the rubble & the glass. I am left with only memories of memories of ghosts.

 

7 Jan 1852

 

Spent the night amid the wreckage by a low, cold fire. Bent with stomach pains & grippe. Dogs howled in the woods. I perceived a flash of eyes, drawing nearer in the dark, circling round about the rubble of my ruined atelier. But the fire kept them off. Once I howled in reply. Watched the moon rise grim, shining down upon the glass. I could almost see her face.

 

5 Feb 1852

 

Visited the hill tonight, expecting nothing good. Expectations proved correct. Oddly warm for early February, wading up the snow, which had melted into mud & left me soiled as a root. Tho’ the Devil has abolished both my craft & reputation, my inheritance provides for my existence & my lodgings. I subsist upon a common bread, hunks of dusty cheese, half a hogshead of cider—mostly mold, dirt, alcohol. All that my diminished strength of appetite endures.

Have repaired a single camera & replenished my supplies.

Gazed for hour after hour at the high cold moon, till the craters & the pockmarks burned upon my eyes. Now it hovers here before me in the mirror, in my eyelids…crystal, ineffaceable, permanent as Hell.

 

6 March 1852

 

I hastened up the hill despite a mortifying rainstorm. Worms were driven upward from the saturated ground, where they writhed & made the hillside slither underfoot. I was so completely sodden by the time I reached the top, I began to worry maggots might be driven from my body. I was stricken with the knowledge I was standing on my grave. She was utterly obscured, tho’ I waited many hours.

 

11 March 1852

 

I am weak. I am dying.

 

21 March 1852

 

Purchased Crescent Hill. My inheritance is gone. Have commissioned the construction of a buried mausoleum, where, as Providence allows, I will meet her in the dark.

 

5 April 1852

 

I walked to the hillside in early afternoon, feeling low & disenchanted since another month had ebbed. I set my camera there to photograph the building of the tomb. Excavation had been hindered by the hardness of the ground, yet a quantity of earth had been successfully removed, & the hole was like a great fearsome maw upon the hill.

I resolved to spend the night, out of habit or delusion. Blessed habit! Grand delusion! Several hours after dusk, she appeared upon the distance, so discreet I almost doubted my perception of her coming, & I sickened at the thought that it was some renewed deception. She ascended Crescent Hill to my astonishment & wonder, bathing everything anew. I was shamed that I had doubted her.

She chastened me with silence, neither listening nor speaking, but her face was brimmed with pity for my desolate appearance. She was frightened to embrace me so we stood apart & gazed, standing hours in reflection. She was bound to leave the hill, lest the Devil find her absent. But she waited for a portrait.

 

7 April 1852

 

Have discovered what appears to be a flaw upon the portrait, like a miniature spider in the corner of the plate. I have never seen its equal. A peculiar disappointment.

 

4 May 1852

 

She came again to meet me at the half-completed tomb, which appeared in my exalted state a grisly aberration. She disturbed me with her silence tho’… a silence not from muteness, but from deeper wells of being. It appeared as if her spirit had decided not to speak. We were statues on the grave.

She denied me her embrace again. She seemed to hint a faithlessness & subtle diminution. Have the Fiend’s insinuations taken root without her knowing? She appears upon the hill, which attests to her devotion, yet her reticence suggests an inclination to abandon me.

To think that I have found, lost, waited, rediscovered...only now to feel the agony of willful disaffection. She did not resist a portrait, but her countenance diffused. I could not abide her listlessness. I left her on the hill.

How astonishing my arrogance to chasten her behavior!

 

5 May 1852

 

Yet another creeping flaw upon the latest of the portraits…slightly wider than the first, tho’ of similar appearance, like a spider or an ink stain blotting out the edge. I have checked the plates & lenses. They are clean. I am mystified.

 

3 June 1852

 

We met upon the hill & I beseeched her to forgive me. Yet she shrank as if she loathed me…I should think I had defiled her. Thus reflected in her scorn, I began to loathe myself, & I withdrew toward the tomb & sat considering the chasm.

We were startled by a girl who had emerged as I was sitting, so abruptly we were frightened to discover her between us. She was eerily familiar, tho’ I couldn’t fathom how. Had I photographed her sister? Had I known her as a child? Yet she knew me like a lover, threw her arms around my collar…pressed her bosom so emphatically I nearly tumbled o’er. She behaved as if the two of us were utterly alone.

I removed myself by force & she was stricken by my anger. But her gesturing & gawking seemed to mock my lover’s muteness, & the girl’s offensive pantomime was gravely misconstrued. My beloved looked upon us with an air of bitter jealousy. She seemed to think the girl & I were mocking her together.

I insisted she depart. Still pled in vulgar pantomime. I hauled her rather crudely by her elbow off the hill. She was sobbing & her face assumed a new familiarity, a mirroring of something I had witnessed long ago, & it pained me to remove her—such a pitiable creature. Only what was I to do with my beloved looking on? I redoubled my insistence when the girl began to struggle, & her wild desperation made me seize her by the hair. She resisted, pulling hard until I clapped her on the ear…accidentally, tho’ my blow restored a measure of composure. She descended from the hill, full of tremors & convulsions, & I watched until she finally disappeared beyond the fields.

My beloved grew imperious & looked upon me coldly. She interpreted my fervency as proof of some betrayal. My assurances of innocence were futile & ignored. She withdrew herself & left me to consider what had happened.

I suspect the Devil’s hand.

 

24 June 1852

 

I have dreamed of the black, creeping blotch upon her portraits. It has covered her with limbs & creeping tentacles of oil. I awaken soaked & terrified, convinced the shape has swallowed her. It seeks to swallow me, slipping fingers through the windowpanes. Where am I to hide? Even God Himself is eaten.

 

5 July 1852

 

She is lost, dead, gone. I am paralyzed with nausea, & the creeping aberration formed a thunderstorm above me, sending wind, rain, hail, fearsome bellows thro’ the window frames. I cowered ‘neath a table & remembered my ferocity—to think of my abuse toward the poor, wretched girl! She could not have been an agent of the Devil’s machinations. My nostalgia for her face has left me certain she was wronged, tho’ in spite of my conviction I cannot remember how.

My beloved must have viewed me as a monster on the hill. She will never come again. She has finally abandoned me. The marring of her portraits was a dire premonition, & the grim black stain seems to signify my self. I am hungry & diseased. I am penniless & feeble. She is right to look upon me as the truest aberration.

 

13 July 1852

 

Construction of the tomb recommenced seven days ago. The builders work with fury, like the architects of Hell. Took a portrait of my self today. The image showed a ghost. I am barely even human. I am something like a smear.

 

31 July 1852

 

The tomb has been completed. I am sitting underground, on the corner of my coffin lid with candle, ink, & pen. Overhead I see the portal of my private oubliette, hanging open with its keyhole, urging me to lock it.

Neither star, moon, nor meteor has passed within the aperture. It seems as if the sky itself is buried in the ground. She has vanished in the dark & I will chase her through oblivion. Her image, tho’ eclipsed, still exists beneath the veil. I will stand upon the coffin, lock the door, & eat the key. I will blow the fire out. Sleep will have me after all.

 end

  

© 2006 Dennis Mahoney

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