Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Steve Rasnic Tem: Carnal House

Steve Rasnic Tem

Gene’s phone rang again, the third time that evening. “Yes?” he asked again, as if the very ring were his name.

“Are you coming over, Gene? Could you come over?”

He held back any immediate reaction. He didn’t want her to hear him sigh, or groan. He didn’t want her to hear the catch he knew was waiting in his throat.

“Ruth,” he said.

“Who else could it be?” she said, as if in accusation.

For just a second he felt like defying her, telling her about Jennie. The impulse chilled him. She couldn’t know about Jennie. Not ever. “No other woman,” he finally said.

She was silent for a time, but he knew she was still there. He could hear the wind worrying at the yellow window-shade in her bedroom. Her window would be closed, he knew, but it would leak badly. There would be a draft that went right through the skin. But none of that would bother her.

“Come over, Gene,” she finally said.

“Okay. I’ll be there.”

“I’ll wait,” she said, as if there were a choice. He hung up the phone.

The house was at the end of a long back street on the west end of town. It was one of the oldest in the area, its lines ornate, archaic, and free of the various remodeling fads that had passed through this neighborhood over the years. Gene had always appreciated the dignity of the Victorian style.

But he also knew that Victorians could be extraordinarily ugly, and this house was a perfect representative of that type. The exterior color seemed to be a mix of dark blue, dark green, and gray, which resulted in a burnt stew of a shade, a rotting vegetable porridge. The paint had been thickly applied, splatters and drips of it so complicating the porch lines and filigreed braces under the roof that they looked like dark, coated spiderwebs. The windows and doors were shadowed rectangles; he couldn’t make out their details from the street.

All but a few of the houses along this tree-shadowed lane were abandoned. Some were boarded up, some burned out, some so overgrown with wild bushes and vines and weeds they were virtually impenetrable. Here and there a few houses had been torn down, the lots given over to bramble gardens or refuse heaps. And in the occasional house a light burned behind a yellowed shade, its tenders hidden.

Gene stood on the porch of her house for a very long time. He could feel Ruth inside that dark place, perhaps lying quietly on stiff white sheets, perhaps sitting up, motionless, listening. He imagined her listening a great deal these days, her entire body focused on the heartbeats of the mice in the corners, the night birds outside in the crooked trees. He imagined that focus broadening to include the systemic pulse of the moths beating against the dim bulb of the lone streetlight on the corner, the roaches scrawling over the linoleum next door, his own nervous tics as he stood on this porch, hesitant to go in.

He imagined Jennie in a dark house like this, at the end of some other god-forsaken street, her eyes forced open waiting for him. And he hated himself for imagining it.

At first he had been so pleased that Jennie had kicked the habit. He’d seen it as a cleansing when she’d gone through the house in a rage, looking for needles, spoons, all that other paraphernalia she’d always carefully kept hidden. But now she’d been ill for months. She wouldn’t tell him what it was; she didn’t have to. She would no longer make love to him. Last night she had refused to kiss him. And cleanliness to the point of sterility had become an obsession. They didn’t talk about it.

Now, standing on this darkened porch in a shunned neighborhood, he could imagine it was Jennie he was visiting, not Ruth at all.

He was staring at the brown, flaking screen door when it lightened briefly. Pale skin pressed into the mesh from the other side. The lips, endlessly bisected, were almost as pale as the rest of the flesh, but with a hint of silver in their curves. “Coming in?” the lips said, in an almost toneless question.

As Gene stepped forward the pale flesh backed away, leaving the mesh as dark and empty as before. The hinges were oddly silent when he moved them, as if perfectly greased, but that seemed so unlikely his hand shook slightly before he let go of the greenish brass knob. The door fell back against the frame without a sound.

The staircase climbed out of the dark burgundy well of the entrance hall into the smoke shadows of the second story. The paneled doors to the parlor on his left and the rooms ahead of him were closed, as they had been every time he had been her.

The woman standing on the staircase was nude, her flesh pasty, her face so pale and features so blurred that in the darkness Gene didn’t know if it was Ruth or one of her companions. Her breasts were high and full, catching the available light on their upper curves. The nipples were shadows, as if half-remembered and only vaguely applied. Her pubic hair was so think, so dark, that in this dimness it looked as if someone had blown a hole through her groin, and it was a triangular window on the dark staircase behind her he was seeing instead.

Her black hair suddenly moved across the pale shoulders like a snake. “Hurry,” she whispered huskily in Ruth’s voice. She turned and moved up the stairs, so effortlessly that her buttocks remained smooth and firm throughout the movement. After a moment he followed, his hands ahead of him, suddenly too anxious to stay trapped in his pockets. They groped and pawed their way through the darkness. Not for the first time he wished he could tell someone about all this. Anyone. He wished he had someone here with him, to tell him whether what he was seeing was real. He thought how, after all this time, he had so few friends.

That dwindling of friendships had all started in college. There had been Ruth, but she hadn’t really been a friend, just the woman he’d always been pursuing. He had known Jennie back then, but only distantly. She had dated the friend of a friend, and he remembered her as someone always desperate for fun, as if she didn’t have a serious though in her skull.

First he had pursued Ruth, then he had pursued Jennie. There had never been any time to make friends.

“Kiss me,” Ruth whispered, and Gene moved his lips slowly over hers. “Now bite,” she said, and his teeth gently prodded her unyielding flesh.

Making love to her was strange. Making love to her was like a cutting, a notching of her hard, white, translucent flesh. Each time required more effort on his part before she could feel anything.

“There…there,” she said. “I felt…something.”

He rubbed against her rhythmically, slowly at first and then faster, but it felt less like making love than like a sandpapering, an attempt to wear away the old, dull skin on order to expose fresh nerves, in order to feel something.

He had a sudden urge to strike her unresponsive flesh, slap and pinch it, anything to bring it awake. He knew Ruth wouldn’t mind. But he would.

He could not look into Ruth’s eyes when he made love to her. He could not bear that faraway stare. He continued to scrape himself against her, cut into her, and her body felt like a pair of scissors squeezing him, cutting through flesh and nerves and bone.

Her odor was sour and animal-like. Her flesh seemed to melt into the stark white sheets. He had a sudden skirmish with the think tangle of her hair, the twisted sheets, and came up gasping for air, thinking of Jennie.

Ruth started up at him from her resting place (Had he ever imagined her anywhere else?), looking as if she could read his mind.

When he left before dawn Ruth stayed in her bed. Not sleeping, really. And yet not fully awake. This was the usual way. In the other upstairs rooms he thought Ruth’s companions must be similarly greeting the departures of their lovers.

A shadow moved suddenly into the hall, staggering. The man raised his white face, eyes dark and hooded with fatigue. The man, as if embarrassed, turned his head away again and made his way quickly down the stairs.

As Gene walked off the porch the rest of the neighborhood seemed suddenly to burn into a new life. He turned back around to look at the house. Its windows stayed dark and shaded, the sun doing little to lighten its colors.

Jennie was still in bed when he got back to the apartment, only her head outside the sheet, the flesh drawn so tightly at temples and chin that her face looked hard, carved from wood. The bedroom shade was drawn to keep the morning light out.

“Jennie…” he whispered, but nothing came in reply.

The apartment was a mess. He could see the nest she must have made in front of the TV the night before. A U-shaped wall of firm cushions in front of the couch, the firmer the better to hold up her back and neck, the open space filled with blankets and pillows. Like the living room castles he used to build as a kid. A phalanx of overflowing ashtrays and snake trays had been arranged around the castle, but the food had been barely nibbled. Jennie always seemed to be consumed by this aimless hunger, and yet nothing would satisfy her. At times she could hardly eat anything at all. And yet the hunger still gnawed at her, and she kept loading up on the junk food, trying to find something she would eat.

Gene could picture her sitting here wrapped up in her blankets, her small face peering out at the TV, her nervous hands grabbing for cigarettes and snakes she would not eat. She seemed smaller with each passing day, more vulnerable, more and more like a kid. Less like a woman. He hated himself for thinking that way. As if Ruth were more than that.

Jennie wasn’t the kind to sit up and wait—at least she never had been before. Their relationship had never been exclusive; that had never been part of the rules. Yet he kept thinking of her sitting up all night, and maybe, just maybe waiting up for him. And he hated himself for that as well.

Suddenly he felt starved. He went to the refrigerator and jerked the door open, the bottled and jars inside rubbing against each other musically. He reached for the quart bottle of orange juice.

When he started to open it he noticed that the lid wasn’t on securely. He held the bottle up to the light from the narrow, curtainless kitchen window. As he turned it slowly he detected the faint impression of a lip print near the rim. She was just like a kid. More and more. He felt a sudden flash of anger, and poured out all the juice, discarded the bottle in the can under the sink. At first she’d been so careful. Sterilizing her silverware, her cups and plates, making sure he didn’t handle anything she’d had in her mouth. Like she was dirty.

They hadn’t made love in some time. He couldn’t even remember the last time they’d kissed.

Now he was ashamed of himself, looking at the discarded juice bottle. You can’t catch it that way. He’d told all their friends that, his family who thought he should have nothing more to do with her. But he was scared. He knew better, but he was scared of Jennie.

And yet if he could love her illness away, kiss and rub it away, he would do it.

“I heard something.” The voice behind him was so weak he hardly recognized it. “I didn’t know you were home.”

He turned around. She had the comforter wrapped tightly around her. The narrow muscles in her cheeks and throat trembled. He tried to smile at her, but couldn’t quite get the idea up to his lips. “You should be in bed,” he said. “You’ll get cold.”

“I’m always cold,” she snapped.

“I know, Jennie.” He went to her and put his arms around her. “I know.” He squeezed her. After a moment’s hesitation she squeezed back, or at least what passed as a squeeze for her.

“Hold me in bed?” she whispered.

“I’ll hold you in bed,” he said softly, leading her into the other room. “I’ll hold you as long as you want. Forever if you want.”

After an hour or so she was asleep again. Gene lay with her, massaging her back gently with his hands, feeling the lines of every muscle, every bone. And then the phone rang.

“Are you coming over?” He could hear Ruth’s voice, and static, and wind.

“I was just there,” he said quietly, watching Jennie stir in her sleep.

“But are you coming over? I need you to come over.” Ruth’s voice was steady, focused, obsessive.


“I need you.”

He’d chased Ruth all through college. Every once in a while he would stop, and think how ridiculous he looked, what a fool he was, but those pauses for self-examination had been few and far between. She’d had the voice he heard in his dreams, gestures he could mimic in his sleep, skin that had felt like no other. He’d never wanted to think about whether his feelings for her were real, or whether this was truly a balanced, healthy relationship. Those questions simply had not applied. There had been nothing real about her, and he hadn’t cared if there was a balance—he’d felt deliriously unbalanced. He’d simply had to have her.

He’d met her the first day of classes. The friend of a friend of a friend, although he could no longer remember which ones. He’d been introduced as a “math wizard.”

“Then you’ll have to tutor me sometime,” she had said, with this simply amazing smile. And he had. If she’d asked him to, he’d have done all her work for her. There had never been “magic” before; now there was a magic he could not let go.

“I need you,” she’d said, but it had meant something different back then. She’d needed his help with school, and she’d needed him to tell her how beautiful she was—so that she could be convinced that someone else might find her attractive. Even when she’d made love to him, it was to convince her that someone else—and that someone else seemed to change depending on her mood—would want to make love with her.

“You make me feel good,” she’d say. “You make me feel alive.” Bit she had never asked how she made him feel.

She should have asked. Because sometimes she made made him feel less than alive. He’d shied away from any other relationships, just in hope that she would be the one. He hadn’t kept up his friendships. He’d convinced himself that his life would not work without her in it. He’d convinced himself that his relationship with her was a crucial turning point in his life, and that this was a relationship he dared not fail. Every woman he had met resembled her in some way. She’d become the measure for every female gesture, glance, or expression.

“Kiss me, Gene. There and there and there. Am I still beautiful?” He could hear noises in other parts of the house: Ruth’s companions and their lovers.

“Yes,” he said, with his lips urging her skin toward some vague warmth. “You’ve always been beautiful.” He ran his fingers through her hair, and felt them go deep, too deep, into the dark waves that surrounded her depthless eyes, her pale, night-surrounding mouth.

“Good. That’s good, Gene,” Ruth whispered, holding him tighter and tighter within the scissors her body made. He wondered what she could possibly be thinking. It scared him that he could not even guess what she was thinking.

But then he’d never been able to guess what she was thinking. Even as she’d died, the thin that had haunted him the most was trying to figure out what she was thinking.

He’d been walking on the quadrangle at the center of campus. It had been a bright, sunny day, bright enough to burn away the haze that had accumulated the previous week. Both a haze of weather and the haze that had built up in his mind after several weeks of an unusually frenetic and unproductive pursuit of Ruth. In fact, the contrast had bothered him. The sunlight had felt just too bright, the campus setting too stark, too livid.

Suddenly there was a crash, screams. A large crowd had gathered near the stone wall that bordered South Drive. When he got there he saw a red Ford that had come up onto the sidewalk and knocked a third of the wall down.

He’d pushed his way through the crowd. Several people had been huddled over a woman on the sidewalk. Gene could see the long cuts on her legs, the nylons scraped away, the real skin scraped away below that, the shards of glass in her sides.

Then someone had shifted and Gene could see that it was Ruth lying on the sidewalk, that it was Ruth who had contained so much blood. Somehow he got through the crowd. He had said things, terrible and inarticulate things, but he could no longer remember what they were. And then it was he huddled over Ruth, the mask of her face in his hands and staring up at him, and it was a mask because the back of her head was gone, sprayed in carnival colors across the granite and marble of the rough wall.

But Gene kept talking to her, holding the ruin of her head in his hands and sweet-talking her, kissing her open eyes and kissing her lips, passionately kissing her lips with tongue and tooth and caress as if to arouse her, then desperately rubbing at her breasts, even as her broken ribs caught on his shaking hands. Sweet-talking her, kissing and rubbing her, as if he were loving her awake after a long night asleep in his arms.

When they finally pulled him away from her Gene screamed as if they were taking him apart. But Gene could not remember that scream. What he would remember instead, and so vividly, was that sudden fantasy he’d had that his kisses had been working, that Ruth’s eyes had just begun to focus.

“Gene?” And it had remained a fantasy until the evening she’d first called. “Could you come over?” Until she needed him to tell her how beautiful she was once again. “I need you, Gene.” Until she needed him to put his hands, once again, into the thick waves of her dark hair. And to feel his fingers go too deeply through the hair into the space where the back of her skull should have been. Until she needed him to tell her she was still alive.

“There, there. I think I felt something. I’m sure I felt something.” In desperate need to make her feel, he had bitten her left breast as hard as he could. It was like putting his teeth into leather. And still no blood would well, no bruise would form. “Don’t leave now, Gene. So close. I could almost feel.”

Passing the bedroom doors of Ruth’s companions, he could hear their lovers softly weeping.

He’d decided that night that he would leave the phone off the hook. He’d prepare dinner, the biggest meal Jennie had had in some time if he had to cook all night. But he ended up spending more than an hour in the meat department of their local grocer, and still he wasn’t able to choose anything. The chicken looked too pale, bloodless, as if it had been dead too long. And you couldn’t eat anything dead so long, could you? He was sure it would have no taste, no color.

And all the cuts of beef and pork looked somehow unreal to him. Too much red. Too much blood. He could not believe anything dead could have that much color.

Only the fatty parts looked real. The smooth, too-soft curves and hills of fat.

He rubbed each cut of meat through its sheer plastic covering. He thought he was close to knowing what they wanted form hem—he could see it in the way their color changes when he pressed his living fingers into the meat through the plastic. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to trust anything in that cold landscape of cut meats.

The lights were out in the apartment when he finally got back. Again, Jennie had left a mess, but he could hardly blame her for that. But she’d always been so orderly, almost obsessive about it, so he supposed this increasing laxness probably did not bode well.

“Jennie?” he whispered from the bedroom door. She said nothing, but the dim light that slipped beneath the bottom of the shade illuminated her head, the soft blond curls, the face that looked even more beautiful to him the paler it became.

She slept so soundly. He knew she would be in no mood for a meal. He could feel tears on his cheeks, running into the corners of his mouth.

Quietly he slipped out of his clothes and joined her under the covers. She did not stir, even when he pressed his cool body against her nakedness.

He began to kiss her, to taste her, and when she still did not respond he began to nip, to bite. He began to cry, massaging her breasts, probing her pubic area with his fingers, trying to kiss her, love her awake. But she remained cold and dry. The only air stirring in the room seemed to be his own, ragged breath.

Gene knocked on the dark screen door, and waited this time. This time, he knew, required a more definite invitation.

Her pale face appeared in the screen, her dark eyes taking in the bundle by his feet: the dull green blanket, the soft blond hair that still trapped the light, the pale skin with its tinge of silver.

“Is there room?” Gene whispered. “Room for her?”

Again Ruth looked at the bundle. Then her eyes floated up to hold him. “You’ll still come? You’ll be there when I call?”

Gene pulled his jacket closed, unable to keep warm. “Yes…” he said finally. “I’ll be there when you call.”

The screen door opened without sound, and the women inside the dark house dragged the bundle across the threshold.

It was two weeks before the next phone call. But he was there to pick up the receiver on the first ring.

“Hello,” he said.

“Gene?” Jennie’s voice said. “Are you coming over? I need you, Gene. I need you to come over.”

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