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).

Conrad Aiken: Strange Moonlight

Conrad Aiken, Strange Moonlight, Relatos de misterio, Tales of mystery, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales


It had been a tremendous week—colossal. Its reverberations around him hardly yet slept—his slightest motion or thought made a vast symphony of them, like a breeze in a forest of bells. In the first place, he had filched a volume of Poe’s tales from his mother's bookcase, and had had in consequence a delirious night in inferno. Down, down he had gone with heavy clangs about him, coiling spouts of fire licking dryly at an iron sky, and a strange companion, of protean shape and size, walking and talking beside him. For the most part, this companion seemed to be nothing but a voice and a wingnan enormous jagged black wing, soft and drooping like a bat's; he had noticed veins in it. As for the voice, it had been singularly gentle. If it was mysterious, that was no doubt because he himself was stupid. Certainly it had sounded placid and reasonahle, exactly, in fact, like his father’s explainifig a problem in mathematics; but, though he had noticed the orderly and logical structure, and felt the inevitable approach toward a vast and beautiful or terrible conclusion, the nature and meaning of the conclusion itself always escaped him. It was as
if, always, he had come just too late. When, for example, he had come at last to the black wall that inclosed the infernal city, and seen the arched gate, the voice had certainly said that if he hurried he would see, through the arch, a far, low landscape of extraordinary'wonder. He had hurried, but it haéi been in vain. He had reached the gate, and for the tiniest fraction of an instant he had even glimpsed the wide green of fields and trees, a winding blue ribbon of water, and a gleam of intense light touching to brilliance some far object. But then, before he had time to notice more than that every detail in this fairy landscape seemed to lead toward a single shining solution, a dazzling significance, suddenly the internal rain, streaked fire and rolling smoke, had swept it away. Then the voice had seemed to become ironic. He had failed, and he felt like crying.
He had still, the next morning, felt that he might, if the opportunity offered, see that vision. It was always just round the corner, just at the head of the stairs, just over the next page. But other adventures had intervened. Prize-day, at school, had come upon him as suddenly as a thunderstorm—the ominous hushed gathering of the entire school into one large room, the tense air of expectancy, the solemn speeches, all had reduced him to a state of acute terror. There was something unintelligible and sinister about it. He had, from first to last, a peculiar
physical sensation that something threatened him, and here and there, in the interminable vague speeches, a word seemed to have eyes and to stare at him. His prescience had'been correct—abruptly his name had been called, he had walked unsteadily amid applause to the teacher's desk, had received a small black pasteboard box; and then had cowered in his chair again, with the blood in his temples beating like gongs. When items over, he had literallyr run away—he didn’t stop till he reached the park. There, among the tombstones (the park had once been a graveyard) and trumpet-vines, he sat on the grass and opened the box. He was dazzled. The medal was of gold, and rested on a tiny blue satin cushion. His name was engraved on it—yes, actually cut into thegold; he felt the incisions with his fingernail. It was an experience not wholly to he comprehended. He put the box down in the grass and detached himself from it, lay full length, resting his chin on his wrist, and stared first at a tombstone and then at the small gold object, as if to discover the relation between them. Humming-birds, tombstones, trumpet-vines, and a gold medal. Amazing. He unpinned the medal from its cushion, put the box in his pocket, and walked slowly homeward, carrying the small, live, gleaming thing between fingers and thumb as if it were a bee. This was an experience to be carefully concealed from mother and father. Possibly he would tell Mary and John. . . . Unfortunately, he met his father as he was going in the door, and was thereafter drowned, for a day, in a glory without significance. He felt ashamed, and put the medal away in a drawer, sternly forbidding Mary and John to look at it. Even so, he was horribly conscious of it—its presence there burned him unceasingly. Nothing afforded escape from it, not even sitting under the peach tree and whittling a boat.


II

The oddest thing was the way these and other adventures of the week all seemed to unite, as if they were merely aspects of the same thing. Everywhere lurked that extraordinary hint of the enigma and its shining solution. On Tuesday morning, when it was pouring with rain, and he and Mary and ]ohn were conducting gigantic military operations in the back hall, with hundreds of paper soldiers, tents, cannon, ' battleships, and forts,'sudde_nly through the tall open window, a goldfinch flew in from the rain, beat wildly against a pane of glass, darted several times to and fro above their heads, and finally, finding the open window, flashed out. It flew to the peach tree, rested there for a moment, and then over the outhouse and away. He saw it rising and falling in the rain. This was beautiful—it was like the vision in the infernal city, like the medal in the grass. He found it impossible to go on with the Battle of Gettysburg and abandoned it to Mary and john, who instantly started to quarrel. Escape was necessary, and he went into his own room, shut the door, lay on his bed, and began thinking about Caroline Lee.
John Lee had taken him there to see his new air-gun and a bag of BB shot. The strange house was dim and exciting. A long winding dark staircase went up from near the front door, a clock was striking in a far room, a small beautiful statue of a lady, slightly pinkish, and looking as if it had been dug out of the earth, stood on a table. The wallpaper beside the staircase was rough and hairy. Upstairs, in the playroom, they found Caroline, sitting on the floor with a picture book. She was learning to read, pointing at the words with her finger. He was struck by the fact that, although she was extraordinarily strange and beautiful, John Lee did not seem to be aware of it and treated her as if she were quite an ordinary sort of person. This gave him courage, and after the airagun had been examined, the bag of BB shot emptied of its gleaming heavy contents and then luxuriously refilled, he told her some of the words she couldn’t make out. “And what's this?“ she had said—“he could still hear her say it, quite clearly. She was thin, smaller than himself, with dark hair and large pale eyes, and her forehead
and hands looked curiously transparent. He particularly noticed her hands when she brought her five~dollar goldpiece to show him, opening a little jewel box which had lh it also a necklace of yellow beads from Egypt and a pink shell from Tybee Beach. She gave him the goldpiece to look at, and while he was looking at it put the beads round her neck. “Now, I'm an Egyptian" she said, and laughed shyly, running her fingers to and fro over the smooth beads. A fearful temptation canie upon him. He coveted the goldPiece, and thought that it would be easy to steal it. He shut his hand over it and it was gone. If ithad been john’s, he might have done so, but, as it was, he
opened his hand again and put the goldpiece back in the box. Afterwards, he stayed for a long while, talking with john and Caroline. The house was mysterious and rich, and he hadn't at all Wanted to go out of it, or back to his own humdrum existence. Besides, he liked to hear Caroline talking.
But although he had afterwards. for many days wanted to go back to that house, to explore further its dim rich mysteriousness, and had thought about it a great deal, John hadn't again suggested a visit, and he himself had felt a curious reluctance about raising the subject. It had been, apparently, a vision that was not to be repeated, an incursion into a world that was so beautiful and strange that one was permitted of it only the briefest of glimpses. He had, almost, to reassure himself that the house was really there, and for that reason he made rather a point of walking home from school with John Lee. Yes, the house was there-he saw John climb the stone steps and open the huge green door. There was never a sign of Caroline, however, nor any mention of her; until one day he heard from another boy that she was ill with scarlet fever, and observed that John had stayed away from school. The news didn’t startle or frighten him. On the contrary, it seemed just the sort of romantic privilege in which such fortunate people would indulge. He felt a certain delicacy about approaching the house, however, to see if the red quarantine sign had been afiiXed by the door, and carefully avoided Gordon Square on his way home from school. Should he write her a letter or send her a present of marbles? For neither action did there seem to be sufficient warrant. But he found it impossible to do nothing, and later in the afternoon, by a very circuitous route which took him past the county jail—where he was thrilled by actually seeing a prisoner looking out between the gray iron barsmheslowly made his way to Gordon Square and from a safe distance, more or less hiding himself behind a palmetto tree, looked for a long while at the wonderful house, and saw, sure enough, the red sign.
Three days later he heard that Caroline Lee was dead. The news stunned him. Surely it could not be possible? He felt stifled, frightened, and incredulous. In a way, it was just what one would expect of Caroline, but none the less he felt outraged. How was it possible for anyone, whom one actually knew, to die? Particularly anyone so vividly and beautifully remembered! The indignity, the horror, of death obsessed him. Had she actually died? He went again to Gordon Square, not knowing precisely what it was that he expected to find, and saw something white hanging by the green door. But if, as it appeared, it was true that Caroline Lee, somewhere inside the house, lay dead, lay motionless, how did it happen that he, who was so profoundly concerned, had not at all been consulted, had not been invited to come and talk with her, and now found himself so utterly and hopelessly and forever excluded—from the house, as from her? This was a thing which he could not understand. As he walked home, pondering it, he thought of the five-dollar goldpiece. What'would become of it? Probably John would get it, and, if so, he would steal it from him. . . . All the same, he was glad he hadn’t taken it.
To this reflection he came back many times, as now once more with the Battle of Gettysburg raging in the next room. If he had actually taken it, what a horror it would have been! As it was, the fact that he had resisted the temptation, restored the goldpiece to the box, seemed to have been a tribute to Caroline’s beauty and strangeness. Yes, for nobody else Would he have made the refusal—nobody on earth. But, for her, it had been quite simple, a momentary pang quickly lost in the pleasure of hearing her voice, watching her pale hands twisting the yellow beads, and helping her with her reading. “And what’s this?" she had said, and “Now I’m an Egyptian!" . . . What was death that could put an end to a clear voice saying such things? . . . Mystery was once more about him, the same mystery that had shone in
the vision of the internal city. There was something beautiful which he could not understand. He had felt it while he was lying in the grass among the tombstones, looking at the medal; he had felt it when the goldfinch darted in from the rain and then out again. All these things seemed in some curious way to fit together.

III

The same night, after he had gone to bed, this feeling of enormous and complicated mystery came upon him again with oppressive weight. He lay still, looking from his pillow through the tall window at the moonlight on thefiwhite outhouse wall, and again it seemed to him that the explanation for everything was extraordinarily hear at hand if
he could only find it. The mystery was like the finest of films, like the moonlight on the white wall. Surely, beneath it, there was something solid and simple. He heard someone walk across the yard, with steps that seemed astoundingly far apart and slow. The steps ceased, a door creaked. Then there was a cough. It was old Selena, the Negro cook, going out for wood. He heard the sticks being piled up, then the creak of the door again, and again the slow steps on the hard baked ground of the yard, aeons apart. How did the peach tree look in the moonlight? Would its leaves be dark, or shiny? And the chinaberry
tree? He thought of the two trees standing there motionless in the moonlight, and at last felt that he must get out of bed and look at them. But when he had reached the hall, he heard his mother’s voice from downstairs, and he went and lay on the old sofa in the hall, listening. Could he have heard aright? His mother had just called his father “Boy!”
“But two parties every week, and sometimes three or four, that’s excessive. You know it is."
“Darling, I must have some recreation!”
His father laughed in a peculiar angry way that he had never heard before—as strange, indeed, as his mother's tone had been.
“Recreation's all right," he said, “but you’re neglecting your family. If it goes on, I’ll have another child—that’s all.”
He got off the Lids. and went softly down the stairs to the turn of the railing. He peered over the ‘banisters with infinite caution, and what he saw filled him with horror. His mother was sitting on his father's knee, with her arms about his negk. She was kissing him. How awful! . . . He couldn't look at it. What on earth, he wondered as he climbed back into bed, was it all about? There was something curious in the way they were talking, something not at all like fathers and mothers, but more like children, though he couldn’t in the least understand it. At the
same time, it was offensive.
He began to make up a conversation with Caroline Lee. She was sitting under the peach tree with him, reading her book. What beautiful hands she had] They were transparent, somehow, like her forehead, and her dark hair andfiarge pale eyes delighted him. Perhaps she was an Egyptian! '
“It must be nice to live in your house,” he said.
“Yes, it’s very nice. And you haven't seen half of it, either."
“No, I haven't. I’d like to see it all. I liked the hairy wallpaper and the pink statue of the lady on the table. Are thereany others like it?"
"Oh, yes, lots and lots! In the secret room downstairs, where you heard the silver clock striking, there are fifty other statues, all more beautiful than that one, and a collection of clocks of every kind."
"Is your father very rich?”
“Yes, he’s richer than anybody. He has a special carved ivory box to keep his collars in.”
“What does it feel like to die—were you sorry?”
"Very sorry! But it's really quite easy—you ‘just hold your breath and shut your eyes."
“And when you're lying there, after you've died, you’re really just pretending, You keepver-y still, and you have your eyes almost shut, but'really you know everything! You watch the people and listen to them.”
“But don't you want to talk to them, or get out of bed, or out of your coffin?” .
“Well, yes, at first you do-but it’s nicer than being alive.”
“Why?”
“Oh, I don't know! You understand everything so easily!"
“How nice that must be!"
“It is."
“But after they’ve shut you up in a coffin and sung songs over you and carried you to Bonaventure and buried you in the ground, and you’re down there in the dark with all that earth above you—isn’t that horrible?”
"Oh, no! . . . As soon as nobody is looking, when they‘ve all gone home to tea, you just get up and walk away. You climb out ofthe earth just as easily as you’d climb out of bed."
"That’s how you’re here now, I suppose."
“Of course!”
“Well, it’s very nice.”
“It’s lovely. . . . Don’t I look just as well as'ever”
“Yes, you do."
There was a pause, and then Caroline said:
"I know you Wanted to steal my goldpiece—I Was awfully glad when you put it back. If you had asked me for it, I’d have given it to you."
“I like you very much, Caroline. Can I come to Bonaventure and play with you?"
' “I'm afraid not. You’d have to come in the dark."
"But I could bring a lantern.”
“Yes, you could do that." ‘
. . . It seemed to him that they were no longer sitting under the peach tree, but walking along the white shell-road to Bonaventure. Hes held the lantern up beside a chinquapin tree, and Caroline reached up with her pale, small hands and picked two chinquapins. Then they crossed the little bridge, walking carefully between the rails on the sleepers. Mossy trees were all about them; the moss, in long festoons, hung lower and lower, and thicker and thicker, and the wind made a soft, seething sound as it sought a way through the gray ancient forest.

IV

It had been his intention to explore, the next. morning, the vault under the mulberry tree in the park his friend Harry had mentioned that it was open, and that one could go down very dusty steps and see, on the dark floor, a few rotted boards and a bone or two. At breakfast he enlisted Mary and John for the expedition; but then there were unexpected developments. His father and mother had abruptly decided that the whole family would spend the day at Tybee Beach. This was festive and magnificent beyond belief. The kitchen became
a turmoil. Selena ran to and fro with sugar sandwiches, pots of deviled ham, cookies, hard-boiled eggs, and a hundred other things; piles of beautiful sandwiches were exquis‘itely folded up in shining, clean napkins, and the wicker basket was elaborately packed. John and Mary decided to take their pails with them, and stamped up and downstairs, banging the pails with the shovels. He himself was a little uncertain what to take. He stood by his desk wondering. He would like to take Poe‘s tales, but that was out of the question, for he wasn’t supposed to have the book at all. Marbles, also, were dismissed as unsuitable. He finally took his gold medal out of its drawer and put it in his pocket. He would keep it a secret, of course.
All the way to the station he was conscious of the medal burning in his pocket. He closed his fingers over it, and again felt it to he a live thing, as if it were buzzing, heating invisible wings. Would his fingers have a waxy smell, as they did after they’d been holding a June bug, or tying a thread to one of its legs? . . . Father carried the basket, Mary and John clanked their pails, everybody was talking and laughing. They climbed into the funny, undignified little train, which almost immediately was lurching' over the wide, green marshes, rattling over red iron bridges enormoml-y'complicated with girders and trusses. Great excitement when they passed the gray stone fort, Fort Pulaski. They'd seen it once from the river, when they were on the steamer going to the ectton islands. His father leaned down beside Mary to tell her about Fort Pulaski, just as a cloud shadow, crossing it, made it somber. How nice his father's smile was! He had never noticed it before. It made him feel warm and shy. He looked outat the interminable green marshes, the
flying clouds of rice-birds, thechannels of red water lined with red mud, and listened intently to the strange complex rhythm of the wheels on the rails and the prolonged melancholy wail of the whistle. How curious it all wasl His mother was sitting opposite him, very quiet, her gray eyes turned absently toward the window. She wasn’t looking at thingswshe was thinking. If she had been looking at things, her eyes would have moved to and fro, as Mary’s were doing.
"Mother,” he said, “did you bring our bathing suits?”
“Yes, dear.“
The train was rounding a curve and slowing down. They had suddenly left the marshes and were among low sand dunes covered with tall grass. He saw a man, very red-faced, just staggering over the top of one of the dunes and waving a stick. . . . It was hot. They filed slowly off the train and one by one jumped down into the burning sand. How strange it was to walk in! They laughed and shrieked, feeling themselves helpless, ran and jumped, straddled up the steep root-laced sides of dunes and slid down again in slow, warm avalanches of lazy sand. Mother and father, picking-their way between the dunes, walked slowly ahead, carrying the basket between them—his father pointed at something. The sunlight came down heavily like sheets of solid brass and they could feel the heat of the sand on their cheeks. Then at last they came out on the enormous white dazzling beach with its millions of shells, it black—and-white-striped lighthouse, and the long, long sea, indolently blue, spreading out slow, soft lines of foam, and making an interminable rushing murmur like trees in a wind. He felt instantly a desire, in all this space and light, to run for miles and miles. His mother and father sat under a striped parasol. Mary and john, now barefooted, had begun laborious
and intense operations in the sand at the water’s edge, making occasional sallies into the sliding water. He began walking away along the beach close to the waVes, keeping his eye out for any particularly beautiful shell, and taking great care not to strap on jellyfish. Suppose a school of flying fish, such as he had seen from the ship, should swim in close to the beach and then, by mistake, fly straight‘up onto the sand? How delightful that would be! It would be almost as exciting as finding buried" treasure, a rotten chest full of goldpieces and seaweed and sand. He had often'dreamt of thrusting his hand into such a sea-chest and feeling the small, hard, beautiful coins mixed with sand
and weed. Some people said that Captain Kidd had buried treasure on Tybee Beach. Perhaps he'd better walk a little closer to the dunes, where it was certainly more like y that treasure would have been hidden. . . . He climbed a hot dune, taking hold of the feathery grass, scraping his bare legs on the coarse leaves, and filling his shoes with warm sand. The dune was scooped at the top like a volcano, the hollow all ringed with tall, whistling grass, a natural hiding place, snug and secret. He lay down, made excessively smooth a hand's breadth of sand, then took the medal out of his pocket and placed it there. It blazed beautifully. Was it as nice as the five-dollar goldpiece would have been? He liked especially the tiny links of the little gold chains by which the shield hung from the pin-bar. If only Caroline could see it! Perhaps if he stayed here, hidden from the family, and waited till they had gone back home, Caroline would somehow know where he was and come to him as soon as it was dark. He wasn’t quite sure what would be the shortest way from Bonaventure, but Caroline would know—certainly. Then they would spend the night here, talking. He would exchange his medal for the five-dollar goldpiece, and perhaps she would bring, folded in a square of silk, the little pink' statue. . . . Thus equipped, their house would be perfect. . . . He would tell her about the goldfinch interrupting the Battle of Gettysburg.

V

The chief event of the afternoon was the burial of his father, who had on his bathing Suit. He and Mary and john all excitedly labored at this. When they had got one leg covered, the other would suddenly burst hairily out, or an arm would shatter its mold, and his father would laugh uproariously. Finally they had him wholly buried, all except his head, in a beautiful smooth mound. On top of this they put the two pails, a lot of pink shells in a row, like the buttons of a coat, and a collection of seaweeds. Mother, lying under her new parasol, laughed lazily, deliciously. For the first time during the day she seemed to be really happy. She began pelting small shells at father, laughing in an odd, delightful, teasing way, as if she was a girl, and father pretended to be furious. How exactly like a new grave he looked! It was singularly as Caroline had described it, for therehe was all alive in'it, and talking, and able to get up whenever he liked. Mary and John, seeing mother
throw shells, and hearing her teasing laughter, and father's comic rage, became suddenly excited. They began throwing things wildly—shells, handfuls of seaweed, and at last sand. At this, father suddenly leapt out of his tomb, terrifying them, scattered his grave clothes in every direction, and galloped gloriously down the beach into the sea. The upturned brown soles of his feet followed him casually into a long, curling green wave, and then his head came up shaking like a dog's and blowing water, and his strong white arms flashed slowly over and over in the sunlight as he swam far out. How magnificentl . . . He would like to be able to do that, to swim out and out and out, with a sea-gull flying close beside him, talking.
Later, when they had changed into their clothes again in the salty-smelling wooden bathhouse, they had supper on the veranda of the huge hotel. A band played, the colored waiters bowed and grinned. The sky turned pink, and began to dim; the Sea darkened, making a far sorrowful sound; and twilight deepened slowly, slowly into night. The moon, which had looked like a white thin shell in the afternoon, turned now to the brightest silver, and he thought, as they walked silently toward the train, of which they could see the long row of yellow
Windows, that the beach and dunes looked more beautiful by oonlight than by sunlight. . . . How mysterious the flooded marshes looked ,too, with the cold moon above theml They reminded'him of something, he couldn't remember what. . . . Mary and ]ohn. fell asleep in the train; his father and mother were silent. Someone in the car ahead was playing a concertina, and the plaintive sound mingled curiously with the clacking of the rails, the rattle of bridges, the long, lugubrious cry of the whistle. Hoo-ol Hoo-o! Where was it they were going—was it to anything so simple as home, the familiar house, the two familiar trees, dr’were they, rather, speeding like a fiery comet toward the world’s edge, to plunge out into the unknown and fall down and down forever?
No, certainly it was not to the familiar. . . . Everything was changed and ghostly. The long street, in the moonlight, was like a deep river, at the bottom of which they walked, making scattered, thin sounds on the stones, and listening intently to the whisperings of elms and palmettos. And their house, when at last they stopped before it, how strange it was! The moonlight, falling through the two tall swaying oaks, cast a moving pattern of shadow and light all over its face. Slow swirls and spirals of black and silver, dizzy gallops, quiet pools of light abruptly shattered, all silently followed the swishing of leaves against the moon. It was like a vine of moonlight, which suddenly grew all over the house, smothering everything with its multitudinous swift leaves and tendrils of pale silver, and then as suddenly faded out. He stared up at this while his father fitted the key into the lock, feeling the ghostly vine grow strangely over his face and hands. Was it in this, at last, that he would find the explanation of all that bewildered him? Caroline, no doubt, would understand it; she was a sort of moonlight herself. He went slowly up the stairs. But as he took the medal and a small pink shell out of his pocket, and put them on his desk, he realized at last that Caroline was dead.

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