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From Out a Full-Orbed Moon
A pale elongated rectangle of silvery light shone through the window, illuminating the foot of a four-poster bed. I moved silently through the open casement, bodiless, drifting downwards on a slanting shaft of moonlight.
I had been sleeping somewhere very cold and dark. It had been a profound slumber, a torpor disturbed by reptilian dreams too primitive even to develop form or subject, recalled only as slow tides of ineffable sensation.
But where was I now? Something had awoken me, called me here, of that I was certain. But that was all I knew.
As I floated toward the bed I felt myself to be an animalculum, a tiny mote of a creature dwarfed by the vast scale of the room. The illuminated portion of the mattress ranged for leagues before me, a cream-colored satin sheet shining in the moonlight like something geological. The folds and ridges in the fabric were soft-edged mountains seen from a balloonist’s aerial vantage.
The rectangle of moonlight expanded, gradually revealing new vistas as it stretched across the bed. After a time I saw that the satin sheet covered the lower portion of a woman’s sleeping body, the edge of the sheet a terminator line drawn across the small of her back. The moonlight crept gently up the smooth dark skin of the woman’s torso, and at last I was able to see the sleeper in her entirety. The woman was interesting, but more compelling still was a small night-table by the head of the bed, upon which rested an unlabeled bottle of what could only be whiskey. The bottle was open and half-full, and even though I knew I wouldn’t even be able to touch the bottle nevertheless I ached for a sip of the stuff. I felt the urge to cork the bottle, to prevent the precious spirits within from escaping, but I knew there was nothing I could do about that, either.
I turned my attention back to the sleeping woman. She was three-quarters prone, her head tucked into the pillow and covered by such luxuriant waves of jet black hair that I couldn’t make out most of her face at all, just the lines of her jaw, the corner of her mouth, and the base of one ear. I could see the dimple of a piercing in the lobe. A single thread of silver hair was woven into her black locks, and it shone like a distant river in the moonlight. I saw a fine silver chain around her neck, but I couldn’t tell what sort of pendant or locket she might be wearing, as her breast was turned to the mattress. One of her bare arms was wrapped around the pillow and the other was down by her side, atop the sheet. The woman’s body moved slowly, almost imperceptibly with her breathing. I had the sense that each glacial exhalation required a geological age to transpire, but I felt no impatience; indeed the scene filled me with a quiet calmness, almost a feeling of holiness, as if I was privileged to be present for some sort of sacred observance or ritual.
As I hovered there, a mere mote of consciousness suspended in a shaft of moonlight, I heard the soft melodic chime of a clock. I heard– a sound! When was the last time I’d heard anything at all? I couldn’t remember, but still I knew that I had dreamed in silence for ages. The chime drew my attention. I had no need to turn a physical head to see in any direction, but even so I felt myself gazing across the room, at a columnar pedestal on which an intricate ormolu clock was set. Some constraint on my vision had just been lifted, as now I could see the room at large — dark compared to the moonlit expanse of the four-poster, but visible nonetheless. The bed was set in the precise center of the room, with several pieces of furniture around the walls.
An unseen force hurled me in a dizzy rush toward the clock, and now I was hovering just before it. The white enamel clock face was overlaid with a lapis lazuli crescent moon. A writhing mass of entwined creatures was carved in gleaming golden relief over the entire body of the clock. Fish of all kinds and whole congeries of eels, along with scorpions, snails, and frogs were tangled together all around the base. Higher up, hares, moths, wolves, and owls disported, and above the clock face two large cats sat sejant across from one another, heads tilted upward with paws raised in salute.
Both clock hands pointed upward. It was midnight. I heard a second chime.
I was distracted by something, attention drawn away from the clock. To the right, not far from the pedestal, I had a glimpse of a bookcase. I wanted to look at the books, read the titles — and yet I couldn’t focus on them. Instead, I was pulled past it as if by some etheric riptide, carried around the room further to the right. The tide brought me to a black lacquer bureau polished to a glossy sheen. Resting on its immaculate surface a white onyx vase bore five ghostly white roses, and in the center of the arrangement one black bloom. I paused to admire the flowers. Symbolic of something, I was sure.
The clock chimed. I heard the soft resonant note distinctly from across the room. Once more I became aware of something as yet unseen. A desk, with something strange I couldn’t identify atop it. Was that it? No, I was propelled further to the right, almost all the way around the room back to the clock. A standing wardrobe. A garment was hanging from the knob, a gown of ecru charmeuse. I wanted to run the fabric through my fingers but I knew that was beyond my power. And what was that mounted on the wall beside the wardrobe? A giant ammonite fossil, its intricate spiral shimmering with a faint nacreous glow in the reflected moonlight.
Another chime. Again I was pulled around the room, this time past the lacquered bureau to the bookcase. A low free-standing ebony affair, two shelves full of leather-bound volumes, all so old that their embossed titles couldn’t be read in the dim illumination. One of the books lay open on top of the case. Most of the text was illegible in the poor light, but I could just puzzle out the words at the top of the left-hand page, a title printed in a larger font: The Tell-Tale Heart. Strange, I felt like I knew those words, that title, but from where? I couldn’t recall. A silver candelabrum stood next to the book bearing three heavy white candles, but I had no way to light them.
Another chime and another whirling transit across the room, this time careening past the wardrobe to stop at the desk I’d noticed before, a small secretaire. A curious and intricate machine was centered on the desktop by a neat stack of pristine white bond paper, and beside it a tumbler glass, in which I could make out the dried dregs of a thin brown fluid — perhaps the whiskey I’d seen earlier. Yes, there was the bottle’s cork, left carelessly beside the tumbler, and the faint scent was definitely whiskey. But wait! That aroma! When had I last smelled any scent whatsoever? Surely never before in this phantom existence.
I glanced at the machine: a shell of some kind of grey metal, embossed with the name “Underwood”. At the front a tray of levers each bearing a letter of the alphabet on a small pad or plate. A black cylinder in a recess set behind the levers, a sheet of bond paper wrapped partly around it…. Ah! A machine for putting words to paper, a typesetting press in miniature, but with mobile keys instead of movable type. What a brilliant idea! If only I’d had one. I looked at the sheet of paper, unnaturally smooth, white and glossy. The black imprint of the type keys on the page was clearly visible. It was a fragment of a poem.
A full-orbed moon, that, like thine own soul, soaring,
Sought a precipitate pathway up through heaven,
There fell a silvery-silken veil of light
The devil! I knew those words! I wrote them! With a nib pen to be sure, not a type machine. What was going on here? Once again I wondered why I was here. This unprecedented moonlight awakening, the compulsion to appear in this room, then the sound of that clock, the smell of the whiskey, these strange yet commonplace shrines set up like stations of the cross around the room. There must be some meaning, some purpose behind it all.
The clock chimed, and I was swept back to it willy-nilly. I was caught up in some sort of intangible whirlpool or maelstrom, an ethereal vortex maybe, and at its center– I looked back toward the bed. The sleeping woman hadn’t moved or shifted her position.
The clock chimed again. Once more I was carried off to the black lacquer bureau with its curious vase. Five pallid roses and a sixth, ominous and dark in the center of the arrangement. Five stations around the room, and the sixth… the woman herself? Everything here was significant, pregnant with meaning, but just beyond my grasp.
It occurred to me that having regained my senses of hearing and smell, perhaps touch might be possible again. Touch. I looked back at the sleeping woman, the satin sheet, the smooth dark skin of her back. I wanted to try touching her but–
The clock chimed. Was it sounding faster now? Less time between the chimes? At the wardrobe again. I reached out for the silk gown. By God! I could feel it! I had no physical sense of my arm or of an outstretched hand, but still I felt the smooth sheer fabric beneath my fingertips.
I turned my gaze to the sleeping woman. The clock chimed. Pulled back to the bookcase. The one with my book on it. I remembered writing the story now. Not my best work, but I was fond of the title. I tried to move towards the woman, but the clock chimed again, and the unseen force whisked me off to the desk. I reached out to the whiskey tumbler, felt the cool glassy slickness of it, but couldn’t lift it. Damn! I turned back towards the bed, the woman, and the bottle. Struggled to move and failed.
Another chime, and I was pulled back to the clock. I looked at the clock face, the ornate hands both pointing straight up at the 12. How many chimes so far? I felt a sudden horrible premonition. Something about this room, this place, it had given me a chance, a chance to do something. But after the twelfth chime, it would be over. I’d be back asleep somewhere, deep in the darkness. And the chance might never come again. How many chimes was it now? The tenth? No! The eleventh! I had to act.
With a vast effort of will I fought against the compulsion pulling me off to what I feared would be the final station, the black lacquer bureau with its strange bouquet. I thought to focus on the woman, but I was distracted by the whiskey bottle beside her head. I wanted that more than anything else in the world right now. It seemed so unfair to be called out of a deathly sleep into this strange place and not allowed even to take a single drink. I imagined I had a body, imagined raising my hand, imagined taking a step, then another, coming closer, forcing my way forward — but it seemed my way was blocked.
The final chime! I felt myself paralyzed, anguished. I had to break through to the bottle! I’d been right there earlier before the chimes started, but had disdained even to try to touch it, thinking it was impossible. But now– now I was desperate. And as the reverberation of that final chime faded, I broke through the resistance, rushed toward the goal. I felt a dying surge of energy propelling me, and knew I only had moments, mere seconds before I would be pulled away from her, drawn back into darkness, into slumber, into death.
Oh! the scent of the whiskey! No mere dregs, an entire pint of the stuff. The heady bouquet was all around me. One last movement of will, and I descended through the neck of the bottle, a mote of consciousness going down, down…. Down into the depths of the welcoming brown elixir, down into sweet slumber, dissolving gratefully into welcoming oblivion…
As the last chime from the clock faded, the sleeping woman stirred. She sat up, stretching, sweeping the hair from before her eyes. She yawned. She cast off the sheet and stood up from the bed, nude except for the lunula around her neck, a silver crescent almost as thin as foil. The ornament lay flat at the clavicle, just above her breasts. She blinked twice, rubbed her eyes.
She picked up the bottle, took a sniff at the neck.
“I do believe it worked,” she said. Carrying the bottle, she traced a pentagram path around the room, stopping at each station.
First to the clock, pressing a knob to disable the chimes, and then over to the bureau where she opened a drawer and retrieved a plain steel Zippo lighter. Next across to the wardrobe, where she shrugged on the ecru gown, pausing for a moment to gaze at the spiral swirl of the ammonite. Then to the bookcase, where she used the lighter on the candles of the candelabrum. From there she returned to the desk, where she poured out a full glass of whiskey. She put the bottle down, corking it securely. Next she raised the glass, toasting the moon, still visible across the room through the open window. With her hand on the lunula at her neck, she took a sip of whiskey.
The woman pulled out a chair from before the desk and sat down. She unrolled the sheet of paper from the typewriter, looked at it and chuckled softly before crumpling the paper and throwing it to the floor. She inserted a fresh sheet and aligned it carefully with the platen. After taking a second sip of whiskey she contemplated the blank page for a time and then began to type. Behind her, still shining through the open window, the moon watched silently.