by: Chris Cleary1
A tale of a descent into madness, induced by forces beyond the veil. Forces that reason cannot explain…
The Testimony of Dr. Cecil P. Twomey, Physician
Last Monday, shortly before midnight, I was roused from sleep by the repeated striking of my door knocker. I was surprised to find on my stoop young Edward Silverwood from the lower section of Grape Street. He was understandably agitated, for he told me between gulps of air that his father was quite unwell, and begged me to come see him. I of course agreed and told him to come inside and wait until I dressed and readied my bag. I might have asked the specifics of the ailment, but I was still half asleep, even by the time we left. Nevertheless, there was nothing I could have added to my bag to prepare me for what I encountered in the Silverwood house.
What I first took note of was the shambles that had been made of the living room. What few possessions there were had been tossed about and the furniture overturned, save for one chair upon which sat Mr. Tristan Silverwood, his head bowed and hidden in his hands. Mrs. Silverwood stood at the far end of the room, beside the kitchen entrance. I asked Mr. Silverwood what ailed him, but his posture seemed frozen, and he refused to answer.
I looked to Mrs. Silverwood, who told her son to return upstairs to his bedroom and then gestured wordlessly to various locations along the walls. I thought it odd she offered no explanation, but when I stepped forward to investigate the evidence, I understood her hesitation to speak lest she rouse her husband back into fury. One section of the wall had been noticeably damaged by the fireplace poker, which lay on the floor among large chunks of plaster. Another section revealed slits and lacerations as produced by the gouging of knives, both of which lay broken at the baseboard. I understood readily that the destruction had been caused by great rage, yet I failed to see how that pique of temper necessitated my medical attention.
I thought to lighten the mood of the room, which was still fraught with tension despite the worst of the storm having abated.
“Interior renovations, Mr. Silverwood?”
He remained motionless. I should not have made the attempt at levity. I am no humorist.
“Tell me what is wrong, sir. Your wife thinks you require my services. Have you injured yourself?”
He finally spoke.
“Yes, yes, you might say that. I have been injured.”
He lifted his head and let it fall upon the cushion at his back. His face was haggard, a consequence not of the past few hours of spleen but rather a persistent and burdensome illness. His lifeless eyes refused to look at me, but rather at the ceiling, at the walls, at the carpet — in any direction but at me. Though I knew he was not quite fifty years of age, his hair was entirely gray, wispy and flying off in all directions. He had a small moustache, also gray and shaved on the edges, appearing quite comical as if a mouse fought to remain balanced on his quivering upper lip. His hands were large — hands inured to working in the woolen mills down by the canal — but now made to seem weak by the occasional and unnecessary straightening of the doilies on the armrests.
“Have you cut yourself?” I asked, indicating the knives on the floor.
“You see the blood, don’t you?”
I stepped forward for examination.
“No, not on my hands! I refuse to be charged with that. Look, sir! There! And there!”
He threw his head in the direction of the damage he had caused.
“See where it runs? I thought I’d been rid of them, but it’s no use! Horrible! Horrible!”
He bowed his head again and began to weep.
I understood now why I had been summoned. And yet I was only a physician of the body and not of the mind. I told Mr. Silverwood I was going to ask his wife to make me a cup of tea, and with my back turned to him, I quietly informed her that her husband must be conducted away from here for his own safety, and that she must hurry to someone with a telephone to contact the police.
She nodded, thanked me, and left through the kitchen. I returned to Mr. Silverwood, righted a chair, and placed it opposite him, making sure it blocked his path to the weapons he had used up to now only on the phantoms in the walls.
“Now, sir, if you would, please explain to me who has visited you this evening.”
He raised his head suddenly and shot me a look of reproach.
“Do not humor me! I hear the condescension in your tone. I’m not some child you’ve come to indulge! I know that nobody has visited me, as you so delicately put it. Damn you! Just because you’ve been to some fancy college, you treat me as nothing more than a cog in a factory! I was born up on the Ridge and raised in that fine house on Peach Street with the lace curtains and pillars out front. Yes, that one. My grandmother was a Fournier, and my father and uncle both heroes of the war, before…before you were even born.”
He exhaled all at once and slowly dropped his head onto his chest, as if the coil of his heart’s springs had completely wound down. I softly called his name.
“I’m sorry. What were you saying, sir? Ah, visitors, that was it. No, I suppose you’re correct to use that word. Certainly kind…kind of you to put it that way. But don’t waste your breath on kindness. I don’t deserve it. Ha ha! But then I’ve always received what I didn’t deserve.”
I asked what he meant by this remark.
“Let me go back some years and pray that my faculty for proper speech does not desert me. I was ten when my father left for the war. Two years later my dear mother contracted typhus. Our servants abandoned us. My Uncle Hannigan, also gone to war, had no family at the time. I had nobody left. I had to tend to her myself. For some reason I was immune to infection. My blessing and my curse. I ran the house well. Securing food. Washing sheets. I worked until I fell from fatigue. Whatever good it did. My father returned one day wounded from the Appomattox Campaign. The next day my mother was dead, and I now became manservant to my father. Oh, not to worry! He did in time recover from his wound. Enough so that a couple years later he was able to think about starting a new family. But a proper young lady? Oh, no! He married a working girl come from Dublin. Dorieann Boyle.”
He dwelt upon the girl’s name, even repeated it thrice as if he were trying to recall the face of a long-gone acquaintance. Then his eyes widened, and he pointed violently at his handiwork.
“The blood begins to run again! You see it was not my doing! I’ve been sitting here the entire time talking to you! I’ve not touched the knives! And yet it flows! Why do you think that is? I wasn’t brought up to believe in the supernatural. And so my reason tells me that it must be delusion. Yet if delusion, why have I been compelled to…? But my father! Of such wisdom and bravery and evenness of temper! Do you remember I told you that I’ve deserved none of this? My father had no cause to remarry, at least so soon after my dear mother’s demise, and certainly not to some buxom slattern half his age come into our house as a servant! Had no cause! What can the cause be but he was bewitched? The man who stood fast against rebel fire only to be felled by a sorceress’ hand!”
I started when he suddenly rose.
“Sit, doctor. I’m only going for a cigar. My one luxury in life. It will calm me. See, sir? Do not fear me.”
He puffed with deliberation.
“Hyacinth was born to them soon thereafter. The twins — one boy and one girl — a few years later.”
He paused to make sure the cigar’s tip glowed orange and then returned to his chair.
“It should never have happened. I knew it at the time. My father was not strong enough. His old wound began to aggravate him. But I knew what it was. That fiery-haired succubus drained him dry. His life essence began to ebb. The twins were born, and a month later he could not rise from bed. A month after that he was dead.
“It now fell to me to provide for the children. I had plans for further schooling, but they never were realized. I couldn’t shirk the responsibility, could I? I was only twenty, but I stepped in to replace my father, just as he had on the front lines at Hatcher’s Run and Fort Stedman. Uncle Hannigan, newly married himself, offered assistance, but I refused. A man that cannot provide is not a man. I must work to raise his children. Work together with the temptress.
“I see the apprehension in your eyes. I shouldn’t have used that word. What do you think of me, sir? How could I take to bed my father’s widow? No matter how inviting the fullness of her lips. No matter how alluring the curve of her bosom as she stood in the evening half-light of the bedroom window. The music in her Gaelic mumbles as she dreamt and the infants slept peacefully down the hall. Her soft, fair skin. You see what a sacrifice I make, doctor!
“Besides…No, there is no besides. The matter is closed.”
Mr. Silverwood’s look was defiant, almost challenging my rebuttal. And yet I thought I detected moisture in his eyes. He cleared his throat and resumed.
“Let me come to the strangest part of my tale. You will be convinced, sir, that we can in fact be visited by forces beyond the veil. Forces that reason cannot explain. Of my father’s children, Hyacinth — she was nine years old at this time — only she was entirely my father’s daughter, as normal as you or me. But the twins…Innocent and Seraphina. Yes, striking names, charged with Romish insinuation. The choice of names was not my father’s
“Come closer. I must tell this part to you quietly. Ears are about us even now. I see no wedding band upon your finger, but one day soon you will delight in your child uttering his first words of English, just as I had with my Edward not so long ago. Their mother waited and waited for this blessing, but they were determined not to let her joy in it. At first they were entirely dumb in our presence, like living dolls stuffed with batting. Regarding all of us with what we took to be expressions of mere idiocy. But I knew better. Emerald eyes, as bright as a cat’s, probing and judging. They were studying us, taking note of our actions like priests eager to root out unconfessed sins. Then they began to communicate with one another, but silently, using a variety of hand gestures.
“I know what you’re about to say. You’ve already diagnosed this as deafness. You would be wrong. Their hearing was not faulty. I tested it. I would slam doors or drop heavy objects when their backs were turned, and they jumped as if cannon had just been shot off. No, it wasn’t deafness, for then they did speak, but in a language none of us could understand. A secret shared between just the two of them.
“It sounded at times like a dog barking. Then it grew to staccato bursts in rapid exchange, as if they read each other’s thoughts and didn’t need the spoken words. This grew into more sustained utterances. Here, I will prove this to you. Go to the bureau over there. In the bottom drawer on the right you will find a stack of yellowed papers. They did not hide the fact of this language from us, though they frequently — almost exclusively — spent their time together out of our hearing. But I wouldn’t be outwitted. When I wasn’t away at the mill, I was listening at the door and recording their conversation. Have you found them? Good. Bring them here. I’ll read you an excerpt from their mysterious cabal. I must first tell you that the girl called her brother Nemo, and he called his sister Babby.
GIRL. Nemo, lig doonga insint shalta alimar ar-ar tague-a-lock.
BOY. Aye, Babby, lig doon labbertar izik a tharla doogan gaseleen.
GIRL. Nemo, lig doon labbertar ammac harry agus a garry onion.
BOY. Lig doon labbertar nobblianta in a daidsin.
GIRL. As samiswamy.
BOY. Agus laddy.
TOGETHER. Agus jimm, agus kell, agus jools, agus been!
“Obviously these are only phonetic approximations, but I was very attentive and painstaking in my transcriptions. I had to be exact. I was sure there would come a day when I would need the precise evidence of their incantations. Yes, doctor! Incantations! For I would find, hidden away in their room, crude, handmade fetishes representing the people upon whom they’d pronounced their doom. My fingers trembled as I sorted them through, in search of my own likeness, but I was relieved to find I had so far managed to escape their designs.
“I might never have been able to understand any of their mystical gibberish had it not been for Hyacinth. True, she’d grown fat and sluggish by the time she was eleven, and though I’d regularly scolded her for her laziness, I admit she was invaluable in providing me with glimpses into their dark world. She spent much time with them, and they permitted it, though when I questioned her, she swore they had never divulged to her any of their schemes. She began to act as their translator, albeit in a limited capacity. For example, whenever they were called for supper and stood staring at their mother, mirroring each other’s disgust, and replied — here it is — Limit aggy arreth ight lace an fair, Hyacinth intervened and said they simply weren’t hungry. She herself never learnt to speak much of it, but she could use some of their gestures, which they understood to some small degree.
“I admit I don’t know what I would have done without Hyacinth, because in the spring of 1879, the foul witch who had enthralled my father abandoned their care to me. Yes, she made no attempt to take her demonic offspring with her. She merely disappeared from my life with no explanation of her betrayal. Thus I was alone…alone…
“Oh, my head swims! A powerful tobacco! But it’s the only way for me to endure all the blood that’s now pooling on the floorboards. Be careful, doctor! The edge approaches. I wouldn’t want you to stain your fancy shoes, though I have learned to avoid walking through it and remain quite spotless.
“The subsequent years without my Dorieann were difficult. While I was busy at work, they had the house to themselves, which gave them the audacity to plot their takeover. They thought nothing now of bringing their black magic into this very room. Financial difficulties had by this time forced us to move from my father’s to this present location. I demanded they cease their gibberish. Hyacinth’s gestures made my wishes clear. And yet they refused. I had to combat their wizardry in some way, and so I locked them in their room, behind whose door I heard them casting spells for my downfall.
GIRL. Nemo, Nemo, can fath go full and fair footh doon?
BOY. Tassa-tall, Babby. Ni thaynon say a toos-ghent.
GIRL. Tassay adrocarrick! Molamma nim-noxin!
BOY. Issay a sole granna. Lig doon filleth ar-ar shalta.
“My health began to decline. I slept but a few hours and woke with feelings of dread of what they had schemed through the night. Constant headaches. Weakness in my limbs. The men at work knew of my sickness, but I told them nothing about its origin.
“One Saturday my spirit broke and I backed the boy against the wall — just over there, sir — and told him that Father’s children or not, they could no longer remain under this roof, that I felt little better than a walking corpse, and that they had conspired to deplete my soul. He shook his fist at me and cried, Is fath a lomtoo! Is fath a lomtoo! His sister added simultaneously, Solla mock! Solla mock! Hyacinth screamed, ‘Leave them alone! They agree to go away as long as they can remain together!’
“Remain together! Did they think me a fool? I should have realized it long ago! If the two of them were working in league against me, why hadn’t I destroyed their magic by separating them? And so, for the sake of my own protection, that is what I did.
“I had learned of a hospital not far from here that sheltered the emotionally enfeebled and those of limited mental capacity. I know what you will say, that this institution was wholly inappropriate, and I don’t dispute that. They were no fools. Their genius was undeniable. I would often catch them watching me, with their unholy green eyes, silent as hawks tracking prey. I knew they held me in disdain as a far inferior creature. But where else could I turn? Besides, the Director himself came to the house just to see them. He had read my letter detailing their strange behavior and was intrigued. I told him I couldn’t afford to pay him much, but when he saw them at their witches’ play and heard the spells they uttered, he was eager to accept the challenge and waived the fee. He promised me to have them entirely cured — by which I take it he meant exorcised — within a year’s time.
“When he took them away, I thought this might be the beginning of happier times. My health improved. My head became clear again. I no longer heard those strange whispers that ran through my dreams in the middle of the night. But Hyacinth would not be appeased. We quarreled. And just like her mother, she left me without a farewell. I soon learned she had simply crossed the street to Josaphat’s. The nuns took her in. Which was fine. I was my own man again. An independence I had fought long for. And yet…”
His gaze slid past me to the twin sights of his destruction.
“And yet they still lived. Letters from the Director kept me updated as to the hospital’s treatments and the suppression of their demonic impulses. They had been separated upon their arrival and hadn’t spoken one word since. He claimed, in fact, they’d reverted to a state of catatonia, and while he was frustrated at what he considered a disappointing setback, I was relieved that their evil had nowhere to turn now but inwardly upon themselves.
“You think this is a joyful conclusion. You should not be so hasty. In a quiet house you can hear the slightest noise. The curtains rustling in a draft. The sudden creak of the foundation settling. I told you I learned again to sleep well — and I did sleep well, do not doubt it! — but in those gray minutes between my feet leaving the floorboards and the blissful embrace of oblivion, I sometimes felt that I wasn’t alone. Was it water rushing through the pipes? The wind in the trees? One last pop from the fireplace embers? The sound reminded me of none of those. Could I try now to describe it? I think I can. Strips of leather slapping on a tiled floor. Perhaps that was it.
“The noise came to me every other night until drifting off to sleep became a torture of anticipation. When it did not come, I was in some way…disappointed. Doesn’t that sound strange, sir? One night I resolved to find it out. I lit a candle and descended to this room. The stairs creaked with every step, and the source of the noise somehow heard this and acknowledged my arrival with sudden silence. I called out, warning it that I had my father’s pistol and was not frightened by intruders.
“Intruders they were, doctor. From the very first day of their lives. The boy and the girl, sitting on the floor apart, one there, the other over there. Boy and girl? More like young man and young woman, for they were now fifteen years of age as they sat in their separate cells in the hospital, and likewise in the middle of this carpet, one on one side, and one on the other, sitting miserably with hands in their laps. They looked about, searching for one another, though they were only so many feet apart, as you can see. And they spoke — I heard them clearly as I can hear my own voice now — and the boy said — and in English, doctor, finally in English!—he said, Where Babby? Where Babby? And the girl, Where Nemo? Where Nemo?
“Why did I feel compelled to answer? There! There! But they didn’t hear me, or out of sheer perversity chose not to hear me. There! There! Then both of them rose to their feet and walked apart, the boy to that spot at the wall, and the girl to that spot, and facing the wall, they paused and uttered — I shall never forget how unholy they sounded — Bad man! Bad man! Then each took a step forward into the wall and disappeared.
“I could not gather courage enough to go to the mill the next day, and that afternoon I received a telegram from the Director that informed me the twins had died within minutes of one another the previous night.
“My fingers trembled, and the paper dropped from my hand. I was overjoyed. Now, now I was free!”
For the first time since he began to speak, Silverwood looked directly into my eyes. His smile was ruthlessly innocent.
At that moment I heard a knocking on his front door. I rose to answer it and let in three officers. I told them quickly and quietly of the matter. Silverwood had not moved.
“It is time to go, sir. Let these gentlemen escort you.”
Silverwood arose and stepped toward one of the walls, to a spot that remained undamaged, and slowly stroked the wallpaper there.
“But all this time they have been possessing my soul. I cannot help it. I am now become like them. I don’t understand, but what spells I must cast!”
He then inclined his head as if to search for some meaning hidden in the ornate pattern.
“Badman! Badman! Neerasa me sarsona! Sassa! Sassa! Neerasa me sarsona!”
He continued to hiss without any shape to his nonsensical words, defiant to the invisible, yet he allowed two of the officers to lead him away without incident. After they left, the third officer turned to me and exclaimed, “Well, that was strange! What do you think he said? What do you think he was looking for there?”
I approached the wall and read in the peculiar design an elaborate motif for perpetual misunderstanding.
Chris Cleary is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania, in which many of his stories are set. He is the author of four novels: The Vagaries of Butterflies, The Ring of Middletown, At the Brown Brink Eastward, and The Vitality of Illusion. His work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Brasilia Review, Belle Ombre, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Literary Nest, and other publications. His story “An Idea of the Journey” appears in Volume 2 of the award-winning Everywhere Stories from Press 53.
- Header art by Tommy Ingberg. [↩]