The Captain’s Company
The Monster, Malgremir
The Restoration of Frost
The Captain’s Company
Mountains scarred the dusk sky as the wain creaked along the ridges, grit and dust billowing beneath, while a man in a cotton jerkin sat upon a thwart leading a train of horses with loose reins through scores of leagues, through the grey and brown livery of the land.
Atop his wooden cart burned a lit brazier expectorating malodorous white smoke, and the brazier burned as its fuel the litter and leavings of the dross of humanity. Lying acrossways upon that brazier skewered through with a stick was the head of a blackened doe, the sharp stick having been passed through its ears, and the head all cooked until the flesh was carbonized and the driver, that partisan of violence and ciphers, dragged behind his wagon by a hawser a monstrous burin which graved upon the land a deep trail so that his track could be traced. And when the burin became stuck upon stones buried in the sediment, he only beat the horses carelessly, as thoughtlessly as if he’d learnt abuse by rote.
And there came after him a ragged lieutenant whose good eye was rimed by cataracts, and whose poor one was covered by a patch encrusted by mucus and blood, and there was behind them their crew slogging with horses through that calyx, that whorl of a valley surrounded upon by all sides mountains and the dust. There existed no liquid agent to slake any thirst, so the horses had foamed, and the limping animals had all dried of their lather some long time past. Yet the men continued to beat them, until one animal fell, and the men not even considering the future or perhaps making incongruous concessions to ritual or fortune or deity did not pause to butcher the bony beast, only left it exposed. When the men were some leagues further on, the moon lay in a crescent like the cushion of a lackadaisical, bohemian artist, and the horse was lost from sight. The men pitched their tents at the foot of the mountain, and they pulled from their pockets specie of gold and silver and muttering passed them about to study the faces and obscure origins of their dead makers.
When the sun rose in the morning, the lieutenant set down a dense sun dial carved of jasper, and aligning the gnomon with true north calculated the time, while the leader of that crew, having apathetically discarded both spit and the head during times previous, measured the altitude of the mountain with an iron sextant which he wore around his neck upon a lanyard. There was on that morning a man who would not rise, for he was sick with dehydration, and the lieutenant saying, So see this man’s true color amid this desiccant! did in fact remove from that man both his hands as an attainder, and burning the flesh from them, scraped passively the cartilage and muscle while he rode as a man is wont to whittle a stick, and the blind lieutenant was left with the bony remains of two hands that afternoon as the company passed up the mountains. When the men passed near a steep ravine, the lieutenant cast the bony hands into the gorge, and the men continued traveling. They turned a hairpin corner, found a spring of water was issuing forth from the granite, and the leader of them all put his lips and tongue to the wet wall in a kiss, and he sucked. When it was the last man’s turn to drink, he made haste despite his thirst, for the men were already riding further along the steep path, and in such circumstance he pressed his lips to the vadose wall which smacked of calcite and stone, and he drank.
At last the company reached the mountain’s peak, and they bivouacked in a fissure in the rock, without a fire that night, for their strength lay in their secrecy, and they woke before dawn, and by the time the sun rose they had descended down the mountain a quarter of its height.
The town below lay in a bed of silica, agate, yuccas, and aloe, and there was in it only one street and the leader of that company spit forward upon his horses, and he beat their flanks with a tawse riddled with glass shards. There were upon the horses’ flanks the scars of many beatings, and the animals screamed beneath that taxing thong. The burin acted now as an anchor by which to keep the animals from stumbling down the hill, for the heavy cart that the captain sat upon threatened at all times to overtake the animals from behind and to run them down, and so it would have if that great implement were not being dragged behind. The cart was loaded with the tools of miners: dynamite, powder, torches, picks, mattocks; and the weapons of fell armies: rifles, revolvers, grenades, machetes, bullets, shells, and even a chipped scimitar from God knows where. The town which lay at the foot of the mountain had by now onlookers filtering into the streets, and upon seeing the company in the mountains descending appointed a manciple to coordinate weapons and to revet the bank. A townsman glassed the party with binoculars, observing in that gruesome congress its cynosure and the wagon that he sat upon, and drawing his hand upon whiskers more salt than pepper, remarked, If that ain’t Dylan’s gang, I’m hanged from a honey locust. And indeed as Dylan’s gang approached, the desert town assumed a sepulchral air, as the men in the town barricaded themselves inside the hastily fortified bank: a bolus of eyes peering around pillars and single shot barrels steadied upon countertops, muzzles aimed toward the bank’s locked door.
At the edge of the town, Dylan halted the men with a raised hand, and a company man unhitched the burin from the wain. He spoke to his men in a voice rasping with effort, as if he’d lost his voice in a sickness and would never regain it, No one here is getting out alive. I am the last dynast of the devil’s family, the armature of the dynamo of chaos machines, and the cholera of men. We will hang the tellers and the bankers naked and dead by their wrists to a rafter, for it is only through displays of hegemony that we can grasp dolor and sublimate it, for in violence we express our sorrow and in violence we celebrate our sorrow! At the conclusion of such rasping, the men let out a muted, ragged cheer, and Captain Dylan opened the chest upon the wagon and the men distributed among themselves weapons of war, while the captain hung grenades from rings gusseted into his jerkin and slung rifles by their straps over his shoulders and with a cocked revolver in each hand at waist level strode into town without looking back even to see if his men followed behind him or fled, and the lieutenant grasping at sticks of dynamite, for he was an admitted poor shot what with his eyes, stuffed the dynamite into the pockets of his jacket and hefted a half full keg of powder from the trove and, stowing the barrel upon his shoulder and thus armed with the explosives and feeling inside him a desiderate for wanton cruelty, he began the walk into town
Dylan’s company walked right up the main and only street.
The wind blew a hot breeze, and there were the sounds of scuffling about, of final preparations from within the bank, and a few mutterings from Dylan’s company. Dylan himself fired the first shot when the men were still some ways off from the bank, and he shot straight through the bank’s door, then ejected the spent smoking casing, and reloaded. With a whoop, the men stormed the bank, loping and shooting, and when they drew near the entrance the snipers on the rooftops began to pick them off, but Dylan’s men howled and were indomitable, and the flimsy lock upon the bank door gave way at the second shoulder thrown into it, while from inside the rifles were fired, and more of Dylan’s men were shot down like dogs.
There was a score of men inside the bank, and all were in the end beheaded and hung from their wrists naked as the captain ordered, and the vault of the bank was blasted open, and from that trove more gold and silver bars were thrown into the coffer, and a man who had lain in hiding rose above the counter suddenly, and with a single shot he terminated the life of the lieutenant and for his efforts, the townsman was hung upside-down and naked from a rafter while a company man slit his throat with a bowie knife so that the townsman’s death, among the many others, might serve as a terrible example and cautionary tale.
There were folk screaming from rooftops, and all were ignored.
Captain Dylan shut the trunk of the chest and locking it with an iron padlock bade his men to saddle up, and they did, a new man riding to the fore in replacement of the late lieutenant, this new man with a jacket whose mantle was of fox fur and he was without teeth and in such raiment he stank of something foul and wicked, and saying only very little the men beat their horses into activity and began the journey towards a distant town, their faces to the setting sun, their shadows lying long behind.
THE MONSTER, MALGREMIR
Part I: The Old Railroad Track
An old railroad track arches over a dark, cold river
Whose banks are enveloped in glittering white snow.
A rumbling, screeching train barrels forth; the tracks shiver;
The falling flakes are illuminated in the headlight’s brash glow,
Sparkling, glistering for an instant, then moonlit and dim again.
The light catches the river, whose eddies spangle in yellow light,
Then the water, too, is cast back into darkness.
The locomotive plows on, its cattleguard hurling snow in its flight,
Leaving the old, arching track quiet once more, muffled and sparkless.
And still the river ripples unflaggingly on, rounding stones, carving banks.
The creaking pines stand still and portentous.
There then stirs a creature with ram’s horns and silvered flanks,
With scarlet eyes lambent in ursine skull, white and horrendous,
With muscular arms ’neath its glossy pelt,
And a long fleecéd tail finishing in the form of a spade.
That creature lugs itself from where it dwelt,
Long dreaming and woolgathering and artfully stayed,
Thrall to a woven spell, one gathered and cast in times forgotten and past,
By a profound sorcerer who fathomed that creature’s dark power.
And through seasons beginning and seasons last,
Age to age, plot to plot, sifting sands, hour upon hour,
The evil lay dormant. Time destroyed the mage.
But the spell remained, growing weaker as mountains grew,
Lessening in strength as the earth did age,
While the restful creature struggled with dreamy thews
And cloudy powers ’gainst that dwindling charm,
Until on the night before Christmas, when the town was aslumber,
The ancient abomination stirred and raised its arm.
Then its lucent, igneous eyes blazed, and it stood in wonder
To look about the snow-swept forest and peaceful star-washed night.
Part II: A Christmas Surprise
In the valley, white smoke billows sleepily from chimneys;
Snow lies pleasantly banked on quiet street corners.
Streetlamps cast their lemony glow on leafless, slim trees.
The quiet churchyard with its stones is absent mourners.
And as pearly clouds scud across the crescent mooned sky,
All is calm, all is bright.
Atop a hill stands a home in whose yard a quivering, lone leaf
Trembles in the cold night’s breeze, fixed by its thin stem
To an icy branch. Blustered and gusted in autumn’s withering fief,
And, having borne with silent fortitude the rain and wind,
The dead brown leaf at last releases its clinging grip.
The leaf floats past a lightless window, shaded by heavy sash,
On whose far side sleeps a child, fair of hair, soft of lip,
With dreams of peppermint, gifts, and seasonal Christmas hash.
A cloud sails away from the moon’s sickle shape;
Soft moonbeams filter onto the glittering snow,
As the hellish creature, prowling like some eerie ape,
Steals across the snowy lawn to the lulled child’s window.
And there, with its incandescent eyes shining redly,
It raises the unfastened glass, creeps into the room,
And with movements soft, practiced, and deadly,
Metes out to the sleeping child his untimely doom.
This ancient evil leaves only bones and blood
From its foul feast: pelvis and femur, ribs and skull.
That child, that dream-full spark, is permuted to an eternity of mud:
Far too calm, far too constant, far too distant, far too dull.
Then as the monster entered, so the monster leaves.
Thus it is that on the morning of gleeful anticipation,
The soul that is happy becomes the soul that grieves,
As Mother and Father scream for their lost creation.
Part III: The Monster in the Cathedral
It is a cold, sunny morning, remarkable for its shining snow.
Parishioners pass the church’s crooked wrought-iron fence,
Past the gravestones which a child, yesterday, dipped below,
And through the heavy, wooden double-doors of the entrance.
Sunlight filters through the cathedral’s stained glass,
Tinting pews and aisle in colored light thick with dust.
A polished family of four, dressed smartly for mass,
Amble down the aisle in pacific, heavenly trust.
There is a brown-haired boy and a brunette girl,
And it is the boy, who, peering amongst the rafters and eaves,
Sees hanging, its arms ’round its chest in batlike curl
And warily alert of the oppugnant congregation it perceives,
That self-same creature whose dark deeds blasted the town,
And threw its calm citizens into fiery, disconsolate animosity.
“There!” cries the boy, “Look there! Hanging upside-down!
There’s a beast! It’s some kind of monstrosity!”
And his sister, looking upward, screams at the sight,
For there is the creature, tense at being seen,
Now suddenly scuttling in furious, fearful flight
Across the nave’s ceiling, as, in one voice, the two children scream.
Strange it is to see, however, that the confused parents
See nothing of the fell creature that climbs on the ceiling
And so they hush their children with hisses and unfair comments,
Til other children take up the cry. They also see the monster.
The children all gesture, point, and howl,
But the parents see an empty nave, rafters, eaves, balusters,
Nothing that skitters, scuttles, or moves. Not a thing that prowls.
And, looking at the curious scene, of many children screaming,
And of many blank-faced parents searching with their eyes and ears,
The church’s organist, his hands full of sheet music, wonders what he’s seeing.
This man, Mr. Horace Anderson, a bespectacled, retiring gentleman far gone in years,
Considers a moment the strange spectacle, watching with some inkling,
And looks in vain toward the ceiling to find a creature there.
But, like other adults, he sees nothing, yet he sets himself to thinking,
As the creature passes out the nave, towards its belfry lair.
Part IV: An Ancient Tome
Mr. Anderson, driving home, takes a bridge over a cold dark river,
Whose banks are enveloped in glittering white snow.
Plunged in deep consideration of an antique scrivener,
Mr. Anderson circles up an icy mountain to his home on a windswept, wet plateau,
While the details of an elusive passage frustrate Mr. Anderson’s recall.
Thus it is with furrowed brow that he pulls into his drive
enters his house, and makes for the books near the wall.
Fingering each spine, he mutters and feels his mind revive
As he pulls a book off the shelf and sweeps cobwebs from its cover.
He blows dust off its pale and tattered binding,
turns its brittle yellow pages, and there discovers
the fell description of a child-eating thing,
cast into somnolence by an itinerant wizard
then left to rot in a solemn forest uncolonized by man,
through seasons of sweltering sun and gelid blizzards.
This arcane chronicle details how the child-eating thing
Was invisible to adults but well-seen by children.
The text tells how the evil slept inverted in lofty places, wherever it could cling,
And how, when it devoured a child, it left but bones and patches of skin.
Mr. Anderson read on into the bitter night,
His brow furrowed, and his lips drawn tight and severe.
Behind the twisted yellow moon, stars lay spangled with dull, cold light.
Then Mr. Anderson starts suddenly as he learns the monster’s hateful name, Malgremir.
Part V: Seven Years Later
Seven years later, the quaint town lies abandoned.
Centipedes crawl fearlessly on homes’ stairs; mice inhabit dining rooms.
The cathedral, and particularly the belfry, is well shunned.
In the churchyard, in the cracks of the headstones, are dandelion blooms.
The cemetery gates swing creakily; a gentle wind rustles peeling paint;
The church door’s hinges are broken; the great Gothic door lies ajar and crooked.
Inside, mold grows behind a dusty portraiture of a haloed saint,
While the nave appears washed in hues of rose and blood and red,
For of the stained glass panes only the red remain unbroken.
The pews are covered in a thick layer of dust,
In which an occasional, devilish footprint is imprinted as a token
Of Malgremir, who remains in the belfry as still and as silent as a bust.
Only his brilliant eyes, vivid crimson, are visible in the darkness.
Malgremir hangs batlike from a rafter in the darkest, most shadowed corner.
His mind is as patient as a serpent’s, his behavior as indefatigable as a shark’s address.
Since that first Christmas night, he has made many more mourners
From the families of the staid and respectable parishioners.
He brought the strongest men limitless grief as their children were devoured,
And he bore comfortless heartbreak to loving mothers who fell, as wailing petitioners,
To their knees, beseeching mercy from that almighty heavenly power.
Searches for the monster were inaugurated, but they proved fruitless.
Children were consulted, and they pointed, quavering, at the ghastly thing.
Men fired guns at the points the children marked, their efforts bootless.
Malgremir could not be harmed by steel, lead, or matter made for firing.
Prayers were said against the creature, but they were ineffectual.
A Voodoo priestess was brought from the bayous south of New Orleans.
She brought garlic and woundwort, conducted exorcisms oral and textual.
Her incantations were for naught. That night, during her dreams,
A girl with a kind nature and gentle hand was consumed by Malgremir.
The townspeople sent the priestess away. The church was abandoned; still the wrongs kept on.
Children saw the monster in the night; street jokes grew black with fear.
More children were devoured; men mourned; women wept on.
School classes were cancelled, and the city council voted to desert.
Malgremir, placidly vicious, made a last raid, drinking drop by drop,
The lifeblood of sons and daughters, cracking and sucking their bones, savoring their hurt,
Until the townspeople vacated, and the demon-storm did stop.
Part VI: The Labyrinth
Mr. Anderson left town in the fifth year of Malgremir’s ascendancy.
The erudite man left not for evasion, but to learn the solution to this fey riddle,
Searching far for a missive that would, for Malgremir, signal death’s embassy.
Long studied Anderson the lore housed in the fabled Alexandrian Library and the Bam Citadel,
But therein he found only hints and clues, trifling gestures as to the secret’s key.
Traveled he thence to the Beineke library of rare books and singular scripts.
Discovering there, at most, vague descriptions and veiled references to the monstrosity—
Yet also mention of a secret library whose doors open only during a total lunar eclipse.
A weathered volume, whose yellow parchment was delicate and cracking,
Told of doors in a Badakshan mountain that were fastened by a genius of the Dark Age
And which led a doughty traveler into an antique wasteland beyond all mapping.
The library, called Maktaba Ghazni al-Khan, lay at a desert’s edge,
And held within its labyrinthine shelves the scrolls of necromancy and power
That did at one time summon djinni, influence sprites, and banish Shayṭān.
And in the center of the Maktaba’s labyrinth was a glass for counting the hour;
Through its glass globes poured the very measurement of Time, in form of falling sand.
Deep study takes time. Seven years had passed since the monster’s ascendancy,
And again Mr. Anderson set out, now from Yale, now to Afghanistan,
For the matter that would snuff the fell creature’s lambency,
And restore fairness and order to the bedeviled land.
From Kabul he traveled the Hindu Kush road through cracking Soviet tunnels;
Thence from Fayzabad, Mr. Anderson set out by donkey,
With a guide promising to take him but halfway, to where the river funnels
Out past the old capital of Wakhan, Qila-e Panj, deep in the Wakhan Valley.
When the guide left Mr. Anderson, he had been traveling for a week.
He was tired, but he felt that his journey had barely begun.
He looked out of his spectacles, down his long nose, and he rubbed his cheek,
Taking in his surroundings. Tall, craggy mountains blotted out the sun.
The gorge that he was left in held nothing but sparse vegetation,
And the way forward appeared both trackless and treacherous.
He found himself longing for his music, his pleasant church, his former station,
And he had no desire to continue upon a path so adventurous.
Mr. Anderson made a few notes in his daily diary, then he laid out his bedroll and slept.
The stars wheeled magnificently above him; a snow leopard peered down on him,
While through the jagged peaks, the Persian wind galloped and swept,
And Mr. Anderson dreamt of caravanserai and carpets, shorn and silken.
In the morning, the sun illuminated the valley, and Mr. Anderson set forth.
He traveled for four nights through chancy mountain passes,
His faith in the book oft-times wavering, his compass steering him further north,
Until in the midst of his dangerous isolation, he came upon weirdly formed crevasses,
Whose lines of cleavage seemed symbolic or runic in nature,
As if fashioned by man rather than nature, and Mr. Anderson, studying the stone,
Noted how the shape of an arcade appeared within the granite architecture,
And that in the stony portal’s area there was a nearly seamless fault, thin as a crack in bone.
Here Mr. Anderson consulted his almanac, reassured himself of the upcoming syzygy,
And did then encamp before the fractured crag. There he remained for six nights.
On the seventh night, the lunar eclipse induced the nearby mountain creek to froth fizzily
And queer characters to luminesce in the adamant stone in tints of radiant blueish-white.
The fracture in the cloven stone did shine with that same color,
While strange shapes as of astrolabes, sextants, gnomonic sundials, and stars appeared.
Mr. Anderson—caught between exhilaration, hope, and dolor—
Observed the glow strengthen into an aura. And the night grew weird.
A flash of light. A purple fire. All at once, a door materialized.
Taking his water and his pack, Mr. Anderson stepped through the door,
And he found himself, quite suddenly, with the sun blinding his eyes,
For he was on reddish desert stone, swept as flat and clean as a palace floor.
Around him, in all directions, was a labyrinth of pathlessness.
There were no mountains to guide his way, no points of any kind.
The place was bleak and flat, dry and severe, wrathful and boundless.
Yet the learning from the Beineke manuscript sprang to his mind,
For its contents directed the traveler due west, two hundred-seventy degrees,
Until, it said, one meets “the fire in the desert”.
Ancient texts being mistily allusive by nature, Mr. Anderson had not fretted,
But now he wondered if greater consideration would have been wise.
But, he thought, it was not a mistake to be greatly regretted,
There being no other texts, to his knowledge, on the subject anyway.
So to the place where there was fire in the desert he bound himself,
Adjusting his pack’s straps, tightening his belt, setting out on his way,
And wondering, with black humor, of the feasibility of diagnosing insanity in oneself.
The thought preoccupied him as the miles turned to leagues under his feet,
And there was no change to the dullish red landscape
And only the compass’ needle to guide him as he crossed this desert sheet,
For he felt that certainly no other explorer could have survived this barren land, this plane shape,
For had another explorer gone but a degree astray in any direction,
Then assuredly death would have risen to meet them.
The wayward traveler would have, step-by-step, separated further from the connection
Until in the name of starvation or thirst, Death would greet them.
Yet Mr. Anderson found himself wondering if the desert were also a labyrinth for the mind,
Whether he truly was insane, for who had heard of such travelers, such places?
And he wondered how to test his insanity, for if the mind were cracked and brined,
How then to know the sanest of its many faces?
Doggedly, and by dint, Mr. Anderson continued onward.
The desert floor remained as flat as a chessboard, and he was its only wanderer.
The sky above was as blue as the sea, and the land as red as dried blood upon a sword.
For three days did Mr. Anderson continue on this path, as worried a ponderer
As ever there has been, nearly freezing in the desert night, doubting his sanity by day,
Until, at last, on that flat and featureless horizon that ringed ’round him,
There appeared to be a spark flickering in the distance.
Another day passed, and Mr. Anderson kept onwards, hopes now slim,
For his water had been used, and of more there was not a trace.
But the spark in the distance grew in size as he drew near,
Until he found himself standing before a hanging fire basket made of steel.
The fire basket hung from a chain that was supported by three legs welded to a sphere.
Inside the basket were logs that burned but did not diminish, crack, or peel.
Mr. Anderson, reaching out to warm his hand upon the flame,
And looking around the desert in some confusion and no little concern,
Then saw the sand beneath the brazier suddenly shape itself into a sandy lane.
On either side of this new path and at regular intervals torches did burn,
And so, ducking his head beneath the fire in the desert, Mr. Anderson descended.
The path was narrow, soft, and mellow, and it soon gave away to a spiral staircase made of sand.
The recessed sconces lit the vertical passage with soft, flickering light, and, as he wended,
he saw that, at the foot of the stairs, the shaft did expand.
When he reached the bottom of the sand-stair, Mr. Anderson found himself in a chamber.
The walls, ceiling, and floor were constructed entirely of sand,
And the room appeared to be round like a wheel laid upon its side.
A single shelf, stocked with ancient books, circled the room like a band,
And, at the center of the room stood another hanging fire basket, six feet tall, two feet wide.
Of the fabled hourglass of time there was no trace,
So Mr. Anderson wondered if there were yet more secrets within the labyrinth,
And whether those secrets held the hourglass in a hidden space.
There was, too, in the room, a kind of plinth,
And upon that plinth stood an unmelting block of ice.
The place held the mysterious air of an enigma;
Thus Mr. Anderson, feeling strange forces at work, was at the books in a trice,
Finding one leathery tome with the inscription, Mælgrymyr, beneath a lunate sigma—
Or perhaps a crescent moon—and, opening the book,
The learned scholar saw an illustration of that thing the children had limned.
As Mr. Anderson took a steady and careful look,
A grain of sand, then another, fell from the ceiling onto the open volume.
Rapidly then did he scan that venerable text for clues on how to slay the beast,
As his mind, able in reckoning, leapt at once to the affairs as they had come to pass:
That, surrounded by fire and ice and texts, he himself was in Time’s frothy yeast,
The room was but a chamber, a globe in Time’s hourglass,
And as the hidden library slowly disintegrated,
Mr. Anderson felt his reasoning fragment,
And the ice, dripping water, did at that time ablate
While the fire did flicker, sputter, and stagnate.
As Mr. Anderson gained more knowledge, the labyrinth crumbled.
Sand poured from the ceiling, onto the book, as Mr. Anderson lifted it vertically to read,
And, reading still, he made for the sandy staircase, reading as he stumbled.
Until at last, at the start of a paragraph, he saw the Latin lead,
“Ab extra, ab initio, ad astra. The Monster, Mælgrymyr, having been called thusly, is not, in fact, named Mælgrymyr, and has only been so denominated by monks of the Apostolic order who follow His footsteps in the heavenly name of the Divine, and by servants of the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, and by those laypeople who speak of the Monster and know It by Its fiendish work. The true name of Mælgrymyr is a closely guarded secret, and it is thanks to anonymous, esoteric scholars—whose sedulous work and whose study of the arcane glyphs and ciphers found carved into long-buried ruins—that we of the Brotherhood at last learnt the true name of the Beast.”
As Mr. Anderson read on, the sandy chamber, already deteriorating,
Gave way faster and faster, ’til he wondered how much time had elapsed.
“Scholars now know the true name of the Beast, which, by saying its name, will spell the end of the Beast, and bring about Its sudden and immediate end. The Beast’s name is ‘Horace Anderson’. Ab extra, ab initio, ad astra.”
“Horace Anderson!” he said, aghast, his frisson of horror accelerating,
Then the ice evaporated, the fire extinguished, and the chamber of sand collapsed.
THE RESTORATION OF FROST
The Restoration of Frost is, so far as I know, the only mystery to ever be written in the form of a terza rima. A terza rima is a kind of a poem that uses a rhyme in the pattern ABA BCB CDC DED, and so on. The form was made popular by an Italian, Dante Alighieri, who wrote a terza rima poem which included the seven circles of Hell. It was called The Divine Comedy.
My poem, The Restoration of Frost, tells the story of a cynical, hardboiled detective whose name is Frost. One day, the wife of a diamond merchant comes to Frost, and she tells him that her husband was murdered by the butler, that the diamonds have been stolen, and that the butler has disappeared. The police have proven powerless, and she believes that the hard-drinking Detective Frost is her last hope.
Illustrations by Amanda Güereca.
The Restoration of Frost
He sits up nights with whiskey, learning French,
in a lonely apartment amongst sirens,
squalling sounds, swindling, and a human stench.
“Alouette, je te plumerai … each pin,”
he mutters, “Fall naked from the sky, bird,
into men’s cold cities and thrice-damned dens.”
Outside the sun rises: pale, weak, obscured;
even as the man sets, sinks in his drink,
as the moon wanes, and the night is interred.
Sewers exhale their smoke; trashmen, their stink;
Madmen envision grey futures of death;
the sun shades the city sky orange and pink.
The rousted city draws its first morning breath.
It lifts itself from quotidian sleep,
aciers son esprit, et se déroule son fouet.
Yet the man, with his head on his hands, sleeps,
the unstoppered glass bottle beside him:
king of his castle, captive of his keep.
Then comes a knocking: hard and fast and grim.
“What?” mutters the man. “Who’s there? At this time?
I warn you, faults are thick where love is thin.”
“Open up! There’s been a terrible crime!
My husband’s lying dead, dead on our floor!
Ash and dust extracted from the sublime!
Are you Detective Frost?”
“But you once were? Detective Frost, that is?”
The man opens, just a crack, his front door.
“That was another life. What’s your name, Ms.?”
“Emily King. Can you investigate?”
She is a woman of puffy eyelids,
her mane of hair seems to be half her weight;
she wears short heels and a Desigual dress,
and sways like a pendulum oscillates.
“The police,” she says, “Have made no progress.
My love’ll be buried, to rest in peace;
his warm largesse became cool emptiness.
He is beyond the clergy and police;
he’s at the disposal of God’s great will.
And our lost wealth was in a worn valise,
but can be regained by a man with your skill.
I’ve heard you were once great. Almost divine.
So help me. Please. Come on, say that you will.
I’m in my hour of need—”
—“Stop,” he signs.
“I’m not the shadow of the man I was.
I’m a drunk now. I live like listless swine.
I’m not who you want, if I ever was.”
“Well for God’s sake, at least open the door.”
“You’ll just see straight whiskeys and neat vodkas.”
“Open the door! Damn it! Open the door!
All the way! Not just a crack! Look at me!”
He swings the door open halfway, then more.
There is a silence as he blinks and sees.
There she stands in the shabby corridor,
flickering like a candle in the breeze.
“Fine. Let me get my coat from off the floor.
It’s a bitter dawn, made worse by the cold,
and my intent to restart what I forswore.”
He mutters as he walks, “Where’s my billfold?
Where’s my coat and my hat and my resolve?
Time never brought wisdom, just made me old.”
“How long will this mystery take to solve?”
she calls, “How long till the criminal’s nicked?”
“Damn it,” he mutters, “I shouldn’t be involved.”
He calls back, “Impossible to predict.”
Silence. Then, “Can I call you Detective Frost?”
He mutters, “You can call me ‘Derelict.’
Or maybe even ‘Detective Well Sauced.’”
But he calls, “Yeah. Yeah, you can call me that.
Look, let’s go. I think my damn billfold’s lost.”
He walks out the door, putting on his hat,
leaving the front door unlocked behind him.
“You’re not locking up the door of your flat?”
“Lady, inside my place, pickings are slim.
Any robber is welcome to my trash.
Now, let’s go.” And he pulls down his hat brim.
The drive takes them past tall maples and ash,
along a quiet, winding road near cliffs
and views that overlook winter’s panache.
The houses in this part seem formal, stiff.
Quiet monsters that look down and glower,
giving the peons a conceited sniff.
“These places give fine looks to wealth’s power,”
says he. “I don’t like ’em.” There’s no reply.
They enter her drive, pass a stone tower.
Frost asks, “Why didn’t the guards raise a cry?”
“We think,” she says, “It was an inside job.
“William is missing with no alibi.
William is the butler and is macabre.
His sense of humor always disturbed me,
But he seemed cleaner than the pope’s façade.
His bad humor was the sole fault to see.
So we kept him… To my endless regret!”
“Hm. Tell each detail of last night to me,”
says Frost. “Any trifle may be an asset.
I must know the times, the places, all things.
Don’t withhold anything from your vignette.”
“My husband was known as a diamond king:
Michael was the CEO of DeBeers,
a job which brought us wealth and its trappings.
Last night, he got a shipment from Algiers,
a shipment worth fourteen million dollars,
which were to be bought by Dubai’s emirs.
Maintenance, by the company installer,
on the office safe, made that place unfit
for even the care of a prize much smaller.
Needless to say, Michael abandoned it.
He brought the diamonds home in a valise:
a small, innocuous, brown leather kit.
He told no one of the stones in the piece.”
“Then how did you know what was in the bag?”
“Well, he told me, of course, to keep the peace.”
“To keep the peace?”
—“I asked about the bag.
I thought it might be linked with a tryst.”
“Geld a stallion and you’re left with a nag.”
“Oh please! Men are pigs! True men don’t exist.
Some men are true to infidelity,
but that’s all. The honest man is like a mist:
looks white, but he’s gone with day’s clarity.
So Michael showed me diamonds in the purse,
diamonds of unusual rarity.
He said to me in a voice quite terse,
‘Don’t say a word of this to anyone;
Its loss would be too great to reimburse.
I’m revealing this out of affection,
trust in our partnership, and profound love.’
These words must have caught William’s attention.
He was passing on a small walkway above,
one used for that room’s second floor of books.
He’d been, I fear, overhead like a dove.
‘What’d you see with your stealthy, furtive looks?’
—‘Nothing, just sorting the shelves.’
‘That little lie puts me on tenterhooks,’
Michael whispered to me. ‘Between ourselves
let’s not let that valise out of our sight.’
Then, ‘Will! Em and I want the house to ourselves!
Go on home, my man, and have a nice night!’
Then, in a whisper, ‘Better if he’s gone.’
Then, louder, ‘And see that your mouth’s zipped tight!’
Will came down from the walkway he was on,
gave us a little bow, and left the room.”
“Did he leave the house, not just the salon?”
“I can’t be sure. I can only assume.
I assume that he left; we did not check.
Then I guess he returned, through the sunroom.
The door was ajar, accessing the deck.”
“Tell me where your husband’s body was found.
In the sunroom? In the study? On the deck?”
“I found him in the hall, dead on the ground.
I had heard a scream, rushed out; a door closed.
It clicked softly shut with a fatal sound.
Mike was just unconscious, I first supposed.
I ran to him, neglecting the thief’s escape.
I saw piano wire, his neck exposed,
long lacerations across that landscape
of innocent flesh and beloved skin.
His mouth was lying horribly agape;
his lips were purple, his face white and thin.
His eyes stared into a world beyond ours.
All that was left was what might have been.
I screamed for what seemed to be hours
I then rushed to the door and found it locked,
but heard the window of that damned tower
pushed open hard by the one being stalked.
Then I saw diamonds scattered on the floor.
Then clearly as sun shines I could concoct
the whole scene as if I’d seen it before:
Mike was garroted by piano wire;
the killer had hid behind the hall door,
and when Michael had tried to retire,
the craven killer sprang out, strangled him,
and stole the valise that he did desire.
Michael’s screams—telling, bloodcurdling, grim—
brought me running from my chamber too late
with just time to hold him to my bosom,
to see my man forever insensate,
and the door of the study being locked,
and to feel on my heart a doleful weight.
Oh heaven, Detective Frost! I’ve been mocked
by a cruel fate and damned to lonely life:
all paths were open, now they are all blocked.
The servants entered, and, sharp as a knife,
the maid called the police, and the driver,
who kept his mind calm in this bloody strife,
ordered the grounds closed to that conniver.
‘The window!’ I cried, ‘I heard it opened!’
Bless the soul of the quick-thinking driver,
he said, ‘Will cannot get out! He happened
in his dark escape into a high room
in which he is now surely imprisoned:
to leap from that place would spell certain doom.
No, he must still be inside that study;
his quickest refuge shall be his fastest tomb.’
We waited in that place of perfidy,
like a hunter waits for dangerous prey,
near to the body, lifeless and bloody.
When the police came before the break of day,
they forced the door. But the room was empty!
The detectives checked for another way
that the criminal might have gotten free.
There is a drainpipe along the house wall,
but it is connected only weakly,
and any climber would certainly fall;
the frail pipe would tear away from the house,
and gravity would wrap him in his pall.
And the ground is soft. Not even a mouse
could escape without leaving a footprint.
Yet no impressions were without the house.
Further inquiry yielded not a hint.
The detectives left for other business.
And that is why I’ve asked you to represent
my side in this perplexing and anxious
matter, which seems so simple but is not.
The man, William, killed my husband, backless
in his fell execution. Then he sought
refuge in a room without an escape
except for a window whose height cannot
be negotiated by man or ape,
and yet when the door, locked on the inside,
was forced, there was within no living shape.
But there was not a single place to hide!
Where’s William? Murderer of my husband?
Thief, assassin, evil personified!”
“One thing’s sure,” says Frost, “Nothing will be banned
from the net of inquiry. All’s open.
Your account’s been near all I could demand.
Yet some questions remain. When all seemed done,
did the cops lock the door before leaving?
Could William have escaped from his bastion?”
“The detectives locked the door, perceiving
that if Will were inside, he could well flee.”
“And yet, while the cops were conceiving
that such a bold escape could come to be,
still they departed the scene of the crime?
Such actions seem, to be frank, unseemly.”
“Further inquiry was a waste of time,
was what the shrugging detectives told me.”
“Well, they’ve left us the work of muck and grime;
we’ll be on our own,” Frost replies blithely.
“Ah,” says Ms. King, “We have arrived at last.”
The mansion looms behind a copse of trees,
its wings spread, like a dark bat’s, wide and vast.
Great windows look, from behind the old copse,
inward: shared wine and spilled blood, dry at last.
The great home stands on a cliff’s rocky tops;
grey granite underlays its foundation.
Their car crunches gravel up to the door, stops.
Frost gets out. “I’d like an examination.”
“Certainly, my late husband is inside.
He has not been moved from his location.”
“Ms. King, I’ll begin my research outside.”
“Uhhh, as you wish. But the detectives said—”
“Ma’am, seasoned sailors trust but wind and tide;
they pay no mind to what the lubbers said.
This William left us with the silent dead,
So I’ll go where my thoughts will have me led.
I’ll see the clues, and ensure they’re well read.
Now, the wildest fires may start with sparks,
so keep vigilant; there’s danger ahead.
This scene could become the darkest of darks—
Yet still I’ll tell you, ‘Stay hopeful, Ms. King’:
even the softest killers leave their marks.
I’ll find the thief, the killer, the cruel thing.”
“In a time when everything has gone cold,
you’ve made winter’s white death show signs of spring.
Thanks. Some kind words are more precious than gold.
There’s in brave substances a common core:
invisible to the eye, lovely to behold,
in those that cast not their shadows before,
those who walk with their faces to the sun,
like heroes who stand ready at the fore.”
“I ain’t all that. I’m just a mother’s son.
Now go inside, stand your guard with the rest,
and I’ll work. Sooner began, sooner done.”
Detective Frost watches her leave, “What’s guessed
at in the darkness, without facts,” he states,
“Is a surmise which must be reassessed.
I won’t give her story an ounce of weight,
till I’ve confirmed the empirical facts:
the fox won’t tell of the chickens he ate,
and the stuff of greed is what honesty lacks.
I’ll take her story with a grain of salt,
til I see the grounds and scene of attack.”
Walking over wet leaves, puddles, and gault,
his eyes wandering over the edifice,
walking fast at times, now making a halt,
Frost strolls the grounds: solemn, thoughtful, cheerless.
He ambles to the foot of the mansion
where a drainpipe of uncommon thinness
descends from the rooftop then does run
past a window large enough for a man.
Frost shakes the pipe, which almost comes undone,
for the pipe is affixed by no more than
three rusting brackets of uncertain strength
from where Frost stands to where the pipe begins.
“Hm,” says Frost, “And most certainly the length
of the drop from the window to the ground
supports an extent of her narrative’s length.
Nor are there strange indentures to be found.
The ground is too soft not to be impressed;
the mud testifies: Ms. King’s account’s sound.
Now, let’s see what eggs the bird has in her nest.
In a woman’s home is her façade found,
and in her unreadable heart: the rest.
Detective Frost strolls quietly around
to the massive front door, which he enters.
He strides up the staircase that’s marble bound
with red and white tiles like blood in winter.
On the second floor, Frost finds the servants
and Ms. King waiting. “Not to the sprinter
will go this race, but to the observants,”
Frost says, nodding approvingly, “Patience
can be more opportunistic than chance.”
“We have stayed at our proper assignments,”
says one man tiredly. “It’s been a long night.”
“I believe Ms. King said you had good sense,”
says Frost, “You’re the driver, if I am right?”
“That’s right, I am. And my name is Michael.
We’ve been waiting outside this room all night.
We’ve been sleepless and angry and watchful.
The door of this study has not opened;
It’s not admitted nor dismissed a soul.”
“I’ll do my best to bring this to an end,”
Frost replies. “And see your care rewarded.
I must now see Mr. King’s tragic end.
Ms. King? Could you lead me to the blest dead?”
Ms. King wordlessly points to a sheet
that covers the corpse like a sad shroud’s spread.
Detective Frost walks to the corpse’s feet,
then steps forward, and he pulls back the cloth.
Mr. King’s face is placid, his look neat.
“Is there much to see?” Ms. King, her voice wroth.
Frost examines the neck’s lacerations,
“No, but with little meat we must make much broth.”
Then he says gently, “My consolations.”
He tenderly covers the departed.
Frost stands. “Another examination
of this puzzling study must be started.
Who has the key? Please, let’s open the door;
we’ll see if the law has been outsmarted.”
Ms. King produces the key, “Yes, let’s explore
the interior of this baffling room;
time’s come: we won’t find what we don’t search for.”
Ms. King inserts the key of the room,
turns the lock, then she enters the chamber.
Detective Frost follows into the gloom,
flicks the lights, says, “Let’s see what did occur.”
The illuminated room contains books,
a desk, a globe, a humidor of fir,
liquor bottles, paintings, knick-knacks, and nooks.
“All these things,” Frost says, “That I now see, were
in their same place before? Anything look
out of the ordinary? Or disturbed?”
“No,” she says, “Everything is in its place.”
“Well, all right,” says Frost, not a bit perturbed.
He examines the walls, books, and shelf space.
He walks to the window, gauges the drop,
pulls the pane on its hinges, steps back a pace.
Then he pauses to consider the chase.
He looks from the door to the room’s window,
passes his eyes over a standing vase,
mutters, “Where, indeed, could this killer go?”
reviews the room again, opens desk drawers,
and does, on Ms. King, a doubtful glance throw.
“Ms. King, if you’ll permit, I’ll step outdoors.”
“Do you have any clues, Detective Frost?”
“I have hopes. Michael and maids, guard the doors.
Don’t open or close them at any cost.”
With those words, Frost sweeps out of the study.
He heard the doors being shut as he crossed
the hall, past the shroud and body bloody,
then down the marble stair, and out the door.
“Not sure how to clear a case so muddy,”
he mutters, “Or which line to next explore.”
Frost pulls from his coat a Haitian cigar,
sits on a bench, brings his thoughts to the fore.
“What dark things were illumed ’neath night’s dark star?”
he wonders aloud, as he considers
the night’s events, and lights up his cigar.
“And those diamonds—sweet smelling, but bitter!
How’d the lady play her game? Fair or foul?
was it the sparkling stones that undid her?
Or… is her tale true as the hoot of an owl?
I shall just take time to review the facts…”
He sits; the smoke wreathes his head like a cowl.
He puffs and puffs: the cigar glows, reacts.
The smoke swirls in thick clouds around his head,
then wafts, by a breeze laden with bees-wax,
through brisk air, where it then dissipated.
Frost frowns. He stares thoughtfully at the smoke.
He looks at his cigar, wrinkles his forehead.
He looks again at the slow, drifting smoke.
He purses his lips, uncrosses his legs;
overhead rustle the leaves of an oak,
“I’m deep in the bottle, but not the dregs,”
says Frost, “I have one creative idea.
Shipwrecked sailors can still feel their sea legs,
just as I, a ruined hound, can still smell a
scent. I will smoke my coffin nail indoors,
and I will test the strength of my idea.”
Frost strides inside along the marble floors.
He ascends posthaste up the spacious stairs,
enters the hall, makes for the study doors,
past Michael, Ms. King, and the maids’ stares,
all while puffing madly on the cigar.
He shuts the room’s windows against the air.
“Leave the door open and stay where you are!”
he commands, sitting at Mr. King’s desk,
raising his chin, sending smoke near and far.
“Mr. Frost!” says Ms. King, “This is grotesque!
Get it together—don’t smoke in my place!
This is a somber scene, not a burlesque!”
“This smoke is needed for solving the case!”
Indeed, as Ms. King, Detective Frost, Mike,
and the others watch, the smoke slowly traces
to the wall, then drifts through a crack, ghost-like.
“My God,” Ms. King whispers.
—“Shh!” orders Frost.
“Don’t let the mouse see what the cat looks like!”
Frost motions to Mike and the maids, “No cost
is too high to pay for the man within;
he’ll readily ensure your lives are lost.
Between careless and care, let caution win!
The butler’s hidden in a secret space;
he’s behind the wall where the smoke got in.
The smoke was drafted to that hidden place.
His secret was betrayed by air currents;
so little reveals such a huge disgrace.
But I suspect he has no deterrent
to forced entry; his weapon was wire,
swiftly snatched in a mood black and fervent.
But come danger, we shall fight fire with fire.
Had he shown restraint, so would we now.
Both crooked and straight wood burn alike in fire,
so beware: righteousness earns no golden crown.
We shall take him by surprise, Mike and I,
but we may need you all to take him down.
Are you set? If so, stay. If no: Goodbye.”
“We’re set,” whisper the maids.
—“And I,” says Mike.
“All’s well if he’s in hell, so says I,”
says Ms. King. “While the iron’s hot—we strike!”
“All for one, one for all,” says Detective Frost.
“We’ll break through the wall as a hammer’s like,
fight him till he’s taken or we’re all lost;
we’ll never quit, never capitulate,
until that sinister arachnid’s lost!
On the count of three, no one hesitate,
we’ll put our shoulders to the dummy wall,
then wed the devil to his absent mate.
Ready? One, two, three! Shoulders to the wall!”
Ms. King, Mike, Detective Frost, and the maids
throw themselves against the study’s false wall.
The wall collapses beneath their combined weights,
as they crash into a dim compartment,
where dust thickens like fog in humid glades.
Cringing at the force of their bombardment,
is William the butler, valise in hand,
whose blood-stained hands tell of his dark event.
The five raiders untangle, try to stand,
as William beats at them with the valise,
and deals them blows with his bloody free hand.
Detective Frost, shouting, “Death makes good peace!”
launches himself at his deadly opponent
and begins beating him into pieces.
“Stop! Stop!” cries William, quailing, curled, and bent.
“Never!” roars Detective Frost, “I’m feeling good!
My life is becoming your punishment!”
“Stop! Stop! I’d take it back, if I could!
I’d have left the wire, forgot the rocks,
I’d have gone on home, as I knew I should!”
“The past is only a number on clocks!”
cries Ms. King, “You can’t bring my husband back!
What’s done is done, now our judgment talks!”
“Enough!” shouts Michael, “We’ve won the attack.”
He pulls Frost off of William, as Frost shouts,
“I haven’t had enough man! Hold me back!”
So Mike stands between Frost and the mad rout,
and Frost, a moment later, breathes deeply.
Mike says, “Stand up, Will; we’re taking you out.”
“That poisonous cobra got off cheaply!”
exclaims Ms. King.
—“There’s more to come,” Mike states.
“The judicial fangs will sink more deeply.
But come on, Will, you’re going to Hell’s gates.”
Detective Frost and Mike tug Will to his feet,
as Ms. King phones the police’s heavyweights.
They wait calmly for the police fleet,
resting in the study, hardly speaking,
till Ms. King asks, “How’d you solve it so neat?”
“While outside, I saw the cigar smoke drifting,
and I thought that result would happen as well,
if something was here to do the drafting,
such as a small crack from a secret cell.
I didn’t think the killer had left the house,
but he’d hidden himself so very well
that it was like catching the squeak of a mouse.
I feel like William probably observed
Michael use this hidden room in the house,
and, though the butler, himself he served
more truly than members of this sad place.”
“Take these three clear diamonds, richly deserved,
as my thanks for solving this opaque case.
I believe that you redeemed your name as well:
stumbling out the blocks, but winning the race.
Although I’m shocked to hear the tale you tell.”
As to my reputation’s return, only time will tell.
Frost replies. “But I’m not surprised, my green clientele:
I’ve seen worse in the past, more malevolent and fell.
Greed’s a terrible driver, if released from its cell;
it’s a cold-blooded killer, if it’s not thwarted well.
Better a closet in heaven than a kingdom in Hell.”