Here sighs, plaints, and deep wailings resounded through the starless air: it made me weep at first. Strange tongues, horrible outcries, words of pain, tones of anger, voices deep and hoarse, and sounds of hands amongst them, made a tumult, which turns itself unceasingly in that air for ever dyed, as sand when it eddies in a whirlwind.
That was Dante. Specifically, The Inferno (Canto III, 22-31)
Here is Roger Zelazny in his foreward to Harlan Ellison’s From the Land of Fear, Belmont Books, 1967:
What does it take to be a writer and why? The quotation from Dante…contains the answer. There are these sounds, this tumult, turning in that air for ever dyed, eddying in a neat simile and beginning with that all important word “Here.” Everybody hears the sounds, some people listen, and a writer, for some damfool reason, wants to put them down on paper and talk about them—here, right now. So that’s the answer to the question: “Some damfool reason.” It’s why Dante wrote too. My damfool thing, the thing inside me that makes me say what I have to say, is a thing that I don’t understand at all, and sometimes I curse because it keeps me awake at night…
Now here is Bruce Jones, writing a foreward to his own short story and proving what it really takes to be a writer: the ability to steal from two other far better ones and create, essentially, three different introductions. More for your money! Except it’s free, right? As free and naive as I was when first reading Harlan’s book of short stories. Him making a ton of dough out in La-La land writing for TV, me sitting on my Fort Leonard Wood barracks bunk with his paperback making 75 cents a day– wondering if my platoon was next in line to be shipped to Viet Nam. Not having yet sold my first short story. Not having yet even braved the wailings and tumult of New York publishing. Not having yet met Harlan, let alone called him friend. And certainly, in my wildest dreams, not having the least inkling of something to be dubbed The Internet, an invention as wondrous strange as Dante’s Pit, which would soon threaten the printed page as avidly as Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451’s book police— allowing me to reformat, somewhat rewrite and pass along to thee the kind of personal bit of morbid mayhem like:
FEEDING THE BEAST
T risha was killing her mother again—this time in the farmhouse kitchen with the old broken-handled steak knife—and in a little while killing her sister Dolce, who grunted like a pig when stabbed and bled liberally and long.
Then, free of them, free of the knife, free as the wind lashing her tawny locks, Trisha came running…came galloping fierce and proud, heedless and grinning over the rolling meadow, Shep nipping and barking delight at her bare heels—the fair-skinned girl and with the banner of summer hair and the bounding, yelping German shepherd, alive and free and safe at last among fields and more endless fields, undulant and sweetly perfumed with earth and grass.
Until the warm breeze shifted sour, grinning Mojo abruptly materialized, gold tooth contrasting midnight skin glistening now with the sweat of hate, rough, callused hand shocking sharp across her tender face, starting blood at her lip…and Shep—brave Shep, try as he might—could not sink eager teeth into skinny black legs which kept disappearing, winking in and out, which meant they weren’t real at all and neither was Shep, long dead now like this half-forgotten meadow…and this was now not then, and Mojo was her pimp and she, Trisha, was a hooker and these peeling walls could never be the lovely golden meadows… as she came up and up and finally out of the dream…to the dreary little room and the man asleep beside her.
Amazing, she thought, yawning.
–not that she had dreamed of killing–that was old hat–but amazing she had fallen asleep here on the job next to her john. They did that sometimes—the johns—passed out and snored blissfully if she gave them an extra good ride, especially the fat ones, the smelly ones, though this one had been neither. This one had been quiet and gentle and strangely tender. Even nice-looking in his dark way.
Which is why Trisha was so startled there on the tired hotel sheets, turning in brassy afternoon sun to find what her john had become…to find the far darker, more terrifying form that had replaced him while she slept.
Not a man at all, this misshapen shadow that shared her bed, but a thing of black hair, cruel pointed muzzle, pink lolling tongue guarding bone-white incisors as deadly sharp and long—longer really—than Shep’s. So that for a moment Trisha actually thought the dream was real and it was her long dead pet there beside her on the pillow, Shep come to comfort and sleep with her while Momma was busy with the men.
But no. This creature was far bigger, far more terrifying than anything canine, or strictly human either—a savagely insane juncture of the two, a great, dark sleeping beast from childhood nightmare, midnight matinees, but all too real, all too here and close, its hot breath against her bare arm, its great shaggy head so near she could see the corona of coarse hairs along the sleek, swept-back ears.
The eyes, mercifully, were closed; had they been open, red (she was sure they must be red) and full of blood lust, Trisha Kincaid would doubtless be a dead whore, not a recently dreaming one.
Carefully then, not breathing, moving in a slow-motion haze of terror, she pushed herself up gently, hitching breath as the ancient bed sagged creaking resentment, lowered her legs over the edge of the mattress, found the cold floor, turned to see if the thing had awakened, was watching. It was not. Though now, at this angle, she could glimpse more of it in the dying ochre light—the broad matted chest, massive arms, muscular sweep of thigh, placid but fearsome phallus. This too was swathed in hair, as were the testes, fat and shiny as a seed bull’s. It was the power there, between the thing’s legs, that was perhaps the most fearfully awesome of all.
Heart and knees knocking, Trisha just made it to the formless lump of her skirt and blouse, just made it to the old cut glass doorknob, twisting it carefully, silently… the voice behind her spinning her about, gasping.
Her back against the door, throat constricted, heart slamming painful ripples, Trisha faced not the terrible dark beast, but the pale naked man of before. Only his eyes and the hair of his head were dark now, as a sad wistful smile tugged tender, remembered lips. He caught her look, returned a knowing one of his own, and nodded, sadder still. “You saw…”
Trisha, rigid against the weathered door, could only nod terror.
He came to her, tall and looming but reproachful only to himself. “I’m sorry. It happens sometimes, when I sleep.” An old accent, slightly English? Gentlemanly anyway. Which was shock enough for Trisha. “You’ve nothing to fear from me,” he told her gently. “I am sorry, truly.”
And twice amazed this day, Trisha found herself wholly unafraid…so much so she wondered absently if it was the creature itself she had truly feared, or something else. “You won’t…kill me?”
His smile was as disarming as his winsome, weary expression. “Never. Never in daylight.” Young eyes hollow, haunted by dark memories, perhaps decades of them.
Trisha, marveling, dropped her own eyes to find further changes. The naked man stepped back, his smile rueful now, regretful? “Yes…that goes back to normal too. All of me back to quite ordinary and normal.” He looked up again. “Will you keep my secret?”
Trisha, her mind on other things, slipped thoughtfully into her Wal-Mart blouse, all trembling gone now. “Have you ever…while you’re that way, I mean?”
This made him assess her with new eyes, searching eyes. “No. That would bring death. I change to feed, not for love.”
Then he turned, showing her his pale buttocks, and retreated to the bed, to his own clothes. Retrieving the little automatic she’d thought she’d hidden so well beneath her pillow, he placed it to his own chest, smiled into her eyes, and fired—the slug knocking him back violently but not penetrating, falling flattened as a dime to the threadbare rug. “I can’t be harmed in the normal way, you see.” He smiled that sad, nearly defenseless smile again, then asked reflectively: “Will you betray me, Trisha?”
A sudden pounding at the door—anxious, muffled cries.
The tall figure strode past her to the ancient knob, twisted it.
A beefy red face peered through the crack anxiously: Pudler, the bouncer. “Everything all right in there? Heard a shot!”
“Yes,” the tall man offered easily, “we were wondering about that too. Perhaps down the hall…”
The beefy face glanced once Trisha’s way, then retreated, mumbling.
The tall figure closed the door, turned back to Trisha, smiled again softly.
“How did you know my name?” she whispered, heart thumping again.
“Will you betray me?”
She turned from him, came back to the bed, ran a hand absently across the still warm sheets, head cocked in reflection. “Will I see you again?”
Which made his smile falter curiously. “Whatever for?”
* * *
At home—a refurbished Ninth Street penthouse—Mojo slapped her hard for falling asleep on the job—diamond ring cutting her cheek–slapped her again for forgetting his money. Took her silver automatic, Trisha on her knees, stuck it in her pretty mouth and made her suck, suck hard until she’d summoned the weapon’s load, the slug crashing through the back of her skull…except Mojo, laughing and gold-toothed, jerked free before this last, making her only imagine it, warning that the next whore in his stable who showed without money was a dead whore. He and Angela (Mojo’s current pump, a pretty Mex who had recently usurped Trisha in that dubious honor) both getting a good long laugh from this.
Trisha killed her mother again that morning, threw her off a cliff—forgot about killing sister Dolce and ran once more wild and free with Shep, yellow grass whipping her ankles.
That night, having made up her mind, she hit the streets searching. It took her most of the evening but she finally found his big dark car, sauntered over and leaned down to the window. “Hello again. You forgot to pay me.”
“Yes, I’ve been looking for you. Here…” The tall man paid her double her usual, triple on account of her warm smile.
All of which Trisha returned to him, then stayed his hand before he could pull from the curb. “What’s your name?”
“That’s a nice name. Old fashioned. I’m Trisha. Not old fashion at all.”
They shook hands.
“Franklyn, I have a…well, proposition. Will you be in town for a while?”
“I rather tend to keep moving, Trisha.”
“Stay another night. One more night…”
* * *
Trisha had read little in her life, movies being most of her education, and these proved enough.
She had exercised caution all her life, had come this far because of it. She exercised it now; melted down the silver crucifix at her neck, took the glistening lump to Fat Freddie who owned a gun shop on Third and Ike. Freddie grinned a toothless ex-Hell’s Angel grin and asked, “What you up to now, woman?” but asked no more. He turned the lump in his hand and told her to come back on Thursday. When she did, with fifty bucks, Fat Freddie had the newly molded silver rounds all ready for her in a clean red handkerchief. “They soft, but they work,” he told her. Trisha loaded them into the shiny automatic herself. Then sought out Angela.
Told Angela she’d scored a date, a “doubles party” and for a lot of money, more than she’d ever seen before. Then led her up to the little hotel room, let Angela—who looked not unlike her sister Dolce in some ways—enter first into the little room, the darkened room, quickly shutting and locking the door behind her.
“What–?” from Angela, inside and alone with shadow and full moonlight and something else. Then a quick, sharp scream—the kicking sound an antelope might make under a hyena—then quiet, punctuated by just the lightest dripping.
Give me fifteen minutes he’d said, and Trisha did, before unlocking the door again, pushing into a room full of streaming moonlight and streaming Angela, Trisha’s silvery gun weighting her small purse.
He awaited her on the bed, muzzle yet dripping, eyes glowing red, as she’d guessed—so powerful, so dreadful an apparition Trisha thought at first she must flee, though she did not. She undressed quickly instead, temples pounding, purse close at hand, came to the bed and, unable to face eyes so soul-piercingly, hitched skirt up, panties down and presented him pale, moon-kissed buttocks.
It was the words she wanted most, had never known. Her johns had spoken them—shouted them—many times, accompanying their too-eager discharge, words usually curiously religious in nature—words like “Jesus!” and “Oh, Christ!” or sometimes merely “Fuck, fuck!”—hissed sometimes almost vengefully, other times oddly tender, vaguely forlorn, more prayer than epithet.
Trisha had never spoken them, never experienced a mind so cleansed white with passion that unbidden words could find voice, force free…never known fulfilled love, sexual or otherwise. Certainly not in childhood.
While mounted here in full glorious moonlight, the beast’s dark talons at her white flanks, hot stench of blood-breath in her ear, the words came…at first a guttural gasp in the seemingly futile attempt to accommodate the shocking girth of him, then, in a moment—face red, eyes and mouth bulging like a pond frog’s—Trisha cried out, felt the savage tide catch and lift her, rode and let herself go with it at last, to be carried away high and higher, scream the words joyfully now…
And he—lost in animal grunts, animal thrusts, emptying his soul, filling her and spilling over—filled the small room with a high, lovely, long-buried howl of completion.
Afterward, both of them changed into something else, they lay together listening to each other’s breath, each other’s hearts, marveling that, amid such crimson carnage—Angela’s twisted remains still under the bed—they could discover such near-forgotten need, such exhausted, long-sought completion.
“Stay with me?” he breathed hopeful against her. “I have money. Plenty.” And she nodded, snuggling closer, having searched a lifetime, long and alone and finally found this unexpected dark treasure no power on Earth, she’d make sure, would ever wrest from her.
“We’ll have to travel,” Franklyn said, “Quite a lot, sometimes in hot, lonely places.”
“Not lonely,” she murmured, “Never again lonely. But first…one more night…”
* * *
“The honky peckerwood did fuckin’ what!” from an uncontainable Mojo.
“Refused to pay me,” Trisha repeated, all innocence and fluster.
“Uh-huh.” Mojo packed his slender stiletto and Colt Python with savage impatience. “We just fuckin’ see ‘bout that shit!”
Knocking at the hotel door ten minutes later, impatient with chest-puffed bravado. “Open the door, motherfucker! Mojo want a word with your soon-to-be-dead white ass!”
“It’s open…” from within moonlit walls.
Opened by Mojo a moment later, then locked again by someone else, Mojo’s “What the fuck–?” followed by the roar of two quick shots, a frenzied wheezing that exuded bright terror, a clawing of wood at the hotel door that Trisha, from the hall, feared must be Franklyn…then a light popping, like a twig wrapped in wet cloth breaking—a visceral grunt from Mojo as if he’d just come. And silence.
She faced Franklyn this time, lay beneath him, supine and triumphant, looked straight up into the dark canine face, the flaming eyes, dreadful still-wet fangs… and she reveled, clutched tight thick fur and let him mold her, scrape her, scratch tender breasts blooming angry red lines as she came, yelping…held his hugeness within her, gripping– until he made her come again, shout the Words, rear back his own shaggy head and make the room echo his plaintive love-howl. Mojo’s head, trunk-less and blood-crusted, watching from a shadowed corner with dead, yolky eyes.
“We’re alike,” Franklyn said later, changed back and lightly stroking her, “outcasts and hungry. Alike.”
They traveled the desert states: hot clear days, chill, restful nights, during which she never again dreamed of Shep, his cool muzzle thrust into her palm, his trusting head against her lap.
In Arizona, in an enormous stucco chalet Franklyn had rented amid flat, sandy mesas, they tarried long and knew sweet peace and quiet. For a time.
She brought him boys sometimes, but mostly procured him young women.
“They all look like the same girl,” he commented once absently.
She said nothing, and it seemed fine. All seemed fine.
Until the emergence of Franklyn’s great rival, his lurking jealously over the one person he could never exact vengeance upon: himself.
She found him wandering the desert one night beneath black, moonless sky. “What is it, my love?”
At first she though he wasn’t going to respond. Then: “It’s not me, is it? It’s not me. It’s him you want—that other me–the beast you covet.”
And she took his arm, pressed warm against his shoulder. “Can’t it be enough?”
He watched the ebon sky, sighing. “I want to hunt alone from now on. Just me. Do you understand?”
She searched his face, hugged the arm again, nodding. “But one more first, darling…just one more…”
* * *
Some of the young women were lesbians, overtly so…some merely lost souls not unlike her former self. Some delicate to shattering, others abrasive with hot rebellion, steeped in the hatred of family or marital abuse, like this one tonight, this reedy blonde who looked so much like the others.
“And this is the guest room.” Trisha showed her.
The girl, Jana, ever pensive, clearly jealous, shrugged proud indifference. “Can that window be closed? I can’t sleep with the moonlight in my eyes.”
Franklyn came to see the girl just past midnight. To his shock, Trisha was still there, with no apparent plans to leave. She stood, back pressed to the closed door, and watched.
Franklyn changed swiftly, with none of the protracted lassitude of the late-night movies. A shadow passed over his face, his sad smile became ghastly, the clear eyes red and burning, and it was done. He dropped panther-silent to the floor, not a panther, nor any longer a man…something dark and feral that rumbled deep in its massive chest and urinated pungently in the small room, then leapt…
Jana—imperious demeanor crumbled—face a rictus of terrified disbelief—could only run…in a space where running would not be had.
Thus the chase across moonlit bed and fallen chairs was brief, though long enough to remind Trisha of the neighborhood tomcat of her childhood, the one next door that used to trap and play with fat field mice. Jana, who was not fat, did not turn and fight at the end the way the mice had; she screamed instead and clawed the stucco walls, leaving brilliant red behind and most of her fingernails before the dark thing pulled her down.
Behind the bed, between brass rail and wall, the beast dragged her kicking, pinning her with a satisfied whuff of black flared nostrils, bent glistening jaws and ended screams and struggle with a single bite, eliciting a sob of near-gratitude from Jana, a final spastic flutter of limbs as the big incisors broke something deep down, spraying fine mists of blood and piss.
Trisha, still pressed silent to the door, listened absently to the feast, a thing of mostly moving shadow…came finally to Franklyn’s hunkered form, stroked the shaggy head, bent and kissed it lightly. Lingered to tongue his still streaming lips, lay back and sit astride him in scalloped gore and shout her words—her glory, her vengeance and triumph against all past pain to the moon’s mindless eye. She yelped fear when Franklyn drew her suddenly down, nipped her throbbing neck, lapped tenderly at what trickled there.
Later, on smeared, rumpled sheets, lazily sated, pleasantly logy, Trisha reached for and caressed the huge phallus, felt (with disappointment) it retreat, shrink away with the rest of him to become slender, pale and white as the bone-colored moon. She found, turning to kiss his face, smiling at her.
“You bit me,” she smiled back.
“My gift to you.”
A distant chill plucked at her. She ventured, “Gift?”
“What you wanted, have been asking for all these nights. Death.”
She started, naked, turned a red-streaked hip to appraise his shadowed face. “Have I asked for death?”
Smile in place, he stroked her slim back. “Asked for it, demanded it, shouted it with every fevered climax. ‘Kill me!’ you cried. And now I have.”
“I said that? I said, ‘kill me’?”
“What did you think you were shouting?”
Trisha, genuinely awed, considered this. “Something more…erotic.”
His ever-sad smile broadened tenderly. “It isn’t love you’ve been seeking, sweet, it’s peace. Release from your guilt.”
“Over your mother. And sister.”
Trisha, abruptly chilled, glanced at the twisted thing on the floor, withdrew from Franklyn a fraction. “How did you know?”
No one was more surprised at the sudden tears than Trisha, or more relieved. “They…hurt me,” she sobbed. “Mother gave me to the men because I was the pretty one. Dolce…Dolce laughed. I hated them.”
“And loved them. They were killing you. You were killing them. I didn’t know what to do about it, what to do for you. And then I did.” He touched the still tender mark at her neck. “You’re one of us now. The infection has passed. Forever dead, forever living.”
She pushed herself up, heart hammering alarm, finger tracing an invisible line at her carotid.
“You’ll never know guilt,” Franklyn told her. “Guilt is not to be found in us.”
A cloud passed over Trisha’s face. “Will we still be able to…?” and she nodded hopefully at his belly, and below.
He laughed. “More than ever. More explosively atavistic, lubriciously primitive. And nothing can ever harm us. You’re invulnerable now. Watch…and trust.” He took the silvery gun from under her pillow, aimed quickly, fired casually at her naked surprise.
She would wonder in her last moments why she had left the silver rounds in the gun, why she had kept the gun at all. That old cautionary guard again? Fearing the beast even as she trusted the man?
Wondered too, in the fleeting breath between his last words and the white glare of the explosion, if she might somehow have warned him in time…or if she had deliberately, albeit subconsciously, planned it this way.
…if Franklyn, in his sweet ignorance, had not perhaps done her the greatest favor of all: gifted her—the silver slug tearing through her heart—with that which she’d really sought most of all.
Dying there in strangled moonlight, the bed a pool, fast becoming a lake, the approaching wail of sirens souring the peaceful night, she found no breath to explain with…could only listen in descending darkness to his agonized sobs, his tortured, howl—wholly human now—of despair…chasing her into the final night.
Hear a moment later the familiar joyful bark, feel Shep’s cold muzzle against her palm, the two of them laughing and truly free now, racing forever the yellow undulant meadow through soft summer breeze…