Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. is an American writer and editor of dark fantasy and weird fiction, currently living in Germany. As a writer, prior publications include the collections Blood Will Have Its Season (2009), SIN & ashes (2010), and Portraits of Ruin (2012), all of which are published by Hippocampus Press. His novel The Orphan Palace (2011, Chomu Press) was previously reviewed on this site by our own Maureen Kincaid Speller. Pulver is highly acclaimed amog fellow writers and other readers for his unique voice, which reflects a hard-edged poetic intensity inspired by dark fantasy and noir, and the events of his stories and poems often follow in likewise fashion. His own writing reflects his fondness for the King in Yellow Mythos created by Robert W. Chambers, with stories such as the following “Carl Lee and Cassilda” taking place within that mythos and updating it for this era of readers. He has also edited the anthology A Season in Carcosa (2012, Miskatonic River Press), which compiles contemporary authors writing new King in Yellow-inspired stories. We hope you enjoy the following story, reprinted with kind permission of the author. — The Editors
Scissors telling Mama the Truth . . . A white court house in a small whitetown; hard men in dark suits with cold ugly eyes behind unsightly hornrimmedeyeglasses, and a host of questions . . . The bells of a church—awhite church with a white cross—ringing . . . Then Inside Dr. Archer’s asylum; brutes in starched whites with cold ugly blue eyes, and bitchy, skinny-ass nurses with pills, and later, after the attack on fat, bouncy Nurse Barbara, needles. A lifetime commitment: Violent Ward, Room 1.
Shut away for eleven years in Dr. Archers’ asylum . . . AND—
Fourteen days in The Room (this last time). White room, glaring light overhead; false light, blinding light. Night and day the artificial white light blazed, unless he closed his eyes. Fourteen days, lying on the white floor, back to the white door. Beyond the white door, beyond the sterile white halls and the crowded wards, and Dr. Archer’s office, and the caretaker’s bungalow, the highway, and the desert with its good-for-nothing little towns of tattered no-names. The great painted desert; hungry lizards slashing across shimmering, shamanic sands; rebel cactus under siege; roadhouses; hombres; the survival games of bugs and scorpions and birds and mice and rattlesnakes; and the line in the sand, on the other side, winter in Mexico. Fourteen days under the glare of Dr. Archer’s cold dark eyes behind unsightly horn-rimmed eyeglasses. Fourteen days in doubt’s icy shadow, pressed by endless questions about The Book, its Truth, and Mama: “Where did you first—When did you—Why did you—Were you—What do you remember about—Did you—Didn’t you—Did she—Do you have—Tell me about—” Fourteen days staring at Dr. Archer’s face of steel. Beneath it, curves and layers and blood, and white glistening bone. Fourteen days. Pills and needles and questions—fourteen days, consciousness blurred. Tired. Bound in white restraints, the straps cutting. At times afraid, fumbling with guilt, weakening. Suffocating on the doctor’s pronouncements. DYING? Wanting! Wanting scissors, or a knife. Even a fork would do. Fourteen days, face to face with exhausting judgment; just to be free from Dr. Archer’s moving teeth and tongue, rattling with their incessant inquisition…
He wanted night. Night with black stars shining. Endless shimmering night, standing on a balcony with Cassilda. Sweet, radiant Cassilda, smiling. Her pale yellow gown fluttering in the midnight breeze.
I’ll never give up my Dream. Never betray Cassilda.
He looks at Dr. Archer. Sees the Truth standing behind him, takes strength from it. Hears another question coming . . .
I’ve been poisoned before. Let them come.
“Give me fourteen more days if you like. But I will never give up my Dream.”
Cassilda, I have been faithful to you . . .
I am far saner than my captor—Doctor,
Thief! He took the book from me.
I spit on him!
I would bite and claw him.
Cut out His EYES.
Cut out His TONGUE. Pull out His TEETH.
Show him the Truth. See him blister in my gaze!
I would leave his flesh for the insects, his bones for the sun!
I would cast his empty philosophies in Truth’s black flame,
if only free . . .
There—on fire, I am a star—I devour the colors of space;
my hand holds the infinite . . .
Cassilda, I know the Truth. I have seen the Place Where the Black Stars Hang in my dreams. Have no fear, Sweet Princess, I’ll find you. I’ll find a way through this maze of lies. I’ll find the road to Carcosa.
First the careless orderly—on the white wall, powerful red words:
Dear Dr. Archer,
I’ve been called to the Court of Truth by Cassilda.
Then the old-goat caretaker and his fat wife, curves and layers and blood, and white glistening bone. More powerful words on a white wall:
Dear Dr. Archer,
You wanted to see the Truth, to understand it. Never fear, one day, the Truth will come for you. It will stand before you and reveal itself. Watch for it.
Through the gate, looking back and smiling at Dr. Archer’s office window. On the road. The long walk, frying in the leer of afternoon, under the blameless Big Blue Sky. Just another tourist with blinking eyes.
Rushing through clusters of struggling scrub trees and scraggly fields, slightly winded, but free. A road. Houses, not close together. Porches with disinterested shadows. A basking cat, not sight or sound of dogs. He needs momentary shelter and clothes. And a car. Picks a house with outdated apparel drying on the line. A kindly old woman, physically, not unlike his mother, gives him a cool drink of water. He shows her the Truth. Takes his time, peeling away the mask. Takes her husband’s clothes, some food, yesterday’s newspaper, and her car.
Two hours on the road. Driving carefully. Driving by motels and fast food joints, listening to All-News radio. Leaves the car near a busy truck stop. He gets a ride to Reno. Walks a bit, watching the cars flash past. He flashes his thumb in reply.
Another shithole cheap room with a cheap chair and a hard bed—and the sounds of working hookers oozing in bursts through the thin walls.
Hand shaking as he reaches for the glass. Cheap whiskey. The solid shadow in the darkest fragment of the room swallows and lets the burn soothe him. The glass is too slow, he takes long draws from the pint bottle. He loves the burn, hates the fire of pressure behind his eyes.
Two fingers part the cheap curtain. Eyes that look straight into everything survey the parking lot—two pick-ups and a van—taking in the on/off neon, illuminating rust and dents. Next door a shout and the sound of a slap. Then a “Fuck you” and another strike. Muffled crying.
She probably deserved it, he thinks.
His fingers come away from the curtain and he turns to the bed. The flickering light of the TV flickers on the wrinkles and folds and long curves, pale and red. She deserved it. She lied. She smiled, then lied. Wanted money. Just like the others.
Two more pulls from the whiskey bottle and he turns down the radio’s city songs and turns up the sound of the B-movie on the TV to silence the disagreement next door.
“Whores.” Sotto voce, as hurtful and ugly as the breeze in Death’s yard.
He puts on his boots and buckles his belt buckle. In the bathroom he rinses the blade of his knife and washes his hands, watches the diluted blood find its way down into darkness. Looks in the cracked mirror and traces the scorpionlike tattoo on his chest with his finger.
“Cassilda.” A silent howl.
His thumb flashed. A cloud of dust with the wind—no ride. His boot kicked up more dust. Twenty-two cars and trucks in the last hour and no ride. He was going to fry in this heat. Why didn’t it ever rain here?
Didn’t matter. He was on his way to the other coast. New Orleans. Jacksonville. Miami, it rained there. That’s where she was. Someplace cooler. Six dead women from Barstow to San Antone and it had taken him this long to figure it out.
He’d seen Cassilda on the TV at the end of the bar; just once since he’d got out, just for a few seconds. She was as cool as autumn twilight. She hadn’t used many words, but her eyes spoke to him. They said, “I’m waiting for you, Carl Lee.” So he finished his beer and headed out. L.A. hadn’t been a waste after all.
To no particular where, just went. Stepped right into August like it was a voyage or a baptism. Stopped in his cheap room, grabbed his stuff and left. Somewhere down the road he’d find her. The wind would take him to her.
The wind had taken him all across This Nation these past months. He’d been to Vegas and Illinois. Seen an Indian in Laredo, Texas, and niggers everywhere. Watched the dissatisfied compromise and the desperate cheat. He’d slept in alleys and along the highways; saw some crows pickin’ at dead-cat-pie in a cemetery; hid from the rain one night in Ruby’s Diner with Big Joe and Frank, watchin’ the nighthawks drown cigarette butts in cold coffee while the all-night radio bedtime story barked sermons and scandals; fought off flies come to his sardines and bourbon picnic one afternoon while five gleaming kids ran barefoot through a sandlot yelling “Whee!” He’d seen the Grand Canyon, and screwballs whine about double-dealers. Heard crap enough to brainwash the boxcar hermits inta believin’ their Mad Dog was Saint Teresa’s piss. Been in and outta small towns and through railroad yards, walked by shy Spanish maidens, cowboy hats, and cotton galore . . . Worked or stole every once and again. He liked working better, but they would never leave him alone—always had to talk at him. Get this; pull that; over there. “So, what’dal-ya have? I ain’t got all night” from twelve dozen skinny-ass waitresses who were as empty-lookin’ as closed-down gas stations. HURRY-HURRY-HURRY. Like fast ever got anyone anywhere.
“Damn barstool sons-a-bitches, rattlin’ so the drunk at their elbow won’t know they’re empty. Free Country, my ass . . . Squawkin’ and bitchin’ costs plenty.”
But Cassilda didn’t complain. Just one quick look that afternoon in the bar and he knew it. Nope, she wouldn’t think of it. She was quite and respectful. Knew what to say and when to say it. Knew how to please a man. He knew she could cook and sew, and mind her Ps & Qs. Didn’t scream no Holy Bible shit, wouldn’t bitch and bitch and bitch about money, and sure wouldn’t screw around with other men.
The wind eased and a car stopped. Carl Lee smiled and threw his gear in the backseat. Willie Nelson was on the radio singin’ about being to sick to pray. The young woman said, “Hi. My name’s Laura Mae.” And wouldn’t shut up.
They headed East.
Carl Lee left her in a culvert in Arkansas. At the edge of a swampy pond he washed his hands and cleaned his knife. Forty minutes later he ditched her car.
His thumb flashed. Through Stamps and Crosett and Eudora. Stayed overnight in Onward, Mississippi. Another cheap motel with a cheap chair and hard bed, but it was quiet. He walked to the bar down the road. The bartender wore unsightly horn-rimmed glasses just like Dr. Archer’s. Smiled dead-cold, just like Dr. Archer. He was quick to down his drink and go back to his room, away from temptation, away from questions.
Fully clothed. Knife beside him. TV off. Laid on that hard bed staring at the ceiling. Sweating; no fan, no air conditioning. Knowing she was waiting. Knowing she wanted him to come to her—Cassilda had everything ready for him.
He soaked a wash towel in cool water. Wrung it out and laid it on his forehead. He dozed.
Cassilda’s fingers were cool. She had nice hands, nice soft hands. She didn’t talk, just smiled, just like soft autumn sunshine. All this heat and she looked fresh as a daisy in her yellow print dress. The soft cotton moved with her. She handed him a glass of lemonade, beads like diamonds on it. She made him feel like a king.
He woke and rolled over. Looked around, rubbed his eyes, yawned. Thunder off in the distance. He went back to sleep.
His mother—thirty-four years of Arizona long nights—was wanderin’ ’round the kitchen. Mutterin’ to herself just like always. All that talk of Daddy, and lying men; rough hands and hard breath. She was skinning a rabbit. Blood on her hands. She wiped away a tear, left a blood scar. Mama called him. She didn’t look up from the carcass, just called his name, “Carl Lee, you come and fetch some onions.”
Mama was hummin’ along with the slow country song on the West Texas radio station; at the bridge she muttered something about the curse of love. Both sounded like wind in the wire.
Out beyond the screen door by the gas pump, tires digging gravel, an old yellow dog in the back of a pick-up. The dog barked, flashed its teeth, and he remembered going hunting with Daddy. Twice. He was seven— “Old enough now.” A doe each time. Daddy’s Buck knife moved through the hide. Daddy peeled it back. The curve of muscle, white glistening bone. Blood. Carl Lee thought, this is what things really look like under the hair, and smiles—
He was wide awake. The late-morning sun lightening the pale curtains and the yellowing wallpaper. In the bathroom he splashed water on his face and drank a glass of water. He wanted a drink, settled for bacon and eggs and white-bread toast and black coffee.
On the road again. A ride with a quiet man in a loud truck. East. The panhandle of Florida. Soon he’d be in it. She was waiting. Only tomorrow or the next day away now.
Thumb out. Heels on hot tar. One town and another. Night. Still hot, not cooler. Red and white bar lights. Beer signs. He went inside.
Two drunk fools waltzin’ across the floor, laughing. His drink in his hand. Reflected light in the wet rings on the bar. Laughing girls, curves and layers and blood, and white glistening bone. That’s what they really looked like under the hair and the smiles. Movement in the mirror behind
the bottles. He passed the whiskey over lips. Felt the burn. Washed it down with a beer, dreamed of lemonade. He left with a doe-eyed divorcée.
She unbuttoned her dress and let her hair down. Smiled. LIES—
All those sons-a-bitches jawin’, Mama and her school-girl/movie picture glamour magazine dreams, and her book learnin’—always talkin’ about romance stories she’d read and movies she’d seen, all of princes and damsels and far-away places with strange names, and IF ONLY. That’s what drove his Daddy off—
“It’s OK, darlin’. Happens sometimes.”
It happened. Curves and layers and blood, and white glistening bone.
Mama, she’d lied about Cassilda and the book. And it happened. Curves and layers and blood, and white glistening bone.
Carl Lee sat in a cheap chair in her rented trailer. He drank her whiskey and looked at her laying there. She wasn’t lying now. He put his hand on her jaw and turned her head, looked at the truth in her eyes. He turned on the radio by the bed, the slow country song sounded like wind in the wires.
He tried to count how many he’d met. How many looked like Cassilda, but weren’t. He shoulda known, the painted nails and painted lips and bottle-blonde dye-jobs, and they drank beer—some right from the bottle—or whiskey, never lemonade.
Carl Lee heard the rain outside. Thought about spending the night. There was still half a bottle left . . . But Cassilda was waiting. He went into the bathroom and washed the blood from his knife. Washed his hands. Watched the diluted blood find its way down into darkness. He looked in the mirror and traced the scorpionlike tattoo on his chest with his finger.
“Cassilda,” he howled silently.
Then he was out driftin’ with the wind. Headlights approaching.
His thumb flashed.
He deposits his small gesture in the mailbox. The fourteenth postcard to the inquisitioner with cold dark eyes behind unsightly horn-rimmed eyeglasses. In powerful red words, each asks the same question:
Dear Dr. Archer,
Are you watching?
(for Alice Cooper and Robert Bloch)