Chasing Shadows by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

He was searching for his lost Cassilda.

Arms flapping, no even-measured runner's stroke. The electricity of fatigue sheathed in tight wet cold. His balance, never trustworthy or surefooted in night's dungeon, spinning like beads jounced in a rattle. He slips and stumbles. Around a corner into darker. The wind and its companion rain pushed away, or perhaps simply fooled by the sharp turn. He is full of tiny scurryings and fears that maneuver within him like dirty things brought closer. Chilled, he leans on the wall for support, trying to seal the shutters that allow judgement and vitality to flee his body. He fears to look at the street; the cobbled pavement beyond, now full raging sluices, rushing to the rusted grate of the underworld.

Had it been an hour -- a draining crossing of the city with chiller-cinema nerves in flight -- since he departed the warmth of the tavern's quick laughter and glowing revelry? Had it been that long since his meeting with his filthy assailant?

The complexities of chance confounded him. All he'd done was sought company after missing her; a mere smile. Perhaps a voice that could turn him, if only for a moment? But not that voice. Certainly not that dark and hateful tone ringing like terrible secrets rich in needs not suited to civilized men.

There was a scrape and a scratching. Deeper in the alley's nest of darkness there was a muted clanging. A can's lid spilled by a seeking cat perhaps? -- hopefully!

He inched toward the alley's entrance, cautiously staying close to the wall in shadow. The rain and the wind raced, as forceful as the wicked madrigals of ravens they bullied other sounds to silence. With ears alive, attuned, he could not discern footsteps.

Hailed because he, passionately in his cups -- quickly harvested by loneliness -- had dared breathe the lyrics of a song. What had he done to agitate that thing? Merely sing? How could his voice have traveled any distance in this implacable riveting?

"Damn drink! And damn circumstance."

Again the words -- her words, came back to him.

"Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa."

Damn the fled vixen -- her eyes like soft, dancing smoke under night-dark tresses. Damn her and her false promise; she taught him the words. Damn the memory of her charms, cajoling his desires with her robust lips and knowing warm fingers on his wrist soft in their need. Need of more than her memory had forced him into this night.

On that lost night of sharp-cold spread wide he should have gone with the round-eyed red-head; she asked only money for her ample favors. But no. He'd looked away, only for a moment, and there the other had sat. Familiar and waiting, wrapped in a dated, once elegant fabric of pale blue, alone in the corner behind the saddest expression, she was a portrait he couldn't take his eyes from. He could see her as an artist would, back against a soft curtain, heels to buttocks, long pale arms hugging knees, fragile chin resting on chest, lips -- lost without kisses -- held together near sobbing; a frail, yet beautiful child frightened and alone. Her need was a breath and an elixir; one he needed. Perhaps due to the tavern's dim light or his smudged desires, years longer than her age sat on her. They did not steal her beauty, but hued it. All his options were dispelled. The bold freedom of drink, pressing and needful, had pushed him to attain the rarer, softer flower.

Damn his tormented loneliness, pushing him from his soiled asylum of thick dust and soulless dead souvenirs. Damn the maddening frustrations that ran as dizzy things on this night saturated in gothic thunders.

Why had he agreed to listen? Why had he walked into the soft garden of her voice so like the mystery and revelation of a first kiss. Were her dreaming eyes so haunted, so very beautiful, he thought to save her and -- What? Find a lasting magic -- that desperate longing of old maidens and wounded poets, and finding it discover salvation -- for both of them?

He imagined her light perfume was still on him. It aroused the pressing memory of her full kisses. But the image was broken by his tormentor's shout. Above the wind-borne din it roared. With all the force and gestures of an episode in madness it plunged through the storm beset streets.

How could that man -- man? Not man! Never a man; he wouldn't accept it. More thing of the sewers, or the grave, with that rank tattered costume as thick and matted as vermin fur. How could it pursue him? He'd certainly outrun it. And more certainly, left no tracks in his wake. And why did it come, and keep coming? He was not the son his lunatic shadow declared him to be. Accosted by the vile madness suddenly spewing its craziness upon him he had tumbled into the rush of the storm. The raw waterfall freely took him, and he sailed, bumped and fast, down the raging corridor.

He needed to be home. Behind his door and windows and walls fortified with his dead things. They were firm and unmoving. Oh they ached, at times loudly like images of sacrificed ancestors, but they did not threaten or disrupt; long ago they had learned to behave after a fashion.

Against the sullied wall, searching the downpour as if lost to a trance of deep mystery, his disorderly uneasiness mounted. It filled his heaving chest and darting eyes. Home. He must be home -- now. But which way? Where lurked the filth-caked indigent who shambled through this drenched wilderness of coarse backstreets, and incredibly appeared dry -- untouched?

Could it be, even the whipping sheets of rain, sweeping the defenseless streets clean with penetrating assaults, found some way to avoid the menacing affront? Were the massed, stinging droplets frightened by that rangy, erect danger -- most likely criminally-insane -- which must have slithered from the sewers?

His decision made, he moved quickly. Rat-like, bouncing and close to the walls, he made his way.

And he was in his room. The substantial door bolted. He examined the walls and the souvenirs that appointed his desolate cloister. Still the same. Nothing had moved. No hand had imposed its intention upon his dusty pavilion.

He was quick out of this wet clothes, fearing they brought the lunatic's taint to his sanctuary of old furniture and still photographs. Dry, he fought to quiet the painful drama of disquiet with the amber contents of a bottle. And with the liquor warming him, his thoughts turned to a night past, a night now a visionary memory of her beauty emanating and wholly exalted.

A single chance meeting, as perfect and delicate as a figure in a globe, until she ran. How many days ago? He looked at that night of rain and moon and embrace again, as all desperate men under a spell must, and asked what had happened before her departure into midnight awakened?

* * *

In the tavern they talked for a while. Their words caressing like gentle fingers. After the wine and the words, he'd brought her to his loft. Something sweeter than speech and iridescent was between them; its text more than stirring, almost hypnotic.

She longed to hear him play.

He opened the dust covered case. He paused, his back to her. Could he? Could he touch the smooth dark wood and let the music like whispers flow? Could he give it voice to let the tales spin like exultant ceremonies? He knew she waited. There was his heart and his past. He offered it to her.

No longer stranger to stranger displaying poses to hide ache, they looked upon each other. The dull shabby room held that which passed between them. She stood in it; a blessed, tranquil saint, teaching renewal and holding all the hushed prayers that filled the cathedral she adorned.

She placed her long fingers on the viola, almost touching the strings. She held it like the Blessed Virgin held Christ in the Pietà. Her eyes opened, her lips parted, he took her smile as she looked at him.

"Please. For me?"

He could not resist.

Five years since he'd played, but he played for her. Looking in her eyes he drew inspiration. Her smile was soft. His largo a bittersweet reply.

She had seen him play years ago, she said. Another song, a haunting piece that brought tears. She could not recall its name, but remembered its soft melody. For a time it had saved her from her grief and her sin, she confessed. She hummed it for him. Then began to sing. She'd added words; strange haunting words. The words fit the sonata as a man and a woman fit; both sides of the one melted together -- trust and passion alight -- permanent, for once joined neither could stand alone.

It was the Sonata for Viola Solo op. 11 by Mad Sclavis, who had been committed to Doctor Pifarély's asylum of undisguised wraiths after his wife, Arienne Cecile, had taken her own life; her contorted body laying beneath the balcony as cold and disfigured as the stillborn child she'd clutched in desperation for four hours. Tormented Sclavis, who they said, closed his eyes and cried himself to death. They said his last and only words were, "Goodbye, Day."

He played for her as she stood by the window, an angel in pearl moonlight. His angel? What welcome lie did he embrace, hung before this woman like a bleak cross, wanting and needful. Could her wings fan away the resident gloom? Could it be he was now awakened, and somehow worthy again? After the first refrain, she sang along -- a clear, vibratoless soprano; not trained, but rare and glove soft. And elusively familiar. Exile and bereavement married in harmony. He was bewitched.

The subtle complexities of the nuance-rich sonata rose and fell. There were moments stilled to motionless calm as the melody moved like waves from anguish to serenity. The composition was a kiss of blustery desires and errors taken, it was infectious and profoundly sublime. At its heart lay tragic ordeals and numbing loneliness. Her words did not burden or alter it, they were a mirror.

"Song of my soul, denied --
my voice, from cold, fragile solitudes,
shall dry, echoing the heartbeat that breaks
with each rushing wave, upon the shore of
Lost Carcosa"

Eye engaging eye, she sang, he played.

The sonata ended softly. He set the viola back in its lavender-lined case and she came to him. They stood in moonlight etched by the peeling casement, then they were in each others arms. Her breasts were virgin moons -- pallid wonders that stilled his breath and stroked his heart. He thought he'd cry.

She did.

They made love, his breath giving her life, and hers to him. And for a time, embraced by something he could feel but could not define, he lay consumed in the rapture the poets sing of. But there was the clap of thunder and the rain came like rapid hounds stretching out fleet steps in pursuit of hot red blood and she fled.

He thought to cry out, but his throat was dry and would not obey. Confused, he just stood there as the door closed upon her image. Like timeless black waiting he did not shudder or move and time moved as a man moves by vulgar compositions in a gallery of mad deeds. Focus returned, like thirst or a needle or the bite of a rat panicked, it was sharp. She couldn't be gone -- not yet, not now. Then in the rain, he rushed after her, moving quickly like an affliction quick to own all in its path. Across the stones and curbs and through doorways asking. Asking after the memory of pale blue and ink-black hair.

* * *

The days passed, but her memory, warm and demanding within him, would not. The sun bled to death and he stood, head down in his troubles at his window, watching the long vapors of darkness settle. Seven days had gone by since his collision in the rain. Heavy with them he had counted every acute hour. Bound in complicated fears he stood at the door, twice in the punishing hours almost strong enough to travel through it. His back to the barrier he twitched like a startled rodent. Then frustrated by limitations -- "If only there were another exit from this warren." -- he, like a thin sentinel searching fog, found himself at the window frosted with his breath. His need was simple, and he wished he was dangerous and could force an oath of submission from his fear. If only he were immortal --

He could see the procession by moonlight, marching unevenly like strange stiff-legged marionettes to war, the gathering in the underworld. He saw the spider-jointed demons at the ceremony; the feast-grotesque heads splattered with their own blood plopped on filthy platters; the nakedness of warrior and shaman-black angels with ancient voices; the hideous tremors of their coupling in the darkness flecked with littered bones. He knew where this contaminated beast was born. If he were immortal he would simply pass by.

Pass by? Unchecked and untouched?

Surely the monster which had manifest itself in the wild hair and great winter-coat of a madman had passed into some other pursuit. The violent creature, belonging to a dimension more harrowing tale of the fantastic than simple grim fairytale, one of wolfish revelries and the shadows of disorder, must have been struck by some other echo or possibility illuminated. Yes, of course! There was the truth; after seven days the flutter of some other innocent passerby's gait must have drawn its attention like a flamboyant costume.

He slammed the door and rushed to find her. His heart's need his only map. His mind was a thing of teeth, opening and closing its mouth to shout of starvation. He needed her as the man lost to the desert's vacant sands makes water his new god. Only she could deliver him. All speed, he was in the chilled rain. One disagreeable street, not dry for days, was exchanged for the next. A bitter shout, not aimed at him, but as jarring as the Devil's laughter, awakened his dread of the tattered, filthy man. Even as the agitated cry burned out, unwanted memory -- the resonance of the crazed-demon's bellow -- clipped his heels.

The straightness of the streets pulled him along, but corners -- crossroads waiting to unloose every annihilating sin, trouble, and murder -- became the worst unknowns. He paused before each black, filled inside not with the slight butterflies of unease, but the drowning. Would death descend unheard on vulture's wings, or like the raging heart of a crematorium, surge as the roar of a radiant fever? Yet, too filled with all the symptoms of his enterprise to turn back or away, he braved each conflict. And finally he was around the last.

There was round laughter in the tavern where they had met, but not hers. He moved along. Light had vanished from many windows. The fullness of darkness drifted like unmoored islands in the hollow lands between shrinking tenements and dismal lot. Padlocked shops with chain-web veils became empty warehouses, and the wind picked up.

Lost in this world. He felt disjointed by the weight of it. He paced and was soon sick of the circles.

Then the enemy was beside him.

* * *

"You have been lost for a long time, Thale."

It wasn't his name. He knew it. What was it? Thill, perhaps? But not -- Thale? Yet, it rang like an old melody he played well, but had misplaced. It wasn't his name. No, this phantom awakened was mistaken, he was certain of it. But it was familiar, correctly fitting the hole left by that fallen from his memory.


He almost asked, but instead chose to run. He had to; this singleness heavy with the currents of madness smelled of the whirlwind and wailing bonfires -- they were on his breath like strong drink. Around the first corner and the next he fled. Through soot-choked alleys lined with throwaways and broken things. Glass splintered under his heel. As he rushed passed, papers flew like frightened things. He was fast, then faster. He must find home again.

A fog rose up and blanketed the pavement. And the thinning buildings lost solidity and receded. His pace hurried.

Home. He must be home. He must. But which direction? Which way? That one, the frozen lawn of teeth black as strange weather brewing? The other, a narrow carving through a squat gathering of bungalows and two-stories sleeping in the dim stain of a few streetlamps? He stood in fear of the wrong step, then chose left -- the other, shunning the sagging rows of bruised facades with steps and porches like broken jaws and windows like flawed mirrors. He flew like a free laugh, headlong at the speeds of rushing wind marching, splashing through silent puddles, leaping, wheeling to avoid all that had been cast off and out. Turning and turning, sliding along a street curved like a laughing mouth.

Stop -- look. Move, then stop again. Right, then left. Full of ferocious miscalculations he turned and turned and turned. Another right, into a dead end. He folded back and moved on. All about him changed and changed again. And again, like moving mounds of fog in winds, thick then thin with oddly shaped holes -- hungry quicksand deeps. Tendrils sprouted like horrid black-branched trees made only to snap necks. On he moved like stories and songs rushing pass sleeping ears.

More than fear drove him now. Curiosity, and some faint feeling akin to rage arose and jostled his homesickness. Another step, then two blurring to four -- a bewildered rat in a maze. Running over bridges and soft earth. Fogbound and tortured, and still running. Terraces and patches of weeds were ignored as he pushed passed. Unrecognizable whispers and wooden croaks like strange haiku from things with no names were all about him. Another bolt of rapid steps. Atmospheres of possible sprang up like civilizations only to fall into ruin.

He pulled up and stood firm. He made fists at his sides. He clamped his eyes and mouth shut and shook himself. Schizophrenia? Juju? Or perhaps some fever that stung reason like spirituous drink? What clutching distortion sent its roots spreading like beams from a lighthouse? How long would he remain a slave to this torment?

He moved on. Things that should have happened long ago and stayed still as the surface of a morning lake were beside him. There were faint impressions of melted snow cascading and an empire of glazed-eyed gypsies celebrating with seven loud songs about hot red blood and predatory violence overwhelming screeched arias.

He remembered a madness rich in racking tears. How many riots of crashing waves had it lashed him with? He ran desperately, his hair and the edges of his coat autumn leaves in November winds. Then he saw the moons; heavy twins of lusterless pearl low in the sky. They stood before him and shone. He felt they shone their sad greeting only for him. They reflected the reminders like intrigues that filled the empty monastery he had become. His forgetfulness fell away.

For a time he just stood there.

Soon the stars came out; black stars. The sound of muted waves crashing came to him and he ran again. Home. He must be home. But in which shadow did it lay. Home, the need of it was everything. It was a hungry worm in his belly.

He ran and the white moons stayed with him. He stopped. His running seemed endless and pointless. Tired, he sat, his back to a metropolitan sprawl, kettle-black and lying like a cluttered yard of potbellied baseburners with sky-wounding towers like chimney stacks capped with crooked-peaked witches hats. The wind, soft and flecked with the strangled clamors of distant objects, moved and still he sat -- hard as the aspects of the heart -- engraved inscriptions that measure the midnight hovering over graves -- yet he was on fire and felt light. He let his breathing fill him.

"Home is where the heart is. And yours was broken only by distance."

Again the assiduous enemy and his eyes like sharp medieval arsenals. He stared at him.

"You wonder if I'm truth."

He knew the voice, and those eyes, though now -- like his own -- set behind a mask. His stalker's garb had changed, filthy greatcoat for tattered yellow robes, but it was the same pursuer nonetheless.

"I know you are turmoil," he said without rising from his rocky seat on the shore.

"Ah." The tone was as sticks beating the grass.

Their gaze was long. One expecting, the other as difficult to known as a new language.

"For a moment you yearned for brightness and motion. You were pulled away by a song. We turned and you were gone," the figure in yellow said.

"Gone where?" In a moment of confusion he couldn't recollect the other-where.

"Chasing shadows in the other world."

And as it was said he remembered the day and the invitation of the dim music as it lingered, and how his feet had stretched, following the waning echo. But he no longer cared.

"Cassilda, who was also lost for a time, has returned. Shall we --"

"No," he replied, gazing up at the black stars suspended like ripe plums. He listened to the waves break upon the ageless shore. "The dynasty can wait. I'll just sit here awhile."

The robed figure in the pallid mask nodded and walked off.

Thale did not turn. He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of the waves which came in crashing repetitions like heartbeats.

Send your comments to Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.


© 1998 Edward P. Berglund
"Chasing Shadows": © 1998 Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1998 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: July 1, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004