by M.D Schultz
In a shop built on busy streets sits a bottle of ink thirsting for blood.
|Listen close, child. Do you hear that clinking in the wind? It’s like the sound of metal tapped in an open forge. Now close your eyes. Do you feel the spray of the ocean mist? The water is cool like a morning spring, and the salt stings your tongue as you lick your lips.
Listen, do you hear the crowd, the scuffling feet, and chatter? It’s like a coarse broom scratching wooden floors to catch dust slipping between the cracks. Then comes a gawking noise, the squeal of morning gulls landing upon the masts of fishing vessels. Do you hear the bells like angel’s wings? Do you hear sand rubbing against a ship’s bow? It’s like cutting dirt with a kitchen knife sliding clean through but with a scratching metallic noise that dulls the blade and gives you goosebumps.
Welcome to the kingdom of Annsburg. The sun has just risen, and the ships are moored, and morning catch dumped out upon stacks of frozen hay. Do you hear mackerel poured from the bow of the Queen Mary? A soft slapping noise like steamed noodles rinsed and stacked on a plate.
We travel in the pocket of Mr. Alby, who carries a silver coin and a wrapper smelling of the earth but with a touch of glaze. He prefers tobacco laced with mint but stinks of brine and fish. He comes to the docks every morning to purchase an oyster and lemon water. We take comfort in the familiar and hide in the lint stuck to the corners of his pocket. Look closely at the weave, closely at the folds in his garment. Do you see that gray-blue tint that sapphire smear that scratches off and hides under your fingernail? They call it blue gold, a treasure of the royal family. Mr. Alby discovered a vein digging trenches just east of Annsburg. He is now the richest man in the city and walks the docks with holes in his trunks, a cat’s whisker between his teeth, a beaten leather cap, and a black eye.
What is it that they say? You can take the boy from the dock, but not the dock from the boy.
Can you feel the wind on your face, a gentle, quiet breeze that caresses your cheek like a cat? There is a smell in the wind, a taste of lavender and berries ripe for picking. Come with us, child. It’s time to go.
From Mr. Alby’s pocket, we sail in the breeze like seeds from the canopy, winding our way into an open basket landing upon fresh bread smelling of sugar and salt. We know this weave, the fraying edges of a crippled satchel tied back together one too many times. Listen to how the fiber groans, a line on the verge of snapping.
Mrs. Crawford got her money’s worth when she purchased that basket ten years ago. Three children and two husbands later, it’s the only thing that can put up with her stiff chin, listless gaze, and the carefree attitude of a woman who spends more than saves. She pauses now before a stall of honey tuna, an extravagant display of fish twice her size. Look how she drops those two golden coins, flourishing her wrist with not a care in the world.
Much too expensive for husband number three.
Yet, look at the rouge upon Mrs. Crawford’s cheeks, scarlet red like the sun at dawn. She ties her hair neatly in a knot, paints her fingernails blue, and wears the dress of a woman half her age cut low in the front. Today is the last day she will walk these streets, leaving another husband behind for a nameless suitor, or so she thought. Look at the way she smiles, crooked on one side with her left eye drooping. Now put your ear to her belly; this woman hasn’t bled in over a month, and you might hear the unspoken whisper of baby number four.
Listen to us carefully, child. We will share with you a harsh truth. Life is never fair, especially for those who do not care.
Mrs. Crawford makes it as far as the fork in windflower lane when the blood vessel bursts and the basket falls, bread rolling across the cobblestone. We slip through the mortar just under the boots that march by. Nobody pays her a second glance, just another bum sleeping on the streets.
Hers is a story we know all too well. After all, tragedy isn’t unique to the city of Annsburg. Despair exists in every town, forest, ocean, and desert vast as the eye can see. So, what makes this place so special?
We have been here before, you know. Annsburg is the place that the white whale once called home before the anchor broke free, and the dolphins still whisper dark secrets and hidden truths. They tell us that not one, but two gods have visited this place.
First, a blind deity bargained with primordial man to share in her voice, and second, an Ashen fog blanketed the city and turned mother against daughter, sister against brother, and husband against wife.
Look closely now at the mortar that binds the stones on windflower lane. Do you see the red tint and taste the iron on your tongue? The dolphins say the streets of Annsburg once turned red with blood. They say the four humors ran so thick it’s baked into the stone: Scratch all you want, child. The blood won’t come out with anything less than a chisel and pick.
Windflower lane, such a cheery name, is deceiving. This is where the Llywelyn revolution ended. King, queen, governor, soldier, and even the baker on eighth street lost his head to thunderous applause. Such is the cruelty of a deity’s leisure.
I ask you, child. Can you tell the difference between king and peasant now? Is there a subtle cue in the mortar’s shade that eludes us? We thought not. On the inside, you’re all the same.
Now the dolphins clap their fins together as they head out to sea. Soon they will speak of a third deity who will come to this place. A mute goddess who will deliver the unborn and lay it to rest upon the cliff of Sidhe. Ouroboros often leave scars behind, scars that cannot be seen but felt. So, is it any wonder that places like Annsburg become home to the occult?
Come, child, there is nothing more we can do for the woman lost; come with us as we travel down the left fork in windflower lane, past a bar called the drunken tuna where a dockhand loses his purse to light fingers, and an exiled prince hides beneath the floorboards. Come with us as we slither across the back alleys of preachers street, where young Isabella whispers under her breath.
“A roof overhead is greater than coin in hand, but neglect that which clinks, fail to plan, and you will have neither hearth nor helping hand.”
Through the winding corridors, we finally come to the corner of a street called witlessking, so named after the foolish monarch who once mistook a pig farmer for his son. Look how the roads have changed, the mortar has long cracked, and the stones are loose weeds jutting up from underneath. Watch where you step, child. There is broken glass beneath every brick and toe. Do you feel the shards poking under your shoes like so many pine needles?
Now look at the homes, notice how the chimneys sag with missing bricks, and the paint peels off the sides like scabs. The windows are broken too; look how the wooden frames bend out, the glass shattered from within. Careful now, a sickly man with tattered garments and missing teeth tugs at your shin.
“Just one coin.” He says with a grin.
Do you smell that sweet aroma, that intoxicating scent of sour tart leaking from his lips? We do, and it smells like gluttony and lust with a pinch of greed. So, feel free to drop a coin; it won’t change his fate.
The back alley of the witlessking is the kind of place mothers warn their sons and daughters about; the kind of place where thieves hide, and red women spread their legs for paying customers. Indeed, it seems no different than the dank corridors of any other city. Yet, look carefully, and you might see something out of place.
The Crescent Moon is a little shop between Leiden ironworks with the cold furnace and lacewood barbers with empty chairs and broken mirrors. Look closely at the front; notice how the chimney isn’t crooked and how the paint doesn’t peel. There is a sign hanging just above the door with the image of a quarter moon not faded but fresh. The windows glitter in the sun and a bright red carpet is laid out in the front. Indeed, the Crescent Moon was founded over two hundred years ago, and not a soul has yet seen the windows washed nor the shutters painted.
Ask the man who smells of gin, ask the woman with the broken heel what they know of that lonely shop.
“Fuck off.” They say, brushing you aside.
Do you feel that sudden chill, that icy cold that turns the tips of your fingers pale blue? We do, and it’s like the breadth of winter on a summer day. Then, suddenly, in the upper window of the Crescent Moon, something moves. It’s like the fluttering wings of a moth gone in a flash, never enough to convince you that something was there, but just enough to give you that itch and those sweaty palms.
Are you afraid? Take our hand, child. We know the way.
Make sure to wipe your feet on the red carpet, but don’t bother knocking. Nobody is home. We slip through the open keyhole and rest on the tumblers within. A six-finger lock is rare indeed, and no mortal yet living has broken one. The trick is not in teasing the tumblers or twisting the chamber. You see, this lock has an appetite. Look closely at the cotter pin. Do you see that sapphire streak and powder blue film? The key is made of blue gold, and the lock shaves off a piece with every visit. Those blessed with such a trinket are only allowed to enter twice.
Listen to the lock click in place when we scatter a handful of blue dust into the rotor. Thunk, it’s a heavy noise like dropping an anchor. The door groans as it opens wide, a rush of stale air striking your face as a rat skitters back under the floorboards.
Welcome to the Crescent Moon, child.
Come with us as we flow across the floor and run our fingers along dusty shelves. Do not be afraid of the dark, for we are the candle, the torch, and the resistor. Look how the floor glows in the dark and how the light fills black spaces, startling spiders that nest in the rafters. There an enormous skeleton hangs, serpent-like with a broad snout and a hole in the skull. Look at the spine's curvature and the cavernous belly formed by the vertebrae. Whales know the pull of hunger better than any mammal, but time on this peninsula has made them soft. They’ve forgotten their true heritage and, with it, their desire for a name.
This place is like a library with shelves labeled from A-Z. You can see row after row stacked higher than you are tall. There’s a rolling staircase nearby covered in cobwebs but pay attention to the floor. Do you see a clean line drawn in the dust where the stairs have rolled by? Now ask yourself, are you really alone?
Look to your right at the shelves with glass bottles. What manner of insects are these? They have four wings, six legs, and eight eyes but with red fingers and toes that twitch in the dark. Now look to your left at that gnarled old staff. The wood bends inward like the opening of a conch, and you can catch the faint glimmer of black crystals nesting within. Would you believe the gods once blessed these? No, there are no price tags here.
If you must ask, you can’t afford it.
Come with us as we travel from A to B, past the shrunken heads that wink as you pass. There, at the top of a mahogany shelf, is a small bottle with a cork stopper. Feel the weight of the glass in your hands, heavy like lead with something swishing within. This is the ink bottle of Booker Woodthrope.
Do you know Mr. Woodthrope’s paintings? Can you hear the striking gavel and the screams of the crowd?
“To the gentleman in the back for ten thousand gold pieces!” So says the auctioneer.
Lady in despair is his most famous piece. A woman hung from solid beams black hair covering her face as she sways in the wind. The image is so striking you could reach out and touch the woman’s face. They say he painted it after Brea took her life. They are wrong, child. He painted it before.
We remember when he lived on windflower lane in an apartment no larger than a modest kitchen. They had just enough wheat for lunch and not dinner, and the stove’s fire sputtered in the last throes of life as Mr. and Mrs. Woodthrope huddled together, blowing on the coals. In the corner, we see a lonely easel with an empty page and dry brushes; the paints have frozen over.
Inspiration is often as fickle as the wind, and for Mr. Woodthrope, that wind was strong but fleeting. So, every night, he dropped to his knees and prayed for those strokes of genius. We danced beneath his feet that bled from splinters in the wood.
When next Mr. Woodthrope woke and pushed Brea from his arm, he found a small bottle of ink set before his feet and a message scrawled upon the wooden floor.
One drop of blood to stir in the mud.
Two drops of ink we give in a blink.
Not two but one, and not one but two.
Follow this rule or watch the ink drool.
Listen to this spell or feed the inkwell.
The gods finally answered his prayers, but he found only red clay as hard as a rock when he pulled the topper off the bottle. With an itch to be scratched, Booker poked the tip of his finger and squeezed but a single drop. When his blood struck the clay, it melted away like ice in the sun. He swirled the solution together and unrolled a blank parchment across the floor.
“Please don’t,” Brea said, tugging at his shoulder. “I have a bad feeling.”
He pushed her away without a second glance. Look at her trembling hands, the white streaks in her hair, and the wrinkles on her cheeks. The wedding band hasn’t fit for over five years.
Booker dipped the tip of his pen into the fresh ink and held it over the empty page.
The ink struck paper like blood in water spreading in an oily swirl so deep the page curled. At first, the black cloud pooled and then stretched, spreading across the paper like loose cobwebs. Then, the ink rose and formed pyramids in a vast desert. You can feel the sand when you run your hand across the page, like so many grains of rice sticking between your fingers and toes. Soon, Booker began to sweat from the heat of the desert sun as his home shook from an earsplitting buzz. Finally, the painting became shrouded in a vast hoard of locusts blanketing the pyramids and stripping the wheat fields. As the mirrors shattered and windows blew out, Booker tossed a blanket over the top of the painting, and then all went silent.
He sold the vast desert at auction for ten gold pieces.
Look at the smile on his face as he orders his tenth round at the drunken tuna. Can you see Brea hiding in the shadows?
“Please don’t leave me.” She says with a whimper.
Turn the clocks ahead a few more days and another drop of blood.
This time the ink ripples and splashes across the page, dotting the sky with a pale moon. Then, a young girl takes form curtsying in a cool spring with tears in her eyes. Crash! From the deep comes a terrible serpent with bat-like wings, fishes scales, and two long white whiskers that flick like cattails. Between its long talons is a length of pure fabric, and within each stitch is woven great hunger. Booker felt it now, that pit in his stomach, that longing for so much more.
He sold the girl and the dragon for twenty gold pieces.
Look at the smile on his face as he rents room 152, running his fingers across the red woman’s thigh.
Mr. Woodthrope was much too greedy now. When next the sun rose over the hill, he split his finger wide before waking his escort.
“Two drops ought to do.” So he said to himself, holding his finger just above the inkwell.
Now the ink spreads like butter over bread, forming an old wooden beam and a long thick rope. Listen to the strain of each fiber ready to snap as something heavy sways in the breeze. Then forms the woman with the broken neck, her toes sliding across the wooden floor from left to right. Booker recognized her graying black hair, the wrinkles upon her cheeks, and the dark circle on her finger where a wedding band once fit.
He ran from room 152 and down windflower lane until he burst through the door of his modest kitchen home. Mr. Woodthrope was too late, of course. Brea was already gone, the chair tipped to one side. Dropping to his knees, he wept while the inkwell rolled from his hands and spilled onto the floor.
Listen close, child. Do you hear that low growl, that guttural moan? The ink acquired a taste that day when it slipped through the hole in Booker’s sock. Those yet old enough still remember the screams; no child could ever forget on that cold winter’s day.
No one ever saw Mr. Windthrope again; only a topped inkwell beneath the dead woman’s feet. His paintings, though, will live on in legend. The girl and the dragon sit in a queen’s menagerie, and a great desert hangs from the halls of the grand duke’s palace. So, what of the lady in despair? She was sold by a whore for ten thousand gold pieces.
Though the house is long gone, and the brushes are dust, you can still find the inkwell here in the Crescent Moon’s safekeeping. Hold the bottle close to your ear now. The glass is cold to the touch and feels like sandpaper. Listen close, do you hear that gurgle and growl? The ink is still hungry, child,
and will never run dry.