by Rune Cutter
A tribute to Robert Chambers, possibly my very best writing
| He looked out with boredom on the tableau before him.
A thousand naked slaves, of exceeding beauty and purest alabaster skin, flayed one another with wire whips. They painted the white marble floor red with splashes like oriental penmanship.
A yawn escaped his throat, and he willed himself elsewhere. Hoarfrost flakes floated on the air like a million frozen fireflies drifting on the icy wind. The courtiers were gone, and he was alone with his old friend, Nothingness. The golden pillars of his court, crazed with frigid rime that stood out from every surface like feathers of some icy bird. Swirls of snow so cold it smoked, danced from his path as he rose from his throne and strode across the gold veined marble.
For amusement, he willed one of the courtiers to be with him. She screamed; her voice shrill already, rose to an even higher pitch as the air froze her vocal cords and then her lungs. In slow motion she fell, shattering into crystalline dust that danced with the icy flotsam of frost that lay like snow on the floor.
His fingers like iron spikes rang against the pillars as he passed them. Air condensed on the surfaces around him and ran in a thousand rivulets of mercury. They splattered and spilled across the floor, silvered beads that sought one another and became mirrored pools.
There must be something. . . .some little thing. . . .to break the tedium. . . .some distraction. . . .some morsel that he had not tasted. . . some sensation he had not felt. . . somewhere that he had not been. . . . there must be something. . . .Mustn't there be?
An infinite number of possibilities reflected from between the pillars like memories of silvered glass, and from every one of those he looked back at himself, had always looked back, would always look back.
A feast of every flavor. An orgy of every sensation. An existence of a million possibilities, all realized at once.
His only distractions were those who evoked him, they who sought power which he gladly granted, so he could watch as they rotted from their own vices. In the end, he would amuse himself by flicking little bits of rotted flesh from their bones and contemplating the yellow fungus’ that turned their flesh to fetid liquid.
Such it is, such it was, such it would always be, tattered saffron accouterments, blowing in a fell wind amongst age worn ruins without names..
Icon of decadence, embodiment of decay, The King in Yellow.
* * *
Casilda walked following her white calfskin boots, not noticing as the cobblestones changed from wear polished to encrusted and ignored. She was lost in her thoughts of dances and socials when something made her look to her left.
A window framed in baroque molding looked in on shelves and piles of books. The glass which was somehow tinted gold had faded to a dusty yellow haze. Her hair styled high on her head, reflected and transformed into a diadem of twisted loops and spires. Her face reflected as aged ivory with wells of deepest black for eyes.
“How splendid! They have made a carnival mirror into a window” she cried and pulled open the weathered door. She didn’t see her reflection turn to watch her enter.
The shop smelled of leather and a thousand exotic spices more fragrant than any perfume or tea shop. A little man dressed in white with a yellow turban regarded her with black eyes that shined like glass. He said nothing but gestured with the bamboo-stemmed pipe to the books that surrounded him.
The door closed behind Casilda and the noise of the street; its passing carriages muted to nothing. The only sound was the rhythmic pop and hiss as the little man drew in on the pipe. The ember from whatever was burning caused his eyes to reflect back smoldering red as the coal blazed hotter from his intake.
There were shelves of papyrus scrolls painted with crushed precious gems and powdered gold. Rolls of vellum and cloth; covered with the crabbed writings of monks, centuries dead. Grimoires with covers tooled from reptilian hides, fitted with silver hinges and clasps.
The small book was out of place. Its binding yellow cloth bound to wood with no title or words. On the cover, a woman dressed in the style of a hundred years ago stood as if talking to a strangely thin figure dressed in tattered robes and wearing the mask of a skull. It was all done in shades of yellow that made her eyes blur.
Rays of sunshine cut through dancing dust motes and streams of sickly sweet smoke as she opened the threadbare cover. It reeked of mold dried but lingering, like a dead rat in the attic. Her hand came away feeling filthy, but there was nothing to mark why.
It is just a simple book Cassilda you are acting like a child, open it and read further.
"Blackened Moon set in lavender answers blackened sun.
Dance on the shore of Hastur, and on golden sand run."
The verse was a simple one and not clever at all, but the words haunted her and dragged her eyes back to the dry parchment with its strangely familiar pore marks.
What thin parchment, what animal could have been used to allow the pages to be stretched so thin?.
She turned the book to near the cover, hating the chalk dust feel it gave her.
No date. No author. Nothing except the title, "The King in Yellow", what a silly name for a silly book.
She smiled to herself and opened the book again.
"Fetid are the trees grown, diseased and near end of life.
Grown fat on rotted things which walked in strife."
Casilda read the verse three times trying to make sense of it. Was this even poetry?
"Walk gently there amongst the ruins of what might be,
leaving your sign with pressed foot and ruined knee"
What was it about this book that drew her on, that pulled her thin like a stream of oil on cold water?
“With careless hand shatter mirror of ancient and lost lake,
drink deep for hungers sake, icy water but your thirst not slake.”
The words made no sense, but they made her see things differently. She dug silver coins from deep in her purse and pressed them into the little man’s hand. He didn’t even look at them but smiled with stained and rotted teeth, nodding his approval of her selection.
Casilda lost her breath as opium smoke and decay wafted across her. She ran with the book pulled tight to her chest. Though she no longer read, still the words of the poem came to her.
“Somber laugh and joyous tear, new love found and old one lost,
Unnamed ruins shine under black stars wake, in Caracos-a”
The words burned into her head, and she ran. She ran past the old shops, with jars of things on back lit shelves. She ran past the taverns and dens where louts leered at her from the gutters. She ran until her feet burned and the icy air of winter ripped into her lungs like frozen razors.
“Lay down on earth of unhealthy loam, neath visage of corrupted king,
Write in saffron tinted mold, while from depths the Hyades sing”
She had no thought left, nothing to fill the void of existence. No memories of happy youth. No wishes for the future. The poem filled her mind, but her near shattered heart found its way home.
“Leathern wing, its strong embrace, cold kiss without taste,
Coffin worm sing and twist of fate, soul lost in endless waste.”
Casilda came home like a dying pigeon which had flown too far. Her sister, Camilla, heard the single knock at the door and opened it to find her twin lying in the carpeted hall. Her last strength pressed the book into Camilla's hands as yellow smoke and shadows poured from her mouth.
In shock, Camilla opened the book that had been so important to her sister and read, . . .
* * *
The house sat forgotten surrounded by a city that had grown around the old edifice the way a tree grows around a rusted nail.
Bordered by a fence of twisted iron, the houses garden was choked with weeds. In places, the planted splendors of beautiful poisons fought the riotous advance of grass and wildflower, but the war was lost. Tendrils of verdant sward hid the fossil-filled pavers from any but the most speculative eye and in this day and age few slowed to speculate. A gazing ball sat upon a pedestal of carefully carved marble its azure depths clouded with cataracts of dust and moss, which ran down the spirals of its white stone support.
A giant willow creaked and moaned in the gentle wind, raking its bone like fingers over age glazed glass of the houses windows. Remnants of yellowed fall leaves spun lazily to the ground in heaped piles that struck back in one last defiant charge against the places return toward the untouched.
Just the other side of rust-streaked pickets the incessant click of shoes on the sidewalk but no one turns, no one looks into the boarded and shuttered windows. Like from the eyes of a vagrant child they look elsewhere, lest their gaze draw unwanted attention. To look, .to acknowledge is to recognize that there are things in life beyond what we desire. There are things which must be contrast to orderly existence, so that there can be brilliant and blazing life. But what is the opposite of the merry whistle with sun-warmed shoulders, what is it that stares through dust fogged frame and remembers bow and scrape of rampant indulgence.
Tattered robes of dingy yellow colored with pustulant dye, gently sway in a breeze that meanders its way between time warped frames and stirs motes of dust into dancing between pools of shadowed pitch. The King wills himself into existence.
Depth blacked eyes gleam with infinite memories of finement beset couples whose bodies swirled in an endless dance. The graceful twine of lithesome limb and maddened caper of bestial delight, the specters dance on behind lidless eyes.
Wicked indulgent taste of forbidden flavor, cut crystal pressed to sanguine lips. Moldering savory sinuousness glide down the throat like chocolate covered shards of glass. Gone, all gone.
No more the sweet corpse-scented smoke from an exotic hooka, no more the maggot writhing cheese or floating islands of furred green on rich, thick flavored wine.
The stairs creak now with only the memory of giggling twos and threes who climb to darkened rooms of velvets and satins. Pillared beds, now only rat tunneled hulks of writhing passion. Penile mushrooms thrust deep into moss-grown mound.
Innocence stares bold at time twisted manor and asks ‘what was there?’, but age jaded eyes will not look ‘there’ , will not say ‘that is where we celebrated having everything by watching it rot’. The thin drawn soul will not say, ‘that is where all but me went’ will not say, ‘where we worshipped us’.
Only one comes to lay flowers upon dried bouquets at the foot of yellow throne and say, ‘I remember’. Camilla the twin, whose mind wanders strange halls, who took the book from her dying sister’s grasp.
Regal corruption draws tattered robes about itself and straightens its crown staring down with blinded eyes of benign malignancy and smiles a deaths head grin. His breath is the shrill rasping moans of millions of lost souls, its laugh the consumptive rattling cough of infinite opened veins. Ruler of all, monarch of nothing.
Shadows creep from the depths of shades and whisper to Camilla, ‘We were, we are, we will be, everything was, nothing is.
Grey bleached floor board of a thousand splinters, ageless, without change, a dolman of itself, to itself, sings to their retreating tread. She is only a visitor come late to the festival and picking her way between overturned cups and chipped plates. Nothing is so sad as the last to leave unless they be also the first to come.
Winter killed leaves, twist across the buried cobbles, sweep back the verdant sward and for a moment, the sound of a harpsichord muted with the passing of years. A thousand lords and ladies spin hand to hand and hip beneath the golden light of oil lamps while the corpse face god stares on, grinning his sepulcher smile.
Vermillion tresses and saffron trous
Proud print upon frozen ground
What is it that is old in the news
Lovely dance, round and round.
Iron gate never locked
shrieks open before dainty tread,
back to the living, away from the dead.
He presents her his arm and she takes it, courtier of corruption, fiancé of decay. He leads her across time, through space. She is the first who has not been extinguished. Her eyes shine feverishly bright and her smile matches his own fleshless mirth.
Camilla, who as a child, marveled at what no other could see. She who spoke in tongues that not even her twin could guess, now sat comfortably beside he who dances in the ruins.
Rex and Regina.