The Final Descent
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She looked at me. And her eyes were blue and clear all the way down, like the lake high in the Socotran mountains into which I had plunged to wash away my contagion. I was nasu, unclean, and the icy water purified me. Yes! I thought. And herein lies our salvation.
“Leave me alone,” she said softly. “Go where you will, but leave me alone.” She freed herself from my arms. “You frighten me, Will. Oh, that isn’t right—I’m not going to say this correctly; I don’t know how to put it into words—but there is something missing. Something that should be there, that I think once was there, but isn’t anymore.”
“Missing?” I felt the blood rising in my cheeks. What was she talking about? I thought I knew. “I am not lying. I do love you.”
“Stop saying that,” she said sharply. “Run away if you want to, but don’t use me as your excuse.”
“I’m not running away, Lilly. I am running toward.”
I stepped forward; she stepped back. For a terrible moment I fought the urge to strike her.
“Please, Lilly, don’t turn me away. I could not bear it. I never told you this and I should have told you this and I don’t know why I never told you this, but your letters were the only things that kept me going. Your letters tied me down, kept me from flying away into nothing. Please, Lilly, please let me come with you. Let me prove to you that you’re not an excuse but the reason. There is nothing missing. I am whole. I am human.”
“Human?” She looked startled.
“He told me once that I was the one thing that kept him human, and I didn’t understand what he meant, but now I think I do: I bound him to the earth like you bind me. You bind me, Lilly—not in darkness, though, in light. Your uncle told me that it isn’t decided for us; it’s our choice, light or darkness. . . . Oh, it’s impossible to say exactly what I mean!”
I struck my fist into my open hand. The more I reached for her, the farther she pulled away. Why couldn’t I reach her?
“Ever since you told me, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind,” she confessed. “The little boy beneath the table . . .”
“Who?” It took me a moment to follow her. My frustration turned quickly to anger. “Oh. What does he have to do with anything?”
“You were going to kill him.”
“So? The point is I didn’t.”
“And why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know; I don’t remember now; it isn’t important.”
“You said it was Warthrop. Warthrop stopped you.”
I saw where she was going, and became angrier. “That was an accident. Anyone could have—”
“Yes, Will? Could have what?”
And the dark thing inside sprang free . . . uncoiled with enough force to break the world in half . . . and Lilly before me, lips slightly parted, and me pressing my hands hard against her cheeks, her skull as delicate as a bird’s, and in me the darkness, the abyss, the nullity, the crushing singularity, the unalloyed madness of my perfect sanity, and he had said it, the one who had ripped off the human face to expose the tragic farce beneath, for which he had earned the deliciously ironic sobriquet Ripper, he had said it: Your eyes have come open. You see in the dark places where others are afraid to look.
And the light coalesced like thick gelatin around her face. The light pressed in.
“Human,” I snarled. “I don’t know what that word means. Tell me, Lilly. Tell me what defines it. What sets it apart? Are you going to tell me it’s love? A crocodile will defend her brood to her death. Hope? The lion will stalk its prey for days. Faith? Who is to say what gods populate an orangutan’s imagination. We build? So do termites. We dream? House cats do that on the windowsill. I know what the truth is. I have seen it. Scratching in a jar. Squirming in a sack. Staring back at me from an amber eye. We live in a shabby edifice, Lilly, hastily erected over a span of ten thousand years, and we draw the flimsy curtain to hide the truth from ourselves.”
She weeps. Lilly weeps, pressed between my hands, her tears quivering upon her cheeks upraised by the pressure of my grip.
“So you see there is no need for anyone to keep me human, for there is nothing human in me to keep.”
I flung her away. She fell against the bed, sobbing. She screamed, “Get out!”
“I have the right to defend myself,” I gasped. I might have been a hundred fathoms down: The pressure was overwhelming; I could not find my breath. “That is the issue. The only one that matters.”
And then I met Mr. Faulk at Grand Central. I was late; he was right on time, a battered suitcase in one hand and a train ticket in the other.
“I was about to give up on you, Mr. Henry,” he said.
“I ran into a bit of trouble.”
I stepped close to him and he slipped the revolver into my hand. I dropped it into my coat pocket.
“Serious?” he asked.
“Oh! Very serious, then.” He smiled.
“How did it go with the police?”
“That detective, he’s a nice one. The same who was friends with Dr. von Helrung. They shot at me; I shot at them. They’re down; I’m up. Done the city a service, that’s the take. Not exactly what he said, but the gist.”
I nodded. “I see you’ve already purchased your ticket.”
“Never been to California—they say the weather’s nice.”
“What about Europe?” I pulled out my ticket. “The land of your ancestors.”
“Oh, now, that is tempting, Mr. Henry.” He pulled the ticket from my hand. “Steerage?”
“You can ask about an exchange. I’ll cover the difference.”
“Never been on a boat before. What if I get sick?”
“Salt crackers. I hear dancing helps as well.”
“Well, it’s up to you. It doesn’t leave until tomorrow.”
“But my train leaves in ten minutes. You want to swap?”
I shook my head. “I’m not going anywhere, Mr. Faulk.”
“You should think about it. The police know who I was acting for and they know the Camorristi aren’t going to be happy with any of you.”
“I have faced much worse than the Camorra, Mr. Faulk.”
He shrugged. “Can’t say the same for them, can we, Mr. Henry?”
We stood for a moment, smiling at each other.
“That girl,” he said. “You should take her with you.”
“You are a hopeless romantic, Mr. Faulk.”
“Oh, what’s it all worth without that, Mr. Henry?”
He tried to hand the ticket back to me. I shook my head. “Keep them both. If someone asks, I won’t know which direction you went.”
He stuffed the tickets into his pocket, picked up his battered suitcase, and melted into the crowd.
I had told him the truth: I wasn’t going anywhere. There was nowhere to go. Not back to the hotel. Not to Lilly’s. Not to von Helrung’s brownstone. Not to the Society. I had been cast adrift and, rudderless, let the human tide of the great city take me where it would.
I could not recall when last I had eaten anything, but I was not hungry. When had I slept? I was not tired. I bobbed along the late-evening crowd like an empty bottle floating in a vast and featureless sea.
Everything was perfect, down to this latest instance, until you butted your head where it didn’t belong.
Yes, Dr. Warthrop, and that raises the question as to where my head might belong.
I had a vague notion to return to the narrow street where the woman had called down to me. Perhaps if I lay with her I would not feel so rudderless and empty.
Even the most chaste of kisses . . .
And the Sibyl answered, I would die.
The light changed from yellow to crimson, and a dragon soared above paper lanterns of red and gold. The smell of fish and ginger and acrid smoke, and the staccato bursts of their mother tongue and the pure darkness of their eyes against the sallow skin: I had wandered into Chinatown.
The street was too crowded; I turned off at the first intersection I reached and left the garish light behind. A woman stepped out of a doorway.
“You come, yes? Come.”
She urged me into the doorway. Two young girls sat upon a wooden bench in the little vestibule. The girls were both American like the woman, though they were wearing red cheongsams embroidered with dragons. They stood up and came to me, each taking an arm. They were beautiful. I allowed them to lead me through a curtain into a dimly lit room heavy with smoke. My eyes watered; my stomach turned. I rolled upon a smoky, nauseating sea.
“What is this place?” I asked the girl clinging to my right arm.
I could not see any walls. The room seemed to stretch to infinity. I could make out vague, humanlike forms inclined on mattresses and cots or blanket-covered benches, dozens of them, some lying in pairs, but most alone, lolling like lotus-eaters, eyes roaming beneath fluttering lids. My thoughts would not hold: I felt them dissipate, half-formed, into the murky air.
The girls eased me down onto an empty mattress. It crackled beneath us, filled with straw.
“Opium,” I said to the girl sitting on my left. “Isn’t it?”
She smiled at me. Her face was delicate, her eyes large and dark. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Her companion—sister? They looked very much alike—removed a long, thin pipe from a nook in the wall and prepared the bowl.
“Would you like to try?” the girl asked.
Her sister was warming the bowl over an open flame. I watched her for a moment, and said, “What I would really like is something indescribably euphoric—orgasmic, for lack of a better word.”
“You will like it,” the girl answered. “What is your name?”
“Pellinore,” I answered.
Her sister pressed the pipe into my hand. The girl cupped my hand in hers and brought the stem to my mouth.
“Breathe hard and deep, Pellinore,” she murmured. “As deep as you can, and let it out slowly, very slowly, through your nose.”
“Don’t leave me,” I said.
I inhaled deeply. My stomach heaved in protest, but I held my breath as time stretched to the point of snapping, like a fishing line pulled too taut, and the girl’s face expanded, her dark eyes overwhelming my vision.
“It is irrevocable,” she said. “Like the fruit from Eden’s tree.”
And from my other side, her sister: “Once it’s tasted, there is no going back. More begets desire for more—and more, and more.”
“What would you?” the first sister asked.
“I would die,” I answered.
Her face had swollen to the size of the earth. Her pupils were as large as the continents. Her lips parted like tectonic plates splitting apart, revealing a chasm a hundred miles across and immeasurably deep.
“The most chaste of kisses,” she said, and her breath was sweet like the exhalations of spring.
“Lilly,” I said.
“Do not be chaste,” Lilly answered, and I kissed her. I tumbled through her atmosphere, infinitesimally small, and the heat of my entry scorched the skin from my bones and the bones from my marrow until I was no larger than a grain of sand, white-hot and falling, my corruption burned away in her unsullied ether.