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Heaven's Last Best Gift

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The adrenaline of violence had driven him far, so far that he did not know for how long he had been running. The sweat that covered his body had cooled to a shiver, but was it still the heat-sweat burned out by the fire or was it fresh from his exertions? He did not know that either, could not bring himself to wonder. The Creature merely stood where he had stopped, heaving breath, legs trembling, until his whole body commanded him to collapse. The action was such a great release that he could focus on nothing but his rapid heartbeat and the pleasant aching of his limbs.

He slept, and as he slept he dreamt. The comfort he had been waiting for without realising came to him in the form of his female self. He had been longing to see her again. The relief was so great that his mortal body jolted in response, digging itself into the hard earth. The Creature of the dream trod nothing but air. He could touch his beloved but he did not know what she felt like. The vision provided only a faint sense of pressure, so that he wanted to hurl forward into her incorporeal body until he met resistance, until he came up against something hard and real, skin, or just bones, softnesses, callouses, ridges, traces of hair, the same that he had examined on his own body. He had never wanted to do so much before. She was a being to be worshipped. He had been happy to touch lightly and look and adore. He found that it did not take courage to break a rule previously so sacrosanct, it was something quite different that moved him. Was this the same urge that had inspired Plutarch’s heroes? Bravery, it had been called, but there was no bravery. And when he came against her body there was nothing but heat, unbearable heat. He tasted the fire he had brought down on De Lacey’s home and it frightened him awake.

The sun was high in the heavens by this time, and of barely tolerable brightness for one who had been so deep in a dream just moments before. The Creature rose immediately. He found he did not wish to linger.

 

After walking a distance of some ten miles, the Creature began to see glimpses of a small town in the distance. He continued a little way towards it and eventually stopped in the woods just beyond its western border, considering the wisdom of venturing forth. He imagined the people. They would scream and beat him any way they could, of course. He had become so used to screams, in a way that proved he would never be immune to them. Like the beatings, the pain inflicted was always broadly similar. Agatha and Felix had screamed for such a long while, until they had stopped. It had been the silence, actually, that had finally driven the Creature away. At first his rage had made the world pin sharp but, like all strong emotions felt too long, it had decayed into blindness. He had not really known, in the last confusion of things, whether he was running towards the fire or from it.

There was no denying, however, that he was hungry. He would wait until nightfall and then see what he could find for sustenance.

 

As it happened, the Creature went into the town and stayed several weeks there. The first night he tested the streets. There were a few people loitering in the back alleys he moved through. Most were drunk, several were vagrants asleep in the doorways, none were able to take a good look at his face and none cared. He followed two dogs to the back of an inn, where slops had been left in a bucket by the back door. However, the dogs, upon seeing him, began to bark viciously and the Creature retreated before anyone came to investigate the noise. He did not eat that night. He slept in an unlocked coal cellar.

The next day, his hunger urged him out of the coal cellar before daylight had entirely vanished. He did not go back to the inn. For a while, he loitered in a narrow alley beside a bakery but it soon became clear that its workers would be toiling at the ovens for hours yet. In all the town, he found just one building where all the windows were dark. It was a grand house, unlike any he had come across before, able to contain the De Laceys' home four times over. It was a silence on the edge of an otherwise lively town for, although he did not know it, the household had moved across the Italian border to Lake Garda for the summer. It was of a structure that resembled the frontispiece of his oft-read Plutarch, an image that he had never imagined would be rendered, somewhere, in tangible form. It filled him with a dread akin to disgust. Was this the seat of the emperors? But then - hadn't he learnt that the emperors were all long dead? He hit the back of his head hard with the palm of his hand. He was stupid and wretched, mocked for his ignorance by every human creation. He threw himself against the door and hoped for it to give way under him. It was firm, so he found a stone to smash the window. Whether there was anyone inside or not, he was too desperate to mind.

 

Inside, the building was stranger still. At first the Creature was too distracted to notice. He sat on the floor beneath the forced window and licked at the cuts he’d taken from the broken glass. Something glimmered on the edge of his vision. He paid it no notice at first, he was too concerned with his wounds, but it winked again. Finally, he looked up to see the light of the moon catch on a teardrop of glass up above him. Except it was not one drop, he saw, but a cascade of them suspended in mid-air. In a burst of excitement, he leapt up and ran the length of the room. It was vast. As he ran, he could see another cloud of glass approach him, and then another. Of course, they were only vague shapes in the gloom of the hall, so he sprinted back to where he had entered and pulled open the curtains he found there. He greatly wanted to let in more light but he had sense enough to know not to risk being seen. The moonlight from the garden was enough to enchant the place back to life.

The Creature jumped from one long, bright shaft of moonlight to the other and spun around in amazement. Did men bring forests inside their homes? All along the length of the hall, at either side, there were columns, like tree trunks, but placed uniformly like chairs at a table. They were definitely not trees – their bark was too smooth and cold, as the Creature found by pressing his cheek against one. There were patterns, the Creature noticed, on the ceiling above, though it was hard to discern them. Possibly they were the twisting not-branches to these not-trees.

And then, most intriguing of all, there were the ghostly white swathed objects that populated the room. To the Creatures eyes, they looked like nothing so much as the cocoons De Lacey had pointed out to him on walks through the country. He approached them curiously. They had the form of furniture, but why they should be clothed so was a mystery. The Creature’s mind raced and filled his head with ridiculous pictures of chairs and tables breaking out of their shells and flying around the house. The Creature crowed with amusement.

His stomach, however, was still not satisfied. At its command, the Creature left the scene of his delight and went on to explore the rest of the house.

 

Some days later, the gossips of the town passed forth the news that an itinerant dancing instructor would be passing through on his way to Geneva. It was not long before a beneficent gentleman gathered together a group of young people and, having obtained through correspondence the permission of the owner, arranged a dancing lesson to take place in one of the grand house’s spacious halls. So it happened that, whilst the Creature was still sleeping in the room up above, a band of a dozen children and young ladies were herded through the corridors below him.

The Creature awoke to the sound of a cane rhythmically beating the polished floor.

Curiously and cautiously, the Creature edged his way downstairs. Gradually, new sounds became audible above the beat of the cane - chattering, giggling sounds, and then the soft, rapid thuds of slippered feet in a great hurry. He crept to the great double doors as quietly as he could and looked through the narrow gap between them.

The black lacquer cane was the first thing to arrest his eye. Up and down it went, bouncing against the wooden slats with a click. Several of the children were moving to its beat, lifting a foot or placing one, holding out an arm, stretching out for another’s hand. A few of the younger children were performing a dance of their own making to a tune that no one else heard, and yet more of them were chasing each other around the cocooned furniture pushed to the edges of the room. The Creature’s fascinated gaze returned to the instructor and his cane. The magic-maker was a very unassuming figure, the Creature realised with some disappointment. He tried to be otherwise (his red hair, for example, was not natural and his stockings had been padded out) but no one could deny he was a scrawny little man with a weak, reedy voice. There was a woman beside him who stood a head higher. She, too, was quite unassuming. Tall, thin, with a rather plain, pale face.

“Perhaps if you wanted to show the older girls first, I could keep the little ones occupied,” she was saying to the instructor.

He replied, in broken Swiss-German, “No, no, if you can herd them up I will teach them all together.”

The good lady did as she was asked and gathered everyone to the middle of the floor until only two strays were left. She made a display of chasing them, comically tripping over the hem of her dress, until one ran giggling to the rest of his playmates and the other was easily scooped up and deposited. She twirled the little boy around before setting him down. The Creature, from his vantage point, smothered an exclamation of mirth. It was very unsubtle clowning but there was something about the woman, something in her unstudied manner, that called out to the Creature and made him wish to know her.

The Creature watched the entire lesson. He shifted as quietly as he could whenever his legs began to ache or his back became stiff. No one noticed his presence for the entirety of the two hours.

Towards the end of this time, the lady, who had previously been a spectator only, joined in the dances herself. The dancing had been wonderful to the Creature. He had seen similar shows before, in the flight of migrating birds and other of nature’s incredible synchronised movements. He was more overjoyed than ever to see humans performing in the same way - but the pale lady was the most wondrous of all. She knew every step and carried out each as though the act was as simple as breathing to her and the rhythm as natural as her heart beat. When she finally ceased, the Creature watched the effect on her body, her chest expanding and contracting, her hands wringing, and, best of all, the look of joy so clearly displayed on her face.

The instructor, who had previously been quite disinterested in her, approached to say, “Mrs. Gallatin, you dance very well.”

She replied, blissfully, “I think I longed to dance even before I could walk.”

The Creature agreed, fervently. She had expressed a great truth, the importance of which struck him with force. He stepped back from the door; he did not trust himself to keep out of her sight.

“I believe I felt the same, only I never knew it till now,” he mouthed to her, willing her to know and not know what he was saying, “I danced, yes… I danced when the world was new.”

 

The Creature retreated before anyone came near his hiding place. He was not there to witness Mrs. Gallatin stop on her way out, arrested by a dark smudge of soot on one of the otherwise pristine dustsheets.

She called out to her charges, “Who brought in such dirt?”

There was no response, however, and when she looked again she noticed another mark that was unmistakeably an adult’s handprint.

 

Mrs. Gallatin did not mention her discovery to anybody else. Why should she have done so? It was all too convincing to assume that an unconscientious servant had left the stain whilst the house was being readied for its long rest. Her troupe were brought back to the house the next day and another attempt was made to school them in the civilised arts. The Creature, again, watched from the doorway, waiting for Mrs. Gallatin to dance. However, when she did so, one of the older girls (of about fifteen years) tugged at her sleeve and begged her to stop.

“It is not your lesson, mama,” the girl said.

This stopped Mrs. Gallatin abruptly and she turned almost as red faced as the girl.

The Creature was so disappointed that he left the lesson early. Upstairs, in the yellow room he had taken for his own, he tried to practice the steps he had seen. One foot placed in front the other, like so… gently! You are not an elephant! (What is, in any case, an elephant?) Don’t forget your arms. Forget what about your arms? They have to be graceful. They are as important as the feet. And your fingers too, every part of you must dance, right down to the tips of your fingers. Back straight. Chin up. Not that far up! Now the other foot…

The foot seemed about a thousand miles from any other part of the Creature, and as though he had to operate it from such a distance with nothing but a string to pull. It came down on its side, making him stagger like a new-born deer. Like he had staggered when he first stood.

He was about to throw himself against the floor in a sulk when he remembered that the guests were still downstairs. Instead, he took a pillow and threw it against the wall.

 

The Creature practiced for many days after that. He made a ritual of going down to watch the dancing lesson (even though, much to his sadness, Mrs. Gallatin kept to the side-lines like himself) before going upstairs to practice what he had seen.

At first he moved as clumsily as the children. He improved far more quickly than they did but, even so, he was frustrated by the lack of control he felt over his own body. It took concentration to move his limbs simultaneously, giving each equal attention. Movement was supposed to be natural – he had seen the true nature of it in Mrs. Gallatin. He wondered why she could move like the air, like he did in his dreams, whilst he struggled with every earthly motion. He was heartened when he saw his skill had outpaced that of the young ladies. But when he returned to dance in front of the long rococo mirror in the yellow room, he wished he did not have to look at himself. He no longer liked to sleep either. He dreamt with such clarity and frequency. Sometimes he would see the fire, sometimes he would see himself moving effortlessly, gracefully, through the woods and meadows of his infancy. Both tortured him.

 

The day came when it was time for the dancing master to continue his journey to Geneva. The children were to have one final lesson under his tutelage, after which there was to be a recital for the people of the town. This was to be arranged and supervised by Mrs. Gallatin, who happened to be the mother of three of the dancers.

The Creature, of course, knew nothing of these plans. He watched the lesson from his usual vantage point. He had become so confident in his own invisibility that he sat, cross-legged, just outside of the door. Every so often he would lean forward, squinting to see a perplexing, far-away movement, but in general he would rely on his long-realised talent for stillness.

In the hall, the dancing instructor was talking to Mrs. Gallatin as he tapped out his rhythm. The Creature strained to hear what was being said over the surrounding commotion. He liked to hear Mrs. Gallatin speak. She had a very sweet, tinkling voice which was apt to break into quiet little bursts of laughter when she was amused or nervous. This was often the case when she was exchanging words with the dancing instructor, as the gentleman tended to stand very close and would touch her arm whenever he made a point. He did not take any true interest in her, however, which seemed to be a source of great relief to the lady. He would always look distractedly past her during conversation. The Creature would often see the man’s reflection assessing itself in one of the mirrors beyond Mrs. Gallatin’s elbow. The Creature was assured that vanity was the consuming passion of this posing, preening Chauntecleer.

“Your eldest is very promising,” the dance instructor was saying, “When does she come out?”

“Oh, I do not expect it will be for a while yet. My husband and I thought we would wait until she is at least seventeen.”

“You might do well to employ someone to carry on her instruction,” the dance instructor continued, managing to lightly take Mrs. Gallatin’s hand whilst gazing somewhere to her side, “I think, though, that she would not be an embarrassment were you to introduce her now.”

“I am sure she wouldn't,” said Mrs. Gallatin with a little heat.

The dance instructor patted her hand and Mrs. Gallatin laughed her anxious little laugh. She frowned immediately following and hurriedly told him, “There is little enough society here. Why, now that you are going, I doubt we will see a dance again for many months.”

“Ah well, at least that cannot concern you. Your ballroom days are long over.”

Mrs. Gallatin laughed again and turned away.

With some alarm, the Creature realised that she had started to walk towards him. Towards the doorway, he reminded himself quickly. For a moment he could not move. He was arrested by her proximity. And the set of her face. He had not known to watch for a change but one had swiftly and subtly taken place. He could not even read the expression exactly, although he recognised it as a species of sadness. He wondered if there had been some meaning in the dancing instructor’s words that he had not been able to interpret. She had been denied something, he felt. She seemed always to be denied something. That was why every day she sat demurely and watched from a seat instead of joining in the dance as nature had so clearly intended her to. He moved into a crouch, holding tight to the door handle. He could open the door to meet her. If he opened the door and took her hand and led her away to dance with him…

He leapt up and ran. Perhaps she had seen him, perhaps not. He stumbled against the stairs in his haste to get away.

 

“What was that noise?”

Mrs. Gallatin turned back to the dancing instructor. She had been rather alarmed herself.

“Do the Tarbottis own a cat?” she asked the room at large.

The children looked one to the other.

“It sounded like someone’s in the house,” piped up one of the boys at last.

“Maybe a ghost!”

“Ghosts don’t clatter about like that, stupid.”

Mrs. Gallatin shushed them all. “It was definitely a cat,” she said, but she knew that she was not convincing anybody, least of all herself. She was thinking of the smudge of soot she had seen on the furniture more than two weeks previously.

There was a great noise from the floor above, as of something large and solid being thrown about. Two of the younger children began to cry.

“I will go and fetch your husband,” said the dancing instructor to Mrs. Gallatin.

 

Whilst the children were hurriedly shepherded out of the building and the town’s male inhabitants were called for, the Creature holed himself up in the yellow room and danced. He danced to the rhythm of his own making, formed by the violent stamps of his feet. His dance was wild, nothing at all like the dances he had learnt. He flung his arms madly, hunched his body as though in physical pain, kicked his feet. He had danced this way at the beginning of his life, when he had not known that he could dance in rage, self-hatred, bitterness, destruction. Amongst all he had learnt, there was still a purity in it that sustained him. He could still dance whilst the world was cruel. He danced as he heard the sound of many footsteps racing down the corridor towards him.

He didn't care.

Let them come.