Actions

Work Header

Darkling I Listen

Work Text:

The clouds hung so low that the reporter couldn’t see the tops of the buildings. He turned the corner onto the street that matched the address on the card. He mostly had to guess. The buildings were new, but the street sign was old. The paint was peeling, and the sign was bent to one side as though it had been hit by a truck.

“And that’s not ominous at all, is it?” he remarked, flipping the card back into the folds of his coat. As though in answer, thunder rumbled above him. There was a lot a writer could say about a night like this, and he was, indeed, a writer. “Reporter invited to a street with no name, promptly vanished, never to be seen again. A bit long for a headline. Page sixteen, for certain.”

And, talking to himself, he searched the sidewalk numbers for the address in question. In the dark, it was hard to make out the brass numbers over the doors. The block was filled with ornate old stoops leading to fancy galleries, spaced by closed garages and gated shops. As the reporter peered through the large gallery windows he saw only empty space and darkened rooms. It was the sound of voices that alerted him to the sixth building on the row. A young couple ahead of him dashed up the steps and past the large fellow watching the door. He was all uniform: red velour and brass buttons. It was difficult to see his face beneath the rim of his cap. The reporter stepped up to the door and the meaty arm came down to stop him.

“Invitation only.”

The reporter showed him the card.

“That’s not an invitation,” said the door man. His tiny eyes glinted in the shadows where his face ought to have been. “You look lost.”

The reporter sighed and tucked the card back into his coat. He removed his glasses, folded them, and tucked those into his coat as well. After a moment, his body gave a decisive pop.

His coat fluttered down around his shoulders. He straightened to meet the doorman’s eyes. They were about the same height and, now, similar in width as well.

“Do I look lost now?” asked the reporter, waving a clawed hand.

“Second floor, and to the left,” said the doorman, dutiful. The reporter flowed past him, his coat flapping with each step.

Inside everything was stark whites and blacks, the very picture of an expensive urban art gallery. Up on the second floor and to the left, the reporter found a large set of rooms. A table with brochures, catalogues told him the name of the show sat at the entrance. ‘Second Sight’. The reporter shook his head .

“Would you like to see the catalogue?” asked the woman at the table. She wore a puffy green dress; her cheeks were a fetching purple. She showed him the book with her second set of arms.

The reporter shook his head. “I know the artist. Is she in?”

The woman’s bushy eyebrows shot up. “Well, of course. It’s the opening, isn’t it? C’s inside. The general viewing is until nine, and the talk will be at nine fifteen. Have you been invited?” There was a thread of suspicion in her hairy voice. The woman tapped the table with her third set of hands, but she was not made for conflict. She chose then to trust the judgement of the man at the door. “Take a tag on the stool ahead, would you?”

The reporter took one without looking at it. He rolled the catalogue up and shoved it into the pocket of his coat.

The work in the first room was about as grim as the title suggested. The reporter could already think of all the awful funerary puns that would fit very well into his review. The guests crowded this room, buzzing and growling excitedly as they stared at wall after wall of somber views of barren hills and leaden oceans. It was made more grim by the sculpture that took up the center of the room. It was a huge, wrought iron monstrosity thing, with four legs and five ‘arms’ that knotted somewhere close to the ceiling. It did not resemble any plausible being living or dead.

“And this is one of C’s?” the reporter asked the nearest admirer, loitering close to what he presumed to be the front of the sculpture.

The young man puffed out his impressive feathers in outrage at the idea. “No, of course not! This is the work of the gallery owner. Impressive. isn’t it?” He twisted his head from one side to the other so that he could appreciate the full scope of it.

“A sight indeed,” muttered the reporter, and moved on.

The next room, in his opinion, was more interesting, and even more ridiculous in subject matter. The paintings in this room seemed particularly occupied with colorful figures racing back and forth across the frames. They were every imaginable color available, not unlike many of the occupants of the room. The reporter found himself pausing to try and work out the tangle of figures. In one of them, they had gathered around what looked like a stark white line cut across the center of the canvas.

“The Lighthouse is a reoccurring theme in the artist’s work,” said a guest behind him. The voice had such knowledge and command the reporter turned despite himself.

A well-dressed fellow with a book, a mask, and no face behind it settled himself next to him in front of the painting in question. The book, the reporter noticed, was the collection catalogue. “A representation of knowledge, oversight, or perhaps of distant guidance. It is, of course, all open to interpretation. But it is said to be something often revisited, regardless of theme or intent. One wonders why that is?”

“It’s overdone,” said the reporter.

“And I see you’ve dressed for the occasion, Sir Keats,” said Belgae. One could not expressly make out a smile on his empty face, but there was no doubt it was there. “It is, as always, a pleasure to have your company.”

“Dressed?” Keats looked down at himself. “You mean dressed down. This is hardly a look I’d choose for a night out.”

“And yet you are among peers,” said Belgae, gesturing with the book across the room. “That is the beauty of these gatherings. You are seldom the oddest in the room. Although if you had walked in in your other guise, one might have glanced at you twice.”

“I suppose it is appropriate,” Keats flexed his right hand, eyeing the bandages that ran up to his elbow. “You know, it used to ache, this body. Could only hold it for a minute or two at a time.”

“Your mind’s rejection of certain truths, perhaps?”

“Meaning this is who I really am,” said Keats. “Funny how you never saw fit to mention. And funny seeing you again. Why are you here?”

Belgae flipped a page on the catalogue with a deft and unseen thumb. “I am a great appreciator of the arts.”

“And?”

“And I had a sense that I might find you here. You must forgive my presumption, Sir Keats, but I feel you’ve some hold on me. I owe you the utmost transparency in my actions.”

“That’s a bad joke.”

“Allow me one or two,” laughed the invisible man.

“And that doesn’t answer my question,” said Keats.

“Ah,” said Belgae. “You mean the metaphysical ‘why’. As a half-life who knows the truth of his existence.”

His voice dropped as he said it, but still a strange hush filled the room. One or two guests glanced up, fur stood on end, tails lashed, and pointed ears pricked -- but no one could quite identify the source of unease the crept through the room.

“It’s true,” admitted Belgae. “If one plays by the strict laws of our worlds, I should not be here. So why do I persist in my existence? The question is a bit personal, Sir Keats, but I suppose an answer is owed. It is the nature of the will that formed me that I linger beyond my expected time. Emotions are a complicated thing. It is the nature of the Guardian to see to it that the Messenger’s job is done. Dual purposes, one which I embody in spirit. In essence, I am here for the same reasons as you. Metaphysically speaking, of course.”

“Of course,” said Keats. “And just why do you think I’m here?”

“Why, as a fellow appreciator of the arts,” said Belgae as he nodded across the room. If it were possibly for an invisible man to look pointed, Belgae was certainly the man for the job. Keats found him following his gaze, where in the next gallery over a young lady stood by one of the larger murals.

“I’m here for a story,” said Keats, curtly.

“Do take care, Sir Keats,” said Belgae. Keats had already taken his leave.

 

She didn’t have pointed ears, or claws, or an extra head. The only thing perhaps slightly unusual about her was the silver cast to her hair. She wore it loose. It hung down the bared shoulders and stuck out against the back of her black cocktail dress. She held a full wineglass in her hand, full of a noxious green substance that she must have carried for half the evening without drinking.

She was explaining the painting to a group of rapt guests. “Children are the most interesting subjects,” she said. “Memories from childhood seem so distant sometimes. It is almost sometimes as though they creep up without your asking. I suppose that was what made me think of it.”

“Any specific memories in particular, Miss C?” asked Keats, over the heads of the listeners.

The listeners began to groan and complain at the interruption, but the artist only blinked. “Oh, ah. No one in particular. I really couldn’t say.”

“But if you had to, what would you say?” asked Keats.

“I’m sorry. If you’ll all excuse me,” said the artist, to her listeners. A half-life the approximate size of a toddler clacked his jaws and slouched away to fetch another drink. “I would say I honestly don’t know. I’m sorry, have we met? Mr...” Her eyes found the tag buttoned crookedly to his coat. “Harvey?”

“I’m with the press,” said Keats, “Unknown Realms. I’m very interested in your work.”

“Thank you,” said the artist, frowning.

“Long-time follower,” Keats explained. “We’re working on an article for our Arts and Leisure section.”

“For Unknown Realms?” Here a faint recognition flashed in the artist’s eyes. She tipped her head to one side. A faint smile touched her lips. There was something a little like a faerie in the way she took him in. “I didn’t think Unknown Realms had an Arts and Leisure section.”

“New department,” said Keats. “I have a few questions for you.”

She held her elbow and cast a wary glance around the room. “I...can’t say I will have many answers,” she said, swishing the glass. “But if it gets me away from the crowd a bit, I don’t mind.”

 

“You can’t have spent that much time in the galleries, if you found me so quickly,” said the artist, switching the lights on in the empty room. The canvases that hung from these walls were blank. The chairs were arranged in rows for the lecture that would be given later that night. “I like my work to speak for itself. If you’d like to do a review, it would have more to say than me.”

She turned to gaze at him over her shoulder with that same, sly tilt to her head. Keats pulled over a chair and held up his cassette. She looked nearly disappointed.

“I beg to differ,” said Keats. When she didn’t take the offered chair, he sat down himself. “I rather like a good old fashioned interview quite a lot more.”

C stared at him blankly, and then, after a moment, slid into the chair across from him. “You came for me,” she said. It wasn’t a question. She was absolutely certain he had.

“Of course,” said Keats, clicking ‘record’ on his cassette. “Mysterious artist, appears in one of the modern netherworlds. You’re quite the talk. I thought I’d see for myself what all the rumours were about. How long have you been interested in the faerie?”

“My whole life,” said C, crossing her hands on her lap. “I’ve always felt there was something off about the world around me, as though something were missing from it.”

“And what would that be?”

“Light,” said the artist. “Color. Magic, maybe. When I found the netherworld, I realized what it was.”

“So, it’s true you weren’t originally a denizen of this world.”

“No, I’m not,” admitted the artist. “A least, not the netherworld. I came on my own calling. I suppose I felt I belonged here better.”

“Among the half-lives?”

“One foot in this world, one foot in the other, yes.” Here the artist smiled up at him, a strange secretive smiled. “I thought they might want to see what I’ve seen. It was always my dream to be an artist. But things distracted me in the world in the world I was born into. So I searched for another.”

“And did you find it?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” She edged her chair a little closer, as though mindful of the recording abilities of his old equipment.

Keats flicked the top of it with a claw. “When you say ‘distractions’, what do you mean?”

Again, she frowned and leaned back again. “Oh. It seems so long ago now. I don’t think I could say.”

“Could you try?”

“Sad things. Loss. Death. I know here it’s understood that Death is simply a matter of passage, but for someone who is young, it seems...I suppose children see it differently than an adult would.”

“And you were a child when you first encountered the Netherworld?”

“I was a child when I first encountered death,” said the artist. She paused and cast a quick glance around the empty room, as though something had startled her. She then recrossed her legs and nodded. “And...the things that come after. It can all be so very muddled. I suppose I might have had an invitation, but it got lost for a very long time. I think-- I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question?”

“Any distractions these days?” asked Keats.

“That isn’t what you asked before,” said the artist, knowingly. “But, yes. You. You’re a half-life, aren’t you?”

Keats held up one clawed hand. “I look the part, don’t I?”

“You don’t act it,” said C. “You’re much too matter of fact, for one. Speaking of distractions, half-lives like those. It’s how they go on. You like getting straight to the point. I feel I ought to know you, for that. I’d remember. Do I know you?”

“I’m a bit of a special case,” said Keats. “My distractions are unusual by half-life standards. I enjoy a good explanation.”

“That’s a terrible hobby for you,” noted the artist. “It’ll be the end of you, for sure.”

“Other people’s explanations,” added Keats, with a somewhat crooked grin. “You might say I’m a bit new at what it is I do. As mentioned, we’ve never had an Arts and Leisure Section before. They say that there’s some truth in the work that you do, so I came in search of an explanation. What is that you’re trying to have other’s see?”

“The space between worlds,” said C.“Between life and death. And why it’s so important that it’s there.”

“And why is that?”

“So we know the importance of the things we’ve got,” said the artist. “And the things that we lose, too. It’s better not to forget.”

“Forget what?”

“I just said...” but the artist stopped. “And there you go, distracting me again! I know you’re doing this on purpose. Honestly, if you came for me you can just say. And if you’d like to kiss me I’ll let you. I know how these things work.”

Keats blinked. C steepled her fingers under her chin. There was something so innocent about the gesture he might have laughed. He settled for shutting off the cassette. “A kiss, is it?”

“Yes,” said C. “And best be quick about it if you any real answers from me. My lecture’s in a few minutes after all.”

Keats shook his head. “A kiss to break the spell? A bit old-fashioned, don’t you think?” he said, to no one in particular. “But all right. If those are the terms. I give you a kiss; you give me a real answer.”

C beamed. “Fair’s fair.”

Keats shook his head. His chair creaked against the hardwood floor. “Fair’s fair,” he echoed, and bent his head down. His snow-white hair slanted between them with a faint rustle. Like a child who’d waited a good long time for her prince, the artist C tipped her head to meet him.

A breath away from her mouth he asked: “And what does ‘C’ stand for?”

A reporter always saved the most pointed questions for the end of the interview.

“Oh,” she answered automatically. “Cecilia, of course.”

 

The back legs of her chair fell back hard against the floorboards.

Keats.” Ellen’s hands flew to her mouth. She was still in the cocktail dress, and was suddenly all to aware of that fact, her hands flew to rearrange the rather high hemline into something closer to decent. She gave up on the hem and settled for covering her neckline. It had a bit of a plunge. “Keats. How long have I been here?”

Keats gave a quick glance at the catalogue he’d shoved into his dangling coat. The name of the artist and the painting on the cover of it had gone quite blank. He paged through it. “A day or two by my reckoning. Jimmy came in talking about your gallery opening. That was the first hint I had that something had gone a bit awry.”

Ellen looked nearly relieved as she stumbled to her feet. After a moment or two, she eased her arms down and turned to look around the room. The canvases were no longer blank, but they didn’t resemble any of the art in the catalogue. “Just days? Oh, at least there’s that. I thought I’d been here for years. I thought I’d been here my whole life. I thought I was Cecilia, too. Ohh, Keats! You might’ve said! Here I was looking for Helena’s father, and instead I go and get myself caught up here myself.”

Keats tucked the cassette back into his jacket and stood, giving his neck a crack. The walls were beginning to murmur now. Down below, he could hear the sound of conversation come to a tinkling halt. “Would that I could,” said Keats, taking careful measure at the way the canvas’ began to stretch along the walls. “But it went against the rules of this Netherworld. Been trying for the last day to land an interview with our brilliant young artist before the Folklore chased me out. You’re no easy exposé.”

Ellen’s cheeks went hot. Yes, he had been trying to interview. And she’d spent that last day trying to... it didn’t bear thinking about. She gave the cocktail dress one final confused tug and shifted into the Cloak of the Midnight Sun. She flicked the lapels of her white jacket, grateful for the better warmth. She looked up. “The Folklore? You’ve seen it?“

“Yes,” said Keats, as the walls began to shake. Down below, one could hear the sound of a wrought iron monstrosity pulling its legs from its stand. He held the catalogue out to her. He’d bent it on the right page: the image of a roaring sculpture, being confronted by some angry folk from Warcadia. “Couldn’t really miss it.”

 

The tremor in his hands had grown so bad he could barely hold the brush anymore. He wrapped bandages around them until he could barely hold his wrist. It didn’t matter. He would get it done. One of the pains hit him so hard that the brush jumped and smeared across the whole upper right corner. That was a day’s work, ruined. With what strength he had, he turned over his paints. They fell with a crash. Upstairs, the lights switched on. He’d woken Helena. She’d moved in with him after the treatment started. He’d never disliked that fact more than in that moment.

“Father?” she called. “Father, you’re not working are you?”

“Never mind that,” he called. “It’s fine.”

“The doctor said you need rest.”

“Never mind that,” he called through his teeth.

 

The picture looked nothing like he pictured. He stood there in the studio. The studio was full of work he’d done when he was younger and healthier. Art that hung in modern museums, art that had been both loved and loathed by critics, work that had once sold for millions. Work that had clean lines, clear color themes, work that looked nothing like the half finished mess on the canvas in front of him. He’d stripped the canvas twice already; he was too tired to strip it again.

“What’s the use?” he asked the mess in front of him. It was all paint, wasn’t it? The hand holding the brush had gone gnarled and naked since the treatment had started. He wondered if anyone would remember his name when he was gone. He wondered if anyone remembered his name now.

“Father, are you coming?” called Helena. “Your appointment’s at ten.”

“What’s the use?” he asked. Helena came to help him out the door. They’d moved his bed to the studio on the first floor. He was too weak to climb the stairs without someone carrying him. He did not want to be carried.

 

It was Helena who found him. He wished it had been someone else. But the nurse didn’t come till two and her husband had taken the kids out for the day. Just as well, he didn’t want them finding him. He lay pinned beneath the canvas. He had meant to rip it to pieces. He had only succeeded in pulling it down on top of him.

He was fine, really. It was just that he couldn’t get back up.

“Father!” Helena ran to him. “Father, what happened?”

“Rubbish,” he’d wheezed. “Rubbish, all of it.”

 

The world got hazy after that. The nurse at the hospital pronounced his name wrong. He asked for another one. He got the same nurse. The lights were bright and hot when he could see them at all. He knew they would probably be the last thing he saw. It seemed so pathetic he could have cried, but the drugs kept him from doing much more than turn his head and groan.

Helena sat next to him. She held his hand in both of hers. That was when he knew he was going to die. She had already accepted he was going to die. She was trying to pretend for him that he would get better.

“I spoke with the gallery,” she said. “They want you for another show. When you finish that last painting...”

“I’m not finishing anything,” he’d groaned. “Helena, just burn it all. It’s no use.”

“You don’t mean that,” she said, though there was a quaver in her voice as she said it. “Your work is your life. As I said, when you’re feeling stronger, we’ll talk about the dates for the show, which pieces you want for the collection, if you’d like to contribute any quotes...”

“My life is over,” he said. “Burn it all. I hate it.”

“I love it,” said Helena. “It’s all right. We can talk about this later.”

 

They didn’t talk about it later. She left to get ice. He felt his vision swim. He heard the machines blare. The lights beat down hatefully into his eyes. Colors swirled everywhere. It looked like the mess of that last canvas, that last piece under his wasted hand, and all he could think about was how unfair it all was. All he could think...

All he could think....

 

“My father was an artist,” said Ellen, “Although I never knew him.”

“You might have been lucky for that,” said Harold Anselmann, he stood across from her in the gallery, expanding and contracting just slightly with the shiver of the Mnemosyne which formed him. “We’re not an easy bunch.”

“I think your daughter loves you very much,” said Ellen. “She told me she always felt like your biggest fan.”

“She was,” said the artist, looking around the room. The paintings had changed again. He saw clean lines, that grew more jagged as the years wore on. “She is. I didn’t really mean it. She was right. My work was my life. The only thing I hated was that it was over. I won’t deny her what’s left of it. It’s how I will go on, I suspect. Only one who needs to remember me is her. It’s not a bad way to be. Tell her that. Tell her not to burn it. Tell her to read the back of the last one. It’s all that she needs to know.”

“I will,” promised Ellen.

Harold Anselmann didn’t exactly smile--he was not that sort of man--but he gave a nod of grim satisfaction as the Mnemosyne burst with a great croak.

 

It said ‘For Lena, always.’

“Just where you said it would be,” said Helena Hart. She set the painting back on its easel. It wasn’t nearly so bad as Harold had made it out to be. His shaking hand had given it a strange sort of motion, as though it twitched with life. “You are exactly what you said you were. He really would want me to go on with the show, then?”

“I think you should,” said Ellen. “Your father knew you were your biggest fan. That’s why he wanted you to keep it.”

“He was so sad towards the end...” said Helena. “It’s odd. When someone you love is dying, you feel like you’re losing the person they once were. You forget all they were like before they were ill, because all you can think about it how much they’re hurting. How much you wish they could be better. When he died, all I could think was ‘oh well, at least he isn’t in pain anymore.’ But knowing that he knew this, seeing what he wrote.... I feel like he’s come back to me. I feel as though he’s really alive again. Harold Anselmann. My remarkable father. Thank you, Miss Reed. Mr. Keats. You’ve helped bring my father back to me. I must repay you.”

Ellen shook her head. “Oh really, Mrs. Hart. It isn’t necessary--”

“You must let me do something,” said Helena, advancing on her rather menacingly. “Really, I must insist.”

“--especially since it wouldn’t look very good for a corporate executive to have hired a medium, mm?” noted Keats. Helena froze, and turned a bright, shamed red.

Ellen blinked. “Oh, Mrs. Hart. I promise, I wouldn’t ever tell anyone--”

“Your an art collector yourself, aren’t you?” asked Keats.

“I...am,” said Helena, staring at him warily.

“How convenient, then. Ellen here,” said Keats, gesturing grandly. “Is a bit of an artist herself. Although I think you might have known that, considering you’re a friend of her professor.”

“Ah,” said Helena. “Very well. I would like to commission a piece for you, Miss Reed. It will be my daughter’s twelfth birthday in a few weeks. She is rather fond of horses.”

“I...think I could manage something,” said Ellen.

 

“Was that last part really necessary, Keats?”

The sun had just set when they had entered the large brownstone where the Hart family lived. As they walked down the stone steps, it was very and truly dark. Keats stepped just ahead of her, his shadow in the streetlamps stretched farther than it ought to.

“Your duty is to settle the affairs between the living and the dead,” noted Keats. “My duty appears to be making sure you eat.

“That isn’t expressly true, Keats,” said Ellen.

“True. We’re running short the issue and I need a bit more copy,” said Keats. “How’s this for a headline? ‘Famous Artist’s Daughter Honors Request From Beyond The Grave.’ Hm. No. That’s a bit much, isn’t it? Anyway, it wouldn’t be that much for you to take on a commission, would it? Don’t be surprised if she throws in a bit of a bonus for cost of labor.”

“I’d rather not get paid at all,” said Ellen.

“Think of it as assuring her peace of mind.”

“That will have to do,” said Ellen, with a sigh. She stared at her feet as they walked down the sidewalk. “And what a strange netherworld her father passed through! I thought he would head through the Endless Corridor. I...wasn’t expecting to get caught like that. What do you think that one represents?”

Keats peered idly through his glasses. “You’d be more the authority on that, I think.”

Ellen bit her lip. “Possibility,” she said, after a long time. “The potential to be. I guess...it’s for the dead who still have a dream they want to fulfill. That would explain why the half-lives were there. They’re...”

She remembered present company and trailed off.

Keats slid his glasses back on. “They’re unfulfilled beings who seek definition and relevance,” he said. “I was only looking for a story. I won’t speak for you.”

Ellen twisted the end of her braid around her fingers. “I suppose a part of me always wanted to be an artist like my father,” said Ellen. “Cecilia used to talk about it with Herve, how she would become a famous artist and he would become a famous writer. I suppose... that was her, getting her great dream. Her own gallery opening. And all of faery land’s come to see it.”

As for the rest....well, Ellen thought it best to leave it there for now. Keats said nothing. He walked ahead of her, shoulders slightly hunched. Ellen watched him for a long time.

“Keats,” asked Ellen. “Are you really going to write a review?”

“We are short this issue.”

“What did you think?” asked Ellen. “Of Cecilia’s collection?”

Keats stopped in the light of another streetlamp. His glasses flashed like a feral thing.

“It is against editorial policy of Unknown Realms to share an article before it goes to print,” recited Keats. “Although if you want my opinion? I thought it was all a bit overdone. Page sixteen material, certainly.”

“Ah,” said Ellen. She looked away. Keats was never one to mince words. “I suppose you’re right...”

Keats shoved his hands into his pockets and looked up at the night sky. “Personally? I much prefer the artist’s early work. It was really quite brilliant.”

Ellen looked up. “Keats,” she said, and she had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing.

“Though I might put it on page nine,” said Keats, who strolled on as though it wasn’t anything at all. “I don’t think better will turn up.”

“Oh, Keats,” said Ellen, shaking her head. She rushed to keep step with him, and as they turned out of the light of the streetlamps, she hooked her arm through his as they walked on into the dark.