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Everything Burns

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He dipped the brush into the jar of pearly paste, and when the bristles were well coated, lifted it to his face. Watching in the mirror propped on the desk before him, he painted a thick stripe up his right cheek, following the prominent ridge of his cheekbone and curving up along his temple. The flame inside his lantern flickered, making the white line seem to slither and coil across his skin, and he judged it to be too transparent, needing another layer at least to achieve the desired effect. His hand was perfectly steady as he dipped the brush back in the jar.

The odors of bismuth and starch, of wax and rectified spirit, stung in his nostrils as he moved the brush beneath his nose, but Stanley drew a deeper breath, the sharp stabbing sensation turning to pain as it forked up into his sinuses. As his chin vanished beneath a wash of white paste, a little hiccup of sound erupted from between his lips, so long unheard it almost startled him.

They had agreed to coordinate their costumes - he, Peddie, and McDonald - and yet among the four expedition surgeons, there was only one clown, and he would come to carnivale dressed as himself: a mincing, simpering fool; an interfering little busybody, stuttering and stammering his way into matters far above both his rank and his intelligence. And yet this true clown, this harlequin of histrionics, this Pagliacci of panic, had discerned what Stanley had not, had ferreted out what Stanley had failed even to look for.

The irony. Abrupt and grating, belching out like a bloody cough before it could be suppressed, his laugh fogged over the mirror before dissipating into the air over his head. And yet, hard on its heels, another one bubbled up, a longer, louder one. It pulled at the corners of his mouth as it birthed itself, jerking up his lips: a spasm, a seizure, the last convulsions of a man shot in the chest, ball tearing arteries from muscle, heart exploding.

It was horrible.

He couldn’t stop laughing.

He’d felt it in that moment, the something snapping, splintering. Goodsir’s voice had entered his ear, run along a nerve like the poison he spoke of, blackening the tissue it traced, crumbling like ash in its wake; burrowing deep like a worm, tunneling, a spiky caterpillar, devouring, devouring, feeding maggot-like off his brain, a canker in the bud.

A pit in the pudding.

McDonald had, ridiculously, referred to it as a cathedral; well, if it was, a beam had broken, a weight-bearing wall buckled halfway down its length, and the whole edifice was collapsing: raining plaster and tile and seraphim wings, stained glass shattered sharp as knife blades, carrying the organ from the choir, its crushed pipes giving a groaning death knell that echoed, echoed, echoed in his head. All that remained standing was the belfry, filled with bats, a cracked, discordant bell filling its space with the call to Hell’s vespers.

I will do. You will not.

The clown had done quite enough. He had poked and prodded what he should have left sleeping, dug from the dirt what should never have seen the light. Better they’d been left with the balm of ignorance; better the fetters left upon their eyes. Now Stanley’s vision penetrated the distance, all bleakness and despair, and he laughed, the sound tearing out his tonsils, scraping the back of his throat like the flesh of a pumpkin, pricking the corners of his eyes with lead-tipped needles. The tins were killing them. The tins meant to keep them alive were slowly, insidiously poisoning them; not nourishing them, but rotting them, inside out.

The perils of the journey: ice, cold, scurvy, consumption, misadventure, drowning, exposure, ravenous creature, and dinner.

It was the best joke he’d ever heard.

The brush swept across the high dome of his brow, skin turning as white as the teeth exposed by his laughter. If the creature ate the men who ate the poison that the Victualing Board had purchased at low bid, then could it be said that the Victualing Board had killed the creature, though neither had been aware that the other existed?

He doubled over, wheezing at the hilarity of his conceit.

But if the men ate the creature who ate the Victualling Board, what then?

His thoughts were - what had that fool Collins said? Flurried.

Setting the brush down, Stanley picked up his pipe, tamping down the bundled tobacco inside the bowl with a white-stained thumb. For many months he’d given up the habit, having a theory that smoking was making it harder for him to sleep, but sleep was not a problem now; sleep was coming at a steady run, with claws extended. Tearing a page at random from his journal, he rolled and flattened it, then dipped it into his lantern, catching the edge of the flame and waiting until the end of the paper was set alight. The little fire gyrated, its orange tongues twisting and bobbing like the fan dancers he’d seen once in China, swirls of color and light: slender, nubile, dizzying. Now Stanley watched the fire, mesmerized by the light stabbing into his eyes, until almost half the length of paper had disintegrated in his grasp. Flame touched bowl, tobacco was kindled, and he shook the fire out, no less fascinated by how quickly it disappeared, yielding itself to oblivion with a pathetic wisp of smoke.

I will do. You will not.

Stanley used the index finger of his free hand to dip into a smaller jar of rogue, drawing a circle upon the white plane of his cheek. Round and round, round and round and round, Charybdis in his skin, red ring around the rosy, falling down,

down,

down

into the void.

It was too much; he took up the brush again, heavy with paste, and swirled it over the red, leaving a vague pink smear beneath the white: the blush of an English rose or lividity in a fresh cadaver’s face.

The twist of paper, tossed upon the desk, unrolled itself, exposing to his sight the blackened edge of his daughter’s portrait, rendered just that day in careful pencil strokes, burned half away, crisp and crumbling.

Paper to ash, flame to smoke.

Paper to ash, flame to smoke. Brains to mush, flesh to decay, ships to driftwood, men to bones.

Paper to ash, flame to smoke. A flash of brilliance, a searing tear of the physical bonds, and then…

Poof.

All gone.

“Poof,” Stanley murmured to his reflection, his face collapsing in upon itself as the laughter seized and shook him, squeezing shut his eyes, stretching his lips wide over his teeth.

A memory split open his head: the parlor, his wife with her needlework, his daughter playing with a doll on the hearth rug. Something she’d done or said had made him smile, sparsely-used muscles aching in his cheeks.

“You don’t smile enough, Stephen,” his wife had said.

“Am I not smiling now?”

“Yes,” she’d replied, her voice sorrowful, “but it never reaches your eyes.”

Leaning forward, he studied himself closely in the mirror: the white paste coating his face, the undertones of smeared rouge, the natural shadowed hollows of sockets and brow. Across the surface of his eyes the reflected gleam of his lantern sprang up like a conflagration, a blooming flower, a bonfire purging the darkness, drawing disembodied spirits to circle like free-wheeling moths.

I will do.

It was easy, fire: it was warm and bright; it was cleansing, sin-effacing, putrefaction-preventing; best of all, it was quick. Quick as a rabbit, run, run; quick as a mad March hare, mating with the moon, conceiving an abomination.

His daughter would burn someday: with love; with madness, maybe; his wife would burn, with unanswered questions about his absence, with thwarted passion withering into widowhood. But he would burn in truth: bones crackling like logs in the grate, save his skull which would remain, bleached white beneath flecks of charred flesh, lipless teeth bared, always smiling, an unending grin.

He was no scaramouche, no mime. He was a jester of old: they were the most menacing, the sly power behind thrones, toppling kings and burning down courts; he was the foul card in the game, and he would deal them a hand they would never expect, the final hand, paired with spades: four spades and he, the joker, digging a communal grave, filling the pot to overflowing with their just desserts; and that was the best part of the joke, the really brilliant part, he would give them the peace they all deserved, all of them - even Goodsir - an end to this suffering, to the ache behind their eyeballs and the off-key music ringing in their heads and the whole long, painful, pointless struggle; all of it, all of them, given silence and rest and peace.

And now his laughter, the tapestry beneath his thoughts - having reached a peak at the denouement of his joke - began to plummet, changing in tone and cadence, growing blubbery and wet, and tears rolled like fat raindrops, cutting chasms in the white canvas of his face.

I will.

“Step aside, Mr. Goodsir,” he intoned, mastering himself, forgoing the brush and dipping his fingers into the jar of pearl paste, smearing great gobs of the stuff onto his cheeks to repair the streaks. “You are the clown, I am the doctor. And I have the prescription for this malady.”

Whistling along with the clang of the broken bell in his mind, Stanley fastened the ruffled collar around his neck, put on his greatcoat and his hat, cast a final look in the mirror where his face gleamed, waxen and corpse-white, in the lantern light. Then he turned in a circle, moved his feet as he would in a quadrille, bowed to his phantom partner, and pirouetted as he went out the door.