3LBE #11
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The Moon in Their Eyes

by Tim Curran

 

Alone.

Alone in the darkness. The night wrapped tight around him like a gray, motheaten shroud. Like a vast black and predatory serpent that had been slumbering away the daylight hours in some nitrous cellar or foul-smelling drainage ditch and now was awake. Yes, awake, sentient and malevolently ravenous, coiling about him, its spiraled length constricting city and country and world and maybe even the cold stars above.

Joachim Kostig, alone then in the womb of breathing night, stepped out of a slouching doorway framed by sooty brickwork and heard his shoes — so worn now — ring out over the damp cobblestones. He was unshaven, dressed in a shabby woolen coat which might have once hung from a banker’s well-fed frame, but now should’ve draped from a beggar on some desolate, desperate stretch of sidewalk. Joachim clutched a bulging flour sack to his breast, guarding it, watching over it as if it contained an infant. But it contained food. And in this city and these dire, godless times, food was worth more than mere life.

He thought: If I can make it home to Elena and the twins, if I can only smuggle it into our cramped, happy world and see their faces lighting like stars being born, then I could ask no more of God and nature and night.

Carefully, he tucked the sack into the folds of his coat with covetous fingers.

Yes, any who watched and hungered — and there were so many in these days of starvation and disease — would know he concealed something of worth. They would smell it, taste its good hungry scent on the air, take to his trail like hounds on a fox.

So Joachim practiced stealth. He moved as the wind does: in short, quick gusts, gathering himself in darkened boulevards and the grim shadows of moonlit buildings, then rushing forth again, aware and alive and secretive. His eyes beady and watchful, his nose filled with the damp night which was sharp and unpleasant around him — smelling of spices and memories, of apples rotted to cider beneath Autumn-dead trees, of leaves gathered in cold gutters, of clacking frost-kissed bones in bleak pits.

The city, this night, was as weary as Joachim Kostig. It was alive, but emaciated by gnawing emptiness, afflicted with urban disease that stripped the flesh from the concrete and mortar skeleton beneath. It had limped through world war and cold war and civil strife and stood alone in the enclosing blackness, buffeted by winds, fatigued by struggle, denuded by famine, but still standing, by God, still standing. Dead moon in a graveyard cosmos. Many of its buildings were shells gutted by bombs and never rebuilt. The rawboned corpses of homes and factories and businesses lie in tenebrous ruin, fleshed out by rubble and described by polluted mists that blew in from the icy river like lost souls. It was a hunting ground of the wicked and the desperate, the hungry and the insane, the needful and the criminal. Here, they were as plentiful as graveworms in moist, corrupted caskets.

Joachim paused.

They were coming. He could feel it within and without him. Like a rabbit in a wide killing field, he could feel the talons of the hawk approach. The crowd smelled what he had and their bellies ached for it and their throats thirsted for his demise, all motivated by diseased brains. Yes, feet running, pounding they came — men, women, children. They ringed around him like flames, hemmed him in, held him, pawed him, tore at him. Their faces were cardboard skulls pasted with flesh, their stomachs cavernous, their eyes those staring sightlessly from morgue slabs. Joachim held tight to his bag of treats as if it was his heart they wished to yank free, formed his body into a barrier of steel and cement. It was like being in a pen of blood-maddened fighting cocks. Squeals. Grunts. Wicked laughter. Chattering teeth. A sandstorm of famished humanity, blowing and shrieking and thundering. They beat him to the ground… and then they were gone. Their madness or his prayer sent them off. Never realizing he lay on a bounty of food, the crowd moved on, chased a slat-thin dog into the bony framework of a factory.

Safe now, Joachim found his feet still attached. Bruised, beaten, he ran off into the night, hid in the sinistral shadows of a ruined church, waiting, waiting. He wondered in what form invasion would show itself next.

Sucking in a low, sibilant breath, he started off again.

“Good evening, Joachim.”

Joachim felt a scream shatter in his throat as his eyes darted about madly, madly, seeing nothing but night and rubble. A wind picked up, making the bare trees rattle like dice in a cup, birthing long, jagged shadows that jumped and played, creeping and crawling. Then he saw a figure — tall, thin, windblown — standing beneath the overhang of a boarded-up distillery. A man, yes, a man, vomited from night, his coat flapping in the breeze like a flap atop a high pole. But there was something strange about this man. His form… it angled too much or perhaps not enough, seemed to sway like a narrow dead tree in a sucking mire.

Joachim looked, his flesh swept by lantern eyes.

“Who… who is there?”

The figure seemed phantasmal, spectral like dark mist that would disperse at any moment, leaving Joachim trembling, rubbing dream from his tired eyes.

The figure stepped forward, seemed solid. “Joachim? Surely, I haven’t frightened you! Do you not remember your old friend Emil Stanislav?”

Joachim felt his heart encased in crystals of January ice. Ice that held tight, clung to nerve and tissue like fungi to marble slabs. His breath was shallow in his throat, it frosted from his lips. For one impossible, demented moment he thought he could see the gutter ruin of a building through his old friend’s body. But no, he was solid enough. “Emil? Emil? But… no, it can’t be you… can it? They said… they said you died… that you wasted away in the state hospital…”

Stanislav laughed and there was something oddly unsettling about that laughter. Like the strangled, wretching bark of a sick dog as heard in the small hours of an October night. “Dead? Now, do I look so? Perhaps my soul has fallen to blight, but this body still moves.”

Joachim let out a long, controlled sigh. “Thank God you’re well, Emil.”

“What chance brings us together this night, Joachim?”

“I was… I have been working in the fields outside the city. I have not been home in six days. That is where I go now. To my wife, my children.”

“And in that bag you carry?”

Joachim did not want to admit to it; what he carried was life to his family. “Oh, my belongings.”

“You carry food, Joachim.”

“Yes.”

Stanislav clutched Joachim’s wrist with hands that were cold as a gravedigger’s shovel. But they were good hands, Joachim thought, callused by a life of honest work. Hands that were strong, were sure. Hands that had held babies and caressed lovers. The hands of a saint and a friend.

Stanislav’s eyes were dark now like the pathless wastes between dead stars. “I would not take food from the bellies of your loved ones. You know that. Blessed are the ones who can feed their kin in these dark days.”

Joachim looked in his old friend’s face, saw how moonlight gathered in hollows and pockets, glowed like swamp gas in draws and runs. He was very thin, wasted. But the eyes… yes, the eyes were filled with a rapture of life, a semblance of summer days. And in those eyes Joachim could see memories. Of the farm on the river Szava. Two boys who ran and played and shouted and jumped, always smelling of fresh-cut hay and crisp cornhusks, their bodies lean with the sinew of muscle and youth, their faces warm and welcome like an August sunset.

“These are not good times for us,” Stanislav told him, his voice ringing out like yellow metal on a forge. “Once we were full and fat and happy… and now? Like grapes on a vine, we wither in the name of the Republic, lean and hungry. You… you have no doubt heard stories? Tales? Whispers of strange things?”

Joachim had. But like fairies sprinkling stardust and witches stirring cauldrons, he paid them no mind. Bad and noisome odors, they persisted, pervaded, were given breath and walked now. Stories of foreboding death camps where political prisoners were worked to splintering skeletons, where the incarcerated fed on rats and each other. Of industrial body farms and gray stone rendering plants where the dead were drained of fat and ground-up for bone meal. Of the great, unknown plague vomited from some medieval hell that was sweeping the tired, hungry, and destitute into the grave, the great burning pits where their contaminated bodies were reduced to ash. Whispered tales of night-haunters, the undead, and those who had never been born. Other things, dark bits of whole cloth stitched into nameless, evil garments.

But Joachim would not wear them.

“Superstition,” he said and his voice echoed oddly into the night, like a moaning from a tomb. “When life is uncertain, cursed by disease and hunger and sudden death… people blame misfortune on spirits and bogeys.”

“How wise you are, my friend.”

Uneasy, Joachim said, “I must get home.” He swallowed back deserts and arid vistas. “But Emil… friend, you would walk with me?”

Stanislav was consumed in shadow, his mouth cut jagged in a pumpkin grin, his eyes sterile lunar wastes. “No, I cannot, dear friend. But it is dangerous to cross the city at night. Shrunken bellies and barren minds have created monsters in our mists. Ghouls that would prey on their brethren. You would walk carefully.”

“Yes.”

“Do you recall the underground rail?”

Joachim could remember it. Years ago, during the lunatic mockery of communist rule, an underground train was suggested. The tunnels dug, rails laid, but then funds dried up like dew in the glaring, heated light of reality.

Stanislav said, “Walk with me, Joachim. I will lead you to the terminal. Then beneath the streets you will go. Follow the main line across the city. Proceed to the end and avoid unknown chambers.”

So Joachim walked on and Stanislav accompanied him, two paces back, his footfalls silent as they trod over the crumbling cobblestone lane, its abundant carpet of rain-plastered leaves. Stanislav spoke in a fractured, sibilant voice of things long gone and hopes buried in dark graves. And why was it that his voice reminded Joachim of shadow-riven country churchyards and disturbed crypts? Of skeletal trees scratching at morose cloud-scummed skies? Of empty cradles and morbid dirges and creaking wrought-iron vault doors? And his eyes. Now, in the raining darkness, they shined with the eerie effulgence of moonstones.

Joachim did not want to know.

Somewhere, a woman sobbed and somewhere else a dog bayed mournfully. At the terminal, like the mouth of slag pit heaped with mystery, Joachim paused. He turned and Stanislav was gone. Like a cherished childhood memory, he had been blown away by time.

But a voice channeled through the wind: “Forgive me,” it said. “Forgive me.”

Swallowing, breathing, trembling, his head full of that dank river smell, Joachim slipped down into the darkness, into the echoing void of eternal blackness.

• • •

The tunnels, then.

Haunted by a cloying, palpable damp, they pressed in close. Cold brick and misting chill and stagnant breeze and the smell of places too long closed-up. Joachim could hear water dripping and things skittering in the walls and the frost-breath of subterranean worlds hugged him like a blanket stripped from a cadaver. He could hear other sounds, too. Like clawed feet on concrete, paws racing through puddles. Squeakings and chirrings and pipings. From time to time a baneful melody echoing from unknown depths. He was not alone and knew it. But whether his fellow night-stalkers were furred or pink-skinned, he could not guess. He could —

Listening.

Ten minutes that were seemingly ten long and claustrophobic days, or an eternity of wet years, Joachim listened. His ears and their auditory mechanisms perked now to preternatural sharpness, he could hear his blood filling rivers and streams. Air quietly inflating the balloons of his lungs. The steady, neutral hum of neural networks at full alert, awaiting orders.

His ears heard a sound, and his brain processed it. And did not like it.

Breathing.

A shallow, congested breathing somewhere close or eons away. But in that impenetrable, grainy blackness, Joachim could not be sure whether it was in front of him or behind. Fuzz coated his mouth and throat. There was a constricting tightness behind his eyes. That sound… unnatural, unsettling. It had a hollow sucking timber to it like someone breathing into a paper bag.

Keep going.

He could feel debris beneath his step. Rocks, crumbled brickwork, mortar, other things he could not guess. One hand pressed to the chill, sweating wall of the tunnel, he pushed on, refusing to listen, to hear, to acknowledge those sounds that played around him like ghosts — breathing, shuffling footfalls, echoing whispers.

Something like icy fingers brushed the back of his neck and he screamed, running again. Running and stumbling and pulling himself up and wishing to God he had not listened to Stanislav. He fell over a heap of bricks and came to rest in an ice-slicked puddle. Cold, shivering, he did not move. He did not dare to.

Footsteps.

Yes, coming his way now. Clop, clop, clop. They came on and brought a glacial air with them, a freezing stink like that of defrosting meat. When they were but a few feet away, they paused. Joachim could hear ragged, whistling respiration, something like teeth grinding together. There was a dull shine in the darkness as if of two eyes scanning the murk. With a smell now of powdery wrappings, dust, and worm-eaten coffin-linings, the footsteps moved off. Not forward or back, but off to the side. There must’ve been a passage there.

Fifteen minutes. Twenty.

Joachim still had not moved. He waited. The footfalls had long since vanished into silence. He stood up, approached the wall, searching for the passage for reasons even he wasn’t sure of. His fingers caressed bricks, the seams between, sheared through a netting of cobwebs. He had to see; he had to. Licking his lips with a tongue too large for his mouth, he struck a match, cupped its brilliance. Lurid, darting shadows jumped and lurked: his own. In the flickering orange light, he could see the scattered rubble. The body of a dead rat nearby. Pooled water, slime, filth. But before him, yes, directly before him, there was no passage.

Who or whatever had passed this way, they had departed through a solid wall.

The match fell from his fingers, ended its life with a hiss at his feet.

He thought: Some sort of auditory illusion, Joachim. No solid thing can walk through walls and you do not believe in ghosts.

He moved on, something in him trembling and pressed tight into a corner now.

Ahead… yes, he was certain of it now, a light, a yellowed illumination. He approached it warily, soon enough realizing that it was only the moonlight streaming in through a ventilation grating. Its luminescence was gossamer, the color of white lace. But it’s shape was odd and surreal, like filmy strands of ectoplasm, of some ethereal tissue trembling in the air. He walked into it, his face latticed from the grating overhead.

He could smell the streets, a stink of distant thunder and rain. The scant moonlight revealed other things he did not wish to see. To each side, the tunnel was crowded with human shapes. People sitting, backs against the walls. Long dead, they sat there, their hollow, cadaverous faces coveting the glow of the moon. Like beggars in the streets of some Arabic bazaar. They held skeletal hands, an emaciated lot that had starved en masse down here in the whispering shadows. Men, women, children, mummies from a catacomb with black holes for eyes. A man in a rotted suit clutched a prayer book. A woman, whose eyeless face was flaking away like the dry skin of an onion, held a baby whose bones had thrust through its flesh. It grinned up at him, a tiny puckered skull.

Joachim ran off, staying in the center of the tunnel, needing to be away from that lunatic embalming parlor, away from those staring, imploring, ruined faces.

A good distance away, he paused.

Behind him, a clutch of shadows entered the moonlight. Hunched, twisted forms, but small as children. They poured forth, dozens of them, insects from the mouth of a hive. And the sounds they made — high, reedy chatterings and shrill, echoing cries. Their distorted shadows washed through the tunnels in a black tide. Joachim ran off again, kept running until there was no breath in his lungs, until his chest ached and his heart strained. On his hands and knees, in that subterranean golgotha, he wept and begged of God for deliverance. And maybe he got his wish — for the sounds of those pursuing goblins had vanished now. Like a polluted river, they sluiced into a different branch, a different passage.

Safety for the flesh, but what of the mind? Would his sanity ever be a strong and vital thing again? Or would it forever be altered, breached, reduced to some boneless thing that quivered in a carnival jar?

Joachim rose to his tired feet.

A voice said: “Thank God, I thought I was alone.”

Joachim went white with fear, gray with dread. “Who is there?”

“My name is Myra,” the voice said, that of a teenage girl. She was whimpering now, crying. “I'm lost… can you lead me out of here?”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”

Her hand slid into his and he wondered how she could find it so easily when he was entirely blind in the gloom. He could see a vague shape, feel a cold, frail hand in his. The flesh was damp, icy like the belly of a deep-sea fish.

“Come,” he said. “We must go.”

They walked together for maybe fifteen minutes while she sobbed. Her scent was of dead flowers and rain on concrete. The smell of desperation, of despair, of hopelessness.

“Have you any food, mister?” she finally asked.

“I… no, only my few meager belongings.”

He could hear her teeth chattering. “I'm so cold… so hungry. I don’t remember the last time I ate anything. It seems months. Could it be that long?”

“No,” he assured her, his tone fatherly. “If you hadn’t eaten in months, you would be —”

“But it has been so long, so very long. My father… he ran a restaurant long before our world fell to ruin. I can remember the vegetables in steaming pots of butter. The juicy racks of lamb, smoked hams and fire-roasted joints of beef. The smell and feel of a kitchen that was well-stocked and working…”

She went on and Joachim was quite sure she was drooling.

They came to a gigantic heap of rubble that sealed the passage. But off in a side-burrow, light coming from the streets above. Hand in hand, they ran together. An exit. Up those damp, leave-covered steps and into the dank, secret night.

“Thank you, mister,” Myra said.

And then Joachim got a good look at her and he pulled his hand away, shielding his eyes from looking upon that deathmask, that fleshless face emaciated to bone. Yes, he saw good and full what he'd been holding hands with, saw the moon in her eyes.

• • •

The streets.

Pressed tightly like paint against ravaged storefronts and empty plate glass windows soaped with grime, Joachim saw bodies in the streets, starved things wrapped in rags. But he would not look upon them, would not see. He kept moving, refusing to remember who and what had held his hand in the tunnel. He was weak, he was tired, surely none of it had happened. He paused at a dress shop, starting when he saw the figures in the windows staring at him and then laughing silently as he realized they were but mannequins. Their dresses long since purloined. They were angular, dark forms, gaunt as anything that walked the streets this night.

Joachim swallowed.

He realized he was insane now, for as he slinked away, they turned and watched him, pushing lifeless wooden faces against the grimy glass, waxen fingertips tapping, tapping, tapping. Even wood and wax hungered this night.

Joachim ran through sepulchral neighborhoods of fallen buildings, empty houses, weed-choked yards and sprawled corpses. He came around a corner and a crowd waited for him. Small, hunched, evil, they clawed out with tiny white fingers and funereal clown-white faces of graveyard landscape. Human insects, buzzing and needing. He could feel their tomb-cold spread out, filling him with icebergs and snowstorms. And their eyes, dear God, their eyes. Phosphorescent globes of frozen, Autumnal moonlight.

And that’s how it was for Joachim Kostig.

As he ran, his mind began to create new systems of classification in its terror. Those who roamed in gangs stealing food, they were the First Level. The Second Level were the dying spread over the walks like dirty laundry. And the Third Level, yes, they had starved to death, but in death, still hungered.

It was demented, but it rang brightly with an element of truth.

He pushed on.

Running, hiding, screaming, whimpering, trapped in some charnel netherworld where the shadows were alive and hungry, where death puppets starved even after the grave, where ghosts prowled and wraiths called him by name, wanting what he had in his sack and the warmth in his body. The night was a blizzard of hollowed faces and predatory eyes, waiting like hyenas to move in on the first smell of a kill, the first heady taste of meat.

He saw things, images that remained even when he pressed his eyes shut. The gaunt, wasted forms… people, but not people… that crawled through the rubble, crept up the walls of buildings like spiders on threads. They howled from rooftops and drifted through the sky like threadbare clouds. They slithered from cisterns and fed on cadavers in black, vile slums. Yes, everywhere, stark, electric lunacy. And above that a full, bloated moon like a stripped desert skull and below, things with eyes suffused with a necrotic lunar glow.

A block from his home, Joachim wandered into a shimmering delta of mist that coalesced into a form with a peeled face of papery flesh. He saw flashbulb eyes, a body like a skeletal cabinet, a grinning mouth of carrion. The form drifted above him, caught in a cremated storm of bone dust and bits of cemetery fungi, wrapped in blowing, billowing cerements withered to spiderweb lace.

“Joachim, Joachim,” said that voice of blank graveyard dimensions. “Joachim… I hunger so… I starve… I starve, so very hungry…”

Joachim recognized the form of his mother, dead some seven months now. She floated towards him, whistling and shrieking as the wind blew through jagged rents in her winding sheet, her pipestem body. She moved and hissed and swooshed with the dead whisper of casket satin, the rush of black silk. Her hair was a blowing tornado of meadow grasses, her fingernails the length of yardsticks, blackened and corkscrewed. She danced and drifted in cold ribbons of moonlight.

Joachim ran off, thinking that even the dead were begging for a few crusts of bread in this empty, gray world of open mouths and growling bellies. By this point he was caught in some grim neutrality between laughter and tears and he couldn’t seem to remember where he'd come from or what he'd seen and maybe, maybe part of him did not want to. He stumbled up the sidewalk, avoiding those with outstretched hands and moons for eyes. He slammed into a woman and spilled them both to the concrete.

He recognized her. “Lydia? Lydia?” She was the wife of Emil Stanislav. “I saw your husband tonight, I —”

“You saw nothing but a vapor,” she told him, crossing herself. “My husband has been dead these many weeks.”

She trotted away, wrapped tight in her black clothes of mourning.

But Joachim did not care, did not care. Wind and leaves in his face, the skull moon leering from above, he found his building, the worn doorway, felt the wood flake beneath his fingertips. Madness still buzzing in his brain, something warm and hopeful moved in him, brought him somewhere he needed to be. An island in the raging sea of insanity. Then the door was closed like a cage and the voracious, pestilential beast was held at bay. Joachim at last, at last, found a silence that was not deadly, that did not reach and claw and hunger. Here, the shadows had no teeth.

He moved up the narrow stairway, each creaking step was a childhood melody lost and rediscovered. Home. He was home. And he still had the food, the bulging potato sack of sausages, breads, flour —

The door to his flat.

Oh, old lonesome, time-scarred door with its tarnished knob fingered by too many dirty hands. Joachim pressed the cup of one ear to the panel… inside a stillness as of lonely fields and vacant lanes. His skin pebbled, a spider played at the base of his spine. The door was locked. Good… or bad?

He knocked lightly. Asleep, they surely must all be asleep.

“Joachim?” a voice said, a voice of dust devils and waiting, of time suspended, of yellowed glass and patience. “Joachim? Is that you?”

It was Elena’s voice. Yes, weary. Yes, worried. Yes, fatigued, but surely never conquered. Not that. “Yes! Yes, open the door! Be quick!”

Hesitation. “Have… have you brought food?”

“A bag bursting with it!”

He could hear her coming now, a hissing rustle of shifts. The door was opened. Elena held a candle that flickered with yellow and orange shafts of brilliance. Knife-edged shadows rose up, a parade of magic lantern haunts. The glow consumed her face, threw hollows and worry ruts and sunken cheeks into pools of lampblack. “We have been starving, Joachim. But that you are home is enough.”

And then he was swallowed into the drafty throat of the flat and Elena’s bony hands directed him into his chair. More candles were lit, the air smelling of tallow and age and dark spaces. The twins issued from a doorway, swam in shadow. Jolana — fair and blue of eye — and Janos — swarthy with eyes like chips of wet coal.

Along with their mother, they were emaciated, ribs jutting forth like the rungs of ladders, cheekbones thrust from ashen complexions like knobby hills from blighted winter earth.

The children came to him and caressed him with thin, needle-fingers just as cold as icicles draped from January roofs. Their lips were flower petals pressed in mortuary books and their eyes, depthless catacombs.

Elena said, “Your friend came to see us, Joachim. You’re friend Emil Stanislav.”

But, crying now, Joachim already knew that as the children drifted over him and through him like living, breathing mists from tombs, as his wife moved in his direction, not walking, not stepping, but pushed along as if by some unseen current. Her skin was white and phosphorescent, her lips like withered roses, her eyes raging vortices of emerald light.

The potato sack forgotten, Joachim fed his family, and out in the streets tenebrous shades in the form of men, women, and children blew through the lanes like disease germs.

But Joachim did not see this. For he saw only those rising, glimmering full moons glowering from the red-rimmed sockets of his kin.

The moon.

The moon.

The moon in their eyes.

 

 

Tim Curran lives in Michigan, works in a factory by day, and writes by night. His tales have appeared inmost of the major small press magazines, as well as in anthologies such as Crime Spree, Weird Trails, and Strange War Tales. His novel, Skull Moon, a horror/western, will be published this fall by RFI West in e-book and trade paperback.


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ISSUE #11

September 2002

FICTION

ART