3LBE #13
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Oddities

by April French

 

I had known from the first time that I met Remi Firestone, Ninth Earl of Grenbough, that he was a singularly peculiar man. I knew that he was descended from the infamous Daire Caliban, called Earl Highwayman, who was said to have played cards with the Devil. I knew that he was a folk curist and had been six times accused of witchcraft. I knew that he kept company with assassins and smugglers. I even knew that there were ghostly greyhounds in the gardens and a phantom spaniel in the unused nursery. But none of these circumstances bothered me half so much as the fact that Lord Firestone was a collector of so-called ‘mistakes of nature.’

And the fact that he kept peacocks to guard his property.

As my carriage approached the great shabby estate, my left leg started twitching. Judging from my past experiences at the old and moldy manor house, that was not a good sign. I have always been overly sensitive to the emotions of others, an empath in the truest sense of the word, and a physical response is usually the result. There was an excitement in the air, a very acrid and hyper excitement that was making my leg jerk as if it had been injected with caffeine. Knowing that it was eccentric and frantic Earl of Grenbough who was so inclined, I was — to say the least — nervous. After all, the last time I had been invited to see his latest acquisition, it had been for the opportunity of viewing the newest edition to the Earl’s collection of shrunken heads. I cared not that fully seventh-eighths of the population of this country of Alish was fascinated by the study of the macabre. Every time I stepped into his house, I was positive I would not step out again.

We drove past the yapping, squawking peacocks that Firestone insisted were ten times more efficient than guard dogs, and up the long drive to the entrance of Grenbough Manor House. It was a crumbling monument to glories long gone by, made nearly green by tenacious moss and the miles of trailing ivy that covered it. By the time I had climbed the stairs, my hands were shaking with the Earl’s intoxication over his new toy. Great God, why didn’t the man learn to control himself? An overzealous child in a grown man’s body, that was all the Earl was. I was shown into the cluttered room where the Earl was most likely to be found, at any hour of the day or night.

Lord Remi Firestone, Ninth Earl of Grenbough, was very fond of oddities and unusual things. But he had no such proclivities of his own, so he collected them. Collected them with such a passion, in fact, that the estate was going to pot around him. Nothing was too queer too gruesome for his tastes. He had pickled embryos in jars and one-of-a-kind books and those damned shrunken heads dangling from every possible protuberance in the room. There were weapons from exotic countries with names I could not even begin to pronounce. I sometimes thought that if he lost a limb, he would want to keep it for his collection. I, being a living oddity, was his oldest friend and closest companion, and had been on hand for the designing and building of his precious museum.

The Odd Room was a circular chamber, off the side of the manor house, and this was where the Earl kept most of his collection. So long as he was not sleeping, Lord Firestone spent most of his time in his beloved Odd Room. He loved that room — and I hated it. This was where he always met me, despite the discomfort the place caused. The presence of all those queer things… well, they made the muscles of my back ache. “You won’t believe it! Aubrey, my old friend, my empathic comrade in arms — ! You won’t believe what I have managed to acquire this time!” He was dressed in his favorite red silk smoking jacket and was, as always, offensively over-effusive.

“Something to do with that peculiar ring, perhaps? I have never seen it before. Obviously, a new acquisition?” I had seen the ring when Firestone held his languid hand out to me. It was a really curious piece, a savage face carved out of a black gemstone, set in a silver band.

“Oho! So you’ve become a mind-reader as well, have you, chum?” I smiled humorlessly; I disliked his frequent, facetious comments toward my… ability. Unaware, the Earl only laughed, rubbing the ring fondly.

“This pretty bauble is only a small part of a much larger curiosity, Aubrey.” His blue green eyes twinkled sharply, with the laughter of a giddy boy and the gleam of a half-crazed collector. His smugness was spilling out in all directions. My nostrils twitched; Firestone positively reeked of glee. “Come away to the kennels, my friend, and see the great heights to which my little hobby has risen.”

I followed him willingly, relieved that I would not have to compare anymore sand-shriveled craniums, or listen to Lord Firestone elucidate the minute differences between genuine shrunken heads and forgeries made from dried apples. Yes, Firestone liked any and all things strange. Doubtless, that was why he was so fond of me. I was his friend, after a fashion, but I often felt that I was simply another piece in his collection — the oldest piece — particularly when I was in his Odd Room. I was very glad to be walking behind him that day; there were often times when I would find myself glancing back over my shoulder, to make certain that Firestone was not going to come after me with a butterfly net.

Upon entering the kennels (which had originally been built to house the first Earl’s hunting hounds, of which the current Earl owned none), I was immediately conscious of a feeling of abject sorrow. A wave of isolation and anger flooded into my brain, and I staggered back a step.

“Steady, old man,” encouraged Lord Firestone quietly. “I know he’s ghastly to look at, but keep your courage.”

Temporarily blinded by the rush of sensation, it was some moments before my sight returned and I could see what Firestone was talking about.

“My Lord,” I managed to whisper. “What is that?”

“Vespertilio-homo,” said Lord Firestone proudly. “But I’ve taken to calling him Victor.”

The creature that Firestone was calling Victor was a winged man.

It crouched in the corner of a kennel, chained at the wrists and ankles, with its thin-membraned wings — just like a bat’s wings — drooping around his figure. It had golden-brown skin and thick, tangled hair that was a peculiar shade of chestnut. Wide ears like a fish’s fins protruded from an oval head, and two eyes — blue, I perceived — glared out at us from beneath a forehead tumbled over with elflocks. As it wore no clothes, the creature was perceptibly male, was wiry-muscled like a monkey, and had disproportionately long clawed fingers.

“Where in the world did he come from?” I asked in awe, moving a little closer to the cage. At my motion, Victor moved slowly back, narrowing his eyes in what seemed to be suspicion.

“Well,” drawled the Earl with a queer grin, blatantly quite pleased with himself, “I found him in a two-bit circus up in the north of Alish a few months ago. He was quite wild; it’s taken me this long to get him calm enough to bring in a visitor. The rogue I bought him off was exhibiting him as “The Human Bat.” As to where he came from,” Lord Firestone shrugged, “God can guess better than man can. But I have my theories.”

As I listened to the Earl’s chatter, I noted with uneasy interest that Victor’s expression had changed from one of fear to one that I can only describe as crafty. The winged man seemed particularly drawn to the curious ring that Lord Firestone wore. Upon closer inspection, I could see that one of the long, long fingers had a band of light skin around it, and he followed the Earl’s hand intently with his eyes. For one moment though, that singular concentration was broken, and Victor’s eyes met my own.

I was once again assailed by the pungent emotions of isolation and fear, and the mindless rage that any animal — or man, for that matter — will feel when he is imprisoned. And yet there was a ferocity of spirit in those electric blue eyes. For that instant, he was a beast no longer, and I marveled at the restraint and dignity with which he comported himself, even in a filthy Alish dog kennel. But the moment passed quickly. His eyes dimmed, and refastened themselves on Lord Firestone’s right hand.

He obviously wanted his ring back.

“Now Aubrey,” the Earl was saying, “if you will come with me back to the house, I shall tell you all about my Vespertilio-homo.

“Vespertilio-homos,” began Lord Firestone, settling himself into his big leather chair beside the Odd Room’s roaring fire, for the cool night was falling fast, “were first discovered some fifty-three years ago, by Sir Job Herkimer, the famed astronomer.”

“Discovered by an astronomer?” I echoed. “Why — ?”

“The name,” continued Lord Firestone, ignoring me with the lofty air of the learned, “literally translated, means “man-bat.” The scientific value of Vespertilio-homos is not only their very existence, but the fact that Sir Job discovered this new species living on the moon!”

I head my jaw click as it hit my chest. “The moon. Did I hear you correctly, Lord Firestone? The moon?”

“Yes, the moon. Where they have blue unicorns and pyramids of carved ruby.” The Earl smirked, and unfolding his long body from his chair began to stroll around the room, grinning wolfishly. “The Alish Museum has offered me a pretty pound for my man-bat.”

“I can imagine it.” I thought of Victor’s quivering ears and crouching, wiry form, and his shackled wrists and ankles. Remembering his half-intelligent, half-atavistic mind, I fancied I could hear him breathing in his dark cage. “Are you going to accept?”

“My God, no!” Lord Firestone laughed. He ran a hand through his curling black hair. “Victor is the crowning glory of my collection. The Alish Museum can have him when I am embalmed and put on display with him.”

And he placidly twisted Victor’s ring around and around his finger.

I disliked the manner in which Firestone kept alluding to Victor, whose heartbeat I could hear as my own. Like he was some sort of pet. Much as he treats me, I thought to myself. Softly, insipidly, the ideas slipped unbidden into my head. Personally, I would have been far happier with seeing Victor free. If he came from the moon, then so be it. By rights he should be treated as a foreign dignitary, or else some way out to be found to send him back to his land of ruby pyramids. But for such a… a noble being to be imprisoned like a mere animal —

I sat up with a fierce jerk, shook the alien cobwebs from my brain and tossed back my brandy with a burn.

“Is there something wrong, Aubrey?”

“No, no,” I coughed. “I’m just a little tired.” I rose to my feet. “I think I should return to town…”

“Certainly not,” retorted the Earl heartily. By this time it was quite dark, and Lord Firestone insisted on putting me up for the night. “And tomorrow after breakfast, we’ll take Victor out on his leash and see him try to catch and eat the peacocks.”

I forced myself to join his laughter and allowed the butler to show me to a guest room.

But try as I might, I could not sleep. My brain would not allow it. I was consumed by thoughts of the man-bat, Victor. I found myself thinking that he and I were not too far removed from each other. As an empath, I was a rarity. An oddity. Not a visually sensational oddity, perhaps, but still not the average cup of tea. Only a decent physical appearance and a multitude of discretion had kept me out of the sideshow. Well, at any rate, out of the public sideshow. Remi Firestone collected odd people as well as odd objects, and though I was not in a cage, was I any less at Firestone’s every beck and call? There in the circus freak show, but for the grace of God, would I have been.

There was a definite kinship toward Victor in my sleepless thoughts, a kinship totally bereft of the anger and fury that had been in my mind down in the Odd Room. I could no longer hear the man-bat’s heavy, labored breathing or his heartbeat, and I hoped that he had buried his sorrow in sleep for at least a night…

I had no sooner completed this thought than a searing rage shot through my brain, leaving me mute and rigid with agony.

I bolted upright in my guest bed. Sweating, I stumbled to the window, where a flash of scarlet caught my eye. There, in the moonlight, the Earl of Grenbough was stalking rigidly across the finely manicured lawn in the direction of the kennels. I threw on a pair of trousers, ripped open my bedroom door and flung myself down the stairs, onto the grass and past the screaming peacocks. Below their noise I could already hear Victor growling ferociously.

Firestone was moving toward Victor’s cage stiffly and most unwillingly. I tried to pull him back, but Firestone threw me off with more strength than I thought the lazy nobleman possessed.

The winged man’s eyes were glowing and crackling with bright blue electricity, and his clawed hands clenched and unclenched spastically. I shouted to Firestone in warning but he ignored me, and to my immense horror, he unlocked the door of Victor’s cage. The creature leapt upon the Earl of Grenbough with a hoarse cry.

There was a sickening snap and a tear, and then Firestone shrieked with an intensity that made my intestines crack. Victor bounded off Firestone’s prone form, and I realized that in his haste to regain his black ring, he had torn off Firestone’s finger.

As I moved cautiously to tend to the mutilated nobleman, I saw Victor standing for the first time. Outlined against the full moon, he was a fantastic gargoyle, or a bat-winged angel, bent on vengeance. He twisted the ring off and cast away the bloody appendage in one motion, then returned the jewel to his own finger. He looked down disdainfully at Firestone and me from his great height, disdainfully and for myself, just a trace of pity. He was free of his shackles, and he pitied me. Then he spread his great translucent brown wings and launched himself straight up into the sky.

He set off at an angle, up and away, and as he flew into the soft white light of the moon, he vanished very quickly from my sight.

I bound up Firestone’s bleeding hand as best I could, with a strip torn from my trouser leg. Firestone was mumbling something. His voice was too quiet for me to hear him clearly, and I bent my ear to his lips.

“My finger,” he whispered weakly. “Don’t leave my finger. I — I want to put it in my Odd Room.”

 

 

April French is currently a student at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she is majoring in creative writing, which is how she justifies spending algebra class writing stories that ignore the laws of physics completely. When asked for a history of her published work, she gulped and hid under a table. More of April’s poetry and some of her original fiction may be found at The Corvina. She also invites all interested persons (read: everyone) to investigate a fan fiction series she is working on, which she has been alternately told is either brilliant or a waste of her time.


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ISSUE #13

Summer 2003

FICTION

ART