Masters of the Phantasmal
By TeJay Henderson
Daybreak was just a few hours out—describe it as you wish— he sees it as a normal day holed up in a dark room. He had become all too familiar with its small space: its bare white walls, its rickety bed, and its old beat up dresser. It was his world in a sense. But he knew that somewhere their prying eyes laid a threat. And it was fitting how it happened. He was between wakefulness and a world of abstraction, between complete darkness and the oncoming day, when a lurid image roused him from a fanciful dream. After a period of bafflement, there was the questioning of all who had come and gone, battling for what in reality was an airless tomb. (Why must it always be far removed, as they listened to the doings from the world above?) But here, for the first time, he also questioned fantastic worlds; the abstractions he’d witness bring sorrow to men. Yet, to their chagrin, they always appeared worth dying for.
When the light finally filtered through the blinds, its orange flood revealed floating particles of dust. It was a rare moment of peace. Short lived, for he was interrupted by a painful sound, a moaning. It instantly reminded him of a small family, a mother and her daughter whom, out of necessity, he kept close quarters with.
It was on a Sunday afternoon, at a small restaurant, when the down home ambiance, and the smells of fresh seafood, fell to the presence of a woman in a simple yellow dress. She entered along with a young girl, also wearing her Sunday’s best, a routine he’d seen many times before. And each occasion, he was taken aback by the uniqueness in her aura. It was a feeling he lost long ago, which he found once more in her bright red lipstick, and how her full lips naturally parted, revealing a comforting smile of glossy white teeth. They met that very sunny afternoon, and after an intriguing conversation, the group sharing in laughter, and his warm display of generosity, the three had been together ever since.
As the months passed, for her daughter, Dayja, his presence came along with a pervading spirit: she thought of him while lumbering out the door for school, and then while walking home by her lonesome— whether taking a glance of her newest sneakers, to when she felt the midday sun weigh heavily on her shoulders—all of her thoughts went back to him.
After quite sometime, his presence in the home became a strange isolation, where he’d keep to himself in the back room. Every month she cursed her fate before going back there. The part of her home that become a foreign territory, where she would encounter him, a strange man, sleeping with his eyes wide open: always stuffed in the corner, always wearing the same worn jacket, and always with his steadfast gaze.
She paced before entering—mapping her every step. There would be a wad of cash on the dresser, unusual notes, the presidents with diminutive faces with either red or gold seals; she’d keep her eyes fixed on the cash, and lightly step along the carpet. She wanted it to be like a simple game, easy, in and out. But there were occasions when journeying down that darkened hall, approaching the open door, seeing him lodged into the far corner, and she felt her mother’s burden—heavier than ever—a feeling which ascended any simple thought of getting in and out.
She took gentle steps, her every feeling arose at once, unpredictable and scattered—she thought of her mother’s smile after dinners—warm, though too short lived—and of the strange duffle bag creeping into her peripheral—if she could only block it out—of her mother’s charms with men, of empty promises and the pangs that would surly come along, and then, like pure torture, her thoughts led her to the mystery that seemed to form around Man’s motionless body. She paused. Her trembling hand hovered over a heap of cash, nearly home free, when the figure began to stir. She strained her eyes, refusing to see, but as a low muttering fell from his lips, it sent a jolt of adrenaline coursing through her body; she shot a glance over her shoulder finding the man carefully rummaging inside his jacket before removing a shimmering ring. With ridged eyes, he tenderly extended the gift to his guest:
“Tha… Tha… Tha.” he said, exasperated.
Blinking while sluggish from the weight of his own thoughts, his lips labored over every single word until his eyes bloomed. And a fresh idea permeated his now responsive face.
“That’s Bloodstone,” said a sonorous voice.
Its smooth yellow metal, with its intricate filigree design, glimmered between his fingers. But the most prominent was its foreboding stone: the darkest of green, with speckles of red inclusions. For reasons she could hardly explain, she felt herself inching forward but was abruptly frozen by his powerful voice.
“She…favors you. Even moves like you, the good girl, carrying her mother’s burden.”
Silence overtook the room. But in her mind his words rang clear and true. There was the initial desire for escape; she merely nudged the dresser, but something (the mystery in the stone? the tone of his voice?) engendered a dreadful feeling, as if she strayed beyond the boarders of God’s grace and merely fathomed a world of the irrational and the immaterial — she felt an aura surfacing from behind—and without second thought, she swiped up the wad of cash; the door slammed behind her. And the room was sealed shut.
He imagined her passing through the pungent smell of sweat coming from her mother’s room, which also remained dark and cloistered: two light tight boxes in a region where the sun was always abundant, yet sometimes came down like a blinding and overpowering haze.
He imagined her cowering into the far corner of her room. Satisfied. He went back into his hermetic silence. With those four walls, he could slip into a trance, turning each wall into plane of endless depth, each wall like an entrance into caves filled with obsidian. He could hear a woman’s voice—see the creases in her lips.
“Lefu,” she called.
Before long, projections of his lost kin emerged from the blackness of the walls, greeting him with jubilant faces and standing with dignified postures, all surrounding him in a grand assembly—true darkness, not a mere symbol, but something far more tangible. The type of darkness that gave him anonymity, to go untouched, to be unchallenged. That was his solace.
He’d escape there forever and was hell-bent on trying. Although he mastered the secrets of the mind, where he could render his perception of space, and where time didn’t exist, yet mankind, with his tragedy and his folly, would faithfully find him, reminding him of what will never be—a stillness, unceasing and undying.
He dragged his bloody hand along the rail, ascending higher and higher, and took a glance into a world gilded in gold. All around him was the luster of the marble staircase, the tapestries, the opulent murals carved into the ceiling, and the portraits of pallid faces, yet he languished at the thought of his blood-soaked hand and at a metallic taste, lingering at the tip of his tongue.
He watched the crimson liquid, focusing, but the blood steadily dripped from the handle of his warm gun: its slow trickle enhancing the clarity and delineating the intricate grooves in the 1911’s wooden handle. With everything it touched, the blood revealed all. He could only behold its path, its truth it silently imparted. While down below, blood gushed from an entrance wound. It was a small diameter, while around the edges, a stippling of soot. In his hulking frame of sooth brown flesh, a pink entrance burrowed into his abdomen. If the blood gave him no reprieve, and instantly jarred him from his hallucination, he knew that somewhere her spirit was still in anguish; that somewhere she was calling him back to a moment repeating itself endlessly. He concentrated. A faint pounding emerged and disappeared, a remote sound he knew all too well; a muted scream fought its way from below, which sent him dashing down the stairs, through a banquet hall, vestibule to vestibule. Until a gunshot followed by a sharp shrill lead him down a long hallway.
She always had an affinity for bright airy spaces, and he wasn’t surprised passing by the hallways paintings of quiet gardens and country roads. With soft eyes, listening to a rapturous voice, he burst into a bright drawing room. They were locked together, at the height of a struggle; a slender man in a frock coat landed his hatchet flush into in Bacia’s neck. Lefu watched her body heave from the impact, her legs convulse, her hand full of rings clawing at the colorful carpet. And he leveled his 1911 and squeezed—a burst of flames leaping from the barrel, and the gunfire impaled the man’s chest. He tumbled to the floor. And Lefu was left with the drawing rooms restored ambience. His eyes surveyed its discordant parts: listless bodies sprawled along the carpet, a lone rifle lay idle, chairs over turned, empty shell casings, all enclosing Bacia’s weary body. Her chest began heaving while she spat up her blood—the only movement against a backdrop of stillness.
She nursed the chasm in her neck, but there was no containing the blood bursting through her wool jacket. And, suddenly, without warning, an ominous pounding began vibrating the floor, a mob of approaching footsteps, yet, for Lefu, most prominent was the ever-expanding pool of blood, streams of it, stretching down the carpet and seeping into a sharp streak of light. Soon she too traced the streams journey downward. With helpless eyes, her blood bursting through fingers, she watched the last of her life spiraling, traveling beyond the limits of her control. And it was at that moment, with her chest losing vitality, Lefu’s mere sight of what was essential to life became as vile as any anathema.
It was by instinct—an augury he thought—that he regained consciousness. He found the light from streetlamps cutting through the blinds—the thick of night, yet tremors from a heavy bass rattled the walls. He had just wrestled to his feet when he heard the fall, a limp body pummeling to the floor. He discarded most doings outside those walls. But this was different. This time he had felt Dayja hit the floor, and a haggard woman pleading for her daughter’s life. When he felt the woman gathering her strength (though oddly stronger than usual) she screamed a name, a simple word, which had taken him by surprise.
He nearly reeled. So many emotions conjured from a single word, moments passed that stowed away, waiting to resurface.
He shot a glance to the door, hearing a low noise, the sound of a presence scurrying up the hallway. Along with it came the sounds of choking and the eventual splatter to the carpet.
A flick of the light switch, and an unsightly woman appeared. She balanced herself on the doorjamb, raising lazy eyes, and a mouth dripping with blood; with every leaden drop, he winced and fell back into the corner; his eyes expanded as they passed over the scabs of crystallized blood in her fingers, her wiry hair, her incipient wrinkles, and the oily shine from her brown skin.
“I’m willing to believe it now. We can go further beyond this house, this neighborhood, everything we know. Can’t we? You turn the fuck around and you look at me, Maynor!”
And with a simple word, a name long forgotten, he was tormented by memories he had buried in his mind long ago at depths not unlike underground ossuaries. Inside what was like a dark and damp world, he found the remains of his former self and scoffed at who he was-- Maynor; the name plagued his mind until he felt a spearpoint collar wrap around his neck, and his best waistcoat slip over his arms.
While inside the walls, swarming particles of light slowly materialized a platform, and next appeared a streetcar humming along the Lafayette Street Bridge. He started at an oncoming sound, now more dreadful than it had ever been. He glanced up, sneering at clacking hooves and a bouncing carriage.
All before him, the bridge teemed with men in felt hats and frock coats and women in blouses and long hemmed skirts, all alighting onto the platform. The electricity buzzed from above, a woman on a bicycle gradually passed by, and as disturbed faces within carriages assailed him, he darted his eyes, finding a lone woman in a high neck blouse. He remembered the arch in her posture, which, in truth, was the product of her corset, underlining the prominence of her breast and curves. He remembered her slim face, her auburn hair—how long it really was, though you’d never know, it being so well knotted underneath the brim of her striking hat.
“I was here,” he whispered.
Instinctively, his gaze left the woman, finding beyond the bridge, an array of silver minarets topped with crescent moons, along with cupolas, and domes, a hotel that towered above all.
And with shaky hands, he stumbled backwards through clouds of swarming particles until a foot landed on the stained brown carpet. The last of fading light rapidly dissipated, and once again he stood before a familiar white wall—
“You turn the fuck around and look at me, Maynor!”
He pivoted, finding Bacia, wearing her hand full of rings; she extended a hand, and Lefu smiled upon the dagger strapped to her forearm, sheathed and secured. He’d reach for her, if it wasn’t for the figments intermittent flickering, which was rapidly overtaken by a woman’s voice brimming with pain.
“I have the strange problem with my men. They always use me up, spit me out, and there’s dumb ol' me, sapped within to inch of my life. But you wouldn’t know about that.
“Not even going to play the fool? Even with a little girl out cold?”
“Bitch! I know you know—I know the truth! And I ain’t pointing no goddamn fingers either! I’m clearing the air! I should have never let you in my home! “
She craned her neck back towards the ceiling, finding a bulwark, who was stretching his memory for thoughts his of kin, how they ransacked the walls of the highest order. Now he could only accept the irony as her voice began to fill the room. He stepped forward, lost in the tandem of her tongue, teeth and lips, releasing weary speech sounds, replacing the fading world in his mind.
“Besides. That money never helped us. What it get me? A presence over my shoulder, using me as some holding pen for its grief, telling me things it couldn’t tell itself? And, sadly, and this is the best part, Maynor, I fell for it twice. “
“Bacia was right to live off their blood,” he thought.
It had been ages since he felt so purblind. A world around him began to recede, replaced by the crimson dripping from her lips. He knew her lost stare, for he began the same, like all weary bodies, cultivating malevolent forces, accepting and transferring them, largely unaware of what they are and what they shall become.
He walked over, meeting her stern eyes. And she allowed the air to enter her gaping robe, revealing a league of broken blood vessels, purple sores. They seemingly penetrated the skin—an entire capillary network, running down her breast, her stomach, infiltrating beneath white lace, and clustering between her inner thighs.
And without warning, he clamped his hand around her throat, until a web of tiny veins flared in her face, her body’s innermost workings, rising to the surface. Even as her eyes became glossy, her lungs struggling for air, he knew she could turn if she chose. Yet he tightened his grip, transfixed by the spittle fusing with blood, while her sinewy hands clinched the sleeve of his jacket.
It was no different from what she felt during her sleep—the most lurid dreams—a man’s brute hand latching onto her throat, following sharp incisions, until paralysis swept her body. Always when she’d reached for the warm blood rolling down her chest, she sprung up in her bed, a weakened body, only finding the hum of a ceiling fan and her door sealed shut.
With her neck searing, her consciousness waning, she managed to meet his gaze and was horrified by a face that gained more and more likeness with her own, what felt like her very being transferring onto him. And while his eyes locked onto hers, the web of capillaries protruded in her face. He felt the intensity of her fear and thought of her ever-present blood staining her lips.
It trickled down his wrist, and along with it, he felt the crumbling of his cavernous world. Overran by panic, he glanced into the walls but heard only the intensity of his thoughts. If nothing else, his one true possession was her energy. And he felt it warm in her chest, flowing into his hands but growing scarce by the second. He had drained so much, he was left with energy which permeates a room, in the air like an invisible mist. He pulled from even that, until the filament in a light bulb began to flicker. But it wasn’t enough. He pulled even further, until the orange light in the blinds joined in unison, all flickering to an erratic cadence until a shattering rang out from beyond the window. A constant rain of glass hit the pavement. And the flickering bulb pulsed before retiring its last bit of illumination. In one swift instant, the room was reclaimed by the night.
She felt a release in tension from her neck, an opening. And her desperate hand clawed at his jacket; she clawed again until the grooves, a hard surface, fit snugly in her palm. The gun free! She pulled the trigger—click, click, click.
But it only resulted in a brute force ripping the gun away, and her body sailing through air, pummeling into a pit of darkness. The impenetrable night cut her off at every turn, impairing her vision; she extended her arms out but could only be certain of a near presence protecting the door, or a sudden rummaging through drawers, moving here and there within the unknown of a impregnable night; it lingered everywhere she turned, a blackness of endless depth, in which she navigated with forceful steps that gave pause to the entire room.
“Gather yourself, Ivy,” she murmured.
She rubbed her shoulder against the wall, and stretched her hand for the door when—FLACK—a stray noise, and a soft light revealed a woman’s hand. A gun leveled in her direction, but she stared passed the impending barrel; the cold metal landed against her temple, yet she only saw the figure behind it—its wide nose, its full lips, its oval face, its full breast.
Beyond belief, yet staring her in the face, she shrank before her own spitting image—her own reflection in a brute of a man. It brimmed with rage. She watched her eyes cut towards the gun, her thumb carefully releasing the safety—taking one last wondrous look before the sudden pull of the trigger: the towering explosion from the barrel, a slight streak of light filled the room—darkness—and a limp body pummeled to the floor.
Stillness returned, he felt the sway of his body; he’d taken many forms before, but never did one weigh so heavily: enveloping him, until an outer world befell the room. All that was left, the smell of gun smoke and the blood pooling at his feet. Nevertheless, there was genius about his inner world, held together, not a by firm hand, but by sheer dogged persistence.
He waited inside the void, the dark gathering about the room, confronting an unfathomable depth. And out of the pure emptiness, like dark caverns in the unplumbed mind, emerged a dim and decrepit hallway.
Its tarnished chandelier arose from the shadows, and next an elaborate ceiling, the bare paneled walls, and at end of corridor emerged Dayja; she sat among piles of ornate frames, despondent, glancing at a portrait of her likeness, while just beyond her, an open door spilled a warm light into the hallway along with peals of continuous laughter. He was compelled to motion closer—its sound, constant and growing—but a fitful bulge, a hemorrhaging, flared in his face, burrowing down to his chest. His massive lungs heaved, yelping. So loud Dayja descried him. She watched a writhing body, while he was cornered by a sonorous voice:
“Using me as some holding pen for YOUR grief!”
He gnashed his teeth, jamming the gun into his chest—a burst of explosions, their intermittent flames, falling upon a face searing with rage.
“Telling me things you couldn’t tell me YOURSELF!”
The slide racked back and forth while the phones glow followed the life bulging in his chest—an unwieldy tempest, and the corridor vanished into the endless depth.
Sobered. The soft glow fell on Ivy’s blood-shattered face, and before he felt any movement in his limbs, the taste of iron was forming in his mouth. The hemorrhaging pulsed through his body, along with the liquefying and hardening of his bones, but he would not deign before the even the remnants of her humanity. Staggering, feeling the caving of one world, and the primacy of another, he wielded his scant light and forged into the dark.
Its crude glow illumined but a few feet ahead: uncovering a wooden table, cold plates of food, a knocked over dining chair, an off white linoleum tile, and tracks of drying blood. He followed the trail until he found Dayja sprawled out on kitchen floor. Between the cracking bones in his body, and a growing presence outside the house, he picked out faint sounds of stertorous breathing. And a knife slipping from its sheath froze the room.
Dayja recognized the soft touch on her shoulder. A force flipped her body over. And with heavy eyes, she met the cold steel raking along her neck.
The sonorous voice, seemingly, spoke to a presence near and beyond her all at once; with its sharp jaw agape, she looked in its shadowy mouth—becoming her mother’s full lips, fading and reforming, or maybe it was his hard jawline, and his smooth brown skin, either battling for dominance, or maybe both as one. She strained for a closer look, but the massive hand set the scant light aside; out of the night, a brute force pinned her hand to the floor. She watched her open palm while her mother’s hand grappled her wrist. Just when Dayja raised her languid eyes, listening to a swift movement in the dark, a blade came sailing down and mercilessly rammed into her palm, writhing under the weight of lifeless steel.
Though, like a terse response, he was met with the shattering of bone and a rupturing through his chest. He knew his only option was her blood. Withdrawing the blade was only further confrontation, its constant flow rising to the surface. Even with the mere sight of it, there was no contention with who he’d been, or with the bygone eras he’d seen, or how he chose the path of his kin over their humanity, and how he’d roam for centuries because of it—forever.
He could lose control over his own body, his face invaded by Ivy’s undying will. The blood could permeate the floor and travel back towards him; and there, right underneath him, he could release every bit of energy consumed. But what would replace the warm light slipping down the dim hallway or the peals laughter traveling up the corridor? For there was nothing of their world that could fully be extended unto him. Somewhere within the bones breaking in his massive palm, resizing, and reshaping, he embraced the growing semblance of Ivy’s graceful hand.
“We can go much further than this house. Can’t we?”
And with his entire body convulsing, he removed the bloodstone ring from his jacket and carefully set it before Dayja’s burgeoning eyes:
“A gift from Bacia.”
He knew Dayja would reach for the phone, wielding its illumination, knowing he’d be only a figure receding into the night. He knew she’d have nothing left but a shimmering ring: he imagined the blood pooling at her face, yet she’d be awestruck by the stones specks of reds, and greens, and blacks all spinning, the stone its own universe. Indeed, there would be a world arising in the room, though its ascendance would be curtailed by the sudden opening of the front door.
And as he willed his every thought to be, he felt her probing, though not for a single energy, but for dual energies battling within one body. Her mounting fear called for him, but the entreaty would never reach the threshold. Instead her only response was from a growing presence, a woman's, hovering over her, moving closer and closer. “Heal, child,” said a soft voice, emanating from perhaps her own mind, or perhaps from even the bloodstone ring. As the night air entered the room, the dark seemingly absorbed the faint glow. And with the slamming of the door, she was entombed in the pitch-black of night.
He arrived in the humid air and was dumbfounded by a large presence thronging at the door. A singular group of figures huddled in the night. Through their raw energy, he felt an extension of his world, a familiar one he labored to maintain. He smiled at the mighty hand of fate, for that world was now so graciously groomed by their kind, as if they were the keepers of his magnificent mausoleum. Their stiff bodies stood unheeding the rise of an ornate mansion, a tower over all. While out of the darkness appeared his sect. And somewhere in a bright and airy room, he could hear Bacia’s voice—see the creases in her lips.
“Lefu,” she called.