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Looking for some spooky thrills? Consider picking up a copy of Unspeakable Horrors 2 (Evil Jester Press, October 2017), a new horror anthology edited by Vince Liaguno. The collection “assembles a literary pantheon from the LGBT and horror communities to explore the dark underbelly of desire.”
To celebrate the Halloween season, we are sharing an excerpt from one of the stories in the collection, Helen Marshall‘s haunting “Caldera”.
In the introduction to collection, Liaguno states:
Helen Marshall‘s “Caldera”, an atmospheric tale immersed in Icelandic mythology, was the second to last story I bought for the collection. Having been impressed with Ms. Marshall’s superb poetry collection ‘The Sex Lives of Monsters’ and captivated by her short story collection ‘Gifts for the One Who Comes After’, I knew her highly-stylized writings would complement the evolving tone of Abominations of Desire.
By this point the three years of writing had taken on the quality of a dream for the girl. The girl—this was not how she thought of herself but the nomenclature of her advisor, so often repeated it had become ingrained, instinctual for them both. “How’s my girl doing?” he might ask her at the start of the session. Later on, it became a form of praise: “That’s my girl,”—all with a jovial smile, white teeth tucked under the brim of a thick, umbrella moustache—“yes, I think we can safely say you have it.” By then, such suggestions had already come to govern the pattern of her thoughts, and so under his tutelage she had become, for all intents and purposes, the girl: when she wrote, she thought to herself, “The girl is working hard. He will be pleased.”
After four years, she was finished, and they called her before them: four old men in tweed jackets. Her advisor sat among them like a king. His belly, covered in a clean white shirt, had partially unfolded itself over his belt. She saw how pressed against the table. She had thanked him with three pages of praise. He now held a pen carefully between his crooked fingers. It clattered against the desk. Once. Twice. They came to attention like the sleepers under the hill woken by the call of a trumpet. They brushed the dust their sleeves, straightened their collars, and prepared themselves for what was coming. A third time her advisor tapped the pen, and it was only in the stillness following that she saw the glittering malice in his eyes. He touched the tip of his tongue to his upper lip. In that gesture, rote, reptilian, she knew: they were going to massacre her.
“Let us begin with the third paragraph.”
She felt something break apart inside of her. Her fists were red where her nails split the skin.
After it was finished they granted her a leave of six months to begin again, but that night she burned every page she had written. The light of the bonfire stained her face red. Greasy flakes of ash stung her eyes. She howled.
The girl left her apartment and did not expect to return to it. The idea that she would kill herself had not formed wholly yet, but even at this early stage she felt the pressure like a hard lump growing under her skin. She did not know it, but this governed much of her thinking. She would leave because it was what was expected of her. She booked a ticket to England. It seemed logical enough, London or Oxford, it was all the same to her, any of those damp, bookish places peopled by old university chums. But there was a layover in Iceland. Mechanical difficulties. More delays. She drank coffee. She took a bus into Reykjavik, gazed out the window at flat lava fields, the sky bleak, the earth a solid shelf of black, volcanic rock.
There was a natural order to what was happening. She felt it intuitively. No one would know her here. The place was barren, remote and violent. In other words, it was perfect.
She canceled the final leg of the flight.
Reykjavik was beautifully grim: stubborn, congealed, clouds vaporous as steam over the blank expanse of the ocean. The buildings were made of corrugated tin sheets painted red and blue and pink and green, somehow festive and destitute. The girl did nothing for the first month in the city. There was no need to rush. She felt weightless. Gravity had loosened its hold upon her.
She learned some words: “takk” for “thank you” and “bless bless” for “goodbye”. She was unfailingly polite when addressed. She spent her days by the old harbour watching terns circle and dive, bodies perfectly engineered for flight. She admired their effortless movements, their murderous instincts. The sky was grey. The sea was grey. The world reflected itself, and the birds stitched the two gleaming surfaces together, rising, falling, rising, falling.
At night she roamed the streets like an insomniac. It was summer, and so the sun never truly set. It skimmed the black mountains and washed the city in the blue light of an endless dusk. She went to bars sometimes. Reykjavik had a shifting, tumultuous night life. Everyone in the city knew one another, most were related in some way or another, and they moved from dive to dive with tribal instinct. A place hopping one week would be deserted the next. The rhythm of it was impossible for an outsider to master. They communicated along channels largely invisible to her, and so she wandered along her own solitary circuit. Some nights she intersected their path, and then she would find herself amidst a crowd of strangers, pushed to the edges of blasting music and thinner conversation.
She watched them gather in tight clusters, blonde hair floating, soaked to a darker amber with drizzle. Their eyelashes fascinated her. They were nearly invisible until they caught the light, at which point they would appear to thicken and glimmer like the antennae of a moth. When she saw them together, she would feel a tremor in the pit of her stomach, that echo of something stirring, but the mechanism by which she might deliver it had been irrevocable destroyed. “Takk,” she would say as she took the cool glass of her lager in hand. “Bless bless.”
She met Ragga by chance, or rather, through the gradual recognition of her presence, an accumulation of encounters. A glance through the stooped passage of a doorway. Once the girl saw Ragga jogging along the shoreline, thin as an aleph, red faced and grinning, her body trembling with sweat, the length of her hair drilled to slick points. The girl came to recognize the shape of her shoulders like a prow, the shocking blue of her eyes, before any words were spoken between them. The others made way around her. She was set apart from them, special, the girl could sense it immediately. Once she imagined she felt the light brush of Ragga’s fingers as she pushed past at a café. It may not have happened: the subtle transubstantiation of desire into touch. But she had smiled. Ragga had smiled. It was enough.
Ragga’s house was made of dark, polished timber. She kept a cat she had found on the street whom she named Kolbitur. Its fur was a soft cloud of white, its eyes sulfurous.
“She’s malformed,” Ragga explained, taking it up in her arms. She nuzzled her chin between the creature’s two pointed ears. “Polydactic, you see?” The girl could see its fourth toe had grown in on each foot as a tiny second paw.
“They used to think ones like her were good luck. Sailors loved them. They were good at hunting. But, you know sailors. Bad winds, bad luck. They would skin the cats. Cut them open right here. And here. The men would stuff the bodies full of salt, tie them to the riggings. Perhaps a warning. Perhaps a gift. They would leave them hanging there until the salt burnt through the gut. It is said they used it to season their catch.”
This cat lacked all grace. It walked flat-footed and awkward, clacking because it could not retract its claws. When it ate it could grasp its food, its tiny errant paws cupping the kibble in a fist.
“Do you like her?” Ragga asked, touching the girl’s hand now, tugging gently, playfully, at her thumb.
“I don’t know,” the girl replied. She was alarmed by its humanity, its glancing resemblance.
“I think she’s beautiful,” Ragga said.
When she and Ragga went to bed together the first time, the girl could only think of the cat and its awkward way of walking. She had forgotten how to touch another person. Her fingers were timid. She was already half in retreat. That night as she lay next to Ragga, remembering the tangle of white-blonde hair between her legs, she dreamed the cat had crept into the bedroom and placed delicately its strange, doubled paws upon her breast, the larger one soft and padded like leather and the runt with its tiny, needling claws drawing pinpricks of blood.
The next morning, however, she did not run.
The thoughts of self-destruction did not abate with Ragga’s entrance into her life. Sometimes as the girl sat by the harbour, lungs scoured by the salt wind, she would imagine walking out into the water. She imagined the shape her own dark hair would make as the water lifted it from her shoulders. The cold would numb her skin. Her body would become a flaccid sack leaking heat. There was neither longing nor sadness in these visions. They struck the girl as premonitions of an event that would unfold in its own way at its own time. She felt like one of the seabirds, moving effortlessly from one place to another. There was no need to fear her eventual arrival.
She saw Ragga often, began to think of her sparse, darkly paneled house with a sense of comfort and familiarity. She fed the cat by hand, lining her pockets with dried fish from the farmer’s market. Some nights she dreamed of the cat curled up next to her, her face buried in its white fur, the smooth, velvety pearl of its toes, the rough drag of its tongue between her legs, edging open the crevasse with the slowness of continental drift. The girl knew that Ragga and the cat were not the same but they began to take on a singular identity.
In the north, Ragga told her, they had a legend of a white bear with the hands and face of a human. It ravished a woman, they said, or perhaps she went with it willingly. In old stories choice was irrelevant, only aftermath. She eventually gave birth to sons, heroes perhaps, but plagued with a reputation for bad manners. They feuded easily and ate without caution. Several were poisoned. The line had died out. Or perhaps they had not died out. Perhaps they had simply diminished. Their humanity had withered.
The white bear was a holdover from Danish lore, Ragga said. There were no polar bears in Iceland except one which had made the journey on an ice float fifty years ago. They could not let it live. It massacred whatever it saw, it was so afraid.
“Everyone in the country,” she said, “is like that. We are in the wrong place. No one was ever meant to live here. It’s amazing what we do to survive.”
Ragga had a fondness for coffee. She crowded both their cups with sugar, but even then the acrid taste of it in the kitchen brought back memories, nearly hallucinatory, of the days the girl had spent surrounded by books.
The girl hated the ritual of it. She would go for a run when Ragga began to heat the water, and would come back with crowberries or red currants. They would eat them at the table together, their fingers discoloured, the juice running down their chins. Then Ragga would head into the city where she worked at a secondhand record store on the main strip. She did not need the money, but she liked the customers.
The girl could stay or go as she liked. Mostly she stayed, tidied up the dishes. This took up so little time that she found herself searching through Ragga’s drawers and cupboards, not to find anything particular, but rather out of boredom. She suspected Ragga of holding a secret. There seemed to be a part of her always removed, independent. Something she would not give over. The girl opened every drawer in the house, but she never discovered what it was.
Some days she would sit with the cat and try to teach it tricks. “Here puss, puss,” she would say. The cat was a disdainful student. It was content with as much of its own nature as it had already discovered.
One day Ragga grabbed her by the hand as she went to take the plates to the sink. “Are you going to stay?” Ragga had never asked her anything like that before. If the girl was not there when Ragga came home from work, she was never asked about where she had been. If she was coming back.
“No,” the girl said, and Ragga did not press her for details. She took a beer from the fridge and popped the cap. She stretched out her body on the couch, rubbed a thumb against the throat of the cat until it began to thrum. It wrapped its own deformed hands around Ragga’s fingers. It depended on her. It could not hunt for itself.
It was only watching this exchange that the girl realized she was lying.
In August they went to Ragga’s summerhouse, a squat cottage tucked away at the foot of Katla—a vast volcano the towered above them like a giant. The ground was black. Dark columns of rock thrust out of the earth with edges sharp enough to cut. There were sleek, glassed walls and hidden tunnels that crawled into the earth where the lava had once forced its way to the surface.
The girl learned that the house had been occupied for most of the season by one or another of Ragga’s family. There were many rooms. There were many locked doors. Ragga’s brother had been there before them, and they discovered discarded bottles of wine in a box by the porch, a wet slug of underwear curled up in the drain of the sink. Ragga laughed about what a slob he was, how he was always leaving his things behind.
“We could send it to him,” Ragga said. “Wherever he is, he’ll need it.”
“You touch it then,” the girl laughed. The underwear had been discoloured by the sulfur in the water. Ragga wrinkled her nose and sighed: “We’ll have to clean the dishes with a hose.”
They made love outside that night. Ragga brought out a blanket which she stretched out over the soft grass. The mountain hung above them, the upper peaks hiding in a thick cloth of white clouds. The clouds were seamless. They divided the world in half, obscured the upper parts, as if the sky itself was being unmade.
“Are you ever afraid of what will happen?” the girl asked her.
“Afraid of what?” Ragga laughed, touching the smooth white skin above her navel with a careless hand.
“That Katla will explode,” she said.
Ragga shrugged. “It has before. It will again. The earth is grinding away beneath the island. It makes me happy to be here.”
“This is a good place, my family’s home. And the mountain too, it is good. Good there is a white-hot glow at the centre of the earth. Something moving toward us, slow maybe, awful maybe, but, who knows? Every year they say something will happen. It is overdue. Tomorrow perhaps we will have a new island. There was a time when none of this was here. It has to come from somewhere.”
“But what if it goes off while we’re here?”
“There will be signs,” she said. “We will know something is coming.”
“But what if we don’t?”
“Then we don’t,” Ragga said, kissing her gently on the ear, the chin. “Stop worrying so much! No one put the mountain here for you. The mountain is here for itself.” Her fingers crept lower. The girl began to shake uncontrollably, but Ragga whispered to her over and over again, “Shh, now, there is nothing to fear.”
To read the rest of the story, purchase Unspeakable Horror 2: Abominations of Desire here.