An essay by Thomas Allen, as provided by Paul Crenshaw
Art by Luke Spooner
On the whole of a long January evening, with the snow howling outside the windows and the wind whistling up under the eaves, I had taken it upon myself to build a great fire in the hearth of my study and work my way through a leather-bound volume of obscure 15th century manuscripts on alchemy and a decanter of 17th century brandy, figuring one would complement the other, as the fire would complement the wind and the snow. The night was especially fierce, as thunder accompanied the snow, a strange and rare occurrence, and the strength of the storm caused the house–my ancestral home, very sturdy despite its advanced age–to shake and shudder. It seemed I could feel the cold creeping in, even with the fire roaring and the brandy going down smoothly. Every few moments I put the manuscripts down, set the brandy snifter atop them, and rose from my reading chair to stand at the window and look out. Despite the storm, the night was bright, as the snow that had gathered seemed luminescent, though I could not see far even then because of the snow blowing in the wind. Even when lightning struck and lit up the night I could see nothing, though the world turned bright as day, but it was during one such strike–a long strike that seemed to color the world for three or four seconds, or maybe it was a series of strikes coming so rapidly one upon the other that they seemed fused into one–that I thought I saw a figure in the storm, struggling toward the house. I had drunk four or five glasses of brandy by then, and was in no way fully sober, though I had not yet reached the point in the night–as I had been doing since the loss of Isil a year before–to where my faculties were compromised.
She wore white, I was sure, just as sure as I was that the figure was a she. Her hair seemed as white as the snow, and her skin like a princess in some child’s fable, a story told to teach the young about the cruel harshnesses of life. I knew enough of those. Isil had taken to her bed in the winter, and lay dead by spring. No amount of caring for her would save her, for I tried. I hired the best doctors, sent for learned men from among my colleagues and acquaintances, but still she perished, all my erudite learning in the alchemic arts to no avail. I was there when the life left her, like a small sigh escaping into the air from between her silenced lips, and something of my soul escaped from my body as well, a part of me that wished to no longer live.
I stood at the window for a long time after seeing the apparition, for that is what I assumed it to be, peering into the darkness, flinching each time the lightning struck, but I did not see her again. I went down the long hall to the front door and opened it and stood there with the snow blowing in and the storm howling down on me, squinting into the darkness and calling out, but no sign of woman or ghost appeared. When I got back to my reading room, I drank off the brandy in the glass, then filled it and did it once again until my hands stopped shaking and my heart returned to a more normal rate. The world swam drunkenly around me, but still I could not rid myself of the vision, for it seemed to spawn a wild thought that I could not suppress, not even after yet another brandy.
The thought crept into my head that it was Isil, that I had mistakenly buried her alive. I had heard of such cases. Most accidental, though in my field, dark rumors circulated about potions that would seemingly cause death for a few days, but once the period had passed, the person would rise as if from a long sleep, no harmful effects on the body at all, and standing there at the window, the thought came to me that this had somehow happened to Isil–she had gotten into my potions, perhaps trying to relieve herself of a headache, and taken something that rendered her seemingly dead. In my grief and worry over her, I simply had not inspected her thoroughly enough to detect the faint heartbeat, hear the shallow breath. She was still alive!
The wind howled as if in mockery. I suppose even in my drunkenness I knew that this was a fanciful tale, drawn up out of the fumes of alcohol and sorrow, enhanced by the fierce storm and the many obscure volumes I had read. But still, I had made up my mind. I would go down into the tombs and see. (As I have pointed out, my drunkenness was rather severe, for it did not occur to me to wonder how she had gotten outside, or whether or not she would freeze in the storm, or even if, if I had seen her outside, why I might be looking for her in the tombs.) I crossed the room, pausing only long enough to grab the bottle of brandy, and passed out of the study and down the long hall, through the sitting room and through the kitchen and down the dark stairs at the back of the house, stopping only to light a lantern to beat back the shadows.
I had not been down here in some time, not since sealing the tomb in which Isil now lay–awake, and waiting for me! my mind screamed. I opened the screen on the lantern and started down. Spiderwebs wrapped round my face. The damp smell of the earth crept into the stairwell, and I almost turned back, but the brandy and the strange thoughts had warmed me, given me something similar to hope, and so I continued in my foolish quest.
At the bottom of the steps, I paused and fished through a set of keys to open the door to the tombs. The door swung open silently. I could no longer hear the storm. The lantern sent shadows racing everywhere. The first room lay empty, a small antechamber designed for my ancestors to acclimate themselves to the air down here, or the tombs themselves, before proceeding. Several torches, ready for lighting, stood in a sconce on the far wall, and in my brandy-soaked inebriation I thought it proper to light one, as if a lantern were too modern equipment for such a journey. The torch burned green as I lit it, the air here foul. A river ran beneath these tombs, one so black and dark I considered hurling myself into it after Isil died, hoping it the waters of Lethe, from which men drank to forget their worldly troubles.
I passed through the antechamber, the torch sputtering green, and into the tombs. The first room held only niches carved into the walls that had once held coffins, but in the long years, the coffins had returned to dust, and the bones lay everywhere, skulls watching me from empty sockets. Knowing I had nothing to fear from my ancestors, I pressed on, through rooms of varying size, each one leading deeper into the earth and further back in time. I had entombed Isil in the most distant caverns, near the black river, for she loved the story of crossing the River Styx into the Underworld, and I thought she would find the most comfort there. I stopped to drink deeply from the brandy, afraid that if I sobered too much I would realize the folly of this descent and the deep despair that had settled into me would return, for it seemed, on this journey, I had some little hope, even if, in the far recesses of my mind, I knew the hope to be a false one. But we need hope. And my days had been dark indeed since Isil passed, and I had been drinking too much, and occupying my mind not with scholarly work, but with whimsical readings of turning lead into gold, or simple rocks into diamonds, earthly riches that some men longed for above all else, but for which I cared not one whit. But such readings were only attempted panacea for my problems, and a pathway for my thoughts that did not lead back to Isil, and so I allowed myself the fleeting luxury of such whims.
I was now deep into the vaults beneath the house, and the air had grown fouler still. The torch sputtered green and blue, and a luminous haze hung in the air. I could hear the river rushing through the rock, and soon reached it. The walls were as much carved by man’s hand as by the river, the tombs of my ancestors hacked out of the bedrock and sealed by brick and mortar now grown green with fungus and mold. I coughed in the foul air, then took another draught to help my cough. The world spun for a moment, and I came close to falling into that black river before righting myself. When the dizziness had passed, I held up the torch and peered down into the river. It came rushing out of the bedrock, loud as the storm had been, the waters so dark they might have been made from ink. It was easy to believe here were the fabled waters of the Lethe, or the Styx, either one, and as I stood there with the torch over my head watching the water rush past, the thought occurred to me once again to hurl myself in and let the cold waters close over my head, for there would be a permanent forgetfulness, no matter which river it was called. No longer would I rouse from reverie and suddenly remember that I was all alone in the great house, that Isil was entombed down below me, along with everyone I had ever known, my mother and father having passed at a young age, the rest of my once-great family suffering a slow downfall in fortune and prestige and numbers in the turbulent times that preceded my birth.
But I still had hopes, however drunken and slim they might be, that somehow, somehow, Isil lived. Stranger things have happened, I thought, the dark tombs around me inspiring thoughts of the dark arts, stories I had heard told or read, such as the two lovers from feuding families who drank a draught of the very poison I had thought of previously and rendered themselves seemingly dead for a few days (although that one ended in tragedy as well, for one woke before the other and assumed the other truly dead and so decided to take the same trip), or the story, perhaps told by a very ancestor of mine, of entombing an enemy alive in just such a place as this. There have been many advancements in the sciences these last hundred years, in metallurgy, alchemy, biology, chemistry, but death still lies behind sealed doors and we do not understand it. Why then, could there not be some way around it? One does not always force himself through a door, but rather sometimes can find other means of ingress. Why not so with death?
So thinking, I reached Isil’s tomb. It was newer by far than the others, although a thin film of mold had already grown over it. I stood looking for some time. It was unmarked, for what last words I had to say I whispered in her ear on her deathbed, and had no need to share with the rest of the world. I did the brick and mortar myself, for my family’s hard times have included a diminishing of our once great riches, and also that I would have no one else do it. So I hung torches about the area, and carried her down here. She weighed nothing in my arms. I lay her on a smooth patch of floor and began to wall the bricks up around her. I put nothing else in the tomb with her, no mementos or personal effects, for in my sorrow and grief I wished to keep what I could of her to remember her by.
I cannot begin to explain how hard it was to close up the last few bricks. In the green torchlight, I could see her lying there, her skin shining white, hair yellow in the luminous way the air here has about it, and something inside me broke. I must admit I knelt there on the stone and came close to clawing away enough of the newly-built wall that I might climb inside, and then finish the job from there, entombing myself within so that I might be with her for all eternity, and it was only my belief in eternity that kept me from doing so, for all good men know that suicides spend eternity in hell, and even then I had hopes of being reunited with Isil in the afterlife. Suicide would not do. At least not such a quick version, I would think in the following weeks, as I spent a good deal of time attempting to drink myself into forgetfulness, which might be considered a much slower way of dying.
Thinking such thoughts of the day I buried her, I cast about and found the tools I had used to wall her in, for I had not removed them from the area, too drowned in grief after having finished the tomb to think of such. I had another drink. Then I chose a hammer I had used for cementing the blocks in place and hefted it. I set the brandy down. I offered a brief prayer that my actions not be seen as sacrilegious. I raised the hammer.
The first stroke echoed through that chamber in such volume that I covered my ears. I had begun to cry at some point, the excess alcohol rendering me maudlin, and the reverberation of that first stroke sent such a fear into me I might not have finished the job had not the brandy been beside me, for I reached again and drank to bolster myself, then screamed myself in such a volume that dwarfed the sound of the hammer and began once again, in earnest this time, ignoring the cacophony swirling through those dreaded chambers like a host of demons had arisen from the depths of the earth and begun to sing in concert.
After a dozen or more strokes a crack began in the wall of the tomb, and another dozen after that widened it. The bricks began to split apart, the mortar to shatter where I struck it. When the first stone tumbled inward I paused, leaning heavily on the hammer, my breathing loud in my ears, my heart hammering as hard as I had just done. Waves of light passed before my eyes, and I came close once again to swooning into that black river, but instead I straightened and raised the torch and peered inside the tomb.
My first thought was that she had shifted, or moved somehow. The torchlight fell into the tomb and I saw her skin shining as it had that last moment I had ever seen her form. Her hair was still yellow. The curve of her back down to her buttocks looked as fine as it had the first time we had ever come together as man and wife, and in my haste I hung the torch and hammered once again at the tomb walls until I had opened such a space as I could fit through and passed into the tomb and knelt there to gather her in my arms.
My hope did not last long. I suppose you have already guessed how foolish I was in thinking there might be some life left in her, for even if every foolish notion I had thought in the last few hours had been true, she could never have survived these many months down here. Only grief and alcohol had created such thoughts, for she was as dead as the moment I laid her down here and began to wall her up. Her eyes had dulled, hazed with lifelessness, and her skin hung slack on her body. Her hair, which had seemed to shine yellow, had thinned and lost its luster. I was looking at a corpse. There could be no doubt.
But I could not yet leave. I suppose you will find this to be the action of a man with a degenerative mind, but I held her for some time, stroking her hair, her face, her entire body. I was far beyond any normal sense, for if the grief and alcohol had combined to create a beforeto unknown foolishness in me, the sight of her body lying there sent me over any edge of sanity we might agree upon as having passed all realms of health.
I do not now know how long I held her, but the torch began to sputter, and the brandy bottle had grown very low indeed before I stirred. It occurred to me that I might not find my way back, for the torch could run out, or I could become, in my drunkenness, lost in these catacombs. On the heels of that thought came another: that I did not care if I found my way out or not, and, even on the heels of that thought came another, much more chilling, even in my far drunken state:
I do not care if I find my way out … without her.
I sat pondering such a statement for a long time, as the black river rushed past me. I still held her corpse in my arms. I knew she was a corpse. I was not so far gone as to believe her still alive, or to have any dark thoughts about living with, or lying with, the mortal shell of the woman I loved. Such thoughts are sacrilege, not only to God, but to Isil herself, wherever her soul might have gone, and to all humanity.
But another thought had begun to form itself. As I have said, I am a master of the alchemic arts. I have studied the biologies and philosophies and metallurgies of all our finer institutions, have published hundreds of papers and taught hundreds of classes. I have studied the hibernation cycles of animals and plants. I have studied the seven-year locust that rises from the earth after the appointed time, trees that somehow survive fire, and many other wonderful ways that life continues when in all reality it should have been snuffed out. I have held in my hands the extracts and oils and unguents and chemical secretions of varied plant and mineral life and combined them in ways to promote health and cure sickness and surely, I thought, still kneeling there with Isil’s head cradled in my hands, surely there is some way to combat death.
Even in my drunken state, I knew it to be blasphemous, but a dark fugue had come over me, brought on by the storm and the alcohol and the related misery I had felt since Isil’s death, and I sat looking at the black water rush by and knew I had to try to revive Isil or hurl myself into the water, and which was the more blasphemous? Which earned one a longer stay in hell, or a quicker path to it?
A rhetorical question anyway, for I already knew that I would have to attempt the thought that had been forming in my head. And there is no longer stay in hell, according to the Book, for each stay as is as long as any other, as long as eternity.
Still, I would attempt it. I stood and lifted her body. Once again, she weighed nothing. I hurried away from the black river, for the torch still sputtered on the verge of going out, and now that I had a purpose I wished to be about it.
When I reached the upstairs, the storm still raged. The wind under the eaves sounded like a low moaning, which fit my mood perfectly. I knew, somewhere, that I had gone beyond all reason and now delved in the world of the insane, but I did not care. Not any longer. I carried Isil through the house to my study, abandoned since her death. I lit the chandelier and stood holding her as the flames lit the room, illuminating a lifetime of beakers and flasks and burners, philters and extracts and minerals in long rows of shelves along the walls. I set Isil down on a table in the middle of the room, a heavy lead slab it had taken ten men to lift. Despite the acids and burnings and various other harshnesses I had subjected the slab to, it stood unscarred, for lead will react with nothing, even though alchemists have been trying for thousands of years to find the philosopher’s stone that would turn such a slab of lead into an equally sized slab of gold, and thus offer them fame and fortune.
Standing there, staring at the slab with Isil lying atop it, a thought struck me. Until now, I had not thought of what route or process I would use to attempt to bring her back, but the lead decided me, for those who have attempted to create such a philosopher’s stone have also theorized such a thing would offer rejuvenation, perhaps even immortality. In changing the very nature of the lead, they would have also achieved the means to change the nature of life, thus rendering it immortal.
Which could, I theorized, also work on the dead.
As I have said, I had earlier been reading obscure 15th century manuscripts, and–not such a coincidence as one might think, considering it may have been the manuscript that had subconsciously given me these dark ideas in the first place–one of them dealt with such a matter. A Romanian king, it was written, whose wife had flung herself from the battlements of the castle, attempted to use such alchemic potions to bring her back to life, and, although the manuscript was rather unclear, it seems that he did achieve some form of immortality, although the ms. did not clearly define what, except to say it was not exactly the type of immortality he had wished to achieve.
Still, I would try anything. I arranged Isil’s limbs. I ran back upstairs for the manuscript, stopping only long enough to open another bottle, for I feared I would need more fortification before this night was over.
When I arrived back at the study, I set about making the preparations. I will not tell you what such preparations entailed, nor give you any notes on the matter–the notes are burned and will never be written down again. Suffice it to say that I followed the formula hinted at (for even that ancient writer would not unleash such a formula on the world) with the exception of a few substitutions I made to meet my own ends–I did not wish immortality, but rather to bring the dead back to life–to change lead into gold, to achieve the philosopher’s stone so many men have tried to create.
I worked through the night. I could hear the storm raging on, never dissipating, as if giving me its energy. In the morning, there would be snow almost to the height of a man, but I did not care. I went about my lab, measuring and warming, combining, using all my long learning to create such a thing as to render death obsolete and bring my Isil back.
I finished just as the first grey gloom of dawn began to creep up on the world. Metaphoric, I thought, for what poet has not written an aubade and likened such to birth? I stood with the philter in my hands in the growing light and, when the light had grown strong enough, for the lanterns had long ago burned out, and I had been working in the dark, I poured it down Isil’s throat. I held her mouth closed and worked the muscles in her throat. My hands were shaking, I must admit that, and I spilled quite a lot of it on the lead top of the table, but I got it down her, and then, in rather a foolish moment, upended the last of the draught myself.
It was only then that the tiredness hit me, or perhaps the draught had something to do with it, but I swooned once again and almost hit the floor. Instead, I caught myself on the edge of the table. I steadied myself, and then, too tired to do anything else, I staggered to my study and fell asleep in my chair.
When I woke, it was almost dark once again. I had slept the day through. I woke with a horrible hangover, my head throbbing in a way that reminded me of hammers crashing into my skull, which made me think of the night’s deeds and sent me rushing down the hall calling Isil’s name.
I will offer no suspense. Did I succeed? Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. Me sitting in front of you here, now, is the proof of that.
How so? I will explain, if you cannot see the evidence right before your eyes, but let me finish the story.
I ran to my lab. Isil lay in the middle of the lead slab, only the slab was no longer lead. As I slept, it had turned to solid gold. My astonishment quickly gave way to joy, for here was the philosopher’s stone, here was lead turned into gold, and surely then that meant the formula worked, the old alchemist theorists had been right, such a thing was possible, oh deep and never-ending joy.
But as I turned her body toward me, the eyes were still lidded, and no blood ran through the veins. The heart did not beat, nor did the lashes flutter open and the eyes lock on me in the way she had of looking at me that made me feel like a child, warm and embraced. There was no warmth in her body for me to lie with, no rising and falling of her chest. Her leaden body had not turned to the golden one I knew.
Death then, cannot be defeated, once it has come.
What I found is that death can only be defeated before it has come.
The rest of it? I burned all my notes, as well as the ancient manuscripts. I sold the slab of gold, but only so I could keep myself stocked with alcohol for the long years I have left. Every evening since, I have sat in my study before the fire and stared out the window, or else tried to occupy myself with books or writing, but usually I only sit, with my memories and my drink, until the night falls away and dawn gives shape to the world out the window and I try to sleep for a few hours before repeating the previous night.
I have no need for the gold or the fame such a formula would bring to me. Without Isil, such things are nothing, worth less than nothing. And there are other gifts I would not give to the world, for they would not be gifts.
They would be curses, Father. I told you I succeeded. The philosopher’s stone not only turns lead into gold. It offers immortality, Sir. Remember, then, that I drank from it. It will not bring the dead back to life but will indeed offer unending life. How, then, would you feel, being left to wander the earth for the rest of time, no rest or respite from the thoughts and images that have haunted you every night since? Would you not wish for death then? I pray for it every night, as I have done for the last two hundred years. Will you not absolve this debt, Priest? Can you not pray to that God of yours and bring about my death in some way? How much gold would it take?
On any winter’s night, Thomas Allen can be found drinking brandy and reading obscure manuscripts on alchemy, philosophy, religion, and reincarnation.
Paul Crenshaw’s essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Interzone, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, North American Review, and Brevity, among others.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“On a Winter’s Night” is © 2019 Paul Crenshaw
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Luke Spooner