(Or: Why Love in the Moonlight Is Never a Good Idea)
Delicate, exotic flowers are still growing in the gardens at the Duke Estate, although it’s a lot harder to get in to see them now that he’s dead and his young daughter’s in charge.
I no longer work at the Duke Estate. It was there that I learned, too early in my life, how innocence and terror have their way with love. It was there that I found my darling, who even now sits across from me involved, once more, in the ageless routines of marriage. There is hot water in the tea kettle, and for breakfast this day she has made us both buttermilk biscuits, upon which she’s spooned a thick peppered gravy.
After a curt “good morning,” she has said nothing to me. That is the way it has been, more or less, for these seven years. Yet, we are, in our own way, content. We go on. She is
my love, my only love.
I was born and raised in Somerset County, New Jersey, near the county seat of Somerville. The farms there run in long narrow strips that are deep brown along the road, shading
to fertile black dirt in the pastures, ending in gray clay and tomato vines on the Raritan riverbank. Papa worked that land sunup to sundown, as the farmer’s day goes, from
the time he’d been able to walk. My great-grandfather had settled that bit of land when the Dutch had had their shortlived colony here.
James Duke came up from North Carolina with his wagons of gold in 1893. You’ve heard of Doris Duke, the “poor little rich girl”? He was her father. She was born here a few years after he arrived; her mother was Duke’s second wife. I say “wagons of gold,” but there were no wagons of gold; they were wagons full of stock options, tobacco smoke, and coal
We’d been raising fat tomatoes and corn (Country Gentleman, Silver Queen, and feed corn up near the road), and we had a couple cows, and the shed full of chickens that everybody
had in their backyard, even the city folk in Somerville.
When Mr. Duke gave Papa all that money, way more than the farm was worth, he didn’t know the trouble he was causing. It was like that with all the neighbors; money sitting in the bank doesn’t give you a reason to get up in the morning. Away Papa went to live in town, and, of course, he took us with him. Our mother had been dead for two years at that time, so Papa started living the life of a young man when he should have been thinking about his family, me and Lucy, and where we were supposed to go with no farm to fall back on. Papa loved that land, and it was the sale of it that ruined him, I believe.
I can still hear Papa; I can still see him in that bluestone house off Cedar Street, shouting that he didn’t have enough whisky in his mug. Sometimes he’s so loud in my head, maybe you can hear him, too: “And what was I to do, anyway? You can’t be the one owning the strip of land in the middle of all that and holding out! Not against a man like Mr. Duke!”
Drunk and raging he’d be, the new girlfriend hiding and, when we were there, Lucy and I up in my attic room, having heard it so many times we could practically recite it, hoping
he wasn’t going to come pounding up the stairs.
So it was four years after he’d sold the land that me and Lucy had finally become irrelevant in Papa’s life. He’s got a new lady and she doesn’t care about his old family, and the money’s going as quick as I’m talking about it. Lucy was all of thirteen and sweet and pretty but not yet marriageable, and I was sixteen, bold and invincible and naïve as hell.
I walked the miles from the house Papa had in town to where the old farm used to be, all the old farms that had run in ribbons along the dirt road and down to the river, which is now Mr. Duke’s grand estate, and I walked down the gravel driveway to the big house he’s built to live in while they’re putting in the foundations of the even bigger house he’s eventually going to live in, and there I found Mr. Duke himself, leaning against his white wrought-iron fence.
I was determined to ask him for a job, and stubborn and proud enough to not mention that he’d bought my father’s farm. But the first thing he says is, “I know you. You were one
of the runts on Buckely’s farm, weren’t you? Boy and a girl on that one. That’s you, isn’t it, but grown up big and tall and broad in your shoulders?” He points his finger at me as he
“Listen,” blowing out that Duke tobacco smoke, coming closer, bending down, “if you’re ever in need of work, I got plenty of it.” The hand with the cigarette goes up and around
my head. “I could use a boy like you. Easy job, too, the job I’m thinking of.” And he smiles, all knowing and see-throughyou.
It’s just this kind of talk that throws you off guard. And he was essentially a kind man, a romantic man, the sort that thinks the rich should be good to everybody, and I couldn’t
see then that he was twisted and strange inside, that he had this weird shape to his soul and was doing things in the dark of night no man should ever be doing. That was something I
couldn’t know at that point, I mean, you couldn’t tell something like that just by looking at him, talking to him.
He had this idea that his estate would be a park, a place where people could come and have picnics, hear brass band concerts, and admire the flowers. An odd idea, but, like I said, romantic. He’d been bringing in truckloads of artwork, he told me—life-size statues, paintings, big marble columns—and he needed someone to guard the place at night so no one walked onto the property and just hauled some of it away.
“Let’s go look around,” he said, taking off his dress coat and hanging it on the fence. He didn’t wear a vest, but his shirt was white silk and his gray pants fit him perfectly. Even
then, I noticed that he smelled kind of sour. He motioned for me to follow. This wasn’t the sort of job I thought I’d be getting, but it sounded easy enough as he talked about it. Seemed to involve just walking around with a lantern in one hand and a whistle around my neck.
“The lantern’s so the hunters don’t shoot you by accident. There’s still a few who hunt down here by night. I don’t mind ’em. Let ’em fish, let ’em hunt. As long as it’s only one or two of ’em, let ’em go. But if it looks like a bunch, or it looks like they’re drunk, give a couple of toots on that whistle. Don’t do anything yourself, understand?”
As we walked, I could see workers all around installing statues on pedestals, building a gate of big marble blocks, and raising up marble columns. As my eyes traveled up to the house’s high roofline, a little girl ran out of the front door, dancing up to Mr. Duke and looping an arm through his.
“Where are you going, Daddy?” she asked.
“Why, I’m showing Mr. Buckely around. He’s to be our night watchman! This is my daughter, Doris, Mr. Buckely.”
She briefly curtsied, all white frills and lace. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Buckely!”
Mr. Buckely? That was my father, probably drunk on the floor of some Somerville saloon. I was just “young Henry.” But I replied, “Pleased to meet you, too, Miss Duke.” I tipped my felt cap and nodded politely.
We walked a bit slower. You don’t ask your boss if his offspring can “keep up” do you? But Doris was a spunky child, and she eventually ran along ahead of us, stopping only
to smile back at her father.
He pointed down to piles of steel rail alongside a wagon. “See those tracks?” he said. “Two more months and we’ll extend it to connect to the Jersey Central line. Henry, I’ll be able to go into New York City in a Pullman car on my own train!” He tucked his fingers in his leather belt and smiled, surveying his kingdom. I’d never been out of Somerset County, of course.
Duke continued speaking, on and off, as we walked. “The river’s down a hundred feet that way.” “I’ve drained the marshes and put in ponds.” “Acres of gardens!” “Here’s where I’m building greenhouses!”
I was mostly mute. He said, “It’s been some years since you’ve been down here, I gather?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Well, I’ve made a lot of changes. You won’t recognize your daddy’s old farm, I’m afraid. Right around here’s where it was.”
And he was right. Looking around, I couldn’t even tell you where the house had stood. I’d have to see the river, see where the bend was, see the stream that bordered our property and Sophie Veghte’s, to get any idea where things used to be.
Back at the gatehouse, Mr. Duke gave me an advance on my pay and told me my nights were Tuesday through Sunday. I could have Monday to do whatever business I had of my own. The money was good enough to get Lucy and me out of my father’s house. I immediately rented us two adjoining rooms in a boarding house on West Main Street.
The first few nights were interesting. I would walk my set rounds, as my eyes adjusted to the dark, and poke my head here and there. I’d start an hour before twilight and I’d frequently see deer in the fields. I’d finish at sunup. Sometimes I’d work a bit in the morning, if there was work to be done, for a little extra pay. Mr. Duke had supplies of milk and meat, vegetables, fruit, and flour brought in fresh every morning. And buttermilk. I helped unload the buttermilk every morning. Didn’t think anything of it.
After a while, it got to be a dull routine. I’d watch the moon change phases, I’d watch the stars turn overhead. I’d hear yelling sometimes from the mansion, and after a while I was told by a groom in the carriage house that the yelling was from Mrs. Duke, who would rather be living in New York City.
Some evenings I’d get there and they’d put me to work unloading wagons. They had a chain pulley over the big barn, and they’d lift the crates out there and set them on skids. Then we’d open the crates and discard the wood. Inside there’d be more artwork for the grounds, sculptures from Italy and Greece.
We’d hitch a team of horses to the skids and drag the statues out to the statue garden, which was in a small grove of maples and pines. We’d travel down the long main estate
road, kicking up stones, past lines of young sycamore and London plane trees Duke’s gardeners had planted. Then we’d have to hitch the horses to the statues to pull them off
the skids and into the dirt, then hitch the horses up so they’d pull the statues upright into position on the small marble platforms; all the while we’d be guiding the damn things we’d be hoping they wouldn’t get loose and crush us to death.
And we’d make jokes. Someone’d say, “Hope you didn’t pay too much for these, Mr. Duke. They seem to have come in broken.” Mr. Duke would laugh and look up at the sky—his way of looking that says, I own that sky up there, too—and he’d say, “Boys, these statues are from Italy and Greece, they’re carved from fine marble. They’re classical; that’s why they’ve got pieces missing. They’re statues from ancient times!”
It was a night or two after one of those shipments, I was making my rounds a third time, it was probably three in the morning, when I heard a rustle and an odd low sound coming from the sculpture garden. I thought it might be deer, deer out really late in the moonlight, so I started walking with my lantern down the path to the circle of statues.
Then I heard a high melodic giggle and a low chuckle. Some lovers trespassing? I’d had instructions not to bother anyone unless they were vandalizing, but I thought I ought to take a look anyway.
The garden was ablaze with moonlight, and Mr. Duke and a tall young woman were undressed and reclining on the ground. I covered my lantern. They hadn’t noticed me. I watched until I felt awkward, then I quietly left.
I had been taking breaks in the garden. I wasn’t sure that I should continue to do so; I didn’t want to catch Mr. Duke with his mistress. It was a shame, because I’d gotten used to sitting on a bench, surrounded by the statues, looking at the stars. I’d even given the women names, although the names were more properly just descriptions: The Pensive One, The Tambourine Girl, The Sorrowful Lady, Aphrodite, Cornucopia, The Dancing One, The Warrior, The Welcoming One, and The Grape Girl. They stood in a rough circle spread out at the edge of the trees, their pale marble bodies all facing in toward the center.
Several evenings later, I’d gone to the spot where Mr. Duke and his paramour had been. Summertime, and twilight late, I had plenty of time to look around. I guess I went because I was young and I’d never had a woman of my own. Lust drew me there, even though I knew lust wouldn’t be satisfied there.
I didn’t see a sign of Mr. Duke or his young lady, but I hadn’t really thought I would. I guess I spent some time there thinking about women in general, surrounded by those statues
After a while, I got up and continued my slow walk around the estate.
But later that night—again, about three a.m.—I heard romantic sounds coming from the sculpture garden. This time, it was a soft murmur, almost like someone talking to himself. Then I heard rustling and a man’s low chuckling. Mr. Duke again.
I couldn’t help but look. Perhaps I moved too fast. Perhaps I should have been more careful.
I shut the lantern and hid behind a fir. I could see very little through the thick, fragrant branches. The night sky was full of dark clouds, yet I could see enough to see his figure on
the ground, and someone else on the ground with him. I could see enough to see him rise and turn.
“Who’s there?” he demanded, stomping a few feet towards me. I kept silent, afraid to breathe. I desperately needed this job, and it had been going so well.
“Damn you!” he hissed at the trees. “If you’re spying for my wife, I’ll find you out, mark my word!”
I could hear the shifting of cloth and a snap being fastened. And then Mr. Duke stormed away down the path to the house, leaving the girl just lying there on the ground.
I crouched startled and frightened under that fir tree for I don’t know how long. A half hour, maybe. I was waiting for the girl to get up and leave, but the girl didn’t move. I could just barely make out her body, sprawled on the damp earth. She hadn’t moved a muscle. I didn’t know what to do. Had he murdered her?
I didn’t know what was going on. I had to look. I had to know if she was all right.
So I crept towards her, out of the cover of the trees, on my hands and knees. It was so dark, I could hardly see where I was going, her body just a curve of pale shadow. I could smell something sweetish as I got closer to her. It was a strong odor; it smelled like mother’s milk from the breast, life-giving, but then, as I reached her, it turned into that sourness that follows Mr. Duke everywhere.
I gently touched her hand. It was chilly and smooth. Her fingers curled up and pressed into my palm.
“Are you all right?” I whispered, but I got no response. Her other hand brushed my hair. Then she pushed my head down toward her breasts. It was so sudden that I fell on top of her. She was naked, her body full and very firm.
I couldn’t control myself, couldn’t help myself. It was my first time! How could I know? I kissed her breasts; I tasted them, that sourness like spoilt milk. I sucked at her nipples.
All the while she caressed my face, my arms. It was as if I had another person inside me, a person who needed this, who knew how to do this, who had only been waiting to get loose.
I became that other person, that lover, who was yet still myself.
She pulled my shirt over my head and unbuckled my pants. I pulled them off, down to my ankles, then went back, greedy, my mouth searching again for her breasts. She arched her back and spread her legs up and around me. I kneeled between them and I entered her, leaning forward and pushing gently. She bucked against me. My hands found her breasts again. I bent down to kiss her, to taste her, but my lips found nothing, nothing at all, nothing where her face ought to be.
I reached my hand out, groped the dirt in a panic. She writhed under me, squeezing me hard inside her. I found her shoulders, then her neck. Her knees kept squeezing me against her groin, while she pushed my hands away from her throat, frantic, elbowing me in the face. She finally grabbed my wrist and pulled it back, wrapping both her arms around me. I tried to pull out, to get away. I didn’t understand what was happening, what monster held me.
She locked her thighs over me and levered herself around and on top of me.
As she reared up, pressing me deeper into her body, the clouds released the moon behind her, and I could clearly see her headless torso, white as death, as I gushed into her, struggling, spasming under her.
She kept moving on top of me for a few more minutes. Then, seemingly satisfied, she fell backwards on the grass. The moon was out full now, and I could see her plainly. I pulled up my pants and grabbed my shirt and ran from the circle, stumbling into the dark shadows. In my head, I saw all those statues watching me flee.
I thought to stay away. I thought to quit my job. I walked the estate the rest of the night, afraid to go anywhere near the garden. I stood shaking and crying by one of the marble columns across from the house. I kept silently pleading, asking the man in the big mansion, “What have you done? No! No! What have I done?”
By morning I was almost back to myself, although sullen and quiet. Fortunately, no one asked me to unpack a crate or unload a wagon, and I walked home quickly. Lucy was just
about to leave our rooms, all dressed for school. She kissed me on the cheek and bounded down the stairs, saying over her shoulder that she’d left me some sliced bread and strawberry jam.
I shut the door and collapsed on my bed. I had to go back, for Lucy. I had to pay our rent and pay for her schooling. If I could stay away from the garden, maybe I would be all right.
But the woman? The woman I’d made love to? No, who made love to me? Who was she? What was she? Was she dead? A ghost? My mind was churning and roiling, racing like the river in high flood.
I lay awake all day fearing a knock on my door, and dreading the evening when I must return. If she were truly dead, would someone find her? Notify the police? Would they think I had murdered her? Did I murder her? Did Mr. Duke?
The afternoon came quickly, and soon it was time to walk the river road back to the estate. When I arrived, everything seemed normal. The staff were about their usual business. Wagons sat and horses were being stabled. Then the day watchman came forward and shook my hand. He put his arm around my shoulder.
“Good to see you, Henry. See or hear anything out of the ordinary last night?”
I nearly coughed out my reply, my throat had turned so suddenly dry. “Nothing, Nathan. Was dark though. All night. Cloudy. It was very dark.”
“Well, one of Mr. Duke’s statues toppled over in the garden. I imagine a deer prob’ly kicked it over. They set it up right again this morning.”
“Oh.” My mind went blank. Nathan smiled and patted me on the shoulder.
“Nothin’ anybody can do about that. And it didn’t hurt the statue none. Mr. Duke was wondering if vandals had gotten in there, though. He might want to talk to you about it
later. Thought I’d give you a heads-up, that’s all.” He went and got his coat down from a peg on the wall. “I found your lantern by a fir tree.” He pointed to the lantern. “Put it back up on the shelf for you. Imagine you’ll need it tonight.”
I didn’t see Mr. Duke that evening, and I stayed away from the garden until the moon rose over the tree line. But I had to go back. At first, I crept along like a trespasser, but then I got more courage and I thought to myself, I’m supposed to be here, I’m the night watchman.
I turned up the lantern and strode into the circle of statues. She was standing on her block of marble, motionless, frozen, yet so beautiful. Her arms reached out, her hands gracefully poised to welcome passers-by to the garden. I gazed at her legs, her lovely plump thighs, the tilt of her hips, her small belly, her perfect breasts, and I trembled. I wanted her. I turned and looked at the other statues. I wondered if I were losing my mind.
Each night I would visit her. I’d forsake my rounds and sit at her feet. I’d caress her ankles and her knees. I even placed my lips on her hard stone nipples. I wanted to kiss her absent
mouth. I talked to her, who had no ears. I wanted her to see me, she who had no eyes. Nothing that I could do would move her. A thought passed: I saw myself knocking her to the
dirt, somehow violating her. I whispered to myself all night.
I walked the circle of statues, examining them. The one I had been calling Cornucopia had a missing hand. The Tambourine Girl had a chip missing from her nose. The Sorrowful Lady was missing half of one of her feet. I asked them all to tell me what had happened to her. I asked them to tell me what had happened to me.
The mornings were hard for me. I would come back angry, sullen, and only grunt at anyone trying to converse. The groundskeeper warned me twice about my disposition. Walking home, I couldn’t help but stare at women’s faces: shopgirls in bonnets, matrons in feathered and beribboned hats. They all had heads.
At home I’d plaster a smile on my face for Lucy, but when she had walked down the stairs and off to school, I’d collapse on my bed, only to stare at the blank gray ceiling. When I did
sleep, I had nightmares of chasing women down Main Street with a hacksaw.
A month went by like this. Then, one night, as the moon tended toward full again, I found another man in my garden: Mr. Duke, who was dressed in a white nightshirt that hung down to his bare legs, a triangle protruding up stiff in the middle. I watched as he dipped a cloth in a pail and brought it up to wash The Pensive One. Sour milk? No, buttermilk. I could smell buttermilk from where I watched at the garden entrance.
Finally, Mr. Duke put down the pail and held out his hand. They stood for a moment like that, pale silhouettes against the dark trees, unreal apparitions. Then the statue lifted her white stone arm and put her hand in his.
I knew what he had done. I ran forward, pointing to my love, hardly realizing that I was shouting. “How could you? She has no head! How could you bring her to life with no head! Are you that perverted, that insane?”
The Pensive One slowly turned. They were both looking at me. But it was the statue who spoke.
“Do you love her?” it said. Its voice had a hard sharp edge. “If you love her, why deny her?”
I looked quickly at the headless statue that I had called The Welcoming One. I looked back at the strange couple across the garden. Mr. Duke lifted the pail of buttermilk and held it out.
I hesitated, but I couldn’t help myself. I walked slowly,trying not to look at his face, trying to not meet his eyes. I took the pail. I walked across the garden to my frozen love. Gently, I washed her with buttermilk and, as I touched her, she came alive.
I led her away from the garden. I took her deep into the woods. We made love, and again she took control of me. When we were finished, I talked to her for hours, although she made no indication that she could hear me. How could she? She had no ears!
The moon set, and eventually the violet light of dawn rose around us. I fell asleep, and when I awoke, she was hard unyielding stone again.
I hurried to the barn, not knowing what time it was. I met the groundskeeper, who just scowled and shook his head. There was no need to warn me again. I should have been
fired, but I didn’t care.
“Where is Mr. Duke?” I demanded.
The groundskeeper shook his head. “At this hour, fast asleep I’d imagine. And why would you be wanting him?”
I waited in the barn, alarming the stablehands. Then I moved outside to where I could see the main house.
Several hours passed. I almost gave up and went home when I finally saw Mr. Duke slam the front door and walk out on the veranda. I could hear Mrs. Duke inside, clearly unhappy, yelling at someone.
I took a deep breath and began walking towards him, but he lifted his head from lighting his cigarette and met me halfway.
“Mr. Duke—” That was all I could say. I shook my head.
“Mr. Duke—” He gripped my arm, said, “Son, let’s take a walk around,” and led me down the main road. On the way, he stopped to say hello to one of the local farmers, who’d just come in with a wagonload. I had to hold myself steady. On the back of the wagon, bottles of clear yellow buttermilk. I wanted to vomit.
Mr. Duke went on to check how his railroad was progressing. Then we were at the sculpture garden.
I felt the statues staring at us.
He gestured at the empty marble block. “We’ve had an accident with one of the sculptures last night, Henry. Deer must have knocked it over. Broke it all to hell. I’m getting another
one from Italy.”
I couldn’t stand looking at the smile on his face.
“Just wanted you to know, Henry.”
“It’s all right, son. Clearly you’re obsessed with her. Buttermilk. Just get yourself some buttermilk. You’ve seen how it’s done.”
“Mr. Duke— She has no head!”
“Yep. That’s something of a flaw, isn’t it? Flaw in her personality?” He chuckled. “Most lads your age don’t care what’s above the neck. But I suspect you do, and so I’ve been thinking
on that. Meet me in the sculpture garden at moonrise tonight. Ought to be a good time to do it, tonight. Bring her with you.”
“Buttermilk, Henry. I don’t expect you to lug a marble statue. That thing must weigh over two tons. Take her hand and lead her here. Moonrise, you understand?”
“Yes sir.” What else could I say?
“Good. Now get on home. Get some rest, if you can do it. Looks like you haven’t slept in weeks. Luther wanted to fire you. I told him to give you another month, you’ll be right as
rain. Come back tonight, make your usual rounds, and meet me here at moonrise. Buttermilk. Get a pail from the cold cellar. There’s jugs of it down there.”
I spent the day in the woods with her. I didn’t go home. When the moon rose, I washed her, then I led her by the hand like a blind person. She was so soft, so warm. It was slow, careful
going. When we got to the circle of statues, Mr. Duke was waiting with a pair of shovels. He took my lantern. “Are you sure you want a real woman?” he muttered, thrusting his chin in the direction of his house.
Then, “Hope you’re ready for some hard work, Henry!”
I was too awed to say anything. Next to him was a huge, muscular giant that I recognized from the roundabout in back of the house. He had been standing there motionless, holding a granite globe to the sky, since at least the day I was hired two months ago. Now he was standing here smelling of sour milk. Mr. Duke motioned with his arm, and we three followed.
He led us through the woods, well behind the main house. Then he led us out on the road. We walked alongside the estate grounds for a while, and soon we were walking past farmhouses. No one was awake, there were no lights burning anywhere. We were heading toward the church, whose steeple neatly bisected the full rising moon.
Mr. Duke led us up the walk and around the building into the churchyard. He motioned with his hand and said, “Pick one.”
I didn’t understand.
“Pick a woman’s grave, Henry.”
Mr. Duke sighed and shook his head. “I can’t do this for you, Henry. You have to do it yourself. Don’t worry, they’re all dead and gone. They can’t hurt you.”
I felt my lover behind me, naked, leaning into my shoulder. I turned around. She bent down, as if she would kiss me, had she a mouth. I was terrified. But I wanted her. I wanted to touch her lips, run my fingers through her hair, brush back it from her face, gaze into her eyes. I wanted to kiss her nose, I wanted to see her smile. I wanted to hear her giggle, moan, sigh, whisper.
I wanted her to see me!
Yes, Mr. Duke, I wanted a real woman. I wanted to hear her voice, know her thoughts.
I walked through the graves, dipping the lantern, reading the inscriptions. I picked a woman’s grave at random.
BORN MARCH 8TH 1765
DEPARTED THIS LIFE JANUARY 12TH 1801.
BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER
SLEEP, SWEET ONE, AND TAKE THY EASE
AMONG THE SAINTS WHERE TROUBLES CEASE
My hand was shaking as I pointed. We began to dig.
The giant worked fast, heaping dirt up alongside the grave. I shoveled enough to make the sacrilege my own. And it was I who slid into the bottom of the pit, my feet breaking through the soft rotten wood of her coffin.
The earth was cold and smelled of exposed mold, deeply pungent and sweet. My feet found uneven purchase; I couldn’t see anything in the dark of that grave, but I could feel her disturbed bones coming up around my ankles. My heart was beating so fast it ached in my chest. I pulled dirt and wood away as quickly as I could. I knew what I was searching for, Mr. Duke didn’t have to tell me. I groped around blindly, my fingers finally tracing the curve of an eye socket.
I pulled, but the skull was smooth and slick and wouldn’t move. I was frantic. Something was holding it to the bottom of the grave; I pulled hard and heard it snap from the spinal column.
“Very good, Henry.” Mr. Duke loomed over the hole. I tried to hand it up to him, get it away from me. “No,” he said. “Hold onto it carefully.” As soon as I cleared the open grave, the giant began shoveling the dirt back in. It took him minutes, then he packed it down. In the moonlight, I tried to clean dirt and mold from the skull, brushing it with my shaking fingers.
“Come Henry, let’s go.” Mr. Duke led us quickly out of the churchyard and along the side of the road. I led my headless lover with one hand. I held May’s skull with the other, curled around the bottom of the jaw.
We went back to the garden. Mr. Duke motioned to a big bag lying on the ground. I let go of my lover’s hand and reached into the bag. Clothes, a women’s nightdress. I looked up at Mr. Duke.
“Dress her, Henry. Be a gentleman.” When she felt the cloth in her hands, she knelt and lifted her arms so the long nightdress would fall over her shoulders and over her breasts. Then she pulled it down over her hips. Her ragged throat stuck up over the neckline.
“That’ll do. Later, we’ll get her into something more respectable. Lift poor May’s skull onto her body now. Move her arms up. Let her hold it there.”
Mr. Duke drew a line in the dirt with his foot. Then he connected that to another line, and another. When he was done, there were seven lines forming a star of sorts. May’s skull, atop the living statue, was in the intersection of the seven lines. Mr. Duke took off his clothes and instructed me to do the same. Ever since I had surprised him a month ago, I had been living in a nightmare. Now, suddenly, the nightmare was much too real. I wanted to run. I wanted to wake up. I wanted to shout, No! This is wrong!
“Henry, your clothes.”
I looked at my lover in the center of the star. All I could see was the gruesome rotted skull that she held above her neck. My stomach lurched.
“Henry, please pay attention. We are about to begin.”
I heard the giant step up behind me. And I heard the words of The Pensive One repeating in my head: “Do you love her? If you love her, why deny her?”
I took off my shirt and unlaced my boots. I took off my pants. I stood naked in the moonlight. Mr. Duke motioned that I should stand opposite him. “Wait there, Henry.”
He stepped back and reached down and came up with a ragged towel. When he moved into the dark shadows of the trees, I spied the pails of buttermilk. He set one in front of each statue, then he took the remaining buckets and poured buttermilk into each of the seven lines of the star, making a network of milky canals.
When the pale yellow star glowed in the moonlight, he brought each statue to life, gently washing them, the towel going around and around in great circles over breasts and buttocks, buttermilk dripping from cleavage and hips and arms.
The statues—should I call them women now?—moved to stand at each point of the star, except for one, The Sorrowful One, who stood apart, a witness.
Mr. Duke pulled the last pail off the ground and walked unceremoniously through the buttermilk drawing. He lifted the pail up to where my lover held the skull, and poured the
liquid through the frozen jaw.
At first, there was only the wash of buttermilk soaking the nightdress. Then a glow, a sickly marvelous yellow light, like that of a firefly, surrounded the skull. A transparent face appeared, a woman’s face, hovering before the brown bone, eyes matching up to hollow eye sockets, lips playing like a mirage on the rotted teeth.
She was pretty, and perhaps thirty years old. The transparent image wavered, faded, then grew more solid.
“Chant with me, Henry. . . . Henry!”
Mr. Duke began making strange guttural sounds, a rhythmic vocalization that drew me like an undertow away from my thoughts. I began to mouth the syllables as best I could. It was drawing in May Trent, too; I could see that. Her face became more real. I could see pox marks and how her lips were slightly cracked. I could see her clear green eyes and the lines on her beautiful brow. The sharp curves of her cheeks merged with the skull. Suddenly I could hear her breathing through her mouth and see my lover’s chest rise and fall.
“Very good,” said Mr. Duke. “We’ll make a conjurer of you yet, Henry.”
My lover—should I call her May? Is she now May?—put one hand on her face, gently touching it in different places, and one hand on her body, also exploring. She looked down
at herself. She looked up at the night sky.
Mr. Duke laid new clothes on the ground for May. Now he was getting into his own trousers. He nodded that I should do the same. He turned his back to May. So did I. We put on our trousers. I had assumed that she would also be putting clothes on, over her nightdress, but when we turned around, she was gone.
I saw her through the trees, running, the white nightdress soaked in buttermilk clinging to her back and legs. We ran after her, following her pale, ghostly form as it weaved through the dark trunks. She stopped at the river, and when we caught up to her, she was staring down into the moonlit water. I touched her shoulder. I wanted her to turn and look at me. I desperately wanted her to see me; perhaps I only wanted to have the satisfaction of knowing that she was looking at me, her lover.
Either way, when she turned she slapped me so hard she knocked me onto my back.
“Well, I see you two need some time to get acquainted!”
Mr. Duke rubbed his hand over his face. He was leaning, his elbow against a tree, still panting from the race through the forest. Then he turned to leave.
“Buttermilk!” he cried, over his shoulder. “Buttermilk does the trick!”
But it is a trick, isn’t it? I watched him go. When I turned back, I saw that she had waded out into the cold water. I followed her, pleading with her, trying to reason with her, despite that my reasons for bringing her to life sounded stupid and selfish, even to my own ears. Waking the dead— Waking the dead! How could I justify that atrocity? I told her that I did it because I loved her. But how could I love her? I didn’t even know her! Suddenly, this was a person, not a statue. How could I have made this horrible mistake?
She didn’t say a single word to me, she just kept walking deeper into the reach of the river. In spite of my cries, my blathering protests, she had no idea who I was or what I wanted from her. I followed, now up to my chest in the roiling black water, now up to my shoulders. She was moving farther away, rudely shoved by the current, but then I saw her slip, falling into the strong pull, going under.
I leapt, diving under the water and swimming for her. Reaching out, kicking frantically, gasping for air, reaching again, I finally caught hold of the bottom of her nightdress and pulled her closer to me, bunching up the muslin fabric until I could heave her onto my back. The current nearly took both of us, but finally I found my feet, scraping on pebbles and slick drowned logs, and was able to stand and stumble to the shore.
We lay on the bank together, breathing hard. Her nightdress was ripped and muddy, my trousers heavy with silt and water. She looked at me for a long while, her face pale in the moonlight. I think I might have managed to smile. Then her mouth opened, and she screamed. She howled. All she had to say to me, she said right then in that scream. I don’t
know where people go when they die, but I can tell you, they don’t like to be woken up again. Never in the life I have left do I want to hear another scream like that one.
And it didn’t stop there.
It has not been easy. She is not at all what I had imagined. Frankly, I have no idea why she stays with me. She could go anywhere, have anyone. I think it is only because I know her
secret. We are two people, no longer a stupid boy, no longer a statue of a woman. There are days now when I am more afraid of her than I was then. I know, too, that I was in lust, not love, when we brought her to life, or, more perfectly, when we brought her out of death, for while her body was contrived of marble, she is May Trent.
Some days I think that she is not whom I would have chosen for a wife. Love in the dark moonlight is never a good idea, but yet, yet, I can say now that I think I know what love is, and I can say that I have come to love her.
I can tell you how she delights in our modern world: the railroad, the telegraph, but especially our gramophone and small collection of recordings; she leans her head back and closes her eyes and smiles as she listens to their sweet strains.
We go on together. Sometimes, when she’s feeling charitable, she will rub my shoulders, or kiss my cheek. When we love, it is of a different sort, slow and gentle. She talks to me sometimes, in the middle of the night, of what her life had been like. She is both ten years and a hundred years older than I. And I know she misses her husband. Her real husband.
She’s never turned to stone again, although when she complains that her joints are stiff, a little buttermilk seems to help, but that’s a winter complaint we all share as we grow older.
Mr. Duke died last summer. We heard rumors that he was murdered by his wife, poisoned, but you can’t put much credence in that kind of gossip. I know it’s true that, after he’d been laid in the ground, she had had plans to sell the estate, get rid of all of it, and move up to New York City, but her twelve-year-old daughter, Doris, hired a lawyer and won the estate for herself.
I don’t know what the future will bring, but I imagine the statues are all still there, in the circle in the garden—all but my love, of course.