Chapter 1: Part the First
You have to name a thing to make it live, don’t you?
Together, they had no name. They never had a name. There were no mirrors behind their eyes to bring their faces to life. And so this thing between them? It did not live.
After Mina, she was resolved to walk on alone. But he beckoned, in his way, and she went to him, in hers.
He had lost his world. Is there anything more pathetic than a man who has lost his world? It was like seeing the pelt of a rare creature hung upon a wall. Lifeless, and void of anything resembling power. She found herself responsible for this shredding of his maps, for the smashing of his globes, for the way the scraps of his world floated away on demon’s breath- a force some might call the wind. With her moment’s transgression she had scarred herself and all those around her for life. So she was bound to him in penance. So she thought in other ways, she could try to return pieces of his demolished existence to him.
Not in kind. No. Never in kind.
She was a cruel little girl after all.
That was a name he gave her, and for quite a while she lived that. Had he ever taken that back? That name? Certainly now she was different, curled near him in front of the fire like an amiable creature, like his own shadow. Something familiar.
Even such as they were, docile in their grief, they did not call their thing familiar, for that would be a naming. And theirs was an unnamed, lifeless thing. The pelt, nailed upon the wall. It was a thing that drifted like smoke on the current of some other life force.
Or had he been the one to spin the globe with his sunburnt hands? Had he been the one to set in motion their tragic odyssey? He was after all at the center of the maze, fucking. Oh yes, she had heard the squelchy sounds of his primal fucking, had seen his manhood gleam wet and sticky in the moonlight as it pulled in and out. One could argue she’d been forever changed.
One could argue he had changed her.
Be that as it may, in grief they have lost their lust to argue over semantics.
Perhaps alone they each had names. Perhaps alone they each lived. But together, they had no definition, even as tendrils of their essence trailed and wove around the other.
She was a vessel that held more than his life was even worth. What would you call that thing? In the dark, he pondered this question in the moment just before sleep stole him. Could he have called that thing need? Desire? Possession? Possibly, he could have named it those things, but he did not.
He was a cell where she bode her time, attempting to atone while talking herself out of love with death.
They were a phase of the moon that did not exist.
He almost named her daughter.
For a day, they wept in each other’s arms. How they clung, unabashedly, as though they could not get close enough to one another, and desired to be closer. Trauma has a way of doing that, doesn’t it? A way of warping the edges of a thing so that it bends in more readily toward its other part than it might if it were intact. The next morning she descended the stairs to find he’d already left to bury Mina.
It was a trip on which Vanessa could not lend her company, and so she waited. Alone.
Those weeks, while he was away, she sat at his desk and touched his things with light fingers, as though she could tickle them into giving up secrets about their owner. His globe spun under her hands. Pages of books ruffled like feathers. She pressed a fingerprint into a glass paperweight. But they gave away nothing. They stared back at her with naught but an echo of the promise she had made that first night, when she darkened his door in the rain.
You’ll be done, and I’ll walk on.
Vanessa packed her bags and was prepared to go. She wasn’t sure to where she would travel, but she knew she would honor her end of the promise to walk away from him after they had found and rescued Mina. Nothing went to plan in their dreadful search and recovery, so at the very least, it was a small part of something she could honor. For him.
She had Sembene bring her bags down to the door, and Sir Malcolm had Sembene bring them back up to her room.
He said nothing to her about it.
She made an assumption that because her things were back in her room, he intended for her to stay with him. So she stayed. He made no request, so she made no acquiescence. After all, speaking was a thing for the living. After all, they were not a thing that lived.
They did not discuss her ongoing residency, not then or ever. In fact, for weeks, she took a self imposed vow of silence and she did not speak of anything at all. If he was dissatisfied or content with her quiet he did not say. He expressed neither frustration or patience with her. It was rare for them to make eye contact with one another, even as they spent hours in the presence of the other.
There were times, though, when he’d be lost in his studies and she would in turn study him. She would note how his lips moved, ever so slightly, and followed his eyes as they travelled his text. There were times when she fell asleep in front of the fireplace and he would sigh over the creases in her brow, the twitches of her fingers as they furled and unfurled in fists against the leather. She would wake to find herself covered with a shawl.
Time passed in stillness and space, but for perfunctory ambulations of eating, drinking, washing, errands. They neither sought one another out, nor avoided one another.
There was nothing particularly special about the night she broke her silence and said to his back, “He came to me, you know, in your shape. When I was ill in bed at home. He came to me as you.” She closed the book in her lap and folded her hands on top of it.
Sir Malcolm turned from his map to face her. Most of the artifacts in his study had been packed away, but he kept one wall covered with maps as a vestige of another age, times and places to which he could run and hide in the forested recesses of his mind. Had she dragged him back from darkest Africa or the Amazon? She would never know, nor would she particularly care.
“How peculiar,” he said in reply. He seemed unfazed by the sudden apparition of her hoarse voice. He strode to the crystal decanter and poured brandy into two crystal tumblers. Vanessa stood to meet him and he handed a glass to her. They both drank, allowing liquor to burn away all other unsaid sentences held within their throats.
In black lace and taffeta she rustled as she moved to stand before the fire. He was surprised to realize this had been her voice over the past days of silence- the sultry sound of her clothing speaking in a strange language, alerting him to her presence and her mood. Without words she had said more to him of sorrow and survival than he could ever translate. This tome seemed to suddenly appear in his hands, although it had been there all along.
Hussshhhhh, her skirts whispered as she returned to the sofa, and spread them out in her chosen seat. And the voice of her body and garments? How did that speak to him? What did it say? What did it communicate to his proud pulse as it stirred throughout him? Were there things this transcendent voice urged him to do in dark, private places?
He considered the pale woman before him. “Do you think me demonic, then? A twisted serpent? A devil from the depths?” He asked her, his tone measured, his gaze unfaltering.
“No.” She stretched her arms out over the back of the settee, settling herself in a more comfortable position. Ohhhhh, her dress sighed. She had thought about this for many months. She had thought about how much she would tell him, and why she would tell him. She returned eye contact that was equally certain to his. “Your pride will not allow you to ask why, Sir Malcolm? Why the demon came to me in your form? Are you not at all curious why he picked you to come to me?”
He sloshed more brandy into his glass. “Tell me then.” Her lips stretched into a slight smile. Such a clever woman, setting him up to be able to command rather than ask for what he didn’t even know he wanted.
“The devil was a vile tempter. And for all I wanted to be pious, he knew.”
“What exactly did he know?”
“He knew that I would not, no, that I could not resist you. There was safety in you, always, even when you wanted to snap my neck and end my life easy as you might a pheasant. Even when you closed the gates forever, and in anger you unknowingly sealed my tomb of despair, I still would have gone to you, would have leapt into your arms as nimbly as I did when I was a child.” She considered his face. Constricted anger and pain carved itself into his features, knit his brows together over years of anguish. She lowered her eyes to his hand and wondered, did she see it tremble, did she see a tiny ripple in the amber alcohol?
“You open your lips to speak to me again only to speak to me of depravity?” He murmured. He turned from her to look out the window at nothing in particular, at darkness.
“It seems to be the only subject on which we are fit to converse,” she replied and stood again. She approached him, stood a pace behind him.
“Indeed we have walked through hell, side by side, you and I.” His voice was neither angry or sad, in fact he was impossible to read. Vanessa reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, needing him to turn so she could see exactly which card she had drawn from the deck.
“It seems as though I am forever talking to your back,” she said.
Ahh. The ten of swords. Upright. A multitude of destructive forces, pinning them like butterflies against pages of anguish. Would there be any hope in the heavy winter sky, she wondered?
He turned and allowed his eyes to absorb the snowy column of her neck and slope of her shoulders. She’d grown more pale these past weeks, hadn’t she?
She swallowed and whispered, “I always did so love your eyes. They used to be so merry.”
His mouth twisted in a grimace, and he shook his head to clear away his concerns with her pallor. “Those days are long past. I chose not to even remember them. We shall not speak of them now. You are correct that we are only fit to speak of tragedy and demise.”
“Very well then,” she sighed and looked back toward the fire. In her mind, the cards shuffled themselves and prepared to be wrapped in satin cloth and tucked away in a box.
“Were you frightened?” He asked, suddenly enough to unnerve her. Her heart quickened, She remembered how the demon had quoted Keats, but in Sir Malcom’s gravelly voice, how it had seduced her so far beyond fear she had lost herself quite completely.
“No,” she answered honestly. “Does that disgust you?”
“No,” he answered honestly, but half surprised, by his own word, ejaculated between them.
“There were many other times when I was frightened. And there were other times when I was so ill, I did not have the sense about me to feel anything akin to fear. But that time, when you came to me in that way, I was not afraid. I was possessed and that gave me a strength, but there was also a comfort in thinking you were with me.”
“That was not me, Vanessa,” he said and grabbed the wrist that was about to touch his arm. “We have never had any comfort for one another. Only cruelty and misery.” To prove his point he squeezed her wrist until she winced. It was as though he grasped her for a strange dance, even though he was not. It was as though they could hear tremors of a strange music that would compel their bodies to move, even though they heard nothing and they were not dancing, rather, stood perfectly still, her wrist frozen in his fist.
“Anyway, what could a man such as yourself know of comfort or of fear?” She quipped with might have been hurt or anger or disappointment. They had no name and so there was no way to qualify the tension coiling around and within them.
“Comfort, no. I’ve known precious little of that. But you are a foolish girl if you think I’ve not known fear,” he grumbled. She wrenched her arm from him. “I have known the fear of a man who has lost everything, a man who has been injured and left for dead upon a mountain top because help was too remote and would never arrive. I have known the fear of a man who prays daily for things to resolve, to purify, and yet all becomes more sullied and destitute around him. Make no mistake, I have known fear, Vanessa Ives. Have made fear my brethren because there is none else to have and to hold me.”
“I am here,” she offered bitterly. “I have always been here.”
“You are and you are not.”
“I am here.” She extended her arms and then drew them back in and slammed her fists against her chest. He caught her hands so they could not inflict any more blows on her slight frame and drew her to him. One hand held the back of her neck, the other found the small of her back.
“And what am I to do with you, since you are here, Miss Ives? Hmm?” His voice scratched her flesh. She arched in his arms, remembering. Darkling, I listen. . . They stared at one another, their breath reaching the same rapid rhythm, but it did nothing to clarify their confusion at their sudden proximity. She brought a hand to the lapel of his coat and reached up to stroke his neck as she searched his eyes. He was hot and firm and pulsating with the ferocity of his life force, yet there was also a softness to his skin that surprised her. “You would drag me deeper into the depths of hell? Is that what you want?” He said, and at this, his voice was truly sad. She hated herself then, for the way her abdomen pooled with heat at the sight of his sorrow.
“Hope is a thing long since eradicated in my life, but there was a small part of me that always hoped you would come to me again, and that it would be you.” She brushed his cheek with her knuckles.
“That was not me. I will not come to you.” His words rubbed her skin raw.
“Then I will come to you,” she said and pulled his face down so their dry, clenched lips met in a hot kiss. He pushed her from him after a moment and smoothed the front of his coat, tugged at his vest.
“Goodnight, Vanessa,” he said in a gnarled voice, with a gnarled expression. He walked from the room.
Weeks later, when she went to his room, it was late at night or early in the morning. His door was unbolted and she slipped in like a silver whisper of moonlight. Her white nightdress was edged in pearly blue ribbon, which she fiddled with for a moment as she watched the rise and fall of his sleeping form. He was on his side, his back turned to her. He awoke with a short grunt as she pulled back the covers and climbed beneath them, but he did not turn to her as she curled into him. She spent a moment feeling surprised over the fact he wore not a stitch. She had seen him often enough in his fine, tailored pajamas and heavy silk robe, but she had never presumed to imagine he slept thus.
She pressed her cheek to his bare back, and tucked her knees behind his, but she did not put her arms around him. She folded her arms over her chest, like the wings of a bird, and tucked her hands between her legs. Like that, they stayed until the sun rose. When the room was light, and before he woke, she returned to her own chamber and prepared herself for the day.
They spoke not a word about her arrival in his bed, for how does one speak of that which has no name and does not live?
The next night there was less deliberation on her part prior to going to him, so it was slightly earlier in the evening. Again his back was to her, and again he did not turn to greet her, but she could tell he was awake. She fitted her body into his and at some point, they slept.
This continued for some days, until days turned to weeks and weeks to a month. She did not keep track of how many nights she went and laid, chaste and still beside him. It was not like praying a rosary, where you could count out beads and land at a resolution or feel somehow better. It felt like nothing and it felt like everything to be next to his warm, naked body.
After the passage of many nights, when she entered his room, she removed her own nightdress prior to sliding into bed with him. When her breasts pressed against the firm expanse of his back, she felt his surprise in the acceleration of his breath. She wove her arm over his waist and her hand found a spot on his chest where she could feel his heart beat. This became the new routine, and although his hips seemed to nuzzle back toward her belly in a gentle but obvious undulation, he still did not turn to her.
There was a night when he caught her hand as it threaded itself under his arm, and he held it.
There was a night when he caught her hand and brought it to his face. She opened it and he pressed her palm against his lips, and he kissed it.
On another night she emboldened her lips to press delicate kisses into his back and neck.
And on yet another night she reached up to stroke his face, then fit her fingertips over his eyelids and exerted the slightest pressure on them.
Her presence and embrace evolved over nights that flowed endless as the Nile, from autumn into winter. They were but ghosts, slipping through one another in silence. Each night he waited, wondering if it would be the night she didn’t come, wondering if he would feel relieved or bereft, but he never wondered for very long as her appearance was consistent and reliable. During the day they took their meals and went about their business in a manner which was neither amiable or hostile. There was no name for it, as you know. So it wasn’t that they pretended that their night time communication did not exist, so much as it truly did not exist. But individually, they were still a human man and a human woman and thereby were not immune to the rumbling hungers of the human flesh. He took to relieving the pressure in his groin each morning after she had left, milking himself with an urgent fist, as he buried his face in her pillow and inhaled the specter of lilac she left behind. This way, he could greet her across the breakfast table with a bland expression and not wonder (or imagine) if she had gone back to her room and inflicted similar abuse on her own swollen area.
It happened the night she allowed her hand to trace lightly over his belly, her arm languidly draped over his hip. She could have drawn magic symbols in the coarse hair of his abdomen had he not rolled onto his back, then turned to her. He wound his fist into her hair and pulled her head back so he could bruise her neck with his mouth, a sharp contrast to the otherworldly touches she had favored upon him these past months. She moaned, breaking their nocturnal silence and his lips covered hers, effectively silencing her again. His tongue was sudden and demanding. She expected no less.
“Your lips taste of smoke.” He grumbled against her.
“And yours taste of brandy.”
They consumed each other like the illicit pleasures of which they tasted, inhaling and sipping one another’s lips and skin. “I will have you now,” he said. His voice was gruff, but his touch was gentle and his eyes were enthralled as he mounted her.
“Yes,” she whispered and opened her thighs, submissive to the mighty hunter at last who sheathed himself decisively and to the hilt in her. Connected, they arched away from and back toward one another. She raised her knees and wrapped her legs around his waist to drive him even deeper into her flowing wound. He threw back his head as he moved in her with hard, steady thrusts. “Is this hell? Do I feel like hell to you?” She gasped, clutching his back as if she would fall if she did not hold tight. She did not remember what it felt like before, but she knew that this union felt better for all of its fumbling solidity.
“No,” he murmured low in her ear. “You feel like sanctification, and yet I know it is fire I breathe from your lips, Vanessa.” When he said her name, it stoked each nerve ending in her entire body and she sucked desperately at his neck as though only through his flesh could she breathe. She clenched around him, clung to him with every fiber of her being, held him fast in the way she had longed to hold him for what seemed eternity.
His body covered hers like a cloak of darkness. In that darkness there was neither fear nor courage, neither sympathy nor distress. It was a curious, necessary pleasure they took in one another. He bit her lips, but not to draw blood. She clawed at his back, but not to elicit pain. With a soft moan that was almost bewildering in its tenderness, he released inside of her.
For a short time they floated on the acute sensations of the afterwards, neither here nor there, but simply rippling with one another, him still atop and inside her. He brushed his lips over her forehead and she touched his chest with her fingertips. It seemed they lavished the light caresses of longing on one another, things perhaps they had not known they had wanted to do, ways they had not known they had wanted to touch. It lasted until gravity made him slip clumsily out of her, and he rolled off. He did not hold her then. Without a word, he turned his back to her and began to breathe heavily in a solid sleep. She tucked herself up to him, threaded her arm over his waist, and fell asleep as well.
He slept later than usual, and when he woke to a grey morning, he rolled onto his back and found that as usual, she had left their bed and returned to her solitary room.
“Would you like to go away?” He asked one afternoon. It was brisk and the sky was hung with heavy charcoal clouds. It was not a day for perambulating, so they had taken to the study. Vanessa was writing a letter and Sir Malcom was reading a book, or at least she had thought he was reading a book. At his question, she looked up and set down her pen.
“Do you want me to go away, Sir Malcolm?” She did not allow her voice to shake.
“No, not at all,” he chuckled lightly. “I meant together. Would you like to go away together? With me. We could escape the frigid London winter for a while. Greece is warm year round.”
“You are feeling wanderlust then?” She did not allow her voice to betray relief or horror.
“Not particularly,” he smiled at her. His eyes had grown softer these past weeks. His brow had relaxed and his smile was easier. To Vanessa, this tenderness was more frightening than when he had declared he would not hesitate to kill her, should the need arise. How long ago that seemed to her. “I thought it would be nice to take a a trip. There are things I’d like to show you. Places you would enjoy, or rather that we might enjoy together.” It was as close as either one of them had ever come to acknowledging that there was a thing between them that they could not qualify with any sort of real conversation. She was terrified that he was trying to place mirrors behind their eyes, to bring them to life in the daylight and make them real. It would not do.
“I would not mind if you were to travel,” she answered cautiously.
“I see,” he said and the disappointment in his voice was palpable, even across the room. She took up her pen, but did not start writing again. Her eyes were trained on him, how his shoulders sank. It made her scowl. She stood and went to pour herself a drink. He tried to translate the muffled whoosh of her skirts as she moved, but it suddenly seemed a language to which he was no longer privy. She parted the curtains slightly to peer out into the courtyard. The sky had filled with white flakes, sparkling in the twilight.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s started to snow.”
After the aborted conversation, she stopped her visits to his bed. It was not a slow bleeding to death, but a sudden, searing bullet to the heart. They were done.
He laid awake until it made him wretched.
Had he ever ridden any sea as rough as his empty bed? Had he ever known such a turbulent sickness so deep and foul in his gut he feared it would rot him from inside out? Surely never. In his travels he’d become unfortunately familiar with a peculiar malady; a madness which set in after many weeks on the ocean, sailing toward or away from adventures. He knew well the sensation that crawled just under the skin when one thought they could bear not a moment more on a boat, not a moment more without a horizon line in sight, not a moment more without any other fleshly comfort besides their own rough and terrible hand. As much as he could predict that the unbearable moment would arise, as it always did, there was never truly anything that could prepare him for the surety with which it clenched him in its gnashing grip. He’d seen men try to throw themselves overboard to escape it. Not him, of course. His constitution was always strong enough that he could shut himself up in his cabin and ride it out in his lonely berth with a few shots of good, strong spirits. But the psychological trickery of it was the most mentally pernicious phenomenon to which he’d ever been subject.
Surely this was worse.
By moonlight he clenched his jaw, furrowed his brow, staved off tears, for what he did not know. What had he done? Or what had he not done? Should he have bought her a trinket? Should he have said certain words? Not said others? He flogged himself with questions and then tried to pretend the questions did not exist.
She lit a cigarette and puffed. Smoke filled her lungs and her room. She sat in her window until dawn. Still as she sat, she was unable to pray.
They both drank more and slept less. Vanessa developed a cough and Malcolm developed a pinched expression of concern.
“Do you need a doctor?” His question was an excuse to speak to her, to offer to care.
“No.” She answered and walked from whatever room they were in under the pretense of something else- something that bore a name- a chore, an errand to a new dressmaker, a visit to a purveyor of exotic fruits.
They said naught of their nightly torture. The business of living proceeded without their taboo thing. Even Sembene knew better than to offer a word on the subject, for what could he even say? And on what subject would he even speak? He did not even raise an eyebrow when Sir Malcolm snarled at him rather than allow him to strip the sheets from his bed for washing.
Sir Malcolm Murray took to pacing. It was an animalistic, repetitive behavior. It was the sort of thing you observe of creatures who are caged up and miserable. So lost was he in the fog of his own confused misery, he forgot seeing that precise behavior in the live tiger they had tried to bring back from one of his voyages. How thrilled he’d been at the prospect of showing it off to Mina and Peter. And Vanessa too. The beast had been kept in a dark hold in the belly of the ship. It paced and snapped and refused to eat. Deprived of all it desired, it died before it reached their destination, and without the necessary items to preserve and taxidermy the creature, they were forced to slip it overboard. He’d shaken his head at the waste, the shame of it all, but for a moment before refocusing on some other thing.
He did not think of adventures or days past as he paced the floor of his room at night. Or maybe he did in an angry sort of way. How ironically wondrous the great explorer had found himself in new and unchartered territory here and now in his own fucking home! What possible remedy could soothe his savage soul? He was older, tarnished and pewter, but he still could have gone out. He still could have sought pleasure and amusement. But he did not want to be sucked into another cunt under false pretenses. He didn’t even bother to touch himself.
He learned, and then avoided, the places where the floorboards creaked.
In the silence, he jumped, thinking he heard her footfalls in the hall, but it was madness. He rubbed his hand over his eyes and sat down on the edge of his bed.
That enormous cat had weighed at least three times what he did, and yet, it had barely made a splash as it fell into the waves when they disposed of it.
She sat in her window. She had traded her white nightdress, trimmed in pearly blue ribbon, for a plain black, satin gown with a low, scooped neck. Perhaps she wished to fade into the shadows. With her dark hair around her shoulders and violet rings around her eyes she looked the part of such a gloomy creature, oppressed with obscurity. Wrapping her arms around herself, like wings of a bat, she wept. Similar to Sir Malcolm, Vanessa had no name for that which she mourned.
He did not knock. She never did, so why should he?
He found her lying on her back, in her small bed, her hands crossed over her heart, like a corpse. What a barren room she kept. Such a plain space of spartan confinement, in stark contrast to great plushness of his quarters.
He approached her bed, cautiously as one might approach a lioness, his hands secured in the pockets of his robe.
He stood over her, casting his broad shadow on that which was already dark.
She looked up and he down, their eyes matching, blue and speckled with grey like the eggs of wild birds. “You said you would never come to me,” she said. Her voice was neither glad nor sad. Her heart neither leapt nor sank. She did, however, find herself yearning for a cigarette.
“We are those who are meant to break vows, thee and me,” he offered softly. She dipped her head, indicated a place near her hip and he sat. He removed his hands from the pockets of his robe, smoothed the lapels and cord of his dressing gown then folded his hands in his lap. “You stopped coming to me.”
“Are you unwell?”
“Then why?” As she considered his question, a tear seeped from her eye and anointed her cheek. “You’ve been crying?”
“Malcolm.” She glared at him, then wrangled herself into a sitting position so they were nearly eye to eye.
“I’ve lost everything except you. And now you would make me bear the loss of you as well?”
“Is that all I am? A paltry token of things past? A trophy that proves you have not lost?”
“I believe you know that to be untrue,” he said. He pulled her stubbornly limp body to his chest. He kissed her cheek and then licked at the tear under her eye in a gesture so uncharacteristically tender, it took them both by surprise. His tongue was hot and slick, but his beard scratched her cheek, which was delicate and raw from crying. She gnashed at him but he was not thwarted. “You always were your own creature,” he breathed. “Weird and wild and wonderful.”
“Then perhaps that is what I am to you. Another species you can claim and tack up on the wall or throw across the floor to wipe your feet on?”
He held her by her shoulders, arms length from him. “Your words are unjustified in their severity and they are patently false. But I do not blame you for your mistrust, or for your anger. Indeed I will eat it like cake if it is all you have to serve me. For so long, all I wanted was to manipulate you. For so, long all I saw in you was a means to an end.” He twirled a lock of her hair around his index finger, but there was nothing idle about the gesture. He did it with purpose and passion. As he exhaled, She caught the waft of brandy on his breath and felt herself almost intoxicated by it.
“I I do not blame you for your desire to bind me to Satan. Indeed I would have done as much and more if it would have brought your daughter home to you. For my part in your tragedy, and for my ineptitude to rectify it, I am infinitely regretful. Ashamed, even. It is not you for whom I hold anger, Sir Malcolm.”
“Vanessa,” he began and inhaled as though he would begin to cry. “You were but a child. I should never have blamed you. I think of that day I locked the gates, and I-“
“No!” She commanded. “We do not speak of or even recall of those days. Not for their joy or their pain.”
“Very well,” he sighed. He had not given up holding her, as though she were an artifact he’d discovered and refused to allow out of his grasp. Nor had she pushed him away, for all her passionate words. Tears seeped from her eyes without avail. When he broke the silence, he said, “If you want to know what you are to me, all you need do is look in my eyes and behold that you are my equal.”
She shook her head. “I am a ghost, Malcolm. You should travel, far from here, from me, and find a woman who can provide proper companionship. You desire more than a ghost, and you deserve more than a haunting.”
“That is not what I desire, nor what I deserve. And it is not what you are,” he growled and his breath abraded her flesh in a manner most familiar and fantastical. She thought back to the ghastly night on Ballentree Moor, and thought had Sir Malcolm been holding the glowing brand, she would have endured her flesh seared a hundred times. He rubbed a thumb over her lower lip. “These are lips I never should have kissed, and yet I dream of them to the extent I have no rest. You have possessed me, turned me into something else, but in doing so provided the only sanctification I know. Every day I hope and pray that this wretched want will end, but every night I want to do it all again and I wait for you to return.”
He placed his mouth over hers and she opened her lips so his tongue could find passage to explore the soft insides of her cheeks, the underside of her tongue, the roof of her mouth. He searched and claimed every inch of that fleshy pocket, named it for himself and was quite taken. You weak, foul, lustful vainglorious man! Oh! Another naming that maybe had proved to be more true than either of them cared to reckon. Recalling her ferocious voice, and straining at his pajama pants, he cupped her breast, pinched the nipple he knew to be pink and luscious beneath her gown, and found she sobbed in his arms, crying breathlessly into his mouth in great gulps. He pulled back, frightened for a moment he had hurt her.
“Is this what you desire, then? My pain?” She tore open her dusky nightdress to expose the creamy flesh of her chest, the rosettes of her pert and wrinkled aureolas blooming like dawn beneath darkness, as she wept. “Take it then! Take it all!”
“No.” He said. “Would that I could create a world free of pain for the both of us. Would that in my embrace you might know naught but pleasure, Vanessa. Comfort even.” He offered no more than that for a time and she was relieved for his silence. Much as he wanted to lower his lips to her breasts and encircle those pink buds, he pulled her gown back over her, awkwardly tying the ribbon at her sternum as one might when dressing a child. It was somewhat tricky, for the reverberations of her crying, but Vanessa found herself doubly relieved for this warm gesture, and for his gathering of her to his breast and holding her fast until her tears abated. He held and rocked and shushed her until, with a shaking sniffle, she was done. Only then did he ask, “Why then? Why did you stop coming to me? Did you want to see if I would come to you? Was it a test?”
“Not a test at all,” she whispered. His face was so close. She could feel her own breath return to her with his. She stroked his bearded cheek and chin with the fond touch one might favor upon a beloved pet. The sensation of him under her hands made her smile in a slight, tight, sad way. “We cannot live. We cannot be.” She offered this confounded explanation, and he accepted it with a nod and again she felt relieved.
He positioned himself in her bed so he could cradle her more comfortably in his arms. It was such a small bed and they were crushed against one another. “We do not need to be,” he said at last. “Only know this, you do not need to be afraid or alone. Wherever we walk, we walk together.” In the quiet that followed, she digested his words.
She turned into his chest to inhale the scent that had become as familiar as her own. Sandalwood soap, whiskey, the unique oil of his skin, leather, and wool. She nuzzled into the small, open triangle of flesh that had exposed itself from his robe and bit at it with her front teeth. She lapped at the hollow of his neck, devouring the salt and sour of him. Malcolm moaned, from low and deep in his throat. He wanted to chant her name again and again until he was completely mute, until it was the last word on the last breath he had to spend, but he said nothing. Instead, he tilted her chin up, and even in the dark, he could tell her eyes were ringed with red from her crying. He had seen it many times, the pain and fear writ on her face. He hated himself then, for the heavy, yearning ache that gripped him at the sight of her sorrow.
“What a twisted pair we are,” she choked.
“We are twisted like a skein of yarn that knows and clings to its own fiber,” he murmured into her hair, his breath hot on her scalp. She shivered in his arms. “Are you cold?”
“No. Only caught in another of your spells.” She felt her neck pulse against his fingers.
“I am hardly the one of us who dabbles in dark magic.” He kissed her and brushed the hair off of her face, and even in the dark, she could tell his eyes were earnestly kind.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. However it strikes me we are cut from quite similar cloth, torn and flawed as it is.” His chest was warm and soft under her hand.
He nibbled at her lips, hungrily, as though only in her kiss could he find nourishment. “It is in this kiss, and this kiss alone I have a taste of heaven.” His voice was fierce. It was the voice of a man who would stop at nothing to discover new things in an ancient and obsessive quest. It was a voice that frightened her even as it thrilled.
“We have pierced that veil and disproved the rumor of heaven,” she whispered as she clung to his neck.
“Does your cruelty know any end?” His hand trailed down her neck and into the exposure of her open gown, and though his words were coarse, his voice was not, nor was his touch, nor were his lips against her collar bones.
“We are poor ministers for compassion, Sir Malcolm.” She raked her fingers through his hair. “What you call my cruelty ends only where yours begins.”
“Vanessa. . .” he sighed.
“You are a hard man. I would not be the one to soften you. Please do not ask this of me.”
“Very well then,” he concluded. “I will not ask that, but there is something else I would like to ask, if I may.”
“What is it?”
He sat up and brought her hands together in his and kissed her knuckles. He opened them and lowered his face into them and kissed her palms. Then he returned her hands to her. He straightened and stood. “When you are ready, I would ask that you return to me, to my bed.”
Vanessa nodded once, her face molded in a stern expression.
“And if you do return,” he continued. “I would ask that you stay with me there, that we both wake together in the light of morning.”
Once more Vanessa nodded her head. Sir Malcolm bowed, slight and stiff, and took his leave.
To bring a thing to life, you must name it. They had no name. They would never know a name for what they were, so in strange ambiguity, they abided.
On the night she went to him, it was blisteringly cold outside. Indeed it seemed the entire world had frozen solid. She padded quickly down the hall to his room and let herself in after a short knock to alert him of her presence.
A fire blazed, and so the room was warm and not completely in darkness. Sir Malcolm sat in bed, propped on pillows, and stared into the fire. As she entered, he looked to her. Neither tentative nor certain, she approached his bed. A corner of his mouth twitched up, as did an eyebrow but her face remained stony as she stared at him. Their blue eyes met across wintery universes. He pulled back a corner of the covers and she shrugged out of her dressing gown and climbed into bed with him, still in her night dress.
“At last, you are here.” He pulled the covers up over her.
“I have always been here,” she said.
“So you have been,” he answered in the call and response that haunted their lives like howls of animals at night. “So you have been. Come,” he purred, low as a jaguar, and invited her head to rest upon his chest. Her cheek discovered the beat of his heart and remembered the warmth of his flesh. He wrapped an arm around her, encircled her waist so his big hand came to rest on her stomach. Together they watched the fire dance, listened to its crackling symphony, and basked in its glow. He touched her shoulders and hair and patted her, almost as though he wanted to make sure she was actually there with him. “Do you know there are cultures of the world where it is unnatural to kiss?”
“Is that so?”
“Indeed it is. I’ve been to lands where kissing on the mouth is anathema. There are tales from the explorer Winwood in deepest and most savage Africa where a British man fell in love with a tribal princess. When he tried to seal their relationship with a kiss, she violently repulsed him for fear he meant to eat her.”
“No!” Vanessa actually laughed at this.
“It is true,” Sir Malcolm chuckled with her. “Charles Darwin, after much study, concluded that it was part of the biological imperative to kiss, as an instinctual desire to exchange pleasure from closest contact with a beloved individual.”
“Well, if this isn’t a quaint side of you that I’ve never seen before, the romantic, educated man,” Vanessa said and peeked up at him from beneath her fringe of lash. “Does this perhaps mean you intend to kiss me, Sir Malcolm?”
“I believe it does,” he uttered from the same low place in his throat as where a large, jungle cat might growl or express some other sentiment. He pinched her chin between his thumb, index and middle fingers and gazed down at her.
“Well, do it then,” she hissed.
With a deep and guttural noise, he brought his mouth to hers. Their lips were hot and wet and open already, prepared for one another as carefully as a feast. When they kissed, their tongues smoldered in a slow, languid meeting that caused their hips to rock toward each other and their breath to sharpen. His hand pawed at her belly and her hand kneaded his chest. Had they not known better, it would have felt so very lifelike. Had they not been the wiser, it would have felt almost real when he pinched the ribbons of her nightgown to loosen it at the neck, then slip it easily over her head. “Vanessa, will you so something for me?”
“Yes,” her voice crackled and hissed like the fire. He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her away from him, just slightly, as he settled his head down into the pillows.
“Turn your back to me,” he commanded. Her eyes flashed at him in hesitation. “Shhh, do it.” She kept her head twisted back, her eyes trained on him as she settled so her back and hips and ass faced his front side. In the auburn light of the fire, he saw it for the first time, and it stole his breath. On her delicate, ivory back, there was a cross, branded black into the flesh. She watched his face twist in pain and disgust as he took it in.
“It is old,” she said, her voice rapid and almost shrill. “From another life and another place, far from here. Do I revolt you? Shall I go?”
“Never,” he growled and lowered his lips to anoint her skin with a kiss so gentle it made her shiver. “You are where you have always belonged, and for all your pain and despair, I would possess you entirely. Keep you by my side.”
“Then you pity me?”
“No. Not that.”
“Then what? What could you possibly feel for me? When you look at me, I fear you have lost the resentment and rage we have shared, and that we shall be utterly vanquished. I do not want your pity and I do not need your protection. I am not an artifact or a trinket for you to collect or possess.”
“And yet there was a time when you wished I would possess you,” he said. “You told me this yourself. I’ve not forgotten.” She startled at his words and for a moment wondered if the bed dropped out from under her or if all her blood left her being. She turned back toward him and brought her hands to his face, on either side of his jaw, and looked intently into his eyes. They were clear, grey in the night light, but clear. They were the crystal eyes she adored as a child. There was no need for mirrors behind them, for he sparkled with abundant life beneath her hands. He knew for what she searched. “It is I, Vanessa. It is I.”
“Yes,” she said with a sigh and at last her lips relaxed into a sort of smile. “It is you. You, Sir Malcolm.” She turned her back to him and this time she laid her head on the pillow and looked away from him. He enveloped her in his arms and held her fast against him. There was terrible vulnerability in it, in turning her back to the mighty hunter, but she did it all the same, and in doing so realized how the mighty hunter must have felt at allowing the creature to approach and embrace him as such, night after night. He stroked her hair and kissed her neck and allowed his thick, square fingers to run over the edges of the raised scar on her back. She closed her eyes and allowed her skin to steep in the warmth of his body and his touch. “Is this how it felt for you?”
“More than likely,” his voice nuzzled her ear.
“Were you frightened?”
“Yes. At first. And then, no, not at all.” He wrapped himself around her until she lost meaning of where her own skin ended and his began. She wiggled her hips back toward him and he slid a hand over her tummy to pull her even closer. She felt him hard against her backside, and felt his breath on her neck coming in the hot waves of a man who wants, but he did not take her.
By firelight, she fell asleep in his embrace, and she slept so soundly she dreamed she was dead.
In the morning she woke under the weight of his arms. The fire had gone out, but it was still warm in their room.
They would not name it. They would not allow it to live. For if they called it love it would fill them, and if it died, as all living things eventually succumb to the infinite abyss, it would kill them as well.
Thank you for reading. . . comments are my life force and I attempt to respond to every one. This is my first Penny Dreadful fic, which I wrote after my second watch of the series. I found I was still obsessed with the notion of a Malnessa ship.