She hadn’t expected to like him.
He was too skeletal, for one thing, his eyes set a little too deeply inside his skull, his gaze a little too unabashed, too knowing. Longish black hair swept up off a high forehead, with sea-green eyes — he reminded her of a certain breed of dog, vaguely satanic.
For another thing, she’d read his literature — or some of it — and she’d found it stylistically flawed: sophisticated, she had to admit that, with a most unorthodox manner of punctuating — which, despite herself, she found logical and even addictive the more of it she read — but ultimately obtuse.
Furthermore, she basically preferred women.
Here she was, however, their business concluded, not quite willing to pull herself away — feeling, indeed, more deeply drawn in.
What was it held her?
Raking her fingers through her brown bobbed hair and glancing out the plate-glass window which was flecked with rain, Abby asked herself that very question. She sipped her coffee.
The calm about the eyes — that was one thing. It relaxed her and made her feel certain he was listening to every one of her words, which as a matter of fact he was. Also, somewhat to her surprise, she likewise enjoyed listening to him — his voice specifically, apart from the content. It was an unmannered voice, not deep, not rich, not remarkable or sonorous, but slow and soothing. It captured the laid-back quality of his disposition, she thought, which had also surprised her, so at odds was it with his literature.
All of this, in collaboration with his manner of moving and his hard-to-read half smile, gave him a sort of languorous confidence the exact likes of which she couldn’t recall ever having come across. His name was Michael Kumulous, but everybody, herself included, called him Kumulous, and she liked that too. It was a name she’d never heard before.
And there was, as well, the fact that he was erudite. She had no doubt about this now, though she had in the beginning. Even if she hated admitting it now because his ideas were so at odds with her own, she had nonetheless gotten the sense several times in the course of interviewing him that concerning those subjects he was most interested in, he was a near-bottomless source. Four or five times, in fact, she had the overwhelming impression that she was only glimpsing the depth of his understanding, and when she recognized this, it somewhat frightened her — frightened her in a way should couldn’t explicitly name.
Finally, she could feel his interest in her, in the questions he asked, which were smart and authentic, and in the way he listened to her answers. It all made very little sense to her, given their age gap, which was significant, and their ideological differences. Still, it radiated off him like heat, and it was an interest that touched her on all levels: intellectual, psychological, sexual. She could almost feel him sniffing her out.
Thus, in spite of everything, she found herself, two coffees later, smiling and nodding assent when he asked her if she’d like to join him across the street for a drink.
It was a darkly burning bar. He held her loosely by her coat sleeve and led her out of the rain and into the shadows toward the back. She wore a long thin jacket, olive green, and low black heels. Once again she caught herself admiring the way he moved: calm yet purposeful. She liked his big knuckles, the prominent veins on the back of his hands. There were only four other patrons in the entire place, all of whom were seated on the other side of the lounge, near the entrance.
The bartender was heavily pierced. He had on a black v-neck tee-shirt, ribbed and form-fitting, and his entire right arm was covered in an intricate tattoo that snaked up to his jugular. He came out from behind the bar to serve them. He was soft-spoken and polite. He brought them water. His hair was blonde and spiky. Abby guessed him around her age, which was twenty-five. She draped her jacket over the back of the chair and ordered whiskey on the rocks. Kumulous ordered a glass of dark beer.
Not bad, Abby thought. She liked that he’d not chosen something complicated or quasi-sophisticated. It was her opinion that people who are overly particular about the drinks they order in bars are sexually uninteresting. In fact, she regarded gourmandizing or snobbery of any kind as a sign of stupidity.
“Are you comfortable?” Kumulous said.
“Very,” she said. Which was true: she couldn’t remember the last time she felt so calm and at peace.
The bartender returned and set their drinks on thick black cocktail napkins. He was clean and efficient. “Will there be anything else?” he said.
“No, thank you,” Kumulous said.
The bartender nodded once and removed himself.
Kumulous lifted his black beer and toasted Abby:
“To the wound that never heals,” he said.
Lightly she touched the foot of his beer glass with her sweating tumbler, which contained a single cubic rock.
Her amber-colored whiskey winked in the burning light, and for a moment’s fraction she wasn’t entirely sure if it was the light winking, or him.
They drank. Neither spoke. There was a soft jazz trumpet coming almost unnoticeably through hidden speakers. It was very soothing. No awkwardness hung between them in the silence. A white candle burned in the middle of the mahogany table. The flame was creamy and soft, and from its lovely light he could clearly see the flecks of gold in her eyes, which were pensive and hazel, and he thought this place became her.
“You’re quite a star,” he said.
He took a swallow of beer.
“I read your book,” he said.
“I thought it was stellar.”
She cast him a long steady stare.
“You’re not exactly what I expected you’d be,” she said.
“No? What did you expect?”
“I don’t know. Someone a little less …”
She thought she saw his mocking half smile lift a little.
“I’m all knots on the inside,” he said.
“Please,” she said. She gulped her whiskey. She could feel it coursing through her veins like morphine already, and she liked it. It emboldened her. “When the magazine gave me this assignment, I initially turned it down.”
“What changed?” he said.
“I read something you wrote. It infuriated me. But then, an hour later, I realized something.”
“What did you realize, Abby?”
“That I couldn’t stop thinking of your words.” She paused. “And …”
He waited, watched.
“And that you may actually have a point,” she said.
He blinked slowly in the candlelight. “I think that may be the kindest thing I’ve ever heard.”
She was now hyper-aware of his mocking half-smile.
“May I ask you something which might come off sounding more insulting than I intend?” she said.
“Implying that you don’t mind coming off a little insulting. Please do!”
She paused again, took another drink of her whiskey. She wore a pale-green blouse, open at the throat, with a shirred collar from the lacy corolla of which her long neck gracefully rose, like the stem of a water lily. He watched her. She was staring at the candle flame. Her chest was delicately beaded with perspiration or rainwater, and it rose and fell in a soft pneumatic heave.
“How is it you come to have such … outrageous ideas?” she said. Only then did she look up at him.
He regarded her in silence for several beats.
“I kept asking why,” he said.
Abruptly, then, he finished the rest of his beer in one swallow. She watched his Adam’s apple twist and right as he gulped. For all his erudition, there was something so physical about him, she thought. It captivated her. He rose from the table and stood next to her. She was still seated. He wasn’t especially tall, but she suddenly thought him a looming presence.
“Would you come with me to my home?” he said. “I’d like to show you something.”
He held his veiny hand outstretched to her.
Abby thought for a moment. Then she too finished the rest of her drink in one swallow and stood up. She gripped his hand.
“Let’s go,” she said.
* * *
The moment they stepped outside, dusk swept in around them. The remains of the sunset, through a lake of clear sky deep in the west, flickered burgundy-and-purple on the surface of the Hudson River. A soft breeze came off the water. There were small raindrops in the air.
He hailed a taxi and they got into the back and rode in relative silence. It was a long and peaceful drive. There was something vaguely unsettlingly in the way this was playing out, she thought, and yet at the same time she felt perfectly secure. One thing was sure: this was not at all like her. Why, then, this untouchable sense of calm inside her?
When, at last, they made it to his doorstep, it was fully dark. The rain had increased. She stood two paces behind him while he unlocked the door. She stood in the rain. She didn’t have any idea where they were. The instant before he opened the door, he turned back to her.
“It’s not too late,” he said.
“If you walk through this door with me, you won’t come out the same person. You’ll never be the same again.”
She looked up at him from the steps and started to smile, but even before she saw that there was no longer any smile on his face, she somehow knew, if only briefly, that he was telling her the truth. It all happened in the span of a second, and then she dismissed it.
She nodded. He turned and opened the door.
A cool greenish light poured out onto the pavement, transforming the raindrops into emerald beads, and Abby followed Kumulous into the glow.
Abigail Rainveil — Abby, as she was known — lithe, lovely, lightly freckled, youngest of three (boy, girl, girl) and the most ambitious of them by far, self-starter, ravenous reader, salutatorian, magna cum laude, was, from age twelve onward, raised exclusively by her mother Rebecca, whose husband’s heart had given out when the man was only fifty-three-years-old.
She inherited her mother’s chestnut hair, as well as her beauty and her fiery temper, but also, as if in counterbalance, some far-back strain of the contemplative: Abby was of a speculative and even melancholy cast of mind.
Like her brother David and her sister Emily, she grew up in lower Manhattan and was educated at home by her father — right up until the day he died. Abby dearly loved her father, who likewise dearly loved her — he loved her the most — and his death dealt her a difficult blow. Still, she remained a spirited girl whose desire to learn and excel was overwhelming. Once, when she was in the eighth grade, her first year attending public school, she memorized in a single weekend the entirety of Macbeth, so passionately did she want the role of Lady Macbeth — and got it.
Four years later, on a bleak and bitter-cold winter night when Abby was sixteen, her brother David, aged twenty-five, inexplicably committed suicide by shooting himself in the back of the throat, playing a solitary game of Russian roulette. There was no note and no explanation whatsoever, and Abby was the one who found him: the back of her brother’s head totally blown-out, his face still largely intact, both eyes squished shut, a small frown stitched into the middle of his brow above the bridge of his nose, and more blood than she thought it possible a human body could contain. She wept bitterly for six straight weeks and was traumatized in a way she found difficult to describe, even to herself: the nearest she ever came was in comparing it to the car accident she and her mother and father had been involved in, when Abby was eight-years-old, in which both her parents almost died and the other driver, the one at fault, did die and Abby herself had bitten her tongue clean through, so that it hung only by a thin piece of skin — in the way that this had for years made her obsessively, irrationally fearful of being in a car, so, on a different level but in the same sort of way, had her brother’s suicide affected her.
Thereafter also, the subject of suicide, the stigma attached to it, the sheer gravity and thalassic magnitude and the impenetrable mystery of it, the Biathanatos, all came to occupy her mind a great deal, and it always would.
Three years later, while Abby was away at the midwestern college from which she would soon graduate, her sister Emily sent her the volume of stories their brother had been reading and rereading the year he killed himself. Inside the book, along the left-hand margin of one of the stories, in his fluid and unslanted cursive which Abby liked so much, he’d written these words:
“Like my beautiful sister Abby, whom I love with all my heart.”
He’d written this, in pencil, next to the description of a character he also admired: a radiant young girl who dominates the story with her pure charm and winsomeness.
Those words, as well as her sister’s gesture in sending her the book, went straight to Abby’s core and burrowed deeper and deeper down, and she carefully left it there and soon gave it its own solitary spot and visited it every day.
The summer before Abby’s senior year of college, in a wild burst of inspiration, she conceived of and wrote a slim novel and titled it The Story of Madame E. She’d based her book, very loosely, upon a real-life account she’d read of a young Brazilian woman, enigmatic and entirely self-made, who was vilified, mischaracterized, and possibly assassinated for her uniqueness and her intransigent refusal to conform.
Abby at this time was immersed in journalism (emphasis on activism), and yet her real love — still — was literature. She felt that summer, outside of school, that she was finally getting down to the real business of studying. Few things brought her greater satisfaction than the reading and writing of literary works.
Also at this time, she’d become lovers with a girl her own age named Anna Marie, who was the first to read Abby’s book. Anna Marie went crazy for it, and so she sent the manuscript, without Abby’s permission, to an erstwhile girlfriend who lived fifty miles north in the suburbs of Chicago, and who subsequently passed it along to the woman for whom she was interning. This woman’s name was Katherine Case. Four years previous, Katherine Case had started up a quirky newspaper that had rapidly developed a cult-like readership and the subject-matter of which was, as it said on the inside cover-page, “The beautiful to the bizarre, the near to the far, the far to the near, the cool to the queer.”
Katherine Case called Anna Marie as soon as she’d finished reading Abby’s manuscript and told her she wanted to publish it immediately.
Abby’s book was in this way set for publication without Abby’s knowledge or consent, thereby, in effect, ending her relationship with Anna Marie — for Abby was private and particular about her literature, and felt herself slightly betrayed.
She rejected the book deal, as well.
But the buzz about it had already begun, and her book was published, some twenty months later, after Abby had rewritten it and changed its title to The Bizarre Case of Madame E.
She’d moved back to New York City by then and was living in the East Village. Initially she made her living working as a waitress and writing freelance articles, which were so clever and so articulate that she was soon offered a full-time job writing for an internationally syndicated magazine called Vanity Fair.
This was how Abby Rainveil had come to meet the man called Kumulous, the one her boss had described as Mephistophelean.
Kumulous bolted the door behind them. It was a massive slab of cherrywood. Yet for all its heft, this door shut in a curiously gentle way, and the moment it clicked, a cathedral hush descended over them like a wave of warm water. It was a pure and absolute silence, but it was not oppressive. On the contrary, it deepened her calm.
The emerald glow lay upon everything. It shimmered over the floor and across the walls with an aqueous gleam. She could not tell where the light was sourced. She asked him. He was hanging her long jacket when she spoke, and with his back to her he said that this glow came from within him. She could not see his face when he spoke, but in her mind’s eye, his half-smile, unbidden, appeared suddenly before her. She did not reply.
Her hair was damp. She raked her fingers through it. He turned to her. His eyes glowed greenly in the darkling foyer. He stood some seven feet away. His gaze was precise. Like a hell-hound, she thought. She felt his eyes were hyper-acute and abnormally perceptive to detail — as if he were not so much looking at her but inside her, through her clothes, beyond her nakedness, like an electrical X-Ray, moving into her bare skin, penetrating her flesh and assessing her bloodbeat and her bones, her organs and her womb, down into her very cells.
He’s seeing more than human eyeballs are able, she thought. He sees my essence.
“Is your name Abby for Abigail?” he said. Breaking in on the drift of her thoughts.
“Yes,” she said.
“Your name is Hebrew. Abigail was King David’s third wife.”
“My father was half Jewish,” she said. “He died long, long ago.” Immediately after she said this last thing, she wondered why she’d told him.
“And were you the apple of his eye?” he said.
“Yes,” she almost whispered, “I suppose. Why do you ask that?”
“Because that is what your name means, Abigail.”
She realized only then that for as long as she could remember, she’d gone by Abby, and so it had never occurred to her to find out the meaning of her full name.
“It means ‘apple of her father’s eye,'” Kumulous said.
He smiled at her in a gentle way.
Then he led her by the hand down a long corridor, which terminated into a staircase that they mounted together.
Abby was unable to get any kind of real perspective on the house — neither for its size, nor for its architectural style. It was odd. The light was odd. So much lay smothered in shadows and rippled jade.
In some ways the house seemed to her a medieval structure but in other ways sleek and futuristic — the staircase, for example, with its thin slabs of a material she didn’t recognize, upon which their feet made no sound, and the way those steps rose, with a slight curve, and no visible anchor or support that she could see. Indeed, it struck her as a rather remarkable feat of engineering. But, after all, she wasn’t sure, because she couldn’t see well enough.
Everything was so quiet and so mysterious, and yet not menacing.
Kumulous led her fifteen feet down a wide corridor. Then he stopped at a door. To the right of this door, shoulder-level upon the wall, was a modern security keypad. The door, however, was not only unlocked but wide open.
He gestured, with a slight lift of his palm, for her to enter before him. Then he followed her in and closed the door behind. The green glow was abolished, but the cathedral hush was not.
It was a wide room with high ceilings and a black marble floor. It burned with a soft white light. Near the ceiling, some twenty feet overhead, stood six quadrate windows, one of which was latticed with old iron bars. All the windowpanes were degged with rainwater. There was a long cherrywood desk just to the left of the entrance and leather armchairs on either side of it. The walls were composed of glass cabinets full of books. A print in a beautiful black frame hung behind the desk, and Abby noted that it was a Dürer.
She noted also that upon the desk were several small watercolors — butterflies and birds — painted with great exactitude and beauty, an almost feminine touch, she thought, these miniature replications on their little squares of cardboard, and it flashed through her head that perhaps a woman had painted these.
She gazed about her, wonderstruck. The bookshelves stretched away as far as her eyes could see: away into the darkness.
Kumulous regarded her in silence.
“I’m told that you live alone,” Abby said. “Alone and surrounded by books — your own books as well as the books of others.”
She turned to him. He did not speak.
“I was told also that you know several languages and possess a prodigious memory,” she said.
She thought she smelled almonds-and-cherry very faintly in the air — and something else: something almost blood-like and yet not unpleasant.
“May I look around?” Abby said.
“It’s why I brought you here: to look around.”
Abby went to the shelves. Her heels clicked softly on the black marble floor. The first books she saw had ancient bindings, vellum-covered boards of incunabula, thick leather covers the color of skinless muscle, pages edged in actual gold. She leaned forward. She saw parchments utterly foreign-looking to her, folios and codices. Her eyes scanned the shelves.
“Pick them up. Look through them, if you’d like,” Kumulous said.
She glanced at him. Then she lifted from the shelf a small book in red Moroccan leather which had caught her eye. She opened it carefully. The pages were of a coarse, high-quality paper, the typeface black and handsome, the text Latin. Her thin white fingers barely brushed the pages that she leafed through.
“You can always tell a book-lover by how she holds a book,” Kumulous said. “And how she turns pages.”
Abby looked up at him. She saw his mocking half-smile. She held his stare. She couldn’t decide if he was being serious or sarcastic. After ten seconds, her eyes went back to the book.
Kumulous watched her.
At length, she set that book back in its place and continued scanning the shelves, moving slowly down the stacks, her heels gently clacking. So many precious volumes, so many rare tomes. The unmistakable odor of books. She stopped often and leafed through. She leafed through many.
One book in particular captured her interest. It was massive and black. It was not old, like so many of the others, but it had the same look of meticulous craftsmanship.
It was called The Birth of Satan and the Universal Man.
She opened it up and surveyed the pages. She spent twenty minutes looking through and had no knowledge whatsoever how much time had passed.
This book was an exhaustive treatise on the origins of Satan.
To her great astonishment, then, she saw that the author was him:
All throughout the book were intricate illustrations — dozens and dozens of line drawings crafted with precision and which carried an uncanny power: cloven hoofs, sheep, serpents, hellhounds coupled with voluptuous women, the heads of goats — and once again, to her astonishment, she saw that these drawings, too, had all been done by him.
No sooner did she discover this than the sound of a piano, playing very softly and very expertly, reached her ears. She turned to the desk. Kumulous was no longer there. He was no longer watching her. She looked around. She could not see him. The dolorous nocturne continued to pour like water into the room. She searched for him.
Down a long corridor of shelves, in a dark corner, she at last descried a figure sitting at a piano, playing in the shadows.
Still, for a moment, she didn’t think it was him. In fact, her heart went into her throat when from the distance, for a split second, it looked as though the figure at the piano had the head of a dog. She caught her breath, closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, she saw that it was Kumulous indeed. He was playing from memory. He did not appear to notice her — yet, suddenly, he turned and fixed his gaze steadfastly upon her and at the same time stopped playing, startling her yet again.
My mind and my eyes are playing tricks on me, Abby thought, from his book.
Kumulous rose from the piano and approached her.
“What are you thinking about, Abby?” he said. His voice was soft and slow and soothing. The glutted veins in his forearms looked like a network of little blue streams.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said.
“Think of all the centuries of study and learning these books contain,” he said, turning to the shelves.
“I didn’t know you were a book-collector,” she said.
“You weren’t told this?”
“They call it the transmission of knowledge,” he said. He strode over to the desk and sat down.
“Collecting books?” she said.
“No. The written word.”
She walked toward him. She wore kohl-black stretch pants that fit her snugly. She was lithe and lovely, with slightly curved hips. Her neck gave the illusion of underwater sway. She stood in front of the desk, directly across from him.
“The transmission of knowledge and the division of labor were two of the most crucial discoveries in the history of humankind,” he said. “They paved the way for privacy, which is what civilization really is: the freedom for all of us to live private lives.” He seemed almost to be talking to himself.
A momentary silence ensued.
She once again caught the faint nick of almonds-and-cherries — and fresh blood — in the air.
“You’re also interested in Satan,” she said. It wasn’t quite a question.
“No, not really,” he said. “I mean, not particularly. Though, incidentally, did you know that Jesus was once referred to by his followers as Lucifer — the bringer of light — and that not long after his death, one of the first Christian sects was the Luciferians?”
She shook her head. “You were at one time interested enough to write a massive book on the subject, yes?”
“Massive?” he said. “Please. All fluff. Strictly for squares.” He paused. “There is no Satan,” he said, “as I disclose in my book.”
She narrowed her eyes on him.
“May I ask a personal question?” she said.
“How do you afford all this?”
“I gamble,” he said.
They regarded each other in silence for several seconds. Then her eyes went to the desk. She noticed that the watercolors were gone. She stared a moment at his muscular fingers, the plexus of veins that stood out along the back of his hand. She was shocked to find herself imagining that hand inside of her. She shut her eyes and abolished the thought. There was an open notebook in front of him.
“Is that your handwriting?” she said.
“It’s most unusual-looking.”
And it was unusual-looking: hard pressures, no slant, a combination of both print and cursive characters which seemed to have an upward thrust.
Abruptly, Kumulous leaned over and extricated two pencils from a cupful beside her arm. He turned the page of the notebook, so that there were now two blank pages before him. Then, with a pencil in each hand, he began to write simultaneously and easily with each hand, the left moving right-to-left across the page, the right moving left-to-right.
“Were you told also that I was otherhanded?” he said. He was still writing as he spoke, and he smiled crookedly. “Like a spider?”
“No,” she said. “I was not.” She felt herself hit with a brief blast of dizziness, and another sexual surge.
When he was finished, he turned the notebook to her. Both sides said the same thing, in fluid handwriting that looked identical:
Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.
“Nor was I told that you’re a gambler who played music and drew beautiful illustrations,” she said.
“And I have the fastest hands in the world.”
He didn’t reply.
He watched her.
“Come here, Abby,” Kumulous said.
She walked around the side of the desk, and he stood up to meet her.
She had a small, mint-green vein that curved around the outer edge of her left eye — like a baby sea-snake baring its back atop the milky ocean of her skin. Kumulous reached over and touched this vein with his fingertips. His touch was warm and gentle, and almost unconsciously Abby shut her eyes.
He ran his first two fingers slowly down the vein. It pulsed like a tiny frog under his touch. He traced his fingertips along the side of her eye and over the bone of her cheek.
She felt her knees go weak. Her heart released a thunderous beat.
“This is your zygomatic arch,” Kumulous said. “It is very beautiful. Your zygoma connects right here, along the side of your eye, to your frontal bone.”
He ran his fingers gently across her temple and then up into her hairline and back down the center of her forehead to the bridge of her nose. Here he stopped and held his index finger pressed lightly against her skin.
Her eyes were still closed.
“This is your glabella,” he said, “right above the bridge of your nose.”
Now he ran his index finger down the lefthand side of her nose.
“This is your maxilla,” he said, “and this your mandible. And this is your temporal bone, and here is the groove for your middle temporal artery, which runs beside your lovely, lovely zygomatic arch. You see, everything is connected. It’s complex until you reduce it down to its fundamental parts. And I think the body human, which is one of my greatest obsessions, I think it’s an elegant metaphor for learning: because all knowledge is interconnected and contextual and hierarchical. It forms a perfect unity. Everything is simple once it’s distilled down. It’s the distilling that’s the challenge.”
He paused and looked at her. Her eyes were still closed. His touch had made her feel inordinately calm and relaxed.
“Yours is a rare and precious beauty, Abby. But your real beauty is contained within this.” He reached up and cupped her head with both his hands and held her like this for several seconds.
Then he removed his hands and let them fall to his side.
She opened her eyes and found herself gazing directly into his.
Like pools of deep green water, she thought, set back in their sockets. A gleam in them so primal and alive.
“Let me tell you something more about the black art of anatomy,” he said. “As we are not flesh-and-blood alone, so also we’re not mere computers. As the flesh without the spirit is dead, so, too, is the spirit dead without the flesh. We’re physical and epistemological. We each spend the majority of our lives inside our own minds, but we must also act. The body and the brain are completely enmeshed. They’re symbiotic, synergistic. Watch.”
And here Kumulous did something that astounded her.
He kicked off his shoes and then he vaulted up onto the desk. He stripped himself to the waist and stood upon the desk barefooted. He wore pleated black slacks. He had pecs like a prisoner, abdominals like a mutant. He was hairless and swarthy. Abby stepped back. It flashed through her head that he was not so young but that it didn’t really occur to her to think of him in this context because he seemed somehow ageless, vampiric, vital — or, rather, she started to think this, but then Kumulous performed a backflip off the desk onto the black marble floor. From here, in one motion, he upended himself into a handstand and walked toward her on his hands. His long black hair dragged across the polished marble. The muscle striations in his shoulders and arms looked like metal grooves. He made it seem effortless.
When he got to within five feet of her, he stopped moving, still in handstand. He put his feet together and held himself motionless before her. His body, from the tips of his toes to his neck, formed a graceful arch. His jugular vein was purple and engorged.
Slowly, then, Kumulous let his legs come apart and as slowly lifted his right hand off the floor, so that he was doing a full one-handed handstand. He held this for six seconds and then switched hands. After another six seconds, he placed this hand back on the floor, so that he was once again stationary in a two-handed stand. He straightened his legs above him in the air, his body arched as before, and then he carefully lowered himself into a planche position, his body horizontal and straight, his feet not touching the floor, his arms trembling slightly. His sweat dripped onto the polished marble. Abby stared fascinated at his lean back lumped with muscle. He held his planche for a moment and then pumped out five full planche pushups, and then he rose to his feet.
He stood before her and tilted his head, like a dog.
“See?” he said. “Symbiotic.”
He stood there, sweating and panting. She watched him, the rise and fall of his chest. His vespine waist. His breathing gradually normalized.
Her thin pale neck seemed to sway like a waterplant before him.
“What do you reckon, Abby?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why do you wrinkle your buttermilk brow at me?” he said.
She didn’t answer.
“Come,” he said, “follow me.”
“Where?” she said. “Where are you taking me?”
“To the stars.”
Kumulous uncorked, with eye-popping speed, a dusty bottle of Bordeaux and poured four fat fingers into a crystal Bordeaux glass, which was gorgeous and gigantic and the contents of which now shone phosphorescent in the green light. Then he poured another. The wine key was small and had appeared as if by magic in his hand.
As magically, it disappeared.
He handed Abby one of the two glasses and then cracked open for her an icy-cold bottle of water, from which she now swigged deeply.
Standing as he was at the open refrigerator, his back to her, barefoot and shirtless still, dark-skinned, the glacial light from the open refrigerator spilling out around him in a penumbra of white light, it struck her that the open door looked like an entryway into an alternate universe.
He turned with a small bowl in his hand. The refrigerator door shut behind him with a suction-like thud.
They stood at the counter in his spacious kitchen.
The kitchen was lit now only by the shimmering green glow.
He passed her a dish of Marcona almonds, drenched in their own oil and flecked with Rosemary and coarse grains of salt, and then a separate bowl, the one he’d gotten from the refrigerator, which contained plump olives: purple, black, lime-green. He set a spoon and a plate and a cloth napkin next to these bowls, and then he looked at her with his prasine eyes, and he smiled gently, as he had once before, when he’d told her the meaning of her name.
He didn’t speak the entire time, though once or twice she thought she heard him humming a tune.
Abby spooned oily almonds into her mouth. They were salty and textured, and at that moment she thought them indescribably delicious. She ate olives. She drank more water.
He brought her a bowl of cherries and a saucer of dark-chocolate disks, which were about the size and thinness of quarters. He then asked her to excuse him a moment, and disappeared.
Ten seconds later, the mellow notes of a jazz piano leaked into the room from unseen speakers overhead. Shortly after that, he returned wearing a black undershirt and a pair of black canvas shoes with flat soles.
The music was low and soothing.
He raised his wine glass to her and touched it against hers. The sound it made rang out bell-loud in the strange silence of the house.
They drank. The red wine sloshed like liquid kryptonite in the emerald light. Behind her, his house stretched away into labyrinthine corridors and enigmatic rooms.
Abby held up two cherries by stems that were joined like a wishbone, and she ate both of these cherries at the same time. He watched her from the other side of the counter. She ate slowly, ruminatively. She removed the two pits from her mouth and put them on the plate he’d given her. She set them next to her discarded cherry stems and olive pits.
“Would you like any of this?” she said. “I highly recommend it. How did you know?”
“It’s like I read your mind.”
“Would you like any?” she said again.
“No, thank you,” he said. “My appetite is unfortunately about as small as the number of friends I have. Anyway, I’ve always found the idea of eating slightly ridiculous. I mean, when you think about it.”
“That’s about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Fuck, this may be the best chocolate in the world. I’m not kidding, either.”
“I’m very glad you like it, Abby,” he said, and winked — or, at any rate, she thought he did.
He drank more wine, and so did she.
With her pinky, she dragged a strand of hair off her face and tucked it behind her ear, and then she flicked her sleek brown bangs out of her eye.
Her hair gave back the green light.
By and by, Kumulous came out from behind the counter. He approached her slowly and stood at her right shoulder, a little behind her. He loomed very close. He didn’t speak. She turned her head but not enough to face him fully.
“Hello,” she whispered.
He brushed his shoulder up against hers, but only just. He leaned his face closer to her hair.
She felt a warm glow spread throughout her abdomen and move down into her womb. She shut her eyes.
“Abby girl,” he said quietly, “you sly little devil. You came with me into my home. You came inside with me.”
He spoke right next to her ear, his voice slow. He leaned his shoulder into her a little more, so that she could feel the heat of his body.
“Thank you, Abby girl,” he said. “Thank you for accepting my invitation. I love having you here. I can’t tell you.”
He inhaled silently through his nose.
“You smell so bloody phenomenal,” he said. “Like almonds and cherries.”
He led her out of the kitchen down a deep hallway that pulsed with the leek-colored light. He held her hand. She thought the hallway perhaps descended, but in the end she wasn’t sure. The gentle jazz followed them down.
Soon he led her up a short flight of steps at the base of which a parget lion, three feet tall, snarled at her with its wicked little fangs.
Kumulous directed her left and from here showed her into a small room that was chilled and dimly lit with an eggshell tint, and he shut and locked the door behind them.
This room, like the library, also contained many glass cabinets, except these cabinets were horizontal and low, and in them, on swaths of purple fabric, were displayed rocks and minerals of a mind-spinning variety and variation and size. The glass cabinets were all backlit, so that the rocks and minerals within them gleamed like ice-floes.
“I used to work in mines,” he said. “It was my first job, when I was twelve-years-old. I started out mucking — what they call a mucker — which essentially means shoveling broken rock into tramming cars.”
“What kind of mining did you do?”
“Hard rock,” he said.
She looked at him quizzically.
“As distinguished from soft rock,” he said, “like coal or uranium, which I’ve also mined. Hard rock is basically gold and then all the rest: zinc, copper, quartz, galena, silver, so on.” He paused. “Gold is the main one,” he said, “but not the only.”
“What is that rock right there?” she said. She pointed to a big blackish-green specimen with a splintery fracture from which a wild profusion of sea-green crystals like flowers bloomed.
“That’s called pseudomalachite — ‘pseudo’ because it looks like malachite, though in actuality the only thing they really have in common is that they’re both secondary minerals found in the oxidized zones of copper. But malachite and pseudomalachite aren’t related. Pseudomalachite is much rarer, you see, and more beautiful. Malachite is a common carbonate. But pseudomalachite is a phosphate mineral. Why does it not surprise me, Abby, that you asked about that one first?”
“It’s like very little surprises me.”
“Pseudomalachite,” she said, as if to herself. “It is the color of your eyes.” And it wasn’t until after she’d said the words that she realized she’d not meant to utter them aloud but only to formulate them in her own mind.
“I take that as a compliment,” he said.
“I meant it as one.” She dropped her gaze to the floor, as though she was embarrassed. “Did you purchase all these rocks?” she said. Only then did she look back up at him.
“No. I mined them my — ”
But here Kumulous interrupted himself and suddenly double-took her, as if he’d just spotted something alarming on the side of her skull.
“What is it?” she said.
“You’ve got something yellow emanating from your ear. Hold still.”
Kumulous reached up as if he would stanch her wound and then, like a prestidigitator, produced in front of her eyes a solid gold nugget the approximate size and shape of a walnut.
“It must have been sourced within you,” he said, “but you could no longer contain it: time for it to come out at last.”
He lifted her hand and placed the heavy gold piece into her palm.
“I found it long ago, half-buried in the mud in an abandoned mineshaft in the mountains of southwestern Colorado. It’s pure gold. Put it in your pocket.”
Abby didn’t speak.
“It matches the flecks of gold in your eyes,” he said.
He leaned forward and brushed his cheek against her zygomatic arch, and he held his cheek against her for a long moment — and as he did so, he guided her hand with the palm-sized piece of polished gold, down into the front pocket of her stretch pants, sliding the gold deep inside, until the nugget was up against the pointy tip of her pocket.
He drew back and looked at her.
“Let me tell you about gold,” he said.
“Gold is one of the few things in this world about which you can truly say it’s not overrated. Gold, like silver and platinum, like palladium and iridium and several other, is what’s known as a noble metal. But of all the noble metals, gold is by far the most remarkable. It’s element symbol is Au, which derives from the Latin word for gold: aurum — which means ‘the glow of sunrise.’ Gold is edible. Every human body contains about 0.02 milligrams of gold, mostly in our bloodstream. Gold is also so ductile that a single ounce can be stretched into a thread five miles long, which you can use for sewing and embroidery. In addition to this, gold is the most malleable element — nothing else even comes close. For instance, that same single ounce of gold can be hammered out into a sheet three-hundred square feet. Gold completely resists degradation by air and moisture and virtually all acidic conditions. That’s why it’s known as an unreactive element. And because pure gold is unreactive, it is ordorless and tasteless — not, come to think of it, unlike myself. Metal ions, you see, are what confer smell and flavor to metallic compounds. And this, Ms. Rainveil, is one of the many, many reasons gold is so good for dentistry. It’s not just beautiful but functional and utilitarian — not, come to think of it, unlike yourself. In fact, gold is used in medicine of all kinds, as well as electronics and electrical wiring, radiation shielding, even coloring for stained glass.”
He broke off speaking and reached down to Abby’s thigh and put his hand there. He let his fingers linger for several beats on the gold nugget in her front pocket.
An electrical charge surged through her body, as if that gold nugget were the conductor.
Next Kumulous told her that rock in its fundamental form is a composite of minerals and mineraloids, and that the difference between those two things is a difference in their atomic and molecular structure.
He told her that minerals display crystallinity, whereas mineraloids do not. He said that the word crystallinity refers to the atomic and molecular structure that he had just mentioned. He told her that quartz, for example, is a mineral but that opals are mineraloids because, he said, opals have a non-crystalline nature: their atomic and molecular structure is semi-random, he said, whereas in quartz the atoms and molecules are arranged in a predictable and regular manner. He told her that this is why it’s easy to grow in a laboratory all forms of quartz — whether it be emeralds or amethysts or topaz or rutile or cactus quartz, or any of the others, the difference, he said, being what the quartz is polluted with.
He told her finally to pay attention to him because he had a brilliant point to make.
“It never entered my mind to think otherwise,” Abby said, and smiled in return.
He guided her out by way of a different door. It was a sliding door — part of the wall in the back of the chilled rock room — a door of blood-red cherry, with thick frosted glass panels and so well-crafted and camouflaged that Abby didn’t even realize it was a door until Kumulous eased it open.
It rolled on hidden wheels without any sound, and it disappeared into the wall that was also its sheath.
On the other side, facing another darkling corridor, she thought she saw, very briefly, a shadowy shape moving toward her in the shimmering green. She caught her breath and stopped in her tracks. She peered into the gloom. She saw nothing else. Kumulous came up behind her.
“I thought I saw movement up there,” she said. “But I don’t see it now.”
He didn’t reply but reached to the wall on his right and punched a hidden button, which made a technological chirp and then ignited a small rectangular keypad that glowed lemon-yellow in the dark. From here he adjusted the rheostat, so that the hallway before them grew slightly brighter, and Abby could see now a large mirror twenty feet beyond, and she understood that this mirror had reflected her own movement, and this is what she’d seen.
“What kind of house is this?” she said.
“It is a fun house,” he said. “A very fun house.”
And took her down into a vast underground room, to the very foundations of the fun house, she reckoned: a room which gurgled and hissed. When he pulled back a wide black curtain on the far wall, there appeared a thick pane of glass beyond which a kingdom of strange sea animals drifted and knifed.
He told her that it was an oceanic aquarium, and Abby thought the water, too, looked suffused with the green glowing light — or perhaps it was the color of the water itself.
Kumulous stood by her side in front of the glass, and they watched the multicolored sea creatures, with their cataphracted bodies and wedge-shaped tails, soundlessly swish.
Their human reflections hung ghostly on the thick relucent pane.
Soon he directed her attention to a corner of this same room, wherein stood a large and technological-looking microscope the likes of which she’d never seen.
Upon the wall opposite this microscope hung a cork dartboard with three feathered darts stuck infundibular in the bullseye.
“It is the bullseye which I hit every night,” said Kumulous, cryptically.
He asked Abby what in her opinion had the better view: the microscope or the telescope?
She said it depended upon her mood — and he smiled at that and said he thought it was an excellent answer indeed.
He guided her to an adjoining room with a dirt floor, under a high ceiling laced with hot steaming pipes, and in the center of this room grew a small and gnarled gray tree.
It sat solitary under a tangerine light.
Kumulous told her that he called this tree the tree of philosophy, the tree of wisdom. He said that he’d grafted and grown it himself and that it formed the very underpinnings of this house and that in many ways the entire house had been built around the tree.
It was old and yet healthy-looking, spare but with muscular limbs, and from it hung three primary limbs, with lime-green leaves the size and shape of elephant ears.
He pointed to the three main limbs.
He told her that three primary branches grow upon the ancient tree of philosophy, and that these three branches, in order of importance, are metaphysics, which studies the nature of reality, and then epistemology, which is the science of knowledge, and finally ethics, which is the study of human action.
Next he pointed to a slender, more delicate branch that was an offshoot from the limb he’d named epistemology, and he told her that this graceful limb is called esthetics, which, he said, is the study of art and beauty.
Then he showed her the long thick limb that drooped from the limb he’d named ethics and which had a shorter limb growing from the end of it, and he told her that this first limb is called politics, which is the science of human action in societies, and that the short stout one on the end is named economics, the science of production and exchange.
These six branches, he said — metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, economics, and esthetics — form the discipline of philosophy, and that this discipline undergirds every other discipline, whether scientific or technological, agricultural or industrial, commercial or artistic.
He said it was the most venerable thing in his house.
She asked him with a smile if he would tell her the meaning of life next, and he laughed and said that she’d already discovered the meaning of life — she just didn’t know it — and that it was one of the many things he loved about her.
Then he walked her back into the other room, over to the dartboard. He removed the three darts from the bullseye and handed her those darts. He told her to throw all three them, one at a time, at the board and to try and hit whatever spot she chose.
She started to object that she’d never thrown a dart in her life, but he held up his veiny paw and told her it didn’t matter. He told her to hold the dart like a pencil and simply concentrate and try to hit whatever space she chose. He then produced, as if from nothing, a fourth dart, which he rapidly yet delicately tossed at the dartboard, directly into the bullseye.
“Now you,” he said.
When she’d thrown all three darts, Kumulous told her that this was the meaning of life.
“My skill?” she said.
“No. The purpose you’ve undertaken at any given time and the effort and focus it requires to follow through with that purpose. That,” he said, “is the meaning of life.”
He told her that purpose is willed, not innate or inborn, and that it is something you develop through patience and repetition and learning. He told her that when you have an interest in something, even if it’s at first only a moderate interest, and you then begin learning about that thing, your interest and passion for it will often develop as your understanding of the subject deepens. This, in turn, will create a desire to learn more about it, which will in turn fuel your passion, and so on, reciprocally. He said that the greatest passions are the passions you will into existence merely by saying to yourself: Yes, I want to pursue this thing: I want to make this thing my purpose and my passion. Bringing forth the living potential that lies dormant within each — fulfilling your nature, he said, like quartz — this is the meaning of life.
He told her that even though she wasn’t fully aware of it, she’d discovered this principle long ago.
He said that whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might, and then he put her into an elevator and got in after her and gently, when the door closed, spun her around so that her back was facing him, and then, wrapping his arms around her from behind, he pressed himself against her and silently inhaled through his nose, sniffing her. She felt him grow huge almost immediately against the cleft of her rear, and they went up, up, up in the elevator, and when the door opened, she saw at last the source of the green glow, and it dropped her jaw.
“It’s the Dog Star,” Kumulous said, “Sirius: the brightest burning star in the night sky, centerpiece in the constellation Canis Major, mythical guardian at the gates of all that’s good and true. And over there” (he pointed leftward) “is the planet Venus: also called the star of the dawn, the morning star, the star of Lucifer.”
They stood side-by-side upon the threshold of a dome-shaped planetarium as large as a circus tent.
The planetarium replicated precisely the nighttime heavens. It was backlit with a complicated array of green laser-light, and the stars themselves were stylized and exaggerated, and yet they were perfect emerald stars that burned with a mineralized gleam.
There was a vast system of mirrors behind and below, and these mirrors intricately reflected the light, so that the soft green glow rocketed everywhere throughout the house, and somewhere farther beyond — it was difficult for Abby to gain perspective — a pelagic pool of green water shimmered and gave back more light yet.
She stood spellbound.
The light pulsed and fell noiselessly over her body and his. Silence boomed.
He watched her with lidless fixity, his eyes green and inscrutable, and in their liquid sheen, her profile, turned to the stars, was twinned and reflected minutely.
There were more stars in the dome above than there was blackness of space, and it struck her as both hyper-real and fantastical all at once.
She told him that she’d never seen such a thing. She told him that she’d not thought such a thing possible. She gazed with her head tipped back at the mock firmament sagging with celestial light and said that she felt as though she were dreaming. He smiled in his half-mocking way and said perhaps you are.
At length Kumulous adjusted the dome by remote control, so that the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere slowly swam into ken. He then led her by hand to a long couch-like seat, which reclined all the way back, the better to view the stars overhead.
But Abby did not sit.
She stood with upcast eyes, agog and burning.
Then she turned to him. He put his hand between her legs and covered her mouth with his.
She came unroped with an unstoppable urge: a hunger so profound and so unslakable, it seemed she would devour him whole.
She tasted of red wine and cherries, her mouth, her perilous pretty mouth, wanton and wet and boiling.
Their kiss went deep and lasted minutes. He grew engorged and gigantic. He tasted vaguely of blood. He broke away at last and guided her to her knees so that she was on all fours upon the couch.
He put his hand between her legs from behind and he cupped her oven-hot slew, felt the fiery glow of her secret flesh, and then the steaming rush of her body’s wetness. He leaned forward and pressed the side of his face against her gluteal fold, and he inhaled her completely with each breath, taking in her feral and feline scent which made him shut his eyes and knit his brows in pure reverence for her sweetness and her beauty. Emeralds of sweat grew out everywhere along his forehead and rolled streaming down his face.
He caressed her through the thin fabric of her clothing and did not increase his speed. His veiny hand moved counterclockwise without haste or urgency. She gasped. She was drenched in her own sweat and womanly juice. She reared and lifted her hips higher into the air, still clothed, and then she spread her legs apart wider and pushed herself more firmly against his hand. She buried her face into the pillow below her and moaned and thrashed and gasped again.
The friction of the thin fabric under his touch and the power of his touch whipped her into a frenzied lather, a half-crazed boiling-over, and then with his other hand, he bore down into the soft hollow below the stalk of her neck and he kneaded the flesh of her neck, until Abby’s whole body was suddenly transformed into a living organism of pure nerve-ending:
She became electrified in a way she’d never before experienced, so that his every movement sent great shockwaves and pulses of pleasure exploding into her, towering waves of a humongous orgasm that rolled repeatedly through her body. She came again and again in a series that did not diminish but built higher and higher, until she thought she would blackout from the sheer strength and mounting intensity, the limitless surge of orgasmic peristalsis, one after the other and scarcely any space in between, rushing all throughout her, from the soles of her feet to the tip of her scalp which was alive and tingling with sensations beyond any she’d ever known, each surge stronger than the one before, while he crouched houndlike behind her in the gleaming emerald light, his face pressed hard against her delicate cleft, sweating and strange and inhaling her smell, his eyes shut and scowling, as if he’d store her scent forever inside his cells, and the winking stars went reeling away above them and poured down their eternal light like water.
Hours or days later — she felt she no longer had any capacity by which to gauge time — in the denouement of that lust-addled interlude which went on without surcease, she thought of the word her boss had used to describe him: Mephistophelean. And Kumulous broke in on the drift of her thoughts and spoke for the first time in a long time.
“Mephistopheles is not my name,” he said.
She turned to him.
“But I know what you’re up to, just the same.” He smiled his mocking half-smile.
“More,” she said. “Say more.”
He told her that this was a liquid life forever flowing, and that her eyes, so often thoughtful and melancholy, sloshed with life, and that he was drawn to this life-force within her, like a bee to honey. He told her furthermore that the human face and the human body do not lie but disclose unswervingly the soul inside that shapes them.
Abby watched him. “You’re the strangest person I’ve ever known,” she said. “I’ve never met anyone like you, not remotely.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she realized something — something that skewered her heart like an icicle. She caught her breath.
He reached out to her and pulled her toward him. “More,” he said, and kissed her. “I want more.”
She closed her eyes and licked his lips that tasted faintly bloodlike. “Yes,” she whispered.
(to be continued)