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 and a prominent brow-ridge, 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 in many ways opposite 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.”
“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 greatest compliment I’ve ever received.”
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 sixty-six-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 watered 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 six years older than her 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 straight 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 indeed 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, and yet for all its heft, this door shut in a curiously gentle way. 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 all at once 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 seemed to her also that Kumulous somehow knew this — knew that she didn’t know the meaning of her own 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 an apricot 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 on the floor. 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 perfectly. 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.”
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. Satan, like God, is a fictional character.”
“You say that with such certainty.”
“Yes, because I am certain. That billions believe is irrelevant. Arbitrary claims are not to be proven or disproven but dismissed. As fictional characters, Satan and God, like Prometheus and Orpheus and many others, do possess value. In many ways, I regard Satan as the first — and last — Universal Man.”
“Why first and last?”
“Because he’s ancient and he represents knowledge-over-faith, and because the Universal Man is a thing of the past. Lucifer symbolizes strength, autonomy, human progress. But make no mistake: the deification of Satan is every bit as misbegotten as the deification of God or gods or any other figure, arbitrary or otherwise.”
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 six full planche pushups, and then he rose to his feet.
He stood before her and tilted his head, like a dog.
“Symbiotic,” he said. “You see?”
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 clean 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.”
“Was that when you dropped out of school?”
“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?”
“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 most of 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, quite valuable. 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, eventually.
“It never entered my mind to think otherwise,” Abby said, and smiled in return.
He took 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 tapped 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: 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 together 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 she smiled wider, and he 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 in life, and my passion. Bringing forth the living potential that lies dormant within each — fulfilling your nature, he said, like quartz set in molecular motion — 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 and the evening 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, still on her hands and knees, 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 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 jaw 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 had in this house lost her capacity to reckon 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.
He once again 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 and narrowed her eyes in thought.
“You’re the strangest person I’ve ever known,” she said. “I’ve never met anyone remotely like you, and I never will again. I know I won’t.”
“Don’t let me go.”
“Take me to the stars forever,” she said.
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she realized something — something that skewered her heart like an icicle — and she caught her breath.
He reached out to her and pulled her toward him.
“More,” he said, and kissed her on the mouth. “I want more.”
She closed her eyes and licked his lips that tasted faintly bloodlike.
“Yes,” she whispered. “More.”
Stark naked they writhed and intertwined like serpents laved in the oily wetness of their own fluids.
He lay on his back and she straddled his mouth so that her sex was directly over his lips. He kissed her alabaster thighs. She stroked and sucked and flicked him, and he simultaneously spread open her creamy skin and lapped like a dog at her hot hollow and around the muddy rosebud of her anus — lapped and licked until Abby, more interminably orgasmic than she’d thought humanly possible, wondered for a brief moment if her brain and her body would ever fully normalize after such sustained hyper-sensitization of the nervous system.
Nor did his ejaculations in any way slake his thirst for her. Quenchless and wild, he would not stop, and Abby in the end realized that she’d never felt so yearned-for, so burned-for, so desired, so admired.
He shut off all power and led her naked and in darkness down to the pool of water below. Strips of melon-colored light along the floor marked the way.
“I must tell you something,” she said.
He turned to her.
They stood in silence beside the lapping water, and there was no other sound except for this. Her buttermilk skin glowed palely next to his swarthy flesh.
“Your detractors have said many hateful and hurtful things about you,” she said at last. “But they don’t know.”
“Don’t you, though, a little?”
She reached for his hand. He gripped her fingers and then leaned over and kissed her fingers and her forearm repeatedly, inhaling the scent of her skin.
“I stopped hearing that long ago,” he said, “if I ever heard it at all. One of the great paradoxes of my life is that my detractors, as you say, couldn’t tell you my actual ideas or my viewpoint even if their lives depended upon it. It’s not the content of my ideas they most hate. It’s that I don’t fall in line.”
She cast her eyes down thoughtfully, without moving her head. She stared at the wormy vein that ran along his biceps.
“Perhaps that’s true,” she said. “But I think people also see you as — you know — just an economist, as I myself did.”
“And yet I’m not even that,” he said, “I’m not an economist. The truth is, I don’t even really like political-economic things.”
“No? Then why do you write so much political-economic literature — and so forcefully, I might add, such as your latest book, for which I interviewed you?”
“Because knowledge, like the human body, forms a unity and is interconnected and deeply interwoven, and because the politicians and their bureaus — and the economists who inform the politicians and their bureaus — hold the greatest power over our lives, and because I believe in neither commanding nor obeying, and because their understanding of this subject-matter is so infantile, so economically illiterate, their grasp of even the most rudimentary political-economic principles so appalling, that I believe it must be countered as forcefully as possible. It’s one thing to be beaten by a stronger or faster opponent. But to be beaten by such weakness and slowness is unthinkable to me.”
She turned from him and narrowed her eyes on the rippled green water and, staring at the water, spoke.
“I was one of your detractors,” she said. “I want you to know this.”
She looked up at him, as if awaiting the verdict in his eyes.
He smiled so broadly that his razorous teeth shone phosphorescent in the dark.
Then he embraced her naked body, encircling it completely in his muscular arms, and tumbled with her into the sloshing green water, which was so cold that it took her breath away in pure exhilaration.
Shortly after that, the nightmare began.
She was awakened by the distant report of a barking dog. Her eyes flipped open.
What dawn was it?
She didn’t know. She didn’t have any idea how long she’d slept. Yet her brain felt sharp and clean and limpid.
The house was silent and still as before, but now the silence seemed to her laden with an ominous tremor: a tremor of eerie intent.
She folded the covers back into a large dog-ear and swung her legs out of bed. She was naked. She sat on the edge of the bed and gazed about her. A cold breeze passed over her and lifted her hair as with tiny fingers. She was alone in an alien room. The room was large and lit with the soft green glow. There was no clock anywhere that she could see. Her clothes were carefully folded on the chair next to her.
What dawn was it? she asked herself again.
Across the room stood a floor-to-ceiling window hung with black velvet curtains that were drawn over the glass.
She stood up and went over to the window. She parted the heavy curtains with the back of her hand and peered outside.
It was still dark. The rain had slackened. The morning star hung greenly in the sky at the end of a black alleyway. She stared at the star for a long time. It was pristine and very beautiful, and it winked at her.
She was high up — two stories high at least.
Then the bark came again. She glanced down and was startled to see a solitary hound gazing up at her directly below the window. The dog’s eyes were glowing, and its fangs were ferociously bared. Her heart constricted in her chest and she immediately drew back from the window.
She called out Kumulous’s name. Her voice and his name resounded outrageously in the dead silence of the house. She waited, but the only response was the bark of the dog.
She dressed in the green light and wandered alone down the empty hallways of rippled jade. She was shocked to discover that the palm-sized piece of polished gold was no longer in her pocket.
“Kumulous!” she yelled.
But there came no reply at all.
The silence filled her with an inexpressible sense of desolation.
She wandered for a long time. The green glow followed her everywhere. Twice she thought she heard a low growl, but it was so distant and she so caught up in her head that she couldn’t be sure she’d actually heard anything after all. She stopped. She listened. She heard nothing.
At one point, she thought she was perhaps wandering in a circle and had returned to her starting-point.
Then she thought she saw someone approaching. She hid herself in the recess of a dark doorway and waited. No one came and there was not a sound. Carefully, she peaked her head out.
It took her a long moment to realize that it was once again merely her own reflection she was seeing, in a long mirror situated at an angle in the hallway.
This house seemed to her incomprehensibly vast, unexplored — full of strange secrets and enigmas she could scarcely conceive, or believe.
She probed her pocket obsessively for the polished piece of gold, which she’d already become attached to. Each time she felt it not there, an inordinate sense of sorrow struck her heart with a gothic pang — and, suddenly, in those silent green corridors which at some point had also become for her the corridors of her own mind, she experienced a similar pang of longing for him: a longing she’d never have thought possible to feel in so brief a time.
Alone now in her own mind, she saw him for what he actually was: a man of dogged single-mindedness who adored her. She heard his quiet voice inside her head:
“I adore you,” it said. “I adore you — and I will, until the day I’m dead.”
At last she perceived the sound of a distant piano, and with difficulty she followed the piano to its source.
It was a room she’d not yet seen. The door was closed. A strip of moon-colored light glowed luminously along its base. There was a security keypad to the right. She raised her fist to knock, but the big door sprung open of its own accord, and the first thing she saw inside was a massive python slowly slithering over the black marble floor. The snake’s head was triangular, as large as the blade of a shovel, the snake itself green-eyed and lidless and at least twenty feet long and as big around as her thigh, its skin patterned with leopardine spots.
Other animals began to appear:
Two sheep and three small pigs, hairless cats darting about and a male goat who watched her with bright quartz eyes that were sapient, and there to her right in this room of astronomical proportions, a quartet of multicolored parrots shrieked from a tall rubber tree, and there were monkeys in that tree, and on a long wooden perch, a hooded falcon like an executioner stood next to a Eurasian owl, which blinked slowly and watched her with great calm and was as large as a small child, the green air swarming with bumblebees and horseflies and hummingbirds — a room, in short, teeming with life.
She couldn’t see Kumulous, but the music had stopped the moment the door opened.
“Please come in and close the door, Abby. None of these creatures will harm you.”
His voice came to her sourceless.
“Where are you?” she said.
“I’m right here, Abby girl. Right in my element.”
Abby stepped in and shut the door. The green glow was instantly obliterated, and only then did she noticed that the room was alight from all along the sides with fat white candles in blood-red jars. It reminded her of a church, except this room was cacophonous with the varied voices of beasts and birds.
The smell of almonds of cherries reached her nose.
“I’m back here,” he said.
She found him, dressed in black pants and a lab coat, in a separated cubicle of glass, bent over a microscope that was slotted into a half-moon hollow in the floor and which was lit up from somewhere athwart. The microscope was so large that it rose up from beneath the floor to his chest.
Behind him hung a big dartboard covered with butterflies and insects all pinned and writhing against the wall.
He beckoned her in, and she closed the glass door behind her, shutting out the animal noise.
Despite the lab coat, he had never looked more wolfish to her.
The smell of almonds and cherries was clangorous, and Kumulous, once more displaying the uncanny purchase he had on the drift of her thoughts, told her that the almond-and-cherry smell was a preservative — a kind of extract, he said — less caustic than formaldehyde, but just as effective.
Indeed, at that moment she saw all around the floor that housed the microscope a great many glass vats containing a murky liquid wherein floated two-headed calves and malformed animal fetuses and small reptile life, and there, at his feet, oddly similar yet different, in a small jar of pickled vegetables, a single white cauliflower bobbing like a shrunken brain.
“What are you doing?” she said.
He looked up at her and smiled gently.
“I’m learning.” He paused, appeared to ponder. “You’d be surprised how much you can learn when you seriously undertake the task of thinking for yourself,” he said.
She looked troubled.
“What is it, Abby? Why do you wrinkle your buttermilk brow at me?”
She didn’t reply.
He then asked her if she’d ever met a woman or a man who had truly spent her life in educating herself, and Abby started to say “only you” — but the words would not come out. She even opened her mouth to speak, but still the words wouldn’t come.
“If you ever meet such a person,” he said, “please drink a toast to her as rapidly as possible, knowing that the highest ideal has, however briefly, touched you and sanctified your day.”
He turned away from her.
“Speaking of which,” he said.
He spun back around with a sealed bottle of tequila in one hand and two cut-crystal tumblers in the other. He cracked open the bottle with his strong fingers and sloshed a large measure of tequila into each glass and strode over to her. He handed her one of the glasses and raised his glass to her.
“Kicks,” he said.
They both drank. Then he leaned in behind her.
“Abby girl,” he said quietly. “I think the world of you. I truly do.”
He kissed the hollow at the base of her stalk-like neck and inhaled her scent for a long moment — until he was interrupted by an enormous brown spider, the size of his hand, with eyes like gig-lamps, which came scuttling toward them over the marble floor. Abby recoiled once more. She squeezed his hand white.
“Please don’t be frightened,” he said. “She’s harmless — unlike yourself.” He winked at her.
They watched the spider clatter away. Abby exhaled in relief and at last regained her voice.
“I cannot find the gold you gave me,” she blurted. “It was in my pocket where you put it, and now it’s gone.”
She felt a sudden and almost overwhelming urge to cry.
“Gone?” he said, and stepped toward her. He reached up to her ear and in the blink of an eye produced the palm-sized piece of polished gold and held it before her.
“You had it the whole time,” he said. “It was within you.”
He pushed it back, deep into her front pocket.
And yet something still wasn’t right. Everything suddenly had a warped look to it, a fevered quake, arcana shimmering along the margins of her vision, so that Abby even wondered if she was perhaps getting sick. As soon as she thought this, it flashed through her head also that the source of the sickness was rooted in her: in the sense inside her that she was growing more and more conflicted over him, and that it was a very serious problem indeed — one that would need to be directly addressed.
At the same time, she felt a mounting sense of dread and apprehension, and she asked him again what he was doing here.
He cocked his head and eyed her asquint.
He poured them both more tequila, and he told her that what he ultimately sought here was to ground moral law in human life, and when she asked him why, he said because he didn’t believe in God.
She shook her head in dissatisfaction.
He then gestured down into the floor, where a Goliath frog lay sliced open and dissected under the microscope, oozing little purple guts in a welter of gore, eggs basted in blood, muscular legs akimbo. She could see the frog’s bean-sized liver in a Petri dish, skewered through with a long needle like a shish-kabob.
She turned her head away.
She thought of her dead father and her brother with his brains blown out onto the wall, and she was again swamped with a near-overwhelming urge to cry.
Kumulous reached out for her hand and squeezed it tightly. She felt his adoration for her run down his arm and shoot like electricity into her own.
He then told her that moral law is as real as human nature within which it has its existence, and that it would be strange indeed if humans alone of all living creatures could realize their highest welfare in disregard of the principles of human nature.
He said that our nature, like this frog’s nature, is always concrete and definite and that as we would never think an orchid, which requires abundant moisture, could grow on an arid rock, nor that a whale can flourish in a fresh-water river, so, in the same way and for the same reasons, must be the failure of humans to realize in disregard of the laws of being, the values that promote human life and human flourishing over the long arc of each individual’s existence.
Life is a process of valuing, he said, which presupposes desires, and the structure of human beings as conscious and noetic creatures — this, he said, and this alone is what makes moral laws every bit as real as those of our physical existence.
“I don’t understand you,” she said. The planet seemed to wobble beneath her feet.
He asked her if she remembered Sea Monkeys, and when she didn’t answer him yes or no, he told her that you just add water to them and give them care, and then you have life.
“Like quartz,” he said.
He told her again that, in this selfsame way, fulfilling one’s nature is the meaning of life, as it is also the basis of human goodness, and that while human happiness and pleasure are both the goal and also The Good, they cannot, however, be the means or the standard, which, he said, is why ethical hedonism runs spectacularly aground: because it reverses means and ends and results in a concentration upon short-term vanities and vices and pleasures which do not sustain and cannot sustain because they cannot promote life over time.
Humans alone among all the beasts are physical and epistemological, he said, and our epistemological nature is ultimately what gives rise to our moral nature, because we are long-range thinkers.
This was finally his brilliant point to make, he said, and did it enter her mind now to think otherwise?
When she didn’t answer him, he took her by the hand and led her out of the glass cubicle, through the zoo of animals with their wild screams and grunts and mindless moans.
He walked her through a vaulted door into a space that was pitch-black and as cold as a crypt. He shut the door behind them.
He told her in the gelid darkness that Leonardo DeVinci, like Lucifer, like Mephistopheles, like Faust, was Uomo Universale — a Universal Man — and he asked her if she knew about him.
“Yes,” she said. “He learned the black art of anatomy by dissecting human corpses, and so did Michelangelo.”
When Kumulous turned on the light, she saw him smiling his razorous smile.
She saw also spread out before her a cave-like room that went back as far as her eyes could penetrate.
At her feet lay a scaled seashore sloshing with miniature life-forms. There were cores of flint jutting from the silty mud, a tiny white bird perched upon a mudspit. Blue-black leeches fanned the gunpowder sand, pink angelfish with all-pupil eyes and nostrils like needle holes swishing by directly below her. The ebb and flow of the seawater had exposed the roots of the aquatic plants, so that the plants looked undergirded with a strange bronchial apparatus, and oblong shadows cast by the sidewise light lay inlaid upon the sand.
The smell of almond and cherry and blood assaulted her senses.
Kumulous held her hand and walked her around the water. Together they went deeper into the cone-shaped hollow, where the cold air grew damp and misty, the light dimmer, and moist-looking convolutions hung slurred and bloody upon the walls, the walls themselves living and organic, like the windpipe of some gigantic creature, and just as Abby began to realize what was happening, Kumulous threw a loud switch which ignited a klieg light, and there, in the innards of his house, on slabs of pocked stone, an army of dissected dead people lay like fallen angels, and Abby woke with a scream.
Awoke screaming and soaked in sweat and with Kumulous kneeling next to her in the half-light, holding her hands and telling her that she was having a dream and that she’d been asleep for a long time.
He kissed her hands and asked her if she was awake now.
“Yes,” she said.
She could feel his strength. She could feel his warmth, and she asked him to please — please, she said, squeeze me stuffingless.
He leaned over and kissed her zygomatic arch and drew her deeply into him.
His touch and his voice soothed her. She felt the beat of his heart upon her breasts, and she felt her own bloodbeat surge in response.
Her hand went to the front pocket of her pants, and there she discovered the polished piece of gold lodged safely against the pointy tip of the pocket.
She rose from the bed and went into the bathroom and bathed in the half-light beneath a hot shower.
When she was finished, she emerged steaming and found Kumulous, shirtless and barefoot, in a deep chair in his room. He was staring at the floor. His brows were knitted, his eyes aglow. She had a long white towel wrapped around her body.
She approached him. She smiled.
“Hello again,” she whispered.
She reached down. He closed his eyes. She caressed him slowly until he grew fully erect. She removed her towel and dropped it on the floor. She got onto her knees naked and took off his clothing. There was a drop of clear fluid like dew on the tip of his penis. She licked it off, and then she began gorging herself on his dark flesh.
He swelled enormously in her mouth. She took him all the way in, in and out, in and out, until her jaws ached. Her breasts were conical and creamy, her nipples mud-colored and stippled with little bumps, and after a while, she pulled her mouth off him breathlessly and wrapped his penis between her breasts and rubbed her breasts all over him up and down.
She tucked her hair behind her ear and went back to him with her mouth, licking the underside of his shaft clear down to his perineum and then back up, darting flicks of her tongue along the head of his penis, the unbelievably complicated vascularity of his flesh. He smelled of cumin, and still the faint and not unpleasant hint of blood.
Abby’s loins caught fire. She desired him inside her, burned for the feel of him penetrating her own flesh.
She rose up from the floor.
She straddled him in the chair and then reached down and gripped him around the base of his penis with her whole hand, and she guided him, slick with her saliva, into the dripping entryway of her womb.
She cried out in pleasure and pain that became all pleasure, and she shut her eyes and thought of his heartbeat and his veins, his muscles and flesh, the red life his veins carried into every cell of his body, and she thought of her own body, and she impaled herself over and over upon him, until her nerves grew entirely galvanic, and she once again went white-hot and reeling into the molten sky above among the stars — and so did he, in perfect unity.
For what use of nature, what enjoyment of the world, what taste of the elements is not consumed by the soul per carnem?
She spoke passable Italian, and she asked Kumulous in Italian where the term Uomo Universale originated.
He answered her in kind, saying that the term comes from Renaissance Italy, and that this is why it means the same thing as Renaissance Man.
He told her that the word Renaissance come from the Latin nascens, which means “birth” and that Renaissance therefore means “rebirth” — in part because the Renaissance helped bring about the end of the Dark Ages.
He told her that a man named Leon Alberti coined the term Uomo Universale, believing as he did that one can do all things if one wills it.
He told her also that this same Alberti was among the greatest exemplifiers of the Uomo Universale: an architect, painter, writer, mathematician, and scientist who was also physical and athletic.
“I’m afraid, though, that the Universal Human is a thing of the past,” he said. “An extinct creature.”
“Because when self-development and the development of the individual has ceased to be upheld as the highest of virtues, the standards of excellence are instantly lowered — and, often, ultimately lost. Egalitarianism, in any of its variations, is incompatible with Uomo Universale. The two views cannot coexist.”
“What exactly does the term refer to: the universal human?”
“It refers to the perfect unity between brain and body: the yin-and-the-yang of it and the act of ceaselessly asking why — of piecing together painstakingly the interconnected puzzle of knowledge as it extends into every branch and sub-branch of learning and of doggedly sniffing out new knowledge and integrating it into the already known, and then acting in a way that’s consistent with that knowledge.”
“Is there ever a point when the puzzle becomes complete?”
“No. At any stage of learning, no matter how much you know — no matter how recondite, no matter how erudite — there’s always more to learn. Which is why we must keep asking why,” he said, “until the day we die.”
She loved watching him, had come in a peculiar way to crave it, the precision of his movements, swift but never hurried, his motions devoid of the extraneous, the relaxed familiarity he had with his body, his elegant wrists and tubular veins, his cleanliness — it aroused her in a way unlike anything in her prior experience: sexually, intellectually, and in some other manner she couldn’t quite define.
He opened for her another icy-cold bottle of water and poured her more wine. They drank to each other. The wine was mellow and musty and rich. She sat at his kitchen counter, in a high soft chair, while he prepared her food.
The gentle notes of a jazz trumpet filled the room with perfect pitch, and the deep silence of the house fell around them like ashes.
They were drenched in the soft green glow of stars.
Time here for Abby had ceased to exist.
He set before her a dish of oil-and-vinegar that looked like a yin-and-yang symbol, a plate of warm thin flatbread cut into bite-sized triangles, a large bowl of snap peas and blue-black Amphissa olives among red-veined lettuce and large slabs of avocado, thin pieces of fresh mango and orange wedges splashed with lemon juice and dusted in sea-salt, and then a steaming bowl of purple potatoes shaped like her pinkies.
She broke open a smoking hot potato with her front teeth and cradled it in her mouth while it cooled. She chewed it slowly, swallowed, chased it with water.
“This is perfect,” she said. “Won’t you have any?”
“Come here, then.”
She dipped a triangle of bread into the oil-and-vinegar and held her palm underneath it. He came around to her side and opened his mouth. She eased the dripping bread into him, watched the glint of his pink uvula like a miniature stalactite in the cave of his mouth.
She poked a mango in him and then a wedge of orange. And then another.
She gave him a purple potato.
“Thank you!” he said.
She pinched up with her first three fingers an oversized wad of red-veined lettuce and a fat olive and an avocado and then stuffed it all into his mouth. He smiled and she laughed. They both drank more wine.
He buried his face into her nuque and inhaled her scent. She felt the warm glow again spread throughout her loins. She closed her eyes.
“How do you know my tastes so well?”
“Because you’re the yin to my yang,” he said. He kissed her around her jawline and inhaled her silently. “You smell so bloody good.”
She cleaned her hands with the hot towel he’d given her, and she drank more water.
“It is a very wonderful thing,” he said, “that our bodies can bring us so much pleasure and enjoyment.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
She stood up from the chair, and he embraced her from behind: her glowing skin, the liquid life-force within her, the graceful sway of her neck and heady scent of her flesh. Her flesh.
She shut her eyes and tipped her head back into his chest. He put his hands beneath the front of her shirt and ran his fingers along her breasts. Her nipples grew hard immediately under his warm touch and sent a soft horripilation undulating down her skin. She felt the swell of his erection against her inner thigh and then the slow sweet release of her body’s own wetness.
Kumulous kept one hand under her shirt and put his other hand between her legs from the front and began caressing her through the thin fabric of her pants. He cupped her with his veiny hand and rotated his wrist slowly. She writhed and pushed herself more firmly into him.
“Abby girl,” he said. “I can’t get enough. I want to do everything to you.”
“Please,” she said, “do everything to me. I want you to.”
He removed her clothes and bent her over the soft chair. With both hands he spread open her ivorine flesh and lapped her from behind like a cur: her womanly mons, with its perfect arrowhead of hair the same chestnut color as the hair on her head, the salmon-colored flare beneath, her anus like an intricate knot of beautiful muscle — he lapped and licked until the orgasmic tidal wave mounted within her skyscraper-high and then came crashing down, inundating her rush after rush, over and over again, in oceanic surges of pleasure and warmth and goodness.
What dawn was it? The morning star hung in the sky like a jewel, the gibbous moon beside it a pocky disk of gold.
He excused himself for a moment and left her alone. He was gone for some time. She sipped her wine. The beautiful music ended. Gradually, sitting alone in this strange house, a sense of unease crept over her. For a moment she thought she heard the distant report of a barking dog, and she even had a fleeting notion that somebody was watching her. She looked around but saw nothing.
She took the polished piece of gold from her pocket and rubbed her thumb over it and thought of how much she loved it — loved it in a way she couldn’t express, even to herself — she wasn’t entirely sure why. And yet she did: she loved it inordinately.
She considered her life as it was before meeting Kumulous: her work, her lover, her friends, her causes — her values, as Kumulous might call them — and then she thought again of him and this house.
The dichotomy was so great, the gulf so wide, that she could scarcely hold them both in her brain at the same time.
A feeling of ambivalence tore through her. Her pulse started to race, and she tightly squeezed the palm-sized piece of gold — but her thoughts were interrupted:
“I’ve ruined it for you forever, Abby,” he said, breaking in on her thoughts. “I’m sorry.”
His voice came to her from out of the glowing darkness behind her, and she turned her head. She couldn’t see him.
“That life is tainted now in a way you can never untaint,” he said. “Unless you completely block it out of your mind and avoid thinking of it. But you’re too philosophical to ever be able to do that: beautiful and philosophical, a deadly combination for me — which is why I’m putty in your hands.”
She peered into the arcana of the hallway.
Piecemeal he materialized from out of the glow. He came striding toward her. He was freshly shaven and showered, dressed in loose black jeans and a white shirt, the black canvas shoes with flat soles. His hair was combed back, his brow furrowed and thoughtful.
“I am truly sorry,” he said.
“I feel that being here with you in this house isn’t real,” Abby said. “I feel as if it’s not the real world.”
“In actuality it’s the other way around,” he said.
She realized then — only then — the full ramifications of what he was saying now, and of what he’d said the moment before they’d stepped together into his house.
If you walk through this door with me, you won’t come out the same person. You’ll never be the same again.
The icicle that had skewered her heart before skewered it again now — and for the exact same reason — except this time the puncture pierced her in a much more poignant and painful way.
Alone in his white-tiled bathroom, she splashed cold water over her face and ran her fingers through her hair. Her clothes were washing. She wore his black button-down shirt which went to her thighs, and this was all she wore.
Her palm-sized piece of polished gold sat deep and heavy in the buttoned-up breast pocket.
She stood dripping over the sink.
When she raised her eyes to the mirror, she saw for a fraction of a second her dear dead brother staring back at her. Her heart hammered into her throat. She caught her breath.
She thought of death.
She thought of how old her father was when she was born and how old he was for all her life and of how much she loved him and how, from as far back as she could remember, she’d worried about him continuously, compulsively, his health, his life, her constant fear of him dying, and the ineluctable threat of death.
She splashed more water onto her face.
There was a stillness hovering over everything.
She remembered Kumulous telling her during the course of their interview, over coffee, that stillness is the inverse of life.
She thought she heard a dog bark once in the distance.
She dried herself on a large clean towel that smelled faintly of almonds, and then she left the room.
Kumulous was waiting for her down the hall.
His eyes glowed greenly, as though an immanent force burned deep inside his skull. He embraced her. He brought her against his living flesh, and he touched her perfect body with his brain, and she did the same to him.
She licked his lips that tasted faintly of fresh blood — and knew that a terrible choice awaited her.
She told him without looking at him that she had an obsession with death — compulsive thoughts of death, she said. She told him that she was sometimes unable to stop thinking about death. She said that it frightened her and that this was not something she ever spoke of, not even to her mother or sister.
He told her that this came through in her beautiful book, and he asked her where her obsession originated.
She said that all of her early life she’d grown up among death, or the threat of death, and that it had imprinted itself deeply upon her brain — more so in her, she said, than in most people, even under same or similar circumstances.
He said that her mind being of a speculative and sensitive cast surely went far in explaining her obsessive thoughts and that all thoughtful people ruminate over death, because in many ways it is the profoundest subject of them all.
“Et recordatus est quia caro sunt, spiritus vadens et non rediens,” he said. “The flesh is a wind that passes away and comes not again.”
She turned to him for the first time since they’d begun talking. He stared at the tiny flakes of gold that speckled her eyes. They regarded each other in silence for some time.
“Death gives life meaning,” he said, “in the sense that death is what life constantly strives against. The crucial thing is to get as much out of life in every way, while we have it — to not let it go by unexamined or unthought-of, to not let it be squandered on the false or the frivolous or on easy pleasures and platitudes, but to bring forth that which is within us.”
He stopped speaking for a long moment.
“Like Madame E,” he said, “whom you captured so perfectly in your stellar book.”
“Death,” she asked, “where is thy sting?”
At that moment, the music kicked back in, and Kumulous began to dance and sing.
“It is a great and beautiful thing,” he said, “the dance, the swing.”
He held his hand out to her and she gripped it in her own.
“The dance is life. Death, where is thy sting? There is still time, Abby girl, time for you and time for me — time, indeed, to dance and sing.”
Then he spun her around and moved her gracefully through the flickering hallways of his home, the slender sway of her neck, moving her in double-time now, his steps nimble and light. He smiled at her in the gentle way that she’d come to crave, the jazz horns cutting through the green air like a blade, the quick high-hat, the rhythmic beat, the devilish movements of his feet.
He whirled her through doorways and corridors and into the room of planets and stars, where the music came on strong.
“Dance me on and on,” he whispered to her and sang, “dance me very long. Both of us beneath our love, both of us above. Dance me to the end of love.”
He danced with her and danced, danced on and on, beneath the Dog Star and the Star of Dawn.
Like an enormous Black Widow suspended by a metal web unseen, a candelabrum presided over the room fifteen feet above the floor, its long arms loaded with small white candles that rebated softly off the polished black marble and wept hot tears of wax.
The room was bare to the extent of minimalism, with one small wooden table, two chairs, an analogue clock upon the wall, and a glass cabinet filled with gleaming knives of virtually every shape and variety.
In this same cabinet, second shelf from the bottom, sat six different decks of strange-looking playing cards, and on the shelf below this were displayed other games of skill and chance.
The candles burned steadily and still.
Abby’s shadow hung motionless upon the bare wall behind her.
“Just incidentally,” she said, “you may not know it, but I have fast hands too. Very fast hands.”
She paused, averted her eyes, swung them like two laser beams back onto him. Kumulous, seated directly across, cast no shadow at all.
“Also,” she said, but paused again.
“I also like knives,” she said. “In fact, I love them.”
She held his stare.
“No, I don’t know that I would have guessed any of that about you,” he said.
“Do you want to try me?”
“Very much so,” he said.
“What do you propose, Abby?”
“I propose we play games,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows.
“Yes,” she said. “Humans are born for play. Didn’t you say that somewhere?”
He didn’t reply.
“Every child knows that games are what all work aspires toward,” she said, “and that the thing which gives a game value is the amount that’s put at stake. I propose, therefore, we play games with stakes,” she said. “High stakes.”
“You gamble as well?”
“Yes, I do.”
A momentary silence ensued — at which time, in her mind now, Abby formed a terrible covenant, a horrifying pact that once decided, even before anything else had happened, she knew for certain was irrevocable.
“When I interviewed you,” she said, “you told me that you don’t believe in God, and yet you do believe in the human soul. Is that correct?”
“You said the soul of each person is located in his or her individual essence.”
“That is what I said, yes.”
“And that our power of choice is located in our power of thought, which is our rational faculty, and that our choice to think or not is therefore the seat of the human soul, because, you said, it is fundamentally this that individuates us, no?”
“Yes,” Kumulous said.
“I propose, then, that we stake our souls,” Abby said. “Do you agree to this wager?”
“But I’ve already got your soul,” he said.
“Yes. I’ve impregnated you.”
Abby’s pupils dilated, but she did not speak.
“Yes,” he said again, “you’re pregnant: pregnant with the seed of my ideas. Those ideas are growing inside you as we speak, because your mind is too fertile for it to do otherwise. So that no matter what you decide and no matter what you come to do or believe, never again will you be able to see the universe as you saw it before we met. There are some things, Abby, that once you see, you can never un-see — things that once you hear, you can never un-hear.”
Abby looked long into his eyes, wherein the creamy candleflames above diminutively burned.
“Then give me a chance to win it back,” she said.
“As you wish.”
“I propose a game of knucklebones first.”
“Jacks?” he said. He didn’t move his head, but his eyeballs glanced down to the bottom shelf of the glass cabinet, where stood a clear glass bowl of sharp spiky jacks and a red rubber ball on top.
“Those aren’t the jacks you grew up with,” he said. “They’re –”
“Death jacks,” she said “I know. This is what I want to play first: death jacks.”
Kumulous was bleeding.
The candles burned. The room was cool. They sat facing each other cross-legged on the polished marble floor. The jacks poked like needles, stung like scorpions. They were made of a tough African thorn.
He played hard and he played well — he was quick — but he did not play as well as Abby: he lacked her finesse, her delicacy of touch, her practice and sense for the game.
He watched her closely.
He wasn’t able to swipe the jacks as precisely, and he seemed to know that he was outmatched.
He never lost his half smile, however.
Abby bled too, and yet she never winced. Her concentration was total. She sweated, but not from heat.
After thirty minutes of play, when the patter of the rain resumed, she emerged the clear winner.
Kumulous, bleeding and beaten, rose up from his cross-legged position on the floor and bowed his head to her. Then he held his veiny hand outstretched, and she took it into her own, and he pulled her up off the floor, the blood of their hands smearing and mingling.
Now the atmosphere in the room came alive — charged with fresh blood and candlelight and invisible currents of electricity. The night had come down.
The knives in the glass cabinet gleamed like ice. They were pristine and sleek and honed to the thinnest edge: a wicked sharpness.
From among these knives, Abby selected a British commando with a long thin blade and a tapered hilt that fit perfectly in her hand. She tested its heft. It felt good.
Kumulous stood watching. His shoulders rested against the wall, his face enigmatic, as though his thoughts flowed back to some faraway time when he’d witnessed some great knife-gash, the soft flesh opening up before him like the bloom of a beautiful flower.
Then it came: in the skylight above a flash of lightning more brilliant than the sun, a bluish light that blazed and illuminated, disclosing in the darkling room the minutiae of intricate masonry, a khaki-colored map on the back wall, the filigree of the candelabrum, the wall-clock with its brown face, Kumulous strong and doglike against the wall — it all composed bluely before her as from nothing. One moment they were not there — nothing but candlelight and watery shadows — and then creation conjured in a ghastly blast of electricity that tore across the breathing bell above.
It was only for a moment, but to Abby it seemed minutes before the black eyelid of the nighttime sky shut again, and then the thuggish boom of thunder cracked and rolled into the room and lifted the hairs on the back of her neck, as from sound waves alone. The heavens broke open in earnest, relinquishing all control, so that the air became a wild sluice of falling rainwater, and for a moment Abby thought she could hear the great snapping of tree limbs under the roar and liquid gush.
Then, almost as quickly as it had started, it was over, and the rain settled into a steady drizzle.
“And what do we play now with that precariously pointy knife in your hands, Abby?”
“We play pinfinger.”
“Pinfinger? Five-finger fillet? The knife-between-the-finger game?” he said.
“Yes. My brother called it pinfinger, and so that’s how I’ve always known it. He showed me, when I was quite young, how to play. I practiced with a pen and then, once I was good enough, I played it alone with a pocketknife.”
He narrowed his eyes on her.
“Do you know how to play?” she said.
“We each have one turn, for sixty seconds,” she said.
Abby now advanced toward him with the knife. He moved slowly off the wall. She smiled.
“Still bleeding?” she said.
“No. Are you?”
She shook her head.
And here began the second of the games: that of the stalk. Her shadow streamed like water over the walls.
If ever a woman stalked a man, Abby stalked Kumulous.
They moved slowly and circularly around the room, dance-like, as though involved in a strange animalistic mating ritual.
If Abby stalked, Kumulous maneuvered. He maneuvered himself through space.
He insinuated his graceful body around the room. They moved in a shrinking orbit, drawing closer and closer together, as if by gravitational pull, and as they came into the middle of the room, a bolt of lightning struck again, more distant but still blazing, so that the room was relumined once more with a blast of electric-blue, and they were frozen for a few moments in a strobic flicker of dimensionless space, and, without any haste, they stalked and maneuvered and at last came together at the wooden table, where Abby spread her palm out flat on the surface and, fingers completely splayed, began stabbing back and forth between her fingers, increasing her speed, tap, tap, tap…
Her white neck swayed.
She was fast. She was beautiful. Her chestnut hair masked her eyes. She held the knife lightly, and in her moving hand it grew into a slur of speed, the tap mounting to a machine-gun chatter.
Kumulous watched her. He watched the clock upon the wall, and he watched her. He was completely silent.
Then, with four seconds to go, she missed.
She nicked the edge of the knuckle on her third finger.
It only skinned it, but it was a mark against her.
“Time is up,” Kumulous said.
He began clapping. He clapped slowly and deliberately and came around the table, and then he lifted her hand to his lips.
He kissed the knuckle she had nicked and looked at her.
She was infuriated with herself.
“I’ve never seen faster,” he said.
“Don’t patronize me.”
“I’m being sincere.”
“You’re next, devil.”
Kumulous released her hand and placed his palm flat upon the table. She handed him the knife. He looked at her. He smiled his half smile.
“Please watch the clock,” he said, “and say when to start.”
At which point, Kumulous, holding the knife delicately by its hilt, as if it were an extension of his hand, began stabbing the knife back and forth between his fingers — no gradual build-up, his, but an instantaneous and blinding rapidity, so that Abby, who’d expected he’d be fast, could not believe his speed, his accuracy, and his calm.
He didn’t miss.
After sixty seconds, she knew without a doubt that in this game she had been beaten.
“You win,” she said.
They cleaned their hands of blood and then sat down at the small wooden table. The knife was stuck dagger-like, at a slight angle, in the wood. The rain had slackened. The candlelight wavered. The room had grown eerily quiet.
“My game,” Abby said, “your cards. This is fair.”
“What is our final game, Abby?”
“It’s an old game,” she said. “You might know it as thirty-three. But it used to be called ‘To-the-Pain.’ It’s simple, yet sophisticated. Are you familiar?”
He stood from the table and brought forth from the the cabinet a pack of playing cards which were bound by a thin white ribbon. He cut the ribbon with the knife stuck in the table, and then he impaled the knife back into the wood. He stabbed forcefully but quietly, and Abby admired his strength.
He broke open the pack and shuffled the cards so rapidly that his hands appeared blurred. The cards were white and black and had a demonic figure half smiling on the back. This figure held a long bony index finger up near his lips, as if beseeching secrecy, a ferocious-looking dog crouched strangely below.
They both cut.
Abby cut ten and Kumulous six. She dealt first.
Thirty-three hands constituted a single game. The winner of each hand dealt the next round. It was a six-card deal the goal of which was to get as near to thirty-three as possible without going over.
At first, they exchanged occasional words, but as the game progressed and grew faster, they both fell silent.
Abby was intimately familiar with this game and was good at it, because she had been playing it since she was five-years-old. Nonetheless she was not fully able to follow Kumulous’s method of play. He sometimes drew on thirty or thirty-one and sometimes stood at twenty-seven. He alternately lost and won, but as the game progressed, it became clear that he was winning more than he was losing.
Halfway through, the time came when Kumulous drew an ace to thirty-two. Her eyes for a moment clouded then, and it was at this point that she realized how very important it was for her to win. A sluice of nervy blood sloshed in her stomach. She looked at him.
He played with ice-water in his veins, emotionless, but suddenly, in her clouded eyes and in the creamy candlelight, his face took on an even calmer aspect than before. She began to make clumsy mistakes, playing now as if purblind, showing signs of what card she wanted. It almost seemed to her as if the cards between them were pure pretext now, a by-product in an unrelenting duel.
A breeze the size of a child’s wrist channeled through the room, and the smell of rain came with it.
Abruptly, then, her luck shifted back. She began winning again. Under the strain of her emotion, her esophagus tightened, and she became almost giddy. She felt half drunk.
The game grew more and more rapid, more and more intense. The room grew quieter still. No longer was there any sound of tapping rain. The cards flew like doves between them. They were both silent. Inwardly Abby felt alternate flashes of heat and cold. It had come to her at some point that Kumulous was drawing not cards and hands but actual pieces from her body, draining her living vessel of its vitality and individuality. Every time she glanced at him, she saw his satanic brow glowing like expensive wood, his swarthy face like a beautiful dangerous dog.
Once again she began losing. Kumulous gently reminded her that her soul was at stake. He proposed with a wink changing the bet to land or other property.
She shook her head angrily.
“Have I your word?” he said.
Kumulous dealt. Her six cards totaled twenty-nine.
“More?” said Kumulous.
Abby hesitated, nodded once. A flash of white blazed inside her head.
Kumulous turned the card without haste. It was a three, a lucky draw.
Abby exhaled in relief.
“Hold,” she said.
She was trying feverishly to conceal the emotion in her voice, just as she concealed her cards, but she only partially succeeded.
Kumulous now began to draw for himself. When he got to twenty-four, he stopped and looked Abby squarely in the eyes, who looked away. Who closed and opened her eyes as if they were suddenly very heavy. He turned another card.
It was a three.
Abby looked up at him. Slowly Kumulous turned a second card for himself.
It was a second three.
Abby’s throat constricted again. It appeared that Kumulous would stand on thirty. Her blood began to rush into her head with the premonitory joy of victory.
But, without warning, Kumulous expanded his chest and threw back his head so that his green eyes glowed diabolically in the candlelight above him, and then he turned over for himself a third card.
It was another three.
Abby’s body went cold. It seemed impossible, but there it was, right before her eyes: three consecutive threes. Another wave of heat that turned into nerves surged through her.
Kumulous, meanwhile, appeared perfectly relaxed, like a diligent worker merely completing certain tasks assigned to him.
“Guess what, Abby,” he said. “We may only have one more turn of the cards before it’s over. If you win, we keep playing. If I win, the game is over. All is over. Your soul, remember, may be required of you this night.”
Abby ignored him.
She won the next hand. But all at once, with so much ground to make up, she felt herself certainly defeated, as if it all was lost and it was only a matter of time now.
“Do you know what, my beautiful friend?” said Kumulous, as if reading her thoughts.
“What?” Abby whispered.
“I have a suggestion: let us have one more turn only — one more turn at the cards — but all for all. Everything that has come before now — death jacks, pinfinger, and all the hands we’ve already played — let us forget those. Let us say my soul or your soul will be determined by this final hand.”
He spoke in the same calm, workman-like voice, as if it were a question of the most quotidian variety.
So it has come to this, thought Abby. This is real. She even briefly considered rising from the table. But the enigmatic look in his eyes held her. She glanced at the knife impaled beside her in the table.
“Are we agreed?” Kumulous said.
“We are agreed.”
Once again, they both cut. Kumulous cut three and Abby seven: her deal.
It was a small thing, and yet it filled her with disproprotionate hope and joy.
After she had dealt, Kumulous asked for a new hand entirely.
“More, more, more!”
She dealt him six new cards.
“Enough!” he said.
Now it was her turn.
She dealt to herself slowly. When she reached twenty-nine, she paused for a moment and glanced at the cards in Kumulous’s hand and then up at his inscrutable eyes. Her throat tightened. Her heart began to race. Everything had come down to this moment. She had no idea how many he had, but she felt it very likely that he was holding more than twenty-nine. On pure impulse, then, in another surge of nerves and a flash of blinding white light, she turned over another card for herself.
It was a six — a six of hearts.
She had lost.
She stared at the card, unable to believe her eyes. She looked back at him. Something fiery seemed to emanate from him, a dangerous and irresistible force that drew her and repelled her simultaneously.
“It is mine forever,” he said.
He brought down a candle from above and set it on the table between them. Abby watched the yellow flame twist and right. She put her hand directly over the flame to let it burn, but Kumulous reached across the table and gently nudged her hand away.
“You’re dangerous, Abby: drawn to blood and danger.”
She shook her head. “I’m drawn to superficial blood, and I pretend to like danger,” she said. She was still staring into the flame. “In actuality, I’m afraid of it.”
“Because you’re sensible.”
She lifted her gaze and looked him directly in the eyes.
“You scare me so,” she said. “And I don’t know precisely why.”
“Would you like me to tell you?”
“Because you see in me what you could be, and this frightens you far more than blood ever could.”
“Why does it? Why does it frighten me?”
“It frightens you because it’s so at odds with the world as you’ve come to know it, with your life as you’ve come to live it. And because what you see in me demands certain things.”
“What does it demand?”
“It demands a kind of enmity with the world and the easy platitudes and easy hedonism of the world, which is fun only in the range of the moment but won’t last and will take you nowhere but down in the end. It demands relentless thought. You see in me someone who’s undertaken that task, and this attracts you but also in the same moment repels you.”
Her eyes went back to the candleflame.
She thought of the first words they had spoken to each other, when over coffee, the moment they were seated, she had asked him:
“Do you belong to any groups or clubs, political or otherwise?”
His answer had come swiftly and unequivocally:
“I belong to no clubs, groups, gangs, secret societies, cults, churches, or affiliations. I am my own man. I loathe partisan politics. I regard myself as above them. The facts are self-evident, the historical record vodka-clear: technological progress brings about a greater standard of living and greater human happiness. The only political principle is this: no person and no party may directly or indirectly force another — not in the name of God, not in the name of Gaia, not in the name of Government, not in the name of The Greater Good. If you follow that principle in full, progress will happen naturally.”
She’d felt herself put-off and pleased by this at the same time: there was something so pared-down and somehow delightfully old-fashioned in the way he thought, something she found inexpressibly pleasing and attractive — and yet completely opposite what she’d always known.
Suddenly now she felt an almost overwhelming urge to again hold her hand over the candleflame, until the fire burned through her a clean white hole.
She thought of her soul.
“The soul is the essential I,” Kumulous said. “My soul is my essential me, and your soul is your essential you. There are in this world two fundamental types of soul: there are the creators and there are the destroyers. The creators are those who engage in productive work — any kind of productive work: whether basic or brilliant, whether opera-writer or opal miner, whether bridge-builder or bartender, whether erecting a skyscraper or a small statue, whether making paper or penning a philosophy, whether creating faster trains or creating fast food, creators engage in productive work. Whereas destroyers tear down. They are force. They annihilate, even while their lives are dependent upon the very things they seek to annihilate, be it air-conditioning, automobiles, aviation, refrigeration, running water, electricity, or the totality of modern civilization. You are caught between these two, Abby. Your Madame E., whom you brought to life and stylized brilliantly in your stellar book — she was a creator: a creator electrocuted in a chair powered by the very energy-source that she brought to the world, and by means of which the world profited and still profits.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I knew her,” he said, “the real Madame E: Elena Ecay.”
Kumulous rose up from the table, and Abby watched him. She found herself fascinated once more by the complicated network of veins that lay like spiderwebs over each of his forearms and carried red life throughout his body and into his brain.
“Come here, Abby.”
She stood and went around the table, and he embraced her.
“You need never be afraid of me,” he said, “I of all people, who don’t believe in force, who don’t believe pain is virtuous or life-giving. I swear by all that’s good and right that what I’m telling you is true. I don’t hurt anyone, least of all people I love, like you. I believe only in the chosen, the consensual, the live-giving, the life of the mind. What I say is real. No one could ever care for you as I will.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because the deeper your understanding, the deeper your capacity for love. And I’ve examined so much: I’ve spent my life in thorough examination, and in thought. And I’d give my life for you.”
“Would you?” she said. But she already knew it was true.
“Yes, I would.”
She looked up at him and kissed him wetly on the lips.
“Death, where is thy sting?” he murmured, closing his eyes.
Then, while she was still kissing him, she reached over and lifted the knife from the table and plunged it to the hilt, deep into his diaphragm, up under his sternum and into the beating muscle of his heart, skewering the heart like a shish-kabob, and as she did so, she kissed him still — kissed him passionately on the lips even as he whispered “Why?” and the hot blood issued from his mouth and onto his lips, and Kumulous died.
“Keep asking why,” she said. “Keep asking why, until the day you die.”
The nightmare was over at last.