It was a black night in July, with a howling summer wind that roared a promise to keep sleep at bay. I laid awake in my bunk at the halfway house, cursing myself and the rotten luck that ruined me. Being a man of some education with a family that afforded me all the advantages of wealth and station, I spent no small amount of time marveling at the depth of my self-destruction. I was a studious lad once, with a sharp intellect and a keen enough wit that friends were always close at hand. Aside from the occasional drink and cigar, I lived mostly without vice. But the one vice I did have was enough to ruin me. It wasn’t drugs or women, or even the drink that robbed me of my fortune and family and left me broken to wallow in the streets among the filth. No, it was foolish games of chance that brought me low.
I laid there on that summer night listening to the howling wind and cursing the life I had lived and the family that humiliated and disowned me, when an agent of my long-lost uncle’s estate quite abruptly came calling.
I had met my uncle Byron only a few times in my life, but he left me with such a repugnant impression that I nurtured a hatred for him above all others in my wretched bloodline. A brilliant painter and sculptor, he was cold to my father, who was his brother, and treated me cruelly when I was a child. Later in life I begged from him a few spare coins to find shelter for the evening and he, not recognizing me, beat me with his cane and had me dragged from our family home. And since that day I have despised my uncle and often found solace in fantasies of revenge upon him and the family who betrayed me. So it came as quite a shock that he would summon me to that same home on that bleak summer’s eve with a proposal that would restore my rightful place in the family and make me his heir.
And now how oft I curse that night and how I envy the wretch who laid in that maggot infested bed in the halfway house. How I wish I had fled that place and never ridden up the hill to my former family’s mansion. Though I would have remained a pauper for the rest of my days I would count myself blessed to be free from the accursed knowledge that first began to wind its twisting way around my sanity that night. For the wealth and comfort I earned with my labors that evening mean nothing when weighed against the horrors that drove my uncle Byron to suicide. Horrors that I am now heir to as well.
We sat in his study, saying very little as his servants stoked the fire and poured us each a glass of brandy. We sipped in silence and I noted a tremble in his hands, which had been burned and crippled almost to uselessness. Only once the last of his servants delivered a package of documents, along with some paper and ink, and was dismissed for the night, did he finally speak.
“Tonight I will end my life,” Byron said, “and I have made arrangements such that you will be named my heir and absolved of any past wrongdoing. You will be made whole in the eyes of the Dwyer family, of which I am the very last, and restored to your position as lord of this manor. I have also seen to it that any suspicion that may arise as to our meeting tonight will be silenced, and offer you a personal guarantee that no police action will be taken against you as the result of our conversation here. All this I offer you, but in exchange I ask that you take down the dictation that will serve as both my suicide note, and confession. You need not say anything, simply sign your name and the pact will be sealed. But I warn you, as your father’s brother and your kin, that all the riches of my estate cannot nearly equal the burden of what I know and what I will share with you tonight.”
I wish I could say that I deliberated for some time. I wish that I had let the sense of his advice assuage my greed, or that I had run from the empty mansion into the screaming winds of summer and never looked back. But alas, he had barely spoken the words when I grabbed the pen and signed my name upon the documents that would ultimately seal my fate. Then, for a time, there was nothing but the crackling of the fire and the quiet hatred between us, until he nodded to the blank paper and pen and began his dictation.
“It is natural to fear death and the unknown realm that comes after. But I go there willingly, excitedly, having been robbed of this most basic of instincts. How this came to be I will relate to you, reader, in the hopes that my story will hasten the end of this doomed and abominable experiment we call life.”
He took a long draught of brandy from the trembling glass in his hands, gathering his courage before continuing. And if I noted an increase in trembling, a certain anxiety in my hated uncle as he spoke again, then I was quick to ignore it. What a fool I was.
“I was not born gifted in the arts. Indeed, some of my earliest memories were of struggling against the inadequacies of my hands. Even as a babe I longed to bring into this world the beauty I held in my mind. And as I grew so too did my eye, even while my talent for expression remained stagnant and weak. My mind outpaced my ability at such a rate that although my sculpting and painting lacked grace, my imagination soared to astounding heights. And in my dreams I conquered heavenly vistas in a quest to give shape to the wonders in my mind. If only I had known then what I know now; that all of the universe is a dream, and those places we go when we sleep may be as real as anything in our waking life. Perhaps even more so.
“The artist’s eye betrayed me. In my dreams I followed it to mad heights, straying farther and farther from the realms of Christian thought until finally I transcended. So deep was my desire to create, and yet so profoundly inexpressible in the material world it was, that my dreams led me to a place where no natural man should tread. The artist’s eye took me to a realm of pure inspiration; a universe teeming with raw, untamed life, starving for form. There I beheld an ocean of shapeless flesh, and upon that ocean there were vast mariners; the ancient masters of creation whose appearances were whatever they pleased and who sculpted life at their whim. And I watched, my mind reeling, struggling to comprehend the horror and the beauty of the alien sea where life had no form and it wailed and gnashed and cried out for purpose.“From then on I could think of nothing else. The dreams that inspired me turned into nightmares of such vividness that I feared sleep and poured myself, obsessed, into the perfection of my craft. No longer would I be burdened by the inexpressible pangs of creative ambition, I vowed, no longer would the lofty powers of my eye be thwarted by the limitations of my body. Perhaps then, I thought, when all my ambitions had been realized, I would no longer be compelled to visit that terrible, shifting sea.
“And so, with fear driving me, I finally began to grow into my talents. Slowly at first I unshackled myself from my hated limitations, doing everything I could to avoid being drawn into the nightmare world of my dreams where the hideous intelligences of creation spin life from an ocean of madness. And in that restless era I made my fortune, and it meant nothing, for I was losing my mind to the horrific landscape of my nightmares.
“I stayed awake when I could and drank myself to unconsciousness when I could not, hoping to murder the part of myself that first led me to that land of shapeless, clawing life. And every day I cursed my ambition and the artist’s eye that found its muse in the unformed terror of life before life. But I was a fool to think I could behold the raw machinery of creation and escape the retribution of its masters. The terror at the thought that they may one day deign to take back the inspiration I had stolen from them was such that one night when I awoke, naked and hovering, over that ocean of howling flesh, I was nearly relieved. For it was no longer just a dream. I found myself having truly arrived in that universe beyond life and death where shapeless flesh reached out and caressed me with probing tentacles and I could feel the hot breath of the ocean as mouths sprang up to give voice to screams of terror and confusion. It was then that I finally let my mind slip, and in the absence of sanity my eye was truly set free. Unable to look away, I beheld the ancient mariners who are masters of life’s ocean, and I watched them pluck life from the shapeless sea of flesh and knead it with their thousand jointed digits. I watched the mariners as they made their creations dance and rejoice and despair until they would grow bored and toss them aside and start anew. I watched the creations too as they fled, half-formed, from their creators, striving desperately for a shore away from the madness of shifting flesh, and far from the terrible whimsy of their masters. And I know now that they are running still, and that all life is just a mad scramble to find someplace safe from the terrible sailors of that damnable sea. Just as surely, I know that that peace can never come. For we are born the half-made playthings of the unknown and unknowable, discarded by our makers; the refuse of the gods.”
Then the words, which had at times spilled out of him so quickly that my hand could hardly keep up with them, stopped. And Byron fell silent for a time. My hand hovered over the page, dripping ink until I remembered myself and shakily wiped it away.
“End dictation.” He said, tearing himself from the mad thoughts that must have gripped him with noted effort. “Thank you, my boy. And I would say may God have mercy upon you, but of course that would mean very little. Someone will likely fetch you in the morning.”
He waved me away and I rose to take my leave, full of sick glee at my uncle’s lunacy and the good fortune it had brought me. But as I left I happened a glance behind me and my gaze fell upon his ruined hands, sparking in me an unease that I couldn’t quite shake. How loathe I am now to recall that moment when I might have left only half-believing my mad uncle’s story. And how narrowly did the jaws of madness close upon my mind that night, for I may have escaped were it not for the question that passed my lips.
“But uncle,” I said, “what of your hands?”
And he raised them to his eyes, a rictus grin crossing his face.
“Ah, yes,” he said, “well, upon my return from the shapeless sea I was possessed by a mad inspiration. I locked myself in my studio and sculpted for days without food or rest until I had finally wrought my masterpiece. And at the end the madness subsided long enough for me to see the horror of what I had made, and I wept at the tyranny of the statue’s beauty and fled like a coward, never daring to enter my studio again. It was all I could manage to seal the room away with locks and chains. When that was done I marred my hands in solemn oath that I would never create again.”
It was then that I turned to flee, resolving to hear no more of my evil uncle’s tale. But as I ran, the twisting hallways of my childhood home grew unfamiliar and I lost myself among its corridors. I wandered for what seemed like hours, swallowed by the mansion I would soon be master of, until I came upon a door bound in rusted chains. I stared, horrified at the thought that there may be any truth, however small, behind Byron’s raving. I don’t know how long I would have remained there if I hadn’t been roused by the muffled sound of a gunshot from the study. The shock stirred me to running again, and this time I found my escape in the form of a servant’s exit.
The following days did much to chase the terror of that night from my mind. Material matters occupied me and my life became busy with the thrilling work of inheriting my uncle’s wealth. True to his word, Byron made me the heir to our family estate and for a time I reveled in victory over the family that had abandoned me. Yet even then I sometimes found myself looking for the seams and creases in people where jointed digits might have carelessly pushed living flesh into shape. And to my horror I started to find them.
For years I lived that way, half-believing in a universe where life was birthed from madness in a place where alien gods spun consciousness out of a sea of flesh and left it, discarded and unwanted, to find its way here. And in that half-belief I suffered until the uncertainty weighed on me more heavily than the chains of my uncle Byron’s studio. Finally, late one night, in an effort to free myself from the visions of crudely kneaded flesh, I brought an axe to the sealed door and struck at it like a man possessed. Over and over I attacked its bindings, tearing first with my axe and then with my bare hands as the locks and chains began to give way. In time the room was revealed and when the door swung open I truly became my uncle’s heir.
There, bathed in the early morning light of a newly risen sun, my eyes beheld a tower of beautifully sculpted marble. Upon that formless tower there was wrought an uncanny symmetry, as if the entirety of its being was shaping itself toward some greater purpose. I approached it, mesmerised by the intricacy of its design. And the details of the sculpture proved to be so fine that as I observed it I also began to feel as if it were considering me too. Helpless, I was drawn into the room until I was close enough for the sculpture to tower over me, and I began to understand the purpose of its shape. It was built in such a way that it folded over itself, stretching delicate digits toward something cradled close to its bosom, as if laboring over a tiny speck of rough, incomplete marble. Or perhaps preparing to cast it aside.
And indeed, upon closer inspection, I saw that it did hold something in its jointed tendrils. And my mind reeled at the sight, so small in proportion to the vast marble statue of the mariner; so insignificant in the face of its alien creator. There I beheld, cradled in a thousand jointed digits, the irregular shape of a man half-made.
Daniel Isherwood is a Seattle based writer and stand-up comedian. Originally hailing from the smaller city of Spokane, he found early inspiration in the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Later in life an eclectic interest in fiction from classic literature to comic books formed the basis for a body of work that celebrates the human imagination.