The grey flannel suit might have looked masculine on the rack, or on another woman, but the close cut of the cloth, and the way the expensive fabric skimmed over the lines of her straight, slender figure was intensely, wholly feminine. If you saw her from behind, you might have thought she looked frail, or saint-like with her close-cropped hair—but when she turned, the determination that shone brightly from the grey eyes almost lost behind her long black lashes was anything but fragile.
That evening, she had worn no earrings, little makeup, low heels; her charcoal blouse was without detail. Her only adornment was a wisp of a silk scarf knotted at her birdlike throat, grey as well, but suggesting to the viewer the idea of violet. She looked as though she had thoughtlessly thrown the outfit together—but really, she had dressed very, very carefully. She was meeting Roy Irving for dinner at Delmonico’s, to discuss business, and other things.
Their first meeting had been a chance encounter at the mayor’s fund-raising event, where they alone had objected to the statue the city wanted to erect in front of the courthouse, feeling it was far too abstract to represent something as absolute, as concrete as ‘justice’. His determination had made her keen to see him a second time. After their spirited if whispered discussion about the utter inappropriateness of lions drinking with jackals she had asked him to dinner, surprising him… but he had agreed readily enough. She had seen his arousal when his pupils had dilated, darkening almost to invisibility the piercing ice blue of his irises.
He looked like that now. The Lobster Newberg and steak and talk of bottom lines had excited him, as had her declining champagne or the good house red in favor of a double Laphroaig with a bit of water. “Scotch and steak,” he had said. “You’re a woman after my own heart, Ms. Calder.”
“Docia,” she said, not dropping his gaze. “If we’re to be business associates, we should be on a first name basis. Don’t you think?”
“At the very least.”
If there had been any suggestiveness in his tone she would have instantly dismissed the possibility of whatever he might be suggesting, but the frankness of his desire stoked her own. She withdrew a cigarette from her silver case and lighted it off the candle at the center of the table.
“At the very least, Roy,” she agreed, and exhaled another swaddling layer of grey.
Delmonico’s was nearly empty that night, but though it was nine in the evening on a Friday, Docia was not surprised. A strange lethargy had claimed New York of late, slowly but undeniably. She did not know when it had begun, or when exactly she had noticed it, but something had changed. People, when they braved the streets, looked furtive, nervous, and hurried about their affairs without stopping to greet acquaintances in the street.
Docia Calder was not the kind of woman who believed in bogeymen, but just the same, it made her uneasy. The shift seemed sinister, though to believe that meant she must believe there was some intention or plan behind it all, and that she could not credit.
She and Roy lingered over their food, savoring it—though she could not help but notice it lacked the same flavor as she usually expected. Perhaps that meant she was the problem—even the scotch tasted less potent on her tongue. She decided to put it to the test, and order dessert. If there was one reliable thing in New York, it was Delmonico’s Baked Alaska.
“Don’t have it tonight,” said the young waiter, almost rudely. He seemed bored.
Docia was astonished. “This is Delmonico’s,” she said, as if he might not be aware of where he was. “You always have Baked Alaska. It’s your signature dessert.”
“Sorry. Coffee?” he asked.
“No… just the check.” The waiter slouched off without pressing the issue. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she mused. “Everyone here is usually so good. Do you think Delmonico’s is going downhill… or is it something else?”
Roy shrugged. “Have you found the Yellow Sign?” he asked.
“Don’t say that!”
He looked surprised by her outburst. “I’m very sorry,” he said curiously.
“No, I’m sorry… I don’t like that expression.” These days, everyone said it, but it made her feel queer. “Where did it come from? Why did we begin saying it?” She shook her head. “What exactly does it mean?”
“I suppose I’m not really sure. I don’t think anyone knows, really.”
“It seems like… when I hear it, I feel like lying down… shutting the curtains, locking the door… going to sleep.”
“Maybe we just need to get out of here.”
The fresh air made her feel better. Though the streets were less busy than they should be, the city was still ablaze with light. Docia had matched Roy drink for drink at dinner, but it was only the sight of countless sparkling electric pinpoints against the dark heavens that made her feel drunk. She reeled, giddy. The sky was obscure, stars and moon invisible behind cloudbanks reflecting groundlight, and for a moment, Docia imagined the lights of the city were the stars; the skyscrapers, galaxies. But that was not the case—no human hand had made those stars and galaxies, but every I-beam, every sheet of glass, every brick and block and sheet of stone had been made with human hands out of strong materials and stronger human will.
She knew then that she shouldn’t worry. Nothing could break the city’s spirit. Nothing could make it lie down.
Lost in these thoughts, when she stepped down off the curb she stumbled—but he had her by the elbow, by the waist. She had not realized how tall he was, six feet at least, broad across the shoulders but narrow at the hip.
“Let me drive you home,” he murmured, his square chin brushing her earlobe.
“Whose home?” she asked carelessly.
He threw his head back and laughed, a terrifying laugh, free and loud, the laugh of a living god… but she fell into his arms without any fear at all.
* * *
They met many times after that, but regardless of whether their encounters were in her office, or his bed, or her bed, or his office, she found them intensely arousing. Not that their lovemaking interfered with her ability to work; no, rather, her body’s response to his presence heightened her awareness, fine-tuned her senses, made her mind sharper. She drove a harder bargain than she would have if they’d never once touched hands, lips, more. He treated her with humor and distain in equal measure, and she admired him for it, responded yet more eagerly when they were alone and his hand found her bottom with a sharp smack, or his lips her body with a bruising intensity that left her shuddering, satisfied, and yet wanting him more.
That, in particular, was the most natural thing in the world, this they agreed on. As captains of industry, they were neither of them ever satisfied with what they had. They wanted more, always more, be it profits, side-ventures, workers, productivity, or product. They desired.
“To desire is to live, and to live is to desire,” she claimed, lying naked on his bed, the imprints of his belt still pink against the whiter flesh of her wrists, their mingled sweat stinging her bitten upper lip. He was standing naked at the window of his penthouse apartment, his prize-fighter’s profile and taught muscular buttocks silvered by the lights of the city beyond. “To give up one is to give up the other.”
“I have a desire,” he said, turning to face her.
She propped herself up on her elbows. “Name it.”
He walked to his bureau, and opening the top drawer, withdrew an envelope. He tossed it on the bed at her feet.
“An invitation,” he said, as she withdrew two stiff, creamy squares of cardstock. “Two, actually… to a cocktail party.”
“It’s… being hosted by Fulvius Elbreth.”
“The theatre critic?” she asked, resisting the impulse to cast the invitations away like poisonous snakes.
“But Roy… don’t you know what he is? What he stands for?” She shivered. “What he stands against?”
“Oh, I know. But Irving Properties, Inc. donated to the Tribune, and… well, no good deed goes unpunished. They’re thanking all the donors with a party.”
Suddenly cold, Docia got up to retrieve her Japanese silk robe from where it lay on the floor of his penthouse, crumpled, like a flower after a rainstorm. “Oh, Roy,” she said, shrugging into it, “I don’t know. The man is…”
“I know. Which is why I’m begging you not to make me go alone.”
“Don’t go at all!”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” She stood with her legs straight and apart, as if braced to withstand some impact, chin defiantly thrust forward. “What is stopping you?”
“It’s all part of being businessmen—forgive me, businesspeople.” He bowed. Ordinarily, she would have smiled, but the specter of Fulvius Elbreth had made her somber. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.”
“But to be seen with Fulvius Elbreth! To lend him and his ideas credit with your presence! Don’t you remember him, from the city council meeting? He was the most vocal advocate of that statue of ‘Justice,’ the one you and I agreed was a mockery of the very idea!”
“I remember, but—”
“Roy, the man once said, under the guise of reviewing Hamlet, that America would be better off as an imperial dynasty. Why? Because a king relies on his subjects, and thus feels beholden to them, will work to help them better themselves—but elected officials only rely on businesspeople, who in turn rely on no one, and thus feel beholden to help no one but their bottom line.” She shook her head, sending her tumbled locks tumbling in all directions. “A man who thinks a king’s whimsical largesse—the returning of amorphous favors—is better for the world than someone like me? Someone who pays my workers a fair wage for the work they do—a wage meaning money, the best, most objective indicator of approval anyone can give another human? What sort of man cares for patronage over fairness? I cannot—no, I will not make small talk with someone who believes such… dangerous nonsense.”
“Not even for me?”
She hesitated. She was not used to hesitating—to hesitate was to feel uncertainty, and she had always known what to do, and what was right, on both an instinctive level and a conscious one. It was right to be honest. To be forthright. To give her approval of only what should be approved. That Roy Irving, whom she had assumed shared her highest values, would ask her so casually to disavow them—and treat that disavowal as nothing, but a part of the cost of doing business… it troubled her, made her wonder if she had erred in agreeing to partner with this man, in any of the many ways that they had.
And yet, she felt her own will soften as he looked at her, his expression one of playful amusement. He was just a lover engaged in lover’s banter…
“All right,” she sighed.
“Think about it this way,” he said, slipping his hand under the collar of her robe, to grasp the flesh beneath. “It’s an opportunity to show Fulvius Elbreth that we’re better than kings.”
* * *
The city seemed yet darker the night of the party. The lights she could see from her office seemed fewer, dimmer. She gazed down at the city below, and shuddered, feeling a sense of unnamable dread.
What, she wondered, did it mean? What might it foretell?
She shook her head. She might as well ask herself, have you found the Yellow Sign?
The answer would be the same.
Knowing she would not have time to go home, Docia had ordered her secretary to bring her dress to her office. With everything pressed and laid out, Docia mixed herself a Manhattan and began to change. Usually, Docia’s office was where she felt most comfortable, but that night, as she got herself ready, she turned on all the lights, feeling as if the darkness was leaking in around the windowpanes, reaching into her very heart. She found she wished she’d told Louise to fetch her anything other than a little black dress—Docia rarely wore color, even for the gayest occasions, but that night, her selection seemed dreary.
She had just fastened the clasp of her necklace when Roy knocked. Startled, she cried out, turning too quickly and knocking over the Manhattan. The crystal shattered into jagged stars as the burgundy fluid soaked into the rug. She swore, reaching for something to mop it all up.
“You alright?” Roy asked, finding her on her hands and knees.
“I spilled my drink when you knocked. I guess I’m a little on edge.”
“Funny, you never seemed like the type to be frightened of a party,” he teased, helping her to her feet and then helping her heavy black pea coat. Two princess seams running down the back, cinching the waist ever so slightly, were the garment’s only concession to femininity.
“How can a woman so comfortable in a boardroom be uncomfortable in a living room? We’ll laugh about it later, you know.”
“Of course. It’s just… haven’t you noticed? The city, I mean?”
It was the first time she had spoken to him about it. He looked at her strangely, and though the room was warm she felt a chill. He obviously had not noticed anything amiss.
Was it the city? Or was it her?
“It must just be the shorter days,” she said, as lightly as she could.
He relaxed. “I know what you mean,” he said. “I always feel a bit down in the autumn. But, a few bad drinks and some small talk with the moochers and the looters ought to cheer us up, don’t you think? Come, let us go be despised by those who do less in a month than we do in a day. And then later,” he whispered something in her ear that certainly gave her something to look forward to.
She needed it. The party was not fun. It was full of the sort of self-proclaimed intellectual she instinctively despised, women in heavy eyeliner with artistic pretensions and too many necklaces; men with moist, flabby lips and badly-cut double breasted suits. They spoke of politics and art as if they knew anything about either.
For as long as possible, Docia floated amongst these people, saying as little as possible and trying to listen less. Really, she was most concerned with avoiding Fulvius Elbreth. She knew him from his picture in the Trib, though in real life his chin was weaker. Unlike her, he was clearly in his element, enjoying everyone’s company, listening to what they had to say and responding with his own delightfully pithy bons mots, as light and frothy as egg white on a Ramos Gin Fizz—and just as insubstantial.
She was refreshing her drink at the bar when she overheard the critic remark that abstraction was the only acceptable form of artistic expression in the modern age. In spite of herself, she ambled over, curious to hear what he had to say on the matter.
“Representational art is pure arrogance,” he said to a group of vapid-looking men and women. “The act of representing a thing is to claim one knows a thing, and nothing is knowable. Only in abstraction can we truly show reality; only when we admit our own lack of rationality can we approach a subject with any real intelligence.” Docia was the only one not nodding her agreement. He noticed.
“You disagree?” His tone was lighthearted, but she could feel the insincerity behind it.
“I’m not sure I even understand what you mean,” she said. “Plenty of things are knowable.”
She silently cursed herself for engaging with him. What had she been thinking? Her sole hope for the party had been to get away without being introduced to her host, and yet here she was.
“Like… this drink.” She held it aloft. “It is bourbon. In a glass.”
“But—forgive me—neither you, while beautiful, nor that bourbon, while tasty, are art.” He smiled. She did not return the expression.
“Now, if I were watching a play, and you appeared, bourbon in hand, and had this conversation with my character… why, how realistic it would be! Two individuals having a conversation at a party, how natural! How representational! But what would it mean?”
“It would mean we were having a conversation.”
“Ah—but why? To what end? If we were having this conversation, but upon the stage, the audience would wonder what my motivation is for saying what I am saying—for beginning the conversation at all, really. They’d consider how what I wore, what I drank, and most especially what I said illuminated my character—and they would analyze how your reaction revealed your own. But, of course, all real people contain multitudes. No author can truly represent a person; that is why I say it is arrogant to pretend it is possible. But, an abstraction… that is a different matter. Through abstraction, we are able to nestle closer to the truth, for abstraction deals with ideas rather than realities.”
“That’s ridiculous,” declared Docia, ignoring the snickers and titters of the group. “I’m sorry, but I can’t share in your nihilism.” Elbreth snapped his fingers. “We’ve met before,” he said. “I remember you, from that meeting with the mayor. You hated the new statue of Justice, claimed it was a travesty to erect anything other than a blind woman with scales and sword.”
“Justice is blindfolded, for She is objective. Justice carries a sword, double-edged to represent reason and justice. Her scales show us that cases will be weighed. To replace those symbols with something else, something lesser, impugns everyone employed by the city, and does nothing to reassure suppliants who go there seeking fair treatment. That thing you endorsed doesn’t say anything to anyone about what really goes on inside a courtroom!”
“I didn’t realize there was really a goddess incarnate living at 60 Centre Street.” Elbreth chuckled. “Or is it possible your darling Lady Justice is also… an abstraction?”
Docia stalked off, as embarrassed as she was furious. She was not accustomed to being verbally outfenced, especially by those who spoke glibly of their dislike of reason and their abandonment of rationality.
He had known what she meant, but twisted her words to mean something else—the hallmark of the second-rater. A thing was what it was, and to claim otherwise was to deny reason and logic; or, in other words, the faculties that distinguished humans from animals—what gave mankind purpose, and for that matter, culture.
These thoughts comforted her, but she still needed some air, to get away from these people. Not seeing Roy anywhere in the crowd, she headed for the balcony. Another woman was out there, smoking a cigarette. Docia nodded politely, but otherwise ignored her as she stared down at the city below.
Was it just her imagination, or was it even dimmer than before she had entered Fulvius Elbreth’s apartment? The stars were still masked by flat cloudbanks, invisible, obscure, far away. It occurred to her that she could not recall the last time she had seen them…
She sighed, leaning against the balcony. If only she’d been thinking faster, she would have suggested Elbreth come out with her, put his weight against the balustrade, testing its truth—it would hold, whether he believed it would, or not. And even if he personally felt an abstraction of a banister was more valuable, especially on the stage, Juliet would likely feel more secure with a railing designed by man, and forged of iron, between her and Romeo.
“Don’t let them bother you.”
“I beg your pardon?” Docia turned to face the small woman beside her. The first thing she noticed were the woman’s eyes, huge and dark and expressive. As to what they expressed, it was intense determination, a single-mindedness of purpose Docia immediately admired. Her confident posture, sensible, side-parted bob and tailored suit gave Docia confidence that she was standing with someone who would not tolerate any nonsense.
“I said, don’t let them bother you. They are beneath your notice.” She had a clipped, aristocratic accent when she spoke. Docia couldn’t identify it, but she thought it might be European. “Their goals are not yours.”
“I suppose not.”
“You are a businesswoman. A creator. Creators think.” Her darkly- lipsticked mouth contorted around the butt of a half-smoked cigarette; she blew out smoke, and smiled. “They are independent, they follow their own reason to the end. Critics… they are not creators. They are destroyers. No—they are less than destroyers, for a destroyer must possess the will to destroy, which means possessing purpose. They—those in there, I mean—are mere grave-worms. They feast on that which is already dead.”
Docia was a little uncomfortable with this bold speech. While she admired the woman’s convictions, both the content and the way she delivered them, her familiarity was a little disturbing. She spoke as if she and Docia had been friends for a long time, whereas to the best of Docia’s knowledge, she’d never seen the woman before in her life.
“Have we met?” asked Docia. “I’m sorry if I don’t recall, but…”
“I know who you are—what you do. I know why you needed air after being in there, with those people. Would you like a cigarette?”
“I would love a cigarette,” said Docia, and accepted one from the woman’s pack. They were of a type she had never seen before, she didn’t recognize the package, but upon inhaling the smoke Docia declared it was the most delicious cigarette she’d ever tasted.
“Yes,” was the woman’s only response, and finishing her own, she flicked the butt off the balcony. As it fluttered away in the breeze, the strangely yellow ember was the brightest light for miles.
“It seems darker, don’t you think? The city, I mean,” said Docia.
For some reason, she felt this woman, strange though she was, would understand.
“Darker? Yes… it is.” The woman turned to Docia, who felt as if she might drown in those starless pools. “Do you know why?”
“No…” Docia felt a queer prickling at the back of her neck. “Do you?”
“Me?” The woman laughed. “What’s the fashionable expression? Have you found the Yellow Sign?”
Docia, perturbed, did not reply, turned back to the city. From behind her, the woman said, “Well, I must be off. Good night, sleep tight… and don’t let the grave-worms bite…”
Docia whirled as she heard the door open, for she wished to ask the woman what brand of cigarette she had been smoking—but she had disappeared. To her displeasure, Fulvius Elbreth now stood where she should have been.
“Ms. Calder,” he said, far more serious than he had been inside. “I owe you an apology. It was unkind of me to speak so freely, and in a group. I allowed my enthusiasm to override my manners. As a host, it was most unpardonable.”
Docia was in no mood to be wooed by an apology, however wellphrased. After her conversation with the woman, she saw something distinctly wormlike about this Fulvius Elbreth.
“To my mind, your rudeness is far more pardonable than your views,” she said evenly.
He stared at her, clearly at a loss for words. After a long moment, he laughed awkwardly. “Well… there’s no accounting for taste, eh? But, I do admire your… passion for the arts, I suppose. It’s too bad… I had rather hoped…” He hesitated, then turned to the door. “Perhaps I had better leave you be?”
His manner made her curious. “What had you hoped?”
“That you might accompany me to the theatre. Yes, I know you came here with that meathead Irving, I’m not asking you on a date. Just to come with me. There’s a new play on Broadway, one that caused quite a scandal in Europe, where it was banned. A theatre-owner here invited the production, after hearing about it all, and well… at last the Trib feels I should go review it.”
“The play has a rather dodgy reputation—a blinkered history, if you will. I had to convince my editor it was a good idea for me to go. But I did, in the end. I can be very persuasive.”
“Beware that overconfidence. You haven’t convinced me yet.”
“Why should you ask me?”
He shrugged. “Because taking a lady to the theatre seemed a gentlemanlike way of apologizing. Because you have opinions on art that intrigue me, even if I disagree with them, and discussing them over dinner seems pleasant.”
“Well… all right.”
“Good!” Elbreth clapped his hands together. “I’ll make dinner reservations. Thank you, Ms. Calder, you’ve made my night… by making me feel less of a cad. Tomorrow, then?”
“Yes, I’ll… let’s meet in front of your office, you’re closer.”
“One more thing… who was that woman? Who was out here with me?”
Elbreth shrugged. “I couldn’t say. I didn’t see her.”
He took his leave of her, and Docia finished her cigarette. It was really the best she’d ever had. Before she ground it out she looked at the butt, just to see if she could ascertain the brand. There was no name, just a strange, unrecognizable insignia, in yellow so bright it might have been painted on in real gold. Docia hesitated, then tapped out the remaining tobacco, pocketing the butt. She’d show it to the man at the drugstore to see if he could identify it. She was eager to find the brand so she could buy a pack of her own.
* * *
Roy was unimpressed to hear that Elbreth would be escorting Docia to the theatre. They had a stupid fight about it on their way home. He made it clear he disapproved of her being taken out by other men, even after she made it clear that there was nothing in the world less romantic to her mind than going out with Fulvius Elbreth. He was not reassured, and drove along in a petulant silence that made her yet again question the wisdom of their alliance. She had never yet slept with someone she did not hold in the highest regard. It was therefore something of a relief when his reply to her remark that jealousy was a sign of low self-regard was that it was likely better if they kept their relationship professional in future.
She thought of him one final time as she smoked a cigarette on her own balcony. It was like Roy—pleasant, but unsatisfying; not all it should be. She could enjoy neither as much as she would have liked, not after tasting the one the woman had given her; not after seeing Roy for what he was. She withdrew the stub from her pocket, gazed on the strange mark. She could not tell what it might be, not even under the brightest light of her apartment. The squiggles would not resolve themselves into anything meaningful. “An abstraction,” she murmured, smiling. She traced the insignia with the tip of her finger.
“What are you?”
Have you found the Yellow Sign?
The woman’s voice came to her in that moment, her clipped, European accent, the strange, unanswerable question she had posed. Docia stopped smiling, tucked the butt away, and poured herself another drink. As she took it to bed, she looked at the phone. She wondered if Roy would call. She thought not—and indeed, he did not.
She had broken up with unworthy partners many times before. It was never fun, but it was also somewhat liberating. To remain in a relationship with someone she could not esteem would be to debase herself, a betrayal of her fundamental convictions. That was why she woke the next morning not feeling bleak and abandoned, but refreshed, renewed—and determined.
She made herself coffee, and after a hurried cup headed to the drugstore on the corner. There, she consulted with the owner on the matter of the strange cigarette stub. He inspected it, and declared he’d never seen one like it.
“I can try to find out, if you like… then again, perhaps I’d better not.” He returned the butt to her, a curious expression his face. “Or maybe I should say… I’d rather not.”
“Why? It’s the finest I’ve ever had.”
“Be that as it may. I don’t know. You… keep that. Don’t bring it in here again.” He was getting oddly aggressive with her. “I don’t want to look at it!”
“All right!” she exclaimed, and left, vowing to never shop there again.
The strangeness of the encounter cast a pall over Docia’s day. Usually she disliked slow days at the office, but after her queer morning, she was grateful for the peace. She was troubled by everything she had to do, nothing sat right with her, and all the lights seemed too dim.
She kept rubbing at her eyes, until her assistant pointed out how she’d smeared her mascara.
“Damn,” she swore. “I’ll have to re-do it before I go out tonight.”
“Seeing Mr. Irving?”
Louise was an excellent secretary, so Docia didn’t scold her for nosiness. “No, with Fulvius Elbreth, the theatre critic. He’s taking me to some play that was banned in Europe. Probably has anti-Socialist sentiments or something that would offend the delicate sensibilities of those snooty soap-dodgers.”
“Well, I hope you have a good time.”
“I believe I shall,” said Docia.
* * *
Even the lights of the Great White Way seemed dull and flickering beneath the clotted, starless sky when Docia arrived at the theatre, her arm threaded through Fulvius Elbreth’s. She noticed, but was having too good a time to care. Elbreth treated her with respect and gentlemanly charm. To her delight, he had called ahead to ensure a booth would be waiting for him at his favorite Jewish deli.
“It’s not fancy, but I just love a pastrami on rye after a show, and their cheese danishes are… well, they’re just like Mama Elbreth never made,” he said. “I hope that’s all right.”
“How’s their corned beef?” she’d playfully replied.
“To die for.”
“You’re… full of surprises, Ms. Calder.” She realized she’d just passed a test of sorts, and was surprised to find she enjoyed his approval.
“So are you,” she replied. “Or… perhaps I shouldn’t assume. Perhaps their corned beef only an abstraction of a sandwich?”
He laughed. “See? You’re making me question my convictions, for while very real, their corned beef sandwich is indeed a work of serious art.”
They continued to chat as they picked their way to their seats. The theatre was already packed, and as Docia sat, she noticed they were all squinting at their playbills, or blinking in the light. So she wasn’t the only one—Roy was just thick. But then again, Elbreth, who seemed a substantially sharper tack, seemed unaware of anything being amiss.
“Here we go,” he said cheerfully, as the lights dimmed into darkness and the curtain rose. “Let’s see what the governments of Europe think is too dangerous to be seen.”
It wasn’t an anti-Socialist play, as Docia had assumed. Nor was it blasphemous or seditious. At least, not in ways that she could openly identify. All she knew was it was the strangest hour and a half of her life, watching… whatever it was she was watching. There was poetry, there was action. Things occurred, and did not occur. It was more confounding than alarming. It reminded her a bit of Antigone, which she had also not quite understood, when she’d read it in school.
Her feelings were not shared. When the lights came up—as much as they did—Fulvius Elbreth looked pale, and sweat beaded his forehead.
“Forgive me,” he said, when she remarked on his condition. “I fear I must… a rain check, if you will, on the deli? I do not feel I should stay for the second act. Something… something is wrong. I must go.”
“Of course. I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well… let me call you a cab.”
The look he gave her was that of a man beholding a horror. “You’re not leaving? You… want to stay?” he whispered. “Are you sure?”
“You are unwell,” she said, alarmed by his behavior. “I’ll see you home.”
“I’m perfectly able to get myself away from here!” he exclaimed, and fled the theatre, not even bothering to collect his coat or hat.
Docia watched him, confounded—but the lights flickered. Eager to see the second act, she returned to her seat, alone.
Docia did not rise to get a drink or visit the powder room between the second and third acts, nor between the third and fourth. She remained in her seat, riveted, entranced. It was the most wonderful, terrible thing she had ever seen in her life. The most fascinating thing was, it was not an abstraction, as Elbreth had insisted theatre must be; what was occurring on stage was more real than anything Docia had experienced outside of the theatre. The truth of it resonated within her, as if the actors’ words were mallets and her soul a tuning fork—she felt right, happier than she ever had, at work, in bed, eating delicious food, dressing for a meeting, any of the things she previously would have called pleasurable.
She could not say if she was alone in her sensations. The darkness of the theatre, and the troublingly insufficient light when at last the final act concluded and the curtain fell, made her feel as if she were alone in her seat, alone in the aisle heading toward the door, alone in the street when at last she emerged in the silent, pitch-black city.
She looked up, and laughed. At last, the clouds had dispersed, and the night sky greeted her, the swirling constellations of black stars brighter than any artificial, earthly light, the moons—how many, she could not say—emanating a radiance undreamed. The foreign constellations did not disturb her; rather, she realized with a laugh that she had been lost her whole life, and had finally found her way.
The sound of a lighter drew Docia’s attention from the vast and wondrous sky. The woman from the party was there, leaning alone against a streetlight, a cigarette burning in her stubby fingers. A trilby, worn low on her brow, shadowed her features, but it was unmistakably her. Oh, but she was a woman who could wear a suit—the drape of the wool crepe looked like a priest’s vestments or royal robes of state, austere, somber, even awe-inspiring, but completely natural and lived-in.
“Did you like the play?” she asked. When she looked up, the yellow flash of her eye almost blinded Docia.
“I think so,” she replied.
“You’re not someone who appreciates uncertainties,” said the woman. “Come, have a cigarette. We can talk about it.”
She stuck another cigarette between her lips, lit it, and passed it over. Docia accepted it, inhaling deeply of the rich and fragrant tobacco. She knew without looking it was the same strange brand, with the strange symbol.
As she smoked, she found she did not want to speak. The silence was wonderful; the stillness felt right. Content, she took a long drag, and exhaling, noticed through the smoke the gold insignia was even brighter than the ember.
"Grave-Worms" first published in Cassilda's Song: Tales Inspired by Robert W. Chambers' King in Yellow Mythos (Chaosium, 2015).
Story by Molly Tanzer.
Art by Jeffrey Alan Love.