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Marvel Time Team: Howard the Duck (1986)

Fiction: 'Under the Sign of the Cockatrice' by Timothy J. Jarvis

Woman Mourning

Holding his paint-mottled palette up against the garish hues in the western sky, Charles Martin squinted, cursed, spat. He peered at his canvas. He’d captured something of the more muted tones of the reflection in the waters of the Thames, but nothing of the bizarre shades of the sunset itself. It was a daub, no better than William Ashcroft’s wretched pastel sketches. Martin had sought out rare pigments, which he could ill afford, and mixed them with care, but still the colours wouldn’t come out aright: the eerie greenish streak at the horizon, the lustreless cochineal whorls above, the mallow and puce blotches, the deep indigo arcing over.

Martin set down palette and brush, took out his gin bottle, dashed his tin cup full, and raised it to his lips. But his hand trembled, as it was sometimes wont to, and he slopped spirits on the painting.

“Gah!”

Scrabbling in his bag, he pulled out a cloth and dabbed at the canvas. But he managed only to smear the paint. With a snort of disgust, he kicked over his easel, then took a long pull straight from the bottle, sighed, and began packing his things.

In his youth, he’d been renowned, a painter, like his father before him, of dread landscapes that had fired the public imagination. But he’d fallen out of fashion and on hard times. He was fortunate that, due to his good looks, doxies loved him. Bawds had given him board and lodging at stews in Southwark since his obscurity, for nothing more than painting the occasional filthy picture for a discerning gentleman. He remembered well the lusty redhead who’d first taken him in, if not her name; it had been odd though: a victory against Napoleon, Trafalgar maybe? She’d left London for the colonies long before.

Martin, after first reading about the Krakatoa eruption, felt the sublime urge stir once more, had been moved to paint a few scenes of seething seas turgid with swollen corpses. But it was when the blazing sunsets started up he’d grown truly inflamed, obsessed with limning the nightly phantasmagoria.

Then, though, disheartened, he swore to give it up.

On returning home, to the brothel under the sign of the cockatrice, he found the molls in a huddle in the yard. Someone had left the door to the chicken coop open, and an old hen had got out, been savaged by the weasel the bawd, Rosie, an old lover of Martin’s, kept as a pet. The hen had died, though not before laying a strange egg. It was small, with a thin translucent shell, and, within, purple-tinged albumen, a lurid yolk, swirls of blood, and – it was foully fecundated – a greenish monstrosity. The whores were discussing it, in hushed tones, as if it could hear.

“A witch egg, ain’t it?”

“We need to chuck it over the roof.”

“Hold up,” Martin broke in.

“Charley, will you do it? You’ve a good arm.”

“Leave it with me, darling girls.”

“Be sure you do it proper,” said Dora, his favourite. “Terrible luck else.”

But he’d seen the salve for his itch in its hues. To allay the whores’ superstitious fears, he tossed a good egg, but kept the other in his room to rot. A few days ripening, he thought, and the colours’ll be perfect, I’ll take it to the artists’ suppliers, get them to work up the shades. He put it on his mantel and went out carousing.

The next morning, Martin woke, with a sore head, to see a warty toad squatting on his bedclothes and the weird egg hatched. He got up, opened the door of his room, and found, without, Dora – in her nightgown, become a statue, posed in panicked bolt.

Hearing snarling and a strangled crow from the parlour below, Martin went downstairs. The place was strewed with whores and their clients in varied stages of undress, all turned to stone in attitudes of flight; he had to clamber over several. In the parlour he found Rosie backed against the fireplace, mouth agape, petticoats aflame, petrified flesh feeling none of the heat. Her weasel sat on a sofa, a little blood around its mealy chops, feathers and a shred of squamous hide under its claws, worrying at a scrap of coxcomb.

With a soda syphon, Martin put out Rosie’s skirts and the coals in the grate. Then he slumped into an armchair. Once recovered from the shock, he began contemplating the revival of his fame. As a sculptor.

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Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His short fiction has appeared in Caledonia Dreamin': Strange Fiction of Scottish Descent,  3AM Magazine, Prospect Magazine and Leviathan 4: Cities, and he writes criticism for the Weird Fiction Review and Civilian Global. In 2012, he was shortlisted for the Lightship International Short Fiction Prize. He lives in North East London. His first novel, The Wanderer, is out now from Perfect Edge (and very highly recommended). 

"Under the Sign of the Cockatrice" first appeared in Pandemonium: Ash (2013).

Image: Adapted from Lidice Memorial (Adam Jones), under Creative Commons.