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Authors: Cherie Priest

Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Fiction, #Historical, #General

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BOOK: Dreadful Skin
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“Can I clear these plates out for you?” I asked them, wishing they’d finish up. Mr. Cooper and the nun, as they were the only two left, they told me that was fine and they were mostly finished. But they stayed out there talking in a friendly way, and I thought it was funny that the two of them would be friends.

Doesn’t the Lord frown on cards and dice alike?


I will tell you how it happened.

It unraveled.


My given name was John Gabert, but I went by many others if the mood and fancy struck me. From time to time, the mood and fancy came in the form of police atten-tion, or in the stalking threats of mercenaries. Occasionally, it was a journalist—some ratty, tattered little man with a notebook and a pencil clenched between two fingers.

I could only give them what they didn’t want. I could give them a name (not my own) and an ounce of respectability (borrowed or stolen), and I always had—at my immediate disposal—an alibi.

An alibi was my favorite accessory.

I would wear one like a funeral carnation in a black lapel. I would use it to garnish myself, and to redeem myself. I would sport it in public to reassure London that I was a worthy, plain, and innocent citizen—confused, and in mourning like the rest of them.

But after a while…yes, well. In time, all the expensive alibis in the world could not be stacked, one on top of another, high enough to build a wall between myself and the prying eyes of nervous, curious people.

Jesus, God, or Whoever.

It was only a little hunger. Only a

And I kept it so closely in check. I watched myself for the signs, and for the warnings. After so many years I knew what to look for, and what twisted visions I could count upon to warn of impending change. I had learned how to control it!

All the rest I can blame on my father, because I went to him for help and he refused me, at first. Later, he would use his influence to keep our name out of the papers, and later—always when it was much too late—he would quietly arrange for restitution.

He seemed to think it was a disease—acquired in some opium den or brothel. Every objection I uttered was nonce to him, and every plea for a reasonable treatment fell on deaf ears. So far as he was concerned, I needed a physician like Dr. Marblen, or Dr. Bentley. There was no room in my father’s head for an infection like the one I carried.

There was no room in his mind for the monsters at the far corners of the Good Queen’s Empire.

In time, he came to invent his own explanations. He passed them around to his friends over too much brandy when the weather was cold. Once he said that I’d been cursed by a gypsy, and another time he mumbled that I’d been trampled by elephants while abroad.

Once—just once—he came very near the truth by virtue of his own imagination. Even as he denied any truth to the unflattering rumors, he would feed them seedling crumbs.

One night I overheard him speaking to the marquess. He spoke of me like I was a wayward adventurer from a penny dreadful; he was constructing a myth of me with his words, in his own library and parlor. Deny the facts when they are gruesome, or untidy. Speculate for me something prettier, and simpler, and easier to spread by firelight.

I recall, from my listening place beside the door jamb, that there were expensive cigars that night and a crystal decanter that drained by the hour. I held my position outside the room, and listened to the old men ramble about war, and children, and monsters like me.

“It was during his time in India, you know. That was where the event occurred that changed him so, though you do not think him much changed now. I can only say that there are nights when he must be seen to be believed—and days when we must close him away for fear of him, and for what he would do if left unattended.

“He went out on safari with the son of a friend—I think you know him, so I’ll leave his name from the story, if you don’t mind—but he went out with a rifle and an elephant. They were hunting tigers, as you do when in a place such as that.

“I’ve heard stories, you know—of places like that one. They tell me it is as if the whole land itself rises up and wishes you gone. Every stray plant has thorns and each new creature is deadlier than the last. I swear, I wish we had left it alone. I think so sometimes,” he added quickly, “but I know that it’s all for the best. I’m a brick for the empire, and my son was too. I mean no disrespect or disloyalty when I say these things. I only mean that it’s an inhospitable place, more hot and unwelcoming than hell. That is what I’ve heard, though you can take or leave it as you like.”

I thought the marquess should leave it, personally, as my father was well into his cups, but inexplicably speaking less nonsense than usual. Let him tell the truth through a fog of alcohol. Stories told that way are always easy to discard when morning comes and a headache comes with it.

Besides, India was not so bad. It was hot, yes. But England is cold, as often as not, and between the two I believe that I prefer the struggles of staying cool to the struggles of staying warm.

Like so many other preferences of mine, my father would not understand it.

“Somewhere under the jungle canopy they rode on their elephants with the brown boys guiding them, calling out sights and hushing the party when game felt close. I imagine he wore a proper helmet, and he carried that old gun of mine—I insisted he take it, though now I wish I’d lent him something bigger, or something faster to shoot.

“But then a storm brewed up fast, as these things do in such hellish climes. They were too far into the bush to retreat, so they huddled for camp and sheltered themselves as best they could.

“One of the brown fellows cried out, and was lost. It’s dark there, when the sun goes out and trees stretch high and thick above. They couldn’t see what took the man. They couldn’t tell if he was hurt, or dead, or only running. The storm did not relent, though. Water came down in drops as big as your thumb, and the elephants shuddered for wet and worry. They stamped their giant feet into the mud and wished to be elsewhere, as did the remaining men, I’m sure.

“There in the sodden jungle, where it must have been quite dark, they could not see so well for the shadow and the pitching rain. They could not have known when the trees parted, and through them slipped the beast.”

“A tiger?”

“What else?” My father asked it drunkenly, sloshing his glass and gesturing at the window, at the ceiling with it.

I had told him what else, as best I could. We both knew it was no tiger, but he had no other name by which to call the dread, so he gave it a word he knew.

“It pounced at them, it leaped upon them!” And here he lost more brandy, or scotch, or whatever the drink was that night. “It fell upon them, you see—and my son had not stayed atop his elephant where there was more safety. They say that a tiger won’t disturb an elephant, and if my son had believed it—”

I’d believed it, but I think it would not have mattered. The elephants were trumpeting, by then. The danger was too near, and it was something that made the big beasts break, and run.

“He might have stayed there, atop the beast. But no. He had come down to the ground to chat with another man—and then the beast, it leaped! I said that, it leaped—and it fell on them both. The one man, the friend of my son, he died on the spot.

“But my son was able to crawl away. After the storm was over and the tiger had gone its own way, John was gathered, by the brown fellows and by the remaining people from the hunting party. He was gathered up and taken back into Delhi where he languished there in a hospital. You must understand what it’s like there, so hot and so wet. So damp with disease and I tell you, it is hard for an Englishman to recover from a cold in that place—much less from a wound so dire. And that’s the meat of it, I think. I don’t think he ever recovered. Not fully. Not like he should have, if he’d been here.”

The marquess left his own glass on the arm of the chair, and he did not raise it to his lips. “Is there—I mean, has he a scar, then? Some mark of the injury to show for it?”

My father shuddered then, the way the elephants had when the thing had poured itself out into the trail. “You should see it, Henry. Or maybe, you should not. I’ve seen the injuries of war before. Not much turns my stomach. But oh, the way its teeth met his skin—and the way it bit through bone. What else….” He started a thought and lost it, swirled it around in his glass.

“A tiger, of course. What else could it have been?” The marquess finished the question for him, because I think he knew I was listening from the hall. “No fault of his own then, if it’s left him with a terrible shock. It’s a wonder he lives at all.”

“A wonder,” my father said. “A wonder indeed.”

If it had been my mother there, or my brother, he might have added the rest of his conclusion—that it was a wonder better left a continent or two away. But it would not do to say such things in front of Henry, so he let the story end.

He was wrong, of course. He was wrong in more ways than I could begin to tell, given a full decanter and a willing ear. He was wrong about the city, and the weather, and the tiger. But something about the way he told it—I liked this version better. When I heard him share it with his old friend, I thought perhaps—just for a few minutes, with a brain steeped in brandy—he’d understood what I’d told him after all. Even if he couldn’t fathom the players, he knew the play.

Even if he didn’t want to cry “wolf,” for that is a thing that reckless boys do.

He could think I was reckless if he liked. He was probably correct, after all. There
a reckless beauty to it. There was a reckless poetry when I lifted my face to the sky and bared my teeth like a savage, like a screaming boy, and I made my voice twist itself into the sound of a wolf.

And when I jumped—God, when I jumped.

I could feel myself leaving the earth and clawing my way through the sky, for seconds at a time, and then there was nothing else in the universe—no God at all, even. Only grass and clouds and the scent of a living planet left orphan by a reckless creator.

They said, in the papers and in the penny dreadfuls, that it was as if I had springs on my feet. I must have aid, to leap so high. I must have a coiled mechanism to propel me so. Truly, it was easier to blame science than Mystery.

And truly, it was a silly name they gave me—though they got the “Jack” part right, by guess or circumstance.

Eventually I became too much hassle to hide. Eventually, when the moon turned over and glared down full across the night, it was too much for me to contain. If my father had admitted the nature of my ailment, some better treatment might have been made. Almost anything would have been better than chains and a basement. “Hide the moon from him, if that’s what does it,” he’d said. He was a fool and a liar.

The moon did nothing to me. It was only a cue, a trigger, and a goal. Every jump, every leap, every spring-heeled crouch and short, sharp flight—it was all to reach the moon, because I swear, she was the only one who’d have me.

But failing the moon, and failing my father, and failing my country, too—I made plans to leave. The stories were swirling too close, sometimes. The mad little men with the pencils and the presses swarmed a touch too near. I began to fear quite honestly that if I did not leave, I would be killed.

I left a note, as courtesy demanded.

But I suspect, when my father discovered he was unexpectedly free of me, that he was so overwhelmed with relief that he did not read it.

I went to America. I sequestered myself on a cargo ship with supplies for tobacco farmers. I told them I was a missionary bound for the western colonies, and that after my experiences in Delhi, I wanted to help civilize and sedate the savages on the other end of the world. Whether they believed me or not, I cannot say.

Upon arrival, I found New England too much like Old England for my liking. My tastes wanted warmer weather, someplace moist and green—preferably with a few open spaces to let me leap up at the sky when the lunacy came over me.

I went south, and slightly west—a colony state at a time.

I had no single goal in mind beyond seeking out warmth and seclusion; I was led to understand that these things could be found in abundance down farther in the colonies, closer to the west, and to the ocean. I made my furtive way south, then. Border by border. County by county, and town by town.

It seemed faster and easier, really—more civilized, at least—to try the rivers instead of the ragged old horse ruts.

I went to a city called Knoxville, and then on south to the next stop down—where I was told I could purchase passage on a steamship called the
Mary Byrd


I will tell you how it happened.

It burned, and sank.


My name was Eileen Callaghan, though if I spoke softly people often didn’t notice the Irish in my words, there in America. People thought that a woman in a habit was meant to be quiet and contemplative, so I was rarely asked to speak much, and that was fine.

No one answers that call for the social life.

I answered when I was a girl, still. I knelt in the church and bowed my head, and I asked for the convent because I believed—I still believe—that I heard Him asking me for my time, and my life. I agreed and I answered; because after all, I owed Him no less.

I spent many of those early years with the scriptures, then with other books in the library, then outside the walls when I could leave. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to understand. I wanted to breathe in all the truth.

After a while, I began to think that this was not all there was. There in the convent, with its quiet sisters and thick walls, I could find truth with the Virgin and her son. I filled myself up with prayers and piety; I lit my life with votives, and with the sun spilling warmly patterned through stained glass and screens.

And one day, I confessed in the dark little room: “There is
than this.”

Because they did not understand, they were afraid I would try to renounce my vows out of boredom. So they gave me little assignments here and there—small responsibilities in the community, and in other cities sometimes too.

I found some meaning in the poor quarters in Dublin, Belfast, and later in London, where we fed and clothed the ones we could; but I found more meaning still when I followed the women I found in those places.

I followed them to the sticky streets where they waited on street corners and in alleys, behind pubs and in littered lots. I watched them, and watched out for them when I could. I brought them into the church and let them warm themselves with our small lights—with candles lit for themselves, their mothers, and their daughters.

I watched them come and go from the safety to the streets, back and forth each night like the tide.

Sometimes I would walk with them, if they wanted. Sometimes they did not want to be alone, or they wished for a respite. Having a woman like me there would chase away their customers—and sometimes, for an hour or so, this was good. The dirty men in their itching clothes would saunter forward and see me—they’d see my uniform and know me—and they would think about being boys in white. They would remember being small, and standing before the alter with their mouths open. They thought of communion wine and bland white wafers.

And some of them would be ashamed. They would turn on their heels and slink back into the dark.

Once or twice I was propositioned too, by men who maybe remembered things differently—or who had no upbringing in the church. Once or twice a man would ask me to lift my skirts.

But not often.

On one such night, I stood beside a girl who had the name of her birthday’s saint—she was Barbara, and should have been home safe in her father’s tower. At least, she was very beautiful and would never be married, so some of the story was preserved.

These stories, if you read enough of them you start to see—they come back around again. (I used to think, sometimes, that these stories are all one. And they are told over and over again; we are all drawn to the same ones, to the same lives, and we repeat ourselves incessantly.)

She interrupted me. “Have you heard about the jumping man? Jumping Jack, I think the girls want to call him, but the papers say his name is something else.”

“Really? Have you read them?”

“No, I can’t read. But the news boys tell us sometimes, if we ask them nice. We wanted to know if anyone had heard. Not like it’d matter. So long as it’s just
being scared by him, no one cares. But he’s started chasing finer prey than us, I guess, because they’re talking about him now. He’s working his way up, he is.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well he jumped a fine lady, I hear. Scared her senseless. Tore off her dress and scratched up her belly like an animal. She’s been in bed since it happened, and she might not recover. They’ll catch him now, I bet. They’ll make him stop, now that he’s chasing a better kind.”

“Has he hurt anyone here yet—badly, I mean?” I asked her.

She shrugged like she wasn’t sure how to answer that, or how to quantify what ‘badly’ meant. “A couple of girls, he scratched them up so they bled real bad. And he’s scared ’em half to death, with his ugly yellow eyes and all that, but mostly they get back up again and go back to work in a few days.”

I couldn’t decide how it made me feel—if I was proud for Barbara and her sisters, or if I was sorry for them. Daily or weekly they’d seen enough and been hurt enough that assault was only an afterthought in a night’s tally. The spring-heeled man was worth a mention because he didn’t seem human, and
was worth talking about.
was worth a few minutes of gossip.

“He’s only a fairy tale. You’re making him into more.” I meant to reassure her because I couldn’t imagine what truth there might be in it. I had to assume that it was boredom that made them talk so, and put such stock in such wild stories.

“Not anymore. Not when the rich girls tell it. When the rich girls tell it, it’s

She was right, of course.

I tried to guide her, and the rest of them too—I tried to lend them my support, and give them the sense that someone thought they were worthwhile, and that there was a God who would have them and hear them. In time, I found it best to simply be their friend as well as I could. I would like to say that I made a difference, but I came to doubt it.

And before long, there were incidents, as you might expect.

There were problems. There were deaths, and accusations, and hints of impropriety. Good women of God did not lurk in such places. It would raise questions. Well, I had my questions too. Didn’t Christ himself walk with the prostitutes and the lepers? Times were troubled, yes, but that only meant they needed us more.

I think, I guess, that I came to believe my superiors. I think, I guess, that I started to believe the church. But by then, I had learned the difference between the Virgin and the Church. And I did not believe anymore that the two held hands more tightly than a vise.

“There is truth here,” I said to the priest at my last confession. “But this is not all the truth there is to be found.”

I told him I meant to leave, and he did not stop me.

I had half a mind to follow the crumbs of truth wherever they went. I opened my eyes, opened my ears, and opened my Bible. Piece by piece the trail became clear. A light beckoned across the ocean—it lured me onto a boat, and over the water. I followed it as best I could. I watched it flicker and dim, then flare and sizzle.

I went to America.

Didn’t everyone, who needed a new start?

BOOK: Dreadful Skin
5.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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