The Dubious Apotheosis of Baskin Gough, Part One
Patrick S. McGinnity
(Part Two of The Dubious Apotheosis of Baskin Gough appears in Issue #2)
Of course, Gough realized in a flash of unfiltered intuition. Of course. It finally made some sort of sense. At last.
He locked the study door and braced it with a tilted chair. A heavier piece like the bureau or desk might have been better, but there wasn’t time, and the noise of dragging something so heavy would surely arouse someone to check on him.
He stripped hurriedly then, piling his clothes atop his shoes. The air was close, though the temperature had fallen as the memory of the watery afternoon sun faded. With a surgeon’s care he arranged the instruments he would need beside the bath. At the brink, though, he hesitated.
Cold and oily, the water in the tub showed no reflection, even when he bent low over the tub, close enough to smell the piscine stink. He did, however, fancy he caught a rippling shimmer, as of a school of minnows just below the surface.
The fluid swallowed one leg then the other. There was a layer of something soft near the bottom, some thick sediment, and he shuddered as he sank into it. Despite his discomfort, he forced himself to lay back against the rim of the tub, as if this were nothing more than a hot bath at the end of a long day. He understood, after all, this was the only way. His breathing quickened.
The scalpel came to hand almost of its own volition, and it did its work with fine efficiency. His flayed forearms throbbed with gleaming red pain; the cold brine set the long shallow incisions afire.
Gough moaned through gritted teeth, forcing his head back against the tub and willing his body to remain submerged, though the pain stole his breath, and the prickling that had begun within the silt layer was maddening. It was like being submerged in champagne, except of course for the fiery pulses of pain. With difficulty, he lay still as the tingling climbed from those parts most deeply submerged, up his belly, his arms, his chest. After a time, lying still was no longer a struggle—even had he wanted to, he suspected, he could no longer have climbed from the bath. A hoarse groan, his throat raw as if he had been screaming. Perhaps he had.
Noise from the open window. A plaintive mewl, like that a tomcat will make when he scents a queen just out of reach. Gough struggled to turn, to raise his head, panting from the effort, but he could no more compel his body to obey than a tree could pull up its roots and stalk off. He settled instead for locking the periphery of his gaze on the square of starlight that was the window. His head ached with the effort.This is the only way, he told himself, though the voice in his mind carried a note of uncertainty. The Artist! She had returned for him. It had to be.
[Signed correspondence from Ms. Danica Morden to Mrs. Camille Donovan]
This morning, Camille, over yet another breakfast of canned pears and salt pork, Chas asked if I thought it possible that we’d all died in the flood; that all of this was some infernal punishment, a penance for our sundry sins. While I’ve no better explanation for what’s happening, I cannot believe that hell, the afterlife, or any of it could be so trite. Chas is a fool and has heard too much of Roderick’s seminarian dogma.
And yet what other explanations are there? A stone house (a mansion, really) bobbing along like some cork on the flood that ripped it from its place weeks ago? Even the cellar is intact, yet from the constant rocking it is clear we are afloat, and from the soundings taken from the porches, this infernal river or current has no bottom. Ostraander’s airship is moored to the upper porch, and even from that high vantage, he claims there is no land in sight. If only the airship were big enough to hold all of us, we could leave this doomed house behind. Let Baskin Gough go down with his ship if he likes, but get the rest of us back to sanity.
It isn’t only our situation that is uncanny, though. I’ve sketched every room in this blasted house countless times, and every time I look again the perspective is somehow warped and transformed until there is nothing of Dun Leah House at all in the drawings. Might hell be a floating house that can’t be rendered on paper? Silly, I know.
Incidentally, I’ve been forced to abandon The Salon of Madame Tessier. Gough has already paid my commission—not that I’ve any use for the money here—but I find myself entirely unequal to the task of completing the piece. All of the figures are masked into place with their corresponding shadows, and I have detailed studies of all of the guests. Completing the painting ought not to pose such hardship.
It’s not because of those we’ve lost—I’m sure of it. If they were there for the initial sittings, I have them in my mind and my sketchbooks; indeed, my sketches of Reliene are exquisite, if I do say so myself.
Since her disappearance, Camille, I’ve come to understand her better. Though it shames me to admit it, I find I miss the idea of Reliene more than the woman herself. The impulsiveness and irreverent spirit that so attracted me at school wore on me when we were living together. Perhaps after the row our relationship caused at home, I threw too much of myself into my new identity as the deviant daughter, never seeing that it was, in fact, that very identity I prized, far more than I could ever love Reliene. She was exciting, yes, but mostly she was the catalyst for my “becoming”—it just took losing her to allow me to actually see her as distinct from my new-fledged self. How fitting, then, that she alone made her way onto the canvas of The Salon before I stopped working.
When she vanished, I painted to escape my loneliness and fear (that’s how she came to be standing there, leaning so elegantly against the gleaming piano, a hint of a smirk on her lips as if she knows a great secret). Maybe all I need of her anymore (though it’s monstrous to think such a thing!) is her image and my memories. I know, I’m a selfish beast.
The real trouble with the painting, though, is the background. I’d painted it, you might recall, weeks before the séance, when I first came to this wretched house (when you and I were still on speaking terms). This sounds mad, Camille, but the background I painted months ago now has begun to change.
I first saw the house on a sunny afternoon, and my sketches and studies are filled with diagonal swatches of rich golden tones. When I painted the background, I kept the early evening light, but diffused it, breaking up the slanting rays from the western windows. Beyond the bank of windows, the foothills ran up to the mountains in green-gold humps dappled in cloud-shadow and backed by a rugged brownish range. Capturing them was an early success that I believed boded well for the commission.
I have done nothing to change the background since I finished it, yet the mountains have faded, losing first their color and now their very shapes. The rounded hills themselves have gone gray and taken on something of the look of ocean swells.
The very quality of the light has changed as well—once a rarified golden and emerald glow, which would have so complemented the men’s dark jackets and the piled hair of the women, now it is a sickly blue-green, as if the sun shone down into the room through several feet of water. The shadows have meanwhile grown stark and pregnant, as if there were figures there, between the layers of chromatic black, deep crimson, and verdigris (they creep from shadow to shadow so they are never quite where your eyes are looking, but are always undulating and flowing away, like water spilled on rumpled oilcloth).
I find myself hesitating, the brush a hairsbreadth off the canvas, terrified that one of the shadows will slip under the bristles and drink the paint up, or lodge itself there so that, all-unknowing, I infect everything I do.
Oh, I know how silly it sounds (I just read that last bit over), but no matter how I light the studio Gough has set aside for me, the shadows are always there in the unfinished painting, slinking about. It isn’t that I haven’t tried painting over them, deepening the shadow with midnight blue and match black, but the creeping things seem to revel in the change. They behave as if I am only providing them more space, more depth, in which to play their slinking games. I’ve had to burn the brushes I used; it was the only way to be sure the shadow things could not escape.
Oddest of all, perhaps, is how Reliene seems to watch the shadow things. It’s uncanny: even without all the detail I’d planned to add, she seems already animated within the canvas. She watches the amorphous figures, but whether with trepidation or some other emotion is hard to tell. At times, I’d swear her tongue has just slipped out to taste the rose and viridian of her lips, as if in anticipation of some licentious tryst.
It is all too strange to be believed, I know. Yet if I doubt my own senses, what have I left?
[The passages in the third person appear to be a fictionalization of events at Dun Leah House. As to their author, there is some indication that an obscure young writer may have been present the night of Madame Tessier’s séance, though his ultimate fate is unclear (nor is he mentioned in any of the letters or journals found with his manuscript).]
As Baskin Gough and Doctor Templesmith finished another tedious breakfast with the Penderghasts, Christov the actor, and Madame Tessier, Ostraander burst in, his moustaches all abristle and his cheeks flushed to match his perennially florid snout.
“Roderick,” he panted, puffing like a bellows. The room stared back at him blankly and waited for the thought to be completed. Templesmith felt a twinge of dread like the twist in the gut when you first realize you’ve eaten something that’s turned.
“He’s... I found him…”
“Found him?” Margeaux Penderghast snapped from her seat by the window. “Why weren’t you together? We have a system, you know.” She loathed Ostraander, though it was unclear whether because of any traits particular to him or only that he happened to have been born male. For days they had been under a mandatory buddy rule. Ever since the artist’s companion had disappeared. Margeaux had been furious when Gough had paired her with her husband—an absolute necessity, since no one else would have tolerated her bitchery. Templesmith suspected that being dissatisfied was nothing new for the woman.
“He was reading,” Ostraander protested, filling the doorway like some great bear. “I’m not his bloody nanny!” Fingers like pale sausages smoothed the bristling foliage around his mouth. “I just had to get away,” he concluded, “to check on the airship. The boiler.”
Ostraander had been spending more and more time of late tending to his dirigible. Templesmith wondered how long the Dane could resist the temptation to bolt. With for a capacity of seven including a pilot, the Lavinia, rather than being their salvation, instead posed an ethical dilemma. How do you pick who goes and who gets left behind? Not that being airborne guaranteed anything, but there would be more chance of finding an end to this uncanny flood if one could control the direction of travel. It was true, though, that should the airship reach land, the chances of locating Dun Leah House again would be slim. So far, Ostraander’s response to the dilemma had been that no one left until everyone did—a noble if simplistic solution to a complex problem. But how long would he linger?
“What the devil is it, Gerick?” asked Gough. He folded his paper—weeks old now and with the ink starting to smear from endless reading and rereading. It stained his fingertips and thumbs black. Wiping them with distaste on the napkin on his lap, he asked, “What about him?”
“He’s gone off his head! He’s in the cellar. Jesus, you people—” The Dane stomped off. They all looked at each other for a moment, waiting, until finally Gough stood and brushed invisible crumbs from his lap. Lady Penderghast and Templesmith both rose to follow, and by the time they reached the hall everyone else had queued up behind them like schoolchildren on their way to morning prayers. Templesmith tried to stay close to Gough, but was blocked in the hall by the medium in her wheelchair. Apparently Ostraander hadn’t seen any point in keeping his news quiet. Gough had already forced his way through the throng and down the narrow cellar stairs.
“Out of the way!” someone shouted from below a moment later, just as Templesmith joined the press trying to get down the stairs. There was much shuffling and grumbling as half a dozen people tried to reverse course in the narrow hallway.
Ostraander pushed his way into the narrow hall, and behind came Gough with Roderick Thorpe leaning heavily on his shoulder, wrapped in a course wool blanket—his legs below it smeared with something dark and foul.
”Seven, seven and seven to the thirteenth,” the young man muttered in distraction, rocking and shaking his head as he stumbled along. His wide eyes rolled like those of a frightened horse.
“Goddamn!” someone said in a stage whisper, “that smell—” The voice cut off with a hiccup or a heave.
“Get him to the porch!” someone else called out.
Gough headed instead for the kitchen. “Would you be so kind, Doctor?” he asked over his shoulder. Templesmith accompanied Gough and Ostraander in while the rest of the crowd hung back. The two men got Roderick seated over some towels and put a huge pot of water on to warm. The Dane stood watch at the door to keep anyone else out. Gough worried that a panic might start if the boy’s ranting were heard by the other guests.
“Wait!” Roderick said, and all three of them paused. “Wait. The spider-skin beats a tattoo upon the altar cloth.”
“What’s he on about?” Ostraander asked. No one answered.
“Roderick,” Gough squatted before the senseless young man and snapped his fingers. Nothing.
At last Templesmith found his voice. “What—” he began, then cleared his throat and tried again: “What was he doing down there?”
“The idiot had found a sledgehammer and was trying to knock a hole in the floor,” Gough replied. Testing the water in the pot with a finger, he grunted and then stalked to the window to stare out at the endless flood.
“The lamb will be, when it rises, a locust in motley—woe betide the reticent delvers of secrets. Its ecstasy rises in bubbles of pain from the dark deepness, the deep darkness.” Roderick stared at his bloodied hands as if consulting some invisible book.
“He’s cracked,” said Ostraander. “A mad goddamned priest.”
“Know now you have no name, though you have a door, and a death to lend,” Roderick said to no one. “I have two! The Beast is fledged anew, vomited from the locust-lamb’s chattering mouth-parts.” It was nonsense.
When the water was ready, Gough helped Templesmith carry the heavy pot over. Taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves, the doctor set about cleaning the boy. The smell of the lye soap was mercifully strong, nearly overpowering the fecal reek. There was blood too, plenty of it, and when he drew open the blanket, the doctor found its sources.
“Christ almighty,” Gough murmured at his shoulder, “it was dark. I never even...” He broke off to retch noisily into the sink. The bleeding had mostly stopped, but what remained of Roderick’s genitals was a ragged clot of hair and blackened blood. Closer examination revealed that his left leg had been peeled from the mid-thigh down as if the skin had been no more than a damp stocking. Dark fluid suppurated from the raw meat that remained.
“A bitter book, the tongue.” The young man looked directly at Templesmith for the first time, his eyes still wide. “Vile as a sip of wrath. But hold to it. The call will come.” The room reeked worse than an abattoir, and all the warmth seemed to have bled away in an instant.
They sent Ostraander for Templesmith’s medical bag and some strong liquor. He still had a fair supply of ether, though he was loathe to use it unless absolutely necessary. A foul habit, he knew; but then, doesn’t everyone have their little weaknesses? The ether would surely prove necessary—Roderick would have to be sedated before Templesmith could even fully assess, let alone treat, his injuries.
The liquor? That was for the rest of them.
[Dr. Templesmith’s journal is incomplete, with many pages so water-damaged as to be undecipherable, and others gone entirely. Undated entries have been presented in the order in which they seem to occur relative to the dated ones.]
20 May 1863
He rests—if rest you can call it. He seems to sleep, but his eyes roll like billiard balls in their sockets, bruised lids fluttering like dying moths. I’ve wrapped the leg with bandages soaked in tincture of iodine, though I do not see how it can be saved. For skin to knit there must be skin to start with. As to the groin injury, the stitches should keep him together, though avoiding infection will take more than skill alone can do. He is feverish—whether from the wounds or some deeper malady remains unclear.
His ranting troubles me. After the boy lost consciousness, I consulted with Gough and Ostraander as I worked to clean and stitch the wound. Ostraander finally confessed to having struck Roderick upon finding him in the cellar—only to stop him breaking a hole in the floor, he insists. Gough added that when he’d reached the cellar, the boy had been huddled in a corner muttering to himself, and that he’d only taken the time to find an old blanket to cover his nakedness before bringing him upstairs.
Gough’s houseboy Tarquin entered, then, after a respectful tap at the door.
“Well?” Gough asked when the youth didn’t volunteer anything.
“Not good, Sir. I looked—”
“You didn’t find it?”
“Spit it the hell out!” Ostraander cuffed Tarquin hard across the back of the head. Gough glared at the Dane, but said nothing.
“There’s water, Sir.”
No one said anything for a long moment, and then Ostraander hurried out.
“Only a few inches. Looks like it’s coming in across from the boiler.”
“That’s where I found him,” said Gough. “The damned fool.”
“Maybe it’s not so bad,” I murmured as I leaned back to stretch my throbbing shoulders and neck.
“Perhaps you’re right, Doctor,” replied Gough in an oddly impassive tone. “After all, this house shouldn’t be able to float in the first place. Why should we assume that a hole in the basement would cause it to sink? It isn’t as though it’s a ship, is it?” I couldn’t tell whether or not he was being facetious.
“At any rate,” I said, assuming he was in earnest, “there’s not much we could do about it either way. I suppose we could try to plug the hole, but as you say, according to everything I know about the differences between boats and houses, we shouldn’t be afloat to begin with.”
Ostraander returned then, soaked to the knees. “A hole wide as my fist. Water’s gushing up through. Fast.” He stood there as a puddle formed at his feet, his hands clenching and unclenching to an erratic rhythm.
Gough glanced at me, but before either of us could speak, a deep grumbling shook the walls and floor. It was like distant thunder, except that it seemed to resonate in the very teeth and bones. A fine shower of plaster dust rained down from the ceiling. A roaring groan shook the very air in the room for a drawn out moment, and then the house lurched awkwardly before righting itself. Gough peered out a window as I resumed my stitching in the oppressive silence that followed.
“It appears we’re still afloat,” he said.
Further investigation (conducted by Gough, Ostraander, and Tarquin, while I continued to work on the unconscious young seminarian) revealed that the cellar floor and much of the stone foundation itself had dropped away, so that now, halfway down the cellar walls, the stone gives way to bottomless murk. I am profoundly troubled by the thought of the cellar being open to whatever might pass beneath. There is a certain sense of safety and sanctuary that one takes for granted in the unassailable solidity of a cellar, a reassurance that has now been stripped from Dun Leah House.
Gough lied to the others, telling them the house must have scraped the bottom for a moment. I am not sure how exactly he thought the truth would be worse, but it is his house, and such decisions are best left to him. I have more than enough to worry about with the boy.
From the semicircular porch on the third floor of what had been the southeast tower, Ostraander could only watch as flames beaded like condensation on The Lavinia’s gleaming shell, racing against gravity’s logic to join the blaze consuming the furled canvas of the mainsail. Still bound to the floating house by the mooring line, the stricken craft pitched and yawed in her agonies.
As much as he despised the pair of fools who’d tried to make off with his vessel—and after he had stuck by this wretched floating house and its hapless occupants when he might easily have left them all to their fate—he still would not have wished such a death on them. Death certainly, but something more civilized. A firing squad, perhaps, or a hanging.
Soon the steel-foil skin would warp, causing more leaks at the riveted seams. It was only a matter of time before The Lavinia, the finest privately-owned craft of its type in all of the New World, succumbed to the flames.
At one point, a cockpit window opened. The head and shoulders of one hijacker, it might have been Penderghast, emerged for an instant before a billow of black smoke from inside reached out and engulfed him like a clutching hand. Just then an incendiary flash blew out the rest of the glass. It was a long second before the concussion reached the parapet where Ostraander stood, and by then, flames poured from every window.
Beneath the keen edge of the ornamental dirk given him upon his retirement from the Royal Danish Air Corp, the hempen fibers of the mooring line gave grudgingly. Before long the wrist-thick line separated with a snapping swish, and the house lurched back and rolled precariously. Something fell in a room below with a wooden crunch and the tinkle of glass or china.
The sails had been entirely consumed, so it was only the leaking gasses that fed the fire now, but soon, he knew, the paper-thin shell would burn through and the fire would find the fuel it so hungrily sought.
Even as he entertained the thought, the craft shuddered, and a fountain of cerulean flame sprouted like a weird flower from her port flank. The sound reached Ostraander a long moment before the hot wind: a groaning protest of superheated metal and gluttonous fire. The airship dropped ponderously at first, like a silk handkerchief on a fresh breeze.
It was as though time had solidified into a kind of gel—a perfectly clear moment, stretched and dragged out to its utmost extreme. An interminable heartbeat passed and then everything snapped back into motion, and the twisted hulk plummeted the last hundred yards into the endless horizon of jade-green waters. A cloud of steam filled the air above where she’d met her end, already falling behind the steadily drifting house.
The lonely hiss of The Lavinia’s end reached Dun Leah House ages later like a warning from some unseen and terrible serpent, just before its deadly strike.
[Dr. Templesmith’s journal]
23 May 1863
The boy is wounded as much in mind as in body. It could only be madness, his desperate excavation in the cellar, never mind the self-mutilation. As to possible causes, speculation is all we have, and that is less than worthless. His dreadful wounds themselves and the possibility that they might turn septic are more than enough to occupy me. I cannot imagine what could possibly have ripped the skin from his leg so. I have my own suspicions as to where his missing parts might be, but I’ll not put them down here.
The water samples from the first week have by now settled quite clear, each with a layer of spongy-looking silt at the bottom. Those from the second are more brown, and cloudy still. And this week has a grey-blue tint and an almost tangible look to it, as if one could pinch a dollop of it right out of the glass and stand it jiggling on the table. The most recent tests revealed that the salinity has increased so that the water gathered from the now—bottomless cellar is, more or less, seawater.
Only a handful of days adrift and we’ve reached the sea? Impossible, of course; and yet, when all possible explanations are exhausted, isn’t the impossible all that remains? There are thousands of miles of waterfalls, canals, locks, and dams between Marquette and the sea. A fast-moving boat might cover the distance in a week or so, if there was nothing to slow it down, but a drifting house? Besides, even with a lookout constantly on duty, we haven’t sighted land since the night of the flood. If this is a river, it is wider than the Amazon. If it is Lake Superior, than it has somehow become salinated and developed a fierce current, and even then, the complete absence of land makes no sense whatsoever.
The other possibility is that the proverbial mountain has indeed come to Mohammed—that perhaps the sea rose to meet us, swallowing up damns and waterfalls and everything else along the way. Equally impossible, of course: to raise sea level even a foot would take years of rain, decades of melting ice, and Lake Superior itself is more than five hundred feet above sea level. But the water does not lie, though it may make of truth something alien and utterly unrecognizable.
I continue taking samples, and we all continue to struggle against the incipient madness of knowing the end, some end, must be approaching. We can’t simply float on forever. Maybe Roderick is only the first of us to break.
I should not wonder if his mind has been overtaxed by the events of the last fortnight, leading to some violent rupture in his psyche. Perhaps the strict indoctrination of his Jesuit training left him somehow vulnerable to such damage—I cannot say. Healing the mind is beyond my scope. If I can keep him alive long enough to be examined by a doctor of psychiatry, he might yet have some chance of recovering his wits.
Again he wakes. I must tend to him…
Read part two.
Patrick S. McGinnity lives with his wife and three boys on a remote island in northern Lake Michigan where he is the director of the public library. He holds an MFA from Hollins University, and his work has appeared in Arcane II, Word River, The Truth About the Fact, Temenos, and Paradigm, and online at Ad Hominem, The Harrow, and The Fourth River. Patrick blogs (very) sporadically at keltickarnival.blogspot.com.