4940 words, short story
First, a mouth appears. It is four centimeters long, curved along the ridge of the old woman’s collarbone. It is lined with small nubs of flesh, which is why Ann calls it a mouth and not a slit, a laceration, a suppurative wound.
From the mouth emerges a baby cthulhu: head, tentacles, wings, short arms covered with a soft, pink fuzz. Then another. And another. The number of them does not matter. The old woman does not move as they move. She does not seem to notice their slithering, nor does she acknowledge the quiet, quick barks in rapid succession as they tumble over each other, biting and scrabbling at their siblings while Ann picks them up with a pair of tongs and drops them, one by one, into the garbage disposal and then turns it on.
When it is over, the mouth closes, the old woman goes about her day, and Ann washes her hands.
Such is the way of things.
Ann met the woman, a middle-aged socialite, while she was studying at the university. She had been asked by a professor to transcribe the oral history of the descendent of one of the school’s founders and Ann dutifully recorded the names and dates, the occupations. She included the story of the surgeon who had been accused of practicing his marksmanship on the cadavers in the basement of Charity Hospital. Others she left out:
Well, everyone knows that slavery was awful, but there were some good relationships scattered here and there. My great-grandfather and his manservant were so close; they died within a week of each other.
Ann smiled as the woman showed her the Proteus flag she hung every Mardi Gras from the second floor balcony: a cotton sea of red and white centered by a seahorse wearing a five pronged crown. She nodded as the woman described the dress she had worn (the capped sleeves, the thousands of hand-sewn Swarovski crystals, her furred cape), and the menu at Antoine’s for her Queen’s Supper.
Somewhere between the description of the main course and the bananas Foster, a small animal fell onto the center of the flag. It spread its wings wide, and hopped once, then twice until the woman folded it up in the thin cloth and bashed it with her balled fists.
Ann did not tell her about the second: the one she spied crawling up the sides of the armoire. How it sat, perched in the left hand corner like a gargoyle, watching as its brother (or sister, Ann was never able to tell) was reduced beneath the woman’s hands. How it watched her, pitifully and somehow pityingly, and how Ann felt a tightening in her gut and a tingling in her skin. She felt a kinship with this creature she could not describe; it was beautiful and precious and should be treasured. She did not love it. It was not human and could not be loved, but Ann knew in the marrow of her bones that the creature staring at her was hers to protect. As for the other, she could do nothing.
“Oh,” the woman said after. “I do hope I can get the stain out.”
Ann helped the woman carefully pour bone and membrane into a plastic bag, tie it, and place it outside next to the recyclables. She agreed to finish the interview the next day, even though there was nothing else Ann needed to know. After the front door closed behind her, she quickly went to the window, following the line of the curtains up and up until she spied the tiny cthulhu hanging upside down like a bat, swaddled in the deep blue silk.
Over the next few days, Ann found many things to examine and catalog for an archive she claimed the university was interested in creating for the family. She pored over photos, letters, the document of formal censure from the New Orleans Surgery Society expelling Dr. C.A. Luzenberg from its ranks. She arrived day after day, at 9 a.m. on the woman’s front steps, her notebook in hand, eager to begin the day’s work.
Sometimes she glimpsed the cthulhu spying on her from a particularly high perch. But no matter what she did, it never came near enough for Ann to examine it further: to pet it, to make friends with it, to comfort it in its obvious terror. It did not trust Ann, and Ann did not know how to gain its trust. The only thing she could do was wait, and hope.
After they finished with the archive, Ann offered to help the woman organize her other papers and books, and later to help her with her social calendar or event planning. One day, as the two women polished the silver, they spotted the cthulhu hanging from the ceiling medallion, its claws (it had some claws, though their number and location seemed constantly to shift) digging into the white wood, turning its head this way and that to watch them with wide yellow eyes.
“Damn thing won’t let me get near,” the woman said.
“It must know what you did with the other one,” Ann said.
“Other ones,” the woman corrected. “Have to get them when they first come out. One or two isn’t bad, but a few years ago I woke up in the morning to find a room full of them. Tearing up clothes, eating the flowers and artwork, making nests out of the good linens. Three maids quit on me in one week. Finally had to tent the house; told them it was termites.”
“Surely not,” Ann said, as she walked to the center of the room and cooed, lifting her hand up and offering it as a perch.
“You’re not scared of it?” the woman asked.
Ann shook her head. “Why should I be?”
“Because it’s monstrous,” the woman said. “Evil.”
Suddenly, and without warning, the woman’s neck opened and three more emerged: each identical to the one above Ann’s head. The old woman managed to spear two with salad forks, and yelled at Ann to get the third before it got away. Ann ran to the hearth and picked up a heavy iron poker, and as the woman screamed at her to get it, get it, she finally managed to land a blow directly between the creature’s wings as it ran across the floor. Later, as she scrubbed the carpet with soap and water, she thought she could feel the other one staring down at her and whispering, “You’re just like her, aren’t you.”
“I’ll make it up to you,” Ann whispered back.
The woman has never been married. She dated a few boys in college, had been escorted to Le Debut and the Debutante Club by a law student from Connecticut who first gave her a ring from Tiffany’s, and then revealed that it had been worn first by someone else.
“My mother said never to wear another girl’s engagement ring. It’s bad luck.”
On Mondays and Thursdays, Ann and the woman drove first to the grocery store on Magazine Street where they had the sandwiches that the woman liked to serve for her bridge club, and then to the smaller store on Prytania, the name of which Ann was never quite sure if she was pronouncing correctly. They filled the basket with fresh fruit and vegetables, one bag of blue runner beans which Ann had never seen the woman cook, and supposed it was just one of those things that southern women liked to store in their pantries. The woman selected her meat and seafood, her preferred juices. After a few weeks Ann realized that the woman bought the same foods, in the same amounts each time, and offered to do the shopping herself, but the woman refused. She liked to walk the aisles, to think about what else she might buy. And sometimes she did buy something new: such as a box of strange, sugary cereal which, had the cashier peered closely, had already been opened and reclosed with the small, lifeless body of a dark-skinned creature hastily stuffed inside.
Ann filled out the checks: date, payee, amount, and the woman signed them in a clear, fluid script:
Mrs. C. A. Luzenberg.
Ann was paid in cash. They had never discussed a salary, or hours, or even the job itself, but on the second Sunday that Ann showed up at the woman’s house, she was handed a white envelope with seven crisp hundred dollar bills tucked inside. Later, when Ann was refused admission to the graduate school, the steady employment with Mrs. Luzenberg allowed her to stay another year to better her application. And again the next year, and so on, as each time she told herself that if it was not meant to be, she would move on to something else.
The cthulhu didn’t grow very fast. When Ann had been working for the woman for more than three years, it appeared no bigger than the day she’d first seen it.
“Trick of the light,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “You have to learn to learn to measure it differently. It used to like to sleep in the bottom drawer of my secretary, curled up like a snake. It always disappeared before I could catch it there, but yesterday I found him spilling out the sides and his head was stuck.” Mrs. Luzenberg always referred to the cthulhus as male; Ann wasn’t convinced.
“What did you do?”
“I got some bacon grease and a shoehorn and wedged him out. He cried the whole time of course.”
“You just let him out?” Though Ann never helped, she knew Mrs. Luzenberg was still trying to catch or kill him: sticky traps, bug bombs, other forms of poison. Ann had been warned not to eat any food, which was uncovered or unwrapped or open in any way. Ann told herself that she continued to work for Mrs. Luzenberg only to ensure that her cthulhu managed to survive another day.
“I suppose I’ve gotten used to him,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “Much like you.”
The other cthulhus never came out in a predictable or regimented fashion. Sometimes the mouth appeared in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. There would be three in one day, or a complete absence for a month. Ann asked how Mrs. Luzenberg managed to live with the unpredictability; what steps she had taken in her life to manage such inconveniences.
“I avoid airplanes and submarines,” she said. “Almost everything else is workable.”
Ann learned to watch for small signs: a twitch beneath the skin, a shift in the woman’s mood or the tilt of her head. Sometimes she thought she could detect the slightest change in smell: a sudden burst of citrus against the crisp, sterile air. Sometimes she was correct, pulling back the collar of the woman’s shirt as the first indentation appeared, darkening to a bruise before it pulled open and the first smooth, tubular appendage appeared.
More often, she was wrong.
When the cthulhu had grown (to Ann’s eyes) to the size of a small dog, it finally allowed Ann to come near. It would sit at Ann’s feet and allow her to rub its belly. Eventually Ann decided to fashion a harness and leash out of old bridle leather she’d found in the attic so that she might take it outside for walks in the fresh air. Mrs. Luzenberg helped Ann measure the cthulhu’s girth and the space between its wings. She showed Ann how to use the punch and awl, how to braid and stich. She found an old sheepskin rug to pad the pieces, which rubbed near the creature’s wings.
“Not perfect, but it will do,” they declared when the creature stood before them, the freshly oiled leather pieces falling this way and that.
“If he flies off,” Mrs. Luzenberg said, “I’m not sure you won’t be carried off with him.”
“If he does, he does. If I am, I am.”
Ann took him to the cemetery across the street. Though the cthulhu had shown no aggression towards others (not the bridge club, the occasional maid or caterer, the man who had to shoo the cthulhu off the 19th-century French dressing table in the upstairs guest bedroom when he came to appraise it for the insurance company when Mrs. Luzenberg decided she needed a brand new policy), Ann did not feel comfortable taking him around moving cars or the huge groups of tourists who bloated the sidewalks. They wandered among the tombs, Ann reading the names and dates and the cthulhu picking his way carefully among the shifting oak roots, sitting back occasionally on his haunches and rustling his wings when she did not move quickly enough for his liking.
“What’s his name?” a man asked.
“Luzenberg,” Ann said.
“Strange name for a dog,” he said.
Ann nodded. “It would be.”
Ann and Luzenberg (for now that he had been named, Ann could think of him as nothing else) continued on their path, and the man followed.
“Would you like a tour?” the man asked, and placed his hand near Ann’s elbow as if to guide her.
Luzenberg growled low in his throat, low enough that Ann thought perhaps she had imagined it.
“No thank you,” Ann said. “I’m local.”
“You don’t sound like it,” he said.
“Nor do you.”
He nodded, smiling. “Rhode Island. Just arrived in the city a few days ago.”
Luzenberg slowed his pace, eventually working his way between Ann and the stranger.
“Not sure you’d be a good tour guide,” Ann said.
“Then why did you ask?”
She turned to look at him. He had a long face, like an overstretched egg, and his eyes were set too far apart for her liking. The one thing she admired about him was that he had pulled his hands away, clasping them behind his back so as not to invade her personal space. Or perhaps he feared Luzenberg would bite him. Would Luzenberg bite him? Ann wasn’t sure.
He shrugged. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Mission accomplished,” she said. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” and she turned on her heels and walked away. He didn’t follow. Another point in his favor.
When she told Mrs. Luzenberg, the latter chided her for being impolite to a stranger in their city.
“He was just hoping to make friends,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “Don’t want him to go home with a bad impression of our hospitality.” Mrs. Luzenberg then told her a story of how when she was a young girl at Sacred Heart, she and her friends were asked by the nuns to go down to the Quarter where the French Naval Officers were visiting. “It’s our responsibility, as hosts,” she said.
Ann wasn’t so sure, but Luzenberg liked the cemetery so every day for a week she took him. Sometimes they saw the egg-faced man, and he waved at them, respectfully, from a distance. The third time he waved, she noticed he was following behind a tour group, listening as the guide spoke of water tables and storms and caskets floating down the avenue. The stories were all a bit overdramatic for Ann’s tastes. A body dies; it is moved to a location suited for a long internment suited to the geological and geographical complexities of the area. To ogle, to take pictures and ask questions about such a private time in a body’s life, felt like an invasion.
On the eighth day, the man came up to Ann as she sat reading a book in the shade of one of the crypts. Luzenberg scrambled up the walls to better sun himself, or perhaps to give her some privacy.
“Should he be up there?” the man asked.
Ann ignored him.
“I mean, wouldn’t the family mind?”
Ann looked around at other tombs: cracks in the walls and weeds. Bird shit dried and caked into the cement. Some were cleaner than others, owned by families who took more care to preserve their dead. “It’s his tomb, in a way,” she said, and pointed at the neatly carved names on the marble slab above her head.
“Oh,” he said. “You really are local.”
Ann shrugged. “More or less.”
“Would you mind giving me a tour, then?”
Ann closed her book and looked up at him. From below, his head no longer looked long and stretched. His eyes, she thought, were not so small and beady as before. Above her a shadow loomed and there was a moment of cold silence before Luzenberg jumped down beside her. He didn’t growl; he didn’t bite. He merely turned his head, tentacles quivering in a questioning manner.
“Why not,” she said.
“I’m Howard,” he said, extending his hand to help her up.
“Ann,” she said.
Howard’s vacation extended a week, then a month, then two. Ann gave him Mrs. Luzenberg’s address and phone number as her own, and later moved in to the large house to make it easier when Howard came to pick her up. Mrs. Luzenberg insisted that he come in each time to have a drink (no matter the hour) and talk about the weather while Ann finished dressing or fixing her hair or face. Howard assumed Ann was Mrs. Luzenberg’s daughter, and neither corrected him.
“It’s true enough,” Mrs. Luzenberg said later.
Ann and Howard went to the zoo, the aquarium, and the opera. He took her to dinner at a different restaurant each week, claiming he wanted to experience as much of the city as possible before returning home.
Mrs. Luzenberg did not press for details, but gave knowing looks when Ann decided to fix her hair differently, or came home with a new dress to replace the faded and frayed one.
“It’s not for him,” Ann said. “It’s for me. I’m not sure I even like him that much, besides.”
“Neither of us is getting any younger,” Mrs. Luzenberg said.
Ultimately, Ann believed, Howard preferred her company when they could bring Luzenberg. And truthfully, so did she. With Luzenberg, there was a friend between them, someone they could both discuss and revel in the familiarity. They took him on long walks along the levy, and drove out to the bayou. As winter approached, he even asked her what Mardi Gras costume she had planned for him.
“Cerberus perhaps,” she said.
“Isn’t that a bit easy? I think we should—” he continued, but Ann wasn’t listening.
We, he had said. Mardi Gras would be nine months from their first date. Did that mean something? Did she want it to?
Mrs. Luzenberg insisted it did, insisted that it had gone on long enough for her liking without a kind of understanding. Again Ann mused aloud that perhaps she didn’t want it to go on any more. Perhaps she should apply again for grad school.
“Oh Ann, but it’s been years since you stopped talking about that. You’ve been so happy; don’t spoil it,” and Mrs. Luzenberg poked and prodded Ann’s stomach to get her to twirl and show off the new dress that had been bought for her. “You look gorgeous,” she said, stressing the word as if surprised to find it so.
Ann and Howard continued on. Ann tried to speak only of easy things: books, movies, plays. Ann cared little for politics, but enough to know that she and Howard disagreed on almost every point. He made her cross the street whenever they were approached by certain people and encouraged Luzenberg to growl at anyone unfamiliar.
When Ann again expressed her intention to finally end things to Mrs. Luzenberg, she was encouraged to give it a few more days as Mrs. Luzenberg had already arranged for them to be invited to the Proteus ball. Ann told herself that it would be an unusual experience, one worth examining from a historical and sociological perspective, something she could discuss in a graduate school application essay, and agreed.
And when Howard arrived to pick them up, even Ann agreed that he looked marvelous in tails.
“This is what this city is about,” Howard said, waving his hand at the red and gold silks which hung from the walls, the men in masks and supple leather boots, the girls in their long white dresses and gloves. “This is civilization.”
As they danced, Howard’s hand held her firm at the small of her back. Her feet ached, and her head swam from the whiskey sours they had given her. Yet all she could think about was how lovely Luzenberg would look nestled in the giant seashell, his wings spread high and wide, eclipsing Proteus with his young debutante queen. Then she thought of Luzenberg’s first brother, the crushed entrails smeared between the seahorse and the crown, the redness of her hands whenever she needed to clean the garbage disposal, and her head swam too much for her to bear.
The next day Howard arrived with a large bundle: a rich wool suit expertly tailored (it appeared) for a creature of indeterminate size and wingspan. When he shook it out, Ann realized the pockets had been stuffed with $100 bills. It even came with a cream silk tie covered in small, outstretched hands.
“Do you get it?” Howard said. “He’s Ray Nagin. Or Bill Jefferson. They’re all the same anyway.”
Who is all the same, Ann wanted to ask, but her head pounded, and she thought she felt sick. She couldn’t remember drinking as much as she apparently had.
“I don’t think—” she started, and then she had to sprint for the powder room.
“Perhaps you should take Luzenberg yourself, Howie. I don’t think our Ann is up for it.”
When Ann opened her eyes again, she was leaning against the toilet, the old woman’s hand in her hair, pulling it back.
“I think I made a mistake,” she said.
“We all do, from time to time,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “Next time you’ll know better how to control yourself.”
“Shh now, don’t exert yourself.”
There was a burst of citrus on her tongue, and she looked up at the old woman’s neck but it was white and pale and smooth.
Howard didn’t come back that afternoon, nor the next day. He had made a dinner reservation for Thursday, a date Ann began to look forward to as a way to break up with him once and for all, but he canceled at the last minute. A man delivered a bottle of expensive bourbon to the house addressed to both Ann and Mrs. Luzenberg. Attached was a note: “With my apologies for missing you tonight. I thought of sending flowers, but thought this was more appropriate. —H”
“He didn’t say anything about Luzenberg,” Ann said.
“I’m sure he’s alright.”
Ann called him, but there was no answer. She tried again and again but still was unable to reach him. At night she let the window open in case Luzenberg found his way back to her, and twice she went down to the police station to report a theft, or kidnapping, but whenever they asked her to describe her missing pet (which, they reminded her, was not a police concern), she could tell them nothing. The words would not come. “Try the shelters,” they said, and ushered her out the door.
By week three she knew that Luzenberg was gone for good. Mrs. Luzenberg patted her back and said that men were only ever after one thing, and Ann was better off without them. “In a few more years, you can change your name. Everyone will assume you’re simply a widow. No one will be the wiser.”
Mrs. Luzenberg’s neck moved with her lips and Ann held out her hand, letting the small, weak creature fall onto her palm with a slick plopping sound. Both of its eyes were open and it stared at her, unblinking and unafraid. Ann grasped it by the legs, and with a deft snap of her wrist, cracked its head open against the white porcelain sink.
“You never told me why it happens,” Ann said.
“Just as my mother never told me,” Mrs. Luzenberg said. “Some things are not for us to understand, but to accept, and deal with, and clean up after.”
“Doesn’t seem fair.”
The next Sunday, Ann joined the bridge club in the living room. She was introduced as Mrs. Luzenberg and everyone assumed that she was the widow of Mrs. Luzenberg Senior’s son, the one who died in a war. They told Ann how lovely it was that she decided to stay in New Orleans, despite the sad memories, just to care for her mother-in-law. Ann nodded and poured tea from the silver service, crinkling her nose at the faint smell of polish.
After, as they scrubbed the plates and put away the leftover sandwiches in glass containers, poured out the remaining Champagne (it doesn’t keep) and folded up the linens, Ann asked why the women hadn’t recognized her as Mrs. Luzenberg’s assistant.
“We’ve all been there, dear,” she said. “Some women don’t get married, and isn’t it a shame when their time runs out.”
“So they all know the truth,” Ann said. “And pretend otherwise.”
“Such is the way of things.”
“I could still leave,” Ann said.
Mrs. Luzenberg turned. The skin of her face was caked thick with makeup, and her neck sagged and jiggled as she moved. Ann could see the definition of her bones and veins as she pulled a dishcloth across a plate. The skin at her neck was pale and translucent and Ann marveled that Mrs. Luzenberg did not die each time a new baby cthulhu pierced through her neck. “You could,” she said.
A few years later as Ann finalized the arrangements for Mrs. Luzenberg’s funeral, she received a card in the mail. At first she assumed it was yet another note expressing sincere and heartfelt condolences and she set it aside with the others. But when she sorted through them again, she noticed it was unsigned with no return address. Yet the postmark of Providence told her enough. She didn’t know which of them had sent it. She didn’t think it mattered.
She set the card on the table and considered it for a long time. She could burn it. Or simply throw it away. But when she reached for it, she found her hands folding it into a paper airplane, a shape she hadn’t made since she was a small girl. First in half, then triangles in the corners, and long, straight edges for balance. She folded and folded again as she walked up the stairs to the second floor, then the third, then through the hatch which led to the roof. From there she could see the cemetery, and the top of the Luzenberg crypt where the old woman would soon be buried, and for the first time she wondered if Luzenberg was even the woman’s real name. She raised her hand to flick the postcard in the air, to let it sail through the heat and humidity until it landed someplace alone in the dark. It would be a petty revenge, but hers.
She pulled her hand back and then thrust it forward, before back again with the plane still in her hand. She could not let go.
Howard wouldn’t have sent a card. He got what he wanted; he was done with her. This was from the other one: her Luzenberg. To let her know that he was all right, and alive, and out there in the world somewhere. As she thought it, the skin at her neck tingled she inhaled the rich scent of citrus.
Smiling, she brought the pointed nose of the cardboard airplane to the skin at her collarbone, digging at the small indentation she knew was beginning to form. She pulled and sawed at it until she could feel her blood pour out of her and a tiny, delicate wing extend. Ann helped the creature out, setting her on the ledge where her wings might dry before reaching for another. She pulled and she tore until the skin at her chest was as loose as a cape and still they kept coming. They rolled out of her, sliding down her legs and summersaulting over their siblings. They barked and they cawed and they butted their heads and entangled their tentacles.
Finally, with the postcard still clutched in her fingers she clambered onto the roof with them, crawling on all fours and leading her parade of cthulhus towards the precipice.
She stood, and the crowd of them, a single organism, leaned against her legs, steadying her as she pulled her arm as far back as it would reach. They flapped their wings in encouragement as she flung the cardboard plane high into the air.
And then they leapt after it.
She watched as they soared over the cemetery, past the dead and the treetops and all the houses where all the Mrs. Luzenbergs of the world lay sleeping. Her chest heaved and flushed and tingled as her skin desperately tried to reknit itself. She pulled it free again and again, reaching into her chest and her liver and her kidneys and the dark spaces in between to pull the last of them free: the timid and the shy and the half-formed and set them upon the air.
Blood and death and life and brutal, hard desire streamed out of her, and still the cardboard airplane sailed. It rose and it rose and it pulled hundreds of cthulhus behind it, to make of the world what they would.