If I had a choice, surely I would choose otherwise, but as I know he has no other family or friends, it is once more to the House of Usher I return. The place is impossible to decorate, and frankly, it always seems like things have been up from last Christmas, or possibly Halloween. On the drive in, you see a lot of torn plastic bags in the trees, shredded by the wind, desiccated, papery and crumbly to the touch. And oatmeal containers.
There is, of course, no real wreath and no real tree, for the odor of sap would drive my friend quite mad. Instead, there is a rather tacky store bought plastic cut out ornament on the door, that has been rather exactingly taped, with strips of scotch tape that are each exactly the same length. There are neither more nor fewer strips than would be necessary to keep the decoration up and their placement is absolutely precise. The drawing of the wreath itself is overwhelmingly crude: it cannot be drawn by anyone who has ever seen one. The treatment of the candle flames is particularly egregious. I think of the agony it must have been for my friend to extend each baying strip of scotch tape to put this awful decoration up. Perhaps Madeline helped -but no, that is quite impossible. I consider such diversions for the thoughtful duration my friend affords me before making it to the door.
My friend is cordial as always and looks surprisingly well for the holiday season; he even manages a little smile and a winsome look in the corner of his overbright and liquid eye that seemed to reflect the hopeless bleak desolation of the rank sedges, the dead trees, the black and lurid tarn, the sorrowful and cheerless landscape that stretches for miles around. Nonetheless, it is good to see him and I compliment him on his festive new dressing gown, before I realize it is the usual old one, just covered with a lot of dandruff. This is a hard season for my friend, so it is not too difficult to change the subject. We are headed to the parlor, but my friend is so easily distracted that we end up in the kitchen. There are a lot of plastic bags there, some from shops that no longer exist.
The holidays are a stressful time for many, even more so for this last branch of the Ushers so afflicted: Roderick suffering from a preternatural actueness of all the senses that rendered the mildest stimuli painful and poor Madeline prostrate to a settled apathy and indefatigatble wasting away; so perhaps that is why a fevered anxious note seemed to break through my friend’s usual demeanor of frenzied nervousness. I could not make out if much of his remarks applied to the past, the present, or dreadful, ineluctable events yet to come. I could but share a few confused and elliptical exchanges with my friend when it was time to dress for dinner. We took our whispered leave of one another and I began the long trying journey up the stair one step at time, knowing that my poor friend was already weeping into his earmuffs, beneath several cushions in his library at the thunderous onslaught of my tiptoed ascent.
It goes without saying that the rules of hospitality always forbid that one should notice such things, especially here, but I could not help but regard a instant too long, a minute spot, barely detectable, yet surely there, above the central archway. Over my dressing could not avoid considering it: Had the minute yet contiguous fissure, almost invisible, yet traceable zickzack, threatening to divide the house finally made it’s root to the inside? Was it a spot of the curious and pervasive fungi that seemed to grow as one enormous corporate being upon the estate, webbed like mad locks from the eaves? Was it –and this was beyond considering -Mistletoe?
I thought with some trepidation upon the demands of yuletide and hoped, impossibly, that Roderick might have forgone the implacable courtesy of getting me a present. I remember one Christmas that I had received what looked and felt like a violated clump of earth, wrapped carefully, so very carefully, in a soft dark cloth. From the fruitcake Roderick had exactingly gouged out each of the candied fruits and nuts –otherwise, he would have not been able to keep it in the house. I looked over its darkish and irregular mass, but briefly, horrified by the receiving stare of the empty orbits and sockets left by the excised sweets. It was also a little damp, for Roderick had no doubt resorted to wetting the cloth, when the stinging odor of cinnamon grew too much.
These curious gifts were even more difficult and painful to reciprocate; I had once provided my friend with the softest, mildest slippers I could procure, only to be later greeted by my friend at the door in a painful hobble, his ankles violently bruised and clipped by the fluffy ears of the lapine styled slippers he had so thoughtfully insisted on wearing to greet me. This year I had grown weary of wrapping the usual familiar cadeau of an economically bale sized portion of cotton balls (which I have to repackage, the plastic bag being trying beyond all measure for my friend) and had finally settled on the gentle novelty of a new specially designed blanket for premature newborn marsupials: it was blue in color and of a tenuous consistency, weightless and delicate as spider silk: the material floated in your hand, as spectral gossamer, not unlike the weblike hair of my distracted friend. This, and a slender volume I had found on reduction, that I thought would suit his artistic interests: Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne, an essay by the author of our much beloved Les Histoires Extraordinaires.
Roderick and I shared some considerable convivial time before dinner, in the soundless comfort of our dinner slippers, my friend recalling with some fondness (in that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation —that leaden, self-balanced, and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement, -which marked his better moods) the occurrences of our childhood, the boon my friendship represented, the kindness of my visit, and his interesting natural theory that the vegetable spirits of the miasma of the tarn were alive and conscious and the certain doom of he and his line.
So diverting was this maniacally animated and terrific conversation, that it was sometime before I noticed that some hours had passed, as indicated by the blanketed grandfather clock, and that the much beloved lady of the house had still not yet appeared. Nor had my genial host related much of her recent welfare: on this he had been quite as silent as the tomb.
“Madeline, Madeline will join us” Roderick said again, again unbidden, though less certain this time. Knowing the largo of the evenings here, I nodded and tried to stay awake amicably by doing quiet exercises, having exhausted the company of the decade of pellucid eggnog that I had been nursing, that, though omitting the traditional and disagreeable ingredients that would have made it a menace to my friend, such as eggs, nutmeg certainly, and milk -being basically an anemic and translucent porridge of bleached soggy rice, though with an extra yuletide squirt of more water, still managed a deeply phlegmatic recalcitrance to stay in the cup.
We passed some more agreeable hours together, Roderick lost in one of his monomanical states regarding the flame of a smothering candle, I flexing and stretching myself with quiet vigor in a spirited attempt to regain some small tactile feeling as will occasionally be absent in the outermost extremities in the pervasive chill that comes on in the hours after midnight. Finally, Roderick awoke from his catatonic reveries with the carefree and casual sentiment that we might begin to wake the staff again and begin dinner “before it got too cold” (though it had, in fact, reached a kind of gelid equilibrium with the rest of the dark frosty room sometime after the fire died) and gallantly proposed that perhaps Madeline would join the holiday feast in medias res as it were.
Dinner at the House of Usher is a stately, even sepulchral sort of affair, the pacing of the service and even gustation set by the need to traverse the multiple courses of the meal without the dissonance of any audible sounds or the noxious effluvia of any smells. The table, too, is dark, though lit by multiple scentless lamps with heavy leaded shades whose wan and distant crimson beams disclosed only the vaguest continental outlines of tureens and goblets, while casting the most fantasical and monstrous shadows over all. It was meal negotiated by sensitive touches and a difficult waiting posture on furniture that managed to be somehow both too soft and too rigid. I had a particularly hard time of it, having gallantly commandeered an abandoned swivel chair to sit at the table (the Ushers usally not having usually to seat for more than two -the omission of a third chair and setting being a singular and curious solecism on the part of Usher's household) not realizing, at the time, the reason for its abandonment being its singular lack of comfort and its status as being entirely broken and profitless as a chair. Indeed, though it was entirely useless for the purpose of resting one’s frame, it did still retain the capacity -I would say even the caprice -to swivel, which it did, as unpredictably as a landslide or a frightened charger, to the painful and, for my friend, agonizing screech of its corroded mechanism, which can only be compared to the despairing yawp of a train full of despised unbaptized orphans derailing into an unhallowed gorge. Still, it was no problem, so long as I remained absolutely still and vigilant throughout the meal and took some care to cantilever my weight so that it rested entirely on my feet, while maintaining the pantomime of sitting comfortably in the chair, while steadying the chair itself as best I could with my lower half to prevent its own spontaneous rotation. This I did passing well for the most part while maintaining an amicable and diverting whispered dinner conversation.
In addition to being some of the most solid and quiet hours one will ever spend, meals at the House of Usher are also one of the most highly consistent experiences one can have, being entirely composed of the aforementioned porridge, which, however, in the vivid imagination and talented hands of Roderick’s kitchen staff and gros bonnnet (and in accord with his physicians strictest prescriptions) is deployed in an splendid diversity of wildly different containers of all kinds of shapes and sizes, and nuanced with degrees of vaguest tepidity and infinitesimal sapidity that only Roderick’s preternatural palate could truly appreciate. Indeed, for this holiday feast the porridge had been given the raucous addition of faint festive greenish hue, as though lit by a willow th’wisp, almost undetectable, save in comparison to the white of the enshrouding linen or my genial host’s lips, certainly tasteless, and whose savory abstention was complimented by the distilled water quite nicely.
Having feasted on the delightful cold saturnalia set before us, I proposed to my host that we try to warm ourselves and alleviate the inevitable frosty headache and distracting bodily chills that follow such a meal with the pleasures of music, the only audible sounds whose harmony Usher found tolerable, and thus resume our vigil. If there is one unqualified pleasure in visiting the House of Usher, it is the fervid improvisations, the thrilling fantasias that my friend created in rhyme to his own nippy accompaniment, along themes suggested by the season, some of which, in their cheerful frenzy (rivaled only by an impertinent storm without), were hard to recall, exactly, but one of which featured the sonorous holiday imagery of bells prominently. The other that I can only vaguely recall:
Well, the Weather outside is Fright-fulThe Night is Black and Night-fulBut Since we’ve No Place to go
Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!
It was, indeed, a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty. A whirlwind had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent our perceiving the lifelike velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance. I say that even their exceeding density did not prevent our perceiving this—yet we had no glimpse of the moon or stars—nor was there any flashing forth of the lightning, nor holiday lights. But the under surfaces of the huge masses of agitated frosty vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion in a sort of winter wonderland.
Yet so delightful and astonishing, more than virtuoso, even diabolical, were my friend’s impromtus, as to exceed the infernal Paganini; a little steam escaped his lapels at the end of his furious pluckings, in the chill of the parlor, like a heated charger, and beneath his wet locks, his eyes regarded still some empyrean scene. I begged leave of my friend to go and get some refreshments from the kitchen (a copious sleet of sweat sleek on his brow, and a mild froth winking in the corners of his lips), though in his agitated state, he implored me not to leave him alone, on this night of all nights. Knowing well my friend’s agitated state on this eve, I reassured him that I would be right back, and yet that he might be constantly comforted by my presence, by my recitation of a favorite poem. This was something of a sad jest, for there was nothing in Moore’s plagarized rhyme to equal my friend’s sublime and elevated tastes, but it was to hand and so I proceed to recite:
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the houseNot a creature was stirring, not even a mouseas I gently receded out of the room to the nearby kitchen.
I continued the poem as I went about lighting the feeble stove to thaw some ice, propaedeutic to making some sort of hot beverage. I then quietly rotated to gently open the icebox to regard the solid stocks of ready porridge stacked there like ingots, confirming the absence of any alternate foodstuffs and briefly bask in the mild rush of warmth provided by the electric light within. My surmises confirmed, I gently closed the heavy door of the ice box only to be greeted by the most arresting image:
It was a child’s drawing of a child or macrocephalic; a scrunched and humpbacked midget of a dwarf, done in vast smearing of brown and black silent wax crayon; the forehead was enormous and lunar, beneath which lurked a demented and diabolical crest of a brow that was furry and overwrought with satanic passions and barely tolerable animalistic lust. The eyes were worst of all, unspeakable, monstrous in sized, communicating something, some mad and terrible thing no child should know. Beneath the forks of its legs, it’s name was crudely, but affectionately sketched in a wax of a different color: rorderik. It was, as I have said, extraordinary. For who could have drawn it? It could only be from their sad and isolated childhood together, here still magnetically pinioned to the metal door. But the paper did not seem at all old.
The water having changed it’s state as much as it was wont to under the influence of the wan flame, I began to look about as best I could for some soundless cups and saucers -hoping for the convenience of some edgeless sippy cup or insulated travel mug (the Ushers having retained in all their glory many, if not all of the containers provided by fast food or convenience establishments -from some ancient phase of greater mobility -containers not intended by the establishments to be reused, but here collected, regardless of age or status) when I came across a set of tiny candles in white box. I first thought they were birthday candles, but the strange and ancient forms of the blue script on the box soon disclosed to me that they were intended for another purpose. I thought of my friend’s fine features and graceful nose in the Hebraic mold. Still, he had never alluded to any such ancestry, or spoken of such things and I realized that I had wholly left off reciting the poem during my perhaps impertinent reconnoiter of my friend’s cookery.
I raised my voice in its best melody as I reentered the salon, to cover any possible sound of the slush sliding around in the cups, placed the cups and sat, delivering this familiar holiday benediction to soothe my friend:
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
At the termination of this sentence I started, and for a moment paused; for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me)—it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very clatter Moore had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. I continued the poem:—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roofThe prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
Here again I paused abruptly, and now with a feeling of wild amazement—for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear (although from what direction it proceeded I found it impossible to say) a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound —the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the magical equipage of this eve’s mythical visitor.
Oppressed, as I certainly was, upon the occurrence of this second and most extraordinary coincidence, by a thousand conflicting sensations, in which wonder and extreme terror were predominant, yet commingled with a childhood glee of impossible anticipation, I still retained sufficient presence of mind to avoid exciting, by any observation, the sensitive nervousness of my companion. I was by no means certain that he had noticed the sounds in question; although, assuredly, a strange alteration had, during the last few minutes, taken place in his demeanor. From a position fronting my own, he had gradually brought round his chair, so as to sit with his face to the door of the chamber; and thus I could but partially perceive his features, although I saw that his lips trembled as if he were murmuring inaudibly. His head had dropped upon his breast—yet I knew that he was not asleep, from the wide and rigid opening of the eye as I caught a glance of it in profile. The motion of his body, too, was at variance with this idea—for he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway. Having rapidly taken notice of all this, I resumed the narrative of the woken Moore which proceeded:—
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a boundA wink of his eye and a twist of his head,Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than—as if some nocturnal visitor had indeed, at the moment, fallen into the mouth of the fireplace to collide into the grating —I became aware of a series of distinct, hollow, metallic and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberations. Completely unnerved, I leaped to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity. But, as I placed my hand upon his shoulder, there came a strong shudder over his whole person; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence. Bending closely over him, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.
“Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard his first feeble movements - I heard them —many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak! And now—to-night —Santa —ha! ha!—the clattering of the reindeer’s hooves, the prancing and pawing, the visions -ha! -of sugarplums and dancing sweets —say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! Oh, whither shall I fly? Has she not seen me when I am sleeping? Does he not know that I wake? Does she not know whether I’ve been bad or good? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of his heart? Madman!”—here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul—“Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”
As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell—the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there did stand the jolly and rounded enshrouded figure of Old Saint Nick, in the furred and bearded transvestite person of the Lady Madeline of Usher. There was soot and blood upon her costume, cobbled out of a soft roseate robe, my friend’s ever ready supply of cotton balls and a poorly tucked pillow, which seemed grotesque strapped against her emaciated frame, dislodged as the evidence of some bitter sepurchal chimney struggle. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold, clutching a ruptured garbage bag from which issued the leaves of festive torn paper and cadeaux shredded on her rough descent —then, with a low, moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the holiday terrors he had anticipated.
From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its icy wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued, the Ushers (for reasons now obvious) having no Christmas lights; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red Yuletide moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder -the ground shook like a bowl full of jelly —there was a long tumultuous crashing sound like the hooves of a thousand tiny reindeer —and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
NUMBER 38, WEEK 27; TOTAL WORD COUNT TO DATE: 28, 214
HAPPY HOLIDAYS: NEXT BY 29 DECEMBER