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The Tenth Gate

~ Part Two

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From the window, she could see the workaday landscape of farms. The August heat baked and exhausted the scene: the tired green leaves had lost all freshness, the river’s flow was languid and the birdsong desultory. Even the buzz and click of insects seemed a wrenching effort. Moisture oozed from the humid air onto the scorched and yellowed fields of parched cereals. These bleak agricultural wastes were no picture postcard scenery, but they held the consolation of being her point of origin. She’d returned here after years of city life, to where she was born, where her mother had been born, and the generations before them.

She had been clearing out the final room, getting ready to unpack her boxes of books and be properly settled after the move. Looking round at the scattered rugs, dead fireplace and battered furniture, she knew it wouldn’t be home, properly, until the books that travelled with her were there on the shelves, surrounding her like the old friends and confidants that they were.

The end of the afternoon was sultry, humid, and the sound of the first practicing church bells rang through the open window from the darkening, storm ridden sky. She started to open the boxes, and lift out the books, dusting and remembering as she went. Some of them certainly bore the marks of time and use, broken spines and sticky covers. She didn’t mind, she knew that to be old without memories was meaningless. She put her hand into the last corner, and pulled out a book with something trapped inside the wine stained cover. One of her oldest books, a witchcraft history. Inside, an almost finished pack of Lucky Strikes. The smell of the crumbling cigarettes made her sink into a seat at the table, still uncleaned, still covered with dust: Her head swam. Dean Corso. You never get over obsession, its sweetness, its sharpness, its dangers, she realised. She was thinking back…and as her mind wandered, she found herself drawing a circle, then a pentagram, then some half remembered symbols, in the dust of the table top. She was thinking aloud:

“Come back to me
Remember me
The library, dry, dust and sunlight.
Come back to me
The street, sleeting, cold and slippery.
Remember me
The bar, dark, warm and breathy
Come back to me
The room, night, touch and closeness.
Remember me.
Come back to me.”

Sighing, she crushed the cigarette packet into the centre of the pentagram, and turned to the window. The first fat raindrops were falling; she looked out at the blue-purple sky to see if the lightning would strike. The very air tasted acrid with anticipation of the storm. As the sky crackled, a sudden wind made the curtains stream inwards. There was a click of the door closing. The sound of a softly spoken curse, of hands fumbling in wet coat pockets, of the flare of a match, and a greedy inhalation.

Had the old spell worked? Magic or coincidence? She didn’t know, but he was back.


This wasn’t how it should have been, he thought. He’d only known her for a short while, but he couldn’t shake her memory from his mind. There had been a lot of quiet moments since last winter, when, alone in his apartment, he’d imagined himself knocking on her door as the evening sun faded, quite unexpected, and her surprise and even delight at seeing him. The sad and social dreams that fill the evening of the lonely. In his dreams, she smiled and welcomed him, asked him in, took his hand.

But reality, of course, was different. She didn’t look surprised. That slight upturn at the corner of her mouth was almost knowing. He felt that she knew he’d be here. And standing dripping from a summer downpour in her new home was hardly making the impression he had hoped for. She certainly didn’t seem impressed. But she did seem, well, pleased with herself. He wondered what she thought of him, standing there drenched and unbidden. Did she think back to the hours they’d spent together after the chance meeting in the old library? He’d told her and her alone, about the fear he had felt as he’d walked though the gate into the burned –out castle. How he’d laid out the nine pictures, mouthed the Latin incantations and waited, muscles tensed, heart pounding, for- for what? For something, he wasn’t sure what, some event, some presence. The girl who’d been his guide and saviour had led him there for a purpose, but yet again he’d failed someone close to him. No heaven opened its gates, no hell spat in the fire and smoke drawn from the long dead language. The secrets of the martyred author remained closed.

He’d kept the pictures. They’d become his memento mori of the pain and bitterness that failure brings.

He’d always despised those he could trick. He was, he knew, a man who did not trouble himself with pity for others. He knew how to steal a treasured book from the easily flattered, and how to sell the second rate as if it were a first edition. His vulnerability had sickened him when he’d realised that, in the case of the nine pictures, the victim had been him.

He drew the smoke deep into his lungs as if trying to crowd out the memory, and held it there. As he exhaled, Ella turned towards him, her yellow eyed cat winding itself about her feet. At least, he realised, what he saw here was true. Somehow, he knew she could read him. His desires, his hopelessness, his fears. The night he’d spent with her had been a brief surfacing. A taste of what a life could be if he were to forgive, forget. But he knew that the hardest person to forgive is yourself. The grains of self loathing that he carried within him had accreted and calcified. She could see beneath the shell, could touch and peel away the layers to reach the atrophied soul within.

So he’d come back to find her. Her old house was closed up, for sale. He’d panicked at first, then asked around, and found that she’d moved away, away to these bleak flatlands dragged from the sea centuries ago by man’s search for profit. He hoped she would be the same as she had been in the cold city as the sleet swirled through the streets. He didn’t want her to change, because he knew that he hadn’t. But he worried. She was his last forlorn hope. Had she loved, slept with, other men since then? Did she compare him to them? He hoped not. He didn’t think he’d compare well.

She smiled, more welcoming now, and moved across the room, sweeping the dust from the table as she passed.

“I wondered if I’d ever see you again, Dean.” To his nervous ears, her voice didn’t sound as soft as his imagined version. “What’s brought you back?”

Hard question, he thought. What indeed? His life had sunk back into its usual desolate routine after their last meeting. A grubby apartment, microwaved meals and tables for one. He’d rejoined the thousands of lost and lonely in the city. Another face in the crowd, another single life swept along by the tide.

He still carried the nine pictures with him, but his days were a round of buying and selling, making money and losing friends. He was devoted to making money that he didn’t want to spend, because he had no-one, himself included, to spend it on. Those nine pictures had done nothing for him. He looked back on the episode in the castle with shuddering embarrassment. Why had he ever thought that a series of ancient etchings could conjure up a spirit, why had be been so gullible? He kept them in his bag as a warning to himself. Now he’d take everything at face value, no looking for what wasn’t there.

On reflection, he hoped that wasn’t just what he was doing when he’d refused offers of work, closed up his apartment, and embarked on this ridiculous journey across the world to find her.

“Too long in the city, same as you. Is it ok that I stay?” He wondered if she still lived alone. A tentative question: “Maybe someone else is here with you?” He had to ask, but didn’t want an answer.

“No, no someone else. Not that mattered. Not since you.”

He was pleased by her reply, but wondered how she’d guessed at his thoughts. Her sly look intrigued and captivated him. The time they’d spent together had let him know her body, but not her mind. He could remember how her hair curved and curled at the nape of her neck, he could see in his mind the way her skin creased under her breasts, the blemishes and scars that gave her body its history, that improved on what to him was already perfection. But he didn’t know how she thought. She had some sort of power over his mind, he knew that, but was that just what people called being in love? If you really loved someone, couldn’t they make you do anything? In theory, at least. But he wasn’t the type to love. He was too closed in, had been for too long.

“And, as a matter of fact, I sort of expected you.” She smiled and looked around the room. “So what do you think? This was my grandmother’s house, I inherited it. A change from the old place, but full of the same family history. She had quite a reputation in this village, some people thought she could heal illnesses, some thought she could curse your enemies. So the superstitious give this house a wide berth. Unless they want a favour.”

The same hint of witchcraft had drifted like smoke into their first meeting. He wanted to ask if she took after her, but decided against it. He wouldn’t believe in that sort of thing again. He realised he had stopped dripping on the clean wooden floor, but was starting to shiver.

“Tell me all about her this evening. I’d like to hear about your family. You never told me much before.” He hoped that this could be the key to understanding how she felt, interpreting those looks. And he really did want to know all there was to know about her. He’d obsessed about her so often that he’d made up a past to suit his own fantasies, but he knew that he needed the shreds of herself she was willing to give if he were to understand her. He knew so much about her body, its curves and its folds in secret places, the strange and delicate movements she made in her sleep. And he wanted to know about her mind, how she thought, how she knew things about him, how she knew how he felt before even he realised it.

One day, he hoped. But right now, he hardly understood anything about her.

She looked happier now. “Yes. Let me show you around. Get yourself cleaned up, then we’ll talk.” How perfect she looked. Messy hair and well worn jeans and shirt suited her. He vaguely wondered what she was wearing beneath, a fleeting contemplation of the low cut and lacy passing through his mind. Her relaxation moved through him like a sigh. He stubbed out his cigarette, shouldered his bag, and gratefully followed her upstairs.

Half an hour later, when he had unpacked, smoked another cigarette, and had a drink, he lay, dozing and jet-lagged, in the bath. The last few rays of the setting sun lit the room, and birdsong floated in through the half open window. No sound of traffic. He could be back in another age, he realised. Church bells and the sound of leaves in the breeze. It was as if New York no longer existed. He wondered what it would be like to live in a place like this, a place where nothing ever happened, where each generation followed the patterns of the last, and everyone knew everyone else. What would it be like to sacrifice anonymity for companionship? His thoughts rose and fell like the swallows he saw in the darkening sky.

A sound brought him back to reality. The door wasn’t locked, and Ella had come in without knocking, glass of wine in hand. He felt faintly embarrassed at this domestic familiarity: he felt he didn’t deserve it. How did people act when they lived together? It was a topic that intrigued him, something he had no experience of. Should he reach for a towel and cover himself? The embarrassment of looking as if he were coyly grabbing his towel was potentially worse than that of staying put. Anyway, he hadn’t time. He sunk deeper into the soapy water.

She came over to the bath’s edge with the glass in her hand. She was already hot from the kitchen. Her skin began to moisten with the rising steam; releasing her perfume and making her thin shirt cling damply to her skin. He tried to concentrate his gaze on her face, but it was difficult.

“You still prefer scotch, I suppose, but perhaps this will do for now.”
How could such a simple sentence carry so much promise? She leaned down, handing him the glass, looking at him through long and curling lashes. Her eyes were fixed on his, and he knew that he had passed the point beyond which he could no longer answer or move. She leaned forward, letting him see her breasts cupped in the lace he loved beneath her shirt. Her hand brushed his face, her fingers tracing the line of his throat, and slid over his smooth chest to, teasingly, touch the rippled surface of the water.

He wanted to respond, to touch her, or to say something, but he was transfixed, powerless, enthralled. Time seemed to pause as he looked through the steamy air into her strange catlike eyes. Was it the warmth of the bath, or the jet lag, or was there a hypnotic quality about them?

He drew a breath, and blinked himself back to reality and he saw that she was smiling. “Thank you” he whispered.

Her voice was kind, but held a sly satisfaction. “Don’t say thanks, it’s for me as well. To celebrate your return. I’ve missed you, and I’ve thought about you, and the story you told me about the devil who didn’t keep the date. I’ve thought of it a lot. So much, that through luck or some fate that guides our lives that I know more than you can guess. So now I have something to ask you. Do you still have the nine etchings?”

His mind clicked back to reality. What had she discovered? When he’d told her the whole sad story last year she had shown no special interest, had not asked to see the prints. Altruism was not a god he believed in. There was something in this that she needed for herself. But he had no idea what it could be. He raised a questioning eyebrow, although in his heart he knew he would have given her anything she asked.

Again, it seemed she knew what he thought.

“Yes, of course I need to tell you why. I told you that this was my grandmother’s house. Amongst her books was a letter. An old letter, from her grandmother, or even further back. It describes how she gained something that seems to be perfect knowledge. To do it, she had to use a series of pictures. She owned the first nine. The final, tenth, picture was in a report of a trial, a trial from the days of the witchfinders. The trial was of a woman from this village accused of witchcraft. The first nine pictures are in your possession. And I think I have found the book which holds the tenth. It’s in the Fitzwilliam Museum.”

Now he knew why she wanted him back. Nothing, even his dreams of love, was as it seemed. But it didn’t matter. He realised he, too, wanted the new picture desperately. He looked at her, still sitting on the edge of his bath, her wet shirt still clinging to sticky breasts. This life was what he wanted.

In a way, they each held each other’s missing piece.

“That’s close by.” He murmured, keeping his voice flat to hide his interest. “Let’s go tomorrow.”


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