The seamstress worked for three days on the hands alone. The gentle weaving of thread through viscous tissue, drawing lines and crosses into the decomposing cells with minimal visibility; it wasn’t good enough to just put the pieces back together. Like putting together a circuit board, each fiber had to be precise if the inferior materials were expected to work, to function like before.
The hands were the last of the stitching. The last piece to complete before everything was ready.
The other woman played cards in the corner of the dimly lit kitchen. About forty years old, she had tightly-pinned, hazel brown locks seasoned with grey and sharp features that cut shadows over her face in chiaroscuro. She was wearing her satin, oil black, floor length funeral dress, as she had most every day for the past three years. Playing both gambler and banco, she tossed the baccarat hands and won every time.
“Missus Carlyle…I’s almost finished, madam,” the seamstress remarked, tying off the beige thread and snapping it between her teeth.
“Good, Luminta,” she said, dealing herself a Jack of Clubs, “let me see.”
Luminta raised the limp hand to eye level and tugged a length of loose hanging thread. The second finger curled like a frightened caterpillar, releasing as Luminata slackened the string.
“Have you made me a puppet or a person?” Missus Carlyle smirked.
Not understanding, Luminita tugged the thread again, jerking the finger in and out of its coil. “Is this not right, madam?”
“No, it’s fine,” Missus Carlyle stood, waving a dismissive hand. She looked at her watch and adjusted it on her wrist before motioning to the door. “Now, get out. Chicory will pay you at the door.”
Luminita bowed slightly, nodding and mumblingthank you’sas she shuffled out the door of the surgically sterile room.
The former country kitchen was covered in tight plastic sheathing, vacuum sealed against the French blue cabinets and marble countertops. Only the dual basin steel sink was accessible with industrial-grade soaps and detergents lining a touchless faucet. The poppy-printed wallpaper was painted over in a single layer of misty primer giving the flowers a ghostly presence. Missus Carlyle had installed hanging fluorescent tube lights which flickered at shutter speed, giving the room an anxious quality. Dried rosemary and sage hung from hooks that once held pots and pans, just barely masking the rotten aroma coming from the rolling aluminum table in the center of the room. Missus Carlyle approached the table, gazing over the work-in-progress before her.
It was a hodge-podge of rubber and epidermis stretched over a collection of skeletal bone and muscle, steel joint replacements, and carved Italian marble. Burlap reinforced with latex was bridged across missing pieces of skin, and the teeth were rough, molded veneer. The thing in front of Missus Carlyle was, indeed, a human thing. Sexless and doll-like, but very human, with mismatched eyes and a nose of wax. The true eye, a shark’s eye, was the right size to fill the hole left in the skull. A true skull, a human skull, as it had to be. The skin of the skull’s former host was also intact. Its missing eye had been supplanted by a crystal marble, glassy and dysfunctional.
Time had become a factor.
As Missus Carlyle pulled a five-liter vat of cherry red liquid to the edge of the table, Luminita’s scream echoed from the corridor outside the room, followed by the distinct bang of a Winchester model 1866 .44 caliber carbine.Chicory found the old hunting rifle, Missus Carlyle thought as she inserted a six-inch hollow needle into the neck of the human doll in front of her. She flipped a switch on the vat and a motorized buzz filled the room.
She returned to her baccarat.
An hour later, she stacked her cards and examined the body. The deflated pieces of rubber had expanded; the tone of the flesh turned from translucent grey to pale pink. The reinforced burlap sores bled like road rash on a motorcycle crash victim. She massaged the bruised, purple places where the blood had pooled, stimulating circulation. The body felt slightly warmer under her finely manicured fingers.
As the vat reached empty, Missus Carlyle flipped the switch and removed the needle, quickly covering the puncture with gauze and surgical tape. After a moment’s satisfaction, she went looking for the power drill.
The utensils table was on the other side of the room. The aluminum medical cart dressed with a deep red cloth carried an array of curiosities. Missus Carlyle rolled the cart headside of her project and picked up a drill bolstering a twelve-inch bit. She pulled the trigger, whirring the bit into the silence, and, satisfied with its power, placed it back on the altar next to four virgin black candles, a compass, a protractor, an athame, a cast iron bowl of clear liquid, matches, and theOccultromanica.
The book, bound in pigskin and blessed by the Cabal of Luestra, had been the most difficult acquisition next to the exhumation order. Its existence was suspect until the age of technology brought all the dark items out for bidding, That was, if you knew where to look. The legend of theOccultromanicawas buried in the time of Soloman. So fierce was its magick that the great Mage and King considered it an abomination.
Missus Carlyle had other ideas about that. The old coot just wanted his word to be law, both mystical and political, and it was hidden out of spite, obviously.
TheOccultromanicahas gone by many names, but all that mattered was Missus Carlyle had found it. The old gypsy coven who had “protected” it for so many years were surprisingly quick to part with it, despite it still costing the Missus nearly half her fortune. She would earn it back. Chicory couldn’t read worth a spit, but the man was good with numbers.
She took the candles and matches from the altar and, using the compass, placed them around the room at each of the four cardinal directions. Using a single match, she circled the room again, lighting each candle and acknowledging the elements.
“East. Fire. South. Water. West. Earth. North. Air.”
Returning to the body, she opened the Occultromanicato to the page she had marked and examined the diagram before her. She thumbed the loose skin on the bald skull, searching for the occipital axis depicted in the forbidden text. The crude sketch, aged by millennia, had what appeared to be mathematical precision. A graph superimposed over a human skull, with symbols like degrees microscopically jotted along the intersections, the formation of which charted a symbol like a Fibonacci spiral.
Missus Carlyle had studied the text a thousand times, and now, with the task in front of her, she felt the rigid fear that she would fail. She lifted the protractor and measured the skull, then softly, with the wax pen attached, charted her course. When she finished, she slid her finger softly, tracing the lines of the grid on the cranial skin. As she reached the center of the skull, the place the lines intersected, she felt a jolt like static electricity. The candles’ flames swept in a northerly wind in the windowless room. The gooseflesh crawled up the Missus’s arm, and she took a heavy, gasping breath. Careful not to move, she reached for the athame and lifted her now quaking finger slightly, angling the blade just underneath, ready to bless the spot.
“Mizzuz Carlyle,” came a voice from behind the closed door, “it’s Mizter Chicory, ma’am. Are you right? Ze lights went black for a zecond-”
“I’m fine, Chicory!” Missus Carlyle spat, her finger pressing hard into the fleshy spot. She paused a moment, staring at her finger, looking at the half-moon indentation her fingernail had pressed into it. She could feel the athame slicing into her finger as her own warm blood trickled down the silver. Still unsure if the blade had done its job on the body, she heard the door creak open.
Chicory stood in the doorway. A massive man, close to six foot seven, with broad Eastern European shoulders and sheet-white hair, held the expression of a spooked kitten. He watched as Missus Carlyle, not acknowledging him, lifted her bleeding finger slowly from its place on the cranium and inserted it into her delicate mouth. A sigh of relief washed over her. There in the skin, just below her half-moon nail mark, was a tiny puncture.
“Chicory, if you would be so kind as to not interrupt me again.”
“Yes, ma’am. Zorry, ma’am. Pleaze, ring ze bell if you need me.” He pulled a string hanging next to the door, and the soft ring of a bell echoed through the hallway.
Missus Carlyle nodded. As he left, closing the door behind him, she placed the athame in the cast-iron bowl of liquid, which immediately spiraled with pinkish hues from her own spilt blood, and took her finger from her mouth. It had already stopped bleeding, so she leveled the drill on her subject and began burring.
There was more blood than she expected, draining the exact fluid she had nursed into the body only an hour before. It spilled out like sap from a tree, oozing down the back of the head and onto the aluminum table. The hole was barely a centimeter in diameter, but the blood still pressed through, attempting to escape its unnatural host.
When the burring was done and the drill back in its place, Missus Carlyle washed her hands with graceful care and dried them on a monogrammed Egyptian cotton dish towel. She turned to the next marked page in the Occultromanica. It was held by a sheet of legal paper, on which was written a phonetic translation of the verse she was to recite. The room had taken on a frigid air, stagnant and smelling lightly of sulfur. Shadows crept over the edges of the table as the page turned, sneaking a glance at the heavy words written there.
Missus Carlyle took out a pair of drugstore reading glasses from her dress pocket and held them up to her face, not bothering to put them on properly. She skimmed the legal page as a CEO might scan quarterly financials before gingerly shoving the glasses and paper back into her pocket.
She closed her eyes and spoke deliberately.
“Alkurah baha anton. Mysphialouti isdiel. Horum anton baha-ka-rahalea. Acktomb.”
The epidermal tissue flushed. The rubber bits rose and fell in the swells of coursing blood. As she chanted the ancient words, the burlap patches oozed and sank, leaving grotesque, muddy lesions.
“Alhurah baha nee-oh-lah. Horum anton maskaibah. Acktomb.”
The hanging threads left by Luminita sparked and fizzled away like dynamite fuses.
“Alhurah baha eruldi. Mysphialouti anton. Isdiel, eem-gree-maskaibah. Acktomb.”
The thing on the table, the human-shaped thing, blinked its one shark’s eye. The black eye rolled upwards, catching the humming fluorescent lights, and looked at Missus Carlyle.
“I seeee yooouu…”
The thing spoke from a guttural place in the back of its throat, its lips clotted together with dry saliva and grue.
Missus Carlyle gasped and fell backward. Trying to brace herself, the makeshift altar slipped from under her flailing hand and clattered to the floor. The cast iron bowl slammed, spilling liquid and tossing the athame across the room. TheOccultromanicaslammed face down in the blood-tainted liquid and hissed steam.
She caught herself on the sink edge behind her, still unsteady on her feet.
The smell of putrefaction engulfed the room. Cold air solidified with pregnant humidity. And the thing before her lifted its scarred hand to its bloodied head and molested the place where Missus Carlyle had just drilled into its skull.
“Letting sommething iiin or ouuut?”The thing mused, cracking its lips open and laughing the dry, choked laugh of a seasoned smoker.
“R-r-reggie?” Missus Carlyle stuttered, regaining her footing. She skirted around to her baccarat table, clawing the poppy-haunted walls for support.
The puppet lurched itself off the aluminum slab with the sickening squish of coagulated blood ripping skin from metal. The wounds left from the seamstress, not yet healed, peeled open as it flexed its fingers and toes, examining itself. It reached into an open sore above its right knee and pinched out a piece of something like rotting tripe. The burlap. It smiled with a hellish, nasal snicker.
“Is thiiis the form you have given me, wench?”It snapped the burlap across the room at Missus Carlyle, slapping into the wall like wet meat.
She began to cry as she spoke, “R-reggie. I’m-I’m so sorry. It took too long-”
“Siiiiilence, bitch,”it snapped its head towards her with an audible crack. The vertebrae in its neck, thrown too far back, jutted out as its body slumped forward. The thing whined, a gravely exhalation of pain and frustration. It sat motionless, a rag doll slumped on a forgotten shelf before the sick lump of protruding bone eased back into its home in the spinal column. It lifted its head and examined itself like a plastic surgeon deciding what to cut off.
Missus Carlyle shrieked and threw a hand to her mouth. The daunting task she had spent several years of her life pursuing was sitting before her, groping its fatted tissue and pinching the rubber substitutes. It seemed mesmerized by itself and all its gratuitous, mak eshift parts. She tried to melt into the wall, pressing herself against it so hard she felt bruising on her buttocks. Her hand still wavering over the speechless mouth. She turned her head towards the door and saw, just a few steps away, the pull string for Chicory’s bell.
“What a waste…what a waste…”it smoldered. Syrupy blood and saliva drooled from its lips as it spoke. It spilled itself off the table, falling on knees made of bone and steel and let out an agonized wail.
In a flash, Missus Carlyle felt something like sympathy. She paused herself, pulled back into the moment before the spell was cast and knelt to its level. She curled her hand into a tight fist, her fingernails digging into her palm, and asked again, “Reggie?”
“YOU RANK COW!”it screamed. “Reggie is not here! It is only me, ME who you have imprisoned in this fleshy coffin! Rotting…rotting and festering. I can feel it. Did you bother to pull the maggots out of your dear boy’s belly before you raised him?! Succubus! I can feel them…I can feel them eating.”
Missus Carlyle’s eyes blurred, the haze of tears and terror obscuring her vision. She fell back, seated on the wall with her knees curled under her.
“What…who…?” Her questions trailed.
“Who?”The thing replied, grinning again through molded dentures, too white for the pallid, sunken face to which they belonged. “I am of the after, of the ether. I am not of this world, nor the next. I am no stranger to torments such as these,”it said as it peeled a strip of the rubber skin from its forearm, revealing sinewy tendons and muscle crawling with larva, “and I seeee yoooou…”
The unnatural crystal eye, sightless yet piercing, rolled forward in its socket and popped onto the floor, rolling to Missus Carlyle and tapping her knee.
“You wished to raise hell, madam. Come here. There is no glory in suffering.”
Chicory sat on a leather armchair in the den, a cup of Oolong tea steeped on the side table. Tendrils of steam cascaded into the air before disappearing into nothing. He leaned towards the lamplight of the bulb next to the chair reading. His finger ran under the words of each sentence.
He was grateful to Missus Carlyle for taking the time to teach him how to read and write, but he found himself struggling with James Joyce. He preferred Hemingway. Those short sentences and small words were much easier than Finnegan’s Wake. But as the Missus said, in order to get better, you have to challenge yourself. You have to learn.
It was after Reginald died, that tragic way, that the Missus had taken an interest in teaching Chicory. Chicory hoped that once Reggie was back, she’d still teach him things.
The calling bell, mounted in the foyer, let out a soft jingle.
Chicory’s ears perked. He turned and looked at the bell which hung still on its hinge. Curious and grateful to take a break from the immense novel, he walked into the foyer.
The bell was silent.
The Winchester rifle was still propped next to the front door. He reached for it, knowing how cross Missus would be if she found it out of place, when the bell rang again. This time, a clearring-a-ling-a-ling.
Chicory looked at his watch. Half-past one AM.
“I vonder if Mazzer Reginald is avake,” he mused to himself and headed down the dark hallway to Missus Carlyle’s ritual room, the rifle still propped by the doorway.
C.C. Gardner is a critic/columnist for horrorgeeklife.com and 2020 Shore Scripts Fiction Podcast Script competition finalist. She’s a writer, story editor, and horror scholar, previously hosting the Mise En Scream podcast about the socio-cultural impact of horror cinema. In her spare time, C.C. runs obstacle course races (because being a Final Girl is a full time job) and advocates for regenerative farming. She is currently a judge for the 2022 Renegade Film Festival.