The Pith

Jessica Alexander

Thomas Wieland was dead, maybe dying.

            So, they held a pleasure ball in his honor. This was in Styria, beneath the Austrian mountains, where the larch trees swayed, and their castle’s ghastly head sat propped atop the neck of a dead volcano.

            You’re probably wondering who they are.

            So was Martin. They did not invite him. Still, he was arriving. On horseback, no less. Why? He had to tell Thomas! Tell Thomas what?

            Mary is one of them!

            Mary is coming to the ball!

            Martin rehearsed the story on his horse. The invitation came, but it was not for him. Still he’d cross the threshold, gallop, steadfastly, down a narrow gallery. She’s coming! he’d scream.

            But, of course, they knew this already.

            And their knowledge returned him to a premise, an axiom—atop which Martin propped all his self-love and his very best sonnets, penned, mind you, for Thomas—a fundamental misapprehension. No one wanted to be saved by him. I hope she comes, said Thomas. The invitation, after all, was for Mary.

            Martin is not the hero of this story.

            A droplet spattered his lip. Was he crying? He dismounted and looked up. The castle sat like a face, aghast. He leaned over the cliff’s edge. The larch trees swayed in a manner so easy and familiar it was practically relieving. Why, he wondered, did I come here?

            Professional courtesy. Love. Maybe jealousy. Together they’d studied anatomy. They had a common fetish, a calling. He wished only to see him again before Mary spoiled everything! So, yes, there was a conflict, and in addition to this—

            A footstep? —

            Was it near or distant? He could not tell. It seemed to fall everywhere at once. His heart stopped. —

            A raindrop landed on his forehead. —

             “It’s rain,” he laughed, and held out his hand. “Just rain. A soft rain,” he laughed, and yanked his horse up the slick stone road that wound around the mountain’s shaft as neatly as a screw’s thread. A tree limb cracked and again he told himself, “Mary isn’t coming for me. Not now. Not yet.” All the while the massive castle floated over him, a pallid light in the dark night. —

             On the far side of the curtain walls, the castle’s ghastly rooms glowed and shadows flickered on the walls. Martin glanced wistfully up at the rows of lit windows, then dashed past the threshold into the great hall, where an old Count sat with a smile that was thoughtless as a cloud. —

             “They really are quite coarse. These men of science,” a lady whose face was obscured by ostrich feathers whispered to the Count, “I much prefer—” —

             Her preference did not matter to Martin, not even a little. —

             What mattered was this: a feeling he’d all but forgotten. They were young once, studying a medical anomaly, talking late into the night, and the candle would burn down, and the candle would flicker and go out, and Thomas would fall asleep, on a cot, maybe, beneath the window. And sometimes, it was as if a much smaller man lived inside of Martin. Mostly he forgot about him and then when Thomas spoke, the man climbed out, sat on the rim of Martin’s lower lid and leaned forward, and he was certain, then, that he’d tumble over the edge of himself into a kind of abyss, wherein he need not worry anymore about being a body bound by something all the world, save him, could see. He could forget the deep loneliness of being anything. —

             It would not do. —

            He lit another candle. He opened a medical dictionary. Keep reading, he’d said, as if that were a better way to see himself or find the pith of someone else. He could not tell the difference, but Martin still believed in it: a pith. So, again, Martin looked for it, for Thomas, in a crowd with a lady and a lapdog who pressed him to the wall, his pith. —

             “Have you seen my other terrier?” she asked. “I keep two of everything I care for,” she said. “And you? You’re looking for someone, aren’t you?” She took his arm and guided him through a great door, and into a narrow corridor. “I saw him somewhere. Only I can’t remember which one he was.” —

             A difficulty presented itself. —

             Martin had not seen Thomas in years! Their romance was largely epistolary. He’d always believed he would know him again, immediately. But he’d suddenly and inexplicably lost conviction. It was not a pith. It was a common fetish, and they’d both preferred the term “calling.” They encountered, respectively, a medical anomaly, a plague, really. An occult thing, these ghosts or demons, their patients—all women!—never died of it. Never died, in fact, of anything. This, too, was romantic! They wrote each other, feverishly, for years. Then the topic turned to Mary, a new case. Martin wrote, she’s sick to her core, isn’t she? And Thomas said, there is no core, Martin, only layers. Besides Mary is bright as fuck and totally delightful! They called Martin antiquated and romantic. But it was Thomas who grew foggy, mystical, utterly lacking in precision. Martin wrote, almost defensively, I have a pith! Maybe you and Mary haven’t, but surely, Martin wrote, it’s not even the same person. It’s not possible! It wasn’t, Thomas assured him, impossible. Mary knew everybody, even most of the dead people. She was ungovernably ancient, like a million or something. She’s coming to your ball, Martin wrote, forlornly, and Thomas wrote back, I hope.

             The terrier wore a pelisse with horrid bells stitched onto it, and when they came through the double doors, into the open air, the bells erupted in a frenzied jangle. —

             The rain had stopped and the trees were strewn with colored lamps. Laughter rose from the silence of some distant grove. A man in a threadbare waistcoat stood under some trees with a woman. Her back was to Martin, and they were laughing. They were laughing at him. The man wore a poorly knotted cravat and an ink stained shirt. His hair was dark, but Martin had known from the outset that this was Thomas. He’d felt it in his gut as if he’d stepped into a sword. And, foolishly, he stepped forward, breathlessly, and called “Thomas!” as if this could somehow suture him. “Thomas,” he said again. “You look,” he said, “well,” and spread his arms—tremulous, expectant—he waited, but Thomas and the lady stepped away from him. —

             It was Mary! —

             She straightened herself, smoothed down her furs, and, flicking her fan, walked on with Thomas, under the elms and away from him. They dissolved, like that, down the uneven path into the corridor, and Martin inadvertently pitched forward. The night sky hung oppressively over the clipped white trees. The fog was thick that evening. —

             Of course, he followed them. —

             Why? he wondered. Why have I come here?

            And he was wondering still when he rounded yet another corner in the seemingly endless corridor. In the distance, he heard their laughter, heard Thomas telling her Because he thinks I owe him something. Maybe love. He did not remember this: the vaulted ceiling, the rows of arches, the darkness. So, he follows me like a dog. It was like reading a story deep into the night. And he calls it love. And the candle guttered. And the candle burnt down and so you lit another and read on until morning. Why? You did not love the story, did you? But read on, because you were utterly exhausted and wanted finally to rest. To rest knowing that—

            Knowing what? —

            The fog grew thick. When did the fog set in? It was not fog. Not fog at all, but the dim light swirling down the drain of the night.

            Then he heard it: the flick of a fan unfolding. Was she beside him?

             “Mary?” he whispered.

             She struck a match.

             There was a sidewall covered in ivy, and beside this was an alcove with a window.

             Thump. Thump.

             The sound was coming from within the wall! So, Martin tore back the ivy and knocked the plaster free. Beneath it was a broad marble tablet, with letters carved upon it, a monumental inscription. He knew then what he’d find inside: sleeping with his eyes open wide, his temple slightly throbbing, a body, floating in a leaden coffin. He’d find, then, all the signs and evidence of a medical anomaly! And the body, in accordance with the ancient practice, must be raised, a sharp stake driven through its heart, the head—which would shriek, like a living thing in its last agony—struck off.

             But Martin had blundered badly from the start. They had a common interest, then, a fetish, a calling. No, it never interested him. Only one thing did. The pith around which he’d tightly wound a social self: a guttering candle, an open window, underneath which Thomas was soundly sleeping on a cot. All else had been a means of ascertaining the meaning of that scene. So, Martin crawled through the open window and left Thomas and their old room forever sleeping and sweetly entombed.

Jessica Alexander’s story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, as judged by Selah Saterstrom. She also co-authored the novella None of This Is an Invitation with Katie Jean Shinkle (forthcoming from Astrophil Press). Her fiction has been published and is forthcoming in journals such as Entropy, Arts and Letters, Fence, The Account, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Louisiana where she teaches creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

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