With apologies to Borges and Poe
Missy Anne Abime awoke from dreams of a miniaturized grandfather clock to find herself transformed in her bed into the self-same item.
She blinked, rubbed away the eye-goo and approached the mirror. Satisfied that as a grandfather clock she was still sexy as fuck, she tapped the mirror’s surface and resumed her normal nude appearance: a curvy redhead with boobs some girls would literally die for, standing 5 feet 8, with piercing emerald eyes and the best ass in Christendom. Still, there was the issue of a story, which she needed to approach with full attention. Pulling away from the pool of Narcissus, she padded to the bathroom in furry pink slippers, burned away the previous night’s madness with a scalding hot shower, pulled on grey sweats and a T-shirt featuring the cover of Black Sabbath Volume 4, and sat down before the laptop.
The story in its current form lacked organization, point of view and a sympathetic protagonist. It seemed to be loosely corralled from bits and pieces of a rodeo in which Vladimir Nabokov made nasty cracks from the bleachers at the clowns for cruelty to animals. The clowns flipped him off and reminded him that theirs was a dangerous job, perhaps the most dangerous role one might play in a rodeo. Which was fine as far as it went, but not at all what Missy had intended when she created a new document and hunched over the keys.
In fact, her project was to somehow top Menard’s achievement with the Quixote, his masterful recreation of Cervantes’ original using exactly the same words in exactly the same sequence. The text she had chosen was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” By placing before herself this challenge, she hoped to leave a legacy. Her own work, many held, lacked originality. Her solution, she believed, tasted of the irony with which Menard had imbued Cervantes’ masterpiece. Irony had the copper taste of blood, and hers oozed with less and less vigor through her veins. She had a bad heart, and Abime’s doctor gave her at most five months to live.
At 24, Missy had never felt the least interest in creating a bucket list. Her life and doings stretched before her like the lazy waves of a vast ocean. Then, a routine pre-employment physical with Dr. Maelstrom revealed abnormalities; a congenital deficiency; and finally, after many tests, the assurance that she would not see 25. This, to Missy, added yet another level of irony to the strata that was quickly piling up. A writer whose best work was posthumous; a young writer tragically erased from the census lists by hereditary disease. Such a cliché. Still, this was matter for critics to cluck over. She had work to do.
Preparatory to taking on the “Valdemar,” Missy deliberately cleansed her mind of all previous glosses on the work; her own and that of revered academics like Baron Von Bugenheim, even the ingenious—if absurd—Massively Compressed Version of Himmelwitcz, which read in toto: “Gooey death was the order of the day, and all that was solid in the Kingdom melted in a sticky pool.” She preferred her tennis game with a net, thank you very much, and hers was the taut example of Menard. Rewriting was dull, pedestrian and self-indulgent. The idea was not to display one’s own bravura style, but to place Poe in a new, yet invisible, frame. If readers caught even a glimmer of story elements quiescent in the story which Missy’s work had ripened; if, instead of shuddering in certain places, the reader laughed, gasped and then returned to Poe with a heightened appreciation of his method—then was her achievement successful.
But even given—or, because of—these self-imposed constraints, Missy felt the spirit of adventure spring forth within. As she typed, she could at times almost convince herself that the work might help her transcend death. That if she fed the screen with words, relentlessly, with full confidence, she could like some latter-day Scheherazade knock back the Reaper’s claws. But in order to do that, she would never be able to complete the story…to type those fatal words: “Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.”
The clicking of the keys was almost hypnotic. Before her ranged possibilities that with each fresh iteration of the narrative—a phrase here, a telling detail there; a seemingly random word that drew the scene together like iron filaments to a magnet—branched out, formed flow charts of variations she wouldn’t herself indulge, but that others, lesser authors, might. Defying those moments of impulse was to her even more delicious, verging on decadent, an act than giving in to them. And so she toyed the Imp of the Perverse, standing before the text now like a boxer, with the pugilist’s intent of making hamburger of the opponent’s face; now like a magician, placing a mirror on stage to divert attention from that which it really displayed; now like those patient watchers of root vegetables that tremble with the first sign of leaf.
“Upon the bed” was hard—harder than she expected. When she paused, reflecting, she wondered for a chilling second whether she was not, in fact, already dead—had been dead perhaps for days, animated solely by the will to finish the story. But surely that was impossible. She inspected her hand and plucked a pinch of skin—still elastic, live tissue. Her heart thudded implacably, although it felt subliminally slower; the longer she paused, the colder she felt, and the steady rhythms of her blood seemed to gradually peter out…
“Upon the bed…” What was otherwise than a bed? A beanbag chair? A futon? An inflatable raft in a swimming pool beneath the summer sun? But no, it could only be a bed…leading inexorably to “that whole company”—watching, appraising, unaware of the deliquescence to come. Without observers, without a company, and a whole one at that, the reader had no anchor in the text. She drifted out of view, and rumblings from backstage portended a mutiny among the stagehands. Reluctantly, she typed the company into being.
“A nearly liquid mass of loathsome…” Ah, the Master’s touch, a line of iambic pentameter slipped sideways into prose. “Loathsome.” “Loathsome…detestable…nearly liquid…putridity…” The words reorganized themselves in her mind. Was the company grossed out by the presence of death, or was it the manner? Again, if a bit purple, the prose depicted M. Valdemar’s passing in vivid detail. She felt a jolt of hope recognizing that “detestable” was superfluous…possibly…as it seemed to make a final, authoritative judgment call on “putridity.” Were all things putrid objectively detestable? But of course, this was semantic quibbling, an artful dodge to delay the inevitable.
She typed the word “putridity” rapidly, with a cool defiance. As she did so, the flesh began to dribble from her finger bones, pooling on the keys. She heard the distant echo of her heart, which had in fact long ceased to beat.
Missy Anne A. Bime slumped forward and died.
After the story was recovered from the hard drive and copies, Missy was buried along with her laptop in a “grave” identical in nearly all respects to a six-foot deep hole in the earth, capped with a marble “headstone.”
The reviews of Missy’s “Valdemar” would have happily surprised her. While not raves across the board, they were for the most part enthusiastic. The New York Times made special note of her “whimsical dalliance with Poe, a dance from beyond that shakes its castanets into the future.” Although that reviewer was discovered to be psychotic and discreetly removed from the staff, some say his legend—which is inextricable from that of Missy’s—lives on, somewhere, in a state bordering on infamy.
Bio: Called “a mad, genre-defying genius” by author/filmmaker Terry M. West, Alex S. Johnson is the author of such books as The Doom Hippies, Bad Sunset, Shattergirl and Doctor Flesh. He has also edited and published the Floppy Shoes Apocalypse clown horror series, the Axes of Evil heavy metal horror series, Chunks: A Barfzarro Anthology and others now in preparation through Nocturnicorn Books. He recently edited the dystopian satirical anthology Trumpocalypse for Horrified Press, and plans to do more work with them soon. Johnson‘s novella Freaks of Hell is due to arrive later in the year from Sleazy Viking Press. He enjoys salty, sour and spicy foods, coffee and all manner of media. Johnson currently lives in Sacramento, California, at the heart of the Central Valley.