By Isabelle Ryan
The child is dead. She emerged sodden and floppy and grey, hauled on to the bank after God only knew how many minutes. Blue-lipped and glassy-eyed, she endured their desperate performance of optimism. She was rolled into a blanket, had her tiny hands rubbed, her tiny chest compressed. A fair-haired youth – too old to be a boy, too young to be a man: and so, too young to know what had settled leaden in the others’ hearts – picked her up and shook her, meaning to dislodge the water from her throat. He had seen it done before: the miracle worked on a younger cousin; so, he shook her. At last, her father came, and the party dispersed. The youth remained. Peace now settles in the absence of a corpse. A breeze caresses his face. The lake is silent, unrepentant. Alone, the youth scoops petals from the water and he weeps.
The father comes unblinking home, silent. His child flops like a fish in his arms. Heads turn but no one speaks. The insult resting in his arms makes words futile. This morning he left with the blind faith and silent fears of all fathers; he has returned with impossible evidence of a god who sends rams too slowly up mountain paths. He is offered nothing – not even comfort – and he finds his wife surrounded by whey-faced women. She buckles and recovers, and then reaches for her child.
She is still damp.
When the screaming stops, whispers eat through the village like flames. Rumours of strange sounds, half-remembered dreams, and a shadow moving through the night: the red-eyed youth returns from the lake to listen. He knows the stories, has even spread a few himself. Gossip is everyone’s friend. Perhaps the lonelier ones lie – embellish scraps and pray for conversation – but much of it is true. Aristocrats are capable of all of it, and more. The youth has seen this one (a haunted, harassed man: lean and wan), and he knows the stories.
Head swirling, he staggers home. The night passes fretfully. He wakes twisted in his blanket, head aching, eyes wet. Through the window he has a view of the castle, lights flickering in scattered windows. A bird calls, and clouds scud blackly across the moon.
Then, in the distance, someone cries. A terrible, wrenching wail drags fresh tears from tired eyes. The youth covers his ears. He dives beneath his thin blanket, seeking refuge in the dark. Instead, a vision of the dead girl swims towards him.
Stricken with grief – with fear – he lets her fingers slip around his wrist and lead him towards the door. She feels cold and dry, but solid, the furthest thing from spectral. He looks at her in snatches: her tiny feet, the hem of her dress, hair curling at the nape of her neck. He weeps softly, wishing she had come to him in mist, floating on a cold breeze. He wishes she were ghostly, transparent. She walks with him as flesh, as though her body refused to be still. She is silent. He whimpers pitifully, bare feet shuffling behind her.
Soon, the path appears beneath them, and he finds that they are approaching the castle. It splits the sky like a wound.
A breeze curls around his legs, and he blinks. The girl has left him, though not quite as she found him. Now, nestled in his palm, he finds a flower. Tentatively, he touches the petals. Then he turns towards the castle.
Any other night, he would have moved stealthily, furtively, poised to be discovered. Somehow, he knows he will not be seen. He slips into the castle’s black maw, from a cold night to a cold hall. He shivers in the shaft of moonlight showing him the way. Bringing the hand that holds the flower closer to his chest, he moves forwards.
His feet know the way. They carry him around a corner, down a hall. Between him and a darkened passageway there stands a door ajar. Muffled voices reach his straining ears.
He pauses at the door. Firelight flickers, and like a moth he draws nearer.
He knows the aristocrat’s profile: sharper than it was when he arrived, but unmistakable. He sits before the fire, nursing a goblet. Before him stands a stranger. He seems younger, but his manner is familiar, pleasant. A brother, perhaps, or an old friend. From his head tumble golden curls, and he regards his morose companion warmly.
“My dear friend,” the stranger says.
Frankenstein, swaddled in blankets, a little colour in his sunken cheeks, reaches for him, tries to rise, but the stranger gently stays him.
“Rest,” he urges. He takes the proffered, trembling hand and sighs.
The youth retreats. The silken petals in his palm remind him of the girl. Moving past the door, he wonders at the intimate exchange and, swallowing hard, regrets that he has witnessed it.
Another turn, and he is in the passageway: a steep flight of stone steps and a black as pitch descent. He looks again at the flower nestled in his palm, and then begins to walk.
Almost at once, he curves into darkness. His feet falter. His free hand judders against a pitted stone wall: so cold he expects his fingers to come away slick and wet. Still, he persists; his reward is yet more flickering light. He hastens, feet suddenly sure, unhesitating. He emerges in a small chamber. A torch hangs on the wall, and broken, rotted wood litters the floor. There is another door opposite the stairs. The youth’s eyes, though, are drawn to the hulking figure huddled in the corner.
It seems to cower, huge arms curved over its head. From its hidden mouth come muffled keening cries. A dank jet curtain obscures its eyes. In the flickering torchlight, the youth sees yellow skin, tight over a ragged skein of black veins: ink scribbled on thin parchment.
He claps a hand to his trembling mouth too late to smother a cry. The creature starts, its head twisting towards him. The youth is petrified; fear has stilled his shudders, left him dumb.
It lunges, eyes ablaze, its mouth a livid slash. The last rational sliver of his mind notes two perfect sets of teeth, and then sane fingers lose their tenuous grasp. The creature’s huge hand closes on his wrist and he gibbers.
Something snaps. A flash of light obliterates the room and in his last moment he feels the creature’s gentle fingers in his palm.
The youth crumples. The creature stares at the broken body beneath him. He knows this face. When the little one refused to float, a terrible cold feeling gripped him. He fled, but not far, and watched from the weeds the men who pulled her from the water. He watched a man take her away, and then this one sit alone and utter soft pained cries, touching the fragrant little boats she left behind.
He looks now at the pale boat nestled in his palm and wonders how to make it float with no water.
Then there comes a clatter from above. He moves backwards, bracing himself for the fury of his creator.
Victor swoops into the chamber. Eyes ablaze, he sweeps the torch from its bracket and thrusts it towards the monster. It howls and retreats, and Victor locks it in its cell. It has something clutched in its hand, but it hardly matters now.
He hauls loose sacking from the corner and covers the broken youth, for whom he barely spares a glance. Tomorrow he will think of something. Now, he hurries up and out, deafened by his heartbeat. Casting one last glance over his shoulder, he bursts into the hallway to be met by a harried Henry Clerval.
“My dear friend, what has happened?” stammers Henry.
Victor opens his mouth, searching for the words, and finding in their stead a desperate cry. He staggers towards his friend – oh, how glad he is to have a friend – and falls into his waiting arms. Beneath his bitter weeping he hears the steadfast comfort of Henry’s voice.
“Are you to always be unhappy?”
Victor gazes into his friend’s face, which breaks now into a warm smile that does not quite soothe the worry in his eyes. Even so, he is beautiful – perhaps more so now, the furrow in his brow a flaw that serves to highlight the perfections elsewhere.
But what does he know of perfection? The creature’s damnable visage threatens again his fragile mind. He marks once more the features he selected as beautiful. Beautiful! The lustrous hair, the teeth of pearly whiteness… and looking now into Henry’s face, he can no longer remember why he ever wished to look anywhere else.
Isabelle Ryan is a UK-based writer of horror fiction with queer themes. Isabelle’s work has previously appeared in A Coup of Owls, Not Deer Magazine, and Cosmic Horror Monthly. You can find Isabelle on Twitter.