Medusas web, p.16
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       Medusa's Web, p.16

           Tim Powers

  “I’ll meet you all upstairs,” said Claimayne.


  THE LONG, WIDE ROOM had been largely cleared of the Victorian furniture that had once been packed in from wall to wall and nearly to the high ceiling, and now between the legs of neatly stacked tables Scott could see several windows from the inside for the first time. The center of the hardwood floor had been cleared, with a big flat-screen television set on a metal cart at the east end and two dozen mismatched chairs at the western end by the hallway door. A bare lightbulb in an old ceramic socket in the ceiling threw a jaundiced glare over everyone’s face.

  “You’re ready for a lot of guests,” Scott remarked to Ariel as he and Madeline walked across the booming floor and took two chairs at one end of the front row.

  “Easier than stacking them.”

  “I don’t smell bees,” said Madeline cautiously. Scott thought the room smelled of sour dust and, faintly, of anchovy pizza.

  The whole house shook then with such a tumultuous clamor that he thought Claimayne’s mother must be exploding on the roof again; but a few moments later, after brief further clanging, he heard Claimayne’s wheelchair rolling along the hall.

  “Ought to just hoist him up and down with a damn pulley,” muttered Ariel.

  Claimayne appeared in the doorway, pallid and unhealthy looking. He wheeled his way across the floor to the television set and began rattling through a stack of VHS cases on a lower shelf of the cart.

  “Here it is,” he said finally, slipping the black cassette out of its cardboard sleeve and sliding it into the VCR. “Ariel, turn off the lights.”

  Ariel was still standing by the door. “Tell me again why this is a good idea.”

  “It’s a . . . a shared event,” said Claimayne, tapping buttons on the remote control now. “An opportunity for bonding. We all watched it together when we were children.” He looked back over his shoulder. “The lights?”

  “Bonding!” whispered Madeline.

  “We made fun of it,” said Ariel. “Only your mother paid attention to it.” But she reached to the side and pushed the off button on the old electric switch, then took a seat at one end of the front row of chairs.

  The screen lit up.

  Scott found that he remembered the movie more than he would have expected—the images were in sepia tones rather than the starkly black-and-white version his aunt had always watched, and there was spooky music now, but the image of a Judean castle on a cliff, behind the opening credits, strongly brought back the smell of his aunt’s Pall Mall cigarettes.

  The third screen card read, Sets and Costumes by MISS NATACHA RAMBOVA (After Aubrey Beardsley), and Madeline leaned over to whisper in Scott’s ear, “Natacha! And in the vision, Kosloff called the spider in the folder ‘the Beardsley’!”

  Claimayne had propelled his wheelchair halfway back across the floor to where the other three sat, and Scott saw the silhouette of his head lift. “Beardsley, you say?”

  “Madeline knows I like Beardsley’s drawings,” said Scott.

  “Ah! Very nasty, a lot of his drawings were.” Claimayne resumed rolling and parked his chair on the end of the front row, beside Ariel. “On his deathbed he asked that certain ones be destroyed, though in fact those were . . . abstracts.”

  “I hate when people do that,” put in Madeline. “They should destroy the stuff themselves, if they feel so strongly about it, before they die. Not stick friends with it.”

  Claimayne shrugged. “Sometimes you have to work posthumously.”

  The credits ended, and on the screen was a view of the tetrarch Herod’s banquet, with black slaves waving fans and smoke curling up from braziers in the background.

  Scott found himself remembering each grotesque detail as the movie progressed—the captain of the guard with scale-patterned tights and hair that little Madeline had always said looked like a lot of rum balls stuck to his head, midget white-bearded priests with hugely inflated striped turbans, the fat old tetrarch theatrically ogling young Salomé—and Salomé herself, boyishly slim in a skimpy dark tunic and sporting what might have been dozens of cotton balls suspended on wires in her hair. The action was slow and stylized, the characters frequently pausing to strike poses like figures on an art deco lamp, and Madeline was shifting and twitching in her seat, apparently agonizingly bored.

  “We could just go,” Scott whispered to her. “We’ve seen it before.”

  She shook her head and raised a spread hand.

  On the screen, Salomé had eventually made her way from the banquet to a birdcage-like structure on a moonlit terrace, and looked down—a new camera shot revealed that the bars covered a well, and on the floor at the bottom of it stood an emaciated John the Baptist, called Jokanaan in the intertitle cards. The tetrarch Herod sent a slave to summon Salomé back to sit beside him, but she ignored the request and ordered the guards to release the prisoner; and when Jokanaan had ascended the steps and faced Salomé, she begged him to permit her to kiss him.

  When Scott and Madeline and Ariel had been children, the teenaged Claimayne had at this point generally provided impromptu additional dialogue between Salomé and Jokanaan, to much smothered hilarity; but when Scott glanced down the row of chairs now, Claimayne’s smooth face was still, his eyes glittering with tears as he watched the screen.

  It was his mother’s favorite movie, Scott reminded himself, and she committed suicide only a week ago. He looked back at the screen.

  Jokanaan, with prolonged eye-rolling and posturing, had rejected Salomé’s advances and returned to the well, and the guards locked the cage.

  The torchlit dimness of the movie’s scenes, viewed in the dark old third-story ballroom of Caveat, made Scott wish he could race down the stairs and get on his motorcycle and ride it to some place full of light and cheery music. The awful old movie seemed to be made of elements from childhood nightmares—stiff figures moving slowly but ominously, contorted white faces under spiky headdresses mouthing unintelligible words, screens on which the stylized ivy patterns seemed to pulse. When they had all watched the movie in the dining room, years ago, there had been interruptions while Aunt Amity changed reels, but now it was mercilessly continuous.

  At the far end of the row, Ariel was cursing in whispers.

  The scene arrived in which Herod’s dialogue card read, “Dip into the wine thy little red lips, that I may drain the cup!” to which Salomé’s reply was, “I am not thirsty, Tetrarch.” Scott didn’t smile or glance at the others.

  The tetrarch then asked Salomé to take a bite of fruit, so that he might eat what was left; and Salomé replied that she wasn’t hungry. At last he asked her to dance for him, for which favor “thou mayest ask of me what thou wilt, even unto the half of my kingdom.” Salomé refused this too and looked through the bars down into the well; Jokanaan saw her and cried—unwisely, Scott thought, in retrospect—“Ah, the wanton one! Let the captains of the hosts pierce her with their swords!” Stepping away from the bars and looking torn, Salomé asked Herod if he would indeed give her anything she asked, and he swore that he would, “by my life, by my crown, by my gods!” And Salomé consented.

  At this point four women wearing black capes as square as boxes came onto the terrace with an oddly halting gait, like huge insects carefully walking upright; they surrounded and hid Salomé, and when they stepped back, their capes swinging now like ponderous bells, Salomé was revealed in a white tunic and with short, straight white hair. She began to dance around the terrace, to music visibly provided by half a dozen dancing dwarves in antlered helmets, and finally she spun rapidly around and collapsed to the floor.

  Beside Scott, Madeline was quietly weeping, but when he touched her shoulder, she slapped his hand away.

  Now the corpulent figure of the tetrarch Herod, who had appeared to nearly expire of joy during Salomé’s dance, straightened up on his throne and asked her “What wouldst thou have?” and, after characteristic delay, she told him, “I ask of you the head of Jokanaa

  “It’s coming,” whispered Madeline, “it’s coming.”

  What, thought Scott, Jokanaan’s execution? As he remembered it, the eventual beheading took place offstage, and even when Salomé would appear ostensibly holding the severed head on a shield, the head was never actually visible at all. It had been a disappointment when he had first watched the film.

  The tetrarch Herod, horrified by Salomé’s request since he believed Jokanaan was a holy man, again offered her half his kingdom, instead; and she repeated her demand. Then he offered her the largest emerald in the world, and she refused that substitute too.

  At this point, and it had always seemed to Scott to be a sharp diminishment in the magnitude of the proposed gifts, Herod said, “Salomé, thou knowest my white peacocks! In the midst of them thou wilt be like unto the moon in the midst of a great white cloud—”

  Scott had glanced aside at Madeline then, and so he saw her chair kicked backward as she leaped to her feet; he was peripherally aware that Claimayne had grunted explosively, as if he’d been struck, but Scott’s startled concern was with his sister, who was staring at the television screen.

  Scott followed her gaze—and cringed back in his chair.

  On the screen, against a dark background, was a still image of Salomé’s head with dozens of white tendrils curling out from it in all directions across the sky; and it was eerily similar to the moment in a spider vision when the eight limbs broke into many and began to move.

  “Claimayne!” shouted Madeline hoarsely. “From the ground, from under the floors and pavements, the blood cries out!”

  At the first few words Claimayne had pushed his wheelchair forward and begun rolling down the row in front of the chairs, and now he collided with Madeline’s knees and scrabbled at her hands.

  “My mother?” he screeched up at her. “Where is it—” he went on, dragging his shaking fingers across Madeline’s palms. “You’ve got a spider of my mother’s, how do you dare look at it in front of me—!”

  Ariel had stood up and hurried down the row of chairs, and now pulled his wheelchair back. “She didn’t look at anything but the screen,” she said loudly. “It’s just the influence of this damned house!”

  “Bullshit she didn’t,” gasped Claimayne, still flailing toward Madeline. “That was my mother’s voice—she must have—”

  “I adored her!” shouted Madeline again, still staring at the screen. “But evil things in robes of sorrow . . .”

  Then she stopped and raised her hands to her face, and Scott saw scratches in her palms. She held them out and looked around at the taut faces of the others and said, “Did I break the window?”

  Claimayne exhaled in a long hiss.

  Scott was on his feet, and he put an arm around Madeline’s shoulders. “Let’s go back to our rooms,” he said.

  Madeline blinked at him, clearly disoriented. “Is the movie over?”

  “Oh, it’s over,” said Claimayne, spinning his chair and pushing it out across the floor toward the television.

  Ariel stared after him. “What did you hope to do here?” she called.

  “To—turn back some pages,” said Claimayne, so quietly that Scott barely heard him. Claimayne had turned the television off and was gripping the remote control with both hands. “Not that many.”

  Ariel turned to Scott and Madeline. “Go,” she said.

  After a pause, Scott nodded and led Madeline across the dark room to the hallway door.

  In the light from the hallway he could see the glint of tears on Madeline’s cheeks. “Am I—your sister again?” she whispered to him.

  “Yes,” Scott told her, “and we’ll keep it that way.”

  MADELINE WAS STANDING BY the window of their parents’ room looking out at the dark garden. She seemed to have stopped trembling.

  “Blood under the ground?” she said finally.

  “That’s what you said,” Scott replied, shaking a cigarette out of a pack of Camels. “And under pavement, as I recall. ‘Crying out.’”

  “And I adored her?” Madeline hugged herself and shivered. “I mean she adored her? Adored who, that Alla? Nazimova?”

  “I guess so.” Scott snapped a Bic lighter at his cigarette. “You were looking at the screen.”

  “She was looking at it. Aunt Amity. I was asleep or something. How old do you think that Nazimova woman was, in that movie?”


  “I’ll look her up on Google. But she’d have been pretty old by the time Aunt Amity could have met her, if she ever did.” She looked at her scratched palms. “You said Claimayne thought I looked at a spider of hers?”

  “Well, you did, yesterday,” said Scott, exhaling smoke. “This was apparently a continuation of that.”

  Madeline clenched her fists, wincing, and for a while neither of them spoke.

  “You’re right,” she said finally. “I haven’t been channeling her—she wants to possess me, she was possessing me a few minutes ago.” She rubbed her jaw. “She used my mouth all wrong, talking.”

  Scott leaned back against the closed door and said, carefully, “Is it too scary yet?”

  She giggled, though there were tears in her eyes. “Me getting kicked out of my own body, and next time maybe never coming back?” She walked quickly to the connecting door and back. “I don’t want to inherit this creepy old house anyway.” She was pacing back and forth across the bare floor now. “Let’s get our stuff packed, and sneak out tonight after Claimayne and Ariel have gone to bed. Should we leave a note?”

  Scott thought of what Ariel had said to him at the front door this afternoon—Could you just not speak? Could you please do me that one favor?—and he answered, “No.”

  Madeline sat down on the bare mattress and flexed her hands in her lap, wincing.

  “You don’t think it’s wrong to . . . abandon her here?” she said. “She did love us. Does.”

  “She loves you the way a drowning person loves somebody they can push down and climb on top of.” Madeline was still staring at him, so he clarified, “No, it’s not wrong.”

  She nodded solemnly. “Thank God. Thank God she went too far. It’s been no fun after all, being back here.”

  She leaned to the side and picked up the phone book Scott had brought back from Amity’s office. “I hope they don’t stay up too late. Whose blood do you think she meant? Crying out?”

  “Hard to say.”

  “Aunt Amity stopped watching that movie when we were kids. Do you remember when she stopped?”

  “Some time before we looked at Oneida Inc, for sure.” Scott took a long draw on the cigarette, then said, exhaling, “Otherwise that scene where Salomé had the tendrils growing out of her head would have had you and me diving right out the window.”

  Ride down Sunset again, he thought, tonight, with the cold fresh wind in my face, and never ride up Vista Del Mar again.

  “I only saw it for a second, before she shoved me,” said Madeline, nodding, “but it knocked me for a row of carrots.” She had been flipping through the pages of the phone book and paused at one page. “Here’s Paul Speas, in L.A. It’s old, a four-digit number. That was Aunt Amity’s dad, right?”

  Scott dropped his cigarette into a coffee cup on the windowsill. “Let me get the envelope.” He hurried through Madeline’s room to his own and lifted one corner of the mattress. Under it, the unopened pint bottle of Wild Turkey was lying beside the manila envelope on which their mother had written Backup copies. He pulled out the envelope and carried it back to their parents’ room, where he shook out the papers onto the ruined mattress beside Madeline.

  He picked up one of the photocopied pages and peered at it. “Right. Paul David Speas married Charlene Claimayne Cooper in ’21.” He looked up. “And sometime a Paul and Charlene stole the exorcism film reel from your Natacha, according to your printout. And presumably that’s the same Natacha Rambova who made the sets and costumes for that damn movie.”

  “And here’s
a Genod Speas, in Culver City.”

  Scott nodded. “I found a bunch of checks Aunt Amity wrote to him. Claimayne says it’s a brother of hers.”

  “A brother? Who knew?” Madeline was still leafing through the phone book. “And here’s Adrian Ostriker. Where did we hear of the name Ostriker?”

  “Here.” Scott picked up the sheet that was a copy of notes their mother had made. “Mom wrote, Ten percent finder’s fee to Ostriker? And she put the name Ostriker in quotes, like it’s an alias. If he squawks. And point out that he should be grateful for no exposure of him, i.e., wheelbugs, and under that she wrote, And WDT murder?”

  Madeline shivered. “That Taylor guy you saw get shot, I bet his initials were W. D. T. I’m glad we’re getting out of here. Do you think she remembered the canned ’sparagus?”

  “What?” Scott shook his head. “Who, Mom?”

  Madeline giggled. “No—Ariel. Tonight at dinner.”

  “Oh! I don’t know. That’d be nice.”

  “She said she didn’t mean to, but she would say that. She wants to make sure she doesn’t like you anymore.” Madeline put the phone book down on the mattress. “What’s the other book?”

  “I think she’s pretty sure.” Scott picked up the Valentino biography and handed it to her. “There’s no writing or bookmarks or anything, except for a note on the front flyleaf in Mom’s handwriting.”

  After glancing at the cover picture, Madeline opened the book to the flyleaf and stared at the writing for a moment. “Keep it, I’ve got more copies, Mom wrote. That sounds like, ‘Keep this print, I’ve got the negative.’ More and more it looks like blackmail.”

  “True. Though I don’t see how anything to do with Valentino could be relevant.”

  Madeline flipped through the pages of the book, pausing at the section of photographs in the middle.

  “I think—” she began; then she gripped the book tightly, staring at one photograph. “Oh my God, Scott, oh my God!”

  Alarmed, Scott sat down beside her on the bed; the pages the book was opened to showed two black-and-white photographs, one of Valentino in sporting clothes in front of a car and a house, the other of Valentino in a sweater standing with Douglas Fairbanks and a young Jackie Coogan.


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