Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
 
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The Sleep of Death

by McCamy Taylor


Dear Giancarlo,

You are wondering what has become of me. I promised to meet you in Firenze for the Feast of St. John. However, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to keep our rendezvous.

In early June, I received a letter from Mathilde, my daughter. It was short and blunt. She was in danger and needed my help. Mathilde is a brave, resourceful woman, not easily frightened. Knowing that the situation must be dire, I immediately packed a bag and crossed the Channel. In London, I boarded a coach to Plymouth. From there, I hired a cutter to sail me to the Cornish island of .

But no, I must not write the name of the place, lest this letter fall into the wrong hands. Let me just say that the island in question is small, isolated and inhabited by men and women whose primary livelihood is smuggling, though their boats are fitted out for fishing, in case the King's Revenue men happen to board them.

I arrived on the island in midafternoon. The village had a single inn, a two story white washed building with wide windows to let in the feeble northern sunlight and sturdy storm shutters to keep out gale winds. I rented a private bedroom, then visited the common room. Pretending a hunger I did not feel, I ordered a bowl of shellfish stew and a tankard of beer, which I carried to the large, communal table situated beside an enormous fireplace.

The men on either side of me smelled of salt, brandy and tobacco. The latter two are among the items sold on the black market to Englishmen who object to paying the King's tax, which can be as high as 500% on some items. Yes, I know the amount sounds preposterous. But imagine how costly war and all the machinery of modern warfare -- battleships, cannons, rifles -- must be, and you will understand why the British are required to pay something rather more than a tithe of what they earn to their royal sovereign.

As I dragged a spoon through my bowl of stew, I listened to the conversation. The talk was of tides and storms, until one young woman dressed in breeches and a man's linen shirt started to say something about the local squire, whom I will refer to only as "John". Her companion, an older woman wearing a low cut gown and too much rouge shushed her and cast a glance in my direction.

"John ," I repeated, smiling pleasantly at the girl. "Just the man I came here to meet. Do you know a woman called Mathilde? Young but with prematurely white hair, like mine."

The rouged woman with the ample bust leaned across the table. She took a lock of my hair between her fingers and rubbed it, checking for powder. "That's your natural color then?" she said in thickly accented English.

No one at the table would admit to knowing either John or a white haired woman named Mathilde. One by one, they drifted away, until finally it was just me and the innkeeper, an elderly man with coarse wind and sunburned features and a twitch that kept pulling the side of his mouth into a sneer.

Like everything and everyone on the island, he smelled of salt. The local water supply was brackish, meaning that even freshly laundered clothes and linen smelled of the ocean. The air was muggy, with a hint of fog even during the hottest part of the day. It was the kind of creeping damp that makes one think about plunging into the ocean to cool off.

An Italian like you would have felt right at home on the island. For a man born and raised in the Carpathian Mountains, so much damp was disconcerting. It reminded me of certain pagan rites that were practiced by my Slavic countrymen centuries ago, the feast of the water goddess, Kupala, when bonfires were lit and young men and women bathed in open water before wandering off into the woods to search for the Fern flower -- a euphemism for sex. My own family, being staunchly Christian, did not attend the rituals, but I remember how the servant girls would yawn the next day and how they gathered together when no one was looking to share stories and giggle.

Now they call it Ivan Kupala Day and claim they are celebrating the Feast of St. John the Baptist, but I know better. When the children pour water upon each other and when they make mischief by the light of floating candles, they are reenacting the marriage of fire and water, when all things lay aside their enmity in order to replenish the earth.

It was midsummer's eve when I arrived on the island. Perhaps my blood recalled the ancient rites, for I was unusually restless. I strolled along the waterfront after my "supper", listening to the gulls and recalling Mathilde's mother, my wife, dead all these years but still alive in my heart, a flame that would die only when my own fire was snuffed out and I entered the only sleep our kind will ever know, the sleep of death.

The sun set over the ocean, a crimson spectacle. As the fire sank into the water and the eastern sky turned from blue to violet to grey, mist rolled across the sea and onto land. Soon, I could not see my hand in front of my face. Sounds were muffled. My sense of smell, usually so acute, was confounded by the stink of dead fish and the scent of salt. I realized, uneasily, why the ocean made me restless. Blood smells of salt, too.

And then, darkness descended upon me, and I was swept off my feet. I heard muffled voices and smelled sweat and rum. Coarse material covered my face. I tried to claw at it, but my hands were grasped and bound behind my back.

My captors tossed me across an animal -- a horse or a mule ?- and carried me down a dirt road and then over grassy hills and finally down a cobblestone drive. There, stronger and rougher hands seized me by my coat and the seat of my trousers and carried me down a flight of wooden steps to a room that smelled of damp earth, rotting wood, moldy potatoes and -- unaccountably -- of the forge, hot coals and molten iron.

My hands were freed, but only momentarily. The rope which had cut so cruelly into my flesh was replaced by the shocking cold of manacles that were fastened one around each wrist and then my arms were stretched high over my head and fastened to a hook or beam. My toes barely touched the ground. Despite this, I managed to land a kick to the shin of the man behind me, and then I drove my knee into the groin of the man in front of me. Cursing at me in a mixture of English, Cornish and French, they chained my ankles to the ground, then slowly, methodically they began to beat me, aiming for the most vulnerable spots -- the back of the elbow, the pit of the stomach, the kidney -- in the way that professional thugs do when they want to subdue their target with a minimum of fuss.

Forty or fifty blows later, the hood was pulled from my head, taking with it the tinted spectacles which I wear by day to protect my light sensitive eyes. I could hear the ragged breathing of men behind me and smell their stink, but my attention was fixed on the standing brazier full of glowing red coals and on the man who stood next to the smoldering fire, a yellow hot tipped poker in his gloved hand.

"Who do you work for?" Unlike his compatriots, his English was impeccable. "The Crown? Rival smugglers? Did the Prussian send you? The Dane?" He was a tall man, as the beef fed British so often are. His hair was unpowdered, black and shoulder length framing a face pale as death, deep set grey eyes ringed with shadows the color of bruises.

On a hunch, I said "I came for Mathilde. You are John, aren't you?"

"Mind your tongue," said one of the men behind me in thickly accented Devonshire English, harsh R's and almost nonexistent T's. "That's Sir John to you." A blow to my back, between my shoulder blades, drove me forward. The poker tip brushed my cheek. I smelled scorched flesh before I felt the pain. I jerked my head back. The hot iron tore off an inch of flesh, just to the left of my eye. I almost fainted from the pain. My eyes watered and my stomach heaved. Through clenched teeth, I muttered

"You are Sir John, are you not?"

"What do you know about Mathilde?" my captor demanded, his breath hot on my face. His eyes reminded me of my brother. There was madness within him. Was this the danger my daughter feared? How had she fallen foul of an insane smuggler?

"She's my daughter," I answered. "I received a letter. She said she was in danger."

"Liar!" He stuck the poker into the fire. With both hands, he grabbed me by the collar and lifted me from the ground.

"My baggage," I gasped. "In my room. A letter."

John dropped me. Silently, he gestured to one of the henchmen who lurked behind me. I heard muffled steps, then the creaking of wooden stairs.

"If you are lying to me," my host said almost pleasantly. "I will cut you to pieces, slowly, and use your body as fish bait."

The underling was gone a very long while. The poker tip was yellow hot again by the time he returned, carrying my leather satchel. I recognized him as the man sitting to my left at the dinner table that afternoon. "There's some papers in here, governor. Can't read them."

John snatched the bag from his hands. He found the letters and leafed through them until he came to one written by Mathilde. From his sudden intake of breath, I knew that he recognized her handwriting. He held the paper to his nose, inhaling her perfume, a mixture of rose and jasmine. For a moment, his features softened. Then he remembered what he was about, and he held the letter at arm's length to read it.

When he was done, he folded the sheet carefully, almost reverentially and slipped it into the pocket of his blue wool coat. The madness in his eyes was there still, but it was a different sort of madness, full of cunning rather than anger.

"How do I know that this letter was intended for you? You could be anyone. Maybe you work for the Crown, and you intercepted the letter and thought to yourself 'Ah ha! A way to infiltrate John 's gang!'"

"Look at me. She has my features. My hair."

Again, I felt his breath hot against my face. The burn on my left cheek throbbed. He studied my forehead, eyes, lips. Finally, he grabbed a lock of my hair and rubbed it between his fingers as the buxom woman at the inn had done. With powdered wigs the fashion for men of means, strangers always assumed that my white hair was artificial.

"You look like her," he agreed, reluctantly.

"Because I'm her father. Where is she?"

His expression hardened. "You tell me. She ran away. My daughter went with her. Left me a letter, claiming she and Mathilde were in love. Told me not to look for her."

Daughter? By the light of the brazier, I studied his face. There were lines of age around his eyes and mouth. He was older than I had first guessed. Forty, perhaps. Maybe older. Mature enough to have a grown daughter. It was all starting to make sense now. "Your daughter," I asked gently. "Is she frail? Does she suffer from a fatal malady?"

"I ask the questions here! Where are they?"

I shook my head. "I know even less than you." It was difficult to think. Every inch of my body ached, especially my burned cheek. But I dared not let myself slip into unconsciousness. "Perhaps if we two put our heads together, we can -- "

"Let him down," ordered my host. "Take him upstairs to the guest room."

Invisible hands, rough hands unfastened my leg irons and manacles. I stumbled and would have fallen, but John caught me. Either by accident or design, his hand found one of my broken ribs, and I came close to swooning.

By the time my head cleared, I found myself draped across the shoulders of a big, burly man who smelled of salt, tar and tobacco, being carried like a sack of grain up the wooden stairs. We emerged from the cellar. It was night. Darkness does little to impair my vision, but the fog was thick. The cool mist soothed my burned face. I heard footsteps on gravel followed by the creaking of hinges, and then we were inside an elegantly furnished house with wood paneled walls and brass light fixtures and thick Turkish carpets. I smelled beeswax and lemon and -- very faintly -- salt.

Still draped across the serving man's shoulder, I was carried down a corridor through another door, this one made from carved oak, into a sparely appointed room with white washed walls, a simple oak wardrobe and bedside table, natural linen curtains and a four poster, canopied bed. Onto this later, I was dumped as unceremoniously as a sack of potatoes. My bruised right elbow hit the mattress first. I stifled a moan.

"Leave us," said my captor turned host. He struck flint to steel, producing a spark to light a candle. To my dark adapted eyes, the light was as bright as the sun. I squinted and turned my face away. The linen beneath my cheek was faintly damp, as if nothing ever quite dried on the island.

John sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. Fumbling in his coat pocket, he found a pipe and a small ball of resin -- opium. So he was an addict. Was that the danger my daughter had feared? Those who smoke opium often do so to suppress madness, and, as you well know, Giancarlo, one of the few forms of suffering that our kind cannot alleviate is disease of the psyche. Had Mathilde attempted to do the impossible? She was always a stubborn, headstrong girl, unwilling to accept limits. Maybe she realized, too late, that madness can be infectious for our kind, and fearing for her own sanity, she fled, taking with her John's daughter.

John lit the opium pipe and inhaled deeply, once, twice. Then he leaned over me and offered me the pipe. "Here, this will help."

I shook my head. Opium has no pain relieving effect on me, nor does it bring sleep.

My host misunderstood my reluctance to partake of his favorite drug. "I promise no harm will come to you while you sleep." He took another puff, then he covered my mouth with his and exhaled, filling my lungs with acrid smoke. "See? The poppy makes it better." His pupils were constricted to tiny black dots. The angry frown lines smoothed. His expression became dreamy. With a sigh, he slumped down on the floor beside the bed and let his head loll on the mattress.

"So tired," he murmured. "Ever since Mathilde ran off with my Stacy I've been so tired. Why did she leave me? I did everything I could to make her as happy as she made me. All my life was like a bad dream until she appeared, her white hair flying in the breeze like a ship's sails. One night together and I was a new man. But she chose Stacy over me. They fled and though I've searched all across Cornwall, I cannot find them."

He took another puff from the opium pipe. His speech became thick and slurred. "Let me sleep for a while, then we'll talk." The words had hardly left his mouth before his eyes shut and the hand holding the opium pipe dropped , almost spilling its contents on the rug.

I placed the pipe on the bedside table and a pillow under John's head. Soon, he was snoring softly. Then, more loudly. His breath began to catch in his throat. I counted the seconds. Twenty, twenty-five, thirty. He stirred, and his breath would move again, for a few seconds, before his drifted back into deep, paralyzing sleep. Over and over, he slept, smothered, startled himself half awake in order to breathe and then slept again, diving into slumber like a man dying of thirst who plunges into the ocean, not caring that deep currents may drown him.

Doctor Giancarlo, you are probably familiar with Ondine's Curse, a disorder in which the sleeper must wake in order to take a breath. The disease was named for a water goddess who cursed her unfaithful mortal lover with the inability to breathe while asleep. I have often wondered if the "curse" was actually meant to be a blessing. Air-breathing ocean animals such as the whale, the dolphin and the seal never sleep in the way we understand it, because if they did so while in the water, they might drown. Perhaps Ondine was trying to give her mortal lover the ability to live in the water with her, and she did not know what mischief sleeplessness can do to the minds of men. Confusion, headaches, madness and ultimately death from suffocation or apoplexy are the result.

While true Ondine's is very rare -- I have encountered only three cases during my long life -- there is a variation in which the sleeper tries to breathe but chokes instead. This is seen most commonly among the extremely corpulent, but occasionally entire families are afflicted. The disease is mild in childhood but becomes progressively worse with age. Many sufferers end their days in lunatic asylums since lack of sleep can drive a man mad -- as torturers well know. Others resort to spirits or laudanum to get some relief. But the "sleep" these drugs produce only makes things worse.

By the light of a single candle, I watched my sleeping host dance on the brink of death. Each time he seemed about to go over the edge, the natural, physical desire to live would pull him back. His pulse would quicken. His muscles would tense. For a moment, he would fight the dangerous currents, and clean, sweet air would fill his lungs. But there is only so much sleeplessness a man can take. As the night progressed and fatigue overcome his body, the vital urge failed him, so that by the time he entered the paralyzed state that accompanies dream, he began to wade in the waters of the River Styx --

Now I understood what Mathilde meant about "danger". She was not the one in jeopardy. It was John who needed help. Faced with a father and daughter both of whom had need of her skills, she had chosen to aid the girl, but she could not bear to see the man die needlessly, and so she had sent for me, the one who had endowed her with the ability -- no, the need to devour the death and suffering of mortals.

I was hungry. During the long journey from Holland to London and then to Plymouth, I had not fed. And my physical injuries made me even more ravenous. Greedily, I drank the waters of death in which my host swam. Eventually the candle went out, but I stayed where I was, beside the sleeping man. My bruises healed. So did my broken ribs. The burn on my cheek faded and then vanished without leaving a scar.

Dawn came and still he did not wake. This was the first sound, restorative sleep he had had since Mathilde ran away with his daughter. My tinted spectacles were on the bedside table. I slipped them onto the bridge of my nose, and the light became tolerable. Now that my wounds were healed, I no longer bore my captor any enmity.

He looked, I thought, very like a child with his long, black hair spread out on the pillow around his pale face. He was still kneeling on the floor beside the bed.

Gently, I eased him onto the mattress, then I pulled up a chair beside the bed and sat down. At one point, the door opened a fraction of an inch and a curious eye peered through the crack. Seeing the master asleep and me with my eyes half closed, apparently dozing, the watcher tiptoed away.

In early afternoon, John finally woke. The circles beneath his eyes were gone. He gazed up at me with an expression of joy on his face that made him seem years younger. "Mathilde," he whispered. "You came back."

"Not Mathilde," I murmured. "Her father, Stephan."

He repeated my name. "Stephan, yes, now I remember. Mathilde wrote a letter. But surely, you can't be her father. You're too young."

"I'm older than I seem."

"She wrote that she was in danger." He frowned. "But she must have known that I would never hurt her. Had she told me it was Stacy she loved and not me, I would have -- I would have -- "

"What?" I asked gently. "Let her go, even though her presence made you feel sane again? Maybe for a few nights. A couple of weeks. But in the end, you would have turned against your own daughter, desperate for the companionship of the only woman who could save you."

John puzzled over my words. "Save me? Save me from what?"

I explained to him about how his inability to breathe properly while sleeping was driving him mad and about how one day, if left untreated, it would kill him. "Did your daughter also snore?"

"Worse than me after she broke her nose in a riding accident. She kept the household awake."

"And your mother? Your father?"

"My mother snored, too. Sometimes, she would fall asleep at the supper table, with her chin on her chest and snore so loudly that the rest of us could not hear ourselves talk."

"What became of her?"

"My mother?" He frowned at the memory. "She went mad. When I was twelve, she killed herself. Jumped into the ocean and drowned. They say I inherited her madness."

"Not madness," I corrected. "Her sleeplessness."

"Her sleeplessness," he echoed. "And you say that Mathilde was able to help me?"

"Yes. So can I. Unfortunately, I cannot 'cure' you, the way a physician cures a man of pneumonia or tumor. Because the curse that makes you stop breathing when you sleep is not a disease. It's part of your being. But if I stay close to you while you sleep, I can keep the madness at bay. I can help you live a normal life."

"How?"

The obvious question. I side stepped it. "I've studied healing with oriental masters. Yogis."

"And all you have to do is sit beside me, the way you are now, while I sleep?"

"Yes."

"For the rest of my life?"

"Yes."

He gazed up at me, grey eyes full of wonder. "You would do that? Give up your own life for the sake of a stranger?"

It was too early to tell him that I was giving up nothing. Later, once he trusted me, I would tell him how old I was -- over four hundred years old -- and that I fed on the death and sickness of mortals in much the same way that my brother, Vlad, fed upon their life and vigor. In exchange for keeping him healthy and sane, I would slake my own thirst. And one day, twenty or thirty years from now, when he died a natural death, I would move on, seeking other suffering souls from which to feed. Or, if he married again and had another daughter or son, I might become that child's protector.

So now you see, Giancarlo, why I cannot tell you where I am. It has nothing to do with John's smuggling operation. Everyone in Cornwall is a smuggler. However, there are only a few like you and me and my daughter. If the world were to learn of our gift -- curse? -- we would become the pawns of kings and emperors. So, you and I must live in the shadows, like our less fortunate cousins, the vampires.

Maybe one day, science will discover a cure for this barrenness that makes it so difficult for us to procreate. If each of us could have three or four children, instead of one or none, if the ranks of our kind swelled the way the ranks of vampires continue to swell, then there would be enough of us to go around. But for every 1000 who drink the blood of immortality, 999 become killers while only one becomes like you or me. And so for now, we must bestow our gift of healing on those that fate -- or a mischievous daughter -- chooses to throw in our path.

I think that I will be happy on this fog shrouded little island that smells of salt. Despite his criminal occupation, John is pleasant company -- when he is well rested. Those afflicted with the curse of the water goddess are often witty, intelligent and resourceful, one reason why I suspect that the "curse" might actually be a blessing. Also, I have yet to meet one of the death-sleepers who suffers from consumption, a common illness in these northern latitudes, one that kills a great many Englishmen and women. Could regular episodes of near suffocation have the same effect as breathing the thin air found on high mountains, where consumption is also rare? Perhaps I will write a paper on the subject -- under an assumed name, of course.

Since we are outlaws already, no one raises an eyebrow over the fact that Sir John's constant companion is a man rather than a woman. The smugglers call me "Doctor", but, in truth, I have become rather like a domesticated cat, plump and lazy. My human master is abed, asleep. Death stalks him, as it does every night. I will curl up beside him now and feed. Goodnight, Giancarlo and adieu. I will see you in a few years. Let's make a date to meet in Paris in the year 1800 on New Year's eve. We can welcome in the new century -- my fifth and your fourth -- together. I look forward to your letters. Address them to my solicitor in London.

Your friend now and forever,

Stephan

THE END


© 2012 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was the excerpt Morfil Chapter 1 (December 2011/January 2012), the first part of a novel-length sequel to Chatterton Reef (June 2011).

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