Aphelion Issue 256, Volume 24
November 2020
 
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The Recluse

by George Cornilă




One summer, when I told Aron on a whim that I felt I needed a diversion, a secluded haven where I could be alone for a couple of weeks and put my papers as well as my thoughts together, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and most of all, without access to technology, he provided me with a resolution so fast that he left me thinking he had been waiting just for that, to share with someone the existence of that very place. Somewhere not too far from The Golden Springs, an old boyar manor stood hidden in the forest.

I’ve known Aron since I was a student at the University, thus since I didn’t even dare dream becoming his faculty peer. He was middle-aged, with chestnut hair combed to one side and a thick neat beard; he always wore grey pants with sharp crease, a white shirt and a tessellated jacket smelling of tobacco. He was a bohemian, yet terribly dull at first sight. Time spent with him however passed differently than with other people. We chased away the boredom between classes, without keeping count of the number of coffee mugs we drank, or we gave vent to our literary frustrations after the Tuesday Book Club in the beer garden of a historic pub in the Old Town, without keeping count of how many pints went down our throats. Only thus – by talking and philosophizing with him elbow-to-elbow on and on, years on end – I started to enjoy his company and see him as an interesting fellow, perhaps even a tad mysterious.

Somehow, he had found that place. He didn’t tell me in what circumstances and I wasn’t curious to find out either, as I was then reaching a new peak in my misanthropy. When he started to describe the house and its whereabouts, highlighting the amenities it had to offer, I told him, without raising my eyes from the glass:

< “I just want to be alone.”

“You’ll never be more alone than there,” he replied, his hand on his heart.

He continued:

“Believe me, there’s no better place to rest and write. You can stay as long as you want, as long as you are able to. When you’ll get back from there, you’ll either be healed from the world, or you’ll knock on the sanitarium’s door in the valley; in such a wondrous place, wise men thought of building a sanitarium for those who can’t cope with this world. Chaps like you and me.”

He chuckled.

I was in a moment of my life when I didn’t require too much convincing.

I got there with a bag that contained a few changes of clothes, about ten books, mostly English literature, and the manuscripts I was working on. It was midday in July, if that’s of any relevance. The house was old and it seemed abandoned for a long time. It was an alpine house, a simple structure mostly made of wood, not at all majestic like the lofty buildings in the area, designed by Ernest Doneaud; still, it had a distinct shape and personality. I didn’t even need the keys as all doors to the yard were unlocked. Inside, apart from the dampness and the layers of dust and mold, reigned a neatness that seemed eerie to me, as if someone had been waiting for something unlikely to happen, for someone unlikely to come.

Lizards crawled on the walls and spiders wove their webs in the corners. The long yard gave off a sinister charm and was bordered by an ancient wall covered in moss, snails and slimy slugs and had twisting African tulip trees and withered roses. A gazebo of rotten wood, outhouses with locked doors and a small glade bordered by a creek with bluestone water on the bank of which potter wasps built intriguing nests made of mud. A rusty swing with violets twisting around its chains stood still, waiting down a flight of time-worn steps. I think it was that very stillness that bewildered me, more than if it were moving.

The place suited me, as I didn’t need much. A bed, a table, a light bulb – a candle would have served me just as nicely –, a kitchenette and a bathroom were more than enough and, as proof, I used nothing else during my stay there. The house was huge, labyrinthine, three floors, narrow hallways and little useless corridors, locked storage closets, countless doors and endless rows of steps made of rusty iron connecting various parts of the manor. After a few nights and several unsuccessful attempts to explore the house, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I was alone there. Sometimes I found my things elseshwere than where I’d left them and doors open, when I was certain I’d closed them. I blamed all these strange occurrences on the wind, the draft that blew out in the hallways and my everlasting torpor. Even if sometimes I thought I sensed another presence around me, perhaps due to my chronic fatigue, I never found any relevant proof. I was in such an isolated and quiet place to immerse myself in total loneliness that I felt like a refugee, the last survivor of the apocalypse, left alone after the whole world had perished.

My befriending with the house, a deed I deem necessary every time a man gets inside the intimacy of such a place, was never accomplished in full, in part because of my psychological inability to discover it in its entirety, partly because of the hostility I sensed from the portraits of the boyars that frowned at me from the walls, of the shadows that I only got a glimpse of, of the wounds I got from the protrusions of the old furniture or of the never-ending creaking. Tearing sounds, crackling, loud bangs, splashes, gasps, pipes hissing, wailing that came from the innumerous round air shafts in the ceilings, all combined with the noises from the surrounding nature: the murmur of the creek, the distant barking of feral dogs, the droning of various insects, the slurred mumbling of the forest poked by screeching sounds or thumped noises, all left a mystery, either they were foxes whelping, deer groaning, owls hissing or who knows what else. Passing through each room, I wouldn’t have been surprised the least to bump into someone, to wake somebody up from a long slumber, to intrude on someone. I would have been scared, but not surprised.

I spent my days strolling through the resort a few miles away from the manor, in the shadow of the forested wall of the Brainpan Mountains; the resort was full of relics from the communist era and already – so soon – of remnants of capitalism. I used to walk along the river I later found out bore the name of the boyar whose house was now my dwelling, passing by healing springs and booths selling colored trinkets and knickknacks where all the saleswomen looked the same, until I reached the barred gate of the Sanitarium. Geriatrics crawled about the alleys, burdened by illnesses, pains and lunacy, carrying in their shivering flabby hands canteens with healing water or little bags with medicine.

I would eat fresh trout on the terrace of some tavern, drink beer, read on a bench at the edge of the forest, make some notes, then, tired of the aged energy of the place I would ease off towards my home, towards the place I could, for a short while, call home. I found out that the resort had a water spring that could’ve healed the ulcer that had pestered me for years, but I didn’t go there once during my entire stay. Even more, the burdening eeriness of the place compelled me to drink beer and strong spirits more than I used to, and I, as a writer and a professor, confess that I’ve never shied away from the bottle.

At night, I would write on the porch, distracted all the time, as I couldn’t ignore the noises of the forest. Stag beetles hummed and smashed violently into the bearing poles, fireflies flickered into the tiny glade and night butterflies swarmed around the dim light bulb that lighted only half of my table. It was terrifying and yet fascinating seeing fat spiders descending on their web. I’ve had an interest in entomology for a while and I can say that I’ve never seen bigger webs, spanning between trees, eaves, poles and electrical cables, nor spiders that could weave them so fast. I discovered new ones woven around me with each passing hour, as if wrapping me in a shroud.

I constantly had a weird feeling of drowsiness or fear, of drifting into unconsciousness. After a few days I gave up drinking water from a nearby fountain, water of amazing relish, thinking that I could thus maybe recover. When some noise reached me from the forest or from the entrails of the house, I flinched and had the feeling I had fallen asleep and I was just waking up from a short slumber, from a dream. I’d never before questioned my sanity as I did there and, God is my witness, I’d questioned it so many times throughout my life.

Even so, loneliness suited me. I didn’t feel the absence of people. I’d realized at some point that I was becoming weirder and wilder with each passing year. I was tired of the Capital, the crowds, the colleagues, the students, all those snotty kids with their huge egos, all the stubborn dinosaurs of the university environment, the editors, the book launches and literary circles, the whole tumult of survival. I had been teaching Universal Literature for ten years already to herds of teenagers who were searching in vain for their way, I was engulfed in a uselessness I was aware of every day of my life but which I would not admit when others chalked it up against me. I had written several novels and a stack of novellas which were published in various literary magazines, but I still couldn’t feel whole.

Many years back I had read the works of Thomas Mann and Ken Kesey and also Eliade’s novellas and a few novels by Stephen King. They weren’t my favorites by any means, but there, on that magic mountain, near a cuckoo’s nest, in a sinister house, I was living their novels, unfortunately without being capable to write anything to match them. I wrote plenty during my stay at the manor, but my writings were mere ramblings, whole stacks of paper without a beginning or an end, that could as well have been shuffled and read in any order without them losing their meaning, for they had none. I was slithering like a slug on the ancient wall which surrounded the yard, slobbering on a sheet of paper without hope that my drooling trail would be someday discovered and called a work of art.

Somehow, the quietness and the rest I had hoped to find there were slipping away. In the several weeks spent in silence and recluseness, I couldn’t sleep one whole night. I was either falling asleep late – even at dawn sometimes – or waking up when it was still dark outside, frightened and sweating without any obvious reason, without understanding what was going on, as I didn’t understand so many things in my life. I couldn’t remember most of my dreams, except for the two recurring ones. In one of them, the house appeared to me as it must have looked a century ago, populated by its old masters: a boyar with a lush moustache and harsh eyes, wearing a long shirt, a vest and a belt, a plump frowning lady in a knee-length gloomy dress, her hair cut short and lipstick on her lips, and a maiden with freckles, wearing a flounced dress, her hair long, her ears pointy, keeping her hands entwined on her belly; she wasn’t taking after neither of her parents. They were standing still in front of the porch, and the boyar seemed to scold me with his eyes as if I’d done something wrong, as if I’d been some uninvited guest. Still, I could not leave.

I hadn’t learned their names or history, but I was certain the ones in my dream were the same as in one of the daguerreotypes hung in one room and which pictured all three of them in gala attires, perhaps before going to a ball. Another picture was there on the entire length of one of the walls, depicting an enormous herd of black horses. I used to like horses, but since one bit off a chunk of flesh from my chest when I was a child I couldn’t muster the courage to get near them again.

In the other dream I was hospitalized in the Sanitarium and doctors with thick glasses, lenses like a magnifying glass, and Neanderthalian nurses subjected me to agonizing treatments, telling me it was for my own good. Sometimes, Aron was there with me, too. The dream was so vivid that when I woke up I’d check myself for needle marks and thought in horror that I had escaped and that they were looking for me, and I struggled to choose between running as far as my feet could carry me or return for fear of retaliation in case the nurses caught me.

One of the nights – sitting on the porch and writing the same babbling hogwash, feeling and knowing I wasn’t good at it, tormented by a full moon which had stolen my sleep – I found that I couldn’t concentrate because of the flickering of the fireflies in the small glade. I don’t know what made me follow them. It was like a call that my confounded will couldn’t resist. I staggered down the steps and followed the receding tiny lights. I followed them foolishly, like in a B movie, until I entered the forest. It wasn’t long until I heard a noise in the underbrush, somewhere to my right. Like in a trance, without thinking of the dangers lurking there, I set out in that direction, without even a stick to defend myself with. A creature sprung out and soon vanished among the trees. In the moonlight, I could make out a small and thin human shape, a boy or a girl maybe. It ran awkwardly, like a carnival man on stilts, in spite of its small built.

It could’ve been anyone, any kid or girl from the village down the valley, drawn by the light in a house they knew was deserted, or some belated tourist, lost on his way back from some healing spring, thinking he was trespassing or that I was some brigand stalking in the night at the edge of the forest. It could’ve been a mad man who had escaped from the Sanitarium. A few years back I taught some ethnology courses, so it came only naturally to think of the seductive girls of the forest, fairies, banshees, wood nymphs, hulder, iele, drăgaice, samcas and such. Some were fantastic creatures from birth, others were human beings who by various reasons became spirits of the forest. The stories were numerous, so were the so-called sightings. Although I had a clear understanding of how fantastic creatures came to life in the simple minds of folk and I didn’t believe they were real as I’d stopped believing in Santa Claus early on, if there was a place where such entities could exist, it would definitely be this place. That night, the dreams that troubled me most started.

It was from that night when during my nocturnal toss and turn I stumbled upon a naked woman’s body, always with her back at me, displaying her round full buttocks, alluring and rock-hard. Nothing happened for a while as, from the first touch, I dived into darkness and when I woke up the other side of the bed was empty and cold, without the shape or heat of another body. I told myself it was my loneliness, man’s eternal craving for a woman’s body.

The bathroom window looked out into the small glade, and one afternoon, when I was taking a cold shower – as I didn’t have the luxury of hot water –, I saw a ginger girl watching me from the bushes, her hair ablaze. She vanished without me even having the impulse to cover my limax-like pale and flaccid body. The same night, while I was on the porch sorting through my papers, I heard footsteps on the stairs behind me, but when I turned there was no one there. Terrible neighing broke out somewhere on the creek’s shore. It kept me up until late in the night. I hadn’t seen a single horse since my arrival, but then I couldn’t muster the courage to go out and discover what fantastic herd, worthy of the Greek myths, could produce such a symphony.

I’d been there for three weeks when I received my first visit. I was tossing and turning in my bed after a night in which I had overdone it with the booze, when I stumbled upon the same woman’s body. This time I woke up. She was still there, now facing me. The light from the porch allowed me to see her. She was a pale girl, lithe, long fiery hair falling upon her shoulders, covering her small breasts. She gave off a strong odor of moist soil and young sapling, sap and raspberries. She smiled thinly and her green eyes flickered in the light. She turned her back to me, revealing the white skin of her round buttocks. I penetrated her without saying a word, without any thoughts, for I was in a moment of my life when I didn’t need too much convincing. She welcomed me, warm and wet, inside her body, the body of a primordial woman, made for mating and breeding. I would lie if I’d say I lasted. The release of the burden of my seed, which had grown inside me for so long, made me shudder and I stayed awhile with my eyes shut, waiting for her to disappear, to vanish as in a wet dream.

But she was still there when I opened my eyes and through the short-lived lucidity of the relieved man, looking at her as she was again facing me, I realized how much she resembled the boyar’s daughter – the same hair, freckles and pointy ears, the same mysterious look. Her back had a deep curve and her legs were strangely bent, resembling, even if they lacked the fur and the hooves, the legs of a deer. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, suddenly, I would have discovered she also had a tail, either short or waving, somehow hidden till then to my eyes which had only wandered towards the sweet tiny place which I wanted to make my own, heedless and without questions. Inexplicably, or maybe because of the liquor, I wasn’t frightened. I am more scared now, remembering it, than I was then. The girl smiled and I fell into a slumber before getting the chance to smile back.

When I awoke, it was already noon. The door was locked and there was not even the smallest sign of any other presence in the room. My one-night mistress hadn’t left any proof of her visit. Vainly did I caress and sniffed at the sheets, I touched myself and flustered.

Vainly did I wait many other nights for her to return. It may have been a dream, but it was so different from the others. Maybe all that had happened before had been just a prelude to this great dream, this grandiose liberating dream. Or maybe she was real, some peasant girl form the village, bursting of insatiate urges her drunkard husband with rough palms couldn’t quench, maybe she was a nun who ran from one of the monasteries nearby, or some tourist lady looking for a fling, some insane girl who had escaped from the Sanitarium, some ghost or spirit, a Lady Christina, a Clavdia Chauchat for a Hans Castorp, a succubus, a samca. Whoever or whatever she was, she didn’t return, and after a few more nights of loneliness and waiting on the verge of despair, feeling she was like a drug I was given just a taste of, leaving me to want more, I’ve decided to leave.

Back in the city, I dropped by the University, looking for Aron. I knew he was often there, even during the student holidays, to drink his coffee and work in the silence of some empty amphitheater. I didn’t find him. However, he had left me a note with the secretary:

“I hope you’ve enjoyed it. As for me, I’ve found another vacation house. See you in the fall.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been there, too, in that manor and had the same experiences as I had, and I felt somewhat troubled by a sort of jealous when thinking I wasn’t the only one who shared the bed with that wild creature, that I wasn’t the only one who had tamed her, even if for just one night.

I searched the libraries till summer’s end, wanting to learn as much as I could about the manor and the boyars who built it, but I only found very little aside from their names and a few dates. I came across some papers documenting the first attestation of the resort, bearing the date of 1760 and some others from the opening of the first healing establishments more than a century later, then some time-worn papers among which there was a water analysis signed by Dr. Carol Davila, a letter from Tudor Vladimirescu to the mysterious Marcu Olar, and also a court paper which stated that the boyar was accused by his wife of witchcraft as he had the habit of summoning forest spirits, and finally a testament proving he had an illegitimate daughter to whom he had left the manor.

Was there any connection between the apparition I encountered and the history of the place? The girl resembled so much the one from the daguerreotype that I’d been staring at, maybe too much. Was she an entirely different person and I saw her as the same on the wall in the darkness just because I was a man full of needs and fantasies, exhausted and drunk? Did she even exist?

Aron never came back and never wrote to me again. When the academic year started and I was so much looking forward to seeing him, to share my experience, to ask him dozens of questions, I found out that, in the meantime, he’d sent in his resignation letter. I miss him sometimes. I’ve never returned to the manor, even though I’ve been on the verge of doing it many times. There are things you live only once.

With that haven shattered, I can only slither on, leaving my limax trail on paper, looking at the irony of my existence with exophthalmic eyes on the tip of my tentacles. There was a time when I received explanations and denied them, now I am looking for them and there is no one there to give them to me.



THE END


2020 George Cornilă

Bio: George Cornilă is a Romanian published author (seven novels and a short story collection), tackling mostly the fantasy and magic realism genres.

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