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Henry – Theresa Smith

I laughed heartily. I winked outrageously. I raked my upper lip over my front teeth in a parody of dumb-hick perplexity, jarred my jaw and furrowed my forehead in a rictus of pained confusion. He stared at the ground. I tightened the mask, letting him absorb my silence.“LOOK AT ME. LOOK AT MY STUPID FACE, SACK OF SHIT!”

He kept his eyes fixed to the cave’s muddy floor: daring me, I thought, to grab his chin and jerk his face toward me. So I did. He looked tired, exhausted, with his rill of wilted white hair and the expanse of his gray neck spilling over a buttoned white collar. He looked a hundred years old. Death had not been kind to him.

“Henry, my eyes are up here,” I said drolly, allowing myself a tiny chuckle to increase the breadth of his discomfort. I let go of his chin. His head fell to the side, exposing a flank of raw white cheek. A fleck of spittle on his jaw. I began to wonder if I hadn’t done it right.

It was the first time I’d done it. I’d assembled everything very carefully: the salts, the rocks, the powders, the talismen, the jars of unnameable substances inked with faded and spidery characters. I’d done my best with the ancient words in their grave spellings, pronouncing them in a variety of ways, hoping that one or the other would be correct. I’d planted my feet in the mud of the cave at the ebb of the tides and cried out to the God of accidents, and lo and behold, my charge had floated to the surface, blue and bloated as a dead cod but not much worse for the wear. Now he sat before me, roped to a chair on a lip of slate, staring at the rotating mud with a cold eye.

Suddenly he shifted, and a waft of the tomb issued from his breeches.

“Welcome, asshole,” I said, grimacing.

He rotated his wrists in their rope shackles and grunted unhappily.

“First things first,” I said brightly. “My name is Theresa, and you’re fucked.”

His eyes traveled wearily to the dripping ceiling. He mumbled something.

“What was that, Henry?” I said, arching my eyebrows in mock inquisitiveness. He mumbled again, something slightly different, longer.

“Speak up!” I roared. He coughed, a small dry cough that was still and sick.

“Henry!”

Slowly he brought his eyes to mine, and the bovine meekness in them shocked me momentarily. His lip sagged, revealing a bit of gum that was pearl-grey and very unhealthy. He made as if to talk. I leaned forward, broom handle laid smartly across the palm of my hand.

“…Drink,” he said, in a reed-thin voice that seemed to originate in a pocket of scarred muscle deep within his heaving gut.

“No, Henry, you cannot have a drink. I absolutely forbid it.”

He mumbled something else, shorter this time. One word.

I hit him in the face with the broom handle. His face went slack. He looked like he was going to vomit.

I was getting impatient. “Do you have any idea why you’re here? Did they,” I made an expansive gesture indicating the black forces of insanity squatting beyond the shattered rim of the galaxy, “tell you anything?”

He was silent.

“Alright, fuck it, so they didn’t.” I had assumed, in error, that the dark terrors of the universe might see fit to suspend their demented howling in order to deliver my cosmic telegram through the cold protoplasmic ache of space. Apparently, they’d listened just long enough to fetch the piece of rotting meat I’d demanded and whip it down the blasted alley of celestial ruin strung with ropes of gemlike earths, not particularly caring whether it reached its mark or flew past it into the great airless tomb that stretched out shadowlike behind it. I decided to preface my accusation with a bit of flattery, hoping that he would savor the praise enough to purposely ignore its patent insincerity.The man was not, after all, an idiot. He had some brilliant insights into human psychology.

I pasted a fawning and solicitous smile to my throbbing mug. “Henry. I absolutely loved The Bostonians. I thought it was a brilliant portrayal of female suffrage as a degraded form of masculinity amid the dog-and-pony show of liberal politics. I thought Verena was fascinating as both a primal voice of natural egalitarianism and an unfortunate pawn seduced by the romanticism and simplicity of liberal philosophy.”

That was Edmund Wilson. I’d done my homework. I knew I’d have a limited amount of time in which to conduct my investigation, so I’d planned the interrogation carefully. I’d prepared an introduction: a hamstrung rhetorical flight of fancy to acquaint him with who I was and what I sought. With the patience of a chemist delicately inserting protons into a bulging nucleus, I’d reamed it full of well-concealed logical fallacies, non sequiturs, false endings, bridges to nowhere, irresolvable ambiguities falling into themselves again and again in the throes of a demented semantic fugue, reasoning that he might need a refresher on the dark art of dissembling after playing pattycake with Walt Whitman for a good century or so. But in the shock and strangeness of the fishy presence of Henry, the program had blown from my mind, and I peered at his silent gray thunderous aspect through an intellectual fog.

I dwelt moodily on the loss of my magnificent monologue. In the spirit of Henry, I’d stacked clauses up against each other in a baroque stockpile of elaborations and qualifications, cantilevered subjects and objects and switched cases and tenses with abandon, gleefully thwacking the spindly legs of my unstable creation until the moment it came gloriously crashing down around my ears. Then, just to show him I’d mastered his technique, I’d applied a few virtuoso techniques of my own: a small avalanche of repurposed legal terminology, a bit of metaphysical shading and ontological stippling, ad hoc aphorisms, pompous capitalized references, and plenty of fuck and suck, until the whole bog churned with internecine battles between the pure and the vulgar in my soul. Where Henry’s prim prose explored at arm’s length the nastiness endemic to social creatures, my vulgarity would extol the purity of my own isolation, as I twisted and vaulted with a mad twinkle in my eye, dodging yet another bussing from the twin threats of censure and convention that discourage the weaker will from pursuing its violent dreams.

“Piece of shit, listen to me. I didn’t blow two grand on a pair of silver-plated ape balls just to talk about a bunch of old dykes…”

What I wanted to talk about was buggery, plain and simple. Buggery whitewashed and draped in garlands of alabaster prose, reeling on delicate twisting ankles like a society matron trying to hide her drunkenness. Turn Of The Screw. Buggery barely hinted at in long, throttled aspirations that stumbled, recovered, apologized, flung fearful half-digested accusations at the nearest pair of trousers, groped for their origins, and wandered off in shock, squint-eyed and damp-featured in the thick perplexity of personal communication, staggering under a soft galvanic swoon that broke the warm flush of conversation into a hot flustered confusion of multilateral social mechanics.

Turn Of The Screw.” I wrinkled my nose as if I smelt a turd. “What was that all about? Is it just a bunch of fuckin’ words? Does something happen? Tell me right now. Tell me everything. I get the truth, I take off the ropes, you go play outside, you come back for a mud bath, the great bastards of the endless sky hoist you home by the scruff of your neck, and you can get back to pegging John Maynard Keynes or whatever the hell it is you do up there.”

It wasn’t much, but it got the job done. My heart raced. My loathing had hit him full in the face; he had flinched and contracted within himself. The book was his soreness, the heartbreak of his career. He hated the early rejection of his book like a mangled soldier hates his early death. I had gone too far. I had cut him off from me. I could not repair the breach. He was lost.

“You dumb faggot,” I added, under my breath.

His head snapped back. His eyes found mine without a second’s hesitation. The bovine submission was gone, replaced by a crystal kindling of malice. The word had caught him like a blow to the back of the head. His ruffle of dusty hair stood up dishlike, and his pitted gray arms shivered slightly under their stiff sleeves with the thrill of offense.

He was ready. So was I.

“Did he fuck the kid, Henry?”

“Excuse me?” The question shocked him into politeness.

“The ghost. Did the ghost fuck the kid?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re referring to,” he replied evenly.

“The kid. The ghost. Peter Quint. Did he fuck the kid.”

“Ghost!”

“Don’t jerk me around, you filthy queen! The ghost. Peter Quint.”

“Quint?” He squinted, as if trying to work out what I meant. “Quint is not a ghost.”

I exploded. “Cocksucker! Don’t play your fucking word games with me. We all know–” I swept my hand to indicate the invisible horde of readers and critics who all shared my conviction – “we all know, Peter Quint is a fucking ghost.”

“Peter Quint is an apparition, I will grant you that.”

I tapped the broomstick impatiently. “Apparition, ghost. What’s the goddamn difference? One’s as–”

“There is certainly a difference,” he interrupted. Cocking an eyebrow, as if he sought my permission to continue, he went on. “An apparition is a psychical phenomenon. A ghost is an objective entity. Certainly more evidence exists to support the status of the former than the latter.” His mouth had worked itself into a little knot of prudish energy, and the elongated vowels issuing from it were sharp with the rot of his teeth. “There is little doubt that the mind is progenitor of greater horrors than the hostile figures that haunt the pages of my story, and it would be fallacy — no, heresy — to claim that these otherworldly presences enjoy the same qualities of existence as the fleshly dramatis personae in whose breast they kindle a keen and destructive terror; rather, it is within the confines of the “ghost story” as such that they acquire true life, a life so far as the medium of the fairy tale is representative of life. Be that as it may–”

I belted him hard across the mouth.

“Shut up,” I said.

He gagged slightly and looked at me reproachfully. But his eye had something of victory in it.

“Wipe that shit-eating grin off your face,” I said.

He obliged.

“In my opinion,”  I sneered, drawing the word out between my teeth, “in my opinion, that’s hardly the  central issue. I think you know what I’m getting at. Yep, what really ties me in knots–” I could not resist a glance at his tightly bound hands – “is the buggering. The goddamn buggering. They were all at it, weren’t they?”

He looked astonished.

“Okay. Let me spell it out for you. The ghost fucks the kid, the kid sticks his wad in another kid, Miss Jessel rubs more than Vicks on little Flora’s bags, and the uncle fucks the governess just for good measure. Everybody fucks. Bly Castle is one huge bog of cum. They probably did it in the church too, the horny bastards. Am I right?” I slapped the broomstick against my palm to punctuate the accusation.

I could see the corners of his mouth turn up just a little. They quickly dove down into a ruminative frown when he saw my scowl.

“Oh, yes. The buggery,” he said, straight-faced.

“Yeah. The buggery.”

“Yes.” He nodded. “You know, you’re very perceptive.” He leaned forward. “I feared I’d be found out — Wilson almost got me, the cheeky bastard, but he was bluffing — and my story would die in neglect after a brief and harried life in infamy. The trials, the accusations, the prying into my personal affairs — oh, the ignominy of it all.” He risked a sideways glance at my face.

“Go on,” I said.

“The Independent called it evil!” He dropped his voice, a masterful note of regret mellowing the strident tone of his rebellion. “Hopelessly evil. Debauched. Infernal. That fellow Keaton was one of the few to pick up the scent. He could have broken me–” here he passed a hand over his dry brow as if to wipe it of sweat, “but no one gave his piece any credence. It was well known that he believed in the need for censorship of the highest order and at all costs, and to that extent aligned himself with a handful of statesmen and prominent revivalists who paid him small favors in return for his vociferation against the moral laxity endemic to the times. I believe he actually did me a favor by defusing the subject; detonating his charge under a pail, if you will; no one took him seriously, and in fact he was roundly attacked by my friends at The Overland and The Outlook in light of his ridiculous accusations.”

A bodily sigh rippled up from his waistcoat. It smelled of dairy and old vegetables and tobacco. He risked another look at me, and continued.

“But he had chanced upon my motives. I could not overlook that. Whether by accident, or by charm, or by the form of luckless intuition which is God’s grace to the witless mind, he had sought my evil, and he had found it.” He closed his eyes and swallowed thickly, as if bolting a spoonful of bitter oil. “They were useless words, the charmless landscapes of a blind painter, but I took them to the grave.” He began to recite the useless words in a grim voice. “The feeling after perusal of the horrible story is that one has been assisting in an outrage upon the holiest and sweetest fountain of human innocence, and–” he drew a long, sour breath, “helping to debauch, by helplessly standing by, the pure and trusting nature…of children.” He batted his eyelids once and cast his gaze sanctimoniously to the ground. He was playing me with the fine touch of a virtuoso. I didn’t care. I was having a ball.

“So they fucked!”

“They knew each other in a way that brooked no secrets.” He said it majestically, with a wash of unhidden contempt. I was impressed. I permitted myself a smile.

A malicious gleam came suddenly into his eye. He studied my face with the intensity of a dog tracking a forkful of meat. “The most grievous error made by my critics,” he intoned gravely, keeping one eye on me, “and the one I could not correct for fear of the whole house tumbling down around me, was concerning certain… er, ambiguities in my work.”

Now we were getting somewhere.

“Mr. Keaton believed he had uncovered a dual meaning in certain passages of my book which served to give its title a very unsavory pall. Having little faith in my ingenuity, he concluded that the duality had sprung from some monstrous rift in my own conscience, a diabolical act of the subconscious which granted me the freedom to write without acknowledging my devils, polluting the virtuous nightstand with my sick tale of woe. Better critical minds insisted on the equivocal nature of the title, claiming that its double status was in fact wholly intentional, that I sought to make a mockery of decency and tar every good wife and mother who innocently absorbed my filth with the brush of my own black impropriety.”

Fucking,” I whispered, unable to believe my luck.

“But,” he continued wearily, “to my knowledge, no one ever guessed at the presence of the subtle third meaning with which I invested the title of my book. They did not guess, because the single unpardonable sin among critics is the admission of ignorance. You may argue anything, as long as you connive to put it forth with a fundamental certainty. One has to throw up his hands in despair in order to understand my little pun. A critic would never do that. It was my way of keeping the dogs from the carrion.”

“The screw, you see, is at the very heart of the book. In the suspension of ambiguity, it turns without surcease; withdrawn, it plunges itself even deeper, working at the fine mesh of the spirit and stripping the delicate associations from the walls of its unwholesome burrow as the poor reader exhausts the muscle of his intellect in holding apart the pillars of fog under which my nebulous language holds dual citizenship in the realms of the pure and perverse, earning its beastly keep by cross-pollinating metaphors, reifying the odd simile, welding a split clause around a bolus of half-digested thought, and turning the mechanics of propriety into a baroque wasteland of spineless vacillation and self-referentiality.”

I frowned. Then it dawned on me. “You’re screwing with us.”

“I am.”

“It was one big fuck-you!”

“It was.”

“O-kay,” I breathed. That was all I could think of to say. Elation crept into my muscles, making them light and rubbery. “So I was supposed to feel like a fucking idiot?”

“If you didn’t,” he said smarmily, “I would think you an absolute dullard.”

I smiled graciously. He had stipulated to Prong One. Now on to Prong Two.

“Okay, Henry,” I said, still smiling, “who fucked?”

“Oh, they all did,” he said with a disaffected air. He sent a resonant belch through his sinuses in a rank display of indifference, while continuing to track me with profound concentration. “As I said, you’re quite perceptive. Keaton almost nailed me on the boy — damn it all! — but that wasn’t the half of it. No, it wasn’t even a drop in the great iron-grey sea of perversion and licentiousness that lapped at the very door of Bly Castle and threatened to drown its inhabitants with a single push of the tide. Certainly, the grim presence of the apparitions accounts for a good deal of the morose agitation shared by the unhappy inhabitants of Bly Castle. But it is not the rather flat and inactive presence of these ghouls themselves that terrifies. Rather, the vale is darkened by the looming shadow of certain vulgar acts perpetuated by these disgraced shades, which threatens to swallow the whole small constellation of Bly in a mad paroxysm of the insatiable devilish hunger of vice!”

I didn’t know what a paroxysm was, but I nodded heartily.

“So. With whom should I begin?” he asked, running his raw hands together in their shackles. He was clearly warming to the subject.

“Uh,” I said. I was still thinking about paroxysms.

“Perhaps I should start with the uncle and the governess, and work my way up the schedule of vice.” He pronounced it shed-ule. I grimaced.

“Suits me,” I said.

He folded his bound hands demurely in his lap and fixed a small piggish eye on me. A flicker of a smile played across his thin lips.

“It had been a dry summer,” he intoned, trimming the fat from each syllable with the cadence of a master storyteller.

“Care to cut to the fucking chase? I don’t need a goddamn weather report.”

He sighed and squinted. He lifted a haunch and worked a little dry heartless fart through the skin of his rumpled breeches.

“They rose together in the perspiration of the womb, in the musk of the seed, upon wings of shuddering silk to the eyries of heaven, where the very angels wept inconsolably at the madness of their miserable union. They huddled together in the dampness of eternity’s eaves, thrusting and parrying disconsolately as they felt the birthright of God’s grace ebbing from their souls as the sun deserts the horizon in a berth of fire, as the moon wastes to a shadow of itself. The governess must have known she was betraying the confidence placed in her as she rejected her own convictions, but she had not expected to feel that she sinned against her own womanhood with the angles of her knees, the pillow wedged into the small of her back and the slackness of her womb as she received the attentive but perfunctory ministrations of her consort. For his part, he cared for her, and pitied her infinitely as he observed the way her girlish moans worked themselves into spiritless little sobs as he mechanically thrust himself into her, kindling again and again the crimson-flecked pyre upon which her virtuousness burned.”

“Shit,” I said.

“Shall I go on?” He looked like he was going to vomit again. He looked like he had just swallowed an icepick. But he looked proud, and full of life.

“Tell me about the kid,” I said.

“No. I’ll save poor little Miles for last. Would you like me to tell you about Miss Jessel?”

“Would I!” I winked outrageously.

“Winter was upon Bly Castle–” he began.

“Henry,” I said.

“Very well. “Will you come to church tomorrow?” asked little Flora suddenly. Miss Jessel started up in fright. “Why certainly, child,” she answered, flustered, “don’t I always come?” “Yes,” replied Flora, “but I want you there tomorrow especially.”

Henry,” I said.

His eyes narrowed.

“Miss Jessel had been staring out over the warm bath as her fingers soaped Flora’s dimpled skin. She hurriedly fixed the berth of her attention on the girl. “And why tomorrow? Why must I come tomorrow especially?” she asked with a small tinkle of a laugh. Miss Jessel’s lightness was forced; she worried that her melancholy had provoked the child’s concern. Flora was, after all, very perceptive.” He looked at me.

“Yep,” I said.

“In fact, little Flora was so perceptive that her flushed skin shrank away from Miss Jessel’s touch as if it contained a dangerous electricity; her body perceived a hidden infelicity, a gentle trap, that her young mind could not possibly conceive. As Miss Jessel’s fingers returned to their orbit, pushing gently but  insistently at the young unspoiled thighs of her charge, Flora’s conviction gave way; her tiny rosebud of a mouth slackened, and she gave herself up to the abstract horror of Miss Jessel’s intent, which was to her a many-storied house of fears, doubts, worries, shocks and indecencies only slightly guessed at, and she was falling, falling through each floor as the rotten boards gave way, falling down and down into the rank basement of Miss Jessel’s desire.”

I didn’t say anything. He passed his hand over his brow. This time there was sweat.

“Shall I tell you now about young Miles and the wretched Peter Quint?”

“Yes,” I said, without hearing myself

“Miles,” he said almost to himself, “is a special case. I had conceived in my mind the very paragon of rosy young boyhood, and accordingly invested young Miles with all the goodness and sweetness of the  child still sheltered in grace by the supernal forces that bring all children into being, defending them from the worm of the world until the child learns the craft of deception, and at that moment escapes his angels for all time.” He exhaled raggedly and continued, his fists balled tightly into his lap. “But then I, in my cruelty, in my mad capacity as a, as a– a mad rapist–” — he caught his breath — “desired to rip the very heart of it all away, to erase everything that was good and whole in the child and in doing so, turn him into a vicious antagonist who snatches from others what was removed from his very own breast by the devil’s ambassador.” His words tumbled over one another in a mad rush to the commode. I recognized their cascading flight. “But Peter Quint was not the devil’s ambassador. He was merely the left hand of my own frightful endeavor to despoil a beauty I could not contain.”

He labored for another breath. “Had Peter Quint been the devil himself, his behavior could not have been more contemptible; for it is in the devil’s nature to commit such crimes against the spirit. In his sick intelligence, he perceives the weaknesses of our bodies and conceives to send up to us a cancer from the horrible vapors of his Stygian crypt: a plague which would not kill us, but make us as the dead.”

“Buggery,” I said.

“Yes. The godless plague of buggery.”

“They fucked,” I said.

“They fucked.”

“Huh!”

I slipped the rope from his ankles and untied his wrists.

“Thank you. You’ve been very helpful. I mean it.”

He lurched unsteadily to his feet. He looked me up and down, as if he were judging his ability to knock me over. But then he shuffled past me on the narrow ledge to the mouth of the cave.

I called after him. “Henry!” He turned around. “You weren’t, uh, screwing with me, right?”

Eyes blue as sheep’s milk rose up in anger from terrible twin blue-black fissures. They flung his loathing at me. They communicated the whole of him. He was a blind wordless rage, galled by his impotence and disarmed by the shock of my sheer stupidity. I saw in the lee of his protruding lower lip that he was sorry he did not care to hurt me now that he had the opportunity to do so.

“Henry?”

I watched him compress his passion down into a little vertebral disc and pinch it in the hollow of his cheek, pinning it there with a tiny false smile. “I think,” he replied tightly, “you have allowed me to add yet another titular dimension to my little book.”

Titular! Watch out!” I laughed heartily. I wished him good health.

He stood there for a moment, stewing. “Did you even read the fucking book?”

I smiled and waved.

“I’m not a fag,” he said.

I waved again.

“Fuck you,” he said flatly. His profanity had the dull smack of a flaccid basketball hitting the sidewalk.

“Godspeed, Henry!” I saluted with the broomstick.

He stepped off the ledge and disappeared beneath the mud.