Born January 19th 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, Poe was a literary pioneer, a poet, a master of the macabre, a pioneer of science fiction, and is credited with inventing the modern detective story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” His concept of deductive reasoning, which he called "ratiocination" inspired countless authors, most famous among them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Poe’s poetry and short stories greatly influenced the French Symbolists of the late 19th century, who in turn altered the direction of modern literature.
My story "The veil of the soul." was written and published in an anthology celebrating the bicentenary of his birth: - enjoy.
"The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?" EAP
The church is very old, ruined by the weather and wind carved by the mistrals. The central altar, a huge block of granite, grey and cold, defiantly pagan. It had been brought back from somewhere high in the mountains, where the vultures and eagles wheel on currents of air that are as substantial as our concrete bypasses and spiraling freeways. The altar sits on four sturdy legs of wood in a structure of hewn rock. It can no longer see its beloved sky. It no longer rests on a bed of living breathing filaments. Candles in polished silver holders drip disrespectfully on its ancient surface. Crisp white linen cloths whisper coarse and bawdy stories. But the sacrifices are at least still made. The thread of worship remains unbroken and that thread weaves a web of silvery darkness. The cup that holds the blood wine emits a heat that is only discerned by the cold ancient heart of the granite. And that is as it should be. Rocks, after all understand the burning core of being far more than any other living thing. But are rocks truly alive? If you were a rock you would know the answer.
Our lady sits on one of the wooden pews. She has come a long way, has walked roads that will not ever be walked again, has passed through cities that reek of wealth and hunger. She has passed many strange and wondrous sights yet few have left any impression. She is blind, you see. Not literally of course, but blind nevertheless. Her blindness is of the spirit. She can sense but not actually see. And when it comes to faith, well it is even worse. If only she could have blind faith perhaps then her story would be different.
Eleonara has been waiting for far too long to believe that a miracle would, could, ever actually happen. She has left her home, or maybe it was her home that left her. Home is where the heart is? Isn't that what they say? Maybe it was her heart that she has mislaid, lost. Or perhaps it has just run away, perhaps it ran away with her faith. Like some ethereal owl and pussycat. Her heart a bright red tiger with stripes of neon yellow purring up to her faith, a finely feathered figure with eyes as big as pizza plates, eyes that would enable it to pierce the darkest of all religious gobbledygook.
For Eleonora, it may be all much too late. There were things she could no longer do, vows she could no longer keep. For so long she has tried. How many years has it been? She remembers that moment, that decision. Hers and hers alone. She had taken her cross and vanished into the world beyond the convent's walls.
A hard cold world. Her first night outside those walls was like walking into a veil of whiteness. The flakes falling so very softly and gently, like a lovers touch. Not that she would know anything about that. But she could imagine what a lover would be like. Had imagined. She walked for three days without stopping or sleeping or eating. The snow kept her warm, it covered her like a blanket, melting on her lips and the icy droplets dripped into her mouth and ran down her throat. So cold they burned.
She was told she looked like an angel by two traveling jugglers who insisted she share their tent. The jugglers covered her with smelly blankets and made her eat some of their food that was hot and spicy. They held her in their arms, between them she lay naked as a child. They were so alike they may have been brothers. They faces reminded her of foxes, sharp and wild. Their bodies were lean and hard; their kisses feral and dank like lichen. It was, most probably, a spiritual experience. They asked her to join them, so Eleonora traveled in the back of their van, sharing their warmth and food. They liked her cross and her dark soulless eyes. She liked their juggling balls, their sharp swords, and their fiery torches. They wanted to swap. Three of their cosmic balls for her cross. She declined, feeling it was an unfair bargain, for them.
She left them one night while they were busking. Three months went by with barely a murmur. She could not say where she was, geographically speaking. The nights seemed warmer and the days were humid. Everything dripped with moisture. The plants had huge leaves and strange shaped flowers. Her cross was showing signs of rust. God had surely forsaken her. She wore very little, a skirt red and tatty and a shirt that one of the jugglers had given her. It was covered with strange symbols that glowed in the dark.
Often she would need to run to the side of the road to hide amongst the dense vegetation when the convoys of army trucks went by. There were so many. She often hid for hours. Sometimes she would fall asleep waiting for them to be gone. When she awoke she would find that she was covered with huge black and green butterflies. The beating of their wings kept her cool. She felt like Eve in the garden of paradise. Just before you know what. She waited for the serpent and the apple to appear. That would've at least been a sign. She would resist the temptation. The miracle would happen. She would be forgiven. But only a coconut fell in front of her path, fell from a great height and cracked open revealing its white fleshy heart and its aromatic milk.
For years it seemed she wandered through these cities of green flora and the jungles of tangled wire. Then she came across the desert. It was fathomless and forever. Flat as the earth, covered in coarse red dust and rocks, the only vegetation were the giant cacti that stood against the horizon like distorted crosses.
Abandon hope, all thee that enter here, said the sign.
She was blind so she missed it. And maybe, just maybe she kept her hope.
So Eleonora traversed this desert that was as hot as molten silver during the day, and as cold as a cryogenics tomb at night. Her arms and legs burnt a mahogany brown and her hair bleached a bony white. Her cross was now a rusty red much like the surrounding rocks, it had rough groves that had been carved by the sandstorms. At night as she lay alone in this vastness of nothing, the ghosts of the dingoes howling their songs of death, she would clutch her cross and trace the lines and groves like a blind person reading Braille. But she could not decipher the code and the meaning remained elusive.
It was lonely in the desert. She lived on roots and ripe pebbles and the occasional lizard's tail that had been discarded under a stressful situation. She rarely saw the actual lizards but got to know their various tails very well. Early morning she drank dew that collected in the shadows between the rocks.
It was with surprise that she came across this church where now she sits. It stood alone etched on the horizon like some child’s drawing. Its sandstone walls were covered in a film of reddish grains and it looked as though it had actually grown up and out of the dirt. She stood outside it for many hours examining the doors and the walls and the roof. It had no windows only small shutters under the eaves. It was only when the sun was setting and the sky was a kaleidoscope of colour that she ventured in.
Inside it was very peaceful. The candles on the altar and in their niches in the walls were all lit. Everything was clean and tidy and well cared for. It reminded her of her old convent. The night settled down and the temperature dropped. Around midnight the doors opened and the footsteps came tapping over the stone floor. A young man came in, a pale thin raven of a man. He was very well dressed in his creamy linen suit. His blonde hair was short and sleek. His face was lovely. He looked like a corporate angel. There was a touch of arrogance around his mouth. It was his only flaw.
Eleonora wondered how he had gotten here. He had come as silently as a bird of prey. They sat alone, together. He stared at his hands and she stared at him. Pale and beautiful, there was the taint of death about him. All was quiet except the occasional drip of wax from the candles.
Suddenly a strange sound pierced the air. It was like the ringing of a bell, the tolling of chimes. It was eerie yet familiar. The young man reached into his pocket and took out a phone; it was black and sleek in its leather case. He put it to his ear and the ringing stopped.
For the first time he looked at her, acknowledging her presence. His eyes were a very dark brown. They reminded her of the earth, rich humus, fertile and deep as a grave. He spoke and his voice was low and well modulated. She had not heard a human voice for such a long time. She sat in rapture, just listening to the words not even hearing their meaning.
He repeated the words, once, twice, three times.
“It's for you.”
She looked at him blankly.
He looked annoyed.
“It has to be for you as you are the only one here.”
He glanced around checking that he was correct and that no one else was lurking in the shadows. He held out the phone for her to take.
She looked at it, fascinated by the glowing blue and purple display. But she did not take it.
“It's for you.” He repeated impatiently.
“Who is it?” Her voice sounded strange. She was not used to talking out loud. She sounded small and rocky. She had been too long in the desert.
He gave her a look of disdain and then put the phone back to his ear.
“Who may I ask is calling?” His voice was smooth and professional.
Then his face grew even paler, much paler than before, like long buried bone it became. When he spoke again his voice had lost that smooth and professional tone. The words did not want to emerge. He stumbled over them like too many rocks that his tongue had to dodge. He gave up. Instead he pointed to the roof, to the sky, to the stars that spun above eons of time and space away.
Still she did not react. His lips had lost their veil of arrogance and she thought he looked much better for it. He held the phone out to her. She made no move to take it. He looked like he wanted to drop it but dare not. She could see he thought she was being difficult.
Finally he pulled the words out, from deep in his throat, his gut even, he hauled them like they were a slimy struggling fish he had hooked. They came slowly, inch-by-inch, syllable-by-syllable.
“God? God who?”
She stared at him and then the whole thing struck her as so funny, so ludicrously funny that she laughed for the first time since, well, ever. She laughed until the walls were shaking with escaped mirth, she laughed till the tears had drowned the dust from her face and body. She laughed and laughed while the young man stood there looking horrified. Finally she stopped. Still smiling she headed for the door.
“Stop! Where are you going? What about the call?” He looked mortified.
“God does not use mobile phones.”
She was not going to be fooled that easily. She might be blind but she was no fool.
He stood like he had been turned to stone, his angelic face frozen, the phone held in his outstretched hand. He stood so silent, so unmoving this pale thin raven of a man.
Evermore, the door sang as she left.
Nevermore it boomed as it clanged shut.
Eleonora wanders through this desert that never ends. It has been a long time since that night. So long ago she has lost count. The years slip by like days. Her face is as lined and as grooved as her cross was. The cross is no longer. Slowly and immeasurably it has dissolved and is now part of the desert sand that swirls around her. She still waits in hope for a miracle that will rid her of her blindness and make her whole. She still waits for God to reveal himself to her. For the veil around her soul to be lifted. It is a test and she will not be found wanting.
Not this time.
There are miracles and there are mirages.
She will not be fooled.
Everyone knows that demons come disguised as pale beautiful men with angelic faces.
Everybody knows that.
originally published in Weird Winter an anthology of stories influenced by Edgar Allan Poe - on the bicentenary of his birth