In the Secret Parts of Fortune
by Connor Caddigan
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
To his great relief Claude tracks down Gonzago in the den. Panting from all the excitement, the dog slurps water from a shiny new dish next to a leather armchair. Careful not to make any sudden gestures that might startle the animal, Claude removes the amber vial from the pocket of his robe and twists the cap off. His hands shake. A bead of sweat rolls down the bridge of his nose. He must not pollute his fingertips.
Holding the vial at arm’s length he pours the poison — one, two, three drops — into the dish. He almost expects to see a small explosion of color, a plume of pink smoke, a magnesium flare rocketing across the dark room, but nothing happens, and Gonzago laps it up like a king drinking from his favorite chalice.
Gazing pitilessly down at the dog, Claude murmurs, “That’s right, drink deep before you depart.” Smoothing back his hair, he goes to the liquor cabinet and helps himself to a generous glass of absinthe. “Ah, now that’s wormwood,” he says, smacking his lips and sinking into the armchair.
Ironically, it was here, in this very room, that Edward de Vere, before leaving on his latest business trip, invited Claude to join him for a drink by the fire, two old friends, smoking cigars and nursing tumblers of green liqueur.
As usual, Edward had a burning need to brag about his devious plans, the next forbidden excursion, the impending molestation while in Paris or Copenhagen or wherever he claimed to be conducting his shady business transactions. Edward frequented exclusive bordellos and other high-dollar dens of iniquity recommended by the smarmy black market racketeers who offered him a choice of freshly deloused nymphets imported from the desert wastes of developing countries.
“Paris is lovely this time of year. Oh, it’s not Amsterdam of course, but the girls are exceedingly professional... though they do tend to be a bit picky. They detest obesity. Sometimes they refuse to service fat Americans.” He walked over to where Claude was sitting and patted his belly. Claude glared at him, his nemesis.
Edward was wearing a shirt with French cuffs, a silk tie from Hermes, handcrafted shoes from Milan. His nails were manicured and his teeth were bleached bone white. From the looks of it he must have had his stiff curlicues and massive swoops of hair sculpted by Rodin, a great pompadour modeled after the Gates of Hell. His soul was sheathed in barnacles, his eyes black as infinite space with pupils so large and lifeless that they seemed to suck in light like a singularity.
“In some ways I actually prefer the whores in Paris,” he went on. “Maybe one day I’ll take you with me. I know a wonderful spot at the Place de la Contrescarpe. Best maison close on the Left Bank.”
Claude rolled his eyes at the way he gave the words a nasal accent. It seemed odd that Edward could speak the lingo at all. He had no talent or appreciation for languages. As boys at the Jesuit high school, they were subjected to hours of grueling college preparatory coursework and innumerable fire and brimstone exhortations on Cain and Abel, but while Claude succeeded at his studies, graduating near the top of his class, Edward proved a complete mediocrity, always struggling to earn a C average. Somehow he cheated his way through Latin, which was compulsory for all students.
His lack of intellectual curiosity was seen not as laziness or stupidity but as a personal affront to the Jesuits’ love of learning, and for his constant and intentional butchery of Virgil, the priests made Edward stay after school to translate entire chapters of the Aeneid, to no avail. He couldn’t understand a word of it, didn’t know Pyrrhus from Priam, a hawk from a handsaw, and like a lot of frustrated, adolescent boys, Edward vowed to get even with his teachers.
To his credit it didn’t take him long to amass an enviable fortune and to lord it over those penniless clergymen who, in the days to come, were always looking to kiss the feet of some generous benefactor.
By the time he was thirty, Edward owned a heavily wooded forty-acre lot in Avon. He conscripted a European architect with a dubious past to design a house of glass and steel that looked like a cross between a medieval castle and an iceberg, his very own Fortress of Solitude.
On a promontory overlooking a dale he built an infinity swimming pool, a tennis court with a red clay surface, a putting green and, some distance from the house, the pretty little grotto where at night his wife could light candles and prostrate herself before the Holy Mother. On the north end of the property he constructed two large stables where he kept six impeccably groomed Danish Warmbloods that he showed on special occasions — state fairs and parades and children’s birthday parties.
In short, he created a suburban fiefdom and crowned himself petty dictator... but a dictator whose throne could easily be usurped. For years Claude has been laying the groundwork. He knows this tyrant all too well, knows he is a man of many weaknesses. Now well into middle age, Edward is still very much a child, a sensualist, blinded by the disease of egotism.
“These trips abroad have become a necessity,” Edward said with a wistful smile, sinking into the chair where Claude sits now. The king’s throne. “You have no idea what I’ve been through this year. My wife has become a terrible burden. She’s determined to destroy me. She burns through my money. Burns through it.” He takes a long, contemplative puff on his cigar.
Above the rim of his glass and through the silver sheen of smoke he stares at Claude and after a pregnant pause says, “Maybe it’s time I finally got rid of her. I can only pray someone will take her off my hands, someone more suited to the job...”
How much time elapses before Gonzago actually dies Claude cannot say, the animal makes no sound at all, no strangled cries of torment, but at some point in the night, after finishing his third glass of absinthe, Claude notices the dog sprawled across the rug, motionless, tongue hanging heavy and gray from the corner of its mouth, eyes bulging from its skull.
In that alien silence devoid of the dog’s devilish laughter, Claude feels the alcohol cascading into the deep fissures of his brain. Though he is not a superstitious man and has always made a friend of reason and logic, he decides that it’s probably best to bury Gonzago before joining Elsie in bed and sating himself on love. To let the dog rot in the open air seems an invitation to allow its stupid slavering spirit to haunt his dreams.
Dragging the mangy carcass across the yard, Claude chooses a nice spot near the grotto where the earth is soft and warm and where the worms look particularly eager to do their work. He finds a shovel in the tool shed and then begins to build a doghouse that will last Gonzago till doomsday.
He tunnels into the soil like some infernal gravedigger, uncovering the bones of the luckless squirrels and rabbits that Gonzago has brutally mangled and then buried with jittery backward glances. As he digs deeper, he uncovers a million subtle odors locked away in the earth, the fleshy green leaves transformed over the years into a brown soup that sends up fingers of steam into the evening air, eons of carnage artfully concealed by the moribund bouquet of nature.
Claude cannot comprehend the fact that one day he, too, will belong to that corrupt odor, his lingering stench the last trace of an existence that has failed to leave a more lasting mark on the world. The maggots will have at him, and his flesh will melt into the rich alluvial mud. Ultimately, his bloated carcass will make a fine meal for some ravenous fiend like Gonzago.
It’s for this reason that he plans to be interred in the deepest catacombs of a monastery where, despite the anonymity of his jumbled bones, there might at least be a small chance that his skull, polished smooth by the dripping limestone walls, will become a memento mori, a paperweight for the manuscripts of some future literary genius who decides to smuggle it out of the tomb and place it on the edge of his desk next to an hourglass, a vase of red roses, a glass of Amontillado.
Exhausted and dizzy from drink, Claude rolls the corpse into the pit and then begins to fill the hole. He wonders how his old friend will take the news of Gonzago’s passing. Edward has been behaving rather erratically of late, and there is a distinct possibility that in his unbearable grief he will dig up the corpse and rock it back and forth in his arms, trying to grasp the enormity of his loss. “Why?” he might whisper, “why?”
Because asking why — why this course of action and not some other — well, those are the kinds of questions men of his station often ask, men who have grown accustomed to success and balk at events when they veer radically from the script they have meticulously crafted. How they abhor change, resist it, have no intention of ever facing life’s rampant dangers, its vulgarity and impermanence.
But erosion takes its toll on all things, reveals complex rows of strata and substrata below the surface, so that over the slow course of time the souls of these men, petrified like fossils encased in layers of stone, are finally exposed, extracted, put on display for all to see. Change is inescapable: it unites rich and poor alike, the mindless cosmic constant that converts all things into unidentifiable heaps of dust and bones.
Claude taps down the dirt, throws the shovel aside and returns to the house, but before heading upstairs to join Elsie in bed, he pauses in the den, takes one last look around. The bottle of absinthe and the vial of poison are still on the table beside the armchair.
A peculiar feeling comes over him. The branches of the elms and maples clatter against the windowpane, the moon drifts behind a cloud, the wind whispers its secrets and then goes silent; in short, the globe continues to spin in its usual manner, but Claude has the sensation, an acute awareness, that he is not, and perhaps has never been, the protagonist of this drama but is merely a supporting player, one who appears briefly on stage to recite a few modest lines before retreating to the wings to wait for the spectacular, dazzling, grisly finish.
He pours three drops of poison into the bottle, not enough to do any harm really, just enough to course through the sinister alleys of Edward’s soul and make him a little light-headed when he gets back from his “business trip.” Then quietly, almost reverentially, Claude returns the bottle to its proper place in the liquor cabinet, and in a voice solemn and clear, he speaks the little Latin he can still recall from his days as a schoolboy with the Jesuits: “Consummatum est.”
For in truth it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Copyright © 2010 by Connor Caddigan