Today, Lise and Kevin explore “Reynold’s Tale” by Adrian Ludens, submitted to NonBinary Review Issue #12: The Works of Edgar Allan Poe.
It has been written that there are secrets which should never be shared. I am in partial agreement with this assessment. Men and women die daily and nightly, guilt gnawing away at their resolve to live. The thread of their long-kept secret steadfastly unravels the fabric of their mortal coil until they no longer have a tether to this earthly realm. Up these thoughts must drift into the endless inverted abyss. But what if the dreaded secret were revealed at a time not inopportune? Could one’s conscience be eased and death staved off? Perhaps. I have two secrets. I shall endeavor to share one of them, lightening the burden that I bear and thus extending—I fervently hope—my life. I only ask that you hear my tale and judge me not.
Call me Reynolds. A few years ago, on the second of October, 1849, to be precise, I sat at a large bow-window of a coffee house in Baltimore. For some weeks I had been in ill health. My body endured the challenges associated with an extended illness, while my mind underwent certain changes. But now I found my strength returning in unprecedented abundance. So also, joie de vivre enveloped me. A happy and inquisitive mood enveloped me. I rushed headlong into each new day with an alacrity and curiosity heretofore unknown to my personality.
With a newspaper still folded on my knee and a fine cigar hanging idly from my lips, I found myself continuously distracted by those who bustled along the dirty street below the window. The street, being one of Baltimore’s principal thoroughfares, was crowded with humanity. As the lengthening shadows assimilated into the growing darkness that comes with the retreat of the sun, the tumultuous sea of faces below filled my mind with a hundred flights of fancy. I gave up completely on my paper and cigar. My coffee grew cold. I became absorbed in contemplation of the ever-changing scene below me.
At first my observations were random in nature. My eyes would fall upon a face, or perhaps only a single feature—a woman’s nose, for instance—and with a preternatural clarity, I could know everything I cared to about that person. I noted at a glance the birds of a feather. I mentally sequestered groups of noblemen, merchants, tradesmen, clerks, gamblers, lunatics, pick-pockets, drunkards, murderers, clergymen, and lawyers. Each aforementioned grouping descended in the scale of what could only be termed gentility. Deeper and darker character studies presented themselves for my speculation.
As the night deepened, so also my interest in the ebb and flow of humanity below me deepened. The character of the crowd altered, growing more sinister and more decadent. Ruffians seethed and searched for violence by swaggering down the center of the thoroughfare. Heavily painted women of the night kept to the shadows and attempted to seduce and beguile with toothless, slack-jawed smiles. The rays of the gas lamps spotlighted many interesting visages. The sight of a legless man rolling himself along on a small, wheeled cart brought forth in me a smile so broad that I felt my dry bottom lip split. I relished the discomfort.
Then a pick-pocket misjudged his mark and the intended victim clamped down on the miscreant’s wrist and drew him in close. The mark used a grimy thumb to gouge the shifty fellow’s right eye out. The pick-pocket howled and the crowd parted around them, but never stopped moving. The intended victim’s lips moved and I interpreted his words clearly. “How’d ya like it? Me taking sumthin’ from you? Now ya knows how it feels!” The pick-pocket scurried up the street, his hand cupped to his empty socket. The angry man held a pose reminiscent of Jack Horner for a few moments. Then, apparently realizing this “plum” on his thumb could lead to unwanted attention he shook it loose and hastened away in the opposite direction.
I stifled a titter and, taken aback, wondered why the events I had witnessed caused this reaction within me. My eyes skipped over the throng when there came into my view a countenance so forlorn—so haunted—that I lost interest in all else. His presence among the throng was like that of an exotic fish among a school of carp. I pressed my brow to the glass and scrutinized the object of my instant fascination.
The man was short in stature, and quite thin. A shock of hair the color of raven’s feathers contrasted with his waxy-white face. A mustache perched atop lips that twisted in a petulant frown. A broad forehead and prominent nose lent strength to his features. Conversely, the deep hollows beneath and the furrowed brows above the stranger’s eyes revealed a profoundly troubled heart. But his eyes held the most damning evidence. From only the briefest of glances, I felt as if I experienced firsthand his vast mental capability, his excessive terror, his fervent desire to love and be loved, his avarice, his hopefulness, his overwhelming guilt, and his supreme despair. He disappeared for a moment, lost in the waves of filthy, ragged humanity. I readjusted my gaze and found my own reflection in the glass. An overwhelming interest in the stranger pressed me into motion. I threw a few coins on the table, put on my overcoat, and seized my hat and cane. I made my way onto the street and pushed through the crowd in the direction I’d seen the haunted-looking man take. With only slight difficulty, I found him among the throng and fell in about twenty paces back.
A thick fog, refracting the rays of the gas lamps, illuminated the scene with a garish luster. I followed my quarry and gradually closed the distance between us. His clothes were shabby. He hunched his shoulders against the clamminess of the night. Never once did he turn his head to look back. By and by he passed an alley and I seized the opportunity to speak with him in a semi-private environment.
I lunged forward, grasped his right arm just above the elbow, and pulled him into the alley. My quarry thrashed and struggled to free himself. “Unhand me!” he shrilled.
I spun him so that we faced each other. “I shall, but do not flee. I have friendly intentions and wish only for a moment of intelligent conversation.” Our eyes locked and after a moment’s hesitation, the stranger gave me a brief nod. I released his arm and he waited with countenance guarded and mistrustful.
“Who are you and what business would you have with me?” he asked.
“Call me Reynolds. When I saw you on the street, I first mistook you for a long-lost friend.” The lie would do him no harm. “I drew close enough that my error became apparent. I realized that I would not rekindle an old friendship on this night after all, but thought perhaps I could forge a new one instead.” I lifted my inflection and turned the statement into a question.
The despair so prevalent in his deep brown eyes gave way to a spark of hope. I fanned the flame with an encouraging smile to which he tentatively responded. “Do tell me,” I invited. “What your name is, good sir, and what is your trade?”
A giddy, mad gleam came into his eyes. “I am Poe. I am a writer.” This time he seized my arm and steered me deeper into the alley. We strode between tall, worm-eaten tenements that leaned over us as if they would topple at any moment. Our path wound in random directions and my new friend spoke rapidly and with vehemence as we trudged along the crooked paving stones and rankly growing grass.
“I write, but I must censor myself at every turn. It is my most fervent desire to write about love. But-” he broke off and shuddered. “The love I feel—the love I believe in—cannot be discussed rationally or with intelligence in general company without threat of persecution. I am a vox clamantis in deserto, a voice crying in the wilderness. Inside my chest beats the heart of a romantic. I laugh, I cry, I love with reckless abandon.”
I nodded my encouragement and Poe continued.
“For instance, some years ago I had intended to write a love story about an old man and his live-in companion. I had the first line of the story written: ‘I loved the old man’. Yet I knew such a tale would never sell, would only ruin me. My own inner fears preyed upon me and twisted my original intentions into an abomination. What started as a story about love had devolved into one of murder, guilt and madness.
“In another tale, I intended one character, Valdemar by name, to reveal his love for a colleague while under the influence of hypnosis. I included in the first draft a scene of passionate lovemaking between Valdemar and my narrator. My body and soul were alight with desire as I wrote, but upon completion I took the pages and hid them away.”
Poe’s voice cracked with emotion at this revelation. I put one arm around his shoulder in a gesture of consolation. We did our best to ignore the filth that festered around the dammed-up gutters. The overall atmosphere around me, including the author himself, conveyed nothing but desolation.
“Every story or poem I have ever written started out vastly different. But always the evil creeps back into my heart and into my work. My corrupt revisions are of death, sorrow, loneliness and madness! Why must it be that way? I have become my own worst enemy. My works, upon my re-reading of them, rear up and spit in my face!
“The treasure-seeker and his servant in The Gold Bug were meant to be lovers! Another of my characters, Roderick Usher, buried his sister alive in the published version of his tale. My original draft pitted Roderick and his sister in a precocious battle for the affections of the unnamed narrator. Oh, the adventures in lovemaking they shared!”
My new acquaintance seemed far away for a moment, placing his self in the story, perhaps. Then his shoulders sagged and his eyes once again took on their defeated, yet defiant cast. “That manuscript and so many others molder in a locked box somewhere. I couldn’t bear to burn them, nor could I allow them to be discovered by prying, judgmental eyes.”
Our pace had slowed. We turned a corner and a blaze of light burst upon our view. We stood before a temple erected for the purpose of whiskey and gin worship. A tattered sign next to the entrance advertised upstairs rooms for rent ‘by hour or by night‘.
Poe spun to face me. “Do you know that in my original version of Cask of Amontillado, the hole left in the wall was not at eye-level but instead was positioned parallel with Fortunato’s waist? Montresor forgave him, you see. Only wanted to tease him, ply him with drink, and then tear down the wall between them so that they might abandon themselves to their desires in privacy. But my practical side got the better of me, and the story now is one of cruel revenge.”
He stepped forward and seized the lapels of my overcoat. “William Wilson only ran from his own desires! The revelers in what became The Mask of the Red Death were meant to indulge in a night of freedom and self-discovery. I changed the stories only because I needed money for food and lodging!”
A clock struck eleven. The author gazed into my eyes imploringly. “Is it too late? Can I repent of past mistakes and seize salvation at this both literal and figurative eleventh hour?”
I looked down into Poe’s eyes and could find no fault in him. His wants, needs and desires, so long-buried and hidden, could still be tended to, fertilized, and brought to fruition. Though I had no particular attraction to men in general, I felt I could help this unfortunate fellow achieve some small measure of happiness. Thus, I navigated the creaking, rotten stairs to the entrance and once inside, inquired about securing a room.
Poe visibly trembled as we ascended the stairs. With the door closed and the begrimed key turned in the lock, my companion fell upon me with fervent kisses. Never before had I felt so needed by anyone. We removed our garments rather ceremoniously and stood before a grimy looking-glass. I nuzzled his neck and cupped one hand on his heart, which beat like that of a frightened captive bird. Of the haunted look that had dominated his visage there was no trace. At length, we fell together onto the bed.
The bookish fellow proved to be an attentive lover. I did my best to impress upon him my appreciation and repay him for his efforts. Poe’s kisses left on my lips a pine needle-flavor; evidence of time spent in the gin mills. I kissed and licked my way down his spine, eliciting shivers unlike those he brought about in his readers. But when I caressed his buttocks with my erect manhood, Poe cast an anxious look over his shoulder. The brooding, tortured soul had returned and I decided instantly not to welcome it. Instead, I bounded across the room and removed the grimy looking-glass from its place. I tossed it on mattress and maneuvered Poe into position over the mirror. His physical arousal still evident; I knew I had only to contend with his mental reservations. Using my own saliva to facilitate our congress, I pressed myself forward until we were one. Then, as caressed his shoulders, neck, and back with my fingertips I exhorted him, saying: “Cast aside the shackles that bind you! Look inside yourself. Love yourself!” He groaned and rocked in a rhythm that complimented mine. Tentatively at first, and then increasing in passion and intensity, we moved until I felt my own climax approaching. I let one hand slide across his hip, intending to pleasure his member, but stopped short. I confess I gasped at the serendipitous event I witnessed. Poe was weeping, not with sorrow, but with joy, as if the rusted chains that choked his soul had been shattered. As his tears pattered onto the glass, he bent, and tasted them with the tip of his tongue. I watched Poe press his lips to the glass; his reflection returned the kiss. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever witnessed.
In the end, we lay exhausted and tangled in the dingy sheets. As the pale gray of dawn crept upon the city, Poe began to twitch and show signs of growing unease. I inquired what troubled him.
“It cannot be this way. I cannot allow it.” He sat up pulled a sheet to his waist, as if suddenly ashamed. Feelings of confusion and frustration welled up within me. I could not fathom why one would deny happiness and forsake love, instead turning and running headlong into despair and loneliness. I told him as much.
“You can’t begin to understand! Have you no fear of discovery? No fear of derision, loathing, and ruin?”
I did not, and I admitted as much. It was then, in my attempt to soothe his misgivings, that I made my most horrific mistake. It was an error of judgment I deeply regret to this day. But how could I guess the outcome? My illness and accompanying fever had changed me, as I have already indicated. And, not knowing what result my words would have, I told the tormented little author my secret.
“Last year, I spent several weeks among an ostracized tribe from one of the Greater Antillean islands,” I revealed. “While living with the tribe, they introduced me to a taboo act of depravity so taboo I dare not say it aloud. Yet the desire to perform the act has sunk hooks of addiction into me. I am a slave to it in body and mind. You needn’t feel guilt, my friend. There is no comparison. For my most pleasurable experiences were…”
I cupped one hand to Poe’s ear and revealed my most cherished act. His eyes dilated as I described the process, and I stopped speaking, realizing I had said too much.
Poe rolled from the bed, crashed to the floor and grabbed a pair of trousers. “Villain!” He hurled this accusation as he hurriedly dressed. The little author ignored my entreaties, would not speak to me again. My attempts to placate him had no discernible effect. When I reached out to him, he recoiled violently from my touch.
Poe’s disheveled silhouette ahead of the slamming door was the last I ever saw of him.
In his hurry to flee my company, he’d dressed himself in my clothes. Thinking he might realize his mistake, I waited for a time, but he did not return. Finally I rose and dressed, struggling into his smaller articles of clothing and mulling the morning’s dramatic chain of events. I faced the looking glass alone, with a curious lump of sorrow lodged in my throat.
* * *
Less than a week later, I found myself seated before the same bow-window in the same coffee house along the same thoroughfare in Baltimore. Once again, the coffee grew cold. My cigar remained unlit and forgotten. But this time I ignored the endless throng of passers-by on the street below. My attention was focused instead on a write-up in the latest newspaper. Apparently, the same morning he’d left my company, my author friend encountered one Joseph Walker, who believed him to be “in great distress, and in need of immediate assistance.” Poe had been taken to the Washington College Hospital. Had I known his whereabouts, I would have tried to shed some light on the situation or assisted in some way. According to the article, he even called my name, though no one present knew who I was or how to contact me. And how could they? Our meeting came about by chance. Whether Poe desired my company or if he cursed my name for preying upon his sanity with revelations of my wickedness, I know not. I sat there reading and rereading the tragic news as hot tears burned my cheeks.
Thus my story comes to an end. I fear I am utterly lost. Life and death are equally cruel jests. I have shared one dark secret in the faintest hope of easing my conscience. But I say again, there are some secrets which should never be told. I made a colossal blunder once before and a troubled genius paid for it with his sanity and his life. Guilt over my depraved desires pushes me to the cusp of madness, but what those interests may be must remain a secret. The burden must be mine to bear alone.