Robert Vargese looked out his window at the dead body hanging in a tree. At least, it looked like a dead body, the head crocked at an angle, arms akimbo. It hung, a twisted black shape, amid the tree’s branches.
It was late at night and raining, so he lowered his head and went back to his job: reviewing submissions for Aeon of Horus, the quarterly journal of the occult he’d set up two years ago. The magazine published poetry, fiction, and articles about the usual suspects: Madame Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, Giordano Bruno. As Editor, Robert had started to notice similarities between the work he received from contributors and events in the real world.
When he received a spate of poems about disasters, natural or man-made, there’d soon be an earthquake, terrorist attack, or other unfortunate event. That much he was aware of: but he couldn’t remember receiving any poems or stories about dead bodies hanging from trees on suburban London streets.
He looked out the window again. The rain sheeted down, making it hard to see into the branches of that tree opposite his first-floor flat. Yawning, he wrote a brief yet polite email to someone in Saskatchewan turning down their story about vampirism and madness, then switched off his desk lamp and went to bed.
Being a literary editor was a lonely life. Yes, Robert met people through the annual competition to raise funds for the magazine, and conversed with writers, subscribers and advertisers daily via email. But for the most part, he found himself confined to his flat, alone in the company of the hundreds of manuscripts that flew into his inbox each day.
Human contact consisted of the people passing by on the street outside. He liked to watch them as they hurried along, ferrying children to and from school, rushing to offices, shopping, appointments. A particular highlight was the daily passage of a young woman who would walk up the street at seven forty-eight on her way to the bus stop on the high street.
For reasons Robert couldn’t understand, she fascinated him. Perhaps it was her quirky taste in clothes. He once saw her wearing a gabardine raincoat and a pith helmet. On another occasion, she dressed in silk pyjamas and clutched an umbrella. She had long black hair which she sometimes wore in a loose bun, offsetting her pale skin. He had only ever seen her from the side and above, and had never met or spoken to her. Yet he found her mesmerizing.
Benedicta Kitson is a writer. At least, that’s her vocation. By profession, she’s a makeup artist, hiding the blemishes nature gave young people who thought they wanted to be models or actors until they found out how unforgiving these are as professions. She has no interest in her subjects as human beings, simply as canvases on which she can work with foundation, mascara, false lashes, and hues.
She doesn’t understand why she writes. Indeed, she remains unsure of her subject, her talent. But those who have read her work, and the few notes she’s had from editors, describe it as “dark”, “unyielding”, “macabre”, and “threatening.” She can’t think why: it’s just what she does. Most recently, she’s written a piece about the justifiable nature of suicide under certain circumstances.
She likes to have her fortune read once a year using the Tarot. Her card spread last year – a “Celtic Cross” reading – featured The Magician in the “outcome” position. Abundance and creativity. Thus inspired, she’s been writing like a demon any time she can find time between gigs as a make-up artist to the non-stars. So when she reads the entry for a magazine called Aeon of Horus in an online index of places to publish, she decides to submit a story. She chooses a pseudonym. Safer that way – though safer from what, and why, she can’t say.
Robert grew more lonely hourly. He hadn’t been out of his flat yet this morning. Not since he’d seen that body hanging in the tree across the street last night. He looked up from his computer at the tree. The branches were dark and spindly, just as they’d been yesterday. And he swore he could still see that shape in them – black, contused, at odd angles. It was a dead body, plain and simple. He looked down at his desk, at the unread submissions stacked in his inbox. The hopeful letters of query. Then he looked out the window again.
He needed to get away from work: the constant stream of not-quite-there stories he read depressed him. So many lacked something, that quiddity, that spark. And the reams of rejections he wrote with care, most of which elicited zero comment from the authors …
Robert resolved to take a closer look at the tree later that morning, once the commuters had thinned out. Try to identify that body.
Benedicta has a gig up in West London. A billionaire’s teenage daughter is paying for a full modelling shoot before she goes to Cambridge to read for a degree in Anglo-Saxon. Benedicta hasn’t looked at the rough shots she’s been sent, but she packs a standard case of makeup anyway. She’ll make it work. She always does.
This morning she submitted her story to Aeon of Horus. The way they described what they wanted in their stories – they’d used the same words others did when trying to encourage her. Maybe they’d take her piece: she wasn’t that bothered. She found the idea of getting paid for her passion a bit absurd.
Robert watched the girl walking up the street. She carried that big brown leather case she so often dragged with her to the bus stop. No pith helmet or silk pyjamas today – she must be doing something important. She wore a smart black skirt and a check-patterned jacket. He thought he saw a white blouse under the jacket as she walked past on the other side of the street.
She went by his house and was almost underneath that tree. The one he thought held a dead body in its branches. He wondered if she could see the body too.
He clicked on the next submission in his inbox, sighing inwardly. The Hanged Man – no doubt yet another poem or story about the Tarot. By someone calling themselves B.J.K. Ostregoth. He forced himself to open the attached file and began reading. As he did so, his pupils widened. He continued reading, and didn’t stop until he’d finished the story ten minutes later. Then he read it again.
Benedicta finishes the make-up for the billionaire’s daughter around twelve and politely declines the photographer’s invitation to lunch. She’s got an important date this afternoon back in her neighbourhood, and can’t be late: her annual Tarot reading. She catches the bus from the West End to Kings Cross, then makes the last train before the commuters start pouring out of their offices around three. Plenty of time to get back before 4:30.
While she’s on the train surrounded by litter and the first wave of commuters, her email tells her the editors of Aeon of Horus want to publish her story. And they couldn’t be more enthusiastic – they also want to meet her to discuss its contents. As they’re not too far from where she lives, she agrees to meet them and suggests the same venue as her Tarot reading – a café near her flat.
She meets her Tarot reader in that café. It’s an old-fashioned greasy spoon, nothing really: stewed tea and burnt coffee, the smell of dead animal fat, old newspapers strewn on the windowsills. Her Tarot reader is a man in late middle age called Dan: short, with a bald head and gleaming dark eyes, a white shirt, and tan chinos. She’s seen him once a year for the past nine years. Dan tells her there will be sudden change in her life, and great success – the presence of Death (reversed), The Hanged Man (reversed), and the Ace of Swords guarantees it.
She tells Dan about her upcoming publication, and he goes on for another ten minutes about how he’d sensed that was coming. Then he warns her that, so often, good news brings sorrow in its wake.
Robert eventually found the guts to go outside. He walked down the steps outside his house to the street and heard the ping of his email as his foot left the lowest step and before it hit the pavement. Normally he ignored his email when he was away from his desk but this time he didn’t. It was from the author of “The Hanged Man” B.J.K. Ostregoth, accepting his invitation to coffee and proposing that, since they were not too far apart, they should meet at The Daily Grind, a café on Magnet Street. Ostregoth said they were free tomorrow, late afternoon if by chance he were, too.
Robert sent a brief email confirming he’d be there, then walked across the road when the traffic cleared. He examined the branches of that tree where he thought he’d find a dead body: nothing. So he went back to his flat and continued reading submissions, curious as to what tomorrow’s meeting with B.J.K. Ostregoth, his remarkable new author will bring. He thinks he’s going mad now. Driven mad by loneliness, by living with other people’s fantasies. It was making his own fantasies, the ones he buried in his heart, darker and darker.
The next afternoon, Robert left his flat long ahead of the planned meeting with the author of “The Hanged Man”. What would Ostregoth be like? What would they discuss? Robert wanted to know whether Ostregoth knew the street where he lived. Maybe they’d walked down his street recently. Perhaps they’d seen the dead body in the tree and that had inspired their reinterpretation of the Tarot in “The Hanged Man”.
In case Ostragoth should prove to be an attractive woman, Robert put on a clean shirt and combed his hair and beard, and cleaned his glasses. He even ironed his trousers and brushed his teeth. When he left his flat and hit the pavement outside his house, his eyes turned involuntarily to check the tree across the street since it was broad daylight and not raining.
There was definitely no body in that tree. But he was sure he’d seen one. Twice.
Benedicta fiddles with the handle of her cup of chamomile tea, its scent steaming up from the bland Formica table. She wants to be published, sort of. It’s a fun little thing to do, her hobby. But whether she should be meeting the editor of Aeon of Horus is a different matter. He (or she) might turn out to be a creep. She puts down her teacup and tries to look out the fogged-up window of The Daily Grind, but she can’t see through the condensation.
A man opens the door to the café and shuffles in, taking off his glasses against the warmer air inside the café that’s already causing them to mist up.
He looks like a druid, Benedicta thinks.
The man wears black polyester trousers and cheap black boots, a dark blue shirt. His long, straggly greying hair and semi-kempt beard promise little, as does the way he peers nervously about the tables like a frightened puppy.
The man walks into the centre of the small café. Benedicta looks up, her brown eyes asking a question before he answers that question in her eyes with one of his own:
“Yes – that’s me. But you can call me B.J., if you like.”
“I’m Robert.” He nods as he says the words, a curt bow like a Japanese courtier from a bygone age.
They talk for perhaps twenty minutes. During this time it becomes clear to Benedicta that Robert is interested in more than arcs of character development and the relationship between dialogue and exposition. Predictably, and in the most nervous way, Robert asks if she wants to have tea with him again the next day.
She declines, citing pressure of work. He nods and looks to one side, then mutters something about some other time. She agrees and they stand up and wave at each other, agreeing it’s been nice to meet.
Benedicta hates this part of the brush-off: there’s always the danger the guy won’t get the message. But Robert appears to have understood she is not interested, and seems unfazed. After all, he must be twenty years older than her. Before he turns to go, he says:
“You know, I really liked your story about the physical and metaphorical significance of The Hanged Man in Tarot. It really spoke to my circumstances. To me. Please send us some more.”
She promises she will and he turns to go. She sits down again and watches him leave. He reaches the door and turns back to look at her. He thinks better of whatever he was going to say, opening the door to let a blast of cold February air into the tiny café. He looks like he is about to weep. Then he walks out and closes the door behind him. She waits a few minutes until she’s sure he has gone, then leaves herself. She’s going home to cook herself some mung beans with Edam cheese for supper.
The next morning, Benedicta is on her usual route up to the bus stop. Halfway up Robert’s street, she stops still. She thinks she sees a dead body hanging from the branch of a tree on the other side of the road. When she gets closer, she sees she is right. Her hand reaches for her phone to call the emergency services. She may be asked to identify the body.
J.W.Wood’s poems, articles, stories, and reviews have appeared all over, from America to Europe and Asia. He would like to dedicate this story to Genevieve Wynand, an editor who has been most helpful to his development as a writer.
For more, www.jwwoodwriter.net