by James Callan
THE PERVERSIONS begin before anyone has yet to wake—well, all except for one. Each morning, in the reclusive infancy of a shadowed, cheerless predawn, powdered bones are mixed in with the sacks of flour that will contribute to the delicious, fresh bread, buns, baguettes, and rolls, festive cakes and occasional doughnuts that the baker, Eli, labours to craft into buoyant, fluffy delights. Sourced from humans, unearthed bodies from local graves and others from further afield, the pulverized collagen and calcium phosphate makes the bread more than merely delicious; it is the active ingredient essential to providing the malignant curse within, that which gives the baker his incentive to wake so early in the morning, to knead the dough while others sleep, to shovel away six feet of earth when he could be dreaming, head pressed on pillows as soft as fresh baked loaves of bread.
We all enjoy Eli’s bread, its firm, outer crust and golden skin, its soft, fleshy innards, warm and fragrant. Most of us chew its melange of textures, roll back our eyes in pleasure as we savour its aromatic wafts, its complex, rich flavours only an expert baker could so artfully condense into one small bun. Most of us swallow. But I know what others do not. So I masticate the fresh baked delicacies in good cheer. In plain sight, I mimic the others. I nod and smile, groan out in appreciative pleasure. Then I turn a corner, make myself scarce. I spit out what I dare not ingest. I eject the soft wads of baked goods into the bushes. The buds of cancer or something worse will not bloom in my guts. Eli’s curses will not find a home within my perfectly functioning organs.
Filled up on morning bread, those of us who have time to kill often while away the afternoons visiting the cinema, attending a matinee. The familiar smells of popcorn and stale carpet remind those who enter: it’s time to relax. There are other smells too, which sometimes waft from upstairs.
The projectionist, Miranda, smokes more than a pack a day, sometimes as many as three. At any given time, it is likely that she is smoking. If she is not smoking a cigarette, then she is grinding one down into an ashtray by her side, reaching for the next with fidgeting, yellowed fingers, the same digits that people who do not know her—or smell her—might assume are stained in pollen from picking wildflowers—but such assumptions are unfounded. As if an extension of her face, more often than not there is a cigarette pressed between the unsmiling lips of the dour projectionist. Miranda is not unique; we all have our vices.
This day and age, her habit is frowned upon, an addictive routine more than mildly unpopular. Yet alone in the projectionist booth, high above the bared pates and capped heads of familiar scalps and hats that bathe in the glow of the silver screen spread out below her, she enjoys her bad habit, she savours her unpopular addiction. In luxury, she smokes her cigarettes. One after the next, the projectionist inhales, exhales, down to the quick, repeats, an endless chain of nicotine and menthol.
Tallying the dotted rows of cheap, upholstered seats beneath, Miranda counts the heads in attendance—less than she would like. The townsfolk sit, expectant, claws settled in bags of snacks, leaning back and waiting for their entertainment, stomachs churning, digesting flour, yeast, sugar, salt, oil, and the powered bones of their brethren. In the gloom, they grow impatient. In their bowels, they grow malignant spores.
Finishing her umpteenth cigarette, the projectionist loads the canister of film. She feeds the reel. She activates the projector. Then, with an orchestral soundtrack to mar the quiet below, those in attendance risk the noisy ruffling of their bags of popcorn, their plastic wrapped candies. The show has now begun.
Above, the projectionist strikes a match, lights up another smoke, ignites what is more than a bad habit, more than mere vice. With intent, she breathes deeply what her lungs will harbour for a brief interlude, hold, and infuse with the black magic curses she scrawls in her own flesh with a filed fingernail. She will seal the malediction with offerings of her blood, dark droplets that fall to the old carpet which is already dyed the colour of wine. In front of her, the credits give way to the opening scene as she feels the menace of disgruntled spirits enter her body, taint the minty vapor held within her practiced lungs. At last, she expels her bad intentions to envelop the rotating reel of film. Miranda corrupts the motion picture, those in attendance who endeavour to enjoy it. Over the next hour and a half their souls will be branded with afflictions that will follow them into the afterlife.
The matinee ends. Early evening sets in. One after the next, the moviegoers file out into the low, lingering daylight, blinking in the sun as if cave dwellers emerging from years scrounging in the dark. Among them—those whose role does not include rushing off to attend to familial expectations—several may dawdle in town, spend the last hours leading up to nightfall as they will. The town is their oyster, and the oyster is black with rot; well past edible.
Amid an assortment of pleasures and distractions to be had in this heinous place—freshly baked goods, viewings of the latest film—there is a glassblower’s workshop with curios and wares for inspection or purchase. The master glassblower, Alvaro, leaves his wide doors open to let out the heat which blazes from his furnace, allowing passersby to enter his studio, observe his fascinating craft.
Viewed from the street, an orange aperture glows with wrath, with demonic radiance, a gaping hole into hell. Alvaro prods at the raging inferno, dips his long, metal blowpipe into the melted glass within. Withdrawing with care, he rotates his instrument, keeps the gelatinous substance from oozing down upon the floor. Then, rolling it over the cold, metal surface of a long table littered with minerals to enhance its clarity, vivify and add colour to the substance, the melted glass mows over fine fragments of cobalt and sprinkles of gold salts. These are the ingredients to beautify his glass.
Outside, the small crowd ooh and aah. They gasp with delight. But I know better. I know what Alvaro has done. I have watched him through the small hole in his roof while his workshop is closed and he believes himself to be alone. I have noted the quirks that come with his craft, the demonic nuance to his handiwork as he scatters the cobalt, the gold salts, his many minerals to beautify his glass, and arranges them, just so, across a pentagram illustrated in blood and lined in lit candles. I have viewed, as if from the latest horror film, the glassblower strip down to nothing, self-flagellate red tallies across his back, pray to the lord of darkness, the emperor of sin. I have listened too, overheard his fevered curses whispered hoarsely in the candlelight, his many pledges of misdeed, a promised life of wrongdoing, while Alvaro has embedded his fine minerals with black curses from the underworld, offerings of misfortune to those who purchase his art.
And look, someone points out with glee. These items are on sale. I do not intervene as my neighbour fishes into his pocket to retrieve his money. Some people are willing to part with their fortunes, fork over their very souls. All in the name of art.
There is the florist, Rose, who we all laugh with as we joke about her name in harmonious conjuncture with her work. Yet only I lie through my good natured smile, deplore a woman who I am aware grows her flowers from the decomposed remains of her victims. There is the local brewer, Gavin, who offers free samples of his newest, bold flavour. He also, unbeknownst to most, urinates into every batch. Let’s not forget the resident dentist, Naomi, who excels at keeping the townsfolk’s smiles bright and white. She may go weeks, clean hundreds of teeth, before she gets the occasional urge to apply a special ointment that is imbued with hostile toxins, made potent with baleful incantations. Smiling down with her own immaculate array of teeth, she will spread the noxious gel liberally across the exposed gums and unsuspecting grin of one of her patients. With a delayed effect, the salve will rot away the tissues, the enamel layer of one’s teeth. As the condition occurs a month or two after their visit to the dentist, there is no reason for Naomi’s patients to associate the blame with her or the application of her cleansing pastes. Those of us who have an ounce of tact ignore the shrapnel of brown grimace sometimes seen in the less fortunate among us.
This is the town I live in. This is the town where I spend my days. Everywhere I go there is deception. Each corner I turn, a ripe evil that permeates the very air I breathe. Everyone I see has a secret, each townsfolk their own vile intent that they’ve stored away. Within them, a terrible grudge boils and ferments, a wicked objective maturing to max potency. Everyone has something to offer, an item or skill to contribute. Everyone has something to share, to spread; not one among them benevolent.
I, myself, am no innocent lamb—after all, I too am a member of this nefarious town. Voyeurism is my sin, my naughty little secret, which keeps me happy, keeps me informed, as I watch these people go about their treacheries, their foul deceptions, their grotesque, malevolent acts. Yet I watch them also as they simply live, go about their days. With relish, I savour all the mundane steps to their daily, domestic dance. I labour to hide my smile as I drink them all in, my eyes sparkling while reflecting each one of them as they walk home and greet their partners, embrace their children, walk their dog or watch television, take a long, hot shower, make love—and my absolute favourite: sleep. I watch them from around the corner, concealed in bushes. When appropriate, I observe them in plain sight. As they toss and turn, under the starlit sky, I perch outside their bedrooms and view them through their windows. With a scrupulous eye, I study them while they dream. I, myself, am no innocent lamb.
A NEW DAY begins, yet really, the hour hangs in limbo between yesterday and today. Hours before dawn, I crouch in wait among the brambles. Under starlight, I watch the baker depart from his abode. From the shadows, my eyes follow Eli as he sulks away beyond the edge of town, burdened with a shovel and a large canvas sack. I know where he wanders off to. I know what he aims to accomplish. More than that, I know that today’s bread will be supplemented with the bones of lost souls that merely wish to rest.
Later, when the sun rises to illuminate a dark town that now, in its brightness, is deceptively cheerful, I avoid the allure of freshly baked bread that wafts deliciously to invade my nostrils. My eyes divert from the golden crusts that glow in tempting rows across the display window. My tummy rumbles, but I am in no mood for conversation. I tell it to shut up. I skip breakfast, and hold out for lunch.
In the afternoon, I follow the projectionist as she freely smokes during her stroll into work. Downwind of Miranda, I am a victim of second hand smoke, which I decide is far better than exposure to a soul devouring curse. Inside the cinema, I buy a bag of popcorn but do not purchase a ticket—I know that whatever film is featured today will burden me with more than my cinematic critique. I exit the building and take my snack beyond the edge of town. There, I sit upon the green expanse of a manicured lawn which is dappled by the sun and pockmarked with empty, unearthed graves. I lean against a headstone and feed the birds.
The sun sags low and the town is cast in a warm wash of amber. Like the muted rind of a tangerine, the rooftops radiate a subdued colour of flame, which reminds me of the glassblower’s furnace, Alvaro’s hot hole into liquid glass, a portal leading to inferno, hell itself. I casually walk to his workshop, stand idle outside its wide, gaping doors. I feel the outward, bellowing gust of demon breath panting over me like a lover, hot wafts of fire and brimstone coating me like boiled honey, like melted glass.
Alvaro mops the sweat from his brow. He gazes approvingly at his finished piece. He does not see me watching, leaning in, as he whispers something strange, something foul, while adoring the wide, ample vase still smoking from the flame. I, myself, admire his art, an ornate container suggestive of fertility. Pregnant, the vessel is filled with hot air and malice. Bound in beauty, it spirals with streaks of minty blue and zinfandel pink, cursed cobalt and sinister selenium. From afar, it mimics a peppermint; the devil’s confectionery.
The glassblower turns to see me. Startled, he apologizes, and tells me he is soon to close shop. I do not retreat. I do not budge. I hold my ground and smile, gesture to the vase newly birthed from the bowels of hell, and ask Alvaro with great interest, How much for your fine piece of art?
RAINFALL MAKES WHAT I intend to do that much simpler. It masks my footsteps, my every sound. I stoop, wedged in shrubbery, and await the baker. In the wee hours of the morning, the last lingering minutes of night, I watch Eli emerge and wander off to dig up those who thought to rest undisturbed for all of time. As he crests the rise, ambles over its edge to descend beyond the town, I enter his abode, his bakery within.
Inside, I brazenly walk towards the large sacks of flour. I shuffle towards the big bags of milled wheat and crushed bone. I hefted my own sack, brought from home, and peer into its open pouch to admire the fine, glittering dust of cobalt blue and zinfandel pink within. With a mortar and pestle, I have reduced Alvaro’s work to a colour rich mound of abrasive grains. And now, in my hands, I cup the pulverized glass. I scoop up the powdered remains of Satan’s aborted foetus. I cradle a countless hoard of tiny particles, like the deconstructed sum of cells that built up a monster, an evil intention. Innumerable and gorgeous, each one reflecting mint or rose, I angle my palm downward and watch them fall, glass cascading to blend with bone. My eyes light up in the gloom as sin collides with sin.
Later on, the dawn chorus heralds a new day. The rain eases, lets up entirely, and overhead, a blue sky hosts a bright sun which shines in brilliance across the wet cobbled road. The air is fragrant, fresh with recent rain. The air is seductive, ripe with recently baked goods. Eli’s loaves display in rows of buoyant, golden crusts, tempting as usual. Yet today they bear the mark of something different. Subtly, they are spiralled in cyan and coral.
In the afternoon, I take the loaf I have purchased to the cinema. Untouched, I have no intention of eating the bread myself. Under my arm, I can feel its soft elasticity. As I sniff the air, I can smell delicious baking, and now something else—of course—the sweet, yet acrid tinge of menthol, stale carpet, and beneath it all, black malice.
Miranda walks in, ready for work, ready to tarnish the souls of her neighbours. I turn to greet her, wave and smile, and motion her over. I gesture with my free hand; Come on over, I signal. Something for you, I say, speak out loud when the projectionist stares, unmoving, dour as ever. Fresh bread, I tell her. From Eli, I raise the loaf. Two for one special—my lie comes easy, flows from my lips. I couldn’t possibly eat another, I explain, and this much, if nothing else, is true.
Miranda takes the loaf, at long last smiles, and now I know why she never has before. She is one of the unfortunate few who have visited the town’s dentist when malpractice was on the menu, when Naomi had been in that rare mood to defile one’s dental framework rather than simply clean it as she is meant to. Tactfully, I manage to avoid recoiling from the hideous ruin of brown rot, the horrid row of jagged rubble that constant cigarettes could only make worse.
Miranda accepts the bread and ascends to the projectionist booth above. As I leave the building, I wonder how long until she consumes the tainted morsel. I think of her teeth, the shattered mess of her demolished smile. I wrack my brain, puzzle out the possibilities; I picture Eli’s colourful loaf, and ponder how Miranda will manage to chew its golden, calloused crusts.
OUT OF BREATH, I have crested the rise, I have ambled over its edge to descend beyond the town. Behind me, miles away, a dark room fills with moviegoers in the bright light of day. A coiled snake of film is fed to the reel and the opening credits fall like embers that stray from a flame. A matinee begins, yet for all intents and purposes, really, this is the end.
The projectionist lights up her umpteenth cigarette. Miranda doesn’t know it, but it will be her last. She inhales its sweet smoke, rich with menthol, expanding her lungs to harbour the smog within. Holding her breath, she hikes up her trousers, scrawling symbols into the exposed flesh of her thigh. In scarlet script, she scribbles demonic pledges to the damned.
In a small booth filled with smoke, suffused with virulent vapor, a projectionist reaches for a fresh baked loaf, a gift from a kind neighbour. Miranda works away at the tough, golden crust, struggling to make use of the dental disaster that Naomi has left her with. Eventually successful, penetrating the soft, aromatic flesh within, she greedily consumes the warm, delicious bread. She devours the bones of disturbed corpses, the pulverized shards of Satan’s miscarried child. Coated with menthol, the smoky aftertaste of ghastly demons, the bread slithers down Miranda’s oesophagus to bubble in toxic, triple infusion.
Far away, beyond the edge of town, I huddle deep within the earth, a six foot hollow, an empty grave, sheltered from the blast radius of compounded sin. Overhead, a malignant black cloud erupts to lay waste to a vile, little town and all that surrounds it. When the dust cloud settles, when the sun penetrates the gloom to caress the soil with its warmth, I rise to my feet, I stand, and crawl out of my hole.
I marvel at the wide expanse of nothing, an uncontaminated, blank slate that to me seems pristine, white ash as if virgin snow. It astounds me that something so beautiful, so pure, can originate from sin.