Monday, February 20, 2012

A John

By Kathleen Bradean

He'd have to be caged. I imagine him pacing, snarling. The lighting would be soft, maybe even gaslight. Something that flickered. Something that cast as much shadow as light. And the place we met would be cold and hard. There'd be no place for me to sit so all I could do is lean against a stone wall that wept like a Madonna icon. The floor would be stone. Sounds would echo. Drippy, wet sounds. In a burst of frustration, he'd grip the bars and shake them so violently that I'd shrink back.

Then maybe he'd laugh. Maybe a maniac's howl, but a soft chuckle would be much more terrifying.

That's one thing I've learned about horror. It's a quiet medium. Everything is hushed. The soft whirl of the air conditioner sends shivers over your skin before the cool waft of air even reaches you, and you listen so hard with every fiber of your being as if your life depended on it, because it may.

He'd smile. Maybe beckon me over. "Come on, love." Rage over, his voice would be silken persuasion.

He'd pat his tradesman's pockets to remember where he'd placed the lure, or maybe hold out a fine pure white handkerchief, embroidered with initials. "Would you like a grape?" All the while smiling. One likes to think there'd be something obvious about him, like gross teeth and blackened fingernails, but he could have smelled sweetly of Bay Rhum and his shoes might have gleamed in the lamplight. He should have been menacing, but he might have been pleasantly vague. But the one thing that would have to be the same was his smile. It wouldn't have reached his eyes, because they are the windows of the soul, and his soul was an oubliette. Except that no one will ever forget him.

When the grapes don’t work, he'd probably lower his voice into a whisper.

In horror, everything is hushed so your imagination, which filled lonely days with invisible friends and told you stories and made moonbeams into ropes you could climb up to the stars, can suddenly turn on you and sadistically fill every shadow with things you haven't seen since your childhood nightmares.

"Would you like to know?" he'd say. "One step closer for every question."

An exhilarated rush would flash over my skin. Gooseflesh and tingle. Oh yes. I couldn't help it. Anticipation.

What to ask first? "Only the five?"

I'd tell you what he said, but knowledge is dangerous.

"Some people say you died in St Louis, Missouri. Others say Broadmoor."

"You forgot to take a step."

I'm worried now, because things are getting hazy and I'm afraid he'll slip away from me as he has everyone else. He's elusive, this one. Lost to history.

"I'll tell you everything," he promises. His pupils are unlike any I've ever seen. Like mirrors. They alone shine through the gathering mist.

The scent would change from the stone to the stink of poverty and somewhere not far off, a fouled river. Only the coppery stench would linger, and it would be growing stronger.

I lean forward so it looks as if I took a bigger step than the Mother-My-I baby step.

"Which letters did you write? Did journalists fake them all?" In a post-Murdoch world, I trust journalists about as much as I trust my interview subject.

"That was two questions, so you are forfeit them both."

My feet would shuffle on the cold stone floor, bringing me closer. His hands, clean or filthy, might disappear into shadow as the gaslight failed to hold back the mist. Cold drifts of fog would appear first almost like low garden gates no higher than my knees, but the closer I'd get, the more insistent they'd become, like thorned vines gripping my clothes and pulling me back. Did the cell bars become the fog or evaporate into them? I can't recall the last moment they were distinct, real, there.

"Was the writing in blood on the wall your work?"

"That's my Polly."

"That's not an answer. You owe me one."

He'd flash anger then at my saucy tone.

"Who are you?" That's what we're all dying to know.

His fingers would be scalpels and butcher's knives. He'd ignore my question, insistent now, his voice tinged with sexual need.

"You know. I'm Jack."


  1. Very chilling, but then you're no stranger to chilling tales. But I don't get the St. Louis part. Can you explain?

  2. When Toby Shorts was looking at houses in St Louis, there was one for sale that was rumored to be the home of a doctor who emigrated from London right after the Jack the Ripper murders, and similar murders took place in St Louis. Urban legend? Copycat killer? Who knows? It's all part of the legend.

  3. Ooh! You *should* be writing horror! Fabulous piece, Kathleen!

    One thing about legends is the way we layer our own fantasies upon the bare bones of fact. So we can imagine Jack the Ripper as mesmerizing, enticing, despite the palpable evil.

  4. Lisabet - I'd write horror except that it would keep me up at night. My imagination just can't let go. And having come in close personal contact with someone suffering from a psychotic break, I have no delusions about being able to survive against a serial killer.

    Garce - thank you!


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