The Shape Of Its Head

Wherein we meet Dominic Thule, diletante of the occult arts and his newest and latest assistant. Is Clara Clover up to the challenge of mystical peril and wardrobe malfunctions? Is Dominic Thule?

“You must be the new Sunday,” the man said and brushed back the wild mane of hair. “At last I can resume my – most dangerous and perilous it may be – inquiries into the unknown.”

Clara grimaced and tried once again to pull down the hem of the absurdly short skirt fronted by an equally ridiculous frilly apron. The whole get-up was outrageous and led her to seriously question the wisdom of taking the position. First thing on Monday she was going to calling the temp agency. There was definitely going to be some swearing.

Sure, work was scarce to come by and the other option was to get a minimum wage salary working at the college cafeteria cleaning trays. So when the agency called and told they had found a one day a week job that paid better than a full week flipping burgers on a grill — Clara jumped at the opportunity.

But this was nucking futs. What her t-shirt said before the butler (who in the 21st century had a butler?) had ushered her into the dimly lit entrance of the oddly adorned brownstone off of 95 ½ East Street.

Clara didn’t think of herself as short, but she quickly developed a pain in her neck with all her attempts to maintain eye contact. The butler was extremely tall and thin, his crop of hair rose straight up in a laminated block with no strand out of place. Something about his pallor and lusterless eyes reminded her of a grasshopper, there was something of a green tinge to his skin. The emerald cufflinks and buttons only reinforced the mental image. And he was old, really mothball old.

“… do not light the frog candles any earlier than nine, only the toad candles may be lit before then – but not tonight…”

Clara was unable to get a word in edgewise, the butler refused to take a breath or pause. The eyelids stayed fixed without a single blink or twitch. The droning litany went on and on.

“And the final rule, the most important rule of them all,” the butler had said in conclusion, his voice wrestling with the change in tone. “Never ask a question. There are NO questions.”

“Are you serious? I didn’t take notes!” Clara protested.

“NONE!”

Then he led the way down the dark panelled hallway and showed her to a walk in closet where her worst fears were realized. A rainbow hued set of skimpy maid outfits dangled from the hangars.

“Sunday is red,” announced the butler. “The master has a rule about the spectrum and the appropriate day. Be in the study promptly at nine – when the clock rings thirteen.”

“Why does the clock ring thirteen if it is nine o’clock?”

Because the Decrepit Deity in ascendancy has eight digits on each limb,” said the butler with a withering glance and a malevolent sparkle that quickly faded away. He slammed the door shut – then opened it again.

“Hexadecimal numbering system,” he said in explanation and swung it shut again. She heard him lurch down the hallway.

“Well, makes perfect sense I guess. I got told.” Clara shook her head. She took the outfit off the hangar.

Clara should have turned and bolted for the door. But she bit her lip and got dressed in the changing room. A paycheck was a paycheck – to a point. At the first sign of trouble she’d bolt. She could outrun freaky-tall without too much trouble judging by the arthritic way he moved.

When she looked in the full length mirror she saw herself dressed in a scarlet hued maid uniform that was naughty in the worst possible way; white stockings that only went to mid-thigh, a tight corset and other fetish accessories.

She refused to wear the bonnet. She wasn’t going to play little bo peep. And after a moments thought, found a way to clip her cellphone onto the apron ties in the small of her back.

And now it was thirteen on the clock, or nine o’clock. And she stood at attention in the study, with her hands clasped behind her back and the sincere hope the initial introduction to her new empoyer wouldn’t turn out pervy.

Or she would have to hurt them.

“So, what happened to the old Sunday,” said Clara to fill the silence.

“A tragedy really,” said the man with a dolorous sigh. “I’ll miss the poor girl. She was permanently soiled by an attack of apokromyrodia. I simply couldn’t tolerate the smell. She had to go.”

“What?” Clara exclaimed. But before she could ask further the man had turned away to examine the fireplace with his hand clasped behind his back. The butler stared knives at her.

Her new employer bore a remarkable resemblance to Johnny Depp in a Tim Burton performance she decided – a Johnny Depp who could use a few twinkies to fill out the gauntness in his cheeks. And was he wearing eyeliner? His manner of dress was an odd cross between 80’s glam and Victorian goth. The last time she had seen anyone wear a frock coat was… was Johnny Depp.

“Let me introduce myself,” annnounced the man. “I am, of course, Dominic Thule.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Clara and held out a hand. Dominic Thule did not turn from his inspection of the fireplace. There was no fire lit within the hearth.

“Of course you checked out with the agency,” said Thule. “A girl of dubious morals, but high intelligence as was indicated. Also a tendency to take matters into one one hands, so to say.”

“Yes,” said Clara through her teeth. “So I had some trouble with the law, but NOT of that sort. I punched out a professor when he suggested a way to improve my grades and he called the cops on me – for assault!  And then I got expelled from Miskatonic Tech. Does it matter?”

“Not at all Ms. Sunday,” said Thule. “I find it refreshing. Catch!”

Clara’s first impulse was to duck, for Thule whirled and tossed an object in her direction. She managed to catch the book without losing her balance in the high heels she was tottering in.

“Can you read the words?” said Thule with a feverish glance.

“No, it’s all greek to me,” said Clara shaking her head.

“My poor girl,” said Thule cuttingly. “It is Greek. Not unexpected, the classical languages languish so in these dark times. I blame the schools… and your parents… and you for being such an ignorant dunce of the female gender. But you can be taught.”

Before Clara could open her mouth and let loose a flood of curse words, the whole building was shaken by the sound of an enormous gong. The gewgaws on the fireplace mantel danced about.

“The Externophite has been delivered master,” announced the butler from the stratosphere in a suitably dolorous tone. Clara uncovered her ears. “Magister Necros sends his regards and hopes your studies go well.”

How did freaky-tall get the message? There was no sign of a bluetooth device in those flappy ears above the starched collar.

“At last,” announced Thule who bounded from book shelf to book shelf with great agility. “Now attend me Sunday, pay heed! While the Magister and I have had our differences for the longest time, we do indulge each others passions for knowledge.  I for one have pursued the lost art of phrenology, but only as it applies to interlopers in our reality. I believe once I establish the correct measurements of each of their extradimensional  lobes – we will be able to divine the proper defensive posture to these intrusions. Do you follow?

“Not a clue,” said Clara staggering under the weight of the books deposited in her care.

“Excellent,” said Dominic. “Sunday, my girl, you are truly a blank slate. Quickly, follow me now to the vivisectory where we shall attend to the Externophite. Evil take heed, I advance!”

“Alright, I’m done,” said Clara. But it was too late. Already Dominic had flung open a door, lit a torch from the fireplace (where there was no fire) and was rapidly clattering down the spiral stairwell into the depths with freaky-tall close at his heels.

Leaning up against the fireplace set was a long, slender brass tube adorned with odd engravings and a swiss cheese array of holes. Clara dropped the stack of books on the floor, grabbed the horn and followed slowly against her better judgment. The slightest misstep in the high heels and she’d break her neck.

“Hurry, Ms. Sunday, hurry!” Thule’s voice drifted up from the depths again. Clara steadfastly refused to hasten her slow progress. She kept as close to the moist sides as possible without touching.

She could feel blisters developing on her feet from the descent down the circular stairwell.  The walls trembled as the subway cars thundered by through their separate passages. The stench that blew up from below was as familiar as the metro subways, but mixed with something else.

“The monographs,” Thule shouted and came bounding up the stairs. “Quickly, the one on top… The Physiognomica Malefica, the one with the binding of spotted unicorn – stigmata monokeros. What? Where are my books?”

“I wasn’t going to lug those things down wearing these fucking high heels you’ve forcing me to wear,” said Clara. “If you’re so cranked up, why don’t you go back up and get them yourself?”

Clara neglected to mention the brass tube held vertically out of view along the length of her right thigh. Freaky-tall stood like a lamppost below with his long face tiled upwards. He could be dealt with by a hearty blow to the shins with the horn. And the jacked up fancy ass-hole capering about like a child thwarted by a locked bathroom door wasn’t even a threat.

Thule grabbed his head with both hands, gloved of course. “Language!, Language! There’s simply no time now, the Externophite has an expiration date on freshness – like week old fruit the being will simply spoil. All squishy, like an avocado gone bad. We simply can’t have these delays. I’ll have to pull up the proper procedure from memory. Come quickly. ”

Freaky-tall had a very pleased look on his prune face.  Belatedly Clara realized the butler was looking up her skirt, so she quickly followed Thule down the final spiral set of steps to the landing below. She couldn’t restrain a yelp as yet another thunderous roar heralded the passage of yet another subway car.

“These passageways of yours must be part of the old subway system,” she said trying to excuse her momentary alarm. “This must run right next to the tunnels.

“We’re far below the subway system,” said Dominic striding down the dimly lit tunnel with freaky-tall doffing his steps. Clara followed. “What you hear is the passing of a slootch through the bedrock of the metropolis itself.”

“A slootch?” said Clara blankly.

“Yes, a slootch,” said Thule fumbling with the keys. “Your ignorance of the animal kingdom is appalling. Didn’t they brief you at all at the agency? Certainly standards are not being upheld, I expect a bare modicum of intelligence.”

Behind their backs Clara waved the metal tube menacingly. She measured the distance to Thule’s head and then quickly put the instrument behind her back with a grin as Dominic stopped to expound.

“A slootch is a far distant cousin of the slug – barely part of the phylum mollusca,” Thule said. “They’re of immense size and equipped with a circular mouth for rapid burrowing, much like the star nose mole. They’re rarely seen above ground but when they do breach every once in a while how they slovulate and explosively dilate their mantles upon contact with the sun’s rays! That idiot Lovecraft called them shoggoths and claimed they were servants to his decrepit deities. As if they were mythical beasts – like narwhals.”

“I’m pretty sure those are real,” said Clara.

“Narwhals? Don’t be silly,” said Thule with a chuckle that turned into a spastic sob. “But I’m reminded of poor Tuesday. She met an unpleasant end in the digestive gland of a slootch. I really need to fill all the open positions.”

Clara had a sudden insight, a moment of blinding clarity. She now undertood exactly what she’d become involved in. This was a total setup. She was on the prank tv show Scariest Mysteries. This was her roommate Melicia’s fault. The inexplicable fits of giggling, the pointing, the telephone calls abruptly ended with a smirk barely covered…

Clara started looking for the hidden cameras.

The three stepped into a small antiseptic chamber with a dim light flickering above. Thule doused the torch.  A heavy wooden door was the only feature on the far wall. The outer door slid shut, and Clara involuntarily swallowed. So far she had not been able to detect any signs of cameras.

“Proper hygiene must always be followed,” announced Thule tossing his dress coat into a heap on the tiled floor. Both Thule and the butler then took an inordinate time washing their hands and face in the sink. Except it didn’t appear to be water they were using, some kind of clear oil which left a glossy sheen on the skin. “Now the surgical robes Ms. Sunday.”

“There’s only two,” said Clara nervously. “What about me?”

“We wouldn’t want to cover up such a pretty girl,” said Thule with an attempt at breaking the tension. The butler’s forced laugh was like the skipping of a record. It did nothing to reassure Clara.  “Don’t look so alarmed. I won’t expect you to do any of the actual procedure or be part OF the procedure — aha!  But we will need the place mopped down afterwards.”

“Nobody said anything about cleaning,” said Clara grimly. “I’m not going in there unless you tell me what the hell is going on. You’re a serious freakshow you know.  I’ve seen Saw and I’ll have you know my roommate knows exactly where I am. I think you know her, loud obnoxious — from Jersey. Set me up for this?”

In response Thule dropped to the floor and twisted his legs into a lotus position.

“Make up something plausible Ms. Sunday can comprehend,” Thule said to the butler. “Since she forgot the books I must prepare myself for the cranial examination without notes.”

Thule closed his eyes and began to chant rapidly.

Clara fast-forwarded the butler’s exposition. Unlike the previous dry litany of household duties, she did pick up on some of it while trying to figure out how she should react when the obvious prank of a tv show kicked into gear.

First, Dominic Thule was a practicing Paraxegnostic – a “master” of, well forget it, he was obviously a charlatan.

Magister Necros was either an adversary or a friend. It seemed rather confusing. Apparently there was a rivalry, but now they were working together. The Externophite who was to be examined was a gift… of sorts.

And the Externophite was going to be put in a bunch of empty sacks.

“To begin!” announced Dominic Thule and sprang to his feet.

The vivisectory was lit in a suitably lambent glow. The domed ceiling was ornately decorated with astrological symbols.The circular walls were lined with instruments that resembled a medieval torture chamber.  Clara felt validated — as long as it was a reality show. Was Shannon Doughie-Mint still the host? Maybe she could scam an autograph when this was all over.

Sure enough an imposing assemblage of metal struts and straps filled the middle of the chamber. It resembled a demented version of a dental chair.

Thule locked the door with a flourish of the key.

“This is getting so very wrong,” said Clara under her breath. The time had come to find out if she was being setup, or if she needed to start whacking with the metal pipe held in preparation behind her back. If they even THOUGHT about asking her to sit down in that thing…

“Can I take a picture?” Clara asked innocently and unclipped the cellphone.

Thule was making odd gargling sounds and waving his hands about in a choppy manner. The butler had folded over from the waist and had picked up a pile of burlap sacks from the floor. Both stopped what they were doing and looked at her.

“Mr. Ur,” said Thule. “Why, why does she keep asking questions? What is that thing?”

“The conclusion was made most emphatically sir,” said the butler lugubriously. “There was to be no questions, the word I used was NONE.”

“Absolutely not absolute enough,” said Thule testily. “Next time, be clearer. Ms. Sunday, I will indulge you. If that device… is indeed a camera, snap away. But be assured all you’ll get developed will be a bunch of smudges. The harmonics in this room absolutely prevent image capturing of a physical sort. I could go into a lengthy discussion… by the Miserable Mob of Magog, what are you hiding behind your back?”

“Nothing,” said Clara.

“That is definitely something,” said Thule trying to peer about her shoulder.  Mr. Ur lurched forward.

“Not a step closer,” shrieked Clara and thrust the tube up at the butler. She caught him the solar plexus. He stepped back with a rusty wheeze.

Please, please,” said Thule reaching out his hands in a supplicating manner. “Ms. Sunday, put the Slootch Flute down. I thought I had lost it. By what miracle did you find the flute, please tell?”

“I found it next to the fireplace poker,” said Clara. She looked at the tube critically. “I guess it is a flute, I played in high school – would you like to hear…”

“NO!” Thule shouted with an alarmed expression. “The Slootch Flute is only good for summoning slootches – and then they slovulate. Don’t you remember what I told you about Ms. Tuesday?”

“She played the flute?”

“No, she got eaten by a slootch,” said Thule in some exasperation. “Please put the flute down. You’re somewhat troublesome, Ms. Sunday. As this is your first day on the job, I forgive your tendencies – but maybe it is best you stay by the door – and out of the way.

“Fine by me,” said Clara with some satisfaction. She stepped back.

Thule was perturbed. He walked about in circles and stopped, cupping his chin in one hand. Clara had obviously disturbed the Paraxegnostic’s composure for he kept looking over at her with a raised eyebrow as he stalked about.

Clara kept her attention on the butler, the aforementioned Mr. Ur. He was busily arranging the burlap sacks upon the dangerous looking chair. A shiny pair of scissor snicked wildly at lengths of twine. The butler bent over the chair and tightened straps and belts.

“If I could ask another question,” said Clara tentatively.

Dominic Thule sighed.

“Better to seen than to be heard,” said Thule. “It can’t be helped. Explanation: the Externophite is here, in this very chamber with us at the very moment. But it lacks corporeality.  So we provide it with a form. Once the butler is completed with the arrangement, the creature will take shape.”

“You’re making a very large doll?” Clara ventured.

“No, a sack-man,” said Thule. “Otherwise, how else could an Externophite take form in our reality?”

“Still looks like a doll to me,” said Clara.

Thule shot her a frustrated look.

“I see your education will be an ongoing process,” he said.

“And, what exactly are you going to do with your sack man when he’s done?” said Clara.

“I’m going to feel up the creature’s head,” shouted Thule, becoming rather cross. “I need to determine the exact peculiarities of this breed of Externophite to determine how much of a threat this species is to our kind, our world.”

“At the risk of pointing out the obvious,” said Clara. “If it has to be tied to a table, then it can’t be safe. We’re done. Look, I know a nice bar a few blocks down from here. You really need to get out, mingle a bit, how ‘bout jager shots?”

“I am done,” announced Mr. Ur stilting back from the chair.

The empty bags had been tied together in such a way that the makeshift shape had legs, arms, and a head.

“At last,” said Thule with some relief. Apparently the thought of playing with his burlap bags was more pleasurable than talking to his newest employee. He hustled over to the chair. The butler raised a tray with an array of tools.

“There’s nothing there,” said Clara.

But she should have kept her mouth closed. There was a whistling noise and the burlap sacks began to twitch.

Clara had only watched Scariest Mysteries once. But she knew the moment. This was it, the climax, the terrifying moment when all the cameras zoomed in on the hapless victim for the reaction while the terrible re-enactment happened. They probably expected her to shriek and pass out. But she was onto them.She almost wished there was a sound track in the background. She had to admit these special effects were…

Okay, it wasn’t that good. It was like watching the carnie inflate balloons at Covey Island in the summer. Only fun if the carnie passed the nozzle over so everyone in the group could get heliumed up and laughing like chipmunks.

“The Externophite has manifested,” announced Thule with some satisfaction.

“That’s it?” said Clara losing all her fear in a rush. “Jesus Christ, you idiots had me going. Where’d you stick the hose in? I bet you got some kind of rubber lining in there so it doesn’t deflate. Am I right?”

“Quiet Ms. Sunday,” murmured Thule. He probed cautiously at the topmost part of the sack. “Interesting, most interesting…. Mr. Ur, bring me the notepad I must sketch out the meaning of these shapes. If only I had my books for reference.”

The limbs of the so-called sack man thrashed about upon the table. Thule was having difficulty grasping the “head” of the sack creature.

“I don’t understand,” said Thule with a puzzled frown, his fingers running across the writhing burlap. “It almost feels as if these are the Glyphs of Gloggomo beneath the sack covering. But how could an Externophite have these unless…”

There was a crack and a bright flash. Thule stumbled away from the table wringing his hands as if they had been plunged into a nest of hornets. Metal bent and snapped as the sack man sat up in the chair and pulled one limb free from the restraints. Twine snapped as the midriff of the creature burst open.

“Betrayal,” shrieked Thule running about. “Magister Necros has laid a trap for me. By unwittingly pressing upon the Glyphs of Gloggomo I have freed the creature.”

“I’m definitely NOT scared,” Clara began to laugh. “Cut, it’s a wrap!”

Mr. Ur shuffled forward and threw himself upon the sack man.

There was a horrible crackling and snapping as Mr Ur bent in half. The sack man began to stuff the full length of the butler into the open tear of its burlap torso.

Clara stopped laughing. The spidery legs and arm of the butler stuck in all directions. As she watched, one the arms suddenly snapped apart, bone and tendon showed. Entrails slurped out and splatted on the floor. An awful smell filled the room.

“Holy shit!” Clara fell back to the door. On second thought this was real. No tv host would come out to stop the action. “Do something you idiot! It’s getting loose. Unlock the door.”

“It will hunt us down for all eternity,” sobbed Thule falling upon the ground. “What a fool I was to trust the Magister. No time for countermeasures, we will be devoured. I am undone.”

“Give me the key,” shouted Clara. She jumped on Thule and shoved her hands into his pockets.

There was a snap and a metal bolt shot by. The sack man had wrenched a leg free.

“We won’t be able to escape,” babbled Thule. “The Externophite will catch us before we reach the stairs. The door won’t hold it back for long.”

Clara’s eyes fell upon the Slootch Flute. She had left if propped up by the door.

In a moment she had the tube in her hands, she raised it to her lips and blew into the opening as hard as she could. There was no sound.

“By the Miserable Mob again, what have you done?” Thule cried aghast. “Now we’re doomed, doomed, utterly doomed.”

“Open the door!” Clara shrieked flipping off the high heels. She sprang forward to the chair evading the flailing limbs of the sack man. She thrust the flute like a stake into the sack man’s gut where the thing had devoured the butler. There was a disgusting pop and a gout of unspeakable goo. The sack man whistled and turned its sacky head towards Clara.

The floor of the chamber shook. A sound like a thousand subway cars rising deafened them.

“Run!” Thule flung open the door, Clara shouldered him aside.

She looked back only once, right as they reached the base of the stairwell and began the frantic climb back up.

The slootches were slovulating.

“Positively brilliant,” said Thule raising his goblet in a salute. His composure was quite restored “What a brilliant countermeasure. Blowing the flute and then staking the Externophite to the table so it was delayed long enough for the slootches to annihilate the creature by sheer weight of numbers and ooze. I applaud your quick thinking. Now I must plan a fitting revenge upon the magister for his attempt at foul play.”

“I’m so going to the police,” Clara slurred and threw the empty bottle of champagne into the fireplace with a crash. “Don’t even attempt to stop me.”

“Alas, my poor girl,” said Thule with a sad smile. “You won’t even remember what happened when you step outside my gnostical sanctum. I have a forget-me-not spell in place for such eventualities. All you’ll recall is that I expect you back on Sunday to work.”

Clara stared at him in a drunken stupor. “You’re a total dick. I don’t know what kind of a license you need to do what you do, but it needs to be taken away. Whatever, I’m out of here.”

“But what about the mess,” protested Thule. “You are the maid.”

“It’s after twelve, or sixteen o’clock,” said Clara wearily. She put her coat on over the outfit, she’d change at home. “Monday can do it.”

THE END

Copyright ©2011 by John Eric Sweat

Available in all electronic formats on Smashwords.

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6 Responses to The Shape Of Its Head

  1. Pingback: Writing: Flash Fiction, sort of… |

  2. Gramneg says:

    Damn, I am picking up flavors of Reanimator, Conan Doyle and maybe Mary Shelley. This has real potential :-). I am wondering about Clara though, my first thought was Balalaika with the scarlet hued mini-skirt, but now I am thinking more of a Revy vibe.

    Nice work.

  3. Gramneg says:

    Absolutely fantastic. How you came up with some of this amazes me. The ending actually improved on the beginning which was pretty damn good. Slovulating has my vote the next time they update the Oxford English Dictionary.

    Just one minor request….

    MORE….SOON…….

    • valkris says:

      I don’t even want to consider what that means!

      Slovulating will have to be a word whose meaning can only be determined by the reader. Truly better that way.

  4. Pingback: Writing: The Shape of Its Head |

  5. Secret says:

    This piece feels like a near-total departure from your usual fare, but damn, I’m a fan of this side of you.

    I would make a few small tweaks (renaming freaky-tall to Freaky Tall, for instance) and adding some shine to a couple areas of bumpy syntax. But in general? As a whole? This is fucking brilliant.

    You love research, and your struggle is balancing a story’s pace with the snagging thorns of explanation and exposition of your envisioned worlds. This story’s romping rhythm skips over the heaviness that can weigh down research-laden tales. It seize the hand delighted reader and dashing into the fantastical. It doesn’t matter if the reader knows what phrenology is… although it helps. One needed ping on the allusion to Lovecraft’s shoggoths either. The romp is still fun as hell. The reader who is onboard with these references just gets an extra level of giggle.

    What makes me happy for you is that you seem able to poke at the need for heavy explanations by including terminology that you completely made up. Vivisectory. Slovulate. The winking self-mockery of the penchant for terminology and research detail is sheer fun. Well, that is my take at least. A reader less familiar with your body of work would just think that you were playfully poking at other writers with that pesky research curse.

    Clara is a treasure. I’ve already messaged you about the similarities between Clara and your Black Agnia. Lovely and crude girls who are fearless out of necessity and irreverent by nature. Smart women who could excel at anything but have been dealt a rough hand by the fates. These characters are going to find many fans. Wholly likeable and immediate protagonists.

    In short, you did good, my friend.

    Looking forward to more.

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