And As to Drink
the AMBROSE BIERCE site
He stumbled along sidewalk after sidewalk, the past laughing in his face at every corner, the absurd bit of verse from long ago flipping over again and again in his head. He paused, dizzy, breathless, and leaned on a whitewashed stucco wall while he tried to slow his pulse. He hated the sound of it. He wouldn't raise his eyes to the harsh lights overhead; never had he dreamed electricity might be put to such banal use. He actually missed the uneven illumination of gaslights.Sirens whined in the distance, and he wondered if they were coming for him; his attack on the young people several streets back couldn't have gone unnoticed. But no lights slashed the night to mark him where he stood, no bullets screamed out to cut him down, only the memories. O God, I'd prefer the bullets. He doubted they'd even slow him down now. Bullets had not stopped Ruiz when they'd met for the last time in the cemetery; Bierce had fired two shots from his ivory-inlaid revolver (a beautiful thing; his son had blown his own brains out with it), but the wounds had sealed almost immediately in the vampire's chest, and Ruiz had laughed delightedly before closing for battle. Their final struggle had been pathetic. Like drunken barflies, they'd slammed one another from tombstone to cenotaph, breaking some but never each other, snarling and tearing, evenly matched. Suddenly torchlight burst upon them, and Ruiz howled in terror. Bierce's elation at the sound had vanished as Ruiz screamed, "Help me! The vampire! Kill it, help!" Bierce hadn't thought that even Ruiz would stoop to such a silly subterfuge. Mobilized by the plea, panicked and willing to follow orders from anyone, the local posse had shoved a clearly reluctant priest between the two combatants, and with a heavy crucifix the frightened cleric backed Bierce against a mausoleum. Disgusted, wearied, he could only watch in grudging amazement as Ruiz, with a smile and a mocking salute, spirited away into the dark hills. All he'd really wanted was a few years' entertainment. He wrought this curse on me just to gratify his sense of humor. Bierce thought of the revolver, wondered where it was now. Gone the way of all material things - all things but you, at least.
Breath regained, he began walking again, directionless, refusing to look higher than the gray below his feet. Ghosts flickered at his side; he would not meet their terrible eyes, but they hissed so he would hear: "Why couldn't you have let me die on the sand, gringo? I was bleeding to death, true, but no soldier of Villa's should have to choke for breath with a thing's teeth in his throat." "I was the whore in the port town whose name you still can't pronounce. You never knew my name, either...I was too sick to work, but you took from me just the same...spilled more than you drank!" "You took my life. Do you remember?" "Do you remember?"
Go away, he thought, wincing, hurrying his steps to outpace them. I don't want to remember. Go away! I was never that monster, never that thing that killed for his drinks, never! But they tittered, they swooped, and he cringed into a doorway. No! I was never that monster, that murderer!
They swept away then, but not before laughing, "And what are you now?" He felt a spectral claw tug at his coat-collar...then silence.
Shuddering, he looked around, noting the apparent lifelessness of the neighborhood, all gray stone buildings and their shadows. Blank edifices, hollow streetlamps without light stared back, uncaring. He glanced up at the sliver of moon, still far from the horizon, and thought of finding some open place to await the dawn, but the dimly recalled pain of the last time he'd tried it itched on his skin. He turned aside, following the path all the streets in this part of the deserted city seemed to be heading. At last he came to a cross-street, where an imposing cornice towered over massive Corinthian columns and flights of broad stairs. Just to the left of the immensely smug building, the Confederate president, his face grim in the shadows, stood guard on his tall pedestal, a reminder this city had served as the capital of that short-lived federation. Drawn to a familiar image, Bierce crossed the empty street without clear purpose, but shied away from the statue, suddenly wanting the bronze leader's back to him, and found a darkened spot at the base of a column to rest. It disturbed him that he felt no ache in his bones upon seating himself on the near-frozen stone; this body was too young.
Hunger still throbbed through his veins, a low growl more felt than heard accompanying every beat of the stolen heart. I should have thrown my life away at Shiloh, he thought, envious of the honored dead he'd risen among the previous night. Which is worse, being torn apart by a blast of grape, or having a fiend's fangs in your neck? His head sank to his drawn-up knees, eyes closing, feeling the cold only distantly. He wondered if it would be possible for him to freeze to death. Probably thaw in the spring, thirstier than before. He sighed softly. The stake, it must be. But how to ensure that no jackass digs me up again? The sun would not arrive for many hours, he guessed. He stared out over the silent city lights, a traffic signal changing its colors silently, with no one around to obey it. Right now, across a continent, perhaps, descendants of friends and foes went about their lives, blissfully unaware of his continued existence. His daughter's dust gathered mould somewhere in Ohio; his wife and sons, long blended with the earth, lay lost to all time in unmarked graves; his Collected Works made homes for spiders in forgotten stacks of libraries. Bierce, with hair too long, leaned against a concrete column, in a borrowed and blood-spattered coat, and felt the tips of his fangs with his tongue. He couldn't have written himself a more ironic end.
He was roused from the chill of his mind by a now-familiar, slim figure climbing the stairs. A breeze blew her scent to him easily. She paused, then headed for him. How in blazes did she find me? He wouldn't look directly at her, not even when she stood, exhausted, in front of him. For once he appreciated the long strands of gold which fell over his forehead; they blocked her sight of his eyes. He tried closing them for good measure, but that only intensified the smell of blood.
Alia waited, her chest heaving from the chase, angry at his apparent indifference, fighting the urge to simply collapse on the stairs. Finally, from his cocoon of limbs and coat, his voice came, very low: "Miss de Marinero, you must find me an interesting monster indeed to waste so much time pursuing me."
She shook her head, speaking through deep breaths. "You're not...a monster...just an addict."
"You claim a distinction between the two?"
"Addicts can be cured."
"I must beg to differ," he said, looking up; Alia shivered despite her resolve. "There exists one cure only. You seem a very diligent nursemaid, but you insist on employing every method save the correct one."
She bristled, too frustrated to argue calmly. "Dammit, I was only trying to-"
"You're only trying," he snapped, rising slowly to his six-foot-plus height. "You're trying my patience severely, Miss. I don't need another woman at my bootheels, attempting to control every aspect of this miserable unlife; you'll simply have to go find someone else to practice your mothering instincts on."
"Control?" Alia nearly shouted. "That's really funny, you lecturing me on control! If I hadn't interrupted you twice now, you'd have two more deaths on your hands than however many you put into battlefield graves! How many more before you realize you need help?"
His reaction welled up before he could clear his head of the red scent; he grabbed her wrist, twisting her towards him, fangs bared. "Go on, then!" Alia cried, in as much fury as fear. "You've become nothing but a common rapist! There's nothing noble or tragic in it!"
Bierce froze at her outburst, startled. Her words sank in, parting the fog of need in his mind, and he released her, wavering slightly as if battered by the wind. Alia drew back, clutching her wrist, and her movement seemed to break his resolve; he slouched back against the column, drawing his shoulders inward. He turned his face away from her, but she saw the trembling all through him, heard the single ragged breath he drew. Her heart slowed gradually. The wind whispered past at the foot of the staircase, carrying some late, dry leaves with it. Alia imagined she heard a voice in it, wordless, and Bierce tensed as if expecting an attack, but the sound died away with the breeze.
Bierce felt the air coursing through his lungs and out again, scarcely warmed. He forced himself to look at her, and the words struggled in his throat, but he shaped them deliberately. "I...I do not deserve this, Miss, but...I beg your forgiveness." He swallowed hard, dimly grateful that for once a dry throat did not also mean a resurrection of the coughing. "May I be forced to live forever thus if I ever again..." Unable to continue, he lowered his eyes; Alia caught a glimpse of the pain evident in them. After a long moment, under control once more, he resumed in a more normal voice: "You are entirely correct. I am an addict, and a killer, and a thousand other horrific things. I make no excuses, no apologies...I am not...quite myself." He managed to smile at the joke, the macabre grin he'd been famous for in life.
Alia watched his chest rise and fall softly, thinking, My God, he's beautiful. The light from the street below caught the edges of his face and form, shadows blurring the slight lines just beginning to form on the young face. Callis' body looked good on him, and his features were startlingly similar to what they'd been originally. His eyes were exactly the same color in the light or under shadowed brows, the color of sky over the Alaskan tundra, the ice-gray of the wasteland itself. He had been at Shiloh and Chickamauga, had mined for gold in the Dakotas; reborn after a morbid fashion, he slumped against a stone likely younger than he and took in the same air she breathed. Alia found her voice: "Are you still...?"
He glanced at her, and shrugged lightly. "It's not bad."
"How long can you...go without it?"
"How strong a cell have you handy? Or better, how quickly can you find an oaken stake?"
Alia shook her head, a firm no. "There must be some other way, some substitute... When I was in rehab, they let me have books. Not much else, everything was too likely to cause 'excitement', they said; but books. After a while, I'd rather have had the books than the drugs - after a long while, and a long, nasty withdrawal."
"You're not suggesting I turn to the latest printed bosh the next time I need a victim," he scoffed.
Alia pounced on it, desperate to chase away the spectres. "Oh, I didn't realize you distinguished between the two, Mr. Bierce."
He stared straight at her a moment, astonished, then gave a grudging snort. "Well, at least the literary ones deserved it."
She glanced at the street. "You shouldn't stay here. They do patrol, even this late, and the cops are sure to notice you at some point." She saw his wince, and added quickly, "That kid's going to be okay. You didn't...didn't puncture the jugular."
He gave one slight nod, more relieved than he cared to show. "And as for yourself? Are the police so efficient nowadays as to make the cities safe for a young woman to walk about in alone after dark?"
"Walk with me, then - back to the house."
"You wish me as your escort? You must harbor a wide streak of self-destructiveness, Miss de Marinero."
"Cruising for a bruising," Alia agreed, and caught his wince as he stretched slowly.
"Must you be so apt in your slang?" he complained, but brushed off the coat and joined her as she left the safety of the columns, into a fresh gust of wind. She shivered involuntarily, and he startled her by taking off the coat and in one fluid motion draping it over her shoulders. It reached to her ankles. She noticed the rust-colored droplets staining the collar, but said nothing. Bierce hadn't taken more than a swallow tonight, and she had to admit he was holding up better than she ever had for the needles.
"Sure you won't be cold?" she ventured as they stepped down from the portico.
He slowed his pace momentarily to reach one hand to hers, as if helping her down the stairs, and she flinched at the contact; his hand, though not ice, had little pulsing through it. "I don't notice it any more," he replied quietly, and let her go. Alia walked a little behind him, thinking, And this is nothing compared to the cold six feet under.
"I'm sorry," she said, the warmth of the coat negligible next to the chill cast of her thoughts.
"Sorry? For what? It's hardly your fault Callis was fool enough to dig me up, and there's nothing I can do for him now. You're perfectly charming, Miss, and I regret that I am unable to share your enthusiasm for keeping me alive." His tone was pleasant, too sincere to be sarcasm.
"If we were to find some way around this...addiction, would this time interest you?" Alia asked.
"I doubt it," he sighed softly. "I've...I've simply been too much, Miss." He felt genuine regret that she couldn't understand this, felt the gulf it put between them even more deeply than his curse.
"You could take up your old job as 'Town Crier'. The Huntingtons, Hearsts, and Pixleys of your day are the Gates, O'Reilleys, and Limbaughs of mine. Still plenty of idols to break."
The mention of Pixley sparked a twinge of anger, but also a grudge of admiration for this girl; Pixley's name, he knew, had faded long before his own. "You actually did plow through all twelve volumes, didn't you?" he asked.
"Oh yes. I set out at one point to read everything of yours I could get hold of. There's been more written about you than one can find by you, though." The coat, wrapped tightly around her now, smelled distantly of copper, fog, and a clean, salty scent. She turned up the collar, nestling into it.
"Ha! Critics, no doubt - the vultures swooping in when they thought my carcass was done moving." He wished she hadn't buried herself in the coat; he couldn't see her features clearly.
"Biographers, too - including your old friend Danziger."
"Hm. Pray tell, did he mention the cane I broke over his head?"
"Funny, no - must've slipped his mind. Maybe you thwacked him a little too hard... Why didn't you ever contact them, your friends, like Neale, or Mencken?"
He sighed. "Isn't it obvious? It seemed better just to allow them to think me dead. Fairly accurate, as well."
A car passed, headlights gazing blankly ahead. In the silence it left behind, Alia said, "You may have been right in your definition of 'friendship'...they published several of your letters after your presumed death."
He started in anger, then forced himself down. The thirst interfered too much with his rational reactions, he thought. To Alia, he showed the sharp smile once more. "How comforting to find posterity has confirmed all my prophecies. Why are you telling me this?"
"A new life should be started with no illusions."
"A 'new life' would be an illusion."
They continued in silence for some distance, leaving the downtown area for one of the industrialized streets leading east. The streetlights stretched apart, their influence felt only in small, diffuse pools of amber, with cold gray pavement in between for several yards. Alia noticed the tenseness of his stride, the directness of his straight-ahead gaze. "Not to press on a delicate subject, but do you still need...?"
He gave her a forced smile. "Not to worry. Assuming your host has a good whiskey yet around, I plan to be blissfully ignorant of all urges for the remainder of the night." He was painfully aware of each quiet step she took, her smaller shoes padding faster beside his own long strides, aware of the rhythm of her heart, beating scant feet from his, of the scent of sandalwood and amber she gave off in exertion. It occurred to him suddenly that her scent, her sleek black velvets and delicate silver ornaments, were so different from her more casual appearance the night before as to seem careful, deliberate. Disturbed, he put several more inches of cold air between them.
If he'd still been alive, he might not have heard her voice when she next spoke, so quietly: "Have you ever thought that you might not have to take by force?"
He refused to look at her. "I didn't always. Generally, the ones on their deathbed of scarlet fever didn't put up too much of a fight," he replied, unsmiling. My child, I forbid you to consider it.
"But there might be people out there who'd let you -"
He snorted. "Not damned likely. What man in his right mind, seeing what I am, would tilt back his head: 'O, there's a good chap, mind you don't stain the collar, the missus would never forgive me'?" He slowed briefly to glare at her, noting with satisfaction her light cringe. "What self-respecting human would support the dead through anything other than the occasional flower to decorate a crypt?"
Alia, silent, lowered her eyes, and they continued with only the wind speaking in the trash and scattered dirt of the roadway. Bierce thought of rain on a boxcar and a full moon, and felt a dim pain in his skull, the echo of the wound which no longer existed. It might not've been so bad, comparatively, for that to have been my last sight on earth. The rain and the merciless light, and men groaning all around; death unknown, unaided, not a ghoul collecting souls at all, no robe or scythe...only the moon and the wet and the endless creaking of the train. There did not exist a personal Death, he realized, until Ruiz found me. The only sense of transition he'd been allowed then was the terrible thirst making itself known in his body, charged, indifferent, transcending all reason in a burst of ecstasy when the blood touched his tongue. He felt abruptly sick, and hastened his pace, little caring if Alia could match it.
She did, but it reminded her of the length of his body, the strong lean legs and straight back wrapped in the fabrics he had taken comfort from: wool, woven cotton, a touch of satin and of starch at the collar. He could not have come back as anything less, she thought, and shivered at the image of thin sharp teeth sheathed behind such soft lips. His every step threatened to jar sparks from the pavement, yet made absolutely no sound; he was too much controlled energy to be a phantom. She coughed quietly from the chill in her throat, and finally asked, "How much do you actually need to survive?"
"I've no idea. It feels as though I could drink gallons and never be sated," he responded, and turned what he thought must be the right corner; Alia seemed uninterested in finding her own way back to the house, so navigation gave him something to focus on.
"If you only took a little...sustenance, say...I think some people might be willing to help you," Alia ventured. A voice, the ghost of her mother, screamed in her brain what the hell do you think you're doing, but she ignored it. Fingers trembling, she unfastened the top button of her blouse. She caught his shocked glance before he hid it beneath golden brows.
"Even with full knowledge of what I am? What I am easily capable of now?" He kept his voice flat, calm, as if unrolling some trite wisdom to a disciple.
"It would be..." For once, he had to search for a word. "Desecration."
"Some people wouldn't think so." He didn't respond, and after another half-block walked in silence, she turned down the collar of the coat, slowly so her trembling fingers would not betray her.
"'Some people' are great fools, then. They don't understand how dangerous this is, what it is which makes it so hideous," Bierce said, not raising his voice; she'd drifted closer to him.
"And what is that?" Alia asked, her voice still so quiet an ordinary man wouldn't have heard it beneath the constant wind.
"It is..." Some part of his mind finished, that I haven't the will to resist it, but he rejected that immediately. A movement of hers attracted his gaze: she was lifting her hair out of the back of the coat and curled it all to the far side of her neck; a heavy, glossy raven seemed nestled against her collarbone. Pale and warm, her neck was exposed to him, with her pulse strongly racing in the artery below her jawline. He tore his eyes away with a wrenching in his gut, and forced himself to complete the argument. "That when I give in to the thirst, I lose all rational thought. An addict, you said; you were correct."
"What if someone was around to jolt you out of it, to remind you?" Her heart sounded loud in her ears; she wondered if he could hear it.
"Then they would be accomplice-fools and equally to blame for the crime," he snarled, and strode roughly ahead, forcing her to jog a few paces to catch up. My dear, stop this, stop before you tempt me too far, please! He considered leaving her there, of fleeing the city at that instant, but she broke in on his thoughts again.
"Mr. Bierce, 'even self-sacrifice is a species of indulgence'," she quoted him. He threw a sharp look at her, saying nothing, continuing on with barely disguised distress. Alia took one step closer to the edge. "Do you remember your meeting with Mrs. Atherton?"
His last nightmare struck him at the name, and he halted, turning on her savagely. "And what has she to do with anything, Miss?"
Alia nearly backed away under those fierce eyes, but she set her feet and her heart. "Nothing..." Bierce turned aside, fists clenching, and she added in a whisper, "Not all of us would have mocked you."
He stood perfectly still a long moment, a marble image of himself, and Alia cursed herself. Idiot. Now you've done it. He's furious with you. Did you really think you could prove anything to him? Bierce took a step forward, and she felt disappointment pressing down on her. She reached to close the coat - her hands were caught, pinned; his sudden presence startled her too much to move. He leaned in swiftly, and she tensed, shutting her eyes; but then he paused, and she felt his breath upon her skin, his hands slipping free of hers and encircling her, drawing her close. His hair slid silkily across her cheek, his lips chill as he touched her throat in the most gentle of kisses. Alia shivered at the unexpected heat he touched off, and she held tightly to him for protection. She felt the tremor which ran through his body before the needles pierced her throat.
Oh my God. Unexpected, completely unthought of: the first pull echoed through her, a sudden uprush from every vein, dizzying. She embraced him convulsively. Oh God - never thought - not like this - o my Ambrose -- Blackness, a great roiling wave, swept up the white beach toward her. She saw it coming, welcomed the seaspray tickling her breast, allowing her head to fall back, lips parted and eyes shut. Yet she could distinctly feel him against her, his mouth at the twin founts he had opened; so gently he took from her, dreamlike, no pain, only a sharp heat in her throat. In the tightness of her embrace she could sense his body rigid as a lover's. She began to slip, the wave throwing itself hard upon her, the tide yawning back; she fought to keep from sinking into that lovely undertow. So beautiful...gently, my love... His pull grew more insistent, she less able to stagger back onto the beach after each straining wave, and a touch of fear tickled her back. No - wait - too much - The sea crashed over her ears, drenching her in red almost black in its thickness, and she tried to run. Her limbs would not respond.
On the verge of the void, she whispered, "Ambrose," a plea; then the sea swallowed all.
Dazed, Bierce thought back, My sweet, reveling in copper and the scent of smoke from burnt flowers, breathing in her skin. The woman in his arms slipped, her grip falling away from him, and he stood still in the trance, teeth gliding from her neck without tearing, his tongue engorged with the taste of red metal. He gazed down upon delicate crimson pearls forming against the moon-white skin, aware only he loved her. It took another minute before the dream faded and he realized what he'd done.
She lay nearly weightless in his arms, eyes shut, the gems on her neck ruined by his slight movement; they turned to ugly trickles down her shirt, darkening the already sable silk. He almost dropped her in shock. "Alia! No!" He lifted her head, willing her to open her eyes, receiving no response. He could still hear her pulse, but it sounded weak, and growing fainter by the minute.
Numbly, his writer's eye noted the fall of her hair over her breast, the unhealthy pallor of her skin. He looked up, and for a moment the moon bloated fully, and the sky rumbled, and rain began to fall on an open rail car. This time, Death was present, bestowing what he could not have. Bierce gathered her against his chest and began walking, mechanically, unable to think which way to go. The wind was finally still. He thought, There are no ghosts now, and couldn't keep back a strangled laugh of relief. It was the only sound in the dead street.__________________________
Adapted from A Resumed Identity, a novel in progress by K.A. di'Gaetano. Original art by K.A. Silva.
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