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The Phantoms
by J.B. Pick




I didn't fear the man, you understand; nor the woman, though women are worse, for I have less knowledge of their reasons for action and the methods of life and death they employ. The terror I experienced was due to the phantoms. Of course I knew they came out of my own head, in fact I used great ingenuity in their invention, but one doesn't always want to know what one's mind contains. That is why they frightened me so much.

I seated myself myself before the fire and faced facts with determination and energy. The old man would be sitting downstairs in the dirty hall cracking nuts with his three teeth. The girl would be making him some soup for supper. That was all. And the phantoms were mental, each one invented in turn, and then, alive, they joined me in the room.

If there had been electric light! But no, I was not so quaking and cowardly that that I turned my back to the fire so as to stare at the room in its flickering light. I continued to sit facing the flames, changed from dark lifelessness to vivid life by its inward fire, long shut in its heart by aeons of purgatory packed in the earth, spoke wordlessly a good many things I had suspected previously, but of which I had never been sure.

The phantoms, hideous, futile, mercenary, drivelling, insistent, grouped themselves behind me. I felt as though I were congealing into a statuesque, horrible comrade for them. My life was not in danger from them - no, they were not concerned with me so much as with each other. They gibbered at and poked and scratched each other, cackled; told stupid, obscene stories which I could hear, and the meaning of which I hated but could understand. My sanity was in danger. When my brain broke, then I would vanish and only the phantoms would remain in the world for ever.

Naturally enough, as the flames fell lower my fears increased. In the darkness I could no longer control in any way the things that jumped out of my head. Now, while the coal burned, I could hold back some of the shapes, though I had no influence upon those that were at large in the room. In the complete blackness they would leap and lumber and fall from my mental womb when they could and as their nature ordained, dreadful embryos, miscarriages, ugly foolish fungoids of my closed-in brain.

I did not rave at them: it would be useless, you see, I had begun to people all the rooms in which I slept with these offspring of mine: they stayed when I left, yet renewed themselves at the next place the next night. I was being driven gradually back, I knew that. I had started to understand myself too late. I was less now than my mysteries - my efforts to probe and establish one truth had already been smothered by these self-evoked creatures of darkness, myth and loss, fact badly digested and theory unbased and misdirected. They themselves reproduced as fast as I could think towards preventing them. It was too late, and when my mind broke, all the remaining scarecrows of the horde would topple out and plague the world. I would be nothing. I was little more now than in the house in which they lived.

The fire was falling to ash when there came a knock at the door. I turned, because it made no difference whether the phantoms were behind or before me, but if one was actually knocking the door, it meant that they were concentrating on me as an entity, so I had descended to mere equality with them. I was no longer their creator or their house, I was a phantom too.

"Come in", I said steadily. The girl appeared with a candle and a shovel full of coal, "Sir" she said "before you turn in, Father is in bed and I am just getting up.. Why, sir, you do look pale! What is it? You're sweating; have you the fever?"

"I doubt it, I'm very worried."

"You're lonely, I've no doubt, I was thinking downstairs you looked very lonely, and sitting up here like this with no one to talk to."

She seemed in no hurry to go, I didn't object to this - I could still see the phantoms, and hear their gibbering and mumbling, as they pawed each other, shuffled and spat, jostling in their shadowy corner. But she, of course, would not be expecting them.

The more often I glanced at her face the more I was taken with something in it that I could not place. Kindness, yes, that was there; I knew of that. But something else. There is no such thing as evil, you know, I must point that out, there is only understanding and ignorance; so that it wasn't what you would call "goodness" I saw. then I had it - beauty, that was it!

"You are beautiful" I said.

She nodded frankly. "Yes, I know," she said. "You seem surprised. No one ever comes to see me here, because they don't know I am. But when I saw you I knew that if I came up YOU'D understand".

"Understand, did you say, now that's very strange, it isn't a thing I can do.."

"Now don't talk so much. We must go to bed. I think you have the fever."

"You're leaving me?"

"No, no, I didn't expect you'd want me to, I'll come in with you."

And so I undressed swiftly, and jumped in. She was there before me. Immediately I felt the phantoms would close round, and inside they were pressing at the gates of my brain.

Her voice came. "I see terrible, terrible figures by the bed. They are hissing! They are yours! Oh my love!" She clutched at me, immediately, for both of us, they disappeared, completely. I knew they had not re-entered.

"I didn't know that was how to do it." I explained. As long as she kept hold of me it was all right. She kept saying "Love" but I only came to understand the word years later.




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