As I mentioned before (here), I was at work on a carnival-themed horror story for Iron Cauldron Books. Well, it’s finished. I had a great time writing this – inexplicably, I really get a kick out of writing dark and disturbing, sometimes disgusting, pieces of fiction. If you had a problem with Emancipation, no worries. The Stone-Child of Sens is certainly dark, but it doesn’t touch on the same sort of taboos that Emancipation did. It also clocks in just under 4000 words, so find someplace more comfortable than your smartphone at a red light, eh?
The Stone-Child of Sens
Fairgrounds Park was a sea of people from one end to the other with high, peaked tents jutting upward like wayward islands. The massive amphitheater sprung up like a basalt monolith to Francis’ left, scraping itself against the sky in garish flags and bunting. He sneered a bit at that, tugging up one corner of his mouth beneath the razor thin mustache. He wasn’t a fan of progress for the sake of progress and that hideous structure was nothing less with its automated curtainry and water-drawn sets. The livestock pens opposite it were preferable, he told himself, but he gave them an equal berth as he marched into the crowd.
Loathe to make contact with the pork-stained hands and mud-caked shoes of the city’s thronging poor, he made short work with elbows. The soiled mass parted around him with pained squeals and curses cut short when they caught sight of his finely tailored suit and expensive bowler. Likely as not, even the pickpockets certain to haunt this human congestion would steer clear of him now. Unfortunately for his narrow-toed shoes and their fine tall heels, litter and detritus would not give way so easily. He did his best to pick around the largest of the rubbish without taking his glaring eyes off the crowd.
From the thick of things, it was less obvious where everything lie. Even so, he knew the agriculture hall to be to his right, nearest to the pens, and the mechanical hall to be straight through toward the furthest end. He was already compiling a lengthy list of complaints to share with his companions once he joined them there, acerbic in wit and rife with superiority. It was, after all, why he hadn’t had the carriage take him to the opposite side of the Park.
The gentlemen of the Apparatus and Science Society wore their witticisms as a badge and Francis had no device on display this year. Whereas Andrew and Chandler were presenting their steam-powered ambulatory and Darcy his portable kinetoscope, Francis would be among those forced to suffer their compatriot’s condescensions in the dull silence of the unwitted observer. This horrible trek through the rabble, at least, would give him fodder for conversation that might usurp attention from his more industrious peers.
Even as he was quietly congratulating himself on his exceptional social maneuvering skills, the crowd to his left surged wildly and pushed against him despite a renewed flurry of elbows and kicks. Thrust backward by an immense woman in neither bustle nor corset, Francis cringed away from her touch and crashed into the canvas wall of a small and tastelessly colored tent.
“Careful, son, you’ll break something,” cooed a gravelly voice riding a wave of bourbon and tobacco. Recoiling from the source, Francis pushed further back against the tent until some solid surface on the other side of the canvas stopped him with a clatter of displaced glass.
“Hold your hat, boy, it’s just old Ulisse.” The old man spoke again, his head thrust out of a slit in the tent like some perverse puppeteer’s ill-conceived comedy. Weathered and wrinkled like a peasant, the grandfather’s mouth puckered and sucked around his gums where no teeth were left to keep his lips away. A poorly treated tophat clung to his head more thoroughly than those few wispy white hairs that remained. Francis pushed himself upright and, admittedly, a fair few steps further from the stinking old man. The tinkle of glass subsided from within the tent.
“That’s a good boy,” the old man gave him a simpering smile. “Now, on to your big things with big people. Ulisse has mouths to feed and money to make.” Francis was only just forming the appropriate invective for an ancient carnival gawker that did not know his place when the man’s ridiculous head disappeared back inside the tent. A crimson heat crept its way up Francis’ neck.
“See here!” He shouted after the man, desperate to have his stinging insult be the last word on the situation. He elbowed the tent flap open, careful to keep his still-white gloves clear of any residuals, and forced his way into the dim interior beyond. Whatever words had laid upon his tongue only a moment before fell backward into his throat and choked him.
The tent was walled with poorly-constructed wooden shelves housing endless jars of glass. Lit from beneath by small, smoking lanterns, the vessels shone with a venomous green light. Housed within each was a mass of an unidentifiable sort, ranging in color from greys and reds to pinks and blacks. Those to his right were fouled by movement. Movement, he suspected, caused by his own collision with the tent only moments earlier. The ancient carnival geek, Ulisse, was lifting the lids from jars one at a time and dropping small handfuls of something dark and leafy into the viscous fluids.
“What in God’s name is this?” He’d never admit it to the gentlemen of the Apparatus and Science Society, but Francis’ voice cracked something awful. Ulisse dropped his last handful of mystery offal into a jar, replaced the lid, and turned to Francis with his brow drawn down.
“You shouldn’t be here, fancy man,” he moved at Francis, his hands waving in front of him with clinging bits of the unidentifiable paste still hiding under his nails and between his fingers. “This show isn’t for you with money and bowlers and steam-powered things. This is for other people. People with no money and straw hats and donkey-powered things.”
Despite his morbid curiosity, Francis quailed beneath the man’s soiled hands and fled the tent before his suit was irrevocably stained. Rather than bluster and look the fool, he straightened his bowler, brushed off his camel-colored suit as best he could, and moved at a very brisk walk away from the garish tent. The whole stretch of attractions in this area looked to be a carnival grotesquerie. The Bearded Lady and the Skeleton Man. The Snake Handler. Madam Bouviere, the fortune teller. All of them marked with painted banners strung across the tents.
The Stone-Child of Sens.
That tent, with its endless jars of something, fell from view as he rounded a bend in the thoroughfare and found himself facing the mechanical hall.
Francis was ill-prepared for the gentlemen of the Apparatus and Science Society. His caustic commentary on the rabble of fair-goers was lost in his run-in with Ulisse and his strange collection. All plans to usurp conversation were fouled by his mind as it turned back to that gaudy tent and the green-lit jars. He was forced, instead, to trail along with the other nonparticipants and simply listen as Andrew and Chandler remarked upon their own spectacular intellect and Darcy boasted of patents and corporate interests. The whole of it soured in his mouth and, rightly or not, the bitter seed of his discontent was flourishing in a soil of Ulisse and his green-lit jars. It was that wretched old man’s fault that he was off game. He and his disgusting baubles were to blame for Francis’ poor state.
The Society toured the great hall, marveling and making fun as seemed fit. A coal-powered corset lacer was mocked as trivial and ill-suited for such a prestigious stage as the St. Louis Exposition. A dirigible replica, designed to carry as many as a thousand passengers if the model could be translated to reality, received all-around applause and admiration from the gentlemen. Through it all, Francis stewed at the back of the crowd. Whenever an opportune moment arose and he opened his mouth to interject wit or witticism, the image of a formless and floating mass within an acidic green fluid crossed his mind and erased the words from his mouth. He would snap his jaw shut again, looking supremely stupid.
Twice, but only twice, one of his boon companions asked after him. Concern after one another’s welfare among the Society was no concern at all, of course. Jibes about his failing health or weak constitution would be never-ending. He shrugged them off, claiming his mind busy at work on a particularly bothersome equation that they could certainly be no help with. Even as they left him to his fuming, he doubted they would believe him. It was perfectly reasonable that he might be mulling over something complicated, but these pampered gentlemen would prefer to believe him infirm. Really not a very creative bunch. He knew them inside and out without much effort of deduction.
It was late evening by time the Society had made the entire circuit of devices on display. Most agreed to retire to a fine restaurant downtown for cocktails and conversation, but Francis demurred. He was too ill-tempered to carry on with the pretentious lot. The day had gone quite poorly and he had nothing to show for his efforts. He’d be damned if he would stretch it out any longer and continue to make an ass of himself in quiet indignity. It was likely that he was just feeding their judgment, helping them to convince themselves that he had fallen ill with something common and derogatory. Even so, the haunting image of the almost-familiar shapes in those oversized glass ampoules drove him to distraction.
Instead, he excused himself and exited the mechanical hall as he came, striding into the thinning mass of fair-folk with a stiff spine and a sneer. It didn’t occur to him that his car was meant to pick him up on the northern end of the fair until he’d already made his way back to the carnival booths. The area was littered as the rest of the fairgrounds, but the grimy populace had made its way to the amphitheater for whatever lurid show was scheduled for the evening. Only smoking lanterns and a wire-haired dog of the most vagrant variety remained with him among the ridiculous tents. Their colors, muted in the ochre dusk, were no less offensive to good taste than they had been in daylight, but the quiet beneath the faraway roar of the amphitheater was disconcerting. The whole avenue of sideshow acts grew irredeemably morose and menacing as the last of the daylight fled to night.
Of course that stupid old man would take up in the darkest, most dodgy part of the fairgrounds where he could accost people on whim. Ulisse was the reason Francis’ day had gone so poorly and so much social stock had been damaged. He was the reason that perfectly laid plans had so utterly spoiled. Heat crept along Francis’ collar as he considered how truly and deeply his standing had been wounded by the felonious old ass.
The indigent terrier attempted to make friends and take some comfort from Francis amid the desolate carnival regalia by rubbing itself against his trouser leg. The fine point of his very expensive shoe took it in the ribs and lifted it halfway into its flight of pain and terror. A smug sort of satisfaction took him over despite the likelihood that the beast’s stinking hairs clung to his pantleg. Old Ulisse was no more than a stray dog here, in his city, where Francis walked among the gentlemen and kept tea with scholars and businessmen. Perhaps it was high time Ulisse received a kick of his own to remind him that every person, or dog, had a place in society and his was well beneath Francis’. He squared his shoulders and settled his bowler high on his head, moving with resolution to the tent beneath the banner of the Stone-Child of Sens.
Elbowing the worn flap open, he lunged inside and barked out, “Aha!”
He had hoped to jostle the repugnant old man, but alas, Ulisse was not within. The dimly lit jars on all sides tinkled against one another, their fluids swishing and roiling as though recently disturbed. Francis peered into each dark corner and swung himself around swinging and shouting out another loud “Aha!” Ulisse was not, however, lurking in hiding behind him as he thought he might be.
Straightening himself out, he crossed to the center pole of the smallish tent. Very well, if Ulisse could not be here to receive his rebuke, perhaps he would receive it properly come morning. Francis grinned sharply to himself, feeling something wicked and wonderful swell inside his stomach. Or he could receive it not in person, but by very clearly spelled out message. Francis took a step toward one shelf, the wickedness making him giddy. A step closer and he was nearly within reach of the shelves. He was near to giggling when he took that last step to the shelf and reached a hand out toward the long lines of glass.
His fingers stopped just short of touching the jar nearest to him. Peering closer into the dimly lit depths of the vessel, he started to make sense of the slowly swaying shape within. No larger than a Cornish game hen, the mass floated lazily in the still-moving green fluids, staring back at him.
A small, underdeveloped foetus of grotesque proportions hung suspended in the viscous liquid, malformed arms and legs clutched tightly to its body. The face was bloated and split at the crown, revealing a grey and limpid brain edging its way out of the skull to drift hypnotically in the sway of the solution. The skin of the thing was drawn and pallid like an egg left too long to brine. The eyes, lidless and staring, kept pace with him even as the pickled foetus continued to rock.
Morbid curiosity waged a war against the delicacy of his stomach. Despite an overwhelming urge to vomit or shit or flee in terror, Francis moved closer and examined the neighboring jars. In each, suspended within the green ichor, was another underdeveloped foetus, clinging to an embryonic state of perpetual stasis. One, covered in fibrous dark hair, had the split lip and vestigial tail of something less human. Beside it, another supported two heads on a single neck. Yet another wore its heart on the outside of its chest, a blue and purple thing clinging to the preserved body like a parasitic tumor.
Francis was not wholly unaware of either birth defect or abomination, but never before had he seen so many preserved in such a state. Even within the tent of a carnival grotesquerie he would never have guessed such a saturnine display to exist. Surely old Ulisse was the basest of carnival geeks to charge admission to such an exhibition. The man’s collection rivaled the medical department of Washington University or any modern academic institution in the east, to be certain.
Francis made his way around the small tent, examining the floating foetuses with rising disgust. He prided himself in being a man of science, but no science was present in the garish and unwholesome display of these wretched beasts. No, quite the contrary, this hoard of atrocities had no right to exist beyond the walls of medical study. They were anathema to the human condition. They were abomination.
Moreover, their constant motion within the embalming fluids was beginning to make his head swim. All along the walls, moving in accord, the foetuses swayed to and fro, to and fro, in an endless rocking motion. It occurred to Francis that any disturbance he might have cause should have long since run its course. Even if old Ulisse had jostled the primary tent pole on his way out, the shelves had certainly stopped moving. Only the fluid within the jars continued to rock.
And the pickled monstrosities continued to stare with baleful gazes at his person.
Every preserved cadaver faced him where he stood. Despite the constant gentle motions of their fluids and despite the purely mathematical impossibility of it, they invariably shifted within their liquid prisons to face him. A cold, terrified sweat rose on his spine as he spun wildly, taking in the constant rocking and haunting stares. His mind raced to imagine wires or dowels or some other device designed to accomplish such a disconcerting feat, but it failed to compete with the electric warning signals firing along his spine. Adrenaline flooded his body and burst from his skin in a cold, stinking sweat. Overcome with agitation, he lurched for the tent flap.
Ulisse stood blocking his path, cradling yet another glass ampule. The old man’s eyes were wide with surprise and something else, something sad or disappointed.
“Out of my way, you wretched pervert!” Francis shouted, trying to dance around the old man in his ridiculous top hat, but unwilling to move within his reach. “I’ll have the constabulary on you for this, this… atrocity!” His voice rose and cracked and wavered, but his heart raced to quickly and too loudly for him to notice the shameful display.
“Poor man,” Ulisse said, his voice still rife with bourbon and tobacco. “Poor, poor man with no sense. You shouldn’t have come here. You should have gone to drink and degrade and debauch with your friends.”
He sighed heavily at Francis, slumping his shoulders without loosening his strong-fingered grip on the jar in his hands.
“You never mind, you larcenous imp. I’ll have you all shut down for this,” Francis threatened, clutching at his finely pressed pantlegs and sweating above his carefully trimmed mustache. Old Ulisse didn’t quail or flinch. Instead, he set his jaw, resolution writing itself in his creased features.
“Very well, mister gentleman, you came to see the Stone-Child. You came to peek without paying and see without learning,” his gravel voice was low and firm. “Very well, mister gentleman, we will give you a private show then.”
Moving ever-so-carefully, the wizened carnival hawker cradled the jar in one arm and took the glass lid in his other hand, uncapping the container with a flourish that did little to diminish the sadness in his eyes. He set the lid down on the nearest shelf and the jar down on the ground at his feet.
“The Stone-Child was to have been born in 1582 to a tailor’s wife in Sens on the French countryside,” Ulisse intoned, his voice taking on the modularity of a practiced hawker. As he spoke, the old man waved his hands across the surface of the open jar. The theatrical gestures sent undulating waves of sour pungency to waft against Francis’ nostrils. Rooted as he was in both fear and fascination, Francis breathed shallowly, hoping to avoid the stench but unable to flee any further.
“The day of labor came in a torrent of blood and liquor amnii, but no child pushed itself from her bent legs and heaving stomach. The infant lay forgotten within the womb, believed lost to miscarriage until La Gargouille rode the night winds from Rouen the visit the child who was not born. La Gargouille whispered to the child through Madam Chatri’s open legs while she slept. The beast told the unborn the secrets of the stone and so the child learned them and wished to grow up like La Gargouille.”
Ulisse plunged a hand into the green ichor and clutched at the mass within. Francis was so startled that he stepped backward into the center pole of the tent and set all the shelves to rattling again. The thick scent of formaldehyde and brine and turned earth choked the air until he thought he’d pass out from the stink of it. All around him the shelved jars chimed against one another, clinking and jostling in a frenzy of disturbance, but Francis dared not look. He dared not look away from Ulisse with his arm plunged into the jar and slowly extricating the mass within.
“For nearly three decades the unborn child hid within Madam Chatri, practicing all the secrets given by La Gargouille,” the old hawker continued, reaching his other hand in after the first. “When she took her last breath, the local chirugeon was only too eager to investigate the causes. He laid her upon his table and opened her up from one end to the other and peeled back her skin and bones. Within he found a scaled egg, impervious to scalpel or saw. Only a mason’s mallet and drill could crack it. And when it did, finally was the Stone-Child of Sens born!”
At that, Ulisse pulled the floating foetus upward in a surge of stagecraft that elicited a surprised gasp from Francis. Held between his gnarled hands was a perfect replica of a foetus, carved of marble and detailed with unrivalled artistry. Unlike its companions in the still clattering and sloshing shelved jars, this statuette was flawless in its biology. Francis moved closer, overcome with a curiosity that rivaled the revulsion and anxiety roiling in his innards.
“A fascination unlike the world had ever seen, the Stone-Child remained a cold and quiet guest among the moving. It gave time to the chirugeon who birthed it until the man was discovered at the foot of his stair, his head hatched and its yolk spilled. The Stone-Child explored all the world, from Paris to Venice to the quarters of the King of Denmark. Each time the Stone-Child moved on, men were found dead or famous or wealthy.”
Francis barely listened, so enthralled was he by the Stone-Child. Moving a step forward again, he examined the horrid and beautiful thing. Its knees were bent, and the legs drawn up towards the chest. The feet and lower legs were fused together. The head was tilted to the right, and supported by the left arm. The right arm extended down towards the navel. The tiny lids of the eyes were clenched shut as if the dim and smoky light inside the tent was too bright. The hoarse and bourbon-soaked voice of Ulisse droned on in the background but Francis gave his attention only to the Stone-Child.
Perhaps that was why he failed to note when the glass jars ceased their rattling.
“When the Stone-Child came to me, I gave it a home,” the old man stretched his arms outward, offering the calcified antiquity to Francis with a forlorn look. “I think, perhaps, the Stone-Child is ready for a new father.”
Francis thought to take it from the old man and run. The artifact was a treasure of immeasurable value. He thought to snatch the Stone-Child and bolt through the midway and out onto the streets and home where he could hide it or sell it or covet it. All of these things darted through his mind like wildfire and burst along his nervous system, urging muscles to move and act and commit larceny.
Unfortunately for Francis, the old gawker’s other children had made their appearance as well. Tearing his eyes away from the Stone-Child, he found a limp and limbless foetus, still slick with green ichor, clinging to his neck and suckling at his skin. Another with a second face growing from the side of its first pawed at his waistcoat buttons with a blunt, fingerless hand. His arms could not move under the weight of a dozen more soggy and preserved foetuses each with some unnatural defect. Twice that number clung to his legs and torso until the weight of them pulled him to his knees.
He opened his mouth to scream and a rotund little arm stuffed itself into his mouth and past his tongue. Countless pickled monsters dragged themselves across the dirt to climb atop Francis, poking and prodding and trying feebly to nurse. The light disappeared as he slipped beneath the mound of wriggling, squirming things.
“Or perhaps,” Ulisse said, sadly, “her brothers are ready for a new mother.”