In celebration of the release of THE MIDNIGHT CIRCUS by Jane Yolen, Tachyon presents glimpses from the book that feature “some of her best dark stories.” (Nonstop Reader)
Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris
It was never my ambition to be an explorer, let alone one who charted the new lands of Antarctica. I was but a simple seaman. However, when Sir Clements Markham singled me out for that first expedition, I saw an opportunity to rise above the humble circumstances of an undistinguished naval career. The benefits proved even greater than I had anticipated. The burdens, greater still.
Returning to London after three years in Antarctica, I found myself to be a much sought-after celebrity. I now moved in an exotic milieu of writers, actors, and artists, not just hardened seamen. It quite turned my head, as much as a girl at her first ball. Indeed it was through my celebrity that I met my beautiful Kathleen. It is the one truly good thing I have done in this life. But do not, I pray you, burden Kathleen with what I am about to impart. Let her think me dead a hero. Only you will know otherwise. And—in this wild waste where I stay—I will know it as well.
Now to get to the meat of the matter. My cursed disease. It began in London, of that I am sure. Having led a conventional, perhaps even dull, life before—even as a seaman I’d not resorted to low pubs and lower women—I found it difficult to resist the allures of a more Bohemian existence, especially with my dear wife newly pregnant and unable to go out with me even to the more staid parties. Time after time, after she had retired early to bed, I would frequent areas of London I might once have shunned for fear of embarrassment or scandal.
What precisely occurred on the night that altered my fate so completely I have never been able to recall. Was it an infection I contracted from some whore? A mania passed on by tainted meat? Was I bitten by a mad dog? Raked by a rusty blade? Poisoned by some foreign tincture? Your surgeon’s knife might have uncovered the seat of the infection. But five years on, discovering it would be like arguing First Causes with a Jesuit—fascinating but beside the point. Whatever it was that set me on this dark path is all lost in the miasma of those London rookeries. And confused by the great quantity of rum I had drunk with my low friends.
All I do know is that I found myself staggering down a deserted, muck-covered street in the early hours of the morning, my head pounding and my eyes curiously unfocused. I was also plagued by a peculiar thirst so intense that my throat was actually aching with it.
It was here that I was approached by a drunken vagrant begging for money. I tried to push my way past him, for he was a noxious, smelly brute, but he persisted in blocking my path.
“Guv’nor?” he said, his hand in my face.
It enraged me. Enraged me.
I do not speak here, Atkinson, of anger, or even a momentary spasm of annoyance, but of a pure, unreasoning rage.
Now as a very young man I had been known for my quick temper, but in later years I had mastered such outbursts. Now, however I was possessed by a rage such as I had never before experienced. I trembled with it, like a tree in a fierce storm. Seizing hold of the raggedy man by the front of his filthy shirt I hauled him down onto the pavement with a speed and savagery he was powerless to resist. Before I could understand what was happening, I found myself with my teeth at his throat, sucking away his life’s blood.
My horrible thirst quenched by this ghastly infusion, my head was finally cleared sufficiently for me to recoil in horror. The man lay under me, the side of his throat torn as if a wild beast had ravened there. Instinctively I wiped a hand across my mouth in an effort to erase the taste. My childhood squeamishness at the sight of blood briefly reasserted itself and, for a moment, I thought I was going to vomit right then and there.
I was sure I had killed the man and wondered what I was to do. With the corpse. I knew no one would miss him. He was but a piece of filth. And there was no one else on the street to decry my deed. But to take him in my arms, to drag him to some smaller back alley—I did not know if I had the strength for it.
While I was thinking what to do, the man moaned piteously and I reeled back, more shocked than before. His eyelids began to flutter, like a girl at her first assignation. It appeared that he had merely swooned and was even now beginning to recover. I turned and ran from the scene as fast as my legs would carry me.