From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Clockatrice

I.

Poor girl. Beautiful Diana, named for a goddess, and barely sixteen years of age. Just after midnight she descended through the gardens to meet her lover. And before any clock could strike one, she was as beautiful as she was dead.

#

The gardens at Sessonby are still very fine, but back then, in the 1590s, they had a reputation, being influenced by startling new discoveries, and even alchemy. Mazes of topiary cut in extraordinary forms (swans, minotaurs), looping paths that led to groves dominated by such items as gigantic bronze astrolabes. These indicated the place was full of magical clues. They were clever gardens, where also nocturnally sometimes hares appeared, spirit-like, from the park outside, wolfish foxes, or snakes with enamelled skins – creatures of sorcery and impulse. The Queen herself, the Great She, Elizabeth, had visited Sessonby.

Diana had no thought for the Queen, even though Diana’s hair was hennaed to amber, fashionably, to honor the Queen’s own tresses, (or, by now, her wigs.)

The moon however, Queen of Night, did exercise some authority. Full this evening, it hunted things as it moved westward, striking between screens and curtains of leaves. A stone satyr, for example, with sly, sidelong eyes, or an owl of marble that seemed to alight on spread wings below the steps. And Diana, too. For whenever it could, the moon splashed her with illumination, her blonde yellow dress with its shield-stiff bodice, the tops of her tender breasts above, her white face, and her hands flitting to the narrow gate.

Outside the gate opened a glade. This was of course contrived, and at its center stood a shadow clock, based on an artifact of the ancient Egyptians, as perhaps authorized by Elizabeth’s own Magus, John Dee. The way the sun fell on the clock would tell the hours. But at noon the clock’s position must be reversed in order to monitor the hours after. Tonight the clock looked spitefully alert. Instead of daylight the moon boiled white across its brazen spike. And beyond loomed the huge pine trees, which Diana’s great grandfather had planted in the time of Henry VII, the Tudors’ first bloody-handed king.

It was said a stag had been killed on the spot and buried whole there, the tree then planted in its vitals. Nourished by the feast the pine grew to vast height and girth.

Diana had never liked the pine, and maybe this story was the cause. She had had an old nurse as well in childhood, who said the pine was unnatural and ate any small animals that strayed near it. Even a little child, once.

A tremendous silence had filled the gardens. Diana noticed that especially now she herself had ceased to move. Quite often, inflamed by a full moon, a bird might sit singing. (Just as moths were stirred up, and fluttered about.) Tonight no bird sang. Not a thread of wind silked the branches. The foreign shrubs had congealed to black linen and gave off no perfume.

Why had she made a promise to meet her lover here? They had slight need to be hasty, or furtive, she and Robert, for they were betrothed and soon to be wed. Some fancy of his, and she had acquiesced, as a wife must learn to do. But see, he had failed her, had not bothered to arrive after all. She should return at once to the house.

The moon slipped a notch along the sky, and a single ray shot between the leaves like a white spear.

A curious odor was on the air. It suggested – chickens, Diana thought, yet too something tindery, corrosive, and old.

And then she did hear a sound, which was not the wind through the leaves, nor the rustle of her dream. It was high above her.

Unwillingly she lifted her gaze, up, up the length of the pine tree, among its bristled knots of needles. What did she see? Something? Only a black shadow, shifting and turning, and then the moon’s relentless ray slithered on a length of substance almost like chainmail, the half-metallic armor of a serpent or a lizard.

Astonished, Diana stared. She could make nothing of it, and yet her heart beat with tremendous blows. She wished immediately to run away. But the noise came once more, that strange thin hissing, and the faint stink on the air blew over her, through her, and she could not move. She could not lift one foot from the ground, not even one hand to cover her eyes that would not close. Then silence fell back into the garden. It filled her up. It drowned her from within. Her heart had frozen. Diana was a thing of petrified material. She was colorless, amber and blonde all gone away, gray like the satyr, moon-like as the marble owl. She had been changed to stone, and as stone they found her the next day, in the glade below the pine tree. Where you may see her still. Tonight even, if you wish.

#

“Certainly there’s a statue there of a young girl,” he said, “in authentic Elizabethan clothes. Obviously tourists get told the story of what happened, and how she was turned to granite.”

“Do they believe it?”

“Do you?”

“Yes.”

“Christ,” he said, and laughed.

“Christ,” she answered briskly, “could of course undo any evil spell and set her free. Are you expecting Him to visit?”

Robert Trenchall frowned at her. He had a strong, dark face and the sort of brooding eyes she had seen already in pictures of him in various magazines. His black hair was attractively long, hanging just over the collar of his leather jacket.

Probably she should resist the urge to challenge him. He could always have her thrown off his property. She was not even a journalist, only a freelance photographer.

“Last night,” Dru continued, now she hoped in a calm, pacifying way, “you said we could see the statue.”

“I did. But no one took me up on it.”

She thought he must hate it all, allowing people to traipse about the gardens and the rest of the estate of Sessonby. His aunt, the late, famous artist, Vera Reive, had left it to him, with all its debts, five years before. He was seldom here save in the line of duty, which must drag him away from his other work in the theater, and with music. Dru recalled an interview in which he said he would have loved Sessonby, had it not been for the constant need to prostitute the place, (tours, weekends, Historical Nights) in order to secure its upkeep.

The previous evening had been part of just such a junket. An expensive, lavish dinner in the grand dining room, and the appropriate music and story-telling by Trenchall and a pair of his actor friends. The last tale, dramatically relayed just after midnight, was the legend of poor Diana Sesby, who in 1594 became literally petrified by the breath of a cockatrice, hatched in the pine tree at the foot of the gardens. Indeed, no one had taken up Trenchall’s offer of viewing the stony corpse. Possibly his scowl had deterred them. Or the pouring English rain.

But it was 10 a.m. now, and full light of a May morning.

“So where,” she said, “should I go?” Then realizing, she added sweetly, “aside, obviously, from hell?”

“Sorry,” he said, scowling now at his combat boots, firmly embedded in early summer mud.

“That’s OK. It must be — difficult. But I am interested.”

“I’ll take you there,” he said.

“There’s no –”

“It’s fine. The way the gardens are now, you might get lost. No, I don’t mean because you’re some dumb damn stupid woman. The mazes are overgrown, and the steps, of course, partly gave way years back. Just bear with me, and I’ll guide you down.”

Dru glanced at him. Her guide into the dark. For even at this pre-noon hour, she had already seen the world of the gardens below was steeped in shadow, somber and unsure.

“Thanks,” she said. And went with him along the swampy lawn.

#

Diana Sesby still stood in the tangled glade. The pine tree was still there too, towering up, no doubt grown taller since the sixteenth century.

The whole space was determinedly blank, despite the bright sunlight. It might have been roofed by a dome of polarized glass.

Dru edged around the statue. It was the only one, the satyr and the owl were missing, as was the mysterious shadow clock. She could not be sure the remaining sculpture was genuinely Elizabethan, but the carven garments looked authentic, the stiff bodice and ornately arranged hair. Even the long string of – presumably – pearls. One omission though, no ruff behind the neck. Which was a little odd. Ruffs had been a fashion must in the 1590s.

Dru had thought Trenchall would leave her once he had shown her how to negotiate the steps. But no, he was loitering, watching.

Raising the Olympus, she aimed and took a slanting shot of the petrified girl.

“Not digital, then?” Trenchall remarked.

“No.” She framed another lower shot. Straightening, she said, “One puzzle. If something turns you to stone, why do your clothes turn too? I mean, flesh and blood and bone and hair — fine. That’s living matter, or only recently dead, like hair-ends and nails. But a dress? A necklace… I’m no scientist, but that makes no sense to me. Never has.”

“Hey, maybe it didn’t happen, then. Maybe she’s only a statue.”

“Except…” said Dru. She leaned forward and peered into the statue’s face. Diana Sesby, if it was she, had been a good seven inches shorter. Which made it easier to stare down and to see – “My God,” Dru said. He did not respond. “I assume other people have noticed this, er, detail?”

“Yes.”

Dru, however, realigned the camera for a close-up. He had the courtesy to keep quiet as she angled in on the tiny moth, caught there just above the girl’s stone temple, at the edge of her immutable hairline. The moth was also formed of stone, and chiseled with an incredible, one might say a needless, delicate accuracy. The wings were thin enough to be translucent. Two minuscule antennae were just visible against the tendrils of human hair.

Trenchall said, “And yes, it resembles the proper sort of moth for the time. And yes, it seems to be part of the statue, matching stone, etc. But I wouldn’t bet on its credentials. A cunning fake is much more likely.”

#

Sunday evening was to be the banquet in the old hall, under the rafters in “a shining forest of candles,” as the brochure put it. It was the climax of the weekend, but Dru missed it. The reason being that she was instead up in Robert Trenchall’s private rooms.

His invitation had arrived about an hour before the official meal was due to start. One of the house gofers brought it, smiling and non-committal.

Dru wondered if Trenchall frequently chose a single young woman from the medley of guests. And if he did, was it a perk for him or a prize for her? She could politely refuse. But she had always quite fancied him. She liked his music enough too. Besides, she was curious. Even if they did not end up in the sack, she had no objections to seeing some of the house that lay off the public route.

In fact, his flat, as he called it, was very plain and very much modernized, with pale walls and darkly pale curtaining, and only contemporary abstract pictures that, while Dru thought them quite good, were not to her taste. Outside the high windows the gardens shaded rapidly under more threatening clouds. A necessary wood fire had been lit in the main room, un-Elizabethan but warming.

Trenchall greeted her with easy grace, as if they had known each other some while, and theirs was a liason of mutual if light-hearted respect. They ate smoked salmon, steaks, strawberries, and drank a French white wine sturdy enough to cope with pink fish, red meat, and scarlet fruit.

“I’m glad you like the wine,” he said. “I thought you would. I chose it with you in mind.”

“Really. How thoughtful.”

He grinned. Oh, irresistable. “I imagine,” he said, “you’ll be working this up, I mean the tour here, into something you can sell.”

“No,” Dru said. “I can’t afford to pay estate fees for using any of the Sessonby legends professionally. Let alone pictures from the grounds. It was just personal interest.”

“In other words, you’ll devise something different enough, then rip us off.”

Dru looked at him cautiously. It had all been going so well. “I don’t do that, Mr. Trenchall.”

“Robert. Of course you do it. Any artist, photographer, writer who comes here does it. I do it whenever I go anywhere — I use anything that interests me. And if I can’t afford to pay, I change it so it’s something more — how shall I say? — original.”

Dru put down her glass. “If you like, I’ll sign a disclaimer.”

“Listen, Dru, I really don’t mind. I don’t care.” He sat back. “Tell me, what do you really think of Diana’s statue? The whole rigmarole?”

“I think it could be true,” she said flatly. “Why not? Peculiar stuff happens all the time. Yes, it will probably have a rational explanation, or at least a scientifically provable one. But it can still happen. Imagine if someone had told a man in Shakespeare’s time that every snowflake has an intricate and unique pattern. Very likely, in those days, he would believe you. And it’s a fact. But when someone told you that the first time — weren’t you astounded?”

“I don’t recall. Maybe.”

“You should have been. It’s crazy.”

“The cockatrice though,” he said. He paused, then said, “When I was a kid Vera — aunt Vera Reive — scared the shit out of me with that story. The egg — they get born from eggs, it seems, like snakes and other reptiles — was centuries old, caught up somehow in the young stem of the pine tree. As the tree grew, so did the egg. They matured together. And of course, it had been nourished with blood. They originate in the Middle East, or the Med — depends who you read — cockatrices. Or -trixes, whatever the plural is. A cock-bird with the back end and tail of a lizard. Somehow that is such a disgusting idea. Not like a man with a bull’s head or a girl with the tail of a fish — they seem OK, aesthetically, if you like… But that combination. Chicken flesh and reptile. I had bad dreams for a year.”

“You never used it in your music, did you?”

“Fuck no. Wouldn’t want to. But think of it. Just think of it.” He sat forward and suddenly gripped her hand across the table. A curious seduction move? Or did he mean all this? His handsome face was intense and serious. “It hatched that very night, when that poor bloody girl, Diana — a kid, just sixteen — came down to meet her faithless lover. And its poisonous chicken-lizard breath turned her to stone, that’s how they do it, it seems, and the moth caught in her hair and went to stone too. But she was just as stricken, as helpless, as a moth.”

“Why did her clothing change to stone too?” Dru asked again, a sharp stab at practicality.

But he smiled then, still holding her hand. “You’re a hard lady, hard as stone. Let me tell you then. It didn’t. The statue was naked. That’s the actual story. The stone garments, even the stone pearls, were carved and added later. Her original ones were in ribbons, some on the ground, all torn and shredded, as if a “Hurricano” had blown them off. And the ruff was so fragile it had disintegrated completely into nothing. They never tried to replace it in stone, thought it extra unlucky. They’d brought in John Dee, apparently, the Queen’s alchemist. But by then the cockatrice was gone. Flown away. It had chicken wings, obviously. Or is it bat-wings? It could do what it bloody well wanted.”

Her hand was still in his. She said, “I like the story. Why didn’t you tell this part last night, to the others?”

“The others were pissed and thick as four short planks. And you don’t like the story. It makes your flesh creep. And you believe. As I do. Even though I don’t. Naturally.”

“Yes.”

Then he rose and leaned across the table and kissed her. Dru enjoyed the kiss. She had thought she would.

“I’ll tell you about the clock,” he said. “But in a little while.”

They slow-motioned into the bedroom. A masculine yet comfortable room, and this time with central heating. The sex was very, very good.

#

Next morning, (Monday) standing with the other visitors, at 11 a.m., her bag on the drive, waiting for the communal coach, she saw a taxi drive up.

A thin, chic American girl got out, very blonde and with flawless teeth, which she did not reveal until Robert Trenchall appeared. “Hi Robbie!”

“Hi, Zuzi,” said Robert Trenchall.

Neither of them now saw anyone else in the whole world. Even a gofer had to come out to pay the cab. She had predicted nothing else, not since rising at seven, when Trenchall had kissed her quickly on the cheek and said, “Apologies, but we have to hurry. My steady’s due back any minute.”

Steady. What a nice, old-fashioned term.

Dru had been out of his flat inside five minutes.

And by sunset, she was back in London.

II.

Lucky boy. Gallant Robert Southurst, named for his father and eighteen years of age. That night in 1594, he had been with his low-life mistress, who held him yet in a grasp of greed and menace, and thus he failed to meet Diana in the gardens at Sessonby. As she was struck to stone, he was howling with the pleasures of lust, and so escaped a fate similar to hers.

#

Sometime after, when Robert Southurst had seemingly recovered from the remorse and revulsion occasioned by his bride-to-be’s end, (and its type) he was persuaded to marry another. Diana had been youthful and lovely, and he had liked her well enough. The new wife was two or three years Robert’s elder, of the sternest Protestant leaning, and a shrew. He managed to sire four children on her, or somebody did. But a vox populi of the time reports that, in his thirties, he declared, “My true bride was slain by a cucu-trix. While I, alas, have wed it!”

He did outlive this spouse nevertheless. And in his fortieth year devised a number of curious mechanical toys. These were put together by various artisans, and paraded about his own house, (Longhampton) to the fascination and fright of callers.

The most elaborate of the inventions was, so contemporary chroniclers had it, a “Grete Clocke” that had been established in one of the west chambers.

This artifact, reportedly seven feet in height and trimmed with ebony, gold, and silver, kept good time all day and evening, until it sounded the fateful twelve of midnight. On the twelfth stroke, a pallid figure would glide out from a panel set in below the clock-face, a figure almost life-size, which represented a slender young girl with blonde-orange hair and a blonde gown. Though a doll, she closely resembled, it appeared, Diana Sesby. Enough so that an old woman who had known Diana, on seeing the apparition, fainted, and died not long after.

Having left the clock, the figure (stiffly, one must suppose) turned its head once to either side, then lifted its arms as if in supplication. But then they fell, and the animation slid slowly — and “moste fearsomely” — back into the clock-case. Following which the panel closed, and the clock ceased its motion with a clank. In order that it resume full function the next day, it must be wound up, and such was its ponderous quality, several men were needed for the task. None liked it, either. They had been known to say the clock was cursed, and would cast all Longhampton into the Pit.

Notably, aside from the unnerving Diana doll, the base of the clock rested on two bizarre supports. They were described as two “Crowing Cocks” of blackest basalt, each about four feet high, and with gilded beaks, claws and crests, and the raised wings of “Gryphones.” They stood savagely erect on their hugely taloned feet, in attitudes suggesting extreme rage and violence. While from the rear of both swelled out a lizard’s backside, ending in a horrid coiled tail, these endpieces of contrastingly purest white-silver, scored to an armoury of scales.

They had been heard to hiss too, the pair of creatures. They did it randomly, if always between sunfall and dawn. One maidservant of the house had gone mad, her hair turning white and falling from her head in a single night, because, as she swore on the holy name of the Christ, both beasts one dusk had turned to glare at her, their ruby eyes giving off a tinderous flash. The west chamber was said to have stunk for several hours, a reek like a poultry-yard, but also of gunpowder.

#

It was not generally an age of long life, but Robert Southurst survived both the death of the Queen, and the eras of King James and the primary Charles, Robert himself leaving the world in his seventy-first year. He had by then also survived two further wives, but he had kept them busy. He had peopled his house all told with seven sons and nine living daughters.

About three nights before that of his demise, Robert was sitting banked up on pillows in his bed — the custom then, rather than lie flat.

He was an old man, of course, his near seventy-one more the equivalent of a modern eighty-six. His lush black hair was all gone and he wore a night-cap. He was drinking one too, mulled wine from the fire now sinking on the bedroom hearth.

Outside the insectile, many-paned eyes of the windows, a thin tired moon was lying on the black sky. It was a cold midnight, at autumn’s end.

Robert believed himself awake. But then a panel opened in the tapestried wall, and out glided a slender young woman with hennaed hair. And her gown was all in rags and streamers, and through it he glimpsed her fair white body, more glimpses than she had ever allowed him during their courtship. For he knew her at once as Diana Sesby.

“God’s mercy,” whispered Robert, and spilled his wine down the embroidered coverlet.

But Diana said to him plaintively, “Oh, Robert, my dear love, why did you not come to meet me that night?”

And he shook from head to toe in the warm bed, and his feet went cold as frost.

“Which night? When — when?”

“That night you bade me seek for you in the glade below my father’s garden. The glade with the pine tree growing there.”

“Did I not meet you, surely I did, my lovesome Diana,” he said, not able to help himself, frozen with terror and yet racked with pity.

“No, you were not there. Instead the Devil came and opened his bony serpent wings in the tree. His scaled tail coiled all around the branches, just as we are told it did in Eden. Oh, Robert, I wish I had seen you before he shut me fast in stone. But all I saw was the red back of his throat, like the stenchy gape of Hell, and now I am stopped forever, and all forevers that may be.”

“Poor girl,” said the old man in the bed, and wept.

But she only turned her head, once to the left, once to the right, then raised her arms in supplication, and let her arms fall down again by her sides. Just as the doll did that came out of the clock. Yet instead of sliding away backwards into the wall as the doll had into the clock-case, Diana Sesby merely vanished.

“I have dreamed,” said Robert. “I have dreamed and now I am awake again.” But he knew he had not dreamed, and that he had not slept. “It is to be my death,” he said. And he was quite correct.

#

A single text remained that described the anecdote. Because the priest that secretly heard the pre-mortis confession of Robert Southurst, (who clandestinely had remained a Catholic all those years) was so troubled by it, he committed this section to paper.

But in Cromwell’s time, less than a decade later, the chapel where the priest’s books were kept was burned, along with a great many other things. And so, by now, no record exists.

#

To herself, Dru admitted that Trenchall had annoyed her. Not, obviously, by not wanting to prolong their sexual adventure, (she herself had neither anticipated nor wanted that) but by his truly bloody awful bad manners. Which had been equally evidenced in his underhanded treatment of the presumably unaware blonde American.

Dru’s annoyance was perhaps surprisingly sharp for a few days. And once she sloughed it, she decided she would after all make something creative of her weekend at Sessonby.

Having had her photographs printed by the usual team, she studied each shot. There was one particular take of the Diana statue, more luck, she felt, than expertise — for the glade had been so dark and the ground so sludgy, (and he, a distraction). The picture showed the entire statue, all four foot nine of her, from sweeping skirt-hem to just above the top of her head. And the clearest of detail was in it, everything side-lit in a quite un-cliched way. Even the tiny moth was totally visible in the largest A3 print.

Aside from this Dru had retained, and written up, the other story, which Trenchall had told her during their night. It was, he said, a “Family Myth.”

The notional clock intrigued Dru very much. She accordingly spent another handful of days trying to locate references to it, both via the computer, and in an estimable London library. But despite plenty of data on the house and grounds of Longhampton, (most of which, structure and park, had unfortunately burned to the ground in 1706) no mention of any unusual horology was on offer.

Doubtless the whole scenario of the clock was an invention, including the guilty-conscience figure of Diana which emerged from it. Although Dru believed in miracles and wonders, she had not often discovered one that would stand up to proper scrutiny.

That in mind, and neither the Longhampton nor the Sessonby searches yielding anything on the clock, (let alone Trenchall having spoken to any of the other weekend guests about it) he might have made the “Myth” up solely for her benefit. It was fair game then for a steal. After all, he had assured her he did not care if she utilized Sessonby history and folklore. And they had paid each other in kind, had they not? Accounts settled. They were quits.

#

Her plan was to employ one large piece of computer art, which would use the statue, rather altered, and two smaller pictures, mostly artistically invented. These she would link with a thousand words of unornamented prose, the entirety presented as a sort of anonymous horror tale of 16th Century England.

A heavily illustrated and well-paying US magazine, for which Dru had worked before on specific assignments, seemed very interested when she approached them. It would need, she thought, the rest of the month to put everything together.

What required the lengthiest labor, naturally, was the mock-up of the clock.

It had to look completely solid and three-dimensional, and though it would be feasible to enhance the impression through Photoshop, for maximum effect the more real the object was to start with the better. Diana, or her statue, was after all solid and real. And even when changed — no longer stone, her hair a deep russet red, (more like Elizabeth I’s later wigs) and her dress the color of a hot chestnut, plus gold chains dangling round her neck and chest rather than pearls — even the moth translated into a night-flying horned beetle — she should, hopefully, look startlingly alive. The effect Dru was aiming for was a still from an intelligent, theatrical, and beautifully-lit movie.

Jack, a guy she knew from way back, helped Dru assemble the clock, along with his usual assistant, Pete. The clock’s ingredients were many and various, including sheet metal, salvage, tin foil, fake gold-leaf, and not disdaining papier mache.

“It won’t stand much knocking about, this won’t,” said Jack, proud but dubious.

“I’ll take very good care of it,” Dru promised. “I’m just going to light it, and then take its picture about nine trillion times.”

Her studio flat near Camden was exactly that, a studio. A tiny bedroom lay behind a plasterboard wall, next to a bathroom the size of a cupboard. The kitchen area was generally only active with the making of tea, coffee and juice, occasional storage of wine and beer, and an insane toaster that tended to throw the cooked toast straight at the ceiling.

By the hour of the clock’s glorious completion, the whole flat reeked of paints and adhesives. Fortunately these substances never affected Dru. And Pete, high as a kite, did not mind at all.

Dru did the shoot. This went very well. And when the prints came back, she could see what she thought to be a winner.

The other two smaller studies were shaping up pretty well also. As for the text, it only needed to sound neat and cool — cool in both senses. Heartless, preferably.

She had not really thought of Robert Trenchall while she worked. The young Elizabethan man in her revised narrative did not have the name of Robert either. Dru had changed all the names. Diana, in Dru’s version, was named Susan. While Robert Southurst received the evocative title of Francis Rustember. A wonderfully improbable and untraceable invention.

The package was delivered to the editor in New York by the second week in June. London meanwhile blazed up in one of its normally brief heat-waves, which would likely finish in icy rain or hailstorms.

Dru’s piece was accepted inside another week. Substantially altered by her from the Trenchall tale. Dru had the young, not-betrothed-but-wife hurrying alone to meet her husband in a deep forest, having been led to think him in deadly danger. But the villainous Francis Rustember, wanting rid of her, had sent her there instead to meet with a pair of hired murderers. The cockatrice, or cocatrix as Dru’s fiction had it, (Old French-English via Latin) was roused by the aura of terror and sadism, and transmuted both the assassins and the hapless young wife to stone. Francis next had the clock made, with all its cockatrice imagery — less from guilt than as a spurious memorial, which placed any blame upon an uncanny monster, and so further obscured Francis’s own monstrousness. One night however, the shade of Susan Rustember stepped from the clock to accuse him. Nor did she, in Dru’s take, emerge from any handy panel or tapestry, but out of a whirling vortex where the face of the clock had been — the face of time itself. Susan-Diana informed Francis-Robert that, though physically immobilized, the vehicle of the time-piece had both imbued her with the nature of the cockatrice, and conveyed her phantom forward through the years. “Your heart,” she said, “is already like a stone. So be it, then.” And fixed her husband-now-widower with flaring crimson eyes like fire. Francis Rustember was found the next morning, dead but with no visible mark. Yet when his attendants tried to lift the corpse, its weight was so colossal, and all out of proportion to his girth, that a physician was called, (perhaps John Dee?) and opened up the body. At which they discovered, there in the chest cavity, Rustember’s heart petrified to a solid mass of granite.

III.

The mini heat-wave died next day. Rain hosed London down like an elementally deranged fire-fighter.

Dru’s open windows were quickly shut. A plan to go to a party she was not that keen on was shelved. She ate a ham sandwich and an apple, and drank a pot of tea, showered, and went to bed with Joseph R. Concorde’s The Photographer’s Bible: 1920-1975.

Perhaps an hour after going to sleep, Dru woke again. (She was never certain of the precise time. Her bedside clock had stopped, also the bigger wall-clock in the outer room.) Her first impression was that the noise of the rain, hitting on all the windows, had increased and disturbed her.

Dru lay on her back, listening intently. No. The noise she heard was not rain. The night, aside from a faint London snore of traffic, was very still. What then was that shuffling, scratching sound? A rat? A year before one had got into the roof-space, but been evicted before it caused problems. This now did have a resemblance to that ratty tumbling skitter Dru recalled. But if it were a rat, this rat must be at least twenty times the original’s size. And — not alone. Definitely the sounds were slightly out of synch, duplicated. Everything came twice.

Sitting up, Dru learned she was cold with fear. A fear out of all proportion to anything she had so far detected, let alone thought of. Her fear was way ahead of her.

And then. She heard the hissing.

So many things might hiss — a leaky valve, a damaged oxygen cylinder — she knew those. A cat might hiss, a snake, these too… And dragons, of couse, hissed. And angry hens hissed, sticking out their strange worm-like tongues.

Dru leapt from bed. The bedroom door was closed on the chaos of her studio, which she had still not tidied, having no immediate new project.

She had no idea of trying to barricade the door. The door, and the inner walls of the bedroom, were only plasterboard, there for privacy, not protection. In any case she was driven now, pushed and pulled to look out, and to see.

The door, shoved, swung wide. Dru understood precisely what she was looking for. And there it was. Not, inevitably, where it had been, up on the sheet-draped bench, against the backdrop of the other sheet. It had got down from there, using whatever energy or agility powered it. Now it poised — or posed — at the room’s center. And through the windows the raw amber eyes of the municipal streetlights lit it without artistry, but in exact detail. The clock. The clock she and Jack and Pete had constructed for the photo-shoot, from odds and ends, bits and pieces. It did not now look like that at all. It looked — as she had made it look with Photoshop. The apparatus was three-dimensional and dense, consolidated and all-at-one.

In height, she estimated, it rose to nine feet, far bigger than the model. In appearance it was formed from gleaming basalt, and trimmed with bright metals and burnished wood representing suns and moons, vegetable briaries, flowers more like lilies than any Tudor Rose. Above it poked a sort of spike rather like the miniature spire of some cathedral, a gold, architectural lacework. There was only one omission — the one Dru herself had coined for its portrait. The clock had no face, no longer told time. And there inside the circular void something obscure was slowly blondly shifting and redly churning. Yet, unlike Dru’s illustration, there was no hint in it of a human figure, neither girl nor stone. Rather, it was like a benighted and dissolving Martian world.

Last, last of all, her eyes ran downward to the base of the clock.

She had created this, and them. At least, their blue-print, these two creatures upon whose arched and sturdy spines the clock rested so intransigently. But they had far exceeded her imagination anyway. They had become themselves. Identical perhaps they were, and formed too partly of black stone and gold and silver, but also they were made of other colors, and of skin and horn, chitin, feathers. And scales. Such a lot of scales.

They were cockerels certainly, but their mere bodies alone some three feet in length. Their long necks, sinuous and serpentine, craned up into the prows of beaks like a kind of tortoiseshell striated golden, and on their heads the cock-crests were erect, (like the crests of dragons) not black or gold, but a dully shining henna red. Their eyes were like faceted glass. They glittered. They were full of sight. How many mathematical times inside those insect eyes was Dru replicated? The wings spread wide, held wide, black as the wings of ravens and crows. And below, the thick and corded, pine-bark branches of their blood-red legs, spurred with adamant, and the claws extended, hooks of steel.

As Dru stared at them, and at the towering clock, swaying and lumbering on their backs, (like that other earth, balanced on a turtle or toad) simultaneously they moved. For now they had her full attention. Cockatrices, Cocatrises, Cucutrixes, they gaped their beaks. She saw, in each of their mouths, two bladed lines of pointed teeth, black as obsidian and scintillant. And from the red caves of their gullets, the black worm-snakes of tongues quested, flickering. Out came the hiss. A double hiss. And she smelled the stench of them. Which was not like poultry, or tinder or guns — but like a putrefying wound. And at this signal, they each uncoiled their silver lizard-viper tails and lashed them, cat-like and furious, and mindless, pitiless.

She could not speak, let alone scream. She could not move hand or foot. She saw then they, the clock, composite of some Hell she had never believed existed, come running right at her, lurching and facile — eager.

Dru was aware she was about to be dead. She had forgotten her name. Death was almost on her, the lover, the wild beast, the Devil —

And the thing, clock and cocktrice, sprang past her, not upon, and flew up in the air in a sort of ignition, a spray of sparks, and a loud seismic rumbling. Straight through the biggest studio window it — they — went. The window shattering, a thousand fiery stars, a million cascading mirrors, less breakage than explosion. And over the tops of the streetlights Dru saw the horror sail, flapping and yawing like a storm-wracked galleon, up into the ceiling of the black motionless London sky, moonless and welcoming. For several more minutes she watched how they grew small and vanished, only with perspective, only into distance, and through the final loss of the orange light.

#

Jack was the one who shouted, Pete looked hurt. They had thought she might let them show the Cockatrice clock as part of a gallery exhibition they were putting together. They would have given her a proper credit, she knew that, made a reference to her piece in the magazine. “I suppose you had some mad drunk piss-up here and someone smashed it,” snarled jack.

She had not, of course, told them the truth. Or about the dream, if it was a dream. The nightmare. It was neither.

“I’m sorry, Jack. No one smashed it. There was no party. I was on my own here. I heard a crash and when I came out –”

“Then why was half of it in the fucking room and half down on the fucking pavement?” howled Jack.

“Leave it, Jacky,” said Pete, now looking worried. “Are you OK, Dru? You seem a bit shaky.”

“No, I’m all right, thanks.”

“But you nearly went over just then. Sit down. Jack doesn’t mean –”

“Don’t tell her what I mean!”

“Look, Jacky, look — she’s shaken up. Can we get you some water, Dru? Cup of tea?”

But Jack only left, and Pete, murmuring soothing words, went with him. She was relieved, though she concluded they would never want to work with her again.

But what could she have said? It disintegrated the window and flew off over the roofs into outer space? The window, after all, was not broken, but quite intact. Only debris of so many sorts had been left lying all over the studio floor and, as Jack pointed out, down on the pavement below. That had been the worst to clear up. She had been threatened by the landlord with eviction. “Council won’t stand for that, you know. Dodgy mess like that all over the street. D’you want to get me sued?”

Nothing of the clock had remained intact. It was entirely splinters and grains, like a peculiar muesli. And…feathers. But maybe they came from passing brunette pigeons. The clock was destroyed. Only its — what? Soul? Spirit? — had flown away. (She had wondered bemusedly if any of the endless security cameras had caught it. But even if they had, no one would believe a thing like that.) “It could do what it bloody well wanted,” as Robert Trenchall said. And had done so.

Less than a week after, she read about him in a newspaper. Dru did not bother with papers as a rule, but this one was lying open on a wine-bar counter, as if put there for her.

They talked a lot about his music, his talent. A “loss” they called it, so young. He was only thirty-two.

Robert Trenchall had had, it seemed, a very public argument with his live-in lover, Susina Cruz, during which she had accused him of multiple infidelity and thrown the contents of a glass of champagne in his face. Guest tourists at the house, (Sessonby, the home of the late artist Vera Sylvia Reive) had not been unduly perturbed. Indeed, some confessed to amusement, and Trenchall himself, after some initial displeasure, had apparently laughed it off. But Ms. Cruz fled in a taxi to the airport and on to California. And next morning Trenchall was dead. There were no sinister implications either of murder or suicide. Though odd in an active and fit man of Trenchall’s age, he had suffered a major stroke. The lifestyles of music and theater were blamed, and drugs were hinted at, though nothing worse was noted in his system than wine. A single curious fact the papers failed to learn, and so did not report, was that his entire body, when first discovered, was completely rigid, not from rigor mortis, but as if, one of the medics remarked, filled with hardened cement. Or stone.

#

And it was three years more before Dru’s then current lover exclaimed, there in the hotel room in Montmartre, “God, Dru! When did that happen?”

“What? Oh, this.”

“Yes. That.”

“I always forget about it.”

“How can you forget?”

“Oh, it isn’t like the big toe, you know. That can affect your balance seriously. But this. Well, you get used to not having it fairly fast.”

“But what happened?”

“Accident. Something fell on it.”

“What fell on it?”

“A clock.”

At which the lover became nicely protective, and drew her into an embrace, the nature of which soon altered course.

By then Dru really was unfazed by the loss of the little toe on her left foot. It truly did not inconvenience her. But even after a few days without it, she had become used to its absence, only now and then making a misstep. And in a month or so that too was gone. The injury never caused her any pain either. She had never needed to seek medical attention. As well. Just as with Jack and Pete, what on earth could she have said? She had been amazingly fortunate, let off one could assume, very lightly. At the time, caught in the glare of the demon, she had believed all of her would petrify, like Diana Sesby. And maybe just like Robert Southurst’s heart. But the cockatrice clock had spared her this. And that night, staggering back to bed, dropping down, passing out or only sleeping, she had not even guessed — let alone felt — the token payment that had been collected. She had known nothing at all until she got up the following morning, and took that first uneven, weirdly disgusting step. And looking down, saw. Or rather, did not see. There was no blood. No wound. Only the subtraction. She made it to the bathroom and threw up. Then she sat on the floor and studied her new foot, until she had grown used to it. At last, returning to the bed, Dru pulled off the covers, and searched until she found what, during oblivion, had simply snapped away.

It said something about her, she was sure, though God knew quite what, that she kept it afterwards, still did, in a small tin box that had originally held lemon-flavored pastilles. Her toe, that was, perfect even to the tiny, once-painted toe-nail. And made thereafter, and now, not of perishable flesh and bone, but of the smoothest, coldest, grayest, and most impervious granite.

tanithleeBritish writer Tanith Lee has written over 70 novels and 250 short stories, as well as two episodes of the BBC science fiction series Blake’s 7. She writes in such genres as adult fantasy, children’s fantasy, gothic horror, gothic romance, historical novels, horror and science fiction. Her series of interconnected tales,”The Flat-Earth Cycle”, beginning with Night’s Master and Death’s Master, is a classic of fantasy literature that has been compared to Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. If you enjoyed this Lee story, check out Rapunzel on the excellent podcast site, Podcastle.

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