Short Fiction from Dennis Lowery
Approaching from the sea, you witness traces of history in the remnants of carved stone and columns in 14th-century sandstone, double lancet windows that hint of a renaissance style and other decorations adorning the crumbling portals of palaces once belonging to ruling families and princes.
It is a land of ancient city-states, città morte… dead cities sprinkle the countryside. Once thriving and vital, now no one lives in them, and the keening of the winds through the ruins are their only sounds. Even for towns and cities that live, in almost all, there is a legend sometimes distorted far from its origin of a casa stregata… a haunted house. Some are deathly still, lonely cenotaphs, mere empty markers of a tragic past. Others contain souls that sleep awhile and awake… hungry.
Anime maledette bruciano…ancora capannone senza luce.Una canzone di fiamme danzanti…ascoltate la musica gemere nel vento.Sentire le grida delle donne dei dolori.Le signore del dolore…Cursed souls burn…yet shed no light.A song of dancing flames…their music moans on the wind.Listen to the cries from the women of the sorrows.The ladies of the pain….DML
~ ~ ~
The ship cleared Portovenere, entered the head of the gulf and approached Spèza, a small city on the Ligurian coast. Within two hours, its sailors invaded the town in clusters of two, three or more. But one man went alone; it was his way. He didn’t need companions and was used to being on his own. He had been for most of his life.
* * *
“They follow the ships.” The voice came from farther back in the shadows. At the fringe of the leaf-laden trees, there was a line, a demarcation, where light ended and pitch-dark began.
“You know,” the voice paused as the clouds in the night sky scudded to the north disclosing a brilliant moon riding high above. In its light, a pale arm extended a long-fingered hand that pointed behind me. I turned and looked at several young men, my shipmates, surrounded and outnumbered by women at the outdoor bar under the street lights. “Those women…” she continued. “They follow the ships.” Her hand made a dismissive gesture and drew back into the dark of the moon-shadow.
“Is that bad?” I asked, wondering how she’d sat so near without me noticing. A face came out of the darkness, like clouds parting to reveal a half-moon in a starless sky. It was lovely: an almond-shaped eye under a sculpted brow, long lashes, and sharp lines of cheek and nose down to what must be a full set of luscious lips.
“They’re not local.” The lips were a dark plum color in the dim light. Behind them, the pearl-glint edge of teeth. “They are not local,” she repeated it as an unpardonable sin. “They go from port to port.”
As she leaned forward, shifting in the chair, it brought her face into the light from the streetlamp. For that moment, she seemed plain, not unpleasant but not beautiful. She sat back and again only the moonlight graced her. That quick change in posture had revealed more, a blouse cut square and low in front. The fullness of breasts that caught moonbeams and trapped them in the cleft between. They drew my eyes, like the headlights of an oncoming car you knew was in your lane. My heart trip-hammered a double thump. Blinking away that second of fear and uncertainty, I thought she was exquisite. The woman you dream or read about in stories and legend that caused men to fight and die. Her eyes pored over me as she sat there in the pale wash of a now clear full moon-bright night. Stirred by it, my gaze moved to her lips and lingered. I wanted them on mine more than I needed my next breath. “You speak English well. Where did you learn it?”
“During the war… we all did.”
I wasn’t clear what that meant. What war and what did she mean by, we? Basics first, though. “What’s your name?”
“Nerezza.” I expected her to ask mine, but instead, she said, “The night is sublime.” She looked up at a moon that reflected in her eyes. “This,” and she flicked her hand toward the people at the bar and widened the gesture to encompass the streetlights, “is not the place to enjoy it.” She leaned forward, and her deep breath brought the arc of heavy breasts up and crevice of cleavage into view. Her tongue swept those lips—eyes closed, she shivered—and their sheen beckoned. I heard her sigh. “Will you come with me?” She stood, and the breeze strengthened, flattening her long, thin skirt against muscular calves and thighs; the swell of hips, and curve of her ass defined as she turned.
“A place,” she motioned in a direction I knew was toward the foothills to the north and east. Too dark now, but I’d seen them earlier on my ride. “About 30 kilometers from here.”
“Do you have a car?”
The glimmer again behind those lips. “No,” she smiled. “I travel a different way.” She stepped away from the table and the lights. “You have this… yes?” Nerezza pointed to the Vespa P100, parked under a tree near us, I’d rented after leaving my ship. At my nod, she walked over, pulled up her skirt with a flash of white thighs, and straddled it. Her legs extended, muscles taut, to balance it off its kickstand. I looked at their lines, following them from the ground to where they were palest under the moonlight. My eyes went to her chest—offered respects—and passed over those lips to her eyes. She looked into mine as she ran a hand over what I’d reviewed, following the same path my eyes had traveled. “Shall we go?”
I mounted in front of her, and
her thighs clenched my hips. Arms around me, breasts flattened on my back, her
hands splayed flat across my chest. The points of her fingernails felt through
my shirt, and a primal scent came from
her as I kicked the Vespa to life. Intended for city driving, it would only do about
45kph, maybe less carrying two. We had a ride ahead of us, but I had time.
Nerezza’s directions brought us to where the hills grew into mountains. The Vespa’s feeble headlight shone through a gate onto a three-story structure several decades, if not a hundred years old. Cracks and creepers—thick twists of vines—ran up the sides of crumbling walls, and overgrew even the balconies. I shifted to ask her, “Is this it?” I doubted. She reached around me and turned the motor off, the headlight with it. My eyes adjusted to the dark. It looked different in the light of the moon. The old estate still seemed poorly maintained, but wasn’t the ruin it had appeared at first. At the entry to the courtyard, she took a key from her pocket. She reached through the bars and turned the largest padlock I had ever seen around to face her, with a twist and click she swung the wrought-iron gate open.
“Please,” she signaled me to wheel the Vespa into the courtyard, holding the key, planning to lock up again once we were inside.
I eyed the wall and knew I could get over it. “I’ll leave it here,” and pulled a coiled steel cable with two eye connectors and lock from one of the side pouches to secure the Vespa to the tree closest to the gate. “I don’t like having my ride where I can’t get going when I need to.”
Something flashed in her eyes: anger, derision, I wasn’t sure which. It vanished like that first glimpse of the house. So fast I wasn’t sure it had happened. I walked through the gateway and looked around, longest at the huge house. “What is this place?” I asked her as she locked the gate.
“It’s been in my family for generations.” There was pride in her voice and something else, something unsaid. “My sisters, we… and others work and live here. Inside,” she nodded at the house, “it will be darker than you are used to. We use candles and oil lamps. It’s so much more enchanting.” We walked on broken flagstones past beds of withered stalks and weeds. At a large circular fountain, she stopped and sat.
“Sit, for a moment,” she patted the stone rim that encircled a basin with a surprising amount of water still in it. Though the surface was covered with a scum of moss and bits of floating wood, the clear areas reflected the full moon. She turned her delicate face up. “I have something for you,” she said. Empty, long-nailed, hands rested in her lap, then stroked inner thighs.
I didn’t ask what; didn’t speak as I watched and wanted to replace her fingers with mine. Something was happening; I knew it from that moment at the outdoor café. My skin burned then chilled as she placed a hand high on my leg.
As I did, it seemed the moon brightened. I could tell by her face alight with its beams. It drank in the rays as she smiled into them. The lips I’d seen as crisp red under streetlight were dark rimmed now. Fangs grew in the moonlight, and her grip tightened on my thigh. She leaned to nuzzle at my neck, her voice muffled, “We have so much pleasure to bring you… once the pain is gone.” Teeth sank into my neck, and the quickening of an orgasm began and soured in exquisite agony and then… darkness.
I shuddered and raised my watch; thirty minutes had passed. Still seated on the edge of the fountain, I touched my neck and felt the stickiness of drying blood. That did not bother me. The piercing ache did. She had drawn something vital from me. I couldn’t hold my thoughts, couldn’t concentrate.
Nerezza took my bloody hand and said, “Come with me.” I followed. We entered the house, and it was as she’d described. Light danced on the floor and walls from lanterns hung from the ceiling. As she took me through the foyer, further in, circles of light-to-dark-to-light were everywhere. I heard music, some classical piece, and voices. Entering a large room to the right, eight women lounged in a sitting room or parlor. Each, but one, was radiant, voluptuous, with long lustrous hair that ran from blonde to dark red to a thick ebony mass of hair on three, including Nerezza next to me. The plain young lady also had dark hair. She was a slighter build, leaner, breasts smaller—apples compared to melons—but the stems, as with the other ladies, grew erect and prominent beneath thin, gauze-like, dresses that covered them shoulder to ankle.
“My sisters, Malvola,” she pointed to the largest of them, as big as me and that had an intense, feral look about her. “And Chiara,” the smallest and seemingly youngest. Except for the dark hair, she looked nothing like her sisters and in bearing, nothing like the others in the room.
I sensed hunger emanate from them with their smiles of sharp teeth and red-tinged eyes full of rage or sorrow, tears unshed or that had cried too many. Chiara’s look was of abject loneliness. The kind deep inside even when you’re surrounded by others. Something I understood too well.
“In my room,” Nerezza pulled me toward the stairs, “we can be alone.” Her dark-wine lips twitched, showing that thin line of sharp teeth gleaming with a light of their own. “Away from the others.”
The stairs moaned as I took each step higher. At the turn and landing to go further up was a tall, clear window that rose to the third floor. The moon poured through, washing us with its pale beams. Smiling at me, Nerezza paused on the landing and pirouetted as if showering under the watery rays. She was the most alluring woman I had ever seen. I shivered.
Upstairs, the hallway was open to the floors below on one side but bound by a balustrade. I looked down onto what appeared to be a small ballroom. At a height even with me, hanging from the high ceiling, were three huge lanterns surrounded by six smaller ones. Each glowing with a golden lambent light of reddish tint. Six doors lined the side opposite the railing.
At the end was a large set of closed doors. Nerezza led me there and swung them open. Inside the room was a central sitting area, lighted by clusters of candles on tables and sideboards, with leather chairs and a sofa facing a bank of windows. A set of French doors led onto a balcony that spanned the room. Stepping further in, the balcony overlooked a walled garden grown wild that had broken out and crept up the slope of the looming mountainside. Its thickets of tangled brambles resembled balls of barbed wire and concertina. To the right of the sitting area was a large bedroom and on the left two smaller bedrooms. One room on the left, the inside one away from the balcony, had a massive door of dark wood with thick metal hinges and a curious bar and lock arrangement on the outside. Walking over, I noticed it was ajar. Opening it, inside I found gouges and rips in the wood. Stepping in, I ran my hands over them feeling how ragged and deep they were though still far from penetrating such a thick door. The metal bands that ran throughout the wood, to strengthen it, were also scratched and scored. Down at the bottom of the door were smaller, lighter marks, made by something low to the floor. Long scratches in the terrazzo, parallel grooves that led to the massive bed in the corner.
Nerezza touched my neck, stroking it as she would a pet’s. “Malvola’s,” she said leading me out and shutting the door. She passed the next door, the room closest to the balcony without comment.
“Whose room is this?”
Her voice had the same disdain she’d used at the café. “Chiara’s.” On a table against the wall was an array of dusty bottles. “Cognac?” she asked me. My head was spinning, I should get out… run, but looking at her, I had no will to run away. She handed me a snifter with three fingers of amber liquid. With an odd compulsion, I made a gesture to offer the lady a drink first. Her smile broadened and showed the length and points of the teeth I’d felt earlier. “I do not drink… spirits.”
Without drinking, I set the glass on the table as Nerezza did something at her waist and the skirt fell away. The moonlight from the window and the flickering candles played on alabaster skin. It brought out the cords of muscle in thigh and calf as she moved toward me. Slowly she unbuttoned her blouse, a curtain withdrawing to reveal an elusive treasure. Recondite… then before you. The sheer bra strained—straps dug into the flesh of her shoulders—and dark nipples stiffened. She moved closer and brushed against me. My hands twitched, wanting, as she stepped away. In lace and flickering shadows, she crossed to the larger bedroom. I followed.
In the room, there were fewer candles. Her face, shrouded by the fall of raven hair that draped her shoulders, the smooth expanse of her chest was a field to plant kisses. Two dusky-tea-rose crested hills prominent, and from the valley between—the fragrance had teased when she had been so close—a subtle perfume wafted on the gentle wind from an open window that caressed our skin. Her hands cupped and offered soft round flesh to taste as she removed the last bits of cloth covering what I ached to bury myself in. Something drew me to look through the window at the sky, the scent of the moon’s beams, splendid in radiance, she too, was exquisite in the night. Moonglow poured into the room, lapped and flowed over the edges of the bed. I heard the rustling of sheets and the most pleasant of night sounds, an inviting sigh of anticipation.
“Come,” she said. Her body beckoned. As I lay next to her, the tide of moonlight rose higher, and
its ebb and flow ran through me as we rode satin-sheeted waves from there to
I awoke near sundown. I had been unconscious, what I’d experienced could not be called sleep, most of the day. Nerezza had left me in the early hours of the falling moon, yet someone was in the room. She was standing still in the shadow of the now-shuttered window, the smaller woman I’d seen the evening before.
“You must leave now!”
Groggy, I sat up and wished I hadn’t. The room reeled around me, the emptiness stronger. I tried to stand and staggered. She caught me, her touch like a static discharge that straightened me, and I looked in her eyes. Not the same as the other ladies, they were as desolate, but not threaded with skeins of scarlet, and red-rimmed.
“You’re Chiara, right?”
“Yes. Hurry, Malvola is coming!”
“What?” I found my pants and pulled them on.
“She slept with Arianna last night. Nerezza is always first.” She bent, picked up something from the floor and handed me my shirt. “It’s her turn.”
I pulled my shirt on and looked for shoes. “Turn?”
“With you.” She kicked my shoes over. “Hurry.”
“I can go over the balcony and get out that way.” I went over to the window.
Chiara glanced at me and away. “A long time ago I used to climb down at night to smell the roses that bloomed below my window.” She shook her head and her eyes locked on mine. “No longer. There’s no way to climb down and make your way through, others have tried. I must take you back the way you came in.” Her eyes filled with profound regret. “If I can.”
“What if you can’t?”
“You die,” she glanced through the door across to Malvola’s room, “in pieces.”
I followed her into the sitting room. The sunlight had faded. The stirring of sounds and quiet voices grew louder. A crazed cackle of laughter as lights came on and music played. The sound of steps on the stair announced someone as heavy as I was coming back up. I heard their approach.
“We won’t make it,” Chiara looked at me. “She’s here.”
Weak with bitter exhaustion, I didn’t reply, and she left my side to run to her room as a shadow filled the doorway.
“Have you the strength to play with me?” Malvola leered.
A splintering sound came from Chiara’s room, and I turned from Malvola to rush toward it. Chiara came out holding an old double-barreled shotgun, 10- or 12-gauge, and a box of shells. The gun and box were ancient. The carton had gotten wet at some point; cardboard still damp, smeared with old dirt and new dust. “Years ago, I kept this from a man they took,” she looked contrite. “I hid it inside a wall.” She handed me the gun and shells.
Malvola had entered the room but stopped in the center. “Half-sister or not, little bitch, I’ll settle with you afterward.”
I had broken the shotgun open over my knee and loaded two shells. It was stiff but loosened as I snapped it shut. “Can I kill her with this?” I leveled it at Malvola who had taken a step closer.
“No, but you can slow her down and maybe we can get by her.”
The blast rocked me back one step, but it blew Malvola three times that toward the door. For some crazy reason that Lynyrd Skynyrd song, ‘give me three steps’ played in my head. I braced, boom… and hit her square in the body mass again, obliterating her broad chest. As she staggered back through the doorway, the mangled flesh reformed but without cloth to cover it. I broke the gun open, reloaded and followed. Both barrels this time. BOOM! I blew Malvola over the railing to crash two floors below.
Chiara grabbed my arm pointing at the nine lanterns hanging from the ceiling. “There are eight you must hit.”
“Shoot, destroy them, and it is a real death!”
I stepped closer to the balustrade and took aim, “Why only eight?”
“If you shoot that one,” she pointed at the closest large one. “I die!”
Click. Dammit… reload. Shit, only eight shells left! I shot the smaller lanterns first to clear them from shielding the three largest. A shriek from below accompanied each one. Glancing over the railing, Malvola was already moving, and Nerezza had joined her. Both headed for the stairs. I fired at the farthest big one—shattered it—and a scream raked my spine.
“That’s Malvola’s,” Chiara said behind me. “She’s gone.”
I lined up on the lantern that must be Nerezza’s. So focused
on it I didn’t realize she was rushing toward us, a storm front about to break.
She hit and drove me into the wall. Large chunks of plaster fell from it, but I
held on to the shotgun and kept my feet. No time to aim I whipped it up and
fired. Missed and no more shells. She grabbed me by the neck and pounded me
into the wall like her hammer for a dozen nails. Twisting backward and lifting,
she threw me over the banister.
Far enough for me to grab one of the remaining lanterns. Chiara’s. As I dangled, trying to get a better grip, another screech—its bite, razor blade cuts in my ears—undulated. Chiara had jumped on Nerezza’s back who ripped at her arms, legs, and face. She tore away ribbons of flesh from Chiara; that anguish showed in a bloody grimace. I brought my legs up and kicked at Nerezza’s lantern. It loosened. Kick. Kick and kick again. Chiara’s wobbled. One more kick would bring either one or both down. I looked at Chiara.
“Do it,” she screamed, and with more strength in her slight frame than I could comprehend, she lifted Nerezza and threw her over the railing. I kicked again, and Nerezza’s lantern dropped free. Nerezza was rising as it crashed down driving her to the floor. Her lamp, its glass shattered, housing bent and the light extinguished lay beside a now still body. A second later Chiara’s came loose, and I fell. Cradling it and turning, I hit hard but on something other than the floor. Still, the ribs on my right-side flexed and one, maybe, two broke with stabbing pain. With a gasp, I got to my feet with Chiara’s lantern intact in my arms and looked down. I had landed on Nerezza… across her chest. A hug from behind made my ribs spasm.
“Chiara!” She held me tight as I turned and looked down, wincing at the sight of the flayed skin of her face. “Are you okay?”
“I will be, I’m not like my sisters. I don’t feed like them—never like them—and don’t heal as fast.”
“The local men are old, the young move away,” On my face, she must have seen the question remained. “You can feed on the young ones longer,” she said in a quiet voice and let go of me to step away.
“No… why did you help me?”
“It’s been too long.” She looked up at me, “The pain… the suffering… we had no right to take ours and inflict on others just to live.” She spat. “As if this is… was any kind of life.” She came closer again and touched my face, a soft brush of fingers. And though I hadn’t realized it, there were tears she wiped away.
“What happens now?”
“You will go.”
“I mean with you.”
“I’ll die,” she looked down at Nerezza whose body was crumbling, “like them.”
“I’ll stay with you as long as I can.” She smiled at me as if I had given her the greatest and I realized what real beauty is.
* * *
It was time, and she walked me through the courtyard. At the gate, she stopped and handed me the key taken from Nerezza’s body. I unlocked the padlock and threw it and the key as far as I could into the tangled field nearby and grabbed her hand. But she wouldn’t move.
“Out there, the hunger will be stronger—and I can’t—won’t become what my sisters were.”
“Yes,” and there was no sadness in her eyes. “That’s as it should be.”
“I can’t leave. There must be something. There–”
“Is nothing out there for me,” she cried. “Go!”
I wanted to touch and hold her. I reached for her.
“Go.” She screamed again and ran toward the house; quickly hidden from sight in the darkness of its decaying walls.
The moon was low in the sky, but I found my Vespa. My ship was leaving in a couple of hours. I barely had time to report back on board.
* * *
The sputtering sound returned before dawn. It entered the courtyard, and the engine cut off. Moments later she heard his steps on the stair. She met him at the door.
“Why did you come back?”
Her wounds had healed, and she’d dressed. “How long can you live with just me?” he asked.
“What… what do you mean?”
“If I give you… me, my soul. How long can you live?”
“You can’t do tha–”
“You said I was young and strong. I am. So yes… I can. How long?”
“Months, maybe a year. I don’t know.”
“Then we’ll have that.”
“What about after?”
* * *
On board, the long gray ship the Executive Officer approached the Captain with a clipboard in his hand.
“Muster complete Captain, one man missing.”
“Who. What division?”
“OI,” he tapped a line on the sheet marked Operations Intelligence.
The Captain looked at the man’s name with regret. “Never would’ve thought he’d go UA. Any police report?”
“Well, advise the embassy we have a man missing—an Unauthorized Absence—send details from his personnel file and have the Master at Arms secure his personal possessions.”
“I recall he doesn’t have any family, right?”
“Correct, sir. No family.”
The Captain shook his head. “Set the sea and anchor detail, we sail on time.”
* * *
He checked his watch and knew his ship was leaving. Part of him wanted to go with it, but he looked at her as she took his hand. Holding it, he knew he would never be alone again. The sky had passed from ashen with purple tints, shading to crimson then saffron to birth-of-morning cerulean. It was daybreak, and soon they would sleep. And so it would be, day in and day out—they would go on—until he was spent. And then they would rest together, forever.
* * *
A Year Later
The house had stood empty for decades—alone and untouched—decaying as things built by Man are wont to do when uninhabited. No one knew who owned it, nor cared. The voices and rumors of missing men had kept even the brave away. Then that stopped, and stone by stone the ruins were cleared, taken by locals no longer afraid, and used for building materials. The site became as overgrown as the surrounding land except in one spot: a small square of land at the base of the sloping mountain with a patch of perfect grass and at its center, a single rose bush. Each year, in season, two roses bloomed to die and flourish again.
# # #
NOTE FROM DENNIS
One of my followers/readers—Sarah—shared a picture of a haunted-looking house and posed the question: Would you spend the night in one?
It brought back the memory of something I experienced when I was 21 years old. I shared a bit about that with Sarah and others, and they thought it fascinating; worth writing into a full story. Which I did, but here is the story behind the story:
When I was in the U.S. Navy, my ship made a port visit to La Spezia, Italy and as I frequently did overseas, I explored on my own. Night had fallen, and I sat at an outdoor café drinking wine and getting pleasantly buzzed, when a voice behind me said, “They follow the ships.…”
I turned, and it was a woman. The scene I describe in the story about what she said in disdain about the other woman, how she looked—god, how she looked, I can still remember—and her invitation… is (was then) real. I was drunk, at first on wine then on how she looked at me. We climbed on my rented Vespa, and I followed her directions miles out of town. We stopped at the entrance of an old house (as described). We entered a large courtyard and sat at a decrepit fountain for a while and some… you know… (no biting, at least not the kind in the story).
She told me the house had been a brothel, abandoned for years but believed to be haunted. And about what she called the ‘ladies of the sorrows and pain’ that worked there. We walked to the front entry, she stepped inside and beckoned. I went in and saw what had once been a beautiful foyer and grand stairway. I walked to it and took six or seven steps up. Each one moaned… creeped the shit out of me. I turned to look for the girl, to see if she was following, and she wasn’t there. As I had my back turned to the higher steps, something or someone ran a cold hand down the back of my neck and across my shoulder. A caress. I literally jumped down the steps and headed out the door.
Outside I looked for the girl but never saw her again.
I got on my Vespa and headed back to town. At the café where I’d been drinking, I asked about the place and was told it had been a brothel that catered to Nazi officers in WWII and then switched to welcome Americans as the Nazis were kicked out. And one night, in 1948, someone killed all nine ladies that worked there. The bartender talked of men that had gone missing in that area ever since.
That dormant memory stuck in my mind for years, and Sarah’s question woke it. And so, a story was born.