Something There Is
By Joe Nazare
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
–Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
Ever downward he descends, winding and winding into the hollowed depths. The corkscrewing staircase terminates at last, spills him into the long tunnel. Torchless, he finds seeming antidote to the dark in the nitre-rife walls. Their encrustation casts a sallow glow throughout the catacombs, illuming the skeletal pilings lining both sides of the pathway. Oblivious, though, to his anonymous ancestors beside him, he presses forward; his pace and his pulse quicken in tandem as he glides along the damp ground, penetrating vault after vault. Until, abruptly, he’s halted. The wall looms directly before him, blocking off the crypt’s innermost recess. Eleven tiers of amateur masonry, holding steadfast against time’s weathering tides. Except—yes, there toward the center, a missing stone has left a blackened gap in the edifice. He stands staring at it for an indeterminate period, then belatedly sees his own hand reaching toward the breach. Panicked, he tries to will stasis into the mutinous appendage, which is arrested only by the sudden concussion. As if shelled from its far side, the wall explodes toward him, enveloping him in churning shadow. He thrashes like a drunken seaman in a maelstrom as the darkness floods his mouth, his nostrils, even the corners of his clenched eyes. All the while the engulfing torrent sounds a single word inside his head, filling it with the same five siren syllables.
Montresor lurched upright, sloughing the sodden bedclothes. He gasped for breath and tried to blink himself oriented. Still, he managed a falsetto shriek upon spotting the wizened jester at his bedside reaching toward him.
“Easy, old friend.” The figure slurred the words slightly while pressing an assuring hand to Montresor’s shoulder.
Montresor’s shock-addled brain needed a few moments to identify the signore keeping such surprising vigil. “Luchesi?” he spoke at last.
“Here, lie back.” Luchesi guided Montresor back down to the nest of pillows. “Just came to check on you,” he explained. “When I met one of your attendants in the streets tonight, he said you’ve been ill with fever.”
That last word jogged scattered sickbed memories. “Afraid I haven’t been myself lately,” Montresor admitted, then paused to take in Luchesi’s parti-striped dress. “Nor do I seem to be the only one. What are you doing going around in such crazy costume?”
The bells on Luchesi’s conical cap jingled as he chuckled. “So wrapped in your own delirium, eh, that you’ve missed the start of carnival?”
“Ahh, the supreme madness. I hadn’t realized its season had come already.” Montresor glanced over towards the window of his bedchamber. Though day had dawned, tireless revelers could still be heard carrying on in the streets below. Montresor could easily imagine Luchesi numbered amongst the celebrants.
As if reading Montresor’s thoughts, Luchesi reached down toward his feet; his hand came back proffering a long-necked bottle. “Here,” he spoke in a conspiratorial whisper, after shooting a look towards the palazzo’s attendant-less hallway. “Medoc—what I just happen to have handy with me, you understand. But it should serve as a worthy substitute.”
“In your sleep, just now: you were calling out for Amontillado.”
Vestiges of his nightmare shrouded Montresor’s thoughts. Dry-mouthed, he attempted to swallow nonetheless. “You must have misheard me, I’m sure. Please—no.” Frowning, Montresor brushed aside the bottle held under his nose. Luchesi simply shrugged and helped himself to a drink.
Montresor did not regret the curtness of his refusal. His companion should have more sense than to make such offer. While ignorant of the reason why, Luchesi knew full well that Montresor had lost the taste for such spirits five decades ago. In fact, the proud connoisseur had been the main purchaser when Montresor promptly sold off all the casks and puncheons from his family vaults.
Picturing those catacombs now drew Montresor back again to his troubled night’s sleep—and to the more vexing question of the cause of his recent unrest. Montresor darted his gaze across the room to his escritoire, a finely crafted piece he’d imported from Paris many years earlier. There, in its locked drawer, lay the days-old pages upon which he’d finally recorded his vengeance fifty years post facto. Presently Montresor had to wonder if his quill and not his trowel had perpetrated the true crime. He’d been plagued by ill health and worse dreams seemingly ever since inking those bold words, as if the actual scripting of the tale had somehow summoned the demons of guilt from the pit of his consciousness.
Montresor swung his view back over to his visitor. “Tell me…have you ever wondered what really happened to our old acquaintance?” As Luchesi’s heavily-lidded eyes narrowed further in puzzlement, Montresor elaborated: “Who went missing, and whose body never turned up…?” For some reason, he hesitated to voice the name outright.
“That fool? Surely his bones litter the riverbed to this day.” Luchesi waved a dismissive hand as he alluded to the once-popular theory—that the missing nobleman had stumbled and drowned during carnival. “Not that I ever cared enough myself to go dredging. Too busy burying my tool in his widow, eh? Seems my tastes were a match for Fortunato’s after all!”
Luchesi gave a hearty laugh, his eyes momentarily twinkling with what Montresor assumed was the memory of past debauchery. Montresor himself could only force a weak smile for his friend.
The septuagenarian jester rambled on, “No surprise if Fortunato’s footing betrayed him. We both know he already had a tongue made too slippery by drink.” Luchesi, though, apparently was not too tipsy to forget tact; he came no closer than that to referencing Fortunato’s notorious slights of the Montresor family. “But what makes you waste thought now on that long-dead wretch?”
The unspoken words sloshed in Montresor’s ear, ravaging his equilibrium. He tried to shake his head clear of the echo. “I…I fear my own death,” he muttered at last.
“What? Nonsense. S’only a touch of fever.” Luchesi gave a sniff toward the bed, wrinkled his nose in mock disgust. “And you seem to have done a fine job of sweating it all out.”
“Um, no,” Montresor stammered, “what I mean is—”
“Enough of this,” Luchesi cut him off, as if such talk were an affront to the season. “You are fine. You just need to get up and ambulate.” Luchesi himself rose from his bedside seat, patted Montresor’s arm. “Why don’t I call on you again tonight, and we’ll go out to celebrate carnival together.”
“No, I couldn’t—”
Luchesi ignored the plea as he headed toward the doorway. “If you won’t join me in drink, then at the least we can feast together. We’ll find some young lovelies to ogle, and even more drunken ones to fondle.” He paused, and turned back sporting an impish grin. “And should all that excitement somehow prove the death of a couple of old letches like us, why, we’ll just caper our way right down to merry hell. Ha! ’Til later, old friend.” Luchesi lifted the strangled Medoc bottle in salute, and exited.
Despite his own weariness, Montresor could not help but be buoyed by Luchesi’s spirited nature. Perhaps the man was right. It was carnival, after all, a time for shucking off the burden of yesterdays and living for the here and now. Montresor would do well to stop dwelling on the long-buried past, to get out of this bed and to get life flowing back into his limbs. Resolved to do just that, he moved to untangle himself from the bedclothes. And then froze.
For the love of God.
Looking down upon the backs of his suddenly shaking hands, Montresor spotted the scab-less abrasions on his knuckles and the crescents of grime caked under the ragged edges of his fingernails.
Montresor had worked his way deep into the labyrinthine cavern of leering skulls and pointing limbs before he even realized that he stood barefoot and barely dressed. No matter—if his fears were confirmed, then such ill-clad ambling was nothing new for him.
He pressed on, arm extended. The catacombs’ nitrous atmosphere dulled his flambeau’s luminescence to an eerie glow. Even pitch blackness might not have prevented his passage, though; the very muscles of his legs seemed to know the twisting route by rote.
The steadily sloping descent carried him through a series of low arches until finally he found himself in the sought-after crypt. Tremors beset Montresor’s hands the moment he entered, complicating his attempt to set his torch in the sconce alongside the threshold. In that instant of arrival, he’d had plenty of time to glean that the rampart of bones he’d erected long ago at the far end of the chamber had since been tossed aside.
Reluctantly, Montresor traversed the crypt, sensing for the first time the chilling dampness of his family vaults. The lump he bore in his throat seemed to cut off his breath as he approached the exposed rear wall. He could only snort his dismay upon closing in and spotting the state of the mason-work.
The wall hardly stood inviolate. Fist-sized gaps pocked its surface, pitch-black portals onto its inner secrets. Haphazard stones bulged like herniated organs on the formerly flat plane. Surely something more intemperate than time had been beating against this barrier.
Montresor dropped his gaze to his bruised and dirtied fingers, then lifted it back to the faltering wall. How much of this was his own—if only somnambulistic—handiwork? No wonder he’d been bedridden in recent days, if this was where he’d been spending his nights.
Unease enfolded him like a roquelaire as Montresor tried to fathom what exactly had been drawing him down in such nocturnal journey. Standing there now, he was certain of only one thing: in its current decadence, the wall appeared as an abomination in his eyes. It was like some rough, itching scab that needed to be picked, and Montresor doubted he would know a moment’s peace until he did so.
As the ensconced torch flickered behind him, wispy shadows slithered across the wall in front of him. For a moment, he imagined that the shadows were being sucked into the walls, the various apertures serving as so many greedy mouths. The impression unnerved him, and spurred him into action. With a shrill scream he launched himself, pounding and clawing at the wall. Amidst his frenzy, he could feel his fingernails bending sharply backwards. They did not snap off, though, because the wall proved surprisingly pliable. It was as if the unremittingly dank atmosphere of the catacombs had somehow transmuted stone and mortar into a sludgy mush. Finding purchase in the existing holes, Montresor began to tear away sizable clumps of the wall. He was too exhilarated over finally attacking it in full, wakeful force to even marvel at the cataclysmic results. Before he even realized it, the wall was no more, its materials strewn across the cold floor of the crypt.
Montresor surveyed the damage, his lips curling into appreciative smile even as his gaunt chest heaved. He felt utterly relieved, rid at last of some infernal freight that had been pressing down on him. For several glorious moments he drank in the spectacle of the wall’s ruination, before turning his attention to the niche he’d uncovered.
The niche had been created by the pair of colossal supports that stretched up the back wall of solid granite and pressed up against the vaulted ceiling. The resultant recess measured a mere four feet deep, three feet wide, and six or seven high. These dimensions framed the macabre tableau within, the slouching figure of Fortunato.
Or at least the skeleton thereof, the bones dun-colored and dusted with ancient decay. The chain that had bound the erstwhile jester like some parody of Prometheus now hung loose as a sash across the fleshless chest and rib cage. Fifty intervening years had meanwhile bleached the color from his motley dress, had eroded it to a tattered rag. The fool’s cap sat limply upon the forward-tilting skull, as if Fortunato stared continually dumbfounded down at his own predicament.
Montresor stood eyeing his mortified nemesis. “Free at last,” he pronounced in creaking voice.
Fortunato remained speechless, which only served to loosen Montresor’s own tongue. “What? This is what you wanted, no? Why then do you wait? Perhaps a helping hand…” Montresor seized Fortunato’s neck, snatching him forward from the niche.
“Go then!” he shrieked. “Off to whatever hell or hellraising beckons you!”
But instantly upon disturbance, the skeleton lost its tenuous structure, its outline of former manhood. Fortunato deconstructed into a bony jumble upon the crypt floor, and Montresor found himself holding only a hollow skull. He ventured no poor-Yorick soliloquies, quickly tossing the thing like a hot coal.
Bells jingled as the head rolled. And then kept on ringing even after the skull bounced to a halt.
Now Montresor was the one dumbfounded. With his own eyes he could see the discarded cap lying motionless, yet somehow the bells persisted. If anything, they increased in pitch. Their metallic rattle reverberated off the walls, seemed to amplify every last trickle of moisture from the riverbed above the catacombs. The din grew toothache sharp, and Montresor spun around desperately, trying to pinpoint its source. No such luck—the impossible noise rang on all sides of him at once. Dizzy from his own gyration and queasy from the bells’ furious vibrations washing over him, Montresor clapped his hands to his ears. He soon reversed such gesture, as the warble trapped inside his head grew exponentially deafening. When he staggered off whimpering, the merciless jingling trailed him through the crypt.
Bells, bells, bells—they throbbed a paean to torment as Montresor surfaced into his palazzo. His own maddened cries could do nothing to drown them out. The tintinnabulation continued even as he chased off his handful of confusedly fawning attendants. When he tried to bury his head under his pillows, a tinkling ghost cap seemed to slide right under with him. The cacophony dogged him for the remainder of the day, scrambling all thought until eventually driving him to his ultimate determination. When he finally decided upon procuring the fresh materials he would need to carry out the plan, he could swear that the enveloping jangle softened. Did not stop altogether—just slackened, as if in encouragement of his chosen course.
So now, having gathered and transported the materials, Montresor found himself standing once more before the exposed niche in the deepest reaches of the catacombs. It felt like decades rather than hours since his ordeal had begun. He paused in momentary contemplation, but then the bells rang in piercing knell and prodded him into action.
The long-lying trowel that had sealed Fortunato’s fate now wore a coat of rust, but the tool proved trusty enough to spread the fresh mortar. Montresor fought off a devastating sense of déjà vu as he set to the task of laying the tiers of building stone. Truthfully, though, things were different this time around. More arduous—and not just because he was fifty years the worse for wear. He fought for elbow room within the cramped workspace, struggled to lift and maneuver the strategically-piled pieces into place. Then there was the inevitable loss of light to contend with, leaving him to proceed practically blindly. Still, he plastered, undeterred, even as the foul air choked phlegm-laced coughs from him.
All things considered, he was doing a damned fine job of walling himself in.
The wall had been raised to ten tiers, with room for one more, when Montresor suddenly realized what he’d achieved. Blessed silence. He tossed aside the trowel in exultation, relished the serenity he had banked on.
His previous efforts caught up with him soon thereafter. Montresor grew cognizant of the fatigue saturating his body, as the cessation of the bells meanwhile worked on him like some mellifluous lullaby. Unable and unwilling to resist, he sank down within the enclosure and drifted off into heavy, dreamless slumber.
He woke to darkness, the flambeau on the far side of the wall having long since guttered out. His surroundings were so black that the resurrected wall almost seemed nonexistent. Tentatively he stretched his fingers in verifying touch, and brushed the frigid stone. Feeling the barrier in front of him somehow heightened his sense of the pair of supports flanking him and of the granite wall at his back. Hugging his knees, he imagined these barriers slowly closing inward and compressing the dark into greater density.
But even if his eyesight wouldn’t, his mind gradually adjusted to the encompassing opacity. He managed to relax, settling back and counting his blessings. After all, he’d succeeded in walling out the harrying clamor. And despite his recent illness and current environs, he didn’t feel the faintest hint of a cough scratching at his throat. Yes, this was suitable sanctuary indeed, the privacy more important than any privation. Montresor took solace in the fact that whatever time remained to him—be it measured in minutes or days—would be spent with him resting in peace.
No sooner did the thought cross him mind than the tremors started. An unearthly quaking whose epicenter lay deep within him. When Montresor tried to voice his fright over the abrupt quivering, he discovered that his tongue and throat had turned bone-dry. His convulsion was outstripped by a singular compulsion, but strangely, water did not represent the quenching liquid desired. Montresor’s spirits drained into the abyss of his chest as he sensed a delirium other than fever bedeviling him.
No! What more could be asked of him? Surely he had mended the rift, leveling the wall and then rebuilding it with himself inside. Yet as he was now forced to recall what had once lured Fortunato down to this site—
(The Amontillado! Yes, the Amontillado!)
—Montresor realized that the issue at stake had never been atonement. It had been appeasement. The denied draught from the fancied cask, Fortunato’s dying wish devolving into eternal want. Thereafter a most carnivalesque curse must have riddled this tomb, the overwhelming desire for drink filling the unhallowed space like some wretched effluvium.
Montresor’s own burgeoning craving for the absent Amontillado grew incrementally unbearable. His mouth felt as if it raged with stinging fire-ants that only the liquor could douse. As hoary memories of bygone imbibing plagued him, his very being seemed to curl in awful withdrawal.
From his knees, Montresor tried to beat an escape through the enclosing wall. The mortar had long since dried, though, clutching the stones in impervious grip. Heedless of any pain as his knuckles were driven back into his fists, Montresor indulged his festering hatred for his own handiwork.
He continued, screeching, until suddenly he froze mid-whale. Dear God. Was there something—
He wanted—so desperately he wanted—to believe that his frenzied movements had merely jostled the stapled chain hanging on the wall behind him. But what he truly feared to have heard, nearby on the opposite side of the wall that fenced him in, was derisive laughter intermingled with tinkling bells.
This latest affront trumped the thousand other injuries Montresor had suffered in his lifetime. The half-century legacy of his masonry fell over him like a pall as he belatedly grasped what a wall such as this was bound to create. Anything but separation.
He felts shards of stone, or perhaps even bone, biting into his bare heels as he stretched himself upright. Breathless, he flattened himself up against the wall that rose to just below eye-level. He pressed his gaze into the crypt, in dreadful search.
For a neighbor, waiting, in the darkness beyond.