Now that she’d scraped seven flakes from the sole of the boot, Ada set it back inside its box and set to wrapping the box in the plain brown paper that Silas favored for parcels and presents both. She finished off the offering with a bow strung from simplest twine, set the package upon the table, and then leaned back with a sense of satisfaction into the ornate pillows with which she’d adorned her husband’s modest divan.
Ada closed her eyes and breathed deep, taking heed of each inhale and exhale. Just as her mother had done, and her mother before her, and every mother back to the mother of them all. Thought was gone from her for a good long while before she found herself wondering if fortune would smile this night upon her well-laid plans. She sighed at the uncertainty, then leaned forward to take her tea cup from the table.
She sprinkled the flakes she had gathered from the boot into the concoction she had brewed with care for a fortnight. Then she stirred with a spoon stolen from her husband’s finest set. Seven times to the left, seven to the right. Satisfied, she set the spoon down upon the saucer and began to sip.
When there was nothing left to drink, Ada turned the cup in her hand. And as she turned it, she spoke an incantation. “Oh dregs,” she said, “I plead with all my might, please bring me what I need this night.”
Wind ruffled the curtains of the home her husband had built for her here by the edge of the deep green sea, the home he’d built upon the spot where his own father had once built a home for the love of his life. Ada knew that Silas grew tired of the effort to make proud the dear departed souls who had begot him by finally begetting himself, but she would not give up. She knew that a parent’s wishes—a mother’s in particular—were a powerful magic. And so, as the chill of the wind made gooseflesh of her bare arms, she begged for guidance. “Cup,” she said, “what say you?”
The cup said nothing.
Panic stricken, Ada yanked her necklace from its hiding place within her bodice and began to twirl it over the cup. “Leaves of magic,” she chanted, “leaves of must. Do not break our sacred trust.”
Then she placed her hands gently upon her belly.
“Oh, womb,” she whispered, “you home without a tenant—your walls will be filled this night, I promise you. Your chamber will be occupied at last!”
On the porch, quite suddenly, there were footsteps. With all due haste, Ada tidied her cup and saucer. Then she crossed quickly to the door, arriving just before it opened, and presented her cheek for her husband’s kiss.
With his nose buried in some great tome as he crossed the threshold, he paid her no mind. But he must have noticed her there, for he made no move to close the door behind him. So Ada closed it herself and waited for him to finish.
She was standing there for at least few minutes more before he marked his page, slapped the book shut, and turned to face her.
“Did you know,” he said, shaking the book in her general direction, “that Booth was an actor, dear? He played quite a bit of Shakespeare.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ada, confused, smiling the demure smile she knew that Silas favored. “Who are you talking about?”
“John Wilkes Booth,” said Silas, replacing the book on the shelf amongst its fellows. “The man who killed Lincoln.”
“I’m sorry?” said Ada, still smiling.
Silas raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “The President of the United States”
“I thought,” said Ada with a titter, “I thought that the president’s name was Harrison.”
With the heaviest sigh he ever did heave, Silas explained to her that Lincoln was the president when she was born and that he died several weeks later. She argued, again with that titter that she knew both annoyed and aroused him, that she should not be faulted for not remembering something that had happened when she was yet a mere babe.
“Aye,” he said, “but you can be faulted for never learning it in all the years since. My God,” he said, pushing his thinning hair back from his brow, “I knew you were born into the mud sill of society, but I had no idea how little—”
She set two fingers to his lips, shushing him. “Husband,” she said. “I have news for you.”
“What news?” he said, setting his hands upon her abdomen. “Is it the child?”
Ada peered deep into his eyes, searching there for the answer the dregs dared not give her, and then pulled away. She didn’t know what to do. She should have told him weeks ago that the child was gone, that there might never have been a child in the first place, that the blood had, more likely than not, just come later than usual. A trick of the moon. She didn’t know what to do, so she stalled.
“Silas,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Silas, you reek. What have you been up to?”
Silas wrinkled his own nose, confused. “I reek?” he said.
“I can’t smell a thing.”
Ada seized the opportunity to steer him further away from the subject of the child, to give herself some time to plan her next move. “Perhaps,” she said, “you’re coming down with a touch of something. For I smell it clear as—”
“I am not sick,” he protested. “And I do not reek!”
Now she raised an eyebrow, albeit a slightly less incredulous specimen than his.
Silas raised one arm and sniffed, then the other. Then he harrumphed. “I did,” he admitted, “chance upon a gander pull on the way home.” Now he nodded, removing his jacket. “That must be it. The stench of the ruffians must have clung to my coat.”
Ada asked: “What’s a gander pull?”
“You’ve never seen one?” he said.
She shook her head no.
“Perhaps you were born further from the mud sill than I suspected.” He smiled and shook his head. Silas loved the chance to explain things. As chance would have it, Ada had laid eyes upon the spectacle in question more than once in her youth. But Silas didn’t need to know that, at least not at this moment.
“They hang a goose,” Silas told her, “upside down by its feet. Then they take turns riding by on horseback, trying to twist its head off.”
It was quite a sight, she remembered. Her father, in fact, had been quite efficient at the avocation. Too good, she recalled. The other scoundrels in his circle always held him back until the end, so as not the spoil the sport.
“That sounds disgusting,” she said, holding back a smile at the memory of her father on horseback. Ever dashing. Even in death.
In her moment of reverie, Silas caught sight of the box at last. “What’s in the box?” he asked. “Ada, what is in that box?”
“Oh,” she said. “That.”
“Is that your news?” he asked, his dander up, his chest beginning to heave. “Do not continue to pile on the agony, woman. Is our child in that box? Is that your news? Have I lost another—”
The truth spilled from her then, as if he’d cut it out of her with the sharpness of his words.
“How long have you known?” he asked, stalking away from her, seething.
“I know I should have told you sooner,” she said, “but I didn’t know how.”
“I should by now,” he said, “no longer be astounded by the the breadth and depth of things you don’t know. Alas—”
“But I have taken steps,” she told him, a little more desperation in her voice than she would have liked. “My own way—you know of my own ways, and I know you don't always approve, but this way will work for us. I know it. The leaves have told me so,” she fibbed. She knew they would have told her eventually, so she did not think this an outright lie. Just a fib. A little one.
Silas turned to face her, his face flush, his skin redder and hotter than tarnation itself.
“The leaves?!” he shouted. “The leaves?! You entrust my legacy to leaves? I tore down my mother’s house for you, you ungrateful strumpet. You said it was beset by evil spirits, and I built this sprawling, garish mess in its place—for you. And when you said the spirits might linger here still, I bedded you in every one of these eleven rooms, searching for the purest of the lot. And now,” he said, “now you tell me that leaves will help us to conceive a child?”
She breathed in deep and out slow. In deep and out slow. Then she nodded. “The leaves,” she said, “and the contents of this box.”
“What is inside this box,” he asked, “that will assure our success?”
She smiled. “Open, it, husband, and see for yourself.”
Ada watched, with fingertips clenched between her teeth, as Silas unwrapped the box. As anxious as he might have been to see what was inside, he still untied the knot in the twine rather than snapping her neatly built bow in half. And he still untucked one corner of the wrapping at a time, instead of ripping the paper unceremoniously from the box. But then the moment of truth came and he could not hold himself back any longer. When at last the lid of the box presented itself to him, he threw it back and stared inside.
His face went white as he withdrew the weathered boot from its box and held it before him.
Ada reached into the box and plucked from its depths the scrap of yellowed newsprint she’d hoped he would find to help explain things. But he had no eye to spare to examine the paper when both were trained on the boot.
She read the clipping aloud to him. “Lost overboard,” she began, “November 13th, from the schooner Minna of Harwich, Mr. Silas Silver, aged 28 years. He has a left a wife, three daughters, and a son. The man’s foot, boot, and stocking, the latter marked SS (which drifted ashore early in December near P’town) belonged to Mr. S. His wife identified the mark on the stocking.”
“Alas,” Silas mumbled, still examining the boot, “poor Yorick.”
“Who?” asked Ada.
“I knew him well,” said Silas, a single tear rolling down his still blanched cheek. “If only,” he mumbled. “If only.”
“I thought your father’s name was Silas,” said Ada, holding the scrap of newspaper out for him to see. “That’s what it says here in the clipping. Who is Yorick?”
“Where did you find this?” asked Silas, finally looking at her again. He offered up the boot by way of explanation.”
She told him how she’d found it beneath the floorboards of the kitchen, how it had called out to her. She asked, “Have you never seen it before?”
“I haven’t,” he said. “I never saw it.”
“You knew nothing of this relic?” she said. “Nothing at all?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I knew. My sisters told me of it. Many nights in my youth, in those years after I was deemed old enough to know how my father died, I could think of little else.”
Silas rose and began to pace around the edges of the room, circling his wife. As he continued to speak, he kept a firm grip on the boot with one hand and stroked the books he passed with the other.
“I still remember the nightmare,” he said, “how it haunted me. And most troubling was that it never ended the same way twice. Oh, if only there had been some sense of continuity, some sticky end I could have anticipated with dread each time, then it might have been easier to bear. But no. One night, it was the simple pain of seawater flooding my lungs; the next I might be swallowed whole by a great white whale; and the night after that I would walk the plank and plunge into the embrace of the shark below, feel my flesh torn asunder, watch my foot and my boot float off toward the shore, borne along on waves dyed red by my blood.”
“Your blood yes,” said Ada. “But your foot? Your boot?” She pointed. “That was your father’s.”
“Oh, of course,” he said. “But it was a curse from my father—sire many children, as he had, or suffer the same death he was suffering then.”
“Ah,” she said, standing as he passed and taking hold of his arm to hold him steady. “But what if he never meant for it to be a curse?”
Silas shook her off and continued to brood. “It’s all nonsense anyway,” he said. “We speak of his legacy as if he were prepared to bequeath it. But he had no idea. His death was an accident. He thought he’d have years to pass on what he meant to pass on.”
Ada scoffed and told him that was hopelessly naïve.
“Naïve?” he said. “How so? Explain that to me.”
“He was a mariner, Silas. Certainly he knew the risks of his profession.”
“Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t,” said Silas, ceasing his pacing at last. “But that is immaterial,” he said as he collapsed into his chair. “What matters now is why you have brought this boot before me, why you have dug up old bones best left buried.”
She knelt before him and set her hands upon his knees, rubbing as she told him that to leave things buried was to deny their power. When he asked her “what power?” she told him: “The power to conceive a child.”
Silas laughed, as great a guffaw as she head ever heard from him. “Am I to bend you over my knee and fuck you with his boot? Am I to believe that his virility is so unmatched that my father might impregnate you from beyond that grave? That his seed might spring forth from the desiccated flesh of his big toe?”
Ada tore the boot from his grasp and shook it in his face. “Six children he sired. Six! The path he laid out for you is clear, but it is ground on which you fear to tread.”
“What path, woman? You speak in riddles. You speak nonsense.”
Ada shook her head. “You’re afraid.”
Silas wrestled the boot back from her and smacked her across the face with it. As Ada fell sideways to the floor, he rose to his full height above her. He seethed as he unbuckled his belt. “You think it is fear that has kept me from spreading my seed? Fear?!”
There came then a deafening crash of thunder. Both Silas and Ada looked around, confused, but Ada’s eyes soon focused on the boot.
“The skies were clear,” said Silas. “What mischief is this? Ada, what are you up to?”
Ada smiled as the weather provided the answer that the tea leaves had not. Silas grabbed at her necklace and pulled her toward him.
“Don’t be angry,” she said. “My love, I have done this for for the both of us. Do you feel it?” She felt her body readying itself, hoped that his would follow suit. “It’s been a long time.”
“I have conjured him, Silas. I have summoned the one who can help you, who can help us.”
Silas straddled her, her necklace still tight in his clenched fist. “Conjured?” he said. “Summoned? I don’t need any help!
He yanked her to her feet by the necklace then, spun her around, and bent her over the arm of his chair. It wasn’t the way she had imagined it, but if this was the way the spirit was to take him—if this was the way he was meant to take her—then so be it. It would all be worth it in the end. She knew this to be true.
Thunder cracked again, shaking the very floorboards beneath their feet. And then, with a flash of lightning, all light was gone from the room. Rain began to pound down on the roof above and Silas seemed to have quit his business behind her. She could feel him stiff against her through the fabric of her bloomers, but her bloomers had yet to be torn asunder.
“Silas?” she said.
His hands squeezed her hips as he said, “Quiet, woman! Do you hear that?”
The front door creaked open, seemingly of it’s own accord. The roar of the maelstrom grew louder and louder. But through it all, if Ada listened hard enough, she could hear the squelching of footsteps making their way through the mud outside.
Silas let her go and pulled up his pants. She collected herself and straightened her skirts. But neither of them made for the door. Neither of them made to close it. It was if they both knew, and had silently agreed, that there was no point to deny what was coming for them now.
Presently, the footsteps found the wood of the front steps. And then a figure began to ascend toward them, making its way toward the threshold.
It was ghastly, this apparition. Its hat was in tatters, its top coat riddled with holes, and every inch of its body was draped in sea weed. Even, she saw now, the rusted musket it was using as crutch. Ada looked toward the figure’s feet and saw that, sure enough, one foot was missing.
“Who are you?” Silas said, bellowing to be heard as he drew his wife to him.
The figure made its way toward the discarded boot and plunged the stump of its severed leg into the boot’s open maw. It tested the leg once, then twice, and when it was satisfied the mangled thing could take its weight, the figure cast aside its crutch, letting it thump to the floor.
“Who are you?” Silas screamed once more.
“Get off of her,” said the figure, its voice raspy from disuse.
“Who are you?” said Silas.
“I said get off.”
The figure waved a hand at Silas, and Ada watched in surprise as the gesture sent Silas hurtling away from her.
“Silas,” she asked the figure, “is that you?”
“What are you on about?” asked her husband as he stood and brushed himself off. “I’m Silas.”
Ada pointed toward the figure and smiled at her husband. “And so is he.”
The ghost of her husband’s father began to unbuckle his belt, and Ada saw clearly now what was meant to be. She bent at the waist to remove her underpants. Then she hiked up her skirts and sat herself upon the windowsill to wait.
“No,” said her husband as the ghost made its way toward her. “No!” he said. “I can do this myself.”
Husband grabbed ghost by the shoulder, but ghost was having none of it. With a flick of his wrist, the ghost slapped his son to the floor. Then he stepped on the fallen man with his mangled leg and pulled his bloodied foot from its boot, the ruined thing clinging to the rest of him by only the thinnest threads of muscle and sinew. The boot sat atop husband’s chest as ghost turned back to Ada to finish his job. And husband lay supine on the floor, wrestling with the seemingly immovable horror that pinned him to the spot.
“Ada,” shouted the husband. “Don’t! I can do this.”
“No, you can't!” said the ghost as he stepped out of his waterlogged pants, as he set himself between Ada’s thighs. “I never taught you, son. I didn’t live long enough to show you how.
Ada gasped the ghost found his way inside of her. She wrapped her arms around his soaking wet body and leaned her head back against the window.
“This,” said the ghost, “is how you prepare a lady to receive your gift, son. Your gift and our legacy. Watch,” said the ghost as he began to thrust. “Watch, and learn.”
When it was over, when she’d screamed the name her husband and the ghost shared, Ada made to squeeze her thighs around her lover, to hold him inside of her for a moment longer. But he was gone.
Her legs quivered as she stumbled toward Silas to remove the boot from his chest. She knelt by his side to do the deed and felt the faintest trickle of the ghost’s seed dripping out of her. It felt like a betrayal. She prayed that was all that was wasted.
Then, as if in answer to her prayer, she felt a flutter inside her womb and she smiled. “And there it is,” she told her husband, holding his hand to her belly. “An end to our suffering and the beginning of our new life. It is done, Silas. I feel our child already.”
Silas recoiled from her and stalked away. “Not ours,” he said.
“Yes,” she protested, standing and reaching for him. “Ours. No one will know. No one need know. The line of Silas Silver will continue.”
Silas shook his head and shook her off of him. “Do you want to know something?” he said. “It was never really about him.”
Ada sighed. “Don’t stew over this, Silas. This is a happy day, whatever the circumstances.”
“I am not stewing,” he told her. “I am telling you a story. You see, the nightmare, it was never as much about him as it was about her.”
Silas reached into his vest pocket and produced an old photo. Then he handed it to Ada. It was wet now, from where the water-logged boot had soaked the fabric clean through, and Silas seemed broken to see it so.
“Tamsen O’Rourke,” he said as Ada examined the picture of the pretty young thing. “Every dream, every nightmare—it begins with her.”
“A romance of your youth?” said Ada.
“The romance of my life,” said Silas. “I dreamt us a beach once, where we spoke the Bard’s lines to one another while my foot was borne off on the waves. It was the last time I dreamt of the boot, the last time it haunted me. Soon I was off to war, and faced with real horrors: visions of musket fire piercing my arms, my chest, delusions of a cannon ball taking my legs out from under me. And it was her face that came to me in those moments, not some vision of a boot, not the specter of my long dead father. And it is her face that has kept me from giving you, or any of the others, what my dear mother so desperately craved.”
“My dear, sweet husband,” said Ada, taking hold of his hands in her own. “I had no idea.”
“You had no reason to know,” he said, looking down, looking away from her.
“Why do you shun me?” she said, squeezing his hands. “What I have done, I have done for us.”
“And what I do,” he said, prizing his hands from hers with a gentleness she was not expecting, “what I do now, I do for us, as well.”
“And what is that, my love? What will you do?”
Silas looked up at her and Ada saw it in his eyes too late to put a stop to it, the look she had seen so often in her father’s eyes when he was at last let loose upon a gander.
Her husband wrapped his hands around her throat and squeezed. She fought against him as he strangled her, but it was no use. As he pushed her toward he floor, she reached for the discarded boot, clawing at the floorboards to reach it, but it was beyond her grasp.
“Who knows what wicked growth dwells inside of you now?” he spat. “It is not mine! It may be the spawn of the devil or a mere figment of my tortured imagination, but I can chance neither. If a father I am meant to be, a father I will be. But not this way, not this way.”
He was too much for her, and she was too soon gone from this world.
Panting from his exertions, Silas let the body slip to the floor. Then he slumped into his chair and plucked the boot from the outstretched hand of what had once been his wife.
He held it out before himself and sighed. “To be, or not to be,” he recited from memory. Then he laughed. A short, pained laugh, but a laugh just the same. “Oh,” he told the boot, “it is never a question, my old friend. At least not one we answer for ourselves.”
Originally performed as stage play as part of An Evening of Grand Guignol and published here, for the first time, as a Clarkwoods Original short story with the support of my patrons at Patreon.