Fiction, illustration, discussion – interesting weirdness for all the senses. Well, almost.

Martha, My Dear…

by Mehi Loveski

It takes Mort some time to figure out where he is. He is lying, half awake, on a spacious bed in a strange room filled with unfamiliar smells. The potted plants on the windowsill look well-tended but slightly grotesque. The shelves running the length of the wall display rows of neatly arranged books interspersed with gaudy bric-a-brac.  On the armchair, like a huge petal left by a forgetful giant flower, withers a bright-red peignoir. It is only when he sees an exquisitely-made wooden doll’s house on the night table that the penny drops…

A freak snowfall at Fernpass ruined his plans of arriving just in time to allow Martha – no doubt, overjoyed by his unexpected appearance – to quickly lay the table (champagne, sweet flavored tea, chocolates – the staple diet of their get-togethers) and an hour or so before what he had come to think of as their Big Night. Instead, after a seemingly endless wait for the road to be cleared, he arrived in the morning just as Martha was leaving for work. They kissed – somewhat tentatively – and a moment later she was putting on her fur coat, already halfway out of the door, laughing, saying she’d be early, coffee and toast on the table. After she had gone, he, too exhausted to even take a shower, shed his clothes onto the floor and collapsed on the bed.

Mort had met Martha in his last year at college. She was as lonely as himself in the cold strange city – a child living in the doll’s house of affected cheerfulness and insouciance. A vivid lover of operetta, she never shared his intellectual pursuits, but they enjoyed each other’s company and in the fullness of time – their nightly passions… A couple of years later he was drafted into the army. It was then that they started to drift apart. Martha’s epistolary talent turned out to be singularly unremarkable and soon she was just a thing of the past, a fleeting image at the remote corner of Mort’s memory, with the daily business of survival in the war-torn Yugoslavia solely on his mind. They didn’t even meet after he had been demobbed, each getting on with their own adult life. Sometimes in his lonely moments he remembered her exquisite body and tender caresses, but cringed at the recollection of the soupy operettas he’d had to accompany her to…

With the advent of the Internet he started to look for his school and college friends, never getting anything more than an initial enthusiasm that soon dwindled to occasional birthday greetings. One day he stumbled on Martha’s picture on Facebook. The photograph was the one Mort remembered only too well from their days together, showing her laughing happily on the swing. She was still living in her hometown Turman, single. He sent a friend request and soon became Martha’s first “friend”.

He has apparently fallen asleep again for he didn’t hear her come back. “Wakie-wakie! Guess how long it has been, sweetie!” says Martha sitting next to him with two tall glasses of champagne in her hands. – “Sorry, must’ve conked out…” he says drowsily. –“No, darling, I didn’t mean that! I mean, how long has it been since we first met? “–“Um… twenty years?”  he ventures, not sure of his math. –“Twenty years, two months and thirteen days!” she cries triumphantly and bends to kiss him, spilling the champagne. As her agile tongue penetrates his mouth he feels a surge of sudden fiery desire – as if there haven’t been all those years separating now and then…

Afterwards they lie silently, emptied by the intense outburst of long-forgotten passion. Soon he hears her gentle snoring and quietly gets out of bed. On his way to the bathroom he passes a big mirror and stops to look at himself. Disheveled, with gray   stubble coming out on his cheeks, he is hardly a pretty sight. Why did he let her see him like this? His eyes turn to the reflection of the bed – and he stumbles back, gasping in shocking disbelief. What a moment before was the body of a handsome woman has turned, before his very eyes, into a repulsive grayish carcass lying on soiled sheets, its yellow teeth bared, greenish slime oozing out the nostrils. Wisps of hair, like a spider’s web, are mussed up on the crumpled pillow. One skeletal hand with dully gleaming rings is resting on the sagging withered breast. The skin of the corpse’s swollen abdomen is in constant slow movement and Mort shudders as he thinks of swarms of maggots at work inside. At the same moment the putrid smell of rotting flesh hits him and he all but runs to the bathroom, locking the door behind himself. He leans on the sink, out of breath, shattered by the appalling sight. Good Lord, he has never had such vivid hallucinations before. Surely, the sudden apparition should be put down to his sleepless night and a good deal of nervous anticipation to boot. He looks around taking in the elegant bottles and Martha’s jewelry crowding on the shelves. Everything is so neat, so spotlessly clean, so like Martha. He closes his eyes and wishes he could stay in that fragrant sanctum forever…

He doesn’t dare look in the mirror on his way back to the room. Martha is still fast asleep, her full lips parted in a sensuous half-smile, her naked body as beautiful as ever. Of course, it has been his high-strung nerves that played a trick on him. But that unmistakable smell – it still hangs in the air! On an impulse, Mort gets dressed and heads for the door. “I’ll go down to Tesco and get something for supper,” he says without turning his head. The night air feels great after the stench – imaginary or not – that filled Martha’s place. He goes half a mile but then makes a sudden U-turn and instead of going to where the neon lights promise fresh food and drinks, drives back to Fernpass…

At home he takes a hot shower to get rid of that lingering smell on his body, pours himself a cup of coffee and sits down at the computer to check his email. On a whim, he logs onto the site of The Turman Herald and enters Martha’s name. It takes him only several minutes to find a short report in the October 1997 issue:  

Body of Woman not Seen for a Year is Found after Police Break into her Home

A woman not seen by neighbors for over a year has been found dead after complaints of a pungent smell coming from her apartment on 61 Mitte Strasse. Police who broke into the apartment found the body of Ms. Martha Knoppler, aged 30. The woman was thought to have been dead since at least last September. A post mortem examination carried out on Ms. Knoppler’s decomposed body was unable to find any clues to her death. A police spokesman said there is nothing at this stage to suggest the death is suspicious. Investigations are now being carried out to determine the circumstances.

He lights a cigarette and comes to the window. It is snowing again. The city lights are twinkling gently behind the sparkling curtain of snowflakes. There was no mention of Martha in the later issues. He wonders what killed her, what shattered the elaborate doll’s house she had so lovingly built to protect herself from the drab reality of life. Suddenly he remembers driving to her place through the swirling snow, with The Beatles on the radio, sure he would find her at home waiting for him – what else could his Martha be doing?…

He was coming to Fernpass when it happened – too fast to allow even a fleeting luxury of a last, enlightening thought. A huge mass of snow high above the pass suddenly quivered, as if awakening from a centuries-long sleep, and detached itself from the mountain. It stood motionless for a moment as if hesitating, then started sliding downward, growing as it gathered more snow, gaining speed – and momentarily exploding into a giant white monster that flew down the slope, roaring with blind rage, obliterating everything in its way until at full speed it hit the road where Mort‘s Ford Explorer was crawling along. As an unbearable weight crushed the car, like an angry drunk trampling on an empty beer can, Mort felt an oddly uplifting sense of liberation – as if he had finally come to the destination he had all along been heading for, had his most urgent innermost desire fulfilled….

Make me one with everything. He doesn’t know where the words came from, but they have an agreeable ring. The cigarette smoke gets in his eyes making them water – or maybe he is crying at the recollection of that blissful moment. Mort reaches for the handkerchief but the tears seem to freeze solid even as they course down his icy cheeks. He stands at the window for some time more, looking at the snow with unseeing eyes, absently picking at the tiny icicles on his face, stripping them off along with the dead skin.

A car with the logo of a catering company goes down the road and pulls up at the house opposite. A man in a baseball cap with a few boxes in his arms gets out of the car and rings the doorbell. Make me one… Suddenly Mort is ravenously hungry – when was the last time he has eaten anything? A day… a lifetime… ago? He reaches for the phone and orders a large pizza from an Italian restaurant nearby. The room is dark save for the dim light coming from the window and the computer screen with the picture of Martha, laughing, on it. Martha, my dear…  you and me were meant to be for each other…  The words come back to him loud and clear against the backdrop of the howling wind. Is she still asleep in her tiny neat apartment, dreaming her doll dreams? What would she think when she finds him gone? He picks up the phone and dials her number. On the third ring he hears his doorbell chime. Still getting the ringing tone Mort goes to open the door. Standing in the doorway is a delivery boy, his greeting smile slowly fading as he stares into the darkness within…

 

Mehi Loveski (Oleg G. Mikhailovsky) has a BA in English and literature. His essays and short stories have appeared in a number of American literary magazines.He lives in Yekaterinburg, Russia, with his wife, son and a dog.

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