Of Marrow and Abomination
by Morgan Sylvia
I am very young when I first dream of the ruined barn.
The barn is nothing more than a burnt-out husk in the northern woods. It stands alone in an overgrown meadow, a blackened shell of rotted shingles and charred, cracked timbers, its weathered grey boards standing in stark contrast to the golden hayfields around it. The northeast is peppered with such ruins. Built by hand, not machine, the old barns are silent, forgotten monuments of a lost age, one where horses, not cars, carried men through the thick, tangled woods, and where woodstoves rather than furnaces kept away the biting winter cold.
It was initially repurposed as a numbers station, a clandestine radio station that broadcasts coded messages to spies via short-wave radio transmissions. Later, it became something else. A black site, of sorts. By then, the Cold War had ended, and we had clawed our way greedily into the information age.
I wonder now if they understood what they were doing, those Cold War doctors with their shiny shoes and thick glasses and slicked-back hair. They chose this spot, no doubt, because it was both isolated and unremarkable. They wanted the space and freedom to explore their madnesses, their alchemy, far away from prying eyes, in a place where only beasts and forgotten ghosts could see. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that the abominations created here would never be contained. They saw themselves, no doubt, as pioneers, inventors. In truth, they were sorcerers as much as scientists, heirs to Crowley and Agathodaemon as much as to Newton and Einstein and Hawking.
They are dead now. The darklings gnaw on their skeletons.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the corpses of men like them.
And of her? The dead thing that waits in the shadows below the barn’s charred roof, dreaming of static and decay?
This is the tale of her awakening, as much as it is of my own.
She was human once, first an orphan—like me—and then a young nurse jumping at a job that paid in a week more than she usually made in a year. She likely did not think overmuch about the papers of confidentiality, the releases she signed, though those of us born to the world of cell phones and internet scams would have seen red flags in the convoluted language and restrictions. She—like her cohorts—was bound to secrecy. Her name was Anna, but they relegated her identity to a number.
She isn’t in the early dreams. Actually, there are no people in the initial dreams. No animals. No sound. Nothing happens, at first. The visions are only fleeting glimpses of a single moment in time. Barn and landscape remain static and unchanging, consistent as a painting, untouched by wind or weather. Yet even as a child, I sense something sinister about the barn’s blackened shadows and rotted beams.
The dreams follow me through a succession of foster homes and boarding schools. Over time, the scene slowly comes to life. The grass moves beneath charnel winds. Seasons change. Strange colors shimmer in the sky. Then the barn begins dragging me toward it. My feet hover over the earth, and I am drawn to the ruin like a fish caught in a line, pulled ever closer, dream by dream. As I approach the barn door, the world comes alive. In summer, I move through swarming clouds of shiny green flies. In winter, snow and freezing rain part before me.
I sense that the shadows contain something hideous, something monstrous. Dread flows through my body like molten lead, tickling my stomach, pouring salt into my limbs. But I am powerless, an insect caught in a web.
In one dream, a single fly approaches me on iridescent wings. The buzz it produces tears another barrier loose. Where there was once only silence, now there is sound. White-noise static rises up around me, deafening, filling the air. A disembodied voice, rattling like dry bones, slips through my thoughts, repeating a series of numbers again and again.
Four six seven nine
Four six seven nine
Four six seven nine
A pale figure appears in the crooked doorway. She wears a necklace of teeth and a tattered nurse’s dress that was once white, but is now a dusty, colorless grey. Dull, matted hair falls over her shoulders in thick ropy strands. Her face is only a skull.
I wake gasping for breath, my heart pounding.
Every night, the dream becomes more real. I withdraw from my friends, isolate myself, submerge myself in art. I live not in flesh and blood, but in paper and pencil, ink and paint.
The dreams continue.
I don’t yet understand what she is, a ghost trapped in static, a soul caught between two planes. But I soon learn that she is not bound to the rules of the natural world. Mirrors reflect her face, rather than mine. I see her walking behind me, a reflection cast in a classroom mirror or a gym pool. Her eyes are sometimes milky and clouded, sometimes black and empty, sometimes blood red and wet. I grow accustomed to the way the air chills when she appears. I learn her scent, which is damp soil and cinder.
Eventually, the dream brings me into the barn.
It looks, at first, as one would expect. Sunlight filters through spaces between weathered boards. Piles of debris obscure the dirt floor. In corners, and in the bright roofless area, patches of weeds struggle toward the sun. Oddly, the building’s interior has been reinforced with stronger wood. This isn’t to make it functional. The barn will never again contain horses or cattle, gentle creatures with eyes like pools of chocolate, their soft whiskered noses sniffing for treats. It is but a prop, a cover for whatever waits beneath the trap door in its center. The support is only to keep it standing.
The transmission changes.
She quotes ancient Druid bards, leaving the words of Amergin etched into the frost on my window as winter presses against the walls. I am God who fashions Fire for a Head. Who but I announces the Ages of the Moon? Something in my atoms shrivels and changes. My soul withers and blackens at the sound of her voice.
In the dream, the sky turns red.
One night I wake screaming, gasping for air, my entire body numb, only to find that the dream has bled into my reality. A single, charred piece of wood sits on my nightstand. Beside it rests a clavicle. I stare at these objects for a long time, questions bubbling up through my brain. The clavicle is misshapen. The bone bulges, revealing a seam where the bones grew fast and unnatural.
I open the window. A warm summer wind moves the curtains. Everything smells of blood and rust. I toss the things into the alley below. Feral dogs immediately investigate.
When I flip on the TV, her laughter escapes a newscaster’s mouth.
Some boundary has been breached. I am never able to identify what line I crossed, what date or milestone was reached. But after that, I often hear static, like the sound of snow on a television set. Behind it, her disembodied voice reads sequences of numbers and the occasional random phrase. Once, she quotes Shakespeare: Hell is empty and all the devils are here. Another time, she offers the words of Aleister Crowley: Science is always discovering odd scraps of magical wisdom and making a tremendous fuss about its cleverness.
The spies who could have made sense of these things are dead. One of them is missing a clavicle.
My world changes, subtly. I feel her watching me. Strange occurrences plague me. The barn refuses to stay contained in nightmares. I see it in movies, a still blipping past in the midst of a scene. It appears in books and on posters and album covers. A pasta box, one time. I glimpse its forlorn, abandoned husk in paintings and in photos on my phone. Once, I spot it out of the corner of my eye in a field I pass daily on my way to work.
I hear her voice on the radio, coming through waves of static. On the phone, in the midst of a call to a gallery, an insurance agent, a pizza delivery place. Sometimes her transmissions are nonsensical, just seemingly random repetitions of numbers. Occasionally, there is music behind her, warped carnival sounds, organ music, a polka. Once, a child’s jingle, a cheerful ditty about the black plague: Ring around the rosy.
I find a stunning replica of the barn on my sketchpad, drawn in charcoal.
I never use charcoal.
My work grows erratic. Colors run and bleed together, hues of death and rot. I wonder if I am mad, but I have learned to fear the hospitals, the men in white coats with designer shoes and laser-corrected vision and perfectly dyed hair. They, too, walk the line between magic and science, creation and destruction.
She leaves me bloody teeth and dead birds. She writes messages to my broken soul, words and formulas scratched into the pollen on my windshield or the steam on my bathroom mirror. Bloody fingerprints on a book I’m reading. A pile of teeth on my nightstand. A mound of abnormal fingerbones, laid out in a strange, runic shape in my bathtub, part of some alien alphabet, perhaps. Lovers flee from her macabre gifts. The first few refuse my calls, my broken apologies. After that, I no longer bother trying.
I wake one day to find her name etched in blood on my stomach. I write back, in ash and lipstick, in paint and colored pencil. I leave my replies on finished canvasses, commissioned ones even.
What do you want?
She never answers.
The next day, I see colors I never perceived before. The transmission, which I now hear coming from lamps, from unplugged radios, from my cell phone, changes again. I am the queen of every hive. She has begun to favor Amergin. I wonder if he, too, looked up at the night sky and saw an endless abyss. I wonder if the ancient druids broke the code of molecules and DNA and portals. I understand, by then, that this is what they wanted, the scientists, before their minds and souls burst under the pressure of infinite secrets and cosmic mysteries.
She is strongest under the new moon, when the skies are black, lightless caverns.
In the next dream, a trapdoor opens on the barn’s dirt floor. Grated iron stairs lead down into utter blackness, where rusting metal doors line a corridor that was once stark and clean and sterile. The paint is peeling and rotted.
The dream pulls me into the past, to the day Anna arrived here. I see her standing at the door, on the border between the golden field and the nightmare ahead, a hard-shell suitcase in her hand. She wears thick nurse’s shoes, and clutches a string of useless prayer beads. She kisses the beads for luck, and then descends the stairs below the trapdoor, leaving the sunlight behind.
I win awards for my painted depiction of the scene.
I draw the decay, the succession of events, to soundtracks of static and numbers. Her eyes turn white, her skin ash-grey. She wears a crown of fingerbones and a dress of teeth. Antennae sprout from her forehead, picking up signals from the cosmos. In her hand, a scepter made of someone’s femur.
She whispers oblivion into my sleep. I wake seeing data in the shadows, static in the clouds. White noise hums through my fractured thoughts. Screams burst apart in my mouth, scaring the crows from my window.
She speaks to me in the next dream: not in codes or static this time, but words.
They chose him, she says, because he had no family. He’d seen too much in the war. Too much blood. Too much death. Too much pain. They left him on the street, another destitute soul. No one would believe him, if he ever tried to say what happened here. No one would care. He wasn’t the only one. I found shallow graves in the woods. And then there were the others … the darklings. They, too, died here. Once, the wolves found one of their bodies. The remains were not human. Not entirely, anyway. After that, they burned the corpses.
She stares at me with filmy, clouded eyes.
It was his eyes that drew me to him. Green as the grass in that meadow. Deep as the sea. When I saw what they were doing to him, I tried to stop it. I knew it was wrong. But there was only one way out. I chose my fate the moment I set him free. But it was too late. He was already changing. They chased him through cold forests with guns and dogs. By morning, only ash and bone remained of him. I realized what I had done when I signed those forms. I sold my soul, my flesh, my future. I had no protection against their rage. They knew why I had released him. The test left little doubt. But they chose us all for the same reasons. We were all alone. I became the experiment.
For a moment, I see her as she was. Her eyes are like mine.
I paint his death. A full moon sits bloated in the sky above an autumn forest. This is not the autumn that blazes with color in October, but the fall of November, cold and drab and colorless. Men in uniform bark orders above the baying of dogs and the sharp report of gunfire. Bullets and flashlight beams cut through dark trees.
The thing they shot and burned in those woods was no longer human.
I wake with tears streaming down my face and truth—hideous, blasphemous truth—crawling through the blackest depths of my soul. I spend years trying desperately to find my birth mother. The records are sealed and classified. All I learn is that my birth certificate was signed in the north, in a remote county at the edge of the boreal forest.
I don’t see her for a long time, after that. I convince myself that the dreams were only dreams, that the clavicle and other incidents were hallucinations. Madness is a comfort and a lie.
And then one day, after long seasons of peace, I find a heap of teeth on my windowsill. Static rises from the pile of molars and canines, whispering to me across oblivion.
Six five three two four.
I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives
Six five three two four.
I wake to find her standing beside my bed, her colorless eyes staring at me in the shadows. The voice of a long-dead druid speaks through her lips.
Who is the troop, the god who fashions edges in a fortress of gangrene?
My thoughts become salt, formless, granular, and white. I remember nothing more of that night.
I have a gallery showing the next day. As I pack my car, I realize that two of the ocean scenes I chose for the show now depict the barn. I put them in the trunk anyway and drive off, my thoughts sluggish and heavy. Suddenly I realize I don’t recognize my surroundings. This makes no sense. The gallery is only a few miles away. I haven’t left the city or the interstate. But somehow the road has changed from a separated six-lane city highway to a two-lane country road.
I slow down, uneasy.
After a few more miles, I am in the boondocks. There are no buildings here, no roads or driveways, just empty forest and the occasional bog. The area looks vaguely familiar. Dread turns to nausea in the pit of my stomach.
The barn sits around the next curve.
Terror rises up through me, clutching my windpipe with an icy grip. I slam on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching stop. Then I turn, tires squealing, and race back the way I came. I floor it going past the barn, and watch it shrink in my rear-view mirror. But escape isn’t that easy. Instead of finding my way back to the highway, there is again the curve leading to a familiar field. Somehow I am approaching the barn again.
I try to escape two more times before I give up and stop the car. When the engine dies, silence folds over me like a blanket. Or a funeral shroud. The air is thick and heavy. The distant buzz of tree frogs and birds fades away. Silence hangs thick above the fields of hay and goldenrod. The radio tower in the woods looks primordial, a spine reaching into the abyss above.
Something small and chitinous crawls over my arm, emitting waves of static. Across the meadow, dark shapes gather at the treeline, clinging to the shadows. They are mad things, unholy. They should not exist but in nightmares.
I open my trunk, looking for a weapon; a knife, a screwdriver, anything useful. They watch me silently as I take out a flashlight. Their likenesses stare at me from my paintings. When I walk toward the barn, they howl, singing runes into the wind. The sound is beautiful and unearthly. It rises over the trees, drifting up into the cosmos. A murder of crows flies overhead, darkening the skies as they flee. They know better than to stay here.
I walk toward the barn. The wind smells of ozone and death.
I pause at the entrance, on the border between shadow and sunlight. Inside, the scent of rich dirt fills my lungs. I take a shaky step forward, and then another. Something bites my ankle, scuttling over my flip-flop. The trapdoor waits. Beneath, metal stairs lead into a pit of darkness. I look back at the door. They are there, blocking it.
She is waiting for me in the darkness below.
She has changed.
Her arms have become tentacles. Her skin—what I can see of it—is paper-thin and mottled with green spots. Hook-like talons tip her elongated fingers, and a single, thick horn envelops the back of her skull, like an Elizabethan collar.
She brings me deeper and deeper into the shadows beneath the barn, leading me down a forgotten hallway to a chamber piled high with bones. Some are still wet, glistening with blood and sinew. Ancient radio equipment sits in the corner, covered with layers of dust. I reach out and turn the radio on. It shouldn’t work without a power source. But it does. Her voice crackles through the speakers, wrapped in static. Her words are bloody and gelatinous. I need calcium now, she says, and collagen and marrow.
I look around. An antiquated reel-to-reel sits in one room. Others contain more scientific things, beakers and vials and broken glass jars. Then there are the cells. Their walls are splattered with foul dark stains. Death and madness hang in the air. The place reeks of coldness and precision.
They wanted to experiment, she says, in a burst of pink noise, with the very fabric of reality. They wanted to send a soul—a spy—through a radio transmission. Instead, they tore a rip in our world, and opened a door to places beyond time, where the last trace of light falls into the endless abyss. They were behind what happened with the USS Eldridge, you know. They silenced that. But I, I was special. I was chosen. I saw the face of eternity when I looked into the portal.
Things slither away from the light as I approach her. My feet crunch on beetles and worms, popping the decaying organs of man and beast. Filth squishes between my toes.
You were born here, she tells me.
In that moment, my soul splits open and escapes its shell, like a seed bursting apart for the plant within to grow.
Her voice fills the shadows.
They tried to carve the knowledge out of us with sharp steel things. They drew nightmares on our eyes, and trapped our screams in shiny jars. They dissected our fear, our pain, our hunger, and created alchemical formulas for our terrors. I don’t know everything that they were trying to do, those men in white coats, only that they dealt with portals and vortexes. Things they wanted no one to see.
A third eye erupts from her face, pus-filled and glistening with foul liquid. She raises her tentacles, and I see the egg sacs glistening beneath her arms. Her nose has become a beak, hooked and sharp. Her carapace is black and shiny, like onyx.
I look up into the sky—which I can see through the ground and roof above me—and see the face of eternity. It is monstrous. It is magnificent.
Her voice caresses my mind, a spider’s touch.
This is the beginning of your death. And of your rule.
The sound of static roars into my brain, scrambling my thoughts. Visions burst in my mind, blooms of fire and death. I should run. I should fight. Instead, I stand there, weak and broken, melting. She opens her scaly arms, and I fall into them, sobbing.
The word Mother tastes like blood on my tongue.
Something cold pierces my flesh.
I fall to my knees, suddenly hot and dizzy. I vomit a dark green bile that smokes and steams. White noise rushes through my veins, pounding in my ears.
She retreats to the shadows of a tunnel she has burrowed into the ground.
By the next morning, my arms and legs are covered with angry red blisters. They turn yellow in the center, while the edges darken to black and green. My tongue splits. A protrusion erupts from my forehead. The carbuncles keep growing, swelling with fluid and nightmares. My hair falls out. Cataracts cloud my eyes. Lesions block my ear canals. A thick horn grows around the back of my skull. Like hers, it cradles my head like an Elizabethan collar or Triceratops horn. I see with my new eye, which rests on a stalk above my head. I hear with the antennae that burst out of my skull.
The skin falls from my face. She picks it up and eats it, licking her claws.
She is pleased. She gives me bones to eat. I bite into dry, dusty femurs that splinter into shards in my mouth, suck marrow out of finger bones. It tastes oily and decadent. I swallow knowledge in fatty, gelatinous lumps. I can identify individual molecules now. I see both on a cellular level and on a galactic. They are the same, in varying proportions.
I find the records she saved for me in a rusted file cabinet. From them, I glean her story. Most of the papers are yellow with age. They crumble to dust at my touch. Some she encased in plastic, and only these survived the blood days and the seasons after them. I burn them after I read them. The words are seared into my brain. They remain there today, tucked in somewhere in that vortex of grey matter, membrane, and mystery.
Together we reopen the portal.
I give birth beneath the new moon. Screams split my lungs. My eyes rupture and run down my face in streams of warm, salty gel. My boils burst, and beautiful monsters crawl out of the pustules. Static crackles through the air as the transmission starts. She calls to celestial abominations, celebrating the birth of the darklings, broadcasting coded destruction into the night sky.
Grow, I whisper to my children. Grow and breed. The world will be yours one day.
They scuttle into the darkness, watching me with blood black eyes.
She leaves me skeletons to feed them with. Every day, a fresh pile appears at the door of the cell I have chosen. We save the bones of the men in white coats for special occasions. I discover some of the old recordings: random sequences of numbers read by what sounds like a young woman, the audio distorted by strange, staticky buzzes. I recognize her voice immediately.
Seasons of blood and madness.
I hide in the forest, watching occasional cars pass, the smell of exhaust sharp and pungent in my snout. My children grow. I bring them to the sea, to the desert, tenderly carrying them in wet skulls, in pockets of flesh, in my blisters, in my wounds. The others come and help, my brethren, the silent monstrosities waiting in the wood. They are quiet and meticulous, their pupil-less eyes pools of oblivion. I sense their thoughts, which they cast at me in clouds of white noise. They dream only of death, of ripe flesh tearing and bursting beneath their fangs. I speak to them in waves of static, alchemical patterns, the song of molecules and elements. My words travel through their cells. My thoughts explode in their flesh. My dreams burn in their blood and fester in their marrow. They feast on bones, and watch the night skies with eyes grown on stalks from their misshapen heads. They bring me gifts of bone and offal as blood fills their footsteps and their shadows. They are beautiful. They are horrendous. They are oblivion.
One day, they will blot out the sun and the blue sky will go dark forever.
One day, they will crack the moon and the dead clouds will shed the last of their color.
One day, we will shatter the banshee winds into pieces and chew the bones of the last human being.
I hover over the ancient radio, speaking to my scattered kin. Humanity has failed, I tell them. It is time for our kind. Night after night, I send the messages out, whispering visions of death and decay. She always wanted me to take over this sacred duty. I realize that when I eat her bones. The secrets are in her marrow, which is sweet and rich.
By spring, the machines have fallen silent, and the wind no longer carries the sound of human voices. My final transmission crosses an empty night sky, riding waves of static through the endless abyss.
I am the tomb of all hope, the queen of all hives.
About the Author
Morgan Sylvia is an Aquarius, a metalhead, a coffee addict, a beer snob, and a work in progress. A former obituarist, she is now working as a full-time freelance writer. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Wicked Witches, Wicked Haunted, Northern Frights, Twice Upon An Apocalypse, Endless Apocalypse, The Final Summons, and Haunted House Short Stories. She is the author of a horror poetry collection, Whispers From The Apocalypse; a horror novel; Abode; and a fantasy novel, Dawn: Book 1 of The Aris Trilogy. Her most recent work is As The Seas Turn Red, an ocean-themed poetry collection. She lives in Maine with her boyfriend, two cats, and a chubby goldfish, and belongs to the New England Horror Writers, New England Speculative Writers, and Tuesday Mayhem Society. You can follow her online at morgansylvia.com.
About the Narrator
Justine Eyre is a classically trained actress who has narrated over three hundred audiobooks. With a prestigious Audie Award and four AudioFile Earphones Awards under her belt, Justine is multilingual and is known for her great facility with accents. She has appeared on stage in leading roles in King Lear and The Crucible, and has starring roles in four films on the indie circuit. Her recent television credits include Two and a Half Men and Mad Men.