PseudoPod 757: Flash on the Borderlands LVI: The Heart’s Filthy Lesson

Show Notes

“Three Years Ago this May” was my attempt to write a short story with a strong finish. Both Jack Ketchum’s “The Box” and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory” inspired the tale. The question at the center of it all is how do we go on without the one(s) we love.

The Wikipedia on the history of “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”

With her hundred miles to hell

The Woman the Spiders Loved

by Couri Johnson

There was a woman who the spiders fell in love with. You knew her in high school, but you weren’t friends. She was plainish. She still is.

But that didn’t matter to the spiders. They thought she was beautiful. It was something about her hair. It’s long. She’s never cut it, and it’s very blonde. A spider saw her waiting for the bus one day, and it fell in love just as it was laying its eggs. When its young hatched and ate their mother’s corpse, they also ate that love.

They lived in her house under her bed. When she slept, they would slink out from underneath and do small things to let her know how much they loved her. No, they didn’t write messages in webs. This is not a children’s story. They didn’t lay eggs in her skin, either, so don’t ask.

They kissed her. With their little pincers, they nipped her skin inch after inch. She woke up itching every morning, covered in small angry welts. Her skin was always speckled with tight black scabs from where she scratched the bites open with her nails. When the scabs fell off the spiders collected them. They tied them up in their silk ropes, and hung them like chandeliers from the underside of her bed. They went on biting, and she went on scratching. The spiders weren’t poisonous enough to kill her, but each night she got a little more numb, until she could hardly feel anything at all.

One day she called the exterminator, and the house was filled with gas. The spiders all died. She swept the remains out from under her bed, along with the small altars they had built from her skin. After that, no one ever loved her like the spiders did. In fact, no one ever loved her at all. She went on not feeling, and the spi­ders went on not living.

That’s just the way it is with love sometimes, I guess.

Edge of the Cliff

by Dorothy Quick

The girl sat on the edge of a cliff and gazed down at the jagged rocks below her, watching the water beat relentlessly upon them. The last rose tints of the sunset gave the eddying waters a translucent loveliness, but she shuddered as she looked at them. She couldn’t see the beauty, only that the rocks and water were terribly far away.

“I haven’t the courage,” she half whispered, her voice lost in the rushing waters. For a long while she sat quite still, staring blankly before her. From somewhere in the distance came the shriek of a whistle.

Automatically the girl raised her head, listened, and laughed—a laugh that had no mirth in it. Her thoughts, which had been a formless confusion, suddenly focused.

“The factory whistle. Jim will be home soon. How he’ll rave when he doesn’t find me. If I went back, he’d beat me. But I won’t go! Dear God, help me to be brave.”

With the force of her prayer she clasped her hands and moved convulsively. As she did so her pump slipped off and went down into the dimness. She strained her eyes to watch, but she could discern nothing in the darkness. So she listened, every nerve tense.

But she heard nothing—only the swishing snarl of the water beating on the rocks. Her slipper had gone—soon she would follow. She dully wondered if it would hurt. She saw herself lying crushed and mangled, perhaps not dead, and began to shake. Unsteadily she got to her feet. She was going away from the terror of the cliff, back to Jim — It would be horrible, but at least she knew what it was like.

“If I were only brave,” she thought, “I wouldn’t go back.” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed hopelessly.

All at once she was conscious of some- one near. She took her hands away to look. There was a stranger standing beside her.

“What is the matter?” he asked softly. There was no light and she could not see his face, but something in his voice swept her terror away.

Without an instant’s hesitation she began, “I want to die.” She pointed downward. “But I haven’t the courage.”

“Perhaps I can help you.” There was deep understanding in his tones. “But first you must tell me why.”

Strangely she didn’t wonder that he made no attempt to preach or dissuade her from her project. Her soul went out to the sympathy and understanding she sensed in him. Her words came tumbling out jerkily, one sentence after another.

“I loved Bob—my family married me to Jim. Jim had money—a house. I was pretty and could cook. Jim didn’t love me, but I was useful. I hated him!” She clenched her hands until the nails, digging into the soft flesh, brought drops of blood to the surface.

“Yes?” questioned the stranger. “So—” Monysyllables which left a gap to be filled.

She went on, “I tried hard to like Jim-I couldn’t. He was a drunken beast. Bob kept on being sweet to me, brought me little things when Jim wasn’t there. Once he found me crying, saw my arms all black and blue. Then he took me in his arms.” She paused a second to savor fully the joys of the remembrance.

“We decided to go away together when Bob got enough money,” the thread of her memory continued to unwind. “Jim came home early. I hid Bob but Jim was drunk. He began beating me. I tried to be brave, but God must have been asleep that night. I cried out. Bob came to help me—and Jim killed him!”

The stranger was silent. She continued, “Jim got off—he was a wronged husband. The jury was on his side. It was worse than ever for me when he came back. I can’t stand it anymore. I want to go to Bob, only—I’m not brave enough.”

The stranger moved a little nearer. “It only takes a minute,” he whispered, but in his low tones there was a vibrancy. “One second and it is over.”

Her slight figure swayed, “I can’t!” she gasped.

The stranger took another step.

“You won’t be alone. I will go too,” he said slowly.

“But why?” she began, then suddenly reached her hand out toward him.

He ignored that and took a step toward the edge of the cliff. “Come.”

She moved forward. All at once she was aware of the sound of the water striking the rocks below—those sharp, jagged rocks. She shrank back. “I’m afraid.”

“Then return to him!” He flung the words at her.

“No, no!” cried the girl.

“You must choose between Jim and Bob,” he said sternly, then added, “once you did not take so long to decide.”

“Bob might not find me,” she sobbed.

“It only takes a second,”, he pleaded, “and then there is—Eternity!”

The girl shivered again. “It is very – dark!”

“At the bottom there is light.”

“It will be very cold.”

The stranger smiled. “My arms will be warm. Come!” he said softly, and this time held out his hand.

The girl tried to grasp it, but he was going down—down into the blackness. There was a strange luminous light about him. It didn’t look quite so dark. The girl suddenly found courage.

“Wait!” she cried, “I am coming!”

From below the stranger was smiling at her with Bob’s smile, and his arms were outstretched. He wasn’t a stranger anymore-he was-Bob! Without one second’s hesitation, she flung herself into his arms.

They went down and down, towards the bottom. Bob’s lips were warm on hers. She did not even know when the waters enveloped her completely.

The Memory of Love

by Peter Adam Salomon

It snowed the day she came back into my life. A late fall storm that blanketed red and gold leaves with white sugar icing.

It had been humid and gray the day they’d buried her.

Today, as snow fell upon a sea of maple, her voice whispered against me. The heat began in my heart and shot outwards, bleeding off my fingers as memories called to me, my name on her lips. Outside, the storm continued, but I couldn’t see through where my breath had fogged the window. When I turned around, she was perched on the edge of the bed, waiting for me to join her.

Blonde hair curled over her shoulders, blue eyes stared through me, drawing me in. When she reached for me, I fell to my knees in front of her, pulling her against me. The exquisite feel of her burned through me. I had forgotten how soft skin could be, how sweet the breath shared in that first kiss, how wonderful she was, how alive and beautiful and mine.

She was gone when I awoke, though her scent lingered. As it always had. That first kiss still wet my lips. I dragged myself away, refusing to look behind me to see the empty bed. I couldn’t help myself, I never could. I looked.

She was perched on the edge of the bed, waiting, once again, for me to join her. There was nothing else but her, smiling at me and with each step I took towards her, that glorious smile grew. She was waiting, willing. Oh, so willing.

Blue eyes pierced me to the core as her memory called my name. Soft, sweet, beautiful, wonderful, I had never stopped missing her. Not when I buried her. Not in all the days since. There was a vast emptiness within where she had been. I missed her, still.

I missed her, always.

I remembered watching her die, holding her in my arms as she drew that last precious breath before she left me. Alone. Forever alone. Now, it was snowing and, once more, I held her in my arms. She kissed away each tear that slid down my cheek, banishing the nightmare that had been her death. Promising me that I’d never be alone again. That she’d fill the void I’d lived with for so very long.

With her whisper-sweet voice, she invited me to join her, to never miss her again. To never be alone. To be with her. Forever. Always.

That she finally wanted me as much as I had always wanted her. She was there, waiting. Waiting for me. After all these years, living through the nightmare of my life without her, she’d finally forgiven me for killing her.

And all I had to do was die.

Three Years Ago this May

by Trace Conger

Henry wants to die today. He doesn’t think I know what’s going on in that head of his, but I do. Forty-three years of marriage and raising three children together will do that to you. I’ve been able to read his mind for as long as I can remember. Can finish his sentences most of the time, too.

Every morning at our summer cabin had been the same since we retired and bought the place eight years ago. Henry gets up at the crack of dawn, downs a cup of the blackest coffee he can brew, kisses me good morning, and then sets out on his canoe trip across the lake and back. It takes him about an hour. If he stops on the lake to feed the ducks, it’s an hour and fifteen.

We’ve got two canoes tied to the dock. The scratched-to-Hades aluminum one came with the place. One of the seats is broken and it’s prone to tip with the slightest shift in weight. The other, a green fiberglass canoe, came courtesy of the Adirondack Conservation Society raffle two years ago. It’s got padded seats and doesn’t bounce as much on the water.

I used to have my own morning ritual. After watering down his brew, I’d sit on the back porch in my thatched rocking chair and flip through the stack of Adirondack Life magazines we’d collected over the years. I’d look up every few minutes to see how much progress Henry had made on the lake. After two cups of coffee, I’d head for the kitchen, fire up the stove, and watch him from the kitchen window. When Henry returned, we’d enjoy breakfast and then talk about what we were going to do for the rest of the day. Maybe head into town, visit with friends, read in front of the fire, or just sit around and do nothing. Same routine. Every morning. Every summer.

Sometimes Henry sits on the back porch and knocks squirrels out of the pine trees with his .22. He keeps the handgun in a black and yellow plastic toolbox next to the back door. I don’t like the killing, but squirrels can make a mess of the place in the offseason. They get inside the cabin and settle into the mattresses. They rip up the furniture and scratch the walls. One year, they even chewed through an electrical cord. We arrived that June to find two fried squirrels on the kitchen floor.

I stay inside when Henry shoots. Sometimes I instinctively cover my ears when I hear the pop. The .22 doesn’t make a loud bang. It sounds more like a small firecracker than a gunshot, but it’s unnerving nonetheless. It doesn’t have a lot of stopping power, but it gets the job done.

Our morning routine changed after Henry’s accident. It was three years ago this May. Some college kid fell asleep at the wheel and collided with Henry’s Chevy pickup truck on I-70. The kid lost a few teeth and his football scholarship. Henry lost both his legs. Severed just above the knees.

Ever since the accident Henry has been different. He’s the funniest man I know, but I can’t remember the last time I saw him laugh. It doesn’t help that our children are grown and scattered across the country. Chris in Chicago, Adam in Los Angeles, and Jessica in Minneapolis. They’re on their own now and don’t have as much time to visit. They don’t need us like they used to when they were younger. Sometimes it feels like we’re floating out here on our own.

Henry is always eager to get to the cabin come June. He loves the water, but I think it’s the absence of other people that really calls him here. There’s no one else around to ask if he needs help or if there is anything they can do for him. In the privacy of our cabin, he still has his legs.

The main parts of our morning routine are still there, and the differences are subtle. He doesn’t think I notice them, but I do. He still brews his coffee as black as the lake bottom and I still water it down. He still kisses me good morning, but he kisses me longer than he used to. And he’s never the first to let go.

Now, he rolls down the worn dirt path being careful not to catch his wheelchair on the exposed tree roots, overgrown ferns, or wild huckleberries. I suggested installing a ramp down to the dock. Insurance would cover it, but Henry said it was out of the question. He said he didn’t want to muck up the natural surroundings with a corrugated metal monstrosity. I told him we could get one made out of pine to match the back porch, but the wave of his hand told me I shouldn’t bring it up again.

Once he makes it to the dock he maneuvers his wheelchair around the grooves in the planks. He locks the brakes, lowers himself down onto the dock from the wheelchair, and then crawls into the aluminum canoe bobbing in the gentle morning ripples. His red-and-green-checkered flannel blanket is tied tight around his waist. He says he wears it to keep warm, but I know he’s really trying to protect me from seeing something he doesn’t think I want to see. It never bothered me though.

He tosses the faded orange lifejacket out of the canoe and onto the dock, unties the line, and paddles out. He no longer goes all the way to the other side of the lake. Instead, he paddles a few hundred yards out to the deepest part and sits there. Every morning he seems to stay out a little longer. Thinking.

Henry doesn’t know it, but I watch his ritual through the binoculars from the porch. He sets the oar inside the canoe, grips the sides with his hands, leans forward, and waits. Convincing himself of something. That’s the moment he makes his decision. Whether to overturn the canoe or not. I think that’s why he takes the aluminum canoe. Like I said, it’s prone to tip, and maybe one morning the lake will make his decision for him.

Sometimes he turns and stares toward the back porch, sometimes not. But so far, every morning, he’s lowered himself back onto the cracked seat, slipped the oar back into the water, turned the canoe around, and paddled back to the dock. Then we make breakfast together.

Of course, my morning routine has changed too. I still water down his brew and I still sit in my thatched rocking chair on the back porch. I no longer thumb through my magazines and I don’t start on breakfast while he’s on the lake. Instead I watch him through the binoculars. I watch him paddle back to the dock. Once he arrives safe and sound I take the .22 out of my mouth and place it back inside the plastic toolbox.

And sometimes, I even have a third cup of coffee.

About the Authors

Peter Adam Salomon

Peter Adam Salomon

Peter Adam Salomon’s second and third novels, All Those Broken Angels and Eight Minutes, Thirty-Two Seconds, were nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Young Adult fiction. His first two novels were named a ‘Book All Young Georgians Should Read’ by The Georgia Center for The Book. He founded both National Dark Poetry Day (Oct. 7) and the annual international Horror Poetry Showcase for the Horror Writers Association. His poem ‘Electricity and Language and Me’ was performed by The Radiophonic Workshop on BBC Radio 6. Two of his poetry collections were nominated for the Elgin Award and his poem ‘Psalm’ was nominated for the Dwarf Star Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. In addition, he was the Editor for the first books of poetry released by the Horror Writers Association: Horror Poetry Showcase Volumes I and II. He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Horror Writers Association, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, the Science Fiction Poetry Association, the International Thriller Writers, and The Authors Guild.

Find more by Peter Adam Salomon

Peter Adam Salomon

Dorothy Quick

Dorothy Quick

Dorothy Gertrude Quick was the pan name for Dorothy Gertrude Quick Mayer, a prolific writer of horror, detective fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Born in Brooklyn to a wealthy family, Quick met Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) in 1907 while on board the SS Minnetonka, and the two became close friends. Later, Quick gave credit to Twain for encouraging her to write, and she lectured extensively on their friendship. Her 1961 memoir of the great American author, Mark Twain and Me, was the basis for a 1991 Disney movie of the same name. Quick married John Adams Mayer in 1925 (a society event noteworthy enough to merit mention in Time magazine’s “Milestones” column) but published under her maiden name throughout her life. She made her first genre fiction sale to Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Oriental Stories, in 1932 and went on to contribute stories and poems to Wright’s more successful editing venture, Weird Tales, for more than twenty years.

This bio is an excerpt from the excellent anthology Sisters of Tomorrow edited by Lisa Yazsek and Patrick B. Sharp. Pick it up for more information on dozens of influential women during the pulp era breaking ground in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, editing, and art. Or just pick it up to read a pack of excellent stories and other writing. PseudoPod subscribers may remember “The Cracks of Time” which is another Dorothy Quick story we ran as part of our Century of Horror centered around celebration of our 500th episode, and here we are again 250 episodes later. Keep subscribing, as we’ll have another Quick story coming at you soon.

Find more by Dorothy Quick

Dorothy Quick

Couri Johnson

Couri Johnson

Couri Johnson is a graduate of the North Eastern Ohio Master of Fine Arts. She grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a city that is equal parts rust-belt and woodland. This mix has made its way into her work, which combines elements of fabulism and folklore with gritty realism.

Find more by Couri Johnson

Couri Johnson

Trace Conger

Trace Conger

Trace Conger is an award-winning author in the crime, thriller, and suspense genres. He writes the Connor Harding (Thriller) series and the Mr. Finn (PI) series.

His Connor Harding series follows freelance “Mirage Man” Connor Harding as he solves problems for the world’s most dangerous criminals. The Mr. Finn series follows private investigator Finn Harding as he straddles the fine line between right and wrong.

Conger won a Shamus Award for his debut novel, The Shadow Broker. His suspense novella, The White Boy, won the Fresh Ink Award for Best Novella of 2020.

He is known for his tight writing style, dark themes, and subtle humor. Trace lives in Cincinnati with his wonderfully supportive family.

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Trace Conger

About the Narrators

Lisa Hicks

Lisa Hicks

After training at the Drama Studio London, Lisa went on to perform in children’s theater in the USA, then became an international school librarian in Belgium where she now teaches Theater Studies.  As an avid audiobook listener, she learned the art of audiobook narration and production several years ago, and since then has provided narrations for Escape Artists Podcasts, and has voiced and produced over 25 audiobooks, available on Audible.  When not teaching, directing, or narrating in her studio, one can find her on long walks, buds firmly in ears, listening to an audiobook.

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Lisa Hicks

Amanda Ching

Amanda Ching

Amanda Ching loads trucks for a large package handling company in Pittsburgh. Her work is out of print, but her story’s still going on.

Find more by Amanda Ching

Amanda Ching

Eliza Chan

Eliza Chan

Eliza Chan is a writer and occasional narrator of speculative fiction. She has narrated for Pseudopod, Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. It amuses her endlessly that people find her Scottish accent soothing. Eliza has had her own work featured in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy 2019. When not working on her current novel or reading, Eliza can be found boardgaming, watching anime, baby wrangling and dabbling in crafts

Find more by Eliza Chan

Eliza Chan

Dave Thompson

D.K. (Dave) Thompson is a good name to know if you spend any time around Escape Artists, Inc. (So is “California King,” or “Easter Werewolf”…) He’s a pretty awesome guy, even if he disparages pumpkin beer. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children. While he can tweet up to 175 characters, he refrains from using this power for chaos.

Together with co-editor Anna Schwind, he ran PodCastle for five amazing years, stepping down to focus on his own writing in 2015.

You can find two of his audio book narrations on Amazon: Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout and Briarpatch by Tim Pratt.

Find more by Dave Thompson