Excerpt from “The Five Poisons”


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Another picture began to form, the inky puddles of black spreading and deepening like cancerous growths, like thick flocks of ravens emerging from a calm sea of milk. The paper made a distinct tap-squish sound as Sabrina pushed it around in the developer with metal tongs that glinted red in the glow from the overhead bulb—red pan, red paper, red world.

She stared at the birthing image, intrigued as always by the way the shadows met and filled in the holes in the picture’s universe, popping the highlights forward into three dimensions, darkness defining the light. After a few more moments, she pulled the dripping photo from the developer with the tongs, holding it over the pan and watching the droplets shatter the surface of the liquid into fragmented ripples, distorting her reflection into a cut-and-paste Picasso of misplaced eyes and lips.

She plunged the picture into the stop bath, letting the chemicals work their spell, and then the fixer, burning the image, binding it to the formerly virgin white paper forever and ever, amen. Then up to the heavy length of twine that served for drying, clip clip onto the two top corners, and the photo hung there with the others, another captured rectangle of reality.

Sabrina strolled to the end of the room, where the first of the pictures hung like a piece of unspeakable laundry, and she stepped back to look at it proper, her hands on her hips. Her head tilted to one side as it often did when she was deep in thought, and her tomato-red braids whispered in the silence. The harbinger of a pleased smile curled at the edges of her mouth. She could already see that the photos were among the best she had ever taken.

The first depicted a monstrous tree, its black bark like the scabrous skin of some hideous reptile, its knots glowing from within, throwing into stark contrast the cat-slit pupils of its many gnarled knot-eyes. But it was the mouth of the thing—cavernous, rotten, and filled with splintery teeth—that made the image come alive. For there in the maw of the beast, a child’s pale face was clearly visible, captured by Sabrina’s camera in mid-scream, eyes and mouth stretched to impossible proportions. The terror in the child’s face was heart-stopping, disturbing, fascinating.

Sabrina’s smile widened as she went down the line, examining each of her new pictures in turn. Here was the glittering surface of a placid lake broken by the scaly humped back of a serpent as large as an aircraft carrier. Next was a forlorn blonde woman slumped in a mud puddle, her arms and legs slapped on her body the wrong way around, her face turned inside out so that the throbbing veins lay criss-crossed amid the gore like roads on a map, the optic nerves hanging down her cheeks like fleshy tears. The photo after that portrayed a mist-shrouded cemetery straight out of Hammer horror, white headstones sticking up at odd angles like clutches of skewered dinosaur bones in an archeologist’s pit; and from the black fogged earth at the base of each grave rose a transparent gossamer hand with long groping fingers.

By the time Sabrina reached her final masterpiece—a ventriloquist’s dummy with deceptively bland eyes crowning a massive rictus of fanged teeth, the doll sitting in the lap of its unfortunate master, whose throat was ripped out, sinew sparkling wetly—her smile was radiant. She nodded to herself, the warmth of accomplishment, of work well done, enfolding her. “Fucking brilliant,” she said, not at all fazed by the echo of her voice in the empty room, in the empty world.

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