Daukherville is my Moby-Dick, and it might destroy me the same way the whale destroyed Ahab. It began life as a short story I wrote with a ballpoint pen in a spiral-bound notebook while I was suffering in sweltering heat during a miserable week spent at Boys State in Maine in the summer of 1995. I was trying to amuse the other guys at the lunch table, and I still thought myself clever enough to be able to read something to people eating bad food and somehow entertain them in the process. It was a simple story about a girl and her brother moving a couch and unleashing demonic hordes from a hole in the basement floor. Though there were references to guts and intestines twirled like spaghetti, I believe the only thing it inspired was a “what’s grosser than gross” competition.
Later that same summer, I needed a story to develop into a screenplay, and I returned to the couch story. “Circe’s Couch” didn’t pass muster with the seminar, and a girl in the workshop said, “You should call it Sofa!, with an exclamation point.” Everyone laughed, and the name stuck.
However, it was also during that seminar that the teacher looked at me and the very thin junk I’d described, and said, “Sounds nice, but I need an actual story.”
The nerve! I’d been writing stories since third grade. I knew what a story was. I returned to the dorm room I was staying in, and I fumed. A story? He wanted a story, did he?
Well, then, a story was what he would get. I wrote a crazy, ambitious outline that night, and the first real seeds of Daukherville were planted. The next time it was time to talk about Sofa!, my teacher paused, considered it on the desk, and said, “You know, call me crazy, but … I like this story.”
I only wrote the first act of a proposed screenplay during the course of that summer, but the following year was my senior year in high school, and I needed a senior folklore project. Given the preponderance of overwrought backstory, Sofa! seemed a natural fit, and so that spring I wrote what became the first full draft of the novel. I’m pretty sure my English teacher didn’t read it, but I got an A on the project anyway.
I still think I should’ve gotten more of a reaction when I passed it in. I remember my teacher only giving me the smallest nod when I dropped it, triumphantly, on his desk. What a fucker. Par for the course for me, though. Two years before I wrote Sofa!, I wrote November, my epic first novel that will never see the light of day if I have anything to do with it. But when I finished it, I was quite proud (371 single-spaced pages!), and I ran down to tell my mother, whose reaction I will never let her forget.
“That’s nice, Kris,” she said when I trumpeted the completion of my first book. “Did you bring down your laundry?”
So, yes, another first draft of a novel finished and what of it? The summer after I graduated high school, I looked back on the novel, and something didn’t seem finished about it. I went to college, had a bit of a rough time, and then I decided to take a voluntary leave of absence near the end of my second semester. As soon as I left college, I started another draft of Sofa!
It got bigger. And it got better. And for the first time, one of the characters found herself in Daukherville. I had another two hundred pages written by the time I returned to college, and when my college friends asked what I was working on, they also asked to read it, and they did not heed my warnings that it wasn’t finished. Consequently, a few of my dear friends read a book that stopped right before the final act.
“Kris Kelly,” one of them said, “what the fuck happened to the end of this book?”
They had a lot of enthusiasm for the part that was there, but at the same time, something horrible was happening in my head: I was thinking, once again, that it wasn’t quite right. Once again, it wasn’t the book as it should have been.
So I started again.
And then I graduated college and started again.
And I wrote it as a screenplay. People didn’t get it.
So I started the novel again. But that wasn’t going well. I was making it fewer and fewer pages every time. I was sick of the beginning. I’d written the first two scenes so many times I was going to scream if I had to write the scene with my protagonist and her brother at the pond again.
So I wrote it again as a screenplay. People liked it even less than they had before.
I stopped writing altogether.
I got divorced.
* * *
When you think about it, it probably should’ve been over then. I think it was tough love that got me pissed off enough to go back. After getting divorced, I moved to New York City, and when I was there, one of my roommates said to me, “You’re not a writer. You’re a librarian who pretends he’s a writer.”
This was meant to do exactly what it did: get me writing again.
I couldn’t leave it unfinished. And so I opened up the document again–all nineteen pages of it (and twelve of those were stolen from the second major draft), and I tried to get through it again.
My girlfriend Amanda has been a tremendous help. When I started, I told her I was going to try to write 500 words a day, and she started a spreadsheet. It took a year and a half for me to finish that draft. The day I completed it, my average daily word count was 499 words.
For the first time since 1996, I have a completed draft of the novel. The girl and her brother are still central to the story, but, while it exists, the once-eponymous sofa is no longer quite the centerpiece it used to be. It exists now in the story as a piece of haunted furniture, which is funny–because that’s how it started life, too.
So now comes the second major hurdle: figuring out how not to give up on the draft and start editing. I’ve been dragging my feet for months now, but I keep telling myself what I always tell myself when it comes to this story:
I cannot give up.
As a treat for those of you who have been kind enough to read this far down the page and to visit my blog at all, I present the first chapter of Daukherville.
* * *
Daukherville, Part One: The Hole in the Wall I Called Home
Chapter One: The Boy in the Pond
[From Lessons from a Demon Slut, Vol. IV]
For one hundred and three years, I lived in the eye of a woman painted on a wall. While the illustrated woman slept under a faded willow tree, I chased crippled dreams in a hair-thick fissure in the stone behind her alkyd eyelid. It had been a long time since I’d taken interest in anything outside my nest. Invisible, vaporous, like a single drop of wind, I was nothing, or maybe I was infinite. I couldn’t tell. I was in a hole in a wall in a subterranean tunnel; sanity was a stranger to me. Like fire retreating into its embers, time burned down, cooled, and died.
Withdrawn, curled in the depths of the little limitless black hole, I relived my life so many times it grew infected with metastasized lies. I started to believe I was dead: that my son had killed me; that I’d never escaped my mortal body; that my tricks had failed; and that here at last was Hell. A recurring image of black waters reflecting stark, leafless trees lost meaning but retained an undeniable menace. Was it where I lived? Or where I’d died?
When the doubled crack of a shoe’s heel striking hard floor broke the decades-long silence—click-clack!—it was as arresting as a peal of thunder splitting the air beside my head. But I was vapor, incapable of truly hearing anything, and whoever approached was still quite far from my wall. The sound was a mental explosion, like remembering something horrible I’d forgotten that, once remembered, damned me to panic.
Click-clack! Click-clack! Click-clack! A mental alarm growing louder. What fool dared disturb me?
I scrambled for more undisturbed depths, but the mind goes where it wishes. I wanted to get back to my nothingness, yet I was also too interested in the identity of this rude guest to ignore it. Curiosity has such gravity sometimes. I spilled from my dominion irritated, unbalanced, and no more stubborn than a child ripped from a bed by her ankles.
I was in front of the painted wall instead of within it. Seeing without eyes was like looking into my thoughts with my eyes closed, or how I see things when dreaming or reading a book. Images and ideas came not from the outside world but from within, and always there was a veil.
Before me then, through the veil, was the portrait of the woman and her tree. The molecules of energy in the paint interacted with the air and the stone. The fiction was alive to me. The sleeper wore a black dress, gathered below her knees. The tree behind her split into two contorted, cancerous branches, and she leaned her head into the nook where the trunk divided. I tried to touch her closed eyes, but there was no body around me to touch anything with—only a yearning.
In my dreams I had a body. There was flesh.
The sounds of the approaching footsteps stopped. I sensed a faint blue light, hungry with heat-devouring cold. A suggestion of silver hair, white irises in black eyes. A half-tone suit, split vertically between orange and black. Too-long legs. High-heels. Or … no—
This being was on stilts.
—Circus clown…, I thought, and then the creature’s name coalesced from my moldy well of memory: Wendol. Somewhere, in some other time, I’d known this demon. He spoke my name.
His teeth were large, menacing, and perfectly straight and white. They met neatly against each other and gave off a feeling of restrained but revenous appetite.
—Serpent! He took your son. He’s the one who put him up to it. He wears a mask to hide the head of an eel.
Divided between the comforting light of conviction and the churn of dark confusion, I didn’t trust my thoughts. I didn’t trust the veil.
“I can feel you. I know you are here,” Wendol said, and his black tongue darted over his lips. His voice sounded like slowly boiling syrup, thick and bubbling. He approached the mural and passed his mouth close over the woman’s face. “Did you paint this? Is this supposed to be you?”
I pictured the knife my son had held. I wanted that knife.
—Go away, fiend.
“I promised I’d find you. I’ve been getting stronger. And,” he whispered to the painted woman,“I know where it is.”
I huddled near the wall, feeling the emptiness of a planet of other holes, so many other dwellings like mine. They seemed smaller now.
“I can give you back your flesh,” the creature said.
What use did I have for the world of flesh? I wanted to go back into my hole. He was only offering me back a world of pain. Trying to find a way to hold onto my sweet oblivion, I reached for the wall with a hand that still wasn’t there.
Maybe some flesh would’ve been useful right then.
“Come with me, Jane,” he said, “It is only a boy.”
The word caught me. I stopped.
—Boy …, I thought. Boy.
It was a drooping, loathsome word.
Thoughts poured forth like blood from a freshly reopened wound. Memories refocused the way the particulars of a room gain familiarity after a sleeper’s eyes open. I remembered my not-quite death: what it felt like to lose my body, the way the senses faded into fog and then were lost as the conscious part of me slipped free from the expiring flesh. My body below me—not me, not mine, not anymore—and me, above it, watching the world unroll its canvas as I grew smaller and drifted higher.
It took me a long time to escape the sight of my son, even though he should have faded far into the background. No matter how high I rose, he was still close somehow, still there with me, standing beside my dead body and holding the knife he’d used to hack into my side. He was only twelve and small for his age, but he looked ancient with his father’s grin enormous on his vile face.
His name was Oscar.
He was proud he’d stabbed his mother.
It is not a truth I enjoy admitting—that despite all I’ve tried to be and all I’ve tried to accomplish in this life of mine, I was, to my only progeny, nothing more than a mother worth murdering. And that he despised me for something I’d protected him from understanding! Well, that was an unfairness for which I found myself increasingly hating him as the years passed and I braided my nightmares in the dark wall. By the time Wendol the demon found me, my seething fury simmered in me, blurred and chaotic at the edges, directed more at the shape of my son, my boy, than at Oscar himself. Only teeth and fury were to be found in my waking thoughts.
How had Wendol known? The urge to kill betrayed me. I drifted away from the mural and the wall and all its precious holes.
Because murder and love both attract flesh to flesh.
Wendol reached a hand toward me, and I fell around his fingers. He twirled me around them like a marionette.
“Good girl,” he said. His energy was revolting.
He danced me through the dark on his knuckles. The tunnel bent upward. Noises behind the walls grew louder. There were insects here. We were nearing the surface.
—Where are we going? I asked, but Wendol offered no response. He was laughing to himself, and I didn’t understand why. It bothered me a little, and I tried to remember where I knew this creature from and what our particular history was.
After a few minutes, Wendol stopped walking. The ceiling was dripping. The walls and floor were covered in slick rot, moss, and mold.
“We’re here,” Wendol said. He looked up at the ceiling. “He’s above us. You’ll see. And also, very important: it is up there, too. You’ll feel it. It’s what you need to heal yourself. Now off you go!”
He flicked his wrist and sent me upward. Weary of his riddles and self-satisfaction, I was happy to go. I slipped into the ceiling and then into the earth above. Soon, I found the source of the precipitate; I was in the muck at the bottom of a pond. It was dark, dead, and brown. I expanded until I felt the edge of the grassy shore. And there was something else.
Something moving. Something radiant with life.
I surrounded him, and for a moment I was the womb, holding this young stranger in protective murk. The mask he wore on his face was strange to me, and the bright yellow of his shorts was alarming. Yet there was something so innocent about this little swimmer. Somewhere in him was an echo of my Oscar. I knew Wendol wanted me to deliver this boy to him for some reason, but in the moment that I became the pond and held him, my rage slipped free of me for a moment, like a dog unleashed, and I wanted only to protect the child. He didn’t seem like he would do what Oscar had done. For a moment, I felt only a promise that he would be different—that this time we would both be different. The mistakes of the past could be fixed, reversed, undone.
He dove deeper, and I welcomed him down, my little strange swimmer with the yellow shorts.
But every moment is only a moment long. Wendol’s words proved true, and soon I noticed something else in the water with us. It pulled on me like a drain at the bottom of the pond, and at first I thought it was Wendol himself, reeling me back into the dark. Yet something about this call felt more familiar. It was seductive. I let myself slide toward it, and all other sensations faded. Here at the bottom was something silver, something shiny—
Something that was mine.
Excited, I focused on this new thing and forgot all about the boy. Half-buried in the muck at the bottom of this forgotten pond, unnoticed by the swimming boy, was my face on a chain.
The Pusher’s Tablet, I thought to myself with startling coherency. Pusher. Push her. Push her down. I’d have smiled if I’d had a face.
Directly below the medallion, Wendol smiled back up at me from beneath the earth, his twisted face beneath my silver one. The veil between myself and the world made everything porous. I could see through ground and flesh to the mind beneath me, and I knew: this was why he had brought me here. This was what he wanted me to find.
—You want me to make a trade, don’t you, fiend?
“Let me have the boy,” he said, “and you can have it back. You can have your self back.”
—How? I asked, and I meant so many different things by the question: How was this necklace going to heal my broken mind? How had he found me? And perhaps most importantly, how did I know him?
“I will take care of everything, Jane, if you simply open the boy up for me,” Wendol said.
—Why would I do something like such as this? I asked. I see nothing in this for me.
“Weaken the boy to my influence, and I will bring his sister to you. We will give her your necklace, and she will be yours to possess as you will. Would you not like that? A fresh young girl’s mind to feed and soothe your own?” His black eyes were squirming. They were full of worms.
—Worms! I thought. He’s not an eel. He’s full of worms. They won’t die, and neither will he. Immortal pests, the lot of them!
“It has to be soon, Jane. It has to be now. This boy has come closer than anyone else, and no one may ever come this close again. Let the boy hear my voice, that’s all I need, and I will take care of the rest. It is not so, so very much to ask, is it, Jane? After everything you have done to me, can you not summon the contrition required to grant me this one insignificant favor?”
Lies, all lies, I was sure of it. What could I have done to something such as him?
And still, there was something appealing in his plan. I drew closer to the necklace. It was me. It was everything. I could break free of the veil. I could heal my mind. The closer I drew to it, the more I realized how little of myself I’d been living with.
And I wanted all of me again. I wanted sanity again. Madness was a suffocating haze. Nothing was solid, not even my rage. The promise of clarity and light made me ache with hope. It didn’t even seem possible after so much time in the wall.
From below, Wendol, impatient with all my deliberations, finally bared his gnashing soul: “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT, WITCH!”
Even now, I can’t lie to myself and claim innocence. The demon had manipulated me, but he’d only succeeded by exploiting my own dark appetites.
Because the sacrifice, after all, was just a boy.
I spared one moment’s consideration for the swimmer in the pond—one moment’s vengeful consideration. I held the youth with the strange mask and the yellow shorts in my mind.
Then, with the talons of my will, I clawed open the protective cage around his mind and exposed his innocent soul to the jaws of damnation.
—Take him, I said. I didn’t know how or if Wendol could hear anything I said, but I know he felt the effects of my choice immediately. A silent ghost is not a powerless one. The boy was vulnerable to him now, and Wendol could contaminate the child’s mind with whatever he desired. He could fill him with the same worms that filled his own mind, if that was what he wanted.
I descended down past Wendol and his sickening glee and curled back into the hole in the wall I called home, where I would wait while Wendol fulfulled his end of our wicked bargain.
—Push her, push her, I sang to myself. Push her down. Push her down to me.
It’s fucking surreal to remember myself being so batshit insane. I wish I didn’t have such sad things to write about all the time.
But I guess that’s why I made the Tree.