In honor of Samhain, or Halloween as those of you disconnected from your Pagan roots like to call it, I present to you a horror story from my new collection of macabre short stories “October Twilight.” If you find this tale inordinately disturbing, think twice before calling your mother.
It was an unusually warm October day in Willem Maryland as James Hundly loaded his photography equipment into the carriage.
It was 1886 and he thought about the reports he had heard of inventors and engineers who were on the verge of creating carriages that could be driven without horses. Progress. Progress seemed to be everywhere, especially in his business – photography. Newer technologies such as tintypes and calotypes were beginning to supplant the daguerreotype, but James was loyal to the technique mastered by Mathew Brady. James believed daguerreotypes, better than the newer technologies, captured the essence of death, as in Alexander Gardner’s masterpiece images in “The Dead of Antietam.” The essence of death. Death was the special niche James had settled into. He was an expert in his field – post mortem portrait photography.
On a warm day such as this one, he was grateful that the deceased on his latest assignment had passed only two days prior, and wisely was placed on ice. During his career he had accepted several assignments in which the deceased was left at room temperature and several days had elapsed postmortem. Copious amounts of perfume sprayed throughout the house could not begin to conceal the stench of death, and rigor mortis made the subject less pliable during the posing process.
The carriage pulled up to the large Victorian house on Dawson Street. James got off the carriage, and with assistance from the driver toted his equipment up the steps to the front door. He gave the driver a generous gratuity, then tapped the door with the heavy brass knocker.
The door was opened by a woman. She appeared to be in her mid-forties and was attractive in spite of a harshness in her demeanor. Her eyes were cold and grey, and she was dressed in a black mourning gown that reached down to her ankles. Her dark hair was pulled back in a tight bun.
She extended her black gloved hand. “Mr. Hundly, my name is Leda Brown. I’ve explained the situation in detail in my letter. I am the mother of identical twin boys: Polux and Castor. They are twelve years of age. My dear Castor has departed our world of sorrows, leaving me only with Polux. Come with me into the parlor so I may introduce you.” “Yes – yes of course,” replied James. “But first let me bring my equipment inside.”
After moving the tools of his trade inside, he followed Mrs. Brown into the parlor. She walked with a decisive, almost frenetic gait. James had to step lively to keep pace with her.
When he entered the parlor he saw them. Identical twins indeed, sitting side by side on an ornate burgundy divan.
They were handsome boys. Blond, with delicately chiseled features. They wore matching outfits. Long sleeved white silk shirts with black bow ties. The sleeves were adorned with black pearl cufflinks. They were clad in knickerbocker knee pants with long white stockings. Their shoes were black leather, buffed to a glistening shine, with silver buckles. Somewhat incongruously, both wore white sailor caps, tilted ever so slightly toward their left eyes. The unevenness created an inadvertent appearance of rakishness.
“Boys, this is Mr. Hundly. He is an expert photographer, especially with subjects whose spirits have gone to another, happier realm.”
James looked at the boys, a mirror image of one another. They both stared vacantly, their stillness unnerving. Were they both dead? Then, Polux blinked and turned his head toward James.
“Hello Mr. Hundly. My name is Polux.” There was a gentle sweetness in his voice. He looked at his mother, then back at James. A plaintive apprehension registered in his eyes.
“Is that all you have to say to Mr. Hundly? Where are your manners?” Polux’s mother was visibly agitated. “Is that all, Polux? You forgot to say, how are you? – You forgot to inquire as to Mr. Hundly’s wellbeing.”
James was becoming discomforted. Mrs. Brown’s voice grew increasingly shrill with every syllable. “I taught you the same manners at the same time I taught your brother. Castor would never be so rude!” It was more a screech than a statement. She was teetering on the cusp of hysteria. Then, she grew calm and walked over to the divan and embraced Castor. “Oh, my poor baby,” she cooed in his ear – “My poor, adorable baby.” She held his head to her breast, and gently stroked his cheek. “Mama still loves you, baby. Mama will always love you best.” Her eyes teared as she carefully repositioned Castor, straightening a lock of his hair that had fallen out of place.
Mrs. Brown stood and and smoothed her dress as she regained her composure.
“You must forgive me, Mr. Hundly. These are difficult times for me. The times have always been difficult. I’m a widow you know. My husband passed ten years ago, when my sons were only two. My poor, hapless Henry. His heart, dear man, had always been weak. You have no idea- a woman alone, trying her best to raise two boys. Boys can be difficult.” She paused and glared at Polux. “Some boys.”
“Well, Mrs. Brown,” responded James, “It’s not abnormal for boys of your sons’ age to have an abundance of energy and cause mischief. But it’s usually harmless and they grow out of it. I’ve photographed dozens of boys who I was told were actually incorrigible. But once posed and under the lights, their misbehavior disappears.” James paused and glanced at Castor and Polux. “Of course,” he added, “misbehavior is not an issue with those boys who have escaped these earthly bounds.”
Mrs. Brown continued to to stare daggers at Polux, then her gaze softened as she turned her focus to Castor.
“All right, everyone, let’s get started,” announced James. From his assembled items, James extracted a copper plate covered with silver, which he buffed to a glossy shine with a pad. He then slid the plate into the rear of the camera, which he then placed on a tripod. “Now Polux, sit closer to your brother. Look at his face. Look at the expression of peaceful calm projecting from his eyes. Now I want you to relax and try to look just like your brother, and hold that pose for about two minutes.”
Polux turned his head and stared at Castor. He could not see calm or peacefulness. All he could see was death. Cold, unflinching death with vacant eyes that looked but could not see.
James placed the dark cloth hood over his head and made adjustments until the image before him was was ready to be captured, photographically, for eternity. Then Polux abruptly sneezed.
“Now you’ve done it. Now you’ve ruined everything!” screamed Mrs. Brown.
“It’s alright, Mrs. Brown. Nothing was harmed or damaged. We’ll just start over at the beginning. I’m sure Polux sneezed because the air is growing stale.”
‘No, it’s not alright!” shrieked Mrs. Brown. “All you needed to do Polux, was keep still and look proper like your brother. All you had to do was be good for two minutes. Castor was good for twelve years, and you can’t even muster two minutes of goodness!”
James looked at Polux. The poor boy. his situation was outlandish. Having to sit next to his dead identical twin was traumatic enough without his mother’s venomous scree. The tenor of her wrath was bordering on mania. The look of fear and hurt on Polux’s face was pitiful.
“Please, Mrs. Brown- try to contain yourself. Castor and Polux are identical twins. Everything about them, both physically and spiritually, is the same, and both were raised in the same household. If Castor was a good boy, then logically Polux must also be a good boy.”
Mrs. Brown was scarlet, and began to shake with rage. “He’s not a good boy; he’s bane. He’s nothing like my sweet Castor except in appearance.”
James felt that the situation was careening out of control. He had seen the wide swath of human emotion in his line of work, but this was unique, The overt hatred of a mother for her son was terrifying and unnatural.
Mrs. Brown walked up to Polux. She was inches from his face. When she spoke, her words came as hisses, as if from an enraged viper.
“Castor was easy. He was gentle inside me, but you had to get twisted inside my womb. You ripped and tore me inside and made me useless!”
She began to scream like a lunatic banshee. Polux recoiled, and in doing so knocked Castor off the divan. “You monster!” she screamed. “You should be the dead one- you should have died at birth!”
Mrs. Brown knelt on the floor beside Castor and lifted him back in position on the divan. She clutched him to her breast and kissed him softly on his head.
Now it was James’ turn to raise his voice. “Listen- listen to me, Mrs. Brown. Calm down. This is an opportunity which will never occur again. To have an image of Castor, together with his brother, captured as a photographic image for all eternity. You’re in grief. I’ve seen many grief-stricken people, and often things are said that people don’t mean.”
Mrs. Brown’s hyperventilating scree began to subside, and her excitability diminished. “I know how important this is to you ma’am, and I have a suggestion. Let’s take a break. Polux and I will go outside for some air, and you and your beloved Castor can be alone.”
Mrs. Brown complied with James’ suggestion. She embraced Castor, and whispered sweetly into his ear. Then James gestured to Polux to accompany him outside. The two sat down on a lounge on the porch. The October sun bathed them in warmth and light.
“I’m so sorry, Polux. This experience has got to be a nightmare for you. If you would like to talk about it I can offer a sympathetic ear. Sometimes talking about our trials and tribulations can give us some degree of solace.” Polux’s eyes were bathed in tears and he faltered as he spoke.
“It’s worse. Worse than you can imagine. No nightmare could be as horrible as my life. My mother killed Castor. She thought he was me. She has rages- violent rages. This time she went crazy with rage, and forgot to look for the birthmark on my back. It’s the only thing that makes Castor and me different.” He paused, wiping away tears and catching his breath. “There are people-neighbors-who speak in whispers, who believe my mother also killed my father because he objected to her mistreatment of me.” Polux held his face in his hands, then looked up to James. “Please help me, Mr. Hundly.”
James felt sick- sick in his heart and soul. He could feel this hapless boy’s pain. His own mother was often engulfed in moods of darkness, and would lash out in cruelty. But nothing like this. Mrs. Brown had transcended the status of abusive parent and risen to the position of malignant, homicidal bitch.
James embraced Polux, then gently lifted his chin and smiled. “I think I have a solution.” He looked back at the house, then returned his gaze to Polux. “I want you to stay here on the porch, and try to enjoy this beautiful October day. I’ll go back inside for a brief meeting with your mother. I’m confident that the solution will result in what’s best for everyone. Now relax until I come to get you. This shouldn’t take long.”
James walked into the house, and Polux looked about at his surroundings. He felt caressed by the day’s warmth. Across the street a huge red maple tree bore leaves that glowed with crimson and yellow. If only this moment was not fleeting. If only things were…
James came outside. The tension from earlier was gone. He looked light and happy. “Come inside with me, Polux.” Polux was frozen with trepidation. “But- but my mother. She…” James interrupted him. “Just come inside. Don’t be afraid. I think you’ll be pleased.”
They went inside and walked into the parlor. Polux stopped in his tracks. He was not sure if what he saw before him was real.
On the divan his mother sat next to Castor, their bodies touching. Castor’s hand lay on his mother’s lap, enveloped by her hands. They looked beatific. Mother and son, basking beneath a halo of bliss. He never imagined his mother could look so happy and at peace.
“I don’t do this sort of thing often”, said James. “We can relax now and take our time.” He smiled, happy in his work, the work in which he took such pride. “All we need now is just a bit of emulsifier to cover the markings on her neck. Then I’ll take the picture. It should be one of my best.” He bent behind the camera, his head beneath the hood. Slowly, the image came into focus. Yes, it was perfect.
Especially her eyes, opened wide, brimming with mother love, staring forever into the void.