The Ghost of a Flea
Jonathon Varley believed in spirits, but was frustrated by his inability to see them. He heard them frequently enough, steps treading lightly in a room above, or some short distance behind him, along darkened halls and in empty parlors, wheezing breaths and tired sighs following him about the house. He could smell them too, sometimes the faintest of scents, like flowers left to decay, other times stronger more pungent fragrances, of creatures he trembled to imagine but was curious to see. But whenever he turned, to search out the source of such things, any sounds would fade, any odors dissipate, gently like a morning mist, and all he would be left with was the beating of his own heart, the slight tang of his own perspiration.
“Why is that?” he would demand of his friends. “I hear them, I smell them, I shiver when they're near or sometimes feel my body blush with pleasure. The spirits go wherever I go. People say I am a veritable magnet for them.”
It was true. At seances and at the Ouija board, no matter how accomplished the medium who was conducting the occasion, visitations were always more prolific when he was present, so much so that his attendance was in frequent demand. People would marvel at the spirits which all but he could see, would congratulate him as much as they did the medium. Their delight only served to increase his frustration.
It was this increasing frustration, along with the recommendation of a respected medium, which ultimately led him to Blake. An accomplished artist, Blake claimed to have seen visions daily since he was a small child, when he had first witnessed a tree filled with angels, their bright wings decorating every branch like stars, the leaves alive with the chatter of cherubim. Such visions had not diminished as he passed through childhood and into adulthood, and now he claimed that he was often joined by invisible sitters as he worked in his studio, would point to his portraits of Moses, of Voltaire, of Cleopatra as evidence of their visits. When Varley contacted him, then, he said that he would be more than happy to help, responding with a giddy enthusiasm which bordered on the adolescent.
“I'm growing bored with the tired old figures from history. Perhaps your fresh face might bring me fresh faces.”
Walking to the artist's home, the appointment arranged for the twilight hours when it was believed the spirit world might be more responsive, Varley heard the customary sounds following in his wake, the crunch of autumn leaves underfoot, a rushing through the trees which lined the avenue, the soft breaths which tonight seemed so labored that he slackened his pace for fear that the spirits might not be able to keep up with him. There were the fragrances carried on the breeze, too, though not so easily defined tonight, at times the scent of the pine trees, and then the hint of something rotting in the mulch at their base.
He knew better than to turn and glance back, to search out their source, though on reaching Blake's house, and entering, he did leave the door open behind him as an invitation, a challenge.
Follow me, make yourself known.
Blake, by this stage in his career, was a wizzened old man with weeping rheumy eyes, his body frail, the fine gray hair spilling about his shoulders making him seem as ancient as his own ´Ancient of Days´, the resemblance between the artist and his most celebrated work so great that it might have been a self portrait. He was spritely enough in his greeting, though, welcomed Varley with enthusiasm, ushering him through the house and into the studio at the rear.
“What adventures we shall have, what visions there are in store,” he said, gesturing that Varley was to sit off to one side, while he himself took up a position before his easel, his knees cracking loudly as he sat, his body sighing as he settled.
“Is there anything I need do?” asked Varley, wondering if he should strike a pose, adopt an attitude, make some sort of contribution to the occasion.
“Just make yourself receptive, that is all.”
Blake's hand shook as he placed pencil to paper, he squinted hard at the blank sheet before him, as if to confirm how poor his eyesight was becoming, took a deep breath which might have been a sigh, or maybe something sadder. Then, after a few moments in which to compose himself, he began to draw, and the pencil skipped so swiftly about the paper that it might have had a life of its own. Indeed, Varley could believe that it did, for Blake´s gaze began to wander about the room, while the pencil continued its work, and his eyes, at first appearing to squint, now seemed to be totally closed, or clouded with cataracts. His blank gaze searched the room, like a blind man trying to recall his surroundings, only occasionally returning to the easel before him, though his pencil was never still.
A first drawing was completed quickly and tossed to the floor, then a second, a third, the leaves of paper falling with the soft rustle of autumn.
And that was the only sound Varley heard. No murmur of spirits, no voices from beyond the grave, no groans or moans of dissatisfaction with what the afterlife had to offer. Just the sound of the paper falling to the floor.
Finally Blake sat back in his chair, fine beads of perspiration on his brow giving his complexion a ghostly grey sheen. He took a couple of deep breaths, as if the work had been such an exertion, then bent and gathered the drawings up from the floor, stacking them together and passing them to Varley.
The paper felt brittle to the touch, like ancient papyrus, crackled as he leafed through the drawings, carefully examining them. His mood darkened with each new drawing; as small as they were, little more than miniatures, he found them grossly offensive and an insult to his credibility.
“What is this abomination?” he finally demanded, holding up the last, offering it to the culprit who had conjured it. Like all the others, it depicted a muscular creature, nude, part human and part reptile, its massive neck similar to that of a bull, atop of which was a disproportionately small head, with glaring eyes and open jaws, a venomous slithering tongue.
“It is the ghost of a flea,” Blake answered. “That is what you brought with you, Mr Varley, the ghost of a flea.” He offered a sad smile, hands spread in a gesture of regret, of apology. “I'm sorry if you were expecting something more exotic. I would have given you Helen of Troy or Catherine de Medici if I could, if either had graced us with their presence, but as it is... there you have it... the ghost of a flea.”
“A waste of both our time this was!” said Varley, getting angrily to his feet, crumpling up the drawings and throwing them back at the artist. “A waste of our time! And you are a charlatan!”
A visionary, Blake would have said, but again he simply smiled, the sad smile of an old man who has seen too much and seen too deeply.
Making his way home, the evening now darker, twilight having deepened into night, Varley's anger did not abate. A flea! That was what he had been offered? A creature utterly laughable on account of its size, so small that it was a thing of almost no consequence. Fleas existed only to torment man.
His anger turning to irritation, with himself as much as with the charlatan of an artist, he slowed his pace to still his heart, to curb his temper. His stride less forced, his feet no longer slapping the pavement in annoyance, he heard the sounds following him again, as they so often did, a scuttling, a rustling which brought to mind the falling leaves of paper in the studio, but sounds much louder than any flea could make. He stopped, turned, but of course saw nothing, any spirits again proving elusive, as if their greatest pleasure was to frustrate him.
To torment him.
A flea exists only to torment man.
Continuing on his way, his irritation mounting, he found himself plucking at his collar, which was an annoyance against his neck, then scratching at his cheek, his brow, as if the very night air was abrasive to his skin, uncomfortable, like an infestation.
Damned flea! It was preying on his mind now!
Home, he cast aside his coat, shrugged off his clothes and ran a bath, the water as hot as he could tolerate it, scoured his body with soap and sponge until his skin was red raw. Then he dressed in fresh clothes, starched, clean, free of any memory of infestation. The old ones he would dispose of in the morning.
He had settled down with a stiff whisky when he heard a tap at the front door, followed by the sound of it opening, and for the first time that evening he permitted himself a smile. The old familiar spirits, always courteous, and he welcomed them. Never mind that he couldn't see them, it was perhaps better that way, that he could picture them as he would rather than suffer the disappointment he had tonight. Footsteps moved along the hall, floorboards creaking beneath them, slow, hesitant. He raised his glass, ready to offer a toast as his visitor drew nearer, as the footsteps paused at the door to his study. The protest of a floorboard, the soft rap of a knuckle against the door and slowly it inched open.
For the first time in all those years of disappointment Varley saw what had been the cause of his frustration. It was the creature from the drawings, Blake's ghost of a flea, but no longer in miniature. Now it was as tall as Varley himself, and then a head more, had to hunch and crouch to pass through the door, then straightened to its full height, filling the room, blotting out the light from the hallway. Its glaring eyes took in the room, then settled on him, such a malignant gaze as its jaw fell open and its tongue protruded, drooling like that of a glutton anticipating a feast.
This was no flea to be squashed to a pulp between finger and thumb, nor swatted with a newspaper or the flat of the hand, and Varley let out a cry of disgust, of terror, as he hurled the heavy tumbler of whisky at the creature. Its reaction was slow, its response lazy, as if it was a thing freshly born, just emerged from the pupa and not yet accustomed to its own mobility. Arms flailed weakly, with poor coordination, and Varley spilled from his chair, ducking and rolling and scrambling from the room, rushed along the hall and out onto the street.
The street was deserted, there was no one he could turn to for help. But then who would have believed the cause of his panic? Who would not have dismissed him as a madman?
Only Blake, he realised.
He made his way less hurriedly back to the the artist´s house, not driven by the anticipation which had powered his earlier visit, nor by the anger which had accompanied his departure. Now he was driven by nothing more than pure and abject terror, his steps silent as he listened for others following, his breaths shallow, nostrils flared to search out the tell-tale odors which would announce a presence.
There was nothing, it seemed that he was alone, but he took no comfort in the fact.
The old man was standing in the doorway, gazing at the trees with rapt attention, as if he could see once again the angels of his childhood. Or was that steady gaze more of a frown, perhaps conscious that such innocence had gone, that there were darker things now?
Varley approached him, took him by the shoulders and shook him roughly, making him rattle like a bag of bones. “What in heaven's name have you visited on me?” he demanded.
“Your ghost of a flea?”
“It is not my ghost and there is no flea the size of the creature I saw!”
“Please be calm, Mr Varley, do come in, I will tell you about the flea.” Blake took him by the arm and drew him into the house, shuffling along the hallway in his slippered feet. “Did you know,” he said, in whispered confidence, that hushed sagacity which the elderly sometimes adopt, “did you know that it was the Creator's first intention to make the flea as big as a bullock?” He nodded. “It's true. But when He considered such a creature, so powerful in proportion to its bulk, He understood that it would be too mighty a destroyer, so decided instead to make it no bigger than it is.”
“But what I saw..,” said Varley, and though the old man's slippered feet made little noise he could hear footsteps echo about the house, heavy, dull as a drum beat. “What visited me...”
He glanced anxiously behind, above, ahead, and there was no frustration now, that he was unable to see the source, just a mounting fear.
“Ah! The best placed plans, even of the Divine, can sometimes go awry. Fleas are inhabited by the souls of such people who were by nature bloodthirsty to excess...”
He could see shadows ahead, in the studio, passing across its open doorway, pacing restlessly, expectantly.
“...think of Herod, Caligula, Countess Bathory or Blackbeard...”
No, Varley would rather not think of such abominations of nature, he resisted as Blake encouraged him forward, but to no avail, the old man insistent, clinging, stubbornly determined.
“...it is they who follow you, Mr Varley. They wait for you, they will come, one or all, the spirits you have been so eager to see.”