A Banquet Draped in Black
The rain seemed incessant, and omnipresent.
It was becoming part of him. As far as Galahad could tell, it had pretty much been raining for days. Four days. Five days. Three? He wasn’t sure. But it seemed like ages. The water from the deluge snaked like amoebas down the panes of his den window.
Galahad was depressed to the point that he had hardly ventured outside over the past week. Gazing out to the darkened street below, he knew he had to change his life -- now. There was a lot to hate: For one thing -- leaving a decent job too early because of the stress. He should have endured it. That slice of hindsight was reason for self-punishment. Another fount for self-loathing: his propensity for being too picky with relationships. He should have come down to earth -- and realized what he had in past girlfriends.
Even his surroundings were cause for dismay these days. Galahad called it a den, but it was actually a second-floor bedroom -- a small one, at that. His bed was wedged diagonally in a corner. He had a real bedroom with another bed, but often slept in the den. Aside from the bed in the corner, everything else about the room presented the appearance of a den, although Galahad was displeased that it lacked coziness. Scholarly vibes, however, radiated because of clustered book shelves. There also was a stately grandfather clock, although it didn’t work.
A world globe rested on a shelf. It was faded, and spun on an antique axis, evoking a 19th century look. The window he gazed out on was rimmed in dark oak. He liked that. It couldn’t be a real den with a bed, but it was close enough. Sitting down at his computer, Galahad cupped the mouse on the mouse pad with his hand after clicking on his Facebook site. He stared blankly at what he deemed blather from some of his Facebook “friends.” Dumb animal pictures being posted … worthless information about which restaurant someone was at … . The urge to smash the computer was overwhelming.
In these times, happiness was based on what could be down the road, not what was. The life and times of Galahad Strinski had to change. Here was how it could be done: Write an irresistible pop-culture novel. It would be mainstream, but peppered with academic prose. Galahad knew he had a hard time focusing, but a promise to himself was made to sweat out the writing. The premise for the novel prompted a smile when not much else did. Peering at the wind-whipped tree tops outside the window, Galahad replayed the plot line in his head. After the Roman Empire all but collapses in the 5th century, a charismatic leader from Britain -- an outsider -- takes advantage of the chaos and becomes emperor.
But he’s the Devil, literally. The Antichrist, if you will. His coat of arms includes a depiction of Baphomet -- the goat-headed monster symbolizing the occult. Baphomet has spiked horns, a beard, wings and empty eyes. The new emperor boasts sharp, high cheekbones and dead dark eyes. His oratorical skills are pulsating. His military background impresses Rome’s senators. He’s demonic; they seem to know it. Yet the empire’s ruling class is slowly drawn into his vortex. A literary smash: Galahad -- only in his 30s -- would come out of the death spiral his life was in. Writing skills would save the day. Galahad believed that, or at least basically believed it. When push came to shove, he could always write. He told himself that often.
At the weekly newspaper he had just left months earlier, he was a good hard-news writer. Galahad didn’t especially like crime news and town board meetings, but satisfaction was gleaned by bravely slogging through the tediousness of it all. Although only published once a week, the Kerrytown Crier dished breaking news stories daily, online. However, a shaky economy spelled a downfall for Galahad. Downsizing at his paper forced reassignment to copy-editing duties, leading to a greatly reduced reporting role. He couldn’t stand the drudgery. So he quit. Jangled nerves forced the issue. At least that’s what he tried to convince himself. Being without a full-time job was surreal -- in a creepy way.
Galahad believed he could make it as a freelance writer, supplementing his income with a part-time job as a bagger at the supermarket. But the money wasn’t enough, throwing cold water on the type of lifestyle that had always been there. The jolting change in careers took its toll. He was more paranoid, thinking suspicious shadows lurked outside his window among the clump of full-leafed trees lining the block.
The house was increasingly becoming a tomb. He lived alone. Reasons for leaving the house were fewer. A real switchover in Galahad’s life was needed. But should he fully commit to starting his novel about the Antichrist in Rome? Galahad needed a sign. Somehow, the signal would come by conjuring up the spirit of Caligula, one of ancient Rome’s most notorious and unstable emperors. Galahad believed in omens, swore by signs from beyond. Clovis, one of his few friends, thought Galahad’s reliance on occult-fueled guidance was bizarre. That weirdness had been there when they were childhood chums. During his elementary-school years, Galahad would try to cast evil spells on classmates he didn’t like. Clovis always surmised the behavior was an escape or refuge for his lonely friend. When Galahad related his plans to contact Caligula for advice on his novel, Clovis thought him mad.
Galahad vividly recalled the conversation on the matter that they recently had at a coffee shop.
“Why would you contact Caligula for advice? Didn’t he have orgies? Didn’t he have sex with his own sisters?” Clovis asked incredulously.
“Yeah, his sisters were his concubines. Caligula was drunk with power: He wore silk robes and plenty of jewels, just like a rock star, but more violent,” Galahad answered. “Have you seen a bust of the guy? He was actually pretty dashing. Yeah … crazy like a rock star. Caligula was said to have wandered the halls of his palace at night, ordering the sun to come up.”
Clovis remained bewildered.
“Why do you need some freaky séance to tell you what to do in life? It’s a little strange.”
Galahad was used to operating off the beaten path. From the get-go, he had to live with his twisted first name. His parents -- mystical and free-spirited -- were caught up in the King Arthur legend. Thus, he was christened with the moniker of a knight who had a seat at Arthur’s Round Table. He sat down at his computer desk and wrote his first name on one of the inside pages of an old magazine. Galahad wanted to see if, visually, the name was looking any better to him. It wasn’t.
Then a car door slammed. Since Galahad hung around the house so much, his senses were more acute to incidental noises of the real world. The slamming of the car door even made him jump. Glancing out the window, Clovis could be seen leaving his sporty Mustang and hurrying up Galahad’s front walk as the rain continued to pelt the pavement. Galahad went downstairs to answer the door, flipping on a couple of lights as he went. The house was too dark for visitors. It was a looming hybrid of Victorian and colonial, with a widow’s rail lining the roof and two faded white columns at the entranceway.
“Hey there Clovis, come upstairs,” Galahad said after swinging open the front door. He barely looked at Clovis before heading back up the stairway. Once in his bedroom, Galahad explained to his pal how he would try to contact the netherworld of Caligula.
“I’m going to sit on the floor inside a circle of lit candles and just call out to Caligula,” he said.
“You’re serious about this?” Clovis asked while walking to a tattered leather armchair along a wall. He needed to settle into it.
“I’m serious about it; why is it freaky to try to reach humans who have moved on to the afterlife?” Galahad asked while mindlessly surveying a row of books. “I think most people believe in an afterlife. You should have a little more tolerance about people‘s beliefs.”
Galahad hurled the criticism with a little sting in his tone. Clovis was itching to fire back at Galahad for the barbed words, but thought better of it. That’s just the way the guy was -- he could be smug about his intelligence at times. A worldly man in his 30s, Clovis had more and more trouble comprehending his friend’s state of mind.
“But why a sadist like Caligula? He wallowed in torture. Didn’t he once have the hands of a slave cut off and then had the hands hung around the slave’s neck? The slave had only been guilty of minor theft.”
Galahad took the befuddlement of his comrade in stride, responding with rationale that had been molded several weeks earlier.
“Look, I want to write a novel about the Roman Empire -- the decrepit side of it. Who better to give the go-ahead than one of its depraved leaders? Don’t Christians attempt to retain connections with the dear departed through praying?”
Galahad was pasty-faced and cursed with the habit of warily darting his dull brown eyes around -- as if always expecting someone to jump him from behind. Clovis had a high-paying job as a computer-systems designer. Galahad squeezed out a meager existence with his grocery-bagging job and occasional freelance pieces to a small daily newspaper in the county.
“Maybe I am into the paranormal a little too much, but look how many cable shows deal with that,” Galahad said calmly as he traipsed across his den/bedroom, rounding up some candles he had in a corner of the room. Moving a large rug to lay bare a well-worn hardwood floor, Galahad laid down 10 crimson candles in a circle large enough for one person to stand inside. The candles were thick, perhaps three inches in diameter and six inches high.
“There ya go, perfect,” he said, standing back to survey his work.
“Didn’t Caligula have orgies?” Clovis asked out of nowhere.
“Yep, that’s pretty well accepted by historians,” Galahad said as he stood inside the circle of unlit candles as sort of a test run.
“Caligula was demented: This is the kind of kook you’re seeking crucial advice from?” Clovis queried. “He got a kick out of literally forcing senators to grovel at his feet -- and there are stories about him selling the wives of Senate members to the highest bidder during orgies.”
This time Galahad's voice cracked in pure exasperation.
“Look, I know it’s kind of nutty, but what if -- I mean what if it really happened and a famous Roman emperor contacted me from the netherworld. What’s there to lose?” came Galahad’s justification.
It was now 9 p.m., Saturday.
A small brass incense burner was called into service.
Tibetan incense would smolder.
Galahad retrieved a flowing black cloak from the closet and put it over his shoulders.
“You’re wearing a cape?” Clovis asked in amazement.
The summoner merely nodded.
Before Clovis realized it, Galahad was starting his talk-to-the-dead séance. Galahad stood in the circle of now-lit candles, near the foot of his bed. He was a preppie vision in a buttoned-collar white shirt, crimson sweater vest and khaki pants. The incense was lit.
With a detached deadness in his voice, Galahad spoke: “I’m summoning Caligula -- emperor from 37 to 41 A.D.”
Galahad drew a deep breath and stared straight ahead, eyes closed. Then, the words came.
“This is Galahad Strinski. I’m reaching out to the feared ruler from the past: Gaius Julius Caesar … but people know you as Caligula -- the name you were given as a child.”
Galahad was grinning. The humorous, fantastic nature of what was going on seemed to strike home. Seriousness, though, quickly settled in. “I want to write a novel. It would deal with the Roman Empire, and how it was saved by the Antichrist. I am seeking your counsel, Caligula: Do I commit to writing this book?”
Clovis found himself tensing up. He thought it all was silly, but couldn’t help remaining perfectly still in case a disembodied voice pierced the room. A small lamp was on in the corner, but aside from that, the only other light in the den emanated from the flickering candles.
Galahad peered outside the circle of candles to his friend. About 20 seconds passed. Then another 15. Nothing.
“Caligula, are you there!” Galahad suddenly blurted. Clovis jumped. The ping of rain against the window was the sole sound to be heard. Clovis discreetly turned on a small digital voice recorder, and place it on a lamp table.
A mere 10 seconds later, there was some sort of sound in the room.
“Quiet, quiet! Did you hear that?” Galahad asked in excitement.
“Yeah, I heard it -- sounded like muttering,” Clovis confirmed, astounded that he had experienced anything suspicious. “Sounded like, ‘I deliver’ or ‘will deliver.’ ”
Clovis hoped the recorder could decipher the mystery.
“Sounds like words, but can’t be sure,” Clovis said, listening to the playback.
“Sounds like ‘deliver.’ The voice wants me to deliver something? … I don‘t know, I can't make it out,” Galahad said.
The words were croaked -- not clearly enunciated.
Regardless, the spirit seeker had made a breakthrough.
“Imagine: That could have been Caligula talking,” said Galahad, nervously tapping his fingers on the lamp table.
Clovis reminded him that even if it was a Caligula message, it was the wrong message: “Where’s the guidance for your novel? There’s no message from the grave that says: ‘Proceed-- write your book.’ ”
Galahad knew his pal was right. He hoped his cloak would turn things around.Yes, he actually believed in the power of black.
“It’s my salute to Emperor Domitian’s so-called black banquet,” he spoke out loud.
Clovis was about to get a little history lesson.
“Domitian was a cruel emperor whose reign in Rome ended in 96 A.D. He’s said to have created the spectacle of female gladiators and dwarves fighting each other, and didn‘t mind executing senators.”
Pausing for effect, Galahad continued the narrative: “Domitian once threw a feast where the chambers were painted black -- black marble, black drapes, the whole bit. Unclothed boys were totally painted black -- they resembled little demons. The dishes that held food were black.”
Galahad looked deep into the eyes of Clovis to make sure he wasn’t losing him with his story. The spiel continued: “Replicas of grave markers each bore the name of a guest. Domitian -- he was crazy and brutal, remember -- talked about death and rot all night. When the guests left the weird feast, they were escorted home by the emperor’s representatives. That was strange to them. They thought they were going to be killed after leaving the palace where the banquet was.
They did make it home safely, but their nerves were shot. Shortly after getting home, each guest was visited by an emperor’s messenger. This, they thought, was really it -- we’re dead. Instead, each was handed their gravestone -- a gravestone crafted in silver. They were also given the expensive plates they’d eaten from. It was all a joke. Domitian made it seem like he was going to kill them, then said, ‘Nope, just puttin’ ya on.’ ”
Clovis shook his head. “Fun prank,” he said in muted sarcasm. Clovis noticed that Galahad’s eyes were locked on the window of the den. Galahad wasn’t moving.
“What’s up pal?” Clovis finally asked.
“I thought I saw something staring at us through the window,” Galahad said in a hushed tone.
Clovis now was convinced that the night had involved into something truly sordid.
Galahad quickly refocused on the business at hand. One last time, he called out to Caligula.
“I need to know; should I start work on my book about your empire?”
Another attempt was made: “Are you there dictator?”
Then suddenly, a shadow seemed to slide under the bed that was wedged in the corner.
Clovis thought a thought he never imagined he would: By God, Galahad really did dredge up an entity!
Something rustled under the bed. Clovis feared that if he glanced under it, a face would look back. Finally, Galahad and Clovis -- both on their hands and knees -- simultaneously peered under the bed.
Just darkness. But the bed’s springs creaked. Something was on it.
Clovis glanced up. He saw two prongs poking over the side of the bed.
Were they horns? Spiraled horns? -- Clovis couldn’t fathom what he was seeing.
They were hanging over the side of the bed. The moment was taking forever to unfold. There was now unexplainable, unmistakable clarity in what was being seen. Clovis looked back down to the floor, then got up and looked on top of the bed. The quilt was crumpled, but nothing was on top.
The sound of hurried footsteps, though, could be heard going down the steps toward the front door. The door was already open when Galahad and Clovis made it to the bottom of the stairs. Looking out the door, the pair saw nothing. They stood in the doorway, hesitantly searching for what they really didn’t want to see.
Galahad noticed a figure moving across the street, on the sidewalk.
“I think I see something.” He bolted, cloak flowing. Clovis thought it resembled a scene from a Jane Austen novel. A beeping car horn and screeching brakes split the night air. Galahad had almost been struck by a car. Once on the other side of the street, Galahad collected himself, and dutifully gazed down the sidewalk, trying to spot the visage. To his amazement, a large figure was visible in the distance. Were those horns on the head?Galahad squinted hard, trying to pinpoint the sight. By God, he thought, those look like large horns on the top of its head.
Was that an “it”?
His situation then struck like a locomotive: Here he was, standing on a damp, darkened sidewalk in a flowing black cape.
In addition, he was watching some kind of demon disappear into the dark. Was it really the Devil? Did he really see its darkened, sunken eyes from so far away? He questioned his sanity. He looked down at the ground to catch a break from the mad goings-on. When Galahad looked up, the thing he had been following had turned around. It was moving toward him. Not only were the horns more visible, but now Galahad could make out wings on the creature. Spindly veins shot through the wings, which seemed translucent when they passed by a streetlight.
Surrender overwhelmed Galahad. The vision he was seeing both petrified and defeated him. Galahad briskly walked across the street to Clovis. He didn’t look back. A few seconds passed. He turned, saw nothing.
“I don’t know, maybe we’re just seeing things -- seeing shadows,” Galahad offered.
Clovis took on the responsibility of trying to settle things down: “Let’s take a deep breath and reconsider this tomorrow.”
He went inside with Galahad, who wanted one more look outside.
He couldn’t bear to directly look out the front of the house, so he went to a small side window just off the first-floor kitchen. It was covered by thin lace curtains. To better see, though, Galahad gingerly separated the curtains in the middle ever so slightly, turning to the left, toward the street. Through the crack in the curtains, an eyeball was staring back at him. It was large, wide open and wildly alive.
Galahad jumped back, then quickly gathered himself and shut his own eyes, reopening them to be sure he was seeing what he thought he saw. The same eye was there; it was the color of coal with a withered, leathery eyelid. It was now darting side to side, as if feverishly scanning him.
Galahad let out a yelp that made Clovis jump.
“I saw a face … eyes looking back at me,” a frantic Galahad half-whispered.
“Are you sure?” Clovis asked. Galahad wasn’t sure -- he wasn't sure of anything anymore.
Clovis went to the side window and bravely peered out. He saw nothing. He again saw nothing when he looked a second time.
Clovis spent the night at Galahad’s place, sleeping on the couch. Like a flustered little boy, Galahad didn’t want to be alone that night.
The dark hours that led to morning were uneventful. The days passed, and then the weeks passed.
Clovis worried about Galahad during this period. He thought his buddy had slipped into a particularly unbalanced frame of mind.
Galahad was consumed by the desire to rid his life of satanic apparitions.
Over coffee at a diner, he had confided to Clovis that he was falling asleep one night when he thought he felt something scratch his face. Turning on the lamp, he felt his cheek and then saw a trace of blood on the fingers he used to swipe the cheek. Going to the bathroom mirror, he confirmed a thin, but jagged, scratch, around two inches long.
“You probably just scratched yourself; I’ve done it while I was asleep,” Clovis said.
“I don’t think so,” Galahad said. “I felt a presence in my bedroom.”
The scratch on the cheek was definitely noticeable to Clovis.
“Maybe you need to get out of that house for a while,” Clovis suggested.
“It would probably just follow me,” came the reply.
A few days after the conversation at the diner, Galahad was dozing in his den. The unmistakable ticking of a clock gradually weaved into this groggy state of mind. Wrestling away the sleep, Galahad focused, discovering the tick-tock was coming from the grandfather clock. But that was impossible; the clock hadn’t worked in years. It was busted.
How could this be happening? Galahad didn’t need more odd occurrences. But they flowed out of nowhere.
The doorbell rang. It seemed to Galahad to be out of place -- such a strange tone, even though he realized the doorbell was the same doorbell that had always been there.
Few people came to his door after it turned dark, so this instance was worrisome. Although nervous, he methodically made his way downstairs. Parting the drapes of the living-room window, Galahad peered outside to check out the visitor. The view, though, gave only a partial look at the front-door area; he saw nothing with the angle allotted him.
There was no other way to determine who was ringing a doorbell; Galahad had to open the door.
No one was there. The stinging air plastered him. Early winter was setting in. A couple of inches of snow had fallen. Galahad wanted to believe a neighborhood kid rang the doorbell as a prank, then fled.
On the front lawn, Galahad could make out what looked like footprints in the snow. Upon further inspection, they didn’t resemble a shoe. Bending down for a closer look, Galahad met up with stark reality -- what he was seeing resembled hooves. Horse hooves? No way. His brain spun wildly. These prints appeared to have a split in the middle of each hoof. They had tracked onto the front steps of his porch.
Galahad felt he was being watched. He thought he heard a moan. The monster was here. That hoofed creature from Hades had returned: Galahad just knew it in his bones. He rushed inside, slamming the door. His back against the door, Galahad tried to slow down his rapid breathing. Somehow, an urge to go back outside overpowered him. Maybe -- just maybe -- he would see a normal scene, not tracks in the snow.
The doorbell rang again.
Galahad tried to remain still, listening for sounds from the outside. The wooden porch squeaked. Was someone on it? Faint scratching could be heard. It was methodical, repetitive -- somewhat quick. Was it long fingernails on the columns of the porch?
Galahad was thinking the worst. Opening the door, he stepped out and began to descend the steps to the front walkway.
Something stopped him. Erratic, cursive writing was in the snow on one of the stairs. The snow was ivory colored, but the message was in black.
“Caligula sent me,” it said.