The Succubus and I: A True Romance of the Twenty-first Century
Succubus (suhk-yuh-buh s): a supernatural female entity who engages in sexual intercourse with a mortal man, feeding on his life force to sustain herself until he is exhausted of all energy and/or perishes.
—Professor Nicolas Bourbaki, Necronomicon Concordia, Volume III
It has been noted that supernatural events are not so much uncommon as irregular in their incidence. There may be, for instance, not one marvel to speak of in a century, and then there arrives a plentiful crop of them: monsters of all sorts swarm suddenly upon the earth, comets of curious color and trajectory blaze in the night sky, while shadowy mermaids and sirens beguile, shapeless sea creatures engulf passing ships, and terrible cataclysms beset humanity as a whole. The event I am about to recount, however, was not one in a great host, nor was it apocalyptic in its implications. Yet the very fact that it arrived in a most quiet time of enlightened scientific assurance and affected but one man may prove what makes its telling worthwhile.
In truth the collective identification and study of the curious entities termed Succubi among English-speaking scholars of the occult has unfolded only as a most gradual process of distillation across time and cultures, so that even now—in this unprecedented era of highly specialized scientific disciplines and technologies—these paranormal females remain but half-believed manifestations of vague legend or rumor, inhabiting precariously only the remotest recesses of the popular mind. Yet it remains they constitute a fundamental phenomenon, a kind of barely discernible archetypal echo, tethered to our very beginnings and, moreover—that is, if we happen to cast an uneasy eye toward the other end of the great divide of existence—one that seems destined to dwell with us: to accompany our sad species, not unlike an attractive date to some dreaded momentous social function, as we approach our impending collective end. Or at least I can here step forward from this introduction’s cloud of ruminative abstraction to attest that, in my own circumstances, the being of their kind with whom I became acquainted elected not to abandon me at the threshold of death.
Doubts notwithstanding, it should prove easy enough for even the most skeptical
and iconoclastic of readers among you—those whose polite disdain for the supernatural long ago mushroomed into unfeigned ridicule—to envision and appreciate the nature of Succubi since they have come to constitute—however unconscious the apprehended presence of their being—something most all of us vaguely sense or otherwise know, lurking about, as it were, within the liquid-walled confines of what the mind scientists once termed the collective unconscious with an apparent total disregard for and immunity from such otherwise limiting factors as borders, beliefs, and epochs. In a number of African cultures, for example, the Succubus is known as “the witch riding your back,” while the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria variantly refer to her as Ogun Oru, which means “nocturnal warfare.” An obscure and as yet untranslated article in the Chirurgical Journal, that authoritative nineteenth century periodical of parapsychological studies, noted that in the frigid and forlorn island folk culture of Iceland she is called Mara, and here we must note that our still much-used, perhaps overly-used, word nightmare has drifted down to we speakers of English by way of that name. Other traditional European cultures recognized her in like fashion and named her in kind: the Proto-Germanic maron; the Old English mære; the German Mahr; the Dutch nachtmerrie; the Old Norse Faroese; the Old Irish morrigain; the Polish mora; the French cauchemar; the Romanian moroi; the Czech mura; and so on.
By definition and persuasion she is a taker, a conqueror: a powerful being driven nonetheless by great hunger, prodigious needs. In India, where she is called Mohini, she ascends into the world of mortals by way of a remote deep well—the appearance of which, when you peer down into it, is really more akin to an abyss than a well—in search of that particular male lover who might help to provide her with the more-than-human child-being she desires. In New Guinea this process of male-harvesting is called Suk Ninmyo and is believed to originate from certain sacred trees which feed nocturnally on the essence of human men in order to sustain themselves.
In Greece and on Cyprus, where the Succubus might take the name of Vrahnas or the more ominous-sounding Varypnas, she is said to abscond with her victim’s speech—his fundamental ability to form words—as well as his energy and love, and is known sometimes to sit atop him, pressing down upon his chest with extraordinary force, occasionally to the point of asphyxiating him. Similarly, in Hmong culture there exists a description of an experience called dab tsog or “crushing demon,” in which the victim becomes aware of a tiny female figure, no larger than a small child really, straddling his torso and squeezing with a power capable of fracturing a strong man’s ribs. And as incredible as the fact may seem to the educated contemporary mind, it is nonetheless all too tragic and true that the vast and disturbing number of American Hmong males on record as having died in their sleep for no apparent reason has prompted the Centers for Disease Control to add to its distressing institutional vocabulary the specialized term “Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome.”
Indeed, as the story I am about to convey will attest, men of our own time are far from spared the dire, yet ultimately largely traceless, otherworldly presence of these Succubi. Of special note, in sections of the American South (the states of the old Confederacy), including my own native Virginia, she often is referred to as “Old Hag” despite her alluring appearance of youth and beauty, though in the mountain South of my father’s people, the craggy hills and hollows of Appalachia, she is more likely to be labeled a “haint,” a visitation from whom usually serves as an omen for some approaching tragedy or mishap. The death of a great uncle, in fact, was foretold in just this manner when a haint of extraordinary beauty and force called upon my great-grandfather as he lay sleeping beneath Heintooga Bald in the midst of a winter journey across the Smoky Mountains to Asheville during the eighth decade of the nineteenth century.
As I was not the first in my family line to encounter a Succubus, what more might be said here of the nature of the visited, for without such men as us there would exist no record of the entity? Does our victimhood, such as it is, derive from some arcane curse or gift? Or might there exist more tangible reasons—traceable variables or traits—which lead us to be chosen? In researching these questions parapsychologists have pointed to a link between male sexuality and ultraconsciousness—that is, a communicative association which couples the masculine sex drive with certain paranormal predispositions. The concomitant measure of each, proclaims the data, is determined largely by a combination of a man’s psychological attitudes toward sex and a complex array of particular genetic factors as determined and modulated by the pineal gland: a tiny endocrine gland located deep inside the skull, which functions both as an eye receptor and a regulator of sexual maturation.
Is it possible, then, there is something about the victim which dictates the attraction and subsequent conduct of a Succubus? Might it turn out, after all, in the great majority of cases, that he is truly less a victim and more a catalyst—perhaps even a catalyst possessed of some curious degree of agency? Could it be that we victims so-called are as much the haunters of their world as they of ours? Perhaps the successful proof of such a hypothesis would indeed prove something unprecedented and even profound, though I am not at liberty to say what. And whether it ultimately would have, beyond the most restless shadows of doubt, any bearing upon the unlikely events I am about to recount likely will never be known.
I shall tell you what occurred. You can judge for yourself.
I had fallen into an existence of cloudy weather, eschewing both the spotlight of stark illumination and the sightless black of darkness deepest. There is many a person whose soul, at one time or another, has gone to sleep like a leg, and such a person then was I. My usually responsive face, perpetually open and receptive to all the four winds, had taken on an abstract look as though posing to the various beings and things it encountered the same unanswerable question.
I had been suffering from a medical condition, an especially debilitating manifestation of a certain peculiar affliction which had haunted me since my earliest days but had grown much worse of late, until at last it had broken me. The effect of this defeat left me not so much a bad man, but, in a very real and unfortunate sense, a ruined man—that is, damaged in such a way that seemed beyond my capacity to self-diagnose or repair. It was as if I had realized very suddenly just how debilitated and exhausted I gradually had become and, as a result of the jolt accompanying that epiphanic knowledge, had subsequently collapsed into a low ebb of existence—a particular, self-styled Slough of Despond—which those conditions prescribed and demanded.
It is true that even before my illness I had been described on occasion by even my fondest of acquaintances as eccentric or mysterious or even sorcerous, but we are not privy here to the requisite space for an investigation of these purported unnatural—what some might even consider “magical”—qualities. I believe you will agree when I suggest these outlandish (and, I dare say, wholly inaccurate) characterizations must necessarily prove of little relevant moment in light of the nature of that otherworldly being who sought me out. This document should be more her story than mine, or, at the very least, the faithful account of my dealings with her who I suppose must be labeled the heroine of this tale.
Here I am strongly tempted to dawdle for a while and indulge in the particulars of how the association between the Succubus and I began and unfolded. Indeed, were I to follow my own wishes, I would assemble a minute and detailed description of our first encounter as well as the ensuing earliest meetings—of our various talks and hastily deepening bond. Fortunately, however, I am aware the great majority of readers in your midst would not share my enjoyment of such an exercise. To combat that risk of readerly superfluousness then and get on to the more crucial events, I shall reluctantly omit the particulars of those initial episodes in favor of summarizing their general flavor and hue. In other words, let’s keep a few paces back from the canvas for now, taking in the whole of the painting, rather than drawing out some antique glass and craning forward to scrutinize one of its more insignificant corners.
I should admit, however, before proceeding further, that the narrative decision I have just settled upon is as much one of literal necessity as it is a carefully weighed preference, for were I to attempt a conveyance of the details of my initial meetings with the Succubus, it likely would neither form in my mind nor leap from the page very readily. Though the precise reasons for this haziness of recollection and expression evade me, I am not especially surprised by the condition, knowing as I do how my great-grandfather’s memory of his episode with the haint on the Heintooga mountainside was afflicted by a similar lack of detail: a like degree of impeded clarity, a blurriness with regard to past experience. Attempting to summon up an account of my very first meeting with the Succubus, I am rewarded with almost nothing, though I do recall that it occurred very late into the night, perhaps closer to early morning. I recollect, too, the unprecedented sensation of becoming aware of a mysterious and powerful sensual essence beyond any state of dream which slowly coalesced into the felt form of a female being. Beyond the intensity of sexual experience which followed, however, I can offer very little. Whether we kissed once or many times I cannot recall. The truth of whether we joined in love once or repeated the oldest human dance twice or more is gone from my mind now as well. And it troubles me to no small degree, as moving as the experience was—among the most significant of my life, really—that I cannot recollect more.
I can tell you that the nature of the visitations, for she did come again, over the course of the ensuing nights altered slowly so that they seemed less wild physical passion and more the delirious abstract promise of overpowering happiness. In fact, the sensuousness of sensation seemed as much an exchange of minds as of real or imagined bodies. She murmured sympathetically to me about matters concerning myself as well as my closest relations, followed by long meaningful silences of the sort that occur without awkwardness only among the best and most intimate of confidants. I awakened mornings with a sense of undeserved joy hovering about the bed. Despite the fantastic—perhaps even the outrageous—quality of what was transpiring, I have to say my reaction to her discovery of me was not one of surprise. Rather I felt as though I had been expecting her my entire life.
From my very first acquaintance with the Succubus I realized she possessed a degree of beauty and intuition that living females do not enjoy. Though I could not see her, the image of her form that came to me most often was of a young woman in a long white dress swaying slowly, rhythmically, patiently, in a rocker or porch swing, seemingly at her leisure yet all the while marking intently the world about her. Whenever she appeared to me the nature of existence itself suddenly became a beautiful and enchanting phenomenon, the very air shimmering with her presence and echoing with a high, cascading, sustained sound not unlike wind chimes. I relate these descriptions, mind you, with the full realization that their fanciful quality is likely to deepen those reservations of skepticism harbored by some of you and perhaps lead others in your midst to proceed even further and reckon me mad. Be that as it may, I hope for the moment you will suspend your judgment of me in favor of focusing on and appreciating the nature of the entity I am describing. For truly she was something at which to marvel. And surely any man among you—regardless of time and circumstance, including those of you just becoming young men in this uncertain now of today—would quickly come to adore and treasure a being such as her. I must insist that it would be so, for I cannot imagine otherwise.
Very quickly it seemed to me as though the Succubus became my female counterpart or equivalent in just about every particular. We felt little need for asking each other questions. We seemed to know each other better than anyone else. It was like this: we grew into each other like two winding trees rising from the same bit of earth—pressing, touching, overlapping. And in the midst of this growing, against the backdrop of our shared silence, I became aware of a pleasant low hum as if some expert chorus of molecules had come to inhabit and serenade the air around us. At first I did not know what this meant, but gradually it dawned on me. What I was hearing was the sound which announces that love has begun.
Our happiness was lyrical. “I am the embodiment of all you have ever wanted in a woman,” she would say in that husky voice of hers. And in the same voice she informed me of the previous men whose lives she had emptied or otherwise claimed, drawing on them until they were little more than hollow-eyed, lean-jawed shells. There had been a great host of them and they all had wanted her very much. “But you are different,” she would say in the voice. “You are the one I will leave yourself so that you might dwell with me.”
But then, very suddenly, as is often the case in life, the course of events changed. The meteorological hue of my sunny, almost daily experience with the Succubus, which had smiled upon me warmly up to that point, began to darken and cool, slowly altering its expression to that of a frown. It was as if she had come to sense some hesitancy or reluctance on my part toward the overpowering quality and depth of our connection and had not the capacity to process that impression with anything other than fear and resentment. I knew very little about her past at that time, but I was visited by the impression that here was a being whose experience had taught her to fear the worst even as all appears well. It was as if the anxiousness with which she watched me gauged by subtle signs some imminent unpleasant event, the flames of her anxiety fanned by an intimate knowledge of how he or she who has lost and who fears the more remains always the inferior and the sufferer. I would add to this interpretation of the ripples of her thought the simple observation that, in my experience, any gifts added to a beautiful and remarkable female must be paid for—that is to say, those very qualities which pass as positive characteristics in less attractive and accomplished members of that sex too often manifest themselves as dangerous liabilities in their more desirable sisters. Despite her supernatural essence, I believe she was subject to this all-too-human truth.
And so the whimsical sensual nature of the Succubus that had so drawn and compelled me turned brooding and lugubrious. Her voice, theretofore a delicious medley of rare hot spices and rich soothing honey, came forth now with dog-voiced harshness. I am ashamed to admit my response to her anxiety was wanting, for I made the mistake of attempting to reason with her, recalling too late that a tactic of that sort falls in line with certain forms of magnanimity which function very well among men but are usually misplaced, if not utterly disastrous, in dealings between men and women. There is, as the saying goes, a man’s atmosphere and a woman’s atmosphere, and it is rare for them to mix very well except in the proper place: beneath the sheets. Thus the Succubus turned and changed, her alteration hastened by fear, while I failed repeatedly in my attempts to soften or placate her. She ceased to visit me altogether and in place of her presence I began to awake in the night with a tightness in my chest as though some invisible force sought to pin me to my bed. I knew nothing then of Hmong culture or “Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome”—I had yet to embark on the formal study that would contextualize the precise nature of what I was dealing with—but my dark, vivid dreams and occasional near suffocation constituted sufficient evidence that my nightly discomfort stemmed from something more than coincidence or a sagging mattress. I sensed the imperceptible movements of her graceful hands behind my cloud of discomfort and came almost to be afraid of her.
It was during this period of adversity and uncertainty that I might have made one of those firm and fine moral decisions people make in books and resolved to shun her, quitting the region perhaps and removing to some other part of the country. As I was, by that time, well on the way to a recovery from my aforementioned malady—my experience, my romance if you will, with the Succubus having hastened my convalescence—I felt healthy enough, physically at least, to knock about again as I once had and, indeed, the temptation at that time to disappear for a week or so into one of the vast stretches of Virginia’s national forests, as I had done on occasion in my younger years, was very great.
Instead, owing to my general state of indecision and perhaps a craving for some limited measure of distraction and fellowship, I resolved to spend an evening with a friend at a favorite café. I had many friends in those days, most of whom owed me a favor or two on account of some secret, unbidden deed I likely had performed on their behalf behind the scenes. It was one of the things I was known for back then. The friend I had selected to share my company and absorb the unburdening of my dilemma was a fellow I knew neither too little nor too well. A steady chap, he might have been called—unimaginative, balanced, conservative—whose discreteness I knew had been favorably put to the test by others of our acquaintance on a number of occasions. Gauging my own mind as a whimsical one, I likely hoped his more sensible outlook might offer a judicious perspective on my circumstances, if one was to be had.
Indeed, such was the almost unflappable quality of this fellow’s steadfastness that his eyebrows raised but slightly as I completed the account of my association with the Succubus up to its then current state of menacing downward trajectory.
He sipped at his drink, for a long pull would have violated that signature cool steadfastness, and leaned back in his chair before speaking. “Why did you keep on seeing her when it started going all to hell? Why are you still sleeping in the same bed, the same house, now?”
“It’s like I’m compelled to. She draws me, I reckon.”
His eyes grew more intense as I repeated myself, until they acquired a slightly glazed quality. “If that’s the case, then I think it’s all the more crucial you keep away from the place.”
“What if she follows after me?”
“Well, you say she hasn’t been visiting you lately. Maybe she won’t.”
“I was thinking just that thought when I fell asleep last night. It was when I heard her voice in my head.”
“Yes. She wasn’t there. I mean, I didn’t feel her presence. But I heard her. I heard that voice.”
Phlegmatic as my manner was in those days, I must have looked disturbed when I answered, for his lips were already slightly parted before he asked the inevitable question. “What did she say?”
I hesitated before answering. “What she told me was that when I died I would be hers.”
In the ensuing moments both of us were silent, each of us toying with our drinks, our eyes wandering around the other tables of the dark little café, reluctant to meet each other. At last he began holding forth with the long-winded clichéd perspective on life which I had expected to receive beforehand and knew was designed to rally my spirits.
“All of this will pass,” my friend said as he neared his conclusion. “People don’t live in a state of emergency forever; things work themselves out. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way—it’s kindly meant—but I think maybe you’ve been spared some of the periodic jolts the rest of us encounter fairly regularly. Perhaps when you do happen to experience a real crisis your friends are slow to recognize it on account of your having been that fellow who has been there so often for them. That and you always seem to have it together—at least outwardly. I believe our mutual friends tend to buy into a certain illusion that your life is settled and easy just because you’re clever and good-looking and are rumored to have a fat cock or whatever. It’s shallow but understandable, you know?”
He laughed abruptly before allowing the lines of his mouth to lapse into a sympathetic smile. Yes, I did know, but merely returned his smile and said nothing. I had learned it is just as well to let friends tell you things you already know when they wish to. It disposes them kindly toward you if you suffer them to impart information they deem, however erroneously, special and their own. In truth, as cynical as it may sound, I have to say I expected no real wisdom from him or even an intelligent understanding of my trials. My friends in those days were all very charming, and charming friends need not possess much in the way of minds for us to be fond of them. I was of a kind who loved his friends most dearly—would do anything for them—yet I had long ago ceased to confide in them anything of an especially private or significant nature. I was decidedly out of practice then when it came to disclosing the complexities of my inner life and probably had done so poorly on this occasion. When I thanked my friend I did so with heartfelt gratitude and sincerity, but it was accompanied by the sad and helpless abstract feeling that I had come to know too many people and had been much happier when there were not so many in my life.
I dwelled on that somber thought again as I lay in bed that night but made no further progress with it. It was replaced following a period of dozing by the words the Succubus had uttered to me the night before: “When you die you will be mine.”
I possessed then no inkling that this statement might eventually confirm itself as nothing short of true, and, indeed, how could I? At that time I was still laboring beneath the misconception that I remained master of my fate. Whatever the limits of my perceptions and devices, however, a collective darkness—what might be labeled, in the vernacular, a “bad feeling”—perpetually inhabited the fringes of all my ruminations, and the essence of it existed in—was articulated by—the words of the Succubus. There was something in their sound and meaning that felt wrong and humiliating, like overhearing one’s partner joke with their lover about your most intimate shortcomings and faults. Yes, there was something of that. But worse than hurtful irreverence, worse even than the declaration that all I constituted was destined to become forcibly owned, was the coupling of the two of us—of the Succubus and I, of all that so recently had been beauty and love and freedom—beneath so cruel and black a banner of fate. It felt to me, as though in a nightmare—like thought melted into nightmare—as if some great winding dark sheet were descending from the heavens to envelop us both in a common grave.
We arrive now at the big gap of time that stared me in the face when I began this narrative, and though minute actions certainly occurred during the interval we are about to skip over and life went on, I believe it is in the best service of what I wish to convey to pause briefly for the purpose of engaging in a little necessary speculation and reflection. As I have refrained to this point from relating too many tiresome particulars, I hope you will see fit to perform a kindness and indulge me a little here.
Chiefly, I wish to address the important question of why I might have been singled out by the Succubus, for beyond the genetic and parapsychological factors I outlined in my ponderous introduction, there is little, I believe, which has established me as being much at variance with other men of my time. Yet it is true that throughout my life I have been something of a wanderer and a wonderer and a taker of risks—far beyond the extent, in fact, of anyone I have known—and I believe that is one of the chief reasons the Succubus was attracted to me so. By any conventional measure, I should have died on a number of occasions, and eventually, of course, I did. For here I must own up I have been deceased these past two years. I hope you will forgive me for withholding this crucial fact up until now, but it seemed necessary to do so in order to establish between us something resembling a bond. For those readers among you who may feel slighted or cheated or betrayed by the tardiness of the disclosure, rest assured the particulars of my demise are directly forthcoming. I trust you realize how truly grateful I am at the privilege of having passionate, discerning readers such as yourselves considering my words at all and my gratitude in light of your generous and enduring patience is especially deep and appreciative. Thank you for bearing with me, for suspending your impatience, that we might soon come to understand one another a little better.
When I graduated from college, there were two things I could do remarkably well: write a passable paper and deliver prodigious amounts of pleasure to those with whom I found myself intimate. Despite having chosen as mine a retiring sort of scribbling academic profession, the second of these abilities—a talent for loving, it might be called—proved far more meaningful and rewarding over the course of my life than the first.
I seem to have been born with an ability, often associated with those possessed of an artistic temperament, to place myself in and experience the lives of others, and, in particular, I have always felt a special affinity for girls—that is, the behaviors and manners that mark them as girls and which conspire to make them appear whimsical and even altogether traceless to most all boys. Even at the very first childhood dances of my youth—the girls huddled at one end of the floor and the boys at the other, unmindful of the urgings of chaperones and parents—it was I who broke the stalemate, drifting across the empty divide and selecting always the girl who seemed to me the most alone, the most apart from the others. She might have been the prettiest girl though most often she was not. Remarking first upon her hair or how her earrings matched her shoes or the way in which the manifold shades of her long dress seemed to flow so fluidly into one another, I would get around at last to requesting that she join me on the dance floor. Though the following statement very well may be construed as a manifestation of pride or vanity, I must offer nonetheless that not on a single occasion was I rejected. And once this groundbreaking action was performed—my chosen partner and I swaying alone in tandem, apart from everyone else, the sole denizens of a dim musical universe—the others gradually would pair off and fall in, helping us to people that curious space we two had been first to discover and explore.
Because I was genuinely interested in the girls I knew, I always listened to them very closely, and, in turn, they treasured the unusual fact that a boy their age would be interested enough to listen and, moreover, take their concerns seriously. For this reason, on a number of occasions, I often was the only boy in attendance at some birthday party or social function otherwise populated solely by girls and perhaps a few of their mothers. Either out of politeness or genuine acceptance, no one to my knowledge ever commented upon the curiousness of this phenomenon. If anything, the mothers in attendance tended to make over me more than the daughters of their peers, referring to me as a “good sport” and a “little gentleman” and so on. As for my own mother who bore me to these functions, the mild social oddity of my being the only boy in attendance either passed unnoticed or seemed a subject of relative insignificance to her formidable and otherwise occupied nonconformist intellect.
And so the girls at these parties giggled and squirmed in their chairs, white-stockinged feet in shiny black-buckled shoes tapping loudly on hardwood floors beneath some white table-clothed dining room table, while I smiled and looked on and joined in when it was time to blow out the candles or sing a song. Afterwards I would dutifully play the games that had been planned—pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, a mainstay among them—performing neither too well nor too shabbily, pacing myself alongside those girls who tried but a little or tried hard and failed, so as not to arouse jealousy or call too much attention to myself. And if our play spilled out of doors into some spacious backyard or shady country grove, skirts and ribbons fluttering amid the headlong, I inevitably was assigned the role of fort guardian or prince or king in the imaginary scenario at hand, though I was always careful to remain within the limits of the stage directions given me and not ad-lib too much. If, however, it happened that one of the younger or less popular girls began to cry on account of being left out, I would then take it upon myself to shape the collective story, lightly sketching along the corners of its canvas you might say, by drawing the sad girl in question aside and informing her that she was in fact the king’s daughter or the prince’s younger sister, either prospect of which delighted her since it meant she was a princess of some importance.
As we all aged and changed my appearances at such functions and then the very occasions themselves became rarer and rarer until at last they disappeared entirely, passed on like some treasured outgrown hand-me-down to our younger sisters. But though these events melted away the associations that had accompanied them did not, for to a few of these girls I would remain something on the order of the elder brother they never had, brushing away a tear or offering a shoulder to cry on when another of my sex had torn or wrecked their hearts and sometimes their bodies. “You are,” I would say at such times, having drawn them aside, “a woman of some importance.”
If pressed to speculate upon identifying a reason as to my strong and early connection to girls, the best explanation I likely might offer would come in the form of an additional anecdote involving another very different peer group of females. I am speaking here of my grandmother’s circle of bridge-club ladies—all of them widows, all of them cultivated and accomplished, all of them well within a decade of their deaths.
Those monthly bridge gatherings were stately occasions for the venerable ladies involved as they constituted the only activities which drew them from their homes save church and the various mundane weekly errands which sustain an elderly woman in her widowhood. Who can blame them for uniting with each other and making the most of such times—for donning their favorite jewelry and sleek antiquated evening dresses: outfits that surely would have been considered scandalous demimonde attire in the matronly eyes of their more severe churchgoing contemporaries? Indeed, it affords me a curious happiness even now to think of the pleasure they must have taken in slipping on and parading for each other those treasured things they had not worn in years, perhaps decades.
I do not recall any other child ever having been in attendance at these bridge club gatherings and I find myself struggling, as much from wanting vocabulary as hazy memory, to articulate the exact nature of the relationship that existed between that remarkable circle of women and myself. I do remember, however, very clearly my grandmother’s pride as the ritual of their making over me ensued at the outset of each gathering, my smile fixed like one in a photograph as I beamed up at them all.
“What a little gentleman he is!” one would exclaim.
“But look at his eyes!” the faded beauty in their midst declared, clasping her ringed hands together. “He is an angel, a little angel sent from God!”
“I shall arrange a marriage between him and my great niece who is about to start St. Catherine’s!” another announced with equal enthusiasm.
“They are both blonde,” she continued by way of explanation, her gin glass suddenly empty.
Then they would pass me around among them, the smell of tobacco and alcohol and mints on their dry stale breaths as their withered lips kissed me and whispered endearments in my ears, before pressing me to their soft drooping bosoms, until it was time for the night’s agenda to commence and I was banished to some unoccupied corner of the hostess’s home, often the study of her long-dead husband—walls lined with war medals, advanced degrees, deer heads, pipes—where I entertained myself as best I could among his musty effects.
It was my favorite of the group, a sassy little woman named Miss Ruby whose husband had owned the Lucky Strike cigarette factory in the state capitol, who usually came in at the conclusion of the evening to wake me, brushing my cheek or fingering a pale strand of my hair, as I lay sprawled on some sofa, rug, or chair.
“You are our little mascot!” one of them would declare as I stood bleary-eyed in their midst, eager to depart, and they would all hug me yet again, squeezing me tighter than before.
“Promise you’ll always be a good boy,” Miss Ruby would say, “and won’t ever forget us.”
“I promise,” I would reply. But of course I would go on to break both conditions of that promise all too frequently over the course of my life—sometimes outrageously. Yet setting down these words here should serve as proof enough that I never forgot those splendid grand dames and the impression they made upon me. Indeed, I think of them even now on those infrequent occasions when I have managed to be of genuine assistance to a woman who needed me—when I truly have been good.
It was my grandmother, a vivacious personality and master storyteller, who made it possible for me to appreciate the ladies of her bridge circle. Otherwise, I might have taken a conventional young boy’s jaundiced view of the aged and reckoned them all dull crones. But with Grandmother everything, even a morning of widow’s errands in town, became its own adventure, deepened by its shared quality between us. And when she recounted to me a selection from her rich collection of tales the past would spring to life in vivid colors, smells, and sensations. Again there would arise that element of sharing as she gauged my reaction to each sentence—to each new twist and turn in the narrative.
“They said she lived beneath the ground,” grandmother said, rocking in her chair, eyes shining, hands busy with her knitting, “in the muck where it’s cold and wet.”
She was telling one of the stories I liked best: an old Tidewater tale concerning Grace Sherwood—”the Witch of Gisburne” who had lived in Princess Anne County.
“And they said she had webbing in her armpits like a fish,” she continued, dropping a needle and leaning forward to poke my armpit with a bony forefinger. “The better to slide through the mud. It opened like a lady’s fan when she raised her arm—so thin you could almost see through it.”
I would giggle then and ask the question I always did. “She wasn’t like normal people, was she?”
And Grandmother, erect in her chair, maintaining an air of mock-severity while suppressing a smile. “She most certainly was not.”
“And her fins helped her swim,” I would exclaim with increasing enthusiasm, unwilling to wait for her to tell the next part. “She swam with the Devil in the water, didn’t she?”
“That’s right. They say she would frolic with the Devil out in the Chesapeake Bay on moonlit nights. The witch and the Devil would swim and dive and play like newlyweds on their honeymoon.”
“They were happy together.”
“Yes,” she would say, fingers slowing in their work as she moved her head so as to peer out into the dark woods beyond the porch. “I suppose they were. Boatmen spied them way out among the whitecaps and hunters glimpsed them in lonely tangled inlets when the tide was going out. They rode on the current, you see; it carried them with it. And the winter that Caucus Bay froze over one old fisherman even saw them dancing on the ice in the predawn—just dancing away like a couple of lusty young lovers.”
And on it went, the weaving of the tale proceeding between us in this way while Grandmother’s hands kept busy at their knitting and I sat or lay on the floor before her, gazing up into her face warmly, adoringly, living my entire life inside the world she had summoned forth from her mind and made real for me with her words.
I suppose, then, it was the impression made upon me by the remarkable females of my acquaintance—those unique personalities I had the good fortune to keep company with and draw lessons from during my earliest years—that figured most prominently into the Succubus’s attraction to and selection of me. It is true she never said as much, but the manner in which she responded to certain things I uttered or did led me to strongly believe that it was so—that owing to my encounters with certain particular females she treasured in me something that was perhaps rare in all but the smallest handful of males. The world is a very curious place and it so happens I have discovered that people may become quite valuable, even obsessively coveted, on account of their singularities—their uniqueness, their eccentricity, and, yes, even their madness. Yet it remains that between the sexes, like thoroughfares between provinces, there are certain common roads travelers are expected to take—that lie within our best interests to frequent. To journey along those more tangled and obscure paths is to do so at one’s peril.
So it was during that interval when the Succubus had refrained from visiting me a heavy sense of foreboding nonetheless permeated my waking moments, particularly after midnight when single moments develop the capacity to stretch into vast, ponderous labyrinths of feeling and meaning. It was an ominous time, uneventful on its surface but possessed of a calm not unlike that before the proverbial coastal gale. The presence of the Succubus kept away, but into its place there crept a shadow or echo of her essence—what might be termed a kind of trace element—which I could sense reconnoitering me, gauging my movements, even my thoughts. Discount this intuition, unsubstantiated as it is, if you like. I hope you will believe me when I profess I am loath to engage in too much fanciful speculation or to arouse additional conjecture concerning my mental constitution, but, after all, this is a supernatural tale and thus fantastic elements such as these should not be ignored or discounted.
Despite the general disquiet and feeling of imminent adversity which haunted my daily living during this period, I was not idle and, in fact, used my constant anxiety as a catalyst for becoming proactive in responding to the circumstances in which I found myself. For it was during this time that I took it upon myself to master all I could from the spectral body of recorded evidence—half science, half myth—concerning Succubi and, what’s more, if possible, learn what I could about my particular entity: who she had been when, like you, she traversed the world of the living.
I am not boasting when I contend that what I conveyed to you in this narrative’s introduction is but a small sampling of the vast knowledge I managed to attain on the subject of Succubi. The hours I spent in study were both exhausting and exhaustive. I journeyed to a number of distinguished libraries and scholarly holding sites, corresponded with the best minds in the field, and even proposed a collaborative research project to be administered and published by myself and a distinguished German parapsychologist whose state-of-the-art laboratory facility lay on the outskirts of one of those small decaying cities along the Rhine.
My efforts concerning my own Succubus, however, afforded me almost nothing, though the one shred of information I did uncover—the record of a tombstone bearing her name in the oldest cemetery of Virginia’s state capitol—proved crucial enough in that it led to our next meeting: the last occasion, in fact, I ever would draw breath as a living creature upon the earth.
It so happens the day I sought out her grave exists now not so much as a day of its own, but a date that stands between other days as a kind of divide. It was after the lunch hour when I reached the cemetery and as I passed through its gates a watery sun bashfully showed itself for the first time through densely layered clouds. Her simple marker was not difficult to find. It stood on a sloping hillside where the cemetery’s peripheral plots give way to the dense undergrowth which falls away in the direction of the river. The simple moss-flecked stone bearing her name bore no epigraph nor any dates. It was as if that name—which I must refuse to record here—captured and defined all there was to know and understand of her.
I stood there mutely, staring down at the marker, thinking of what it must be like to have departed the world of the living yet still retain one’s consciousness—some vague alimentation of feeling and thought. Would one still sense the stifling fumes of the damp earth, its soil darkened and enriched by the nearby ancient river, its lower layers inhabited by the alien fossils of distant epochs? Would you be capable of feeling the funeral garments which cling still to your former body? And what of the absolute blackness and the silence which I have heard described as a “sea that overwhelms”? What of the unseen but palpable presence of the scavengers of the earth burrowing through the recently disturbed ground around you, relentless in their hunger? Could it be that the atoms of some of the oldest decomposed bodies find their way to life again in the form of the dark bushy holly and tangled ivy covering the damp invisible terrain as it slopes away toward the endlessly flowing river?
I thought, too, of the Succubus as a mortal woman drawing breath and wondered what it might have been like to know her as such. It was then the sad thought struck me that so many things in our lives seem to happen out of alignment and sequence, as if all the pages of some voluminous picture book are torn out by invisible hands and thrown into the wind to flutter and land where they will. We had missed each other in time, she and I—missed the living of each other’s lives—yet something had brought us together nonetheless. Suddenly I felt very tired, given to a burdened leaden sensation unlike any I ever had experienced. I allowed my body to sink to the ground and seated myself with my back against the stone surety of her gravestone. The cool of its smooth surface penetrated my shirt, causing the skin along my spine to tingle. The sky had grown overcast, its clouds having darkened and drifted lower, paralleling the course of the river in their slow procession eastward. The air was still; not a single note of birdsong or rustle of foliage disturbed it. Slowly my head came forward as though descending into— affording a long slow single nod of agreement to—slumber.
That was how she found me in the twilight of that day: sleeping on the grass at the southern boundary of the city’s oldest cemetery. I grew aware of her in my slumber as she drew near, the familiarity of her presence filling my mind in such a way as to make it seem as though we had never been parted all those weeks and that, in truth, my soul had lived side by side with hers throughout that interval like shoots sprung in tandem from the same rare root.
“I have missed you,” I heard my voice say in my mind.
And she replied in kind in a soft voice that sounded musical as if singing to itself quietly.
“Sing me a song,” I said.
“What kind of song?”
“It doesn’t matter. No, wait, make it a sad one.”
And she sang to me then a song I did not know, but one so tragic and beautiful as to deepen the gathering darkness that lay beyond my sleep, as if hastening that defining day’s journey into night.
“That was wonderful,” I murmured when the song was over. “Could you sing another?”
“Of course,” the answer a song in itself. “I have forever. I’ll sing to you here as long as you like.”
Her voice became music once more and as it did I felt my heart sinking into my shoes as my body lay there listening among the old cemetery’s assortment of stone angels, little marble lamps, and the occasional granite cross. It seemed only then did I realize how much I wanted her—as if glimpsing too late the true nature of things cast against that canvas which showed a tale of the degree to which I cared.
I knew it was weak of me to linger on that way, listening, but the line between thought and action had somehow become severed. It was like being under the fascination of a serpent. I thought to get up, to stir my prone body, but it proved an idle thought only. And in the instant when she stopped singing suddenly I knew that any course of action on my part was too late.
She gave me a look as though she might kill me, and then she did, the essence of my life burning and melting away within the depths of her eyes. I could not see them, mark you—could not see her—but I felt, as much as I ever have felt anything, their absorbing look. Such was the way in which she drew the life out of my being. Life and breath flowed out of me together.
What are the things that lie in and behind the taking of a life?
Back during my time as a young runner who seldom lost races I often would look for things to amuse me as the athletic season wore on and my workout routines dwindled into some stale combination of strides and twenty-minute runs. One afternoon prior to another such mundane practice I was delighted to find in a dark corner of the school’s equipment room an archaic javelin possessed of a rusty iron head and a smooth wooden shaft lined with small jagged cracks. Toting it out to the old football practice field beyond the tennis courts, I amused myself hurling it again and again until my coach yelled at me to fall in with the others for stretching.
The casting of the javelin became a daily ritual for me and he could not see the point of it, my coach, on account of the fact that the throwing of javelins did not constitute a sanctioned competitive event.
He viewed my hurling of that antiquated object as a waste of time, though he did afford me the grudging remark, “If javelin were a high school event in this state you’d win it easy.”
“I don’t care about that, Coach,” I had replied with a smile. “I just like doing it.”
He had shaken his head as he turned and walked away, but he stopped and looked back at me after a few paces. “You know, son,” he said, “if you did really care about winning, if you put your heart and soul into practice the way you do tossing that stupid old stick, you’d be one holy terror of a runner.”
But the nature of an event—the nature of any action—has always held a greater degree of fascination and satisfaction for me than its prospect of competitive success. Earlier in my life, when I was a boy growing up on a farm, my father had ordered me to use something other than a gun whenever possible to dispatch the predatory nocturnal varmints which plagued our livestock so as to ration his stock of bullets. My implement of choice for this chore became an old pitchfork which had journeyed northward to Virginia with my grandfather from the Smoky Mountains during the Great Depression. I liked not only that its many prongs, five all told, increased one’s chances of connecting with its target, but also that, if thrust with enough force, it would pass all the way through the animal’s body and embed itself in the ground or the old soft wood of the barn floor or whatever happened to lie behind which might give a little. Thus the pierced creature would find itself pinned, squirming, trapped, crucified, until breath and life departed it.
Though just a boy I became very good at wielding that pitchfork—expert even, you might say. Never have I encountered anyone who handled one so well. It came to fascinate me, too, how when I withdrew the pitchfork from a pierced animal the prongs would leave five neat little red points where they had penetrated the hide. These small circular crimson blots always created in my mind the fantastic impression that the creature’s life might have been extinguished—sucked out, as it were—not by the pitchfork, but rather by the penetrating fingertips of God himself. And, indeed, sometimes I did let go the implement’s antiquated chestnut shaft in favor of reaching out my little fingers to touch gently those red holes which welled but slowly or brush ever so slightly the creature’s fur so as to feel the fading of its last warmth.
“We are the children of death,” said the prophet, “and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”
Much later, as a young man living on a farm of my own, at the end of a chore involving a pitchfork—the same one, in fact, for it had been passed on to me—I sometimes would carry that remarkable family heirloom out into the pasture and cast it a few times just for the sheer joy of it, admiring its arc against the sun as it attained and then curved rainbow-like beyond its zenith. Beginning with a slow trot, knees thrusting high, I would hold back, waiting to achieve the proper speed and rhythm, before planting my forefoot and allowing the smooth rotation of the shoulders, the flow of my long muscular arms, to roll forward.
I have always imagined I must have appeared a little ridiculous heaving that old pitchfork, clad in my shirtless overalls or torn-up farm jeans, but I can tell you that people who witnessed me doing so never laughed. If anything their manner was politely noncommittal though on at least a couple of occasions the onlooker offered a bland compliment, perhaps in a fruitless effort to mask the troubled expression that had formed behind the eyes. And I have to say that though I took great pleasure in the activity, I was never playing around when I did it. I mean, I really threw it out there.
Queer and inexplicable as the business of my death may seem, I did not hold any of it against the Succubus. I do not regret it, though I would not relish the prospect of going through the experience again. The truth of the matter is that I welcomed my death, realizing even then that its surface misfortune was, in reality, my good fortune. Whatever lingering shortcomings to which my faculties may have been subject at that time, they proved acute enough at least to appreciate that to experience love deeply and romantically in death or in life, regardless of any and all circumstances, is a precious gift and a very rare thing indeed. Its fundamental essence is a sublime and indescribable joy which ultimately makes small or renders moot the nature of a living existence or its lack. She had left it for me to choose and I had.
And when at last I was dead I finally was able to see her. I had felt her, of course—each minute aspect of her form—many times: every curve and contour memorized in the sweet-scented darkness of joy. And I knew from this profound touching, as a blind man might, that she was beautiful—something of a goddess really, with her perfect cheeks and lips, her supple neck and arms, her heavy breasts, her silken skin and hair. But it was only when I was dead, after she had killed me, that I finally was able to see her truly: a radiant being of loveliness, features surpassed by graceful manner—those slow, purposeful motions. She had, in particular, a way of moving her hips and a charming manner of tilting her head which touch alone failed to convey in fullness. When I looked at her face it was impossible for me to remember the faces of other people. Surely, I thought, she was the flower and consummation of her kind, whatever the nature of any others.
What more is there left to tell? Only this. Joining our ghostly hands we drifted east along the serpentine course of that river named for an inept and long-dead king, and then up into the streets of the state capitol—the city, in fact, where, at different times, both of us had entered the world of the living. It was a place I seldom visited in my adulthood, but I discovered its sloping streets, old magnolias, and rocky river were surroundings of happy familiarity for her. Appropriately enough, it is a city where very few things begin but many things end, yet each of us had begun there in our own separate fashions.
Often we watch the people passing down Grace Street or moving along over the crest of Shockoe Hill, meandering to the eye yet all pregnant with some manner of purpose—the eternal life of each of them not so very distant from that instant in which they are glimpsed by us. But my favorite occasions are when we depart the city gliding west, flying just above the surface of the river. Startled geese flap up from their sandbars and shadow-like bass dart beneath rocks at our approach, but not a single human eye ever fixes its sight upon us. When the sun is out during such excursions I wait for the light and time of day to become exactly right, slanting from the west, and when it does I peer down at the bright smooth surface passing beneath and watch her moving face on the water.
When I was alive people often would remark how deeply I loved rivers and animals and other manifestations of nature. And also how these entities seemed to love me: the cats that sought out my lap, the dogs slumbering curled atop my feet, the butterflies or honeybees that flitted about my head, occasionally lighting upon a finger or shoulder—even the way in which the waters of the river bore me along, buoying me up, or how its breezes played about my brow as if caressing it. But I have to admit that though I was grateful for the love of these things, they were not things I had always loved. For is it not so that even the best of us tend to take the best of things for granted? Rather the things I make mention of were things that over time I had learned to appreciate—had learned to love. Things I had learned to love, and chief among them the Succubus: who came for me and found me—who entered my life and claimed it—who killed me and made me hers forever.