" Mine were an old people, and were old even when this land was settled . And now they were scattered, and shared only the rituals of mysteries that none living could understand. I was the only one who came back that night to the old town as legend bade, for only the poor and the lonely remember."
-H.P. Lovecraft, "The Festival"
I have only one memory of my extended family, and that's of a tall man with a gray face who I believe was my grandfather bending down to give me a hug. Other than that one isolated memory, I know nothing of them. I never knew what led my parents to cut themselves off from the others, but we never saw the family on either side, and the few times as a child that I asked about it both mother and father were silent. The three of us were alone in the world, or so they would have had me believe.
So when I lost them both in the accident I was left with no sure way of finding any other relatives, and I resigned myself to being orphaned from my heritage. I was just nineteen. Imagine my surprise, then, when an invitation to a family reunion arrived in the mail. The letter was handwritten and addressed me by name, and came from someone who claimed to be my maternal grandfather. It said that the family had heard about the accident and wanted me to attend "the Festival" this year. I wrote back immediately and said I would be there.
I had never been to New England before, and it was not what I expected. I guess I imagined a kind of rolling Normal Rockwell scene, but the landscape I discovered was spare and quiet, and though beautiful in its way it left me unnerved, and troubled with unquiet thoughts about what might be just past those hills, or that field. My alleged grandparents had a great old house on the outskirts of Kingsport, and I arrived on their doorstep in the early afternoon of a brisk winter day, suitcase in one hand and invitation in the other. It was the Yuletide, near the solstice, the time of the year when old customs invade our modern world, bringing with them the lingering ghosts of ancient pagan ways.
I worried at first that I might have come to the wrong place, as the house I approached did not at first appear inhabited. It was a secluded place, the only landmark at the end of an isolated dirt road, built near a sprawling (but rundown) orchard and some dramatic cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. There was not a soul in sight, but when I knocked the door was answered by a woman a few years older than me, a green-eyed and auburn-haired beauty in a unseasonal white sundress. My heart gave a little flutter at the sight of her; she may have been an angel. She peered through the screen door and asked, very politely, what it was I wanted.
I held up the letter. "I got this in the mail. I'm, that is to say, my name is Charles and—"
"Charles?" she said, pushing the screen open. "Is that you?"
I was unsure what to say, and shrugged. "Well, I am me. Always have been."
She threw her arms around my neck and hugged me as tightly as she could, and I swooned a bit. I was shocked to find that she was crying and I did my best to comfort her.
"I can't believe it's you!" she said.
"Ah, yes, I am often in disbelief myself," I said.
She pulled back, wiped her tears, and smiled like an angel. "Oh, of course you don't recognize me. I'm Celia, do you remember? We're cousins."
My heart rolled over and died. I put on a brave face. "Celia? The name is almost familiar, but I don't think that I remember."
"Well, you would have been very young the last time we met: four or five years old, at the last Festival that your parents attended."
She was holding my hand, and her hands felt very warm in the winter air, and I had to chide myself not to enjoy it too much. "I'm sorry for getting so emotional,” she said. “It's just wonderful that you're here."
"Yes," I said, "I'm sure it is."
She took me inside. The house was dark, and looked in need of a good dusting. "I was so sorry to hear about your parents," she said. "Of course, I barely remember them either, but even so."
"Thank you," I said. "It's been difficult."
“I lost my parents too, when I was just a teenager," she said. “Grandma and Grandpa have been all I’ve had for years.” She squeezed my hand again. "We can't make up for what you've lost, but family is still the best thing for you now. There's nothing more important than family. That's what Grandpa always says.”
She was pulling me along again and I went with her, dazed and only half hearing what she was saying. She was beautiful and charming and witty, and I cursed the universe that we should be related. If I'd met her on the street a week ago neither of us would ever have known the difference, I thought.
But of course, I hadn't.
The house had an air of disuse about it. Knowing what I know now, it wouldn't surprise me if they'd only recently re-inhabited it for my sake, to keep up appearances when I met them. We Grandpa on the back deck where he was, for some reason, looking through stacks of decades-old periodicals. He looked up once, nodded, then did a double take upon seeing me. He came forward, shaking my hand and smiling ear to ear, for the moment unable to say anything. Tears welled in his eyes. For my part I was startled. He looked exactly as I remembered him, unchanged by a decade and a half; still a tall, wizened, gray man with spectacles. When he stood up he reminded me so much of that one fragmented memory that I felt a moment of vertigo, and only Celia's hand on mine kept me upright.
"My boy!" said Grandpa, still smiling. "Let me look at you! I can't believe you're here, I just can't believe it." He kept saying this over and over, and would not stop shaking my hand.
Celia laughed. "Grandpa, give Charles a seat."
I sat across the table from him, and Celia sat next to me, her legs crossed. I enjoyed our proximity in a way that made me uncomfortable. The deck appeared rundown, paint peeling and wood splintering around us, but it was enclosed and insulated from the cold, and the furniture was comfortable and free of wear. Through the glass enclosure there was a beautiful view of the old, dark oak trees that peopled the property.
"I'm sorry," Grandpa said, sitting again. "I got carried away. You don't know what it means for all of us that you're here. Your parents, your poor mother and father, we hadn't seen them in so long, and when we heard the news—"
He teared up again, and so did I, but when Celia patted my knee I managed to say, "Thank you. I'm sure they would be happy to know how much they meant to you still after all these years."
Grandpa wiped his eyes and cleaned his spectacles. "It was a damned fool thing, the argument that sent your parents out of here. So much time lost. Every year at Festival, I think of them."
"What's this I keep hearing about a festival?" I said.
Celia laughed, a little too loud. "Oh Charles, you didn't know? I'm afraid the entire family is a bunch of wicked pagans."
I must have looked confused, because Grandpa chuckled. "It's a family tradition of sorts," he said. "It goes back, oh, to long before I was born. Something we've done every year, for always."
"What exactly is it?" I said.
"It's just as bad as you think," said Celia, leaning in close and talking in a loud whisper. "It's all masks and bonfires and chanting and wicked idolatry!"
Grandpa waved a hand. "It's all a lark, of course," he said. "In the old days, in the Old Country, it was taken very seriously, but now it's just a tradition. You'll see what we mean."
I was about to ask about the mention of the old country, because my parents had never talked about our heritage or history and I was very interested to know where the family line originated, but I was interrupted by the arrival of Grandma, who burst in from the kitchen and smothered me with hugs and kisses on the cheek. She was a rotund woman who barely came up to my chest. She fawned over me and repeated what I expected was to become a common refrain about how good it was that I was here so that the whole family can finally be together again for the Festival. That word came up so often that the back of my neck started to prickle at the mention of it.
Grandma and Grandpa (even now it feels strange to use those names) sat me down and interviewed me about my life. I didn't think anything I had to say was that intriguing, but they swooned over every detail. Celia, meanwhile, watched us with a detached expression, smiling now and then and occasionally touching my hand, which made me jump. Grandma echoed the sentiment of how good it was to see me and how much she regretted the falling out with my parents. When I asked whatever had happened, she frowned and did not reply for some time.
"I guess it's just that your parents didn't want you growing up with our...customs," said Grandma.
"Like the Festival," said Grandpa.
"Right," said Grandma. "They felt like we were, oh, backward and arcane. They didn't want you being in that environment. They thought it would turn you strange."
I mulled this over. "That doesn't sound like a big enough thing to warrant being so upset about?"
"Your father was a stubborn man," said Grandpa, and that was true enough. "And so was I, then. If I'd known what it would cost us, the years we'd lose, I wouldn't have gotten so angry. But at the time I told him that if he wasn't willing to act like a part of this family then he shouldn't be a part of this family. That was the last time we spoke. I never saw my son again. And now I never will."
He began to lose his composure once more, and Grandma took him inside to lie down before the others arrived, leaving Celia and I to get acquainted. I wondered at the story of my family's departure; what was it about these traditions that would cause such a schism? I felt an unnamable dread in my heart, but Celia's face and voice and affection put me at ease. She took me for a walk around the grounds, showing me the orchard where everyone would gather that night and then admiring the view together from the sea cliffs together. We stood, hand in hand, watching the ocean and smelling the salt breeze. I snuck glances at her out of the corner of my eye; God she was beautiful.
"Celia?" I said.
"Something confuses me; Grandpa called my father his son, but the invitation said he was Mom's father?"
Celia paused and looked away for a few seconds. "They were very close, your dad and Grandpa. They knew each other for a long time, even before he married your mom. And, you know, he's getting older now, and he doesn't remember things as clearly as he used to. I think he'll be having his last Festival soon. Not this year, but soon."
And then she leaned on me, her head on my shoulder, and said, "Isn't it beautiful here?"
"It is," I said, as the surf crashed below. She hugged me and I leaned into her harder than I should have. She didn't notice.
"I've missed you so much," she said. "It's strange, because we were both so young the last time you were here, but I've never forgotten about you. When we were children we stood right on this same spot, looking at the ocean just like this, and then you kissed my cheek. It was the sweetest thing. I think about it every year."
I felt my blood rise and I wasn't sure what to say, so I said nothing. We stood there for longer even than I realized, and for the first time in my life, I felt a real and profound sense of belonging, of being with people who loved me. For although my mother and father had never denied me anything and I’m sure that, deep down, they must have loved me, our relationship had always been one of tension. Only now, with Celia, did I feel the first hints of real affection in my entire life.
The sun was going down by the time we went back to the house. Our feet crunched in the shallow layer of frozen snow. There were lights on in the old place, and cars arriving on the road. In twos and threes and fours, the family was coming. It was time to meet everyone.
They were all here, the aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins I never knew I had, and the great relatives and the great, great relatives too. Children five and six and seven years old scampered and played in the snow while the older ones, teens and preteens, congregated in bunches, talking amongst themselves and holding their own private family congress while the older crowd spread throughout the house. Grandma and Grandpa beamed at everyone and Celia shadowed me, never far away, as I was put through the paces by a hundred grinning cognates who wanted to hug me and look at me and tell me how sad they were about my parents, and how happy they were that I was here. I felt like an awkward celebrity who never wanted fame.
I noticed something strange as the evening wore on, and I wanted to ask Celia about it but found no opportunity: I met many uncles and aunts and more distant relations, and almost everyone was accompanied by at least one child, but none of them seemed to be married. There were no husbands, no wives, and no in-laws of any kind. The teenagers and young people brought no boyfriends or girlfriends along, and talked of none. There were blood relations, but only blood relations. Perhaps, if I had been more discerning, I would have noticed that although each child acknowledged one parent at the gathering, they also each seemed to have a particular affection for one other person of the opposite sex as that parent, an aunt or uncle or cousin with whom they seemed to have a particular rapport. The implications of this then unacknowledged observation chill me now. But I had no time to consider the matter then.
We all talked and laughed through dinner, and then it was time to prepare for the Festival. Celia had explained a bit of it to me already, but I was still unclear on most of the concept. Everyone assembled outside the house as the sun went down, and a dozen or so went on ahead to the orchard to prepare a bonfire from the dry kindling collected earlier in the week. Grandma went among the rest of us, passing out certain ceremonial garments (robes of coarse brown cloth, of the same sort worn at such gatherings for millennia, as I understood it) and masks that the younger children had crafted, they being too young to come with us but it still being deemed important for them to participate in some way.
The masks were crude paper-mache constructions in the likeness of certain animals or fantastical creatures. I felt foolish wearing one, but Celia put mine on for me, declaring that I looked “adorable.” Mine was a fox, and hers some manner of wood nymph or dryad, with features painted by a particularly diligent little artisan to resemble the grain of tree bark. Only her luminous green eyes and tiny, rosebud mouth were visible under it.
Soon the whole lot of us were dressed and masked and we walked, side by side in pairs, to the appointed site, some pairs carrying lit torches, and along the way we sang, though I cannot now remember the words or the tune of those hymns. I was bewildered by all this, but had been warned by Celia and our grandparents to expect strange, antiquated practices, and assured that it was all in good fun and in keeping with our heritage (ambiguous though that seemed to be). Our delegation formed a circle around the sticks and brambles piled high in the old orchard, and one by one the torchbearers threw their burning brands onto the stack, setting it ablaze. Theflames danced and cavorted and sent gouts of foul black smoke into the night sky to greet the waning moon. In the light of the fire our crude masks, at first seeming so simple and childish, took on a ghoulish quality, flickering orange flames painting the exaggerated features of animals and fairies and satyrs and making them appear a host of devils.
Thus far I was confused and unsettled, but not yet frightened or wholly alarmed. Backward though they may be, these people were the family I’d searched for all my life, and they had taken me in and accepted me as one of them. I did not understand these rites and mysteries, but I understood their importance to the assemblage. In spite of the lurid trappings, I felt a sense of belonging, and that sense wrestled with my primal revulsion. But it was when the songs ended and the next vocalizations were uttered that I became truly horrified. I am reluctant to call these invocations “prayers”, as they were surely as blasphemous as any words spoken by any creature on this earth, but they were, at least, a manner of address to some higher power, some nameless, faceless godhead, some setebos or demogorgon buried in the detritus of time, spoken by my grandfather and repeated by the masses of my kin. One passage in particular will remain forever engraved on my memory:
“Ia, Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!”
I had no idea what such a ghastly orison could mean, but it chilled me to the marrow. Indeed, the phrase seemed so obscene that, as I mumbled it in reply with the others, I felt its toxicity pollute my flesh. The mask and the robe felt restrictive and claustrophobic. And what were they doing now, what was this thing they were bringing forth, this strange idol twice as tall as a man, ancient and fetid in appearance, hammered together from the bones and antlers of animals, what grotesque figure was it meant to encharacter, and why did they show such obeisance to it?
Unlacing my fingers from Celia’s, I pushed through the crowd, ignoring their alarmed stares and muttered questions, and when I was outside the circle I ran. I ran from the clearing, and the orchard, and those strange words that filled my head with thoughts of unknowable, squamous things and vestigial powers lying long dead in Cyclopean mausoleums. I ran, in a sense, from myself, for as much as I loathed these thoughts and the words that engendered them I could not, even now, wholly disassociate from my sense of kinship with them.
I didn't stop running until I came back to the house. Looking as it did now, empty and dark, the peeling whitewash of the wall faintly reflecting the distant flames of the revelry fires, it seemed all the more a crypt, though the crypt of what manner of thing I dared not imagine. I discarded my robe and mask at the door and went in alone, wandering the isolated halls and lonely, unkempt rooms, searching for some lingering resonance of the sense of immediacy and belonging I'd experienced here only a few short hours ago. I felt like a ghost wandering the walk of its dreary inhabitance, haunting myself.
It was Celia who found me, of course, Celia who followed me back from the Festival. She caught up with me as I explored the third floor bedroom, the loneliest and most misbegotten place in the house. I sat on the edge of an old bed with faded, yellowed sheets, looking at the wallpaper print and asking myself what I was doing here, and who any of those people really were. This room had windows on two sides, one facing east, toward the ocean, and the other facing west, toward the orchard. It seemed to me that the bonfire must have grown to a conflagration based on the intensity of the through the lace curtains on that side. I wanted to go look, to see if everyone was all right, but something, perhaps my better judgment, kept me where I was. Celia still wore her Festival costume, and in the dark of that little room she seemed the grim specter of death, pale face and hooded robe and all, come to collect me.
She sat down and leaned against me, taking her mask off and setting it on my lap. Up close it seemed again nothing more than a child's handicraft, and I felt foolish for the intensity of my fear, foolish for leaving and making a spectacle of myself. Celia, seeming to read my thoughts, rubbed my shoulders and said, "It's all right. No one is mad."
"I'm sorry," I said anyway. "I don't know what came over me. No, that's not true, I know exactly what it was."
"The Festival must seem strange if you're not used to it,” she said. “Especially if you didn't grow up with it like we all did."
"I wouldn't mind if it was just strange," I said. "But I didn't expect to feel so...alien. I came here wanting to belong."
"Poor Charles," she said. "You've never really known where you belong because your parents never told you, never helped you understand. But you really are one of us. Grandpa always says that the real meaning of the Festival is family, that those of us who take part in the rites all belong together. That's why we do it still, strange and old and frightening as it seems. It reminds us of how important we are to each other.”
I wanted to believe her. I wanted to feel what she felt, what the others must feel. She made it easy to believe, easy to want to belong. But something held me back still…
"Don't worry about it, Charles," said Celia, massaging my shoulders again. "You'll feel it when you're ready. Your body will tell you. It's in our blood, and our flesh, and our hearts, the feeling that lets us know when we belong. And look at you, never comfortable in your own skin. It's no wonder you can't hear what your body is telling you. Let me help you, darling, let me show you the way."
And then she kissed me. Not a chaste, affectionate kiss between family members, but an encompassing, penetrating kiss, a kiss that consummated our afternoon's courtship. I would like to say that I objected right away, but in truth I allowed it go on for—well, for less time than I would have liked, because in truth I would have liked for it to go on forever. I did, however, eventually break away and object, and Celia asked, with the stark naiveté of a child, "Why?"
I stared, aghast. "Because we're cousins! First cousins!"
"What does that matter?" she said.
"It matters because—" and I stopped. What higher power could I invoke? God? The law? These things seemed trivial in the face of Celia's love. I could cite only my own nameless fear, insubstantial and unarticulated.
"We never knew we were cousins until today," said Celia. "If we had met on the street a week ago, we would never have known the difference."
These were, of course, my own thoughts from mere hours ago, and my resolve crumbled. I let her kiss me again, and the feeling of her trembling lips on mine, the ambrosial scent of her hair and her breath, and the promise of her body, the promise of the of unity and communion that I craved, lulled my better judgment into a dreamless sleep from which it would not awake until it was too late.
I let her lay me down and give me kisses one by one, tiny, teasing kisses that made the tension flood out of me and filled me with the most remarkable sense of calm and unreason. I imagine that it must have been like the state of being one of those happy, simple animals who have no concept of the world around them except for the immediate gratification of their most simple needs. She kissed me with her soft, coral-colored lips and I felt her tender tongue dart against mine, once, very quickly.
I lay back on the old bed, and she was next to me, rolled half on top, stroking my cheeks (I winced when I thought about her soft hands touching the roughness of my five o'clock shadow, but she didn't seem to mind), letting her gentle fingers glide over my features and down my neck. She kissed me again, fully on the lips, and said, "I've been waiting for you all my life. I was so lonely with you, Charles. We were meant for each other. From the beginning."
My mouth pressed against her throat and she gasped. Her skin was smooth and clean, and she smelled ambrosial, the scent almost literally intoxicating me. She held me as close as she could and pressed herself into me, and through the thin fabric of her sundress (how could she not be told, wearing only that all day, I wondered. Even when we went outside she had worn only a thin jacket over it?) I felt, in intimate detail, the lines and contours of her body; the angle of her hips, the smoothness of her thighs, the prominent rise and fall of each perfect breath. I kissed the roundness of her naked shoulder and I felt all of my fear, all of my anger, all of my loneliness and alienation, leave me then.
Shame? You're wondering if I feel ashamed, now, thinking back to that time, shame about the ease with which I'd given in, shame about my unabashed lust for this, my blood relation? Perhaps. Yes, perhaps there is shame, but knowing everything I do now, understanding everything about our coupling in the light of the revelations to come, I feel perhaps that this seemingly unnatural act is the most natural thing I've ever done, perhaps the only natural thing, because it was the only time I was not divorced from my true nature. I do not expect you to understand, though you will perhaps soon understand more.
I was gentle with her at first. When my hands moved over her body, exploring the sinuous curve of her back and the fine, firm turn of her behind, I was afraid of being too rough. She seemed...not fragile, but somehow sacrosanct. I thought she might really be an angel of some kind, and that to use her too roughly would be blasphemous in some way. But her thin limbs proved surprisingly strong, and she twined her arms around me and pulled me to her, and I felt her aching with need.
She directed my hands to the buttons of her dress, letting me undo them one by one. The only light we had appeared dim through the lace curtains of the windows, but her white dress and pale, smooth skin shone in the dark, like a ghost. I wanted to touch her all over, to take her right then and there, but she would not allow me near her again until I was completely unclothed, smiling at me with her little smile and teasing me not to go too fast as I removed one garment after another, which she took childlike glee in flinging across the room. Finally finished, she gave me a nod and a smile of simple satisfaction, and then she invited me in for more kisses, and more caresses.
The feeling of touching her? There are no words for it. Her skin was glorious in the true sense of the word. She was so soft, but so strong, and so alive. I kissed her lips, then her chin, then her eyelids, one by one, and then her cheeks, and the ridge of her ear, and then the earlobe, and I fell in love with her in this blason style, one bit at a time. She leaned her head back and pushed her body against his while my lips roamed lower, following the curve of her. Ah reader, if you only knew what it was like, this woman who was so much more than a woman, how each and every thing about her was enough, in itself, to satisfy me for a lifetime just on its own, and how the gestalt of so many lifetimes of perfect bliss coalesced into this, my Celia.
I remember pausing over her soft, perfect breasts and their rosy petite nipples, and how she ran her fingers through my hair and whispered, “Go on.” And then she gasped and moaned as I drew one into the hot confines of my mouth, licking it. The tiny, almost helpless noise she made then set a tightness in me, like I was a spring that had been wound too may times and needed release. I expected to wake up any moment, but I did not, though sometimes I wonder if perhaps everything since has been the dream, one long, hazy, somnambulistic escapade from the waking world.
I found that her legs were spread, wrapping around me, and that she was saying, “Love me. Please, love me.” I wasn't sure if I could, not because of the lack of incentive or desire, but because I had no way of knowing if I could survive such a union, my senses and affections already overloaded by what was had gone on to this point. “Please,” she whispered again, and despite my doubts I could not say now. I pushed into her, and she clung tighter and tighter tome, and that's when I found that what she'd said was true, that it really was our bodies that told us when we belonged, and that this was the moment when they did, and that my entire life until then had just been a prelude.
How long were we there? Less than a night, that's all I can say, less than a night exalting in the warm, soft, smooth, loving experience of Celia's body, less than a night of her tiny, barely perceptible exclamations: “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!” I loved her then, truly and completely, like a tiny hot flame in the center of my chest, and some few embers of that fire still remain even now, and will remain as long as the memory of that one sweet night and my one most perfect love stay with me, which in all hopes will be forever. I consummated our forbidden union by releasing a torrent inside of her, and she gratefully received it, telling me all the while it was what she was born for. And I, naive even then, did not suspect the ramifications of the declaration even then.
She dozed, only half-asleep, in my arms, and I marveled at the silky feeling of her hair splayed out on the pillow. I wondered if the others had noticed we were gone? What if they came looking for us? What if they discovered us here? I began to feel ill, and though I wanted to stay there all night I instead began creeping about as quietly as I could, reuniting with my discarded garments and wondering how we would cover this all up. And it was then that I saw something moving outside. What was it? A flutter, against the window facing the ocean. It looked too big to be a bird. I went to investigate and Celia, waking, trailed behind me, sheet wrapped around herself for warmth. Though I was now dressed against the night air in the drafty old house, my flesh crawled and my hair stood on end. A shadow passed over the window, and I pulled the curtain aside, and I saw, and I saw—
How to describe the thing I saw? There are no words, and if there were you would curse me for teaching them to you. It was winged, of that I'm certain, and the fluttering of those awful membranes held it aloft under the window awning. But of that figure to which the wings were attached? How can I tell you of its unspeakable awfulness, of its loathsome, verminous, scabrous anatomy? How to communicate that bilious corruption of flesh and form, those turgid masses of biology at cross-purposes with nature, the cast-off filth of evolution twisted to such unwholesome ends? It was a thing; that is all I can say of it.
I screamed and sprang away from the window casement, and had I been alone in the room I think I would have divested myself of my sanity once and for all. Only the comforting presence of Celia provided a rock for my mind to grapple onto rather than being dragged away in the torrent of my own mortification. But that shelter would not stay with me for long, as I saw now her face animate into an unspeakable burlesque of affection as she beheld that horror at the window and cried out in ghastly ecstasy, “They’re here! Friends from the Old Country!”
She flew to the window on the west side, throwing open the curtains and bidding me come see. The light I saw was not from the fire, not from any earthly conflagration, but from an eerie, feverish manifestation of creeping lights, some aurora borne of places and things unknown, that lit the sky over the orchard. Silhouetted against the phantom flames I saw the fluttering, wheeling, blasphemous shapes of unwholesome things, dozens of them, and below heard the sounds of inhuman merrymaking from my own kin. "What are they?" I said.
"Friends," said Celia, "the descendants of our brothers from the other world. The rites of the Festival are meant to bridge the gap between us and them for a time, but it usually doesn't work." Her eyes shone. "I'm sure it's because you're here that they've come."
I could think of nothing to say, except for questions that I dare not truthfully want the answers to. Celia, though, provided them anyway, whispering in breathless tones: "Now you see why you felt like you never belonged, Charles; it's because you don't. You belong here, with us, and with them. We're all creatures of two worlds, and that means we don't really belong to either. We only belong with each other, like you belong here, with me."
She went to kiss me again, but for the second time that night I was running. I think I went mad then, a little, for though I meant to run to the orchard and find my grandparents (in the meritless hope that they would disconfirm what I was just told) instead I ran the opposite way, a frantic, single-minded dash toward the cliffs and some phantom notion of freedom and escape. I stood at the precipice and looked down into the black waters and wondered, hysterically: If I were to jump would I find that I could fly, like they did?
I'm not sure how the others found me, although I suspect they were there all along and had only sent Celia after me as their envoy while they waited. The masked, robed figures of my aunts and uncles and cousins appeared, telling me not to jump, telling me to come back, begging me not to break up the family again. My grandmother wiped tears from her eyes and said, "We wanted to tell you, Charles. We're sorry. Don't be afraid."
I felt the wind at my back, and the loose dirt giving way under my heels. Celia, half-dressed, came through the crowd, running to me until I put up a hand to stop her. She froze in place and shook her head, hair blowing in the wind. "Please, Charles," she said. "We love you. I love you. Don't go."
Even then I almost relented. Even in the face of this ungodliness I might still have gone back, might still have joined them, might still have seen a glimpse of the Old Country and learned the true history of my lineage. But at the very moment one of the noxious, fetid creatures descended from the blackened sky and landed just behind Celia, and it called out to me in a gelatinous voice, and held its arms out in such a graphic mockery of affection that every fiber of my being rejected it. Almost effortlessly I leaned away, and I fell, and I let the ocean take me in, becoming one with it and seeking a home on its lonely floor.
I came to three days later in a hospital in Arkham. They said that a fishing boat had found me washed up on a sandbar a half mile out from shore. A miracle, they called it. Once they got me talking they asked if I had any family, anyone that I wanted to contact? I told them no.
I knew that a fall like the one I took was impossible to survive. And the hours drifting at sea, unconscious, and the effects of exposure, lying on that barren beach until some wayward vessel retrieved me? Impossible too. Nothing could have lived through that. Nothing human, at least.
Although the hospital's tests detected no abnormalities, over time I've become aware of certain discrepancies in my physiology. It makes me wonder about the Old Country, that strange world beyond the world where my family line originated. If the other inhabitants of that place are such freakish abnormalities, what chance that a separate race, human in every likeness, would emerge from the same manic environment? Wasn't it more likely that my ancestors would be of the nature of that place, rather than this one?
And what of Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young? When that daemonic entity passed into this world to birth its progeny countless eons ago, might not those creatures have grown acclimated to this sphere? Mightn't they, over millennia, have taken on the character of creatures native to the earth, to the point of now resembling them in almost every way? Might they not form a reclusive clan of New England eccentrics, forced by their small gene pool into generations of incestuous couplings to propagate themselves, bound together by their ancient rites and mysteries, relics from the time and place beyond the stars from whence they came? What then, are they, truly, and what am I? A man? A monster? Or something in between? I wonder these things at nights, when I think of what my parents tried to protect me from, and contemplate the singularities of my flesh and sinew, and know the greatest fear that can be known: the fear of oneself.
And they haven't forgotten about me, my family. Every year without fail, no matter where I've moved or what precautions I take, the invitation arrives, asking me to come to the Festival again. There are even times, in the dark twilight hours of the Yuletide, when I want to go; to see them, to feel loved, to belong. And to see my Celia, my betrothed since birth, to look on her face and—
But no. That's something I can never do. Perhaps if things had been different, if my parents had not turned their backs on the others, had not taken me away to protect me from the truth when I was so young. But not now. I'm too much a part of the human world, though of course I'm apart from it too. Celia was right about that much; we belong nowhere really if not with each other. And so I belong nowhere.
Celia writes every year too, of course, and the message is always the same, and those nights when I know the Festival happens, I sometimes fancy that I can hear her words carried to me by the eastern wind:
"We love you. We miss you. Come home.
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