A nightmare apparition attacked an entire battalion of German mercenaries quartered in an old church near Philadelphia in the middle hours of the night. The whole company rose from their beds and, chased by panicky terror, ran out into the open. When asked what had frightened them, they replied that a large black shaggy dog had entered through the door, rushed onto their chests, and then disappeared through a door opposite the entrance. Such mass events were rare. A few weeks later, though a hundred miles away, the same apparition attacked a young widow. Her parents-in-law led her to the doctor, who scoffed at her.
“Such spirits,” he said, “arise from lying under prickly blankets. The soldiers, we know, slept under goat skins. Their commander should have known better.” He advised her parents-in-law to find her a smooth lambswool blanket, preferably of a light color, yellow or lavender.
The doctor had suffered a stroke a year earlier, and his face retained the remnants of it. As he spoke to the widow, a glint in his left eye answered the crooked smile coming out of the half of his mouth that was still mobile. The right eye remained dim, stern, as if crossing out the friendly ambitions of the other one. The skeptical parents-in-law wondered where such a blanket could be found. It hadn’t hurt them, or their children, or their neighbors and cousins, to sleep under sheepskin, mohair, or even burlap. The widow must have been unaccountably delicate, or she had hidden complications. Her nightmares continued. The animal sprang on her out of the darkness near the door, pinned her down with his enormous paws, and cut off her breathing.
“Is that all that happens?” asked her mother-in-law. “You can’t get any air for a minute?”
The widow slid her eyes to the wall, and then down to her feet.
The mother-in-law breathed deeply, staring at the widow’s red hands. The widow had had to take in washing after her husband’s accident. Despite the hard labor, she often sang in the yard over the boiling pot. Steamy curls clung to her cheeks and the back of her neck. She had nice white teeth, too.
“Do you do the doctor’s laundry?” she asked next. “He lives alone now, doesn’t he, except for that nurse of his?”
They could hardly afford to keep a girl like her around the house, now that their son was gone. She wasn’t stupid, just quiet with people, a bit slow. Her screaming when the nightmare woke her meant no one else in the house could settle down.
They sent her to ask the doctor personally if she could be of service to him. At first she spoke only to his nurse, who told her they handled the bloody things from the surgery themselves. But the doctor wandered into the hall and spoke sharply. “She can do my shirts,” he said. “Go get them.” The nurse clipped through to the back. The widow leaned against the wall, while the doctor stood, one hand tucked into his jacket pocket, a few paces from her. Late afternoon murk tinged the hallway green, like pond water. The stove in the next room did not send its rays this far. The cool air thus poured from the door, pooled along the floor, and turned back at the limit of the parlor threshold.
“How are you keeping?” he asked at last.
“Well, thank you,” she said.
She turned her face towards him briefly, releasing a beseeching note from the purple circles under her eyes. Half the doctor’s face received this information, while the other half hung stubbornly resistant.
“They didn’t find you a better blanket, then?” he asked.
The widow didn’t say anything. At seventeen, she had lost the baby, and a few months later, its father. These recent losses overshadowed the passing of her parents, dim figures who had watched over her kindly but inconsistently before coughing themselves to death. The nurse came back with the shirts, shoving past her master in the narrow hallway to stuff them at the widow. The girl tamped them down into her hamper and exited the doctor’s house.
After a few nights of peace, the apparition returned. The widow woke as it leapt from its hiding place, and then fell paralyzed under its weight on her chest. The huge paws dug into the tops of her breasts, while its tongue hung inches from her face, blasting its meaty fumes into her own open mouth. The eyes gleamed red in the faint light of the stars through the window. The wiry fur bored into her neck and scratched through the open weave of her nightgown. Its haunches pressed down on her hips, sinking heavier with each fetid pant the beast let out. She couldn’t cry out or inhale, but lay frozen in the empty gap between breaths as if she had become inanimate. Seven or eight times already the black dog had crushed her in this way, until her scream and panicked thrashing sent it out the window or back through the door. Her father-in-law was sure to cane her if she interrupted his sleep one more time. And despite her horror at the attacks, each time she had come away physically unharmed. So though a scream was building inside her rigid lungs, she let out a sigh instead, and began to whisper a prayer that the thing not hurt her. While its weight on her hips grew heavier, like a boulder or an iron cauldron, she grew less afraid. She raised her hands up and ran them down the heavy front limbs. Suddenly she was clasping her Paul. With no transition, he was inside of her, and she moved against him, kissing his collar bone where it pressed against her mouth. After only a little of his characteristic gentleness, he reared up and swiveled her onto her front. Throwing the gown up over her head, he pounded into her from behind, quick, hard, unrelenting, shoving her deeper into the mattress with each stroke. “What are you doing?” she cried. She flailed an arm against the bed and with the other hand pushed against the headboard, trying to raise herself up. By the time her parents-in-law came through the door, the apparition, dog, man, husband, had vanished. The widow flicked the nightgown down, but saw in her mind what her parents-in-law might have witnessed, a crescent of her pale rump winking at them before the cloth covered it.
She took the doctor’s starched and ironed shirts back to him. Her first few visits to his house, she only dealt with the nurse, who signaled with her chin where the clothes should be stacked. Another time, he passed through the room at the end of the passage just as she was straightening up. His one vibrant eye lanced onto hers, while the other eye seemed to view her mechanically, merely optically. He proceeded out the other way without acknowledging her. The next time, a little later in the day, he opened the door to her himself.
“Thank you,” he said as she set the basket in the corner.
She waited, but he didn’t seem to understand the other parts of the transaction, meaning her payment, and the collection of more dirty ones for the next round.
“No more, then?” she asked.
He seemed startled, and stepped back. He motioned to her to follow him. She waited at the bottom of the stairs, and he returned with a couple of lank white shirts, not half the usual number. She took them from him and turned to go.
“How are you keeping, then?” he said, stretching a hand to her elbow. She stopped.
“Well, thank you.”
“No more nightmares?”
“I got used to them,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me so much. I’m just a little sore.”
“Ah,” he said.
He didn’t draw any nearer, but the distance between them nevertheless softened and closed up. She looked at the one half of his face, the eye waving handkerchiefs at her from its window, the mouth doing its best to raise its curtain. She swallowed and gave a little cough.
“Poor girl,” he said.
“No, that’s not it,” she said. Her gestures had drawn attention to her throat. Her calloused hand swept down, as if brushing a crumb off her apron, which was her way of indicating that the problem was actually with her nether regions. The left eye dilated, the eyebrow lifting, in what seemed like recognition, if not compassion. But the right eye gazed granite-like, unable to be touched, persuaded, or fooled.
“Come with me,” he said, the grip on her elbow tightening. He drew her up the stairs where he had vanished to get the shirts and lay her down on his bed, pulling the covers back. “This apparition,” he said, “this nightmare creature,” posing it as a question.
She shuddered, eyes fixed on the rafters. When she turned her head to him, she met his two applicants again, the judgmental, immovable orb, and the appealing one.
“It uses me clumsily and frequently,” she answered. “I’m afraid to cry out. It’s enough, the bed rattling against the wall. My parents-in-law think very badly of me.”
Sitting down next to her, he stroked her legs up from the knees, gradually furling the skirt to her hips. He kept his profile to her, so only the kindled left eye looked down at her. Briefly, he scrunched up her pubic hair, revealing her swollen, bruised lips. Sweeping the blanket down over them both, he lay beside her. They were both still in their shoes and clothes. From this horizontal vantage, the somewhat benevolent left half of his face looked at her through a half-lidded eye. The unresponsive half stared into the mattress below, temporarily vanquished. “Poor kitten,” he said. He rubbed the edge of the blanket across her cheek. The smooth, peachy wool, of an effulgent egg yolk yellow, seemed to bloom against her skin. He stroked her hair, whispering, “sshh…sshhh…” in her ear.
Abruptly he sat up and yanked the blanket off the bed. “Take this,” he said. “You will sleep very well now.” Though the words could only come out of the limber half of his mouth, their tone seemed manufactured by the stony, disapproving other side. The widow took the lovely blanket and ran off, not stopping to fold it but cramming it down into her hamper under the dirty shirts.
After her parents-in-law had quieted down in the adjoining room, the widow dragged the doctor’s blanket from the hamper and spread her bed with it. Taking off all her clothes, she lay down with the soft cover directly on top of her, no sheet intervening. She looked up behind her at a thin rind of moon squinting in the window. Then she closed her eyes. When she woke up, a radiantly smooth-skinned man lay beside her, stroking her breasts. “Let me,” she whispered, and ran her fingers in circles over his hairless torso. As she rose up towards his face to kiss him, she closed her eyes. She rolled on top of him, lying full against her husband’s warm, youthful flesh. Without any sound or talk or change of position, she put him inside of her.
The moon had rambled beyond the window by the time they finished, and the crows had started to talk from the tops of the trees.
“Paul,” she said, “you should go now.”
The apparition lay beside her, half its face buried in the pillow. The beginning of the light showed her its asymmetrical features. Its top eye locked her in its frozen stare. It murmured something, but the lips remained set in their thin, disapproving line. The muffled sounds did not come across as recognizable words. The drooping puddle of its cheek lay as if pasted against its stern jawbone, while the sound continued in short bursts, directed down into the mattress. The crisscrossed wrinkles in its neck quivered slightly as speech passed through the windpipe. Only when it propped itself on its elbow so the whole face arose could she understand it. The apparition informed her that she would marry it and move in with it, as soon as next week.
The widow did not assent, as she hadn’t been asked to. Nevertheless, it was clear to her that she would do whatever the thing ordered her to. She put her hand on its bare shoulder, now springing with coiled hairs, sparse here but thicker in the sunken hollow of its chest. She ran her fingers down the atrophied upper arm, feeling the knots and veins beneath the softly withered skin. The thing relaxed under her touch, and sank down again into the bed. She could almost make out the less pitiless part of its expression, sheltered by the pillow. She dragged the blanket up over their heads to bring back the enchanted dark. But the yellow of the blanket magnified the cruel stare of the rising sun.