An excerpt of “Black Treacle: a story of Anna Kavan.”
“Would you like some tea?” Helen said to the boy. He was so thin, his teeth were as yellow as urine again the black tar of his gums. Also, his eyes were terrible to look at. They were the eyes of a child’s nightmare monster, striated with burst capillaries, the irises milky like bruised fruit.
“No, ma’am. But thanks a bunch. I’ve got other…people to see.” He said. He gave her one of his terrifying smiles; his wet teeth in loam speckled with pink.
“Of course, you do, Jasper. Perhaps some other time.” Helen watched him walk to the other side of the park. It was silly of her, really, to invite him to tea. Her very soul pulsed with pain, and it increased incrementally every moment. Electric aches sparked in her veins. Blood and bile and mucus all screamed, You will die, Helen. The thought of enduring a meal of sandwiches and fizzy drinks made her nauseous.
It was chilly out, so she buttoned up her coat and clasped the precious package to her body, and exited the park. The sky threatened rain. It was white as icing sugar without a single break. Everything was dull in this light, drained of color and life. The cobblestones under her pumps were pieces of the sky in a darker shade. She thought of Jasper; did he have a mother? A lover? Probably not. Fate had been unkind to him, had made his beautiful face ugly.
But why I am worried about him? We all have our stories and burdens. His name is probably not even Jasper. Just as I am not Helen…
A few automobiles passed by her, wobbling on the uneven pavement. Helen crossed the street, leaving her reverie behind. She entered the chemist’s, bypassing the display of fruit and nut chocolate bars and feminine products. She didn’t have time to peruse any of the other products. She approached the back desk, where all of the medicine was kept. No-one was at the desk. She rang the bell impatiently. It was shrill in the silent empty store. The old pharmacist appeared like a sprite in a fairy story. He was small, shorter than her own 5’2, and slender. His mostly bald head was fringed red-grey hair that stuck out in peaks. His tiny beard was in the shape of an arrow. Smart Bolshevik glasses completed his look. Anna thought of him as a malevolent elf, like Rumpelstiltskin.
Like a sinister creature of myth, Anna felt always felt he knew more than he let on, as if he were just humoring her.
“Ah, Miss Helen,” he said. He caught her reflection in the circle of his lenses. “Back so soon?”
“I’m afraid so,” she said. She gave what she hoped was her most ladylike smile. Genteel, not flirtatious.
He smiled back. Those dark eyes seemed to look right into her. “I see. You know,” he said as he turned to collect the syringes that she needed, “Needles pre-loaded with insulin are quite popular. You might be the only customer of mine who gets the empty needles and insulin in separate packages.”
“Isn’t that something. I’ll bring that up with the doctor next time we see him.”
The pharmacist handed her the brown paper bag full of syringes and rang her up on the cash register. It was like an antique typewriter. The return rang, spat up what she owed him on yellowed tiles with numbers on them. They looked like teeth in black loam…
She handed him the required pound notes. As he counted out the change, he said, “What did you say your doctor’s name was? I might have talk with him.”
Of course, there was no doctor. Both she and Rumpelstiltskin knew that, but he insisted on the game. He didn’t look at her, and let her panic unobserved.
“Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of him,” she finally said. As he handed her the change, he held her eyes with his own. Anna felt nude before him. It was as if he could see into the depths of her soul, and see her vampiristic hunger. She broke contact. Somehow, she must never come here again. The little troll was getting too inquisitive. The other chemist’s was out of her way, but she’d have to frequent his store.
The rest of the walk home was an agonizing blur. The screaming in her body was intense. Helen felt like she was some sort of ghoul clothed rather fashionably. Tweed skirt, dove-gray pumps, all draped in a hunter green shawl. She was an impostor, a ghost stain upon the world. Peel away the layers of fabric, and you would find translucent flesh barely held together with bones, a tracery of palest ichors and nerves engorged with pain. After she closed the door behind her, Helen fell against it, exhausted. She closed her eyes, and clutched her parcels to her. Breath slowed after an eternity. Opening her eyes, she caught her reflection in the vestibule mirror. Her face was pale, her eyes shadowed. Blue veins crawled at her temple. The spray of forced pussy willows hid her spotted neck. It was all she could do not to flee her image. But no. If she ignored the various rituals of living, if she descended into slovenliness, she would fall into the abyss. The abyss followed her, ever since she was a child. She was born with it, out of one dark vastness into another. She’d fallen into it once and it had taken her years to get out of it. She still wore the scars of that upward climb.
So Helen laid her things down on the long table, removed and hung her shawl, placed her keys in the bowl by the door. She stepped out of her pumps, placed them in the hall closet. Then, with her packages, she went up the stairs to her studio.
She locked herself in. Donald wouldn’t be home for hours, but he knew not to disturb her when she was working. It was an agreement they had.
The room was a comfortable mess; it was the only place she allowed disorder to prevail. A couple of easels were set up along one wall, with a grim, grey cubist image of herself staring back at her. Yes. This was Helen. Sharp angles, drab, lonely. Helen hated Helen. Such a sad, mousy thing. A perennial victim. She was the girl of cinders, next to her radiant mother. She was one of Bluebeard’s unwitting concubines, awaiting death at the hands of her husband. (But that wasn’t fair, now, was it? Helen had been born with the abyss, an invisible vortex of despair. Of course, she attracted bad things to herself. It was even here, the vortex, in her sanctuary. It had taken the form of the grey girl in the painting).
She began the ritual. There was a feeling of sacredness about what she did, as precise and symbolic as any priest’s rite. First, she sat in the pale lilac chair, and placed her things on the side table next to it. She unwrapped Jasper’s gift. It was a black rock in tissue paper, about the size of her thumb. She placed the lump of licorice in the tin cup she’d taken from a drawer. My chalice, she thought and laughed a little. The tin cup was dented and burnt. She struck a kitchen match, also from the drawer, and ignited an amoeba of wax that had once been a yellow candle. She rested the tin cup over the flame, and watched as the black rock melted into a pool of black treacle. When it started bubbling, Helen blew the candle out, and gently blew on the hot liquid. It smelled horrible, the chemical reek of ether and ammonia and salt., not like treacle at all. And yet, it had a sweetness that Helen needed.
When the liquid cooled, Helen used one of the syringes she’d bought from that pharmacist-creature, and watched it fill the chamber. The delicate instrument became some sort of weapon. It was gun-metal black. Helen couldn’t help but smile, as she used a rubber band as a tourniquet. Her vein was blue and eager against her skin. Helen bought the dark needle to her arm, and eased it in. A chill pinched her forearm, and the treacle went into her blood. Helen went into bliss or death; she couldn’t tell the difference.