The Infestation of Clary Moon, Ness Cernac
I encountered her first in the dark. I remember thinking how well she absorbed the lamplight. Faint, yellowish strains flickered above and rained down on her face, dappling her pasty cheeks, her hooded eyes, her mass of hair. That hair—it was yellow like the light and floated in wiry curls below the brim of her hat. She regarded me for several moments from the steps of the house next door and made no move to help me in with the boxes.
The first words she said to me, I could not answer right away.
“Little early to be moving in, isn’t it?” she said, and those hooded eyes cast down at me, alarmingly wide. In the light, they looked like thick white marbles with black specks of iris. I recoiled, then found myself hoping she did not take it personally. She seemed at once too much to look at and not enough—certainly too much for me to respond to her on short notice.
“Beg pardon?” I managed.
She ignored me. There was something at once refreshing and irritating about it.
“You’re coming from the forest,” she said, and her nose wrinkled up like forest was an expletive.
“Outskirts of it, more like,” I said.
“As if that matters,” she said. On this note, she swished her long afghan shawl around her shoulders, turned on her heel, and retreated through the front door of her home. A dappling of tiny shadows followed her in, skittering across the wooden slats of the porch before the door closed them in too.
I’m certain I looked rather a fool standing there in her wake. The box I held slipped from my fingers and hit the pavement below, spilling out cards and candles at my feet, each with their own skittering shadow.
My neighbor made herself difficult to ignore—an impressive feat for one who rarely left her home. To be clear, I did not watch for her on purpose, not at first, but it became necessary as time went on. This necessity began on the first day of August, the coldest August I’d felt in all my life.
By this time, I was well and truly settled in with my boxes all unpacked save for a few I kept in the cupboard under the stairs. I’d papered the living room walls in yellow—a faint, buttery shade I liked very much—and I’d touched up the dings on the kitchen cabinets with a can of paint I’d discovered in the garden shed out back. The previous owner had done all the right things, leaving behind matching paints and spare tiles. I even uncovered a half-yard of fabric matching the curtains in the front room. I was certain that even if I managed to burn the place down, the old owner would have left something behind to repair it with.
While I was arranging my candles on that windowsill, I caught sight of a figure approaching my porch. So thrilled was I to have visitors that I flung open the door and gave the man standing there quite a fright. He leaped back, wrenching his hand from my doorbell without ever having struck it.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said and carried on in this manner for a few seconds without allowing me a word in edgewise. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you, but—”
“But?” I urged.
“Did you see whether she left today? Your neighbor? I’ve got an appointment with her, and she hasn’t answered the door, so…” The man reached up and scratched the dirt-dusted mess of his hair. I might have imagined it, but I swore I saw something drop from his head and scuttle below the collar of his shirt.
I had not seen my neighbor leave, and indeed it felt strange to still call her my neighbor when I had lived there for close to a month. She hadn’t yet deigned to tell me her name, nor had she held a conversation with me lasting more than a minute or so. This seemed as good a time for proper introductions as any, so I followed the raggedy fellow down the short strip of pavement between myself and my marble-eyed neighbor.
I knocked, foolishly presuming my all-important status as her neighbor would grant me the attention she’d denied her visitor.
“Hello?” I asked quite pathetically, pressing my face to the door. “Eh…ma’am? There’s someone out here looking for you.”
With my ear as close to the crack in the door as I could get it, I glanced at the man behind me.
“What did you want to see her about?” On second look, his hair wasn’t the only part of him covered in dirt. His clothes and skin had a light dusting of it as though he’d just rolled up out of the ground.
“You don’t know?” he asked, jolting at my apparent oversight. “I mean…she’s a therapist.”
“A therapist,” I echoed. This struck me as so peculiar that I could not do anything but stare back at him, ear still pressed against the door.
It opened then and sent me careening face-first into my neighbor and her afghan shawl.
“You smell like pine sap,” she said, disgusted. She reached out and pushed me upright without ceremony, then beckoned to the fellow behind me. “In you go. My radio program starts in forty minutes and I won’t miss it.”
She shut the door in my face.
You may realize, then, that when I took to watching her it was for the sake of her clients. I saw more of them in the following weeks, some of whom drifted to my house, inquiring as to her whereabouts. All were covered with dirt and most had their own skittery shadows following behind. It became more efficient after the first two or three to keep a close watch on my neighbor’s house, which I did through my upstairs bathroom window. In the time I spent pretending to clean that window, I could have finished all the week’s chores in one fell swoop.
Alas, my neighbor took precedence.
As the months wore on and cold August became colder September, I found myself noticing things about her. She spoke to herself sometimes in hushed tones, casting furtive glances around her living room and back garden as though to ensure no one was eavesdropping on her.
She appeared to have something of an infestation as well, which I foolishly wrote off in the earliest days as a trick of the light, a dark, skittering illusion behind her. On closer inspection, they were little creatures following her like a trained procession: oblong, shimmering dark things like fat licorice drops with legs.
They entranced me.
On the day she finally caught me, I was my own undoing. I’d been staring over the fence without shame, eyes fixed upon those dark, many-legged creatures crawling on her kitchen tabletop as she cooked. My shamelessness had ticked up and up as time passed, and I’d taken to craning my neck towards her at every opportunity.
When at last she stopped her stirring and stood stock-still as if sensing my eyes on her, I knew my observations had come to an end. She yanked open her kitchen window with a resounding creak, long before I could dream of ducking away.
“Miss Moon,” she said, her mouth twisting up in utter displeasure at my name. “You’ll have a better view if you come inside.”
I went numb at her words. The way she spoke my name (doubtless copied from my mailbox, as we had never been formally introduced) was as bad as being told off in public, but at the same time it was flattering. Here she was, at last caring enough to notice me—and unless I was mistaken, I’d just received an invitation in. The thought warmed me as I stared upon her face, framed with that mess of yellow hair.
“Bring something. It’s only polite,” she said, moving to shut the window.
“Wait!” I found my voice in a rush, nearly tripping over myself with the burgeoning excitement of seeing her home and its inhabitants. “Wait, what’s your name?”
“Milliot,” she said. It rolled off her tongue like a licorice swirl.
“Milliot…what is that?” I asked, by which I meant to discover its linguistic origin.
“My name,” she said with renewed disgust, then yanked the window shut.
Well. At least I had tried.
I shuffled back inside, dazed. I had very little to offer her and had yet to shop for the week, but the thought of her waiting for me sent me digging through my kitchen in a fury. I picked through the cupboards, considering and vetoing all manner of dry cereals and snack foods along with the uncooked contents of the vegetable crisper. I settled on an opened bottle of wine. It was hardly the stuff of dinner parties, and I’d used half of it to cook a beef stew three days prior, but I brought it along anyway.
It was a mark of my infatuation with the house, the creatures within, and the owner herself that I did not stop in front of a mirror or change out of my gardening clothes before leaving my home. I glided across the pavement and up her front steps, awash with the radiance of acceptance. She had chosen me, taken notice of me at long last, and allowed me into her life.
There was a transcendence to it, even as a more rational part of my mind urged me to turn back from the unknown, from the things that scurried through her house and scampered under her feet.
I brushed it aside and rang her doorbell.
She opened it without so much as a greeting and beckoned me in.
“Watch where you step,” she said.
I would have watched anything, gone anywhere to hear that low voice again, to feel those marble eyes poring over me. I obeyed her decree and peered down at my feet. The licorice-drop insects below skittered away from me without lingering, without giving me so much as a chance to earn their trust. It pained me, and I half wanted to apologize for the fright I’d given them.
“I brought you this,” I ventured, extending my bottle of wine.
Milliot turned to me and looked it over, then wrinkled her nose. I was left crestfallen once again.
“Set it on the table,” she said.
I padded into the dining room after her, the faint scratching noise of tiny legs following behind me. I dared not look, though I wanted to beckon them to me like little children or stray puppies.
Milliot was still in the middle of food preparations, brushing sauce over something she’d pulled from the oven, and when she set it on the table, I was equally perplexed and intrigued. It appeared to be a chicken, though it had an unnatural shimmer to it like it was cased in jelly. The sauce over it was a dark, bubbly sort of cream, and I jolted when it wriggled and a head emerged from within: a tiny, dark head with long antennae and petite front legs. It wriggled there, demure and apologetic about its predicament before it slid itself out and skittered off the serving platter unscathed.
“You bad thing,” Milliot murmured, holding her hand out for it. It scampered across the table and up her arm, disappearing inside her sleeve.
My breath had shortened at this point, and I felt it come out in wheezes. There was something frightening about the situation and the thick, musty smell of rot that hung in the kitchen, but when Milliot sliced a leg and thigh from the chicken and placed it on my plate, fatty jelly and cream along with it, I ate without hesitation.
Milliot served herself soon after, though she did not take a bite until I was near halfway finished. Instead, she sat and observed me. One of her children (for I could not help but consider them such) crawled into the palm of her hand and rolled over, sitting upright and staring at me with all the faculties and self-awareness of a human. She pet it, too, stroking its head between the antennae before it scampered off again.
It ran across my plate, dark legs streaking through the cream sauce, yet I couldn’t bring myself to brush it away.
“I…I quite like them,” I managed to say when all that remained on my plate was stray chicken bones.
Milliot shot me such a withering stare that I recoiled into my seat, feeling what I had said was quite polite given the circumstances.
“And the chicken was excellent,” I added. Was it? To this day I am not certain if I even tasted it, even felt it in my mouth, too preoccupied was I with my dinner companion. Still I complimented it, desperate to earn her approval.
“Let me be frank, Cory—”
I did not correct her.
“—You are utterly uninteresting. There is nothing inside you, no secrets you haven’t already shoved out into the open. I invited you over to see if there was something, anything beneath those dull eyes of yours, but you are empty. Alive, empty, and dull. Thank you for the wine. I will use it to cook. Goodnight.” At this, Milliot stood.
I dropped to my knees, eyes welling with tears.
“Please, please, I’m sorry for spying on you, but this place…I think I’m meant to be in this place, meant to be with you…I can’t explain it, but—”
“I’ve heard it all before,” Milliot said. She hoisted me up under the arms, her touch at once gentle and forceful, then nudged me in the direction of her door. “It’s as I said. You’re far too early.”
My protestations fell on unwelcoming ears, and I found myself shunted out into the cold.
I am ashamed to say I returned to her home the following morning. I thought perhaps a tasteful card and some flowers would smooth things over and absolve me of my transgressions. She did not respond to my knocks or pleas for further consideration, so I left the flowers on her doormat. They were still there in the days that followed, though they appeared bug-eaten. I found myself consoled by the possibility her children had found sustenance in them, that perhaps my gift had not been in vain.
Though I no longer try to curry favor with her through boutique gifts and sweet words, I still see her. She flits past windows and I recall the lamplight in her hair that first night. I find it is easier to carry my attachment with the help of others, my newfound companions.
It was easy to attract their attention. I leave things for them. Rounds of bread and drips of sauce, pieces of old fruit…they cherish the bits and pieces of my life.
When the carpet is thick with them, I sit among them and close my eyes, careful not to crush their little bodies. They are so much more delicate than they appear, so much more frightened, and I am loathe to harm that which reminds me of her.
I let them crawl up my sleeves to rest, allow them to burrow in my sullen hair. I allow them free reign of the place, but they are not hers. They are feral children, not attached to me in the way Milliot’s are to her. They see me as a convenience, but they do not love me.
Still, I persist. I persist, because one day I will die. I will be buried, I will wake, and I will shudder up to her door, dusty and crawling with little creatures, because perhaps then I will have something to tell her, something she does not already know. Perhaps then I will be worth her time.
I should like it to be one day soon.
Ness Cernac is an English composition and ESL tutor with a BA in philosophy, and my short fiction has been featured in Novel Noctule.