Read Medusa's Web Online

Authors: Tim Powers

Medusa's Web


To Steve and Tammie Malk

With thanks to:

Manny Aguirre, Chris Arena, Fr. Hugh Barbour, Amelia Beamer,

John Berlyne, Jim Blaylock, Jennifer Brehl, Fr. John Chrysostom,

Russell Galen, Steve Hickman, Ron and Val Lindahn, Fr. Jerome

Molokie, Kelly O'Connor, Faust Pierfederici, Joni Labaqui,

Laurie McGee, Jim Pepper, Chris Powers, Serena Powers, Ellen

Sandoval, William Schafer, Joe Stefko, Rodger Turner, Michael

and Laura Yanovich


“When you are in the fingers of this unwisely summoned beast, you find yourself in a hundred conflicting motions all in the same moment. You grieve, you dance, you vomit, you shake, you weep, you faint, and suffer enormously, and you die . . . the sovereign and sole remedy is Music.”

—Francesco Cancellieri, Letters of Francesco Cancellieri to the ch. Signore Dottore Koreff, Professor of Medicine of the University of Berlin, about Tarantism, the airs of Rome, and of its countryside, and the Papal palaces inside, and outside, Rome, 1817


“The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.”

—William Faulkner


turning into the parking lot.”

The woman stood at one of the tall French windows, peering through the rain-streaked glass down the slope outside. The day had not ever been very bright, and the light in the overcast sky was now fading. “And I can hear the engine—it's a motorcycle, isn't it? Probably the same terrible old Honda he had when he moved out.”

Her cousin sighed and rolled his wheelchair across the worn carpet to pause beside her. “It's a motorcycle,” he agreed. “Now it's behind the trees.”

“And the engine has stopped. It's him.”

Her cousin nodded, still peering at the corner of the parking lot visible below. “And that car now is probably his sister.”

“Oh, Claimayne, I
like them coming back here to Caveat.” She reached out and unlatched the window and pushed it open; a gust of cold air twitched at her short brown hair and rolled the chilly scent of wet clay through the musty air of the dining room.

Claimayne Madden hiked his wheelchair back. “Relax, Ariel, I heard he's a drunk these days. Probably all pouchy and fat.”

Ariel Madden turned and scowled at her cousin. “
Shut up.

Claimayne grinned and held up his hands.

Ariel pulled her cell phone out of her blouse pocket. “And give me a spider. I want to do a before and after.”

“What?” His eyes were fully open now. “No—for God's sake, have a drink; chug a glass of bourbon if you have to. Close the damn window and sit down. You've been four years clean!”

Peering again down through the wet terraces of waving bamboo and pampas grass, Ariel snapped her fingers and stretched one hand toward him.

Claimayne went on, “A before and after? You won't be able to
anything; you used up your
years ago! You'll just sit here blinking at them like an idiot. And your after will just be an hallucination, not any real view of the future—they nearly always are.”

“I haven't done one in four years,” she said impatiently. “I'm probably a virgin again.”

“Listen to yourself. If you try to force your later self to
anything, you'll probably get an embolism.”

Her hand stayed extended toward him.

Claimayne shrugged and let his hands fall into his lap, and he stared at the carpet for several seconds. Then he dug into the pocket of his silk dressing gown and laid a folded slip of paper in her palm.

Ariel touched the screen of her phone a couple of times, then, without looking, unfolded the piece of paper and held the phone a foot above it and touched the corner of the screen. The phone clicked faintly, and she gave the paper back to Claimayne.

“I'm e-mailing it to myself,” she said, tapping at the on-screen keyboard now. “It better not be just one of your poems.”

“You're a big girl,” he said, pocketing the paper. “You want to take it up again, that's your choice.”

“Your disapproval is . . . hypocritical.”

Claimayne sighed. “I suppose, I suppose. Do what thou wilt, child.”

Her voice was mocking: “Thank you,

She hurried out of the dining room, the knock of her boots echoing in the high arches of the ceiling as she stepped into the tiled hall.

Claimayne rolled forward again and leaned out of the wheelchair to get hold of the wet window latch, but his fingers slid ineffectually off the cold metal, and he gave up and sat back, panting.

When Ariel strode back into the dining room she was folding up a sheet of paper obviously fresh from the printer in the library at the other end of the house. “I
not look at it at
” she said defensively as she tucked it into her blouse pocket beside her phone, “much less
. Can you see them yet?”

“I haven't looked. Do you want to go down and tell them that we're lodging them in the old apartments by the parking lot? Even with the cones across the garage road, they may imagine they're staying up here in the main house.”

“If they drag their luggage up here, they can just drag it down again. I'm not going out in that rain.”

motorcycle on the kickstand and unhooked the bungee cords that had held a bulky black-plastic bag and a folded tarpaulin against the sissy bar. Setting the bag on the puddled pavement, he unfolded the tarpaulin and draped it over the motorcycle, careful not to let it touch the hot exhaust pipes, and he picked up the bag and was pulling off his helmet as he trudged across the gleaming asphalt to his sister's twenty-year-old Datsun. He paused beside it for several seconds, as the rain thumped on his head, then leaned down and opened the door.

“They'll give us rooms, Madeline,” he said.

“I know.” She swung her legs out and stood up. She was wearing jeans and an old Members Only jacket over a sweater, and she bent back into the car to get a baseball cap and pull it down over her curly dark hair. She seemed thinner than the last time Scott had seen her. “I bet they hate us, though,” she added, straightening up. “They blocked the road up to the house.”

“Maybe the garage road's washed out. Claimayne doesn't hate
anybody, and Ariel's hated me for years. God knows why.” He smiled sourly. “And they shouldn't worry; the will won't stand up anyway—she signed it an hour before she killed herself. Grotesquely. Hardly of sound mind.”

“At least it's free food for a week. Assuming they feed us. If not, there's apples and avocados and pears growing all over the property.” Madeline nodded solemnly. “Can you carry some of my stuff too? I brought work along.”

Madeline Madden had been a professional astrologer since moving out of Caveat seven years ago, having learned the craft from an old woman who had been a tenant there back in the days when their aunt still rented out apartments. Scott, in turn, had become a graphic artist under the informal tutelage of a painter who had rented another of the apartments.

“Sure. I may want to stop on the stairs and rest once or twice.”

As Madeline walked around to open the trunk, Scott stared over the roof of the car at the now vacant apartment building beyond a row of shaggy eucalyptus trees on the east end of the Caveat estate. The long gray two-story box was the newest structure on the property, having been built in the 1970s. The buildings up the hill had accumulated one by one since the 1920s, most of them incorporating bits salvaged from various torn-down hotels and movie sets. Their aunt Amity, affluent from the sales of her series of popular novels, had added to the architectural clutter after she bought the estate in 1965.

He looked up the hill, and he could just see the rooftop gables of the sprawling main house, which was three stories tall in most places. As children, he and his sister had sometimes stood outside and picked out a window and then gone inside to try to find the room behind it, often without success.

Our childhood home, Scott thought with a shiver as he took a canvas bag from Madeline.

The long stairway up to the main house was a curving track
through a jungle of trees and vines, and the old granite steps were slippery with drifts of soggy dead leaves. Above the panting and scuffing of their progress, the only sounds were raindrops tapping on shiny leaves and the soft clatter of a stream somewhere nearby tumbling over stones—Hollywood Boulevard was only four long blocks south, and the 101 Freeway even closer, but no whisper of traffic or horns found its way over the intervening trees and rooftops to this slope.

Stopping to rest in the rainy breeze wasn't tempting, and the two of them trudged up one uneven step after another without pause, and within a few minutes they stood panting on the rain-flattened grass in front of the main house. The hooded porch light was on, islanding the porch and the narrow yard in an amber glow.

It was the only sign that the place was inhabited. One of the dining room's row of French windows was open, though Scott couldn't make out anyone in the dimness within, and the deep-set windows on the second and third floors and in the three rooftop gables all just mirrored the darkening gray sky, with no lights behind them. There might have been smoke trailing from one or both of the square chimneys at the east and west ends of the house, but not enough to be visible. Angular lumps in the grass near the house proved on closer inspection to be fallen roof tiles, the baked red clay mostly covered with green moss.

Scott stepped up onto the marble-railed porch and set his bundle and Madeline's bag on a cement bench. She came puffing up beside him and set a suitcase and a valise beside the bag.

Her brother was facing south, away from the light over the front door, and Madeline turned that way too. The 101 Freeway was a string of red and white lights across the middle distance, and the stacked-disk tower of the Capitol Records building beyond it was a spottily lit silhouette dimly visible through the veils of rain.

Just as Scott took a deep breath and turned around to knock, the lock clunked and the door was pulled open; for a moment there was
nothing to see but the dark entry hall, and then Claimayne's slippered feet, and a moment later the entirety of him in his wheelchair jerked into view from behind the door.

Scott barely recognized him; Claimayne seemed at once older and younger than he remembered. The man's face was smooth and unlined, but it had the tight, glossy look of excessive cosmetic surgery, and he was gleamingly bald. Under a dressing gown, he wore a green velour shirt with what appeared to be a two-inch gold spring on a fine chain around his neck.

“Cousins!” said Claimayne jovially. “I'm afraid you've been put to some unnecessary exertion—”

A tall woman in a long black skirt and short denim jacket stepped up from behind him, holding a folded sheet of white paper—and though she was slimmer now and her dark hair was a good deal shorter than it had been when he had last seen her thirteen years ago, Scott recognized Ariel. And he realized that he was reflexively smiling, for Ariel had been a bright and welcome companion in the days before he had moved out of Caveat in 2002.

She's three years younger than me, Scott thought, two years older than Madeline—she's thirty-three now.

To his surprise, she was smiling too, with evident wry humor. Her eyes were the pale brown of dry sherry wine.

“Claimayne means you're
to be put to some exertions,” she said, and her voice was the same husky contralto that he remembered vividly. She tucked the paper carefully into her blouse pocket. “You're to stay in your old suite upstairs here at the main house, but nobody's dusted in there yet and there's only bare mattresses on the beds.”

Claimayne's eyebrows were halfway up his pale forehead; clearly this was a surprise to him. I'll bet a couple of the apartments down the hill have got freshly made beds, Scott thought. And if that's so, we'd really be better off staying in them.

Beside him, Madeline shifted her sneakers in the splashing puddles; Scott guessed that she too would be happier staying down the hill.

But for more than a decade he had had no contact with his cousin Ariel—for the first few years after he had moved out of Caveat he had sent cards and letters only to have them returned unopened, and he had called only to have her hang up the telephone at the sound of his voice—and he realized that he couldn't refuse this not-entirely-convenient offer.

” drawled Claimayne, “for the week my mother specified in her
of course.”

“Of course,” Scott said to him; then, looking back up at Ariel, he added, “And thank you. We'll be happy to fix up the rooms ourselves.”

Ariel stepped behind Claimayne's wheelchair and pulled it out of the way. “For God's sake, come in out of the rain.”

Before turning to the luggage on the bench, Scott glanced at the word engraved in the stone lintel over the door—the word
survived on the left side, but whatever had followed it on the right had long ago fallen away.

As in
caveat emptor,
he thought. Let the buyer beware. But the noun here, whatever it had been, was long gone.

“Will you come
Scott?” said Ariel.

“Right, right.”

When the newcomers stood dripping on the tiles of the entry hall with their bags in a pile beside them, Ariel gripped one of the handles at the back of Claimayne's wheelchair and then leaned against the wall. “Sheets and pillows where they always were,” she said quickly. “I'm afraid I won't have time to help. Dinner's at six, and in the meantime there's cookies in the kitchen—if you don't knock the plate on the floor.” She added the last with a faint smile, making Scott wonder if he had once done that. “Dinner was ench—ench—” She stopped speaking and looked down at the floor.

“Enchiladas is my guess,” said Claimayne. “I think Ariel will be wanting a lie-down about now.” He waved one hand toward the stairs. “You two remember the way, I'm sure. There's a spare electric
heater in the laundry room—I think you'll want to have it running in the doorway between your rooms. This place gets cold at night.” To Ariel he added, “Hold on to the handles and shuffle along, my dear. I'll steer you to a chair.”

Ariel let go of the wheelchair and sagged into a chair by the window.

For nearly a minute she just stared blindly ahead, gripping the arms of the chair. At last she lifted her hands and stared at them as she alternately stretched her fingers and clenched them into fists.

“They're your hands,” said Claimayne softly, “whatever shapes they may assume.”

“I remember.”

“Take your time. It's been four years.”

Finally she took a deep breath, let it out, and was able to frown directly at Claimayne. “I saw them in the flash-ahead; they were still here. Will still be here, when I look at your damned spider again and do the after.”

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