We are chaos. We are the teeth of dragons, shed like seeds.
We look on your works, ye mighty, and we laugh.
—Geoffrey Usborne Bryant
“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth”
I had known Geoffrey Usborne Bryant at school, so when I read of his death in the paper, I felt a chill. Only the chill of mortality, Death’s bony finger running along my spine—no more than that, for I had not known him well. Certainly not well enough that we would have called each other friend.
And then, I suppose, I forgot about the matter entirely, for it came as a violent shock, some six months later, to learn that Usborne Bryant, having neither kin nor kith, had left his papers to the Parrington Museum.
The papers were an unwieldy mess, notebooks and loose pages, palimpsestic in their layered, scribbled notes, and manuscripts bound with string like virgin sacrifices. For a comparatively young man, Usborne Bryant had been remarkably prolific, writing poems and essays and short stories. His first collection of poems, The Cassandras of Paris, had won the Ostrog Prize; he had followed that glittering success with publications in prestigious literary magazines, awards, prizes, fellowships, grants… people were already saying things—Mr. Lucent told me, for I had not been paying attention—about the loss to literature and the publication of the uncollected poems and so on and so forth, so that there was a great deal of pressure on the Museum to catalogue its new holdings quickly.
And that was how I ended up with a stack of Geoffrey Usborne Bryant’s papers on my desk, and boxes more on the floor around me. Those things that were clearly complete, or mostly complete, manuscripts, Mr. Lucent had given to the junior curators, and he himself had taken the baleful row of notebooks, leaving me to face the bewilderment of the loose pages that Usborne Bryant’s executors had scooped up by the armful from his bed-sitting room and shipped to the Museum. If there had ever been any rationality to their arrangement, there was none now.
None of the pages was dated, so I began simply putting things together that looked like they were part of the same project. I found something that looked like a diary; notes and scribbled drawings for things not yet written; bits of doggerel such as even the best poet will find jingling in his head; notes jotted down from whatever book he had been reading; and several drafts of a long poem in blank verse, entitled “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth.” I knew he had never published such a thing—which answered the question of whether there was anything of literary interest in this mare’s nest—and although I tried not to read it, bits and phrases kept jumping at me: “the jeering ones,” “the pointless Babel,” “the spiderwebs of clinging custom.” And the first image of the poem, “we are dragon’s teeth, shed like seeds.”
I remembered the story of the dragon’s teeth. I remembered reading it in a Greek primer written by the Greek master at Brockstone School, sitting in a stifling classroom, the other boys snickering as I stammered and Usborne Bryant, who usually stared silently at the pages of his textbook, leaning sideways to whisper something behind his hand to the boy beside him.
I pushed the memory away, as I had always done, and returned grimly to the matter of the poet’s papers.
I found it at the bottom of the third box.
For a long moment, I could not even make sense of what it was: a wadded up handkerchief? a dead mouse? But then I realized, and I recoiled so hard I bruised my hip painfully against my desk with no memory even of having gotten to my feet. I was wiping my hands with my handkerchief, so hard that the skin was starting to turn red. I made myself stop, since it was pointless, anyway. Literal dirt was the least of the evils I had found.
It was a poppet, the oldest kind of Anglo-American magic. Someone had made it—probably it had been a handkerchief originally—dressing it in scraps of silk from a stolen necktie piercing its body with two long pearl-headed pins. And then somehow they had hidden it in Usborne Bryant’s room, somewhere among his familiar and trusted things. That was not usual with poppets; usually they were hidden where their maker could check on them periodically. But poppets were the most unsophisticated and rudimentary kind of witchcraft; the “rules” were just hearsay and gossip anyway. And then it occurred to me that maybe Usborne Bryant’s room was exactly such a place, where the witch had free access to come and go, to tuck something into a bookcase, perhaps, or nudge a fallen wad of linen and silk under an armchair with the toe of one shoe. And to return as Usborne Bryant began to feel ill, to complain of pains in his chest and stomach, to lose weight. To return and tidy the room, straighten the books, check under the armchair for stray pens. And to watch Usborne Bryant lose flesh, lose sleep, consult doctor after doctor, none of whom could find anything wrong. Mr. Lucent had told me they thought Usborne Bryant had been poisoned, although the autopsy had revealed no sign of antimony or arsenic or any of the other poisons you could dose your victim with slowly. And, of course, he had been poisoned—simply not with any poison an autopsy was going to find.
I looked at the box with loathing. Poppets were vile mischief, when they were nothing worse; they stained the air around them with envy and malice. I wanted nothing more than to take the box down to the boiler room and burn it.
But where someone had succeeded with maleficium once, they were only too likely to try it again. And while I had no love for Usborne Bryant, no one deserved that terrible wasting death. And the next person to die that way, from that cause, would be as much my responsibility as the witch’s.
I had to find out who had made the poppet.
Though witchcraft was painted as a particularly female sin, I knew that was far from the truth. Usborne Bryant had had no wife, no fiancée, not even a sister or a spurned lover. What he had had instead was a close circle of friends—fellow poets, a couple of artists, a violinist—men of his own age and class and breeding who would certainly have been welcome in his room any time they chose to visit. I knew who they were; I have always watched the city’s literary luminaries with something I myself cannot put a name to, some restless mixture of envy and disdain. And I considered them as I hunted among the Museum’s storerooms for a smaller box—finding, ironically, the sort of cigar box that boys had used to hold their treasures when I myself was a boy. It was full of iridescent beetles, each mounted neatly on a piece of index card a precise inch square and labeled in a painstakingly minute hand. Those beetles I could recognize seemed to be labeled correctly.
I put the beetles in the mailbox of Dr. Yorajian, where he would doubtless be very puzzled by them in the morning, and took the box back to my office, where I used the hook on the end of the transom pole to drag the poppet into the cigar box. I felt better when the lid was closed and latched.
It seemed to me unlikely that the violinist or the artists would have gone to such lengths to kill Usborne Bryant. They were knights questing after a different grail—related to his, but sufficiently dissimilar that his success would not cast a pall over their efforts. His fellow poets, on the other hand… it seemed not at all unlikely that one of them might have had resentment turn to hatred as Usborne Bryant chased one success with another. And then that hatred might all too easily turn to the kind of very specific malice one needs in order to make a poppet and deathwish it.
I found Mr. Lucent in his office and asked him for the address of the most vituperative of Usborne Bryant’s friends, a mediocre poet with a shredding gift for criticism named Oliver Corcoran. Mr. Lucent, enured as we all were to our colleagues asking odd questions, said, “He lives at the Belfontaine. I’ve no idea what room number, but you’ll find him in the bar.” He sighed and pushed his hair away from his eyes, his hair pomade having given out several hours ago. “One always does.”
For me, the Belfontaine Hotel was a place of evil associations, but it was architecturally one of the city’s showpieces. The lobby and bar were a run of interconnected vaults, vaguely Byzantine in flavor, red velvet upholstery and brass fittings warm and dense against the tall cool arches of marble; around the corner, where the bartender directed me when I asked about Mr. Corcoran, the bar became more like something out of the Arabian Nights, an opium den as imagined by Tiffany.
Oliver Corcoran slouched in a corner booth like a minotaur waiting for virgins. He was a big slab-sided man, Bohemianly untidy of dress, with tiny bright eyes behind a screen of dark curls. He welcomed me hospitably, as I supposed you would have to, if you made your office in the back of a hotel bar, and brightened when I mentioned Usborne Bryant’s name.
“I’m glad the poor devil had the sense to get his business put in order,” he said.
I thought of the books and papers bequeathed higgledy-piggledy to the Parrington, and said, “His papers are safe, and we are finding some… some unpublished material, as well as the uncollected poems and essays.”
“Are you?” Tiny bright eyes, like an elephant’s. “Anything good?”
I am such a lamentably bad liar. I am sure I flushed to the roots of my hair, and there was a long pause before I managed, “We… that is, it was decided that perhaps… that is, none of us is particularly au courant with modern poetry. We, er, we were wondering about an editor?” My voice squeaked a little on the last word.
“Someone to edit The Collected Writings of Geoffrey Usborne Bryant, you mean?” Corcoran’s tiny eyes grew even brighter. “It’s a splendid idea. I only wish I could put myself forward.”
“You can’t?” My voice was too sharp, and he raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, I’m the wrong person to edit Geoff’s poetry. I can never see a damn thing wrong with it.” He did not sound angry, only sad, and I realized that he could not be the witch. That sort of seething envy would burn through any façade you tried to hide it behind.
But Corcoran might know who the witch was.
“…Maybe you could help me?”
“I’m certainly willing to try.”
“We… that is, I would like to approach his friends first, but I was concerned… I am concerned that it might seem… that someone might think… that is…”
“Something’s bothering you,” he said, showing mercy.
I took a deep breath and blurted it out: “Do you think any of his friends… that is, did anyone ever seem to resent Usborne Bryant’s talent?”
“My dear boy,” he said, although I was older than he was. “You can’t resent a gift like Usborne Bryant’s. You can only get the hell out of the way and pray not to be crushed as it passes. No one in their right…” I saw the thought hit him, the fractional widening of the tiny eyes, the hitch in the big round rolling voice. He gave me a different look and said, “You found something.”
“And you’re seriously concerned?”
I try in general not to discuss the occult, either with those who know nothing about it or with those who know far too much. I said, “If we… if the Museum is going to appoint an editor, and we… if we choose someone who only envies Usborne Bryant, without appreciating… that is, without really understanding what his poetry does—” I broke off.
“And you can’t edit the work yourself?”
“Not my field,” I said, hearing the scream and thud of the guillotine in my own voice, and did not add, and I have hated him since we were boys. “But I understand the damage envy can do.”
Corcoran made a face. “It was envy that killed Usborne Bryant, if you want my opinion.”
I jumped as if he had rammed a pin into me. “Why… why do you say that?”
“Well, you know—I gather—that Usborne Bryant had a circle of very close friends. He used to joke about the ‘charmed circle’ and about how none of us was allowed to die or go off to find the North Pole or anything like that. But I think maybe it wasn’t really a joke, and none of us understood.” He took a deep swallow of his whiskey and soda. “Byers is getting married in a month or so—Claude Hamilton Byers, I mean, the portrait painter—and between his fiancée and her family and all the three thousand and thirteen things that seem to crop up when someone’s planning a wedding—between that and his career, because you can’t just let your career as a portrait painter slide for six months, not if you expect to support a wife and hypothetical children, well, Byers has hardly been around. And first Usborne Bryant was amused, and then he was cross, and then he was livid, and then he started pining, muttering nonsense about how the circle was broken and nothing was ever going to be the same and it was like trying to hold water in a cracked glass. I suppose, really, I’m not sure if he envied Byers or was jealous of him. He snarled at Byers’ poor bride, the one time Byers brought her around, and I could have slapped him for being such a fool. If he wanted to break his charmed circle, there was certainly no faster way to do it.”
I said, “I was really more… that is, we were concerned about someone else envying him.”
“And I can see why,” Corcoran agreed. “Heaven knows, it can be a cut-throat business, although you wouldn’t think it of poets. And, well, I’d say you can ask Banholt or Irving—although Irving would be a dreadful editor—but stay clear of Gault.”
“Gault,” I said. I was a little surprised, because Victor Gault was the only one whose career was at all comparable to Usborne Bryant’s.
“I like Gault,” Corcoran said, “but I’ve never been quite sure whether Gault would say the same of me. And that’s a terrible thing to wonder about a close friend. No, ask Banholt. He’ll be delighted, and he’ll do a grand job.”
“Thank you,” I said. And if Corcoran had guessed—as I thought he had—that I was not asking about editors at all, he did not say so.
Victor Gault had been a year or two, I no longer remembered distinctly, behind me—and Usborne Bryant—at Brockstone School. He had grown up to be nondescript, medium height, medium build, round face, brown hair, and a bland taste in tailoring, as unpoetic as anyone might imagine. He had a stubborn jaw, and his eyes were not bland at all, but a luminous blue. He had made a name for himself as a translator, going after the more obscure epics like Jerusalem Delivered, Orlando Innamorato, and the Argonautica, and producing translations that gave a startlingly clear sense of the original poetry. His own original work was, ironically, much less original than his translations, being traditional in the extreme, workmanlike, well-crafted, even clever, but without the spark that illuminated Usborne Bryant. And he was an ambitious man. I could see it in his jaw, in the flatness of his bright blue eyes.
And as he let me into his apartment—and no matter how ridiculous it sounds—I could feel his poppets. The one that killed Usborne Bryant was not his only work, and the others were somewhere nearby, somewhere in this tasteful, clean-lined, extremely modern apartment.
I had wondered how to broach the matter, but now that it was upon me, I knew perfectly. As Gault sat down and looked at me, inquiring and slightly irritated, I simply opened the cigar box and held it out.
Gault drew back. But he failed the first test of innocence. He did not ask what the poppet was. For several seconds, he could not manage to speak at all; I thought that the sight of the poppet was somehow painful to him. Finally, he said, “Why are you here? It’s not mine.”
“You, er, you know what it is.”
He waved that away, although he could not make the gesture look anything other than laboriously practiced. “Any passing interest in early American superstitions is enough for that.”
In point of fact, it was not. I said, “You envied him.”
“Well, of course, I envied him,” he said. He tried to laugh, but would have been better advised not to. “He must have been bribing people, to get the reviews he got.”
I noticed that Gault, having failed to ask me what the thing was, had failed to ask me who it had ill-wished. He knew.
I said nothing, but waited, and Gault eventually began to fidget, finally saying, almost angrily, “I didn’t mean any harm.”
I stared at him in salt-barren incredulity. Even leaving aside the basic implausibility that anyone would construct a poppet and hide it in their enemy’s room and not mean harm, I could feel the other poppets, wherever he had secreted them, more distinctly with every passing moment: a dry, crackling, dusty feeling that was making the hairs on the back of my neck very slowly stand on end.
His face reddened, and he flung himself to his feet, saying, “It drove me mad, the way he preened and simpered and expected all of us to praise him.” This time the laugh was more genuine, but deeply bitter. “Oh, there was a price for being in Geoffrey Usborne Bryant’s charmed circle, make no mistake about that. If you didn’t show that you appreciated the favor he was doing you, you were out on your ear. And he cut poor Jeremy Prynne dead for daring to win the Hallamount Prize. You had to be good, or he wouldn’t give you the time of day, but the unforgivable sin was to be better.”
I must have made a noise of some sort, as it occurred to me, all these years later, that there might have been another reason Usborne Bryant had suddenly stopped being not exactly friends with me. I had thought it was that he saw his chance to ingratiate himself with Cressingham and Ratcliffe and the rest of the circle he aspired to—and certainly turning his clever tongue to mockery of my awkwardness got him the entrée he wanted—but it was true that only the week before I had beaten him in the school’s Latin translation competition. I had not generally won competitions—I was no greater favorite with the masters than I was with the boys—and I did remember, now, actually saying something to Usborne Bryant, something I had meant as a joke about how rarely anyone beat him at anything to do with language, but which he must have taken as a taunt. As gloating. The thought that I might have seemed like a threat to him was so ludicrous that I could scarcely understand it.
Gault said eagerly, “You saw it, too. You knew him at school, didn’t you?”
I recognized the trap; any agreement, any common ground, no matter how narrow, was leverage for him. I said, “Usborne Bryant is… is dead. Because of this.” I shook the cigar box slightly, so that the poppet slid across the bottom in a dry, awful rustling to hit the side, and watched Gault wince.
“What do you want me to do?” he said sullenly.
“Destroy this,” I said. “And the others.”
The high color drained from his face. “The… the others?”
“…Did you think I didn’t know?” It occurred to me, belatedly, that perhaps most visitors to Gault’s rooms could not feel the poppets whispering malice among themselves.
“I can’t destroy them!” he said, which was almost certainly not what he had meant to say.
I realized that where Usborne Bryant had tried, successfully or otherwise, to create a charmed circle of his friends, Gault had instead created this circle of poppets, of witless spite, of vengeful envy. I wondered how many of his other friends had lost a necktie or a handkerchief. I wondered how many of his other friends had days when they felt ill and did not know why.
“Burn them,” I said. “Burn all of them.”
“You can’t do anything to me if I don’t,” he said. “Don’t even try to pretend you would go to the police.”
“No,” I said, for this gambit at least I had realized would be coming. “I’ll go to Oliver Corcoran.”
I did not know if Corcoran would believe me, but I thought he might. Gault thought so, too; I could tell by the way his eyes narrowed and his mouth got tight, a fraction of his essential meanness showing on his face.
I did not need to ask if one of Gault’s poppets wore Corcoran’s likeness.
I am not a strong-willed man, but I learned obstinacy very young, and obstinacy was really all it required. I sat in Victor Gault’s wingchair and waited, and slowly he brought me the poppets. After each one, he stopped, as if he thought perhaps I would not be able to tell there was another still to come; by the end, he was nearly weeping.
Holding the cigar-box full of poppets on my lap was very like holding a wasp’s nest. I said, “Will you burn them?”
He wanted to lie to me, but apparently he knew it was hopeless. “I can’t,” he said with some agony in his voice I could not share.
“Then I will,” I said. I stood up; he seemed poised for a moment to block my path, but then he turned and made for the sideboard, and the decanters on it, instead. I went through a pocket door and found, as I had expected, a tiny, useless kitchen. It had a sink, which was all the use I needed of it.
I dumped the poppets in the sink, dug my matches out of my suit-coat pocket, my fingers awkward and shaking. It took me four tries to light a match instead of breaking it, and when I succeeded, I was so startled I dropped it onto the pile of poppets.
They went up at once, as if they were something even drier and more brittle than linen and silk. I flinched back, then stood and watched them burn, watched until they were nothing but ashes, and then I turned the tap and washed the ashes down the drain until nothing remained of them.
As I turned the water off, I heard a thud, and going back out into the main room, I found Gault lying beside the sideboard, a spilled glass of whiskey soaking into the carpet beside him. I thought for a nauseating moment that he was dead, but when I knelt down, I could see his chest rising and falling. He had fainted.
I hesitated a moment, unsure if there was something I should do, but he moaned faintly. And I realized that, more than anything else, I did not want to be in the room when he regained full consciousness.
I fled. There is no other word for it, and I do not pretend otherwise.
On my return to the Parrington, I stopped by Mr. Lucent’s office to tell him to approach George Banholt about editing Usborne Bryant’s writings.
“Good,” said Mr. Lucent. “People will be happy to hear that there will be a Collected Writings.”
“…Yes,” I said.
“Not a fan of his poetry, Mr. Booth?”
“I knew him at… that is, when we were boys,” I said, and although I did not mean it to, something of my emotions bled through in my voice.
Mr. Lucent rarely paid me much mind, but he had looked up from Usborne Bryant’s notebook and was, disconcertingly, watching my face. “He wronged you,” he said. “How?”
“No, not at all.”
“No,” I said. “We were never friends.”
(Editors’ Note: “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is read by Erika Ensign and Sarah Monette is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 21B.)
© 2018 by Sarah Monette