Hieronymous

Megan Arkenberg


In the top drawer of my desk, there is a calotype photograph of Hieronymus Grayle, shadowed and indistinct. Someone—not me—penciled the date April 22, ω89 along the bottom in stiff copperplate. I do not remember Hieronymus as a beautiful woman, but that is how she seems in the picture: dark and hard and smiling, smiling.

There is another picture beneath it, this one clipped from a newspaper. It shows a line of soldiers photographed from behind, their twelve square shoulders sharp in uniform gray. Beyond them is a shelf of rock, and pale smoke like an early morning fog.

This picture is captioned “The Execution of Hieronymus Grayle” and the date, written in faint ink, is my twentieth birthday: April 19, ω89.

* * *

ω97

Major Eschylus’s offices in Katabasis covered the top story of a house on Mt. Myrrine Street, in what had been the fashionable side of town before the trains came. Despite the clean mountain air, the walls stank from smoke, and the floors shook violently when a topokinetic ran past. This didn’t seem to bother Major Eschylus—perhaps because it was so clearly uncomfortable to me.

“Look,” he said, his Katabatic accent twisting his lips and making them difficult to read. “A lot of people came through the Nikephore on August 9. I shook a lot of hands, you know?”

“You’d remember Hieronymus,” I wrote. My right hand clenched in my skirt while I worked to hold my pen hand steady. “Please, will you look at her picture?”

He shoved his spectacles up the long bridge of his nose and scanned the newspaper clipping on his blotter. It was a photograph of Nikephore Hall, the six irregular walls covered with sketches for the Arachne-Terpsichore tunnel. Major Eschylus stood at the junction of two walls, gesturing to plans for the massive water pumps needed to drain the lake beneath Mount Terpsichore. To his left, dark head obscuring the bottom corner of the sketches, was Hieronymus Grayle, smiling her strange half-smile.

Major Eschylus shook his head. He opened his mouth—to tell me to get the hell out of his office, most likely—but something made him pause.

“Her,” he said, tapping Hieronymus’s face with a coal-blackened fingernail. “She asked a lot of questions. I remember her voice—ringing, I think you’d call it.”

I was too pleased to correct him. “What did she ask?” I wrote, reining my excitement to keep my pen steady. “Did she say where she was going next?” The newspaper was dated from the week before. There was a chance, however slight, that I could intercept Hieronymus before she appeared in another city’s paper—that I could reach her before she vanished again.

Six years of searching had taught me that by the time photographs appeared in the broadsheets, it was already too late.

Major Eschylus wrinkled his nose. “She didn’t say anything about that. Wanted to know how deep the Terpsichore lake is, how tall the bridge will need to be, how much rock we’ll have to blast. Where we plan to put all that water.” His face twitched in what might have been a laugh. “Didn’t care much about the rest of the tunnel, just that one rough stretch. I told her how dangerous it is to carve out new space, you understand, how much better it is to use what’s already there, but that lake…you know how it is.”

“Eerie,” I guessed, and he didn’t correct me. “Do you know if she talked to anyone else?”

He shook his head.

I did not sigh because I had learned that it annoyed people, and it did no good to punish Major Eschylus for my own foolish hope. Another trail gone cold. “Did you at least see which way she left?”

He opened his hands awkwardly. “Like I said. A lot of people came through on August ninth.”

I looked back at the picture, at Hieronymus’s wry eyes, her enigmatic smile. “You have my card,” I wrote. “Please let me know when work begins on the tunnel.” I held the photograph up for a long moment, as if I could force him to remember her face, and tucked it back into my breast pocket.

* * *

My desk is in an alcove between the Mayfarer’s kitchen door and its oversized hearth. The hestia was built in σ42, some plutocrat’s lodge in the root of the mountains, and converted in φ79. Though subsequent keepers have made changes, walling up doorways, enlarging the high-altitude conservatory, it has been done with great care, and whatever its aesthetic sins, the Mayfarer is not eclectic.

When I bought the hestia from Mater Olympia’s sons, they offered to make me an office of my own from one of the guest rooms. I told them not to bother. The kitchen, white-plastered and red-flagged and warm year round, served for Mater Olympia and it serves for me. If I sit deep enough in the alcove, I can watch both the carriage road and the step at the kitchen door—imperative, when I cannot hear the bells.

The alcove is always full of papers. I leave them stacked on the floor around me, and between toasting muffins and sending maids for laundry and tallying fees for the few and increasingly shabby guests, I sit by the window with a cup of tea and scissors and search for Hieronymus.

Months go by, sometimes, without a hint of her eyes, her sharp features, her crooked wintry smile. The papers flood the kitchen until I finally burn them in the hearth. I fear always that somewhere there is a picture of her on a scrap of newsprint, dropped in a gutter or used to line chicken crates or crumpled in the toes of a child’s hand-me-down shoes. I become horribly afraid that I will never find her again.

But somehow, I always do.

* * *

ω86

I opened the door without knocking. It was something Mater Olympia slapped me for again and again, but I could never remember the futile gesture. How two guests in the midst of making love could know to stop because of what I did on the other side of the door had me utterly mystified. Mater Olympia called me stupid and threatened to take on a different laundry maid, though of course she never did.

It was the middle of June. The last of the snow had disappeared from Mount Arachne’s southern slope, and most of the Mayfarer’s guests were out wandering the forest trails or picnicking by Lake Cassiopeia or exploring the outermost caverns in the tangled web of caves. I thought I had the upper floors to myself, but when I pushed a door open with my hip and went to fling fresh sheets on the bed, I saw her standing by the window. Hieronymus Grayle.

“Oh,” she said. “Hello.” She had thick, dark lips and very white teeth, easier to read by far than Mater Olympia’s uniform sallowness. “I’m in everyone’s way this morning, it seems.” Her nose lengthened slightly, indicating sarcasm. She was looking at Mount Arachne.

“Fine,” I said carefully and pointed to the bed. “Sheets.”

Her eyes widened. The left one was paler and somehow more opaque than the right, like a pane of frosted glass. She took a leather-bound book and charcoal pencil from a pocket inside her waistcoat. “I’m sorry,” she wrote. “Is this easier for you?”

She offered me the page, and I wrote quickly. “Don’t apologize. I can read lips. It’s just speaking that’s difficult.”

“Nevertheless, I am sorry. People are so stupidly unobservant.”

She smiled to take the edge off of it. I noticed that she was looking out the window again, at the blue-green slopes dotted with pastel travelers and the black mouths of caves. The trees around the cave mouths shook in a faint breeze, as though the mountain breathed. The window was on Hieronymus’s left, but she turned her whole head to look out of it, until she was almost facing the other direction.

“Is your left eye blind?”

She nodded, head tilted in her odd way. “Sometimes. Sometimes it lets me see what others can’t.”

“Mater Olympia calls that hallucinating.”

Hieronymus raised her right eyebrow. I would learn later that this was not a developed skill; the muscle around her left eye rarely moved when she wanted it to. “What’s your name?”

“Irene,” I said.

“Look at Mount Arachne, Irene.” She pulled me towards the window by my shoulder. “Look at the trees moving. Look at the stones. Have you ever walked into the mountain and felt something breathing beneath you?”

“There’s bears in the caverns,” I wrote.

Hieronymus tapped the left side of her nose. “I’ve seen the breathing things,” she wrote, with a strangely serious smile. “They aren’t bears.”

* * *

The kephalopod in the broadsheet picture is monstrous. Photographed from above, its long, thick legs push against the roofless boxcar’s walls, warping them like an overfull envelope. A milky eye juts above the car’s waterline, as tall as the woman in the foreground.

It was a freak accident, the November ω98 issue of Euphone reported. The train, one of three belonging to Lady Aristomache’s Wondrous Traveling Museum, overturned on the Ismene bridge on the slopes of Mount Terpsichore. Below the bridge, the river ran nearly seventy feet deep into the side of the mountain. Eighteen men were killed. The kephalopod disappeared.

I cannot take my eyes off the woman in the foreground. Her hair is outrageously thick and dark, her back almost unnaturally straight. It is hard to tell from behind, but her head seems tilted subtly to the left.

* * *

ω98

I had never been to the capitol, and after Hieronymus’s arrest I never planned on going. Only the sight of that dark-haired woman on Euphone’s front page could have pulled me through the smoky train-carved streets and stagnant canals of Arcadia to the boardinghouse, high in the tangled university district, from which Lady Aristomache oversaw her empire.

Aristomache had been born a gentleman, Aristos Stephannos. She was an inch shorter than I and considerably better dressed, wearing a cream-colored bodice and viciously red wig that made her eyes seem blue enough to burn. Whatever events had turned her into the queen of a traveling museum, they had at least taught her the value of a sharp performance and good penmanship.

“She isn’t one of my people,” Lady Aristomache wrote, dramatically quirked eyebrows signaling annoyance. “The trains tend to pick up wandering types. I figured she had a past or two to run from, and I didn’t want to start a fuss so long as she didn’t cause me trouble or cost me money. Where did you say she was last seen?”

“Katabasis. The exhibition for the Arachne-Terpsichore tunnel.”

Lady Aristomache shrugged. “Over a year ago. She could’ve gone anywhere in between. I can’t guess when she got on with us, or where she was headed.”

That meant: don’t ask when she jumped off. Aristomache didn’t know. “And she didn’t say anything?” I wrote. “Anything about where she was headed?”

“Now, how would I remember that?” She opened a secret door in her table and took out a red lacquer box. It smelled strongly of cheap cigarettes. Her eyes softened as she took out a yellowish tube and set it between her lips. “How do you know this woman? Are you part of that past she’s running from?”

“I was…” But I couldn’t think of what I was, what I had been to Hieronymus. I crossed the words out and wrote below them, “She’s Hieronymus Grayle.”

“I thought they shot her.” Lady Aristomache lit her cigarette. “Hieronymus Grayle—she was crazy, wasn’t she? Used to have visions?”

“She saw what others couldn’t,” I wrote. “That doesn’t make her crazy.”

Aristomache barely skimmed my words before she started writing her own. “They say she was a murderer.”

“That’s a lie. She didn’t do anything in that cavern. Only a fool could have thought an engine would survive running down there.” My pen nearly tore through the paper. “Everyone suffocated on the smoke before the walls caved in.”

“I didn’t mean the old mine—though you must admit it’s odd, the way tunnels seem to draw her. People say she killed a man in Menelaus, and that’s why she came running to the mountains in the first place.”

I had never heard that story—had never heard anything about Hieronymus’s life before she appeared at the Mayfarer, to tell the truth. But my heart rebelled against it. Hieronymus, who died to protect a mountain, could not have killed a man.

“You don’t know her like I do,” I wrote.

“She died, Irene. Shot until her own mother couldn’t have recognized her face. Now you’re saying she came back from the dead and you’ve no idea where she’s headed.” Lady Aristomache let out a slow stream of smoke. “Maybe you don’t know her at all.”

* * *

I have a calotype, taken from one of Mount Arachne’s hiking trails, of Hieronymus and her followers in the mouth of a cave. It is March 19, ω89, a month to the day before her death. We are dressed in patched slacks and frayed shirtsleeves, disguised as a pack of railroad men. An hour after this picture is taken, the first Arachne mine will collapse.

Hieronymus is kneeling in the front row, her hands on the shoulders of the men to either side of her. She winks at whoever takes the photograph. I am the grave girl in the back row, hands folded in my sleeves. The blackness of the cave around me makes me look like a specter in a tomb.

Hieronymus looks alive in this picture, so alive that it is hard to imagine her dying. Her lips are parted in laughter, or in the middle of a word. They tell me—and this calotype makes me believe—that she had a beautiful voice.

* * *

ω89

“I hear guns,” Hieronymus said. It was nearing noon; the Mayfarer plains below us, which had shifted and waved with wild horses in the morning, were deserted but for a cluster of black figures near the mountain’s foot.

“I didn’t think it would come to that,” said Priam, a man about Mater Olympia’s age who was nevertheless hale enough for climbing. “None of us are armed, Grayle.”

“Then they won’t shoot. Surely they have some decency.” Hieronymus stood and walked to the mouth of the cave. “Tell everyone to line up here,” she said. “They won’t harm unarmed citizens simply to carve out a mountain. And if they want to bleed Terpsichore, they’ll have to get through us.”

We stood there for hours. The air around us was swelteringly still, and for the first time since meeting Hieronymus, I could not feel the living breath in the cave. I watched the figures of the miners creep closer and closer, and I wondered if the breathing things were as frightened as I was.

When the mine officials reached the shelf of rock before our cavern’s entrance, we joined hands and stood behind Hieronymus. Her back was to me, and I never learned what she said to the officials. She might not have said anything.

I saw two men come forward. One of them struck Hieronymus on the left, her blind side, and sent her sprawling in the dust. I think I screamed.

The next thing I remember is the black-fire pain of being shot.

* * *

Her execution was in all the papers, all with the same photograph. I cut out the largest version I could find and kept it under my pillow while my leg healed. If Mater Olympia and the other maids knew I had it, they never said anything.

The shadowy calotype came to me in December ω91, the year Mater Olympia died and her sons sold me the Mayfarer. A young man—the man who had penciled the date in the corner—died of consumption out in Menelaus, and the picture was found in one of his books. They told me what the dead man looked like, but I could not remember if he had been with us on Mount Terpsichore.

“Why did you give this to me?” I asked his sister, the woman who brought me the picture.

“It’s addressed to Hieronymus Grayle,” she said. “It must have been taken when she came out east two, three years ago, and my brother wanted it given to her. But she left suddenly, and though he waited for her to return to him, she never did. Near broke his heart.” She shrugged violently. “The court records list this as her place of residence. Hasn’t she come back home?”

I closed my eyes, swallowing hard. “No,” I wrote. “She hasn’t come home.”

* * *

In January of ω99, I saw the records at the courthouse in Menelaus. They say Hieronymus Grayle was convicted of unlawful resistance and shot in the prison at Antigone springs. I know the place; it is several day’s walk from the Mayfarer. The springs drink from the lake beneath Mount Terpsichore.

Looking at the records, at the yellow paper and the crooked handwriting of the secretary, at the black-red coffee stains on the corner of one page, I am struck by the unbearable cruelty of everyday. By the way in which Hieronymus Grayle, who was anything but mundane, can be reduced to a column of senseless facts on a page from a cheap notebook.

At the time of death, Hieronymus was five feet, six inches tall and weighed one hundred and thirty pounds. She gave her parents’ names as Phaedra and Georgios Grayle. She was born on a farm outside of Menelaus, and was the only one of eight children to survive a typhus outbreak after the flooding in ω64. She never completed her schooling.

Court records say she married a boy named Zosimus Tycho in ω73. He died in an accident on her father’s farm less than a year later. In ω77, her name was connected to the smothering of an engineer outside of Calliope, but the outcome of the trial is unknown; the courthouse burned down in ω81 and all records were lost. For almost ten years, nothing was heard or whispered of Hieronymus Grayle. Then came the incident at the first Arachne mine.

Nothing I read gave any indication of where Hieronymus was buried. I learned later that it was common practice at Antigone Springs to leave bodies in the caves of Mount Terpsichore. The men assigned to bring the corpses up and bones down do not stay long at the prison, and in April ω89, fourteen of them resigned.

* * *

In June of ω96, I went back to the place where Hieronymus was arrested. The trail was overgrown with blue-green ferns and tiny white flowers like drops of milk. At the mouth of the cavern, white against the dark rock, I found the word ZOË carved into the stone. ZOË, the breath of life.

“It’s what they are,” Hieronymus said, the first time she took me into the depths of the mountain. I could feel the air stirring around me, beating like a monstrous heart. “They are alive, more than any of us can understand, I think. They have no knowledge of death, and no fear of it.” She smiled—sadly, it seemed to me. “We must fear it for them.”

“I never thought you were afraid of death,” I wrote.

She pressed her hand against the cavern wall. “I never was,” she said, “until I learned that I could fight it.”

ZOË. Hieronymus’s word, in Hieronymus’s handwriting. I trace the letters in the rock, and I trace Hieronymus’s lips and tongue as they move through my dreams, shaping mystery after mystery I will never understand.

* * *

I miss you, Hieronymus.

You were in my dreams last night. We walked in that dark cavern again, barefoot against the cold stone, and I felt the breathing things all around us. I asked you why you hadn’t come back to me, like you came back for that dead man, like you came back for the mountain. You smiled your crooked smile and lay your cold hand against my cheek, but when you spoke I could not understand your words.

There was a picture of you in the paper today. The experimental water pumps beneath Mount Terpsichore were crushed by something in the lake, and the photograph on the front page shows Major Eschylus standing over the wreckage, pointing to the circular prints of a monstrous tentacle. You are standing behind him, your hair loose and blowing, your blind eye trained on the camera, your right eye closed in a wink. You are dark and smooth and smiling your crooked smile.

You were not beautiful when I knew you, Hieronymus, but you are beautiful now.

* * *

ω99

I have three things in my breast pocket.

The first is the deed of sale for the Mayfarer, its ink smudged from being folded too soon. I got a good price for it. They expect travel to increase after the completion of the Arachne-Terpsichore tunnel. “Perhaps,” I said to the new owner, nothing more, for I too have learned to create mysteries.

The second is a map of Mount Terpsichore. A red cross marks the place where Major Eschylus plans to blast. It is right beside the white circle where the word ZOË is carved into the rock.

The third is a calotype photograph of Hieronymus, shadowed and indistinct.

My heart pounds beneath them, steady and strong, as I begin to climb the mountain.


Megan Arkenberg's work has recently appeared in Shimmer, The Dark, Kaleidotrope, and the anthologies B is for Broken and Daughters of Frankenstein. She also edits the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and recently edited the nonfiction for Queers Destroy Horror, a special issue of Nightmare. Megan lives in northern California, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature.

This story originally appeared in Basement Stories #2, 2010.