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Sitting at her vanity, Eleonore fingered her cold earlobe, working by touch to insert the gold-and-ruby earring he had given her. There was a mirror that she might have used–a smallish, beautiful Italian thing at least two centuries old–but she had covered it, for him. In any case, she did not like to see herself these days.
The earring pin pierced through the tender skin, and she let out a small, involuntary moan. The merest pinprick was a pain these days; the merest cut or bruise sent agonies through-out her over-sensitive pale flesh. Except, of course, the two small spots upon her throat, barely even scars. . . She touched them gingerly and felt a shiver down her spine, as if a lover’s breath caressed her neck.
Between two heartbeats, his dark, alluring presence filled the room.
Though he had made no sound in coming, she knew he had appeared. His very scent enveloped her, musky and warm like an intoxicating drink. She shut her eyes, surrendering herself to his embrace.
‘My love,’ he whispered in her ear. It set her head to spinning. His voice was velvet-smooth and sweet, and filled her like a fine red wine.
‘Take me.’ The words forced their way out of her lips. He did not wait for further invitation. His cool lips touched her neck, kissing it gently. She held her breath, not opening her eyes, waiting for the pain-and-pleasure sting. He held that back at first, drawing the moment out until she almost spoke again; before she found her voice, his needle teeth descended deep into her flesh.
She moaned, hot blood fleeing her neck. At once his lips grew warm against her skin. They did not leave a single gap, through which even the tiniest droplet of blood might spill.
As the moment drew out into a minute, she reached out, involuntarily, her twitching fingers seeking to grasp something–anything–to anchor her before she lost herself into his overwhelming touch. Her right hand closed upon a corner of the satin shawl with which she’d covered up the mirror.
He tore away his mouth, blood streaks splattering her neck and dress like shameful, scalding brands.
‘None of that now,’ he said, his voice commanding underneath its sweetness. He put a warning hand upon her arm, the fingers digging harshly into her all-too tender flesh. She gasped with pain, and he relaxed his grip.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. ‘I did not mean to–’ She trailed off as she met his eyes. Dark and deep, they swallowed her, drowning her words.
‘Hush.’ The corners of his mouth curled in amusement. ‘All is forgiven.’ He leaned forward to kiss her, his lips still tasting of her blood.
Her eyes closed yet again, and for a time she had no thoughts at all, her mind consumed by the intense aura of him. His scent invaded her: an intricately rich perfume of coppery blood and wine and spices; of hazy, smoke-filled rooms by candle-light, and private, intimate affairs between good friends; of night-long gentle love, and flesh pressed into flesh, the unconditional surrender of two lovers into one.
An incongruent scent intruded on her bliss–a sliver of a smell, riding a soft breeze through the open window.
In sensing it, Eleonore recalled, more as a deep impression than a thought, her childhood days; picking the fragile white flowers of the stingless sugar-nettles that sometimes grew in patches near countryside paths. Sucking on them, extracting droplets of nectar, sugary and sweet. . . This scent was like that taste; a tiny trace of pure childhood delight.
At odds with the man’s perfume, it had no place in his embrace. As he drew back, she turned her face into the breeze and sniffed. But it was almost gone.
The flower-scent evaporated on the air. With it went the memories, vanishing just beyond the reach of thought, their absence hanging like an afterimage on her eyelids; still holding their shape but nothing more, and fading slowly.
She sighed, releasing the final phantom shadow of the scent upon her breath.
Though it was gone, it had nevertheless changed her mood. Like one who’s half asleep, she blinked around, robbed of a precious dream.
Her eyes fell on the mirror, where the shawl had slipped–not much, but just enough that she could see a corner of her face, haggard and pale; a single, baggy eye stared back, feverishly glistening. And though she knew he stood behind her, there was no-one there.
Of course, she’d always known there wouldn’t be.
Before he could react–indeed, before she herself could even think–she grabbed the mirror in an aching hand, swinging it around with all her strength. The shawl slipped off as the silvered glass crashed into his skull, splintering into a dozen shards. The broken mirror clattered to the floor.
He howled, and in a flash, she saw his face, boiling and raw as if his very skin had been set aflame. Furious eyes–filled with pain and shock and deep betrayal–bore into her before he spun away, shielding his face. In two long, leaping strides, he transformed into a leathery black mass of wings and claws, and vanished through her open window.
Then he was gone. The room was still and silent. No trace of his scent remained, nor any sign of him at all; except a shattered mirror and a blood stain on her neck. And on her lips. And tongue.
She fell out of her chair and wept, knowing, finally, that she was free.
Interview with Emma Sturk, Author of “His Embrace”
What inspired your story?
I wrote “His Embrace” soon after reading Patrick Süskind’s Perfume—a novel that, among other things, made me reflect on how I might describe various scents.
Authors often put a great deal of thought and care into describing and bringing to life the different senses (Poe’s “The Bells” is a wonderful example of this with sounds) but I find that, in my own work, at least, I tend to undervalue smells.
It’s a real shame too, since scent, perhaps more than any other sense, has a remarkable ability to affect mood and memory. So that was really the core idea of “His Embrace”—I started by trying to put into words the feelings and associations that my mind makes when I smell nectar, and eventually the rest of the story grew up around those.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
It’s hard to say. I’ve already mentioned my love for “The Bells”—it extends to most of Poe’s poetry.
In prose I’m a big fan of the ‘female gothic’ subgenre—e.g. The Yellow Wallpaper, Rebecca, and recently Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. I think horror is often heightened by the addition of real-world themes and issues; especially when they have to do with the loss of power and autonomy.
How long have you been writing?
Since childhood, but I’ve written seriously only in the last year or two.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
I find that I often return to ghosts (and more generally the returning dead) and themes of everlasting life—its allure and its costs. The fear of death looms large over my stories.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently querying a historical dark fantasy novel, set in the West Indies during the late 16th century. While not gothic per se, I think it deals with a few gothic (or gothic-related) themes: including the aftermath of the decay of Henry Morgan’s failed buccaneer kingdom (and the clinging to that past glory), and characters’ different attempts to cheat death by way of the Fountain of Youth.