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The Venus Inn

Old English inns have a delicate flavor, a puff of musty radiance. They fold themselves into the landscape, grasping at antiquity. They have no conscience, but remind those who stay of past times, of old triumphs, and regrets.

The Venus Inn was no exception. A construction detour brought me to Mildenheath, and spotting the inn through the trees, its docile look begged me to stop; like a silent command. A crack across the weathered sign almost split it in two. Painted in faded white letters, it read, The Venus Inn. Its rusty hinges creaked when it swayed, sounding like a cry from someone needing help. 

Ivy crawled up the rough stone walls to the thatched roof and a garden of roses and lilac guarded the entry.  A scarred tabby cat slept in the lobby, tail twitching like a pendulum keeping time to an unknown clock. I scratched it behind its ears receiving a faint purr of approval, along with a jingle from the brass bell on its blue collar. The innkeeper resembled the ancient mariner, with wisps of gray hair floating across his skull and a sloppy shirttail over his huge belly. A web of fine, pink capillary lines peeked through gray and brown whiskers. His bulbous nose hung over his grinning mouth like a light bulb in a whore house. A crusty mustard stain covered part of the plastic name tag that read, Clyde. The faint smell of stout and sweat clung to him.

"How long ye be stayin?" His voice had a lilt of the lower classes.

"One night before going to London."

He squinted at me from behind the front desk. "Ain't had a Yank in a long spell."

He nodded at me like I was a side of imported meat. An uncertain smile toyed with my lips.

"I'm looking forward to a restful sleep."

Clyde's smile grew. He handed me an ancient skeleton key.

"We all want that. The room's on the top floor, the best one we got."

Looking around the empty lobby I asked, "How many other guests do you have tonight?"

His smile stopped, as he poked my chest with a dirty, knobby finger. "You're alone."

My room was small but comfortable. Wallpaper decorated with gardenias and ivy covered the walls and lace doilies adorned the tables. A faint scent of lavender tickled my nose and mingled with the fresh breeze through the open window. A blue Wedgewood bowl perched on the dresser.  An ornate landscape, crammed with wildflowers and nymphs, hung over the bed. There was a small balcony opening on that peaceful view of the Anglia countryside. The window looked across a lush garden, and then a vast lawn, until settling on a wheat field in the golden distance. The forest framed the view with birch, pines, and maples. I thought it resembled a hidden country, someplace lost and forgotten. It was perfect for En Plein painting by Turner or Van Gogh using strong, coarse brush strokes. I could almost see the layers of paint, a blob of orange and red for the sunset and thickened green trees hung over a heavy yellow quilt for a wheat field.

But soon, the music pounded outside. A wedding celebration, or party, rustic and ear splitting. The crowd was too far to see them. Their dancing feet trampled the grass of this gentle earth. The somber trees looked on in the twilight, waiting for something. I had visions of Druids dancing with the drunken revelers. This land clutched at memories of hoary rites, never purged from the soul of the soil. I sat by the window watching and chewing on a half-eaten sandwich from lunch. The music. A line or two from a forgotten ballad drummed away, bringing aromas of memories. Then, as I embraced the roots of reminiscence, the music lurched to a new tune, jarring me to other memories. It was not rural country music of the local people.

They played a line from ABBA, followed by a verse from Queen, the Beatles, and Garth Brooks. Out the window, I spied them gyrating to their chaotic concert - The Battle of New Orleans. Grease. Hey Jude. Achy Breaky Heart. Peggy Sue. One Song barely started before the next trampled upon it. The revelers shouted in the glade, their words loud but incoherent.

Slowly, my memory associated each Song with a past tryst. The Battle of New Orleans – I was twelve and Jeff was my best friend. We didn't realize what we were doing, but it felt so good. Grease – summer of 1978 and Allen and two gloriously sensual nights. Hey Jude – spring break in the dorms in 1970 with Peter: politics and anger swept aside in youthful lust. Achy Breaky Heart – Damon outside the skating rink in 1994. Peggy Sue – on David's radio our first night in 1987.

So many men. I remember and enjoyed them all. My memories were deep and sensuous, some of the happiest in my life. No man lasted more than a few months, some a few hours. I loved them all in my way and as best I could. Yet tonight my life seems a disjointed array of memories, music, and men, like this erratic concert. These ghosts are coming back to remind me of what? My failures, inadequacies, careless lust?

The clock showed eleven. I took two sleeping pills. The concert continued its drunken weave. Knights in White Satin. The drug weighed on my body, limbs sank into the soft feather mattress. My chest heaved and I inhaled more melodic memories. My mind drifted. Yesterday Once More. Leaden weights seemed to press against my temples. California Dreamin'. My heartbeat slowed and my breath deepened. I Got You, Babe. Time stretched and the light dimmed. It's My Party. I hovered between sleep and awake. American Pie. Time dragged on my heart and memory washed across my soul. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. The weight of the past kept me from deflating into sleep. The Sound of Silence – hello darkness my old friend.

I awoke to silence. A saturnine darkness shrouded my room. The concert ended. My headache from the blood that pooled between my scalp and skull. Dry acid filled my mouth. I coughed slimy phlegm. My eyes were sticky and burning and muscles groaned. I pried my eyes open. The sky darkened my window, and a ruddy flickering glowed from the field. Sleep, even drugged sleep, had abandoned me. I was alone with my memories – so many incomplete memories.

I staggered to the dismal bathroom and washed the stale taste from my mouth. My haggard and worn reflection in the mirror stares back. Too many memories. I splashed water on my features, but the regrets wouldn't wash away. I sighed and held my head in my hands, overwhelmed by reality.

Returning to the room, the ruddy, flickering glow outside drew me to the window. Gone was the beauty of the impressionistic painting replaced by the dark, muted hues of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. A small fire burned unattended near the edge of the wheat field. A small, dumpy figure in the shadows, dragging a tree limb, limped and stopped, and then limped again, weary with burdens too great. Finally, he arrived at the fire and tossed the branch upon it.

When the flames flared, I recognized Clyde, the ancient innkeeper. The debris of the party covered the lawn and Clyde labored to clean it. His chest heaved and his shoulders slumped. Clyde pulled his shirttail free and swiped his brow. He gazed for a moment at the heavens.

Clyde traipsed across the lawn, gathering trash and tree limbs; throwing them into the blaze. The work energized him. His step grew firmer and his back was no longer stooped. The flames danced high and its glow covered his face. Clyde slipped off his shirt and wiped his face again.

Shock shot through me and tingled from my fingers. Shirtless, his muscles flexed on his flat abdomen where I had earlier seen a beer belly. He turned and retreated to the shadows, gathering more waste. With each step, he seemed more solid, like his age and his past fueled the fire.

As the blaze brightened, I recognized Clyde was not alone. Others huddled in the shadows, flickering in and out of the gloom. The shimmered glint of eyes, the brush of a hand. These visions riveted me to my window wondering what might happen.

The fire roared. Its glow illuminated the whole lawn. The others passed in and out of vision, hiding in the forest, retreating in the wheat, silhouetted in the darkness. Clyde stood in the field, the fire between him and the inn. He raised his arms above his head over his broad shoulders.

I heard it, the hint of a Song. I couldn't hear the words and the tune eluded me. But Clyde raised his voice in praise to the flames. I strained my ears; if only louder.

Clyde sang, and the shadow figures swayed in rhythm. Their forms became clearer. Men swayed to the Song, their eyes focused on Clyde, listening intently to his voice. I listened to the rise and fall of his chorus, the allure of his cadence, the ghosts of his syllables. I could almost hear it, but not quite.

One of the figures crept forward from shadow to light, crouching, crawling, the figure snaked its way across the grass from the safety of the trees. The lone figure knelt between Clyde and the fire. A soft croon passed his lips. Clyde opened his arms. The figure hesitated, then arose and edged forward, toward his embrace. Startled, I saw that the figure was nude and longing for the passion of his caress. Somehow that lithe form, those supple limbs, possessed a familiarity that tickled my awareness. I peered closely. The face of the man; if only I could see him.

Clyde sang and the naked man danced before him and then danced with him. They swayed in an elegant pas de deux, not touching but full of passion. In the Song, in the dance, there floated a mutual delight I longed for but never found. I yearned to dance with them. If my ears could hear. If my eyes could see.

 As they danced, the fire flared. The face of Clyde's companion glowed in the darkness and recognition stiffened my heart. Impossible. It was my first lover, Jeff, who grew to manhood. Rubbing my blurry eyes, I shook my head to look again. Jeff was not only my first, but the one I remembered often. Why did I abandon him? Maybe it was someone new, some forgotten boy who stumbled into me and diverted me. Or maybe it was fear of falling, and staying, in love with him.  I tried to call Jeff in the distant field, but paralysis seized my mouth, it wouldn't open. Now, I felt like the man in Munch’s painting, the man screaming but a silent scream only I could hear. When I tried to stand, my legs collapsed like wet noodles. I crawled to the window, and my silent lips called, "Jeff, I'm here."

Another figure emerged from the shadows. His approach was distant, but the darkness did not hide the yearning in his body. I knew then all the figures were nude men craving to dance to Clyde's Song.  It was too faint to hear but still beckoned me, seducing me.

The new figure edged closer, passing in and out of the light. Clyde sang for both, his attention diverted from Jeff to the other, then back. Jeff became more frantic, reaching to touch Clyde, but Clyde slithered away, toward the new figure. When Jeff persisted, then Clyde touched him. His touch was gentle, but there was a glint in his hand and a crimson sear as it crossed Jeff's torso.

The Song pulsed. I could almost sing its rhythms, the rhythms of life and death. Jeff fell to his knees, his hands reaching out to Clyde. Jeff was wounded. Blood gushed from the point of Clyde's touch. The glint was a knife. Jeff, my love. Sing with me. But Jeff faded, dying, his elegant body severed by the cruel brutality of Clyde's touch. The Song played on, relentless, indifferent, and alluring.

Jeff crumbled to dust before the fire, his remains consumed by the crackling flames. He sang no more, but his ashes still danced. They whirled about Clyde and his new partner then settled in a heap. The newcomer's feet trampled upon the dust, stomping it into the wheat.

Clyde and the newcomer generated a new Song, similar to but different from the one with Jeff. The newcomer, so lovely, so seductive, so familiar. The dance and Song played on. Though I peered into the gloom, and my vision was imperfect, I was trapped. I could do nothing but listen and watch.

The blade glinted in Clyde's hand once, again. The fire flared and I recognized the newcomer. It was Allen, on summer nights years ago. I knew Clyde would consume and sacrifice Allen, too. The men of my past invaded the night, as Clyde devoured them, one by one, Peter, Damon and David, and so many more. Tonight Clyde and his Song would dispose of the debris of my life. Tears raped my eyes, ripping them open wider to see the path to freedom, to forgiveness. This Song, my Song, was cleansing me, making those losses bearable. Tonight was my ending and beginning.

The alarm woke me at 6 A.M. The sheets knotted me in a sweaty tangle. I had a vague recollection of last night's party, and the nightmare forced upon me by this place and forgotten guilt. When I descended the stairs to check out, old Clyde again sat at the desk. He appeared more decrepit than yesterday. He smelled like stale beer, and his clothes were filthy like he spent the night rolling in dirt and soot.

"Ye're leaving, mate." Clyde stirred himself from his chair making it creak. "Did ye get that restful sleep?"

I shook my head, no.

"There's crop circles in the wheat field from last night."

"Crop circles?" I called out in mild shock. “I recall reading about them.”

"The crops get beaten down in odd patterns. Can't see the patterns less you look from above. Some say it's ghosts. I think it's a dance of the spirits."

The word spirits raised my head to lock eyes with him, "What spirits?"

"Mate, spirits are all around. They follow us." His toothy grin turned into a slightly

sinister smile. “Spirits could be here but you don't know it,” Clyde chuckled, “maybe I'm one.”

His chuckle instantly morphed into a devilish laugh. My mouth dropped open when his green eyes turned black for a few seconds.

I picked up my bag. Clyde stopped laughing and started humming a tune. It was unknown but still familiar. Where did I hear it? I started to turn back to ask the title but hesitated, and walked out. I drove through the dilapidated gate passing the forest and wheat field, now glowing in the sunrise as if on fire, and hurried towards the main road. After a few miles, I spotted a farmer plowing in a field. I honked, slowed, and leaned out the window. He stopped the tractor, and walked a few feet to lean on the fence. He nodded a toothless grin.

"Hello, did you hear about the crop circles last night at the Venus Inn?" I asked.

His eyes narrowed and he scratched his beard, "That ole place burned up years ago."

Shocked, I said, "I stayed there last night."

The farmer shook his head sideways, "Not there. The owner started a fire in the field and it got out of control. Torched the whole inn. He died in the fire but they never found his body." 

My mouth stayed open, then I asked, "What was the owner's name?"

The farmer looked down, thinking, "Clyde. Odd fellow. Some said he believed in spirits and such. Folks living here stayed away because of stories that ghosts haunted the guests." He glanced at me up and down. “Any ghosts haunt you last night, lad?”

I drove through the dilapidated gate, again. A few moments ago, a huge forest lined the road, but now only a few of the majestic trees stood with burned bark clinging to the trunks. The golden wheat field was a harsh brown and overgrown. Charred stones greeted me in place of the charming inn from last night. I walked through the rubble stepping on something. It jingled. Lifting my foot, the burnt brass bell from the cat’s collar fell from my sole. It landed on the inn's sign split in two pieces. The name was unreadable unless you knew it.

I fell to my knees, tears, and snot mixed with the burnt dirt. Sobbing, I called their names, Allen, Peter David, and many more. I choked, spitting out love, desire, betrayal, regret, and sorrow.

Suddenly, a breeze caught me, calmed, and steadied me. Then like obeying a silent command, I started to hum Clyde's unknown tune, the song I heard at the Venus Inn.

Val Valdez - Enthusiastic Lifelong Learner and Writer