Cave Venus et Stellas
It is a strange place; a cold street, in which the temperature seems to drop as you round the corner. You feel the breeze cut into you; sometimes you think you must have imagined it, but no: there it is again. A street that looks the same as the last but inescapably and unfortunately, irresistibly different.
The young man, lean and callow, has been called upon to work for the shadowy residents of this street. There, every day, post is delivered, collected from doormats, papers from drives and houses and gardens maintained in apparently pristine condition. And yet, we see no one, telling ourselves only that the street’s inhabitants must keep, exotically, rather bohemian hours than ordinaries.
So, the young man is called to the fifth house on the street, a tall house, as all the others, with imposing gables and a tall, tall chimney stack. He rings the bell and a lady answers, ivory and willowy, with intense blue eyes. She sees him start just a little, as one does when confronted by such intense beauty. “Won’t you come in? So much to do.”
Inside, it is a world away from the modern suburban street, all billowing drapes, vast cabinets of dainty phials and bottles, Venetian mirrors and candelabra. And little cups; so many little cups on narrow shelves. With fluted saucers, Japanese and Chinese designs, lacquer work. His eye is drawn everywhere all at once and she senses this. “Yes: I am quite a collector, as you see.”
“Well, I’m wondering, Miss—is it Miss? (it is)—which jobs you need doing.”
“Ah, yes. But first, won’t you have some tea? Come through.”
The kitchen is through the long narrow hallway with its unusual intricate pattern of hexagonal tiles. The room has a surprisingly vast azure ceiling, upon which are painted many tiny gold stars. He would have thought it exquisite, had it not already begun to make him dizzy just looking at it for a short while. On the floor he thinks, counting quickly, that he sees hexagons, limned with a pretty language he does not know.
She boils water in an old fashioned urn (strange, he thought: why no kettle?); rather too much for tea for two. She makes tea in a lovely, highly polished silver tea pot—again it seems disproportionately large of scale.
“I need more shelves, Long thin shelves for my display. I am such a magpie, as you saw. And shallow cabinets for the walls. Like you could see in an old fashioned apothecary. For my pharmacopeia. Ha! But not so deep and, you know, with drawers. Can you picture what I mean?”
Yes, for the first. That shouldn’t be hard but her second request would be more difficult. He is too shy to say he cannot translate all her words. But, as he drinks his tea, he feels he wants to please her, so he agrees to start the job the next day. Although really, his other commitments tell him he should wait. It is something about this lady—and she amuses him too, he thinks as he drinks the tea from more of her little cups.
Next day, he begins and, in a day, the narrow shelves are cut and fitted for the rather bare little anteroom off the kitchen. “This will be my dining room,” she says, “You are decorating it for me.”
He drinks more of her tea, even eats some dainty little sandwiches she makes him, and begins work on the cabinets. The work seems to flow from him; oddly, some of his best work to date. Invisible joints and beautifully conceived design. He has surprised himself. But then, standing back from the room, as it begins to come to life with its first fittings, he feels suddenly tired and this she sees.
“Come and sit down. In the kitchen.”
“She looks more beautiful than ever today,” he thinks. But she’s his customer, so he must not say it aloud, though to think he might thrills him. And look at her milk-white tapering fingers; ancient, young: long nails. “Yes, I had better. I had better sit.” He is not himself, while her beauty swirls and fizzes stars.
He sits, closes his eyes for a moment to rest. He feels worse. Looking up at the ceiling and so at the fine golden stars, he becomes dizzier and dizzier. His extinction deeply pleasurable, before he sees and remembers no more. “Orris root and henbane, my darling” says she, stroking his cadaver and removing the cup and saucer from the still warm hand.
And now. The shadowy inhabitants of the rest of the houses in the street come through interconnecting doors -they are corporeal, after all—and they feast and they drink him dry from the little fluted cups as they sit under the stars. And what they cannot digest, they grind for their medicines and potions, even a dainty cosmetic for the ghostly pallor, and this they place in the shallow apothecaries’ drawers. Their pharmacopeia. Ha! And thus they retreat to their own homes and the lady with the lovely blue eyes is alone. Until, that is, she crosses her hall to the next visitor who will come to her, while she is floating, as she will be, across the fine encaustic tiles. And the tiles show not hexagons (oh poorly counting man!) but pentagons—no pentangles—and say, in the Latin inscription which our carpenter did not know how to read, “Cave Venus et Stellas.” And if you, too, cannot read this, then you must find out—just in case.