Author of The Magical Mimics in Oz, The Shaggy Man of Oz, and Spectral Snow, etc.
"Poison" originally appeared in Weird Tales, December 1928.
Reprinted in Dark Music and Other Spectral Tales, 1947.
No, it wasn't on Sara's account that Cristin was doing it. Sara simply had been the last straw. He had nothing left to cling to now--nothing more to live for. He took out a small bottle from his pocket and stared at it. He pulled the cork and smelled its contents. It smelled of almonds and was colorless as water. He recorked the bottle and placed it carefully in his pocket again. He had got it this morning from the druggist. The stupid fool had gaped at him when he asked for it, but he had got it all right. There was enough poison there, he was sure, for six men.
Cristin looked at his watch. It was ten minutes to 12. At 12, on the last stroke of the bell, he would remove the cork and swallow the colorless liquid. Then--God!--he would be well out of it. Perhaps he would be able to watch over Sara; perhaps he might sing to her in her sleep and bring her beautiful dreams.
Cristin was a strange, bright-eyed young man. His eyes were palely green, and some of the folks about town were wont to trace his eccentricities and queer actions to the depths of his gleaming pupils. They said he was mad. That was the reputation he had earned himself by giving way to violent fits of revolt and stormy passion against himself and his world.
And now, Cristin stood stiffly staring before him. The wide window was opened, and a slight summer breeze stroked the draperies with a gentle undulating motion. He stared up at the heavens. All this--the crescent moon, the vari-pointed stars, the deep velvet blue, the low murmuring wind--all would be alien to him in a few minutes. He was going to die at the stroke of the clock. He was calm; it would all go off quietly. What was the use of making a fuss? A few years more or less, what could it matter? Tears sparkled in his eyes.
The clock was striking: ten--eleven--twelve. He uncorked the bottle and raised it to his lips. The liquid went down easily, leaving the characteristic almond taint of the poison in his nostrils. He felt the unmistakable puckering of his lips and mouth. He was trembling and cold. Could it be that he was dying so soon?
He sat down on the edge of the mounded white bed. How like a shroud it looked, concealing some gigantic, bloated corpse! He arose again, and walked to the window. He could not remain still; action, motion were what he wanted. And so he was to die tonight, he thought. Had the insidious poison already spread through his system? Was this, indeed, his last night, his last hour among familiar, homely things? Was all to be changed now? Was nothing ever to be the same? Was he to die tonight? God! He could scarcely bring himself to believe it.
A thousand thoughts rushed through his mind-- things he had forgotten. He had not written to his sister. He had meant to write; he must do so before he could die. And his papers--he had forgotten to stop them: they would keep on coming until his room was filled to the ceiling. But why did he think of such things now that he was to die? All was to be changed now.
Cristin looked out into the night. How queerly, how vaporously the stars twinkled; they seemed to be dripping starlight! And what a wind that was whistling through the tree tops! What a wild, roaring wind! And--oh! God!--he could feel no wind at all. And all those purple clouds hovering so low--what were they? Surely such clouds had never been seen before. They were hollow, and reddish purple, ominous, feverish- looking things. Cristin clenched his fists and turned from the window, although the sound of the roaring wind still filled his head. So he was really going to die tonight!
It was almost dark in the room, except for the moonlight, and the various objects took on strange and grotesque shapes. Nothing was the same now--nothing would ever be the same. All was changed and strange.
What were those long, thin shadows there in the corner by the window? They were writhing and groping up the side of the wall like huge serpents. He stared palely through the gloom and then sighed. It was the plants, the flowers and ferns in the pots. How they were growing! Up the wall they crept--up--up. Now they were spreading over the ceiling. A terrific odor assailed his nostrils. It was the mighty sweetness of the lavender narcissus towering above him like a small tree. The fern was still growing, mounting higher and higher, interlacing its festoons and weaving about over the ceiling. Would it never cease its wild growth? He could hear its tendrils cracking and unfolding. The room looked like a greenhouse.
And then Cristin shook himself. He was allowing his fancy to play tricks on him again. He must control himself. But then if only fancy, pure and simple, it were, what a mad one! What a strange delirium of a dying mind! That was it: he was dying. All this was only natural; he must resign himself to its weirdness. Dying he was, tonight. Oh, God! surely not tonight! Not this night! No, no, this was too strange, too terrible. Give him a few hours, just until morning. Only a few brief hours, let him have tonight.
He would not die tonight, he would not. No, no, he would live. He would bring the poison up. Yes, by all the demons of hell it should come up. He would not die, he would not. But oh, how the wind roared and moaned, and the purple clouds were gathering thicker and thicker!
Cristin stood trembling and perspiring with desperation. Water, water he wanted. Water would bring it up. He must have water. He started toward the door, and then whirled around, gasping. Where was the door? It should be there by the bureau, he remembered. But it was gone; only the smooth paper was there. Where was it? He groped wildly about the room, feeling with his hands, and stumbling over chairs and stands. This continued for some minutes as Cristin rushed frantically about the room, but at last he gave it up. He fell on the bed trembling and sobbing. He was a prisoner--a prisoner in his own room, and he must have water.
Sobs deep and long racked his body, and then at last he sat up and stared up at the wall. There was a picture, he muttered to himself, a picture of a beautiful green meadow with a gurgling, singing stream flowing through it. There were golden yellow buttercups and sweet, nodding daisies growing on its banks. A calm, china-blue sky and white, billowing clouds floated serenely above. There was water, and escape from death--miserable ratlike death. What a haven! He seized a chair and placed it underneath the picture. He climbed upon the chair, and gazed into the picture for several minutes.
How clear and sparkling the water was! How it would cool his poor brain and soothe his fevered lips! He grasped the edges of the picture frame in his hands and stared eagerly, thirstily, at the picture. And then, suddenly, he felt himself dangling in the air. He must have kicked the chair from under him, he thought. He looked down; but no, there it was--but oh, how far below him! And how vast, how immense the room had become, and the picture--the picture was plunging toward him at a terrific speed; he could hear the water rushing between the banks of the stream. He was still dangling in the air, in space. Things were gigantic, were becoming huger and more gargantuan every moment; or wait--could it be that he was growing smaller? Yes, that must be it. The trouble was not with the room and his surroundings, but with himself. It was the effect of that devil's poison. It was shrinking him up, smaller and smaller.
There was only one thing for Cristin to do. He pulled himself up over the edge of the monstrous picture frame, and tumbled forward upon the grass. He was in a meadow. Several hundred feet away flowed a clear, sparkling stream. He was walking toward the stream. What a blue sky was above, and what sweet, fresh air, stirred only by a gentle fanning breeze! And birds sang--lovely, trilling notes.
The next day the news of Cristin's death was made known and spread generally over the town. When it reached the old druggist, he was shaken and bewildered for a moment. Then he retired to the depths of his dark, ill-smelling shop, mumbling and rubbing his chin in perplexity.
"Strange," he muttered to himself; "he should have known I wouldn't sell him prussic acid, knowing him as well as I did. But now, how the devil did he kill himself with a bottle rinsed out with almond oil, and filled up with water?"
Copyright © 2001 Eric Shanower and David Maxine. All rights reserved.