Few things can be as terrible as to get your heart’s desire.
This original short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
There was once a quill that could not be held by any hand, or so the tale generally began. Some versions gave the quill to a wizard, and some to a peasant, and some to a prince. The first line was the only reliable bit of the story, wherever it appeared—that, and the endings, which tended toward gruesome with some variance in execution. The bits in between were a hodgepodge, wildly different from variation to variation, century to century, dialect to dialect.
I had spent a big chunk of my life reading stories and writing stories, but I wasn’t a folklorist by any stretch. Still, the study of this one particular tale had become paramount. I needed to know.
I was digging through an estate sale in a creaky old bastard of a plantation home when I found the box. The cellar was cold and the air tasted of soil and dust; my rolled-up sleeves were smudged grey with a muddled mixture of the two. I was on my knees, flashlight in one hand, picking through a wood crate full of classic but ill-packed stationery items, mouse-nibbled envelopes, and rusty penknives. None of the lot was salvageable. Footsteps treaded over my head. I was the only one mad enough to tromp down into the cellar with only an electric torch to light the way, but it also meant that I would be the first to find anything good.
The box was unexpected under my fingertips, a shock of lacquered wood smooth and slick. I paused and fumbled it out from underneath the detritus. Black that caught and reflected the beam of the flashlight, with silver filigree around the edges and a tiny keyhole that looked like it would take nothing larger than a pin—just about the right length for a larger size of pen, or a quill. I fought a grin. I had never encountered a dull secret inside such a pretty treasure chest. I was certain it would be the best find of my day, in addition to a pile of books I’d put aside from the library.
I was fond of books and pens and quills, because I wrote. Or, at some nebulous point before, I had written. I had written plenty, and well enough, or so people would have me believe. Then the poison had settled in, like a spider bite, a small irritable bump on otherwise healthy, hale flesh, and just like the worst kind, it had spread. The days rolled into weeks, the weeks grew into months, and the months hadn’t stopped slipping by. If it had been a real bite, I would have lost a limb already, or died. But it wasn’t. That sloshing lake of bile was all in my head, and there had to be some way of shrinking it.
So, I brought the box upstairs and bought it with the stack of old occult texts I’d put aside—because I was still fond of that particular sort of horror story where the luckless protagonist stumbles onto something eldritch, and I thought that with a little research, a little prodding, maybe, maybe. Maybe I wouldn’t waste the next three-hour date with my desk and a blank screen staring at an accusatory cursor, a blinking metronome to measure the pulse of my failure. The irony was ripe, rich like a peach about to tip over the cusp into rot.
I admit that I was drunk during the waning hours of that night, the slow, comfortable sort of drunk that follows an evening of steady consumption—not too much, not too little. The tick of the clock kept me company, whisking its way methodically past the first numeral, then the second, and finally the third. I watched lamplight glitter through the tumbled tower of ice blocks inside my glass, turned burnished gold through the whiskey I’d left unfinished. Sleep, despite my lassitude, remained distant. The lacquered box sat on my desk across the room, half-swathed in shadow. I wriggled my toes against the softness of my reading chair and sat up, unfolding my legs from beneath me. The rush of blood through my calves tingled. My first step was more a stagger, but I straightened and paced across the room. The carpet was chilly under my feet.
I put the glass on the desk, running my thumb absently around the damp rim where my lips had rested. The pen-case, because that was what it had to be, didn’t gleam in the dimness—it seemed instead to draw in the dark. I picked it up with clumsy hands, fingertips numb. Standing had increased the rush of blood to my head, inducing a careless dizziness. I pressed my thumb to the delicate latch and it gave with a click; no locking mechanism, after all. The lid gaped the slightest fraction. Opening it took nothing more than the touch of a finger.
Inside, nestled in a bed of grey, shredded fabric—passing strange, that it wasn’t crushed velvet or something delicate—lay a pen, as I’d hoped. The nib was blackened with the remnants of old ink and the shaft was pearlescent ebony, thick like the pinion of a vulture with the sheen of an oil-slick.
I became suddenly aware of my shaking hands, the dullness of sensation from my fingers, the tilting of the floor. My knee banged the desk as I bent forward against the hard wood, a pain less sharp than it would be in the morning, and I picked up the tumbler again. The ice clinked as I tipped it back for another swallow, hot and cold down my throat. The damp chill of the glass pressed to my temple was a welcome relief. I sat the quill-box down and moved to pick up the pen.
In the sharp shock of agony and the tumult of my reaction, addled and exhausted, I lost track of the glass. It shattered at my feet with an explosion like a roadside bomb, shards flying under the desk, sticking in the carpet like tiny knives. The smallness of my cry was in comparison like the whisper of a ghost. I stumbled away and the bite of glass into my feet felt like nothing more than cold, at least for a moment. Falling on my ass hurt less, and the shock of hot tears on my face more.
The hand I held to my chest was bleeding from a jagged rip down my index finger. The flaps of skin gaped like the box had a moment before, and I rolled on my side, gasping against the carpet. I fled in degrees, though the urge to run was overwhelming: first, picking the glass out of the soles of my feet, less than I’d thought I would find; and second, finding my balance again to shamble out into the pitch-black hall.
In the morning, I cleaned the bloody footprints and vacuumed the glass out of the carpet. The finger needed three stitches, which the ER gave me.
I had been drinking. I couldn’t be sure of my memory. All the same, I closed the lacquered box and put it away in the bottom drawer of the monstrous desk, where I was sure to forget it.
The problem with me—and with most people in my profession, I would guess—is innate, idiot curiosity. Faced with haze-edged recollections of the incident with the pen and an empty afternoon to fill, I inevitably couldn’t resist. A writer with a cursed pen; really, it was perfect. The odds were that the whole thing was a mistaken impression brought on by the majority of a fifth of medium-cheap whiskey and unshakeable insomnia, but there was a chance, and that chance was plenty motivating.
Maybe I would write it out, if the story was worth a damn, I remember thinking—a touch of bitterness to it, and more than a splash of loathing. That deep-rooted terror and its attendant keening panic were what drove the curiosity, in the end: the hope that no matter what it cost me, it would be worthwhile if the sacrifice meant a fucking story. Those wretched protagonists didn’t enter my head for a second, and that was what made it idiot curiosity. Desperation made me blind—desperate not to disappoint friends and colleagues, desperate not to disappoint myself, desperate not to have my career collapse on itself like a dying star.
I sat in the office chair, tipping it back and forth with wheezy creaks for a moment before I slid the bottom drawer open. I daintily picked the box out of the clutter and put it square in the center of the desk. Daylight made the whole situation less imposing, the way it tends to. Coming through the picture windows, the brightness of the spring sun invaded every nook and cranny of the shelves, my imposing desk, and the now-stained carpet.
The stain brought a twinge of guilt, but no more than going out first thing in the morning to buy a replacement for the fifth I’d mostly finished on the night with the broken glass. There were things in my life I didn’t care to look too closely at.
The lacquer had a definite gleam in the bright light, less sinister by half. The silver filigree was pretty. Another press at the clasp opened the latch and I folded back the lid on its smooth hinges. The pen was unchanged, but for a spot of blood—my blood—dried on the quill, marring the wet-looking sheen. I tilted the box on the desk, careful to touch only the edges, and the pen rolled forward in its nest of scrap cloth. The sheen moved with it, like liquid, catching the light to glisten eerily. I tipped the pen out of the case; it clattered to the desktop and lay inert. For a long moment I stared, feeling ridiculous but unwilling to touch it. The throb of my sutured finger inside its bandages and splint was reminder enough.
Using another pen from the desk, a regular one, I prodded at the quill. Nothing happened. Again, this time rolling it along the desk, and still nothing; I dropped the cheap Bic into the mug I used to keep them corralled and flattened both of my palms against my thighs. The wounded finger ached, a constant pressure. With a deep breath to fortify me I inched one hand across the wood of the desk, eyes on the oily polish of the quill. I extended my middle finger—why not keep the injuries all to one hand, and the puerile comedy of it appealed to me—and tapped it against the blunt end of the quill.
I registered the brief pain of a sting with what felt like a dropped jaw, but was just a slight parting of dry lips. I drew my finger back. A bead of blood welled on the tip, a small bud of ruby liquid. It hurt no more than having a sample taken at the doctor’s, but it shook me. A cold sweat prickled up my spine, followed by a wave of nausea. I used the Bic to scoop the shining pen back into its case and snapped it safely shut. As the shivers started, I shoved my chair back and fled the office. The daylight wasn’t bright enough after that little test. A cursed pen—really. I was less pleased and more disturbed than I’d thought I would be, but still, underneath it all, intrigued. Curses, after all, were meant to protect their object; what would the quill do, if I could circumvent the bloodletting to use it?
For the third time, as if it would stick had I heard it then: idiot goddamned curiosity.
The librarians of special collections knew a choice kind of magic, or at least had the skills to cover for it. Within three days of sending them a haphazardly worded email asking about cursed writing implements in stories, I was striding down the main hall of the library. It was cold and devoid of students; late spring, after the semester had ended and the summer had yet to begin, was a dull time for a university campus. I wouldn’t be teaching during the summer. Years past, I’d used it to draft novels, a stolen golden set of months to scribble and build. This one would be the same as the last, I suspected, unless the pen story produced something: dull, flavored with fatigue and restlessness in equal measures, avoiding the calls of agent and friends alike.
The stack of books the librarian had set aside for me varied from folklore collections available for general loan to the rarer stuff, including one fine-looking sixteenth-century manuscript that had to remain in her line of sight at all times. I chose that one first. She laid the book out on a stand, handed me a pair of fine gloves, and showed me the section I would be looking for in the text. It was luckily in German—a language of mine—and the story began with that arresting line: There was once a quill that could not be held by any hand…
I read it, and my mouth had gone parched by the end, tongue sticking to my teeth. I swallowed and signaled for the librarian, who gathered up the book and informed me that the rest could be checked out, as I was faculty. I took the pile of them, stacked neatly into canvas bags, and proceeded out of the quiet, private room, up the stairs, and out into the evening gloom.
The young witch in the story had used a glove to hold the quill, a glove made of goatskin, though I doubted that was significant. In her hand it had written new magics, it had crafted poetry that won her the heart of a handsome lordling; assuredly, the quill was potent. The grim turn had come after her marriage, as she continued using the quill but found that its gifts had begun to sour. Accidents began to occur around her person, slow and slight at first, but with growing rapidity, until the eventual bloody demise of her husband, followed by her own death in a house fire—which the quill survived, ominously.
The moral of the story seemed to be, do look a gift horse in the mouth. The price would be paid, and the price was death. The trudge to my car from the library seemed cooler than the spring evening could account for, as if an icy wind were blowing beneath my hair and sliding noose-like around my throat. It was only the first story, and possibly it was just a story, just a moral-tale, despite its strange focus of protagonist. Witches didn’t generally figure as sympathetic leads in folklore of a certain sort. I was determined to see the research through the rest of the texts. The witch, after all, had gotten greedy—if she had stopped with the husband and the shift in social class, it would have been all right. She could have given the quill away.
Before the danger began, though, the profits had been tidy and wondrous, and all it had taken was wearing a glove. I couldn’t quite get that out of my head. The sun had set by the time I made my way into my foyer. I set the books down to lock the door and flip the lights on. The shadow spilling from the library’s open door seemed pitch-black, and I swore I had closed it behind me, but possibly not. I carted the bags of books in, regardless, refusing to let superstition take my favorite room from me.
The lights came on with the flick of a switch. I lingered in the doorway, hand on the lintel, the ache of my sutured finger less but still present. The desk hulked across the room, scattered with papers from a failed attempt at longhand composition. I crossed the floor to the sideboard and collected ice from the mini-fridge in a tumbler. I eyed the soda water for a moment before skipping it altogether in favor of a glass of straight bourbon. It was a minor change-up from the last incident’s drink of choice. Glass in hand, I made my way upstairs to the bedroom and dug through a winter-clothes drawer until I found a leather glove. I slipped it on my good hand, though it wasn’t my dominant one, and drifted downstairs again. A sip of honey-rich liquor fortified me as I lifted my chin and strode into the study. The ritual was familiar already; I sat down, placed the drink to the side, and dug the lacquered box out of the bottom drawer. This time, I opened it with the gloved hand.
I reached forward, elbow braced on a scatter of yellow ruled paper. A touch of my index finger to the oily black quill produced a flinch in me, but not from pain, simply anticipation. Otherwise, nothing happened. Gingerly I flattened my other fingers against it. The quill seemed warm through the leather, but that must have been pure hallucination. A bit clumsy, I molded fingers around it and hefted it free of the case with what seemed like a Herculean effort, the sudden fear clamping my guts was so intense. I used my injured hand to take another sip of my drink and ran my thumb up and down the shaft of the quill, watching the spill of sheen waver and change with my touch and the angle of the light. It wasn’t a polish, as far as I could tell, but I had no idea what it might be.
The glass bottle of India ink at the top corner of the desk was from a period of fanciful stationery collecting; I had never become proficient with a nib pen. Despite that, I uncapped it and dipped the stained pewter tip in. As I lifted it, a spatter of ink splashed the already-scribbled-upon pages. I pushed them aside and found the legal pad buried underneath. A warmth had taken up residence in my head, a strange humming pleasure. Offhanded, I set nib to page and closed my eyes. The buzzing inside my head exploded with lights; my hand moved, and it wasn’t necessarily that the quill did the moving itself, but it was—
The burst of elated inspiration stretched on improbably, unbearably, as I wrote and wrote and wrote. The passion of it was a wave of the kind that drags swimmers out to sea to drown, helpless and alone.
Even in my best years, it had never been like that. The briefest sparks of pleasure had seemed monumental, then, amidst the drudge work, but this.
The long note of ecstasy wavered and cut free, after some indeterminate time. I blinked sweat from my eyes and with a groan unclenched my hard-cramping hand from the quill. It clattered to the desk. There were pages upon pages. The ink was smudged by the motion of my hand going left-ways over the paper, but I could still manage it enough to transcribe the words, later. The splatters of ink tracking from the inkpot across my desk to the pad, on the other hand, would require elbow grease to clean. I collapsed into the chair, boneless, and closed my eyes. I realized as I fell into sleep that the light against my eyelids was sunrise.
The worst and best thing was that I woke hungry to read the story, and that I did so immediately, without even getting out of the chair I’d slept in to stretch; the worst and best thing was that it was astoundingly, wrenchingly beautiful. It was the best I’d ever done—and I hadn’t done it. But the block was gone, if the tale was evidence. My spine was stiff and throbbing, the muscles of my lower back protesting as I slid out of the chair. With the gloved hand, I picked up the pen and dropped it into its box. That was enough of that, at least until I’d read some of the other research texts—the first hadn’t inspired me to much confidence that I wasn’t one of those hapless protagonists encountering the eldritch, and so like one of them, I’d let the temptation to see win over my better sense.
On the other hand, the first completed, worthwhile piece of fiction I’d written in nearly thirteen months was clutched in my wounded fist. I shuffled out of the room to scrounge up a cup of coffee and then type the scrawled pages, transcribe the words that at once sounded like me and like something alien.
It sold by the next morning, with a personal note at the bottom of the email: “Glad to see you back in top form.”
The research progressed, and the congratulatory emails rolled in after I announced the sale, each a pinprick to the tender, ugly bits of my psyche—because that first story, the witch story, was not an anomaly in the tradition of the cursed quill. Instead, it was the template. Whether peasant or prince, maiden or matron, the protagonists of these tales met grisly ends brought about by their own greed and hubris; the quill would not admit strength of will or cunning ploys as diversions from the end result.
Considering that macabre evidence, the best and brightest decision would have been to throw the box out of my car while driving over a bridge. I had gotten one story out of it, one story that had freed me from the quagmire of unproductive months, and that was relatively safe. The lore agreed that it took far more than one slip of curiosity to bring about the doom-and-gloom resolution. Methodical use and increasing returns came first, regardless of what form those returns took, before the pivot for the worst. Once was insignificant.
In point of fact, twice was insignificant.
If it was possible to blame the hungry magic of the quill for the ensuing choices I made, I would do so, but in the fullness of truth it was nothing more than the desperate, life-shaking hunger that gnawed in the corners of my guts, and the fear of losing myself, when all that I knew of me was what I did. At least I took three days to consider the monumental insanity of what I was about to do before I found myself at my desk in the cool twilight hour, hands gloved, a sheaf of blank paper at my elbow.
I considered myself clever, and capable; I knew that the promise of safety—acid and treacherous though it was—lay in the will to stop once the business was done. I took up the quill, the doors of my weak spirit and my desperate heart flung wide, and put it to pristine white bond. The ink leeched in as I wrote the first tremulous words, the nova burn of the curse lighting up my head and hands: Hallowed Be, a Novel, and skipping a line, by Mel Ashton.
Eleven months passing without a solitary word scribbled undid me.
The release of that elegant, precise, inimitable book into the world, while I had written not a line of my own between its supernatural drafting and its reception, undid me.
The outpouring of adoration, respect, validation that followed undid me.
And so I took the pen up again, in the twelfth month, after the third day without real sleep and the fifth sustained by a steady application of liquor. I had glimpsed myself, in that book; I had glimpsed what I was and might never be again. That was me, and this was a simulacra, a shell with no referent, a map without a territory. To say that I was desperate does not begin to encompass the bleak and maddened state of me, to all purposes dead and unmoored without my work and without my so carefully crafted identity.
The taste of it had been too much, and I knew what I could be, if only for a short time. The quill didn’t promise a long life—only one incandescent with the bliss of fulfillment.
The next short manuscript was blotched with spills and tears, but it was unbelievably beautiful. The one after that was pristine but for a splatter of blood, dried rust brown; tapping one’s lip with the quill was paramount stupidity. I spaced them apart, I waited, I read. I hunted up ever more obscure variations on the quill’s tale from libraries across the country, switching out my piles with the concerned desk clerks on campus once a week.
If I couldn’t stop—and it had become obvious that I could not—then my last gamble was to find a way to circumvent the inevitable. The stories were a dwindling hope—the farther they drifted from the original, the more distant and corrupted their narratives became via transmission and adaptation—but they were, still, a hope. I needed to know: with the mistake made and irreversible, was there a single, miniscule, degraded chance to escape the price of my rewards?
The answer, so far, has been no. I do not retain any real hope that I will uncover a yes.
Four evenings ago, after scrawling the hash mark of an ending on my legal pad with the sheen-slick quill, I intended to take myself up to bed. At the top step of the staircase, though there was nothing underfoot, I slipped. A grasp for the banister left me empty-handed and I tumbled down to the landing, bashing my head on the way and turning my ankle at a nauseating angle. I lay panting with pain and terror for a long while before I could make it to the phone. The ankle was, I found after a trip to Emergency in the back of an ambulance, broken.
Coincidence, possibly—or the beginning of the last spiral, the payment to be taken from me with exacting, awful care. Regardless, I sit propped up in bed, a notebook open across my knees and the pen in well-gloved hand. The itch of the cast is not nearly enough to distract me from the ink stains I’ve already managed to drizzle across my sheets, or the ominous promise of the words at the top of the page: End Game, a Novel—by Mel Ashton.
I should say I hear a footstep upon the stair.
“The Writ of Years” copyright © 2013 by Brit Mandelo
Art copyright © 2013 by Sam Wolfe Connelly