All The Crepuscular Dudes
Inspired by KJ Collard’s poem ‘The Eternal Muse’, this short tale will appear in my forthcoming collectioon, ‘The Museum of White Walls’.
I remember only shards these days. It’s all fading away. Except for a few things, most of my short time with Aoide has gone already, but the feel of her breath on my neck, the curl of her fingers interlaced with mine, the swirl of my mind when the side of her mouth curved in a half-smile – those things will stay with me forever.
We met at a party held in a large Georgian house. I had gate-crashed earlier that evening, looking for some mindless distraction to wrench my mind away from the latest job, and the desperate pleading in the target’s eyes just before I put a bullet between them. The Service pays its operatives well, but not well enough to completely erase the pang of shame that eats at our souls. I needed bright lights and noise to wipe away the patina of guilt, and the ever-growing thought that one day my Glock might just fire a bullet between my own eyes. This shindig promised lights, noise and more. It turned out that the celebration was for the eldest daughter of the house, who was about to get married to – God forgive her – a futures trader.
The family was hideously rich. A thirty-piece band played swing tunes, the champagne was Dom Perignon White Gold, and the food was magnificent. I had just made my selection from the menu for the first three courses, which oddly still sticks in my mind – miniature pastries filled with spiced cheese, a meat tile (pieces of veal, simmered, sautéed, served in a spiced sauce of pounded crayfish tails and almonds), to be followed by fig and ginger frumenty.
As it turned out I never even saw the dining room, for at that moment I saw her. Aoide; a pretty thing in a white dress, bobbed dark hair held in a circlet of silver, a graceful nose, and a full mouth with a delicious overbite. I’ll swear as she floated down the wide staircase at the other side of the room that she gazed at me directly with eyes large and ocean-pearled. I found it impossible to look away.
She half-smiled at me as she crossed to the stage, climbed up, and joined the band as they played “Serenade in Blue”, singing with a voice like liquid gold. As the final notes faded, no-one applauded, no-one took any notice of her song. She crossed to my side and took the glass of champagne out of my trembling fingers. I felt a tug in my chest as I gazed slack-jawed at the curve of her neck, the freckles spattering her bare shoulders.
She took my hand in cool fingers and led me outside into the warm twilight. Bats flitted and swooped, and an occasional travelling silence marked the flight of an owl overhead. Aoide spoke of the kinship she felt with the twilight creatures; the owls, bats, nightingales and moths – all the crepuscular dudes, as she called them, often heard, rarely seen. She felt the music in their sounds; the hoots, clicks and warbles all melding together into a magnificent vespertine symphony.
She led me to a walled garden, where the air caressed us with the scent of evening primrose, sweet rocket, phlox, honeysuckle, moonflower vine, angel’s trumpet and night-scented stock. Her hand on my shoulder nudged me to a chaise longue in a summer house, and there in the dark we talked like old friends. We laughed and lamented, spoke of our fantasies and our deep dark shames.
She confessed her envy of her two sisters; Mneme and Melete. For my part, I opened up more to Aoide than I could ever have imagined doing with anyone. I did not go into details about the Service, but she could see the fury raging inside me, the eternal struggle against a yawning maw of empty despair. Her eyes offered understanding and hope, but no pity, and I loved her for that.
She laid her head on my shoulder, her warm breath on my neck setting my mind awhirl, then she was kissing me, undressing me, seducing me there among the scented night flowers, our soundtrack the music of all the crepuscular dudes. I asked if she’d stay with me. She said that she would be with me always.
Afterwards, half dozing in her warm embrace, I wondered whether I should tell her what I did for a living, how many innocent lives I had ended, how many families destroyed. I questioned whether I would, after all, welcome the chill kiss of the Glock against my forehead. I decided that, unworthy though I was of the breath of life that Aoide had offered me, to turn my back on such sweet serendipity would be a disgrace greater than admitting to my iniquitous occupation as a destroyer of lives.
A bright future with Aoide flickered in my mind, but before it could grow into a warming flame I noticed that my back was cold. Aoide had gone. She hadn’t moved, or stood up – I would have noticed – she simply was no longer there. It was as if she had become a night-scent herself and drifted away on the soft breeze. As strangely as our union had begun, so too had it ended. I was devastated. A lifetime with her had slipped from my grasp almost before I had dared to dream it. An opportunity to turn my life to good things, missed.
I dressed myself and stumbled home, and though I visited the Georgian house time and time again, initially to enquire fruitlessly about Aoide, then later as a family friend and eventually as owner, I never saw her again. The agony of her abandonment swallowed my self-loathing whole, and suicide became less important than discovering what had happened to the girl who had seduced me in the twilight. I never did make that discovery.
I’m an old man now, and my memory plays tricks. If I did meet Aoide again, I’m not even sure that I would recognise her. Time can be a cruel tide to drift away on. However, the ocean of time has helped me to recognise one thing – after a million what-ifs and a lifetime of lost sleep, I have realised that our brief encounter wasn’t a missed opportunity at all.
In the half century since that night I have lived life as a good man. I left the Service behind and took a job as a gardener. I buried the Glock deep under my potato patch. I fell in love with a good woman – the daughter who had married, and then rapidly divorced, the futures trader. We raised two other good women, and we travelled the wide, mesmerising world. Yes, we lived in contentment rather than bliss, but who’s to say that’s not the better state? And, over time, I forgave myself. Aoide was the source of all of that. She breathed spirit and integrity into my lungs one twilit evening, and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.
There have been difficult days, too. My wife died four years ago, my eldest daughter the year after. I cry sometimes. Occasionally, in the dark, I can still see the horror in a target’s face; smell the acrid pistol shot, the iron splash of blood. But then, every evening, I receive a remarkable gift. The moths appear, then the bats and owls – all the crepuscular dudes.
Then I remember her breath, her touch, a heartbeat, a tingle and a moment of dizziness. Aoide joins me every evening as the blanket of night settles about us. She is with me still and always, just as she promised that night long ago, and every evening at dusk I softly sing our song. When I hear that serenade in blue, I’m somewhere in another world, alone with you.