A Book of String, A Book of Thread

By Corey FarrenKopf

From CHM #44 February 2024

He said the path was hidden in the childrens’ books he illustrated. Over the phone, it sounded hallucinatory. The path to what? I asked. To whom is more appropriate, he replied. Then the line went dead. I dialed back, but only got his voicemail. You’ve reached esteemed children’s book author, Jeremy Leiland, leave a message after the beep.

When the police searched his house, they found blood all over his study, crimson streaks covering bookcases and drafting tables alike.

The issue was, most wasn’t fresh.

Estimates placed the stains anywhere between a month to three years back.

Beyond the blood, there was little evidence. No fingerprints. No weapon. No motive. Just the crimson and brown splotches and my father’s absence. The lead detective had already pulled most of his men and women off the case, the word cold bantered around like an easy out.

***

Yellow crime scene tape draped the front door as I slid back the deadbolt. The police hadn’t returned to clean up their mess.

“This stuff doesn’t biodegrade,” Lil said, spooling filmy caution in her arms.

“I’m sure they aren’t concerned with recycling,” Benny replied.

I couldn’t return to my father’s house alone. After what the detective said, I didn’t think I could face the scene. Both Lil and Benny worked as vet techs during the day to pay for their electronic music careers at night. Sometimes they were in a relationship. Sometimes they weren’t. Occasionally they messed around with polyamory, sometimes it was just monogamy. Either way, I had no idea what phase they were in, but I didn’t care. They both loved the esoteric and were fine around blood.

“Least they could have done was kick off their shoes,” Lil said, crouching low. Smears of mud ran the length of the hall leading to my father’s study, soiling the white carpets in two mirrored tracks.

“The police said it was like that when they got here,” I replied.

“Probably an excuse,” Benny said.

“Or maybe it has something to do with what dad mentioned,” I replied, pushing open the door to my father’s creative space, another web of police tape falling at my feet.

“The hidden path in the books. Right,” Lil replied, eyes darting to Benny as if I wouldn’t notice. I shook my head, flipped on the lightswitch, and stepped inside.

There was less blood than I expected but the sight still made me freeze. Arcs of gore streaked the spines of his books. It pooled in brown lagoons on the otherwise snowy expanse of carpet. The largest quantity stained the space around the drafting table, footprint-like on the rug, smeared here and there like stray arms flailing for purchase. I dropped into an armchair and covered my face with my hands.

“We don’t have to do this, Nick. We can hire someone to clean. I’ve got numbers already…I…” Lil began, placing a hand on my shoulder.

“No,” I cut her off. “He said I’d find the answer in the books, and the books are here. I really don’t have a choice.”

“Well, then aye aye, captain,” Benny said.“Where do we start?”

***

My father was best known for a series of children’s books called the Thinwater Chronicles, a hundred-and-twenty-six book epic, all pen and ink illustrations of a group of bumbling knights who had to uphold the peace in the land of Thinwater. There was the bog witch to keep in check, the swamp boys who never understood why the king didn’t want them at his parties. There was a toothless werewolf who had a thing for stealing dairy products. A dragon who acted as an old-timey airborne alternative to a taxi service. The list went on, encapsulating every fantasy trope imaginable, rendered in exacting detail highlighted in hues of orange and green.

Looming over everything was the Master of Murk, a rarely seen, but often heard puppetmaster pulling the strings for all the shenanigans in the kingdom. Critics and reviewers said the books were marketed to the wrong age group, that six-year-olds weren’t mature enough for the dark imagery and cryptic humor, but he’d sold out at every Scholastic Book Fair I’d ever known. If he didn’t want to write anymore, he could live off royalties, but he never stopped. His latest title was half finished when he went missing, page outlines tacked to a corkboard behind his drafting table, rudimentary sketches of a being wrapped in shadow, a cloak draping over more arms than any living thing should possess.

“What was he going to call the new one?” Lil asked, seated at the long table at the room’s center, a small pile of hardcovers before her.

“The Master of Murk and the Murky Mystery,” I replied, sifting through a pile of rough sketches. “He really loved alliteration.”

“I think it’s a requirement for childrens’ fiction,” Benny said, flipping the pages to Shivering Skeletons and the Sinking Ship, an early entry in the series where the group of knights rescue a tourist barge that sailed too deep into Murk’s swamp-nest. Each skeleton was anatomically correct and looked like it belonged on a metal band’s t-shirt rather than on the pages of an elementary school required reading list.

“You’re writing down all the places, right?” I asked.

“Yup. Cliffside Castle. Bogwitch Island. Blythe’s Bellowing Bordello,” Lil said.

“I have no idea how he got away with that last one,” I replied.

“Don’t you think it’s more likely one of the maps that’s the hint?” Benny asked, cracking open his book to where an antique map was penned.

“They all have maps though. I’m not sure that’s narrow enough,” I said.

“Maps show paths. Maybe we just need to find one with a path actually listed,” Lil said.

“God, there’s so many,” I said.

“We’ve got time,” Benny replied.

At first, I didn’t know if the secret would be in the wording or in the topography, if he’d spelled it out like a treasure map or if the path was hidden under layers of word play. The maps made sense. I had to give Benny that, but my father had never been very straightforward with me in regards to anything. My mom died when I was five and he never told me how it happened. He’d disappear for long “publishing trips” leaving me with Grandma Fern for months, but he never explicitly told me where he went.

In light of our current situation, things started to look less disconnected.

We laid out each book, flipping to the map, snapping cell phone pictures, searching for anything labeled path. Every book my father had published, and several he hadn’t, were achieved in his study. It was like a tiny museum to his life spread across thousands of pages. I’d tried to find him there in the text, in the drawings, to understand him in some way, glean the closeness I never got from the man himself. But there was nothing there. Just the story of the three knights, battling evil and making silly jokes, page after page, occasionally a cliffhanger, almost always a quest narrative.

I’d become an illustrator, taking whatever jobs came my way,  hoping that the mirrored trajectory might bring us closer, but it only seemed to make us more distant. My father didn’t want to talk about technique or career plans. He didn’t really like to talk at all. It seemed to hurt him every time he opened his jaw, but I still asked, still needing that connection.

***

Three hours passed and we were still rifling through books, searching for the right name.

“How many more do we have?” Lil asked, draped over a plush chair clean of blood splatter.

“Who knows. Each of these has several drafts,” I replied, holding up a stack of books. “Each map is different. Some slightly. Some completely. We’re going to be here for…”

I was cut off by a book falling from the shelves, a heavy double feature we’d overlooked.

No one was near the bookcase. The room was still. I didn’t know how it fell, but I wasn’t going to question divine intervention. I wiped a spider web from its cover and flipped to the first map, Lil and Benny reading over my shoulder. My eyes traced the labeled routes until they fell on Red Cedar Path, a squiggly line running into a dense cluster of trees. There was a time stamp drawn beneath: 9:59.

“Oh, god,” Benny said.

“There’s a few hours of my life back,” Lil said.

“Isn’t there a cedar swamp in Yarmouth, you know, by that church parking lot we used to skateboard in?” I asked.

“There is. Benny and I went to third base there when you were hung up on learning kickflips. Not the most romantic spot,” Lil said.

Benny’s finger tapped at his phone screen, light flickering onto his face.

“Good times,” Benny said, pushing the phone my way, a map displayed, showing the edge of the swamp, the little parking lot just off the side of Red Cedar Path. “Doesn’t this feel too easy?”

“My dad wanted me to find this place. He wouldn’t have said anything otherwise. He wasn’t one for wasting words,” I said.

“Fine, but we’re stopping by my house before we get there. We need supplies,” Lil said.

“Supplies?” I asked.

***

“It’s not like we could return them after the music video,” Lil said, pushing open the lid of an old chest she kept in the chicken-wire wrapped storage space in her apartment’s basement. An army of silverfish fled the noise, tucking themselves into wall crevices, tiny twitching antennae sticking out between bricks.

“Even though it’s just food coloring and corn syrup, stuff’s hard to clean,” Benny added, dragging a machete from the chest’s innards, holding it up to the bare bulb light of the basement. He stabbed an invisible foe before dropping the blade into the box, metal singing against metal. Inside were a dozen similar weapons, more machetes, axes, something that looked like a hammer with a dagger welded to its base. All were covered in the fake blood I helped them boil down for their Walking Dead themed music video.

That’s how you get the views, Lil had said, Be referential. Built-in fandom, right?

A nest of zombie masks lay beneath. I could distinctly remember the taste of the rubber, that sweat-swollen stench from the hours I spent running around before the camera. I shivered, the nostalgic taste rancid in my mouth.

“Was it worth it for forty-thousand views? Yes, yes it was,” Lil said, grabbing two of the axes.

“Choose wisely,” Benny said. “I’ve read enough of your dad’s books to know you never go on a quest unprepared.”

“There was a lot of blood,” I said, grabbing the machete Benny had dropped.

***

The entrance to the swamp trail bled away from the parking lot, an archway of dried tree limbs constructed at the mouth of the path, a portal right out of the Thinwater Chronicles if I’d ever seen one. Everything smelled of cedar and damp earth, algae blooming in the standing pools between the trees. It was practically pitch black. The nearest streetlamp was a half mile down the road. Benny dragged his cell phone’s flashlight across the surrounding trees, disturbing roosting birds and red squirrels alike. I checked my watch, tapping the illuminating dial. 9:56.

“Do we really need to wait?” Lil asked, leaning against the warm hood of her Honda, twin axes lying at her feet.

“That’s what the note said. Dad wouldn’t write it if it didn’t have meaning,” I replied.

“Everything in those books had meaning,” Benny said.

“Did you really read them all?” I asked.

“I think so. You’ve got to appreciate great children’s literature. The meaning of life honed down to thirty-two pages,” Benny replied, harassing a family of frogs with his light, tiny eyes catching the reflective glow before they dove beneath the surface.

“And what meaning did you get from his books?” Lil asked.

“There’s darkness everywhere. If something looks like a monster, run. Don’t trust—”

His response was cut short by the echoing clunk of a portal dragged through time, ancient hinges yawning wide. Where the stick-bare archway had stood, there was now a massive wooden door, slightly ajar.

“Nine-fifty-nine on the dot,” I said.

“We better get a good story out of this,” Lil said, shouldering her axes.

“Oh, definitely. Maybe a little inspiration for our next music video,” Benny replied, snatching his nail-studded baseball bat.

“People do love those portal fantasy vibes,” Lil said, as I pulled open the door, my flashlight struggling to push back the shadows within.

***

The hallway was composed of woven vines enmeshed with spiderwebs, silver strands reflecting like moonlight in the flashlight glow. I checked for spiders, but the webs were vacant. The narrow pathway was a straight shot, the dirt floor muddy, imprinted by the thousand feet that arrived before us. Somewhere far off came the sound of whistling, trilling and off-key.

Lil and Benny followed.

It was only fair that I took the lead. He was my father. Or is my father? I had so many questions, so little understanding. My father kept everything to himself. What he liked, disliked. Childhood stories. Friendships and failures. All he did was write books and stay locked in his study. I wanted to know how we were similar, how we differed, how I could make sense of my life in his shadow, but he didn’t seem interested in that story. Nor did he seem interested in telling me what happened to my mother. The Thinwater Chronicles were the only narrative that mattered.

The hall widened, walls drifting apart, ceiling rising higher and higher. The whistling swelled to an uncomfortable pitch. I heard Benny’s voice in my mind, isn’t this too easy? I tightened my grip on the machete, hands shaking, sending the flashlight illumination dancing over web-stuck walls.

“We can always leave,” Lil said.

“I need to know what happened. This is the only way,” I replied.

“So, no turning back?” Lil asked.

“Of course you can’t turn back,” came my father’s voice from the end of the hall, where an open doorway waited. I looked at my friends, eyes darting from one to the next. There was no mistaking his voice.

I took off running.

“Maybe we should wait,” Benny called from over my shoulder. “I’ve definitely read this one before.”

But I hadn’t.

I was already in the room, the vaulted ceiling of tree limbs and muddy mortar flying skyward. The space was massive, the farthest walls barely visible, the scent of blood and rot all around. Thousands and thousands of silken strands wove about over my head, creating a symmetrical cosmos, an entire universe of thread. On the floor lay my father’s body, lacerations peeling back the skin on his arms and neck, flayed flesh drooping from the confines of his blue oxford. A thousand silver strands led away from his corpse, the thin strings pulling into his skin, slowly separating muscle like tiny razors.

I followed the lines to the room’s center where a figure stood, a near replica of the drawings my father left above his drafting table. The Master of Murk, all his unhinged arms working the strands, pulling and shifting beneath a massive black robe, causing my father’s body to writhe.

I lashed out with the machete, severing what I could, but there were too many.

“Why so angry?” the creature asked, voice identical to my father’s, fishing with the twine, its thin conical head tilting inquisitively, hundreds of mouths opening and closing with each word. “This was inevitable. Workers only work so long before strain gets them.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked as my friends made it to my side, creating a barricade of wood and steel with their weapons, as if it would somehow ward off the reality we stumbled into.

“Your father did my work. And now I need someone else to continue,” Murk said. “Someone has to tell the stories. People need to know the name of their coming king. Acceptance is necessary before arrival. You were always a promising artist…”

“Darkness everywhere, see what I’m talking about,” Benny said. “Did I ever mention the last rule?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, breath catching in my throat.

“Always kill the evil shit.” And he was off, nail-stuck bat leading the way.

“Fucking Benny,” Lil shouted, panicking, tripping over herself as she followed.

“I only need one, but three, three could work. They did once before, maybe now they will again,” Murk said, head swiveling towards the nearest wall where three suits of armor slumped against the root woven architecture, bracers and chest plates crosshatched with webbing.

They weren’t hard to place, the three knights from my father’s stories, or the Murk’s stories. I was beginning to understand my father may have never been my father, that all our interactions had been ventriloquism, shadow puppets on a wall, dialogue cast from miles away. My eyes dropped to the body of the man who’d raised me, still in the dirt. This wasn’t what I wanted to find. Proof of our disconnect, the connections that never were.

My mind was tugged into the present by an echoing scream. Benny lay on the ground, a dozen lines of thread wrapping about his limbs, around his neck, pulling taut, just as they had on my father.

“This one might not be quite so good with a pen,” Murk said, arms pulling and wheeling, more strands drifting from its oddly-jointed fingertips. Benny was turning blue as I rushed the towering creature. He curled in on himself, fingers trying to shred the ties, frantically grasping at threads. He wasn’t finding purchase, eyes roving wildly, terror blind.

A wet thwack cut through the chaos. A spurt of blood rose from the creature’s shoulder, Lil’s ax buried deep. A number of Murk’s arms swiveled, grasping at the blade, attempting to free it from bone. I abused the distraction, winding up, cleaving the machete through the creature’s narrow neck. The blade swam through, faint resistance meeting metal, a torrent of blood to mark the passage of death.

Its skull clattered to the floor, the hundred mouths flapping for a moment before stillness froze their lips. The thing’s body remained rigid and upright while Lil dropped to her knees, untangling Benny.

His eyes fluttered, a series of harsh coughs racking his chest as the strands drifted away, falling about his feet like dying snakes.

Benny coughed and smiled. “I think you just killed my favorite author.”

“Too soon, Benny,” Lil replied, brushing threads from his shoulders.

As she spoke, Murk gave a sudden shiver, its statue-like pose tumbling backward, limbs pulled towards a doorway in the far wall. The creature’s body dragged across the muddy floor, robes tearing, exposing the mass of arms hidden beneath the fabric, all those thin appendages and their tangled twine pulled taut by unseen hands.

The corpse put distance between us, reeled in like a dead fish at the end of a line.

“Who’s pulling the strings?” Lil asked, eyes glued to the Murk’s retreat, watching as it drifted through the doorway, out of sight.

The humming began again, far off, happier than before.

“I don’t want to know,” I said, wrapping my arms around my father’s body, attempting to drag him towards the door. “I came for one answer and now I’ve got it.”

“I mean, if something looks like a monster, run, right?” Benny added.

“I don’t know if you should be following that advice anymore,” Lil replied, giving the Murk’s head a kick. The skull tumbled twice before coming to rest against a pile of bone.

I didn’t want to think who the remains belonged to. My mother? Someone else the Murk lured to its lair? An entire nation of puppets who’d lost their usefulness, no longer orators and artists dedicated to what may come.

Every memory of my father hadn’t been my father, just one of those flapping mouths, those twining strings, and that, somehow, was comforting. The real man hadn’t pushed me away, hadn’t remained silent for so long. No, my father had never been a monster.

That’s a narrative my mind could live in, fiction or not.

“I guess it didn’t work out for my heroes,” Benny said, eyes on the three suits of armor, the rusted repose of their slumped forms. He reached out, taking some of my father’s weight off my shoulders before the whistling stopped.

“It did not,” Came my false-father’s voice from the other room, seemingly miles away, distant, yet right in our ears. “But who’s to say it might be different for you? A king’s story still needs telling. Risk for reward?”

“No reward could ever be enough,” I called back, the three of us hurrying for the far door, my actual father’s corpse draped between us.

The voice laughed as we made it into the vine-wrought hallway.

“Suit yourself,” the voice echoed as we traversed the narrowing tunnel. “You, or someone else, it doesn’t matter. There will always be someone to draw my likeness.”

Then the whistling returned, jaunty and high as the threads in the wall fell loose, drifting to the floor, slowly recoiling towards the voice. Thousands of strings, thousands of restraints, thousands of tongues and throats and voices searching for their next mouthpiece, promising whatever new story was to come.

End.

Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. His work has been published in/is forthcoming from The Deadlands, Nightmare, Vastarien, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southwest Review,  Bourbon Penn, and elsewhere. His debut novel, Living in Cemeteries, will be published by JournalStone in April of 2024. He is the Fiction Editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on TikTok at @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.

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