David North-Martino

The July Featured Writer is David North-Martino

Please feel free to email David at: dnorthmartino@comcast.net




by David North-Martino

A wave of vertigo washed over her as she peered down the yawning staircase. Claudia knew she would have to brave death for the possibility of a new life.

“Tell me more, Miss Malory, about your malady,” Wu-Shen had said, an hour before. He looked not just old, but ancient, as if he had been transported from ancient China to modern day Chinatown with nothing more than the snap of his fingers or a flourish of a stage magician.

“You don’t have to be so formal, Mr. Shen,” she said. It seemed wrong that someone so old would address her with any sort of a title. Perhaps, it was her disease that made her appear older, she certainly was acutely aware of her own mortality and of the scoliosis that made her hunch over like an old woman.

“Claudia, then?” Wu-Shen asked.

“I prefer Claire,” she said. She had always hated her given name. It seemed as ancient as Wu-Shen looked, and as clumsy and cumbersome as she felt. It was just another imposition on a life that had become not worth living.

She wasn’t ready to give up, though. If she had been, she wouldn't have braved the subway system, known colloquially to Bostonians as the T, exited at South Station, and made her way down crowded streets toward this obscure location.

With a wooden cane in hand to assure her balance, and wearing a stifling taupe colored trench-coat and a large brim hat with wrap around shades to protect her skin and hide her eyes, she had easily found her way to the traditional paifang style arch-gate that led to Boston’s Chinatown.

Chinese foo lions guarded either side of the structure. She couldn’t read the Chinese characters engraved on the gate, but she knew from her research that one side said: Tain Xia Wei Gong: Everything Under the Sky is for the People.

She passed by a rusty metal door with a small gaping hole, waist high, that someone long ago had circled with a Sharpie, and then drawn an arrow leading from the word SEX in bold capital letters. Memories of a cruder time.

Claire was too young to remember when Washington Street, and the rest of the adjacent area encroaching on Chinatown, had been a red-light district known to the locals as the Combat Zone. Now with the streets cleaned up, there was a new pressure as gentrification threatened to raise rents and force out traditional residents.

She was surprised the city council hadn’t changed the old Chinatown moniker. In other states, the cities had softened the epithet to something more inclusive—like Seattle’s International District. Perhaps the refinement was better for modern times, but Claire thought in the transfiguration some part of the charm was lost; a romanticism that could never be regained.

The August Moon Festival was in full swing with its raucous drumming, long winding red and gold dragons bobbing and snaking through the streets, and smells of traditional foods. She passed bakeries selling mooncakes, and dim sum joints, traditional restaurants with signs and menus only in Cantonese, and Vietnamese eateries serving pho as warm as the sidewalks. With a little water sprayed on the concrete, the walkways were as steamy as the hot broth.

The bright sunlight and day’s warmth even encroached into the apothecary. She stood here now longing for what she hoped would be cooler confines below, as a fear gripped her that would not let go.

“Claire,” Wu-Shen said nodding his head. “I like that. Those of us born of traditional Chinese parents have many names…some public, others secret.”

“Why secret?” Claire asked.

“To protect the child from bad luck or sorcery.”

“Does it work?”

“Sometimes. Now tell me more about your affliction.”

“There's nothing more to tell,” Claire said. She had already told him as much as she knew about Osteogenesis Imperfecta Type 1 in great detail over the phone. The disease left her bones brittle and her joints loose. That was the worst of it. She had managed to stave off complete disability with regular exercise. She dreamed of enrolling at a kwoon, Kung Fu school, but had always been too frightened to exercise outside of the sterile confines of her apartment. The only outside training she received was a monthly visit to a physical therapist.

“Can you help me or not?”

“Yes. Certainly. But what is it you long for? What do you hope to gain from my treatments?”

“My life back,” Claire said as she removed her shades, revealing the blue tint in the whites of her eyes. She stowed them in a pocket of her jacket. “If I’ve ever really had one.”

“Have you ever heard of the Chinese Ming Dynasty physician, Li Shizhen?”

“No,” Clair admitted.

“He wrote a book, the Pen-tsao Kang-mu, the compendium of Meteria Medica, the collected knowledge of medicinal herbology of the time.  In the section titled Man as Medicine, he went on to recount the legend of the mellified man.”

Wu waited for her reaction. When there was none, he continued.

“It seems that some men in their 80s, in Arabia, donated their bodies to the greater good of their people. A donor would stop eating, only ingesting honey, and going so far as to bathe in the viscous substance. It is said that after a month’s time, the donor’s feces would turn to honey, and he would even sweat out the substance. A short time later, the diet would prove fatal. After death, the donor would be entombed in a stone sarcophagus filled with honey where, over the period of a century, his body would be left to macerate. Now, reduced to a confection, the treatment would be doled out in small quantities as a quick cure for fractured and broken bones.”

“Are you saying you want me to eat a honeyed human cadaver?” Claire asked.

“No,” Wu said. “Not a human cadaver. But there is a something to help, if a bit unusual. Would you keep an open mind?”

“At this point, I’m desperate, so I am pretty much ready to try anything.”

“Then you will need to go into the basement.”

“What’s down there?” Claire asked. 

“Like I said, something that will help,” Wu said, pointing his cane toward the darkness. “If you are brave enough to go there, that is.”

“You first,” Claire said. She wasn’t going to let him get behind her on so steep of a staircase.

To that Wu shrugged and began his descent. Claire followed.

Careful of each step, both Claire and Wu used their canes and a wobbly handrail to steady their downward climb. The old man was walking like an old man, and the younger woman was walking like an old woman. The tap of their canes sounded flat on rotting wood.

Claire let her eyes adjust to the perpetual twilight of the dank cellar. The cement floor, cracked with age, could have used a good sweeping.

The loading dock door stood to her right, partially hidden in shadow. To her left, metal storage shelves had been erected and filled with boxes of stock, yet to be placed out on the display floor of the shop above them. An old cracked mirror stood propped up on the far wall. 

None of these things in the musty basement storage room were any surprise. But what gave her a jolt was what lay in the center of the room.

Before her stood four Chinese caskets, carved stone boxes, painted the colors of jade and sapphire with a gold dragon slithering for all eternity on the sides of the funerary container. Claire found the sarcophaguses both beautiful and grotesque, but there was one thing she found curious—they were too small to contain humans, or at least adult humans.

“What’s in the coffins?” Claire asked, not really wanting to know. If she had the strength, she would have run up the stairs, away from this cellar’s oppressive atmosphere. Unfortunately, she was not the healthy woman she wished to be. Getting up those stairs unscathed would be a chore and slow going. She had committed herself.

“Nothing to be afraid of,” Wu said, giving her a gentle smile, as if he could read her mind. “I have much to show you.”

“Why are you being so mysterious?”

“I am always mysterious.”

She glided with him, over to the first sarcophagus, barely feeling her feet move as they approached the mystery box. Her heart pounded so hard, she feared the strongest muscle in her body would break a rib.

Wu did not struggle as he pushed the lid open, the sound of stone on stone rattling in Claire's ears, allowing the heavy lid to fall unceremoniously to the floor with a mighty thud. The impact kicked up a small cloud of dust. Surprisingly, the lid didn’t break.

The smell of honeysuckle and clover wafted up from inside the box, the fragrance filling the space not with putridity, but with sweetness.

Peering over the lip of the coffin, Claire gasped when she saw the mellified contents.

Four cephalopod-like creatures, presumably dead for centuries, lay in state, covered in a gelatinous honey concoction, an unholy mixture preserving their horrid bodies, and their unnatural lives. Despite their resemblance to small octopi, Claire could readily imagine that they were not of this earth.

“Are they dead?” Claire asked, and then felt embarrassed. What a stupid question. Of course they’re dead.

“They are dreaming,” Wu replied, his words sending a chill down her spine.

“And what do you want me to do with them?” Claire asked, her mouth going dry, for she knew the answer.

Pulling a penknife from a pocket, Wu reached in and cut a slice. The honey, acting like a centuries old marinade, had tenderized the flesh and internals so thoroughly that the knife met no resistance.

He plucked the piece of tentacle he had cut. The gooey confection reminded her of a sticky Bit-O-Honey, a candy from her youth.

“Take a bite,” Wu said, giving her a cold smile.

Claire's stomach flip-flopped. Her forehead broke out in a sweat.

“I can’t,” Clair said, holding up a hand as if to ward off his hospitality. She didn’t want to vomit. Sometimes all it took was a cough to fracture a bone.

“You must,” Wu said gently, “if you want to be whole. I can guarantee that the properties and preparation of this medicinal will cure you of all your ailments, allowing you to walk the earth again without fear."

Walk the earth again without fear?

The wording sounded strange, but wasn’t that what she wanted? To be healthy? To live a normal life? To love? The things most people took for granted day in and day out. She knew what it was like to do without all of these, especially love…the warm embrace of a lover, the weight of a body next to hers, and the feel of a sensuous and tender kiss.

“It only takes a taste,” Wu said, presenting the confection that he held in the palm of his hand. All she had to do was reach out.

“I can't,” she said again. “I won’t.”

No, she couldn’t do this. She couldn’t say why, but she knew this wasn’t right. She had learned to live by her intuition, and something deep within her brain was screaming at her to run, to get away. If only she had the ability to flee.

“Very well,” Wu said, picking up the cane from where he had propped it against the stone box. He held it up, looked at it as he twirled the hardwood in his hand. Then he swung at her legs.

Claire screamed as the pain jolted her body and her brain. She went down, meeting concrete, her body shattering. Her own cane clattering beside her as it fell from her hand, making a noise as loud as the snapping of her bones. The pain unbearable as her broken body screamed through every nerve.

Death. That’s what she wished for then. A sweet release from her pain. Warm tears leaked from her blue sclerae ravaged eyes.

“Be calm,” Wu said. She barely heard him over her agony.

Part of her wished to pass out, to be free from this torment even for only a few minutes, another part was too scared of what would happen while she was unconscious.

Claire struggled through the buzzing in her brain, and the darkness encroached her vision that was slowly closing in, threatening to take her away. “If you want the pain to end, all you have to do is eat.”

Slowly, gingerly, using his cane for balance, Wu squatted next to her. He held the tentacle confection out until it was a half-inch from her lips. More tears, her nostrils felt wet with snot. She turned away, her lips tight to keep the debased substance from passing between them.

“If it’s so good,” Claire asked through clenched teeth, fighting through delirium. “Why don’t you eat it and get rid of your own cane?”

“This is about you, not me,” Wu said, his voice tight. He didn’t wait any longer. He let his cane drop so he could hold her head with one hand while he forced the mellified confection past her tight lips, ignoring the muffled protests. His fingers threatened to crack her skull, the pressure of the candy threatened to dislodge her teeth.

Her lips and teeth parted just for a second, and that was all it took.

The sickly-sweet substance touched her tongue; the taste of honey and dried flowers masked the foulness hidden beneath. Wu cupped his hand over her mouth, giving her no choice but to chew the sticky confection. Then she tasted the candy’s center, a flavor of ripe fish and rot that the honey could not hide.

“Yes, good,” Wu said. “Chew. It is good isn’t it? Now swallow. It will do you no good if you don’t swallow the medicine.”

Claire turned her head to face him, feeling the naked hatred burning in her eyes. Forcing down brine and sweetness, she winced as the honey coated tentacle slithered down her throat.

Then a wonderful warmth replaced her fear and anger. The pain receded. She felt her bones knit and become stronger than at any time in her natural life. In that moment she felt joyous, and she wept not from pain but from gladness. Wu had done what he said he would do—he had healed her! 

Paired to those feelings came something else. Voices? Yes, there were voices wafting up from some dark eternity, an abyss that gazed within her, and yet, didn’t bother to wait for her to stare back. A black hole, a portal, widening just enough to let something alien slip in.

“What have you done to me?” Claire asked, with newfound panic.

“You asked why, if the mellified creature was so good, so healing, why I didn’t eat of it,” Wu said, standing up gingerly. “Why not cast this old body aside for the promise of a new life?”


“You see, the old gods have always been trying to walk the earth again. They have been lying in wait in a dreamless slumber for a day when they could take their rightful place as the rulers of humanity. Many ways have been tried, and many times the righteous of mind and heart, in the service to their masters, have failed.”

Claire found her body standing of its own accord, separately of her internal will. Her physique felt strong, perhaps stronger than any mere mortal. Yet, something of herself was drifting away; something she just couldn’t place, descending deep into that same abyss where it would never be seen or heard from again.

Wu said, “It has taken many centuries but a new way has been found, one that was prepared for before it was lost. Li Shizhen opened the way for the precession of the old gods, of which they have waited an eternity. All they needed was a vessel.”

“And that vessel is me,” Claire finished his sentence for him, as she was quickly ceasing to be Claire. She was sure she would still look like Claire, and her vocal cords would make the same intonation, but she was becoming something else entirely—not one, but many—and she mourned the loss of herself while she still could.  

“It’s a good thing you did not eat of the dreaming ones,” the thing that had been Claire said. The one called Wu looked concerned.

“Of course, my body, while old, was not ravaged enough for you to invade. For that you needed an extraordinarily weakened physical specimen, and those are quite rare,” Wu said. “The dreaming ones need me to find and lure those scarce diamonds of humanity down here with the promise of a new life.”

“Needed you,” the one that was Claire corrected. She could feel it as her face splayed open and tentacles shot out, traversing the distance between them to find purchase on the old man's throat. “Now our only need is to feed.”

Wu screamed, as the one that used to be Claire pulled him toward its cavernous jaws, lined with rows and rows of sharp teeth.

The one that was Claire feasted, slurping blood and crunching bone until all that was Wu had been consumed, then licked her lips, and smiled before shuffling over to the cracked mirror propped up on the far wall. Watching intently, Claire became Wu before becoming Claire again.

As Claire, the old one could finally walk the earth again. As Wu, it could lure those who were weak of mind, body, and spirit down here to the dank basement, with the promise of miraculous healing. Together, they would ensure that all the old gods would walk the earth again. Then they’d all shamble out of the darkness to feed. 

David North-Martino had his fiction appear in Epitaphs: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers (Shroud Publishing), Wicked Tales: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers Vol. 3, Daughters of Icarus: New Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy (Pink Narcissus Press), Anthology: Year Two: Inner Demons Out, and the From Beyond the Grave anthology.

His story “Despair” won first place in the second annual Déjà vu Horror Contest at Dark Recesses Press and appeared in their fourth issue.

A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, he holds a BLA in English and psychology. When he’s not writing, David enjoys studying and teaching martial arts. He lives with his very supportive wife in a small town in Massachusetts.

Visit him at http://davidnorthmartino.com