What is perhaps Family’s most infamous experiment sits in a cool, shady, quiet corner of Asp’s domain reading a book.
It is an unusual book. The text wriggles and squirms on the page as she reads, as if it does not want to be read. In fact it is that the concepts represented are too complex and numinous to be accurately described by anything as rigid as permanent script. She reads with greedy anticipation, fully absorbed, chewing her lower lip with a complete lack of self-awareness. She is folded in a corner on the ground with her knees providing support for the delicate tome and her back to a ruined, crumbling wall. The lines crawling through her flesh like animated tattoos of Yggradsil’s roots move inexorably down over her hands and creep out onto the pages to form the words she is reading: of this she is unaware. Despite being almost a quarter of the way through the volume she could not begin to say what the book is about because the shapes have not yet formed for her to describe them. When they have they will be as mobile and responsive as the words on the page.
Although lost in the text, she knows when her solitude is broken. She puts her finger on her place in the book and looks up.
“Hello Rupert.” She smiles.
Under the dark shade of his hat his eyes of ever-changing flat colour are magnetic. A grey rain coat hangs limp and creased over his skeletal frame. Rumpled, stained trousers sit low on his hips. He wears no shirt, revealing the cathedral arch of his gaunt ribcage above a belly that has no navel.
“You can be hard to find,” he says.
“Even for you? Surely not.”
“Even for me.”
She can taste the whisper of regret. Not so long ago he would have been able to find her no matter where she went. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” she asks at last.
He squats, trousers riding up on his ankles above his filthy bare feet. “I have something of yours.” Long, pale fingers delve into a pocket and bring out a still-pristine, oily-black, iridescent feather. He holds it out to her. Her gaze is drawn to the dirt encrusted around and under his stubby fingernails and from there to the brutal, stark architecture of his torso. For the first time she can see what lies inside him through the superficial shell of his form: dark shadows pooling underneath his skin, visible in the edges and lines between his ribs and the concave arch beneath his sternum. The Hollow Man.
She closes the book and sets it on the ground, ghosts her fingers across the curve of his chest to taste the shadows with her touch. He shivers, the feather quivering. She drops her hand, leaving a faint pattern of questing threads in his skin where she has touched him. It quickly fades.
“Keep it,” she tells him.
“You don’t want it back?” It is more a statement than a question. He knows the answer. That is why he has come to return it. It is of no importance to him if it is of no importance to her.
“Not especially.” She offers him another smile. This one is sadder than the last. It is the smile of someone who feels she has seen and experienced too much for the span she has so far been allocated. “If I did you would have had no trouble finding me.”
The Hollow Man leans forwards and cups her face in his hand. His fingers tremble like a butterfly preparing for flight. She can feel him ache, feel the shape of his pointless mourning at her newfound ability to see, quite literally, through him. If it were not for her his name would have been lost. He had forgotten it himself until she resurrected it, bringing it dripping from the depths to clean it and polish it and use it with an affection he had not expected and for which he had been unprepared. Will she still use his name when she can see why everyone else called him by another?
He wonders why he does not feel angry and bitter that she has reduced him to this inane sadness over something as meaningless as a human name. There is no reason for him to care. He has committed acts of atrocity without a second thought. He deals in pain and suffering and the secrets people keep hidden from themselves because they cannot bear to admit them. He has no such secrets. He knows what he is. He should consider this care a weakness, and reject this creature who can provoke it in him. There is no room for it or point to it. Yet it matters, and he cannot find it in himself to be angry that it does.
She lays her hand over his, holding his fingers against her face for a moment before gently drawing them away. She clasps his hand between hers and the threads in her flesh meander from her to him. For a few seconds she watches them crawl over his fingers and knuckles, disappearing into the sleeve of his coat, then lets go with a tinge of regret. The threads linger for a while before fading.
“You will just have to find some other keepsake,” she tells him softly.
“Is there such a thing?” he asks, eyes drifting to a nebulous, mossy green.
“If there is you’ll find it,” she replies, and it seems to him that she hopes he will.
“I should leave you to your reading,” he tells her, standing up. She retrieves the book and opens it, leafing through the pages to find her place. He had not paid much attention to the book when he arrived, and now he looks at it curiously, wondering what would bring her here to read it. The jolt of surprise he feels when he sees what it is does not register on his expression but his eyes flash momentarily black to match hers.
“Wasted on humans,” he murmurs. She bows her head, saddened more by that than anything else that he has ever said or done.
“Bye Rupert,” she says, without looking at him.
He tucks the feather into his pocket, touches the brim of his hat and disappears.