Read The Prettiest Feathers Online

Authors: John Philpin

The Prettiest Feathers

man like Wolf feels nothing. He is moved only by vengeance. The destruction he brings to the world is payment for the injustice he has suffered. He believes that only he has endured pain. To be in his mind is to be in a primal black hole of sensory disregard.

We matter to him only as objects, pieces of his community in need of rearrangement. Murder is his way of imposing order on his world. When you are the reaper, you do not fear the reaper….

For Philip E. Ginsburg

The wolf howled under the leaves
And spit out the prettiest feathers
Of his meal of fowl;
Like him I consume myself

from “The Wolf Howled”
Arthur Rimbaud



’m not going to tell you about any of the others—the aerobics instructor, the lawyer, the teacher, the actress, the housewife, the bartender, the grocery clerk. Not in detail. The list is too long, and it would be a waste of time.

I want to talk about her, and only her, because she is the exception. If I reveal anything about the others, it will be only to illuminate the ways in which
was different.


t was an unbearably hot, brilliantly sunny day in the midst of my eleventh summer. We were at the beach, my uncle Donald and I, walking barefoot through the sand.

We had been talking about nothing, everything, when—for a reason that I can no longer recall—I realized that I had no shadow. This alarmed me. I stopped and stared at the stretch of beach ahead of me and to both sides, but all I saw was the sand, without my silhouette on its surface. I turned slowly, rotating, but nowhere did I see any hint that I was there.

“I must be dead,” I told my uncle. “I don’t exist.”

He laughed and said, “Your shadow is beneath your feet, where you can’t see it. That’s what happens at noon, when the sun is directly overhead. When the time is right, you will know that you are alive.”

Within minutes my shadow returned, moving just ahead of me as we walked down the beach. But I felt no different than I had when it was gone; I still felt dead.

When the time is right, you will know that you are alive
, he promised. And I waited for years for that time to come.

Then I saw him, the stranger, and I felt a release, an unfolding, like a flower opening in the sun. He gave me both sustenance and substance; he gave me life.


y art is the art of murder. My instruments, people (women, primarily). And my tools are finely crafted from leather, hemp, or steel. Perhaps, without realizing it, you have seen my work. It has been displayed, unsigned, throughout the metropolitan area to the south of here.

I am an avid reader, with a taste for T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, Wallace Stevens, Arthur Rimbaud. But I am not a poet; merely one who appreciates the way words can be woven into pictures. I, too, can create pictures—but in my mind, not on paper. These pictures are elaborate—entire scenes, really, complete with the stage directions, dialogue, soundtrack, and choreography of my art.

One of my favorite books was written by Farley Mowat. To satisfy his curiosity about wolves, he went to live among them—eating and sleeping as they did, crawling around on all fours. By entering their world, making their behavior his, he learned more than all the science-minded fools who’d spent years watching wolves through the bars and glass walls of cages.

We have no Farley Mowats for the human predator. No one has ever come to talk with me, ask me questions, discuss poetry, listen to music, spend the night, or accompany me on my excursions.

What we have, instead, are the ladies and gentlemen of the FBI—the behavioral science experts from Quantico, Virginia—who visit only those who are already caged, administering questionnaires. The specimens they study are bored, with an agenda all their own. They aren’t about to tell the “experts”
the truth; just enough to toy with them.

No questionnaire, ever, could capture the soul of a man like me. I am not one of those who is careless enough to be caught and caged. No word has appeared in any newspaper suggesting that my missions may be connected. Investigators in the various cities where my work has been displayed have no idea that one of America’s most prolific killers has been operating in their midst for several years.

Theodore Bundy always selected his victims at random, killing them soon after—almost never developing any sort of relationship with them. How artless. Virtually anyone could succeed—at least for a while, perhaps even a long while—doing it that way. But where is the challenge, the risk, the sense of fulfillment?

Bundy bores me. He had no sense of variety, no finesse.

Hasty Hills, the town where I live, is called a bedroom community—an expensive boudoir that’s every bit as pretentious as its haughty neighbor, Greenwich, Connecticut. I’ve lived here for five years. People leave me pretty much alone. No one comes to collect for anything charitable. No Girl Scouts selling cookies or Little Leaguers hoping to improve their wardrobes. I can recall only one unsolicited guest—an attractive young woman who came to my door some years ago, asking to use my phone. She was having car trouble, she said. To help pass the time until the tow truck arrived, I offered her a glass of wine and pleasant conversation. When the truck pulled up at the curb an hour later, I allowed her to thank me and leave. I would never foul my own nest.

I own a new car, a reliable Japanese model that I drive into the city whenever I require amusement—such as a new film, the latest album from Julian Cope, something decent to read.

It was on just such a sojourn that I discovered her. It was as if she were waiting for me.

The bookstore was a quaint and musty little place on the Lower East Side. The sign in black and gold said, Emily and Others. Bronte? Dickinson? Very clever.

It was surrounded by a Korean grocer on one side, a soul food take-out on the other, and a massage parlor above. When I parked my car—legally—and stepped out onto the sidewalk, a thin, young black man pushed himself away from the wall of the grocery store and sauntered in my direction.

“Dude can’t park here,” he said.

His hands were shoved deeply into the pockets of pants that threatened to drop to the pavement. He chewed the remains of a toothpick and worked on a baleful glare that just missed me—glancing off my left shoulder and bouncing out into the street somewhere. It was wasted. So was he.

I slipped my right hand into my pocket and allowed it to close over my car key. I inclined my head so that I could watch what his hands were doing and, with my left hand, slowly removed my sunglasses. I found his eyes, smiled, and asked, “Do you want to die here?”

“Say what?” the man said.

He was still moving like a loose-jointed puppet toward me.

The car key was for his left eye. The glasses, ready to shatter into both eyes, were for the bridge of his nose. If he remained standing, the palm of my right hand would drive that portion of his anatomy into his brain and drop him instantly. I continued to smile.

He stopped. Somehow a message-had made it through his crack-clouded senses. His eyes were locked on mine.

“The building needs you to hold it up,” I said.

He shrugged, turned, and shuffled back to the wall.

A brass bell chimed once as I entered Emily and Others. It was dimly lit, dusty, damp. Before I saw her, I knew she was there. I smelled her. It was the delicate scent of a soap only a woman would use. I knew she would be clean and out of place.

Perfume doesn’t arouse me. It is cloying, fouls the air, makes it difficult to breathe. A lanolin soap seems to bring out the scent of the woman herself, the essence of her. Perhaps it was the distance between us, or the dank atmosphere of the subterranean shop, but at first there was no essence; only the smell of the soap.

Then, faintly at first, I could smell leather, the bindings of old books. The shelf to my left held Melville, Poe, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. Early American literature in nonalphabetical order. Shakespeare was to my right, and above him, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, Chaucer, Keats, Wordsworth.