the perfect drug

fiction by jean may chen
illustration by katy mccormack


I stumble, and reach for something to hold on to. Something. Anything. I do not want to fall, and I snatch at the drapes. The drapes tear. Oh, I am on hands and knees now.

I will not make a sound. If I fall, the servants will hear, and if they heard it would be so bothersome, they would double their whispers and sidelong glances, and it is so distasteful to deal with them at all. No, I am not driven by fear...merely expediency. So much of a bother to make excuses.

Sometimes the absinthe comes strongly -- I can hardly sit still, I can hardly stand straight, and in the meantime ghosts and apparitions swirl from the windows, and conspire to throw me to the floor.

I willed myself to embrace the floor and negotiated with my rebelling limbs to lie prone on the cold tiles. I found myself nearly atop my bear rug, a gift from a long-gone adventuring friend. I saw the furred ear, the blanched beady eyes. Fur meant warmth, so I rolled towards it, settled and fell asleep.

And that was how I came to myself the next morning, alone in my sighing house, full of a longing for happier days now nearly forgotten. It was an inheritance meant to last me my days in comfort, but it had many years since become my cage. Life had long ago bled free of color and interest, and what a horrible freedom I was left with, cut loose from companionship, human warmth, love.

I have not left the grounds of my estate in years, maybe even a decade or more. Day after day, I see no-one besides the servants, my uncomprehending drones. Like animals they are, mindless extensions of the blank gray hills that I own, of the low hovels that spawned them. And like animals, they chatter and chatter. Their noisy ways prevent me from attaining absolute silence, the only possible achievement left to me, that my existence may perfectly mirror by physical means the state of my soul.

So it was until the day she came. One breath, and she was there in the anteroom where nothing had been, the servants scattering before her as if from some fierce predator, mottled black or ochre-striped, perhaps. But what was left standing calmly in the eye of my bondservants' rank fear was merely a girlchild, long chestnut hair contending with a boyish frock coat, and eyes set very deep. Eyes that waited for some final calamity, and looked as if they were prepared to wait until the end of the world.


At first I did not know what to make of her. I saw her clear; the late morning sun had intensified its cloudy glare to some kind of head-pounding madness, and all I wanted was to draw the curtains. I did not care what might remain within the room after the curtains were drawn. So I remarked curtly to the chambermaid. I turned and walked back into the house. The servants gibbered. She followed.

I cannot remember when she first spoke, or what she first said -- when was it that I first knew she was not a changeling but a girl? I cannot remember. But her voice was as if reflected from the depths of walls, it was grey as the shade of hope left clinging in a corner, it was the bringer of wonders for which I had never dared hope.

From the first night of that first day, she was with me until every grey dawning. As nightly I took my absinthe, she put her little hand in mine. And as I sank into the warmth of slurred dreams and visions, of laments and regrets numbed by the agency of my green-eyed witch, she kept watch, and bore witness to my crimes. And she understood. And she forgave.

Her small grave voice was a shadow to my thoughts. Oh, how much it meant to me, that she understood every part of me, and as I began to pour my soul out to her she became my angel, my confessor, my savior. She was my constancy. She began to engulf me, and then I could not tell where she ended and I began, whether it was her arms around me at night, or my own wistful longing. And sometimes as I walked, I would look back in fear, that the soft sad footsteps that echoed mine might be just a fever dream -- that she might not be there.

I did not then and do not now know why she was given to me; I do not know what was the purpose, what was the truth, or the destination that she was meant to show me. But for her affection, her warmth, her sad grace, and the promise of something more...I followed blindly.


He is on a ledge now, and I am breathless. He might fall, or he might fly. Or both. I know the light hurts his eyes, though it is only moonlight; it is a full moon and a clear sky. And in his madness, he stares and stares and cannot stop. I watch from the garret window which had borne his abrupt exit not a moment before. And now he stands swaying upon the high peaked roof. Perhaps this time it will be the end of him. I know that is what he wants, though it be madness....

But a cursed fate follows him; just as the absinthe refuses to kill him, his fits and melancholia refuse to let him live. And I am breathless, because perhaps he may never come back to me and yet perhaps he will come back and I will cradle his head in my arms another night. He is not the only one who harbors secret hopes.

I hope he hasn't seen me. It upsets him to know that I am privy and prey to his madness...the near-constant imposition, once the sun has set, of a mind that can no longer quiet chaos, or loneliness, or despair. But I know he will reach out expecting my hand to steady him, again and again, tonight, and tomorrow night, and long after I am gone.

How will he fare without me? How can I go quietly away, knowing that I cannot be there to hold him steady, to hold him up? But it is not my choice to make. It is not my fate to stay by his side.


One. An intake of breath. Two. I can let it out. I can breathe. It has once again refused to kill me, my green mistress. My hands shake. I will not make a noise. I will not let the servants hear me, not this time, not again. I take the pain and shut it inside, so that it will not manifest in sound or action. Silence is the key...silence is the key to the kingdom of Heaven, but ah Mama, ah Papa! I cannot cross the gulf between us but I do wish so badly to see you both again. I know the absinthe is poisoning me. It matters not. She is gone, and any spark of will that had returned because of her is gone. Her little hand I shall hold no more. Her darkened eyes I shall see no more. My little ghost....


I found her at peace in her bed, in the room I gave her. It would have been hers for always. It would have been hers until we could have made it ours. But what I saw in the harsh winter sun which punctured the windows -- punctured my eyes! -- all I saw was a husk. My little angel, my little ghost! I covered her face. Her waiting eyes had finally seen some long-ago solemn vow fulfilled, and fled this bleak world.

But I am left. I, left behind! Little did I ever think that I would survive such sorrow but once, and now what misfortune to live to bear the final parting again! And nights I must struggle alone with the absinthe, and days I must wander alone. And I look behind me with a start, half-expecting a sigh, a breath, a small rustle of hair moving upon hair...and she is not there.

Jean May Chen ( received her sociology degree from the University of California-Los Angeles. She maintains The Alexander Pushkin Home Page at UCLA and works with Hollywood Online.

Katy McCormack (, assistant editor and staff illustrator of Hope and Vaseline,
is manager, Webmaster, and artist-in-residence with The Shamrock Hotel Studios in Dallas.