by Martian Aries

My name is Brenna. I am a little raven, the bird of ill fortune, the bird of death and darkness. People say it's an apt name for me in particular, me of black eyes and hair like the sleek, black wings of my bird. It is an apt name because of my clothes, all black and voluminous, that set me further apart from the crowd even than one who is mad. An apt name for my shadows, those of one who has seen too much of the inexplicable. They all say that to be named for a raven makes sense for me, because of my obsession.

I've never thought of it before. My name doesn't mean a great deal to me.

There are two things that do, however, one being my garden full of blood in the shape of roses. Roses, who can seem so innocuous, but in truth are treacherous, their dangers unseen until it is too late and a crimson drop of misjudgment is on your finger. I relish their cunning; they know the right moment when to strike, when you are most vulnerable, striking like the black cat that sought its revenge.

I long to be like a rose, beautiful and cunning, but I am the one who is forgotten, invisible like the souls of the dead, hidden deep in catacombs full of bones and silent cries for deliverance from the inevitable fate. Roses are beautiful. I am not a rose.

Now, the reader must be wondering whether I shall leave off worshiping roses and reveal that other thing which is so important to me. Only because it would seem right to lead my thoughts there will I now explain. I am visiting a grave, clutching my gift tightly in both hands. Rain hisses across the hard ground in merciless sheets and the hems of my long, black jacket are going to be streaked with dejected mud, clingy as an irritating, unwanted acquaintance, by the time I get home, but I don't pay attention to that. There are more important things.

The bottle's black glass is smooth and cold beneath my fingertips, and the stems of the roses whisper against the bottle with each jostling movement. The searing, yet compassionate liquid sloshes against the sides of its prison. Graves, names, childhoods and lives forgotten crawl by me as I make my way to the treasure of this tiny, brick-lined graveyard. I hold my head down, my face hidden deep in my hood. I prefer not to be seen.

I reach my destination at last. A name is engraved like a sealed, dread sentence of death, cold on the stone, and I stare at it in wonder. Thirteen letters. I have counted them many times. It is an unlucky name, a haunted name. He is an enigma. No one knows his past, his triumphs and defeats, even the way he died -and there were several different opinions and versions of those opinions that said quite how it had happened in the first place. No doubt he himself would have wanted it that way, for no one to know about him.

No one saw him. They saw only his genius.

Edgar Allan Poe.

My obsession, people call it. I think that rather amusing, for he is not an obsession. Not mine, anyway; he's more the obsession of a friend. To me, he is but a role model, respected above all other authors, my personal source of complete understanding and complete confusion.

I read the inscription, and stay a few moments longer than is necessary. I feel the presence of a haunt, as cold as death, unsettling as the scent of iron. I visit each year and it is always the same gift, always the same feeling, always the same night. Always the same.

I wonder if, wherever he is, he sees my yearly offering on the anniversary of his death. Of course, that thought immediately seems inane enough for laughter. Despite religious illusions, death offers no consciousness of anything. Ghosts only exist as the people that the world ignores, the people who are invisible because they go unseen. I know that well enough, for I myself am a ghost.

It almost makes me angry sometimes, the perfection in his words. How can he understand me so, when he lived half a century or more before I was born? I know the horror that dreams offer, be it the insanity brought by a slowly swinging death, the intangible phantom that brings illness and death, sifting between the guests of an unending masquerade. Even after years of reading his work, it remains ambiguous as to whether he really does understand. I'm sure I will never know for certain.

What I do know is that my dreams were there long before I discovered them in a book, different situations, but with the same creeping insanity, the presence of Death, the same lingering fear when I woke with cold beaded sweat on my forehead. From childhood I became well acquainted with the feeling of wanting to retch my innards, shaking with it, my limbs clammy. My fear would refuse to fade for hours, until at last I descended into a dark, relieved sleep devoid of dreams.

For years I never understood how my dreams or fears connected with real life. I simply fell away from the real world and let my agony grow. I realized that to get away from the world and all the people who shunned me, which was everyone, I would have to find a fantasy world, even if it was as macabre as my dreams. I nursed what no doubt was madness, uncaring as I detached myself from the world more and more, falling into a disturbing, wretched darkness. Alone.

But then something odd happened, something that never had happened before nor would ever happen again: I made a friend.

Eugene Crawford lived across the street from my family's home since before I could remember, but I had never seen him. I heard that he was ancient like a grey, gnarled, half-dead tree, and that he never came out of his house, and hadn't in nearly twenty years. He was hunched over like the troll under the bridge in 'Billy Goats Gruff,' and he ate only raw liver. I wondered how people knew all these things if he never left the house, but I didn't say anything. I assumed he was one of those urban legends, and promptly ignored his presence.

The day I met him, I was fifteen years old and three days. I did not wear black as often back then.

Eugene was not like a tree at all, nor like a troll, though he was a bit gnarled and a bit hunched, too, and he had a gruff cough like a sputtering engine. He was balding, with bleary, pale eyes, and a voice like sandpaper. He was sixty-eight years old, he was not friendly and he did not like children.

So I, being the spiteful adolescent that I was when I wasn't in a bad mood, told him 'Hello,' and 'Good morning, sir' quite politely on the day that he came out on the front porch. Whereas the other children, from seven to seventeen, only stared for five seconds and then scampered off, afraid he would shoot mind bullets at them, I was not afraid. That and I would do anything to delay going to school.

"Who are you?" he said with his rough voice.

"Brenna Eloise Greenberg," I replied, even though I hated my full name.

"Christ, what a name. You aren't half its size."

I blinked, ignoring the comment on my deficient height. I didn't often hear old people use that kind of language, so I, of course, liked him at once. Although it took a few days of pestering, I got him to like me, too, and for a year we were friends. My parents hated it, because they thought Eugene was just as creepy as everyone else did. Then again, their disapproval only encouraged me. I refused to let anything deter me.

There were reasons I liked him apart from sheer rebelliousness, anyway. For example, he was the only one I could talk to, the only person who didn't tell me to shut up when I said what I really thought. He was the only one I could tell of my flights of fancy without having him look at me funny. And, best of all, he wouldn't try to offer advice when I was sad; he would just listen, which is what I needed more than anything. In truth I didn't want a counselor. I just wanted a place to put my thoughts before they made my head explode.

He also didn't lie like everyone else did. He was the only one in the neighborhood who didn't say meaningless things about the weather or flowers to hide their thoughts. He talked about things. My parents never talked about things. I found out a lot of things from him, too, like why the sky was blue, and that he did not only eat raw liver. Most important, I found out about Poe.

I received a complete collection of his writings, as a gift from my friend, on my sixteenth birthday. When I discovered the terror within those pages, I at last understood that I was not alone, that I was not the only one who was frightened. And even if it was only the characters I related to rather than the man himself, at least there was someone.

After I had ranted about Poe's writing for four months straight -and I still wasn't done ranting -Eugene told me an interesting story. Supposedly, since 1949, there was a person that, on the night of the anniversary of Poe's death, left a bottle of cognac and three roses, for Poe and his wife and her mother, at Poe's grave, and no one knew who it was.

As soon as I heard about this mystery, I felt drawn into it. Although it was a bit stupid on my part, I nevertheless asked who it was, rapacious for knowledge. Eugene didn't answer for a moment. He coughed, and took a sip of bitter, black tea, and then turned to me with a somber look. To my surprise, I then became one of the few people, and definitely the only living one (now, anyway), who would ever know the true identity of the Poe Toaster.

It was Eugene.

A year later, my only friend and the other half of the 'Important to Me' list, died of a cancer that he hadn't even told me about. He'd had lung cancer, which had explained the cough, but I had never imagined it. I berated myself for a long time for that, for being so stupid that I hadn't noticed the truth that was staring me straight in the face. I hated myself for at least a year, and would refuse to say anything nice about my awful, blind, horrible self, but eventually I realized that such behavior was even worse than having not noticed the sickness to begin with.

The truth was that there was nothing I could do now about the illness; I could only learn to cope. To continue the legacy of the Poe Toaster seemed the best method to remember Eugene, and to give myself catharsis. On top of that, it would have been a pity for so continual a sign of respect to end. In my mind, the author deserved all recognition possible.

Now I swallow the aching lump of memories in my throat and blink my burning eyes. I have to stop thinking that my friend's death was my fault. I have to. But sometimes coming here makes me remember that, even if it's someone else that I'm supposed to be remembering. To be honest, I don't know which man I mean to remember when I perform this yearly ritual. Perhaps I hope to memorialize both of them.

Clink. I rest the bottle of cognac on the ground. Eugene heard that Poe had enjoyed spirits, which was why, he said, he left cognac as a gift. He himself thought too much alcohol a bad habit -though, was smoking a good habit, either, really? -but that hadn't decreased his respect for the man.

That's what I like (or perhaps liked) about Eugene. He didn't let the bad things hinder him, like so many other people, who refuse to associate people who play too much poker, or smoke one too many cigarettes a day, or sometimes use words that are 'improper'. I still don't see how sin can make someone less than worthy of humanity.

Lying beside the cognac, the roses whisper again as rain strikes their delicate petals. Perhaps they are sad at our parting, after so long in my precious garden, but more likely they're irritated at being left out in the rain. They are three of the most beautiful of my roses this year. They should be honored to have taken this task, but roses are much too conceited for that. Which is another reason why I am not like them. Maybe I don't even want to be like them, if they're so self-absorbed.

"Until next year, sir, and ladies." I forget the narcissistic roses and address the gravestone, all politeness. I manage a small bow, and then back away, retreating to my lair, the dusty, grey house with its closed blinds and lack of color. The next day, someone will find the gift again at his grave. It will have been the tenth one I've left since Eugene died. It will not be the last.

Disclaimer: I do not own Poe or his phenomenal writings. Also, I do not claim to know the person who leaves the cognac and the roses at his grave, and I can tell you most assuredly that Brenna is my own creation, as is Eugene.