|Mari on the Mountain |Snippet |Shouting at Stars
Another piece I had forgotten all about, but was unwittingly reminded of when someone on Facebook made a post about a fairy tale by Sheridan Le Fanu.
This one was intended to be a competition entry, the criteria being that it had to be a dark fairy tale more suited to adults than children, and within a certain word count. However, when I sent it off it turned out that the competition had been cancelled but the call for submissions online had not been deleted, which is why I have never done anything with it since!
Anyway, although I have altered the original word count very slightly, it is still more or less as it was first written. Enjoy and as always, thoughts and opinions are very welcome.
The Feathered Nest
Once upon a time there lived a bird. A giant beast, a sight to behold; brilliant of plumage, magnificent of grace. She was known as Silent Wing.
Silent Wing lived in the ancient woods at the foot of Glass Mountain. She would glide high above it, noiseless as a cloud, bright as the sun, the mountain mutely reflecting her as she passed over. The trees of the ancient wood grew tall and straight, their trunks smooth and pale and it was at the top of the tallest of these trees that Silent Wing had her nest.
Men working in the woods, women and children gathering nuts and berries, would sometimes find huge white feathers, as glossy as oil. They would carry them home, believing them to be lucky, to keep them in a place of honour in their houses; above a mantel, before a mirror, to be marvelled at and cherished every day.
In return for the precious gifts Silent Wing bestowed upon the villagers, the people would scatter bread crumbs, entrails of fish and ears of corn on the ground below her tree, leaving her in peace to eat them at her leisure.
Silent Wing was often seen in flight above the mountain, easy to distinguish even from the village below. As accustomed to her presence as they were, the people never tired of the wondrous sight, believing it to be a good omen for the day ahead. And so Silent Wing and the people lived in quiet harmony for many years.
One hot summer day, a salesman wandered into the village. Dusty and dirty, tired and worn, he collapsed in a heap in the town square, bags and satchels piling untidily on top of him.
The good villagers rushed to help, Brewer and Blacksmith heaving him to his feet, sitting him on the stool Milliner had run to fetch from his shop.
When the man had drunk the water Goodwife Sloane gave him, he felt well enough to speak.
“Thank you all,” he rasped, his voice hoarse, “I have been walking for days, my water all gone, my way lost,”
“What makes you wander the world so?” Tanner asked.
“I am a travelling salesman. I go from place to place selling my wares, making life easier and more pleasant for folk such as you,”
“Making yourself a fortune, more like,” Spinster said, but the crowd silenced her.
“I make enough,” Salesman said, “I mean only to help.” He looked around, to see that, kind folk that they were, the people believed him. They gave him a room and food and water aplenty, asking nothing in return.
Except for young Elise. The most beautiful girl in the village, set to marry Councillor’s son, she eyed Salesman’s bags greedily.
“Do you have something pretty for a veil?” Elise enquired.
“A simple ring of flowers is all a beauty such as you would need,” Salesman flattered her.
Elise blushed prettily, “It is not enough. I wish to cut such a vision of loveliness that every man who lays eyes on me will forever have the image etched upon his mind! I wish to look as vivid and as bright as, as…” Elise wracked her brains for a suitable comparison, “as Silent Wing herself!”
Salesman sat up a little straighter, “Silent Wing?”
“Have you not heard of her?” Elise breathed, “She is a magical bird who lives in our woods and glides over the Glass Mountain. Her feathers are a purer, more brilliant shade of white than you ever saw! Sometimes folk find feathers she has shed. My father has one above his bed; come and see!”
She took the unresisting Salesman by his hand and brought him to her house, showing him the feather. Even encased behind a glass frame, Salesman was struck by the depth of its whiteness and its mystic aura.
“Such feathers would make a wonderful headdress,” he mused
Elise’s eyes widened, “They would! But we should never find enough; if we should find one at all.”
Salesman’s eyes narrowed, “What price would you be willing to pay for such a headdress?” He asked.
“Anything? Including your hand in marriage?”
Elise quite forgot her purpose in making a headdress. Enchanted by the idea that she might own not just one but many of Silent Wing’s feathers, her lust for fortune overcame her love and she said simply, “Yes”
Satisfied, Salesman left the house full of plans.
It was impossible to get lost on the way to the wood, lining the base of the mountain as it did. By the time Salesman reached its shade the day was cooling, though the sun still glared off Glass Mountain, into the valley below.
Salesman began to scour the woodland floor, searching in vain for a dropped feather. By the time darkness had begun to fall he was exhausted. He sank to the cool ground, resting his back against a giant tree.
He closed his eyes. Something light brushed against his cheek. He flicked at it, thinking it a moth or a spider web. Whatever it was, it hit the ground beside him and Salesman opened his eyes.
He could not believe it. One of Silent Wing’s feathers! Although he had never seen her, he recognised the plumage at once.
There came a rustling from above. Through the foliage of the tree, Salesman could make out the huge form of Silent Wing, settling into her nest.
“Send me some more, beauteous creature,” he implored, but Silent Wing did not respond.
All night long, Salesman crooned to her from the bottom of the tree, begging her to loosen a feather or two more. He tried tempting her with trinkets, hoping she was as seduced by shiny things as are magpies. He cooed to her like a dove, sang to her like a blackbird; to no avail.
As morning broke, Salesman had begun to show his true nature. He hurled stones at the nest; his aim poor, his throw weak. Frustrated, an idea began to take shape in his dark mind.
He filled his rucksack with the biggest stones he could find. Using two sharp knives as grips, he began to claw his way up a neighbouring tree.
Many times he thought he would plummet to his death, or scare Silent Wing away, but neither happened. Finally he reached the top of the tree and rested, panting, on a strong, wide bough.
Silent Wing was still some way above him, but he could see her clearly in her nest now. The bird’s graceful neck formed an S-shaped, her massive wings folded delicately around her. She was staring placidly ahead, her eyes opaque and glossy; sleeping.
Salesman saw his chance. He reached into his rucksack, took out the largest stone he could find, and took aim.
Forever after, the villagers wished that this was where the story ended. That Salesman lost his balance and fell, leaving Silent Wing unharmed. But it is not.
Salesman’s aim was strong and true. It struck Silent Wing hard, sending her plummeting to the ground, heavy and graceless, her magnificent wings never beating; dead before she landed.
Salesman hurried down the tree after her as if he were the one with wings. He was amazed at her size but it did not deter him from setting to work as fast as he could. Soon, his rucksack was empty of stones, feathers taking their place. Satisfied, he went back to the village, ready to receive the applause of the people and of Elise, his new bride to be.
They say the sun did not rise so high that day, nor did Glass Mountain shine as bright. Salesman strode into the village square, calling the people to come and behold a wondrous sight. Excitedly, they came pouring out, eager to see what the stranger had brought. Elise was first to arrive, a smug smile on her face.
The people formed a circle, Salesman at their centre. “Good people!” He declared, “I have been on an errand for the beautiful Elise, to procure for her the most stunning headdress ever to be made, in return for her hand in marriage”
The thrilled gasps of the crowd turned to shocked amazement at what the man had claimed. “Is this true?” demanded Councillor, his son disbelieving behind him.
“It is,” Elise said shamelessly, “but wait ‘til you see what he has brought!”
“What prize could possibly be worth more than our love?” Her erstwhile fiancée asked.
“This” shouted Salesman, shaking out the rucksack triumphantly.
Silence fell; a deep, weighty quietness, until Salesman finally stammered, “What is this? I do not understand…”
Before him, in a straggly, shabby, fraying heap, was a mountain of dull grey feathers. They lay like doused ashes, lifeless and lacking in brilliance.
“Are these Silent Wing’s feathers?” Spinster asked softly, “Did you think that in stealing her beauty you could make it your own?”
The people were horrified; they began searching the sky for Silent Wing. Men set off to the woods in search of her; even though in their hearts they all knew that Spinster was right. Silent Wing was dead.
“I will not keep my promise, since you have failed in yours!” Elise spat spitefully to Salesman.
At this Spinster fell to her knees, shovelling feathers and dust into the rucksack. She thrust the bag into Elise’s hands, pulling Salesman alongside her.
“Off with both of you; you are well matched!” She hissed, shoving them beyond the village gates, “May dry dust and ugly feathers be the only fortune you shall ever know!”
Those who heard her trembled, believing the curse of a spinster to be as effective as that of a witch.
And a so a beautiful young woman who had known only love but who wanted fortune, and a man who knew nothing of love but whose heart was filled only with lust, set off into the world, joined together forever by the terrible thing they had done.
And nobody lived happily ever after.
S P Oldham
A little freebie offering for Friday 13th. Not exactly based on true life events, but inspired by them...
To my shame (and as testament to my dreadful memory) I cannot remember the name of the anthology this short story was included in some years ago now. Nonetheless, I am confident it is okay to reproduce it here after all this time. I hope you enjoy it. As always, comments, opinions and thoughts always welcome, just drop me a line!
S P Oldham
Gina regretted volunteering to overhaul the choir’s music files the instant she laid eyes on the job ahead of her. She had been let in via the tradesman’s entrance at the rear of the building, shown to a flight of stairs past the main hall to the cellars below. The musty smell of the old building and its dimly lit corridors were off putting enough, but on being let into the cellar, Gina’s heart really sank.
A row of eight filing cabinets, all stuffed full of words and music, lined the wall to her left. Spread across the floor more boxes held music, some over-flowing, spilling their contents. Items of old furniture, broken chairs, ancient tables, clothes rails, even an old organ, were variously strewn with sheets of music and all kinds of litter that appeared long forgotten.
“We’ll just be upstairs in rehearsal. It’s much appreciated,” Peter, the elderly chorister who had escorted Gina down to the cellar, shakily handed over the cellar key, nodded his thanks and turned to climb the stairs. The strains of a piano playing and muffled voices became briefly clearer as the door was pushed open and Peter joined the choir.
Gina felt strangely distant down here in the cellar alone, as if the hall and its male voice choir were very far away. She fought back the irrational urge to follow Peter up the stairs and tell him she’d changed her mind, instead turning her attention to the task at hand.
She would itemise the contents of the boxes first, she decided. Laying them out alphabetically across the floor, she could get them in some sort of order before she even opened a filing cabinet. She began pushing some of the furniture out of the way, scraping chair legs noisily across the red tile floor, struggling with a table far heavier than it looked. Upstairs, the choir were singing Deus Salutis.
Something stirred in the far corner. Panting from exertion, Gina stood up straight and watched for further movement; nothing, merely shadows within shadows. It was much darker there she noted; the lights at that end of the room were not switched on.
Expecting a cat or worse, a rat, she crossed back to the open doorway. Four light switches were set into the wall; only two of them were on. She flicked them, expecting the room to flood with light. A single dim bulb seeped into life. Opposite, in the corner where Gina thought she had seen something move, it remained stubbornly dark.
Gina shivered; that corner was wholly uninviting. Perhaps it was just that it was the darkest spot in the room. Maybe her hair had fallen into her eyes and tricked her into thinking she had seen something. She shrugged it off, feeling faintly foolish and conscious of the need to make a start on the filing.
Cursing the fact that she had forgotten her notepad, she began casting about for scraps of paper to write on. She had found a marker pen sitting on top of a box. Now she needed to write the letters of the alphabet on separate sheets and lay them in order across the floor; a rudimentary filing system to begin with. .
She had made a good start, the floor covered with small, neat piles of music sheets, her hands grubby with the feel of old, untouched papers, when Peter reappeared at the door, “All okay?” he asked, scanning the room warily, “We’ve finished for tonight. See you Wednesday will we?”
“Oh, is that the time already? Yes, see you Wednesday,” Gina said, more brightly than she felt. Her gaze had been dragged back to that dark corner the whole time she was working. She glanced across at it now involuntarily, Peter’s eyes following hers.
“You’ve been busy,” He nodded at the rows of paper, all headed with assorted scraps individually marked A-Z, making three rows in all. Gina was suddenly alarmed.
“Do cleaners come down here?” she asked, afraid her painstaking work would be tidied away.
Peter gave her an odd look, “Nobody comes down here, just me,” he paused, “and now you.”
He held his hand out for the key. Glad to give it back, Gina grabbed her coat and bag and was at the top of the stairs and outside before Peter had a chance to lock the cellar door.
In the warmth and safety of her flat, Gina dismissed the whole incident as her over-active imagination. She had been on edge ever since she moved in a few weeks ago. It being near impossible to find a job hadn’t helped. That was why she had volunteered her services in the first place she reminded herself, when she had seen the choir’s rather old-fashioned advert for a ‘voluntary filing clerk’ in the local paper. It would give her something to focus on while she job hunted.
Yet the memory of that dark corner stayed with her, invading her dreams and turning them into near-nightmares, where everything came in shades of black and grey and all the shapes were nebulous, sinister; formless.
On Wednesday evening she decided to take a torch with her, to investigate the darkness, expose her fears as groundless and forget about it once and for all.
Peter handed her the key once again and wordlessly climbed the stairs. Immediately, Gina felt a tingling at her back. There was no one there; just that dark corner, heavy with threat, brooding and forbidding.
She half expected her work to be scattered wide but it lay just as she had left it. Heartened, she decided to investigate the corner first, put it behind her and get on with the job.
The torch felt hard and comfortingly real in her jacket pocket. She took it out and set it to full beam. It glowed strong and powerful. Encouraged, she picked her way carefully across the floor.
She saw now that when she had been pushing furniture out of the way she had formed a line; tables, chairs, clothes rail and organ standing in a row as if to delineate light and dark, or to hold something at bay. She chided herself for the thought; it was nothing more than a subconscious action, her tidy mind taking over, that’s all.
A navy blue jacket, the choir’s emblem on its left breast, hung from the clothes rail, along with some empty hangers and a tatty old suit cover. They rattled as she used the top bar as a hand hold and stepped through the body of the rail. She took a few steps, trailing the torchlight slowly over the rear wall and into the corner. The pulse in her throat quickened, her chest constricted. A cold sweat covered her back as the shadowy forms became more distinct.
A single picture frame hung lopsidedly from the wall. There was no plaster or paintwork here, just the original bare brick. A scrap of carpet lay under an old wooden chair and an ancient filing cabinet stood at an angle to the wall. Other than that, there was nothing. These items were much like everything else in the room, not at all out of place; there were certainly no disembodied figures or leering spectres lurking there.
Relieved, Gina nevertheless couldn’t wait to get away from there. Unwilling to turn her back, she clumsily found her way back to the clothes rail and the light beyond. She realised she was shaking, her breath coming in short, panicky rasps. She gave a weak laugh, more forced than real, and tried to calm down.
Her hands were cold and trembling as she began sorting the papers on the floor, her work doing nothing to warm or steady them. At last, Peter appeared at the doorway and told her it was time to leave. She couldn’t resist looking over at the corner one last time, but now a different movement caught her eye.
The navy jacket was swinging on the rail; not wildly like it had when she had knocked it in passing earlier, but regularly, uniformly; as if it was being steadily pushed by a hand on the other side. The hangers and the tatty suit cover hung still and unmoving beside it.
Gina’s blood ran cold. She turned to Peter to gauge if he had seen it too, but he wasn’t even looking that way. He was simply staring at her, his hand raised to take back the key.
She made up her mind not to go back on Monday as arranged. She would phone Peter and tell him she had other commitments. He wouldn’t argue; he knew as well as she did that there was something odd in that cellar. She had seen it in his eyes.
The dreams came again, more vivid than before. Now, from the grey-gloom of her nightmares the chair took on a weird life of its own, bulging and bending as if it might burst, tongues lolling from its wooden arms as if to lick her, hands growing from its frame to reach out and grasp her. The filing cabinet drawers seemed to scream as they opened, sending flakes of rust falling to the carpet below to pool, suddenly wet, like blood, at its feet; and all the time that picture frame swung madly from side to side, scraping the brickwork, the glass inside splintering into myriad spiteful pieces…
She had resolved not to go back there a hundred times or more, so Gina was surprised to find herself back that Monday evening as promised. Peter seemed even more so. He said nothing, but the way his eyebrows raised and his mouth formed a small oh at seeing her gave him away.
He unlocked the door, slipped the key into her hand and climbed the stairs, never speaking a word. Gina was grateful for that, sure that normal conversation was beyond her. Moments later there came the sound of masculine voices, the piano striking up a tune she did not recognise. Gina turned to look into the cellar.
Part of her had half expected the scraps of paper bearing the alphabet to have formed some message, like a giant Ouija board. She let out a sigh of relief to find that they were once again exactly as she had left them. Across the room, the jacket and its companions hung peaceably on the rail. She grasped the torch in her pocket tightly for reassurance, as if it had become some kind of talisman and stepped down into the room.
Things had been quiet; she had got a lot done. It took Gina a good while to even realise that something was amiss. She had been finding a disproportionate number of sheets for one song; Evermore. Curious as to why there were so many copies of this, she had nonetheless stacked them up and filed them into her rough system under ‘E’ accordingly, this pile now much higher and less stable than all the others. It was only when she stopped to straighten up and rub her aching back that she saw what was wrong.
Evermore was on top of every single pile of paper on the floor. It faced upwards from every stack; A, Evermore, B, Evermore, C, Evermore… not one single letter of the alphabet had been missed out; X, Evermore, Y, Evermore, Z Evermore.
This time her panic was instant; there was no voice of reason arguing in her head, nothing but a primitive urge telling her to get out, now. She turned on her heel and ran for the door, tripping over the handles of her bag in her haste. Cursing, she scrambled up, grabbed the bag and lunged for the door.
It slammed shut in her face.
Gina stopped dead in shocked confusion. What the hell was going on here? Was that Peter? Did he think this was funny?
A surge of anger flooded her veins. She hammered at the door, “Peter! Peter!This is not funny. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Her hands, slick with cold sweat, were sliding uselessly off the handle; it was locked. Gina’s stomach lurched, “Why would you lock it? I’ve got a key, remember?” Her voice was high with fear, “You gave me a key!” She fumbled about in her pockets, weak with relief when her hands brushed the cold metal of the key, “I’ve got a key!” she shouted again, hands shaking so badly she had to use both of them to guide it into the lock.
It wouldn’t turn. No matter how many times she tried it this way and that, it would not open. Frustrated, Gina banged her fists against the door, screaming for help, jolting the key out of the lock, sending it clattering to the floor.
He had given her the wrong key. All this time he must have planned this, slipping her a fake key to give her some false sense of safety. Yet all the time he planned to lock her down here for some hellish reason.
Gina knew she had to calm down. More than ever now she needed to be rational, to think clearly.
A gentle rustling behind her made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. A mere whisper of noise, it somehow filled the room, filling her with a dread far greater than any she had yet known. She huddled closer into the door, wishing she could somehow melt herself through it and out the other side. The rustling went on a moment longer, then stopped; the atmosphere expectant.
Dreading what she might see, she turned around. Her neatly ordered rows were still untouched; the song sheet Evermore still topped each pile, but now the header letters did indeed spell out a word. Across the centre of the middle row, in Gina’s own hand-writing, was the word STAY.
Gina gave a strangled sob, her breath suddenly visible on the air, spiralling upwards as a dank chill descended. The rustling began again and Gina watched, transfixed, as the letters rearranged themselves in front of her into a new word; GINA.
She moaned, low and guttural, heaving her body away from the door to search frantically for the key; if she could find it, just try it one more time in the lock…
The lights went out, the darkness so complete it seemed solid. There was no sound, not even a trace of movement. Gina froze. Then the grating, dry sound of something rasping across stone came to her through the darkness; a sound that made her sick with fear. She had heard that noise before, in her dreams. She couldn’t see it, yet she knew it was the picture frame, swinging to and fro on its hook, scraping the bare bricks of the wall.
She closed her eyes against the darkness, making herself as small as she could, covering her ears. The scraping grew wilder, faster, louder, followed at last by the shattering of glass as the frame flew violently free of the hook and crashed to the floor.
Gina cringed, expecting shards to be thrown in her direction, unseen hands to pull at her, but the room seemed to have fallen still once more. Sobbing, she fumbled for her torch, her fingers clumsy as she hurried to turn it on. Only when she heard the small click of its switch did she reopen her eyes.
Over in the corner, a single bulb flickered into life.
Her legs felt at once leaden and weak. Gina crawled heavily to the wall, used it for support to struggle to her feet and looked over. The bulb shone faintly above the chair and the filing cabinet. She reached back and tested the door handle one last time, knowing it was pointless, suddenly overcome with a feeling of inevitability.
It was that sense of fate that lured her on towards the corner. The bare bulb was swinging erratically, sending shadows to loom monstrously inwards upon the little scene and then veer away. Her feet crunched upon shattered glass and she looked down; the frame was snapped but whatever it had held was still in one piece against the wooden backboard.
She knelt down and shone her torchlight upon the paper. A face she recognised stared up at her from a photograph alongside an article in yellowing print. The title above it read: ‘”Killer Chorister” Dies.’
Gina picked it up; it was a Weekly Herald paper cutting, dated some years ago.‘Killer Chorister’ Peter Hesquith passed away in his prison cell yesterday afternoon after a brief illness. Hesquith, 87, was once a well known and much loved local character, who late in his choir career achieved some success when his hymn, ‘Evermore’ was published. It became something of a signature tune for the now defunct male voice choir to which he belonged. His arrest and eventual imprisonment, along with several fellow choristers, was a huge shock to the community. As a consequence the song lost popularity and is now rarely sung, largely due to the nature of its lyrics when held against the evidence of his crimes. Hesquith and fellow choir members Gregory Lacey, Raymond Chapman and Phillip Greer, were all convicted of charges including theft, fraud, abduction and murder. Hesquith, widely believed to be the ringleader, received a life sentence.
It was proved that the building in which the choir practised played a role in the abductions, if not the murders, of the quartet’s many victims. As a result the choir disbanded, in part as a mark of respect to the victims and their families, but also due to the widely held feeling that the building had become tainted by its misuse. It has since fallen into disrepair and is no longer in use.
Hesquith is the first of the four to pass away, being the oldest by some years. There were rumours at the time of their arrest of a pact between the men to reunite ‘on the other side’ leading some to speculate there may also have been an occult interest to their activities. One thing is certain; if we do ever find out more about the actions and thinking of these men, it will not be Hesquith who tells us now.’
Gina threw the paper aside and fell onto all fours, retching. How could Peter be the man in the photograph? How could the choir be defunct? They were the very reason she was here. She had heard them herself, singing above her head as she worked in the cellar below…
The chair creaked as if a sudden weight rested in it. Disbelieving, Gina wiped her mouth and looked up. Peter sat smartly upright in the chair; his eyes closed, a faint smile on his face, his feet tapping in time to a tune she could not hear.
The sound of the piano came, loud and clear. Feet shuffled on the floorboards above their heads, a throat was cleared in readiness to sing. Gina could hear them; she could hear them! She curled into a ball on the floor, mindless of the shattered glass pricking her skin, sobbing freely, helplessly.
Peter’s eyes flickered open. He did not even cast a glance at Gina, prostrate and defenceless at his feet. In harmony with the unseen choir, he began to sing;
We shall be together
Shall we be apart
We will endeavour
Joined heart to heart…’
The song came to an end. The light went out.
S. P. Oldham
I took this photo last week, liked it and made a vague sort of promise to possibly do something with it. This is the end result. A little ghost story to help get you into the festive spirit. I hope you enjoy.
The End of the Path
The snow lay deep and heavy underfoot. The storm had taken Isaac by surprise. There had been a few flakes and a definite chill as he set out, but the suddenness and ferocity of the subsequent snowfall had been totally unexpected.
He fought back an irrational thrill of fear. His house was a mere two streets away; no need for the rush of panic or the sense of isolation. Funny how the weather affected the senses, he mused, putting his uneasiness down to the sudden stillness of the park, the muted affect the snow had upon the way sound travelled and the apparent emptiness of the place. He was obviously the only one foolhardy enough to venture out.
He tried to recall if it had been in the forecast, but found he couldn’t remember. Obviously other folk had been better prepared or more well-informed, because as he turned onto what he judged to be his usual route, a pathway flanked on either side by trees and bushes of varying height and density, he saw that he was truly alone.
There was none of the usual flurry of birds; none of their busy chatter or shrill cries of warning. No rush of bushy squirrel tails as they flew up the trunks of trees and fled sure-footedly along boughs and branches in a rush to escape his approach. There was not even an assured, expectant little robin bouncing about around him in hopes of food.
Absolute stillness; even the wind had stopped its sighing moans. Isaac shivered, digging his hands deeper into his pockets. Frozen; that was the word that came to mind as he stood and surveyed the path ahead of him. Frozen, in more ways than one.
The snow was doing a great job of obscuring the landscape, eroding borders and kerbs as if deliberately trying to send him wayward. He blinked away some still-falling snowflakes and stopped for a moment, considering. Regardless of how close he was to home, it might not be such a bad idea to turn back.
No sooner had he made the decision to do so than there came a loud crack from behind him. He jumped, startled, turning to find that a large, thick bough had given way under the sudden weight of snow and snapped from its tree. It lay splayed across the path behind him, sharp branches reaching up as if asking him for assistance. The thought of negotiating it to get back onto the path the other side was not one he relished. He pushed aside a second thought that came hard on its heels – that it was only a moment ago he had passed by under that branch, that he could very well be pinned under it now – and released a shaky sigh. That was that then. He had no option but to go on.
As if to confirm he had made the right choice, a second bough, higher up and slightly larger than the first, also came crashing down, on the far side of the already fallen limb. It appeared for a moment that a flurry of snow was falling upwards as flakes bounced on impact, showering Isaac with icy droplets. Shaken, feeling all at once vulnerable beneath the canopy of surrounding trees, he turned and moved on, eager to be away from the place.
The snow began to ease as he trudged onwards, finally coming to a stop when he was still a good few yards from the end of the path. There was a familiar figure there; one he knew well and often discreetly gave a passing nod to, for his own amusement. The metal figure of a boy, one of the many statues that graced the park depicting the history of the place. They were life-size cut outs, in places their frames see through where details and decorations had been sculpted out of the metal.
Now, the child was thigh deep in snow and looking back at him with a shining, glossy stare. The presence of the statue did not offer its usual comfort and familiarity. Isaac stopped in his tracks at its apparent movement. His heart pounding, he knew he must be imagining things, yet for all the world he would have sworn the figure moved a fraction at his approach.
He chided himself. The most likely explanation was probably the real explanation. The fact was, he had probably caught some movement from beyond the statue – perhaps snow falling from a laden branch, or the weak sun that had made an appearance lighting it in an odd way – that had made it look like movement.
“Get a grip, Isaac!” he muttered, spurring himself onward.
Yet he found that as he walked, he could not take his eye off the figure of the boy. He dared not. He tried telling himself that he would laugh at this later, when he was safe at home, with the curtains pulled and the fire blazing. It was false; a hollow promise. He could not deny his instincts entirely, only suppress them.
He had almost reached the statue. He half-expected it to take a step towards him, or reach out a cold metallic hand. Nothing happened, and he laughed in relief and at himself for being so ridiculous.
It was only as he turned from the path, to begin the walk down the breast of the hill it gave onto, that he saw it.
In the deep snow, alongside his large, unmistakable footprints, there was second, much smaller set. A clear trail of footprints, that could only belong to a child…
S P Oldham
Speculative fiction. Would be interested to know what you make of it.
Repaid in Full
The Loansman had summoned us to his office. It was not an invitation that could be refused. We had heard tales of that office all our lives; of the highly polished, fragrant wood panelling that lined the walls, of the huge desk inlaid with dark leather in a shade of venous-blood red. We had heard of the ornate fireplace, engraved all about with the various symbols for currency from across The Investment. The ceiling was the stuff of legend, however. It was said that every inch of it was delicately and minutely sculpted into images of the human form; hundreds of naked, cherub-like bodies populating it, each one bearing a death mask in alabaster, finely wrought and morbidly fascinating. The faces still shone when the light reached them, the way human skin shines in the glare of the sun. So it was said. It was also said that no one invited into that office ever seemed to re-emerge, so how these tales had been passed on, I never understood.
I did not raise the question with Thomas and William now. We waited in silence in the somewhat disappointingly grubby passageway like shabby statues lining a corridor. I could feel the tension emanating from them, knowing that I was probably as much the source of it as was our impending appointment with The Loansman. I had something of a reputation for recklessness, but even I was not foolish enough to try anything clever here. I thought about reassuring them of that, then thought better of it. I have never been one to make promises I can’t keep.
A small, bent-backed man in a smart grey suit hurried past us, covered in an air of cowering subservience. He paid us no mind at all, stopping at the office door to knock upon it gently, “Your next appointment is here, sir,” he announced through the panelling. He did not wait for a reply, but turned on his heel and scurried away down the corridor and into the vague darkness at the end of it as if he could not get away quick enough.
We watched him go in mild surprise and it struck me as a strange occupation, if all the small man’s job entailed was to knock at the office door and let the occupant know that people awaited his pleasure.
At last the polished brass door handle was turned. Even the click it made sounded expensive to me. The dark and glossy door consented to open, swinging effortlessly wide to reveal a beautiful antique wooden floor. The Loansman appeared in the doorway like an apparition and despite all the advice and in the face of all protocol, I could not help but look directly at him.
At first sight he was impressive, to say the least. His attire was sombre, effortlessly formal and at the same time somehow stylish. It spoke of quality, impeccability and distinction. His hair was a perfect black, combed neatly, the lustrous strands matching the immaculate sideburns that graced his masculine jaw. He wore a cravat in a shade of emerald green. On another man, it might have been ostentatious; on the Loansman it was powerfully effective, complementing the deep jewel-jade of his eyes. Eyes that at that moment were fixed upon me with quiet disdain.
I lowered my gaze quickly, kicking myself for such a bad start. It was known to even the poorest debtor that you do not look upon the Loansman until he bids you to do so; not at a first meeting. Not many people met him more than once.
I cringed, waiting for his anger. It did not come. Instead, he glided wordlessly into the corridor, his contempt for us oozing from him like the heavy scent of his cologne.
He walked along us like a general inspecting his ranks and finding them wanting. His arrogance went ahead of him, casting a forward shadow. He stopped in front of Thomas.
“You owe me only a very little, but it shall be repaid,”
He moved back along the line, pausing at William, “Your debt is somewhat greater, though be assured, you too shall repay it in full,”
The Loansman did not linger there but came to me next, “And you,” he said, looking down upon me patronisingly, “Do you know why are you here, girl?”
“You summoned me sir,” I said with a dry mouth, deliberately fixing my gaze upon the gold buttons of his jacket in a bid to stop them straying to his face.
He did not respond, but stood in front of me for an eternity. Scared to open my mouth for fear of putting my foot in it, I paid inordinate attention to those buttons. Even as I did, they changed; the sheen of gold more like gilt, now that I looked closely. I found my eyes travelling the width of his broad chest, the silk waistcoat now taking on the appearance of brushed cotton. Surprised, I bit my tongue and dared to let my eyes roam further.
The suit he wore like the night was not so pristine now I looked closer. Here and there it was patched and sewn. It was carefully done, the needlework fine and neat. Nonetheless there were a few stray ends of cotton betraying the mending work where it had not been cut close enough to the cloth. They stood proud of the fabric like stray hairs; small, but impossible to ignore once you had seen them. Distracted, my examination travelled further, across his wide shoulders. All at once it seemed to me that there was very little beneath the jacket; little that was really the man, at any rate. I pondered; perhaps he wore shoulder pads, large ones at that. I sucked in a breath, unable to suppress the small “oh” that escaped my lips.
I felt his body stiffen in front of me, sure I was to be reprimanded. He must have felt my eyes upon him, sensed my shocked surprise at what had been revealed to me. I held my breath, once more awaiting his displeasure. I dared not look at William or Thomas, though I saw William’s fist clench tight out of the corner of my eye. Trust me to go and do it again.
The Loansman did nothing more than spin elegantly on his heel. Once again, he stood in the open doorway to his office, extending a graceful arm, “You may look upon me. After you,”
I looked up in surprise. So did the boys, for the first time daring to appraise The Loansman for themselves. I watched their awe and admiration as they first looked him over, doubtless as I had done. Then I watched them more closely, for signs that they had seen the small imperfections too. Their expressions told me they had not; they remained impressed.
“If you please,” The Loansman spoke gruffly, “time is money,”
Realising the boys were still spellbound, I was the first to move, nudging Thomas into action and beckoning William to follow behind. They moved like sleepwalkers, stepping tentatively into the office as if afraid the floor might suddenly disappear and cast them down into the very bowels of hell. We arranged ourselves in an obedient row in front of the desk like naughty school children before a Headmaster.
The Loansman took his time getting to his seat, a huge leather and wood monstrosity that hunkered behind the desk like some furtive beast. As he made his way around to it, I couldn’t help but notice that his desk, like his suit, also looked patched and repaired in places. At first glance a masterful creation of carpentry and art combined, the woodgrain here and there appeared to be going the wrong way, as if someone had inserted odd pieces to fill in holes. The blood-red leather inlay atop it looked whole enough. It made my eyes swim, looking at it too closely. It appeared to shimmer and ripple, as if it were made of some viscous liquid. Eager to dispel the effect, which began to make me feel nauseous, I took a swift look around the room while The Loansman’s back was turned.
The floor length drapes hanging at the imposing French Windows were at first glance a luxurious navy velvet, but I saw that they were moth-eaten and ragged around the hems. One of the crystal- clear panes bore a slight crack in a corner, where a spider web traced a finely delicate pattern as if to help hold it together. I was about to risk a glance at the infamous ceiling when The Loansman settled himself into the chair, a sound like a sigh of welcome escaping the padded seat. I turned my attention back to him, hoping he hadn’t noticed my wandering eye a second time. Something in his expression told me he had.
He leaned forward, elbows resting upon the desk, hands steepled before him, looking down at the desktop contemplatively. The top of his head showed strands of steely grey at the roots of his hair, the scalp tinged below with a purple-black stain. He dyed his hair. Startled, I did my best to keep my expression bland when he next looked upon us, unwilling to sour his disposition towards me still further.
“You,” he said, pointing both index fingers at Thomas, his hand still locked together as they were, “and you,” he pointed to William, “have both been called to me in to discuss outstanding payments. But of course, you must know this,”
Thomas and William attempted some reply, but The Loansman cut them off, “It is written into the very law of the land. No one, no matter what their status, is permitted to default in the repayment of their debt. Throughout The Investment, from the highest, grandest mountains to the lowest, meanest plains, every man, woman and child plays their part. Again, this is something that you must already know,”
Thomas shifted uncomfortably beside me as The Loansman fixed his gaze upon him alone, “So I would ask how it is that you have not made good on your debt these last three months?”
“It is not for want of trying,” Thomas stuttered, “I am paid less at my work, the wages dropped so low…”
“Then you take on a second mode of employment,”
“A second job? Sir, there is little enough time to do the one I already have,”
“Nonsense. You end your working day mid-evening. You could work until late evening, could you not? You currently have one day a week when you do nothing, nothing, other than rest at home. That is another day upon which you could be working in order to earn,” It was a statement, not a question, and not one The Loansman expected an answer to. He turned to William, “I could say much the same for you. You have defaulted upon two months payment, for much the same reasons. Laziness,”
“With respect sir, I am not lazy,” William interjected.
“Nor am I,” Thomas added.
The Loansman waved a hand dismissively, “Laziness, inefficiency and a failure to take seriously enough the impact of non-payment of monies due,”
He stood abruptly and glided across to the French Windows, affecting to look out of them It seemed to me more like he was looking into them, as if they were mirrors rather than windows. He clasped his hands behind his back, his brow furrowed like a man deep in thought.
“I see it repeatedly, you know,” he said, his voice loaded with patient weariness, “time and again I am caused to remind people such as yourselves of the very point of your existence. How can you possibly forget it? And yet you do, all the time it seems,”
He deigned to turn and face us, his expression stern, “So I will spell it out here for you, in the hope that you will not become so lax again. If we are to continue to live in the manner to which we are accustomed, we must pay. It is a simple and honest a truth as that. Look about you! Look at the room in which you stand! Look at the way I am dressed, the shoes on my feet, the ring on my hand!”
Only now did I notice the signet ring, a large, gaudy, square-headed thing that sat awkwardly on his middle finger. It looked as if it had once belonged to a different man. It struck me that he had not been wearing it earlier; that he had by some sleight of hand slipped it onto his finger only now, for maximum effect. I looked at the boys for some confirmation of my suspicions. Dismayed, I saw that they were once again rapt, utterly taken in by the man and his appearance.
“If we are to keep up this lifestyle, this image, this representation that is so very important across the globe in such uncertain, jealous times, then each man, woman and child must do his or her part. You must pay your way! You owe a great debt to your government, the most generous and giving of benefactors, and that debt must be paid! Non-payments cannot be allowed, no matter who the defaulter might be!”
For the first time, he showed some signs of animation, his face flushed red with anger, spittle forming at the corner of his mouth. I thought he might reach for the neatly folded handkerchief in his jacket, then understood that it was another falsehood; merely a white triangle of cotton sewn into a fake pocket.
“So, we must find a way to make reparations. You must find a way. The debt is yours, not mine. I am the one aggrieved here, I am the one wronged. You must learn not to live beyond your means!”
Thomas and William actually bowed their heads at that, as if they felt the burden of shame. It was about all I could take, and I would have confronted The Loansman then and there, had I not been saved from my folly by an urgent rap at the door.
The Loansman inclined his head in irritation at the interruption. “Come,” he ordered sharply.
I felt the door swing open behind me and we all turned, expecting the little grey man to come in, or to call out a message. There was no one there, the door seeming to have opened to a palpable silence and empty space beyond. Yet the Loansman made an exasperated face as receiving an unwanted calling.
“Oh, all right, if I must,” he spoke to thin air, “You will excuse me.” The latter to the three of us, as if we had any choice in the matter.
He left us with a measured, steady pace, his former composure returned, all trace of the passion and ire gone. The door clicked shut behind him.
I released a breath, hearing the boys do the same. We turned to one another as we always did whenever things got tricky.
“Well that was weird,” I said, meaning the conversation we had just witnessed.
“Can you believe this place?” Thomas whispered in a rush, ignoring me.
“It’s amazing!” William enthused, “Who would ever have believed it?”
“Wow!” Thomas murmured. He was looking around him, wide-eyed, “Just wow!”
A knot began to form in the pit of my stomach. The way the boys were reacting told me they did not see things as I did.
“You do see it, right? The room?” I asked them both.
“Of course we see it!” Thomas laughed, “How could we not?”
“Oh, I see it all right,” William agreed, “I see the gold framed portraits, the plush leather seating, the priceless desk,”
“The priceless desk?”
“And then there’s The Loansman himself,” Thomas took up, “The solid gold buttons, the suit that would cost us a year’s pay or more. Oh, we see it, sure enough!”
They looked thrilled and enthralled, as impressed and delighted as children at a circus. They were beaming stupidly, looking about them with undisguised awe.
“You have got to be kidding me, right?” They looked at me, their rapturous expressions at once clouded by confusion.
“Kidding you how?” Thomas asked.
“This! All this!” I hissed, fighting to keep from shouting, “It’s all a lie! None of it is as it seems!”
William looked troubled at the suggestion. They looked at one another, then back at me, their faces blank, and I saw that their ignorance was genuine; they were not kidding me at all.
“For pity’s sake! Those gold buttons are nothing more than gilt! Look at the threadbare curtains! The mismatched grain in the desk! Nothing about this place or The Loansman is as precious or as valuable as he would have us believe! It is all false, a lie! An intricate, elaborate lie I grant you, but a lie nonetheless!”
William shook his head, his denial plain, “But why? Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “Maybe because if the people of The Investment knew the truth, they would stop giving him their money,”
They fell silent, considering. William cast an anxious look at Thomas, who shook his head disapprovingly.
“Be careful,” he cautioned me, “what you are saying is very close to heresy,”
“Heresy? Are you serious? Can you honestly not see what is right in front of you? What are we all slaving to pay for, month in, month out?”
“This!” William snapped, sounding chillingly like The Loansman only minutes before, “This office and the man who graces it. The man who takes care of The Investment on a daily basis. The man I am ashamed to say I am in arrears to,”
“The man who would have you working all hours of every day and night so he can take the money you earn out of your pockets and the food out of your mouth!”
“It is a small price to pay for the welfare of The Investment,”
“What investment? What is invested in here other than the whims of one man; a fake man at that? He is nothing more than a shabby replica of the statues built in every park and square, of every portrait hung in every school, office, library and railway station across The Investment. You can’t really mean to tell me you are taken in by this? What about us for once? What do we get in return for working ourselves to the bone? Where is the investment in us? Where is our return?”
William gasped; a sharp, indrawn breath of horror at my words.
“You don’t mean what you say!” he said.
“Oh, but I do! Open your eyes,” I urged them, “Open your eyes and see the truth for yourself. It is right in front of you! To think that all this time I have been taken in by this. That I believed I had to pay my way for the good of The Investment. There is only one who gains in all of this, that is clear to me now. It is not even a grand empire he sits in, but a shabby one! It seems to me that The Loansman lives a life he can ill afford, even though we are the ones paying for it! That the motto of The Investment is ‘Earn as You Live, Live as You Earn’ is an insult added to a mockery. What would the people say, if they could see how their hard-won coin is wasted, on nothing?”
“You dare to rewrite the motto of The Investment? That revered statement, uttered like a prayer amongst the grateful masses?”
I had not heard The Loansman re-enter the room; had not felt the shifting air as the door opened to re-admit him. The thought that he had been there throughout, that he had heard it all and never really left the room, crossed my mind. I turned to face him and for the first time since we met, I felt a shiver of real fear.
The dye with which he undoubtedly coloured his hair had leaked down his face, leaving deep purple streaks like veins down his forehead and cheeks. It was no longer neatly combed but pushed back in an untidy mess, as if a hand had been drawn hastily through it in a moment of stress. The ring, loose before, was now absurdly so. It fell in slow loops about his finger each time he moved his hand. The false handkerchief was a dirty grey, something sticky and dark in its centre beginning to spread outwards. The waistcoat was stretched tight across his belly, leaving gaping spaces between the cheap buttons. Even as I looked on, one of them snapped free of its stitching and flew across the space between us to land spinning at my feet.
I looked down at it, wondering if he had meant to aim it at me. When I looked up again he was closer, though I swear he had not moved a step. Now I could see how long and ragged his dirty nails were, how his supposedly pristine shirt was a sickly, yellowing off-white. He opened his mouth in a snarl, revealing blackened and rotting teeth and I took an involuntary step backwards, away from him. I stumbled, reaching out to the desk to steady myself. Its surface was worn and greasy, my hand slipping across the wood and onto the blood-red leather.
It was warm and tacky to the touch. I retracted my hand instinctively, knowing the feel of it was wrong. I was horrified to find my palm and fingertips were blood stained, one finger crowned by a deep red clot which I shook off in disgust. The red leather was swirling and pooling, here and there escaping its confines and leaking out onto the wood itself.
I looked to William and Thomas for support. They looked back at me, William with a patronising air, Thomas with mild amusement.
“What the hell?” I began.
“Didn’t you wonder why you were summoned?” Thomas asked.
I shook my head, confused by his question, “I came along with you. I always come with you; you’re like brothers to me. Where you go, I go. It’s always been that way,” Could they really not see what I could see?
“Yes, you did and how many times did your smart mouth, your penchant for upsetting people, cause us nothing but trouble? How many times did we have to haul you out of some situation or another, because of your own foolishness?”
“What?” I couldn’t seem to raise my voice above a whisper, so shocked was I by their response. It was true, I knew it. Even now, I expected them to come to my aid, to help me as they had always done.
“I don’t understand. I was summoned,” I glanced at The Loansman, who folded his arms across his chest and stared hard at me, “You summoned me,” I finished lamely.
“I did not,” The Loansman said. He licked his dry lips with a tongue that seemed suddenly too fat for his mouth, a sickeningly sensual gesture that made my stomach turn.
“Then why am I here?”
“Ask your friends,” he said, spittle dribbling down his chin to land thickly upon the filthy cravat, its’ gorgeous emerald shades now dull and lifeless.
I turned to the boys; my lifelong friends, my almost brothers, the question stuck in my throat for fear of the answer.
William looked hard at me, his eyes searching mine as if he expected me to know why. In truth I think I did, but I did not want to acknowledge it. I turned to Thomas, my eyes pleading.
“You are the settlement of our debt,” he said simply, “You are our repayment,”
“What?” I said again, the word empty on the air.
“You were not summoned. You were not even invited to come along. You assumed you were to accompany us as you always do. As we knew you would. Why would you have been called here? You pay your dues every month, without fail. You have your own dwelling, your own cow for milk, hens for eggs. You have a garden for your vegetables and an oven to bake your bread. Why would The Loansman have cause to call for you?”
“I don’t understand,”
“Oh, come now, yes you do. I have already explained, it is simple enough. You are the settlement of our balance. Your dwelling, your cow, your hens, your garden and your oven can all be sold. They not only cover our debt but pay a month or two in advance,”
“How can you do this? How can you just rob me of all my belongings? I am not yours to give or to sell!”
“You are the property of The Investment,” The Loansman spoke thickly. I ignored him, desperate to make Thomas and William see the error of their ways.
“What am I to do then? Where am I to go?” William turned away from me, Thomas merely shrugged.
Something stirred above me, some movement overhead catching my eye. I looked before I remembered what was said to be up there, and heard The Loansman give a soft snicker of laughter.
The rumours were all true. The ceiling was crawling with limbs, alive with small faces, if not in alabaster then in a tarnished, ancient plaster. They were tiny, like the shrunken heads in the stories of old; as if someone had made them smaller to fit them all in the space overhead. The eyes were all stretched wide in various depictions of terror, the mouths all working madly in voiceless despair. Not a single arm broke free of the ceiling, though I felt sure if they could they would reach out for help. There were so many of them up there, writhing and squirming, never able to escape their confines. I knew without asking that they were not the result of some gifted, hellish sculptor’s art but real, living people, though the form of their existence was utterly repugnant to me. How was such a thing possible?
“What you are looking at,” The Loansman drooled, “is a settlement of accounts. Each face you see looking back at you is a loan repaid in full,”
I stared at him, unable to find words to speak, unsure that I could say them anyway. I felt a dry heat all over, like I was coming down with a sudden and unstoppable sickness. I suppose in a manner of speaking, I was.
“You will be one of them soon,” he added, raising a hand and dragging the soiled sleeve of his jacket across his lusty mouth. He did not take his eyes off me, regarding me as if I was a tempting main course on an especially mouth-watering menu.
I thought to plead with Thomas and William. I thought that even now, when I knew in my heart it was already too late, they might step in and rescue me, like they always did. They were standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder, visibly united in their cause, though I was gratified at last to see a trace of doubt and horror flicker across their faces.
The Loansman, that filthy, ragged beggar in disguise, came towards me. I could not prevent the cry from escaping my lips, dreading the thought of the clammy flesh of his hand upon me. He passed me by as if I was of no further interest to him, approaching Thomas and William instead.
His back to me now, his jacket clinging to him in patches of sweat, giving him a mottled appearance from this angle, I heard him say in a formal, business-like tone, “Gentlemen, are we agreed? This is to be your full and final payment of arrears, by means of which you settle your outstanding debt to The Investment as represented by myself, The Loansman, otherwise known as Revenue Agent Supreme?”
“It is,” they replied in unison, with all the solemnity and authenticity of a couple reciting marriage vows to a vicar.
“And do you give this payment freely and of your own volition?”
I stiffened, keen to know how they would answer that question, eager to learn if they had been forced into this, or if they were offering me up as a ready sacrifice to pay for their own greed.
“We do,” they intoned again. That was the moment I knew I was truly lost. That was the point at which I began to feel a strange unsteadiness on my feet, a light-headedness as the room began to slowly yet inexorably spin in an off-balance, counter-clockwise motion.
“Then I am pleased to inform you that The Investment, The Loansman and the Revenue Agent Supreme accepts your payment gratefully. Please be seated gentlemen, whilst I deal with the formalities and ensure the payment has gone through successfully,”
I watched helplessly as Thomas and William sank down into large, embracing wing-back chairs in Oxblood leather which I swear had not been in the room before. The Loansman once more circled his desk, once more lowered himself into the waiting seat that seemed to fold itself about him. He reached under his desk and slid open a drawer, from which he took a sheet of paper that he set before him. He slid the drawer smoothly shut, then reached to his left for the pen that lay cradled in a bronze rest like a treasured item. He clicked it noisily, the nib revealing itself, poised over the paper.
He looked at me, or what was left of me. I felt I was slowly melting out of existence. I was whole still, yet somehow not whole. As if I had ceased to exist as a solid being and was instead becoming some form of ga