Shadows And Charades
It was when mother had thought Emilia and Peter were quietly looking at their books by the fire. Which they were. But that did not make them deaf. Uncle Erasmus had arrived for Christmas as usual, late, almost at the children's bedtime, with a large box, which Annie carried up to his room (begrudgingly, as even the servants did not trust Uncle Erasmmus: Emilia noticed, even if they thought she didn't.)
Emilia was looking at her book, but her ears were open, and she heard mother say "well, Erasmus. Where on earth have you been this year?"
"Very near to here - and very far," he said, "I have been in hell, Clementine. And hell is at your very doorstep."
Mother made a soft sound of distaste, but Emilia felt a chill in the deepest part of her bones.
On Christmas eve, when supper was done and the family gathered in the drawing room, they found out what was in Erasmus' box. They all gathered around, while Annie extinguished the lights, and Erasmus drew back the red velvet curtain to reveal the shadow puppet theatre, lit from behind by candlelight. A dark, solitary figure was gliding with eerie slowness across the white sheet on the front of the theatre. Mother and father clapped politely. Peter gasped in excitement. Emilia sat very still, and she could feel her heart beat faster. It wasn't magic, she knew. She knew how shadow puppets worked, Peter had a toy shadow theatre, although it was smaller, and the puppets less detailed. She knew there was nothing unnatural about it. But her heart beat faster nonetheless.
"A poor man," came uncle Erasmus' voice, floating through the darkness from where he was hidden behind the theatre, "was wandering alone across the world one day. He was cold and hungry, but could find no help. The devil saw him on his way, and was struck with a wicked idea..."
Emilia jumped. The shadow of the devil had appeared, huge and insubstantial, spread across the sheet, and then, in an instant, he seemed to shrink, and at the same time come closer, as his shadow darkened and the edges sharpened into focus.
"The devil said to the man 'ask me one thing, and I shall grant it. Anything in the world is in my power to give. All I ask in return is that you shall marry my daughter.' This did not seem a bad deal to the man. 'I shall marry your daughter,' he said, 'if you will make me a rich man.'
"And the devil said 'it is done.'"
The devil's shadow vanished, and in his place shadows of great riches appeared around the man: mounds of treasure, heaps of food, a great castle - they floated as if through the air across the sheet and the shadow man seemed to watch as if in a trance.
"The man lived in great comfort and prosperity for one year. During this time many people came knocking at his door to ask for help, for there were many in that town who were poor and starving, but the man guarded his riches jealously, terrified of the poverty he himself had so recently escaped, and he would not help."
A shadow beggar was approaching the shadow man, who turned his shadowy back.
"After a year had passed the devil returned."
And there was that terrible devil shadow again.
"' Remember our bargain,' said the devil, 'you must marry my daughter.'
"'And I shall,' said the man."
Another faint, formless shape filled the white sheet of the theatre. Like the devil, it darkened as it shrank, into the shape of a thin, willowy shadow woman. The shadow man slowly reached out his hand to hers, and she reached out in return. Their hands touched. The was a flash of light, as if from nowhere, and Emilia stifled a scream. Faint smoke was creeping from behind the theatre. When the echoes of the blinding light had faded from Emilia's eyes she saw that the shadow man and shadow woman had between them a shadow child.
"When they had a child the girl was weak and sick, and seemed likely to die. The man begged his wife to ask her father to help, but she would not - she knew her father too well, and any help he gave was always at too terrible a price. He offered a great reward to any doctor in the land who could cure his child, but none were able to. Then one day, the man heard tell of a witch who lived nearby, and he left his great castle to seek her out."
The shadow man waved goodbye to his wife and child as he set out through the town. There he was surrounded by other shadow figures, skeletal children holding out their hands for food, old men and women dressed in rags. He ignored them all.
"The witch lived in a hovel in the poorest part of town."
The shadow witch appeared before the shadow man.
"' Why should I help you?' the witch asked him, 'when I was starving and came to you, you would not help. When my brothers and sisters came to you, you would not help them either.'
"The man begged the witch to forgive him. 'Help my child and you shall have everything I own,' he promised.
There was a knock on the door. Emilia screamed aloud this time, before she could stop herself, and mother said, wearily, "shush!"
Annie hurried to see who it was, and was soon back, saying, "Erasmus, it's a man looking for you."
Erasmus hurried out. Annie lit the lights again, and the room felt more normal, but Emilia still felt a strange cold in her blood. While nobody was paying attention she shuffled nearer to the open door of the drawing room. She felt the chill of the night air from the open door at the end of the corridor, and could hear a voice.
"Erasmus, you have been so good to us, I didn't know where else to go. We have been thrown out on the streets. We couldn't pay our rent because there is no work over Christmas. My wife is sick. Can you help us?"
And Uncle Erasmus said, "come in."
He lead the ragged man and his drooping wife into the drawing room. Mother and father stood, looking scandalised.
"Erasmus! What is this?" father asked.
"This is Bill and Mary," Erasmus said, as he helped Mary into a chair by the fire. "I have been helping them as part of my work with The Mission. They need a place to stay."
"But, Erasmus... they are in our house."
"Yes," said Erasmus.
"No," father said, "I'm sorry, but this is too far. I cannot allow it."
"We'll go," Bill said hastily, taking Mary's arm and helping her to her feet once more, "I... apologise, Sir."
"Wait!" Peter was in tears, "father, we have to help them!"
"They have come from hell," Emilia whispered, but no one heard her.
"Be quiet," father snapped at Peter. To Annie he said "give them some food, and send them on their way."
Annie bobbed a curtsey and followed Bill and Mary out of the room.
Erasmus turned to father and his eyes were more terrible than Emilia had every seen them. "I will not come here again, George. I am sorry, for the children's sake. But I will have nothing more to do with this charade you call Christmas."
And he packed up his puppet theatre and left.
From the upstairs window Emilia watched as Erasmus, Bill and Mary disappeared into the dark and foggy streets.
The one that I convinced myself would keep me strong and sane
I loved a silhouette on the wall,
and told myself it was you
Cloudgazing in a skyless world
I conjured rabbits from your hollowed scalp
And splattered my fanciful dreams in dead space
Where your mind was full,
and your edges softened
I keep myself strong and sane
In this saline splendour
Which forgives the pores on my nose
As easily as it melts away your cruelty
Until I can bear to face the darkness,
My splotchy skin,
These hinterlands were known as Despair, and a half-hearted river crawled through them like a teardrop meandering down the grubby face of a starving child, carving out a feeble tributary that looked as though it might vanish, given the right climatic conditions.
It was into Burden that a man named Saul Ohio rode late one night. His horse, grown lame a number of miles back, had rallied, bringing him to the doors of a large, shabby hotel, before collapsing and exhaling its last breath into the dustbowl that was Main Street.
Saul took one parting look at his faithful nag, then pushed his way through the entranceway of Burden Bar & Hotel, where he approached the sullen, moustachioed clerk who was manning reception.
Although visitors to Burden were sporadic, the clerk displayed no excitement or even surprise to find a potentially paying guest stood before him. Indeed, he barely raised his eyes from the game of Solitaire he was playing, giving Ohio a quick up and under before mumbling, “How can I assist you?”
“I’d like a room for the night. Maybe two nights, if you have one going,” Saul said. From the look of the place, he reckoned he could have the run of the hotel for a year without encountering many other patrons.
The clerk made a show of checking his ledger, running a stubby finger across the lines of the book. “Could squeeze you in for one night. Not sure about two though.”
“Gets busy here, does it?” Saul asked, seeing nothing but blank space taking up the pages of the tome.
“Not busy in the way you might think,” the clerk replied, finally meeting Saul’s eye and holding his gaze.
“Busy how, then?”
“Ah, well you’d be surprised how things turn around here. One night nobody, next night nobody, and so on and so on. But then there are times when we enjoy a fair flurry of visitors. Might not look it, but we’re a popular stopping off point. Take your own self for example, Sir. Whatever the purpose of your visit to Burden, I’m willing to lay money on the fact that your business isn’t here, in this town. Maybe it’s a ways down the road. Maybe it’s in the next city. Whatever your agenda, I’m guessing you weren’t planning on stopping off here.”
Saul took a deep breath, feeling the weariness flood into his bones. “You’re right. I’ll own that this town was not my destination. Not tonight, Sir, nor any night. But my horse grew lame, and I was hoping to rest him up here awhile before continuing on.”
The clerk did a double take, and made a show of looking around. “So where is this fine, albeit lame, beast, Sir? We have a serviceable if shabby stables around back. I can call on our stable-hand to indulge your horse with enough hay and water to make him comfortable. Him being a horse, I’m sure he won’t mind that those equine premises have seen better days.”
Saul held up a hand. “That won’t be necessary. Unfortunately, your locale was a mile too much for my gelding. He collapsed outside. He is there now, nose to the dust. I expect I will need someone to come and take him to wherever it is you bury your departed steeds around here.”
The clerk, raising a finger, dabbed at the corner of both eyes, in a show of mock sadness. “Oh, sorry to hear that, Sir. Very sorry. And so it begins.”
“So what begins?” Saul asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Why, so begins your purpose in Burden.”
“I don’t follow. As I said, I have no purpose here, other than a stopover. I shall be gone in the morning – the next at the very latest.”
“Yes, I’m sure you expect that you will,” murmured the clerk. “Until then, here are your keys. Room six. Up the stairs, third door on the left. I hope all will be to your liking, but if it isn’t, please don’t feel that I’ll be able to do much about it. Good night, Sir. And good luck.”
As Saul ascended the stairs, he wondered at the strange turn the conversation had taken, and resolved to quiz the clerk further in the morning. For now, though, he concentrated on turning the key to room six which had become stuck and was refusing to cooperate. After a few more tweaks and shoves, the lock finally gave way, revealing a small, dour room that had nothing to recommend it in the slightest, apart from the fact that it was a room and provided some shelter at least.
A sagging, narrow bed sat in one corner, opposite a small washbasin that was chipped and cracked, its once-white surface rimmed with grime from others’ ministrations. A single wardrobe took up the other corner and, next to it, a decrepit chest of drawers.
It was a monk’s quarters, but without the requisite sense of peace. Quite the contrary. This room had a heavy, oppressive feel and, all at once, Saul felt a sense of doom descend upon him. He immediately set to whistling, but no tune, however jolly, could ease the creeping dread that layered itself thickly about his person and which grew more profound with each passing minute.
Shedding his clothes, down to his long johns, Saul crawled into the cold, uninviting bed, where he lay, passing the lengthy hours until dawn, trying to ward off the growing instinct that something was amiss inside the Burden Bar & Hotel.
The next morning, finding the front desk empty, Saul made his way towards the rear of the hotel in search of breakfast. There, he eventually stumbled across a small parlour. There were five tables, but only one was laid, so it was at this one he settled himself.
The silence within the room soon became something tangible and heavy. All the usual bustling, tinkling, clattering sounds of morning at a hotel were absent, and Saul was just about to retreat and hunt down breakfast elsewhere in Burden, when a waiter appeared, shuffling through a set of swing doors at the back of the room. It was the clerk from the previous night.
“Oh, so you wait too?” Saul said.
“Too? I don’t know what else I may be called upon to do here, Sir,” the clerk/waiter replied, “but if it should be anything more than waiting these tables, nobody has told me about it.”
“But I saw you last night. You were overseeing the reception desk.”
“No, not I.”
Saul could feel his temper rising. “You did indeed. We spoke about my horse – it had collapsed on the way into Burden.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Sir. This is not uncommon. Most horses do expire in this manner.”
“What is this charade, man?” Saul yelled, thumping his fist on the table. “Tell me, do you have a twin?”
“Not that I know of,” the waiter replied, his moustache twitching.
“Well, a doppelganger of any sort?”
“I couldn’t say. But not here. Now, what may I bring you for breakfast? Our eggs are mainly scrambled, no matter how else you wish them to be, and our toast is invariably burnt, but things only get worse from here on in, so I’d make the most of them if I were you.”
The waiter made to retreat, but Saul stood quickly, his chair clattering to the floor, and he grabbed him by the arm. “I demand you explain what’s going on here. This hotel isn’t normal. Not by any stretch.”
“Very perceptive of you to notice, Sir.”
“No wonder nobody wants to stay here. It’s a shambles.”
“I wouldn’t say that. We’re full to capacity at the moment, Sir. Very popular if you ask me.”
Saul took a deep breath, attempting to steady his nerves. “But last night I saw your ledger. It was devoid of names. This hotel is quiet as the grave. There is nobody else here but I, it would seem. What game are you playing with me?”
“You are here, but not yet looking,” the waiter said, his lips rising in the semblance of a smile, his eyes as cold as a snake’s.
Instinctively, Saul raised his own eyes, letting them roam briefly around the room. As he did so, he caught a movement in his peripheral vision, a dark shadow in the region of the table next to his. Turning, he saw more shadows form, just out of his immediate sightline.
“Your companions,” said the waiter. “Can I get you some coffee while you wait?”
“I’m not waiting for anything. I’m done here,” Saul hissed.
Gritting his teeth, he strode out of the parlour, towards the lobby. The way wasn’t right though. At every turn, the passages confounded him, until he found himself come full circle, back outside the parlour.
The waiter was immediately before him, grinning wolfishly. “You’ll find there isn’t a way out of Burden, Sir. Not until it’s time for you to go on to Despair, at least. We’re just waiting for one more guest to join you and the others, then you can all head on over together.”
“Others?” Saul shouted, feeling tears course down his cheeks. His sight blurred, and he suddenly saw what he’d been unable to with full clarity of vision. There, at the other tables and chairs, the shadowy forms of people began to reveal themselves. A man and a woman at one were clutching hands and weeping. Next to them, a waitress poured coffee into two chipped, dirty mugs.
Across the room, a man was hugging himself, rocking to and fro.
“Your travelling companions, Sir,” the waiter said. “Each of you entered Burden last night, and soon you will leave. We are, as I’m sure you were told, just a stopping off point.”
“Goddamn my horse!” Saul snapped. “If that godforsaken beast hadn’t lamed itself then died, I could have passed by here and escaped these games.”
The waiter chuckled. “Oh, Sir, it’s not your horse that was godforsaken. Not a bit of it. Wasn’t just your horse that died either.”
Trembling, Saul fell to his knees. “You lie! You lie man! I am clearly very much alive. I’m as alive as you. I am. Here, I pinch myself and it hurts. I am flesh and blood, and you are toying with me in a most grotesque way.”
“Ah, Sir, it’s been a long time since I was alive,” the waiter murmured. “Here in Burden is my Purgatory. Look and see.”
Raising his eyes, Saul let out a choked gasp. Before him, the waiter had transformed into nothing more than smoke and shadow. “I must go now, there are more guests arriving soon,” it whispered, its voice now thin and insubstantial. “There are always more guests arriving at Burden. Always more.”
“Wait,” Saul gasped. “Don’t go. I need to know. Just one more thing. You said Burden is a stopping off point for us. A stopping off point for where?”
“Why, Hell, Sir" came the voice, fainter now, a mere memory of sound. "And once you see Despair, you’ll realise quite how lovely your stay here in Burden has been.”