Shadows And Charades

Entry by: writerBPUMPYJBZP

30th December 2016
Emilia was afraid of Uncle Erasmus. Every Christmas he arrived, and each time looked shabbier than the last, his hat fraying and his coat badly patched. His limbs were long and spidery, and his small, gleaming black eyes made Emilia shudder. She knew the adults muttered about him. They let him stay, because he was family, and Emilia and Peter were told to be respectful of him becuase he was their elder. Peter didn't mind a bit, he used to sit at Erasmus' feet and listen to his strange tales of ghosts and spirits and sailors lost forever to the sea. But if Peter was fooled, Emilia was not.

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.