Katerine hosted the most glittering party on the night before the Visitation and had done for as long as anyone could remember. She lived in an apartment that seemed like it would be too small for proper hostessing but if people thought that upon arriving, they never thought it upon departing. Inside, visitors were greeted by warm damasked walls, tulip shaped lamps with rose and cream shades, and crystal bowls heaped with spiced nuts, candied currants, and delicate nougats. Drinks were always kept full but somehow no one could ever remember being ill afterwards.
Talking business at Katerine’s was forbidden but politics, money, and romance were all fair game. This year, she had invited Hernando, who was newly arrived in Town and held to be a prickly character.
“I do love a man in evening wear,” hissed Sabeline as Hernando shrugged off his overcoat. Claudette clucked her agreement and the two exchanged significant glances over their cocktail glasses.
“Doesn’t look like much to me,” Dramyth muttered, smoothing down his own glimmering dark blue lapels.
Katerine greeted the newcomer, fetching him a gin and elderflower cocktail and offering him a bowl of paprika roasted crickets. From across the room, Eulalie boomed, “Is that the boxer? Bring him over here then!”
Hernando looked around awkwardly but Katerine was already steering him toward Eulalie, one hand on her cane and the other tucked into his elbow. Hernando bowed stiffly to Eulalie who chuckled heartily. “Different from what you’re used to, I imagine. It’s not always like this. We’ve got our gladrags on because of the Visitation.”
Hernando’s reply was inaudible. This was another peculiar effect of Katerine’s parties: one could sometimes hear others perfectly well and sometimes not at all, seemingly irrespective of proximity or volume. (This effect was made more noticeable any year that the guest list included Eulalie, whose presence caused spines to straighten and interlocutors to end most sentences with ‘ma’am.’)
Katerine tilted her beak up to Eulalie and Hernando, both taller than her, and said something in her sharp and raspy voice. Whatever it was caused Eulalie to guffaw and a coral pink blush to colour Hernando’s cheeks. Katerine patted Hernando’s arm and moved away, ready to smooth over a brewing disagreement or spark a dull conversation into a lively one.
“How does she do it?” asked Hernando, later that night, having observed his host for several hours. Her particular charm had worked on him and he now felt curiously at ease. He was speaking to Mentet, who Eulalie had introduced him to. They had discovered a shared interest in philately and were deep in conversation, comparing their collections and the treasures they’d seen in other collections.
“Katerine is Katerine,” Mentet said simply, “It is her way. I’m glad she invited you this year. It’s your first Visitation since being here, isn’t it?”
“It is,” agreed Hernando, “And it’s not really the same anywhere else. I didn’t go to any parties like this before.”
“I’m glad you came to this one,” said Mentet shyly.
Hernando blushed again. “So am I.”
At the darkest moment of the night, Katerine went around, turning down the lamps and handing out the long dark green candles that were only used on this occasion. When every hand and paw and wing held a candle, Katerine lit her own. From hers she lit her neighbour’s and the ripple of candlelight spread around the apartment. This signalled the end of the party and guests started to leave, in ones and sometimes daringly in twos. They snuffed their candles at the front door and left them in a cedarwood box left beside the door for that purpose. The Visitation was over for another year.
In summer, Frankie had loved an outsider, though he’d tried hard not to. Had the idea of it even occurred to The Family, they would have forbidden it long ago, but for better or worse the idea of the feelings that Frankie found himself surprised by that summer had been wholly novel to all in Town. But like those few precious days of warmth and sun that summer brought the Townfolk — beckoning the young to lie in the grass and splash in the tide, the old to sit along the street’s edges with faces upturned to the sky — Frankie’s love was so quickly past that now in autumn he caught himself marveling at the chill in the air, the color in the thinning leaves, and the abruptness of nightfall. The dread of a long, dark winter filled him doubly this year, knowing how far away another summer would be while unknowable remained how long this winter of the heart might last.
She had been the first rose of spring, the first ray of sunlight to warm his hirsute face in many years. Sharing his love of everything about the sea, Rhoda joined him for hours at a time walking hand in hand along the beach, digging sea glass treasures out of the sand and catching snacks for each other from the pools left at low tide. As a young man, Frankie had been pursued by his share of girls, but always for his Family’s name or money; he always knew they didn’t want him for him alone. And all upon whom Frankie’s eye fell seemed wary of the same: the violent infamy of his Family name.
Because of this familial reputation, there was no surprise for Rhoda. She knew exactly what to expect, and from the first moment they met — in the back corner of an old bookshop among volumes of nautical history — they spoke in whispers, left public places with minutes between their departures, and chose the most isolated beaches and seafood restaurants for their rendezvous’. With Rhoda, Frankie discovered a privacy in isolation he had never known, thanks to his large, omnipresent Family, and for the first time in his life knew the thrill of having a secret to keep.
But like the summertime, secrets were not long for this world of Family business. On the eve of the first autumn storm to blow in off the sea, Rhoda was discovered, seen despite Frankie’s best efforts to conceal her within the dark of night and the roar of the returning wind. She was escorted away from the hotel room he’d paid for in cash under a storybook name, and for not being a Friend of the Family, was banished from Town and from Frankie’s life forever.
Frankie, however, was part of his Family, and Family business had been a part of him since his first breath. And so began a long month of counter-espionage upon his own Family, undertaken with heightened care and a complete, deep suppression of both grief and anger; he knew well that vengeance could only be served cold. Through still-loyal friends, connections beyond Town he’d made through Rhoda, and a secret cypher Frankie developed and destroyed for this purpose alone, he learned that Rhoda’s exile was not only from him or the Town, but from free life altogether: she was to be sent to Market. Frankie knew there was no worse fate possible — men were shipped north to the mines while women were carted south to unnamed brothels behind unmarked doors, all in indentured servitude with no path to freedom, never to be heard from again.
It was unacceptable.
Frankie couldn’t burn down the Family empire, as much as he wanted to; he couldn’t break Rhoda free — there was no where they could hide even if he could. But he knew them well enough to guess where they would hold Rhoda until auction. His contacts confirmed it. So Frankie made a public display of wild rage and reckless, poor choices — drunken rounds bought, brawls nearly lost, full-speed horse chases through crowded streets. Then he hired a low-tier thug from a friend of Rhoda’s family to make a clumsy hit against a Family business across town from Rhoda’s prison, the transaction observable and easy to follow. And finally, Frankie slunk into the Town’s Underground and bought two drams of poison from a black market apothecary, the mortal drugs held in small glass vials, and went into hiding — perhaps assumed fallen into a drunken stupor — until nightfall.
Late that night, while mis-aimed gunfire and the arrest of a fool kept the Family occupied, Frankie emerged to visit Rhoda in her cell, kneeling and clutching her fingers through the bars.
“Are you comfortable, my Rhoda?”
“Get me out of here.”
Frankie kissed her, the metal rods cold against his cheeks. “I cannot. We chose our path and this is where it leads. My Family can be tricked for a moment, but they do not lose wars.”
“I wish we could turn back, keep our secret just a little longer. What I wouldn’t give for one more night with you before…”
“I know.” Frankie felt the glass vials clink together in his pocket. “What if we could turn back from this path? What if our last night together could be our last?”
“My family can only control the future of our lives, but we could at least deny them that victory.”
“There is nothing worse than the fate they’ve dealt to us.”
Perhaps not, Frankie thought, withdrawing the glass vials from his pocket. But fates could be changed and sins forgiven. Clutching the cool glass, the cold of his anger began to thaw, understanding — even as he felt his hand reach out and offer one vial to Rhoda — that his last mortal action was about to be the murder of the love of his life.
Logically, these vials contained the best solution for denying his Family the satisfaction of control, the preservation of their rules. But maybe all along Frankie had hoped Rhoda would choose exile over death, choose hope for a better future over an ending, even on their own terms. She held the vial eagerly, already removing the small cork from its neck, and seeing her trust in him warmed Frankie’s cold heart even more. His mind began to race with new schemes, plans for a later, better future and how they might survive apart until then.
Could they, he wondered, go down this path, leave her to the brothels where — after groveling for renewed welcome — Frankie could use his share of the Family resources to hire her every night and keep her safely engaged until he could arrange a more complete solution? Could they…
His mind stopped. Snapped back to the moment by a quick motion he didn’t quite catch, only knew it had happened. He gazed again into Rhoda’s eyes, which beheld him with love. But then she coughed, punctuating the silence between them, and a trickle of blood appeared in the corner of her lips. Frankie glanced down to find the vial in her hand empty.
“Rhoda!” he cried. “No no no what did you do?”
Her brow furrowed and a tear left her eye. She coughed again, harder. “You too, Frankie, you too…?” Her eyes glazed over, and her body slumped against the bars of her cell, her face frozen in the surprised confusion of betrayal.
Frankie keeps his vial of poison in a tiny drawer of an old teak hutch, an always-present way out he doesn’t believe he will ever use. The perfect moment hadn’t been right. But he buys more of the vials in small batches a few times each year. There are other ladies in Town who find themselves cornered against a wall, out of options, in situations they would choose not to live through if they could.
Anonymously, Frankie offers them a way to turn back from the course their lives have taken.
He bides his time, waits and watches from the shadows, listens to stories and observes body language in moments of turning away and between conversation that no words will express. Then upon a doorstep with a simple note — “To turn back” — a swift knock and a vanishing, Frankie places a vial.
A month ago, or maybe two by now — was it three? — he left a vial for Lady Dinae, who could no longer accept the parts of her that had become green and leafy. In this way, with this small mercy, Frankie justifies the poisoning of his love as a mercy, too. There was no way forward, no other way out for Rhoda, only a turning back, he tells himself; and he remained in Town so he can pass this mercy along.
Tonight, through a bedroom window from the still-dark street, the lamplighter soon to arrive, Frankie confirms the sadness he’s read over time in the downcast eyes of Miss Trilling, who serves tea at the café. Frankie waits for the evening street to quiet, the lamplighter come and paused and after a moment of reluctance moved on. And in the stillness of night, Frankie leaves his vial, tied with a ribbon, on her threshold, and then walks out to sit on the cold beach and wait for dawn, for summer to return.
It was the trial of the century. All the Town was ablaze with gossip and rumour. Miss Sabeline was to appear before the magistrate on three charges of assault. Rumour was that the Bunny boys had not gone to sea as their mother averred but instead had been driven, bloody and beaten, from Town by Miss Sabeline.
Sabeline, when the two apologetic officers arrived to escort her to the initial hearing, appeared entirely calm.
“Of course boys, let me just fetch my mink. I shan’t be a minute and then you two lovely chaps can escort me wherever you please.” She smiled very wide, maybe too wide, but then again, didn’t Sabeline always smile just a little bit too wide?
Whispers came out of the hearing that, when asked about the Bunny boys, Sabeline had shrugged her mink-clad shoulders and said appealingly, “I do declare, you don’t think I had anything to do with that? They were such delectable young things too; I quite miss their charming faces.”
And the allegation that the boys had last been seen entering her garden and had never once written to their mother since their disappearance?
“To be sure, they did come visit before they were going away. I was quite desolate to see them go! I really was quite fond of them. And I simply couldn’t say why they haven’t written – I’m sure I have no part speculating on their relationship with their mother.”
She blinked beseechingly up at the judge who had cause to reflect that in general, perhaps, Sabeline did not blink quite as much as other folk.
The initial hearing was adjourned with no one the wiser but the gossip-mongers much the richer. Sabeline permitted herself to be led to the gaol to await the trial. She was kept only two days before the warden let her go under the condition that she remain at home and return for the trial. She said, “Why, of course I shall attend. It is quite the most delicious thing.”
He said, “She’s slippery that one, but I think she’ll show.”
And Sabeline did show. Day one of the trial opened with her seated demurely, throat clasped snugly by a rich black velvet cloak and lips expressive with bright red lipstick. She sat very quietly and very calmly through the opening procedures, smiling broadly at Judge Trillit whenever he glanced at her.
The bombshell hit when, in the late afternoon, the prosecution produced their final piece of evidence. With a dramatic flair, Sidney unveiled the clincher.
“This, ladies, gentlemen, honourable beasts, is the shirt Nathan Bunny was wearing when he and his brothers tragically left home to make their fortune. Yes, my squeamish or avid viewers, those are bloodstains that you see before you! And where was this shirt found, you may ask. Where indeed.”
Sidney paused for effect. The courtroom sat in rapt silence. “This shirt was found buried in the bottom of Miss Sabeline’s garden!”
Uproar. Outrage. Delight in the spectacle.
Sidney turned in triumph to where Sabeline sat. “What have you to say to that, madam?”
Silence fell as the crowd waited to hear what Sabeline could possibly say in response to this incontrovertible evidence. She showed no sign of being discomforted.
“How atrocious! I have not the slightest knowledge of how that shirt came to be in my garden. Surely, I did see the Bunny boys before they went abroad. But they left after a lovely chat. I am quite sure they were entirely clothed at that point.”
“So you admit you were the last person to see them alive, in Town?” Sidney asked eagerly.
“The last person? Oh no, my dear, oh no, I was not the last. We were the last.”
“We? Someone else was there? Who?”
Sabeline smiled coquettishly. “That is a most personal question, but if you must know, I was there with Ivan. We spent the whole evening together. I’m sure he would have noticed anything amiss with the Bunny boys.We were quite…inseparable.”
Sidney stepped back, flabbergasted. Murmurs spread through the crowd. Judge Trillit peered over the courtroom.
“Is Ivan here?” he demanded.
From the back row, Ivan stood up.“
Can you confirm what Miss Sabeline has here said?” asked the judge.“
I can, Your Honour.” Ivan spoke in a low rumbling purr, “As Sabeline says, we were entirely…occupied together.”
Sidney tried to pull himself together. “Was there any point that night in which Sabeline would have been alone? Perhaps after you left?”
Ivan shook his head. “As I said, we were occupied. Right up until morning.”
Several ladies fainted and had to be removed from the courtroom. Sidney stuttered, the wind taken out of his sails. Judge Trillit ordered the court adjourned. Ivan winked at Sabeline as she sat, entirely composed, smiling broadly.
Sabeline was acquitted as she and Ivan provided each other with smiling, impenetrable alibis. Mrs. Bunny left the courtroom in tears and forbade all her numerous relations from ever going near Miss Sabeline’s house again. When they were finally dismissed, Ivan offered Sabeline his arm and escorted her proudly home.
Lorth floated through the veins of the town, his tentacles pulsing with each heartbeat. He saw in front of him, he saw behind him. He saw before him, he saw after him. He saw outside himself, he saw inside himself. With each influx and outflux of his limbs, he traveled onward through the town and forward through time, second by second.
Alix the adventurer had never left her hometown. Some adventurers spread broadly throughout the world, some specialized. Alix was very specialized indeed. She knew many secrets of her town, she had seen many things– but not enough. She had yet to meet the eyes of the town.
Lorth swept through a patch of clover with a single burst of movement. The flowers blossomed brightly, more decorated in the ultraviolet spectrum, less so in the future when they were brown and dried. Lorth pulsed onward, toward the sea.
“The eyes of the town?” said Hector Robinson. “There’s no such thing– this town is blind.” He turned away and began hauling on his nets.
“They exist and I will find them,” said Alix.
“You, little fluffball?” Hector said, not unkindly. “You should stick to poking around in alleyways. You can find all kinds of eyes there.”
He pulled on the rope and sighed. There were no fish, as usual, but plenty of driftwood.
“These eyes can see anything,” Alix said. “And I, Alix the adventurer, will be the first to see them.”
Lorth swam through the ocean currents, surrounded by the detritus of the town. Driftwood and plastic wrappers swept past him. Light drifted down from the sun, up from the center of the earth, darkness drifted past from elsewhere.
From a cluster of seaweed, the hand of a feral merman reached out, and latched itself to Lorth’s tentacle. Lorth kicked feebly, curiously. Hunger was in the merman’s eyes. His stomach full of kelp and squid.
Bored, Lorth sprayed a jet of poison and drifted away from the merman’s body, looking down at the ocean floor and up at the surface of the sun.
Hector Robinson twitched one of his own eyes at Alix. “Well then,” he said, “where do you intend to find them?”
“They must be somewhere in the town,” Alix said. “So I’ll begin in some place, then look everywhere else.”
“An exacting logic.” Hector tugged hard on the second net, but dislodged only a strong smell of salt.
Lorth swam toward the shore, where he found an intriguing lattice. His gaze and his touch drifted along the web, feeling the filaments. It surrounded him.
Hector tugged harder, and dislodged nothing. A foreboding filled the air. “Really,” he said, “it would be better not to see them.” “I thought they didn’t exist,” said Alix.
Lorth could not be caged. He swam far into the past, before the sea had covered this land. As he stroked higher into the air, Lorth saw a group of distinguished beings in the distance, gathered on a hilltop. They stood in a circle around a single polished stone.
Curious, he pointed himself to swim towards them– then paused. Something, some desire, drew him back.
The eyes appeared the instant Hector released the rope, spreading against the sky, filling Alix’s field of vision.
Lorth saw a weathered man with a dripping mustache, and a little girl, round like a tribble.
“Don’t look,” said Hector, coiling his eyes and pulling his cap over them. “In fact — Alix — you’d better run.”
Lorth drifted closer in all directions.
Alix covered her eyes, peeking only a little, and backed up slowly. The eyes followed her, drifting forwards, some slowly, others fast. Lorth was curious again. He opened some more of his eyes.
Alix bared her teeth. The eyes still blocked out the sky. Alix bared her second set of teeth. She pointed her sting-tipped tail. She flexed her claws. She extended her retractable fangs. She hissed.
Lorth had been stationary for too long. Bored, he turned away toward an alleyway in the future, sweeping his eyes after him.
Through her paws, Alix glimpsed the eyes retreating. All fear left her. She was too curious. She dropped her paws and looked up.
I was looking for the antidote to love. Not, I hasten to add, because I myself needed that relief, although that came later, along with a great many other things. No, I directed my research to this pursuit because I recognized a need for such a cure in a great many of my fellow Townsfolk. The love-lost, lovelorn, bereaved, bewildered, abandoned, and alone, there were many suffering from the ailment of love.
I set to work. Science must begin with research so I turned to the medical, psychological and physiological literature to see what had been investigated. My scientist forebears had greatly neglected my chosen field of inquiry so that avenue proved futile. I turned to philosophy and poetry, reasoning that if the scientists of the past had ignored the medical ramifications of this affliction, the philosophers and poets had not. I read a great deal about the possible causes and effects of love but very little about its cure. Consensus seemed to be that, if the love was true (and what did they mean by true? I spared a moment to wonder), then it was eternal and all-consuming and its loss could only be endured in life or ended by death. Some poets went so far as to claim love’s perpetuation after death but I respectfully ignored these metaphysical claims. I was attempting to deal with the here and now and the necro-future was not my concern.
A challenging prospect nonetheless faced me. Aware of the great task I had set myself, even so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I drew from a pool of volunteers, gathering data about their symptoms, the progression of their disease, and the probable causes.
“I cry every morning when he’s not there to make breakfast.”
“We never saw her grow up.”
“That empty side of the bed.”
“I can’t eat.”
“I eat too much.”
My notes filled books and then cabinets. Eventually I began, cautiously, to develop possible treatments. I enlisted the help of the local pharmacist, an antlered youth named Danid.
Danid was invaluable, seemingly as invested in the work as I was. Together we stayed late into the night, refining formulas and comparing chemical compounds. Gradually we fell into a rhythm, a routine of work that ran smoothly from task to task. We hypothesized, tested, failed, revised, tested, revised, and tested again, each failure an improvement on the one before.
Finally, after months of labour, we had a sample that we thought might work. But how to test it? Our development had involved tests with fruit flies and rats so we were certain that the elixir wasn’t poisonous. But how could we know whether it actually worked? Actually cured love?
I contacted some of my previous volunteers, searching for test subjects. I explained the risks and potential benefits of the drug. We had observed few dangerous side effects in our lab rats so I conjectured there was little risk of physical harm. But the questions my volunteers asked, I could not answer.
“Will I still remember her?”
“Could I fall in love again?”
“What will happen when I see them?”
Despite their evident pain and willingness to talk about it, even the desire of some to share the burden with me, no one was willing to take the risk or the reward that I offered. That night, after the last volunteer, with vague and unformed excuses, had refused the test drug, Danid and I sat together in the laboratory, sharing a commiserating bottle of whiskey. Normally I detested the stuff but tonight it felt like the only suitable option. Its searing fire and rich earthiness matched my own frustration and leaden disappointment.
Danid was very quiet and I thought I perceived a different quality in it than expressed in my own moroseness.
“Well, it looks like that’s it,” I sighed, “I’m sorry it’s all come to nothing.” My tongue was whiskey heavy but my thoughts darted and flashed in iridescent colours behind my eyes. “You’ve been invaluable. I don’t know where I would be without your help.” I suddenly wanted Danid to know that my failure was my own and unshared between us. I reached out a hand and, with the delicacy of inebriation, gently landed on a knee. Danid’s hand came to cover mine and when I looked up, our eyes locked. Despite what we’d had to drink, there was clarity, directness and a question in the look Danid gave me.
Now, I wonder, at that moment, if I had any inkling. Did some slow befuddled thought cross my mind before extinguishing itself in the muck of my consciousness? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
How the night ended, I cannot say. I awoke still in the laboratory, although one of the spare lab coats had been draped over me. The trial dose was gone. Danid was gone. I began then to understand what the question in Danid’s eyes had been.
As the day wore on and I searched fruitlessly, I began to understand what had happened in the past few months, quietly, under my nose, as we had worked so closely for so long. As I returned to the lab at sundown, I began to understand the pain and fear I’d heard about and recorded so many times before. But I truly understood when I opened the door to the lab and Danid was there. I understood the pangs of love. I understood the drug had worked. I understood all that I had lost and why I would never replicate the ‘cure’ we had succeeded in finding.
I was looking for the antidote for love because I thought that would cure people. I now knew what we needed was the antidote for grief. Despite my belief in the endless possibilities of science, I do not think it shall be found.
The quiet last descendent of a dilapidated aristocratic family, Lady Grae was doe eyed and demure. She lived in the Grae manse, just outside of Town, surrounded by a carefully kept garden. Bees hummed over lavender stalks and dragonflies cast shadows over cracked terracotta pots. Lady Grae lived alone, a quiet life in the country.
The year of the flood, Lady Grae became an unexpected hero. When the river overflowed its banks and the Town flooded, Lady Grae was at the fore, carrying sandbags and building dykes. Her sleeves once rolled up revealed impressively muscled arms and her even-toned voice quelled panic and admitted no dissent. She kept her head in the crisis and calmly fought the roiling waters.
When the surging waves had subsided and Lady Grae had resumed her petticoats and lace collars, she found herself surprisingly popular. The townsfolk remembered how she had dug channels away from the river. A number of families had slept in makeshift beds in her house: three in the kitchen, four in the study, even a few in a tent in the garden. Another family remembered her help in moving furniture from the basement to the attic as water seeped in. Her actions were remembered with appreciation and gratitude and she was invited frequently to teas and fêtes, cramped rowdy family dinners and stately affairs. She was unfailingly polite, if somewhat bewildered by the attention. It was as if she, not feeling she deserved any special recognition, believed everyone else might eventually, suddenly, come to the same conclusion. Every invitation was a surprise and she never grew complacent in her popularity.
So it was that when the illness came to her, she did not think to ask for help. She always considered her place in the Townsfolks’ hearts to be a temporary one, based on some strange quirk of nature that she could not explain and therefore could not depend on. She became more retiring; although she still accepted every invitation she was able to. As her illness progressed, she had, on occasion, to decline a cheerful offer or shyly made request. These refusals pained her and further convinced her that her former hosts would, upon receiving her politely worded regrets, shrug their shoulders and forget her. The flow of invitations would dry up and public opinion would turn against her.
Homebound, she missed the ripple of consternation that ran through the Town when her absences were noticed. Folk gossiping on the green or meeting in the market remarked on her withdrawal and speculated. Finally, one rainy Thursday, Madam Calavera pronounced in her thick accent, “We should call upon Lady Grae. I shall visit her tomorrow with some of chapulines and lemonade.”
Madam Calavera was as good as her word and soon a steady stream of visitors and well-wishers were reaching for the bell pull and filling Lady Grae’s pantry with treats. Phil brought three carefully selected bluebird eggs; Mrs. Tealing left a rather dry fruitcake; and even George had a can of boiled ham to present Lady Grae. When she sat by her window, she could see her garden being restored to its former kempt state by many hands, some more practiced than others. Their kindness astonished Lady Grae and she tried to repay it by hiding, as best she could, her weakness, fatigue and growing pain.
On the last day, Lady Grae, who never drank, asked for a snifter of whiskey and sipped it at her window until the ice clinked and the glass was empty. She then said, sweetly and quietly, “The river has overflown. Excuse me. I must go and help,” and went.
They think I don’t see nothin’. You got a face like mine and somebody looks at you funny, just scratch behind your ear and pant a bit – they’ll forget you’re even in the room.
So it was that the man in the glasses paid me no mind at all. He were quiet at first. Drank his gin at the Fork and Pheasant and made no trouble. We got a friendly enough town but if a body looks like he wants to be let alone, we let him alone. I spend a lot of time at the Fork and Pheasant. Maurice lets me curl up in front of the fireplace and I order a saucer of milk and bourbon most nights. Sometimes Arabelle will stop by. I don’t much like other folks’ hands on me. But Arabelle’s got a knack for it. She can put her hand on your head just as friendly as if she was shaking your hand. But that’s as may be. I was tellin’ about the man with the dark glasses.
Now, I didn’t ever see his face right proper. Had his hat pulled low and kept those dark glasses on all the time. Otherwise, there weren’t much to say about how he looked. Like I said, he was mostly quiet, let alone and didn’t mind nobody. ‘Til one day something changed. And that’s how I caught him at it that day.
That day he came early and he drank heavy. Maurice’s not one to meddle but he’s fair along to being an expert in the variety of drunkard and he could see the change a’comin’. He asks the fellow, friendly like, if there was some bad news. The stranger empties his glass and says he’s got an imp on his shoulder that drives him, drives him, drives him and it won’t let him be. Maurice pours him another and the man in the glasses says, he’s been driven from town to town by this imp with no rest, no reward, just hard luck and misfortune. Maurice nods and pours another and the stranger says, he ain’t been long in our town and he can feel the imp drivin’ him to some terrible purpose here afore he’s done. Maurice puts the bottle down and asks him what does he mean by that. The stranger laughed, short and bitter. Maurice, he says, I don’t rightly know what it is but this imp here’s got a pretty good idea.
He set his glass down then and left the bar. Maurice shook his head, sad-like, and set to putting away the glasses. I watched the man in the glasses out the door though and just before he left, he shot another look into the bar. Just for a sec he lowered his glasses and peered through the room. And it weren’t a sad look, nor a fearful one: it was hard and full of the terrible purpose he’d spoke of.
When the man came back later that night, I had a feeling something was afoot. The Fork and Pheasant was crowded, noisy and joyful, everybody talking to everybody. So I don’t think many folks noticed the stranger when he came in. Maurice didn’t but then, the stranger didn’t go up to the bar, which is where Maurice is accustomed to noticing people. He came right up to the fireplace, right up next to where I was laying. But he didn’t pay me no mind. I’d put my head down for a snooze and I guess I didn’t figure into what he was about to do.
My ears sure pricked up with what happened next though. The man in the glasses put his hands behind his back, as if he was warming them by the fire. And then…and then it was the queerest thing. A feeling came over the bar, a feeling like the worst thing that ever happened to you. Folks all over stopped and their faces got dark. Eyes filled with tears or rage or disgust. You couldn’t help yourself. It was reliving the worst thing that had ever happened to you, the meanest cruelest most beaten down moment of your entire life. And it felt so strong, it felt stronger almost than when it happened.
I felt it and I saw the others feel it. I don’t know what they all saw but they were terrible things. I remembered the day, that last day in the north, when the trapper found us and drove us out of our home. I remembered his face, shouting with bloodshot eyes as my wife lay in front of the kits and bared her teeth. I remembered the dreadful bargain, the greed and contempt I saw then as our home was destroyed and I was taken: the price of freedom for my family. I saw that man’s face, that destroyer of my world, and his bloodshot eyes made me remember where I was and the man in the glasses.
I stirred and with a mighty flip, brought my tail down in the embers of the fire, scattering sparks. I swept them toward the stranger and I don’t know, the heat or the smoke or some such but it startled him and he dropped his hands and the nightmares vanished. Folk all over the bar sort of woke up but the man in the glasses was gone before anyone thought of him.
He never came back after that night. I kept my eye open for him but I didn’t say nothin’ to the others. I knew he wouldn’t try that here again. His terrible purpose had been fulfilled, or foiled perhaps, but the game was done and he’d moved on. But I’d seen him. I’d seen his face so if he ever came back, I’d know. I don’t think he’ll be coming back.
At dusk, the lamplighter emerged onto the village streets, bundled under a heavy cloak, his lantern held aloft in his left hand. He mostly went unnoticed – the kind of public servant whose work is only seen once accomplished – and that suited him well. Between his cloak, the evening shadows, and the careful way he moved, if the lamplighter had his way, he would have been invisible.
He was severely misformed. Body twisted, limbs and fingers gnarled, back hunched, and much of his skin knotted into angry swirls, there was only one little part of him – the left side of his face – that appeared in any way normal. Human. Beautiful, even, if beheld alone. It was as if Aphrodite herself had reached out to him at the time of his forming, and her hand could only cover so much space. So he carried his lantern in his left hand, hoping that if anyone were to notice him in the evening, illuminated in this positioned glow, they would see him as they expected him to be.
Still, he preferred to remain invisible. To all of the village, save one.
Miss Arabella Trilling served tea at the Wildflower Cafe in the center of town, and after locking up went home for the day near dusk, just as the lamplighter was emerging from his attic apartment. Night after night, he had noticed her – her delicate features, the vibrancy in her youthful face, the elegance of her dress. And he had watched her, keeping up with her street by street at a distance. Though later in the night, he would light the lamps outside her own home, the route she took paralleled his own, one block south; had she taken his street, he would have altered his route by a block.
It was not her beauty alone that had captured his attention. It was the downcast way that she moved, that she existed. Eyes on the ground, head bowed though her posture was perfect. If sadness could exist within such radiant beauty, he thought, then perhaps beauty could emerge from sadness. Perhaps beauty with its smudge of sadness could match his darkness with its single point of light.
His evening routine, the lamplighter has planned out in such a way that he circles back to Miss Trilling’s street after dark, at the end of his route, where he can slow down and wait a few minutes before retiring home. Each night, he pauses on the street just across from her windows and watches for her, hoping that a light will come on, that she will appear there in the window, look out, and see him; if she does, she will see that handprint of beauty on his face, alone, illuminated. Perhaps then he would be noticed; perhaps in that way he could be loved.
Tonight as he waits, watches, her front room lights blink on, her silhouette shadows the window curtains, and his late-night meal of bread and cheese catches in his throat. The lantern is in place, hung beside him on its pole as he sits with his supper; he can feel the light’s heat against the smooth normalcy of his left-hand face. Watching with held breath as Miss Trilling reaches up to draw the curtain aside, the lamplighter turns the whole of his face into the light, briefly to blow out the flame, and is comforted again in darkness.
And she, beautiful and sad even in silhouette, withdraws from the window, and a moment later that light, too, is gone.