Ice House: Asetma
Both Miriam and the green eyed girl were too busy to pop up and bother me for more than a week after that. We were well into the dwindling period before the tourists stopped arriving before I next saw the green eyed girl on a tour. She kept her distance from me even as she was only assigned to the group that I had to lead. I had many questions to ask.
It was not that there was some kind of a rush that required me to direct tours in addition to the prison workforce. We had come into the part of the season where it was not worth the expense to the prison to assign guards to Asetma duty. Most of the labor rested entirely on my shoulders because, as slave labor, I was cheap. What remained was a punitive duty that fell on civil servants from Obsille. Only at the end of each season was I afforded the opportunity to see a few new faces.
Those new faces were neither happy nor friendly. There were many duties in Obsille to which a civil servant could have been assigned as punishment. Asetma duty was the cruelest and the recipients took their rage out on me since I could do them no harm. It was always the most trying of times for me.
Talk of Tommy's disappearance did not die down in the new whispers that came to Asetma. Provided that I could settle for no more than gossip, that was the time of year that I could have had all the news from Obsille. It was never tasteful, turning to salty ash in my mouth as it corrupted my ears, and it was worse when it was mostly bad things said about me. The disgruntle press gangs had no reason to show me the kindness of discretion.
My mind was given to wonder if these people would have spoken so harshly of me had they believed even half of the words that they spoke against me. Miriam was afforded better treatment more out of celebrity than of either respect or fear. Each of us had a value in Obsille and Miriam's was greater than mine. She brought in tax revenue. I was a disposable commodity who would be replaced before my lifeless body was even cool.
I was still the Obsille strangler and worse to all but the green eyed girl and she was avoiding me. Mr. McGregor was good to his word on the walks we took twice a week, but I had to spend more time at Th'Estate and less was left to stroll with my friend. My lunch hour was reduced to lunch minutes on days that I was allowed even to have that. All that I could be granted of the daylight hours was those precious minutes that nobody else had found a use for. And the other slaves forced upon me did their best to see that there was nothing left when my place, last place, arrived.
It can be said that I received a single kind act in that time. Miriam was too busy in her search to unleash her ire upon me. Deep into the night, while I rechecked every molecule of Th'Estate, Miriam was busy with her search as well. She did not even seem to notice that I was searching the mansion.
Even Beth hid herself from me. Some days she left dishes for me and nothing else. Other days, I saw nothing of her. Oletta stopped making my breakfast and I was left to clean the mansion on my own. It was time for me to begin my lonely winter exile.
It was one of those seasons where, near to the end, I actually got some weekends off. I would have figured on my days off being during the week, however, the tourists were as strange as Th'Estate. My place was not to question anything in Obsille. Friday came around and I had all night to search for Tommy. Finding Tommy would give me the keys to my own life, such as I was allowed to live in the shadow of the Asetma name.
I started my search back in the very place where I had seen Tommy vanish and moved on from there, over every place that I had already searched a dozen and more times. It did not matter to me how many times I searched the same place as I knew that I had missed Tommy wherever he was. Large as it was, the mansion covered only a fixed amount of ground. My memory reminded me that I actually had not seen Tommy vanish so I went back into the room where I had last seen Tommy.
That room was large enough to afford three doors. One door led back out into the hallway and the other two led into other rooms deeper into the Asetma maze. There were a finite number of places that Tommy could have gone from there. Tommy had been hidden so well that he even eluded Miriam, which is a good thing, but it wore heavily on me.
Since the doorway that was used by the restless dead had been barred to me, I went out into the hallway to seek alternate routes from there. If Tommy had been in an obvious place, then we would have stumbled across him in our days. There had to be a secret entrance from that room, known to the spirits of Asetma. I just could not find it.
Evil makes an evil kind of sense. That is not to say that evil created Th'Estate. The point is that there had to be a reason for even the most unusual event that took place on the cursed grounds which claimed my service. Why had the green eyed girl taken Tommy? She could only have taken him to another part of Th'Estate.
If the green eyed girl had not taken Tommy, then who had? Miriam would have known Tommy's whereabouts if she had taken him. No other active haunting force was known in my time at Asetma. My oddest thought was that Tommy might have taken himself, following his love a bit too closely.
Where Tommy was held depended on who had taken him. Miriam would have taken Tommy to the grave, so I was relieved that she didn't have him. The green eyed girl would have kept Tommy on the grounds of Th'Estate. If Tommy had gone into the void on his own, then he would have no way of knowing where he was. Tommy, I thought, would have remained close to the green eyed girl.
Why, then, had he not returned when she did? I never saw the two of them together when the green eyed girl returned to the mortal world. Tommy never popped up in any of the haunting. Something prevented Tommy from returning through the same door that the green eyed girl used.
Tommy simply had to still be on the grounds. The green eyed girl would be wise in keeping Tommy hidden from Miriam. But, in keeping Tommy safe, she was keeping him from my protection. Around each corner, I expected her to pop up and return Tommy to me. It never came to pass.
Late into the night, forgetting even to eat, I retraced every step that I had taken on the day Tommy had vanished. The tours were so common for me that I could have walked every step with my eyes closed. I even knew the count of steps and the loose boards that nobody ever got around to fixing. My search was as frustrating as it was fruitless. Hope was no prisoner of Asetma.
Fear no longer kept me back from the haunted bookcase. There was a doorway behind it, which I knew about, yet I had a feeling that Tommy was not in the tunnel. The old witch woman was a pariah, not comfortable in the company of strangers, and was unlikely to take prisoners. Tommy, a good and loving boy, was not likely to get into her good graces. She did not even like me from what I made of our infrequent encounters.
Thinking kept me from tearing the bookcase apart in my search for Tommy. I would have damaged Asetma property, drawing the wrath of spirits known for their hostility in good days, without finding anything. My brother had already given his life for an offense against the darkness that called Th'Estate home. It would have been worth my life to spare Tommy, although I did not want to take the risk with no contract to that effect.
I spent hours just sitting in the shadows watching that wooden sentinel. Night passed slowly while my mind looked in vain for things I knew that I could not find. The mustiness of the air reminded me of the graveyard. Asetma was my tomb.
Something soft hit me in the back while I stood looking into the wood grain of my foe. It was the first time that I had seen Beth in a great many days. I had forgotten about my one and only guest in Asetma. Even she had become another phantom to me.
Locking her arm around mine, she walked back to the staff kitchen with me. Beth set a fine table for us, with insufficient regard for the old men in bad suits to avoid using the good china in the mansion. The search had taken so much out of me that I did not complain about Beth's imprudence. Something deep within me remarked that, if Miriam Asetma did not care enough to pop out of her hiding place, then we had marked no offense to our names.
Miriam did not appear in rage or otherwise. She kept her peace. In all my searching, I had not even seen Miriam peering deep into the secret places of Asetma's mansion for her lost prize. Whatever Miriam's affairs were, they meant a moment's peace for Beth and I.
Beth knew that I would not have eaten of my own accord. Night was well into passing into morning and I had not even taken a break. Not a living soul knows how long she had watched me before she had prepared a meal for both of us. She knew where to find me. The mansion seemed more familiar to Beth than it did even to me.
Drawing experience from my brother's stories, I still got lost the first five or six times that I was alone in the mansion. My first night, I went without sleep because I could not find my bed. Nobody seemed to mind, at least in public view, that I had not found my clothes or the shower either. I did mind on all accounts.
I spent the entire second day in the mansion memorizing the layout of the public places. From there, I could find the private parts of Th'Estate. It was a full week before I could lead a tour through the mansion without getting lost at any point of the walk, however, I could find my bed each night. How the temporary laborers managed to lead the tours was not my place to know.
Yet, Beth found her way around the mansion as thought she had never been outside of it. One night and she could move about in the mansion without my seeing her. She knew exactly where I was going to be searching for Tommy. Beth was one of the mysteries that I did not have time to question, much less explore.
Aside from my remark that the meal was good, showing skills that I lacked and doubted were amongst Oletta's gifts, I can recall none of what it was that we ate. In fact, I do not even know where Beth had found the food for that meal. My stipend was far too small for me to afford ornate meals. You cannot even buy most fancy foods in Obsille. Perhaps it was best that I did not ask.
The dishes were once again my chore. I did not mind since I had such a lovely meal which I did not have to prepare on my own. It was the kind of small detail that would possibly have endeared Oletta to me. But it was not Oletta's way.
Dishes did not take me long, although time was distorted in my well worn mind. It was something that I should not have done, considering the cost of breaking one of those specific dishes. I should have waited well into the next day to clean up just to avoid that risk. If thinking had been my strong suit, then I would not have been the prisoner of Asetma in my days.
On my way back to the dining room, I came close to Beth. I could smell the floral scent of shampoo in her hair and an expensive perfume in other places. My mind floated out of my body on the pleasant scents. Beth differed greatly from the musty decay that permeated the rest of Th'Estate and had taken root in its keeper. She did not belong in my prison.
Beth had already showered before our meal. She was wearing an off-white gown and black shoes that fit her in more ways than one. It was both the right size and the right type of clothing for Beth. Her movements were dignified enough for the fine dining hall in the best times of the Asetma dynasty.
There was a question of where she had obtained the clothing, but my mind was too weak to string the words into a sentence. I had no such clothing, as though anybody would have asked such a strange question. None of Miriam's clothing had been left in the mansion after its long abandonment. Oletta would not have looked right in attire that decorative as Oletta was a woman built for hard labors.
The clothing that Beth wore was familiar. My mind, in an instant of clarity, flashed back to the children that I had seen in the yard just before I had met Beth for the first time. White as mildly tainted snow, those dresses were too pure for the girls I had watched tease the disheartened boy. Their hearts were as black as their dressy shoes. Those were the same clothes that gentle Beth now wore.
I returned to my seat at the table still lost in thought. Beth remained standing near to the foot of the table. It was hard to keep my eyes open and Beth came nearer to me with each time that I nodded off. She moved only in those instants when my eyes failed me and I never saw her walk. Eventually, my eyes opened to see directly, uncomfortably, into Beth's warm eyes.
"To bath and bed with you," she said.
My words must have been slurred as my tongue was fast asleep even in the instants when my mind was not. "But I still have to find Tommy."
"You've had quite enough of that for one night."
"You don't understand. Tommy is lost out there and I have to find him."
"Do I have to put you to bed myself, mister?"
Beth smiled, helping me to my feet. I have no idea where she got the strength. As I had no strength to ask about the source of her clothing, Beth was right in putting me to bed. It just took me all night to realize that.
Cold water from the Asetma showers barely kept me standing erect. That was all the strength that I had left. In fact, I did not have the energy to shiver under provocation of the cold water trickling over my warm flesh. I could not resist as the cool water drank the warmth from my skin.
A knock at the bathroom door broke the strange spell. I was still more tired than my labors gave reason for me to be, but I snapped back to reality long enough to dress. Beth kept an eye on me until I was safely tucked beneath my covers. When I took too long at any single task, she was quick to knock at the door.
When I was in bed, she kissed me on the forehead. The feeling that swept through me was strange, like Beth had given me permission to rest. It felt, to me, like I had not known sleep in the whole time of my life. There was no real reason for that.
Upon arising in the morning, I was thankful that I was wearing my own clothes and not Beth's. My shirt was on backwards, however, I was dressed within reason. Strength returned to the material shell that I had been given to live in and my mind was again awake. It was a good morning.
Early Saturday morning, the next day if you are keeping score of such things, I stepped outside to breathe in some fresh air. As I stepped outside onto the stone porch I noticed immediately that the cement was rather cold which seemed unusual only by the fact that cold spells this time of year rarely last for more than a day. Even Asetma had some rules. Before the door closed behind me I heard the telephone ring from within the parlor.
I really didn't feel like taking any calls but the tourist season was winding down and so was the flow of cash. It wouldn't hurt to have a few extra dollars to last for the winter. The city only allots two percent of revenue to me and I could use the money for the cold winter ahead. All of the living expenses, utilities and taxes were waged against my meager percentage of the Asetma fortune. Nobody doubted that I was being cheated even in that.
A couple of minutes passed and the phone kept on ringing. I thought for a moment that maybe Orsa would be calling me for some reason. Whenever she calls me I think that perhaps she has come up with some grand idea to escape from this place. Though the thought of leaving here was always tempting I knew that it really will never be possible. For all time I will have to keep on dreaming.
After answering the phone there was a pause of about ten seconds followed by two rapid tones and then a high-pitched voice came over the line. "Good morning, may I please place you on hold for a moment?"
I couldn't come up with any reason to say no to whomever was calling. The moment seemed more like ten minutes and then the line opened again with the same rapid tones and the same squeaky voice. I really didn't care who it was for the simple fact that it wasn't Orsa. Such an attitude may seem harsh and it is never intended to disrespect other people but Orsa is all that I have and all that I dream of.
Alone through another winter, I would be stripped of all but my dreams. Each morning, I would rise in hopes that Orsa would call on me. I would live the day through on nothing more than hope. It was a life that I knew well enough from my earlier years of captivity.
"Good morning, may I please speak to Martin?"
I replied with calm assurance. "Sorry, ma'am but there isn't anyone by the name of Martin at this number."
There was another short pause and then the voice exclaimed "Sir, good morning, but my records indicate that a Martin Stan Holder is at this number. Please respond so that I may detect an error or assume correctness at this time."
I was speechless as one would expect. Before I identified myself I would have to discover who this strange person was. And so, with reluctance, I asked "Ma'am, please forgive my being forward with you, but who are you?"
Again, a short pause and then two tones followed by a voice.
"Sir, good morning once again. I am calling as the Minister of Public
Service in accordance with policy seventeen, subpart 3B, of the Constitution of
the City of
For what seemed like forever, my mouth remained open along with my eyes and I could not speak aloud. I thought that one of us was crazy. How could she go on without taking a breath? And if she had said good morning one more time I would have been compulsively driven to scream.
afternoon. It is now exactly according to the Fair Elected Timepiece at
A pause was followed by a click and a loud slamming noise when I threw the phone down on the floor. I had never experienced such an example of the welfare state gone berserk. It was hard to imagine that I could apply for benefits if I didn't receive the call at and fifteen seconds. You could bet that I would have done so if the opportunity arose.
With my stipend I could use the benefits from the city. Most of the city budget came from Asetma and I was always cheated out of my cut. Sheriff Braggs knew that he could not risk my saving up enough to take Orsa away from Obsille to Treehaven or Harmony further up the coast from Obsille. Once free, I would never return.
My thoughts faded slowly as I was unwilling to relinquish my cherished dream. I was about to walk away when it occurred to me that I didn't hang up the phone. It had not broken when I had dropped it to the hard wooden floor. Luckily, it had also neither hit nor broken my foot.
I had three hours to wait for the phone call. It had been awhile since I had so much free time. That gave me a good opportunity to continue my search for Tommy. Well into the previous night, I had again looked all over the vast estate for him and the one thing I had found was Beth.
I actually forgot about her that morning which was unusual because her impact on me was great and overnight guests are rare at Asetma. She may have vanished in the night, however, there were no dishes for me that morning. If Beth had departed, I would have expected her to eat first. That was her way as I knew it.
Thinking that Beth may want to go for a walk on that cool morning in early October, I walked up the main staircase and down the left hall to the room where Beth had been left to sleep for the evening. It was likely her first night of good sleep in many days and I hoped that her dreams were of brighter places than her reality was ever likely to see in this life. In that sense, the two of us were together. Illusions were our only joy.
I tapped the golden gargoyle knocker and waited for Beth to answer. After a moment, I knocked again and slip of parchment paper came out from the crack under the door. I picked up the paper and it read "I can't open this freakin door." She could have said that, but she chose to write it in her beautiful script.
Strangely, I couldn't get it open either. I pushed and kicked the door and finally it
bolted open and Beth stood there with a sarcastic grin on her face. Her eyes opened wide and she said "Don't
they serve breakfast around here. I
thought you brought me to a good hotel.
I must have really been out of it last night. Too many shots of vodka from that guy I met
I felt bad for a moment. Sometimes I never really appreciated my miserable life at Asetma. Beth has no home that I know of but it looked like she would be around for awhile. It was something which only she could determine, although we were kindred pawns of fate. Beth was welcome to stay. I could use the company, even in as much as I resented condemning her to the curse which I alone was required to endure. I welcomed the companionship.
"You are welcome to join me for lunch. It's twelve-thirty. Shower and then come down to the dining hall. There are some guest robes in the closet. Take your time."
Walking down the west hall back to the staircase seemed a lonely one for some reason. The mansion is always quiet but not like it was then. Down in the kitchen I prepared ham and eggs then lit a fire in the wood stove out in the dining hall. The large hall heated quickly and soon it was nice and warm.
Soft footsteps disturbed the air behind me. I barely noticed the sound, although I felt the presence attached to the approaching form. Part of me was proud to have come so far that I could feel such a light entity across the heavy spiritual essence of the old mansion. Most of me overlooked the approach.
"Did I fall asleep, Elder?"
"I hope not, Job. You do have the stove on right now."
I slowly turned to face my old teacher. He did not have the spiritual bulk that he carried around when I saw him in dreams and his presence was so slight that I could have seen completely through him if I had not felt his presence first. Elder was a dim light, barely brighter than the shimmering fire in the cast iron stove beside me. All of his form was represented by wrinkles in that off-white glow. My eyes could make him out in all the glory that I attributed to him when I allowed them to see with my other senses.
"It seems strange, to me, that you would make an appearance in the waking world."
"There is nothing in the darkness of night that is not also known to the brightness of day, Job. It is our desire to make sense out of the world around us that dictates what we are willing to see and what we overlook. Your eyes sense light, but seeing is entirely of the mind."
"Then I can be sure that I am still in the waking world?"
"None other, at this point, Job. You are progressing well beyond the limitations of your former education."
"Will Beth also see you when she gets here?"
Elder spoke with the shadow of a smile on his face as he said Beth's name. Intuition tapped me on the shoulder and I was almost compelled to ask what more Elder had to say on the matter. As it was, with time short in each encounter that I was given to have with Elder, I left it at his words alone. "Young Beth."
"She is going to be here soon, Elder. It was you who first mentioned my cooking."
"When the house of Asetma was young as newborn, all the best chefs in Aluatia came to cook in this kitchen. You should have seen those days, Job."
"Can you show them to me, then?"
"When your eyes are clear, Job, then you will not need me for such trivial tasks."
"Did you come all this way to reminisce?"
Elder's next words were slow in coming as though he had passed, for those instants, into the past glory of which he had so fondly spoken. Asetma, in its youth, had felt the footsteps of kings in its ornate halls. Where now prisoners stood watch over macabre tourists, royal guards had once stood watch over patriarchs of noble houses. It must have been a sight for eyes like Elder's, yet my eyes were still too dim for the vision.
"I come because I have a labor to do, Job. You know each time that I appear that I have been sent for your welfare."
"What of Beth's welfare?"
"She whom dwells in your shadow gains her welfare from there, Job. It is not my assigned task to do those things that are given for you to do."
"I take it that she will not be allowed to see you, then?"
"My place with regard to Beth is my task with the salvation of all of Obsille. Great power has been given to you as it once was granted to the blood of Asetma. Much will therefore be required of you, Job."
"What, then, is the lesson that you are sent to teach me?"
He turned his hollow eyes toward me, fading almost entirely into the light of the room. "You still fear what you should respect, Job. Ignorance is the greatest danger that you will know on these lands. Face what you still fear. You cannot afford to fall into support of that which you have been sent to vanquish."
"You know, having once been human, how hard that is going to be, Elder."
"Still human are those who have passed through the shades of night, Job. Think no more as a child, but stand in the light of understanding as a man."
"Tell me, if you can, what fear I have yet to face."
"Still, you think wrongly, Job. You speak to me as though you were ready to rush right out and defeat some fierce dragon. It is not some fear, Job, but fear itself that you need to chain up and tame. Fear will keep you from acting when you cannot afford to delay."
"And, when I lack fear, my power will be adequate to handle Miriam?"
"Let us not go too far. What you have to gain, Job, is a respect that keeps your hands from reaching further than you have the arms for. Fear pulls you back too far, however, the fearlessness of false pride will drive you soon over a cliff, Job."
"That's a tall order, Elder."
Time had run out in our chatter and Elder passed from the edges of my senses without a chance to respond further. I was not sure if Elder had finished the lesson or if he had run out of time. His light expanded to fill the room, warming the wood of the walls and floor, then passed from sight. Elder was just gone.
The void of his parting was filled by a stronger presence. Following the flow of Elder's spirit back past the boundary between life and death, my mind reached out to feel Miriam about on her frantic search in the cellars. Then I felt the presence of the old witch woman in the caverns beneath the older mansion. There was nothing of the green eyed girl for me to feel. I pulled back sharply at the approach of the stronger presence which was much closer and less familiar to the spirit within me.
Beth appeared wearing an elegant long black gown with puffed sleeves and a lacy hem. Her shoes were shiny and black, exactly the style and color of the shoes worn by the girls taunting the boy in the courtyard just prior to my having met Beth. She differed from them only by a span of about seven years. I was drawn to her elegance and seemed to honor her in some way that I could not explain.
I stepped in front of her and pulled out a velvet lined chair before mounting the stairs myself, walking with her down the last few. Picking up her hand I kissed the soft flesh which had been calloused and hard only the night before. I guided her over to the chair with my hand in hers. The moment felt scripted.
"Thank you, sir. Thank you very much."
"You really look beautiful this morning! I trust the meal will be to your satisfaction, my lady."
Beth looked down for a moment and then raised her head slowly until her eyes met with mine. "Thank you for the clothes. They are lovely, indeed, kind sir."
I wanted to express my thoughts about the clothes but I knew nothing about them. Of course I would never admit to as much for fear of losing the one compatriot I had at Asetma. I walked over to the kitchen and returned with our lunch. Our seats were in the middle of the long table. I faced the doors of the kitchen and she was facing the elegant carving which decorated the railing of the staircase. With her beauty I felt rather awkward at serving such a humble meal.
We ate in silence, except for the clanking of silverware on the bone china which I had borrowed from the display case for the occasion. I could almost swear that I heard the whispered chatter of the many servants which Asetma's manner had known in its greater days. Beth's hands held the unstable nerves of one unaccustomed to such luxury, save for what she'd read in the cheap pulp novels from her mother's dresser drawers. Everybody's mother had a collection of such romantic novels that nobody admitted to reading in our more practical day.
Without a thought to the affirmative or contrary, I raised my glass of old but not yet sour milk in a gesture of a toast. At the head of the table, I saw Miriam Asetma dining on her elegant plate of slender greens. I had never actually seen her, as she had looked in life, thus I do not know how I knew that it was her that I was seeing, yet I do know as much. It didn't startle me.
Then I continued my motion to the foot of the table, to my left, and there sat the green-eyed girl wearing the same gown that Beth was also wearing in that moment! Thought I had always known some connection tied Miriam to the green-eyed girl, I had not connected the dress in which Beth was so beautifully clothed to the insidious pair. Miriam was a lovely woman, viewed from a distance and only on the surface. Deep within her, I could feel the putrid spirit of the third class demon that she was before history improved on her legend.
Beth then saw me, lost in thought, glancing in her direction. She did not know that I was not seeing her, reacting as though I was about to consume her fragile life as would a hungry flame. She saw in my eyes the same flame that had consumed the whole physical portion of Miriam Asetma. More than even that, she did not know that I would not have harmed her to save my own life.
"Have I done something wrong, mister?" Her voice strained to overcome the distant echoes of the past.
I turned my eyes quickly back to my plate. "No, my lady. It was a dream which has sinned against me."
Without further upsetting my guest, I could not turn my eyes to see her reaction. We had both been lost in time. I knew it without her having to tell me, and without having to see it for myself. More than Miriam or the green-eyed girl, the Asetma mansion itself was a ghost from a former time that haunted the present hiding dementia within its beauty.
"Well, breakfast was pretty good, man. Now what's there to do around here in the afternoon? Do you have a swimming pool downstairs?"
Beth stood up from the chair, glanced at me for a moment with a sparkle in her eye and then proceeded out of the dining hall with her footsteps hitting the floor loudly. I didn't believe that I had said anything to upset her or to change the mood of the situation. It must have been the curse itself which had finished dreaming with us. Then it put us away for later games.
Looking down at my cheap digital watch I noticed that it was exactly . Since that watch, in the grip of the Asetma Curse, was not the most accurate timepiece, it could either have been or as late as four-thirty. I wondered if that woman downtown was really going to call me again. It was my hope to God that she wouldn't for the fact that I would have been able to apply for benefits and I wouldn't have had to listen to her jabber.
For a moment all I could see in my mind was darkness and streaks of blue and white neon lightning. I didn't know exactly what it was, but just then the phone rang. My body fell from the dream back into the physical world with the sound of the noise. In shock, I knew that the time had come to face the Obsille bureaucratic firing squad.
I picked up the phone and holding it at a distance from my ear to avoid the chatter I knew was to come, and I said "Yes" in a business-like manner. For a moment there was silence, and then the phone exploded with the endless chatter of what sounded like a hundred voices, similar to the sound of screaming mice. No word spoken to me came across as more than sounds. Eventually, the chaos settled into coherent sentences.
"Good afternoon, may I please speak to Mr. Martin Stan Holder the second. Is he available to converse with me at this moment concerning vital business in accordance with the vital business clause of the City Ordinance Association's Report and Protocols?"
I could not speak once again. I did not want to speak. I wanted to throw up even though I had been expecting what I got. I am not an impolite man, but I never realized how bad things were downtown. How were they able to conduct any business at all?
"Sir, since you are incapable of determining your own legally recognized identity, perhaps you could relay a message to the aforementioned Martin Stan Holder the second. He will be graciously awaiting this message, sir, for he knows that you are trustworthy in accordance with the Great Laws of Trust in Obsille set forth and agreed upon at the founding of this township. Tell him to call Office Fifteen, extension four-one-three, and ask for The Clerk of Received Telephone Calls who is actually related to the cousin of the president of the regional governing body. Thank you sir and remember that each day is a new day and never end your day with regrets for not having relayed a message."
There was a click and then nothing more. It was not clear if she was catching her breath, or if she ever breathes at all. That didn't matter. All I know is that someone in town needed to meet with me. I assume that Martin Stan Holder the second is actually me. The name was not familiar, yet the position of public slave in Th'Estate was the same one that I held.
Across the room, I saw a comforting image half out of a private dream. Orsa smiled at me from the doorway. She was dressed in the white gown of an angel, with her hair flowing in the light from the window behind her. My eyes locked to her so tightly that it felt like they pulled me from my body into the space between Orsa and I. It took my breath away and I did not miss it.
Then the sun passed into the darkness behind a malicious cloud. Orsa's form faded with the light as steam dissolves into the air. She had been clearer to my eyes than the doorway in which she stood. In the darkness, there was nothing left of her soft, warm flesh.
As she passed from visibility, when the shadow fell upon her, one thing remained of Orsa. That one thing was not Orsa's. In the air where Orsa's form had given me comfort for an instant, I saw a pair of glowing green eyes. The darkness would not part enough for me to see anything else.
My mind told me that those haunting eyes hovered above a tormenting smile. The form of my only love had been but makeup for a vile shadow of Asetma. It would be more than simply dishonest for me to say that even a unit of warmth remained within me at the sight. I was as cold as the foundation stone upon which Astema's cursed dwelling sat.
It was as though my body had turned to stone and I was a prisoner within the statue. Remembering Elder's words was not the same as living his latest lesson. The embrace of Miriam had found me wanting for caution one time more. Fear was indeed the thief that left me defenseless as a child.
Anger was a poor substitute for courage, but it was the only thing that I had within me. Rage was hot enough to melt the ice from my veins. I could not say the color of my own eyes in that moment, however, red was the most fitting color. Miriam, and her junior sprite, saw other than fear in my eyes that night. Maybe I was the first victim that they had ever seen face them down.
Whatever the sight I had given them with the look in my eyes, it served to back them down. Like Orsa's image, they faded into the heavy air of the Asetma atmosphere. The sun passed from the shadow back into clear sight, wiping my green eyed tormentor from all but my memory. I was blessed to be too tired to push my bad advantage at that time.
Minutes more than seconds passed while my mind returned to the shallower, physical world. My strength recovered slowly and I remembered what I had been doing before the attack on my sanity. The older memory returned clearer than many other things that I had known in my life. I did not need notes to remember the extension that I had to call.
Before facing the horrors of the red taped chamber or torture, I consumed some of the ancient brandy from a stash hidden in Asetma's chilling basement. Even time feared to enter the rank caverns beneath the main Asetma manor, thus the brandy had barely aged a day in more than a century's time. The bottle was empty before I knew that a moment had passed and I was then ready to face my vociferous foe. That was the story that I told myself.
I picked up the plastic implement of my masochistic drives, dialing the full number without breathing. If I'd had such as a moment's thought, I would surely have placed the receiver back into its holster. Since I did not allow myself to think, feel or even breathe, I placed the device against my head, waiting for the blast of sulfur-laced hot air to extricate my brain. It rang four times.
To my surprise, the loud bang I had expected came as a gentle nod. The masculine voice that resided at extension 413 was nothing like the incarnate demon that I had twice spoken with. In fact, he spoke in short clauses more than sentences. There was hope in the change.
"I'm the dude, what's your dime?"
Shock took my tongue, delaying my reply for several moments.
"Yo, are you there dude?"
I composed my thoughts most of the way, then answered. "I'm Mark Holder. I believe that I have an appointment with your office."
"Dude, I sure hope not. I pity you big time."
"The lady I spoke to earlier said that I did. She told me to call you back, and gave me this extension. Do I have the right office."
"Right on dude. Mark Older, right?"
"Close enough for government work."
"Can you like hold on for a second?" I heard him shuffling around large volumes of bulky, hand written appointment books. To hear the clatter, you'd think that the old men in bad suits had never heard of computers. Alas, it was more that a little impropriety was easier to hide in the barely legible pages of those books.
"I don't see a Mark Older, dude. If you mean Martin, you should like be here by now." Then he paused. "Sorry I couldn't help you dude. Bye."
The ruling political clan was never as inefficient in the collecting of my tax money as it was in spending it. When the time came for me to pay the nepotists who ran Obsille, my name would be right and I would not be allowed to forget when the check had to be there. This gathering, whatever the cause or rationale, had to be in my favor just by the way that nothing about it had been right. Curses do not condemn themselves with conflicts.
Beth entered the room from the kitchen without notice of me. She walked across the floor as soundless as the old mansion would have been without Miriam, taking note of me only when she bumped into my left arm. I saw a dreamy glare in her dull eyes when, for less than a full second, she looked into my eyes. Her eyes had the look of life about them.
"I have to go into town for a meeting, my lady. Would you care to join me and maybe see a bit of our fare berg?"
She continued to walk toward the old spiral staircase against the wall behind the phone. "Pool's fine," she said. "Water's a bit cold though. Be so kind as to bring dinner to my room, would you?"
Kindred Beth was a mystery yet, unlike Asetma, she was a safe mystery. I was drawn to unravel the secret within her, although also repulsed to know what torments slept dormant within her. My drives not to be alone were balanced against my need to protect kindly Beth from the curse on my head and home. Nothing she did would frighten me.
"I'll be leaving now, my lady. Should you see the maid, please be so kind as to fire her."
In truth, I had nothing to say, thought I felt a need to say something as I walked out the door for the lonely stroll through the talking trees and pointing statues which lined the road to Obsille. Nothing which haunted Asetma had yet set real or phantom foot into Obsille for anyone who had not been to Asetma to draw the specters out. Only I knew those things which really happened from the ghost stories below. The curse drank the life from Obsille, drawing away sanity only from me.
The time for the appointment with the chattering mina birds, who also served as politicians during election years, had come. The afternoon was clear and warm, very unusual for any time of the year in Obsille. I walked out onto the front portico of Asetma and took in several deep breaths of fresh air while admiring the shapes of the tall oaks. There were few times when I could enjoy life and the walk into town had given me a good opportunity to take in my surroundings.
My walk along
The appointment with the town representatives was scheduled for although none of the government servants who claimed to call themselves public servants had actually given me that time. It was something that had just come to me like lightning from a starry night that fuses sand on a calm beach only meters from your exposed toes. Things had often come to me like that when dealing with the Old Men in bad suits. They were kin to the darkest spawn of Asetma.
Suddenly I felt a thump on the side of his head and
staggered around for a moment until my head cleared and I saw the object which
had struck me. The children were playing
Bocce, however clumsily on the uneven ground surrounding
Arriving in Obsille, I first noticed that although it was the middle of the working week the town was rather quiet and the only person I could see was an elderly man sweeping the front steps of his cottage. Moreover, there were no sounds of cars or distant voices. There was not even the natural enchanting music of the songbirds or crickets. The heavy peacefulness gave me the feeling that I was walking through a dream, though this was a real place and a real time.
In the distance ahead the
I stood there for a moment and looked around with dread. At that moment there were soft footsteps coming from behind and when I turned around to see who was coming I recognized the old man who had been sweeping his steps as one of my favorite science professors who had retired to a post on the local school board. The man stood about six feet tall but at that age he was bent over slightly and looked shorter than I remembered him. His name was Andy Blades and he spoke with a raspy voice.
"Mark. Do you have an appointment in town or are you just here for a friendly visit?"
The old professor had a warm smile on his face. The smile seemed permanent as though waiting for some kind of response. I just looked back at him for a few moments and then spoke. "Walgo. It is good to see you old prof. Did I finally pass that final exam? "
"You know Mark, you never did tell me why you call me Walgo." I smiled at having held his old professor in suspense over all those years. It was almost the same suspense that his chemistry exams had me in way back in his class.
"My, my, old prof. Walgo Emerson was a failed scientist in the 12th century who inspired an entire school of thought. Though he never achieved greatness on his own, Walgo's teachings were the foundation for modern science. I call you Walgo out of honor and respect, not some childish humor. All things aside, it is great to see you again despite the fact that I failed every one of your classes. I just can't imagine what you're doing living in this place."
Andy Blades laughed lightly as not to send him into a coughing frenzy. His health was poor especially after the accident during the final year of this tenure. A chemical spill resulting from the mislabeling of caustic soda cost him twenty-seven percent of his lung capacity. He risked his own life in the chemical cloud to get eight students out of harms way. Rumor had it that the label had been intentionally switched but no proof was ever found. The school board had to retire him medically but he had been elected to the school board for his heroics.
"Mark, son, you didn't fail every class I taught. In fact, you were one of my best students. Heaven only knows why you didn't apply yourself. Now look at you standing here in the middle of town facing the inquisition at the town offices. You could have been working in one of the big cities on a government research grant and instead you're a government employee barely making minimum wage."
I didn't know how to react though I knew my wise old teacher was right. However, even Professor Blades could not have known about Orsa. If I had gone on, she would be the prisoner at Miriam's beck and call. That was the one thing which had really held me, although I could tell no one of it. Though it is probably more in my own mind than it is true, I felt that my secrecy was protecting the people closest to me. Failing that, what was I to be?
"Sir, if only you knew of what has happened in my life since those innocent days at the university. There is so much to explain and no time to do it. I would have liked nothing more than to have continued on with my studies, but now I am a student of a different lesson. This lesson is one that teaches me something new every day."
It was not entirely honest of me, however, Walgo always saw the best in people and would not have seen dishonesty in me even if I had admitted to it. Asetma was just so much stale air resting at the bottom of my lungs. Mere talk could no longer dislodge it from its deep resting place within me. Telling Walgo everything would only have spread my tribulations to a man who had already suffered more than was his due. Malice of that purity did not exist within my scarred heart.
We started walking together toward the
At the corner pub, known affectionately by locals as Pub Nowhere, Walgo and I sat at the bar and ordered rum and Cokes. This was unusual because I rarely consumed alcohol and Professor Blades never did drink anything besides Tennessee Chard with a slice of lime and dash of vegetable juice. Doubtful that Pub Nowhere could make such a drink, Walgo ordered the rum and Coke along with his former student.
Time lost its meaning in a way that life in Th'Estate had conditioned me to accept. It seemed that our first glasses arrived with several empty glasses already before us on the hardwood bar. The fluid had the flavor of abandoned youth and lost innocence. In each sip, I found those rare treasures that Asetma's curse had taken from me. They were the same things that all of Obsille had been robbed of.
"You boys been here for three hours already. I ain't seen two boys drinking this much since Momma downed five gallons of whiskey and beat up half the Spanish fleet." The bartender laughed at himself uproariously while Walgo and I neither heard nor cared.
In the noise, I heard the beaconing silence of a world apart from time. It was as though death himself had a reserved chair at the bar and the bar tab of a regular patron. I had long lived in the shadow of death, yet, I had no idea of how to deal with his presence. He comforted me until I stopped struggling.
The fact that we had been there for three hours did not bring us to attention. Our drinking was only a small reason for our incoherence. Something else had come over us. A few moments later, through the door came a large woman whom I recognized only by looking into the mirror which sat in the background of the bar. Though I had a few drinks at this point, the woman looked much like Miriam and I turned around on the barstool to get a closer look. She was wearing a silky purple gown laced with black and red. The woman sat down at a table near the bar and folded her hands while closing her eyes for a moment. Was it Miriam?
Miriam would have been at home in Pub Nowhere. People all around us laughed at their own lives, drowning themselves in strong drink to the rhythm of a requiem for Obsille played by the old piano player. The music was too loud and off key as though the old man who thought himself a musician was taking the notes as mere suggestion without regard for the piety of the piece. It was all a parody of whatever good remained of life in the shadow of Asetma.
A player in the farce, I could not keep a civil tongue to me. I embarrassed myself in ways that I can never live myself free of. "Miriam! Is that you? It's Mark. Don't you remember me? Open your eyes. What did you do with Tommy? Answer me!"
The woman opened her eyes and spoke out loudly: "Where were you today, Mark! You missed the meeting!!"
At the moment she spoke the iridescent face of irrepressible Miriam faded into the round red grotesque visage of Oletta. There was not much of a change involved. I could not speak nor did I want to. Listening was not on my list of things to do either. Oletta kept herself civil and composed in comparison to who she was and contrasted to who the rest of us were in the pub that night.
"You stood me up!!! How dare you sit here in the bar and drink your time away with your little boyfriend here while I try to straighten up your salary. Your behind is mine and boy are you behind!! I oughtta rap you upside your empty head and bash it into that bar!"
I then knew that the meeting had been important. That was something that I had not known before. Unfortunately, I had as little respect for the business that I had come to town for as the piano player had for the music that he was pounding out. What had the oversized wench done to me? And what was all that about my salary?
"Oletta, what the drunken monkey are you talking about? The town clerk never told me what the meeting was about. You didn't go and do something stupid, did you? And where have you been the last six months?"
Angrily, Oletta replied "Washing my hair you dang fool! Where do you think I've been? Your life is a mess and I was working my butt off trying to fix it! "
Nothing she said made any sense to me except that whatever she had done was a threat to my Orsa. And that was something that she had not known to say. Oletta had always had a threatening presence, however, I never took her as a threat to anything that I valued. Everything in Asetma was a threat to me alone and that is how I had lived with it.
"Now, now, now! What in tarnashin' do you plan on doin' to change this situation?"
I felt like walking away and leaving the whole world behind. Death's promises had taken root in my head. To sleep beyond want and care was a great wish. But I had lived so long in Th'Estate that I knew the dead could come to be ill at ease more even than the living. There was no escape in death's promises.
"No, you don't trust old Oletta. I go up there to get you a decent raise and your sorry hinder goes out to get drunk. What gets into that mop of yours?"
She still hadn't answered my question and I did not want to hear the answer. I took the cup of strong whiskey, not even caring what it was, from her place at the table and downed it in a gulp. She may have hit me, I don't know, but I could no longer stand and fell against the chair beside her.
"Just look at your sorry self. You lost your job. You know that don't you, bright boy? I do you a favor and you get us both canned."
The rest of the night was a blur. Poor Beth was alone with Miriam, Tommy was still missing, the green eyed girl was still a mystery, Orsa was about to become Asetma's next victim and I was too drunk to care. For once, I was too drunk to worry about the troubles of the world gone mad. All the worst had come to pass, so I had nothing left to fear. I was free.
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