Ice House: Asetma
There is stoic nobility to a man who sacrifices himself for the duty of love. It is always easy to say yes and take your heart's desire even at the cost of others. That cost can total any value even unto the destruction of that which you take. I knew that the cost of my taking the fare Orsa would be just such a price. My fear was that I would not have the nobility to let go of that for which I would have given my life without hesitation or regret. For Orsa I had faced Miriam Asetma on her own blood-soaked ground. Th'Estate was the place where I expected to die for Orsa's sake.
I saw Orsa across the room as she emerged from the hallway leading into some back rooms. She had a beauty to her that my eyes could only see because my heart told them to. In my mind's eye, there was a pure white glow to her presence. It was purer than any of us. No measure of miscalculation could ever have me worthy of her. Orsa, as I saw her, was a jewel in the crown of heaven. Even Orsa's eyes could not detect the vision that I had of her.
Condemnation to Asetma's grounds had meant being taken from her. Going back would mean leaving her behind. It was a hard choice that I knew I would always regret at length. I pondered the choice deep and hard as she walked the creaky old floorboards toward me. She was all that I wanted and all that I could never have.
Letting go of Orsa was as letting go of life itself. Once done, there could be no going back for I knew that I would return to her otherwise. It had to be quickly before my courage failed me and my feet turned to stone. There would be no hope of reward, even fond remembrance on Orsa's part, for the sacrifice that I had been called to make. Honesty commands me to admit that I did not make the choice easily.
She came closer and the illusions cleared from my eye until Orsa was approachable. The fading spell made my one and only Orsa a creature of the same Earth that grudgingly bore me. I could see her in the royal gowns of a long forgotten court of nobility. Her truth was a pair of ill fitted jeans and a dark red sweatshirt. To me, she had descended to my level rather than fallen from grace.
Moments stretched and distorted as she walked toward my table in the gloomy room. I could smell the floral scent of her shampoo at four or five paces off. Her hair floated back in the breeze of her stride like clouds in the sky of a warming spring day. My eyes never left the image that I had of my dream prize.
In as much as it hurt me, I was glad that she walked by me without even a hint that she had seen me. I was a phantom in the real world of which the blessed Orsa was an inhabitant. Through a few shielded tears, I thanked my Lord for giving Orsa what must forever be forbidden to me. Maybe he would give her a real life. Orsa was worth the kind of life that even the best citizens of Obsille could never know in the shadow of Asetma. To be free of my curse, Orsa had to go far beyond anywhere that I was permitted to go.
Asetma was my curse and by my choice I had made it into my cross. For all of Obsille, I would bear the torments of life in the bloodthirsty estate house. The sheriff would not make it easy for me to get my part in life back. My heart would do me no favors. I had to do the duty that I was born to do.
I finished my meal in silent meditation, then walking back into the dim light of an Obsille Night. My body longed to disobey me. Every step that I took gave me pain. But the will of my body must be my will and I had to go back to Th'Estate. Only one more night of freedom could ever be mine.
Eventually I had to make the choice that had been thrust upon me by the most vile forces in Obsille. In doing so, I had to condemn myself to spend the remainder of my days in service to Th'Estate. It was the same fate as that of my brother except that I knew my days would far exceed his sentence in Th'Estate. I had already outlived Stan.
Walgo's house was warm and shielded from the dark night where the curse of Asetma reigned. There was no other place like it in Obsille. It was a gift that I could hold for a moment, yet it was something that I could not be allowed to have. I went to bed in the knowledge that I had to plan my own exile back into the darkest part of the night and Th'Estate. Each night that I was away gave greater authority to the frightful legion dwelling unkempt in Th'Estate.
Sleep came neither easily nor willingly to me in the strange bed. It was the same bed and the same room where I had spent many earlier nights and yet it was somehow different. My eyes would close to every world beyond my excited mind yet I would remain awake within the tired bulk of my physical body. In pursuit of sleep, I was more awake than any day had known me to be. I could feel that I was not alone in the otherwise empty room.
Rolling onto my right side, I found relaxing warmth in the light of the rising sun. My window masked off enough of the sunrise to protect my eyes while letting the warming luminescence flow gently over the rest of my body. I joined with the calm, vibrant energy as it embraced me. Only then did the presence in the room elect to approach me.
The edge of my strange bed depressed ever so slightly and I could barely feel it in my transitional state. Small hands pulled the blanket over me, folding it back over my neck. More than the light of the newborn day embraced me as I came closer to the edge of sleep. All the troubles of the larger, darker world where I spent my days vanished in a loving embrace.
Within the air I found a light fragrance. It was the watered down scent of a hundred wildflowers. My nose dictated the essence of the sensation to me as faded flowers that had long passed from the world. Beneath the perfume was a musty scent. The earthen mark of decay was masked within the air as though the whole of the scent was ashamed and trying to hide itself.
A voice spoke to me from the fragrance although my ears could not hear it. I heard the voice within the confines of my own mind. It had a musical quality to it as though a harp was speaking the tones of words. "God rest you well, Mark."
In the instant where sleep met consciousness and the night is even with the light of a new day, the mist took form for only an instant. Misty air coalesced into a gentle kiss on my exposed cheek. My weary mind found rest only in the fading syllables of the kind entity. "Please come back home soon."
My sleeping mind wandered through the realities that my waking realization would not see. I was a prisoner of Asetma as a brick is a prisoner of its wall. Asetma was not a distant memory or a place where I had been exiled to. We were factually one whole. Neither of us was complete alone.
Morning's warming light fading into found me immersed in the realization that my once and only Orsa was not for me. Once, I had belonged to Orsa's world and, for the memory of the singular experience, I am beholding to the Lord God. Memory was the only reality of the experience. Orsa had not moved beyond me but had always been apart from the being that I had taken her for. Only in the instants that our paths crossed in parallel had she been what I needed from life more even than life.
Tears cleansed the false reality from my eyes. My emptiness spoke to me like there was never to be anybody for me. It was like my life had been poured out on the bloodstained earth where the Asetma estate stood. Strength deserted me and breathing itself seemed to be a waste of effort. Where should I find another prize, like unto Orsa, which would give me the strength to face living on?
Time splintered into a thousand eternities while I prayed for strength. I knew that it was not strength that I needed. Neither words nor ideas would align for me into the expression of that which I would perish by lacking. The resulting prayer was hollow and meaningless. My words turned to dust in my mouth, coughed up aloud so that I did not choke swallowing them.
I did not want to be alone anymore, however, I could not bring myself to ask for a companion. Mine was a curse more than a life. It was a duty and a chore that I could condemn no other to share with me. Asetma was my only home. As I had to find a way to get back, I also had to leave any hope of companionship behind.
Maybe an hour passed while I silently wept. I had earned no compassion, thus I gave myself none. Mercy would have kept me soft in a life where I had to be hard just to survive. It hurt and I tried with all my will not to care how much.
Care would not be so easily dismissed. I could not help feeling the pain of the emptiness. All the bridges that connected me to my fellow citizens of Obsille were smoldering ruins for Asetma's sake. The Estate was the only place left for me. There I would have to learn to live alone.
Morning's light came earlier than it had to. Skipping breakfast, I had time to walk the town that I had given up my whole life to protect. I was still a pariah in Obsille. People still hid in the shadows, afraid to see my tired eyes. Children were as unkind in their thoughts of me as they were toward the Old Witch Woman.
There was never a thank you in all the whispers of Obsille. To live in Obsille is to be forever indebted to the keeper of Th'Estate. The secret fear of each child hidden safely in the early shadows of Obsille's narrow alleys was just how much like me each of them was. I forgave them all because I understood that each of them knew that his fate could one day be the same as mine. My curse would have worn harder and cut deeper into my flesh if I had not known the kindness of standing for something even in the town where I was tolerated but never welcome.
As long as I lasted in Th'Estate, I was protecting everybody else in Obsille from my fate. It was more than Orsa, whom I wished to have a full life in a better place than any known to Obsille. Every citizen of Obsille was in the lottery to take my place when the Lord called me home at last. That secret knowledge, known always and never openly spoken of in Obsille, made it possible for me to face each new sunrise.
Orsa had to leave Obsille. When that day came, I would be alone and the Sheriff could no longer hold it over me that Orsa was to take my place on death row. Then I would have to endure Th'Estate for strangers whose faces I would never even be allowed to see. All of Obsille would remain indebted to me and all I really wanted was to know that my life had value. Even if nobody spoke to me in the sunlit days that were to come, I wanted to see that other people had lives because I had willingly sacrificed mine.
Beneath the bell towers of Saint Joel's Cathedral, I felt smaller than the dust beneath my shoes. There was no place in history for me. No page and no paragraph in any text on the annals of Obsille would mention my deeds as keeper of the cursed Asetma estate. But, in my time, each in the number of my days had meant something.
My pace was lazy and slow up
The sun rose up to greet me as the road turned through the
In the nameless places of my heart, I wanted to call back to the wild things of the Imperial forest. I wanted to call each of them by his name. They welcomed me to know them as no mortal in my time, yet I knew them not. If only time had been given to me so that I might learn their names and call them my friends, then I would have known true happiness.
Errant whirlwinds cast clouds of dust into the air making seen what the eye could not see on its own. I was hidden from the darkness in the Imperial forest by a fog of grace. My guardian angel seemed to have found me where no mortal eye would have thought to look. A difficult choice remained ahead of me and I was no longer afraid of it.
The curtains of time parted and I stepped through. People of all times walked out of the Imperial forest, all unaware of the others. I even saw myself in the multitudes. My brother Stan and I scouted the road as children. Seeing it in my adult years, the game seemed silly, although it was welcomingly warm to see Stan's boyish face again. He was more alive than he would be in the years after our father's death.
An old coach came up behind me, not even aware of my
presence. A team of four horses walked
You can live two lives in Obsille of the present and never
think of Th'Estate ever having audience with the
Th'Estate was now my home and I wanted to return the grounds to their glory days. Even the name of Asetma could be cleansed. As it is always darkest before the dawn, I had hopes that the renewed reign of Miriam Asetma could mean the imminent end of the curse she had given to Obsille. I just wanted to go home again.
The morning was cold as all mornings that late in a year. It bit deep into with every passing breeze. However, I barely felt it. Not that I did not notice the wind or the cold, but the cold seemed to be in a world where I was not standing.
Each blast of cold air seemed to pass right through my body without really contacting me. I never found it necessary to shiver. It actually seemed like the movement of chilled air was all in my mind. My mind dictated the properties of the illusionary wind and my body failed to take the image seriously. The wind seemed to be pushing me away from Th'Estate. Since it was so ineffective at changing my physical reality, I found the going easy.
When I reached the gates of home, my desire to be there opened the gates before me. I knew that the gates of Th'Estate were locked. Even if the gates had been unlocked, they could not have drifted open at my approach. The falsified wind was blowing the other way and would have pushed the heavy iron structure closed with all its force. Th'Estate welcomed me home.
I was quick to think that it must have been how Elisabeth
felt upon her every return to the old mansion in the
Even Elder was not in the area where my mind could reach him. The clanging of the massive gates behind me did not send a shock through me. It was Th'Estate, and no other presence, that had granted me entry to the grounds. Something was going on where I was not permitted to see it. Knowing that, I was still not afraid.
When the remaining slaves reported for their duty, they were not met with such welcome as I had been. I actually had to go out and unlock the gates when I noticed the first of them begin to arrive. The gates felt like they had gained weight as I pulled them apart. Grudgingly, the iron fortifications groaned a long, deep discomfort as they came open at my urging.
Even the first public servants who came in that day, there were three other people at the gates when I got them open, heard the unsettled voice in the complaint. It was the kind of a sigh that you might hear from a tired and bitter uncle. There was almost pain in the deep sounds. The sound of it all was the call of death entering into the blood of all who heard it.
It affected me less than the others, however, it did affect me. To all other ears, it was the sound of doom calling the warmth out of the blood of life. I took pity on the worn out soul which had only the strength remaining to unleash such a moan. Maybe my ability to care had set me apart from the other citizens of Obsille.
Elder did enter the picture as I escorted my unwilling help up the main walk. I felt him first, without having to reach out with my thoughts. Then I saw the green glowing eyes in an upper window. He did not show me anything else.
His appearance was sloppy as it was short lived. One of my compatriots, a younger man whom I had never seen before, also saw the glowing eyes in the large window on the third floor. I would say that only he saw what I had seen because he was the only one of the three people I was leading to stop and stare. The image was gone from the window before I even noticed that.
"Are you okay?"
The man did not answer me and I did not blame him for silence. I do, however, blame myself for taking the smug position that I held. To me, the appearance of ghosts was all in a day's work. Some of my best friends seemed to be in the embrace of death. That is not an excuse for looking down on a man who was having his first experience with the reality that the real world denied.
Several minutes passed before the young man would move again. I thought hard on my next move. It was reasonably possible for me to leave him behind and get the other two people into Th'Estate. My final decision was to wait for him before going on. Truth be told, it just took so long for me to make up my mind that he was ready to go on before I finished thinking about it.
He kept his peace with me, afraid to be left behind. When I got all three of the guides into the main foyer of the mansion, they separated from me. The three of them spoke in whispers in a hallway where I could not hear them. They remained close enough for me to see, although they were excluding me from their conversation.
Maybe just being facetious, I kept my distance and did not look directly at them. I watched their actions in the reflections I saw in the mansion's many windows. When they thought that I was ignoring them, they actually came closer to me. My only real concern was for the safety of these people, whom the whole of Th'Estate did not seem to want around. They came closer to me and I walked further away from them.
Two more guides came up the walkway just as the grandfather clock chimed for the opening of Th'Estate for the day. Business started out slow enough to give four of them time to slip into the employee's dining room for breakfast. The two of us were more than adequate to start the business of the day. I could have led the first tour entirely on my own.
News about the green eyes did get around before I returned from my first tour. I heard of them only from whispers that I was not listening for. It was hard to hide the smirk that should not have been on my face. Talk about my inappropriate response got around quicker and was bigger news than the green eyes in the third floor window.
Beth put in an appearance. We were short one guide, for reasons that I have never exactly been clear on. There is no such thing as chance. When the rest of us gathered together in the main room of Th'Estate to open the place up, Beth stepped out of the shadows. She knew the routine well and did not need much coaching.
She was dressed in a pastel green gown. Nobody else dressed in a way so fitting to the period of time represented by Th'Estate. The first of the tourists to enter Th'Estate that day lined up behind Beth for their tour of Obsille's tormented capital. Beth was a natural.
I hid myself in Beth's first group to help her through the routine. She did not need me. Beth knew where to keep an extra eye on the tourists to protect the property from theft and vandalism. There were times when I picked up pointers from Beth's crowd control. It embarrassed me to as useless as I was.
An elderly lady, with an ill look about her, bumped against an excited teenager passing through one of Th'Estate's narrow cellar passages. He barely changed course in the collision, although the woman was knocked to her knees. Beth halted the group to give the woman time to get up. The woman did not move, fixing her eyes on the boy.
Always at the ready, I extended my hand to help the woman to her feet. She slapped me without turning her eyes to look my way. Then she elected to rise, under her own power, and I expected a conflict in the confined hallway. The woman's every step carried her toward the young boy whom she had fixed her eyes upon.
Over my left shoulder, I felt another unwelcome presence who felt the same things that I did. I did not have to look to see Miriam's head form in a vapor. She had come to see the action. If the power had been hers, then she would have turned the entire tour group into a chaotic mob.
Beth stepped in between the woman and the boy, allowing the woman to knock into Beth's side. With the grace of a dancer, Beth stumbled back onto her feet without touching the floor. It was a tight fit between the walls in that passage, but Beth remained in open space throughout the maneuver. She went down and got back up without even creasing her ornate dress. At no time were any of the antiques in the narrow passageway threatened by Beth's graceful maneuver.
With a curtsey, Beth turned to the woman to speak. "Pardon me, Ma'am."
"That's quite alright, dear." The words flowed from the woman's lips without thought on her part. It was as Beth had intended and the woman was too embarrassed at her own actions to continue the pursuit.
For the rest of the tour, I kept myself in front of the woman. Beth handled the situation without really doing anything. She knew how to keep the tourists in line as though she had been doing it for decades. When each tourist slipped to the side of the group, near to going out of bounds, Beth was standing in his way before he got far. Somehow, Beth managed to always get her point across without saying a word.
Beth worked without even using a harsh look. She spoke the words from the generic script that we used as though the words mattered to her. I tried very hard, but some of the script always sounded like a script when it was delivered from my mouth. This was not true of Beth and she alone held that honor.
Positioning herself to drive the tour group forward without allowing stragglers to wander off, Beth did not miss a single syllable to the speech. She was never winded or distracted. Her words were evenly paced and always carried an inflection of interest in what she was saying. Obsille could only have done worse than having Beth teach its tour guides their craft.
Logically, I could have become jealous with Beth's skill. I felt that I had much to learn from the stranger and I aimed to do exactly that when the moment presented itself. There was not a hint of malice in my feelings toward Beth. It felt good in a way that words cannot convey to not be alone in the harsh service to which my life had been consigned. The only negativity within my mind concerning Beth was the dread that she could be required to surrender as much of herself to share my duties as I had given up.
The thought never crossed my mind that the Sheriff could be training Beth to take my place as the next keeper of Th'Estate. It had always been my one and only fear that Orsa would pay the price for my failure. Sheriff Braggs had to have known that I would have been less inclined to endure for a stranger what I had lived with to protect Orsa. My eyes were closed to all other possibilities.
When the third tour came to an end, it was the after lunch lull in business. Beth walked off to whatever she did during the day and I forgot about asking her to teach me the tricks that she knew. There would, in my mind, always be time for me to talk to Beth. I had a moment to myself and slipped into the shadows of the keeper's quarters for a late lunch.
Some fruit remained in the cellar where I kept my winter stocks. When I regained my position, I would have little time to refill the stocks before Th'Estate was cut off for the late months of the year. But it was not a time for such thoughts. A cool, dry apple refreshed my body and my mind in the dark tunnels beneath the mansion. It would take a long time for anybody to find me down there if I chose not to be seen.
The great house was still in the last hours of its yearly slumber. Soon, more than the few active spirits would begin to stir in the darkness. Many of the specters within the mansion did not like the publicity that Miriam's clan seemed to crave. Hundreds of victims were neither at rest nor happy in their haunting. They would come out when the keeper was alone for the dying months of the old year.
Their spirits were already beginning to gain strength for their waking periods. They could be felt in the cold air where few of us dared even to look. Even the tourists avoided that part of the mystery. Th'Estate only drew in tourists when the great house was half awake in the hot months of the year.
Experience taught me what few others knew. Great care must be taken in where you look beneath the public façade of Asetma. The summer sprites care to pop up and scare the unwary visitors. They were content in their torments and their tormenting. Winter ghosts were different in that they cared to do real harm without the theatrics.
Miriam was between the two types. She relished the fright that she gave to the visitors. Yet her power was deadly in the extreme and it drew sustenance from the blood of victims. The threat of Miriam's specter depended on her mood at the time. Having been empowered by my blunder, she was sure to be in a foul mood when the shades of winter fell over Obsille.
Looking into a mirror, I saw what I took for Miriam's reflection. It was not the first time that I may have been wrong about seeing Miriam. Since I was alone, aside from the ghosts, I decided that it was time to have a little fun with Miriam. I looked the image over in great detail, pretending that I was seeing myself. If Miriam was observant, then she would have realized that I was looking at my reflection for far too long.
It was a strange feeling. My mind drifted through what it would be like to occupy Miriam's form. That is not a normal thought for me, but I have to admit to it because of what came of it. In my mind, I became the image in the mirror. The image in the mirror was Miriam Asetma.
A voice behind me called out in such a shriek that I felt it travel more through the stone foundations of Th'Estate than through the air between the two of us. "Miriam!"
Beth was standing behind me and, logically, it had been her reflection that I actually saw in the mirror. When I turned to look at her, she became a foggy white, as though all of her atoms had fallen to the floor leaving only her ghostly image suspended in the air. It looked like the solid part of her form had turned to liquid and run out of her. What remained was a misty image, like a movie projected onto a cloud.
She had called me Miriam. There was no alternative. It came as a surprise to me until I looked back toward the mirror and saw Miriam's reflection. When I looked in a mirror, I saw myself as Miriam Asetma. Looking down at my hands, I was still Mark Holder. For a few moments, I was entranced by what I saw happening. Beth could only see with the same eyes as the mirror.
The image faded as I lost my focus. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I had enjoyed what I was doing. I had stolen Miriam's image and, without intending to, had frightened a ghost into immobility. My childlike mind through that it was a cool ability to have. What shames me the most is that I did not think of Beth when I toyed with the thief of forms.
Physical form came back to Beth when I dropped the illusion. She was not an ordinary ghost; however, she was not like the green eyed spirit either. Both of the specters had been physical in the presence of witnesses. You could not have identified the ghosts in the room with you. Beth differed in that she only acted like a living person. My first thought was that Beth did not know that she was a ghost.
I went over the Beth, kind of in penance for my actions, and knelt beside her. She fainted like a living person and even remained solid while she was unconscious. Her heart seemed to be beating and I could tell that she was breathing. Beth's was the most remarkable of all the ghost stories ever to be told about Th'Estate.
When she came to, I cradled her head in my arms. She was a ghost, yet I still had done wrong to her and I owed her something. Her eyes opened with a sleepy haze to them, looking deeper into my eyes than I was comfortable with. To me, she was a scared child and I wanted to hold her until she felt safe again. I really cared.
"Would you care to talk about it?"
Her voice was weak and I wish that I'd though to bring her a cup of water. "It would not be the first thing on my to do list."
"Do you know what just happened?"
She closed her eyes for a few moments and though as though searching for the remnants of a dream. "I saw Miriam standing there at the mirror, Mark."
"Please accept my apologies, Beth. I did not realize that I was hurting you."
"How did you do that, Mr. Holder?"
"It appears that neither of us is as he appears to be."
Open again, her eyes avoided me. "You saw, then?"
"You did a better job of hiding it than anybody else in Th'Estate. How did you do that?"
"When one amongst the living passes between the shades of night, one of us is given lease to take physical form, Mr. Holder. I was just the closest of us to the boy who vanished."
"Then you vanish when Tommy returns?"
Beth's eyes darted across my face and I knew what was on her mind. "Please believe me that I did not take Tommy and I am not doing anything to hold him, Mark. I just wanted to find daddy and go home."
She let me help her sit up. "Mr. Milton Church. I've tried many times, yet, the power that lets me walk in your world seems limited to Th'Estate. Can you bring dad to me before you leave? Please, Mr. Holder."
"You know that your father is probably dead as you are?"
"Then why didn't he come for me. He promised!"
Though it may seem strange and be beyond understanding to the men of my age, I could not allow poor Beth to remain forever cursed in limbo. Loss of tourist dollars did not matter to me. Beth's suffering, even if it had lasted only for a day, would have to come to an end. It had not been placed in my heart to be any other way.
Elder had commanded me to return Miriam to the bitter darkness from whence I had called her. He had not told me how to open that door. Besides which, I could not accept Beth as one who should be so cursed in death as Miriam Asetma was. There was no answer in Elder's teachings on how I could put poor Beth to rest.
Although he had given me advice, the monk of Saint Joel's cathedral was of even less help than Elder. The Monk had not even answered the questions I had really asked. His agenda stood outside of eternity and made no sense to my unskilled mind. In his words, I found no solution to Beth's problem.
There were only a few words of hope in all that was given for me to know. I had one great teacher who was the way, the truth and the life. Only one instructor had spoken of the door through which I hoped that Beth would find her way. Christ was the only key that I had.
The time of Christ was far removed from my day as it is far removed from yours. When you face up to forces that can tear apart the foundations of worlds, it is hard to hold true to your faith. You will be hard pressed to actually feel confident that prayer, spoken from the heart, can restrain something with the power of an atomic blast with a will of its own. What is faith without the permission to doubt?
I could feel the power within me, but of what use was it? Fear would not grant peace to Beth. My mind was still drunk with the taste of what I could do. For all my greatness, I had been given the ability to do parlor tricks. It was the cruelest of tricks.
To help Beth, I had to put aside these childish thoughts. Even with the force of my gift, I was but a man and as mortal as every Asetma had been. I did not even know how to use my power. The answer was simply not within me.
When I shook the last of the drunkenness from my mind, the tone of my conversation with Beth changed. I tried very hard to let myself go and be led to whatever end God had prescribed. Faith without works is a dead thing. It was hard to stand strong in the face of my doubts. Evil was all that I had ever known to be real in Obsille.
"Why have you remained behind, Beth?"
She looked at me with calm eyes and I looked away to keep from being drawn in. "I told you, Mark. I'm waiting for my father to come for me."
"It is not right that you should be left here for all time. What justice is done by this curse?"
Beth placed her index finger under my chin and turned my head until our eyes met. She clearly did not understand.
"You should be at rest. Are you not good enough for Heaven, Beth?"
"But, I have to wait here for my father to get me, Mark! He will come for me. You will see."
"Beloved Beth, that is not the real truth and you know it better than I do."
"I'm not listening to you. If you don't want to get daddy for me, then just say so, Mark."
It was true that Beth knew the truth better than I did. I would have been lying to say that I really understood any of it. Given Beth's skills, she would have known in an instant that I was bluffing. Something true was written in Beth's eyes and I could not read the language in which it had been written. Such things may be beyond what I am given to ever know.
"I've not been sent to hurt you, Beth. Please forgive the harm that I have done to you."
"That's alright Mark. I can feel that you have a good heart under it all."
Beth turned away from me, however, she did not start to walk. She stood in the shadowy atmosphere, looking away from me. The truth within Beth was burning a hole through her to get out into the open air between us. Maybe it was something that I could only know when Beth released it from the prison in her mind. It wanted out as much as Beth wanted it out.
"I have wronged you many times, Beth. It was my greed here that exposed what you felt no comfort in letting me know. I've allowed myself to feel kindred to you and never thought to ask how you felt in the matter."
"Good words are so rarely spoken that you have me at a loss for things to say. Would you, by any chance, choose to accept my forgiveness; if I was to offer it to you, here?"
"I would indeed do that for you, Beth. And, if I can accept your forgiveness, can you accept forgiveness as well?"
"What wrong have I done you? It has never been my intention to cause you distress."
Clearing my mind, I hoped for the words that I did not know even in my heart. "There is no blame in my eyes, Beth. However, there is guilt in yours. It is such guilt that it has held you prisoner here for all these long years."
Moments passed with uneven lengths. A hopeful moment was over too soon and a dreadful moment was ten times as long. What had I done with my mindless chatter? It felt like time to give up when there was nothing left within me.
For an answer that would help, I had to arrive at the right question first. It was an act of irony that I did not realize that I had reached my goal. I was turning and ready to leave before I felt the pull of Beth's mind. Humility is a gift that you should never ask for.
"You are right, Mark."
She glided up behind me as I slowly turned to face her. I was surprised by the sight of her warm eyes the moment that I first gazed into them in the knowledge that she was a specter of Asetma. Eyes, even the eyes of a gentle spirit as Beth was, were never a comfortable sight for me. Beth scared me and I labored hard to hold my position.
"I only mean to help you, Beth. You have suffered for too long in this place."
"This bloody place has cost my family much, Mark. I was not supposed to be here when Miriam took me prisoner."
I could not help but wipe the timeless tear from her long dead cheek. She had the warmth of life within her phantom body, yet the fire within her was a blaze of guilt eating away at her. The power of simple words, granting forgiveness where even none is due, should not be underestimated. We have elected to forget the might of the spirit world when we denied the reality of all that lacks physical dimension.
"My father did come for me, yet he has never found me here. Mine is the death that your brother shared, Mark. Yet, it is my father's fate that your brother lived."
"Your eyes see far for one who can no longer walk beyond the fortifications of these walls."
"It was for my blood that Miriam's blood was burned. It is my fault that my father turned from the light and split the avenging angels. Every evil known now to Obsille, in Asetma and in the secret plans of your overlords, came to pass because I disobeyed."
"Gentle Beth. Man's fate is his own affair. These things came about at Satan's bidding. He used you then as he uses you still."
Beth's eyes lost their bright glow as she turned to look away from me again. Guilt was the heaviest link in the chain that bound her to the stone foundations of Th'Estate. There were more links in that chain that even Beth was not aware of. Exposing the greater truth would have done no good but to extend an unjust sentence served in full.
"We've all fallen short of the mark, Beth. Your sins are no worse than mine."
"Do you think that I have not tried to rationalize the things that I've done? Even from here, I've seen the centuries of suffering. Obsille lives in the shadow of death and there is nothing that I can do about it."
"And you think that you'd be allowed to wander around this place if you belonged in Hell?"
"Miriam sill walks these halls, Mark."
I was not ready for her reply. I'd say that she learned fast except that she had been around for over a century and had learned her craft in that time. Beth would not let go of her condemnation easily. She could take me with every punch.
"Have either of us wronged any man more than we have wronged the Lord God?"
"I hadn't thought of it that way, Mark. I've only thought of the people of Obsille."
"Are you willing to face God's judgment for your crimes?"
She only looked at me for a moment, and I saw a different fire within her eyes. Beth knew what even I was unwilling to face. Both of us called ourselves numbered with the flock of the Lord and both of us were afraid to face God. We had taken judgment into our own hands. I counted myself wrongfully innocent as Beth counted herself wrongfully guilty.
That hit me hard in the chest and I was afraid. All the things that we deny in the light of day are real. I was standing in the sight of a ghost where I was not afraid. Standing in the light of judgment was terrifying.
"If you have been so evil in the closing hours of your eyes, then let us both face conviction here for our sins."
Since it may sound strange to your ears, let me state on the record that I feared that Beth would have walked off if I had only asked judgment on her spirit. I feared the ramifications of my action. The fact that Beth could read me so well kept her in the room with me. She was not evil as she made herself out to be.
The prayer that I uttered in those dark instants is for no living and mortal ears save mine. I bowed low in the presence of my eternal king. My eyes closed in fear of the light gathering in the room, although, I saw Beth kneel at my side before my eyes sealed shut. In the brightness, a door opened for Beth to pass through.
A voice that made itself near to beyond my hearing called out to Beth. It was mine only to know that she was safe in the land beyond the door. The door walked from its frame, taking Beth by the hand. Then the door guided Beth to the place where she really belonged. As I feared it, the voice left me in peace without a single word.
These were things that I know although I did not see even the least of them. My eyes remained closed until the darkness returned to the room. All of my exposed skin was warm and almost tanned from the brightness. Most of me was afraid of what I had not seen. The rest of me rejoiced.
One question remained within the darkest shadows of my mind where it had not earlier been visible to me. With fair Beth now at rest, what other specter from the past ages of Asetma would have lease to cross into our lesser world? Asetma's history had been long and darkness reigned for all that I knew of those years. No limit had been stated or implied on which spirits could gain use of the position that Beth had vacated only moments earlier.
Elder would doubtlessly think less of me for not realizing earlier that Miriam could have gained the advantage of renewed physical form from my gift to Beth. I had thought with my heart as was the way my Lord had made me to act. Beth could not remain in her prison while the power was in my grasp to set her free. Even as releasing the spirits of Asetma would reduce the value of Th'Estate as a tourist trap, I could not act in contrast to my given nature. What wrath I brought against myself from Elder could not be avoided.
I could see Elder with his stern warnings where he chose not to appear. He did not come to rebuke either me or my actions over what I had done with Beth. There is no power of magic that is worth surrendering you own soul to possess. Elder could not be wise without knowing that much.
No alternative remained for me but to return to my duties until the consequences of my action came calling in their own appointed time. It is hard to trust in all that is right and holy when you have lived in the shadows as long as I had. My shame in being such a dejected creature, condemned to keep the cursed estate of Asetma, was so great that it was hard to look to God for favor. Within me I felt that I deserved the fate that I had been sentenced to. More even than that, I felt that I could endure my torments as long as I knew that my suffering would mean a better life for somebody else.
A new calm disturbed the turbulent atmosphere of Th'Estate in Beth's absence. It is the peace that comes in the eye of a hurricane, between the howling winds and driving rains that precede and follow it. Th'Estate was my home as it had been home to the Asetma clan before me. The great house, with its vast lands around it, welcomed me as the other house embraced Elisabeth.
Whatever I had freed in my haste to release Beth did not make itself known to me that day. Beth's departure put the atmosphere to sleep for a time. Even the tourists could feel it as they walked with me through the dead calm. Forces were building that could tear the whole continent apart without breaking a sweat, yet they knew rest for the remainder of the day.
As all days do, that day came to an end. Two of us remained behind in the last hours of the day to look over the house and grounds before locking down for the night. Sheriff Braggs did not allow me the honor of actually sealing up the gates at night. One of the other servants of the Old Men in bad suits had that job for the end of what they planned as my last season, and he resented me all the more for it.
I made no secret of the fact that I would have locked up the grounds on my own. The Sheriff, although he would never set his own foot in that house, would not allow that. He did not want me to remain in the house overnight. Somebody else always watched me leave before the steel gates were sealed for the night.
Earlier years would have found me happy at the knowledge that I would be free of Th'Estate. It would have seemed a blessing if I could have worked on the blood-soaked Asetma grounds only during the daylight hours of the days. The Sheriff would not have allowed it then. I cannot be sure how he knew that my feelings had changed so much. If Orsa had been spared by the arrangement, I would have lived happily with it when the whole ordeal had begun.
The great mansion just felt like home to me. I cannot explain the feeling, however, there was a heaviness to the atmosphere when I did the final walkthrough of the property. It was as though the whole estate was in mourning for my imminent departure. Could my longing for home, a permanent cell in Th'Estate that even I had long feared, was more an impression placed in my head by the spirit of the house itself? I was alone in the darkness beneath the main house long enough to think such strange, deep thoughts.
It was in that final tour that Elder chose to make an appearance. He faded into the material world a bit more with each step that he took along side of me. His appearance was calm and lazy. Elder had shed his theatrics for a time.
Having a choice, I chose not to react to his materialization. My mind reached aside, touching his physical manifestation every so often to judge his reality. I did not skip a step or break my stride through the dark corridor. We walked together at an easy pace while Elder took shape in the darkness.
When Elder was solid enough to draw breath, I greeted him. "Good afternoon, Elder."
"It is that indeed, Job." His ethereal voice was not all there in the air as though he was deep in thought.
Beth's departure did not enter my mind. If there was to be any mention of my actions, then they would have to come from Elder. I had not felt him in Th'Estate when Beth had passed over and there was a chance that he didn't know about it. Whatever my Lord had planned for me would come to pass and I had already made my peace with him.
"You seem chipper this hour."
Elder seemed to turn and face me, but I did not look to see. "Some students are slow. You seem to be moving along at a good pace, Job."
"I still don't know how to get Tommy back or send Miriam to her place in darkness, Elder."
"The power was always within you. However, now I feel it around you, Job. I know that you can feel it too."
Power is a strong liquor and my soul warned me not to drink too deeply. I cannot say how Elder took his sight of the conflict within me. It is only known to me what my senses could tell me in that time. My mind did not dare reach that far into Elder's mind.
"Am I soon to learn what has so long been kept from me?"
My teacher smiled a smile that I could feel without trying. His pride lit up the gloomy darkness so much that I did not need the flashlight that I carried with me. In fact, I feared that the other man on the ground was going to see the light. I did not tell Elder his business.
"Job, Job. The key is within you and I cannot get at it. All that is given for me to do is to show you how to find it on your own. Free will is a chain and a choice not to put it on."
"How, then, do I get at this key within me?"
"You now know what it feels like, Job. Remember the feeling as more than a memory."
My pace slowed only a bit to give Elder time for the lesson. I wanted to know. I had to know. I was going to know. "What do you mean by that, Elder?"
He turned from me, matching my pace. His voice strengthened in the musty air between us. "Magic is the spiritual influence on the lower world, Job. Each of us has the power to make a memory real, again. You know how to relive the memory of your power, Job."
Elder's words stuck in my mind, although they went no deeper at the time. The time was not right. I needed to complete the lesson in the few moments that I was allowed to remain in Th'Estate. There would be time to understand when the lesson was over.
"Is there a trick to it, Elder?"
"If you try to clear your mind, then the noise will simply grow louder to fill the void. Seek the feeling, Job. Elect to listen only to the sound of that singular moment of time when nothing else is in your mind. Step into that moment."
"That sounds easy, Elder. It will probably be harder than it sounds."
"Listen now, Job. Our time is short. Budget your strength that you do not wear yourself out before the fight, Job. Learn to use your power, however, do not really use it any more than is absolutely necessary."
A voice behind me, speaking words that I did not really hear, called me back to the lesser world. Elder was gone faster than he had appeared. My impatient babysitter did not see anybody except for me when he came to look for me. He never told me how much of my conversation he had overheard.
I heard great sadness in the gates as they came closed for the night. My compatriot turned the key in the lock without sympathy. He only wanted to get away and go home for the night. In my heart, I had understanding for both Th'Estate and the man behind me.
My eyes remained forward so that Th'Estate did not see the tear I shed. The man behind me was of no significance to my feelings. He could have seen or been blind to my sadness. Neither state interested him.
The walk back to Walgo's house was faster than I would have believed. It may only have been the numbing fatigue in my legs that made the distance seem to shrink. I could feel my strength evaporate into the air around me. What remained of me to reach Walgo's door could barely stand erect.
"You missed breakfast, Mark."
Every atom of my body was as weak as Walgo's voice. "I just had to get out for awhile, Walgo."
"Where did you go to?"
I must have looked twenty years Walgo's senior when I got home. "Just for a walk. I needed a relaxing walk, sir."
"Well, sit by the fire and warm yourself. There's a nice stew on, Mark. Your day of liberation is close at hand."
Anything could have happened that night. There is not a moment of memory left in my mind that concerns the hours between sitting by the fire and waking up the next morning. I've tried to find an instant from that day and always failed. Walgo never complained, so it could not have been a bad night.
Up early the next morning, I did not skip breakfast. There was food on the table when Walgo got up. I gave him a nice cup of fresh coffee before I stepped out into the cool air. It was important to me that Walgo knew that I appreciated what he had done for me.
My thermos contained half a pot of warm tea when I walked out of Walgo's house. I did not take the thermos for lunch. It was my goal to walk around Obsille again to see if the early morning walks had been responsible for my unearthly clarity on the day before. Whatever it was, I always wanted to feel that way. Nothing mattered more to me.
Elder's words became real to me as I wandered about. I practiced stepping into and out of my memories. Some of the times were happy and others were sad. My power did not make it any easier to elect which memories I wanted to step into and which I wished to skip. That would take practice.
Walking about in Obsille, I found myself again on the walkway leading into Saint Joel's. I stopped before going far into the grounds. What would a priest know of the task set before me? Could I, in fact, learn how to release Tommy from his prison from one of these monks?
I felt a presence to my right side long before I saw him. The wizened monk that I had first spoken with was trimming the bushes in front of the church. He took great care in the branches that he chose to cut back as though listening for a sound from an inner voice that I could not hear. With each clip, he stepped back a foot or two to get a full view of his creation.
"What do you think, Mark?"
His words came as a shock to me even though I expected them. "I was just thinking how much I miss having Mr. McGregor around Th'Estate, father."
"Feel free to call me brother or Steven as the spirit moves you, Mark. Father is a hard title for me to hear."
"Which would you prefer, father."
His eyes remained on his work. "Each of us is given a choice in many things each day, Mark. Your choice belongs to you alone."
"It has been a long time since I have had a choice, brother Steven. The word itself has no meaning to me."
"You have chosen to use both brother and Steven as though you were not making a choice in doing so. It is the mark of a conflicted mind, Mark."
"Conflicted is one way of putting it. I must make a decision based upon things that I cannot know. My task is beyond me."
"You are not without help, Mark. You have only to ask and it will be provided to you."
"How do I get Tommy back form wherever he is, Steven?"
"That is better in that you have made a choice. It is the more distant of the choices, but a choice nonetheless. Do you believe that you do not know how to retrieve Tommy?"
"I know that I do not know! Would I have asked if I knew?"
Lowering the clippers, he turned to look at me with his warm hazel eyes. "Knowledge changes the world around you while faith changes you. Which do you need more?"
"I'll settle for whichever will do the job. Knowledge seems best since Tommy is in the world around me."
"But, Mark, you need to change yourself to have the ability to open the door."
"Then I need faith more?"
"Nothing in the created universe ever behaves unpredictably. That is simply not the way of an intelligent creator."
"What does that have to do with faith? Can I get the short version so that Miriam doesn't get to Tommy before I do?"
"Just because we can be predicted does not mean that we lack choice. It means that you too possess intelligence. Your confusion, my son, lies in your inability to believe what you already know."
"That didn't help me, Steven. Was I sent here so that you could play with my mind?"
"Mark, I'm telling you that you have the answers you seek and that I do not. The key that I have for you is to the door in your mind, not to the door holding Tommy out of sight."
Taking a few steps to the side, I looked over the bush that the monk had been shaping with such care. It didn't look different from any of the other shrubs lining the walkway. The difference was in the monk's eyes. He saw the bushes one way and made them into what he saw in his mind.
"Where do I find the lock of which you speak?"
"Lies have to make sense, but truth only has to be true. The cloud in your mind is all the possibilities seen at once. Only one of them makes sense and only one of them is true. You know the one."
"I seek the one that makes sense and is true?"
"Clear your mind of everything that disagrees with the behavior of creation because these disagree with the nature of the creator. God is not chaotic. Know his spirit that you may know all things."
"Tommy is the first physical item to vanish from Asetma."
Steven interrupted my musings. "He is not the first person to ever physically vanish from Th'Estate. Young Kathryn Mary Asetma has that honor."
"Then Tommy is the first person that I have witnessed vanishing from the grounds of Asetma. He followed the green eyed girl when she vanished."
"The green eyed girl is not a spectral like Miriam. She enters through a door by which the living may pass into the immaterial world."
"Why would a ghost need a door through which the living may pass?"
Another monk from Saint Joel's came around the left corner. My eyes were trapped by the movement and I turned from brother Steven. Like the green eyed girl, he was gone when I turned back. He had served his Lord well.
Indeed, why would a ghost need a door through which living people could walk into her spectral world?