Ice House: Asetma
Soon I found that there was a price for the illusion of freedom which was greater than the loss of liberty. My head hurt so bad that I thought I was soon to lose it into a pile of clothes in my old teacher's hamper. The morning came and went before I returned to the waking word to face the horrific reality of my newly ended life. I awoke alone in Walgo's medium sized house.
For all the health trouble that he had, Walgo was a man who could hold his liquor. He was up and gone before I came too. He had taken his old broom out for some exercise before going to work. Since I wasn't up until after the noon had passed, I did not see him at all.
A voice from the past called out to me. It called out from within me as well as from outside of me and surrounding me. Elder pulled me from the land of the assumed living into the plane where life and death had no meaning. His shadowy world matched the clouds forming deep within my mind. All that I recall seeing was the light.
"Now comes the time of tribulation, Job." Elder's familiar, strong voice called to me from everywhere and nowhere.
"Tell me about it." I was feeling too sick for the sarcasm of my remark.
"Ignorance is bliss, not for the lack of tribulation, but for the lack of eyes to see it." The echo of his mental power flooded my pounding head as much as a real voice would have.
"I'm out right now, would you like to leave a message?"
He seemed to laugh. "Even Miriam is not strong enough to push you away for long, Job. Strong drink is an enemy of our kind, you know?"
"If I'm dead, which way to the pearly gates?"
"You know what I mean, Job. Each lesson must be short. There is no time for poor attempts at used humor."
I let out a longer breath than I recalled inhaling. "What's the chapter for this one, teacher?"
"Soon, young Tommy must come back to your side of the line. Miriam's power will be weakened by the transition. You must then have the energy for your part."
"What is my part?"
"Haven't you yet realized it, Job? The gate is you..."
"Well, a strait answer from you. What did I do to earn this?"
Thought his chest didn't move, or the bright spot that I took as his chest, he exhaled slowly and loudly. "The old one here knows of your potential, but not your power. It's nothing that you've done--it is that you are, alone that grants you the teachings that I am sent to leave you."
"How do I open the door for Tommy, then?"
"You already know as much and far more than you have conscious knowledge of, Job."
"Then refresh my wisdom, old master of the dark art."
"Such things, I cannot tell you. Remember in its stead that you are the answer more than you know it. A gate is more than a passage, it also holds a connection between points that are not accessible without it."
In a wisp of smoke, not unlike an ancient stage effect, he was gone. Again, he had used far more words than necessary to tell me absolutely nothing. It seemed to me, both then and now, that his only real lesson was that I already knew what he had to teach me. And yet he did not seem angry with my insolent ignorance of apparent reality. But what was reality in the ice house called Asetma?
Walgo would not be back until late afternoon and I assumed that I would have to claim my things from the ancient sentinel of Asetma before the policy of the day stated that I had forfeited even what little more I had. I had to find a place where Beth, as well as I, could rest up before getting as far from the curse as dreams alone could buy. Indeed, I had failed my poor dearest Orsa, for whom I had sacrificed a large part of my life, for as little as a drink of strong, sour liquor.
All that would come to me was escape. The guilt was well within me, deeper than the cold springs which fed the bloodthirsty grounds beneath Asetma. My refuge was my ignorance. As long as I did not know, then I could believe, although without hope of reality in reason, that my truly beloved had been spared the inhumane sentence passed first on me. Reason was to be my executioner.
The murky world of lucent dreams swept themselves abruptly asunder with the speed that my life had ended. I found myself at the dank blood-stone mirage of my former house, never a home for nor to me. Without a word, I feigned ignorance and went directly to work through the monumental doors. Beth was nowhere to be seen and I hoped that she had safely fled as I intended to do once the insanity of my former life ended officially.
Later in the afternoon I began to feel better considering that the night before I was lost in another world. It had been quite some time since any work was done around Th'Estate and without a gardener or a maid the only one left to clean up was me. While I was polishing the cherry oak table near the main doors, I heard a soft knocking sound that was too faint to be that of a person. To satisfy my curiosity I walked over to the foyer and opened the door. Standing there before me was someone I never would have expected.
"I know that I am here uninvited, but there are some things we need to get straight. First of all, you didn't pay me a second of your precious time at the diner. Second more, you didn't give me a tip. Life in this town is hard enough without you uppity estate curators trying to run my life. You had no business coming into the diner and spilling your sorry heart onto the counter. "
"Listen here, Lynda" I said with reserved anger. If she had approached me with the least amount of respect, there wouldn't have been a problem. "What are you doing here?"
Lynda stood there in the doorway with a light blue dress similar to the one Orsa had worn to my graduation party at Obsille Preparatory Academy. It had been one of the best days that I had lived through in my Obsille life. I looked at Lynda and saw Orsa standing there. However, the illusion of the longwinded Lynda as my soft and precious Orsa was fast shattered by the immaculate dialect with which Lynda over expressed herself.
"Are you going to let me in or leave me out here to talk to myself, which is what you know I will do. My Momma once said I could talk the ear off a statue. You know my Momma, don't you? Anyway, sorry about your job but we have some talking to do and you know why; don't you? You know this place could use a little cleaning. My Momma once knew a maid down in the valley who could spit-shine a dirt floor. You know Mrs. Klotsky, don't you? She died last year. The place has gone down ever since. "
Good old quiet Lynda. I wasn't sure whether or not to let her inside to talk about whatever she wanted to talk about. I suppose that to get it over with, I should ask her to come in for a minute. Looking at her in Orsa's old dress brought back pleasant memories and that's all I could think about.
"Come in Lynda and get to the point. I have work to do around here and I don't have time for your games. "
Lynda shrugged her shoulders as though put off by my remark and then she stepped inside and gazed at the architecture. It occurred to me that she had never been inside the Asetma manor.
"This place gives me the spooks, Mr. Holder. Why couldn't we have met at the diner?"
"Sorry, Lynda. My last meal there was not a good experience. Now start talking. Why are you here and what do you want from me?"
Lynda continued to admire her surroundings. It seemed unusual for me to see someone actually finding beauty in the place. I have been here so long that all of the walls and floors seem the same. Then again, they have been the same for about three hundred years.
"Mr. Holder, I've got some news for you and I don't know how you're going to take it. First of all, you have been fired by the town for being so greedy at the expense of the town. You know, the job you had wasn't that hard and with the free room and reduced board you had no right to go and ask for more money much less demand the deed to the manor itself."
All the while Lynda was talking she was observing every detail of the main foyer room with its large candles carved in the shape of ancient demons. I did not want her to be there at all, yet I had to know what she was talking about. I had never been fired by a waitress before. With more sternness I said to her "Explain to me why you think I have been fired from my job. As you can see I am still here working. I would not stay here if I had a choice. "
"Mark, it's all very simple. Let me tell you briefly. I hope you can understand what I am about to tell you. After all, I don't know what you can understand being as though you are trapped up in this dark place with no friends or family. This place would drive me up a wall. How do you take it all? Now, let me get to the point. The town fired you this week because your representative asked the town office for an increase in your salary. In fact she went so far as to say that the town owes you the Asetma manor and grounds. You know, I am not surprised at all by this and frankly I must side with the town in this situation. It's not that I have any friends on the town council or anything but, you know, the time has come for you to stop taking the taxpayers' hard-earned money."
I did not know whether or not to believe Lynda. She is not even close to being a friend of mine and my only experience with her has been at the diner when she seemed to know everything about my life except the truth and also messed up my order. "Lynda, I would like you to leave now. If what you are saying is true then I will hear it for myself from one of the town officials. I will never pack my bags and leave based on one of your stories. Now please, let me alone and call next time before you show up at my door."
"It is not your door!"
Lynda stared at me for a moment and then quickly turned her back to me and walked out through the main doorway. She continued down the walkway and opened the gates before disappearing behind the stone walls. I slammed the door and continued with my work which was difficult considering what I had just heard. Tomorrow morning I will call the town office and see if any of this is true. Of course, I knew it was however I held out hope that I was still doomed.
A long day was drawing to an end and I decided to settle in the library and do some reading. Later on I would call Walgo to see that he was well and thank him for his hospitality. It had only just occurred to me that I would probably require more of the same once I was fired.
In those last days remaining to me, I chose to enjoy the pleasures known only to the keeper of Th'Estate. There were a few pleasures that I had come to know in my service to the Asetma family abode. The gardens surrounding the house were always beautiful when God's angels paint them in the fall. As it was now too late in the day for that, I chose to do a little reading.
It had been months since I read in the library and when I opened the large wooden doors, a cool musty odor breathed out onto me and through my clothes. The chilly October evening tempted me to light a fire in the steel-framed fireplace. I removed a pack of matches from my left pocket and struck one match to see where the lantern was. The library was the only room in the house without electric lights since the town council had decided that running electricity through the redwood paneling would ruin the aesthetics of the room. The old lantern was sitting atop the mantle beneath a bronze gargoyle. I lifted up the glass cover and lit the well-burned wick.
Trebor Asetma, in building the new house of Asetma, had actually been ahead of his time in many ways. The council had not put the electrical wiring into the house as the house had been built over its own power plant. Whatever the reason, the lack of wiring in the library had been a conscious choice made by Trebor Asetma and respected by his kin. His reason is now unknown.
The orange-yellow flame gave a soft glow to the room and danced with a blue haze giving an eerie glow to the dark room. I had expected the room to be dusty and covered with cobwebs but strangely it was immaculate. The oak furniture was polished to a dull shine and the dancing of the lights was like a fog in the room. There was one seat in the library which was a soft cowhide stitched skillfully with cotton thread in an artistic pattern of unknown patent.
I set the lantern down on the slate table standing on marble gingerbread man statuettes. After placing some twigs and brush in a pile onto the cradle I lit a match and before its searing flame grazed the tip of the brush pile, it all went up into one pale-blue roaring flame. Quickly, I placed three dry logs into the conflagration and then walked over to the collection of literature that included such classics as 'Spells, Potions, and Curses' and 'Great Poetry of Our Time'.
It was odd that Miriam given the type of personality she had would have such artistic taste in the gentile matter of poetry as to possess a volume such as 'Great Poetry of Our Time'. I removed the text from the shelf and moved my fingers around the well-kept binding. The book seemed to have a life of its own and felt as though it had been well protected by its owner. Such loving care was a kind of thing that I would never have expected from the brutal Miriam Asetma.
When I opened the volume to the title page there was an inscription well penned in perfect script, which read:
To Kathryn, with love and best wishes always.
The signature had been obscured by tears dancing on the page. After centuries I could still feel the hum of deep emotions engrained in every page of work. The name of Kathryn had not been used to my recollection by anyone in reference to the Asetmas. This did not bother me or catch my conscious attention as I sat in the lonely chair and opened it to read.
I sat facing the fireplace and the warmth from the flames felt comforting. At the same time my back was cooler than death. While reading the tome, a shadow appeared on the page hiding the words from my eyes. Curiously I raised my head slowly toward the fireplace to see what appeared to be an aged woman. Her age was not one of time but rather of decay.
The back of my mind told me that it was Miriam. She laughed a harsh laugh toward me and I did not react. Looking down to the book in my lap which I knew was far more real than Miriam had been in centuries past, I found the book gone. I chanced a glance to the spot no longer occupied by Miriam onto the heavy wooden shelves to see the cobwebs which had returned to the corner and then I stood to retrieve the book from the shelves where I knew that it had been and it was not their either.
The dust in its former place indicated that it hadn't been there in a very long time. It occurred to me that although Miriam had come from the shadows to taunt me, the book had not come from her. It was rather another clue in the mystery I had been destined to solve. There was a force in Asetma other than Miriam or even Elder which was kind to me and although I would be removed from service in the manor on the following day by the Town Council I knew that I was soon to return and even Miriam could not prevent it.
Though the appearance of Miriam was not expected, it did not frighten me at all. Her form enabled me to see something I had not been able to see before. Miriam was mortal and had died of her evil. The only life inside of her now was restrained by the binds of death. The only reality which she still held was that which I had given her in my incompetence. Aside of Miriam there was only one mystery remaining and that was the book of poetry and the inscription within its embraced pages.
Who would have given such a gift knowing the vile cruelty now synonymous with the Asetma name. It would not have been rational for the villagers to even have been able to afford such a luxury. The only way to discover the identity both of the benefactor and the recipient was to find the book. I knew that I would not have time to seek out the book before I was fired officially.
My restless feet carried me through the first floor rooms of Th'Estate like an animal in too small of a cage. For me, the house was far too big, yet it felt small in those instants. It was not the walls of Th'Estate that were closing in around me. The walls of my own mind were sealing around me so tight that they squeezed the air from my lungs.
I had to find that book. However, I did little searching as I walked the floor plan of the great house. Everything was calling out to me. My mind was cluttered with a century and more of beaconing voices. Not the ghosts, but the estate itself wanted me.
I suppose that I should have been surprised to hear the reply to my call, but I was not. Deep in my heart, I was prepared to take whatever response, silence or chatter, that God had written in the book of life for that moment in my life. "Why didn't you put Miriam back when I let her out?"
"Look where you are standing, Job."
My eyes did not have to cast their gaze downward to the floor on which my feet had become accustomed. "It is not an unusual wooden floor for this house."
"Sensation is of the body, but feeling is of the mind Job. What was your mind's first impression of my question?"
"I stand in the world of the living, half straddling to the place where you are now."
"And you would have been right, Job. That is why I cannot put Miriam back in the place from which you called her."
"Then teach me now how I am to put her back as you have commanded me."
His voice had no feeling as though I was asking a question that he had answered a thousand times. "It is not that easy, Job. You know Miriam's name and by it you have called her. She came of her own volition to the place where you now stand."
"Then I have to get her to go back by her own choice?"
"You know that she would never do that, Job. It is not the kind of question you should be asking at your level of training."
I did not let his gentle scolding get deeper than my ears. "Would you go back?"
"I long to go back when my mission here is complete, Job. When you are ready, I will go home."
"There must be a way that I can make Miriam feel the same way, Elder."
"Job, I have a better place to go back to. For Miriam, you will have to put her back with your strength and force."
"Is she to have no hope of salvation, then?"
"By our own actions are we condemned, Job. Miriam made her choice as you now make yours. Justice is served when the punishment is metered to the crime."
"I do not think that I can do it, Elder. It is not in me to condemn her spirit like that."
Elder moved around behind me. "Yours' is a good heart, Job. If this task was easy for you, then you would be unworthy of it."
Through the left corner of my eye, a pair of green eyes came into view and I lost my interest in Elder's voice. I could not make out the form that crossed the room in front of me, but the book clenched tightly beneath those phosphorescent eyes was plain for my eyes to view. It was the same book that I saw as a key to Asetma's secret world. The book meant something to the spirits which had found no rest in centuries.
When I turned around, Elder was no longer in the room with me. I could neither see his shadow nor feel his form in the empty vastness of Th'Estate. After the spirit's passing, the space of Asetma felt clean. It was a good time to seek the comfort of sleep unhindered and I do not recall ever being so tired as I then was.
The next morning I was awoken by the phone ringing in my room. At first I thought it was the alarm clock and banged on it with my fist until the receiver flipped up into the air and crashed onto my lap. "Now cut that out, Miriam!" I said more in play than in anger which upset her all the more. I picked up the handset and before I could say hello, there was a voice on the other end.
"Good morning sir, may I speak to Mr. Holding? When you find him be sure to relay the message that he has a call from the Town of Obsille secured in partial funding by the Ladies Society for Public Broadcasting."
I thought of hanging up the phone but this call might be in reference to my job which I no longer had. "Ma'am, I am Mr. Holder. What can I do for you?"
"Mr. Golding, the Town of Obsille has relayed to me a sealed document which I will open and read forthrightly when you supply proper identification such as your social security number, town taxpayer code, birth certificate serial number, or driver's license soundex number. Please comply with my request for identification."
"Maam, my town taxpayer code is 7093-OBS and my name in Mark Holder."
"Please wait one moment while I enter the number into my computer and check for verification. While we are waiting I would like to inform you that the town autumn festival will be held this weekend. All participants are required to bring a covered dish and five dollars entry fee for the pig-kissing contest. "
"I'm not very good at kissing pigs, ma'am."
"Very well then, you will stand little chance of procuring the $250.00 prize if you do not comply with the rules, every section and subpart thereof, the most important of these being that an entrant must enter and pay said entrance fee to win the aforementioned prize."
I didn't answer, in the silent hope that she may forget that I was on the line in with the wonderful time she seemed to be having talking to herself. However, I was not that lucky, nor had I ever been.
"Fine--Mr. William Trolldon, it is my duly noted duty, however unwelcome or disheartening as it may be, to inform you that your employment with the Town Council of this fare berg of Obsille and the surrounding townships, as tour guide, caretaker or assorted other jobs, has been officially terminated. As per your contractual arrangements, you shall be required to hold the post for no less than 14 days, performing all the required tasks specified in the Title E specifications of your job description and those of appendix I-XIV, or until a suitable replacement can be recruited. No change in salary is permitted, although you must vacate the premises when not performing such required and specified labors."
I was determined to get the last word, however improbable that may have been. "Thank you," I replied. "Have a swell day."
The only sure way for me to have the last word in a conversation with the government she represented was to hang up the phone before she could reply. I did not, tempting as it was, slam down the phone. Rather, I placed it gently on its cradle. In my entire servitude, I had never seen, mush less heard of a job description, but I knew that I was being evicted from my haunted abode. It mattered little since I knew that I was soon to return, regardless of whom had fired me. It was sure as fate because it was fate.
Our freshly painted prison bus arrived at the usual time and I greeted it without a hint that anything had changed. The steel tube of second hand slave labor was one of the few things in Obsille that hadn't changed. It never changed. Every year it had two new coats of paint to hide all the rust spots and body work that had been cheaper than buying a new one for as long as I could remember. In the middle of the year, just as the same bus had the year that my brother died, the paint began to flake off over the poorly bonded patches in the bus' body. Then the time came for its second coat of paint. Always two coats a year, as if anybody was actually going to look at it.
Just after the second painting for each year, the bus makes its last trip to Th'Estate. From then on in, there will be no prisoners working off their debt to society in Th'Estate. We closed out the season with just the labor of public servants. I was about to be left alone with the source of help that hated me the most and hid its resentment the least.
I took my first group the moment that the bus had been safely hidden from the tourists. We walked along the great house of the infamous Miriam peering into the atrocities of her simpler time, which the guests, welcomed for little more than their money, were quickly intoxicated by. My tour, although not one that I could take the customers on, began inside the house. I smiled at the thought of what the truth would do to our only thriving industry.
It began in a standard haunt within the older living quarters of the second level. My living had been compressed into the servant's housing in the Eastern wing of the mansion far removed from the valuable antiques which littered every cobweb of the remaining house. Those treasures that had once been in my domicile had long since been sold off to appease the bottomless pockets of the old men in bad suits.
There were smaller bedrooms, once housing the guests and children of the Asetmas, below the main suites on the third level. One of these had been set up to show the visitors, and I was surprised to see that another of the great, lavish rooms had been opened for my demonstration. It was strange, even to me, that a new room would have been opened in my night long absence. Opening up a new room for the tourists would have required a mile and more of paperwork and I should have known about it well in advance. The opening of a new room would have been my job.
All unopened rooms in Th'Estate were locked. One key would open all interior rooms of Th'Estate, however, the lock was only to keep the honest visitors honest. Small paper seals had further been affixed to each door that was not to be opened, even by those of us who had the key. Nobody asked why some rooms had been opened while others had been blocked off in that way. That was part of the great mystery of Asetma.
With years of experience, I knew each room on my tour. A new room without a seal drew my attention from the tour. Even the sticky residue from the seal had been cleaned from the doorframe. Brushing against the brass knob, I found the door to be unlocked. I was unprepared for the new room to be open for tours, although I did not want the tourists to know as much.
I walked into it with little more than idle curiosity on my mind. Ghosts in Asetma did not open the sealed doors. They had a foreboding image to protect and were likely to block passages in Th'Estate. More than anything, they considered the visitors to be their audience and would play up the image that they had spent centuries developing.
In the room, there was a snow-covered moor stretching all around me. None of the group that I had been leading remained behind, beside or even in sight of me, there was only the frosty land around me. To the far right of me, there had been a blanket placed carefully on the ground for two lovers in formal attire to dine in relative privacy. The mist of the day held a sea-salty, perfume laden warm breeze which obscured anything more than a hundred or so feet off. There was only the picnicking couple in that range of me.
She wore a long pink gown, furry in the lining and opulent to a fault. It had been decorated with fine lace in every point that it could have been, yet none of her fine, silken skin was exposed. I knew without having to be told that her hands were rough from bitter labors of a lifetime. Without gloves, her hands were too tough to feel the bitter cold of the snowy ground.
Her suitor was dressed in a suit of fine, dark purple linen, almost as decorated as her gown. The collar of his jacket had been highlighted enough for me to make it out at a distance not less than twenty paces. I could even make out the white threaded designs on his vest pockets. He also did not seem to feel the cold, although I think it was more from her presence than a lifetime of servitude. His eyes never left the lady's form, even when he seemed unwilling for her to know that he was watching her.
His touch of her rough hands was insecure, and he pulled his hand back if she even seemed to look toward where he touched her. Whenever she looked into his face, his face turned slightly away from her. He did not really look away from her, since his eyes held fixed on her face. Her presence was the food that nourished and sustained his spirit.
Lest it seem otherwise, I did notice that she was just as comfortable in his presence. I'm not sure how I could see the suppressed smile on her face with his every careless caress given the distance between the young lady and my viewpoint. She rarely looked directly at him, yet she never looked away from him. Either she was inhumanly clumsy, or she brushed up against his strong arms every chance she had. I elect to believe that it was more the latter than the former.
From a wicker basket, she withdrew a leather bound volume of a sort that I could not ascertain over the distance. It could well have been the same book from my previous journey to this netherworld, or have nothing to do with it. Given her station in life, I am doubtful that she could have afforded such a treasure with her own resources. Opening the volume, she turned each page to reach the part of the book where she had a flower pressed in the pages as a bookmark.
She began to read the words from the book to the gentleman. He watched the expression on her face, more listening to her voice than to her spoken words. Every line, she looked up from the page and stole a glance at his face. His shoulders lowered slightly as he relaxed, contently, in the sound of her voice.
I was meant to see the scene but I was not allowed to hear her words. They were for the gentleman to cherish and her voice was not for me to hear. She turned the page and then rolled away from me in what I assessed to be great pain. A moment or less passed until she sprang high into the air and, with a crimson, gold explosion, became a large cat, throwing the volume randomly into the soft snow.
Her form was not that of a house cat, or any domestic variety known to me, but that of a wild animal, covered in a yellow, brown and black spotted fur. I looked back, for no more than a second, to where she had been sitting to see that the picnic scene had faded and the handsome man was standing there with a musket. She looked at him with ruby fire in her eyes and a hungry smile on her feline muzzle. I could almost taste the blood on her breath as she beckoned him, in a way without words, to join him in the love that had been twisted and profaned by the curse. To her, it was the only way.
At first, his eyes passed over the book that the lady had been reading only moments before. It had meaning to him as it had to her. Now that the lady was in a place and a form where words held no meaning, he had been forcibly parted from the love that was his life. His eyes darted about taking a long time to reach her profaned face.
Then, he pointed the musket toward her, pulling the trigger with tears flowing into his eyes. His uneasy hand dropped the weapon, pulling a smaller pistol from under his brown suit jacket. He wiped the sweat from his forehead into his curly black, short hair with the nervous earthquake of his left hand, turning the deadly black metal implement towards his own forehead. Suddenly he cried out," Adrian! For this you die."
The gun threw out its hot breath as he pointed it about wildly, with apparent disgust. I felt the small lead ball smack hard into my ribs and I stumbled backwards out of the room. There, in the doorway, the green eyed girl brushed gently against my right arm. She was not the same vibrant spirit that she had been, now reduced to a weak, pale vision.
Her eyes rose to meet mine. They were no longer true green, but paled to a yellowish on her shrunken white face. Those haunting eyes of hers were swollen and red from more than a lifetime's crying. My heart went out to her as she lowered her head and crossed the hall through a locked door into another room.
"Which of these two is Kathryn?" I asked myself the question at least a dozen times without giving breath to carry the thought. I wanted to call out to Kathryn, yet I was not allowed to.
"With any power, Job, comes the responsibility of knowing when to use it and, often most importantly, when not to use it," Elder called out into my mind.
"Elder?" I gasped his name aloud without thought as my former question had been a thought without voice.
Another voice answered me. "You are hardly a spring lamb yourself, Mark," replied the gravely, supporting voice. I recognized it as Walgo without having to see him through the small crowd I had led.
My return from the snow covered field was as disorienting as it was abrupt. I tried not to stumble back into the physical world where I had been leading the tourists through Th'Estate. They must never see the effect that Th'Estate has on its keeper. How Walgo got into the group remained a mystery to me.
From out of nowhere, and for reasons even more obscure, Beth busted into our greetings. "You didn't come home last night, did you Rick?" Her face was red and abnormally round.
I didn't know what to say. It was clear, even to the group which had only met me, both that she was talking to me and that my name was not Rick. Only Walgo held his cool entirely. Teaching high school students must have hardened his nerves.
"Tell me Rick, you lying weasel. It's another woman, isn't it? You're having an affair, aren't you?" She threw her hands from her sides into the air in front of her, then stormed back into the same obscurity from which she had come.
"Mark, you should really choose your friends more carefully. This girl is whacked!" exclaimed Walgo.
The tour continued and so did my talk with the beloved Walgo. "So Mark, people in this town have been talking about you lately. I am sure that you have heard some of it. Now taking into account that rumors spread fast in this small town, I have not assumed anything at this point. As your friend I have come to hear the story from you." Walgo refreshed the gravel in his voice.
"Well, Walgo, it's all very simple. The town receptionist made it all perfectly clear this morning. Basically, I am entered in a pig contest and I have no job and no home. Of course, for the next two weeks I will have to show up until my replacement, God help him, arrives for work."
"Mark, that doesn't explain anything to me. I know that you have been fired but people in town are saying that it's because you asked for a fifty-million dollar raise. It sounds like hogwash, Mark. It's not like you at all. "
"Walgo, you know better than to believe the people in Obsille. This is a rumor-mill if there ever was one. The fact is that my representative who was just as unelected as the old men in bad suits demanded that Th'Estate be given to me in exchange for my years of service at substantially less than minimum wage. Then I expect to find cyanide in my strawberry tea. "
"Mark, I never realized that you were having all of these problems. As far as a place for you stay, don't worry about that. You are always welcome at my house. It's not the same as this mansion of yours but you'll be able to relax and clear your mind."
The generosity of Walgo did not comfort me considering that I knew something would definitely bring me back and that Miriam would be free and unfettered until that something forced the hand of corrupt power in Obsille to return me to my post. There was much more to my situation than he could ever know and it was more that I could not tell him. I could use a place to sleep at night even though my mind could never allow me to sleep nor escape from the dark wallowing halls of despair known as Asetma.
"Walgo, it would be great to get away from here and stay at your place. We can catch up on everything we've missed over the past twenty years. I promise that girl won't be visiting me while I'm there."
Walgo looked at me with a grinding of his false teeth and an amber flame in his dim aged eyes saying "You're right she's not coming over. I'll lock the doors to keep her outside. All kidding aside, I haven't had a guest in my house since Maggy died. "
I knew that my old science teacher wasn't joking just from the odd expression on his face and the candid tenor of his rough voice. "Walgo, I'll bring my things over later. How much of the moonshine in the basement can we drink in two weeks? "
Walgo and I continued touring with the groups the remainder of the afternoon. Walgo was impressed with every aspect of the mansion especially the engineering work of the first Asetma's which was brilliant for its time and for any time. After the final tour we made some coffee in the small guest kitchen which was larger than any house in town. Walgo and I walked out onto the front porch and sat on the stone steps, sipping the hot coffee and enjoying the cool October breezes. The beauty of the day could not be marred by the darkness in my life and even the fogs common to the Asetma estate had abated to allow a clear view of the most distant stars as the sky darkened with the setting of the sun.
As the evening air cooled, Walgo rose and stretched his tired arms working the kinks from his legs. I would have to go inside before the doors were locked by Sheriff Braggs and get some clothes for my stay at Walgo's. I knew the doors would be locked early because no one, not even a disbeliever like Braggs would intentionally stay inside the Asetma mansion after dark. The sheriff didn't even step inside to lock the doors, fearing consumption by the occultant forces within.
He was in such a hurry that he forgot that I had my own key to the mansion. I took out my key and opened the back door to escape detection. The walk up to my bedroom was melancholy for everything that had transpired in the dark dank stone fortress and I found that I actually missed the comfort of the terror. My exile was from known fear to unknown fear. Miriam had to know that I could return as long as I was allowed to live.
In the bedroom I pulled out a denim duffle bag and filled it with three pairs of faded jeans, a pair of socks, my favorite boxers shorts, and a few plain white t-shirts. Additionally, I placed my leather-bound Bible, probably the only one in Asetma, and my gold-plated harmonica. I didn't look back when I walked out and closed the heavy door behind me. Looking back to Asetma would have been looking forward to a future that I was not ready to face.
As I neared the main foyer I realized that I hadn't seen Beth anywhere, even in the study where she spent hours reading romance and mysteries. Her world was in the books she read, of course there weren't many of her type of lives on the dusty shelves. Where she spent the hours in which she was beyond my sight was a complete mystery. Even in the pitch blackness matched only by Miriam's heart there was not a light to betray Beth's whereabouts.
Beth only came into the scope of my vision at her own choosing. I would see her every so often in the study reading. Whether or not she was actually there remains a mystery. It is not something that I have ever thought to ask. Neither the tourists nor the other slaves of Th'Estate ever disturbed her reading.
Knowing that I could not remain in Th'Estate long enough to find Beth, I set a time limit on how long I could look. Beth had remained hidden from me for weeks on end. It may sound heartless of me and I do not wish to give the impression that I cared about her one molecule less than I actually do. Power was not given to me to find her.
Before I left, I called out into the air for the friendly force that I could only see at his choosing. I asked Elder to watch over Beth in my absence. He did not answer me. Even in his silence, he had to know that failing me there would forever injure the trust that I had for him. Once lost, he would never have my respect again.
I slipped out of the back door to prevent being seen by anyone even though it was irrational to assume that even the shadow of anyone from Obsille would cross the Asetma wall after the setting of the sun. It was I alone who had withstood the terror of the dark estate. There were no other living keepers in Obsille. Nobody ever willingly went twice to Th'Estate.
Darkness had settled in for a few hours now and along with the new moon there was no light to aid my walk down the long road leading to town. It had not been worth installing streetlights because tourists were a daylight phenomenon. As with my walk through the deserted streets of Obsille, this walk was ghostly silent, and was made worse by the lack of light. I knew that the things I felt around me weren't all in my mind. I was close enough to the old Asetma haunts to see the realest ghosts, yet I decided to embrace fear. We were old friends.
A pair of brown eyes hovered over through the shadows to gaze on me. It was one of the few animals that I had seen in the Imperial forest, a dark grey-almost black, wolf with light tan patches around his eyes. As I looked into those red-orange rings of his irises, his face took on an almost human demeanor. It was not odd to me that I could feel a mind deep within the instinct driven beast. Nothing was odd to me close to Asetma.
Kinship drew me toward the beast. His silent call resonated in my head and I had to obey. He was a guiding angel to me. The point and purpose to which he guided me were for my finding and not for my knowing in advance.
The amorphous shadow drifted back and forth through the dry brush without making a sound, and I followed him deeper into the darkness. Trees became sparser after a few minutes of our game and stars began to light my path. Had I thought for even a moment, I would have questioned the way with which I ran through the unseen brush, across the uneven ground, through root and stone alike, without tripping. I too had the fluid mobility of a spectral form. Yet, I was in a real place, trapped in a real, mortal body.
My friend seemed to enjoy the chase. He could, at any time, have turned the tide and run me off with less energy than our game was expending, but he did not. Every so often, he would look back, his eyes deeply into mine, with a playful glance as if to ask, "are you coming?" I pulled the bag I bore up over my shoulder to free my hands and played more of the game.
Alas, in the end, I lost him. Rather, I came to a tree which I knew to be familiar, although I really was lost. I leaned my bulk, again solicitous and mortal, against the old centurion. With only a moment's rest, I walked around the tree to seek my companion and discovered, instead, a bullet scar in the bark.
The musket ball had been covered over by centuries of growth. I do not know how I found it, or even how I knew that I had found it, yet I was sure of my finding. This was the moor in which I had been not once but twice. Before me lay the misty grassland on which Adrian's fate had been sealed by the death of a young maiden. There was no question that mine was not the first time that the love of a woman, forbidden by a curse, had brought a champion into battle against the Asetma evil.
And the other time that I had been in that place? "Are you awake my old friend?" I called out into the darkness.
The mystery answered," I am but a tree and sleep only in the winter, Mark."
Back to the Index Chapter 9: What the Old Tree Saw.
Back to Pariah Online Magazine