Ice House: Asetma
Days passed as a blur. Miriam had little use for the pranks of lesser ghosts and did not toy with us much. She did appear in mirrors from time to time and use her temper to incite fistfights in the main foyer. Even to Miriam, these were mere parlor tricks and far below the station of a real Asetma monster. Freaks are low order monsters whereas Miriam was the real thing and wanted no doubters amongst the mortals living in her shadow.
On all the days in which I was on Asetma duty, I could not help but think of the bell tower. I walked in its shadow every time that I went back to Walgo's home. The lightning rod on top of the bell tower, a recent addition to the ancient monument, pointed me both back to Th'Estate and toward Walgo's front door when I was going there. My eyes were called to the bell housing whenever I passed in sight of it. It was beyond my power not to look to the tower even in my dreams.
I heard the bell ringing each night when my eyes closed for the pause of sleep. Its clear tolling came back to me in the last moments before the clock called me back to the waking world. We were nearing an anniversary known only to the cathedral of Saint Joel's. Living in Th'Estate at that part of the year, I had never heard the story of the other sentinels of Obsille. When last I called Obsille home, my eyes were yet closed to the truth beyond the shadow world of physical form.
The third of the three great estates of Obsille was the cathedral of the church. Saint Joel's stood through the dark years with more majesty but in as much disrepair as the other two great estates. It rivaled the mysticism of Asetma and the authority of Peridot. Had there been such a force in times as harsh as I lived my life in, then Saint Joel's would have been the shining star of Obsille.
Peridot, where the old men in bad suits made their residence, was the second estate of Obsille. None of the common residents of Obsille even knew why they had chosen to meet in the local theater and had done so for longer than any of us could recall. The old men ran the town through their blood pact even though we had an elected council. Their authority had not been challenged by Saint Joel's, which alone would have been the singular force for good in our lives, almost since the time of Miriam Asetma.
Obsille's selective amnesia gave legitimacy to the collective guilt that the old men had grown fat feeding on over the centuries. Few of us believed, even as all of us knew, that Miriam had earned the fate that our ancestors had awarded her. That the world would be better with one fewer life lived upon it is a hard thing to accept when you are so far from the events that bear witness to it. Ours was an enlightened age in which we had been blinded by the light.
It was the weekend after my walk with Mr. McGregor that I was drawn to into the presence of the bell tower. I was actually off and free to move about Obsille on that weekend at the end of the season. If I said that it was my choice to follow the shadow of the bell tower to its source, then I would be lying to you. There was no choice in what I did that day.
Something weighting heavy in my heart compelled me to cross the whole of Obsille and stand before the stone monument that was Saint Joel's. Its white stone walls had grown dark over centuries of standing its quiet vigil. An iron fence surrounded the building and grounds, letting in light where vines had not sealed the space between the rails. Everything about the structure felt strong and resilient. Placing my hand firmly upon one of the round posts of the fence, I pulled myself a few inches closer to the building without straining the firm metalwork.
The massive gates had not been closed in a long time and looked as though they had been rusted open. I paused a few moments before gathering the courage to pass between the brick supports that held the gate in place and start walking down the warped stone walkway. It was a short walk down the walkway, lined with stone angels in procession, until I reached the large wooden doors set between the twin bell towers. Smaller doors had been cut into the petrified wood of the larger doors. My strength would have been exhausted long before the larger doors would have noticed my presence and parted to my efforts.
Thrusting open the smaller door, still a large door when not compared to the larger door into which it had been cut, a calm scent reached out to greet me. The strongest aroma in the scent was from the cherry wood planks that framed the entryway. Incense purified the cherry scent. None of the other scents that I could split from the aroma were familiar to me.
I would say that the walls themselves had been paneled with heavy oak boards. Centuries of waxing had worn the surface of the wood paneling as smooth as plastic laminate. To my untrained hand, it actually felt like the falsified wood spread around the homes of Obsille. The planks were not as rough as those of the Asetma house. My feet noticed a slight curve to the wooden floor where age had deformed the lumber.
Moments passed while I stood in the antechamber between the outer door and a smaller door that led to the sanctuary. The whole room was dark and grew yet darker as the outer door floated closed behind me. Its hinges had been well cared for so the door moved without sound until it clicked shut. Like Obsille, I stood in the dark thinking about going further into the unknown. Obsille had a choice that I did not.
The inner door was lighter than I expected and that surprised me. It hit the wall with a dull thud which echoed in the vast space of the sanctuary. A shock tingled up my spine as though in preparation for death. I neither moved nor looked away from the door as it moved back toward me and finally closed itself. Nobody came to investigate.
My eyes grew courageous faster than I did. They scanned the room from the dark wood of the pews to the bright light passing through the near dome of stained glass overhead. It was to the side that they feared to glance. I did not fear to look upon the pulpit or the crucifix behind it. Beyond that was a pipe organ.
Fear was irrational within the sanctuary and I knew it better than my eyes did. I understood the truth better than my whole body did. But understanding does not dispel a feeling so deeply set in the mind. Understanding is not a defense any more than rationalization is reason.
I walked slowly down the aisle with confidence in my feet yet nowhere else in my body. A small voice within me did not want to be there. It was not my voice. My voice was silent in reverence, seeking to earn the salvation so freely offered in the church. Salvation was the prize that I desired, though I dared not even allow myself the dream of touching it.
Escaping Th'Estate, as I had done, was sure to cost Orsa more than I had paid during my imprisonment. I could not accept salvation if it was to cost the lives of the people that I loved. It was beyond my strength even to ask for the return of my own life. When I stood in the chapel, I stood in disgrace and ashamed to accept what I had been given.
The marble floor in the sanctuary did not yield to the pressure of my feet as the wooden floor of the entryway had. Marble did not warp under the flow of time. It supported the ornate arches lining the walls past the pews as well in my time as it had in the generation that set the foundation stones of the cathedral. I felt as though I had stepped through a crack in the fabric of time into a place where time feared to go. Was time wiser than I?
In the arches to either side of the altar, there was a door to the less public parts of the cathedral and three confessional booths to a side. The rows of pews came to an end just far enough back as not to interfere with the confessionals. On top of the arches, I noticed a wooden rail. Since I saw no public staircase, I assumed that the chorus must sit up there.
Coming to a stop behind the knee wall of the first row of pews, I took a seat in the pew on the right. Even the thoughts of my troubled mind had not been in the cathedral since childhood and I never had come in alone. I cannot say for sure why I went in at all. It just felt like the right place to go at that time. Asetma's slave asks no questions.
It was not in my nature to think of myself as anything but Asetma's slave. I would be owned no matter where I went or what I did. Even the old men in their bad suits could never set me free. One day, the sheriff would again have to lock me behind the firm gates of the nightmare castle.
I slid forward onto my knees to pray as I had not done in many years. Maybe I had never prayed in earnest. "Oh Lord, if you can hear me. Please grant me the guidance to know which path is mine and set my feet firmly upon it so that I may know that the way is mine."
A priest walked into the room and crossed between the altar and I without noticing me. He got a book from the room past the door on my side of the sanctuary and placed it on the podium in front of the altar. His focus was on his task and not on looking for outsiders like me. It may have taken him all of fifteen minutes to notice that I was silently kneeling behind the knee wall in front of the altar.
He spoke in words just stronger than a whisper. "I'll be right with you, sir."
My manners knew no words for a reply. I slipped back into the pew and waited. Maybe I had come to see this man. Perhaps I had already done all that I had come to do. The slave of Asetma, my place in life, knew that things would come to pass when they were meant to.
In the absence of the first man, an older man entered the sanctuary behind me. I felt calm in his presence as though it was him that I had been called to see. He wore the dark brown robes of a monk, covering his body completely from his neck to the floor. Even his hands were covered until he raised his arms and the sleeves of his robe fell back toward his elbows.
His hair was well kept and gray with the wisdom of age. It was no longer than my hair and covered the whole of his head like a fitted hood. The skin of his face was a warm flesh tone, neither tan nor pale to my eyes. In his hazel eyes, a place that I feared to look much of the time, burned a gentle warmth. Eyes are a window into the soul and I wanted not to be known that well so I kept my eyes from meeting the eyes of any other soul I encountered.
My observations took only an instant while he rounded the pews and came about in front of me. I stood up as he placed his hands on the knee wall in front of me. Our eyes did meet for a moment and I was ashamed in a way that I did not understand. Quickly, I looked bowed my head just enough to keep my eyes from meeting his directly.
"What can the good Lord's servant do for you on this fine day?"
"I do not know the force that has brought me here but I had to come. You know that it has been a long time since I was last in this place."
"We each serve our chosen master. To serve our master poorly is to serve another master well." His voice was as rhythmic as a chant echoing through the halls of the cathedral.
"Do I get a choice in all of this?"
"Every service is a choice even if you do not realize it as you choose."
"And what if I choose to serve only my own will?"
I saw him smile a slim smile before he answered. "There is also a master for those souls who believe that they serve only themselves. A dark lord best suits a blind congregation."
"Why should I give worship to your Lord, then? 37 of your brothers could not put an end to the Asetma curse as they put an end to Miriam's life."
"Even to this day, the old men are gifted in the ways of law and lacking in the ways of justice. Justice is a spiritual quality as wisdom sets above knowledge."
I paused a moment, nearly letting my eyes fall where I feared to look. "You sound like my magic teacher."
His smile melted away and he handed me his old Bible. "If you wish to learn the art of your gifts, then I suggest going to the manual directly."
"If your Lord has such power, then why does Obsille live still under this Asetma curse?"
"The best way to know that you have been chosen for a mission is to ask God why he hasn't already completed it."
"Are you saying that it is my job to break the Asetma curse?"
"Many are willing to forgive sin in spite of the sinner. In return for grace, we are expected to do our master's bidding. You ask why God has not done something to free this town of the curse without understanding that he has done something. He sent you."
I drew a deep breath from the calm air inside the sanctuary. "If this is my task to do, then why should your Lord be credited with doing it?"
"What I see in you, Mark, is the willingness to save those souls which have passed beyond the shadow of salvation. They do not know that they can yet be saved and there are few who will even try. You may be amongst the first to minister to them."
Footsteps in the deeper halls of the cathedral warned of the other priest's imminent return. I felt rushed by the sounds. "You have not answered my question."
"In all cases, what must be done is beyond all of us. Great deeds that none amongst the living shall ever know of are yours to do. You are a standard bearer, Mark. Without the Lord in your heart, the standard that you must bear, this task cannot be done by anybody."
"I am not sure that I understand you. Is that your only answer, Father?"
The side door of the sanctuary opened noisily and drew my eyes from the priest to whom I had been speaking. I saw the first priest return with a stack of books piled sloppily in his hands. When I turned to ask the second priest why he offered the first priest no aid, the second priest was gone. He had silently departed from my presence.
I walked over to the first priest and did what I could to help him carry the books to the altar. Then while waiting for the return of the second priest, I helped the first priest to place books in the pews. Both tasks were completed without a hint of the second priest's return. The truth was that I did not expect him to return.
Something within me knew that there was no point in trying
to find the second priest. I did not
even ask the first priest about him. Asetma
was not the only place in the old town of
"Surely, you have not come all this way to help an old man in his chores, son."
I was not sure that I had anything left to say to the first priest, although I owed him an audience. "Perhaps."
"You need not be so evasive here, Mark. The Lord already knows what you have come to say."
"You know me, Father?"
"And why should I not? You bear the burden of the whole town and all who dwell here know you."
"I suppose that I came for comfort in trying times."
He tried to look me in the eyes while he spoke, however, I was uncomfortable and avoided his gaze. "Feel free to clear your conscience here, son."
"I do not know if my conscience is troubled or if it is my mind that needs the comforting embrace of understanding."
"Whispered voices in town speak of you trying to stake claim to more than the keepership of Th'Estate."
"Actually, that's Oletta's work. She appeared one day and claimed to be my maid and financial planner."
"For myself, I should say that it would be worth the loss to the town if you could vanquish the evil of Th'Estate, Mark."
"There's little enough chance of that, father. The truth is that I do not want Th'Estate."
"Who is this Oletta, really? Though I try to keep a pure ear, there are rumors spreading fast around Obsille."
"The rumors know more than I do, then. I cannot even be sure that she's a real person."
"And what of Orsa, my son?"
My breath fled my body for a moment and returned with a gasp. "I'm not sure that I know what you mean, father."
"Obsille is a small town, Mark."
"And you are into gossip, I see."
"I have known you since I baptized you. Though seldom mentioned in the daylight, the keeper of Asetma is an important man around here."
"Does Orsa know about me?"
"The town speaks in whispers about Oletta, so Orsa must have heard. I cannot speak for what she knows in her heart."
"Asetma is a larger estate than Saint Joel's. I can have servants there and not be defiled. How many people live here?"
"There are not more than seven of us here."
"I am alone in my life at Th'Estate. Only I live there."
The priest looked at his watch, winding the spring a few turns when he did so. "We've an early day tomorrow, my son. Will I see you at the service this week?"
"Only God knows what will happen, father."
"Then I'll take that as a yes and be expecting you, Mark."
We parted company and walked on our separate ways. The priest walked back into the living area behind the sanctuary and I made my way out toward the front door. I took my last few steps in darkness. What little light had remained in the sanctuary had been shut down by the old priest.
There was movement in the darkness. There is always movement in the darkness around me. Faith alone guided my wavering steps toward the entryway doors. I couldn't help but feel that I was being tested. Is anything not a test?
I so expected Elder to appear at that moment that I heard his voice speaking my words. Elder held his peace. Either the old monks had spoken his words for him, a lesson that he was spared from teaching, or he had no lesson for me. Whatever my attachment to Saint Joel's, it was so strong that even Elder could not overcome it.
My thoughts wandered as much as my feet did for the rest of the day. There were several times that I saw the green eyed girl around the corner and in alleys around Obsille. Each time that my eye was drawn to her form in a shadowy place, my mind dismissed the image with a closer look. Lost in the confined spaces of Obsille and my own mind, it was hard to find fear in my disorientation. I was comfortable being utterly lost in places that I knew so well.
It was well past sundown when I came back to Walgo's doorstep. He did not open the door for me and did not even seem to notice my presence. I entered the house quietly, bolting the thin, light door behind me. Walgo had a thin stew in a crock pot on the stove, simmering for as long as it took me to get home for the night. There were no questions for me to answer.
The meal itself was very good. Walgo had become a good cook in the time that he had lived alone. Unlike me, he cared about such small things. Even in the absence of servants, I only saw meals as a sad necessity of the organic prison to which I had been consigned for the period of one mortal life. Life in Th'Estate was a chore that I endured out of a sense of duty.
Walgo's silence was maddening and I felt scolded by it. Although I had little enough conversation over my meals in the Asetma mansion, I had always felt that there was a point to it all. The ghosts wanted me in my place even if nobody else did. Being met with the silence of Walgo was like being unwelcome in all of the world. I wanted to go home and had no idea where that really was for me.
Sleep was a welcome escape.
It did not matter if I had a moment's rest as long as I was out of the
unwelcoming world where I was condemned to spend my waking hours. My spirit walked abroad through the greater
world outside of time and space. There
was more to see than I had anticipated.
I came again to the bell
A crowd, 21 churchmen and 16 parishioners gathered in the shadow cast by the bell tower against the bright moon. The whole group gathered for a prayer in the shadow of the single tower on the right side of the entrance. My presence watched from the shadow of the left tower, where I could see everything and hear most of what was said. An irate father, called Milton Church by some in attendance, begged God for the life of his daughter.
No word from the monks would call his spirit back to peace
on that night. He was promised, time and
again, that his brethren would stand with him in his hour of need. God would not forsake him if he stood with
the spirit. But
Then the Avenging Angels mounted their horses for the ride
The hoof beat of the horses was deafening. So much blood and so many lives had been taken from Obsille that there was nothing else to do. No man in the posse had not been touched by the loss of a life to the Asetma bloodlust. And yet, it was a slow and solemn ride to Th'Estate. A good man cannot take joy in an evil act, even when the act is just.
My dream would not allow me to ride with the Avenging Angels that night. It was the memory of Saint Joel's that I was invited to share and not that of the men who rode in the name of justice that night. Saint Joel's only knew of the things that it had been witness to in the long history of Obsille. Although I doubt that the cathedral was proud of that memory, it was a job that had to be done as none but I would understand in my time. Maybe that is why I was allowed to share the memory.
Morning came early as I awoke to the sound of the church bell that was too far away for me to really hear. Ordinances in Obsille forbade the bell to ring as loud as it had in the days of the Avenging Angels. The clapper in the bell had been replaced with one of cork to muffle the sound. There was talk in Obsille that the Old Men in Bad Suits were working on having the bells banned completely. I still heard the bell across town in my sleep.
Whatever their complaint, the Old Men in Bad Suits hated Saint Joel's. They would have done away with it long ago if they had been given the power. Something had protected the church through all the generations of the Old Men in Bad Suits. That was the reason that I decided to attend services on that morning.
I did not possess any really dressy clothes. There was no use of formal attire while I was
the prisoner of Th'Estate. The bell
called out that I was to come as I was and, even as I was ashamed to come in my
stained clothing, I did go. It was an
act of defiance for me.
Few people attended the services at Saint Joel's in our enlightened age. We lived in the shadow of evil, denying the existence of good with all our minds. It was easier to live under a curse than in obedience to a higher law. Has not Man made himself the measure of all things in his world?
Our priest was a distant relation of mine, George Holder. I did not even know that there were any relations of my father left in Obsille. From what my father had told us, when Stan and I were children, the Holder family had moved to Treehaven. When my father died, Stan and I were the only Holders left in Obsille as far as I had ever been told. Meeting Uncle George came as a shock to me.
George Holder was a godly man who preached with approachability that I had not expected. He walked down the isle during the sermon, calling the sheep in the pews by name when he could. The children, who outnumbered the adults by a small margin, answered his calls without fear. Young children did not cry at his approach. Older children called him sir.
He preached to us on the subject of spiritual gifts. Like a light on a foggy night, our gifts are a guide to the lives that we are called to live. It was a lesson that I could not escape wherever I went. Elder, the monk and the Pastor George Holder all agreed that the nature of my gift was a compass providing me with direction in my life. None of them, however, had told me how to read that compass.
My skill with a hymnal was as rusty as my singing voice. Maybe that was God's way of saving the congregation from my musical incompetence. When I finally let go, concentrating on the words over the attempt to read the page, I got the hang of it. Before the service ended, I felt that I belonged where my life had placed me. All the discomfort of Walgo's silence passed away with the singing of an old hymn.
I walked to my surrogate home with a new sense of purpose. When I got there, I went to the room that Walgo had loaned to me and opened the monk's Bible. The pages had the scent of vanilla about them and I flipped through the discolored paper just for the comfort the scent gave me. Hours seemed to pass before Walgo came to get me.
It would only have been right for Walgo to assign me a few chores around his house. I did not complain over having to rake up the leaves or do the morning dishes. No slave of Asetma is shy about menial tasks. These are the labors that keep all the hours of all the days of our mortal lives from blurring together like newsprint in the rain. For all others, these jobs are the foundation that leads to bigger and better things.
Maybe for the slaves of Asetma, there is more to be gained when the simpler tasks come to an end. Will God not reward those of us whom he sets aside to battle evil in the lower world? The last shall be the first in his kingdom. How much lower can you get than being a slave of Asetma?
The day passed before I knew that it had begun in earnest. It was like a chapter that takes weeks to write and you read the whole of it in a few minutes. That chapter may represent years, yet it passes several times over in an hour for the reader. To the scribe who loves the words as much as the tale that he so faithfully encodes, the years seem to take decades to pass even as it is written out in only weeks.
Time was not on Walgo's mind. He went in to make the evening meal while I was lost in my labors. When I was almost completed my task, he returned to fetch me for supper. Walgo's time was told in tasks in the place of hours, minutes and seconds.
He did not come out into the failing light. "Now, you wash up for supper, Mark."
My eyes did not leave the pile that I had gathered together in the hours that I had worked. "Yes, Walgo."
There was a welcome mat just outside of Walgo's front door to keep visitors from tracking yard debris through the house. The words had worn so thin that they blended into the straw background and I could not read them. I did not have to read the words to know that Walgo had them facing the right way. Walgo welcomed the whole of the world to his front door.
I tapped off the dirt of the day before even opening the door. It was turning colder and Walgo did not wish to waste the heat by leaving the door open, even for me. Following his lead, I more slipped through the door than stepped through the threshold. The door never opened more than it had to.
"It's getting to the cold part of the year, Mark. I should have had the yard ready weeks ago."
Washing my hands in the bathroom sink did not put me too far from the kitchen to hear or respond. "We do most of the work on the Asetma grounds about this time of year. You're not as late as you might think."
"I don't have any fancy servants around here, Mark. If the grass dies under my feet, I'll never catch up with all the work."
"I'll keep that in mind when I'm looking for a job."
Walgo's voice weakened as he carried the pot from the stove to the table. I heard him cough his lungs clear at least twice on the trip of about fifteen feet. It was hard for me to remember how sick Walgo was. He didn't have a disease that you could see to look at him. By appearances, he was in better shape than I was.
Our conversation paused for all the preparation that we needed for the meal. Walgo brought the meal to the table and I set the table without being asked. I could see how hard it was for Walgo to speak. His face was red from the strain of his coughing spell. If he had not almost collapsed into his chair, then I would have told him to sit down while I fetched the utensils.
It wasn't long before Walgo was talking again. "Do you really think that they're going to let you go, Mark?"
"That's what they tell me."
"The Old Men in Bad Suits never like to lose, Mark. They do not let go of you once they own you."
I took my seat opposite to Walgo's place at the table. "It isn't like Oletta gave them much choice, Walgo. They couldn't let her tough talk them out of Th'Estate."
"It's just that I fear for you, my boy. They keep what they claim as their own."
"Lord knows that it was the Sheriff put me in my place. The Old Men shouldn't know of me, much less care who Sheriff Braggs uses for the real work up at Th'Estate."
A short prayer of thanks interrupted our idle chatter. It was just as well, for the talk had turned more stale than idle. Each of us said grace alone, although there were two of us in the room. Neither of us heard the other man's words.
"Where did you go early this morning, Mark? I heard you return."
Before I spoke, I cleared my mouth. "I went to Saint Joel's this morning. I'm not sure why. The place just seemed to call to me."
"You're letting Th'Estate get to you, Mark."
"No stone in Obsille is beyond the shadow of that place."
A drink did wonders for the strength of Walgo's voice. "I used to go by Saint Joel's a couple times a month. A lot of good it did me."
"It's easy to fear the light when you live in the darkest part of a shadow."
"You're saying that Obsille is more afraid to ask for help than to die of the curse?"
"Most of us go up to Th'Estate once in our lives. When it comes to the church, we're so afraid of what the neighbors will say that we do not even go inside once."
"The curse of Obsille is not much your problem, anymore."
I took a drink and it tasted so good that I took several more swallows before I commented. "On that score, I am not so sure."
Walgo emptied his plate and filled it again. "Just promise me that you'll do something with the talent you've been given, Mark."
"What did you have in mind, Professor?"
"There's a university up in Harmony. Finish your studies, my boy. I know what you can do Mark."
"You may be right that the Old Men in Bad Suits will not let me go, Walgo. It may be that my destiny lies here in Obsille."
"God cannot mean for a talent like yours to be thrown away in a place like this. Think of what you can do for this old world, Mark."
"Do you consider your time in Obsille to have been wasted, Professor?"
Walgo had to think a long time before he would respond, but I could read his answer in his tired eyes. He thought so long that I felt I would never get a verbal answer from him. As much as he was trying to keep it out of sight, Walgo was thinking over his life and was not entirely happy with the results. Part of him did consider his work in Obsille to have been a waste of his own life. It was a mistake that he did not want me to repeat.
There was no truth that I could tell Walgo that would have cleared the worry from his brow. He was not the kind of man who would openly have believed in the necessity of magic in our modern age. What power I had been given would have seemed no more than mental illness to Walgo. I respected Walgo too much to tell him the truth and have him hurt. His scorn would have been too great a weight for me to bear for the remainder of my mortal term.
"Well Mark. My teaching will not have been wasted if even one of my pupils goes on to be what I could not have been in my life. If only two go on to greater things, my boy, then my life will have been well spent."
It was not by chance that Walgo called on two of his students to go further in life than he had. A girl that I had only known as Daniella had gone on to college in Harmony and was working on becoming a teacher. Walgo hoped better for her as he did for me. Where there is life, there is hope.
The darker secret of the matter was that Maggy had not died
alone in the car crash. Two hoodlums had
stolen a stop sign from a road near
When Walgo lost his wife, he turned his teaching into his life. Each child in Walgo's class was one of his children. We became more than Walgo's subjects. He valued us enough to sacrifice his own life. That is what brought Walgo to where he had reached in the twilight of his life.
We turned back to our meal and closed our mouths to distracting pursuits. Such silence is a musical symphony in its own rights. Each of us had more to say and held his piece from the knowledge of what would come of speaking more aloud. There were, in truth, no secrets between us.
After the meal, I cleaned up the dishes and Walgo started a fire in the living room fireplace. When I got done, the front room was warm as no part of Th'Estate ever had been. I got the Bible that I had been given before retiring to the living room with Walgo. He had a book of his own and I never asked the title.
In a darker corner at the back of the room, a rocking chair set itself into motion. With a flair of bright light from the fireplace, I could make out a dense shadow sitting on the hard wooden seat of the chair. There was a book in her lap as well. The green jewels of her eyes were all that remained visible when the flame returned to its normal height.
Walgo never saw her and I was not afraid. The three of us read on until time came for bed. Every so often, I would look over to the rocking chair with the edge of my vision just to see if our visitor remained in her place. I did not want Walgo to see what I was doing and, as far as I know, he never caught on. When Walgo announced that he was headed to bed, the green eyed sprite was already gone.
Another tour of Asetma duty arrived with the first light of the late year sun. I knew that I would have missed Th'Estate if I had not gone back that day. It was a pull that I could not have avoided if all my strength had aligned against it. Th'Estate was actually a place that I wanted to go.
The old bell tower welcomed me as I passed by it. I could hear the bell ringing in its silent tower and I saluted it in passing. Without a second though, I waved to the monk who was sweeping the sidewalk. He spent but a moment returning my greeting and that was enough for me. It is an odd feeling to wake up after having lived in a single place all your life and to suddenly feel that you belonged where you were.
Estate Avenue was one of the few roads in Obsille that was
properly maintained. Only the roads
needed for the tourist trade were kept in good repair at public expense. During the off season, all of
My feet enjoyed every step.
I could feel the darker presences in the heart of the
Unseen minds plotted to have their own way. I could feel them calculating their revenge; first for being born at all and secondly for my resolve. Why this did not bother me was a mystery. The mystery upset my opposition even more. Whatever held the phantoms inside the shadows held them against their collective will.
There was an unseen companion on my trip to work. I felt him stronger the closer that I got to Th'Estate. It was by choice that I did not engage the invisible form walking at my side. He would make himself known in his own time. The walk was too pleasant for interruptions that could be avoided.
Elder did not take form until I was safely inside the gates of Th'Estate. He just faded into being with each step that he took. I could have overtaken him, but I allowed him to get ahead of me. His presence was not a surprise to me. The absence of Elder in Obsille, especially missing the opportunity at Saint Joel's, had been the surprise.
"You feel more confident, Job."
"I'm finding my purpose, Elder."
In other times, I would have been self conscious and careful talking to somebody that could only be seen by the initiated. I had no evidence that Elder was invisible to everybody, although I knew that people can choose not to see ghosts. Faith can blind as it can expose. There was simply nothing left of my reputation to protect.
Elder stopped a few feet in front of me, turning to look directly at me while he spoke. "It is your place to put Miriam back and set the curse to right, Job."
"I'll do it as soon as you teach me how, Elder."
I'm not sure, however, I believe that Elder smiled at me. It was a playful smile if he did smile at me. "Keep your eyes on the prize, Job."
"How do I get strong enough to face Miriam down?"
"Spiritual battles are not fought with the body, Job. Your insight serves you well. To gain power, you just have to conserve what passes through you every day of your life."
"Where does the power come from, Elder?"
"Power is the nature of creation, Job. Even the physical world is a spiritual creation. As long as your spirit is within that body, guiding it on its journey through time, you are charging it with the power of your spirit."
I tried to feel what Elder was talking about and failed. "How do I collect enough power from my spirit to overcome Miriam and put her back?"
"Most of your power, in the living of your life, simply ebbs out and is absorbed by the world around you. If you hold onto it longer, then you build up a reserve."
That I could feel. It was a strange feeling like I was vaporizing into the air around me. "Okay, Elder. How do I stop my magic from draining into the world around me?"
He took a step backwards, into the shadow of the main house. "As I told you earlier, Job, you stop using your power wastefully. Be deliberate in your every though, plan and action."
"You know that doesn't sound like a workable plan? It's just running off into the universe and I cannot just stop using it. I'm not even using what I am losing at this time."
Elder began to fade away. "Remember, Job. The power is from your spirit. Your spirit controls your magic the same way it governs your body. You are chosen because you already have the ability to control it."
Seconds passed while I considered talking further with Elder. I knew that he was not going to stay around to answer me. Maybe he didn't really know what he was trying to teach me. More likely, it is easier to do magic than to teach it. Either way, there were too many people counting on me for me to fail.
My teacher was still close enough know if I tried what I had been taught, so I put my body in action by my will. It sounded like a good collection of words. As long as I could hold it, it actually seemed to be helping. I did feel less of my power drain off into Th'Estate. Maybe I was not really sensing anything but my desire to feel something.
The heavy doors of the mansion were thick enough that I could trust that I had not been overheard. Two feet of stone wall did not conduct sound very well either. As long as nobody was walking through the yard, nobody had heard my talk with Elder. To tell the truth, I simply did not care.
Somebody else unlocked the doors. I never gave away that I still had my own keys. Amongst the living, only Beth and I knew that I had keys to anything in Th'Estate. Time would come when I would return as the permanent keeper of Th'Estate.
It was the slowest day of the year's ending. I could have handled more than the tourist flow of that day with no aid from the living. By lunch, most of the public servants had drifted on home for an early end to the work day. Just three of us remained on call and that was more than Th'Estate needed.
Miriam missed a perfect chance to pop up and make a nuisance of herself. She was so busy looking for her lost treasure that I was of no value. Had she chosen to, then she could have done anything that she wanted to the other two of us on the public payroll. Only I had any knowledge of Miriam's true power.
To the other two, bound by loyalty to their paychecks, Miriam was a mere fantasy sold to foreigners. They saw Th'Estate as part of Obsille's entertainment industry. Other towns had film industries and there was a thriving porn industry a few towns over from Obsille. Obsille had Th'Estate to amuse outsiders with.
But, they could feel the ever-present shadow in the depths of their souls. It made your back hurt at the end of the day. The dark presence followed you in the back of your own mind, sending static waves of fear up your spine. By each day's end, the tension that you carried by the light day had condensed into a dull ache in the middle of your back. Denial was food for the shadows that haunted the weary wanderers in Th'Estate.
Lunch found me in the one place that I should have been. I went to the very dining room where the slave of Th'Estate was given each of his meals. On that day, I was far from alone. Beth had set the table, preparing a meal far more elaborate than the fresh fruit and sandwich that I had planned to dine upon. From the scent of it, I would say that she had all the skills of any chef ever to labor in the bowels of the Asetma mansion.
A place had been set for each of the three of us, plus a plate for Beth herself, by the time I reached the dining hall. I cannot say why I was so uncomfortable about not having helped with the meal. Beth had left me no choice in the matter. My two compatriots expressed no discomfort at all with their luck. It had never been my place to have servants.
When I opened the dining hall door, Beth's strong voice echoed out and down the hall. "Wash up before lunch, you guys."
I did as I was told. As for the actions of the other two in my party, I cannot say. They may have been mannered or they may have been as children outside their mother's watch. There must be a reason why I feel nothing about them.
Beth placed me at the head of the dining table, further from the kitchen and nearest to the entry door. She placed herself at the foot of the table, near to the kitchen. Each of the others was given a place on the side of the table, closer to me than to Beth. It seemed as though Beth wanted as little to do with the strangers as I did in those moments.
Even if she had tried, Beth could not have prevented me from carrying the pots from the kitchen to the table. She made no visible attempt to stop me. However, she also said nothing to me while I labored at her side. The only thing that she gave me was a smile. Beth had a smile like a thousand suns.
There was one thing that I did which did elicit a response from Beth. I pulled out her chair for her. She thanked me the way you would thank your father and I had a feeling that I do not know the name of. After sliding her chair in toward the table, I walked to my end of the long table while Beth lowered her head in prayer.
The others did not wait. Beth waited for me to say grace before she moved again. I was stunned. It had been a long time since I had seen anybody with such spiritual grace and, even as I hardly knew it, I missed it. Those moments were like the brightest days of the better times of Asetma. That was the first time that I felt that I belonged to the majesty that was once part of the Asetma birthright.
To the others with us that day, I can say nothing of their names or their manners. They had no place at the ancient table where Beth and I dined. No more than servants, it felt strangely like we belonged to high society. It must have been how Elisabeth felt in her place at the older Asetma mansion.
After the meal, I remained behind to help with cleanup. I was not needed to guide tours that day. Only Beth would have missed me if I had not been in Th'Estate at all that day. Everything about that day was somehow blessed so much that it was outside of Obsille and the shadow of Th'Estate.
"You haven't been having diner here, Mark."
"My maid and financial planner got me fired, Beth. They're not letting me live at Th'Estate anymore."
"I've been missing you, Mark."
We spoke while washing the dishes, neither one diverting his eyes from the task. There was an unspoken bond between us that I had never noticed before. Beth had always seemed to belong to Th'Estate. I was coming into my own as lord of Th'Estate. As such, I too came to belong.
"Elder tells me that I will be exiled back here again."
"Is it really so bad here, Mark?"
"In earlier days I would have said yes without missing a heartbeat. I have come to doubt that answer."
"Can you not see that you have come home at last?"
"You don't seem to spend much of your time here either."
"Th'Estate is home to you, Mark. My home still calls to me."
"Where is home, Beth?"
"Unlike you, I have not yet found it, Mark. That's why it frustrates me so that you have tossed your home aside like a prison."
"Where do you spend all this time when nobody sees you here?"
"You should know Mark. I'm looking for my home."
"Truthfully, you behave like a ghost, Beth."
She giggled for an instant, then caught herself. "Ghosts do not eat, Mark."
"Being Mark, I am glad that ghosts do not eat Mark."
I'm not sure if she got the jest. Things were getting far too serious for me. Beth acted as though I had not spoken. Maybe she had not even heard me.
Beth's words wondered through walks in the sunlight and picnics at the edge of nearby rivers. She spoke fondly of the twinkling of stars and the wishing of wishes. The old church bell was the comfort to her that it was becoming to me. Its ring called out to her, as it had to me, yet she feared to walk nearer to it.
We talked on through the rest of my shift and nobody seemed to notice. When we parted company for the night, Beth promised to walk to the church with me in future days. She was safe to remain in Th'Estate while I was no longer officially welcome. That is where I left her for the long, lonely walk home.
Again, the dark sprites in the
I got up at the usual time and waited in the main room of Walgo's house for Walgo to start his day. It was a Saturday so there was no rush. Late in the year, I was not going to Th'Estate that weekend. Next weekend, we would start shutting down Th'Estate for the winter and I would have to work all seven days for the next two weeks.
Sheriff Braggs would not dare to put the new keeper in Th'Estate for the winter. Orsa would not last out the winter alone against the Asetma monsters. If he put Orsa into captivity over the winter, then he had to know that he would lose her before even getting a full season's use out of her. Odds were good that she would not remain amongst the living through a full tourist season.
Walgo was up and coughing for nearly an hour before I actually saw him. It was not an image that I wanted to have of my old professor. At least I did not see him in his weakness. By the time I did see him, with a mug of coffee in his left hand, he was standing strong on his own two feet.
He offered me a cup of coffee and I chose to accept. I did get it myself. Walgo was a good host and I tried my best to be a good guest. That was my reason for wanting to talk to Walgo that morning.
"Walgo, if you will not be needing me today, I should look for work today."
"Good luck with that, son. You know what Obsille's employment is like."
"Overtaxed, overregulated and underrepresented."
Walgo laughed as much as he could without spilling his coffee. "That about sums it up, Mark."
I refilled Walgo's cup for him. "I still should look. It's not right that I should lean on you for everything."
"I'd like you to make me a promise, Mark. If you cannot find anything this weekend, I'd like you to put in for a scholarship. Just do that for me and you can stay as long as you need to."
My mind was confused for an instant. When I promised Walgo to do as he asked, I did fully intend to comply. However, I also knew that I would not really stand a chance at getting away from Th'Estate. I would keep my job by the will of forces well beyond me.
Walgo knew that I would not find anything and thought that he would get his way. He was right that he had me. If he had been any less devoted to his goals, then he would not have survived the loss of his earlier life. Good old Walgo would have voted down the forces that owned my fate if he had been given the opportunity.
"If that is what you wish, Walgo. I'll be out for dinner."
He did not answer me, nor did he have to. When I finished my coffee and walked out into the cooling Obsille air, we both knew that I would come back empty handed. My going out was entirely symbolic. Walgo could not lose that way.
The only thing that came to me was the possibility that I would be brought to another of the guideposts on my journey. Otherwise, I would not have had the strength to go out at all. I wandered around the streets of Obsille looking for any signs that there was work to be had. Everything that I knew about Obsille told me that ‘help wanted' signs did not sell well in Obsille.
It felt good to walk the streets again. I had not been chosen to meet anybody in the streets that day. My walk gave me exercise and made me tired. Instead of walking on, I stopped in the first diner that I came across.
I walked into a smoky room unlike any in Obsille. A band played in the corner and a few couples
danced in the open floor in the middle of the room. That single room felt larger than the whole
As I stepped into the room, I thought back to the big parties that the Asetma family had hosted in the height of Th'Estate. I was so out of place that I was caught off guard when somebody actually approached me. A well groomed man in formal attire guided me to a seat close to the dance floor. He had those haunting green eyes.
Out on the dance floor, I took notice of one couple that seemed close to me for a reason. I cannot explain that feeling if you do not already know it. The gentleman had his back to me. He felt familiar, but I did not know him. His dancing partner could only have been mistaken for Miriam Asetma.
She was younger and more full of life than I had ever seen her. The pale white Gown actually seemed to fit her. It was ornate to the point of excess. Miriam did not seem to be looking down on anybody while she danced. I had never seen Miriam look happy before that time.
Her date could not take his eyes off of her. There was love between them that I could feel across the space between us. It was the kind of love that I had hoped to have with Orsa when I had a life. The man would not turn so that I could see anything but his back.
I looked away long enough to see the table beside mine. Sitting there was a man who looked almost exactly like Sheriff Braggs with those enchanted green eyes. He wore thick glasses and a fine suit that almost seemed to glow. Everybody that I saw in the room had the same green eyes. One person, a young version of Elder from the look of him, lacked the eyes of the others.
"No sleeping at the bar, sir. If you need a room, we got those to let."
My eyes came open as my head bounced off of the hard wooden table in front of me. I was wide awake at that point. My mouth seemed to be moving on its own and I could not hear what I was saying. It was a fitting end to the day.
Standing to my left, in a red dress, I saw the woman who had spoken to me. She took my order, jotting it on the yellow pad in her hand, although I did not remember giving it to her. That was another of the things that I took for granted that day. At least my meal was right when it arrived.
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