With glitter on her cheeks and a smile on her face she tells me she’s going to bleed tonight. The colors are calling her and she’s stripping off and heading out.
Pretty girl; head full of dreams and smart drugs and the Kabbala and fifth dimensional physics.
Don’t go, I tell her. Stay here with me and enjoy the suit you’re wearing. The colors will always be there, and she’s younger than most who choose to listen to the call, split their fleshsuits and emerge from the cocoon and into the up and out.
Sailing off into the direction that can’t be pointed to.
She tells me how bright the colors are, and how they dance and what they whisper to her and she holds my hand and I think of that soft skin dissolving into colors and bleeding out of space-time.
I can go with her. Strip loose my skin like millions have done over the ten years since the true nature of the world and the colors opened up to us.
She strokes my cheek with something like love and rests her hand against my chest and whispers about what a tired old world this is. How it was only ever here for us to grow in and now we can leave when we want and go out there; into the colors.
Her hand slips out of mine and she smiles. She can’t wait. She can feel the call, see the colors closing around her.
A final kiss. She smiles and stands and she’s looking past me at angles I can’t see and then she’s cracking.
Time blurs and runs like wax, and she’s stripping. Cracks appearing in her fleshsuit and the colors bleeding out.
Her colors washing out over me and bleeding away into hyperspace. Beautiful colors with no names, only emotion.
I could have gone with her, but I never wanted the colors. I’m greedy and scared and I don’t want to leave the cradle just yet.
I only ever wanted to hold her hand.
Sinclair Dodd opened his eyes. Darkness enveloped the car, which tilted to the driver side. Thunder rolled in the distance as the storm moved east. Confusion clouded his thoughts. A man stood in the road and Sinclair swerved, ending up in the ditch. He remembered a face against the window before he passed out. Sinclair let out a slow breath.
He checked his body. No major pain. All his appendages worked, so he did not have any broken bones. His head throbbed with each heartbeat and his hands found a lump.
“I need help,” he said, as he groped for the cell phone. Sinclair flipped on the overhead light and spotted the phone on the floorboard, along with his brief case, the Common Book of Prayer, and the Bible his mother gave him on graduation.
Unbuckling the seatbelt, he grabbed the phone and dialed. Nothing happened. He looked at the faceplate. No Service. Sinclair muttered a mild oath. “Guess I have to walk. But where?”
He sighed and gathered his belongings. Sinclair looked for the man who had sent him into the spin, but saw nothing. He opened the door and struggled out of the car. The air smelled of ozone and wet dirt. Few trees lined the road, which was little more than a sheet of mud over dry dirt. “I could have sworn this road was paved.” Sinclair shrugged. “When I take a wrong turn, I take a wrong turn.”
He looked around. Brief flashes of lightning from the departing storm lit the landscape, otherwise the countryside hid in the darkness. A light glowed in the distance. Sinclair smiled. Maybe, they’ve got a phone.
A full moon appeared from behind breaking clouds, lighting his way. Sinclair puffed as he walked up the narrow drive. He stopped and stared. Wood siding in need of paint and decayed roofing displayed the shack’s disrepair. The poverty saddened him. Light flickered in the window. Sinclair raised an eyebrow and walked toward the door.
“Who’s out there?” A male voice called from inside.
“Hi. I am The Reverend Sinclair Dodd,” he said. “My car broke down a few miles back. I need to use a phone.”
Silence answered. Sinclair started to speak again, but the door creaked opened. A black man walked onto the dilapidated porch. “Reverend, I am sorry that you are having trouble. I don’t know what you asked for, but I ain’t got it.”
Sinclair smiled. “That’s all right. Would you know who does have a phone?”
The man stared, then shook his head. “Your carriage throw a wheel or something, Reverend? I can help you with that in the morning. Or I can take you into to town on my wagon.”
“It’s all I got, sir,” the man said, averting his eyes. “The town folk won’t mind if I’m helping out a preacher. You can drive, I’ll sit in the back when we get near town. That way they won’t talk.”
“Does no one live near here?”
“No, sir,” he said. “I expect you going to have to spend the night.”
Sinclair scrunched his eyebrows together and frowned. Spending the night was not an option he had considered. “I don’t want to put you out, sir.”
The black man glanced around as if anyone might be listening, then smiled. “Reverend, I don’t have room for you in my shack. I only got one room and ten children and the missus. Besides, a white man staying in my house would be dangerous.” He pointed to the right. A two-story house stood about a hundred yards away.
“You can stay in the master’s house. Don’t nobody live there no more, not since the master died. I keep it up for the family. Mistress Bell done gave us our freedom when she moved. I got the papers.”
The man grinned. “Yes sir, me and my family are all free. Let me get you a few blankets. There’s still some furniture in there, so you might find a place to settle in. I’ll be right back.” The man closed the door.
Sinclair heard a commotion inside. At the window, children’s faces peered toward him, ducking their heads if he looked in their direction. Sinclair shook his head. “Mistress Bell done gave us our freedom,” the man had said. A few minutes later, the man walked out carrying two bundles.
“Follow me, Reverend,” he said. Sinclair walked fast to keep up with the man. “Got a bundle of blankets here and some food. I told that woman that no white man would eat her cooking, but she insisted that it was our Christian Duty to at least offer.”
“Thank you,” Sinclair said. “What is your name?”
“John William, sir,” he said as he climbed the steps to the front door. “No one been here in a long time, Reverend, but we keep it clean and keep the critters out.” John William stopped at the front door, turning toward Sinclair. “One thing I should told you. This place, it be haunted.”
“I trust the Lord will take care of me,” Sinclair said.
John William shook his head, then nodded. “I reckon he better.” He turned the knob and eased inside. “There’s wood in the fireplace, so I’ll start you a fire, then I got to get back. The Missus don’t like me coming over here after dark.” John William dropped the blankets and food on a chair and went to the fireplace. After a moment, a fire glowed, enveloping the room with dim light. John William took kindling and lit two oil lamps.
“Come see me in the morning, Reverend. I’ll help you with your carriage or get you into town, at least.” John William did not wait for an answer. He ran out of the house with a hasty good-bye. Sinclair smiled as he shut the door, keeping out a northerly breeze. He glanced around as his eyes adjusted to the glow of the fire and lamps.
Sinclair had seen houses like this one in Natchez and Vicksburg. Tall ceilings dominated the downstairs rooms. The kitchen would be in the back, built on the porch, most likely, with the original kitchen being a building outside of the house proper. The detached kitchens kept from heating the main house when cooking. He glanced up the stairs. Two or three bedrooms would be upstairs. Depending on the age of the house and the updating, there may or may not be a bathroom. Sinclair bet against running water. A knock sounded on the front door and Sinclair jumped.
“Reverend,” John William yelled. “I brought you some water for the night. I’ll leave it here.” Sinclair heard rapid, retreating footsteps. He smiled as he opened the door. Sinclair walked into the parlor and unbundled the blankets and food. He moved one lamp to a table beside the chair and settled in front of the fireplace. Sinclair reached into his briefcase and pulled out his Bible.
The house creaked with the wind. Sinclair pulled the blankets tight and concentrated on Psalm twenty-three, reading aloud. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Something moved in the corner. Sinclair sat up straight, startled. The blankets fell from his shoulders. A black cat walked from the shadows, growing larger with each step, and stood in front of the fire.
Sinclair sighed. “Hello, kitty. How did you get in here?” John William had not kept out all the critters, after all. The cat stared. Amber eyes pierced into Sinclair. He shivered, uncomfortable with the animal’s attention. “I think you had better go elsewhere for the night, cat.” He stood. The cat hissed and spat, showing sharp, white teeth, longer than a house cat should possess. Sinclair sat in the chair and watched the cat.
It swished its tail, then walked to the fireplace. The cat reached into the fire, knocking a coal onto the floor. “You’re going to burn yourself,” Sinclair said, hoping the creature would be scared and leave the way it came. The cat ignored him, batting the burning coal on the floor. When it became bored, it picked up the coal and spit it into the fire. Sinclair’s jaw dropped. A chill began at the top of his head and moved toward his feet, leaving all of his hair erect. The cat walked toward him and brushed against his legs, then returned to the fireplace.
It uttered a low growl. “Wait for Emmett,” the cat said.
Sinclair yelped and stood to run. Bony fingers grabbed his shoulders and forced him back into the chair. A form stood behind him, but Sinclair did not want to see. He stared at the cat.
“Well, Asmodeus,” a male voice said. The words sounded human, but had a lilting quality. “What’s with the flesh and blood? Why is he here?”
The cat growled. “Waiting for Emmett.”
The hands loosened their grip, but did not let go. “This must be the Reverend that Emmett said would officiate.” The man removed his hands from Sinclair’s shoulders. He walked around the chair. Sinclair looked up.
A pasty, but otherwise human face grinned. “I’m Nathan, Reverend Dodd. Emmett should be along in a moment. He’s taking care of some last minute arrangements.”
Sinclair stood. He tried to move, but he knees shook too much to risk running. His mouth dried with fear. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. Worst of all, his head began to hurt again. He took a deep breath and tried to relax. It did not work, but he did find his voice.
“It’s been nice meeting you, Nathan,” he said, his voice shaking. He stared at the cat, but could not believe the creature actually spoke. “Tell Emmett I came by, but had to leave rather sudden. Extend my apologies.” Sinclair turned and headed for the door before Nathan could react. He heard the low growl of Asmodeus the cat as he flung open the door. Sinclair jumped. The man who caused his accident stared, smiling.
“Reverend Dodd,” the man said. “You’re not leaving after all the trouble I took to bring you back.” The statement was pleasant enough, but the words conveyed more demand than question. “I really must insist you stay, more for your own good, though I do have need of your services.”
Sinclair stood frozen. He assumed this was Emmett. He saw a well-dressed man in archaic clothes. Through him, he could see the light flickering in John William’s window. Through him? Sinclair hyperventilated and tried to run, but found that his feet would not move.
“Please, Reverend Dodd,” Emmett said. “I cannot hold you, but a moment longer. If you leave this porch, you will be stuck in this place, in this time.”
Sinclair was amazed he could speak. “What in hell does that mean?”
Emmett smiled. “Most of my kind are as rooted to time as the living. I find that I can travel through the barriers created by man and God. It took some doing, but I yanked you back to Eighteen Hundred and Twenty-three, in The Year of Our Lord. If you leave this house, I cannot protect you or get you back to your own time.”
Sinclair stopped struggling with the unseen force holding him. Calmness swept over his body. His head pounded with pain. “I get it,” he said. “I’m in my car unconscious. I could be dying.” Panic replaced the calm, which had replaced the fear. Emmett placed a hand on Sinclair’s chest. The hand moved through his jacket and under the skin. Calm returned with Emmett’s touch.
“Your injuries are minor, Reverend,” Emmett said. “I assure you that you have many more years among the living before you join us.”
The sound of hooves grabbed Sinclair’s attention. A carriage stopped beside John William’s shack. Two women sat in back with a middle-aged man driving. The door opened and John William stepped out. John William answered as the women and man spoke. One of the women waved as the carriage started toward the big house. John William watched, then shook his head and went inside his shack. Within seconds, the shack became dark.
“Ah, my fiancé,” Emmett said.
“Fiancé?” Sinclair looked at the carriage. The man driving and both women, one older than the other, pulsated with life in a way that Emmett could not. “But you’re dead and she’s alive.”
Emmett stared at Sinclair for a moment. “When they lived in North Carolina, I was straw boss on their plantation, until her father caught us in the barn one evening. He shot me and got away with murder.” Emmett smiled. “But I got the last laugh. I refused to leave, Reverend. My love is as strong today as when her daddy’s bullet entered my brain.”
Sinclair opened his mouth and stared. Emmett ignored him, concentrating on the carriage. This is all a dream, Sinclair thought. I’m lying in my car injured and unconscious, dreaming. And I’m about to marry a dead man to a live woman. “Not too different from some of the marriages I’ve performed.”
“What, Reverend?” Emmett glanced at Sinclair, then returned his attention the carriage as it pulled in front of the house.
“Nothing,” Sinclair said. “Just musing.” The carriage pulled up to the house and Sinclair studied the occupants.
The man wore a uniform of some type, dressed for a high occasion. He looked familiar, but Sinclair could not place him. The women caught his attention. The older woman wore a white dress with a blue shawl pulled around her. She possessed a face that had seen life and was acquainted with pain.
The younger woman in her twenties — a veritable spinster in this day — was all smiles. A light blue dress hung on her slender frame. A memory flashed in Sinclair’s mind, a faded photograph in his grandmother’s picture album. A woman dressed in Victorian clothes smiled through a surprised look. The younger woman looked like a twin to his Great, Great Aunt Betty Bell. Emmett confirmed his suspicions.
“Mrs. Bell,” Emmett said. “How good to see you, again.”
Mrs. Bell smiled. “Emmett. I have not seen you in over twenty years, usually it was just your presence or voice.”
Emmett bowed. “A special occasion to be sure, then.” He turned to the man. “Senator Jackson. I am so glad you could make it. You are welcome, sir. Pardon me that I do not shake your hand, but I am quite busy at the moment.”
Jackson, of course, Sinclair thought. “President Andrew Jackson,” Sinclair said with awe.
Jackson frowned, studying Emmett and then Sinclair. He spoke to Emmett. “Sir, I am not sure that I would like to shake your hand, in any case, and I mean no offense in that remark. I remember what John Bell said after he shook your hand. ‘Like that of a young child,’ I think he said. It would not do for the picture you put forth tonight.” Jackson helped Mrs. Bell from the carriage. “Would you do the ladies and I the pleasure of introducing your friend? He seems to have a high opinion of a lowly Southern Senator.”
“Pardon me, ladies. Senator. May I present to you The Reverend Sinclair Dodd. He will be presiding over tonight’s ceremony.” Emmett turned to Sinclair. “Reverend Dodd, this is Mrs. Beatrice Bell.”
Sinclair bowed. “I am pleased to meet you, ma’am.” Mrs. Bell smiled.
Emmett gestured to the younger woman. “I would like to introduce my fiancé, Miss Mary Bell.”
“I am honored, Miss Bell,” Sinclair said. He took a chance. “You remind of a picture I have seen of an ancestor of mine, a Miss Betty Bell of Natchez. Bells are in my ancestry, so it may be that we are cousins.”
Mary Bell curtsied. “You favor some in my family, Reverend Dodd,” she said.
“I know that you and the Reverend Dodd are related, my dear Mary,” Emmett said, glancing at Sinclair. “However, it is a distant relation. Quite distant, I assure you.”
And the distance is time, Sinclair thought. He turned toward Andrew Jackson. That was a mistake to call him President though he will be in six years I believe. Jackson waited, tying the reins to the porch. The hair was almost white, but the picture on the twenty-dollar bill did not do the man justice. He had been old and sick when the portrait had been painted. This was Old Hickory in the flesh, vibrant and young even in his early fifties.
Emmett introduced him. “And this Reverend Dodd is Senator Andrew Jackson.”
Sinclair held out his hand and received a robust squeeze. “Senator Jackson, I misspoke when I called you President, though I believe you should be, soon.”
Jackson grinned a broad grin. “That’s fine, Reverend. President Andrew Jackson has a nice sound to it. I heard you mention Natchez. Are you from there?”
“No sir,” Sinclair said. “I live in Dinsmore.”
Jackson’s eyes narrowed as he lost his grin. “You know Silas Dinsmore?”
The force of Jackson’s question took Sinclair back. “No, Senator.”
Jackson laughed. “Silas was an stubborn old coot. He almost had his Indians attack a company of my men as we went down the Natchez Trace. Damn Indian Agents think they own that land.” Jackson looked to the women. “Pardon my language, ladies.”
Emmett whistled and motioned for us to enter the house. “Shall we go inside? I believe most of the guests are here.” Emmett walked with the ladies, his hand light on their backs so as to not touch them. “Mrs. Bell, I believe your late husband should be here soon. Katie’s bringing him.”
Mrs. Bell laughed. “I don’t reckon he could say no to Katie, though I am still put out with her for taking John away from me.”
Emmett nodded. “I tried to stop her, ma’am, but Katie would have her revenge, one way or the other. Now, she lords over him in the spiritual world.” Emmett and the ladies laughed. Emmett directed the ladies to wait, while walking Jackson and Sinclair into the parlor.
Sinclair stopped. The room was full. Spirits in various forms and guises chatted with one another. Some picked rather mundane forms though others preferred the state of their death. Many of the guests had been hanged or murdered by their look. Most had glasses full of some liquor or other. All ignored Emmett and his corporeal guests.
“Reverend, I believe you should take your place near the fireplace,” Emmett said. “I have something that needs attention.” Emmett faded.
Sinclair looked at Jackson who shrugged. They walked to the fireplace. Sinclair recognized Nathan and realized that he had more substance than the others in the room. My God! He’s alive. Nathan smiled, nodding at the two living men.
“That’s Emmett’s brother,” Jackson said. “Looks like a corpse. Seems right at home, doesn’t he?”
Sinclair nodded, then turned to Jackson. “Why are you here, sir? Are you a friend of the Bell family?”
Jackson grabbed a bottle of whiskey that appeared on the table next to Sinclair’s briefcase. He offered the bottle to Sinclair, who declined. Jackson swallowed. “Ah. John Bell and two of his sons fought for me in New Orleans. That damn old witch visited and threatened to bother Rachel unless I came. Rachel wouldn’t survive Katie’s machinations.” Jackson fell silent for a moment, then he spoke as if only to himself. “I’d rather face the Brits alone than have to deal with the Bell Witch again.”
Sinclair nodded. Of course, the Bell Witch. Now I know this is a dream. He turned somber. I hope somebody finds me and gets me to a hospital before I die. His thoughts were interrupted by a loud wail.
Jackson took another swig from the bottle, and then one more. “Katie’s here,” he said.
An old woman glided through the front wall, dragging a man by his pants. She cackled. “I told you that you was coming, John Bell.”
“Katie, let me go,” John Bell protested. “I’m here, now. I ain’t leaving. Maybe I can talk some sense into that girl before she goes through with this.”
Mrs. Bell walked into the room and John Bell followed her with his eyes. “You’re as pretty as ever, Beatrice. I still look in on you, now and again.” He pointed over his shoulder with a transparent thumb. “That is whenever I can get this old hag to leave me alone.”
“You haven’t changed, have you, John?” Mrs. Bell smiled and sat before the fireplace. John Bell stood beside her, staring. Sinclair felt John Bell’s conflicting emotions of love and loss.
Sinclair felt a displacement of air. Emmett stood, grinning as he stared at John Bell and Katie. “Katie got him here. Good.” Sinclair felt the light touch as Emmett’s hand passed through his shoulder. “We can get started, now, Reverend.”
Emmett motioned and in a moment, Mary walked into the room. Someone sat at an uncovered piano and provided a march, not Mendelssohn or Wagner, but a song Sinclair did not recognize. Mary walked in rhythm to the music. A black crow flew in, cawing loud.
“Somebody stop that bird,” John Bell said. “It was bad enough that that creature ruined my funeral after Katie murdered me.”
“Asmodeus,” Emmett said.
The crow squawked once more, then descended to the piano. Sinclair watched it transform into the large black cat. It growled and began to groom. Sinclair’s mouth fell open. The music stopped.
“Reverend?” Emmett put a hand through his chest. Sinclair started, then looked at the guests. All eyes were on him; even those that did not have eyes turned their orbit-less sockets in his direction. Sinclair shivered. Get through with the dream, he thought. Get to the end and you’ll wake up.
“Reverend,” Emmett said. “We can start anytime now.”
Sinclair looked at and through Emmett. “Oh, yes. I am sorry.” He reached into his briefcase and pulled out the Book of Common Prayer. Silence filled the room, waiting. He cleared his throat.
“Dearly beloved,” Sinclair began. He looked around the room and shivered. “We are gathered here today in the sight of God.” Asmodeus growled.
“Asmodeus,” Emmett said. “I am going to put you out, if you do not be quiet.” The cat hissed then returned to grooming. Emmett turned to Sinclair. “I’m sorry, Reverend. Please continue.”
Sinclair nodded. As he went through the opening of the ceremony, his head began to hurt worse. Dizziness threatened to topple him, but he persevered, knowing that Emmett would not let him go until the marriage was complete. He finished the preamble.
“Therefore if any man can show just cause why they shouldn’t be joined together, let him speak now or forever hold his piece.”
John Bell jumped in the air and floated back to the floor. “I know just cause.”
Mary turned. “Shush, Daddy.”
“But he’s dead, Mary and you’re alive,” John Bell yelled. “If that ain’t just cause then I don’t know what is.”
“John, remember your condition,” Mrs. Bell said.
“Beatrice, I’m dead,” John Bell said. “I ain’t got no condition.” Sinclair caught a glimpse of Jackson standing stone-faced in the corner, still drawing on the bottle. Sinclair wished he had accepted Jackson’s offer of a drink.
John Bell continued. “Mary, be reasonable. He’s dead and you’re alive. If nothing else think of the children. They gonna be half-dead and half alive. And we ain’t going to know which half.”
Katie wailed and the room turned. “John Bell, you sit down or I’m gonna hold your piece for you.”
“Katie, you ain’t got no say-” John Bell’s voice cut off in mid sentence. Sinclair recognized a few mouthed curses, but John Bell sat down.
Emmett never lost his smile. Mary smiled at the ghost. “Please continue, Reverend.”
Sinclair skipped a few passages. “Emmett, do you take this woman to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, ’till death…” He let the words trail off. Muffled laughter filled the room. “Well in sickness and in health, then.”
Sinclair repeated the question for Mary, leaving out anything to do with death.
“By the power vested in me by the Great State of Mississippi, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Sinclair looked at Emmett. “You may kiss the bride.” A roar went up as Emmett and Mary walked out of the room. They stopped at the door.
“Reverend,” Emmett said. “Would you join us in the Library?” Sinclair followed the couple. Emmett pointed to a desk. “You must sign the marriage license.” Sinclair sat and dipped a quill into ink and signed his name. He leaned back in the chair. “It will be easier for both of us, Reverend, if you will sleep now.”
Sinclair nodded and closed his eyes.
He jumped awake inside his car. Someone rapped on the window. He turned, expecting Emmett. A Mississippi Highway Patrolman stared. Sinclair rolled down the window.
“Sir, are you all right?”
Sinclair looked around. A paved highway stretched out before him. Off to the side, a ditch ran parallel to the road. He saw where his car had been extricated.
“Yes, officer,” Sinclair said. “I am unhurt. I ran off the road last night during the storm and could not get out of the ditch.” He did not mention his headache.
The patrolman nodded. “I assume one of the farmers pulled you out. You are Sinclair Dodd.” Sinclair nodded. “You need to call your wife. She’s had us keeping a look out for you. I’m sure she’s worried sick.”
“Thank you, officer,” Sinclair said. “I will. I seem to have taken a wrong turn last night. How do I get back to Interstate 55?”
“Turn around and go back the way you came about four miles and turn right onto Highway Six. That’ll take back to the interstate. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Sinclair insisted he was fine and the patrolman left. He tried to find his phone, but neither it nor his briefcase was in the vehicle. “I must have left it in the house,” he said. “No. That was a dream, wasn’t it?”
Sinclair turned around in the highway, avoiding the ditch. His thoughts were not on his driving, though. He thought of Andrew Jackson, John and Mary Bell, and Emmett. After a few miles he slammed on his brakes. The big house stood just off the highway. It looked older and about to fall down, but it stood. He pulled into the drive. He knew that John Williams shack should have been near, but found no trace of a house. He pulled to a stop where Senator Jackson had stopped the carriage, the night before, one hundred eighty years ago.
He walked to the front porch and opened the door, leaving it open, just in case. Sinclair crept into the parlor. There was no furniture on the rotting wood floors. The fireplace had been replaced with a large space heater, the type used in Mississippi when electricity first came. Sunlight filtered into the room and glinted off something metallic on the mantel.
He found a framed document; an old document cared for through the years, squeezed between two panes of glass. It was the marriage license of Emmett and Mary Dodd, enforced on the twentieth day of September, eighteen hundred and twenty-three. At the bottom, he read the signature: The Reverend Sinclair Dodd.
Something moved in the corner. Sinclair jumped as a large black cat that growled and licked its paw. The cat stopped and stared with amber eyes. A low growl came from its throat. “Emmett sends his thank you.” Sinclair’s heart raced as Asmodeus faded into shadows. When the cat disappeared, Sinclair saw his briefcase. A rush of cold ran through him and he broke into a cold sweat. He grabbed his briefcase and hurried to the car, clutching the old marriage license.
The rain will always make me think of Mr. Crowe. One would think that it would clean things, purify them. Instead, it uncovers old wounds, bringing to the surface things best left buried.
Nature’s fouled design.
Our Procurator is gathering the last of his personal effects from his desk. He’s preparing to leave us, to depart this sorry, mud-slicked moon. The rain on our office window might be applause or it might be a funeral volley. Either way, there’s no charm to it.
He’ll be missed, no question. We all thought him a good man. Perhaps not ‘good’ — ‘politic’ is better. ‘Charitable’ would be better yet but he fell before that hurdle. Hindsight is a cruel harpy.
For myself, I’m simply a notary. A small man, you might say; a man raised above the primordial soil by grace of a neatly printed letterhead. There lies my absolution.
Our Procurator, unfortunately, has no such refuge. To see him now, one would think him beyond commune. He is as gray as stone, a golem official. He tidies his desk slowly, with boulder hands, his suit crumpling like disturbed subterranean strata. The small round eyeglasses are calcite blinds, obscuring the soul beneath. When he clears his throat, as he does now, with a small harrumph, it means ‘business is finished’.
Storm clouds billow outside. I see Mr. Crowe’s face in all of them.
I recall the first time we encountered him. The Procurator had just concluded a lengthy judgment on a divorce settlement and Mr. Crowe’s case was next. The Procurator was irritable; I could tell by the rapid flick of his jeweled wrists. Mr. Crowe sat in the outside corridor awaiting his call. I remember him as he entered; it was as if all hope had been sucked from within him and his skin had vacuumed inward to fill the loss. He walked unsteadily, his long fingers nervously maneuvering a frayed blue cap. He was tall, and I thought at first there might have been a slight stoop. But of course, he bore the weight of the world.
When he approached the Procurator’s desk he paused, unsure of his place, and I signaled for him to be seated, while the rain outside chattered like a legion of stenographers.
The Procurator held his silence for a moment, the desk monitor’s glow making neon of his skin. “My sincere condolences, Mr. Crowe. A terrible and tragic accident. If this office can assist in any way?”
“I’d like a place for my wife. A grave. A plaque with names. To remember her by.” Mr. Crowe’s voice sounded dry. Too much dust and crying, one supposed.
Our Procurator sighed, a weary exhumation of dead air. “Mr. Crowe, you’re aware of our statutes, I’m sure. I’ve no doubt your wife was a very dear lady but she was not an eminent citizen. Unfortunately, by the criteria I must bring to bear, she was not ‘of note’.”
I remember how steady Mr. Crowe’s voice was, how instant his reply. “She was my wife. She kept my house. She was of note to me.”
He had pride. It hummed about him like an energy.
We already knew the story. Everybody did. News of the event had been broadcast throughout the station. His spouse had been working in the reservoirs of the primary drill cores when the accident had happened. Every awful detail had been relayed; how the drills had unexpectedly spun in their mountings, churning the black oil that Ishael Crowe bobbed upon in her small craft. She’d been dredging strips of scored metal, drawing the scrap into her vessel with pneumatic clamps, and it had only taken a quick whirl of gears for the life to be threshed from her. We had all endured the same shameful thought on hearing of it: How glad I am that this terrible thing did not happen to one of my own.
Nobody could find her husband when it had happened. He’d been working inside the stamping mill doing maintenance work on one of the conveyor engines. Only later had he learned of his loss, whereupon he’d gone immediately to the dredge tanks, hunched down and waited. Over six hours he’d stayed there. Beyond hope. Beyond miracles.
Our Procurator is well versed in matters of diplomacy, and so he was able to clothe his denial with some garb of decency. “I understand your feelings. But you appreciate the reasons: we grant one memorial and we must grant them all. Space is at a premium here, Mr. Crowe. Practicality denies us the luxury of remembrance.”
A politic man.
Mr. Crowe remained implacable. “We’ve remembered others. Made spaces before.”
“My apologies. I can’t authorize it. Harrumph.”
Mr. Crowe made no move to leave. Instead, he leaned closer to our Procurator, as if to give weight to his words. “I want a tribunal. I’ll challenge your judgment.”
“That is your right, of course. My notary will help you prepare the documents.”
Mr. Crowe placed his cap defiantly upon his head, as if the garment’s purpose had just occurred to him. Perhaps there was a slight tremor as he rose. He’d already turned to leave when the Procurator called his attention once more.
“A small matter, Mr. Crowe. You said ‘names’ on the plaque?”
“My wife was five months pregnant. She carried our son.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Mr. Crowe closed the door quietly behind him.
I looked at our Procurator, examining the features of his face, the incline of his frame, for any regret.
“A sad business,” I said.
“Indeed. He’ll lose the judgment.” The Procurator tapped his keyboard for the next file, the screen shifting its cold hue to his jowls. Compassionless men are strongest. I’d always thought so.
Delivering the petition documents was my responsibility. Mr. Crowe was out on the surface at the time, working on one of the drill housings. He seemed no more significant than the rest of the workers that milled about the bases of the huge cylinders, scuttling and inspecting like drones born of the mud, their weather coat wings flapping in the rain.
I watched him as he operated with blackened fingers. He’d caressed his wife’s belly with those hands, touched the pulse of his child’s heart. How small, by comparison, the creation that he cared for now. It stretched upwards like a crooked monument, doomed to skewer into the mud.
As I offered him the papers, he looked up at me, his eyes red and watered. I was somewhat taken aback, that a man should wear his grief so publicly. “Your application,” I said. “You’ll need to sign it.”
He took the documents and nodded. I waited but he said nothing.
“You’ll need to return the papers after you’ve signed,” I told him. “That’s all there is.”
He had no questions for me so I left him to labor on amongst the cacophony of whining gears.
I thought of him the same evening, lay awake in my bed even. I have no wife, you see. I have no one beside me to ask, ‘Is something wrong?’ or ‘Are you troubled?’ I’d always believed my heart to be a good engine, red and sturdy; I’d never wished it a thing of glass like Mr. Crowe’s, to be easily looked into.
When I slept, I dreamed myself cresting a black tide of clerks and judges, Mr. Crowe standing firm as we crashed down upon him. Even as we eddied around his waist he remained solid, a noble impediment to the flow.
I wondered where he drew his strength.
The Tribunal was convened within two weeks of the application. I accompanied the Procurator to the hearing. We sat on the benches to the left while the Adjudicates took center stage on a raised plinth. Mr. Crowe was seated to the right, a tall man made small by the burden of expectation. I noticed the steadiness of his hands, in which he held a trivinium ingot. He watched keenly as each of the Adjudicates took their places.
The Primary Adjudicate commenced proceedings. “Ezeriah Crowe, we are gathered here to make a determination in respect of your claim to Eminent Status in the community, and consequently whether to officially recognize and record the deaths of your wife and child. Mr. Crowe, please state your case.”
Mr. Crowe stood and walked to the center of the room where a clear plastic lectern awaited. Perhaps it was the longest walk of his life.
He paused before speaking. “I hold here the smallest thing of value on this world. A bar of metal so important that we give up our lives for it. But this bar is no different from any other. They are all of the same dimensions, the same weight. They shine equally in the light as this one does. Yet we put a name upon each bar. Each ingot is stamped with two lines of script. Two lines, and the universe knows where this metal came from. For my wife, who labored to make my life better, and for the son I never knew, I ask for a plaque with two lines. Two lines, to mark their value.”
I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. Mr. Crowe was no ordinary man. He was a poet. This beaten fellow with his toolbox hands had spoken so eloquently that the Adjudicates were thrown into a burble of confused whispers.
They quizzed, cross-examined and interrogated him. What did your father achieve here? they demanded. How did your wife influence the administration of the colony?
The outcome was never in doubt.
The Primary Adjudicate was assigned the duty of announcing judgment. “Ezeriah Crowe: in respect of your claim for Eminent Status on behalf of your deceased spouse, I regret to inform you that after careful consideration of the circumstances, we rule that there can be no memorial erected, nor any plaque mounted. While she was no doubt a worthy citizen, we find no reason to elevate her in rank. This is our judgment. Let it be noted.”
The hearing was dissolved, the Adjudicates dismounting the plinth in silence. Mr. Crowe returned to his seat, the ingot still in his hand. I looked at the Procurator’s face, but saw nothing that betokened sympathy or charity. As we left the room together, I looked back. Mr. Crowe was sitting alone, perfectly still, a fallen monument.
From the tubecar that carried us back to the office, I watched the men laboring out on the mud flats. Does that man have a wife? I asked myself. And that one too? I wondered how many were content to slide with the soil.
This is no world for a poet to make his mark.
Our last encounter with Mr. Crowe came scarcely a week later. It happened in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, the rain frenziedly scourging the complex.
“He’s out of his mind!” announced the Procurator. “Completely insane!” He came tumbling into the office with a slick of sweat on his forehead, shirt collar yanked free of his neck. “Look what he’s doing — he must have re-synchronized them all!”
He swung his desk-mounted monitor around for me to see, and switched it to broadcast. The pictures I saw caused me to rise in astonishment.
The camera was fixed upon a phalanx of drills near the stamping mill. Normally, the huge cylinders would only fire in alternate sequence for fear of breaking the crust. Now, all of the colossal units were surging in unison, firing back and forth like creation’s troopers, relentlessly pummeling the deep strata. I’d never imagined all of the drills firing as one. The sight filled me with a strange elation.
The camera zoomed in, bringing a small, wind-blasted figure into focus.
He stood with his arms raised as if in tribute to some fearful deity, while the elements tossed him like an unwanted doll.
The Procurator mopped at his forehead. “He’ll break the crust! Everything will sink!”
I hardly heard what he said. My attention was fixed upon the wild gesturing of that tormented man and his gargantuan allies as they punished the ground beneath. Flares rocketed overhead, flashing vivid maroon snapshots. It was as if Mr. Crowe had managed to harness nature itself in the cause of his grief.
“He’s done it! He’s really done it!”
I’d never before seen our Procurator in such an agitated state. For myself, I saw a poetry in it. Even as the ground broke into mammoth shards of rock, spraying geysers of mud into the air, I knew that Mr. Crowe had exercised his will.
The drills groaned and toppled in a slow skittling collapse, the housing nearest to our failed petitioner falling sideways, blotting him out in a thunder of rock and shrapnel.
I want a grave, he had demanded.
The entire stamping mill folded neatly into sharp corners and slipped from view, blowing only a few scant bubbles of protest in its wake.
The Procurator and I watched as the livelihood of the colony slipped away. We sat in silence; the Procurator had nothing to confess, and I had no accusations. We’d done wrong and Mr. Crowe had judged us.
As a colony, we endure. The warehouses were stockpiled high with ingots prior to the disaster, and we depend upon those stocks now.
One of the bars sits upon the Procurator’s desk. He takes it into his big hand and turns it over, reading the inscription once more. I wondered if he secretly admired Mr. Crowe, as I did, for having covertly reprogrammed the mill’s laser stamp. The final batches had never been inspected; no one had noticed the new scripting until a consignee had queried it.
I imagined how our bereaved petitioner might have leaned over the console like an expectant father. How he’d picked the words as eternal gifts.
My wife. My son.
My compass and my map.
My beautiful journey.
Ishael Crowe 2206-2240 Tomas Crowe 2240
The Procurator places the ingot back upon the desk. He has no need to take it as reminder. The bars have already been circulated throughout the Company Network, to every station and colony, to the farthest outposts. There will no place the Procurator can travel where the elegy of Mr. Crowe will not be known.
He collects his briefcase and pushes his chair under his desk. When he reaches the door, he pauses to speak to me. “I wish you well,” he says.
“And you also,” I tell him.
He looks at me for a moment then turns to leave.
I want to stop him. I have questions for him: I want to know if he has children, if he has known great grief or happiness. I want to know what his greatest hopes are, his dearest dreams, this man I’ve known so long.
But instead, the rain fills the silence.
The Procurator closes the door after him.
He’d have been shocked, I think. Such sentiments are not expected of me. After all, I’m simply a notary.
Nature’s fouled design.
Ideomancer magazine is pleased to announce the release of the Unbound anthology. This ebook, published by Fictionwise, consists of the following 26 speculative short stories.
“Maybe Ideomancer Unbound is like a great big quilt, with a different, complex picture on each square. The editors should be praised for assembling such an impressive collection of work, and readers will get their money’s worth in plenty of surprise and delight.”
— Amy Sterling Casil, SFReader.com
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue.
Amber van Dyk