The first time I remember noticing her was one day when leaving the nail salon and there was all that hubbub about the old Victorian for sale across from the post office. She looked non-descript enough, kind of like an investigator in an old trench coat and old hat.
People in the neighborhood had hoped a buyer would be found who would preserve the old house but instead plans were made to tear it down and put up another small strip-mall type office complex. Merrick Road was full of such, so it wasn’t the presence of more that was such a tragedy. I liked going there. I found my way there everyday. After, I went to the nail salon, the post office, and walked up and down the main drag. Always I rushed past the telephone pole full of flowers and photos.
“I see you staring,” the woman in the coat said.
“It’s such a nice building. It’d be a shame to tear it down. Just there, that office, used to be a shoe repair shop with the quirkiest old guy from down south running the place.”
“I know,” she said. “You could barely understand him, but thought he told the darndest stories…”
“How do you know? Are you from around here?”
“No, I’m on business,” she said.
She fished an odd device from her pocket, it looked like a crystal rod, and waved it about. I felt very uncomfortable and wanted to go.
“Places have memories tied to them,” she said. “And when they’re gone, well the memories, and more, are just un-anchored, shall we say.”
Suddenly I could see what would become of the house. The wrecking crew and bulldozers. I saw myself in that house; saw the faces of all the people bringing flowers to that telephone pole.
“It’s alright,” the lady said. She kept waving the rod. “Its how I save the memories. The house will be torn down soon and then you’ll be unanchored.”
“You’ll wander aimlessly, then eventually forget who you are until you dissipate.”
“How long does that take?”
“Hard to say.”
“What if that’s what I want?”
She didn’t answer and I didn’t have choice. The rod was pulling me, taking me somewhere and I could not resist.
“Don’t worry. You’re going to like it with us,” she said.
But I didn’t believe her.
- End of Part One -
Between densely gnarled groves, the ruins of Castle Noland rose on Spindle Mountain against the late sun like a needle one cannot spot in the grass unless the light catches it or he treads upon it. The mountain, though stunted, was steep and crumbled in Yul’s hands–a miracle it had lasted. It would not bar him from his lost father.
Castle Noland lacked drawbridges and doors, so Yul made one, knocking down bricks, some of which decomposed to powder. Sunlight streamed through the roof and holes in the mortar, illuminating dust motes. One beam shone on a white-bearded, white-robed old man stooped atop his throne: like God after the sixth day. The beam moved, and the old man regressed into shadow.
Was this the same man who sent the child Yul on quests: Track the Amethyst of Memory to the caves of Kaldan, wrestle the Ruby of No Regrets from the King of Cobramen, hunt down the Cape of No Tomorrows through the thorny jungles of Afterwine?
Yul had never put his mind to quests. He’d set out but–heavy-hearted–stopped to rest on a stump. Days passed like a clock’s pendulum. Soon hunger roused his head, and he’d slink home.
Yet Yul fetched the Ruby of No Regrets by trading plastic beads he’d dubbed the Necklace of Deathless Dawns: “Death slipped by if you gripped the necklace righteously.” True, it would fail the Cobramen, but had they held it right?
The Ruby had never ceded Yul the confidence needed to begin his own life. Instead, Yul had worried over quests his father shipped him on. Late in his third decade, he, still questing, paused at a village where the Miller’s daughter drew well water. When asked for a draft, she gave without reservation.
Twelve decades later, he’s returned, to bring Father to a new home among sheep and grapevines. Yul stood beside the old man whose white contrasted with the gleaming ruby ring lolling on his right, wrinkled hand.
“Hello?” The old man leaned forward, milky white eyes scanning the room. “That you, Spot? I’ve a doggy biscuit.”
Yul gritted his teeth.
“I shouldn’t have let you go.” That last word was a sob.
Yul wanted to shake the man, ask if a lost dog was all he regretted.
The old man’s body shook violently. His ribs rippled beneath robes, coming and going. “I loved you like a son.”
Yul wrapped his arms around his father, shushing and humming a lullaby.
Detective Shale sifted through the fragments of the alchemist’s shattered glass heart. “A rare thing,” he said.
“We all have them.” Collomb tapped flesh knuckles against a bronze chest. “Seems this man should have taken better care of his.”
“You think an accident was all this was, Sergeant?”
“Glass heart, sir? This was waiting to happen.”
Shale suddenly winced. A bead of his own blood stood sharp on his thumb. He examined the wound. Then he stood, dropped the glass shard and it split in two. “You’re right Collomb. War is no time for fragility. Even if this was a fight. An accident. A lover’s quarrel-”
Shale paused abruptly, placed his thumb in his mouth and sucked at the injury. For a moment Collomb thought he saw a tear in the man’s eye. Then Shale blinked and it was gone.
“Ask if anyone saw anything,” Shale said, and left
Collomb stood at the market stall surrounded by hands of steel, eyes of malleable clay, jeweled intestines strung like cloth’s lines, rows of hearts: gold, silver, jade, basalt, and bronze.
“Glass hearts,” Collomb asked the old man tending the stall.
“Only one.” The old man nodded, obsequious. “A recent acquisition. A rare thing.”
Curiosity rose in Collomb.
“Acquired from whom?”
“A sad man. Traded it below its value. Bought himself a heart of flint. A man looking for strength. Or hardness. Sometimes so difficult to tell the two apart. Especially in times of war.”
“What sort of heart do you have, sir?”
Shale looked at Collomb. Collomb was patient.
“Stone,” Shale said. “Why’d you think no woman would marry me?” He mounted a smile
“Strong heart,” Collomb said.
Shale shrugged. “Hard,” he said.
“Not easy to shatter. Not like glass.”
Shale paused, bowed his head. “No, not like glass.” He looked away, but kept on talking. “Did you know, Collomb, that glass is a liquid? It flows over time. Warps. Becomes something new. Not stone. There is no beauty in the permanence of stone. No fragility.”
“Easy for accidents to happen. Easily broken. A lover’s wrong word. Better perhaps to protect yourself.”
Shale looked long and hard at Collomb. “For now, yes, perhaps. While the war lasts.”
Collomb weighed the words.
“Until then, then, sir.”
“Until then.” Again, there was a tear in Shale’s eye.
Collomb nodded, turned, and for a while left the man standing alone.
Read Rudi’s story “Detail from a Painting by Hieronymus Bosch” at Behind the Wainscot.