Tuesday, August 21, 2012

SHORT STORY: Gentlechild

School started again. Boo-hissssss. This means much running to and fro from Zürich with instruments and notebooks, and having to change shirts twice a day because it's stupid hot.

It also means I have no time for anything, so I'm going to be a lazy blogger and post another short story from ye olde days.

This one is a bit newer than the last one. I think I wrote it around the time I started The Peculiar, which was... ages and ages ago.

Anyway, tell me if you like it, tell me if you hate it, tell me if you think it's meh, or just leave a smiley. I like smileys. :)

Death, Gustave Doré

Gentlechild

 by Stefan Bachmann

Death was in the house. He sat in the wine-coloured wing chair in front of the fire, his scythe across his lap, great black wings drawn up behind him like horns.

“The Countess will be down in a moment,” Mrs Orangetree said, trying to sound friendly, trying to sound conversational. “I'm sure you'll understand. She's out of sorts.” Mrs Orangetree smiled weakly. Her hands were at her side, bunching the velvet of her skirts into fists.

The figure in the wing chair said nothing. He continued to sit, very still, the firelight dancing across his grinning teeth. Bone fingers stroked the handle of the scythe, slowly, producing a dry, ugly sound.

Mrs Orangetree bit her lip. Rather loudly she said, “You must be quite exhausted from your journey. Shall I have a tray brought in?”

Again no answer.

She peered at the spectre, half-frightened, half-wondering. There was the faintest smell of ink about him, she thought. Ink and old paper. His cloak was tattered, and all the shadows in the room seemed to fly to it and nest in its folds.

Several minutes passed. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked. A bird flurried against the window in the winter sunlight. Then a pounding of feet sounded in an upstairs hallway, and Mrs Orangetree started.

“That will be the Countess,” she said, sitting up straight and folding her hands in her lap.

Death did nothing at all.

Skirts swished in the stairwell. A hand gripped the doorknob, and Vera Fitzwatler, Countess of Nowhere-Very-Imporant, sailed into the room like a great fat warship. Her eyes were red from weeping, but not quite so red as her mouth, which was painted thickly and sloppily.

“Oh, thank heavens you've come!” she exclaimed. “They all told me it was futile. 'Your letter will never get there' they said. 'The road between Birmingham and Hell is quite blocked,' they said. 'Impassable and impossible,' they said. But did I listen to them? No! And now here you are! Oh, I will be your grateful servant for ever and ever.”

The Countess went down on her knees before Death, and with much dramatic panache, clasped his hand in her own thick fingers. “You will save my dear Edgar won't you? Oh, you will save him? I absolutely insist that you do.”

Mrs Orangetree looked on from her chair. Her mouth gave a little twitch. Death remained perfectly still. He did not even turn the black pits that were his eyes to look at the Countess. His gaze was fixed firmly on the flames flickering in the hearth.

The Countess blinked at him. For an instant she looked slightly taken aback that her speech had produced so little effect on him. Then she cast down her eyes and gave a heartbroken snuffle.

“I suppose you will want to see the child? So delicate. So frail. Made for the angels, we always knew. The physician says he has only the breath of a chance.”

Still nothing. But Mrs Orangetree did notice that Death's hand had fallen still, no longer sliding over the handle of the scythe.

The Countess did not see. She carried on valiantly. “Ah, but of course! You want to know what your reward will be! What's in it for you, eh?” She gave the skeleton a grossly provincial nudge with her elbow, and winked.

Mrs Orangetree thought she heard bones rattle.

“I wondered a long while about that,” the Countess said. “For days and days while Edgar was down in the City for his electro-therapy. In my letter to you I wrote only that I would make it worth your while. You will forgive me, I didn't know what else to say! I was quite stupid with grief then.”

Then. And now. Pretty much always, Mrs Orangetree thought, but she didn't say anything.

“But I think I've come up with something. Something you're bound to appreciate.”

Mrs Orangetree went very still. Oh dear. What would the silly goose promise? Ten years of her life? The key to her soul, and her blood-red heart in a small white box? Mrs Orangetree scolded herself for not speaking with the Countess before the meeting. Left to her own devices, the great lady would almost certainly have come up with something dreadful.

“A cameo brooch,” the Countess said, and beamed at Death. “It was given to me by the ruler of Russia. The pope, or whatever he's called. And it's made of silver and rubies and has a skull etched into it, which I happen to think bares a striking resemblance to yourself. I'm sure you'll agree with me.”

Mrs Orangetree stared. The Countess waited expectantly, still smiling. The shadowy figure in the chair said nothing.

Again, the ticking of the mantel clock came, sharp and slicing, amplifying the silence. The Countess's smile began to creak at the corners, like a table heaped with too much food. A log collapsed to ashes in the grate.

Mrs Orangetree was about to do what any good companion does when there is a lull in conversation and a child is on the very brink of expiration – speak of the weather - when another commotion shook the upstairs. Screaming and wailing and hurrying feet. An instant later a maid appeared at the door, curtsying profusely and begging the Countess to come up to the sickroom at once.

The countess sprang to her feet with a little scream and made for the hall, dragging her crinolines behind her. 

As soon as her tittering had receded up the stairs, Mrs Orangetree spoke up sharply. “You really must be patient with Vera,” she said. Her voice was scolding, which was not entirely fair, for Death could not have been more patient with the Countess if he had tried. “In fact, you may just want to leave now. I'll tell her you changed your mind, that nothing can be done. She'll set up a terrible row, go into paroxysms of despair, and faint straight away, but I dare say she'll get over it. It's better than you leading her on so. If it's the boy's time, it's his time. Anyway, he's not really worth sparing, is Edgar.”

A childish screech sounded from upstairs. Mrs Orangetree's eyes widened, then narrowed into slits.

“Think me horrid if you like, but he is quite the beastliest child you'll ever meet. You mustn't believe what Vera says.” Her voice became shrill, imitating the Countess. “'Poor Edgar! So delicate! So frail!' Ha! Catslippers. He may be ill, but he is not delicate. He's a proper oaf, and if he doesn't get his way he cries and screams as if the house were about to fall on him. I do declare, he wants everything he sets eyes on, and he treats the servants something dreadful. Slapping and punching and shouting the ghastliest names. And it's not as if the boy doesn't know better. Blame it on his foolish mother if you will, but there's no child that can't tell right from wrong. There are only those who have learnt not to care. Why, if I were his mother-”

Death never found out what Mrs Orangetree would have done were she Edgar's mother, for in that moment the boy's real mother, the Countess, swept into the parlour, her eyes bright with happy tears.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” she said, clasping her hands together with each ecstatic 'Oh'. “The fever! It's gone down! Three degrees, the physician says, and Mr Mumblethorpe – he's the chemist, and he's upstairs, too - he says it would be safe for Edgar to take some laudanum again. Oh, how I do adore you, sir! Dear little Edgar! Dear little Edgar boogally-boo. He's going to get better. He's going to live!” She spun on Mrs Orangetree. 

“Olivia, he's going to live! How can you just sit there?”

Mrs Orangetree stood up hurriedly and made a few joyous remarks of her own. “This is quite remarkable, Vera dear,” she said, and other things, and the Countess flew to her and embraced her warmly.

“Oh, isn't it? I knew Death would do it for the cameo. Who wouldn't do it for the cameo? Why, it's from the pope of Russia!”

“Brilliant of you, I'm sure.” Mrs Orangetree extricated herself from the Countess's arms and stole a look at the figure in the wing chair.

He had moved. His head had turned, and the black eye-sockets were now fixed on the two women. His neck was twisted rather too far, like an owl's. The picture was somewhat frightening.

“Oh! Oh, my goodness, hello!” the Countess said, as if he had just walked into the room. “You're healing him aren't you? You're sparing my little boogally-boo. I knew you would. I just knew it.”

And then the Countess said “Oh!” again, which seemed to be her favourite word of late, and picked up a china monkey from the side table. She looked at it absently for a moment, pondering. Then she said, “Well, I do wonder. . .”

She stepped toward the phantom in the chair. He was still sitting with his head eerily twisted, watching them.

“Now that we are on the subject of Edgar. . .” the Countess said, and her voice went syrupy sweet. “It wouldn't be too much to ask, would it, if - how shall I say it – if you made a few improvements on him? Just a few little things to make him even more perfect. Perhaps I could throw in my pearls, too, and that dear little box from Japan. I wouldn't ask for much.”

Death gave no answer, but the Countess had long since given up caring whether he replied to her or not. As long as he listened. She sat down on one of the wing chair's arm rests, like a school girl by her favorite uncle, and began listing all the things she thought could be improved on Edgar boogally-boo.

“He has charming eyes, really very- very enigmatic! But I dare say they look a bit dull in a certain light. They're grey, you know, from his father. So I was thinking he ought to have blue eyes. Don't you agree? A most startling pair of big blue eyes. And his teeth need whitening too. All that sugar. . . Turns them yellow. I'm afraid I spoil him a little.” She giggled. “I might like him a little gentler, too. He is so forceful at times. So wilful. All great men are, but it's not an attractive quality in children. Perhaps you could take it away, and then give it back to him a little later. I do so want a gentle child.”

When Mrs Orangetree excused herself at four thirty, the Countess was still thinking up possible betterments for Edgar.

At five o' clock the Countess left briefly to powder her nose. When she came back Death was gone and the room was filled with smoke. The fire had gone out.

Later, a maid claimed to have seen through the keyhole a tall, gaunt figure in black fly away up the chimney. The footman was convinced he had spied Death step into the rococo mirror above the sofa. As it turned out, the butler had let him out through the front door, but whatever the case Death had left, and he had taken the Russian cameo with him.

***

Little Edgar woke the next morning very much better. His fever had disappeared overnight, and the horrid  cough that had been lodged in his chest all the past month was gone, too. 

The Countess was overjoyed. She showered him with presents and kisses, and though he was very cross to her, she took no notice. But after several hours of this perfect bliss, Edgar fell into a deep sleep. He slept for twenty-seven hours. And when he woke again he was. . . different.

His teeth were white. So white that when you looked at them they hurt your eyes, and if he opened his mouth for more than a few seconds, the chairs and curtains nearest him burst into flames, so he couldn't properly scream any more. His fingers turned to glass, and he could never knock against anything or do anything savage for fear of breaking them into little bits. But the oddest change that came about was the one that came over his eyes. He woke with the most startling pair of big blue eyes. They were so pure and clear, a bright, cold blue like an arctic sea. And like an arctic sea, they were made of water, and sloshed about inside the boy's head. Whenever he opened his eyes the water fell out in ropes, all that beautiful blue water, so he had to keep his eyes closed most of the time and was somewhat blind. And even with his eyes were closed, the water dripped out of the corners so that it looked like he was always crying, even when he had nothing to cry about.

As for the Countess, she died the very next day.

And that was the end of that. Little Edgar boogally-boo became quite the gentlest child you can possibly imagine.

*

18 comments:

  1. A+, my dear. Loved. Loved. Loved this. Well done.

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  2. Excellent :)

    One of my favorite lines: "His cloak was tattered, and all the shadows in the room seemed to fly to it and nest in its folds."

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  3. That is creepy. And kind of awesome. Great story! :)

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  4. Aw. Thank you, peoples! :D Glad you guys liked it!

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  5. hallo stefan, i cant find your email in my address book. i am free tomorrow (thursday) and friday and next monday. if you have time to meet would love to grab coffue...let me know my email is rachelsimon007[at]gmail[dot]com :]

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  6. Uh POOR KID? It was the moms stupid fault.

    Here's your smiley though :)

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  7. Amazing story--So much tension!! Loved it!

    Cannot wait for The Peculiar!!

    Shelley

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  8. I laaaaahv this. I laughed. Also @MICHAEL. >:. I think the message of this story is that bad children are the product of bad parents but both suffer for it. Silly you.

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    1. Sank you, Briony.

      Also, wut? It has a message? :P

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  9. This is awesome. Loved it. I was going to quote the same line Suzie F. did. Beautiful. Poor Edgar. Death does have a sense of humor after all...

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  10. Be careful what you ask for! :)

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  11. I lurve this <3 <3 <3 Oh, and :)

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  12. Love the ironic twists Death added to the Countess's requests.

    ...

    ...

    Is it bad that I found this story hilarious? (*sheepish grin*)

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  13. Thank you! :D

    Also, haaaa! Bad? It's terribly flattering and means we have the same sense of weird, morbid humor. ;)

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