Part One of Two
By: Alyson Faye
I sit in the old woman's leather armchair beside the fire, warming my aching bones. The Fairweather house creaks and stirs around me, its skeleton being considerably older than mine. I sip my snifter of brandy and scribble in my journal, inking its final pages. The same obscene cancer which fed on the old woman has consumed me, albeit four decades later.
Outside dusk steals over the lawn, nibbling at the shrubbery and in the bowels of the house I hear stealthy steps. I sigh, put down my fountain pen. I have finished my tale. I would say, in my defense, when you read this account, I was only a young lad when the terrible events I describe occurred.
He is coming to join me for our evening game of 'hide and seek'. Ever the child at heart, he does not age as I do. I hear his step at the parlor door and feel my heart lurch with both love and fear.
Neither myself nor my sister would ever have chosen to visit Mr. and Mrs. Fairweather, the town's richest citizen. Ma made us join her on parish council 'duty' visits. We clung to Ma like limpets, taking comfort in her reassuring voice. Nora, in particular, hid herself in Ma's skirts, peeking out at 'The Grey Lady', as we called Mrs. Fairweather behind her back. She had thinning hair, bloodless lips and always wore a hideous grey dress, but worst of all were her beady birdlike eyes.
To help pass the leaden hours, me and Nora would stare at the bookshelves, the serried ranks of China figurines, the orchestra of dusty musical instruments and the bizarre carved objects transported, so Mrs. Fairweather informed us, from Africa - mementoes of her journeying to that continent with her late husband.
Sometimes, after the maid brought us glasses of home-made lemonade, Mrs. Fairweather would flick a bony wrist and give us permission to explore the lower floor of the house. "Only the lower floor. No venturing upstairs." Her false teeth would clack as she spoke, which both fascinated and repelled us.
We drifted into the smaller downstairs parlor, which was still twice the size of our own, in search of distraction; Nora clinging to my hand. The rear parlor was stuffed to bursting with cabinets, pictures, a pianoforte, towering cheese plants, and other random items. The curtains were partly drawn, so the room was dim. We gaped at the clutter and edged around it, hardly daring to breathe, let alone touch anything.
Nora found a life-size China doll lolling on a chair and sidled over to stroke it, but I felt uneasy. I was sure there was someone else in the room with us. I saw one of the cheese plants shiver and a truncated shadow flit behind the curtains. I grabbed my little sister's hand, and whispered, "Keep still."
Nora, an obedient child of six-years-old, did as I bade. I put a finger to my lips as an extra precaution. We could both hear light breathing and see the curtains moving, as whomever was behind them edged toward the pianoforte. I pushed Nora behind me and waited. A face popped over the piano's edge.
I say a face, but at first glance, I assumed it to be a child wearing a mask - with holes for eyes, a gash where the mouth should be, and dark stripes painted on their cheeks.
Nora began to cry, and I grabbed a toasting fork, jabbing it in front of me, demanded, "Who goes there?" which sounded, even to my own ears, quite ridiculous.
The mask-face disappeared, and two wizened hands rested upon the piano lid. To my shock they were decorated with tufty black fur, giving the appearance of mittens.
"Is it a m-animal?" asked my little sister with her lisp.
The creature peeked out at us again, and this time I realized it wasn't wearing a mask, but rather the black holes were its eyes, and instead of a mouth with lips, it had only a gash. It was, however, somewhat shorter than me, which gave me courage.
"Step out, now," I commanded, and, to my intense surprise, the creature obeyed.
We stared at it. Nora clinging to my hand. It was no more than four-foot tall, skinny, brownish-black skinned. It reminded me of both a monkey and a boy. It had long fingers with cruel nails, and sported dark fur on its belly, legs, and the backs of its hands. As we stood gazing at it, one tear leaked from an eye, as black as the sloe berries Ma picked to make gin.
From the front parlor we heard a terrific crash, followed by Ma shouting for us, and when we turned back the creature was vanished.
"Is it magic?" asked Nora.
I, being a few years older, was fairly sure this was no magic trick and the memory of that one tear troubled me. I shook my head. "No, Nora, but we must keep this a secret. Swear?"
Nora nodded, her reddish curls bouncing. She was a plainer version of the film star Shirley Temple. Elderly ladies would often stop Ma when she was out grocery shopping, to exclaim and comment on the likeness.
I didn't look like any film star of this decade or the one before, except possibly a younger brother of Harold Lloyd, and this was not a resemblance that could ever be of any conceivable advantage.
"Where have you been?" Ma asked, collecting her gloves, hat, and handbag, and looking flustered, whilst Mrs. Fairweather seemed annoyed and pink-cheeked. The tea tray lay on the plush carpet, brown liquid soaking in.
"Nowhere," I replied.
But Mrs. Fairweather stared at me, with her crow-dark eyes. The grey whiskers on her chin visible in the rays of sunlight. "Boys often lie, when they don't meet your eye," the old woman intoned, voice as flat and blank as a piece of paper.
Ma darted me a look. "Have you been nosey-poking, Joseph?"
"No, Ma." I kept my voice and face as blank as my hostess'. Nora wriggled beside me; little fish that she was. How I've missed her, especially in these my final years. She was such a bright spark.
Mrs. Fairweather rang the bell for the maid and the girl showed us out. I noticed a rusty stain on her apron, which looked for all the world like blood. The maid met my eye and frowned.
Nora skipped ahead of us, full of joy at the freedom, but Ma held me back by my arm. "Joseph? Did you do anything?"
I shook my head, for I had indeed done nothing except stand and stare. To my mind it was Mrs. Fairweather who had done something and then hidden it away. I had stumbled upon her secret; of that I was sure.
After supper Pa read the Bible out loud, as usual and at bedtime I listened to Nora's voice piping her prayers through the paper-thin wall. "Jesus tender, Shepherd hear me "
I'd stopped saying those words last year, after we lost our Billy to the 'flu. Though compared to some families in town we'd got lucky. Some had lost half or more family members to the vile disease, which cut a terrible swathe through the town's populace.
Billy had been just two years younger than me, and my shadow. I missed him like I'd miss my right arm, though I'd decided not to cut that limb off - after all, 'cos what would that do? Or prove? And it wouldn't bring our Billy back.
After the flu and Billy dying, Pa read the Bible more, Ma went to church more and prayed more but I - stopped. I didn't really think much of a God who let little kids die, but I kept quiet about my idea. Nora still believed, like she did in Father Christmas. Perhaps they were one and the same in her childish head?
I took to skipping school running around town, hanging out with the older boys, razzing the seniors, spying on folks for larks, stealing on dares and generally getting a bad name for myself. Ma fought back enforcing the duty visiting of the dying, (that included Mrs. Fairweather - 'cancer', I'd heard whispered) and babysitting Nora tasks to fill my time, plus enforced Bible reading for literacy and moral development.
Mrs. Fairweather wasn't the only oldie we visited, but she was the strangest and the richest, with the biggest house filled with the most interesting objects. I turned twelve that summer and Ma decided I was old enough to visit folk on my own like Mrs. Fairweather, who had requested I do so.
"But why Ma?" I whined, desperate to get out of this particular task. "She hates me."
"Nonsense, Joseph. Do not be so unkind and foolish. She is old and on her own. She has no family."
I muttered something. Ma cocked her head. "What?"
"That's 'cos they all ran away and left her, I 'spect," I offered.
Ma's lips twitched. "Never mind that. You will go every Thursday at 2 pm, drink a cup of tea with her, chat politely, read whatever she asks you to and perform any light jobs. You will stay no less than two hours. That is the arrangement we have made."
"Ma, no - two hours!" I cried in horror.
Ma stood firm. I suspect now Mrs. Fairweather was paying Ma for these visit's and we certainly needed the money since Pa didn't always have work and the Depression was biting hard.
So, on a sweltering July afternoon, buttoned up to the neck in my best shirt, I knocked on Mrs. Fairweather's green front door. The maid, all mob cap and now wearing a clean apron, opened it, frowned, and showed me into the front parlor.
"Ah, Joseph. Come in."
Mrs. Fairweather was dressed in a long, dark grey dress, with black piping. Her skin looked greyer today too, matching her hair and eyes. The sun seemed to shine right through her, as though she was already a ghost. But I saw her chest moving up and down, so knew she was still alive.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Fairweather," I answered, and perched on her scratchy horsehair sofa. There was a book lying on the table between us.
"Please begin to read " Mrs. Fairweather settled back in a vast armchair which dwarfed her skinny body and closed her eyes.
I glanced at the title - to my surprise saw it was Mr. Charles Darwin's controversial last-century work On the Origin of Species not a book I thought Mrs. Fairweather would be interested in. She was a rich, well-educated lady who knew her place in life and the world and could buy pretty much whatever she wanted. Or at least that's how it seemed to me back then.
I began to read out loud. The room was stifling, and after a while Mrs. Fairweather began to snore. I paused, waited a few minutes, but she didn't wake. I stood up, and tiptoed from the room, keeping a wary eye out for the maid.
The hallway was empty, so I trotted to the back parlor once again and the pianoforte. The memory of who I'd seen there on my last visit had plagued me. I had to know more. However, the fear of being caught trespassing weighed heavily on me too.
Inside the parlor I noticed how the walls were covered with murky prints - animals, plants and the glass cases were filled with I took a step nearer and grimaced rows of shrunken heads stared back at me, blind and vacant, alongside the naked skulls of animals. They were labelled with species and dates. There were necklaces of bones laid out in semi-circles, alongside tiny jewel-like stuffed insects and birds.
I felt rather sick at the sight of all this taxidermy and presumably, authorized murder, in the guise of legitimate collecting. The cases were padlocked. I heard a rustle behind me. A tiny sound, but I knew it was definitely not the maid.
In the glass panel I caught the reflection of the same short figure, part-monkey, part-boy, I'd met before.
I waved my hand in greeting and turned slowly, not wanting to alarm it. The creature was perching on the pianoforte stool. Then, to my amazement, it squatted and did its toilet in front of me before grinning. It poked the feces with a long, skinny finger then jumped down and scampered to the heavy curtains, which it proceeded to climb with great agility and energy. I gazed upwards, astonished, and somewhat impressed. I had always been hopeless at gymnastics.
"Bravo, that's amazing," I said.
The creature did a leap into mid-air and somersaulted to the carpet and proceeded to cartwheel around the furniture.
Behind me the door opened and closed. "I see you've met my pet," Mrs. Fairweather said.
The creature shrank away from her, placing one hand over its eyes, as though hiding. I didn't blame him. I wished I could do the same and become invisible.
"Pet? Isn't he er - human?"
"Does it look human?" Her voice was as chill as the larder in winter.
The creature curled up in a ball and rocked on his haunches. It was a pitiful sight. I walked over to him, and spontaneously touched his shoulder. His skin felt like leather, but it was not unpleasant, and, at my touch, he stopped rocking. He smelt rather rank, but then, I reasoned, he had just toileted on the piano stool.
"He is a trophy of my late husband's," Mrs. Fairweather continued. "We brought him home with us. My husband was both a collector and a scientist; such a clever man."
She waved a veined hand at a silver-framed black and white photograph perched on the piano. A bewhiskered, hatted man stared out at us. The creature spat at the photograph and tossed it onto the carpet. Mrs. Fairweather lashed out with her silver-topped cane and caught the creature a sharp blow across the shoulders.
To my surprise I grabbed the cane off her. "Stop! Don't hurt him."
Mrs. Fairweather stared at me, equally surprised. We faced each other in a stand-off. I wasn't sure what to do next. The creature nestled behind the piano, rubbing his right shoulder, whimpering.
It was Mrs. Fairweather who broke the deadlock. "Vile, disgusting creature, but it is all I have left of my late husband. We had no children of our own."
Thank goodness for that, I thought, some innocent children have been spared miserable lives.
"I've kept it hidden here, fed it, and look how it repays me." She waved her hand at the feces, the ripped curtains and scratched furniture.
"He's not a pet. He's probably scared," I said.
The creature had moved and was now clutching my trouser leg. I could see blood oozing from the shoulder. I stroked his head and he nestled into my hand, crooning and moaning. I felt a surge of - I'm not sure what emotion - but it was new and overwhelming. I had turned a corner in that moment, but I had yet to navigate the stormy waters ahead.
Mrs. Fairweather sank into an armchair, spittle bubbling at the corner of her mouth. She looked sicker than sick. I eyed her with no pity, nor any other emotion. Her next words did not alter that state.
"I am dying, boy. I need someone to assume the care of - it.' She pointed a stick-like finger at the creature. "I find I cannot bring myself to "
Realization dawned. "You mean - kill him?" I eyed the rows of horrors filling the glass cabinets.
Mrs. Fairweather nodded. She wheezed, and her whole body trembled. "Will you look after it? Feed it? Visit it? Be its guardian. It is a unique specimen. My late husband's finest work." She slumped in the chair, head lolling to one side, but her crow-dark eyes never left me.
She is, I thought, quite a horror herself0. I wondered how she would like to be stuffed and displayed?
The creature clung to me, as though to a life preserver, and I tousled its tufty hair, whilst it nibbled at my fingers ever so gently. "Why me?"
"You are young, show compassion and fortitude. This creation will live for many years. My husband saw to that."
We eyed each other, the dying Grey Lady and me, a teenage boy who had lost his brother and now was being offered a second chance, or so, I naively believed, to care for and nurture another lost boy.
"I will pay you a regular allowance and ensure the monies will continue after my death. You will be able to assist your parents and, when you are of age, you will inherit this house and live here."
What can I say? I was young, foolhardy, and swayed by this vision of income and inheriting the largest property in the town. I did not foresee how my good fortune could flip in a moment to tragedy. I accepted her terms, and we shook on it. I recall the cool, desiccated touch of her palm. She ordered her affairs, sticking to the letter of everything she had promised me and died, quietly, a few months later, in her bed.