*Characters and events belong to Joel7th
He returned, with a goodnight kiss and promise of bedtime stories
He returned the next night, when the grandfather clock struck twelve, and did so the night after, and all the nights that followed. Exactly at midnight, never a second late. I knew because after the fourth night, I began counting every remaining minute while telling myself the butterflies in my stomach didn’t come from the anxiety and anticipation of cigarette smell blending in the air. Didn’t come from him. And when the time came and I turned my head, I would see a deceptively young man sitting cross-legged on my creaking bed, a half-burnt fag between his fingers. With his fine tailored suit, his slightly wavy locks slick with brilliantine, his polished Italian leather boots and expensive fags, Death posed sharply as a privileged fop most welcomed in every casinos or red-light districts. He might be one when he was not on his “deadly” business. Yet, instead of being there, he was here, sitting on a low, tiny bed that would probably get his long limbs cramp. Instead of having voluptuous pretty girls on his lap, he was in the company of a scrawny kid who was debating whether to grudgingly welcome him or just shove him out of the door. “Good evening,” he would say, and thus our nightly tête-à-tête began.
He was the first I hoped and the last I expected to see upon turning the brass doorknob of my attic room the second night he paid me a visit.
The grandfather clock was chiming its ominous tune as though welcoming him.
It had been a long day indeed. Rushing back and forth between the East and West ends of the town gave my soles blisters that would not heal in a week or two and my leg and thigh muscles a burning soreness that numbed whatever kinks Lord Abner tried on me later in the evening. Having been instructed a handful of new “pleasure” plays from an exotic trader, he was more than eager to try, as my mother had been more than eager to pick the golden coins from his heavy pocket. But I had been a disappointment, he remarked furiously. Lying impassively on his four-poster red satin bed like a bloody dead log. Had he known beforehand, he would have just paid for a pretty cadaver to be delivered to his mansion – corpses were far cheaper, especially in this town where peasants died like flies every day. Where was the youthful and rigorous passion he had expected after paying an absurd sum for one pleasure night? Cheated! Conned! He roared and finally resorted to the old trick of leather bindings, masks and crop. Venting out the frustration in the familiar way he knew all too well. At least in the end, he was generally satiated; otherwise Mother and I would have been in great trouble.
I staggered step by step on the wooden stair, a basin of water and a spotted, worn cloth in my hands, to the door of my room. Mother were already sleeping in her room, probably stone-drunk on the better-than-average whiskey her ample payment tonight had allowed and never aware that her child might have lost her yet a generous client. My sporadic footsteps woke only Janek, who was the unfortunate light sleeper in this house of nocturnal creatures. Glaring at me with bleary eyes, he muttered gibberish before covering his crinkly head with his faded, patched blanket – its foul smell reached even where I was standing. Sweet dreams, I mouthed, and ascended the rest of the stair to my room.
For a moment I had imagined Death behind the door, grinning at me when I came in. It gave my heart a jolt to step in and see the real one.
“Good evening.” A greeting that would sound much mechanical and pretentious were it not coming from Death. He uncrossed his legs and shifted to the edge to allow me the most space should I need to lie down, and I nodded in brief acknowledgement. Jumbled by his unexpected appearance, my mind failed to find its voice. What to do now that he was in my room just as I had wished? Honestly I didn’t know. I could greet him with the same cliché. Maybe not. Or perhaps I could go on doing whatever I had intended to do, never mind his presence. Though I had hoped (against all hope) for his return, I wouldn’t imagine myself giving his company a warming welcome. Death didn’t seem to mind though; he might have picked it up from my mind already.
I laid the basin on the table and opened the window, facing the streets and a row of cypress trees. It had been drizzling for hours and the moon was shy; all I had was the dim, yellow lamplight that could be put out in any minute. Since I had displeased the lord, I hadn’t earned the extra coins that I might have used to purchase some candles and oil. Forget them. The state my legs was wouldn’t have allowed me another few more streets.
The rough fabric rubbed against my back. I grimaced at the first taste of pain, which would last for a couple of days if I were lucky to have no client, and tried to be less haste and more gentle. As soon as I stripped off my soiled clothes and put them away in a small heap by the bed to be washed tomorrow morning, I felt Death’s gaze on me, rolling slowly down my spine like small fireballs. Made my skin crawl just a little. Still, I didn’t begrudge his staring; my back and backside must be a sight to behold now, as was the skin of my thighs and legs. Lord Abner had been fervently determined to get his reimbursement. I supposed I deserved all these nasty slashes, as mother would later chastise me once she found out about my “terrible service”. The thickheaded child that refused to learn, that was I.
“The water was cold.”
I turned around at his voice, perplexed by his sudden statement. Did he mean the water in the basin? Of course it was cold. Warm water at this late hour cost three pence and I simply wouldn’t want to risk mother’s fury. Besides, I only needed something to cleanse myself so that I could have a better sleep. Cold water served the purpose just fine.
I soon understood as I turned to basin. Steam was rising from the surface and for a moment I stood still, allowing the moisture to wash over my face. Pleasure, the warmth and moist on my cold skin. And the scent of fresh, clean water passing through my nose was much purer than the variety of oriental perfumes Lord Abner arranged on shelf after shelf of ivory in his lavish pleasure chamber.
Thank you. I found my voice at last. Dipping the cloth in the water, I began to dab at my skin. First were the wounds. A sharp sting. Though I had anticipated the pain, I still could not feign nonchalance in the face of its sharp bite. Mother once said I was blessed with skin that was never plagued with scars, something she envied and would trade all she got to possess. But I wished for the exact opposite: had my skin become calloused and thickened then I might not have to endure much pain every time it was torn open.
The steady gaze of Death’s eyes appeared to heighten my sensitivity. No one had watched me the way he was doing at present: persistent, scathing yet devoid of lust. Lust I knew well, having dealt with it since my first “client”, but this I had never; this was foreign, alien; this confused me. My usual pace reduced; what would normally take a few minutes felt like hours.
I took in a deep breath, and briefly prepared myself for the final part. Cold air filled my lungs, barely sufficient to cool the shimmering heat within my stomach. Most injuries had been cleaned, leaving only one remained. I felt a ridiculous need to turn my head around, and decided against it. Perhaps I was petrified to meet the vivid color of his eyes. Red like the burning fire ready to wash away all the unclean.
I had not been ashamed to present him with the hideous details of my life. However, showing him the memory was one thing, letting him see was an entirely different matter. It wasn’t shame that fanned the boiling in my stomach; it was something worse, something I couldn’t name yet.
I swallowed the rock in my throat and spread my legs, bring the cloth between them. Lord Abner’s remnants clung stubbornly onto the raw, swollen flesh. I scrubbed at it and hissed audibly with the burning pain, squeezing my eyes shut. I felt warm dampness on my cheeks; the unmistakable scent of nicotine swam in my nasal passages.
He kept mum the entire length, letting only the smell of cigarette to speak of his presence. I was grateful for his grave silence. I couldn’t have known what to say if he had asked.
Again, he did not need to ask really.
I put on my nightshirt, taking time to do each button and to unravel the knots in my stomach. The water was dirtied, the sight of which caused me to wince. Leaving the basin on the table, I closed the window, fastened the rusty bolt and climbed on my bed.
The bed moaned when I settled myself on the mattress. To my surprise, Death pulled the blanket to my chest.
“I suppose you’re in no mood for a bedtime story,” he said with a tiny hint of smile.
I shook my head slightly. My body was sore all over and my eyes felt heavy as stone. I imagined I could sleep for weeks if I were allowed to have my way.
“Too bad I’ve prepared a few.” He shrugged. “Maybe tomorrow.”
My eyes shot open at the hint. He looked at me, his smile widening to a grin. He patted my head.
“Yes, child, tomorrow, and all the nights after tomorrow. I will be harassing you from now on, whether you like it or not. But now, you will sleep.”
I felt his kiss on my forehead, a quick brush of his lips on my skin. He vanished into thin air the next second, leaving me to debate with myself whether I should be fond of his “harassment”. It didn’t last long as I soon fell into the loving embrace of dreamless sleep.
I awoke before dawn the next morning, feeling full of life and free of pain. The fabric of my nightshirt scratching my skin didn’t pain me, and when I ran my fingers on my shoulders and back, the skin was impossibly smooth.
I noticed something off as I descended the stair, carrying the basin in one hand and my soiled clothes in the other. The flat was eerily quiet; Janek’s usual loud snoring couldn’t be heard.
Curiously, I approached his makeshift bed. Odd. My footsteps didn’t wake him, the old bat. I pulled down his blanket, and poked his shoulder with my forefinger.
My eyebrows knitted. I pinched him.
Normally Janek would jump and yell at me in his thick Southern accent. Not today though. Today he remained still like a log.
I slapped him hard on the shoulder.
Not a stir.
Dubiety rose in me. I placed a finger in front of his nostrils. A jolt ran through my being. There was no breathing.
Dead as a door nail, he was. Unannounced. Quiet. As if Death had swooped down in the night to take his miserable soul to the afterlife, or whatever it was after death. I had to smile as the comparison. It was not without a warning though; Janek had been constantly complaining about a pricking pain in his chest for some time, but no one, including himself, had been paying real attention to his deteriorating health. Not having enough money, he hadn’t seen the doctor. Here was the result.
I stared at his rigid corpse for a good few minutes, uncertain of my own feeling. I supposed there was sadness in me, grief even, for his sudden death. Janek had been the only one in this entire flat to possess the patience to talk to me, a mute child, to teach me bits and bobs of his own knowledge about the world, warped as it was. I supposed he had loved me, as many a time he had caught me in his booze-stinking embrace, whispering to me how I resembled his “precious beautiful child”, who had been lost years and years before to the “wretched old bitch”. I also remembered after each time he had ravished me with kisses so passionate that my lips had been red and swollen for hours later.
I had never told Mother about any of those.
With confidence, I opened his drawer, where I knew he stored all his belongings, however scarce they were. I rummaged through the objects, most of which were as useless to me as to the world, until I found something that caused a satisfied smile to creep on my face. The arsenic he had kept to exterminate the rats – those furry devils from Hell that nested in this shambles. I put the brown packet deep in my pocket, leaving the rest in the drawer.
I stood by his bed and bended down to place a kiss on his wrinkled forehead. Farewell, old Janek. Farewell, Father.
And off I went to wash my clothes.
Mother always complained about how often Janek’s snoring woke her up in the middle of the night. I bet she would be delighted to learn that her sleep was no longer disturbed.
(To Be Continue)