Chapter I: Fordham and the Barley House
For twenty-six years I had dwelt in the greater heirloom of my family. It was a grand Victorian manse that sat primly in the centre of what was once a tobacco farm on the western outskirts of the town of Fordham, near to Dunna Cairn. The Barleys had lived in this home for time out of mind, lost in the fields of Ur, interacting unprofessionally and sporadically with the little government of Fordham, though the locals regarded us not as their cohabitants in that land. My grandfather told me that we had been there longer than the town-folk, that our family had arrived a full hundred years before any of the other settlements were established. Supposedly, Dunna Cairn was raised by my direct ancestor, Peter Barley (although the name at the time was Barol, from the Old Country), and that we were the only people for hundreds of leagues around that could approach that old stone without fear. God knows none of the town-folk could.
During my twenty-fifth year at Barley House I made it my business to discover the history of the property itself, for our family was far older than the farm upon which we had lived and under which we had been buried for a time. As a child I spent many a summer day wandering the lower regions of the house, examining the cool stone of the cellar walls, checking every so often to push on them and see if they would budge, revealing a secret passageway, or opening a trove of mediaeval weapons or of jewels and gold.
Alas! I did not find such a marvellous discovery, though I did make a dear friend. His name was Alastair, and we did everything together. My parents could not see him, of course, and neither could I, strictly speaking. You see, time gets long during those empty days when the Sun moves so lethargically across the sky, and the town was not the most sociable of environs for our family. I was an only child after my sister passed, and although I barely remember her (I was only three and she a mere girl of seventeen), I can recall poignantly the sense of extreme loneliness that haunted my steps thereafter. Alastair became a marvellous comfort then, a companion who would lead me on all kinds of adventures, who always appeared when I most needed a friend.
In the summer of my eighth year, Alastair ceased to show his face to me. And by the time I was twelve, his voice was gone, and his scent, and his words that would pass to me on paper and glass were discontinued indefinitely. This was a sore blow to me, but I was raised by my uncle to be strong, to face loneliness with a kind of courage and joie de vivre, to know myself before aught else. I mourned my friend that year in my own silent way.
When I celebrated my thirteenth year in March, I knew once and for all that it was time to grow up. I was to go to a new school, at long last attending the same classes as my conspicuous peers in our little town of Fordham. Before this, I had been homeschooled: in the mornings by mother, and in the evenings by uncle. I was permitted to skip lessons in the Summer, for which I was grateful in the end, as without this veritable cornucopia of leisure, might I have forgone the acquaintance of dear Alastair? I think so, yes. All the same, my life before I ended those formative years had been small, closed-up, with much knowledge but little understanding.
Fordham College (before it burned down and the children were shipped off to the community schools in Savan and Gells) consisted of a singular schoolhouse, in which the entirety of the class was taught by two teachers, whom I considered quite strangely paired. Mrs. Yaris was a decrepit old woman who came from the oldest family in town (apart from the Barleys, that is), whose husband was the local preacher. She had a knack for corporal punishment and witch-like cursing, and never failed to indulge herself in the barbaric practices of lines and maths and that most detestable of sciences: recitations. Mr. Romakin, on the other hand, was nearly always silent, and when he spoke, he did most of it by writing on the chalkboard and pointing. The sounds that came from his mouth were nearly impossible to translate, and the students mocked him in secret every time he attempted to communicate in this way.
Mr. Romakin had gone away some years ago when he was fifteen, and returned without his voice. As a child, he attended school without truancy, played with his friends in the evening, and frequented the church each week as a model penitent. Then, one morning, he was gone. It doesn’t take long for a person’s absence to be noticed in a little community like Fordham, and before midday, the news had gone about town: Young Ricard was missing.
Ricard’s family immediately issued forth the announcement that everyone longed to hear. Ricard was not missing at all, but had, in fact, been called away on a divine mission to the wastes of Gehenna, and there he travelled with God’s good grace and the prayers of his loving family and friends. Fordham breathed out a sigh of relief (with no small degree of disappointment, for they loved a good scandal), and shifted their gaze to the new assistant preacher in town, a young man by the name of Regan Farcy, who proved terribly boring after the usual six-month period of communal scrutiny.
Fordham had a fairly uneventful history. It was founded by two farming families who split the land in twain— the east for the Ur’s and the west for the Laramie’s—and when the war passed through Leed, raging just north of Dunna Cairn so that smoke was seen on the horizon at sunset, the town of Fordham remained untouched by either victor or victim. Which was just how they liked things, you see, for the town of Fordham was barely even a town at that time, and their resources were exceedingly scarce. After the war, the world grew steadily more and more silent. Travellers would pass through about twice per year, most of them passing north through Leed on their way west in the Spring and then returning east in the Fall. A few traders would try their wares in Fordham, much to the delight of the youths and the chagrin of the aldermen.
There was but a single piece of gossip worth circulating in recent memory. The dame Freya, wife of Corin Usher, and the Reverend’s son, Aaron Yaris, had been seen by Henrietta one full moon, romping about in the eastern Laramie (the field that touched the deadlands between the two primary groups of fields). No one knew Henrietta’s last name. Every time the old woman was asked, she would give a different answer, along with a lengthy account of a rich and exciting heritage that was never the same as her previous account. But for all her delusions, Henrietta was not considered a liar by the people of Fordham, and the news of this midnight affair between so young and revered a man and so mature and responsible a woman danced on the lips and in the ears of every single person the next day without exception.
Well, nothing much came of that gossip, apart from the hushed-up divorce and continued cohabitation of the Ushers, but it never passed out of mind until old Henrietta grew older still, and speech failed her, ceasing her tiresome canards. Ricard had vanished two years prior to the silencing of Henrietta, and most folk had accepted his absence, having exhausted their various alternate theories and conformed to the resolve of the Romakin’s and the collective memory of the boy’s piety and godly inclinations. But it had been nearly eight months, and since the gossip of Freya and her boy had grown overused, the people had their ears open for the next big thing. They received it outright.
When Ricard returned at the end of that year, it was not his silence that struck most people as odd, but the amount which he appeared to have aged. When he departed so suddenly on his calling, he had not a wrinkle on his face nor a hair upon his lip, yet here he was only two and a half years later, looking as though he had passed a decade and more in rough country among wicked people, hearing hateful things, enduring the ravages of Time more rapidly than his peers. Why, he was not even recognized at his arrival, but treated as though he were a weary traveller come too late for the merchant trade east of Leed, meeting the return caravans with little to no wares remaining. He was put up at the tavern, and in the morning his room was empty, and the Romakin’s announced the return of their long-departed son.
You can imagine the confusion that followed, along with the delight and fervour of such a rumour-deprived town, in the aftermath of the strange homecoming. Ricard did not speak to anyone when he went about the town; he only grunted and pointed with his unnaturally aged fingers, moved with his eyes downcast, and to everyone’s dismay and befuddlement, avoided the church like the plague. For nearly a six-month the gossip of poor Ricard Romakin flourished greater than the crops of Fordham, and he was considered with much intrigue and revulsion—the new Henrietta in a way, for the old woman, though she lived still, stayed in bed always, tended only by her affectionate niece and the town physician who brought her potions for her discomfort.
Such was the world I entered three years later in my thirteenth year, and as I stepped foot into Fordham College, I knew at once that Mr. Romakin was different. It was the eyes, I suppose. He had very youthful eyes, but they were sunken into his skull and so emblazoned with shadows that I thought, at a glance, that he had no eyes whatsoever, but rather two black caverns in the centre of his decrepit face.
Mrs. Yaris was clearly the head teacher. It was she who gave assignments, who meted out discipline and slander, who bossed around the students and her co-teacher, but Mr. Romakin was always my favourite. I can’t say why exactly, except that there was a sort of kindred feeling I had about him. Perhaps it was his outcast status that was subliminally communicated to me through the minute behaviour of my fellow students, or perhaps in the lingering, knowing gaze with which he would hold you, that look of extreme sympathy ever upon his weary face. My mother had a similar look before she passed. To put it simply: Mr. Romakin was different, and I liked that about him.
School was good for me, I think, mostly thanks to my uncle’s cosmopolitan lessons in my earlier years. And as time passed on, I found myself more and more attuned to the nature of the world, the variety of human perspectives both East and West, and the multitude of pitfalls in the world of conscious beings. By contrasting the philosophies of Irenaeus and Tertullian with the poetry of Rumi and Hermes Thrice-Great, and by regurgitating my affinity for the romance of Blake, the horrors of Hemlock, the simplicity of Lao Tse, and the rich diversity of many other creatives, I turned what would have been an intensely limiting system of societal conditioning into a dialectic venue, where I and my peers were not only students and Yaris and Romakin not merely teachers, but all of us voracious minds pushing and pulling against the unknowable fabric of reality and human experience.
At least, that was how I saw it. In reality, I ended up dismissed from class on a regular basis, and recurrently ostracized by my peers who just wanted to get through the lecture rather than lengthen it. So, I learned to time my comments and select my audience more wisely. The folk of Fordham got to know me after a couple of months, and after about eight months, the name of “Barrow-ley” fell out of use surrounding my humble self. It was still used of my family and our home, but because I was known to be quite personable and “integrated” in a way, a certain courtesy was extended in my company to speak less ill of my kin. I do not believe this would have happened if my esoteric musings had not been reserved for a select few.
My greatest friend during my four years at school—and the only fellow student who would encourage me and participate in my arguments against the one-sidedness of our education—was a young girl named Iseult. She was my age, and after a few conversations, we learned that we shared a birthday, which we both found extremely amusing. She wasn’t always at school, for she had an aged great-aunt for whom she cared, and who had no family left. I could sympathise; my parents were both passed as well, and it often felt like I was the one taking care of my uncle and not the other way around. Beside this, the only other inhabitant of Barley House was the caretaker, Ms. Isla, whose only family was her hairless cat, Maelstrom (I called him Mel, and was perpetually reprimanded by Ms. Isla for not using his full name). In time, I heard all about her great-aunt Henrietta, and my interest began to increase surrounding Iseult and her family.
Like her aunt, Iseult had no last name. She was just Iseult, or “Henrietta’s girl”. Her parents had left her with her great-aunt when she was only an infant, and suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, but this was done so swiftly that most people in town didn’t even realise it had happened, and Henrietta insisted for so long that Iseult had come to her in a dream and she had awoken to find her spinning in circles on the bed next to her, or that the girl was discovered in a field in exchange for a returned changeling, or that she herself gave birth to her immaculately, that the people eventually ceased to concern themselves with this particular piece of gossip and moved on to more palatable morsels of information.
It is a unique quality in the town of Fordham that the people are particularly selective about their gossip. If they can’t control the story themselves, it falls out of fashion, and people dismiss it as “that nonsense” and find for themselves a more malleable story. I was just such a story for a time: the deathly boy from Barrow House. I never was quite sure why they all thought I was sickly. I was quite pale I suppose, and I didn’t speak much to begin with, but I was hardly ever ill. It may be that being subjects of the town’s gossip is a similarity that first attracted me to Iseult, and to Mr. Romakin.
As we grew older, Iseult and I spent more time together, and in September of 1922, we went together to live at Barley House. I think the people of Fordham anticipated this, and they were not surprised (and were, in fact, somewhat encouraged) when we relocated old Henrietta to our home, hoping the fresh air and quiet would do her some good. In the years that followed, my uncle passed, Fordham grew, and Henrietta lost her sight and her hearing along with her appetite. I grieved for my uncle appropriately, and we buried him on the property behind the house. Ms. Isla was extremely distraught, and within a fortnight, she had vanished. Mel, the cat, remained, prowling about the house, catching mice and flies and spiders. He liked to keep Henrietta company, so much so that when the doctor would come to tend to her (which was nearly every day now) the beast would hiss and guard her ferociously. I never liked old Mel, but I respected his resolve, though I was simultaneously frustrated by his noncompliance. Iseult was the only one who could calm him and carry him away so the doctor could ply his trade.
Barley House, before Iseult came to live there, was a dreary and unfriendly place. Ms. Isla, though an excellent caretaker when it came to the greenhouse and garden, the graveyard, and the library, was an absolutely deplorable custodian of hygiene everywhere else in the house. Dust would accumulate on the bannisters and shelves and floors. Insects and spiders were regular neighbours, and rodents could be heard in the walls almost regularly. Mel was a help to that particular problem, but even he couldn’t get rid of them all. Food would spoil from sitting too long in the kitchen. And, as I grew older, the cellar was more and more neglected, until at last the mould problem down there grew so bad that we had to board it up.
Then I brought home my wonderful young wife, and where shadow and decay had once held dominion, there was now sunlight and fresh air. The basement remained boarded up, for the problem was too large and expensive to remedy in our present state, but there was always fresh food in the kitchen, improved air circulation, new candles on the sconces, and mouse traps in the corners. It was as though she had exorcised the old and catatonic spirit that had lurked throughout the house for years, and brought in a new, young ghost, filled with a sort of joie de morte in its newfound state of perpetual energy which it spread kindly to us lingering mortals who were its unwitting cohabitants.
I spent much of my time in the library, sitting next to a fire in an old chair which held a combined scent of the perfume of my mother and the tobacco of my uncle that brought my mind to a wonderfully temperate state, or pacing the floors, sipping a tonic, reading a novel, smoking a pipe, listening to an antiquated album from a bygone age or to the incantations of Iseult, or doing any combination of these things as behoved me at the moment. I also took to writing poetry and prose, musing on philosophy, and trying my hand at the disciplines of my intellectual forebears.
Iseult was a dedicant to the arts and the sciences, a creator and herbalist whose mind was unmatched in the worlds of men and spirits, who was altogether caring, sharp as a double-edged sword, and well-versed in occult and religious workings. Her delight was in the contemplations of mysteries innumerable, the meditations of lesser-known pioneers of the mind, body, and soul, and the subtle vibrations and sensual interplay of many musical instruments and disciplines of the body. I daresay she would ne’er be victim to any wolf, whose prowl was physically or spiritually substantiated.
As time progressed, we both came to care for Henrietta with equal mindfulness (and, truth be told, a small degree of distracted neglect), though there was less we could do in time, and the duties passed steadily into the hands of the physician. There were three instances in recent days where we thought she stood at Death's door, and each moment she came through the other end, uttering not a word, consuming not a bite, but persisting to breathe, ever so shallowly, and to trace with her hand upon her sheets perpetual circles within circles.
So, we spent our days enchanted, content in our endless adventures to nearby cities and uncharted regions on the border of civilisation, for which we drew up our own maps and catalogued creatures we had discovered according to our own methods. Great was the magick we gathered in those years, and great was our passion, ambition, and revelry in one another’s minds and beauty and in our unshakeable mutual faith. Ah! those Elysian days of our youth! Though I suppose even gods must one day feel their age, and return their minds to the Void. Hyacinth waters may yet lie on either side of this stormy voyage.
And now you are prepared to understand—insofar as understanding is possible—what passed hereafter: to hear the words of the dead, to observe the absurdity of worlds stacked upon worlds. The data I have relayed to you may seem insignificant now, small and tedious details of an isolated community unimportant to the great moments of history that have forgotten Dunna Cairn and its little nearby villages. Yet they are the foundation for the most defining and transformational period of my life, in which all I knew and all I held dear was made uncertain, mere waves in a dark and terrible sea. Read, if you will. Or do not. It makes no difference to me now. But I must write regardless. I must lay down the runes you see before you, must take my mental refugees and catch them, pin them to the parchment, so that once they’ve all gone the story they shaped out of neurons soft might remain, might be explored, considered, admired or detested.
Have courage, and we shall move through time and space, see the birth and death of entire worlds, all within a mere nine winters. The year to which we are going is 1931. The year in which everything changed. Are you prepared? Good. Then let us begin.
Chapter II: The Second Return of Ricard Romakin
Fordham was now a bustling trade centre, having marketed its country ways and small town feel to the few traders that passed through each year. More and more merchants would come through, and eventually a few would stay to sell to other travellers, eventually renting small buildings, purchasing property, and expanding the borders of the town to accommodate housing and a new small marketplace. There wasn’t very much resistance to this by the town-folk (excepting Reverend Yaris and his wife, whose misoneism was palpable from a mile away), for there was more to gossip about now.
There came a day when Iseult and I went to town together on a fine Sunday afternoon, dressed as though we had gone to church (which we certainly had not and never did, although in some ways I do regret this now), and wandered about the marketplace, enjoying a coffee here at the corner shop, watching the people pass by, merchants selling wares, children running about the street, old couples window-shopping in their stingy way. It was on this day, exactly one week and two days before our anniversary, that we became reacquainted with our dear friend and old school-teacher Mr. Ricard Romakin.
There we sat, sipping our coffee and taking in the sun, and as we watched, across the way, the hunched form and unsteady pace of the old man with the young man’s eyes passed before our vision. He was unaccompanied, and glanced about himself anxiously as he moved between the vendors, making his way west toward the edge of the square.
‘Why, William,’ Iseult said to me, ‘Isn’t that our old teacher, Mr. Romakin?’
I looked and found it to be true, ‘Iseult, my dear, I believe you are right!’ I hailed him from where we sat, catching his eye and waving him over. ‘How many years has it been? I thought he had moved away or passed from this world into death.’
‘I thought so as well,’ said my wife, ‘In fact, I think I told you he had passed. I overheard Georgina and Lily at the market some months back while shopping for a new dagger (my old one had been irreparably damaged, you recall; that hard-boned cretin that set upon us in that ravine?). Lily said to the other, “Did you hear about poor Ricard? Passed in his sleep, too much of his tonic. I would wager fifteen midas it was his parents did it on purpose. Never liked the creature that came back from his ‘godly’ mission.” I even think,’ she continued, now at a whisper as Romakin approached, ‘they spoke about his disappearance before our time, information they gathered from their parents…’ The old man was far too close to continue this speech aloud.
‘Hullo there, Mr. Romakin,’ I saluted him with the removal of my hat, rising from my seat and offering it to him. He refused with the wave of a hand and an almost imperceptible shake of his head. I propped myself against the back of Iseult’s chair, ‘How are you this fine Sunday, sir?’
In the final two years of our schooling, Mr. Romakin had developed a system of signing with which he was able to communicate with many of the older inhabitants of Fordham. I was among them—as was Iseult—and we understood his meaning at once, though his hands flourished quite rapidly. It came across like a stuttering telegram: ‘Fine day. Busy. I greet you both. Must be off. Goodbye.’ With a final wave of his hand, he set off quickly to the west, wandering down a side street and out of sight.
‘Well,’ I began, ‘that was odd.’
Iseult was gazing in the direction he had gone, ‘I agree.’ Her eyes followed his route backwards, watching the path to where it disappeared at the east end of the market. ‘Darling, I’ll be back momentarily.’ She arose and departed, giving chase to some idea that had presently leapt from her brain and beckoned her to follow.
‘Alright, dear,’ I called after her. ‘I’ll just—be here then.’ I chuckled gently under my breath, reminding myself how very lucky of a man I was, and returned to my coffee and meditation.
It was approximately three o’clock—Rook’s Hour we called it in those days, though the reason why quite escapes me now—when Iseult bounded up to me as I chatted with my dear friend, Laura, outside of Redman’s Curios shoppe. She was just beginning on a wearisome history of her (mostly unsuccessful) seductions of many a respectable gentleman (both local and vagrant), when my wife appeared at my side, causing my heart to leap into my throat at the suddenness of her arrival. ‘Hello,’ she spoke breathily into my ear. Laura was still speaking loudly, and not looking at me anymore, but at the strangers who could clearly overhear her detailed accounts of her sexual escapades and were glancing disapprovingly at our little trio.
I turned to Iseult, ‘Hello, darling.’
‘Let’s go home.’
We left Laura chittering to her transient audience, and moved swiftly away from the rabble and onto the road towards home. Once we had gone a ways, Iseult spoke, ‘He was dead.’
I made an amused face to cover my confusion, ‘What?’
‘He was dead. I checked at Borne.’
‘And Faust said…what exactly?’
Iseult looked at me seriously, ‘What do you think?’
A heavy breath escaped my lips, ‘I think that you’re about to tell me.’
‘I did just tell you, darling,’ she continued, ‘It’s alright, I know you aren’t the brightest.’
I should clarify this point further. Iseult, you see, had spent some years working at the morgue as an autopsy assistant, and it was her close friend, Dr. Faust, who still kept a tidy ship when she departed. Borne was the name of the street upon which the morgue was built. It had been an old home that caught fire at the end of the last century, and Dr. Faust rebuilt and renovated it to become an all-service funeral home. After the fire, along with a variety of ghostly encounters, no one wished to live on that road. And so, Dr. Faust’s funeral home was all that remained, and was affectionately referred to as Borne by most of Fordham. I always found a simple irony in the name, and in the fact that the folk who initially started calling it Borne didn’t themselves recognize the irony.
I chuckled narrowly, ‘Alright, so he said that Romakin had died. Surely that was a mistake though.’
Iseult shook her head rapidly, ‘No, no mistake. I double checked, read the record myself. Romakin overdosed on mercury (which he was taking for aphasia at the behest of his foolish mother, who had in turn acquired it to treat her own melancholy) in his family home and was taken to Borne in the middle of the night, where Dr. Faust performed the autopsy.’ As she spoke, her voice grew both softer and more excited, ‘He was identified three times over and a death certificate scribed. And,’ here her voice was so quiet I had to strain to hear it, ‘as you must recall, Romakin came from the east end of the market. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that Renée Dollinger and Silas Duncan saw him arrive in the square from the south road; that is, from Union Avenue.’
I took her meaning at once, but did not respond with the excitement she clearly anticipated. Union Avenue was the road to the largest local cemetery, located directly behind the church. She watched my face, but I painted it with scepticism and replied, ‘Surely there was some mistake. The man was alive and well when we saw him. A little skittish perhaps, but by no means did he appear to have been recently deceased.’
‘He thought someone was after him.’
‘Well, that may be,’ I admitted. ‘He was acting rather strangely.’
‘He was acting,’ continued Iseult, ‘like he had just escaped the grave and was fleeing from the shadow of Death.’
Here I laughed aloud, ‘You were ever the more romantic of us two, darling. I do believe you’ve read some profound fantasy into our little town of Fordham.’
Her face became red and she stopped walking, ‘Don’t be an ass, and don’t patronise me. I told you exactly what I learned. What did you learn by speaking with that dilly-dally, Laura?’
‘Well, I learned that Theo Munson has some trouble with the use of his most delicate member when it matters most. Particularly while—’
‘Oh, shut up for a moment!’
‘Listen to me,’ began Iseult, ‘We must find Romakin and speak with him. I trust Dr. Faust, but I also trust my own senses. Clearly the man we saw today is not dead, but a man who either is Romakin, or who looked exactly like him, is certainly dead and was interred some months ago. Now I went to the cemetery—’
Now it was my turn to cut her off, ‘Good God, my dear, tell me you didn’t dig up a grave!’
‘Of course I didn’t dig up the grave; it would be foolishness in broad daylight.’ Her face was deadly serious. ‘But I found the gravestone – Ricard Romakin; born Dec. 15th, 1894; died Mar. 15th, 1930 – that’s why we didn’t know about his death, we were away in Leed that whole week for our birthday. And when we returned, it was still bustling with the spring market and the caravans, so his death was buried under the more present and interesting conversation of wares. So, no one really paid attention but his family, and apparently the man himself, who walked the street of Fordham this very day.’
I considered this for a moment. ‘Died on our very birthday. Strange coincidence.’ Iseult was looking at me meaningfully and we began to stride forth once more at a leisurely pace. ‘I suppose they’ll have to update his tombstone – died Mar. 15th; revived Sept. 14th.’
Iseult’s eyes widened and she nodded encouragingly.
Chapter III: The Mute
The following day, I arose and perched myself in the top of the library tower to enjoy my coffee, my book, and the cool morning air. This was one of my most treasured places: a small platform reached by ascecnding a spiral staircase encircled by various maps, charts, and codices, looking out over the garden and the marshy fen just beyond, where the river had flooded about thirty years ago and washed out the brittle higher ground. Looking in this direction, you could watch the Sun as she rose over the edge of the horizon, the dim outline of Fordham vanishing into her brilliant yawn. On this particular morning, I sat cross-legged on this upper platform and propped open the windows before me and behind. A gentle wind tickled the back of my neck and encouraged me to continue facing the East. There were kingfishers singing to one another just outside the window, hovering over the small pond at the south end of the garden, taking turns diving at the glint of shallow scales.
Mornings like this always enliven me to think of hope as a courageous and natural thing. I like to think of myself as optimistic on a regular basis, but in practice I often need a reminder of the beauty in the world—a prompting to look to the East.
Having completed my ritual, I bid ado to the Sun and descended the stairs leisurely, making my way to the kitchen. Iseult was already there cooking some eggs and sausage, which had a pleasant, but very plain, aroma. I always found it amusing that despite her unmatched expertise in herbalism, she very rarely made use of them in the preparation of food.
‘Good morning, love,’ I said to her. She smiled at me, and immediately called me over.
I thought for a moment that she wanted to kiss me or something of the sort, but as soon as I got over to her, she pushed the spatula into my hand and said, ‘Finish this up for me, would you?’ then bounded out the door swift as a deer. I stood still for a moment, then finished the eggs (adding some parsley, salt, and bell peppers) and sausage, made our plates, and set them on the table.
I could see Iseult just outside the door, frolicking through the orchard near the garden. She promptly returned with about twelve apples in her arms and one in her mouth. She dumped the apples into a bowl, and then sat down next to me, finishing her apple while she rifled through the pages of a book that I had not noticed before.
‘What’s that,’ I inquired.
Without swallowing, she said, ‘Romakin—he wrote a book.’
‘Ah,’ I said, not very surprised, ‘of course, Romakin. I thought dead men told no tales?’
‘No, not Ricard,’ she corrected. ‘I’m talking about Ivan, his grandfather. Besides, Romakin, or his doppelgänger, clearly isn’t really dead at all.’ She offered me her half-eaten apple and I graciously accepted. ‘Ivan Romakin settled in Fordham with his wife and daughter in 1872, but before this, they came from the West. Ivan wrote a novel—this novel—about a man and his wife travelling through the desert. It’s called The Fool’s Farren’.
Here she paused to chew and swallow a piece of sausage, all the while attempting to read my face, while I exuded a simple aire of curiosity. I knew what she was driving at, of course. But I also loved when she looked at me so unabashedly, and I did not want to give her cause to look away.
She swallowed her food and continued, ‘I’m willing to bet that was at least inspired by their journey across the Wastes of Gehenna.’
I sat and pondered this for a minute. ‘That would make sense. But I don’t rightly see its relevance to our present mystery.’
‘Neither do I,’ replied Iseult. ‘I’m just starting to gather information. Also, it has been a fascinating read so far; I never knew Romakin was related to so talented a writer.’
‘I should think my family history would recount the arrival of the Romakins,’ I said. ‘We settled near Dunna Cairn at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and moved to Fordham just before the wars began.’
‘You should look into that.’
It was this strange tale that began my inquest into the history of Barley House. I knew my family arrived in the area before anyone else, but this house was not built until 1881. The Romakins were not foreign to the stories of my forebears. I could remember as a child hearing my uncle say, ‘The Romakins may be recent arrivals, but they are an old family. Don’t speak with them unless you have to. But if you do, listen carefully.’
‘What luck,’ thought I, ‘that the one Romakin I ever met was unable to speak with me whatsoever!’ Now, however, it appeared that my old teacher’s mutism may prove a hindrance to our ambitions.
Approximately half past noon, I found myself plodding down the road toward the Romakin residence. They lived in a little thatched building just outside Fordham, to the South. It is for this reason that I doubted Iseult when she implied that Romakin came from the cemetery, for their house was just beyond it, in the old regions of Fordham, near the church. But the tombstone was a strange and undeniable piece of evidence that something odd was at play.
I stopped at the cemetery simply to confirm my wife’s discovery, and having resolved myself of its validity, turned to depart and continue my sleuthing. The moment I turned, however, I came face to face with none other than the man himself!
‘Ricard!’ I called out, after a start, ‘I am glad to see you, old friend. Please, let me speak with you.’
His face was clearly concerned, as it was the day before, and his eyes glanced fervently about him. He signed, ‘Not here. Come.’ I immediately obeyed. Who could do otherwise in so intriguing a circumstance?
With a pleasant chill to the air and the hairs on the back of my neck responding accordingly, I followed the old man around the church and down the street, toward his family home. This part of the town was mostly residential or broken down. People liked to be nearer to the market, so the houses were run down and many were uninhabited. As we approached Romakin’s property, I went to turn in at the gate, but the old man caught my arm, shook his head, gestured for silence, and indicated for me to keep following.
We walked farther than I anticipated, and I began to grow uncomfortable. What could this man mean by his behaviour? Clearly something was amiss. He was supposed to be buried, not leading me through dusty alleyways where the living rarely trod. My heart grew steadily more anxious, and as Romakin weaved left and right between buildings that even I did not recognize, I began to become as vigilant and paranoid as the man before me appeared to be.
Suddenly, we came to a halt. We were in a low corner between two houses, and after glancing around many times and positioning himself such that he could flee at a moment’s notice, Ricard Romakin opened his mouth and spoke.
Yes, he spoke! This mute who had been mocked for his grunts, who had been forced to adopt a language of signs and gestures, this strange and mysterious creature whom I had only ever known as my beloved teacher, quite pitiable, not very confident, was here before me with a voice as powerful and unhindered as the greatest of orators from the days of Ancient Rome, speaking to me as though I were his equal in verbiage and rhetoric. I felt, of a sudden, as though I were a child in the schoolhouse, and here was my teacher, ready to discipline the mockers and to demand respect and admiration.
Thus he spoke to me on that day, in that alley, with the voice of a god:
‘My dear William, it is so good to see you. It is so good to see! Why, if I had not been so wrapped up in my inability to speak, I would have been able to recognize how very blind I was. But this is beside the point. You must listen to me, son: Fordham is not safe. You and your wife are not safe. You must speak with Her. The child of Charybdis can translate for Her, but you must be willing to listen. Iseult has been kept in the dark, but she holds the legend to Her words as they come through the conduit. I have died, my son. I have died, and I will swear it again: I have certainly and indisputably died. Yet am I here to speak with you upon this day. Guard your heart against the trials ahead, for there shall be three, and they shall not be easy. I am truly sorry that you are to be put through this. The Barolim are the keepers, and you are a Barol. I know the words were not passed to you, but the key was, along with the house. No matter what happens, no matter how dismal things appear, no matter your suffering or your doubts, you must NEVER surrender Barrow House. Do not lose the key! Do not admit the man with the crooked hat! William, I implore you, heed my words and do not fail.’
Needless to say, I was quite shaken up. I stuttered, ‘Y-you can talk!’
‘William,’ said Romakin sternly, grasping both of my shoulders and holding me firmly, ‘do not fail.’
The world became strange then. When you look at a man, you notice his face, but you also notice a duality of things. Two ears, two eyes, two nostrils, two lips, two arms, etc. And all of this is normal; you don’t think twice about it. You think, ‘Yes, of course, here is an individual, and in many ways this One is Two.’ But then this goes one step further, and you know you are crossing a boundary from which you fear you may never return. Suppose, for instance, that not only were their two nostrils and two eyes and two ears, etc., but that each individual component was hosted upon its own head, so there was not One that was Two, but rather Two that each had One, and without warning, you yourself became Two, and you could look at your own eyes. That is a rough approximation of what began to happen to me, and the sky rolled back, and the world shook like an earthquake, and I watched in horror as Mr. Romakin split himself in two, and one was silent and the other was incessantly loud. And in a moment, everything was two, and suddenly one again.
I was alone. It was night. Romakin was gone, and I stood facing an empty wall at the back of an alley in a place where no one lived in old Fordham. I turned rapidly, wondering at my predicament and what had just occurred. I felt my face, and there was one, not two. A sigh of relief came forth without permission, and I caught my breath in fear. How long had I been standing here? Had I gone to sleep? Where was Romakin? Had I imagined the entire encounter? I could answer not one of these questions, and so I simply began to move towards home. The last glow of the day had finally vanished. Half the moon was concealed, and darkness was still stretching across his face. I shivered, pulled my jacket about myself, and pushed through along the dark road until I came back to town, through the abandoned square, and back onto the path towards Barley House.
It was an unnerving walk. The wind was brisk, and the darkness nearly complete. The quarter moon graced my eyes with shadows that vanished when I looked their way, like a cruel trick of paranoia. I heard dead corn stalks and twigs being crushed underfoot in the cornfields to my right. I caught a fleeting scent of blood after the sound of a whispering and a short, sharp cry occurred to my left. I have since tried to convince myself that the footfalls behind me were my own, echoing off the wind, but there was in truth nothing to catch a sound and throw it back, nor were my footsteps so heavy as those that trod the road directly behind me.
I turned around at least five times before I gave up all courage and began to run. Never had the road home felt so dark and foreboding as it did on the sly moon’s night, when dark clouds concealed the stars and the hint of rain and torrent tantalised the hairs on my arms. But, at last, I arrived at home, burst through the door with haste, and found myself immediately on my back, face to face with Iseult, who had just in a flurry of movement wrenched my left arm back by the wrist while striking me across the jaw and tripping me onto my back, subsequently pressing the cold edge of a dagger against my throat.
‘William!’ she cried suddenly, and wrapped her arms around me. ‘Where the hell have you been? Jesus, I about killed you just now.’
‘I don’t rightly know,’ came my meagre reply. ‘But listen fast, for Romakin is indeed alive, and something miraculous has happened.’
Iseult listened closely as I recounted the events of that day to the degree I could remember them. I did my absolute best to speak the exact words of Romakin, for they had clearly been urgent, and left off at the end with my strange awakening at dusk and the disembodied oppression I felt on my return journey.
‘“The Man with the crooked hat?”’
‘I know,’ said I, feeling reaffirmed by the mere fact that someone else now knew what had happened and had not concluded that I had lost my mind. Of course, it was Iseult, and I wasn’t entirely sure her own mind wasn’t lost on a semi-regular basis. ‘It’s… weird.’
‘It is strange…’
We sat for a few moments in silence, each processing the information over again.
Iseult spoke first, ‘What did he mean about Her? How could we possibly know who “Her” is?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied. After a moment, I said, ‘but Romakin hadn’t spoken for years before today, and he spoke clear and confident, as though he had never been mute. I suppose there are ways of knowing when the time comes.’
‘Don’t forget,’ said Iseult, ‘he said she would need a translator. The “child of Charybdis”. Who could that refer to? Charybdis didn’t spawn any children; she was just cursed by Zeus and made into a monster.’
‘Darling, I don’t know. To be perfectly honest, I am utterly exhausted, and as soon as you tell me about your day, I would like to simply go to sleep.’
‘That sounds like a fine idea,’ she said. ‘Auntie woke today in a fit. I had the physician come to check on her; Mel was acting up again. I spent most of the day working on some remedies for poor Henrietta, worked on that murder mystery I’ve been writing, and then fretted over you, wondering if I should go out and search.’
‘Most exhilarating, dear,’ I yawned. Iseult followed suit, and we walked together up the stairs and to the bedroom. But not before locking every door and window (complete with salt lines and the occasional sigil), and looking repeatedly out at the fields that never cease to move in the dark winds, but flow like the murky waters of a midnight port.
Sleep did not come easily to me, and for some time I lay awake, turning the events of the day over in my mind. So brief, I thought to myself. And yet so very full. I looked over to the woman beside me, and watched her shoulder rise and fall with each ephemeral breath. She always slept like this, curled up on her side. When awake, she would sprawl out, stretch her body across the entire bed, stake her claim. But once the night grew quiet, and the vigilant star began to sputter upon the candle by which I read most nights, she would grow smaller, condense into this tiny form, legs guarding her stomach, arms pulled against her chest and covering her throat. Without fail, her breath would quicken, then slowly return to a gentle rhythm.
I made sure the blankets guarded her from the chill, and rested my hand upon her arm, my forehead against her back, feeling her breath. It was soft, deep. She was at peace. Closing my eyes and lying near beside her, I found myself at sea, and the waves moved with each respiration of this incredible women at my side. I lifted each thought, each fear, to the railing of the ship and let it fall into the rhythm and the cold and the dark. Weightless in the wake of this task, I too leapt into the waves, and sank into the deep, where I observed many strange things: a great mouth and churning water rushing into it; a light that moved within; Iseult, eyes open and wet with tears; Romakin laughing madly with a cracked mirror beside him and a shadow; and all pulling apart like bread dough, then returning, melding, shifting, pulling, and softening again, curling into itself underneath like a mushroom cloud from the old wars, splitting into everything else and nothing at all.