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.