by K.A. Dreelin
copyright 2005 K.A. Dreelin
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A soft male voice sang with the chiming of the grandfather clock in the study, barely audible through the timepiece's foreboding alto hum.
"Ring around the roses, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, all fall down…" The voice sang the rhyme in an eerie, slow tune, and it seemed to carry all throughout the midnight house, echoing slightly between the silent sentinels lurking in empty suits of armor. The light of oil lamps flickered, reflected in the well-polished oak paneling of the halls…
Of the whole house, in its three-story Victorian glory, only one window was completely dark, a miniscule rectangle of glass fitted with bars and barely big enough to be considered a letter slot, let alone a window. Inside, a dark-haired youth, barefoot in his white nightshirt, rocked back and forth, singing softly…
"Ashes… ashes…" Outside, thunder struck, and the youth started, curling up into a ball and hiding his face as though the storm was sent to punish him. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said, gnawing nervously on a sheet, glancing wildly around the bare little room with its crudely padded walls as though cowering from the battering storm.
"I'm sorry… I have been bad… very bad…" The boy gripped a handful of his thinning mussed hair, rocking back and forth. "Very bad… very bad… all fall down…" The words trailed into a hoarse whisper of almost terror.
"Salem…?" A young woman's voice came from the door, though it was locked from the outside. Salem pulled his knees into his chest, huddling into a shivering ball of pale skin and dark hair and white cotton nightshirt.
The latch slid slowly across, and the key turned. A woman with almost unnaturally smooth black hair and grey eyes slowly entered, gathering her full length skirts and closing the door behind her.
"Abigayle…" Salem said, grinning vaguely, reaching out a hand to his elder sister. She stiffened a bit, but smiled gently.
"Salem," Abigayle said. He rocked back and forth, singing to himself, stroking a small, rather tarnished silver box, close beside him… the reliquary. The sight of it always made Abigayle shiver, for her brother seemed to love the small and darkly etched container that held the ashes and hair of a dead man whose name was long-forgotten. Salem loved the reliquary, with its morbid carvings of screams and twisted trees and wandering souls beneath crescent moons.
Abigayle had dared to try and take the reliquary from him once, and she'd paid dearly in his shrieking and howling and scratching until the tips of his fingers bled and his voice had fled for fear of him killing himself over it. When he'd finally gotten it back, he'd shuttered himself in his room, curled up on the cushion, cooing over it and stroking it and clutching it to his chest…
Even now, as she glanced almost nervously at it, he protectively hugged it to his nightshirt and gnawed on his knuckles. "Ashes… ashes…" he sang softly, his lips tightening in a horribly content grin that made the hairs on the back of Abigayle's neck stand on end. She put on a laughterless smile, however, and gently patted the top of his head.
He started horribly at a particularly loud clap of thunder, gripping her full-length chiffon skirts… "Bad… I have been bad… very bad…" he whined almost pathetically.
"Salem," said Abigayle, in the same monotone, patient voice that she always used with her younger brother. "Salem, how have you been bad?"
"Ashes, ashes," he sang softly, clasping the reliquary, eye glinting in his deranged fondness of the horrible little box.
"Salem," said Abigayle, her voice a gentle rail steering him back on topic. "Salem, how have you been bad?" She did not expect an intelligible answer.
She started as Salem started bawling, clinging to her skirts. "Bad, bad," he chorused, sobbing. "Very bad…" He gnawed on his knuckles anxiously, shivering… Abigayle knelt beside him, gently smoothing his wild hair as he pointed with a shaking hand at one corner of the room.
His hands were coated with slick red, but there was no break in his own skin.
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Abigayle's heart leapt to her throat as she turned, dreading what she might see—she relaxed a very tiny bit, there was no mangled body slumped in the corner of the room, only something equally unsettling. There were handprints of blood, and scrawled crudely on the wallpaper in the same scarlet red were the dripping words ALL FALL DOWN.
"S-Salem…" she stammered, mollified, though around him she knew she had to stay calm. He moaned, sobbing pitifully. She gently patted his head, trying to calm his disturbed conscience. "Salem, what happened…?"
"Suit and tie, suit and tie," he said, shivering a bit and burying his face in her skirts. "Suit and tie… ashes, ashes, all fall down!" Salem giggled suddenly, making her stomach turn unpleasantly. "He fell down," said Salem, grinning vaguely up at her and chewing on a white sheet.
"How did he fall down?" asked Abigayle patiently. He rocked back and forth.
"Books and ink, suit and tie," he said, still grawing white-eyed on the sheet, looking more insane than ever. Abigayle kept a hand on the syringe of sedative tucked into a pocket of her apron, knowing how unstable her brother's mind was.
"How did he fall down, Salem?" asked Abigayle, a bit more sharply. Salem cringed, making a small sound and sucking on his badly bruised fingers, rocking a bit faster. "Salem…?" she said.
"Through colors, colors!" he said, twisting the hem of his white nightshirt.
"Colors… Salem, what do you mean?" she asked patiently. He grinned.
"I show," he said, with a vague smile that made her almost nauseous. He stood, still clasping the reliquary over his heart, and half-walked to the door, scratching feebly at the small lock fixed in the door. Patting his head tenderly, Abigayle watched him as she slowly turned the key, although he made no move to bolt. As she swung the door open, he toddled down the corridor, his wild hair casting eerie shadows between the suits of armor that stood silent guard.
"Books and ink," he said, singing to himself. His bare feet stopped at the heavy oak double doors of the library. He scratched at it again, seemingly not understanding the function of the brass doorknob. Abigayle started a bit, there was a bloody print left on the elaborately carven handle, but she slowly opened the door, covering her gasp with a delicate hand.
The library was dimly lit, but the faint flickering of the oil lamps was reflected in the pool of dark red that made the floor horribly sticky. One of the priceless stained-glass windows, crafted in Florence and shipped piece by piece to southern Canterbury, was shattered as though someone had thrown a heavy weight through the center, although the jagged edges were, to Abigayle's silent horror, stained with blood…
"Salem, how did the man fall down?" she said, fighting to keep her voice steady as she turned on him, cowering in the corner of the library farthest from the wrath of the storm outside.
"Through colors, demons in white!" he said, moaning and burying his face in his hands as he plucked at his white nightshirt, leaving red fingerprints. "Demons in white…" He trailed to a hoarse whisper.
"What demons, Salem?" said Abigayle, not wanting to jump to conclusions despite the thick lump in her throat. Her brother said nothing, only whimpered and wrung his hands.
"Did you?" she queried, using the same tone of voice. He huddled into a small ball, still rocking on his heels, grasping the reliquary as though if he let go he would surely die some horrible death.
Thunder struck loud, and he shrieked, dropping the silver box and seizing two handfuls of her skirts. "Bad!" he screeched, bawling in terror at the thunderstorm. "Bad, bad, the demons come dancing, ashes, ashes, all fall down!" He sobbed, clinging to her full skirts and burying his face in the fine black chiffon. The wind shifted until it blew full-on through the window in icy retribution, colder than winter midnight and lashing them with rain. Salem cowered pitiably from the wrath of the storm, whimpering and clinging to his sister, rocking back and forth.
Abigayle touched the back of his head, patting his tangled black hair. "Shh," she said, trying to calm him down, unsure of what to do. After all, he was insane, he probably couldn't have stopped himself— but at the same time… She shuddered, wondering about the man he'd pushed through the library window.
"Bad, bad, bad," whispered Salem, his voice faintly muffled as he picked up the reliquary.
"Come, Salem," said Abigayle quietly, as he whimpered and clung to her skirts. "We will go back to your room, now, all right…?"
He said nothing, only moaned a bit, recoiling from the window as icy wind hit them again. "Come on, Salem," Abigayle said gently, leading him back to his room.
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Even as Abigayle soothingly patted down her brother's wild dark hair, preparing to shut the door of his room, a surprisingly loud pounding on the door startled her out of her wits, and Salem leapt up shrieking at the sudden movement, trying to push past her out the door.
"Salem, no!" she said, managing to get him back inside the room and securely lock the door. She could still hear him shrieking, pounding frantically on the door, screaming and scratching…
"BOX!!" he howled. "BOOOOOOOX! NO, NO, NO!" Thunder crashed outside as he screamed for the reliquary, which was still standing a silent menace on its little sculpted lion feet outside his door, though Abigayle was already hastily gliding down the grand staircase towards the main hall and whoever was banging impatiently on the front door.
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The small figure huddled beneath a soaked wool coat on the front steps to the imposing double doors of the only house for miles of Kent countryside was obviously female, Abigayle was able to tell by the delicately gloved hands and the soaked long raven hair hanging beneath the wool scarf clutched around her head. Her eyes were dark, and almond-shaped, and three golden bangles and an ivory elephant on a gold chain around her neck told Abigayle she was obviously born somewhere in the exotic Oriental East.
"P-p-pardon m-me, ma'am, b-b-but it's s-so c-c-cold… w-w-would you p-please be willilng t-to give me sh-sh-shelter, a-at least until the s-storm dies down?" the girl stuttered violently, shivering and shaking on the doorstep. With the necessary caution pertaining to all strangers on doorsteps Abigayle leaned out a bit, glancing both ways to make sure that the girl wasn't merely a distraction from men who wanted to rob the old house blind.
Seeing no one, Abigayle smiled warmly and opened the door wider. "O-of course," she said uneasily, as the wet girl stepped into the house, lightning flashing twice throughout the marble-floored hall. She left a small trail of puddles, but smiled gratefully, though Abigayle noted that, like her own, there was no cheer in that false smile.
"Th-thank you, miss…?"
"St. Abernathey," said Abigayle gently. "Abigayle St. Abernathey. Please, Abigayle will do."
"Miss A-bi-gayle," the girl said slowly, testing what was obviously a new word to her. Abigayle looked at her and absently asked what the girl's name was.
"Emiko, ma'am. Emiko Nobusuki." She curtsied a bit, following the tall, dark-haired young woman into the parlor and looking nervously at the finely upholstered sofa and then at the small trail of puddles on the hardwood floor.
"I-I should warn you, Emiko, that my brother is not in his… ah, health—"
"Oh… ah, maybe it is best that I not stay, if you need to care for him," the slender girl said timidly. "I am afraid I'm very prone to sickness…"
"He's… not contagious," Abigayle said, fluffing up a pillow. "And if you're prone to illness let's get you some dry clothes, I would hate to have you with a terrible cold because of that—you wouldn't happen to have a set of dry ones, would you?"
"Pardon, but no, ma'am," the girl said, shaking her head and playing with a strand of sodden black hair. "I only have these…" She touched her violet skirt, but Abigayle smiled gently.
"Well, here, you can borrow one of my old dresses… it might be a bit large on you, dear, but I think it's better than you getting pneumonia from those soaked things you have on…"
"Thank you so much, ma'am," Emiko said shyly, following Abigayle up the stairs, passing the door to Salem's room and shivering at the keening and the scratching from within the room. She saw the thick latch fixed on the door and stopped walking.
"Miss Abigayle… are you sure that your brother is all right?" There was a distinct shriek of BOX from inside and a loud thump on the door, as though whoever—or whatever— was locked inside had thrown itself against the wall in fury. Emiko jumped, deeply unsettled as she turned to the grim young woman in the long black gown with the full sleeves.
Abigayle shifted uneasily. "I am afraid that Salem, God protect him, is… not in his right mind," she said quietly. "Mad…"
"Sa-lem…" She said the word slowly, as though she did not understand well. "He is… insane?"
Abigayle nodded. "He is locked in for his own safety," she said, as though daring her to think otherwise.
"He must be very close to you, for you to care for him in such a state," said Emiko thoughtfully, swallowing as another sob and a gasp of 'very bad' came from within the sealed door.
"I would not allow the priests to take him to some rotting madhouse," said Abigayle, sniffing. "Mad or no, he is no demon and does not deserve to be treated as such as they do in those wretched places."
"Pardon me, Miss Abigayle," said Emiko, curtsying. "I mean no insult."
"There is none taken," Abigayle replied, smiling thinly and resuming the walk to the room. It was lavishly furnished, with a fine rug, cherrywood furniture, and a large four-poster bed with its black velvet curtains pulled protectively shut. The sole window was buried beneath gray drapes, making the room dimly lit and looking like the heavy dark curtains were throttling the sun.
"Here," said Abigayle, throwing the doors of an elaborately carven armoire open and pointing to a good number of fine gowns, skirts, and blouses, every last one of them black.
"Thank you, ma'am," Emiko said politely.
"I'll make some tea," said Abigayle, nodding a bit. "Come down to the parlor when you're dressed."
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Abigayle sipped her tea, engaged in deep thought. She was remembering the day when Salem's mind had finally snapped, though his sanity had slowly been fading like a tide since he was as young as thirteen years old. He had been sixteen, then, four years earlier, and Abigayle remembered it with startling clarity—the piano recital at the Le'Montage Theatre, all the way in London.
Salem looked almost dead as he solemnly sat behind the grand piano, a few wheezes and grunts and rustles echoing boldly through the theatre. His dark eyes were swollen and pink, his lips had no faint twitch of laughter, and he looked unhealthily pale and gaunt, like one who has lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time through rigorous lack of eating. Salem sat up stick straight, swallowed, and then placed his fingers on the ivory keys, almost effortlessly playing the piece that he'd spent weeks memorizing while his audience listened with silent patience. Salem's expressionless face did not move, did not show any joy for the music that he'd once loved, just like Elisabeth…
Elisabeth, oh, beautiful Lisbeth with her raven curls and her clear grey eyes… Salem felt his tempo slow for a second and his notes go shallow, more staccato then the flowing measures called for. He hastily righted the music, and several of the audience straightened up.
She was gone, he knew, and that was why he felt no passion for the work of Bach or the feeling of his fingers smooth on the cool ivory keys. Elisabeth was dead.
She'd died, and his life had died with her, pale and weak on her bed and burning with cruel fever. Elisabeth was gone, dead; Salem choked a bit and fought tears, a slight pause ruining the measure of notes.
The music went on, measure after measure, though Salem showed no sign of enthusiasm. He heard the wrong note almost before he played it, a loud and blaring D where there should have been a smooth transition… Salem stopped playing, staring wide-eyed at the piano…
Salem shrieked, suddenly almost deranged, banging on the keys and making several members of the audience standing up and murmurs of concern. Salem screamed, pushing over the bench, grasping fistfuls of his hair, shredding the sheet music all to banged-out chords loud enough to make the people in the front winced. One leg of the bench snapped, and then a lady in the audience screamed, confusion of the collective growing deafening in the echoes of the theatre. More screams rose as Salem shrieked again, frantically banging on the piano keys with deafening noise…
"Salem! Salem, stop!" cried Abigayle, standing up in the front row as two heavyset men came to escort him off the stage. He shrieked and thrashed on as the curtains slowly closed.
A loud thud from Salem's room startled her to reality, and she shook her head as he shouted incoherently. "Oh, Salem," she whispered, pouring a tiny bit of imported vodka into the bittersweet Earl Grey. "Salem, what did you do to yourself?"
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