Authors: A. G. Howard
Evening shadows swathed the room, but with his soft, otherworldly glow, I could still make out his tortured face. Such a harsh twist of the knife, to have gone from the warm, loving memory he had earlier of a father reading a fairytale, to this.
“Someone is coming.” He gestured toward the door I’d left ajar.
I folded down my quilt to cover the journal before Uncle’s concerned face appeared, illumined by the glow of the candle he held. “Why are you standing alone in the dark, still in your torn dress? Why have you not lit your lamp and changed?”
Tucking the ripped fabric in at my waist, I shrugged.
He leaned his temple against the doorframe. “The physician wants to take the old woman to his home. He needs to monitor her for the night. If you wish, I shall carry you to visit her on the morrow.”
Seeing Hawk’s downtrodden cast, I nodded, then rethought. “What of Lord Thornton? Isn’t he to visit tomorrow?”
“He had a business emergency and left town,” Uncle answered.
A burst of relief warmed my chest. This would give us more time to uncover his part in all of this. “But the viscount will be coming back?” I asked.
Uncle held onto the doorframe, something akin to hope in his eyes. “Of course. I invited him to return in three weeks, at month’s end. I told him you needed more time to grieve, as it stands. I am sorry I rushed you.” He started to close the door, then paused, opening it wider. “The physician refuses to take the wolf for fear it might harm his children. Enya mentioned you have a way with the beast?”
I nodded again, although it was Hawk who had tamed the wolf.
“All right. I gave it some wine to daze it. I’ve roped its neck and tied it in the shed. I will come back after depositing the old woman at the doctor’s. I’m staying tonight to help you care for the animal. I’ll sleep on the settee downstairs. If you wish to come down and explain your earlier escapade … I’ll be there to listen.”
Receiving no response, he frowned and closed the door between us. It hurt, being so secretive toward the one man who had always supported my peculiar inner-workings. But this he would never understand.
Hawk paced the room and I turned on the gas lamp at my desk to study the gruesome portrait of the rat crown, the same blood red shade as the mud on Hawk’s boots. Following an intuition, I lifted the paper to taste the ink. A familiar acrid sting burned my tongue.
“This painting was drawn with ochre,” I said. “My uncle has used this mineral to dye fabrics. I was coated with it when they pulled me from the mines as a child. That’s why the mud on your boots has always looked familiar to me. Do you suppose your body could be elsewhere other than the grave? Perhaps underground—thus the darkness? The ochre mine from my past is in close proximity, though I cannot recall the town’s name. My uncle knows its whereabouts. I can ask him in the morn.”
Hawk turned to me. Desolation masked his features. “What kind of man must I have turned out to be? Even the most powerful tree can be whittled down to a splinter, should the knife be sharp enough. Surely that’s the equivalent of heaven … the bliss of not knowing my history.”
I glanced down at my own dirty boots.
“Thank you for all you’ve done,” he continued. “But please, take off the locket. Send me to my death in peace.”
The threat of him leaving shook the pulse in my neck to a menacing knock. Snatching up the parchment, I rounded on him as he settled like a defeated shadow in the corner. “You will not give up.” My logic screamed that one day he might
to leave; but for the moment, I would barter any extra time with his wit, and intellect, and voice, no matter how fleeting.
“What does it matter, Juliet? What difference can any of it make? I am dead. Do you not comprehend the finality of that?
Death stands between us
I clenched the paper tighter. Although his voice had given me unspeakable joy over the past twenty-four hours,
I was unwilling to hear. “You say you want peace. Now that you’ve had a glimpse of what might have been, you’ll never have peace until you learn the whole truth. You must make amends with the past.”
Hawk’s gaze lifted toward my bed and the journal beneath my quilt. “There are so many more entries.”
“And I am here to read them alongside you.” I sat next to my pillow and covered my lap with the book. When Hawk’s ethereal form dented the mattress, I exhaled a relieved breath.
I’d given him a reason to stay. But I couldn’t shake the premonition that each page turned would be another ribbon snipped free from Pandora’s beautiful box of misery.
Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.
It took three weeks to sort through Chaine’s journal. The child was a savant. He painted words with the same deftness and intelligence portrayed in the multitude of black and white sketches which filled the pages.
We had to break often for fear of being drawn too deep into his dark torments. He suffered everything from fleas and repulsive skin infestations brought on by rat bites, to hunger so severe he had to scavenge for food. One gruesome entry detailed a doe’s rancid carcass he found in the woods being shred to pieces by three vultures; he managed to ward off the enormous birds with a torch and dragged the meat several yards where he held his nose against its stench and ate it raw. As a result, he fell feverish for almost a month and suffered intense hallucinations immortalized in drawings. The illness seemed to change something in his mind, for thereafter, all of his sketches paid tribute to things broken or captured. Though disturbing, they were breathtaking and lovely in their gloom.
Six pages in, we discovered Chaine’s mother had died during his earliest years, and the “monster” so often spoke of was in fact Chaine’s father on a tangent. The boy believed, in his innocence, that his papa lived as two distinct entities. A semi-tolerant man and a vile beast. When one reared its head, the other disappeared for a time.
Perhaps this gave Chaine strength to survive, by holding onto threads of hope that one day his papa would conquer the monster and free them both.
In the beginning, it made it easier for Hawk to refer to the journal’s author as Chaine, putting distance between himself and the tortured child. But halfway through the journal, one particular entry shattered the masquerade. Chaine wrote of his visit to a candy store, an event as rare as an eclipse judging by his excitement. He detailed the candies’ shapes and sizes, but complained he couldn’t see the glistening colors, even when his father’s sister described them.
“A waste of Aunt Bitti’s breath,” he wrote. “Since I have never seen yellow, blue, red, or green, how can I know anything other than variants of gray?”
Chaine was color blind. That, along with the engraved watch, ochre stained boots, and rat painting, convinced us both that Hawk he was indeed this broken little boy.
I almost choked on the tragedy. That the one part of Hawk’s identity he had carried into his death was an intense longing for color, never attained.
We drifted through our remaining journal sessions with all the desperate abandon of storm-tossed ships—alternately buoyant on waves of curiosity then sinking beneath the brutal despair of discovery.
Three pages had been ripped from the back just before Chaine’s last two entries. Something life-altering happened upon them, considering in the next to last entry, Chaine spoke of finding peace—that it was brought into his world by an unexpected angel who had fallen from the sky. Though cryptic, his words were steeped in hope, wherein up to that point each entry had grown ever more despondent. The leap in mood and faith was jarring without the event to account for it.
Upon the final page, Chaine detailed his fourteenth birthday and two incomparable gifts: a black wolf pup that he named Naldi, and a successful escape with his Aunt Bitti into a city far removed from his papa—where his aunt swore to keep him hidden until he was old enough to fight back.
Hawk and I finished reading just before sunrise on the twenty-second day of November. We were expecting Lord Thornton by the end of the week, though were still no closer to understanding his part in this mystery.
I sat in the midst of my bed, covers drawn up to my waist and the journal in my lap. Hawk lounged alongside me, providing the glow we read by. His elbow was propped on the mattress so his palm cradled his chin. I had just closed the pages for the last time.
We gazed at one another, basking in our relief for Chaine’s successful escape.
“So. It is plausible that I became stronger for it,” Hawk murmured. “That I lived a decent life thereafter—however short it was.”
I stroked my lower lip. “I would go so far as to say it’s
, judging by the man you are now.”
Hawk watched my finger’s antics along my lip with such rapt intensity I dropped my hand.
“If only we’d been able to talk to my aunt before she left,” he said quietly, still looking at my mouth. “I would’ve liked to thank her, and asked about the angel in the missing pages.”
I smiled at his sentiment. Although we didn’t know who his “angel from the sky” was, we at least knew the gypsy woman we had brought here was his Aunt Bitti, due to her age and the wolf named Naldi in her keeping. But the discovery was both happy and frustrating. For the old woman was long gone.
She had disappeared in the night at the physician’s house weeks earlier, stealing into our shed to take back her pet. Hawk suggested that a nomadic spirit such as hers would no longer be staying at the same camp now that she’d been discovered. And we both knew there would be no sneaking away to confirm it.
My uncle had not left me alone since the last time I’d escaped. He deemed my actions and choices unpredictable due to my grief. So he gathered his dyeing equipment, stationed it within the greenhouse, and he and Chloe came to stay. This had made for some interesting days until the spaniel finally adjusted to Hawk’s presence.
Anytime Uncle had an errand, he always ensured Enya was with me. To make matters worse, he refused to discuss anything about my accident in the ochre mines, claiming I shouldn’t dwell upon the past.
I was a nightingale with a damaged wing, trapped within a cage.
Hawk sighed. “I cannot fault your uncle for worrying about you. You do have a way of winding around one’s heart.”
His lovely words warmed me, like rich, golden light. There was a genuineness there that I didn’t question. Yes, he had only been in my life less than a month. But it was impossible not to become attached to someone who you were with, every moment of every day. Who could read your thoughts and know your every fear and hope without you speaking them. And, even more binding, someone who had shared the torments of their past so intimately and openly. It might’ve only been words on a page, but the emotions Hawk and I dredged as we read the journal had been as real and tangible as if we’d walked through each scene together—hand in hand.
“Enough about the past,” Hawk said. “Let us talk about the present, and how pretty you look drenched in sunrise.” He raked his free hand along my quilt where the first rays of pinkish light poured in from the window and climbed across the fabric. The padded muslin furrowed beneath his movements, tugging along my abdomen and waist. I clutched it in place and clenched my thigh muscles against their quivers.
Though we still could not touch in any traditional sense—Hawk could only make contact with an isolated shove atop my clothes, nothing gentle or soothing—he’d recently discovered the ability to manipulate fabrics when he put all of his energy into the effort. We had yet to fully explore this new development and my ghostly companion was reaching the end of his patience.
“Hawk,” I scolded, face flushed. “I must put on the proper attire. It’s stir-up Sunday. Enya and her entire family will arrive within the hour. I need to bring your flower up here out of the way of the children.” I had been so tired the night before that I’d left it downstairs in the picture window.
“Tell me of this ‘Stir-up Sunday.’” Hawk strummed his fingers, a taunting smirk on his face. “Is it a game?” The rising sun bathed his outline in primrose light.
Smoothing the blankets around me, I clasped my hands over the journal. “A tradition. Four weeks before Christmas, we invite our friends to help prepare the Christmas pudding. Each of us takes a turn stirring the batter while we make a silent wish. After that, the mixture is wrapped and steamed in a pudding cloth then hung from a hook to dry. On Christmas day we share it, which frees our wishes so they might come true.”
“Ah. And what are you to wish for?” Hawk skimmed his hand along my shin, the covers dragging with a slight ripple.
I caught a breath and he met my gaze with a seductive glint in his eye.
“I-I plan to wish for you to become flesh again. To live again. I am asking for a miracle.”
After a thoughtful pause, Hawk laid his head on his outstretched arm. “’Tis a waste of a wish, Juliet. You should ask something for yourself.”
for me. To walk alongside you, holding your hand in mine. To dance with you. To …” I leafed through the journal pages absently, frustrated. “It is all that fills my being.”