~ the raven chronicles ~ 16

22 Sep

(Chapters are stored chronologically in ARCHIVES.)

Dr. Sylvester Agnostica, MD.
Sterns-Carson Sanitarium
Green Pines, Ohio

November 19, 1932

Last night was another full of singular experiences, beginning with my arrival home, where I encountered my front door locked. I immediately blamed Priscilla, then realized my wife no longer lived in my home, and barring some unforeseen turn of events, she would never return there.

Did I lock the door when I departed this morning? I had scant recollection of even leaving my house when I arrived at Sterns-Carson; as for locking the door I simply could not recall; it certainly was not my habit; I couldn’t pinpoint the last time I had done so. The absence of a key in my pockets confirmed me inculpable. I stomped my feet and cursed the cold and cursed my wife again and cursed the goings on at Sterns-Carson; until I suddenly recalled that Priscilla had announced one day that she was hiding a spare front door key beneath the large planter at the end of the porch. I walked over and peered all around the mammoth urn; I did not see even a crevice where a key could be ensconced. I finally bent down, and saw a glint near one of the squat pedestal feet. Then I went to a knee and retrieved the key and opened the door.

I don’t recall this house ever having been so still. It is true that things had taken on a somber tone since Priscilla left, but now a feeling of utter desolation hung in the air. I removed my overcoat and put it on the wooden tree in the foyer, then transferred the bottle of laudanum from the deep side pocket of my ulster to my suit. I headed into the front parlor, bound for the dining room and the kitchen beyond, for I had eaten nothing since a biscuit early morning. Eager to vanquish my hunger, I swung the kitchen door open and the aroma of home cooking greeted me. On the stove stood a pan of meat loaf, a pot of green beans and a kettle of mashed potatoes; on the counter adjacent a folded note, with my name addressed in a delicate hand, stood propped against a tin of flour. I picked it up, unfolded it, and read;

Dr. Agnostica,
I have left this meal for you, hope you find it while it is still warm.
I cleaned and changed the sheets this morning.
I will return tomorrow and finish housekeeping on the upper floor.
Mrs. Agnostica once gave me a key to your front door, which I still have.
If it is convenient, I will keep the key and maintain my schedule here.
Let me know if you do not find that situation desirable.
Please call if there is anything special that you need.
Sincerely,
Maddie Blaike

That was one mystery solved, Maddie must have locked the door when she finished her work. As I attempted to picture Maddie going about her chores, I became perplexed; though she has been part of our household for nigh on 3 years, I found myself uncertain as to what she looked like, exactly. She must be near middle-aged, I am fairly certain of that, but with a youthful quality; brown hair always done up; not buxom, but shapely none the less. I reread the last line; Please call if there is anything special that you need. I looked at the food on the stove and the prospect of eating alone gave me pause. Yes, I could call Maddie; she could return and have dinner with me; merely dinner and some companionship. I realized that I didn’t even know if Maddie was married or not. Hunger subsumed my curiosity.

I took a plate from the shelf and heaped mashed potatoes upon it, laid a thick slice of meatloaf alongside the mound and smothered both with broth; I arranged a rick of green beans next to them. Inside the icebox I found a single bottle of beer; I rarely drink beer, but I had wished for beer to go with this meal; and didn’t expect to find one. Maddie must have left it specifically for me; I could think of no other explanation. I leapt from that singular act of thoughtfulness to an image of her waking in my bed; Please call if there is anything special that you need. I berated myself for a daydreaming fool, then took my food and drink to the dining room.

I pulled out a chair and sat down; snapped open the napkin and laid it across my lap; raised the bottle of beer and took a good, long drink. Then I attacked my plate; I dispatched all of the victuals in short order. Sated, I laid back against my chair, exhausted, as if the simple act of consuming the meal had been exertion equivalent to a feat of strength. I closed my eyes; the only sound in the world seemed to be the cold north wind, swirling through the nearly bare trees outside.

The susurration soothed my senses and I drifted off.

The shape of the wind became a silvery chorus of female voices; they swooped around outside the dining room window and sang for me to let them in; I opened my eyes and listened like Odysseus at the mast; the voices sang so sweetly that I was compelled to get up and go to the window; as I approached, I saw in the distance beyond the pane, the shape and face of a child; some shadowy thing hovered in the air above the small figure; another appeared; then another; their song became the mew of helpless kittens; the hymnody pierced my soul with pity; I pulled open the sheer inner curtain, undid the latch and threw up the sash; a burning gale of ice streamed across my face; I screamed; my eyes went open as I jerked forward in the dining room chair. After I composed myself, I noticed that the wind had subsided, and the house inside lay quieter than ever.

I heard the kitchen door open behind me; a hand came to rest on the back of my chair; someone placed a plate of food before me; I looked up and saw Maddie; she smiled, then bent down and put her lips on mine; our tongues mingled as we kissed; I lost my breath; I tried to push away from her but was unable to do so; a voice inside me cried; …open your eyes…open your eyes…open your eyes…

My eyes flew open.

I sat at the table with the remains of my meal before me; the wind still howled outside at a fevered pitch. I trembled as I reached for the bottle of laudanum in my pocket, pulled the cork and dropped a quantity into my nearly empty beer bottle; then I quaffed the concoction; a feeling of euphoria immediately suffused my body. Some length of time had passed, before I realized that I had just been sitting in that darkened room, solitary at that table, with my dirty plate before me, listening to the winter wind. In that lonely ink, I groped for an explanation as to how my life had turned to shambles; the only reply to my query was some nearly forgotten truism, by an author whose identity escaped me; Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.

agnostica stairsI pushed my chair away, arose and walked from the dining room. When I reached the foyer, I glanced out the front door glass, then up the staircase, then across the hall to my study. The thought of climbing into bed was nearly irresistible, but a voice inside told that to do so, may result in my never awakening again. I decided to spend the night in the study, behind locked doors, with my laudanum and a fire.

Luckily, there was enough split wood on the hearth to last most of the night; and the large afghan draped over the back of the settee would suffice for cover; I had no intention of getting undressed, the mere thought gave me a feeling of vulnerability. I soon had a good fire blazing and a brandy in my hand. The wind had abated somewhat; I hoped that we were not in for a winter storm. I sat down and stared at the fire and enjoyed a sensation of calmness, if not well-being, that had eluded me for uncounted hours. I closed my eyes, listened to the logs crackle as they were consumed, and thought how much our lives are just so. I thought of Priscilla, without malice, for the first time in days, and wondered where she was at that moment. I relaxed further and my mind wandered over a landscape of serenity, until, guided by some devious beacon, it took a turn down a bleak and darkened alleyway that ended in my office at Sterns-Carson, with the door closed and locked, the red mist raging, and Molly laid across my desk as I roughly took her.

Molly screamed.

I bolted forward in the settee and spilled the last portion of brandy from my snifter. With a tightened chest, I gasped for air, and finally caught breath. The fire had dwindled, so I stood and laid two more split logs on. I steadied myself against the mantle as the flames took hold. Determined to sleep before my mind crumbled, I removed the cushion from the settee and laid it on the floor before the hearth. I took the laudanum from my pocket and poured another dose into the snifter. I topped that with more brandy. Then I drank the potion straight down. A calming wave arose from my belly. Then, for some reason, I retrieved the crucifix from the wall nearby, the one that Priscilla had hung there shortly after our marriage; perhaps I thought it could serve as a talisman that might allay the confusion pursuing me. After I removed the afghan from the back of the settee, I positioned myself down onto the large cushion, and spread the blanket over my body.

As I stared into the fire, I clutched the crucifix and prayed; not for forgiveness or salvation, but merely for the strength to carry on, to walk like a man in the face of the darkness surrounding me. I slipped into unconsciousness; I slept in a deep abyss, surrounded by songs of sirens; but still aware of scuttling in the hallway outside the den and claws scratching at the door; in my dreams, rough hands and ravenous lips tried to get at me, but they could not. I awoke to a barely smoldering fire and the breaking of dawn outside the window, somewhat refreshed, renewed enough to arise and grapple with the day.

I replaced the afghan and the cushion and made my way to the door. As my hand touched the knob, I paused, and knew instinctively that I was not alone in the house. Horrid images of what might lay beyond the closed portal raced through my mind and wrenched my gut with apprehension. But I steeled myself, turned the knob and entered the foyer. Instead of fantastic apparitions, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee greeted me. Relief mixed with a quizzical sensation overcame me; I shuffled across the hall and stood in the threshold of the dining room; just at that moment the kitchen door swung open and Maddie emerged, carrying a cup and saucer and a pot of coffee.

Oh, good morning, Doctor, she said, slightly startled; I noticed you were in the den when I arrived; I assume that you have not hadmaddie breakfast; It’s just about ready, if you’d like to freshen up, I’ll wait to serve.

I could summon no reply; here was Maddie, the domestic of my home, seeming to be truly concerned with my well being and willing to wait on me with an air of affection, despite the past disregard I’d shown to her, and the maltreatment I’d given my wife.

Are you alright, Doctor, she finally asked.
Yes, Maddie, thank you; I’m fine; Breakfast sounds delightful; Please give me a moment.
Surely, Doctor, she replied; Everything will be ready when you return.

As I trudged up the stairs to the bathroom, a feeling of peace came over me, and a hope that maybe redemption was a possibility. After a quick toilette, I went down to table.

Maddie placed the food before me and said that she would gather laundry while I ate, and then clean the kitchen afterwards, while I bathed. What ordinarily I would have taken for inappropriate presumption, considering the nature of our relationship, I accepted as kindness; Maddie knew what I needed and was not about to stand on ceremony. I thanked her for the meal and told her that I would bathe afterwards. She just nodded and smiled and then went about her chores.

Whether Maddie had gone to extra lengths with the breakfast, or whether I was merely unappreciative of her past efforts, she doted on me profoundly; there is no other way I can describe it. And as I ate and allowed myself to feel privileged and pampered, I felt safe with her, as if having her near was protection from the phantoms pursuing me. Just as I finished eating, Maddie came out of the kitchen with a cumbersome laundry basket full of fresh sheets and bedding. I arose and asked her to let me carry the basket upstairs for her. Oh no, Doctor, she said, I couldn’t let you do that. And why not, I replied, you have done for me this morning, and now I will do for you. I took the basket from her hands and she gave me a soft look that no woman has given me for longer than I can remember. Well, she said, thank you, then; and with that, she cleared my breakfast plate from the table and wordlessly returned to the kitchen. I stood there for a moment with the basket full of fresh laundry and wondered if their was some way a person could cleanse their soul.
I walked up the stairs with a spring in my step; the cumbersome basket was like a load of feathers.

I sit here now at my desk in my study, feeling better than I have in days, better than I have any right to expect. After completing this entry, I shall thank Maddie for all that she has done, ask her to stay on, and raise her wages. Then I will make my way to Sterns-Carson and see what awaits me there, confident that whatever demons may come, they will only come, one at a time.

©2011 j.edwardfitzgerald all rights reserved

top photo:
Unor Meho Atelieru
1948, Josef Sudek

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