DIM MANSION: Part 3
[read part one here]
[read part two here]
Murphe the Taxidermist was the second to disappear. The business of the bazaar continued as usual, though the smiles, shouted greetings and general bonhomie seemed forced – a drawn curtain, predisposed to ruffling up, behind which our true emotions were concealed. The presence of Gannon's apprentice in the fish stand, rather than Gannon himself, was a constant reminder that something untoward was afoot.
The night after Gannon's disappearance and before Murphe's, Talwick reported to Mather the Magistrate that he saw a candle burning in the window of the old mansion, and what looked like a cat darting across the eaves. This was remarkable for two reasons: one, the old mansion has never been humanly inhabited, at least not in any living memory, and two, even animals seem to avoid the place. Talwick demanded an investigation. Mather and several of his deputies formed a party, armed with truncheons and torches, and ventured out to the location. All agreed that while at first glance there did appear to be a candle burning in the window, more careful scrutiny by sober heads revealed it to be nothing more than a glint of moonlight pooling on the pane. No cat or wildlife of any kind was found. Despite Talwick's protests and allegations of conspiracy, the matter was dropped, and the party returned to their lonely posts at the station house.
The next evening, Plebus the Undertaker burst into that very station house and confronted the Magistrate with an alarming piece of news. Plebus, a yellow-complected beanpole of a fellow who wore a black top hat with flapping lid, was generally held to be a dimwit. But because he lacked the artifice to speak anything but the truth as he perceived it, he was also considered trustworthy. If Plebus had a single friend, it was Murphe the Taxidermist, who received the same approving condescension for his strange, harmless ways. Mean-spirited jokes about their awkward friendship whispered through town. But they seemed to share a secret knowledge that the rest of us could never fathom - something pertaining to matters of expiration, perhaps, of last things. They could sit in the tavern together for hours, one taciturn, the other muttering away under his breath, or both silent, staring over the bright band of Main St. toward the starry sea.
Plebus reported to Magistrate Mather that he stopped by Murphe's shop just before sundown to return a bone-saw. Murphe asked Plebus to help him mount a large swordfish onto the wall of his shop. Plebus agreed, and removed his watch from its fob so as not to damage it while moving the heavy fish. After completing the task and standing back to survey their work, the two men bid each other good evening. Upon stepping into the street, Plebus realized that he had left his watch on the counter. He went back inside. The shop has no windows or other portal for entry or exit, save the door. Its raw wooden interior is lit by a single oil-lamp in the exposed rafters. Plebus maintains that the heavy lamp was swinging slowly on its chain, as if stirred by a breeze, although the air was quite still. Around the shop, snarling bears, crouching cats, leaping wolves, fowl in flight, and leathery bat-like creatures cast inky pools of shadow to and fro in the shifting light, lending them the appearance of vertiginous attack and feint. The pocket watch was on the counter, but Murphe was nowhere to be found.
Of course, this second disappearance set the entire town reeling, but its individual effects scarcely had time to be felt, as the disappearances began to proliferate in earnest. Lathel the Baker vanished from his kitchen, discovered by a customer who entered the back of the shop to investigate the smoke pouring from the oven. Alain the Librettist's cottage was found empty by Puccini the Celebrated Tenor, who stormed over in a rage, coat tails flapping and silver-tipped cane rapping on the floor, when Alain failed to deliver a revised libretto at the specified time.
Puccini himself vanished the next day; his wife said that she knew it had happened when his singing in the bath abruptly stopped in mid-note. She charged upstairs to find a basin brimming with placid water, nothing more. And one wonders how many days elapsed before someone noticed that Tchaskim the Homeless Immigrant was no longer sprawled at the corner of Main and Vine, holding out his cap for coins and gibbering in his guttural, impenetrable tongue.
Our second premise, then, which may be stated with reasonable confidence, is this: we only disappear when no one is watching.
Talwick the Haberdasher vanished as well, in a sense: his body was found floating in the sea by the cove south of the harbor. It was the first recorded suicide in our town's history, and was dutifully noted in the annals by Lewellyn the Archivist, just before he disappeared. My wife and child traveled yesterday to console my mother-in-law over the disappearance of the family's patriarch, Maester the Architect, in that opulent estate built of jade and burnished brass.
Citizens are vanishing faster and faster, too many to set down here. Among those of us who remain, there is paranoia and terror. We watch each other with unblinking eyes. We feel ineffectual and helpless; we have no idea how to proceed, and so we fill our time with speculation.
What does it feel like to disappear? Is it a numbness, or is there pain? Or does it tickle? Will we start disappearing in plain view? What will it look like? A sudden blinking out, or a slow fade? A dissolution? Will there be a sparkle, a flash of light, a gust of wind, a sound? Will we see our friends' eyes yawn wide as they vanish, or will it be too sudden? Will the scenery behind us leak through our bodies as we become translucent? Will we be violently torn from the earth, or will we float gracefully into the sky? Or will we sink into the ground? And if this does come to pass, will it be a boon or a curse? Will it offer clues as to how the situation might be handled, or will it only amplify the dread we breathe like air?
These questions and others ricochet about the public spaces, where we gather daily to tally the day's disappearances and hold a forum. Brief flashes of insight quickly fade and leave afterimages burned onto a darkness that grows deeper by degrees. The streets are sunny and cheerful, but they bring us no solace. They remind us of the chasm between the way things were and the way they are. The daily work of the town has ground to a halt as we devote the whole of our energies to untangling the problem at hand.
The old mansion seems darker and more forbidding than ever. We have all gleaned impressions of figures gliding behind its warped windows; seen augers in the heavy purple thunderheads mounting on its roof. My wife and child have not returned, and it's getting dark; I must put on the light.
TO BE CONTINUED...