DIM MANSION: Part 4
[read part 1 here]
[read part 2 here]
[read part 3 here]
Today when I awoke, everyone was gone.
My mother-in-law failed to reply to my messenger swallows. I stepped into the sun and began to walk unsteadily down the cobblestones; my shouted halloos and footfalls echoed back. I staggered, leaned against an elm to catch my breath, and cried out when crows exploded from the boughs with a horrible caterwauling. I walked to the center of the deserted bazaar, mounted the sundial and surveyed my town. The empty homes of my friends and colleagues slept in rows to my right; beyond them, blue-hazed pastures where the cattle roamed freely and lowed their delight, for of course Macher the Shepherd was disappeared. To my left, in the distance, I could discern the phosphorescent vapors rising from the frozen isle, the pastel sea lapping at the silent harbor, and the old mansion perched atop its hill, quivering like a boulder about to roll. With no one around to reassure me otherwise, I could no longer deny that it was bulging at the seams. Its decaying timbers distended and heaved. I looked at it full on and thought I could see blurry forms flailing behind its semi-opaque windows, tiny points of light blinking on and off. It appeared to respire.
I became emboldened by fury and fear. Leaping from the sundial, I charged through the waist-high weeds around the base of the hill, ignoring the brambles that strafed my bare shins where they depended from my dressing gown. As I scuttled up the rocky hill, silt slithering down under my footfalls, the old mansion jutted crookedly into the atmosphere like a sunken monolith rising from an inky sea. In late afternoon, the moon was out, partially obscured by a corner of the mansion's roof and a tangle of dead branches.
Panting on the mansion's patio, I felt a vibration thrumming through the soles of my feet. Sounds emanated from inside: unintelligible voices, faint and far-off, or the groaning of old timbers? I could not say. I pulled on the doors, pounded them with my fists, kicked them with my feet; even beat them with my forehead, yet they would not budge. Panicked and deranged, I ran blindly through the town. The sinking sun cast the chilly, jet-black shadows of buildings and trees over me like dark nets. Drained, I finally collapsed on the sundial and passed out. My dreams were haunted by flickering images of grotesque creatures cavorting around the mansion, and a window in its upper level that framed my wife's stricken face as it turned away into shadow.
* * *
When I came to, it was night. The sky was a dark marble, deep and slick and veined with cloudy white bands. I picked myself up and walked toward the harbor, alternately moonlit and blanketed in shadow. The moon was stark white against the purple vellum of the sky, an interstice the darkness.
In a ten-foot skiff, I paddled out past the waves. The sky was alive with whirlpools of light and whizzing neon vapors. The stars looked flung, cast off from a grinder's wheel. I could still make out the silhouette of that dim mansion behind me, could still see its windows awaking with effulgence, then lapsing to darkness. The island drew near, and the air grew cold. My beard accumulated a fine dusting of frost; my hands ached and the dry skin on my knuckles split. Still, I turned the oars; still I advanced.
My boat has lodged on an ice floe; soon I will have to get out and walk across the frozen tide to shore. As I write, the natives wait for me on the snowy beach, their faces shrouded in fur-lined hoods. They are lit only by the moon and the torches rooted in the snow around them.
A thick copse of white-capped evergreens looms behind the villagers. The smoke that puzzled us so rises amid it. It dances with small twinkles that rise slowly with the cloud for a moment, then race off into the sky. Leathery creatures with pulpy bodies and translucent dragonfly wings turn slow, lazy figure eights in the air. Snow descends silently, steadily.
I will cloister this account in my tinderbox - gilt and monogrammed it is, a gift from my wife - cast it into the sea, then step onto the frozen waves, toward the uncertain light of the wintry isle.