Monthly Archives: October 2013

Tatty-ragman

Other kids like the 31st because of costumes and candy. Our family likes the 20th because of Tatty-ragman. Auntie says we brought him with us from the old lands. Not where Great-Granpa came from before America. The old-old lands, where there wasn’t enough food and the wind was always hungry.

Granpa says even a smart man will carry god around in his pocket. Our family carried the Tatty-ragman to keep us safe. The other kids point and laugh at our lumpy scarecrow, but we love our Tatty-ragman, especially this one. Papa made it, and that makes it special.

At night we line up around the fire pit and wait for our turn. There isn’t any feast, because there were no feasts back then. There is no shouting and singing, because sound carries on an open plain and wolves have hungry ears. We each have our rags in hand and we all take turns tying them around Tatty-ragman. He grows bigger and bigger with every tribute, until he puffs up big enough to protect us another year.

When we learned about the Eskimos in school, how in hungry times they would put their old folks on a raft of ice so they wouldn’t waste any food, Granpa harrumphed at it. Why waste a whole person? There was use to be gotten of everything.

Papa had been sick when he made the Tatty-ragman. Even with the extra poles he lists to the side. We kiss our palms and lay them on his side, each in turn. In old-old days it had been the oldest family member who made the Tatty-ragman. But that meant they wouldn’t have real strength to put into the Tatty-ragman, so he wouldn’t last long. Papa’s Ragman would last, we knew, and it filled us with pride.

Done tying the rags, done for another year, we take a minute to admire the ragman. His eyes are big and black to scan the horizon. His arms are long and wicked to drag danger away. But best of all is his voice: Papa drew rosined strings tight over gourds to keen in the wind. It sounds like loneliness and cold and afraid.

We finish and go back to the house and shut out the night to keep the warm in. We are safe for another year, Tatty-ragman would stand at the foot of the garden and make sure of that. Mama said love made the Tatty-ragman strong, Papa put his love into it. She won’t go courting this year, not even when she’s allowed it. Not many people left who would understand Tatty-ragman. Granpa said Papa’s pain was over, and he had never let it weaken his resolve.  The mark of a real man.

We sneak one last look at the Tatty-ragman. Does he wave good-bye to us? We hope so.

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Frau Totenkinder

I suppose they took the name from her house. Kinderheim. It had been a one-room schoolhouse, back in the days before the Great War. No one remembers how long it stood empty. No one remembers being introduced to Frau Totenkinder. But we knew she lived there all the same.

They say she was an abortionist. But then, ‘they’ also said she was a caretaker of unwanted children, so lend that only as much credence as you will.

We had always been a small village with all that entails. It didn’t seem to us as children that hardships were magnified after the war, though it seemed that way for our parents. Suddenly the harvest that had always been enough was never enough. Suddenly clothes were too dear to be passed down. Suddenly there were too many mouths.

The first to take up the old woman’s services was a young lady who worked at the tavern. Her young man had been mown down by a Belgian sniper and her daughter was getting too big to feed on milk alone. The last we saw of her was a small figure carrying a bundle wrapped in a shawl. She never appeared in town after that.

Freder, whose family was still well off enough, took the bastards he’d sired by the village seamstress by the scruffs of their necks.  They say he met her later that evening, ready for love in an empty house. He bore a burn scar in the shape of an iron after that day.

Henrich the farrier took his two younger children, saying he needed only one son to pass on his legacy. While he was gone the eldest boy propped his father’s shotgun under his chin. They say the farrier went back to Kinderheim after that, but the house was shut and the windows dark.

It came in like a dark wave. At first it was farmers whose crops were no longer enough. Then it was poor families with too many children. After that, all pretext of restraint was abandoned. Some led their children lashed together with twine, like goats. Some brought infants still squalling at their mother’s breast. The house would light up bright on the first night, greasy smoke pouring from the chimney. It went dark on the nights after that, as if she had been sated.

One day our father called to us, honeyed tones lacing through the reek of gin. He had found a way to settle his debts, he said. We would finally be able to eat, he said. We would see our mother again, he said.

Unlike our mother, we had long since learned not to take his word and hid in the thatch of the roof. He cursed us, overturning our beds and kicking through the hay to find us. He set off for the village at a lope to see if some charitable soul was hiding us. When he left we went the other way to the forest.

We hid out in the deepest woods we could, drinking water from rotted stumps and eating mushrooms. When we heard anything that sounded like a human voice, we hid in the leaves and pretended to be sticks.

When the soldiers stumbled upon us, they were very surprised. Another great war had broken out while our little village was busy, bigger than the last. They ushered us to another Kinderheim where we sheltered out the war with other lost children.

I look back on this now, as an old man, and the photograph of my memory is stark and clear as ever. I remember our lives before, and after, and I remember our parent’s faces. But one thing I can never summon up, one thing that had never been clear, is whether anyone had actually seen Frau Totenkinder.

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Rules for the Custodial Staff in Building 3-A

  • Double-check all switches
  • Don’t use bleach-based cleanser in the staff bathroom.
  • Nobody huff the aerosol cans until we figure out what killed McNeely.
  • Rounds are to be conducted in pairs of two. Make sure the person you’re working your shift with actually exists.
  • Yes, we know the breaker box won’t stop moaning. No, duct tape will not fix it.
  • Professor Farbes hasn’t worked here in years, in fact no business in the building employs dead people.
  • The stain on the second floor isn’t going to come out.
  • Everybody needs to contribute $2 to the coffee fund in order for it to work. That means you, Christopher.
  • If you have a preexisting mental condition, let us know. If it only started up when you started working here, keep it to yourself.
  • Ignore all calls for maintenance on the seventh floor. There is no seventh floor.
  • Carry a spare flashlight battery with you on your rounds. Torch burns out, pop in the spare. Spare dies, bust a hump outta there.
  • No one touch McNeely until we figure out what manner of apparition he is.
  • Sick days are not vacation days.
  • The door to the custodial closet on the ground floor should lead only to the custodial closet. If it leads anywhere else, obey your better instincts and don’t go in.
  • For the love of god, someone get McNeely some duct tape.
  • Ignore all emergency broadcasts not preceded by the GEB signal. That goes double for broadcasts that encourage you to remove your clothes and wait in the parking garage.
  • The staff refrigerator is off-limits until further notice.
  • No wives on duty.
  • No stuffing anyone’s wife in the staff refrigerator. This means you, Christopher.
  • Any apparitions, spectres, phenomena and/or willies are to be written up in the spectral report sheet. And no “shit got real.” Use your big boy words.
  • Toilet paper is not a toy.
  • If you bring your friends in on-shift to get high and dick around with you, do the world a favor and paint a big, red target on your ass while you’re at it.
  • Someone break up Farbes and McNeely, it’s getting creepy.
  • Everybody needs to contribute $5 to Hector’s widow. This goes double for you, Christopher. Nobody buys the “it just went off” theory.
  • The head custodian is out of commission until further notice.
  • And no, McNeely is not in charge

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Irma

“She’s just there,” Miles told her, “through the pines.”

Her gentleman acquaintance of three months gave Althea’s elbow a reassuring squeeze. Althea was old money, but she knew he liked her for more than that. Though she was a little past spring, her auburn hair was in a flapper bob. Her lips were full, as were her cheeks, and charitable souls called her pretty. Worry crossed her sunny, plump face that day, and a single tooth gnawed at her bottom lip.

“Are you sure,” she said, “darling are you sure? I’m just so frightened she’ll hate me.”

“Of course she won’t!” Miles said almost automatically. “You’ll see. She’s a very self-contained girl. You’ll love her.”

Althea doubted that. As a proud aunt and annual donator to the Orphans of war fund, she was only fond of children at a distance. But Miles was such a man, such a sweet man that his good qualities surely outweighed any pettishness from his daughter.

Miles kissed her in the corner of her mouth, skewing his hat to one side to hide it from the driver. She found the gesture rakish, and delighted upon it.

Her good mood did not last through her climb. Her heels sank in sand and pulled her back, but propriety dictated she couldn’t take them off. She reached the apex sweating and out of breath.

The girl was before her.

Oddly, Althea had not seen her on first reaching the summit. She gave a little cry.

“Oh! I’m Althea, dear, and your daddy’s told me so much about you.” Althea had assumed the sugar-sweet coaxing tone that she used with children.

The girl viewed her remotely through dark eyes. She could have been nine. Her outfit was a nouveau riche parody of a girl’s school uniform, accentuated with bows and buttons that would never have passed muster. The girl’s shoes were shiny hard leather. Althea made a mental note about possible spoiling.

Althea realized she was staring and made a little curtsey. The girl put her hand out as if to shake.

Althea laughed—“no, no dear!”—and waved the hand away. She didn’t relish the idea of touching the girl.

“You must be anxious,” she told the girl.

“I’m a demon,” the girl said.

Althea’s smile faltered. “That’s quite…what an imagination you must have.”

The girl did not fidget, gave no outward sign she was having fun with Althea.

“Your daddy must be quite used to your little games by now,” Althea said impishly, “but I am not. I have a lovely fur here for a little girl named Irma, not any little demon.” The fox, in its tissue wrapping, crinkled behind her back.

The girl said again, unsmiling, “I’m a demon. You have been sent here as a sacrifice.”

Althea felt herself redden. If Miles wasn’t so sweet, so disarming, she would have given him a talking-to later over his parental skills.

“Really,” she said, playing along, “and what does a little demon like yourself do?”

“I grant wishes,” the girl said, “for a price.”

Althea smiled knowingly. “But then why am I being sacrificed? I haven’t wished for anything have I?”

“No, you’re being sacrificed in someone’s stead. Miles’. He sent you here to test if you were suitable.”

The girl’s voice was cool and dark, with a flatness that pricked something in Althea’s breast.

“Such a naughty girl,” Althea cried, “saying such things about her nice daddy!”

“He isn’t my father,” the girl said, “and he isn’t a good man. He’s been courting you this whole time, raising you up like a lamb for the slaughter. He has done things in the past that would get another man arrested.”

Althea’s patience wore out. “Stop this nonsense now! Your father has been nothing but the perfect gentleman—”

“He doesn’t touch you,” the girl said.

Althea huffed. “I beg your—”

“He kisses you, when it’s expected of him. And he lets you take his hand because manners dictate it. But he does not relish touching you. You are not his type.  He humors you and makes presents to you to distract you from the fact that he has not once said he loved you.”

Althea felt her stomach curdle. Why, not touching was just a gentleman’s manners, and Miles was a gentleman of the old school. And love confessions were so old hat, really. Althea was a modern woman, and it was silly to let the girl get under her skin. The world swam in front of her eyes.

Back at the car, Miles only saw a glimpse of her face before she dove into the back seat.

“Home!” she cried, “home and bed, I’ve never been so…” she covered her eyes with her hands. She had given in and divested of her shoes, and now there were holes in her stockings.

Miles soothed her on the journey back.

“Irma’s mother died in childbirth, the girl has never had another. She is simply lashing out, wants daddy all to herself.”

Althea looked at Miles, his sharp chin, his snub nose. Her friends said he looked like an accountant, she’d found him simply divine. Now though, she searched his face for…what?

“She’s said such things, I can’t even…” she gestured weakly.

Miles smiled, seeming to inflate with assurance.  “And that is why you must persist my dear. You are strong, you can’t even find precedence for what she says.” He grasped her right hand firmly in both of his, looking her straight in the eyes. “I am exceptionally fond of you, Althea Green.”

Althea smiled, though the twisted thread of the girl’s words came back to tug at her mouth The rest of the car ride home, they inhabited opposite corners of the car.

“I’m not his really daughter,” the girl said the next day.

Althea nodded, rapt, as she devoured the bonbons that had ostensibly been purchased as a peace offering. The girl gave no signs of wanting one.

“His real daughter is dead. Along with his wife. “

On another day, it would’ve inspired pity. Now she just felt sick.

“When his wife found out about what he was doing to their only daughter, she threatened to take the girl away and turn him in. That’s where I came from.”

“Of course,” Althea sighed.

“He summoned me to kill his wife and daughter, so the secret would never get out. One of the conditions of our agreement was that I should stay here for a set amount of time, in this form. He prefers it.”

Althea nodded, mascara smudged and running. Her heels sat beside her.

“At the end of the time he agreed to give up his soul, with one condition. If he can get someone to go in his place, he would be spared.”

“Yes?” Althea whispered.

“That is where you come in. He hopes you will substitute yourself for him, giving your soul to save his. This is why he waited three months to introduce you to me. To be sure you were right.”

Althea laughed; a thin, high, desperate sound. “Is that all? Is that it?”

The girl nodded.

Althea stood. “Do you know what I think?”

“No,” the girl said tonelessly.

“I think you’re a wretched child and I think you want your father to be miserable and I think you’re a beast for saying such things about such a sweet man!”

The girl didn’t flinch.

Althea began to struggle into her shoes. “I’m going to tell him just what kind of a girl you are, recommend a few schools that would straighten you out. None of this backchat and skylarking!”

“So you don’t believe it?” the girl asked.

Althea forced another laugh. “You must really think I was born yesterday!”

“And you think you love him?”

Althea paused. “Yes! Yes I love such a sweet man, who must only be reluctant to say ‘I love you’ because he’s got a beast for a child!”

“Well then,” the girl said, “I guess that’s that.” And she began walking backwards.

Immediately, Althea dropped the left heel, which she’d still been fighting. “Oh no, Irma, sweetheart, there’s a drop behind you—”

The girl said nothing; she watched Althea and walked steadily backwards, confidently, showing no signs of stopping or tripping.

“Oh dear,” Althea croaked, rushing awkwardly forward, “dear, darling, precious—stop that now!”

The girl hit the edge and kept going. Althea dove and suddenly there was nothing beneath her but rocks and salt spray, thirty feet down. She was treated to a last sight of the girl still watching her, standing quite casually in mid-air.

Miles had already read the sport’s section three times over. He looked up as he heard footsteps approaching and saw it was only the girl. With a sinking heart, he held his arms out to her. She marched, businesslike, into them.

“Has she…” he let the question dangle.

The girl looked up at him. “She has failed the test.”

Miles let a breath out. He’d been so hopeful with this one. Almost unconsciously, he squeezed the girl to him.

“Never mind all that,” he said brightly, “no sense crying over spilled milk. I’ve still got time, haven’t i?”

“Time,” the girl said.

“And in the meantime,” he said, “in the meantime, what shall we do, hmm? Shall we ride down to the wharf?”

The girl stared at him impassively.

Miles had sweat on his brow. He looked at the girl with nervous longing.

“Shall we go and ride the merry-go-round, hmm? And get some cotton candy and shop for some new clothes?”

The girl inclined her head slightly. With the lightness of that reprieve, Miles bustled her urgently into the back of the car.

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