The Gentle Decay of the Past
by Simon Williams
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
I could never see the faces of the guards properly, even on those rare clear days. Their caps were always pulled low over their eyes, and the lapels of their jackets pulled up. What little I could make out of their cheeks, noses and mouths failed to mark them out as anything except utterly ordinary, and I suppose they were. The only unusual thing about them was that they looked so alike. The same guards always stood there every day, as far as I was aware. Then again, they could have been twins.
But today, one of the guards happened to look up at the windows of Arnold House, and eventually I could tell that he was looking straight at me. For a moment I could see his eyes despite the thick fog, as if they had the capacity to shine through the gloom. They were yellow, spaced wide apart and sharp with intelligence.
I couldn’t look away; the slow-burning intensity of that gaze somehow arrested my attention, but the guard did look away, and quickly, as if he had already lost interest in the forlorn figure draped in a dressing-gown and standing at the window of its room.
They must live in the town, I thought as I turned away. The town I’ve never seen.
Later on, I walked up the stairs to the top floor. I fancied the exercise for no apparent reason and, as I shuffled along the corridor, I happened to notice that the hatch that led into the attic had been left open.
I looked up into the dark, and it looked down at me. I think I must have waited there pointlessly for a good five minutes, idly wondering what might be up there. I decided that Miss Vayne must have been storing some items away and had forgotten to close the hatch afterwards.
A nearby cupboard door stood slightly ajar, and I opened it slightly to see — amongst other things — a ladder. It struck me as a little odd that the entrance to the attic had been left open and that the cupboard door also hadn’t been closed properly.
After a moment, I took the ladder from the cupboard and placed it against the wall near the attic entrance. For some reason I just wanted to see what was in the attic.
With considerable effort — I am not a strong man in any sense — I climbed the ladder and somehow managed to haul myself into the attic. My wasted muscles protested at the sudden exertion.
After a while I found the light switch and turned on the single bulb. By its faint glow, I walked carefully upon the beams in the attic, the wooden surface rough against my bare feet. The place appeared far larger than I had expected, made more so by the fact that it was disappointingly empty. Here and there I came across boxes, but each of them either contained nothing or held useless bric-a-brac.
I wondered idly if I might find a book up here, a book to rival The Gentle Decay of the Past, I thought suddenly; and the possibility that it might exist quickened my pulse.
But I discovered nothing of the sort. I found nothing of value or interest, nothing to light a spark within my sluggish brain.
My search abandoned, I walked ponderously over to the large roof window and looked outside.
The fog had miraculously lifted and, for the first time ever, I could see far beyond the walls of the house. I saw the lights of the town beyond, a cluster of white and orange pinpoints that shimmered in the still evening air.
And I saw no guards at the gates.
I had no idea what to make of that. The gates were always manned.
Eventually I made my way back to my room, only to find Miss Vayne standing outside in the dimly-lit corridor. “How is it that they reduce all the wolves to lambs?” she pondered. She looked frustrated and full of contempt at the same time. Trapped in her hell, I thought once again.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.” I had, in truth, never really understood anything this woman had ever said.
“They took everything that made you who you were,” she said. Her eyes, little currants in that large doughy face, looked darker than usual and yet they glittered in a way that reminded me of the town lights. Suddenly I imagined that those lights were themselves nothing more than eyes in a much larger face. Contemplating a world made of nothing more substantial than multiple layers of eyes and faces, I shivered.
“They made a soft and pliable creature that shuffles around the walls of its cell and patiently waits to lie down and die. That’s what they do to you all, more or less. They make corrections.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” I ventured.
“You became a void, purposeless creature,” she said. “No, it isn’t a good thing.” A different look crossed her face, and she added, “But they couldn’t completely erase the spark.”
Now she looked suddenly eager, perhaps even hungry. “The spark is what you feel when you open that book and read from one of the pages. It’s all that’s left of you. For now.” She smiled as if a secret had been imparted, and then she left.
I tried to reason how she could have known the effect that the book had had on me. Had she watched as I first read it, or on subsequent occasions?
Miss Vayne came to me again two days later. “I’ve been told that it’s time to send you away,” she said abruptly.
I felt puzzled by that. “Am I not here because I can’t be sent away?”
“Not exactly.” She looked at me appraisingly as I stood in my ill-fitting gown. “Come with me.”
We went outside through a side door that I hadn’t seen before. It led out into a small yard with patches of greenery where young trees had been planted. Near to the furthest corner, an archway led out of the yard and down a stepped path. The air felt cold. “Don’t tremble,” she admonished me, a little sharply, as I pulled my gown a little closer about me.
“I can’t help it,” I pointed out.
“You’ll adapt,” she said. “You always do.” She took a sharp intake of breath, her chest rising laboriously under the thick, pea-green cardigan. “The fog has lifted, and that’s a sign. The other day, I saw the memory of the town lights in your eyes. Yes, there’s little that escapes my attention. It’s a sign that it’s time for your fog to lift, for you to remember, little by little, but never everything, of course, and eventually...” Her voice trailed away, as if she contemplated some unknown event from the past.
“Become a hunter,” she said finally.
We stood there mutely for a while longer. Miss Vayne appeared to be listening to something that only she could hear. I waited and shivered.
“You’ll need to step through.” She pointed to the archway. “And then you keep walking.”
“Where does the path lead?”
“Past the broken cliff. Keep walking to the hidden town.” Miss Vayne gave me an odd, sly smile. “One day this will all seem so familiar to you.”
“How... how will I survive?” I knew that she had quoted from The Gentle Decay Of The Past, but I couldn’t think of a way to ask her how she knew the book so intimately, this book that she had apparently never read. Nor could I understand how the seemingly random excerpt that I recalled reading now translated as vague instructions for the route I had to take.
“By killing. How else does a hunter survive?” She turned as if to go back in, then paused. “Some people never leave this place. Even if you should stumble and fall down the cliff to be smashed against the rocks, yours is a better, cleaner fate. You’ll have tasted the air as it’s meant to be tasted. I could let you back inside, but then I would have to slit your throat when you sleep and leave you to bleed pointlessly. To be offered some form of return is an honour, and you must treat it as such. You begin the journey to reclaim your status again. A hunter doesn’t return to a place like this, not to live, and certainly not to die.”
She extended a hand in farewell. It felt warm and far too soft, as if the appendage contained no bone structure at all.
“When you see the lights of order and civilisation,” she said as she walked back to the threshold, “assuming the sea doesn’t claim you, that is, you would do well to think of the world as a vast receptacle of endless possibilities, dotted with wolves and sheep. Remember that the sheep have a purpose. Nothing is really without purpose. Give thanks — it doesn’t matter who or what you give thanks to, but the gratitude itself is important — as you consume them.”
She pointed to the archway. “Every step is lighter than the last.”
I stood transfixed for a moment by something beyond that exit, a point of light that could have been a star or a planet, or some human construct hanging in the sky. Waiting for me, I thought, as I placed my right hand into the pocket of my robe.
I was not entirely surprised to find The Gentle Decay of the Past in the pocket. Nor did I feel any sense of shock when I turned to find that Miss Vayne had disappeared, and the door that led back into the torpid twilight of the house had soundlessly closed.
She was at least right about one thing, as it turned out. Every step proved to be lighter than the last. And with each day that passed another memory came creeping back. I assumed they were all mine, but it didn’t truly matter. I owned them now.
Meanwhile the book crumbled away, as many things do when their work in this world is done.
Copyright © 2017 by Simon Williams