It’s Sunday, the snow is melting, and my brain is busy mulling over the next scene in An Unpracticed Heart, my latest and main work-in-progress. I’ve not much more to report than that. The kids are bopping around, their antics spurred on by too much cabin fever. We’re having sloppy joes and cauliflower (What? I like my cruciferous vegetables) for dinner. Tomorrow is Monday and schoolwork and laundry (ALWAYS LAUNDRY) and shuttling the kids to their extra-curricular activities. The usual suspects.
So to prove that I am actually accomplishing things – occasionally – I finished another short story/scene-let, but instead of werewolves in Victorian-era London, I have a scene that’s been in my head for some time. For those of you who have read The Half Killed, I do intend to write its sequel (at some point… when my children are grown and off to college, most likely). This story takes place about six months after the main events in The Half Killed, and sets up the continuation of Dorothea and Julian’s story in The Sparrow Falls.
It was also brought about because of a story prompt set up by a few author friends of mine, K.S. Villoso (who writes amazing Filipino-inspired, diverse fantasy fiction) being one of them, Julie Midnight (as she’s known on Wattpad) being another. (If they make theirs public at any point, I will link to them here.)
It is a little dark, and there is some mild language. Just getting that much out of the way before we go any further. And if you do proceed, I hope you enjoy it.
“Death has set his mark and seal
On all we are and all we feel,
On all we know and all we fear…” Percy Bysshe Shelley
Mark and Seal
The birds close in, black feathers sweeping against a backdrop of white. Footsteps track through the fresh fall of snow, though it’s still pristine in some places, soft mounds and drifts over the horseshit the sweepers have yet to clear away. Nearer to the first of the bodies, the blanket of white devolves into a slurry of muck and slush, and it’s not until Trevor moves nearer that the splatter of blood becomes discernible from the drip and splash of other things.
He looks east, towards Bromley, tipping his head back enough to catch a glimpse of greyish light above the rooftops. Dawn it is, then. And on a Sunday morning, no less, as if such an atrocity shouldn’t have the gall to be committed on a day marked as holy. He thinks of his bed left behind him, the indentation of his head still in his pillow as he slipped out from beneath the covers so as not to wake Margaret. Peter had fussed in his cradle, but he’d given him his own broad, calloused finger to suck on for a minute, the babe’s new teeth working at his skin before the suckling slowed and he’d drifted off again.
And here he stands, still in yesterday’s shirt and socks, the remains of a pasty from the previous day’s breakfast wrapped in paper and leaving a greasy stain in the pocket of his coat. He’s eaten nothing yet this morning, not even a bruised apple or a cup of cold, weak coffee to wash the remnants of sleep from his mouth. As he approaches the body closest to him, he’s grateful for his own negligence. For it’s not merely blood marring the snow. A woman, face down on the ground, half her skull bashed in, and all still warm enough that it’s only a dusting of white on her coat and scarf, her skin wet with streaks like tears where the ice melted away.
Further along, there’s another one. Still moving, moaning even, hands reaching up and flailing at nothing, as if they can’t comprehend that the attacker’s already gone and abandoned him. Bending down, he places his fingers at the woman’s neck, searching for a flutter of life he already knows has disappeared. And then there’s blood on his hand, still the vivid red of a fresh wound, so he brushes his fingers through the snow, scrubbing and scrubbing until he’s cleared all evidence of her former existence from his skin.
There are two women fussing over one of the bodies, and the one beyond that has a man hovering near, crying out for help. He looks towards Charlie, the lad shivering in his boots and clutching at his abdomen as if he has an injury of his own to stanch. “Have you fetched the police?”
Charlie shakes his head. The poor boy’s teeth are chattering, and he’s got a threadbare scarf wrapped around his oversized ears to keep out the cold. “Jus’ you, sir. I didn’t know what to do when I saw him. I jus’ hid meself, dove behind the grocer’s cart and buried meself in a pile of cabbages. I didn’t know… I didn’t know…”
Trevor places his hand on the boy’s shoulder, marveling at how tall he’s grown in the last few months. His own children will reach this height one day, and in his fingers, he senses the weight of a new worry, one that mingles with the the burden of knowing that their innocence will be ripped away from them at some far off moment, as quick and complete as the snuffing of a flame.
“Did you see?” he asks, and there’s a flicker in the boy’s face, enough to let him know that he did see, but to speak of it will be too much like forcing himself to witness it all over again.
“A bloke, jus’… Very clean, very… His clothes didn’t fit, but they were new-ish, better than what you’ve got on. And he…” He swallows, and his gaze shifts, and his tongue pokes out to moisten lips that are cracked and red from the cold. “It weren’t a gun, or anything like. Nor a knife, jus’… he swung somethin’ like a hammer, without a word, without… And he jus’ hit them, and they dropped. Not even a scream, you know. You’d think they’d scream or cry out, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t…”
His eyes are wide, wide and blue with whites that are rimmed with red. There are no tears, though, despite a quiver in his jaw that he manages to clamp down on before a whimper can be heard.
“Here.” Trevor reaches into his pocket, fumbles for a coin or two and manages to press a few pennies into Charlie’s hand. “Go and tell someone, someone official. And then get yourself a drink, something hot. And a meal, if that’ll cover it.”
But Charlie’s lips are pinched together in such a way that the thought of sustenance must be the furthest thing from his mind. Yet off he trots, his boots sliding in the snow, the tail of his coat flapping out like the wing of some injured bird.
He turns back around and with the brightening of the day, he can better see the victims strewn along the pavement, laid out like a trail of macabre breadcrumbs. There are four, he thinks. The woman just at his feet, the man still shouting out to God, to anyone who will listen, and two more further on, though he can’t tell from this distance if they’re alive or dead. He leaves the woman behind him—why hesitate when her soul has already departed before her blood had a chance to melt through the snow around her?—and cuts a straight line towards the raving man.
This one bears his wound on the head, as well, but it’s a damaged face turned up towards the sky, one eye shattered beyond repair and the bridge of a nose flattened as if his skull were formed from nothing more than paper and glue. The man doesn’t seem to notice his approach, his cries unceasing. It’s nonsense, for the most part. But there are words strung throughout, his speech descended to frenetic shouts that pierce the unnatural silence left behind by the blanket of snow.
He may live, Trevor thinks. Without an eye, with a scar and mangled skin that will accompany him for the rest of his days. But he could live to be an old man, dandling grandchildren on his knee while they ask him to tell them again how he was hurt, so many years before.
He pushes forward, past an overturned cart and its load of cabbages spilled out into the street. A glance across the way and he sees someone cowering inside a rag and bottle shop, only a pair of eyes peering up from behind a counter decorated with a fork, a dismantled carriage clock, and an array of other worthless detritus. The eyes carry the expression of having seen too much, an unwillingness to blink, to break the spell and have what they’ve witnessed become real. He reads the sign above the door and commits it to memory. Another time, he thinks, when the cowering figure is willing to speak to him, when the initial panic has faded away yet the edges of the details remain sharp.
The breeze picks up as he ventures towards the last body. For once, the air doesn’t carry the smell of other people’s filth. The snow has washed the atmosphere clean, though he cannot guess how long the effect will last.
The body is in the snow, on his side, sprawled on the ground as if he were merely sleeping. The blood spreads out from his skull in a pattern that makes Trevor pause, marveling at its beauty. Or perhaps there’s nothing beautiful about it and it’s only his mind making a desperate grasp for something to contrast with the despair rising like a miasma around him.
“Is he dead?”
He looks at the man crouched next to the body, dressed in a decent suit, a new coat, shoes that have been brushed and polished to bring them up to the level of the rest of the wardrobe. Trevor’s gaze slides back to the one in the snow, to the blood, how much there is of it, too much…
He doesn’t bend down to touch him. There’s no need, though he doesn’t put as much into words. “Did you know him?”
“We were on our way to the office, same as always.” He shakes his head, his mouth hanging partially open after he speaks. “Schuck and Freres, near Eltham Road.”
“You’re an architect?” He keeps his voice low, calm, nothing of an interrogation in his tone, and yet the desire is there, to pick up the man beneath his armpits and shake him until every drop of information jangles out of him like loose coins from his pockets.
“Draftsmen, both of us.” Spoken in a manner that will not release the other man from this world, not yet.
He scrapes his fingertips across a patch of untouched snow, pulling enough of it into his hand that he can squeeze it into a clump in his palm before he breaks it into pieces again. “You were friends?” Just enough of a lift on the last word to allow the other man to interpret it as a question, should he wish it.
“Who… Who needs friends?” Another question put into the air, but one Trevor doesn’t think he’s been given leave to answer.
He stands up, his joints protesting against the cold. The police will arrive soon, mucking up the place, taking photos that will spread the misery of the scene outward with their every publication. He cuts back around to the man crying out, the voice growing more hoarse with every shout. Trevor drops to his knees, slipping out of his own coat to drape over the man’s abdomen. He takes his hand then, the one nearest to him, and holds it firmly, until his flailing ceases, until the cries begin to lessen.
“Just wait,” Trevor tells him. “Not much longer now.” Until help arrives, until death decides whether or not to rear back and take this one as well. But the man’s grip is as strong as his own, perhaps stronger. And as he waits, the snow begins again. A few flakes float down, large and white, more like something he would expect to see in a pantomime rather than from the sky itself. And they’ll cover everything once more, the blood and the wounds, and the tracks made by the one who strode through, wielding a simple weapon that brought down death with a few quick strikes of his arm.
He rocks back to his heels, and he thinks of his children, his boys, how they’ll just about be waking up now, while Margaret builds up the fire and sets on coffee and buns for breakfast. And he’ll return to them soon, the horror of what he’s seen wiped clean from his face, his smile broad as he takes the baby into his lap, as he helps Freddie with his letters on his slate.
The snow… He wipes his free hand through the bite of the ice, as if he can still feel the blood there, no matter that it’s long gone from his skin. The flakes fall faster, a veil of white lowering over the street, closing them off from the rest of the city. He glances upwards, the snow landing on his face, lighter than the prick of a pin each place they touch.
The snow will wash everything clean. So he tells himself, over and again.