Roslyn invited me into her small apartment, a frenzy of books, photographs, knickknacks, and paperwork. The detritus of two very different professions filled the small (but tidy) living space. Old leather-bound books with frayed spines stacked carefully among jars of seeds. A wooden display box under the end table said FLOWER PRESSINGS across it next to a leather doctor’s bag with the Lord’s cross surrounded by a snake eating its own tail stitched in gold thread. Everywhere I looked was a window into a peculiar marriage of peculiar people. So many stacks, rows, and shelves; little utilitarian pieces in their right place. It was like looking at a clockwork ant colony dipped in bronze - preserved indefinitely.
She gestured towards an overstuffed red chair and I sat down, worried my feet would knock over the small stack of wooden boxes in the space under my seat. This ordered chaos was too much to take in so I ignored it, trying to get Roslyn to simply start talking. I began to ask her about her uncle when she interrupted and politely asked if I wanted tea. I would have refused if she didn’t look like a kicked dog waiting to be forgiven. Outcasts can sense each other and it was clear that this woman needed a friend. She seemed upset. I had the wits about me to know if I pushed her too far I’d never get the information I needed, so I accepted the tea with a nod and a forced smile. It was hard to let myself be comfortable; my mind was reeling. Besides the odd image in the glass that had rattled me I was worried Lara and Meredith would notice my absence. If they started poking around town looking for me this chance meeting may be cut short. I hoped Sir was content in his traces. I wasn’t content in mine.
Roslyn noticed my wandering thoughts and raised an eyebrow at me while handing me a cup of her strange brew. It was an herbal tea and I took a sip without caution. I was taken aback with wide eyes. The surprise was welcome and I couldn’t stop my smile. I had expected lemon balm, Chinese black, or some sort of mint but instead I tasted a cup of berries and fruit. Notes of chamomile and something like cinnamon, but rounder sank into my body and warmed my belly like bourbon. I let out a sigh and it felt as if my thoughts had exhaled with my breath. Docile for a moment I closed my eyes and savored it. Roslyn poured herself a cup from the same teapot and sat down across from me on a padded stool. She took a sip and a deep breath and was transformed before. Back was the confident lioness I remembered from moments before, pruning roses in a window. All vulnerability had left those piercing eyes and I looked down at my own cup in wonder. Did this potion grant the drinker whatever emotional desire they wished? I needed a calm mind. She needed her self-possession? Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow and I just that as I swirled the leaves in the bottom cup, dancing among the orange liquid.
Just Herbs” Was her reply, a smile across her steady face. “Well, herbs and a splash of whiskey. We both seemed to need it.” I looked back down at my cup with decision and drank the rest in one gulp. Roslyn laughed quietly and did the same. We set them down on the end table and she nodded to herself, and then looked me right in the eye. “I’ll be frank with you, Darling. No one has ever asked me about that song, but it’s been on my mind these past few days. I think I saw something. Something that wasn’t supposed to be seen.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” She said as she gracefully poured herself a second cup, “that I think I saw the beast, the one from the song. I’m telling you this because I know you saw it, too.”
Now I really wanted another sip of whiskey. I didn’t know what to say so I just blinked at her. She waited and I sputtered out a confused “How…?”
“Anna. I have never spoken to you before, not once. We have lived in this town for some time now and it wasn’t until you heard me humming that song that you demanded a conversation.” She took a sip of her tea, and removed a strand of thick golden hair from her eyes to behind an ear. “I am not my husband, but give me a little credit. I know someone who has seen a ghost. And we’re not the only ones either.”
I was too scared to admit anything. My reputation was bad enough having lived with a man before marriage and now acting like one, managing a farm alone. To tell another person I was seeing black beasts in snowstorms was not going to sell more lambs. “What have you heard?”
“It started with another widow, Mrs. Pember. She came here a few days ago late in the night. Robert and I woke up to her banging on the shop door like she was being chased by the Devil himself. We let her in and she was white as the snow outside. She was in nothing but her nightdress, her bare feet black as if they had been dipped in ash. I thought it was frostbite, but it wasn’t. We grabbed a blanket and brought her upstairs, her black feet leaving no footprints as went. We sat her down in the same chair you are in now and Robert didn’t hide the whiskey in any fruit tea. She took three fingers worth of bourbon before she said things most of us wouldn’t confess in the light of day. “ Roslyn spoke calmly as if she was telling me the ingredients of bread. I sat still as a freshly switched child in a church pew. She continued; “She said she was in bed not an hour earlier. That she was fast asleep in the bedroom of her house on Second Street when she woke up feeling queer. Feeling as if she was being watched. “
“Mrs. Pember has not been quite right since her husband’s death last September.” I said this as calmly as possible, but the worlds came out in a stutter.
“Oh. And I suppose you have?”
I bristled at this, but said nothing. I had no right to speak against the impolite retort. Everyone in town new my farm was falling apart and I was still mourning. The only different between Mrs. Pember and I was our age and my advantage of having been left a business. Tight lipped, I frowned at my empty cup, more in self-pity than anything else. The lioness poured me more of her spiked tea and I meekly smiled up, having been put in my place. I took a sip, unsure if I liked or disliked this strange storyteller. I knew I liked Mrs. Pember though. Everyone knew the sixty-year-old widow had lost her husband the same way so many women did that month, the same flu that took my Adam. But unlike Ironale, she was left with nothing as much as a farm. She was left a large, lonely house and no children to care for her. She had a large white cat and rarely left her home save for the library. Books had become her closest friends. Most pitied her, but did so quietly. Few offer kindness in response to empathy. I felt a pang of guilt for not delivering her some of the salt pork when I was in town this morning. Roslyn went on:
“She told us she lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. All she could think of was her husband and how cold her cheeks felt in the cold night. She said the fire had gone out and she couldn’t rouse herself to restart it so she tried to count backwards into sleep again. But she couldn’t. Things felt too cold. Colder than she remembered the evening outdoors had been when she locked the door after closing the chicken coop door. Her breath started to swirl like smoke and her cheeks burned from the cold and that was too much so she got out of bed to restart the parlor stove. She told us she could not believe the cold, could not understand if she was sick or if the door had been blown open in the night? She started down the long hallway in her cold house, and stepped on that fat cat accidentally. Then the oddest occurrence endeavored. Mrs. Pember said she watched that cat hiss and scream but no sound came from it. She said everything was quiet as death. The grandmother clock did not tick and no wind could be heard even as she saw the shutters bang outside the windows. She thought she had gone death, and let out a gasp and heard her own breath as loud as fireworks. It was then, in the moment of realization that she looked down the long hallway and noticed her husband’s favorite cane. The same one with the fish head carved in silver he had been buried with.”
My eyes grew wide. Roslyn took note and set down her cup of tea.
“Wh..wha...what? What happened next?” I stammered.
“I don’t know.” She frowned. “I truly don’t. After that much of the story she turned to mumbling, shaking, and pointing towards the way she came. The only words I could make out were BLACK and teeth. She screamed BLACK and fell into herself at teeth. I could not make out any other words or intention. She was terrified beyond them anyway….” Roslyn looked off to the glass windows of her grand solarium. Her eyes followed the large trunk of the tree used as corner post of her whimsical backyard. “Do you see that bit of earth there, below the tree?”
I looked. I nodded. She turned back at me sharply and continued the retelling. “She jabbered and cried and then clawed and gabbed at Robert. I can only guess she knew he dealt with the Spirit World and suspected he could help. Robert was used to extreme reactions, the occasional scream or faint at a card table, but nothing like this. I never saw him so unsettled. He promised her he would go check on the house and grabbed his coat and bag and was out the door before I could stop him.” Roslyn’s eyes gazed back at the tree. “ With Robert gone I did my best to keep the Mrs. calm and a few more fingers of whiskey later she was exhausted into sleep. Robert returned not an hour later, Anna. Said he took notes and looked everywhere but there was no cane with a fish’s head on it. The fire was lit. The house was warm.”
I sat up in the chair, about to ask a question when she interrupted me yet again. “She stayed with us that night and in the morning when I awoke she was gone. I saw her later that day. I paid her a visit, to see how she was faring. She had on trousers, which I have never seen her wear before. Over sized, probably from some old chest of her husband’s. She acted busy and did not want my company. Said she must’ve been dreaming and apologized over and over. She seemed more embarrassed than afraid. A different woman than the night before.”
She waited for my response. I set down my teacup and looked over at the tree, her fascination with was starting to concern me.
“Mrs. Pember sounds like she had a horrible nightmare and felt appropriately sheepish for the discomfort she caused you.” I tried to sound confident but the least observant of children in our town could tell I was reeling. Roslyn was visibly angered at the flippant remark. She set down her teacup and got up from her seat and left the room. She returned with just a bottle of whiskey without the excuse of herbal tea. She stood before me, a few feet from my person. She smiled and poured another drink into my half-drank cup. I let out a small exclamation as the liquor splashed onto my shawl. She bent down at the waist, hovering just above my head and whispered calmly.
“Anna. I want you to glance at that tree again without looking at it. Can you do that? From the corner of your eye I want you to see what is on that bit of spare earth where the grass does not grow. “
I stretched my eyes to the side without turning my head. There was a black cane with a fish head standing up straight as if someone was holding it there. The earth below it cracked and viscous, black as the feet under Mrs. Pember’s trousers.