by David Niall Wilson
The window looked out over mean streets and dirty dreams. Smudges of soot, wind-blown grit, and splatters of the last things to go through the minds of bugs and birds alike coated the multi-colored panes, creating subtle shifts in the original artist’s intent. What had once been a multi-hued peacock had taken on ghost-images of other creatures; what had begun as a leafy tree dripped with the streamers and ornaments of time.
On the windowsill, a goblet sat – iridescent blue with a peacock drinking at a fountain. A trinket of no worth grown precious with the years. His fingerprints stained the rim.
The interior of the attic chamber bore similar strokes from time’s brush. Spider’s webs had gone to cobwebs and, clotted with dust, dropped away to chase about the floor and lodge in the corners. More webs had grown to take their places; more spiders had joined their talents to the whole. The skeletal remnants of chairs, tables, and old cane-back rocking chair, and a dresser canted to one side where a leg had broken, or been removed for some arcane purpose, the rolled carcass of a heavy, Persian style rug, and a chest; all of these things cast shadows across the floor that congealed near the center in a colorless pool of gloom.
In the dust, his footprint remained, like a skeleton built of ash beneath a shroud layered years. The touch of a moth’s wing would brush it away, but it remained.
The chair seat was thick with dust. The dresser held nothing but torn and shredded bits of cloth and wood that had once been home to a family of mice, also dead and gone. Passed on. The rug was ruined. Mold had wormed its way in and out among the threads. Rot had set in; the once vibrant colors and patterns had grown into one another so that if someone gripped the end and unrolled it, the carpet would disintegrate, leaving nothing but a damp, foul-smelling mulch. Its only hope of survival was to be left alone, and even that was falling prey to entropy.
The knots on the twine that bound the rug held their own against time. They were careful knots, tied with care. He thought rolling the rug would protect it.
When the sun reached the proper angle, beams of colored light pierced the shadows and fell on the chest so that the raised image of a cross, surrounded by roses, could be seen. It was blackened with age and mold had grown into the deeper recesses of the carving, but the image managed to convey both beauty and mystery. The base of the cross came to a point that, if followed, led to a keyhole. The wooden frame was banded in hard iron, corroded and ancient, but with the sort of time-defiant strength born of careful craftsmanship.
His grandfather gave him the chest. It came from the war – the Old World – magic places far away. He left it in a special place when he, himself, was called to war, and he told no one about it.
Once the rug had covered the floor, carefully arranged to protect the polished hardwood from the monotonous motion of the rocker, and the compressed weight of a full dresser pressing down on four narrow legs. The table had held food, and wine, books and papers and notebooks with words sprawling across their surface. When the attic room was new, the window had been clear glass, winking at the daytime and midnight black skies in turn like a giant, all-seeing crystal eye.
The room came to him in a dream, and he kept it. It was built from bits and pieces of stories – stolen images from old movies – and fine words. It was woven of the sound of Cellos, deep and low, and the high, magnificent voice of a violin.
An ink bottle, dried and stained, sat on the table, though the way the shadows fell it was sometimes hard to see it. At times, in fact, it seemed not to be there at all. A broken pen lay beside it, exsanguinated dreams clotted on the nub. None of the paper remained. The books, the pads, the reams of sacrificed trees had been hauled away, rotted, fallen to dust or burned for meager, uncertain warmth in the “between” times. Between then, and now. Between sunlight, stained glass, ink and dust.
Sometimes the barrier between worlds is very thin. Sometimes…
Far below, the creak of a door shivered through the stagnant air. Cobweb animals shifted in their corners. Ink dust slid off the table like hourglass sand. A foot scraped on the stairs and echoed across years. The footsteps drew nearer, then nearer still and suddenly his hand was on the knob, turning back the hands of time. Or stopping them.
He stood in the doorway for a long time, surveying the ruin. Then, with a heavy sigh, he stepped through the door, closed it behind him with a snap that cut away the world, and glanced up at the window.
He couldn’t see through it. The soot and smudges had deepened the already dark colors of the glass. The peacock’s brilliant plumage fuzzed and faded, smeared with years. The sun hung motionless above the skyline. He stepped to the window and rubbed the elbow of his jacket on the glass. It came away dark and smudged, but did little to clear his view. The grime was mostly on the outside. Still, he glanced out and down, trying to fill in the odd gaps in the streets below from memory as the colored glass diffused the images.
He put his hand on the glass absently, as if he’d placed it there only moments before. When he turned away, he lifted it to his lips. The wine was rich and red and stained his lips. Colors erupted in slow motion from the center of the window and crackled outward, sloughing off grime and stains and years and painting the room in all the colors of the rainbow.
The sun inched up and speared floating dust motes as they floated across the room – tiny planets adrift in a momentary galaxy. He followed the light with his gaze. He saw the table, and for just a moment it held his gaze. The ghost-images of a bottle, a pen – but no. There was nothing there. The chest caught and reflected the dim light. The corners of his mouth twitched, and then actually curled upward, just for an instant. He crossed the room in two strides and dropped to his knees beside the box. In that instant, he was certain he smelled Camel cigarettes caught in old flannel; remembered from long lost nights stealing his grandfather’s oversized pajama shirts to sleep in, or riding in the battered Volkswagen that bore them to battle with bluegills and bass.
Other voices echoed in the back of his mind, but he ignored them. Horns sounded. Elevators rose and fell and the hum of a thousand fluorescent bulbs snapping to life in a thousand tiny cubicles hissed and whispered. A woman’s voice, too high and too shrill, pounded at him like waves on a beach, and closed his eyes. He reached out and traced the rose and cross on the box with his index finger.
“Abra Cadabra,” he said softly. The words were another gift from his grandfather, part of one of the stories that waited in the back of his mind. He snapped the fingers of his right hand and a key appeared. There was no audience, but he smiled and nodded, as if taking a bow. He slid the key into the lock on the chest, turned it, and gripped the lid. Offering a silent prayer to whoever listens, opened it.
He lifted free a small black bottle. The ink was thick and black. The label simply read…words. He set this aside and lifted out the pen. The nub glittered in the light from the window. That light was brighter, but he hardly noticed. The dust motes had disappeared, as well. He placed the pen on the floor beside the ink and reached into the box for the final item.
It was a sheaf of paper, white and empty, nothing but potential. He stood slowly, grabbing the pen, and the ink. He turned to the table. There was a soft glow of multi-hued light. He glanced at the window and smiled. The peacock winked back at him. The tree behind the plumage had come to life with greens and browns. The dresser stood on four good legs, and the rug covered the hardwood, nearly touching the walls on every side, it’s pattern complex and intriguing, glowing with captured light.
He sat at the table, opened the bottle, and dipped the pen. He tapped his lip thoughtfully with his index finger, caught just the right image from his dreams, and began to write. Beyond the window, the world hovered and fretted. Icy, numbing talons of reality raked at the walls and scraped the colored glass. Words dripped from the pen, and the hours passed. Until the light faded, and he could not see to follow one word with another.
He sat for a while in the darkness. The moon tried to cut through the colored glass, but it was pale and when he tried to write by that light, the words were washed out and gray. He capped the ink, lifted the paper and the pen, and carried them reverently to the chest. He carefully set aside the pages he’d filled, and placed the rest in the chest. Then he returned the bottle, and the pen, and closed the lid. The lock snapped tight, and he slid the key out of sight with a wistful flip of his wrist.
He stepped to the window and undid the hasp that locked it tight. It slid up easily, despite its age. Already a sheen of dust coated the table, and the dresser had canted to one side, but he paid no attention. He slid his hand out the window, high above the streets, and released the pages. The words floated on the evening breeze, larger motes in a larger universe, seeking other eyes. Seeking release. He took a last sip of the wine and placed the glass on the windowsill, where cobwebs already bound it to the wood.
He closed the window, flipped the latch closed, and stared through the grime encrusted glass into the pitch black of the night. Then, without a backward glance, he turned away, walked to the door, and pulled it open, stepping through to the stairs leading down. The door closed behind him as he descended. Already the traffic and the voices, the TV in the next room and the screaming laughter of the neighbors had begun to cut through his heart.
He looked up once, and thought of white birds, made of paper, soaring into the clouds.