Right from the moment that I first saw him, he somehow evoked a deep sense of foreboding; something malevolent and sinister, and I took an immediate dislike to him. Of course, I can’t say much about him now because he isn’t here anymore, but I'm sure that he had something to do with the whole state of affairs. I think that an explanation is in order.
I work as a trainee bank clerk in the city of Birmingham, having graduated from university in London. I quite like the job; I'd always fancied working in a bank, and my teachers at school repeatedly told me how I had a head for figures.’ Anyway, I'd been working in Birmingham for two months - enough time I might add to get fairly well, accustomed to a city that I'd never come within twenty miles of previously -when I saw him for the first time, one lunch break. The Busker.
Of course, there are lots of buskers in Birmingham — down the markets, by New Street Station, in the shopping centers or on street corners — so the fact that he was there didn't surprise me. However, as I walked past him, the air seemed to grow colder all of a sudden; I caught a mental whiff of the presence that he exuded, which made my skin prickle. Don't get me wrong, he was an ordinary - enough-looking bloke;shortish, rather plump around the waistline, mustache, ruddy complexion, and untidy brown hair. Yet there was something about him which scared me a little.
And then there was the music that he was playing. Previously, I had always thought of buskers as either guitar or mouth-organ playing musicians, conjuring up lively and (to a limited extent) inventive tunes, designed, to capture the attention of passers - by and to liven up the usually drab street surroundings. Yet this busker was playing a flute (I think it was a flute; I know next to nothing about musical instruments, but it was definitely a member of the woodwind family), and he was playing a sombre, haunting melody. If the rest of the people hurrying past were anything like me, the music did anything but liven up the stairway on whose landing he stood.
Quite the opposite, in fact; the melancholy tune echoed up and down the stairs, diminished only slightly in volume by the sound of people bustling past. Come to think of it, the music reminded me of Latin America or the Orient.
As it happens, I only stole a quick glance at him, for I would have appeared rude had I stood and gazed at him. Besides, for a reason that I can now hazard a guess at, I somehow felt an overwhelming urge to leave his presence as soon as possible. Tucking my hands into the pockets of my suit trousers, I hurried on my way, the tune still ringing in my ears.
Strangely enough, the passers-by seemed to like this curious busker's music, for his unzipped canvas bag was always generously smattered with silver coins; it was either that, or he was the object of an unusual compassion. As a result, he was always in his usual place every time I walked that way, on a dingy landing of the steps connecting the shopping center with Station Street. Every day he continued to play his flute with renewed enthusiasm, although his tunes varied little and all of the ones I heard were of a melancholy nature. Indeed, during one Saturday shopping trip, a young girl of about six burst into tears when she passed him, burying her face in her mother's chest. I was a couple of steps behind the woman and her daughter, and I stole a quick glance at the busker. To my surprise, his face remained blank as he concentrated on his music, either unaware of or choosing to ignore the girl whom he had just upset. And I had always thought that buskers were rather friendly people, likely to stop playing and soothe distraught children such as this girl.
Once, not long after, I saw someone attempt to converse with him. A tall, gangling student-type with a receding hairline and a big bony nose dropped a twenty-pence piece into the man’s bag where it tinkled as it landed, indicating that he was doing quite well for himself as usual. The youth nodded at the busker's flute. That's a funny tune. What is it?''
He received no reply. The busker's eyes remained shut as if he was deep in just within sight of the pair; I don't know why, but I was intrigued. ''Play down here often, do you?'' Persisted the youth, his accent distinctly north country.
A couple of seconds passed and stiff the man ignored him. The youth shrugged to himself and went on his way, passing me as he hurried down the stairs. The busker continued playing as if nothing had happened.
This went on for nearly a month. Then, events in Birmingham took a dramatic turn. I picked up the newspaper one morning to find that a teenage girl had been brutally murdered outside the Bull Ring Bus Station. Her butchered corpse still warms, had been discovered shortly after midnight by two students returning from a nightclub. The luckless girl had been completely disemboweled.
A nasty feeling crept into my stomach, taking a firm grip and refusing to let go. The first thing that struck me was how does the corpse had been to the busker’s usual haunt (Forgive the pun.).I tried to shake off the feeling, but somehow I couldn't help suspecting that he had something to do with it. In the subsequent police inquiries, nothing about the killer could be deduced, except that the murder weapon was definitely a knife, and whoever had committed the murder knew how to use it; apparently, several of the policemen who appeared on the scene had thrown up.
Just three days later, a twenty-year-old youth was killed after he fell in front of a bus in New Street. The horrified driver had just taken a right turn into Corporation Street when he saw a boy fall out of a seething throng on the pavement, right under the front wheels. He jammed on the brakes less than a split-second later, but he was still able to the disc em the dull thud above their screeching and felt the tires hit the obstacle in their path. Disembarking, the driver joined the horrified mass on the pavement, staring down the dumb-struck at the boy. A very macabre description had been placed in the Evening Mail (Reading it, I was glad that I hadn't been eating at the time.) , painting a gruesome picture of the youth's body, a huge indentation in its torso where the tires had gone over it. The man's rib cage had been crushed to a pulp, thus, compressing the organs underneath to bursting point.
Needless to say, talk in the local pubs was of little else; two particularly violent deaths in the space of four days, both in the city center. Yet still the busker played his flute as I walked past his eyes always closed and his bag showered with coins. Gradually, however, my overall fear of him spread; as each day went by, I noticed that passers-by began to hurry past him, casting the dad the nervous and apprehensive glance at the man with the mustache, and not stopping to root out any spare money. Mothers bustled curious children past him, hardly daring to look over their shoulders as his sombre music filled the air. . .
I was actually there when it happened. It was Friday, nearly two weeks after the young man had died on a New street. At the end of the week, I always treat myself to a visit to a food outlet during my lunch break; what the hell, it saves me cooking a meal when I get home. This time I had settled for McDonald's, although in the past I had tried a wide variety - Wimpy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Deep Pan pizza to name but a few.
I entered at about ten-past-one; it was crowded as usual, and the shortest available line must have been composed of at least six people. However, I had a whole hour to kill, So I was in no hurry; in addition, I think I'm a very patient person. I reached the counter, after not too long await and gave my order to the member of staff in front of me, a short, petite girl whose flowing dark hair was tucked underneath her green company cap. I ordered a McChicken sandwich, regular fries, and a vanilla milkshake; once the food arrived, I took one look at the cowed, unappealing ground floor and headed up the stairs. When I reached the top, I darted over and successfully captured a comer seat previously vacated by a fat gray — haired woman with a wrinkled face and wearing duffle — coat. Sitting down, I tore the cover off the small sachet of salt, sprinkled it over my chips and inserted the red and yellow striped straw into my milkshake, taking a big slurp.
Two minutes passed, during which I had consumed half of the sandwich and a few handfuls of fries. I wiped my mouth and was about to wash the food down with some of the milkshake when I heard a commotion downstairs.
A few people sitting near the top of the stairs threw a casual glance down, but they couldn't have seen as much as their attention soon returned to the food in front of them. Sipping at my milkshake, I wondered whether to wander over and have a look down, but one glance at the handful of people awaiting a table cast this from my mind. As I set down the plastic cup and picked up the half-eaten sandwich, a shrill scream rent the air fire!'
I dropped the sandwich, the mayonnaise in the middle squirting out onto the table surface. By now, there were people screaming downstairs, and my nose had begun to detect the faint odor of smoke. Most of the people upstairs stood up (A few continued to wolf down their food; I can guess what became of them) and turned round, hurrying over to the stairs. Some looked puzzled, while others wore a look of fear. Having been one of the first to reach the stairs, I took a few steps down and stole a glance at the ground door.
At first, my brain simply refused to comprehend the scene my eyes took in. I believe this happens to you sometimes; there are some things that your brain simply disallows. Terrified people were streaming out of the double-doors, away from the roaring flames which were licking the service counter. Some of the harried members of staff were attempting to quell the blaze with fire extinguishers, but evidently having little success as they turned and vaulted over the counter, ending up behind the demented mob trying madly to escape. The air was thick with dense gray smoke, and the terrible screams were punctuated with fits of coughing which varied in intensity.
And then, horror of horrors, the doors jammed. The screams doubled, and most of the rearmost people turned, only to be confronted by an advancing wall of fire. Through the big windows I could see the people on the pavement outside, staring helplessly in horrified fascination at the scene in front of them.
From what I'd read in the papers about previous fires, the smoke is always twice as likely to cause death than the actual flames themselves. Consequently, yanked off my tie and wound it round the lower half of my face so that it covered my mouth and nostrils. Just as I had finished doing this, I heard a muffled, rumbling bang-which I later learned was one of the chip machines, full of boiling fat exploding. A sea of flames roared towards me, rushing forward like an unchecked tide of water and then several screams from behind me reminded me that it was time to get moving.
I darted down the stairs, wincing as the flames grabbed at the right-hand side of my face but not stopping. When I got to the bottom, I threw my arms up over my face and sprinted towards the window, taking a tremendous leap just before I reached it. I fell, hearing the glass shatter and my legs buckled from underneath as I landed...
The next thing I knew was feeling the cold November air on my cheeks and the hard concrete of the pavement underneath my back. In the distance, above the screams, shouts and roaring of the fire, I could hear the sirens of the fire engines.
And that's what happened. I was praised for my heroics and later learned that I had saved a great number of lives, but when I woke up in hospital, with a badly burnt scar on my right cheek and ear, I learned that twenty-two people had died, mainly from asphyxiation. Sorry to leave you in suspense, but I never discovered the cause of the fire; you'll have to guess that one for yourselves.
Yet now comes the most intriguing part of my tale. When I was eventually released from the hospital, I found the busker had vanished; never again did the sound of his flute echoes through that dark and dingy passageway on Station Street. Through some extensive inquiries, I learned that he had disappeared shortly after the McDonald's fire. Disappeared, as they say, never to return.
Now a year later, I am wiser. I have carried out some research in the local library on material which I scoffed at in the past. I've come up with two things. Firstly, I now believe in what are commonly known as 'harbingers of doom-beings from beyond our world whose appearance signifies the forthcoming of some dreadful catastrophe. The history books are littered with references to such beings.
Secondly, I now know the tune that the busker played that used to frighten me. It was used regularly in Ancient Egypt as a lament for the dead.
So I now avoid and fear buskers; yes, even those who stand smiling on street comers or in subways, and cheer people up with their lively tunes.
She was my first love. She is still one of my best friends and her concern and affection for me have not diminished at all throughout the years. I'm very proud that a woman like her loved me - - and even prouder that she still does.
Our romance began when I was very young, and her devotion to me was total. Although she was an ''older woman'' she understood me as no one else ever did. She had a caring, loving nature unsurpassed by any other woman in my life, and her love knew absolutely no bounds.
The difference in our ages notwithstanding, I care for her now almost the way I did in my youth. I depended on her, cherished her and looked to her fulfill all my needs. She never failed me.
She's a little frail these days -- the rigors of her more than 70 years catching up to her. She knows pain now and her steps has slowed and is hindered by her cane. Yet her spirit remains the same -- loving genuine and caring. Her sincerity cannot be faulted, and her fidelity remains unquestioned.
She still phones me, almost daily, to find out how I am, to learn what I'm doing, to make sure I'm healthy and happy. And her solicitous interest is real. She isn't trying to manipulate or cajole or wheedle, she is, in fact, expressing her love.
In many ways, she still says she loves me in unique ways. ''Are you eating?'' she'll ask. That means she loves me. ''Are you sleeping well?'' she'll inquire. Translated, that means the same thing. When I was younger, her reminders of her love were things like, ''Button your coat,'' ''Wear your galoshes,'' ''Eat your vegetables.''
Her name is Virginia Klauber, and I'd like each and everyone of you to meet her. I'm very, very proud of her and even prouder of the way she loves me. Virginia is, of course, my mother.
Thinking about her, I marvel at the way the role of motherhood is so rapidly changing in society today. But then, I think of Virginia, and realize that while the trappings might change, the role really doesn't seem to.
Virginia was a working mother, long before everybody was a working mother. She didn't have a microwave oven, a food processor, a trash compactor, or even portable telephone enabling her to use all the other devices unimpeded while talking to her office.
She had to divide her time into smaller pieces, but the love always was there. Her love can compare to nothing else in preparing me and my three siblings for life. She often overprotected us and sometimes worried about us to a fault, but her concern and love were pure, genuine and unparalleled. I would get angry at her and wonder why she would do the things she did - - but her love transcends and overshadows her few faults and fewer failures. Only those who never attempt, never fail.
My mother will be 68 June 28. She has gone through some difficult times during the past few years, especially right after my dad died. She is in great pain most of the time - - undaunted spirit continues, and she just carries on.
I somehow survived the absence of Virginia from home while she was working. - - it made me more independent, now that I look back on it. And the kids of today will survive. There is no substitute for the love, nurturing and tender loving care of the fellow human being who gave birth to you. But that fellow human being can also be a productive, career-minded individual without cheating a child of anything but too much attention.
Mother's Day of today is different, and we should not to visit our moms for their health because of the Covid-19. But we can have good time and make them happy via video chat. I hope your moms are fine. And we have to protect our lovely moms. I hope safety days will be come for all of us.
And I wish hope I want Virginia to know how much I love her. I want her to know that I, too, have memories. I want her to know that working moms are and were just fine.
Virginia really was my first love - - she will always be more special to me than I can ever tell her. Happy Mother's Day, Mom.
A man can always hope, can’t he? Sure he can. But what he hopes for, now that’s another question altogether. You spend enough time alone, you begin to hope for things you’d always taken for granted. Like the sight of a human face, for one thing. Or the sound of a human voice, the soft touch of a woman’s hand. You might do anything for these simple gifts.
It was just last night that I was standing outside the grass and dirt walls of my one-room soddie and staring across the Dakota prairie. I think Cod was tired on the day he made the prairie. There’s just mile after mile of emptiness. Nothing. The sight of all that grass stretching to the sky is downright terrifying to some, if you’re not used to it. I’ve heard of folks driven mad by too much open sky.
I was watching the clouds. The sun was going down and they started to blow in from the north, swollen things that made me think of black blood boiling in the sky. Mottle — that’s my ox — started to wail in the barn. It was going to be a bad storm, so I made sure the barn doors were closed up good and tight. Then I loaded the wheelbarrow with buffalo chips for the fire. As I pushed the barrow across the yard back to the soddie, a cold wind began to blow. At first, it made a low moan, like the sound of someone crying from far away. Sometimes I swear I can hear voices on that bitter wind.
Before I had even closed and barred the door, the first of the rain started falling and it pounded the sod roof like hundreds of fists. I sat in my rocker by the stove and turned up the lantern. Aside from a table for eating, a bed in the back corner, and a bench by the stove for cooking, my home was empty. That’s pretty much the way I felt — empty. I had just started reading my verses in the book of Numbers when I heard the knocking on the door.
Now that was strange. I’d seen no one headed my way, no one for miles in any direction. On the prairie a man can look out into those grasses that roll like swells on the ocean and see farther than he cares to see. Sometimes you figure you’d be better off not knowing who or what’s coming your way. I’ve often wondered if I’ll see, on the day I die, the grim reaper plodding along the horizon half an hour before he calls for me. I reckon I could’ve missed a man on horseback in the storm. But my eyes are sharp and I reckon it would be just as likely for a man to have sprung up out of the dirt.
I’m not one to turn away a traveler, especially in the midst of a storm. And like I said, loneliness takes its toll. I unbarred the door and let the wind push it open. Night had painted the prairie as black as the heart of the devil. The icy rain slapped against my cheeks, stinging my skin. I held the lantern out in front of me. There was no one there. All I could see was the light bouncing off the sheets of rain, the rain turning the earth to mud. And I could hear and feel the bite of the cold wind, its roar carrying those whispering voices that rose and fell like a distant crowd.
“Who’s out there?” I yelled over the howling storm.
No one answered. I started wondering if I should have brought my rifle to the door.
“Last chance! Anyone out there?”
After a few long seconds I turned back inside to set down the lantern and bar the door. But something about the walls of my soddie stopped me. I swear in God’s name I saw those dried sod walls that are twenty inches thick and had seen two Dakota winters and more rain and tornadoes than any wooden house could withstand, turning to mud before my eyes. What’s worse is, the mud was moving, like it was filled with living things, squirming and sliding just below the surface of the muck.
“Hello?” a female voice called out.
I spun around, nearly dropping my lantern. A woman and a small child were huddled together out in the rain.
“Can you help us?” the woman asked, wiping the rain from her eyes. “It’s just my daughter and me. We were caught in the storm.”
It had been so long since I’d heard a woman’s voice, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sweeter sound. I stood there like an idiot, gaping at the two of them. It didn’t occur to me at the time why a woman and her child were traveling alone, without so much as a blanket between them. I was thankful for the company.
“Come on in,” I said. “Dry yourselves.”
As they passed through my door, I could smell the dirt of the prairie on their dresses and in their hair. It was the same scent I’d smelled on myself last spring when I’d been digging the well. I closed and barred the door.
I’d forgotten about the walls, you understand. When I looked this time, they were as dry as dust. I scratched my head. It must have been the lantern, I figured. Lantern light’s strange sometimes makes shadows do odd things.
Looking back now I think about the odd things the mind can do, the things you make yourself believe. It’s a sad state when you can’t trust yourself. It makes you feel like your mind is just an old, broken wagon being led in circles by a blind horse. What’s a man if he’s lost his mind?
“My name’s John Christian,” I said, smoothing my tangled hair.
“I’m Ella,” the woman said. Her face was plain but pretty, the kind of woman a man might take for his wife. She wore a simple gray dress that was well suited for farm work. ‘This is my daughter Daisy.”
“Pleased to know you. Miss Ella. How are you Daisy?”
The child looked up at me with huge dark eyes. Both women were dripping wet and skinny to the point of death. I could tell they’d seen hard times. That’s not unusual on the Dakota prairie, but it still tugs at your heart to see a child and her mother go hungry.
I strung a rope in the corner where the bed is and hung a sheet from it to give the ladies some privacy while they changed. I gave them a couple of my old nightshirts to put on until their dresses dried. Mean- while, I dropped a few more chips into the stove to beat back the cold. I wished I could’ve cleaned myself up; there’s something about having a woman around that makes a man suddenly realizes he hasn’t had a bath in a couple of weeks. Before too long we were sitting in front of the fireplace, me on the packed earth floor. Miss Ella in the rocker, and the child on a stool between us.
“You live alone, do you, Mr. Christian?” Miss Ella asked.
“Please, call me John. Can I offer you two some dinner? I’ve just some stew. It’s not much, but the meat is fresh and it’s hot and filling.”
“We’ve already eaten, haven’t we Daisy?”
The child nodded solemnly.
“Yeah, I live alone,” I said to answer her question. “Came out here two years ago this June. Water’s scarce but the land is good.”
“You’ve a fine home, John,” she said. “Solid walls and a dry floor. My husband built such a place and it’s a comfort in a storm.”
“Where is your husband. Miss Ella, if you don’t mind my asking?”
A shadow passed over her face. Or it could have been the flicker of the flame in the lantern. Lantern light is tricky, as I’ve said.
“He’s an evil man,” she said. “Pray you don’t cross his path. If he’s not dead already, he should be. Shouldn’t he, Daisy?”
“Why?” I asked. “What did he do? Gambling? Drink too much?”
“Nothing quite so harmless,” she said in a low voice. “It was this past winter. The snow was heavy. I don’t have to tell you that. Do I, John?”
I shook my head. The snow had been terribly heavy during the two winters I’d spent in this part of Dakota.
“Food was scarce. We first had to slay the milk cow for the meat. And— ”
Just then the little girl, Daisy, started to cry. It wasn’t a loud cry, like healthy children are known to make to get attention. It was just a few quiet sniffles and a lot of tears. And somehow that made her crying all the worse.
“You’ll have to excuse Daisy,” the mother said, making no move to comfort her daughter. “The memory is still fresh and it hurts her to remember.”
“I understand. No need to go on.”
Just then, I heard the wind picks up outside. It made a hollow cry as it whipped around the house. It sounded almost like a train whistle you might hear from miles away, a lonely sound that leaves you a little cold inside.
I was glad to have company on such a terrible night. And I was eager for more conversation. But I could see in the deep lines on Miss Ella’s face that rest was what she wanted and needed. I let them bundle up together on the only bed in the rear corner. It was big enough for three, but I knew it wouldn’t be proper. So, I wrapped myself with a blanket and curled up in front of the fading fire in the stove. Sleep came quickly and I remember drifting off to the haunting sound of the wind howling, an almost human sound that held hints of whispered words.
I don’t know what it was that woke me. There’s something about being stared at that Just doesn’t sit right with most folks, and that includes me. I remember sitting up straight. The soddie was filled with a reddish glow from the dying embers in the stove, a light that was just dim enough to fill the shadows with more shadows and make you see more than was actually there. I turned around to look in the direction of the bed and that’s when my heart started thudding in my chest.
Miss Ella and the child were standing by the foot of the bed. They were holding each other’s hands and looking at me. It was their faces that set my heart to racing. Their skin was as white and smooth as bleached bones and they Just stared at me. I don’t know how else to say it, but that they stared. It was horrible. All I wanted was for their faces to be gone from my sight, to be free from their relentless and accusing eyes.
And then they started moving. Still staring at me, they reached down and began lifting their nightshirts. What I saw were deathly white bones where their flesh should have been. Bits of tendon and dried blood stained the perfect whiteness of their skeletons and I could see where a heavy knife had scarred the bone while cleaving away the muscle.
I think I screamed then. I’m not sure. As I said, the mind is not always a perfect thing. It doesn’t always remember events exactly as they happened, if you know what I mean.
What I remember next are the sounds in the walls, the sound of mud stirring, of earth moving. I looked Just in time to see the figures of Ella and Daisy disappear into the sheet of churning mud, returning to the same earth that spawned their likenesses. Or perhaps they returned back to the corner of my mind that created them. I don’t know anymore. I only know they are gone, if indeed they ever were here.
I found the knife this morning. It was buried under the bed, beneath a few inches of dirt. The blood is still on the blade. The meat that has kept me alive these past few weeks is no longer fresh. Like my brain, the worms have done their work and the rotting has progressed too far for it to be of any use.
What’s left of my wife and daughter are buried back behind the barn. I can almost remember having a wife and a daughter. But it’s hard to know anymore. I’m not sure what’s real and what’s dreamed. I know it gets cold in the Dakota winters, and a man can get hungry. Maybe I had to kill them. Maybe.
A man can always hope. My hope is to be with my Ella and my daughter Daisy before this night is through. I’m ready to face the Lord and account for
what I’ve done. What else is there for a man, except to admit what he’s done and ask for forgiveness? Is there forgiveness for what I’ve done?
The wind is blowing now. Can you hear it? It’s the sound of the wind whistling through the bones of the dead. And I can hear the whispers carried on that wind and they’re telling me that they are coming. Soon the slithering noises in the walls will begin, the sound of bodies moving in the mud, the sound of the earth coming to greet me.