Sunday, 28 October 2018
The Forgotten Hollow Tinies: Interlude B - First Night on the Job
As the sun set over Forgotten Hollow, I peeked out of the living room window, and saw that Clara was still outside, swinging around on the monkey bars I had placed between the gravestones. She was alone, and yet, she seemed to be having a conversation with someone.
This didn't surprise me. It had become apparent in recent weeks that my creative daughter had a throng of imaginary friends. She had told me about them in great detail. The interesting thing was the variety among them. They each had their own little stories, too.
There was a little girl with ringlets and a bonnet, who liked to chant playground rhymes with Clara. There was a teenage boy in a soldier's uniform who had lost a leg and an arm, who was calmed by the melodies of Benjamin's violin floating through the window. Most intriguing of all was a slightly older man, probably aged about thirty or so from my daughter's descriptions, and who she claimed always held a baby in his arms.
"He comes here because Mrs. Casper won't let him in," she said, rather mysteriously.
It was clear where Clara's vivid creations had come from. After all, their names and ages matched those carved into the gravestones she played amongst. Only the man and baby were anonymous. When I 'd asked Clara why, she'd merely replied:
"It's because this isn't the place where they sleep."
Perhaps she had run out of names from the graves.
In any case, as content as I usually was to watch her play, tonight was a special night. As her siblings ran around like headless chickens hanging up balloons and laying out plates, I knew it was time to call her inside.
"Clara! Come on, honey - Adelaide will be blowing her candles out soon!"
"OK, Mum - I'm coming!"
After waving a quick goodbye to a person or persons unseen, Clara dashed into the house and scurried towards the bathroom to wash up for dinner - crossing Adelaide in the doorway as the latter emerged: her makeup tasteful, her hair elegant.
I blinked back tears. Tonight was my eldest daughter's 18th birthday, and here before me was a beautiful and gifted young woman - ready to face the world beyond this gloomy glade.
Once Clara's hands were clean and she had joined the rest of her siblings gathered around the kitchen area, I lit the candles atop Adelaide's cake, and together, we all sang "Happy Birthday": my younger poppets allowing an excess of volume to compensate for a lack of tune.
With one big breath, Adelaide leaned forward and blew out the candles...
... and the whole house was plunged into darkness.
The stunned and sombre silence that followed was broken only by a shrill shriek bursting forth from the birthday girls' lips: her hands flying towards her chest, clawing at it desperately
"Hot," she wheezed, in between distressed gulps for air. "Bur... burning..."
I rushed to her aid, but before I could do anything, Adelaide fled like a greyhound out of a trap and barricaded herself in the bathroom once again. Through the door, I could hear a tap running.... presumably so she could splash some cold water onto herself.
Moments later, she emerged, slowly: her face as pale as snow, her fragile figure trembling in fear. As I looked at her, I could feel my heart plummeting into misery - sinking like a stone.
There, upon Adelaide's chest, was a symbol that mirrored my own. The eerie tattoo that denoted one who belonged to the Reaper.
The mark of my covenant.
"M...Mum?" she stammered, barely able to speak. "What... what is this? What's happening to me?"
God, how I had prayed this day wouldn't come. How I had longed for my precious children to live in ignorance of their purpose: to be the same as anyone else. But that could never be. I had made my deal. And now, the first of many payments was due.
"Darling," I said, with a soft firmness - forcing myself to be matter-of-fact whilst still showing my maternal love. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I was going to tell you before. I should have told you, but I... I was so afraid..."
"Tell me what? Mum, what's going on?"
As the rest of my children all closed in, scared but intrigued in equal measure, I knew it was time to share my secret with them all. Clutching Adelaide's hands, I recounted the whole sorry tale about my brush with death, my pledge to bear an alphabetical army of children for the Reaper, and how she,my beloved first-born, was now ready to take on the role she and her siblings were all destined for.
As she heard this sorry saga, Adelaide shook her head wildly.
"The Grim Reaper!" she wailed. "No... no, this can't be! I don't want to be his acolyte! What about college? And marriage, and children, and all of that? That's the future I want!"
"It matters not," a chilling, stark voice muttered from a corner. "This is the future fate has given you. Just as it will be one day be bestowed upon all 26 of my promised ones."
We both turned, startled. Without any announcement or invitation, my dark and deadly master had appeared in my home. Now, I could only stand there and watch passively as he hovered towards my eldest child. The movement of his hood tellingly implied that he was examining her as one inspects an employee in their uniform.
"So, this is the birthday girl," he continued, his voice an unnerving coo. "Adelaide Cote Livingstone. My, my... you have blossomed into quite the beauty, haven't you, young lady? I can see many men willingly going to their deaths with you as their psychopomp."
Adelaide stayed silent - too unnerved to speak. Instead, it was me who found the courage to object.
"Must she go with you now?" I pleaded. "Please... I beg you... let her at least have a taste of a true human life -"
"That cannot be done," the Reaper barked sharply. "The moment Adelaide came of her age, your deal was made binding. She became immortal, freed from the threats of both illness and age. She is no longer a "true" human. She is a Reaper, like myself. And, as such, she must do a Reaper's work."
Then, he turned back to Adelaide, and spoke in tones far more sympathetic and gentle than those I had ever heard him use before.
"I know you are frightened, my dear," he said, "and that you were born from a mortal man's seed. But, in a spiritual sense, I have always been your true father. Thus, for my part, I swear that I will care for you like any loving father would care for his daughter. You will dwell in a grand palace beyond this earthly realm, where your siblings will one day join you, and I will teach you your trade dutifully."
Adelaide hung her head, mourning for her lost hopes and dreams... but nevertheless, she nodded in acceptance.
"Come, now," the Reaper told her. "Bid farewell to your family. We have much work to do."
There were no protests. No objections. Instead, Adelaide merely made her way around all of her siblings in turn - offering them kisses and hugs as she bid them farewell. Benjamin's goodbye, whilst still tender and touching, was the most fleeting. After all, it wouldn't be very long before he entered the Reaper's employ for himself.
When, at last, she came to me, I held her tighter than I ever had before - dreading the moment when I would have to let her go.
To let her go forever.
"Goodbye, my angel," I whispered. "I know you will make me proud. When I die, I pray that I will see you again."
Following one quick kiss, I released my grasp. As the Reaper approached the front door, it opened for him of its own accord, and as he hovered outside into the night. Adelaide followed him obediently.
Rushing into the yard, I could feel the tears flowing down my face as I watched the pair strolling up the street together, until they vanished suddenly into nothingness - presumably having crossed from this world into the other.
I had to carry on. What other choice did I have? One child was gone, but I still had six others to care for - not to mention a promised legion still to bring into the world. They needed me, and I had to focus on them - even if I felt like my heart had just been torn out of my chest. Adelaide's goodbye wouldn't be the last... although I had the most awful feeling it would never get any easier.
That night, as I tucked Clara and Dahlia into bed, my usually chatty raven-haired little socialite was strangely... quiet. It was as if something was playing on her mind. Finally, after stories had been read and blankets had been pulled up, she broke her uncharacteristic silence.
"You know that scary man who came for Adelaide tonight?"
"You mean the Grim Reaper?"
"What about him, dearie?"
"Well... will he come for us, too?"
I hesitated. The last thing I wanted to do was give any of my children nightmares. But, lying to them wasn't the best course of action, either. After contemplating this dilemma for some moments, I answered her.
"Yes, darling," I admitted. "One day, he will. But not for a very long time."
"I'm not scared," Clara chirped up, with a strange brightness. "He's a nice man once you get to know him. My friends said so."
"Which friends are those, sweetie?" I asked, intrigued.
"The ones I play with outside," Clara continued. "The ones who sleep under the ground."
She yawned sleepily, snuggling down beneath the bedsheet.
"After all," she concluded, "he was nice when he came for them."
Chills shot up my spine like electricity. Without another word, I kissed both girls goodnight, retired to my own room... and collapsed weeping into my pillow.