A Curse, Like a Keepsake

by Stellan Thorne

They called him the Baron,‭ ‬the man that owned the Castle.‭ ‬He lived in the penthouse,‭ ‬far above us,‭ ‬and there was a sleek elevator that opened only with his silver key.‭ ‬Sometimes I overheard a snatch of gossip about him:‭ ‬he was solitary,‭ ‬foreign,‭ ‬a heartless skinflint,‭ ‬but–oh–he had such wonderful taste:‭ ‬every scrap of carpet,‭ ‬every chandelier,‭ ‬had to pass under his gaze.‭ ‬He had an eye for beauty.‭

Nobody spoke to him and nobody saw him,‭ ‬but he sent letters in his careful hand,‭ ‬about rent overdue.‭ ‬My mother told me how much we owed.‭ ‬She’d sold the last of her finer things,‭ ‬her pearls and furs,‭ ‬but that was not enough.‭ ‬She told me he had no pity for widows and orphans.‭ ‬She had written to him often,‭ ‬without effect.‭

But my mother asked for sympathy,‭ ‬and I did not.‭ ‬I was a clerk,‭ ‬I knew how skin prickled at the sight of a blank check–so that is what I gave him.‭ ‬I told him I would do anything.

The Baron’s post-box was marked No.‭ ‬1.‭ ‬Ours was No.‭ ‬232.‭ ‬A day after I had written to him,‭ ‬I found the key,‭ ‬slipped in there without envelope.

When my mother was sleeping I made myself ready.‭ ‬I combed my hair and put on my best shoes.‭ ‬I was old enough to fight,‭ ‬if another war came,‭ ‬and soldiers had to take care of their feet.‭ ‬They could rot in the damp of the trenches.‭ ‬You became a corpse from the feet up.

The concierge was dozing.‭ ‬I turned the key in the lock.

The Baron’s private elevator was modern and sleek,‭ ‬like the dashboard of a car.‭ ‬There was no operator.‭ ‬I hadn’t quite expected one‭; ‬still,‭ ‬it unnerved me.‭ ‬I touched the handle lightly.‭ ‬Nowhere to go,‭ ‬but up.‭ ‬My hair was still damp,‭ ‬slicked back from my forehead.‭ ‬It gleamed the same color as my eyes in the elevator door.‭

The elevator shook to a stop,‭ ‬and the doors slid open,‭ ‬all on their own.‭ ‬It was not at all what I had expected.‭ ‬A dim and narrow hallway,‭ ‬the door small and rough.‭ ‬I knocked.‭ ‬There was a sound from within,‭ ‬a kind of rustling‭; ‬I thought of leaves caught in the wind.

‎”‏The door is open,‭” ‬he said.‭ ‬He had a voice like a marble slab.‭ “‬Come inside.‭”

Inside,‭ ‬there was a single light:‭ ‬a gnarled lamp,‭ ‬burning bright with‭ ‬naphtha.‭ ‬It cast a circle of‭ ‬shivering brightness.‭ ‬I saw the shadowy edges of the room.‭ ‬There was‭ ‬a bookcase,‭ ‬narrow and crammed,‭ ‬a tangle of pillows,‭ ‬a fraying tapestry.‭

The Baron stood at the thick-curtained window,‭ ‬his back to me.‭ ‬He was hunched and massive,‭ ‬a great shadow in the gloom.‭ “‬So,‭” ‬he said.‭ “‬Do you sing‭?”

I begged his pardon,‭ ‬I did not understand.‭

“Can you dance‎? ‏Do you play harp or violin‭? ‬Are you a poet,‭ ‬or a player‭?”

I shook my head.‭ “‬No,‭ ‬sir,‭ ‬I am not.‭”

“Then,‎ ‏we have a problem.‭ ‬Something must be exchanged.‭”

I knew,‭ ‬then,‭ ‬what he meant.‭ “‬If you just give me more time,‭ ‬I could get your money.‭”

“I am not interested in prattling about money.‎”

He turned to me then,‭ ‬quite slowly.‭ ‬The lamplight glowed on him.‭ ‬He wore a simple copper mask:‭ ‬a slit for mouth,‭ ‬a crude nose,‭ ‬two holes through which I saw his eyes.‭ ‬They were raptor eyes.‭ ‬

I did not move or make a sound.‭ ‬I‭ ‬could not tell if I was afraid.‭

“But,‎” ‏he said,‭ “‬I will make a deal with you.‭”

#

I knew the word for young men who traded for their company,‭ ‬and my company is what the Baron wanted.‭ ‬He had a deck of ancient cards,‭ ‬with strange-eyed queens and fraying kings.‭ ‬We played cribbage,‭ ‬he taught me écarté and bezique,‭ ‬and all the while he watched me from behind his copper mask.‭

His terms were generous,‭ ‬now,‭ ‬and my mother thanked God and Providence,‭ ‬and when she slept I would turn the silver key in the lock and go to his penthouse in my best pair of shoes.‭

He did not touch me.‭ ‬He was very careful not to,‭ ‬an arm’s length away always.‭

When‭ ‬I‭ ‬asked him why he wore the mask,‭ ‬he had poured me wine,‭ ‬and‭ ‬wound an ancient phonograph.‭ ‬He had even let me win a hand.‭ ‬I thought him in a good mood.

‎”‏My mother was a sorceress,‭” ‬he said,‭ “‬and she laid a curse on me.‭”

I laughed.‭ ‬He did not.‭ ‬He shuffled the cards,‭ ‬one-handed–made them dance in a wavering column.‭ ‬I saw the blurry shapes of suits,‭ ‬the flash of face cards.‭ ‬It was a magician’s trick,‭ ‬a good one.‭

“I have learned some sleights,‎ ‏over the years,‭ ‬but I never could undo it.‭” ‬He collapsed the tower of cards,‭ ‬fanned them out on the table.‭ ‬One fell face-up,‭ ‬the Jack of Hearts.‭ “‬I am cursed,‭ ‬and it will last‭ ‘‬til‭ ‬Judgment Day.‭”

He looked up.‭ ‬His eyes caught me.‭ ‬Another magician’s trick,‭ ‬I thought.‭ ‬The music hissed through the air,‭ ‬a song in a lilting language.‭

“I need to go,‎” ‏I said.‭

“Yes.‎ ‏It’s very late.‭” ‬He sat slumped in his great chair,‭ ‬his gloved hands curled on the armrests like claws.‭ “‬You will come again,‭ ‬tomorrow‭?”

#

I was good at my work,‭ ‬and was promoted–I came closer to paying our debt.‭ ‬At night I felt the Baron’s scrutiny like a fist,‭ ‬as he spoke gentlemanly pleasantries.‭ ‬He shuffled the deck,‭ ‬cards flashing red-white-black in the lamplight,‭ ‬and he looked heavy with hunger.

‎”‏My mother said to break my curse I would need to find a wife,‭” ‬he said.‭

I asked him why he had no wife.‭ ‬He laughed,‭ ‬then.‭ ‬I did not.‭ ‬He stood up slowly,‭ ‬loomed,‭ ‬and looked at me.‭

“Do I frighten you‎?”

“Yes,‎” ‏I said.

‎”‏Good.‭ ‬You are honest.‭” ‬His hand went to his mask,‭ ‬and I flinched,‭ ‬a little.‭ ‬It seemed to satisfy him.‭ “‬Have you ever seen a monster‭?”

My eyes went to the window.‭ ‬He always had the curtains drawn.‭ ‬Below him were the lights of an unsleeping city,‭ ‬but he stayed in here,‭ ‬where the air smelled of dark ages.‭ “‬I don’t believe in monsters.‭”

“There are things in this world that eat tender youths,‎” ‏he said.‭

“Yes.‎” ‏I thought of gangrene and gas.‭ ‬My father’s letters,‭ ‬his leaking boots.‭

He went to his desk,‭ ‬and poured a glass of cognac.‭ “‬You should leave.‭ ‬I am tired of being humane.‭”

I took a step closer.‭ ‬I could hear him breathing.‭ ‬One more step and I could reach out,‭ ‬rip the mask from his face.‭ ‬I wanted to look at him as he looked at me.‭

Leave me.‭” ‬He shattered his glass against the wall.‭ ‬Shards sprayed like stars across the Turkish rugs.‭ “‬Don’t you know about monsters’ appetites‭?”

#

When the last cent was accounted for my mother embraced me,‭ ‬weeping a little.‭ ‬Now perhaps I could work less,‭ ‬she said.‭ ‬My eyes had been so troubled lately,‭ ‬and I never had much sleep.‭

I bought myself a new suit,‭ ‬new shoes.‭ ‬The Baron wrote to his tenants–to my mother–in his careful hand,‭ ‬about rent and renovations,‭ ‬and he did not mention me.‭ ‬But I dreamed of him,‭ ‬each night,‭ ‬and woke up knowing it was not debt that called me.

I still had the key‭; ‬he had never reclaimed it.

The elevator shook when I rose,‭ ‬as if angry.‭ ‬The door to his penthouse was ajar.‭ ‬Inside it was dark and dry-aired,‭ ‬like a just-cooled furnace,‭ ‬and everything was shadowed save for one glinting thing:‭ ‬his mask,‭ ‬like a dead face on the table,‭ ‬in the mess of ragged-edged cards.‭

He sat unmoving,‭ ‬in his claw-footed chair.‭

“May I come in‎?” ‏I asked.

‎”‏Close the door,‭ ‬if you do,‭” ‬he said.‭

I did,‭ ‬and was clapped in darkness,‭ ‬but I‭ ‬still‭ ‬saw his eyes.‭

“Well,‎” ‏he said.‭ “‬You owe me nothing.‭”

I moved slowly in the dark,‭ ‬though I knew this room well.‭ “‬May I light the lamp‭?”

He laughed.‭ “‬You do not believe in monsters.‭ ‬Go ahead.‭”

I brought the light closer,‭ ‬and he shielded his face.‭ ‬His gloves had ripped‭; ‬his fine old waistcoat was moth-eaten.‭ ‬I set down the lamp and went to his side.‭ ‬He could still be human,‭ ‬in the wavering light.‭

“When I was young I was a handsome man,‎ ‏like you,‭” ‬he said.‭ “‬I had a vast demesne,‭ ‬and all my desires were granted me.‭ ‬Now this is my only Castle,‭ ‬and my curse is all I have left.‭”

“You’re a fool,‎” ‏I said.‭ ‬I rose‭; ‬I opened the curtains.‭

The city glowed like a second sky.‭ ‬I had seen men in the alleys,‭ ‬with faces not less monstrous than him.‭ ‬Perhaps he did not know that,‭ ‬here in his fraying room.‭

He stood up slowly‭; ‬he unfolded.‭ ‬He took off his gloves,‭ ‬and his claws were the color of stone.‭ “‬Come here,‭ ‬I shall eat you up.‭”

“I owe you nothing,‎” ‏I said as I went to him.‭ ‬What I gave,‭ ‬I gave freely.‭

He trembled,‭ ‬and blinked against the starlight.

‎”‏I am going to open the windows,‭” ‬I said.

‎”‏I will be cursed still,‭ ‬always.‭”

“Yes,‎” ‏I said,‭ ‬”you’ll learn to share it,‭”‬ and let the night air in.‭

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