A strange thing, to write a will. An inherent acceptance of mortality; a signing off one’s allotted portion of time. Life is dark, when you consider it, flanked at either end by black curtains – at birth and death – and one can do no more than stagger forward blindly with a candle flame that illuminates only as far as faith commands. I have turned to thinking perhaps a little too deeply on things, I cannot help myself. I relate to a strange series of events happened long ago…. My friend has just died. Spare no consolations for me; we fell from communications long ago, and he has died of admirable age. I know all too well the pangs of grief, having lost – like many – peoples of whom my life has been so deeply rooted. No, I feel I won’t cry for the man, at least not yet, but a peculiar circumstance surrounding his demise has tickled a rather macabre fancy in my oft drifting mind; a sort of sinister darkness of memory I had not recalled since my youth. At my age the mind starts to play tricks; happenings that once seemed so real I must now remind myself of their tangibility, whilst reminding myself that other monsters are just dreams. But no, the events of this tale are true – of that I pledge with utmost surety.
A little about this friend – a hard man, not unkind, but deeply serious and (I believed) unshakeably confident in himself and his views. He was a staunch atheist. The very mention of God, or rather anything incomprehensible by the human eye made him laugh and taunt of faeries and Father Christmas. Why do I raise this quality, you may ask? For in spite of his resolute stance, I have reason to suggest his later years greatly compromised this; inasmuch as my last visit with him presented him almost unrecognisable to the proud young man who had been my friend. I find it remarkable that one man may dismiss what another assuredly claims as truth, and alas I may appear as such to any who thumb through this little note.
There is no defence for the troubled soul, as you, dear reader, will soon see; for what use are your battlements when the enemy has already entered your home, invited by dread, furnished by fear?
Our home town lay within a bleak countryside, where modern man might chuckle at its furnishings; at its daemon-fearing citizens, at the garlic wreaths hung in ramshackle kitchens, of beads and crucifixes and other idols clutched fearfully to sallow chests. We lived simple lives; my friends and I traipsing the muddy fields with our crudely made football after long hours of assisting our fathers in their farm work. My mother was a suspicious one; blessing our souls at the sound of sneezes, calling for the devil to take us when we misbehaved. Even then the friend of whom I speak – his name being Ashen – had no issue in ‘correcting’ my mother,
“Ain’t no such thing as curses and angels, ma’am,”
An admirable woman, my mother felt no need to argue with a child, choosing to shoo us away from her sight lest we “wished for a red back porch!”
By the time we were teens Ashen would have said that he knew the world – nothing could stand in the way of his claimed wisdom – a trait that the young women of the village swooned over. It would appear that my friend would have little issues in life, as a likeable bloke of full confidence he always seemed a winner in the eyes of the townsfolk.
“You lack ambition,” relatives would say of me, “mayhaps you should strive to be more like Ashen. Now there’s a lad who’ll no doubt move to things greater than this dismal town!”
“Pride cometh before a fall,” an adage my old man often quoted, and sorrow wells in my breast to recall his voice whilst penning this tale. I say our town had little fanfare, as such you could imagine the excitement conjured by the travelling gypsy circus that visited late one summer. For those that remained in the village year-round, it stood as one moment when they could converse with the outside world and shudder with fear of the unknown. They arrived in caravans and pitched their tents in the fields, and for but a brief moment a splash of colour overlaid itself on the rain soaked terrain. Along with the coloured canvas and lights and flags came the din. A cheerful din to be sure; the sounds of laughter and bustle were enough to warm the iciest heart.
Our mothers would not see us for days at a time, so much did my friends and I peruse that carnival. My father was less than impressed – he was one to view such a festival as a waste of time. A waste of time may have been the wrong choice of words considering; but for my friend Ashen, a shadow was undoubtedly cast over his remaining decades. One tent, cruder than most, slouched inconspicuously betwixt other, grander displays, where within dwelt a haggard gypsy, would stand as a threshold to death for Ashen. The so-called clairvoyant, who called to us from the crowd, immediately impressed a foreboding dread on my heart.
“A fortune for the young lads, perhaps?” she croaked, to which the two of us merely shrugged; having grown somewhat weary of the other attractions we were happy to oblige. Upon entering the tent it would take a moment for our eyes to adjust to the dim lighting, and the cloying smell of incense hung heavily in the air. Ensconced at a small table she beckoned us to sit, when my friend hesitated sluggishly.
“This is foolishness,” said he, “there is nothing of interest here. Come, friend.”
Here the lady laughed, and there was something in that guffaw that sent shivers down my spine, “Will not the young man give an old woman the time of day? I can assure you will leave a wiser man!”
“Hag!” retorted my friend, “You can offer nothing.”
“Come now, Ashen. I will impart knowledge of your future! Allow me to unveil what is yet to pass!”
Here my friend seized up, “How came you to know my name? Speak, woman!”
Again the woman laughed, “I know more of you than you know yourself! For I can read the mind, read the heart, see the future.”
“None can claim this.” replied Ashen.
“And yet I knew your name,” said the old hag, “and know that you are a sceptical man – what you progressive types coin as an atheist.”
I had meanwhile sat quietly and listened to this exchange, feeling at this moment the need to mediate the situation, although had I my time over, I would have joined my friend in egressing.
Instead I spoke, “Let us humour her, Ashen. What harm?”
“Principle!” he spat, though appeared to becalm after this, “I suppose it is only fair that the worldlier have ears for the simple.”
He sat. The clairvoyant paid no heed to the backhanded insult served by Ashen, and still that sickly smile remained on her wrinkled face.
“Youth,” she smirked, “always so dismissive. The world is far older than you or I. Its mysteries remain unearthed; you two need proof of my legitimacy? You, young man. Your mother is named Delma.”
Here she pointed at me. My heart at once fell to the pit of my stomach. How in the world did she know my mother’s name?
“Your expression says enough,” whispered the old hag, turning to Ashen, “and you. Your family hails from Elgin.”
“A lucky guess,” replied Ashen, “deduced from my accent. Nothing more.”
“You are a stony-hearted one. Hear this then, a scar runs along your right ankle – the remnants of an injury attained while running through the woods as a child. You tripped against a rotten log.”
This seemed to be enough to reluctantly convince Ashen. Still he gazed suspiciously at the woman, no doubt plagued with similar questions to my own. How did she know such things? What possible explanation could be applied that did not involve witchcraft or other-worldly mania?
“Allow me this – I will tell you of your final words! I can reveal the very last thing you will utter before death! Will you hear it?” she inquired.
“Again I must scoff,” interjected Ashen, “and say that none can know that.”
“He believes for but a second, then slips back into ignorance. Stubborn boy.”
“Fine,” he huffed, “tell me then. Do you need my palm? Perhaps a rosary? Some magic dust? Shall I chant for you?”
Incensed at this taunt, the old hag grasped at his wrists most violently and closed her eyes tightly. It would look almost as if she were in the throes of death, so intense were those contorted grimaces, before she opened her eyes. I immediately saw the look of melancholy in her composure. She shook her head sadly, much to the frustration of Ashen, whose patience was clearly dwindled.
“Out with it then, witch!” he said.
But the woman hesitated; the change that had come over her was unsettling, “Are you sure you would like to hear?”
Ashen was unmoved, “Humour me.”
She sighed, “Your final words, those words which will carry you into the grave are thus – Somebody help me.”
For a moment silence crept into the tent; all that could be heard was the chatter of peoples in the carnival outside. My friend furrowed his brow; immediately I had thought his reaction would be one of retort, and why not? He had made his disdain to the black arts vehement. Instead he appeared fraught with worry, as though the very sentence that would prelude his doom croaked at the back of his throat.
“My last words are that of distress?” he muttered finally.
The old hag tutted sadly, “I wish I could have told you otherwise, but have I not been correct in all other facets during this little discourse? I am never wrong, boy.”
“A colourful joke,” said I in a vain attempt to dispel the tension, “perhaps we should leave, Ashen.”
“N-no matter,” replied Ashen, although he clearly wasn’t listening to me, “I will simply alter that course. If I never utter those words, I suppose I shall alter my fate!”
The hag shook her head, “Fate is not something that can be altered, young man. Though there may be twists in the tail, the end is reached all the same.”
“Come now, Ashen,” said I, “let us leave.”
And I practically had to drag the man out of the tent.
The months would pass in that same lethargic manner native to our hometown. The carnival left soon after; the cavalry of caravans rattling off down the north road and out of sight until the next year when, as though it had lapped the world in twelve months, it would appear again, this time arriving from the south. The alterations of Ashen’s persona were immediate and macabre. Even with my reminders of his usual stoicism, the hammer blow of the hag’s frightful words had left their shattered mark, and nothing seemed to lever him from the pessimism and indeed, paranoia, that within he had become undoubtedly wedged. It pained me to see my good friend distressed so, yet I could offer little comfort to soothe his soul. What comfort can the good Lord offer the man who will not turn to see him? Such was the situation when I tried to console. I had little choice but to assume his stance and remind him that clairvoyance is oft trivial, and why should he take such heed of what one senile old woman told him.
“You don’t see my friend,” he would reply, “perhaps it isn’t her words, but rather finality of what they imply! Say that she is indeed correct: will nothing change the course? If one is doomed to die horribly, can anything I do change it?”
I shook my head; such things baffled me, and I wondered whether I was not interrogating hard enough, or whether he was overthinking things.
“Had I have seen her the day preceding, or the day following, would that have changed my final words?” he continued, “Furthermore, can I achieve anything with this knowledge?”
“Then mayhaps you should see her again? See if the knowledge of those words has led to an alteration of said fate?”
Here my friend broke into sobs. I stood stunned; never before had I seen him in such distress.
“Pray tell, Ashen,” said I, “why does this obsess you so? Surely one as headstrong as you can ignore this! Who can know for sure of what the future holds? Not I, not you, sir!”
“I tried to track her down; alas, she is gone! Disappeared! None could vouch for her very existence! I am doomed with this unfinished tale; I am left with only half the information.”
“As you were before!” I replied, “I have just told you, my friend, that none know of what lies ahead!”
“No. No, no. I know of one thing – that of my life ending in troubled circumstance. And I will change it.”
He paced before me – as I ran my eyes over his dwelling I took notice of the many tomes piled by his writing desk, stitched with titles regarding psychics, premonition, fate.
I would try again to soothe his spirit, “Whether ‘destiny’ is something pre-assigned matters not. We live in a world filled with risk! Hazards are everywhere, man. I say this not to trouble you; this is part of life and we live accordingly!”
“Destiny, yes. How can I know if it has changed? How will I know if my end has altered?” he was clearly not listening to me.
Nothing seemed to sway him from his path; he was utterly convinced of his grisly end.
When years had passed the day arrived when I would leave the village. Acquiring for myself a profitable career, one which required my presence in the bustle of the city, I would say farewell to the snow globe existence I had kept for so long. My horizons expanded, and rather than stand daunted by their extents I would set out in one direction – the direction I deemed to shine the brightest. It would pain me to leave my old mother, who despite the slow deterioration of her psyche seemed to totter along at a steady pace, defying doctors who would tell her to slow down and rest more. I promised her and father that I would return one day, to which they would reply simply that they hoped (for my own sake, I assure you) my leaving would be permanent.
By this stage my relationship with Ashen had grown distant. Not so much strained, but we had drifted, anchorless, as childhood friends often do, into waters uncharted by the other. Nonetheless I saw it fit to bid him farewell, to wish him the best in what I assumed would be a bright life for him as well. When I made this final visit, he would appear in the very spot I had last seen him – alone in his quarters. But while the general clutter of furniture and ornament had remained unchanged, Ashen himself had grown emaciated and withered. Perhaps a case of jaundice, he bore the appearance of a tree branch shrivelled with an autumn wind, his hair and skin sporting far more grey than the colourful pallor I had known him for. He would, however, be delighted to see me and took little notice of my initial shock at his appearance.
“You are leaving us!” he croaked cheerfully.
His mouth smiled, but the eyes were sunken and hollow, clouded with fear and turmoil.
“Indeed, my good friend,” I replied, “and here I was resolutely assured that you would have beaten me to the punch long ago.”
He stood and crept to his solitary window, and I saw furthermore the malnourishment of his figure; his legs cracked at bulbous knees, slippered feet struggled to support his diminished frame.
“Alas, yes. I had dreams such as yours once – this I know.”
“You must promise, sir, that you will pursue your passions as I know you can.”
Here his eyes quivered, and I fancied he might shed a tear, “Best of luck to you, my dear friend. I cannot leave. The risks I would face, with the fate I am assigned – I won’t dare leave yet.”
I furrowed my brow, “Surely you are not still hung up on that silly premonition? It was a passing comment with little foundation.”
“We as men are too fragile,” he said, “this body – mortal flesh, is too easily scarred. I am better to stay where I can avoid danger – be that hag correct or no.”
I felt instantly drained and exhausted. I knew there would be little point arguing with the man; even in his feeble state he was still as stubborn as I had ever known him to be.
“It is good to see you,” he said eventually, “I will miss you, my friend.”
We embraced for a final time, and I would cringe at the touch of his hunching back, the bones of his ribs and spine easily felt beneath paper-thin skin.
“You must promise me that you will not live out your life in fear,” I said firmly, “Leave this place when you are ready. The world will be richer for your investment of character.”
He stared through me with a melancholy smile, “I… I will, good friend.”
His response had not convinced me. And I would not see him in person again. My tale would veer too far off course were I to detail the nuances of my own life which followed. Let it be known simply that I married, had children and have enjoyed a fruitful life. The roots that grew from the hardened soil of my childhood village had provided adequate nourishment to the bloom that would be my adult life, and while a maudlin mood would settle upon me to recall that simpler time, I knew that I would always be invariably tied to that little old town. A man is so crucially shaped by moments early in life, and whether we realise them or not is each man’s own story. Ashen would write to me over the years; I would always write back with vehemence. It saddens me to say that he never left the old village, and his words would always fill me with a melancholy most difficult to shift. He would always claim of happiness, but just as an old friend should, I knew better. Even in the ink strokes of his letters I could feel the moribund core of his faded joy, as though the light in his eyes was slowly being extinguished through self-sabotage. His issues no longer encompassed that fateful encounter with the old hag at the carnival, rather they stemmed from it into a darker, more dreadful fear. Many have said that once one realises that they will die one day, their life will be richer (I most certainly echo these sentiments).For Ashen it had been a horrible opposite; the realisation that he would die, be it terribly or no, crippled the man’s momentum. His words belied this – why should he begin upon anything if all roads lead to death? Poor fool! If only he had listened; if only I had been more energetic in my chastising.
He died. Just as he should have; just as any other man, he died. I am but an old codger now, and I wonder whether it could be considered ‘jubilant’ that he too lived to the age he did. Many would argue that to live to his age before passing is admirable, but the unsettling circumstances about his death – nay – his life filled me with awful forbearance. I would certainly have mourned for him immediately, had the announcement of his death not been so dismissive. A letter arrived from the village that all but skimmed over the fact. ‘Some sad news on all fronts – Ashen has passed; your mother is very ill.’ The letter was apparently intended to bring my attention to my dear old mother, who was apparently approaching her final days, and that I should come to see her one last time. With my father’s passing a decade earlier she had none attending her. Naturally I obliged and set off home with that adrenalin charged stupor that comes with the initial shock of grief. My movements were mechanical; the haze in which I wandered clouded all rational thought and stripped them down to their most bare motor skill. Ashen was dead, mother was soon to follow. And with this, the people I had known from my childhood were all gone – I was the last one left and would surely walk the valley myself soon. It was too much for me to comprehend.
A distant cousin met me at the station. A kindly bloke, I must say; he reassured me that mother was comfortable and had some time yet. He wondered would I quickly attend to Ashen’s will and testament before visiting mother, to which I stood with mouth agape.
“Must it be myself who attends to this? What of his family?”
“He’d none, sir,” was the reply, “he lived alone for as long as I have known him. I was told you were a good friend of his.”
“But certainly,” I stammered for words, “I have not spoken to him for years! Let alone seen the man!”
My cousin shrugged – and what more did I expect him to do? He was but the messenger. Sympathetically I accepted the request upon the promise that mother would not mind waiting briefly.
The sight of the room brought the first tears to my drought-stricken eyes. It was in the exact same state as it had been for decades. Nothing had changed save the sickening coats of dust and crippling odour that cloaked the walls. Very much the hovel of a hermit it remained, loveless and cold. Books and papers littered the room, as though Ashen kept these as a single means of escapism.
“I do hope he did not suffer.”
“I am afraid that is unlikely, I have heard that poisoning is a dreadful way.”
“Poison?! Then he has been murdered?”
“With all due respect sir, it appears to have been suicide.”
“I am very sorry to be the one to tell you all this. Hopefully all is explained in the will. Can I assist you in anything?”
I took a moment before answering, “N-no. No that is fine. If you could just grant me a minute or two alone?”
My cousin nodded swiftly and removed himself from the room. The silence that followed his egress cut me to the heart, and all at once a wretched sobbing overcame me. Poor Ashen! Suicide of all things! When I was at last able to compose myself I moved toward his writing desk, upon which a single envelope lay exempt from the mindless clutter of papers about the rest of the room. It was as if this envelope repelled its other brethren, sitting there as it were, stark white against the mahogany writing desk. Considering its important contents it was a rather weightless letter, and I was a little shocked to find only a single leaf of paper within it. I remember feeling that perhaps it would indeed be a short will, for Ashen had apparently fallen from contact with all others. To encapsulate my horror at reading this paper would be impossible; may I say simply that my heart swelled with intense terror that held me paralysed to the spot. A sentence. One awful sentence marked the letter, written in a hurried and frantic penmanship.
Somebody help me.
The raw and sickening dismay was all too much to bear. Those awful words, not uttered, but penned in a moment of utmost distress – the old hag had been right! The letter fell from my shaking hands and I too followed it to the floor, my knees giving way beneath me I collapsed to the floor. My cousin, hearing the thud of my fall, raced to my side, where the poor fellow tried desperately to console me. He did not understand the weight of my grief, the magnitude of what I had just experienced, and could do know more but grasp me in his arms as I wept. Time was still; how many minutes passed before I could compose myself, I do not know. In the end, all that could move me was the reminder that I had to go see my mother.
The sight of her calmed me, and I was once again like an infant in her soothing presence. She sat comfortably in her bed, apparently doing nothing but wearing upon her face a most contented smile – a smile that spoke of a life fulfilled in so little words – I knew she was happy and well accepting of her own fate. Lo! To picture her now, sitting there an extreme opposite to poor old Ashen! How strange our reactions to death’s inevitability!
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, dear! Surely your mother does not look so awful?”
Her voice was slow and quiet, and again the tears welled in my eyes, “It is so good to see you.”
I saw then the struggle she faced so bravely; stoic as she was, it clearly pained her to talk too much. Still she spoke, “I am terribly sorry to hear of old Ashen. Your childhood friend – I know the grief you must feel.”
“Little are its barbs, mother,” I replied, “when faced with the impending loss of one dearer.”
“You should not grieve too long, my boy. You and I both know I am in the Lord’s hands. I welcome his approach.”
“Brave woman! Such faith is admirable. But Ashen, I fear I may have done more to help him.”
“You did what was asked of you as his friend. There is little else to do when one’s ears are not open to listen. Ashen allowed himself to become obsessed with things that were out of his control. He chose to listen to that senile old woman.”
I started, “You knew of that fateful visit?”
“Of course,” she replied, “I have lived here my entire life – as did Ashen – he spoke of little else. Refused to listen even to me who had been like a mother to him.”
“Pah! Psychics? Mediums? The woman was a wanderer, a rambler – a renowned charlatan. I knew her briefly in my youth. She once lived in the village. A nasty one, to be sure, the lies she would spin more intricate than the spider’s web.”
“I can’t believe you knew the woman.”
“She herself was banished from the village. You know the superstitious bunch that has lived here. Fact of the matter is she was nothing more than a trickster, but Ashen would not believe otherwise. I am sure she must have told that same awful story to all of her patrons.”
Here I wept anew. So the gypsy had been a farce! Ashen had crafted his own demise out of fear and paranoia. The gypsy had merely planted the seed of doubt, while Ashen had nourished it! What tragic irony that my friend would deny the benevolent Lord as a faerie tale yet had been tricked by superstitious nonsense! He, the stoic atheist, unshakable in his resolution, befallen by a sleight of hand, a magician’s trick! Reader, I have said before that I have lived a most satisfactory life, yet this tragedy truly stuck, truly stood out as one regret I could not appease. Am I a fool to have not helped him more? Surely there was little more I could have done. Could one blame the old hag? She was merely a storyteller, with Ashen just another spectator in her sideshow. Perhaps – and alas that I must say this – Ashen is the one truly at fault. He was a fool to have become obsessed with things beyond his control. In the end all involved have had to learn the hard way that a man must die, and what lies beyond that black curtain will forever be a mystery to our waking reality. God, gild me for the road ahead; I feel it sometimes better to shut ones ears and move silently, for such matters as life after death and foretelling of the future are much too opaque for man to ever understand fully.