A short, short story. I’m trying to think of ways it could be longer, but they’re not coming. I might revise it before I do anything else with it. This is the first tale I’ve finished set in the world I’ve been dreaming up with Miss Zoë (also on this blog) – a world of growing words and personal weather, of underground printing presses and sinister trains, of publishing pirates and much, much stranger things besides.
Zoë – I know he’s writing stories – maybe the laws ease up after the events with Miss Staedler-Parker and Oliver Dolour?
The rest of you – hehe I might as well be talking in code.
Anyhow, enjoy this one:
Winter and Withering
Dedicated to Danny, Emily, Sasha, Nate and Miles, for their words.
The city of Rhyme rests on the banks of the wide River Spine, and across two hills. The larger, Type Hill, can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Its brilliantly white mansions and wide streets all but sparkle in afternoon sunlight. The smaller hill is often forgotten, for it is less of a hill and more of a hump, and the old houses which cover it have, over many centuries, lowered it further into the ground with the weight of their collected lives.
Nevertheless, if a pale and unfit man were to make his way up its cobbled alleys, by the time he reached the top, he would be quite wheezy. The weather did not help matters – the morning had been dark and rainy, and the foreboding clouds hanging over the man’s head made it hard to see clearly, so as he reached the level top of Tumble Hill, he slipped on a smooth protruding cobble and fell to the ground. Cursing loudly, he picked himself up. The knee of his pants – his only good pants – was ripped, and there was a dirty gash on the ball of his palm. He looked around, but luckily, nobody was in the narrow lane to see him stumble. The man took the chance to steady his breath and sucked folornly at his burning palm. All in all, it was not a good start to the day. His morning tea had tasted like soup, his egg had been laid by a miserable chicken and did not want anything to do with him, and his last bottle of ink was as empty as his pockets – though less full of lint. As if they were matching his feelings, the clouds above his head grumbled with the promise of rain. The man squared his shoulders, did what he could about the tear in his pants, and walked up to the squat brown door of his destination. The sign above the door proclaimed, in blocky capitals, “A. B. Withering & Son, Pawnshop.” ‘& Son’ was crossed out in faded chalk. A smaller handpainted sign underneath said “All Weather To Be Left Outside.” The man shrugged off his clouds with a small despondent sigh, and walked through the door to the sound of a bell. His clouds drifted up the alley, where they sat brooding above a pub.
The pawnshop was as dusty and dark as the space behind a wardrobe – with the difference being that the dust there is made of dead moths and household arguments, while the dust in the shop was made of poverty, forgetting, and regret. The man did not know which kind was worse, but he felt immediately like walking back out. Clamping the feeling tightly behind his teeth, he trotted over to the high counter. There did not seem to be anyone around. The man wondered idly if pawnshop keepers themselves had been pawned off by disappointed wives and busy children, and never collected, which would have gone a long way to explaining why anyone would choose to be a pawnshop keeper and why they looked so very forgotten. He was interrupted in this promising train of thought by the appearance, above the counter, of the pawnshop keeper’s hair, which was wispy like dead mayflies, and which was followed before too long by the rest of the pawnshop keeper. He had a face like the moon, grey and pitted with memories, and wore a waistcoat made of pocketwatches.
“Yes?” he said. His voice fitted him, though the man could not say how.
“H-uh, hullo,” said the man. “My name is Florian, Florian Winter… I have an account.” He said this with a great sadness in his small, quavering voice. Nothing could have made his embarrassment greater. Nothing could have made his regret less painful.
The moon-faced man peered at him. “Ah. Yes, I remember you. Are you collecting?” His mean eyes added, “I very much doubt.”
“No,” said Florian, in confirmation. “No, I need to sell.”
The wispy hair disappeared momentarily behind the counter, and returned with a large ledger.
“Your account isn’t very good, Mister Winter,” said the pawnshop keeper, scanning a page. “It isn’t very good at all.”
“I know,” said Florian. “I know, but I can’t make rent. Please let me sell. I’ve got good wares. And I’ve got a story in the post. It’s a good one. A mystery. They’ll pay me for sure. Ten crows, and thirty more when it’s published.”
The man leaned in closer.
“You’ve been pawning here for four months, Mister Winter. Four. I’ve not seen a crow from you in all that time. And I know for a fact that before you came here, you were pawning with Mister Durlew in Wending Lane. And he never saw a crow neither. I don’t mind, Mister Winter. I’m not saying I mind. Time’s running out on your old wares already, a week more and they’ll be sold. But I’m just of the personal opinion, Mister Winter, that the more wares you sell, the less chance you’ll have of ever getting them back. If you see what I mean. It’s a-” he glanced down at the ledger. “A vicious cycle, Mister Winter.” The mean eyes met Florian’s.
“I need to sell,” Florian repeated, lowering his.
The man clasped his dusty hands over the edge of the counter. “Tell me.” Florian felt small and eaten.
“Verily,” he said, shuffling uncomfortably in his shoes. “Obstruction. Frippery.”
“Verily I’ve got,” said the man. “I can give you a pilcrow each for the other two. Any more.” It wasn’t a question. He knew Florian had more.
“Verisimilitude,” Florian continued. “Augury, mannequin, periphery, paraphernalia. Sarcophagus. Derelict. Winnowy. Tincture, lucubration, lugubrious, sallow.” The moon-faced man scribbled in the ledger as he spoke.
“A pilcrow apiece for derelict, tincture and sallow, half a crow for augury and periphery and sarcophagus. Hmm. Two crows for lucubration. And two for verisimilitude. I have the others. More.”
As the words were written down in the ledger, Florian felt them being drawn out of his head like the river mosquitos drew his blood at night. He no longer remembered what he had said, and felt empty and crushed and as if he were betraying his very tongue. He racked his brains for more words, but none more came. He thought as the man’s gaze pinned him to the dusty old floor.
“Despair, despondency, desperation,” he intoned. “Poverty, beggarly, insolvent. Hollow. Hopeless. Desolate. Void.”
The pawnshop keeper cut into him with pitiless eyes.
“Oh, Mister Winters,” he said. “I already have all of those.”