Winter and Withering

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
A Tale

 

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.”

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