The Mourning Dove

Cross posting this from my art blog. For something different, here is a short fairytale I wrote earlier in the year for a story writing contest called NYC Midnight. The rules required the story to be no longer than 2500 words.

There was once an old town that rose from the tip of a peninsula, a forgotten place, overlooking a vaporous sea. Every morning, in the dark hour before dawn, a freshening breeze blew off the water. It swept down the narrow, cobbled streets to the square and became a maelstrom of dust and leaves. In the middle of the square stood a monument, a small boy carved from the bones of a narwhal, arms outstretched, head tossed back, his mouth open as though calling for the sun to rise. He was known as Solace and commemorated the town’s lost children. When the wind whipped through the square, it would find its way between the boy’s pale lips and draw forth a forlorn wail. But an hour later, when the sun rose lambent and warm, and the wind died, taking with it the cries of Solace, the townspeople were reassured that the terrors of the night were behind them, and a day of hope beckoned.

“He’s gone. Oh, whatever can it mean?” Mrs. Walbrook’s howl came not from the narrow stairs leading to Lily’s attic rooms, but from outside her window. Lily leapt from a deep and complicated dream. She flew headlong in a shower of nut shells and toast crumbs, twisted in dingy bedding. Only a heap of discarded frocks prevented her from splitting her head on the tea-stained carpet. As she lay panting and staring up at the ceiling, a tower of worn notebooks cascaded over her from the mattress above.

“What’s to become of us?” The landlady’s voice rose an octave. Feet hammered, doors slammed, and chatter reverberated through Mrs. Walbrook’s Rooming House. Lily fought free of the bedclothes and stumbled to her fly-specked window. She threw open the sash and leaned over the sill, ejecting dozens of the tiny handwritten notes she needed to remember the simplest things. Far below, Mrs. Walbrook reeled around a broken bottle of milk waving her arms. Lily’s eyes strayed from this scene to the base of the monument where Solace had stood the previous evening when she’d bid him goodnight from her window.

“I suppose we should go see what the fuss is about.”Lily turned to find Edwin Randall, a slender man in a russet frock coat, leaning through her doorway. A wave of auburn hair fell over his left eye as he pulled kid gloves over his hands with the aid of his teeth. Mr. Randall, a tailor, lived in the rooms directly below.

“Mr. Randall,” said Lily, sweeping her own tangled hair from her face. “Someone has made off with Solace. Mrs. Walbrook is in a dreadful state.”

Mr. Randall narrowed his eyes, surveying the room with its mountains of crumpled clothing, half-filled teacups, a writing desk submerged beneath a tumult of ink bottles, pens and scrawled notes, finally coming to rest on its occupant. Lily watched him, twisting strands of unkempt hair with ink-stained fingers.

“My dear Miss. Porter,” he said, not unkindly. “Your hair is like a hen’s behind. Before we investigate, might I be so forward as to recommend a clean shift and a pair of boots? Surely, that is not a deposit of orange marmalade in your clavicle.”

She stared, puzzled, for you see, Lily was plagued with a forgetting spell and could no longer recall why Mr. Randall was blinking at her so expectantly.

It was raining by the time he’d reminded Lily of their purpose and they’d descended through the house to the square. A small crowd, including Mrs. Walbrook, the mayor and several police officers, had gathered at the steps around Solace’s vacant granite base. Edwin strode forward, sweeping the way with a walking stick. Lily followed clenching the collar of a stained overcoat beneath her chin.

“She mocks us at every turn,” shouted the mayor. Edwin and Lily took shelter in the lee of the monument.

“With respect, we have no actual evidence,” said a detective. Rain poured from the brim of his hat.

“What’s happened?” asked Edwin. The mayor and several others swivelled their heads in unison.

“Mr. Randall,” said the mayor. “Our beloved statue has been taken by the witch Noctuella.”

At the sound of this name, Lily sunk to the steps, heedless of the rain. Something lurked at the edges of her memory, an evasive fragment of a nightmare. The group of townspeople swayed above her, speaking over each other, pounding their palms, arriving at nothing.

“Miss Porter, what’s the matter?”

Feeling Edwin’s gloved hand on her forearm, Lily came back to herself. He crouched at her side, careless of his fine clothes. How narrow his nose was, how golden and piercing his eyes.

“When that name, Noctuella, was spoken aloud I felt ill. I believe she’s done something horrible to me that I can’t remember.”

“How appalling,” said Edwin. “The idea is enough to still one’s heart.”

“I’ve lost something important,” said Lily. “But I don’t know what.”

“Mr. Randall—” said the mayor, insistently.

Lily and Edwin looked up to see a ring of stern faces peering down at them.

“Yes?” asked Mr. Randall, rising to his feet.

“Might we count on your participation, sir? We’re gathering a party to consider our response. Noctuella has plagued this town for long enough.”

“In what way?” asked Lily.

The mayor jumped, as though the cobblestones themselves had spoken, and then without a word he turned his back.

The party retreated from the rain to the nearby Owl and Mouse to plot in more convivial circumstances. Lily returned to her room, closed her door, and climbed back into bed in damp clothes. She sat with her arms around her knees, deep in thought. After a time, she ceased trembling and drew a locket from under her pillow. She unclasped it to reveal a miniature of herself on the left. The right half was empty. As she touched the space with her finger, something almost came to her, a face, and then it vanished. She clenched the locket in her hand and made a wish.

The door opened. A large fox entered on its hind legs, dressed in a shabby coat and beaver top hat, glistening with raindrops.

“You can’t remember his name, can you?” asked the fox.

“Who’s name?”

“Your brother’s, of course.”

“Who are you?” asked Lily.

“One who shares your enemy,” said the fox. “Listen, and I will tell you where to find what you have lost.”

“Tell me,” whispered Lily.

“Alas,” said the fox, raising a gloved paw. “I regret there’s a price.”

“I haven’t much. Just a few coins from some bit work.”

“The cost is that you must listen to a tale most painful and give me a button for my coat.”

The fox placed the button in his waistcoat and sat on the edge of the mattress. From inside his sleeve, he produced a key, darkened with age.

Sure enough, the fox’s coat had no buttons, merely knobs of broken thread. Lily slid to the floor and pulled her jar of sewing buttons from under the bed. She gave him a large button of tarnished silver. “Here you go.”

“Hold this in your hand.”

Lilly did as he asked.

The fox wiggled his toes in his pointed shoes and began his account.

“Where was this house?” asked Lily, finding herself short of breath.

“There was once a shy girl named Lily Porter who, along with her mother and brother, lived in the oldest house in the town.”

“I’ll tell you in time. But listen, one unusually long winter, Lily’s mother took to her bed and died of the damp in her lungs. In her sorrow, Lily neglected herself and her brother and stopped caring for the old house. As the months passed, neglect allowed a certain malign presence to enter the rooms. It fed on the miasma of despair and melancholy. Soon, it turned the very house against the sibling’s presence.”

“Wearied beyond measure by the state of things, Lily herself took to her bed, sustained by stale biscuits and draughts of her mother’s laudanum. Her hair grew long and dishevelled. If her conscientious brother had not brought her food and drink from a nearby establishment, she would have perished.”

The fox pulled a green cigarillo from his lapel and lit it with a match on the sole of his shoe. Blue smoke streamed from his slender snout. Lily noticed he had little hands rather than paws.

“Before I go on,” said the fox. “Might I trouble you for a bit of string for my shoe?”

Lily looked down, and sure enough, one of the fox’s shoes was missing a lace. She went to her writing desk and pulled a piece of twine from a bundle of notes.

“Here you are,” she said, handing the twine to the fox. She chewed the inside of her cheek as he tied his shoe.
When he sat up, he pulled a piece of folded black velvet from inside his coat.

“A cape,” he said. “In exchange for your kindness. Now, I will continue my tale. Many weeks passed in the manner I described. The blankets on Lily’s bed became home to mice. A fox made its home in the pantry. Birds found their way through a shattered transom and nested in the bookshelves, bringing spores and seeds from the town and surrounding countryside. The roof lost its slates. Rain streamed into the attic and found its way to the lowest floors. Nourished by moisture the spores and seeds grew. Roots spread through the house until the interior was a veritable thicket.”

The fox blew a smoke ring and lapsed into silence.

“What happened then?” cried Lily.

“Before I tell you that,” said the fox. “You must give me a ring.” His eyes glittered.

“I have no rings,” said Lily in despair.

“Think, girl. There must be something.”

Lily’s eyes widened. She ran back to her writing desk and unscrewed an old fountain pen. A band of brass, separating the barrel from the cap, fell into her palm.

The fox removed his left glove and slid the band onto his fourth finger.

“Will this do?” she panted, as she rushed back.

“Bit tight,” he said. “But it will serve.” From the side pocket of his coat, he extracted a small, but very sharp pair of golden scissors and handed them to Lily. “To cut to the truth of the matter. Now, I will finish the story. The thicket became a forest. Branches burst through walls and windows. And then, the presence revealed itself as a witch, who’s name you well know.
“One night, as the brother worked his way toward Lily’s bed chamber, Noctuella appeared and drew the boy into darkness. By then, Lily had forgotten her brother’s name, for Noctuella had placed on her a forgetting spell. Lily knew the lad only as a shy presence that brought her sustenance and occasionally sat on the corner of her rotting bed to read aloud from old serials. On the day he no long came, she barely noticed. When two or three more passed, she had forgotten him altogether.”

The fox watched Lily carefully.

She went to the window and stared at the empty plinth in the square.
The fox came up behind her. “Noctuella has taken many children, not just your brother,” he said softly. “But you can avenge them by taking back the boy made of narwal bone, if you have the courage.”

“How do I find her?”

“She is at your old house yet. Take the three things I’ve given you. You’ll know how to use them when the time comes.” He slipped a card with an address into her palm.

Lily walked through the rain until she came to a tall brick house located in a dead-end street. Its windows were hidden behind ivy, and branches grew through the rotten roof. She went to a locked door sunken in a darkened portico. The lock opened with a twist of the fox’s key.

Lily stepped into a hallway, which was festooned with quivering fungi and unsettled creatures in the coved ceiling. She pulled the velvet cape around her body, drew the hood over her head and melted among the shadows.

The twittering of birds came from deep within the house. Stepping with care, Lily followed the sound until she came to a room that still held vestiges of its former life as a kitchen. A figure in a black dress warmed her hands before a fire set in a vast hearth. Noctuella! Her fingers, pale and knobbed, bothered strands of hair that fell to the floor like runnels of ink. Solace leaned to one side of the fireplace. On the other, stood a cast-iron coat tree. A songbird was tied to each hook by a silver thread. Seeing this, Lily understood the purpose of the scissors. She tip-toed into the room.

The witch whirled on her heels, eyes flashing like a cat in the dark. Lily, invisible in the fox’s velvet cape, watched Noctuella search the shadows. Sparks popped in the fire and there was a feeble flapping of wings among the embers. Lily realized that Noctuella was feeding the flames with the living songbirds. The witch returned her attention to the fire.

Lily raced across the floor to the coat tree. Working quickly with the golden scissors, she freed the birds. To her surprise, they didn’t take to the air but leapt to the floor transformed into children.
Noctuella grabbed at them with blackened nails, but it was no use. They danced away from her laughing and shouting. In the tumult that followed, the witch backed too close to the fire and fell backwards. The chimney howled with demonic laughter and sucked her up the flue. The last thing Lily saw of Noctuella was the pointed tips of her black boots curling in the flames until there was nothing left.

She felt arms encircling her waist. Pulling down the hood of her cape, she looked into a pair of blue eyes she thought she would never see again. “Peter,” she whispered.

Lily returned to Mrs. Walbrook’s Rooming House at the head of a procession of children hoisting Solace on their shoulders. She found Edwin Randall waiting for her with glittering eyes, a green cigarillo, and a ring of brass. Her heart filled with joy knowing he had seen her true self, even as he had revealed himself to her. And so, it was, not a fortnight later, Lily Porter married a fox beneath the gaze of Solace, as the sun rose lambent and warm over the town.


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