By NORMAN LOCK
for David Moore
We worry about the gifts. Unable to sleep, we think to ourselves how best to please her, what gift will be most memorable, anxiously turning over the pages of catalogues or searching the Internet—each of us in our own room, dark except for a ghostly light shed by the computer screen. Next morning we hurry to her house with some token or other purchased earlier, hoping to be among the first to knock at the door and, having been let inside the house by her son, to press into the old woman’s hands a porcelain thimble, a tortoise-shell comb, a bottle of the chocolate liqueur she favors—asking only that we be remembered by her. Not everyone visits her in the morning; some believe that to be among the last of the day’s visitors will leave a more durable impression. Few have nerve enough to forgo a visit even for a single day, especially now that she is failing, the consequences of which have been widely and fervently discussed. I side with those convinced of the worst-case scenario, but I am a habitual pessimist: one of the “doom and gloom camp,” says David, who has known me since childhood. His outlook may be sunnier than mine, but he never misses a visit to the old woman, and his gifts are generous.
This morning I walked through the rain to attend the old woman. Leaving my umbrella on the porch, I followed her son, Norman, into the sitting room. Already, the side table where the propitiatory offerings are left had accumulated a teapot decorated in cornflowers, a gold fountain pen with a bottle of her favorite peacock-blue ink, and a locket-and-chain. I smiled at the old woman and shouted my name to compensate for her hearing deficit and also to impress it on her memory. Accepting on his mother’s behalf my gift of a rococo hand-mirror, Norman set it among the others without a word. We are grateful to him for his silence during our visits. While we are unsure of its meaning, we choose to believe that he deliberately holds his tongue to allow his mother’s visitors to ingratiate themselves. When we discuss Norman among ourselves, as we sometimes do in the street or in a barroom, we wonder if he is safely locked inside his mother’s memory. Some say yes, others no. I say no. Why else, I argue, is he always to be seen at her side? She is said to maltreat him. Indeed, we have heard her insult him in lively terms in our presence. We continue to smile while she castigates him. Why should we interfere? Unconcern is in our best interest—may be in Norman’s, also. Once more I shouted my name and pointed to the hand-mirror, so that the two would be linked in her mind. The old woman mumbled a few words—to me or to her son, I couldn’t be sure. While Norman wiped with a handkerchief at a trail of drool escaping the corner of her mouth, I took the opportunity to open the locket and saw that it held a photograph of David smiling broadly. I was envious at the cunning of it— wished that I had thought of it first. David always manages to steal a march on me. I left the room and, as an afterthought, returned with my wet umbrella, which Norman accepted without a word, leaning it against the radiator to dry. For a second time that morning, I shouted my name at the old woman.
The streets of our town begin to resemble Calcutta’s as more and more people arrive, desperate to elude catastrophe, if this so tranquil and silent a phenomenon can be called by a word evocative of tumult. We have always assumed what happens to be tranquil; we may, of course, be mistaken. The refugees come for one purpose: to keep the old woman in sight—or, rather, to be kept within hers or her son’s. The daily gifts are now far too many for the side table and have annexed nearly every other flat surface in the old woman’s home, including those on the floor above. I am told by Mr. Angstrom, who once helped Norman carry up the stairs a marble bust of The Great Emancipator, that the third bedroom has been converted into a storage room. Yesterday I brought an old violin, which Norman took upstairs before I could even shout my name at the old woman while pointing emphatically to the instrument, whose veneer, I admit, is cracked.
Not everyone who arrives in our town has money to buy gifts. These unfortunates can be seen outside the old woman’s house, washing its windows, clipping the box hedge, mowing grass or shoveling snow (in their seasons). Like us, they understand that it is not enough to be seen performing some good deed; they must also be recognized for it. On crowded days, their shouts clamoring for recognition disturb the ordinarily quiet street. From time to time, Norman will come to the window and wave in acknowledgment of their labor, which is by no means cheerful when the weather is inclement. Who can say if he credits by name those toiling outside, after he has returned to the depths of the house to report to his mother? For all we know, Norman himself may be deaf or a simpleton; or he may possess a devious intelligence all his own.
Last year, unwilling to continue the humiliation of appeasement, I left town but got no farther than the other side of the mountains, where the once crowded plain sprawls to the western horizon. Many had argued that the phenomenon was a local one, and I would never have believed the old woman’s mental reach extended across those mountains, which contain nickel, cadmium, barium, even lead, had I not seen the result for myself. Apparently, the old woman is gifted with a rare telepathy, whose effect on its object is a progressive deterioration. Appalled, I hurried back to town and resumed once more my visits to the old woman. By what arts and to what end she protects us by keeping us within the purview of her mind, I do not know, but I will not risk vanishing.
Aleksander Nebel brought his daughter, Liis, from Estonia after his wife had vanished during a trip to the capital. Countless others living in the Baltic region also had vanished as vast areas of the eastern hemisphere were, little by little, forgotten. A magician of no small fame in his homeland, Nebel was charming. I had met him in the main street, where he was performing sleight-of-hand illusions in exchange for food. He had done something nearly miraculous with a handkerchief and a lit cigarette, and I gave him two cans of fruit cocktail in appreciation.
“I must be careful,” he said later as we stood nearby the river while Liis collected yellow stones from the shallows. “They might blame the disappearances on me.” Smiling, he drew a silver Estonian coin from the air and presented it to me with a flourish.
“Tomorrow morning, give it to the old woman,” I said, handing him back the coin (a twenty-senti piece with three lions rampant).
“She has a strange power,” he replied thoughtfully. “Maybe she also is a magician.”
“It’s not magic.”
“Everything is magic that we do not understand.” He took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it in the ordinary way. “I’m afraid for Liis.”
“I don’t think she is in danger so long as she is here.”
“We are safe?”Aleksander asked, cigarette smoke leaking from the corners of his mouth with its hint of tobacco-stained teeth.
“As long as we are here,” I repeated after a hesitation.
“Then why do you give the old woman presents?”
“Insurance,” I said, not entirely convinced I was telling the truth. None of us could be certain of the efficacy of the tokens of remembrance we lavished on the old woman, for none could know with certainty why these persons were saved from extinction while those others were lost.
How is it that Aleksander and all the rest heard of the old woman, even on the other side of the world? When I asked him this question, he told me he had not heard of her. Why, then, did he come to our town? Why do others who arrive from far away and who have also never heard of the old woman bring her gifts or perform various acts of propitiation?
“It is something we feel,” Aleksander said. “It is something we know.”
David and I are drinking beer. His mood is somber.
“We should kill Norman,” he says after having drained a fresh mug and dabbed with a napkin at the moustache of foam decorating his upper lip. David’s anger increases with each new mug of beer as he thinks about his father, who vanished recently, together with the entire state of New Mexico, while on a bus tour of the Anasazi ruins.
Many believe Norman and not the old woman is responsible. Some call him Norman Bates and claim that his mother is dead upstairs in her bedroom. But they have never taken the old woman presents and seen her sitting on the sofa, pallid and gaunt. They have not heard her mumble all but unintelligible words to her son. They are the unfortunates without money or other means who toil outside her house, desperately waiting for Norman to acknowledge them and carry a favorable report of their efforts, inside to his mother.
“I don’t believe it’s Norman who does it,” I tell David, who is well on his way to finishing a fifth mug of the local beer. “I side with those who think Norman is frightened like the rest of us—that he stays in the house, serving his mother so that he, too, will not disappear.”
“Then we should kill the old woman,” David declares, staring grimly at his face buried in the barroom’s tarnished mirror.
Unlike some who believe she is capable of reading minds, I do not think that the old woman is aware of our intimate conversations. Still, David’s recklessness makes me nervous.
“Finish your beer,” I tell him. “Then let’s drive out along the pike and watch the sun set on the mountains.”
I care nothing for sunsets, but I want to get David away from the barroom with its “big ears.” It is folly to think of killing the old woman. None can predict the consequences of so rash an act. No, it’s better to make our daily pilgrimages to the old woman’s house and present her with some gift or other. Or, if one is destitute, let him go trim the hedges or clean the windows. Better safe than sorry, everyone says—and they are right.
By the time David and I reach the end of the pike, night has fallen.
“It’s dark out,” he says in a voice drained of wonder by too much beer.
“Yes,” I answer. I can hear nervousness in my voice, but David has fallen asleep without remarking on it.
The darkness is absolute: neither moon nor stars can be seen, and the mountains—which on ordinary nights appear blacker than the sky, the road, and the waste ground on either side of the road—are engulfed. The town, too, when I look into the rearview mirror in the direction from which we have come, is without light. To drive back is impossible, so I turn off the motor and close my eyes against the darkness and try to sleep.
I dream this:
Aleksander is walking down a street, holding Liis’s hand. It has been raining, or the sun is scarcely risen—for whatever reason, the sky and air are as though lit by a brownish light. All is gloom and obscurity as the father draws his young daughter after him. She seems to resist—no, that is too strong a word for how she holds back as if reluctant to go with him, though she will go. What should she fear from a father who loves her? They pass through an iron gate—black and tall like those that hide mansions, sanatoriums, or cemeteries. They open the heavy gate and, having walked up a flight of worn stone steps, knock at the door: three loud raps answered by Norman, who opens it to them. Then I watch Aleksander and Norman carry Liis, who offers no resistance, up the stairs, where she is laid to rest among other propitiatory offerings.
The next morning, the sun has risen over the town while the darkness, which is impervious, persists in the west, where the empty valley lies on the opposite side of the mountains: a valley and mountains which may or may not any longer be there.
Aleksander and Liis have gone. Where gone and how, none can say. Few can be found who recall them, and as the days go by, the father and daughter are forgotten. (This, too, is an aspect of the phenomenon: The forgotten ones fade ineluctably from the minds of those who still remain and hope desperately to persist even a little while longer. And so we cling to the old woman.) More and more, I am anxious and afraid. Yesterday I telephoned David to tell him about Aleksander and Liis, but he had no recollection of them, though I can swear that I introduced the two of them to him one morning outside the old woman’s house. I wonder how it is that I remember father and daughter both?
I arrive early each morning, wanting to be the first to propitiate the old woman—to be seen by her or by her son.
In my dresser drawer, I found a large white handkerchief and a handful of smooth, yellow pebbles such as those that collect below the riverbank. I can’t imagine why I should have put them there. What can they mean?
The smaller nations, especially those only recently added to the world’s map, have been lost—apparently to the same darkness that obliterated the mountains west of town and the plain beyond them with its millions of souls. A darkness centered on the old woman’s house. The local police have sealed off our town to prevent further immigration to its mobbed streets and public spaces, where voices speaking a hundred different languages and dialects are raised in shouts of fear and confusion.
I have left my apartment to sleep outside the old woman’s house. I do whatever I can to make myself useful and pleasing in the sight of Norman, who is our only link to the old woman—now that we are no longer admitted into a house completely overwhelmed by our previous gifts. Food and water are becoming scarce. The wind that comes from where the mountains used to be is cold. I cannot imagine what chills it, unless the unremitting darkness there has that effect. Life in the old woman’s yard is a hardship, but I dare not give up my place to another. It is a good place, clearly visible from the kitchen window. From time to time, I see Norman standing at the sink. I wave to him, but he has yet to wave back.
The constant darkness to the west of town has begun to move toward us. No one says anything. No one gives a damn. Most are doing what they like, and neither persons nor property is any longer respected. Except for the woman and Norman and for their house. No one dares do them violence.
My hatred for the old woman is immense. And also for Norman. David was right: we ought to have taken the chance and killed them both.
David has disappeared. I’ll miss him until I forget him. I must have lost and missed and forgotten many others, but I can’t remember. I can’t seem to remember anyone else but David, and in a little while, I will forget him, too.
Of the world’s multitudes, no one remains outside the limits of our town. But even we are dwindling. Night is settling on us. On those of us who are left. In a little while, the streets and parks will be empty of all living things. The unfortunates who once crowded the old woman’s yard, they also will disappear. They will yield to the darkness—the darkness that is irresistible. Only the old woman’s house, whose backyard I never leave, is not dark. Not entirely dark, for now even it lies in gloom.
Soon I’ll be alone with the old woman and her son. In all the world, only the three of us will be left. Idly, I wonder whether I will be the last person she remembers, or will it be Norman.
Norman Lock’s latest literary fictions are the novels Shadowplay and The King of Sweden, the short-fiction collections Grim Tales and Pieces for Small Orchestra, and the novella Escher’s Journal.