Cobblestones

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Rose skipped along the cobblestone road. Her free hand fingered Grandma’s scarf. She loved the soft feel of the fabric against her skin. Her other hand swung Daddy’s lunch bucket. Sometimes it banged against her leg, causing its contents to bump and shift.

She’d remembered Grandma’s words as she’d tied the scarf around her neck. “You keep this on Rose, all the way to your daddy’s work, all the way home. You don’t take it off. You don’t stop along the way. You go straight there. Leave the lunch pail and you come home, quick. Out after dark is no place for a thirteen-year-old.”

Grandma’s voice carried the heavy Hungarian accent and inflection of her homeland. Daddy’s accent was thinner and Rose’s almost non-existent. It was as though each generation had retained a part of Hungary equal to their time there. Daddy had been ten when he’d boarded the dirty steamer that had carried them to Canada. Rose loved when Daddy told his childhood stories before bedtime, before heading out to work at the coal mine.

Rose slept while Daddy worked. He slept while she was at school. Grandma kept house and everyone on schedule. Grandma kept house because Mommy had died when Rose was born. Rose sometimes wondered if Mommy had a thinner or thicker accent but was scared to ask. What she knew of her mom, she had overheard when Grandma and Daddy talked, when she pretended to be asleep.

It felt strange skipping up the street with darkness pressing in, heavy, like Grandma’s accent. Rose recalled how the old woman had woken her, unusual urgency in her voice. Daddy had forgotten his lunch bucket and he wouldn’t be able to work all night if he didn’t eat. He had the diabetes.

The click of Rose’s hard leather shoes on the rough road echoed and ricocheted off the walls of the buildings that crowded both sides, looming. It sounded as though she was kicking up the stones instead of dancing over them. A lilting sound reached her, and it was a moment before she realized she’d been singing the words of a folksong Grandma often sang. The tune was quiet, halting but comforting. An alley yawned on her right and Rose skipped closer to the center of the road, thwarting the efforts of skeletal arms, or dirty fleshy ones, that might stretch out of that black space. She peered into the dark maw to see if scrabbly fingers were reaching for her.

Rose walked this route to school every day, but it was unfamiliar in the silence and dark shadows of late evening. No clatter of steel-clad wagon wheels, no children’s play sounds, no mothers calling out instructions, just silence and dark, suffocating and alive.

Rose glanced behind her, left, then right. Her hand clutched Grandma’s scarf, and she lifted the lunch bucket, holding it against herself to keep it from knocking. Her tight grip squeezed the blood from her knuckles.

Grandma had surprised her when she pulled the scarf from the sleeve of her coat; the old woman was seldom without it. Rose enjoyed looking at the scarf’s many colours, how its pattern seemed to shift and change as she gazed at it. Of course, it was just the shiny fabric catching the light as it flowed and rippled in Grandma’s hand. How could a pattern change otherwise? It was warm at her throat and Rose knew why Grandma always kept it with her. It would be real comfort from the arthritis that often made the old lady cry out in her sleep.

Rose understood too, why Grandma had been stern when she knotted it at her throat. “You keep this on.” She didn’t want it to get lost. But there was something else in her eyes, or rather, eye. Grandma only had one eye; the other was just a flap of skin folded over an empty socket. “Plucked out by a raven when I asked a nosey question.” She had responded to Rose’s query. And that empty socket wept a lot, as though forever mourning its loss.

That eye also kept people away, made the kids at school say terrible, hurtful things. Evil eye, gypsy, witch woman. Rose had heard them all, seen them finger a V against their noses, against any vexes. But now the scarf that the old, one-eyed woman had given her was keeping her warm, bringing comfort on a cold, dark, hard street. Rose stopped skipping, quiet wrapped around her. Something snagged her shoe.

Rosie’s quiet curse of the darkness that hid pit-falls in her path was absorbed by the tendrils of fog that swirled around her ankles. A puff of cold air ruffled the scarf. “Cemetery air,” Grandma called the rogue chill breeze of early autumn, “Cooled by the dead.”

Something, maybe mud or dung dropped by a passing horse, tugged at her foot. She stepped with the other, quick to catch herself, and found it stuck as well. Rose uttered a single chirp, but sweat iced her bow as the air thickened, pressing in with the hug of a corpse. Rose jerked up her foot. It only lifted an inch. She tugged harder; her mouth pulled into a grimace. The cords of her neck grew taut. Her laces rose above the fog, then her whole foot, but it remained shrouded in white. What sort of mud was this; she wondered, then realized spectral fingers were gripping her. A bony hand jutted from the ground, wrapped around her ankle like a groping tree root. The fingers squeezed but not with flesh and bone, just tendrils of fog.

As though being freed from a dark crypt, the hand was easier to pull the higher Rose raised her foot. When she could lift it no more, she stepped down hard, slamming it into the cobblestones. The hand let go but remained hanging in the air. Rose pulled up her other foot. A hand held it as well. She stomped that foot back down, freeing it from the dead grip, stirring the fog into dancing, twisting swirls.

Rose stepped back to get away from the floating hands, trying to keep herself from falling. She wanted to run, escape, but couldn’t drag her gaze from the ghostly arms.

The hands reached down into the fog, the elbows still visible. Rose knew the specter was struggling to free itself from the ground, pull itself out as she had pulled herself onto the raft at the swimming pond. Wind swirled around her, encircling her legs and creeping up her body, trapping her in a rising vortex. A droning invaded her ears. It grew in intensity as the wind stiffened, rising in volume and pitch. The fog rose with it, licking at her calves, knees, thighs. A thrumming added to the effect, a pulse pounding at her body. The scarf burned her neck, the loose ends slapping her chin in the wind. Rose tugged at it with one hand, but it tightened, restricting her breathing. She raised her other hand to the scarf; her gaze remained on the figure extracting itself from the roadway. The higher the figure pulled its misshapen lump of a head from the mist, the stronger the wind blew, the louder the wail rose, the greater the pulsing.

Rosie’s fingers picked at the knot in the scarf. Grandma had just looped it but now it was a hangman’s noose. Her eyes bulged as fear scorched her throat. Her lungs heaved, gasping. The figure from the ground stood erect as a grey veil drooped over Rose’s vision. The screeching, pounding wind became her whole world. She felt her eyes closing, her body relaxing, welcoming the darkness. Her shoulders softened.

Then fire coursed through her. From the burning scarf at her throat, it flashed to her feet then up to her shoulders. Down her arms, the heat injected energy into every cell, awoke every muscle, flicked her eyes open. Rose barked a quick “No” and her fingers found the knot in the scarf, just a hanging loop again.

The spirit’s eyes flicked open, two bright orbs piercing the dark. They grew wide, round, then narrowed to slits as the shoulders hunched, the arms raised, and the head lowered. The spirit lunged at her.

Rose swept the thin fabric from her throat and swung it in front of her as a barrier, a glowing shield that flared, lit from within by some secret fuel.

The spirit reared back, a wail louder than the screaming wind escaping its yawning mouth as it tried to alter its attack. It struck the scarf, then disappeared as though passing through a door. Its banshee wail cut off with the suddenness of death. The scarf flared brighter, then the inner fire died away, and it was just a scarf, its pattern shifting and dancing in the wake of the wind from Rose’s movement.

The air was motionless around her, the quiet of the night pressed in as though darkness bore a weight of its own. There was no evidence of the chaos that had assaulted her, pounded her only moments ago. That maelstrom had disappeared as completely as the attacking spirit. Rose realized she was still yelling a long, drawn out no. She tightened her lips, cutting off the sound, making the silence perfect.

Above her, shutters slammed open and a tired voice called out, “What’s the ruckus? Working people have to sleep, you know.”

Rose stepped closer to the building, scrunching her shoulders, making herself small. She moved along the wall, casting quick glances around her. She clamped her mouth shut. After a moment, the shutters clapped shut and a quiet rasp signaled them being locked against the night.

The scarf was warm in her hands, but Rose was reluctant to return it to her neck knowing what it contained. Grandma’s words echoed, “You keep this on, keep you safe.” She pulled it into a loose knot at her throat as Grandma had done only a short while ago. A sense of calm washed through her. She felt safe, protected, despite wearing the essence of some dead thing.

Rose forced her feet to move her forward. She wanted to run home and hide under her covers, but Da needed his lunch. Grandma was relying on her. She moved faster, tracing one hand along the wall, keeping her anchored in the real world, away from one of spirits. Soon she was running, ignoring the danger of tripping on the cobblestones. Imagined spirits at her heels urged her on. She didn’t know if the scarf would protect her anymore, if it could contain another spirit.

Five minutes later, she moved beyond the shelter of the town. Cobblestones gave way to the dirt track that led to the coal mine. Deep ruts carved by the wheels of heavy ore carts offered a treacherous path for anyone on foot, but the softer surface seemed to absorb the ground fog and soon, even the wispy remnant that spilled out of the town faded away. The night hid the moon behind thick clouds, challenging Rose to pick her way in full dark. Squishy, boggy ground on both sides of the roadway forced Rose to navigate the grooves by feel. Her only beacon was the yellow flare of the vent flame at the mine entrance. That dim light wasn’t enough to illuminate the way, but it offered a landmark to guide her.

Moving as fast as she dared, Rose stared into the darkness, fearing what hid there, waiting for a foolish teenager to stumble into its grasp. Why had her dad forgotten his lunch, leaving her to the mercies of night?

She stumbled and tripped as she followed the yellow light of the mine flare. Twice her knees scraped when she fell. After the second nasty fall, she moved to the edge of the road, onto the strip of grass there, but the damp ground sucked at her feet and she imagined scrabbly fingers clawing at her. She tugged at the scarf around her neck, and realized the fingers were only in her mind. The squelching muck of the mire helped her to choose the roadway again, despite its unfriendly surface. She turned her ankle hard when a cry from the bog startled her. She fell, twisting onto her back, pain flaring up her leg. She realized the noise was merely an owl calling for a mate. She continued, limping.

By the time the yellow flare was close enough to reveal the ground, Rose’s ankle had a hammering pain. She could hardly take any weight on that foot. The mine clerk’s shack was close, and Rose sighed. Perhaps Kraten, the timekeeper, would have something she could use as a crutch to get her home. She hated to ask him for anything, felt uncomfortable when he looked at her, but it was him she would leave the lunch bucket with. She would make her stop quick, drop the lunch, get a crutch, and be on her way back home. She reached for the door handle.

“What’s this?” A voice behind her caused her to stumble, twisting her ankle again. Her hand missed the door latch and splinters from the rough wood slid under her fingernails. Rose turned toward the voice as she fell back against the door, gripping her injured fingers against her chest. “Here’s a pretty girl knocking up my door.”

It was Kraten. There was no mistaking that voice, like he was talking through his nose. Even though his face was in shadow, Rose felt his eyes on her like hands, rough and eager.

“It’s Rose. I’ve brought my dad’s lunch.” Rose held the bucket out as though it was a shield.

“I knows who you are,” Kraten pulled his torch closer, chasing the shadows from his face. His smile was wide, full of teeth. His eyes bulged. He took the lunch from her, placing his hand over hers on the handle. “For your da? How fortunate,” Kraten squeezed her hand. Rose tried to pull away, but he held it there. “that you could bring it.” Kraten’s eyes bugged out further as he leaned in close to Rose. He blinked. The way his eyelids slid out and over his buggy eyes reminded Rose of a toad. “A man gets a mighty appetite working the mines.” His tongue slithered over his lips.

“You’re hurting me.” Rose tugged again to free her hand and this time he let her go.

“Not safe for a young woman to be out in the dark. All manner of restless things there. Come inside, I’ll make you comfortable.” Kraten licked his lips again.

“I have to get home. Grandma’s waiting for me.” Rose knew she was speaking too fast but couldn’t stop herself.

“At least stay a wee bit. Get warmed up. Loosen your clothes by the stove. Let the heat sink into yer bones.” His mouth was a toothy grin.

“No.” The word came out of her mouth with force enough to make Kraten pull back as though slapped. “I mean, Grandma will be worried.” After a moment she tried to divert his attention, “I’ve twisted my ankle. Do you have something I could use as a crutch to help me home?”

Kraten’s brow furrowed, and he stepped forward again. “Hurt your foot? Lemme see.” He reached toward her. Rose turned away, not wanting those hands touching her again.

“I’ll be alright.” She said, afraid that no matter what she said, he was going to try to get her inside his shack, alone, touch her. She hobbled a few steps toward the distant town.

“Wait.” Kraten said, pulling the door to his shack open. Light spilled out, carving a wide swath across the roadway, framing Rose in its center. “Yer hurt and scared. I have something that’ll help. Your da would be pretty mad if I didn’t help.” He stepped into the shack and reappeared a moment later. He tossed a broom toward her, one with a wide head of bristles.

Rose bent and picked it up. She tested her weight on it, then tucked the head under her arm, leaning on it fully.

“Thank you. I’ll send it back with Da tomorrow.”

“You do that now. Those things don’t come free, you know. Now, get along.” With a dismissive wave of his hand, he disappeared into the shack and the door closed, cutting off the light.

Rose stood still, her night eyes gone, and waited until she could see again. She hobbled along the road.

In a few moments she left even the meager light of the mine flare and ventured blind. There were no lights in the town to guide her, only her memory of the road. She stumbled often, sometimes her feet caught in the ruts, sometimes the broom. Her arm ached where her crutch dug into it. Night sounds crept out of the bog, but she knew those sounds. Now that she had some time away from the spirit incident, she could picture the crickets and frogs and foxes making the sounds instead of stalking ghosts. Then she heard the sloshing, water sucking noise.

The sound was the same as when she had ventured too close to the swamp and it had grabbed at her feet, but it was also the sound a corpse would make as it pulled itself free from a watery grave. Rose’s free hand found its way to the scarf at her neck as her eyes strained into the darkness, toward the sound, searching. She hobbled a little faster, risking a fall, hopping more on her good foot to take longer steps.

Her breath rasped in her throat and blood pounded in her ears as she hurried on, casting glances over her shoulder. She heard the long grass of the marsh rubbing, splashes where something rushed through the bog. She looked toward the town, where she believed it was, for any sign that she was getting close to the cobblestones. That surface wouldn’t be much easier to crutch over but even a little easier would help. Only darkness ahead. She could step off a cliff any moment for all her eyes could tell her. Her ankle flared and she leaned hard onto the crutch to keep from falling.

Hot breath on her neck and hard fingers closed around her arm. Rose gasped and turned and stumbled and fell onto her back, but the hand lost her in the movement.

“Come here, you little ingrate.” It was Kraten’s nasal voice. “You’ll do what I say, or they’ll say it was a tragedy how you wandered into the bog in the dark when they fish yer body from the muck.”

Rose scrambled backward, pushing with her feet to get away from his voice. Fingers closed on her sore ankle and squeezed. She cried out.

“I said come here.” He tugged her leg. The road scraped into her as he pulled her toward him. “I was nice to you, gave you that broom and everything. Now you’ll be nice to me.” His face was inches from her own. She was close enough to see him despite the darkness, could smell his reeking breath as his words puffed into her face.

“No, please, leave me,” Rose pleaded, pushing backward with her hands, but he held her firm.

“You’ll be nice to me and then you’ll forget it, or I’ll make sure your dad’s begging in the street this time tomorrow. I have the ear of the foreman, you know.” His hands pawed at her, on her legs, her arms, her chest. His breath panted, deepened. His fingers slid to the folds of her skirt, began tugging at it.

Rose kicked out with her good foot, but it glanced off Kraten’s arm, allowing him to crawl between her legs. His hands were up her skirt, tearing at her underwear. Rose pushed on his head and he let go with one hand. Pain flared in her face as his free hand smashed into her.

“I said be nice.”

Rose’s head slammed back onto the road, her arm flopped to one side and lay across the broom. She gripped the handle and swung it hard toward him. She kicked out with her sore foot. The handle struck the side of his head and he reared back. Her foot connected with his throat and he gagged and choked. Rose scrambled backward a few feet when his hands lost their grip.

“Oh you little bugger,” Kraten’s voice had lost its nasal sound, “I’ll be sticking yer head into the muck and holding it there til you quit squirming. Won’t be as nice having at yer then, but I’ll be done before you cool off too much.” He lunged toward her.

Rose turned, crawling away just before the crushing weight of Kraten fell on her. He grabbed her by the throat and began dragging her toward the road edge. His squeezing fingers cut off her breath and her hands rose to her throat. She felt the fabric of grandma’s scarf. It came loose into her hand.

Wielding it like a whip, Rose pulled her arm back. She pulled her knee up to get it between herself and Kraten. She pushed with her knee and pulled her shoulders back and flicked the scarf forward all at the same time. The force of her movement pushed space between her and Kraten, and the scarf whipped forward, the edge of it snapping against his face.

The colours of the scarf blazed to life as if a fire inside was struggling to get out. Rose noted that the blues and greens and greys flashing across the scarf were the same shade as Grandma’s remaining eye. Kraten screamed and pulled backward as though struck by leather instead of silk. The scarf tugged at Rose’s hand like her fishing stick did when she had a bite. Rose looked at Kraten and saw skeletal fingers stretching from the scarf, digging into his face. As she pulled the scarf, the spirit, trapped earlier, pulled free. Kraten’s hands were at his own face, trying to tear free from the boney grip on his cheeks. Blood poured from the gaping holes the fingers dug, their grip so fierce.

The spirit pulled free of the scarf and its blazing light died. Darkness enclosed the scene as Rose saw Kraten run toward the bog, the spirit still clinging to him. She lay still for a moment, then, fearing the spirit would return for her, felt around for the broom and got to her feet.

Finding the cobblestones with her crutch, she knew where she was. She hobbled into the dim light of town, Grandma’s scarf dangling from her fingers.