“Then the Lady Sang” A Macabre Story of Two Brothers by Fariel Shafee

Mrs. O Brien shut the window with a bang and put the large puffy white pillow on her face.  Everything in this room was white or light blue.  Even the medicinal mixture she took at 11 pm was light blue.  That was not by choice, though.  She would have gotten up an hour early to oversee breakfast and to tend to the newly planted saplings by the fence, to make her presence known to the workers.  But instead, she had decided to sleep. Perhaps she wanted to be in another reality where that piece of paper did not sit on the little gray table by the fireplace.  She also wanted to forget the call from the other world that had pervaded her air after dinner, when she had visited her room for her regular medication.

She had heard it before she lit the candles.  It was a bizarre sound that was harsh and it made her feel squeamish at once.  When she made it to the dresser, found the matches and lit the candles, the room looked unfamiliar, as though a misty veil had covered her furniture. 

After she had gone to bed, the sound came once again, penetrating the wooden window and the dawn pillow.  The sound was shrill and coarse, artless, as though a large dodo had been released from a hellish farmhouse to wander about in confusion and squeak, to eat up the new lemony leaves and the wood shavings scattered by the workroom, before the awkward bird would bang onto the verandah and collide with the rocking chair.

She knew there was no bird.  The face she had seen.  It was a momentary perception.  The eyes were large and dark, and the hair was long and disheveled, as though the uninvited visitor had left her house while she was busy tidying herself up.  Her skin was wrinkled and pale.  The person was short, around four feet tall.  She could have been Mary, had she been thirty years younger and a foot and a half taller.  But Mary was a gentle soul.  Also, Mary was dead.

Mrs. O Brien had squarely placed the blame of the unearthly visitation on that spoonful of sleeping medicine, though that tag would perhaps disobey causality.  It was the face first, and then she opened the drawer, took out the bottle. No, it was the syrupy bitter fluid.  She did not wish to think.  The liquid in the bottle was good.  It helped her not to think.

Now, in the dining room, the two brothers, Adam and Jones sat at the opposite sides.  The two hardly ate together.  Adam would leave for work: gunning down rabbits in the marsh or foraging.  His main objective was to discover signs of black gold seeping out through a crack.  The boy from Pike’s Hill had gotten rich.  He now owned a farm and a mansion. Land sold for cheap in the locale, and others did not have to be told what they did not have to hear.  Finders keepers.  One day he could be king.  But Jones — he might not exist.  Perhaps Adam felt sympathy for his brother now.  He felt a hollow sac floating erratically inside his soul.  Mrs. O’Brien’s older son, though, saw no reason for extended, cheap sentiments.  He, however, was hungry.

The piece of paper was off white.  It sat still in the living room.  They all pretended not to have seen it when they walked past.  It looked mundane, like those useless pieces of trash you never read.  They wished they had not read it!  The demands made were heavy.

Jones would leave for the war.  He, like the rest, knew that there was no escape but to a certain bloody death.  A boy who ran days back was shot in the head.  They had left the corpse in the street.

Adam did not say much to his brother while they munched, and then sipped the tea together.  A little bell jungled from the verandah.  Perhaps there would be no other Christmas together.  Perhaps this was the end of time for one.

“I will be back in the evening,” was all that Adam said, as he got up, picked his thick waterproof bag and his large boots. 

Jones nodded.  He did not wait for his mother.  He would walk into the study and write some important letters.

“Dear Ruth,” he started to scribble. “My darling, I do not know if we will meet again.”

He had started the letter at night, once her mother had left for the room.  Inside his strong, undaunting cage, he felt lost still.  Within the frame of bravery there was sorrow creeping in in the same manner the songs of life and love were dispersing out.

In candle light, the room had looked mysterious just like life that night.  What did it all mean in the end?

He had sat on the red cherry chair that was built years back and had remembered himself and Ruth chasing a small dear within the woods in summertime.  The shriek was sudden.  It shook him as though he was already hit by a bullet.   It sounded like a bird.  The creature, he thought, was in pain, as though it was being dragged to be sacrificed, and saw the sharp blade hanging. 

Jones tried to shrug off the fears of the night gone away, now that the sun was bright.  Tomorrow he would be elsewhere, marching to glory or damnation.

Jones collected himself and closed his eyes for a moment.  When he looked out through the window.  It was a bright Monday.  Far away, the workers had started to till the land.  Most of them were women.  Jones was one of the last men to be called in for the war.  Their influences were all exhausted.  “Was it unmanly?” he thinks.  Mostly it was his mother.  He had duties towards the family too.  Who would look after the old lady, the property?  It was she who had reached out, spoken personally, pushing back the inevitable.

Now even under the lusty vivid sun, dust had dispersed all about the scorched earth.  At times, the thirsty trees looked blurry or washed out.  The saplings were near the fence.  Mother had planted some herself.  Those were a mix of fruits and flowers. 

Jones scanned the yard for a bird – a big bird.  It could be an unseemly flightless creature, perhaps flaunting red beaks, large yellow eyes, and a tuft on top of its crown.  What could indeed have squeaked in that manner while he sat alone at night?

He, however, remembered the ensuing image.  After the squeak, there was a pause.  He was scanning the room for more candles, and for the rifle.   Finally, what he had seen could not be expressed properly.  It was a human body, a female.  The picture persisted only for a few moments before it disappeared, as though the atoms had dispersed all about with a bang.  The apparent human was small, about four feet tall.  She had long disheveled hair and large red eyes.  Jones did not know if it was blood, but the crimson within which the eyeballs floated looked vengeful, as though the world should be torn down into pieces.  She wore a gray robe that fell down to the ground.  But he felt that she was floating, that her legs were not on the earth.  She had looked at him for a moment, only.  But how loathsome was that look – as though he ought to rot, lie wounded and alone in the battlefield!  A very cold shiver had then traversed through his spine.  Jones did not wish to write any more.  He needed to grab a drink.

Now that life was in full rhythm of the day he was writing once again.  He was thinking about Ruth and what life could have been in a year.  But that wrinkled hag kept popping up from elsewhere, from right inside his head where the night’s moments had settled with some permanence.

Mrs. O Brien sat up on the bed and poured some water into her glass.  The jug was on the table, and she had filled It herself at night.  No, she had not forgotten the routines even in her distressed moments up until the morning.   She was a little dizzy still, and the room looked hazier than usual, as though the edges of the desk and the nightstand were blurry.  She saw those large eyes in the midst of the room again.  This was just a figment of her mind.  Then she opened the drawer of her bedside table and took out an album.  It was an old item and the off-white cover had stained into yellow here and there.  Inside, pictures from another decade popped out.  Here she was with that other girl, and there, again in the beach, baking in a summer of desires and hidden contempt — both smiling profusely though.  The black and white still images ushered a variegated reel of events from the past.

Mary was younger than herself.  She was also thinner and taller.  Her hair was the red of burning bushes, unlike Mrs. O Brien’s solid black.   Mary was also less worldly wise, too open, and too loud.   She was direct about her desires, about her unhappiness with Mrs. O Brien’s rendezvous.  He had betrayed Mary first.  But she was direct with Jill.  Yes, Jill – that is what she called her.  Jill didn’t have the right.

As the Mrs. O’ Brien of today shuffled the pages of the album, the funeral was dragged back from the past.  There she was in all back.  Mary was nailed in for good.  The only living sister stood right next to Jim, Mr. O Brien of the future that is.  She could have opted for some space, out of respect for Mary.  But the emotions then were strong.  Mary had slapped her the night before.

The death was not Jim or Jill’s fault.  The death was nobody’s fault.  Mary had gone to the forbidden corner of the enclave.  She had fallen.  She had fallen a hundred feet to her demise.  Almost all her bones were broken.  Jill could have warned her about the spot her sister had chosen for her art project.  But did she really owe that?  It was common sense, wasn’t it?

Mrs. O’Brien felt a warm little tear drop on her cheek.  She was unsure who she was crying for – the dead or the one who might soon become the fallen.  She then saw that face in a flash – the hag.  It was her memory.  The face was ugly and old.  Mary would shout and then forget.  Her anger never persisted.  Not through decades.  Would she be so mean as to seek revenge – come for an innocent boy?  Was it her own guilt that had made that face up?

Mrs. O’Brien felt a shiver.  Then she got up, put on her silk robe, headed down to the kitchen. 

Life and time would persist.  She would face both boldly.

Adam felt a little numb as he made his way through the swampy patch.  He wore a dark short coat and black plastic boots.  His thin lips were colorless and his short hair stuck closely to his scalp.  A solid brass stick helped him keep the balance.  His right leg was weak – a fall from many years back.  The doctor had feared that he would not walk again.  But he did get up, cross the room on his own and then walked up to the school bus.  He had felt angry then about his own stupidity, about the hare he wanted to trap.  But now that leg had saved him. 

Adam felt sorry for Jones.  He wanted to hug him at the breakfast table.  But his brother had put up his usual shield of defense – impermeable pride that drew a line.  Adam, so, had simply smiled.  It was a nervous, curt smile.  Jones had nodded.  They had both quickly stared at the rifle that hung upon the wall next to the head of a large dead brown bear.

As the day progressed, Adam passed through the thin thorny shrubs and moved into the rocky part of the landscape.  The stones were dry and reddish with some speckles of blue and gray.  The earth was scorched and rough.  He would find no black gold here.  He wanted something flat in the roughness – peace. 

In half an hour Adam reached the edge where steep rocks have made up the boundary between earth and untouched paradise.   He had found that edge where a single tree stood tall.  The leaves were few and long, slightly faded.  There was a nest at the top.  He could not see the birds.

It is now 11 am.

Adam sits and takes out his water bottle from the bag.  The heat will recede in an hour.  He wants to watch the birds circle above-head and then gaze at the lush below.  The plateau beneath has a river.  In it, fish swim in schools of abundant colors.  Wild beasts guard their very own kingdom.  In the evening, Adam wants to watch that elusive green flash and then walk back home.  Tomorrow, there will be gun shots.  Jones will be in a barrack.

Soon the afternoon melts into evening.  Light begins to flicker away.   A mysterious thickened veil obscures much of reality.  The moon is up in the sky as though it is half transparent within the daylight not yet removed.  Perhaps it is time to leave.  One more moment – he decides.

As Adam sits and watches a single white bird circle the sky, he hears a strange chant.  It is faint, as though the source is far away.  But the softness soothes him immediately.   He had heard of singing mermaids.  Those fishy maidens were unreal.

The air now is cooler, and Adam closes his eyes.  The sound gets louder, yet remains soft.  The tune is from a far away land and carries with it the allure of a beautiful life as it mixes with the breeze, wraps him from all around.

When he opens his eyes, he sees a maiden standing by the tree.  She is tall and slender with a head full of crimson hair.  Her lips are full and red.  Her silver robe extends to the rocks below as though she could flow away on a smooth and silky wave. 

She looks at him for a moment, but that look pierces into his soul.  He knows her, he thinks.  She is part of his very own flesh.  Then she disappears.  Adam tries to find her behind the tree, but she is nowhere. 

Only a feather floats in the air.

“My love, life is sweet,” he whispers.  “Why is it that we fight?”

Adam thinks of getting up to return home.  Maybe he will hug his brother this night.  He will hold him tightly and wish him well.  In the morning Jones will ride alone to the West.

As Adam gathers his belongings – the empty water bottle, a pair of binoculars and a small blanket, he feels a sharp pain on his palm.  The pain soon propagates up to his shoulder and the unearthly tune returns only to fade away.  It is only then he hears the rattling sound of the snake.  He bites his lips. 

Home is far away.  Nobody knows his location.

Wednesday morning that same week is sunny unlike Tuesday, when the sky cried out its agonies.  The earth looks fresh now.  But the O’Briens are somber, quiet.  One of them had departed. 

They are clad in black, standing in front of the coffin.

At night on Monday, when the sky was still clear, and when the announcement had come that the war had ended, Adam was happy and sad.

He did not look for Jones.  Instead, he had gone back to the study, and had torn down the note written to Ruth.

A boy had found the body in the forest the next afternoon.  Adam did not look anguished or unhappy, though his arm was blue.

Mrs. O Brien now looks at his son and his peaceful face and wonders if life to him had been kind in the very last moments.

She looks again for the face, the unhappy sister she had lost.  The maiden though is nowhere.  Nothing squeaks. 

“We are ready,” someone announces.

The author has degrees in science, but enjoys writing and art.  She has published prose and petry in decomP, Blaze Vox, Illumen etc.

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