Raleigh pulled to a stop outside the bright, fenced lawn of Charles-Never-Charlie’s home. He didn’t know how the old man did it, keeping his grass as green and manicured as the lawns in Better Homes and Gardens, and at his age. The man couldn’t have been fewer than ninety years old, and Raleigh wouldn’t be too surprised to find out he’d lived for centuries. A world without Charles-Never-Charlie hardly seemed possible.
Raleigh’s mother had always told him that Hemmings was cursed, that nothing good could happen there. The anxiety in the back of his brain told him the same. “Leave,” it said when he crossed the dilapidated train tracks.
“Charles-Never-Charlie is a very old man. It is good for his friends to check up on him,” Raleigh argued with himself.
“His life is lonely by choice. There’s something wrong with him and wrong with Hemmings,” that intuition in the back of his mind whispered.
“Nothing is wrong. I shouldn’t be afraid all the time,” Raleigh reminded himself. The voice of intuition took a seat in the back of his mind, but it did not relent. It painted the walls of its home in mold self-portraits and festered.
Charles-Never-Charlie was the only neighbor to whom Raleigh or his family had ever been close. Hemmings, which had once been a true small town with a school, post office, and church, was now a place people moved to mostly to be left alone. Even as a child Raleigh had thought of how nice it would have been if Hemmings were still a real small town where people knew each other. He wondered if his life would have had a better, a more certain path had he been born into a simpler time.
Perhaps he could have been a blacksmith’s son. Eventually, he would lift the hammer himself fashioning horseshoes, iron stakes, and functional tools to till the land. On Friday nights he’d venture with his friends to the grange hall where men and women hollered and danced. The laughing boys would jostle him about his crush on the miller’s daughter. Later, they would pass hidden behind the building to sip on dank bottles of barley wine and whiskey filched from their solemn parents, regaling each other one thousand times of their imagination’s grand exploits — with not one ounce of expectation of living up to their claims.
But that was not life in his century, and that had never been Hemmings. Hemmings had been born as a ramshackle logging town. When the industry moved along it was left to wither, and it may have died altogether if it weren’t for the larger city ten miles down the highway where people worked, and prayed, and yelled at their children’s teachers. Hemmings was a town too stubborn to die, so instead, its bones smoldered while hardy stalks of yellow plants threatened to take their land back. Not one yard was untouched by the influence of the creeping wild save for Charles-Never-Charlie’s.
Without knocking, Raleigh stepped into Charles-Never-Charlie’s house. He knew he was always welcome. He called out for his friend, yelling as he came to a green door at the back of the house. As a child, he imagined that the door belonged to an aged tree, the kind of tree in the old-growth of fairytales, and if he were to open it, it would lead him to a secret world below the forest floor.
Charle’s-Never-Charlie’s voice hearkened from behind the door, suggesting Raleigh head out for a walk while he finished what he was doing.
Following the suggestion, he stepped down the road and surveyed the houses and alleys that had once been as good as his own backyard. Of course, he could no longer duck under fences and spring and lope, sneaking through his secret boyhood paths, though he was certain the paths were still there. No, many of those paths cut through neighbor’s yards and seeing a strange man crawling under a fence was the sort of thing that would bring eager shotguns to aim. An adult could never know this place the way he had in his youth. Children know in such a way that even rocks have names. They know which tree trunks hold forgotten Byzantiums of insects. They know how to sneak between brambles to secret clearings, and which pines and willows they can sit under without angering the wasps.
That vision that saw magic and wonder was gone from Raleigh’s spirit. He now possessed a different kind of sight. Chipped paint peeled off the sides of houses, derelict cars rusted to orange in front lawns, and if children laughed and played they did so hidden from the passing of a stranger.
Here and there Raleigh saw new houses that stood like too straight teeth outshining their neighbors. Maybe, Raleigh thought, all the old houses would eventually be torn down, and from their corpses these new houses would rise and prosper, dominating the landscape as the larger city sprawled ever nearer and threatened to swallow Hemmings. Or maybe, and the thought intruded on Raleigh’s mind as if it were hopeful, hard times would come as they always came for the people in Hemmings. The people who lived in these shiny, new homes, with their perfect children and well-behaved canines, would learn what their neighbors had always known — that cars break down, that rust and entropy were an unstoppable foe, that each year they would care less and less for the upkeep against a wild place that did not condone their presence.
Raleigh’s mother said that Hemmings was cursed. But he did not believe in curses, so he did not worry about them. He believed in socio-economics and worried about socio-economics. He believed in, worried about, and lost sleep over dead-end jobs, specifically his own.
As he walked he passed by an ugly, brown house with a lawn of beaten dirt where a german shepherd slept tied to a chain, its back rotting away with mange. It seemed some cosmic rule that there always had to be at least one terrifying dog in town. He crossed the narrow road, but still, the dog stirred from its slumber, snapping up and rushing out at him. It choked itself snarling at the end of its chain. When he was growing up, there was a street Raleigh avoided because of a pair of dalmatians— yes, dalmatians, their names were Spot and Dairy— that made his spine shiver with fear. Any time he passed near their fence they would leap, possessed by a child-hungry devil of bite force and rage, and he knew one day they’d surely make it over the top of the fence and sink their teeth into his tiny, vulnerable body.
But there was also a nice black labrador that wandered freely about the town. Sometimes Raleigh would encounter it as he ambled about on his adventures. He never knew who owned the dog. It seemed like a free citizen. The only time he ever saw the animal growl or display any ill temperament it was standing outside Charles-Never-Charlie’s yard. The dog, usually a pond of tranquility, braced and yelped at the edge of the old man’s fence as though threatened by some unseen foe. It was enough to make Raleigh afraid of the old man’s house for some weeks after.
By the time Raleigh circled back to the house, Charles-Never-Charlie had finished whatever he had been doing and sat on the deck awaiting his friend’s arrival. He was a short and wiry man with a white beard that hung all the way down to his belly, and his arms were too long. When he saw his friend he sprang to his feet with a litheness unexpected of one so advanced in years. He was like long stalks of ancient grass whipping in the wind.
“Come on in, lad,” Charle-Never-Charlie bade his young friend as he stepped inside. The nimble oldtimer had lit a nice fire in the hearth that had begun to jump and crackle, extending a gentle warmth through the small sitting room. The warmth set Raleigh’s muscles at ease. He hadn’t noticed how tense he was from the cold and from his lingering thoughts of the past and future.
The room spoke of an appreciation of older ways of living. There was no television, no computer, no digital clock or appliance to be found. The only things that betrayed the near lack of electricity were the lamps standing in the corners of the room which were presently turned off, as the curtains had been thrown open providing the room with ample natural light.
The fireplace had always seemed to Raleigh to be older even than the house itself. It was made of foreboding, grey stones. As it burned it hinted of history. It whispered of primordial eras when people clung to heat to ward off the callous fingers of dark that crept through their doorways threatening knowledge of cold secrets beyond their understanding.
“Something’s a-troubling you. I could smell it as soon as you came in,” said Charles-Never-Charlie. His accent was thicker than usual, but Raleigh still could not place its origin. Perhaps Northern European, or a hint of Irish, he thought. Or perhaps the man had been to many places in his life and picked up linguistic quirks from all of them.
“Smell it, it’s that easy to read me,” remarked Raleigh.
“What do you think that nose is for? If you weren’t too far in your own head already it would be telling you all sorts of important information. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I’ll tell you what’s strange. There’s people out there that need watches to tell them their hearts are beating.” The old man laughed and slapped his knee.
It wasn’t a huge laugh, but seeing Charles-Never-Charlie laugh was a marvelous thing. When he laughed he did it with his whole body. It started down in his toes and shot up through his belly, leaving up through his throat like a balloon expanding to the walls of the room. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t obtrusive. But it was somehow more complete than it could have been coming from another person.
“How do you do it?” asked Raleigh, “The world has changed so much. How do you not feel lost and left behind? I already feel like life has sped off on a runaway train and I’m running behind it, and it’s blowing smoke in my face and I’ll never catch up. I always thought by thirty I’d know what I was doing. I’d have a sense of direction.”
The younger man fidgeted in his seat and rubbed his hand on his other arm as if trying to bring himself back into his own body.
“That’s no problem, lad. It got in your head is all. The wrong sort of thing crawled in your ear and now it’s making a nest in there, laying eggs. Ain’t nothing you gotta do by thirty. Forty. Fifty. Nah. You don’t need to fester on it.”
“I don’t want to price check lamps and pillows for the rest of my life. And that’s where I’m headed. I hate it. I clock in for eight hours, get yelled at by people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, and I go home and fall onto my bed too tired to do anything but sulk around the apartment.”
As he spoke Raleigh’s eyes were drawn to the tall, cedar grandfather clock along the wall. Minutes were passing. He really should head home soon, he worried. He knew he needed his sleep before dragging himself into the next work week.
The old man tugged him back into the conversation, “Suppose I could do something to take all those burdens away, would you accept the offer?”
“I hate complaining. I really do. How about we talk about something else. Are you ever going to tell me where you got your name?”
Charles-Never-Charlie wrinkled his nose. It moved slightly askew of how noses usually moved, as if he’d practiced the gesture while he had a different kind of nose and when he got this one it didn’t quite move the same. “I asked my question first, lad. You answer mine, and perhaps I’ll finally answer yours.”
Raleigh reflected. Something in his friend’s tone made him uneasy. The little hairs on the back of his neck wanted to stand up, but the air in the room was too warm and comfortable. “Okay, okay,” he said, “Honestly, I’d do anything to free my mind from these anxieties, so if there were something you could do that would help of course I’d accept the offer. Yes.”
Yes — a word said without coercion or lie that satisfied an ancient covenant of consent. But Raleigh didn’t think of things in those terms. His world was rational. It was not a world where the wrong word could let wrong things in.
Charles-Never-Charlie smirked and rose to make some tea. He bid Raleigh remain seated while he put together something nice. In his cupboard were shelves packed with dozens upon dozens of unlabeled glass jars containing dried herbs and ingredients of all varieties. He pinched a green leaf, a brown powder, and a piece of rust-colored bark for Raleigh’s tincture, and he pinched from three different jars for his own. As he worked and the water heated to a boil he hummed a song to himself, absentmindedly.
It was a song nobody else remembered.
It lilted and lifted from his lips like a puff of wild cotton drifting in the wind. Things weren’t passed down like they used to be. Before the world grew modern, a good song or a great poem could persist for thousands of years. It could bend around new instruments and languages and still move through the breath of each new generation.
The same was true of fears. Before radio and television, before electricity could cross the world in a lick of lightning, before the age of the printing press and the great novels, people would sit around fires and in that dim glow tell the tales their great grandparents had told them. They would speak in hushed, low, certain words that another child had been taken. Its mother had seen the light in its eyes vanish, and she knew down to her marrow that some creature had replaced her child.
The monsters of the old times weren’t smart. But people weren’t either. People had grown very clever, and if there were any monsters lurking at the edges they would have to be clever too. Yes, a clever monster would refrain from acting until the light behind the eyes was already gone. Then no discerning mother would ever notice what was wrong with her child.
Raleigh sat back in the comfortable chair and waited for his drink to be ready. He wondered if the herbalist was making him some sort of holistic anti-anxiety tincture. The room had grown quiet and warm. It was peaceful in a way that his apartment in the city could never be. But he wasn’t sure he could stand quiet like this for very long.
“You like mint, right lad?” called Charles-Never-Charlie from the other room. Raleigh assented and the herbalist pinched some dried peppermint and added it to both tinctures to mask the more obtrusive flavors.
“Chores are calling my name. I really shouldn’t stay too much longer,” said the young man as Charles-Never-Charlie delivered him a mug of steaming liquid.
“Nonsense, lad. I never met a mop or broom that could string together a sentence. Now sip down that tincture and you’ll be feeling better soon,” said the old man.
Raleigh did as he was told and began to sip down the drink, cautious not to burn his mouth. Immediately the muscles in his face began to relax and he felt his body open up like a locked chest.
“I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like Hemmings after dark. Maybe I’m more comfortable in the city where there are street lamps and lights shining out from businesses and houses at all hours. It feels like I’m never actually alone. If I call out, or scream, someone will hear me at least.”
“Well don’t leave just yet, lad. I suppose I can tell you the story of my name,” the old man began. “It’s a story from far away and long ago.”
“A land of rolling green hills it was, hills that blanketed the Earth as far as the eye could see. A beautiful place, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I can smell the westward wind blowing in over the wild grasses on those humid summer nights even now when I close my eyes. A comfortable, good life I had, but it was coming to an end.” As Charles-Never-Charlie spoke, twilight began to reach across Hemmings. The glow of the hearth began to dominate the room. It reflected in the storyteller’s eyes in flashes of orange that appeared to be coming from inside of him.
“Scared folk lived in those parts, but they were merry. They knew how to dance and sing, and many a bottle of fine ale was poured to that cause. But they were rightly mistrustful of an old man who came from far away. In those days, in small places, a person would spend their whole life on the same plot of land. Their friends would be the ones who were born beside them. A person who moved in from somewhere else could never be one of your own. No, at the bottom of a green hill they would leave an old man from elsewhere alone. When he came into the shop they would look at him through eyes of spades and pitchforks, though they would take his money as he acted decently enough.
“My kind has always been found in small places. Swamps, outskirts, hovels, and hidden valleys, that is where we make our home. We’ve come to know we’ll always be outsiders. And when our welcome wears thin, we leave.”
Raleigh knew there was something amiss about Charles-Never-Charlie’s story, but he couldn’t focus well enough to understand. Though it was past time for him to leave, he could not rouse the attention to move. One moment he was inside the story, floating, watching an old man limp across green hills, and the next moment he would snap back into his own unmoving body that felt firm as a weeping willow anchoring a riverbank.
“Lonesome as I was, one day I made a friend. His name was Charlie,” continued the storyteller. “While the rest of the townsfolk avoided me, this young man was unafraid of an aged hermit. He was not like the other people. He was driven by curiosity, with an endless appetite for tales of far-off lands. ‘Tell me again of the Barrow,’ he would say. Or, ‘Is it true that people fish off the end of the world, and what they catch can cure even death?’ A frail lad he was and in his own head all the time. Poor Charlie couldn’t relax and revel and enjoy himself like all the others. Nobody disliked him. No one mistrusted him. But we walked under the big blue sky and he told me that he was born in the wrong place or the wrong time, that he belonged somewhere else. You have always reminded me very much of him.” There was a devious thistle in the old man’s eye.
The voice that Raleigh had pushed to the back of his mind rose from its chair and yelled at him to go now. It beat its fists against the walls. But Raleigh’s body was settled as the stones in the ancient stove. It would not move no matter the fire it contained.
As Raleigh’s presence shrank, Charles-Never-Charlie’s expanded until it filled every corner of the room, every bristle of the carpet, every year-line in the wood of the grandfather clock. He was no longer only a man. Charles-Never-Charlie was the fire and the hearth, the licking orange tongue and the weight of stone; he was the green walls and the ticking of the second-hand, he was the night creeping in.
“One day my young friend was particularly downcast. I hurt to see him so. His green eyes that usually shone in the sun didn’t turn a single time from the muddy ground as we walked. Some lass had snuffed out his heart, and he felt he was doomed to the life of an old bachelor. ‘Alone, alone. I’ll die old and alone.’ he bemoaned to me. I told him it wasn’t the worst life, but in those parts that was somewhat of a lie. An old man would have only squalor and suspicion to look forward to as the years advanced if he was without a wife and children.
“He was young, not even your age, but he was already well on his way to becoming an old miser in those parts. Though to me he seemed a being full of wonder, I could tell there was already a bitterness steeping away in his core.
“I wanted to help my friend. So I told him to steady me as we walked to my cottage at the base of the hill. I was very old then, you see, and I’d grown quite weak as my body succumbed to the decades. Decades and decades I’d put that body through. But it’s no good. A body cannot last forever.”
The old man, who now seemed like something else entirely, stared into the fire. In his green eyes, a forest leaped with flame. In a moment of powerful clarity, Raleigh sensed in his friend some deep pain beyond understanding. It was a pain of distance and of indescribable loss.
“There’s something you should know about me,” continued the old man. “I do not want to die. You can sleep. You can forget. But I was not born with these luxuries, and in the swirling night, memories and thoughts berate me and cannot be placated. No, I must not die. I refuse to do it. I absolutely refuse to give mortality power over me.
“I led my friend Charlie down to my cottage. Or rather, he led me, old and frail as I was. It was a fresh, bright day, but there was a chill to it. And if I spent too long away I would be shaking for warmth. Inside, the walls had kept in my heat and I was safe. Death could not dance above my head. I told Charlie that if he were to let me I could take away all his unease and fear for the future.
When he was nearly asleep I led him to a rounded green door. It was an old door, older than the house or even the country I was living in.”
Charles-Never-Charlie clasped Raleigh’s hand and helped him to his feet. The natural instincts of Raleigh’s body were gone, and if it weren’t for his companion, he would have fallen on his way to that green door that smelled of damp earth. As it swung open, Raleigh saw stairs reaching down into depths hidden in shadow. It felt like the stairs went on and on and never came to a stop and all the while Charles-Never-Charlie whispered in his ear.
“When I left that house, people called me Charlie, of course. But it never fit. I could still hear my friend in the back of my mind, so it felt wrong to be going by his name. We talk, even to this day. Of course at the time he didn’t have anything kind to say, but eventually we came to an understanding. I tried having people call me Charles, just Charles. It was better, but still not right. I had to constantly remind people to call me Charles — never call me Charlie, and over time that became Charles-Never-Charlie.
“I left that old country when people became suspicious of an old man who had been old for too long. It’s never good for my kind to draw attention to ourselves. I stowed myself away on a great ship, and traveled for many difficult years before I came to Hemmings. It is a good place. Quiet. It is a place where stillness remains despite the turning of the world.”
The steps led down and down. Raleigh wondered if they would ever stop, or if they led all the way to the center of the Earth. As his friend led him through the chamber they passed small fires that gave way to darkness as the passage twisted and turned, leading further and further into the recesses. It smelled of mold and rot, and things older than he could fathom.
“You must forgive me if it sounds silly, but there was something else. The name reminded me of my first name, a name that has since passed forgotten in a tongue that not one soul remembers how to speak. It was the tongue of a cruel people.
“They were not clever. They were afraid.”
In the quiet hamlet of Hemmings, an old man named Charles-Never-Charlie passed away. The newspaper obituary stated that he had no living relatives, but left his home and all his worldly possessions to a young friend.
At times Raleigh tried to talk to the young man in the back of his mind, but the friend did not want to speak to him. The back of his mind was not an excellent home. Its walls were painted in mold.
Raleigh’s mother did not like that her son had moved back to that cursed hamlet hidden in the pine trees and the lonely wind. She said he had changed. Whenever he spoke to her, that friend in the back of his mind banged against the doors and windows. But he didn’t worry about that. He knew they would reach an understanding in time.
Hemmings was the sort of place where a person could pass forgotten and lonesome, rocking in a chair, staring at a fire in an old stone hearth. But he was never lonely. It was good to have a friend.
Mark L Anderson is a writer living in Spokane, Washington where he served as Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. He also co-founded the Broken Mic reading series and has traveled across the U.S. reading poems in coffee shops and living rooms. He works as a barista at a vegan bakery and he sincerely hopes you enjoyed your latte. It has a heart on it.