A Tiding – Part XI

by Timothy J Jarvis

Part XI of ‘A Tiding’. The first part can be found here.

Soundtrack: KTL, ‘Phill 2

A crescent moon hung in the sky, skull down, horns up, in rut.

Mark returns to the tenement – ‘indentured to another god’ – a trickle of blood – a silver brooch of singular design – ‘a little lie down’ – a dream – Marguerite – arcane sigils – a waste strewn with the scattered skeletons of birds – origins

It was past eleven by the time he arrived back at the Kentish Town tenement. He found the old man asleep in his bed with the light on. Seizing him by his shoulders, Mark shook him awake. He opened his eyes, looked blearily about him.

‘Why?’ Mark yelled.

The old man grinned, belched in Mark’s face. Mark cuffed him.

Rubbing his cheek where the blow had struck, the old man sneered.

‘You’re good at reading the signs, but, other than that, not too sharp. She’s indentured to another god, with whom I’ve been skirmishing these past thousand years. That entity knows I recover a little of my strength with every offering presented to me, so had her compromise your collection.’

Mark groaned.

‘What? You didn’t actually think she liked you, did you?’

Mark hit the old man again, harder this time. The side of his head struck the wall. He lay there, not moving, eyes open, but dull, like those of a fish on the slab. From his right ear ran a trickle of blood. Mark turned and left.

On the pavement outside, he crouched, retched.  A one-eyed fox with mangy fur, perhaps the same he’d seen when he first visited the place with Colin, padded by, a chicken carcass in its jaws.

When, the anger and sickness passed, remorseful, he went back up to the garret, the bed was empty. He searched the building; the doors to the other flats were all securely fastened with padlocks as before, and there was no sign of the old man.

Returning again to the garret, Mark noticed a stuffed magpie he was sure had not been there formerly – now three leered at him from the mantelpiece. The new magpie was posed with a silver brooch of singular design in its beak.

He crossed over, wrenched the brooch free, turned it over, and found ‘Marguerite’ written there, in cursive script, as he knew he would. It was a treasured item of jewellery, a gift from her parents on the occasion of her leaving France for London.

Mark felt leaden, weary. His gaze fell on the bed.

Winking at the magpie, he said, ‘I think I’ll just have a little lie down.’

After switching off the light and pushing the filthy bedclothes to the floor, he stretched himself out on the mattress and fell asleep. And he dreamt. In his dream he woke in that squalid bed, in that dank garret, with the dark clamouring in his ears. He sat up, opened the curtain. A crescent moon hung in the sky, skull down, horns up, in rut. By its baleful light, he saw Marguerite dangling naked, torpid, by her ankles, from a rope tied to an iron hook set into the ceiling rose, where before had hung the light bulb. Seven magpies flapped round her, rending her with beak and claw, taunting her with their harsh chatter. She was steeped in blood, black in the wan light, trickling from many shallow wounds. As he watched, she roused and flailed her arms, seeking to fend off the birds, setting herself swinging at the end of the rope. Blood sprayed from the gory snaking ropes of her hair to splatter the floorboards with arcane sigils. Getting out of the bed, he made to go to her aid, but the magpies flew at him, pecking, clawing, drove him out the door, down the ramshackle staircase, and outside. He found that the Victorian tenement stood alone in the midst of a waste strewn with the scattered skeletons of birds – skulls like bone callipers, vertebrae like dice, rib cages like the frames of elfin coracles, pelves like elfin ploughshares. Mark fled from that place, pounding the brittle bones to bone dust underfoot as he ran.

Sometime later I woke up, and wrote all of this down, lest I forget my origins.