Arasmus

Midnight

Posted in Short Story by Arasmus on June 28, 2010

“Can I stay?”

He leaned against the jam of the door. Tweed against timber. Behind him darkness. Despite all my thoughts, now was the moment of choosing. My heart was beating loudly in my chest. I looked back at the room, the artifacts of my domesticity. In that second, somebody else in me said yes. The barrel of the gun over his shoulder, kissed the doorway as he slipped inside. The door closed and locked.

We sat in the darkness, by the fire. His face wrapped in shadow. Periodically the embers, finding some fresh unconsumed part of the log, would momentarily cast a greater light that tried in vain to penetrate the shroud. I searched how to make conversation without questions. The silence grew uncomfortable. I reached to the table for the knife, and some bread.

“Thank you.”

The wind was picking up outside. I searched the trees, darker shades of black set against the navy sky, for unfamiliar patterns. I knew that he had not found my door by accident, that he had been brought here by desperation and opportunity, that there would be others. The walls blinkered my view. I thought to get to a vantage point, from the windows upstairs, but I could not leave him.

He ate the bread without butter. Dirt trapped under his fingernails.

“Are you healthy?”

“Yes.”

My grandfather’s clock marked the hour, unconscious of the need for silence. Staring into the fire, each avoiding the gaze of the other. Time passing. He sat hunched over in the darkness.

I remember kneeling beside my mother in the church as a boy, sitting vigil at midnight mass as Christ waited in the garden for them to take him. So unusual, to a boy, seeing all those villagers there, kneeling in the darkness. A single candle, a black cloth draping the cross. Even the priest is silent. All I can hear is breathing, I cannot tell whether it is mine or that of others around me. Two-hundred of us. My mother’s fingers pass quietly across each rosary bead. Her lips moving slightly as she prays in her mind. She seems to begin each prayer with my inhalation. I could feel him among us. Fingers through beads. Waiting through time. I must be slipping in and out of consciousness, perhaps I am sleeping and awakening.

I became aware again of where I was. I got up quietly and went to the kitchen to fill the teapot. I realized too late that there was now nothing between him and the stairs. The familiar sound of water filling a teapot. I returned. He had not moved. The flames reoriented as I nestled the vessel among the embers. I could see a white bandage peer from beneath his over-sized coat.

“Let me see that.”

It began to rain outside. I untied his rags.

“It was just some barbed wire on the hills.”

In that moment I knew the path he had taken to my door. I knew the way he had come, why and who he was.

“Were you followed?”

“I don’t think so.”

There was no moon outside. The water in the teapot began to boil. I reached for the old tea-caddy and stirred in two spoons and lifted the pot off the fire.

“It’s fresh, but I should scald it.”

I poured the boiling tea over his hand. The blood and dirt mixed with it and poured among the ashes. He bit into his bearded lower lip and said nothing. I reached into the closet for old rags lost among knitting needles and fairytale books. One of the needles fell to the floor. He stared at me briefly and then looked into the fire as I wrapped his hand in a fresh rag. He tilted his head wistfully as if studying how the flames consumed the remaining wood. Surrendering. I tied the knot. He looked at me, thanked me, and motioned to get up and leave.

“Stay.”

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