Ice House: Asetma
Courage faded as hours died away from the clock on the wall. I lost my focus as my search of Th'Estate came up as empty as it always did when I went in search of the green eyed girl. Elder's words had fed only my head and my heart was now hungry for more than knowledge. My heart needed the taste of something to believe in. This left my soul emptier than it had ever been before.
The plan was set and I had only to carry it out. It was a hard test and I almost failed it. I came instants from talking myself out of any action that would have restored Tommy to the land of the living, where he belonged by rights. Time had come for me to use my gifts and I barely resolved not to fail Tommy. My mind could not grasp the emptiness in my heart.
It was not that I wanted to fail Tommy. I really did care about the boy's fate for more reasons than the fact that saving him would save me as well. The job was so large that I could not face the whole of it in a single glance. There I stood, with everything that I valued within my grasp and I wished that the cup could be passed beyond my lips to those of a better champion. Something was missing.
Elder's plan was the key to my every dream. I could not understand my own hesitancy. The body that joined me as a part of the physical world seemed heavier than my spirit could move. This hesitation had to come from another nameless spirit in Th'Estate.
Whatever the force was that lived in Th'Estate and ate away at my devotion to purpose was it would have to wait for a better time for me to face it. In recognizing this, I was empowered to pull free of the force's influence enough to continue my search. The plan was mine. The feeling within me was not mine.
My lethargy was putting my life at risk as much as it was endangering Tommy and burning the time that I had left to change my fate. Down in Obsille, I knew that Sheriff Braggs had assembled a posse not much unlike the avenging angels who had come for Miriam Asetma in her day. I could not blame Sheriff Braggs if I had wanted to. In my earlier life, steeped in the ignorance of modernity, I would have done the same thing. God had shown me the door and given me the choice of opening it.
Walking around the vast house of the Asetma Estate was not helping me to get Tommy back. I chose to go to the one person who knew where he was and how to get there. The only place that I knew that I could find the green eyed girl was in the statue that I had thrice seen. Courage was hard to come by but I was more afraid of failure than of the statue.
I was still not sure where the statue was in the Imperial Forest. My first encounter with it had been while I was chasing the old witch woman, Elizabeth, through the Imperial Forest behind the walls of Th'Estate. The second time had been when Elizabeth was taking me to the old Asetma house. There just wasn't enough time to find the old witch woman to show me the location of the statue.
How did I find the statue when I was sent to meet Sheriff Braggs there? A greater force had led me into the Imperial Forest when I was not thinking of it. My every remaining hope had to rely on the belief that the same force wanted me to walk the path upon which my feet had been placed. Guidance would be provided to me while I was in the Imperial Forest. However, I still wished that I could speak to the Old Witch Woman about the way to the statue so that I would be sure of finding it.
If I had found the old witch woman, then I doubt that she would have approved of what I had in mind. Elizabeth took pity on the green eyed girl. I could understand her pity, yet I could not share it at that point. The truth was that I felt too guilty over what I was intending to do for me to face Elizabeth. Elder could not take that dark feeling out of my heart and mind with his wise old words.
What I considered to be my optimal path was back down the road toward Obsille. It was dangerous for me to go so far from Th'Estate without having Tommy to return to the Sheriff. The path parted from the road much of the way back to the town. Taking the other way to the statue, through the dense woods of the Imperial Forest, would have resulted in my getting lost long before finding the statue. I took the path with the better odds.
The road to Obsille was quieter than I expected. I could hear historic echoes of the same avenging angels who had long ago come up that road to rip Miriam Asetma out of her nest. This time, I thought, they would come for me. My odds on trial were no better than Miriam's had been. Innocence would not save me. Was I even innocent?
There was a comfort in leaving the road onto the path into the woods. The light was failing and darkness had begun to fall over the land. To all but the ghosts, I would be hard to find. Nobody would leave road for the path until sunrise. Lacking the courage of our forefathers, I doubted that anybody would even come close to Asetma itself until the sun cleansed the darker sprites from the road ahead.
It was not courage or an illusion like bravery that drove me on. Young Tommy was like a son to me and I wanted his safe return every bit as much as I needed it. I had placed myself into that situation to keep myself focused on the showdown that fate demanded from me. Tommy would be back and Miriam gone before the sun rose again or I would fall into the footnotes of history.
At the branching of the path, I met someone that I did not expect to see. Somebody did have the courage to come all the way to Asetma for me, but malice was not in his ways. Faith was his shield and honor was his sword. Brother Steven stood on the path before me.
He had changed his clothes. His robe was replaced by a sweatshirt and jeans. I'm not sure how I saw him, standing there in dark clothes past the setting of the sun, but I did. It was meant to be that way by forces that I could not deny and Brother Steven would not deny.
"Good evening, Mark."
"Do you know the way to the statue, Steven?"
"I do, my son." I noticed his hand clench tighter onto his Bible with those words. To me, it looked like the green eyed girl holding her book.
"Lead on and we'll talk on the way."
His feet remained planted like the roots of the old tree. "That is not where you will find that which you seek."
"I'm listening if you have a better idea, father. I'm kind of rushed."
"When you return to Asetma, she whom you seek will be waiting for you. It is me that you are lead to speak with out here on this night."
"How do you know that she is going to be there?"
"Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?"
Unable to get around Steven, and knowing in my heart that he was right about the green eyed girl, I turned around to go back to Th'Estate. Strong hands from the unseen world place my feet firmly on the path back to Estate Avenue. But those hands held down my pace in walking it. There was more left for me to hear.
Brother Steven would not let me go without him. "What you have in mind may get Tommy back, but it will not help you my son."
"Right now, I only care about results. You have to know what is going on."
"Are you prepared to take up your crown and lay it at the foot of the cross?"
"You only have until we reach the gates of Th'Estate to come to a point."
"You've learned to disguise your form and can trick the little girl into taking you over to where Tommy is."
I was too rushed, and too busy feigning focus, to wonder how Brother Steven knew about my plan. What did enter my mind was the thought that, if the green eyed girl knew what I had in mind, then she could refuse me even in my disguise. "That may be the first thing that you've said that I find encouraging."
"The problem, as always, is with the price. All who take up the sword shall perish by the sword."
"What are you saying, Steven? I cannot leave Tommy over there in the land of the dead."
"Do not treat people as Adrian did. Ask the little girl to help you."
My feet came to a stop and I almost didn't notice it. Why wouldn't I ask the girl first? She could refuse and then I would have lost only a few moments of time. The plan shared by Elder and I would not go away and I could use it if the green eyed girl held out against me. My heart denied that the green eyed girl would hold out against me.
When I turned, the old monk was gone again. He was almost as hard to hold onto as Elder. I still wonder if, in life, Elder was as tricky as Brother Steven. They both spoke in riddles and avoided coming to a point as though each was allergic to making sense.
But, this time, Brother Steven had made the kind of sense that my heart was hungry to feast upon. I wanted to ask the green eyed girl for help. It had always been my desire to ask the green eyed girl to help me. Only my mind was unaware of that fact. Brother Steven had shown me the truth that I was looking at without seeing it.
My feet found new drive in the wise words of the elder monk. I walked the path through the darkness as though I was on a mission to meet with an old friend who had long been absent and had just returned. In my heart, I knew that Brother Steven was right about the green eyed girl being in Th'Estate. She was waiting for me there.
The path was dark beneath the ancient trees of the Imperial Forest. Stars are not easy to see from the path in the coldest parts of winter when the trees shed their leaves for a blanket of snow and ice. That time of year was not yet upon me so the trees blocked out all light on the last third of my walk back to Estate Avenue. Only the drive of my feet to meet with my old friend kept me to the path through the sightless places of the Imperial Forest.
I walked lightly through the darkness with a happy heart. The spirit within me had found the missing part of the plan and I was ready to carry it out. No longer being empty, my mind and body found union in Brother Steven's words. It felt like my power was restored. My inability to know the secrets of the Imperial Forest came only from the fact that I was of Th'Estate and not the forest.
Light eventually came through the darkness and I was hesitant to step into it. My every step had been guided by a force that protected me as it drove me onward. Through the woods, I had been so drawn to meet with my old spectral friend that I had considered nothing else. When the light returned to my eyes, my mind clouded with doubts and questions. I stepped onto Estate Avenue more confused than I had been when I stepped off of the paved road.
It made a great deal of sense for me to walk back toward the enchanted gates of Th'Estate disguised as Miriam. I was as wanted in Obsille as Miriam was unwanted. Even if Sheriff Braggs had found a deputy with the courage to look for me in the Imperial Forest, closer to Th'Estate than most men of Obsille cared to get on a dark night, then I would be safe in the form of Miriam Asetma. Such courageous men would be quick to talk themselves out of believing that they had seen a ghost.
I found humor in the knowledge that they would have been right. Even in the cloak of Miriam's appearance, I was not a ghost. There would have been little threat in facing me and my parlor tricks. It must have been a strange sight to catch a glance at a smile on Miriam Asetma's face.
Something stepped onto the path in front of me. It had the shape of a large dog without eyes. To my eyes, it looked like a shadow moving in space. I could feel more than the simple fact that it was solid and real. This specter was looking at me with its void eyes.
A patch of moonlight reflecting up from Estate Avenue allowed me to see its solid tail in the darkness. The tip of its tail moved slowly, from side to side, like that of a snake warning off a predator. It was a shadow casting no reflection and attached to no object. I could almost see a few strands of loose, shadow hair attached to the end of that threatening tail.
Whatever that thing was, it could see me. This thing had no eyes and did not see form. My visitor saw through my cloak and into my very real soul. There were no lies between us. Even the lies of our own senses were dispelled by the spell.
It said what it had come to say with a stern confidence that had never known fear. We had no need for mere words and I doubt that this shadowy creature knew any. Death had a pet and this shadow was it. There was no hiding from the things that I had to face before the break of dawn.
In its presence, fear was the only thing that I could know. One thought and I could have been on my knees in prayer. A few words from the heart and my Lord would protect me. But, I could not think in my fear. Beyond that, I was ashamed to have my Lord see me involved in such deception as my theft and use of Miriam's form represented.
With a lick of flame from the void of his eyes, the shadow passed back into the darkness from which he had come. I forgot all about the wisdom in my choice to assume Miriam's form and dropped my shield. Until I could again stand on my own feet without trembling, I did not think of putting my cloak back on. By that time, I was most of the way back to the heavy gates that shielded Th'Estate from the aging world outside.
I stood in the darkness of Estate Avenue, before the heavy gates, for longer than is advisable. Anybody could have seen me and I do not know what did see me standing there. My mind tried to make sense of the things in my life that dictated reason to reality. Was it wise for me to hide behind the appearance of fear itself?
Those thoughts hurt my head. I could rationalize until the end of days. What I needed was reality. My doubts scolded me for doing something that left me unwilling to ask for the only help that would be effective in the battle ahead of me. When I took Miriam's appearance, I was on my own.
Squirrels knocking over garbage cans behind me spooked me back into my illusion. I took it as a sign, almost of approval for what I was doing. The nagging feeling remained clear in my mind. There are many forces that can influence the behavior of squirrels. In the end, I allowed myself to be spooked into doing something that I was uncomfortable doing.
The gates saw my approach and welcomed me home. Th'Estate was not fooled. It knew who I was when the heavy iron barriers folded back, out of my way. My home called me by name. I could hear its voice in the groaning of the hinges as the gates drifted shut behind me. Then the chains slipped into place, locking me in.
It was strange how the trees seemed to bow as I paraded down the walkway to the front doors of the great house. The deformed oaks twisted themselves toward the walkway for a better view of my steps. With each step, the trees ahead of me bent lower while the trees at my back returned to their upright form. No wind with the courage to disturb Th'Estate had ever brought those mighty oaks so close to the ground. In point of fact, it was a calm night.
The trees may have seen Miriam as I held her form the whole way up the walkway. Aside from the great tree in the Imperial Forest, trees did not speak to me so I do not know what it is that they saw. Their bowing to me felt odd and I did not like it at all. It was unlike the iron gates of Th'Estate welcoming me home in more ways than the feeling that the trees were bowing to Miriam. More than honor and greeting, it felt like the trees were acting out of fear.
As I have stated for the record, I do not know how to read the thinking of these trees. I would have liked it for them to call out to me by any name. To know the truth, either way, would have been a comfort. The option of dropping my façade always remained with me. All that I needed was for the trees to speak up and I would have given them honesty in return.
It went further with each step I took toward the greater Asetma house. What if the gates parted for me because they saw me as being like Miriam? I felt their greeting as a welcome but I did not know what sort of a master Th'Estate wished to have. The silence of the trees was maddening in its effect on me.
Silence is hard to ignore. Each step down the walk brought another thought that weakened my resolve. My only comfort lie in the force that I applied to maintaining my illusion. It was a noise that comforted my ears through the strain of the silence of the trees. Why would the trees offer such a gracious greeting and not say a single word to me?
I thought hard about dropping Miriam's image for a moment so that the trees would know the truth of my entry. The truth would have been an offering in exchange for one scrap of knowledge. If only the trees would tell me that thing that they had to say, then I could have known comfort on the walkway. Truth did not come from either side.
When my resolve broke and I was willing to drop the shield of my deception, I found that it was locked in place around me. I could not expose the truth of my identity. My mind, struggling against both fear and doubt, had seized onto the projection as a lifeline. It was a lifeline that my mind refused to be parted from. There was too little will left within me to fight my own grip on the deception that I had wrapped around myself.
It felt like the walk went on forever. The walk up to the front of the greater Asetma manner is not short, yet it does have an end to it. Nothing that the trees did had extended the physical length of the walkway. My trip had been stretched only in my mind.
Reaching the front door of the house was such a relief that my mind lost its grip on the illusion for an instant. I cannot say what the trees saw because I cannot see through their eyes. What I can say is that the leaves got quieter when they saw the flash. It may not have been a long enough loss of power for the trees to see through the illusion, although they reacted positively to whatever it was that they saw in that instant.
My hands shook as I tried to turn the key in the front lock. I had been holding the illusion for a longer time than I had ever tried before and my resolve was wearing. The porch was far enough from Estate Avenue where I could have been safe dropping the shield at that time, but I held on. Even I cannot say why I held on to the illusion while I unlocked the door.
The strength of my will did not last far past the door. I fell to the floor, knocking the door closed by rolling against it. There I sat for a number of minutes and may even have taken a nap. Days could have passed while I sat against the door and I doubt that I would have noticed it. Using my power took everything out of me.
It would have done me no good to resist the need for rest. Without the strength to get my shield up, I could not have had an alternative plan if the green eyed girl refused to help me. I had no protection against anybody who came close enough to Th'Estate to look in. Staying put would have been my best move even if I had been given the strength to do anything else.
My heart trusted the green eyed girl and could believe nothing other than that she would help me the moment that I asked. But, I have a rational side as well as a heart. There were two possibilities and I had to be ready for both of them. The moment that I could get back onto my feet, I tested my ability to take Miriam's form. I did not move further until I could hold the illusion.
I came to the green eyed girl while I was disguised as Miriam. It is an act for which I will apologize even to those people who know of it only by my own admission. Those burning green eyes which had looked clean through me on each earlier encounter could not bear to look even at me while I was in Miriam's form. Words have never been coined which can adequately explain how bad that felt in the deepest parts of my heart.
The illusion faded from the world around me. I longed to place my hand beneath the green eyed girl's chin and raise her head so that her bright green eyes could see that I was sorry. My hand wanted to dry her tears, which were the tears of many hard lifetimes. If I had been given any way to embrace her misty form, then I would have given her all the comfort that I had and kept none for myself. That was the depth of my sorrow.
She did not look up at me. Her rejection cut through me like a salted whip and I could not deny that I had earned its sting. The green eyed girl was a rare flower, plucked from its stem far too soon to have born sweet fruit. A phantom wind, called by her defeated will, blew through the corridor and her gown billowed like the sails of a great ship bound for exotic, far off ports.
It was only instants before she turned away from me and started to walk down the passage. I knew that I had wronged a friend and had a hard time stringing words together to address her. When she left, I knew that she was taking all of my hope away with her. Further, I knew that I deserved the curse that I had brought upon myself. It was for Tommy's sake that I broke the silence.
"Please," I said. "Take me to where I can free the boy, Tommy, from his bondage."
Her soundless steps came to an abrupt stop. She stood there, facing away from me, until I was soaked from my nervous sweat. The things on her mind were out of my sight and I have no right to them. Why she turned back in not my business. It was her choice, indeed her sacrifice, to turn back to me.
At first, she kept her bright eyes away from me. She looked to my right and then to my left. It seemed as thought she was trying to speak to me using words that my ears could not hear. Slowly, her eyes centered on me, scanning me from foot to head. When she stopped moving her head, she was looking directly into my eyes. As she looked through me, there were no great secrets between us.
In an instant, she stood only inches in front of me. Then she held out a hand that I longed to take hold of but could not. I really tried to hold her hand. We were in different worlds until her hand solidified around my hand. Her hand was warm and soft once it lost its phantom nature.
That was the instant in which I crossed over, through the green eyed girl's door and into her world. It did not come to me, at first. I was only paying attention to the fact that I could now touch and feel a girl who had, instants earlier, been nothing more than an image projected into a cold mist. Her touch comforted me while I realized that I was no longer standing in a passage beneath Th'Estate. Comfort did not mean that I escaped the shock of the transition.
What passed for my body in that place was frozen in place. My mind found humor in the thought that I was now the phantom statue in the presence of the green eyed girl. A moment's humor gave me back some of my feeling and I found that I could move about a little bit. Full motion was only restored to me when I was filled with the desire to help the phantom green eyed girl, whom I had wronged.
I do not mean to sound as bad as I am for forgetting about Tommy's fate in that place. It took me time to even remember his condition and I am sorry for that in ways that I cannot put into words. Know that I make no excuses. My mind failed me. Tommy was my reason for passing over and I had forgotten about him for those minutes when I was with the green eyed girl.
In the spirit world, you do not move with your legs. Moving your legs just makes you flap about like a flag caught in a strong breeze. Everything in the world to which I had ascended was a matter beyond the flesh. This is not to say that we were formless in that place. We had come to a place of spirit and the body had to follow where the spirit went.
A thought could carry me everywhere or nowhere at all. And, my first thoughts were still of helping the little girl whom I had exploited. She deserved better than she had been given. The green eyed girl had done her time for whatever crime she had committed and the coming of her freedom could be held off no longer.
There I remembered my vow to the old witch woman. When the time came, I would give my all for the young sprite who would give away her hope for the boy caught in her place. That is how I remembered Tommy. Tommy was still a distant, nameless memory when I remembered my vow.
My first thought took me to a place. I do not understand the symbolism, yet God needs not explain himself to the likes of me. When I asked what was holding the green eyed girl in that awful place, he took me to see a bridge. The bridge left the flat, formless place and went into a bright, comforting light. It was the passage to the place the green eyed girl was meant to go to.
The bridge seemed narrow at the foot, yet it was plenty wide for my friend to cross it. With each virtuous act in her spirit, the bridge had grown wider until it was wide enough to drive a truck over. I did not understand why she had not already walked over its length. To my eyes, there were no barriers to her crossing.
At the base of the bridge, standing on either side at the foot of the bridge, were two forms. The first spirit looked like the green eyed girl, but she was dressed all in white. It was from this spirit that all light in the void came. She was the lantern.
Even I recognized the second spirit although I had to think about it to recall who she was. Her form was blacker than any darkness that I had ever seen. She was almost without form in the darkness that surrounded her. It was the truest form of Miriam Adelle Asetma.
What force she used to restrain the green eyed girl was beyond my knowing. The green eyed girl could have passed by her at any time, had she wanted to. If she needed it, then the lantern was stronger than any other force in the void. It was like an angel guarding the green eyed girl's steps.
What seemed strangest is that the force restraining the green eyed girl felt like love. Although stronger, it was the same kind of feeling that I had for Orsa when I had been sent away to Th'Estate. Miriam was almost feeling what I had felt when Stan had passed beyond the realm of life. It was a strong feeling, although it was far stronger in the lantern and the green eyed girl. The feeling in Miriam had existed only as a reflection of the force that bound the green eyed girl to her prison as I was also bound there. We were kindred.
She whom had passed beyond life was still not in death. Miriam's love, real in as far as it went, was not the real limitation on the brighter sprite's movements. Life still remained in the green eyed girl, although her body had met its end long before I had been given life. Whatever spell Miriam had cast in her dark place had given an unnatural life to the girl with the same fire green eyes that Miriam bore. Such life was the lantern who also barred the way to the rest that the green eyed girl had earned.
My promise to Elisabeth was not to be forgotten. How could I take even unnatural life from the gentle girl that I still thought fondly of as a friend? Could such an act be asked and required from me? Elisabeth had asked for and been given the word that was my honor. What I had been sworn to do had yet to be done.
The spell had to be broken even as it was to mean an embrace of death to the same green eyed girl who had been my comfort and friend. I knew that she would forgive me for taking away the curse that had been such long life to her. She had earned her promised rest in her heavenly father's kingdom. Mine would be a righteous act of mercy. And yet I hesitated.
I could not even allow the thought of how I would put her to rest to enter my mind. It was an act that I would be unable to forgive myself for. If the taking of life had been easy for me, then I would have been as unworthy as Miriam Asetma had proven to be. That was a fate that I was desperate to escape.
So I stood there many minutes of spiritual time trying not to think the thoughts that I was required to have in my head. The girl that I had to kill was also somebody that I cared about. She meant more to me than she did to Miriam Asetma whom showed love only for the green eyed girl. Even Miriam cared about the green eyed girl.
On my knees in the open part of the luminous fog, I prayed that the bitter cup could be taken from my hands. It was not easy for me to think of a single person whom I would like to pass the cruel task at hand on to. In fact, there was nobody that I could be so bitter toward. I shed a tear in my prayers for the knowledge that the cup from which I did not want to drink was also a cup that I did not have the heart to pass to any other soul.
Yet, I could feel that my prayer had been answered in some way. It was not to be my fate to have to take the life that had been given to my friend. The caring voice spoke into my heart telling me that the sadness of the task at hand was a drink that would pass through no mortal lips. My gentle friend was to have the Lord's peace at last. I had already done the thing that was required of me.
At that, I expected the green eyed girl to pass over the bridge and exit the land of the curse. The lantern should have faded as a puff of smoke breaking down in a breeze. Miriam's chain of half hearted love should have broken, slapping back and knocking her out of the little girl's way. But that is not what came to pass.
Nothing happened. My first thoughts were that I would have to expel Miriam back to where she belonged before the spell could be broken. It was to be a difficult task. Yet it was a task more agreeable than taking away the life imparted to a friend. There were few limits to what I would have done to avoid having to take away what measure of life had been returned to the green eyed girl by the curse placed upon her. I could not bring myself to do that.
Even with the knowledge that the lantern was holding the green eyed girl back from her reward, I could not feel that she was an evil spirit. The lantern was a part of the green eyed girl and her character was that of the green eyed girl. She was like a double for the green eyed girl. Whatever evil had caused the lantern to part from the green eyed girl and be a leash to her, I could not feel it in the lantern spirit.
I had been told that I had already done the thing that was required of me and I took that to heart when I departed from the open spot before the bridge. The reason that Miriam did not see me standing there has never been told to me. Maybe it was not by my eyes that I had been given to see these things. It is just as possible that Miriam cannot see in the heartwarming light given by the lantern spirit. Whatever the reason, I can only speculate and that is wasting time.
At the edge of the illuminated fog, I found security in obscurity. As I could see nobody in the phantom light, I assumed without knowledge that nobody could see me. The thought was just comforting to me while I tried to formulate strategy. I had been told that I had already done my part with the green eyed girl; however, both Miriam and Tommy were still my problem.
The voice said nothing on either account. My heart was calm as though it was still. A feeling permeated the whole of the realm into which the green eyed girl had taken me. It was a distraction when I tried to think and plan my assault on Miriam. When my mind remained devoid of ideas on how to complete my task, the feeling held me calm.
By name, the feeling called itself grace and grace it was. Why grace would be the character of a prison for the half dead is impossible to say. It is not even an easy thought to believe. Truth does not need the luxury of being believable.
My every thought was a command that space and time were bound by law to obey. When Tommy came to my mind, I was taken to the place where he was hidden in the reality beyond life. It felt like I stood still and space moved to put Tommy in front of me. Had Miriam but known of Tommy, then she could have found him with a single thought.
That was an uncomfortable thought that shook the space around me. Tommy was hidden only to those people who were ignorant of his gentle soul. If going to him had alerted Miriam to his very existence, then Miriam would have him as sure as the sun rose in the morning. I still had no idea of how I could return Miriam to her rightful place in the darkness and get Tommy back to his place in the light.
Tommy was not hard to find in the luminous fog. He sat inside of a cloud watching the green eyed girl as she moved around in the phantom world. She was Tommy's only reality. It is doubtful that young Tommy even knew that I had come to see him. In any case, his bright eyes never cast a glance aside to see me.
I knew fear while standing there. What if I thought once of Miriam and called her to the place where Tommy sat? It was my blunder that had called her back, through the door, into my world and Th'Estate. Another blunder could call her to take Tommy's life as she had taken so many lives before my time. The thought was hard to repress in my expanded mind.
In only a moment, I stopped trying to repress thoughts of Miriam. I was failing and had only one idea of how I could escape making my failing worse. When I thought of Miriam, I would not resist the pull of space. My thoughts would be allowed to take me to where Miriam stood at the side of the bridge past the dead part of the phantom world. That way, I would be pulled apart from Tommy before facing Miriam. Alone, my worst failure could cost but my own life.
The call came sooner than I could have hoped for. It was not what I wanted to happen. My mind went its own way and I was pulled along into its wake. One thought and I was facing Miriam in a way that I did not think that I would ever be ready for. Truthfully, I was not ready.
Miriam's green eyes latched onto me and I could not move. She flooded my mind with her fear so that I could not pull away from her. It broke the spell and I could feel the green eyed girl move away from Miriam the very moment that Miriam seized me with her gaze. The force of Miriam Asetma's will had dominion over every atom of my being.
I had forgotten about Beth's words. When one of the living souls crossed wholly over to the land uniting life and death, one of the spirits held there was given lease to enter our world in physical form. Tommy had given flesh back to Beth. Without a doubt, Miriam knew how to use my presence to do as much for herself. Understanding came to me only when hope fled.
It had not been Miriam's goal to take material form within Th'Estate. She seemed quite able to do that of her own ungodly power. Miriam Asetma wanted something more out of me. The thing that Miriam tried to take from me escaped my notice. My mind is still not clear on exactly what Miriam wanted from me.
Miriam seemed to melt into a ghastly gray fog. I could feel her in my head, yet it was not just her presence that I felt. The fog of Miriam passed right through my forehead with a cold zap. Her power was not great, but she was skilled in the use of gifts that I had no knowledge of. She was beyond any method of fighting that I could use as a mortal with a physical body.
I felt myself falling backwards into a void within my own body. They were my eyes to see with; however, they turned to look where Miriam had the desire to see. My ears could still tell me of sound around me, but the sounds seemed distant as though they came by radio from another world. All of my extremities seemed to go numb as Miriam moved into the space that had formerly been mine. And Miriam became what had formerly been me.
How do you fight something that you cannot touch? I was confined to a small part of my own body, near the center of my chest. Feeling did not work, but all of my other senses seemed intact. It was like watching a movie. My body was moving around and doing things that I could only watch. The part of me that controlled my movements felt so tired that it only had the power to sleep.
My body felt so heavy that I could not make it move. When I moved my arm, my physical arm did not go with it. I was floating in a space that my body contained even though I was not really linked to my own body. The body that I had been given became my prison.
I do know the power of prayer. It just is not easy to believe that words can affect something so powerful that it can toss you around the room without breaking a sweat. Faith is the power of prayer and my faith had been shaken. My defenses were inoperable.
It seems that is the way of things in life. When you fight in the largest battles of life, it is never by your own might that you pull through it. You will win or you will lose by forces far greater than you could ever imagine. This is meant to keep us humble.
Miriam, now using my legs for propulsion through the phantom world, walked over to the green eyed girl for reasons that I could not pull out of Miriam's mind. She looked deep into those fire-green eyes with a vision that made those selfsame eyes lose their luster and become like colored coals. Whatever Miriam wanted from me, she wanted for the green eyed girl that she could not let go of. Even Miriam Asetma had to sense within me the part of my heart which would have given the fountain of my life to the green eyed girl who had been my friend in her unnatural life. For the green eyed girl, I lacked the strength to refuse what I would easily have denied to Miriam.
Refusal came neither from Miriam nor from me. The green eyed girl herself refused to take whatever it was that Miriam had offered her. It could have been anything. My phantom friend was a good friend to me and would sacrifice herself for me. She would give up her hope, once more as Elisabeth would have said, for Tommy.
I saw the light of the lantern grow a thousand times brighter in the mists. With my eyes to server her, Miriam was blinded by the light. The light reached into my body far enough to find me in my small prison. Yet the light had not the strength to grant me freedom. That was not the message of the lantern.
Miriam knew that the green eyed girl had a body that was long dead. I could feel that in the far edges of her mind which was visible even to me in my subjugation. To give life anew to the green eyed girl, Miriam would need a body for her which had life left to it. For the green eyed girl, Miriam sought a body that could not know death. That was more than she could get from me.
The light stunned Miriam for a second or more. I took the option of using the gift that was mine alone, even when I had been deprived of my body. Miriam saw her own reflection in the mirror of the fog. It was an appearance that something within Miriam took great offense to and it shook her to the core of her being. When the fog broke open, the green eyed girl walked through the reflection that she had not seen.
There I had an opening that would give me the battle if not the war. In the moments when Miriam was weak, I told the green eyed girl to watch over Tommy, taking the chance that Miriam would not get free from me long enough to take him as well. Tommy, as Miriam knew, had far more life to him than a man of my age. If I did not return Miriam to the dark place where she belonged, then Tommy's life would grant more time to the green eyed girl while Miriam searched further for the hidden mystery of Th'Estate.
Why was there a bridge between the worlds? With my will, I darted toward the bridge between the dead world and the next world. My body, carrying Miriam Asetma as well as my own spirit, moved with the force of my thoughts. It would take but a second, but it would be a long second for me. I could not hold out against the power that Miriam knew how to use.
The bridge narrowed as my foot came to rest upon it. Miriam had the use of my foot and dominion over the whole of my body. I had nothing left and fell into fatigue as the bridge gave way to the blackness. Even Miriam Asetma, with knowledge of powers that we may both have had, could not escape judgment for her black heart. No saint to be sure, I fell into the abyss with Miriam.
Our Lord does not grant life lightly and his justice is reserved for when each man's days are done. Alive, the abyss could have no claim to hold me. Miriam rode the life in my body close to the wall between the worlds. That wall is thin in many places around Th'Estate and I fell to my fear that she should pass again into the material world by my hand. If no other way remained, then my life was forfeit to hold the black beast from another reign of terror.
I knelt before the great judge of all, as prisoner deep within my own form. There, I invited conviction upon myself for the multitude of my transgressions. That Tommy would know the life that had been given to him; I would fall into the abyss with Miriam. To save the innocent of Obsille, I would seal the door to my own salvation and remain condemned with Miriam for all the days of the world. For the honor in my impure heart, the great judge granted me parole and forced me back, alone, into my own world.
Where Miriam went was not for me to know. The darkness was pulled out of me with a force that could not be denied. It felt like Miriam turned to sand and ran out of me through the bottom of my feet. I was high on the feeling of having been set free.
My heart rejoiced in a way that mortal men do not know. I forgot my every sorrow and shame. In the warmth of the loving spirit, I was made whole and clean. There was such life in every atom that made up my body that I could not recall the look of darkness or the feeling of cold. The living water washed through me, cleaning me from the inside out.
Tommy came back into the physical world with the rising of the sun. He stood in front of me with the sun rising behind his head, like a crown that became a halo. His outline was all that I could see for a few minutes. Then I came to see how long he had been in the world past ours. Although he had not aged a day, his hair was bright white.
I came to understand that the two of us were standing on a concrete pad near the center of the walkway leading up to the greater Asetma house. It was many minutes before either of us could move in the light of the newborn day. As I cannot speak for Tommy, I will state only that it felt like I was as much a newborn as the day into which Tommy and I had returned. The feeling of being alive defies description in any language that can be written down.
The feeling that I was dragging my body around the surface of the Earth was gone. Every sound and every sensation came through into my mind as though the whole of creation was within me. Colors were so vividly bright that I could taste them. I could hear Tommy's heartbeat as clearly as I heard my own. To hear the birds playing in the trees was to see them.
All that was dead within me had remained in the land of the dead. On both ends of the tunnel, there was only life. Yet the tunnel itself was a dead place. Even death, it seems, wants to be in a place that is its own.
"Yea," said Tommy. "I can feel it too."
His eyes were bright as stars, giving light as they took it in. There was a glow to him like his spirit had grown too large to be crammed back into his small and growing body. His skin drank in the warming sunlight as the grass sucked in the morning dew. He had been given back the sense of wonder that the cold world of material reality ate away with age. To that degree, his ordeal was almost worth it.
So strange were the feelings of that morning that I began to wonder if I had returned to the world of the living as a ghost. Everything in the world was clear to me; however, nothing was in relation to me. I could feel the warmth of the rising sun, but I could not tell if I was hot or cold because of it. The air had a flavor on it that I can not describe as good or bad.
We remained standing in the morning sun until Sheriff Braggs came through the gates of Th'Estate. Th'Estate invited him in; however, he still believes that I opened the gates for him. He had a small party of about six men. The Sheriff's party surrounded me, but it was Tommy that they were looking at. Tommy was the Sheriff's priority.
I assume that they asked me a couple of questions concerning Tommy's reappearance. It is not that I failed to hear them or even that I never answered them. They were not worth remembering to me. Every squirrel in Th'Estate's grounds, every bird in the morbidly deformed oaks and even the crickets in the lawn mattered more to me. What are men with their ways of distrust and collusion when you stand in clear view of God's loving handy work?
"Let's go in for a bit of tea," I said. "I'm hungry."
In the end, only Sheriff Braggs remained to speak with me. I know this because he was the only other person dining with me that morning. There were only two sets of dishes for me to wash when he left for the day. Sheriff Braggs did leave me in Th'Estate that day.
Oletta set out the morning meal for the two of us without being seen by Sheriff Braggs. She was more mysterious than most ghosts. I do not know, nor have I asked, how she managed to know that there would be two of us for breakfast. Somehow, she even guessed that Sheriff Braggs has a special love for fresh apple-butter and liked his tea with a cinnamon stick.
Seated for the meal, but only after saying grace, Sheriff Braggs and I really spoke together. If nothing else can be said of him, then let it be written for all eternity that he is a man of his word. He may be a coward, incompetent and even a slob, yet you can believe in what he says. Sheriff Braggs was always a good man.
"Well," I stated.
Sheriff Braggs took a deep breath more from the feeling that he lacked the words to speak than from having a great deal to say. "I don' know how ya did it, but ya ‘ere right about th' statue."
"And she will finally be allowed to rest?"
"Has Y'all considered join' the force, Mahk? Y'all knows so much ‘bout that gi'l that y'all was a suspect fer much the night."
I tried hard not to smile with the memory of the green eyed girl's gentle presence. My reputation was bad enough without having it known that I smiled a happy smile when the body of a murdered girl was mentioned to me. The fact that I smiled for the girl as she had been in life would be lost on the whole of conspiracy minded Obsille. It would hardly matter that she had been dead a century more than I had been alive.
"It is my duty to remain at my post, here, Sheriff."
Oletta managed to refill the Sheriff's tea cup without him seeing her. She didn't seem to mind that I saw her do it. I feel that she didn't want me to really fire her. Her status as my resident bad luck charm would be hard to justify when I filled out the payroll paperwork.
"Y'all can tell me, Mahk. W'ere waz da boy Tom'y?"
"To tell you the absolute truth, I do not know where that place is."
The sheriff's tone hardened a bit as he addressed me more directly. "Y'all know that dare will be questions ‘bout all this?"
"Yes, I know."
"We had a deal and Y'all can count on me t' do right by ya, Mahk."
I there spoke words that I never thought that I would hear myself say. My time as the cursed slave of Th'Estate had been extended as the result of my own actions and it was not with distain that I took the news. "Thank you, Sheriff Braggs."
"Y'all know I was no fan when they tol' me t' put ya up ‘ere in Th'Estate. Y'all took it better ‘hen I ‘xpected. If'n ya do right by Obsille, ‘hen you got a home in Th'Estate."
"And the green eyed girl shall be put to rest at last?"
"As y'all ‘ahe my word, I shall see t' it."
Sheriff Braggs and I shared the morning meal in much the same way I had dined with Walgo. It was unearthly how calm I felt dining in property that was my own. I knew that my duty would cost me the love of fare Orsa and it did not bother me in those moments. The questions concerning Tommy had not even really begun. My heart was so contented that I could not bring myself to experience any ill feeling.
At some point, although I do not even know if it was on that same day, I know that Sheriff Braggs told me that Tommy could tell the investigators nothing concerning where he had been for those weeks that he had been missing. All that Tommy could recall clearly was the beauty of green eyed girl. His absence had given him a kind of wisdom rarely seen in even the elders of Obsille and he carried that beneath his crown of white hair for many years after that. Yet, Tommy was never to return to Th'Estate.
In the first part, Tommy had been forbidden to go near either me or Th'Estate. This prohibition was quick to fall away as people realized that Tommy had lost his interest in Th'Estate. Tommy went out of his way to speak to me whenever I went into Obsille for supplies because the two of us were alone in the experience that nobody else in Obsille could understand. We remained friends although Tommy would never visit me in Th'Estate.
Sheriff Braggs was a man who could get things done when the spirit moved him. He arranged the funeral for the green eyed girl in less than a week. The Sheriff's investigation clearly showed that she had been dead too long for charges to be filed against any living person. This left no doubt in the fact that the green eyed girl was one of Miriam's last victims.
Miriam, the mythical witch whom children of our modern era were taught to fear, became real again to another generation. Obsille had the kind of ghouls who wanted to put the statue on display; however, Sheriff Braggs kept his word in forbidding it. We were no better, in spirit, then Miriam Asetma. It was modern angels like Sheriff Braggs who kept us better than we really were. Somebody had to care for the lost souls of Miriam's reign.
Once again at home in my cell, I sat on the edge of my bed. The night was cold, but there was secret warmth in Asetma, beneath the clammy humidity of the musty air, that kept me safe. I knew that Asetma would hold me for all time and I embraced the estate as it embraced me. We were kindred. Alone together, we were a pariah lent pair in whom others sought only their own amusement.
The whole room was dark even at the edges of the candlelight. It was the gloomy kind of atmosphere where the mind releases its tenuous grip on reality and runs away with any errant, unnerving idea within its grasp. I took a deep breath of the enchanted air, choosing to feel only at home. Truthfully, I was at home. What I was not is alone.
What warmth I found in the estate that night was a kindred presence. Another spirit walked through the darkness and also had nothing left to fear from it. Sadness overwhelmed me and I closed my eyes to hide a tear. It did no good to try and hide from the heart of Asetma. Only my foolish pride led me to try.
My candle flickered in a vain attempt to keep warm in the chill. Green specks of light floated where I could barely make them out. I could feel that they pondered me as long as I pondered them. The candle burned dimly and found its colored reflection in the lights. Even the moon overhead could not overcome the shades and shadows of my part of Asetma.
Then the green lights took flight and crossed the room to my bedside. I could just barely make out the form of a young girl in spite of the dying light. Her steps on the old wooden floor were light as though her feet never touched the heavy boards from which it had been made. Perfume tried to overcome the must of the room and almost succeeded.
She knelt down at the side of my bed, placing a book on the bed in front of me. Her glowing hand caressed the cover of the tome with great respect and care. Our eyes did not meet as neither of us was up to such deep expressions of empathy. "I'd like for you to have this, Mark."
"So you are Kathryn Asetma."
"My father gave this to me just before he died. He held out almost long enough to give it to me on my birthday."
"I do not think that I can take such a great prize from you, dear Kathryn."
"For centuries, I have hidden and protected this one prize. Everything else I owned has been lost in time. I can think of nobody else that I would rather give this to."
It was hard to swallow in that moment. Words took time to form in my mouth when they finally found entry into my mind. "You keep it, Kathryn. I do not have it in me to deprive you of this gift."
"Time is short, Mark. Tomorrow, you will have me buried in the blessed ground where I should have been resting with my father. You have earned your reward and I have nothing more to give."
"You have suffered enough, Kathryn. Most of this world did not know that you were lost out there. I cannot hurt you like this. Please do not ask this of me. I'd be as bad as Miriam if I did."
"You did not know mama before all of this, Mark. Mama saw only the potential in the magic to do good. It killed my father, but mama turned to it in hopes of saving me."
"I never meant to hurt you. Please forgive me if I have done so."
Kathryn then lifted my right hand and placed it on her book. For the only time, she really looked into my eyes and let me see whom she was deep inside. Within her eyes I saw what I had loved about Orsa. "I hope that you can send mama over to us in time, Mark. She had a good heart at one time."
"Do you know how badly I would like to grant that wish for you, Kathryn?"
"Would you have the strength to pass the test that mama failed, Mark?"
"Dearest Kathryn, I hope that God never gives me that test to take."
"If I had lived, then the test would have been mine to take. You must now live my curse and I am sorry for you."
"I'm going to miss you. It seems an odd thing to say, however, it is also the truth."
"Take my book and keep it always. Remember that we are all counting on you. Do not forget us as we will always remember you, Mark."
If I could have found the words to say to her, she would have given me no time to speak them. I felt a gentle kiss on my forehead and I wrapped my arms around the solidified air where she stood. Her weak perfume finally died out; yet not before shedding the musk of death that polluted it. In my arms, she felt alive for that single moment.
My candle died out in the vacuum where she vanished into slumber. It seemed an instant later that my head fell into my pillow, my arms folded to hold the book to my chest and the bad dream of reality ended. I awoke kind of late the next day, missing most of Kathryn's overdue funeral. But that didn't matter since I had already said my parting words to her. Only I had heard her parting words and they were mine to cherish.
I still read from the cherished book, over Kathryn's peaceful grave, on warm spring and fall days. It comforts me to know that some good has come from my time in Th'Estate. We live in the domain of a just God who grants peace in the face of terror. Kathryn's face comes back to me when the restless darkness of Th'Estate threatens to drink the life out of me. She has been sent to be my guardian angel.