Thursday, June 21, 2012

Unseen (part 27)


"Bird-headed men?" asked Mrs. Sanger curiously over the top of her book.

"Yeah. I'm looking for anything I can find."

She closed her book.  "Well, several ancient cultures had an obsession with bird-headed people.  Egypt, Sumeria, India -- are you working on a report?"

"Something like that," I said.  In truth, Peck's bizarre mental image from that morning was starting to get to me.  I couldn't help thinking that I was supposed to understand it somehow.

"Well, come on, let's see what we find."  Mrs. Sanger directed me deep into the 290 section and began pulling titles. Soon she had accumulated a small pile of books on the pantheons of ancient religions.

"There's something else I wanted to ask about," I began uncertainly.

"Mmm?" Mrs. Sanger was reading the spine of another book.  "Try this one," she added, and slid The Gods of Ancient Egypt off the shelf and added it to the stack.

"Is there... um... do you know of anything fun going on around here that's free?"

She gave me a knowing smile.  "Such as, say... something to do on a date?"

My face burned. I wondered briefly if this was what being John Woodbury was like.  "I... I guess you could say that."

"Oh, I'm sure I could set you up with a few ideas," Mrs. Sanger said.

Eventually Mrs. Sanger saw me off with about thirty pamphlets and flyers detailing local free things to do, plus a couple of museum passes.  The Schwinn's basket was so laden down that I was tempted to use the knack just to keep the bike upright, but Keefe wasn't going to be bored if I could help it.

I slowly wobbled my way out of the parking lot and down the long main street of the village.  At the corner I turned to head toward the state forest road -- and was almost run over by a battered green pickup truck.

The driver hit the horn hard and long.  "Watch where you're going!" he screamed out the open window.  "What the hell's wrong with you?  Stupid little bitch!"

For a moment I thought it was Keefe screaming at me, and it felt like a slap across the face.  Then I realized that, although it was Keefe's pickup, someone else was driving -- an older man I recognized from Keefe's mind, with similar facial features, but twisted and hard from years of simmering anger.  It had to be his father.  Keefe was riding shotgun, with his hand shading half his face.  We made eye contact for a moment, then he slumped down in the seat until he was all but invisible.  The driver gave me a final glare, violently shifted gears and the car roared away.

I stood there for a while, one leg out to hold the bike upright, staring after the speeding pickup, and a shiver passed through me.  How had someone as thoughtful and gentle as Keefe ever grown up in that man's shadow?  Poor Keefe.  I wished I could spirit him and his little sisters away to Corey, somehow.  There had been a way to do it, once upon a time, a way to protect those in need of sanctuary from the people who would do them harm.  Had the Conscient really taken the right decision to seal Corey off from the world -- even if it was a world with people like Mr. Godwin in it?  The way things stood, the Conscient was safe from people like him... but weren't there many others who also deserved safety?

* * *

Peck cawed lustily as I came in through the front door, but I didn't see him right away.  He wasn't in the kitchen or the dining room, either.  I dropped my library books on the dining room table and went looking for him.  He turned out to be in Mrs. Townley's room, pulling his nest apart and putting it back together again.

Mrs. Townley was right -- Peck made an unseemly mess.  Bits of twigs and feathers were spread all over the desk and floor, even across the coverlet of Mrs. Townley's bed.  Scattered among them were the shiny objects that so fascinated Peck -- metal scraps from Mr. Herrick's foundry, broken jewelry, bits of mirror, foil gum wrappers, buttons, even a few silver coins.  Peck would steal anything shiny that wasn't nailed down.

"Oh, you dirty bird," I said, exasperated.  "What are you up to now?

Peck took time out to give me a single brief glance of disdain, then returned to pulling twigs out and stuffing twigs in every which way.  Whatever he was doing, it seemed blatantly self-evident to his crow brain.

"Fine," I muttered, raking nest detritus off the bed with my fingers.  "When you're done making a mess in here, I'm going to need your help."  I gathered up the twigs and other junk in my hands as best I could and dropped it all onto the desk; if Peck was determined to destroy his nest, I could at least try to contain the damage.

That was when I first noticed the key.  It was an old, beat-up skeleton key, a few inches long and covered in crow mess, half-buried in all the junk Peck had pulled out of his nest.  I picked it up for a closer look, and Peck cawed and tried to grab it away with his beak.

"Jeez, Peck!  Leave me alone!  Doesn't even belong to you, birdbrain."  I shooed Peck off, closed the bedroom door on his raucous cawing and went out to the kitchen, where I pumped some water and washed off the key.  It cleaned up nicely, to a dull silver color; the stem had an unusual diamond shape and there were elaborate curlicues around the bow.  I wondered where Peck had found it, who was missing it, what it was meant to unlock.  There wasn't much need for keys in Corey. Peck had probably taken it from an outsider's house.  After a moment's reflection, I slipped the key into my pocket.

Peck was still making a fuss in the bedroom.  I opened the door.  "All right, I hear you.  I'm sure the whole neighborhood hears you.  You want out of here?"

Peck hopped on the desk, mentally demanding the key back.

"Just because you took it from someone doesn't mean it belongs to you."

He cawed angrily at me.

"You want it back?  Come help me out."

Peck shot a number of obscene images at me, but eventually he joined me in the dining room as I sat browsing through the library books.  He perched on the chair behind me and peered at pictures of Indian bird-men and Assyrian demigods.  Then I opened The Gods of Ancient Egypt.  Ra, Isis, Set, Amun, Thoth...

Suddenly Peck began cawing wildly.  He hopped onto the table and pecked at a picture.  It was the image of a man in a white skirt, with the head of a bird of prey.  I read the caption:

Horus, patron god of the ancient Egyptians.

"You think Mrs. Townley is hanging around with an Egyptian god?" I asked Peck incredulously.

He cawed and pecked at the picture again.  There was an edge of impatience to his thoughts now, as though it should be obvious.  I tried to think it through.  Mrs. Townley had left Corey to visit... Horus.  Peck was a birdbrain.  Why was I even doing this?

And then a fragment of conversation whispered through my mind.  Something Mrs. Townley had said just before she told me what her service to Corey was.

"Horace and I always thought we'd have children..."

"Horace," I said.  Mr. Townley's given name.  "You think Mrs. Townley is visiting Horace?"

Peck cawed as though I'd hit the jackpot.

"But that's not possible, Peck," I said gently.  "Mr. Townley died a long time ago."

I remembered Mr. Townley's funeral -- the bittersweet Song of Leavetaking, the glorious Song of Homecoming, the shared prayers and memories, the burial in the soil of Corey.  I thought of Mrs. Townley, numb and staring dry-eyed at nothing until Mrs. Ingersoll gently led her away from the grave.  Peck had to be mistaken.

Meanwhile, Peck was insistent on getting his key back.  He had held up his end of the bargain.  I sighed and held the key out toward him, and he grabbed it away from me and flew out of the room.  Moments later I heard him cawing again, and sensed he wanted me to follow him.  I shook my head at the weirdness of pet crows and wandered back toward the bedroom.

Peck wasn't there.  He was standing beside the other door.  The one I assumed led to a room full of Mr. Townley's effects -- the one Mrs. Townley always kept locked.  The key lay on the bare wooden floor before the door, where Peck had dropped it.  He looked up at me expectantly.

Slowly I bent down to pick up the key, and as I did so I noticed a draft coming from beneath the door.  It was cold and slightly damp, and it had a peculiar, dark smell -- strangely familiar, but not like anywhere else in Mrs. Townley's house.  And in that moment it occurred to me that none of this was really my business.  It wasn't my place to snoop around Mrs. Townley's house and explore all the locked spaces.  I should just put the key back into Peck's nest and walk straight out the front door.

But that's not what I did.

The wooden door stuck, having swollen against its frame, and I had to use a twist spell and an old-fashioned hard yank on the doorknob to force it open.  When the door finally swung wide, I saw that the space behind it wasn't a room at all.  It was a long, straight stone staircase, leading down into pitch darkness.  More of the strange dark smell wafted up toward me, and I recognized the slightly mildewed smell of a windowless basement.  I hadn't even known there was a basement in this house.  I breathed into my cupped hand, whispered a charm and clapped once, and made a small, bright ball of light to banish the darkness.  Beckoning to the light to follow me, I headed down the stairs.

The steps were very steep and narrow, and it was easier to walk down them sideways, crab-fashion.  The further down I went, the colder the air became, so that at the bottom of the stairs I could almost see my breath.  Even the light, trailing behind me, flickered in the stale air.  The basement walls were likewise made of stone, with crumbling bits of mortar holding them together.  It was very still and silent.

"For the love of God, Montresor," I muttered to myself.  In the mood I was in, I half-expected to find a skeleton still dressed in motley, chained to one of the walls.  Instead all I discovered was a low stone archway.  I ducked and passed through it into a large, stone-walled room that appeared to run the full length of the house.  The room was lined with shelves, and the shelves were stacked from floor to ceiling with books of different shapes and sizes.  It was an odd place to put a personal library, I thought.

But as I drew closer and realized what the books were, the hairs on the back of my neck rose.  These books had no business being there.  They should have been decently wrapped in white linen and buried with their owners, just as Mr. Townley's had been buried with him.

Mrs. Townley's basement was filled with hundreds of commonplace-books.


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