Autumn’s hush was a high fluted reed strung with dripping honeysuckle and rain.
The only leftover from August were marvelous golds and crimsons stoking the fire of the sky. Yet, it was a fire with no heat. Breeze blustered leaf after brown leaf along the hilltops of low, knotted houses. Poor houses. Rich houses. Houses that no one had lived in for many years. Historical or abandoned, it hardly mattered–an empty house was an empty house. There was also a florist, a pawnshop, and a tiny, bustling pub that was filled with university students desperate to cure a hangover, plates piled high with egg-laden toast. This was, of course, not to forget about the far side of town, towards the west. In the west were three churches, a river bank, and an inn with staunch chalkboard letters swinging from an innocuous sign that read: Bastian’s Wharf.
An over-cluttered desk stood in the middle of a sitting room ten years out of style. The mismatched upholstered armchairs would have been cozy if not for the cobwebs glowering through faded yellow lights and the odd stained magazine stacked on top of a coffee table one elegant claw shy of its full set of feet. At the desk was a young man of about twenty-six dressed in a navy blazer and slacks. He had a neat shadow of a beard and a swatch of wheat-colored curls. He smelled of leather-worn books and dried roses.
“Here for a room?” He said with a cordial smile. “The restaurant downstairs isn’t open tonight, however..”
“Yes. I’m new. A student,” Ellis replied.
“Ah, the move-in rush. Where from?”
“London,” he lied.
“This is a change, isn’t it?”
“I’ve family here.”
“A sensible choice! Isn’t it something? Earlier today there was a dresser that needed to be hauled through a window down on Prince St. with a lever and pulley. How many shoes does a lad need for one semester!”
“One pair’s enough.”
“The weather’s been cooler, makes critters so bold, too. Don’t know how any of you survive on campus with the rats.”
“And the birds.”
“Yeah,” he stopped himself, preferring not to go into what he had seen. “Attitudes about them despite being so small.”
For there was nothing vicious about the sweet teal-black crows on the sidewalks or the campus. Instead, what had worried him was the one that had dropped dead mere inches from him earlier. There were no car or coyote marks. It was as though the creature had flown into the pole of their own volition.
“We try our best to keep them out. Now, can I get a name for the room?”
“Cash or slip?”
Ellis slid the cash over. The inn-keeper processed his payment. Afterwards, he went over to his hook of keys and retrieved a slim iron one.
“Discount for undergrad?”
“No sir, graduate.”
“Aye. Check-out’s prompt— Monday at 8:30 A.M.” He doubled back to his book for a moment and frowned. “I see you’ve booked the last room for the weekend, Although…you aren’t the only one.”
“Oh?” The sun had set with heavy rain clouds and the walk back to town was over forty-five minutes.
“It’s miserable out there. Worse than the great storm of 1877 a few years back. And I’ve already taken your payment like an absolute bastard. Pardon my French,” he thought for a moment, then laughed good-naturedly. “Say, you can sleep in the lobby if you’d prefer, or I can put you up in the room. The other fella hasn’t come. They were by earlier, a bit younger than you, but perhaps also a graduate student. If they come by, a dormitory lifestyle a few days shy of the semester isn’t so bad, is it?”
Ellis’ eyes widened. He didn’t want to sleep with a stranger. Especially one that might be at university with him, too. No, he couldn’t take it! Imagine, a stranger seeing his underwear and listening to him shower and, and… No, he almost answered, as a dense, boundless quake of thunder shook the room.
He found himself nodding and thanking the gentlemen behind the desk. They walked up the narrow stairs to a white door with a silver curl of letters. Inside, staring at Ellis, were large old-fashioned windows with deep purple hanging curtains drawn over them, a tall mirror, a couple of scratched nightstands, and a bed. A single bed that might squeeze two if they were lucky. Or very, very comfortable. He was about to protest when the inn-keeper bid him goodnight and left.
With a long, defeated sigh Ellis sat on the bed. He was tired. After all, it had been a miserable trip getting to Bath and the dorms wouldn’t open for another two days or so. Still, he was dry and safe. That was good. After a half an hour’s rest he took a bath, redressed in his undershirt and slacks, then pulled out a book from his traveling bag. A few more hours passed. There wasn’t so much as a creak from the stairs on the hallway. Probably found a spare room, he thought, and drew the covers up. Finally, some luck on this abysmal day! The rain grew from steady to violent as a pleasant buzz formed behind Ellis’ head. The book slid from his loosening grip. His eyelids fluttered closed before the clock hands could properly reach midnight.
The clock chimed. Ellis slept through it. At 12:34 A.M. the door swung open with an imperceptible crack. Ellis began to groan. There was a shadow. The shadow shrank, setting its bags down before promptly heading to the washroom. Ellis waited, collecting his thoughts. He would get up and leave. He would use the window if he had to. Who checks in this late? He wanted to scream. If he stayed he certainly wouldn’t pretend to make a good impression. He owed this irksome stranger nothing.
The bathwater dripped to a halt. Its absence made the storm outside seem louder. The shadow dressed, blew out the lone candle near the sink, and stopped for a moment near the corner of the room. Their form flickered for a moment before sliding over to the bed.
Of course, they weren’t a ghost or vampire. They were warm and… surprisingly lithe, as though they were trying their damnedest not to wake Ellis. They were a few years younger, maybe more, and weary from travel. Any rude questions to disturb him never came, either. No exclamation of a discourteous What the hell are you doing here? Or a wisecracking What’s your deal, fairy boy, shacking up here for the night? In fact, there wasn’t the slightest mention of queer bedsharing, let alone a word of salutation.
Lighting shone bright as a popped electric bulb through the curtains opening. Under its flash came a fierce crack like a smack across the cheek. It was thunder. It must be, Ellis reasoned. But then… it seemed so much closer than thunder; sharper and tighter than the shaking he had felt before in the lobby.
“Erm, excuse me… do you hear that?” He whispered.
They didn’t answer.
Fine, he thought. He closed his eyes again. There were a few more hours until daylight, anyways.
A second bolt illuminated the room with spectacular force. The dust-trodden corner’s reverberated with that same intimate whip-lashed breaking. They snapped the way a vase may fall to pieces or a fluted glass shattered in moments of great distress.
“Do you hear that?”
“Sir? With the lighting?” Asked the polite voice beside him.
“Surely, you must!”
“‘Tis thunder. Nothing more, sir.”
It should have comforted Ellis that his sleeping companion was no more than a slip of a freshmen who only wanted to sleep. However, it was the exact shy nature of theirs dismissal that set him on edge. How could a natural element have the same rage as his father’s hand flying against a countertop or a bedroom door panel? How could every shatter sound so similar when it was nothing but a force of negative and positive protons in the ground? Not rage or sorrow. No clear emotional bias to reproduce such a timbre and yet…
He rose and walked to the window. Throwing back the curtains, he nearly fainted. Another one! He wanted to shriek. This must be a town of slow-living country folk that can’t turn a carriage around on a busy street.
The dead crow was just as the one he had seen in town on his walk to the inn. Its thick teal-black plumage remained intact. There wasn’t a broken feature on its graceful form, not even a slight bend to its wing. Still, the fact remained indisputable; it was dead. Oh! He thought, brushing the curtain shut. How vulgar! How unbearable! The milky-grey chasm of light and water no longer shone through his room, though he could hardly sleep now. He could feel the bird’s very life; the tiny heart beating, the tiny stomach, slim-trodden and grotesque bile, sliding, even the tiny feet, curled at the narrow passage of his throat, clawing away as he tried to breathe. He had swallowed a life he knew nothing about, taking in its death with quick, vapid shame.
With the curtains drawn, Ellis lit a candle. As he walked back to bed he passed the worn, wooden oval of a mirror and looked in its glass.
Damn it, he thought. He hadn’t meant to.
“If you’re still up… could you help me cover this?”
“Why?” They replied, sliding out of bed with caution. “You’re not some kind of vampire, are you?”
Ellis laughed a tight, tinny shriek that died as soon as it began. He shook his head.
The smudged glass showed that same wheat-tousled hair and white shirt. Ellis had no idea what the inn-keeper looked like. In the dim light his sleeping companion even bore a resemblance to his own shadow of a beard and blue-grey eyes.
“I’ve trouble with them. Faces, you see. They’re hard to place. They all look the same as mine…”
The other shrugged. “Do I sound like I have a beard? And your fair hair and rose-touched cheeks?”
“What does that mean?” Ellis retorted. He was too tired for any nonsense. He reached for a bed sheet to cover the mirror with haste. “If you could assist me—”
They stopped his hand. “I won’t.”
Ellis turned. He was about to ask why when his attention was further divided by a more shocking discovery. For a moment the image in front of him had changed. He was still as blonde and bonny as the day he was born—but the person next to him became a slip of dark hair and sharp features, half a foot shorter with sallow cheeks, a gaunt hunch of shoulders and a mouth that might be pretty as a ripe apple if it wasn’t pursed into such a look of distaste.
For the first time in ages the tempered, steady smile curling into a sneer wasn’t his own.
The next morning they were gone. Ellis went about his day. He secured a dormitory number for the semester ahead, met with a couple of professors, and stopped for a late lunch with colleagues he would soon be taking classes with before leaving campus. He traveled under low, white clouds and a recovered sun with a brighter disposition. When he returned to his room he could hardly remember what scared him the night before. One more evening, he thought. It’s not so bad, just quiet. At least the weather is better. Everything will turn sunny-side up this afternoon– it’s a good omen for the coming year!
He went to the bath to clean off. However, as he stepped out, on the quilt’s edge was his sleeping companion, perched in thought.
“I never asked your name,” Ellis said.
“No, you didn’t,” they answered, a far off look in their dark eyes. Their voice wasn’t anything like Ellis’. It was firm yet lyrical, a piece of iron shaped into a gate’s curve before being gilded with gold.
“I’m—” Sorry, he wanted to say, but the word had not been a custom to him. Instead, he changed it to his name. A proper introduction. A fresh start to make up for the prior evening. “Ellis.”
“Kei. Short for Keiran.”
“Are you starting graduate studies this year, too?”
“Aye, a good lad. I’m studying Sciences. “
“Sciences? And you normally shriek at the natural world?”
“That was no natural thing.”
“I suspect I won’t see you around much.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Would it help if you told me about yourself and forgoing sleep? If you don’t mind me saying… You were so wrecked last night I almost called down for a proper doctor, sir.”
What do you expect of me? Ellis wondered. He could start with what he told the innkeeper and the bursary and… go from there. Yes, he could. Or…
“I could guess,” Kei offered, interrupting his thoughts. “If it pleases you. Pass the time lightly between us.”
Ellis looked upon Kei’s features. What a change! How strange that he could distinguish another face aside from his own after all these years. And it was… different. So different that he couldn’t bear the dark, darting eyes filled with inquiry. They saw him without gazing at his face. They knew him.
“Alright.” He agreed. He sat on the bed next to him. Perhaps, it could be good practice for the dormitories, he thought. To conceal without being obvious.
“Art thou a churchman?” Kei asked.
“No such matter,” he answered. The words were familiar to him somehow. “I did live by the church, for I did live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.”
“So one may say the king lies by a beggar, if a beggar dwells near him; or the church stands by thy tabor, if thy tabor stand by the church?”
“As you have said,” he answered. It dawned on him this wasn’t a question of comradery, rather, one of temptation. He knew the lines perfectly, too. “To see this age… a sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!”
“Nay, that’s certain; they that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.”
Ellis pursed his lips. He let out a long, tight-lipped sigh. “I’m not from London. Not ever. I’m the youngest of four. Five, actually.”
“What about the mirror that vexes you?”
“It shows me what I am all the time. But inside… it knows not what I am.”
He walked over to the mirror and touched the smooth cool glass for a moment.
“Do you know who others are?” Kei asked. “Is that why you cannot see them? You haven’t thought past yourself in so long that others have become a mere reflection? Or… do you always see too much of them in yourself? Do you seek to have a reflection of your own and feel this isn’t it? Have you ever come upon another similar to you or do you believe you’re singular in your existence?”
“I… I don’t know.”
Kei slid off the bed and retrieved his traveling bag. It was bulkier than Ellis’ and looked heavier than a carpenter’s case full of bricks. Rain had begun its soft nighttime pattern. Ellis feared the sound he might hear again. He threw the curtains shut once more as his throat tensed around the exposed flesh; the heart, the stomach, and the gnarled, lifeless feet. And oh, the feathers, like plumes of smoke from a pyre!
“Here,” Kei offered, holding out a textbook with a small satchel of oranges.
“I’m not very—”
“It’s for one of the classes on notable figures in Great Thinkers, Post-Renaissance. There’s Daniel Defoe, Issac Newton, Toussaint Louverture, Jane Austen… can you name the rest?”
“No. They all… look like me.” His eyes wandered to the parcel of oranges as he said it. The nail marks in the fruit had created faces of their own, ones of greater fame to him.
“Your travel snack–”
“Bored whilst on the train. Can you make them out?”
“They aren’t anyone I know. I was delirious between stations from waiting.”
“Why… that’s my strict governess! I had no mother growing up. To the left, is the wretched doctor who told me I might never walk again at age ten. Then, a friend of my tutor’s who spread a nasty rumor about me at school in my formative years. Oh, there’s my father–behind bars now for fraud and infamy! And my eldest sister…”
“What of her?”
“Dead. Five years dead by this world’s plague.”
“Marriage. My father’s refusal to her beloved. She hung herself thusly.”
He looked again. He had to. How he had yearned to look upon her fair features and recall their days of dressing up at tea parties, swapping clothes, swimming in the creak, catching frogs, hiding in the thick, sunset-canopied woods, vowing to never return home if they could help it… The secrets entrusted between their clasped hands lasted into adulthood; classes and fancies and fowl weights that preyed upon their unknowing hearts… However, as he peered longer, the marks blurred back into a semblance of his own sorrowful features.
“Except you,” he spat. His voice rose in a hot surge of anger. “Yours doesn’t shift, yet you’re a mealy-mouthed stranger to me!”
“If it doesn’t help to see me, I shall retire—” Kei replied, unfazed by the outburst. “If it might… then look upon my face. It’s yours.”
At first Ellis looked at them through the mirror. Turning, he looked at them in earnest, no pane of glass to separate his desires. Meanwhile, the sky outside burst forth with a new torrent of rain. That didn’t scare him so much as bring him more woe. He hung his head.
“What have I done wrong?” He asked, weeping. “How will I ever see the world around me as it is?”
Kei didn’t answer. Instead, with great carefulness, they brought their lips to his eyelids. Two kisses each. Then, one exacting kiss to his lips. The last kiss burned fierce and black as night, a hook into his shifting existence.
Without thinking Ellis pulled an arm around his sleeping companion, winding him about like a toy on a string, pulling him up, up into his arms until they crashed together. He didn’t ask any further questions. Eagerness overtook him with sudden violence. He scratched at the other’s pajama shirt, determined to shed each and every one of their remaining garments.
“You might want this body,” Kei whispered.
“W-what?” Ellis’ eyes flew open.
“This chest. These arms. You might want less there or more there, don’t you? You might want less there, or more there, or there,—”
“Shall it be sir or madam, or neither?”
“Fuck off!” He said, pushing them back. His head reeled. He would pack up, flee the room, flee the whole town if he had to…
“It scares you,” Kei smiled. Their eyes didn’t follow Ellis, boring through to the mirror as though they didn’t see him at all. “That you might be nothing. That you don’t know what you’re lying next to or who you are when you lie next to another. Because that might mean you’re no longer—”
“I’m queer as they come.”
“And don’t you loathe it?”
The short figure slipped behind him light as leaves turned to ash. In the wooden oval stood a portraiture flaked in gold and blood. Where Ellis had been kissed were oozing patches of blackness. His hip met the other’s. He was undone; one leg his own, one leg another’s, four arms, three eyes, and half a pair of lips, scowling, seething, watching him with the excruciating intent of a steadiness he knew he never possessed. His face—even his own face, it was no longer all his!
“How sure are you where you begin and another ends?” They jeered. “Where all your little lines might blend?”
Ellis said nothing. His throat was suddenly clogged. He tried to speak, gulping for fresh air. With each stark, rasping breath he could hear another noise, a similar sharp crack at his window. Even with the thick curtains drawn shut he was certain of the sound. It wasn’t pelting rain or savage thunder. No. It was a perfect, erratic thwack, thwack, thwack, that hail of bullets in the form of beady eyes and wings.
Furthermore, he was powerless to the hands around his waist. The kisses had subsided, replaced by sharp teeth sinking into his neck. There were no bite marks, nothing dainty about their little relished passion, only a harsh pecking sensation.
“Even this doesn’t matter, does it?” They whispered against his ear. “You don’t need to quell your misplaced soul. What you need is for another to wear a face like yours. And when they don’t smile exactly as you do, agree with every word past your lips, you give up trying to see them at all.”
“You never stop thinking of yourself. You never think that someone else might be different from you.”
He rasped louder. That isn’t true! He thought, writhing.
“You never learned how to shut up when it matters the most because talking over everyone is preferable to seeing how little you actually know about anything.”
Ellis sucked in a deep breath. A bolt of lightning crashed into the thunder. He fell forward, grasping the window pane. For a moment everything went dark. With trembling hands, he lit a candle and looked outside. Nothing was out there. Not a single dead bird. He was baffled. How could this be? He thought. Impossible! He turned the candle light to the bed. Kei was wrapped in blankets, yawning. They looked around with a confused glance and bed-rumpled hair.
“Was there another noise that frightened you, sir?” They asked, demure as a garden rabbit.
“You didn’t hear any of that?” His mind raced. How had they gotten back there so fast? He thought, trying to piece together the past couple hours during the storm. Unless…
“‘M afraid not. I’ve always been a heavy sleeper.”
“Let’s cover it come morning. I’ll help if you want. It’s making you anxious somehow— or was your evening otherwise troublesome?”
Ellis would have none of it. He shook his head. The other’s tone might have been earnest. The night’s events might have all been a dream. Or a hallucination during the abyssal weather. None of it mattered. The only person who had possibly witnessed that madness was looking at him with an easeful, half-tired expression. Yet, it was their eerie, unseeing gaze that lingered past, just behind Ellis’ body to the mirror’s glass, wide awake and wild. Enough of this, he thought, They’ll be gone and my life shall start anew tomorrow. It will be mine, all mine— not a soul shall take it from me! In a series of choppy movements, as though he was an automaton, Ellis willed himself to put the candle down, blew it out, and curled onto his side of the bed— though, not before pressing a hand to the spot on his neck that ached. The skin felt raw, agitated and drenched as the quaint grounds outside the inn. In his restless sleep he wondered; had anyone ever tried to take from him but his own selfishness?
In the morning the innkeeper found the drafty room vacated, a peculiar chill pouring upon his shoulders. The thick curtains remained drawn over well-locked windows. The bed was neatly made on one side as though it had never been touched. On the other side lay Ellis sprawled as one would when stretching from a good morning’s sleep, eyes wide open, and a thick lump of dark feathers protruding from the start of his violet, slack-jawed lips.
West Ambrose is a writer and grad student. They are trans, queer, and disabled/chronically ill. They are fascinated by the works of Herman Melville and in their free time love to find weird old teapots and make granola bars that are both vegan and duck-friendly. Their twitter is @westofcanon and their website is westofcanon.com where you can find their creative works inspired by antiquity and classic lit.