The Soul-Reaper’s Hymn: a Short Story

Author’s Note: I wrote this for a vocabulary-based challenge a co-worker proposed and thought I might post it here. Enjoy!

One particularly disagreeable night in late December, Dr. Rothchild received a telegram from a fellow erudite and former student, Edmond Talbot, which piqued his interest.

Have been delivered package of suspicious origin. Stop. Pray come to my home at earliest convenience. Stop.

Admittedly, Rothchild didn’t need much goading to quit his quiet home in the English countryside. As of late, his modest estate was abuzz with anxious servants armed with wreathes, tinsel and candelabras, all at the beck and call of his nervous wife Petunia. She was preparing for yet another tedious Christmas party where she would attempt to ingratiate herself to members of high society all while making a terrible nuisance of herself.

He didn’t know why his friend should call on him so unexpectedly over something as mundane as a package, but if it gave him a reprieve from the commotion that came with the Christmas holiday—the decorating the meal-planning, the damn four-string quartet—so much the better.

At the earliest opportunity, Rothchild called for a cab and made for the bachelor’s flat where he was received by a pinch-faced parlour maid who announced him like an amateur actress that had forgotten most of their lines. She proceeded to flee the room without taking his hat or coat as if worried that some malevolent force would lay claim to her should she linger too long.

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Talbot was in a dark humor, that much was clear. He was partially consumed by his armchair, placed before the fireplace. One thin leg was crossed over a knobby knee and he peered into the flames as if he hoped some ancient wisdom would pour forth from the flue.

He hardly made any notice of his friend as Rothchild took a seat across from him.

“Hard to find good help these days,” he remarked pointedly, holding his hat in his hands.

Talbot did not offer a word of apology for his poor reception. In fact, he impudently refused to meet his friend’s eye. Instead, he reached into his coat pocket and produced a worn bit of parchment paper.

“I have called you here because I do not know whom else to turn,” the bachelor spoke at last. “Several days ago, I received a letter and package most peculiar in nature. There is no return address nor did the author deem it appropriate to sign their name. Whomever sent it is a complete mystery.”

He passed the letter onto Rothchild who read it attentively. 

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To Whom It May Concern, it read in cramped and frantic handwriting.

I have placed this record in your care as the evil within it is of far greater power than I can stand. It was given to me by persons unknown as a gift Christmas last whilst my wife and I were hosting our annual Christmas celebration. Intrigued by this unexpected parcel, I proposed we give it a listen. This idea was met with much enthusiasm as we were all deep in our cups and bored of the usual tawdry party games one typically engages in this time of year. 

No one was more intrigued and pleased by this unusual diversion as I, however, my enthusiasm was shortly lived.  As soon as I set it to play, we were assaulted by the most accursed sound to ever be played. My wife, pregnant with our third child, suffered a miscarriage days later. Two more men suffered incredible chest pains and were sent to their graves not long after. As for myself, I have been driven mad by the constant sound of the sirens droning. I feel Her presence even as I write this. Her words are like an athame plunging into my very soul. 

Ever since that fateful night I’ve not had a  moment’s respite. Forgive me for passing my misery onto you, but I have tried all other means of destroying it. I can only hope that by gifting it to another as it was gifted unwillingly to me that my torment may at last be ended. 

May God have mercy on our souls.

Anon.

Rothchild gazed up from the letter, raising a ruddy eyebrow at his old friend.

“A curse, is it?” he inquired.

“I, too, doubted the veracity of his claims,” Talbot confessed, a twinge of shame shining through on his face. “Until…Mrs. Woodword.”

This caught Rothchild’s attention immediately. So that was why he’d been met with such a rude awakening upon his arrival. Typically it was the elderly house-keeper from Corn who admitted him at the door rather than the pigeon-faced youth he’d encountered earlier.

“Surely she has not come to an unseemly end?”

“She lives,” Rothchild admitted. “Although I fear she will never be the same. She had placed the record on whilst she was mending an old shirt of mine. I found her lying prostate on the floor just there some time later.”

He gestured to a spot three feet from where Rothchild sat.

“Her hair turned white at the roots and she was murmuring fearfully to herself.”

“Anything significant?”

Talbot waved dismissively. “Nonsense, utter nonsense.”

“I see,” the guest mused, situating himself in his chair. “I assume you have not taken it upon yourself to listen to the record in question?”

It might have been Rothchild’s imagination or Talbot’s close proximity to the flames, but he thought he detected the slightest sheen of sweat forming on his compatriot’s brow.

“I haven’t.”

Rothchild harrumphed.

“You are skeptical.”

It wasn’t a question, but the retired professor answered it as if it had been.

“Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, Talbot. I understand you are more, shall we say, broad-minded when it comes to matters of the supernatural. However, I am rather set in my ways and I maintain that it is simply impossible for inanimate objects to be imbued with paranormal powers.”

“That is the reason I called you hear tonight, old friend. To give me courage to plunge into the unknown.”

Rothchild smiled in amusement. “If it’s courage you require, then I’m more than happy to supply it. Although I believe a glass of port would have the same effect.”

“No,” Talbot shook his head. “I must have a clear head for what is to come.”

He wiped his hands upon his shirt front, then made for a wheeled table where a gramophone rested in repose in the unlit corner of the room. To Rothchild the contraption looked perfectly mundane, but the care with which Talbot moved the device made it seem as if he were a pallbearer taking a coffin to the grave.

Rothchild took this as an opportunity to rise slowly from his seat and lumber over to stand beside Talbot. For a moment, they both admired its anatomy. It was a handsome device, made from varnished wood and a large pavilion cone. It hardly looked like the harbinger of evil Talbot claimed it to be, although, he supposed, it was not the device itself but rather the record that it had rested on its plateau that was meant to spell doom for any listener.

“Well,” Rothchild stated, breaking the silence, “shall we?”

Talbot’s Adam’s apple bobbed in trepidation. He broke away as if having second thoughts before diverting to a small desk cramped in a corner near a window. With some effort, he pulled open one of the stiff wooden drawers and produced a pile of unused parchment. Once dipping a quill into a well and determining it would do as a suitable writing instrument, he returned to where Rothchild stood and passed on the paraphernalia over to him.

Rothchild gazed down upon his new burden and then back to his friend.

“So I am to be the spirit’s secretary?”

“You have a much faster hand than I,” he explained. “Should we succumb to the wiles of…whatever malevolence should exist inside this recorder, I want there to exist some evidence as to what has befallen us.”

“Now really, Talbot—”

“Please, Rothchild, if you’ve ever considered us friends you shall do as I ask. I respect your skepticism if you can respect my lack of courage.”

Rothchild opened his mouth to protest, but as quick as a mouse-trap, it was shut once more. True, he believed the man’s indulgence in this rubbish to boarder on lunacy, nevertheless, he could not deny he was fond of the lad and had been since he was a student under his wing back at Oxford.

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Talbot took his elder’s silence as an agreement. “Transcribe what the voices are saying,” he said. “Perhaps others will be able to divine some meaning from it.”

Rothchild nodded. “Where shall I sit?”

“On the floor, perhaps. If you should fall as Mrs. Woodword did you, shan’t have far to go.”

The former professor’s gaze plummeted to the floor, dubious as to whether or not he would be able to rise again once he’d seated himself. Pressing his lips together, he resigned himself to the role he had been asked to play and sank to the cold and stiff wooden boards.

With a creak of his limbs and a twinge in his back, he was properly situated, pen at the ready.

At least soon, there would be an end to this nonsense. Perhaps then they could have a glass of port or sherry and complain about the affairs of state as was customary in polite society.

“Ready and waiting,” Rothchild prompted, goose quill pen poised over the page.

There was a pregnant pause where Talbot’s bony hand rested nervously on the crank. However, with the reluctance of someone meeting the firing squad, he set himself into motion and played the record.

The innocuous jangling of sleigh bells gushed forth and a piano forte jumped in excitedly. 

And then…

In mere moments, their senses were assailed by the wild screech of a banshee. 

The taste of copper was thick and heavy on the back of Rothchild’s tongue, his chest compressing as if he were physically rotting from the inside out. Through weak eyes burning with tears of anguish, he looked to his companion.

Talbot had doubled over, hand clutched over his heart. His complexion was as colorless as snow, lips blue.

The air around them thrummed with the din of the woman’s inhuman voice. The room decayed before their eyes. The floral wall paper peeled and cracked like dead skin, the wood warped and slivered. The paintings mounted on the wall faded into near obscurity as their gold and opulent frames tarnished and dulled. 

Though they lost all power over their mental faculties, their souls were still tethered to their fleshy bonds with no means of escaping. Unwittingly, Rothchild’s pens scratched across the page.

His blood was boiling and frothed behind his eyes. until it poured down his cheeks in rivulets 

All other sound had cancelled out, even the thud of Talbot’s lifeless body as it struck the ground. His lifeless eyes bore back at Rothchild, a permanent mask of horror.

A wordless scream choked him as the chambers of his heart closed and his world fell to blackness.

Upon the parchment read a message neither of them would ever read.

On the blood-soaked page were the small but legible words:

Baby, make my wish come true

All I want for Christmas is you.

 

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