The Eternity Ring

by Jan Kaneen

I jolt awake. What broke my dream? A scream in the passageway outside the scullery? A strange compulsion draws me downstairs and a vague feeling it was thus before.

I creep by candlelight down five flights, tiptoeing into midnight’s kitchen, but there is naught to see beyond that dark window save my own wide-eyed reflection. I smile, amused by my foolish fancy, and sit myself down at the servant’s table, gathering my wits and wishing for daybreak. No more drudgery for me tomorrow. That is what the master said.

“No more,” he spat, his pale cheeks yet tinged with passion. “I know what I must do.” Then he took up the brass-handled poker and jabbed at the embers in the dirty hearth as if his irritation might rekindle them to flame. “Go now to your bedchamber, and at first light, away on some small errand to the bakery or butcher, that I might tell your mistress with you gone from the house.”

At daybreak, I don the moonstone ring he gave me leave to wear indoors. What need for secrets now? My belly will tell all, soon enough. Striding out from the servant’s hall, I am sure as Sundays it will be for the last time. I stride across the courtyard over the uneven cobbles and swing open the wrought-iron gate. It moves heavy and silent as I pass through into the redbrick passage beyond, then out into the Crescent. I meet no one as I go. The town is grey and dull and empty of everything save clags of mist hanging heavy over the dirty river. It reminds me of childhood, that lazy river, drab and slow and dark and dangerous. I cross the hump of the old stone bridge, and my father’s face slinks into my mind’s eye. You durst not touch me now old man, I tell it.

I walk down South Brink and round the corner to Barton Road, where Molly Clingo’s bakery is quiet and shuttered and there is no smell of fresh-baked loaves. But I am not surprised. I half-knew it would be so. It is the urge to return that takes my breath away, a passion that I cannot resist, so I hurry back as fast as I can, brimful of excitement for my brave new future. I move through the passageway shadows once more, stopping a moment before the gate. I count to three inside my head before raising my hand to push it open, looking through the curlicue swirls of hammered metal, at the pale mist hanging grey over the greyer cobbles, but it swings itself forward with ne’er a touch from me, creaking and cawing like the call of a crow, and as it does, the mist before it swirls and thickens. I watch transfixed from the safety of the shadows, not breathing, not moving, caught fast in the moment, because something is stirring out of that thickening mist, a thing strangely familiar like a childhood scent or half-remembered dream—the wraith of a girl becoming clearer as she moves, and following behind, something darker.

A raised arm, the glint of brass, a sickening thud as metal meets skull. A savage blow—enough to murder—but not enough to stem the frenzy. More blows rage down again and again, smashing, staving, cracking, splintering. I flinch and wince at every stroke screwing my wide-eyed terror tight shut. But the sound is just as fearsome as the seeing, breathless grunts, the sickening thrash, the fracturing cracks that go on forever. Until, at last, a sort of slackening. Deeper breaths and slower strokes—dull-wet thuds that conjure a brutal reality.

I force my eyes open and step forward and the words seem to scream themselves, “For pity’s sake, just stop.”

The shadow spins round to face me square in a ray of impossible light—my master, his arm raised to strike once more, his pale cheeks spattered red with death. He tilts his head, first this way then that, staring through me, seeing me not. My gaze sinks to the broken creature twitching at his feet, the crimson-grey mess where its head should be, a flailing hand lying palm-down perfect on the gory cobbles, and on its finger, catching the last of the fading light, the milk-blue ghost of my moonstone ring. In that instant, before darkness falls, I see everything, understand everything.

I jolt awake. What broke my dream? A scream in the passageway outside the scullery?A strange compulsion draws me downstairs, and a vague feeling it was thus before.

Jan Kaneen writes tiny stories in other peoples’ voices. Her memoir-in-flash The Naming of Bones, which is forthcoming from Retreat West Books in April 2021, is no exception.
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