Another chapter from my WIP.
Chapter 2: 11th Dec 2014.
“I’m going to bed Jan, are you coming?”
Josefa Nowak stood shielding herself behind the living room door. The request to her husband made out of pure, respectful habit more than anything else. She didn’t have to look; he would be where he always was at this time of night, sat in his chair directly opposite the television. Feet cemented atop a cigarette-burn edged stool, finger stabbing at the remote, drifting through a seemingly infinite list of channels. Having been married for 41 years there was no real reason for him to, his preference for recording and watching American reality model shows something they both pretended she didn’t know. Not that it bothered her; she much preferred the romantically caricatured memories of passion-past, than the harsh reality of passion-present. Both on the wrong side of 65 their aging bodies and dearth of attraction was a resentment they shared, however they accepted it would be absurd to change what was a marriage of convenience, for companionship sake alone.
“Watching TV.” His reply was perfunctory and a little defensive.
Her shoulders reflexively threw a terse response up towards her mouth, but her tongue caught it just in time. Her mouth hung open in expectation of an argument, goading her to speak. Instead she softly closed her eyes, taking in a long breath through her nose, settling her temper.
“Don’t stay up too late now… dobranoc.” The words were a request made without intention, although the softness in the use of her native language surprised her somewhat; they hadn’t used Polish with each other for many years. He grunted in reply, the warmth she briefly felt evaporating back into the cold ravine that lay between them.
Irritated at her lapse she turned and began climbing the stairs to her bedroom. There was a time when neither of them would have gone to bed on an argument, but this wasn’t an argument, these were the death throes of a marriage. There was no disagreement, no misunderstanding to work out. It seemed that they had just slowly grown distant, like the paving stones on an ancient path, worn apart by the march of time. In spite of this she slowly climbed the soft carpeted steps in the hope that he would reach out to her. She paused halfway up thinking-or hoping that he had called out, only to realise it was looping voices from the television as he increased the volume, drowning out any lingering sense of devotion to their marriage.
Somberly she entered her warm, inviting bedroom. Having put on a small paint-splattered heater thirty minutes prior the dry, pleasant air embraced her flushed face. Catching a reflection of her distorted doppelganger, she turned and confronted herself fully in the long mirror hanging lazily on the wall. She teased the heavy bathrobe from her tense shoulders, letting it collapse with a sigh to the floor around her feet. Looking at her body she could understand why Jan would prefer his “reality models” to the reality of his sixty-six year old wife. Three births had taken its toll. Both her stomach and breasts had long surrendered to the force of gravity, forever refusing to relinquish its grip. Stretch marks criss-crossed her midriff like tracks in the snow, embellishing her pink caesarean-scar, a tattoo to motherhood. Her eyes settled on her face which, in spite of her age had remained pretty and feminine. Feeling a surge of pride she locked eyes with herself, not daring to let her gaze once again wander beneath her neckline. Removing her alice-band her long, silver hair broke free. Like mercury it poured down her neck, filling the grooves and dips in her shoulders, shining brilliantly in the low light of the warm room. Echoing her liquescent tresses a tear collected on the lip of her eyelash, its chest swelling with courage before bursting free, slaloming through her wrinkles towards her chin. She ended its journey with an annoyed swipe, angry at the toll her fractured relationship was having on her self-esteem. Flashing herself an assured smile of support she turned from the mirror and, moving towards the bed slid between the cool, clean sheets. The pleasant sensation of her spine relaxing caused her to close her eyes, arching her head back onto the pillow. The cold, smooth material caressed her feet and she moved them from side to side enjoying the sensation.
The bedroom was tastefully decorated and exclusively feminine reflected by its sole dweller, Jan now choosing to sleep on the couch in the lounge. Pictures of Jesus and innumerable Orthodox Saints were diffused across the beige walls. Their two dimensional faces an unbroken audience to the earnest prayers Josefa proffered every morning and evening. Tonight there would be no prayers. In the last few weeks the chasm between her and Jan had been growing, and her normally firm faith was starting to waiver. She questioned the faces, why now at the twilight of her life was the strength of her marriage beginning to wane? The many eyes glared back, admonishing her of the obligation to her belief, scoffing at her weakness. Her family had faced horrors so abhorrent in their viciousness they had left a scar on human history, a scar so deep it would be bore for generations to come. Yet in spite of this, their collective faith had never wavered.
Lying there she pondered leaving him, but where would she go? He had never been unfaithful, and although his view on a woman’s place in marriage was a little more traditional he was hardly a misogynist. They had been married for over forty two years. She had started to feel that the affection, with which a union of that duration should nurture, had begun to wear thin. Jan was increasingly impatient with her. Any interaction between the two was usually preceded, and followed with criticism, the possibility of an argument a constant orbiting presence. Over the last few years resentment had taken such root, his face had started to resemble the obvious loathing he felt, the trappings of an aging relationship a bitter taste in his mouth. His tongue would dart over his thin lips, teeth chewing the inside of his cheeks as if playing with hurtful words, deciding on which one would be best to use. He suffered from terrible migraines and as such his forehead had adopted a permanent frown, his eyes rarely softening. Having lost his hair in his early twenties he had always suited the clean cropped look. Now in defiance he had let the remainder grow out from above his ears and behind his head. The bald dome brilliantly reflected light, liver spots leering from beneath the glare.
Embarrassed at her selfish thoughts she quickly leaned over the covers, switching off the lamp on the bedside table bathing the room in pale moonlight.
For a moment Josefa let the silence of the night settle around her, the dark a welcome remedy. Turning she pulled the cool covers up around her neck allowing her body to melt into the mattress. Opening her eyes for one last look around the room she noticed a large black shadow, hanging in the lower corner between the dresser and the window. As with any child Josefa had a deep fear of the dark. This was complimented by the stories her younger brothers whispered between beds as children. The young boys taking it in turns to regale the atrocities committed against her babcia and dziadunio… both Grandparents perishing in the Mauthausen concentration camp during WWII. The vibrancy of youthful imagination never able to fully justify the boundless evil of Man. Adult logic clouding those fears she told herself it was a trick of the light… or lack of, and gently closed her eyes.
Her mind searched for the thoughts of happier times. Their early life in London was overrun with promise. A beautiful house in Hertfordshire at the grace of Jan’s rising stock as a railway engineer, whilst simultaneously enjoying her blossoming career as a psychiatric nurse. There was a time when their life together seemed too good to be true, almost as restitution for the horror her family experienced before her birth in 1949. Nearly all of them had perished in the numerous camps of WWII, only her father, mother and older sister had survived. The ghost of Nazism eventually claiming her sister three years before Josefa’s birth, the result of being born in one of those Godless camps: Typhus taking her life on the eve of her second birthday.
Josefa was born in Wieliczka, Poland. Her parents had managed to start anew, as most of Europe had, and she was the first of her mother’s children born beyond the spectre of war. Irrespective of the loss they experienced, they had tried their best to move on, although she knew the war never truly left her them. It anchored them to the past, its cold grasp reaching far beyond VE Day. Her mother would sit and stare past the present into the horrors of the past, still trying to make sense of all that had happened. Her father preferred the anesthetising company of alcohol to his family, the sober responsibility of a new reality too much to bear. Occasionally the carapace of trauma would fracture and he would perch her on his shoulders, careering between hay bales, imitating the Russian aircraft that would run sortie’s over their modest family farm. These moments however would usually be short lived. Although his love was never in question, he would soon retreat back into his painful memories, struggling to separate them from the present.
In 1966 three days after her seventeenth birthday, a bottle of Gorzałka and a flight of stairs did what Hitler couldn’t, taking her father’s life after a drunken fall. The same accident eventually took her Mother through grief 10 months later. Josefa reconciled that although over the war was a revenant, and it would eventually come for her unless she was able to escape its reach. Escape is exactly what she did, arriving into London in the September of ’71 after graduating from the Jagiellonian University Medical College Krakow. Albeit fractious her early life had distilled Josefa with a remarkable focus and self-belief, particularly with her career. A placement at the prestigious Heronsgate Mental Hospital in Hertfordshire soon followed. Although capricious, her confident demeanour and analytical nature ascended her to the rank of head administrative nurse very quickly. She met Jan in the spring of ‘73 and they were quickly married, purging the ghosts of her past along with her former surname.
In the comfort of her memories the peculiarity of the shadow burrowed like a splinter, and out of annoyance she opened her eyes expecting it to be gone. Owing to a break in the clouds, the entire room was painted in bright moonlight that hung in the air like silken membranes. The peculiar dark patch in the corner however had grown so much it could be no longer called a shadow. It had distended and warped across the wall, swelling considerably. Its dark was so complete, its depth so infinite, that it seemed more a void… an absence of anything, consuming the area itself rather than shrouding it from light. She slowly sat up, squeezing the lethargy from her eyelids with clumsy fingers; irritated that something so arbitrary could disturb her comfort. Her left arm stretching across herself she reached for the light, flicking the small switch.
There was no light.
Confused she angled the lamp up exposing the bulb, the element was hot but the familiar illumination that should have followed wasn’t there. Although it was emitting a ghostly glow, the light wasn’t reaching out filling the room. Confused she flicked the switch off and on with a mixture if irritation and fear, quickly withdrawing her hand is if the lamp itself was toying with her. Slowly the light from the upturned shade began to focus into a soft glowing stream, winding its way gracefully into the air. To Josefa’s complete confusion, it was lured across the room like a luminous trail of smoke, disappearing into the centre of the growing dark mass consuming it entirely.
Fear began to eclipse confusion. Quickly she sat up straight against the headboard, pulling the cover up to her neck like a shield. She clutched the thin cloth so hard her nails started digging into her now sweating palms. Her minds grapple with reality pushing the pain far into the back of her mind. Her pupils raced across her eyes as she searched deep into the black, looking for any minute detail that would expose this façade of fear, like dawn chasing away the night.
The shadow had now expanded taking over the entire wall opposite her bed, enveloping all in an ominous dark fissure of evil intent. Slowly a breeze rose from within the form carrying with it a putrid smell the like Josefa had never experienced. She felt it wreathe into her nostrils, bile rising up her throat in reply. Throwing her hand to her mouth in a weak attempt, vomit burst from between her fingers as she retched and heaved onto the bed. Coughing and spluttering she attempted to catch her breath only to be assaulted again by the fetid stench. The wind gained in strength forcing its vile scent into her throat, like rotten hands closing around her neck. She turned her head, holding a pillow as a shield to the growing tempest, but the wind merely pinned it back against the headboard, exposing her once more. The bed began rocking back and forth, excitedly dancing from leg to leg as the gust began whipping up and throwing the contents of the room around, like some viscous tornado of personal artefacts.
With mouth yawning and teeth bared she screamed her husband’s name. She screamed the names of her religious bastions, praying they would break through their framed prisons to her aide. No help came however and the shadow continued its march, pouring up over the end of the bed and spilling its corruption across the sheets. She couldn’t move, her body becoming a prisoner to the terror of her mind. As it crawled across her legs she felt its icy darkness touch her skin then penetrate deep into the flesh. It was a cold like no other she had felt, a freezing pestilence that defiled both body and mind. Yet she was still frozen, sat up in her bed with cover to her chest as this powerful entity slowed oozed over her, almost as if it was enjoying her fear and relishing the moment.
Then came the noise.
A low growling sound grew from deep inside the dark. Not animalistic in form, but an ominous rumble like rolling, distant thunder. In pursuit of the shadow it surged into the room, quickly surrounded her, steadily increasing in volume and pitch until her consciousness vibrated with fear.
Josefa felt her head snap back as she was sharply yanked down, a powerful force dragging her until she was lying prostrate on the bed, and still it came. She saw that not only had her legs fully faded into the malaise but so had the rest of the room, the paralysing cold continuing to consume her along with her entire reality.
With once last scream her stomach lurched again as she was powerfully whipped down into the black.
Then silence, weightlessness.
The cacophony that consumed her seconds before ceased. She found herself floating in a black void, holding her in an obsidian embrace. Unable to move, her eyes jolted from side to side in a frantic effort to jump start her limbs. She couldn’t tell up from down, the deep, dark oblivion around her expanding to infinity. Was she sleeping? Could she be in the grip of another nightmare, or was she dead? Was this the afterlife, floating forever in a perpetual limbo? In her confused state she began cursing her religion and its lies, demanding a life of servitude, promising salvation yet delivering nothing. Was this how her devotion was rewarded, the reward for a lifetime of prayer an endless eternity of contemplation. She damned her creator and his hubris.
Far into the inky distance a brilliant point of light appeared. She starred at it, entranced by the only detail in a featureless, stygian sea. As she watched it began to grow and as it grew in size it seemed to be coming closer, surging towards her with considerable speed. Approaching the light’s soft, glowing edges began defining into a figure as if crucified. Her chest heaved with relief, she was wrong to doubt her saviour. Everything she had done, all the sacrifices she had made had been in sound faith. He had come as her salvation and they would ascend to heaven together.
The figure approached still, her eyes teary with anticipation ready to embrace her Christ. The closer it came however she started to recognise the form that approached. And in that a horrific split second she knew that she had made a terrible mistake. Her mind almost collapsed into itself at the figure gaining on her. Questions burst through her fear, immediately swallowed like rocks on a stormy shore. Josefa however did know what had come for her, she knew it needed her to know, and she knew then there would be no escape.
She closed her eyes one last time; she didn’t need to see anymore. The sins of her past had materialised, hunting her into the present like the horrors of war that came for her parents. A scream rose from the gloom surrounded her, a shriek she had heard many times before, and a noise that she herself had directly caused by actions in her past.
All that came was pain, her body firing with an agony far beyond her comprehension. She tried to call out, to beg for forgiveness, but her broken mind could no longer function beyond the brutal agony that now devoured her senses. The pain seemed infinite but mercifully her malformed pleas were eventually answered as her body was vaporised into a dark oblivion.
Then the shadow evaporated, leaving the broken room once again bathed in nothing but the light from the moon, and the remains of Josefa Nowak.