Abraxas has a special job to do, and it isn't pretty. (Excerpt from my novel)
|Medford Jones woke up each day an hour and a half earlier than his master. The sky was still dark and everything was quiet and peaceful. Jones could ocean waves and the market begin to open. Jones slowly moved out of bed. He tried to push through the stiff pain in his back. He sat up and stretched his shoulders. They cracked like the bones were breaking apart. He held his hands on his hips, leaned back to pop the discs in his spine and stood up. Jones opened his window. The fresh seaside air smelled its best at this time. He washed his face in his water basin and looked at his reflection in a small piece of cracked mirror nailed to the wall. His mind was sharp but his body had taken the beating of his vices. He wasn’t vain, but he liked to keep himself presentable. An old face in a thirty-five-year-old skin was disheartening. This moment of self-pity was brief, like most of his thoughts. He never kept himself focused on one thing for too long, he simply wasn’t made for that sort of thing. It kept him energized.
His room was a tiny place with only a bed and a trunk filled with a few worthless possessions. On the side of the wall he kept his cane and hat if he ever wanted to go out. Most weekdays he didn’t. Work consumed most of his life. He didn’t mind it though, he liked to be a working man. It made him feel like he knew a little more than everybody else, because he worked a little harder.
He combed his blonde hair back. Short pieces fell down his forehead as if to protest his attempts of control. He dressed himself in his usual uniform, black slacks, striped vest, a high collar with a black ribbon. His loudest item was knee high leather boots. The heel was high, to give him the extra height he so sorely lacked. He was not someone who wanted to be looked down upon.
He left his bedroom and checked to see if his master was up. He never was. Jones went into the kitchen. He lit a match and tossed into the fireplace. He then rummaged through the cabinet for some grain to boil. He spent so much time in this routine that his actions were zombie like—apart from himself. He set out the blue china tea set and used four times the regular amount of tea leaves. Abraxas liked his tea strong and bitter in the morning. It was the only way he could shake off sleep. If Abraxas was tired, his mood was unbearable.
Jones poured the soppy taupe colored grain into two bowels. It wasn’t pleasant to look at but it was cheap and kept them both full. Medford sat down, propped his feet up, grabbed his bowl and leaned his chair onto its back legs. He spooned a few grains into his mouth and paused for a moment. Should I do the linens today? Abraxas won’t notice if I don’t do them right away. That would give me time to… His thought process was interrupted by a knock on the door. He swung his long skinny legs back onto the floor. He paced through the living room, huffing
all the way at being disturbed so early in the morning. If Abraxas didn’t like to be woken up, Jones didn’t like to be taken away from his food.
He peered through the keyhole and recognized who was standing at the other end. He opened the door to a tall redheaded woman with a piece of paper in her hand.
He sighed “Why ya here?” he blocked her entrance with his boot.
She looked down at his foot as if trying to figure out what happened “I got a message.”
He pushed her back further “What kind a’ message?”
“I don’t know! I ain’t no snoop” her painted red lips twisted. “Some kid was askin’ me where the undertaker’s house was so I said I’d just take it myself. Ain’t nobody know where he live. Ya’ll need a sign or somethin’.”
“Mhm” he grunted and took the note. He began to close the door when she spoke up again.
“You know you ought to thank me. I really did you a kindness,” she lifted her head high like an arrogant child “Coming out here with all these soldiers about. They ain’t good company. But I came up here anyways to give this to you. So, thank me.”
“Soldiers?” He stuck his head out the door to look around. He saw a black figure several buildings down, pacing back and down the street.
“Uhuh. They’re more of them out in town. And a bunch in the market. Something must’ve happened…” She dropped her prideful tone and spoke softly “If something happened you’ll read it to me in the newspaper, won’t you?”
“Sure Catherine. Sure.” He gave her a flat smile “You be careful now.” He began to close the door but Catherine put her hand out to stop him.
“If the note I gave you is somethin’ important you’ll tell me, right?” she asked.
“Thought you said you ain’t no snoop” he joked.
Her face scrunched up “But if it’s somethin’ important!” she snapped and balled her hands into fists. Her kind eyes transformed into razors.
“Y-Yes” he backtracked “Of course I’ll tell you dear.”
This pleased her. She grinned and latched onto him. “Well you take care dear” she squeezed him tight and gave him a kiss before unfolding a torn parasol. She scurried away in a loose purple skirt and a red coat given to her by another man.
He closed the door and opened the note. It tight looping handwriting it said:
Body Collection Needed. Woman and Child. At Sherman Bakery. 433 Lily Street.
He folded the note and placed it in his breast pocket. He gave a long sigh and ascended the staircase with tired feet. He tapped lightly on Abraxas’ door “Mistah Abraxas? Sir?” he put more force into his knock “Sir!” he barked. He jiggled the doorknob, found it unlocked and let himself in. Abraxas was in bed, burrowed under several heavy blankets. His face was in a pillow, with another over his ears. The room was a pitch-black cave with smoke clinging to the walls.
“Sir!” Jones said “You must wake up!” Jones walked over to the window and pushed back the curtains. Sunlight poured in and assaulted Abraxas.
He groaned and growled into the pillow “Go away!”
Jones stiffened “You have to get up sir.”
Abraxas threw the pillow over his head to the floor. Medford couldn’t tell if he was aiming for him. “No, I do not,” Abraxas spat “Today is Sunday, and while those imbeciles spend their day worshiping a God who is looks down at them with complete indifference, I will rest.” He sat up and sneered through yellow crooked teeth “So, go away!”
Jones had heard this speech before “Yes sir, I would let you alone, usually, but today sir…” he reached into his pocket and pulled out the note “you have a job to do.”
Abraxas sprung from the bed and snatched the note out of the servant’s hand. His thick black brows made a bridge across his face “Who gave this to you?” he asked.
“Miss. Catherine. She, uh, didn’t write it she just, uh, delivered to me.”
Abraxas opened the note. His gold colored eyes, reddened from sleep scanned over the paper. “This winter has been especially brutal.”
Jones nodded “Mmhm. The cold is pretty bad. That’s why I prepared a hot breakfast and tea. Come downstairs and I’ll---”
“Oh, for god’s sake forget that!” Abraxas moved through the room like a gunshot. He pulled off his nightshirt, snatched black trousers from his dresser and buttoned up an undershirt before Medford could protest. Abraxas jumped down to the floor and moved his arms frantically under his bed. He grabbed a single leather shoe and thrust it on and searched for its twin. Jones watched with wide eyes, as if witnessing a storm crashing through the room. Abraxas found the second shoe thrown from the previous night in a corner. He smashed the other foot and bolted down the steps like a wild dog.
Jones quickly followed his master but could not out pace him. Abraxas darted into the living and flung open a nearby closet. “Where is my coat!?” he snapped “It should be here!”
Jones grabbed a long black coat off the handstand near the door. “Here!” he tossed the coat to his master, who hurriedly threw over his broad shoulders. As he went to leave Jones stopped him “Do you need me to hook up the mare to her cart?” he asked.
“No! I’ll do it myself!” Abraxas growled and slammed the door in his servant’s face.
Abraxas walked alongside his speckled gray mare. He held her reins in his hands and looked back to the wooden cart attached behind her and checked to see if the its tarp was secured. He guided his mare slowly along the icy streets. Accidents happened all the time during this season, but this morning there were no crowds. Everyone was in church and Abraxas was perfectly alone. Being an unbeliever was to his benefit. He could do his job quickly and come home to a warm drink.
He was being watched and he knew it. Mixed into the stiff frozen air was the smell of metal guns held in soldiers’ hands. His nostrils flared and the scent prickled his nose. He could smell the greasy fibers of black wool cloaks. He could smell their hot skin. The soldiers had a distinct smell that pierced like a thousand tiny needles into his brain. His golden eyes searched as he walked for any sign of them. He could not see them. But he knew they were there.
The soldiers had increased in number recently. He didn’t exactly know why, but he knew the reason would not be good for him. He kept his head low but did not let down his guard. He ran his tongue over his sharp stained teeth and continued further. Staring forward was like looking into a maze of tight walls. Buildings that housed families of ten or more had deep scars from beatings of relentless winters, unbearable filth, and inescapable poverty. Existence had been cruel and was allowed to be so. Nobody knew there was an alternative. But Abraxas knew. The only problem was that it meant trading this hell for a different one.
Maybe the families in these buildings were happy. Maybe they found joy in godliness and leaders who erected statues of themselves and lived in gold towers. He didn’t know what these people truly felt, and if he did he probably wouldn’t be the best person to try and understand it. His was bitter in his core. As bitter has the wind that traveled to his ears, down his neck and into his bones. Abraxas and the mare breathed clouds of cold air. It made his head feel hot and numb. The sky was steel gray, like something spilled into it and left a stain.
Suddenly there was a happy welcoming smell. The smell of bread being baked. It made his mouth water and reminded him he hadn’t had any breakfast. He approached a small line of shops. They sat close to the ocean and market. Here a small number of people began to gather. It wasn’t the large size of a crowd that would be there on any other weekday, but it was enough that Abraxas had to weave his mare carefully through them. There were sounds of laughter, a group of children sang a school song:
Praise to our Father of the Sun!
Our blessed holy one
Praise to our Mother of the Moon!
Who heals our hearts
Whose lived ten lives!
We hail to thee
Our Father the Savior
Mother a goddess we aver….
Abraxas ignored the rest. He glanced towards the marketplace, where a butcher hacked freshly caught fish with a rusty blade and wrapped their bodies in newspaper. Scales glittered off the cutting table like liquid silver catching sunlight. Abraxas pushed further down the street. He rested his hand on his mare’s soft nose to keep her calm in a clustered space. He saw a swinging metal sign, shaped like a loaf of bread and knew he had reached the bakery. He positioned his cart out of the way of traffic and tied his mare to nearby wooden post. He ran a hand through his thick uncombed hair and opened the bakery’s door.
It was a small space filled with a warmth that was much-welcomed relief from winter. The bakery had a soft comforting glow about it.
Everything was clean and well kempt. The shiny cherry wood countertop looked like it was wiped down every hour. There was a display case of different styles of bread, some flat, some twisted. On the highest shelf were confectionaries, which were in the smallest amount and the most expensive. Sugar was a rare commodity and rationed only to those who had the connections to get it. Abraxas felt his stomach tie in knots. He really should have eaten before he left. It wasn’t just the smell of rising bread dough, but the smell of hot butter, fruit jams, and honey glaze that really tempted him.
Nobody was at the front. Abraxas approached the counter and rang a little copper bell that sat next to the biscuit tray. He heard a clattering in the back room and footsteps coming closer. Abraxas watched as a fat unshaven man opened a back door and approached him with a look of annoyance. Abraxas took a questioning step backwards. The man looked him over for a second before asking in a thick jumbled accent close to Jones’ “Are ya the undertaker?”
“Yes. You delivered this note this morning?” Abraxas asked holding up the piece of paper.
“That I did. Do you have somethin’ to pick em’ up in?” the man asked as he nonchalantly scratched his scruffy chin.
“I do.” Abraxas cleared his throat “Where are the corpses?” this was a standard question Abraxas asked almost every day.
“Outside in the back. I’ll show ya.” The man leaded Abraxas through the same backdoor he came from. Abraxas followed behind the man’s big clunking steps into a hot space that radiated a dark greenish light. It smelled of burning coals that coated Abraxas’ lungs and choked him. He wiped sweat off his pale brow. He was surrounded by black metal walls. They had big open mouths with wooden plank tongues. The mouths laughed balls of black smoke and spat red fire. Abraxas felt the heat catch him in its hands and squeeze the air out of him. He held a hand to his chest but continued to follow the fat baker through the maze of ovens. There were only a few people, white uniforms turned gray, that worked here. They looked at Abraxas for only a moment, but then stuck their heads back into the big red metal mouths.
The man opened a door that lead the outside into a back alley. The ground was covered in snow that was soft under his feet. There was no longer a light smell of bread, nor a smell of burning ovens. Permeating throughout the narrow space was the familiar sickeningly sweet smell of a corpse. The scent, like rotting meat mixed with cheap perfume, was unmistakable. Abraxas turned his head to find a woman coated in a thick layer of ice. Her wide eyes and straight mouth covered in a glossy sheen made her look like a figured carved from glass. Delicate, with crystal hair and colorless skin. In her thin bruised arms was a baby. The infant was an emaciated fragile thing. The life out of its black beads of eyes seemed to have left it long before its mother’s. At first Abraxas thought it was motherly love that made her clutch a lifeless child. But then he realized that the winter earth was too hard to bury it. So, she had starved on the street, and died next to the bakery wall.
Abraxas touched his hand to the dead woman’s pearlescent eyes but could not close them. He glared up to the fat man but let the thoughts swimming in his head go. He stood up stuffed his hands in his pockets, muttering “I need to go grab my tarp.”
“Whatever ye’ have to do just do it” the man replied.
Abraxas lit a cigarette and smoked for a moment before asking “What about my payment? I will not move her until I am paid.”
The fat man reached into his trousers and handed Abraxas three silver coins. Abraxas grimaced. It wasn’t nearly enough for the trouble he gone through but he once again held his tongue. He didn’t want to leave the woman there like a frozen doll. He knew she needed to be set free. He felt a great weight fall over him. Abraxas walked slowly under it as he moved out of the alleyway. He came to his mare still tied to the post. Abraxas gave her a gentle rub on the snout before lifting the tarp out of the cart. He held the fabric tightly in his hands. His fingers were red, hot, and numb. Abraxas came back to the corpses. He placed his stiff hands on the mother and pulled. The ice grabbed firmly on the wall and did not release itself from her body. Abraxas dug his nails into the ice and took a deep wheezing breath. He forced his entire body against the ice but he was thin man and the ice was strong. Abraxas stood and balled his hands and breathed hot air into them. The fat man looked at him questioningly. Abraxas shook his head with the realization of what he would have to do. Abraxas drew his long leg back and kicked the corpse with the same weight he felt within him.
The bodies fell forward into the snow. Abraxas swallowed a hard-frozen ball in his throat. With red shaking hands he wrapped the tarp around the bodies and carried them in his arms. He placed the woman in his wooden cart. The fat man said nothing and went inside the bakery. Abraxas made sure the corpses were well covered before grabbing hold of his mare’s reins and guiding her out of the marketplace. Miles away the cathedral loudly rang its bells, sounding like thunder over the city. Abraxas knew church services had concluded. Abraxas carefully walked down the icy streets. He moved farther and farther away from the crowds, towards the southern base of city. Here the amount soldiers thinned, and Abraxas could breathe easy.
The gray of the sky mixed with the murky rotten brown of buildings. The stones on the street were jagged and broken and they would probably remain that way for some time. Many tenements in the city were dilapidated, but here it seemed some could fall down at any moment. Rooftops were held together with boards and walls slumped precariously to one side. Everything was quiet except for the supple clicking of the mare’s hooves and rocking of the cart. Along the road was a stream of melted snow, garbage, urine and feces. It overpowered the sweet scent of death coming from the cart. Abraxas used his free hand to pull a cloth from his coat and hold it up to his nose. His eyes watered and he pinched his lids tightly to relieve the sting.
Abraxas reached a building slightly taller than all the others. It was painted a rich jet black that seemed to drink up all the other colors around it. Its top windows were busted and its roof sagged like wet fabric. A sign painted yellow read: Hemming Funeral Home. A picture of a skull sat underneath the words. Abraxas pulled his mare around the building and into a back door. Inside everything was dark. A dirt floor created mud under his ice soaked shoes. Abraxas let of go of the reins and rummaged in his trench coat pocket for a lighter. He held the dented piece of copper metal in the air and flicked on the flame. The orange light danced around windowless walls. The air was cool and thick with ash. Abraxas fought through the clinging mud as he walked to the right wall. He waved his lighter in the air until it reflected back a bronze handle. He grabbed hold of the handle and pulled it down. A large metal door swung open slowly with a low sorrowful moan. Soot cascaded down onto his feet.
He lifted the frozen bodies in his arms and walked with them through the door. They were surrounded by black iron walls on all sides. He set the corpses down onto a floor of half charred wood, dry leaves and coal. He exited the iron room. He took a large step back before lighting a match and throwing towards the mother. He slammed the door shut and locked the handle in place. Smoke poured out the edges of the door like flowing water. Abraxas grabbed his mare quickly left the basement.
He tied the speckled mare to a post behind the funeral home and entered the building through the front door. He stepped onto a carpet that was once red, but had now transitioned into a sickly orange. Abraxas heard a clatter overhead. His pulse quickened. He looked up to see a brown rat scurry over the broken rafters. He breathed a sigh of relief. He walked past wooden coffins strung about to the a nearest corner of the room. He squatted down to a pile of straw on the floor, carefully shaped into a nest. Abraxas huffed and scanned the floor for seed like droppings. Sure-enough he found them near the walls, on top of coffins, on urns containing unknown ashes, and on the staircase. Abraxas sat down on a step and pulled a tobacco pouch from his coat pocket. He sprinkled tobacco into a paper roll, licked it closed and held it to his lighter. He held the cigarette between grit teeth as stood and dug through a closet to find a broom.
He swept in big angry strokes and listened to the sound of wire bristles scratching against dirt. Dust kicked up and made clouds of grit and filth at his ankles. He swept a pile of rat feces under the steps and left it there. He grabbed a cloth he usually used to polish wood stain into coffins and used it to haphazardly brush the droppings off surfaces. He wiped down the bottles that sat like an army on a shelf. He polished the blood and fluid off each knife, razor and embalming tool that sat on an end table. Finally, he lit a candle and carried it with him as he went upstairs.
Sunlight turned the color of cinders as passed through his grimy office window. He sat in a large chair with a long back that went past his head. At the base of its black wooden were intricate carvings of cherubs and winged beings. Moving up the wood angels transitioned into monsters. At top that sat at the crown of Abraxas’ head was a carving of wolf, with teeth bared and wild gemstone eyes. From this position he could get enough daylight to read and be able to admire a tall shelf of his personal death mask collection. He made these from placing hot wax over a corpse’s face and preserving it as a memento. If he collected the bodies of the wealthy and important, these masks would have been made effigies and cherished by their families. But no, nobody’s face he had was worthy of such a thing, and he kept them just to had volume to the collection. He liked that each face had its own expression, as if the corpses could still think and feel in death. Some had open mouths, pinched eyelids, or twisted lips. Some had closed eyes and flat mouth that could be mistaken as peaceful. Abraxas never saw them as that because he knew there was never any peace for the damned.
On his desk in front of him sat a book twice as large as a map and three times as thick a’s a bible. It was made of patchy brown leather and had no writing on the cover nor the spine. He opened it to its first page. It was filled with a delicate thin parchment, yellowed with age and older than he was. Names scrawled in calligraphy appeared and disappeared on the pages. Each name was written by an invisible hand and then faded off the page as if it never existed. Abraxas closed his eyes in a moment of deep concentration. He silenced all thoughts in his head and brought his attention to his breathing. He felt the air move into the bridge of his nose and open his mind. He placed a finger on the edge of the page. He opened his eyes and lifted his finger. All the materializing names vanished, leaving behind only two:
Emily Ada Bennett, Arthur Franklin Bennett.
He pulled a smaller logbook from his desk drawer and recorded the names in his own tight handwriting. Now he knew who he was being cremated. He brushed his hand over the leather book’s motionless page and the names sprung back once more—dancing and the dissolving into some great unknown void.
Abraxas flipped the leather book to its second page, where there was one name that re’mained still and permanent. It had appeared about a month ago, and stayed defiantly in its place. Abraxas had tried everything to release the name from the book, but there was nothing he could do. He was powerless. He did not know when the name would finally leave him but he knew someday it would. Because it was impossible to remain there, just as it was impossible to never die. He ran his finger in a ritual attempt to free the name of Grace Hemming.
But just like all the other times, it stayed on the page.
Abraxas sat at his kitchen table drinking strong black tea to nurse his headache. Abraxas cleared his throat and choked on his breath. He coughed into his handkerchief and wiped red from his lips. Jones looked at him from across the table. The servant was polishing silver but his mind was not focused on the task. Instead he watched his master with a feeling that might have been worry to a more sensitive person, but to him was just annoyance. It was challenging for him to be responsible for the health of someone who didn’t take care of himself. Jones knew he was being hypocritical, as the servant would frequently indulge in activities that would damn him ten times over. But then again, Jones wasn’t coughing up blood every single day.
“Sir” the servant spoke “Maybe you ought’ to rest”.
“No” Abraxas said as he took a sip of tea to sooth his throat “I have too much to do.”
“Mistah Abraxas” Medford pleaded “If you don’t rest I fear you’ll just get worse and…
“And what?” Abraxas snapped “Die?”
Jones lowered his head and slammed the knife he was polishing on the table, “Doesn’t that scare you?” he sneered between his teeth.
Abraxas was quiet for a moment before answering in a voice that perhaps was only speaking to himself,
“I don’t know.”