The Ravages of Time
by Mags L. Halliday
‘I have felt no pain since the creature bit me-’
‘Where did you get this from?’
The room had been cast in the rich glow of the log fire for an hour since, and the professors, academics and their choice students were gathered round, telling tales now that they were out of school for the autumn break. Professor Bernice Summerfield, better known as Benny, looked up from her manuscript.
‘Hasn’t anyone told you not to question the provenance of a ghost story, Joachim?’ she asked of the interloper in her narrative. Unseen to the others, she gave her favourite student an almost imperceptible wink: that boy had perfect timing. Benny put the manuscripts carefully back into one of her old journals and looked up from her seat on the floor in front of the fire.
It was she who had instigated the All Hallow’s Eve party some years previously, by arguing that all societies had a night in which they scared themselves stupid as they celebrated the death of summer. She always made sure her rooms were suitably decorated and lit for the event: they had eaten by candlelight and then settled on the old rugs by the open fire (all of which were strictly against the University’s Health and Safety regulations). Benny made full use of the flickering light, ensuring that her face was always in half-shadows, keeping her voice low so that they had to lean in to hear, making them on the edge of their seats before she had even begun. She reached over and refilled her brandy glass with a generous measure, then held the glass up to the firelight, squinting as it refracted and darkened the flames. She warmed the liquor by swirling it around and around in the bowl of the glass, looking up to be sure she had the full, rapt attention of her colleagues.
‘This tale begins when I was travelling with someone called the Doctor…’
A light breeze made the autumn trees rustle but failed to make an impression on the mist that had risen with the dew earlier that night. The graveyard was lit only by the distant, diffuse glow from the neighbouring streets and from the eighteenth century coach lantern the Doctor had carefully set on the corner of a large sarcophagus. Benny sat on a rug he had thoughtfully spread over the cold stone, her legs swinging free. She pulled her thick coat more firmly around her and looked down at her companion, who was leaning back against the stone, his head tilted to one side.
‘Doctor? When you suggested a moonlit picnic, this was not quite the scenario I had imagined-’
He held a slim hand up to silence her.
‘Do you hear that, Benny?’ he murmured. A smile lit up his newly youthful face as he listened to the faint night calls of wildlife.
Benny found herself smiling at his simple, childlike pleasures, so different from his previous self. When had he last stopped to listen to the birds’ night song? Or taken joyous delight in the smell of a rose bloom as it opens its petals for the very first time, as she had seen him do a few hours earlier? When had he last spent his time enjoying the moment, as opposed to planning the next move, or contemplating his past decisions? She found herself pausing to listen as well, trying to hear it as he did, as a newly born, still in wonder at the world.
In the distance, muffled by fog, a clock chimed the hour and the Doctor shook his head, letting fly droplets of condensing dew from his long curls.
‘Why are we here, Benny?’
‘Didn’t I just ask you that?’
His long hands gently wrapped themselves around the neck of the open bottle of cognac and he refilled their glasses. He turned to lean against the tombstone, his head bowed so he could avoid her gaze.
He looked up and caught her eyes. He put his glass of cognac down and rummaged in a pocket for a moment. Benny glimpsed browning papers, neatly folded and then she felt the brittle paper pressed into her cold hands. The Doctor picked up three of the red roses, about which she had been so very curious earlier, and smiled at her.
‘Back in a moment,’ he whispered, tapping her on the nose with a bloom, then whirling around and striding into the mist.
Benny looked down. Three, no, four sheets of old paper, covered in laborious copperplate, although the writing on the last three pages rapidly deteriorated into a scrawl worthy of a college professor. Taking a large gulp of the warming brandy, Benny read, starting with the earliest dated page…
28th September 1849
Today, I am travelling from Richmond to Baltimore aboard the Pocahontas. I must confess that I have spent not a little time of the journey in the bar to the forward of the boat. I beseech you not to think ill of your dear Edgar for this, but I have upon me a great thirst at present and have felt much urgency for the small measure of relief that the cognac brings. Fear not for my safety, nor that I will fall into any ill company, for I have spent this evening in conversation with a gentleman of letters. One Doctor John Smith, of Aberdeenshire in Scotland. He is travelling throughout the ex-colonies observing the more dismal face of our democratic processes, as displayed in the press gangs of Philadelphia that currently ensure the incoherent support of the candidates through coercion and the application of free liquor. Doctor Smith is a small man in form although not in presence, intelligence and manner. It was this quiet, grave authority which drew my attention to him when I saw him in the bar and which emboldened me to engage him in conversation and to accept his kindest offer of a small dose of that spirit which brings relief from my ever present predicament.
We conversed for much of the evening, from sundown till the first stirring of the day and his conversational skills were able to bring forth memories of distant times and of tales told to me many years previously. I have never felt so inspired and plan to make notes of a tale, recovered from my erratic and failing memory that was first told to me by a visiting Doctor of English at the university of Virginia. This Doctor, whose name eludes me still, had been a boisterous, lively fellow with a shock of red hair, more suited to the playing of student japes than the receiving of them and as a consequence of spending many a night there in our local tavern had been accepted by the student body. He was there for less than a term however, and I know not what became of him. One evening, we had fallen to the telling of tales of terror and he told one which has stayed, sleeping, in the back of my failing mind these many years and which, having recalled it to Doctor Smith, I am about to write down in crudest of forms. This morning we shall arrive in Baltimore and the good Doctor has proposed a short trip round the town together. Finding myself in this convivial company and finding this company not unhappy to remain with myself, I have agreed to journeying on with him for a day or two and will then return to my lodging and my scribbled notes of this new tale, of which I have the highest of hopes.
…I have felt no pain since the creature bit me; its sharp incisors, quick and cool against my clammy, fear-saturated flesh. I had felt my blood try to repel the contaminating venom and then the brutally cold air as the leech was torn from its impassioned grip upon me and dashed away by the Doctor. I have felt no pain since the creature bit me. I have felt neither heat nor chill, though my body is wracked with heaving tremors of fever.
The Doctor, it seems, is not the man he seemed to me scant days ago on the boat, and I find myself having travelled no little way with him. I have seen visions that make me scream with their unbelievable horror, with their unnatural light and impossibility. I long to make notes of everything I have seen in these few days for I see stories in what I have witnessed: the sea-beings at play on the shores of Orion, the deep unremitting silence of the heavens, the dreadfulness of what I have fallen victim of. For I have not made notes yet, too wrapped up in the experiences. This sole witness thus far have I borne of what I have seen, hurriedly and inarticulately written by harsh sodium glare. I am half-mad with the fever from that infernal creature but these are not the deluded scribbles of a madman. I know who I am, but not when, nor what type of man I am with.
We are in Baltimore, of that I am sure, but not of when. Time slicks and smears and runs together and I am here all at once. I see the city overlaying itself, the myriad forms distorting in my sight. I see it at its birth, as a great city of some impossible future and as the blackened, shattered shell in some other earthly light. I see myself, my own, younger, self confidently walking through the streets that were once maddeningly familiar to me. There he is, I am, making up tales of mystery to amuse myself and scare others. If only he knew what he was to become, a ghost still living.
I am rambling. No matter, when the fever is gone I will transform these notes into a novella, make my experiences a fiction so that I may think of them as nothing more than a tale told to me by a madman in a student tavern.
I have been travelling with one Doctor John Smith, who is more commonly addressed as ‘the Doctor’. On merely the second day of our acquaintance, we found ourselves fighting creatures of unimaginable horror. It would seem that not all the missing people of Baltimore have been press-ganged. I can still recall, and record, one conversation I had with my learned companion about these bloated creatures.
“They are leeches, Edgar, they suck life from whatever planet they come across.”
“Vampires? ” I had scoffed, scarce believing he should try such a tale on myself.
“No, much more insidious than that. They do not take blood, they take life itself. They suck away a person’s time, leaving behind nothing but a ugly infection and no more time to live in.”
I had nodded, smiling, thinking to humour him but the small man gripped my arm and looked into my eyes. He had the eyes of a demon, the eyes of a man who has lived a thousand lives himself. Alien eyes, warning me…
The fever eats me up but I feel nothing. I was bitten, I fell, I stumbled. We had been running. The Doctor tore the creature away from me and destroyed it, he has destroyed them all, but not before it’s ravaging infection ate up my time. I see time differently now. I see past, present and future all at once. I see all the lives that have been lived and are yet to be lived. I know that the leech took from me my time, so that I will die soon and will be buried.
The Doctor is trying to stabilise me so that I see only one time and only one Baltimore. I am writing this as I sit alone where he has left me, his medicines coursing through me, trying to bring me back to a single moment, but I am still experiencing the then, the now and the to-be. So, if this narrative slides back into the present, even as I look back at it, forgive me. We had to go through the graveyard, to reach his vessel. I saw it all, a thousand years of dark mourning, weighing down that place. I saw the people, long gone but still there. I see myself once more, an empty, sallow husk lowered into the ground. I fall once more to my knees at this spot, despairing at the realisation that I am gone, that I will be gone and never recovered. The ravages of time are not kind and as I kneel and face the futures I see my most beloved women, all of who have passed through this place. The echoes are as real as the memories and I find myself torn apart again. I see Virginia once more, her blood-soaked handkerchief unfurling its dread petals as she offers it up to me, as if for my pleasure. My poor darling wife, fragile and weak with the Red Death, and then gone, her traitorous coughing silent at last. Her spirit curls up upon itself and fades. Now what? Is it not enough to see my wife taken from me once more?
Mother. Eliza Poe. I am a child once more, no more than three years old and I watch her for endless hours in the confines of our little room, the scarlet treachery upon her lips, the rattle and gurgle within her screaming for release. These are scenes I have no desire to watch once more. I know the form though, such visions come but in threes and I await my last grievous visitor. She is one not yet gone in my life, another woman, whose love for me is turned into a consuming flame. Maria Clemm, my staunchest support. She too, I see, the Red Death marking her as his own. Enough! I want no more!
The Doctor grabbed my arm then, and tried to make me move, for I was anchored to the ground by my own memorial. I turned my face to his and saw it all. His many lives, all at once overlaid. And I saw one, a future one it must be, familiar to me in form. The Doctor who once taught at my university, who told me a tale of a mystery writer forced to face his own grave. A tale which I had told but three days hence to this man, a stranger. He bought me here to fulfil the story. I grab his arm, pull him to his knees.
“Remember me. Mourn for me, and for them. For I have no time left.”
With that I allow him to lead my from that place….
‘Edgar Allen Poe was found, delirious with drink, or so they thought, on October the third, eighteen forty-nine. He died in the hospital at five minutes past three on the seventh October and was buried here in the Westminster graveyard in Baltimore.’
Benny looked up at the Doctor, who had reappeared and spoken quietly, as soon as her eyes had finished the torn pages. His youthful eyes were solemn, and made her realise once more that this young man had already lived a thousand lifetimes. He smiled up at her, then suddenly looked down. Twirling a fourth rose stem in his hand, deliberately nonchalant. Avoiding her eyes.
‘My previous self, having ensured Edgar fulfilled the role Time had ascribed him, removed the evidence of our involvement and left Edgar where he was due to be found, the alien toxins wreaking havoc within. At some point, I must have remembered the promise and I have kept a vigil here on the anniversary of his death ever since. It was good of you to accompany me, Benny. This is the first time I’ve done it. This particular me, that is. I was a little nervous.’
Benny leant over and kissed the top of his bowed head.
‘I’m sure you did just fine, Doctor.’
‘To this day, a mysterious figure appears every year at five minutes past three on the anniversary of Poe’s death at his memorial in Baltimore and leaves a half-finished bottle of cognac and three red roses.’
Benny put the papers carefully back inside her journal, closed the book and raised her glass to the past.