Wednesday, 15 July 2015

IN PACE REQUIESCAT

“I am a part of everything that I have read.” John Kieran

I have been rather busy these last few days and have had to revise my daily schedule several times. Today, I offer you a short story that I wrote several years ago, in response to a challenge that involved writing a story with the requirement that it begin with the last line from a favourite books. I chose as my first line, the last sentence in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”, which ends: “In Pace Requiescat!” Now, read on!

In Pace Requiescat! On the gravestone a sad memorial, the letters eroded and barely legible. The filmy curtain of falling rain makes the task of reading the inscription even more difficult, the twilight seeming to be darker and gloomier in the moisture-laden air. As the heavens weep, the gentle sound of rain is a distraction, further lessening the sharpness of vision. A sudden noise behind him. Was that a twig breaking? He looks back. Nothing. Only the massive outlines of the cypresses around the cemetery looking at him threateningly - an army of cyclopean dimensions ready to attack. And yet, they stand firm. His jaw clenches tightly.

He stands motionless and looks at the grave, one of many, so many, in the old cemetery. He sighs and despite his urgency he stands his ground and scans the graveyard, struggling to read the faint inscriptions of more gravestones ahead. Time, he needs more time. This will never do. He will not be able to find the grave in time. His hand tears down a creeper that obscures the lettering on a stone. The darkness steals upon him with each passing moment and he kneels to decipher the inscription. Not this one, either. He blinks to free his eyes of rain that clings to his eyelashes and as if they are tears, the drops run down his cheeks.

The sodden earth sticks to his boots as he strides forth to the next group of memorial stones. They rise from the ground as if bleak bystanders turned to rock. His gloved fingers brush away cobwebs that have captured a myriad diamond-like raindrops and he stoops to read. Lichens and moss further hamper the task of making out the old writing on the dark grey stone. Laura… Could this be what he searches for? A ray of hope is lit in the darkness of his heart of hearts. A weight seems to be lifting, but as he clears the lichen away the caption of another life long gone is revealed: Wife of Thomas, here interred… He sighs and sinks into despondency again. Time – time is running out as the last failing light is giving way to night.

Another sharp sound behind him makes him rise and turn abruptly. A shadow dashes into the dark yews, becoming part of them. A faint susurration merges with the sound of dripping rain and quietly disappears as if a snake were disturbed and slowly slithers away. They will be here soon! Time! He runs to the next grave, a large crypt, its gaping maws black and menacing through the half-open grille of the ironwork gate. In the murky wetness he looks up to see what name is graven on the ancient stone, as he pulls down an obscuring creeper: Wexway… This is it! This is the name he searches for! Behind him shadows move, and a fetid odour mixes with the cold dampness of the moist earth smell. Wet moss and decayed wood. He ignores the approaching noise and dashes into the tomb, slamming the gate behind him. He looks for a latch, a lock, and finds a bolt that he draws shut securely. Fiery eyes regard him from the gathering darkness outside and the hissing sounds are clearly heard through the fainter sounds of rain.

He takes a tinderbox from his greatcoat pocket and strikes. The sparks fly ineffectually and he strikes again, this time a flame jumping up. It burns brilliantly and he lights the lantern that he had concealed in his knapsack. The hissing outside increases in volume and the fiery eyes move a little more distantly. He looks around, shaking the rain off him. The tomb is so quiet after the drone of the rain outside. The smell of death and seeming aeons of decay assails his senses and the oppressive weight of stone above him makes him shudder. There is a stairway hewn into the rock ahead leading downwards. The gloom below impenetrable, his lantern light too weak to penetrate the depths. Resolutely he descends. This must be done!

The flickering light of his lantern plays upon the rough walls and shadows dance as he descends the steps. The hissing above him mixes with banging sounds on the ironwork of the gate. It must hold fast! He hurries downwards and enters the burial chamber, his lantern a promise of hope and salvation in the dank shadows that surround him. A dais made of stone is in the centre of the chamber and on it a sarcophagus. This must be she! Laura! The banging on the doorway upstairs echoes down the steps into the chamber. The furious hissing sounds rise in frustration as the doorway remains shut. He breathes heavily as he approaches the platform and his heart all but stops.

On the stone of the cover, her name is carved in simple letters: “Laura”. His Laura? His eyes well up and hot tears stream down his face. They drop heavily on the stone. He hastily wipes them away and rests the lantern on a ledge opposite him. The flame flickers and then begins to burn more steadily. How can she be lying here dead when only last night they spent the night together? No, it cannot be. This is some trickery, the old man was wrong. He misled him. Even if this is her coffin, even if it is his Laura’s coffin, surely it must be empty… He must look inside. Make sure.

He takes the iron bar from his knapsack and he hesitates only a little, aware of the rapid beating of his heart and his raspy breath. Outside the hissing has not stopped and still a thwarted bang echoes on the ironwork. He grasps the iron bar firmly and he prises the tip under the lid. With great effort and a harsh sound, stone grinds against stone and slowly the lid begins to shift. He stops as a thought grips like a vice his whole being. What if she is here, lying motionless within this tomb? His mind echoes with a silent scream that his heart lets out. Laura cannot be here. He pushes the lid determined and it crashes to the floor, breaking and raising a veil of dust. The sounds from above are silenced momentarily and as he opens his eyes he looks inside the coffin.

A white shroud encloses the shape of what could only be a corpse. The cloth shines out in the darkness as if it were phosphorescent. He extends his trembling hand to touch but lightly and withdraws it, as though the winding sheet were white hot. His heart races, as his breath comes out roughly, gasping. His hand slowly extends towards the shroud once again. What would he do if his eyes beheld what he could not bare to see? What if this body were to be Laura, his beloved? Then he had to commit an act that he cannot bear even to contemplate. Laura!

The noises upstairs have started again, this time with the enraged energy that frustration breeds. He glances towards the stairs and then with one swift movement drags the shroud away from the coffin. His blood freezes. Laura in all her beauty is lying there, serene, as though asleep. Her dark, shining hair, her beautiful face, her red full lips… He whimpers and he knows it all is true. The noises up the stairs have reached a fever pitch. Her creatures are almost upon him. He brushes away hot tears and with rapid motion takes a wooden stake and mallet from his knapsack. Her eyelids part and her eyes regard him with a strangely vacuous stare. This must be done, and then In Pace Requiescat

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