You can hear me read this story on episode #70 of R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast – Poe-inspired, Telltale-Heart episode. The prompts for this episode were “September”, and this photo, taken by podcast master R.B. Wood of the Poe-statue in Boston:
My story is a riff on Poe’s Telltale Heart and ravens, and the artwork I used for the story’s “cover” is an illustration by Gustave Doré for Poe’s ‘The Raven’. You can read more about those illustrations at Open Culture.
I first see you in the library, on the top floor of this old house you’re visiting with your parents.
They’ve come to assess the value of an unexpected inheritance – house, property, money – but a week of wills and lawyers is too boring for a twelve-year-old girl. That’s why you’re roaming the house alone.
A lonely child. Quiet. Watchful. Wanting. Like I was.
Can you feel me watching you, Ellinore? Maybe. But you cannot see me. Not yet.
I can see you. I see you touch the books, their leather-bound spines, caressing gilded letters, dusty covers. I see you walk past shelf after shelf as if you’re looking for something.
I know what you’re looking for. Don’t worry. You’ll find it.
There. That’s it. Use the chair to reach it, tucked in behind the other books on the highest shelf.
The black leather cover is embossed with letters. You trace them with a finger, stroking the book’s soft skin. Supple, isn’t it? I won’t tell you what kind of creature was skinned to make it. (No one ever missed that boy, anyway.)
You open it, turning the pages, taking in my ornate handwriting, the rusty brown ink.
My own ink. My own quill.
(It was a Thursday in September when I hid my book here in the library. I was in a hurry. Father was coming up the stairs, shouting my name like a curse, feet thumping on the steps. I ran downstairs after hiding the book, into the basement. Locked a door. Broke a window. Too late.
I only wanted to get away. He should have let me go. But he didn’t.)
I see you reading the book in bed, the words rustling through your mind. My words. My soul, too, because I tucked a little bit of myself between the pages.
I know why you’re cold. I’m cold, too.
Don’t worry. It’ll all be worth it in the end.
When you wake after midnight in my old bedroom, beneath the musty sheets, you hear a thumping noise from far below – thump thump thump – like a telltale heart. You try to convince yourself it’s the furnace, the pipes, the floorboards.
I know it’s not. So do you.
In the dark, you reach for the book, caressing its cover.
It’s whispering to you, and you’re listening.
Your mouth moves as you read, tasting the words. I know you can feel yourself changing already – just a ripple, just a quiver – but undeniable.
You’re falling asleep with the book in your lap, until I tap on the window.
Tap tap tap.
Don’t fall asleep, Ellinore. You’ve been asleep for too long. So have I.
Tap tap tap.
You scream. Your mother comes. I see her try to soothe you.
She looks out the window, looking at me but through me. She cannot see. You can, though: your eyes wide, your mouth a perfect O. Your mother says you’re imagining things. She tucks you into bed and pulls the curtains.
I can still see you, of course. I see you huddling under the covers, your soul caught between the lamplight and the shadows just like mine was. I’m so close that I could almost touch that soft black hair of yours, the fragile nape of your neck, the curved bones beneath your nightgown.
You tremble, and reach for the book again.
Good girl. Don’t stop reading.
I watch you change as you read the book, as you speak my words out loud when you think you’re alone. Every day, my ink stains your fingers, your tongue, your dreams.
I see you looking at that old photograph of me on the piano. Me, stiff-backed and neatly coiffed, dressed in black. Father hovering behind me as he always did.
I wonder what they’ve told you about me.
Maybe nothing. A dusty great grand-aunt dressed in silk and lace, long gone, silent, childless, wrapped in the darkest folds of family history, slipped into the silence between shame and fear.
There was no hangman’s noose for me, no bonfire gathered to burn me alive, though father threatened me with both. I did not care. I learned the words anyway. Spoke them. Let them change me.
You’re like me, Ellinore. None of the others are. None of the others were.
I’ve waited so long for you, for another telltale heart beating unheard.
At last, I watch you get out of bed and sneak downstairs into the basement. Your steps are so light, your shadow so thin and wavering, it’s almost as if you’ve already left this body behind.
Thump thump thump.
You know it’s not the furnace, the pipes, the floorboards.
I see you searching with your flashlight. I see you hack and dig into that patch of blackened dirt beneath the bricks father placed to hide what he had done.
I know what you’re looking for. You’ll find it, soon.
Thump thump thump.
It’s getting louder. Keep digging, Ellinore.
There. Your soiled fingers touch the iron-bound wood that father slammed shut around me, and you haul it out of the cold dirt, cracking the rusted lock open with the blade of your shovel.
Thump thump thump.
Beating. Like a heart. Like wings.
The box breaks open and in the silence, you kneel. You caress my body like you caressed the books that first day: stroking the black feathers, tracing the shiny beak, the claws and feet.
“Thank you, Ellinore,” I whisper as I slip my spirit inside my raven-hame again, as I feel the delicate rustle of my wings, shaking off the cold, cramped centuries.
And you, you watch me take flight, your bare feet earthbound only for a moment before the feathers shiver down your spine and arms, before you open your beak and caw with me, as we alight, as we break through the glass and wing together into the night.
© Maria Haskins 2017.