I’m currently working on a short story about a character who works at an antique shop and who is obsessed with collecting (or in reality, stealing) old objects that are imbued with stories and secrets. It’s still very much a work in progress, so it’s not ready to post yet, but I would like to share this vignette that I’m planning to incorporate into the story. Here goes.
A Book Full of Death
This isn’t an old wives tale, or a ghost story or anything made up just to send goosebumps up and down your spine and add a little chill to the night. It is as real as death. Death, which was the only thing old Ralph could count on in life. There would always be another death for him to walk in on, uninvited but not unwelcome.
Old Ralph was a Witness, a hoarder of others’ secrets. When you were stricken with some malady and only had an hour left to live, in came old Ralph – his puce-green tweed suit and orange paisley bowtie at some odds with the black atmosphere of the sick room. He was reassuringly portly, as you’d expect anyone to be when they’re brimming with secrets; he had some weight to him. He was there after the Priest and before the Reaper (or rather, the Mortician – if you’re determined to be a realist), sneaking in at the twilight hour to sit next to the dying and hear their last unutterable words. No one knew where he came from, or who he was exactly, but somehow he’d appear by your bedside at just the right moment and smile, his tiny beaming eyes disappearing under folds of skin. “Tell me the words unspoken,” he said. “Tell me your secrets and I’ll keep them safe for you.”
That was all he needed to say, and then to wait quietly for the poor fading soul to vomit up its last untold stories, all those unspeakable things that were holding back its body from a peaceful weightlessness. Ralph knew that’s all death was – when your body had no weight to it anymore, nothing holding it down to life. So Ralph sat, always with a patient ear tilted down towards the sick bed, and listened to broken promises, and guilty obsessions, hateful ticks and thoughts and yearnings buried under names like “aberrations.” He learned of the little, everyday secrets that loomed large in the minds of people, that organized their lives like marching orders.
When those last words were spoken, Ralph gave one encouraging nod and tipped his faded brown hat at the deportee, a serious look etched into his face like an epitaph on a gravestone. With a kind word to the loved one in the next room, maybe a spot of tea if they felt so willing (Earl Grey wasn’t inappropriate if the death had been expected), he was off.
No one knew where Ralph lived, or how he knew when and where to appear. He was always a tip-off ahead of the local newspapers, and was in fact the scourge of any ambitious obituarist as he always stole away the pith of someone’s life before it could be reported to a nosy journalist.
Some people said he must keep everything written down somewhere. How else could a man remember everything, like they knew he did? For if you happened to spot him walking briskly toward the sick neighbor’s, he always gave a little smile, tipped his hat at you, and spoke your name with so much warmth you wanted to send a platter of cookies and coffee after him. Even if you’d never met him before, he knew you.
But sometimes it was asked, at a pitch never above a whisper – what would happen when Ralph himself died. Who would be there at his bed? Who would take his place?
And then one day, without a hint, it happened. Maurice Tanner, who had begun his end three months ago with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, had a fitful passing – his body unable to let go of its weight in a peaceful manner. Old Ralph had never come. There had been no Witness.
Instead, though no one in the town really knew it was an act of replacement, a black tome full of names and unintelligible scribbles in some made up cipher appeared on the steps of the local antiquarian’s shop. It weighed a monstrous ton and had to be carted around in a wagon meant for three small children. It was a book that looked as if it would always be dusty, no matter how many times you tried to clean it, and it smelled rather unpleasantly like camphor and the perfumed kneeler from the church’s confessional. Inside were the names of everyone in the town, and others besides that no one recognized because they were too young to have known them. It was, the rumor went, the book of Old Ralph’s life. On the spine it read R.I.P.
It was passed around town in the effort to break the code, to unveil the secrets held inside those bounded pages. But the book was full of death and there was something disgusting in this act, as if the townspeople had Old Ralph on the table and were performing an unwarranted autopsy. Gradually, they left it alone and the book claimed its home in a corner of the antiquarian’s shop, sinking into the shelf as it waited for the rightful inheritor to come and pick it up.