Chapter 1: The Deeping Carriage
Tobias Monk was eight years old and a genius for his age, if you asked Tobias Monk. He sat in the second to last row of his one-room school house, where he was usually bored. It was a perfect time to practice multitasking. In the middle of drawing a marvelous cartoon of his teacher, Mr. Sawbury, the very same called on him to answer a question.
“64,” Tobias replied, lowering his quill.
“Very good,” droned Mr. Sawbury. “Eight times eight is 64. Margaret, what is nine times nine?”
See, Tobias proudly reminded himself. I can do two things at once. Easily. Perhaps he was the smartest boy in the town of Bugle’s Bald, so named for the grassy peak of the mountain standing guard over the hamlet, and for Mr. W.M.H. Bugle, pioneer and discoverer of the secluded valley in which the town sat. He continued drawing his interpretation of Mr. Sawbury as a dopey elk. Meanwhile, his real teacher furiously scrawled on the chalkboard while talking about multiplication tables. Tobias knew them already, and he took the liberty last week to get a head start on his division lessons as well. Math was easy for Tobias. A lot of things did: getting his way, charming anyone who had something of value, annoying Adelar, his caretaker. He wasn’t a bad child, but he was very clever for an eight-year old, and unearned cleverness has a way of causing trouble.
His mother knew this. There was a day when the two of them went to the pond out by the old mill. She showed him how to skip stones across the water, and he did it well the first time. Like many things, skipping stones happened to come easily to him. He didn’t know why; he just accepted that he was good at things and wondered why others weren’t good at them too. His mother smiled and told him to make a list of the things that didn’t come easily to him.
“Cleverness is good,” she told him, “but there will be a time when cleverness is not enough. Knowing what you don’t know might get you out of a tough spot.”
His first entries on the list were sarcastic remarks such as “listening to anything my father has to say” or “cleaning my room.” This is the story of how Tobias’s list became much longer.
He had just added a front pair of hooves to his cartoon when the schoolroom’s door slammed open. Adelar- large, sharp-eyed Adelar, with a feather in her cap and a sash around her waist- stood breathless in the doorway of the schoolroom. She wasn’t a petite lady, as most older women go, and she was awfully strong for a woman with such thick crow’s feet.
“Tobias,” she said between breaths. “Your brother is on the way.”
Mr. Sawbury turned to face Tobias, who swore that his teacher’s hand was still writing numbers in the air. The rest of the class turned as well, silent.
“May I please be excused?” Tobias said. “I’m no longer going to be an only child.”
“Of course, m’boy,” Mr. Sawbury responded. “Congratulations! We’ll look for the fireworks.”
Tobias placed his quill and ink inside the desk and joined Adelar, who grabbed his shoulder and led him outside to the dusty street. Tobias always thought her fingers resembled the talons of some vicious raptor clutching the scruff of a small, squirming rodent. Even sharper was her gaze, constantly evaluating her environment and turning her neck in every conceivable angle. She always seemed perturbed when she tried to look behind her, as if in another world she had been able to turn her head fully around and catch people by surprise.
“Will the baby be out before we get there?” Tobias asked, pulled aside by Adelar before he was almost run over by a carriage careening down the street.
“There’s no telling, child,” she said. “The doctors are doing the best they can.” They walked to the end of the schoolhouse, where a small black carriage and a skinny driver awaited them.
“I’ll be the oldest. You were the oldest, weren’t you?” he said as he climbed in and hopped onto the cushion.
“No need to use the past tense.” She hoisted herself up, Tobias offering his hand to pull her into the cabin, and shut the door. “To the Palace, and be quick about it.” The driver snapped the reigns and with a lurch the carriage was on its way.
“But weren’t you?”
“I am the oldest, Tobias. Now shush.”
The street led to the small but bustling town’s center square surrounded by brick, two or three story buildings with gray shingles. In the center stood the prayer house, a sturdy but drab and unadorned building. Groups of people hurried about their business in every direction. Women wore bonnets and long dresses of earthen colors; the men donned top hats and tailcoats.
The carriage blazed a dusty trail across the square as pedestrians scrambled to get out of the way. The vegetable seller pulled his cart just in time for the carriage to pass. They passed an open air market with vendors selling meats and cheeses and chocolates, the latter of which Tobias especially loved. He gazed longingly at the chocolate booth as an old man behind the display handed a bag of sweets to a girl about his age.
“Can’t we stop for some chocolate?” asked Tobias, poking his head out of the window and looking back. “They could be a present for my brother.”
“Babies don’t eat chocolate.”
“For mother then?”
“She needs healthy food right now.”
A smile. “For me?
He crossed his arms, but not in anger. It’s hard to look angry with a smile on your face. It’s hard not to have a smile on your face when your new baby brother is on the way. “When will they light the fireworks?”
“No more talking, child,” she said, gazing ahead as always. Tobias did not open his mouth the rest of the way. The carriage whizzed past the last neighborhoods of the town and toward the woods. Above the canopy towered the central turret of the Palace of Arrivals, where the firemasters ignited their fireworks with every new child. The thin trees of the woods did little to conceal the majesty of the sprawling hospital, and in a few moments the carriage was through the woods and at the gates of the magnificent campus.
The Palace of Arrivals dazzled in the autumn afternoon sun. It was a stately complex of glass and iron situated against the base of a low mountain. The building’s two wings embraced a central roundabout, where nimble horses and their carriages dropped off expecting women and their excited families. A new set of fireworks went off. A new arrival. He hoped he wasn’t too late! Tobias had seen the fireworks too many times to count, and soon he would see them commemorate the arrival of his new brother.
The driver halted in the roundabout and Adelar pulled Tobias out of the carriage. They ran up the stairs, Tobias bounding over every other step. Tall, thick open doors ushered them into the expansive atrium, bright and airy and as busy as any seaport, for the Palace was a natural terminal of arrivals only. Departures were the business of someone else.
In the center of the atrium was a round kiosk which featured a large, cylindrical board. Two old men, white-haired and bespectacled, stood on a ladder and slid blocks of letters and numbers to display where one’s mother, wife, or daughter might be found in the formidable fortress. Adelar and Tobias walked up to the board.
“Cara Monk. Fourth floor. Suite sixteen,” Adelar mumbled, studying the board.
Tobias heard fireworks from outside. Everyone in the room cheered.
“We’re not too late are we?” asked Tobias.
“Not likely. Come on.”
They walked to the other side of the atrium and climbed into the box of the open-air elevator. Adelar tugged on Tobias’s shoulder, keeping him from leaning too far over the bar and falling to the ground floor. There were no other buildings in Bugle’s Bald tall enough for elevators, so this was indeed a treat. They reached the fourth floor where a young porter secured the elevator with a lever. He opened the door and Tobias and Adelar stepped off.
“Let’s hurry,” said Adelar. For the first time, Tobias detected a hint of anxiety in her voice. There is the normal sort of anxiety on days like a Birth day, it seemed to Tobias. Then there is the unwelcome kind, the kind when there are no smiles, when people speak as seldom as possible. It struck Tobias that Adelar had been uncommonly quiet since the school. While hardly a gossip, Adelar rarely lacked for words. She wasn’t much for smiling either, but one crept onto her face now and then. Moments before a new arrival qualified as a time she might smile.
They half-ran down the hallway passing suite 12, then suite 13. While the ground floor had hummed with positive energy, this corridor was cold with silence. Adelar opened the front door of suite 16. The ornate living space, decorated with fine rugs and plump red chairs around a fireplace, was still and dark. The only sound was the crackling of dying coals in the fire. Tobias walked into the deserted living area, each footstep disturbing the unusual silence, now very possibly the silence of bad news. He turned to Adelar.
“Why is it so quiet?”
She said nothing. Another bad sign. Tobias heard someone coming down the velvet stairs.
“Father.” Tobias stood straight. His lean father was clean shaven and smartly dressed as always, except his usually well-kept hair was wet and out of sorts with sweat. His eyes looked cloudy and gray, like a storm had only passed through moments ago. He was readjusting his cufflinks.
“What did you tell him?” he asked Adelar without laying an eye on Tobias.
“Nothing,” she replied.
His cufflinks were straightened. The object of his attention was now his cravat. Those cloudy eyes focused on the floor while his fingers felt their way under his chin. He finally looked at Tobias.
“Very well,” he said distantly and nodded his head. “Up you go.”
Tobias ran behind his father and up the stairs. His father did not turn as he passed. The stairs led to an even darker corridor, with every door closed save for one: an ajar door at the end letting in a sliver of white light. He crept up to the door and pushed it open. In the bedroom was a single large window facing the front gate of the Palace, and a handful of doctors and midwives standing silent around a large bed. On the bed was his mother, her raven hair soaked with the sweat and tears of labor, her green eyes flooded with the same. She looked gaunt, though she was already a skinny woman, and her pale skin, as beautiful as ever, looked patchy and discolored. Despite these outward maladies, her face beamed when her son entered the room.
“Tobias!” she smiled and sat up. He ran to her for a hug. Tobias let go and pulled out a folded piece of paper from his pocket.
“Mother, look what I drew in class!” He unfolded the paper and handed her the cartoon he had made of his teacher with elk antlers.
“Wonderful,” she said just above a whisper, holding the paper in her hand. “And you drew this during the designated art period, yes?” A tear slid down her cheek, and she eased her head back on the pillow.
“Why are you crying?” Tobias asked, but there was no reply. He looked around the room for answers. Nobody made eye contact with him. Everyone looked down. Just then, his father entered the room and mumbled something to the doctors. Adelar followed behind him and shut the door.
“It’s nothing,” she winced. “Just a little pain, that’s all.”
“It is only a matter of time,” one of the doctors whispered to his father. “The Deeping Carriage will be here any moment.”
The Deeping Carriage. Tobias heard stories about this strange vehicle, stories of strange beasts inside and wheels higher than even the tallest heads. He knew as many stories about its driver, a dark, old sorcerer who stood even taller than the wheels. There was an old song about him that Tobias, like all children, learned at the prayer house at a young age.
Our shadows and dust are not for the keeping
And so my young darling, do not bother weeping
When you, me, and Far go a’Deeping.
The Palace of Arrivals was the last place anyone expected Far and his Deeping Carriage to be.
“Tobias, I’m so sorry,” his mother breathed from her bed. “I have fallen ill. I think Far might come for me.”
The words didn’t exactly register for Tobias. He knew what the words meant, but only in stories he heard about other families. He didn’t know what they meant when said by his own mother. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“He will take me to the Deep.”
“Can I go with you?” Tobias asked, although he knew it was a foolish question. No one chose to go to the Deep. Only Far chose: often the old or infirm, but not always. Sometimes, after a severe accident, his Deeping Carriage would collect people of any age.
His mother smiled, like she knew he was playing the child. “I’m afraid you can’t.”
Fireworks went off again, but they sounded distant. So did the cheers from the employees below. The rest of the Palace was in another world as far as Tobias was concerned.
The faint sound of hooves scraping against cobblestone entered from the window. Tobias rushed over to catch a glimpse.
“It’s not him.” A young doctor stood vigil by the window. “Trust me, you’ll know when it’s him. The noise spooks you down to the bones.”
An unfamiliar sound came from the next room over as a midwife opened a door and shut it again. It was a baby’s cry.
“Would you like to meet your new brother?” his mother asked.
Tobias had completely forgotten what brought them to the Palace in the first place, in fact the only reason anyone goes to the Palace at all. There was a new member of the family. The midwife went back into the other room and returned holding a bundle of cloth with a tuft of thin, red hair peeking through the top. She handed the baby to his mother.
“Tobias,” his mother said, calm. “Come here my darling.”
He took one more cautionary glance out the window and went and stood next to his mother by the bed. His mother delicately folded the blanket over to reveal the treasure inside. There was the baby. He was tiny, even for a newborn. His chin was pointy and his ears stuck out a little, but not his nose. It was the roundest thing Tobias had ever seen.
His father came behind him and laid his hands on his shoulders. “Tobias, meet Doro.”
Tobias moved his finger close to Doro’s hand. Doro took the finger and grasped tightly. His eyes were half shut, but they looked straight at Tobias.
“What does Doro mean?” Tobias asked, a small smile shaping on his face.
“A gift,” his father replied. “Perfect and healthy.”
Doro’s eyes grew heavy, and his fingers went limp as he fell back asleep. The midwife picked him up and returned to the other room.
Tobias climbed into the bed next to his mother, leaving his father’s hands behind. He expected to feel the warmth of her body surround him like when she lay with him in bed to read a story, but her body was cold. Her hand stroked his hair and she kissed him on top of the head.
“How’s your list coming?” she asked.
“No new entries as of late.”
“I expect that will change soon.”
And then the noise happened. ‘Spooky’ was the word the young doctor used. It was only a few seconds long, like thunder, but it closer resembled a wail, a creaking of a thousand aching walls in a windstorm, the sinking of a sailing fleet, the cries of a hundred widows. And then there was the sound of hooves and wooden wheels over the cobblestone courtyard. The sound crept in from the window. The carriage came closer until it was, Tobias guessed, at the front gates. And then silence. A new crop of goose bumps grew across his body. The young doctor at the window looked at them. He nodded.
Mr. Monk circled around the bed and looked out the window next to the doctor. Tobias inched closer to his mother, who embraced him with her remaining strength.
“Please don’t go,” he mumbled.
“I don’t think I have a choice,” his mother replied. “Look at me.” She held him so that their eyes could meet. “I love you so much, I would give you the world. Your father loves you the same. Doro loves you too. Did you see how he held your finger? He didn’t do that for me.”
“I’m scared,” was his reply.
“Me too,” his mother said. “But I will be with you, even when you don’t see me.”
The stairs below creaked with the weight of new feet, sounding heavy and important. Between the loud steps were the irregular bounces of a much smaller pair of feet.
“Come to me,” his father said, grim.
Tobias refused. His arms tightened again around his mother’s waist, his face smashed against her belly. She winced.
“Do as your father says,” she whispered.
That was the last thing he wanted to do, but he managed to sit up, receive one last kiss from his mother, and walk over to where his father stood on the other side of the bed.
A small hand rapped the door. Adelar opened it. In the doorway was a tiny little man, although he appeared more amphibian than human. He couldn’t have been more than three feet tall. Light from the window reflected onto his face, a flat sea of glossy green in which floated two isolated eyes like desert islands. Pulled into a stringy pony tail was a thin tangle of hair, resting on a tailcoat of moss with way too many buttons on the right side. In the creature’s armpit was a long scroll, which he took out and opened. He cleared his throat.
Now you’ve come to finished dust
Your shadow, you must now entrust
To Far who lives beneath the wood
And knew your name before you stood.
Worries you will soon forget
And cast them out with your regrets.
Lastly you must do the same
And surrender your given name.
Only then will you be free
To dine with Far in harmony
In Anirem, the last green shore.
You are Complete, there is no more.
The creature released the bottom of the scroll and let it wind around the scroll. “I bring you the one who has come for the Complete,” he finished, as if a thin film of gunk nested permanently on his vocal cords. “He is the Lord of the Shadows, the first and the last.”
The air behind the little man became wispy, and a pair of legs appeared at the bottom of a grayish cloud.
“His name is Far.”
In came the figure of a man as tall as the ceiling, but he shrank as he walked forward. He was an old man, with sunken eyes and a large nose hanging by the thinnest of bridges, but he moved with the stern poise of a king. His beard, a white brushstroke with swelling riverbeds of gray, fell down to his knees, as did his braided hair, but his sapphire robes fell down to the floor. In fact, everything on him appeared to be falling, as if he were a walking fountain. Until the mist evaporated, it was difficult to tell where the mist started and the man began. In his right hand he held a black staff. By the time he stood in the doorway, his height was equal to that of a tall man. The little creature stood to the side as his master entered the room.
Adelar motioned for the doctors and midwives to leave, so they shuffled to the adjoining room and shut the door. All that remained was Tobias, his parents, the creature, and Far.
“Daughter,” said the ancient man, his voice cavernous and calm.
Tobias’s mother propped her head up and gazed at the mysterious man, who gave no hint of favor or disdain. “Yes?”
“Your dust has expired. Your shadow must come with me. Are you well enough to stand?”
Mrs. Monk propped herself up and pivoted so her toes reached the floor. She put weight on her right foot, but slid to the floor with a thud. Mr. Monk rushed around the bed to aide his wife, but Far held his bony hand up in caution. Then he waved his hand. Another mist appeared between Far and the bed, which unveiled a floating silver chaise. With a snap of his fingers, Mrs. Monk floated off the bed and onto the chaise.
Mr. Monk held his wife’s hand against his cheek.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“So am I.”
“Take care of them.”
The creature walked to the back of the chaise and pushed it out the door. Tobias watched as his mother disappeared around the corner. Then he met his father’s eyes. “You’re going to do something, right?”
His father said nothing. The door to the adjacent room opened as the doctors came back in.
“She’s only ill!” he said to them. “Lots of people are ill every day, and you help them. Why can’t you help her?”
Their response was silence and averted eyes. The doctor that had stood by the window spoke to a midwife. “Half past ten in the morning, Doro Monk. Alert the firemasters.”
Tobias sprinted for the door, but his father held him back. He ran to the window facing the front courtyard of the Palace, where Far and company exited the front door. Two more creatures like the little man pushing the chaise held the doors open to the carriage. Inside were the sullen faces of elderly people, Far’s earlier victims of the day, watching through the carriage’s curtained windows as the creatures lifted his mother into the compartment. The creatures shut the doors, carved in which was an emblem Tobias had never seen: the curved necks of two swans facing outward like a lyre and with a column between them. The creatures ran up a set of steps to the driver’s seat alongside Far, who had grown to his normal height of two men and had grabbed the reins. The two gigantic horses that pulled the carriage were as black as ink, save for their striking white eyes. The carriage rolled forward as the horses pulled, and as it moved further from the Palace it gained speed until it vanished into the cobblestone underneath the brick gate, breaching the earth with the same terrible noise as before.
For a few moments longer, Tobias looked out into the street in bewilderment, wishing that the carriage would return with his mother. He wondered what it meant that Far had taken his mother to the Deep. Would he ever see her again? Those stories and songs told him nothing.
Suddenly, the firemasters began their display, welcoming his new baby brother into the world. Flashes of orange and red and green danced on the austere walls of the bedroom in a symphony of color. For once, the rainbow cacophony was of no interest to Tobias. Instead, he wanted to run in the streets shouting that something had gone terribly wrong. Someone should run to the firemasters and inform them to stop their celebration at once.
Doro cried from the other room, awakened by his own celebration.
“Someone should tell them to stop,” Tobias mumbled. A hand rested on his shoulder. It was Adelar’s.
“Let’s go,” she said, picking him up and letting his head rest on her shoulder. Tobias was reminded how strong she was, even at her age. “I’ll put on some tea downstairs.”
“It’s not right,” he said.
Adelar hushed him, running her fingers through his hair.
They passed the open door to the other room, where Mr. Monk cradled Doro in his arms. Tobias caught only a passing glance of them through the doorway. He will never know our mother, Tobias thought, or what it was like to see her leave. Was Doro the cause of their mother’s departure? Tobias was sure he was. One family member leaves and another arrives on the same day? That wasn’t a coincidence.
“It’s not right.” He sobbed as his caretaker carried him downstairs. “It’s not right,” he repeated. “It’s not right. It’s not right.”
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