Thursday, July 12, 2012

Nevermore


Carissa knew she should not have dallied so long at the library but she had little choice. This was her last evening in Baltimore before she would return to her studies in Ohio. Her dissertation was sadly lagging behind schedule and she had hoped the trip would clear her mind and refocus her energies.

It had been a less productive trip than she’d hoped for. In retrospect, perhaps she’d have done better to choose a less enigmatic character than Poe for her thesis, but she’d committed far too much time, effort and money to her work to change course now. To be honest, he’d fascinated her since she’d first read his collected works at the age of nine. That she should pin her hopes for a doctorate on such a man as him seemed only inevitable.

She’d visited the Poe House and Museum, stood staring at the stone marker of his original grave site, and pored over a mountain of archival records in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the man, his life and his unusual demise. In balance, she’d unearthed little she did not already know and gone so far as to engender new questions to add to her list of already unresolved queries.

She’d even gone so far as to time her trip so that she would be in town on the anniversary of the night the beleaguered man had been found lying in the streets, inexplicably ill and even then dying. She’d hoped for some sort of arcane, other-worldly inspiration but been quite disappointed.

To add insult to injury, she’d lost track of time in the stacks of the wondrously ornate Central Library. She’d exited the building tired, hungry and more than a little dazed. She’d received special dispensation, as a researcher, to remain long after the normal hours of operation and, to her chagrin; she’d taken more advantage of that privilege than was perhaps wise. A cursory glance at her watch confirmed her fears. The city buses had stopped running some time ago and she was a long walk away from her lodgings.

She briefly considered and discounted the idea of a taxi.  She’d been on a shoestring budget for this jaunt from the beginning and her remaining funds were embarrassingly limited. A taxi tonight meant foregoing meals until she got back home, if she even had enough on her to pay the fare. She was woefully ignorant of what the tab might be, but common sense led her to believe it would be exorbitant.

The prospect of the walk did not especially daunt her. As a starving grad student, she spent more time afoot than she did in her noxious little Toyota. She wore stout, sensible walking shoes and attire reasonably well-suited to the weather. There was a definite chill in the fall air and it had been particularly damp and cloudy this week, but nothing beyond what she was accustomed to in her Midwest upbringing.

This was far from her first trip to the city and she had a good general knowledge of where she was in relation to her motel. It would be challenging, given her fatigue and hunger, but there was naught to be done about it. She knew it wasn’t more than a mile to her motel, so she set off at a brisk, but maintainable pace.

She’d gone but a short distance when she began to doubt the wisdom of her choice to walk. Though it was after eleven at night, the streets were decidedly more deserted than she might have expected. To make matters worse, a dense fog had begun to roll in. While this was not unusual for Baltimore at this time of year, it was nevertheless disconcerting. The tall, brick buildings and the lack of a moon lent an indistinct and surreal feeling to the surroundings.

She stopped, standing in place, and turned a slow circle. Though she knew it to be impossible, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had, somehow, gotten turned around and was walking in the wrong direction. Was it impossible? The strong sense of doubt creeping into her mind suggested that it was not inconceivable. The street both ahead and behind her seemed equally indistinguishable. At length, she came to the conclusion that she had gone too far to the east and needed to correct that error.

As if in response to her decision, the mouth of a wide alley was revealed as a slight breeze eddied the fog about. Carissa tried to see down the alleyway, but darkness and fog again obscured her vision. Her farm girl instincts came to the forefront, encouraging her to take the path revealed. She, normally, had an excellent sense of direction and felt foolish for having allowed herself to become so disoriented and panicky. By all rights, if she transited the alley and then turned to the left she would be on a direct line to her destination and be there in no time whatsoever. She shook her head, chuckling to herself for behaving like a bumpkin in the big city. She was better than that.

Squaring her shoulders, she set off down the corridor between the buildings with a renewed sense of well-being. The way was considerably darker than she’d expected, but she pressed onward. From time to time, her feet came into contact with things best not dwelt upon and she found herself thankful for the lack of illumination. The fog was thicker in the confines of the space between the buildings and she felt as if she were walking for a far longer distance than the alley should consist of.

As tendrils of self-doubt began to again whip about in her mind, she saw pale light ahead of her. Excellent, she told herself. She quickened her pace, welcoming the solace and comforts that something as mundane as an urban streetlight could offer. Before she realized it, the brick tunnel she’d been walking ended abruptly. Her vision was entirely blocked by especially thick fog but she could tell from the flow of air to her side that she was free of its embrace. Smiling at the clean, salt scent of the air, she turned smartly to her left and set off. Her new-found satisfaction was short-lived as she stepped on something that squished under her foot, nearly pitching her headlong into the concrete.

Confused and in some pain, it took an eternity for a familiar scent to reach her nose. Now, she didn’t get back home to her folks and the farm all that often anymore, but horse shit smelled like horse shit wherever it might happen to be. Horse shit on the streets of a metropolitan city? She had no ideas if the Baltimore police had equestrian officers or not, but the presence of manure on the cobbles struck her as damned incongruous.

On the heels of that discovery, she noted, for the first time the lamp post she had grabbed onto when steadying herself. It had a cold, hard roughness to it that she came to realize was a result of it being wrought iron. Allowing her gaze to track upwards, she saw the guttering flame within the globe atop the post. What the …? She was aware the tourism people had been making efforts to restore parts of the city to a more old-timey feel, but when the hell did they install gas streetlights?

As the wind increased in intensity, she was able to get a better look around her. Not a thing looked, even remotely, familiar to her. It was as if she had stepped out of the mouth of the alley into a 19th century recreation of the Baltimore cityscape. How was this even possible? A reconstruction project of this magnitude was, most certainly, something she would not only have heard of but actually seen during her week-long stay in town.

One thing had certainly not changed. The immediate area, be it historically-enhanced and restored was no less deserted than what lay at the far end of the alley. There appeared to be no one about that she might question to allay her growing feelings of trepidation. Her thoughts whirled as she whipped her head about seeking anyone…anybody who could restore her hold on reality. She had all but given up hope, intending to resume her walk, when she saw what she believed to be a figure at the farthest reaches of her limited visibility. She thrust her head forward, straining to focus her tired eyes on the faint movement she’d been convinced she’d seen. There…there it was again!

She was half walking, half jogging along the uneven cobbles, far more shaken than she was willing to admit. She desperately needed there to be someone for her to talk to. Drawing closer, she brightened as she saw the figure more clearly. He was a man and he was seated, well sort of slumped, on a stone bench by the street. Great, she thought, the only guy around and he’s a bum. Well, even a bum was welcome at this point. She’d been around long enough to know that not everybody who lived on the streets was somebody bad.

She stopped several feet away from the man, sensing something wrong. He was conscious, if barely, and was muttering to himself. She detected no smell of alcohol about him but her senses were, admittedly, not at their most acute. More disturbing to her was the man’s attire. He gave every impression of having been plucked from another time and dumped like a discarded sack of Goodwill donations on the unyielding bench.

Atop his head was a soiled straw hat. It fit him badly and his lank, unkempt hair was readily visible. He wore an exceptionally grimy shirt sized for a man of different proportions and a grease and dirt-stained suit of some woolen blend. His footwear was cracked and nearly devoid of soles and he wore no socks. At first glance, he appeared familiar to Carissa but she was at a loss to explain why. It dawned on her, in a flash, that the guy was a dead ringer for Edgar Allan Poe!

Throwing caution to the wind, she slid onto the bench next to him and was trying to decide what to say when his voice rose in volume…only snatches of what he said understandable to her.

“Virginia…the golden bowl… sweet Lenore… pallid bust of…” his words devolved back to mumbles of incoherence and moaning.

Carissa’s mouth dropped open and she struggled against all odds to keep her sanity intact. How? What? Was it even possible? Holy crap on a stick! This guy didn’t just LOOK like Poe; he was the honest-to-god man himself! What the fuck kind of weird-assed, twisted, in-freakin’-conceivable shit was going on here?!? She felt her tenuous hold on reality fading inexorably away with every passing second.

Her voice quavered badly and was close to tears, “Poe…uh, Mr. Poe? Are you Mr. Edgar Allan Poe?” Her voice trailed off with a squeak and she found herself hoping the man would simply lose consciousness and not answer her frantic plea. In all of the many experiences of her life, nothing could have prepared her for what happened next.

It was as if the mention of his name had instilled the man with a much-needed jolt of lucidity. His eyes became inexplicably clear and focused. He drew himself to a more erect position and turned his upper body slowly toward her. With blinding speed, his hand shot out, grasping her wrist with a strength and ferocity belied by his emaciated frame. He leaned in very close to her, the point of his nose near touching hers. Carissa was frozen in place, making no attempt to free herself from his grasp.

His voice was low and calm, surprisingly deep and entrancing. “You, young lady, most emphatically do NOT belong here. The time, the place, the very world that you call home is not where you now sit. This cannot be. You will take yourself from this place and you will not look back. You have a fine and a wondrously-developed mind for one of the fairer gender. You have poured far too much of that mind, your heart, your soul into the unworthy vessel that you see before you. This is unseemly and must not continue. Go forth from me and be done with all that has ever been associated with the accursed and damnable Mister Edgar Allan Poe. You will go now, back to where you came from, back to where you belong. Be a wife, be a mother, be any damned thing that might strike the fancy of a woman of marriageable age, but leave off with me. Go now. GO!” His voice rose in pitch until he was shrieking with rage and firmly in the realm of insanity.

Carissa went. She ran and ran and ran until her breath was gone and her legs would no longer carry her any further. She was found, barely conscious and barely sane by a Baltimore P.D. patrol within half a block of her hotel. She spun them an unlikely story of an attempted mugging that they were willing to accept at face value for want of time and desire to look any deeper. The next morning, she flew back to Ohio and went directly to the Dean’s Office. She announced her intention to withdraw from the post-graduate program and that she would not be completing her thesis, now or ever.

She returned to her family’s farm, where she remained for the entirety of her remaining life. From the day of her return until she was laid to rest in the churchyard where her entire family lay, she never allowed anything related to Poe anywhere into her life ever again.


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