Truth – a late night, unedited tale for one of Terry Whidborne’s Sunday Sketches.
‘You will burn. The Beast will have no mercy on your despoiled, festering soul. Your limbs will be torn from your body, your eyes blinded and gouged, your odious, sin-filled heart cut from your wanton chest and shredded by talons blackened with blood, your …’
‘Why do you lie to them?’
Ambrose stopped mid rant to find a girl standing in front of him. She was small—barely half his size—doe-eyed and unwashed. A large bird, big as her head, sat on her shoulder, peering at him with uncertain eyes. The bird’s feathers seemed to ripple and swallow the evening light.
Aware that he was still holding his holy book aloft as if beseeching the sky scrapers to attend his every word, Ambrose lowered his arm and shook the book hard under the girl’s nose. ‘Repent and you shall be saved. Repent and you shall know mercy. Repent and damnation will …’
‘You call yourself a truth seeker,’ said the girl knocking the book out of the way and plunging her hand into a pocket that looked as if it had been stapled on to the front of the overly large coat she was wearing.
Startled, Ambrose snatched the book back, clutching it close to his chest as the girl withdrew some sort of dried lizard, or snake from the pocket and fed it to the bird. The girl was clearly a heathen.
‘I am a truth seeker,’ Ambrose announced as the bird grasped the wizened offering and began to crunch.
‘The words you speak are nonsense and frippery,’ said the girl as the bird continued to crunch. ‘I have watched you for days, man of mercy,’ she went on, ‘and I am here to bring you the truth you seek.’
Ambrose, tall and long-limbed, hugged his holy book harder, as if to leave an imprint on his lungs. He wasn’t used to attention. No one ever spoke to him, and he had been happy with that in the long years since his release . He counted himself blessed by the embarrassed silence of passers-by who he pitied and feared in equal measure. ‘The book is the word and the word is truth,’ he said at last.
The girl lost her temper–eyebrows dipped, nostrils flared. ‘I said stop with your nonsense, Ambrose Nosferatis. Haven’t I just told you that I am a truth bringer.’
With this the bird dropped its shrunken meal, shrieked, ruffled its feathers and hissed at Ambrose.
‘Oh, hush, Bertrand,’ said the girl, nudging the bird gently with the side of her head.
Ambrose Nosferatis. Ambrose Nosferatis. She had said it. She had said his name. His real name. The one he gave himself, not the name the old priest had called him long ago. Not the one the other home boys had called him–though they mostly called him other things, cruel things.
‘Of course I know your name,’ said the girl, shoving her hand back into her pocket and pulling out a misshapen piece of chalk.
‘How?’ asked Ambrose, finding his voice.
The girl dropped to her knees and began to chalk letters on the pavement. ‘What does it matter,’ she said. The letters were wild and uneven and bumped up against each other.
Ambrose watched on, confused, wishing the girl and her bird and her chalk away. He wanted to be left alone to warn the unfortunate souls now hurrying toward the train station. Warn them that The Beast was waiting if they did not repent.
The girl stayed, and the bird had started to watch him, closely.
‘Bertrand is my guide,’ said the girl, drawing an s as if she was copying it from some unseen book. ‘Without him I cannot walk between worlds. Without him there is no hope.’
Ambrose watched her, shifting from foot to foot. ‘The only hope is with our Lor …’
‘I’m done,’ said the girl jumping to her feet. Despite the thick woollen coat she wore, her feet were bare, bare and tiny, tiny and covered in soot.
Ambrose looked at the pavement. The letters the girl had drawn seemed jumbled, upside-down and back to front.
‘It makes no sense,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘You’re looking at them the wrong way,’ said the girl. ‘You always look at things the wrong way.’
Ambrose leaned forward and twisted slightly to look at the girl’s work the right way up. The letters remained jumbled. Tangled. Almost uncertain. No. Wait. Ambrose peered harder at the letters which seemed to shift and change. He found himself saying the words as they emerged.
‘Magic. Has. A. Half. Life. Evil. Never. Sleeps.’
Ambrose looked at the girl now standing quietly by his side, the words on the pavement bumping up against her toes. ‘Half life?’ he muttered.
‘The magic must be renewed,’ said the girl, holding out her hand for Ambrose to take. The girl seemed even smaller now, barely taller than a five year old.
Ambrose clutched his book, flicked the gilt edges of the pages with his fingers. Felt the warmth, the familiarity. He ran his fingers along the spine, feeling the place where the gold letters had once been.
Then Ambrose reached out and touched the truth.