Amery’s mind had caught fire with Boethius’ home, and though the hermit’s ship had probably stopped burning by the morning, his thought were still a confusion of unignorable pain. The boys had run for hours and did not stop until they reached the skirts of the town in the blue of the morning. It was Saturday, and the town was silent.
All the boys sat on the grassy bank of the dirt road, leaning up against a stone wall. Everyone, except for Amery, who leaned against the wall still as death, as if movement might rupture what fragile calm he had managed to wrap around himself.
The other boys had been less composed and would have scattered aimlessly as they ran through the night if Amery had not been their shepard. Seeing Rafael fall into the fire was like lightning at a distance, and now, hours later they were hearing the thunder. Grief rotted their hearts and paralyzed their minds. To those of the boys who had not yet known tragedy, it came less sterile than they had expected. It was like an uppercut to the jaw of a boy who had always heard of fights, but had never been in one. Along their run, Wallie had vomited more than once, and Vincent had not stopped weeping.
Amery had been Rafael’s best friend since before they could speak, and in a handful of seconds he had watched years die. But even despite the mountain of grief which had shot up over him in an evening, his conscience demanded he think of the others first.
“Rafael was…” Amery began, but his words died in his mouth.
There was much to be said, he knew, but for the first time in his life words began to fail him. He had no comfort to spare, so he said what needed to be said in a severe and hushed tone.
“Listen. No matter what, no one speaks to anyone about what happened last night. No one can know, do you understand?”
Aldous lifted his head with furrowed brow. He had been quietly comforting his weeping brother and Vincent.
“Keep it a secret! Why? This is…” He was swiftly cut off by Amery who continued,
“…This is, something that can get each of us in huge trouble. If the College knew we had been there, we would all become suspect of murder.”
“Murder?!” Aldous shot to his feet, indignant. “Who would ever suspect us of murder?”
Amery’s eyes caught fire as he pushed himself from his leaning position on the wall.
“The College would…now keep your voice down. The penalty for murder is hanging; I’m only trying to save your neck, Aldous.”
“Look, someone murdered Boethius, and it would be shameful not to bear witness to a murder because you’re scared they’ll convict you!” Aldous shouted and jabbed a finger at Amery. “And whatever happened to being ‘in the business of truth’? You’re asking us to lie!”
“The truth means nothing to a body of lies!” Amery snapped back through his teeth, coming very near Aldous, who stood firm and looked Amery solidly in the face. Amery continued, “I know the College better than any of you, and I can tell you now if you tell them the truth of what happened, we’ll each of us hang to cover up their crime.”
Aldous looked at Amery with a face of total incredulity, as he replied in a lower tone,
“You mean to imply the College killed Boethius?” All eyes were on Amery now as he hesitated to reply.
“I mean to say, there are few parties more likely on this island to want to get rid of a hermit with ideas like Boethius’. I happen to think we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Aldous’ eyes dropped from Amery’s for the first time as renewed dread weighed down his heart.
“…My God.” Aldous uttered under his breath.
“What can we do?” Vincent croaked, his face still streaked with tears.
Amery sighed long and painfully, and said,
“We have to wait until the news is announced to grieve our friend. It won’t be long, but until then, go back to your homes and act natural. It has to look like nothing’s wrong.”
A moment after Amery said this, the resonant sound of a bell hummed over their heads. They all knew it was the mourning bell from the College steeple.
Rafael stumbled through the mud and sticks of the dense old orchard. He had been doing his best to trace his steps back from the night before, but his mind meandered like cattle through a broken fence. His filthy clothes, sore back, and weary limbs felt like they were in a world apart, as if they were only illusions he entertained half-heartedly, and could dismiss at a whim. Indeed, things unseen had for the moment become the most real thing to his conscious mind.
The worst part about Rafael’s cloudy mental weather was that he could not remember his dream. He remembered dreaming of a memory. The Chapel in Hangman’s Forest, Annabel singing with Miss Merridale, all that was clear. But he knew after that, something else had followed. He had the terrible feeling that he was forgetting something of profound importance and yet, the harder he tried to remember what was said, the more it slipped into empty presumptions.
Rafael had already crested the orchard hill, and was beginning his decent. Through sliver-gaps in the apple-tree boughs, he could glimpse the fringes of the cornfield below, and some of the rooftops of the town beyond. Just then, his ear caught the faint reverberation of a distant bell. He stopped where he stood and listened, staring stupidly and absent-mindedly into the humid air. The sound came rolling through the orchard a second time, and this time his thoughts cleared.
It was the mourning bell from the College, out east of town. He had only heard it a handful of times, but the time most marked in his memory being that spring morning when Annabel had disappeared. To Rafael’s astonishment, the thought of Annabel conjured a face in his mind so vivid he was left momentarily stunned. He began to wonder why he would be able to remember her face so clearly, then recalled that he had dreamt of her in his unconsciousness. He must have, though he could not account for the luminosity of the face he imagined. Had he dreamt of her ghost?
The resonant rumble of the came again, calling Rafael’s attention back to time and place. It occured to Rafael the mourning bell might be for him, and was stricken with a thrill of amusement. A grin passed over his face as the miracle of his survival became real to him. Placing his hands on his hips he began to laugh quietly, as he said to himself.
“Well, I’ll be damned…” He continued walking with a brisker step. Every clod of mud which clung to his shoes began to feel like a blessing and every discomfort in his joints was like a gift. He would have danced like a fool there in the apple-trees if it weren’t for the pain in his legs. The thought of singing flashed through his mind, but just as suddenly there came another noise which caused him to pause. The sound of hooves on gravel met his ears. He had descended most of the hill and knew he had to be close to the orchard road.
Dashing forward spontaneously he burst through an obstruction of dewy branches and almost ran into a barbed-wire fence. Just beyond that fence was a road, different from the one he had been on the night before. Standing panting on the road just in front of Rafael was a black horse, and riding the horse was a familiar boy. His narrow features and long curly, gold hair identified him to even Rafael’s slow mind immediately. Rafael smiled wide with relief as he greeted, with a little irony in his voice,
“Well how d’ya do Martin.”
Martin looked down at Rafael with absolute astonishment, clearly shocked to Rafael burst out of the woods, looking as though he had been buried in ash for a night. Martin opened his mouth to speak, and left it there for a moment, then blurted out as if unsure,
“Hey Raf…” In the time it had taken Martin to respond, Rafael had moved to a place a couple yards down the fence where the wires had rusted away. As Rafael came limping a little up to Martin’s horse, Martin said with more composure,
“My God! What happened to you? You look like something ate you and threw you back up!”
It dawned on Rafael how odd the whole situation must seem, and how his buoyant demeanor might skew the sober news he had to tell. Rafael’s temperament shifted dramatically as he began to recall the events of the night before; the dread on the hilltop, the withered corpse of Boethius, and fire which nearly took his life and the lives of his friends. His friends! Rafael had completely forgotten his friends thought he was dead! Doubtless they were somewhere grieving. Maybe they had spread the news and that was why the bell was tolling.
“Where were you last night?” Martin questioned with severe urgency, waking Rafael from his thoughts. Rafael looked up at Martin with great intensity and said in a low tone,
“Something awful happened on Baker’s Hill last night, Martin.”
“I know.” Martin replied to Rafael’s surprise. “I just came from Boethius’ ship. It’s been burned to cinders. Were you there?” The rapidity of events began to feel ludacris to Rafael, who replied,
“Yes, I…” His words faltered, overburdened by the amount he had to tell. “There’s too much to say. But hold on…those bells aren’t ringing for me are they?” Rafael asked.
“No those are for Boethius, I just alerted the College and was heading into town to get the Marshal.” There was a pause, then Martin spoke again, “You didn’t see who did it, did you?”
“Who did what?” Rafael puzzled a little dumbly.
“The murderer who burned Boethius’ home!” Martin thundered with impatience.
“Martin,” Rafael began, putting a hand on the horse and coming nearer. “Boethius was murdered long before his ship was burned. He was all withered like a skeleton when I saw him.” A wave of fright passed over Martin’s face as he looked down at Rafael, then said after composing himself a little.
“Here, climb on. Explain everything to me on the way into town; and maybe we should find a place where you can clean up.”
Rafael did as Martin said and they were soon riding at a half gallop toward town. Rafael had a difficult job trying to explain everything which had occurred the night before, the corpse, the fire, and his miraculous survival, all while bumping up and down on the horse’s back. But Rafael knew Martin was a good listener and very good at doing two things at once. It was a talent of his he carried proudly.
By the time Rafael had finished the story, they had arrived at the threshold of town Marshal’s office, which lay just on the east side of the Market Junction. Amid the white houses and charming gardens of the town’s heart, Rafael warmed himself in the almost palpable atmosphere of safety. He had felt his giddiness rekindle itself in retelling how he, somehow, cheated death.
Rafael could tell he had captured Martin’s attention, as he did not leap off the horse and rush inside as they waited outside the Marshal’s office. In fact, almost all of his urgency had vanished, and he sat still, eyes wide gazing blankly at the cobblestones.
“Isn’t that something?” Rafael chuckled, nudging Martin in the saddle.
“It’s miraculous, without a doubt.” Martin finally replied. “I’d say, if we had a monastery on the island, you’d be in danger of checking yourself in.”
“Literally saved from the fires, right!” Rafael laughed in reply, hopping off the saddle. Martin remained seated, clearly still deep in thought. Leaning over, he fixed Rafael with an expression resembling concern, though severe and sharp.
“You mean to say the fire burned a circle around you, without even burning the hair on your head?”
“That’s right.” Rafael replied soberly, a little offset by Martin’s expression.
“And you were holding…what’d you say? A gold pocket watch?” Martin continued to question.
“Yeah, Amery’s.” Martin’s eyes untethered from Rafael and floated over the Market Junction. Then, with a start, he snapped out of it and shot Rafael a good-humored grin.
“Well, you must be eager to clean yourself up after a night like that.” He hopped off the horse and quickly tethered it’s reigns to a post. “Why don’t you head home. I’ll tell the boys you made it out alive. I’m sure they’ll die of delight.” Martin laughed, ascending the wooden steps to the old, stone building of the Marshal’s office.
“Alright, thanks Martin!” Rafael replied, just as Martin hastily went inside, his urgency clearly renewed.
Rafael stood alone on the quiet street for a long minute. The down was deathly quiet and the morning was turning bright and cold. The rattle of leaves over the cobblestones met his ears and he was reminded of the coming autumn and the harvest.
Looking down at the filth which covered his body, he for the first time that day began to crave a warm bath. Slowly at first, Rafael began to walk westward toward the wharf. Crossing the breadth of the Market Junction, Rafael had the strange impression that all the trees, booths, telephone poles, and buildings were small, like something he stood high over and could hold between his thumb and forefinger. Rafael had felt that way only a few times, and each time he compared it to being in love, though he knew that was an unsuitable metaphor. It could not be said Rafael felt ‘bigger’ than the reality he saw, rather he and the reality he saw had been dwarfed by something far larger. In essence, it was like he had returned after traveling the world twice over, and had returned to his little life in his little town, a different person.
He recalled walking up the same road, under the same cottonwoods, amid the same falling, yellow leaves, the morning before. How different he had felt. But now and again, like a pulsing headache, a dread would rise over his thought. The image of Boethius’ withered corpse flashed through Rafael’s mind and set him on edge. He knew his fluid frame of mind would soon crystalize, and then the countless questions would need to be answered. First of which was, how did Boethius meet his death?
The crunch of gravel under his feet reminded him where he was, and that he was descending the hill toward the wharf. It felt like an eternity since he laid eyes on the ramshackle fishmonger’s shacks, and the little wood-shaked houses. Being a Saturday, no smoke plumed from the houses, and nobody stirred in the streets.
Scanning the tin rooftops to find his own, Rafael spotted it and stood still in shock. A throng of blackbirds covered the old tin roof from eave to eave, thick as a bed of grass. The otherworldly dread which had only pulsed through Rafael’s mind before, now rose like a scream. For for what felt several minutes, Rafael stood and stared at the congregation of blackbirds on his roof. Finally finding the strength to keep walking, and knowing no better course of action, Rafael continued moving toward the house.
Naturally trying to reconcile the sight with some grounded reality, Rafael recalled that they were one of the only houses on the wharf without blackbird windchimes. Rafael mentally scolded himself himself for never hanging any up. But he also recalled that he was not as superstitious as the rest of the town; though he had increasing reason to be.
He turned along their little, dirt road and came to where the gate used to be, to enter their dusty front lawn. What seemed hundreds of glossy, black beaks and ebony eyes glowered down at him as he stepped into the yard. Taking his eyes off the birds for a moment, his gaze drifted down to the front door. It’s screen door was wide open, and the inner, wooden door stood cracked. Rafael didn’t at all like the looks of things, and that dreadful knot in his gut had returned. The world which had appeared so small now closed around him like a moonless night and he felt strangely trapped.
He knew he had to go inside, but was plagued by the nightmare terror that what lay inside was another corpse just like Boethius, somewhere in that dark house. The tingling fear of entering ran from his toes to his throat, but the immutable determination to know the captain was alright imposed itself over his fear. Rafael rushed towards the door and pushed it open. Like he had feared, the hall before him was dark, only lit by the morning light from the open door.
“Mr. Amos!” Rafael cried out. As Rafael listened for a reply, he suddenly felt the thrill of cold metal rest against the back of his neck. Rafael froze, as he heard the door shut behind him. For a moment there was not a sound as Rafael stood frozen in the dark, the muzzle of a shotgun resting on the back of his neck.
“…Who’s there?” Rafael asked, sensing that whoever it was wasn’t going to speak first.
“Whatd’ya want?” The captain growled.
“Captain Amos…sir, it’s me—Rafael.” Rafael replied, his heart falling and rising as he began to suspect he did not truly know Amos. After a moment, Rafael felt the steel pull back from his neck, then heard it clump onto the floor.
Immediately the captain came around Rafael’s side to get a look at his face, and at the same time Rafael saw Amos’ face. He had known the captain to be stoic, reserved, a man with one stone expression. To see a new expression on a stone face is like being in an earthquake, and Rafael felt his heart recoil at the sight of him. His jaw clenched under his tangled beard and his eyes flared so the whites of them almost glowed in the dim light.
Though the light was poor, Rafael could tell the captain’s face was pale and his motions were jerky, as though every muscle was tensed. After scanning Rafael’s face for a moment, his expression changed entirely to something more frightening. His face twisted as though he was about to cry, then he threw his arms around the boy in an embrace Rafael could not have escaped if he tried. Instead of trying though, Rafael stood stunned in the dim hallway.
“Goddamnit Rafael, I thought you were one of those devils here to do me away.” The captain blubbered through sobs so that Rafael could hardly make out what he said. Filled with something between pity and disgust, Rafael made an effort to push Amos away, and Amos obliged.
“What’s going on?” Rafael demanded, taking a long step back. He felt less afraid now, but more unsettled. He could hear the blackbird’s claws scratching on the tin roof over their heads. The captain stood still and looked at Rafael without replying, his overpoweringly emotional expression now ebbing into meek solemnity. Rafael continued without waiting for a reply,
“Who’s coming for you? What have you done?” A new urgency rushed over the captain’s face. He stepped toward Rafael and gripped him by the shoulders, too quickly for Rafael to retreat.
“There’s so much I need to explain to you.” Without saying anything else, the captain walked rapidly around Rafael into the kitchen. Rafael turned and followed after the captain, with more questions in his head than he could speak. However, Rafael was beginning to think he might learn more if he stayed silent and listened, than if he asked all the questions he could think of.
Stepping into the kitchen area, Rafael’s eyes immediately fell on something bright white nestled under a side table; so white it almost seemed to emit its own light. The wounded albatross gazed up at Rafael as if to say, ‘I told you things were going to become strange’.
The captain was busy leaning hunched over another table, flipping through a book. He listed his head and remarked,
“You must have noticed our visitors.” He gestured toward the roof. Rafael nodded, and the captain continued, turning and pointing at the albatross across the room. “They’re here for him.” Rafael furrowed his brow and was about to ask why when the captain gave a sharp exclamation and quickly carried the book over to where Rafael stood.
“Here, read this passage here…the underlined part.” The captain said putting the book into the boy’s hands. Rafael looked down at the scrawl on the page and saw it was written in a foreign language. Rafael looked back up at the captain immediately and said,
“I can’t, it’s in a different language.” The captain smiled wide with indulgence and said,
“Of course you can’t now…but try again holding this.” He produced from his pocket, a large, luminous white feather. Hesitantly taking the feather, Rafael gave the captain skeptical glance and then looked at it. He immediately mistook it for one of the albatross’, but the longer he gazed at it, the more sure he became that it wasn’t. It was large, and almost a glassy, pale blue. It was soft, but rigid, and had a glossy, blue-silver sheen.
“Now try and read it…” The captain urged with eager expectation. Rafael obeyed and looked back down at the book cradled in his other arm. Gazing hard at the angular script, he could discern no visible change. Rafael looked for a long minute, thinking about what might have gotten into the captain and if he should be afraid or taking some action. He had noted that the captain’s breath smelled very little of liquor, though it was hard to tell in the liquor-stained house. But Rafael could not convince himself Amos was drunk; he’d seen Amos drunk more times than he could count and never had he behaved like this. Rafael began to wonder if the captain was deranged.
With some reluctance, Rafael finally said,
“Should something have changed?”
Immediately the captain’s countenance fell, and he barked back at Rafael,
“What!? Look again and read it.”
Rafael chastenedly obeyed again and thoroughly looked the page over from start to finish, and replied,
“I’m sorry sir. I can’t read any of it.” The captain gave a groan of impatience and took the book out of Rafael’s hands.
“It says, ‘the white omen will guide you’…or something like that.” Rafael had not the courage to question why the captain would end something he was so sure of with, ‘or something like that’. He closed the book in one hand with a clap, and boldly pointed at the albatross.
“Where did you find this bird? I found him last night and saw he’d been nesting in your closet.”
Rafael looked down at the bird and replied,
“I found him floating under the docks.” Rafael began. But seeing the captain was not quite satisfied, he continued, “He was hurt so I brought him inside. But I thought you wouldn’t like that so I hid him in the closet.” he explained.
Amos looked down at the nestling albatross and said,
“I’ve been in hell since Annabel died…” Amos began with startling sincerity. “I’ve been in a hole so deep, I haven’t seen the light in years.” He turned his face to look at Rafael now, revealing an expression of dutiful solemnity which Rafael had never seen on the captain’s face. A profound smile flashed over his mouth as he continued, “But last night, I saw something…something I can’t describe better than a vision.” Here his concentration broke briefly as he mumbled to himself, “When was the last time I thought of visions?” Snapping back, he refocused on Rafael’s face and continued, “I saw an angel, or a ghost I wasn’t sure which, but it spoke to me with a voice like Annabel’s.”
A quiet flood of recollection came cascading through Rafael’s mind as Amos said this. He recalled the luminous face he had seen in his thoughts in the orchard only a couple hours ago, and secondly, he recalled what she had told him in his forgotten dream. “Tell Amos, to bring my feather to the plinth in the woods beyond the wall.”
Rafael cut Amos off with an excited exclamation, eager to explain his side before it flew from his mind. A day ago, Rafael would not have ever considered having a conversation on such grounds with Amos, but now that it had come to it he was finding the strangeness of it all to be exciting.
“I had a dream to! At least, I think I did…” Rafael began, capturing the captain’s full attention.
“What was it?” The captain said with eager anticipation.
“It was like you said, there was a ghost, or an angel, who looked like Annabel. Only she told me, that I was to tell you to bring a feather to a plinth in the woods behind the wall, if that means anything to you.” Rafael was more pleased than frightened as the captain’s face lit up into an enormous smile of unrestrained epiphany. He gripped the sides of his head and began pacing excitedly, mumbling to himself in a rapid tone Rafael could not discern. Then he spoke up, as if remembering suddenly that Rafael was present.
“That’s exactly what she told me! Did she say anything else?”
Rafael thought hard, but could not remember anything else. Glancing down again at the feather which was still in his hand, he had the absurd realization that ‘this belonged to a real creature’. He felt a shudder run through his body, and then, as if they had been presented to his conscious mind from outside of it, Rafael recalled three words.
“Oh, and she said, ‘follow the albatross’.” The profound weight of this statement only hit Rafael a moment after he said it, and was further punctuated by the captain’s exuberant response. With a boyish excitement he had never seen manifested Amos’ face and voice, the captain said,
“She told me the same thing! What are the odds of that I wonder!” He laughed a raspy, old laugh; a laugh older than his years and rusty with neglect. He continued, pointing at the oblivious form of the albatross, which was quickly glancing back and forth between the two.
“There’s something very special about this bird you found, boy. I’d go as far to say it was destiny that sent that great white bird!” The captain’s exhilarated expression suddenly dropped into solemn urgency as he fixed his eyes back on Rafael.
“Hold on, where were you last night?” Rafael felt his heart flinch at the thought of the night before, which still burned his raw thoughts. Rafael became grave as he said,
“That’s something else I needed to tell you about.” he began, “I was at Boethius’ boat…on Baker’s hill.” The room went deathly silent for a moment as the two stared at each other with mutual heaviness.
“So you know what’s happened to Boethius.” The captain said in a low and knowing tone. The level of Amos’ voice and their mutual understanding of the dark happenings the night before suddenly caused a heavy lump to rise in Rafael’s throat. To Rafael’s own horror, his eyes began to grow moist. There was nothing he would despise more than to cry openly in front of the captain. He glanced up at Amos though his own shame of tears, but was met by a face of compassion, which caused the tears to quicken.
Before Rafael could begin sobbing, Amos came toward him and rested his large, heavy hands on the boy’s shoulders. Looking him full in the face, the captain said,
“Boethius knew what he was getting himself into, and I have to bear the burden of his death on my back, whether it breaks or not.” The captain’s eyes lengthened and deepened as he said, “I’m responsible for his death, and the death of my daughter…because I was too selfish to save them.” Rafael’s tears subsided as he caught a glimpse of the captain’s hell. The captain continued, now as if he were speaking to himself,
“If there’s an angel who’ll give me one—just one shot at redemption—I’ll take it.”
There was a long moment of silence, in which Rafael’s mind drifted uncontrollably back to the hideous image of the withered corpse the night before. Rafael asked, as another wave of dread soaked him through,
“Who killed Boethius? How did they make him…like that?” Rafael was desperate to know, though he didn’t think twice about how the captain knew Boethius had died in such an uncanny way. Amos fixed Rafael with a hard stare and said in a hushed tone,
“There are black things afoot on this island…evil thing that go deeper than you or I know. But I know one thing, the College is at the root of it.” Rafael felt stifled under Amos heavy and severe eyes, and his heart was beginning to pound again.
“I know it was them. There are evil secrets in the heart of Lerga.”
A moment after the captain said this, a great rush of wings and the sound of claws on tin cut the silence as the blackbirds on the roof all took to the air. In an instant the captain stood upright, alert as a bloodhound.
“Rafael, go hide behind the kitchen counter…” Amos hissed a whisper at Rafael, who immediately obeyed. First gathering up the albatross carefully in his arms, he rushed around the edge of the kitchen counter, which projected into the house’s haphazard living area. At the same time, Amos had disappeared into the entryway. A moment later, Rafael could hear a man’s voice calling loudly from outside,
“Amos L. Leroy, come out of that house with your hands in the air!” Rafael crept to the kitchen window which was just over the sink. Outside in the dirt yard, he could just see a man he recognized as the town Marshal, with a broad-brimmed hat and a shotgun cradled under his arm. The two sleepy-eyed boys sitting on horseback in the dirt street Rafael knew to be his deputies.
Before the thought of injustice or judicial misunderstand could formulate in his mind, Rafael had a pang of fear that the captain wouldn’t go with them without a fight. But to his profound surprise, he heard the screen door shut and saw the captain’s half-hunched figure standing unarmed before the Marshal. The Marshal held up a piece of paper and read something aloud, though inaudible to Rafael, then took him by the arm and lead him away from the house.
The bells hummed low again from the distant College steeple.