Now are sung the High-one's songs, in the High-one's hall, to the sons of men all-useful, but useless to the Jötunns' sons. Hail to him who has sung them!
Hail to him who knows them! May he profit who has learnt them!
Hail to those who have listened to them!
Of course, the carnival was in town.
It came every year and every year the same repellent mess was left afterwards. Heaps of soiled clothes collected from the rags thrown away by the carny folk. Tins, jars and glass bottles had to be swept away from streets and parks lest the rats be coerced from their sewers as if the Pied Piper himself had drawn them forth. Still, the carnival gave the residents of Myersville a break from their lives, if only for two weeks out of the year. Betty just hated that it had to set up right across the street from her. There was another much larger area of land, just on the other side of town where she could leave the sights, sounds and smells behind. She sighed again, as the last of the colourful wagons rolled on down the street. There was already a sweet scent in the air, as though someone had brushed cotton candy beneath her nose and held it there until her mouth began to water.
The Halsted’s had a small kitty set aside for rainy days. Most of the cash they had spare was not even their own. Their house and almost all the new possessions inside had been paid for with what her mother called, Uncle’s Retirement Plan. He had never retired. You cannot retire at twenty-three. Instead, as Betty got older, she understood what it meant.
At the age of five, she had watched her family breakdown at the news of Uncle’s death. The sergeant who had come to the door, holding the folded American flag and bundle of letters had explained that Uncle Joe had earned several Medals of Honour during his time in France; most notably for saving the lives of thirteen British soldiers from enemy fire in Ardennes during the Great War. She, like her mother was loathe to hear how Uncle Joe, that once bright-eyed and giggling youth, succumbed to his fragmentation wounds almost a whole week after being found face-up in the tears and the mud and the blood.
A slow and painful death for a hero, she thought, remembering how much Uncle Joe loved nothing more than the smell of cotton candy on a long summer night in Myersville.
Almost a decade after Uncle Joe’s passing, the family still kept a tradition. They would toast to his good health at midnight, June 12th, the day he had earned his medals. Pop a couple of beers for the Doughboy. So few had returned that year. So many had remained across that beautiful blue Atlantic. Betty had been almost too young to remember the day they came back. But she could still see the scars to this very day. Unseen scars. Shaking hands. Hollow eyes. Faded smiles. How could a fourteen-year-old Sherriff’s Daughter know what horrors these hollow soldiers had brought back from their war. Because it was – their war. It belonged now, only to them. In their nightmares. In the haunted reflection in their bedside mirror. In those nights they woke screaming, sweating, clutching loved ones as though some brilliant fiery ball might drop from the sky to take them away forever. Of course, there was no burst of artillery fire. Not here, in Oklahoma. Still, each night the war drums beat and the visions returned. Betty could, at the very least, see that. In their eyes.
Brushing away the thought, Betty was about to turn back towards her house, when she saw a curious wagon round the corner of Main. She had never seen this one before, it must have been new. Although judging by the chipped paintwork and wobbling axis of what appeared to be a LaFrance Fire Truck, perhaps not. Betty had loved cars, they fascinated her from the first time she had seen Dr Goodfellow’s Model-T Roadster flying down Broad and Sixth. This old truck, now passing her by, looked as if it should have been in a museum - which was a thought that troubled her in a way she could not describe. A thing both grim and old. As much as she wanted to go inside for Ma’s cooking, it was all she could do to keep watching the ancient vehicle trundle its way into the park, smoke firing out of both ends. Its Donner-Party looking wagon following and not quite turning as it should, bearing the sign:
Old Grim’s House of Doors.
‘Betty, get in now, it gone cold.’ Her mother beckoned from the window. She heard the pane slam shut and sensed a foul mood in the Halsted House.
The next morning came carrying with it, a gentle, clean breeze. It was a relief from the typical June weather of Oklahoma. Dust, sun and more dust. On the wind came the carnival. This morning, however, it was not sugar, spice and everything nice. It was instead chocked full of cigar smoke, burning rubber and old hose. Betty came home from a day watching her father piece together paperwork at the Sheriff’s Office, to find that Janey and Elmer were already waiting with eager anticipation to head off to the carnival. They had a bulging purse between them that their mother had given. The Cuttling’s were the richest family in town and a part of Betty wondered if that was why their families had been so close for so long. A long line of successful businessmen tied to a long line of law enforcement. Such partnerships seemed to go hand in hand and as one family rose, so did the other. It was how they had escaped the worst of the financial impact of the war. They had never once bought bonds. Not once. It was a word she had heard in school. Along with ‘debt’, ‘repayment’ and ‘subsidies’. Not words she ever heard at home.
‘Hey Mr Frank, can Betty come out yet?’ Elmer smiled at her father with a mouth of tiny teeth. The doctor was unsure why his adult teeth had come in so small and far apart, the medical condition had not been discovered yet and it left Elmer with the appearance of a kid far younger than fourteen. Not helped by his croaking voice which could change to the highest and lowest pitches in a single sentence.
Betty’s father held up his hand, then cocked his head towards the front door with a shrug, to suggest that it was probably a better idea that they wait to see what the woman of the house decided. As it turned out, her mother was just fine about it; which surprised both Betty and Frank and even the Cuttling Twins. The Cuttling’s were not identical twins. Far from it. One had long, mousy brown hair and the other had a bowl-cut of almost bright blonde. One had a long, drawn face, and the other had pudgy soft cheeks that made her appear overweight from the neck up. Her father often made the joke that one belonged to the milkman, while the other belonged to the postman and the third they had to lock away in the attic because it was somehow even weirder looking than the twins. Betty did not understand all of the joke, but she laughed whenever he said it, mostly because her mother would shoot him a look of annoyance every time he did; especially in public.
Crisp air became crisper, as the afternoon became evening. A curious time of day in which the sun descended into a lasting orange glow over the hills, leaving the primeval brain to wonder, if only for a moment, if it will ever rise again. The carnival had awoken. Betty had spent almost a whole dollar already on candy and sodas. Her mother would have been furious if she had known just how much they were now charging for a ride on the Ferris Wheel. Still, there was nothing greater than sitting above the houses and streets and seeing everything in town for a handful of coins. On the third go around the goateed man on the control lever had to ask the Cuttling’s to leave, after their pushing and shoving had caused the ride to squeal with the sound of a dozen slaughtered pigs. They took the tutting and the shaking heads of the neighbours with laughter and ran off to see what else the carnival had in store.
There was the freakshow, of course, which was perhaps the main attraction every year. It amazed people with such fascination, horror and disgust that they almost threw their money onto the stage to see more frights of human nature. There was the Lion-Boy; an aging man now, from Czechoslovakia, who had enough hair on his face and head to cover Betty’s entire body. Then there were the Ying Sisters; three of them, with only a single body between them. Betty felt sorry for the most sideways sister. Her head had sunk further each year, so that her mouth had become sallow and drawn to the right as her upper body failed to stay as upright as her sisters. Of course, everyone in town was amazed by the acrobatics of the dwarf’s; Mog and Mull, who flung one another around with such appearing carelessness that every time it happened a gasp of anticipated horror swept up from the crowd. Betty was certain that more than a dozen onlookers were secretly praying that this would be the year they watched one of the tiny humans slip and break their neck. What a tale to tell at the diner the next morning, ‘did you see the little guy fall?’, ‘aww I can’t believe I missed the midge break his neck.’
Betty wondered why she came to the carnival sometimes. It gave her joy and excitement, but also filled her heart with a soft pang of guilt. Why? She had not done anything wrong, surely?
‘We’re paying so them folks can eat something what’s not been stewing for five days,’ had been her father’s rationale, whenever he had seen that distant, glazed-eye look she often got, as if this young girl growing up in such a small slice of Americana had an old and worldly soul laying within. It was the same at the zoo. They had only been the once, when Betty was far younger. She had cried softly the entire time. Maybe it was the bear with less hair than her father had, stooped low to the ground on gnarled claws. Or maybe it was the way the monkeys looked at her, staring out from behind those iron bars with all the hopeless desperation for freedom as a death-row inmate.
Turning around, Betty found she was suddenly alone in an ocean of flashing lights and bumping shadows. Beneath her feet the once, almost-green, grass had become shallow, bent and etched with a haze of dry earth. Where have the twins gone? She decided to take a stroll and would no doubt bump into them galivanting around the candy shop again. Those two had a sweet tooth only God could cure. Westerly, the sun had sunk to its lowest point now, without leaving the world in complete darkness. Streetlights popped up around town, one by one, but had no chance of drowning out the dazzling lights around her; supressed in beauty only by the emerging, distant glint of the heavens. A young boy dropped an ice cream beside her and began to wail uncontrollably, as his mother failed to see the event and carried on, eventually dragging the poor boy by his chubby arm. Each softening whimper send an ominous chill fluttering over her skin like spiders’ legs. When she looked away, it had appeared to her like a vision from a dream. Something she had recognised only in the deepest memories of her mind’s mausoleum, yet had never actually seen in reality. It was different now. All things changed under the light of the moon, but this time, she felt as if the owner had truly outdone himself. A new attraction to the carnival. A fresh façade dropped from the heavens into the dustbowl of Oklahoma. In Betty’s head, through her eyes, it was made of old wood from a pirate ship, bolted together with rusty medieval nails and had spent so long travelling the world and inhaling the sights it had seen that it was now alive itself. Sure. And why not? Why could a building not grow a soul, the way a tree grows flowers, if has experienced more than most of these simple folks would never dare to dream exists? The building was much larger than she had imagined. Stretched out across the edge of the carnival it would have dwarfed any other attraction nearby, and yet it seemed to hold its breath – waiting for its first customers. Old wood and iron filled with glittering lights, twisted and turned into the allusion that this was someplace Betty wanted to be, and not what it was, just an old shack barely holding its own against the weight of the modern world. Each slab of ancient wood had been plastered in black paint and within that paint were etched a variety of curious symbols that seemed to Betty as if missing – taken from someplace far beyond and left here, where they should not exist. The whole area surrounding the building Betty was now focussed on, seemed clear and devoid of life, as though someone had seen fit to erect an attraction just for her. There was little interest from the rest of the carnival attendees who seemed focused in clapping rounds of thunder, on the fire-show and the exotic dancing girls on stage. Betty stepped gingerly towards the huge sign that read: Old Grim’s House of Doors.
The words were lit up with a sort of faint red glow, which she failed to place to a source, as if each word of the sign was somehow a light in itself. It was made even more unnerving by the fact that the last letter flickered every few seconds, trying to perhaps disappear, back into the strange realm from which this odd façade had sprung from.
Betty was pulled back into the carnival, with the sound of one of the Cuttling’s voices calling to her.
‘Betty. Would you come over please and talk to him?’ Janey was pouting, a dozen yards ahead of her, walking slowly towards where she stood beside the pool of melted ice cream. How long had she been entranced by the old wooden shack?
‘W-what’s wrong Janey? What’s he doing now?’ a sense of familiar anxiety and annoyance over Elmer washed away the strange otherworldly dread that had tickled her mind.
Janey stood, hands on hips, with a look that said more than she ever had to explain to her friend. The look simply said, ‘come on, just see.’
‘I don’t wanna have my fortune told by some kooky old broad,’ Elmer’s voice shifted to a high whine, making him sound more childlike than ever, especially with that thin whistle behind his elongated vowels. ‘I just came to visit the weird looking house. Job done, jack. That’s all. Betty will you tell him please. Old fart won’t let us in without speaking to some ancient crone who wants to tell our futures.’
Betty eyes looked up at a man at least a half foot taller than her father - and Frank Halsted was not a short man by any stretch of the word. The keeper to this unknown realm of attraction, looked foreign. Though most of the carny folk here were at the very most second-generation Americans. He had a thick, platted beard, forked into two long tails that poked down to his chest. They each held old, bronze beads intertwined in them, giving the one-eyed man a somewhat medieval appearance. Yes, he was one-eyed. His left eye was covered in a grey patch, that hung there without need for straps or ties. Over the patch was a curious symbol; several poorly etched white lines, aligned in a circle, much like a clock. A deep, three-inch scar grooved its way above and below the cloth.
Must be a veteran, Betty mused. I wonder if he ever met Uncle Joe?
When he spoke, the man had the parched, rattling voice of a man twice his age, ‘those are the rules, young sir. Not one soul is allowed to enter the House of Doors without first making sure he is not going to come foul of any accidents while inside. We would not want a young American leaving our reserhem in the back of a likvagn.’
He was foreign for sure. His ‘wubbleyous’ sounded like v’s and his c’s had the faint sibilance of a hissing viper. An accent she had never come across before.
‘Look, jack. Just let me peek inside and if I like what I see, I’ll do your stupid fortune. How’s that for a deal?’
The man, who might have been ‘Old Grim’ himself shook his head defiantly, and crossed his arms in a childish manner, ‘there will be no deals. Fortune first or do not come back.’
Janey nudged her brother in the ribs, hard enough to make his face contort.
‘Fine,’ Elmer whined, ‘fine. Let’s get it over with. I already know I’m going to die an old rich bastard like my grandpa.’
It still shocked Betty to hear Elmer or Janey curse. If her mother ever caught her using such language, she would not see the light of day for a fortnight.
‘Tack,’ the carny unfolded his arms and let one outstretch, leading the way into a small tent beside the entrance to the House of Doors. Betty’s stayed focussed on the tall, one-eyed fellow. Something in the way he moved, slow and unblinking, unnerved her more than the creepy old shack itself.
If any of the three were brave enough to be outspoken about the sudden dread that seemed to eke out from the tent, it would have been Elmer, and still he was trapped in that paradox of childish fear. How social anxiety can prevail over perhaps even the darkest of devils. Not one of them, especially he would be the first to admit that the shivers on their skin were unrelated to the gentle June breeze.
A warm glow surrounded the interior of the tent. It smelled of ancient times, foggy woodland and roaring fires deep in the lands where tress still spoke and the critters of the undergrowth still listened. For the third time that day, Betty felt as if her nose could travel not only across vast distances, but also whisk her back in time, to envelop her in every story that this tiny, rugged tarp had heard. Behind her, she was again knocked out of time by one of Elmer’s patented tongue clicks. It was as loud as her father’s hunting rifle being cocked.
‘Creepy, guy.’ Elmer grimaced, peering around the tent.
There was a camping sheet unfolded across the floor, but still carrying the long, wide creases from when it had been hauled all those miles in the back of that awful, painted wagon. There was little on the outside walls, but a length of netting separating what must have been the owner’s private area, where they could change, reflect, and most likely count their takings for the night. The owner herself was not as Betty had imagined. Mostly, the average age of these travelling folk hit at around mid-forties. And, if you were to ask someone to draw what they imagined a fortune teller to look like, they would more likely than not, sketch a woman as old as time. She would have at least one wart, perhaps one large one just on the cusp of her nose. Her hair would be long and ragged and her dress a mismatched tapestry of gypsy rags. This is likely due to the circulation of Gothic novels, comic books and those odd Penny Dreadful’s that the Cuttling’s mother seemed to own, though they were English and why she had such imprints was beyond anyone’s comprehension, let alone Mr Cuttling.
Yet, here and now, the woman sitting by the octangular table, wearing her bright green, flowery skirt and shirt without buttons or sleeves, was young. Very young. Early twenties, perhaps, if Betty made a guess. But to a fourteen-year old’s mind, anyone over eighteen could range between there and thirty-eight. With bright yellow hair, hanging down from what looked to be jet back roots, the woman’s face was plastered in a curious pale-shade of makeup. Betty assumed, like the rest of these United States, that European behaviour was a little more elocuted, if that was the right word. A little more advanced in society and culture than they. Still, it was not only her nose that was telling her she was out of her depth here. Out of her time. Smiling, the young woman offered the three of them a seat each, at three of the edges of the octagonal table, which was covered in a plain, black cloth and had only the woman’s bejewelled hands, and two items on it; a small brown bag and a wooden box - presumably a card holder.
‘Have you ever had your fortune told before, lass?’ the woman asked Janey directly, in a thick Irish accent. A dialect different to the ones she heard in the Cuttling’s factory. Broader. Deeper. Older.
Janey shook her head, ‘no, ma’am.’
The woman nodded. Every move she made was slow and gentle, as if she was caressing the air with each, even subtle, movement.
‘My name is,’ and before she continued, shot Betty a curious, lingering glance with the brightest blue eyes, ‘Aishling. I was born myself from the great Tree itself…’
As Aishling spoke, Elmer scoffed, and Janey had to kick him under the table and whisper, ‘it’s part of the trick, jerk.’
‘… born many lifetimes ago in a land far from here, where the wood grows thick and the fog of dreamlands grows thicker.’ Aishling continued without heed for Elmer’s coarse attitude to her performance.
‘Ireland?’ Betty asked, already entranced by the tale and inching closer, so that her chin was in line with the edge of the table now, gazing wonderstruck at the foreigner.
Aishling nodded, ‘aye. Many moons ago. I haven’t seen the old land in a long time. I travel the world with Old Grim, spinning yarns of foretelling and foreboding to all those who care to lend an old hag an ear.’
Laughing inside, Betty thought – but you aren’t old. You’re beautiful. The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
‘How much is this gunna cost us, lady?’ Elmer cut through the atmosphere with the bluntest knife at his disposal; his own poor wit and carelessness.
Aishling slowly turned her stare back to the boy, ‘it’ll cost ye five drops.’ Then added, ‘at first. Who knows how much the Norns will ask of ye?’
‘What the fuck? What’s a drop? How much is that in dollars, lady? I got a buck fifty to spend and I ain’t throwing it all down on some silly game of ‘guess who dies first’.’
‘Five drops, lad,’ Aishling flicked her eyes back at Betty, gave a wink faster than a flash of lightning and returned to Elmer, ‘of blood. Five little drops and I shall not only tell ye the hour of your death, but I can also tell ye how you kill your first wife.’
Janey gasped, and nearly fell back on her chair, bringing her hands up to catch the air escaping from her gaping maw.
‘I’m only joking, lass,’ Aishling touched her upper lip with the tip of her tongue and a sly grin folded in the corner of her mouth. ‘He doesn’t marry, this one. Dies alone and poor.’
‘Hah.’ Elmer guffawed. He was beginning to like this woman. Her dark sense of humour appealed to him and her dry wit had ensured that Elmer would stay and do almost everything she asked. Betty could see it; in the way he folded his arms across his chest. Not in defiance, but in a statutory, intrigued state.
‘Shall we begin?’ Aishling asked, ‘who will be the first to ask their fate of the Norns?’
Betty did not know what a Norn was, but could only conjure up an image of everything she had known about the mystical and the fantastical. She saw three old women, hunched over a smouldering fire, in a land of fog and snow. Maybe it was those Penny Dreadful covers she had seen at a glance. Or maybe it was the Boulder Falls production of that Shakespearean play she had seen last year which clung to the fore of her mind? Whatever, or whoever these Norns were, Betty felt a strange air enter the tent and unfold around them like a thin blanket of quiet, silencing the noise of the world outside.
Janey, sitting opposite Aishling, raised her hand. The fortune teller tilted her head and with a wave of her hand, the box of cards opened without her touch. Of course, Elmer inched his head around the edge of the table to see what sort of mechanical trickery was at play, but the girls were awestruck once more. They saw Aishling for what she was, or at least what they perceived her to be. Aishling placed five cards, face down on the table, in the shape of a solar-cross. She moved her right hand clockwise over the spread and took in a deep, rasping breath of air. It was then, that her voice changed.
‘Ah,’ Aishling muttered and with an accent similar to Old Grim’s now, closed her eyes. ‘Janet Mary Cuttling.’
Janey gasped again, but the sound did not interrupt the fortune teller, if it was still her that resided in the body of Aishling.
‘I see a Fool. Here. In a present and living soul.’ Aishling folded over the central card, and smiled, lifting her chin as if smelling something sweet in the tent. ‘How much optimism resides in such a young body.’
The proceeding cards revealed by her hand, showed first a Papal looking man, above which the word ‘The Hierophant’ was written. Then came ‘The Sun’ at the top, followed by the ‘Three of Swords’ at the bottom. She left the most left card unturned.
‘A man. A handsome man, full of life and vigour. You will give your heart, soul and life to this wonderous creature. There will be three beautiful children,’ Aishling’s smile grew sour and cold, ‘but they shall not be yours. Though your beauty is admired by so many and your success clings to your form like a gown, your face cannot hide the true nature of your soul. A needle, filled with desire will prick your veins and draw everything from you. Love. Happiness. Beauty. Your yearning for greater heights of pleasure will see your star fall from heaven, cast into a pit of your own abusive lust. There is no Crone to be found on your shore. The Maiden prospers and the Mother remains barren and lonely.’
With a quick snap of her head, back towards them, Aishling opened her eyes wide, blinked them successively and peered around the room, as if searching for someone she expected to be there and who had somehow left without her knowing.
‘Wow.’ Elmer said, snorting a happy chuckle. ‘Sis, I always knew you were never gunna be a real Cuttling.’
Janey kicked out her feet from the table and turned her back on Aishling without saying a word, storming out of the tent. She stood there for a moment, then sank her head into her hands and sobbed silently.
‘She’ll be fine, lass.’ Aishling, now Aishling again, accent and all, looked over at Betty reassuringly, ‘Just give her a moment. As for you, lad, hold out your hand, palm up.’
Still grinning innately, Elmer thrust out his left hand, willingly. The fortune teller lifted an object from the table Betty must have missed. A small, thin sewing needle. She turned the cards over again, face down. With a deft manoeuvre, she grasped hold of Elmer’s wrist so tightly that he was unsure if he could have broken free if he had tied his hardest. His fingers began to retreat and curl, but he thought it best to just see the charade through. Who knows, he might get some good yucks out of this gypsy yet. Aishling pricked Elmer’s index finger with the needle and flicked his hand over. As the blood began to form and collect into a droplet, she guided his palm over the cards, allowing five drops to drip; one onto each of the blue-coloured rectangles. Her fingers flung open and fell back to her lap. Elmer drew his finger to his lip and sucked on the tip like a small child, furrowing his brow as his did. His face said the words lingering in his mind, ‘this better be worth it, bitch.’ Aishling winked at him, as though she heard every word. Then, she turned over every card without resorting to her accented doppelganger form.
‘I could have guessed,’ she raised one eyebrow. The cards had changed.
Isn’t that a trick? Betty was unaware that her jaw had fallen, as without changing the cards, they had overturned with new faces. Every one of them. Real magic.
Again, Elmer’s face remained locked in a state of unimpressed boredom. The cards now left staring up from the black cloth, for all to see, showed a reading that Betty was sure she did not have to be an expert to show some meagre level of understanding. And it was not good. A man, hunched over in a field, with ten long blades piercing his back: The Ten of Swords. A tall building, filled to the brim with fire and smoke: The Tower. A beggar wandering the cold, snow-filled streets, in front of a stained-glass window depicting five stars with five points each: The Five of Pentacles. The last two were the worst, surely? Death and The Devil.
‘Well, lad,’ Aishling smiled a curious smile at Elmer, as if she were more than pleased with the outcome, finally finishing with, ‘yer fucked.’
It was when Betty eventually managed to draw her eyes away from the grotesque ensemble of painted figures on the deck, that she was able to see something she had never seen before. Elmer was fixated on the cards. Betty felt the air change and the thin blanket of calm begin to pulse with each passing second. Elmer’s face had turned whiter than mother’s sheets and his mouth had pursed up into a grim spectacle of despair as he failed to blink at the cards. What was more unnerving is the watery pool forming in the corner of his eye, that Betty had not seen since they were too young to fully remember when? Not speaking, not even to give a dry witty remark to the woman, or even to insult her, Elmer stood, still pale, and stumbled unblinking from the tent. What has he seen? Betty watched as Janey, waiting outside, tried to place her arms around him, but her brother kept walking, unevenly, out into the carnival, head down, eyes streaming with tears. Betty realised what the situation was now. She flicked back, agitated, staring back into the bright blue eyes of Aishling. She was next.
‘Relax dear,’ the fortune teller stretched one, warm hand over the table and took Betty’s in hers, nodding. ‘I promise ye, nothing in your future could hold a candle to the demons in that boy’s mind.’
‘but,’ she continued, ‘I’d be more than understanding of ye, if ye wished to walk out that door right now?’
It was posed as a question, but Betty felt it might have also served as a warning. Still, it was so difficult to imagine leaving. Walking away from those powerful pools of blue and that beautiful, haunting smile. After a moment’s quiet consideration, Betty shook her head, and Aishling took back her hand and softly grasped the small, brown bag. There was a slow, trickling sound, as two dozen or more thumb-print sized objects fell onto the black cloth. They were stones. Unidentical, hand-carved grey rocks like little pebbles she imagined she could find out in the cold wastes of Aishling’s homeland. Maybe she came from a country where beaches and sand were as abundant as dust and grain where she lived. Maybe she came from a land where people swam through lakes, bathed in snow and wandered barefoot across green fields. Maybe that’s where Aishling got her stones. She awoke one morning, with a fresh breeze drawing her outside. She donned a cloak and walked into the misty blue fields, carrying her collection in her hand.
Woah, Betty snapped back towards the table. The fortune teller had seen her eyes glaze over in lost admiration.
‘Aye. Took ye to a place far from here, did they? Curious little things. Me sister once made some from small twigs, but they never carried the same magic as mine.’ Aishling rubbed a finger and thumb over the stone. Her eyes flickered rapidly behind their closed lids. ‘Run your hand over the pile, and pick up as many as call to ye in the moment.’
Her young, pale fingers inched out over the pile and hovered for the briefest second, before being immediately drawn to the centre of the pile, right at the bottom.
‘What are they?’ Betty reached forward and picked up the most unusually shaped one. The mineral felt cold and wet to the touch.
‘Runes,’ Aishling answered. ‘Each carving and letter can represent both a single and multiple voices. Would ye care to see what they sing?’
They sing? Betty furrowed her brow, turning her stone over and over with inspectional and quizzical confusion, ‘there’s nothing on mine.’
‘You have a strong bloodline here,’ Aishling said, ignoring her question, fumbling the edges of the runes, squaring their arrangement into a neat line across the table. ‘Very strong. Ancient. Almost as ancient as mine. I must admit, I suspected something as ye approached my dwelling, but I had to be sure. Old Grim has waited some time ye see. Ages and ages of time. I’ll not lie to ye. This a very special communion we’re having together. A gift so promising has not been offered in all my years of service to the Tree.’
Again, and again, Betty heard words she did not understand and sentences that seemed to begin with comprehension, only to trail away into dismal, unsatisfactory confusion. She wanted nothing more than to know just what the fortune teller was talking about. What those fancy words described meant and how she, a fourteen-year-old Presbyterian from Oklahoma slotted into the jigsaw of this tale.
Aishling took her left hand and delved the slender, jewel encrusted fingers down between her cleavage to produce a bronze, slightly rusted key. Aside from the general wear and tear, the key felt old. It felt older as it was offered to Betty and she felt its weight dip her hand slightly.
Curious how something so small could carry such weight, she wondered, running her fingers across the lock-opener and feeling a series of minuscule indentations that might have been words she could read, should she have a magnifying glass in her pocket. Yet her mind also told her that even if she could make out the inscription, it would be in a language she, nor probably a handful of people in America could decipher.
‘What does it open?’ She asked, not bluntly, but with a sense of longing in her voice.
Aishling smiled her usual, wry grin, looking as pleased as Betty, ‘a very unique and very special door.’
Outside the House of Doors, Betty realised she was alone. Not because Aishling or Old Grim had left, they still watched her eagerly as she walked, but because her friends had gone. Just gone, without a word. She could hardly blame them, seeing the way Aishling had presented them with such dismal fortunes. They could have at least said goodbye. She would find them later, she supposed. It seemed that right now, nothing was more important than seeing this door the gypsy had spoken of. Seeing it for herself and opening it. Maybe it would be full of treasures? Gold coins in a pirate’s chest? Or jewels, just like Aishling had? It had to be special, for her to have to go through all this trouble just to even get inside the House of Doors.
‘That’s it, little one. Go on. You might see things and hear things that appear quite scary to a young girl, but they cannot harm ye.’ Aishling walked just a footstep behind her now. ‘Nothing to fret over, lass. Ye’ll be able to find your way around with the key. It knows a thing or two. Let it guide ye around the maze. I’ll be right outside should ye get too flustered.’
Betty looked back and saw the fortune teller smiling, ushering her onwards with both hands. Just behind her, Old Grim half-closed his one eye, as though something about the little girl was untrustworthy. That whatever she might find, she might not be worthy of.
The House of Doors was dark and numbing. Everything past the gate was too crisp to be enjoyable. Too dingy to understand. Betty found herself lost, all at once. The gate had gone. The darkness overwhelmed the House and she felt trapped within its bleak walls.
‘Aishling?’ She muttered, seeing a hint of her own breath form from her mouth, rising up into the rafters of the House.
‘I’m here, little one. Keep going.’
Her foot reached out into the darkness and held for the briefest moment, before pulling her body through its shadowy veil. Step by step, the veil opened up to her and eventually began to provide a series of glimpses into its heart. At first, Betty was unsure that what she was seeing was real, as she had no reference in her mind to place the object. It might have been a tree, but for all its many shapes, the towering object seemed to thrive with life and move its gnarled branches to and fro, as though growing with each passing heartbeat of hers, which became quicker and heavier. On the lowest branch of the lowest limb of the tentacled, writhing sapling, a man stood. Betty could not see a face with which to identify the figure. Her soul did not fill with dread to hear the shadow speak, but rather with sorrow.
‘A twelfth I know, if high on a tree I see a hanged man swing,’ as the voice sang out, the man placed one foot over the edge of the branch and allowed his body to sink towards the black soil beneath.
With a shriek of horror, Betty turned away, cowering. Aishling had not heard her. Or had heard her and had not cared for the shrill, splitting cry. Through her fingers, Betty returned to the tree and saw that it had left. Though the hanged man remained. He danced there; the jig of death on his own gallows. Letters began to emerge around her. Great lightning blues and visceral greens. The letter, no not letters… what had Aishling called them? Runes. They glistened like starlight. The only light to be seen. Betty reached out one palm and felt her hand glide through the ethereal literacy. It appeared to be an S. Almost like an S. A ᛋ.
A flash. A spark of life filled her mind. Visions of men marching the streets, their hands covered in blood, their guns belching fire. Two runes covered their faces, shielding the world from the terror behind their eyes. Two runes. ᛋ ᛋ. Betty could not cover her eyes, for the visions came from inside, however hard she looked away and hid. An army scorching the earth with bombs and smoke and death. Above the blistering ground, a broken cross hung in the sky. Betty finally shuddered enough to pull free her hand. The world was dark again. She was alone. Even the hanged man had vanished. Still, the runes remained.
‘Not all magic is used for good, little one.’ But it was the voice of Old Grim she had heard now, not Aishling, whose sweet accent she now longed for. ‘Every man makes his choice and every man must pay his brother’s price. I ween that I hung on the windy tree, hung there for nights full nine.’
When Betty took a step backwards and found herself at a distance to the glimmering runes, it was then she understood. They were not runes. Not only runes. They were doors. Two dozen doors of different shapes and sizes. Different creations and designs. One which looked to be marked with an M. No, a ᛖ. When her hand braced the handle, the letter became an 𐌴. The door churned with wooden life. The eye of her mind stretched far across the world and saw horses. Dead and dying. Hundreds of them. They lay in pastures void of life and green grass, now all bare and grey. Great armadas of flies scoured the littered corpses. A pale eye catches hers and she weeps. How strange it is to weep without eyes and without form. It is only when she screams once more, her body is given back to her. In a great and terrible voice, the Hanged-Man announced, ‘Despised was he by strangers when he was washed ashore, and shunned was he as if he were plague-smitten and foul.’
‘I want to leave. Now.’ She cried and turned this way and that, searching for the gate through which she entered this abysmal domain. Flitting across an endless chasm of darkness; a world filled with doors and empty of exits.
Outside, she heard their voices, Old Grim and Aishling, and though they try to whisper she can hear every word clap like thunder.
‘This is not supposed to happen.’ Grim barks, and he may be trying to turn something in his hand.
Aishling sounds furious, ‘get her out, Grimnir. Get her out now.’
Did he strike her? Betty’s fear exploded into panic.
Aishling sobs. Soft, controlled tears.
‘She must find the Silver Door.’ Grim rattles the handles of Betty’s enclosure over and over, forcing shadowy sparks to zip past her, this way and that.
They cannot hear her scream, though she can hear them calling.
‘Find the Door, barn.’ Grim bellows. ‘Use the key. Use it now. Go.’
Betty wipes her face with the back of her hand and fumbles for the key. It is gone. She had just held it. Just placed it in her purse for a second. Just one second. She drops to her knees and scurries across the ethereal, obsidian floor. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The floor is clean and marbled. Cool and blemish free. Anything that touches her hand must be… the key. She does not touch it, but sees it. Just an arm’s length away. Betty swipes forward and… misses?
‘When you have it, just call for the Door. The Silver Door. It will take you home, barn.’ Old Grim blares his command from every direction, hand still rasping against the gate like a drum.
The key floats above the ground for a second. Only a second and then quick as a flash, spits forward. Betty hears the familiar mechanical click and thunk of a lock being opened somewhere ahead of her. Three flashes of brilliant, incomprehensible light appear. The light is dark and white at the same time. Just looking upon it makes Betty’s primal mind recoil in fear of the unknown. as if she were the first beast to create fire and now stared in terror at what she had done. The three lights glow until their light consumes the world and then, just like that, they fade into a dim, hollow strips of crimson. Edges, of a door.
‘I can hear it.’ Old Grim’s voice reappears, this time filled with gratitude. ‘That’s it, barn, open the Silver Door.’ Then he tries to whisper, ‘she might save us all yet.’
Betty gulps down a lump of fear and gives him a confused reply, ‘but it’s not Silver. It’s Black.’
Unaware or unable, Betty cannot hear the shrieking voices outside. They scream until their throats give out and scream again. They call to her to ‘run’, ‘to stay away’, ‘stay away from the Black Door.’
How can she, when it is so beautiful? A shining, Stygian door. Its very essence hums, calling to her to come closer. Come see what lies behind the Black Door. What great adventures await you? What wonderful pleasures we will give you. What sacred horrors shall you unleash. She can feel people on the other side. People coming closer. Were they people? Things. Yes. Hideous things. Things with blackened wings and bleeding wounds. Things with pierced eyes and sewn lips. Things with many mouths and things with many thoughts. They came towards the door; crawling, twitching, panting. Shattered, broken, eldritch terrors seeking light and she had invited them.
No, Betty thinks. No, that’s not right. This is not what I want. No. No, it’s not right. No. No. No. No. No.
The Black Door opens.