Words have power. It has been said, and thus it is so. It has also been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and yet a single word can summon forth a multitude of images.
Let us ponder, for a moment, one particular word. Orphanage. This is a word that conjures up a common collection of images and paints them in vivid technicolor across the movie screen of the mind. We witness a slow pan across bunkbeds, winding staircases, uniforms, and mop buckets. A close of up on the watery gruel slopped into battered bowls, but don’t you dare ask for seconds. The montage of well to do ladies prowling through a sea of unwashed urchins on a mission to find the perfectly charming redhead for their public campaigns. Wicked drunken women and lecherous old men unfairly burdened with responsibility for the upbringing and education of their innocent wards. And of course, singing. Either while scrubbing floors, picking pockets, or building castles of ice and snow, it is made abundantly clear to all audiences that an orphan’s life is filled with choreographed dances and jubilant song.
There was no singing at “The Smiling Faces Sanctuary for Waifs, Strays, and Unwanted Surprises.” There was no laughter, crying, shrieking, screaming, or shouting allowed. This was not by the whim of an uncaring fascist regime enforced by a despotic caretaker. It was simply a matter of survival.
That is not to say that there was no noise in the orphanage at all. Quite the contrary. The four story Victorian house where Miss Mary and her charges lived was filled with the constant rhythmic ticking of seven hundred and twenty three well wound clocks. Their steady tick tock, tick tock, echoed through the dim and dusty halls like a heartbeat. It wound up through the stairwell and bounced on the unmade beds. It knocked at the windows, rattled at the pipes, and skated across the cold linoleum floors. It was the lifeblood of the orphanage, permeating every moment of every day, and indeed it was by this very pulse that the mistress and her children measured out their lives.
By the ticking of the clocks, footsteps fell, teeth were brushed, clothes were folded, and dishes clanked. But in the spaces between, everything was silent and still. Nobody moved. Nobody blinked. Nobody breathed. To an outside observer it might seem like the entire spectacle was filmed with a shutter speed that was agonizingly slow. Their choppy movements, steady plodding steps, and silent grim expressions might bring to mind newsreels from the old world wars. It might even be easy to imagine that they only existed in those moments of movement, the orphans’ lives inexpertly captured and rendered by the limitations of the antiquated technology of the day. This assumption, however, would be so very far from the truth.
Miss Mary and her charges did indeed exist in the moments of silence. They existed for the time between ticks in a state of careful, studied, terror. Half of their waking days, for the pause was equal in length to the pulse, was spent waiting and watching. Hoping above all hope that they would not be the next one to make a most fatal mistake.
For many, this routine of stuttered survival became as natural as taking a breath. They found a zen like calm, even at an early age, in the measured beats of their lives. They became masters at introspection and observation, allowing themselves a unique view of their own sense of self in relation to the passing of time. Others lived in constant fear, only able to fully relax in the deepest of slumbers. These were the unlucky ones, the ones that all too often cried out in their dreams and left not a trace of their passing to be found. Occasionally, there were also the poor souls who went slowly mad from the incessant tick tick ticking of the inescapable clocks. These fatalistic few took matters into their own hands and one day, usually after lots of mental preparation and a few false starts, intentionally went against the fold.
A final defiant stomp would echo through the silence, a slurp would linger a moment too long, or an impudent shout would ring out through the house, “Fine then, take me! I am not afraid!” The next tick of the clock would bring a gasp from everyone else, brief yet no less heartfelt. The orphans had no time to spare on surprise.
A pause. An eternity of pity and regret crammed into the smallest of spaces, and then, with the tock, they would all turn away.
A pause again. That terrible rushing silence filling the eternal void of oblivion.
A tick. And back once more to where they were just a moment before. Their numbers now lessened by one. A fellow gone but thankfully with no mess left behind.
It was lunch time when the doorbell rang. All thirty children, of varying ages the lot of them, sat in their places at a long wooden table with Miss Mary at the head. Glasses of cold milk stood to their right, sandwiches of mustard and cheese dominated the mismatched plates before them, and a side of apple slices garnished the edges for each. They ate simple things, as the elder children were tasked with making the meals for the younger ones as well. It took almost an hour to prepare even basic fare such as this, given the constraints imposed by the clocks and the necessity therein of doing all things with deliberation.
Please do not get the impression that the children moved like robots, though. They were not programmed, only conditioned, and did not operate in unison like an industrial magnate’s wet dream of human automation. The scene at mealtime was chaotic, and would look like any other cafeteria filled with children if the blank spaces between movements could be removed. Some were chewing, some were swallowing, some were lifting the food to their mouths, and some were returning the uneaten portions to their plates. Some were drinking, some were wiping their mouths on napkins or sleeves, and some were simply picking at the bread because they were not overly fond of cheese. At least one child used his allotted tick of action to let out a loud belch of satisfaction. Nobody laughed though. Laughing was dangerously uncontrollable, once it got started, and that was an indulgence that none of them could afford.
There was also whispering, for that was perfectly allowed, provided an orphan leaned close enough to be heard over the steady din and kept their phrases brief. More often, they simply communicated through body language, expressions, and simple signs. For those that could write, passing notes was much easier than verbal communication, as that allowed them to take their time and collect their thoughts. Reading was a treasured activity, and one of the few things they could do that occupied both the tick and the silence before the rebounding tock. It was not, however, the easiest thing to learn under the challenging circumstances.
The ding of the doorbell sliced like a knife though the measured chaos of lunchtime and all of the orphans froze in shock. On the next tick, their bedraggled heads and terrified faces turned towards Miss Mary in frightened confusion. She reassured her charges with nothing more than a motherly smile. Miss Mary was beautiful in all circumstances but she was almost heavenly when she smiled. That smile said that all would be well, that they were safe and loved, and with it she waved them back to their meals.
She rose, on the next tick, and walked with measured halting steps out of the dining room, down the hall, and to the front door. Beyond it stood Mr. Grundy, whistling tunelessly to himself in casual defiance of the “Quiet Please” sign on the outside of the door. He was carrying a large basket with a bundled baby inside.
Miss Mary watched him a moment through the peephole as he took a handkerchief from his pocket and ran it over the bald dome of his head. Then he breathed into the palm of his hand, to check his breath, and nervously tried to straighten his brown bow tie. Mary smirked from her unseen vantage and gave him a few more seconds to stir in awkward anticipation, like a young man waiting at the door for his first date.
She was, as has been mentioned before, quite fetching. She had pale skin the color of fresh cream, eyes so bright and blue they put the sky to shame, and cornsilk hair braided up atop her brow like a princess’s crown. Her figure was thin but shapely, with curves that harkened back to an age of starlets and silver screens. Her teeth were small, pearly white, and perfectly straight, and her lips were a soft luscious pink that practically begged to be kissed. Many men had in fact been graced by those lips, as she was not a prudish lady despite her current occupation. In fact, the only thing about her that might even be considered a turn off, was her tail. It was that of a cow.
The door opened at Miss Mary’s hand and she ushered Mr. Grundy inside. She took the basket from him, placed a finger to her lips to indicate that he should be silent, and then beckoned him to follow her into her study. He stopped his whistling at her request and shut the front door as carefully as he could. It still fell closed on the offbeat of the sanctuary, and Miss Mary gave an involuntary wince at the discordant bang.
Once inside her study, she set a metronome to ticking on her neat and tidy desk. It kept a cadence opposite that of the ever present clocks, so that every second was filled with a constant drone of sound. After a while it was easy to dismiss the noise and carry on a conversation as normal. Out of a force of habit though, she kept her patterns of speech in time with the general rhythm of her household.
“A baby… Mister… Grundy… Whatever… will I do… with you?” Mary asked as she leaned close to the man and whispered in his ear. He blushed and squirmed at her close proximity as much as her dusky voice, and a welcome anticipation began to rise within him.
“No more options to configure, just install it.” Grundy mumbled with a sheepish grin. He did not bother talking only on the beats. He knew what nightmares lingered in the dark and he was not afraid of them.
Miss Mary gave a teasing wink and then turned her attention to the baby he had delivered. After watching the child for a minute or two, waiting perhaps for him to cry which he did not, she reached out and stopped the metronome with a single finger letting the cadence of the house push in on them again. Then leaning close to the foundling she began to blink her eyes. Open with the tick, closed with the silence. Smile with the tick, neutral with the silence. Over and over again she repeated the pattern until the child was repeating it as well. Satisfied, she released the arm of the metronome and turned back to Grundy with a nod of acceptance.
“I… cannot… promise… that it… will… survive… It is… not easy… for one… so young… But… he learns… quickly… so I… will try.” She undid Grundy’s tie as she spoke and then began to unbutton his jacket as well. Her tail swished back and forth and there was no debating what would happen next. It was the same thing that happened every time a fine gentleman decided to pay her a visit.
“Superb way to get the slow loser burning…” The rest of his nonsense fell away with his jacket, as did the next hour and a half. It was easy to spend time with Miss Mary, especially when aided by her intimate knowledge of rhythm and clocks. Her desk, however, was never quite as neat afterwards.
Not five minutes after Mister Grundy had dressed and departed into the foggy afternoon, another caller showed up at Miss Mary’s door. This one did not knock or ring the bell. He simply walked in as if he owned the place. In fact, he did own the place. Dr. Ignatius Fade was a wealthy sort of man.
Mary intercepted him halfway down the hall with an uncharacteristically chilly, and almost hostile, stare. She nodded firmly to her study and swallowed a sigh of distrust and resignation. Dr. Fade was never one of her favorite people to deal with, but deal with him she must.
The doctor meanwhile ignored both Miss Mary and the customs of her house, but strode instead with clacking steps across the hall towards a sandy haired young boy. While the child stood aghast at this blatant defiance of his constant reality, the doctor bent down and whispered in his ear. “I have always found the clocks to be terribly silly. Such a simple way to make you all behave, isn’t it though?” Dr. Fade straightened up, flashed a thin smile, and handed the boy an envelope. “News, I think, of your parents.”
Mary’s gaze practically smoldered with hate at the doctor’s game and tears welled up unbidden in her eyes. She turned on her heel and stalked, one tick tock step at a time, to her study and started up the metronome again. Ignatius chuckled at her temper, waved goodbye to the children, and followed after her with a superior air. “As you were, orphans. I have business to discuss with the headmistress.”
The door slammed behind him, on the beat of the clocks of course, and Miss Mary leaned against the heavy wood and simply glared. Then dripping with hatred, she spat out the name of the child, “Thomas Root!”
“I don’t wish to know their names.” Dr. Fade replied with uncaring nonchalance as he wandered slowly around the room. His thin spidery fingers trailed over the desk, still a mess, and he snickered knowingly back at the mistress.
“No… But you… will hear… them all… the same!” Mary shouted at her benefactor. She did not whisper to him, nor make any more towards him. She would not grace him with her touch, nor let him taste of her lips. She never had. Disgust was too mild a word to explain her feelings towards this man.
“Now now, Mary. A deal is a deal. It is just one child, unwanted, unclaimed, unloved… and so very rarely at that. Do I not keep you all well fed? Do I not keep a roof over your head? Do you wish all that to change?” The doctor turned towards Mary with a facade of the long suffering plastered on his face. His eyes betrayed his mask of humanity though, they were as cold and uncaring as the grave. “And still, you treat me as a monster. I only live to serve. To aid you. To make everything better. It is such a small price I claim in return… Now! Where is this new baby I have heard all about? I must see the child at once.”
Mary had no recourse. For the children’s sake, she had to comply.
Later that night, as he lay in his bed, Thomas Root could not find peace.
He tossed and turned, the words of the doctor still running through his head.
Were the clocks really a lie? Were they just a trick to keep the children under control? Were his parents really looking for him, as they had said in their letter? Was Miss Mary keeping him here against their will? He sat upright in his bed. Tears filled his eyes and he clutched the precious letter to his chest.
He did not wait for the next beat to fall. Instead he whispered eagerly out into the silence, “I want to go home!”
None of the other children heard him. They were all fast asleep.
But something else heard his cry. Something that waited in the darkness and the shadows. Something that hungered and hunted but could never quite hear its prey.
Now it heard. Now it slipped out of the darkness and skittered through the bedroom to find it. Now, it would finally feast.
Copyright 2015 by Robert A. Turk – All Rights Reserved
Continued in Episode 5!