The Moon Under Water
The midwinter sun is setting, stretching my shadow into a bluish scarecrow, sprawled across the snow. It reaches all the way to the woods as though throwing a tantrum, childishly clinging to the trees so as not to leave. I'm tempted to imitate it but my arms are not so long and the path down to the village is calling me onwards.
There are few lights lit in the village, fewer than I remember. Several of the darkened windows are boarded up, houses empty and depressingly corpse-like. For a moment I wonder if the inn will still be there, but when I turn the corner I see the old sign hanging from the wall, paint peeling, the words almost unreadable. Here, at least, a light is shining.
The door creaks halfheartedly on it's hinges, the floor boards are too tired for even that much effort. Dusk on the shortest day, early for drinkers, but the empty bar is lonely nonetheless. It seems an age before the landlord appears, an old man, slow on his feet. He eyes me with vague surprise "Can I help you sir?"
"I'm looking for a room for the night."
He seems troubled by my request "Most of the rooms is closed up for the winter. No call for them this time of year. Us being near the sea, folks only want to visit when there's fair chance of the sun shining." he pauses, torn between emotions I can't quite read "There is one room open."
"Is there a problem with it?"
"You'll think me superstitious, a young man like you." he says "But we always keeps one room made up in case old Tobias should call."
"A ghost story?"
"Aye. Do you know it?"
I shrug "I think I may have heard it once."
The old man nods sagely "That's him up there." he says, he means the portrait above the bar "Wife always reckoned him a looker but I can't say as how I ever saw that myself."
"Hard to tell now." I say. Time has darkened the varnish to a muddy brown and the sitter's features are barely distinguishable from the landscape beyond.
The man nods again "Age takes it's toll on us all. But it's quite the romantic tale, if you like that kind of thing. Young couple in love, betrothed to be married, but of course the witch of the woods has taken a shine to the boy and she casts her magic to spirit him away." the landlord laughs now "Got cold feet and run off with an easier bird if you ask me, but I guess that don't make such a pretty story."
"And the room?"
"Ah, well that's not the end. They say the girl died of a broken heart and that when Tobias heard he was so overcome with sadness that he was able to break free of the witch's magic. They say he kneeled at her grave praying night and day for her forgiveness. Until the witch found him and in her fury she struck him dead and bound his ghost to her so he might never leave her again. But the witch's magic is tied to the seasons and every few years, when the winter is especially cold, Tobias escapes and comes looking for his lost love." The man sighs "I expect you think it's all pretty silly."
It's a story I have more reason than most to believe, "I think a ghost has little need of a bed." I say
The man considers this sadly "I suppose you're right. Never did credit it myself, but it kept the missus happy, and the girls when they were here. Don't know why I kept up the tradition." he reaches a decision "Still, perhaps it's lucky for you I did. I'll need a name, sir, for the log book."
I look at the painting again "Dorian." I say. I pause but he doesn't notice "Joe Dorian."
"Well Mr Dorian, if you'd like to sign, room's just up those stairs and on the left, you can't miss it." He roots around under the counter for the key.
I sign the book, take the key, walk up the stairs. It's all hauntingly familiar like I've done this a dozen times before. Then again, I have.
Inside the room I walk to the window. The sun has long vanished from the sky and there's little to see except my own reflection in the glass, but still I stare out into the darkness. A maid taps on the door before entering, I barely glance at her, but she reminds me of Lucy, they always do. I don't turn, or talk to her I just gaze at nothing and wonder. I wonder why I do this, why I still need this desperate hope for redemption. I wonder what I will do when this inn no longer stands, where I will go to keep up this ritual. I wonder, fleetingly, if this is the same maid as last time, but no, she can't be, a decade has passed since I was last here.
The door clicks closed. Strange that a place this run down should still have a maid. I stop, barely breathing, my heart thumping. I feel the floor beneath my feet, the glass of the window pane beneath my hand and at long last I wonder why I expected a ghost to look like one.
Sudden hope awakens, I cross the room in three bounding steps, fling open the door. The maid is still in the corridor and for the first time I look at her, really look at her "Lucy?"
She stops, and for a moment I'm sure I've made a mistake. Then she turns. She smiles at me, familiar and enchanting "Well Toby. Are you finally ready to be forgiven?"