BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
Again and again the curious "suggestions" in my uncle's urgent letter echoed in my head. "Confide in no one within the city limits."; "Do not enter the hanging tower."; and, strangest of all, "If you value your life, plug your ears tightly with cotton when you sleep."
Not surprisingly, it was this last which filled me with the greatest apprehension. What could it possibly mean? Could it in any way be connected with his sudden illness in the night?
Then too, I wondered about the colossal aluminum "Time" sculpture in Breakwater Park. Its curious shape had momentarily reminded me of something...something which even now danced just beyond my powers of recollection.
Thought of the sculpture reminded me of the three men I had seen taking pictures, first of something out in the water, then of the artwork itself. Again I felt inexplicable revulsion when I recalled how all three had seemed...distorted, yet without a single concrete aberation to speak of.
I sat in the restaurant. In my hand atop the table, I still held the invitation which the one man had dropped. Absently I scanned the elegant gold script:
"You are cordially invited to the festivities at Breakwater Park on the night of October 31, 1999. Dress is casual and drinks will be served. R.S.V.P."
Beneath this, the addition in pen: "Bring food." While the date clearly suggested a Halloween party, the starting time of midnight seemed a trifle late to me...
Abruptly, I looked up to find an elderly woman in the next table eyeing me with a curiously attentive squint. She wore an outrageously floppy sunhat tied with a scarf, and a Minolta camera hung about her neck. Her eyes briefly alighted on the invitation in my hand, then returned to my face, her features crinkling with a strangely amused grin.
Almost in a single motion, she rose and settled at my table and, to my consternation, I suddenly found myself again seized by an inexplicable crawling disgust. Again, the sensation seemed partly aroused by the oddly loose and disjointed way she moved. But there was something else. Something in the uneven pallour of her face, in the unlikely cast and too-obvious contours of her aged features.
For the strangest moment, I found myself imagining she was wearing a mask.
Her wrinkled hand appeared atop the table and, in it, she held an invitation identical to my own. She leaned forward and spoke in a contained rasp.
"It should be quite the to-do, oh, yes, I'll say. Quite the dog and pony show. I hear Edith will be supplying the punch, so at least we can count on that, don't you think? Myself, I don't think I could stand another round of Mirabelle's noxious concoction. Jeez-Louise, but that was something!"
She laughed dryly and then, before I could explain her mistake in taking me for the note's owner, a group of university students crowded into the outdoor cafe with a tremendous youthful clamour, one of them accidentally bumping the woman from behind.
She glanced around with pursed lips, then turned back and hunched closer.
"I can't wait 'til we've brought it up, can you? Then we won't have to put up with that nonsense, will we now?"
Before I could respond, she shot primly to her feet and left the cafe.
His condition was far worse than I had imagined. The nurse informed me that he had lapsed in and out of consciousness all morning and during his brief periods awake, he was subject to confusion. It was doubtful, therefore, were he to rouse, that he would know who I was. Nevertheless, I settled in a chair by his bed and waited for him to come around, hoping against hope that he would be lucid enough to explain his strange letter and the reason he had summoned me to this city.
Alas, I waited in vain. As the afternoon wore on, from time to time, he did rouse sluggishly, but there was no point in asking questions. He seemed to think I was his dead wife, Cora, who had killed herself fully forty years before.
I knew the story well. The two of them had long tried to have children but, like my own late father, had found it difficult. Then, in the early sixties, success had seemed assured, only to see the child born dead, a tragedy which ultimately led to Cora's suicide a few years later. It was said she had become obsessed with the notion the child, a girl, had been born alive and stolen from her.
Now, in the dimly-lit hospital room, my uncle cried out again and again to his dead wife, sometimes rambling incoherently, other times tantalizingly comprehensible.
Once he shouted, "Must go home to bring the rest!" but I could not ask who or what the "rest" were, nor why he had to bring them.
At another time, I sat up with a start, as he cried out, "For God's sake, don't enter the hanging tower!" But again, I could learn nothing more.
Late in the aftenoon, he began to rave incoherently about the "Kingston Stone", a reference which made at least some sense, since I knew such an artifact resided in the Kingston Public Library. But all I could understand was the one exclamation: "Read the Kingston Stone!"
Finally, towards the last, evidently recalling his wife's own madness, he began to sob, "Cora! They've taken our baby, Cora! They've taken our little girl!" Then, all at once, he bolted upright, screaming in despair, "Cora, our baby is crying! Dear Lord, our baby is crying!"
Then he collapsed and, with a shudder, breathed his last. Before my eyes, he died.
All this, of course, left me shaken, but not so shaken as did two further observations which followed quickly after. As the nurses hurried me out of the room, I noticed blood dripping from my uncle's left ear, blood which formed a speckled path across his pillow to the edge of his bed, almost like a little trail.
Momentarily I found myself uneasily recalling the third "suggestion" in his letter: "If you value your life, plug your ears tightly with cotton when you sleep."
This was the first observation. The second occurred five minutes later, when I glanced in the room before leaving the hospital. You may doubt what I say, thinking me distraught by all that had happened, but I swear this is what I saw.
The five nurses in
his room all had small instamatic cameras with which they were quietly
taking pictures of my uncle's silent corpse...
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In the Dark of Kingston is copyright 1998, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may
not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts
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