The air leaves my lungs as I hit the floor.
“Be grateful,” he says, towering over me, venom in his words.
The door slams and I force my swollen eyes open and feel my lungs fill again. The air is dry, stale and tastes of dust.
“Grateful…really?” I push the words out as I heave myself to my elbows.
I close my eyes again and it hits me, the subtle change in the smell of the room. Once dust and fear, now pungent with the overwhelming aroma of lamp oil.
The shadows steal into my room, as I stand. I allow myself a moment to take in the familiar and expansive living space I call my own. A room filled with old, polished cherry wood furniture: a fainting couch where I drape my shawl after evening walks with the Constable; a plush sleigh bed where I attempt, each night, to forget my troubles; walls adorned with overstuffed shelves, housing the only true company I have here; and my window seat, my favorite feature of this room. It is cushioned and deep, set against the south facing beveled window, which opens wide and overlooks the vast courtyard below. Although it doesn’t feel like home, the view of the Terracotta Village below and the sea just beyond make the room, and my situation, bearable.
Cautiously, I stand and make my way to that window seat. I assume the position; straighten my posture, pull my hair back behind my shoulder, and I begin the wait.
I know he’s coming. Not the terrible man who owns this room, who essentially owns me, but the man who makes my breath catch when he enters the courtyard below. It’s nearly time…
I cannot remember when I was last alone in the courtyard. The Constable will not allow it, not without him by my side. I would like to believe he means well, but I can’t even be sure of that anymore. I am his trophy. He only takes me outside in order to parade me around, to show others what they cannot have. I have no choice but to allow it; his “agreement” keeps my father safe.
My father, who never harmed anyone a day in his life, was only trying to keep food on the table. The memory of the day the Constable took me as payment for my father’s debts holds me like a steel cage. The Constable riding up to my home and, without a word, grabbing my arm and wrenching me away from everything I had ever known. Hatred doesn’t begin to encompass my feelings towards this…monster.
Defeated by the memory of my past life, I lean towards the window and take in the salty air. The setting sun leaves the sky a deep shade of crimson, the land a rich blend of shades of orange and the water lapping the top of the courtyard a magnificent shade of cobalt. I look over this landscape and sigh with longing. I do love this Village, but there has to be more…
I close my eyes and listen. Moments later, I hear the clang of the oilcan against his shepherd’s hook. Maybe tonight he will brave a glance. He appears below and moves to light his first lamp of the evening. I watch the shadows dancing ‘round him, a player on a stage of light and dark.
The baker packs up his bread cart as the Lamplighter ignites the lantern above him and as the others in the courtyard notice the shimmer from the flame, they stop for the day; the silent bell to call the townspeople home. I watch the exchange of words between the Lamplighter and the amiable, yet tired looking baker. After a moment, the baker moves on, hauling off his cart, with a smile.
The night is balmy. The Lamplighter wipes beads of sweat from his dark brow as he moves to ignite the next lantern on the upper-most level of the sunken courtyard. He is so close, but may as well be in another realm. He will never look up. He will never return my gaze…
Lost in that thought, it takes a cold breeze to make me realize the door to the room has swung open. I turn to see the Constable filling the doorway, his bulky frame merging with the shadows. I watch in horror as an unnatural darkness escapes from the Constable, emerging and expanding from under and around him.
I cannot move; fear is encompassing me, pushing me down into my seat. I look up and see, not the man who keeps me as a trophy, not a man at all. Whom I see is a Stranger, his eyes radiating with rage. The shadows crawl, as if teeming with life, up and around his body, engulfing him so there is nothing, resembling human, left but a wicked, knowing smile and hate-filled eyes.
The shadows take on the grotesque forms of shady minions and they shove the air out of the room. I find it increasingly difficult to breathe as the unnatural darkness continues to bleed from the Stranger. The shadows slink towards me; pulling at my skirts, at my hair, covering my hands, and sliding toward my face. I gasp for air, only none is to be found. I feel the darkness plunge its way into my skin, finding its way into my heart. Just as I take my final breath, a blast of cool sea air sweeps through me.
The shadows shrink, cowering from the fresh air; creeping back to their source. That’s when I hear the Stanger growl from inside the shadows, “Patience.”
Just this one word and the wind casts him, his minions and the remaining darkness from the room.
I catch my breath and look out the window, my muscles trembling under the weight of my arm. I can taste tears on my lips, though I was unaware that I was crying. I look beyond the edge of the windowsill, out to the courtyard below and I see him.
The Lamplighter looks up; his fists clenched and a look of pure determination on his face. Our first contact. His expression shifts from determination to concern, all the while his eyes never leaving mine. A small smile appears at the corner of his mouth. Ever so subtly, as the smile forms, he begins to fade.
I watch in astonishment as the Lamplighter gradually vanishes right before my eyes. The last wisps of him fade and a palpable loneliness and mounting fear fill me. A fear I may never see the Lamplighter again and a fear that the Stranger will return.
I stare at the place where he vanished and notice an odd sound echoing around the room, increasing in volume, bouncing off the walls. I search for its source and as a nagging familiarity creeps into my mind, I slump my shoulders and close my eyes.