It's one of a lot of Blackthorn family tales...
The late October sun turned to blood when I opened Arb’s gate that Wednesday evening. It seemed appropriate, given that Arb had insisted I visit him one last time. They were his words, ‘one last time’. When he phoned, I rushed over to his home with the stirrings of panic tightening my chest. He sounded calm and rational, but I knew the depth of his beliefs and I feared he might have acted on them. He had not.
Arb sat on his porch, facing the sunset. I joined him. As was customary, we acknowledged each other with a nod. Some evenings we spent in animated discussion, others passed in silence. I took the seat beside Arb. He poured whisky, I lit a cigar and studied his expressionless features for any hint as to what he planned for this night.
Cecil Arbuthnot Blackthorn took a deep draw of his hand-rolled cigarette, held it, then exhaled a plume of smoke into the night air. Throughout all this, not a muscle twitched among the furrows of his face. Arb—he had always hated his first name—had reached eighty-seven years of age. His eyes looked like they had died when he was thirty.
I tapped my cigar against the ashtray. A night breeze cut across Arb’s porch to stir the ash. No doubt some fortune-teller could make something of the shapes it formed but I preferred not to know.
Barely into my sixties, I had only begun to accumulate the wisdom of years. It was that time, after retirement, when man had leisure to reflect, that brought true wisdom. Arb had twenty-seven years of thought, uninterrupted by the rigours of work. It showed in the lines of his skin like the growth-rings of a tree. Yet there was always one thought, one story he returned to. Arb might forget to shave, he might forget to have breakfast, he might sometimes even forget my name. That one story stayed with him. A story six decades old, yet it chilled me every time he told it.
When he spoke, my eyes were fixed on his. Normally I avoided them but each telling of this tale demanded my attention. Clear, grey eyes in a deep-lined face. Eyes as bright and fresh as those of a young man yet they contained no life, no spark of emotion. Arb’s tale is his story of how he came by those eyes. I tapped out my cigar, picked up my whisky and settled back, my gaze on his face, to listen in silence. If there was truth in his tale, this would be the final telling of it.
By the time Arb was twenty, his sight had deteriorated to the point where the spectacles he wore resembled the bottoms of wine-bottles. The prognosis presented to him by doctors was that he would likely be blind by thirty.
A lesser man might have sunk into depression at the news. A more restrained man might do his utmost to conserve what sight remained to him. Arb, supported by his wealthy family, took to reading and travelling, his reasoning being that he should see as much as possible before his eyes failed. At the back of his mind, always, was the thought that somewhere on his travels, or in the books he read, he might find a cure the doctors had overlooked. Some folk remedy, some relic of an ancient medical system now derided by the modern men of science. He had nothing to lose by trying.
Arb examined the writings of the Aztec, Toltec, Inca and Zapotec of South America. He taught himself the Egyptian systems of writing, paid for translations of ancient Chinese and Indian texts, studied the methods and legends of the Australian Aborigine and the Polynesian peoples. So many cultures, so many legends, filled Arb’s head that he became a recognised expert in several areas of anthropological and historical study. Nonetheless, his sight continued to deteriorate and so he returned home to
His status and reputation gave him access to the rare and precious manuscripts held by that library. Arb made full use of his time, spending every waking moment among dusty tomes, some of which had been little read since they were placed in that room.
It was here that Arb came upon Lemegeton, and, in particular, one of its four constituent books, Goetia.
Arb read Goetia twice before he brought in paper and pencil to copy what he found there. By this time, Arb was twenty-seven. If the doctors were correct—and the decline in Arb’s vision suggested they were—he had no more than three years of sight left to him. Speed was of the essence, but he now required a magnifying glass in addition to his bottle-end glasses, and the process of copying even the portions of Goetia he needed was a long and laborious one. Nonetheless, he persisted and eventually succeeded.
So it was, one dark October night, that Arb called the demon Shax into the magical designs drawn in chalk on the floor of his home.
Arb stood in his circle, his notes shaking in his hand. Around the circle strutted a six-foot stork, with arms and hands as well as wings. Through his thick spectacles, Arb squinted at the demon.
“Well?” Shax inclined his head. “Is there something you want, magician?”
“I—” Arb cleared his throat. “You can take away sight.”
Shax clacked his beak. “I see no purpose in doing so to you. Your sight is almost gone. Do you wish me to take the sight of another?”
“No. If you can take sight, you can give it back. Can’t you?”
Shax clasped his hands behind his back, beneath his wings. He lowered his head and paced around the circle, completing a circuit before he spoke. “I can.”
Arb trembled with excitement. “Then you can give me back my sight.” He bit his lip. Perhaps the demon would refuse.
“There is a price.”
“I’ll pay it.” Arb clasped his notes. Any price was worth paying for the return of his eyes. With them, and with his knowledge, he could become a professor, a master of history. Without them, he was a dependant, a cripple. Arb did not ask the price.
Shax did not volunteer the information, though he paused as though expecting the question. When none came, Shax tilted his head upwards. “You need only ask for eyes.”
Arb did not hesitate. “Give me eyes.” It was only when the demon vanished that Arb wondered at the phrasing. Surely he should have asked for sight? He had little time to consider the specifics of Shax’s wording before the demon reappeared.
Shax held out his hand. Blood dripped between his fingers. “Here. Take them.” The demon’s gloss-black eyes shone.
Arb dropped his notes and reached forward. He hesitated at the edge of the circle and wondered if he should reach beyond its bounds. Arb stared at the demon but Shax’s bird-face was incapable of expression.
“Take them,” Shax repeated. “There is no need to fear me this night.”
Arb stretched his fingers. The demon dropped two wet balls into Arb’s hands.
At this point, as always, Arb’s head slumped forward. Impatience made me fidget in my seat. I knew this tale as well as Arb, having heard it, but not believed, many times before. Yet tonight was different. Tonight, Arb rushed his story as though time itself nipped at his heels.
The sun showed only as a bright lip on the distant hills. I shivered, but only partly from the growing chill. Tonight, Arb was not telling a story. He was relating a confession.
“I have them still.” Arb’s deep voice made me jump, even though I knew the words.
“You always promised to show me.” That was my line, delivered with the ease of long practice. I waited for Arb’s response. ‘Someday I will’.
“Tonight I will,” he said, and this small deviation from our script blindsided me. I took a breath, not knowing what to say. Arb continued his tale.
On Arb’s shaking palms nestled two white orbs. Arb stared at them. They stared back with grey discs, centred with black. Arb swallowed, wanting to drop the hideous objects but not daring to show weakness in the face of the demon.
“What do I do with these?”
“You wanted eyes.” Shax chuckled. “These are eyes.”
“But—” How? Whose? So many questions filled Arb’s head, but how to articulate them? “But they are not my eyes.”
“Remove those ridiculous pieces of glass from your face.”
Arb transferred the eyes to one hand, reached up and took off his glasses. Shax blurred into a streak of white.
“Press these eyes to your own.”
Thankful he could not focus, Arb held one eye in each hand. They’re not real. It’s an illusion. With that thought held in his mind, repeated like a mantra, Arb pressed the soft balls into his eyes.
They writhed against his face. Thin tendrils pulled back his eyelids. Soft needles twisted into the spaces between eye and flesh. Arb screamed and pulled at the orbs. They came away, thin streamers of flesh and mucus threaded between them and his own eyes.
Arb took deep breaths to quell the bile rising in his throat. The eyes in his palms were no longer grey, but blue. Shax clacked his beak. Arb glanced at the demon, mesmerised for a second by the detail in feather and wing. He wrinkled his brow. In his hands, the dead eyes cooled, their network of fine veins running to join in a thread at the back.
“I can see.” Arb dropped the eyes. “I can see. How?” His heart pounded its gratitude and terror. Whose eyes?
“How is not important. And you need not concern yourself with who. You will never answer either question.” Shax raised his beak. “All that matters is payment.”
“Payment, yes.” Arb marvelled at the grain in the wooden floor, at the intricacies of the chalk circle he had drawn, over many hours, with a magnifying glass held to his face. “Take anything you want. Name it, and it’s yours.”
“It is rare to find so generous a host.” Shax performed a low bow. “I shall be generous in return. I defer payment for sixty years.”
“Defer?” The euphoria that flowed through Arb stopped as though it had hit a wall. He should have considered his words with more care. His notes, on the floor, mocked him. When Shax arrived, Arb should have used the incantations to drive him into the chalk triangle, where he would be compelled to obey. Free of compulsion, Shax had set a bargain. Arb had given his agreement to anything the demon might demand. His soul chilled in anticipation of eternal torment.
Shax laughed, a chirrup of deadly mirth. “I don’t want your soul. What use is it to me? No, my price is a return of favour, in a sense. I wish you to feed my children.”
Arb let out a long breath. “I will. What do they like to eat?”
“Oh, they savour knowledge, my friend, as do you. Your eyes, your ears, your mind, have already accumulated so much. In sixty more years they will have accumulated so much more.”
Arb could have cried with relief. “You want me to teach your children everything I know? Everything I will know, sixty years from now?”
Shax shook his head. “Teaching is such a tedious and inefficient means of transfer for so much information. No, my friend, you will not need to teach. My children and I will take what we need in our own way. A quick, efficient and—” Shax ruffled his feathers “—for you, I fear, a rather disconcerting way.” With that, he faded into the air.
I realised I had shifted to the edge of my seat, and slid back. I sipped at my whisky, but my glass was empty. Arb topped it up.
“Tonight is the sixtieth anniversary of the night I called upon Shax,” he said. “That’s why I wanted you to come over. One last evening on the porch.”
I coughed. “I don’t think I want to meet Shax, if it’s all the same to you.” It was an attempt to make light of the situation. I had never truly believed in Arb’s tale, even though he told it with such conviction each time. It was clear, though, that Arb believed it absolutely. He believed this was his last night of life. I pursed my lips and determined to at least try to appear serious.
“The anniversary is at ten-thirty. You’ll be gone by then.” Arb settled back in his chair. “I’ll insist on that. I don’t know whether Shax will appreciate an eavesdropper.”
“Arb—” I had no idea what to say, but felt the need to speak. “You know, this story of yours is a good one, but really, I mean…” I sank back into my chair, defeated. It was too late to talk him out of this fantasy, if fantasy it was. I should have done that years ago.
“You don’t believe me. Never did, deep down. I understand.” Arb took a deep swallow of his whisky and grimaced. “It is true. All of it. These eyes I see you with are not mine.” He placed his glass on the table and reached beneath his seat.
“Look, Arb, you don’t really believe you’ll die tonight, do you?” He seemed calm, collected, and in full possession of his faculties. I could not bring myself to believe he expected to die in a few hours.
Arb lifted a cylindrical object, covered in a cloth, from beneath his seat and placed it on the table. He grinned, showing old dentures. “No, I won’t die. If that was all I had to worry about, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
I eyed the object on the table, but Arb left the cloth in place for the moment.
“I studied the legends surrounding Shax.” Arb lifted his glass and took a sip. “He doesn’t kill. Shax takes away sight, hearing and understanding.” Arb emptied his glass in one swallow and poured himself another. “That’s the hell I face. Alive, but as a blind, deaf idiot.”
“Thank God,” I said.
Arb raised his eyebrows. “Really? You want to see me like that?”
“No, of course not. I thought, well, if you expected to die, you might harm yourself. But if all you expect is madness, then I’ll feel better about leaving you alone tonight. In the morning I’ll call back, and I believe I’ll find you disappointed, but alive and well.”
“Best bring a doctor from the asylum with you. You’ll need one.” Arb grasped the cloth. “I’ve told you the tale, but never showed you the proof of it. Now it’s time.” He pulled away the cloth to reveal a glass jar filled with a clear liquid. In it floated two small, round objects.
I leaned closer.
“These,” Arb said, “are my original eyes.” He stared into the jar for a moment, then faced away from me. His hand moved to rub at his cheek.
In my youth, I had spent six miserable months as a slaughterhouse worker. Fortunately, I had escaped that job into another, less bloody, profession, but the short time I spent in that place left memories that would stay with me forever. I had looked into many dead eyes, and could be certain that what I saw in that jar were indeed eyes. Further, I was able to say with confidence that they had not been plucked from sheep, goat or cow. I would have suggested they might be a pig’s eyes, but for one thing. Beneath the filmy coating on the long-pickled flesh, Arb’s porch light picked out the colour of their irises. Blue.
And yet I still could not bring myself to fully believe in Arb’s tale. The eyes might be rubber imitations. Joke shops were filled with such macabre items these days. I should open the jar. I should take them out. I should squeeze them; when they compressed, but did not burst, Arb’s long-standing joke would be at last exposed. Yet one thought lingered in my mind, as if some sly spirit whispered in my ear. What if they did burst?
I did not open the jar. Instead, I gazed out into the cool night, Something rustled among the dark leaves of nearby trees. I squinted, but saw nothing. Only then did it occur to me that I had heard no birdsong at or after sunset, no nightjar, no owl. The countryside around Arb’s house was never silent. Tonight there was no sound aside from the stirring of branches in the light breeze. I rose from my seat.
Arb looked up at me. “Yes,” he said, “It’s time you were leaving. You have to walk back to the road, and it’s best you don’t linger.”
I could not face him. I could not even find it in me to say goodbye. I downed the last of my whisky, gave a curt nod, and stepped from the porch onto the unlit path. Many times I had walked that path in darkness, sometimes inebriated from Arb’s generosity with whisky, but I had never felt fear, or even unease, on the short journey.
My footsteps sounded loud on the gravel. I had never noticed before. I had always been engrossed in the sounds of the night, and the mundane sounds of walking had not registered on my thoughts. Arb’s fence and gate were festooned with shadows. I stopped walking when those shadows moved.
They were birds. Perched in rows along the rails of the fence, and on the bars of the gate. I glanced back at the house, where Arb sat on the porch, his head bowed.
With a fluttering of wings, the birds on the gate rose into the air. I opened it and ran through. As soon as I had passed, those birds resumed their places. They faced the house, although once in a while one of them tilted its head to aim a jet-black eye at me. I backed onto the road, my heart pounding, until I had reached the far side.
I have never been a courageous man. I admit that. Somewhere inside myself, I wanted to rush back to Arb’s side, to help in any way I could against the danger he faced. Those silent birds stopped me. I cursed my cowardice. Birds are light-boned, tiny creatures, easily broken. They could not stop me if I decided to break through their ranks. They had already parted once to allow me exit.
A tear formed in the corner of my eye. Yes, the birds had let me out, but they were unlikely to let me back in. Small they might be, but there were so very many of them. I could not fight. I could do nothing. I knew, too late, that Arb’s chilling tale had been no summer-evening ghost story. The eyes in the jar were his. His deal with the demon he called Shax was real, and its conclusion was to be tonight. Simultaneously fascinated and terrified, I was torn between running for home and staying to watch, from a distance, the events that might shortly transpire here.
What decided me was the stork. I had not seen one before, so was surprised at its height. It strutted to the far side of Arb’s gate and glared at me over the rows of birds. Maybe it was perched on the gate, I could not see for sure, but its head was level with mine.
The stork’s glare disconcerted me, but when two muscular, human arms appeared from beneath its wings and folded across its chest, then I knew what it really was. I knew this stork’s name. It was a name that echoed in my head while I fought age, fatigue and the pains in my chest throughout my long run home.