Taking a break today from novel revision to do another Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge. This week’s challenge is brought to you by the letter ‘M’ and is a vignette from The Heavy Dark universe. Shouldn’t be too spoilery if you haven’t read the book, although the characters don’t make appearances until the second part.
Breakfast In The City Of Fog and Souls
“I call him Munnin,” Agatha said looking out the window. “The raven. Do you know your Norse mythology, traveler?”
“I was a young boy,” I said, sipping from the cup of tea she had poured. “Most mythology escapes me nowadays.“
We sat at a small, wobbly table, with a folded playing card under one foot to keep it level. The glass was fogged slightly from the steam off the tea and from her breath. Agatha was a small lady, polite to the very end. Her gray hair rested atop her head in a bun, held by a tarnished clip.
As far as lodging went, her house was suitable–certainly more than I expected to find in a city such as Rhinewall, with its Gothic spires and cold gray brick. I had hoped to avoid the place altogether, but the sun was setting and the fog had become so thick, I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. When the massive sea wall rose up out of nowhere, I had nearly banged into it, fishing rod, journeyman’s pack and all.
“I call him Munnin because that was the raven of memory,” she said after a long pause, the crashing of the surf distant and muted through the fog and glass.
The raven in question was a massive brute, the size of a hawk. If I had half a mind to bring my gun, and had seen it in the woods, it would have made a fine meal. Although I’d found crow to be a bit gamy in the past. It sat perched on a cobble wall, waiting for something.
“Every day,” said Agatha. “Every day he sits there–”
A wheezing sound from the other room interrupted her, followed by a coughing fit. Agatha excused herself and stepped away and into the darkened hall. I continued to watch the huge black bird as it sat there.
Strange really, a crow that large in a populated area. Not half a block away, a man sat, feeding pigeons. Plenty of scratch for such a big bird. He could have scared off any of them and taken the whole feast for himself. But instead he continued to sit there, waiting.
Agatha scurried back into the nook and sat. she gave me a warm, apologetic smile, wrinkles creasing around her gray eyes. She sipped her tea and placed the cup down with the grace of an appraiser.
“Where were we?”
“Everyday, you said.”
“Oh, yes,” she continued. “He waits there all day long and then–oh look.”
I leaned over to see beyond the window frame. A girl, no more than ten or eleven came into view. A street urchin, wearing a tattered coat and hat. She held out a bandaged hand to the bird.
When its wings unfolded I thought for a fleeting moment that it would simply snatch her up, carry her off to feed whatever monstrous brood it had in its nest. Instead, it hopped down to the ground–its head reached the girl’s thigh–and stretched its neck out for her to pet.
“Isn’t that something?” said Agatha. “He only lets her do that. Poor wretched thing.”
“Oh, she had a father,” said Agatha, but fell silent.
“No…” she said and trailed off. “Not exactly.”
I leaned back in my chair. “Not dead, then alive? Missing?”
“Oh, you could say he was missing.”
“I imagine fishermen get lost all the time in these waters.”
She gave me a reproachful look, her old eyes darting between me and the dark hallway. She sipped her tea and then seemed to consider me.
“Rhinewall used to be a lovely city, Mister…”
She nodded. “Sam, did you know we used to have a tulip festival in the spring?”
“It doesn’t seem the suitable climate.”
“Oh, I know. Men used to grow them in greenhouses, slaved over them for the festival. The children would tie the ribbon on a pole. There was music…” She trailed off for a moment. “You don’t hear music anymore… same goes for the festivals.”
Her features hardened as her eyes met mine. I saw for an instant a woman much younger, tougher, someone who had lost more than she wished to discuss.
“Because you need a soul to play music, to really play it… and to listen to it.” She raised a gnarled hand to the glass and drew an upside-down U on the foggy glass. A hill, perhaps. “There,” she said. “Farther than you can see in this fog. There are men in there who have stolen this city’s memory, its soul.”
Not sure how to answer, I sipped my tea, hoping she would elaborate. Normally, I would take bits of metaphor such as this as nothing but fable. Something in her voice told me there was more. Instead, her eyes fell to look at the street below.
“Every day,”she said again. “Every day that girl comes and talks to that raven.”
She nodded. “Although I’m sure that isn’t his real name. She talks to it and it probably talks back. Then she goes off to the scrapyard and I don’t see her again.”
“Until the next time.”
A sudden memory struck me and I sat upright. “Oh, Munnin,” I said. “He was the raven who spoke to Odin.”
She fixed her eyes on me and I realized that there was something I had missed before. Agatha had no fondness for the bird.
“Odin,” she spat. “That bird talks to Hel herself.”
“No!” she nearly yelled, her eyes ablaze. I scooted back in my chair, startled by the sudden outrage in her voice “Hel, the goddess of the dead and damned. That raven is a harbinger, Sam, a harbinger of terrible things.”
With shaking hands I reached for my tea and sipped, trying my hardest to show no fear. Eventually, Agatha calmed and sipped her own as if nothing had happened.
“I apologize,” she said. “Ever since my Howard went away I’ve never been quite the same.”
I looked into the darkened hallway, and then back at her. The expression on my face was all the question I needed to ask.
“Yes,” she said.
“Oh, that’s his body alright,” she said. “It wakes up and eats and coughs, but that isn’t my Howard.”
She stood and took me by the arm, walking in small shuffled steps. We went into the darkness and she opened the door. The man lay on a bed, molded to his back. He stared at the ceiling and beyond. He made no notice of our entrance.
“Howard,” I said.
She shrugged. “If you can call him that.”
The man’s chest rose and fell. His skin was normal and healthy, his breathing regular.
“What’s wrong with him?”
She closed the door again and led me to my room. At the door she rose up on her toes, placed her hands on my cheeks, cradling my face and kissed me. It wasn’t the kind of kiss a grandmother would give, nor was it some vulgar young woman’s kiss. It was more like a blessing.
“You are good to keep moving come the morning,” she said. “I would hate to see them come for you.”
“Why don’t you come with me,” I began to say, but Agatha pressed a finger to my lips.
“You are sweet, but I am old. And…” She looked toward Howard’s room. “I think that soon Howard will be coming back. I can feel it. But this city… it is not for the living anymore.”
When I returned to the window, both the raven and the girl were gone. I finished my tea, cleaned the cup and placed it on the rack. From the hallway I could hear Agatha’s voice, low and calming, telling her secrets to a body that would never remember or understand the words.
The next morning I let myself out, not wishing to wake my hosts. I turned from the door and froze. The girl, her face shaded under a the worn cap, stood in the street, the raven on her shoulder, both of them looking at me. The girl, I realized, had only one good eye, the other was a milky white.
Neither of them followed me as I left the building, nor did they say anything as I walked, somewhat hurriedly down the street and out past the city walls. Just as they faded from my sight, I thought I heard the girl say, “His name is not Munnin.”
Surprised at the closeness of her voice, I spun on my heel, too fast, and spilled the contents of my bag. As I scrambled to refill my bag, I looked for the source of the voice, but there was nothing, only fog.