Below, the night shadows of stovepipe chimneys stencil sloped and snow-clad rooftops. Overhead, an ocean of stars runs unbroken from one horizon to the other. A castle sits atop a hill in this venerable city and, across the ice-choked river, factories and steam locomotives crouch in their silent tracks and yards. To float disembodied above it is to be embraced by serenity, and the dark, niggling questions of how you came to be here have no more weight than the barking of distant dogs.
Yet in this drifting reverie, those questions coalesce. It could be a minute or a thousand years, but questions that bark long enough will be heard.
A cry brought you here; a child’s cry that woke you from whatever came before.
And what did come before? It is a troubling question, because when you search for memories you find none.
In one particular street, a passerby stops and glances skyward. A man. He wears a long overcoat with a fur collar, sable hat, and gloves. You drift downward to him for no other reason than it feels right. Slowly and in peace you descend as he continues to gaze past you, through you, to the wide-open heavens.
As you draw closer, you see his face more clearly, his broad cheekbones, ruddy skin, dark mustache. Come closer still. He has laugh lines and a day’s worth of stubble. Slip past the shine of his eyes . . . and enter.
A man in the long overcoat and fur hat of the comfortably well off stands on the steep incline of Festung Strasse, a fog of breath around his head. The night is one of those in which cold reaches through skin and muscle to make the bones ache. Only a minute ago this man stood with his gaze tipped back to the sky, apparently transfixed by the canopy of starlight. Yet a change has come over him. Now he holds both gloved hands out, staring at them as though in amazement, turning them this way and that.
He opens his mouth, tries to speak. Nothing. He tries again, this time eliciting a phlegmy, incoherent rattle. On his third attempt, however, the man manages to croak out words. “Ich . . . ich bin . . .” His voice trails off, consumed by the surrounding silence.
Halfway down the street, a door opens and raucous noise spills into the snow: laughter, shouts, conversation, and a snatch of song. A man and woman step out of the door. Both are bundled in heavy clothing and both are laughing. Leaning against each other they turn to walk up the hill. Someone inside complains and the door slams shut. The two, still laughing, nestle their faces into scarves as they trudge up the hill, arm in arm, never lifting their heads to see the man with the long coat watching them from the street.
As he follows their progress, the couple passes the entrance to an alleyway. The dark opening, which sits between a warehouse and a tenement, arrests the man’s attention. He stares at the alley, feeling a tug and the impulse to follow where it leads.
Crossing to it, he enters. On his right, a light shines through the smudged windowpanes of an apartment; a gas wall lamp burns behind a curtain of yellowing lace. He continues down the alley until it empties into a space enclosed by the rear of the tenement, a loading dock on the side of the warehouse, and two worn and featureless walls of brick.
Inexplicably, the man finds that he knows things here. He knows, for example, that on the far side of the loading dock, which he cannot see, there is a broken gap in its construction, giving access to the space beneath. He knows that this space is the cramped home of a beggar girl. During the day, she is forced to move along, but tonight she lies inside, feverish and still.
When the man rounds the dock, he sees a corona of pale hair where she lies just inside the opening. Half her face and all of her body are in darkness. Her eyelids part at the sound of his boots crunching through the snow, she shivers and watches him from the edge of an oblivion that’s like sleep.
Moved by pity, he shrugs out of his overcoat and kneels by the opening. Gently, he reaches under her arms and pulls her from beneath the loading dock so he can wrap her in the warmth of his garment. As the cold air finds his skin, he brushes a strand of hair from her face and pulls the coat’s fur collar up around her neck and ears.
The girl’s eyebrows knit, and as she continues to shiver, she whispers, “Sind Sie ein Engel?”
He smiles, shakes his head. “Nein.” He is not an angel.
There is something familiar about her face, something unsettling. His smile falters. A fragment of the peace he has experienced retreats.
The girl has eyebrows so light in color they are almost white, and a small, dark mole rests by her temple. Her nose has a slight upturn to it, her lower lip more full than the one above. What is it about these features that prick at him? He leans in, brushes away her tangled hair and puts lips to her forehead. She closes her eyes and her skin is like ice.
The memory of her face comes swimming up to him as from a deep well, dislodging the man from this moment. Memories turn through his mind like the frayed, illuminated cards of a Mutoscope, a flickering animation. The girl, twirling in a maroon dress, face shining; the rain puddles she jumped, like windows on a stone grey sky; the painted ballerina of a wind-up box in her hand, the toy figurine turning with one leg out, enameled arms stretched overhead.
The clamor of a different time warbles in and out of hearing and the man blinks at a bright flash. When his vision clears, he sees laughing faces reflected in a hallway mirror. A young man, hunched over with flushed cheeks and a starched collar looks directly back at him as a little girl clings from behind. The girl hangs onto his back, wild eyes peeking over his shoulders. On his head sits a tangled mass of birthday ribbon. Without thinking, his hand rises to touch the ribbon but encounters instead the cold fur hat of a man on his knees by the loading dock.
Removing a glove, the man touches his own face. The skin is wrinkled and loose, the cheekbones broader and more pronounced than he expected. What had been unease becomes the slow, ponderous tumble of dread. Cradling the girl’s head, he lifts her into his lap where he can hold her close. Through filth and the passage of time, he recognizes the child from the mirror.
That is her name.
He says it aloud and the girl’s eyes open. She squints in concentration and asks once more, “Sind Sie ein Engel?”
This time, the man pauses only a moment before whispering, “Nein, Ich bin dein Vater.”
A smile touches the corners of her mouth. “Papa,” she says.
He holds her tight, sings lullabies in a soft voice, and listens to her labored breathing. Those breaths grow more and more shallow until he can barely hear them. His song trails off. His muscles go tight and his hands shake. He holds his breath so he can listen more closely.
He feels another vision coming, but recoils from it, grabbing a handful of the coat as if it might tether him to the present and to Annalise. Too late.
The vision is stark and sapped of color, like a Daguerreotype where dark is dark and whites shine like they’re possessed of the Holy Spirit. The room is filled with careful, quiet talk. Standing around, looking down at where he lies in bed are familiar faces, among them Annalise at seven years old and a short, somber doctor dressed in black. Staring up at them, the man remembers everything.
“What will happen to Annalise?” he croaks, but it goes unheard because that was another time. Lying in a stink of fever-damp skin and handkerchiefs filled with the taste of spit and clotted blood, he knows exactly how this scene ends. He reels away from it . . . back into the body of a man in the snow.
Annalise shakes violently. Her spine arcs backward until her chin points at the sky. The man bends over the girl with his jaw clenched, rocking back and forth, trying to give comfort, trying to hold back an avalanche of agony.
“Nein, nein,” he says.
He holds Annalise until her troubles first subside and then cease. The two are utterly alone in the empty white stretch between warehouse and tenement. Annalise’s arms fall into the snow. He lifts one, presses the back of her hand to his forehead, to his cheek. After a time, he sits back. The city is hushed and the wind carries the smell of wood smoke from a chimney. The gas lamp in the alleyway has been dampened. The way back is dark. Wiping his wet cheeks with the cuff of his shirt, the man tilts his head up to the sky. He shuts his eyes, but still he sees the starlight.
It is possible now to disappear like a wisp of breath in the frozen air, emerging like steam from the rich man’s skin, trailing from sleeve and collar. The winding streets and the crowded tenements fall away. The buildings and the factories are gone. The castle and the steam engines, all gone, do you see it? Above, there is only brightness and behind the brightness is Annalise.
BIO: David Waid reads and writes across several genres, but particularly relishes the richness of historical settings. His novel, “The Conjurers,” won the silver IPPY medal for Best Fantasy Novel in 2017 and he has published short stories in the magazines, “Flash Fiction” and “Sword and Sorcery.” He lives in Arizona with his wife, three children, and a needy, perpetually eager dog whose head is the size of a forklift.