This story is by Muriel Allingham and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
When the customer called at Pippin’s Funeral and Furniture Emporium, Leopold Pippin was positive that he could provide the gentleman with an authentic Victorian armoire. After all, his family had been in funeral and furniture business for decades; burying the dead, and repurposing their belongings, with the families’ blessings, and often without.
Leopold had come to believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he had somehow become the recipient of a conjuring power. The strange power became apparent to him, shortly after his loving wife sadly passed away. Without much effort, he only had to think of an object, or wish for an object, and it would miraculously appear; an ornate credenza, a wing backed chair, and once a tiered strand of baby pink pearls.
Leopold’s constant inaccuracy at conjuring however, didn’t faze him in the least. Once, when attempting to acquire an art deco coffee table, belonging to a deceased widow, he accidentally conjured up a Hookah Shisha Pipe from Turkey, which had belonged to an unfortunate mayor, caught in a deadly web of criminal activity, and tawdry affairs. Leopold merely shrugged it off, and stashed the pipe for a future endeavour, confident that it would find an owner, willing to pay handsomely for it.
Leopold, being a simple man, never questioned the fact that it took little effort for him to conjure up items, even large pieces; such as, full size settees with gilded arms and head rests, or large ornate bed frames. Leopold felt that his gift might have been the result of his family’s good work over the years; easing the deceased into the next life, with a certain amount of dignity, if not their valuables.
Every evening, after a light meal, Leopold would stroll to the cemetery on the edge of town to honour his wife, and then on to the infirmary where their only son lay comatose; the result of a horrible encounter with a horse cart that swept away the poor boy’s future, leaving him with a crushed spine. Both the doctors and Leopold were of the opinion that his unresponsive state was a blessing to all. Leopold had promised his wife, on her death bed that he would continue the daily care of their beloved son, and as she sank into the blackness of death, he quickly removed her jewellery, pocketed her rings, and said his good-byes. The commitment that Leopold upheld to his promise, was greatly admired, bringing him into good standing with the business community.
When the wealthy customer departed, on that wet afternoon, Leopold cast a rather limp spell for the Victorian armoire, as he always did, putting little effort into its acquisition. He left the store, in a steady drizzle that pulled a grey fog from the ground, to accompany him on his trip. Leopold stooped over his wife’s grave, rain dripping from the hat he had purchased, with the proceeds from her jewelry and furs. He then went on to the infirmary, where he sat, reading the news of the day to the unresponsive young man.
Leopold arrived back home, at a quarter past ten, and was not at all surprised to see a statuesque armoire of obvious authenticity, standing in the foyer. Pleased, but not the least bit humbled, by his apparent charms, he climbed the stairs to bed.
It was the creaking of hinges that roused Leopold from his deep sleep; the clock by the bed showed it was well past midnight. Unconcerned, he crept downstairs expecting to find a stray cat taking refuge in one of the open caskets or, some mice dancing around the musty furniture that was accumulating in the foyer. Instead, at the bottom of the stairs, he was greeted by a dark figure rummaging through the drawers of the newly acquired armoire. The figure stood stiffly, sensing Leopold’s presence. She wore a Victorian style dress of a dark colour and white gloves that had turned yellowish grey with age, and dirt; visible, even in the dimness of the light. An elaborate gold leash was looped over her arm, and was attached to an angular poodle with mangy grey hair, and piercing black eyes. The poodle stared at the proprietor, with a glint in its bulging eye
Leopold shrunk backwards, and tried to slip silently back up the steps, as the poodle raised a black lip in a snarl.
“This was my armoire,” the woman’s voice was soft, but echoed as if in a cold chamber. “I loved it so.” Her gloved hand ran across the copper inlays on the front, as she peered over her shoulder, to Leopold, with a mocking smile.
In the dim light of the showroom, he saw that her face was void of colour; and her skin, although carrying the suppleness of youth, was hard and brittle. Leopold had seen enough dead people to know that she—and her gnarly poodle, were dead.
“I am Lenore, and this is Grizzola,” she picked up the scraggly animal, and held her towards Leopold, who cowered at the odour coming from the creature. The acrid odour of decayed flesh, and perhaps mange as well, forced his hand to cover his mouth.
“I have seen your wife,” she said casually, and placed the poodle onto the floor, watching Leopold’s reaction.
“Is she, uh, well?”
The woman laughed. “Really, you ask if she’s well? She’s dead.” She continued gently, “but her tenderness of heart transcends our worlds.” Her voice rose again, “however, you wouldn’t know that.”
Grizzola growled, and scratched at her ears, releasing a scurry of flying insects that fluttered around Leopold, before disappearing into the rafters.
“Your family has a connection with the dead.” She bent down to pet Grizzola, who wagged a raggedy tail. “Not always an honest one, but a strong one. The veil between our worlds is weak here,” she waved her arm around the room, raising a cloud of dust. “And we can cross back and forth to attend to business, or to compose a future that suits our will.” She smiled a rotten toothed grin, and Leopold watched, open mouthed, as a family of spiders crawled from the cleavage of her dress, and moved with intention into her musty hair.
“So, I’m not the one conjuring these items?” Leopold watched her closely, as she ran her hand over the wood of a casket, leaving no prints in the heavy layer of dust.
“We’ll soon see,” was all she said, as she led Grizzola to the cellar door, and disappeared.
At the cemetery the next night, a chill spread through Leopold, when he noticed, for the first time, that the grave next to his wife’s belonged to a woman named Lenore.
Feeling a spine crawling fear, as though he was being watched, Leopold left the graveside quickly, without lingering.
His composure returned as he entered the infirmary, and bid Good Evening to the nurses, that cared for his son. He pulled the newspaper from under his arm, and waved it to the desk, as he entered his son’s private room. A sweet smell of roses and mums lingered in the hall, and a light flickered from his son’s bedside. The warmth and familiarity of the room comforted Leopold, and with a returned sense of purpose, he shook the paper open, and took his seat on the bed.
“Train derailment kills one, and injures sixteen,” he stopped. ‘Tenderness of heart,’ he remembered, ‘and I didn’t see it? What did she mean?’
Suddenly, he looked to his son, and with greater fortitude than he had ever used, in the past, he wished to conjure something of value. It had never occurred to him to do so before now.
With a heavy heart, he realized that he had no gift at all, and if he ever had, he’d wasted it. In his despair, the paper went mostly unread, and after some time, Leopold fell into a deep sleep, leaning on the bed post. He slept fitfully, and woke just after midnight to a rustling on the bed. Light spilled into the room from the hallway, and Leopold was shocked to see his son sitting up, looking around frantically.
He rushed for the nurse, and suddenly the infirmary became a bustle of noise, with the words ‘miracle, and Godsend’ being whispered and shouted around the confused boy. Leopold was pushed aside, and doctors ran in with stethoscopes and lights that they shone into the boy’s eyes. When the excitement finally settled, Leopold was unsure what to say or do, in the presence of the suddenly alert child, that had missed seven years of life. Walking over to the window, Leopold looked to the street below, as the burgeoning dawn pushed darkness from the horizon. It wasn’t a surprise to see a dark figure moving lightly across the damp pavement, with a scrawny poodle, at her feet, and a gold leash shimmering in the haunting light that envelopes death.