By Raji Singh
In loving honor of the creatures in our lives and National Pet Appreciation Week, Fiction House presents this story from our archives
Blackjack reaches across the shadows of time and puts his hand on my shoulder. Though cold centuries separate us, his touch is warm. When he comes to meet me, whether he’s at age 4, 14, 40, or 94, always he has his reasons. Maybe he’ll come to protect me, or comfort me.
Maybe to remind me of things I oughtn’t to forget.
I sit midst the glorious organized clutter of my archiving the Fiction House. Blackjack had honed a method of PURPOSEFUL DISARRAY so intricate; first, to conceal vital secrets of the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad, later to conceal information leaks to rival publishers.
Secret hideaways, nooks, crannies, I’m still discovering… False bookshelves, and doors leading hither, thither and who knows where…
I hear a gentle “pip, pip” sound as something wet drips onto the nape of my neck and shivers down my back. Who doesn’t know that feel – of someone else’s tears.
‘Sheralee, you’ve come back to me,’ Blackjack whispers as he reaches past me and into the tiny coffin to strokes Sheralee’s feathers.
‘My archiving brought him back,’ I think. Though a man in my 40’s, I feel like a toddler once again when I ask, “Does my archive work please or displease you, Great-great granfa? Shall I continue it?”
Trepidation of his answer: I don’t want to stop. I’m discovering so much.
Anticipation of his answer: I breathe deep. I smell the smoldering sweetness of the hand-rolled cigars always meticulously lining his breast pocket, permanently infusing into his dapper waistcoat; and the bold charred oak pungency of brandy – it is, ever, slightly, on his breath. I look up into his gaunt face and at his lean frame. I see the bon-vivant James Thaddeus ‘Blackjack’ Fiction in his 70’s this visit. His face is lineless, though hairline has just begun its recession. The perpetual desire to stay young, battles at the onslaught of his aging. Why? How? Because his always-youthful actions and attitudes, they continually stave off that eventually winning opponent.
Blackjack’s words – reminders about family that I, or no one, mustn’t forget – are brief, reassuring. ‘All those of our Fiction House will live on if our stories are told. Keep telling them and we will live, forever.’ These are words tattooed on my soul and emblazoned in my mind.
Blackjack says, with a curious inflection in his voice, as if a rhyming hint. ‘Too heavy a load is she to take back with me. To your hands now I pass Sheralee.’ He pretends to hand me the tiny coffin.
Then, he’s – GONE.
I lift Sheralee’s coffin, so he can see it as he departs in the ether of mid air. The little thing’s heavy. I remove Sheralee. She’s light as her feathers. So why’s this box heavy?
Luny Mum pokes her beam through the window. ‘Just you be lookin’ a might closer, me shining always, and forever lad.’
~ ~ For orphaned foundlings as Blackjack and I, the sun, and moon sometimes became our only constant companions: real, in our imaginations, as any human. Luny Mum, Poppy Sol, and I know I’ll be their ‘lad’, even when I reach 100. (I tell how Mum, Sol, and I first came acquainted in Tales of the Fiction House.) ~ ~
Mum’s beam’s my flashlight. I examine Sheralee’s resting place.
With my knuckles, I tap on it, all around. Solid, except for one place. The coffin’s floor. “Tap, tap. Blonk, blonk. It’s hollow, or partly so. ‘Could it be…?’ I don’t finish speculating because a certainty takes its place. ‘This is another of Blackjack’s hiding spots for his secret Abolitionist plans. He wanted them, at last, revealed.’
Gently I pry at the bottom.
I get a screwdriver and poke with it. Fruitless. I get a hammer. No better not. No resting place can be desecrated. An archeo-apologist such as me must understand this more-so than anyone.
“Tap it thrice. Tap it thrice,” I hear a voice repeat outside the window. I look up. A shadow passes in front of a smiling Luny Mum.
“Oh it’s you Captain Polly. Nice of you to visit.” She lands on the windowsill. She stares at Sheralee. She opens her beak wide. Her tongue upturns, just slightly. That’s her melancholy smile – but a smile just the same. “You knew her well, didn’t you Captain Polly?”
She coos softly, “Sheralee. Sheralee.”
I follow Captain Polly’s instructions as she motions with her head and says, “Bottom. Tap.”
Gently on the coffin’s floor, “rap, rap, rap”. The wood lifts, as if it’s slow spring loaded. I lift it.
Revealed: ‘Today’s find.’
Well, that would be understatement. It’s a tightly packed stack of paper. I remove carefully. Don’t smudge, crinkle, or tear – an archeo-apologist has no room to make apology for a wrong move. His or her mistakes can never be corrected. I leaf gently through the pages. The words. Written so small. “But I have my magnifying glass that’s so powerful I can even see Higgs boson in a single squint.” I say to Captain Polly.
‘You’ll never get a chance to see a single word,’ I hear. I look up. Captain Polly’s beak hasn’t moved. A shadow slides behind me. I turn quickly hoping Blackjack’s returned. It’s not him. I squint, trying, but unable to see clearer – the man – who has a rusting, ancient-looking handgun, a kind I’ve never before seen – something of another era.
Surely, he’s not after vital information – vital over a century and a half ago, not today. Yet, he cocks the gun and aims at me. Captain Polly doesn’t react. Either she can’t see him, or she’s pretending not to – coming up with her own scheme on how to foil him.
‘I’ve been trailing Blackjack through too many centuries and I aim on taking that information back with me. Hand it over,’ he growls.
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. Learn more about Shelva in Shelva Fiction, available at Amazon.)
©2012, 2017 by Raji Singh