It was very late in the evening. Old Tanya Gillock was sitting in her rocking chair by the parlor window, looking out into the treacherous darkness, watching the way the thick, sticking snow whirled in dizzying circles through the yard.
Tanya was seventy years old. Her hair was blanched white from ordinary suffering, but her skin was hardly wrinkled. Her limbs were still fairly supple, and her eyes were still admirably bright. She wore her hair in a tight bun behind her head, because it gave her a feeling of control over the wild storm without. Her hair was even pulling a bit, but she refused to let it down. She could have twisted it into a braid; she could have put it up in a clip.
She could have even worn it loose around her shoulders, no doubt the most comfortable option at this time of night. But then, that would have made her feel too vulnerable. There’s a strange hot feeling that comes all round your face, when you wear your hair down at any time except bedtime.
No – she preferred the bun. She preferred the slight pain it gave her, reminding her that something else existed, apart from the wild storm that was raging outside the window.
Some people might have called old Tanya Gillock beautiful. She was the only Tanya in Westborough County. There were many Marys, and many Alices, but she was an outlaw. She had Tanya Tucker’s name. She was a sparrow in a hurricane.
Only a short while earlier, freezing rain had clattered down from the sky, pelting the roof of the old farmhouse, hammering the tired body of the ancient Volkswagen out in the drive.
What an awful noise it had made! It was what Milton’s Pandemonium must have sounded like. Old Tanya imagined Satan presiding at the Infernal Council, and she shivered as with an invisible wind.
She heard Chopin’s “Funeral March” floating on the same wind. It was being played with crystal clarity. She knew that her ears weren’t really hearing it – but the sound wasn’t lost to her mind.
When she was a child, people had said that she was over-imaginative. She saw princesses where there were none. She feared sorcerers where there weren’t any.
And then she went back to pitching hay with Daddy.
She thought on the past for a few moments: of Mama’s warm gravy on the Christmas goose; of Daddy’s tender hands tucking her into bed at night, even when he was so tired after a day of farming. He’d left the farm to Tanya, because all his other children were dead. Only two more: one dead from an accident with a thresher, and one gone to Jesus from too much drink. He drank and he drank, always thinking that it would bring him peace.
But it brought him to Jesus, in the end – and that was the same thing as peace.
Tanya kept her eyes glued to the window. It was a bad night for traveling, but Betty had insisted on going out to fetch the order from Murray’s. If she hadn’t, she and Tanya wouldn’t have been able to start on their work the next morning.
Tanya had the farm, but shortly after she inherited it, the soil turned barren, and there was no life left to wring from it. She’d cried on Betty’s shoulder, countless times, wondering whether they would both die.
“I’m no farmer,” she cried, as Betty held her in her arms. “I’ve let my father down. Do you think God is punishing me for being weak? Do you think He hates me, Betty?”
“Of course He doesn’t,” Betty answered firmly. “God loves everyone the same. If this has happened, it’s only because it was His will. It’s only because He has other things in store for you.”
Now, Tanya sat at the window, the nerves in her back pinched with anxiety, her arthritic hands aching after another day of toil. The life of a tailor wasn’t an easy one. Mama didn’t sew those blue jeans in ten minutes.
She wished Betty would come back. She was starting to worry.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. The old woman’s head snapped up, and she looked towards the doorway of the parlor.
Who could be calling at this time of night?
She struggled up from her chair, putting a hand to the crick in her back, and shuffling towards the doorway. She went out into the narrow entryway, and turned to the right, where the wide front door stood. There were two frosty panes of glass at the top of it.
She thought she could decipher the outlines of a man’s face. A young-looking man. A handsome man.
She shuffled towards the door, and paused just in front of it, leaning her head forward. “Who is it?” she called.
“You don’t know me,” a man’s voice answered politely. “But I’d like to speak with you.”
The old woman was confused.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t open the door to strangers.”
“But I’m not a stranger,” the voice returned. “You know my name. Or at least – I’m sure you know some of my names.”
A horrible chill passed all up and down the old woman’s body.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“You may call me Damien,” the voice replied. “Many people associate me with that name. It’s strange, though – because the only evil people with that name are fictional. Do you remember Father Damien of the lepers? He gave his life for those damned people. And have you heard of the saints, Damian and Cosmas? They were brothers and physicians. They accepted no payment for their services, and some people saw them as heroes. But the Roman emperor Diocletian ordered them to recant their Christian faith. They refused; and they were crucified, stoned, shot through with arrows, and finally beheaded.”
The man blew a breath through his lips, and whistled impressively. “Whew!” he said. “What do you think of that? It’s strange that they should call me Damien. Or, at least – strange that they should give that name to my accomplice.”
Old Tanya held her breath. She thought she was hallucinating.
She had been known, these past few years, to take far too much whiskey after supper. No doubt that was the cause of all this.
She wished Betty were here. Betty would set it right.
“Miss Gillock?” the man’s voice inquired. “Are you still there?”
Tanya wanted to slip away from the door, and hobble up the stairs to her bed. Surely the man would go away. Surely he wouldn’t force his way in.
“Miss Gillock?” he repeated.
“I’m here,” she whispered.
She knew that he wouldn’t go away. If she went upstairs, he would come to her window, and go on talking.
“Ah, yes,” he said, almost compassionately. “You are debating the wisdom of speaking with me. I can understand your skepticism, but I feel I should let you know – there are very few people who have managed to slip away from me, when I did not wish it.”
Tanya swallowed thickly. “What do you want?” she demanded in a quavering voice.
“Ah!” the man replied. “It seems you’re not as bold as I thought you were. It often happens that way. To put it simply, Miss Gillock – what I want is your God-given soul.”
Tanya swallowed again, and asked, “Why would you admit it?”
“Because people are stupid,” the man replied. “And besides – you haven’t let me finish. You haven’t let me tell you what you’ll get in return.”
“I don’t care,” Tanya breathed.
There would have been no conceivable way for any human being to perceive these quiet words, through the thick wood of the front door. But this man heard them well enough.
“You say that now,” he wheedled slowly. “But you haven’t let me explain all the best parts.”
“I don’t want to hear,” Tanya said.
“Well,” the man said, “the fact is that I have no pressing engagements at the moment. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But anyway – let’s get started.”
Tanya held her breath. She had no idea what was going to happen. Probably nothing – but what if something did happen?
“Go into the parlor,” the man said. “See what I’ve brought you.”
Tanya didn’t want to go. She wished she could have made some sort of wish – rubbed some sort of magic lamp – and made the man go away.
But she supposed that wasn’t the way of things.
So she took a deep breath, and passed back down the entryway corridor. She turned left into the parlor, and looked around in the lamplight.
It didn’t take her long to notice the sparkling piano in the corner of the room. She sucked in her breath, and walked towards it slowly.
She hadn’t seen a piano since she was twelve years old. She had spent her entire childhood with that old black piano – and then her father had sold it. Sold it because he drank too much that harvest, and hadn’t been able to haul in all the corn. Most of it had rotted in the fields.
This piano was made all of gold, shining brilliantly in the lamplight, like something Shahryar might have given Scheherazade. Before he got tired of her stories, anyway.
Tanya walked up to the golden bench on trembling legs, and sat down slowly, raising the lid of the piano with careful fingers. She struck a few notes – and the sounds were like drops of whiskey to a man who’d been lost in the desert.
She began to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” The result was a majestic one. She used to play for Mama, before Daddy sold the piano. Mama said that she could be great someday.
“I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it,” she murmured to her young daughter, blowing her nose in her spotted handkerchief. “You’re a star, baby. You’re a star!”
But then the piano was gone, and life was nothing but pitching hay.
“Pitch it faster, girl, if you want to eat tonight!”
That’s what Daddy had said. So Tanya had pitched fast as she could, till her small shoulders ached, and there was no feeling left in her skinny arms.
It went on that way till she was grown. Then Jimmy got caught in the thresher, and Tommy drank himself to death.
Then Daddy died. He got ill, all of a sudden, and couldn’t get out of bed. His breathing was raspy, and his voice was hoarse. He couldn’t eat, and his sleep was fitful.
He cried out Jimmy’s name before he died. Maybe he blamed himself. Maybe he was just a good daddy.
Not long afterwards, Mama disappeared. No one was ever quite sure where she went. Old Timothy Buckland had always been fond of her, ever since high school – and it was obvious he would have taken Mama in after Daddy died.
People went looking for Timothy, after Mama disappeared. But no one could find him, either.
The sweet notes spread through the long parlor, as Tanya’s fingers pressed down on the keys. Soon, the whole house was filled with the sound.
It was a marvelous thing.
But soon, she stopped playing, and stood up from the bench, looking down at the golden piano as if it were an evil thing.
“You’ve stopped playing, Miss Gillock,” the man observed from outside the door. “Why have you stopped playing?”
Tanya didn’t answer. She stood in the middle of the parlor, still as a statue, wondering all the time if this was just a terrible nightmare.
“Oh, well,” the man said. “Go into the kitchen. Maybe you’ll find something there that you like better.”
Of course, Tanya didn’t want to go into the kitchen. But the man’s voice was like that of a snake-charmer. She didn’t know what to do.
“Go into the kitchen,” the man’s voice commanded.
So Tanya went. She moved in spite of herself, almost involuntarily.
Soon, she was standing in the big old kitchen, all dark except for a little moonlight coming through the frosty window pane.
She reached to flip the light switch. Dim, dirty-looking yellow light flooded the room. Everything looked dusty and decayed.
Except for a tall, shining white refrigerator on the left-hand beside the wooden counter.
The old brown refrigerator had stopped working in May. Ever since, Tanya and Betty had been ordering bottles of milk from the creamery, delivered in the morning by an old-fashioned dairyman. They kept them in lunch sacks with ice packs from the old freezer in the barn.
Tanya stared at the white fridge in disbelief. She walked towards it, tottering slightly on her tired legs.
She opened the door of the fridge, and saw more food than she’d ever seen at one time. Except in a grocery store.
There was fresh white milk, gallons and gallons of it. There were dozens of eggs. There were six different kinds of cheese.
In the freezer, there were steaks, chops and roasts – enough to last till spring. Maybe longer.
Tanya stared into the bright fridge for a long moment. But suddenly, she was filled with a feeling of horror, and she slammed the door shut.
“No!” she cried. “I don’t want it!”
“Are you sure?” the man’s voice asked.
“All right, then. Go upstairs.”
“I don’t want to,” Tanya murmured.
“Go!” the voice commanded.
So Tanya went. She climbed the stairs slowly, and the voice waited patiently. It owner didn’t follow her, but there was a strange feeling of oppression that came with her up the stairs. She got to the landing, and stepped out into the moonlit darkness, creeping forward towards the bedroom. The light was on in there, though she knew very well that she hadn’t turned it on.
She went into the room, and saw a wide down bed there in the center of the floor. It was the biggest bed Tanya had ever seen, with an ornate marble headboard, and a thick satin comforter.
For many years, Tanya and Betty had slept on a lumpy old mattress with springs poking out of it. Every morning, they woke with more aches and pains than old-time Jews putting up Pharaoh’s pyramids. But they kissed each other when they opened their eyes, and then got up to start their work. Many people hated them, but the poorer people appreciated them, unable as they were to afford new frocks and dungarees. So they blessed the old lovers, who mended their old clothes for a pittance.
But this, this was a bed befitting a Roman emperor. Old Tanya doubted that even someone as ill-tempered as Nero would have scoffed at it.
She was so tired, she wanted more than anything to lie down on the bed. She took a shaking step towards it, and came very close to it. But then, she leapt back as if she’d been burned, and she cried out in alarm.
“No!” she hollered, tearing at her hair. “I don’t want it.”
“Are you sure?” the man’s voice repeated. It no longer seemed to come from downstairs. It was all around her now. It was almost as if it were inside her head.
“Yes,” she said firmly.
“You’re a steady one, Miss Gillock, I’ll grant you that.”
He paused for a moment, but then added, “I have one more thing to show you.”
“I don’t want it!” Tanya cried. “I don’t want your pianos, or your food, or your beds. You can keep ’em!”
“No,” the man said, with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “This is rather different from all that.”
In spite of herself, Tanya was curious. She saw a strange shimmering light off to the side of the room, where there was a large empty space. The light grew brighter, and then turned into a picture, almost like a movie screen.
Old Tanya could see her dear Betty, lying on the lumpy old bed, and coughing horribly. Tanya sat beside her, and cooled her forehead with a damp cloth. But then Betty sat up weakly, and began coughing more violently. Dark red blood splashed from her mouth, and stained the dingy white blanket.
The picture shifted, and Tanya saw a plain pine box, being carried slowly into Westborough Cemetery. Tanya walked on one side, Betty’s son on the other. He cast a hateful glance towards Tanya, and walked on.
“Oh, no,” Tanya moaned, sinking down to her weak old knees. She didn’t know how she’d ever get up again, but she couldn’t help it. “Oh, Betty.”
“She has cancer,” the voice said, in that same said voice. “She has only six months to live, they told you.”
“Yes,” Tanya breathed.
“I can take it away,” the man promised. “She’ll be well for the rest of her days. And I can assure you, they will be long ones.”
The image of the pine box lingered in the air. They were lowering it into the ground, now.
The old woman’s breath came shallowly. She could hardly see through the tears in her eyes. She almost longed to say yes.
But then she tore at her hair again, and with a strength she couldn’t explain, she hurled herself to her feet. She sliced an angry arm through the image of the coffin, and began to scream.
“No!” she cried. “I tell you no! Good Lord save me, and deliver me from this devil!”
All in an instant, the image of the coffin disappeared, along with the oppressive feeling that had followed Tanya upstairs. The magnificent bed was gone, and the lumpy one was back. The voice spoke no more. Tanya knew in her heart that it had gone away.
With her legs shaking worse than ever, she hobbled downstairs, and resumed her place by the window to wait for Betty. She didn’t have to look outside the door. She knew the man was gone.
A few weeks ago, she and Betty had gotten the news from the hospital. Betty had been feeling poorly for a while now. It was lung cancer, they said. Only six months left.
Still, somehow, Betty’s eyesight was better than Tanya’s, and she insisted on doing the night driving. The order from old Murray had come in late, and he’d called just after supper to let them know. Betty wanted to fetch it before the storm got too bad.
Old Murray had a soft spot for the old women. He sold them their materials for a song, and he refused to say anything, when people came into his shop speaking ill of them. But he hadn’t driven a car in more than fifteen years, on account of his wooden leg, and he couldn’t make deliveries anymore. So Betty went to get the stuff from his shop.
Now Tanya waited for her impatiently. Her small foot tapped sharply against the floor, and her thin fingers gripped the arms of her chair.
Finally, the old Volkswagen pulled into the drive. Tanya hauled herself to her feet, and hobbled to the front door. She opened it for Betty, and smiled at the sight of her, home and safe.
She stood in the dim porch light, her head covered with a thick bonnet, her shapely old face reddened from the chill air. Her deep blue eyes shone warmly at the sight of Tanya, but she put on a show of huffing out a great big sigh.
“Come on now, Tan,” she said. “I told you to go to bed!”
“You know I don’t go to bed,” Tanya said lightly, “unless you’re lying next to me. So just come on in the kitchen and have a glass of milk.”
She took the parcels from Betty, and kissed her cold cheek. Betty looked into her eyes for a moment, and laid a hand against the side of her face. She shut the door behind her, and leaned forward to kiss Tanya’s lips tenderly.
“How was your night?” she asked.
Tanya couldn’t help shivering. But she planned never to tell Betty what had happened.
It was her own trial, and she’d borne it in her own way.