by Matthew Nies
“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years…”
– The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson
A fire jigged like it was chased and chasing. And it spat and gurgled and glowed the gray and black ash embers of its fuel—what could be said and imagined of a wet-wood-fed, brick-fireplace-blaze lighting the draw of a dark library nearly disappearing in its own immensity. It was cozy for a stately room for a stately house.
Its proprietor—James, of unnecessary though important surnamed lineage—mused with an old book and caught glances at the diamond-patterned iron rimming of man’s-height windows to the dark street. Bubbly glass conveyed a dim impression of gas lights and scurrying traffic outside ahead of an oncoming storm betrayed by thunder occasionally rumbling low. And James glanced that way from his high-backed ancestral chair.
Rain, he thought, and where can he be? It’s a downpour for sure. And where can he be?
James agitated and turned unsatisfied to his book. He played and swirled a loose ring marked “JC” in his fingers. Rain pattered on the antique panes, and he smiled and slammed his book shut. He set it on a delicate table and next to a cup of cold tea and a plate with a half-eaten biscuit.
If he’s not coming, I’ll go find him. He can’t be out on a night like tonight, not with the whole world about to explode.
He crossed the library to an entry room, grabbed a coat and a hat, and crossed again to the library and his ring, which he put on. Then he slipped out the front door.
The trees greeted him with a whisper rush, turning their leaves too quickly to watch and bowing even their biggest limbs to the call of the approaching storm. And then all was madness.
Rain swept sideways hard with vicious falls, pummeling the old street and its rimming dark brick homes with windows lamp-lighted within. Flash and peel—it was all a man could do to keep his hat; James reveled.
No keeping out on such a night! He’s certainly somewhere warm. James slowed his pace. The club! Surely there, and ensconced by the fire, probably reading the Times and smoking a pipe. He turned and drove into the fury.
The club attendant paused in admitting James, who was wet and shivering. James insisted and divulged pedigree. The attendant contemplated and saw his ring, then apologized for not acquiescing sooner. He chastised James for being out on such an evening. James paid no mind and walked past the salon, past engaged whist gamers, upstairs, and into a labyrinthine library which composed the bulk of the club’s second floor.
Heavy, upright chairs dotted the space, coupled or in threes near nooks or fireplaces, highlighting members’ particular arrangements. These were empty. But at the far end of the room, one stood alone, back turned to James. He grabbed it and began to speak in turning to its face, “So here you are,” but its occupant shrank back in horror!
“You’re not—who are you?”
The chair man sweated and shivered. He stuttered “Bobby?”
“I’m looking for—but of course you’re not him.” James begged pardon.
“Stay!” and the chair man reached for James.
James turned away. Wait! He sniffed and began sniffing. This is his scent, his “musk” as he calls it. I wonder I didn’t smell it right away. So he was here!
James turned to the chairman. “You’re recently alone?”
The chair man nodded. He was nondescript eyes, gaunt face, and poor suit threads. “Laudanum?” He held out his hands.
“I can’t help you, friend. I’m pursuing—but here,” and James called the attendant, who had followed his library dash suspecting abnormality. “Call a carriage when it’s practical and take this addict to my house. My physician can advise better there, though I suspect disentanglement may prove surest cure.”
James almost laughed as he plunged back into the terrible night. How terrible it rages! What, does it hope to upend mankind? It will not be; it will not be!
It was all he could do to walk straight, holding his hat and striking each foot into the bubbling street. Roofs hissed, and the rain formed a wall only visible in vicious flashes of lightning. The storm had made it impossible to discern and navigate the city otherwise than by memorized paths.
James knew his intended door and thrust it open on reaching it. Water poured in after him until he slammed it. The pub patrons, many fewer than usual, glanced in his direction. He laughed and shook and threw off his coat to where it could dry.
The barman shook his head.
“Surely! Ale. I’ll return.” James disappeared around the bar corner.
He entered a low room lit poorly by a candle chandelier; hot wax had oozed each light into place. Five men played whist. They recognized James’ ring, which showed prominently as he held his hat by its rim, and they returned his greetings with welcome.
“Cut you in?” one asked.
“No, I’m looking for him,” James said. This set off a volley of questions by three of the men, whose personalities and degrees of intoxication rendered them more friendly and eager to help.
“In this weather?” one said.
“Aye.” James said.
“You’re daft. Did he say where he was going?” another said.
“When was the last time you saw him?” yet another said.
“Two days ago. You’ve seen him since?”
“Sakes we have!” one said.
“He played a few hands just this evening!” another said.
“In bad straits—‘lost everything,’ he said,” yet another said.
Then the three talkers broke into a dull story that even one of the tepid card players commented on. James finally asked where his quarry was headed, and they all said they had no idea. But two offered dubious suggestions. James slammed a handful of change onto the table and left. The men marveled at how much it was, and called it quits for cards.
The barkeep highlighted to James the asked-for ale he had poured. James thanked him and offered the foaming glass to a haggard man. He was stunned.
All at once, it seemed, James was gone, into the tempest again. Hail now joined rain in whipping into his face. He cringed and dragged his soaked boots down deserted streets.
Lost everything? But of course, if you’d only have taken my advice! If I can only find you, you’d see you’ve the whole world as creditor, never again groveling and gambling for hope. But where are you?
Down an alleyway, James found shelter in entering a boarding house. It was dingy, the kitchen cramped. A rat unhurriedly pawed its fat body across the floor and into a hiding hole. Ms. Keeper snored brandy at a weathered table. James grunted and she awoke so violently that she nearly fell over her chair. And then she began shouting. She stopped when she saw James’ ring.
“Is he here?” James said in the silence.
“He? Devil!” she yelled. Her words were difficult and slurred. “He hasn’t paid rent nigh a fortnight! And just this evening I sent him forth. I sent him forth! And look what’s become of the weather? I’ve killed him.” She began to really sob. “I’ve killed him!”
“Where’s he gone?”
But Ms. Keeper would only repeat “I’ve killed him.”
“For all he owes,” James nearly whispered. He handed her a blank check. “Write, and it will be given. But mind you reasonably, or you’ll find your fist empty in its grasp. You’ve been good to him.” He snapped his fingers.
Ms. Keeper gasped and wept. She called James “Good sir,” and “kind gentleman,” as he left. The nasty night met him again with its rasping force.
It’s a wonder it could keep up like this. There’s no telling when it’ll end. I’d rather be clean and soaked than filthy and dry. But I’ll die from too much exposure. Yet now I know where he is. I’d wanted to avoid there, but there’s no avoiding there. It’ll be a marvel if it hasn’t been washed away in this storm. There’s washed away before.
James found his way to a filthy below bridge campground called “Grub,” the dangerous reputation of which he and all society had learned about through obituaries and criminal reports. It was muddy and awful in all its grand filthiness, disease, and desperation.
Despite the awful weather, mobbers surrounded James asking for money, which he declined. He was beaten and spit on. He held his ring-hand upward in a fist and whispered one word, “Hope.”
The soiled solicitors scattered. He cast sad eyes on the emptied desolation.
Why do they spurn true salve? In their conditions, money will not buy healing, only prolong pain. I have only that which I’ve offered. I cannot play a part in their undoing.
James walked to a tent like all the others in the destitute community, nearly fallen-in on itself, and inches from the rising river. He shivered and lifted a flap of the tent’s dirty canvas and squatted.
An emaciated man lifted himself onto his elbows, and tucked his chin to his chest. “I didn’t think you’d come looking for me, not after what I’ve done. And if my running doesn’t take it all—”
“I’ve never abandoned you. I’d never abandon you.”
The tent man began to cry. Water pooled around his shoulders.
“The river!” James grabbed a knife off the tent ground and rushed to the tent man. The rising tide swept them both up. The tent pressed over them. James gagged and cut free. Rain and hail slammed into him and the tent man, who he pulled to the surface. They gasped for air.
They swirled in the rushing water. They clasped at flotsam and jetsam washed from the streets. Deafening black chaos hammered them under again and again. James pulled himself and the tent man to the surface again and again.
At last, James pulled the tent man onto a floating pallet. They neared the shore. James shouted, “Tonight!” and he threw the tent man onto the elevated bank. The tent man scurried to safety.
He’s free at last. It is finished.
The tent man glanced back. James smiled at him.
“Go, live my life. I’m not the first James —. Don’t be the last.”
The tent man smiled. He cried impossibly discernible for the raging wind and rain and hail. Then a crash rang out, and James disappeared.
A priest found the tent man the next morning huddled in a fetal position under the sheltered doorway of his church. He shook him alive,
“Are you well?”
The tent man paused, opened his eyes, and surveyed the waking streets, washed clean and filled with trash and debris. He looked at James’ ring, which he held in his hand. He gazed up at the priest. He rose. And he smiled.
“I have never been more.”
Matthew Nies is a prose editor for Agape Review. He is the author of the poetry book Sunset Dreams (Wipf & Stock, 2019). Nies grew up on a farm in rural North Dakota, and currently lives with his wife and three children in the Washington, D.C. area.