by John Bukowski
May I freshen your sherry, my dear? No? Well, perhaps I’ll have another brandy. Just this one little drink. You needn’t worry. I know it’s late, but it isn’t far to your boarding house, and I’m with you. I promise I’ll have you on your way by midnight.
Ah, yes, one more drink to warm the heart and fortify the soul, as my dear, departed wife used to say. My dear Julianna. I’ll need this drink if I am to tell you her tale. The tale of that night. The night when my life changed. When I learnt the bitter lesson of loss. The true meaning of love.
It was just this same autumn time of year when she went missing. A rainy night, much like tonight. We’d dined with friends on Delancey Street, not eight blocks from here. It had been a pleasant evening and Julianna looked magnificent. In fact, you remind me very much of her. The same pale colouring. The same soft, golden hair. But I digress.
We headed home about midnight, maybe quarter of. Cabs were devilish hard to come by, as they always are on such nights. It’s as if the fog swallows them along with the moon and stars. Wasn’t it Sandburg who said it comes on “little cat feet?” Interesting turn of phrase, but I’ve always thought rats a more suitable imagery. Especially in a harbour town. Swarms of wharf rats leaving their daytime lairs and roiling out over the cobbles, a brown-grey mass devouring the nighttime.
I’m sorry, my dear, I seem to have given you a chill. Are you sure you won’t have another sherry? Well, let me top off my brandy and prod more life into the fire. That’s better. Now, where was I?
Ah, yes. Cabs were devilish hard to come by. They were hansom cabs in those days, horse-drawn affairs. One could hear them clip-clopping through the haze but rarely saw so much as a shaggy tail. Even calling, “Ho, Cabbie!” did no good. It was as if the fog ate the words as well. So, we decided to walk. The rain had slackened to a fine mist, we were well-clad in hats and capes, and we were warm in each other’s company. We walked hand in hand, her small, smooth fingers wrapped inside mine. We were in love; nothing could harm us. And, as I’ve said, it was only eight blocks.
The street lamps helped little with our navigation, hidden as they were behind yellow penumbras that deceived the eye more than aided it. I remember that I began to tell some jest, how our host resembled Father Christmas in his red dinner jacket. But my words died in the night only inches from my lips. Even our footfalls were stolen by the fog ere they left our heels. It was a lonely feeling, like being imprisoned in a bell jar, reality hidden away just beyond the milky glass. As if my sole connection with reality was Julianna’s hand, warm within my own.
We’d travelled several silent blocks and I began to feel uneasy, as if trekking blindly through a foreign land. I’m sure you know the sensation. The strangeness brought on by nighttime and fog–how they play tricks with the senses, and with the mind. Even familiar scenery appears misshapen, alien in their shadowy world. I fought to make out friendly, familiar shapes, but they were gone, transmuted by the fog into strange and unrecognizable images. Images to chill the soul.
A sense of apprehension descended on me like a pall. Julianna noticed it, her grip tightening as she asked if something was the matter. I shook my head smiling, making some jest that sounded wan instead of cheerful, even to my own ears. We travelled on.
I’d hoped the uneasiness would depart, recede with the ebbing tide. Instead, it intensified. It left the realm of amorphous disquiet, distilling into a well-defined worry. A worry that hardened around a single notion. An overarching obsession. One supreme anxiety that encompassed all the rest. I became convinced that we must be travelling in the wrong direction, away from our flat instead of toward it. This thought, above all others, frightened me. That we might be moving farther from our goal, with the fog gobbling up the night behind us, erasing our only means of escape and forcing us ever closer into danger, danger hidden in the mist.
At that time, as today, I was a man of science. As such, I chided myself for these foolish thoughts. Certainly, we were moving toward our rooms, a left then eight blocks—I’d walked it dozens of times. Likewise, I knew intuitively that what surrounded me was the same as in the day, when sunshine cast the light of rationality upon the world. No predatory rats or spectral beasts lay in wait, hidden from view. Still, there was that nagging fear, fear of the fog, fear that we might stray past Delancey into the city’s seedier side where nighttime contains its own mundane perils. After all, a blow from a thief’s truncheon can be as unhealthy as an evil spirit, and more detrimental to the pocketbook.
Thus, I pondered, fear versus rationality. I decided on a compromise. I would reconnoiter our exact location before we’d ventured too far from the familiar. It seemed like the rational choice at the time, as fateful decisions so often do.
Hoping my smile would hide my fears, I instructed Julianna to wait under the glow of a lamp while I took our bearings. She smiled back, but halfheartedly I thought, as if experiencing the same nameless dread. We embraced, raising our spirits in the warmth of each other’s arms, not knowing it would be our last.
Leaving her thus safely in the light, I walked on. The fog swallowed the glow of her face below the lamp.
I hadn’t gone more than two dozen paces, when my foot plunged off a curb, disclosing the presence of an intersection. Groping toward the right, I found the signpost. My spirit lifted when a lighted match revealed “Stanhope Way,” only two blocks from our flat. I began to call out that we were almost home, when a sound froze my words as it froze my soul. It was a scraping, scratching, almost feral skitter. An unearthly noise more suited to the nether regions than to a modern city. It lasted mere moments and then retreated, yet the fear it raised remained, as did the gooseflesh on my skin. There followed another, muffled noise that might have been a woman’s gasp. The latter freed my feet of the lead boots that imprisoned them, and I advanced.
“Julianna?” I called softly. My step quickened at the answering silence. “Julianna!” I was running now, running toward the lamp glow rushing to meet me. It was not more than a score of steps but felt longer, the distance stretching out like some concertina playing a death dirge to my spirit. Finally, I reached the lamp pole, grasping it as a drowning man grasps a life buoy. I looked about me. Only the steam from my own ragged breaths filled the halo cast by the streetlight. Then I saw her hat lying on the damp stones. Snatching it up, I called again. “Julianna!” There was no reply.
I spent most of that night wandering, searching, stumbling like a blind man in the fog. But she was gone. She had disappeared completely, swallowed by the mist. Of course, the police initiated an investigation but to no avail. They found only her handbag, lying by a sewer grate. It still contained the grocery money I’d given her, her mother’s antique brooch, and the wedding photo she always carried. Only her library card was missing.
For a time, I held out hopes that she might return to me. I saw her in crowded streets and framed in the windows of passing trollies. But rushing to her side inevitably revealed another woman with the same set to her shoulders, the same towheaded tresses as my dear Julianna, tresses not unlike your own. Such visions died with time. Part of me died as well.
But as they say, one must go on living. In point of fact, that is the one silver lining of my tale. I learned then how precious is life, a fragile thing that can be snuffed out like a church candle. A simple thing taken for granted, yet the greatest gift imaginable. One to be guarded jealously, at whatever cost. One to be loved. In comparison, romantic love is a mere trifle. An emotional addendum to life. A perquisite that once lost, can be found again. Such words may seem strange to young, idealistic ears as yours, ears attuned to romantic prose and Shakespeare sonnets. But they are true not withstanding.
You see, my dear, it is self-love, the love of mortal life that gives us meaning. Life allows us to experience, to remember, to try again, to exist. Nothing is more precious. I didn’t know that when I lost Julianna, but I know it now. The lesson came with time, as did the grey in my hair and my insatiable love of brandy.
Alas, both my drink and my tale are completed. Time to send you on your way, just as I promised. That scratching at the door? Why haven’t you guessed, my dear? No, perhaps you haven’t.
As you may recall, I said my beloved wife departed, but she did not die. Oh no, more’s the pity. She still existed, if you can call it existence. I know this because they told me. Yes, quite true. They had her library card, you see, which then as now held our address.
They visited me not a month after she was taken. The skittering things, partly but not quite human. Another, distant race. An eldritch people, existing in the sewers just beyond our sight. Except on foggy nights of course, when they venture forth. It was such a night when I learned that personal survival is precious. More precious than love or friendship. More precious than guilt or self-respect.
You see, my dear, they gave me a choice when they visited that murky night. I could become nourishment for them, a prospect that chilled my marrow then as it does now. Or I could procure for them, shall we say, means of procreation. I apologize for thrusting vulgarity upon your virgin ears, but let me assure you that such virginity is a temporary condition.
Ah, the stroke of twelve. They are punctual as usual. Forgive me, my dear, but my tale is over and yours just beginning. Time for your journey to commence.
John Bukowski is a retired veterinarian, public-health researcher, and medical writer with a ton of technical publications to his credit, including journal articles, Op-eds, consumer handbooks, blue-sky thought pieces, radio scripts, and advertorials. Published short stories include Gentleman Caller (Digitally Disturbed) and Days of our Lives (The Rabbit Hole anthology). His hobbies include old movies, singing, theater, and military history. He currently resides in Eastern Tennessee, along with his wife and a dysfunctional dog named Alfie.
Visit John’s website to see more.