The Toll [Fiction]

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“Hmm, perhaps I was a touch too generous in fulfilling my end of the bargain. Seems like she saw me coming,” I said shaking my head.

“Why do they all do this? I’m just a simple business man.”

I laughed. That last bit was something I couldn’t say to myself in any seriousness, and I’m the prince of lies. Just as I was gathering myself to pursue my fleeing client, there was the ringing of a bell in her foyer. I smiled. Amusing myself with her clients could be a nice diversion before going through the trouble of pursuing Madame Tina. I paused a moment by her mirror to look at myself. A tailored suit, fine leather shoes, gold rings aplenty, and a handsome face of indeterminate age. Yes, this guise would do nicely.

To my delight there were two guests, a young couple, and unwed at that. What fun. The young man, tall and broad shouldered, had an earnest and wholesome look. The woman, petite, beautiful like a doll, and radiating vanity. They were breifly spooked when I stepped through the curtain. Then they gave that quick look that all humans give when the see someone new. That look that asks, “are you a threat,” and “do you posses more than I do,”. I suppose if they had any gift of discernment at all they would taken “a threat beyond measure,” and a profound “yes,” for answers; and promptly ran for the nearest church, temple, or other religious institution. But instead….

“Hello, we’re looking for Madame Tina,” said the young man, his name was Michael.

“Sorry, I believe you just missed her. She was expecting someone and had to make a quick run,” I replied laughing to myself. “Perhaps, I could help you.”

“Doubtful,” said his companion, Lydia was her name. “And who would you be anyway?”

I smiled, “Thomas. Thomas Walker, at your service,” I said offering them a business card with a flourish and bow. “I’m an associate of the good Madame Tina.”

The card read, “Thomas Walker, Accountant, Soothsayer, Wish Fulfiller”, followed by realistic, false contact information. She snatched it up, glanced over it, and scrunching her nose handed it to young Michael.

“So you are a psychic, to?” he asked.

I smiled again, “Something of that nature, yes.”

“That’s wonderful! My girlfriend here says psychics and stuff like that are all fake. So I figured that if I brought her to see one as well known as Madame Tina, she would see that she was wrong. Since you are a friend of hers you must be pretty good to,” he beamed.

“I see. You want your lady love to be divested of her skepticism. And what of you, dear girl, what here do you desire?”

She snorted, “I want him to shut up about it. I wish I’d never said anything about this stuff being rubbish in the first place.”

“Hmmm. Come into the parlor, I believe that I can help you.”

I’ll say this for the absent Madame, she did know how to decorate a room, but the table with a crystal ball was perhaps a bit much, and archaic besides. I motioned for them to sit. While I rummaged in the nearby cabinets for an appropriate prop. Something to trap the eye, while I do my work. In Madame Tina’s vast assortment knickknacks, curios, and talismans I found something that would do nicely. A rather unimpressive two inch shard of porcelain. It was slightly curved, and near the sharp point the faintest trace of paint. It was a fragment from an antique mask. I took a seat at the crystal ball table.

“Here we are, just the thing to tantalize the senses, enthrall the soul, tie the tongue, and make a believer out of a sceptic,” I said waving the mask shard for their inspection.

Michael gave a confused scowl.

“A piece of a broken plate,” said Lydia with a laugh, “What are you going to with that, cut yourself and conjure up a demon for us.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Funny you should say that…, but no. There will be no summoning involved. Remembering is what I’ll be doing. Events come and go, and even if no person sees them they are remembered. By the earth, stones, or objects like this piece of a carnival mask. The residue of occurrences clings to things and places like a recording or a memory. Would you like to see?”

“Definitely,” he said in reply.

She only shrugged.

Image by Alexas_Fotos

I placed the shard on top of the crystal ball and reached out my hands. “Join hands, close one eye, and with the other gaze into the crystal. I will lead you on a journey into a memory once dead and buried by the sands of time and the dust of ages. You can cross my palm with silver when it comes time to return,” I said smiling at the end. .

Let it not be said that I didn’t offering warning. It is no fault of mine they didn’t catch my meaning.

They looked into the crystal. Flashes of color, swirls of white mist, and fragments of images flickered within the glass orb. The pluses of images came fast, then faster still, till all they could see was a swirling chaos of twisted colors and hues. A moment later, with the smallest of nudges from yours truly, they slipped into a trance. As they fell headlong into an altered state of consciousness, fragments of other senses began to join the crystal ball’s showings. The feeling of warm sun and crisp breezes, the scent of horses and food, and the sounds of revelry and merriment.

Then, in the space of a heartbeat, their state of hypnagogia vanished, and the young couple were standing fully awake and alert in a place altogether unfamiliar to them. The mediterranean, specifically the streets of seventeenth century Venice. A time and place I remember with great fondness. They stood stock still, frozen in absolute shock, for several long moments. A moment before shock would have given way to question, coming seemingly from nowhere, a black masked harlequin holding a pitchfork stepped in front of them.

“Welcome and welcome, travelers,” he said in what sounded to them like accented English. “Forgotten the season have you? Can’t have that can we?”

He reached his free hand behind himself and with a flourish brought it back, now holding two simple masks and a small sack of coins. Which he handed to the confused pair. “Put on the masks, and enjoy the revels, while you may. The days of fasting and deprivation come all to soon.” The as quickly as he had appeared he vanished into the crowd, laughing madly. The young man and woman donned their masks, and in short order they were one with the celebrations. For in truth, who can resist the lure of celebration, excess, and debauchery?

As they cavorted from parade, to dance, to party, to house of wine and licentiousness they caught the occasional sight of their masked benefactor. Though they paid him no mind. Soon their day of romping through a memory of a time long past, turned into night, and as the moon reached her highest seat they began to tire and the wisdom of doubt began to prey upon them. The longing for hearth and home took the place of wine fed intoxication and mirth. With belated wisdom, they began to wonder how they would awaken from this delusion.

“Good evening, good evening. Have you enjoyed yourselves and made memories to last a lifetime?” called a voice from the mouth of the alley they had found themselves in.

They turned to see a now familiar harlequin waving beatifically at them.

“Yes,” replied young Michael, with a drunken flush across his cheeks. “But, I think we should be going.”

“Yeah, its late,” added, Lydia her words slightly slurred.

“If you wish, I’m sure something could be arranged,” replied the harlequin, all pretense of accent fading as he removed his mask. Revealing his face, my face.”

“Mr. Walker?” They gasped.

“You were here this whole time,” exclaimed Michael.

“Of course I’m here. Here or there. Now or then. In the presence of man, beast, or angel. Makes no difference to me. I even walk across the lanes of memory, and down the paths of eternity. You can even meet me any old place where two roads meet. Speaking of going places, I am sure you’ve noticed that the way back isn’t so easily had. Getting here, consider it a gift, free as air, but as for returning to where we started….That is a different story. And, I’m sure by now you can guess my name and my price.”

I smiled and momentarily put my black mask to my face and gave my pitchfork a good shake before tossing them away, laughing like a madman all the while. Lydia was sobbing and the Michael looked ill, his mouth agape and tongue motionless. From brash and skeptical, to enraptured in shared belief, and lastly to being mired in a state of maudlin resignation. All in the course of one night. Ah, what a fun diversion!

“To you young Michael, a believing mate I have granted. And, to you dear Lydia a silent one. In so granting I have brought you here, but to take the bridge back from memory to reality there is a price. So darling friends, I must ask, would you like to pay the toll?” I asked smiling. “Choose swiftly now. You really have been a fun diversion, but I still have a fleet-footed seeress to catch.”



Image by Jose Antonio Alba

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