Editor’s note: This serial, which explores the days leading up to that fateful night in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” continues through Christmas Day. The story thus far: The ghost of Jacob Marley visits a dark council with an unusual request.
I wander back from Queen's Row to our counting house and wait. Ebenezer locks up and wades through the clouds of particular back to his home. He mumbles as he goes, a disjointed solo of frustration.
It seems Fred has vexed him again. It's Christmas Eve, and Scrooge's nephew undoubtedly has extended his annual, cordial invitation for Christmas dinner. Ebenezer always declines, and Fred always leaves, dejected but with his head held high, hoping. Ebenezer's sister, Fan — Fred's mother — had died not long after our fateful meeting in Queen's Row so many years ago. Childbirth complications. A horrific affair that left him soul-scarred and weary. It's no wonder he rejects her child, a constant bulletin of loss.
The shadows flow out of buildings and awnings, pool and expand like dark lakes.
It’s always dark when Scrooge's chains, still unknown to him, appear. They come slowly at first, like a small flame catch fire amongst twigs and grasses and spread. They loop about Ebenezer’s body, squeezing with unseen, unfelt might. The links are smaller than my own, like comparing coins to oranges, but they’ve grown considerably since I saw them last. Each one pulses in rhythmic precision, the devilish heartbeats of incubating spirits. They’ll be larger tomorrow, and larger still the day after, calculated growths that glow in the darkness and disappear in the light, fed by his avarice and apathy.
I touch my own serpentine coils and remember how loud my screams were when I first tried to pull them off, how they seemed to grab me with clawed fingers, tighter and tighter.
Ebenezer will soon be in the same place, dead eyes fluttering open to darkness and calling for help. I think of his empty home and the riches within, of his finery, furniture, antiques, books. And money.
It will all disappear. Ebenezer’s life will be remembered for a while, but like all those who squander their time, the smoke from the many angry fires he set will settle. Ash will take up on the winds. His legacy of greed will turn to legend. That, too, will fade. He will wander this world as another lonely transient, weeping tearlessly and moaning unholy notes of dread and regret into moonlit nights.
This cannot happen. I must not let it.
I drift into the nearby churchyard, weaving between gravestones, keeping an eye on the spot where hands once grabbed me beneath the ground. I swear I can make out a far-off laugh whenever I pass. I keep walking west to a crypt at the far end, still and silent in the center of a grove of snow-covered firs. My journey ends at the edge.
“Who enters our domain?” a thundering voice demands. It circles me, echoes off gravestones and eventually dispels into the night.
“Jacob Marley. I seek audience with The Council.”
There is a pause. A noticeable one. That same lull that is felt when a terrible liar searches for a lie.
“And you shall have it. Enter, Jacob Marley. Doors no longer bar your way.”
I approach the shut crypt and pass through the stone to the other side, descend stone steps to a large center room supported by pillars the size of thick tree trunks. Biblical images pock the walls: depictions of Jesus’ birth and resurrection, of his Sermon on the Mount, his feeding of the 5,000. Shadows smother the likenesses, dulling their bright hues to dull grays. The air is stale with hard water and dust.
A stone coffin lies in the center of the room. The Council surrounds it, hovering on auras of purple that hum a deep drone that sounds as though it originates deep within the bowels of the Earth.
They are ghosts as we are, but different. Imagine man-shaped clouds that flicker with constant lightning, defined only by eyes the color of blizzards and mouths that pop with rotting cornfields of black and yellow teeth, the rest of their features fluid tapestries.
No one in this realm has been able to give me an answer as to what they are or where they’ve come from, only that they preside over all in this place. We awake with their laws ingrained in our minds, resisting at first, accepting later. Their edicts are stringent, but they take questions on their institutionalization impartially.
Samuel, the elder Council member, leans forward and watches me enter, scrunching up his pale face. His one-tone white eyes almost disappear in its folds.
“Do come in,” Samuel says, beckoning, yellow and black teeth popping in a sea of white.
Every step feels heavy. My chains glow angrily. Come-and-go shadows cascade off the members’ faces as their purple seats flicker with irregular intensity. Samuel peers at me through his dead eyes and grins.
“I frighten you,” he says. “We frighten you. Even in a realm where the consequence of death does not exist, you still feel fear.”
I nod, glance at my feet and see whether it’s time to move.
“You’ll not sink in this place,” Samuel says, reading my thoughts. “We prevent it. You may rest temporarily, Jacob Marley.”
He speaks truth. I stay rooted to my spot, no longer a pebble dropped in porridge.
“Now then,” Samuel says, gesturing to the other silent Council members. “You’ve sought audience with us. Speak. Impart to us your thoughts.”
“Your laws are few but strict, honored Council,” I say. “They dictate the paths we must walk after death. I am cursed to drift for my lack of forbearance and charity in life, to never rest with heavy chains to tire me, to never know sleep as I can see through my eyelids. I did not know this awaited me beyond the grave. Had I…”
“You would have refined your ways and lived a life of mercy and societal contribution,” another Council member says. “You would have blessed the poor and cursed those who did not. You’d be right for sainthood, you would.”
Other members chuckle. Samuel’s unblinking white eyes stay on me, though his face betrays the annoyance he feels.
“Patience, Thomas,” Samuel says coolly. “Let him speak.”
Thomas looks away from me, disinterested, but gestures to carry on.
“He’s quite right, Elder,” I say. “I understand how selfish that must sound. Had I known the consequences of my life’s choices, I would have changed them. My motivations would have been entirely self-seeking. I cannot deny that. As I understand it, it is the main reason our laws of no interference in the world of the living exist. A person’s motivations for renewal are as important as the renewal itself.”
“An astute and wise observation, Jacob Marley,” Samuel says.
Ebenezer’s chain lengths plague my thoughts, glowing and pulsing in the darkness while he sleeps.
“I thought of all that,” I continue. “If it were that simple, a world where our kind could intervene, it would appear spotless on the surface. But it would not be genuine. Every thought would be spent wondering if what they were doing was just enough to escape the fate broadcast to them.”
“I wish to intervene despite all that,” I say, surprised at the bluntness and sudden edge to my tone. "I wish to save my friend."
Tomorrow: Marley learns that intervening for Scrooge could cost him dearly.