Redemption at last
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: Marley's chains purge the torch of evil forces, then devour its captor, Samuel. Weighted down, the chains pull Marley into the earth.
The noise is my epitaph, the swan song of my existence, punctuated by every horror I have ever endured. The old man's death. My own, slow and painful and at the hand of another who hated me enough to seek me out and stick me with a filthy blade.
Awaking to an existence without sleep, taste, touch, smell. Watching the effects of a squandered life. As I fall, my bright form illuminates the darkness. I see horrific, slithering things; creatures composed of sharp-angled shadows that click and squeal in hungry ecstasy. They make for me as I plunge.
I'm sorry, Ebenezer. Sor...
An abrupt pull that stops my fall interrupts my thoughts. I glance upward to see one length of chain pulled taut like a ship's mast. I hear muffled yells pulse from the darkness beyond it. Then I'm soaring, ascending back through the earth to the surface. A horrific herd of these nighttime creatures follows, chirping the eerie cry I heard my first night as a ghost.
"Cold up there, warm down here."
Faster. Faster. Faster. They are on my heels. Their hands and needle-pocked maws open. They reach, reach, reach.
I erupt from the ground in a burst of iron and vapor, launch into the sky. Blessed, blessed surface. The voices of the subterranean imps fall away, stay beneath the ground.
"Got you," a familiar voice calls in the night.
I look down as I descend.
A face I've not seen in many years looks back. The old man. Samuel. But for his blue-green glow, he looks the same as he did the day he died. A weathered but kind face tinted with a tired pallor and a mess of wrinkles. His other form has disappeared, so much darkness expelled and absorbed by my chains.
I see the other spirits, the girl and the phantom and the Christmas child, and complete my slow descent back to the ground. The girl runs to me, holds me tightly.
"I thought we'd lost you," she whispers.
"So did I," I say.
She releases me, and I look to the old man just as the phantom raises its hands, weaves another orb of monstrous purple light. It aims it at Samuel, hands positioned to strike. The girl and I run to interfere. The energy of the crackling missile builds to a crescendo, then stops. The phantom subsides, its obvious anger easing.
It points. I look.
The old man is fading. His glassy form seems to evaporate. He becomes a torrent of steam, sluggish waves of vapor that are consumed by the air and disappear.
"He is departing our realm," the girl says. "There is nothing...nothing holding him here any longer."
"No," I say. "Wait, please."
I make for him, stand close. We look at each other, unblinking, unable to speak, unwilling to turn away.
"You saved me," I whisper.
"And you, me, it seems," he says.
"I don't...that is, I..."
"Jacob," he says. "I am sorry."
"No," I say. "No, no, no. I did this. All of this. I never forgot you. I tried because it hurt too much. I became someone else. I...I made you what you are."
"You were a child," the old man says.
"You were my father," I say. "I forsook you. I..."
"And you were my son," the old man says. "You will always be my son. I am sorry I forgot."
"Father," I say. "I..."
I stop mid-sentence. He has gone. To where I cannot know. The three spirits and I are left alone; just us and the snow, always the snow, falling through and around us, moonlight glinting on the flakes. There are no noises save for the wind in the trees and the child’s cooing.
I don't know what I expected. Reunion? Together again with the old man for eternity? In a place where we did not feel hunger or cold? Pain at his sudden departure is there, though not quite front and center. It gnaws at the edge of my mind. I'm still so stunned by this night, still processing what I've seen. Sorrow will come later, I think. I dread its declaration.
“We haven’t much time,” the girl says, grasping the torch, now a cured relic absent of disease and rot.
We make our way from the churchyard and slip back into the city. The remaining council members seem to have disappeared. Big Ben chimes the 10 o’clock hour, the baritone clangs uttering eerily into the night.
The Christmas child grows to a young man in an hour. We pace in front of Ebenezer’s home as it happens. I think of what my friends from the living realm would say if they were to hear I helped overthrow The Council this night, if they knew I was responsible for its origins.
“I thank you for this, Jacob," the Christmas spirit says. "I offer my services to your cause in their honor. I know your story well, Jacob Marley. All in the spirit world know of the life of Ebenezer Scrooge. The chains he bears were as full, as heavy as yours were seven Christmas Eves ago.”
I nod: “He has labored on it since.”
“Indeed. And yet, there is still hope for him,” the spirit says, holding the torch aloft. “Redemption of which we will all be a part.”
And without another word, a radiant fire slashes through the night and cracks against the stars in a wailing thud. It attracts attention. Soon a crowd of blue and green spirits have gathered in the street to stare skyward at the fire only the dead can see, at the nearly-scarred veil between realms as it’s ripped aside. A cheer rises up at the sight. Some burst into song.
The Christmas spirit tells the ghosts a new order has been struck, the old ways reclaimed. Then he turns his attention back to me.
“Step lively, Jacob Marley,” the torchbearer says. “Your friend awaits.”
I take a step, stop, turn back to look at the three spirits who’ve come to my aid this night.
“What shall I say to him?” I ask.
“Nothing outside of what your heart decides he must hear,” the torchbearer says. “Tell him of our coming.”
“I will show him visions of who he was,” the girl says.
“I will show him the world,” the torchbearer says. “What it is because of this night."
The phantom only nods. I chance a quick peek at the girl, who smiles at his silence.
“He’s practically expecting you,” the torchbearer says, and a beard begins to sprout on his face, here-and-there whiskers that are pushing up like grass. It will be full and curled by the time he meets Ebenezer. “I’ve already put on quite the show to get you in his mind. You will not sink in his presence, either. You may sit and rest. The night's power will prevent it."
“I never thanked the lot of you,” I say, smiling.
“No need,” the girl says.
“MerryChristmas,” I say.
“Merry Christmas,” the torchbearer says.
The phantom nods, points. I nod back and step into the realm of the living. Beyond the veil, the night is no less clear, the snowfall no less silent.
Ebenezer’s home is a tapestry, a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar.
It’s changed since I was a boy, since I resided here as a living being. Laughter once echoed in these corridors. Tinsel and holly once donned these cold, blank walls. Until they did not. Until I surrendered them and my soul to darkness.
It is strange to think of buildings, of homes, as ghosts; dead but whispering.
I drift from the cellar to the upstairs and down the hall, listening to my chains drag on the dusty floorboards, seeing my glow frost the walls with ghastly lambency. I pass through the bedroom door.
Ebenezer stands, startled panic dancing in his eyes. I catch my reflection in them, chain-bound and floating and translucent. I see the fear on his face as spilled gruel pools at his feet.
The chains. They cover him in sickening twists, unseen by his eyes but very real to my own.
I picture them shattering, pieces blooming about him in icy florets as he breaks free. It makes me want to smile, though I mustn’t. I’ve work to do, and the night is waning fast. I look at Ebenezer, shivering in his robe and nightcap, sniffing through his hooked nose while his gruel hardens on the ground.
“W-what do you want with me?” he asks.
"Who are you?"
I think of the old man a final time, how his last act was to save me.
I cannot hold you in the way I held him before he disappeared, Ebenezer. I cannot reassure you and impress the severity of this night upon you gently.
I do not want you in the realm I came from, but I realize now I must show you a glimpse of it, however I can. Whatever keeps you from waking up in darkness, chained and frightened. Whatever keeps you from wandering through the world, doomed, witnessing what you cannot share but might have shared.
You’ve come to the crossroads of Right and Easy, and you’ve chosen Easy for far too long. I must direct you back, must decorate your new path with the brightest lights so you never stray again.
You’ve all but died, old friend. You must live again.
The deed is done, the warning given. I float from Ebenezer's window into the night, borne by wind and whispers.
Ebenezer's astonished, frightened face fades from view, and I'm suddenly lost in a storm of spirits, chained and unchained, howling and whooping and clogging the sky with ghastly light.
I hope what I have done is enough. Strange, the idea of hope: certain of uncertain things.
It's a small sound, nearly lost among the cries of the dead, but prominent enough. The sound of an icicle snapping, a new fracture in a brittle bone.
I search for its origin, find it. One of my chains, specifically a link at the middle of the strand. A crack cuts along the center, opens like a hungry mouth. I watch it grow as my flight continues, watch the link cleave in half and watch half a length of shackles fall way and disappear, absorbed by snow and clouds.
I hear another crack. Another.
London is a patchwork at this height, the lamps and fires from below a motley of dots, the buildings children's toys. And plunging toward them in a whirlwind of debris...chains, falling from me and disappearing in sighs of icy vapor. I am groomed anew by the sky.
The winds continue to carry me, and I imagine the old man is with me, that his spirit form has not departed.
Far below, a clock tower chimes, its gong rolling through the city. It sounds like a Christmas carol, singing the dreaming city to sleep.
— Author Ryan Pfeil is web editor of the Mail Tribune.