- Unseen, unheard, not forgotten -
One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
(Emily Dickinson in Time and Eternity)
Have a holly jolly Yuletide
It's the best time of the year
I don't know if there'll be snow
But have a cup of cheer…
An icy gust of wind stole the last words from his lips, carrying them along the street. The verse hung unachieved in the air, distraught and disappointing, and Benn felt his heart sink. Even the elements seemed to be against him on this evening. Pausing to pull his shabby cloak tighter against his body and wincing as the arthritis in his joints gripped his fingers, he sighed. The gloves he wore were torn – they were once good woollen gloves, but now he could feel the cold biting at his skin where the wool had been worn out. His feet also felt the chill seeping in through the thin soles of his boots.
By the feel of the cobbles beneath his feet, Benn was near the second Circle. He touched the remaining strings of his lute and they gave an angry twang, the strings freezing under his touch.
Oh, ho, the mistletoe
Hung where you can see
Somebody waits for you
Kiss her once for me…
His croaking voice died as Benn fell silent in discouragement. The streets were growing empty by the sound of it; night had to be falling, and he was still outside and without the slightest coin or idea for a shelter – at least not one he wanted to entertain. He could imagine the steely-grey skies above his head, the distant stars shining, and the flicker of fires in the windows above. There were families in the houses around him, reunited for the evening of celebration. Distant laughter and cheers welcomed the latecomers; doors were slammed shut on the cold wind, the loved ones embraced and ushered towards the fire and the meal.
A gentle and unexpected caress on the tip of his nose made him pause in his slow progression. The small feathery object then melted. It was starting to snow.
Effie had loved the snow. Her small arms outstretched towards the white falling flakes, she would laugh with that contagious laugh that small children possess, the one that stretches one's lips into an involuntary smile.
Shaking his head, Benn shuffled forward. "Have a holly jolly Yuletide, it's the best time of the year!" he rasped.
"Best time is when you're gone, you mongrel! Get lost!" a sharp reply came from somewhere above, followed by a woman's chuckle.
Benn's heart dropped just a little lower at those words.
"Yes, kind Sir. A coin for an old man? For Yule Spirit's sake?"
"Get lost, I said!"
"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir."
Benn hung his head low as another surge of the cold wind threatened to sweep him off his feet. Hugging his lute, he stepped forward, slipping slightly on the wet stones of the street. Some cobbles were unstable under his feet, dislodged in the assault on the city during the War of the Ring, just a few months ago. Some streets had been so badly damaged during the attack that he had trouble to recognize them now. Usual, easier paths had been forsaken and new ones found in the hostile maze that his city had become – and there were worse things than stones that he would stumble or stub his toes on. He had learnt that some passages were darker and more dangerous, controlled by groups that took a tribute off a wanderer's coin or, in his case, their pleasure in beating an old, blind man and laughing as he tried to fend them off with his lute. Benn caressed the crack in the instrument's neck where a blow had landed that had been meant for him.
Perhaps it would be better if he turned around and came back to the shelter? At least the rooms were wind-proof and the food warm, if meagre.
Snowflakes brushed against his numb cheeks, as though encouraging him to continue. There would also be songs at the shelter, smiles that he could not see to celebrate this time of the year, and well-wishes that he had no use for. Some of the residents would even get visits from their relatives and Benn would once again be forced to retreat into the deepest corner, fingering his lute nervously to cover their voices, until a well-meaning woman would come to try and talk him into being cheerful on this special night.
But this night belonged to him and Effie and Ellen.
"Somebody waits for you, kiss her once for me…"
"Move along now! I hear enough of such screeching from my wife, and for free too!"
Metal scraped on stone and Benn stumbled aside in panic. His weak heart lurched in his chest, leaving in its wake an uncomfortable sensation. Had he unknowingly wandered too far from his route, and into one of those parts of town where his life was only valued for the fun it was to take it? But no-one touched him, and the shuffling of boots on stone was left behind him.
"Move along, move along."
The man – the guard – sounded as tired as Benn was. His legs were heavy now, his feet too cold to be painful, and blissfully numb. His face was still prickling but that, too, would pass if only he refrained from rubbing it. The cold burned his throat when he inhaled deeply, smelling the pure night air. It smelled of smoke and food, and his mouth watered.
The clip-clop of a horse's hooves broke the falling silence; the sound was irregular and Benn guessed that the animal was limping slightly. No wonder, the slush-covered cobbles were a danger to anyone. He retreated out of the way, brushing against the wall.
"A coin, for Yule Spirit's sake, good Sir?" he called out.
"None to spare, old man." The man's voice sounded young and weary. The owner of the horse seemed to regret his response as he added: "Harsh winter for us all, grandpa. Sorry."
Benn's legs almost gave out under him as he leaned against the wall for support. His heart constricted painfully; only this time the ache did not pass as quickly as before. Had things turned out differently, a child could have called him so one day – a child with his Effie's huge eyes and dimples.
All of a sudden he had the desire to sink down to the ground, to wrap himself tighter into his cloak and to forget the whole world, playing the lute softly and singing himself into a last slumber. His time had come long ago, only he had missed it.
He froze as something brushed against his elbow.
"Are you well?" asked a voice from in front of him, and Benn instinctively tried to shrink back into the wall. He had not heard the man approach!
"Y-yes," he managed, heart beating wildly. "Thank you kind Sir, I am very well. I will not bother you further." He edged towards his right, to the lower Circles.
"You are frozen and you look hungry. Do you have anywhere to go?"
"Yes!" Benn lied immediately, his worst fears confirmed. There were those who preyed on the homeless because they were less likely to be searched for and worried about. He clutched his lute in front of him as a ridiculous rampart against danger. "Yes, my family…" He choked on the word. "My family is waiting for me."
"Legolas, we cannot leave him here. He is cold and starving – not to mention that he is lying." This new voice, more distant, possessed an ironic inflexion. "He will perish out here."
"And it is snowing…" remarked a third, dreamy voice.
"Then we will not abandon him."
Benn whimpered as an arm snaked its way under his, supporting him.
"Come. Let us bring you somewhere warm."
The voice of the one named Legolas seemed sincerely kind, but Benn did not allow himself to be fooled. How he wished he could see the traitorous expression on the stranger's face! He considered shouting for help; but the man's clothes beneath his fingers were soft and rich, and his arm muscular. No doubt that a guard would believe a wealthy man over a beggar such as himself. Escaping seemed out of the question as well and, as terror gripped him, Benn hoped that his helplessness would not amuse them for long, whatever it was that they wished to inflict upon him.
Legolas's steps were slow to fit his own limping, and Benn cursed such a treacherous demeanour – to appear so courteous while snatching people away right under the city's nose. All around him, behind the barred doors, people were celebrating with their loved ones, oblivious to others' misery; this deepened the feeling of abandonment. The street was slippery and steep, and soon Benn realized in astonishment that, instead of leaving for the lower City, he was being led towards the Citadel.
Sounds surrounded them and he smelled odours that had his stomach grumbling with hunger. Roasted meat, cider, burnt sugar – they wafted from all around him, entwined with the loud laughter and music. He strained his ears, should the strangers say something to reveal more about his fate. A door creaked and a wave of noise and warmth hit him.
"Good evening, good Sirs! What can I offer you tonight?"
The merry voice boomed over the crowd, and Benn understood that he was in a tavern. Food was ordered while he was once again directed through the room to a table in the corner. He shifted quickly towards the end of the bench, pressing his side into the wall, and waited.
A plate clattered on the table before him. "Eat," Legolas's voice said. "You must be hungry."
Benn considered refusing. Would they get angry? And what harm could come if he ate? He dug in, fingers groping around the plate; a fine piece of meat, something soft that smelled like cheese and a big loaf of bread. Fresh bread! Not the stone-hard leftovers they got at the shelter. He munched happily, relishing the flavours on his tongue.
The strangers – there were four of them, from what Benn had heard and felt, two of whom possessed a voice so similar that Benn first thought them to be but one man - poured themselves some ale, and some into his own cup. The smell drifted to his nostrils, and Benn felt the warm contentment slip away, replaced by a hard-earned wariness of men who drank too much. But these men seemed content to merely sip at their goblets, conversing in a language he did not understand. It flowed, lilting, inflexions soothing and exotic.
He reached out for his cup, sliding his hand on the wood until his fingers met the metal. The goblet wobbled and someone reached to still it, gently wrapping Benn's fingers around the stem. For the briefest of instants the man's hand lay on his, and Benn felt the pattern of scars cross-crossing under the stranger's palm.
"Are you a warrior, Sir?" he asked softly. If these men were soldiers, perhaps had they helped defend Minas Tirith; if so, they deserved his trust.
"Why do you ask?" replied the stranger in that dreamy voice of his.
Benn shifted uncomfortably. Had he overstepped his bounds?
"I meant the scars. I apologize – you were kind enough to offer an old man a meal, it is not my place to pry."
The silence seemed to stretch, uncomfortable. Benn felt that even the stranger's companions had shifted away from him. But the man's voice was just as even when he replied:
"It is a burn that you are referring to, though I have seen my share of battlefields."
Benn flinched. Flames, how they seemed ever insatiable for human flesh!
"A fire?" he hazarded quietly. "I hope you did not lose anyone… 'Tis very dangerous, fire. One spark and…"
He realized that he was rambling and fell silent, feeling embarrassed and slightly afraid to see the comfort he was enjoying torn away on the strangers' whim. He had survived through many a winter but, despite his past, there was always something about Yule that made him secretly crave company. These men had asked no awkward questions so far, and he found that he had been starting to enjoy himself; but the conversation was drifting towards a topic that he would rather stay away from.
"But fire is also what gives man light and warmth, does it not? It is what reunites us here, on a night as cold as this."
Benn lowered his head, hoping to hide his expression. "Er," he said, "It's been very kind of you to feed me, good Sirs – and I shall not abuse your hospitality any longer. You certainly crave, er, some fun, and an old man's company would be a burden, no doubt."
He groped for the back of the bench for support to rise to his feet; to his relief, the man between him and the way out started to move away as well.
"You carry a heavy burden," said the dreamy voice all of a sudden. "Whom have you lost to fire to fear it so?"
"No-one that would be your business… Sir." Benn spat out the last word with the strength given by unnumbered years of bearing condescending speeches and pats on the hand, and the anger from a thousand hollow condolences. "Excuse me," he added, raising his voice in hope of attracting attention from the crowd, when he bumped into the man sitting beside him.
"Sit down, Elladan." The scarred-handed stranger's soft voice suddenly rang of steel. Then: "Have you forgotten them, then? Have you disowned them of your memories?"
Benn gaped at the space where the stranger sat; the stab of pain in his guts had rendered him speechless. No, he had been wrong. There were worse ways of inflicting pain to an old man than hitting him. Only what kind of men enjoyed torturing one so? A tear trickled down Benn's cheek and he wiped it away hastily. Though his blind eyes now only saw what was inside his head, it seemed that they could still cry over those memories.
"Maglor…" Legolas' voice was hushed yet filled with an unspoken threat.
"I will not have him walk blind to his past any longer. I would know that it is to do a man no service than to allow him to indulge in self-inflicted isolation. Too long has he dwelt in shadows, and there is not one at this table who does not know how lonely it is out there."
Legolas fell silent and for one instant, the room seemed only filled with the crackling of the fireplace. Benn could almost feel the heat radiating from the flames as they licked the logs; then logs became beams and windowsills. Images of a burning cottage flashed through his mind, a flailing arm disappearing in the smoke that poured out the windows. Effie! Effie was inside, he had to get in! Oh how did it all happen, he had been gone for but an hour!
"Effie!" he cried. "My daughter… She is inside, she is burning!"
A strong hand landed on his arm. Benn could feel the scars though his tunic. "She is gone. She is well. No pain can reach her now. Is she with her mother?"
He nodded numbly.
"Then all is well. They are waiting for you."
Benn dug his fingers into the one called Maglor's arm, pulling him closer across the table. Long-repressed words spilled from his lips: "I had been gone but an hour! She had misplaced her doll playing with the other children in the streets… I went to look for it because it was Yule, see, and she missed her doll, and everyone must be happy on Yule…" His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "I had kissed Ellen and left them alone… The neighbours said it must have been a knocked-over candle that set fire to the straw on the floor… She was so overexcited for her presents…"
Again, those dreadful scenes flooded his mind: the charred bodies, one so small and looking even tinier, curled up on itself…
"She must have been very sweet, her eyes filled with anticipation," said Maglor.
"She did… She was…" Benn smiled, suddenly remembering the laughter-filled pleas to reveal the presents before their time. It had been such a beautiful day, with Effie playing around in the snow and building her very first snowman…
Benn let go of the man's sleeve and leaned back against the wall. He felt hollow, drained of all energy and, surprisingly, a deal of his pain. "But an hour…" he whispered, leaning his head on the table. "Just a candle…" He was tired of the loneliness and the suffering, so tired…
"It was not your fault," one of the two quieter men whispered. "You could not have saved them."
"You will see them again."
Many people had repeated him those words over the years. So perhaps it was the ale – Benn hadn't had any for so long, scared to become one of those sad drunks that sometimes turned up at the shelter - or perhaps it was the understanding, the experience even in the strangers' voices.
For one night, Benn allowed himself to believe it.
A note rang out, pure and soft, and yet somehow drowning out the noise of the tavern. It gave birth to a delicate melody that spoke to his heart, tearing it open and letting the poison trickle out.
He saw Ellen. She was smiling and holding Effie, who was playfully struggling to break free from her mother's loving embrace and run into his arms. There was his daughter, racing towards him, her small legs a whirlwind in her hurry to kiss her daddy. There she was, huddled against him, her sweet smell so familiar and heartbreakingly dear as he buried his nose into her soft hair.
"Effie… How I missed you."
"Remember them so," whispered Maglor. "Filled with life and love for you, and in their brightest moments. They deserve it more than the darkness of their passing."
Benn's heart gave a funny lurch in his chest, painful and brief. His eyelids felt heavy and he closed his eyes. "Ellen, I am coming," he breathed out.
He smiled in his rest. Everyone must be happy on Yule's Eve.
A.N.: the song sung by Benn was borrowed from a website featuring yule songs, and does not belong to me. The story was inspired by "The Little Match Girl" by H. C. Andersen.