(Please read the description.)
Mr. MacBranain; like any strong, healthy man of 45 in the 1890s, died soon after his arrival in America, leaving behind a very pious widow and ten very pious children.
The eldest of these children, a boy named Michael, was a kindhearted young man, and the sole male provider left to his family. This was a problem for many reasons. One of them being that he’d heard his new home in New York City was a place of darkness, and sin, and depravity, and Michael knew hungry devils surely lurked in its shadows—as any reasonable person would.
Michael was also very superstitious.
But he had made a vow to his father upon his deathbed to be strong and care for his mother and sisters. And although unsure of the first one, he knew he could do his best and try for the second.
Thus, after an appropriately pious time of mourning, Michael kissed his mum and each of his nine sisters (which took some time) and, with his father's rosary clutched to his chest, stood at the door to their tiny basement apartment.
"You'll see," he promised cheerfully (though his teeth chattered), "I'll have found work by this evenin' "
And also, "Pray that I am not eaten by devils."
The Devil may not have been waiting for Michael as he exited into the cloud tinted sunlight, but darkness most certainly was—or at least something dark-colored anyway.
For there, perched on his neighbor’s laundry line, was a raven, black as sin and night. And it was facing his doorway. Staring at him with dark, intelligent eyes. A sure sign of bad times to come.
The boy threw a shoe at it (the most sensible thing to do), and it flew away indignantly.
Still, Michael could not shake the sudden feeling of foreboding as he went to collect his footwear.
And indeed, the raven was just the beginning.
The first person he applied to was a small neighborhood grocer, who was apparently in need of a clerk. Michael could read, do figures, move boxes, and was rather good with people. Still, the shopkeeper turned him away as soon as he heard his accent, saying he could not abide to employ an idolatrous Catholic.
The farrier he approached observed with a surprising eloquence that redheads were bad luck and, quite likely, the spawn of Satan.
The dockworkers, it turned out, simply did not like his face.
Michael would have defended his face (as his mother thought it handsome, and Mum was never wrong) but was interrupted when a scream--a scream from very nearby--split the air.
"MARY!!" a woman shrieked. "IT GOT MARY!!!"
Turning to see what the commotion was, Michael and the dockworkers observed what looked to be a rag-picker (judging by the nearby cart), kneeling halfway between the shadows of an alleyway and the gray light of the clouded sky. Her face streamed with dirty tears, and she was cradling another, less-than-reputable-looking young woman in her arms.
Already a small crowd of observers—sailors, dockworkers, little thieves, and soon-to-be-passengers—had gathered to gawk at the horror. And a horror it was indeed.
The woman in her arms had flesh pale as bone. Her limbs were stiff, and her eyes vacant and glassy. Her head was tilted at an angle, as though frozen while gazing upward in anguished prayer. Her face...
Her face was the worst of all, wearing an expression of utter despair, so exaggerated and contorted as to almost look like a cartoon in a newspaper. Her caked on makeup looked like blood and bruises pouring down her face as tears, and her soulless eyes seemed to stare right at Michael. Or perhaps right through him toward something darker. Begging. Praying.
Michael felt sick...but also mesmerized by the fear that clamped his gut. So much so that he almost missed the man who said he was a doctor and knelt beside the women to do his duty.
"Her lungs are breathing," the man said, comparing her pulse with his pocket watch with wide eyes. "But her heart isn't beating!"
"She's alive, but she's dead?" a gawker spoke up.
"THERE HAVE BEEN TEN OTHER CASES LIKE THIS!" someone cried in horror. "IT'S A PLAGUE! IT WILL GET US ALL!"
"IT'S THE JACK OF HEARTS!" the rag-picker cried. "HE TOOK MY SISTER FROM ME!!"
But her grieving voice was soon drowned in the babble-turned-roar of panicked voices.
And Michael felt his stomach drop as life returned to his terror-filled mind.
"The Jack of Hearts"? Where had he heard that name before...?
A chill ran down Michael's spine as the foreboding feeling from earlier that morning returned.
Slowly, he turned.
Perched on a nearby windowsill, was a raven. And its gaze was locked on him.
Michael ran home as fast as he could and threw up.
It was a number of days before his family could coax him to go outside again. He had been right about the devils. But he had been wrong about getting work by that evening.
Job-wise, Michael did not fare better on his second attempt.
Or on his third attempt, his fourth attempt, or any of the others, really.
For what felt like a thousand evenings, the young man trudged home unemployed.
Steadily the discouragement filled him so, Michael didn't even have room to fear the evil spirits who surely surrounded him on the busy nighttime street.
His mum was working herself sick doing other people's laundry, as well as those of her ten children. Michael wondered if she even had time to do her own.
His two eldest sisters juggled trying to find work as a cook or some other womanly occupation with helping their mother care for the rest of the children.
Everyone was exhausted and depending on him to be the new Mr. MacBranain, and the weight of it felt like the whole world was resting on his shoulders and pressing on his gut.
He longed with all he was to do right by them, but...
One night on his walk home, Michael wiped a tear from his cheek and wished it might somehow wash away the freckles there. They helped to give him away, as well as his hair and accent.
"No Irish need apply."
He'd seen those words on so many signs; they just about gave him a headache now.
But Irish folks needed to live too! Michael couldn't understand how anyone could think that way.
All he could think was that the raven must have jinxed him.
Perhaps I am nae' bein' assertive enough, he thought, Perhaps I'm nae tryin' enough places or the right places. Perhaps in the places that don't have those signs, I'm givin' a bad impression somehow. Perhaps I am the one makin' everyone suffer again, and this is all me fault.
This thought made Michael want to curl up and die.
But, as he felt uncomfortable doing this in the middle of a busy street, he instead leaned against a freshly lit streetlight and heaved a tear-thickened sigh.
If only Dad were here. If only they hadn't left Ireland. If only he hadn't...
...If only Dad were here.
Wishing to feel his father's presence, Michael took his rosary from his pocket.
How many times as a child had he seen his father kneeling by his bedside, pouring his heart into the thousands of "Our Father"s and "Hail Mary"s that comprise a lifetime of simple piety? The small token felt soaked in his father's faith and wisdom, his gentleness, and strength.
If I only knew what Dad would say now, he thought, Then maybe I could know what to do to help my family. I wish...
Michael closed his eyes, raising the rosary to his lips.
Oh, sweet Providence! He prayed as hard as he could (assuming the hardness of your prayers is directly proportional to how tightly you scrunch your eyes), if Ye would just let me father guide me in some small way, so I would be able to find the right path! If only he were to send an angel me way, it would be enough. Please, Lord, I beg of Ye...
As if in answer, a cool gust of September wind rushed through the city street, ruffling Michael's hair and carrying the pungent smells of bad food and body odor.
And then something thin and papery slapped him in the face, and he gave a muffled scream.
As it turned out, the thin papery object proved to be...a thin piece of paper. Or more to the point, it was a page of advertisements from a recent edition of a newspaper he didn't know called "The Penny Midnight".
Employment advertisements, conveniently.
Even more convenient was the circle and arrows penciled around one particular advert—an advert, which proved to be very convenient indeed!
Looking for desperate soul for simple job.
Excellent benefits; enough to feed and clothe a family of 11.
Applicants must be recent immigrants—Irish, preferably.
Must be between the ages of 16 and 16, with blue eyes and red hair.
Young men with both first and last name beginning with the letter "m" preferred.
Experience in breathing and blinking required.
"By the saints!" Michael exclaimed jubilantly, "I have all those things!"
Apply to Mr. M at the coffin-maker's shop at ____ on ______ Street.
And do be quick; this ad was an extraordinary expense to post.
"I will indeed!" the young man resolved.
The idea of working as a coffin-maker made him a little uneasy, but it felt worth it to provide for his family. Who would have thought something so perfect would come slapping him thus in the face? It was a miracle indeed!
The first thing the following morning, Michael went out with eagerness to find the coffin-maker's shop.
He felt the urgency of the call; for though he cared nothing for the cost of the advertisement; he worried about all the other desperate, obscure-newspaper-reading, Irish boys with red hair and blue eyes and the initials M.M., who might find its invitation equally appealing.
Upon first seeing the grim carpenter's shop, Michael almost supposed he had gone to the wrong address. With boarded windows, a sign that looked to have been left unpainted for years, and a distinct lack of people around, the place did an excellent impression of a business that was no longer in operation.
The cobwebs and shadows also made it rather ghoulish.
But the address on the sign matched that of the ad. And when Michael approached the door, knees shaking, and gave it a hesitant tap, it flew open quite readily.
It must have been open after all.
Behind the now-open door towered a pale, sickly figure; grim faced and dressed all in black.
Thin, bony, with dark-ringed eyes and hollowed cheekbones; framed as he was in the doorway, Michael was struck by how much he resembled a corpse in a coffin himself.
He also would have run away, had the figure not spoken first.
"Ah," he said in a flat, impatient voice. "You must be the first applicant. Do come in. —And quickly, if you would be so kind."
He had an English accent, Michael recognized, though he had little more time to analyze it, as he was being half-dragged into the shadowy front room.
A table stood in the midst of the gloom, set meticulously with a white tablecloth, and tea and chairs for two.
The sight gave Michael the disquieting feeling that his presence had been much expected.
"Have a seat," the Tall Man invited, claiming his own with movements that reminded Michael of a long-legged spider—awkward, yet strangely elegant.
Michael eyed the table uneasily.
This all seemed odd to him, and the sense of not-rightness gave him a queasy feeling in his stomach. The recent memory of the dark things he had seen came back to him with a shudder.
But, he reminded himself, Dad had to have sent me here! Right? An ad so perfect could'nae have come blowin' me way by chance!
The Tall Man had begun to quirk an impatient eyebrow at him.
Uncertainly, Michael sat.
"Would you care for some tea?" the man offered with stiff politeness.
Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, Michael politely declined.
The man raised his eyebrow sharply once more, as though he had just spoken sacrilege, and then proceeded to serve himself.
"Very well," he said, even more stiffly (and Michael hoped with horror that the rejection of the tea wasn't going to affect his suitability in the man's eyes), "Let us get on with the interview, shall we? My name is Mr. Mallory. I make my living dealing with the fates of the dead. Normally I work alone in the dark; however, recent events have transpired that make assistance almost seem necessary."
That's certainly a dramatic way of describin' bein' a coffin maker, Michael thought, again with uncertainty.
But this had come from his father. Right?
"My assistance, sir?" he said out loud.
"We shall see about that," Mr. Mallory replied, "once we continue the interview. Now, tell me," he lifted a sheet of paper with one spidery hand and peered at it, "What are your name and age?"
"Michael MacBranain, sir," he said as quickly and with as much professionalism as he could, "I am sixteen years old!"
Mr. Mallory nodded without looking up, as though these were expected answers.
He went on to ask him a series of the usual interview questions: parent's names, where he came from, previous jobs, fear of death, aversion to blood or evil spirits...?
"Oh, wait, scratch those last three; they weren't supposed to be on here," Mr. Mallory said before Michael had a chance to reply.
Michael observed that the man's accent and word choice spoke of a well-educated man; and his clothing, though not dandy-like, were those of a well-groomed individual. His posture was stiff and cool. It struck Michael as reminiscent of a cat stiffening in a child's arms: a man holding everything around him at a distance.
His eyes were dark and fiery, piercing everything he looked at with a sharp, intelligent gaze. The rest of his face seemed rather bored.
Seeming satisfied with what Michael had to say for himself, Mr. Mallory put the paper aside without looking at him.
"There now, with that out of the way, have you any questions of your own?"
"Excellent!" he banged a bony fist against the table, and then proceeded to speak at a mile a minute saying: "Well then, Mr. MacBranain, you seem more than qualified to fill the role I have in mind; and as I am short on and am in fact attempting to buy myself time, I would declare you to be the perfect candidate for the position and now offer you my hand to shake."
Michael leaned back from the now-eager hand that was being thrust in his direction.
"Here now," he said, eyeing the hand with suspicion. He may have been a naive and superstitious creature, but there was only so far he was willing to let a strong gust of wind carry him.
"There's somethin' rather shady about this business," he went on, standing up and stepping away, "Ye're awful suspicious for a coffin-maker. And what exactly is this job yer offerin' anyway? I don't feel ye explained that well enough for me likin'. As a matter o' fact, I don't think ye explained it at all! Who are ye Mr. Mallory? And what do ye want from me?"
A shadow fell across the man's face, and Michael could no longer see his eyes. But he could hear his voice, cool and controlled.
"Does what I want matter so much in comparison to what you want, Mr. MacBranain?"
"I have it in my power to offer you more than enough to care for your family for years to come. That is your priority, is it not?"
Michael recoiled even further from the figure and his still-outstretched hand, heart thudding, mind racing.
"H-how did ye...?"
Michael swallowed hard. This man was terrifying and all he wanted to do was flee. The thought of the lifeless women filled him with dread of the dark things existing in New York, and what might be waiting for him behind that handshake. But…might it be the right thing to do with his family's welfare in the balance?
Apparently reading Michael's expression, Mr. Mallory withdrew his hand, and then drummed his fingers a couple times and sighed.
The shadow fell away as he leaned back in his seat. Gone was the look of boredom and feeling of aloof control; now replaced with a fidgety nervousness.
"I knew I should have just picked up a street urchin," he muttered. "More stupid and desperate." And then he put a hand to his forehead and whined, "Why do I even make promises? It's not healthy for a man in my position."
Abruptly the Tall Man had gone from dark and imposing to...rather pathetic, really. His sickly features gave him a tired look, almost like he was as ready to give up hope, as Michael had been earlier.
Was it an act? Or perhaps he truly was that tired and hopeless?
Well, whether he was or was not, he was now a thousand times as shady as he had ever been. Michael had turned and had his hand on the door, ready to flee, when the Tall Man leaped from his seat.
"Mr. MacBrainan! Mr. MacBranain, wait! Please!"
In one, desperate, sweeping motion, he was kneeling at Michael's feet (a painful looking display; the sight of his bony knees on the hardwood floor made the boy wince), gray-gloved hands gripping his wrist.
"Please, listen to me! All I need is to buy myself time. I made an enormous mistake and lives are in danger. If I don't act swiftly, my Employer may remove me from my position...and this job is all I have left!"
These words gave Michael pause, and his fear melted somewhat as he looked upon the man's desperation with shock and pity.
The idea that lives were in danger was enough to sway Michael's decision; but the fear in the man's eyes...the idea that one's employment is all that is left for them in the world...the feeling that lives—whole lives—depended on you...all these things hit so close to home, they made his chest ache.
Mr. Mallory must have sensed him softening because he loosened his grip on his wrist and hung his head.
"What is yer job ?" Michael inquired. "Why do y'need me?"
Mr. Mallory's sharp gaze snapped back to him.
"I suppose I have no choice but to give you the truth," he said with resignation.
Then he rose to full height, and his imposing aura seemed to return by sheer nature as his cadaverous form towered over the young man. Every shadow in the shop seemed to still as he explained:
"My name is Mr. Mortality. It is my job to collect the souls of the Dead and gather them to the Place of Judgment. And I need you to help me catch a spirit."
Michael was out the door and screaming in a second.
The pounding inside his chest was more than loud enough to drown out the carriages, trams, and bustle of the street; let alone the pounding of his own feet on the cobbled pavement outside.
He had no idea what had truly transpired in that coffin-maker's shop (which he was now rather sure was in fact not open for business), except that Mr. M was either a demon or a madman, and he wanted nothing to do with either.
He had to get home.
Was the Tall Man behind him?
He dared not to look.
He had to get home.
It took Michael only a short time of running to realize that home was not where he was going.
Slowing to a stagger and looking around, he realized that the silence was no longer caused by the pounding of his heart, but by the fact that there were no people around in the first place.
A new feeling of icy terror crept up his spine and into his chest as he realized that he had made a wrong turn somewhere, and was now in a place shadowed by the corpses of empty buildings—a place without humans, a place of darkness even in daylight.
Michael sat on the dirty pavement, once more clasping the rosary to his chest.
This, a small voice seemed to tell him, was a much better place to curl up and die.
And do ye deserve any better? He asked himself. Ye were ready to run home with that Man behind ye...ye might've led him to yer family! What kind of a protector are ye?
He thought of the prostitute without a heartbeat, and of his poor hard-working Mum and innocent younger siblings facing that madman, and a shudder ran through him.
And just how consistent would that be! It was his cowardice that had brought them here, after all—here, to America. It was he who caused his family to have to leave Ireland. And it was leaving Ireland that caused his father to fall ill. How different would it be to lead the Devil to their door?
Dad...I'm so sorry!
Tears streamed down his face, as the thoughts he had tried to bury in his heart since their arrival came bubbling to the surface and overflowed into anguished sobs.
I killed ye, didn't I? I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry...
The pain was like a lump of burning ice in his chest.
He sensed the shadows around him darkening along with his thoughts.
What kind of a son was he? Was it any wonder his father had sent him a demon when he'd asked for an angel?
Even your thoughts betray a cowardly pattern—always ready to flee at your loved ones’ expense.
Is it any wonder, Michael? the shadows seemed to whisper.
Is it, Michael?
Why would he forgive you, Michael?
You are the one who ruined everything, after all.
Why would he forgive you, Michael?
He would not.
The darkness seemed to wrap around him in a cold, yet comforting embrace.
It hurts, doesn’t it, Michael?
"Yes!" he sobbed aloud.
His mind felt cold and foggy, but then so did his heart. So painfully cold...
Your heart hurts...
...Let me make you numb...
A new, sharp stab of ice shot through Michael's breast, and he screamed.
A human voice broke through the darkness, quickening his senses like dawn light stirring a sleeping man.
Swift, long-legged steps echoed through the grave-like area like thunder.
"In the name of God, unhand that Living, Heart Collector!"
There was a sound like a sword swiping the air, and the shadows seemed to shriek into Michael's mind.
Then, suddenly, the sun was shining as bright as noon (most likely because it was noon), and Mr. Mortality towered over him like a majestic scarecrow in a fighting stance, black lapels billowing with motion as he finished cutting an arc through the air with a dangerous-looking scythe.
And then there were feathers. Many black feathers.
So many black feathers, black as death...they filled his vision and echoed in his mind with thoughts of angels and mourning, and angels in mourning...his father cold and silent in his bed while all Heaven cried...a poisonous snowstorm in his chest...
Michael was vaguely aware of the Tall Man's shadow falling over him as he slipped into the darkness.
To be continued...