The Red Cloche

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The house was old–ancient by some folks’ reckoning. The flagstone pathway ran in a somewhat straight fashion towards the entrance, and a few carefree wrens flitted around in the foliage. The grounds were in that state of disrepair that, while still showing the original care and love of minutia, clearly advertised the present state of dismal affairs. The property was not obviously abandoned, but a casual observer might have made that pronouncement, had he been asked. A few apple trees stood in one corner of the lawn, drooping with the weight of the load that came so predictably every year. The ground underneath was strewn with half-rotted fruit, and bees, birds, and other wild beasts from the smaller variant of the animal kingdom enjoyed the feast. Various foliar plants overgrew their bounds, and the grass rose in patches throughout the lawn. Helix Hedera had claimed half of the brick facade, and while at one time controlled, it now seemed to enjoy free reign of the mortar and whatever handy crevice might fall under its grasp.

WrenI say that the house might have been deemed abandoned; indeed, even the old iron gate out front seemed to have given leave of its duties and swung freely, unlatched, all the while moaning out some ancient song of dismal gloom. A total abandonment, however, was not the case, as you have probably already guessed. If you were to stand at the road, and carefully watch between the bars of the old fashioned windows with their wavy, opaque glass, you might think that, every so often, a fleeting glimpse of a stray ray of light could be caught, and in rare cases, when the wind howled and the lightning flashed, you might even get the notion that a face had appeared at one of the windows. Soon, after a time or ten, you might start to believe that the old house still served its purpose, and further, if the fancy took you to discuss this in the pub at night, under the influence of some spirit and in the presence of friends, you might decide that you should affirm your theories. Thus, I decided to brave the moaning iron gate and traverse the old flagstones.

The day was chillier than I had anticipated. The wind didn’t exactly whip through the shrubs, but I wouldn’t degrade Euros’ work to a mere breeze. I marched somewhat bravely to the front door. The door knocker was a great cat’s head. Its eyes looked into mine, and I found this the most unnerving thing since I had stepped foot onto the property. At that moment, a wren flitted by and sang on the ivy to my right. I took this as a good omen, and the knocker echoed into the dark hall beyond. The door knob turned, and clenching my teeth with what I hoped was an expression of goodwill, I prepared to meet my host.

A conflict of emotions welled up within me as the door swung open. Foremost in their ranks was surprise, for standing before me, clad in a cream colored silk dress with edges of black and wearing a bright red cloche hat, was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. She wore her black hair fairly short, and her face wore an expression of mild amusement. Fright and confusion closely followed my surprise; I had not expected such a young host, and I certainly was not prepared for one this stunning. My visage must have betrayed me, for she smiled and laughed out, “why, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost!”

I stammered a bit before finding my manners. “Well, yes. I su-suppose I might! My apologies, miss!”

“Do come in; we so very rarely receive guests here. Jane, fix our visitor a cup of tea!”

With that, I quickly removed my shoes and was swept into the hall by the mere force of her personality. “Come with me, our sitting room is the second door on the right.”

The interior of the house could have possessed no greater a degree of a disparate mood to that of the exterior. On the walls hung paintings of men and women, not recognized by myself, but no doubt great in some form or place. The ceilings were made of a polished black wood of some sort, Ebony, if I were to hazard a guess. They reflected the light from the surprisingly bright gas fixtures that lined the halls. The walls were a mahogany paneling, inset with rings and various geometric shapes of cedar, cherry, and other fine woods. The paintings were not hung with any particular reference or pattern, but to say that they were imprecise would be a farce, for each hung as though it could hang in no other spot. The floor was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Someone had taken small pieces of wood, about one to two cubic centimeters in volume–some square, some not, some with no defined shape–and strewn them throughout the entire expanse of the hall so that they sat with corners upended and sides facing every which way. Lacquer had then been poured over all to create a smooth surface. Every so often a shiny trinket or coin had been trapped beneath the sea of clear coat, and the sheen mirrored itself in my hostess’s eyes. She beckoned me into the sitting room, and I took my seat in a plush chair beneath a great painting of some old hunting party.

My wonderment at the house was soon drowned. A chill had swept over my heart, and the reason stood in the second door of the room. An old hag, no doubt the Jane whom my host had summoned, stood with a tray of teapot and cups. If my host was beautiful beyond word, then this woman, if I may call her that, was frightening beyond thought. Her smile cracked the lines of her face as she looked towards my seat, but this expression showed no more pleasure or amiability than the rudest gesture of the most crass of my friends. Her hair sat as if it resented its position on top of such a vile mass, and her clothes, while kempt and undoubtedly expensive, hung on her frame as though they were ashamed of their duty. “Tea?” she said with a look, and though I made no verbal response, I took some with cream and sugar, but still, it was strangely bitter. Again, that horrid smile appeared as she turned away, and I swear that I saw a faint reflection of the same on my host’s face as she too took a cup from the tray.

The beautiful face turned to me and she began to speak, but soon, the room faded, and the red cloche bobbed back and forth as the melodic voice of my host melded into the background, aided, no doubt, by the drug in the cup.

I awoke in a new room. The ceiling was of the same design as the hall, but the floor here was carpeted with a fine, tall carpet that felt like grass beneath my feet. The walls here were barren, except for one painting. The outline of a man stood in depthless space, surrounding by nothing but gray brushstrokes. Almost every detail of the man was complete. His clothes possessed a realism that made me question his status as a painting, but there was one feature which stood out prominently as missing. His face contained no features. As though someone had blurred the head with a skin-tone paint, he stood with no eyes, mouth, nose, or facial hair. Beside him stood a woman. I blinked again, for I hadn’t seen her before in the painting. Her face was too, in the same manner as the man’s, blurred into oblivion. A red cloche sat upon her head, atop her short black hair.

A faint recognition dawned somewhere in the back of my head. I watched as the figures moved and conversed, while the gray made no changes. Slowly, swirling like ripples in water, the painting melded away to nothing, and once more, I fell asleep.

I lifted my head. The rest of my body felt as though it were restrained by some omnipotent force. My vision was foggy, and harsh lighting beat down from above. The voices around me were garbled, and I couldn’t make out my company, but I thought I imagined a blur of red and a menacing smile. I fell asleep.

“We found him last night. He seems to have passed in his sleep. We let him wander when he wanted; he didn’t pose a fall threat or seem to bother anyone else. We think he just came in here, sat down, and just never woke up.”

The man in the white jacket and well-organized attire spoke somberly. The elderly woman with the tear-stained face watched as a gurney was wheeled out towards the door. She didn’t say anything in reply, and her eyes wandered through the common room, pausing on a painting on the opposite wall. The Victorian house was attractive and somehow familiar. A flagstone path lead up to the door, and she moved closer to look into a window, for she was certain that a face had appeared, a familiar face, wearing something she recognized.

She decided that her eyes had deceived her, and walked out through the doors, which were adorned with paper hearts and cut flowers. She passed the desk and the calendar with February 14 circled in red felt pen. She walked down the stairs of the asylum, and as she did, she paused and pulled a hat from her purse, an old red hat that had seen many years and better days. She looked up into the sky and smiled, a smile that cracked the lines on her face. When she got home, she poured herself a cup of tea, a bitter-tasting tea. She fell asleep, and the red cloche fell to the floor.

I don’t often write short stories, but I enjoy them. I started writing a short story for Valentine’s Day four years ago, and I missed last year, so this makes story number three. Enjoy it? Have a great Valentine’s!

(2012’s story and 2013’s story (2014 took a break.))

~ Chris


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There once lived a man who had many dreams. He dreamed so much, in fact, that he was seldom ever awake. Naturally, this did strange things to his metabolism, and he wasn’t the skinniest person to grace the presence of his village. Of course, he lived in a forest village. All people in cool fairy tales do.

This man was a very philosophical dreamer. He dreamt of cats that were both dead and alive, he had visions of caves in which people could see naught but shadows, and he even dreamed of bagels. Obviously, bagels are very philosophical. One day, when he was awake, he decided that he would go for a stroll into town. Town was a grand area. All of the rich, pompous, well-to-do, and educated lived in the town. This was a small town, with the small-town mentality. The ironic thing about the small-town mentality is that the small-towners believe they should treat their small town like a big town. The rich think they are very rich. The pompous are even more inflated than normal. The well-to-do act as if they have nothing to do, and the educated are exceedingly proud of their relative learnedness. Anyway, our man is taking a stroll.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a large person stroll, but it’s can be quite the humorous sight. Descriptively, it’s one of the most gratifying experiences for an author. There happened to be one there that day. In his words:

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. The man walked – nay – waddled off of his front porch. The stairs creaked and flexed under his massive boots. I’m sure the wood cursed the day it was born a tree. His jacket was made of a coarse green wool. The black buttons stood out well; he was missing the third from the top. His white undershirt showed through the gap. His pants were made of a black rough cloth. He wore his wide black belt over his jacket. His boots came to between his knee and his ankle, their brown leather was dusty but new-looking from years of non-use. He ambled down the path to the road. He wheezed quietly as he lifted the gate pin, the wrinkles on his forehead creasing slightly as he looked around. He then turned and sauntered into the sunrise, and I got distracted by my breakfast.

Our friend walked down the road towards the town, and he was soon passed by a taxi. The taxi driver, seeing the ample traveler, slowed his horses and waited for the fellow to catch up.
“Hello, my good sir!” he shouted from the box, “Would you like a ride into town?”
“I do believe I would,” replied the rather winded pedestrian.
“Well then, hop in.”
Of course, hopping was out of the question, but our friend managed to mount the carriage and settle into the seats. In the seat opposite him was a very interesting sight.
“Mrs. Amelia Hogg,” said the lady on the other side of the cab.
“James,” our wide-girthed dreamer said, “my name’s James Darke.”

As stated before, Mrs. Amelia was a very interesting looking lady. Tall, thin, and quite round, not at all unlike a pencil, she was clad in a burgundy dress with black frills and buttons. Perched on her head was the strangest scene of all. I say scene, and you shall soon see why. Upon her head sat a nest. Not just any nest, but a nest made of magical bluewood. In the nest were several kittens, an owl, a mouse, and an egg.The owl appeared to James to be very distinguished. He sat upon the nest and observed the kittens as they played a sort of catch with the mouse. The mouse itself was not being harmed; it would, from time to time, escape the kittens and lick itself. Then the game would begin again. The egg sat nearby and did nothing, as eggs often do.

James stared at the hat for a moment, “you have a very interesting headpiece.”
“Well, it helps to entertain fellow taxi riders.”
“I suppose it does.”
“Do you ever entertain, Mr Darke?”
“Oh yes, I entertain my own fancy all of the time.”
“Not quite what I meant. You see, I like to entertain through projection.”
“Yes, projection of thoughts. It’s a method of viewing others which requires very little interaction and provides great mental entertainment.”
At this James perked up, as much as his rotund figure allowed.
“That sounds right up my alley,” he exclaimed. “I’m a dreamer, you see.”
“Oh, that’s grand! Everyone views certain others this way. Until the projection is replaced, you cannot even think otherwise!”

The conversation droned on for a while longer, but I’ll not bore you with the details. Soon, the taxi arrived in town. Saying farewell, the two parted and went about their respective businesses. James soon became tired and desired to sleep. A nice bench was sitting by a bakery, so he plopped his large frame onto the seat and provided the metalwork with a great deal of added stress. Soon he began dreaming of projections and theories that he had never thought of. “Everyone views someone in an artificial way,” Amelia had said. “Imagine for a moment that you don’t know anyone very well. You’d like to know them, or perhaps they come up in conversation with others. You will base your thoughts, opinions, and even appraisals of that person on your perceived image of them.” A pink kangaroo waltzed by the window. “As you think of these people that you don’t know well, you will begin to form an image of them in your head. You will fill in details where they are lacking. You will predict their actions based on how they respond. You may even insert them into your dreams as filler actors. These people are your projections. They’re quite real inside of your head, but that’s the only place that they exist.” The bench creaks slightly, giving James the illusion that he’s sinking. “It’s fun to provide people with as many skewed samples of yourself as possible. Hence the reason why I wear such a ridiculous hat.”

James awoke with a start. Evidentially, a horse had mistaken his hair as grass and had begun to pull on it. “Well that was odd,” he thought as he walked away, “I don’t think I’ll ever see people anymore.” For you see, we never truly know people, we can only know what we see in them. Someone else may see an entirely different set of attributes from what you see. The projection formed will be quite different from your own. And this is why James went home, ate a large roll of cheese, and didn’t wake up for a week. He met many people in his dreams; some of them were nice, some of them were not, and some of them were even real.