Assignment for a LitReactor class, “The Practical Craft of Fantasy.”
Margaret drew the curtain back slowly, taking care not to pull too hard on the thin, slightly musty fabric. The worn beading crinkled beneath her fingers and she took a step inside the tent. She paused a moment for her sight to adjust, blinking back the bright specks of the sundrenched day still lingering in her eyes. Behind her the buzzing of the hurdy-gurdy man she had passed just moments ago mixed with the sharp squeals of a group of children as they ran towards the games of chance on the far midway. She brushed a patch of dust from her skirt as she glanced nervously around the space, taking in the threadbare rugs that lined the floor, their oriental patterns clashing garishly with the many tapestries that hung around the small tent. Margaret took another step towards the lone wicker chair set up in the center of the room and looked around her.
“A fortune for the lass?”
The voice was quiet and lilting, and she jumped a bit as a man slipped his slim frame into the room from behind one of the larger tapestries. He smiled at her and gestured with a gloved hand towards the chair.
“Uh, yes,” she said quickly, looking back and forth once again. “But isn’t there….”
The man laughed softly, opening his arms to encompass the room as he followed her gaze. “Yes, I know. Not quite what you were expecting.”
He began to pull one gray glove off, finger by finger. “I don’t work with those tricks you’ve read about. No crystals or smoke and nonsense needed.” He moved on to the second glove. “And I am no old gypsy woman, either, sorry to say.”
She laughed nervously, for indeed she had expected it to be like in a book. This man was perfectly average. Middle height, thin, with a brown beard and hair of all one short-trimmed length. He wore a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles that seemed to be slightly off-center. If she had passed him in town that day, she would never have glanced twice.
He had finished removing his gloves and tucked them into a pocket on his waist coat. He gestured to the chair again, and she noted his now bare hands were worn thin and speckled with age spots, his nails brittle and yellow.
“I have only these to work with,” he said. “And if you are still willing, we can begin.”
Margaret paused, meeting his gaze. He had a gentle openness about his face, and she took no fear in it. After a moment, she gathered her skirts and sat on the chair.
He stepped forward to stand behind her. “I will touch your temples, and nothing more. Don’t be afraid, now. It will help if you close your eyes.”
She nodded, resting her hands in her lap and letting her eyes fall shut. His fingers touched her temples lightly, just barely brushing against her skin. She could feel the warmth of them as his coarse skin pressed closer to her head. She stifled another nervous laugh and a thought flitted past. This is nonsense, really.
“Quiet now, luv.” His voice was barely more than a whisper, and it seemed to come from right behind her ears.
She tried to push the thoughts away and breathed in deeply and silently through her nose. As she began to exhale a wave of dizziness passed over her, beginning from points on her temples where he held her and moving swiftly down to deep within her chest. Suddenly her bodice felt tight, a great crush of fabric, and even her sleeves and bootlaces seemed to constrict upon her limbs. She tried to breathe in again but it stuck in her throat and her eyes flew open in panic. She felt as if the air itself was strangling her, pinning her down where she sat.
Just as suddenly, the press was gone. She slumped forward with a loud huff of breath as the man released his grip, falling to her knees from the chair. An anger rose in her as she turned back to the man, ready to rail at him for his poor treatment. But just as she moved she saw that he, too, had fallen to the ground. The rage died in her as quickly as it had appeared. The man was shaking as if with palsy, his hands curled in to themselves as he clutched them to his chest.
“I did not know,” he whispered raggedly, his face turned down to where he gripped his own hands together. “I’m so sorry luv, I never would have…”
At that he finally looked up, and the look of sorrow upon his face seemed to sink into her belly.
“What?” she said. She realized she was whispering as well, so she repeated it louder. “What was that?”
He shook his head, avoiding her gaze. “No, no.”
She got up on her knees and reached for him, grabbing his dusty coat by the shoulders. She was angry again, if only to fight the fear that was beginning to grow inside her.
“What did you see?!”
He flinched away from her shout and seemed to gather himself. His trembling slowed and she let go of his coat. “Please tell me.”
He met her eyes once more, the same sorrow still filled his gaze. He reached up to touch her again but pulled his hand back just before her cheek.
“It was your death, luv.” his voice was gentle, calm.
“No,” she said with a shudder. “This is all too silly. You’re just a con man, then, scaring women!” She rose, brushing off her skirts and turned to leave.
“Meg, wait.” He stood as well, reaching towards her.
She stopped, stunned. She had never told him her name.
“Tell me,” he said softly. “How long have you been dead?”