Echoes by Liz Colter

Edward opened a side gate and followed the stone path to the servants’ entrance at the rear of the house. Samuel lagged behind, staring with the wonder of an eight-year old at the hedges clipped into fantastic shapes. The house was less palatial than the homes on nearby St. James Square, but still the grandest that Edward had yet been invited to visit. He knocked at the back door and a man in the immaculate clothes of a head servant led them to a finely appointed sitting room.

Mrs. Winston remained seated as he and Samuel were announced. She was a stout woman in her middle years, with a large wig of brown hair, a heavily powdered face, and a stern countenance that dispelled Edward’s hope of an easy love potion. He felt for echoes in the room, but emotions usually changed as rapidly as thought and he found no clues to what she might be seeking.

“Mr. Ferris. Thank you for coming,” she said, when the manservant left. Her eyes blew a cold breeze over Samuel. “Perhaps your son would play in the back garden while you and I talk.” She rang a small silver bell without giving Edward a chance to reply. A young housemaid appeared. Her dark eyes swept the newcomers.

“Simone,” Mrs. Winston said, “take Master Samuel to the garden and entertain him while I speak with Mr. Ferris.”

“Yes, ma’am.” A subtle French accent colored the maid’s words.

Simone smiled at Samuel and her crooked teeth gave her a sweetness that tugged unexpectedly at Edward. He watched the swish of her narrow skirts as she moved, the bounce of her brown curls, her thin arm as she reached for his son. A kindness in her face, a vulnerability that followed her like a shadow, reminded him of his Mary. Memories of his wife drifted up from their hiding place, the happy recollections followed inevitably by the sad.

Samuel looked to see if he should go with her, and Edward nodded. He preferred Samuel to watch and learn, but not at the risk of displeasing a client.

At a gesture from Mrs. Winston, Edward took a seat. Coffee had been set out and Mrs. Winston poured for them both. Few of her station would have addressed him by his surname, much less offered him refreshment, but his skills provided him a unique status. He’d been inside many homes that would never have allowed him beyond the kitchen or coal cellar under normal circumstances.

Mrs. Winston wasted no time on pleasantries. “I believe you have something I need, Mr. Ferris.” She stirred her coffee with a tiny silver spoon and rested it in the cradle of the saucer.

“I have the means to get potions,” he said, equally cryptic, “as what some folks need.” In truth, what he sold weren’t potions at all, but clients preferred to think of them as such. Of course, the ripples that rolled from strong emotions weren’t echoes either, but that was what Edward had called them since childhood.

“I see.” She took a sip from her cup. “My needs, Mr. Ferris, are to drive a man to suicide.”

Edward nearly dropped his coffee. He started to protest, but she cut him off.

“Perhaps I should start from the beginning.” Mrs. Winston set her cup down and sat back in her chair. She laced her hands together in her lap like one large fist, crushing one of the bows running down the front of her dress. The frills seemed as out of place on her as they would on a man.

“My husband was a successful banker until he met a man named William Waltham. Mr. Waltham convinced my husband to invest in the construction of a new textile mill, then promptly disappeared with the money.” Her voice was level, her delivery matter-of-fact. “My husband was left with nothing. He drowned himself in the Thames three weeks ago.”

“Mrs. Winston, I’m right sorry for your loss, but…”

“Spare me your sympathies, Mr. Ferris. I tell you this only to convince you my reasons for wanting such a potion are just. I have located Mr. Waltham but he never delivered the promised copy of the contract to my husband, and so I have no proof of the crime. The penalty for grand larceny is death, but without proof the courts will not even investigate my charges, leaving Mr. Waltham free to do to another family what he has done to mine. I wish only to see justice served, one way or another.”

She unknotted her hands and placed them on the curved arms of her chair, like a queen giving audience from her throne. “I have some family money still, not enough to stay in this home, but enough to pay you well for your services.” Lifting her cup again, she watched him over the rim as she took a sip, defying him to deny her this justice.

He had never liked providing clients with echoes for revenge, but this…

Mrs. Winston noted his hesitation. “Mr. Ferris, I have made myself familiar with these potions that you supply. What I ask is little more. Sorrow and regret are close cousins to despair, are they not? Love potions make the paying party happy, but how have you affected the lover? You alter people’s lives all the time.”

Edward flinched at the truth in her words.

“I realize my ultimate goal may not be met,” she continued. “If Mr. Waltham lives out his miserable life feeling only half the despondency my husband experienced, I must be content with that. Word of mouth, however, has given me much faith in the efficacy of your potions.”

He tried again. “Mrs. Winston, the way this works is I have to find me someone of the mindset I need. Someone as has the exact right emotions.” He had never divulged his methods to a client before, but hoped this small revelation would dissuade her. “I don’t know how I’d start for somewhat like this.”

That wasn’t entirely true. Images of his mother flowed like tendrils of mist into his thoughts.

“I see.” Mrs. Winston heaved herself out of her chair and walked to a small box decorated with mother-of-pearl. Removing something from the box, she returned to her chair. “If my situation does not move you to aid me, Mr. Ferris, perhaps this will.”

She leaned forward and placed five gold sovereigns on the table in front of him. “There will be that much again on delivery of the potion. Perhaps that will help you to find what it is that you need.”

The most he had ever charged a client was one pound. She offered him ten. He and Samuel could live for a year on that much. The threat of eviction he received earlier this month could be resolved by this evening; the worry that he and Samuel would be turned out into the street, gone. More important than anything, though, the money could be used to ensure that Samuel learned a proper trade. His son could be spared the need to work with echoes.

He picked the coins up, felt the weight of them in his palm.

“I take it that’s a yes?” she said.

“Yes,” he whispered.

#

“Was she wanting a love potion?” Samuel asked on the way home. He picked up a stick lying in the street and tapped the cobbles as he walked. Edward didn’t answer and Samuel changed the subject. “Miss Simone stayed outside with me the whole time. She showed me the garden an’ we played with a white cat named Bangles. Miss Simone had a son, but he died little an’ her husband died too.”

Simone. She had offered them tea before their walk home and, uncharacteristically, Edward had accepted. She and the cook had chatted with them in the kitchen, yet she never asked why someone of his station had been entertained by her employer. Simone ruffled Samuel’s hair, smiled her crooked smile, and watched Edward with her chocolate brown eyes. It had affected him in a way that nothing else had in a long while. It was all foolishness, though. God had not allowed him to keep Mary and, with his strange life, he was not like to have another wife.

“Did you use a love potion on mother?” Samuel asked.

The question startled Edward from his thoughts. Samuel rarely asked about the mother who had taken her last breath as he breathed his first. Edward shook his head. “I didn’t figure how to make potions until after she passed. I didn’t need none for her anyhow.”

They turned onto Thames Street. Edward reached down and took Samuel’s hand as they entered the bustling crowds of central London. The smells of hot sausages and fresh bread wafted from stalls on the bridge, competing with the sour smell of charnel in the Thames. Out of habit, Edward scanned the myriad faces they passed, looking for donors; someone hinting at deep, obsessive emotions, someone he could shadow for days or weeks until the emotion was as ripe as a summer pear and the echoes from it strong enough to harvest. Samuel was quicker, though. Just past the bridge he squeezed Edward’s hand and nodded.

“He fancies her.”

Edward looked where Samuel indicated, to a trio of people standing at a carriage just ahead. A footman was holding the door as a gentleman helped a much younger woman up to the seat. Edward felt nothing from the man. They were nearly past the group when it struck Edward, the faint waves of yearning rolling from the footman.

“Did you see or feel it?” Edward asked Samuel, when they were beyond the carriage.

“I felt it,” Samuel said, swishing his stick at a rat in the gutter.

A chill skittered across Edward’s bones. He wondered, not for the first time, just how strongly their strange family trait ran in his son. For Samuel’s sake he prayed that it would not be too strong for him to bear.

“When’ll I get to harvest echoes?” Samuel asked, looking up at him.

“I’ve told you afore, not for a long time. Emotions is powerful things.” Echoes he had harvested and carried in his breast came to life again in his memories – powerful lust, painful yearning, crushing sorrow and regret. Gathering them did nothing to the donor, like absorbing heat from the rays of the sun did nothing to the sun, but the thought of Samuel filling his small body with the intensity of those obsessive emotions was horrific.

#

The lamplighters were firing the oil wicks in the streetlamps by the time Edward and Samuel arrived at their narrow row house in the East End. Edward took his coat off and hung it on a nail by the door then held out his hand for Samuel’s coat. Samuel fished a canning jar out of the pocket before handing it to him.

“What’s that, then?” Edward asked.

Samuel looked guilty. “Miss Simone said I could keep it.” He held up the jar for his father to inspect the contents: a green rock and a black cricket.

“O’course you can keep it,” he said, handing it back.

Samuel grinned and ran for the kitchen. He set the jar on their small table and threw an armful of wood on the coals of the kitchen fire. He swung the iron kettle over the flames for tea and set out plates and salt cod for dinner. Edward sat at the table, careful not to rock the uneven legs and tip Samuel’s jar.

It had been hard raising Samuel alone, but at least he was a better father than his own had been. His father’s violence had been hard enough, but the echoes had made it so much worse. Both Edward and his mother had relived the anger and fear of each event over and over, sometimes for days before the echoes dispelled. Over the years, his mother became increasingly withdrawn, though she refused to leave her husband. Edward hadn’t seen her for nearly a year now, not since she’d tried to hang herself.

He wracked his brain for any donor for Mrs. Winston’s potion other than his mother. Harvesting echoes had no ill effect on the donor – no more than collecting their tears or bottling their breath would – but the cost to Edward would be dear. Feeling the echoes of his mother’s hopelessness when he was young had been heartbreaking; to absorb the depth of her current despair into his own body would be hellish. Donors weren’t easy to find though, even for love potions. The emotions had to be strong enough to do the job. It could take months to find someone just right for this. Someone else, at least.

#

The following morning Edward opened the under-stair cupboard and pulled a wooden box from its recesses. Two blue phials containing love and a single green phial holding sorrow were all that remained of his potions. Not only were they challenging to collect, but he didn’t dare sell them frequently enough to attract the attention of the law. Among the empty containers in the box were some clear phials for the occasional odd request but, in general, few people sought anything other than love or revenge.

Edward placed an empty phial in his pocket and left Samuel in the care of a neighbor, then stopped at his landlord’s and paid the surprised man a year’s rent in advance before beginning his journey. He weighed again the personal cost, body and soul, to collect this potion against his and Samuel’s need for the money. Again the scales favored need.

An hour later he crossed Moorfields and the outline of Bethlem Royal Hospital appeared beyond the open fields. Bedlam – as most folk called it – loomed heavy and foreboding, like a pale, stone monster unable to move for the sheer mass of victims it had gorged upon. Multiple eyes of black barred windows dotted the walls, and the shrieks and moans drifting from those windows sounded like nothing human. Somewhere within the bowels of that monster lay his mother.

Edward had never been able to bring himself to visit and dreaded doing so now. The judge had ruled her suicide attempt a moral insanity. He hadn’t believed she was mad then, but she surely would be now – locked for months in this wretched place with the echoes of lunatics all around her.

The front door was open, but just beyond the forecourt stood a metal gate. The smell wafting through the bars was a potent mix of unwashed bodies and human waste, feathered over the odor of dirt and mold that clung to the walls of the old building. Edward stood at the gate, watching the lunatics in the long gallery cavort and cry. There were only men that he could see, but he could hear women’s voices off to his right. Peering that way, he made out a set of bars dividing the inmates by gender into east and west wings.

The echoes drove into his brain like iron spikes. Anger. Fear. Despair. Hate. They pounded on his body like hammers. The inmates were obsessed with their private hells, and the echoes of their emotions filled the long gallery, reverberating again and again off the thick walls. The urge to run from the asylum nearly overwhelmed him. Instead, he rang a small bell hanging at the upper corner of the gate.

The man who approached wore a dirty linen shirt with no coat. His long trousers of faded blue had the look of old sailor’s clothing. Even Edward’s worn black coat and wash-water grey stockings were in better repair.

“Visitors come ‘round Tuesdays and Sundays, mate,” the guard said. “You can watch the lunatics anytime for a penny, though, if that’s what you’re after.”

If he left now, Edward wasn’t sure he would ever return.

“I’m of a need to see someone today. Etta Ferris.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a shilling. “This for your trouble of letting me in on an off day.” He pushed the silver coin through the bars, glad he had thought to bring it.

The guard grinned a wolfish smile. He lifted a hand that was truncated to a thumb and the first two fingers, angling from the second knuckle to the wrist in a long, puckered scar. Grabbing the small coin awkwardly, he slipped it into a pocket and pulled a key from under his shirt to open the barred gate.

At the squeal of the hinges, an inmate in the center of the room stopped pacing and stared. He was silver-haired but sturdy. Suddenly he was moving, grunting wordlessly, legs pumping as he rushed for the gate. Edward stepped back, alarmed. A burly man, another guard judging by the keys he carried, hit the lunatic in the chin with his elbow and the old man crumpled.

“Is she curable or incurable?” Edward’s guard asked, turning back to him from the commotion.

Edward stared at the old man on the floor. Waves of frustration radiated from the inmate as he rolled into a ball and sobbed. “Incurable,” Edward said faintly. That had been the doctor’s diagnosis on her admission.

“Right, then, I think I know her.”

The guard led Edward across the room and unlocked a door just in front of the bars to the women’s side. Edward followed him up a set of stairs, through another locked door to the right, and into the incurable women’s ward.

The smell hit him like a fist, sour and far stronger than below. Some women were chained to the walls or the floor, others were loose. Sores were untreated, feces was smeared about, and Edward’s shoes peeled from the sticky floor with a crackling sound. The echoes beat on his mind and his nerves until he thought he would begin raving as well. He wondered if even ten sovereigns could be worth this hell.

The guard walked ahead, oblivious to Edward’s torment. “Here y’are, mate.” He stopped and pointed. The woman was not chained but lay on her side on the filthy floor, unmoving, eyes wide. She was skeletal. “‘Fraid she won’t last much longer, she won’t eat no more.”

Tears stung Edward’s eyes as he took in the familiar pattern on the torn and faded dress that had once been her best, the brownish-blonde hair unwashed and matted with dirt, the narrow back that had cringed at echoes, but had been straight and strong when protecting him from his father’s drunken outbursts. He crouched down next to her, wondering if Bedlam would be his fate as well someday. He smothered the thought before it turned to Samuel and what his future might hold.

“Mum?” He said it quietly, as if not to disturb her. There was no response, no sign she recognized him.

“She ain’t spoke a word since she come here,” the guard said.

Edward didn’t need to wonder why. He could feel despair tolling from her like a great bell, ringing in his bones and chiming the sadness of her life. At least she wouldn’t suffer much longer. The will to die pulsed within her, stronger than blood. The echoes of it buffeted at him like a sad wind.

He wondered if he was strong enough to handle the intensity of her despair. Taking an echo of yearning or lust into his body was enough to muddle his brains and fill his heart with desire until he could exhale it into a phial; the prospect of taking in a sadness so deep that death was preferable terrified him. He felt for the phial in his pocket, reassuring himself he would only have to carry the emotion in his body until he was out the front door.

Edward kissed his mother gently on the forehead and said a silent prayer for her soul. Anxious to be gone from here, he tipped his head back and unlocked that strange place deep in his chest that he had discovered. The place that allowed him to harvest and hold the echoes.

He took a cautious breath, terrified that the emotions of two hundred lunatics would flood into him like a river finding an open weir gate. He knew his mother’s emotions well, though, and narrowed his focus on them. Her despair sifted into his lungs, sinking naturally to the spot beneath his breastbone. No other echoes followed. He breathed deeper, harvesting her sad bounty. When he had taken all he could hold, he locked the echoes in his chest.

Relief at his success lasted only a second before the echoes took effect. The terrible desolation of spirit was stronger than he could have imagined. It threatened to crush him to the floor. Despair and hopelessness overwhelmed him, suckling on his energy and will. He knew if he didn’t leave quickly, he might not leave at all. Edward pushed himself up from his knees, standing unsteadily.

“I’ll go now.” His voice was a whisper. The guard had seen nothing of his struggle; he nodded and led him back down the stairs.

The distance to the front door seemed twice what it had been before. Edward was despondent beyond tears, beyond words – beyond life. He held fast to the reason he had undertaken this awful task, the money that would help Samuel. He wondered if experiencing this despair was his penance for selling the echoes, inflicting them on the criminal, even if it was the man’s just due. When he finally reached the barred gate, the guard fumbled with the key.

Without warning, Edward was struck from behind. His body crashed into the bars and there was a sickening crunch from his coat pocket where he had placed the small phial. A sharp pain needled into his hip as a sliver of glass pierced the skin. His guard turned and swung at the old man who had run for the door when Edward arrived. The lunatic fell backward and the second guard wrestled the man to the floor.

When the two-fingered guard finally opened the gate, Edward threw himself out into the cool, fall air and stood on the front lawn, shaking. The fright of the incident was nothing to the horror of the broken phial. He slipped his hand gingerly into his pocket and pulled out the shards of glass, dropping them onto the lawn.

The journey home was torture. His mother’s hopelessness and misery dragged at him like a weight, trying to pull him to the ground. It whispered at him to give up, to give in, to lie down and die. It mercilessly nurtured every sorrow he had ever felt and revived them as if they were new. Near home he tripped and stumbled, falling to the gutter. Unwilling to get up again, he lay with his face against the horse piss and offal of the streets, and wished the sludge deep enough to drown him.

A hand pulled at one coat sleeve. “Ist tha’ druffen o’ yonderly?”

The northern accent was almost too thick to understand. “Ill,” Edward managed, crawling to his knees. “Not drunk.”

Strong arms tugged him to his feet. “Tha’s bist git ter ‘oome.”

Home. Samuel.

Edward nodded and waved off further help. He moved forward once again.

When Edward finally reached his house, he groped for the skeleton key. Throwing the door open, he stumbled to the under-stair cupboard. He dropped to his knees and rummaged for the first bottle he could find.

Lifting the glass to his mouth, Edward exhaled the dreadful echoes. Instead of flowing out easily with his breath, they came out reluctantly, thick and sticky. He corked the bottle, folded himself on the floor, and wept.

#

The next morning, Edward was unable to rise from bed. He needed to deliver the potion to Mrs. Winston today to collect the rest of his fee, but even that failed to motivate him. His mother’s despair had been too heavy and he had carried it too long. It had formed a bond with his loneliness, with unhappy memories of his childhood, his wife’s death, and with the gloom that poverty brought. He had become a victim of his own potion, the echoes blending with his native emotions until there was no telling one from the other.

Guilt plagued him over the thought that Samuel would live now with his depression, just as Edward had lived with his mother’s. Samuel brought him tea and pleaded for him to rise. Edward knew he had to get up; he had to get the money for Samuel.

When they arrived at Mrs. Winston’s, Samuel went with Simone to the garden while Edward was shown to the sitting room. He handed the phial to Mrs. Winston.

“And now?” she asked.

“I take no part in giving the potion,” Edward replied.

“Yes, Mr. Ferris, I am aware of that. How do you suggest I proceed?”

“The man must breathe the potion in. It’s best done by placing the open bottle close under a person’s nose when they’re asleep, and whispering them a suggestion.”

“I see,” Mrs. Winston said. Her steely gaze pinned him. “Do you believe this will work, Mr. Ferris?”

“I do,” Edward said, chilled by the thought of the strength of the echoes in that tiny jar.

Mrs. Winston strode to the mother-of-pearl box and returned with the remaining five gold sovereigns. They gleamed when she placed them in the palm of his hand. She saw him to the hallway where the manservant stood waiting, having just called Simone and Samuel in from outside. Samuel was shoving something into his pocket.

“What do you think?” Samuel asked the maid, eyes shining with a happiness that Edward rarely saw.

“I think it smelled like summer,” she replied in her lilting accent, smiling at the boy.

Edward wondered what new treasures Samuel had collected from the garden, flowers perhaps. Simone looked up then and saw him, as did Samuel.

“Come now,” Edward said. “Time to leave.”

“He’s a lovely boy,” Simone said. Her gaze lingered on Edward a moment longer than necessary, appraising him and making him self-conscious. She smiled her crooked smile at him.

They followed Simone through the kitchen. “A cup of tea before you go?” she asked.

Samuel looked up at him with pleading eyes.

Despondency rang inside Edward like a funeral bell and he was in no mood for flirtation. Even if he mistook the look in her eyes, he was not fit company for conversation of any sort.

“I cannot,” he said.

She ruffled Samuel’s hair in farewell and stood watching from the door as they left.

#

Edward awoke the next morning to find Samuel staring at him. The boy was already dressed, standing at his bedside with an anxious expression.

“Can we visit Miss Simone today?”

Simone. The name stirred something warm inside him. It sounded sweet on Samuel’s lips, familiar, as if Edward had just heard her name a moment before. Perhaps he had been dreaming of her. Of her sweet, crooked smile.

“We’ll not be going round to Mrs. Winston’s anymore.” The thought disturbed him. He realized that he wanted to see Simone again.

Samuel continued to stare at him. Edward looked into his young face, tight with hope. “We don’t see clients afterwards, you know that, and anyways they’ll be moving soon.”

“Maybe you could have a note sent afore they go, an’ we could meet her at a tea shop or somewhat, as you could pay with the money you made.” It tumbled out in a fountain of hopeful words.

Yes. What would be so wrong with that?

Edward sought inside for the despondency of the past two days and felt it lessened, diluted. Instead of a depression he had believed would drag him down the same well as his mother, a buoyant anticipation overlay it now. He remembered the appraising look Simone had given him before they left, and smiled to himself.

And then he remembered waking to Samuel at his bedside as he dreamed of Simone.

Edward sat up in bed and stared at Samuel. The boy’s face went wide and guilty.

“I just thought it would be nice to see her again. I liked her so much and she reminded you o’mother.”

How did Samuel know that? He couldn’t have felt the echoes of such a flitting emotion. Or could he?

Edward threw off the bedcovers and hurried downstairs in his nightshirt. He pulled open the under-stair cupboard and yanked the box out. Both love potions were there.

Samuel appeared at his side, looking as contrite as only an eight year-old could. Edward rested on one knee in front of the cupboard, confused. “Samuel, what have you done?”

The boy answered in a mumble. “She liked you, an’ you’ve been so sad.”

“Did you use a potion on her, Samuel?”

“No.” He shook his head emphatically, looking surprised at the accusation.

“Did you use one on me?”

Samuel studied the toes of his boots.

Edward reached forward and fished in Samuel’s pocket, coming up with a blue phial. “Where’d this come from then?”

“I took an empty to Mrs. Winston’s yesterday,” Samuel confessed without looking up. “I talked about you to Miss Simone an’ then told her I was smelling the flowers I held, and then I said I was breathing the flowers into the bottle I brought.” He looked up, pleading. “She’s a’feared to lose her job an’ her home. An’ she does like you. She likes me too.”

“Samuel,” Edward squeezed the phial in his hand nearly to the breaking point, “you’re telling me you harvested echoes from her?”

The boy nodded, tears welling in his eyes.

“What could you o’possibly harvested?” Every echo Edward had ever harvested, even love, had been obsessive, nearly violent in strength. He had felt nothing from Simone.

“The liking you and the hoping I guess,” the boy mumbled.

Edward pushed himself off the floor and sank into the hall chair. He should rage fit to match one of his father’s rages. He should beat the boy for using a potion on him, even though he had sworn he would never raise a hand to his son. Instead, Edward sighed. He was the one who had taught the boy after all.

When he let go of the anger, other feelings drifted to the surface and he recognized them now – hope, desire and anticipation – the gentle aspects of early infatuation. They muted his despair until he hardly felt it. He had never imagined such quiet emotions could counter such brutal ones.

So Simone liked him. Unlikely as it seemed, perhaps it was possible. After all, she had touched something in him just in their brief time together. She missed her son and her husband, and genuinely seemed to like Samuel. Perhaps tea was not such a bad idea.

His voice, when he found it, was gentle. “Put that bottle up where you found it.”

Samuel put everything away and closed the cupboard door. Edward stood, his heart lightened with possibilities. With hope. He pictured Simone ruffling the boy’s hair and felt an urge to do the same.

“Let’s see about having a note sent ‘round to Miss Simone, shall we?”

2 thoughts on “Echoes by Liz Colter

  • August 12, 2015 at 2:25 pm
    Permalink

    Beautiful, sweet story. I’m so glad I read it.

    Reply
  • August 14, 2015 at 10:51 pm
    Permalink

    I’ve had the pleasure to read several of Liz Colter’s stories and have always been entertained! This was no exception. Great work, Liz!

    Reply

Leave a Reply