The air hung lifeless in the room, pressing in close to everything it touched like a nervous dog around its master’s ankles. My head ached and I could feel a pulsing behind my eyes that caused my whole vision to twitch in and out of focus. However, with my thoughts caught in an abyss of nihilism, my physical sufferings were dulled to the back of my mind. I may well have lain there, in an empty universe, for the rest of eternity if the sound had not then come.
It was a peculiar scraping noise, pierced by occasional high pitched percussion. It came from within the walls and echoed in to the room from all four sides. Images of a giant crab pulling its battle scarred shell up inside the cavity sprung into my mind. Its long armoured legs digging into the brickwork with a metallic click as a shower of plaster clouded its progress. Its mandibles flicked and flexed up in my direction as if tasting the air. No sailor had ever seen such an evil creature. Its dark black eyes bored through the walls at me, as if it were just her and me alone on a dessert plain. I could feel the whole room around me shake in response to its lumbering progress.
The sound grew louder as the crab neared my room, its legs working faster and faster, presumably in fevered excitement of closing in on its quarry. The room’s temperature had jumped up several degrees and I could feel myself starting to perspire, a trickle of sweat running down my forehead and dripping onto the bed sheets. The room was getting dark too and I struggled to focus in the mustard yellow gloom. Still the sound grew louder, swelling into the room like an ocean tide. What place was this? What house of hell was this that let sea monsters roam within its walls?
Suddenly a crack like a gun shot rang out and all was silent again. Someone had shot the crab, my thoughts said to themselves, as the room continued to darken.
For the third time, I woke up in the strange bed. I was still propped up against the headboard by the pillow and the oil lamps still burned with the same lackadaisical flicker. I wasn’t alone. Sat beside the bed was the same be-flowered woman who had entered earlier. On her lap was a tray holding a slim glass of water, a torn off crust of bread and a bowl of something grey. I eyed the tray suspiciously, but my head was still spinning and I had lost all my energy to talk or fight.
The woman slowly raised a spoon of the grey liquid too my lips, cupping her hand beneath it so as to catch any drops. It tasted like heavily seasoned water and there were occasional unidentifiable lumps that even in my confused state, I made an effort not to think about.
After a few spoonful’s of the thin soup the woman dabbed my lips tenderly with a napkin. It was hardly the actions of a would be poisoner or kidnapper and new possibilities started to open in my mind. Maybe I knew this woman, maybe she was my wife or my sister. She would know who I was, she’d be able to tell me about my life and, through loving words, reconstruct the man I was back within my being. These fleeting hopes were dashed as soon as she started to speak.
“That’s better Sir, that is the first thing we’ve got you to eat since we found you. You’ve been tossing and turning something awful. How are you feeling?”
“Where am I?”
“You’re safe. We found you two days ago, but you’ve been suffering from a deep fever and for a time we weren’t sure whether you would pull through. You’re looking much better now, though, the colour has returned to your cheeks and you’re temperature has come down. Rest a while longer and maybe when your strength returns you can come down.”
I pushed myself up my pillow a little further, wincing as my back rubbed against the course cotton. Then thin soup seemed to be having an effect and the throbbing in my head was subsiding into a dull ache. As I adjusted my sitting position, my eyes wandered over the tray and spotted a long thin thermometer nestled to one side. The memories of savage sea monsters and wielded syringes felt like distant dreams. I felt more at ease, not completely comfortable or safe, but more like an injured soldier in a field hospital in the Crimea than a tortured captive in a prisoner of war camp. My prospects still might not be very high, but at least I was stricken on the right side.
“What’s your name?” Asked the woman softly, “we found you on the northwards track that cuts through the pine forest. It’s rarely used in summer, let alone the dead of winter, and usually only by the local folk, and you’re clearly not from around these parts. It would take a braver man than most to travel by that road now, not since the two deaths.”
“Deaths?” I hazarded automatically, despite the fact that my mind was still wandering through what the thin woman had said.
“The two Winchester boys, but let us not talk about such things. You need to keep you mind on your recovery. I’ll come with some breakfast in the morning, we don’t have much I’m afraid but I’d rather share what we have than cast you out into the bitter cold.” With this she stood up, deposited the glass of water on the dresser, and retreated out the room. I muttered a thank you to the closing door but my mind was on other things.
I wasn’t local, I was as much a stranger to those who lived here as I was to myself. It sounded like I was in some isolated village that was besieged by a madman or maybe a gang of thugs, murdering the villagers to keep them under control. Maybe I had been beset upon by these men and left to die in the cold of winter. Maybe I was one of those men? I could have attempted a coup, or maybe been a victim of one?
I looked down at my hands. Every new thing I learnt just showed me more of what I didn’t know. Could they be the hands of a murder? Maybe I had been the one who had killed those two boys of which the woman spoke? No, I wasn’t local, I told myself. It couldn’t have been me, I couldn’t be part of a marauding gang. Could I?