excerpt from 'Undermajordomo Minor'
By Patrick deWitt
All rights reserved.
Part 1 Lucy the Liar
Lucien Minor's mother had not wept, had not come close to weeping at their parting. All that day he'd felt a catch in his throat and his every movement was achieved in chary degrees, as though swift activity would cause a breach of emotion. They had eaten breakfast and lunch together but neither had spoken a word, and now it was time for him to go but he couldn't step away from his bed, upon which he lay fully dressed, in coat and boots, sheepskin cap pulled low to his brow. Lucy was seventeen years old, and this had been his room since birth; all that he could see and put his hand to was permeated with the bewildering memories of childhood. When he heard his mother positing unknowable questions to herself from the scullery downstairs he was nearly overcome with sorrow. A valise stood alertly on the floor beside him.
Hefting himself from the mattress, he rose, stomping his feet three times: stomp stomp stomp! Gripping the valise by its swiveled leather handle, he walked downstairs and out the door, calling to his mother from the base of the steps before their homely cottage. She appeared in the doorway, lumpily squinting and clapping flour dust from her knuckles and palms.
"Is it time?" she asked. When he nodded she said, "Well, come here, then."
He climbed the five groaning stairs to meet her. She kissed his cheek before peering out over the meadow, scrutinizing the bank of storm clouds roiling up behind the mountain range which walled in their village. When she looked back at him, her expression was blank. "Good luck, Lucy. I hope you do right by this Baron. Will you let me know how it turns out for you?"
"All right. Goodbye."
She re-entered the cottage, her eyes fixed to the ground as she closed the door — a blue door. Lucy could recall the day his father had painted it, ten years earlier. He'd been sitting in the shade of the anemic plum tree marking the inscrutable industries of an anthill when his father had called to him, pointing with the paint brush, its bristles formed to a horn: "A blue door for a blue boy." Thinking of this, and then hearing his mother singing an airy tune from within the cottage, Lucy experienced a dipping melancholy. He dissected the purposelessness of this feeling, for it was true he had never been particularly close with his parents; or rather, they had never cared for him in the way he had wished them to, and so they'd never had an opportunity to achieve any stable partnership. He was mourning the fact that there was nothing much to mourn at all, he decided.
He elected to linger, a favored pastime. Sitting upon his upended valise, legs intertwined fashionably, he removed his new pipe from his coat pocket, handling it with care, much in the way one holds a chick. He had purchased the pipe only the day prior; having never used one before, he took a particular interest as he filled it with the chocolate-and-chestnut-smelling tobacco. He lit a match and puffed, puffed. His head was enshrouded in fragrant smoke, and he felt very dramatic, and wished someone was watching him to witness and perhaps comment on this. Lucy was spindly and pale, bordering on sickly, and yet there was something pretty about him, too — his mouth was full, his black lashes long, his eyes large and blue. Privately he considered himself comely in an obscure but undeniable way.
He adopted the carriage of one sitting in fathomless reflection, though there was in fact no motion in his mind whatsoever. Holding the pipe head in the basin of his palm, he rotated the mouthpiece outward so that it rested between his middle and ring fingers. Now he pointed with it, here and there, for this was what the pipe-smoking men in the tavern did when giving directions or recalling a location-specific incident. A large part of the pipe's appeal to Lucy was the way it became an extension of the body of the user, a functional appendage of his person. Lucy was looking forward to pointing with his pipe in a social setting; all he needed was an audience for whom to point, as well as something to point at. He took another draw, but being a fledgling he became dizzy and tingly; tapping the pipe against the heel of his palm, the furry clump clomped to the ground like a charred field mouse, and he watched the blurred tendrils of smoke bleeding out through the shredded tobacco.
Staring up at the cottage, Lucy cataloged his life there. It had been lonely, largely, though not particularly unhappy. Six months earlier he had fallen ill with pneumonia and nearly died in his bedroom. He thought of the kindly face of the village priest, Father Raymond, reading him his last rites. Lucy's father, a man without God, came home from working the fields to find the priest in his home; he led the man out by the arm, this accomplished in a business-like fashion, the way one shepherds a cat from the room. Father Raymond was startled to find himself treated in such a way; he watched Lucy's father's hand on his bicep, scarcely believing it.
"But your son is dying," Father Raymond said (Lucy heard this clearly).
"And what is that to do with you? I trust you can see yourself out, now. Be a good chap and shut the door when you go." Lucy listened to the priest's hesitant, shuffling steps. After the latch caught his father called out: "Who let him in?"
"I didn't see the harm," his mother called back.
"But who summoned him?"
"I don't know who, dear. He just came around."
"He sniffed out the carrion, like a vulture," said Lucy's father, and he laughed.
In the night, alone in his room, Lucy became acquainted with the sensations of death. Much in the way one shudders in and out of sleep, he could feel his spirit slipping between the two worlds, and this was terrifying but also lovely in some tickling way. The clock tower struck two when a man Lucy had never met entered the room. He was wearing a shapeless sack of what looked to be burlap, his beard trimmed and neat, brown-to-black in coloring; his longish hair was parted at the temple as though it had just been set with a brush and water; his feet were bare and he sported caked, ancient dirt running to the shinbone. He padded past Lucy's bed to sit in the rocking chair in the corner. Lucy tracked him through gummy, slitted eyes. He was not afraid of the stranger particularly, but then he wasn't put at ease by his presence, either.
After a time the man said, "Hello, Lucien."
"Hello, sir," Lucy croaked.
"How are you?"
The man raised a finger. "That's not for you to say." Now he fell silent and rocked awhile. He looked happy to be rocking, as though he'd never done it before and found it fulfilling. But then, as one troubled by a thought or recollection, his rocking ceased, his face became somber, and he asked, "What do you want from your life, Lucy?"
"Not to die."
"Beyond that. If you were to live, what would you hope might come to pass?"
Lucy's thoughts were slothful, and the man's query was a restless puzzle to him. And yet an answer arrived and spilled from his mouth, as though he had no control over the sentiment: "Something to happen," he said.
The man in burlap found this interesting. "You are not satisfied?"
"I'm bored." Lucy began to cry a little after he said this, for it seemed to him a pathetic statement indeed, and he was ashamed of himself, his paltry life. But he was too weak to cry for long, and when his tears dried up he stared at the candlelight and shadows stuttering and lapping against the pale white seam where the wall met the ceiling. His soul was coming loosed when the man crossed over, knelt at the bedside, put his mouth to Lucy's ear, and inhaled. And as he did this Lucy felt all the heat and discomfort leaving his body. The man exited holding his breath and walked down the hall to Lucy's parents' room. A moment later, Lucy's father suffered a coughing fit.
By dawn the color had returned to Lucy's face, whereas his father's was paler, his eyes rimmed red where the lids sprouted lash. At dusk his father was bedridden, while Lucy took heedful steps around his room. When the sun rose the next morning, Lucy felt perfectly well other than a tenderness in his joints and muscles, and his father was dead in bed, his mouth a gory sneer, hands stiffened to claws. The undertakers came to remove the corpse and one of them slipped going down the steps, knocking Lucy's father's head against the edge of the tread. The violence of the blow was such that it punched a triangulated divot in the skull at the forehead, and yet the wound did not bleed, an oddity which the undertakers discussed and commented on in Lucy's presence. Lucy followed the trio out the door and watched as his frozen father was loaded into an unclean cart. The cart departed and the corpse rocked to and fro, as if under its own impulse. A spinning wind swooped under Lucy's nightshirt and the frost from the earth breathed coolly up his ankles. Dancing back and forth on the balls of his feet he waited for a feeling of remorse or reverence which did not arrive, not on that day or any other day, either.
In the months that followed, Lucy's mother's attitude toward him soured further. Eventually she admitted that, though she knew Lucy was not explicitly at fault, she felt him part-way responsible for his father's death, as he had unwittingly transferred his illness to an otherwise healthy man, and so had struck him down before his time. Lucy wanted to speak to his mother of the visitor in the burlap sack, but he had a sense that this was something he mustn't discuss, at least not with her. The episode proved a nagging burden, however, and at night he found himself starting in his bed every time the house settled. When he could no longer bear this feeling, he sought out Father Raymond.
Excerpted from Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt. Copyright © 2015 Patrick deWitt. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins.
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