Aphelion Issue 221, Volume 21
September 2017
 
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Winter In Ziegelberg

by Agnieszka Halas




Fog swirled through the streets of Ziegelberg. Not many people were about at this hour. A thin drizzle of rain was falling, and gas lanterns cast their flickering light on the wet pavement. Stella Fenchel quickened her step, clenching her teeth as she walked through the puddles in her old, leaking shoes. Her stockings were already soaked, her feet numb with cold.

Under her arm she carried a small bundle, wrapped in a shawl.

Mechler's pawnshop was located at the end of a blind alley, behind an ugly tenement house, one of many. All the paint had peeled from the sign that hung over the door, but the owner was in no hurry to do something about it. Prospective clients had no trouble finding their way here.

Inside, the air stank of mustiness and mothballs, but it was warm. On the shelves and counter, numerous boxes were piled; Stella could only guess at their contents. The moneylender was warming himself by a small stove, his feet propped up on a stool. He was smoking a pipe and leafing through the client register, a thick, leather-bound book.

"Oh, it's you," he muttered without taking the pipe out of his mouth. "That silver snuffbox you brought last time is gone. Last Thursday a client came along and bought it. Told you this would happen."

"That's all right, father doesn't use snuff any more," Stella answered quietly. She had pulled her beret off when she entered and now regretted it, aware that her unkempt hair made her look even scruffier and more pitiful. She tried not to let her gaze wander towards the half-open stove door, behind which the coals glowed so invitingly.

"Well, don't stand there, show me what you've brought," snapped the moneylender.

She laid her bundle on the counter. Her fingers were so numb she couldn't untie the knot. Mechler finally grew impatient, laid his book aside and got up to help.

The shawl contained a rolled-up black frock coat. The moneylender unfolded it, gave it a brisk shake, then examined it critically.

"The cuffs are threadbare." He grimaced slightly. "And the cut is outmoded. Five marks."

"Five..." Stella was dismayed, but Mechler only shrugged, sucking the mouthpiece of his pipe.

"The ragpicker won't give you any more," was his phlegmatic answer.

Stella bit her lip. The frock coat had a silk lining and, although used, was in good condition, without a single stain. They could sell it to a clothing dealer for nine, maybe even ten marks - just as Clotilde had sold her dresses. But the frock coat was Fredrik's favorite, very special frock coat, his pride. And Fredrik was, of course, harboring the illusion that if they pawn it, sooner or later he will be able to redeem it.

* * *

On the way back, she wrapped the shawl around her head and neck, because the wind was growing colder by the minute. The streets were empty; even the beggars who usually sat huddled by the cathedral had disappeared. The drizzling rain had changed into fiercely lashing sleet. Narrowly avoiding a passing cab, Stella crossed the street to take cover in a small corner store. She hastily shut the door behind her. Its inner surface was adorned with a faded poster depicting a pinafore-clad wooden puppet: an advertisement for Frau Fleiss's Magical Scouring Powder.

The store's owner, Mr. Ackermann, as good-natured as he was corpulent, frowned when he saw her.

"You've come back? You're not getting another crumb for credit! Tell your father..."

"I'm sorry," Stella whispered, laying money on the counter. "I've come to settle our account."

The shopkeeper looked slightly abashed. He cleared his throat, counted the coins, then gave her a friendlier look.

"Do you want anything today?"

"A loaf of bread and a package of tea. The cheapest," she added quietly.

"Watch out for yourself," said Mr. Ackermann as he handed her the goods and a couple of pfennigs of change. "This weather is horrible! I declare I never saw such a cold autumn!"

As she came out of the store, Stella flinched when she heard a distant boom. Once, twice, then thrice. She hurried to the end of the street, from where it was possible to see the river and the duke's castle on the other side.

Smoke was rising from the battlements - the cannons had been firing. And it was easy to guess why.

Above the castle, like a ghastly butterfly, hung the misty silhouette of a man in a long cloak and a broad-brimmed hat.

The Vagabond.

He floated down and extended his hand, as though to grab the flag that was flapping on the top of the highest tower. Stella stared, mouth agape, forgetting the cold.

Fire flashed on the battlements, and the cannons thundered again. The Vagabond drifted higher, disappearing in the grayness. He did not reappear. The show was over. Stella slowly set out for home.

* * *

The dark, dank stairway stank of mildew and cat urine. As Stella descended to the basement, the sound of raised voices came to her ears - Fredrik and Clotilde were arguing. Intrigued, she stopped behind the door to listen.

"I won't have it!" her stepmother cried angrily. "Not for worlds, do you hear? Are you out of your mind? She's only a child, for pity's sake!"

The conjurer muttered something in answer. Clotilde banged her fist on the table.

"That's enough! I don't want to hear another word! If you're so smart, why don't you sell Conchita?"

Silence fell; Fredrik obviously didn't have the energy to continue arguing. Stella opened the door.

"I'm back," she said cheerfully, pretending not to notice the tension hanging in the air. Clotilde, who was standing by the stove, stirring the contents of a small pot, muttered something under her breath; Fredrik lay in bed, face turned to the wall, and didn't reply. Only Conchita, their golden kingbird - the last reminder of the happy days when their circus still toured the country - chirruped melodiously in greeting.

Stella unwrapped her shawl and took off her coat. Glancing into the cracked mirror, she ran her hands through her short, untidy hair. Not a week ago she had sold her braid to a wigmaker.

With a sigh she kicked off her shoes and sat down on a rickety chair to peel off her wet stockings.

"I've seen the Vagabond," she said, extending her bare feet towards the stove.

Fredrik sat up, forgetting that just a moment earlier he had been angry, resentful and pointedly silent.

"Where?!"

"Over the castle. They were shooting cannons to drive him away."

"Bunch of superstitious fools," Clotilde muttered, still stirring furiously.

"Superstitions, indeed! If the Vagabond hovers over anyone's house, that's a sure sign of somebody's impending death. Everyone in Ziegelberg knows that. I wonder who will die in the castle tonight."

"A couple of days ago I heard Mr. Ackermann tell a woman what happened last summer," Stella volunteered. "The Vagabond appeared above the town hall a day or two after cholera had broken out in the suburbs, and shortly afterwards the mayor and several of his councilmen died. Mr. Ackermann says that the duke would pay a king's ransom if someone would drive the Vagabond away. But nobody can do it. The duke has already enlisted the help of sorcerers and astrologists from Nurenberg, from Prah, even from Krakov... But nobody could do anything."

"Stella, bring the spoons," said Clotilde. "The gruel is ready."

Fredrik ate his portion from the only bowl that was left in the cupboard; Stella and her stepmother had to eat straight from the pot. The gruel was thin and tasteless, but Stella was too famished to complain.

The conjurer had no appetite. He was still poking the bowl's contents with a spoon long after Clotilde and Stella had finished eating.

"No salt," he said gloomily.

Clotilde, now busy with the samovar, shrugged.

"All gone. You haven't bought any, have you?" she asked, turning towards Stella, who shook her head.

"Not enough money."

"But you've been to Mechler's?"

"Yes." Stella's smile faded.

"How much did you get?"

"Five marks."

Silence fell.

"Damn that filthy thief," muttered Fredrik at last.

"I'm sorry," Stella added in a whisper.

"Don't be, it's not your fault." Clotilde handed her a mug. "Drink while it's hot. The last thing we need now is you falling ill."

Stella took a sip of the steaming liquid. The weak, unsweetened tea was anything but palatable, but at least it was warm.

"May I have a piece of bread? Just a tiny one?"

Clotilde shook her head sadly.

"We must save the bread for tomorrow, pet. There's nothing else left in the cupboard."

* * *

The clouds hung low, almost touching the rooftops. A thin drizzle of rain was falling.

Feeling utterly hopeless, Stella mechanically juggled her little leather balls. Toss, toss, catch, catch. She kept losing rhythm and dropping them because her fingers were so cold and stiff.

It was too chilly and wet to dress up in tricot and tights and show some acrobatics on the sidewalk. She didn't have the energy to sing. So she just stood there in her shabby everyday clothes and juggled clumsily, feeling utterly pathetic.

People passed her without a second glance. The marketplace was nearly empty - most vendors had already closed their stalls.

Stella looked up at the clock that adorned the facade of the town hall, and shivered. Above the rooftops, a misty figure was floating, clad in a cloak and broad-brimmed hat, barely visible in the gray sky.

Stella froze. With predictable results. Someone laughed mockingly, someone else booed.

The Vagabond floated away with the wind, disappearing behind the rooftops.

Gritting her teeth, Stella gathered up the balls. And nearly dropped them again when she saw who was coming.

Albert the clown, whom Fredrik had christened "The Spider" because of the young man's amazing thinness. Their Albert, who used to dress up in tight red trousers, put on an orange wig and a large wooden nose. He could imitate the calls of every bird and animal imaginable, he knew an inexhaustible store of naughty jokes, he could amuse and entertain the most jaded and unenthusiastic of audiences.

She barely recognized him; he was elegantly dressed, a good twenty pounds heavier and sporting a fashionable goatee.

Stella waved, smiling. She was sure Spider would laugh delightedly when he saw her, perhaps invite her into the nearest coffee shop for a hot drink and a slice of cake.

She was wrong. He glanced at her and passed her without saying anything. At first, Stella was at a loss for words. Then she threw her balls down and ran after him.

"Albert! Hey, Albert!"

For a moment she thought he would ignore her, but he didn't. He stopped and faced her.

"Stella, is that you? I didn't recognize you, I'm sorry," he lied without flinching. "How's Fredrik doing? Is he better?"

"No, he's not. He's much worse." She gazed straight into Spider's eyes with the hope that some trace of conscience might stir in him after all. A forlorn hope.

"How awful." Albert didn't look concerned at all. "Well, say hello to him for me. Excuse me, I really must run."

* * *

"So ungrateful." Clotilde shook her head sadly. "And you took him in from the streets, remember?"

Fredrik only shrugged, pretending to be completely absorbed in the solitaire he was playing on the coverlet. Conchita chirped sadly.

Stella opened the cage to slip in a dish of fresh water and another one with a handful of grain. The bird fixed her with its intelligent dark gaze. Its eyes seemed to ask whether there's any chance of a better meal.

"We have nothing else," said Stella in an apologizing tone. And, as usual, Conchita nodded in answer, as though she understood that they can't afford fruit or nuts.

With a sad heart Stella noticed that the bird's golden plumage had lost its luster, and in some spots, the feathers were actually changing color. The once-luxurious tail now hung down miserably like a tattered mop.

"Conchita is turning gray," Stella whispered to her stepmother when Fredrik was too engrossed in his solitaire to pay attention.

"I know, I've noticed," Clotilde answered with a sigh. She was mending a pile of stockings by the window. Other people's stockings, of course. She could only earn a few pfennigs this way, but those pfennigs, together with Stella's earnings, were enough to pay the rent, at least. Otherwise they'd all be homeless long before now. "We can't help it, pet."

"What's wrong with her?"

"Not enough sun, too cold and we're not feeding her properly. It's a pity we didn't sell her to that trader when we had the chance."

"What are you two whispering about?" Fredrik gathered his cards together and shuffled them deftly. "Come here, Stella," he said without waiting for an answer. "I'll teach you that trick of mine, the one with three queens and an ace."

At first, Stella was pleased - until now, Fredrik had only showed her simple card tricks, saying that her fingers were clumsy and he had no patience to teach her the more difficult ones. Then she felt a twinge of uneasiness, remembering what he often said, half in jest - that he would like to pass all his professional secrets on to someone before he dies.

"You can show me tomorrow, it's getting dark now. I'd rather hear a story," she said, and sat down at the foot of the bed. She knew her father would soon relent.

"Very well, dear. What shall it be?"

"Tell me about the Vagabond."

"Are you sure?" he asked in surprise. "That's a sad story, Stella. And I don't really know that much about him."

"That's all right. Tell me what you know. Who is he, I mean who was he before he died?"

Fredrik rubbed his forehead, drawing breath sharply when the apple-sized tumor in his armpit reacted to the movement with a stab of pain.

"From what I've heard, the Vagabond's real name was Arne Tilsen, and he used to be a sorcerer. Neither good nor evil, just a sorcerer. He was born many miles from here, in Danmark. He had studied in Kobenhavn and Nurenberg, and with time he gained considerable fame. They say he could turn animals into people and people into animals, and he constructed flying chests, talking caskets and other fantastic objects."

"The master doll makers from Prah construct dancing dolls without any magic at all," Clotilde interrupted, laying down the stocking she was working on.

"Dancing dolls!" Fredrik snorted. "When the Vagabond visited the Anglic queen's court, he presented the monarch with a little golden tree which bloomed with rubies every spring, and also a diamond-studded nightingale that sang more beautifully than any living bird. The gold and jewels had been conjured out of thin air, of course."

"Come on, that can't be true." Stella smiled.

"Well, of course I can't attest personally that it is. Then the Vagabond came here, to Ziegelberg, and the duke asked him for a favor. It must have been something no self-respecting sorcerer would have done, because Tilsen declined. And had to face the consequences."

"They killed him?"

"Yes and no. The duke's chief sorcerer challenged him to a duel, defeated him and stripped him of his powers, and Tilsen committed suicide that same day. Some say that he drank poison, others - that he hurled himself from the castle's tallest tower. Anyhow, he killed himself because he couldn't stand the thought of living the rest of his life as an ordinary mortal. Now his soul is doubly damned, so to speak: because he lost his magic and because he committed suicide. And so on cloudy days he returns to drift over Ziegelberg, heralding misfortune wherever he appears."

"The duke's sorcerers didn't foresee such a turn of events?"

"Oh yes, they did. Right from the beginning it was clear that this death can only lead to more trouble. They tried to undertake preventive measures, so to speak. Do you know what they did with his body?"

At this point, Clotilde lost her patience. "Stop telling her these things!" Fredrik, however, ignored this admonition.

"They were afraid to touch his corpse because they feared that his spirit might possess somebody. So they doused his body with cooking oil, piled wood all around him and lit it. They kept the fire burning for several days and nights. Afterwards, the ashes were mixed with salt and scattered to the winds."

"But he still came back." Stella looked up. Beyond the basement's dirty window, dusk was falling.

"Yes, he came back. But no one knows how much is left of the person he used to be."

"Enough of this talking." Clotilde laid down the stockings - it was too dark to continue darning them - and began to undress. "Stella, get ready for bed while it's still light. We haven't got a single candle."

* * *

That night, Stella dreamed of drowning.

She was sinking deeper and deeper into a sticky mass that was muffling her screams and gluing her eyes shut. She tried to struggle, but to no avail. She woke up trembling, with a beating heart, and could not sleep till morning. She lay very still, listening to Clotilde's quiet snoring and to her father's heavy breathing. Now and then he turned fretfully, trying in vain to find a more comfortable position.

In the next few days, Fredrik's condition rapidly worsened. The tumor in his armpit swelled and hardened. The conjurer moaned and complained all day long. He could neither eat nor sleep. Laudanum didn't help much, and they had no money for the doctor.

"We have no choice," Clotilde finally said, after leading Stella aside so they were out of Fredrik's earshot. After yet another sleepless night they were both barely able to stand. "We must sell Conchita."

Stella went out with a heavy heart. She knew that as soon as Fredrik felt a little better, he would start to reproach them and they would all feel miserable. To make matters worse, over the last few days Conchita's plumage had grown so gray that she was barely recognizable. When the dealer came and saw her, he wrung his hands.

"This is no place to keep a kingbird! And, I say, you've been feeding the poor creature nothing but grain and water! Now it'll be months before her feathers turns golden again!"

Although earlier he had offered them eighty marks, now he refused to pay more than ten for bird and cage together. Stella was sure her stepmother would lose patience and tell him to get gone. But Clotilde was so exhausted and resigned that she agreed without arguing. She set the cage on the floor and the dealer counted out the money. Swallowing her tears, Stella knelt down to say goodbye.

"Conchita, please, turn golden again," she whispered, slipping her hand through the bars to stroke the bird's silky head and caress the once-beautiful tail, now ragged and drooping.

Conchita chirped sadly, gazing at Fredrik, who lay motionless, his face twisted with pain.

* * *

The doctor, who knew them well, demanded payment in advance. When Stella showed him the ten marks, at first he frowned and refused to go, but seeing tears in her eyes, he relented.

"Only because I have a daughter your age," he muttered, slipping his instrument case into his black bag.

He examined Fredrik carefully. Afterwards, he patted the conjurer's back and prescribed laudanum four times a day, hot chicken soup and wine. Stella resisted the urge to speak rudely to him.

Before the doctor left, he asked Clotilde to step aside so he can have a word with her. She came back pale, lips clenched.

"He says it won't be long now," she whispered.

* * *

When he saw Stella, Mr. Ackermann shook his head sadly.

"No, honey, I can't sell you any bread. You owe me forty marks. I'm sorry, child."

If she burst out crying and begged him tearfully, perhaps he would have relented. But other clients were in the store and Stella couldn't bring herself to do it. She couldn't humiliate herself like that, not yet. She nodded humbly and then ran out so she wouldn't smell the delicious smells of baked goods, spices and sweets any longer.

With nothing better to do, she turned towards the marketplace. She had not eaten anything since the previous evening and felt so empty inside that the cold gusts of wind seemed to blow right through her. Puddles were glazed over with ice while snowflakes swirled through the air, and judging by the look of the sky, more snow would fall soon.

The marketplace was empty. Stella had her leather balls in her pocket as usual, but felt utterly resigned. She didn't even take them out, just sat down by the wall of the nearest house, past caring that the sidewalk was wet and cold or that her shabby coat would get dirty. Out of habit she set her little bowl on the pavement, but harbored no illusions - no one would throw her so much as a single pfennig.

She watched as more and more white flakes swirled silently around her, while her thoughts drifted far away. She recalled the happy days when their circus troupe traveled from village to village, from town to town. Three colorful wagons, the first one adorned with a sign depicting a hat-wearing rabbit. The shows, the applauding crowds. The evenings when they camped out in the fields or in the woods...

She swallowed when, in her mind's eye, she suddenly saw the whole troupe gathered by the campfire. Fredrik, healthy, handsome and grinning from ear to ear. Clotilde, his pretty assistant whom he married a year after his first wife, Stella's mother, died of smallpox. And the rest of them. Albert the clown, Nina the bareback rider, Igor the strong man... Kristoff the juggler and sword swallower, tattoos covering every inch of his skin... Bodo the trained bear, who followed Clotilde around like a dog and could dance a waltz... Manfred, Bodo's fat keeper, who jokingly flirted with Clotilde until one day she smacked him over the head with a ladle...

Stella forced herself to push the memories away as tears filled her eyes.

Suddenly she caught sight of a man walking down the street. Tall and thin, swathed in a black cape, he looked downright eerie. She couldn't take her eyes off him. His face, sallow and badly pockmarked, was as somber as a coffin lid.

To her surprise, he did not simply pass her by, but stopped and placed a coin in her bowl. A golden coin. Then, instead of walking on, he leaned in close to gaze into Stella's eyes.

"Your name is Stella Fenchel, isn't it? I've heard that your father is dying." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Tell him that Markus Wachs is repeating his offer."

* * *

"Mercy on us!" cried Clotilde when Stella entered. "What were you thinking, to stay in the marketplace in this weather!"

Stella wanted to answer, but an attack of coughing stifled her words. Her hands were so numb she could hardly unbutton her coat. Clotilde helped her hurriedly.

"To bed with you, quick! Stella, are you out of your mind? If you get ill..."

"I've brought something." Stella took the golden coin out of her pocket. Clotilde's eyes lit up.

"Ten marks?! Who gave you that much?"

"Someone who introduced himself as Markus Wachs."

"Tall, pockmarked, dressed in black from head to toe?" Clotilde's joy disappeared at once. "Dash it, not him! Why did you take his money?"

"Well, what's wrong with his money?" Stella asked with irritation. "Who is this Wachs, anyway?"

"An old friend of Fredrik's. He owns a doll shop in an alley behind the cathedral. Never mind him, Stella. Get those clothes off and lie down. I'll brew you some nice hot tea."

The tea was soon ready, but its heat didn't help much. Stella's teeth were chattering and her throat was sore.

"You're running a fever," said Clotilde anxiously after feeling her forehead. "What shall we do now?"

"Maybe I'll feel better tomorrow." Stella drank some of the watery tea, wishing for some sugar. "What does this Wachs fellow want from us? He's repeating his offer, whatever that means."

"I'll give him a piece of my mind when I meet him!" Clotilde retorted hotly, then lowered her voice to avoid waking Fredrik. "The audacity of that man! I hope to goodness he won't decide to come here again. And if he tries, well, I'll tell him precisely what I think. Don't you dare tell Fredrik you saw him."

"You mean he's visited us before?"

"Oh yes. Not a month ago. On that day when you took the frock coat to Mechler's."

Stella recalled the quarrel she had overheard. A vague suspicion began to form in her mind.

"What were you two quarreling about? What kind of offer was he talking about?"

"Wachs is interested in you, Stella. He saw you performing when our circus still existed and, well, you've caught his fancy. He has offered to take you under his care. Do you understand now?"

Stella, brought up in a circus troupe rather than in the rigors of a bourgeois home, understood very well, and her first impulse was to laugh.

"Are you serious? What did my father say to that?"

"Fredrik? Oh, you know how naive he can be. He has got it into his head that Wachs would marry you and you'd be provided for. For three hundred marks he'd happily sell you to that pockmarked, no-good..." Clotilde broke off and hugged the girl. "Maybe I shouldn't have told you all this. Stella, don't worry. I won't let him even think of giving you to that man."

Behind her, the conjurer stirred and moaned quietly. Clotilde looked around, afraid that he had overheard her words, but thankfully he was still sleeping after the last draught of laudanum.

Stella huddled under the bedclothes. She was still shivering, but felt her eyelids growing heavier.

"What shall we do after Fredrik dies?" she whispered sleepily. "Where shall we go?"

"We'll find work as servants with some respectable family. We'll manage, pet, everything will be fine. You'll see." Clotilde stroked her hair. "Don't worry about that now. Sleep."

* * *

That night, Stella dreamed a strange dream.

She dreamed of flying. The black sky was aglitter with stars, and she was floating high above Ziegelberg, clad only in her nightshirt. Snow covered the streets and rooftops, but she felt warm and curiously elated, as free as a bird.

Then the town disappeared into the distance behind her. Now she was flying over a surreal winter landscape, flooded with icy moonlight. Finally she dropped to the ground at the edge of a forest, in the shadow of several tall spruce trees, and saw that she was not alone.

Someone was waiting nearby, gazing in the direction of the distant lights. At first, she thought it was Markus Wachs, wrapped in his black cape. But when she approached, he turned around and, her heart suddenly aflutter, Stella recognized his broad-brimmed hat and the scarf that obscured his face.

"I've been waiting for you," said the Vagabond, extending his arms. "Come."

She obeyed without fear, because it was only a dream.

The Vagabond pulled her into an embrace. She shivered, but not in fright. Here, in her dream, the Vagabond was not a misty, ghostly figure. He was very real. She could feel his arms and the warmth of his cheek on hers.

"With me, you would be safe," he whispered. "I am lonely too, Stella."

"What do you want from me, Arne?" she asked, looking him boldly in the eye, with the courage that one only finds in dreams. "You've been dead for years."

"That's right," he smiled. "But my magic is not completely gone. I'll prove it to you. You'll wake up healthy."

* * *

Stella opened her eyes and realized that she wasn't feverish any more. She felt absolutely fine.

A twinge of unease went through her when she remembered her dream. She didn't pause to think about it, though, because her attention was drawn to a loaf of bread that lay on the table. The sight of it made her mouth water.

"Clotilde?" she called out, unbelievingly. "We've got bread?"

"Clotilde has gone to the pharmacy," the conjurer spoke in a weak voice. He lay propped up on pillows, his arm extended to avoid any movement of the tumor-ridden armpit. "Eat all you want. You brought ten marks yesterday, remember?"

Stella did not have to be told twice. She hurriedly broke off a large piece of bread and chewed big bites as she dressed. The perspective of spending another day in the cold streets suddenly became much less daunting.

"I heard you talking yesterday," said Fredrik hesitantly. "Stella, do me a favor. Don't be prejudiced because of what Clotilde says about Markus. He's a decent fellow. I met him when he was still an apprentice. We became friends after his master... oh well, never mind. The bottom line is that I've known Markus for a very long time."

"What about that offer of his, is it true?"

"Yes, indeed. Why does that surprise you? You're a pretty girl, he has taken a fancy to you. But he'd take you under his roof anyway, as a favor to me. He wouldn't want Fredrik Fenchel's daughter to starve and freeze to death in this miserable town."

"And you think I should agree?"

"I think you should seriously consider agreeing, yes." Fredrik sighed. "He'd treat you kindly."

"But Clotilde says we can try to find work as servants."

"Clotilde says you can, but work won't be easy to find, Stella. Especially in your case. You both have no reference letters, remember, and anyone who looks at your hands will guess at once that you're no expert at scrubbing floors. Clotilde is another story. Before she joined our circus, she did various odd jobs. Without you and without me, she'd manage just fine. Like Albert, Igor and all the rest of them.

Stella hesitated before asking the question that had been haunting her for some time.

"Are you worried that Clotilde will abandon me after you die?"

"No, honey." Fredrik looked her straight in the eye. "She'll never leave you. That's precisely what I'm worried about. If she has to look after you, I'm afraid you'll both end up in the streets."

Stella found no answer to that.

"How old is this Wachs?"

"Younger than I am." The conjurer gave a wan smile. "You know, I'm sure you'd find his creations fascinating. As an apprentice, Markus spent several years working in Prah and he can do amazing things. His dolls look just like living people, they can walk and talk... The duke has bought several of them for his daughters. He could afford it, you know."

"You're joking, aren't you?"

"No, Stella." Fredrik's face became very serious. "Promise me you'll think it over, honey, all right?"

"All right," she lied, feeling a lump rise in her throat.

Later, when she was walking towards the marketplace with the leather balls in her pocket, something made her turn her head. She froze.

The Vagabond was there, over their house. His misty gray figure hovered just above the roof's edge. Even from a distance Stella could feel his gaze, fixed on her.

She heard the clatter of hooves and hastily stepped back as a cab rolled by. When she raised her eyes, the apparition was gone. Stella was no longer sure that she had really seen him; perhaps it had only been smoke from the neighboring house's chimney that, for a moment, had resembled the outline of a human form.

* * *

Fredrik died that night.

Death took him quietly and insidiously. The evening before, he had been conscious and in fairly good spirits. He ate several spoonfuls of gruel, played solitaire, swapped a few jokes with Clotilde. Stella kissed him goodnight as usual and went to bed with the certainty that everything is fine. Then, after a couple of hours, she was awakened by her stepmother's despairing cry.

She barely registered what happened during the next day. The doctor, some papers to sign. A linen shroud - no coffin for a pauper - a grim gravedigger, a wagon pulled by a lame old horse. The cemetery, quiet and somber in the deepening dusk. Snowflakes settling on clods of earth. Fredrik Fenchel was laid down to rest in an unmarked mass grave.

The emptiness did not hit them with full force until they came back home. Clotilde and Stella cried together, huddled on the bed in the bitterly cold room; there was no coal and no money to buy it, and every last trinket they owned had been sold or pawned to pay for the funeral.

* * *

It was as Fredrik had predicted. They visited many homes, looking for work, but to no avail.

Four days later, the landlord came and told them brusquely that if they don't pay the month's rent within a week, they can pack up and go - he'll have no trouble finding new lodgers. Clotilde's tired silence seemed only to embolden him; he finished his tirade with some sharp words about profligates who die without a penny to their name. When he finally left, silence fell. Stella, who was sewing on a coat button, pretended that her attention was fully occupied by that simple task. Her stepmother sat down on the bed and stared off into space.

Stella checked that the button was firmly sewn on, bit the thread through and took a deep breath.

"I'll go to Wachs," she said slowly.

Clotilde started, as if pricked with a pin.

"No, child. I won't allow that."

Stella knelt down next to her.

"We don't really have a choice, do we? Tell me where he lives. Please."

Clotilde was silent for a long while. Then she put her arms around Stella and hugged her tight.

* * *

Once the decision was made, there was no sense in waiting. Stella tied up her few personal belongings in her old shawl and put on her coat.

Outside, snow was falling thickly, the streets already carpeted in white. After some searching, she found the address Clotilde had given her. The house was an old wooden one, its shutters painted black. Over the entrance, swaying in the wind, hung a faded sign depicting a doll in a lace dress. On the door was an old-fashioned knocker. Stella walked back and forth for some time, afraid to knock.

You have to do it, she told herself sternly.

She had almost gathered enough courage when she suddenly heard a voice.

"Miss! Excuse me, miss!"

A small, ragged figure was waving at her from a nearby doorway. Stella approached slowly, full of mistrust. She shuddered when she saw the creature's red, pimply skin and bulging eyes in an ugly, froglike face.

An oddling. In the south, in Fredrik's native parts, those unfortunate things were believed to be the Devil's own children and midwives put them to death right after birth. In Ziegelberg, no one looked twice at fully grown oddlings that rooted around in piles of refuse or begged in the streets. Stella was afraid of them, not only because of their shocking ugliness. In the last months, she had often thought with a shudder that soon she, too, might become homeless, forced to live the same filthy, miserable life.

"Miss, don't go in there," said the oddling. Its mouth was a toothless, lipless hole. The thing spoke haltingly, indistinctly, now and then making wet slurping sounds. Stella could barely understand its words.

"Why?"

"The Vagabond is waiting." The creature cocked its head, staring at the sky. Stella looked up as well and shivered.

The Vagabond was sitting on the roof's ridge, barely visible in the falling snow. A scarf obscured his face as usual, but despite the distance, Stella saw that the apparition's pale eyes were watching her.

"What do you want?" she asked. He said nothing, never taking his gaze off her.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement. The oddling was trotting clumsily down the street on its short, crooked legs. It disappeared around the corner.

A hand touched Stella's shoulder, making her jump in fear.

"So you've decided to accept my offer. I'm glad," said Markus Wachs. "Come in. You must be cold."

He made an inviting gesture, indicating the shop's door. Stella froze, remembering the apparition.

"The Vagabond," she whispered almost without thinking.

"What?" Wachs raised his head and his expression changed. He hissed a couple of strange words in some foreign language. The Vagabond drifted off the roof and disappeared into the night.

"Come in," said the doll maker calmly. Dazed, Stella did as she was told.

Inside it was dark. A shaft of yellowish light came through the half-open door to the back, illuminating dozens of dolls - from ordinary small ones, arranged in neat rows upon the shelves, to dolls the size of grown-up people. As far as Stella could see, they were all dressed up in fine clothes.

Wachs led her to the back room, which smelled of paint, glue and sawdust. In the floor, a trapdoor was ajar; Stella guessed that the opening led to the basement, where the doll maker's workshop must be. The space they were in now obviously served as a storeroom. Boxes stood here, as well as blocks of wood, and a number of tools lay about. By the wall, Stella saw several mannequins in various sizes, dressed in odd pieces of clothing; the largest one wore a red hussar's jacket and a woman's hat decorated with a wreath of artificial roses. An old table was littered with dolls' heads made out of porcelain or wood, some with hair, some without. A kerosene lamp gave off a yellow glow. Wachs took it and began to climb the stairs. He indicated that Stella should follow. On the first floor, he unlocked another door.

"Well, here we are," he said.

His living quarters had a peculiar aura of neglect stemming not from a lack of money, but from a lack of care. The smell of stale cigar smoke pervaded everything. In the hallway, two dolls dressed as ballet dancers stood on either side of a dusty mirror.

"Stina and Lina," said Wachs, indicating them. "Give me your coat."

He helped her take off the heavy garment. Stella smoothed her tousled hair, painfully aware of her shabby, unkempt appearance.

The doll maker led her to a drawing room where a fire burned on the hearth. Here, too, everything was dusty and untidy. On the table, cigar ends were spilling out from an ashtray; the tablecloth was grease-stained and the furniture looked like it hadn't been polished for weeks. The owner also had a somewhat peculiar taste in ornaments, Stella thought. A cuckoo clock painted in rainbow colors hung on the wall next to an oil painting depicting a ragged child with angel wings. An old piano and its round stool were varnished in dark green; the varnish was peeling. By the door stood a large glass case holding a collection of tin soldiers, and in the opposite corner, by the piano - a boy doll, life-sized and elegantly dressed, in a yellow jacket with big brass buttons.

Wachs lit the gas jets on either side of the fireplace, then picked up a bell from a nearby commode and rang loudly.

"Kurt, come here!" he shouted.

Stella stopped to gaze curiously at the boy in the yellow jacket. His dark blonde hair looked real and the delicately tinted porcelain face could almost be mistaken for a living one. She was surprised and awed by the doll maker's skill.

A young man shuffled into the room, stooping. His work clothes were frayed at the seams and spattered with paint. When he raised his head, Stella barely restrained a yelp when she saw his face. Irregular bony lumps jutted from his forehead, while his nose was unnaturally short, the nostrils wide and gaping. The young man was an oddling.

"This is Kurt, my apprentice," said Wachs. "And that is Jochen. Jochen, greet the young lady."

The boy in the yellow jacket straightened up, mechanical joints creaking quietly. His eyelids lifted, showing brown eyes that resembled glass marbles. He bowed, extending his leg. His movements were surprisingly graceful.

"Jochen was my masterpiece," the doll maker explained. He ruffled the boy's fringe. "He's nearly twenty years old. Stella, why are you standing? Sit down. Boys, bring this young lady some supper, if you please. I have work to finish."

He left. Kurt and Jochen busied themselves with setting the table and very soon, a tasty cold supper was waiting: sliced bread, cheese and ham, butter, apple pie (Stella's mouth began to water when she saw it), a teapot and cups.

"Enjoy your meal, miss," said Kurt. "The master will come back in half an hour or so, he is working."

Stella would have enjoyed her supper thoroughly, if not for the fact that both of them stayed and watched her while she ate. She found the disfigured apprentice downright loathsome. He reeked of stale sweat, paint and glue. She breathed a sigh of relief when Wachs returned to the drawing room and Kurt, as if responding to an invisible cue, slipped out the door.

The doll maker sat down opposite her.

"More tea?" he asked and refilled Stella's cup without waiting for an answer, then poured out some tea for himself.

"Well, are you feeling a little better now?" he inquired with a kindly smile that made his pockmarked face seem slightly less ugly.

"Oh yes, thank you." Stella blushed when she felt his gaze pass over her shorn hair and her shabby, none-too-clean dress. But she got the impression that the doll maker's eyes expressed sympathy rather than pity. She thought that perhaps Fredrik was right - perhaps with time, she would come to like Markus Wachs, even if he had a strange home and strange servants. After all, he was her father's old friend.

She drank the rest of her tea. After the first decent meal in a long while, she felt full and rather sleepy.

Wachs gestured at the boy in the yellow jacket.

"Jochen, play something for us. That sonata you've been learning lately, perhaps?"

Jochen obediently opened the piano and sat down on the round stool. He paused for a moment, and when his porcelain fingers began to dance across the keys, it seemed that even the fire dimmed, sinking into a lyrical reverie.

Stella felt a wave of drowsiness. The melody, the tea's warmth, the soft crackling of the flames were melding into a sweet lullaby.

She closed her eyes. Suddenly too sleepy to think about proper manners, she rested her head on the table.

* * *

She awoke shivering with cold, and heard a muffled bubbling somewhere nearby. Even before she had fully regained consciousness, she knew something was very wrong.

She couldn't move.

With difficulty, she opened her eyes and froze. She was stripped down to her shift and immobilized in a metal chair with clamps for the neck, arms and legs. The room she was imprisoned in was windowless, lit by the flickering flame of a gas jet - a basement. Plaster was peeling from the walls, and a rickety wooden stairway led up to a closed door.

The muffled, unpleasant bubbling sounded again. A sticky amber liquid was pulsating inside a large, round glass vessel. Numerous pipes snaked down from the container. One of them ended with a thick needle that was stuck into the crook of Stella's arm.

Nearby, metal clinked, as though someone was rummaging through cutlery. With an effort, Stella turned her head.

She saw that dozens of complicated symbols had been painted on the floor around her chair, using blood-red paint. Markus Wachs was leaning over a small table. Clink, clink - he was laying out a variety of sharp little metal instruments on a tray.

"Ah, so you've woken up," he said in an indifferent tone.

"What are you going to do to me?" Stella somehow choked out the words, although her throat felt tight with fear and her voice was still slurred from being drugged. The doll maker's pockmarked face twisted into an ominous smile.

"Dear child, the tsar of Russevia has recently honored me with a special order. He wishes to present his youngest daughter with a beautiful gift for her seventh birthday." Wachs raised a thin-bladed knife and gently passed his thumb along the sharp edge. "Here in Ziegelberg, I sell Prah-style dolls - figures made of wood and porcelain. They can dance and perform simple tasks, but the work is demanding and the result is, at best, primitive. For my richest foreign clients I have something else: dolls that, at first sight, cannot be distinguished from humans at all. The formulation is my own, loosely based upon a certain ancient Egyptian papyrus scroll." His tone became tinged with pride. "I inject the object with a special, very costly fluid which hardens and preserves the flesh. Magical symbols and spells serve to entrap the soul within the dead body, which remains capable of movement and of speech. I only exchange the eyes for glass ones, because eyes are too difficult to preserve."

Stella blinked as tears blurred her vision.

"You crook! My father trusted you!"

"Ah, but I told him the truth. You will be very happy. Dolls feel no hunger, no cold... and no grief."

The door opened with a creak and Kurt entered the workshop. He descended the stairs and gazed indifferently at the bound girl. Wachs turned to him, taking an envelope out of his pocket.

"Here is the key to the safe. Take three hundred marks to Clotilde Fenchel, along with this letter."

The apprentice nodded and shuffled out.

Stella could no longer restrain the sobs that were welling up in her throat. Markus Wachs went up to her and stroked her cheek with the tips of his cold fingers.

"Don't cry. You'll be a beautiful doll."

He turned a lever and the thick amber liquid began to flow down. Stella felt a cold, prickling sensation in her arm. She wanted to scream, but the unpleasant feeling was spreading through her body and her lungs refused to take in any air. A burning pain exploded in her chest and she lost consciousness.

* * *

She floated, falling through succession of flying images, blurry, indistinct like ink drawings on wet paper.

A happy, laughing Fredrik, standing under a sign depicting a hat-wearing rabbit.

A street full of horse-drawn cabs and a bustling, indifferent crowd of people.

Clotilde, extending her arms from an open window.

The Vagabond's pale eyes amidst white, swirling snow...

"Miss, miss," she heard an entreating whisper. "Do you hear me?"

Stella woke up. She felt no pain, only a strange lightness inside. She raised her eyes and met the gaze of large brown eyes set in a porcelain face with cheeks painted pink.

"You can speak?" she asked in astonishment. Jochen, obviously frightened, ignored her.

"Quick, get up! There's no time!"

"I can't!" But she tried nonetheless - and floated off the chair.

It took her a moment to realize what had happened. She stared at her hands - and understood. She was only a misty figure, barely visible. A ghost.

"But how?..." she stammered.

"I've damaged the pattern." Jochen indicated the symbols on the floor. Several had been painted over; a bucket of white paint, with a brush sticking out, stood nearby. "Please, miss, go! Get away from here! He'll be back soon!"

Stella hardly realized what he was saying. She floated up to the immobile figure in the chair, now half-covered with a bloodstained sheet, and stared unbelievingly at the face that was once her own. The eyes had been removed, leaving gaping, bloody holes.

She wanted to close the dead girl's eyelids, but her immaterial fingers passed through objects instead of touching them.

"Get out of here!" Jochen hissed. "What are you waiting for? You don't know what it's like to live in a doll's body!"

Stella stared at him, and a sudden thought sent a chill through her.

"Are you..."

He hung his head.

"This porcelain shell might be his masterpiece from twenty years ago, but I used to be a person like you, a street performer without two pennies to rub together. Wachs lured me here with the promise of supper and some money... The food he gave me was drugged, and the next day I woke up trapped in this form." His voice shook with emotion. "I would have warned you, but he is such a good actor... I only realized what was happening when you fell asleep, and by then it was too late."

"Won't Wachs find out what you've done? Won't he punish you?"

The porcelain boy's face was frozen in an expression of sad defiance.

"Oh, I hope he gets angry enough to destroy me! I dream of nothing else!"

Suddenly they heard heavy footsteps approach and a key grated in the lock.

"Get out of here!" Jochen shrieked, and Stella obeyed. She flew up like a wisp of smoke; she passed through the workshop's ceiling into the dark, silent store, full of dolls; she melted through the wall, passing into the street. And then up, up, towards the sky, towards freedom.

She didn't feel cold at all. It had ceased to snow, the clouds were parting and stars glittered in the blackness above.

When Stella rose high above the town, she paused, dazzled by the sight. A sea of snow-covered roofs stretched out beneath her; here and there, smoke was rising from chimneys. Belfry spires loomed, knife-sharp against the sky.

With a pang, she thought about Clotilde, who perhaps at this very moment was reading Wachs's letter. Three hundred marks will enable her to start her life over again, at least.

And what about me? Where should I go? Come on, girl! The world is your oyster! Stella felt like crying and laughing at the same time, with the hysterical mirth of one who has absolutely nothing left to lose.

And then she saw him, floating majestically, wrapped in cloak and scarf, moving away with a wind-driven bank of clouds.

"Wait!" she called out over the rushing sound of the wind. "Arne, wait! Please!"

The Vagabond turned around and froze in midair. His eyes seemed to bore into her - two pale, glittering points above the scarf that obscured his features.

Stella floated closer to him, uncertain but determined. She was afraid, but she also remembered her dream.

"Take me with you, Arne," she said shyly.

When she had almost lost hope that he would speak, he did. His voice sounded like tinkling icicles.

"Poor child... Where I go with the clouds, only emptiness awaits. Who are you? I've never seen you before."

Stella felt a wave of bitter despair. My dream was a lie too. I should have known.

But she didn't avert her gaze.

They looked at each other for a long moment. The Vagabond was the first to move.

"Come," he said, extending a hand. And although his fingers resembled smoke, they were warm to the touch.

Two shadows floated away on the wind. Darkness closed behind them like a curtain.

THE END


© 2016 Agnieszka Halas

Bio: Agnieszka is a Polish freelance translator and writer who has published a number of short stories and four novels in Polish (a dark fantasy trilogy and a standalone entitled "Olga i osty"). Her short story "Bread and Blood" appeared in the Aphelion webzine in 2014. She blogs in English about weird diseases and bizarre medical cases under http://weird-diseases.blogspot.com.

E-mail: Agnieszka Halas

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