The Tower by Jay Caselberg
They threw the baby out of the tower. It wasn’t anything particular the child did, nor did the infant come from especially loathsome parents. The whys and wherefores of the hurling had their roots in something far murkier. One could say, as murky as a swamp, filled with inky, unmoving water, its surface speckled with galaxies of green vegetation. It would be easy to ignore what lay beneath that glistening film and concentrate instead upon the reflections and verdant plant life contrasting so readily against the black, but we cannot ignore it. Not truly. Now why, you ask, would you cast an infant from the very peak of a stone edifice? Why, to save it of course. Nothing else.
First, we must explore who ‘they’ were, and with that exploration may come some understanding. It is too easy to say ‘they did this’ or ‘they did that’ without knowing the act’s details. It is all about the motivation, after all. Evil may lurk in men’s hearts, but sometimes an action—though it may appear tinged with the taste of wickedness—is prompted by something far more compassionate.
The inhabitants of Marshaline were, by and large, a simple folk set in their ways. The town boasted a doctor, a baker, a butcher, and even the resident schoolteacher. The tower, itself, known locally as Garsten’s Folly (no one really remembered why or, in fact, who Garsten had been), rose from the village’s central square set atop a small hill with houses and shops clustered all around. The local hostelry occupied a prime position on the square, plying a brisk trade during the warmer months with an array of wooden slat tables set outside with red and yellow umbrellas to protect from the fiercest of the sun’s rays. On Saturday mornings, a local farmer’s market covered the square with stalls selling local produce from the fields; cheeses, honey, sausages, and meats. From the top of Garsten’s Folly, one could see for miles around, until the landscape blurred into purpling smudge lines in the far distance. From time to time, a family of passing tourists might ascend the winding steps to the stone platform on top and breathe oohs and ahs before taking their requisite snaps so they could show their friends back home how impressive the view really was. For the most part, however, the locals averted their eyes. Garsten’s Folly was there, yet not there. It existed in their awareness, but it was not something they openly acknowledged unless they were forced to do so. There was no need for them to give directions; its presence was obvious, standing as it did like a desiccated, knobbly finger pointing accusingly at the sky.
Atop Garsten’s Folly, from time to time, could be seen a gathering of Corvus frugilegus. More correctly, they could be called a parliament, a storytelling, a clamour, or a building, though the good residents of Marshaline were unlikely to know these collective nouns for those dark-feathered food-gatherers named rooks. If a Marshaliner’s gaze were to stray to such a gathering, then it would more than likely slide past as if not having seen them at all, in the same way they might treat the tower itself. The rooks’ croaks and cries, likewise, faded to background noise, though if they paused to listen, there would no doubt be an accompanying chill, perhaps an involuntary shiver and a narrowing of the eyes. Rooks are feeders, but in Marshaline, the feeding extends far beyond the patterns that caused the name frugilegus to be bestowed upon them by Linnaeus back in 1758. And unfortunately, for Marshaline, it had a surfeit of rooks. Some wondered if there was a connection between Garsten’s Folly and this avian abundance, but if such an answer existed, it had been lost in memory long ago.
Marjorie and Gustavus—Gus to his friends—Lindeman were Marshaliners with not much to distinguish them from the other townsfolk. Marjorie, slightly dumpy and with a cascade of chestnut curls and a habitual floral pattern dress was, for the moment, a homemaker. She had given up her position at the local bric-a-brac store with the imminence of their new arrival, though she was well advanced in her condition before she’d taken the decision. Gus, tall and rangy with thinning grey hair and a prominent patrician nose, offset by rounded spectacles, owned the sole hardware store in the area where he sold everything from tea kettles to grouting tools. Normally seen wearing faded green sweaters and grey trousers, he opened his store with regularity and spent all day either behind the counter or sorting tools and rearranging shelves. His store was neat and ordered, reflecting his own nature. He came home for lunch, because he could, and he and Marjorie would sit at the kitchen table eating thick sandwiches of rustic bread and ham or cheese and various condiments, often the locally produced fruit relish. Because both worked there was no time to prepare a more substantial meal, and especially not in her current condition, as Gus had said, even though she might have the time. Gus, to be honest, was a little concerned about the pending arrival, because it was a long drive to the nearest hospital and he did not want Marjorie undergoing undue stress or engaging in anything that might hasten the impending birth before it was properly due.
Gustavus had another reason to be nervous, and it was a factor unique to the town of Marshaline. Not that he kept it in the forefront of his mind, but it was there all the same, lurking just beyond the edges of his thoughts as if it were on the tip of his tongue, just in the same way Garsten’s Folly nestled in the back of each humble Marshaliner’s consciousness. It was the birds, Garsten’s Folly’s claimants. Their peculiar and particular relationship to the Marshaline townsfolk held a customary cause for concern. It was, of course, nothing he would discuss openly with Marjorie, but it hovered in the atmosphere, unspoken between them, just as she dared not mention her same fears to Gus. Better not to speak of such things; it might tempt fate.
So, Gus and Marjorie went about their day to day as the scheduled date grew closer and incipient anxiety imbued Gus’s actions, both of them trying to ignore what lurked in the back of their thoughts. More than once, Marjorie was tempted to raise the issue she knew responsible for Gus’s behaviour and his troubled brow—it was nothing more than superstition, a fanciful folk tale, wasn’t it?—but on each occasion, she instead bit her tongue, stroked her belly, and settled back to waiting for their imminent arrival. She had even thought about suggesting to Gus that they might discuss it with the local pastor, but neither of them was particularly religious—Gus the lesser of the pair—and even suggesting it might cause him more tension than relief. Instead, they discussed baby’s names, finally settling on Wilfred for a boy or Jemima should it turn out to be a girl. Each had acceptable shorter forms. Will or Wilf (never Fred) were both relatively harmless, and Marjorie could hear the name Jemma falling quite comfortably from her lips.
The waters broke, the rattletrap ride to the hospital in the old green Citroen was accomplished, and Marjorie spent eight sweating hours in labour with Gus anxiously holding her hand and urging her on. Two days later, together with their new addition to the family, they chugged back. Marjorie clutched the baby boy and stared down with a rapt gaze, cooing every few minutes. She still retained the glow and Gus glanced at her from time to time as he drove, feeling somewhat more relaxed about the whole affair. Every now and again, he would let his gaze stray to Wilfred, slowly coming to terms with the fact that he actually had a son. He was a father. How could such a little red-faced thing be a product of his actions? Was he not, really, too old for this? He swallowed and returned his attention to the winding road before them. And perhaps, he thought, that was what they had: a long and winding road yet to travel.
Before he had left to pick them up, Gus had scurried around the house, opening all the windows and letting in the fresh air. He assisted Marjorie from the car, retrieved her small suitcase from the back, and with an arm around her shoulders, escorted her inside. The child—he must remember to think of him as Wilfred—was asleep within her arms and he settled her in one of the large comfortable chairs in the living room before popping back to close the door. The small suitcase he left just inside the living room door. That could wait until later. He then dashed from room to room, closing all the windows. With Marshaline’s history, it was important. His frantic rush around complete, he came back to crouch in front of them, looking up into Marjorie’s weary but contented face, finally allowing himself the indulgence of pulling back the edges of the blanket swaddling the child’s face and gazing thoughtfully at his progeny.
“He has your eyes,” he told her, though deep within, he thought that babies rarely looked like anything but babies: round head, wispy hair, puffy eyelids surrounding a barely focused gaze that roved blearily to the face leaning down above it and then away again. She smiled at his words and reached out with a hand to take his.
“Finally, our son,” she said.
He nodded. It was hard to believe, but here it was. Gustavus had a son. Wilfred Lindeman had taken his place within the family home.
“Hello, Wilfred,” he said thoughtfully, gently stroking at the child’s cheek with the very tip of his finger. He looked back up at Marjorie and smiled.
Over the next few days, Gus and Marjorie were fully absorbed with the new arrival, so much so that Gus closed his shop for the duration, instead electing to spend as much time as he could with his wife and his new son. In fact, he was so engrossed that one small, innocently open window remained unnoticed until the crucial ten days had passed and Gustavus stumbled upon its state when he wandered into the small, rarely used room in search of something. He looked at the window and frowned. He could not remember being in this room since returning from the hospital and he couldn’t remember whether he had left it open or closed. He held the back of his neck and grimaced, racking his brains for the elusive remembering. He tutted to himself and moved to seal the offending void. He stood, craning up—for the window was set quite high—looking out to the walls and roofs beyond and glancing once, suspiciously, in the direction of Garsten’s Folly.
A few days later, Gustavus’ first suspicions were confirmed. When helping to change Wilf, he noticed a dark mottling, reminiscent of the pattern of fish scales vaguely shadowing the back of the child’s left thigh. He leaned closer, pushing his spectacles further up his nose, peering at the marks intently while keeping the boy’s legs suspended with his other hand. He wet one thumb and rubbed gently at the spot, but it was not some simple mark.
“Marjorie,” he said. “Have you seen this?”
She too examined the spot and then shook her head. “It’s probably nothing,” she said and then bit her bottom lip.
Gus turned his head to look at her but she avoided his gaze.
For just a moment, thoughts that were unworthy of him passed through his head, but then he looked again. The pattern seemed to ripple vaguely beneath the child’s skin. Gus sniffed, slowly lowered Wilf’s legs, and continued with the task of changing him. There was nothing more to say, was there?
That night they exchanged occasional glances, full of meaning, neither one daring to give voice to the thoughts that stirred in the forefront of their minds.
The next morning, when bathing the child, Gus made sure to examine the entirety of Wilfred’s little body. He seemed healthy enough, fit enough, but another discolouration was starting to appear on the lower part of his right shoulder blade. It too was like a dull bruise, but patterned and slowly seeming to move with a life of its own beneath the surface of the child’s flesh. It was Gus’s turn to bite at his lip. He swallowed and looked to Marjorie. She was pale. She too had seen what Gus had seen.
“Perhaps it will go away,” he said, not really believing his own words. He could see in her eyes and the set of her jaw that Marjorie did not believe them either.
“What are we going to do?” she said.
There was a long silence—neither of them looking at the other, both of them staring down at the damning marks—only broken when the child began to cry. Marjorie picked him up and cradled him, bouncing him gently and walking out of the room, her eyes full of accusation.
“Our child, Gus. Our child,” she whispered as she passed.
“What?” he said after her. “What? It’s not my fault.” Though deep inside, he knew that it was quite possibly exactly that. He thought about the open window, not daring to accuse himself just yet. He swallowed and followed Marjorie slowly out to the living room, collapsed into a chair, and sat staring at his wife and son, his hand rubbing his brow. There was nothing to say, nothing that he could say.
By the following day, the markings had spread still further. There were dark bands around the child’s wrists, but even worse, the skin in those areas appeared to be covered with a fine down, tracing the scaled pattern beneath the surface. Gustavus decided. He had no choice. Pressing his lips firmly together, he nodded once, meaningfully, to Marjorie and without another word, left the house. It was time to seek counsel. He should really have done it before.
Max ran the local tavern up by the tower, and though it was yet early, Gus knew that he would be pottering about inside, cleaning, getting things ready for the day’s trade. He walked slowly toward the village square, head down, preoccupied. He knew what was coming, what they had to do, but he needed confirmation. All was not yet lost, but it was a drastic step. At the tavern’s low wooden door, he stopped, stooping slightly, and cleared his throat.
“Max, are you there?”
There was a clank from inside the darkened establishment, and then Max’s ruddy rounded face appeared from the shadows above the dark grey apron he habitually wore.
“Gus, is that you? Come out of the doorway so I can see you.”
Gus ducked his head and entered.
Max planted his fists on his hips and looked him up and down.
“Well, what brings you up here at this time of day? I expected you to be a little busy, no?”
Gus cleared his throat again. “Max, I think we have a problem.”
Max’s face immediately lost its jolliness. “The child?”
The innkeeper frowned, dropped his hands from his hips and rubbed them together in front of him. “Didn’t you take precautions?”
“Of course, I did.”
“Then you’re sure?”
“As sure as I can be,” said Gus. “All of the signs are there.”
Max scratched his head. “Damn it,” he said and followed it with a big sigh. “And Marjorie?”
“Of course she knows, but she hasn’t said anything directly.”
“We will have to speak to the pastor, of course,” said Max. “And the others.”
Later that very day, the town meeting was called.
And so it was, the good townsfolk of Marshaline found themselves in a candlelit procession to Garsten’s Folly. Together, all the adult folk clustered at the base of the tower. Four of the men—those who were strongest and keenest-eyed—held a thick blanket between them, one on each corner. Marjorie stood behind them, her arms crossed before her chest, her hands resting on either side of her throat as she stared up at the tower disappearing into the darkness above. Of the pastor, there was nothing to be seen.
One by one, Gus climbed the ancient tower steps, winding around and around within, the child clutched gently in his arms. He knew the risk, knew that what he was about to do could go as terribly wrong as it had once or twice in the past. His mouth was dry, his senses full of the scent of old stone and damp and dust within the dim and spiraling space. At last he reached the top of the stairs and stepped out into twilight, to the flat and crumbling surface of the tower before him. His emergence into the open stirred the local residents and they took to the sky in a flurry, cawing and crying with dark and rasping voices all around the top of the tower. Step by hesitant step, he approached the very edge of Garsten’s Folly and looked down. Far below, the flickering candlelight marked the places of the townsfolk, the pale blotches of their faces peering up expectantly.
Wilfred began to cry. No, not to cry…to howl at the top of his lungs.
Gus looked down at his son, or at what was becoming of his son. There was very little unchanged flesh left. What had appeared as faint down was already taking the shape of tiny feathers. Only the child’s face was left free. Gus held him at arm’s length, lifted him over the edge of the stone precipice. Clamping his jaw tight, and putting as much strength into it as he could muster, he threw—up and out.
“Go! Fly away!” he cried and closed his eyes.
If he had looked, if he had seen, he might have observed the dark cloud detaching itself from around the falling child then slowly drifting away, scattering tiny feathers and larger dark pinions spiraling into the darkness.
He heard rather than saw the shout from his fellow townspeople, the cry of relief of a woman’s voice, and he dared to open his eyes.
All around him, the birds gave voice, louder than ever.
“No!” he shouted. “You shall not have him.”
“It may be my fault, but either way, you shall not have him,” he said more quietly.
Slowly, he turned back to the stairway descending within the tower.
Whether by circumstance, fate, or the simple drive of our will, we all have within us our secret and treasured desires. Sometimes, the people around us may laugh at them, or in other cases, be simply afraid even if they wouldn’t show it. And so it was with Wilfred Lindeman.
Though the incident as an event had faded into memory, for the next few years the townsfolk whispered behind raised hands about the child, and after he reached a certain age, he acquired a label among his peers—The Bird Boy. When he pressed his parents, they refused to discuss the matter, quickly changing the subject on each occasion. It was not until he was much older that he fully understood the darker implications of that name and what it meant—that he learned about Garsten’s Folly and its legacy. He would look down at his hands, turn them first one way then the other and frown before looking up in the direction of the crumbling stone structure with narrowed eyes. Really, it couldn’t be more than local folklore, could it? A simple tale meant to scare the children at night? Regardless, whenever the rooks took wing above the tower, the cries echoing to him from their lofty distance, he would always feel that involuntary shiver and struggle to tear his gaze away, and he wondered secretly within, what would it be like to fly, truly fly?