Parchment

Michele Southworth


With a final swirl, you sign your name to the bottom of the stiff parchment. Handwritten letters are of the past with this so-called modern generation. It’s a terrible flaw and I refuse to give up the habit. Yet, as much as you love the smell of the parchment and the sound of the quill scratching across the surface, it isn’t enough to ease your mind. Today’s task is a heavy burden on your aging shoulders.

“Age has not addled my mind, at least not yet. I must do this now, today.” Your brow furrows, making you squint at the parchment resting just beneath your fingertips. Purpose seems to fill you and flow through your fingers as you write with fervor in long, broad strokes. Your words fill the page quickly and you stop to shake soft, fine, pale sand without smearing it; with deftness, you tap the sand back into the black stone bowl.

Age-spotted fingers gently turn the page over, placing it on top of the small pile that has already begun to accrue, feeling decades of burdens slowly lift from your shoulders with each page placed with care in the stack. “I have lived with this burden, alone, for long enough,” you mutter to yourself.

“You have grown soft, Old Man,” a voice startles you from your task.

Glancing up toward the voice, you come face to face with a youth, whose sneer chills the room. “Yes, I have grown older and have learned,” you reply, setting aside the quill, “not every thing requires force. It is long past when I should have written my memoirs.”

“Memoirs? You disgust me.” The younger man stands, moving over to the desk. “You would share your secrets!”

“She may never forgive me, but at least she will know the truth.”

“Truth?” He leans forward, hands pressing into the wood. “You abandoned her, you fool!”

“Perhaps I am a fool, but I am old and I will not live forever.” A dry chuckle escapes your lips.

“Your name will! A lifetime of infamy will be remembered!”

“I have long since lost the taste for being remembered that way. I would rather be remembered differently, for my sacrifices.”

“Sacrifices? I don’t think we agree, Old Man, on what you sacrificed.”

“I am too old for that life and now an end is looming before me. Perhaps it is you, my boy, that cannot let go, move on. I have and am ready for whatever lies before me.”

“Lies! You have been lying to yourself for the last sixty years, so well that you actually believe it. You can keep lying to yourself, Old Man, it won’t change the truth.”

“Truth?”

“That you are a liar, a thief. A murderer!”

“You throw those names around, young man, but do you even comprehend what they mean?” Rising on shaky legs, you stand before him, defiant.

“That’s right, Old Man, stand up. Face your past. I’m not afraid of you.”

“The fact that you feel the need to say that tells me everything.”

“You are a fool, Old…” Something inside you snaps and you find your hands wrapped around his throat. His heart pulsing like a galloping horse beneath your hands, racing slower and slower.

“I am no fool! I was great and I was to be feared. I am feared and I am in control! I have made my decision. You, Boy, are nothing and mean nothing…anymore. I am no longer you.” The pulse fades until there is nothing left and you stand there empty handed.

Taking a deep breath, you move back to the desk and sit down. Your gaze rests where ‘The Boy’ had been and it just reaffirms what you need to do. Placing your quill to parchment, you set to work briskly.

Time seems to flow quickly around you and holding the quill in your hand, you pause, knowing that once you place the last word, its burden would be no more. A mere thought of the past. The blue-veined lids over your eyes close, giving you a moment to murmur a nearly silent prayer to your Lord and Savior. Then with an air of authority, you scratch the final word at the bottom of the final sheet of stiff parchment.

A sigh escapes your lips as you carefully place it down, before readying the packet of parchment. Gnarled fingertips gently fold the pages over and ease them into the heavy parchment envelope. With deft movements you seal the envelope, pouring a spot of blue wax and leaving the imprint of your family crest in its already cooling surface. Envelope in hand, you rise slowly, arthritic joints groaning.

Red velvet slippered feet shuffle across the worn gray stone, a path worn deep into the stone indicative of a long-standing routine. Once a formidable figure looming over most, you could hardly be recognized as the same man now. Shoulders hunched and drawn close, back arched creating the very vision of a wizened old man who might offer sage wisdom to all who sought it.

“Bah.” No one would come ask for any advice from you, let alone anything sage. For all the years that you have lived, you have nothing with which to inspire others, nothing wondrous to share with anyone, just a lot of regrets. A lock of silver and white hair falls across your fading blue eyes, as you shake your head. An awful lot of regrets, you push the hair back with gnarled and decrepit hands.

The faded, yellowish packet in your hand seems so much heavier than it should. It looks no different from any of your other communications, but this was the most important and perhaps it would save your very soul. Thin lips nearly vanish altogether as you press them together. Without another thought, you wrap the heavy silk rope around your hand and the clanging of bells rises eerily up through the cracks in the walls. It was no longer your burden to bear.

The parchment-heavy envelope rests in hand, the physical weight nothing compared to the emotional weight locked within its pages. It seems so unreal to you that all of your life and secrets have been sprawled across these pages, things you’ve sworn never to tell. Once I am dead, what will it matter?

You suddenly feel very weak and your chest tightens a little. Must be too excited. No servant comes through the heavy black walnut door carved with intricate swirls and a few random flowers here and there. You reach once more to pull the silk rope dangling from the ceiling and then tightness returns. This time there is pain and you stumble back against the frigid stone wall.

You attempt to take a deep breath, willing the tightness and pain to subside. Moments tick by, accented by the soft ticking of the mantle clock across the room. What seems like hours are mere moments, then everything subsides once more. Feeling more than a little panicked, you yank hard on the cord. Where are the servants? There are dozens of them scattered throughout your majestic home, which raises the probability of how many heard the bell.

Suddenly you feel absolutely overcome. Fatigue slips into every joint and bone in your body. Your breath becomes ragged and then the tightness slams into your chest. It feels as though there are thousands of pounds in weight slowly lowering onto your chest, restricting your lungs from expanding and filling with life-giving air and preventing your heart from beating correctly.

Your vision blurs for a moment and the outlines of the furniture are barely discernable. Long moments tick-tock by and nothing seems to ease the pressure. The panic is rising steadily, forcing your limited supply of air out in ragged chunks.

Pain blinds you just then and you bring a weathered hand to your chest. The pain, the tightness it is all too much and you find yourself stumbling to the bedroom door. Freehand out, clutching, attempting to grab hold.  It takes several long seconds before you manage to grip the handle and pull back, swinging the heavy door open.

Your slippers rasp as you stumble out into the hall, veering to the left, desperate to find someone, anyone to help. Tripping over your own feet and nearly crashing headlong into the wall, you manage to catch yourself before you do.

The hallways twist and turn before you, a never-ending maze it would seem. Your throat constricts, preventing you from calling out. You can only make rasping sounds, as you struggle to suck in enough oxygen.

Without warning, the floor drops out from beneath you and you find yourself falling, weightless, into the darkness below. You feel a sickening crunch as your left shoulder cracks against a stone ledge, a step, you realize. The momentum from striking your shoulder sends you plunging even further into the dark.

Briefly, your head makes contact next, and you find yourself bouncing off each step, bone-weary body breaking and crashing as you continue. After what seems like an eternity you come to rest at the base of the stairs. Warm sticky fluid runs down your face, pooling into your eyes and drizzling into your open mouth.

The sharp, tangy, and salty liquid could be only one thing: blood. Every part of you screams in agony and you know that there have to be dozens of breaks throughout your body. You attempt to rise, but find your arm is so badly broken that it cannot withstand the weight. The right arm is not much better, but you can manage to drag yourself forward an inch or two across the floor.

The pain pierces through your chest and your panic returns, heart pounding, still weighed down by the intense pressure. You have lived long enough to understand that death is coming. There is not much time; you must get the envelope to your daughter, whom you left as a mere babe. Or would it be her daughter now? You are no longer sure, but this needs to be passed on, you cannot die without knowing that things could be rectified. The envelope. You blink, trying to clear you vision, and flail wildly with your broken arm, desperate to find to find it.

For a brief moment you catch a glimpse of the off-white bundle and you realize it lies perhaps ten or twenty feet down the hall. You are not sure you will make it.

Clutching at the stone floor, you manage to move closer to the target. Your breath rattles and you try to heave yourself forward once more. Slowly you move closer, your heart pounding and raging wildly, threatening to tear through your restricted chest.

After an eternity, a mere foot or so away from the envelope, you are suddenly seized by even more agonizing pain. You convulse and find you cannot take another breath, as if your lungs have quit working.

Sheer, utter terror races through you and you desperately try to keep going, but that small space seems to become miles. Lungs burning, desperate for air, you try to move, continuing on.

A sudden wind races down the dark hallway as a door somewhere down the way opens. The chatter of voices reverberates down the near empty corridor and the envelope shifts, than slides beneath a nearby door and out of sight.

Dear God, will anyone find my letter? you shriek in your mind. It had only been a hand’s breadth away from your fingertips. Without warning, the pounding stops; you cannot even feel a flutter. In these last agonizing seconds, you realize you are too late. The very last thing that crosses your mind before your thoughts go blank are of the envelope lost from your sight beneath the closed door, beyond your reach. Then you know no more and silence fills the corridor. Your body lies, arm outstretched, reaching, and your eyes unblinking; never again to see.