Outside, it had gotten progressively darker. Lanvin led the way out through the maze of passageways once more. He walked slowly this time, as if in deep thought. I peered at him through the corner of my eyes. “Something on your mind, my friend?” He didn’t seem to have heard me. I thought about the exchange between him and his mother just as we had entered, and wondered how a child of such a young age could have such heavy burdens and responsibilities to think of.
I observed the passageways I passed. Without the dim streetlights and the little remaining light peering through the walls, there would have been complete darkness. There was a lively sort of atmosphere, and we passed by many people on our way. We often ran into children playing in the street. With night falling, it seemed strange that parents let their children play outside their homes. I looked over at Lanvin, who now seemingly out of his reverie, was more observant of his surroundings. Often, we would pass by people who would say hello to Lanvin as we passed them by. “Everyone knows each other in this area of town, Monsieur Robin,” Lanvin said, after a fourth consecutive person had said hello to him. “Poverty brings you together. Reminds you of the common enemy- hunger.”
I pressed my mouth in a hard line. “This is an active neighbourhood. Fors alley is so quiet, especially at this time when twilight beckons,” I remarked. It was true. During my early days at my then-new lodging, I would often go for night walks. Walking was exercise more for my mind, than my body. It cleared my head, allowed me to revisit my then-perpetually-gloomy perspective on things, and rationalise my new situation. People die. Houses come and go. Things change.
Over time, the frequency of my walks decreased as I realised all I ever thought about on my walks revolved on the same recent past. So I turned my attention elsewhere- books, spending time at Romanoff’s bookstore, studying history. Romanoff worried that I was in withdrawal, and eventually seeing that my routine began to cement, he simply stopped commenting on that.
The slope was now becoming more even so I assumed we were near the Square once more. We also passed lesser people. More of the evening sky was visible now. It was a clear shade of light blue.
“You know Monsieur Robin, the annual Moonsong festival is in four days, at the end of this week. You should come,” said Lanvin. “The whole neighbourhood will get together in Monsieur Kono’s house. There will be good food and good company.”
“I have heard of it! It sounds great.. but are you sure I’m invited?”
“The whole town is invited,” replied Lanvin. “Have you never been to one before?”
“Once,” I said. “I think I remember our cook taking me to a similar gathering once. I only remember snippets of my childhood, so I don’t have a very clear picture in my head.”
“Can you picture having a sweet dish made of rice and milk?” laughed Lanvin. I nodded. “That’s the one, Monsieur.” He stopped walking. We were standing at Vie des Amours.
I turned to thank him profusely for his and his mother’s help. He good-naturedly dismissed me, and then went on his way. I checked my watch. I could have dinner quickly, and then go off to meet Romanoff. Or, I could meet him first and then have dinner. My stomach ached. I was starving. I hadn’t had anything since my breakfast with him earlier that morning.
An hour later, I set off towards Romanoff’s house. I had been to it so many times that I could probably take all the turns blindfolded, and still reach it in record time. I remember saying this to the cook once when I was younger. “Make me blind, and I’ll still get there before you do! In the dark. At night. Ha ha ha!” For a week afterwards, she told me a long dragged-on story of a ghost of a young boy named Mika who roamed around passageways of Gratia at night. According to her, Mika lived many years before even my grandfather was born. He was often bullied by some of the other children. “The elders dismissed it as child play,” I repeated to myself now, quoting the cook’s words. One day, as some of the children threw him against a wall again, he hit his head so badly he started bleeding right there. A week later when he woke up, they found that he had lost his eyesight. And only a few days after that he died, from the same injuries to his head. He was their only son.”
“What’s the connection to what I just said?” I was already bored.
“Well, let me continue. Anyways, Mika’s parents were devastated, of course. Nobody ever came forward-”
“Maybe they were scared.”
“Oh, of course. But regardless, they had put him in his current state. No parents put their children forward, no one came to apologise for their children’s behaviour. When his parents asked around for who was involved, people shut their doors in their faces.”
The cook sighed. “Perhaps, if they had faced up earlier- before things took a turn for worse- his parents might even have thought differently of them.”
“So what happened then?”
“His mother died, of an illness, they say, a few months later. But I know it was heartbreak. The father.. hmm, now I don’t remember that part of the story.”
“I’m sorry, Monsieur Robin. Oh, hold on, I think he moved away soon after. Yes, that’s it. He didn’t die of heartbreak. Men are stronger than women in that area. In most aspects.”
“I think so…That’s what I’ve been told.” She seemed puzzled at my question.
“A year later, near the anniversary of his death, people started hearing strange, howling noises around some areas, near where he used to live. People remarked they would hear the wind howl his name precisely at ten o’clock, which is when he had died. They saw a strange small, child’s shadow in dark corners of streets, and it would never come into the light. People said he was looking for his tormenters, or people who made fun of his pain, or specifically his blindness.”
“That’s a stupid story!” I eyed her suspiciously.
“Little Mika, searching angrily for his tormenters who never cared, even after they turned him blind. They say he still hangs around, lives in the shadows, waiting to entrap people who make fun of-“
“I’m not afraid of any Mika!”
“Oh, you would be. Especially if you went ahead with your blindfold-challenge. Ha ha ha!”
I entered Romanoff’s street now. He lived in one of the oldest and richest parts of town, a neighbourhood called Glorium. His house was only a few blocks away from the house I had lived in with my grandfather. This part of Gratia contained the oldest and most elaborately built houses. Everything dripped of Gothic-style architecture, even more than it did in the rest of the city. From pointed arches to detailed, decorative walls, this particular neighbourhood exalted grandeur. Usually gothic architecture also allows for spacious gardens to compliment the grandeur following the buildings, but space in Gratia has always been slightly cramped- though less so in this particular neighbourhood. Houses swept upwards with heights where they couldn’t sideways, and had a decent amount of open space with thick, high stone walls separating and providing privacy. This neighbourhood was at the opposite end of my lodging, which meant that most of these beautiful houses also had views of natural scenery, like I did, because they marked the boundaries of the town. All the houses belonged to generations of the same family, always passed on to the next of kin. No outsider had ever got ownership, and people always adopted the family name- not the father’s.
With money, also came an attitude of self-entitlement. This was never appreciated by the middle-class Gratia, who knew of hard work and not family inheritances. There was no bad blood, but the feeling of self-entitlement that a lot of well-off people exuded did not escape the sight of the rest of Gratia. Needless to say, neighbourhoods mingled more with themselves, and formed their own social circles. Nobody was ever an outsider- you always belonged to a community.
The interesting thing about Romanoff was that he was always an in-betweener. He, like my grandfather, rejected the ways some of the rich folk lived in, their often excessive splendour. Upon receiving his inheritance at the age of twenty-one, he gave almost all of it away in charity funds. The money definitely went to the right hands because the living conditions in the worst part of Gratia steadily improved. He kept his grand house and adopted a modest lifestyle, married the woman he loved, and opened a bookstore,a hobby as well as a comfortable source of income.
I used the door-knocker. I stared at it as I waited. The cast iron loop went through an outstretched, ugly gargoyle’s mouth. It actually gave the arched, oak door a very regal look. The door opened and a smiling Romanoff appeared from behind.
“I was wondering where you were. What are you standing out there for? Come on in!” The door was heavier than it looked. I noticed that he closed it with some extra use of strength.
“It’s.. been a while.” I smiled. His house was still exactly like it had always been. We were standing in a large hall, with an elegant vaulted, tall, ceiling, and ceiling-to-floor, stained-glass windows. Hallways ran to either side towards dining rooms, study rooms, a library, a big kitchen, and even a conservatory. A wide, stone stairway, with small-size gargoyles on either side of the railing led to the first floor’s hallways covered in rich, dark upholstery and leading to bedrooms, yet another library, and an open veranda jutting out from behind the house.
“A while? It’s been months! Let’s go into the kitchen. I fixed you some coffee and I even bought chocolate dessert earlier this morning because I knew you were coming over to my house.” My heart went out to him. I hadn’t realised he was looking so forward to my visit.
He grinned. “Also, I hope your black eye goes away soon. I was at the baker’s and I heard some pretty girls express quite some disappointment regarding your new face.”