By Yui Seta
He came unannounced, with his long matted hair, ragged clothes and his gaunt face with a sort of hunger in his eyes. And for a moment they didn't say anything to each other, and a thousand possibilities of whom this man might be flashed through Lilian's mind. A beggar? A robber? A drunkard? Or someone who just happened to walk in the wrong house?
I saw this posted outside, he finally said, holding up a sign in one thin hand, the sign saying, accepting male boarders. Do you still have a vacant room?
She smiled at him, as was required as she was the landlady of the house, and she always thought it was strange, since it was a male boarding house. It doesn't matter, her brother said. I'll be sticking around to protect you. Just be careful on how you pick boarders. Not all students are safe. So that's what she did. She accepted boarders who wore clean, well-ironed shirts, coming in for their interviews smelling of books and soap. They talked in varying accents, but they were all well spoken, polite and most of them were scholars of the university nearby. She knew there were a lot of sickos who had the same appearance, but she had always prided herself for having a keen instinct, a reliable little voice in her head that spoke in her heart.
Yes, in fact we still have one vacancy. She said, standing up from the kitchen table and drawing up another chair for the newcomer. Please, sit down. Would you like some coffee?
Coffee? He repeated, as if he had never heard of such a thing before.
Hot chocolate? It was still early morning. Some water?
Water will do, thank you. He smiled at her under his dark beard and she thought he had a nice smile, even though in general, he did not look nice. He looked quite scary, actually. But there was something in his bright blue eyes that told her not to be afraid of him, so she got a glass resting by the sink and as she was filling it with drinking water she began to ask him some questions about his background.
Are you a student at the university? She said, putting the glass of water in front of him, noticing the thin hands, the sallow skin, and the veins that starkly stood out. She looked up at him, and he seemed fascinated by everything, everything surrounding him. Even at the crayons and the pastels that were lying on the kitchen table.
No, no, I'm not a student. I was out of school ages ago. He said, with a tint of bitterness in his voice. She wondered.
So what do you do, then?
I…he paused, his blue eyes uncertain. She again wondered who he was, and if he was on cocaine or any mind-altering drugs. But no, there was something in his countenance that was focused, certain. Surely he was not an addict. She had seen addicts before, and they were mindless creatures, wandering aimlessly about in their lives, in their minds. Then he smiled again. I'm an owl trainer.
An owl trainer. That's nice, she said. I've never met an owl trainer before. She thought it was a bit strange, actually. But then again, all about this man was somehow dark and mysterious and sad at the same time.
Can I see the room? Abruptly.
She was a little surprised. Of course. She led him up the flight of stairs, past the rooms that were already taken, and were already locked, as some of the students had already transferred their things in preparation for the school year ahead. She took him to the room at the end of the hall.
The rooms here are quite small, she said, almost apologetically as he stalked and looked around. But there are many trees outside and it is well ventilated and quiet.
I like this room, he said reassuringly.
However, there is still the matter of how the rental is paid here. You have to pay me two months' advance if you want to reserve this room.
That's not a problem, he said, thrusting his hand in his dirty jeans and drawing up a thick wad of money and handing it over to her. Will that be quite enough?
Yes, she said, quickly counting the money. But it's too much, Mr…
Black. Sirius Black.
A strange name for this strange man. Mr. Black, she said uncertainly, handing him back the extra money. He accepted it, looking a little embarrassed. Do you need our telephone number? She asked, feeling in her pocket for one of the business cards her brother had made for the boarding house. No, no, I don't need that, he said impatiently, shaking his head. He stalked past her and down the stairs, saying, I will be back tomorrow. I'll be moving and I will be bringing my things along. Will that be troublesome for you?
No, not at all, she called back.
Then he was gone, as quickly as he came.
She began to ponder on what her brother would say if he saw him the next morning.
Colin came home early that day, and as a result, they had an early dinner too.
The last room was taken today, she told him, as she heaped more mashed potatoes on his plate. He needed to eat more, he was so thin.
Oh really? He said, his voice tired, but he smiled brightly up to her. She felt sorry for him. He didn't use to be like this. He used to be the most irresponsible child in the family. He was the raucous, noisy brother, always cracking jokes to make their mother and father and the twins laugh. But that was before they died, in a plane crash, leaving the two of them in this quiet, empty house. The tragedy left him a pale, shaking individual, the Colin she knew all of her life dying along with the rest of the family. That was why she suggested for it to be turned into a boarding house. She thought the lack of life within the rooms of the house would drive her mad.
He is a strange fellow, she said a little thoughtfully. Long hair, black beard, dirty clothes… Like he was living in the mountains all his life. But he is perfectly harmless, she added, a little too quickly.
When is he moving in? Her brother barked. He had met all the boarders before, and he didn't like the description of the latest one. How long did you talk to him?
Not very long.
Then how do you know that he is perfectly harmless? That is what's wrong with you, Lilian. You are too nice. What if he were a serial killer?
Oh, don't be ridiculous. A serial killer, killing boarding house people. What a gripping life he does lead! Maybe we'll get to be in a movie? She hated the way Colin was being such an overbearing brother.
It's not so farfetched, but, okay, in a more realistic view, what will the other boarders think?
It is none of their business. She retorted, starting to feel that Mr. Sirius Black should have paid her extra for all the defending she was doing for him.
What's his job? He said, throwing up his arms in resignation.
He trains owls. Last time I checked, it's not a hot job for serial killers. They usually want to be pizza delivery boys. She said with a straight face. Colin had to laugh. If you want, she added, you can meet him. He'll be moving in tomorrow morning.
Okay I will, then. He stood up and began collecting the plates. It's my turn to wash the dishes tonight, if I'm not mistaken. He smiled kindly at her. You better finish that painting you've been working on the past week.
Mr. Sirius Black showed up exactly when he promised. Lilian didn't even recognize him when she answered the door. He looked so different. His beard was gone, his hair trimmed and carefully combed, and he had new clothes on, although he seemed uncomfortable in it. She could see his face clearly now, and he was neither young nor old. Resting near his feet was a trunk, and in one hand he had a caged parrot, big and colorful.
Sirius Black? She asked uncertainly.
Yes. Good morning, Miss Lilian. He smiled.
Won't you come in? Have you had breakfast yet? She asked, holding the door open for him. Mr. Black dragged his trunk in the kitchen. A trunk, and not a bag. How strange. He nodded his head and she immediately got an extra plate from the cupboard.
Who's that? Colin called from inside.
It's Mr. Black, one of our boarders, she was quick to reply. She turned her attention to him. Would you like bagels, jam, butter or marmalade? Mr. Black just smiled and said he would like some coffee.
Colin came out shortly, fixing his cuffs. His eyes rested on the parrot on the floor to Sirius Black. Good morning, it is Mr. Black, is it not?
Yes, it is.
This is Colin, my brother. Lilian said, walking up to her brother. Will you ever learn to tie that necktie properly! Excuse us, Mr. Black, but we'll be back in a jiffy. The two siblings disappeared from the kitchen.
I thought he was an owl trainer, Colin said, smirking, remembering the red parrot in its cage.
I thought so, too. She replied, tying his dark blue necktie neatly into a knot, taking a step back to admire her work. The shirt was well-ironed, and she suddenly remembered how this all started, now they had no mother, and how, on the first day of Colin's job, he went to work with a burnt shirt. She smoothed Colin's hair.
You remind me of mother sometimes, Colin said suddenly, softly, sadly. She smiled and went back to the kitchen. When her brother looked at her with such soft eyes she wanted to cry. Mr. Black was already eating. Colin followed her, and he talked to Mr. Black.
I'm going to try training parrots this month, Mr. Black explained, patting the black cage beside him, throwing a piece of bread to the bird through the thin metal bars.
Oh I see. Colin said. I thought it was just an oddly shaped owl. She rolled her eyes and smiled embarrassedly at Mr. Black, who seemed very amused. How different he looked from yesterday! She wondered if he was a sort of Bearskin, where he had bartered with the devil and not clean himself for seven years, to attain precious treasures.
The small talk Colin had with Mr. Black was a success. She had never heard Colin laugh since the family died. She knew he no longer thought him as a dangerous stranger. He realizes how silly he sounded, now, she thought. Soon he was shaking hands with him before leaving. She helped Mr. Black get his few possessions in the room, explaining the house rules along the way, the curfew time, what time breakfast, lunch and dinner would be, among other things. Mr. Black simply listened and said not one word.
She didn't see much of him for the next days, and for the next weeks. She became busy, for the other boarders soon came, for the semester was just around the corner. She had to clean the house, cook the food, fix up her accounts and look after her brother. There were times when the owl-trainer would leave the house carrying nothing and he would not return until late in the evening, after she had cleared the remnants of dinner. And he would still be carrying nothing except a roll of parchment. She wondered about this, but she did not say anything to him. She tried to bring up food for him, but he would not answer the door.
Even the other boarders began to wonder about their mysterious neighbor, coming and going in the twilight hours. He sure is a busy man, for an owl trainer, they would say jokingly to the landlord and landlady. There are times, they said, that they would see him disappear in the forest nearby and not return until late in the evening. Sometimes they would see a snowy-white owl accompanying him as he trudged home, but the owl never stayed. Where did he work, where did he come from? Eventually, the landlady's earlier description of Mr. Black as a 'hermit' leaked out as she had chanced the tenants chatting and joking about it.
Maybe he is an underground circus strongman, one of the students said, who had sleek brown hair and wore horn-rimmed glasses. He was majoring in English, which may explain his broad imagination—or even the lack of it. Pretending to be training owls and parrots when he is actually training more dangerous animals!
I sometimes chance a peek at his room when his door is open, said another, shoveling food into his mouth. And it contains the strangest of things—things and objects that I haven't honestly seen anywhere before. The student looked genuinely baffled and disturbed. Perhaps he is a shaman of sorts, those crazy lunatics who dress up and try to heal people with leaves and sticks and loud wailing.
Good, said another, laughing. Perhaps he can chant and pray for us, since exams are so near. But he is a strange chap, bless him. I saw him feeding a live rat to a cat before, when he thought no one was looking.
He looks like no other person I've seen before. The student went on seriously. He looks haunted and depressed, and is forgetting to shave. What if he were an escape convict, or a murderer on the loose? We might wake up and find ourselves burning.
That's an awful thing to say, the landlady blurted out, unable to control herself. I've spoken to him and he is a gentleman as any of you. He may be a little eccentric, but we all have our little eccentricities sometimes, don't we?
That's right. The landlord stepped in the kitchen, looking exhausted from work and loosening his tie. Maybe the man really likes to wear his beard long. Why, he may be St. Paul rewriting the Bible for all we know. Then he leaned over, smiled and kissed his sister on the forehead. The students smiled sheepishly at this gentle chiding from brother and sister. They revered the two like their own elder siblings and respected everything they said.
The door slammed, and they looked up. The man in question had arrived. He passed by the table with a gruff 'good evening' and climbed up the flight of stairs before the landlady could even ask if he had dinner already.
But soon enough they became wrapped up with their own affairs and this was true even for Lilian. So it was a blessing when they finally hired a maid, for even though Lilian loved playing the part of the landlady, it exhausted her, and her painting was left mostly unfinished.
So one day she decided to just sit down and paint and forget the world for a while. She had hoped that no one would bother her for the next two hours that hardly in the first stroke of the brush an interruption occurred.
Good afternoon. She fixed her glasses over her eyes. It was he, walking towards her, his beard covering half his face, but it wasn't so bad as when she first met him.
I'm sure the sun rose in the east today, she told herself. Would it sink to the east? This is an unexpected surprise.
What are you doing? He said, in that abrupt manner of his. Like one who is learning how to speak again.
I? Oh, I am painting.
Really? How is it done? A brighter shade in his tone.
Don't be silly. Surely you know how paintings are done.
No, I don't. If he didn't look so solemn, she would have laughed. So she showed him. How the colors were blended, how they should be put on the canvas, how, in that manner, art can imitate life. He held on to every word she said with a rapt expression in his bright eyes. It was curious, how threatening he looked sometimes, and how he held a childlike fascination for the most ordinary things surrounding them on other times. How did she know all of this? She blushed to herself when she realized that she had perhaps watched him too carefully these past months. There. The painting lesson was over. She said nothing. He sat in silence by her side. A wind passed through the leaves, an inaudible sigh, and the last stroke of a paintbrush.
It is very quiet here, he remarked.
Yes, it is quiet here, she nodded, remembering how she would sit by this exact spot with her father as he taught her how to paint. Quiet, and slow, and boring. But I guess it suits someone like me.
I like this kind of quiet, he said, a shadow pressing upon his brow, an unforgettable nightmare flitting through his mind. She glanced at him, and he was pale. It is different—he stammered, tripping over the words—it is a different kind of quiet—from the quiet that I used to know. She shivered, but she knew not why. He bent down and held his head in his hands, like an unspeakable burden was weighing on his shoulders and he was being crushed by it. And she felt sorry for him, for this Sirius Black. She felt sorry for this stranger sitting by her side.
I would like to know you as you are, Mr. Black.
There was a gust of wind and a sudden, high thin wail broke through the silence of the afternoon. It sounded—she had never heard anything like it before. Her blood froze in her veins. It sounded inhuman, it sounded alarmed, and it sounded unreal. In a heartbeat Mr. Black was out of his chair, and when she made a move to follow him, he told her to stay where she was.
What is it, what is it?
Don't follow me, please don't follow me. Stay where you are. Without further explanation, he raced into the forest, where the shadows of the trees took him. She took a few steps forward shouting his name, searching the forest with confused eyes. There was another gust of wind. But no, it was not wind. There was a faint sound in the distance. A flapping of wings? Then she caught sight of it—a great shadow of—she squinted her eyes, for they were threatening to fail her. A pair of large shadowy wings. Her mouth opened in surprise, but no sound came out. Then the moving shadows disappeared before she could even take a closer look. Had she imagined it? Her feet were rooted to the ground, her hands cold and clammy. No, she was certain. She saw it, she heard it, else she would not be trembling as she would now. She waited for him to return until sun dipped over the horizon, but he did not.
She saw him returning from the woods later that evening, and as his usual habit, he walked by them as they were having dinner, and he said nothing. He looked paler than usual, and she felt he was looking at her as he walked on by.
Aren't you going to have dinner, Mr. Black? Her brother's voice made her jump in her seat, but he didn't seem to notice. He was looking at the black-haired man standing near the doorway.
No thank you I'm fine. Mr. Black said. Despite appearances he talked and acted like a gentleman, but sometimes…he seemed to be the madman that the students thought him to be. The boys were looking at him with undisguised interest, their eyes mocking him. You're not like us, Mr. Black, their eyes said. We live through cunning and intelligence. Their eyes perceived the weakness that was also his strength. So unlike us that you will have to survive on kindness, all the days of your life.
But Mr. Black said nothing. The only thing in his eyes was sadness. And…a depth that other people didn't have, but she remembered seeing it once, in her brother's friend, who had died after battling a disease that slowly ate his soul for three agonizing years.
She carried food up to him after the others were done eating and knocked on his door. There was a long silence, and finally, she heard his voice through the door. Is that you, Miss Lilian.
Yes, I've come to bring you dinner. I know you haven't eaten yet. His voice sounded so alien and faraway, muffled and intimidating. A prisoner trapped in a cell he built for himself.
That's alright, Miss Lilian. Please don't trouble yourself.
But what can I do? It is already here. Useless, worthless banter. Why can't we speak of things that will be of more use to us? But they were already trapped in this moment, a moment between strangers.
I'm used to being hungry, anyway.
She touched the wood of the door. His voice sounded clearer now, as if he were just standing just across her.
You can change that, she said, smiling a little, not knowing why she said it. She heard a sigh, a soft click, and he opened the door.
Then one morning Colin sat down across her as she was painting by the woods. Autumn was setting in, and the breeze was cold and invigorating. The thick coats had to be pulled from their boxes in the storage room and it smelled of mothballs. She disliked the smell of mothballs and she kept away from it as much as she could possibly could. She was now wearing a light jacket, and painting away as furiously as she can, not minding the chill at all.
Mr. Black talked to me today. Colin said, standing up and marching across the fiery red leaves, crunching them under his boots.
Oh really? She said, feigning disinterest.
Yes, he said that he is going to leave in a less a week's time.
Her hand strayed. The delicate smile on the muse's lips turned into an exaggerated smirk. She hurriedly grabbed a piece of cloth to undo the damage, but what did it matter now? What did it matter?
He has paid all his dues and apologized for being slightly late in payment. But you don't mind, don't you, he asked, mistaking her distressed reaction for something else. She shook her head wordlessly in reply. Something in her throat constricted and suddenly it was hard to breathe. Colin was staring at her, and she knew she had to do something. So she picked up her paintbrush again, trying to hide the error in the painting with a faint blush of pink.
But, in a strange way, she knew this was going to happen. It was bound to happen. He was keeping a secret she only half knew. The owls that flew in when the moon was full, clutching rolled parchments within their claws. He talked to them, and his brow was always furrowed with worry. She could feel his restlessness, even when he locked himself in his room, his private sanctuary. He moved about, not sleeping, not doing anything at all. He disappeared into the woods during the day, summoned by a lilting song that only he could hear. He was forgetful of everything else, but when he looked at her…his eyes grew clearer, like one waking from a dream-filled sleep.
She watched Colin leave, cleaned the house, since the maid was away on vacation, had a little early lunch for herself, and soon was sitting back where she began. But her heart and hand were heavy, and she could not pick up the paintbrush. When had I started getting used to this life? Where nothing exists outside of these walls and these paintbrushes and these woods? Where I have only Colin and myself to talk?
And now he was leaving. He, who had blown fresh air into her closed, narrow life. He, who had enchanted himself to her heart with his mysterious ways. He, who…
He whom she knew very little about.
She stood outside his door, fiddling with her hands. Somehow, she found herself here, wanting to talk to him, bid him farewell perhaps, thank you for staying, even for a while. Talk about anything! Anything! In this language of strangers, say farewell…
She raised her hand and knocked the door smartly. Mr. Black? She called, calmly, she hoped. No one answered the door. She tried again, and still, no one answered the door. She called his name, louder this time, but still the room was silent. Hesitating for a moment, she laid a hand on the doorknob, and to her great surprise, she found it unlocked. The door opened, and she walked in.
The room was clean, but empty, all the beddings were folded neatly and not a single particle of dust on the floor. This was the first time Lilian had been inside this room since he had arrived, and she was surprised to see that it was exactly as she last saw it. And the occupant of the room stood there, as still as stone, watching her face with his sad eyes. She raised her face and coolly returned his gaze. He had been beautiful once, but that is long gone now. All that was left of him was this, and she would not have it any other way.
There was a sort of still tension in the air, like a silken thread preparing to snap. All of the polite things she wanted to say flew out of the window. She took a step towards him, her eyes never leaving his. This tension—it was something more than mere imagination, more than mere beatings of the heart and breathing of air. Inexplicably within, and yet at the same time, without. Emanating from this man, but not so. Mysterious, but something she knew existed ever since the moment she was born, forgotten by the long years by reminded by his mere presence. This feeling in the air, the ground, in her, in him, was drawing her closer. A light crept slowly up her eyes and she spoke softly.
What…sort of devilry is this?
At that moment, a huge white owl flew in through the window and over their heads. She raised her arm and caught the parchment that the owl dropped. Sorrow was written on her face as she looked upon it, for she knew it was a sign for him to leave, perhaps never to return. He closed the distance between them and put a hand over the parchment, and tilted her face upwards.
You have to go, she said, very sadly, somehow understanding what he was going through without him saying anything. She did not understand how this was possible, never even thought it was possible.
I would like to stay, he replied, but not without adding, if I could. He ran his fingers over her eyelids and she closed her eyes in response.
Who are you, Mr. Black, she whispered so softly and so tenderly that it made him tremble. And why do you make me remember…this feeling of my soul?
And you…he leaned over and softly kissed her forehead. You make me forget. Even for a little while. With these words a single tear fell down her cheek, and he brushed it away. A huge gust of wind swept in the room, and when she opened her eyes, he was gone.
A/N: I almost forgot about this fic. Hope you guys enjoyed it. ^_^