I heard her before I saw her. A tink-tink sound like marbles knocking against each other. Noisy as it echoed off the thick fog.
When the pub closed and there was nowhere to go but an empty cottage, I poured my rheumatic body bone by bone into the murky night. The gloom recalled childhood stories from boyhood when Mother spoke of night creatures, will-o-the-wisp, the death crone.
Shambling over the uneven cobblestones, my foot kicked the edge of something solid, a jar. It clattered along the stone path, and I held my breath as the mist parted around a small creature huddled near the ground. A girl child.
She was a tiny thing, appearing even smaller by the large threadbare bag slung over her back. Bent low, she was picking up a pickling jar, one of dozens scattered across the damp stone walk.
Pushing a ragged curtain of hair away from her face, she held up the jar, examining its contents. The jar looked over-large in her delicate hands. The tink-tink was the sound it made when she dropped it in her bag, an eerie music in the fog.
Straightening, she found me with eyes dark as ink wells. Her face was shaped like a drop of rain turned round, punctuated by a pointy chin.
Holding a finger to her lips, she whispered, “Shh.”
The night was thickening, rolling toward us in waves. From within the gray came a wet, gargling sound then like something choking. The little girl’s head snapped up. She gave the fog a baleful gaze as if weighing the collection of common jars against whatever crept towards her in the mist.
“Come.” Her voice was a scant whisper. Grabbing my hand, she turned us around, her raspy voice disappearing into the fog. It closed around us, heavy and gray. I clutched the child’s hand tightly.
“Quickly,” she hissed, and I willed my old body to a surer version of myself hurrying with her.
We came to a sudden stop at a dark wall. Not a wall, a door. Heavy oak and plainly hewn. Only barely taller than I. Close behind us, the wet choking echoed louder.
The girl pushed the door open and dragged me in with unexpected strength. Muttering, she threw the latch, then barred the door with a large wooden beam.
She exhaled deeply and walked around me, the jars tinkling on her back. I turned to follow.
A swell of warm air, rich and humid like a summer day, ruffled my clothes. The floor was soft, and when I looked down at my feet, it was indeed covered in grass. The walls crawled with flowering vines which filled the cavern with a honey sweetness and stretched across the ceiling to form thick knots like the woven roots of a tree. Through the barest space in the knots of vine, I could see the light from stars.
Against the far wall was a long table, and behind it, shelves stretched into endless darkness. Gesturing to a bench, the child dropped the bag on the table and began removing the jars, one by one.
Sitting, I watched her carefully. “What is your name?”
The little girl cocked her head to the side. “I cannot tell you my name.”
As children, we played a game where one child spoke to another through cans connected by string. This was how her voice sounded to my ears.
“Well,” I said, put off by her impertinence, “I am Mr. G—”
She cut me off with a sharp hiss, as if I were the child. “True names are not to be spoken on a collection night. They draw too much attention.”
“If you must call me at all, you may call me Mercy,” she said and continued to unpack the jars. Once they were all unpacked, she arranged them in even lines. The jars were filled with a milky substance laced with something like floating glitter.
“What are they?” I asked.
“They are jars of forgiveness,” Mercy replied in her tinny voice.
“Jars of forgiveness?”
“Yes.” She nodded, her face a picture of solemn reverence. Holding the jar a little away from herself, she opened the first one.
A cloud of white dust broke loose with a soft puff. I wrinkled my nose at the musty smell of a house long neglected. Then came the smell of new flowers and freshly turned earth, the first moments after a good rain. I inhaled deeply.
“These are the trespasses of the village,” she explained. “They have been held too long and need to be released.”
Mercy opened another jar. Smells of rotten food filled the air, followed by the rich aroma of baked bread, then a warm winter fire in a tidy kitchen.
Watching her open the third jar, I held my breath a moment, then breathed in the smell of clean laundry laced with lavender.
“Why do they need to be released?” I asked.
Mercy held a jar in her too-small hands. “So people can forgive,” she said.
I reached up and held a jar in my own arthritic hand. It didn’t seem hard to open the jar. Not if a child could do it.
“But why can’t folks open their own jars?” I asked.
Mercy shrugged her shoulders, opening another jar. “Some things get lost.”
She held me with her dark eyes, this tiny child with the tin-can voice. “Have you ever lost something important?”
Looking at all the jars on the table, my gaze drifted to the shelves of jars disappearing into the darkness. I wondered how many of the jars were mine.
Reaching for a jar, I unscrewed the lid.
“Don’t put your face over the—.”
Too late. I inhaled the dust as it broke into the air.
What I saw left me coughing and choking on my own tears; hasty words spoken in rage. The flash of a belt lashing. The cold smell of fear.
Then I felt it. The freedom of laying down a heavy load. The sweet release of letting go. Forgiveness.
Setting the jar down, I pulled out my handkerchief and wiped the tears from my cheeks.
Mercy looked at me with sympathy and handed me another jar.
We worked in silence, and I made sure to keep the jars away from my face. After opening several, Mercy paused and cocked her head as if listening for something faint and far away.
“Is everything all right, Mercy?”
She continued to open the jar she held. Handed me another jar.
“Whatever happens in the next few minutes,” she said in her tinny small-child voice, “do not stop opening the jars.”
I paused what I was doing. “Why do you say that?” I asked.
Then I heard it. A distant dragging sound.
Mercy picked up another jar. Hurried to open it. “No matter what I say, just keep going.”
I opened another one. And another. As fast as I could. Hardly waiting for the dust to clear from one before grabbing another.
The small room was filled with the scents of manure and roses. The smell of sickness chased by mint and verbena. Blood followed by fresh water.
The dragging sound stopped at the door.
I looked at Mercy.
“We have to hurry,” she said, looking worried.
“I am hurrying. I am—” At the sight of my own hands, I froze. These were not the hands of an old man. They were hands that had planed wood and fixed engines. They were the hands that had caressed my young wife. Held my own babes.
Mercy looked stricken. “Hurry,” she whispered, scrambling for another jar. We were a little more than halfway done.
A great banging on the door made us both jump. I dropped my jar, but my young man’s hands reached out in long-forgotten deftness, catching the jar before it fell to the ground. Mercy was not so lucky, but her jar hit the grass with a soft thump. Hurriedly, she picked it up and unscrewed the lid.
Jar after jar, I grabbed the lids, twisting them off as quickly as I could. The faster I worked, the slower Mercy moved.
Daring a glance at her, I was shocked to stillness.
“What?” she snapped.
Where once had sat a child, now a young woman perched on the stool, not much larger, but older and sharpened by a deep scowl.
“You had better hurry, old man.”
She emphasized old man the way I had called out my own father on our farm the winter of my sixteenth year. I had often regretted the moment yet had never apologized.
The woman Mercy sat perched on her stool, eyeing the jars.
“You said this was important,” I said.
“Oh, it is.” Her voice had developed a deeper range, but it still held a metallic quality.
“What will happen if we don’t get them open?”
Bang. Bang. Bang. The pounding on the door resumed.
“You really were a good-looking man,” she said, still fingering the glass she held in her hand. “When you were younger.” She made no move to open it.
“Mercy!” I snatched the jar from her and opened it. My breath hitched at the flood of burnt asphalt. Then I breathed deeply again of baby powder.
“You’ll be fine,” she snarled. When I looked at her again, she was middle age.
Something large scraped against the door. Scowling, Mercy began to move again in earnest.
My hands flashed over the jars, practically throwing the lids on the grassy floor of the house, barely noticing the smells that erupted from the gray glittery silt. There were only a handful of jars left.
The thing outside threw itself against the door, shaking the house. The shelves swayed with the force, glass jars knocking together like chimes in a wind.
Mercy’s hand passed across mine to grab the last jar. I raised my eyes to hers, once dark, now milky with age.
“Haven’t you ever seen an old woman?”
I had, but none like this. She was a crone in a child’s body, shriveled in her dark rags, skin hanging from her bony limbs.
I stared at the final jar in her hands. Outside, the thing threw itself against the door again, and the door splintered inward. I heard its high pitch whine through the cracks in the wood.
“You had better hurry,” she said, handing me the last jar. “That’s the most important one.”
Through the cracks, the whining turned into a monstrous howl.
Mercy made a gesture, and I held the jar to my ear. Over the thunderous roaring, I listened.
I heard a familiar voice, a woman’s voice, and she was crying. I heard the words I had wanted to hear and never had. I heard the words I had wanted to say and had never said. And I wept for want and regret.
Splinters from the breaking door stabbed into the room. With a wet snarl, the thing flung itself inward, its soft gray body squeezing through the splintering cracks.
“Hurry child.” Mercy’s frail voice was breathless. “You’re out of time.”
My hands shook as I opened the jar. The smell of lies and heartbreak burnt my nose, and I fought the urge to throw the jar away. But what followed was the sweet smell of laughter. The aroma of acceptance. The fragrance of forgiveness, my own.
Silence filled the room, full and solid. The creature was gone. I looked, and the door was whole again, tendrils of vines weaving their way around the frame, their flowers opening into honeyed blooms.
Mercy sat across from me, a child again. “Some things get lost,” she said in her tinny voice.
I stared at my hands, wrinkled and covered in age spots, wishing I had found this jar long ago.
“I know,” she said as if I had spoken out loud. “But better late than never.”
Taking my hand, Mercy led me to a bed tucked in a corner. It was a deep feather bed, piled high with soft down pillows, the kind you sank your head into and forgot what it was to be troubled. Suddenly, I was so tired.
I collapsed in the bed. Tiny hands tucked the blankets around me. Sweet promise of rest.
“What was it?” I asked, looking sleepily into her liquid eyes. “That monster?”
“That devil lives in all of us.” Mercy kissed me on the head. “It just becomes stronger with age.”