The Curse of the Magi, by Michael Seese
One dollar and eighty-three cents. That was all. She had spent another year painstakingly putting it aside, saving one and two pennies at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Della felt no compulsion to count it again. She knew the amount by heart, as she had spent the better part of December scrimping even further, if such a level of frugality can be imagined. One dollar and eighty-three cents. Four fewer pennies than this very day last year. Paralyzed by poverty, again, on Christmas Eve.
If the prior year’s fiscal challenges necessitated parsimony, this year had been defined by countless feats of pecuniary legerdemain.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch – avoiding the springs which now protruded like vipers hell-bent on taking what little blood she felt she had left — and howl. So Della did it.
As the sobs softened to sniffles, she closed her eyes and tried to envision herself – the both of them – elsewhere. Anywhere else. Anywhere other than their $8.50 per week furnished room. This ramshackle apartment, with its letter-box still too small to hold a letter, its electric bell still refusing to ring. But one feature of the hovel that Della called home made her heart swell with joy: the name beside the door: “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
When the newly christened Mr. and Mrs. Young had first established their residence here, the former felt flush with cash, owing to a period of prosperity, the heady result of a $30 per week salary. Then, the income shrank to $20. And now, cut further, to a paltry $17.50 per week, while the rent had soared a half-dollar in the opposite direction. Still, despite the travails and challenges, whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and trudged up to his flat above, he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
As with money, Della’s tears eventually ran out. She applied a conservative powdering to her cheeks, and walked to the window to soak up the dull gray vista. Gray cat. Gray fence. Gray backyard. Gray outlook. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day. She knew in her heart that no trinket could surmount the gifts of love they had exchanged last year, as she sacrificed her cascade of brown tresses, and he the gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. That was then; this was worse. Especially with only one dollar and eighty-three cents with which to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim.
Della found her strength, the strength which had guided her through these troubled times, and resolved to surpass last year’s cadeau. She knew where the watch resided; or at least where it did originally, once it had left Jim’s hand. For upon laundering his suit the day after Christmas of last year, her fingers found a hand-written receipt bearing the name CURIOUS GOODS. She spirited away the scrap of paper in the hope that some day she would be be able to retrieve her husband’s heirloom.
Today was that day! Della declared.
On went her old brown jacket, the sleeve-ends tattered and frayed; the old brown hat had long since disintegrated into a heap of cloth too threadbare to hold a stitch, and now served as a robin’s home nestled high in an alder just outside their window. Della cast a glance into the pier-glass between the windows of the room, and pieced together her complete image in the rapid sequence of longitudinal strips. She was pleased to see the woman in the reflection beaming back at her. It had been too long since she’d been this enervated. She whirled and she fluttered out the door, down the stairs, to the street.
As Della bounded along the boulevard, she ran fingers through her luxurious locks, on the rebound, and played out in her head various scenarios. What could she offer the proprietor of CURIOUS GOODS, a certain Mr. Lucien Vendredi? Cleaning? Cooking? Mending? Surely she and he could come to a just, and honorable, agreement. Though a small part of her feared that the man with the exotic name might be so coarse as to suggest, or worse, demand, a prurient favor.
Were it to come to that, could she do it? Would she do it? For Jim?
Where she stopped, the sign said: “Lucien Vendredi. CURIOUS GOODS.” Down to the cellar level Della ran, and stopped to get her breath.
She set one cautious foot, then another, into the foreboding grotto. Before her lay a serpentine wonderland of knickknacks, artifacts, bric-a-brac. She coursed around the menagerie of castoffs as one might traipse – she imagined – through the wilds of the jungle, seeing in every vine a snake, in every branch a tarantula. Della wondered where the magician behind such a spellbinding assemblage might himself be shelved. She found him, hunched over a small desk at the rear, attaching to a square of fine felt an inert, yet still glorious, butterfly.
“Just one moment, if you please,” he said without diverting his attention from the task at hand. “There,” he exclaimed as he secured the prize behind a glass-faced walnut frame and placed it to one side. “Now, how may I assist you, my dear lady?”
“Good day, Mr. Vendredi, I presume.” He nodded. “I am Mrs. James Dillingham Young. On this very day one year ago, my husband paid you a visit for the purpose of exchanging—”
“Ah! The gold watch. Yes, I remember it well. It was quite a specimen of craftsmanship.”
Her face fell.
“Was. Should I take your choice of words to suggest that you no longer possess it?”
“Oh no! It is still here. I knew he would come back. One never abandons such a desirable object.”
The rose returned to her cheeks.
“Then I have come to collect it.”
“Very good.” He stood and clumped away on heavy feet, calling back, “Give me a moment. Oh, the tea is still warm. Help yourself to a cup, if you so desire.”
Della instead drank in the decor, including the shopkeeper’s latest project which, in the dim light, nearly took on the form of a tiny, winged human.
Mr. Vendredi returned several minutes later, and laid in Della’s hand the heirloom. It felt simultaneously frigid and scalding to the touch though, to the eye, it still shined as brightly as she remembered it. And it was his. It was Jim’s.
“I can see, my dear lady, why you wish to reunite it with your husband. It is a beautiful piece, though I am sure its value goes far deeper than the face and the casing, or even the mechanicals inside. Speaking of value…”
“I must confess, good Mr. Vendredi, that I do not have funds sufficient to buy it back from you.” He cocked an already arched eyebrow. “In truth, I have very little money. So little, that I won’t even speak the amount, lest you think I am trying to negotiate it down to that price. No. That would do you an injustice, as the coins in my purse represent little more than an insult.”
“Then how do you intend to reimburse me?” he asked, tellingly, making no effort to reclaim the watch from her possession. Della suspected that he already may have had several ideas in mind.
She stood up straighter, held her chin high, and sucked in her bosom as much as possible to curtail any wayward thoughts which might cross his mind.
“My hope was that you would be in need of specific domestic services. Certainly, your marvelous inventory could use a periodic dusting. Your silver and flatware, polishing. Also, I am fairly facile with numbers.” The latter was a half-truth; she had no formal education in accountancy, though their unending financial challenges had made her quite the expert in budgeting. “Perhaps I could tend to your books. Or—”
“My dear Mrs. Young, I do not barter for services. I deal in goods, and goods alone. Most,” he said waving his hand, “are tangible. Though some are… less so.”
Della waited for the other proverbial shoe.
“Come with me,” he said, walking to the rear of the shop, in advance of any acquiescence on Della’s part. “Come, come, you need fear me not. I am an old man.” Her feet remained fixed. “You have my word that I shall do nothing to sully the name of Mrs. James Dillingham Young.”
She followed reluctantly. He led her down a series of steps – perhaps 30 or 40 in all – to the sub-cellar. The room felt gloomy, stifling almost as if all life had been sucked from the space. Lining the mossy walls were shelves, as far as Della could see in the flickering lamplight, holding an odd assortment of flasks, casks, and jars. All corked. All filled with a swirling gray aether. Della put her face close to one. In it, she saw a roiling concoction of confusion, seemingly struggling to escape the confines of the glass gaol.
“May I ask you a question of faith, Mrs. Young?”
“I suppose so,” she said, still focused on the curlicuing contortions.
“What is it that separates man from beast? Hmmm? Is it language? No. Most animals communicate quite effectively with their own kind. Society? Ants and bees maintain highly organized and efficient colonies, centers of industry and residency. What about higher ideals, such as altruism? No. Primates, and other advanced mammals, have been known to sacrifice themselves for the good of their clan.”
“Free will?” Della opined.
“Ha!” he said. “Even man does not possess true freedom of will. You believe you do. But you do not.” Della failed to notice his odd choice of pronoun. “So what then? I will tell you. The soul.”
He walked to the center of the repository and stood, arms outstretched.
“Souls!” he boomed. “The true currency of the ages. Paper bills will disintegrate. Coins will tarnish. Even gold will decompose over time. But souls are eternal.”
Della wondered where Mr. Vendredi’s rant would conclude, and how it might relate to the bottles and, more central to her dilemma, Jim’s watch. All too soon, she would know, and would wish she had never set foot inside CURIOUS GOODS.
“You may leave my store, this very day, with your husband’s watch,” he said as his eyes grew intense. And red. “And all I require in exchange is a promise.”
“A promise to share with me something that, at some point in the future, will be utterly useless to you.”
“And that promise would be?”
“At the end of your natural life, you shall will over to me your soul.”
“I… I’m afraid I do not understand, Mr. Vendredi.”
“Everything, EVERYTHING, on this earth is temporary. Structures. Trees. Rocks, even. All will vanish in time. That which you personally possess – your cookware, your clothing, the beautiful combs made of pure tortoise shell with jewelled rims that Mr. James Dillingham Young procured for you Christmas last—”
“How did you know—”
“ALL, here today, and then gone in a blink of the universe’s eye. As you are being laid to rest, my dear Mrs. Young, these worldly trifles will matter not to you, not in the least. And neither will your soul. When that day comes – and no one, not even I know when it will be, nor can I influence it – your soul becomes my possession. Do we have a deal?”
Della was unsure of what she should say. Raised a Christian, she knew that one’s eternal soul was hardly to be considered a “trifle.” And yet, the suffering borne of their abject poverty — the emotional toll, often in concert with the physical gnawing of hunger pangs — had tested her faith of late. She often would lie awake at night, and wonder how a God who was said to be benevolent could allow them – she and her Jim – to suffer so. She decided that He could not. Therefore, He could not exist.
“I’ll do it,” her mouth said.
“Splendid,” Mr. Vendredi gushed, already ascending the staircase. Back up his work table he began contemplating a cubby crammed full with scrolls, a feature which Della somehow had not heretofore noticed. “Now, let me see,” he said running a finger over the yellowed promissory notes. “Ah, here we are,” he said, extracting one. He unrolled it, perused it for a moment, and put it down on the desk for Della to see. Much to her surprise, the page already bore the date, as well as her name. She understood that strange forces were at work, but felt as though she was in too deep to question.
He pulled open the bureau’s center drawer and removed a large pen. “On the surface, this will seem distasteful. But I assure you, it is neither harmful, nor painful.”
He jabbed the pen into the center of her chest, and pulled back on the lever. She watched, aghast and amazed, as her blood filled the chamber. He handed it to her, after first taking a lusty sniff of the nib.
Though strong by nature – and made stronger through the strains of adversity – Della wished that Jim could have been here, with her, now. He always had been her rock, and she could have used a sturdy foundation about now. And yet, she knew that were he there, he would have smashed the pen to pieces, taken her hand, and spirited her away, reassuring her all the while that no piece of jewelry had more value than she.
But Jim was not there. So sign she did, wordlessly. Mr. Vendredi blew on the wet, red scrawl, then re-rolled the parchment and filed it among the others. He caught sight of her piteous expression, and sought to offer her assurance.
“Worry not, dear lady. As you saw a few moments ago, you are by no means the first person to enter into said agreement with me. And I would hazard a guess that you will not be the last. Let me emphasize, our contract has no bearing – NONE – on the life you know. The unknown is another matter.”
“So when will this contract…”
“Rest assured, you have my word that I do not – I cannot – collect as long as you live. And, I should hasten to add, per the terms of the pact, I may do nothing to bring about the contract’s effective date.”
“I am relieved to hear that, Mr. Vendredi.”
But in truth, Della was anything but relieved. Back in their apartment, now colder and grayer than ever, Della felt the despair seeping into her marrow.
“What have I done?” she said, when finally alone with her thoughts. I suppose if Jim doesn’t kill me when he learns of what I have done, at least we may rejoice in the small comfort that we’ll have the balance of my mortal lifespan to share. I should never have signed that contract. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-three cents?”
Della shelved her remorse and self-pity. She had a husband to feed, after all. And so like clockwork, by 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Della waited, and wondered how she would break the news to Jim. She tested aloud various phrases, and experimented with expressions in the pier-glass. None satisfied her.
When she heard his step on the stairway down on the first flight, she turned white. The weight of her irrevocable mistake came crashing down upon her slender shoulders. Della had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things. No little prayer would suffice for this. She simply whispered: “Please God, let him forgive me.”
Unable to face the prospect that he might not, she set the watch on the table and scurried toward the bedroom.
The door opened, and she froze. Jim paused in the hall before stepping in briskly. He looked thin and very serious, yet somehow relieved. Normally, his visage betrayed his age, making him appear far beyond his twenty-two years. But, today, he seemed more like his old self. More like the boy she fell in love with an married. More like the husband who at one time, ages ago, spoiled his bride with a $30 per week salary. Much to Della’s surprise, he wore a new coat, as well as fine gloves to cover and smother in warmth his always-cold hands.
Jim stood as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were averted, fixing on the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Anywhere, but upon his Della. When he did meet her gaze, she saw an expression in them she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for.
It was emptiness.
Della’s eyes visited the prize lying on the table. Jim followed her gaze. A wave of confusion flooded across his face.
“My watch! But how… You paid Mr. Vendredi a visit.”
“I did,” she confessed.
“And you retrieved my watch?” he continued, slowly, as if trying to assemble the information into a cohesive whole.
“Yes.” She could manage no more.
“And from whence did the money come? Why, I recall your expressed fears of scarcely a fortnight ago, as you lamented our dire situation.”
Della had known this moment would come. She had spent the previous two hours, wounded, grounded, like a sparrow at the mercy of two broken wings. Her rehearsed lines now forgotten, she could only blurt out the truth.
“I sold my soul!” she blurted out. “I sold my soul, I tell you! To that wretched Mr. Vendredi, no doubt a distant relation to Satan.”
Della expected, but still was not prepared for, the stifling silence.
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. Last year, we each made supreme sacrifices for each other. And now, here we are, whole once again. You have your watch, and I, my hair. Well, not all of it. But see how it has grown? You see I can now wear your combs? We overcame all of that. And this, too, we shall conquer. Together. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy.”
“You say you’ve sold your soul?” he said, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you — sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. I’ve had a day of challenges.” Not to mention a year of the same. “Be good to me, for I gave it up for you. We all realize that the days of our lives are numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”
Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
“Dell,” said he, “Irony is such a strange beast. I, likewise, have just come from the shop of Mr. Vendredi, where I signed my name to a similar bargain.”
Della managed a faint smile. “How perfectly aligned are we, dear Jim! Though we find ourselves condemned to an eternity of misery and torture, at least we shall have each other. Knowing you will be by my side makes the prospect less grim, less terrifying.”
“Sweet, sweet Della. I’m afraid I must share with you some less than joyous news. I said that I had made a similar bargain, not an identical one.”
“Similar? I do not understand. What does that mean, Jim?”
“I did not sell my soul. I sold yours. The contract takes effect at the stroke of midnight. Merry Christmas, Della. And now suppose you put the chops on. We should savor this meal, as it will be our last together.”
Michael is a former journalist, but his current day job is in information security for a regional bank. Or, as his son could say even at age three, “Daddy keeps people’s money safe.” Michael has published three books: Haunting Valley, a collection of fictional ghost stories centered around his home town, Scrappy Business Contingency Planning, which teaches corporate BCP professionals how to prepare for bad things, and Scrappy Information Security, which teaches us all how to keep the cyber-criminals away.
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Tags: betrayal, Michael Seese, murder, relationships