The scratching was rhythmic, like a knock. Lin knew it wasn’t the dogs.
She eyed the peephole to see the top of someone’s head, a bundle of gray hair, swaying side to side.
Another scratch, this time a long one, crept down the door at a lazy pace.
The veneer! She turned the lock and opened the door.
An old man knelt before her, eyes pleading, hands clasped in supplication. His pants were torn; his shirt was stained with every shade of soil. A small wooden board rested against his chest. It was affixed to a rope, looping around his neck to form an awkward necklace. The board’s inscription was etched in distinct black letters: “I’m Dangerous.”
“Do pardon me ma’am,” the codger began, “but I’ve injured my ankle after indulging a prolonged gander at your lavish abode. You see, your garden and warm windows enwrapped my gaze and caused me to stumble over this wee pebble.” He held up a small boulder.
“To be frank, kind miss,” he said, “I was hoping you might provide some rest for my weary bones, and perhaps something for my ankle.”
Lin squinted into the man’s eyes, which were almost lost within their aged sockets, then raised her eyebrows when she studied the board.
“Oh, yes,” the man’s slender fingers fondled the board like a spider winding its prey, “this is a cruel joke–one only a bully, a monster, could conceive. He makes me wear it all day and tortures me when I try to take it off.” The edges of his lips crept into his cheek wrinkles to make a tight smile. He then gave the board a final tap. “Heed this not; ‘tis merely a cruel jest.”
Lin cocked her head to the side. “Prove it.”
The man turned around and pointed to the edge of the woods. “The one who makes me wear it, he’s watching me–you can’t quite see him, but he’s there.”
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?
“I cannot convince you; I only plead for your trust.”
“What do you expect from me?”
“A meal, ma’am.” He spanned his arms out in penitence. ”Perhaps some bandages. That is all.”
“What about my neighbors?” She pointed to the right, where a house laid hidden in the distance, eclipsed from their view due to a thicket of evergreens. “They always have food laying around, and that one,” she pointed to the small thatched hovel on the hill across the valley, “is where the village doctor lives; she can bandage you up.”
“They all turned me down.”
I wonder why. She sighed, then placed her hands on her hips. “Ok, I’ll help you…but I must take precautions. I have one condition: you must tie rope around your chest and fasten the other end to that tree.” She pointed to a pine tree a few steps from the door. “And when you’ve finished eating, I’ll give you some bandages for your ankle, but then you must leave at once.”
“Ma’am, you drive a hard bargain, but I understand the precaution.” He bowed. “I accept.”
“One moment.” She closed and latched the door, then slipped out the back door to fetch rope from the shed in the backyard. She came back through the house and reopened the front door, relieved to find the man unmoved.
“Here, around your chest.” She handed him one end, then brought the other to the tree. Cinching the knot around the tree, she returned to the man, who had fastened the rope around his torso with a tight knot.
“Looks good. Leave the rock outside and then you may come in. You came at the right time; I have roast in the oven that’s nearly done.”
“Oh, I do enjoy roast,” he nodded, bouncing his gray hair. He grabbed the rock and lazily threw it into a nearby flower bed.
She escorted him through the entryway and into the kitchen, which was immediately to the left. He gazed over everything along the way, gasping and pointing at each new attraction. The wood-fired oven accommodated a teakettle; it began to hiss, throwing echoes along the walls. The scents of tea and meat complemented each other as they emitted a palatable mixture into the air.
“Oh, the aroma wafts away my sorrows,” he said, voicing over the kettle. “I’m indebted to you.”
“It’s only natural to help one in need.”
She pulled out a chair at the table and ran to the oven once he was seated. She hoisted the teakettle from the fireplace and set it on a cloth pad, then fetched two clay cups from the cupboard.
“Milk? Honey?” she said, pouring the tea.
“Straight tea for me.”
She placed the cup before him; its green steam greeted his senses.
“Thank you.” He grabbed it and took a swig.
“My dear! Let it cool down!” Lin said.
“Oh, no, I need the warmth. See?” He set the cup down and clenched his fingers into a fist. “My strength is returning,” he said. His voice seemed purer than before, filled vigor. “It’s fine, very fine, ma’am–the tea.”
Lin smiled with a slight bow, then walked to the oven. She slipped on her oven mitts and pulled the pot from the oven, setting it on the table. She took the cover off, letting the steam climb to the ceiling; a breeze crept in through an open window and wafted its scent to the man.
“That smells heavenly.”
“I hope it tastes as good as it smells,” she said.
“Why doubt? You have the makings of a fine cook.”
She turned away and went to the cupboard before exposing a smirk. “What makes you say that?” She grabbed two plates, then bit the grin away and returned to the table.
He pointed to the spice rack. “You have vast array of spices; those are hard to come by in these parts.” He then nodded at the utensil holder. “And your tools are experienced, for they all feature signs of wear. No serious chef is ever seen without an abundant collection of weathered tools and a rich supply of spices.”
“No one’s ever,” she paused and set the man’s plate in front of him, then shrugged, “well, noticed.”
“Pardon my asking, but could you start some water boiling?” he said. “I would like to boil some eggs, if that’s all right with you.”
She looked to the fireplace, hesitating. “Uh, sure. That won’t be a problem.” She brought him a knife and fork, then situated a pot of water above the fire.
“Thank you,” he said, grabbing the steaming roast and ripping off a chunk with the other hand.
“Oh, dear. Isn’t it hot?” Lin said. “Use the silverware.”
“They won’t be necessary.” He peeled the meat apart and threw a chunk into his mouth.
“Want anything to drink besides tea?”
“No.” He threw in another piece.
Lin covered her mouth, her eyes went wide, for the man’s hair turned black; only a few gray wisps remained.
“Your innocence is as unparalleled as your hospitality, ma’am.” The man stood up, a full head taller than he was at the door. His back was no longer bent, but firm and high. His eyes were hot with youth, and his skin was likened to polished leather. “I’m strong now.”
He stepped towards the counter, but the rope held him taught and jolted his body. He sighed, then started to untie the knot.
“Sir! Our deal.”
“Words, they mean nothing.”
Lin opened the kitchen closet and grabbed a baseball bat. “No. Don’t. Don’t make me do this!”
“I’m not making you do anything, honey.”
She ran at him, and with a yelp, swung the bat.
It smacked into his head; Lin’s hands went numb from the percussion.
He was unharmed; he glared at Lin, shook his head slightly, then finished untying the rope before stepping towards the counter. He studied the knife set, then pulled out the butcher knife.
Lin thought of the back door–of escaping–but she couldn’t move.
He advanced towards her, rotating the knife in a gentle figure-eight. He eyed Lin from her feet to her head, then locked his gaze on her throat. His mouth bent into a tight grin, as if glee and pity fought for dominance.
They locked eyes, like a wolf and rabbit waiting for the other to move. “Leave me alone,” tears seeped into her eyes, “please.”
He chuckled. “I’d rather not.”
He reached towards her, but the door swung open, sending a gust of air through the house. The dishes, cups, silverware and roast flew off the table; Lin and the man fell sideways onto the floor.
A slender man in a dark blue overcoat, buttoned and crisp, leaned in through the front door. His hair was a bush of intersecting brown curves. A short, smoldering pipe was wedged in his mouth. He puffed a cloud of smoke into the entryway and watched it float towards them.
“Boris, calm down,” he said.
Boris spit towards him. “Go away! Remember the rules?”
“Help!” Lin cried.
“Silence!” Boris lunged on top of Lin, shoving his knee into her chest.
She cried in pain, but it only lasted a moment, for the man in blue grabbed Boris and pulled him off. Rolling to the side, she watched the man drag him to the table.
“Mind your manners,” the man said to Boris as he sat him sitting against the table’s leg.
Boris growled at him, then spit again.
The man only blew smoke in response.
“What are you gonna do?” Boris said. “The rules only allow so much.”
He turned to Lin. “Ma’am, I beg your name.”
He stood up and went to Lin. “It’s a pleasure, Lin.” He bowed. “I’m the Rule Keeper. I bind the rules and they bind me.” With a smile, he extended his hand and helped her to her feet. “And I’m sorry, Lin, but Boris is right. There’s only so much I can do. You’ve already let him in.” He turned his head to the basement door. “Is that your basement?”
“You get the basement, Boris,” he said while looking at Lin. “Keep the rules or you’ll know what’ll happen.”
Boris leapt towards the basement door, half crawling, half slithering. He whipped the door open, threw a brief snarl at Lin, then descended into the darkness.
The Rule Keeper followed him to the door then closed it with a soft push.
“Wait…” Lin said.
“You mustn’t protest, Lin. The rules can’t be broken.”
She frowned. “Rules?”
“The rules of power. Uh, how shall I describe it…” He glanced at the pot of water at the fireplace, then scanned the kitchen. “Where’s your pantry?”
She pointed to a door near the passage to the living room.
He went to it, rummaged around, then brought three large potatoes to the counter and began to cut them into wedges.
Lin watched with a blank face and arms folded.
After he finished with the spuds, he went to study the suspended water pot, which was nearly boiling. He added a few small logs into the fireplace, then beckoned for Lin to come closer.
They watched the fire grow for a minute.
“Do you think the fire cares about the water?” The Keeper said.
“No,” Lin said, barely audible.
“Does the water feel the fire?”
“The fire is cruel too; as you know, it takes time to boil.”
The water hissed, and a white blanket of bubbles danced on the surface.
“Who has more power, the water or the fire?” he asked.
“The fire, I suppose.”
“Indeed.” He pointed to the roiling water. “The water will boil into steam until there’s nothing left. But what if the water is not alone?” He grabbed the chopped potatoes and threw them into the pot. After a moment, the tossing wedges disappeared underneath a growing layer of foam. “Rules are rules, but a time comes when they must be bent.”
The foam rose until it bubbled over the edge of the pot, sizzling into the fire and forming a cloud of steam. Smoke filled the kitchen as the foam continued its deluge. Once the flames and smoke subsided, a heap of smoldering wood remained.
“Now who has more power?” he said.
“Exactly. Power can only pass from one who has more to one who has less. But remarkably, something which Boris will eternally despise, the truest power comes when the weakness of the weak is used against the strong.
“Lin, you gave Boris his power when you ignored the warning and let him in, and therefore you lit the fire that would have been your downfall if it had not been for me. Power passed from you to him, but, fortunately for you, in becoming weak yourself, you let me use your weakness as strength. Consider yourself spared–and hopefully wiser because of it.” He whirled on his heel, took another puff, and returned to the front door. “So now, remember this day. Don’t let Boris back upstairs.”
She eyed him with a blank face. “Of course.” Her words were crisp, tight. “Why would I?”
He pivoted back to her, and let a lazy stream of smoke seep from his mouth. “Memories fade as fast as wood dries. Someday you may find yourself dry and ready for a spark. When that day comes, you must be on your guard.
“But take heart, for no matter the heat of the fire, the water is never alone, and there will always be enough to put it out.” He saluted her with a wave of his pipe, then departed.
Lin sat in silence, surveying the kitchen. Silverware and plate fragments were strewn over the floorboards. The rump roast sat near the basement door in a cold lump.
A muffled groan and rhythmic scratches crept through the basement door…and a trail of tingles cascaded down Lin’s spine.
The scratching was rhythmic, like a knock. Lin knew it wasn’t the dogs.