*By Bernard Coyle -Originally published, by manner of prophesy, in the Donegal Recorder, 27 November 1923. —YOU will think it mad; no, you will think it impossible. All, even the details before the Marchioness du Fleuve’s vindictive appearance...but the retelling must be so. For having grasped the matter by its scrawny neck, and having shaken it about for any loose change or intelligence; and having thrown it up, to see how it would land (would it sit upright and walk away, dazed, or lie there inert), I remain distressed that my Revival Society time abstained from what a diarist might deem respectable hours. Firstly: understand that I had never heard the name of, much less met, the Marchioness du Fleuve—neither before nor after my admission into the Revival Society. Had it been otherwise, the situation would be no less inexplicable; but still, insofar as it strains credulity, the reader will, perhaps, discern something of a morality play, or even point to certain miracles of hydraulic engineering from what will be narrated; though only those of a certain age are likely to smell a disagreeable odor upon hearing the name of the Marchioness du Fleuve; for such is the mysterious power of memory, and foresight, as I have partially dislocated both of them (consider it like a surgery—and successfully done...) It was Halloween night at the Revival Society, thirty-six miles from town. We were all seated around the enormous circular table; at its centre, the great game board. First, note that my presence at this event was in itself a breach of protocol, due to my low status in the Revival Society. Although in my daily duties I was never allowed to speak to the board members, and kept to my work (cleaning up after the higher members in the Society’s spacious country club), I knew most board members by name, if not recognisance. There were only twelve, and most were elderly, whereas I was (and am) a young man of twenty-three. There is to this tale a certain thing about numbers that comes up, or goes down, depending on how you look at it, and depending on the mood of the board. If the earnest reader appreciates this deaducation (yes, preserve the typo, deaducation, for it presages knowledge), do investigate this uncanny coincidence; I will merely retell the events of the board game, as a simple logical deduction fails me… And so: The grand game board on the Revival Society’s circular tabletop, shuddering, stopped as I finished my turn; I had landed nowhere special, in a spot that someone announced was void of course...I watched as the dice were passed to the next player, Peterson. I reddened under the general applause at my feat in denying the game its ‘victory’ by surviving my very first turn. At that point, I naïvely still understood the term ‘victory’ in a symbolic rather than literal sense; and who could possibly blame me for not taking the old board members seriously about their infernal game? But you shall learn soon enough. Then, the board levitated, seemingly out of its own power; I marvelled at the inexplicable engineering that could cause such an out-of-body experience, as it rotated leftward in its heavy oaken being, like a great preposterous sun-disc or some disinterred carriage-wheel come up in the mud, until it creaked and expired by Peterson, player’s portal opened to him... Peterson was the Revival Society board’s liaison committee chairman. Chatter in the club hallways had told me that he had been introduced to the Society as a virus sufferer, having once been prematurely buried by the authorities. Apparently no one had heard him scratching and tapping vigorously against the coffin-lid while it was being lowered into the earth...“A far-fetched claim, that!” I had said to Col. Jenkins at the coat check while coming into the Halloween party. Jenkins merely shrugged from behind his musketeer’s whiskers and coyly suggested that: it takes all kinds, my boy... It is not accidental that I begin my tale with such an apparently impossible detail, for much about the Society and its curious rituals was dubious, indeed, unfriendly to reason, fantastical... Beatific old Peterson smiled at me. He held the dice, with appreciation but without haste; and he flung them into the center of the great game board, so that they travelled across its entire circumference before stopping... This marvelous toss led all to clap and savour the exquisitely-detailed artisan’s work we had inherited from the Society’s original master-craftsman and games committee chair, a certain Isidore...While dates were neither told nor tolerated, the one affixed in my mind was 1767. If not the date of the Revival Society’s inception, it was most probably the year that this game board was created, or first used. But my knowledge of such matters came only from the occasional overheard conversation, or a passage in an old Society encyclopedia. Still, the singularity of the game board demands its description... This game board was simply like no other. It featured an immaculate, probably English village common, oil-painted green and almost obtaining a grassy texture, bordering a languid blue-painted river; this detail divided the board. Also depicted were the tiny trim manor-houses and, further up the hill, a stone castle...heading down the other way from the green, were the medieval cemetery and the village church were bounded finally by an ornate beech copse. Although no one had warned me what to expect, the Revival Society annals I secretly read during my cleaning duties had revealed that on previous Halloweens, detailed accounts of each player’s turns were inscribed, and the results thus preserved for future. This curious custom should have been insignificant, unless the very peculiar game rules were literally true—we will get to that— I had learned that this curious Halloween custom benefitted the Society’s annual fundraising campaign; apparently, praising all the game’s winners and losers aided the Society’s ability to move money, as the bankers have it. The annual fundraising communications also allowed the Revival Society to praise that sublime artisan who created our ancient game board; indeed, it is attested in Society texts I secretly read that the game will only cease once all the names on the cemetery’s headstones are inscribed, rather than left as blank slates. Of course, this detail is not mentioned when one joins this most singular of groups... “Fancy that! I win!” cheered Peterson, full of grace, pointing triumphantly at the reluctant silence left at the juncture of a certain steep manor-house and a laneway, where his flung dice had finally stopped. “You mean, you survive—for now,” muttered Alice, the Society’s honourary president and a wild-eyed old grump, an owl who no one particularly liked. But she wore the spectacles and it was she who kept the Society’s mailings regular. Alice was therefore necessary to the Society’s fundraising efforts, and indeed to the whole mad venture’s perpetuation. As if to confirm the months of chatter I had collected from the club hallways alongside the debris and muck mopped up in my workman’s pail, no one argued with the leader. The silence grew ponderous. Someone inscribed Peterson’s turn, and he received the chips for the manor-house. He grinned; another player safe from the game...for now. The great wheel shuddered and levitated again, and rolled once more counter-clockwise, settling its entry portal before Douglas’s eager fingers. He spoke coarsely, and suffered from thinning hair and the more serious sin of greed. Much worse, he had worldly ambitions; and this, I had overheard one day in the club, is what had won him his seat at the table on this Halloween evening), ‘though there was always his weak heart’... Douglas had fired two doctors already, because he was stubborn and because he could afford to pay for a third, or fourth. Many of the rest of us (well, some of us) had no choice but to moderate our lifestyles instead of consulting physicians. My own poverty, in fact, when seen in a certain light and by certain institutions, appeared to me at that moment as almost a moral virtue; I had thus, I presumed, been accepted into the Society as its cleaning-man, a position as voluntary as those of the actual board members, even if mine was the only one that required getting dirty. Nevertheless, I was grateful for this privileged assignment, as at least (in the words of my uncle and guardian) it kept me ‘offa the streets, and among aristocratic sorts...’ You will need these people eventually so you will, my dear old uncle had said. That was why he had sought out the Society in the first place. I do not know where he had found them—whether in a telephone book, or unawares, or wanting for something...nevertheless, he’d insisted I serve them and follow any orders they might give. And that’s how I was invited to their Halloween game. I had not refused Alice’s humourless request the week previous; it would have been like refusing to trim the hedges on the club lawn. Still, the surprise was tremendous. Douglas was stuck on his turn. A new, deviant thought struck me as I watched the greedy Scot clasp the dice, his old brow furrowed intently. Had my uncle introduced me to the Society’s care so as to dislodge me from his will, though he had no living heirs? The thought had never struck me before, and I attributed its unwelcome arrival, like some strange vapour emanating from an opium den or canal underpass, to the malign Douglas’s turn at the game board. After all, Revival Society lore specified that the general mood and intentions of the active player would captivate or be apparent to the entire table during his or her turn...There was no getting out of it—it had been part of this diabolical game’s original design. I marvelled at what power unknown to science could so precisely operate as a sort of magnet for true thought within very fixed temporal circumstances... I waited for the old Scot to throw and ignored several other unwelcome malignant thoughts, each stubbornly competing for my attention in the dark. Finally, as I successfully fought them off, Douglas tossed the dice. They rattled off the oaken board and seemed to elicit a chattering sound as they danced along the game board’s village green. As the players gaped, and Douglas waited eagerly, the dice seemed to ascend the little road to the castle itself...achieving that goal was the only truly ‘safe’ result a player could get, I knew, as it meant sovereign exemption from any terminal punishments... However, as all stared at the clattering dice and Douglas’s eager expectant face, I detected a grim waxy pallor overtake his skin; and indeed, the untrustworthy dice receded from the mock castle gate and fell past the painted shrubbery of the hillslope, reversing trajectory down the village laneways, until they had scattered into the bleak confines of the cemetery. Douglas’s fat fingers, which had been tightly gripped in expectation of great reward, seemed to grow hoary with frost...and indeed, a great grimace overtook the Scotsman’s dismayed face as he pointed at the dice that had betrayed him. He gurgled out one last impotent condemnation—his hands gripping his heart—and he dropped dead. “Inspection!” cried out Gabriella St. James, a vivacious woman who I knew as board director for the Revival Society’s gaming commission. A quick rushing came from the outspreading dark; a black-clad figure whose look escaped me came forth from somewhere behind the game board. Against all my better understanding of Society lore, I was certain he had come to attempt resuscitation of the Scot... However, being my first Halloween at the Society’s game, I could not have imagined how perfectly the annual re-enactment of the great game would mirror everything written of it in its private records...for the unknown man in black inspected not Douglas’s fallen body, but rather the graveyard spot on the great board where the dice had landed. Peering close, and neatly dusting off a gravestone that had been hit and somehow lit up by the tossed dice, the man spoke in an emotionless monotone. “Yes...a new inscription has appeared,” he announced, as muffled clapping and sighs emanated from the players. “This inscription appears on the previously blank headstone numbered 758, where the following etched memorial is now clearly written: ‘Christian Douglas, 3 February 1944-31 October 2023.” “Mark and confirm!” shouted Alice imperiously. Another player, Evans (the director for the Society records committee), leapt forward as the man in black turned and brought out an aged book, opening it at about the two-thirds mark. Evans gripped the book’s edges under the candle light, and peered intently. From across the table, I could see several minutely handwritten lines that could only have been inscribed many years before... “It indeed appears from our membership logs that our good friend and board member, Mr. Douglas, was born and has unfortunately died on said dates,” Evans said. “Also, I confirm from the membership logs that on joining the Revival Society in 1983, grave 758 was indeed awarded to Douglas.” A low whistle rang out from no one in particular, followed by a dizzying and sustained outburst of clapping from all...I confess that I too felt compelled to clap, despite my horror and disgust...Alice stamped out the clapping with three determined strikes of her silver hammer against the game board, which obediently stopped shuddering and sunk back into its central resting spot. “Thank you all,” she began curtly. “We have recorded another Society miracle. Custom, and the bylaws, state that for the perpetuation of this ancient and renowned Society, one Halloween miracle per annum will suffice until the following year—unless, of course, any board member objects and wishes to play on. However, any such board member may not put forward his or her own name to replace Mr. Douglas as finance committee chairman...does anyone wish to play on, and to nominate a replacement for the now vacant position of finance committee chairman?” My mind reeled: however improbable, the rumoured game rules seemed borne out by experience. Once in, there was no getting out of the Revival Society except by death...But what ferocious chronicler’s fate could account for the precise premonition of death, and pre-assignment to a tiny grave on a painted oaken game board? It defied all logic. I kept silent, resolving to flee somehow; I was grateful not to be a board member, but rather just a cleaner... Suddenly a harsh sound rang out as the Society man in black dragged out Douglas’s corpse from his space, between Peterson and an empty chair at the curve of the table. I was struck with terror; it raced down my head and out my left eye socket, a shock of electricity akin to some Amazonian arrow fired by a heathen tribesman hidden in forest canopy...I was sickened and alarmed. I instantly recanted on my previous unintended thought about my poor old uncle and his will... “Well?” grumbled Alice, turning her head to survey each player. “A nomination?” It was true, everything was true, it seemed, about the Revival Society’s supernatural reputation! What I had never expected to witness had happened before my eyes; a generally healthy man had fallen dead when his dice lit up an unmarked grave on the old game board, and somehow also inscribed his own name and dates of birth and death on a tiny grave on the strangest game board I had ever seen… It had all happened too quickly to be coincidental or explicable by any logic. And to then add in the membership book—that infernal book!—in which the greedy Scotsman’s death had been inscribed by some unknown hand forty years before...impossible. And yet it had happened. Of course I had heard gossip about the book, its existence and records, of the entire Halloween ritual—that was largely what gave the Revival Society some measure of notoriety and desirability among a certain crowd. Again, I recanted of any desire for my dear old uncle’s fortune, regardless of his heirless state, feeling an almost religious self-renunciation overtake my shivering frame... During Peterson’s turn, I had experienced no similarly guilty thought. It struck me that Peterson was the most morally sound of the directors, a notion that terrified me even more as I remembered it. For the absence of an immoral thought during Peterson’s turn owed not to any good expression of my own character, but simply, like all the other turns, reflected the prevailing mood and character illuminated by that turn’s player...Had I no identity of my own? It was at once a great and perilous thought. I hoped for the game to soon be over and to quietly leave the Society, never to return. “Well?” rasped Alice irritably, for the third time. “Has anyone a nomination for the directorship of the finance committee?” At that moment, a terrific shouting erupted from the anteroom where our coats were hung. The indefatigable Col. Jenkins, arguing briskly from beneath his moustaches, was knocked over as the intruder pushed the door open with tremendous force. The stranger was an old woman, with white hair dyed an obscene and translucent blue, and she grinned savagely in her splendid aristocratic dresses of mottled green. I did not recognise her but certain others—especially Alice, who suddenly became terrified—seemed to know her. The old woman did not walk but practically floated towards the empty chair past Douglas’s former seat, the one where the next player was to continue the Halloween game... “Certainement! As the Marchioness du Fleuve, once chair of the properties committee, I nominate...Monsieur Coyle!” I gasped in honor as I felt the ghastly finger, cold and piercing my chest from across the game board; time itself seemed frozen. It was impossible, I was just a cleaner, an accidental guest, not even a real Revival Society member—and certainly no director-in-waiting! “Marchioness du Fleuve!” protested Alice, sounding quite frightened. “This young man is not a board member, and therefore—” “Meaning he has no right to participate in the game, mais non?” “Yes...save for the extraordinary case in which two board members are absent.” “Aha!” cackled the Marchioness du Fleuve triumphantly. “You admit it, then! You, Madame Alice Babeli, pushed me off and left me to sink all those years ago, and told everyone else that I was simply not responding to your communications! And then, after sufficient time had passed, you introduced a special motion to have me removed from the board...yes, it is true! After inheriting everything from my committee already, you now expected you would get away with it, by sacrificing this hapless boy and taking everything from Douglas’s committee too! Ah yes, you betrayed yourself just now when you stated the stipulation of a second absent board member to bring in a non-board member for Halloween, as only you remembered me as missing!” There was a murmur of surprise and discord from around the circular table. I tried to stifle my breathing and to become as small and as invisible as possible, immobile like some field mouse aware of circling hawks... “Nonsense!” protested Alice, more weakly. “You, I mean, the Narchioness, as you are clearly some imposter, did not return my correspondence for months, leaving me no option but to introduce the motion! That is ancient history—“ “Silence!” commanded the big aristocratic apparition. “Did no one ever find it odd that my grave was never found—neither in an earthly graveyard, nor on the game board? There is one way to solve this little mystery...come on, the dice!” Alice paled and her eyes bulged under her spectacles, like some very troubled owl. We all stared speechless as the old French aristocrat received the dice from the man in black. The board, which obeyed the inscrutable rules of the Revival Society alone, rumbled to life, levitating, and creaked around again counter-clockwise, shuddering to a stop before the grim and grinning face of the Marchioness du Fleuve... “No!” I shouted in panic. “I don’t want to play anymore! Let me go!” “Silence!” shouted the ghastly Marchioness in a piercing tone, forcing me into my seat. “You, particularly, must stay!” I lacked strength to resist, and felt pushed down by an invisible hand. A clamor arose as the blue-haired Marchioness flung the dice defiantly into the deep heart of the game board. The dice rolled across the blue edges of the village river, past the church, before settling in the cemetery... Suddenly a tiny gravestone there flashed brightly in violet light, and an intolerable humming sound resonated...as we watched in awe, the Marchioness du Fleuve, slowly and unmistakably dissipated into blue bands of oscillating light, before disappearing in an acrid cloud of smoke that smelled like the ruins of an electrical fire... “Enough of this trickery!” shouted Alice desperately. “This is preposterous!” “One second,” said a mild voice. It was Redmond, who I had heard was a bee-keeper...He sat in the chair directly after that of the departed ghost. “I second the Marchioness du Fleuve’s finance committee nomination of Mr. Coyle.” “No!” I cried in terror, shouting wildly. Redmond ignored me and spoke to the others. “But first...a mark and confirm on the game board.” Before Alice could react, the Society man in black returned to the game board. He scrutinised the newly-illuminated grave and his voice echoed with finality. “There appears a new inscription on the previously unmarked headstone numbered 454,” he said. “It is now inscribed with the name, Marchioness du Fleuve, and the dates, 2 May 1923–20 August 1989.” Horrified sobs and angered shouting erupted around the table. Alice appeared to have fainted and another player was attempting to rouse her. The Society man, taking notice of nothing save his duty, had brought the great book over to Evans. “I confirm,” the latter said, visibly sweating despite the chill of the Halloween room, “that upon her entrance into the Revival Society in 1966, that the Marchioness du Fleuve was assigned grave 454 on the game board.” Amidst the melee that ensued, the quick retreat of a simple cleaning man would inevitably go unnoticed; in fact, not even the military porter who had cheerfully warned me that it takes all kinds, my boy saw as I fled out the Revival Society’s anteroom and into the night, my coat forgotten.
The reader will be unsurprised to learn I have not returned to the Revival Society. What will, perhaps, surprise is the following most unexpected and welcome turn of events... On the third Tuesday in November, some ten days after my birthday, I received, at my uncle’s lodgings, an official letter, much beaten by the weather and time, and boasting colourful stamps and the insignia of the French post. It was postmarked 31 October 1989, and addressed to me by name. I found this detail more than improbable, as my actual birth had not even occurred in the same century... Even more curious (as I knew no one in France), the letter addressed me by name, and in detail...“Dear Mr. Bernard Coyle,” it read, “the estate of the late Marchioness du Fleuve has nominated you as the sole heir of the properties and assets of the Marchioness and her late husband, the Marquis, in gratitude for the long years of service made by your most kind parents. Please respond at your first convenience to receive your inheritance...” I did not know was any of it true. I could not consult my parents, as they themselves were long dead. I decided to respond to the mysterious letter. It was even more legitimate than me, no, far more so...How the Marchioness du Fleuve, an aristocratic Frenchwoman dead before the letter’s execution, had pre-imagined me, a lowly cleaning-man of the Revival Society, and manifested in spectral vengeance there at the proper time—I sought no logical explanation. After all, stranger things happen every day in this far-flung world of ours... I soon moved out of my dear old uncle’s residence, and found one of my own; by happy coincidence, I found that my spectral inheritance includes partial ownership of the Chelsea Football Club...did you know it was established in 1905? I have since opened my own company as well, an antiquities trading venture specialised in relics from the Age of Exploration. I do not need the money; the shop serves simply as a sort of entertainment, to satisfy my curiosity and love of faded watercolour maps...I lunch with my uncle every other Sunday, after his tennis appointment at Waverly’s. Life has never been better, really. I do not know—nor do I wish to know—if the Revival Society yet exists.
About the Author Christopher Deliso is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, researcher, consultant and travel author with expertise in subjects as diverse as Byzantine philosophy, history, contemporary European events and literature. Learn more about Christopher at www.christopherdeliso.com. About the Artist Yulian Leshuk (they/them) is a current undergraduate senior student at Columbia College Chicago studying illustration and art history. Working both traditionally and digitally, they incorporate themes of Surrealism and Abstraction to depict nuanced emotions and fantastical scenes. They place a strong emphasis on process and materials to engage with art as a layered means of self-expression. Yulian believes art is a form of meditation for both the artist and viewer, and creates works designed to serve as a focal point for self-reflection. You can find them on Instagram and Twitter @solpheria.
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