What can you tell me about mercy? by Jeff C. Stevenson

confrontation by headlights

What can you tell me about mercy?
by Jeff C. Stevenson

Tim wasn’t looking for a fortune teller, but since he needed one, he suddenly saw their signs everywhere. Walk-ins Welcome. So he did just that, turned the glass doorknob and walked into the cramped, dimly lit living room. The bells on the door jangled thickly and hollowly, announcing him. Tiny orange and yellow and pink lights—like dozens of falling stars—were stung like necklaces everywhere in the dark room. He saw dusty shrines and candle stands and old books jammed randomly about the room. There was the scent of perfume in the air as if someone had just passed through.


After a moment: “Yes, I’ll be right there!”

She appeared seconds later, slightly out of breath. Short, plump, attractive, wearing too much bright red lipstick and mascara as if she was trying too hard to play the role of the fortune teller. She wore a peasant blouse and jeans and no shoes, only white athletic socks that seemed to glow in the dark.

“Please, sit down. How can I help you?”

# # #

“There’s no such thing as a gypsy curse,” Dr. Hamilton said. “That’s just a goofy fortune teller’s way of getting money out of you.”

“It’s not about money,” Tim said. “It’s nothing to do with money. And she didn’t suggest it to me. I asked her about the possibility of a curse.”

“Why?” Dr. Hamilton asked.

“Something happened to me last week, and ever since then, I’ve been…hearing things.”
“What kind of things?”

# # #

It started out as a sigh, barely audible.


The first time he heard it, Tim was in bed reading. He had just turned a page and then there was a slow exhalation. The outbreath may have come from the foot of the bed or just outside of his bedroom door. It wasn’t frightening since it was so gentle and barely perceived. It couldn’t have been a human sigh, of course; he lived alone. Maybe the furnace had kicked in? Or was the water in the toilet down the hall filling for some reason, making that hollow whoosh noise? Maybe it had been his imagination.

He listened. After a few moments of silence, he went back to his book. It was the latest James Bond thriller, The Man with the Golden Gun. The author, Ian Fleming, had passed away about a year earlier and Tim was curious how the publishers had finished the story after the author had died with only half the book written.

How was that even possible?

He was trying to immerse himself in the story to forget what had happened earlier that day. But the sound of the sigh took him out of the story and for some reason, his mind snapped back to the woman who had shown up at the clinic that afternoon. She had burst in, unnerving the women in the waiting room and—

No. He didn’t want to think about her. He had already spent too much time pondering the event.


The sigh again, a bit deeper this time, almost a groan. He held his breath, listening, straining.

Maybe it had come from the vents? He glanced up at them but of course, they were just innocent metal slats. He returned to the book.

Ahhh. This time very much a groan, one of despair and with a hitch at the end of it as if it would lead to crying if it wasn’t stopped. But where was it coming from?

# # #

The next morning, Tim was knotting his tie when he heard the sound again. He was drowsy and unfocused since he hadn’t slept well. The sighs and groans had continued throughout the night. There was no pattern that he could discern. Sometimes the two would occur at the same time and come from somewhere near the ceiling and minutes later, he’d hear a sigh near the bottom of the bed. He had bolted up out of a restless slumber several times with a cry of terror when the groan or cry seemed to be directed into his ear.

Tim had moved to the living room couch to try to sleep but the sounds followed him there. He wasn’t able to discern where they were coming from or the cause but knew at some point he had fallen into a sleep of exhaustion since he was wakened by the alarm in the bedroom. He sat up on the sofa, disoriented. Had he fallen asleep watching TV? But then the previous evening’s events came to immediate recall like the headline slapped down on a front porch.

Crazy dreams he thought as he started the coffee and then showered.

But the sounds returned as he was getting dressed. He was in his bedroom and the news was on the TV in the living room. He thought the sound came from behind him somewhere, near the window or just below the nightstand.

It was a female voice and it was a short cry, almost a shout that was silenced as soon as it was emitted. Muzzled as if a hand was placed over the disembodied mouth, was the image that came to him.

He turned off the news and stood in the living room, holding his breath, listening. The cry came from the bedroom.

He returned to the bedroom. From the kitchen, a short cry—now almost a scream—was heard.

Then a terse, piercing screech came from the living room. It was only for a second, but he was certain he heard it. And then it came from the bathroom, followed by a cry from the bedroom. It was as if they were echoing off one another yet each coming from a different place in his apartment.

Shaken, Tim backed out of the front door, his heart racing since he felt as if the voices themselves were pushing him away. He locked the door behind him, trembling but relieved by the quiet in the hallway of his building. He pressed an ear to the door. All was silent.

His heart pounding, and breathing heavily in short, anxious bursts, he made his way unsteadily to the elevator.

It’s got something to do with that woman, was all he could think. Everything was fine until she showed up.

# # #

He settled into the overstuffed loveseat while the fortune teller sat at the small table across from him.

Uncertain how to begin, he just come out with it. “I think I may have been cursed.”

Not at all taken aback by his statement, she said kindly, “People who are simply having a bad time in their lives often think they are the victims of curses.”

“But I’m not having a bad time,” Tim insisted. “I’m suddenly hearing things.”

She settled deeper into her chair. He knew he had her full attention and her curiosity.

“What sort of things are you hearing? Animals? The buzzing or clicking of insects? The rustle of leaves in a tree? Each of these—”

“No,” he said, stopping her checklist of suggestions. “First I heard quiet sighs. Then it was crying or whimpering. Now it’s screams. All day long. And no one hears them but me. I hear the screams of what sounds like a young girl.”

The fortune teller said nothing, only looked at him. Tim wondered if she believed him. She had probably heard so many crazy things over the years; maybe what he had told her wasn’t so outrageous. He had paid her twenty bucks to get her thoughts. He wondered how she would respond.

# # #

That first evening when he arrived home, Tim had a lingering dread. The feeling was like a heavy vest, snug and bulky over his chest, embracing him tightly with trepidation. All day at work, he had tried to convince himself that the noises he had heard the night before and that morning were either imagined or the result of natural sounds coming from his apartment or from the neighbors.

He reasoned that since the cries were almost cat-like in nature, maybe a pet was trapped in the walls or a neighbor had just acquired an animal. But he was forced to admit that wasn’t a suitable explanation once he remembered his building didn’t allow pets.

Throughout the day at the clinic, he remained curious as to where the cries had come from and what was causing them. Was it from the radiator or perhaps some kind of plumbing abnormality or maybe the pipes in the walls or ceiling? He worked up logical scenarios, explanations for his rational mind to approve.

That evening, he approached his apartment with nervous anticipation. He was alone in the hallway so he stood outside the door, listening. Silence. He pressed his ear to the door and heard nothing. He inserted the key and turned it. He stepped into the dark apartment and flicked on the entry way light.

Everything was as he had left it. He closed and locked the door behind him. He realized he was walking gingerly, as if the floor might collapse under his weight. He knew he was moving about as quietly and light-footed as he could. As crazy as the thought was, he knew that he didn’t want to let the sounds know he was home.

He changed out of his work clothes and slipped on a t-shirt and boxers. He had brought home Chinese so he placed the food cartons on the coffee table, grabbed a beer and turned on the TV.

He wasn’t able to concentrate on the news. He was tense and the food had no taste even as he shoveled it into his mouth, working the chopsticks with remarkable dexterity. He opened a second beer and finished it and the food.

The fortune cookie was all that remained. He broke it open and ate half of it while he read the strip of paper:

Be on the lookout for coming events; they cast their shadows beforehand.

The cookie was dry in his mouth. He swallowed it and munched on the other half while he read the fortune again. There was something ominous about it but he couldn’t say exactly what it was.

He gathered up the containers and beer cans. He put them all in a plastic container and hung it on the front door to dispose of in the morning. He was still terribly apprehensive and tense. The fluttery feeling in his chest and stomach remained. He’d already been home, more than an hour, and hadn’t heard any sounds so perhaps whatever it was…had left.

“Or I imagined it all,” he said, his voice sounding uncertain even to himself.

Tim knew that stress could bring on changes to his ears and to his hearing. He knew that anxiety was what was known as a complete body condition; it could impact a person’s digestive tract, their respiratory system, their heart rate and blood pressure, and even produce auditory hallucinations.

What complicated all that practical information was the fact that anxiety hadn’t resulted in him hearing the loud, abrupt screams; it was the sounds themselves that had produced his nervous state.

He turned off the TV and listened to the silence. He walked into the bedroom and waited. Then he walked back to the kitchen. He stood in the living room. Nothing. No screams, cries, groans or sighs. He waited in the bathroom. Silence throughout the apartment.

He wasn’t able to concentrate on any TV shows, so Tim turned on the transistor radio. The Beatles’ “Help!” was playing, as it usually was. It had been number one for three weeks in a row and while Tim liked it well enough, he was really more of a fan of the Rolling Stones.

Tim smiled when the very next song was the Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and he danced around a bit to the beat. It felt good to move, to take up some space. He felt as if he had been clutching himself, making himself as small and tight as possible ever since he had entered his apartment. He had been trying to hide from the noise, not wake it up. Now he flung himself about with abandon as he moved to the music, pursing his lips, Jagger style, and thrusting his hips side to side. He knew he looked ridiculous but it was liberating and fun and he started to laugh.

He danced to the radio for another half hour, working up a sweat and taking down his levels of anxiety and apprehension to almost unreadable levels. He turned off the radio, made himself a bowl of ice cream and turned on the TV to watch Dr. Kildare. When it was over, he took his bowl to the kitchen to rinse it out.

The scream came from behind him.

It so startled him that he dropped the bowl. It crashed on the floor, exploding in several directions. Tim cried out and lurched backward when another disembodied cry came from right in front of him. It was as if someone was standing in front of him and screaming at his face.

Then it was as if a flock of invisible ravaged birds had descended on him, shrieking and cawing. The voices came from all directions. He tried to dodge the screams as he ran from the kitchen to the bedroom. He slammed the door but the cries were upon him and, helpless and terrified, he found himself on the bed, curled up in a protective fetal position, pleading for the sounds to stop.

The pounding on the front door from an angry and concerned neighbor brought immediate silence to the room. Wide-eyed and disheveled, Tim managed to babble out an explanation and an apology that he had been having a nightmare.

He closed the door, his arms trembling uncontrollably as he rubbed his shoulders, trying to calm himself down. He was either losing his mind or that crazy woman who had showed up at the clinic had done something to him, put some kind of a curse on him.

He didn’t know which possibility he feared more.

# # #

“How long have you heard these screams?” Dr. Hamilton asked. “Have they been accompanied by anything?”

Tim knew where this was headed. “You mean am I also seeing visions?”

Dr. Hamilton nodded, meeting Tim’s gaze. Since they were both physicians, they each knew the most common diagnosis: Brain tumors or cancer of the brain or ear tumors all included symptoms such as ringing in the ears, distorted vision, and auditory hallucinations.

“No, I’m not having any visions,” Tim said. “I hear crying voices or a chorus of screams. But they aren’t telling me to do something. They are…just screaming. And it all started after I encountered that gypsy woman.”

“Okay, let’s back up a bit. Tell me about the first time you heard the sounds, and how are they connected to this gypsy?”

Tim said, “It was after she came to see me about the girl, that’s when it all started.”

“What girl?”

# # #

The girl had appeared Monday evening. The clinic was closed for the day. Tim heard a sharp thump! as if a basketball had been thrown against the building. (He later realized it was the sound of the girl collapsing against the back door.) He was updating a patient’s chart and he set it aside to see what had caused the noise. The front reception area was empty except for Lily who answered the phone and booked the appointments. She had her coat on.

“Everything okay?” she asked him. “I was just getting ready to leave.”

“Yeah, I just heard…something. Wasn’t sure where it came from. I think it was in the back alley. Go ahead. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The rear door of the clinic opened onto the tiny parking lot, the one reserved for doctors and nurses. He unlocked it and looked out. There were just four spaces for cars, and only his green VW Bug remained. The sun was setting, leaving behind burnt orange and red shadows. It was when he pushed the door open wider that he struck something and the girl cried out. She was on the dirty cement ground, her hands clutching her stomach as the blood seeped out from between her legs. In the early twilight, he could see her face was ashen gray. He had seen her condition before but always by women who had tried to do his job on their own, alone.

He immediately picked her up, cradling her in his arms and carried her into the clinic. “Shit,” he cursed. He could really have used Lily’s help. His short white coat was already soaked through and sticky with the girl’s blood. He’d have to fix this fast and on his own.

She was in agony, crying and shrieking in pain, babbling nonsense or some words in a foreign language: “Clavus ferreus! Malleus ferreus!”

Tim immediately began efforts to stop the self-induced hemorrhaging.

In her right hand she clutched a photo that had been partially burned, the black ash marks scrubbed deep into her hand. She refused to let go of the image as she thrashed about.

Tim said as calmly as he could, “You’re going to be okay, try to be still, relax a bit and let me take care of this, okay?” She squirmed about and continued to cry and sob as Tim went to work. He checked to see the source of her bleeding. The uterus had been perforated on one of the sides. She had lacerated a uterine artery and lost a good deal of blood along with a portion of the fetal tissue, which had apparently been her—or someone’s—goal.

After giving her local anesthetic, he worked as quickly as he could, but it was awkward and arduous to do it all by himself. Once he had stopped the flow of blood, she had gradually relaxed. Her screams and cries of pain were now replaced with long measured sighs and fretful whimpering. Soon she drifted off, breathing deeply. Without her moving about, he managed to work quickly with the stitches.

Even in her exhausted state, she continued to mumble those strange words over and over, “Clavus ferreus…Malleus ferreus…”

By 6:30 p.m. he was able to stand back, catch his breath and look more carefully at the girl as he continued to monitor her condition. She couldn’t have been more than eleven or 12-years-old. The thick, dark blood had thoroughly soaked her pale yellow dress and dirty tennis shoes. He looked closer and noticed that the shoes didn’t match in brand or style. Her left foot had a sock, none on the right. Her legs were bruised a bit, either from a fall (maybe when she collapsed outside the clinic?) or just by childhood roughhousing. Her arms were scrawny and the elbows were dirty, each purple with grime. The girl’s brown hair looked like it had been braided days earlier but was now a mess of tangled and filthy flotsam and jetsam. Twigs and soil, even bits of paper, were embedded and tightly threaded in the nest on top of her head. He checked her pulse as her rapid yet shallow breathing indicated she was exhausted and probably dehydrated.

“Clavus ferreus…Malleus ferreus…”

At times she would take a great gulp of air, hold it, and then let forth with a soft sigh. She needed a blood transfusion but he wanted to give her a chance to rest a bit longer.

He’d notify social services once she was stabilized. He wondered what sick bastard had gotten her pregnant? And who had tried to end the pregnancy and then left the poor girl to suffer with the results of the botched job? Had someone dropped her off and could they possibly be waiting (hiding?) outside in the parking lot to see if she was okay?

After he confirmed that she was resting as comfortably as possible, Tim decided to quickly check to see if anyone was outside in the back of the clinic.

The parking lot was now covered in the dark purple of nightfall. His car remained the only automobile and as he slowly looked over the area, nothing moved and no one appeared, asking about the child. Tim stretched and rolled his shoulders back, surprised at how tense he was. His body had been clenched tight in concern over caring for the girl. He took a few deep breaths. The early evening air was cool and invigorating. He realized he was hungry. It was already close to seven o’clock. He returned to the exam room.

She was gone.

The bathroom and waiting room were empty. He quickly checked the other exam rooms and offices. Was she was hiding somewhere, but why? After all she had been through, he didn’t think she’d have the strength to just get up and run off.

Had someone been watching him and when Tim had gone out back, snuck in the front somehow and helped the girl leave? Was there even time for that to happen? He hurried to the front of the clinic, flicking on the overhead lights as he progressed. The fluorescents buzzed and hesitated and then quickly clicked on their illumination strips. Tim’s heels clip clopped as he ran about the office, calling out, “Hello? Hello? Is anyone here? That girl needs to stay here and be taken care of; she’s too weak to leave. Hello?”

He rattled the locked front door. No broken windows in the entrance to the clinic or anywhere else. No trace of the girl.

The kitchen. There was a small kitchen area and it had a door that opened to the side street. No one ever used it. He had rushed right past it to check the front area and the other spaces. And there it was, opened just a bit, moving ever so subtly in the cool evening breeze. Tim pushed it open and stepped outside. The streetlights, high and yellow overhead, cast halos every twenty feet. No one was about. The evening was silent and the area was deserted.

He pulled the kitchen door closed and locked it. He checked the clinic again thoroughly, even opening the large storage cupboards to be sure the girl wasn’t hiding. When he was finished, he was certain he was alone in the building. He fed some change into the snack machine—dinner—and found himself watching the locked door leading outside from the kitchen. Where had the girl gone?

# # #

The fortune teller sat up straighter behind her table. “Knowing whether you are, in fact, cursed, requires some careful self-examination. You must ask yourself if you are being honest with who you are.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“You must be honest with who you are so we can discern which type of curse you may be experiencing. You see, a spell attaches itself in one of four ways,” she said.

“In the first way, the curse manifests as something that brings chaos in your life. In the second instance, it can bind itself to you to cause depression or anxiety. In the third instance, it can establish itself as a lesson, sort of like giving you a taste of your own medicine, a form of payback if you have crossed another. And finally, there is the fourth way which is a special purpose curse.”

She said quietly, “From what you have described—these screams—it sounds like you may be experiencing this type of curse.”

Tim nodded, eager for her to continue.

“These special purpose spells are usually specific in nature and tied to an event. And they are generally spectacular in their manifestations. If you start experiencing stuff out of a horror movie, a special purpose curse has probably been cast over you.”

“That’s what I have, isn’t it?” Tim said miserably, his mouth dry. Was he really acknowledging this, that he may have a curse on his life? “Can we…can you…get rid of it?”

The fortune teller leaned closer. “Before we talk about getting rid of it, we first need to confirm that what is happening to you really is caused by a curse.”

“How do we do that?”

# # #

Tim didn’t tell anyone about treating the girl or her vanishing. After he was certain she wasn’t in the clinic, he had cleaned up the exam room. All the instruments he had used had been placed in the proper receptacles and disinfected or had been disposed of. It was as if she had never been there.

Before he left that night, he looked at the floor around the medical table where he had cared for the girl. He had carried her in and his coat had been smeared with blood. He remembered their clothes had stuck to one another for a moment until he was able to lay her down on the table. He had brushed the hair off of her dirty, tear-streaked face. There had been so much junk in her tangled mane and filthy clothes, he wondered if perhaps some of it had fallen to the floor as she had thrashed about. Maybe there was something to help him identify who she was.

He unlocked the wheels of the exam table and pulled it away from the wall. He looked down at the gray and white tiled floor and saw a scrap of paper and the partially burned photograph she had been clutching. Tim could see there was some writing on the paper. He snatched up both items. He rolled the table back into place. On the paper were handwritten words:

Káy me yákh som, Ac tu ángár,
Káy me brishind som, Ac tu pâni!

The paper had probably fallen out of the girl’s tangled hair. He had seen scraps and twigs logged in the twisted mass. The words made no sense to him. The state university library was open until midnight and with curiosity burning bright and harsh, he knew he wouldn’t sleep much until he knew the meaning of the words.

After explaining to the attractive female student behind the check-out desk what he was looking for, she went to the back room and returned a few minutes later with a slip of paper. “I was told these were the best bet for what you are looking for. Let’s go to the third floor.”

He followed her back and forth between the rows of books, the pushcart rolling smoothly before them. She would check her notes, then the shelf, and pull down a volume. By the time they returned to the check-out desk, she had four thick volumes on the cart: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages, The Earliest Languages of Europe, And The Whole Earth Was Of One Tongue: Decipherment Of Lost Idioms, and Translating the Earliest Languages.

He settled himself into one of the cubicles. He had less than four hours to find the answers he needed. Fortunately, the books were well organized with indexes. He was soon able to discard two of the volumes once he determined the language on the piece of paper was from Eastern Europe. Another trip to the front desk and soon two more volumes were at his disposal.

By 10:30 p.m., Tim had found a translation for the words on the paper:

Where I am flame, Be thou the coals
Where I am rain, Be thou the water!

However, the results brought him no closer to understanding what was going on. He checked the phrases against those found in the index and the subject of pregnancy seemed to be the common purpose to the words chanted. Footnotes dealt with gypsy witchcraft and sorcery. One final trip to the front desk resulted in several books detailing charms and spells for pregnancy. Tim quickly read the specific sections that focused on the spells, but it was as if he was reading a series of fairy tales. Directions were given on chanting the words on the paper and completing rituals to ensure a pregnancy:

The woman drinks the water in which the husband has cast hot coals.
The woman eats grass from the grave in which a woman with child has been buried.
The husband takes an egg, makes a small hole at each end, and then blows the yolk and white into the mouth of his wife who swallows them.

The lights in the library blinked, a fifteen-minute closing time warning. Tim rubbed his eyes. He had taken several pages of notes. From what he learned, the words on the paper were part of a spell or chant to help someone get pregnant.

“Sir, we’re closing now,” a library aid said. Tim nodded and gathered up his notes and pushed the cart of books to the front desk so they could be re-shelved.

“Find what you were looking for?” the student asked.

“I…think so,” Tim said, distracted.

Who were the people this girl lived with? Had they taken her from the clinic or had she managed to leave the exam room on her own?

Outside under a streetlight, he studied the half-burned photograph of the girl that she had been clutching. She was smiling and holding a bouquet of wildflowers. Why would she want to destroy a photo of herself?

Tim arrived home just after midnight. He was exhausted by the events of the evening and the questions that swarmed about his mind. He fell into a sound, deep sleep, the last night of pure, restful slumber that he would ever experience.

# # #

“And so this is where you got the idea that a curse was placed on you?” Dr. Hamilton asked. “From words on a piece of paper, some books on translating ancient languages, and a half-burned photograph of a girl?”

“No, it wasn’t until the woman showed up at the clinic the next day. That’s when I realized there was a curse or…something was going on.”

“And this woman, she was the gypsy?”

Tim nodded. “Yeah. That, or a witch.”

# # #

Tim was still tired from his previous late night at the library. All the unanswered questions continued to linger and he was having a difficult time focusing. It was early Tuesday afternoon and he was just beginning to review a patient’s folder when a commotion from the waiting room seized his attention. A shout was followed by cries of surprise from the patients and then a woman began screaming hysterically.

Lily was leaning out of her reception booth, her face a mixture of panic and shock, her eyes wide, her mouth open but no words were being formed. She was staring at another woman who was startling thin, all lines and angles.

The woman was wearing a dark blouse that billowed around her as she gestured menacingly at Lily. Her heavy gray skirt had silver and gold medallions sewn into the fabric. Thick, black hair, down to her shoulders, seemed to move and coil about her like Medusa. She pointed to Lily and then behind her at the front door, shouting about mercy. Her legs were as scrawny as her arms and they were sheathed in iron-red tights. Ratty old boots supported her rickety frame. Some crazy gypsy was all Tim could think of, and then immediately recalled the contents of the books he had read the night before.

“Can I help you?” Tim asked.

The woman immediately turned to him and cried out angrily, “What can you tell me about Mercy??”

Her eyes were red rimmed as if she suffered from tremendous allergies or had wept or not slept in a week and her forehead had a greasy sheen to it. Her hands clenched and unclenched in a spasmodic fashion that made Tim hope she didn’t have a weapon buried somewhere in the folds of her skirt. When she screamed her question at Tim, he saw that she had advanced gum disease and her teeth had already yellowed or become rotten and died. There was a stench about her that hovered like a living thing that was preparing to die.

“What can you tell me about Mercy??” she demanded again, a dark tone now edging around her question. She took an aggressive step toward Tim. She had a coiled energy about her and Tim could imagine dangerous sparks flying between the two of them or lighting arcing from her fingertips.

Maybe she’s a witch, he thought, again recalling the textbooks. “Who is Mercy?” he asked quietly, hoping his tone would calm her down.

“My daughter,” she answered bitterly through clenched teeth.

Tim glanced at Lily. She shook her head. They had no patient named Mercy. He told the woman, but she swatted at him in annoyance, dismissing what he said.

“She’s not a patient here! Never would be. She ran away…from home. Last night.” She hesitated, and then finished, “and she came…here.” The short sentence was said with such disgust that Tim knew that she was aware of what the clinic did privately for cash most every day. He didn’t want her to endanger the other women who were nervously watching the encounter, so with a quick glance at Lily, his eyes imploring her to get help, he asked the woman to come with him to the back to see if he could help her with information about Mercy.

The woman followed Tim down the short hallway, her boots shuffling on the linoleum. Her breathing was ragged and phlegmy from all of her yelling. He gestured for her to enter the same exam room that Mercy had been in the previous evening. The stench of the woman was even worse when it was contained in the small area. Tim partially closed the door and indicated for the woman to sit down at the far end of the room. The odor of the woman was now so stringent that it caused his eyes to water.

“Mercy…was…here,” she said slowly as she looked around, her tone an accusation. “In this room.”

Tim nodded, disquieted that she knew.

“Did you…do anything to her?” she asked suspiciously.

“I helped her,” Tim said. “She was bleeding…badly when she came here, seeking my help. What happened—”

“Bleeding?” Her gaze abruptly dulled, as if she was in a stupor. Trance-like, she slowly raised her arm and reached out and grasped the edge of the silver exam table. She withdrew her hand immediately as if touching an open flame.

“Clavus ferreus!” she screamed, standing up, alert and dangerous again. “Malleus ferreus!” She wrung her hands as if she was trying to dry them or extinguish an invisible flame.

The words she said were the same ones Mercy had been calling out.

“What did you just say?” Tim asked.

The woman continued to rub her hands together as if they were in pain. “Clavus ferreus, malleus ferreus,” she murmured several times.

“What does that mean?”

She looked at him intently, her eyes ablaze with a threatening vitality. Breathing heavily, she said slowly, “‘An iron nail…is beaten by an iron hammer.’”

“Mercy was chanting that,” Tim told her. “But why?”

She nodded grimly, as if what he said was a sobering confirmation. “Clavus ferreus, malleus ferreus is said to ward off evil, to protect those who say it. An iron nail is evil and an iron hammer is the good that beats it.”

“Why would Mercy need protection?”

The woman was breathing deeply and rapidly as if she was about to hyperventilate. She continued to rub her hands as if the table had actually burned them.

“Did she need protection from you?” Tim demanded. “She was hemorrhaging. Did you do something to her? She was pregnant and—”

“Pregnant?” The woman held her breath, and the room was silent for a moment without her ragged gasping. A disturbing grin spread like a stain over her face. She balled her hands into fists, quivering in some sort of private celebration. “Pregnant!” she said triumphantly and raised her gnarled hands to the ceiling.

Tim quickly said, “No, no listen to me. She was pregnant but she had tried…or someone had tried…the baby didn’t survive.”

The women recoiled suddenly, leaning back as if she had been shoved violently away from him. Her bloodshot eyes, which had welled up with emotion, went dry and dark, and her mouth jerked wordlessly as if her jaw was broken or unhinged

Those eyes, Tim thought. What kind of mind remains or even functions behind those eyes?

She lurched for him, her clawed nails reaching for his face. He was able to grab her wrists at the last instant to prevent her from scratching him. She was screaming at him in another language, her voice thick with ominous tones and raspy cries that implied tremendous rage and hatred. She thrashed violently about in his arms but she was so grotesquely thin that it was easy for him to subdue her.

Where were the police? Had Lily reached them?

She struggled against him, spitting at the floor and twisting around to face him. She continued to lash out like a snake coiling around itself, but Tim managed to keep her secured until the police arrived.

# # #

Tim and Lily spoke to the two officers outside in front of the clinic while the other women in the waiting room looked on, whispering to one another.

“She seemed to have a seizure or some psychotic breakdown,” Tim told them, not divulging the content of what he had shared with the crazed woman.

An ambulance arrived and the woman was taken away in restraints.

“She’ll be under a 48-hour evaluation,” the older officer said.

The rest of the day passed quickly and even though Lily tried to get more information out of Tim about what had happened in the exam room, he clearly had said all he intended to.

# # #

“It was that same evening after the gypsy came to the clinic,” Tim said. “I was in bed reading. That’s when I first heard Mercy’s sigh.”

“No,” Dr. Hamilton immediately said. “You heard a noise. Don’t project into this—”

“Don’t you think I recognize her voice?!” Tim shouted. “It’s the same sounds Mercy made when I was treating her! And I hear her constantly now, screaming and crying. Can’t you hear her?! Even now, can’t you hear her?!”

# # #

Tim asked the fortune teller, “How do I find out if I’ve been cursed?”

She reached behind her and presented him with a sealed deck of cards. “Open this and take the jokers out and set them aside.”

She told him to shuffle the cards slowly and intently. “Focus on all of the reasons why you think you are cursed, remembering everything that has occurred.”

Somewhere in the back of her cluttered house he heard a radio playing Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” He continued to shuffle the cards, corralling his thoughts as she had instructed him.

A few minutes passed and then she quietly said, “Keep shuffling but now focus on this question: ‘Are the voices and sounds I’m hearing the result of a curse?’”

Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” was on the radio. He shuffled the cards in time with the rhythm of the song. His hands had been making the movements so long he felt he had passed into a trance state.

The fortune teller put her hands on the cards to stop him. “Now, deal out the cards in this fashion: start pulling cards from the top and laying them out in a pile. If you pull an ace or complete a stack of ten, stop dealing. Do this three times so you will have a total of three stacks of cards.”

# # #

For the next week and a half, there were tests in the morning and results rushed through and reviewed the following day, all under the supervision of Dr. Hamilton and a small team of specialists. However, nothing Dr. Hamilton or anyone else Tim consulted with could provide a diagnosis or a treatment. It was the best magic trick ever; no one could figure out how this perfectly sane man, of sound mind and body, continued to confirm he heard a chorus of screams that were not heard by anyone else. Examinations and tests by an audiologist and an otolaryngologist showed everything was normal. There was no physical or mental reason for Tim to hear the ongoing shrieking and wailing, yet Tim continued to confirm they were there, and were getting louder.

“Which to you means they’re getting closer,” Dr. Hamilton said during their final consultation.

“Correct,” Tim said. It was early October the deep blue sky was spotted with some white clouds, a perfect day to finish on. No more tests and no more results to discuss.

Dr. Hamilton sat back in his chair and gathered up the papers that he and Tim had been reviewing. He tucked them into the large folder that encompassed all of Tim’s medical reports. “The only thing we know, medically speaking, is that a traumatic event can often cause the sounds you describe…”

“And I think that ‘traumatic event’ was my encounter with Mercy’s mother and the curse she put on me,” Tim insisted. “Why won’t you believe me?”

Dr. Hamilton said, “Tim, we’ve been through all of that. You’re a healthy man in every respect except this one area that you won’t let go of. There is no such thing as a gypsy curse unless you believe in one. As I said many times before, you should begin seeing a therapist. He or she would be able to help you unlock the real cause of all of this.”

Tim was exhausted. He had lost more than fifteen pounds since he had first heard the screaming. He had spent almost two weeks at the doctor’s office or at a referral center for testing and then would return home to try and sleep or rest. But he rarely slept, was jumpy and fidgety and had little appetite. Sleeping pills had only helped him intermittently. He had developed a fear of falling asleep since the screams were so terrifying when they awakened him that he preferred to just doze when he could. He had taken a leave of absence from the clinic since he could no longer concentrate or safely and competently complete the cash-only procedures.

“I don’t think a shrink will help me, Doc,” Tim said, standing up. He had a ghastly look on his face when he tried to smile. “The deck is stacked against me.”

# # #

When he was finished sorting the cards, the fortune teller said that he would end up with three piles. The total number of aces showing would indicate whether or not Tim was cursed.

She said, “If you have zero aces showing, you are not cursed. If you have one ace, there is a one in three chance you are cursed. If you have two aces, there is a two in three chance you are cursed. If you have three aces…”

# # #

Outside of the doctor’s office, the fresh air was invigorating. Sort of like the results of all the tests. There were no medical answers or solutions, no tumors, nothing physically wrong with him. That meant that what he was hearing was real. That was comforting to Tim; what he was experiencing was actually happening. No medical explanation available or forthcoming or even needed.

# # #

When he had finished shuffling and placing the cards as instructed, three aces were showing, one on top of each stack.

An ace of diamonds, an ace of hearts, and an ace of clubs.

The fortune teller’s face was expressionless. A poker face, he supposed.

“You have three aces showing,” she said quietly. “This means you are most definitely cursed.”

# # #

Tim continued down the street after leaving Dr. Hamilton, the same thoughts circling back and around again as they had been doing for the past few weeks. Never any answers, just the questions.

Where was Mercy? Who had impregnated her? How had she ended up at his clinic? Had she wanted the baby but someone had attacked her? Or had her partially burned photo been her own superstitious attempt at ending the pregnancy? It was an idea Tim had gleaned from reading about gypsy spells. Did chanting those words when she was in such pain help protect her from the woman who claimed to be her mother, keeping her away until Tim was able to remove the baby?

Had Mercy come to Tim to remove her child or see if he could save it?

# # #

To deactivate the curse, he had followed the fortune teller’s instructions. With a trembling hand, he had written on a piece of paper everything he knew about the curse, who cast it, where it had come from and the date it had started. Then he placed that into a piece of wax paper and then poured three spoonful’s of salt on top. The bundle was folded up and sealed with wax and attached to a piece of string.

“Wear it over your heart for three days and three nights,” she had said. “The salt will draw out the curse and take it into itself. On the morning of the fourth day, open the package and let flowing water wash the salt away. Then burn the paper and the string. The curse will be removed.”

# # #

The unanswered questions continued to flutter about Tim like butterflies, attracting his attention but never lingering long enough to provide any answers.

Walking home for the doctor’s office, he wondered what had happened to the gypsy witch who had claimed to be Mercy’s mother? She had been released from observation after only one day. The facility she had been sent to had been overcrowded and she had apparently calmed down within an hour of arriving. She was discharged, told not to return to Tim’s clinic, and because her home address checked out, she was sent there.

Would she ignore the police warning and stay away from the clinic? Had she placed a curse on him after discovering Mercy no longer had the child? Of course she had. The screams in his mind blossomed and mushroomed at the thought. It was like a maniacal dust storm in his head; the sounds were everywhere and there was no relief from them. He staggered for a moment on the sidewalk. It took him a few seconds to regain his balance. The shrieks were getting louder.

Tim took a deep breath and continued gingerly down the street toward his apartment. He tried not to draw attention to himself but everyone noticed the unhealthy, gaunt-looking man. He flinched and jerked about as if someone only he could see was jumping out and surprising him by yelling “Boo!” every few feet.

# # #

He had worn the bundle over his heart for three days and nights as the fortune teller had told him to. On the fourth day, Tim had opened it and let water from the kitchen faucet wash the salt away. He burned the paper and the string as she had instructed him.

The screaming had never lessened or stopped the previous four days, so as the paper and string curled up in the flames, he waited for the shrieks to subside as the curse was lifted. A small pile of ash and smoke curled up from what remained.

The cries and wails and screams continued, louder and closer than ever before.

# # #

Tim arrived home after the final doctor visit, exhausted, and crumpled into his favorite chair, a cushy recliner that was where he tried to sleep at night. He had been too weak to climb out of bed each day to return to the doctor for tests, so it had been much easier to collapse in the chair each evening.

He reached over to the end table and picked up the narrow strip of paper. He unrolled it, his fingers trembling a bit, and read the words that he had memorized:

Be on the lookout for coming events; they cast their shadows beforehand.

“‘They cast their shadows beforehand,’” he said thoughtfully, mulling over each word, his voice only a raspy husk in the room. The sounds of the screams smothered him in layers that deepened and expanded with each passing moment. They swarmed about his mind like a hurricane stirring up wreckage. He knew—he was certain—that soon enough, what had been only a sound would become a physical presence.

The shadows were coming.

# # #

He was thirsty and the buzz of hunger was ever-present, but it was so comfortable in the recliner and he was so weak, it was impossible to muster the energy to get a drink or find something to eat. He had left his phone in his jacket on the other side of the room and throughout the afternoon and now evening, it had buzzed and chimed and made noises of communication but he was too drained to even attempt to crawl across the floor and retrieve it.

The apartment was now gray-dark with only a pale light from the street lamps dusting the living room. He should have left a light on when he arrived home. That would have kept the shadows away just a little longer. Too late now.

His lips were parched and his mouth dry and waxy. Thirst would be the first thing he would take care of when he got up. And he would get up. If he could get some rest, he’d have the strength to get up and turn on the light and get a drink and answer the phone and pee and get something to eat.

The screams rose up again like a massive wave and they washed over him and pulled him down deep. He didn’t resist and discovered it was easier that way, to just allow them to have their way with him. He was exhausted after weeks of trying to withstand them and find answers and solutions. There were none.

Through his bleary, half-closed eyes, he thought he saw movement by the window.

“Finally,” he managed to croak, and the shadow went still. Had he startled it?

Tim smacked his lips a few times, trying to get some saliva going but that well had run dry. Instead, he peed long and hard and deep into the recliner. There was some relief in that. “Really letting myself go now,” he cackled to the empty room.

The phone buzzed again. He dozed a bit, something he managed to do even in the midst of the shrieking. The screams were so familiar and such a part of him now that he could almost—almost—shut them out for a few seconds. At times, they was like a ferocious white noise to him or the ambulance that is heard so often that city dwellers are able to disregard it like it wasn’t even there.

Something flickered again and he didn’t know if he had blinked or if it was the shadow again. Coming events cast their shadows.

He swallowed and it hurt, so dry and hot like a thick sauce that burned all the way down. Oh, for some water! When he was able to stand, first he’d get a glass of water.

Throughout the cathedral of his mind, the shrieking sounds swirled and echoed like a mad festival of light and color. He could almost see them. Then, with no conscious thought behind it, he suddenly opened his mouth.


He could join them in their chorus. He had never considered that. Feeling like he was joining a pack of wild animals, he merged with their screams, baying with them, now as one, one as all.

He screamed and kept on screaming.

He watched as the faint light from the street was blocked by something that rose up in front of the window. Like a guillotine blade, the room went black with darkness.

At the same instant, the screams intensified in pitch and frequency, rising up beyond any previous decibels. It was unbearable but he adjusted his tone and volume to match theirs as they led him deeper and further into whatever was to come. It was all terribly foreign and yet familiar at the same time.

He knew he was about to lose his mind, could sense it collapsing in on itself like a building immolation, a kind of sacrifice of self.

Ah, so that’s what they wanted, he finally realized. Another sacrifice.

Tim’s last conscious thought was whether or not he would be shown mercy when whatever had been seeking him finally manifested itself.

* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Jeff C. Stevenson 2015

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