There is a man sitting by himself, at the table by the window. He doesn't look up when you bring him coffee, just shrugs slightly at your approach and lets his empty cup speak for him. He's clad in a threadbare black coat that seems too thin for the snow drifting down from the gray, gray sky. All angles, this man, and you feel the force of that shrug, displaced by it as if he'd planted an elbow right in your gut.
He looks like he's waiting for something – or someone. But you've worked here for years now and he's come here nearly as long and he's always sat there alone: dark coat, light eyes, angles and silence.
It – he feels wrong, that he's so very still. He should be moving, you always think. Twitching or shaking his knee – something. He feels so wrong, but none of the other waiters will serve his table.
You drew the short straw.
This is the story of a trick. Not my greatest one, perhaps, at all, or indeed by any account. But even though I've told you, you'll still fall for it.
There is a man sitting at the table by the window. No, there are two men. One is all angles clad in a long black coat and the other is – ordinary. Except he's not. He's too big for the seat, for the table, for the room. It cannot contain him and you feel pressed against the very walls, smudged into the corners and pushed under tables by his presence.
Except he's just a man, sitting there at the table, wearing a long coat. A greatcoat, you think, with a mantle that hangs off his broad shoulders like feathers would, a dusting of wings.
Of the things in this life you don't want to do right now, you really don't want to go to that table and interrupt the conversation they're not having. But you don't want to get fired, either. So you walk over and ask if they'd like coffee. The new man waves a hand at his empty cup. The other man just shrugs, like always, but the sleeve of his coat has slid down, and you notice for the first time the markings of black against the skin of his wrist. He looks like he could blend in with the moon he's so very pale, and the cords of black ink seem to shudder, writhing on his skin as you don't-look at them out of the corner of your eye. But that's impossible. It's just a tattoo.
(The newcomer has only one eye. No, two – just a trick of the light and his tangled hair.)
You haven't caught it yet, have you? Even though I told you it was coming. The best stories are the ones where you already know the ending, where you can feel the inevitability of it in your bones, know with every syllable spoken or read, with every word and letter, that it's coming for you. Closer and closer still.
Like someone walking behind you, just a bit faster than you are. Like a wolf.
You see, I know something of wolves.
These are places-that-are-not-places:
This is a sea that goes on forever, even when it stops. There is a snake – no, no, the sea is the snake, a roiling mass of slick coils of scales, sliding against each other, the hissing filling the water like waves large enough to kill any ship. They have. The sea is full of the bones of the dead.
This is a cavern beneath the world. It isn't possible, can't be real, except it is. There is a snake, and a women, and a man there, and the man is tied to the rocks there, bound with the entrails of his son. They dig into his flesh as he twists and writhes, and the snake drips poison into his face when the women cannot catch it all, and for eons the man has flung obscenities at the bones of the world above. Today he is silent, and the only sounds come from the snake and its venom. Drip, drip, drip.
This is a rock, and tied to it is something that cannot possibly be a wolf. It is a snarling mass of black fur and teeth whiter than bones, and the sound it makes when it howls is both horrible and terrifying. It strains against the flimsy fetter that holds him, that cannot hold him except it does, and when the wolf bears his teeth and opens his gaping maw the darkness there looks like it could swallow the moon and the sun. It looks like it wants to try.
This is a cold place, and a woman who cannot be a woman (who is so thin that her bones seem to shiver under their stretched covering of skin) stands sentinel over the souls of the dead, weighing out their final days like copper coins. Their fates have already been determined. Those threads have already been cut. Now they are simply waiting, eternally alive and dead, forever in hell.
There were two men sitting at the table by the window. Now there is one. He seems smaller now, when before you were suffocated by his very presence. You can bear the sight of him now, though that feels wrong too. His half-empty coffee cup rest by his still hand, and his eyes are closed.
You never saw the other man leave. (You never saw a great many things.)
His shoulder feels strange under your hand – insubstantial, as if you were shaking a cloud awake, or grasping at mist. But he rouses, and when he looks at you, there's something like fear in his single eye.
(He had two eyes. You remember this, you know this. But now he doesn't.)
He leaves immediately, scattered bills on the table you never thought to ask for. When he looks back, there isn't just fear in his eye – something else, maybe. Pity or solace. The mantle of his coat picks up in the cold wind, feathers of it flapping about his shoulders.
And the sky is full of ravens.
These are places-that-are-not-places: the snake and the sea, the cavern and the man, the rock and the wolf, the woman and the dead.
But in one of these places, something is missing.
Outside, the ground begins to shake.