One: Strange Meetings and Stranger Places
The ghost of Jacob Marley stood, unseen, in the corner of his old workplace, watching a shabby-looking Bob Cratchit sit huddled in two coats under an old, stained duvet. The clerk attempted to write with hands that trembled minutely with cold. It looked as though candle flame was the only warmth to be had in the room, besides the heat within the living man’s own blood. But Jacob couldn’t tell through his own senses whether or not this was true.
In the ghost’s own world, a half-step from reality, there were only three tactile sensations that he experienced: unending, biting cold; a dull, pounding ache in his jaw; and an immense sense of weight. The latter sensation stemmed from the chains that were wrapped around the spectre, and trailed off endlessly into piles around the room. The chains themselves were adorned with countless trappings of the material world: cash boxes, money purses, deeds, keys, locks, and more, all adding to the ponderous nature of his bonds.
If the ghost had been as visible to the mortal eye as Cratchit was, then when gazing upon Jacob’s form, the potential viewer would have found, besides the chains, a man grizzled more than his years on earth had warranted, his frayed hair bound in the practical pigtail that had been his fashion in life, loose strands stirred by an unearthly breeze. His skin was the gray of the dreariest winter sky, yet glowed like moonlight. His eyes were the only colourful thing about him, burning with an eerie blue fire, yet they were somehow lifeless-seeming all the same; Jacob knew this because he had seen other ghosts, and found them all similarly afflicted, save for that their fires were sometimes green or amber, and a scattered few had eyes like black pits. A kerchief was tied around Jacob’s head, under his jaw; in life, it had offered a small bit of comfort from the infection in a molar, an infection which had ultimately spread and killed him. And all of him, body and clothes and chains alike, was somewhat transparent—like a watercolour, only devoid of pigment.
If any of the clients that had visited throughout the day could have seen the ghost, then besides all those things, they also would have noted him wearing a sad frown of sympathy while he studied Cratchit. This visage would have changed only slightly as he moved his eyes over to his dear old partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, the change being from sympathy to guilt. Scrooge was a man rich in money alone; he was poor in love and kindness, and Jacob was to blame.
With a heart heavier than his chains, the ghost watched Cratchit fail to coax another coal for the fire from his heartless taskmaster. Watched Scrooge’s young nephew fail to coax some holiday cheer and an acceptance to a dinner invitation from an emotionally distant uncle. Watched two generous souls fail to coax a penny from Jacob’s old partner’s wallet. Watched a caroling child fail to coax a treat from Scrooge with a song, getting menaced with a ruler instead. There was nothing else for Jacob to do but watch; as a ghost, he could no more appeal to Scrooge’s better nature than he could sneak a lump of coal into the fire. Of course, even if he had flesh, he was convinced that Scrooge had no better nature left to be appealed to.
Not long after, Cratchit was let off for the night, with the hard-won promise of a paid day off on the morrow. Scrooge likely would never have granted that promise if not for being half-afraid that the clerk’s faith and love for his family would then require the man to quit work entirely. Finding another man who would work as well for so little would be an enormous undertaking. If only Jacob could tell Cratchit as much! Then the man might at least strong-arm himself some better work conditions….
Scrooge made his way to a local tavern, the same one that he and Jacob had often supped at years ago, and Jacob followed. The serving wenches, though none of them were familiar to Jacob, were apparently long used to Old Man Scrooge’s habits, and therefore required a minimum of contact, bringing the man his food and drink without a word. Doubtless this arrangement was a blessing to both sides of the transaction; why should the girls be pleasant or outgoing to a man who never tipped? Jacob sat unnoticed on the empty chair across from Scrooge. The old banker sat with his back to the room, so this at least afforded Jacob the advantage of watching the crowd. It was a much easier thing to do here, where everyone was relatively happy but not overbearingly so. It was vastly unlike the happy family scenes which had become a torture to him, or the equally-abhorrent despair of street-life; it was a pleasant sort of middle-ground, mediocre and numb.
Jacob wasn’t sure why he was here—why now: this was the first day he’d seen Ebenezer since his own burial. Scrooge had made an especially shrewd business deal that day, taking advantage of a poor, desperate man, just before the funeral. Marley had even complimented Scrooge for his craft, but of course the man hadn’t been able to hear him. No, Scrooge had just walked away, deaf to Marley. The ghost had, in that moment, suddenly fathomed just how alone he was—and how he had dug his own grave, so to speak.
And now, seven years later, Jacob had found himself walking into his old office that morning, discovering a crusty old man in place of the one he’d loved. It was only then that he’d realised that the chains he’d carried for so long were connected to Ebenezer, as if they had sprung out of the man’s own body. He’d watched Scrooge throughout the day, had seen how very unloving, how cruel the man was, and came to understand: Jacob himself was to blame for Ebenezer’s fall, having paved the way and guided the somewhat-younger man. As soon as he realised this, it also became clear to Jacob that Ebenezer’s soul would suffer the same lonely fate as his own—if not worse, for Scrooge had had years longer to forge his own chains, years more for his own soul to grow further tarnished. And there was nothing Jacob could do to stop it.
Jacob also didn’t dare to hope that, when Ebenezer passed on, they might spend eternity together. After all, Jacob had proved to have little control over his own ghostly meanderings, and seldom found himself able to speak to others of his kind—not that he wanted to talk to such miserable spirits anyway. He was most certainly being punished, as Scrooge was to be; there would be no comfort of each other’s company when Ebenezer finally crossed into Jacob’s current realm.
So Jacob spent his time now torn between gazing at Ebenezer, memorising the much-changed face of the man he loved, and, at moments when he was unable to bear the guilt of Scrooge’s deterioration any longer, studying the crowd as a respite. Truthfully, he was surprised that he was able to look away at all, that the forces that, for so long, had kept his sight trained on so many things that had made him heart-sick did not also force him to suffer so now! He looked around, taking advantage of the ability while he could manage it, and it was in doing so that he came to notice a trio of strange newcomers.
He hadn’t seen them come in, having been focused on Ebenezer at that time, but there was no missing them, no looking away again, once his eyes had finally come across them. Two men and a woman—at least by gender, although he wasn’t so sure of their humanity, as the sight of them flickered like candle-flames before his eyes.
One seemed like a very old man with an eye-patch one moment, then like some fantastical being from a faerytale another! When he was the faer being, his long face was sharper, and inhumanly beautiful, his skin pale and vaguely translucent, the envy of any porcelain doll. He was missing the eye-patch then, and both eyes were considerably larger, the colour of the irises changing from the old man’s brilliant blue to silver. The faer version seemed both much younger than his aged self, though his long hair stayed silvery-white, yet somehow ancient at the same time. From amongst the pale strands poked the tips of pointed ears, like those found in legends of mischievous spirits. And while the human was beardless, a thin line of hair traced the faer man’s jaw and lip, and a slightly fuller goatee graced his chin. The faer man seemed luminous, lit from the inside.
The second man, dark-haired, had three forms: one a dark-haired, clean-shaven man in his early thirties, one a russet-haired, late teen/early-twenty-something version of the elder man, and one, inexplicably, a squirrel. In comparison, the woman was almost boring, simply vacillating betwixt a chestnut-maned thirty-something and a young-adult, blonde version of herself. They too seemed to glow with an inner light in their younger forms, as did the squirrel-self of the young man.
Jacob would have thought them ghosts, but they picked up the glasses a serving-wench placed before them with no difficulty, and people moved around them in a way that suggested that everyone could indeed see them. Yet no one seemed the slightest bit disconcerted by their changeable nature!
The woman was smiling as she talked with her companions, but her smile faltered a little, and her brow furrowed in puzzlement when she happened to look Jacob and Ebenezer’s way. If Jacob had had a heart, it would have skipped a beat; this strange being could see him! Or was she simply perplexed by Ebenezer for some reason? Either way, he was nervous about her attention. A moment later, things grew worse: she’d directed the gazes of her companions his way as well. The two men drew up in astonishment. They looked towards their female companion, and for a long, unsettling moment, the three just stared at each other, unspeaking, occasionally throwing looks his way as well. Finally, the faer one beckoned Jacob with a finger. As if compelled, Jacob found himself floating, in his ghostly way, towards the strange trio.
**Wh-who are you?** he asked in the faint, hollow voice of spirits, wondering if they would be able to hear him.
**I am Drosselmeier; this is my great-nephew Erich and his wife Marie,** the eldest one, the sometimes-faer being, said; his old lips did not move, but his faer ones did, and his voice had a spectral quality much like Jacob’s own ghostly intonations. When he gestured in introduction to his companions, it was with the more youthful hand.
**What are you? And how is it that you can see me?** Jacob asked.
Drosselmeier cocked his head in curiosity. **What do you see when you look at us?** he asked in turn.
**Your shape…flickers, like that Horner fellow’s Daedalum.** Jacob had seen the amazing device—in which a sequence of images were spun around in a drum and seemed to come to life—shortly before he’d died.
**Daedalum—the ‘Devil’s Wheel’?** Erich remarked with a bemused tilt of one brow. **An apt description!** Like Drosselmeier, only Erich’s more youthful lips moved, his voice equally ghostly.
**Erich!** the youthful Marie gently chided, in the same otherworldly way. Despite her admonition, she bore a grin of amusement, though her elder self was serene.
**Are you three all devils, then?** Jacob asked. He thought he should fly, but his chains weighted him to the spot, as they often did when he was confronted with a scene he didn’t wish to see.
**Some might call us that,** Drosselmeier remarked wryly. **We’ve never named ourselves such, though—and frankly, if half of what I’ve heard is true, then I dare say that man you’re supping with is more deserving of the name.**
**He wasn’t always that way!** Jacob protested desperately, suddenly forgetting his fear for his own safety in favour of fear for Ebenezer’s. **If there is punishment to be had, let me take it in his stead!**
**Oh-ho! I sense a story here!** Drosselmeier said, both the faer set of eyes and the single human one gleaming with interest. **But our work is never done, so let us take this conversation elsewhere, where the telling won’t steal any of our time—or keep us overlong from your children,** he added to Erich and Marie, rising to his feet. Or rather, the faer form rose, while the old man remained sitting.
The youthful forms of his companions rose too, then, the girl grabbing hold of Jacob’s arm. As she touched him—and for the first time since his death—Jacob felt a sense of warmth.
And suddenly, the world changed.
They were outside now—without even having taken a step! But they weren’t out on the cold, white, desolate street, either: they were in a sunny, green meadow.
A warm meadow.
Granted, it wasn’t as warm as the sun had been in his life, more of a bright memory, but still far better than the cold he’d felt in the years since his death. Moreover, he could feel the ground beneath him, the grass brushing against his slippers, the warm wind on his skin. Not as real as life, but realer than death. Jacob stood in stunned silence, and his companions let him be, let him get over his shock
Once composed, Jacob looked to Marie and found kindness waiting there, tinged with pity. He quickly looked away, unable to bear what he most certainly didn’t deserve. He then found Drosselmeier grinning at him, amused but also benevolent. He noted that neither of them, nor Erich either, had the strange, unearthly glow about them anymore; indeed, saved for Drosselmeier’s inhuman features, they seemed like ordinary mortals now, the husband and wife now locked in their younger forms.
“Wha….Where are we?” Jacob asked, and quickly realised that his voice had lost its spectral quality—and his jaw its ache. He looked at his body, and saw that it was a healthy colour, without an unnatural glow.
He knelt and reached out to touch a vibrant orange flower; while there was a certain lack of substance to it, his hand didn’t pass through it.
“You’re in a realm of our making, my two companions and I,” Drosselmeier replied; his voice, too, had far more weight to it. “A dreamland of sorts, an echo of Faerie. Feels pretty real for unreality, doesn’t it?” he added proudly.
Jacob nodded, awed. Were these gods, then, that they could make worlds? “Why did you bring me here?” he asked them, though he was more than a little terrified of their answer.
“Well, time flows differently here, slower, and I wager your story isn’t a short one.”
“Story?” Jacob asked, perplexed.
Drosselmeier sighed dramatically. “You said that Scrooge wasn’t always a crusty old goat! So I’m curious: what made him that way? If we knew, maybe we could remedy things. It sure would make our jobs a lot easier,” he finished, that last comment aimed at Erich, who nodded.
“Jobs?” Jacob asked. If he’d had a heart still, it would have been pounding; now maybe he would find out just what these beings were!
“Erich and I have been charged, by one who granted us great power, with the task of using that power to make the world a better place,” Marie explained offhandedly, as if such were a common, everyday notion. “Our Uncle Drosselmeier here has great powers of his own, and uses them to help us.”
“But Scrooge makes the task much more difficult when he puts the poor out on the streets,” Erich added gravely.
“So you’re angels, then?” Jacob whispered.
“No,” Erich told him firmly.
“Eh, close enough,” Drosselmeier argued, waving a hand dismissively. “We have magic and we serve others as best we are able. We don’t typically have wings, but we could get them if we wanted them. That’s the definition of an angel, more or less, is it not?” He crossed his arms and shot Erich a triumphant look.
“Uncle!” Marie said, exasperated, rolling her eyes along with Erich.
“Look, it doesn’t really matter much what we’re called,” Erich insisted. “Just tell us what you meant in the tavern, please. It has something to do with why you’re still bound to the Earth, with all those chains, doesn’t it?” Erich’s voice was gentle as it prodded.
“I-it does,” Jacob replied hesitantly, casting his eyes to the ground, unable to bear their scrutiny. “I made Ebenezer what he is today. It’s my fault.”
“You might bear some culpability in shaping the man—that remains to be seen—but in the end, your Ebenezer is ultimately responsible for his own choices,” Drosselmeier pointed out, his tone, while not unkind, brooking no arguement.
His Ebenezer. If only that had been true….
“You’re not helping, Uncle!” Marie hissed before addressing Jacob again. “How is it that you see yourself as responsible, Mr…”
“Uh…M-Marley, my lady. Jacob Marley.”
“Marley!” she remarked, astonished—and, Jacob guessed, repulsed, though she hid it well. “Why, you’re his old partner! The one whose name is still on that sign!”
Oh, how he wanted to believe that it was out of some lingering affection that Ebenezer had left the name “Marley” on the sign, and not a simple desire to not spend unnecessary pennies on a new placard…. “I am him. I died seven years ago tonight.”
“Seven!” Drosselmeier exclaimed, his eyes bright and his manner delighted. “Seven is a most fortuitous number! I dare say that is why our dear Marie spotted our new friend here in the first place!” he remarked to Erich, then turned to Jacob. “Normally one has to make an effort to focus in a special way to see the disincarnate,” he revealed conspiratorially. “Otherwise, we’d go mad, exposed to streets twice as flooded with desperate souls as usual! But I’m sure you’d know all about that.”
Jacob nodded; he might not converse much with his fellow ghosts, but he saw them, all the same.
“So, now. We’ve established that you feel responsible for Scrooge’s current state of being—indeed, the chains we saw leading from your person to his would suggest as much. And now we know that you yourself were not a terribly nice person in life. Did you abuse Scrooge, then? Is that what drove him to become so heartless?”
“Heavens, no! I would never have harmed him! I lo—” As if he still had it, Jacob felt blood rush from his face in horror at his own near confession. But his pause did not save him.
“Love him?” Marie asked quietly, laying a comforting hand on Jacob’s arm.
Jacob pulled away, unable to bear her pity; it was somehow worse than if she had shown disgust. He knew he should deny it, but also suspected that it was pointless to try with these three. He had an inkling that some sort of judgement was to be passed on him this night. Well, he was determined to receive any punishment he deserved, so he resigned himself to be entirely truthful. He nodded, tight-lipped.
“Curious that Love should create such greedy and heartless creatures,” Drosselmeier remarked, squinting speculatively at Jacob.
“Do not blame Love for it,” Jacob said softly, sadly. “Blame my handling of Love, the Jealousy that followed Love and whose whim I too heartily obeyed.”
“I think we need to hear more of the background if we are to fully comprehend this narrative,” Erich said, settling himself on the ground. “Pray, tell us of your youth, sir, for I believe we are all most malleable and best shaped in our childhood.”
“I hope that isn’t always true, Shakespeare,” Drosselmeier commented with a droll smile as he sat beside the young man. “If it is, then Scrooge is beyond hope already,”
“He said ‘most malleable’, not ‘the only time it is malleable’,” Marie reminded him, settling her skirts around her. “We’re living proof that magic can effect great changes in even the most seemingly immutable things.”
Jacob, eased himself to the ground beside them, feeling as if he had truly aged another seven years. “If there is a chance at all that it will save Eb, then I shall tell you any and everything, although I’m not sure if my own history can help.”
“Let us be the judges of that,” Erich said, sending a shiver down Jacob’s back. So this was a trial of sorts, then….