The Velvet Bag

“Something best kept hidden from the world…”

Once, there was a young man, who lived in the dreams, the joys, and hidden shames of others, but who could never find such things of his own to guide his future. He would talk, but he would listen far more, until the secrets of others came spilling out of their mouths and into his head, guided by his kind face and his patient ear. Noticing the young man’s flair for inviting the confidences of others, a friend said to him ‘you should become a journalist’.

And so he did, and an excellent one, too, for his ear was tuned to the whispering of secrets on the wind, so that wherever there was some intrigue, something best kept hidden from the world, you could be sure to find the young man never far away. The whispers always led him well, providing him with people to talk to, channels for the secrets to pour themselves upon him. He destroyed his notes, erased his recordings – but he could never wipe the secrets from his own mind.

One day, his editor – I forget which, for it was one of so many he had worked for – told him “I’m tired of having you turn up as if from nowhere; buy yourself a house, a flat, somewhere to live!” And so he did; a windowless flat, with barely space to store his few possessions. But when the young man arrived, he found a tiny velvet bag, hidden inside his bedroom cupboard. When he picked the bag up, it was as though he were lifting a small weight. He tried to undo the string which held the bag closed, but nothing could be done with it; the bag, and whatever it carried, remained a secret.

Reluctant to throw this curiosity away, the young man dropped it back into the cupboard, tumbling into bed as a wave of tiredness swept over him. For hours, he slept well, but suddenly, as an eerie blue light began to streak across a sky he could not see, the young man awoke. For a moment, he could not understand why. Then, he heard a voice, whispering words too rapid to decipher. His body cold with fear, he cast his eyes through the gloom. Then, he heard it again, an almost imperceptible whispering, and it came from beside him. His eyes accustomed to the dark, but the room was bare. Trembling, he reached for the only object in the room, the bedside cupboard, and drew it open. Inside lay the velvet bag, unopened, and nothing else. He would have shut the cupboard in an instant, but he found himself reaching for the bag. Slowly, tentatively, he clenched his fist around the smooth velvet, and raised it to his eyes. There was no mistaking it: the bag was heavier, yet so slightly that he could almost have ignored it. But through the silence, he felt a gaze in his direction, a quiet voice, hissing words which left no reverberations in the air, resonating only in his mind, that he knew, somehow, came from the bag.

Hours passed in fearful paralysis, until finally the young man hurried out into the breaking dawn. Each night thereafter, the young man turned out the lights and lay down upon his bed uneasily, aware, always, that it would not be long until those hissing whispers would call him from sleep, and so leave him to pass the blue-lit hours before dawn in stillness and in silence. He could have abandoned the flat, but the bag was his, it could not be evaded, and to move its weight was impossible: it was all he could do to seize the cupboard and wrench at it uselessly until his muscles ached. In time, he learnt to cope, to exist without sleep, and in fear.

Still, he sought after the lives of others. He groped at the air to touch the secrets, straining to listen to them, to grasp hold of just one and be pulled along by it to who knows where. Yet he no longer could; their whispers were faint and unclear, their touch oily and slippery. Sometimes, he caught a word, mumbled with such tantalizing almost-clarity that he felt sure he could reach it if he tried. But it never worked. In time, the stories dried up, and he was nowhere to be seen in the places where seductive voices on the air had once beckoned him so eagerly.

But the world around him saw none of this, only a reporter, young, brilliant, and alone. One day, his editor – again, I forget which, but certainly not the last one I mentioned – told him “I’m tired of seeing you, a talented young man in his prime, without a woman beside you. Find yourself a girl, the best that you can get, and fall in love with her”.

And so he did. The young woman he met was beautiful, and clever, and when they spoke together, the young man heard not just her voice, but the whispering of the secrets, as though they clamoured about her. He leaned in closer, and drew them in hungrily, always prompting her to keep talking, so that the whispers would never stop. The girl’s initial unease slowly melted, and her fascination grew in this cool, aloof figure, who had drawn forth the hidden details of her life so carefully, and whose past remained hidden in shadow.

And so there came to be another in the bed with him that night. As an eerie blue light crept across the sky he could not see, the young man awoke, only to find the girl clutching the velvet bag in her palm, gazing at it with curious intent, as though fixed upon a pair of eyes, which glared at her from within the gloom. The young man asked her why she had woken. Withdrawing from her trance, she replied,

“You woke me; whispering words I could not hear, over and over, repeatedly”. The young man’s heart stopped beating, his blood turned cold. The girl flicked on the light, and a dim glow flooded the room. She shifted in the bed, and the young man’s eyes followed her, without realising her intentions. Suddenly, she pulled away the string which held the velvet bag closed. The young man gazed into her eyes, and saw his own face, ashen and gaunt, reflected back at him. But as the bag fell open, his consciousness began to flicker, drowned out by the whispers flooding his ears. They hissed loudly, viciously, moving his body beyond his control, drowning all focus, until his mind was lost in their coursing torrent of sound.

As dawn broke, policemen came; summoned by neighbours complaining of screams they had heard in the night. They passed through the door into the young man’s solitary home, where a terrible sight awaited them. The girl lay dead; her neck snapped. Beside her crouched the young man, pawing feebly at the floor. Before the eyes of the horrified onlookers, a sudden surge of energy overwhelmed the young man; he raised his arms and seized his head in his hands, as though to claw into his mind and rip it from within its hiding place. Then, the vigour sapped from his body, and he tumbled to the floor, like a puppet whose strings were cut, and died. All eyes in the room were drawn to his corpse, but only one policeman’s gaze strayed towards a tiny, black, velvet bag, lying on the floor, open at the mouth, empty and weightless.

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