Sunday, April 11, 2021

SHORT STORY: The Agony Of Choice


Raymond sat alone at the kitchen table.  Permitting himself a few moments of respite between chores, he stared blankly at the wall, allowing his mind to wander.  It had been three weeks since his master had left for his expedition after promising to return in a matter of days.  Such conduct was unlike his master who’d proven himself fastidious, sometimes ruthlessly so.  Without his presence, the modest house felt empty, with one of its bedrooms and the master’s study now unoccupied.  Except of course for Raymond. 

James Patrik The Agony of Choice

A scarecrow by birth and a servant by nature, Raymond busied himself with housework just as his master had instructed before he had departed.  Gliding from room to room, he rendered the place spotless with the skill and quiet dignity of a practiced domestic servant.  Initially, he complied, fearing punitive measures, but as the days turned into weeks, he undertook his chores with intense fervour. 

What else would I do?  How else do people occupy their time except in service to their masters? he thought as he waxed the wooden floorboards of the corridor.

All food related chores were the first to disappear – as a scarecrow, Raymond had no need to eat.  It was a pleasure denied him by his creator, though he had often marvelled at the transformative nature of food, its innate ability to bestow comfort and satiety.  First tier chores such as sweeping, dusting and the washing of dishes soon gave way to more complicated, second tier tasks like washing windows, cleaning gutters and re-tiling the roof.  Using a not inconsiderable amount of elbow grease (if his body had produced such a substance), Raymond maintained the house spectacularly.

One afternoon, there came a knock at the door.  Raymond was immediately suspicious, knowing that his master would never knock as he rarely left the house without keys.  Curious, he opened the door to reveal a surprising sight – a giant stick insect, stood upright, attired in formal suit and tie.

‘Good afternoon sir’, said the stick insect as he extended his arm in greeting, ‘My name is Julius Wallwork, Esquire.  Might I have a moment of your time?’

‘Of course’, stammered Raymond, as he shook the man’s hand and ushered him into the entranceway.

Remembering his manners, Raymond struggled to suppress his fascination with the strange man’s appearance.  There were of course many and varied sentient creatures in the kingdom, but he had lived a life mostly indoors and had rarely been exposed to such zoological diversity.

Julius Wallwork made his way inside the house, proceeding down the short corridor and into the kitchen where he politely sought permission to sit at a small table.  Raymond replied in the affirmative as Julius placed a scroll and a small wooden box upon the tabletop.  Through his buttoned shirt and sleeves, Raymond could catch glimpses of the man’s peppermint coloured thorax.

‘Mister Raymond, I represent Angus & Altman.  We’re solicitors, specialising in property management and estate planning in this general vicinity’.

‘Okay’, said Raymond hesitantly, still wondering why such an elaborate fancy man would stoop to converse with a lowly scarecrow.

‘I’m afraid it’s my sad duty to inform you of the death of your master, Kevin’, Wallwork announced as he presented Raymond with the box that he had brought with him.

Raymond carefully opened the receptacle.  Inside it was a human heart, the organ partially desiccated and decorated with traces of dried blood about its four chambered structure.  The heart belonged to Kevin, and, had evidently been torn out by whatever agent had caused his demise.

‘I realise this may be a gruesome sight for you, but the presentation of a heart is customary in this circumstance, especially where the transfer of property is concerned’.

Transfer?’ asked Raymond, still enthralled by the grisly sight of his master’s heart in a box.  He was struck by the notion that his master even possessed such an organ, given his sour disposition and proclivity for cruelty.

‘Kevin’s death changes things for you considerably, Mister Raymond.  In the absence of an heir or suitable inheritor, the deed to the current property – this house – legally reverts to any other current occupants.  In this instance – that’s you’.

Julius unfurled the scroll across the kitchen table.  It was an ancient looking document, its text hand written in slanted script that was difficult to read.  At the top of the scroll, in letters larger than the rest were the words ‘Life Transfer Document’, and at the bottom, a straight line presumably reserved for a signature.  At the centre of the scroll was a single human eye, which, as soon as the scroll had been unrolled, blinked into existence, darting about the room. 

Standing to leave, Julius provided Raymond with a final set of instructions.

‘As per local law, you have ten days to sign the document, after which point this house and all its contents will become your legal property.  Should you fail to sign in the allotted time, custody of the house reverts back unto itself, and your rights as a tenant within it will be rescinded’.

Offering a polite bow to excuse himself, Julius made his way to the front door, as Raymond trailed behind him.  This turn of events had been so unexpected and he was brimming with questions for the stick insect lawyer.  But, as evidenced by the brevity of his visit, his time was too valuable for him to linger a moment longer than necessary.  Raymond tried to think of the most pertinent question to ask, but instead his mind went blank.

‘But what about my master?’, he blurted out almost reflexively.

‘Your master is dead, Mr Raymond. You are your own man now.  I suggest you get used to it’.

‘My own man…’ Raymond repeated to himself softly as Julius left the premises.  It was a tremendous concept to digest.


A few days had passed since the lawyer had called on Raymond, casually breezing into his life and leaving seismic new ideas at his feet.  Though not outwardly exhibiting any signs of distress, Raymond had been quite shaken by the visit, and decided it was best to simply ignore everything he’d been told.  As before, he proceeded with his chores, dusting surfaces that were already clean and preparing the house for a master that would never return.

Yet every time he found himself in the kitchen, he’d see the expectant scroll, its unnerving eye watching his every move, waiting for him to either sign (or not sign) his name at the bottom of the page.  The very sight of the offending eye reminded him that things had changed and that Kevin wasn’t coming back.  Not only was he a free man, but if he signed the scroll, he would be a home owner.

Sat in his chair – a brief pleasure that he occasionally allowed himself – Raymond pondered the concept of freedom.  What did it mean?  Kevin had captured and removed him from his family at such a young age that he had never known any other life.  What would he do with his time?  He thought about his family and briefly considered paying them a visit.  From what little he could remember they lived in a small enclave just beyond the forest, but, given the short lifespan of most scarecrows they were most likely deceased.  Later, as he examined the document once more, he pondered the unusual nature of its title – Life Transfer Document.  Was the house somehow alive, and if so, was it a slave to Raymond?


After spending the day washing linen, Raymond was met with the uneasy feeling that his tasks no longer felt as fulfilling as they once did.  As dusk arrived, he allowed himself to stand on the front porch of the house and admire the beauty of the plants and trees around him.  Previously, such stolen moments had been forbidden, but now Raymond wondered if he could occasionally permit himself some rudimentary moments of pleasure.

‘Beautiful evening, isn’t it?’ came a voice from a few feet away.

It was Mrs Gale, the next-door neighbour who was sitting on her own porch evidently doing precisely what Raymond had been doing as well.

‘Oh, hello Mrs Gale’ offered Raymond politely. 

He had rarely had occasion to speak with the old woman, forever beholden to his duties, but he liked her.  She always spoke to him warmly and, despite being confined to a wheelchair, nearly always displayed a sunny demeanour.

‘Kevin is dead’, he blurted out without thinking.

‘I know, dear.  I felt him die.  A shame really, such an angry young man’.

Kevin had often been churlish with Mrs Gale, annoyed by her dumpy countenance and her propensity for dispensing unsolicited homespun wisdom.

‘I was visited by a lawyer who said that I’d inherit the house if I sign a scroll’.

‘Was that the green gentleman I saw the other day?’

‘Yes, that’s right’.

‘So, what are you waiting for, dear?  Sign the contract, and we’ll be neighbours fair and square’.

‘It’s not that simple’.

‘Sounds simple enough to me.  Do you need to borrow a pen?’

‘It’s not that – I already have a pen.  I just keep staring at that scroll, and it stares back at me.  Without instruction, I’m frozen and afraid.  I’ve never known choice, or decision.  I’m scared of doing the wrong thing, so instead, I do nothing at all.  How do you know what to do Mrs Gale?’

The old woman looked pensive for a moment, taking a few seconds to formulate a thoughtful response.

‘I’m not sure, dear.  I suppose I use past experience to guide me.  You have to make your own future – one day at a time’.

‘But I have no past experience.  My whole life I’ve been a slave’.

‘Well then’, smiled Mrs Gale, ‘Its time you started making some choices, dear’. 

She tilted her head in the direction of the nearby tree line where, almost as if the universe had anticipated his need, a rat with a bindle sauntered past their houses.  He walked upright, with his possessions slung across his shoulder.  Moving cheerfully despite his bedraggled appearance, his feet were bare and blistered and his eyes looked weary from travelling.

Sensing a new emotion coalescing within him, Raymond tried his utmost to comprehend the new sensation.  Impulsiveness – the need to act spontaneously and without forethought.  The sensation travelled upwards from his belly, up into his chest and into his mouth where it eventually formed words.

‘You there’, he called out to the rat man, ‘Do you need a place to live?’


Life with Percival was very different to life with Kevin.  Transient by nature, Percival just so happened to be walking past Mrs Gale and Raymond at the very moment in which Raymond had been inspired to make a choice.  Acting in an uncharacteristically spontaneous manner, he’d invited the wandering rat to cohabitate with him.  It was a perfectly equitable arrangement - the rat man occupying Kevin’s former bedroom which had remained vacant for some time.  The terms of his tenancy were loosely defined, with no fixed end point agreed upon in advance.  Refusing to accept any of the rat man’s money, Raymond agreed to be paid in household duties, and his new housemate readily obliged.

The perfect lodger, Percival’s jovial demeanour and colourful tales from the road made him a pleasure to be with.  For his part, he was happy to have a stable home, at least for a time.  He treated Raymond with decency, never once verbally scolding him, threatening his life or setting fire to his extremities.            

After a few days and nights, the two housemates had settled into an agreeable routine.  They would share a meal together, recounting humorous or significant moments from their day.  Percival had recently discovered what he considered to be a superlative fishing hole and frequently returned to the house with fresh Twilo fish.  Raymond, sans digestive system, would happily sit with his rodent companion, so as to politely share the dining experience.  After they had cleaned their plates, they would retire to the living room and read, or sometimes listen to music.  One such evening, as Raymond read, Percival smoked the bark of the Carboline tree.

‘Why do you smoke that?’, Raymond asked.

‘Because it makes me happy’, replied Percival flatly.

Raymond had not been prepared for the simplicity of his companion’s response.

‘What is happiness?’, Raymond ventured, after a few moments.

‘Happiness is that which I pursue’.


‘Because it is the purpose of my life.  To find those things and people that bring me the greatest joy’.

‘What does it feel like?  Happiness, I mean.  Is it painful?’.

Percival took a drag of the burning bark and allowed his gaze to melt away into the distance as his mind conjured images of past pleasures.

‘It feels like a stillness of my thoughts and an easiness in my body’.

‘That sounds complicated’, lamented Raymond.

‘It’s not’, replied Percival who now turned his attention to Raymond whose questions seemed unusually wistful, ‘What makes you happy?’

‘I’m unsure what will make me happy’.

‘What have you tried so far?’

‘Nothing.  I can’t be certain that any of the things I choose will lead to happiness and so I choose nothing.  Instead, I simply sit in my chair and stare at the wall, and that in itself seems like an indulgence’.

‘Is that why you haven’t signed the scroll?’

‘Yes.  I’m not sure if it’s the correct course of action’.

‘You know I’d sign it for you, but the eye sees all.  And besides, for me, a house would only be an impediment to my happiness’.

Though his intuition where people were concerned was underdeveloped, Raymond believed him.  There was no conceivable way that a creature such as Percival would settle down as a home owner.  He would stay for a while, but his inquisitive nature and nomadic spirit meant that the road ahead was always calling his name.

‘Perhaps it’s time you sought advice from a higher power?’, offered Percival with a raised eyebrow.


The following day Raymond decided to heed Percival’s suggestion.  Over breakfast, he informed his housemate that he intended to visit the area’s foremost seer, the Lady in Waiting.

‘Okay then, but be careful’, cautioned Percival, ‘You want to keep well clear of those dreadful Simians’.               

He was right to be apprehensive – Simian Sands was a valley occupied by a tribe of crazed apes, well known for their extreme violence towards intruders.  Best avoided, they were rumoured to have all been driven mad through exposure to industrial waste.

Summoning his courage, Raymond left the house for the first time in many years.  Using a crude map he’d found in Kevin’s writing desk, he made his way through a brief wooded section, past several physical landmarks to the Lady in Waiting’s residence. His former master had availed himself of her services often enough, holding her counsel in high esteem.  Raymond hoped that she’d be equally useful to him as he trekked through the forest, trying his best to stave off the overwhelming fear he felt at so many new sights and the ominous sounds of the screech owls above.

Soon enough, a large, hollowed out tree presented itself.  Its proportions were gigantic, with its base several meters in diameter.  It was the largest tree Raymond had ever seen, although he had not had cause to see very many in his life.  He entered warily, through a passageway just large enough for him to squeeze his body.  As the darkness of the inside of the tree enveloped him, he nervously announced himself, expectantly hoping that the lady residing within would reassure him with an acknowledgement.  Proceeding further into the tree he came to a generous circular space, dimly lit by candles.

‘Enter, and be seated’, came a voice from somewhere inside the room. 

Raymond’s eyes darted about until they landed upon a human woman sitting at a small wooden table.  She wore a faded Victorian gown, frilly and ornate and had laid out a deck of tarot cards on the table before her.  He approached, intending to occupy the vacant seat opposite the lady, but as he moved closer, he realised he’d failed to observe a key feature of the woman, or rather, a lack thereof.  She had no head.  By the looks of things, it had been shorn clear off - by what method he was unsure - but the wound appeared cauterised and bloodless.

‘Be seated’, the woman repeated in a clear tone that only now Raymond realised was occurring completely in his mind. 

This was the Lady in Waiting, and even though decapitated, she was still able to communicate using only her thoughts.  Raymond obliged and took the seat, consciously averting his gaze from her headless stump.  Slowly, deliberately, the lady began turning over her strange tarot cards.  The first one – The Sickly Magician – revealed itself.  Bearing the image of a well-dressed man vomiting upon a green pasture, it made Raymond feel uneasy.

‘Interesting’, remarked the lady, mostly to herself before turning over a subsequent card. 

This one was entitled The Pregnant Mule and depicted the eponymous creature with its belly distended.  Without a head, Raymond suspected by the lady’s body language that she was deep in thought.

‘What do they mean?’, he asked tentatively after a few moments of silence.

‘Crossroads’, she began, speaking clearly inside his head, ‘A time of rebirth and great change’.

Turning over a third card, the lady let out an audible gasp at its appearance: The Unbroken Line – the illustration depicting a straight red line rendered in blood.  The lady was silent for a moment, and without a face, Raymond couldn’t read her expression.

‘What does it mean?  Is it bad?’ he ventured, eager to hear her interpretation.  The lady reached across the table, urgently clasping Raymond’s forearm.

‘The time is now, and the message is urgent’, she gasped as her fingernails dug into his skin, ‘You must act now – the eye will not remain open forever!’.

Shaking free of her grip, Raymond stumbled backwards, knocking over his chair.  Her words had shaken him, frightened him, wound themselves around a hidden part of his subconscious that only he could see, and he was petrified - so much so that he ran all the way back to the house and sealed himself in his bedroom.

DAY 10

Early the next day, Percival, somewhat concerned having not seen his housemate in some time gently wrapped upon his bedroom door.

‘Raymond?  Are you okay in there?’, he asked gently. 

He was accustomed to his new friend behaving skittishly, but this was something new.  Raymond had led such a sheltered life after all, and Percival was worried that his visit to the Lady in Waiting had gone poorly.  He lingered a few moments, but there was no response.

‘Okay then.  I just wanted to let you know that I’m going fishing.  I’ll return when the sun goes to sleep’.

Inside his bedroom, Raymond could hear the sound of Percival leaving the house.  He’d had a sleepless night, and he didn’t wish to burden Percival with his problems.  But the Lady in Waiting’s prophecy had disturbed him, in a manner more deeply than he’d ever known.  He was still only new to his freedom, and yet so much was being asked of him already.  So many decisions to make.  Around noon, after a few hours brooding alone, he exited and proceeded to the kitchen where the scroll, with its single eye, was still sat upon the table.  Locating a pen – an ornate one that once belonged to Kevin - he stood before the waiting document, his arm outstretched, determined to finally sign it. 

As he forced his hand closer to the paper, his mind was aflame with the pain of his own crippling indecision – a mental tug of war fought only with himself.  All of the questions of the last ten days flashed into existence once more as the moment of ultimate choice stood before him.  Would signing be the right thing to do?  Did he even want to be a home owner?  What if the decision he made today had terrible ramifications later on? Could he forgive himself for making such a grievous mistake?

As the overwhelming anxiety of the moment overcame him, Raymond’s arms began to tremble.  He sat down on the floor, bracing his back against the wall, but soon realised that not he – but the house – was shaking.  He cast an incidental glance over at the scroll on the table just in time to witness the single eye at the centre of the page close, slowly and with alarming finality.  In that moment he recalled the words of the esteemed Julius Wallwork, Esquire:

‘…Custody of the house reverts back unto itself, and your rights as a tenant within it will be rescinded’.

A low rumble became thunderous as plates and cups and other sundry items flew from their perches, smashing into a million pieces as the doors and walls of the house convulsed.  Leaping to his feet, Raymond ran from room to room, struggling to understand the precise nature of what was happening. 

Outside, the house shook itself free from its foundations and sprouted two enormous three toed feet.  Sheathed in reptilian scales and strong enough to support the house’s considerable bulk, the feet began walking, taking the house along with it. 

 Sat on her front porch, Mrs Gale witnessed the entire occurrence unfold.  She marvelled as the house next door simply walked away on giant feet, leaving a trail of flotsam and jetsam in its wake.  As it moved, each step it took produced a mighty thud that reverberated through the earth.

Inside the moving house, Raymond struggled to stay on his feet, buffeted about by the turbulent journey.  He looked out a window to see a strange moving vista as the house walked itself deeper into the woods, deftly avoiding collision with trees and bushes as it made its way down a steep decline.  Gathering momentum, the house accelerated, moving past the hollow tree where Raymond had been just the previous day.  Past the place where these very events had been foretold. 

The journey had thus far lasted minutes, but to Raymond it seemed like hours as the contents of the house showered down upon him as he surrendered to unyielding terror, screaming until his voice was hoarse.  Moving down into a sandy gully, the house finally came to a complete stop, at which time Raymond, still cowering, managed to drag himself to a nearby window in order to survey his location.

The house had taken him to a part of the woods he’d never seen before.  Mostly devoid of vegetation, the ground appeared dry and cracked, and the landscape barren and dotted with jagged rocks.  From the vague descriptions he had heard over the years, it could only be one place – Simian Sands.  It was indeed, a place no sensible person would hope to find himself.  Within seconds, Raymond’s worst fears were confirmed as he heard an awful screeching coming from outside the house, followed shortly after by a pounding on the walls.  It was the simians, and from the sounds they produced, it sounded as though they were numerous. 

Finding his last shred of courage, Raymond sprang to his feet and made for the kitchen, intending to find a weapon with which to defend himself.  A knife, or any other kitchen utensil would do in a pinch.  As he entered the room, he heard the sound of shattering glass behind him as a balled-up simian smashed his way through one of the windows.  Hunched over and tightly muscled, the simian’s teeth appeared razor sharp and his eyes were filled with blood lust.  Grabbing one of the chairs from the kitchen table, Raymond swung the piece of furniture at the horrible creature, striking it clean across its face.  No result – the chair merely smashed into smithereens and the hideous ape only roared in anger.  It leapt forward, in one sudden motion, its powerful hands clawing at Raymond’s face. 

Soon, another simian had broken into the house, then another and then another.  All of them dove for Raymond, who was now pinned to the floor, desperately fighting for his life.  One of the beasts latched onto his left leg and tore it clean off, while the others used their hands to rip into his midsection like a knife through hot butter.  In the midst of his death throes, Raymond howled out in agony, as the simians tore him apart, limb from limb.

And that was how poor Raymond met his final end.  The entire, unpleasant affair could have been easily avoided had he simply made a decision.  He spurned the gift that had been lovingly bestowed upon him by the universe – that of free will and choice – and lost his life as a result.  For if we do not make our choices ourselves, others will surely make them for us.




No comments:

Post a Comment

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins