Under Windsor Bridge, 1912, by Adolphe Valette via Magpie Tales
He sat shivering in the oystery fog, bleak light of another riparian morning dripping down on shoulders hunched by cold and the pain in his head. Dank air was making his nose run. The fading silk of his evening jacket was blotched at the wrists with mucus, dark stains not strong enough to blot out the other spots on the fabric. The ones he told himself not to think about. He was getting too weak for thinking too much.
It was forever cold down by the bank, the trembling man thought. It seemed so each time he awoke there, gasping for air and thrashing about in a cloud of half-formed memories on which he always lost his grip. All he knew, this morning was no different, was that something terrible was under his skin. At the thought of skin, his hands clenched in painful spasms. The fingers dug into his palms sending little lances of pain spiking up his arms. He groaned in desperation. "Dear God, I can't look, I can't!" he groaned, the exclamation wrenched from his aching throat sounding dull yet loud in the fog.
He wept in frustration, knowing full well he would never be able to keep his eyes away. Inexorably the bloodshot orbs would roll downward. Clawed, stiff fingers would slowly unfold and he would check to see if the stains were gone.
His hands opened, in his mind flowers of evil blooming in the nacreous morning. They were there, still. The rusty outlines for all the world looking the pressed and dried remnants of crimson petals stuck between pages of yellowed parchment. A bovine moan escaped his lips. The man began to sob in whooping gasps, thinking This must be Hell...
How long he sat with eyes buried in arms folded over filthy knees, he did not know. The light increased as the fog began to burn off. He told himself to move, to get out from under the shadow of the bridge, but his cold-numbed calves could not be persuaded to walk. Coughing fits took over, his windpipe scoured by harsh breathing, almost suffocating from the torrent of snot cascading from his nose. From the river walk came the echoing sound of boot heels on granite. He would have missed it if not for a brief lull in his sobs. He heard the footsteps, and tried to stifle himself completely. He desired no company.
The attempt at silence failed. The footsteps came closer. He willed himself not to move, but jumped at the sudden sound of another voice.
"You there, you alright?" the newcomer said, in a gravelly voice sounding harshly loud.
The man looked up with red-rimmed eyes, finding himself staring into the eyes of an older man, grey-eyed and white whiskered. His mutton chop beard was neat, far away from the three-day stubble that itched the younger man's face. He could see faint insignia on the older man's coat, suddenly realizing he was speaking with a watchman of the bridge. The older man peered at him with mixed concern and caution.
"No, sir. I am not. I am cold and I am sick...and I...I..." his voice trailed off as a surge of memories flooded through his mind on a river of crimson. Fresh tears welled up in his eyes. His mouth opened and closed like a fish. The older man's eyes softened a bit, and he spoke again.
"What's your name, mate?" he said quietly.
The younger man paused, struck near dumb by the simplicity of the question. He stood up, his coat falling open to reveal a filthy dress shirt, silk stained near black with swirls, loops and spatters of blood, some of which were not quite coagulated. It bunched the fabric in obscene little swags. The younger man reached inside his coat and pulled out a long knife, blotched with more than one kind of rust.
The old man started backwards, eyes widening in shock and fear. He groped for the alarm whistle dangling from his lapel. The younger man grinned a sobbing grin while showing his bloody palm and knife to the watchman.
"My name is Jack, good sir!" he screamed. He tottered forward, reversing his grip on the knife as he did so. The watchman turned and ran, blowing frantically on the whistle so loud he did not hear the keening wail from Jack's lips, ending abruptly in a burble.
The last of the fog burned off. Early morning light reflected off the water to dapple the underside of the bridge, and sparkled darkly on the deep red rivulets skeining the stone around Jack lying motionless by the river.