To my dear reader, I have recently had opportunity to engage in an evening of fun and games that was held in celebration of a dear friends birthday. There was chess, card games, and even billiards, which offered me yet another chance to display a complete and utter lack of any tangible skill in these particular fields of competition. After brandy was served, I observed several people gathered around an antique ebony table in the corner of the game room. As I approached, I saw that these intrepid individuals were attempting to construct a jigsaw puzzle of decent size and intricate design. I was offered a seat but politely declined. More than likely the others at the table thought me to be a bit antisocial or misanthropic, but the truth of the matter was much more disturbing. The sight of the puzzle brought memories of my friend Cara back to the surface of my mind, and at the time I had no desire to relive them.
Cara lived in Louisiana in a white columned mansion christened Mount Willow due to the multitude of large trees of the same name surrounding the house. Mount Willow had been in her family since before American independence, and provided Caras ancestors a quiet seclusion not to be found in any European city. The house passed to Cara when both her parents died of Scarlet Fever. She was in her late-teens, with only a skeletal staff of two servants: a cook, Hannah, and a groom, Charles. Eventually the home began a slow descent into disrepair. The stairs creaked more than they used to. Doors hung slightly more crooked on their hinges. Many rooms had acquired new design accents courtesy of the local spider population. Also, due to the swampy areas around the house, the air inside Mount Willow always seemed to have a stale, musty odor to it.
The only respite from Caras essentially solitary existence at Mount Willow was the visits from her tutors. In their will, Caras parents saw to it that she would not lack for a continuous education. She could speak English, French, and was learning Italian. She was very adept at music, and could play several instruments, but it was also her fathers wish that she be trained in science and mathematics as well. Cara had always taken to her studies with more than due diligence, but the thing she loved more than anything else was solving and constructing puzzles. As any visitor to Mount Willow could attest, this beautys domicile was decorated with the finished products of her endeavors. Framed portraits of every kind populated her rooms and only upon closer inspection would he fragmented nature of the picture be revealed.
As time went on and Caras skill increased, she found the puzzles that were available to her in general shops to be less and less challenging. In order to find an object worthy of her abilities she would be forced to travel to the nearest city, New Orleans. They said that anything you could want would be found there. Surely there would be a shop that carried what she was looking for. That morning she found Charles and bade him to prepare the carriage for the trip. It was only a drive of a little more than a couple of hours, so no overnight bag would be required. A few minutes more and she was on the road. The carriage was not ornate by any standard, but was completely enclosed with curtained glass windows to protect passengers not only from the elements, but from prying eyes should the need arise. The majority of the ride was bouncy and uneven until the dirt roads gave way to the cobblestone street of New Orleans proper.
It was cloudy and overcast, a thoroughly gray day. The horses slowly clopped their way through the winding narrow streets. Cara eagerly peered at the shop windows searching for anything that looked promising. And while she was clearly in the merchant district of the city, there seemed to be no shops that would suit her needs. After hours of searching the labyrinthine bowels of New Orleans Cara spotted a small shop. There was a hand written sign in the window that simply said Toys and Games in an elegant script. Cara bade Charles to stop the coach so she might investigate the establishment further. The groom tied the horses to an iron hitching post near the curb and Cara made her way in.
Once inside the shop, Cara instantly noticed the aroma of soft incense that wafted gently through the air. It had a delicate hint of vanilla that made it most appealing. Oil lanterns whose illumination radiated from behind glass panes of a pure crimson hue, giving the entire establishment an ominous blood colored tinge, lighted the store. The wooden floor was highly polished and creaked under her footsteps. The walls of the shop were completely covered with shelves populated with all manner of weird and esoteric artifacts. The wares of the store seemed to be arranged in no particular order, and seemed to have little if anything to do with toys and games as the sign said. Cara observed a skull of undetermined species placed next to what looked like an unborn child in a jar full of liquid, which itself resided next to a small sculpture of somewhat dubious design that made color rush to the girls cheeks.
Hello there, Mademoiselle. The gravelly voice with a Gallic accent from the back of the store frightened Cara, as she did not see the person who addressed her. Slowly she approached the back of the store, taking care not to bump no the dusty shelves that flanked her, lest she break some rare item she could not pay for. Standing behind the counter was a portly gentleman dressed in a very dapper manner. His store may be unobtrusive but clearly this man was doing very well. When he stood to greet her, he towered over Cara. She could see that his black coat was made of very fine silk. Coupled with the red cravat, diamond pinky ring and matching tie tack, the man was the picture of sinister elegance. He had black hair that was thinning and slicked straight back off his forehead in the European style, and a goatee that had just begun to gray. His eyes, she thought must have been a light amber color, because in the ruddy lantern light they took on a somewhat disquieting maroon hue that reminded Cara of the color of dried blood.
How may I help you this evening? His voice snapped her back to business.
I see that your sign said toys and games. I was wondering if you had any puzzles for sale. The proprietors eyes widened a bit with his reply.
Puzzles? Ah yes of course Mademoiselle. I have something just right for you. From beneath the cherry wood counter the salesman produced a small box.
This puzzle has 500 different pieces and when completed creates a delightful picture of barnyard animals at play. Caras interest was immediately stifled when she heard the clerk mention 500 pieces. Such a thing was childs play to her.
Do you have anything more intricate? The hawkers brow furrowed as he thought.
More...intricate? Let me see. Replacing the farm puzzle beneath the counter the salesman began to rummage a bit more furiously until he returned with a heavy black cylinder about a foot tall and a few inches across.
I have this for you. This puzzle has over 2000 pieces and is said to be the most difficult one ever conceived. He handed the cylinder to Cara who accepted it with a most skeptical expression on her face. Clearly this man was just out to make a sale.
What makes it so challenging? The clerk chuckled and replied, See for yourself. Cara twisted the end of the container and pulled it off. She gingerly poured some of the pieces onto the countertop. After a cursory examination she pronounced, This cant be right. The proprietor simply smiled.
It certainly is Mademoiselle. Cara poured half the contents of the container on the counter to make absolutely sure. All of the pieces of the puzzle were solid black. Anticipating the question, the salesman answered, Yes, the whole puzzle is one mass of color. Truly only a most dedicated person would attempt to solve such a monstrosity. It is called The Hole. It is said that a clock maker named Elsevier created it sometime in the 15th century. An Italian noble named Baron Brumante commissioned the puzzle. When time came for payment there was haggling over the price. Being one to not suffer anyone with an abundance of patience, the Baron had the clock maker clapped in irons and tossed into an oubliette, but not before Elsevier cursed the Baron. As it turns out, over time, the Baron became obsessed with solving the puzzle he had stolen from the clock maker. All other matters seemed to lose their importance. His household fell into disrepair, and his finances went neglected. He ate and slept less and less, and it is said that in the end the puzzle consumed him.
He let his last words hang in the air a bit with the silence only broken by the sound of the two gold coins that Cara dropped on the counter. She scooped the exposed puzzle fragments back into their container and sealed it. The salesman placed the cylinder into a small bag and dropped the gold into his pocket with a smile.
Enjoy the puzzle and do come again. The clerks words barely registered as Cara was well on her way out the door. The ride home passed in a blur. She simply could not wait to delve into the puzzle, which less ardent individuals would consider a nightmare. He horse was barely unhitched when Cara had vaulted from the carriage and locked herself in the study. She carried the onyx hued container over to the hand carved mahogany table near the bay window. She enjoyed looking at the trees outside while constructing puzzles. The high backed leather chair seemed to envelope her delightful form as she sank into its soft comfortable cushions.
She carefully unscrewed the top of the cylinder and poured the entire contents onto the smooth, polished tabletop. In the sunlight, the black pieces seemed to have a strange opalescence about them, much how a dark birds plumage will shimmer purple or green in bright daylight. Cara spread the tiny multi-faceted pieces out on the table until there was a single, fragmented layer of iridescent black covering the mahogany. Conventional strategy was to seek out the flat edges first in order to construct the framework in which you would be working. Cara knew this to be a sound plan but was becoming increasingly frustrated at the complete absence of any flat edged pieces. She did however observe how a certain number of the pieces had curved edges and her first error dawned on her. Of course! She naturally assumed the puzzle to be the standard rectangular shape that all her other works had in common. This puzzle, The Hole was obviously destined to be round. With deliberate and meticulous effort, Cara began to separate the fragments that had slightly curved edges from the rest of their fellows.
As the hours passed the outer ring of the puzzle began to take shape. It was plain to see that once completed The Hole would cover the majority of the tabletop. Piece after piece was pressed into place until the chime sounded to signal that dinner was served. Cara unseated herself leaving the outer ring incomplete by only two pieces, but decided to finish at least this part and arranged the remaining pair into the ebony circle as the dinner chime sounded a second time. After dessert Cara once more found herself seated before the onyx hued enigma. Only now there seemed to be something slightly amiss. She could have sworn that the pieces were all solid black in color, but now there seemed to be a tiny thread-width silver line traversing the entire circumference of the puzzle. Given the fact that it was barely noticeable Cara rationalized that it was only natural that she had not observed it until now. She also knew that it would be very slow going the rest of the way. There would be no flattened edges to aid her in the placing of the pieces. Still, she was determined that she would eventually complete the daunting task that lay before her.
Night after night Cara would be picking through the tiny black bits of wood, sometimes going a whole evening without adding a single piece. As time wore on however some parts of the puzzle began to take shape and a few black tendrils began to snake their way towards the center. While she was hunched over the table, the brunette beautys attention was focused entirely on the fitting of one piece into another. Her eyes grew suddenly very heavy. Before long she was fully snoozing at the table. While Cara slumbered, a pair of eyes slowly opened in the completed portions of the puzzle. A pair of hateful, covetous eyes, searching eyes that lingered over many parts of the room but especially on Cara herself. All through the night while she slept, the eyes surveyed her as if trying to take in every possible detail of her being. Then, a wispy, vaporous material began to waft out of The Hole. The pale, smoky mist gradually began to coalesce into the shape of a rotted, skeletal hand. The spectral appendage began to softly caress Caras shoulders; slowly trailing is fingers down towards her bosom. For hours the gaunt limb ran itself all over Caras body. It was not until the first rays of dawn sliced their way through the window that the incorporeal hand quickly dissipated and the surface of the puzzle returned to normal.
Summer turned to autumn, autumn turned to winter, and along with the irrevocable change in the seasons, Caras work on the puzzle progressed. The solid black areas increased in width and even began to connect in some spots. Caras face lit up with a self-satisfied smile as she surveyed the progress she had made.
It will not be long now. She thought to herself. The pall of the winter season took its toll on her vigor and her pace in the evenings had slowed considerably. Even in the deep south of America, the countryside was not spared from a thorough lashing of the wind. Cara watched as the gale outside her window galloped through the branches of the trees. She ceased her work on the puzzle to better observe the tumult. Her breath caught in her throat as she could swear she heard a deep, sepulchral voice in the wind uttering a single word.
Work. The chamber became ice cold, even though a fire roared in the hearth. Cara huddled a down quilt around her but nothing could stave off the frigid cold that had foisted itself upon her. And once again the howling wind seemed to spur her on to resume her efforts.
Work. The word seemed to fairly float on the wind, lingering just on the edges of the noise outside. After another moment the word caressed her ears as if it was whispered right next to her. Then she could not pinpoint its location at all as it seemed to emanate from all around her. Caras heart fluttered as her gaze returned to the table. With a trembling hand she reached out to the remaining loose pieces and began to sort through them. Almost immediately the room began to warm. Before long, the girl began to feel like herself again. The feel of the puzzle pieces was comforting to her. As she continued to press the pieces into place, her pace of work began to increase. Caras vision slowly blurred as her hands seemed to move of their own accord. Physically her eyes were locked on the growing field of ebony on the table, but her mind was most definitely elsewhere. So much so that she did not notice the pair of cold, dead eyes that once again greedily stared at her from the tabletop.
Piece after piece fell into place, some even seemed to join together without any assistance from Cara. After an hour of this furious pace, Cara slumped in her chair. The mysterious force moving her hands faded, and the puzzle sat on the table completely inert. The great black spot, now finished, stared at her like a giant sharks eye. The air in the study hung perfectly still. The flames on Caras candelabra flickered in the silent room. The exhausted girl stood up to examine her handy work and a wave of proud accomplishment along with profound relief washed over her.
Slowly, the way someone would caress a sleeping lover, Cara moved her fingers over the smooth unbroken surface of the puzzle.
How could it be smooth? An icy spectral hand reached out of the boundless space within the puzzle and stroked Caras fingers. She screamed. A desiccated hand clamped itself on her shoulder from behind. She was spun around and confronted by the horrific visage of a rotted corpse, wearing a malicious, cadaverous smile. A second more and she was lifted off her feet and shoved into the black, circular abyss on the tabletop. There was a sickening crunching sound followed by a viscous red fluid that began to slowly seep out from the circumference of the puzzle. The murderous phantom looked into The Hole and breathed a lingering sigh of relief.
For the first time in centuries, Baron Brumante felt the warmth of the fire wash over him. In time, his form grew more opaque. The gray of his rotted flesh began to fill out and look ever more human. A muffled scream emanated from within the surface of the puzzle. The Baron smiled as he watched the slowly decaying form of Cara futilely reaching toward him. As the newly restored noble observed with some pleasure the panicked girls struggles, he carefully dislodged a piece from the edge of the puzzle. Caras screams sounded as if she were trapped underwater. The darkness of her surroundings began to press in upon her. Bit by bit she helplessly watched as the small spot of light that led back to the world grew more distant. It became smaller and smaller until the blackness completely enveloped her.