Joyland

New York |

The Wenceslas Men

by Tobias Carroll

edited by Emily Schultz

The first time I saw one of them was as a shadow on the gauze curtains of an apartment that wasn’t mine.

My lease had expired months earlier, and the work that I’d adopted could be done from anywhere; my default mode was transitory, even when feelings of upheaval didn’t actively prompt panicked shudders in the night. And so here I was, alone in a cave of an apartment, watching it for friends whose lengthy honeymoon had evolved into a kind of rambling from nation to nation. I was considering my next move: I’d been living in the same city for six years, and the fact that I bore no affinity for it had left me convinced of my own relative impermanence there.

“Boise,” a friend had told me once. “We could buy a skyscraper in Boise for what we pay to live in New York. Why the hell don’t we buy a skyscraper in Boise?” And at times, it was tempting: that promise of splendor in another city; the allure of captaincy.

It was winter. Mid-January, to be specific; a time when dried pines still piled curbside. A few stragglers had left electric Santas and snowmen in their windows; down the block, lights remained hanging above one door that played a weather-warped medley of tunes that had once rung out through speakers in the living rooms of my youth. The apartment was on a quiet street that ran parallel to one of the borough’s more trafficked avenues. Life outside was quiet, but it was present; I never felt like I wasn’t in a city, but neither did I feel drowned out.

Mostly, I would sit in the living room and read and listen to the sounds of the building. I heard water idly rocketing through pipes, footsteps clattering up the stairs, and sometimes light hammering from another floor. The couch and chairs were near enough to the window to hear the occasional sound drifting up a floor from outside: late-night drinkers on their way home, or a lonely car vapor-trailing to its destination. This was a quiet street, where a dog’s bark could carry for blocks. When the glare of headlights did appear, they briefly stole across walls and floor and then were gone. My phone barely rang, and no pets called the apartment home. Before long, I had become well-suited to my own sounds.

At ten-thirty one Tuesday night, motion on a curtain caught my eye. I saw a form from the street outside pass across it; I blinked, and by then it had passed. It could have been anything, I told myself, and waited for the room’s balance to return.

*

Two nights later, I saw the first shape with some clarity. Perhaps it was closer to one of the streetlights; perhaps, because I knew to look for it, I was more sensitive to the shadings of light and dark. What I saw moved at a pedestrian’s pace; it went past the window at the edge of the living room and then its shadow and its outline were gone. I stood and stared and waited, a book hanging leaflike from my hand. What I had seen, that unlikely outline, was nothing inherently uncanny. A human shape and human motion and human proportions. I would have considered the form to have been that of a passing pedestrian, save that the apartment in which I stood was on the building’s second floor.

That night I rested on a chair far from any windows, and slept very little.

*

I spent most of the following day away from the apartment. I bought coffee and books and anything else I believed I might need for a string of late nights. I felt intrigued and paralyzed, dreading and coveting further knowledge of the walker that had passed by the window. By ten o’clock that night, I was sitting in a chair on the far side of the room. My hand shook before it even touched the night’s latest cup of coffee. I had stifled the room’s stereo and had silenced my phone. I sat and I watched, a sudden student of the way the outside light tricked across and through the curtains’ wavering fabric.

For most of the night, I had heard the occasional sound from outside: an owner calling for their pet, a car stereo’s leavings booming, then ebbing away into the distance. I told myself that if I saw a similar shape in the window, I would crack the curtains on the following night. I would seek a better glimpse of that which had cast its absence in my line of sight. That in itself would require another night for preparation. Specifically, I would need to seek some form of defense if that shape proved to be other than neutral; if it noticed me; if it was not simply some illusion caused by streetlights, reflection, and a mundane body in motion.

At ten thirty-three, I saw that telltale second-story walk.

At ten thirty-five, I saw it again. This second shape seemed faster than the first. Four minutes later came a third; after that, the night held no more.

*

I had once known a man obsessed with political puppetry. In the one instance where my mind sought an explanation for this that did not rely on the uncanny, I remembered him, long after he had left the city for parts north. It could be grandiose puppets, I thought. All of this could simply be puppeteers walking their charges home. The moment I finished the thought, I knew that it had to be wrong. It was the most logical explanation I could think of, and it was comically inaccurate. Whatever it was that moved past the window, it was not a tall caricature returning to storage from a protest or similar action.

*

On the first night that I left the curtains open, I sat in the same chair as before. Every light in the apartment had been extinguished, and I hoped that I was thoroughly cloaked in shadow. Still, beside me stood a broom with a sturdy handle, along with a long knife I’d pulled from one of my host’s kitchen drawers. The mood in which I stared at the play of light on the facade of the building opposite me was somewhere between meditation and a steadily sustained terror; a quality of fear arranged by Morton Feldman. From the street, nothing could be heard.

The only sounds audible in the room came from the watch on my wrist. A glance down at it told me that it was ten twenty-eight when the first of them crossed the window. It moved with a steady gait, and was clearly walking, clearly alive. I stared at it through the open curtains. Its head and chest looked human. A carefully cropped photograph would reveal nothing out of the ordinary; an anonymous man in anonymous clothing. But its arms hung longer than my height, and its impossible legs put its waist about even with the windowsill. My breath hung halted as I watched it pass. Yet something about its motion seemed wearied rather than fearsome. It trudged on, neck never turning. If it was aware of my watching, it gave no sign.

The others of its ilk that passed the window — there were five on that particular night — moved at different speeds. Some, like the first, seemed stagnant. Others used their legs to proceed briskly down the street, like something from a broken psychedelic cartoon. They were all thin; their eyes, from where I sat, looked emptied. I wondered what it would take for those faces to show emotion. I wondered what secret language they spoke, and I dreaded hearing it aloud.

I stared at the window for ten minutes after the last one passed. Ten minutes became fifteen, and fifteen became thirty. Finally, I felt sure that I would see no more of them come pacing past; that if I turned the lights back on and paced the apartment, I would not hear unearthly arms tapping at the window, I would not see an anonymous face with uncanny eyes stare in, its intentions unknown; would not hear glass shatter as anonymous fingers tapped through it and reached in, their faces betraying nothing. None would come this night, I told myself. I sat and listened to winter’s sprawling quiet.

*

In the days that followed, I chose to be away from the streetside room. I’d begun to think of the figures that passed as the Wenceslas Men. I needed something better to think of them as, and that was it. The Wenceslas Men passed like clockwork, it seemed. Once or twice I stood in the apartment’s hallway and, unable to help myself, looked towards the street and saw their shadows pass.

And then, after a few days, I returned to the living room, to sit in the blank and quiet night and watch them pass in darkness. And after a few more nights, I crept closer to the curtains. One night, having left them closed, I peeled one back as the last of them passed. I watched them proceed down the street in their own strange strides, walking steadily, not turning a corner, not entering some structure, not vanishing in mid-air.

It had been a week of clear nights. I still had no knowledge of whether rain would stop them or if I would simply see the same shapes walking drenched. Clear nights, I thought, though I had heard less and less from outside. The occasional barking dog had become hushed; the angered owners seemed more sedate. And so I had a routine: to sit and observe the silence, and wait for the Wenceslas Men.

*

After another week had passed, a glance at the date reminded me that it would soon be time for me to vacate the apartment. My time in this space was finite, and a decision would have to be made. And as I thought about this, I sat in the living room, curtains wide, and knew what my next step had to be.

The next night, I stood on the sidewalk, my back an inch from the building’s front wall. I stood as still as I could and waited to watch the march come down the street. The first of them emerged from the din of buildings and low-slung streetlights. He walked slowly towards where I stood huddled and wondering whether I would enter his regard, if he might turn towards me, reach out with inhuman arms, ready to unmake me or collide me with a building’s wall or toss me, broken, into a brownstone’s backyard.

I had left my broom handle on the other side of the front door, but I also understood that I would never be able to reach for it in time, should such an action occur.

The first Wenceslas Man drew closer. Steam rose from my mouth as I breathed in and out, and when I looked up at his face I was nearly certain that I saw steam coming from his mouth as well. He continued along, never breaking his stride, never gazing at any of his surroundings. He was impassive, unmoved by anything. And eventually he passed out of sight.

And then the rest of them came, some solitary and a handful in groups. Was this more, I wondered, than there had been before? Or was this the last glimmer of something larger: some forgotten cabal or community. Something vanishing, or something quietly being born?

I stood in darkness and watched the unseen passage of the Wenceslas Men. I wondered which of my neighbors had seen them, and I started to look at the buildings across the street, and to my right and my left. It was eleven o’clock; not early, but not horribly late for this neighborhood. And I began to consider the absences around me. The cars that no longer made their way down the street; the dogs that no longer barked; the residents who no longer shouted to silence those dogs. And I saw them: all lights in the apartment windows extinguished, stillness there, stillness in the lobbies and that vestibules. Cars parked on the street with frost unswept from windshields. I stood alone on that street and watched the Wenceslas Men go by.