The Census Taker

On the third encounter, I became suspicious of the census-taker.

The first time, I was on my way home from the newspaper. It’d been a long day. I’d been ignored, lied to, and called several names I’d rather not by various members of the public. I was tired, hungry, and dejected. He stopped me in the street, clipboard in hand, and asked me if I had the time to answer a couple of questions.

“Fuck off,” I told him levelly. He took it with the stoicism of a saint.

The second time, it was early morning. He caught me just as I was leaving the one-bedroom walk-up I can barely afford. Still, it was early in the day, and I was politely brusque with him. I answered his questions - what was my occupation, how long had I lived here, was I married - as tersely as possible. He nodded, thanked me in a quiet monotone, and kept on his way.

The third time was right after I’d navigated a lunch-time breakup with Sophie. Her place - a little two-story thing she shared with her parents, over near The Hollow - had been subjected to abnormally thick fog a couple too many times, and there was apparently drama over whether they would end up moving or not. I should explain that it wasn’t just worrying over damp and mildew that led to this drama. Round here, the fog has been known to completely coat a district, and carry it off into the unknown. Worse, it’ll start eating at your memories of the place too. I have no idea where I lived between the ages of eight and fourteen, and neither do any of my family, because it was in some district now shrouded in fog. We don’t even remember the name of the district. We had some photos of the place, for a time, but even they faded - first the details (names, faces), then the more general themes, until finally the colours pool into a blurry impressionistic mess. It’s one of the reasons the rent for my place is so exorbitant: Red Valley has stuck around for generations at this point, and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Which is why Sophie - all dark hair and soulful stares at the best of times - was so despondent. Which is why I felt doubly bad telling her we needed our own space. Which was why I felt perhaps a bit out of sorts, sitting there a bench overlooking the duck pond in Halfacre Park like a warning to future lovers, when the census-taker sat down next to me.

“Same as before,” I said, before he’d even got a chance to open his mouth. Up close, I noticed details I hadn’t spotted before. I’d built up a story about the census-taker in my head, based on our first two encounters: a down-on-his-luck advertising assistant, turfed out of his nice little property in some vanishing neighbourhood, forced to live on the street and count his pennies. With no marketable skills to fall back on, he was trying to compile some demographic notes on the population of Red Valley Road, hopeful that someone would find it worth money. But now I saw that the dirt in his clothes was more than a few months old, that the three-day stubble he sported was not there by choice. He looked old and tired.

He gave me a puzzled look. “Hello,” he said. “Would you be interested in answering a few questions in the name of greater knowledge.” And much like last time I’d seen him, he pitched the question flat, like he was reading from a script but hadn’t picked up the context.

“All the same answers as before,” I repeated.

The census-taker looked down at the book he clutched in his hand. I tried a smile, just in case. A moment of silence passed between us, which he took as assent. He pulled a battered pen from his pocket and assumed a writing pose.

“How long have you lived in town,” he asked, in his usual monotone.

“Twenty-five years? I remember playing around the waterfront as a kid, so it must have been at least that long.”

He scribbled something in his book. “And do you remember arriving in town.”

“No.”

More scribbling.

“Do you plan on leaving town anytime soon,”

I gave him a quizzical look. He hadn’t asked this question last time. And people tended not to leave town - at least, not generally on purpose. He returned my look dully.

“No,” I said.

He looked down, scribbled something more, and then looked up with a piercing glint in his eye. I suddenly wondered if I’d fallen into a trap of some sort. “What,” he said, “is your strongest, your most intense memory.”

I half-opened my mouth, ready to fire back some glib reply, but something about his tone, the timbre of his voice, gave me pause.

Involuntarily, I recalled a birthday party at my parents’ in Monument. Four or five friends from school, all of us clustered around some sort of board game, Catch the Hare or Tangul or something. The sun streaming in, that strangely diffuse way afternoon sun acts in Monument, strained as it is through the mist the lies over Breakwater Bay. The smell of freshly-baked cake.

I remembered looking up to see my mother gazing through the window, from the street. I don’t know if she’d been here and was leaving, or whether she’d just stopped by. For months, I’d been tuning out the interactions between my parents: the frantic whispered arguments after bedtime, the strangely formal breakfasts, even the not-so-subtle jabs my father would make as I helped out with him at the bakery.

That glimpse - her in her shirt and robes, like she was going to work right after this, framed by the peeling paint of the window frame, crowded out by my father’s selection of model ships - was the last I remembered of her. After that day, there wouldn’t be any more whispered arguments, or formal breakfasts, or subtle jabs. There was just me and my father and a sense of regret.

As I emerged from the memory, the census-taker finished up writing. I realised that - willing or not - I’d relayed the entire memory, as I lived it, to the census-taker, who’d been frantically transcribing the memory onto his paper. There was a glow in his eyes - of focus, perhaps desperation - that faded even as I watched.

I couldn’t think what to say.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” the census-taker said. “We will ensure that the information you have provided us is securely stored. This information will only be used for the purposes for which it is collects, and will not be disclosed to any third party.”

With that - his script finished, I guess - he stood to go.

I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Nonetheless, he turned to face me.

“Why?” I managed.

He made no response. Instead he turned and disappeared into the post-noon crowds.

Here is what I remember of the houses we lived in.

Until five years of age: a rickety two-storey affair around Lacklustre Bay. Downstairs, a kitchen, a laundry, a toilet, and a cramped lounge; upstairs, two bedrooms, one of which my mother converted into an office. I don’t know whether I was born there, or whether my parents merely moved there when I was very young. They never talked about life before this town. On her days off, my mother would take me by the coast road to Monument, where I remember running along the wide boulevards while she shopped.

From five until eight: one of a set of two-up, two-down flats in Monument, a converted manor house from a time when the district was more exclusive and less crowded. Counting backward, I’m forced to assume that the birthday I recall was my eighth. It was a last birthday in many ways - the last where I saw both my parents, the last in that house, and the last where it really felt like a birthday party.

Eight until fourteen: these memories are a blur. I remember some details - the play of late-afternoon shadows on a street, writing in a book, the sound of hoofbeats on a cobbled road. But then sometimes I wonder if I’ve made these details up to fill in the six-year blur of my early teenage years. I don’t remember my mother from these years, and I don’t know whether this is because she was absent, or because those memories too have gone. I believe that my parents split either when we left Monument, or soon after, and that this period was spent living with my father in low-rent flats on the edge of the mist. It explains more than any other theory.

Fourteen years eleven months until around eighteen: bursting out of the fog, detail emerges. I can count backwards from my fifteenth birthday to almost the exact day my father and I moved into a run-down two-room apartment above a pub in The Hollow. My mother was absent. By this stage, I was working: loading or unloading carts, hawking wares, whatever would pay rent. These days are now filled with a lightness for me, a feeling of renewed vigour and context. I remember late nights when revellers would keep us awake, watching a couple of men fight in the street below, and my father’s increasingly-long absences, into which grew a sense of adult responsibility. Until one day, I decided I’d had enough, and moved out.

From around eighteen to somewhere in my mid-twenties: a room in a boarding-house, the sound of Saturday morning chanting as the worship hall downstairs filled up. It was small and spartan, but it was mine and mine alone. I remember paying lip service to whichever sect ran the place, burning insence and saying prayers every morning, fitting in to take advantage of the low rent. But for the life of me, I cannot remember detail: the name of the district I lived in, the sect who owned the building, even the face of the cheery Dean who presided over us boys. I wonder sometimes if the mist only took part of this building, or whether it’s just a fault of my own patchy memory.

From my mid-twenties until now: a little two-room house in a shady cul-de-sac in Red Valley. It’s small, but it’s mine (or at least, mine on loan). And it won’t fade away and it won’t desert me even if it costs most of my pay. And here I plan on staying.

Even after he’d left, something about the census taker ate at me. And so I found myself leaving work two days later with a plan to stake out his haunt.

I’d prepared for this venture. The night before, our regular poker night at work, I’d casually mentioned the census-taker. Two others at the table knew who I was talking about. I’d gently steered the conversation, over several hands until, between us, we’d managed to hone in on his regular beat.

I found him that evening on Mercer’s Way, wandering the gentle slope of the terrace and soliciting with his book and his pen. His manner was unpredictable, inconsistent. He would accost passer-by after passer-by for ten minutes straight, before seemingly giving up and aimlessly wandering the street. Some victims he’d give up on almost immediately, some he’d follow down the road, cajoling them to fill in his form. Sometimes he’d walk right up to a group, gesturing for them to lean in like he was imparting a secret; other times, he’d yell at a lone individual across the street.

The sun had almost left the valley before the census taker gave up. But finally he called it a day, tucking his book away, thrusting his hands into his coat, and hunching his shoulders to keep the cold at bay. It was early autumn, but even now the temperature dropped in the valley once night fell. The census taker ducked down a side-road, shuffled along the row of houses and turned back onto Red Valley Road.

He made an easy mark to follow. He seemed to have no interest in the world beyond the three feet in front of him: eyes fixated on the cobbles, occasionally muttering to himself, he marched through the street oblivious to anyone else. The only thing that gave me pause was his pace. Sometimes he’d strike forward like he was running late, but the next minute he would dawdle along the side of the road, inspecting the gutter or kicking a stone into the drain. I made my best effort to appear inconspicuous behind him, stopping to gaze at shop windows or the rapidly-darkening view whenever he hesitated, but I felt like I could have been following ten feet away and he wouldn’t have noticed.

Our journey took us off of the main road, down one of the many side streets populated with well-to-do little homes of the sort I sometimes fantasise about being able to afford; from there, up a convoluted switchback clinging to the side of Red Hill. We paused by a small park nestled in a hairpin of the road - too small to build in, the surroundings too steep to level - and I thought I’d found his erstwhile home, but then, after a minute or two, he continued on. Our shadows stretched out in front of us as the census-taker led me up a set of steps wedged between a two-storey apartment block and the steep hillside, down a gravel path lined with wild growth, and then - finally - to his home.

The place was big enough that, at first, I thought we’d found yet another public park. Big rusted iron gates barred the way, although they stood just open enough that my quarry was able to slip between them. From there, a wide driveway split what looked like a wide lawn, running to large two-story brick house. It wasn’t quite big enough to call it a mansion, but it was definitely getting there. A looming wooden door puntuated the centre of the wall, while two tall windows framed it on either side, giving the place an expression of mild surprise. Everything about the census-taker – his dress, his manner, even his accent – made me expect his house to be a run-down shack or tiny apartment even smaller and more thread-bare than my own. As I examined the property, I immediately assumed he’d found an abandoned building to squat in. But something about the way he walked as he entered the property, the way his back straightened as he strode down the driveway, disabused me of that notion. This imposing building, nestled in amongst verdant greenery overlooking Red Valley, must be the census-taker’s home.

The census-taker walked up the pathway to the front door, halted, and rooted around in his pockets. I watched as he produced a large key, wrestled it into the front door, and unlocked it. He looked both ways before entering, closing the door behind him. I gave him half a minute before I followed his path up the drive.

On closer inspection, the grounds were unkempt and overgrown, clearly a dim shadow of their former splendour. The dying sunlight glanced off of classical statues that stood in clusters like a cocktail party frozen in time. In some cases, an arm or a head poked out from a ball of ivy, as one of the partygoers slowly drowned in greenery. I left the path to wander through their midst - in case the census-taker re-emerged, I figured I could take shelter in their ranks. But I reached the sun-bathed wall of the house without incident. Standing on the lip of a small fountain, I was able to peer through one of those front windows.

The sunlight streaming over my shoulder outlined the room beyond in a ciarascuro effect. The shadows were feebly lit by a couple of gas lamps, and as my eyes adjusted I saw that the room was one large, overstuffed library. As I took the room in, one of the lamps moved, and I realised it wasn’t affixed to the wall, but was held in the hand of the census-taker. Cautiously, I watched as he shuffled through the room and exited through an ornate door.

Later on, I hinged upon this as some sort of inflection point. I’d shadowed this man for half an hour or more, even trespassed on his property - but all that felt victimless. To follow him further involved breaking into his house, and that in contrast was an act of conscious and deliberate violation. I should have teetered on the precipice for valuable minutes, debating the morality of my action. It should have been a painful choice to follow him into his own home. And yet it took me seconds to decide. I jumped off the fountain, foraged around in the overgrown garden for a suitably-sized rock, and – quietly as possible – smashed the smallest and most delicate of the panes in the library window. I reached through, undid the latch, and gently slid up the sash. Mindful that my quarry was getting away, and that he knew the territory much better than I did, I slipped into the library.

The shelves reached up almost twice my height, and were filled with row upon row of books of varying size and thickness. Each one was a different colour, but each matched its neighbours almost exactly: viewed in aggregate, it resembled a giant spectrum laid end-to-end across the shelves. One patch would contain books bound in reds and browns like a forest in autumn, while another shelf would explore blues and greens, like the bottom of the ocean. Each of the books was titled on the spine, each title was carefully hand-written. As I crept down the stacks, I realised:

These were all the work of the census-taker.

HIs tireless surveys, those contstant questions – the books surrounding me must be the record of his activities. And if the size and depth of the shelves was any indication, he must have been at this task for at least a decade.

I emerged from the shelves and made my way to the door the census-taker had disappeared down. He’d left it ajar: I listened at it, and, hearing nothing, gently eased it open. I found myself in another room, almost identical to the first. Two details, however, distinguished it. First: while the previous room had been bordered on one side by dusty windows, this room was landlocked - lit only by a single gas lantern. Second: standing in the centre of the room, holding said lantern aloft, and facing away from me, was the census-taker.

I held my breath, praying that nothing would give me away. Up close, in this room, surrounded by his works, the man’s shabby appearance was somehow cast in a different light. He was no longer just a vagrant, a wandering beggar. His air of untidiness and frayed ends suggested less inattention than great age, like the clothes he wore had once been finery, but had been worn down by time. The bony arms sticking out of his robe looked less like flesh and bone, and more like the gnarled knot of a wind-scoured tree.

All was silent. Crouched in the doorway, I could hear the hiss of his lamp. He looked to the left, then to the right, surveying his empire. The book – the one with my records in it – was clutched in his hand. He stepped up to a shelf and deftly slotted it in place, right next to another ten identical volumes. Then he stepped back, and his gaze ranged over the shelves. I shrank back into the doorway, but he never even looked my way. In fact, his manner as he looked around the room suggested he was less looking for something than – somehow – the opposite.

Finally, he let out a breath and shuffled across the room to yet another door, closing it behind him and plunging the room into darkness. I waited - counted to ten - and then ever-so-slowly opened the door behind me. A stray beam or two, making their way from outside, illuminated the space, and I padded forward. I stood where the census-taker had stood moments before, and surveyed the shelf. I looked along it, left then right, mirroring his actions, and then I looked in the one place I’d seen him avoid.

Nestled down one of the many aisles, almost overshadowed by book-lined shelves, was a small door.

By the feeble evening light, I inspected this door that the census-taker had been avoiding so studiously: wooden, well-made, and locked. But my work as a reporter had given me the opportunity to learn a few tricks when a story wouldn’t come to me. I pulled out my key ring – making sure to muffle any jangling – and cycled through the usual register of keys until I found a set of picks I kept handy for cases just like this, I knelt down at the door and got to work.

With one ear out for the returning census-taker, I started at the lock. The light was terrible, the lock fiddly, and I kept on thinking I heard a noise and fumbling the picks, but eventually I felt the gentle snick of the mechanism as the lock gave. The door opened stiffly but quietly, to reveal a dark room beyond. Again, this room was completely windowless, lit only by the fading sunlight as it ventured through the building behind me. I ghosted through the door and stood just inside the room, letting my eyes adjust.

This new room was small and cramped, smelling of dust and ages. The dim sillhouettes of bookshelves flanked me, but my eye was drawn to the strongbox sitting in the middle of the room. As I placed my hand on top of it, I was struck by the feeling that this strongbox was the centre of not just of the census-taker’s estate on the hill, but maybe the whole town, or perhaps something even greater.

The door to the box was inset with a beefy-looking dial. I immediately hunkered down and started playing with it, one ear pressed against the side of the safe as I listened for the sound of tumblers aligning. I closed my eyes, and for a moment the world around me vanished. I remembered similar situations with my father, when he was home. Practising on busted safes and padlocks he’d found in trash piles or second-hand shops or goodness-knows-where, for reasons he’d never explicitly say except to tell me that “you never know when it might come in handy”. Lying awake at night, when he’d been absent for five days at a time, making up stories about him and his friends casing a joint, robbing some rich Spot Hill merchant-baron of their jewelry, celebrating in a bar much nicer than the one downstairs below our rooms.

The bolt in the strongbox withdrew at the same point that the room went dark. I opened my eyes, startled, to find the census-taker standing in the doorway, holding a barely-flickering oil lantern in one hand. His face was unreadable against the dying light. He let out a strangled cry and lurched towards me.

I duked left, dashed right, tried to get around him, but the room was too small. The two of us went crashing against the bookcase, the oil lantern flying from his hand. Books fell around us - one caught me in the head, and I was momentarily dazed. The census-taker grabbed me by the arms, clearly trying to pull me out of the room, but I was younger and stronger. I pushed off against the bookshelf behind me and surged towards the lock-box, pages of decades-gone surveys flying around us.

I wasn’t fast enough. The census-taker tackled me and the two of us toppled to the ground, scratching and biting and punching and clawing at each other, neither with energy spare to yell, both of us aware that out here there was no one to hear us. He landed on top of me, pinning my shoulders to the floor. I fought back, but he was possessed of a desperate strength, and I couldn’t wrest myself free. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the old man’s oil lantern. It was lying on its side, intact and still lit, not two feet away from me.

I didn’t stop to think. In one swift motion I grabbed it, twisted against the census-taker’s grasp, and brought the lamp up in a glancing blow to his head. He cried out as the glass smashed, and his grip loosened. I tore myself free of his hold, lunged towards the centre of the room, and wrenched open the strongbox.

Inside was a small picture-frame, and in that frame – blurry, hard to make out in the dim light – was a photograph of a young couple. Even in this dim light, it was obvious that the man in the photo was the census-taker: decades younger, more hopeful, but still the same person. The woman in the photo was unfamiliar to me, but as soon as I saw her, I felt a twisting in the pit of my stomach, like someone had just told me my grandmother had died. It felt like the moment between realisation and impact, like the gap between jumping off a bridge and hitting the water. Something in this world was out of joint.

There was a sacred moment of stillness. I lay on the floor of this room, staring at this photograph in a mix of shock and curiosity, and the census-taker lay behind me, nursing the vicious cut on his head. Even the dust seemed to stop moving, crucified in the errant sunlight.

And then the light died. The last beams of sunlight left the room, and as they did so, the census-taker caught sight of what I’d done. HIs face contorted into a rictus of pain. He reached out with one hand, no longer nursing his injury, and looked up at me, blood trickling down the left side of his head, his eyes full of sorrow and loss, asking me something I couldn’t quite grasp. I felt a strange wind around me, composed of something more subtle than the dust and air surrounding us, just failing to catch at my hair.

The oil of the broken lamp found the first of the books. There was a muffled whump as the bone-dry pages caught, and in the sudden light I watched as the photograph in my hands faded like a photographic plate developing in reverse. First the colours faded from the page, and then the outlines of the couple blurred and dissolved, disappearing into the paper. The census-taker rose up, and for a minute I thought he would continue the fight, but all he wanted was that now-faded photograph. He pulled the frame from the strongbox and cradled it in his arms. He was crying like a man destroyed, calling out a stream of syllables rendered unintelligible by his sobs.

My memory of the next few minutes is somewhat blurred. I remember dragging the census-taker out of the building as the fire spread from book-shelf to book-shelf. I remember unlocking the front door using the key I’d found in on his body. I remember collapsing on the lawn outside with him, as his home went up in flames. Most of all, I remember binding that scalp-wound I’d given him, covering him with my coat on the lawn, and then slinking off, consumed by the shame of what I’d done.

I heard, later, that a group of volunteers has started a bucket chain, ferrying water up the hill, trying to say his place, but it was a lost cause. Most of the people of Red Valley just watched it, a bright spark against the night sky, as every single record burned to a crisp.

It was a full week before the census-take reappeared on the streets. He continued to ask passers-by if they had a minute to ask some questions, and I watched as several victims were forced into providing him with details of their childhood. Every time, the census-taker would write down their answers faithfully into his book. Had he started another collection somewhere? Did he dispose of them at the end of the day? I never found out, and I always took great pains to make sure I wasn’t one of the people he interviewed.

Two days ago, fog claimed the ruins of the house of the census-taker. Already, my memories of these events are becoming fuzzy around the edges. I can’t remember the face of the woman in the photograph. I recall broad details about those gothic rooms that the census-taker stalked, but I can’t tell you the expressions on the faces of the statues in his garden.

I wonder if the old man’s cries that night were really so unintelligible as I remember, or whether those details have just faded. But I feel that the woman’s face has been blurry in my mind for far longer than those past few days, and that any meaning in the census-taker sobs, that last time I met him, were erased long ago.