“Ha! Ha! Ha! — ha! Ha! Ha! — Ho! Ho! Ho!” — roared our visitor, profoundly amused, “oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet! –-Monsieur G.~ (The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allan Poe)
C. Auguste Dupin, suddenly, at his home in the Faubourg St. Germain.
I was in Dijon when I read this, and my soul sickened at the words. The year was 186–, and I had not seen my old friend for- 15 years? 20? Had it been as long as that? And he’d been there, at the house in which we had once dwelt together (for surely he would not have bestirred himself sufficiently to move to another dwelling in the same district). The obituary blurred before me as I reflected that, but for my absorption in my own affairs, I could have gone there and seen him, and talked with him, in that old place which I had once loved so well.
I returned to Paris with all speed, determined not, at any rate, to fail to meet my old friend at our last possible appointment.
I arrived at the crumbling mansion the next morning. The door was unlocked, and the house was full of funerary flowers. They were wilting already, possibly due to Dupin’s abhorrence of daylight. As I wandered in sad reverie from room to room, seeking the mourners who must have brought the flowers, I saw that this hatred of sunlight had grown into an obsession. The fine windows had shutters without, and within they were boarded up, and a sticky tar introduced into the cracks.
I had almost believed I was alone when I heard the weeping of a woman coming from the library. I had, I now realized, been avoiding that room, for it had been Dupin’s favorite place, and grief had rendered me a coward. I cursed myself and entered.
There was the coffin, shining and polished, in the center of the room, and more lilies heaped about it. I stared at this memento mori, stunned anew by Death’s permanency.
“He was a great friend of monsieur’s?” A voice spoke from a dark corner. A woman, bent nearly double with age and frailty, approached me out of the shadows.
“He was indeed, madame,” I said. “And – you?”
“I was his grand—“ said the woman — and hesitated. “His grandmother,” she said, looking at her withered hands.
We exchanged commonplaces. Soon, however, she left me, saying that she must lie down, for a time, to recoup her strength for the funeral.
I was alone with the coffin of my dearest friend.
Suddenly, I greatly desired to look upon him once more. And the lid, I saw, had not yet been screwed down.
The word “suddenly” in an obituary is generally a cloak for ghastliness. It may mean accident, or murder, or suicide. As I heaved the coffin lid out of its niche and moved it aside, I was prepared for anything.
Or so I thought.
Monsieur G.–, Prefect of the Parisian Police, gazed up at me from the silk-lined interior of the coffin, his dead face wearing an expression of betrayed surprise.
I do not know how I got the lid back into position; I remember that my hands shook and that I scrabbled uselessly at the polished lid for a time, finding no purchase. When the lid slammed back into place, I thought the noise of it loud enough to wake the dead, and I feared that Dupin’s nameless relative would come to see what had happened. She did not do so; I met no one as I left the house.
I did not attend the funeral. I wandered the, as always, near-deserted streets of the Faubourg St. Germain, thinking furiously. I must have wandered for many hours. Eventually, I found a shabby tavern, and I stumbled in, more to be around other human creatures than for the sake of a drink, though I sorely need that as well, for I was shaking still, and not from the seeping vaporous cold that rose up from the ground as afternoon shaded into evening.
The landlord was a surly fellow, and I was in no mood for idle talk, so for a time I drank and he served in silence. He was roused to speech, however, by the sight of a hearse- the hearse- as it passed the grimy window.
“Monsieur knows perhaps who it is being buried today?” He asked. I said no. It seemed the wisest course.
“Ah,” said the landlord, shaking his head, “It is a bad story, I think. There were rumors about that one. The girls – you know –“ here he gave me a truly terrible leer – “they say that sometimes one goes off in his company – and they never return. Poof! They are gone. Feeling has been getting very bad here, monsieur, and there was even talk of a police investigation, though that seems to be done with. What do the police care about the likes of them?” His solemn complaisance irked me.
I was fairly sure that I could name one policeman, at any rate, who had cared. And he was shortly to be buried in Dupin’s grave.
Should I have made a fuss? Should I have stopped the burial somehow? All I can say is that I did not do so. I stayed on and drank deep. Night had fallen in earnest when I left the establishment.
I walked directly (I will not say straight) back to Dupin’s house.
The door was now locked. I found that my hand, when it felt resistance, had automatically tried a trick I had used when I had lived here — the lock was old and badly in need of repair, and if you lifted the door slightly, the lock would sometimes disengage. To my surprise, and with a stirring of sentiment, I found that this same trick had worked now.
I went inside, and straight to the library, for that was where Dupin would be. I flung the door open, fearing neither Devil nor Man.
At first, I thought the room was deserted. But then I saw eyes shining in the darkness from the depths of an armchair.
“My old friend, I welcome you to my home on this sad occasion!” He said. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that his fingers were stroking a petal of one of the lilies that were still filling the chamber. The lily was dead and withered; the petal he touched seemed to wither more with his every caress.
“Dupin –“ I said, and stopped. There was a word for it, a word that eluded me.
“Vampire,” Dupin suggested, mildly. “You have come here to tell me – what I am.”
“How?” I asked this automatically. Dupin had always had this trick of following one’s train of thought as if it were a thing one could board at a station.
Dupin shrugged; for a moment, his face displayed a boredom verging on despair. “A slightly more interesting question is, perhaps, why you have brought this word to me. Was it merely to lay it at my feet, like a good dog?”
“I—“ again, I stopped, for I did not know.
Dupin looked at me sadly. “You have brought this word to me so that you may die,” he said- and then he was upon me, so fast that I had no time for comprehension.
As to what happened in that dark room, my memories are vague and dream-like. There was movement in the dark, a great rushing all around, and a pounding—whether that of my heart or of some ill-fated visitor at the door, I do not know — we were not alone in the darkness, though of who or what joined us there I remain, perhaps blessedly, ignorant.
I must have lost consciousness. I woke up alone, lying on my back in the house’s tiny and neglected garden, the next morning.
I thought that Dupin had spared me, that our friendship had caused him to stay his hand.
God help me, I thought that the sunlight was painful to my head because of the drinking I had done the night before.
But Dupin hadn’t spared me.
I know that now.
I have lived a very long time. I have been many places, though as my condition worsens (and it is slow, agonizing slow, but it comes, it comes) I keep more and more to shade and darkness.
At first, I sought Dupin, though whether to beg him to cure me or to use my unnatural vigor to attempt to slay him, I never knew.
But Dupin had seemingly vanished from all the haunts of men.
I gave up. When I had run out of interesting things to do, I came to England. I became an Englishman.
And one day, there he was. He had worked a change upon his appearance, through what wicked sorcery I know not. He was now a little man, with huge mustaches, a head like an egg, and eyes that were as green as a cat’s. How I knew him I do not know; could it be that the intelligence that radiates from a man’s eyes is as individual and unique as that of his face, or of his fingerprints (this discovery, of the uniqueness of fingerprints, was one that I had long wished to talk over with Dupin)? But I knew him.
“Mon ami!” He said, spreading his arms to embrace me, “I am so happy that we meet again!” His eyes twinkled as he looked me over, out of the heavy scarves he wore on the excuse of being sensitive to drafts and to cold. “I have a new name, and a new nationality; I have for many years been a good Belgian. But if you call me a Frenchman, this will not cause comment. We are in England, after all, and the English do not attend the distinction. We must find a name for you as well, no?”
“I’ve been living under the name of Hastings. After the battle,” I said.
“That will do excellently,” said he.
Melanie Atherton Allen lives in Havertown, Pennsylvania with her cat (Anubis), her boyfriend (Alec), and about thirty goldfish (none of which have names). She has won multiple prizes at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference for her fiction. She is currently working on a mystery novel.
There’s blood flowing down the river, winding its way through the rocky banks of Kentucky wooded knobs and hills- like the satin ribbons he once braided into my windswept hair. The blood is staining silted dirt along the edges, rust of the life left behind- life left lingering there in the lines of my palms.
His voice singing- still singing! I can hear it in the crimson flush of slow moving water around my ankles. I made of my hands a chalice and drank the water that held his song, his blood, I drank it- as much as I could hold before my body began to tremor and shake violently. I wanted that song inside me, around me, interwoven into my own blood- my own veins! I wanted to hear that voice pulsating in my mind, my organs, till it blocked out even the sound of the damned crows that had followed me here- tormenting me with their ceaseless cawing. Yellow eyes in the trees watching, stalking my every bare footed step!
And oh how the blood flowed! Patterns of beauty in that river- lace and flowers, clouds of blood billowing out from his stilled body. Karminrot, the old word came to me. Yes, his blood was the color karminrot- no mere red would work here. Karminrot- spoken in the smoky German of his voice, tickling the delicate places of my inner ear. “Karminrot” the crows cawed to me. “Karminrot” the wind whispered in disapproval. “Karminrot” trickled the cold water. “Karminrot” sang his voice inside me, inside the river, inside the earth- everywhere “Karminrot!” And I wept! I wept! Screaming into the sky, screaming at those damned crows! I wept and I screamed and I wanted to vomit- expel the blood I’d swallowed in madness, expel it back into the river but nothing would come. It would stay there, corrupting my insides like a parasite. My knees gave out and I fell upon his prostrate body, that horrid blood still flowing.
I wept bitter tears and in delusion I tried to put the blood back in- Yes! Put it back in! But it only snaked through crazed fingers, seeking a home away from a body growing too cold. I laid my head upon his chest- listen! Listen! But there was no beating, no drumming to be heard. Oh, that sound! How it had been my most precious lullaby! Now stilled, silent, it would play for me no more.
I wept through the morning and into the warmth of noon. I wept until the blood no longer flowed from that beautiful body. The body I had memorized into my fingertips, into the curve of my tongue. I sang to him the night song he would sing to me laying beneath flannel sheets, legs and arms entwined while the candles burned low and mingled sweat dried upon our bare skin. I sang it into his chest, his beard, his dead lips.
Had he not loved me? Had he not held me? Had he not set aside the most sacred place in his heart for me? Oh yes, he had loved me. Loved me too much perhaps. Loved me too tightly. His soft music fingers at times had become iron cages, locking me away. Shielding me- had they shielded me? Had they kept me safe? Oh gods could it be true? That he had not locked me away but had only ever protected me? I didn’t know anymore. “Remember the roses.” I heard his voice speak- “Remember the roses. Karminrot roses.”
My eyes searched, scanned, devoured every detail of his face, but it hadn’t moved- still dead- but I swear to you I heard him speak! My mind was shattered, fractured, yes- but I say to you he spoke! The roses, yes, I remembered the roses. A bouquet of scarlet for every time I stood on that old wooden stage. Everyone came to watch. Seats filled with people who came from all across Kentucky to watch us standing there together. We had been quite the spectacle, he and I. Him with the same old guitar his own father had played, and me with the violin he had given me the first night I met him.
He’d only been “passing through” when we met. Stopped here for the night, carrying his guitar he was playing for tip money to buy his dinner. I fell in love with him immediately- sat at that dirty little bar beside him, enchanted with his stories and flashing eyes. When the night was wearing thin and our voices growing tired, he led me upstairs to the room he rented for the night and gave to me that violin. He never left our town after that night, nor me. He spent his afternoons teaching me to play and to sing, guarding me like a jealous dog. And I was a bewitched child in his arms. But no one would come to hear our music now. It was gone, gone, washed down the river with the scarlet ribbons of blood.
“Remember the roses.”
“I remember the roses, love.” I wept to his dead body. Every single bouquet was hanging, dried, on the walls of our tiny home.
“Karminrot,” he gasped.
“No more love! No more! The karminrot is gone, all gone!”
“It is gone my love! Gone into the river, I can’t get it back!”
I sighed into his chest- the dead know nothing. The crows still screamed at me from the trees, the water still wound around our bodies. They would never stop- those damned crows. They would never stop following me. I knew this like I knew the sun would rebelliously rise again tomorrow- not knowing that the world had stopped turning at 9:32 this morning. Those damned crows! “Karminrot,” he gasped.
Karminrot…I could see the word written on the side of the pigmented wax stick he had placed in front of me, that morning at the table. It had come in a tin of other colors, a trinket he had brought with him from over the ocean. Standing behind me he had whispered, “Karminrot. This color is for you, the color of life. You are my life.” Karminrot. He wrote for me then a song on a piece of paper- every line, every note, every word written with that red crayon.
The crows screeched from earth bound trees, leaves in the midst of change. The fresh green of summer fading into the flame of autumn- and oh how the thought of those leaves in their full crimson splendor made my stomach churn!
“Karminrot,” he gasped.
“I will make more, beloved,” I whispered.
He had been jealous, yes- but then, so had I. Held so tightly against him, and yet even the stranglehold he kept me grasped in could not keep away the hordes of admiring women come to flirt and ogle him at our shows. And how the girls did love him! And he loved the admiration, as much as they offered he would consume. I think it must have turned me bitter, all those women. But gods I loved him! I really did! I’d never wanted him dead- but jealousy…that beast. The rock had fallen from my hand before he had fallen from his feet. My beloved. Beloved.
“Karminrot,” he gasped.
“Yes darling,” I whispered to the corpse, reaching my hand into the pocket of his pants. My fingers found the cold metal of the pocket knife my father had given to him on the eve of our wedding. All these years and he still carried it. I slid it from his pocket, my head still on his cold chest, and pulled open the blade.
Kentucky always held such beauty in its forests and fields and hills and rivers. Home. Not home anymore. Home was with him and he was gone- washed down the river to the sound of the crows.
“Karminrot,” he gasped.
In one silk move I sliced open my tender throat, making sure to drag the blade all the way across before letting my hand drop. I settled my gaze on his dead lips as the blood flowed out of me, over him, into the river- sailing downstream like the satin ribbons he’d once braided into my windswept hair.
“Karminrot,” he gasped.
“Karminrot,” sang the crows.
“Karminrot,” whispered the trees.
“Karminrot,” sang the bloody river
Tia Kessler was born and raised in the bluegrass state of Kentucky. She has always called the Commonwealth home, and fully intends to always do so. Coming from a long line of poets, musicians, and coal mining mountain men, as her father says, “she gets it proper.” It is often a family joke that she was born already reading, and Tia had consumed most of the literary classics before she was in the 5th grade, choosing particular favorites out of Hemingway, Poe, and Shakespeare. She currently resides in south central Kentucky with her two children and the family cat, Sebastian, at their tiny cottage dubbed Raven Hill Haus. Visit Tia’s website at:http://tiakessler.weebly.com/ and follow onTwitter at: https://twitter.com/TiaKessler .
My daughter Alice and I, whilst on a holiday to Cumbria, formed an incongruous friendship with a fellow traveller named Virgil Kilgore, a former police homicide detective who by coincidence was staying at the same hotel. Virgil was a large, cigar-chewing, back-slapping type of character; a character that would not normally enter the sphere of our professional or private lives. Nevertheless, my daughter and I felt a soft spot for the lonely American, and we formed a peculiar fellowship during our short stay in Blackstow.
My passion, beyond leading as safe and undisturbed life as possible, is numismatics and it was to my joy that I found many of the shops of Blackstow devoted to antiques, curios, and most appealingly, coins. During our visit I ventured into the shops that specialised in coin collections—although the price of the more attractive coins was beyond my means – while my daughter showed great interest in the architecture and history of the buildings.
Such were the characters of our trio when one day we found ourselves together on a trip to Blackstow Castle. On arrival we joined forces with half-a-dozen other tourists and following our guide climbed the steps for our tour of the medieval castle. Having navigated about half of the perimeter walls, we left behind the fresh air and cawing of crows and plunged suddenly into the dim interior and lamp-lit vaulted halls and corridors in which were situated various showcases, suits of armour and other artefacts. I was particularly attracted to a display of ancient coins set within several glass-topped cases. An overweight, middle-aged man wearing thick spectacles and bearing upon his green jacket a name tag of “Gordon Poad—Curator of Antiquities”, was hovering nearby.
I was soon engaged in conversation with this expert, discussing the various individual coins. “As you can see,” said Poad, in a thin, lispy voice, “some are very rare and beautiful… not unlike your daughter.” He smiled at Alice, and she reluctantly nodded her acknowledgement. Our talk revolved around the subject in general, during which time, because of his polite enquiry, I informed him of my search for affordable specimens and where we were staying in Blackstow.
Unable to spend too long at this display, due to the schedule of the guide, we moved on. I was, however, quite relieved to be free of Poad’s presence, due to the obnoxious smell he exuded that was the combination of both body odour and halitosis.
The group continued the tour of halls before, about one hour later, commencing a labyrinthine visit to the catacombs and dungeons. Lanterns hung from brackets giving the place a distinctive medieval feel.
Virgil appeared slightly bored and suddenly grabbed my sleeve. ‘Look over here!’ he whispered, pointing to a heavily studded door in the shadows. ‘What do you say we take a peek, huh?’ I was naturally reluctant, but felt an unprecedented tingle that must have been the thrill of adventure. I glanced across at my daughter, who first shook her head, then wandered off with the group.
The door was closed but not locked. A small, stencilled sign stated, “Danger – No Entry”. Virgil opened the door, and we entered a small chamber, obviously not intended for the public view. Loose brickwork lay about the dusty floor and the walls were cracked and bowed. Virgil flicked a match and lit an oil lamp hanging next to the doorway.
In the far corner was another door, small and heavily studded, but our attention was drawn to the large trapdoor set in the middle of the floor. Virgil held the lamp up to a tarnished plaque bearing the title, “Deadman’s Drop”, and read aloud the following:
“Torture was a very common occurrence in dungeons in the 18th century. Often jailers did not need to torture or even execute prisoners, as the conditions in the prisons took care of that naturally. The prisoners rarely received quality food or water, and many starved to death.
The ‘Deadman’s Drop’ is a deep oubliette used to dispose of the corpses of those who died in the dungeons.
Legend has it that some monstrous creature evolved in the labyrinthine sewers, feeding on the corpses. The legend still holds that the monster – or its ghost – continually haunts the tunnels, eternally awaiting the next corpse.”
Virgil gave a chuckle at this last, but heaved open the trapdoor and holding the lamp aloft peered into the darkness below. I leaned over and was rewarded with the awful sight of slowly-moving effluent. It may have been the wavering light from the lantern reflecting on the slow eddies of rank water, but for a moment I imagined I saw something pale moving in the darkness. At that moment Gordon Poad appeared from the small doorway and Virgil dropped the trapdoor with a thud.
“What do you think you are doing?” Poad shouted; a look of anxiety upon his podgy face.
“Sorry, just curious, that’s all,” said Virgil, with a rather comical grin,
Poad went quickly to the entrance and tapped the notice affixed there. “This room is out of bounds… can’t you read? You must leave at once!”
We filed out past Poad, who stood sentinel-like at the door.
“How the hell does a rat like that get a job as a Curator?” the American asked rhetorically, as we walked away. “I don’t like the look of him at all.”
I silently agreed with Virgil’s sentiment.
The next day I resumed my coin-hunting foray in the old streets of Blackstow. Alice, wishing to avoid the heat of the day, decided to spend her time on the veranda of her room, reading a book concerning the history of the castle.
I examined all the shops, searching without success for rare but affordable coins, before, in the waning afternoon, finding myself back at the hotel. My daughter was not in our rooms. I went to the reception and enquired. The young girl on duty informed me that Alice had earlier left in the company of a man, but had no idea where they had gone.
I found this to be most exceptional; completely out of character with my daughter’s behaviour and even more peculiar considering that she had left no note. I knocked at the door of Virgil’s room, but there was no response.
I returned to our rooms to try to fathom the implications of this development. I wondered if Virgil was the person with whom Alice had left the hotel. I had no choice but to wait for Alice’s return. To my utter consternation, Alice had not returned by six o’clock that evening. I was about to venture out once more when there came a loud knock upon the door and in strode Virgil Kilgore.
“What the hell is going on, Arthur? I’ve been looking for you two all evening… where is Alice?”
“I was hoping you would answer those questions, Virgil. Alice has apparently gone off with a man.”
I then related the conversation I had had with the hotel receptionist.
Virgil asked; “Did the receptionist give a description of the man she left with?”
I admitted with embarrassment that she had not, and nor had I asked for one, assuming incorrectly, as it was now apparent, that the man had been Virgil.
Virgil suddenly picked up a piece of yellow card from the vanity dresser. “What’s this?” he asked.
I confessed I had not noticed the document; it was an information leaflet showing examples of rare coinage, printed by the Antiquities Department of Blackstow Castle.
“C’mon Arthur,” Virgil said, with enthusiasm. “If you want to find Alice, I think I know where to go!’
Without further explanation, he left the room and I followed his heavy footfalls down the stairs. We wove our way through the quiet streets to the Castle. Crossing the well-kept lawn outside the walls we made our way quickly to the gates.
“Where are we going, Virgil?” I asked.
The American glanced sideways at me. “I saw that weird Poad character gawping after Alice yesterday. Couple that with the leaflet in Alice’s room… I just put two and two together.”
The castle was closed at night, but Virgil, with the use of some arcane instrument taken from his pocket, soon had the gates open and we found themselves inside the walls of the ancient building. With mounting trepidation and our way lit by a small flashlight Virgil had produced; I followed the American carefully through the shadows to the chamber that contained the Deadman’s Drop. We entered cautiously and moved to the small door on the far side. Wasting no time trying to see if it was locked… Virgil smashed it open with his shoulder. My gaze fell immediately upon my daughter. Naked, the poor girl stood strapped upright by her wrists and ankles against the wall.
Opposite her stood Gordon Poad, his face a mask of fearful surprise. He was naked, and in one hand he held a knife. Virgil launched himself at the curator, punched him in the face and knocked him down. I rushed to my daughter’s aid; first freeing her from the restraints and then lowering her gently to the floor. I covered her with her dress, which was lying nearby.
“It was Poad!” she managed to cry, although her speech was slurred. “He drugged me!”
Virgil disarmed Poad and hoisted him roughly to his feet. He twisted one of Poad’s arms up between the shoulder blades.
“Get her outta here, Arthur!” Virgil cried.
Taking a lantern I escorted Alice from the horrible chamber, out of the labyrinth and up to the battlements, waiting to see what happened next. About fifteen minutes later Virgil arrived; he was alone.
“Where’s Poad?” I asked, trembling. “Surely he cannot get away with this!”
“Don’t you worry about him, he ain’t going anywhere for a while,” Virgil mumbled quietly. He took me to one side, out of the hearing of Alice.
“That pervert Poad had a regular rapist’s den down there,” he whispered out of the corner of his mouth. “There’s women’s underwear, handcuffs, butcher’s knives and a whole lot of other unsavoury stuff. I’m damned sure Alice ain’t the first girl that he’s lured there … girls who have disappeared without trace, I bet. C’mon, Arthur, let’s get out of here!”
With that, he ushered us from the castle and back to our hotel.
Alice, once recovered, explained to us what had occurred. “Poad came to the hotel this afternoon in search of me, offering to sell a very rare set of four 18th Century coins at a much reduced price.”
Virgil picked up the leaflet and waved it questioningly in the air.
Alice nodded in agreement. “I was easily persuaded, knowing my father’s personal finances were limited and he was having no luck finding anything affordable.” She paused and smiled at me before continuing, “I really wanted to surprise him with a gift, so I accompanied Poad to the castle. I was surprised to be led down into the catacombs. Poad explained the coins were not on display, but were kept in his private collection.”
She paused and closed her eyes. “As soon as I entered his dirty little room, he spun around and jabbed me with a needle. I remember little else until you burst in, Virgil.” She patted his hand.
“Will you both do something for me?” Virgil asked.
“Anything,” I replied.
“I want you both to completely forget about what happened tonight. Never mention Poad’s name to anyone… especially not the police. Is that clear?”
“But what about Poad…?” I began, but was silenced by Virgil’s raised hand.
“I’ve handled that side of things. Poad will never assault another woman again; I can assure you of that damned fact… but you two say nothing to anyone; deal?”
“Deal,” I agreed, shaking the big man’s hand.
“Now, please excuse me, it’s getting late. Good night.” Virgil said, and left the room.
He had departed by the following morning and we never saw Virgil again.
I was unable to settle. The situation may have been satisfactory to the big American, but it left me with a very uneasy feeling. Although I had a terrible inkling, I had to see for myself what had transpired in that chamber.
Having been assured by Alice that she was unharmed and leaving her with the comforts of room service, I hurried to the castle and once more joined a tour.
My heart was palpitating as the group approached the displays of coins, fearing that I might see the gloating figure of Poad at his station. In his place was a young man. He wore a green jacket with a badge proclaiming him to be “Richard Braintree, Castle Staff.”
I followed in the wake of the group, lagging further and further behind as we descended the stairs to the lower levels. The group was almost out of sight when I came within sight of the fearful door. Once the group had turned a bend in the passageway and the droning voice of the guide had faded to a murmur, I unhooked a lantern from the wall and discretely let myself into the chamber, closing the door behind me.
The light of the lantern wavered in my shaking hand, as I cautiously crossed the small room towards the little door on the far side. I had never been so nervous in my life. Just as I laid my hand on the latch, I heard from behind me a strange muted sound. Spinning around I held the lantern aloft, but could see nothing in the chamber. The noise continued, however, and I pinpointed it as coming from beneath the trapdoor. Summoning all my courage, I set the lantern upon the floor and using what little strength I had, as quietly as possible I hauled open the trapdoor until it was supported on its chains. The sound was now clearer; a disgusting, wet squelching noise drifted up towards me. Quaking with fear, I lifted the lantern and peered over the edge of the hole. Some ten feet below me on a cobbled ledge just above the level of the rancid water, I spied the lifeless body of Gordon Poad, as somehow I knew I would.
But another figure was bent over the corpse; the spine naked, curved and knobbly. Upon hearing my sharp intake of breath, its head lifted, a wrinkled pointed ear cocked to one side. My lantern shone into blind, milky white eyes; its mouth was open in a snarl, revealing long sharp fangs from which red blood dripped. In one clawed hand the creature held the dismembered and half-eaten arm of Gordon Poad. I screamed. The blind, glabrous beast hissed venomously at me, dropped the ravaged arm and splashed off into the darkness of the tunnels.
Slamming the trapdoor, I departed the castle as quickly as possible and returned to my hotel and the pleasurable company of my gentle daughter.
We departed Blackstow that very day… never to return.
I am British, living in Entebbe, Uganda, with my wife and two kids, and work as an independent security consultant and contractor throughout East Africa. I have been published in several magazines, including BBC Wildlife, Soldier magazine, Combat & Survival, SCUBA magazine, Church of England Newspaper, African Travel Review, Land Rover World, Your Dog, Travel News and Lifestyle (Kenya), What’s Happening in Dar (Tanzania), The Dar Guide (Tanzania), Daily Mail newspaper (UK), Twisted Dreams (USA) and others. I have four books published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing: ‘Beneath the Surface’; ‘Trips to the Dark Side’; ‘Worm’; and ‘Surviving your African Safaris.’
My Amazon Books Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/steveforeman
“Real hauntings have nothing to do with ghosts finally; they have to do with the menace of memory.” Ann Rice
It was the last Saturday night for us. There in the safety of Artie’s brown and beige bedroom we sat; knees banging low tables, shawls and jackets piled precariously on the bed, watching my nephew color the last bit of his picture to perfection.
“The trees are nice,” Tini said as a thin, pale smile crossed her pinched porcelain features.
Like so many of my weak and beautiful relatives, Tini’s descent into madness had started half a century ago, when she had been in her late teens. The terrible finite import of this night bothered her despite her mania, beyond a point she could even recognize.
“Hurry up, Artie,” cousin Seth said, through a cough. “Not much time you know.”
“Let the boy be Seth,” Ray scolded, his own tight-lipped smile playing across his broad face, as Seth looked up at him. “And you to Be,” Ray added to Beethen, who had just begun to open his thick, chapped lips.
“I’m almost done, just the barn to color,” Artie declared, not looking up as he deftly reached across the floor (and over Seth’s knee) for a brown crayon.
“A barn!” Tini exclaimed. “With horses?”
“Of course Te, of course,” Seth lightly chided, coughing twice this time.
“Uncle Fran…” Artie said, looking up and across the room to me, his liquid hazel eyes glowing under his bright yellow bangs. “…is it okay if I put your truck here?”
“Sure,” I said, as the boy quickly drew my Mercedes SUV into his picture. “But hurry Artie, there’s not that much time.”
Ray leveled me with his patented piercing stare, but with a quick turn of my head I had him follow my gaze out the window. He could see the pink of dusk sneaking its way across the horizon as well as I. When he managed to look back at me, there was only regret in his green speckled eyes.
“Real horses and a barn…” Tini said, lost in a frail remembrance none of us dared address. Her big green eyes were staring out the window as well, but I knew she had no idea of the hour.
“Tini we…” Seth tried as Beethen just placed a big arm around my crazy cousins’ shoulder. Tini hung her lithe frame into Beethen’s broad side, mumbling about horses through her daydream as Seth retreated.
“Done,” Artie suddenly announced, thankfully taking us from our elder cousin’s unfortunate display.
“Good,” Ray said, too calmly for my tastes. “Now, place it on the bed.”
I was glad Ray was here to be sure, but I silently damned him for his resolve. Thirty years ago that same quiet calmness had talked me out of the very deed my young nephew was now about to attempt. Ray had sat on the edge of my bed, his curly hair just as much a mop on his younger head, and had ‘helped’ me weigh the consequences of actions that would have forever taken me from him and the rest of my family. We had all taken our turn at the bait, Ray included, and all of us had been convinced by the others of the disadvantages of engaging the power and none of us had gone. Now we sat here convincing Artie the opposite, wishing like hell that we were in his place and had another chance at it.
“We could all hold onto hi…” Beethen whispered, taking his arm from around Tini and helping her to stand as we all did.
“No Be…” I began. “…it’s got to be him alone.”
Truth was; I really had no clue! Maybe it was possible to jump through with the person jumping. It had never been attempted, so who knew if it couldn’t work? And really, how bad could failure be? We would all have been in no worse a state then we were now. But there was a code here, an unspoken course of action to be followed; we had had our chance, we weren’t children any longer.
This was the boy’s time, Artie would go alone.
I placed my arm around Tini’s waist. She looked up at me and smiled, then at Beethen and smiled. She was now thankfully quiet in the dual support my cousin and I provided…and Beethen quieted by my added help.
“I can do it,” Artie proudly declared and placed the bright pastel picture against his fluffy blue pillow.
“Now, Artie, you know what you’re doing?” Ray asked; he was so calm, I wondered if it had been his son would he have…
“Yes, Artie,” I added. “This is for real. No coming back. This is not pretend.”
“I know everybody,” my nephew said, his tiny beautiful eyes to the ceiling, eyes that would never turn the limpid green all of ours were.
We had briefed the poor child to boredom: Fear is a wonderful teacher.
“We just want you to be sure…” Beethen began, but his words caught in his protruding Adam’s apple.
“…very sure,” I completed, not looking at him, or my nephew.
I loved this little kid as much as I would have had he been my own; he was my life and had been for the past six years. It had always seemed so cruel to me that the power had left most of the line sterile, but I now knew it was a blessing that only a handful of babies were born to our family. How many of us could have gone through this pain with our own sons and daughters? It made the cousins closer for sure, but I often wished I could have had one child and hid him or her away, forever, far from this house and its secrets.
I have no idea how my cousin and cousin-in-law would have raised Artie if that plane hadn’t crashed: if Rachel and Dane would have taken him away from the affluence and quiet tragedy of this family; if they would have forbade him to ever seek us out; if they would have tried to run to the far corners of the globe to avoid the power that resided here in this mansion, and there in Artie’s blood. I had heard of relatives running: a gray-haired aunt spiriting away in the night; cousins joined in secret marriage attempting a non-ostracized life; it was even rumored that my grandmother had tried to flee a few times. But everyone always came back to the largess of the plantation and the current of the pulsing power they, and we all, shared.
In Arties’s case, we all simply did our best in an impossible situation, as we had with the impossible situation of our birthright. When the time had come to tell my nephew, to quell his suppositions of the family powers, he digested the information as he had Dr. Suess and Shakespeare. Of course, I had kept half of truth from him and even now couldn’t tell him. He could never have lived with the knowledge that once he was gone, that now that there was no one young enough to use the power (or the power to use), and no one else but this group of sterile cousins left of the lineage, the power would cease to be…as would the family.
“I’m going,” Artie blurted and in a flash (and there actually was a flash) he interlocked his little fingers and thrust his joined fists through the picture, falling forward into away.
A second he was sitting between us, the next it was just my cousins and I surrounding the colorful picture with the fat cows, the bright red tractor and my new truck. No hug, no good-bye, no…
It was better this way.
It was better this way.
“Well,” Ray said and took Tini from me, heading out of the room.
“I’ll put this with the others,” Beethen said, swallowing hard. He lifted Artie’s picture gently in one large hand.
Artie was someplace in the high grasses now, sitting on the green picket fence or splashing in the stream that I could see just peeking out from behind the little chicken coop. We couldn’t see him though, our eyes had long ago lost that ability. This picture would hang right next to great-uncle Paul’s underwater fantasy house of glass and steel and over Ruth Ann’s big green and white house on the mountain. I knew more about Ruth Ann and Paul by those pictures then by the portraits of those stern children that leered at me in the family gallery.
“You’re gonna need a ride,” Seth said.
“Guess I am,” I agreed, walking with him to the door. “The question is, where do we go?”
“Maybe go get a good bottle of scotch,” he said and flipped the light switch to off as I shut the door.
In the distance I could hear the sound of thunder and smell the ozone in the air. The outer-banks country would experience the most fantastic storm of its damp dark life this night, as a violent electrical storm rippled across the vast tree-lined acreage of my great family estate. This wonderful brick house would burn to the ground tonight-impossible yet true-taking the last heirs to the great family fortune with it. Even with the power, I had never yet been able to see the future…save for this night!
There is a price to be paid for great power. I sometimes wondered if my great great grandfather ever considered that price or if he simply took his mulatto mistress’ hand as she led him into this hell. Had that lady such a spell over the man, or had my great great grandfather been too guided by his lusts for the little black slave to have ever worried about the legacy he would leave behind?
Maybe the temptation was too much for the old guy, the promise of abundant, ripe youth in body and ownings; your property anew and stronger each season, cotton as full and thick each turn; no sickness coming to you and yours, smiles and robust hearty youthful laughs forever. Of course the old man had been too old at that point to try the most dangerous aspect of that perverted ‘Fountain Of Youth’, to be able to step into a picture and stay a child for the rest of one’s days, (was it eternity?…no one knew since no one ever came back from their pictures to report).
But now, with no one left to cajole, trap or entice, the power would consume itself and its users with it. There was no place for us to go…Seth was right, let’s get rip-roaring drunk! The power lived within us all, it would coil and blister, feeding like cancer inside us, even if we ran as far as Paris, or Africa.
There really is no weakness in acquiescence, I mused.
As I walked down the carpeted steps to our driveway, I silently hoped Artie would never tire of horses.
This story was first published in Innsmouth FreePress 2009.
Baby Rhyme Time.
Youngsters Enjoy Initiation at Innsmouth Public Library.
Thirty babies and toddlers, ranging from the age of two weeks (well done, Mrs Beatrice Draggers) to two years, attended the first Baby Rhyme Time at the Innsmouth Public Library this week.
Miss Marberly Phillipson, Head of Juvenile Development Services, said, “I am delighted to see so many little ones here today. One simply cannot introduce a child early enough to the magic of the written word.”
The youngsters enjoyed some traditional rhythms and were introduced to a few songs that are unique to our own Innsmouth region.
“It is amazing what children of this age can understand.” continued Miss Phillipson.“Some of the youngsters appeared to have an almost instinctive grasp of our traditional songs.”
The youngsters enjoyed several stories read by Miss Phillipson including That’s Not My Dhole and the perennial picture-book favourite The Very, Very Sleepy Octopus. As a special treat Miss Phillipson had adapted some of the Innsmouth’s most treasured books to suit the tastes of the children.
“We have a wonderful heritage here in Innsmouth,” continued Miss Phillipson. “It is our duty to pass it on to the little ones. I have adapted some of our special books to suit a child’s understanding. But it is important to retain the integrity of the original. I believe it is a mistake, a serious mistake, to allow the message of our texts to be weakened. Children, especially the children of Innsmouth understand more than many outsiders might imagine. Children love books, and while I’m not advocating we allow youngsters direct access to our esoteric sections, I believe that the messages we instil at an early age will a lasting effect on our future – on all our futures.”
Mrs Alison Transents, mother of Archibald (age 18 months) couldn’t agree more, “When Miss Phillipson brought out her special story book, I had to hold little Archie back. It’s as if he recognized some of the characters in the story. He particularly enjoyed the illustrations.”
Miss Phillipson is a strong advocate of early learning. “It is my aim to get every child into the public library. I was amazed when I saw some of the children, who could barely speak, grasping the harmonics of some of our more complex chants. With simple repetition and constant reinforcement in the home, there is no doubt that these children will be adept in our traditions by school age.”
Perhaps surprising, one of the most popular songs was spoken in a traditional language. Some parents may find some the following extract challenging!
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.’
Miss Phillipson, who is something of an adept herself in these matters, will be glad to assist parents in mastering the correct pronunciation of this rhyme (interested readers may like to attend Miss Phillipson’s Manuscript Sessions – An Easy and Fun Introduction to the Ancient held every on alternate Thursday evenings at the library).
“Of course, parents might prefer my English translation,” laughed Miss Phillipson. “It is not a literal translation, but I believe it captures the essence of the original.”
Miss Phillipson has kindly allowed us to reproduce her translation for use in the home environment.Peek-a-boo, Ancient One Great Old One of the sea. In R’yleh Deep and silent. Awaken me. Awaken me. Awaken me. Hiding still. Peek-a-boo! You see me. You see me. You see me.
Mr Barnabas Wright, Director of Innsmouth’s Leisure Services, attended the first Baby Rhyme Time. He fully supports the library’s initiative, “I believe we are reviving some of Innsmouth’s most ancient traditions. These fragments of text have been passed down to us through the ages. It is gratifying to think of countless generations of mothers singing these same words to their children. These chants have a timeless appeal. That is why they have survived – and will always live on.”
Mrs Vernonic Nahastra mother of Mirabelle (8 months) certainly agrees, “I would never have thought to bring Mirabelle to the library at such an early age. But you should have seen her little face light up when she heard the rhymes. It was almost as if she understood every word. I shall be definitely including Miss Phillipson’s chants in our bedtime routine.”
“We have some very exceptional history here at Innsmouth,” commented Miss Phillipson. “Knowledge can be instilled in even the youngest child. It is my duty and my privilege to pass on our special legacy to these innocents.”
And to judge by the cries of delight when Miss Phillipson led the special chanting, I think the youngsters of Innsmouth are very pleased about that!
Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two young children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog: http://deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.com/ Her stories have appeared in Nature’s Futures, Cosmos and Daily Science Fiction and The Year’s Best SF 18.
Little Windows was first published in Trembles e-zine in the Nov./Dec. issue.
St. Paul’s Hospital, January 2, 1985
It was because of my Pa that I kept going back to the queer little churchyard and those gravestones. He’d always hated me. I killed my mother, he said. And I was born two days after the century started. Too late for the New Year’s Baby prizes and gifts. A fool from the day I was born. According to him.
Give me a moment, Father. Let me catch my breath. While I still have it.
I told him about the way in, where the iron fence met the wall. Fallen stones, rusted iron. He slapped me hard, told me to stay away. So I went again, and again. To spite him. Because he wouldn’t follow me there. No one would. Except her.
Not yet, Father. Bless me later. After I’ve asked for forgiveness. If you can.
There’s wasn’t much there. The burned church’s foundations. A long stretch of lawn grown up in bramble and young trees. And the windowed stones at the top of the hill. I always went to them first.
I can see them, now, in my mind. Lined up in three rows. The first of ten. Then another row of ten. And finally a row of eight. The last two spaces were left. Clear and ready. Nothing like your cemetery, Father. You can see who died rich over there. But these stones were all the same. Squared like chimneys. Each made from a single block of smooth, black stone.
Looked like Japanese lanterns. Like I saw in the war. Some of them had windows too. But on all the sides. These were only on one side. And had old-fashioned bulls-eye glass.
You could see the stones were hollow inside. And the glass let you look in. Or out.
She said it was for the Resurrection. But that’s coming from the East. Isn’t it, Father? These stones didn’t face East. Those little windows looked West. As if they were turning their backs on the Lord. I told her that. But she didn’t listen. Not to me.
She was the Doctor’s daughter. As close to royalty as you could get. I was nothing. Living in mudtown. Looking at a mud life as a hired hand.
She followed me there. On a day when I was bruised and hurting. She’d been trying to get in for a long time, she said. She smiled at me. I showed her the way.
Her teeth were so white. I can still remember that. I suppose she wasn’t very pretty. A thin face and quick movements. Like a fox when its spotted near the hen house. I can still remember those long fingers.
They stroked my cheek. She called me clever.
No Father, that ain’t my sin. I could take that to the grave.
Give me a moment, Father. Breathing ain’t easy now.
She told me to meet her again. There by the stones. On Sunday after service.
She brought something with her. They were old newspapers. Yellow and stiff. They had pictures that showed the hill. Showed the church newly burned. The blackened timbers and window frames. All gone by then.
She showed me other pictures. Older, showed the church standing. I couldn’t read, so she smiled and read the newspaper stories to me. There was a man named Kershoff. Run out of Russia. He came here to build that church. Some of his followers came with him. Others he found here.
Showed me a lean, bearded man. Bible in his hands. Rosary around his neck. Not from a newspaper. Set in a small, silver frame.
No, Father. I don’t know what religion he was. He and his kept separate from the town. Nobody knew what they did. Until the fire.
They found things up there, Father. All of men and women burned up. And other things that weren’t right. The old folks said so. Kershoff left instructions on how they should bury them. Those stones were set out, ready.
She was looking for something. Searching the stones. But there weren’t any marks on them. Just those little windows. She fussed over them, and then got mad. So mad, she kicked one.
I told her to stop. Those stones went down deep. Anyone could see that. I didn’t like to think. About what they were resting on. She got mad at me then. Told me to go to Hell. I’d never heard a girl say that before.
She told me I wasn’t nothing but a mud boy. Said she was too good. To hang around with the likes of me.
I knew she was right.
But she made up right away. She was after something. Something she needed me for. I didn’t mind. There wasn’t nothing I wouldn’t do for her. I can still see her smile. Her eyes flashing.
Sorry, Father. This ain’t easy.
She made me promise to come again. The next Sunday. And to bring a shovel.
I guess she was looking for something. Treasure maybe. Or something dearer. The man in the photograph. He had the same light, fierce eyes. The same long, narrow face. Like her. I wondered if the Doctor knew. If he knew about that picture.
I couldn’t sleep for thinking of it. Even in this dying body, I feel like I’m fifteen again. Lying in my cot. Looking out at the dawn sky. On a Sunday morning. My Pa never heard me leave.
She got there first. Watched me come up the hill. Shovel on my shoulder. The morning light was behind the hill. She stood in a kind of glow. I would have died. If she asked me to.
Maybe you can’t understand that, Father. I know. A sin of the flesh. Well, Father. What ain’t?
I dug all day. Where she told me. In the first grave of the first row of ten. There was no difference I could see. She stood over me. Staring down into that hole. It took hours, Father. That ground gave up its dirt hard.
The base of that stone kept going deeper. It felt like that stone pulled me down. Like it had a hold of me. I can’t say why. But it felt like that. Like I’d never get out of that hole again.
It was near sunset. I touched the coffin with my spade. I’d never been there so late. For fear of my Pa’s temper. But I would have taken any beating for her, Father.
I scraped a patch clear. I tapped it with my knuckles. Rang like iron. And it was hot. I laid my hand on it. Snatched it back. That plate was like a manhole cover over Hell, Father.
I told her. And she jumped down, crowding me. She grabbed the shovel to clear more. Her hand brushed mine. I was panting and sweating. Empty. Like I’d dug down into myself. Dug a grave inside myself. And now I just wanted to crawl out.
I thought she was my way out.
I kissed her. God knows if I found her mouth. Or just her cheek. She shrieked and swore. She took the shovel to me. Look. That’s how I got this scar. Here on my head.
What she said to me, I won’t repeat. Not to you, Father. Nor to God. But I guess it filled up the hole inside me.
I put my hands around her throat. There in that grave. I killed her. Bless me Father. For I have sinned.
I came out of that pit. The sun was coming down. I crawled backwards. Out of the rows. Ten, ten, and eight. And then the light hit those little windows.
They took fire in that sunset. Orange and red, dancing. They dazzled me. I rubbed my eyes. The lights danced again. Getting redder still. Then they jumped out of the windows. Like tongues of fire. I crouched there. Stuck to the ground. They floated above the stones. In three rows. Ten, ten, and eight. Till the sky lost its light.
Then they sunk down. Into the open grave. Onto her.
I ran. Ran back home. Can’t even remember if my Pa beat me. The whole town turned out. Searched for her. We looked for a week. The Doctor offered a reward. She was never found.
My Pa never said anything. Not about my cut head. Or coming back so late. On the day she went missing. I think he was glad. Saw his opinions of me proved right. When things calmed down. Said he needed his shovel. If I knew what was good for me. I’d go fetch it.
The way he looked at me. Told me he knew.
I went back at noon. There was no shovel. Nothing to show we’d been there. The grave was closed. The dirt was packed. Like it’d never been dug up. There was no body. I’d feared finding that. More than I ever feared anything again. Till now. There was nothing. Just the graves. And the stones. And the little windows. Looking in and out.
Everything the same. Almost.
I ran away that day. Ran to the army under a new name. That was easier to do. Back then. You might think I ran. Because of Pa. That he might tell on me. For the Doctor’s money. But that wasn’t why.
I was still trying to claw my way. Out of that grave. I’d dug too deep. I’d left myself there. The army didn’t care. Nobody cares what’s inside a uniform. As long as it turns left or right. When it’s told.
It’s time, Father. Forgive me. If you can. I’ll say the words. And mean them. Her face is the one I see. When I wake up. When I go to sleep. Seventy years of that. I don’t want to take her into the dark.
Even if you can’t. Forgive me Father. Promise me. Burn my body. Hide the ashes. I don’t know how far. That fire can reach. I don’t want. That stone’s weight on me. The red light coming down. Through the little window. God, I don’t want. To burn. In the ground.
It’s waiting. For me. You go there. Father. You’ll see. What I saw. When I ran. A row of ten. A row of ten. And a row of nine.
He watched the people crowd St. Mark’s Square—the locals, the wandering musicians, and the tourists. He knew them all, had observed them for over three centuries. Seldom did any of them take the time to notice him, though, perched on the highest pinnacle, teetering at the very edge of the red-tiled roof of the cathedral.
His curiosity intense, he often contemplated what would happen if he could release his angel-like wings mounted at his stoned sides? What if he were to come burrowing from his mount, with his sharp horned head? What if his boned claws at the ends of his thin arms were to. . . ?
Only a dream over the years as he basked in the sun-drenched skies or felt the needled pinpricks of rain pierce his naked body.
When Father Mario ordered the cleaning and polishing of the copper dome of the cathedral, a man by the name of Giopillato took notice of the ornate sculptures, the intricate paintings, and, of course, the artistry of the numerous gargoyles atop the roof. An amateur photographer, he pulled his camera out of his back pocket. He angled his lens to get side views, back views, snapping shots of each of the gargoyles. Then, he got out his chisel and got to work scraping and picking the grime from the gargoyle at the very peak of the cathedral.
That’s when the horn-headed gargoyle heard a chipping from near his base. He felt a slight breeze on his back, a warm breath on his neck, a pair of large, sweaty palms shove hard on his shoulders. His carved wings released from his sides, the point of his horn plummeted downward. The crowds in the square pointed upward at him, screaming. The locals deserted their lunches on the wrought-iron tables and ran for cover. The wandering musicians threw their clarinets, piccolos, and violins onto the sidewalk, sounds of banging and crashing like an orchestra tuning up for a performance. The tourists dropped their parcels of souvenirs, in their haste to seek shelter.
And there at the base of the Doric column in the square, a shadow cast, much like that of an eagle but with a much wider wing spin. A small boy ran out from one of the shops to the gargoyle’s side. He picked up the broken granite horn and attempted to restore it to the top of the gargoyle’s head. The young child let some of the coral sand sift through his fingers onto the monster’s cracked wing. The boy shielded his eyes from the sun and peered upward at the pinnacle of the cathedral. “Look Mommy.”
The boy’s mother came out from hiding and stood in the shadow with her son. She, too, looked toward the cathedral’s roof. “Come along, son. One of those ugly monsters up there,” she said, as she pointed to the other gargoyles, “must have fallen. I can see part of its tail. Good thing no one was crushed by its weight. God forbid.”
“But Mom, listen. . . .”
“Come along now, I said. Don’t be foolish.” She shoved her son across the square.
There in the blackened shadows next to the gargoyle’s elf-eared head, a scratchy voice came from its opened mouth. “Sometimes things are better left as they are,” it said, as a trickle of blood ran unnoticed across St. Mark’s Square.
Delphine expresses her love of writing in the words of John Steinbeck, “I nearly always write just as I nearly always breathe.” Delphine has had numerous short stories published, several in anthologies. Her latest can be found in the anthology Ugly Babies 2. When not writing, she teaches English. More info can be found on her website: delphineboswell.com.
Previously this story appeared in ‘Tales of the Undead – Suffer Eternal 3′
The heavy lump smashed into her skull, ripping through her face and taking out each eye, as the once miniscule nose shattered.
Frances Boatman’s knees buckled. She dropped her cup; it fell to the floor and shattered in a splash of liquid. Frances crumpled to the ground, her elbow striking the floor and smashing into the broken shards of the mug. They slashed into her breasts and the right side of her face, as blood oozed from the cuts.
She lay there, on her side, motionless, curled up in a ghoulish mockery.
For the briefest of moments, she regained consciousness. It might have been a split second after the torment’s demise, or three hours later, she could not say, couldn’t think. But she saw it; there was no doubt about that. She saw the feet, the two ravaged, dirty blood-soaked feet, not two feet from her face – demons feet. But then her pain and her injury closed over her again, and she knew no more.
As the monster awoke it was in a place unknown to it – a new world – its eyes switched on to glow a deep penetrating emerald green as it looked about its surroundings, having no memory, no understanding to guide it. It knew nothing.
It looked down at itself and saw it was tall, its body ugly, mutated and deformed, disjointed, macabre with more than twelve deformities and sprayed with blood. Its right arm was half-raised. It was holding it out straight in front of itself, its fist clenched, and as it flexed its elbow, it opened its fist, and stared at its hand for a moment. It lowered its arm. It moved its head from side to side, seeing, hearing, and thinking, with no recognition of experience to guide it along.
It looked down to the floor and saw a body lying on its side there – a bloody, putrid mess – its head near its feet. The crumpled form of a young woman, a pool of blood growing around her head and the upper part of her body; and it recognised the concepts of woman, young, beautiful, the answers flitting into its awareness almost before it could form the questions. Yes, the sweet, coppery tastes of blood. A taste like, in its fluidity, soaked its mind, the taste of a human, it was almost holy, and already it craved more.
Some answers, it seemed, wouldn’t be given. Its brain could not – or would not – help it with those questions. Woman? Young? Blood? All these questions were unanswerable. It knelt down, peered at the woman more closely, and then dipped a finger in the pool of blood. This revealed it was rapidly cooling, coagulating. The principle of blood clotting snapped into its mind. ‘It should be sticky,’ it muttered, and tested the notion, pressing its forefinger to its thumb and then pulling them apart. ‘Yes,’ it said, adding, ‘a slight resistance.’
A dead human…
A strange sensation stole over the Undead one, as it knew there was some reaction, some intense, deep-rooted response that it should have – some response that was not there at all.
The blood was pouring around its feet now as it rose its full 6 feet height again, and the zombie found that it did not desire to stand in a pool of blood but instead wished to leave this place for more pleasant surroundings. It stepped clear of the blood and saw an open doorway at the far end of the room. It had no goal, no purpose, no understanding, no memory. One direction was as good as another. Once it started moving, there was no reason to stop.
It departed this, this Irish pub, wholly unaware that it was leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind. It went through the doorway and kept going, out of the bar-room, out of the building, out into the city. Hunger starved its very soul.
They endured loneliness admirably, these former human beings, but they came and went, and to some blood was nourishment, incense, the greatest pleasure, whereas to some it was no more than poison.
While another day at Downing Street, Sinclair Rothchild lifted his left hand, tilted his index finger just so, and his manservant pulled back his chair with perfect timing, getting it out from behind him just as Sinclair was getting up, so that the chair never came into contact with his body as it rose.
In this house, there was quite a fashion for using detailed hand signals to command butlers, and the PM was a skilled practitioner of the art.
Sinclair turned and walked away from the breakfast table, towards the door to the main gallery, George Besson, the butler in charge of the Boss’s every whim and fancy, hard on his heels. The door swung open as he arrived at it.
The man on the other side of the door had no other job in the world but to open it. Besson marked out his existence by standing there, watching for anyone who might approach from his side of the door, and listening for footsteps inside the room.
But Sinclair Rothchild had no time to think about how menial folk spent their days. He was a busy man.
Sinclair was a small, rotund man with a round sallow face and hard gimlet eyes of indeterminate colour. His hair was glossy white, and just barely longs enough to lie flat. He was heavy-set, there was no doubt about that, but yet there was nothing soft about him. He was a hard, determined man dressed in a rather severe military-style black suit and blue silken tie. His gait said it all, one powerful and power-hungry hombre, he had a mean streak.
Sinclair smiled to himself. That was getting to be a bad habit – thinking in speeches – he thought, as he crossed to the far side of the gallery, towards the office, as another aide – more like a robot – swung the door open as he approached. He entered the room, quite unaware of Besson moving ahead of him to pull out his chair from his desk for him.
Besson smiled too.
But he did not sit down.
Instead, he made a subtle gesture with his right hand and Besson was at his side immediately, and in less than two seconds there was a sherry available.
‘I expected brandy,’ said the Boss. He suddenly noticed a green, glowy tinge in his butler’s eyes.
Sinclair would see no more. He was a dead man…or rather, undead.
It walked into the night, and it burned with curiosity. Now, it was a great distance from its starting point, now in a quiet residential area of the city with the streets all but completely deserted at this dark hour. The homes were large and widely scattered, like nothing it had ever seen, or ever planned to see, with great lawns, some of them getting a bit dry, scruffy, and thin looking, that separated the houses. In this part of town, it seemed there was little traffic to speak of, and judging from the absence of a road wide enough for large vehicles, travel to and fro by car or foot might be rare.
But a dying lawn was no less wondrous than a live one to it. The entire world was new to it, and everything it saw was a fresh and vibrant wonder. Stars. It saw the bright pinpoints of light in the sky and wondered what they were. It noticed a few bits of litter blown against a fence and wondered how such a strange combination of objects had come to be there.
‘EARTHQUAKE OPENS DOORS TO HELL – WORLD UNDER SEIGE.’
This meant nothing to it, nothing at all.
Everything now was just oh so peculiar. Perhaps understanding would emerge in the future, or maybe not, not ever, never. The newspaper said it all.
It was content for some time to wander the city and passively absorb all around whatever the mind saw fit to tell it about what it saw.
It spotted something. ‘Telephone Kiosk’ it said, and briefly, just briefly, a smile bore function to its worn, bedraggled face. A toothless smile, crooked and vile – the kind you would see on the face of someone you loathed and detested.
Then it stopped in its tracks and tried to experiment. The outside world seemed to fade from its sight, and suddenly it was looking down on a mass – schematic heaps of bodies in the area it was in, done in bold primary colours – carefully designed symbols of vast destruction.
‘You…are…dead..?’ it slurred through bruised, chapped lips. ‘Not…alive…anymore…are you dead…?’
It tried to push onward from that point and was greatly pleased to discover that the simple act of wishing it to be so allowed the creature to visualize the entire city, or focus in on any part of it. Nor, it found, did its sub-virtual viewpoint have to stay above the city – the cracks in the ground base exposed burning, and a thrashing hell. It could move down from ground level and see the buildings and hills towering above. It could visualize it from all angles.
There were signs. Maps offering information on the buildings – names and addresses, and in many cases the names of whatever businesses went on there.
It moved on.
It needed to eat to exist.
Darkness had passed, and dawn had come over the horizon, and the morning was well begun, and Raymond paced the room listening to the routine interrogation of yet another routine co-worker, one Michael Anderson. Anderson wasn’t normally up and at the mortuary by this hour, but he did live quite nearby and all the commotion had wakened him. He had wandered over to see what was going on – or so he claimed. Police officers throughout history had been a little slow to believe witnesses who explained trifles such as coming to work with such elaboration – and Raymond Anciano was tempted to uphold the tradition in the present instance. With everything going on, hell unleashed, swarms of zombies everywhere, it wasn’t wise to treat everyone as a suspect. Clearly, the dead were walking the earth, and by coagulation their numbers were expanding.
This night had been a long, hard journey through the darkness to the day, and crime scenes and all-out chaos could be gruelling.
Ray looked at his shoes – at the floor – sighed – and said: ‘It was only a matter of time, eh?’
‘Yes,’ said the voice from over his shoulder.
Ray spun at intense speed and almost tripped over in doing so.
It was over…
About to begin.
Limbo waited. Limbo and the rescue of this world. Frances Boatman had lived, and died, and now lived again shortly after death, whilst living next door to the laboratory-mortuary meant access to fresh meat – even if it was a bit old and chewy. Frances grinned grotesquely as she leaned over DC Ray Anciano and snapped the bone of his nose as she plucked out his left eye with a hard finger.
She spoke the words, ‘Thank you, Mr Anciano. You put yourself in a most grave situation on my behalf. I have a feeling of owing you a great debt.’
Like so many, Frances began to feast.
We can now, if we wish, call them zombies. Though they were not remotely human, they were flesh and blood and when they gazed over the city panorama, they felt dismal, and they felt awe, and wonder – and loneliness. As quickly as these monsters resurfaced they began to seek fellowship amongst the cities.
In these explorations, they encountered life in many forms, some like themselves undead, while there was those ultimately destined for undead status. They watched the workings of evolution in a thousand cities, towns and small communities. They saw how often the first faint sparks of intelligence flickered and dissolved as day turned into night.
And because, in this entire world, if they had found nothing more precious than blood, they encouraged the night everywhere. They became farmers in the in the fields of cities. They sowed, and sometimes they reaped.
The great dinosaurs had long since passed away, their morning promise annihilated by a random hammer blow from space. The forging together of brain cells was becoming increasingly harder, and the zombies required particular horrid nourishment almost all the time in order to survive and help interpret thoughts.
Spread out beneath them, these new-age gods saw a world swarming with life, whilst for the underground years, they had studied, collected, catalogued, and when they learned all they could, they had begun to modify. They tinkered with the existence of earthly animals, species of insects, birds, on the land and under the seas. But which of their experiments would bear fruit, they would not know for millions of years.
They were patient, but they were not yet immortal, and in this new world which as people was a home, as now in death it was too; the glaciers came and went while the changeless Moon still carried its secret from the stars. Hell was overflowing with the damned, old and new, the cursed, and the thoroughly evil; positively teeming; and now it had burst at the seams…
Into pure energy, therefore, they would presently transform themselves; and the shells discarded in a mindless dance of death would crumble into dust. And sometimes they would discover and seek goals of their own.
“Careful.” (Nervous girlfriend.)
“Don’t worry; it’s got a blindfold on. It can’t see us.” (Cocky boyfriend.)
Just a little closer. (Horse looking at two oblivious humans through the fly-mask.)
“Hey, it’s doing a trick! It’s holding the hose in its mouth.” (Boyfriend, gawking.)
Water splashes on electric fence, splashes on cocky boyfriend. Sizzling, sparking, collapsing, convulsing. Girlfriend runs to help.
More sparking, collapsing, convulsing.
She couldn’t help. Two unconscious humans.
Fall, my dainties, fall. (Horse smiles.)
Snaky tongue emerges from horse’s mouth, dragging unconscious humans under the fence.
Body ripples, teeth and claws grow.
Horse no more.
David Stewart started writing stories with his sisters on long car trips across Canada and the United States. He lives with his wife in Jeonju, South Korea and enjoys tramping around the surrounding mountains, finding fantasy and mystery in unexpected places. Currently, he writes for the fiction blog, The Green-Walled Tower (greenwalledtower.wordpress.com).