When reading a first-person, past-tense story the reader begins the narrative reassured that, whatever may follow, the author has survived. However trying the ensuing ordeals may be, they have been endured. The writer undoubtedly comes through unscathed and lives to tell the tale.
Unfortunately dear reader, whilst what follows may indeed be a first-person, past-tense account, there are no happy endings here. Only nightmares.
The decision to walk the six miles to my girlfriend’s house was prompted by economy. I was sure that student grants were structured to impart an immediate and first-hand knowledge of poverty. Nevertheless, once I was out of town the walk became enjoyable, the air was heavy with the sweet scent of cow parsley and resonated with the humming of hoverflies.
Three miles from Jill’s house and with the friendly face of a full moon commencing its climb from the horizon, I noticed swollen rain clouds sweeping in from the estuary. I quickened my pace but soon felt the first icy ‘plop’ on my forearm. Moments later the heavens opened, and my mood was sliding into self-pity when I saw a familiar farm track off to the left, flanked by trees and overgrown brambles. I smiled. I knew this place well, and knew too the derelict cottage that squatted at the track’s end, only half a mile away.
It was during my final year with the Scouts that our troop had been given a summer project of renovating the old place. We spent many weekends there, camping out under star-choked skies; a summer of hard work and laughter. We would end each day seated around the campfire, eating bangers and beans garnished with wood ash and drinking gritty cocoa from chipped tin mugs while singing rugby songs the meaning of which we didn’t fully understand. But we laughed all the same.
Laughter. How I miss that simple pleasure.
Now, as I approached the trail, a flicker of movement in one of the bordering beeches caused me to glance up to where I saw the dark cowled form of a Magpie perched on a thin branch, its tail flicking for balance. I slowed, surprised to see the bird remain there, its cold, dark eyes glinting menacingly.
“You’re a brave chap,” I said, my voice seeming strange in the sudden quiet that had enshrouded the woodland. The bird bobbed its head. Once. Twice. And, with a sudden “Ka ka ka ka,” like some insane laughter, it darted from the branch and, its wings a piebald blur, flew down the trail toward the house. I stalled, flat-footed for a moment, startled by the bird’s cry and sudden flight until a quickening in the rainfall stirred me. Snatching my collar up around my ears, I hurried onto the uneven track that I hoped would lead me to shelter.
Here, dense tree cover and unruly undergrowth created a claustrophobic atmosphere, infused with the scent of wild garlic. In my haste I failed to notice a cloying, sulphurous stench gain dominance over the woodland smell until an acute nausea alerted me that something was amiss. I held my breath but soon, either from lack of air or the lung-fulls of foul air I’d already inhaled, began to feel light headed. My mind swimming, I lumbered on, slipping in the ruts through puddles – strangely warm – that splashed my ankles.
As I cleared the trees I stole a glance toward my goal, with its steeply raked gables and a battered lean-to propped against one wall. I gulped one more fetid breath and tottered toward the house, bile searing my throat. I reached the door, its paint peeling like the skin of a reptile, and pushed my way inside. As I crossed the threshold, my vision clouded and I dropped to the floor.
It was night when I awoke and I peered around me, my eyes adjusting to the surroundings. Moonlight shone through a small, broken window to my right lending the room a sylvan glow. I glanced through the shattered pane to the pale orb of moon beyond, its face seeming to sneer at me now with unconcealed malevolence. An icy tremor rippled down my back, and I determined that the circumstances of my visit and resulting dark mood were casting their spell.
“Get a grip.” I said out loud, trying to drive out my cheerless attitude. As my senses returned, I realised that it had been a noise that had woken me. I froze and lay still, straining to listen for more of the same.
An eerie silence told me the rain had stopped, and the hairs on my neck bristled for these woods had never been quiet at night. The undergrowth had been alive with a nocturnal rustling. The sound of owls, too, had been relentless, punctuated by the occasional yap of a fox. Creatures of the night reigned here once the sun had set – silence never did.
I strained to hear what had woken me as emotions I’d no wish to name began to stir my insides. I tried to moisten my lips – but my tongue was as dry as the dusty floor beneath me. Then I heard it.
A metallic clink reached me clearly through the broken pane. I tried to move but a sudden tension seized my muscles so much so that my limbs refused to obey. I tried to play back the sound inside my head and countless visions entered my mind, none of them good. The sound reached me again. I breathed deeply, the fresh supply of oxygen surging into my brain unlocking my muscles.
I began to drag my frigid body off the floor and, despite my caution, my efforts created a din that seemed to fill the room, echoing around the damp, bare walls. Should I stop? I sensed a rush of adrenaline into my system and glanced nervously toward the door. I realise now that I should have made for the exit then – rushed through it and never looked back. But I didn’t. For the second time that night I made a colossal error of judgement.
I lifted myself to a crouch and reached up to the moonlit windowsill. It seemed that my sweatshirt was three sizes too small as a rising panic restricted my breathing. Slowly I raised my head above the level of the sill, runnels of sweat tickling through my scalp, and peered out through the ragged hole in the glass. What I saw invaded my mind, to be resurrected night after sleepless night from then on. How often have I wished that I’d braved the storm, ignoring the farmhouse and its vile secret? Thousands of times – each and every night.
The clearing was moonlit, with an ethereal sheen that displayed everything in stark relief. I was scanning the area to determine the source of the noise when a movement to the left of the window drew my attention. There, with his back to the house, a ploughman pushed his shares through the ground, turning over great sods of slick brown earth.
To the front of the ancient contraption, the like of which I have only ever seen in museums, was a huge black horse, its neck thick and muscular. Head down it forged on, pulling the blades effortlessly through the sodden ground as the ploughman brought up the rear steering a straight furrow. Chains hanging from the horse’s harness occasionally slapped against the plough with a sharp clink that pierced the night.
Focusing on the man, I saw he was dressed in an off-white smock tied at the waist with string. On his head was a large, wide-brimmed felt hat that flopped over his ears making him appear both comical and sinister. Ahead of him, the horse began to turn beneath the outspread limbs of a beech tree and he steered the plough to follow, turning toward me with his head bowed.
I watched transfixed as the team approached.
Even now I don’t know why the man looked up; I hadn’t made a sound – it was as though he had…sensed me. Yes, he knew I was there and, just as he drew level with the window he turned to me. At the sight of his face I clutched at the soft, rotting window frame, my nails digging deep into the wood as a dry, rasping sound escaped from my mouth.
For there, shaded by his wide brim, the man’s moon-shaped face was totally devoid of features. None were needed to telegraph his evil – for an aura charged with corruption hung about him like some foul, tattered shroud. I stood paralysed, staring at the thing before me.
Unable to move, I felt my mind becoming scourged – stripped of all I’d learned, thought and believed – saw my life acted out before me, viewed not through my eyes but from above – a hidden onlooker, a base voyeur peeping on a visual biography of my life – all the dramas, great and small – cheapening all that I held dear, all I’d valued. Those most treasured memories.
How long was I flayed by that devilish, eye-less stare? A split second? It seemed a lifetime.
Just as I began to feel that I was already dead and I’d plummeted to the depths of hell, the featureless scab that was the creature’s face began to animate, to rumple and crease. To my horror, where there should have been a mouth a slit appeared, stretching the width of its head – an evil, sneering maw that twisted and contorted into a parody of hateful expressions, the last of which was a leering grin accompanied by depraved laughter. To my utter dismay I realised that I’d heard that sound, only hours earlier.
“KA KA KA KAA!”
With cold fear and adrenaline feeding my strength, I propelled myself from the window and ripped the old warped door open, the deformed wood SCREAM-ing across the flagstones, drowning out the hateful sound that followed me.
The night air on my face told me I was free and I ran in a vacuum of peace, sensing the ground by the rush under my feet, my overloaded mind spinning, like a gear stripped of its teeth – ruined but gyrating still, whirling out of control. I ran until I could run no more and fell to the ground, my chest heaving in ragged, painful spasms –
Sunlight, filtered by the leaves of an oak tree towering above, caressed my face and I opened my eyes to a dawn I never believed I would see. I hauled myself up, looking to where the old house sat, a dreary shadow through the trees.
I don’t know why I returned. I should have escaped then – to the road and beyond, back to the tenuous comforts of civilisation. Instead, I retraced my steps, shuffling over the sodden ruts toward the clearing that surrounded the ancient cottage. It was as I cleared the confines of the clawing shrubbery I saw that which was to ever haunt me.
I could have claimed the night’s horrors to be a dream – colourful imaginings of a mind poisoned by an excess of Stephen King, Lovecraft and Poe. But no, I returned. And there before me, where earlier had lain a confusion of unkempt meadow, now stretched a corrugation of glistening soil.
The ridges and furrows of freshly turned earth.