Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 279)

October 17: OWL

 

Oct 17: OWL

 

The old barn doesn’t smell like much when it’s cold, but in the summertime when the sun slices through the cracks in the boards it smells sweet, like straw and old manure.  The wood creaks in the wind, it creaks underfoot.  Up in the lofts it smells sour, because there are still old hay bales up there.  They’re packed with mice.  You can hear them squeak if you sit still long enough, scuffling with each other just out of sight.

From the rafters, the owls watch and wait.  There’s no food in a hay bale, just nesting material.

Owls are patient, and the mice have to come out sometime.

I climb up to the loft and sketch the light and shadows falling on the stalls below.

Sometimes I find owl pellets on the ground under the rafters.  The pellets are dark gray and about two inches long, mostly made of mouse fur so tightly packed together that it’s become felted.  The pellets always look like cocoons of death to me, like a tiny bony figure with a scythe will uncurl itself and start attacking my hand as I hold it.  To me, the color of death isn’t black.  It’s dark gray.  The color of undigestible mouse fur.

Today I find a big one.  I tease it open with my pencil and sketch the bones inside.  One partially broken skull, six shattered jawbone pieces, a dozen short pieces that could be arms or legs, and a scattering of little fragments.  Definitely a vertibra.  I should study mouse anatomy at some point, so I know what I’m drawing.

That done, I pull a strand of hair from my hairline and twist it between my fingers.  Don’t eat it this time, I tell myself.  You know it’s bad for you…

But I roll it up into a pill and eat it anyway.

In my stomach is a hard lump of hair, a lump that feels like cancer.  I want…I know that I won’t be able to cough it up.  I’m no owl.  The doctors say that the only answer is to get surgery.  They beg me to stop eating my hair—just shave it off.  If all I have is my body hair to eat, then it’ll pass through.  It’ll be too short to tangle.  It’ll pass right through my system.

Or you could just stop, they say.

Up here, though.  The doctors never seem real.

I reach into my knapsack and pull out a frozen, tinfoil-covered lump.  It’s always risky, hiding things in the freezer, but I don’t like to eat them exactly raw.  But nobody looks under the old freezerburned turkey at the bottom.  Mom just sighs every Thanksgiving and says, “Not this year.”

I unwrap it, pull off a leg, and start chewing.  Honestly, even frozen it’s still a little rubbery.

I know it’s a bad idea, but I swallow carefully, and pull off another leg.  I know it’s not rational.  I know it’s stupid and dangerous.  But I’ve always believe that if I eat enough of them, I’ll turn into an owl.  Or something that isn’t me, anyway.  And then I’ll be safe.

Safe from what, I don’t know.  The doctors say I have anxiety.

I always eat the little heads last, using my teeth to scrape off the skin and hair, then suck out the brains.  Not my favorite part, but I like to sketch the skulls first.

This one looks like squid bones, if squids had bones, with a beak that looks strong enough to snap a steel wire.

I don’t know where they come from, originally.  There’s a mousehole in my room.  They come out of that, when they think I’m asleep.

But I’m patient, and they have to come out sometime.

Crunch.

This one’s a bit personal; my daughter ate most of her hair when she was in the sixth grade, which was about the same time that the mice took over our former house.  Our cat Fafnir, the inspiration for Ferntail from October 15: BLACK CAT, was getting too old to chase them off, and they dug through old holes in the wall that had been filled up by the previous owners.

Me?  I chew my nails.

October 16: SKULL

 

Oct 16: SKULL

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

So a guy walks into the Hangar Bar last Sunday night, well after the game had wrapped up, with a big fake skull under his arm.  I mean, this is no normal-sized skull, it’s as big as a beach ball.  There are little purple lightbulbs in the eye sockets.  That kind of thing.

He puts it on the bar, holds up a finger, and the skull says, “I’d like a beer for me and a vodka for the skull.  He only drinks spirits.”

We all crack up about that.  I tossed down a pair of fives on the bar.  A schtick like that, you shouldn’t have to pay for your drinks, even if it is a cheesy one-liner coming from a cheap plastic skull.

He downs the beer while the skull says, “What’s a skeleton’s favorite food?”

Someone shouts out, “Spare ribs!”

“What do skeletons say before they start to eat?”

“Bone appetit!”

More laughter.  Every time the skull said something, its eyes flashed purple.  I started looking it over to see where the mike was, but didn’t spot anything.

“So how does it work, mister? You got a thousand cheesy jokes programmed in this thing or what?” I asked.

“Nah, just a good funny bone,” the skull said.  That’s when I became convinced that the guy was an honest-to-God ventriloquist and not just a guy carrying a joke-telling skull.  The timing was just too good.

“You got a real skull with words,” I agreed.

The skull’s eyes flashed as it chuckled appreciatively.  I patted the guy on the shoulder and went back to my beer.

And wouldn’t you know it, but that’s when Hank walked into the bar.  For the first time in months.

Hank was a barfly to beat all barflies, charming until he was so violent he had to be carried outside by the cops and dried out overnight in a cell.  He walked a knife’s edge of goodwill all over that part of town, cycling through the local bars, trying to spend enough time away from them that they forgot about his bad side and just remembered the good one—a jovial tall-tale teller who laughed at everyone else’s jokes.

Hank said, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but why did the skeleton go disco dancing?”

The skull said, “Why, to see the boogie man!”

You coulda heard a pin drop as Hank looked over the duo, man and skeleton.

“Don’t go spoiling other people’s jokes,” he said.  “It ain’t polite.”

Scratch the surface of Hank’s good side, and you get down to his bad side real quick.

He cleared his throat.  “What do skeletons say before they start to—”

This time, half the bar chimed in, skull included.  “Bone appetit!”

“Shut up, you clowns!” Hank shouted.  He stalked closer to the ventriloquist.  “Let a guy tell a joke or…”

“Or what?” asked the skull.

Hank’s face turned red.  Through gritted teeth, he said, “You wanna find out?  Why do skeletons only drink vodka?”

“Because…” The skull paused for effect.  Strangely, Hank was staring into the skull’s eyes and not the ventriloquist’s.  “…they only like spirits.”

“That’s it,” Hank roared.

I expected him to punch the ventriloquist in the mouth, but no.  He picked up the skull off the bar with both hands and threw it on the floor.

The thing smashed open.  Not like glass.  Not even like plastic.  More like a pumpkin.

Inside was…nothing.  No mechanical equipment, no speaker, no wires eletrical or mechanical.  Just a thick skull-shaped rind around a layer of white squash flesh.

We all stood and stared.  Hank too.

The bartender, Tully, said, “I think it’s time for you to get out here, Hank, before I call the cops.”

With an immense dignity, Hank turned around and walked back outta the bar.  He hasn’t been back to the Hangar since.

The ventriloquist pointed at the smashed skull pieces, then at the bar, and we all helped him pick everything up and put it all on the bar an a jumbled heap.

“I’m sorry, mister,” Tully said.  “We can take up a collection for you to get it replaced—”

The ventriloquist lifted a finger and we all went quiet.  Out of one pocket came a silk handkerchief, which he shook out and spread over the smashed skull.  Then he pulled a collapsible wand out of his pocket, shook that out, and started making passes with it over the skull pieces.

Not just a ventriloquist but a stage magician, I realized.

But not a single mystic word did the man speak.

Finally he held out his hand, made one last pass with the wand, and started to lift off the handkerchief…slowly.

Very slowly.

Under the handkerchief, the skull said, “Wait for it…wait for it…”

The magician swept the handkerchief away.

The skull was back, just as it had been before.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” it said.  “Why was the skull such a motormouth?”

Nobody answered.

“Because it could jaw all night long!  Open your mouth, Joe, and give ’em something to remember us by.”

The magician opened his mouth.  Inside we could all see the stump of a tongue…

He picked up the skeleton and put it under his arm.  I suddenly noticed that the shot glass of vodka, which had been under the handkerchief with the rest of the bits, was now empty.

I tucked a hundred dollar bill in the man’s pocket on the way out.

A shtick like that, you shouldn’t have to pay for your drinks.

Ever.

This one is Spider Robinson meets The Twilight Zone.

October 15: BLACK CAT

 

Oct 15: BLACK CAT

 

I first encountered the woman in black on a moonless October night in dreams.

I, Ferntail the Cat, was gathering information on a certain nightmare that had recently begun encroaching upon my ward Jaela’s dreams.  Once she was solidly asleep, I had entered the realm of dreams and traveled to a certain catacomb under the northern Forest of Leaf-Hand Trees, searching for the wise Monk of Aurelius, ostensibly to obtain his recipe for the Golden Cordial, which he refuses to give to anybody, but in reality to find out what he knew of the Nocnitsa, a psychic night vampire who drained life energies directly without all the bother about blood.  I was very nearly ready to tear my hair out, for nothing I did seemed to have any effect.

On my way, my path was crossed by what at first seemed a human woman, dressed in black with a deep hood covering her face and a silver moon fastening the cloak around her shoulders.  She seemed to be taking pains to ensure that no one followed her; therefore, I changed my plans and did so.

She led me to a stone altar in the middle of a room lined with niches for skeletons.  I glanced into one and saw that the bones within belonged neither to human nor cat, and quickly darted inside it as a hiding-spot.

Once again, the woman looked about her, then pressed a lever on the altar, which swung aside to reveal a spiral stair leading downward.

Again, I followed her.  A gray cat in the shadows is invisible when he wishes to be.

We delved deeper into the bedrock of dreams until we reached a short tunnel, at the end of which was a pick.  She pulled forth a small leather bag, took the pick vigorously to the wall, and broke out several somewhat sandy fragments of rock.  She hefted the small bag, weighing it in her hand, and turned back toward me.

I crouched further into the shadows.  She passed me by.

I am a curious cat, or else my name is not Ferntail.  After I was sure that she had gone, I shifted to human form and took the pick to the rock at the end of the tunnel and broke off a piece of the same stone.  I sniffed and inspected it carefully, but learned nothing.  I had another pressing purpose, so I left, making note of the tunnel and the mechanism for working the lever.

The problem with the Nocnitsa was easily solved using a stone with a hole in the center, on a thong around Jaela’s neck.  In gratitude, I presented Aurelius with a few chocolate chip cookies from the mortal lands, and he was most pleased.

On the way back, I spotted the woman in black again.

This time, she was covered in blood, lying in the shadows along one of the tunnels, trying to pull herself into a niche in order to hide herself.

“Are you in need of assistance, my lady?”

“No, no, get away, flee, you must go,” she said.

One can hardly take such a statement as anything other than a challenge.  I shifted into human form and drew my blade, settling into an en garde position.  It was not long before a monstrous, formless shadow had attacked the two of us.  However, my blade is puissant, and the monster was soon defeated, retreating a burble of terror.

I sheathed my sword, then turned back to the woman in black, to offer what assistance I could.

She had fallen unconscious.  I gathered her in my arms and carried her out of the catacombs to the surface.  One must take especial care of any injury which occurs under the surface, out in dreams; when I lay the woman on a swath of grass under a tree outside the entrance, her wounds had changed, and her body was now covered in tiny purple flowers and thorny vines that oozed from the cuts in her dark clothing.

“Get away, flee, you must go,” she moaned.

“You are safe now, my lady.  The monster is slain.”

But she only repeated herself, her voice growing weaker and weaker.  I tried to staunch the bleeding, but the vines only grew the thicker, and her flesh seemed to fall in upon itself.

“The stone!” she hissed finally, as faint as a summer breeze.

She had none upon her, but I happened to still be carrying the fragment I had obtained earlier.  I took it from the pocket of my cloak and gave it to her.  She opened her mouth, and I fed it to her, crumbled into bits.

If anything, it seemed to make her weaker, until her eyes closed and her body collapsed into the soil—rapidly becoming absorbed by the vigorously growing vine decorated with delicate purple flowers.

I stepped back from the body, mystified and also cautious of becoming entangled in those brambles.

Then came a rustling noise from within, and out crept a black cat with the silvery mark of the moon under her chin.  She immediately sprang away from me and fled into the forest.

I attempted to follow, but she had vanished.  I returned to the body.

The cloak that the woman in black had worn, the one with the silver-moon clasp, had vanished.  If my suspicions were correct, it spoke of an odd alliance indeed.

Ferntail the Cat has another story in Tales Told Under the Covers: Zombie Girl Invasion, under my De Kenyon middle-grade pseudonym.  I have another tale for him coming up, The King of Cats.  He’s inspired by the sword and sorcery tales of Fritz Lieber and Robert E. Howard.

Oct 14: VAMPY LINGERIE

 

Oct 14: VAMPY LINGERIE

 

It had all been a series of mistakes.  Moving to the new town, making friends, taking up Judy’s dare to bike past the old Alterwerth farm, and then, even worse, taking up her dare to go inside the creepy old place, especially considering the number of women that have been going missing in the area over the last decade.  No bodies have ever been found…

Worst mistake:  going inside the room in the basement.

Rows…and rows…and rows…of murdered fashion dolls lining wall-to-wall shelves.  In the center of the room, the sewing machine and a plastic tub filled with miniature hacksaws, drill bits, fake blood, modeling clay, and several colors of paint–brain-pink, bone-white.

Laid out next to it, a miniature outfit made of delicate black ribbons and lace, all peeks and gaps, with a long skirt and train at the bottom.  A masterpiece.  Sick as fuck.

Where was the doll, though?

The door of the room slammed.

“Judy?  Judy!”

She was gone.

Melanie hears screams, struggles with the doorknob.  It’s locked from the inside.  She fumbles with it, fingers stiff with fear.  Turns the knob.

Something slams into the door, shoving it toward her.

Judy screams, “Oh, God, Melanie, don’t open the door!

Melanie leans against the door.  But whatever is against the door is heavy.  Her tennis shoes squeak on the lino as they skid backward.

The heavy weight slides down against the wood.  A crack appears.  Melanie winces and turns her face away, imagining fingernails scraping for her eyes.

But none appear.  Judy grunts and the weight shifts on the door.  A sick thump on the floor.  A dragging sound.

She peeks through the crack in the door.

Judy, dragging someone in a dark uniform with a gun on his belt.  A cop.  With an upholstery hammer through his forehead.  The hole is bleeding surprisingly little.

“Judy?  What…?”

“Oh my God, Melanie.  That’s why nobody gets caught.  It was a cop all along.  A cop!”

In his pocket is a syringe, capped.  It turns out to be morphine.  But that’s later.  And under his bed is a photo album with the pictures of the dolls inside.  The pages crackle as the plastic sleeves turn.

She recognizes some of the delicate, cross-strapped outfits when they show her at the police station.  She shakes her head.  And thinks, but we only just moved here.  We only just moved here.

 We only just moved here.

I wrote a story about a guy and his serial-killer victim dolls a few years ago that didn’t work out (he wasn’t the killer, it was too complicated), and for some reason it occurred to me that I needed to try to rewrite it from the girls’ perspective.

October 13: BAT

Oct 13: BAT

 

You’re watching a surreal Italian horror movie and a bat is ravaging a woman’s hair, trying to bite at her face.

It’s a stuffed monster.  Real bats don’t do that.

You wake.  It’s a hot night, the window is open.  Something dark flutters in the room.

“It’s nothing.”

You go back to sleep.

The next day you see pinprick marks of a miniature vampire bite on your hand.  Seriously, a two-inch-high vampire must have squeaked “I vant to suck your blood!” before gazing mermerizingly at your thumb.  The marks scab over.

A month later you wake up to find yourself violently sexually aroused.  You can’t swallow.  It’s not that your throat is tight, although it is.  It’s that water makes you panic.

Every muscle goes rigid.  A friend who comes to pick you up for coffee instead screams and rushes you to the hospital.

Bitten…bitten…

Too late.  They put you in a coma, a protocol for cases of the last resort.  There have been six survivors.

It takes about a month for the symptoms to show, with rabies.

Vampirism, too.

The night nurse is a nun.

She waits for you with a stake.

Just in case.

If you liked this one, try Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik.  I occasionally write second-person (“you”) stories; you can find another one in A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters & the Macabre, the one called “Abominable.”

October 12: DEMON/DEVIL

This list comes from Kirsten Easthope!

 

Oct 12: DEMON/DEVIL

 

Every woman I’ve ever met is possessed by demons.  Devils.  Vicious, brutal spirits.  Sometimes I have to remind myself of this—when I see a babe in the arms of its mother or a young girl smiling at a summer day, hair tugged by the breeze, as she carries pails of sour milk to the pigpen and pours them, one by one, into the trough.

Women have the power to bewitch men’s minds.  It cannot be natural.  It radiates out of them like the sun.

One day last summer as I was riding on the old fort road toward the garrison, I stopped to watch a girl carry her buckets back to her house, a humble cottage.  I dismounted and knocked on the door.  A crone answered it.

“Greetings,” I said, and told her my name.  She flushed and curtseyed.

“What may I do for you, my lord?”

“The girl who just entered here, who is she?”

“My daughter, lord.”

Only a demon would sell such a beautiful child.  In less time than it would take to describe, she had been dressed in clean clothing and rode behind me on the back of my horse.  Coins jingled in the old woman’s pocket.

At the old fort, which had been turned into an inn, a pair of grizzled mercenaries teased her, calling her “fresh meat” and other such names.  I took her away from them; although women are demons, men of a lower class are surely beasts. When I had finished my business there, I traveled onward, having purchased a second horse to carry both woman and supplies.

By the time I had returned home, the girl’s light had been dimmed somewhat, although I had of course not touched her.  It had been a tiring journey for us both.  I gave her over to the care of the other women of my house—all of them aged now, but still beautiful—and inspected my holdings.

All was in order.

At midnight I escorted the girl up to the room at the top of the tower, where I wed her according to the rites of the folk from which she came.  And in the morning, the women carried her down the stairs, wrapped in gauze, and buried her with the rest, each bone separate from the others, the skull and marrow-bones cracked open, so that if they should rise—well, it would take some time to sort themselves all out.

Afterward, the women presented themselves to me.  The eldest had been with my family for seven hundred years, the youngest over twenty, demons enslaved by blood.

“You have done well, my sweets,” I said.  And offered them my wrist.

Inspired by Bluebeard and Dracula…maybe a little Gilles de Rais.

October 11: WITCH

 

Oct 11: WITCH

 

The rains had been falling hard for a month when that old coot Reba, who herself was known as a drifter, came forward with the story that the farmer Andrace Chenowith had not been murdered by a homeless man living under the Bird Road Bridge.  It was a good bridge for hiding out under, she said, that was not to be argued.  In fact she had hidden there a time or two herself.  But she knew for a fact that there was no homeless man hiding out under the bridge at the time because she had had to hide underneath the bridge herself that night, waiting for the bleeding to stop even though there was a sett full of badgers that like to crawl out after midnight and steal her food.

It was in church on a Sunday morning, the kind of church where the ladies wore hats that you could put out a raven’s eye with or hide a left-eye shiner from Saturday night.  Old Reba stood up bareheaded, her hair straggling across her shoulders in great gray waves of doom.

Then she turned and pointed one long, crooked, twisted old finger at the organist, a plump widow named Hester Wright, who had never been known to do wrong by anyone, especially if they gave her twenty dollars first.

Hester Wright went pale and the pastor demanded that Reba explain herself.

“I was runnin’ past the graveyard when I saw a light at the Chenowith place.  Chenowith will give you milk if you beg.  I slipped through a crack in the door and what should I see but an axe rising and falling, rising and falling…and Chenowith’s brains splattered all over the place.”

And the pastor, who was a man of righteousness but not too much of it, said, “Hester Wright wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Old Reba cackled.  “But she would hurt a man threatening to blackmail you, Pastor Hewes.  That’s just what love can do.”

You coulda heard a feather flutter to the floor among that flabbergasted fold.

Finally the organist rose on shaking legs and said, “What’s your proof?”

“That old possum you threw an axe at, Hester Wright, and scared off from the body afore you could drag it out to the river…”

And then old Reba pushed back her gray hair, as wild as a hailstorm, and showed a bloody red notch in her ear.

“That possum was me!”

Well, Pastor Hewes ran off the next morning and was never heard from again, except for a postcard every Christmas.  And they hung both the women off the Bird Road Bridge, one for murder, and the other as a snitch.

I got stuck on this one.  Thanks to Jamie Ferguson, who provided the idea “Witches shouldn’t be snitches,” and to Tom Waits, who likes to sing about murders and red barns.

October 10: FRANKENSTEIN

 

Oct 10: FRANKENSTEIN

Frankenstein’s Monster calls Dr. Frankenstein his father, which makes him Dr. Frankenstein’s son.  So I don’t wanna hear it.

He stands over the city, watching, waiting.  Dressed in black and wearing a mask.  It’s a city that never sleeps…and ever since he came back from the dead, neither does he.

Below, a scream.

He sets his book aside, Camus’s The Stranger.  The streetlights are bright enough for him to read by.  He isn’t sure where his father got his eyes, but they aren’t human; they see far better in the dark than human eyes do.

He leaps from building to building.  His body still functions far better than those of the mortals below him, even though it is now hundreds of years since his first death.  If he believed in the occult, he would have said that Death, having taken him in all his several parts once, had ever since chosen to pass him by—but ironically he does not believe in anything beyond mortality.  There always seems to be a reasonable explanation.  And yet perhaps reason itself is at fault.

The scream’s echoes seem to leave a trail in the air, a lingering hum.

He looks down upon a scene of tragedy.  A figure lies on the ground, being beaten by two other figures carrying baseball bats and wearing steel-toed boots.

He drops down into the alley from above, an action that should have splintered bones and rendered flesh.  In a low but unavoidable voice, he says, “So you risk my wrath, do you?”

The two figures shrink back against the brick.

“He killed our mother!”

“You know the law.  Either you use the courts…or you face me.”

Later his sign—a pair of crossed bolts stitched with black thread—appears against the thick, unending cloud cover, projected from the top of City Hall.  The polis, the people, call him.  He terrifies them, and still they call.  “For no matter how bad Frankenstein may be, he protects us from worse.”

The ways of men are madness.  And still he comes.

A cackle of vile laughter echoes across the streets.  Tonight there will be lightning…and mad scientists, summoning things far worse than he to reanimate the souls of their dead.

This one, I went, “What if I crossed Frankenstein from Penny Dreadful with something like the world of Gotham?

October 9: SEANCE

Oct 9: SÉANCE

 

There’s only one way to elicit a good jump scare.  You have to interrupt the mental flow somehow with fear.  You can do it in movies pretty easily, of course.  Build up sympathy for the character, increase the suspense…then release it by having someone pop out of nowhere and strike or startle the character.

Empathy.  Suspense.  Release.  Bang.

Our plan was simple.  Wait for Friday the thirteenth of October.  Invite everyone over for a séance.  And then scare the ever-living shit out of them.

We have a big old house that used to be my grandfather’s, on the small acreage that remains from the sale of most of the farm.  It came with a table that can seat twenty at a stretch…we adjusted the insertable leaves until there was only room for thirteen, with an empty chair at the head of the table.

The medium we hired from halfway across the state.  She worked in a college town, reading fortunes.  We warned her.  “Neither of us has much of an opinion about the supernatural or ghosts.  In fact we think they’re a mix—some real ghosts mixed in with a lot of fakes.  We don’t even care whether you’re a real medium or not, or some kind of mix where on the good days it’s real and the bad days you stumble through it as best you can.  We just want you to hold everyone’s attention.  Got it?”

She seemed to have reservations, but she was young.  And broke.  And we were paying expenses.

“Make sure,” we told her, “that the members of the séance can relate to you.  Tell them about yourself.  We have a couple of real cynics coming over…they’re sure to heckle you all the way through unless you get them on your side.”

She finally agreed.

Margie was twenty-two and pretty and about five-foot-nothing with these enormous blue eyes that always seemed on the verge of tears.  She had come from a bad family, not awful but the rigid kind of place where her parents beat her to try to get her to shut up about playing with the spirit of a dead dog that the mom had hit with the car, then went into denial about.  Her roommate had kicked her out of the house after the ghost of a murder victim from the trailer park had come to the house, trying to fine someone, anyone, who would come rescue her pet finches before they starved to death, and Margie had woke up screaming, then raced over to the trailer—barefoot and in the snow—to rescue those birds.  Then refused to turn them over to the animal shelter and kept them in the apartment for six months…

It turned out that she really didn’t have a lot of ethical qualms about pulling the wool over on a group of humans.  Animals, that’s what she cared about.

When she first arrived at the house, she walked around the farm and checked with our dogs to make sure we were on the up-and-up.

Well, dogs.  It’s had to get them to say a bad word about anybody.  She decided we were reliable enough (for humans, that was) and that she’d do it.

The night of the thirteenth our friends came over in dribs and drabs.  A light dusting of snow was coming down, and for a moment I almost bundled up to go outside and take care of the horses.  But they’d been gone for years, after my grandfather died, most of them sold but an old broke-back gelding named Star that had been Grandpa’s favorite, who had been petted and spoiled beyond all reason by my Uncle Ted, even though Uncle Ted had never been a big fan of horses until Grandpa died of a heart attack, back in the late Eighties.

We served up pumpkin spiced cider and pumpkin bread and pork roast with bloody red cranberry sauce, and each guest had their own tiny pink gelatin brain-mold at their seat.  And other things, too.  It was a big spread.

Finally, the table was cleared and wiped, the dishes done, the candles lit, cell phones confiscated, smart watches likewise, the curtains drawn, and the electric lights put out.

Margie was put at the head of the table, a crystal ball about the size of a bowling ball on a brass stand under her chin.  We’d introduced her during supper, and she was personable and friendly with all the guests, asking the kind of insightful questions that people love to answer in far more detail than was necessary.  In short she was charming and pumped everyone for information.

So when she finally started chanting over the crystal ball in what sounded like pig-Latin Latin, everyone basically wanted her to succeed, if not in summoning up spirits from beyond the veil, then at least to fool everyone convincingly.  (Although of course they themselves were too smart to be so fooled.)

The crystal ball flickered, then shifted colors.

While everyone else tried to figure out how it was done, I kept an eye on the wall behind her head.

The darkness behind her bulged…stretching.  Pushing out of the wall was a shape about five and three-quarters feet tall.

As it stretched further, it became obvious that the figure was hunched and balancing itself over a cane.

Margie’s head lolled from one side to the other, the light in the crystal ball flickering over her face.  Someone at the table across from me gasped as Margie exhaled, her breath releasing a faintly luminescent mist.  Not quite glowing…more like it was silver, and catching the glow from the crystal ball.

My wife squeezed my hand tight.

The dark shape pointed at Margie at the head of the table and shook its finger, as if it were giving Margie a soundless talking-to, then reached for her shoulder and shook her.

Margie’s head bounced on her shoulders, her whole upper body jerking around.

Everyone at the table gasped or said a soft curse, it seemed, but not because of the dark shape behind her.

A ghostly shape was forming in her breath.  The shape of a horse.

At first it was about small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  Then it began to grow.

The dark shape behind Margie’s chair let go of her.  She went limp.

My wife squeezed my hand even tighter.  Her shoulders were up around her ears and her eyes were squeezed shut.  Her head was half-turned away, too.

“Look,” I whispered.

The shape raised its cane, unsteadily, over Margie’s head.

“I can’t look,” she whispered back.

“Look!”

The horse’s legs had stretched all the way through the table to the floor.  It snorted—without making a sound, that is, but you could see the look on its face—spun around, and kicked straight through Margie’s chest.

BANG!

Chairs flew, candles tipped, someone’s hair started on fire.  Every single window in the dining room was cracked, and the table had been reduced to kindling.  Splinters everywhere.

Old Grandpa, he never did like anyone sitting in his chair at the head of the table.  And he was so damned mean and stubborn that he stayed sitting there through every meal, even decades after his death.

We knew it would take a real doozy of a plan to get him out of the house.  And we knew that there must have been a reason Uncle Ted loved that horse Star so much…

I never did believe the story about Grandpa dying of a heart attack.

Ran a bit long that time 🙂  If you liked this one, check out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz.  In a number of the stories, you’re supposed to reach out and grab one of the people you’re telling a story to, of scream in their ears…

October 8: DAY OF THE DEAD

 

Oct 8: DAY OF THE DEAD

 

The end of the world came and went with such a voluminous roar that it seemed as though everything that had happened in the before should no longer occur in the after.  However, this was not the case.  Where anyone survived to continue the old enmities, old enmities were continued; where anyone remembered a tale, it was written down at once (not least of which rememberers were myself, with my perfect memory at last a blessing rather than a cursèd collector of old grudges); where prayers were once said, they were now repeated with double the fervor.

Finados, that is, the Day of the Dead, was one such tradition which survived, although in a curious manner.

Gone were the parades and the cleaning of the graves and headstones, the walking trees having long since torn up even humanity’s most sacred grounds, and the uncanny jaguars having long since learned to view any collection of humanity out in the open as a kind of game arranged for their deadly amusement.  Gone were the churches, rent stone from stone.  Gone was the tequila for offerings (although somewhat replaced by the humble sugarcane pinga that was often humanity’s most fervent spiritual solace).

But the dead?  They remained.  In fact, they returned.  Of the billions and billions who were killed in that war, only a few hundred thousand visited the area around old São Paulo—but visit they did.

They formed from the earth itself.

At first we retreated into caves, or climbed long ladders up into the thorn trees, or pushed rafts away from the shore and floated on any water we could find.  The dead did not like to go into the water, but everywhere else they could reach, they went, silently staring at the world that remained after they had been removed from it.

It was not that the survivors felt haunted, although we did.  It did not help that one seemed to see the faces of those one least wished to encounter.  Lovers who had parted with the bitterest recriminations, friends to whom one had owed a debt or favor, critics who had written one a scathing book review, an oft-ignored cousin…they seemed to follow one around willfully, appearing here, then there, then in a third place…no matter where one turned, one was surrounded by a tremendous feeling of guilt.

As to those whose guilts were more than petty, I cannot say, but of those who went among the dead, some did not return at all, and some returned befuddled by madness.  I have heard many tales…but being somewhat of a coward, I have never gone myself among the dead.  I might trip, and disappear with nothing but blood-stained footprints to mark my death.

It was when one of the largest thorn trees—who are treated as objects of worship among the trees that walk, at least in the area around São Paulo—was knocked over by the dead, who had lifted themselves out of the earth underneath it in such numbers that it toppled, that the strangest part of the new tradition began.

The trees formed themselves into labyrinths all over the old city; at the center of each of those labyrinths was an altar not made by human hands.  It was usually made of large pieces of gray concrete, put on top of each other, a thing which normally the walking trees would not allow.  On top of it was a mound of crudely made sugar skulls, brown in color, because while the sugar cane was still growing, it was as yet impossible to turn it white.  Often a large bowl of pinga would be set out, like punch.

The dead wandered through the labyrinths and became lost.  Later, they were herded by the trees to the center of the labyrinth, where they consumed what was offered to them and quarreled amongst themselves, snarling like dogs over the offerings.  These were not the honored dead of my childhood, great-grandmothers and children sadly found dead in the crib, but the lost dead of the great apocalypse.

Finally, at the end of the day, the dead collapsed once more.  The soil thus produced was of a fantastic richness.  It became a tradition to collect the gray, ashen earth piles and carry them to the base of any thorn trees, and to leave offerings for the trees to collect and place on their altars.

No one know what the walking trees think about all of this.  But it seems to me as though if any haunting were unjust, it is this—haunted by the dead of a race that had nearly destroyed itself and all life along with it, and which now rises from the earth to destroy that which the walking trees hold most sacred, by accident.

And so on one day a year, they must force themselves to stand almost entirely still, in elegant rows as they once were forced to do, as if that race once again was their master.

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic South American world.  It was supposed to be a pulp novel about new gods that had formed…I wrote like ten drafts on it, and it’s still terrible.  Then one day I had this off-kilter idea about an unnamed assassin and decided to set it in that world, as narrated by an alternate Jorge Luis Borges.  It’s going to be published soon in Aliterate as “The Name That Was Cursed.”  So if you liked this story, check them out.

I tried to make this scarier, but the narrator was having none of it.  “If the irony and injustice casually produced by humanity cannot terrify you, there is little that will.”

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