HONORABLE MENTION, Fall 2015
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
BY RIDGE CARPENTER
“Most men, when they’ve almost reached the final bell in their lives, consult their ledgers and fall into one of two categories,” said our host. “They add up the years and find themselves rich with a life well lived, and experiences had, and can live off the dividends of those same quite independently for the rest of their existence; or, as is unfortunately the more common case, they discover a negative aggregation, a life that has drawn out their accounts, as it were. For some it is all they can do not to declare bankruptcy on the spot, give up the ghost, so to speak, to its creditors, and hope for another chance on the other side of the curtain. Others spend their remaining allotment on this plane in desperation to forget or repay those awful debts with oblivion, in tawdry entertainments, chemical stupor, or the opulent decorum of cultural indulgence.
“The debt, however, will be had, if the total is found wanting; and it is good to remember that no amount of forgetfulness will erase the stinging red of the past. I mention this, not in regret of my own life, but in explanation of the tale that will follow—to pass it on, for me, is to ease somewhat the strain it has put on an otherwise satisfying and rational existence. It was a very close approach to the unreal, to the profane and terrifying, which on its own very nearly wiped out my assets at the time, chief among them my sanity.”
The speaker was our mentor, the great surgeon Col. Devon Dewey, one of the most influential teachers of the Royal College of Surgeons. He had remained largely silent that evening, unless consulted by one of us on a finer point in our discussions—the picture of reserved and confident mastery. The discussion had turned to the supernatural over the inevitable cigars, and after several tales from my colleagues on the influence of the otherworldly, our host had manifested a desire to open the copious vaults of his thoughts to our eager ears.
“The time during which my accounts were so deeply unbalanced,” our honored mentor began, “to perhaps stretch my metaphor a bit too far, was too long ago for many of you to remember—I would imagine most of you were born either during or soon after the second great war of our century. I, however, was already into middle age at the time—hardly fit for military service in the regular sense, but honored to lend my expertise to the efforts in the field. Ironically, most of the members of my regiment, almost all of them much younger than myself, had perished by the time of this tale—they died or were captured as we made our way from one theater to another in the war effort, cutting our way through the subcontinent of Asia after leaving the Mediterranean. In the absence of my countrymen I became informally attached to an American battalion in Malaysia, and was with them still when we landed on the largest island of Japan after the two great bombs had silenced the voices of so many thousands. My new company was quickly assigned what turned out to be a rather distasteful task—investigating, assisting, and, if necessary, pacifying the numerous rural towns and villages of a mountainous province of the interior.
“The horrors of war, one finds out quickly, extend far beyond the battle lines: disease, starvation, crime, and madness prevail among the human wreckage of the war machine, as they did in the desolate world on which we had disembarked. As we ventured farther into the rocky wilderness, people’s knowledge of the war and of the outside world became vague, and they seemed not to know or even care what the reason may have been for the disappearance of order, authority, and regularity—their lives had become simply a struggle for the resources to survive. This disconnection was not surprising, considering the lack of technological advancement in these rural areas. Electricity and plumbing disappeared as we ascended rocky footpaths through the hills, past stunted pines older than the United States, and shrines to gods forgotten before Columbus sailed. Cars and streetlights were replaced by wagons and lanterns, and grotesque stone effigies watched by the roadsides as if at the gates of the distant past—into which I frequently felt we were proceeding.
“Days passed like blood from a wound as we toiled through the cast-off human resources of a once-mighty military monster. Entire villages lay silent, from firebombing, starvation, or suicide. Some there were who clung to life, only to give it up with the approach of the victorious enemy—cliffs and rivers turned to abattoirs as we came in sight. These, however, were fortunate souls in some respects, compared to those remaining in the final sum: listless, weakened villagers squeezed to apathy by the action of two giant fists pressing against one another for half a decade, awaiting their destiny as spectators rather than conscious actors.
“The final town we came to had seemingly reached the height—or, I suppose, depths—of degradation. It comprised a scattering of wooden houses, the paper windows half-torn and flapping vaguely like warning hands, dominated by a hulking, half-collapsed watermill at the center athwart a filthy runnel, the corpse of a river. The fields all around were barren, and clearly had been so for a long time. Not a soul emerged to meet us, save a filthy child with its belly swollen from protein starvation and face marked by ill-healed sores.
“When the remainder of the occupants were convinced to come forth, they turned out to be, if anything, worse off than the child had been. The women were unkempt, clad in rags, their hair standing off of their heads like dusty wool rejected by a spinner. The men seemed spiritless, stooped as with a great weight, though not a member in the party appeared older than forty. Of children there were next to none, the lot being almost entirely composed of bedraggled and listless men and women who stood about, staring into space as if blind.
“At length, a spokesman was sent forward—seemingly the oldest citizen of the town, though he was hardly my age—and answered questions posed through our visibly disconcerted interpreter. The latter had been born in Tokyo and raised in his adopted America, and was dumbfounded at the existence of such persons in his homeland, of which his only memories were of tradition, decorum, and discipline. Seemingly as much to sooth himself as for the benefit of those of us listening to his interpretations, he prefaced the spokesman’s initial answers with a reminder that these people had experienced a great famine and sickness, even beyond that brought on by the confusion of the war effort, of which they appeared to have only a dim recollection. After a pause, he then went on to relay the information that these compounded misfortunes had led the credulous townspeople to the unshakable conclusion that a curse had been laid upon them.
“When pressed as to the curse’s supposed source the local spokesman halted, apparently fearful of mentioning whatever was at the root of the town’s ills. He looked queasily around toward the silent surrounding peaks, and toward a strange sort of shrine at the foot of the upward path. Then, with apparent resignation, he spoke at some length, seemingly in a defensive way, and had to be halted frequently for clarification by our shocked interpreter. When our astonished and somewhat agitated colleague finally explained matters to us, our shock equaled his own.
“In the throes of famine, it was explained, the town had elected to rid itself of its most burdensome elements. The domestic and farm animals had been killed and eaten, after which even the last few invading rodents were trapped and consumed—and the villagers’ attention had then shifted to the elderly. Time and hunger did away with any qualms among the community leaders, and those too old to work or forage were told they could no longer be fed, and were forced to leave. Faced with threats of violence, the elders had fled in terror and confusion into the hills and forests, and had doubtless perished there. It was at this point that the town’s troubles deepened unfathomably. Since that time, we were told, the famine had worsened, the hillsides had dried up, rain had ceased to fall. The wild animals had long since abandoned the region, and various maladies had begun to plague the town’s weaker individuals. Some of the banished elders had whispered darkly among themselves as they departed, and made signs of unambiguously malicious meaning before the rough-hewn statue by the path, which we all took a moment to examine as this was explained. It was a hideous, low figure of a woman who wore a broad and jagged grin beneath upturned, bulging eyes, was clothed in a robe that at one time had been painted red, and, as its dominant feature, sprouted a wild and tangled thicket of hair that reached entirely to its feet, where it twined around and appeared to grip the statue’s inscribed base. Crowning the disordered thatch carved onto the head was what appeared to be another sizable mouth crowded with teeth more closely suited to the canine than to any kind of human figure. In expression the effigy was akin to some of the more ancient grotesqueries to be seen in Buddhist iconography, but it possessed also an entirely unique aesthetic of atavistic form—primarily in the crazed eyes and mouth—that was absent from and foreign to even the darkest representations in Asia’s known religious and artistic movements.
“After failing to glean any identification or folklore on the statue from our native speaker—it was far too old, he said, for almost anyone who hadn’t grown up in the region to know what it could be—we continued our questioning of the townsman. But while the man for the most part was cooperative, it soon became clear that there was one point on which he could not be induced to speak: that of the fate that had befallen befallen the local children. He admitted that there were very few present, and that there had once been many others, but he vehemently denied they had been treated as the old ones had. They’d been the town’s future, he said, not its past, so there was no motive for exiling them. I thought briefly of the horrors in some war-struck villages of Europe—of locked sheds and rubbish heaps strewn with small clothing and broken, blackened bones. Even these near-powerless creatures seemed capable of such atrocities after what I’d seen, and I made a note to explore this possibility at some more discreet hour.
“Having reached an investigative dead-end for the moment, my company began carrying out our various assignments. For my part, I established a makeshift clinic and began applying endless bandages and ointments, tonics, and nutriments; and hygiene was reinstated to some degree among the apathetic, listless villagers with the introduction of soap and water-purification procedures. These preliminaries occupied the greater part of the day, and twilight was approaching when we finally set up our own quarters in an empty barn and made preparations to turn in for the night. As we did so, we noticed that the townspeople displayed great care and even anxiety in accounting for the handful of remaining children, even though none of these had strayed far from home at all. The adults rushed to get themselves and their young ones indoors, and the lanterns lit. The sun had hardly set when the central square was empty, and the wind-swept mountain town seemed an abode of restless ghosts, and forsaken even by crows and insects.
“The habit one falls into in the service is to sleep when the opportunity presents itself, and wake easily. I had certainly done the first, and the second followed at some time after midnight. I came to feeling as though I’d been dropped into my bed, still hearing a vague echo of the sound that had called me into consciousness—a patter of swift, small feet outside, on the wooden slats of a porch or rooftop. Recalling the absence of animals—we’d seen none at all the previous day—I thought the muted disturbance merited investigation. Peering through a shredded window section, I could just make out the neighboring rooftops, black against a sky dark as the deepest obscurities of the ocean. A hint of movement, nothing more, from a neighboring roof caught my eye. A flag, possibly, or clothing left out to dry by some slovenly villager. Then the footsteps continued, accompanied by a soft noise like silk over wet stone, or a brush on paper—a dragging sibilance. Straining to get a better look, I leaned on an aged board that protested loudly in the still mountain air. The noises immediately stopped, and only a rustle among the stunted trees announced the departure of their unseen originator.
“I attempted to find out more the next day, by carefully describing the sounds I’d heard in the night through our interpreter to another of the village’s relative elders, a young but prematurely bent and careworn mother whose child—a stunted boy of four or five—sat entirely still and inactive while she attended to some rudimentary morning tasks. When it became clear to her what I had heard and when, she displayed a previously unwonted alacrity in snatching up her son. Clutching the boy desperately, she asked me whence the sounds had come, and when I pointed out the house opposite and asked about any washing left out or hung from the roof, she became practically beside herself with a kind of imaginative, excited terror, and dashed inside that building. Realizing that it was her house the unknown visitor must have come to, I followed with more questions, but had to wait as she ran wildly about the inner rooms. Breathing quickly and staring as though her eyes would start from her bony head, she began closing all the windows of the house—a pathetic precaution given that these were constructed almost entirely of paper. She would answer none of my queries, nor would she agree to part with the child for the least moment to ease her labors. At length she fell into a sort of swoon on the matted floor and began speaking so incoherently that my colleague was able to pick out only a few recurring phrases. All he could tell me of their substance was that she referred to a female, though with various imperfections in verb and noun formation; and that she was deathly afraid of the sounds from the roof and of something that lived in the highest peaks of the hills surrounding the village. By then the slack-faced boy was sitting near his prostrate mother, idly scribbling with the stub of a pencil at a scrap of paper he’d picked up. It had been previously drawn upon, and it caught my eye—though all I could make of it, for the moment, was a rather naturalistic representation of a thorny bush. With another moment’s puzzling I could make out something like a mouth among the branches; yet this signified little to me until a later date.
“I described my unusual encounter to our captain, along with the sounds of the previous night, and a party was assembled to search the higher reaches of the mountainside. The people of the village made no effort to join us, but collected in a murmuring knot outside the unfortunate woman’s house as we departed.
“The afternoon’s search was initially unrewarding. Hardly a sign did we discover of any living agency; as before, not even birds or rodents seemed to have left any mark of their presence for months past. The sun shone down from directly overhead, making as clear as could be the desolation around us, and the only movements that greeted our search party were those of rocks that tumbled from beneath our feet and the slight stirrings of wind through the scrubby trees. The sky appeared so clear as to be empty and, if it were possible, airless. I say we sensed no living agency, however, because dubious relicts of life confronted us—shreds of weathered, tattered cloth that hung from thorns, or, more ominously, fragments of sun-bleached bone lying on the bare earth. A stick leaning against a boulder caught our notice in mid-afternoon, due to its rather artificial shape, and this was eventually identified as a rough-hewn cane, which reminded us of the grim fate of the town’s missing elders. As for the banished people themselves, they had either moved on or perished in concealment.
“The true shock awaited us at the summit of one of the highest hills. We saw a sudden flutter of color among the bushes, and, unaccustomed to such vibrancy in the absence of birds and flowers, followed it as one would a beacon.
“Deep within a thicket, we came upon a strip of cloth much brighter than the faded remnants we’d earlier found; it had been torn recently from some garment by the bushes. This scrap bore, in addition to its bright dyes, a dirty, rusty tinge that boded ill for its former wearer. Following an improvised path that in places had to be hacked through the brambles, we eventually arrived at a sizable clearing. Our ears rang in the surrounding stillness, and the mountain air suddenly seemed unusually close and warm. Standing at the center of this opening was a thatched-roof hut that was practically falling in from great age and weathering. The walls were of dusty, desiccated split branches, and bore no adornments save a signboard or cartouche above the door. The faded ideograms in the main defied our native-born companion; through the mists of age and style he could make out only a supplication that concluded on the general lines of “We dare not forget.” Our repeated calls brought forth no occupants, though the silence was weighted with a feeling, shared by all of us, that we were being watched. Finally, our captain touched the sleeve of another man, gravely inclined his head toward the hut, and together they moved aside the matting over the door.
“The interior of the shack was unfurnished but for a shrine or alcove on the far wall. This was cluttered with diverse objects, odd relics of sinister and doubtful outline, which obviously had been much handled in their long histories. Though many were entirely incomprehensible in their shape or function, a few presented an unmistakable aspect of teeth, smooth from age and abrasion. I judged them to be first-growth molars, and definitely not from a sole individual. A few other bones littered the area—these were mostly so cracked and defiled that one could as little tell what had once possessed them as what had so abused and scattered them; it surely had not been the work of scavengers, of which we’d still seen none. A group of pathetic, flimsy things that may have been folded paper fans and toys rested among the other relicts in frozen, dusty poses that gave the impression of eternity. This unsettling collection, combined with all else we’d discovered that day, provoked much speculation among us, as did the dominant man-made object amid the assortment—a sort of outsized ornamental comb made of what appeared to be heavily oxidized iron. This artifact was the only thing that seemed as if it might have been handled at all recently, and it had in its rusty tines a single hair that was fully as long as our tallest man was tall.
“What was this place? As yet we had no explanation—but we were more than happy to leave it and head back down from the hills.
“We attempted a reassuring tone with the villagers, who peppered us with anxious questions upon our return. Our report of the thicket and its clearing provoked unease among them, and a few of them turned pale at our description of the enigmatically decorated dwelling at its heart. But nothing could have prepared us for their reaction to our accounting of its contents—which was the abrupt collapse of two of the disheveled women present. By this point, we considered ourselves entirely justified in demanding some answers from the terrified rustics, and after much interrogation we finally obtained what might have passed for an explanation were it not entirely more mystifying than the original mystery had been.
“There was, it turned out, a superstition among the townspeople of a malignant presence or spirit lurking among the rocky wastes. It was thought to have returned among them in recent years as a result of the elders’ curse, though it had been present in the mountains since times long before their most distant inherited memory. Prior to the war, and during the town’s more prosperous days, the thing had served as a sort of bogey to frighten children who were unruly or inclined to wander.
“Over the course of this narrative, haltingly delivered by two or three of the elders, the eyes of the assembled townspeople rolled continuously toward the grotesque idol by the side of the path, and I found myself studying it again with as much disgust as curiosity. The weathered pigments remaining on the statue’s robe were reminiscent of the rusted hues with which a soldier becomes familiar—but these colors brightened near the face and the horribly tusked mouth. It appeared the image had at some point been touched up so that the red showed thicker and newer near the hands and head and about the feet, where the obscene hair curled and grasped in a twisted mass of graven strands. I resumed listening in time to hear a summary dismissal of the “fairy tale” from our captain, after which we excused the frightened townspeople and went about our various duties for the remainder of the day. Not long after nightfall I fell asleep in our makeshift barracks, and dreamt of combs, of paper fans, and of teeth.
“The climax of the entire adventure, and the nearest approach I have yet made to the unexplained and the unnatural, occurred later that night. I awoke when the witching hour had come and nearly gone, and at the sound of swift, padding feet outside the barn, I immediately awakened our interpreter and the captain. Motioning for silence, the latter led the way outside, and the three of us crouched behind a disused well to observe the rooftops. The town was silent, and the still air wrapped the scene as does a parting curtain on the expectant stage. The night sky was radiant through scattered, racing clouds that lent white backbones to the silhouettes of the surrounding buildings.
“The nearest of these, scene of the previous night’s disturbance, again claimed my attention. Under the shadowed edge of the roof’s eave I saw a ragged, crouching shape drawing itself along the very contour of the architecture, clinging like a limpet to the underside of the hanging roof and moving with great stealth. My fellows observed this as well, and we were debating whether to call out to it when the shape surged, with a projection of spidery limbs, beneath the projecting roof and through a gap that would have seemed too small to pass a child. No sooner had that flash of trailing tatters vanished through the recess than a shriek resounded from within—and it was unmistakably that of the little boy who lived there. We dashed madly for the door and burst through it just in time to see the terrified mother falling as she ran toward a torn window through which a small, struggling shape thickly wrapped in some weedy, black mess was being drawn. The flimsy architecture of the house aided our pursuit, and we crashed through the wall in a stride and immediately sprinted after a crackling shake in the bushes ahead of us. As we climbed the hill above the town, the moon came leering out from the clouds overhead and illuminated, as vaguely as it had on the rooftop, a shambling mass of limbs, cloth, and vine-like hair sweeping with inhuman speed through the thickets. We heard the little boy shriek again—but this desperate cry was cut short before it was completed, and we never heard it again.
“Our steps, guided by a presentiment of the creature’s destination, brought us swiftly to the hateful clearing, which was washed in moonlight and slashed chaotically with the maniac scribblings of thorny shadows. Hesitating only momentarily at the thicket’s edge, we ran to the filthy hovel into which only moments before the horrible light steps had vanished—only to be thrown back almost bodily by a screech that, for an instant, nearly stopped our very hearts. This exclamation only vaguely resembled a human sound, so broken with age and coarsened with fury had it become over the untold centuries its earthly existence had occupied. The brief but terrifying silence that followed was broken when a ragged, gasping mass passed swiftly between the captain and myself like a clot of rotting weeds down the rapids of a stream. Then it was gone, and the deathly silence returned to the desolation of the empty thicket.
“After what we had seen and heard, we held no expectations for life remaining in the hut—and to our sorrow, when we went inside we found that our pessimism had been justified. As soon as we’d given the meager remains as decent a burial as we could, we turned our steps back toward civilization.
“The town’s evacuation was more than necessary on far saner grounds than what we had seen, and our terrified captain had no intentions either of remaining in the area or attempting an explanation to his own superiors of what had truly happened. Many of the villagers, permanently trapped, it would seem, in the apathetic fog brought on by the curse, refused to leave. I imagine they sooner or later perished of any number of causes—but I pray they died without seeing what I myself had seen. Of the captain, the interpreter, and myself, none of us ever spoke on record of that night’s horrors. For my part, as soon as I was away from there, I required the only sick leave I’ve ever taken in a vain attempt to efface from my mind the vision of those hands, so like thorned branches, clutching that poor child as the creature to which they were appended fled from us into the darkness and up the side of the hill. An old crone it could have been, or been once—as wrinkled and blasted as the tatters she wore, and wreathed in a seething mass of hair that writhed like a living thing.