Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Like gashes, little foxes

So here is a short story I wrote in time for Halloween, but then I forgot to post it... ah well.

Kathryn could hear the foxes barking outside. They had been barking for nearly two hours. Perhaps they made such a ruckus every night, but Kathryn had only been here for two days so she had no way of telling. She was looking through the window again, wondering what she should do. There was plenty of food in the house, the weather was mild, and in other circumstances she would be happy to holiday here.

The sun’s last traces went skimming through the leaves to create soft shadows on the honey colored grass that surrounded the house. Great clouds unfurled against a reddish sky, and a small breeze, like their emissary, drifted through the window and past Kathryn, pulling her hair into dark rivulets.

Now she found herself alone in a house supposed to be occupied by her boyfriend’s elderly aunt. And the car, her car, which she and Richard had driven here was broken half a mile out with a bent axle, and now Richard was gone on a very long walk back into the last town they had driven through on their way here. So she now found herself with the house, a cup of tea, and the vulpine evening.

Really, she shouldn’t be worried overly much. Richard’s aunt was supposed to have met them here, and her absence wasn’t terribly strange. She was older, in her late sixties, and according to Richard, an active capable woman. She had grown up in the Midwest among a primarily Russian immigrant community, and had fished and hunted and wandered with her father during the Depression and had never let go of her self-assurance. Kathryn had always admired that same characteristic in Richard, and had been looking forward to meeting this woman of whom Richard had always spoken with so much esteem. Kathryn was sure all would work out well, and that Richard would be back in a few days.

Instinctively, she pulled her cell from her pocket, to check for a message from Richard; of course, there was none. There was no reception here--there hadn’t been any for the last ten miles. Richard promised to return as soon as possible after he got into town and found a mechanic. He expected to be there within a day or so and back late the next. They had joked about the foxes when he left, Kathryn teasing that he, as usual, would have a harem of vixens within a day of arrival anywhere—even here so far from anything else.

Kathryn sipped her tea, and eventually decided to roll a cigarette and sit on the front porch steps. The evening had grown pleasantly chilly, the moon clear and bright, and a cigarette—something Richard always frowned on—would taste good and she could listen to the foxes speaking in their language of high pitched yelps and barks. Perhaps tonight she would actually see one. She flicked on the dim porch light and shut the door behind her.

She looked out across the large yard to the road winding out through the copse of pines and twisty grey oaks surrounding the house. The house perched on the top of a small hill so that it looked out but not over the tall trees growing everywhere around it. Kathryn liked sitting out on the steps, and if she was honest with herself, it was because the house was too large for her and made her a little nervous. The Yakova residence (Aunt Barbara’s surname) was as gray as the lichen-covered oaks and seemingly as old. The house was a modestly large affair with two stories, a high roof, and the haughty demureness that all these Victorians seemed to evoke. Kathryn had once visited San Francisco and under the presence of so many similar houses had felt like she was constantly being gently scolded by well-meaning but overly prim aunts.

She exhaled and watched the smoke drift out toward dissipation. Shadows flickered here and there in the woods and she could make out the foxes’ small shapes and the sharp flashes of their eyes. She saw light falling on the grass around the house and cursed. She had left the light on again upstairs in the bedroom, and now she would have to go up again and turn it off. “Serves you right, Kathryn, for never getting over your scarredy-pants-ness. Now you have to go up all alone in an old house with a missing old lady and your man isn’t here to go with you.”

It was the last part that roused her courage to not just ignore the light and sleep downstairs on the couch. Richard was always in charge of himself and liked to tease her for her jitters. Kathryn knew that if she were to give in to unfounded fears then they would only become worse and by the time Richard arrived, she would be sleeping in the broken down Honda with a blanket, a box of crackers, and a flashlight.

She exhaled the last of her cigarette, turned to ascend the few stairs to the now darkened front door, and heard a bark behind her nearly at her feet. Twisting like a cat, she saw a small dark fox. It barked again, its teeth small and sharp, its tail puffed high above it. She was happy she didn’t cry out herself, and readied herself to kick the fox were it to attack and then run back inside. She began walking slowly back up the stairs when the fox hissed and ran back into the deep shadows around the house. Shivering from cold and nerves, Kathryn pushed the slightly ajar door open.

The door slammed a little too hard behind as she shut it, and she jumped. “What the fuck was that?” She was talking to herself to break the spell of quiet the was all too easily cast here, and walked into the living room, flicking on the lights as she went. The staircase to the second floor started from the corner of the living room and made for a narrow ascension to the rooms above: two bedrooms, a storage room, and a small bathroom.

Richard and she had spent the first night upstairs in the guest bedroom, and had investigated the entire house room by room looking for clues to where his aunt may be. Richard had received a letter a month or so prior inviting him to visit and go over some issues of Barbara’s will and estate. Richard had promised to be her executor, and Barbara probably would appreciate other people filling her house with people as it had once been when she was young. They had set up a date, and then Richard and Kathryn had arrived to an empty house and a less than empty forest surrounding it.

“Kathryn.” Her heart became a sparrow, and for the second time that night she jumped. Her name had come from Barbara’s room, and was not Richard’s voice. Could her cell phone be on and working? Had she misheard? She checked and still no service. She didn’t recall a phone or answering machine upstairs but perhaps they had missed one in his aunt’s room. Kathryn opened the door, reached around the doorway for the light switch, and flicking it on, opened the door fully. The window was open slightly and she could feel a cool breeze raising goose bumps. She stepped in. Her eyes swept the room looking for a phone. She suddenly felt like a mannequin, hollowed out and stiff, realizing there was such device in the room. Turning to leave, she saw the door slowly shutting.

She jumped, caught it, and slammed the door shut. Forgetting to turn off the light in the room, she fled down the stairs turning on every light she could find. Only when the whole floor glowed with artificial electric life, did Kathryn calm down enough to realize that she probably heard a fox, or a branch swaying, or the breeze and, out of her loneliness, had hoped it was someone calling her with news. And of course the door shut—the window was open and hadn’t she felt the breeze herself?

“Girl, you have got to get your shit together. Now go in the kitchen, raid the cupboards, and take a breath.”

Later, after a cup of tea and some soup, did Kathryn finally fall asleep on the couch, far from the rooms upstairs, but never far from her small and lurking disquiet.

Kathryn dreamt that night of visitors. She was upstairs in the house, and was looking out the window awaiting Richard’s return. Someone kept knocking politely but persistently on the door below and she was sure whoever it was would soon leave if she just remained quiet and ignored the knocking. She was wearing a dress that she had not seen before—a simple blue dress with embroidered stars here and there, and around the square-neck was a curious embroidered pattern of intertwining branches. The knocks downstairs had become something close to thunder and suddenly Kathryn could not breathe and she could see Richard on the road back to the house and was terrified and awoke in the dark to see someone sitting in the room with her. She lurched forward, gasping, to awake once more in an empty room.

The sun was streaming through the windows and her face was warm. She gathered herself, breathing slowly and regularly as she always did when she woke from nightmares. Soon she had brushed the night’s occurrences away, and was left with a strong desire for coffee and someone to talk to. If not Richard, then her sister. She suddenly missed her sister. She wanted her sister here, with her, filling up this house with her brash laughter. Kathryn and Richard had considered inviting her sister along, but had decided to just make it the two of them and bring family over later. Kathryn didn’t normally spend a lot of time alone, and was getting not only lonely, but a little stir-crazy. She busied herself in the kitchen making coffee, and reminded herself that she could use this time for a little self-improvement and maybe meditate or something while she had the time.

Kathryn didn’t meditate that day, but she did clean. This was usually a meditative exercise for her, and she thought it would not only give her something to do, but would also make Aunt Barb happy when she arrived. She swept about the house, dusting, and of course, doing an entirely justified and respectable amount of snooping. Covers and cushions were lifted, drawers were opened to clean the interiors, and while checking the drawers in the kitchen to see if any utensils needed a clean scrubbing, she discovered phone bills. The last time a phone bill had been paid was nearly eight years ago, and she and Richard had not seen a phone in the house. This was curious.

After ransacking the rest of the house, now with little care for covering her tracks, she found a box in Aunt Barb’s room, under a chair with other documents: doctor’s bills, electricity and water bills, and unsent letter in an envelope addressed to Richard; all were postdated at least eight years prior. The letter was innocuous enough, asking Richard to come visit, that she had some work that needed to be done and that he would be of great help in her quickly failing health. Kathryn decided that this was absolutely enough and that she would be leaving this fucking house immediately. There was still time to get a start toward town before it got dark, and hell, she would bring a blanket, and would be happier out there than another night here in this strange house with its bizarre mysteries.

Kathryn couldn’t get out.

The forest, or something, wouldn’t let Kathryn leave. She would walk in, following the road for an hour, and then find the house balanced on the rise in front of her again, its immense mockery apparent. At first she had thought she had just gotten turned around, a little lost, but after the third time it happened, Kathryn finally understood that she would not be able to escape under her own power. Helplessness swept through her and, shaking, she sat and wept. She pounded the dirt road with her fists and raged at her own lack of agency. She had been swept to the side and shown her own powerlessness. Eventually, worn from crying, when one suddenly just feels a little better for having run out of tears, she nodded, acquiesced that something was happening with the foxes and the shadows and the strange sounds and if she couldn’t leave, well then fine, but she certainly wasn’t going to give up. She’d sleep in the Honda and wait for Richard’s return. She stumbled to the car and realized that she had left her keys in the house. Slowly, she slid down the door and sat in the cold dirt, and did not scream. She gathered her will and decided that she would go back inside, gather her keys, and then would return to the car. This was going to happen just as she planned; when she was certain, she rose and slowly strode to the house.

Kathryn ascended the stairs warily and wearily. No lights were on inside, and she waited by the door for a moment’s listening. As per usual, all she could hear were the foxes barking in the dark trees behind her, now more like great rips in the world in the shape of trees with the small foxes like knives flitting from gash to ground to gash again.

The door was unlocked. She had left it unlocked in case she missed Richard on his return, and was now glad she had left it so as she was relieved to not fumble with keys in the dark. Slipping in, she flicked on the light and went to the coffee table in the living room where she recalled leaving her keys. The table was made from perhaps a walnut or some other dark wood and was probably an antique; Kathryn wasn’t sure, but it certainly looked old. It also was absent of keys. Kathryn scanned the room. Frustrated with herself and Richard and the foxes and this goddamned house, she fumed into the kitchen, and everywhere throughout the house, but it was just as empty of keys as it was of any feeling of menace. It was as if the house had realized its creepiness, and was doing its best to shunt that aspect aside and only show its house-ness. As if it were saying in its best dinner table voice, why there’s nothing here but me, just an old house on a quaint and quiet piece of normal property.

Kathryn could scream.

She instead sat on the couch and determined to make a plan. Fine. She would stay in the house one more night. She would not sleep, but instead would sit here on the couch with all the lights on, and if she felt sleepy she would smoke cigarettes. Inside. Tomorrow, she would attempt to leave again, and if she was turned around again, she’d burn the whole fucking thing to the ground, and that would be sure to garner someone’s attention. “Did you hear that, house?” She asked. “Tomorrow I’m either on my way toward town, or there’s gonna be a reckoning.” She shook her head, amazed that she was at a point where talking to houses seemed totally okay.

She woke with a start. Fuck, she had been sleeping. Someone was in the room with her. Sitting quietly on the antique chair looking at her. She screamed.

“Kathryn! It’s me. It’s okay.” The shape lurched toward her, arms heavy and ready to crush her. Beating them away, Kathryn heard from a distance, on the periphery of hearing, the form saying something but all she could hear were the foxes almost chanting outside and around the house, and inside her head. She stopped to listen as the barking seemed to almost coalesce into language. The foxes were saying something and Kathryn knew she should hear whatever it was they were saying and then Richard was there holding her tight and whispering, “I’m here, I’m here.”

“There wasn’t a mechanic who would come out here!”

“Richard, you don’t get it, we have to go! You weren’t here!” Kathryn was weeping again. Lord, she was tired of crying. Her fists were clenched at her side and she decided that hitting Richard would not actually hammer in the valididty of her concerns. but he was saying something.

“...come on, Katie, don’t you think that just maybe you could be freaking out? Just a little? You know you’re not very good alone, you’re Ms. Scaredy-pants, remember? Anyway, I’m here now and it’ll be fine. The house is beautiful, the little forest outside is lovely, and we deserve to be here.”

“What about the bills, Richard?” Kathryn pointed to the bills scattered across the counter. She had shown them to Richard to prove that something was happening here, and that maybe Aunt Barbara wasn’t here anymore and wouldn’t be coming back.

“Well that is strange, Kathryn, but I received a letter from her just a month ago, remember? And it was her writing, and she asked me to come here. Let’s just wait a week or so. And what were you doing, anyway? This isn’t your house. You shouldn’t be snooping around.”

And so it went for a good portion of the day. Eventually Richard retreated to the upstairs room, and Kathryn sat on the couch--less afraid of course, but frustrated and feeling very alone. She could hear him upstairs, pacing about and cleaning. He once came down into the kitchen and grabbed some cleaning supplies and a broom. The house didn’t need cleaning, but Richard was fastidious, and sometimes cleaned as a means to cool off. Yet he scarcely came down, and when he did, he ignored her. He was zoned out, probably tired from the walk back, and frustrated he had not found a mechanic. He didn’t need her paranoia upon his return. At leas this was Kathryn’s analysis, but when she tried making amends and was brushed off like a stranger—well to hell with him. She could ignore him too; tomorrow she’d leave. She would leave tomorrow to walk to town. If Richard didn’t want to go with her, fine. And if she got turned around again, she’d pull him by his ears with her until he saw it too. So once again she slept alone downstairs, and this time tired Kathryn fell quickly asleep and did not dream.

Early in the morning, long before any light, she began to feel a little cold and groped for her blanket. She pressed herself into the back of the couch, facing the living room and pulled her blanket all the way to her chin, both hands curled into fists holding the blanket tightly wound in each.

The stairs creaked and she woke no longer angry but immobile and cold and panting.

Something was coming down the stairs heavy and terrible.

Something was lurching toward her. She tried to see what it was, but it was dark, and it’s movements too abrupt, terrible and unnatural.

She tried to scream and couldn’t. Where was Richard? Was he dead? Had this thing been in the house all along, just toying with her? It was closer now, and she could finally begin to see it and oh god oh god oh god it couldn’t be how could there exist something like this so unnatural and monstrous.

It was Richard, but not him. Good god how could it be him? She couldn’t hear the foxes tonight. Just her heart and the floorboards creaking as if under immense weight. As it moved down the stairs toward her, the sound of teeth gnashing and bone scraping along the old stairs filled the room and oh if she could only scream.

It was Richard and it was not. Flickering in and out and through him was a terrible old woman. Metal teeth grinned out at odd angles, and a merciless and empty humor dripped in and out with the rasping breath. It whispered her name, just once, and she shuddered for in those two syllables there was such hunger and such invitation. It was Richard asking her to love him, pleading. It was the old woman pleading to be fed. It was her first lover whispering her name during sex, and Kathryn felt herself giving in to their demands. They needed her. A strange sort of resigned peace spread out and warmed her. She had read of predation, of how some animals simply go slack at the end. How by finally letting it all go, they reach some sort of primitive transcendence in the teeth of whatever creature is at that instant like their god.

Richard’s not-face was above her now and she could not differentiate between the old woman with absent sockets filled with night and a chicken foot hanging from her neck and Richard’s panicked, sorrowed eyes hungry for so much of her. She heard a fox bark, and finally could scream.

Like fire ripping through the house, a fleet of the small and vicious creatures swept into the house. Blood and fire and white teeth consumed the heavy backed and bone-legged crone. Foxes swirled over her screaming and biting and bit. For every fox she tore off broken-backed, two more would be there rending. Kathryn felt like the house was on fire, just as she had planned, and finally began crawling toward the cool air rushing in through the front door.

Kathryn looked back once from house’s exit. The old woman opened her mouth to speak. It was smeared red. She was trying to say something, something Kathryn knew would be hideous, but stemming from her mouth were dozens of branches, lichen crawling over her desiccated lips, branches black and grasping. Foxes snapping at her lips and pulling. Kathryn watched, unable to breathe. The lips began to part even wider and the hag began to shake her head in fury.

That night Kathryn fled through the dark trees, running and tripping along the road, leaving the blaze of foxes and that thing that had taken Richard to whatever doom was their fate. She cried out as she ran, her breath ragged and eyes raw. She wept from relief and its attendant guilt. Poor, poor Richard. Once, from the road, she looked back again, and thought that she saw the house, smaller now, moving away jerkily as if on legs, light leaking like blood from its windows and foxes giving chase.