A return to the macabre this week. It’s been difficult to have too much in the way of plot in these stories – plot takes time to work out, and I’ve been working very quickly. Again, this story is just an extrapolation of an image, an exploration of tone, and a nod to the way these kinds of stories make me feel when I read them; that is, just slightly uncomfortable. Perplexed by the uncanny.
A Partially Opened Door
The room was freezing, slick with damp. Robert clutched his overcoat, allowed his eyes to adjust to the dim gloom that fed in from the hall. A small bed, one that looked clean enough. His bags, brought up from the carriage by an unseen servant. An old chest, presumably filled with sheets as damp as the rest of the chilling guest quarters.
Behind him, the old monk shifted uncomfortably. Robert forced a smile before he turned back.
“Thankyou. This will be splendid.”
The monk smiled toothlessly, folds of skin around his neck sagging wanly as he nodded.
“If you need anything, my door is always open,” he croaked, and turned and made his way back up into the furrowed maze of the abbey.
Robert waited for him to disappear, and then eased the heavy door firmly shut.
He headed for the bed, and sat slowly on the hard cot. He reached down for his boots, eased them gingerly from his feet. Rubbed his toes, raw with chill blains from the icy travel. A headache lurked behind his eyes, tightness creeping through his ribcage. This had been a hellish night, and the sooner it was brought to an end by the hard black of sleep, the better.
It was unfortunate that he had to stop here at all, really, but the roads had become thick with mud, and his driver had assured him that it was better that they wait out the night and try again in the warmer light of morning. So here he found himself; in the bowels of a decaying, archaic church that jutted out from a rocky cliff, overlooking a hamlet full of poor, foolhardy people. People desperately carving out an existence, their wretched lives watched on by this crumbling reminder of a God that had forgotten them. It made him sick, their squalor.
Robert sighed, felt the cold air spike in his lungs. Coughed, cringed at the knowledge that a sickness was catching up with him, and would likely leave him weak for several days. He tried to shake away his frustration, his unease, and thanked the very same God for at least giving him somewhere to stay for the night. The inns in the town were all hellish, sinful places, full of blank stares and blanker minds, and it had been a woman on the street who had suggested that the old abbey might provide shelter. And provide shelter it had, despite its unwelcoming appearance. The remains of the abbey’s ministerial contingent had shuffled him in from the wind, fed him with blessedly warm stew, and brought him down here, into a room kept cold at the centre of the world.
Robert continued to undress, laying his clothes carefully on the small chest at the foot of the bed, desperate for them not to touch the filthy stone floor. He shuddered at the spiderwebs overhead, tried not to think of the rats that no doubt shuffled throughout the walls, and climbed in to the cold womb of the bed. Quickly, he let his weariness overtake him.
In the morning, things would look brighter.
But between now and the morning, there was a cold, unconscious night to negotiate. His body lay still, but his mind picked up the slack, took off into wild and fanciful flight. Robert pleaded with it not to, begged it to let him rest calmly, but it had other ideas, and they came thick and fast and hot.
He dreamt of fire. Of spikes of warmth, licking at his toes.
Of colour and sound, piercing tension, forthright conviction. Of everything and nothing. And as the dreams played around and flickered through his sleeping form, they started to slow, began to cursedly congeal.
His mind stepped out of the room, wandered back into the distorted, gothic sinews of the abbey, which grew and splintered into a horrific cathedral. Voices from above murmured in unison, and Robert made his way up endless crumbling stairs toward the great stone arch of the main hall. He moved swiftly, smoothly passing through the oaken doors and into ruin.
There, he saw the town, gathered as one. Their faces were wrong – a uniform pale blue, eyes bright blocks of white peering from behind a winding, snake-like snout. Were these masks, or faces, or both?
They chanted, called out unrecognisable sounds and cackled brightly into the fire that encircled them. Robert wasn’t sure whether to join in, but knew that he would. He stepped forward. His mind stepped forward; dreamt of a world in which he stepped forward.
Was that the woman who had told him to come here, holding his hand, leading him through the crowd? Or was it just another distorted veil, seeking with vacant eyes, leading with crooked nose?
The people stood and welcomed him, watched him as he took his place at a wide altar. Monks appeared from cracks in the stained-glass, slid out of shadows and surrounded him, lifted him onto the red-hot marble of the altar and reached towards his face. He made a bargain with them. Let them in. Agreed to pay a bold penance for his rich, rich reward.
The monks pulled at his features. Drew out his skin, moulded his face into a figure of their own design. Sunk fingers into his eye sockets, pushed and twisted, but let him see, let him keep seeing, keep seeing, keep on seeing--
Robert suddenly awoke in bed to a cold sweat, the burgeoning light of dawn – and a partially opened door.
Robert swayed with the coach, his head banging at the wooden frame, his eyes throbbing at the light. It had seemed like days since he had slept. But the cold illness that had threatened to engulf his lungs the night before was thankfully gone, and he could feel his body beginning to warm itself against the world. He was, indeed, physically reinvigorated; stronger and brimming with energy only dampened by the deepening fog of his mind.
He stuck his head through the curtained window of the carriage, and watched as the village sank away from him, still mostly asleep. Above, the old abbey seemed simple and quaint in the morning light.
The monks had offered him breakfast, but he’d turned it down, his appetite dashed by the fervour of his dreams. They had smiled and understood and stared at him glassily as they arranged for men to carry his belongings back to the carriage. Robert had thanked them, and quickly exited their company, preferring to wait outside for his horses to be prepared. He had sat on the steps of the abbey for what felt like hours, watching a bird try to nest amongst a cracked old truss, blackened from some long forgotten flame.
Now, Robert slowly started to breathe more fully as the town and the abbey and the night were left behind him in the morning sun.
It was a strange feeling, to be both exhausted and invigorated, distant and precisely present. Robert’s mind raced through possibility, cursed the simple idiots wallowing in their imperfect existence behind him, and remembered his own nobility, his brimming, overflowing success. Imagined himself pressing faces into cold mud. This day, he knew who he was.
His driver called back. They would make excellent time. They had been blessed by someone, he laughed.
Below Robert’s feet, he searched through his cases, seeking a book.
He was annoyed to find the old chest from the guest quarters, collected in haste by the servants with the rest of his things.
He thought about turning back, knowing he never would. They wouldn’t miss it, the vermin, he told himself. He would throw the chest in some ditch and never think of it again.
But something stopped him. Called him blessedly to a halt.
He felt the cheap wood of the chest, lifted it up. Heard a rattling, and placed it on his lap, easing open the cracked hinges of the lid.
Inside, a flash of pale blue, and the frayed tassels of a mask.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image copyright David Keen.