The house breathes. The cold wind wheezes like an old man’s breathing as it comes in through the spaces between the weather worn boards and around the dingy windows. Tattered sheer curtains hang on sagging rods and tremble and shake with every breeze. Where there is wallpaper, it is buckled and ripped and yellowed with age. Rust colored water stains in the shape of continents spot the ceilings. Every room smells of decay.
I have come back having not been here since childhood. I thought I would find solace in returning to something familiar, but time has rendered the inside of the house unfamiliar. The pictures of family ancestors that hung on the walls are gone, but their outlines are imprinted on the peeling wallpaper. A mildewed sofa in the living room, a table in the kitchen, and a four poster bed with a ripped mattress is the only furniture in the house. I found candles, candle holders, matches, oil lamps and oil in the dark basement and I’ve placed them on the floors scattered around the house, except for
an oil lamp on the kitchen table and two candles on the mantle place.
I sit on the floor in front of the roaring flames and watch the glowing red embers beneath the burning tree branches wink like bloodshot eyes. Sparks and gray ash float up the chimney as the fire crackles and snaps. The heat is intense and not comforting. Sweat runs down my forehead and into my eyes. I am glued here, unable to pull myself away from the safety of light. I have been through most of the house while the sun was up, but now that night has fallen, I admit that there is something disturbing about this house.
The heat and smell from the fire has clung to my clothes. I walk into the bedroom carrying an oil lamp that casts flickering light and dancing shadows on the walls. At the window the view of the barren landscape carpeted with a thin layer of snow is illuminated by a crescent moon. The dormant oak trees look dead and their leafless branches reach out menacingly. There is a very thin crack, like a scar, in the pane of glass. I run my fingertips along it and feel the frigidness of the glass. A cloud of my
breath forms an image of a face on the window that quickly disappears.
I turn and hold the lamp up, throwing light on the mattress. Stuffing is sticking out of it in several places like erupting pustules. I place the oil lamp on the floor and spread out my sleeping bag on the mattress, then sit on the edge of the mattress. The bed groans. There is dried mud on my boots that flakes off like dead skin as I take them off. I place them next to the lamp.
With my clothes on I stretch out on the sleeping bag and stare up at the circle of light cast on the ceiling by the lamp. The plaster has so many cracks and bumps it’s like a topographical map. I have come here alone, having had to use a real map because the old highway leading to it was replaced and the new one went another direction. The roads leading to this house all look alike and have no signs. The nearest house is miles away. I am acutely aware of the absence of outside noise. I imagine I hear the snow falling, like butterflies landing on cotton balls. Inside the house there are a myriad of ubiquitous noises, all hushed, as if the house is whispering.
When I fell asleep I don’t know. I have wrapped the sleeping bag around me but it’s cold; almost as cold as being outside. I roll on my side and stare at the flame on the wick of the oil lamp. It barely moves, as if it’s frozen. I sit up, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. I pull the sleeping bag around my shoulders and walk with it around me to the window. The moon has moved out of my view, but its light shines on the distant hills that look like dark blue cakes topped with white icing. The snow has built up, hiding the dead prairie grass beneath it. As a boy my father took me horseback riding across that plain many times. When he disappeared I imagined he rode off across the plain to the end of the Earth.
I pick up the oil lamp and leave my boots behind and walk out into the hallway. Here the wind whistles. There are three other rooms and a bathroom on this floor; all their doors are closed. In spots, wallpaper hangs in strips, like Band Aids detaching from wounded skin. In the center of the ceiling is the trap door to the attic. I reach for the rope that hangs from it to pull down the ladder attached to the door, but it is out of reach by about a foot. I don’t intend to go up there anyway, not now, not tonight. Before I go down the stairs I hear a thump behind me. I turn and see nothing. I go down the stairs and at the bottom I turn and look up towards the dark hallway.
There are only embers in the fireplace. I lay the sleeping bag on the sofa and pick up several of the large pieces of tree that I had collected when I first got here and placed by the fireplace. I arrange them on the embers and ashes and wave my hands to stir the flow of oxygen. Flames begin to rise from the embers and curl around the wood. I sit on the sofa and stare at the emerging fire. I’m thinking that snow sliding down the roof sounds just like something being dragged across the floor in the attic.
Pale rays of morning sunlight shine through the dust covered window. The room smells of smoke. Dampness from outside has seeped through the walls. I sit up and see only a few embers glowing amidst the ash in the fireplace. I throw the last small piece of wood and a few twigs in the fireplace and fan the embers with my hand until the twigs begin to burn. Holding my hands above the emerging fire to warm them, I feel the heat easing the chill in my entire body. I get up and as I pass the window I see footprints in the snow just outside the window. I rush to the foyer and open the door. The light reflected off the snow blinds me for a moment, then I see on the porch footsteps in the snow leading to the door.
I rush up the stairs and go into the bedroom. My boots are on the bed. The mattress is wet around them. I pick them up and as water drips from them I put them on and lace them up. I put on my coat and go out into the hallway and notice that the trap door to the attic has been lowered by a few inches. I listen and hear only the continuous settling of the house, as if even after one hundred years after it was built it’s still restless. I dash down the stairs and out the door and stand on the porch. Placing my boot in one of the imprints in the snow it is obvious that it was my boot that made it. I follow the boot tracks that lead down the steps and a short distance into the yard.
Feeling I am being watched, I turn in every direction, then look up at the window to the attic and see a mostly indiscernible face behind the glass. It quickly disappears while my heart is thumping against my chest. I run into the house and take the three cushions from the sofa and go up the stairs and throw the cushions on the floor just under the trap door.
Then just as I step onto the cushions and put my hand on the rope to pull the trap door open and lower the ladder, I recall my father saying, “Stay out of the attic.”
I tighten my grip on the rope and remember asking, “Why Dad? What’s up there?”
“Something you’d never understand,” he said.
As the cushions wobble beneath m, I pull the rope and step off the cushions and lower the folding ladder. Cold air and the smell of dust and age flow down through the opening. I kick aside the cushions and climb the ladder.
There are piles of rodent and bird bones stacked like stalagmites all around the attic. In the midst of them is an old wood steamer trunk. I see it just in time to see and hear its lid close. In a combination of shock and fear I leap off the ladder, then quickly raise the ladder and let the trap door close.
I carry in two bags of groceries from the car and place them on the kitchen table. Everything I bought at the small grocery store in the nearest town on the way here doesn’t need refrigeration. I take out a bottle of orange juice, a loaf of bread, a jar of blackberry jam and a jar of peanut butter. This will be breakfast. Using plastic utensils I fix the sandwich, then unscrew the cap from the bottle, and stand at the sink and eat and drink. I push aside the hole-riddled plastic curtains that covered the window over the sink and watch as the wind sends snow drifting across the back yard. A white tailed deer
slowly crosses the pasture not far away, glances toward the house, then bolts off until it is out of view.
I turn around and lean back against the sink and scan the room. With the glass doors of the cupboards open and the shelves empty it is difficult to remember how it looked when I was a boy. The spaces where the stove and refrigerator were are bare spaces with only grease and oil spots left on the floor as a reminder something was once there. My mother died twenty years ago while I was in college. When we lived here, she would often complain of “fairies getting into the food.” She meant the food in the closet where packages and boxes of food would be found open and scattered on the floor. It was the
last placed we looked before leaving the house for good and moving to Chicago. She closed the door tight before we walked out of the kitchen. It was wide open when I came in last night.
Putting the cap back on the bottle of the remaining juice and the lids back on the jam and peanut butter, I go into the living room and am reminded that there is no wood left for the fire. I pick up my coat from the floor in the foyer and go out the door. The nearest trees where there might be fallen branches or twigs, or have them low enough to reach, is a couple of hundred yards away. I glance up at the attic window and see nothing, then begin treading through the ankle deep snow. A steady wind is blowing and the sky is gray as steel. Once I reach the trees, finding fallen branches and twigs is easy. With my arms loaded, I begin back. Fifty yards from the house I see someone – something – standing in the front window. I begin running toward the house as fast as I can but by the time I reach the porch the figure is gone from the window. Dropping the wood on the porch, I put my hand on the knob and try to turn it, but it doesn’t budge. From the other side come several knocks on the door. Then silence.
I move to the window and put my face to the glass in time to glimpse a pair of short legs in tattered burlap britches ascend the stairs. I jump from the porch and run around the house and enter through the back door. The bags of groceries have been torn into and the contents are scattered around the room. Slices of bread, apples, bananas, potato chips, heads of lettuce and celery stalks have been bitten into and discarded. The lids on the bottles of orange juice, yogurt, jam, peanut butter, canned chili and pickles have been removed and contents of the jars and cans is smeared or spilt on the table or on the walls. In the middle of a large spot on the wall of smeared peanut butter is a hand print. The fingers are very long. There is a trail of food that goes from the kitchen all the way up the stairs.
Sitting in front of the fire, I am trying to remember my father’s face just before he disappeared from our lives and was never heard from or seen by anyone we knew ever again. I was twelve and he was thirty-six. He had black hair and green eyes, features I inherited, and kept himself in shape by running miles a day on the roads near here. He had been a professor at a university in Chicago and taught German literature and European folklore before suddenly giving up his tenured position and moving us here. In his eyes there was the look of a man haunted by some mystery he never shared. Our last conversation is as clear to me today as if we had just had it.
“There are things in this world that most people choose to believe don’t exist,” he said.
“What kinds of things, Dad?” I said.
“Ghosts, fairies, leprechauns, angels, goblins and things like that,” he said.
“Do they exist?” I said.
He rubbed my head and said, “I wish I could say they didn’t.”
The next morning he was gone.
The soft light of twilight bathes the room and casts long shadows across the floor and walls. There have been no sounds coming from the attic. I try to ignore that there’s something human-like up there, but it’s an exercise in futility. I find myself frequently looking upward, thinking that whatever is up there will come through the ceiling. I thought the house had sat empty for most of the years since my mother and I left it. My mother refused to acknowledge its existence and I paid the yearly taxes on it without giving it a second thought until recently. I came back to this house to say a final goodbye before signing the papers to turn it over to new owners.
Hearing the squeaking of a stair floorboard, I turn and see it peering at me from the bottom steps. It’s very short, the size of a child, and its eyes are bright red and its skin is green. Long pointed ears stick out of its bald head and it grasps on the stair railing with long pointed fingers at the end of which are pointed, black fingernails.
“Hey, you,” I yell and start to stand.
It turns and runs back up the steps and I follow behind. When I reach the top of the stairs I see it step into the attic. I reach the bottom of the ladder and hold on to it, preventing it from pulling the ladder up. It lets go for a moment then quickly returns and begins hurling bones at me. As I dodge them it pulls the ladder up and the trap door shuts. Stacking the cushions, I stand on them and grasp the rope and open the trap door and pull down the ladder. At the top of the ladder, I scan the attic. The lid of the
steamer trunk is slightly raised and in the opening its glowing red eyes are glaring at me.
It lets out a menacing long low guttural growl.
“I mean you no harm,” I say.
It closes the lid.
Going down the ladder, I am filled with a combination of excitement and fear. My father had a large leather bound volume of illustrations of mythical and magical creatures from European history. Of all the illustrations, the one that evoked the same feelings I feel now was that of the same kind of goblin that was in the trunk.
With the candles and oil lamps lit and placed throughout the house I wander from the bedroom to the kitchen trying to quell my anxiety. When showing me the illustrations the goblin was the only one he seemed reluctant to talk about. “Once it finds you or you find it, a goblin is hard to escape from and it’s very dangerous,” was all he said. At the time it was just a picture in a book.
I stand at the window in the kitchen munching on potato chips that the goblin had left untouched and watch the snow fall. When we lived in Chicago my father had driven across Canada one summer, all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I don’t remember why he made that trip, except that it had something to do with his work, but when he returned he seemed changed; always tense and preoccupied. He hastily built a shed in the back yard and kept it locked with a large padlock. He resigned his teaching position a month after returning from the trip and we moved here.
When I turn, the goblin is standing on the table with its sharp teeth bared and holding a long bone with a jagged edge pointed at me.
“Can you speak?” I say, trying to control my feeling of panic.
He growled, then says, “You Richard.”
Shock would best describe my reaction. “No, Richard was my father,” I say.
It turns and jumps from the table and runs out of the kitchen. I hear its footsteps going up the stairs.
Either my father disappeared from here and our lives in an attempt to lure the goblin into following him to protect us, or he left out of fear for his own well-being, but I doubt I’ll ever know the real reason. If I hadn’t come back out of some sense of nostalgia or a need to find some closure I would never know about the thing in the attic. Now that I do I can’t leave it up there for the next unsuspecting occupants of this house or for anyone else for that matter.
Tearing apart the bed is harder than I thought it would be. Without tools it takes all the strength I have to pull and break it apart into sizes I’ll be able to get through the door. I pull the mattress out first and fold it over on the floor just under the trap door. On top of that I lay the four broken off bed posts, then lay on top of that the headboard and footboard. As if making a sandwich, I lay the middle section of the bed on top. It’s still not enough.
In the kitchen I break apart the table into six pieces; the four legs and the top into two. I carry them up the stairs and lay them on the top of the bed parts. I need to make sure that the goblin won’t have even enough space to squeeze out and drop to the floor. I break off the back of the sofa and wedge that between the pile already accumulated and the trap door.
It is well after midnight. I gather up what few clothes I brought along and my suitcase from the bedroom and go down the stairs and out the door to my car. I put the things in the trunk and turn as I hear the sound of snow crunching around the side of the house. Not wanting to take any chances, I quietly go to the corner of the porch and peer down the side of the house. There is nothing. Without my coat on, I’m shivering from the cold. I run up the porch steps and into the house and shut the door behind me. On my way through the living room I pick up the can of oil for refilling the lamps and go into the kitchen and pour oil on the floor, making a trail as I walk backward into the living room. I pull a burning branch from the fireplace and standing a few feet back I throw it on the oil. Flames erupt almost instantaneously. I run to the door, put on my coat and go out.
I feel calmer than I have since entering the house.
As I pass the back of the car, I close the trunk and then I get in. Getting through the snow to get out the driveway and onto the road takes some time. In the rear view mirror I watch as the downstairs windows become illuminated by the light of fire. On the road the travel is no easier. As I turn onto an intersecting road, I stop and look towards the house. Flames are bursting through both the downstairs and upstairs windows. Embers are lifting into the night sky. I imagine that already the fire can be seen for miles, but out here, and in the middle of the night, no one will notice. I drive on.
At daybreak and on the highway I hear knocking coming from the trunk. In the rear view mirror I watch as the trunk opens and the goblin’s head rises from above the lip of the trunk’s lid. It stares at me, its red eyes glowing.
Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over sixty short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and writes full time. He is on Facebook and Twitter @carrsteven960.