Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
“Now I warn you, you don’t want to enter that house over there,” the man said, pointing to the village house across the lane.
He was barefoot and bare-chested; white stubble covered his cheeks and chin. His khaki shorts were held up by a piece of string. He had come out into his front yard and was addressing the young mother with a baby in a sling who was standing in the dappled shade of the trees bordering the lane. She wore leggings and Adidas and her hair was pulled up in a high ponytail. She was taking pictures using a borrowed Canon R5 of a broken-down house obscured by a wilderness of trees.
“I’ve lived in this village a long time.” The man scratched the mat of white hair on his chest. Then, thrusting his thumbs in his belt loops, he began, “and I know a thing or two. Some years ago a merchant lived right there in that house with his three grown daughters after he lost his wife. It is now a ruin but once it was surrounded by a well-tended garden with jasmine and frangipani and fruit trees. A grove of coconut palms stretched on either side.”
The woman turned to him abruptly. “Do you know if I may go into the house? I want to take some pictures of the inside.”
“Wait till you hear my story,” the man replied. “You see that well there?” He asked pointing to something hidden by creepers and brambles. “A solitary coconut palm once stood near it. The merchant had come across a great big sealed jar in his travels. He planned to place the jar near the well, but his workmen accidentally cracked open the seal and some shadowy thing, light as an exhaled breath, flew out.”
The woman looked at him skeptically, as if questioning how he could have known this.
Raising his hand, the man continued, “I’m just telling you that which is common knowledge in our village. The two older sisters ran the household for the father and supervised the cleaning and cooking. Girls, after all, are borrowed wealth…”
The woman rolled her eyes.
Ignoring her, the man continued. “Sooner or later they marry and adorn their husbands’ homes. That is what Leela, the oldest sister, did. Even though she was big-boned and lisped, the lucky girl married a rich man and moved to a village twenty miles from here. Shortly after, when she became pregnant, she returned to her father’s house to be near her family during the confinement. That was when they first heard, from time to time, late at night, a thumping outside. At first the sounds were faint, then hard to ignore.
“Thump, Wumpf! Thump, Wumpf! It sounded as though someone was pounding the earth with a club, or bouncing on a demoniac pogo stick.
‘“Do you hear that?”’ the girls asked each other.
‘“It’s must be the factory,”’ the second daughter, Neela said. Now, Neela had long beautiful curly hair that she could sit on. She had a dreamy absent look, and she was always reading romantic novels.
‘“Factories are closed on Sunday night!”’ said the youngest daughter, Sheela who always wore bell-shaped earrings, and her cheeks dimpled prettily when she smiled. But don’t be deceived, that one was a firecracker.
“The second time they heard the sound, the girls flew to the window. Stars twinkled in the sky, but there was no one outside.‘“Do you hear that sound, Father?”’ they asked.
“The merchant was puzzled. ‘“ What nonsense you talk!”’ He said. ‘“I hear nothing. It’s just the fanciful imagination of you ladies.’”
‘“Don’t include me, father”’ Sheela said, dimpling prettily.
“One night Leela had to use the privy. Dense darkness covered everything. She set out holding a lantern and was halfway down the sandy trail through the mango grove that led to the outhouse, but then she changed her mind and hitched up her skirts and crouched under the coconut tree. Immediately, she heard something slithering down the trunk followed by the thunderous sound of dead palm fronds being dragged at tremendous speed. The girl hastily straightened her skirt to cover her rump. Looking around in the light of her lantern, there was no one.
“She made her way back to her room and found fiery red ants circling her bed. Shortly after, a daughter was born to her. One day when she was playfully tossing the baby up in the air and catching her, she saw a shadow. She panicked and the baby hit the floor screaming. The child was always a little soft in the head after that.”
The woman pulled her baby a little closer.
The man fished a tin of snuff from his pocket and took a pinch in each nostril. “Now where was I? Ah, yes, the second daughter, Neela,” he continued. “She married a professor and moved to the same village as her older sister. When she became pregnant she arrived home for the confinement as her older sister had done before her. She lived in a room jutting out the side of the house with an entrance by an outside staircase. It was her habit to wash her long curly hair on Sundays with soap nut powder and sit with a book under the coconut palm while her hair dried in the sunlight streaming through the palm fronds. Late one night as she lay sleeping she heard it.
“Thump, Wumpf! Thump, Wumpf!
“At times the footfalls were right outside the front door. Within moments they were distant, as far away as the fields and beyond, and then again they came closer and closer, up the wooden stairs until they were right outside her door.
“Neela listened, lying on her bed sweating, her throat frozen. Early the next morning her water broke. I don’t know much about all this, but my wife used these expressions. My wife who is now no more, God rest her soul. Neela too, gave birth but, alas, the girl that was born had no heartbeat.”
Looking at the ground, the man shook his head sorrowfully. Then turning to the pony-tailed young lady, he continued.
“Now, there was only Sheela who had just turned seventeen, a vivid little creature, small and vibrant as a hummingbird and smart as a button, with her bell-shaped earrings dangling and her cheeks dimpling.”
The old man smiled dreamily. “A fire-cracker, I told you, and she was no domestic goddess, just like the rest of you modern young ladies, and though she loved her father, she could scarcely keep house for him.
“Still, that year a traveling troupe of actors visited the village. The merchant was a generous man and he offered the troupe lodgings in his home. The theater company cook fed everyone sumptuously. In return, the merchant and Sheela could see their play as often as they wished. Sheela appeared in the front row at every show, and one day she twined herself around the leading man and kissed him right under the coconut palm. When the troupe left the village she was nowhere to be found, for she had run away with the actor.
“But within a year Sheela was back at her father’s door, with a belly round as a watermelon.
“‘…throw her out on the street for bringing shame on the family,’” the merchant’s friends said.
“This fell upon Sheela’s ears. She felt a rush of blood. ‘“I’ll teach them,”’ she said, shaking her raised fist, ‘“I am going to be the queen of the silver screen. Just you wait!”’
The young mother’s pony tail bobbed in excitement when she heard those words.
The man continued, pleased by the interest that his little tidbit had generated. “Yes, ‘Queen of the silver screen,’ nothing less! The father invited Leela and Neela, the two older sisters to come take care of the youngest sister. They steered Sheela to a dim back chamber at the end of a long passage to hide her from visitors and cruel wagging tongues.
“Months passed, and one night Sheela called the other two. Their father had set off early that morning for a town twelve miles distant and he had not yet returned. Shadows leapt up the wall as the sisters went down the long passage with their lanterns. We didn’t have electricity then. No electricity, no computer, no telephone, no fancy cameras.” The man said, appraising the camera hanging from the young woman’s shoulder.
“Sheela’s lips were dry and chapped. “’Get me a knife,”’ she whispered. Sweat beaded her upper lip.
“The older sisters ran to get a knife.
From far away came a familiar sound. Sheela rose from her bed and picked up a rock from under her pillow and it whizzed out of the window. ‘“Go away, you!”’ she yelled, ‘“I’m not afraid of you!”’
“All was silent for a bit, then, Thump, Wumpf! Thump… You should never anger these spirits. The footfalls sounded giddily triumphant as they pranced closer and closer, faster and faster. They almost seemed to be dancing a jig.
“After turning up the wick on the kerosene lantern, and instructing Sheela to bolt her door from inside, the two older sisters scurried through the house locking doors and windows and barricading the front door with the crossbar.
‘“Do you think she’s due?”’ Neela whispered to Leela.
‘“Naw,”’ Leela replied, ‘“thhee lookth far too comfortable. Leth go to bed and thleep a little.’”
“But, alone in her chamber, Sheela was moaning and tossing and turning all through the night. Her bedclothes lay in a heap. The lantern wick threw a weak sputtering light and a large shadow on the wall.
“The thumping stopped. A smoky shape like fog on water rose up; it towered higher than the house. It hovered briefly under the languid moon. Then swirling down like a corkscrew it passed over the threshold like spilled milk. Some villagers say like spilled blood. Then the shape rose and slowly glided down the long rambling passage to the heavy wooden door to Sheela’s chamber—and slipped underneath.
“An hour after midnight, the house shook with a blood-curdling shriek. I tell you, even my wife woke up. Terrified, she put her arms around my neck and snuggled up to me.”
The man took another pinch of snuff. He sneezed loudly and wiped his nose with a large dirty, handkerchief that he pulled from the same pocket that held the snuff-box.
“So what was I saying? Yes, the two sisters had been sleeping like ogres, for they had been working hard all day. The scream woke them up. They looked at each other, their hearts pounding in their breasts. They lurched down the passage with their lanterns. They saw bloody footsteps all along the passage and bloody handprints on the wall. It took them some time to batter the door down (before realizing it had only been locked from the outside). They burst in. ‘“What happened, what happened?”’ they cried.
“But there was no one there. Then they heard it. A faint mewling sound came from the bed, and hidden in the bedclothes they discovered a tiny infant, flailing. He was bloody but alive! The sisters were wonderstruck. When Neela, the middle sister, opened her arms and cradled the infant to her breast, she never wanted to let him go. Leela hurried to the kitchen to get hot water. Momentarily, they forgot all about Sheela.
“When the father finally arrived towards dawn, he sent out search parties. They called her name, but Sheela was gone. The grief-stricken father eventually left our village to be with his two older daughters and grandson--and look at this place now,” the man said, pointing to the house and shaking his head in despair.
“So, I’m telling you as I tell all the young people who visit our village of late, looking for some famous actress or some such nonsense: Don’t go there!
“And this is what I warn young mothers like you. If at midday on a Sunday, you happen to visit the well and gaze too long at your reflection in the water, a wan face will suddenly appear under the water staring up at you with a faint smile. It is Sheela with her bell-shaped earrings. “‘Have you seen my child?’” she whispers. Don’t look. Her eyes will cast a spell.” The man pointed to the baby in the sling. “Just hold tight to your child and run.”
When he finished his narrative, the old man was a little peeved that the young woman had been ignoring him. She had been taking pictures from different angles. She turned around and faced him. “I just need a few close-ups of the house and the interior,” she said.
The old man yawned, stretching his arms overhead. “Don’t say that I didn’t warn you,” he remarked, before sauntering off towards his dwelling.
“The story you told me is not true!” The woman called out to his retreating figure.
The shadows were now lengthening. Stillness enveloped everything. A leafy bough of one of the trees bordering the merchant’s garden began to shake violently even though there was no wind. The young mother stepped back, clutching her baby.
“Look!” she cried, addressing the now absent old man. Brandishing a picture she had pulled out of her pocket, she said, “You cannot frighten me. I have watched her movies and read about her on the Internet. The youngest daughter, Sheela, as you call her, is alive and thriving. That is why I have come all the way from the big city to this godforsaken village, to do research on her early life. Sheela became a famous movie star who played brave heroines. And though she never acknowledged it, I am certain that she is none other than the fearless Hemalata, the reigning queen of the silver screen.”
Her words echoed in the empty lane. The baby started to whimper. The mother sat on the stone steps leading to the merchant’s house and began to nurse her. “There, there, Sweetie. Just a few more pictures and tomorrow we’ll be back home, okay? Mommy has to work.” she cooed.
Then settling the baby in her sling, she started up the steps along the darkening pathway to the merchant’s house.
Ravibala Shenoy has published award-winning short stories (India Currents), short stories (Chicago Quarterly Review, Best Asian Speculative Fiction, The Superstition Review, Copperfield Review, ), flash fiction (Jellyfish Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction,The Menacing Hedge. The Aerogram), memoir (Sugar Mule, Funny Pearls, Borderless Journal) and op-ed pieces (Chicago Tribune, India Currents).
First published in CommuterLit in April, 2022
Published on the Kaidankai, June 21, 2022
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
“This truly is the golden age for our kind,” Richard says raising his wine glass to his companions. His shimmering needle teeth glistening from the candlelight. “The covid pandemic has been a blessing of unparalleled prosperity. Cheers to you, my friends and family!”
The dozen guests in attendance erupt in applause. Their glasses clink together dashing crimson wine across the dining table adding red stains to the white table cloth. The thin, nearly translucent, material barely conceal the shapely mounds hidden beneath.
“Tonight, my friends,” Richard’s voice bellows across the room. He wraps an arm around his wife, gazing into her gorgeous green eyes. “Tonight, we brought you all together to propose a simple proposition.”
“Get on with it,” a voice shouts from the far end of the table, “some of us are hungry over here.”
A wave of laughter echoes through the room. Richard chortles to himself and holds up his hand.
“That’s why we brought you here tonight, brother,” he speaks while holding out his hands in offering, staring into each pair of green eyes in turn. “It’s time humanity learns their true station in this world, and we must regain our place at the top of the food chain. It is time we leave the shadows!”
Servants pulled back the sheets from the table revealing eight nude humans bound and gagged: Two adult men, two adult women, an elderly couple and a pair of adolescents. Their eyes were filled with wild terror, but not an ounce of resistance flowed through their drugged veins.
The guests’ glowing eyes blink at the buffet in astonishment while each of their jaws extend downward instinctively, salivating with feverish intent. The pulse from their collective heartbeat reverberates through the ether: it’s their death song, long forgotten but always part of their being. They crawl about the table on all fours poking, probing and inspecting for their preferred choice of meat.
“Never again will we hunt for what is ours by right,” Richard declares to his entranced guests. “Our time is now!”
The cacophony of flesh being torn apart, blood gushing and bones breaking fill Richard with ecstasy. He licks his lips and clings to his calm exterior with cruel desperation. He is not willing to stoop to the animalistic ferocity of his kind.
“Shall we check on the girl, my love?” His wife’s serene voice brushes the madness aside. She kisses him lightly in the cheek and rests her head in his shoulder.
“Yes, Sophia,” he responds while combing her jet-black hair with his fingers. “It’s time for our daughter to see the world.”
Despite the heat of the room and the luxurious Sherpa blanket wrapped around her turtled figure, the girl shivers as if abandoned in the artic tundra. The fever had boiled through her veins for three days; in which time, she had not been offered food and she found the sight of water repulsive. Her eyes, in constant flux between yellow and green, flitter anxiously through the darkness with perfect night vision.
She hisses into the blanket at the sound of the door’s deadbolt grinding open. Her eyes squint to see through the blinding light bleeding into the room. Two black shapes manifest with a sweet, metallic aroma of fresh blood stuck to their clothing. Her stomach churns with unconscious desire.
Sophia’s ivory hand sweeps matted hair off the girl's forehead and tucks it neatly behind her ear. “It’s alright child, you’re safe now,” her angelic voice gently sang. “We’ve come to set you free.”
Tension melts from the girl’s body and she slumps her head against the cool hand. “I’m just so tired … so hungry,” she whispers in a raspy voice. Her vision blurs with tears. “I want to go home.”
“Of course, Emily,” Sophia coos softly. “You were in quite the state when we found you. Now that you’re feeling better, we can have our driver take you anywhere you wish.”
“I think,” Emily pauses to clear her throat. “I think I'd prefer to walk. Get some fresh air,” she said coyly, blood pumping through her heart like dry cement.
“Of course, dear.” Sophia stood and helped Emily climb to her feet. “Michael is waiting for you in the hall. He will see you out.”
She gazed deep into Emily’s eyes to see her own serene smile in the reflection. Sophia pulls up the girl’s hoodie and adjusts the crinkled facemask into its proper position. She wraps her arms around the girl in a loving embrace. “Be safe,” she whispers and gesture to the door.
Emily nods and hurries out the room without a word.
Richard envelops his wife from behind and nuzzles his face into her neck. “Our girl is flying the coup,” he says, melancholy flows through his voice.
“I wish I could be there for her when she completes her transformation,” Sophia says in a monotone voice.
“Instinct will take over,” he reassures Sophia, “and her first kill will signal the end for the human race.”
“I’m suddenly feeling peckish,” she says, twisting around to kiss her husband.
“I could eat,” a smirk crept across his face.
Emily tucks her head down and swims through the cluster of drunk men. They sneer and laugh while spewing clouds of nicotine. Paws grope, tug and squeeze.
She recedes into the shadow of her hoodie. Her piercing green eyes are cat-like and hungry. They shine with desperation above her pandemic facemask.
“Hey, where you going sweet-heart?” A bearded man blocks her way. Stale beer seeps out of his pores. His predatory grin gives her the once over.
“Excuse me,” she says meekly.
He side-steps and says, “No-no-no. That won’t do.” He reaches out for her face. “Let’s see what's hiding under that mask.” A boisterous laugh rolls of out of his barrel chest. His friends cheer and urge him on.
Emily stands transfixed. Her heart pounds against her rib cage while her pupils elongate into slits. Beneath the mask, a cheshire grin is revealed to be enveloped by decaying flesh. The smile cracks open to spew forth rows of perforated daggers.
Carnage splatters the faces of astonished bystanders. Emily tears out the man’s vocal chords: his scream morphs into a gurgle. He clings to his friends’ arms for life, but he’s dragged to the cold, dead earth.
Ecstasy fills Emily and she drinks deep from the still flailing corpse. The revolting sound of slurping and suction drowns out the shrieks of terror. Her marble skin deflects pounding fists and stomping feet. Blue and red lights bounce off the crimson streaked faces of horrified men new to learn they’re simply cattle.
The world changes as a fading pulse ripples across pooling blood.
Travis was born and raised on the Canadian Prairies where he works as a professional brewer in the craft beer industry. He graduated from the BA English program at the University of Regina where he focused on creative writing. He occasionally finds himself writing short fiction exploring the nightmares and horrors hiding just out of sight. You can find his other works in Schlock! Webzine, and horror anthologies from Gravestone Press and Hellbound Books. Of course, all of this is possible because of the support of his wonderful wife, Janelle, and beautiful daughter, Emma.
Originally published on the Kaidankai podcast on June 7, 2022.
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
“Is… Is that you, Michael?”
The sickly, shaky voice came from a pale husk of a man lying on a hospital bed in front of me. I hadn’t noticed how much weight he’d lost up until now, how old he’d gotten. It seemed like he’d aged overnight, but it wasn’t so. The cancer had been eating him from within for years now, insidiously, until one day there hadn’t been enough of him to stand upright. He just went working, never once complaining about pain or anything else, until the moment he collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital.
It was his voice that got to me. My father’s voice used to be like a force of nature. Whether he used it to sing or sway a potential customer, or for something less benign, such as cursing and shouting at me or mom, it had always been so powerful, so… indisputable.
Now, machines beeped and sighed, as if to punctuate his feeble attempt at talking.
The man that came to Plano with only a shirt on his back and managed to build a small empire just by his blood, sweat and tears, now laid on a hospital bed, pissing himself and not recognizing his own son. But maybe it was because the son was not worth recognizing.
“No, dad, it’s… It’s me, it’s Dave.”
“Oh… Where… Where is Michael?”
“He couldn’t come. He had something he had to do.”
Dad coughed weakly.
“Oh, of course. He has… He has a lot to think about. His projects and the press… He’s doing a lot of important work, you know?”
“I know, dad,” I answered. But then, I couldn’t refrain myself and adding. “He had more important things to do.”
It went on the same way the second time he had woken up after chemo. And the third… But after the fifth time, he stopped asking for Michael. I couldn’t help it. I gloated.
Michael called on FaceTime occasionally, but most of the time it was when dad was out of it and couldn’t talk.
“How is he?” he inquired, with a worried look on his perfectly symmetrical face, framed by dark, conditioned locks.
“Come and see yourself,” is what I wanted to say, but I stopped myself. It was not the time for being snide. No, I had to play my cards right.
“Bad. It’s… Pretty bad. He’s stable, but the state of him… It’s hard to watch. He’s lost weight, and hair, and.. The smell… It’s hard keeping your lunch down. It’s sad, really sad, I tell ya. It’s sad to remember him like this… What a man he was…”
I thought of everything I could do to deter my older brother from coming. Since he had little will to come in the first place, it wasn’t a particularly hard task. The poor sap suspected nothing. So sure of the fact that his position of a sole heir was set in stone, he never even considered the implications of my role as a guardian-nurse. And I used every one of those moments to implant whispers of doubt into dad’s ears. Also, my role in his firm shifted from helper/desk clerk to an acting director; neither of us was happy about it, but at least dad was grateful. He loved his company more than he loved me, anyway.
Eventually, the hospital bills began ramping up, and the economically sound solution was to move dad home. And that’s what I did. The kids were somewhat distraught at first, but, being children, they soon stopped thinking about it and went back to their Pokémons and school assignments. Manny was of huge help, a real Samaritan wife, changing his diapers and IV drips, feeding and bathing him. She never complained, not once. I knew why, but I never mentioned it. Dad needed all the saints he could get right now, even the false ones.
It was the one thing I had that Michael did not: a family. A home, Christian home, with a wife and two children. Dad always spoke highly about the sanctity of family, and how it was the single most important thing in any man’s life. When Michael broke one engagement after another, he always said: “It’s ok. He’s just looking for the right one. He’ll get married come springtime, mark my words!”. But springtimes and girlfriends came and went, and Michael still never married. My family didn’t matter as long as Mike’s was right around the corner, but now, suddenly, my family was all my dad had. And he quickly began to realize that. At the same time, I realized how big of a hypocritical sack of shit he was.
When he was of clear mind, my father spoke to me with genuine affection for the first time in my (and his) life. He praised my life choices, my choice of wife (he finally forgave me for marrying a Mexican woman), saying that he was sorry about the way he always put me second, and that he was wrong for giving his all to Mike, when, in the end, he turned out to be so self-centered and uncaring. That was what he said when he was lucid. But he also spoke sometimes while feverish or under sedation. And then, he sang quite a different tune. Not knowing where he was or what time period he was in, he would laugh and curse.
“Good boy, Michael, my son, good boy! Go and travel and fuck and drink champagne and eat caviar! Fly high, my boy, fly high! Oh, how I wish I did the same, instead of marrying that horse-faced bitch who shat out nothing but ball and chain from her cunt! Oh, what I could’ve done, if only I didn’t marry! Instead of living the high-life, I have to spend every day watching my younger kid waste away into mediocracy, soiling my genes with a… wetback wife!”
Since hearing that, I no longer looked up to my father. Since then, I shifted all the enmity I had for my brother towards him, adding more on top. Since then, I started openly hating him. And my resolve for what I planned to do only hardened.
The smell of death and sickness soon started spreading through the house, going through the wooden pores, replacing all others. It reminded me of something from my childhood, back from when we still lived on the outskirts of town. I had a memory, a vague one, from when I couldn’t have been more than four years old, of dad coming home with a run-down hearse in tow.
“It was just lying there, by the road! There are some good parts in there! And I did the city a favor by getting rid of it!”
It was the beginning of his new business, one that eventually made him, and by proxy, us, relatively well-off. Soon, more wrecks came to join the first one. Dad stripped them for parts which he sold first from under his trench-coat and through anonymous ads, then on the internet, and lastly from his own local store. The skeleton of that hearse lay in our yard for years on, gradually disappearing, one metal bone after another. By the time we moved, it was all gone.
But I could never forget the way it smelled, or radiated perhaps. I didn’t even know what a hearse was back then, nor what death was exactly, but I knew that there was something wrong about that car.
But that was an old, half-forgotten memory. The smell in the house reminded me more of another affair, one much more recent and pressing. The damned, and I mean damned literally, the Malaby extension.
When my father’s business started picking up, some five or six years ago, he began thinking that one little store in the suburbs wasn’t enough, that he needed to start thinking big. He invested all of his savings into prime real-estate, a spacious site in a popular zone, right on the corner of Capital Avenue, where he planned to open a brand-new fancy car-part dealership. He was so into the idea we hardly even saw him. When we finally did see him, he said that the business is currently on hold, as he had to sign some contracts and get some permissions from the city council, but that it would be ready for a grand-opening any day. I actually bought a bottle of expensive champagne and put it on ice that afternoon.
But the contracts and permissions never went through. It wasn’t a big deal, as his old shop was still making money, but it seemed that every month there was something new that prevented the opening of his new store. Eventually, he decided to put the whole project on hold, and that the best way to use the newly bought property was as a storage room for the old and new wares that had piled up over the years.
That’s when the nightmare began. And that’s when he got sick, as we later found out.
It started as a phone call on a slow afternoon. Someone noticed that the lock on the shutter of the new store was broken, and somehow found out that dad was the owner.
“God-damn piece-of-shit town… Come here boy, you need to drive me, my pickup’s in the shop.”
True enough, the lock was broken, obviously forced; the shutters themselves were lifted about two feet from the ground. Something assaulted my nostrils, a sickly-sweet smell of rot. If it hadn’t been broad daylight on a relatively busy junction, I mightn't have dared to go in. But my dad was unshrinking, his rage carried him forward with a fiery step. He lifted the shutters.
The stench drove over us like a steamroller of death.
“Oh, what the fuck…” he mumbled, lifting the back of his hand to his nose. But he still proceeded inside. I had no choice but to follow.
We quickly realized that there were several people occupying the premises. Men and women, of different ages and skin color lay, sat, or leaned against the walls and boxes. One thing they had in common?… a lack of personal hygiene: the whole place stunk to high heaven. The floor was also packed: sleeping bags, plastic bags, duffel bags. Assorted garbage. Needles. Feces. It didn’t seem that anything was missing, though; all the boxes were still neatly packed, with the plastic sheets still over them, collecting dust and greasy fingerprints.
“Who… Who are you people? What the hell are you doing in my store? Get the fuck outta here, you bums! You losers! Git!” My dad raged.
Some of them began waddling out, without saying a word. But some of them, mostly the ones on the ground, didn’t move. My dad kicked the nearest bundle savagely. There was no reaction. It was like kicking a bag of sand.
“Don’t you hear me, you junkie fuck? I said, get up!”
“Dad,” I said, “I think this guy’s dead.”
We called the police. Altogether, there were four deceased on the property; the living had dispersed before the boys in blue arrived. The detective assigned to the case wanted to know who these people were, and what they were doing here, but dad outshouted him, threatened to sue the city for incompetence, as well as at least ten other things. When he asked them about what they were planning to do to prevent such things from repeating, a black, uniformed officer said: “Man, just get a better lock.”
And that’s what we did.
The autopsy showed that all four of the people had died from, to put it simply, natural causes: one overdose, one cardiac arrest, and two from previously sustained injuries. One of them, a middle-aged man, had half of a steering wheel lodged in his chest. How he even managed to get to dad’s store was a mystery. Anyway, since there was no evidence of a crime, and none of the people were in any way connected to our family (all of them were vagrants from different states, it appeared), there was no investigation. At that time, we accepted this as a good thing.
About a week later, it all happened again. Everyone was pissed: dad, neighbors, the authorities... A new, even stronger lock was installed.
“You need a better security system”, said the same cop. I don’t even like to remember what dad answered him.
After the third time, dad installed an industrial strength lock; we found it cut by an industrial strength tool ten days later. Only two dead people were inside this time.
“Someone’s out to get me! This is a set up! Well, I won’t be bullied! They can suck on a lemon! I don’t have time to waste on this, I need four more contracts signed! Listen, Dave, if anyone calls again, just ignore them. I don’t want to know anything unless something gets stolen, do you hear me?”
After that, he left for Dallas and I didn’t see him for months. The calls still came in, their message the same. I did my best to ignore them.
Soon, the local news crews got a whiff of the story. The store place was nicknamed “Damnation domicile”, and for a while it was the talk of the town. Our family name got dragged through the media mud, and I even got approached by a Hollywood director who wanted to buy the rights to make a horror movie out of it. These days I didn’t dare turn on the TV for fear my kids would hear some gruesome news pertaining to their family.
“Don’t you pay no mind,” dad said over the line. “When I’m finished with this, I’ll come pick up Michael. He’ll know how to deal with it. He’s smart, he’s got the know-how! Even more important, he’s connected!”
I knew exactly how Michael planned to deal with it: the same way I’d planned. The only difference was that Michael hoped to get his inheritance soon; he had expected that dad would get tired of the rat race and retire early, somewhere in Florida perhaps. I knew better, and I knew that no one would get any kind of inheritance before the old trooper was dead and buried. I just didn’t know how soon it would all happen.
I got a call one day, from a stranger, saying my dad was unwell. I didn’t take it seriously; I just thought that he had a sunstroke or low blood sugar or something like that. But the clinic was positive in its negativity: it was The Big C, no doubt about it. Spread its deadly tentacles all through the poor man. The doctor suggested chemo…
Since hearing him say all those disgusting things about mom and us in his sleep, I started growing some nasty thoughts of my own. I wanted to punish him somehow. I started thinking about making the rest of his life even more miserable, and sometimes, when I got particularly angry, I fantasized about just smothering him with a pillow while he slept. It would be so easy, I thought, and no one would ever find out. They’d wheel him out, just like one of the corpses from his store. But I never got the chance to fulfill any of my malevolent fantasies. The old bastard died calmly in his sleep, head full of opioid dreams. Manny found him while doing her morning round. She just closed his eyes, climbed down the stairs, sighed, and said: “It is over. He is gone.”
Michael came by the first flight. He acted sad and distraught, tie hanging loose and hair in disarray, but I could see him checking the calendar on his phone and turning corners to make calls every chance he had. No one cared about his charade, no more than about dad’s death. As soon as he realized this, he dropped the act.
The funeral and all about it were a haze. Michael and me invited people, paid the bills, organized the catering, did everything to make it end faster. The only ones remotely shaken by it were Gloria and Jake, asking a thousand questions about death in general, but as soon as we were finished lowering the casket, they sprang off to play hide and seek among the tombstones and the cypress bushes with the other children.
Then came the reading of the will. I wasn’t surprised by the outcome, but I have to say that I was mighty satisfied watching the expression on Michael’s face when he heard he didn’t get squat. The golden boy fumbled, argued and pleaded, sweat darkening the armpits of his silk shirt, but there was no error, clerical or otherwise: I was the sole heir to the whole of the Dorcel automobile part empire. Michael took the first plane back to Houston, never saying a word to me, or anyone else in the house; I suspected forever.
The inheritance wasn’t as substantial as one might have thought; or, it was, but it came bundled with a hefty debt, and those two mostly canceled each other out. There was the store, of course.
When I was a kid, I adored my father. He was like God to me. No, he was greater than God, as he actually performed feats and miracles right before my eyes. As I was growing up, the only thing I ever wanted in my future was to be like him: commanding, charismatic, respected, able. I dreamed about inheriting the shop and taking over the business, perhaps even expanding one day. I imagined myself coming home from work and finding my dad, gray and frail, sitting on the porch and drinking a beer, and he’d say “Come, son, sit with me. Have a beer, and tell me about how the business is going.”
By the time I was a teenager I knew that none of that was going to come true, ever. Michael was going to be the one to inherit all, he was the one who would sit by dad’s side and get all the praise while I slaved in the background, trying to make myself invisible, like Manny did as a maid to some other rich asshole.
When he got sick, a plan sprouted in my head, an idea that I could turn him, by kindness and, if needed, trickery. I’d get him to love and respect me for looking after him, while making Michael look like a jerk in the process (which wouldn’t be difficult since he was a real jerk). And it worked. But, after all I heard him say, after I found out what kind of a man he really was, I decided that I didn’t want it, any of it. To hell with the store and the family business. I would sell it all and get another job, one where I would never ever have to work with cars or car parts again.
I took the first offer on the store, covered all the deficits, and bought a red Corvette from the change.
“Fuck it”, I thought. “I deserve this.”
Anyway, the main part of my inheritance was still untapped, and it’s where the real money lay.
Michael actually called me once.
“C’mon bro, I mean, you aren’t gonna let me hang dry here? Who cares what he wrote in the will, the guy was a fucking Scrooge McDuck, and he was out of his mind the last couple of months. Hey, I’m your brother! C’mon, I’ll help you with the Malaby estate. It’s worth more than you know, it just has to be taken care of properly. I’ll sell it for a fortune, and then you can get thirty percen…”
I hung up on him. It felt so good. That was the last time we spoke.
But he was right about one thing: the Malaby property and all the problems surrounding it would need to be taken care of. Perfectly. No hasty reactions, no cut corners. Everything had to be done by the book.
I left for the site one bright morning, followed by a couple of Manny’s cousins, a cleaning crew, and two moving trucks. I notified the police, local hospital and the Plano TV station. All of them arrived before us. The guy I was going to sell the property to was there also, contract in one hand, pen in the other. He knew that it was going to be a shitshow and he wanted to make sure I would sell to him at the agreed, ridiculously low price, before someone swooped in with a better offer. Unlike me, he had nothing to fear.
The show was a more spectacular version of the first time we found interlopers on the premise. Stench. Filth. Death. Disturbing even in broad daylight. Police cuffed and loaded all of the still walking ones into their truck and drove off; the ambulance did the same with the dead ones. I sold off all of the parts that lay boxed up (all still intact, surprisingly) at bulk price, and a man with a crew carried them off immediately. I picked up the rest, a couple of mostly old boxes and instructed my men to take them to my home and put them wherever there was space: garage, shed, basement… Then we scrubbed the place, with heavy-duty detergents that smelled of ammonia. And the hospital where dad was admitted.
Finally, I signed the contract.
“…the notorious ‘Damnation Domicile’, as it came to be known, is apparently no more. The son of the previous owner decided to clean up and sell the so-called cursed property, making this public area safe and attractive once again…”
I slammed the door of the rented van and drove off, leaving the Hispanic TV speaker to run her mouth. It didn’t matter anymore. The nightmare was over.
Or so I thought.
The horror continued about a week later. I was pulling into my yard, returning from my new workplace, when the local busybody stuck her bespectacled face up to my windshield.
“Mister Dorcel, we have a nice, safe neighborhood here, a family-friendly area, where children can play in the street, without fear…”
I rolled down my window.
“Is there something I can help you with, missis Lang?”
“Well I… I do not approve of… this kind of business you are running. And I will not ask of you to… stop it, as I don’t want to get involved in any cartel business, but I just have to ask you, as a fellow parent, if you could conduct this operation… elsewhere.”
“What in the hell are you babbling about, Mary Lue? Cartel?? What… operation?”
“I just don’t feel safe with all these men coming ‘round here, that’s all! We all know what those people are capable of! Desperate, and, in pain… I don’t feel safe, not for me, not for my daughter…”
“Mary Lue, your daughter is twenty-six and she lives in Chicago. As for that other business, I really don’t know what to make of it. I don’t understand one word you’ve said. Now, if you please would move away from my vehicle, I need to park.”
Three days passed quietly.
“Querido, there is a man in our yard,” said Manny, peering through the curtains into the dusky outside. “I think he’s looking for you.”
I stood up with a groan, leaving a half-empty beer bottle on the coffee table to refract the light of the TV screen.
“Yeah, what do you want?”
The man didn’t answer. He stood in the shadows, gaze pointed towards the wall.
“Hey, pardner, I asked, what can I do you for? You here for the pumps? You gotta come to the office, amigo, during business hours. There’s nothing I can help you with now.”
The man didn’t say a word. He moved, slightly, and let out something like a low moan.
I remembered the incident with missis Lang from before. Suddenly, blood started boiling in my veins. I jumped and grabbed the man by his collar.
“Who the fuck do you think you are? What are you doing here, huh? Get out of here, you bum! You junkie!”
I pushed the man out of the gate and sent him going with a well-placed kick in the behind. I locked the gate after and paced angrily back inside.
“Who was that, querido?”
“No one, dear, just (some bum)… someone who got the wrong address.” I answered, taking a swig of now lukewarm beer.
I was seething. Thoughts buzzed through my head, wrecking my beer buzz. Was my dad really involved in some cartel business? I wouldn’t put it past him. Still, I didn’t really buy it. And then, there was the… But no. That story was finished. No. The store was sold. I had nothing to do with it.
It was all just a coincidence. It had to be. After all, the States were crawling with beggars, junkies and immigrants nowadays.
Next morning, I installed new locks on the front gate and the front door, as well as an alarm system with a motion sensor. All expensive, top of the line products. No cutting corners, no saving pennies. I was gladly paying extra because the mere thought of doing my best helped me relax; the commodity of a good night's sleep was certainly worth it.
The next night, I woke up to a blood-curdling scream. The alarm was also on, blaring in the night, but the previous sound was far more urgent. It was Gloria. I ran like a madman through the hallway and down the stairs, ignoring my bewildered spouse, not even bothering to turn on the light. Arriving at the ground floor landing, I bumped into someone in the darkness. There was a moist splatting sound, like a slab of meat hitting the butcher’s counter. I grabbed this person’s head, mad with anger, wanting to smash it against the wall. The fingers of my left hand felt a wet, jagged bone, and a hollow, where one shouldn’t be. I felt my hair turning white. Another scream tore through the house. I pushed the man aside and continued running until I arrived to her room, almost tripping over a body on the floor.
Gloria sat on her bed, knees curled up and with her back against the wall. She had a blanket lifted over her nose, as the thin fabric would protect her from the unknown assailants. Beside the person on the stairs and the one laying on the floor, there were three more in the spacious children’s bedroom. An old man, a gaunt young woman, and a little boy with a huge scar sprawling diagonally across his whole face. They all looked ghastly in the pale green glow of the night-light. I started shoving them away from my girl, roughly, beastly even, spitting obscenities through my gnashing teeth.
“What the fuck do you want, you fuckers? You motherfucking… coward… shit-eating… scum…”
But as eerily as they looked, they were no assailants. All three of them just stood there, looking more lost than threatening. A draft from an open window somewhere in the house rustled the fluff on the crown of the boy’s head, revealing that the scar went all the way around it. And then there was the smell. That same old smell that lingered in my childhood memories, made recent again in my father’s store and around his deathbed.
“What… do you want?” I asked again, this time without anger. I felt tired, broken, and, strangely, sympathetic and genuinely curious.
All three of them lifted their fingers and pointed towards the dresser. I followed their gaze, looking first at the mirror, then at the framed photograph of mom and dad hugging Michael and me in front of our old house.
“What do you want? I don’t understand… I don’t live there anymore, I hadn’t for a long time… And the old man is dead! If he wronged you somehow, there’s nothing you can do more. He’s dead! He’s gone…”
I looked again in the direction they were pointing. And I saw something else. An ancient, gunsight-shaped hood ornament, scrubbed free of rust, polished and re-chromed. I recognized it immediately.
“Is this…? Are you looking… for the hearse? Your hearse?”
The apparitions didn’t move, nor did they make any kind of sign, but I felt the affirmation emanating from them.
“But it’s gone! Long gone! Scrapped for parts and sold! The rest is rust! If there is anything left of it, it’s…”
And then it hit me.
Manny and Jake were standing in the hallway in front of the room, trembling, mad with fear. I put my hand around Gloria and led her to her mother and brother, and instructed them to take a cab to somewhere safe. I finally knew what to do to end this.
There were boxes in Gloria’s room. Ancient boxes, from the time dad first moved the junk from his scattered stashes into the Malaby locale. And somewhere in them were parts of his very first score, the one that kickstarted his legacy.
“But it’s not all there.” I said to the dead. “There may be some parts of it there, but a lot of it is gone for good.”
I got no reply apart from the cold stares. A lot of you is gone for good too, I thought.
An idea rose in my head. Actually, two of them. One mostly philosophical, about how it was all connected: the old hearse, dad’s hidden rot, his legacy, the corruption he implanted into Michael and me… It all needed to be rejected and purged. Thoroughly.
I tuned off the alarm. Then, I pulled out my cellphone and rang my wife’s cousin.
“Guillermo, hi, ola… Yes, I know it’s late… It’s urgent… No, yes… No, it’s not ok…. They are fine and safe… I need you to do something for me, I need you to find some men… We need to put together an old car… No, not in a week, right now… I know… I know… Well, make it possible… I’ll pay you… As much as you ask… I know this is not normal… Guillermo, it’s very fucked up, it’s... brujeria mala or something… It’s very important…. Thank you…”
One long and confusing phone call later, I took a beer from the fridge and sat on the stairs outside the front door. The dead were still in Gloria’s room, rustling softly. I tried to ignore their existence, drinking deeply to cool myself from the hot, clammy air.
About an hour later, a pick-up pulled up my drive-way, spilling a gang of tough looking Mexicans, bulging with tattooed muscles. All that bravado disappeared the moment I showed them my daughter’s room.
“I need that hearse done now. I don’t care how you do it. I’ve got a lot of parts here, these you have to use. I’ve got some more in the garage, and I can get you the rest if you tell me what you need. It’s a Mercedes Benz W123, pretty common, shouldn’t be too hard to put together.”
Twelve men worked like demons, sweating and straining in the warm night. They started by finding a similar hearse, and then they began changing parts, fixing, tweaking. It was still night when the deceased decided that it was finished. One by one, they started shambling out. The old man, the overdosed woman, the stitched-up boy, the man with spilt brains… Even the one from the floor got up.
One of the men threw up upon seeing the remains of his visage.
Suddenly, a thick fog materialized out of nowhere, engulfing the whole yard. Guillermo and his men began panicking and mumbling in Spanish, equal part swearing and praying. The fog was made both of condensation and mind-noise, it seemed, and I soon started feeling like I drank ten beers instead of one. My thoughts were slipping, becoming as dreams. Through all of it, I heard opening of doors and sounds of engine. I don’t know how long it all went on, but, when I came to, there were no walking corpses anywhere in the vicinity. The hearse was gone, too, like it was never there.
The tanned man in a red oil-stained tank-top stumbled towards me.
“Hombre, what… I don’t know…”
I put my hand on his shoulder.
“It’s over. It’s all over. Whatever the fuck it was, I’ll never forget this, Guillermo. Never.”
My mind was racing. I was anxious to go, right now. I reached in my pocket, pulled out my credit card and slipped it into Guillermo’s sweaty palm.
“Here, take as much as you want. Treat the boys, buy them some steak. This money needs to be spent in good spirit. Take all the rest of the parts you find in the house. All the boxes we took from the Malaby place. And dump ‘em.”
“Where are you going?” he asked, seeing me walking towards my car.
I held my phone by my ear, fumbling with the key stuck in my pocket.
“I need to find my wife and children. I need to find them…” I said with a broken voice, swallowing hard and failing to suppress the emerging tears. “And I need to hug them.”
Nenad Pavlovic was born in Eastern Europe. He majored in the English language and literature before moving to Norway, where he now resides, working as a teacher and scribbling away every Friday night with a pint of ale at his side. His short fiction (mostly fantasy, sci-fi and horror, with a few exceptions) has been published in magazines and short story collections. His first novel, Hokus Lokvud, won the Mali Nemo Best Novel Award in 2013, and his latest novel, Salvation on Peril Island, published under the pen-name Nash Knight, is currently available on Amazon. Apart from being a writer, he is also a husband, a father, a music aficionado and a video-game guru.
Originally published on the Kaidankai podcast on June 1, 2022.
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Ise Bay, Japan 1583
THE CHINESE CALLED THEM DWARF BANDITS, wokou. With none of the large, organized fleets willing to accept them, in pirate pecking-order they were considered nothing more than fouling to be scraped off hulls, less than dirt trapped under grime- packed toenails.
They started as Japanese farmers, eking out their existence from the stony earth of the seacoast, much of what they harvested then paid in taxes to the local lords. Eventually, they were driven to thievery to survive. First, they raided Chinese coastal areas. When those impoverished communities had nothing more, they began robbing their own clans. Over time, their victims had become so destitute that in order to stay alive, the wokou resorted to robbing one another.
Boats lashed together, two rival gangs of wokou were locked in battle. Once unleashed they went at it with blade, rock, tooth or fingernail and did not relent until the cries of their victims were silenced, oft accomplished by the ripping out of a tongue. Sliced- open corpses of shipmates were mere impediments to the struggle. The decks of the flea-ridden tubs were slick with gore. Both vessels were aflame from grenades made of oil-soaked hemp packed into pots and lobbed across the gunwales. Given prompt attention the blazes might have been extinguished, but in the ruction the flames roared with growing fury.
The struggle continued until just two men remained. Barely alive, bloodlust drove them on. In a lethal clinch they roiled in the muck of the dead. The end came with one man’s fingers clamped tightly round the other’s skinny throat. In his crazed state he cared not that the man he wanted dead was his own shipmate. He used his dwindling strength to squeeze, watching with glee as his victim’s eyes dulled, mouth gasping like a dying fish.
The last man rolled off his victim. He looked up at the mast burning above. Sucking in a final breath, a flaming timber smashed onto him.
The boats crumbled apart. Body parts were snapped up by hungry sea creatures; lesser vestiges were carried away by ocean currents. In a while, all that remained of the battle’s aftermath were charred planks bobbing on whitecaps.
THE CREATURE’SFOOT OOZED FIBROUS, GREEN SLIME, anchoring it to a rock. Designed for little more than executing the simple functions for its existence, the animal’s form had changed little over the half billion years from when its ancestors first appeared on earth. Contracting one of its two muscles, it tugged open its shell in readiness to feed on life forms even more basic than itself. Clouds of plankton swept along the seabed and the oyster began to take its fill.
Nature, indifferent to the needs of the trillions of individuals it catered for, in the swirling current, along with plankton a miniscule fragment of brigand-bone that had drifted down, found its way into the soft-bodied bivalve’s viscera. That an irritant was imbedded in a vital part of its soft flesh was not immediately apparent, but at some point a cluster of nerves that served as its brain sent out a cry for help. Eventually, a cyst formed over the invading speck; a fleck imbued with malice.
The oyster marked what man knows as the passage of time, by the ocean’s temperatures and tides. Within the oyster, a smooth crystalline substance covered the uncomfortable lump, coddling the malevolent granule. Layer upon layer was added, forming a little sphere of evil.
TEN THOUSAND TIDES LATER, thirty meters off the coast, a wooden tub bobbed on the blue-green sea. Tethered by a narrow rope, the container resisted the light breeze coaxing it further out into Ise Bay. The line ran beneath the surface and through a waving garden of brown kelp. It snaked past a cluster of spiny black sea urchins rasping algae off the face of an undersea boulder. Over the rock the line dipped down again before finally reaching its full length, its end affixed round the waist of a pearl diver.
Hana thought to return to harvest the spiky delicacies, but for the moment she focused her attention on discovering a bed of saltwater clams. Knowing that mollusks were a favorite food of sea urchins, she took them as a sign that oysters were near. Hana hovered a few meters off the sandy bottom, eyes scanning the sea floor. To her left, the fingers of a colony of red sea fans waved her a greeting. A gang of ring-tailed cardinalfish, their sleek forms tinted like wasps, dashed amongst the branches of a staghorn coral. She kicked her legs, propelling forward, disturbing a moray eel that retracted its serpentine body into a hole. It opened its mouth, showing her a spiky grin as she swam past its lair.
And then she saw them — a cluster of pearl oysters. Bare-skinned but for a white loincloth, Hana made for the bottom, her long hair waved out loosely like black tentacles.
Hana examined each of the feathered oysters, turning them in her hand. She dropped a few of the most promising into a string basket tied around her torso. Hana had been down for a full minute, close to her limit for a lungful of air. She reached down one last time and wrapped her fingers around a large, gnarled shell. What a fat beauty you are, she thought, inspecting the knobby oyster, surely you hide a treasure.
With her bag full, the Ama planted a foot on the seabed and sprung herself upwards, leaving a swirl of sand. The pearl diver stretched an arm up and pulled through the water, the loose end of her loincloth trailing under her. She clawed upwards through ten meters of sea, releasing a stream of bubbles, outpacing them all the way to the surface.
Hana’s mouth gulped air. She filled her lungs and floated on her back like a sea otter, basket resting across her chest. The sun, though low in the sky still had enough heat to warm her skin. She kicked lazily, legs scissoring as she went to her bucket.
She emptied the oysters into the tub and waved to another Ama swimming nearby. The other diver who was pulling her container towards the beach turned and called out, “Let’s get back in. It will be dark soon.”
Hana was tired, her first dive coming soon after sunrise, but she remembered the sea urchins. “One more time, there’s uni down there,” she called out.
Finally rid of the irritating lump in its guts, the animal died when its shell was pried open and the pearl scraped out along with its flesh. Seated round the sunken hearth, the Ama celebrated Hana’s find by cracking open sea urchins and scooping out their delicious gonads. They washed down the creamy golden-yellow paste with sake warmed in an iron pot hanging over the irori.
“Had a feeling about this one,” Hana said, pinching the pearl between her fingers. It responded to the lamplight’s soft caress with a golden blush. She turned the orb, admiring it. On one side, barely visible, was a tiny change of color where gold became pink. Or was it pink? She wondered. One moment it was and the next it turned brownish, and then light gray, and pink again. She thought she could feel it pulsating between her fingertips. “Look sisters! This beauty is alive. It has a heart.”
The other divers, three of them, crowded in for a look. The women had shared the same single-roomed house for several years and loved one another as if they were real siblings. Just a year or two separated each of them, the eldest, Nai, acted as a big sister, advising, encouraging and sometimes scolding. Hana was next, and after her came Saya who constantly preened herself, running her fingers through her thick hair, admiring herself in a piece of broken mirror. Asa, the youngest, sweet and ever curious got up from her place and moved in behind Hana. She nestled her chin on Hana’s shoulder and gawked at the pearl.
Asa typically behaved this way, leaning on the others like a little cat. This time Hana felt a stab of irritation. She tried to shrug Asa off but the younger woman clung on to her like a limpet. Hana felt anger rising in her gut. When Asa reached over her shoulder to touch the pearl, Hana picked up a loose black spine and jabbed it at Asa’s outstretched hand. The barb pricked Asa’s wrist, barely breaking skin but enough for a pinprick of blood to show. She fell back with a squeak of surprise.
The other two women shifted back in disbelief, Nay’s mouth an oval rictus, Saya sucked a sharp breath, palms cupping the sides of her face.
“What’s up with you?” Nai said.
“Serves her right. Don’t like being crowded, is all,” Hana said, voice low and defensive. Hana grasped the pearl tightly, fist held to her lap. Is the little orb hot? Is it throbbing? Couldn’t be.
“You’ll sell it, won’t you?” Nai said, eyes turning to a small pot on a shelf. They had always shared equally in the bounty of the sea. “It could bring in a tidy sum.”
“Might. . . don’t have to, do I?” Hana’s response brought murmurs from the other Ama.
Saya spoke first, “What about last year when I found. . ..”
“That was your choice,” Hana cut her off. “Said I might . . . but maybe not.”
“We’ve always shared,” Nai said.
Hana pouted. “You’re all jealous. Why can’t we share Saya’s mirror then, or that little wooden cross Asa hides under her pile of clothes?” Hana said, her voice shrill over the pops and hiss of the fire. “And that little treasure you think nobody knows about, that comb. What do you want with a comb anyway, as if anyone would . . ..”
Nai’s eyes burned with rage. “It was my mother’s,” she hissed.
“You’ve been going through our private things, you devil,” Saya said.
“My cross is a secret,” said Asa, close to tears. “You mustn’t tell.”
“That’s enough, you’re all drunk. What you did to Asa was unkind — apologize, Hana,” Nai ordered.
Hana turned and looked at Asa. The younger woman looked back sulkily, pouting with upturned eyes, fingers rubbing her pricked wrist.
“Sorry,” Hana murmured.
Asa nodded and smiled. She lurched forward, hugging Hana as if nothing had happened. “I forgive you,” she said.
Hana pushed her away. “Time for bed,” she said, rising, moving away to prepare her futon.
Curled in her bedding, feigning sleep, Hana furtively watched her housemates cleaning up. The pearl was clasped in her hand, she felt its warmth and a strange tingling sensation that radiated up her arm. She studied Nai supervising the clean-up, putting dishes away. Nai, that busybody. Look at her, ordering everyone around like she is some kind of queen. Queen of night soil is all. I should piss on that old comb of hers.
She covered her mouth with her blanket, giggling at the audacity of it.
With dishes washed, Saya took her piece of broken mirror from a drawer and began to examine herself in the lamp light. Stupid girl, Hana thought. Probably imagines my pearl made into a hair ornament or some such nonsense.
Hana peered through her eyelashes at Asa. That little thief, trying to grab it from me. That dirty little wooden cross she got from the bearded foreigner. Her hand tightened around the pearl.
Heavy with sleep, Hana’s eyes closed. I’ll show them . . .
HANA LOOKED UP. Her hair wafted upwards towards an undulating ceiling that shimmered like mercury. Her beautiful bay, normally abundant with marine life seemed dead; coral etiolated, not a fish to be seen, no swaying kelp gardens. She felt chilled to the bone and realized she was completely naked, her white limbs a stark contrast to the dark seabed. Hana felt an overwhelming urge to breathe and wondered how long she had been down.
Overcome by hunger for air, she opened her mouth and sucked icy brine into her lungs. She coughed it out, more in fear than a drowning reflex. She sucked in again, this time it tasted of nothing. It restored her. Hana squeezed it out of her lungs; it flowed out viscous, colorless. She could breathe this . . . whatever it was.
To one side, just a couple of swim strokes away lay the remains of a boat’s hull. Its ribs were cracked and charred. Within it were smaller ribs that looked to her like human bones, also broken and strewn about. Hana shuddered in horror. Her hand cramped from clutching something very tightly. She looked down and slowly opened her fist to reveal the pearl cupped in her palm. When it rolled a little she curled her fingers over it to form a protective carapace.
A bony hand reached out from the ruined boat. The human remains were moving — partial skeletons propped themselves up. They want the pearl. “It’s mine,” she said, the words came out as a gurgle. A hand gripped her ankle, another held her wrist, something covered her face. She felt fingers trying to pry open her hand. My pearl. She kicked, tried to jerk free but there were too many hands gripping her. And then the pearl was gone.
Hana awoke drenched in sweat. She had pulled open her yukata and kicked off her bedclothes. She lay still for a moment, listening to the breathing of her still-sleeping housemates. The pearl was no longer in her hand. She sat up, straightened her clothes and looked through her bedding. Not finding the pearl in her futon, her attention turned to the slumbering women. Which one of you stole it? They would be awake soon but if she moved quickly, she would be able to search their secret hiding places.
She tiptoed directly to where she knew each of the women hid their treasures. In a moment she had Nai’s comb, Saya’s broken mirror and Asa’s small wooden cross. Hana tied them in the center of a kerchief and stuffed the parcel behind her sash.
But where was the pearl? They’re all in on it. I’ll make them pay. The irori’s warmth drew her to it. She poked the embers and threw in more charcoal. Fanning it, the fire awakened. She grabbed an armful of clothes and threw them over the glowing embers. The fire began to blaze. She threw in more clothes.
The shimmer of flames played over the women’s faces, stirring them from their slumber.
Hana continued to rummage through the hiding places, a voice heavy with sleep called from behind, “What’s going on, are you cold?” Hana turned. It was Saya. Hana grabbed the heavy iron pot that hung over the irori and brought it down on Saya’s head. That will shut her up.
For good measure, she thumped Saya three more times. “Your hair doesn’t look so good now, does it sister?” she said, looking down at the matted scalp.
She bashed in the heads of the other two sleeping women. She pulled burning garments out of the fire and scattered them about the little wooden house. Flames licked up the walls and into the thatched ceiling.
Hana rushed to retrieve the small ceramic bowl that held their combined savings and tucked it under her arm before fleeing the burning house. They had no near neighbours and a path led directly to the beach over a small grassy hill. Hana stopped at the top of the knoll and watched the blaze. She sat on the grass with her knees pulled up to her chest, feeling the warmth of the rising sun on her back. Listening to the lapping of waves, she hummed a little tune.
Can you see the herring from the sky, dear seagulls?
You'd better ask the waves 'cause we're just flying away Heave-ho, heave-ho
I am going to sleep on a satin pillow tonight
And tomorrow we're going to sleep on the rough waves Heave-ho, heave-ho
Her thoughts drifted to breakfast, have something delicious at the village inn, perhaps. She smiled at the thought of a nice meal paid for by her sisters’ savings. “Thank you, girls,” she whispered. Her fingers played with the hem of her clothing. She felt a small lump; something trapped in there — small and round, smooth too. Ah, that’s where you are . . .
HANA SQUANDERED HER SISTERS’ MEAGER SAVINGS on sake. In her drunkenness, she had taken the pearl out and shown it boastfully at the inn, protecting it fiercely like a feral cat defending her young, snarling and clawing at anyone approaching for a closer look.
The next day, Hana’s body was discovered carelessly hidden in bushes not far from the inn. Her throat had been cut. Not much was known of the young pearl diver or the women she had lived with in the burned house. The only possessions found on her were a broken mirror, a comb and a small wooden cross. Hana’s death was attributed tosomeone who was thought to have held a grudge against all the Ama, a stranger probably, perhaps one who hated Kirishitans, as the woman must have been to have the cross hidden on her.
The murderer, a thief who had been making his way south had fortuitously stumbled on an easy, drunken target. With a simple ambush and then an escape, he continued his way towards his destination of Nagasaki, the furthermost point west and as far away as possible from the trail of crimes left in his wake.
THE FIRST TIME THE MURDERER examined the pearl closely, it had given him such a feeling of dread that he retched on the wayside. It scared him and he immediately dropped it into his bag of other filched items. That night he suffered from horrific nightmares; images of skeletons clawing their way towards him that had him shuddering in his sleep. He awoke drenched in sweat — ill. He suspected the pearl as the source of this sickness, yet he plodded on, no longer wanting the pearl but unable to give it up.
Entering Nagasaki, armed guards stopped the murderer and thoroughly searched him. A tax to Lord Ōtomo the daimyo, was to be levied on everyone entering these lands, they told him. They discovered the pearl hidden in a fold of his clothing and seized it.
There was nothing Hana’s murderer could do. And in any case, by this time he was too ill to object.
Inspecting the pearl, a representative of the feudal lord identified it as a gemstone of exceptional quality. His stomach churned with nausea as he turned the glistening jewel between his fingers. He quickly dropped it into a silk bag containing other treasures collected on behalf of his master. The pearl sat amongst other gems, imbuing them with its malevolence — each one of them ready to spread evil.
MARTYRS Nagasaki, Japan 1597
THE EXECUTION GROUND had been chosen so that everyone would have a clear view of the slaughter. Lady Ōtomo’s party viewed the proceedings from a platform built specially for the occasion. The chamberlain, aware of her preferences, placed it close enough for Lady Ōtomo to be able to hear the screams of the victims, but far enoughnot to have to witness the minute details or be troubled by the smoke, the smell of blood or the flies. Standard bearers held up billowing flags displaying the colors of her clan. Armed warriors stood guard in a protective cordon around her dais. Walls of white cloth on three sides protected the lady from the curious eyes of the less well-off spectators.
The elderly noblewoman’s lips were stained red with rouge made from safflower. Her face covered in white powder. Her waxed tresses were pulled back and arranged into a high bun adorned with combs. The edges of her kimono, decorated with bats and birds crossing a full moon, spread out on the floor by her feet.
These killings were largely of her doing. Even the executioner’s sword belonged to her. The katana was made three hundred years before — a work of art created by Masamune, Japan’s greatest swordsmith. This sword had been used against the Mongols; barbarians that tried in vain to attack Japan. Both times their armies were destroyed by huge storms, the divine winds, the Kamikaze. Lady Ōtomo wanted this katana to be used to kill the new invaders, the Christians. It was due to her efforts that the Shogun had agreed to deport all Portuguese missionaries.
Thirty five condemned men stood behind a bamboo fence, tied side-by-side with their arms folded across their chests. In with the group of Portuguese missionaries were several Japanese iruman, ‘brothers.’ From the top of a mound constructed of rammed earth, they all faced the same direction. Beyond the enclosure, fires burned in preparation of the fate soon to befall them.
Below the missionaries, on the main stage, another killing ground had been prepared. It was the reason the missionaries were made to face that way: to witness the butchery of their Japanese followers. Forty were to be executed, half of them women.
Guards dragged the Christian converts one at a time along the row of brothers to have their heads chopped off by a swordsman. When they reached the executioner, the guards forced them to their knees. The swordsman loosened his clothing and bared one shoulder to allow his arms freer movement. He raised the weapon up in a two-handed grip and looked to Lady Ōtomo for her assent.
As heads rolled one after another, blood poured onto the knoll and a wet muddy patch stained the executioner’s workspace. The bloodied ground sucked at his feet, a red- brown rivulet flowed downhill.
The severed heads were collected and jammed onto sharpened spikes arranged along the base of the earthen platform so that the missionaries could get a good look at the faces of their dead followers.
A few wealthy lords and their retainers had been invited to watch the butchery with Lady Ōtomo. They applauded as each head rolled, expressing their approval with hearty cheers. One of them turned to Lady Ōtomo. “What a wonderful spectacle. You have combined the elements of justice and entertainment so elegantly.”
Lady Ōtomo acknowledged the compliment with a nod of her head and replied, “You are too kind, but I have to admit, the idea of burning Christians is one we imported. They have been doing this to their own people for centuries.”
Lady Ōtomo sipped sake while watching her soldiers arrange piles of kindling and logs around the legs of the brothers. When all was ready, she raised a pale hand, giving the signal to the chamberlain. He acknowledged her order and scurried over to the earthen mound. There the chamberlain conveyed her instructions to a warrior in ceremonial armor. The samurai, Lord Matsumoto, wore a helmet with horns extending from its sides. The chamberlain said a few words and handed Lord Matsumoto a small object wrapped in white paper. Matsumoto unfolded the little package. It contained a pearl. The helmet hid Matsumoto’s grin. He was a wealthy man and as beautiful as the pearl was, it was not its material value that mattered. Lady Ōtomo gave pearls only to the select few that she felt deserved her gratitude. It was an honor, a sign of respect and now the horned samurai had her clan’s support and the ear of the Shogun. He turned to face the powerful noblewoman and bowed deeply. She acknowledged him with an almost imperceptible nod. Matsumoto kept the pearl in his hand and picked up a burning stick, bringing it to the brothers.
The prisoners watched the demonic figure coming towards them and began screaming in terror. Matsumoto put his torch to the first pile of firewood. It caught instantly and he moved to the next prisoner. Soon the entire line was ablaze. The rising heat drew in gusts of wind. The fire’s loud crackling competed with the screams of the victims. The grey plumes of each fire spiraled upwards, then joined to form a dark mushroom- shaped cloud that hung above Nagasaki.
Marco Lobo is a Tokyo-based business consultant. With a background in international business, Marco helps European and North American multinationals establish their commercial footprint in Japan and the wider Asia region. Extensive travel and exposure to myriad cultures has allowed him to take note of the ways different peoples interact, whether it is in harmony or conflict. Raised in British Hong Kong, he witnessed the former colony’s transition from Britain to China, and now its ongoing transformation into a Chinese city. Likewise, of Portuguese heritage, Marco is deeply committed to observing and writing about the Portuguese diaspora and the changes it has gone through. The author of five books, his work has been published in English, Portuguese and Chinese.
Originally published on the Kaidankai podcast on June 15, 2022.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.