Nocturnes | Chapter 10 of 35

Author: John Connolly | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 5110 Views | Add a Review

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How should I begin this story? “Once upon a time,” perhaps; but, no, that’s not right. That makes it a story of long ago and far away and it’s not that kind of story.

It’s not that kind of story at all.

Better, then, to begin the tale as I remember it. After all, it is my story: mine to tell, mine in experience. I am old now, but I am not foolish. I still bar the doors and lock the windows at night. I still check in the shadows before I sleep, and give the dogs free roam through the house, for they will smell him if he comes again, and I will be ready for him. The walls are stone, and we keep torches burning. There are always blades to hand, but it is fire that he fears the most.

He will take no one from my house. He will steal no child from under my roof.

My father was not such a careful man. He knew the old stories, for he told them to me when I was a boy: tales of the Sandman, who tears out the eyes of small boys who will not sleep; and of Baba Yaga, the demon witch, who rides in a chariot of old bones and rests her palms on the skulls of children; and of Scylla, the sea monster, who drags men into the depths and has an appetite that can never be appeased.

But he never spoke of the Erlking. All that my father would say was that I should not venture into the woods alone, and that I should never stay out beyond nightfall. There were things out there, he would say: wolves and worse-than-wolves.

There is myth and there is reality; one we tell and one we hide. We create monsters and hope that the lessons wrapped in their tales will serve to guide us when we encounter that which is most terrible in life. We give forged names to our fears, and pray that we may face nothing worse than what we ourselves have created.

We lie to protect our children, and in lying we expose them to the greatest of harms.

 

 

Our family lived in a small house, close to the edge of the forest at the northern end of our little village. At night, the moon would drench the trees, relieving the dark expanse of woodland and creating silver spire upon silver spire, receding into the distance like a convergence of churches. Beyond were mountains, and great cities, and lakes as wide as oceans, so that a man might stand on one side and be unable to see land on the other. In my child’s mind, I would picture myself passing through the barrier of the woods and into the great realm that they concealed from me. At other times, the trees would promise me shelter from the adult world, a cocoon of wood and leaves in which to hide myself, for such is the lure of dark places for a child.

I would sit at my bedroom window late at night and listen to the sounds of the forest. I learned to distinguish the hooting of owls, the flapping of bat wings, the panicked scurrying of small things seeking to eat without being consumed in their turn. All of these elements were familiar to me, and they lulled me to sleep. This was my world, and for a time there was nothing in it that was not known to me.

Yet I recall one night when all seemed quiet, when it appeared that everything living in the darkness below had momentarily stifled a breath, and as I listened I sensed a presence moving through the consciousness of the forest, searching, hunting. A wolf howled, a quaver in its tone, and I could hear the fear communicated in its cry. Within moments, the howl turned to a whine, rising in pitch until it resembled a scream before it was suddenly cut off forever.

And the wind blew the curtains, as if the woods had at last released their breath.

 

 

It seemed that we lived our lives at the very edge of civilization, aware always that beyond us lay the wildness of the forest. When we played in the schoolyard, our cries hung in the air for a moment, then seemed to be sucked into the dense woods, our childish voices wandering lost between the trees before fading at last into nothingness. But beyond that tree line, a creature waited, and it drew our voices from the air like a hand plucking an apple from a tree, and it devoured us in its mind.

There was a light dusting of snow upon the ground, the earliest fall of winter, when first I saw it. We were playing in a field by the church, chasing a red leather ball that stood out like blood upon the whiteness of the ground. A gust of wind arose where no wind had been before. It carried the ball upon it until it came to rest in a patch of young alders some distance into the forest. Unthinkingly, I followed.

As soon as I passed beyond the first of the great fir trees, the air around me grew colder and the voices of my companions were lost to me. Dark growths of fungus hung upon the shaded sides of the trees, close to the ground. I saw a dead bird lying at the base of one such cluster, its body collapsed in upon itself and seepage from the mushrooms frozen above it in a yellow, glotted mass. There was blood on its beak, and its eyes were tightly closed, as though the bird were lost forever in the remembrance of its final pain.

I moved farther into the forest, the imprint of my passing trailing behind me like an unseen rank of lost souls. I parted a cluster of alders and reached for the ball, and as I did so, the wind spoke to me. It said:

“Boy. Come to me, boy.”

I looked around, but there was no one near me.

The voice came again, closer now, and in the shadows before me, a figure moved. I thought at first that it was the branch of a tree, so thin and dark was it, its frame wreathed in gray as if spiders had spun a thick skein across it. But the branch reached out, and the twigs of its fingers gathered and beckoned. Waves of strange desire emanated from it. They washed over me like the tides of a polluted sea, leaving me filthy and soiled.

“Boy. Beautiful boy. Delicate boy. Come, boy, embrace me.”

I grabbed the ball and backed away, but my foot caught on one of the twisted roots beneath the snow. I fell heavily on my back and a light thread touched my face: it was a gossamer strand of web, strong and sticky, which clung to my hair and seemed to coil around my fingers as I tried to push it away. Then a second fell, and a third, heavier now, like the filaments of a fishing net. Dim light speared through the trees, and thousands of floating strands were revealed. From the shadows where the gray being waited, line upon line of web floated, so that the figure appeared to be disintegrating, shedding itself upon me. I struggled and opened my mouth to cry out, but the threads were falling thickly now and they descended upon my tongue and tangled themselves around it so that I could not speak. The being advanced, silver web heralding its approach, and the mesh seemed to tighten upon me as I moved.

With all the strength that I had, I pushed myself backward upon the ground and felt the strands catching on the roots, tearing apart and freeing me from their grasp. Branches scratched my face and snow gathered in my boots as I burst through the tree line, the ball still in my hands.

And as I drew away, that voice came again:

“Boy. Beautiful Boy.”

And I knew that it wanted me, and that it would not rest until it had savored me.

 

 

That night, I could not sleep. I recalled the web, and the voice from the darkness of the forest, and my eyes refused to close. I twisted and turned, but I could find no rest. Despite the cold outside, the room was unbearably warm, so that I was forced to kick the sheet from my body and lie naked upon the bed.

Yet I must have drifted into sleep, for it seemed that something caused my eyes to flicker open, and I found the light in the room was no longer what it had been. There were shadows in the corners where no shadows belonged. They shifted and twisted, but the trees outside remained undisturbed, and the curtains on the windows hung still and unmoving.

And then I heard it: a soft, low voice, like the rustling of dead leaves.

“Boy.”

I rose up suddenly, my hands reaching for the sheet to cover my body, but the sheet was gone. I looked around and saw it lying discarded beneath the window. Even in my worst thrashings, I could not have sent it so far from my bed.

“Boy. Come to me, boy.”

In that corner, a presence seemed to hover. At first, it was almost shapeless, like an old blanket that has begun to rot, and strands of spiderweb filigreed themselves upon it. The moonlight illuminated folds of faded, wrinkled skin that hung across its stick-thin arms like old bark. Ivy curled around its limbs and wreathed the thin fingers that now beckoned to me from the shadows. Where its face might have been, there were only dead leaves and darkness—except at its mouth, where small, white teeth glistened.

“Come to me, boy,” it repeated. “Let me hold you.”

“No,” I said. I curled my legs up before me, trying to make myself as small as possible, to expose to it as little of my body as I could. “No. Go away.”

At the ends of its fingers, an oval shape glittered. It was a mirror, its frame carefully ornamented, and shapes like dragons chased each other around its edges.

“Look, boy: a gift for you, if you let me embrace you.”

The mirror’s face was turned to me and, for an instant, I saw my own face reflected in its surface. For that single, fleeting moment, I was not alone in the mirror’s bright reaches. Other faces crowded around mine, tiny faces—tens, hundreds, thousands of them, a whole legion of the lost. Small fists beat at the glass, as if hoping to break through to the other side. And among them, its eyes huge with terror, I saw my own face, and I knew that this was how it could be.

“Please, leave me alone.”

I was trying not to cry, but my cheeks burned and my sight grew misty. The thing hissed, and for the first time I became conscious of the smell, a dense, loamy stench of rotting leaves and still, dank water. A lighter, less foul odor drifted in and out of my senses, curling through the stink of decay like a snake through the undergrowth.

It was the scent of alder.

The stick hand gestured again, and this time a puppet danced at the ends of its fingers: a small infant, carefully carved, so lifelike that it looked like a tiny person, a homunculus, silhouetted against the moonlight. It jerked and danced as the fingers moved, yet I could see no strings controlling its limbs and, when I looked closer, I could discern no joins at its elbows or legs. The creature’s arm extended, moving the puppet closer to me, and I could not help but give a little moan of fear when the true dimensions of the marionette became clear.

For it was not a toy, not in any sense that we might mean. It was a human baby, tiny and perfectly formed, with wide, unblinking eyes and dark, ruffled hair. The thing gripped it by the skull, applying pressure to which the child responded by moving its arms and legs in protest. Its mouth was open, but it made no sound, and no tears fell from its eyes. It was dead, it seemed, and yet somehow alive.

“A beautiful toy,” said the shadow being, “for a beautiful boy.”

I tried to shout out then, but it seemed as though fingers had grasped my tongue and gripped it tightly. I could taste the thing in my mouth, and for the first time in my life I knew what it would be like to die, for the tang of death was upon its skin.

The hand moved in a flash, and the child was gone.

“Do you know me, boy?”

I shook my head. Perhaps it was a dream, I thought. Only in dreams were you unable to cry out. Only in dreams could a sheet spring unbidden from a bed.

Only in dreams could a being that smelled of leaves and stagnant water hold a dead child before you and make it dance.

“I am the Erlking. I have always been, and I will always be. I am the Erlking, and I take what I desire. Would you deny me my desire? Come with me, and I will give you treasures and toys. I will give you sweet things to eat, and I will call you ‘beloved’ until the day you die.”

From where its eyes should have been, two black butter-flies fluttered forth, like tiny mourners at a wake. Then the mouth opened wide, and its knotted fingers reached for me, and something caught in its voice as desire overwhelmed it. The Erlking advanced, and I saw him in all his terrible glory. A cloak of human skins hung upon his shoulders, falling almost to the floor, and in place of ermine it was fringed with scalps, yellow hair and dark hair and red hair all interwoven like the colors of autumn trees. Beneath the cloak lay a silver breastplate, intricately carved with details of naked bodies intertwining, so many of them that it was impossible to tell where one individual began, and another ended. There was a crown of bone upon his head, each tine the remains of a child’s finger bound with gold wire, curling inward as though beckoning me to add to their number. And yet I could see no face beneath the crown. All that was visible was that dark mouth with its white teeth: appetite made flesh.

With all the strength of will that I could muster I sprang from my bed and leapt for the door. From behind me came the sound of leaves rustling and branches scraping. I twisted the door handle, but the sweat of my palms made it slippery and treacherous. I fumbled once, then again. The stench of rotting vegetation grew stronger in my nostrils. I let out a little whine of panic, and then the doorknob was turning, my feet were on the passageway, and branches were scraping at my naked back.

I wrenched myself away and, with one twisting motion, pulled the door closed behind me.

 

 

I should have run to my father then, but some instinct sent me to the fireplace in the parlor, where the last flickering embers of the fire still remained. I took a stick from the woodpile, wrapped a rag around it, and soaked it in oil from the lamp. I plunged it into the fire and watched as the flames leapt before me. I lifted a hearthrug from the floor and wrapped it around my body. Then, my bare feet slapping softly on the cold flag-stones, I made my way back to my room. I listened silently before turning the handle of the door and pushing it open slowly before me.

The room was empty. The only shadows that moved came from the flickering of the flame. I made my way to the corner where the Erlking had stood, but now there were only cobwebs and the drained husks of dead insects. I stood at the window, but the woods beyond were quiet. I pulled the window closed but, as I stretched to do so, I became aware of a pain in my back. I reached behind me, and my fingers came back with blood at the tips. In the small shard of mirror that hung above my jug and bowl, I could see a series of four long slashes across my back.

I thought that I screamed, except that no noise came from my lips. Instead, the scream came from the room where my father and mother both slept, and I followed the sound.

In the sputtering torchlight I saw my father at the open window and my mother on her knees beside the overturned cradle where my younger brother slept each night, swaddled in blankets. Now there was no sleeping infant, the blankets were strewn across the floor, and a dense, loamy smell, as of rotting leaves and still waters, hung in the room.

 

 

My mother never recovered. She cried and cried, until at last she could cry no more, and then body and spirit surrendered themselves to eternal night. My father grew old and quiet, and the sadness hung about him like a mist. I could not confess to him that I had denied the Erlking, and that he had taken another in my place. I carried the blame inside me, and vowed that I would never let him take another being who was under my protection.

Now I lock the windows and bar the doors to the outside, and give the dogs free roam of the house. My children’s rooms are never locked, so that I can reach them quickly, day or night. And I warn them that if they hear the knocking of branches at their window, they must call me and never, ever open the window themselves. And if they see a bright and shiny object dangling from a tree branch, then they must never reach for it, but should continue on their way, always remaining on the true path. And if they hear a voice offering them sweet things to taste for the promise of an embrace, then they should run and run and never look back.

And, in the light of the fire, I tell them tales of the sandman, who tears out the eyes of small boys who will not sleep; and of Baba Yaga, the demon witch, who rides in a chariot of old bones and rests her palms on the skulls of children; and of Scylla, the sea monster, who drags men into the depths and has an appetite that can never be appeased.

And I tell them of the Erlking, with his arms of bark and ivy, and his soft, rustling voice, and his gifts to trap the unwary, and his appetites, which are so much worse than anything they can imagine. I tell them of his desires so that they will know him in all his forms, and they will be ready for him when he comes.

 

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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