Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Old Grey House

There stood once an old grey house upon a lonely hill in the moors. The house was quiet. No servants bustled downstairs, no one dusted the corners and ancient vases. No one tended the garden, it overflowed with thorns and shriveled white roses. Poison ivy filled the vegetable beds.
When night fell, no light burned in any window. Sometimes the moon gleamed on a window pane but otherwise the house was a silhouette of blackness. A scream split the night.
Sun rose upon the misted moor, grey-white fog wrapped the hills and naked trees. Grey grey grey. A white face peered out of a high window. The face belonged to a girl.
As usual, the moors were empty, the unused road nearly invisible.
The pale girl cried silent tears. The sun floated over the mists but failed to burn them off. Silence. No birds sang, no brook burbled, no wind rattled the bare tree limbs. Nothing. Red eyes longed for the horizon. Silence. Silence. Silence.
Then a bell.
The white face withdrew from the window, then peered cautiously out, searching for the source of the sweet tinkling music.
It was a young shepherd with his bell choir of sheep. He was new in these parts and sought a quiet pasture, away from the overgrazed fields around the village. He had heard only vague rumors of the old grey house, whispers, and incomplete tales. Obliviously, he led his sheep into the moors. The old grey house crept into view, rising like a broken headstone on the hill. He paused to gaze upon it.
Dead vines curled up the cracked stones, the casements were faded, the roof sagged, and the walls seemed to bulge out. Leading his sheep closer, he scanned the windows, curious if anyone lived in this ruin. He saw the white face vanish and reappear. He led his sheep closer still.
The white face peeked around a black curtain. He waved. The face disappeared. Closer still, he led his sheep, to the very edge of the garden, ringed with a low stone wall.
The shepherd eyed the windows, most with heavy moth-eaten black drapes pulled across them, the rest, shuttered. He peered at the elaborately carved door. It was rotten and splitting. An old green knocker hung listlessly, its fearsome countenance saddened with tears of corrosion.
He stepped over a low spot in the wall, about to head for the door. A movement above caught his eye. It was the pale face.
Now that he was closer, he could see that it belonged to a colorless but very beautiful girl. Her blond-nearly grey-hair tangled about her head like a halo, the stray hairs lit up like fire in the sunlight that pierced her dark window. Her lips were white and cracked, her eyes were grey and filled with an elixir of sadness, terror, and despair. But there gleamed within a small drop of hope.
The shepherd smiled at her and saluted. “Hello!” he called, his voice startling in the quietness.
The girl glanced around nervously.
“What is this house?” he asked. “Who are you?”
The girl put an urgent finger to her lips. The shepherd crossed the bramble covered garden slowly, picking his way over vicious thorns, an abandoned scythe, old wooden stakes and a rotten cart. At last he stood below the window and called up quietly, “What’s the matter?”
The girl shook her head and pointed at the road then made a motion like she was pushing something away.
She pointed at him, then at the horizon.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Go,” she said in a broken whisper.
“I’m sorry I trespassed, I didn’t know anyone lived here.”
“To live,” whispered the girl, “or to die, how sweet that would be. Alas, no one lives here.”
“Go!” she insisted. But he didn’t move.
“So you don’t live here?” he asked.
“I said no one lives here, to live is to be alive and I am not.”
“Are you a ghost?” he asked
“No. I am not alive, but I wish I could die.”
“What are you doing here?” the shepherd asked, looking up into her sad colorless eyes.
“I am trapped.”
“Then why don’t you jump out of that window and I’ll catch you?”
“You don’t want to help me.”
“But I do.”
The girl seemed about to reply when she suddenly whipped her head around as if she’d heard something inside the house. She glanced back at the shepherd and he saw terror in her eyes and a blood red tear tracing down her cheek. Then she pulled her curtains closed.
The door creaked open and he jumped.
A grey woman stood in the doorway. Her hair and skin were grey and she was dressed in a grey gown and bonnet.
“Take your prying eyes somewhere else,” the woman said, her words coming out tonelessly, like dead things.
“I’m sorry, but I—”
“Go away,” the woman said. “Leave us alone.” She slammed the rotten door closed.
The shepherd stumbled back, glancing up at the high window. He stepped on something that crunched. Looking down he saw that it was a sheep’s skull. He retreated from the garden and stood with his sheep on the grey hillside, looking up at the stark old house with its curtained windows.
At last he turned and led his sheep away over the lonely moors. The girl watched him go through a slit in her curtains.  She saw him glance back. Once. Twice. Thrice. And he was gone and she was all alone.
When the shepherd returned to the village that night he asked at the tavern if anyone knew anything about the old grey house and the beautiful colorless girl. The patrons eyed him fearfully, most of them gathering their things and leaving. But an old grey man beckoned him over. The shepherd sank into the dusty old cushion and the cloud of spiced tobacco smoke.
“Lad,” the old man said, “what do you want with the old Hopenheim House?”
“I want to know what it is and who lives there.”
“Why?” the old man asked, peering at him quizzically.
The shepherd hesitated. “Curious,” he said at last, trying to shrug.
“It’s just a house,” the old man said. “Or it was before terrible things began to happen. Lord Hopenheim had his country seat there. He was the third cousin of the well-known Lord Hopenheim, Earl of Dunwick Sladge. He had a daughter, an only daughter to whom he left the house and lands. She married well, a knighted poet, I believe, and they lived there on her inheritance for many years and had seven children, three sons and four daughters.”
The fire popped in the now empty tavern. Eerie silence settled in the blue pipe smoke. The old man puffed for a bit then went on. “The eldest son married a fine young lady but they were both killed in a carriage accident. The poet died. Fever overtook him. Not long after that, the second son was lost at sea. The inheritance was running out and so the lady remarried. They say the roses in the garden died the night she brought her new husband home.”
“Who was the new husband?” the shepherd asked.
“Oh, some fine gentleman, I presume. He was distantly related to the Hapsburgs. He had no land, but money, and lots of it. But not all the money in the world could save the eldest daughter. She died of an illness that no one was ever able to identify. The second and third daughters also died, of the same disease is all anyone can guess.”
“What about the fourth daughter? And the third son?” the shepherd asked, leaning closer.
“The youngest daughter was going to tour Europe,” the old man said sadly, “but before she left there was an incident. The last son fell from the roof of the house and died in the garden. They say the girl pushed him. A doctor came from Bamberg and declared her insane. The lord and lady keep her locked in that house and no one comes or goes.”
“No one?”
The old man shook his head. He sucked on his pipe and blew a smoke ring. “If you’re wise, you’ll stay away from that house.”
The shepherd took his sheep over the misty moors the next day and wandered in sight of the old grey house. He peered through the fog at the high window. It was black. The moor was silent. The trees stood still and black, bird-less. No breath of wind touched the grass.
He led his sheep closer. The silence was heavy, glowing. The mist seemed to thicken around the house, greyer and greyer until it solidified into stone. The shepherd led his sheep closer still but not a breath stirred the black curtains.
To the very garden wall he led his sheep, staring up at the high window. The grey was marred with color, blazing, stabbing the shepherd’s eyes with its intensity. From the grey casement of the black window dripped a stream of purest red.
The shepherd stepped over the wall and crossed the garden, eyes riveted upon the red. He stood below the high window and gazed up.
“Hello?” he called, his echo stopped dead in the mist, falling back harshly on his ears.
Silence. Red.
The shepherd picked his way through the thorns to the door and seized the corroded knocker. Bang! Creak. Bang! Creak. Bang! The echo froze in the mist. He might have been trapped in a tiny cell for all the noise it made. The door was wet, dripping tears of decay.
Silence. Red. The shepherd went back to the window and looked up.
“Is any one there? Are you alright?” he yelled into the suffocating fog. He glanced at the ground floor window directly before him. It was also curtained and silent. He looked back up at the high window. Silence. Red.
The curtains on the ground floor flung open. The shepherd cried out and jumped back into a rosebush.
Behind the rippled old glass sat the grey woman in a moldy old wingback chair. Her hair was disheveled, her eyes wide and glassy, blood smeared her white nightgown and hands which were frozen in claws. Her mouth was open in a silent scream, her teeth broken.
The shepherd tore himself out of the rosebush and ran madly through the garden, ripping through thorns and ivy and finally tripping over the wall. His skin crawled violently and dripped with ice. He stared fearfully back at the old grey house.
All of the windows were curtained. Everything was silent but the house seemed to shiver and rise menacingly before him, drawing the fog in around it, darker and darker…He gathered his sheep and herded them away over the misted moors, glancing back every three steps, his neck prickling with eyes that were not there.
What had happened to the girl?
The shepherd found the old man that night at the tavern.
“I went back to the house today,” he stuttered. “I-I saw a corpse in the window! The lady, I think she’s dead!”
“I told you to stay away from there!” the old man exclaimed, crossing himself.
“Someone should go investigate!” the shepherd insisted.
“No, no,” the old man said. “We mustn’t put our foot in the door of Hell. Who knows what might come bubbling out?”
“Something’s happening in that house,” the shepherd said. “Something bad and that girl’s in there…”
“Stay away from Hopenheim House,” the old man said, tapping the ashes out of his pipe and standing. “Please, for your soul’s sake.”
The old man hobbled out of the tavern.
“Someone has to save the girl’s,” the shepherd whispered to himself.
He went back to the house the next day.
As everything had been quiet the day before now all was raucous noise. The wind howled, the naked tree branches clattered, the sheep wailed and loose shutters on the old grey house banged incessantly. The shepherd hunkered in the cold gusts with his sheep, watching the high window for sight of the beautiful girl. The red stain was dark and colorless now.
The angry clouds swirled above him in arcane shapes. The trees cracked behind him and he jumped, looking back at the stand of tall black trees some three hundred yards distant. His sheep nibbled at the grass. The shepherd sat upon a mound. He glanced down at it; he hadn’t noticed it before.  He ran the loose dirt between his fingers. It had been freshly turned. He was sitting directly atop a newly filled grave. He whipped his head up to look at the empty high window.
Then a loud crack! came from behind. Scrambling around on the grave he saw a limb snap from high in the crown of an ancient tree and impossibly sail on the violent wind straight towards him.
He stared, frozen as the limb ripped across the impassable distance. It flew up and crashed down towards his head. He jolted and dove—but not fast enough. The tip of the branch smacked his head.
The pale face appeared in the window. She looked down on the shepherd fallen with the branch beside her mother’s grave and a red tear spilled from her eye. The shepherd did not move. She heard a creak from downstairs. She threw open her window but the shutters slammed on her, blocking out the light of day.
The creak was on the stairs. She pushed at the shutters but they would not open. She beat her fists on them, scrabbled at the splintery wood with her fingers. The creak was in the hall. She took up a candelabrum and banged on the shutters but they would not open. The creak was outside her door. She frantically hammered on the shutters, again and again. They splintered.
Her door creaked open. She faltered. The creak was in her room.
With a violent shiver she gripped the candelabrum and took a step back. The creak was directly behind her. She threw herself with all her might against the shutters.
They broke apart, one falling into the garden, the other swinging loose on a single hinge. Daylight surged in. Her door banged shut. She slowly turned to look over her shoulder. The room was empty.
She climbed out onto the windowsill. The wind whipped her hair around her face and the black curtains flapped like voluptuous wings. The trees crackled like fire and the sheep wailed over their fallen master who lay beside the grave, the branch cradling him like a skeletal hand.
The girl stood on the sill. And jumped.
The wind ceased to howl, the sheep watched in silence.
The streak of white met the earth with a crunch. The sheep bleated in unison and the wind caressed to moors softly. The girl tried to sit up. With a cry of agony she fell back. Her leg was twisted in a peculiar attitude. She tried to rise again, but she could not and she fell back again, but this time she did not rise.
The shepherd awoke to silence as the last hint of daylight faded away. The clouds above were black. The sheep were clustered around him, shivering. A little lamb licked his face. He stood, rubbing his aching head. He peered up at the high window. He saw the dangling shutter. He stumbled closer till he could see over the garden wall. A white shape glowed at the base of the house, just below the high window.
A red flame flickered by the door. The shepherd darted forward and hid behind the stone wall. Peering over it, he saw the flame move across the garden to the white shape, which he could now make out to be the girl.
The flame was carried by an indistinguishable figure. It scooped up the girl and glided back towards the door.
“Stop!” shouted the shepherd, leaping over the wall. The shadow did not stop. The shepherd ran after it. Halfway across, something caught his shin. He fell. Something sliced into his stomach. He cried out. The door banged shut.
The shepherd picked up the rusty scythe and stumbled across the rest of the garden. He threw himself against the door. He tugged on the handle—it came off in his hands. He pounded on the rotten wood, gasping in pain as blood sheeted down his abdomen. Panting, he lurched back and hefted the scythe. It sank into the wood with a squelching thunk. He pulled it out and sank it in again. And again. And again. He fell against the door clutching his wound, resting on the scythe stuck in the door. The wind screamed around him, blowing dead rose petals into his eyes.
He wrenched on the scythe, twisting it from side to side. He could hear the handle splintering. The door squelched and in the blackness of night he felt the wood oozing something slimy onto his skin. He cringed and kicked the door. He felt it cave and a hellishly hot gust of air blasted out into his face.
A bleat from behind startled him. The lamb had followed him into the garden. He turned back to the door and explored it with his hands. There was a hole big enough for him to slide through easily; something thick dripped from the edges.
The shepherd crawled through the hole and fell onto the flagstones inside the house. They were warm. The air was thick and hot, stirring in odd eddies of warmth, heavy with sickening odors of unspeakable things. It was pitch black.
He tried to cover his wound, staunch the flow with his hand, but blood spurted between his fingers. Cold air blew through the gap in the door and hooves clopped on the stones. The lamb had followed him into the house. It nudged his hand away from his stomach and licked at the cut.
The blood slowed. The shepherd’s heart slowed. The lamb nuzzled him. He dragged himself to his feet and leaned on the scythe. He couldn’t see anything. He crept forward, one hand outstretched. He inched across the flagstones. All was silent. Except for a sinister dripping sound. Plop…plop. Hot wind blew on his face.
His outstretched hand met something. Something cold. He spread his palm over it, feeling its odd contours. His stomach dropped as he realized it was a face.
Jerking his hand back he tripped on the lamb and fell. He cowered on the floor, waiting. He couldn’t open his mouth to speak or cry out.
Silence. Hot wind. Warm stones.
He hauled himself up with the scythe. The handle broke and he sprawled in the dark. He stood, shakily, and holding the blade of the scythe in one hand, he felt about in front of him with the handle. Twenty steps and he had met nothing. He didn’t know were the lamb had gone, all was silent.
He bumped something with the broken handle.
A dim red light flared somewhere on the next floor. He could just make out the top of the stairs. He stood at their foot. The hot wind seemed to be wafting down the steps from wherever the red light was. The shepherd inched up the stairs, cringing as they creaked. He was almost to the top, peering down a dark hall and a distant doorway spilling red light onto the wall. Suddenly he felt something.
He spun around and looked up at the shadowy chandelier which he could barely see in the dim light. It was made of strings of black glittering crystals. Shadows lurked among the strands of crystal. He thought he saw eyes glinting, but they were probably just crystals.
Then the chandelier tinkled. Something was moving within it.
The shepherd fled up the last few steps, dropped the broken handle at the top, and ran down the hall. He slammed the door shut and found himself in another hall, lined with curtained windows. At the far end was a giant mirror. Opposite the windows was a door, flung wide open, ruddy light flooding out of it. The shepherd made his way towards the door slowly, hefting the scythe blade.
In the mirror he saw the door he’d just closed opening silently. The shepherd darted through the open door, pulling it shut and ramming the scythe into the floor to block it from opening. He turned around to look at the room he’d just entered.
He was in a library with tall black windows reflecting the glare of a blazing red fire. Books rotted on the shelves and floor, strings of glistening ooze hung from the chandelier and bookshelves. Something dark dripped down the wall.
In the center of the library was a table. Lying on the table amid rotting books and bones was the girl. Her leg was twisted around, her foot nearly level with her elbow. Her fingers and mouth were red. The shepherd limped towards her.
The girl opened her bloody mouth and immediately shut it. The shepherd drew up short as she pointed at the carpet before him. In a pool of blood lay a lump of flesh. The girl pointed at her mouth.
“Your ton—” he stopped, revulsion wracking his body. He rushed to her side and seized her red-stained hand. Her neck and bodice were covered in symbols she’d drawn with her bloody fingers.
Circles, crosses, and squares.
The shepherd looked into her soft grey eyes. A scarlet tear formed in her left eye and streaked her white face. The hot wind stirred her halo of tangled white hair.
“Come,” he whispered to her. She shook her head sadly, glancing down at her broken leg. He squeezed her hand. “I’ll carry you.” Her eyes looked into his with such a potent flood of hope, gratitude and fear that he trembled. Then she glanced over his shoulder and her eyes widened in terror. She opened her mouth in an unintelligible cry.
The shepherd spun around. The library door was bumping against the scythe. Gently, experimentally. Then it blasted open; the scythe snapped with a twang and the fire went out. The room was plunged into stifling darkness. All was silent. The shepherd held his breath, listening, tensed to leap upon the slightest sound.
Something cold seized his arm and flung him across the room before he could even cry out. He slammed into gooey books and fell to the sticky carpet. An ice cold hand gripped the back of his neck and he screamed. It lifted him up and dragged him across the floor. He reached up and seized the frigid arm. He swung a fist in the dark. It plowed through the air as the arm dropped him. His head cracked on something hard. A wordless cry came from the girl.
Lightning flashed outside, illuminating the room for an instant. The stark white image of the girl throwing herself on some dark silhouette burned into his retinas. An inhuman shriek split the air, followed by a snarl and a thud.
Lightning flashed again. The shepherd dove at the dark silhouette. They both fell to the floor, limbs tangling. The dark thing raked his chest with its claws. He tried to grab its throat. It flung him off. He landed across the unconscious girl.
The window glowed with another flash of lightning and the shepherd saw the thing clearly outlined. Tall pointed ears, long spindly fingers with claws. He heard it step towards him in the dark but he couldn’t move. His eyes were fixed on the blackness. His chest heaved with uneven breaths. Another step. And another. Lightning failed to silhouette it as it had moved away from the window, but the light gleamed off its red eyes.
Darkness. The creak was closer. Darkness. Silence. It was right before him, he could feel the cold wafting off it. Darkness. He could feel it reaching out for him. The cold wrapped his face.
Lightning flashed. The thing reeled away, arms flung high. The lamb stood in the doorway.
Darkness. The pounding of tiny hooves. The inhuman shriek.
Lightning flash: the lamb leaped at the thing fleeing across the library. Darkness. Lightning.
The thing tripped on a book. Darkness. “Baaa!” The inhuman shriek. Lightning: claws flashing, blood, a cry from the lamb.
The shepherd scooped up the girl and fled, tears streaming down his face. Howls from the thing drove him down the hall. The floor was wet. In a flash of lightning he saw liquid running down the walls. He ran faster, splashing now, through the door, into the next hall. He glanced back and in the curtain-dimmed lightning he saw the silhouette limping after him, one clawed hand outstretched, the other melting at its side, dripping into the ooze on the floor.
The shepherd put on a burst of speed, the girl flopping in his arms like a broken doll. The chandelier glittered in the lightning. He slowed, searching for the top of the stairs.
The thing plowed into his back, sending them all crashing down the stairs. He dropped the girl. The chandelier burst into dark red flame. The shepherd raised his head out of the red sea on the floor. The stairs were a waterfall of blood. The creature, dribbling as bits melted off it, crawled on all fours towards the girl. The shepherd scrambled up, slipping in the ankle deep blood. Red rivulets ran down the walls, dripped from the banisters, and poured over the steps and off the landings. Red fire dribbled from the chandelier, hissing into the blood. The broken scythe handle came over the waterfall and plopped next to the girl.
The creature reached out its dripping claws to grasp the girl.
The shepherd rushed forward, kicked it in the head and snatched up the splintered handle. The creature snarled with its great array of needle-like teeth. The shepherd drew back his arm with the broken handle. The thing lunged for his face.
He plunged the splintery handle into its chest. It sank in deep; the thing’s teeth came to a stop just before his eyelashes. It howled, hurling stinging spittle into his face. He pushed it away and it fell with a splash into the blood.
The shepherd picked up the girl and slid towards the exit.
The creature screamed and raised its arms. Glancing back, the shepherd saw the chandelier swinging towards them. He ran faster, slipping and skidding. The chandelier swung down and the chain snapped. It hurtled towards them.
He dove through the broken door into the stormy night, cradling the girl.
 The chandelier shattered on the floor, bursting through the rest of the door, sending balls of flame flying. The shepherd covered the girl with his body.
Flames and debris rained down around them. Lightning flashed.
The thing inside the house wailed and sank into the blood. The shepherd hefted the girl and stumbled through the garden, away from the crumbling house—the fire, the blood—past the garden wall, down to the grave.
The wind was still. The lightning ceased. The old grey house fell with a roar. Dust billowed up. The shepherd collapsed with the girl on her mother’s grave. He shivered violently. The girl was still but he could feel her gentle heartbeat. His sheep gathered around them.
The clouds parted and moonlight spilled onto the grave. The girl’s eyes fluttered open. She smiled weakly at the shepherd and he pulled her closer. Her eyelashes brushed his cheek in a delicate butterfly kiss. A crystal clear tear fell from her closed lids.
A nightingale began to sing in the trees.

In the morning, the old man led the villagers in search of the shepherd.

They found two bodies lying on a grave surrounded by sheep. The old grey house was gone, only rubble remaining and the rosebushes were heavy with fresh white roses. Birds sang in the trees. The two corpses wore blissful expressions, their eyes sweetly closed in free and merciful death. They still held each other tight, her eyelashes on his cheek.

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