“On the sixth day, and the month same, at the root of the sequoia tree that arches over the road, you stand. The sun at your left, you start your count. Fifty paces forward. At the chime of noon, there you must be.” He remembers the precise words, precisely because they were the only words spoken to him.
A year had passed since he'd heard them, but he could not forget them, ambiguous and confusing as they were. They consumed him. Their meaning? A find in a specified location, obviously. Their message? A little labour begets success, maybe. A portent? Could be. But the loose uttering of a madman, they couldn’t be. Tru’s curiosity, as an investigative reporter, wouldn’t allow such careless disregard.
A year ago a mysterious old man he’d just met, foresaw the time and place of this chance happening. The man materialized out of the smoky fog in a sleazy bar, and, uninvited, sat next to him. His face was covered by long, matted hair, but the eyes, nose, and mouth were visible through spaces amongst the tangles if the light and angle suited. An unbearable miasma of alcohol which had fermented all over again, and of scraps of rancid food, hung over the shabby clothes thrown over his smelly body.
Tru had had enough of the suffocating reek, and got up to leave, when the lights from an antiquated jukebox behind him, bounced its lights off the mirror in front and struck the disgusting, stinky man square in the face. A sharp, stabbing sensation from deep inside his chest cut through his pectorals, like his heart wanting to escape, tilted him to the left. Thunderous drumming from inside his ribcage. Head spinning. This way, that way. Faster. Faster. The floor rises toward him. Fear. Cold, hot fear almost dropped him from his bar stool . . .
But the wraith next to him gripped him and pinned him to his seat. Slender, bony fingers felt strong and icy, like steel. The spectre’s skeletal features, pallid complexion, and holes for eyes and a mouth, typical of a vacuous corpse, not only scared him but intrigued him as well.
For if this was a corpse, how could he move? And how could he speak if he had no life? Because he did speak. He spoke a string that would haunt Tru for the next year. “On the sixth day, and the month same, at the root of the sequoia tree that arches over the road, you stand. The sun at your left, you start your count. Fifty paces forward. At the chime of noon, there you must be,” he said faintly, as the words wafted out of his body enmeshed in twists of foul vapour.
“You talking to me?” asked Tru, acting all brave, but his trembling body and bulging eyes betrayed his false bravado. “There.. . Where?” was all he could further get out before realizing he was talking to himself. The ghostly man had melted into the dingy smog as quickly as he had appeared, leaving behind a cloud of stench.
And a thickish file on the counter.
Inserted into the file were newspaper cuttings, faded, yellowed and folded. Relevant to a story he’d been working on, they went back about a century. His earlier investigations and research had revealed inexplicable disappearances from the nearby town over this period. Already in his possession, the articles didn’t surprise him or offer anything new. Except for one. This feature of yet another disappearance, on fresh, crisp, white paper, but faint print baffled him. The indistinct date read, “6 June”, but of the following year. Surely a typo.
During the year there were yet more vanishings. And neither the authorities, nor himself for that matter, were any closer to uncovering the facts behind them.
Although haunted by the events of that day at the bar, he’d been looking forward to this day, a year later. On the edge of the forest, where he’d been dawdling for the past hour, the midday hour impends—no one dared venture into it, and he’s certainly not eager to be the first. Nervous, he paces up and down the grassy verge, but not too much up, or too much down, in case he’s too far away from where he should be when the clock strikes twelve.
His cell phone ring, subsequent scream of, “Aargh! Damn it, not now,” and simultaneous thud of a gadget hitting the ground, shatters the lull, sending wings aflutter. Just then a car roars past, speeding off into the faraway snakes of heat rising from the road. It’s the first sign of human life Tru has seen all morning. The place is so still until seconds ago he hadn’t seen or heard any life.
A wonderful summer outing it could’ve been—warm sun and serene surroundings—but in an otherwise display he clutches a satchel, and frequently glances at his watch, as if impatient to remove himself from the time and site.
A wind caresses the unbounded forest as it glides in from the yonder of brown and green, swooping to grab shrivelled leaves and wilted flowers, and blows them into Tru’s face, dropping them at his feet. Into the wooded expanse he stares, waiting, expecting, when, upon the stroke of midday, a crackle in the dense forestation alerts him to a parting—the width of a man—that wasn’t there before.
The investigator in him says, “Check it out.” The reporter in him says, “If you wait, you lose the information.” So he goes in, ever so slowly.
There’s an eeriness in the woods, which intensifies towards its midst. Outside the dense forest is warm, bright light, but within, the midday sun is hidden by high trees with overhanging branches, from which extend fingers of entangling stems devoid of leaves and flowers, creating a gloomy half-light inhabited by invisible presences who move about silently, but on occasion rustle the dense thickets.
He follows a meandering footpath; his hungry feet gobbling up yards of soft soil, while his bloated figure says, “No more, no more,” all the while fending off thorny stems, entwined branches, and prickly brambles. After some time, the dark brown trees, with furrowed bark, and thick thorny bush, unexpectedly separate. On the brink of a large, sparkling lake a clear, but surreal perspective of rippling water nearby, and jagged cliffs in the shimmering distance materialises.
A solitary boat on the water’s edge presumably waits for him. Absent are oars, sails and a motor, and most especially a boatman, but it takes off as soon as he gets in, floating smoothly at a gentle pace, neither swaying nor murmuring. The swishing and gurgling water generate little waves that sweep through the bottom of the boat, propelling it forward. He didn’t mind the journey, since he much preferred his own company anyway.
Before long he reaches the bank on the other side, from where long, spiralled stairs lead up a steep hill. The summit hidden in the clouds reveals itself after a light wind has fanned away the grey mist and cold mizzle. A fabulous vista of blackish-grey rock and crag, the ascent and dive of colourful flying creatures and scatter of many-hued blooms mesmerizes him and hints at outshining the simple cottage in the midst if the simplicity of the building was not beauty itself.
Little more than a hut, the cottage is a wood and block construction of some design, blending brick and concrete forms. The wood, a deep lacquer, and the dark bricks fuse immaculately with the blackish concentric wood grain, giving the impression they sprouted from the same tree. Circular pillars on the porch, in a square orientation, hold up a canopy, presumably to shelter from the rain, because there isn’t much sun around.
The door of the cottage opens inwards, into a living room, but there’s no one around to welcome him. Inside, it is warmed and lit by one or two logs in the fireplace, and sparsely furnished with a wooden table and a few chairs. Just barely enough for a couple, or a small family, but the air misses the warmth kindled by human bodies and the scents of varied perfumes. And the sounds of laughs, cries, kisses, so often captive in unvarnished walls, have never been heard here.
Tru looks around contemplating his next move when wisps of a faint vapour enter his nostrils. It’s a smell he recognises, but not one with childhood or other special memories attached to it. He knows it from a most recent encounter. His body numb, his breathing heavier, his eyes—the only moving part—darts around, when . . .
The adjoining room emits noises he knows all too well; one, more than the others: of bone against wood, like the countless times he hit his shin against his furniture. There’s a long amount of shuffling before the door opens. The familiar odour comes rushing out, ahead of the dust from the room. And ahead of its source. In the doorway, a gateway to a pitch-dark room, a silhouetted figure stands, separating the unlighted nuances of one room, and the other.
Lumbering behind the noxious haze, the raggedy figure from a year ago walks toward the table. His hunched posture, twisted hips, and bent legs make his height difficult to estimate. Although not short, even with the deformities, his bowed head is a bias towards him being taller than most.
“Take your seat!” a firm voice from within the dimness of the confines instructs. It resonates in the small room, but Tru is unable to locate its origin; nevertheless, he obeys and sits on the nearest chair.
“I, eh, I,” stutters Tru, beneath the creaks of the chair. His face and body, wet with sweat from the heat of the hearth and the chill of dread, trembles on hearing the terrifying voice. A contemplative man by nature, in as much as it sounded peculiar, Tru typically began his sentences that way. Not one for talking, but after a rare, passionate uttering, his colleagues would remark so captivating was the delivery, yet so vexing he was normally a man of few speeches. Whilst his writing usually did his talking, was this going to be a night of one of those deliveries?
Lit by the flames of the fire, a presence leans over the table and attempts to remove some of Tru’s fear, "Don't be afraid. I offer you friendship if you will have it.” An enigmatic man seemed out of the dullness in the place across the table, his features and manner barely discernible in the haziness. His age, hard to determine, with hair, streaked white by moonlight slipping through holes in the roof, giving the impression of a youngish man looking old, but the gruffness in his voice is the type that comes with age. “But I wish you hear me out first,” he continues.
“Ahem, okay. But how’d you get here? And . . . who are you?” asks a confused Tru.
“Me? Well, as I said, I’m a friend. I’ve been watching you. Not like a voyeur, or anything like that. No. No. No. It’s about wanting your help, and hoping you will give it.”
“Wait up. You need my help?” asks a still confused Tru.
“Everyone needs help sometimes. Would you listen to what I have to say?” the man says, in the same gentle tone of the past few moments.
“Doesn’t hurt to listen, I guess. Go on,” says Tru while keeping an eye on the other man in the room.
The man wriggles in his chair, before settling down to proceed. “What if there’s a hole in your body, a hole that moves between your head and your heart? And try as you might, you just can’t fill it in,” he says, before pausing, planned perhaps to allow Tru to grasp the sense behind his words. Continuing in a low voice, as if speaking to a child he says, “It could be you. It could be me. It could be anybody. But, what if . . . ?”
Tru clasps his hands together and bows his head to avoid looking at the man or seeing the man looking back at him, but in the dusky light, he feels the blaze of the man’s stare at him, into him. What’s this guys’ story? He seems to have reached inside me, and fondled my soul. “What exactly do you want from me?” he asks but fears the reply.
The mysterious host readies himself for a long story by placing three glasses, a bowl of ice, and a bottle of whiskey in the centre of the table. He pours the drinks, and leaning back he points at the glasses and parts his lips to let out the words: “Look, a little about myself first. I have as many names as tongues spoken in the world. My likeness, limned from the fancy of people who have never seen me; not seen, not heard, yet so much is claimed about me. I am not this grotesque monster lurking in the dark, scaring and shocking. No, I am not that, am I? What you see before you, is me as I am.”
“Well, most men aren’t what they appear to be,” says Tru.
While looking at his glass, the man runs his finger along the rim, and says, “A great distress has befallen me; it began with a single event, in the snap of a finger. Replacing the joy that should’ve been, bitter tears welted my cheeks, soaking through my skin, and seared my flesh and bones. A fire was lit inside me, it burns still, consuming me.”
“I feel for you, my friend, but I don’t think I’m qualified for this. Maybe you need a psychologist.”
“You’re qualified, alright. Always seeking answers. Do you want to know what really happened? Well, she happened.”
The enigmatic figure in the doorway, in the intervening period, has made his way to the fireplace and is poking at the firewood. With each stab into the flames, his hair lengthens, flesh and veins twirl around his bones, wrapping them, and his completed body becomes clad in a long, flowing gown.
The figure has evolved into a beautiful woman, fragrantly seductive.
Her tilted head offers an enticing profile, illuminated on one side by the fire, the other side by slivers of moonlight penetrating the window shutters, and dandling on her cheek. Her eyes mirror the flickering flames of the fire, but deep inside them burns a wavering soul. It burns not just for her.
“I really don’t know what’s going on, but somebody better try telling me,” says Tru, hoping it would be the lady explaining.
The man steals a glance at the woman, but the distance between them is telling. He seated and want to, but not, going to her. And she, standing and looking away from him.
“Yes, as you can see, a man she is not. We met a while back, some centuries back, in fact. She comes of goodness and innocence, but her beauty stripped away, she is cursed into darkness and fetidness,” he says sadly.
“But, who . . . who did this?” asks a seemingly concerned Tru.
“I did. It was me. Me, me, me.”
“Why would you do such a terrible thing. Don’t you have any feelings?” probes Tru as best he knows.
“It is because of my feelings that such a thing was done. You have to understand that I am forever immersed in malevolence; for me, no endeavour at goodness goes unpunished. The missing, the ones you search for, they are not merely victims of mindless murder. For a glimpse of my dearest, evil must reign once more,” the man says without showing any emotion.
A crackle bursts out from the fireplace, and whizzes around the room, and fuzzy images of a thousand faces spin around in the air. A few Tru recognises as the missing people.
“It is you . . . ” he says, dazed from the whirling pictures, and the alcohol.
“Yes, it is me. I am the one you thought I would be.” Red flames in the man’s eyes, visible for the first time, burn fiercely. His face contorts into a look, unlike the one he displayed all day, narrowing at the chin and widening at the forehead, where two bumps on either side, gradually grow longer and longer.
“Why did you bring me here? Am I gonna leave here?” asks a scared Tru.
“I need you.” Twisted and discoloured, the visage of the man is unable to conceal a smirk.
“Me? How?” asks a confused Tru.
The woman turns to face him, and in a fleeting moment, he thought he looked at a reflection of himself.
* * *
The next morning, an unfamiliar cadence breaks through the haze and dampness of the mist—shout, tramp, hack, slash—when myriad voices are heard from all parts, accompanied by heavy footsteps, and hacking and slashing.
“Got another one here,” says the local sheriff, and is immediately surrounded by other police officers, townspeople, and just about everyone a part of the agitated collective. “That makes thirty.”
“Found him,” shouts a confident voice from deep within the forest.
Again, they all rush over, notebooks in hand, and cameras and guns at the ready.
The clothing draped around the body was the last he was seen wearing, and the shoes are his. But the spectral remains of bare-bones, and holes for eyes and a mouth, makes it difficult to identify. And the overpowering, putrid smell prevents close-up inspection. They all agree, not overtly, but in their deepest innermost thoughts: it is Tru.