Horror Mystery Suspense

  I was seduced by the woman in the dark red gown in the painting that hangs in the first room above the mahogany sideboard with the reclining marble nude upon it. It was she who had me on the floor where I lie still, immobilized, staring only at the undecorated ceiling, because the painting was the first thing that came into my view. I lay there for several days, only aware of her visage and the chandelier above the very dark table and chairs, and a very faint tapping sound like a dripping candle which I occasionally felt very lightly on my side as if was across the room.

As I began to move my head I perceived that the sound was coming from the painting. The folds of her blood-red gown were dripping from the canvas a dark liquid onto the nude white body of a woman prostrate on the sideboard intersecting with it at her right elbow and her right knee. She reclined in the most sublime position with her face turned back, shoulders turned forward and the high curve of her hip resting with her left leg extended to the foot, the blood dripping from just under her shoulder across her bare stomach and down the curve of her pelvis. “Where does the blood go?” I wondered and tilting my head forward I saw to my horror a hideous wrought iron drain in the center of the floor with a narrow, dark rivulet leading to it as straight as an arrow.

The room was lit only by a pair of constantly-burning red gaslights like little coals above the fireplace whose glass was so tarnished it looked like brass, and the brass handles were black. I thought of how I came to be here, hired by a much older woman to remove a venomous snake from a linen closet.

A maidservant led me down a series of hallways draped with the house’s bedsheets to an intersection of three rooms, where as the old widow was speaking to me I glimpsed through an open door a gigantic library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases where a beautiful young woman was having her portrait painted in a nightdress.

The old woman was explaining to me how her husband had died tragically. As I opened the closet door I looked down with surprise to see it had no floor, just a bottomless round hole with a chain plummeting down, and the speckled adder coiled around it at eye-level wasn’t living but mummified in the position of striking my face. I jumped back into the sitting room, my feet slipping on the stone floor and brained myself on the end of a glass table.

I thought perhaps I was wrapped in bandages from head to toe, they even covered my mouth with only the slits of my eyes showing, but when I found the strength to sit up and look down at myself I was swathed in cobwebs! They were as strong as a straightjacket, as if each thread had been meticulously wrapped around me by some hellish tarantula. I was naked underneath. I let out a muffled protest and gradually made my way across the floor and into one of the dining chairs where I could see there was a knife on the table. There I began the process of freeing my arms.

Before I even saw the knife I knew there was a wine goblet made of ruby glass which now puzzled me. Red was a very unusual color for a wine glass because it prevented one from seeing what kind was in it. Inside it wasn’t dust but a small trace of liquid as if I had already consumed some. I hobbled over to what I thought all this time to be a door in the far corner of the room, and instead opened the wooden panels to reveal a full-length mirror. I looked ghastly, a starved spectre wrapped in the habiliments of the dead. I turned and looked across the small space and then back at the ruby goblet; what was so strange about it was the room had no doors.

The entire left side was made of carved wood with interplaced shelves, glass-fronted cabinettes, clocks and works of art wedged together so densely it was a shame more light didn’t fall on them. This wasn’t a sealed room or a crypt, not with gas lighting and the attention to detail intended for an observer. Someone had to have dragged me in here, which meant there must be an egress.

The walls were stone covered in canvas. I searched for some kind of hidden mechanism in each cabinet and the dark recesses of the carved three-story mahogany housefront with coiled pillars that formed the centerpiece hoping it would come open. After searching the entire room this way I wanted to simply demolish the panels until I found it, but I didn’t want to watch myself doing this in my madness. Perhaps it was a more subtle mechanism such as removing the candles in a certain order. I wondered about the preserved adder that had startled me, was it just a decrepit sense of taste that makes someone keep such a thing and place it where it might not be found for many years?

I returned to my original position on the floor, curled up and went to sleep. After an unknown amount of time I awoke to see the room unchanged except for one thing. There was now a small saucer of food placed for me at the end of the table, the ruby goblet had been refilled and a bottle of wine left next to it. I looked around in disbelief that a person had come and gone in such a small space without my knowing it.

What I thought at first was a slice of custard turned out to be some sort of sweetened waxy substance that was incredibly rich, a delicate garnish sticking out of it like a lady’s comb made of caramelized sugar. As I started to lift the wine goblet an unsettling feeling stopped me that I had drank from it before. Why was I dining? I got up from the table.

A new strategy occurred to me that I should have laid down and pretended to sleep to catch whoever cometh each day, and if I couldn’t do that find something like… My eyes descended to the floor, and in a fit of rage at my stupidity I flung the chair aside and turned the table over revealing the narrow line of blood trailing across it. I bent down, plunging my fingers into the holes of the drain and pulled it out, revealing a gaping round hole down which I squiggled my skeletal body without delay and out of sight.

2: Up the Shaft

The space beneath the room was part of the dark basement of the house, cluttered unlivably with piles of overturned things lit only by the grate in the ceiling. The blood that dripped from the room above was collected by a stone urn with a cherub and grapes coiled around it which stood on a table directly under it in the center of the room. Looking up I could not believe I had just squeezed my shoulders through there and descended headfirst without disturbing the urn or table.

This room had a door which was open to more darkness. There was a strange humidity coming from it that was like a wind coming off a subterranean lake. As my eyes adjusted I examined forgotten, peeling furniture and by chance discovered the most useful thing I had found so far. It was a white-handled revolver with a long barrel, but the only bullet left in it was a swollen white lump of lead that had expanded to fit the chamber. I shoved it into the folds of cobweb at my waist and it was then that I heard footsteps approaching.

I hid myself well. In moments an old blind woman hooded and cloaked in a dusty black raiment came tapping into the room with a stick. She was barefoot, and quickly reached up and drew some blood from the top of the urn by letting it run down her bony arm into a cup. Then she walked out as unceremoniously as she had come in.

I followed her realizing the revolver was a useless weapon against a blind person and that I would have to be more silent than the grave. Outside the room was a huge, black underground space with no walls or ceiling, only rows of dilapidated furniture in the dim light of the doorway which itself came only from the drain and the doorless room.

The old woman turned and clacked along the cobblestones. Soon her footsteps sounded wet and then I myself was standing barefoot in an inch of water. The basement was flooded, the foundation must have collapsed somewhere. She stopped to listen a couple of times and I was forced to keep a greater distance, until she reached a small shell-like boat she had tied off and stepped into it. I required some kind of light to see by but she did not; she guided the vessel forward using her stick across a vast, sightless underground lake. I followed until the black water was up to my chest, and could go no further.

I could only make my way back in the darkness by reversing course until the water shallowed, but eventually I did see the dim light of the doorway again. The wet gossamer that was my only clothing clung to me like a second skin. I would have to build a boat to go after her as there was no light to swim by.

I looked through dusty boxes and drawers and then I noticed a great pile of them concealed the base of a massive stone chimney supported by a pair of huge pediments that made me think of tortoises. It was the same chimney as the one in the room above, but there was no hearth, no mantle, no stove, just a square opening. After I’d cleared the stuff away I realized what it was. It was the central chimney of the house to which all of the flues were connected; a square metal tray hung from a very long chain to collect the ashes from each flue, an ingenious device but as I peered up into the gray shaft it was crisscrossed with white webs all the way up. Cobwebs could only mean there wasn’t a single fire lit in any room since who-knows-when; the chimneyswift responsible for maintaining it was certainly dead. What’s more this might be the lair of the spider that wrapped me in this cocoon!

I chose a dry, dusty climb over the watery sightless swim I had just left. It was easier to brace myself against the four sides of the shaft holding onto the chain. I made my way upwards, passing the little flue to the room I had already seen. My hope was that the magnificent library I glimpsed when I first came here had an equally large fireplace, or even that I had the strength to climb out the top of this thing.

Every ten feet I came to a flue of different shapes, the third one was wide but extremely short like a door to a bread oven. I pushed it open slightly and indeed it was the inside of an oven with baking racks, but then I caught a glimpse of something that gave me a start. It appeared to be a small fox which turned and yelped causing the tin door to snap back on me. I pushed it open again to see the animal was chained to a wood stove. Why would someone chain a wild animal to a stove?

Eventually I reached a trio of small flues that were strangely shaped. Two were side-by-side and shaped like eyes, and below them a larger one that looked like a mouth. I was clinging to the back of a carved stone face five feet high, with each door at the end of a chute just out of reach.

Bracing myself on three limbs I pulled the revolver out of my webbing thinking it would give my fingers a couple of inches and reached up to push the tin door open with the barrel. I swung forward using the chain and slipped badly having to grab the chain with both hands to keep from falling, my body spinning around in the narrow space. The gun clattered down the shaft to the bottom.

I looked up to see if I could make out the source of the webby light filtering down from above, and there crouched against the stone wall directly above the huge face, watching me, was the giant arachnid I knew lived in this castle.

Its body was the size of a football but its legs were rather short. My first thought was how surprised I was it wasn’t bigger than me, although this was easily a ten-pound spider. Its bent fangs were as big as a man’s thumb, and it had an X-shaped marking that looked like it had been drawn there by a witch. But the queerest thing was its collection of trinkets that adorned the sides of its barrel-shaped nest, jewelry and other shiny objects along with the bones of small animals.

Did this thing drag me up through the drain in the floor into the room and leave me there? No that was absurd. I was too exhausted to continue and barely had the reserves for the climb back down again. I could only guess the iron grate at the top was the kind most chimneys have, so I left the spider to its thoughts.

3: The Witch’s Apprentice

I sat and dreamt about the possibility of crossing the underground lake to see where the old blind woman had gone. I crawled back up into the room to see if there was a way to make a gas lamp into a torch, and was surprised to find the plate and wine that were left out for me had been removed. Someone was coming and going whenever my back was turned which made me a bigger fool than a starved wretch. My own reflection probably concealed a door that had to be opened from the other side. I took the kitchen knife from the table, eventually resorting to breaking the glass. There was only a solid stone wall behind the mirror and the wood paneling. I looked in a complete circle at the gray stone around me until my eyes fell on the woman’s portrait, and only then did I realize what kind of a room this was. It was sealed because the painting was cursed, she may have died in some tragic way.

I took the candelabra and crawled back down to explore the huge underground space, which did have an outer wall I could barely discern behind upended furnishings from some bygone age that continued past the lapping shore of the lake. I was never a handyman and I’m embarrassed to say how long I sat on that shore and how I did eventually cross it, floating on my back with the candelabra placed on my chest exactly as a wraith would do.

I must have been a haunting sight as I drifted slowly past wooden limbs protruding from the water. Eventually there was a distant glow of twilight as I approach the other side. Indeed as I suspected this part of the foundation had collapsed leaving a monstrous hole in the battlements from which a trickling stream flowed down broken rubble to the forest outside. I had been in darkness for so long the night looked like day.

The old blind woman was a squatter who had made a little hovel for herself here. She was accompanied by a tiny assistant, a feral child no more than four years old who served as her eyes. She had an unwashed mane of straw-colored hair that covered her body down to the knees and I realized when I saw her this was the person who had been feeding me. She whispered in the witch’s ear that Death had just come across the lake for her. The witch simply nodded.

In my time with them the child did not speak again and the old woman spoke only when she chose to. The three of us must have been a strange sight as we departed into the woods at daybreak in search of a certain tree the old woman called albero grosso (“fat tree”), the source of the strange nourishment I had eaten. I accompanied them intending to flee into the forest.

When we got there the witch’s servant reached her tiny arm into a carved hole. It was only then that the witch decided to answer one of my questions. She said the reason she collects the blood from the painting is it makes her powerful.

Instead of thinking of spells and talismans, cards of divination she reads blindly, I thought of the decrepit nest of straw she sleeps in and a trail of spittle drained out from between my loose teeth.

“YOU powerful?!” I responded, losing control of myself. “Haha!! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!”

I stumbled forward and accidentally killed her; her body broke with the sound of kindling as her black raiment fell to the ground. I took off running gleefully into the forest as I had intended.

In time I stopped at the ruins of a stone hearth surrounded by rubble. I collapsed from exhaustion believing I was a free man, or at least a man, not a withered heap of bones and decayed gossamer. When I awoke again the witch’s servant, the small child that had nourished me, was standing over me holding a large cobble from the hearth, and she crushed my head with it.

July 21, 2023 22:20

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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