Appears in: Weird Mask (Issue 24)
Release Date: May/2020
Summary: Two globetrotting academics, one British, one American, get stranded in a storm. As the rains fall and the sky darkens, they find shelter in a mountain shack, realizing too late that this sanctuary may be more dangerous than the wilderness they sought refuge from.
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In the Death House
The house was like a candle at the top of the hill; even the storm could not extinguish the yellow light that glowed within its windows. Weary after a great many misfortunes, we nearly wept to see it.
The way up the mountain was slick and steep, and one of my travelling companions nearly lost his footing in the worst possible place, but at last, we reached the summit. The door to the house flew open before we even had the chance to knock, and we were greeted by the powerful roar of a great hearth within.
There were two occupants in the house that we could see: an old woman, her hair a shocking red, and a little girl, sucking contentedly on the black hair of a homemade doll. Over the groan and crackle of the fire, I thought I could hear the desolate lamentations of a great many men on an upper floor. I immediately understood: this was a house where the dying were tended to.
If the woman’s eyes were a trifle wild, it was simply because they were slightly too large for the proportions of her face. She was undoubtedly kind – after all, she was the type of woman who would welcome strangers into her home in the dead of night.
“Come in, come in,” she told us hurriedly, her face lined by maternal concern for our wet clothes and wearied countenances. In particular, she noted the dried blood that stained my companion’s sweat-stained shirt. “A fall on the rain-slicked stones,” I explained.
My companion smiled wryly. “It looks far worse than it is.”
The woman immediately set out to cook us a hot meal, and as she did so, demanded the story of how we’d ended up wandering those dark hills alone. Hands hanging gratefully over the hearth, I obliged. Students of antiquities – myself a Brit, my companion an American – we’d been told of some curious ruins along the eastern cliff face, supposedly the remnants of some ancient village which had inexplicably formed on those wind-ravaged ledges. We were of course very intrigued by this, and arranged for a local guide to accompany us to the site; alas, the gentleman had come down with a rather nasty case of food poisoning the day before our trip, and we’d (rather foolishly) set out alone.
As I relayed the tale, I noticed that my colleague (usually the more gregarious of the two of us) had fallen uncharacteristically silent. He stared intently at the little girl, who gazed at us with a guileless fascination from a stool in the corner of the room, gently rocking the doll as if it were her own child.
I saw no cause for my friend’s obvious unease (aside from the admittedly unnerving presence of dying men above). When our host briefly descended into a root cellar, I took the opportunity to enquire as to his mood. But before he could reply, the woman was back in earshot, several brown plants of indeterminate species cradled in her arms.
It was just as dinner was about to be served that my colleague became agitated. “I would hate to infringe upon your hospitality any more than we already have,” he stuttered. “We should really be going. And the storm seems like it’s let up – if we go back the way we came, we could be back in town within the hour.”
Neither of those things were true – outside, the rains raged on unabated, and town was at least a three hour walk. Our host knew this too, and would have none of it. “At least get some food in you before you take off,” she said. I couldn’t help but agree.
She fed us an oily broth, floating with strips of a greasy grey meat. I ate ravenously, not realizing how much vitality I’d lost from the hike; but my colleague barely touched his. Perhaps he was sick, I thought, or his wound was worse than he claimed.
I forced a façade of cheeriness to compensate for my friend’s obstinance, discussing our studies at the university and plans for future research expeditions – next time with proper accompaniment, I stressed. Our host was genial enough, although she seemed to have long lost her proficiency in the art of adult conversation. Her daughter (or granddaughter, or ward, or whatever the relation was) said not a word.
Towards the end of the meal, the woman proposed that we stay the night. Practicality demanded I accept, which I did despite the pointed glower from my colleague.
No sooner had we finished did the woman rise to show us to our rooms. As I moved to follow, the little girl experienced a sudden burst of affection, ran up to me, and thrust her doll into my hands. I examined it graciously.
The doll’s dress was shabby, a patchwork of fabric scraps, but the hair was quite lifelike – I speculated that it must have come from the mane of a horse. The face was a pale off-white and shone softly under the lamplight. I ran my fingers across its cheek; it was brittle, and smooth to the touch.