This is a true story. I've put the words into a dramatic narrative, tied some facts from before and after that I've found together and given the thing legs, so to speak, but the tale is one from my great-grandfather. I only have vague memories of the man, having died when I was very small -the odd way he spoke, the the heavy iron chain he locked his door with - but my grandfather has told me this story more times than I can count. My grandfather isn't a man prone to flights of fancy or superstition and has no particular taste for fantasy -but he has always maintained that every word of it is true.
A thing once known, can never again be unknown. Though time may dull memory’s edge, the truths we learn are forever with us, whether we want it or not, or even if the world declares them wishful thinking or outright lies long after the fact. They follow us, footsteps echoing behind, their whispers ever in our ears, reminding us of what, in our hearts, we know that we know. There is no escape from those echoes, save for the grave.
The world may have moved on from the superstitions of the past, may mock and scorn the fears of their ancestors as nothing but vain grasping in the dark. But, having been born in one century and lived most of my life in the next, I have seen things from both sides of the divide. And I have seen what once crawled in the dark when men were wise enough to fear, and now walks amongst us cloaked in our arrogance and willful ignorance. I know the truth, whether I wish to or not, whether it wishes me to know it or not. It follows me still, ever…
But I’m rambling, as old men with little time are inclined to do. Perhaps, if I should start where it began, so you can understand where it must now end.
The autumn evening is pleasant, the cool dry wind coming off the West Desert ruffling my short hair as easily as it does the ripe stalks of barley stretched out in the fields beside the road. The sinking sun had turned crimson, painting the scattered clouds above the mountain line in shades of pink and gold. I lean back in the old birch chair on Jon May’s new porch, hoping to relax beside my old friend for just a spell more.
“Simon Wales, it’s high past time you were headed home. You’ve a wife and child waiting for you.”
The May’s aren’t near old enough to be my parents, but Jon’s wife Ida doesn’t let that stop her from hectoring me like a mother. The stout woman in the yellow dress taps her foot impatiently. I sigh, knowing she’s right, and rise, brushing my pant legs more out of habit than to clear any dust that may have settled there.
“I reckon you’re right.” I snatch up my hat from wrought iron hook driven into one of the wooden posts that held up the porch’s awning with my left hand while extending Jon my right. The big man takes it as he rises, his grip firm and calloused as he shakes my hand with a grin on his bearded face.
“Thanks for the help today, Slim. Couldn’t have done it without you and that nag of yours.”
We’d spent all day tearing up the worn and rotting planks of his old porch and laying out and nailing down the new ones. We’d hauled away the refuse and debris with the help of a litter harnessed to my old paint Darla. All in all, it had been less difficult than it was time consuming, but I could understand Jon’s appreciation.
We shake hands and say our goodbyes, and I take up Darla’s lead and begin my long walk home. The world outside the dirt road quickly vanishes with the slope of the road into the high barley behind me, leaving only the tall hill adjacent the May’s property and the church building atop it visible. Its lights stain the lengthening shadows around it a dirty yellow, indicating the Saturday women’s meeting was still in session.
I walk for nearly a quarter of an hour before I come upon the hat. It’s broad brimmed and rounded at the crown, black and battered, the kind you’d find on Catholic missionary in some Western story. It sits dead center in the path ahead, with no way to easily skirt it, as if trying to block my way home.
It seems nothing more to me than any other scrap of garbage one finds on the road, but as I try to stride ahead, Darla stops short, lead suddenly jerking taut in my hand. Casting a glare over my shoulder, I give the rope a tug and curse as the beast doesn’t respond with more than an unsettled nicker. Turning to face her now, I give the lead a more solid pull and nearly fall on my face as Darla actually steps backwards, dragging me with her.
“Fine,” I throw my hands up in the air and stomp towards the hat, ready to boot it from the road lest it continue to offend my horse’s suddenly delicate sensibilities. “Heaven forbid something stand in your-”
I cut short as I come within a dozen feet of the hat, tongue and feet frozen as the thing suddenly begins to lift from the dirt, not caught by any breeze but drawn straight up, as if pulled by a wire. But strange as that was, what holds me fast is what rises beneath the hat.
The figure slides into view as if from behind a swiftly drawn curtain. The shoes are leather, patched and cracked from overuse. The suit is old fashioned, black fabric brownish with dirt and wear, jacket cut to fall to his knees and a waistcoat swallowing up a dirty white shirt. His face is downcast, lost to me under the shadow of that hat, but the skin of his hands is yellowed and waxy. The hands are the most unsettling part: fingers too long, joints crooked in ways that would almost seem painfully broken, and twitching with an unsteady rhythm.
I reach into my pocket on instinct, hand closing on the cold metal shaft of the screwdriver I’d absently tucked inside when clearing my tools away at the May’s home. I take a step backwards from this sudden, impossible stranger, then another and another, seizing my horse’s rein before I finally manage to croak out a challenge.
“Where did you come from? Who in God’s name are you?”
The man’s head snaps upwards, and the failing sun does little to dispel the shadow. I can just make out the shape of his face, drawn and thin, nose prominent and hooked. His jaw seems to be spread in a grin I cannot quite see, and yet still feel.
There is a… sound, in response to my question, grating and harsh in my ear, like nails across a slate, the strange figure’s voice or so I must presume. It forms a word, the likes of which I have never heard before. I will not repeat even here, for having heard it has proven my damnation, but the sound of it, every inflection and syllable still echoes in my thoughts. It seems to be spoken with reluctance, distaste, even, as if the figure does not wish to answer yet feels compelled to reply.
The figure takes a step towards me, and it seems a stray beam of light catches beneath his hat. His eyes meet mine as I see them for the very first time. His – its, I should say, eyes were blue. Not the blue of a robin egg, or the still reflection of deep water –nothing of life or nature sparks in them. They’re flat and lifeless, a bloodless corpse - a pale and empty flame. Nothing else, just the endless blue - as starkly cold and pitiless as an empty winter sky. I try to look away but – blue, endless blue, hard and sharp and dead –it pins me, holds me, hooks and tears and claws me. I feel it step closer, just a single, slow stride, but it seems as if we now stare eye to eye. It fills my vision now, the blue, the endless blue, so vivid, so harsh my head begins to ache. Something hot and coppery trickles across my tongue. I try to… I can’t… I won’t… the blue, endless blue…
My hand clenches tight in my pocket, a spasm of muscle, the angled head of the screwdriver biting into my flesh and I feel blood between my fingers. I curse, stumbling back a step, pain freeing my gaze for a single beat of my fluttering heart. But it is enough, and as the… thing, shaped like a man, takes another stride towards me, I yank on Darla’s rein and turn back towards the May’s, and run, my long legs eating up the ground as if the devil himself is at my heels.
Which, in truth, does not fall short of the mark. I hear that grating mockery of a voice behind me as I flee. “Slim… Simon Wales…” Somehow, the thing knows my name.
In minutes, I’ve cleared the field, racing up to the May’s property. Jon is still on the far end of porch, away from the road, and I can see Ida through the window inside. Jon rises as he sees the look on my face, turning briefly to holler for his wife before Darla and I are at his doorstep.
“Slim, what on earth-”
That’s as far as I let Jon May get before I’m babbling, spilling out the entirety of what transpired in a few gasping breaths. My friend’s face shifts from concerned to confused, and finally to amused as I describe the thing on the road.
“Slim – Simon!” His raised voice snaps my jaw shut, and Jon reaches out to grab my shoulder. “Get yourself together. You’re a grown man, for heaven’s sake. You’re too old to be jumping at shadows and telling tales.” He presses his handkerchief into my hands. “And take a moment to clean your face. You’ve bloodied your nose.” I take the white cloth and wipe it across my face, finding it wet and red.
Ida, who has emerged from the house in time to catch the bulk of my story, laughs at her husband. “ ‘Haps young Simon here stopped for a drink on his way home? Did you stumble and catch your face? Is there whiskey on his breath, Jon?”
That snaps me out of my silence, and I brush Jon’s hand from my shoulder. “I haven’t been gone an hour, man! Even if I’d had drink with me and the inclination to take liberty, I’ve not had time to get drunk, let alone see things that aren’t there.”
Jon laughs, his grin big and slightly mocking, but as he turns his head to make another jibe to his wife, he finds Ida silent now, expression flat and eyes staring dead behind me and my nickering horse. His eyes follow hers, and his face turns pale, blood fleeing alongside his levity. I turn, knowing full well what I’ll find.
The figure had followed, just now stepping out along the dirt road from the fields of barley. Its eyes are shaded again, but I can feel the weight of its gaze like a hand on my chest, and I take a step back, nearly colliding with Jon.
“Hold yourself, stranger.” John shouts, lifting one arm up above his head to draw the figure’s attention. “Stay there ‘till I can have a look at you.” The figure continues to walk, heedless of Jon’s words. In but a few moments he would be at the May’s door beside me.
Jon looks to Ida. “Get inside, love. Lock the door tight.” She looks as if she wants to argue, but nods and moves inside. The figure advances, slow, steady – implacable. Inevitable. I realize I’m holding my breath, matching the sudden stillness of the west wind as the world itself seems to hold still as the thing approaches. Closer. Closer. Neither of us can move.
The stillness is shattered by a sound from the hill, the single peal of the church’s cast-iron bell and the clap of her doors coming open. The women’s meeting had just ended, and people began to trickle out of the building, woman and ordained men there as chaperones both. The figure’s head turns, glancing towards the hill as if noticing it for the first time, and like smoke caught in a stiff breeze, simply melts away.
For a moment, it’s all any of us can do to just stare. My blood runs colder than a mountain pass in midwinter, and my legs threaten to simply give out beneath me, only partly from my mad dash. Jon gapes, mouth working but no words forming, head shaking and hands quivering. The cool, dry wind off the West Desert sighs back to life, again wafting through the evening, the last lines of ruddy sunlight stretching our shadows long across the porch.
Then I hear it, loud as a gunshot: the rough crunch of a leather sole on dirt, then another, and another after it. My eye lights on the dirt road, and clear as day, I see the prints of shoes appear, one after the other, steadily approaching the house again. I hear Jon’s breath suck in sharply as he spots it too, and still we are held fast, struck mute by the crawling dread threatening to engulf us.
There is a creak and a hard thump as the bodiless steps move from the road and land upon the newly fashioned porch, each sound like the hammering of a coffin nail in my ears. I reach for Jon, trying to push him away. It’s me this thing followed, me it wants, but Jon can still escape, rush inside and be with his wife, even if for just a minute more. But my friend stands fast, shaking his head, jaw set in a grim expression.
Thump. Thump. Thump. The steps are almost to us now. Thump. Thump. I feel it, like a curtain hung between Jon and I, standing silently now, looming like the presence of the mountains. Out of the corner of my eye, I see its shadow, cast by the dying sun against the wall of Jon’s home, as large as life and black as sin, hat and coat and all. The shade hesitates, just a moment, as the shadow of the post holding up the porch roof seems to bar its way, but it shifts to reach around it. I see its hand fall on my shadow’s shoulder, and feel the ice-cold weight of its emaciated flesh on my skin. I catch a glimmer of that pale, dead blue in the depths of that darkness, peering back into my eyes with frigid, calculating hate.
I pull myself away from the shadow, my back pressing up against the porch post now. The creeping thing follows, dragged with me as if clinging to my shoulder, and I feel that cold nearly caress my face. There’s a sudden hiss and the smell of burnt meat as the shadow recoils suddenly. A thin wisp of smoke curls up from the iron hook Jon and I had hung earlier that day, the metal now glowing cherry-red. Looking at the wall, the shade seems… caught, somehow on the shadow of the hook, wriggling and writhing like a fish on a line for a moment before snapping to unnerving stillness.
“Guess I’ll have to just see you… around, Slim.” The words are a whisper in that same horrid voice as before. “Think we’ll see each other real soon.” Before I can react, the shadow on the wall fades away, just as its owner had before, leaving the iron hook to smoke and cool in the evening air. Wordless, Jon and I turn to stare at each other, neither of us moving until long after the sun has finally set.
I went home after that. When she asked, I told my wife everything, save for that strange, horrible word the figure had first spoken. Something deep inside told me to let that lie. I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t like hearing it spoken any more than I did, or at least having its attention drawn.
I’ve tried to live my life as best I could since. But no matter what I have done, where I have gone or who I’ve told my story to, the thing is still just a few steps behind me. Nothing like our first encounter, alone on the road home, but smaller things: a shadow cast against the light for only a moment, a flicker of that endless blue outside my window at night, the rattle of a doorknob from an empty doorstep. I’ve kept my home locked with bolts and links of iron since that day, and could never admit the utter relief I found the day my son tore down the outhouse and built plumbing into our home, no longer needing to brave the cold and empty night should need strike me.
As I said, I’ve managed to keep a few steps ahead of my second shadow for this long, moving from job to job lest my routine became predictable, keeping my own company after my children moved on to have children of their own and my beloved wife passed on. But I am an old man, and though time will not allow me to forget what I know to be true, it has robbed me of my speed, my strength, my wit. My bones are now frail, my hip cracked in a fall I know I will never recover from. I am wounded prey these days, waiting that which circles me.
I feel it, outside, even now, as I finish these words. I can feel its hate, its loathing for me and my iron locks. It cannot yet get in, but I can no longer get out. And I will not let it have me, nor will I die huddled in a corner, hiding from the shadow on my wall.
I hope… I pray that this will be the end of it. That this evil ends with me, that the sin of the father is not yet visited upon his son or beyond. The service revolver my uncle brought home from the Great War sits on the table beside me now – I’m ready for what must be done. May its name die with me… and if not…