's 2020 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Harry D

I grew up in a house built by stonemasons, immigrants who settled in a tiny town in the river valley, in those days far removed from the big cities on the coast. It, and a smattering of old stone cottages like it, stood at the edge of a deep mountain forest, though in truth the edge of the woods engulfed the little villages built close to it, cut off from the town proper by a wide tributary. A sturdy and modern concrete bridge connected our neighborhood to the rest of the world, but more than once that I can remember, pounding rains caused the river to swell and pick up enough momentum to wash away the bridge and the asphalt road with it. I loved that rain. The way it beat against the ground, and against my head and shoulders when I stood outside listening to the leaves singing in the storm, made me feel as though something old and raw had reached out to touch me, something that lived within the strength of the furious river, and in the stalwart stones of the house.

The previous tenant's mother had been murdered on the front steps, stabbed by someone who strode right in the gate. The culprit was never found, likely escaped into the surrounding forest, leaving no traces whatsoever. On that spot, the gutter leaked constantly, always a black and green spot on the red bricks, rainwater dripping like endless tears. In the wintertime, the leak formed long icicles sharp as daggers. I never asked my parents, but as a young child I wondered if the house was sad to have lost her.

A small statue stood in our overgrown backyard, tucked away out of sight in a dense stand of trees, just above the trickling little creek that flowed downhill through the property. It was a young man, naked, a beaked visor covering his eyes, crouched with shoulders hunched, a delicate hand outstretched. A climbing vine encircled his body, shrouding him in dark green. A little altar sat on the ground at his feet, a shallow stone dish stained with years of rainwater and creeping with moss. Our father, though he took only limited pride in our heritage, had lived in the old country for awhile, and told my brother and I once that although the stonemasons had built the statue here, it stood for something that they had brought along with them on their journey to the new world.

He rarely spoke of it otherwise, and we were forbidden from playing near it, for fear that we would knock the statue over on top of ourselves, or be bitten by a snake while turning over rotten logs, but my brother and I visited it often. We never gave the young man a name, or imagined him playing along with us, but we would leave what we could at his altar, acorns, nails, piles of carefully folded leaves. Once, I stepped on a beetle by mistake, and tearfully left its broken, twitching body in the bowl. The next day, its corpse was still there, but bone white and so dry it crumbled to dust when I touched it.

If the bowl was ever left empty for too long, a cold silence would fall over the house, the walls stiff and dead. So long as we left our little offerings, however, something took hold of the meager rooms, a warmth that moved like blood pumped by a beating heart, deep into the musty basement full of strange pipes, all the way to the second story, and the unseen attic above, to which we couldn't find an entrance. Our dog, Max, could feel it, perhaps better than any person could. He would wander, sniffing corners and watching odd spots on the floor intently, tail wagging. Our parents assured us that chipmunks, or bats, had taken up residence in the walls, and they certainly had, but my brother and I were sure they were also drawn by that same warm presence. At night, Max dreamed with his ears perked, body heaving. The creaks and thuds of the house settling sounded almost like cautious footsteps. Often, the sound would creep across the ceiling, directly above my bed. Well into his teens, my brother would sleepwalk, sure he saw a figure peering into each of our rooms, clinging to the walls with pale, tense hands. It was always deathly hot on the second floor where we slept, like being clutched a little too tightly to someone's chest.

Our offerings to the statue became an unspoken ritual, even as we grew older. On our way to the school every morning, we would leave behind pennies and scraps of food, only dust in their place when we returned home. Though we both noticed, we never discussed the way the vines that draped over him had begun to cling, thin brown tendrils spread across his carved muscles like veins, how the creek, little more than a damp ditch years ago, now flowed clear and fast, teeming with frogs and pondskaters, or the way the corners of his carefully-chiseled mouth had slowly curled into an uncanny stone smile. Just once, we awkwardly tried to joke about what the statue's eyes looked like under his visor, but we both trailed off, as if we had stumbled upon a hidden door we knew not to enter.

Once, on a summer evening while our parents worked late, a man my brother and I had never met walked slowly up the road that wound between the shady trees, strode right in the gate and knocked insistently on our door. His eyes flitted nervously behind thick glasses. Through the screen, he asked us how long we had lived in the house, if we had ever seen anything strange. Sweat beaded his red forehead as we only vaguely answered, scared out of our wits. A groan, the beams of the roof shifting, echoed from the inside, and he burst into a panic, trying to force his way in, reaching for us, bellowing that we didn't know what was in there with us. The summer air was dense in the house, and it thickened, unbearable. Shouting, we pushed back as hard as we could, and the door snapped shut on the man's fingers. Cursing, we heard him stomp back to the gate, slam it shut behind him, his steps heavy and loud and then, with a sharp, strangled gasp, suddenly gone. We watched, terrified, out the windows, but never saw him walk back down the road. Late that night, my brother and I lay awake as crickets thrummed loud and rain pelted down and battered the roof, the creek outside roaring with white water. We never spoke of the next morning, when we found the stranger's glasses, twisted and shattered, in the statue's graceful outstretched hand.