by Eric Johnson The last thing a birthday dinner at the Lowery house needed was howling wind — it was a frosty enough affair on its own — but the wind howled anyway, rattling the storm doors and banging the upstairs shutters until it seemed as though the whole house was shivering. If that were true, Ross Monroe mused over a forkful of his mother-in-law’s lukewarm stuffing, if the Lowery house was indeed some kind of animated shell, a gable — shouldered, ivy — bearded body cowering against the cold in this miserable acreage of Wisconsin forest, then it would never again see the light of day. Not when its heart and soul, the unwilling family occupying its large and drafty chest cavity, could neither generate enough warmth nor beat enough hope to make the battered old hulk a home.
Hardly a festive outlook, but Ross was a Southerner by birth and the bitter cold had frozen his normally obliging demeanor. Of small consolation was the fact that he now knew why the Lowery women turned out the way they did. With not even an ember of kinship to rub between them, they were each undeniable products of their present surroundings. It was tough to tell which was the most severe.
To his left sat Lydia, his wife of eight years. As dour and forbidding a woman as he had ever known, she wore her dirty brown hair pulled tight against a head so devoid of flesh that it sometimes looked as though her skin had been shrink wrapped to her skull. In spite of that she could have been quite beautiful — she had the advantage of living at a time when thin and sickly was all the rage — but the tweeds and prudish prints she wore undermined whatever natural beauty she had acquired at birth, and the result was that of a spinsterish, angry, unwanted woman.
Her mother, Nora Lowery, sat directly across from her, a fitting bookend for the bland dinner cooling on the table between them. From the long, imposing frown lines raking her forehead to the sunken pucker of her unused dimples, she was an exact foreshadowing of her daughter’s destiny; an Edward Hopper woman come to life. It was no wonder Lydia had given up as early as she had.
And then there was him, the balding, paunchy, husk of a man who had once harbored dreams, who had once had the confidence and audacity to believe that his life would matter, that his life would be worth remembering. It was all youthful hubris, of course, as irrational as his illusion of matrimonial bliss. The mere thought of it now made him laugh.
No, the shivering old house didn’t stand a chance of making it through the night, and it seemed to Ross as if he could already feel the final, irrevocable freeze penetrating the framework.
It had been Lydia’s idea, of course, to go up for her widowed mother’s birthday; an odd and unexpected idea to be sure, since she was nearly as indifferent toward her mother as she was toward him. He couldn’t fathom what curious urge predicated her sudden desire to drive 1,100 miles in the capricious infancy of winter when the payoff was such a stiff and predictably frigid dinner.
When the interminable dinner finally ended, when the last bitter cobbler had been cleaned from their plates and the proper amount of time had been passed in silence, Lydia stood and removed the unused silver. At that point, as if startled awake from a dream, Nora finally looked up, her eyes darting nervously from Lydia to Ross. She seemed consumed by a panic that the dinner (evening, trip, family?) was on the cusp of disaster.
“Ross, if you’re not going to help with the table,” Lydia snapped, “you could at least take Shep for a walk.”
“Lydia!” Nora cried.
“This doesn’t concern you, mother.”
“But do you really…” she started, swinging around in her chair. “I mean, is it really necessary to…”
Nora immediately squared with the table and buried her face in her hands.
Ross sighed and retreated to the living room to find a coat. As he did, Lydia knelt down and held out her hands for Shep, who had been lounging by the residual warmth of the oven. Ross could hear the skating of his paws against the kitchen tiles, then the clicking of his collar tag as Lydia tousled the dog’s neck and ears.
“Poor Shep,” he heard her say. “I know it’s not fair, but we’re just different people, that’s all. Can you understand that, boy? Can you?” Then he heard a loud, discouraged sigh and the clicking of the collar tag stopped. “You should have held out for a real family.”
Ross returned a few moments later wearing an old wool coat he’d found on a peg in the living room closet. It smelled of tobacco and wet leaves, but it was the only one that came close to fitting, so he fastened the oversized buttons, scooped up a pack of cigarettes from the table and wordlessly let Shep out the mudroom door.
He’d puffed away half a cigarette before he noticed the cold. It was truly brutal, now. Far worse than it had been a few hours earlier. The wind stung his face and rattled the branches of the big sugar maples on the property, sending discarded leaves swirling across the yard in riotous gusts. He was surprised to find it hadn’t snowed, but it was more than cold enough for little ribbons of steam to rise up from the tree bases Shep had squirted, marking his territory.
Ross watched the ghostly vapor rise and shook his head. You’re a long way from Augusta, he thought, and way too far north. The cigarette butt cupped in his hand felt wonderful, and he savored the dying pinpoint of warmth. “To hell with her,” he said to the wind. “To hell with them both.”
Then, turning up his scratchy collar to the cold, he took one last puff and headed into the woods. Shep gleefully raced ahead.
After a few hundred yards, the scraggly footpath became more chiseled, and the twigs and vines that veined the path turned white with frost. Strangely, the path was the only part of the woods touched by the frost, a white ribbon stretched across a dark and dubious package. It made for easy following, though, as if nature herself sought to lead him away from the women he left behind, and Ross took full advantage of it, stepping lively down the trail while the black, boney shadows on either side chattered endlessly from the strumming of the wind.
Shep had long since bounded out of sight, leaving only his paw prints in the frost for company.
He walked like this for about 20 minutes, absorbed in thought. They hadn’t always detested each other. Eight years ago, he and Lydia had been very much in love, but now… It would only be a matter of time before one of them summoned the lawyers. He doubted they had another year in them.
The wind was picking up now, using the trees like reeds to play a truly awful music. Loud, dissonant, reproachful wailing is what it sounded like, and it seemed suddenly to have taken over the forest. Most certainly it had been building over time, but it seemed to Ross almost as if he’d triggered it himself. A foolish thought, of course, but one that seeded his imagination. Anyway, it was time to be getting back.
He whistled for Shep. He was so cold his cheeks wouldn’t support the pucker, so he shouted instead. Nothing. Probably couldn’t hear it over the wind, he thought. After a few moments he shouted again and then walked on.
The cold was well beyond anything he’d ever experienced. His hands were numb and his legs felt vague and untrustworthy. His coat, Tyler Lowery’s old leaf raking jacket, lacked the modern synthetics to be anything more than a bristly plaid windbreaker, so his whole body felt miserably stiff and frozen. He was ready to return.
He followed the frosty trail around another bend, and from there he could see that it straightened for a hundred yards before dumping into a clearing. The unfiltered moonlight at the end beckoned promisingly, and he increased his stride to meet it. Shep would be there, and in a minute they could head home.
The closer he got to the clearing, the louder the wailing became; louder and louder until it drowned out everything else, including his own raspy breathing.
He didn’t understand the physics of the awful noise, but right then, with Shep nearly recovered and a hot water bottle warming his future, the plaintive, almost cautionary wailing buoyed his spirits. Nature’s way of telling you to go home, he thought, stepping jauntily into the clearing.
The sight of the bone white building pinned him where he stood. His every nerve tingled in amplified awareness at the sheer unnaturalness of it. It was like stumbling upon the Taj Mahal.
The building was nowhere near the Taj Mahal in stature or design, but the comparison was a fair one. He was, after all, in the timbered middle of the great Wisconsin nowhere, and to wander into anything more dramatic than a barn or a boarded up old summer home was far too bizarre for reason.
And yet there it was, a compact two-story structure set down squarely in the middle of a perfectly round clearing. Its smooth granite walls and its Gothic, gargoyle covered roof gave the appearance of a mausoleum, but there were no markings anywhere to indicate occupancy. Even stranger, there were no doors or windows whatsoever; only blocks of unblemished granite topped by a couple dozen gargoyles.
It was obvious, however, that the wailing was coming from inside the clearing. The clamor had increased substantially since he entered it, and looking around he realized the two rows of grotesque figures, each with pointy ears, hooked talons and folded dragon wings, possessed more than enough angles and jagged edges to produce the din. The one on top, a man-sized demon facing west, probably accounted for half of the noise itself.
“Shep,” he shouted. “Come on, boy.” He strode briskly around the building, thinking the dog might be hiding around the other side. “Shep.” The unusual frost that highlighted the path had ended at the clearing, so there was no way to track him, no way other than yelling to get his attention. But the sound of the wailing gargoyles made it nearly impossible to be heard.
At this rate he’d freeze to death before he found the dog, he thought, looking to the sky in exasperation. The gesture gave him a start; from his position underneath the building he caught a glimpse of the gruesome, full-sized gargoyle against the moon, his pointy jaw jutting menacingly to the east as if daring the sun to rise. Ross looked away. “Shep.”
The wind was really blowing, now, and the wailing was increasing by the minute, making it hard to think. “Shep.” The whole thing was starting to bother him — the clearing, the moonlight, the damn wailing gargoyles. What kind of craziness was it to build a building full of freakish gargoyles in the middle of the forest? “Shep.” He looked up at the first tier of the wicked things. Contorted bastardizations of men and animals, they perched over the edge in sculpted terror, some weathered a moss — like green, others, like the one on the end, as clean and flawless as the granite walls. There was an old man, a baby, a chalky white dog. “Shep.” The one on top, the big one facing — Ross was too mixed up to remember the points of the compass — the big one on top had an emaciated body, enormous outstretched bat wings, and a lurid grin on its raptor face that seemed to enjoy his agony. “Shep.” They were filthy things, all of them. He turned away in revulsion and scoured the clearing. “Shep,” he called. “Shep!”
He caught a movement out of the corner of his eyes and spun around after it. It was nothing, however. Only a shadow.
But it couldn’t have been a shadow. It must have been some leaves blowing, or maybe a rabbit. The wailing made it hard to think, but he was sure it couldn’t have been a shadow. It swooped out of sight much too fast for a shadow.
Maybe it was Shep after all. Maybe he’d been distracted by the wailing and missed his dog as he ran around the other side of the building. Of course. He’d just go around the corner and…
Another movement, this time behind him. He turned around, his hands out low to greet Shep and get the hell out of the woods, but again there was nothing there.
Another shadow? It had to be. But what could cast a shadow like that in the middle of the night?
He looked up, suddenly terrified. There was a vacancy atop the building.
Soon there was a cold shadow across his body.
He started to run, but even then he knew it was too late. The shadow flapped too large across the frozen ground in front of him, an angry interruption of moonlight that he knew was inescapable. But he ran anyway, slipping and sliding toward the safety of the trees, all the time knowing it was about ego now, about nursery rhymes and finishing well. I think I can. I think I can.
Before he felt the first savage contact, he heard the final pitch of the wailing, and it seemed as if the remaining gargoyles on the building were singing the unison horrors of hell. Then he felt the razor grip of claws tear into his shoulders, the heavy force behind them pushing him to the ground. A great weight crouched against his back, squeezing the air out of his lungs. It hurt to breath. The air smelled rancid. And when he felt the leathery wings fold around him he prayed God for a merciful end.
What he got was a pitiless dawn.
* * *
The wailing is what brought him to his senses. He’d been aware of its decline and eventual silencing, but now he heard it growing louder again, felt it crescendoing all around him, beside him, beneath him, behind him. He fought the randomness within, trying to bring order to his thoughts, understanding to his world. He remembered wings. He thought of Shep. He heard the wailing from the wailing itself.
He opened his eyes.
His vision was distorted, bowled slightly and locked forward. He saw trees, a clearing — the same clearing — but it was all somehow far away and awfully big. As if seen from above. As if seen from the top of a building.
Movement was useless. It was all too clear, now. He was immobile, frozen forever in the form of a grotesque, squatting hunchback, the final occupant of the second tier from which he overlooked the man. The boy. The chalky white dog.
The wailing grew louder still, but it wasn’t the wind swirling around wings and talons. It came from the gargoyles themselves, the unmoving, unspeaking, unholy reductions of life assembled around him. Assembled by the predatory sentry standing silent guard on the deadly perch above them.
He sensed a rustling in the woods. The moonlight wasn’t bright enough to illuminate down the trail, but immediately he knew it must be Lydia. She would have gotten worried and followed the trail just as he had, following the footprints down the frosty path to the clearing.
“Lydia!” He started to wail himself. It was the only way he could articulate his warning. He didn’t know how he did it, but he knew he had to alert her of the danger, the evil. “Lydia!” He wailed louder, wailed with all his stifled might. Dear God, he thought. Turn back. Turn back. A figure emerged from the woods. “Lydia!”
All at once the wailing ceased, replaced by a symphony of lower pitched hissing that quickly rose to the same painful level as before. He didn’t understand, he didn’t understand any of it, but he knew he had to save her. He had to save Lydia.
Nora followed behind her, edging into the clearing with her arms folded solemnly behind her back. She looked as uncomfortable as she had at the house, the same disapproving frown on her face and an aura of guilty compliance slowing her steps.
Lydia, however, showed no such reticence. With her tweed coat pulled tight against her body, she entered the clearing without apprehension, without even the slightest hint of worry. And there was nothing he could do to save her.
The two approached the building just as he had, eyes turned up to the rows of hissing gargoyles.
“It’s a pity about Shep,” he heard Lydia say to her mother.
And then the two turned for home, ignorant of the hissing choir that had increased by one.You Might Also Like:
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