The understudy

(Originally published as Bewitchery)

We kids always called it The Last House in Town, but really it was just outside of town limits.  With its old red brick covered in summer’s ivy, its hot tin roof for the cats, and its perimeter fence of spear-topped wrought iron, it looked suitably forbidding.  Especially at dusk on a foggy night.

Edna Bligh had lived there since birth, and was now its solitary inhabitant, as far as we knew.  She and her brother Herman had lost their parents to a vehicular accident some twenty years before.  After inheriting the house free and clear, they had stayed there, never having married.  Herman was the town’s sole solicitor, and Edna had earned her keep by her skill as a dressmaker.

In the spring of nineteen hundred and forty-nine, Herman was murdered by the father of a man he had sent to jail.  Edna had seemed to be in perpetual mourning since that day.  On her rare visits to town, she could be seen riding her Schwinn bicycle.  Garbed in black, with lace-up leather boots, she wore a pillbox hat with a net veil covering her sharp features.

We were in awe of her, not only because of what had happened.  She seldom spoke, had the aspect of a dangerous bird, and seemed to rush wherever she went, as if in disdain for the whole of mankind.  The large wicker creel strapped to her back fender reminded us uncomfortably of a certain Witch we had already heard tell of.

In the first days after Herman’s death, Edna costumed herself in the endless black of her future.  For his burial, she paced slowly down the line of mourners to his graveside, cloaked in charcoal, even to the velvet mask that covered her eyes.  Evoked were the bats of Dracula, and a wedding to the dead.

Edna was not seen for ninety days from that stilted graveside walk.  In that time, the fall of the year burned down to winter’s ash.  At the Last House, men and machinery could be seen.  Men with hoods who did not speak to any outside of that boundary.

We curious kids, with borrowed binoculars and too-big sweaters, skulked behind the poor brick partition of my front walk, making a nervous party out of the Watching.


Our old town’s Main Street business district was less than a mile long.  It was intersected by First, Second, and Third Avenues, and many businesses had come and gone in its decades of history.  Aside from the Post Office, there was one that remained in memory, and indeed it still occupied its rarefied space.   Its plate glass window had once been destroyed by an angry but cowardly man and had been renewed with a double pane of “safety” glass.  This had a slight tinge of greenness and was curiously embedded with many crisscross strands of wire.  Brand new letters of gold leaf had been applied to its inner pane, reading “LAW OFFICE- H. BLIGH”

Herman, after the first shock, and having to wait for the repairs to be effected, decided it would be a good time to “update” the office a little, and so he brought in painters, carpenters, and carpet layers.  He was not long settling into the new place when he was called to represent the Crown in a case of armed robbery in a neighbouring village.  It was one of the Baker Boys, whom he knew (and detested) from his younger days.  Mark Baker was not one of the actual triggermen, but it was alleged that he had driven the getaway car.  Evidence was largely circumstantial, and the outcome was in doubt until Herman, who was very well connected within the town, managed to drum up two credible witnesses who would testify.  In the end, Mark was sentenced to five years.
Three days later, as Herman was locking up after a long night at the office, he was shot to death through the safety glass of his office window.  Several tenants had remarked on the dark pickup that had sat in the rain that night, but they could not give a positive i.d. of the attacker.

Howard Baker had been very careful.  He knew that Herman had earned a few enemies in the county, and he knew also that he himself would be a prime suspect.  To that end, he had stolen a pickup from a nearby farmer who was away at auction and had waited in the dark downpour until Herman had decided to call it a night.  He wore dark rain gear with a hood that shaded his features, and with his leather gloves, slip-on rubbers, and the heavy silencer on his .38 , he thought to leave little evidence of his presence that night.
When the deed was done, he drove off into the darkness, ditched the truck in a wooded area, and, using the bike he had brought with him, pedalled through the rain to complete the nearly ten mile journey to his house.

It was not long before he had a visit from the law.


Something curious was happening at the old Bligh house.  There had been many comings and goings of workmen in the weeks that Edna had been gone.  The heavy iron fence with its spears had been uprooted and taken apart in sections.  Along its outline, a deep and narrow trench was dug.  We kids were on watch every second we could spare.
At last, the queerest thing of all took place right in front of our eyes.  A truckload of stone slabs and red brick arrived, followed by a cement mixer.  Into the trench, stone and cement were laid, and, over several days, a brick wall some eight feet in height and a foot thick took form.  It surrounded the house completely, save for a heavy oaken door, which was domed at its top and framed and buttressed with black iron.  When the wall was done, the old fence of spears was installed upon its top.  The men and machinery finally left, late on a foggy and cold afternoon.

Edna had not been idle during that time.  It had been quite a while since she had paid a visit to old Verna, the woman who had mentored her in something more than dressmaking.  Verna was another confirmed spinster who had lived, with minimal help, in the house of her birth, and was now alone.  Twenty years Edna’s senior, she had often looked after Edna and Herman when their parents had been otherwise occupied.  Verna was delighted to see her, in spite of the circumstances, and insisted that Edna stay with her awhile.  And so, from Verna’s home, Edna made arrangements to have Herman’s old office repaired and secured, once the Police had quit the premises.
She also learned and partook in things that might give you and I a chilly feeling up the back of our spines.


Howard Baker had never been an excitable man. Fact was, not much scared him. He was slow to anger, but when brought to that state he would lose all reason. It had led him to do murder, and in his self-righteous mind he was a hero for its doing. Guilt was an emotion somewhat foreign to him. When he slept, it was the sleep of peace.

On that night in late fall, he had retired early after an exhausting day of haying and mucking out stables. The forecast promised a nasty storm, but that was no bother to Howard. By 9:30, after a couple of beers, he was snoring.

A short time later, the rain came on with a vengeance, and distant lightning woke a muttering of thunder. A black pickup truck stopped at the entrance to Howard’s long driveway. A tall thin figure got out and, not minding the streaming rain, walked slowly towards the darkened house.

In his dream of accolades, Howard’s heart swelled now that he was finally getting his due. He smiled and waved at the adoring crowd, and the happy ending brought him peace and the quietude of expiated sin. But soon a black hand, palm outward in token of rejection, disturbed and troubled his art.

He awoke suddenly to explosive lightning and immediate thunder. In the afterglow, a face in his window. Raven-like eyes, sharp hooked nose, and a small tight mouth contorted with hate. Howard was paralyzed and thought with hope that the face was but a nightmare. Indeed, when the next flash came, the face was not there. He thought to get out of bed to collect his wits but found that his body would not obey.

Hoping that sleep would take him, he tried to calm his jumping nerves by using a mantra that he had once heard a hypnotist employ.  Something about intentionally relaxing your muscles, one by one, starting at your toes.  Howard was just getting to his knees when, in the next strong flash of lightning, a tall figure could be seen standing in his open bedroom door.  It was the owner of the face, and as they locked eyes, it was upon him.

With its thin strong hands and sharp nails, it grabbed onto his ears and drew its grim countenance to his.  All the while looking straight into his soul, it whispered these words:  “Howard Baker, ye are the one.  You gave to one of mine their own private Hell, and then their death.  I am inside ye now.  Your soul is mine.  You will walk my walk for the time left of your life, and it will be long.  I have sold my own soul for this, for I have rejected my God, who said that vengeance was given to him only.”  And then, dry crusted lips laid a cold kiss upon his trembling forehead.  Howard had soiled himself.


If one had awoken early enough, they might have seen, at the site of Herman’s law office, a smart looking and very erect old woman dressed in red.  With a confident mien, she brought forth an iron key from her bag, and made entrance to her new world.  In gold leaf, the letters in the window spelled out VERNA MARTIN- FASHIONS FOR THE TIMES.

If one had stayed up late enough, they might have seen (if they didn’t mind the rain) a tall thin figure in black who also produced an iron key from her bag, and unhurriedly gained entrance to the Bligh house.  There was a booming slam as the door closed, and the sound of tinkling chains.

One of the Bakers’ neighbours had noticed that there had not been much activity on that farm for a few days and decided to pay Howard a visit.  Along his dusty driveway, they saw some sick cattle, and became more alarmed.  At last, they pulled up to the house.  There was Howard, sitting on his front stoop, naked except for his socks.  He was eating a cob of raw corn.  He did not look up.

The Police, who had been “keeping an eye” on Howard while “gathering evidence”, arrived at the homestead, together with a paddy wagon.

Howard did indeed have a long life.  He was pronounced incurably insane.  Herman’s murder was never solved.

Image: The Yorkshire Post

27: Electric babyland (may offend)

I got lotsa babies in here she says to me.  Her voice comes from the ceiling, but I can see her lips move.  Yellow teeth.  No irises.  On the cracked linoleum floor she stands, in stained sweatpants and a T shirt that goes to her navel.  She shifts from one foot to the other, as if she needs to go to the bathroom.  She drums her fingers on her tight beachball belly.  Lots.  Inside here.  

No smile, though.  She looks angry, crazed.  I lie on the floor, bound and gagged, while stark Tesla trees of pale blue crackle and branch about the ceiling.  She kicks the side of my head with a bare foot, and, just before I black out again , I see her turn and walk down the hallway.  My swoon is only seconds, I think,  because I hear the sound of someone peeing.  Then a flush.

The slap of bare feet comes closer and she reenters my room, this time wearing only the T shirt.  She squats and bows her head, greasy hair dragging the floor.  There is no moaning or groaning as she gives obscene birth.  Only the repeated sounds eck, eck, eck.
Small wet things dangle and drop.  Sharp yellow teeth, no irises.  They tear at my restraints with piranha frenzy.  I gain my freedom, but am paralyzed in stiffness and horror as they set upon their unwilling mother and begin to eat.


26: Fluids ***GRAPHIC***

On the tilted table I lie.
Sore arm injected with serum.
Paralysis abides.
In the dim, I see tools
hanging, dangling,
clanking in the vacuumed wind
of a swiftly opened door.
And, in walks DeSade.
Aye, what will it be today?  says he.
(From his trouser belt hang more questionable instruments.)
*He pushes a little trolley with silver trays on it*
Aye, the sutures have healed remarkably well!
Let’s see, how many toes have we left?
It’s too too bad, we ran out of anesthetic last week.
Oh, but look!  Eight fingers, two thumbs!
But don’t worry, we won’t remove any of those today.
I’m a man of my word.
But I do have bamboo, for you, hoo hoo!
On the silver tray, shaved wedges of wood, a tiny silver hammer which he picks up)
This used to be Maxwell’s you know.  Hah!
What about a little cleaning of those dirty fingernails of yours?
*I piss myself*
And, for dessert, it’s the bolt cutters again.
(A moan escapes me, unarticulated.  I taste the salt from my nose and my tears)
(I wish, I wish they could paralyze my eyes as well)
*My moronic scream as he drives in a wedge, right down to the quick*
Then, swiftly and deftly, he grabs those cutters of awfulness, and CLACK!
The spray of my red life blooms on his clean white apron.
I see my mother in a cloud.
I pass out, in radioactive pain.


In the dark of your room
Something cold from the tomb
Awakes you with feelings of dread
Seems to float and to hover
Then pulls on your cover
And sidles up next to your bed

Its image is fearsome
A face without eyes
An energy making you swoon
It radiates outward
Your hair it will rise
Like you feel when you rub on a balloon

Paralysis grips you
You cannot but shout
Your face feels as if it will smother
Someone turns on the light
And, there in the bright,
Stands (in costume)
Your wee little brother.

You missed Halloween, you dope.

The girl of his dreams

It’s three in the morning.

He gets up to pee, second time since bed.  Hobbles to the hallway bathroom, then stops suddenly, swallowing a seeming lump in his throat.  Silhouetted against the streetlights of his bay window, there’s a figure sitting on his couch.  His stomach jumping as if in a fast elevator descent, he closets himself in the bathroom, shutting the door.  He’s scared to even turn on the light switch, but there’s a small night light by his mirror.  This must be one of those lucid dreams I keep hearing about.  Shit, that scared me.  He studies his reflection.  It has an eerie cast in the drowsy glow.  A sheepish expression after his sudden retreat from the remnants of a dream.  Takes a leisurely pee, makes sure he’s well drained this time.  Opens the door and looks foolishly up the hall.

She’s still there.  He knows it’s a she from the long tresses and the manner of sitting.  She reaches out an arm and motions him to come.  She has no visible features except her eyes, showing dimly but tantalizingly, as if in the weakened beam of a dying flashlight.
A thrill of fear and excitement races down his spine, and he feels immobile.  In a body cast with an ant colony.  No good.  Can’t hide.  Go there.  Come on, lift the lead weights.  No, go back to bed Joe.  Wake the wife.  He’s half turned, groping for the wall, when he hears the hissing (from their cats?), and feels an almost physical pull to the couch by the picture window.

All is still darkness, backlit by the streetlights projecting a heavy fog, hints of tarnished glints suggested by the familiar:  his dirty ashtray, a coffee cup and spoon left on the end table.  And now, to complement those charnel-house eyes, there’s a spreading disembodied smile.  Oh God, he thinks.  My own Cheshire Cat.  Not knowing and not remembering how, he is beside her on the cold couch.  She does not look in his direction, but faces front.  Stunned, and at the apex of his fear, he feels her clammy hands upon his cheeks, turning his head to hers.  The eyes, dimly radiant, show nothing, like coins laid on a dead thing.  The left is half closed, and twitches, shuttering the silverness.  Some moans escape her, but in a singsong tone.  His nerves are as taught as catgut strings, and she is playing him, playing him.

Able to speak at last, he mouths the first of one thousand questions….Who…How…Why?

SSHHHHHH……You called me.  You did, you know.  Still she grips him, as within a vise.

He faints, or sleeps.


That is where his wife finds him.  On the couch, in the newborn position.  She asks why.
Bad dream, bad dream, dear.  That’s all.
She feels funny and strange, because of the way he looks, so shaken, and because he has never sleepwalked as long as she has known him.

The morning brings the workaday world back to him.  Today’s gonna be a tough one at the office.  My goddamn presentation, after three hours of sleep?  Off he goes, finally out of that body cast.  When it’s all done with, his friend Sasha whispers to him that the boss wants to see him.  Funny, the way she puts her hands upon his head, then gives him that sly little wink.

Saturday morning blessedly arrives for Joe.  He doesn’t get out of bed until eleven, and his wife awaits him with a kettle already boiled.  “You’re so nice”, he says, as he drinks the hot cup of his namesake.

Marlene says to him, as she’s reading the morning paper, “Joe, wasn’t there a Sasha at your work?”

He grips the table and spills the coffee.

Wrong tense, Marlene.  Please let it be someone else………….

The Seventh stairway

Furtive and troubling, the rustling of things,
Imagined, perhaps, in the dark.
And close now, the flapping of leathery wings,
And the hounds are beginning to bark.

Some thing keeps them at bay, at least for the while,
As I gather my breath near the top
Of the seventh of stairways, to the narrowest aisle.
I dare not consider to stop.

I know not the agent that’s let me go free
From the poisonous pits down below.
Perhaps entertainment, for somebody’s glee-
Is the hope I’m beginning to know.

There was a faint glow on the steps further up,
But now it is bleeding away.
The guttural growls are without interrupt,
And the bats are denying the day.

How much life I have left in these limbs to go on
Is in doubt, as I climb once again.
To such dizzying heights, trying to make it to dawn,
And the Order of everyday men.

With a desperate run up the last of the stairs,
There’s a light I see glowing once more.
Through a portal there’s flowing the sweetest of airs,
But a Presence is guarding the door.

Its radiant blackness, its absence of eyes,
Its telepathy shrivels the spirit.
Its figure of nearly impossible size
Says that doom is upon those who near it.

“Ah, me!” did I cry, to a nebulous Savior
That I always had held in such doubt.
My faithlessness; all of my wretched behavior,
Had brought this misfortune about.

Wake me up!  Wake me up!  Let me out!

Image credit to:

#14 Things in the swamp (not at all pleasant)

we’ve been led here. I feel we have. on a forest picnic so bright and sunny. dappled trails. you wanted bare feet, and carried your funny shoes. mossy springy grass. squishy clay mud between your toes, and you laughed. wee violets and buttercups so pretty. we half expected to meet the dryads of the woods. why did we go so far in? happy hearts caught in a halcyon time. afternoon shadows are getting long, and we move to go back, but take a wrong turn. the sun’s at our back. yeah, it’s wrong. at each other we look, then quickly behind. in the greying gloom our recent walk, foot prints and all, seems to have been sucked away, vanishing like Alice’s confusing path. new trees, as close together as a bamboo forest, crowd each other in a riot of obstruction. there is no going, except forward. this very bad thing has us confused and frightened, and we hug tightly. nothing for it but to go on, although there’s a foul smell, the keening of bugs, and sounds of heavy splashing. you put on your shoes, and we hurry ahead with far fetched optimism that we’re nearing an outlet. as we go, there’s a chuck-chuck-chuck tat-tat-tat as trees sprout behind in terrible time lapse, like arrows flung from a thousand bows. we run. the smell of rot in front. our path behind is blotted in a zipper of foliage. and now, we are here: the vestiges of sun show us a lime green cesspool of swamp, lapping against intruding bush on all sides. On the opposite shore is a (fake?) hallway through the trees, a hint of daylight at its end. things flip and slap on the pond’s surface, disturbing the pale lilies. you, the brave one, walk into the warm steaming water, telling me to come…it’s not deep. and we go. halfway now, the silty bottom sucking at our shoes. slithery things caress our ankles and knees. tiny teeth seem to test us. only waist deep, we pause, hanging onto the roots of a fallen tree. and then, you’re down. gone. so fast. i yell and scream, grabbing green slime, and i’ve got your hair, then your armpits. leveraging against the roots, i hoist you up, parting your seaweed coiffure. you vomit a chunk of green mucus onto me, and then i see your face. you are not you. you are my dead school teacher. i let go in terror, and you sink like a stone. i hear insane laughter from the far shore, and there you are waving, silhouetted in the dying day. you turn and take the appointed path. new growth closes behind you. dark has come.

momma, momma, momma.