What’s that pernicious pong? Oh it’s you. Heh. Heh. Heh.
Well, don’t just stand there decomposing, you rancid rotter. Take a pew. Make yourself at bone.
And welcome to chapter one of Alister Grudge’s TERRIBLE TALES– a veritable cornucopia of creepiness.
I like to call the revolting little tale that I’ve dug up for you today, ‘The Taste of Fear…’
You’ll soon see why.
This festering fable begins amidst the brightly coloured lights and noisy hubbub of a fair ground on a chill Autumn night.
It’s a whirlwind of excitement-the air scented with the sweet smell of candy floss, of toffee apples, hot dogs and popcorn freshly popped.
Young lovers stroll arm in arm. Children tug on their parents sleeves.
Over there, a hall of mirrors. And there, a rifle range. A fun house. A ghost train.
A fortune teller’s caravan-
And through the laughing crowds stalks a darkly scowling man, with a hat pulled low over his sweat soaked brow. His coat clasped tight at the throat, held fast by fingers tattooed: love and hate.
You should. For it is YOU, Ivan Wolonski. Fugitive from the law.
And how you glance about-shooting nervous, furtive stares. The kind you make when you believe, no, when you know, that you are followed and your pursuer could emerge at any moment, from anywhere.
The kind you make when your heart smashes against the prison of your ribs. When all you can taste in your dry mouth is iron and rust.
The taste of fear.
And you know it well.
Why, you’ve lived with it for days. Ever since you stuck a knife in that policeman’s throat.
You need a refuge. A safe haven to wait and weather the storm. But what’s this? A fortune teller’s caravan?
The sign above the door says ‘Madame Zorbas’s’.
It will do.
It will have too. Because in the distance, above the din of the fair: the whirl of the rides, the laughter, the gaiety, above the sound of music and merriment, you can hear the baying of dogs and you know they have your scent.
The fortune teller’s caravan is dark, lit only by a single candle that dances wildly as as ill wind ushers you into the gloom.
The woman at the table does not move to greet you. Her wrinkled hands shuffle a pack of cards slowly. So slowly- as if she has been shuffling that same pack since the pack since the day she was born.
A black veil covers her face.
Why should that frighten you? You’re a man of the world. Yet there is something about the women, hunched and ancient, that almost makes you want to turn and run.
But of course you don’t. That would be foolish.
Instead you sit across from her and clear your throat. And when she does not acknowledge you, you point to the crystal ball before her and, laughing, ask if she can really see the future.
In a voice that creaks like a gibbet rope she whispers, ‘The ball is but an ornament to appease the expectations of my customers. But I have the second sight.’
You laugh and ask why she isn’t rich and famous. Why, you could make a packet with a talent like that.
She sighs and says, ‘The gift is not to be squandered on material riches. I wouldn’t expect a man like you to understand.’
You’re not sure you like her tone of voice. But before you can say something she’s off again:
‘Besides people do not want to know their fate. Not really, so I tell them instead, what they want to hear. Oh yes, you will be rich, you will marry a handsome man.’
Grinning, you tell her that you want to know your future. And you hold out your palm like you’ve seen in the movies.
She stops shuffling.
Is that a smile you see under her veil, slowly spreading across her face, like blood from a wound?
It is. She’s grinning at you and as a ghastly chuckle rattles from out her throat she says, ‘Your destiny is plain to see.’
What does she mean by that?
Now she holds out her palm and tells you to cross it with silver.
You fold your arms across your chest and tell her you’re not dumb enough to fall for her carny hokum.
‘Then leave my caravan,’ she says, throwing her arms wide, bellowing so loud the shock of it nearly throws you out of the chair, ‘Leave my caravan Ivan Wolonski and pray that you do not hang for murder.’
How did she-? It’s impossible.
And then it hits you. Your picture in the papers. Of course. She’s playing you like a violin. The crazy old bird.
She starts to laugh, as though she can read you thoughts.
Her hands reach for the veil and when you see her face you can’t help but gasp and leap back like you’ve been bitten by a snake.
Her eyes are white and empty.
And grinning, her toothless mouth gaping wide, she says, ‘Heed my words Ivan Wolonski: before the moon shines bright, your hands will steal a life. You will speak in a borrowed tongue and in the morning, your corpse will be found beneath the branches of a willow tree.’
What is this? What nonsense. Probably straight out of a fortune cookie.
Yet her strange words turn your cheeks pale.
Cackling, her hands reach out to touch your face and she says,
‘I knew you would come this black night. It was foretold when I was but a child. I may be blind but I know your face. I have lived with it all my life. You see it is a gift but also a curse to see the future, to know the hour of your death. For it is my life that you will take Ivan Wolonski. Even now your fingers twitch for my throat.’
She’s right. They are.
And in a sudden burst of violence you are wringing her skinny neck. Squeezing so hard you can feel the bones grind and snap.
But somehow she’s still alive. So you squeeze for all you’re worth, fingers biting into her throat
At last, she retches her final, stinking, breath into your face and gasps, ‘Before the sun sets you will know such terror.’
It’s done. Her lifeless body collapses into the chair.
And you, Ivan, criminal that you are, even you shudder in the shadow of your terrible crime.
Murderous hands trembling, you lick your parched lips and you sit, all alone in the darkening caravan.
Outside, the sounds of the fair are beginning to die down. The merry makers are off to their warm beds.
And you are all alone.
Except, that is, for the body of Madame Zorba.
With her black and twisted face. And those eyes. Staring wide and open. As unseeing in death as they were in life.
And no matter how much you try to ignore them, no matter where you turn, you can feel them fixed on you, piercing you with an accusing glare.
Oh dear, Ivan. What’s that suspicion sneaking up on you?
That dreadful, unsettling, feeling that maybe, just maybe, they are not sightless at all.
And as the hairs rise on the back of your neck, a little voice in the back of your mind whispers, ‘She’s looking at you. She’s looking right at you’.
Silly isn’t it? But this whisper starts to get louder. Soon it isn’t a whisper at all.
You begin to squirm, to wriggle, there’s that taste in your mouth again, your heart thuds quick as a galloping race horse, thud, thud-thud, thud, thud- thud. It’s beating so fast and so hard you’re scared it might burst out of your chest, to flop about on the table like a pulsing red fish. And
the whisper has become a scream, ‘SHE’S LOOKING AT YOU!’ and you jump up fast.
You have to close those eyes, you must.
So you reach out a trembling hand-
And someone raps on the door. Loud, Insistent rapping.
Yelping, you leap back, fist in your mouth.
And a man’s voice, a cop’s voice, says, ‘Madame Zorba, are you in there?’
Damn. Damn. Damn.
Caught like a rat in a trap.
‘Open up,’ says the cop. ‘We need to speak to you.’
Think Ivan. Think. It can’t end like this.
There, on the floor.
Zorba’s veil. You snatch it up and bundling into a ball, hold it in front of your face.
‘Yes?’ you say, ‘what is it?’
The cop tells you all about some murderer they’re hunting. An Ivan Wolonski , a terrible, violent man and won’t you please come and look at his picture?
You tell them it wouldn’t do much good. You’re blind.
And then, just like that, they buy it. They’re telling you to be careful. To lock your door. And they’re off.
You can scarcely believe you ears. It’s all you can do to wait for the sound of their footsteps to disappear before you’re roaring with laughter.
Howling. Sides splitting. Your face is wet with tears.
You’ve quite forgotten your fears now and your chest is puffed up with pride at your cleverness. And just to prove how brave you are feeling, you point at Zorba and, grinning, ask her what the hell she thinks she’s staring at.
Haw. Haw. Haw.
But it’s a hollow sound and the laughter dies on your lips.
Now you shut her eyes. And her dead flesh is cold to the touch, like ham from the fridge.
Never mind that. Tucked away in a drawer you find a wad of notes and something even better: whiskey. And damn if you couldn’t do with a drink.
So what if it’s cheap? You’ve had worse. And as the liquor burns your throat a curious thought flits through your mind.
What was it she said about speaking in a borrowed tongue?
Didn’t you just borrow her voice?
You raise the bottle once more and you’re about to make a toast, to your long and happy future when-
Her eyes are open again. She’s staring. That awful, accusing, stare. Right at you.
And, God no.
It’s not possible. She’ s smiling at you. A smirk, a definite smirk is starting to twist the thin, blue, lips.
But it’s just rigor mortis isn’t it? The muscles tightening in death. That’s all.
Then why the gleam in her dead eyes? Why does the smile get slowly wider-
Throw the veil over her head. That’s it, that’s what you have to do. But where is it?
There by the door.
You have to turn your back on her to pick it up, and when you do, you hear the snap of her joints as she rises out of the chair-you whirl around.
Just your imagination. What relief.
But that grin. It’s wider than ever. So wide you can see the swollen tongue squatting black in her mouth, like some venomous toad.
So you approach, with the veil held out at arm’s length and you’re almost on her when your foot slips on something-the bottle, and now you’re stumbling, arms flailing and you knock into the sideboard and the candle falls and you’re in darkness.
Now you do hear her rising. You hear the gurgle of fluids trapped in her broken windpipe. The rustling of her dress. The scraping of her long nails as she claws her way towards you across the floor.
And your mind finally snaps.
Sobbing, you dash for the door and fumble for the lock. She’s almost on you when you throw it wide.
The night air is freezing but you don’t care. You run, run screaming through the silent fair ground.
Past the ghost train. Past the hall of mirrors, past the helter skelter, the waltzer and every where you look you can see the dead woman grinning at you from the shadows.
You look like a frightened jack rabbit. Mouth-slack jawed, white foam flecked on your gibbering lips, your eyes-owl wide. You don’t know where you are running too, just that you have to get away.
So you run through the night and you keep running knowing only that you have to get far away. Away from dead fingers reaching for your throat. Anything would be better than that, even the police.
Even swinging on a gallows.
Up ahead, a river. You can make out the tree-lined bank in the half-light of the slowly approaching dawn.
What was it your grandmother used to say? Something about how the dead cannot cross running water.
You make for the river with a desperate burst of energy.
In minutes you are tumbling down the river bank, slipping on the wet mud, then, lungs heaving, you wade waist deep through the icy waters until-half dead, you pull yourself up onto the opposite shore, gasping, spluttering, to rest beneath the branches of an old tree.
Fighting for breath you squeeze your eyes shut, praying for an end to your nightmare. For forgiveness. And you’ll be good from now on. You promise.
You’re about to open your eyes when something cold and wet brushes your neck.
And to the tune of a terrible, blood curdling scream, your heart, dear Ivan, beats it’s last.
Serves you right.
But that’s not quite the end of our delightful tale.
You see, dear Ivan, the dogs find your body later that morning-sat against the trunk of an old willow tree, a strand of the willow wrapped around your neck.
Apparently, your face was not good to look upon and a sheet was quickly thrown over your head. A most baffling case. The coroner could find no signs of injury.
It was almost as if you had been scared to death.
Heh. Heh. Heh.
I hope you enjoyed that putrid pile of prose. Come back soon for more ghoulish goings on.
Yours in pieces,