Ichor Falls

Cypocryphy

by on Dec.05, 2008, under Submitted

It destroys a family, this kind of winter. Towns have a long memory — the Falls especially, though the memories of people are mercifully (or unfortunately) short. In a little less than seven months he and his mother and sister will move away, at the onset of what will be called the Ethylor summer. That season will be remembered.

But no one will remember this winter. Not even him. He is still a child, only in second grade, and while he will dream about this for years to come, he will not remember. The thoughts will tumble out of his mind shortly after they move across the river into Ohio.

It is three weeks before Christmas. His arm is in a cast (he has forgotten why; his mother tells him he fell down the stairs) and they are living in the cramped townhouse in Lower Alethia. It was once a single residence, an immense stone thing, but over the years it has been sectioned off until it can serviceably house three families. They live in the middle, sandwiched between an elderly couple called the Harts and the Graysons, who are a little older than his mother and father but have a son, Theo, the same age as his sister.

Mr. Grayson and his father work at the same chemical plant, though his father seems to work much later hours and comes home in a sorrier state most of the time. The night it all starts his father isn’t home; he and his sister, Catherine, are listening to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio in the den while Mother works busily in the kitchen.

It is snowing lightly outside, so the fireplace in the tiny den is blazing softly. He is lying on his stomach in front of the radio, chin cradled by the hand that isn’t encased in plaster, as he imagines what sort of wonderful, cacophonous things are rolling around in Fibber McGee’s closet. Catherine sits on the couch, her legs folded under her. He doesn’t know why, but she’s taken to dressing up lately. Right now she isn’t even listening to the program, but instead only half-paying attention, eyes focused on the open book in her lap.

When it starts he thinks at first it is the radio. “Dearie, I’m so cold. Why don’t you come and sit with me by the fire?” it says in an old woman’s voice, cracked and frail and wavering. He is confused.

“Dearie, I’m so cold…” This time it most definitely comes from within the den. Behind him. By the fire.

He flips onto his back. The fire is crackling, tongues of flame licking at the glowing edges of blackened wood. There is no old woman. “Catherine,” he says, and he must repeat himself when she doesn’t look up from her book. “Didja hear that?” he asks.

“Hear what?”

“Dearie, I’m so cold. Why don’t you come and sit with me by the fire?”

Catherine’s eyes widen for a moment as he head jerks in the direction of the hearth. Then she blinks. “It’s the radio,” she says.

He stands, turns the radio off, and waits. The old woman’s voice comes again, beseeching in tone. She almost sounds frightened.

The girl screams for Mother, who comes bounding into the room. “What is it?” she asks breathlessly.

“Listen!” Catherine says. “It sounds like there’s an old woman talking in here!”

“Oh, you’re just hearing old Mrs. Hart through the walls.”

“It don’t sound like Mrs. Hart,” he says, thinking of the kindly neighbor lady. The voice in the room is weaker than Mrs. Hart’s, more desperate, and yet for some reason… it scares him.

Mother blinks at them. The den is silent and abruptly a knot in the firewood pops, causing them all to jump. Mother shakes her head, almost laughing to herself in embarrassment. It looks like she is preparing to say something when the book jumps out of Catherine’s hands, flies across the den, and lands in the fire.

The girl screams, falling down from the couch and reaching toward her book as if she might still save it. Mother looks on, her face blank, and he can only watch as his sister suddenly begins to writhe on the floor, pulling her blouse out of the band of her skirt, revealing smooth, pale skin that has been furrowed with red lines.

Scratches.

Mother finally seems to break and she falls to her knees beside her daughter, grabbing for Catherine’s arms in an attempt to hold her still. The girl is screaming. He stands by, dumbstruck, and he is almost certain he hears a sound by the fireplace: laughter, soft and dry and rustling.

The fit lasts only a few minutes. Mother tends to Catherine’s wounds, daubing away blood with a cotton ball and applying stinging iodine. He can only stand in the hall outside the bathroom, staring in and uncertain what he should be doing. As Catherine leans over, hands gripping the edge of the sink while Mother swabs the disinfectant over the shallow scratches on her back, she catches her brother’s eye in the mirror.

Her face is devoid of expression and without reason he remembers something: he has seen her in this pose before, her hands gripping not the sink but the window frame as she leaned out of her room to gaze down, saying something to the neighbor boy Theo who stood in the yard with his hands in his coat pockets. He was awakened by the sound of Theo throwing pebbles at his sister’s window.

He has heard the pebbles striking the window many nights since then, but ignored them. Now he leaves the hallway, considering returning to the radio; when he thinks of the fireplace he cannot bear to be in the den alone. He goes to his room instead, wasting his time with last month’s Scrooge McDuck comics. The cast on his arm is a dead weight.

When Father finally arrives home, he smells like beer. He also assumes the children are up to something. “You don’t understand,” says Mother. “I saw it, those scratches appeared on her skin as she was rolling on the floor! Like some kind of animal was after her! And they heard a voice…”

They are sitting around the kitchen table and Father is glowering at him. Catherine has been excused from dinner; she is upstairs, asleep. “You didn’t hear no voice, though,” Father says, his dim eyes topped by curled eyebrows, black as streaks of soot. This is the look that tells the boy to be careful, that even the slightest misstep could bring his father crashing down upon him.

“I didn’t hear it, no, but why would they lie? You weren’t lying, were you, honey?” She looks at him.

“No,” the boy says softly. “I wasn’t lying. I heard it.”

The old man shifts in his seat, one meaty fist rising from his lap forebodingly. The boy mirrors the gesture, raising his cast-bound arm ever so slightly should he need to shield himself. Father stops short, something flickering in his dim eyes, and his own hand returns to his fork. “You’re crazy,” he mumbles through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

Father and Mother put him to bed before going to Catherine’s room. He is nearly asleep when the screaming starts — Catherine screaming — and then something else, too. The voice of an old woman shouting things that might be words; he can’t make it out through the wall.

There are a few more screams, those of Father and Mother, and the old woman’s voice deepens, sounding less like an old woman and more like some kind of animal. A door slams and footsteps pound down the hall, down the stairs. Almost immediately Catherine stops and the old woman falls silent.

He is afraid to leave his bed, but he cannot go back to sleep. Later his father comes into his room, standing over the boy, and he lies perfectly still, gazing up at the old man through slitted eyes. Father raises his hand and the boy feels a dull throb in his arm, but the old man only runs his hand through his son’s hair, once, and leaves the room.

Things stay relatively calm until Christmas. Catherine reports every morning at breakfast what happened to her the night before: “It pushed me out of bed,” she tells her mother and brother.

Or perhaps, “It pulled my hair so hard I thought I would wake up bald…”

“…slapped me…”

“…punched me in the stomach…”

“…gave me a black eye…”

Soon the bruises are so bad that Mother is embarrassed to send the girl to school. Father consents when she asks that Catherine not return after Christmas break.

On Christmas Day nothing happens. He gets a new set of clothes for school, some new comics, and a selection of peppermints. They eat supper with Mr. and Mrs. Hart, but the old couple is standoffish, casting covert glances at Catherine’s hollow, purple cheeks.

The day after Christmas it gets into the walls. It begins with tapping and ticking, like the innards of a giant watch, but soon it becomes knocking, pounding, smashing. The Graysons come over to complain, and as they stand in the doorway talking to Mother the boy can see Theo standing behind them, peering between his parents in search of Catherine.

He won’t see her; she rarely leaves her room now. The only reason her brother knows she’s alive is that he sometimes hears her crying.

It comes to his room one night in the middle of January, crawling around on the darkness of his ceiling, and he fears it will come for him now, push him out of bed, blacken his eye. But it doesn’t, it only sings to him: strange, trilling not-words that sound like an old woman coughing or a pig squealing.

In the morning he finds it has left him a note, scrawled in black crayon on the loose leaf he uses for school: everything is going to be all right.

His cast is removed at the end of the month. A week after that the Graysons move out, having gotten another place closer to Elysia. (The Graysons will attempt to weather the Ethylor summer; they will only leave a year afterward, when Theo disappears — runs away — into Stillwood.) The Harts have not spoken to them since Christmas.

In February it begins to talk, but only to Father. It whispers at him from the corners of the kitchen while they eat dinner, calls him names, says things that even make the old man’s burly face turn red. It follows him around the house, its footsteps tapping in his wake, though judging by the sound it seems to have anywhere from two feet to seventeen.

Mother watches it all happen, her lips drawn tight and bloodless over her teeth, her throat dipping and bopping as if she is holding back a scream. Father stays out later and later, and even when he comes home he is less likely to talk. He only lies on the couch, eyes closed, while it dances in the walls and spits poison into his ears.

By March it is too much. He comes home early one night and heads straight up the stairs, the alcohol stench hovering around him, and stomps into Catherine’s room. Mother is already up there, tending to the girl. When the screaming begins, the boy sits on the couch and listens. Somewhere in all of the shouting he can make out musical not-words.

He slides off the couch and walks to the foot of the stairs, looking up to the second floor and wondering what he would see if he went up there. There is the sound of something coming toward him, something so heavy it shakes the entire house, and then he sees it barreling through the darkness toward him: a blur of pale skin, tangled hair, and wide, dim eyes. It is bellowing, animal-like, and then it tumbles forward and its head hits the steps with a sickening crack.

The old man’s corpse slides the rest of the way down, coming to a stop in a heap by the boy’s feet. He stares at it for a moment, then looks up into the darkness. Mother and Catherine are rushing down to him, looks of astonishment on their faces, though Catherine’s is red with the wide imprints of their father’s hands.

When the paramedics arrive, when the police arrive, and ask each of them in turn what happened, they say, “I don’t know,” or perhaps, “I don’t remember.” As they wheel the old man’s body out under a sheet, the Harts peek once out their bay window, then drop the curtain back in place.

When the flashing lights are gone, heading in the direction of Sweetbrook Hospital, Mother takes both children inside, her arms around their shoulders. They do not speak. She leads them into the den, where tonight no fire burns in the hearth.

They sit on the couch and at first he thinks she is going to turn on the radio, that they might simply sit here and listen to music. Instead Mother begins to hum, deep in her throat, the tune to an old hymn. It makes him think of a lullaby: the sound rolls outward, filling the room, welling up from within her throat as her lips are held tight and unmoving and her throat bobs. It is deep and sonorous, unlike any humming he will hear again, soft and grating all at the same time.

Like the sound of an old woman coughing and the trilling song of a hog.

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16 comments for this entry:
  1. Kris Straub

    Masterful.

  2. jim

    This was pretty great, Hoot. It would be at home in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthologies, complete with a Stephen Gammell ghost-touched spiderweb of an illustration.

  3. jones

    This is genuinely scary because it sounds plausible – not as reality, but as a folktale. It has that spooky “this happened to a friend of a friend of mine” tone, all the way through.

  4. Sean

    I really enjoyed this story, but I don’t quite understand the end.. who is it that falls down the stairs? Is it the boy’s father? That’s what I’m assuming as the Graysons have moved out.. Please pardon my density :P

  5. A.D.

    At first this sounded like it was going to be really predictable, but I loved the ending. Nice twist and creepy.

  6. Shake

    Pretty sure its the father. Yea, definitely.

  7. Dan

    Amazing, so unique in both content and style. A nice change from formulaic ‘creepypsata’.

  8. Bob

    I don’t get it, though it’s wonderfully made and I’d really like to. Was it the mother the whole time? How’s that possible?

  9. Elizabeth

    Very good, but reminds me a bit of the Bell Witch legend. I’d love to know a bit about the inspiration behind this.

  10. o

    I really liked the tone in this one, making it seem like one of those memories from childhood that you can’t figure out if it really happened or not.

  11. Bitaku

    I like this one a lot, but it does leave me a bit confused. If it wasn’t for the supernatural forces in the beginning (the mysterious scratch marks, the voice) this could very well be a metaphor for child / spousal abuse. I don’t really understand what the supernatural force is. The note left for the son and the ending almost implies that she is behind all of this, but at the same time the mother harming the daughter doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps I’m missing something?

  12. Nezumi

    Well, from the evidence actually in the story, my guess is either that the creature possessed the mother at some point… or it’s a conjuring of her subconscious, a sort of poltergeist phenomenon. Everything it did was to seemingly expose the abusive father — covering the sister with visible wounds, rattling things to attract attention — and then, when he got his worst and finally tried to seriously hurt the sister, it killed him.

    She wasn’t harming her daughter consciously, and even in her subconscious, the goal wasn’t to hurt her, but rather to expose her father by covering her in visible wounds he’d be blamed for by anyone who didn’t know the true story. It’s strongly implied that he’s beaten the children before, from the son’s reactions to him, to the broken arm from “falling down the stairs”… but it apparently hadn’t been caught, so…

  13. xAudriUndeadx

    I really enjoyed this story. It was well written. (: Great concept.

  14. Sphinx Ligustri

    Hey guys,

    Cypocraphy is the name of a spirit alleged to have appeared during the Bell Witch events:
    http://www.ghosts.org/bell/jackcook.html
    Poltergeists are normally believed to be manifested by young girls going through puberty, who then claim to experience things like being pulled out of bed, being marked by invisible attackers etc. Sounds like the girl in this story was manifesting a poltergeist, which took revenge for her. If that runs in the family, she could have gained the ability from her mother.

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