It is a good thing Agatha Christie was so prolific; summer is for detective stories. Every year, at just about the same time, the air ... Read More
Author’s Note: I’ve always been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I love his weird words and the strange way he’s able to evoke things that are both awe-inspiring and horrific at the same time. His stories, even the bad ones and those that are merely repeats of others, stick in my mind for days after I read them partly because he never lets the reader see everything, he leaves you with glimpses, impressions, reactions. You have to let your mind fill in the blanks and what your own mind comes up with is often more disturbing than anything he could have written.
When I decided to write a ‘ghost story’ about my brother’s house and its location on Stephens Hill I succumbed to my desire to write in the style of Lovecraft. Anyone who’s a fan will recognize the structure, word choices, and even a certain (slightly altered) name. As much as I like the way the story turned out, it’s so clearly Lovecraftian that I can’t really claim it as my own and prefer to think of it as an homage to a master of the genre.
THE STEPHENS HILL HORROR
Aida died in the summer of ’37. Tuberculosis. It consumed her and left behind a dried husk barely resembling the woman I’d known and loved and married. When she was gone, the house wouldn’t empty of her. Memories peopled the hallways, closets, and empty corners like unwelcome guests that wouldn’t leave. They spoke to me when all I wanted was silence and mocked me when I begged for their company. It was maddening. Two weeks after I buried her, I left the house. I sold everything in it, everything of hers, of mine, everything we had together. I wanted none of it. I took the money and the clothes I wore and walked away. I wandered the dirty roads of the countryside without aim or direction, not knowing what I was looking for or where I went.
Summer stretched deep into autumn. The air was sizzle-crisp, dry as burnt paper, the ground barren and cruel like the ruin of an unhealed burn. I lay by the roadways, or stole into old barns to pass the nights until I came at last to the house on Stephens Hill. The first time I saw it, the door was hanging by one hinge and the dry wind howled through its opening as if the house itself was gasping and suffocating in the heat. The place was abandoned and dead and the unnatural summer refused to let winter come and bury it. It was perfect.
I bought the house from a man named Alan Jerrick. Jerrick was a genuine old-timer, a man whose memory held the Civil War and the grudges it left behind. He favored a leg and carried a hickory cane that he’d whittled down its length. Years of use and handling had left it smooth and grime-worn and a carving that could have been either a vine or a serpent coiled its way down from the handle to the ground and gave the impression that the old man was rooted to the very earth where he stood. His back bent vulture-like with age and he used the cane to force his crooked bones upright, a battle he seemed on the verge of either winning or losing dependant upon the persuasion of his mood. We spoke little, conducting our transaction in nods and handshakes and the scratching of pens.
“Who lived in it?” I asked him when our business was settled.
“Jerricks,” he answered.
“And you say you call it the Warren?”
He looked past my shoulder, up the hill behind the house then grunted and strained against his cane to stand a little taller.
“What’s a warren anyway? Rabbit hole, right? Saw a few of them in the yard when I came up the hill.”
He shifted his eyes onto me. “Tunnels,” he said.
“Well, that’s what I meant. Rabbit tunnels.”
He shifted his eyes back to the hill and grunted again.
“When was the last time folks lived here?”
“Nobody lives here.”
I raised my voice and asked him again, thinking he’d heard me wrong. I tried to aim my question at what I thought might be his good ear. If he heard my question, though, he ignored it. He reached out a bony, liver-spotted hand and tucked the key into my shirt pocket then swung his body around on the cane and walked down the hill. I watched after him until he reached the gate at the road, mounted his wagon, and drove out of sight behind the trees.
“Somebody lives here now,” I said to the house. The door yawned at me.
In the first few months, I was, if not happy, at least numb to the past. The house had been empty for years, probably decades, so I had things to keep me busy, things that kept my mind out of memories and the horrors of Aida’s descent. There were legions of spiders cloistered in every nook. The birds of early spring had long since flown and left their nests crumbling on cabinet shelves and tottering from the chandeliers. Inspection of any sort of overhang regularly offered the discovery of enormous wasp’s nests. Rodents had scattered their refuse across the floors and chewed at baseboards, and steps, and windowpanes. I spent my time attacking the disorder with a broom, first clearing a single room to make it habitable then slowly widening my territory, reclaiming the house from the ravages of nature. One by one I uncovered and restored rooms to their former use and beauty. The house can only have been magnificent in its prime. Thus far, I had no indications of the terrible things to come and gave no thought to why such a house was abandoned. I saw it only as my own good fortune and my chance to escape Aida’s long shadow.
I believe I can trace my suspicions of Stephens Hill to the day I began to reclaim the kitchen. The summer had loosened its hold and nights were becoming chill. For that reason I determined that the kitchen, and the woodstove in particular, would be my priority as I would require its heat to survive the winter. I batted the spider webs down and chased out their residents. I emptied each cupboard and cabinet of its insectine spoor and all the various nests and nibblings of the sundry creatures that had inhabited them over the years. From within the aged cabinetry I salvaged an ample number of fine dishes, glassware, cookpots, and even a complete set of fine silver. In my naïve joy at finding a treasure of such worth, my mind didn’t entertain the slightest wonder that the house had remained unplundered during its years of vacancy.
I polished the silver and put the kitchen in order then turned to the stove. Years of weather and rust had seized the hinges and only after some effort with a crowbar and an oilcan did I manage to crack the iron hollow within it. A gray puff of ash erupted out of the void and set me coughing. Wind whistled across the chimney vent and a moan sloughed down the throat of the stovepipe and out of the ashen hollow. When I had my breath, I pulled the door open. Inside huddled a mound of gray-white ash with charred pieces of log jutting up out of it like teeth. I jabbed the shovel in and scooped out a pile of ash, dumped it in the pail. Leaf-sized bits of paper, lumps of charred wood and powdery ash hit the bottom of the pail with a soft whoosh and a clatter. I pulled out shovel full after shovel full until the hollow was clean enough to be serviceable then hauled the pail out and dumped it. Half buried in the ash pile lay a charred newspaper. The partial headline stared up at me: “Jerrick Boy Missing”.
The corners of the paper crumbled when I picked it up. Three edges were charred and only the top lines of the story remained.
“The six-year-old son of local farmer Alan Jerrick has been missing since last week. Mr. Jerrick first reported his worries to the Davidson County Sheriff two days ago. The boy, Stephen Jerrick, was reportedly exploring the hill and woods near the farmstead and did not return home at dinnertime. The boy’s father performed an exhaustive search over the days following his dis-“
I sifted through the rest of the ash but found no more of the newspaper. It stuck in my head immediately that Stephens Hill might be named for the tragedy of the missing child. Or had the child, perhaps, been named for the hill? Surely the name of the boy and the name of the hill were no coincidence. I intended to speak with Mr. Jerrick about the matter if I saw him again.
I took an armful of wood from the woodpile and placed it in the stove. Soon I had an admirable fire lit and shut the door of the stove with satisfaction. Then, as I was in the process of claiming my victory over the state of the room, I heard a soft sort of a thump. It was so slight at first that I thought perhaps I was imagining it but slowly it grew and grew until I began to look around for the source. The wind, I thought, a shutter loosened and batting itself on the pane. But no, it was growing louder and coming from within the house rather than without. I tilted my head and followed my ear. It was not a loud sound, you must understand, and yet it was a sound I was sure I hadn’t heard before, a small thumping, like a knock on a door but lighter, softer, and somehow clever and altogether unlike the mere blowing of the wind or the creaking of the house. It had an urgency, an insistence to it that was uneven, almost panicked.
I followed the thumping to the rear of the kitchen, to the pantry. The sound came from somewhere behind the door, somewhere yet distant but certainly in that direction. I drew open the door and, in a most timid fashion, the beating stopped, as a child stops itself when caught in mischief.
Only a dim light shone into the small room from the kitchen window, just enough to see by. Shelves regimented each wall and dozens of jars sat upon them squat and milky old. An age-eaten bag of what must have been flour lay slumped corpse-like against the wall and an assortment of crates, boxes, and empty jars littered the rest of the room. There was no other door but I felt certain that the soft thumping had come from behind the left wall, near the floor.
I stepped inside, more curious than anything, thinking some rodent, perhaps one of the many rabbits I’d seen in the yard, had become trapped amongst the crates. I tried to drag a large wood-slatted crate away from the wall but it came apart in my hands and a cavalcade of dried herbs and kitchenware spilled across the floor. I hooked my foot around the back corner of the ruined crate and heaved it away from the wall. At first, I saw nothing but the pine board of the interior but as my eyes adjusted to the dim light of the shadows I saw that the pine boards had rotted away at knee-level revealing a slab of masonry. Around the entire rim of the opening in the wall a black greasy mold extended across the boards in festooning tendrils. I stared at this revelation in confusion for some time. The house was of wood frame construction, not masonry. I had not seen in any part of the house nor its foundation any sign of brick and mortar nor stonework. Yet here in the pantry there seemed to be some exception. I stooped down to look closer and quite by accident placed my hand on the edge of the rotting pine wall. The black mold that had rotted it away clung to my hand and stunk. I wiped it on my pant leg in disgust. The exposed rock behind the wall was not man-made brick and mortar; it was old stone, smooth, and cool, and ancient. In the center of the stone section was an opening that seemed to me like a door. The solid stone around it was smooth and of a single piece, but an area about two feet by two feet in its center was filled with smaller pieces of rock. It looked as though the door had been sealed with stones and indeed, upon further inspection, I found that near the top of the opening the stones had worked loose and behind them was a panel of wood that was plastered around the edges to seal the entire orifice. I felt certain that the thumping had come from behind the seal. I could investigate no further at the time, though. The light was waning and the rancid stench of the molded wood around the opening was overwhelming. A mystery for another day, I told myself. I shudder to think of it.
As I have mentioned, rabbits were a regular sight in the yard and the surrounding wood since the day I bought the house. I thought nothing of them at first, who would? Rabbits on a farm and in its fields are certainly no strange thing, especially when no farmhouse dog has been vigilant at chasing them off. But in the months after I moved to The Warren they began to unsettle me. It is difficult to determine the precise point at which the thought took form in my mind that they were, perhaps, unnatural. Initially, they delighted me. They were my companions at labor. In the early morning when I opened the front porch door, their pensive faces would greet me before they turned and bounded out of sight into the wood like grasshoppers before a child playing in tall grass. When I tilled the garden under, a small group came out and played in the field as they watched me. I came to enjoy them and even entertained the thought that I might keep one or two of them as pets. One in particular I noted. He was a great beast of a rabbit, hulking compared to the others, with thick black legs. His back was a mottling of grays but the rest of him was black, his head like an abyss with bright pink eyes staring out. The curious thing about him was that I never saw him jump. Wherever he went, he walked, ambling along in an awkward gait forced upon him by size, and age, and the bulk of his massive rear legs. I never got the impression that he couldn’t jump if he chose to, he simply seemed to have the attitude that he had no need of it, that he’d outgrown it, looked down upon it. I named him Old Pink-Eye and at first, I was always happy to discover he’d come out to watch my work. But as the days went on and my familiarity with the rabbits grew, I began to notice of them strange behaviors.
One day I spent the better part of the morning on my hands and knees trying to eliminate the weeds from the flower garden around the front porch. This wasn’t the sort of work I was used to or even particularly cared for but I could not look at the overgrown stand of hydrangea’s, jasmine, and lilies without each time thinking that Aida would never allow such a state in her garden. Her ghost had pursued me even here and I hoped to exorcise it by putting the garden in order the way she would have done. Maybe then she would leave me be.
By mid-morning, my fingers were raw and the wedge of headway I had made in the garden was depressingly small. I began to imagine that Aida was standing behind me, watching me, pointing out to me the stray weed I had missed, or the rock I had failed to toss out, or the perennial I had pulled up by mistake. No matter how I tried to put her from my mind she remained there, ordering me, pressing me on. At last I could stand it no more and spun around to confirm to myself that she was only in my head. As I knew it would be, the yard was empty. There was no Aida, no one, nothing. And yet, there was something. Just at the edge of the yard, in the shadow of the wood, a rabbit, a small white one with a brown swatch across its flanks, sat upright like a dog considering me with milky eyes.
I turned back to my work, relieved that Aida had left me alone and yet I could not shake the thought that the rabbit was still watching. When I turned again to look at it, it was gone. Then I spotted another one across the yard, near the fence, a bloated grey one, upright, still, watching. I stared at him with nervous curiosity until, so quickly that I wondered if it had been there to begin with, he darted away. After that, it seemed that no matter where I went or what I did, the rabbits watched. It was not the sort of watching that an animal does when its world is suddenly intruded upon by some human endeavor and it stares in silence a moment before retreating to a place it can do its animal business in secret. No, it was nothing like that. I had the distinct sense that they watched me because they were told to, or maybe they were made to. They regarded me as if they noted every movement and calculated its import and consequence to weigh upon some clandestine scale.
In time, the feelings of delight and companionship that I’d felt at the sight of the rabbits around the house faded. I dreaded the thought that one might see me. I cannot explain why, I only know that their seeing of me was unnatural somehow, perverse. I began to sneak about at times, cautious that I remain unseen.
One day I found in one of the closets a hank of twine that had escaped rot and decay. I cut it into a dozen four-foot lengths and tied each into a loose slipknot as my father had taught me as a boy. He had been adept at setting snares for rabbit and opossum and other small game. I never had need of the skill as a bank man in the city, but here in my age I found that his old lessons came back to me. I slipped out the door with the snares tucked into my belt. From the porch, I scanned the yard for watching eyes but saw none. I stooped over and stepped softly toward the wood. I chose my steps with purpose, taking care not to snap a twig or disturb a molehill. I paused at the edge of the yard. This was the first time I meant to enter the wood of Stephens Hill and I am not honest if I say did so without trepidation. I peered into the darkened thatch of cedars and maple and huge twisted oak looking for I knew not what. Briars and vines coiled and twisted across the ground like the desiccated remains of headless serpents. In the angled light I caught the shimmering glint of a spider’s web that stretched an impossible span between trees, its spinner seated at the center like the outstretched hand of a corpse. I ducked under the web and crept into the thick of the wood. As the brush became thicker, I saw what I was looking for, a rabbit trail, a small, worn path about eight inches wide coursing through the briars. Where the brush was thickest, it became like a tunnel passing through the growth. I followed it as quietly as I could, gently easing brambles out of the way with my hand to set each step upon the ground with as much silence as I could manage. Several times I stopped and stood statue-like for minutes at a time, scanning the forest floor for pairs of milk-pink eyes but saw none.
The trail ended at a hole in the ground some ten inches across. Bits of hair were caught in the brambles at its edge and a few small twigs, or possibly bones, cluttered its rim. A thick animal stink issued out of it. I approached the hole and the wood became silent, crickets ceased to chirp, cicadas ended their songs, birds whispered if they spoke at all. I scanned the woods around me for eyes or movement. I found neither and stooped down. I set one knee on the ground and looked into the depth of the hole. I could see little, only a great black throat twisting away into the earth. For a brief moment, I thought that perhaps, deep down, I saw something shift. But the more I looked, the more sure I was that it was nothing but a trick of the eye. I began to feel watched and urgency compelled me. I took one of the twine snares from my belt, set it around the opening of the hole, and tied the end to the trunk of a briar.
I found five holes in all and set my snares on each. During the entire expedition into the wood, I did not sight even a single rabbit. Their absence unnerved me. When I stepped at last back into the yard, I breathed easier in relief and hoped for a meal of rabbit the next day.
That evening as I sat on the porch, using the last of the light to read some of my Hugo before retiring, I looked up to discover that perhaps a dozen of the rabbits had congregated at the edge of the wood to watch me. Eerily silent they sat there, upright, pursed lips, ears erect without so much as a twitch, dozens of milky pink eyes trained directly at me. This was disquieting, I hope you will understand, and yet it was not the worst. I stared back at them for some minutes, unsure of what was happening, and then slowly, one by one, they turned and crawled into the encroaching darkness of the wood. When I had watched the last one retreat I kept my gaze upon the wood in shock or amazement or horror, I know not which.
And then I saw him. Out of the shadows two rolling pink eyes emerged. Old Pink-Eye ambled into the twilight and squatted horribly in the rotted leaves of the forests edge. Our eyes considered each other and in that moment I knew that it was more than just a rabbit I saw. It was something monstrous and eldritch. From behind those cloudy, blood-milk eyes, a presence impossibly old, and patient, and wretched had set its contemplation upon me. Something that watches and does not hurry because it knows its traps are laid and its prey is unaware. Something that knows the taste of centuries and millennia and sleeps or wakes with the turning of long dead stars in the unfathomed and most blighted reaches of creation. I scarcely mastered myself against the scream that erupted inside me.
Then came the thumping. Soft, barely perceptible. I turned my ear in the direction of the sound, coming from the pantry I knew, and when I turned back, Old Pink-Eye was gone. I ran into the kitchen and pulled open the pantry door. My heart beat so loudly that I wasn’t sure whether it was my heart I heard or the soft beating from within the pantry stonework. The stones that filled the opening in the wall were vibrating, only slightly, but in rhythm with the pounding from within. I stood paralyzed by the sight, unsure if my mind was playing tricks on me until one of the stones at the top fell to the floor and a small avalanche of others followed it. My only recollection of my thought process then was that I must at all costs reseal the breach. My heart beat wildly in my chest as I knelt and jammed the fallen stones back into place in the wall. I was desperate to repair it, desperate that what ever was behind the stones and the wooden seal should not escape. With each stone I replaced, two more fell. I was mad to put them all back. As I labored the beating continued, louder now, distinct, undeniable, I could see the wood shudder with each pulse. My fingers scrabbled across the floor searching for stones to fill the breach. When the stones were gone, I used the jars and cans strewn around the room. When those where gone I pressed against the barrier with my hands, willing it to hold. Praying it would hold. Praying I would never know what was behind it. I don’t know when it stopped, I only remember that after an eternity of madness, all that remained was the beating of my own heart and I held my breath and listened. Silence.
It was days before I was able to put whatever had happened in the pantry out of my mind. I scavenged a number of sturdy boards from the porch, prying them up and ripping them away leaving the porch floor like a lunatic’s tooth-barren smile. I nailed the boards across the pantry door. I spent an entire day tearing them up and nailing them down, determined to make sure the door was sealed, that no one and nothing could get out from within. At night, each sigh of the wind against the house, every bump or creak of its age-old wooden bones startled me out of fear that they were the knocker come again to that terrible and unnatural door inside the pantry. I could not sleep until it the seal was complete. But all my fears were unfounded. No knock came. In a few days time I convinced myself that I had imagined it all. There had never been a knocking, nor a beating, it was the shutter, the screen door, a bird at the window. I slept easy then. But I did not remove the boards from the pantry door.
When I had put the pantry incident out of my mind, I went back to the woods to see if my snares had caught their prey. I took along a potato sack to carry my catch and set out across the yard. Several rabbits stopped in their play when I left the porch and watched me. I nodded my head to them in acknowledgment. I knew they were there and did not care. They squatted, unmoving, and stared at me as I walked across the yard and ducked into the wood.
I felt no need to keep my steps quiet this time, I thrashed my way through the thickets and briars without any heed of the noise I made. When I found the first rabbit hole I stopped and stooped over to stare at it. The snare was gone. I cursed under my breath and stirred the brush on the ground with my fingers in search of it. At the base of the briar next to the hole a small loop of twine was still tied around the trunk where I had anchored the snare. One of the detestable rabbits had gnawed through the twine about three inches from the knot.
At the next three rabbit holes I found similar disappointment. Something had even torn the entire briar from the ground where it anchored the snare at one of them. The last hole, however, was different. The snare had been tripped and pulled tight but there was nothing caught in it. It was what lay beside it that captivated me. A shoe. No bigger than my hand. It certainly had not been there when I set the snare and its presence distressed me though I couldn’t explain why at the time. I picked it up. It was made of thin leather and stitched together with cord that was fraying at every joint. The sole had worn through at the ball. It was a child’s shoe, there was no question. One of those execrable rabbits must have dragged it out of a nearby yard to use as a new furnishing for its hole. I spat and flung the shoe into the hole. When shoe disappeared into the black heart of the burrow, I heard a soft scuffling. One of the spying little rodents was in there watching me! I flung myself to the ground and reached into the hole. My arm went in up to the elbow without effort but then the first crook of the small tunnel forced me to roll around onto my side to bend my arm and reach deeper. My fingers brushed something and it moved away. I nearly had it. I rolled on the ground until I was able to push my arm into the hole right up to the shoulder. A rotten stench issued up out of the ground and surrounded me. I searched from side to side with my hand hoping to seize a fistful of fur, rip it from its filthy little cave, and snap its neck. Once more, I felt something with the tip of my fingers and it moved away.
“Come here, you,” I growled into the dust.
I slapped my hand around in the dark, snatching first one way, then the other, hoping to surprise it but caught nothing for my trouble. At last the stench and the dust overwhelmed me and I went into a fit of coughing. I hacked and spit and wheezed until I was exhausted and lay panting in the dirt, my arm still thrust deep into the rabbit hole.
Then I felt cool, wet bursts of air on my fingertips, like something breathing. No, not breathing, sniffing. It was sniffing my fingers. Then I felt something like a small wet nose lightly touch the knuckle of my index finger. Patiently, I waited. The sniffing, the nuzzling, made its way down the length of my finger to my palm. A little farther, I thought, a little farther and I’ll have your neck in my hand. Then the fat, wet touch of a tongue drew itself across my fingers. It tasted me. Again, the tongue, fat, buttery, and trembling wetted its way across my hand. I grimaced in disgust and then the horrible truth struck me. A rabbit’s tongue is like a cat’s: small, dry, and scratchy. The fat wet thing slopped across my hand again, tasting my flesh. I screamed and jerked my arm out of the hole. Whatever was in that hole was no rabbit. Something down there in the earth, something awful had been tasting me. Tasting me! I looked at my hand. It was wettened with a thick, stringy mucus the color of pear flesh. I screamed again and wiped my hand on my shirt, on my pants, scoured it with dirt. Then as I jumped to my feet, my mind froze in horror. In the dirt near the hole, coming down from Stephens Hill was a small pair of footprints. Though I could not test my suspicion because I had thrown the shoe into the hole, it was terrifyingly clear to me that the shoe matched the prints. I spun around and around, my eyes leaping across the ground looking everywhere for the continuation of the tracks but there were none. The tracks led directly to the hole and disappeared! God in heaven! I backed away, still wiping at my hand, horrified. I turned and ran and didn’t stop until I was back inside the house with the door locked.
The next day I went to town to buy supplies. The over-long summer had given way to an incredibly brief autumn and now winter was descending like an executioner’s axe. My failure to ensnare the rabbits had made it very clear to me that food was becoming scarce and winter would make it scarcer. I had little money left after the purchase of the house but it would be enough. Corn, flour, canned fruits and vegetables, salted meat—all the things Aida had always seen to so that I could keep my mind to my work. How lost and ill prepared I was without her.
The town’s general store was less than a mile walk and I greeted the exercise with welcome. Though the rabbits had come out to follow me with their eyes as I made my way down the hill, they left me once I reached the road and for the first time in some weeks I felt at ease and out from under the weight of their rodential stare.
The proprietor of the store, Tom Scobern, was a gentle, likeable man that prided himself on being the friend of anyone that set foot in his presence. He knew the business of everyone in town and knew what needing keeping secret and what needed passing on.
“How you making out with the old Jerrick place?” he asked me when I came to discuss my payment and delivery. His tone was just as friendly as Sunday dinner but I’m no reader of a face if I didn’t detect the wrinkles of some concern upon his.
“Making do,” I told him. “Lots of rabbits. Never seen the like.”
“That’s what old Al Jerrick used to say. After he lost his son he went a bit mad you know?”
I didn’t know and I told him.
“Old man Jerrick spent weeks up on the hill, looking for his boy. When he come down he wasn’t the same. Or so I hear. That was long before my time. For years though he used to come in here, buying his whiskey, drunk as the moon and carrying on about the tunnels and the beasts inside them that carried off his boy.” He chuckled and tightened his apron strings nervously.
“You believe him?” I asked, only half wanting to hear the answer.
He laughed and swatted his hand at the air in dismissal. “Lord, no. He used to rant and rave about stuff that would make your skin crawl. What was it he used to say,” he screwed up his eyes as he searched his memory and took one hand out of his apron pocket to place it against his lips. “Used to stand out in the street and holler things like, ‘beware He Who Dwells Beneath the Hill’. That’s one of them. He used to have a whole passel of crazy talk he’d shout at people. ‘Yog Soggoth, the Burrower in the Dark! Baron of the Maddening Black! He stirs, He stirs under the hill!’” He bent backward in laughter at the memory then pulled a cloth from his apron pocket and wiped his forehead as he caught his breath. “Old man Jerrick and the real world parted ways when his son died, I’m afraid. No laughing matter. I should show some respect.”
He cleared his throat and bent over the counter to total up my purchases. I stared at the top of his balding head as he scribbled on his ledger books and receipts. The old man’s words fluttered like startled bats trapped inside my skull, bouncing around, rattling off the cavernous bones in my head, desperate in their search to get out and fly away. Yog Soggoth. He Who Dwells Beneath the Hill. I raised a hand to my head to steady myself, to quiet the thoughts that had broken loose.
“What exactly happened to the Jerrick boy?” I asked. I little more than whispered my question. Even as I spoke it I wanted to call it back. I spoke only in an effort to cover up the jibbering of the old man’s madness in my mind.
“The official story was that the boy run away from home,” he said with an unconvinced shrug.
“But the boy was only six.”
“Yep. Who ever heard of a six-year-old running away?” he shot up his eyebrows, put his hands out to the sides and turned palms up. “Folks say he run off up the hill chasing those rabbits.”
“They never found a body did they?”
“Nope. That’s what drove the old man mad, they say. He claimed for years that his boy was up there, alive, waiting to be found. But no one ever did find him. He was mad by then, started claiming the rabbits dragged the boy off. Rabbits! Can you imagine such a thing?” I could. I could imagine that very thing but I dared not say so. “Anything else I can get for you, sir?”
“No. Thank you, Tom.” My mind was spinning with possibilities, the madness of it. The image of the footprints and the shoe plagued my mind with whispers of Yog Soggoth echoing in the background.
“We’ll get it all loaded up and delivered by the end of the week. Don’t get yourself dragged off by no rabbits in the meantime now!” Tom slapped the counter as he laughed. I didn’t return the humor and he stared after me, trying to compose himself as I retreated from the store with my hands in my hair.
The next day I inspected the boards sealing the pantry and satisfied myself that they were secure. Dreams had kept me from sleep and in the night I had become obsessive about cleaning the hand that met with—I dare not think what—in the depth of the rabbit hole. No matter how I washed it and scrubbed at it and scoured it a terrible odor clung to my palm, something like the odious stink of things freshly dead and awaiting the gullet of a buzzard. I worked at it in a fever until the skin was raw and reddened and in places oozed bright red capillary blood. And still I smelled its stink.
The woodpile had been whittled down to the earth-rotted timbers on the ground and the wind blowing in from the east convinced me that if I did not restock the firewood, I would freeze in my sleep inside the week. So again I took to the wood. I dared not venture back into the area I had snared. The thought of the thing in the hole and the stink of it on my skin-raw palm warded me well away. It was up the hill I went. The trees at the crest were years dead. All I would need to do was pick what I required from the ground and haul it back to the house.
I had to do it all under the watch of the loathsome rabbits. By dozens they were out. The edge of the wood was thick with their pasty eyes, following my every move like a bad portrait that you couldn’t escape. When I came to the edge of the yard I bent down and plucked a handful of stones from the gravel. I took aim at the nearest watcher and hurled a stone. I missed by inches but the rabbit didn’t so much as twitch. I hurled two more stones at other rabbits within my reach, missing each time. Then the few nearest me, including the ones I had thrown stones at, turned and crawled back into the underbrush. I threw what remained of the stones in my hand after them in an attempt to claim some irrational victory. Then I climbed up the hill.
Dry wood was ample and I began to collect it into small stacks and piles according to size. I favored my raw hand but I could do little work without it. The limbs I picked up bit into it and tore the already soft flesh leaving splinters and several small gashes that oozed blood and caused me to wince with each exertion. I began to pay such attention and care to my bleeding hand that I became careless. I cradled it and inspected it as I moved from place to place and did not mind my feet. Though I had not taken notice at first, there were holes everywhere hidden by the dry brush covering the ground. It was only a matter of time before I stepped into one. Luckily, the ankle was not broken. But now, in addition to the cradled and bleeding hand, I had an ankle to favor while I worked. I cursed the rabbits and their holes with each step I took after my fall. Poison, I told myself. The snares didn’t work so I would have to try poison.
A massive oak crowned the top of the hill. Its swollen limbs twisted out of the fat, rippled trunk like black fingers curled in death. The floor beneath it was littered with fallen wood. As I had done elsewhere, I gathered it into piles. Each gnarled piece I picked up opened the wound in the hand but I was determined that the work should be finished. When I had harvested the wood on the side of the tree nearest the house, I circled around to the far side to collect the rest. For the briefest moment, I thought I heard the light sprinkle of laughter in the wind, high and careless like a child’s. I looked around but the sound was gone. I bent back to my work, first gathering the wood farthest out from the trunk, slowly working my way inward. When I was within only a few feet of the trunk, I heard it again. Laughter. This time I was sure I had not imagined it. I looked around the hillside. I was alone. Not even the rabbits were watching. I bent to pick up another dead piece of wood and my eyes stopped on the trunk of the tree. It was open. On this side of the tree the great arboreal husk had been rotted from the inside out and was hollow. Yet, it was more than just hollow. I crept closer to it, limping on my twisted ankle, peering into the blackness at its heart. The hollow of the tree was perhaps five or six feet in diameter. The wood that remained was black and rotted and filled with wormholes and the gnawed history of generations of insects that hatched, and ate, and spawned, and died within its bosom. The soft tingle of laughter whispered in my ear again and it came from the heart of the sylvan titan that loomed ominous above me. I am a madman not to have run at that very moment. What is this morbid curiosity of man that drives him to see things that should not been seen, to know things never meant to be contained within the human intellect? Whatever mad engine of the mind compelled me, I stepped closer. I looked into the heart of rot and time and saw the tunnel that bore deep into the earth beneath it. The maw of the tree gave way to a cavern of stone covered in lichen and moss. A fetid odor seeped out of the walls and pressed against me. Madness. Madness to go on. And yet I stepped into the very clutch of it. The coolness of the stone raised gooseflesh on my skin and I clamped my good hand to my nose to filter out the oppressive stink. Laughter again, from deeper inside.
I limped down the slope, my eyes wide against the dark. I feared even to blink until my eyes began to water. The stone walls of the catacomb were carven with images of things too terrible to describe, things that can only have been imagined in the most unspeakable madness. I cannot even allow my mind to think of the scenes I saw depicted without tottering further toward madness myself. Letters of a language long dead to the tongues of men sprawled across the stone. I thanked God that I could not read their meanings, or know what horrors they conveyed, or decipher their secrets. There are abominations written there that must never been spoken or known. I took another step, I know not why, any sane man would have fled. The laughter came to me again but different this time. It was a knowing laughter, a laughter that has purpose and wickedness behind it. My ankle buckled and I caught myself on the wall with my bloodied hand. The surface of the stone was cool and wet and inexplicably flesh-like. I wretched at the touch of it. When I withdrew my hand a bloody palm print remained on the wall. The laughter again, and now it sounded deeper, fuller and, God help me, closer. I began to retreat up the slope. Once more, my ankle twisted and I slipped. I reached out to stop my fall and again left a red palm of blood upon the blasphemous wall. As I regained my footing, the blood on the wall began to disappear. I stared at it in confusion until I realized that it wasn’t disappearing, it was being absorbed as if the very pores of the stone were drinking it, feasting on it. Then, from the deeps of the earth below me, down in the dreadful bowls of the cavern, something began to shift. A gale of foul wind issued up from the depths of the hill followed by a moan like the complaint of great bridge irons or thunder on the far side of a mountain range. I began to scream. The floor of the cavern trembled and heaved beneath me as I scrabbled up the slope. Each time my hand touched the floor or wall it left its bloody mark and each time the stone lapped it up. The harrowing sound of high-pitched laughter followed me up the slope until at last I burst from the hollow of the cyclopean oak. When I emerged, the ground ceased to move beneath me and the laughter hushed.
One thing more I must tell you of the ghastly hollow of that tree. You may think me mad, indeed you must, for madness can be the only possible explanation. When I emerged once more into the light of day, I turned to look behind me before fleeing down the hill to the house. What I saw, I will never be able to erase from my mind. The image is so terrifying to recall that I can scarcely speak to you of it now. I saw, I think I saw, rising out of that blasphemous cavern into the worm-rotten heart of the oak a form—no—I dare not even think of it as a form, merely the silhouette, rising from the deep, the small, blackened shape of a young boy. It is madness, is it not? To think that after all these years, that Stephen Jerrick is up there, alive, or dead, or something trapped in between? I tell you only what I saw with my own eyes. I pray to God that I am mad.
Just before nightfall, the rabbits came. Old Pink-Eye led them, squat, bloated, eyes-rolling as he engaged his ruined gait. I peered out the corner of the window and watched them. They came out of the wood in throngs, making their way across the yard in silence, not hopping but walking, crawling, bellies to the earth like abominations. They have surrounded the house and they sit there now, upright, ears attentive, watching with their milky, pink eyes. They have never come in these numbers, nor ever this close to the house. Old Pink-Eye himself is hunched on the front doorstep and there he waits in abhorrent patience, and watches.
When I had barricaded myself against them in the house, I became sure that I had only imagined the shaking of the earth while I was within the throat of the old oak. I must admit, though, that I no longer trust my own mind. I fear it has been splintered by my poor Aida’s death and the unnatural the things I’ve seen and heard on Stephens Hill. Therefore, I have balanced all the china and glassware of the house at the edges of the tables and shelves so that, should the earth again shudder and writhe as it did beneath the hill, I will know that I am yet sane.
When I placed the dishes to warn me, I inspected the pantry door. The reeking, black mold that infested the interior wall has spread. All the boards that I nailed to the lintel to seal it are covered by its inky tendrils and its odor fills the house. The boards are soft to the touch and perhaps an hour ago, the beating began again.
Should anyone find these pages, I beg you to leave this house. Flee Stephens Hill. Shun this place and never return. Something has broken through the pantry wall. It beats upon the outer door! Laughter, laughter from within! The glasses are shattering! The earth creeps! The Dweller in the Hill is stirring!
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.