The Horrifying Presence”

Translated by António Monteiro

With many thanks to Ex Occidente Press. All rights reserved.

Listen, through the silly barrier of the windowpane, black as clotted blood, to the whole apotheosis of the nasty noises of the storm.

It has come from afar, from the bottom of the malevolent sea.

It has stolen from the accursed shores where the scab-ridden seals rot, the stench of the black disease and of death.

It has jeered and cursed a thousand agonies to besiege our poor tavern where the whisky is bitter and the rum is thick.

It is a very mean boy who ravages the beds of roses in a park to tease a ladybird, and here it scourges our shack like a giant ray with its fins.

Why,” said Holmer, “must one surround each dreadful story with a black night and an awful storm? It’s an artifice.”

No,” replied Arne Beer, “it is something real, something wished by nature to be so. You confuse ‘to surround’ with ‘to involve’, as the French teacher at Oslo used to say, even though he never confused the whisky with its glass, the old ape.

I claim that it is often the storm and the mean night that cause the redoubtable events.”

I believe that Arne Beer is a Norwegian or a Laplander, but he is a scholar. During the long iron nights of his boreal village, he reads or holds discussions with the preacher-schoolteacher, who receives inscribed books from Selma Lagerlöf.

I,” said Piffschnùr, “I say…”

And Piffschnùr said… nothing more.

My God! I have seldom seen a creature more stupid than that sailor from Elbe, sampling for a few months the seasickness of the Baltic.

The storm hit the door with the big cry of a ripped beast, and we emptied and refilled our glasses with the triumphant liquor.

Yes,” continued Arne Beer, “these stormy nights create an atmosphere that appeals to ghosts, to criminal ideas and to the entities from the damned worlds.

I would almost say that they constitute a conducting milieu for the evil forces, and God knows if, in their infernal kitchen of turmoil and clamour, they do not even generate them.”

That sounds like a sermon,” grumbled Holmer; “I understand little of it, and I don’t want morals to be preached to me.”

Certainly not,” interposed that imbecile Piffschnùr volubly, “we understand nothing and it is certainly said to abuse us.”

The door clacked like an enormous slap and the stranger came in with a violent swirl of wind, rain and whirling hail.

***

Ah!” he said. “There is someone. God be praised!”

He was given a glass of rum, which he did not touch, to our outrage.

It is not good to walk outside,” stated Holmer, with the air of expressing an eternal truth.

I was running away,” said the stranger.

He threw his damp cap in a corner, and his head appeared sinister to us, bald like a pebble in a torrent; directly the lamp embellished it with rosy glints.

I was running away.”

In the forlorn hovels of the North, one is discreet, putting up an infamous guard in the middle of the marshes that lie close to the sea.

We made a gesture of assent and addressed him a silent toast. Quite often in this life any man who ran away was a brother to us, who were also like pursued beasts.

I was running away from the storm,” continued the bald man.

A flash of joyful astonishment illuminated the look of Arne Beer. Holmer grumbled and Piffschnùr, disappointed, looked dumber than ever.

But it ran faster than me and I found myself in its midst. Perhaps the thing will not dare to follow me in here. Your company will protect me.”

The thing?” asked Piffschnùr.

Arne Beer signalled to him, discontented. One does not ques­tion a fugitive man.

It!” cried the man, “the evil thing that runs in the middle of the storm, that knocks on my door, that makes me run into the night’s howling terror.”

He added, now very calm:

It did not catch me.”

Arne Beer held a glass of whisky up to him.

Drink this,” he said. “Rum would thicken your mouth.”

The stranger listened for a moment to the tumult outside. He seemed to be more and more reassured.

It’s the beating of the wings of things that fly,” he said. “They are evil, but they do not persevere; they do not search you; as long as you are not in their way, they ignore you.

But the things that walk the land… Oh! Oh! No, I do not hear any steps. It must have fallen into the marsh. Ah! Ah! Let me laugh. It has fallen into the marsh. I will drink that whisky.”

***

I live near the big western peat bog. Is it Danemark? Is it Germany? Nobody goes there. Those few square miles where the earth trembles like the rotten flesh of a dead jellyfish are despised and feared.”

The big peat bog!” exclaimed Arne Beer. “For God’s sake, what do you do there?”

The stranger smiled mysteriously.

I look for gold,” he said.

Oh! Oh!” chuckled Piffschnùr, “let me laugh. Gold in a peat bog!”

Holmer punched him on the head and Piffschnùr became respectable and silent again.

In a peat bog,” the man proceeded, “certainly… It is not always to the hard gangue that God has entrusted the treasures of the earth. Far from that! It is to the mud, to the marine rottenness, to the deadly alluvia that He has confided them. Have you never seen golden sparks flash in the lumps of damp peat?”

Yes,” said Arne Beer thoughtfully, “in the blue marls of Kim­berley the diamonds sleep. It is in the muds of the Orinoco that the roots of the mangroves are sometimes gloved in virgin silver.”

The putrid mud of Guyana holds the nuggets and the gold dust,” the stranger carried on, “and the living glue of the oysters from Ceylon jealously covers the fine pearl.”

And is that profitable, say? The gold, is it profitable?” asked Holmer.

All discretion was gone at the sound of that magic word. Fever came. The man shrugged his shoulders and did not reply straightforwardly.

I will not go back, since it has come.”

It?” we asked all at once that time.

At that moment, there was a great calm and tranquility around the tavern. Tears of rain and melted hail counted the seconds.

The stranger listened. His hearing probed the silence.

In the distance, we heard the extended rale of a crepuscular nightjar.

Near the peat bog,” he began, “I have built my hut with rough beams, heavy and solid like a blockhouse. I feared men.

How foolish! Who else but me would dream of the treasures in the mud? Which man would be foolish enough to risk his life across the traps of the potholes, the marshes and the quicksand to besiege my miserable mushroom hut?

One evening however, at the time of the last light over the sea, I heard footsteps.

Footsteps on the ground, can be clearly heard over there. They are like neat little slaps.

For a man to come to me – in the centre of the huge flat land – he must profile himself against the horizon for hours.

I had seen nothing, and the noise was close by.

‘It is not possible’, I said to myself. ‘These steps exist only inside my crazy head.’

They stopped and the oncoming night was quiet.

In the morning, I found no footprints and for a minute I found pleasure in making fun of myself.

A few days later, they came back and clacked nearer on the soft ground.

‘You do not exist’, I said, ‘not at all. It is pointless to come back. You do not exist!’

But that night I left my lantern burning, and the shadows held evil council in the corners of my hut.

On the next day, the steps stopped before my door.

‘One night’, I said to myself, ‘the thing that walks outside will knock on the door and the next night it will come in. God of heaven and earth!’

And it was so. One evening, it knocked. One, two, five shy crisp little knocks; and I thought that it was a hand knocking with each finger in turn.

A hand behind the door! A hand that came back each night and knocked ever stronger; yes, the knocks became more terrible with each visit, and the air inside my hut kept its echo until morning.

Then, yesterday…”

The stranger grabbed the arm of Arne Beer; we could see the veins throbbing on his ivory skull.

Then, yesterday, when the five knocks sounded, my hut seemed to start five times like a beaten animal, my hut that was made of heavy timber deeply buried in the ground.

I looked at the door… the door that a bullet would not bore through. Well, my friends, my brothers, my protectors, on this night that lifeless thing that is an oak door seemed to have a face. That dead, lifeless thing that is wood, which does not react even with the shadow of a shrug to the biting of the saw or to the brutality of the axe or the hammer, that thing suffered.

Oh! I cannot begin to convey to you the infernal vision of inert things expressing pain. Imagine the appalling awakening of a corpse amidst unknown torments.

What claw came from the abysses of hell, to torture the mysterious soul of the objects that we imagine lifeless?

And behold on the beams, grinning like cheeks, five round holes forming, from which a nameless black birdlime flowed. Five bleeding wounds!

Around me, every object was distraught, mad, impossible. Do you think that we can hear everything? That our ear perceived every sound wave that is borne within its range?”

Some say not,” said Arne Beer, happy to be able to speak amidst the growing terror. “For instance, the mysterious sign of the starling…”

No,” cried the stranger, who did not hear one word of such calm explanation. “No, because everything around me howled in their abominable fear and their clamours wove the silence; my brain heard them like a giant racket of horror.”

A drink of alcohol gave a little rest to the narrator.

Drink,” he murmured, “is good. What a brother whisky is. Tonight,” he continued, “when I heard in the distance the dull thumping of the northern storm, I understood that the thing, rendered a thousand-fold more powerful by the entities allied

to tempests, would not stop before the door. It would come in – it – the night thing.”

That is not a good tale to tell, not at all!” said Piffschnùr, disgruntled. “It isn’t pleasant around these parts. Don’t you know another, more amusing one?”

The stranger did not answer; his thoughts wandered far in the surrounding silence.

Well! I know something gayer,” continued Piffschnùr. “Did you know that Frau Holz, the landlady of the inn Zum lustigen Holländer at Altona, owned a white parrot that did not speak?

Well, I and two other brave lads from the light sea boat Rheinland, we said that she must paint the bird green to make it speak, because all white parrots were born mute, and she gave us a bottle of good schnapps for that prescription. Ah! Ah!”

Don’t you think,” asked the stranger, “that the storm has passed?”

I think so,” said Holmer.

Really?”

He uttered a big sigh and a curious sweetness ran over his ravaged features.

If only what you say were true! I feel better.”

A little more whisky.”

Thanks. Yes, I am getting myself together again. It is this hellish weather, you see, that turns me into an unfortunate haunted by demons.”

He now smiled, reassured, and seemed to excuse himself for his fear.

The thing,” he said. “What is it? Does the thing exist? I believe so, but I wonder what it may be? Madness no doubt, the haunt of the great solitude, which strikes our head and tries to get inside it.”

It is almost a symbol or a poem,” replied Arne, smiling.

Was it worthwhile frightening us like that?” muttered Holmer. “Fear is worth nothing in these countries. It turns your bones into marshmallow pulp.”

The good woman plunged the beast into green dye,” Piff­schnùr continued his anecdote “and to top it all, when it came out of its bath the bird started to bellow the worst things: Ach, du Schwein höllisches Weib. The next day it died, poisoned by the green paint that was of poor quality; but Frau Holz main­tained that she preferred that to having a rude parrot.”

What? What is it? What is it?” gasped the bald man suddenly, rising in an excess of dismay.

From afar, a howling came towards us in a crescendo of rage and menace.

The storm went for a little walk and is back,” said Piffschnùr, placidly, happy to have been able to finish his stupid story.

It is coming back,” shrieked the stranger. “Doom is upon me!”

The roof creaked lugubriously beneath the squall.

Oh! listen to its footsteps!” moaned the unfortunate.

Yes, I can hear them,” said Holmer very low.

But all of a sudden our nerves were atrociously stretched.

One, two, five sharp knocks clacked.

Five blows pitilessly struck near us, on the door? No…

Another five blows resounded nearby, in the midst of us. Did we howl in terror? Would the heavens allow us the infinite consolation of being able to believe afterwards in a mistake of our senses? The five knocks were struck there… on the man’s skull! And that skull resounded hideously under the hammering of an invisible torturer; then, before our overwhelmed eyes, five wounds, five holes opened on the bald head and blood flowed, black in the lamplight.

We are damned,” moaned Holmer.

The stranger groaned.

Let us see, let us see,” said Arne Beer feverishly, holding his temples between his fists. “Let’s not go crazy! This has an explanation, I think. Don’t laugh, Piffschnùr. I swear to you that it can be something natural… the visionaries… the appearance

of heavenly wounds on their bodies… and other things, what do I know!”

But Piffschnùr howled more and more; his eyes, now wide open, reflected the worst of visions.

One, two, five blows resounded and we saw the horrible wounds open up on the head of our mate.

Then, like animals, we ran into the darkness ploughed by downpour and gusts, running from the thing that wanted to catch us too, and strike our heads already burning with fever and nightmares.

La presence horrifiante – Les Contes du Whisky, Bibliothèque Marabout 237, Éditions Gérard et Cº, Verviers (Belgique), 1965