One of our favorite anthologies this year has been The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron (Word Horde). Edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele, The Children of the Old Leech features all new stories created with elements straight out of the weird fiction of author Laird Barron. It’s an exquisite collection of short stories from some of the best weird fiction authors of today like Gemma Files, John Langan, Joseph S. Pulver Sr., and more. One of the stories in this collection is “The Old Pageant” by author Richard Gavin. Richard Gavin has written four collections, the latest of which, At Fear’s Altar, is a weird tour-de-force of 13 expertly crafted unsettling stories. — The Editors
He didn’t want her to know how physically taxing he’d found the long drive to the woods, how tedious the prospect of unpacking seemed, or how repugnantly primitive he found their accommodations to be upon their arrival. The holiday had the potential to be far too special an occasion for him to sour it by sulking.
The cabin had been in her family for decades, though the moment he spied it — an oblong box slumped between leprous-looking birch trees — he wondered why she didn’t regard the cabin as a skeleton from her family’s closet instead of a prideful heirloom.
After an anxious struggle to fit the copper key inside the ancient lock, the door gave, allowing the pair of them to be assaulted by the stench of long-trapped air. The dark had evidently grown so accustomed to the cabin’s interior that it stubbornly refused to part for the sunbeams that the man and woman ushered in.
Shutters were peeled back, windows were pried ajar. She stripped the ancient white sheets from the beds and took them outside and hung them from the birch limbs so that the breezes might push out their mustiness.
They cleaned and unpacked and traded off-colour wisecracks. The supper they cooked together was hearty and its aroma managed to mask a bit of the cabin’s cloying staleness.
After eating he delighted her by finding the detached footboard that had once braced the lower bunk bed she’d slept on as a girl. It had been wound in a shower drape of translucent plastic and stored behind her grandmother’s dormant sewing desk.
Her grandfather had carved (with visible skill and obvious love) an inscription into the footboard:
Here lies Donna Hammill
Each and every summer
She cried and ran her fingers along the grooved words as though they were Braille.
—I have another gift for you, he told her in a voice whose shakiness surprised him.
He was almost fearful of producing the ring case from his pocket.
Ultimately he opened the case and he asked her.
She accepted and they both began to shed fresh tears, but ones of happiness.
He uncorked the bottle of pinot noir. She stole a sip from the brimming glass he handed her.
She set it on the windowsill and told him not to move a muscle. Her purring tone thrilled him.
Leaning against the deep washbasin with its antiquated hand pump, he watched with increasing anticipation as she pushed together a pair of slender cots, draped a quilt across their bare mattresses, and stripped the dusty clothing from her body.
She giggled at his suggestion that they shut the door and windows, assuring him that they were all alone, no one within earshot. In fact, no one within walking distance.
He went to her.
The ferocity of her climax proved to him just how isolated they were, for she had always been painfully aware of the neighbours. Birds actually rustled free from a nearby tree, startled by her passionate cries.
Buoyed by his petit mal, he lay back in the humidity and hoped that the encroaching dusk would cool him.
—Well, we’ve officially christened this place, she beamed.
She held up her left hand to admire the glinting star that now ringed her finger.
He asked her if she was happy.
—Very, she told him.
—When was the last time you were up here?
—Not since I was eleven, the summer before my grandma died.
—How come your family never sold it? If the cabin wasn’t being used, I mean.
—It had been in the family for so long, no one ever thought of getting rid of it. My great-grandfather built this cabin with my great-grandmother. They actually lived here for a few years. Eventually they moved to Olympia where my great-grandfather had landed a job doing… something, I can’t remember what it was. They used to spend their summers up here with their kids. Then my grandparents vacationed here with their kids, then on to my parents with my sister and me. And now us.
She pecked his cheek and he smiled and tipped back the bottle of pinot noir.
—Did you like coming up here when you were a girl?
—I loved it.
Her tone was richly sincere, if a shade melancholic.
He placed his head against her breast and asked her to tell him about what it was like. He was city-born, city-bred. Nature was to him as it should be to all: utterly bewildering, daunting in its autonomy.
—My grandmother used to take my sister and me on these marathon hikes where she’d point out all the different plant types. Or she’d try to teach us how to identify a bird by its call, things like that.
She began to chew her plump lower lip and he asked her what was wrong.
His bladder had been throbbing for several minutes. He rose and muttered some euphemism for relieving himself which she did not find as funny as he’d hoped. He excused himself from the cabin.
Without, the countless boughs were garlanded in fine shadows, ones that linked oak to ash to sycamore to yew as though it was some kind of dark ligament. Mosquitoes formed a buzzing fogbank and the temperature seemed to have jumped from humid to chilly with no temperate phase between.
He moved a respectable distance away and relieved himself on some spiky foliage. He experienced a sense of being not just isolated, but marooned.
Something skittered out from one thicket and was almost immediately subsumed by another. The cracking of twigs and the hushing spasms of leaves turned threatening.
He turned and ran back to the cabin, catching himself just before he came thundering through the front door. After regaining his composure, he crossed the threshold with artificial nonchalance.
She was cross-legged on the cots, her torso now covered in one of his loose t-shirts.
She shook her head.
—You look pale.
He uncapped a bottle of water and handed it to her. She took it but did not drink.
He nudged her sardonically.
—What’s going on? I step out for a moment and when I come back inside it’s like you’re a million miles away.
She entwined her fingers with his and kissed the back of his hand, then said:
—I guess this place has more memories than I realized.
—Bad ones? (Wisely, he was treading lightly.)
—I think seeing the night beginning to fall outside reminded me of this stupid game my older sister invented called Something Scary.
They both laughed a little bit.
—It sounds so stupid now, I know, but at the time that game really got to me.
—What’s the goal of Something Scary?
—To scare the piss out of whomever else you’re playing with, what else? I said it was stupid.
—No, don’t say that. Given that you were both kids at the time and stuck out in the boonies, I can see how a game like that would have worked.
—Oh it did, believe me. But… Something Scary wasn’t what got me upset just now. It was remembering something my grandmother introduced us to, another game.
—See, Something Scary was just a typical kids’ game. My sister and I would sit in the dark here and whisper little ghost stories to one another. Mine were never that good at all because I spooked really easily so I always played it timid. My sister, she was good at it though. I mean really good. The funny thing is, later on I learned that most of her stories were just retellings of Tales from the Darkside episodes that she used to watch after my parents had gone to bed. Sometimes they were just old urban legends. Still, she knew how to tell a story.
—That seems to run in your family.
She rolled her eyes.
—No, really! I’ve told you that your life sounds so much more interesting than mine. You’ve got storyteller’s instincts.
—Regardless, I remember one game of Something Scary where my sister said there was a decrepit hermit who lived in these woods. According to her story, the man’s wife had gone out to fetch water one night many years ago but she never came back again. So every night the man still went out searching for his lost love. But of course after so many years the man had lost his mind, so if he saw any woman in the woods he would make her his wife. He’d just drag her away into the trees and she’d never be seen again. Any female had to fear being in these woods after sunset. And I had to try and sleep with that in my head! God, I hated that story.
—That is pretty creepy. But what about the game your grandmother taught you?
She bit her lip.
—Almost every summer night we played Something Scary. My sister insisted on it. Until the summer I turned eleven.
—What happened that year? Did you outgrow being afraid?
—You can’t outgrow that. At least I know I can’t… but not because of Something Scary; because of The Old Pageant.
—The Old Pageant?
—That was the so-called game my grandmother introduced to my sister and me. We’d been playing Something Scary, whispering quietly, or what we believed was quietly, to ourselves. There was a rustling of cotton that terrified us, but it was only our grandmother rising out of her and grandfather’s bed at the other end of this room. She shuffled over to us. I remember how her white cotton nightgown and her long white hair both seemed to gleam in the dark. Without so much as a word she carefully unbolted the cabin door, pulled it open, then waved for my sister and me to come with her. We went out with her and I admit I was pretty excited at first. You know, being out at night, it was like an adventure. But the more we walked the more it soured. I asked my grandmother how far we were going to walk. I remember that none of us were wearing shoes and that my feet were freezing from all the dew we’d traipsed through. I kept asking my sister if she knew where we were going but she wouldn’t answer me. Finally my grandmother stopped us.
He’d forgotten to breathe for so long his lungs actually started to ache. After gasping he asked where they’d been led.
—It was a really thick part of the woods, well off any of the marked trails. My grandma gestured for us to be very quiet. I could hear crickets and bullfrogs. My grandma pointed above her head and told my sister and me to listen closely.
—What did you hear?
—Creaking, a very low creaking. At first I thought it was the thicker boughs of the trees being rubbed together by the wind. You hear that kind of noise all the time out here. But this was actually my grandmother. She was making this low creaking sound in her throat, but it was perfect. You’d swear it was the sound of wood grinding in the wind. My sister laughed, I remember that because it was the only time I ever saw my grandma get angry. She grabbed my sister’s face and told her to be very careful because the three of us were tempting fate being out there in the dead of night. She said that if we weren’t careful there would be things from the woods that would take our place in the world. When we came to learn The Old Pageant we had to treat it with respect. By then I couldn’t get that awful creaking sound out of my head. I put my hands against my ears. I probably started to cry. My grandma put her arm around my shoulder and took my sister and me back to the cabin.
He could feel his brow knitting in confusion, and quite possibly in anger.
—Why on earth would your grandmother have done that to you two?
She lifted her hand.
—I know, I know. But what amazes me is that I truly hadn’t even thought about that night until we got up here. But that night wasn’t what scared me earlier tonight. It was something that happened the next night, or a few nights later. Hell, I might have only dreamt it.
He gripped her hand and kissed the back of it, giving the engagement ring a playful twist to remind her that this was a happy occasion.
—We don’t have to talk about this anymore. I didn’t mean to upset you, he told her.
—No, I need to get this out. That other night… my grandma woke only me. When we got outside the cabin she told me that my sister didn’t understand. Only you felt it, my Donna, was how she put it. We went walking, the two of us, even further into the woods.
—And did you hear the creaking?
—I didn’t hear anything; no crickets, no wind, nothing. It was perfectly still. My grandma took my hand and led me down to this old tree. And she told me to watch while she imitated this tree. She started that horrible creaking sound again, only this time she began to twist her arms and her fingers until her shadow was exactly like that of the tree. And I mean exactly. She seemed to be getting taller too. I know that sounds insane, believe me, but I felt dwarfed by her…
—Shadow-play, he assured her.
—Then a sound came from the tree beside my grandmother: it was a newborn baby crying.
He felt his skin constrict and go cold against his spine. His eyes were watering.
—A newborn baby. I swear to Christ. It was coming from the tree and then when I turned around to face it, the tree’s bark was all swollen and pink. And then my grandmother stopped that creaking noise and all I could hear was that awful, shrill crying. It echoed through the trees. My grandmother whispered to me not to be afraid, that this was just the tree taking part in The Old Pageant. We mimic them, they mimic us. She went over to the tree and actually started singing to it… a lullaby… Oh fuck, why did I have to remember this tonight of all nights? After all these years…
—You were a kid! You were dreaming or sick. And I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but it sounds as though your grandmother might have been a little touched in the head.
He hated himself for prodding further but he needed to know what happened next, for he felt oddly cheated.
—Nothing, she told him. I don’t even remember our walk back to the cabin. The next day was just like any other as far as I can recall; swimming at the lake, colouring books, Go Fish, the usual. That autumn my grandfather got sick. My sister and I never came back to the cabin.
They drank the rest of the wine and did everything they could to pretend Donna’s memory hadn’t driven a spike through the heart of their holiday. He wondered about being amorous again but it somehow felt improper.
She drifted off.
Though exhausted, sleep evaded him.
A grave moon illumed her old footboard. Its inscription, coupled with the way it was propped against the basin, made the slab of polished cedar look more like a headstone than a footboard.
Here lies Donna Hammill
He looked over at her. She was breathing shallowly. Not wishing to disturb her, he slipped out onto the porch.
The night was still but, mercifully, not as silent as the one she’d described to him. He could hear the crickets and bullfrogs.
He also heard the groan of wind-bullied wood.
Something stark flitted in his peripheral vision. Something scary.
He craned his head to the left, and for a beat all was right with the world again, for he was assured that what he’d glimpsed was merely the white sheets trembling upon the limbs of the birch tree with its equally spectral-looking bark.
But then he realized that the rest of the forest was motionless.
It was not wind that stirred the trunk, or the sheet that billowed like a crown of crone’s hair, like a bridal train.
He backed up until he hit the cabin wall. He turned to call Donna’s name, but the figure that he viewed through a pane sullied with moonlight and grime was not one that would have recognized him.
Fabric licked the side of his face. It was now near enough to touch him.
One of its limbs was brightened by a distinct and concentrated glint. Was it wearing the engagement ring to mock or punish him?
His eyes squinted shut instinctively. He raised his boneless arms and held them in mimicry of ancient boughs. He prayed his novice pageantry would fool it.