‘And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.’
– Daphne du Maurier
The missive was sodden, saturated with brown stains that streaked like rivulets of dried blood. It reeked of dead compost. Not my normal day. It was pushed across the transom of my condominium unit. Its leaves were partially torn. I had misgivings of transgression feeling the intruder to handle this fatal letter. It came to me from the grave, the boneyard I thought I had left behind. The jeering taunt of my childhood hit me with the force of a falling pine tree, as the squiggly handwriting danced before my eyes.
Fay! Fay! Fraidy Cat, saw a beast,
Fay! Fay! Fraidy Cat, what a treat,
Fay! Fay! Fraidy Cat, had a feast,
In the boneyard, six feet deep!
My initial reaction was to scamper like a damaged wolf as precipitately as I could, far, far away. This was not my domain. This was a cat creature’s my father had told me once long ago, from a story he had gleaned out of a fey girl called Merricat, whose mother had been a cat woman. I shook to my epicenter, unawares that an unseen tremor was seizing me.
But open it I would. More shudders, as I wiped the perspiration off my forehead. I recognized the stylized hand-writing in an instant, smothering my initial shock as I gently smoothed over the pages, to not damage it further. A newspaper cutting fell to the floor, which I set aside.
‘Dearest Cat, (it read, plunging without preamble, to life and its existential philosophies. A tragic prickling sensation of gloom seized me. Impending doom arbitrarily shutting out the essence of what I was reading. Only one person called me by that name. I continued in a daze. At the closing part my interest perked up acutely.)
…when you receive this letter I’ll be long gone. Please don’t hasten to find me. The life you have chosen is exceptional. Live it well. My belongings although few, are precious as you may recall. To you I leave the box in the pantry, whenever you choose to return, as I know one day you will. Farewell my child and may the blessings of all our deities reign on you.
Your loving ‘
Tears blurred my sight as I groped frantically for the pages, the envelope, the stamps affixed, to make sense of what it meant. I was stunned. I had very little magic left as I once did long ago. Why had it arrived after all these years? Who had sent it? Was it in jest, mocking at my lack of strength? Was it to slight me, feeble as a chocolate eclair? Broken as the sawdust doll, when I left? A doll! That doll, buried in the long field. In an instant my mind was made up. I would return. I grabbed at the newspaper clipping which I had forgotten in my concern. A crossword puzzle? Dear old dad! Odd till the very end.
Rydon-by-the-sea had a nippy air when I arrived late evening, at the coastal village, nestling amidst the sea-grass and pebbled shores. I made my way past the quaint village to the little stone cottage with the thatched roofing, certain I had been spotted from behind closed doors. Nothing escaped the beagle eyes of the villagers or their taloned claws. It was fortunate that the cottage which had been with our family for as long as I could remember lay at the very outer edge of the village. Just for a moment I hesitated, unsure of the welcome I would receive, or what was in store, from folks I had outgrown. I need not have worried, or perhaps just a little.
Since my coming was long overdue and unannounced, the family looked me over incongruously at first, like they had spotted the family ghost, emerging out of the paneling, then more formally. Their expressions ranged from shock to annoyance, and even dismay. Emotions I could not quite analyze.
‘Fay?! Is that really you? Why have you come?’
‘Hello Aunt Rosemary! You look well.’
‘Fay, dear child, how lovely to see you.’
‘It’s been a while Grandma!’
‘Why didn’t you write?! Does it cost a bundle even to telephone?’
‘My how you’ve grown Cousin Andrew!’
‘Come sit by me child, and tell us all that you’ve been up to since you left.’
The punch in the solar plexus worked. I should have felt satisfied, but didn’t. Three pairs of eyes froze in mid-movement, icicled into silence, the kind that would require re-stoking with bellows, as the seconds ticked into infinity. MELODY, GLOUCESTER, PEGASUS! Ah! it worked, just as I knew it would, the minute I stepped inside. My three magic words. It never had been pegasus. Cat? Panther? Wolf? I could not recall. That had been Dad’s doing. A pegasus has wings. It can fly. Merricat’s doing. Yes, Pa. A surge of incandescent power like electricity with the brightness of filament went through my core.
Aunt Rosemary hurried away, a deep furrow forming where her forehead should have been. An agoraphobic since childhood who could not leave the vicinity of the cottage or garden for a panic attack of such magnitude to occur she required a dozen spells and potions for normalcy to be restored, was mumbling about a room to prepare. Cousin Andrew gave a quick peck on my cheek and vanished out the door. I gazed unapologetically at Grandma, bound to her wheel chair by the window overlooking the garden. She could not run away like the rest.
‘You were always so like your father. Willful, once your mind was made up.’
‘Is he dead?’ I had to know.
‘There is no gravestone child, if that’s what you’ve come looking for.’
‘Then where is he?’
‘It’s why they sent you to Savannah.’
‘But the recurring nightmares have reappeared…they haven’t left…and my cat?’
‘That’s not possible…the creature…Jonas is in the boneyard…’
We stopped guiltily in mid-conversation. Aunt Rosemary had hurriedly returned. She frowned at the both of us as if mentally censoring us, before unceremoniously whisking me and my bags upstairs into the tiny loft. My bedroom. It was as I always remembered, chiseled and intrusive. I had my worst dreams here – nightmares and fears so terrifying I was forced to leave. Father had insisted. I had never returned, till today – twenty years later.
I was struck by some improvements. Bright yellow curtains brightened up the walls and a matching bluebell patchwork quilt covered the bed. The ancient wooden table and chair were pushed up against the wall. It would have to do. I had no choice.
That night I dreamt again my dark dream of a fearful beast. Jonas? Its ubiquitous presence existed, everywhere I turned. Its shadowy shape lurked furtively on the walls, in the heath, and behind every stone of the bog and mire. I cried out in fear. But its wolf-like howl ripped through my scream, as it darted in snatches of light and shade, like a phantom marauder, seen and yet unseen. I awoke dripping in cold sweat, trembling to the soles of my feet.
In the pale light of the table lamp I hastily retrieved the letter I had mysteriously received, three days ago. What were its implications? It had to be there. Hidden somewhere. Where was Father? Why wouldn’t anyone tell me? What were they hiding? I studied the missive carefully, making mental notes of each page and inscription. I was perplexed. I felt anxious and troubled. Not a single sentence or paragraph stood out any more suspiciously than it revealed.
I picked up the crossword puzzle idly. I had almost tossed it away as irrelevant. I fell to scrutinizing the image closely this time. It bore no clues that I could trace, to anything unusual. It looked standard variety fare, published weekly, although of a certain advanced aptitude for my level, with a sprinkling of unfamiliar words CRUCES, ACROSTIC, SABATON, CATAMOUNT, FRUGIVORY. What did these words mean? What could it portend? I must admit never having seen one this cryptic or mean, the variations so striated with innuendos, of double meaning. Crosswords were never my forte. I blinked. My mind hinged on vague recollections of Father’s old 1940s collection of D-Day military enigma codes crossword memorabilia. Where were they? I was frazzled.
I checked the date – June 1960. Why was that significant? A disaster? A fire? And what of the letter after twenty years? I stared hard at the grid. Each white square had been filled, neatly inked. The words made no sense to me. I held the paper clip upside down. I read it backwards and sideways. I held it to the light, to discern for invisible ink. I was baffled. Nothing extraordinary surfaced in the systematic arrangement of the spaces or words.
Tired and defeated, I crawled back to bed, this time to a dreamless sleep. I awoke mid-morning to sunlight streaming through my fluttering curtains. For a moment or two I stared mystified at the window, opened wide, unable to recall when I had opened the shutters. I ran to the window. To my added amazement the broad sill bore a single muddied paw print, of a rather large cat. Very large. Jonas? But we had no household pets. I promptly put it out of my mind, uneasy to take this fresh tale on my very first day of arrival, to my skeptical folk. They distrusted all I said, and thought I was trouble. Moreover I distrusted them even more.
The next two days rolled by uneasily. First I went to the field which adjoined the local school. My initial search proved fruitless. Lavender and sweet pea had replaced the beds of daffodils under which my doll was buried. No one spotted my furtive activity. I dug several patches of dirt before I found it. But the ragged old doll was intact, in the very spot I had left it years ago. Nothing could harm me now. Then I set off for the local library to search the obituaries. I felt unwelcome. The village folk had always looked upon me as an outsider. I read many bulletins and back editions, but found nothing amiss.
The most sensational arsenic poisoning case of the century stared at me from between the pages. Hideous deaths from sugared blackberries wiping out the entire Blackwood family. Except Merricat. It smote me hard how folks avoided me, scurrying away peculiarly, as if my presence triggered an unknown fear. I felt like a ghoul from a horror movie. I wished I could turn them into fruit flies or drop them into spiders’ webs to be tangled up forever, as Merricat could.
‘Go home!’ hissed the librarian, ‘let it be dust to dust!’ Village folk gossiped I knew. It got on my nerves. They still just did not take well to newcomers, I concluded, not even after all these years. Or to returning old-comers. I sighed, my disappointment complete.
Under a dark cloud, I pivoted to the chapel, that lay along a stretch of path, which still carried the air of desolation I remembered, of twenty years ago. I hoped the parish priest would help demystify my mystery of the letter and the whereabouts of my father.
On the contrary he left me speechless. He called me in, and seated me on one of the all too familiar pews, where he left me for a few hours. I presumed it was to pray. An organ sounded, and I felt no longer abandoned or alone. But when he returned he requested a word with Aunt Rosemary, at once. Flabbergasted I attempted to clarify, that the query was my own. But he would hear none of it, stating quite emphatically, that since Father did not miss chapel services, quite frankly his worry was more for me, than my missing parent. My excitement redoubled. Father was alive?! After all these years? An anger lashed out at Aunt Rosemary, at Cousin Andrew at their betrayal.
‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust my child,’ were the priest’s parting words. Where had I heard it? A deep gloom encased me. I didn’t know what to make of this unusual reply. I felt my head would explode.
It seemed no one was prepared or willing to listen to my tale. My breath became shallow, the more despondent I turned for my lack of clarity or headway. With my mind behaving erratically, and wracked by torment and self-doubt I plunged into a state of altered thinking, at mystical manic levels of unconsciousness, merging into my very nightmares I struggled daily to escape. Jonas appeared everywhere. My cat of nine lives.
Then Merricat’s murderous voice ringing in my ears, telling me that I had ingested psychedelic magic mushrooms, from which there was no escape. MELODY GLOUCESTER PEGASUS!
Worse, Aunt Rosemary turned tiresome with unpleasant harangues. She had an evil side akin to the hawkish villagers. If I persisted with this ridiculous search and nonsense, she would pack me off she threatened, having no choice but to insist I return to Savannah at once. Her remonstrance was so unexpected and unpleasant it caused Cousin Andrew to slither away to the alehouse unseen, in trepidation, and even Grandma to turn morose, and slip into an incommunicable state, from which she could not be aroused.
By morning I had grown so deranged and helpless, that I changed tracks from the world of the living, to the world of ashes – the dead souls. Hadn’t I been reminded enough? At the very least I could visit Jonas. I did not tell a soul, for fear of mortal retribution. I set off for the village graveyard. The road wound past the all too familiar bubbling brook. But hard as I searched I could not locate my buried box of silver dollars, nor could I find the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods. A fresh anxiety assailed me. Exhausted by the futility of the search I could not let the set-back take hold of my mind.
The cemetery was eerie with damp earth and dying flowers. A grey twilight filled the place, although it was mid-afternoon. I hurried, not prepared to linger longer than I must, weaving in and out among the crooked headstones. I scoured the water-logged graves for clues of unmarked stones. I was struck by the sight of several freshly dug up lots. The village had its share of older folk. But this many? I must ask the priest. I thought vaguely.
It was then that I heard the sound. I cannot describe it. Jonas, I thought. It came from afar, drawing closer. The hairs on the nape of my neck stood on end. I don’t know why. I looked around cautiously. Someone or something was murderously following me I cannot rightly say who or why, but in the instant I turned, the draught of cold air blew, forgotten bones swirled in the damp air, and I knew. Merricat. The nail in the coffin. The truth was I had a fatal fault. It was of never retreating.
I ignored the ominous growl, till images of a diabolical devil-hound, I had seen only in pictures, from a notorious region of Dartmoor, sprang into view. Or was it at the ruins of the Blackwood Manor House? That bizarre castle-like monstrosity of broken stairs, intact kitchen and fogged garden. The pitch rose to a howl, ending on a fiendish note, followed by deep panting, like an exhausted runner drawing breath, but hideous enough, to make the hackles rise.
My heart splattered with painful thumps, readied for flight. My hands connected with a sizeable loose headstone, prepared to ward off with a blow, man or brute, or whatever was charging at me, breathing flames.
Too late. Never in a million years, did I dream, that I would ever have to experience, the terror of being mauled by exquisite jaws, set to devour, as they sank into my flesh. I felt some saliva dribble, as I stared into finely sculpted hellish fangs, attached to a pair of flame green eyes, glinting with the fire of poison emeralds, as a blackness descended.
Watery headstones engulf me, restricting my run. Gloomy green thickets enclose. Bursting with ivy. Threatening. Piercing screams rent the air, splicing my ear drums. Out of the darkness, undulating waves of horror emerge. Embers dance in trails to gash themselves. Through the dying flickers the gathering shadows unmask. A monstrous half-animal, half-man beast in lycanthropic transformation – locked in brewing battle. My screams fade in echoes.
My bags were packed. I had traveled light. Two weeks of fevers with hallucinations, and I was declared fit to return to Savannah. Or so it was decided. I almost did not make it out alive, I was severely reprimanded. My unexpected encounter with the elusive beast of Montmoor, was finally at an end, I was told. I hoped it to be true. I had Aunt Rosemary to thank, and several villagers with their homemade soups and porridges, home-cured bacon and apple pie, and good old doctor Axelrod, I was told.
I smiled wanly at Cousin Andrew who had provided details. If not for the crossword puzzle I would have been doomed. If not for my three magic words repeated over and over which provided the clue, I would have been lost forever. They made it in the nick of time. The ‘beast’ had beckoned from beyond the grave. The specter of the haunting was now at rest. Or was it? I hoped so.
Fortunately Aunt Rosemary had found the crossword on my table, exactly where I had left it. Not one for smelling salts, she had flown into a fearful flutter on perusing Father’s twenty year old letter. It was lucky for me that she did, sounding as close to hysteria as Andrew had ever seen her get.
Her shrill piercing cries had brought the nesting doves down from the rafters. It also alarmed the household, and the slew of nosy neighbors. Even Grandma was jolted awake, regaining full use of all sensibilities in one swift flash. She looked so readied, she practically levitated out of her wheel-chair unaided, if Andrew is to be believed.
With not a moment to lose they had rushed to the pantry, an outhouse storage shed rarely used. They broke open the padlock and smashed the door in. They feverishly searched piles of broken logs, tools, boxes of rusted nails and other house-building paraphernalia. At last they had found the box.
‘Break it open. Quick!’
‘What with? My bare hands?’
‘Use your head. Fine time to be asking foolish questions young man.’
‘Pass me the hammer.’
The moment of truth was at hand. The box broke into fragments with one hammer blow, smattering into chips and shavings of a thousand pieces. They peered anxiously within, choked by a fit of coughing at the musty odors.
In a dusty pack tied by string, was a stack of old crossword puzzles. The cryptograms. Beneath it peeping through the grime was an old photograph of a group of hunters. In a trice Andrew recognized the picture for what it was, and made the connection with my magic words. The original ones which I had forgotten MELODY GLOUCESTER PUMANTHER. He frenziedly matched it against my crossword puzzle.
The hypotheses of the beast of prey stood revealed – a puma-cougar hybrid, that had stalked many across the wild moors, for ages, which many, including Dad had inexorably hunted. The legendary Beast of Montmoor.
‘CATAMOUNT!’ he had yelled ‘Before it’s too late!’ The rest was history.
‘Are my nightmares of the past?’ I needed to know.
‘They should be. The beast is dead. We made a bonfire of it.’
‘And the priest?’ I inquired hollowly, to tie up the loose ends, my mind still fractured at the memory of those striking fangs. I needed to see the priest, to thank him, to tell him.
‘Who? What priest?’ asked Andrew nonplussed, ‘the abandoned chapel at Rydon-on-the-sea burnt down over decades ago. Loose wiring. It was a huge conflagration. Only the organ and the bell tower in the ruins remain. No one goes there. Folks drive ten miles to Molton for church services.’ Like the Blackwood Manor House ruins?
‘NO! That can’t be true. But the priest was there,’ I whispered under my breath, to hide the rising panic.
Bewildered I stared at him for several long minutes, my mind once again plummeting into utter chaos. Confused. Several pairs of eyes gazed fixedly at me, some with worry, others, in wide-eyed scrutiny, like I had sprouted a third head, or perhaps was having a relapse. Of strange hallucinations. Aunt Rosemary declared firmly, that I should stay on a month longer. Or not return to Savannah at all.
I turned to the grainy photograph. Tears welled as the abnormal hybrid shape of a monstrous black panther puma swam into view. Merricat? Father had been trying to warn me.
Fay! Fay! Fraidy Cat saw a beast,
Fay! Fay! Fraidy Cat, what a treat!
Fay! Fay! Fraidy Cat had a feast,
In the boneyard six feet deep!
‘And Dad?’ I whispered too afraid to ask.
‘Dead I’m afraid, or perhaps with his ghost still roaming the fen in search of the beast.’
No. Not a normal day. Only I knew which of her nine lives Cat was burning through.
Rekha Valliappan is a creative short story writer, prose-poet and essayist. She was born in Bombay, lived in SE Asia and is now in New York. She studied Masters in English and American Literature and Bachelors in Law from Madras University and University of London respectively. As a college lecturer by profession she taught university classes in India and Malaysia. She has had her writing published in Eastern Iowa Review, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Third Flatiron, The Ekphrastic Review, Friday Flash Fiction, Intellectual Refuge and other international publications. In 2016 she won Boston Accent Lit‘s Prize for Short Story. In 2017 she made it to Across The Margin‘s List for Best of Fiction.