Visiting “Naomi’s Room” [Review]

Naomi’s Room

by  Jonathan Aycliffe

*Spoilers, maybe, I don’t know…

 

I can say with ease that I love horror novels. I love spooks, creaking floors and unnatural shadows and all that. I love horror in general, sub-genres and all. I’m a fan. One thing I don’t particularly like is little creepy ghost children. There’s something impossibly horrible about them versus any other ghost. So naturally “Naomi’s Room” was the perfect choice for a late night read.

To keep it short, the novel first introduces us to Dr. Charles Hillenbrand, the narrator of the novel. He’s a Cambridge academic enjoying a fantastic life with his wife Laura and four-year old daughter Naomi. The year is 1970 and as all is idyllic and the season is that of celebration, Charles takes Naomi out to shopping in London for Christmas Eve where the eager little girl wonders and cheers at the splendor of a toy store. Until Charles takes his eyes of her and Naomi disappears. Days later she is found dead in a nearby alley.

Now right off the start I really enjoyed what direction the novel took. It’s eerily atmospheric with a sort of archaic feel and phrasing to it but it settles the reader nicely in and doesn’t fool around with the paranormal aspect. But it can be quickly put aside for a certain amount of the first part of the novel, because it centers more on the grief of two parents who are completely helpless and equal doses of hopeful and devastated and desperate as the hours roll by and their little girl is missing. Ultimately she is found but she has been killed. The novel prepares you for that early on; it’s the story that leads to the reason of that early reveal that’s important.

We’ve all experienced the haunted house trope either through movies or games or novels and there’s a general idea as to how they work and what we can expect, so it’s crucial how the author controls and uses that environment. In “Naomi’s Room”, Aycliffe has the house more as a background character, a stage on which the story develops; it’s not highly interactive, it’s not responsible for the spooks themselves but it does serve a sufficient and important role as it is dimensional. In the true sense of the word, it shifts between time periods within the characters presence, so it not only provides a stage for the ghosts to manifest, but it also helps propel the story and gives it a refreshing touch with these very creepy time shifts happening in real time that feel not only like a gaze foreshadowing the outcome of the novel, but as a trap created by this evil presence and not by the house itself.

Aycliffe dodges the clichés haunted houses tend to run along with; the information he provides to the reader via Charles is compressed and given at a tension infused pace that helps keep you on edge. It’s very present as the memoir Charles is writing is the now of the story but we’re also experiencing the past very gradually at a nice pace that offers chunks of the truth, of the final reveal, filling the puzzle piece by piece. So the novel itself has a sense of time shifting in which the horror is both in the present and in the past; it’s very close and imminent in the present where Charles is 20 years after Naomi’s kidnapping and death, it’s with him in the rooms of the house, behind his back, so he’s very stationary as he tells that but the reader is prompted to understand and feel a lurking evil.

 “She is here now, here with me in the study. I do not have to look round to know, I can feel her presence, I have acquired a sensitivity. She has never come down here before, into this room, I had thought I was safe from her here.”

“Daddy.” Her voice, behind me, at the door. “Daddy.”

“I will not turn, I will not look at her.”

Like that. It spooks you because it comes as interruptions in his storytelling and it sometimes does that unexpectedly, reminding you the horror is not forgotten and this isn’t a novel telling of something that is over. Whereas in the past the horror happens slowly, it comes in waves that suffer proper explanation due to grief and is more inconsistent, the evil is still more of a theory and a sensation than a true happening. Until the novel kicks into full gear. Then it’s straight to hell.

What weirdly enough had me chuckle a bit were the steps of revelation into Naomi’s death. That’s probably my only bicker with the novel. It was like those jokes that keep adding up for the shock factor, black humour-esq. I suppose the author detained the details so the reader could gradually find out the murder wasn’t a regular one, that it meant something or it was the exact opposite, that it served to derail both the characters and the readers as to the nature of the killing. I’m not sure, that’s pretty much open to interpretation.

For me the “shock factor” for a lack of a better word was not in these gory descriptions of mutilations of a child, though I know that would upset most people and it would sit with them for some time. It was the notion the novel first installed, the one in the quotes above, that the child is still present in the house but that she is an apparition between the moments before death and the moments after it, so she appears normal and interactive in that way but at the same time she is a walking demonstration of the aftermath of her killer’s actions.  I suppose that’s how the necessary added details connect with the narrative. Charles also sees both versions and instead of handing them to the reader at once, the author slips in the details here and there to prepare us for how and why the characters act a certain way later on. Also again for the desired shock factor in the end that just keeps on adding and adding mercilessly. It’s a foreshadowing in a way for the finale. Not for the faint-hearted readers I guess.

I did enjoy the way the reveals were done in terms of discovering there are multiple ghosts in the house. It was through photographs taken by a journalist or paparazzi come to film the grieving couple. As all that may seem familiar what’s nice here is that the journalist took it upon himself to understand the logic behind the existence of spirits in the house and their intent, to try to save Charles and Laura by providing them with evidence of multiple shots from different angles and places in and of the house. He is the key figure in the narrative prompting an investigation.

The fact that the novel stays away from doors slamming and nightly whispers most of the time and instead works in a more psychological manner with overwhelming feelings and abnormal behavior infesting their clarity, was very nice. The force of evil that the characters faced was more often present inside them, manifesting through impure thoughts and desires to harm and control and abuse, quite directly sexually abuse even. And that was the uneasy part of the novel, the one you know will escalate tremendously by the end. Again there is a shock factor there to show how merciless and impossible to bypass the situation is – there is no hero of the hour, no escape, no last survivors in that sense of the word. We are weak and corruptible and the thoughts of harm are there in our being just waiting to be unlocked, to be guided perhaps. All it takes is a whisper in your ear, an idea.

Overall “Naomi’s Room” is a great read; it’s proper scary, it’s gory, it’s psychological and intense and for such a short read (somewhere around 200 pages, depends on the copy) it serves a complete story with heart-thumping escalation and reveals that keep you on edge while at the same time takes the readers on an emotional ride through loss and grief and insanity. And if like me you don’t really fancy creepy little ghost children, I recommend reading this late at night, under your bed covers if you’re a Kindle user, or under a fragile light in a quiet room. All alone. 10/10

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#BestReads2017: Outdoorsy Horror

Lists from previous years:

Best Reads 2012

Best Reads 2013

Best Reads 2014

Best Reads 2015

Best Reads 2016

I hope you had a fantastic 2017 and that you read the best, the kindest, the scariest, funniest, saddest and most adventurous stories to your heart’s content! If you have a list, please feel free to share it in the comments. Book suggestions are always welcomed.

FANTASY/SCI-FI

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

9969571It’s a somewhat weird moment when you find a book through a song but browsing through YouTube’s forgotten hits of the 80’s would do that for you it appears. Oingo Bongo’s ‘Dead Man’s Party’ had a top comment “Waiting for Anorak’s invitation to arrive” and naturally I got curious what that references. I’m very glad I did because ‘Ready Player One’ was probably my favorite summer read.

It has a pinch of that teen romance gamers edition, but it runs alongside a deftly generated world (to think of one close reference, it’s akin to what you can see in Sword Art Online for all you anime fans out there) geekish to bursting, chock-full of references, stretching out platforms to Japanese tv shows and cultural pop phenomenon’s and of course paying a wonderful homage to everything 80’s. And I loved that. I’m a big 80’s enthusiast myself, music and movie wise, so those were 385 pages of sheer pleasure and geek-out.

All that is nicely layered on top of a dystopian future in which as a paradox opposing the societal degradation, endless possibilities exist built within what is a beastly virtual reality machinery in the face of a complex imagination-stretching world, or I should rather say universe, called the Oasis.

Throw into that mix some traditional RPG tropes, an adventure, a quest system worth billions and I think you end up with an entertaining story worth the read.

HISTORICAL/DYSTOPIAN

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

38447The most captivating aspect of this ageless dystopian novel is its protagonist’s point of view storytelling. I’m sure there’s no argument there. It’s akin to time traveling within the narrative without the pressure of it being labeled as sci-fi or having need of machines and quantum mechanics. And it shakes you; it pulls you down and strips you naked and often takes your breath away.

It’s kind of fitting reading it today and I’m certain we’ll be reading it tomorrow and next year and at these different times we’ll view it either as a dystopian, futuristic story, or as a historical artefact. It will be relevant at all times and it will be a pinnacle for many women as it has been thus far.

I was fascinated at how much nostalgia it carries and what strong attention it gives to these everyday “invisible” things and objects that serve as some sort of weird corner stones of our lives, of our understanding of modern and ownership. And then there’s the interaction human to human, a frivolous act that can be difficult and anxiety burdened and that usually requires a non-linear and a vastly subconscious approach and it’s destroyed in Atwood’s work. It’s brought down to absurdity. Can you imagine not having Offred’s inner thoughts, her memories? Just those orchestrated interactions, dry and suspicious? You wouldn’t even think about the layers of words and thoughts and fears that are quieted down behind “the right thing to say”.

It’s a fascinating novel and I strongly advise reading it.

HORROR/THRILLER

Bone White by Ronald Malfi

32920015‘Bone White’ is a 2017 newbie but man, does it pack a punch! It’s what I’d say a claustrophobic novel set within the coldest, most remote parts of Alaska. Malfi deftly handles what could easily be local lore, mythology and the supernatural elements mixing it with the sudden confession of a serial killer, the discovery of numerous unmarked graves, a town called Dread’s Hand (which isn’t a far stretch cause’ Alaska has places called Red Devil, Holy Cross and Crooked Creek) and a man hell bent of finding what happened to his missing brother.

I loved’ Bone White’ and would have even if it didn’t throw in the word ‘wendigo’. As far as its wilderness exploration goes (and boy does it go far) it has that Algernon Blackwood flavor that I respect and love and fear but it does its own thing. I can’t share the lore of it without spoiling major aspects but it’s gut churning, skin crawling and worth delving into.

As with these types of novels where it’s a whodunit mixed in with a supernatural fueled thriller, the ending doesn’t disappoint. Far from it.

I highly recommend Ronald Malfi’s ‘Bone White’. It’s certainly a high contender for best horror novel.

The Ritual by Adam Nevill

12063443It’s been years of bypassing anything Nevill and I blame ‘Apartment 16’. Or maybe my mood at the time. Could be a mixture of both. But I had a hard time digesting his pacing until I gave ‘The Ritual’ a fair try.

Sure, at the start its all japes and grumbling and friendly banter but the atmosphere is tense right from the get go and it’s a miserable one. The surrounding nature is nothing equal to that described by Blackwood for example with ‘The Willows’. It’s not a direct character per say, it’s a nuisance, it’s a labyrinth and it’s a guide of sorts but it’s not the subject of the character’s direct fears. It’s what within the woods.

What I love about ‘The Ritual’ is the sense of true expedition, though one gone horribly, horribly wrong. But the hike bears all the marks that make it believable – it’s tiresome and treacherous and lonely. It however lacks that spiritual, cleansing, outdoorsy sensation and replaces it with the helplessness and hopelessness of disorientation, lack of communication and the feeling of trespassing. That on itself is terrifying and it progresses and escalates in terms of the narrative with the decreasing amount of provisions, the sustained injuries and the incessant battle with the unyielding nature. It’s barren against the human spirit, a continuing isolation far, far from civilization and yet rather close to the wrong one.

I’m happy when a novel keeps me suspicious and cautious and I love it even more when it tweaks things to that disturbing level making you me uncomfortable. ‘The Ritual’ certainly did that. I enjoyed the lurking monstrosity, was pretty on terms with the gore part, but I was mostly a fan of that religious aspect of it, of the desolate, forgotten monuments, the Nordic runes hidden within the forest’s folds. The decrepit filter on top of the base narrative is what really sold it to me. And of course the sudden shift from endless wandering and death to a very reminiscent of actual Scandinavian metal/riot history, part 2 of the book. That’s when the true Ritual begins and when the novel really tests the reader. It’s by far not the most disturbing or lacking humanity story I’ve read.

I mean there’s ‘Zombie’ and many, many more all disturbing in their own fashion, but ‘The Ritual’ being the psychological horror that it is, kept me reading way into the early hours day after day. It urges to be progressed and thus served to give me a very different opinion on Nevill’s work. He gave the novel a reality check on superstition, old, pagan beliefs and deities, brought them back under the sounds of death metal (black metal, doom metal any kind of worshiping metal. Rock on!) and he did it via Norwegian and Swedish lore risen together in an effigy of its own.

GRAPHIC NOVELS

The October Faction by  Steve Niles and Damien Worm

25061099‘The October Faction’, a four-volume graphic novel is nothing particularly new on the drawn horizon, but its art done by Damian Worm is outstanding and the issues are worth checking just based on that.

It tells the story of the monster-hunting Allan family, semi-retired from the ghastly business until they are urged to get back in and this time include the children, who also possess certain abilities witching and warlocking being the main two. It’s an adventure beautifully done in browns and blues, blacks and deep yellows and dried-blood reds, dealing with the price of hiding truths and feeding lies, of soul-seeing teens, homosexuality, coming of age, purpose in life and much more craziness.

It’s the family business up-jumped aka popularized vastly by Supernatural but with refined finesse that in following issues expands and welcomes in a werewolf and a robot?

Nothing can suffice to convince to the worthy read so look at these pages I took the liberty of adding for viewing pleasure.

 

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS    

 Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann

110898Life is being far away from home, being alone, being weak, being loved. It’s being afraid and caring about others. And when it’s done like an Irish lullaby, well…it’s something special. It’s very human. It’s stories you wished you knew yourself but then reading them in ‘Fishing the Sloe-Black River’ you feel like you might have been there.

There are a roulette of outstanding characters, quirky and bold, young and old. They each have unique stories.

‘Sisters’ and ‘Around the Bend and Back Again’ are favorites, I think. Tomorrow maybe others will be.

 

 

 

I wish you to read many more books in 2018 and share them with others. A single book can bring so much joy in someone’s life.

The Witch’s House

 

Tender steps. Hand loosely than harshly grasping the rail. Splinters entering the softness of the cold palms. Cold with sweat. Cold with the stickiness so common in fear. Eliot is afraid and that feeling is making his insides freeze. They cheated him into this, his friends, hiding behind the trees, feet rustling in the fallen leaves, no footprints just imprints, the heaviness of their bodies leaving a mark they were there before they run off leaving him with the shortness of their laughter whispery and frail, reverberating in the October chilliness. They called him a faggot, a pussy, a piece of good-for-nothing shit when he didn’t want to go into the Witch’s House, barking the word on repeat.

So Eliot went, not wanting to be anything, anyone but himself. He didn’t want to be scared of their mockery. And as he went up the steps, she came out after hearing the creaks and pops and breathing of the house. With her came the sort of sound wind makes through abandonment, through foreign cracks, alien and old with time and poised with things – words and noises, music bumping on and off, voices and wet eyes watching. With truths kept secret and identities hidden underneath layers of skin that gets pulled and teased and worn until it rips open and the truth oozes out. Like the wind slipping through, a whistle at a time.

‘Do you know what she does, the Witch?’ they asked him when they were all playfully pursuing paths in the forest. ‘She takes your skin away, peeling it with her claws and she wraps it around herself like a cloth. She wears you and you see and hear and feel everything she does. The Witch is fat with the skins of children.’

Standing before Eliot, she was pregnant with the promise of their words. She was layered, folds of smooth skin, colorless and colorful overlapping in the form of shirts and skirts but leaving her naked all the same. There was however one lie to their story and he saw it as she bend over, faceless yet seeing. He wouldn’t see, nor hear nor feel anything she did with his skin after she took it. He would be just another corpse, neatly hidden somewhere. The empty eye sockets, red around the rims of their flesh stared at Eliot emptily devoid of that essence remaining in them that his friends spoke off through puffs of smoke from that shared packet of cigarettes and splashes of stolen beer.

However them having run off meant they would never see or hear the Witch leading him inside a damp and dark room, floor littered with syringes, the pungent smell of piss soaking the walls, the corners. In there she would unfold her face and allow a glimpse at her eyes merging that in-between, outwordly feeling Eliot had standing on her doorstep. She would look at him as her teeth emerge and she lowers her mouth onto his pinky finger, delicately separating skin and meat from the bone. Eliot would watch the Witch chew the soft redness and churn the skin, stretching it with her tongue, modeling it to her own being.

Then she would leave him there, a boy with a skeleton pinky finger trembling in his own pooling piss and she would rustle the leaves with her draping skin to find the friends which left him at her doorstep and ran off with their flesh pink from the October cold.

Inside the cave lived a Fox – Chapter 5

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4, Part 1

Chapter 4, Part 2

foxo2n5

It came bounding from the threshold of dusky woods, an achromic color like dying fire stirring the ashes, anemic body spilling between the tree trunks, tangling skin and bone and muscle in the branches and wailing as it did.

Neave caught the yellow of its eyes as it narrowed them upon her, piercing, devouring even from the great distance. Like smoke it moved swaying trees in its wake, borrowing a shade of the enclosing night, translucent, yet vibrant as it shifted making her eyes water. The color of death and decay.  Ambrose was eager to send biting bullets and they flew passing through the prism of its body hacking at wood and rock instead.

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Neave took them away, leaving behind the gaping mouths of unclosed doors, like black tombs erect in the dying light. She chose the path not down, never down where it was a territory of the dead and forgotten but up where people had a chance to come and go. Go. It was possible, wasn’t it? Neave wasn’t sure, tripping in the dark audible with snakes hissing, goats belowing. Ghost things, past things, things that didn’t exist but came with the Fox.

The introduction reminded her of something that had happened not long ago, something rotten, cruel, intimate. She jumped at each gunshot unfamiliar to the sound live and present not dull like in the movies. Bang! The growling, drooling sound leapt left to right and back again now outside of its hideout, now with them on the blind road. The sun was nearly gone and everything that didn’t exist in it took a form.

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A car thrown in the bush emerged, doors ajar, light flickering, radio croaking, waves overlapping with indistinguishable voices. Neave recognized her silver, the car she had come with. Come. She had chosen to visit here, days ago, years ago. She had been here and with her had been the Fox. The only memory that mattered appeared.

She stopped abruptly, facing the Fox.

“Go, I’ll keep it busy!” Ambrose was shouting gesturing towards the car. Sierra was already working at it, trying.

The Fox had halted, throbbing, pulsating, a worm wriggling phantom. Its proximity was familiar to Neave, dangerously so. It leered at her, recognizing her scent. Its ragged head dropped down, muzzle sniffing between her breasts.

“You knew. When you asked whether it came for me, you knew it did. But you weren’t sure whether it had taken me.” She looked at Ambrose, reaching for him with eyes that he didn’t return quickly enough.

“If I had said anything you would have run. Back then, across the field in the rain. And I wanted to keep you close, safe. I saw the marks, Neave. I had to do something. For you to face it, however not like this.”

Neave bent back on herself, into herself, shuddering. The bruise where he had grabbed onto her arm, latching himself like a leech, sucking joy out and inducing fear, hurt. She rubbed at it, feeling the muscle underneath leather and skin convulse. He came at her, pushed her into a corner, tasted her, trying her on and off. Fast it became something else, terrifying, unwanted. Something to run away from, unaccepting. Ambrose took careful steps towards her, rifle aimed high at the Fox’s head.

“Maybe if I wasn’t so afraid we wouldn’t be here,” Neave put out a hand untangling a piece of her to give to the Fox. He licked her palm, ruby red tongue darting out to lap at sweat and dirt.

“Neave, don’t…” Ambrose pleaded, his rifle rising and falling with the heavy breaths of his chest, unsteady, sweaty in large palms.

“I have to, Ambrose it’s the only way. He takes me and it all ends. Just like in the story. Otherwise I am no one and everything around me is nothing. He would return me to me. I won’t be afraid this time.”

The Fox nodded, a grotesque thrust of its large head.

“Bullshit. Look at me. Hey!” Ambrose just like the night when he found her, stood there a towering figure with secure eyes and secure smile, grey hair falling against the side of his narrow face. “It will hurt you. You don’t need to indulge its whims. You can come home with me and Sierra.” He looked at the Fox, a tense smile and reached out his hand, long slender fingers touching her skin. Touching. A mistake.

The Fox recoiled from Neave and snapped its jaws closed on Ambrose’s hand tearing flesh from bone, dividing. The scream was Sierra’s, running from inside the car to pick the detached, cradle Ambrose in his blood-spurting convulsions. The luminous yellow irises lacking pupils rolled in their sockets, foam bubbling around the rabid snout. Midway it met Sierra, darting at her neck, departing the head half from her body. The person that had been Sierra seconds ago dropped to a shapeless form.

“They wanted to help…” Neave told the Fox, briefly catching the man that walked inside its skin. The Fox opened its steaming jaws, the pungent smell of carrion escaping, mixed with fresh blood, and laughed a human laughter.

Because she had nearly been stolen and in fear of losing herself she had run here, where there was simplicity and in it there was no one. Except the Fox in the autumn looking for his sacrifice. And in the attempt to escape what was nearly done to her she had come here to receive it anew but unlike the other time, the first time she couldn’t run now. She had been returned to it, some anomaly, some paradox that prevented her from going further. The memory leak.

The opaqueness presented itself to Neave, opposite, upside down, astray. Peripheral. That was a good word for it, Neave thought tasting bitterness and iron on her bitten tongue. Not remembering wasn’t a symptom of him and his advances, the hurtful bruise on her arm, but of this place. She didn’t exist in it, but she had crossed its threshold in a desperate attempt to escape to some familiar normality away from prying eyes. The density of it was unfamiliar to her and she felt lightweight, paper thin, impossible to gather, impossible to connect.

“Take me home,” she spoke to the Fox, gripping a handful of fur between her trembling fingers. The missing item locked into place, the harsh feel of the sharp hair irritating her palm. Going back home, she had to face herself. She closed her eyes waiting patiently, obediently for the Fox to do its duty. Take her, kill her, return her.

It weren’t jaws that closed on her neck but lips, salty and rich on blood. Ambrose’s scream punctured, her eyes snapping open. In his slumped form in the red dust, in the lightless night his grip on the rifle was janky, his voice incoherent, thick with grief and pain but he did send a bullet. It connected with the Fox’s eye, the great beast bellowing at the leaking juice from its yellow socket. In its confusion and pain it snapped different set of jaws on Neave.

The night seeped into her eyes, a cosmos reeling down on her, cold and solid, strangely like daggers sliding into sheaths.

“Neave! Neave!”

She stood on unsteady legs, swaying like the grains had been beaten to a submissive motion by the rain in that field so long ago. A brotherly hand came on her shoulder shaking red dust of her jacket, tears of her caked with regret cheeks. The illumination of multiple flashlights fell upon her, the brightness impossible to stand. She turned her head towards the place where Ambrose lay but there was no one there, there was no one where Sierra had fallen. Something was taken from her hand, a weight disappearing leaving her fingers numb, flexing in and out. Her brother held the rifle putting it away, safe distance, good intentions.

“What are you doing here, Neave? I looked for you everywhere, I thought you were dead!”

It’s not something she could answer sleeping in yesterday’s clothes. Yesterday she’d given herself over to the Fox, a ripple in time, a ghoul prancing in golden tilting fields in the moaning mountains. He hadn’t taken his token, his promise. Ambrose had robbed him of that, not allowing for her to sacrifice that which she valued, feared losing, feared giving. He’d understood, had seen why the runaway, why the lack of memory.

But she’d seen the out of place, the different. Now, being picked up, carried away past the trashed car with its doors ajar, past the crumbling houses she gave in to a different touch, the soothing caress on her back, thumb drawing circles. But she missed the other, the friendly hand pulling her from the mud leading her safely to a sanctuary. The only thing existing in that place had been the house with the swing and Ambrose and Sierra in it. She wept for that. She wept for his black eyes. She wept for Sierra.

Coming home she felt like running away again. Coming home she felt like going away.

***

The End

Take you for staying for this short journey!

Inside the cave lived a Fox – Chapter 4, Part 2

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

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Their eagerness to know more transfused into Neave. She allowed herself a deeper breath, eyes not meeting eyes, hers into the distant where the memory existed.

“The man who lived in that house over there told it to me.” Neave pointed at the smallest of the three houses, a green door marking it. “When I asked why he would want to hurt a hungry fox he asked me ‘what do you think the fox eats, little girl?’ and I said ‘chickens of course what else’.” Neave reached for Ambrose’s cigarette, an old habit calling back, and took a drag that jimmied open her throat clogged with difficult memories. He received it back with a twinkle in his eye.

“That man was not nice, I recall that. He laughed at me but when I tried to run away he grabbed my arm and took me inside his house. ‘Do you want to know the truth about your precious fox?’ he asked. His breath stank of alcohol and milk, his hands of gunpowder and dirt. But I wanted to know. I wanted to.”

She looked at them, Ambrose eager to hear, Sierra eager to see.

“He told me a long time ago just after the first houses were built near the river ill luck befell the people and the village. It desolated most of it and the elder stricken with grief, took a rope and headed to the oak tree to hang himself. When he got there a man wearing a fox skin was sitting under it roasting a chicken leg on a tiny fire. He talked the elder out of suicide and shared his chicken with him while the elder told him of their predicament. After hearing all, the stranger offered a solution. He told the elder that if they dined him with the finest meal tonight, tomorrow the sick would be healed and the crops would be rich again and if they gave him one girl after her first blood every autumn the village would flourish and expand and fill with the riches of the earth. They would be kings among the hills.”

“The elder agreed and in the morning when he returned to the village what the stranger had promised had come true. Come autumn the man in the fox skin came for the first girl just as he’d promised he would. The villagers were angry with the elder and how he’d hidden the truth from them. Dealing with demons and spirits…they called him a witch and butchered him. The demon took his girls despite everything, sneaking in the night soft as a whisper, quiet as a fox.” Neave inclined her head towards the green door of the small house. “I was so little, couldn’t be more than six. After I heard the story I wanted to cry but the man just laughed. ‘It’ll happen to you too! The man in the fox skin will come to take you and make you his whore you little bitch.’ I snuck past him and didn’t leave our house for days.”

“What a fucking weirdo. I’m so sorry, Neave. That must have been horrible,” Sierra sighed.

“Did it come? Did he come for you?”

Neave watched Ambrose, his unblinking stare piercing.

Sierra’s eyes widened. “Ambrose! Don’t be an asshole!”

She wanted to tell him, she wanted to be sure. The mark of something held in her hand returned and she flexed her digits tickling at her palm and the pressure there. Her mouth was dry, the red dirt carried in the wind crunching beneath her teeth.

A distant almost indistinguishable cry pierced her ears.

“Did you hear that?” Sierra asked and she swiftly ran down the stone steps and back to the yard where it was darker. The narrow light from her phone’s flashlight provided indication as to where she was.

“Inside the cave lived a Fox,” Neave whispered staring at the jagged rock.

 “Why isn’t it marked on the map, the cave?” Ambrose asked.

“It’s so people don’t go there.” Neave said listening to the cry. It was a woman crying, a child screaming, a person wailing in agony. It was a horrible sound and it chased away all other noise present in the vanishing daylight – the sound of night approaching through the trees making them sway as it came.

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Ambrose joined Sierra adding to the stretch of yellow glow. He clutched his hunting rifle and aimed it at the approaching darkness.

Chapter 5

Inside the cave lived a Fox – Chapter 4

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3



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After seeing the oak tree it was easy for Neave to find the path to the heart of the village.

“Where is everybody?” Sierra asked as they walked into a small yard surrounded by conjoined houses. Desolate and damaged buildings had given way to sturdier ones, wires and rusted satellites hanging from windows, bolted into walls crumbling in yellow dust over loose doors leading into pigsty’s smelling of feces and blood. Tennis rockets of a decaying green were barred between boards nailed into crooked sheds containing molded nuts and dried herbs hung from rusted hooks on walls black with time and ash. Nature crawled over lamp poles lacking bulbs and webbed its way over natural protruding rock, white marking a pathway leading to a mansized oven filled with child’s summer shoes and magazines with faces dated ten years back. It was an anachronism that made Neave tremble with newfound nostalgia.

“There isn’t anyone here anymore. They all…died.” Neave knew with a certainty the person she had come to see here had perished as well long ago. “It’s a ghost village.” Stood there in the middle of it all, Neave recalled the presence that once made this place a living thing.

This is the village?” Sierra captured the emptiness waiting to see if ghosts would emerge in the Polaroid once she shook it. The three living houses and the barn made for a small world.

“Over time it became that. The wells down in the valley dried and there was not enough water. It drove the people who were still alive to go up the hill and settle in with the wealthier families. Over time they became one. They stayed here for over 100 years, created this area to live close to one another. Almost like one big house. Until there were only five left,” Neave explained useless memories filling the space where she needed the healthier ones, the truth and clarity.

“Which one is your family’s house?” Ambrose stood next to her. Neave pointed to the crooked construction sitting in the middle of the yard. It had a porch aligned with white flower pots but the flowers had waned and only hard soil filled them.

Neave’s gaze filled with lament. She tried to picture it all as it were when she was a child, when she was young. Sweat and blood, hard work and calloused hands, vibrant dialect and echoing songs carried over vast hills overgrown with tobacco, the strange touch of newly shed wool, the stench of guts mixed with shit – all were present under layers of dust and abandonment and Neave took it all in, recalling whatever she could. Her memory had been meddled with; it was not on her own volition that she was a stray without a shadow. Outer help had canceled her existence allowing only short sighted memories and grief and detachment to remain. And this here, a distant home that was never a home. The call of her name upon familiar lips, feminine and gentle but weak with age transformed into the soft whisper of Ambrose raking her out of the past and into the present.

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“Neave? Are you feeling alright? Do you want us to go back?”

She declined the offer as the feeling of belonging was somewhat more reachable. Above all the floating sensations familiarity escalated and she wanted more. Neave wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve.

 “I think it was the oldest or so my grandmother used to say. I remember sitting on the porch and looking at the-“

Neave tried to remember but she fell in a loophole, memory leaking again. Ambrose caught her, a reassuring smile returning his dimples.

“It’s alright, take your time.”

Again he went first exploring the house, testing the wood, a boot against the floor thumping to raise dust and memories.

“Looks like it was raised from stone and earth!” Ambrose said.

“Boulders brought from the river in ox carts,” Neave remembered. She was surprised the details came to her with such an ease when a fuller, more recent memory was impossible to comprehend. “Over the masonry they used boards crossed with beams and covered that with mud. You can pretty much see the earth pattern on the floor. They made a tracery out of two sets of beams and twined that with oak sticks.”

“Covered it again with mud mixed with straw, right?” Ambrose asked.

Neave nodded. She took the stone steps and crossed over to the unsteady floorboards following Ambrose. The door that had once been shut was ajar, the wire used to twist around the nail to keep it close gone and the latch loose. The primitiveness allowed them to duck into the stale air and gray dark. The beds, twins in size and knitted covers, were still at their places, but the mattress stuffed with old clothes to fill the space was slumped, yellow with black and green and mold from water dripping out of the cracks in the ancient roof.

Sierra’s footsteps were much quieter but the snap of her camera was loud. She had framed the window overlooking the rolling hills. As Neave drew circles in the dust on the table and opened jars collecting dead flies, Sierra had rested her eyes firmly on the small window frame, sneaking closer to it. Her voice came surprised. “That is a formidable rock if I’ve ever seen one. Look, can you see it?”

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Ambrose and Sierra tried to distinguish it through the small rectangle fragments of the unwashed window but Neave knew from where she could see it clear. She went back out to the porch where a red carpet was draped over the DIY bench and sat herself there. She fixed her eyes on the greenery swooshing under some distant wind. It was so simple to remember now.

“I used to sit on the porch and look at the cave.”

Ambrose and Sierra joined her on the porch. On the mountain face jutted out a rock formation and they could just barely catch the opening to a cave before it disappeared bellow the trees.

“Inside that cave lived the Fox?” He asked through a chuckle.

“My grandmother used to tell me that a large fox lived in a cave under that rock. It would come at night through the tall grass and sneak into the chicken box. Four chickens it would eat on the first day and four more on the tenth and it would always come for more avoiding all traps and hissing at the gunshots instead of running. I dreamt to see that fox all my childhood. I thought I could see it come through the woods, through the valley, hear the soft thud of its paws because it was always so quiet up here.”

 “What about the legend?” Sierra asked toying with her camera. Ambrose sat beside Neave lighting a new cigarette. He settled on her line of view. Neave leaned, back against the house. She watched the empty bulb socket rock above her head. It would get dark soon and there would be no light.

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Chapter 4, Part 2

Inside the cave lived a Fox – Chapter 3

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

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Neave woke in bed in the spare room of the cottage. Mud and anxiety washed away, she had surrendered to a motionless sleep lulled away by the low kept voices of Ambrose and Sierra and the still lingering scent of the opiate candle. The morning was a different shade but Neave was still clutched in the remembrance of yesterday.

She rolled on her side, fingers woved into the blanket, pulling hard to simulate possession. She curled her body into a fetal position escaping for new seconds into darkness behind closed eyes. Beneath the cover she felt naked, exposed, only a skin thin shroud of a memory covering her, the house, Enok, the blurred faces she called family. And nothing more of her present self, of who she was. All memories were fragments from the past, just nostalgia in heaps, nothing useful, only bittersweet. A fickle horror swirled like smoke from a burning cigarette but she blew on it disconnecting its chances of encompassing her to suffocate in its blue haze.

Despite it all her memory loss had boundaries now, a beginning to be placed with precision and an intermission- now, to be played out in order to restore the middle and provide the ending. Her want to go home was still present, but returning would also mean living with the missing and Neave couldn’t bear to be her own stranger. She opened weary eyes to the dull silhouettes in the room. The voices in the other room had escalated to fully developed sentences, rising in volume and urgency. Neave left the bed and received the cool morning air against her bare skin.

She found Ambrose and Sierra in the small kitchen. The devious grin that had played on his lips hours ago was replaced by a youthful smirk.  There was a sudden gentleness lurking in his features and Neave found herself reaching for the coffee mug he offered, a symbol of an act of complete normality she welcomed.

“We know where to go,” he said pointing towards the backpacks on the sofa. Next to them rested against the leather seat was a hunting rifle.

“I don’t know why he needs this,” Sierra joined taking a long sip from her cup.

“In case. Just in case.”

“There is something wild to shoot? How about you leave the shooting to me?” Sierra waved an instant camera at him and slipped it in her backpack.

Neave left the coffee untouched. “I don’t understand. What do you mean you know where to go?”

“It was something you said that gave me an idea. Fair fact, it’s a long shot but I suspect a plausible one. On the way here you mentioned that story, “Inside the cave lived a Fox”. You said it was like local lore, so we did some digging and sure enough there is a similar folklore tale originating in Yarlford, one of the villages up in Mt. Wrell. We figured it would be best to start there.”

Neave folded her arms searching through her brain for the village, a place she had known, had visited. Yarlford, hundreds of years old withstanding the wheels of time, the changing currents. It surfaced with semi-vivid imagery, echoes more than voices, passing weak odors instead of pungent smells. It hovered ghostlike but the more she focused on it, the more the link strengthened returning her to a world less distorted and more memory like. It settled right there in her childhood, a pieced of her mind untouched by her amnesia. Neave could feel Ambrose watching her closely, leaning into the same want to construct a world that was not tainted, that could be reached and anchored.

“I remember spending my summer vacations there but…. Could I have gone there?” And was I alone if I did, Neave wondered.

Sierra took Neave by her hand and pulled her towards the door. Her lips hovered close to Neave’s ear, the breath ticklish on her skin when she whispered. “I think it’s worth the try. Are you ready, Neave? You will rediscover yourself today.”

*      *      *

Yarlford was far. Neave remembered trekking up to it from the train station in Tallbridge. It would take half the hours of daylight to cross the invasive river, hoping from boulder to boulder, to climb over fallen trees shattered by lightning and find the right herd path beside game trails leading into deep woods. A bullet had whistled above her head once, the hunter hiding in silence behind his scope. She had to crisscross over hills and valleys overgrown with grass, remaining at all times above a quaint quiet world populated by distant yowls of cattle. By the time she would reach the house the sky would be turning indigo.

Ambrose took the wheel leading them out of the dirt road and on to a new one miles away that climbed them in her periphery of civilization’s reach to a domain where the wind rustled through the tall grass. Sierra rolled down the backseat window. Her hair scattered, toyed with by the currents.

“It really is a moaning mountain,” she noted. They crawled, tires fighting against the still wet unevenness of the red dirt road threatening to become a landslide and throw them in a ditch of splintered trees soaking in mire ponds filled with rocks. Sierra took photos and wrote down with a blue marker on the white space of the Polaroid her thoughts.

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Neave could see she was enthralled by the endless valleys and jutting peaks colored in pale blues.

A map was spread on the dashboard but Neave’s uneducated eyes couldn’t see where they were or would go. Ambrose tapped a finger at a junction. “That would be somewhere at the foot of the village. We’ll leave the car there and continue on foot.”

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Outside of the car the steep trail that opened on the side of the road snaked its way past the first houses, caved in under time and nature’s pressure. Neave knew them to be sanctuaries of snakes, tongue-splitting venomous reptiles hiding inside their man-made shrines.

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“These were abandoned a long time ago,” Ambrose spoke squinting to look inside an empty window.

“When I was a child people would still search for buried gold coins in them. One man was bitten twice by snakes.”

“Did he die?” Sierra snapped her photo pausing only to scribble, the marker leaving a squeaky noise.

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“I think so.”

“But did he find gold coins? A pot of gold coins perhaps?” Ambrose caught up with her lighting a cigar. The smoke he blew caught her in a sweetened haze.

Neave pictured two gold coins dug from underneath dusty floorboards crawling with the slimy bodies of smooth green and yellow snakes, placed over her eyes, a cold payment for greed, mistrust and cruelty.

“I don’t think there were ever any.”

Coming up the uneven trail outside the density of trees and nodding houses, Neave’s heart skipped and she rushed ahead. She slipped over exposed rocks white as bone to climb the path to open ground. The sight of a crownless oak spreading dried branches like a scarecrow to touch no sky, made her smile.

“I remember this tree. Lightning struck it and it never grew afterwards.” The snap of the camera behind her sealed the moment. Ambrose gave her his leading stride offering open palmed the discovery.

“We’re here,” Neave told them.

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Chapter 4