A Gothic Tale For Halloween – Mercy
My favorite day is finally here. And even though Hurricane Sandy has pushed the festivities in my area to Saturday, we’re all going to do our best to keep in the spirit today.
As a special treat, here is chapter 3 of my gothic tale of possession and intrigue, MERCY. The first 2 chapters were published on Pen of the Damned. If you need to catch up, you can read chapter 1 here and chapter 2 here. The 4th and final chapter will be posted in early December on the POTD site.
Now sit back by a roaring fire, turn down the lights and go back over 120 years to the land of Mercy, where evil is afoot and two girls find themselves alone in the Old Manse…
MERCY – PART 3
Father had to go to Royal Tunbridge Wells on business, and said he would be back in a week’s time. We so wished he would stay, but daren’t ask that of him. He was an important man, and his business kept us in a lifestyle that others envied.
Esther remained in hospital. Her condition had gown dire as infection spread from one leg to the other. Blood poisoning, they called it. No one knew what had done such a thing to her. It must have been an animal, perhaps a sick wolf that had come round our house. It was the only theory that made sense.
Mother had been sedated to the point where she was nothing more than a slip of a phantom, drifting throughout the Old Manse at odd hours. Most days, she didn’t even recognize us. Her occasional jabberings as she roamed the dark house at night chilled me to the bone. My mother had become the shambling embodiment of my nightmares.
Jessamine and I did the cooking and cleaning while Father was away, and made sure Mother didn’t waste away to nothing in between doses of laudanum.
I was bringing up a tray of broth, brown bread and cold chicken when Jessamine shouted from Mother’s room.
“Mercy, come quick!”
Placing the tray on the floor, I ran to the room. Jessamine stood by Mother’s bed, her mouth agape. Mother slept, unaware of our intrusion.
“Blood!” I exclaimed.
Streams of crimson stained the crisp, white sheets.
“Look!” Jessamine said, pointing at mother’s left hand.
Mother’s ring finger was gone. A nub of yellow bone poked out of the gore that remained of her finger. There was no trace of the finger itself; only the bloody show left in its leaving’s wake.
“What…what happened?” I said. My vision began to tilt and I felt ready to fall. Jessamine’s firm grip on my arm kept me upright.
“I don’t know. It looks like most of the bleeding has stopped. Here, press the sheet against it while I go get Dr. Fenimore”
Even though it was Mother on the bed, wounded yet serene, the thought of touching that space where her finger used to be brought a a wave of revulsion that threatened to spill from my mouth. I recoiled.
Jessamine was insistent. “I know what you’re feeling, but you must do what I say. I’ll return with the doctor before you know it.”
Before I could protest, she was down the stairs and out the door. I heard the clatter of our mare’s hooves pound upon the path to the Old Manse. Mother slept on while I prayed, my trembling hand doing its best to keep pressure on the nub. I looked longingly at my room across the hall, wishing I had Lucy under my arm to comfort me.
“And you didn’t see or hear anything?” Dr. Fenimore asked. His bulbous, veiny nose twitched when he spoke.
“Nothing,” Jessamine answered. “I was right next door, reading, and Mercy was downstairs preparing supper for mother.”
I nodded, slightly afraid of the corpulent, old doctor. His body and his personality filled the room.
He snorted. “This is the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Not counting Esther, I thought.
“How on earth could an animal waltz right in and do something like this without either of you noticing? It makes no sense.” He reached into his valet and extracted a bottle of clear liquid and a thick pad of gauze. “Your mother is going to be disoriented when I wake her up. I need you both to keep her calm and help me get her to my carriage.”
He poured the liquid on the gauze and wafted it under her nose. Mother’s eyes fluttered open and she sat up gasping.
When she saw the blood, she asked excitedly, “What’s this? Why is the doctor here? What have you done?”
We did our best to sooth her, but when she saw her hand, she began to wail until she was in full hysterics.
“Get her on her feet and help me walks her downstairs,” the doctor ordered.
It wasn’t easy, and her blood, flowing once again, spattered the walls and floor. Once she was in the doctor’s carriage and sedated , he turned to us and said, “I’ll send word to your father. You mother will have to go to hospital. I don’t want what’s happened to your charwoman to repeat itself. Keep your doors and windows barred and be wary of any stray animals about. Do you hear?”
We both nodded. Before we could ask a single question, he cracked the whip over his horse and rumbled out of sight.
That night, the Old Manse was bathed in gloom. Not just from the moonless night, but from the heaviness in our hearts.
Normal sounds, like wind against the eaves or the bark of a stray dog, made us jump. We lit as many candles as we could to defy the dark. Jessamine suggested we spend the night in the parlor, surrounded by our family’s books, craft works and piano.
“We could play music until dawn. That always cheers you up,” Jessamine said. Her fingers nibly braided my long hair.
“I’m not in the mood for music,” I said. I sat on the settee with Lucy in my lap. Her painted blue eyes looked into my own. Lucy wasn’t afraid. I so wish I could be like Lucy, a creature of porcelain and fabric, fearless and unaware of the dangers that lurked about our home.
Jessamine sighed. “It’s just as well. I don’t think I have the mind to play anyway. What should we do?”
An idea blossomed. I exclaimed, “Father always said that knowledge is power. We’re afraid because we don’t know what’s happening. Like when you were…”
“Possessed,” she said, staring at the floor.
I didn’t want to hurt her, but most of all, I didn’t want to open the doorway for the evil to return, not even the slightest crack, just as Father had warned me.
But then, I thought, wasn’t some form of evil alive in the Manse yet again?
“Well, when it first started, we were all so terrified. We spent months in a kind of daze, ” I continued.
“I remember, at least in the beginning.”
“It wasn’t until father began reading, searching for the cause of your sickness, that things began to get better. Once he knew what was happening to you, he also knew what needed to be done to stop it.” I was beginning to grow bold, bolstered by my own logic.
“Do you think the demon is back, within me? Do you think I’ve done this to Esther and Mother?” Jessamine’s eyes were wide and wet, shivering like disturbed pools with terror.
I violently shook my head. “No, of course not. Believe me, I would know if that was the case. You were unrecognizable when you were under the devil’s spell. No, this is something different. Maybe if we look in the books that Father gathered back then, we can find our answer!”
The old grandfather clock chimed nine o’clock. We both let out a sharp cry.
“Look at us, afraid of clocks,” Jessamine said with a quivering laugh.
“Not for long,” I said. I pulled an armful of books from one of the shelves and poured them onto the floor. “After you.”
We read deep into the night, skimming through Bibles, books on witchcraft, Medieval monsters, essays on chimeras, beasts and tales of shape shifters. They should have frozen our blood with their stories of godless creatures and death, but we remained true to our task.
To find the truth of the matter.
Some time after midnight, I closed a heavy book with a loud thunk and leaned back against Father’s chair.
“My eyes are going cross,” I said with a yawn.
Jessamine didn’t reply. Her head remained within the pages of a black, leather bound book that was almost as big as me.
“What do we know so far?” she eventually asked, her voice muffled behind the book.
“That Esther and Mother both had parts of their bodies eaten by a supposed animal. Yet no one has seen or heard anything.”
She slammed the book down on the floor and pointed. “I think I found our culprit.”
I moved round to sit by her side.
Her finger rested on a drawing of a horrid creature. It was short, standing on two deformed legs, skin the sickly color of an algae-infested pond, with warts suppurating along every inch of vile flesh. Sharp fangs sprouted from the overbite in its mouth and talons dangled from fingertips that were twisted like an old tree.
“That’s disgusting!” I gasped.
“Most ghouls are,” she said. “They can transport from one place to another with merely a thought, and people claim they are able to change shape in order to camouflage themselves within the real world. Here’s the part that caught my eye.”
I read aloud. “Ghouls exist for one thing: to consume the flesh of humans, whether dead or alive. Demonic in nature, ghouls have been known to lead people, especially small children, astray so they can feast upon their flesh. Once a victim has been marked by the bite of a ghoul, it will come back often, taking what it can, until life can be sustained no more. A man or woman marked by a ghoul is marked for death.”
I felt hot tears well up in my eyes and my vision blurred. “Mother’s going to die?”
“Not necessarily,” Jessamine said. “Read on.”
“To free a victim from the ghoul’s poison, one must catch the ghoul in the act of extracting its scrap of human meat. The ghoul can be destroyed by the kiss of flame to its evil eyes. Be wary! Ghouls are as hard to restrain as they are to find. Beware of its bite, lest you be marked as well.”
I wiped a tear from my eye. “That’s little help. It doesn’t tell us how to find or catch one, if that’s truly what’s plaguing our family.”
“But it does say it’s demonic in nature. Mercy, I’ve already danced with a demon. I know that I would be able to feel its presence if it came near. I think that’s why it’s gone after Esther and Mother. It’s kept clear of me to remain hidden.”
“So what do we do?” Despair began to take hold of me and all I wanted to do was saddle our mare and find Father, even if it meant riding all night, alone in the dark.
Jessamine closed the book and pulled me close. “Tonight, you stay by me. I doubt any ghoul would dare come to you as long as you’re in my embrace. I’ll stay up and watch over you. Get some sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll think of something.”
I fought sleep for as long as I could. I desperately wanted to stay awake. However, my eyelids felt like great slabs of stone and I couldn’t stop from yawning.
“You promise you’ll hold me all night, and never take your eyes off me?” I asked.
She smiled, and brushed a lock of my hair from my face. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
I nestled my head into her lap, pulled Lucy under my arm, and let the sandman in.