With October’s chills and strange things lurking just around the corner, I thought I’d post a story I wrote a few year ago. Parts of the story later grew into scenes of the novel I’m working on now.
THE WOLF AT THE ATTIC DOOR
“There’s a wolf at the attic door. It’s growlin’ in the dark and waitin’…” My father’s voice is the biggest part of him. It booms through the church sanctuary and worms its way up into the attic. It’s what wakes me up.
“… clawin’ and scratchin’… dark things don’t want in, ya see. Dark things are always a-wantin’ out—”
The dark is nice. I can feel it around me and I want to go back to sleep, to slip back to where I was before. Warmth, that’s what I want. But I’m not going to find it in the attic while I’m sprawled on the old sanctuary table. This do, in remembrance of me. As my hands slip down, I can feel the words etched into the side and I remember how I used to play under it while my father wandered through the empty pews on Monday mornings, meticulously checking the hymnals for pencil marks and torn pages.
Churches are different on Mondays. here are no amens and no music. No singing. They’re silent and hollow.
“… each of us got that hungry part that tries to fill us up … “
My father smiles sometimes. Mainly when he’s putting on his show in the pulpit as he calls it. You have to make a show or no one listens. At home, he’s always different—like a church on Mondays. Every time he talks to me, it’s like he’s reading a eulogy for someone he never really liked.
My mother tried to cover the old sanctuary table with a fancy tablecloth when it broke the first time. I was seven back then and I’d play under it and feel the cloth tickle against my arm. It was a whispery kind of touch.
“… that thing lurkin’ under our skins, it’s in anybody. Any man can give into that wolf …”
Sitting up on the table, I notice the jack-o-lantern next to me. It’s one of the few things I ever did with my father. It’s our ritual. Yellow candlelight fills its triangle eyes and leaks out its jagged mouth.
“… once you open that door … once you give into that hunger . . . “
The girl tonight was nineteen and a year older than me. She fought and she cried.
“… hunger … in the end, we got to remember that everything’s hungry.”
She was beautiful and I used to watch her when she’d swim down by the river after dark. Someone else did more than watch. He cut her. And she fought him. I couldn’t move. The man with the knife carved a jack-o-lantern’s zigzag smile across her perfect throat. And I was too late to save her, but I saw his face. I knew him and he knew me.
“… and we’re always too scared to call that wolf by name, to throw open that door and call him out …”
I wasn’t. Not by the river. I said, “Dad.”
You’ve stepped into the grown up world, Levi, the hungry world, he said yesterday by the river. He hit me in the face until the world became blurry and then held my head under the water. But drowning takes a long time.
“… hunger …”
Water’s always hungry. It sucks you down and doesn’t want to give you back. But my father brought me back here after I died. He tucked me away in his attic. Everyone thinks I killed that girl and the others. What he’s saying down there is an apology and that I ran off.
My father used to say that superstitions are just insurance against dark things.
“… in the old days, they carved pumpkins to keep evil away … when the veil between the living and the dead is thin like …”
It is tonight.
“A face to frighten and a candle to hold the dark things at bay … “
But there are other voices now and they’re louder than my father’s. I can hear them—the girl my father killed tonight and all the others. Their bodies left down by the river. Their voices are so soft, so cold. Like the water. And I can understand the one word that they whisper–hungry.
“… as long as we’ve got that light burnin’, that bit of good, we can keep that ole wolf away. He can try to scratch and paw and claw … But as long as we have that light, he’s locked in that attic … we’re safe … “
And I think about the girls and feeling their icy hands on my shoulders. And feeling their wonderful cold sinking into my skin. They are just voices, but I want to feel the girl’s wet hair against the side of my face. She’s beautiful with her rotting skin and the branches tangled in her clothes. They’re all beautiful. Waiting here for a night like tonight. For someone like me.
“Hungry,” they whisper, soft like old fabric.
And my father’s voice makes me smile now. “… you see the dark it’s got teeth and nails and it’s … “
The little flame in the jack-o-lantern flickers. When I peer in through the eye, I can see the simple white candle and the pools of wax it’s floating in. Just a little insurance against the dark, my father used to say. Something to keep the hungry dark away. To keep us safe.
I lean over to the jack-o-lantern and blow out the candle. Then I reach for the door.
I’m so very, very hungry.