Visitors, venturing down the long rocky lane from the village, would normally address the front door, leaving me plenty of time to slip out the back and hide, but that night was different: that night the Devil’s own rain was thundering on the thatch and I was lying awake, wide-eyed with terror, convinced that lightening was about to strike and set my aunts and I ablaze and thus it was that I heard the bony knuckles tapping ever so gently on the timber of the back door, announcing the arrival into my life of my uncle the murderer.
At first, of course, I had no notion what was making the noise. The knocking didn’t have the rhythm of water dripping into the barrel or the scuffling of a rat in the potato bin; nor did it sound like my aunts in their nightly wanderings. When at length I came to accept that there was someone outside, my mind became frantic trying to fathom what sort of maniac would visit when it seemed like the ocean itself was being emptied onto our roof.
It was, of course, the rule of the house that I should alert my aunts should anyone approach and then take myself out of sight until the visitors were gone. But in my thirteen years I had also learned that a few sharp cracks from Aunt Stepsie’s stick were sufficient to cure me of any nighttime concerns and send me scurrying back up the ladder to my bed in the loft. Now as I lay listening, my mind’s fingers were winding in the threads of my curiosity and in the end I could stand the mystery no longer. I threw off my blankets and crept down the ladder and across the cold flags, feeling my way to the door, where the soles of my bare feet soon found that cold rainhad entered from the heavy splashing without.
Slow and steady, the knocking came again and keeping my voice as low as I could, I did what my aunts would do when confronted with a visitor: I called through the keyhole: ‘Who’s there?’
‘Let me in.’
I held my breath against the pressure of a pounding heart and listened. Nothing else was said. I tried again. ‘Who are you?’
For a moment all I could hear from beyond was the crackle of the rain on the flagstones and the wind hurling itself at the trees until, ventually, the voice spoke again. ‘My name is Shen Canty.’
I was across the room for my aunts’ door like a rabbit inches ahead of the jaws of the hound: for that name had haunted me for as long as I could remember. Had I not overheard my aunts muttering in their nightly rantings that the man bearing that name would someday come to take me away? And now, here he was, only a few feet away, with nothing but the fragile planks of the back door to stop him hauling me off into the night.
‘Finn, do you hear me?’
And had I not also heard my aunts complain about the village children chanting of the murderer who bore that name? “Who’ll be swinging from the big oak tree? Shen Canty! Shen Canty!” My aunts would never explain why these words wounded them so but again in their nightly bickering I would often hear them speak of their brother Shen as if the very words of his name were laced with poison.
‘Finn, boy. Let me in.’
I stood there frozen, and though my hand was clutching the battered brass handle of my aunts’ door, I have to confess that I was prevented from entering their room and raising the alarm by some shameful weakness within myself, which to this day I still cannot explain. Perhaps it was stupidity; or possibly it was curiosity but most likely it was fear: fear of Aunt Stepsie’s stick. But looking back I have often wondered could it have been some long forgotten note in the low tone of that voice: a note, which played on some chord deep within my soul: a sound that resurrected the ancient echo of a lost song – or one that is but faintly remembered, one which might have been calling to me unnoticed down through the long years of my childhood and which I had never noticed before.
‘Finn. Let me in.’
And so, with a heart laden with dread, I lit a candle from the glow of the turf in the grate. Slowly, and deliberately, I crossed the flags, shielding that candle’s delicate flame with my trembling hand, and pulled open the door – and, in so doing, admitted into my life the foul tangle of devils, who ride on my back to this day, and romp in my mind and who have dragged me into a jungle of fear from which I will never escape except, of course, on the end of a rope. For there he stood, hunched in the light, hung with a dark wool cloak, weighed down with a lifetime of rain, and with water running freely from the brim of his battered leather hat, and with drops even falling from his greying beard and the black straggles of his sodden hair.
But the strangest thing of all, is this. I was staring up at the face, not of a monster, but of a man. A man, who was tall but frail; a man with dark eyes sunk deep in his skull; a man with a long bony nose and a face, in which I could see shadows of both Aunt Stepsie and Aunt Breg; but unlike theirs, his face was not lined with comfort: it was a face lined with anguish.
My uncle Shen studied me for no more than a second before stepping inside, the smell of leather and wet wool entering with him, and there he stood, staring about him as if in wonder, a pool of water spreading on the floor around his boots.
At last his voice whispered. ‘Do you know who I am?’
I felt the blood drain from my face for he was clutching something under his cloak and as I retreated he spotted me glancing back at my aunts’ door. My voice shook: ‘You’re my uncle - the murderer!’
He seemed to ponder this for a while and at last he grunted approval. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Tell no one I’m here – or I might have to live up to my reputation.’ He then limped across to the ladder and hauled himself up to the loft.
My stomach was now a torment of questions. Had he come here to murder someone? Was he going to kill my aunts? What if I was found hiding him? Would I be hanged too? What if he decided to murder me?
Barely a night ever passed that my aunts did not rise and wander about, bickering in their sleep and now my heart leapt as I heard the creak of a bed in the room behind me. It was aunt Breg. I knew the sound of her rising. She was always the first to emerge. My hands were shaking as I blew out the candle and pushed closed the back door. I was half way up the ladder when she entered the kitchen.
As slowly and as carefully as I could, I climbed the remaining rungs, relieved to discover that my uncle wasn’t waiting at the top with a knife, and, safely out of reach of the stick, I listened.
I could tell that my aunt stood below me now, somewhere near the dresser – for I could hear the clunk of a cup. Her stockinged feet crossed to the other side of the room and I heard her swing the kettle over the embers. She pumped the bellows and the fire sprang to life, revealing her squat black shape hunched in the light of the flames as she moved a chair nearer to the table.
I crouched there, wondering where in the darkness behind me my uncle might be lurking. It was hard to hear with the roar of the wind and the crackle of the rain on the flagstones outside but I thought I heard breathing close to the old chest at the gable and hoped that that was he. And it was then that the other bed creaked. Stepsie was coming. My eyes, having grown used to the dark, I could now make out Breg sitting at the table. I began to crawl in the direction of my bed but my hand met with a pool of moisture on the boards. My uncle had left a trail. I clambered under the blankets as Stepsie emerged to join Breg and I lay there, praying to Great Adol that my aunts would notice nothing amiss.
‘Typical,’ muttered Stepsie, with her rasping voice, as she settled herself at the table ‘the way some people around here spill water on the floor and then leave someone else to clean it up!’
‘Well,’ hissed Breg, in her soft tones, ‘there is someone who might have spilled it herself before going to bed and is content to lay the blame on another!’
‘Some people around here would sit up all night, wasting candle wax, looking at their rat-face in the mirror, thinking they can scrub off their whiskers and all the while, spilling water on the floor while they’re at it!’
‘Well, my dear, there is someone I know who would look less like a squashed toad if she scrubbed her face off altogether!’
‘Some people are so full of poison that a drop of spit out of them would boil a hole in Hell itself!’
‘And who, may I ask put her dirty little fingers into the tea caddy?’
On and on the quarrel went, the pair of them tossing hatred back and forth, as they did nearly every night - while my eyes closed to the rhythm of their wrangling and I fell asleep. For when I next opened my eyes, the faint light of dawn had arrived through the windows below and I could once again follow the many cracks in the old black rafters above my head which were hung heavy with bulging hams and pumpkins, dangling dusty cobwebs. And it was with satisfaction that I remembered that the new day was Quern Stone Day: the day my aunts would depart for the temple of Great Adol to proclaim their weekly devotion to the Nazarene. As soon as they were gone, I would set off up the hill with that week’s book hidden inside my coat. How I loved climbing up though that steep heathery pasture to the little hollow under the great stone near the summit. There I would crawl into the gloom, the air sharp with the stench of sheep, and lift the upturned quern stone. Under it, I would find my new book, drawing it out with one hand while holding the heavy quern stone up with the other, careful not to let any coins escape from the pages. Then I would replace the new book with the old, lower the quern stone and crawl back out into the light: any coins or valuables being slipped into my pocket to be given later to my aunts.
It was at this joyous moment that I would peep at the title of my new treasure, resisting the temptation to explore its pages, for I was forbidden to open a book until I had safely returned down the mountainside and was hidden once again within the walls of my aunts’ house, where, at last, I could read my way into a new world.
So that morning I lay back and stretched, happy in anticipation of the day’s duty and it was then that I caught sight of my hand. I examined it. My palm was dark with dried blood. With a jolt of fright I shot up in the bed, the events of the night leaping back into my mind.
In the corner of the loft a man lay propped against the old chest. He was staring at me with eyes as cold as murder.