Marlin James lived alone in a modest home, which was really no more than a small, rough grey stone cottage. It sat perched on top of a heavy mound of browned gorse and rock at the summit of Y Drws, a dreary hillock situated between two townships, at the edge of a frozen mountain range. James was a happy, generous man, but the location of his home rarely allowed him the pleasure of receiving visitors.
One night, James heard a solitary knock at his door. Outside, the evening was as black as pitch, but the sky was embossed with thick grey clouds which drifted silently across the darkened sky and sliced the pale moon in half as they moved. James had been sitting at his fireside when the knock came. It was an unexpected, but not unwanted disturbance, and James moved from his armchair to greet whoever was calling for him. Leaving the chains attached to his door lock, James opened the door slowly and looked out into the night. In the darkness, he could see the emaciated frame of what looked to be an elderly woman, wrapped in a threadbare dark red shawl which billowed slightly in the breeze like crimson reeds on a pond, and which hung gently over her sloping shoulders. He saw her small, wet eyes were only halfway open, shining white and unblinking despite the wind, and he noticed the reflected crescent of his fire in her dulled irises. The caller wrapped the shawl tighter around her head, and she pressed against the doorway as she began to speak.
“I am grateful for your answer. The night is freezing and I am nearly frozen. In fact I am near death. I called at your home for help. I am travelling but I have already travelled so far. I am terrified to walk further, because I may only see the first rays of the morning’s light before I perish in the fields. Will you allow me in so I can warm myself at your fire?”
James shivered, partly from the cold, but also from the timorous voice of the caller at his door, and as he listened he felt the whip of the wind and the ice in the air on his hands and face. He looked again at the face of the caller, but through her shawl and the darkness of the night he could only see her ancient eyes and her pale forehead trembling slightly.
He thought for a moment, and becoming colder with every passing second, James replied.
“It is lucky you called here. Tonight is very cold and this path along the hills will be even worse. I have a fire that you are welcome to share with me. Please come in.”
As he spoke, James closed the door to loosen the chains, so that he could let the caller enter his home. When he opened the door again, the caller was not there. Thinking that perhaps she had moved slightly or kneeled to collect some belongings, James looked out of the door into the night. He scanned the yard, but could still see no-one. He did not want to leave the relative comfort of his own doorstep to investigate further, but he remained there for some time, hoping his eyes would adjust to the darkness, allowing him to search further for the cold and tired visitor.
When the chill on his bones had become almost unbearable, James moved back into his house. He reaffixed the chains from the wall to his door once more. He took a key from his pocket and double-bolted the lock. After ensuring the door was firmly shut, he turned to walk back to his chair. He had taken one single step when a sudden violent gust blew into the cottage through the chimney, extinguishing the fire, sending shards of white- and red-hot coke across the floor and cloaking the entire house beneath an awful blanket of darkness.
Startled, James lurched backwards, leaning against his locked door. Aside from the minute sounds of the coals burning out one by one, the house was silent. Disoriented, first by the darkness of the night outside his door and then the bright flash of his dying fire, James could see nothing in the room, except for the faint, sheening outlines of the room and its contents, lit by the wan moonlight trickling through his windows.
He stood there for a moment, holding his breath, telling himself he was waiting for the last of the coal shards to dissipate, but he really knew he was afraid to move for another, unknown reason.
Finally, he set himself to move into the room to build a new fire. He started again to step away from his door, exhaling loudly. As he did so, he was answered by one bare, unknown footstep in the silence. It was a small sound, like the pop of a dying ember, but it was more than that also. It sounded like a tap of a finger on a table top, or a single drop of water falling from the roof onto a bare floorboard. James froze again, this time starkly chilled by the sound. His eyes, now growing familiar with the darkness and beginning to identify the edges of his chair, the mantel and the table in the moonlight, he searched frantically for some kind of an answer in the gloam.
He stared into the room. The faded trims of his furniture were starting to become clearer, but still he could only see a short distance before him. He looked again, concentrating singularly on seeing whatever else was here in his room. When he had almost blotted out every other distraction and focused his sight into a piercing but nervous glare, he saw.
In the darkness, he saw the slow, fluid motion of a piece of cloth or fabric sliding silently on to the floor, as though it had slipped from the high back of a chair or coat hook. In the sliver of white light rippling through the window, he realised that what lay before him was a heaped red shawl, now motionless, upon the floor.
Breathless, trembling and beading with sweat, James became too terrified even to blink, lest he suddenly lose his limited sight in the midst of the darkness. His eyes were fixed on the inch or two of red shawl that somehow had fallen quietly on the floor before him. He wanted so desperately to understand what was happening in his own home. Too horrified to advance and too petrified to speak, he decided he would slowly turn around and unlock his door, go into the yard and retrieve a torch or at least a matchbook and return to the house with the relative safety of light around him.
Suddenly, James gasped loudly, shattering the silence of the house. Before he could turn, he felt the slow, firm grip of two bony hands clasp around his shoulders, and, no more than a few inches from his face, saw two piercing, wet, unblinking eyes staring back at him.
© 2016 by Robert Davies. All rights reserved.
I wrote this short story in the middle of last year. It’s part of a collection of a few horror/weird fiction stories set in South Wales. I’d like to develop this collection more this year, and I’d be eager to hear your feedback on this, so if you could leave a comment after reading, I would be very grateful. Thank you.