Binding

Ghostly Demarcations

Joe Taylor

 

Synopsis:  "

"Unabashedly conventional horror tales with an understated but remarkable lead character." ~Kirkus Reviews.

Sale Price: $10

              

 

 

  About the Author:  Joe Taylor spent a good part of his life in Kentucky, where he earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy at UK. He worked as a waiter in West Palm Beach before moving to Tallahassee to earn his Ph.D. in creative writing.

 

 

 

 

Excerpt from the Book:

Galen’s Mountain Child

 

“I knew it was a ghost because he was more afraid than I was,” Galen said about his sighting. “There was a kid, up on this mountain—” Galen jerked his thumb toward the attic’s sole window— “years back. He was kept chained in a cellar and got burned alive. It was him, I’m sure.”

            The house we were staying in was a two-story farmhouse. In its basement sat an ominous, rust-brown coal-heating unit, which would occasionally clank or pop through all the vents. The house was built on the side of a mountain near Irvine, Kentucky, and the mountain itself sat half a mile from Red River, where Mr. and Mrs. Moore—the house’s owners—kept bottomland to raise corn, mostly used to slop their hogs. Situated near the mountain’s foot, this house was the first of three. The other two were spaced about four and then five hundred yards as you climbed. I’d walked up to the second house once when I went to visit with Galen, but I never saw the third, for it lay on the mountain’s far side, away from the river. Back then, Kentucky had a good deal of snow in the hardest part of winter, especially in the eastern coal part of the state. Back then, there was a good deal of unreported child and wife abuse, especially in that same region, so Galen’s comment about the chained kid seemed . . . well, normally awful.

            We were supposed to be sleeping in the unfinished attic, a huge room that topped a third of the downstairs area. What all was stored in the remainder of the attic behind a plywood partition I never learned. It was winter and it was snowing, large flakes that softly nipped at our bedroom’s single window like lonesome, misplaced summer moths. Usually, Galen visited his grandparents then, in summer I mean, when school was out, but this time was different. I got invited as the semi-orphan, since I had a single mom just like Galen, or maybe I was there as someone to keep Galen out of the way. I think his mom was having money problems, which was why she visited in winter, and maybe she needed to talk with her parents alone.

            “Over there is where he stood,” Galen continued. “By that little iron bed. He was staring at the crib in the corner.”

            “How’d you know it was a he?” I asked, checking the crib, which struck me as creepy enough already, since its white sheets had cradled nothing but dust for well over a decade.

            Galen gave a soft snort. “If it was a she I would have invited her here to my bed.” Galen patted his mattress, extending his arm and crooking a finger in a come-hither gesture. Even at our ages, thirteen and almost eleven, Galen was over-developing into a sex fiend. No wonder he wound up in the Navy five years later.

            Wind picked up outside and snow pelted the window beside us. Galen’s arm was still raised, his finger still motioning a come-hither crook.

            “Shit,” he whispered.

            “Damn,” I said.

            A sheaf of fog hung beside the crib, its coldness swirling slowly toward us. Someone rattled a pan downstairs—Mrs. Moore washing dishes? Two black eyes from the sheaf snapped open, and the fog filtered upward to soak into the bare wood slats of the roof. Snow still pelted the window.

            “You think it was him?” I asked.

            “Shit, I was just making that mostly up.”

            “Well, do you think?”

            A crash erupted from downstairs. We used that excuse to hop from the bed we sat on and run down the steps.

            When we rounded the corner, we saw Mawey—that’s what everyone called Mrs. Moore, Galen’s maternal grandmother—standing in the kitchen slack-mouthed. She was staring toward the enclosed skinny run that led along the back of the house, behind the bathroom and the bedroom Galen’s mom slept in. About thirty feet long, this run also crossed over the cellar and the furnace. Mawey’s husband ran into the kitchen behind us, with Galen’s mom not far behind.

            Mawey stood at a counter and pointed along the enclosed run. “A little boy. I was setting out the coffee for percolating tomorrow. He must have opened that screen door, but I didn’t hear.” She returned to staring.  We four walked around the refrigerator to look. The plastic tacked up for winter to cover the dogtrot’s summer screening flapped in cold wind, but that distant outer door remained shut. Then a calico kitten jumped onto the hip-high balustrade, a low tongue-in-groove barrier painted chalky blue that separated the dogtrot from the steep steps leading down to the cellar. Its purpose must have been to keep people from falling, but the Moores used it as a catchall for harnesses, kettles, and boots. The kitten balanced atop a harness, and then jumped to hit the dogtrot’s green linoleum with a soft thump. The kitten looked at us, then back toward the screen door’s flapping plastic, then hissed and jumped again on the balustrade to disappear down the steps. The door’s plastic covering snapped hard from a gust of wind.

            “I’m going to check that latch,” Mr. Moore said. He reached back to pick up a piece of kindling from a pile beside the refrigerator before heading to the door.

            “It was just a boy.” Mawey’s voice was quiet.

            “I just want to make sure.”

            “Maybe he’s lost out in this snowstorm,” Galen’s mom said.

            Galen made a screwed-up face. His mom had been dating men starting the year after Galen’s dad died and she hadn’t been the gospel of kindness. Or maybe she was the gospel to the men, but not even the epistle to Galen.

            Mr. Moore came back after calling outside several times, rousing the rooster in the hen house to crowing for his efforts.

            “You know who he looked like,” Mawey started. She heaved a sigh. Mawey was as considerable a woman as her husband was wiry.

            “Let’s all go to bed,” Mr. Moore interrupted, rapping the kindling on the breakfast table. “Enough for one night. You boys latch that stairway door.”

            That was nearly as much as I’d ever heard him say. Though Galen’s grandfather lived on for several years, I never heard his voice again after that night. If we humans could always recognize the last words we were ever to hear from each person we knew or even met, our lives would perch as fragile indeed, gathering tragedy every listening moment to lean over a dark cellar, of dark farewells.

            As the plastic covering the line of windows and the door continued to snap, Mr. Moore and the other two adults hurried us toward the stairs to the attic room. Galen and I hesitated at the steps, considering what we’d seen up there moments before, but the door got closed behind us, and Galen obediently dropped the feeble latch into place.

            “As if that’ll keep him out,” Galen’s mom murmured on the other side of the door as the latch clicked its little click.

            “Hush,” Mawey retorted. The three of them shuffled off. Galen and I climbed the creaky wooden steps but stopped when we heard the two women speak again.

            “The mountain child hasn’t been around for nearly two years, since Weldon died.”

            “Momma, you . . .”

            Their conversation shuffled into silence, so Galen and I climbed on to again sit on his bed. We weren’t about to sleep.

            “I wasn’t really making all that up,” Galen said, staring into the corner at the iron crib. I stared there too, aware of the wind and snow buffeting the window to my right.

            “Weldon was your dad’s name, wasn’t it?”

            Galen nodded. “My grandmother thinks that the mountain child kept coming to call him home. She’s said it before.”

            I’d heard about this type of messenger ghost in something I’d read or maybe heard around my single Cub Scout campfire, so I nodded wisely. Galen and I had left a table lamp on, by the window. Galen had dark, almost Cherokee skin from his dad. Now it looked as pale as mine in the bulb’s glare, since there was no lampshade. A noise sounded by the crib in the far corner and we jumped. But it was nothing. The only real sound was the wind and snow pelting the window.

            “I wasn’t making it up,” Galen said again. “There used to be a fourth house near the top of the hill, on the far side. It burned down. I climbed to see it last summer, but everything was overgrown. It took me an hour to find what was left of the chimney. Grandpa and the other folks living around here filled in the cellar because that’s where they kept the boy roped up, chained up. They found his burned body after the fire. Some say maybe he was retarded, some say he wasn’t, just made that way because of his father and mother and the chains. Mawey says they were the ones retarded.”

            I’d been there three days and was used to the old house creaking and shifting with the winter cold, the furnace popping in the middle of the night. But no sound came, except Galen’s voice. Even the snow had slacked off, so there was mostly just silence.

            “My mom says she was lots younger even than me when this happened. The man and the woman just disappeared. Someone claimed they’d seen them in town at the Greyhound station. No one knew about the boy.

            “Then the Masters, they’re not the ones farthest up, but the ones with some green apple trees, then they started hearing whimpering. They thought there was a dog lost, or maybe a bear cub, which scared them, because momma bears can be mean when they have cubs.”

            Through the heating pipe—Mr. Moore had enclosed old chimney pipe in bricks and cement—we heard a high noise.

            “One of the kittens?” I asked. I was supposed to stay five days, and Mawey said I could have one from the litter to take home.

            Galen shrugged. I felt this from the bed and saw it in the shadow he cast on the wall.

            “Mr. Masters and his two sons took shotguns and went with a dog searching, but couldn’t find anything. They stopped at both houses farther up. The very top one with the people who’d left was empty, but no one knew they’d gone at that time, much less that they’d left the mountain child behind—that’s how people call him now.”

            Another meow—that’s what it was for sure—through the heating pipe. But Galen said,

            “That’s not a cat or a kitten.”

            We listened. We heard nothing.

            “Soon enough, the people on up the other side of the mountain heard the noise too. The man there joined the Masters and his sons, and this time they spent half a day looking, and again went up to the highest house—remember, they still didn’t know about the mountain child—but it was locked. By this time, rumor’d spread about the couple being at the bus station, but you need to mind your own business, so they called at the locked door and went away when no one answered.”

            The cat—or whatever it was—started up again through the nearby pipe. This time it sounded like a voice to me.

            “It’s saying ‘Help me.’ ”

            “It’s a kitten,” Galen said, contradicting his earlier self and coughing.

            Galen had started smoking on the sly. I think it was to irritate his mother, who was ignoring him for all the men hanging around. She had a job in a dress shop that sold mostly patterns and fabric, so I don’t know where she met the men, looking back on matters. Where there’s a need, there’s a way, I suppose. Galen reached under his mattress for his pack of cigarettes and some matches, which he shook. He gave me a look.

            “Help me.”

            “There, did you hear it?”

            “It’s a kitten,” Galen said.

            Something else came through the pipe, several times, a boy’s voice for sure. Years later I told Galen that the voice was calling out in French and Spanish and other languages. “You’re full of shit, college boy,” was his answer. “Drink your beer.”

            But back then, in the lamp’s light on that cold night, I looked at Galen and shook my head, even as the voice repeated its plea. Help me.

            “A kitten. I’ll prove it.” Galen put the cigarettes and matches in his shirt pocket. “Get your coat and walk down on the left side of the steps, except when I pull you to the right for three of them that squeak. No noise that way.”

            We put on our coats and walked down the stairs, quietly enough to still hear the voice echoing from the heating pipe above. Why weren’t the Moores and Galen’s mom up? Couldn’t they hear this voice calling through their vents?

            By the refrigerator Galen stopped to pick up a piece of kindling, just as his granddad had. Kid see, kid do, so I picked up one also. I’m left-handed, so Galen and I balanced in an odd fashion. We went through the kitchen and then out onto the enclosed run, a walkway wide enough to be partly used as storage as I mentioned. Galen nimbly avoided a couple of boxes and some leather harnessing. His grandfather used a mule for plowing the corn and beans. I leaned over the balustrade to listen to the cellar, but heard nothing, no meows, no hisses, no voices.

            We sneaked open the screen door, the wind flapping its plastic and disguising the sound of the door’s unlatching and creaking. It had stopped snowing and the temperature had dropped ridiculously. A strong moon lit the fallen snow. The rooster was still crowing, though not as often.

            “Let’s light up. It’ll calm our nerves.”

            I had no idea what movie Galen got this from. Or maybe it was a TV western or detective show.

            “If you’re going to cough, don’t inhale,” Galen told me.

            Ayuadame! Hilf mir! M’Aidez! Pomozite mi!” The voice was a whisper, it was high whispers, low whispers, rolling whispers. I looked to Galen, but he was only watching the glow of his cigarette and shivering. I don’t mean to say that I heard these distinct languages then, or even held them in my memory when I told this to Galen years later after he’d returned from the Navy. Sometimes you just know things. I will say, however, that a crackling of cold skipped across my shoulders later when I sat at a faraway desk in a faraway high school studying, ¿Donde es la biblioteca, Isabel? and spotted the word ayuadame.

            A physical blast of cold hit both Galen and me standing outside. We stood staring at the henhouse thirty yards away. The rooster had at last gone back to sleep, maybe lulled by the wind, which seemed to be playing a weird symphony, crashing now through the clacking, half frozen pines, simpering now with frosty sibilance through the snowy mountainside. My fingers stung with cold. Help me. Galen lit another cigarette. I had a gag reflex when he offered me one, so he put the pack in his shirt pocket. Ayuadame. My body was shivering now, and so was Galen’s. The wind picked up to play a Tchaikovskian finale of Napoleonic grandeur, sweeping across Russia and the frozen corpses of French infantry, just simple, gulled men who’d been promoting egality. The tip of Galen’s cigarette glowed without cease. The backs of my hands stung, my ears burnt. Somewhere up the mountain a large limb cracked under accumulating snow.

            Help me.

            There, I heard it for sure.

            “As soon as I finish this fag, let’s go look at the kittens,” Galen said.

            “Maybe we should just go back upstairs.”

            Help me.

            “We need to get something cleared first.” Galen flipped his cigarette toward the line of pines heading up the mountainside, but a gust blew it back at his face. He slipped aside and it hit in the gravel drive. He flipped it again, more effectively this time. The wind turned to a steady howl, like it can in the mountains.

            “Let’s go.”

            We went back in, latching the door. The plastic covering kept still now, respecting the steady howl outside.

            Help me.

            “Damn kittens never sleep.”

            “It’s not kittens,” I replied.

            Galen didn’t respond. Instead, he picked up a flashlight at the head of the basement steps and started down. The stairs seemed a mix of concrete and earth that completely muted our footsteps. A third of the way down Galen turned on the flashlight, when the reflective light from the outside snow faded.

            “Kitty-kitty,” I called when we neared the bottom.

            “Shh,” Galen hissed. Rounding the corner, we flipped on the single electric bulb that hung overhead away from the furnace. Its low wattage glowed. All the kittens scattered, even though they weren’t feral. Where’s the mother, I wondered. Out chasing a tomcat, like Galen’s mom?

            The floor of the cellar seemed to be the same mixture of concrete and dirt that made the steps. One kitten’s mew came from coal piled in the corner, another from wooden crates in the opposite near corner. A pair of long iron pincer tongs fell, clattering.

            “Help me.”

            A screak and a bang, then a yellow light glowed from inside the furnace, as if the overhead bulb had stretched its wires and now dangled in there. But it was the furnace’s somehow opened door creating that light. A low, droning roar emitted from the exposed bed of coal, and a child sat in there—yes!—a child sat inside, atop those live, softly burning coals—keeping its back to us.

            “Shit.”

            “Damn.”

            The child, a glowing young boy, turned at our voices, clanking a chain. When he saw us he stood and fiercely tugged at the chain. Chunks of glowing coal popped up from the orange bed as he kicked and tugged, his eyes widening terribly, his mouth opening in a silent but horrible scream. He fell onto the bed of coals and then stood, staying in a panic and pulling at the chain, which seemed to be connected to the furnace’s inner wall. A chunk of white-orange coal hopped from the furnace’s mouth. The boy leaned backward at an impossible angle, frantically tugging the chain around his ankle until somehow the furnace door got slammed shut.

            The hunk of coal lay smoldering where it had landed. On a mat? A slat of wood? A small fire ignited.

            “Shit,” Galen said. “Go put on those gloves from on that crate.” While I ran and donned the fireman’s gloves, which engulfed my hands, Galen himself grabbed the tongs that had fallen. With them, he picked up the coal, stomping the mat at the same time. I helped until the fire went out.

            We both then stared at the closed furnace door. A kitten mewed. Another batted something across the floor. We stared.

            “This coal is heavy and hot,” Galen said, nudging me.

            I nodded and opened the furnace’s door with the gloves. A white-orange bed of coals was all I saw. Galen tossed in the chunk with the tongs, and I looked in again. After sparkling from the chunk, the coals returned into one evenly burning hypnotic orange bed.

            “Close it,” Galen said.

            I did. A kitten rubbed my leg, the jumpy calico from earlier that I’d wind up taking home. We made sure the mat was extinguished, then walked up the steps and outside for one last smoke to calm our nerves.

Galen was right: Just drink my beer and shut up. And I suppose that one way or another I concocted all the foreign language business. But just four nights ago as I pulled my record player from storage to listen to Eddie Arnold’s “Cattle Call”—musicians are right, analog beats digital hands down—I realized something about that burning kid’s voice: he wasn’t calling out ‘Help me’ in any language; he was singing, merrily singing to himself, amid those fiery coals. So I will stop now . . . but here’s one last thing I want you to riddle me . . . what kind of damnable world is it where a child’s singing ghost turns around, only to get thrown in a panic on seeing the living?


 

 


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