The October Selected Writer is Jim Mountfield
Please feel free to email Jim at: email@example.com
THE MALEVOLENT AGED GRIN
The branch snapped. What twelve-year-old Jeff was clutching was no longer attached to the tree and he dropped into the pool. The water felt unexpectedly hard as he struck it and cold as he vanished beneath it.
His reflexes took over before he even realized what happened. His legs kicked and his arms flailed and a moment after the water closed over his head, he burst up through it again. A second reflex made him gulp air. After another moment, despite his kicking and flailing, he started sinking and his head went under.
He didn’t feel panic as he descended and the green-brown water darkened around him. Instead, he felt angry with himself. He hadn’t wanted Raymond, standing a few yards along from him, to think he was foolish. He hadn’t wanted him to see that his fishing-line had got caught on a knurl of wood on an overhead branch. That was why Jeff had silently propped the rod against the tree-trunk behind him and reached up, gripped the branch and stretched out towards the snagged line until he was hanging over the water. But now he’d made himself look a hundred times more foolish.
Fronds of underwater weed closed about him like a net. He sensed the water pressing against him, straining to get inside him, which it would do if he tried to inhale. He felt pain growing in his lungs as the air he’d sucked in at the surface became toxic. Then he did panic and he thrashed and kicked again. He struck something solid next to him, the pool’s side, and the water got even darker as it clouded with particles of dirt.
While the pain intensified in his chest, blackness seemed to close around his vision like an iris closing around a camera lens, so that his images of the cloudy water and frills of weed grew smaller and smaller. But before they shrank away entirely, something new appeared in front of him.
He saw a single round eye and a section of lipless mouth that grinned and showed spiky teeth along its edges. Surrounding the eye and mouth were scales, translucently green and gold scales that were visible despite the water’s muddiness. The eye stared and the mouth grinned at him through the tangled weed and suddenly he felt like a jungle explorer who’d come face-to-face with a jungle predator.
Still his vision shrank as the blackness encroached on it. Finally, all he could see was the face’s eye, glassy and dead-looking but seeming to leer at him.
Almost delirious from lack of air, he reached towards the eye. But instead his hand encountered something small and hard that sank through the water before him—a piece of debris his flailing had dislodged from the pool’s side. Instinctively he grabbed hold of it.
He was vaguely aware of something crashing into the pool above him. Waves of displaced water and distorted noise descended around him and pummeled him. He felt two large hands grapple with him and start dragging him upwards.
On the brink of losing consciousness, Jeff looked again at the eye but saw only blackness.
Jeff convulsed and spluttered, his body trying to both expel the bad air and suck in the good air that surrounded him again.
A face—no, a mouth—hovered above him. This mouth, he saw, was long and slit-like. It lacked lips and contained pointed teeth. He screamed.
The face retreated. “Jeff!” shouted Raymond. “You’re safe!”
Jeff saw that Raymond was kneeling over him, his clothes dripping with water and his hair clinging to his face in slimy tendrils. He had a human pair of lips again and, behind them, a human set of teeth.
“Safe…” Jeff repeated, trying to shut out the memories of what he’d glimpsed in the pool’s depths. Then he remembered what’d happened before that and blurted, “I’m sorry. I was stupid, thinking that branch would hold me.”
Raymond got to his feet, still dripping. “I’m just glad you’re okay. I was about to try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on you.” Then he bent over and retched bile and water onto the grass. “I don’t know what’s down there but it tastes foul. I swallowed a bucketful.”
“I must have held my breath. I didn’t swallow anything.” He sat up. “Raymond, thanks for pulling me out of there.”
But Raymond wasn’t listening. He turned towards the water’s edge and bent over again, in readiness for more vomiting. Meanwhile, Jeff discovered something clutched in his right hand. It was a long, black stone, flat and sharp-edged—sharp enough to hurt as the edges dug into his palm. He remembered grabbing it while the pool-side crumbled beside him. He examined the stone and saw a jagged white line scored across its surface. Without knowing why, he slipped it into one of his pockets.
More retching noises came from Raymond at the poolside but these weren’t accompanied by the sound of bile splattering into the water. Nothing came out of him now. If he’d swallowed something more in the pool’s depths, it stayed inside him.
Finally, to Jeff’s relief, Raymond said, “Let’s go,” and they started along the path from the pool to the farmstead. Raymond took long strides and held himself straight and tall—the way his years in the army had trained him to walk. Jeff struggled to keep up with him.
According to a signpost, the path was called Swinton’s Way. It ran along a ridge a few feet higher than the rest of the valley floor. On one side of the ridge was a field whose grass was being cropped by a herd of Friesen cattle. On the other side was the strip of ground that contained the river. It was overgrown with spiky rushes, purple-crowned thistles, red-seeded dock-plants and swathes of long grass that were flecked with yellow dandelions. Everything grew so high and thick that the river was hidden, its progress along the valley visible only as a long twisting trench in the foliage.
They arrived at a place where another path branched off from the main one. It went down the ridge’s river-facing side and vanished into the undergrowth. Where this second path descended, the ground looked treacherously muddy.
“When we reach the cottage, we’ll take showers and stick our clothes in the washing machine,” said Raymond. His voice had a faint gurgling tone, as if there was still pool-water in his throat. “And we’ll pretend to your mum that we had an accident here. We tried to follow that side-path to the river. Going down it we slipped and fell. Got covered in mud.”
Conspiratorially, he smiled and winked at Jeff. The wink seemed to last too long and his other eye, his open eye, became too conspicuous. Somehow, it looked round, glassy and lifeless.
“Okay,” Jeff agreed when the wink ended and Raymond had two normal eyes again.
The farmstead stood on a knoll in the middle of the valley floor and Swinton’s Way ended at a flight of stone steps that climbed up to it. Part of the knoll had been dug away there, leaving a vertical face a few meters high that was covered with concrete blocks. When the animal-sheds above were cleaned out, the manure was tipped over the edge, down the front of the blocks and into an enclosure with a semi-circular wall at the bottom. Now liquefying dung filled the enclosure, making it resemble a black, evil pond. Fortunately, the breeze didn’t usually blow in a direction that carried its stench to their holiday cottage on the other side of the farmstead.
They encountered Old Wilson, the farmer, just beyond the top of the steps. Jeff suspected he’d been loitering there for the past minutes, watching them approach along Swinton’s Way. Old Wilson’s eyes glinted from his red, leathery face, amused at their wet hair and clothes. “Oh dear,” he said. “Have an accident, did we?”
“Yeah,” growled Raymond, “and no bloody wonder. The sides of that pool were so overgrown there was hardly an inch of space to get a footing. And you said it was a good finishing spot. As if! It was like a jungle!”
“I said it was a good fishin’ spot. Until them sods from the Environmental Department got involved. They made me plant new bushes along them riverbanks. An’ they made me leave what was already growin’ there to run rampant.” Old Wilson cackled. “Said it reduced floodin’ an’ increased biodiversity. Them an’ their stupid fancy words. Biodiversity!”
Jeff left the two men to their argument and continued to the cottage. Its main room was a living room with a kitchenette at the end. A washing machine was positioned in the middle of the kitchen-units and he stripped before it and stuffed his clothes through its round aperture.
He noticed a long, narrow picture-frame hanging on the wall over the machine. Inside the frame was a map crossed by the winding blue line of a river. It threaded between various hills and was finally absorbed by the blue mass of the sea. Jeff wondered why that river-line looked familiar.
Fifteen minutes later, clad in a clean T-shirt and pair of jeans but with his hair still wet and uncombed, he stepped into the kitchenette again. He found Raymond slumped against the washing machine, hands clutching its top, eyes seemingly fixed on the framed river-map above. Raymond was naked and his soaking clothes lay in a pile at his feet. The room stank and for a moment Jeff wondered if a breeze was blowing from the pond where old Wilson dumped the manure. But then he realized this stench suggested rotting weeds and stagnant water and, worst of all, fish that’d gone bad.
A gurgling voice said “Swinton!”
Jeff backed away, only to be blocked by the door behind him. A beam of sunlight streamed through a window, floated across Raymond’s sinewy torso and seemed to flash on green and gold scales. His spine was crooked and his head thrust forward from his shoulders, long and sleek.
Then Raymond turned his head so that Jeff could see his face. His eyes had become small and round. His mouth resembled a gash, cut from one end of his jawbone to the other, with small needles of teeth jutting over its edges. Jeff’s legs seemed to lose power and he began to slide down the door. He felt he was back at the bottom of the pool, his lungs ready to explode, darkness closing on him from either side. And that face before him again…
But before he lost consciousness again, he heard sounds—strange, distorted sounds, which then turned into words.
Raymond’s words, “Shit. Your mum. Oh shit!” And Jeff also heard a car-engine and car-tyres smacking across the gravel at the cottage’s side.
He noticed that the cottage was suddenly free of the hideous smell. And Raymond, he saw, looked human again. The man squatted, scooped up his clothes, forced them into the washing machine, slammed its door and pushed the buttons above. Even before the machine clicked into life and the clothes started turning in its drum, he’d rushed past the door behind Jeff. “Tell her I’m in the shower,” he shouted from the passageway. “And remember our story!”
Jeff ran from the cottage. He’d crossed a half-dozen yards of gravel when he almost crashed into his mother. In her arms she carried a big paper bag, stuffed full of groceries and with the necks of two wine-bottles poking out of its top.
“Where are you sprinting to?” she demanded. “And why’s your hair wet?”
Jeff felt there were a thousand things he needed to say. But all that came out of him was: “We were going down a bank beside the river. And we slipped and fell in some mud. Lots of mud.”
Jeff scrutinized Raymond. He seemed normal, sitting with his soldierly straightness in one of the plastic garden-chairs on the cottage lawn. Just now he was describing the cycling trip that he’d planned for tomorrow.
“I’m not looking forward to this,” prattled Jeff’s mother while she poured herself another glass of wine. “Me being so unfit!”
“There’s hardly any gradient,” Raymond told her. “You won’t notice it.”
“And Old Wilson’s providing the bikes for us?”
“That’s what he’s promised.”
“You see? He’s not a bad sort, Raymond.”
“Old Wilson? He’s a nosy bugger. Always hanging around, watching us.”
“Oh, Raymond. His wife died of cancer last year. I’m sure he hasn’t got over that. He’s lonely.”
“Maybe he’s hoping to cure his loneliness. Maybe he fancies you.”
“Raymond, don’t be a brat!” Then her voice dropped. “Change the subject. I think he’s coming.”
Raymond groaned softly. “Speak of the devil.”
Sure enough, the gravel crackled as someone wearing wellington boots trudged across it. When Old Wilson reached the lawn, Jeff’s mother offered him some wine and he accepted gratefully. His body creaked as it sank into a spare chair.
The adults passed a few minutes with small-talk and then Jeff surprised himself by saying something. “Why,” he asked, “is the path by the river called Swinton’s Way?”
“Aha,” said the farmer. “There’s a great story about that. Once upon a time—well, 16th century—a sorcerer called Jacob Swinton lived here.”
“A sorcerer?” echoed Jeff’s mother. Already, she was refilling her wine-glass.
“Well, all learned men in them days were thought of as sorcerers. The legend goes that Swinton was havin’ a bitter feud with a fellow sorcerer who went by the name of Stephen Galt. This Galt was a bad ’un —a practitioner of the dark arts.” Old Wilson pointed into the distance, where the sky had become a dark, smoky blue and grains of starlight had appeared above the hilltops. “Galt lived in the hills near to where the Pikeston—the river runnin’ through this farm—has its source. What he didn’t know was that Swinton had the power to undo the silver cord. To make his dream-self leave his body when he was sleepin’.”
“Astral projection,” said Raymond.
“Aye, I believe that’s the modern term. So one night, Swinton sent his dream-self floatin’ over the hills to spy on his rival. An’ what did he find Galt up to? Why, he was in the middle of conductin’ a ritual next to the source of the Pikeston. Conjurin’ up an evil water spirit. Which he intended to send down the river, to Swinton’s home here, to destroy him!
“Swinton’s dream-self rushed back to his sleeping body. Havin’ woke up, he quickly set to work fashioning a magical talisman. An’ then he ran along the path, now called Swinton’s way, to its end—which overlooks a spot where the river widens and forms a pool. There he ambushed the spirit as it came downriver to kill him. He cast the talisman into the water. It trapped the spirit there, not able to continue downriver, not able to retreat upriver either.”
Old Wilson paused for dramatic effect. Then he intoned, “They say the water-spirit lurks in the pool to this very day!”
Jeff couldn’t stop himself. He yelled at the farmer, “And if you knew that, why did you let us go there this morning?”
His mother’s face was already flushed with wine but now it turned even redder. “Jeff!” she cried. “What’s got into you? It’s just a story.”
Old Wilson looked confused and hurt. “Aye, lad. It’s only a story.”
“Besides,” said Raymond. “We didn’t even get to that pool today. We fell in the mud and had to come back to wash. Remember?” Again he gave Jeff a conspiratorial wink and again, momentarily, his one visible eye was round and glassy-looking.
“I’m sorry,” muttered Jeff. “The story spooked me.”
He got up and walked away from the adults. Behind him he heard Raymond ask, “Do you live in Jacob Swinton’s house?”
“Oh no,” said Old Wilson. “He was 16th century and the oldest buildin’ in this farmstead is 19th century. He may have lived on this site, though.”
Jeff moved along the lawn to where some clothes were pegged to a washing line. He located the trousers he’d worn that morning and from one of their damp pockets he took out the flat black stone he’d found at the pool. Then he entered the cottage and re-examined the map on the kitchenette’s wall. As he’d suspected, the white line scrawled across the stone was a miniature version of the river winding across the map.
So not just a stone. “A talisman,” he whispered.
Hours later, Jeff sat on his bed, still awake and clothed and still gripping the stone. Then, suddenly, his bedroom door creaked as something brushed against its other side. He heard too a slobbering sound that suggested a creature struggling to breathe in an environment that wasn’t suited to its way of breathing.
He pocketed the stone, left the bed and tiptoed to the door. When he was sure that the passageway was silent again, he eased the door open and peered through. He saw no movement. Summoning all his courage, he crept out.
The next door along belonged to the room his mother used as her bedroom. From it he could hear low rasping noises—the snores his mother made when she’d crashed out after drinking too much wine. The third door along was that of Raymond’s room and it hung open. Everything was dark and still behind it.
Down the passageway wafted familiar smells of things watery and decayed.
Jeff turned the other way and found himself just inches from a face—one that was level with his own face because the body to which it belonged was so twisted and stooped. A mouth slashed across it, almost splitting it in half. Eyes protruded from the scaly flesh above the mouth like two glass studs. Just before the horror of what he was seeing struck him, Jeff wondered if that face, stretched across its long monstrous head, had belonged to Raymond—once.
Then he was dimly aware of crashing and tripping and scrambling through the passageway, kitchenette and living room, out of the cottage, across the gravel and past his mother’s car. For a moment he thought he was moving so fast that the air was shrieking around him. But no, he realised he was the thing that was shrieking.
Only when he was in the yard beyond the cottage did his wits return. He saw the silhouette of Old Wilson’s farmhouse rising a couple of storeys before him, blocking part of the starry night-sky. A light came on in one of its upper windows.
From the window Old Wilson shouted, “Who’s down there? Who’s makin’ that racket?”
Jeff was about to shout back, “Help me!” when he noticed a putrid reek behind him. Wet hands grabbed him and his words turned into another scream. He struggled free of the hands but stumbled and fell face-down. Distantly, he heard Old Wilson again:
“Right, that’s it! I’m comin’ down! An’ I’m bringin’ my shotgun with me!”
Sprawled flat, Jeff waited for the hands to seize him again. They didn’t. Instead, he heard a gurgling voice. “Swinton!” It struggled to pronounce the name—as if forcing the sound from a twisted gullet, through malformed jaws, past a mouthful of ooze.
Jeff looked sideways, across the ground to the farmhouse. He saw a window-light come on in its bottom storey and then an outside light above its front door. The door opened and Old Wilson, in a mismatching outfit of dressing gown and wellingtons, burst out into the yard. Jeff almost sobbed in despair. Where was the shotgun? He realised the old man had been bluffing. He was unarmed.
Above Jeff, the creature immediately sprang forward, seized Old Wilson and slammed him back against the doorway.
Something made Jeff struggle to his feet and run forward too, yelling, “No, not him! Me! I’m Swinton! I’m Jacob Swinton! It’s me you want!”
The creature relinquished its hold on Old Wilson and the farmer, already unconscious, perhaps already dead, flopped down on the house’s doorstep. It swung towards Jeff, horribly visible again below the outside light.
Jeff shouted “I’m Swinton!” once more and held up the stone. “See? This is one of my talismans. Proof of my powers!”
The thing lurched at him.
Jeff spun around and bolted down an alleyway that separated the farmhouse from the cottage and led to the rear of the farmstead. Sheds towered on either side of him, burying the stars behind them. He charged through darkness—once scraping against a concrete wall, another time clattering along a corrugated-iron one, a third time nearly tripping over a metal bucket that clanged away from his feet.
Then he cleared the farm-buildings. Their black walls gave way to a huge star-flecked sky with, at its far edge, a dark bowl formed by the valley floor and adjacent hills.
Jeff realized where he was and scrabbled to a halt. He stood at the precipice overlooking the semi-circular pond, filled with manure from Old Wilson’s sheds. A moment later, the pond’s stench was displaced by a worse, all-too-familiar stench and he felt the same wet hands grasp him from behind. Before the hands could find his throat, he flung the black stone out in front of him. It flew over the edge and down to the pond and splashed beneath its surface.
He heard a weird bubbling screech and Raymond’s body toppled past him and over the edge. Jeff grabbed at the falling body and managed to catch onto some fabric—an old T-shirt Raymond wore in bed. The man’s weight almost pulled Jeff over but he flung himself backwards and kept clutching the T-shirt. Somehow, he wrestled enough of Raymond back across the edge so that he didn’t plunge into the pond.
Something erupted out of Raymond’s body and briefly seemed to hover in mid-air, separate from him, man-sized but not man-shaped. Then it dropped. Jeff expected to hear another splash as the entity followed the stone into the mire below but there was no sound.
Then on the ground Raymond writhed and kicked and spluttered so violently that Jeff had to spring back. Ironically, his convulsions made Jeff think of a fish that someone had just yanked from a river.
At least he knew that what appeared as Raymond now really was Raymond.
The paramedics asked few questions. They were in a hurry to take away Old Wilson, an oxygen mask encasing his face, four electrical leads stuck to his white-haired chest. Raymond sat on the farmhouse doorstep, pale, trembling, drenched in sweat. But his condition didn’t arouse suspicion. He’d spent the past half-hour pounding the heels of his hands on Old Wilson’s breastbone and trying to blow air down his throat.
In an exhausted voice he said to one of the paramedics, “He’s not going to make it, is he?”
The paramedic evaded the question. “I think you did a good job keeping him ticking over till we came.”
“I knew an army doctor in Afghanistan,” said Raymond. “He told me that of the hundreds of people he did CPR on, only three of them survived.”
“Which regiment were you in?”
“Royal Anglian. Second Battalion.”
“I was armored infantry,” said the paramedic. “First Yorks.” For a moment Jeff thought they were going to salute each other.
Once the ambulance had left, Raymond looked at Jeff and demanded, “Did I attack him?”
“No,” Jeff lied. “I told you what happened. I heard you get up and go outside. I followed you and found you wandering about the farmstead. In a trance. Like you were sleepwalking.”
“But I’ve never sleepwalked before!”
“It’s a good thing you did tonight. We wouldn’t have found Mr. Wilson otherwise. Maybe as he was having the heart attack he heard us outside. He tried to come out to us, for help.”
Raymond sighed. “I have a confession to make, Jeff. I wasn’t a well man when I returned from Afghanistan. I suffered a breakdown. Post-traumatic stress disorder. And the worst thing about it was that if I woke up suddenly, I could be violent. I could lash out because I didn’t realize I was home, because I thought I was still in combat. That’s why your mother and I sleep in different bedrooms. She thinks it’s because I’m acting the gentleman, not wanting to pressure her into making our relationship…intimate. But really it’s because I’m scared what might happen.”
Jeff glanced at the cottage window behind which his mother slept, doused with wine, mercifully oblivious to tonight’s events.
“Maybe she suspects there’s something wrong with me. Maybe that’s why she’s been drinking so much during this holiday.” Then Raymond clamped his hands against his face and started sobbing. “But I haven’t sleepwalked before.”
Jeff walked away—partly because he found the sight of Raymond’s tears upsetting, partly because there was something he needed to check and be sure about.
He arrived back at the edge of the farmstead overlooking the valley-floor where Swinton’s Way meandered between the fields and riverbanks, from the pool where he’d nearly drowned. The usual stench rose off the second pool, the rancid one directly beneath him.
Embers of light had appeared above the hills to the east. Now in the soft glow of the dawn something caught Jeff’s attention. A few meters below, he saw movement on the pond’s dark, gelatinous surface – a fleeting shimmer of green and gold. And then he began to make something else out amid its foulness. A long smile edged with neat, sharp teeth. A round eye peered at him conspiratorially. Unable to help himself, Jeff started reaching towards the face. Reaching forwards… reaching downwards…
“Jeff,” said a voice behind him. The spell ceased and Jeff retreated from the edge he’d almost stepped over. He turned and faced Raymond.
The man was hoarse-voiced but sounded more composed. “We’d better get some sleep. When we’re awake again and your mum’s awake we’ll decide what to do about the rest of the holiday.”
“Bedtime,” said Jeff. “Good idea.”
They returned to the cottage, Raymond moving with long strides and a straight back, Jeff keeping up with him and walking tall beside him.
Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland and brought up in Scotland and lives now in Sri Lanka. His fiction has appeared, sometimes under pseudonyms, in e-zines, magazines and newspapers like The Belfast Telegraph, Blood Moon Rising, Death Head Grin, the Dream Zone, the Eildon Tree, Flashes in the Dark, Groundswell, Gutter, Hellfire Crossroads, Hungur, The Honest Ulsterman, Legend, The Peeblesshire News, Roadworks, Scratchings and Sorcerous Signals.