I am alone. I live in a farmhouse in the wilds of western Massachusetts. Loneliness is a condition that I have experienced for most of my life. And it is a condition I do not expect to change before my life comes to an end. But this was not always the case. There was a brief duration when I was not alone. It was during this time that my life changed forever. It was then that I learned my true nature. For I am cursed with a singular affliction, a disease like no other.
Every day I visit the centuried foundation of a house in the woods. I stand inside the ruin and drink in the oldness of the stones, the history of the place. Next to the foundation is a well, whose ancientness fills me with bliss. I stand near the well, but never too near, lest I am tempted to climb down into it. I am wary of that after what happened. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Let me start in Boston, where I was born, and where I spent my youth. Boston was a perfect place for one such us I, for of all the cities in this country it is the one most filled with antiquity. There is such a wealth of graveyards and churches to be found there! I used to run my fingers along the winged skulls carved into smooth grey slate; I sat in the white pews once occupied by men who wore powdered periwigs and proclaimed, “God Save the King!”
But merely visiting the old places was not enough. I began furtively stealing pieces of the past for myself: a chip of slate from a gravestone, a hand-forged iron nail from a church. And then I would sleep with these objects under my pillow and dream of times when my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents had walked the earth.
By morning, however, the antiquity would somehow be drained from the stolen object. It would feel as ordinary as something that had been manufactured yesterday, and have no power to inspire the dreams I craved.
I took to stealing larger and larger things. In the dead of night, I removed entire gravestones, and, crazed with delight, curled up with them in my bed like cold lovers. But even these prizes would lose their potency after a few days, and I would discard them like empty husks of corn.
Then, on my third-and-twentieth birthday, I received a letter from a cousin of mine named William, who lived in Shutesbury, near our family seat. The letter was brief, and after a few opening pleasantries invited me to come stay with him at his house.
The invitation was well-timed, for I was beginning to feel a sense of desperation at my nightly thefts, that I should be caught soon, and yet unable to stop myself. Perhaps a visit to the country was just what I needed to get a hold of myself. Though as a rule I am loath to use such a modern instrument as a telephone, I made a hurried exception to call William and finalise the arrangements.
The next obstacle was travelling from Boston to western Massachusetts. I was forced to purchase a ticket on a frighteningly contemporary omnibus, and forebear an excruciating two-hour journey surrounded by nothing but painful modernity and the vulgar stares of my fellow passengers. At last, the ride came to a merciful end in Amherst, and I found myself waiting in the November chill for William to arrive. It was not long before his automobile appeared, and with an awkward nod, he took my suitcase, and spirited me to his home in Shutesbury. Thankfully, William’s tastes also ran towards the old-fashioned, and the farmhouse where he lived dated to the mid-1800’s, an early enough vintage to keep me comfortable.
That night, however, my longings vexed me. I tried to resist the temptations of antiquity, but the craving overpowered me. I stole from my bed and crept outside into the moonlight, drawn inexorably to the ruined barn behind my cousin’s farmhouse. The barn was nigh upon two hundred years old, and exquisitely decayed.
I pried loose a pair of hand-forged nails from the doorframe, intent on smuggling them to my bedroom. But I was surprised in my furtive labors, and futilely attempted to secrete the stolen nails in my coat pocket.
“Richard,” said my cousin sternly. “What are you doing out here?”
“N-n-nothing,” I stammered. “Just getting some air. I was having difficulty sleeping.”
“What are you putting in your pocket? Some nails from my barn?”
“Of course not,” I lied.
William fixed me with his clear blue eyes and, guiltily, I turned away. He smiled kindly and clapped me on the shoulder. “No need to be ashamed, cousin. I too feel the longings for old things.”
“You do?” I cried, almost unable to believe my ears.
“It is a family curse, passed down to us from our grandfather. We are chronophages. Time-eaters.”
So there was a name for my affliction. Time-eater.
William sighed. “Keep the nails for tonight. But tomorrow I will show you another way to live. A better way.”
I followed him back into the warmth of the farmhouse. Settling into my bed, I put the cold iron nails under my pillow. Their antiquity was just enough to dull my craving, and I fell into a shallow, dreamless sleep.
The next morning, I accompanied William on a walk through the woods behind his house. The trees were barren, their denuded branches grasping towards heaven like supplicating hands. We spoke little and the silence was broken only by the sound of our feet crunching the dry, dead leaves.
At last we reached the destination to which William had been guiding me. Deep in the woods we came upon the stone foundation of a house. It was very old, doubtless from Colonial times, and the antiquity reverberated in this place like the echoes of a beautiful symphony.
My eyes lighted upon a stray scrap of lumber, a surviving fragment of the original house. Three exquisite hand-forged nails jutted from the jagged wood, and my fingers involuntarily moved to pry them loose. But William grasped my wrist and stared at me with those blue eyes of his.
“No,” he said. “You don’t need to take them. Just feel. Can’t you feel the antiquity all around you?”
He let go of my wrist. Instead of taking the nails, I resisted, and held my open palm above them. I could feel the waves of oldness flooding into me like the flush of warmth one feels after imbibing an excellent wine.
I stood that way for a number of minutes and then a most extraordinary thing happened. I could see the faint traces of the house shimmering around the foundation, as it had been when it was still standing.
The ghost image became more distinct, and I could see a man and a woman inside the house. The man wore a brown frock coat and knee breeches. He sat at a table drinking ale from a brass tankard and read a leather-bound edition of Plutarch’s Lives. The woman wore a bonnet and hoop-skirt, and sat at a spinning wheel, gently coaxing a thread from spindle to distaff as she spun her husband a new waistcoat.
William and I stood there entranced, watching the lingering images of this long-dead man and his wife for the rest of the day. I am certain he saw the same thing as I, although we never spoke of it. Finally, the sun sank low in the sky, and the bare-branched trees were casting grotesque shadows over the forest. William nudged my shoulder and broke my trance. The house vanished like a morning mist, leaving behind nothing but a stone foundation once again.
“We should head back,” he said.
Dumbly I nodded my affirmation. We turned to head back to the warmth of William’s farmhouse, and I realized that my hands and feet were numb from standing in the late-autumn chill for so many hours. Then I noticed something I had not seen before and stopped.
The low stone ring of an old well poked up from the ground next to the foundation of the house. I stared down into the hole and the darkness stared back up at me. Powerful waves of antiquity were drifting up from the well like fragrant smoke from an incense burner. I was transfixed, and stood staring down the well until William took my arm and gently pulled me away.
“What is at the bottom of that well?” I asked. “It feels very old. Very old indeed.”
“I don’t know,” he said, although he looked away, not meeting my gaze as he usually did. “Come now. I don’t think it is wise that we should linger here after dark.”
Reluctantly, I followed my cousin away from the well and out of the woods, where we retired to the sanctuary of his farmhouse for a modest meal of bread and butter and boiled potatoes.
Twice more we visited that house in the wood, and other secret places that William showed me. Each night I found it easier to fall asleep than the last, sated after a day’s immersion in old things. But on the third night, I was awoken by disturbing dreams. In the dead of night I heard a voice calling to me from outside. “Richard. Riiiichard! Come to me. I need you. Come to me now...”
Hastily donning my clothes, I stole from my cousin’s farmhouse, shutting the door quietly behind me. The voice was coming from the forest. Of course it was. And I knew just where it was leading me.
I found myself standing before the well. My legs had brought me there of their own accord. Just as they now stepped over the threshold and carried me down a long vertical tunnel of absolute darkness. My fingers and feet found protruding blocks of stone that served as steps, helping me to climb downwards into the unknown.
At last the narrow well opened up into a large underground chamber with a ceiling, walls and floor of stone. The protruding steps continued along the wall of the chamber, guiding me downward until I found myself at the bottom. It should have been pitch-dark here, but somehow there was a dim greenish glow whose source I could not ascertain.
And then I saw her. Standing before me was a woman dressed in the sombre clothing of another era: a black bonnet and black hoop-skirted dress that was tattered almost to shreds. The woman’s skin was pale and greenish, though I couldn’t tell if the verdant hue was her skin’s natural tint or merely an effect of the weird light in the chamber.
She beckoned me towards her, and I stepped closer, enchanted by her. She was beautiful. And old. Antiquity wreathed her body like a subtle perfume.
The enchantment was broken my cousin’s urgent voice, which echoed around the chamber harshly. He scrambled down the steps and rushed to stand between me and the black-clothed woman. William was holding a silver ankh engraved with symbols I didn’t recognise. The woman skittered away from the ankh, holding her hands in front of her, as if the sight of it caused her pain.
William turned toward me. “Go back, Richard!” he shouted. “She wants to make you as she is...” Taking his eyes off the woman had been a mistake. She struck William’s hand, causing him to drop the ankh, which clattered to the floor with a metallic ring.
Not waiting to see if my cousin was following me, I flew up the steps, climbing back up into the darkness of the well. I heard William’s screams behind me, and I knew then that he would not escape. I hauled myself out of the well and lay on the ground panting, my breath misting in the cold night air.
I waited until morning, but William never emerged. His screams had stopped suddenly as I was climbing, and since then I had heard nothing but silence from the darkness of the well.
Fifty years have passed since that terrible night, and still I live in my cousin’s farmhouse by the wood. I never seek the company of others, only venturing to town long enough to purchase the necessities of life, and then returning immediately to the life of a hermit.
Every day I enter the woods and visit the foundation of the vanished house. And I stand before the well that sits beside it. The antiquity that bubbles up from the well refreshes me like a fountain of cool water in the desert.
One day I may climb down it again and join my cousin and that beautiful woman. One day I shall become as they are. But not yet. Not just yet. Back I go to the farmhouse at the end of another day.
~ ~ ~
Be sure to return Next Week for the continuation of
G. Alden Davis's uncanny descent into THE FOLD,
as Part 5 goes up Monday, Nov 16 on The Freezine Of Fantasy and Science Fiction