By Rachel Halsall
The man who came back from the moor was not my father. I would not have let him into the house had I been the one to answer the door, but that was a maid’s duty, and not even the most loyal servant can know their master as well as his daughter. Hearing the man’s muffled voice carry down the hallway I will admit that my heart fluttered with a familiar joy, but upon greeting him in the drawing room it almost stilled in the realisation that I did not know him. He wore my father’s clothes, although much dirtied by travel, and he had the same scar on his brow that my father had attained in a carriage accident when I was just a child. Yet these details did not comfort me, for they were each somehow incorrect– the scar a fraction too large, the suit ill-fitting, and I knew from these small faults alone that he was a stranger.
My mother, who had accompanied me to the drawing room, lingered in the doorway without speaking. I watched her eyes flit back and forth as she tried to discern what uncanny change had come upon her husband, and when her lips parted I almost believed that she would turn him out into the night again. But her suspicions must not have been as great as mine, for her tone as she addressed him was soft with guileless affection.
“Dearest, where have you been? We have had no word from you since Monday evening. Violet and I were greatly concerned that something had happened to you.”
“How foolish,” said the man dressed as my father. “Don’t you remember me informing you of my intentions to take a walk upon the moor? I felt quite heavy after dinner; the air and scenery rather lightened me, I think.”
“But it has been three days,” my mother protested. “What could possibly have kept you for such a time?”
The man leaned forward to take my mother’s hand, and as he did so I noted how vast his pores were, like pinpricks in his skin.
“The moor is large,” he said. “Much larger than you think. It is true that little grows there besides scrubs of stunted trees, but still it is not without life. There are potholes in the earth that lead into underground chambers, deep enough that one might walk for miles in claustrophobic gloom without finding an aperture to let in the light. Come to think of it, one might stumble there forever, and encounter many things one might not find aboveground.”
“Don’t tease, love, I missed you, I mean it!”
My mother clung to him like a child, so tightly that her fingertips whitened beneath the nails.
“Alright, alright. But I will confess I was hopelessly lost. In the end I had to abandon my pride and ask a queer sort of hermit to guide me home. He must have thought me rather eccentric, rambling about in dinner dress.”
It was a reasonable enough explanation considering the stories that locals told of the place, yet still I did not believe him. His language and mannerisms were too forward for my restrained, quiet father, who was so often teased by his peers for having little to say. I leaned forward to whisper something of this to my mother, hoping to reawaken her uncertainty, but shook her head a little and would not listen. Need for her husband had dulled her senses; she reached out and embraced the man, pressing her face close to his. The intimacy of their closeness discomforted me, and I averted my gaze until my mother drew back again. I noticed tiny spots of blood jewelling her cheek and gasped, thinking that she had somehow been hurt in the process until I caught sight of the mottled stains spreading, still wet, across the collar of the man’s shirt. I wilted against the nearest wall in a fit of horror.
“Violet, you mustn’t let the excitement weary you,” said my mother. “Now, why don’t you give your father a kiss, now he is returned to us?”
I shook my head, but the man stepped towards me, taking hold of my face with both hands. At once I was struck by the sweet scent of dirt rising up from his flesh and clamped my mouth shut so as not to inhale it in. He was so close that I could see moisture glisten in his open pores, and in his eyes threads of black moved with life independent from his own.
“My dear daughter,” he said, and kissed my forehead.
Pain lanced through the place his lips had touched me, but I lacked the strength to cry out. Besides, I was afraid to, for I understood now that the man was no mere imposter, that he was something wretched and unholy and unknowable. When at last he went upstairs to change into clean clothes I tried again to appeal to my mother, and still she would not listen. Neither of us had believed in the supernatural before that night, and none of what I had seen was proof to her mind of its existence, let alone that it had taken my father’s shape. Thus I was rendered powerless against the man from the moor.
That night I sat up in my room, weeping as I listened to the sounds that came from my mother’s bedchamber along the hallway. These were not the girlish moans I was used to and politely ignored; she was screaming, cries coarse with pain ringing out until I beat my fists against the wall, unable to endure another minute of her agony. There was a brief lull before I heard her door creak open and footsteps slope off down the corridor. Only then did I have the courage to rise, stepping quietly into her quarters with a gas lamp in my hand to light the gloom. My mother was resting against the headboard, her russet hair flattened against her skull with perspiration. Tears had dried in thick tracks upon her cheeks, but she smiled at me as if they were not there.
“I am so happy that your father has come home to us,” she said.
I swung the gas lamp closer. Every bare expanse of her skin was pierced with tiny holes, blood seeping into her bedcovers. Yet whatever pain she had endured in their making was there no longer, for as I looked on she raised a hand idly to her breast and toyed with one of wounds, sliding her forefinger within. This was too much. Yelping like a wounded animal I fled back to my own room and pushed a chair underneath the door handle to prevent anyone from coming in.
No sleep came to me, but I was plagued by waking dreams cruel enough to match any nightmare. I pictured my father spiralling through unfathomable darkness, his flesh pulled apart by unseen hands, and I grieved, knowing that he had suffered something of the kind. My mother was sure to follow him if I did not intervene, and although I guessed she would reject my aid I could not have called myself her daughter honestly had I not tried. After dressing I went to her bedchamber once more, thinking it early enough that she would still be lying abed, but there was no one present apart from a maid dusting the dresser.
“Where is my mother?” I asked her.
“Gone, Miss Violet,” she said. “Gone to the moor with your father. She didn’t wish to, having a superstition of the place, but he were determined to take her, and so she went, in the end. Poor weather for walking, with that rain. I worry for her health. You’ll catch her if you hurry, though, Miss; it were but two minutes ago they left.”
I went to the window and looked out. There was a clear view of the moor from there and my mother had just reached it, clutching the brim of her hat as it flapped in the wind. The man in my father’s clothes walked behind her, his hand on the small of her back. At one point they stopped to kiss, and immediately afterwards my mother’s tiny figure jerked its head in pain. After that they walked on, and I rushed downstairs so that I had a chance to follow at a distance without losing sight of them. On my way to the moor I broke a long branch off a nearby tree, recalling what the man had said about holes in the earth. The grass was so long in places I could see little of the ground ahead of me, but by tapping my makeshift staff before me I found a safe path to take. Still, every time the branch vanished down into some pit my stomach clenched in awareness of how close I had come to falling.
For half an hour or so I followed my mother and the man in my father’s clothes, taking care to stop whenever they did so that they were not alerted to the rustle of my boots in the grass. At first it seemed that they were taking no particular direction, but after some time it occurred to me that each time they stopped they had reached one of the holes. The man would glance down as if making some form of evaluation before shaking his head and moving on, pushing my mother ahead of him. She tottered as passively as a doll, and that weakness in her made me all the more determined to aid her. I upped my pace, and it was as I did so that the man abruptly seized my mother by the waist and thrust her down into the nearest pothole, climbing down after her with a nimbleness that was frightening to see. His limbs appeared to fold bonelessly in all directions, closing the way a spider’s does when touched against its will. I hurried across to the pit and peered down, afraid that I would be met with a steep drop and no sight of where it ended. To my relief there was a slight slope of earth within it that I could navigate on hands and knees. With care I descended, gritting my teeth each time my dress caught on the jagged edges of stones.
There was no light at the bottom, and when I stood up at the end of the slope the blackness yawned seamlessly around me. I had expected silence, but when I listened there was the unmistakable sound of panting breath along with a fleshy suckling I could not source. Clumsy with blindness, I fumbled for the box of matches I kept in the folds of my dress for lighting lamps in the absence of servants. It was difficult to strike without being able to see the position of my fingers, however after a few useless scratches I managed to set one aflame.
At once I was able to make out two naked, humanoid fingers entwined before me, snapping their heads round towards the light. They resembled my parents in outline, but they were disfigured to the extent that it would be blasphemy to term them people anymore. The pores that I had witnessed before were stretched wide by long, jagged teeth that bristled across their bodies like monstrous hairs. As the creatures embraced they cut one another’s flesh, and from the wounds more teeth emerged and chattered softly in the dark. Their eyes were undetectable, sockets a shivering mass of black fronds that outstretched and clasped together like the hands of sweethearts. In a way that was what they were.
“Violet,” said the thing that had been my mother. “My little girl. Come here, my darling. It doesn’t hurt to love.”
I turned back towards the entrance of the pit, but I moved too quickly, too carelessly. The match flame trembled and went out.
Rachel Halsall is a twenty year old writer in her second year of English and Creative Writing who has been published three times in her adult life in numerous anthologies. The first of these stories was ‘The Conch’, a ghost story which was recently selected by publisher Ellen Datlow for a list of the best horror of the year. Rachel is inspired by Angela Carter, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, although she does give modern writers a chance too.