The Devil’s own rain was thundering on the thatch the night my uncle, the murderer, came knocking ever so gently at our back door. I would never have heard that slow rat-tat-tat of his knuckle only I was lying awake, wide-eyed with fear, certain that lightening was about to strike the old cottage and set us all ablaze.
At first, of course, I had no notion what was making the noise. The persistent tapping didn’t have the rhythm of water dripping into the barrel. It didn’t have the scuffling sound of a rat in the potato bin. It wasn’t like any noise that my aunts might make in their nightly sleepwalking and, to be truthful, I didn’t want to believe that there could be someone out there: for who, or what, could be trying to get in on such a night as this? Visitors rarely ventured down the long rocky lane from the village to our house and when they did come they would knock at the front of the house and I would have plenty of time to slip out the back and hide.
My mind was frantic now as I listened. I tried to fathom what demented maniac could be out there.
I knew it was the rule that I should alert my aunts should anyone approach. I would then take myself out of sight until the visitors were gone. But in my thirteen years I had also learned that a few sharp cracks from Aunt Stepsie’s stick were sufficient to cure me of any nighttime ailments and send me scurrying back up the ladder to my bed. Now as I lay listening a huge curiosity had it fingers in my mind and in the end, forgive me, but I could stand the mystery no longer. I threw off my blankets and, almost holding my breath, crept down the ladder and across the cold flags, feeling my way to the door, where my bare feet soon found that the rain had entered from the heavy splashing without. Slow and steady, the knocking came again.
Keeping my voice as low as I could, I did what my aunts would do when confronted with a visitor: I called through the keyhole ‘Who’s there?’
‘Let me in.’
Nothing else was said.
I summoned my courage. ‘Who are you?’
For a moment all I could hear from outside was the crackle of the rain on the flagstones. Eventually the voice came again. ‘Shen Canty.’
I was across the room for my aunts’ door like a rabbit – a rabbit inches ahead of the jaws of the hound: for that name had haunted me for as long as I could remember. Had I not been warned that some day, if I didn’t behave, the man bearing that name would come to take me away.
I had also been told that the village children would sing that name as my aunts passed on their way to the merchants. “Who’ll be swinging from the big oak tree? Shen Canty! Shen Canty!” My aunts would say no more but in their nightly bickering I would often hear them speak of their brother the murderer.
‘Finn, boy. Let me in.’
I stood frozen: my hand clutching the battered brass handle of my aunts’ door. I have to confess that I was prevented from turning that handle by some shameful weakness within myself, which to this day I can still not
explain. Perhaps it was stupidity or curiosity or most likely it was fear of Aunt Stepsie’s stick. But I have often wondered could it have been some long forgotten note in the low tone of that voice: a note, which played some chord deep in my soul, resurrecting an ancient echo perhaps, like a lost song - but one that is only faintly remembered, one which might have been calling to me unnoticed down through the long years of a childhood spent hidden in that house.
‘Please, Finn. Let me in.’
And so it was that I lit a candle from the glow of the turf in the grate. Slowly, and deliberately, I crossed the flags to the back door, shielding that candle’s delicate flame. And finally, trembling, I pulled open that door – open, sadly I must admit, to the foul, tangle of devils, who still ride on my back, and romp in my mind and who have dragged me into a jungle of fear from which I will never escape except on the end of a rope.
For there he stood, hunched in the light, hung with a heavy wool cloak, weighed down with a lifetime of rain, water running freely from the brim
of a battered leather hat, drops even falling from his greying beard and the black straggles of his sodden hair and two dark eyes peering into my soul.
However, I wasn’t staring up at a monster. No, strange as it may seem, I was gazing up at a man. A man, who was tall but frail; a man with dark eyes; a man with a long nose and a face lined with worry, a face, in which I could see shadows of both Aunt Stepsie and Aunt Breg.
My uncle studied me for no more than a second before stepping inside, the smell of leather and wet wool entering with him, and there he stood, staring about him as if in wonder, a pool of water spreading on the floor around his boots.
His voice whispered. ‘Do you know who I am?’ The blood drained from my face for he was clutching something under his cloak. Was it a knife?He spotted me glancing back at my aunts’ door as I retreated. My voice shook. ‘You’re my uncle - the murderer!’
He seemed to ponder this for a while. At last he grunted approval. ‘You tell no one I’m here, so – or I’ll live up to my reputation.’ He then limped across to the ladder and hauled himself up to the loft.
My stomach was now a knot of fear. Had he come here to murder someone? My aunts? What if I was found to be hiding him? Would I be hanged too? What if he decided to murder me?
Barely a night ever passed that my aunts did not rise and wander about the room, bickering in their sleep. And now my heart leapt as I heard the creak of a bed in their room behind me. It was aunt Breg’s bed. I knew the sound of it. She was always the first to rise. My hands were shaking as I blew out the candle and pushed closed the back door as silently as I could. I was half way up the ladder when she emerged into the room. I knew it was she: from my perch I recognised her muttering. As slowly and as carefully as I could, I climbed the remaining rungs, relieved to discover that my uncle wasn’t waiting at the top with a knife. Safely out of reach of the stick, I listened. I could tell that she was just below me, somewhere near the dresser – for I heard the clunk of a cup. Then I heard her cross to the other side of the room and swing the kettle over the fire. She pumped the bellows and the flames sprang to life. I could see her shape now in the light of the fire: she was moving a chair nearer to the table.
I crouched there, wondering where in the darkness of the loft my uncle might be lurking. It was hard to hear with the roar of the wind and the crackle of the rain on the flagstone path outside but I thought I heard breathing close to the old chest at the gable and gave thanks.
It was then I heard the other bed creaking. Stepsie was coming. My eyes having grown used to the dark, I could now make out Breg sitting at the table. I began to crawl in the direction of my bed but my hand met with a pool of wetness on the boards. My uncle had left a trail. I clambered under the blankets as Stepsie emerged to join Breg at the table and I lay there, preying to Adol that they would notice nothing amiss.
‘Typical,’ muttered Stepsie, ‘the way some people around here spill water on the floor and then leave someone else to clean it up!’
‘Well,’ hissed Breg, ‘there is someone around here who might have spilled it herself and not said a word but lay the blame for someone else!’
‘Some people around here would sit up all night, wasting candle wax, looking at their rat-face in the mirror, thinking they can scrub off their whiskers and them spilling water on the floor while they’re at it!’
‘Well, my dear, some people would look less like a squashed toad if they scrubbed their face off altogether! And all their warts with it!’
‘Some people are so full of poison that a drop of spit out of them would boil a hole in a pot!’
‘Well, I wonder who put her dirty little fingers into the tea caddy?’
On and on they would go in their sleep, tossing hatred back and forth as they did nearly every night. I must have fallen asleep myself for when I next opened my eyes the faint light of dawn had arrived through the windows below and I could once again follow the many cracks in the old black rafters not far above my head which were hung heavy with hams bulging from their net bags and pumpkins draped with cobwebs.
It was with satisfaction that I remembered that today was quern stone day: the day my aunts would leave for the temple of Adol to proclaim their weekly devotion to the Nazarine. For as soon as they were gone I would set off up the hill with the week’s book hidden inside my coat. How I loved climbing up though the steep windy pasture to the little hollow under the great stone near the summit. There I would crawl into the darkness and lift the upturned quern stone. Under it my new book for the week would be waiting. Holding the heavy stone with my left hand, I would draw the book out, careful not to let any coins escape from within its pages. Then I would replace it with my old book, lower the quern stone over it and crawl back out into the light once again. Any coins or valuables I would put into my pocket for my aunts; and that was the moment I would first glimpse the title of my new treasure. But I would have to resist the temptation to explore its pages, however, for I was forbidden to even open a book until back in the safety of the cottage. Instead I would check that no one was watching then skip down the mountainside till hidden once again within the walls of my aunts’ house where, at last, I could open the covers.
So it was that I lay back and stretched in happy anticipation of this duty and that was when I caught sight of my hand. My palm was dark with dried blood. With a jolt of fright the events of the night shot back into my mind. I sat up.
In the corner of the loft the murderer lay propped against the old chest, staring at me with a deadly look in his eye that was pure murder.