The Moorland Manor sat on a brown and gray hill above Cape Elijah. In winter, it could be seen from below through the leafless bones of old trees, looming over the town like a hungry black beast. The manor was large. It had three floors, with sculpted marble columns and balconies, though the boards on which its lord would have once stood and surveilled the land and the sea beyond had long rotted and fallen and become overrun with lichen and mushrooms and other growths. The stone was all that was left – stone that was once white but which was now so swallowed up by ivy and black mold that no passersby could tell by looking at it which color the house had originally been. They all called it “The black house” or “The haunted house” and resolved to leave it well enough alone.
“That place is haunted,” children of the Cape were told. “There’s a Beast hiding in there, just waiting to gobble you up.” And although the children laughed, feigning bravery, and threw eggs at the manor walls, the nameless evil of stories kept them from getting too close. The drool trails left by the eggs they threw came to feed generations of new fungi – further omens of the Beast within.
If a stranger from out of town wandered on the road down past the Moorland, they would see only a black house, a little overgrown, a little disordered, and some would wonder, from time to time, whether it was abandoned, and whether there might be some treasures hidden inside, stuffed in a secret cubby or under a rotten floorboard. And they might occasionally sneak past the fungal garden, through the window, and into the darkness that lay beyond. And some think perhaps they came back out again, but I can tell you now that they never did.
There was a man who lived in the Moorland, and his name was McGee. The Moorland had been there for years before McGee was born, and for all he knew it had been there since the beginning of time. His father had sold off most of the family land to merchants of the Cape, piece by piece, until all that was left was the big white house. Then he bought himself a ship to carry the wealth of the estate as far away as he could get. Mcgee had not stepped foot outside the house in fifty years.
The young McGee was a troublemaker, and, before his father left, it was expected that he would be the one to ruin the family. He was a gambler and a philanderer and had a habit of going out into town with a full sack of coin and coming back in the morning with an empty bottle in its place. He had a chipped front tooth that whistled when he spoke, and his mother would fill his purse with whatever it took to get that chipped smile to reveal itself. His father complained, but he was fixing to run off long before their fortunes would hit any tangible trouble, and he had already given up on being a father. That didn’t stop the young McGee from blaming himself when that day came.
To mend his fortune and his mother’s broken heart, McGee would suffer any trial, but that’s a tale for another time.
Now, in the present winter, Old Man McGee was polishing his socks. He did this every winter thanks to his mother’s enduring lesson that, of the things that one must keep clean, socks are the most important. The socks had collected their share of spores since the last cleaning season, splotched across the cloth with the same hazy greyness as torches at a distance through fog. McGee sat in the moonlight at a table in what was once the dining room, scraping at the fungus splotches with spit-laden fingernails, bitten short and smooth. Once he was done the sock was deposited in the clean pile on the floor, to join with the others. He had a lot of socks.
When the socks had been cleaned, or enough had been cleaned for tonight, McGee went to the window to listen to the sounds of bugs in the nighttime. There weren’t many because, again, it was winter. He bit on his nails, even though he wasn’t supposed to do that, as he watched a spider weave its web between two shards of broken window. Biting nails was bad for his teeth, he’d been told, even though the chip in his tooth was done by something much harder than a nail, than that kind of nail anyway. His father would surely scold him for biting them when he came home.
Of course, his father wasn’t coming home. He was dead, many years dead, but McGee sometimes got lost in time – forgot things from the past and remembered things from the future – and his sense of temporality, like most things that the Beast had taken, was inconspicuous in its absence. Fifty years in darkness and you learn to see more than what is in front of you. Waves of knowledge rose and broke in that wrinkled head of his, true knowledge and false knowledge alike, but it rarely came up in his hermitage that the order of events mattered. He knew the sailor before he met him as well, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.
McGee’s attention drifted from the window over to Cape Elijah, towards the docks which were still lively even in this early darkness. Torches danced around the town, and light flickered in windows which welcomed visitors and promised to keep them warm late into the winter night. The sailors fresh from sea craved the warmth of the hearth, and of other things too, and they would beg the innkeeper for ‘a warm fire, a roaring fire, let’s hear it roar.’ But McGee hadn’t been near one of those inns in too long, and when he tried to remember what it might feel like to be warm, he heard a knock at the manor door.
A knock? No one knocks. The Moorland isn’t popular in the neighborhood, not at all. The visitors, when they come, sneak in, not to be seen by those who might disapprove. But this visitor comes by way of the door…or was the knock a new kind of trick? McGee wondered.
The man knocked again. He was a young man, beautiful, with a cap upon his head and a silver brocaded tunic cresting his shoulders that would have looked ostentatious on any man less beautiful than he certainly was. When I say that he was beautiful, understand that this is undeniable by the standards of his time and place. The shape of his face had the desired balance of convex and concave, his limbs moved with the capable grace of a man oft engaged in physical labor, and his eyes were painted a stormy blue that seemed to shift color as you looked at them, like a pair of smokey opals. He looked like the kind of man who thinks he can get away with anything, and, in fact, usually can.
He knocked a third time, and Old Man McGee opened the door to him. The visitor pulled off his cap, a smart-looking sailor’s piece, and held it close to his chest in a respectful gesture. He apologized for the late hour, but he had run into a spot of trouble in town – nothing that wouldn’t blow over – and was looking for a place to stay for the night. Could he come in? He was a sailor who had just come into port and had made the mistake of kissing with the wrong young lady. What a beauty she was! Who would have thought a town like this would have a lady like that? He had no regrets, he said, but was now in need of the hospitality of a place such as this – which, forgive him for saying, does not look so approachable from the outside – only until his ship left in the morning.
McGee looked at the man. A visitor, so polite, and to him? Didn’t he know that he and his were disgraced, long ago disgraced, but no, he was from out of town, a sailor, a wandering type, and one who did not seem likely to catch himself up on the local politics. No, he was a genuine visitor! And after a long time staring, McGee opened his whole face up into a smile that showed the sailor his chipped tooth and urged him, “Yes, come in, rest.”
And the visitor looked back at him. Such a strange old man – he’d never seen such wrinkles – though he could not tell in the darkness that the lines on his face were sharpened by mold spores that grew in the cracks. No, the young man was as good as blind this night in the doorway; he needed corrective lenses even in the light, but eschewed them on principle (the principle being his sense of pride). If he had brought a lantern with him and so seen the whole of the old man’s ugliness, it’s unlikely that he would have come inside. He might have said, “Pardon me, sir, but I seem to have come to the wrong house,” and turned right around; however, on this night he had no such light, and it is with a grateful bow that he followed his host inside.
The inside of the manor smelled wet. It smelled like there were things growing in the corners, oozing, waiting for you to fall asleep so that they could crawl their way up into your nose and down into your lungs, where they could grow and ooze and eat delicious flesh from the inside out.
“I daresay, it’s as cold in here as it is outside,” the sailor said as he unslung a battered case from over his shoulder and set it down by the dead hearth. “You must light yourself a fire, sir, for your own health if not for mine,”
“Of course!” The old man said and immediately set to provide for his guest, shuffling about for wood in the dark room. There was a good amount there – the sitting room chairs were ancient, and the gilt that had once coated their arms and legs was long gone, but it had done something to preserve the integrity of the wood. There were two good chairs still, and one less good, which the old man broke down and threw into the fireplace.
The sailor’s name was Toussaint, he explained as he took his seat (the nicer of the two, at his host’s insistence). In the absence of a hat rack, he held his cap on his lap, preferring to hold to the rules of decorum even though he liked better how it looked on his head. He was the youngest of several brothers and had left his hometown in search of a new life on the seas, as well as for a second reason, which was like the one which had brought him to the old man’s doorstep tonight. McGee let the sailor speak as much as he liked, because he felt it proper for guests to share their stories, and for hosts to listen and provide.
“If only I’d been a first son. I could have been home now,” Toussaint said, “Or in a warmer climate at the least. I am not made for this weather, sir, not at all.”
McGee struck into the fireplace with flint and steel, but he could only set the wood to smoldering, and all light from the tiny flames was choaked out by a stinking cloud of smoke.
“Did you find it?” The old man asked, his voice hollow from disuse.
“A new life.”
“A new life?” replied the young man. “I suppose I did; although, I’m still hoping to find a better one. Maybe a rich woman to marry. You don’t happen to know any?”
McGee cocked his head to the side, but no, he didn’t know anyone. It made him feel like a bad host. He thought for a moment about fetching tea and cakes, but he only had mushrooms, and a cindery hearth refusing to blaze.
“That’s too bad,” Toussant said wryly, as he hadn’t expected it to be otherwise. “I always seem to be a step off from where I’m supposed to be. Bad luck, that’s all there is to it. Bad luck. I can play the game, I can play with the best of them, but first I have to be invited, you know what I mean?”
McGee didn’t, but he said he did. “If you really want to change your life, you could sell your soul. I can set you up.”
Toussaint laughed, presuming that his host was telling a joke. “Sounds good. I brought my fiddle – want to play me for it?”
“That’s not how it works,” McGee muttered into his tinderbox. “It’s not a contest. It’s not a game. You must commit your life. No win, no lose. Only give up your life in exchange for a new one.”
The fire in the heart roared to life at last, sending up a cloud of sparks that made McGee flinch back and shield himself. The flash silhouette looked from behind like some kind of cringing goblin, with patches of wiry gray hair and black, wart-like growths all over his head and hands. Toussaint saw in the flash, for the first time, that something was not quite right with the old man.
“Say, sir,” Toussaint wondered. “How is it that you have come to live in a place like this?”
“I don’t understand,” McGee said as he settled into the other chair, crouching on top of his bony heels. “This is my home. My mother gave birth in this house. I roamed these halls as a child. The only home I could have besides this is the madhouse, and I’m not willing to go there yet.”
“Yes, but a home could be anywhere. Have you never travelled? The world is big; you could certainly find some place, ah, cozier to make your home.”
A thunder crack rang across the room. It was a storm, which had fallen in without giving them a warning. Soon rain came falling in through the roof and dripping into divots worn into the floor. It was bad weather again, and Toussaint saw in the flash of lightning, something strange come over the old man: the stirrings of the Beast.
“No, of course I cannot,” McGee said with a dark tenor. “I was born here and I lived here and I will die here. To move around is good for the young, but the sea is always rising, and if you don’t build something real while you have it, you’ll be left dark and cold in the end.”
“Of course, of course, that’s your right.” Toussaint spoke with the same polite charm as before, but McGee’s intensity scared him, and his eyes began bouncing around the old man and taking in all the sinister details: his skin, which was unnaturally pale between the ashy patches where fungi grew, and his eyes, which were as dark black as the house outside.
“I could give you a new life, here,” said McGee, his hoarse voice whistling with his smile. “You think you will find what you want on your travels, but in your lust I see only flames and turmoil, bad weather, and a grave at the bottom of the oceans.”
“Ha…flames and turmoil…you got me, old sir, that’s me alright,” Toussaint said, twisting his cap in his lap and wishing to drop it right back on top of his head and, with a quick tip of the brow, abscond from the place. “But if it’s all the same to you, I think I will keep on keeping on. I’m not really looking to buy another life – that’s just an expression. I could just use some better luck is all.”
The wind howled around the house with the voice of the Beast.
“You think it’s an unfair deal, do you? Is it not a different life you seek? You are unsatisfied with the one you have, so you seek a new one. I offer you a chance to rid yourself of the old, and you get angry?”
“I’m not angry old fellow, just not buying what you’re selling, is all.” Toussaint stood up. “Now sir, I thank you for the fire, but I worry that I am intruding on you, and so I think it may be best if I left you for the evening.”
“No! The Beast!” McGee said, leaping at Toussaint with a string of rapid-fire arguments that twisted up each other. He could not allow him to go away through the dark in the witching hour. Out of the question. The Beast would catch him, and then what? He would be like him. He was warm and alive; and the Beast, it hungered. Couldn’t he hear it?
Toussaint opened the door to find a tempest blowing beyond – great sprays of rainwater bursting up into the wind like smoke from a forest fire. He hesitated at the threshold, and McGee crashed onto his back. He pulled back on the sailor’s hair and his ears, riding him like a bull so that he fell backwards into the manor, bucking and yelling a yell that disappeared into the roaring of storm winds. However, Toussaint was stronger, much stronger, than the old man, and he soon sent his rider flying away from him, to hit the wall and crumple into a heap on the ground.
“Oh dear, I’m sorry sir, are you okay?” Toussaint said, falling to his knees before the crumpled old man.
“No, I’m sorry.” McGee was crying, really crying. Reflections from the fire shone in the tear tracks on his face. “I’m a bad host.”
“What’s gotten into you?”
“You can’t leave. I know, I drive people away. Father, mother, and everyone after. I rot the wood, I stain the walls, I dirty the socks. I can’t help it. But you have to stay.” He seized the young man’s wrist. “Stay the night, remain, until it’s safe. You can hate and curse me, but stay.”
Toussaint felt an overwhelming pity for the old man, but his earnestness did little to make the situation less unsettling.
“I don’t hate you, sir,” he said, hesitating again, “But perhaps you should come with me into town…”
“No!” McGee shouted, and the fire went out.
In the darkness, the open door seemed to move further away, as if McGee and his house were sucking Toussaint deeper inside. As the old man continued to chant, ‘stay, rest, sleep,’ with growing mania, it began to feel like the chants were coming directly from the walls of the place, from the darkness in every direction. It felt like a dozen different hands wrapped around his arms, his chest, his legs, pulling him down into the rotten floorboards. The storm continued to rage, as the Beast chased the winds around and around the Moorland, and blew the manor door shut.
But Toussaint was in the doorway, in the mouth of the storm, and he caught the door on his forearm when it would close.
And with thought for the old man and his suffering, Toussant gripped back that thin, bony old arm, and hauled him out with him. McGee screamed, with his legs planted on either side of the doorway, yanking back with all his might, but Toussaint was stronger, far stronger, and the storm was but a fabrication.
When Toussaint had finally trudged all his way down to the Moorland gate, he became the first man to escape from the maw of the Beast alive. And the grasping hands let him go, except for one.
But that last hand was as thin, black, and brittle as a bone pulled from a fifty-year grave, and there was no man on its other side. It stank with the smell of mildew that hung in the air even after Toussaint had thrown it to the ground in disgust. It followed Toussaint down to the ships in the harbor, persisting through rain and sleep, and followed him onto the boat the next day. It covered up the salty scent of the sea, as well as the nameless, restless scent that hangs in the air before a storm.