The following story first appeared in the Issue # 39 of the UK-based horror magazine Sanitarium in December of 2015. As that issue is now out of print, and the permanent home of the story has yet to be settled, I present it here for your dubious moral instruction. -- DLF (2018)
Until the day I took Cecily for my wife, I never suspected that I might be a wicked man. I did love her. I know that I must have. Her sweetness, piety and affection, in short her very decency, ought to have inspired my reverent admiration. It was just so at the beginning, yet almost from the hour of our union before God, I felt my heart assailed by base and sardonic notions. Her guileless face reminded me, above all, of how blindly we give our trust to strangers, heedless of their capacity to harm and deceive us.
Do not mistake me. Consciously I harbored no ill feeling, nor made any malevolent resolution against my beloved on our wedding day. The impressions I felt were naked and aimless, no doubt prompted by the sudden change in our lives. I had not expected to feel such mutual vulnerability in our alliance. Yoked for good or ill to another's fate as well as my own, I felt a shadow settle on me. It did not grieve me overmuch, but while I could almost always banish it from my mind, I would perceive its unwelcome weight in moments of calm reflection.
I had met Cecily by chance in the Neelyville post office, where the recent devastation of the Doniphan town fire had obliged me to take my business instead. Cecily had left her home several weeks prior to lodge with the family of a second cousin, and to work as a postal clerk. In a town like Neelyville, talk is the main commodity and a newcomer's private history may be mined for months. I gathered from various sources that she came from some wealthy clan holed up west of Saco. If that were true, I reasoned, she would have no need of a menial situation in Neelyville. Yet once I had spoken to her with sufficient friendliness to win her confidence, she confessed that her coming south had been a defiant act, a statement of independence from the arms of her peculiar and insular family. She loved them dearly but was frequently vexed, it seemed, by their clinging attachment to strange traditions and a few acres of ground. She had resolved to know the wider world, and though Neelyville seemed to me a poor start, the challenge of honest work filled a want she had long felt.
Cecily loved the outdoors. Despite her mild temper she had a measure of sweet pagan wildness that charmed me. Walking the modest acreage of my ancestral farm, on my arm and at my invitation, she praised its rustic simplicity. There were hints of poetry in her nature, and she whispered little odes to the things that delighted her, barely aware that she spoke aloud. The first time I strolled her along the south fence in the cooling shade of the barn, she mused with a sigh, "If I had been a child raised here, I should have no troubles at all."
"I've had more of this soil on my feet than any boy," said I with a laugh, "and I was happy enough." It was true, yet I had not long known the world as a man. What hardships could I claim? There was more tenderness than grit in me, and Cecily's rapture at the humble beauty of my home appealed directly to that tenderness. I held her in shade and in sunlight almost every day after.
As happens to many suitors, I had entered Cecily's life as the solution to a great crisis. From her earliest days, a fierce and possessive affection had bound her to her people. Her education was esoteric, conducted solely by her close kin as far as I could tell, and she knew a great deal more from folklore and obscure mythology than from the Holy Scripture so liberally used in my own upbringing. I suspected a gypsy strain of the Old World in her recent lineage. She was sensitive and loyal to her sisters and to the memory of her high-spirited mother, but being of far milder temperament she had frequently found their fervent humors overwhelming. I have detected chronic veins of melancholy and sullenness in my own bloodline, but excessive passion is a quality alien to our kind. For our virtues and our faults we are placid Midwesterners, generation upon generation.
I began my courtship with earnest expressions of love, and with only the barest rumor in my ear of the fortune Cecily stood to inherit. Still, the counsel of my friends and relations in the months leading up to the wedding began to scrub me of certain romantic ideals to the point of resentful soreness. At the latest possible hour I realized that I had fully come of age, and my childhood of bucolic contentment was passing without ceremony into a lifetime of agrarian toil. When I beheld my heart's desire, I realized with a violent shock that not a crumb of boyhood was left to me. I had inherited the farm two years before, when my father fell to fever and my mother followed, brokenhearted, shortly after. The prolonged settlement of the estate, and the subsequent departure of my adopted cousin to seek his own way, left me a bare few weeks of bachelor's peace before the hour consecrated for our vows.
I first met my wife's three sisters about a month prior to our marriage. Her family estate was in a wild part of Madison County which I had never visited, along some feeble tributary of the Little Saint Francis. The house was a low porch-girt French colonial manor hiding like an old housecat among stands of dogwood and birch. My late father-in-law had been an enterprising fellow and managed to sustain himself as a kind of modern landed gentleman. I reckoned he had been a speculator in lead mining, as far as the contemplation of a dead man's trade concerned me at all. As the new cart wheels which I had bought special for the journey crackled up a long serpentine drive, Cecily touched my right hand with her left as though moved by anxiety, then fondled the free end of the rein to make the gesture seem casual.
"I am afraid," she allowed, passing her eyes down the slope of the lawn toward the river, "that you will find us a strange tribe."
I was weary and surly from a long day's travel, but the gentle worry in her tone softened the set of my face. "Soon, love," I replied, "we shall all be one tribe."
Her silence might have been doubt and it might have been assent. I had said the words without earnest hope of their ringing true, but I hoped at least to make a civil impression on the relatives who, for better or worse, held such a place in my wife’s heart.
With their parents dead long before mine, Cecily’s elder sisters kept the house together. Though she had gone so many miles to escape their daily influence, she was bound by familial respect to present them with her betrothed. The one to greet us at the door was Hecuba, the second eldest, ten or twelve years senior to my intended. She had a sleek rodent's nose and a pleasant cutting wit. Of the three women whose names I would come to dread, she nonetheless remained my favorite.
Our first contact brought a whisper of foreboding between us. She greeted me warmly by name, offering a hand of spidery slenderness. I grasped it with due affability. At the instant our fingers met, her features darkened like a cloud thrown across the sun by stormy wind. A curious vibration in her grasp prickled down my arm, like the effect of sudden bad news. In the next moment, before I could withdraw my hand, the air between us was once again light. I assured myself that the mere clamminess of her palm had taken me by surprise. Not one suspicious glance did she pay me for the rest of the visit, thought I note that our hands never met again.
"We have been at some pains to imagine," she said in a voice of sweet feline confidence, "what sort of man our Cissy might bring home. We've made quite a game of it these last few days. What a surprise to find you so fit and handsome."
Cecily reddened, murmuring sounds of embarrassment, though I could tell the comment pleased her. Hecuba led us into a dim parlor lit by fires, which I suspect would roar even in the full warmth of spring. The aesthetic effect of conflagration seemed as vital to the room as its power to stave off chill.
As soon as I entered the house, an overwhelming spicy fragrance assailed me. My eyes welled with tears and I coughed like a man drawing too heavily on a strong pipe. I feel sure my future sisters-in-law noted my adverse reaction. I too should have taken it as an omen. The chief cause of the sharp atmosphere was the regular burning of sage in all corners of the dwelling, which Cecily informed me had been a family practice for generations. It kept away damp and was held to ward off evil influence.
Once I had adjusted to the air, our introduction was as pleasant as might be, yet the constant murmuring of the sisters made me anxious. Whenever I entered or left a room, one of them seemed to make a quiet intonation. They continually laid soft hands on Cecily as well. These were caresses in their way, but their ritual frequency belied their tenderness. Whether it was a true act of prayer or the sharing of a private game, I perceived that existence in that house was subject to countless little superstitions. I could see how Cecily, so much more sensitive to the natural than the supernatural, had found daily life among them overwhelming.
Eurydice, who had been perhaps eight years old at Cecily's birth, had nervous restless feet, and it was her habit to hum constantly at a level almost below hearing. Though she most resembled Cecily and evidently their mother, her odd manner put me off my ease. Dorcas, the eldest, was a whiskered crone of special ugliness. Her lopsided ears protruded from thin hair lacquered into an unbecoming cage. The sour set of her mouth seldom disturbed itself with speech. From a somber oil portrait hung above the mantel, I judged that it was she who most favored the paternal side. The face and wispy side bristles better suited the portly male figure of the patriarch, coupled with a velvet waistcoat and large signet ring.
The five of us spent several days walking the grounds, which were indeed beautiful, though the sisters did not seem suited to outdoor toil beyond the maintenance of a splendid and curious herb garden adjoining the kitchen. I had a foolish fancy that sprites or beasts of the wood might come by night to keep the lawn in repair. The whole estate with its constant mildness of weather and uncommonly prolific soil had the air of an enchanted place.
The sisters kept a good kitchen and comfortable beds, though small discoveries about their home habits kept me in an anxious humor. Amid the ordinary decorations of any fine old house were strewn grotesques and fetishes of horrible appearance. Half-men and imps carved in dark wood peered from niches along the walls. There were mosaic portraits of each sister on the stairs, rendered by Hecuba with small bones and the scales of colorful fish. Above the door to each room hung the small varnished skull of an unrecognizable animal. The books I found lying in every spare corner proved equally strange, with malign symbols adorning the covers and frightening passages of occult lore within. One afternoon following our daily exercise, I was leafing through a volume titled The Communion Of The Invisible when the humming cadence of Eurydice startled me.
"Papa kept a splendid library for us, oh, hmm hmm, yes. He sent around the world for these pages, and spared nothing in the getting of them. Dear papa, hmm hmm, poor papa." She snapped out a long finger to trace the margin of the page, littered with notations in various hands and inks. Not one of the previous owners had written his notes in a language I recognized. For leisure reading the sisters pressed tome after weird tome on me, each full of talismanic etchings and I knew not what runic profanities, which they thought as vital to a respectable library as Mather's Pillars Of Salt or a first printing of Hawthorne.
Cecily had done her best to prepare me for the eerie customs of the house, and as a guest I did my utmost not to show discomfort. Only once was I sufficiently troubled to offer comment. We two were installed, with no evident qualm over our unwed state, in a bedroom draped with rich purples and reds. I had never beheld a genuine tapestry before, yet this room was positively mummified in them. The bed was a handsome four-poster carved from Congolese wenge wood, according to Hecuba. It was indeed the strangest room one might hope to inhabit. In place of a canopy, the bed frame was twined with a heavy rope of python stoutness, bearing a most fascinating pattern of color. Half its length was black, fading by degrees into lovely silver that seemed familiar even in such an alien context. I saw thin skeins, some red and some exceedingly fair, woven into the primary shades. Cecily watched me for some time in silence, seeing comprehension dawn on my face as I stroked the coarse fibers.
That cord which wound dozens of yards over the bed and the adjacent wall was woven entirely of human hair. Cecily admitted that the fair tresses were her own, which I ought to have realized in an instant. From tiny girlhood, each of the sisters had grown and added her locks, a foot every few months, to the lengthening rope begun in their grandmother's time. I thought it a ghastly idea for an heirloom and could not help admitting as much to Cecily. She did not seem offended, allowing that the spiritual significance of the custom had all but died out in the western world, but she also pointed out how wondrous I had thought it before knowing of its composition.
"I had probably better not tell you," she said with a flash of mischief, "what I was raised to believe about the barbarism of coffins and cremation."
I could not help thinking of my parents lying peacefully boxed in Redbird Hill Cemetery, or of my grandfather's ashes cast into the stream where he drowned. All through dinner I envisioned appalling things that my hosts might do with their dead, entombing them in wine cellars for more robust aging or carving their bones into fine cutlery. Once I had to suppress laughter at the thought of the patriarch, that saintly heathen whose image graced the parlor, smoking over hickory coals for fish bait.
Though I could never fault their hospitality, the sisters displayed a measured, impersonal coolness when addressing me directly. The mood grew palpable over the course of our stay, until I was desperate to breathe the unembalmed air of my farm once more. Cecily was a free woman of consenting age, but I knew the purpose for our visit had been to present me and obtain some degree of approval. In the absence of outright ill treatment, I could not but feel that certain details of our accommodation had been fixed expressly to frighten or even hex me. At best they seemed reticent to bless our imminent union in any fashion I could recognize.
On the final night of our stay, however, the three sisters gave us a concert in the parlor. As Cecily and I sat placid and full in the firelight, our hostesses produced curious instruments from a chest before the hearth. Hecuba plucked strings on a long-necked mandolin. Eurydice tapped finger bells and beat a timbrel dressed with rawhide across her jittering knees. Dorcas drew out a box fitted with nested glass vessels on a spindle. I recognized it from an old schoolbook of my mother's as an invention of the venerable Mr. Franklin. She moistened the glass with water from a ewer, having affixed a pedal whereby she could turn the device under her fingers. With these accompaniments they lifted their voices in a score of outlandish tunes.
For all their simplicity the airs were beguiling, with occasional chord inversion that one might call positively alarming. The melodies given in the middle range by Hecuba were pretty enough at least. The parts of the others accorded in correct harmony, but the result lacked any gospel sweetness and seemed almost to mock the Christian psalmody. My mother had been a skilled congregational musician and once attempted to teach us. I had application without much aptitude, my cousin the opposite misfortune, and her piano still sits unplayed in the little sitting porch of my farmhouse.
Cecily lent her voice but scantly to the singing, yet her rapturous attitude as she listened made it plain that she had heard and loved this queer music from infancy. It gave me pardonable pause as it was the most like her sisters, and the furthest from her usual demeanor at home, that I ever saw her. Hecuba told me that the ballads were old standards of the folk tradition. I gave no argument, but remarked inwardly that her folk and my folk must come from widely divergent traditions. Such songs had never been sung to me before. One stanza which haunted me even into my dreams that night went thus:
Who's in the woodshed, what's in the fire/
Dead by the hand of a heart's desire?
Grief of the evening, morning of hope/
Whose is the neck in the hangman's rope?
Cries in the moonlight, wolves in the wild/
Whose are the shoes of a murdered child?
The ballads were not all so grim, but images of lost innocence and prowling corruption ran regularly through them. I recall another refrain they sang several times, a sort of coda to each new part. It pleased me more than the rest, but their manner of singing gave even such lines a forbidding tone.
My love is gone a wand'ring, oh/
Yet in my heart he lingers, oh/
No cold I'll fear from rain or snow/
If true my lover be