The Worm of Poe
By John C. Foster
Originally published on Kendall Reviews December 2018.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.”
“Joy to the World.”
“God Rest Ye—“
“We sang that last year and they’ll remember it.”
“What about Good King Wenceslas?”
“Good King Wenceslas!”
“We’ll sing Good King Wenceslas.”
“I’ll pass out the songbooks.”
Seen from above, the wintry village of Poe resembled a tray of warm dinner rolls sprinkled with flour. While modest in size, the hamlet was a festival of Yuletide cheer. Strings of many-coloured lights trimmed roofs and doorways, Christmas trees stood in living room windows, pine bough wreaths were hung on doors and an army of snowmen guarded each front yard.
Every yard except 14 Irving Lane, that was.
The black GTO crawled towards the small house like a predator stalking a meal, thick tires scarring the smooth blanket of snow over the driveway. Brake lights flashed in the dark and the car slid forward several feet, as sure a sign of a driver unfamiliar with winter as were the Kentucky plates. A broad-shouldered man and a narrow girl in overalls emerged from the vehicle and trudged through the ankle-deep powder to the front door, carrying no luggage beyond paper shopping bags.
They were noticed, of course, Poe being a close-knit place. A crowd of townsfolk dressed for carolling gathered at the end of the driveway, the women in shawls and bonnets, the men in top hats and tails with sprigs of Mistletoe pinned to their lapels.
“They don’t mean to stay.”
“They can’t stay.”
“Why are they here?”
The lamppost at the end of the driveway chose that moment to bathe the gathering in a warm glow. A tall man made taller by a grey stovepipe hat raised a hand for quiet.
“It doesn’t matter, they’ll have to sing.”
“It’s Christmas Eve.”
“They must sing.”
Clouds of breath trailed from Henry Mapes’ mouth as he clomped through the empty house in search of the boiler.
“I’m cold, par,” Hannah wailed from the kitchen. Henry had chosen Vermont because it was a place neither he nor Verna had ever been, but he hadn’t counted on the December chill. “Par?”
Henry stomped into the kitchen and stuck a hand into one of the grocery bags on the counter, rustling up a beer for himself and a Slim Jim for Hannah.
“Eat yer protein,” he said, tossing the snack to his daughter. It was the most fatherly bit of advice he’d ever given the girl, him having spent most of her time on earth in one slam or another.
“How long we gonna stay?”
“Till your mama calls,” he replied. Hell, he didn’t want custody of the girl, just wanted Verna to give over the five large she was holding for him while he was in Whiteville Correctional. She said she’d found church while he was away and donated his ill-gotten gains to feed children in Haiti, but he knew her for a lover of heroin and suspected she’d shot his five thousand dollars into a vein while their daughter watched cartoons.
“Your momma really find church?”
“No sir, she goes three times a week and makes me go too.”
“You like it?”
Hannah shrugged. “I’m cold.”
Hannah squatted in the corner of the empty kitchen and bit into her Slim Jim, strong white teeth snapping through the stiff casing. The truth was that Verna Mapes had found the church and pursued her salvation with the earnest pragmatism of a long-time addict. Hannah took to their new life like a bird to the air, one of those rare children who preferred the company of others to television. Her reading ability improved by leaps and bounds and she no longer fell asleep in school, well-fed as she was by baked goods and her favourite of all, the weekly church potluck. When Verna approached Pastor Daryl to work with Hannah on her elocution, the girl had leapt at the chance. She was fit to burst when she got a role in the Christmas concert and memorized every song, even the ones that weren’t hers.
A knock on the door froze them and Henry’s big eyes met Hannah’s. “You ‘gwan now. Tell ‘em to fuck off.”
Hannah scampered to the door and opened, it, peering through the crack at three women dressed in old-timey bonnets. Before they could speak, Hannah said, “Are you doing a Christmas concert?”
Nervous expressions became twinkles as the three women assured her that the entire town was participating in a Christmas concert.
“Take this songbook, dear.”
“Come out to your lamp post at midnight to sing with us.”
“We’ve marked the twelve o’clock song.”
The door was ripped from Hannah’s grasp and Henry filled the doorway. “We ain’t Christian,” he barked, throwing the songbook outside where it slapped down in a puff of snow. “You want my daughter to sing?” He laughed. “You don’t know nuthin’.”
The door slammed in their faces and the three women backed away with worry on their faces.
“But they must sing.”
“She must sing.”
There was a pause and the third woman looked up at the endless night above.
“They aren’t Christian either.”
The dark grew darker and the cold colder and while Henry complained about Christmas carolers patrolling the street, Hannah discovered that the stove was electric and by huddling close, kept the two of them from a finger blackening death by frostbite.
“Cain’t you feel it?”
“Too cold to feel nuthin’.”
Hannah crossed to the window but the fog of their breath had frozen on the glass, warping her vision like a funhouse lens. The marching carolers took on elongated proportions and walked with steps of exaggerated length as the colored lights expanded into waves.
“Something’s coming,” Hannah said.
A hiss and snap announced the kitchen faucet turning itself on, the blast of water forming an instant icicle. Rippling pops echoed throughout the house as water pipes froze and burst.
“Huh?” Henry opined when a sound like the world’s largest Chinese gong rang out and he stood bolt upright. Hannah smiled at him from the window.
“Done turned midnight, par.”
The church bell rang out a second time and in the moment between strikes, the entire town sank into a hush.
“What was that?” Henry said, shouldering her away from the window.
The icicle in the sink shattered with the sound of falling chimes. Hannah found another window and pressed her face to the frozen prism.
“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen.”
Voices rose from singers gathered around every light post and Hannah mouthed along with them.
“What the hell is that?”
A great, shuffling procession marched down the center of the street, the ground trembling as their feet struck the road in unison. Whumpf. Snow slid from tree branches and top hats tumbled from heads, but the folk of Poe continued singing. “When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even…”
“What are they?” Henry whispered.
Hannah’s breath escaped in a drawn-out hiss as she beheld the marchers in their bearded blindness, frozen rags tied over their eyes and bearskin cloaks over their shoulders. Each had a hand on the shoulder of the man before him and the bearded giant in the lead tapped the snowy road with a long tree branch. The distortion of the ice twisted her vision and they seemed at once man-sized and titanic, shaggy heads towering above nearby roofs. But it wasn’t until the prism flared with bright colors and they became as a great worm undulating through the snow that Hannah clapped hands over her eyes.
In her own blindness, she could hear that no citizen of Poe ever stopped singing.
“Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel…”
“No, no—“ Henry said when the leader stopped in front of number 14 Irving Lane, the only house not protected by song. In the blink of an eye, the procession was lined up on their front walk, as if reality had been clumsily edited and several frames removed. The front door swelled inwards like an expanding balloon before the portal fell flat with a crash. The air pressure dropped and Hannah’s eardrums popped.
“Hey!” Henry shouted as the blind leader ducked his head and stepped inside the house, tapping the wooden floor with his tree branch. His beard bristled with ice and his nose was rimmed with frozen mucus, his skin grey and blotched with the pallor of death. Snow fell from him in sheets as he shuffled closer and then the next man and the next rippled inside like the ringed sections of an annelid.
“Hannah!” Henry Mapes shouted, thinking to hurl the child at them while he made his escape. But Hannah scampered squirrel quick into the bathroom and slammed the door, throwing her small weight against it as she filled her lungs and sang. “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen.”
“I don’t know the words!” Henry’s voice carried into the bathroom and she clapped her hands to her ears, singing for all she was worth.
She felt a series of thuds vibrating through the house but drowned out her daddy’s screaming with song. When the last words sailed away from her lips the house had gone quiet and she opened the bathroom door. “Par?”
Of Henry Mapes, there was no sign and the only thing that remained of the strange marchers were slushy footprints melted into a larval trail leading out the door.
The chimes of midnight faded and the people of Poe stared at the gaping door to 14 Irving Lane. When the girl child emerged the townsfolk erupted in cheers. The tall man made taller by his hat swept her up in his arms and led the carolers in a clear tenor voice, “Hark the herald, angels sing, glory to the newborn king!”
And Hannah, who knew all the words, joined the people in song.
John C. Foster
John C. Foster was born in Sleepy Hollow, NY, and has been afraid of the dark for as long as he can remember. A writer of thrillers and dark fiction, Foster was raised in the wilds of southern New Hampshire before hauling stakes for the ersatz glow of Los Angeles. He has since relocated to the relative sanity of NYC. Foster is an enthusiastic amateur cook, partially to offset all the griping that results from pushing his increasingly decrepit body through the rigors of martial arts training.
You can find out more about John by visiting his official website www.johnfosterfiction.com
Follow John on Twitter @johnfosterfic
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