The house in the woods stood crooked in a clearing. The path I took through the dense forest had petered out a quarter of a mile ago, and I was relieved as I pushed through the hedges that bound the clearing. Although the home was one of considerable renown in the area, I had begun to harbor some doubt about the directions I had obtained.
As I have said, the house stood quite crooked, stories stacked haphazardly one on top of the other like shoeboxes, and the general effect was quite precarious. It was an appealing enough structure, with peaked eaves and roof, and window boxes overflowing with flowers, yet at the height of noon it was cloaked in shadow and the woods encroached threateningly on the clearing. I am not a particularly fanciful man, but I will admit to a queasiness as I pushed my way through the hedges, brought on partly by what was rumored to be within the house, and partly by its odd exterior.
The clearing was pitted here and there with rabbit or gopher burrows, and navigating the way to the house required my full attention, so the shotgun blast seemed to come from nowhere, stunning me into complete stillness.
The sight of the child on the porch did nothing to calm me. Clutching to her side a shotgun nearly double her height, she scowled at me in a distinctly unwelcoming manner. I was a few moments catching my breath, and it was the girl who spoke, or rather shouted, first.
“What do you want?”
“Hello there, little girl.” I was ashamed to hear a quaver in my voice. “Are your folks home?” When she did not respond, I soldiered on, plastering a smile across my face. “I have come with wonderful news, little girl, and I am sure your parents would like to hear it.” She seemed unimpressed, but relented enough to call something unintelligible over her shoulder, into the house.
A man emerged from the dark doorway, a very caricature of the backwater type in overalls, red kerchief tucked into a hip pocket. He paused by the child long enough to take the shotgun by its muzzle, then came towards me.
Now the residents of this area support a thriving militia culture, so I felt a natural apprehension at the man’s approach, but I pushed it aside, and extended my hand with all the gusto I could muster.
“Mr. K___. I come bearing good news, sir.” My confidence must have momentarily surprised the man, for I was able to grasp his elbow and nudge him towards the house. “I trust you and your good wife will spare me a few minutes of your time.”
“Now look here,” Mr. K__ appeared to regain his composure, and shook me off. “Whatever it is we don’t need it. Just go on and…”
“Do you need God, Mr. K__? Do you need God’s Divine Love in your life? Do your precious children?” He hesitated a moment, and I prepared myself to encounter great opposition, but he sighed in a resigned manner, and headed towards the house.
I was, to be frank, immensely surprised at the ease of our encounter, as the family is rumored to be so hostile to outsiders as to be considered extreme, even in this province, where families are still cloistered away from the hustle and bustle of modern civilization. The natives of the area are, however, respectful of the religious to a degree that seems almost old fashioned, so Mr. K___’s capitulation was perhaps not entirely unforeseeable. The powerful preachers of the surrounding lands have vividly evangelized fire and brimstone fates for the impious, and a very real fear of the religious prevails. It does not follow, of course, that they are more virtuous than any other population. The area has certainly seen its share of scandal – sordid tales of incest and bigamy occasionally surface – but the concern I represent has found these rural folks extremely receptive to our initial overtures. In the end however, the purportedly cynical and hardened denizens of the cities are far more likely to come around to the Word, while the unsophisticated surface of the country masks a deep-running distrust and stubbornness. Consequently, only the best of my colleagues tackle rural areas.
I am, if I may be immodest enough to say so, counted as one of the best, hence my assignment to this particular case. I owe my success less to some rare or special quality than to my perfect ordinariness. The zealous among us sometimes frighten away new converts, while my affable, some would say hapless, demeanor is easy for the average person to accommodate. In fact, before I fell in with the Word, I was exactly the sort of ineffectual person most people forget; the man they bypass on their way up or down, or never even notice in the first place. It is the Word that has put the steel in my spine and given direction to my moderate disposition. Oftentimes, when I am on the road and am staring blankly out of a window, I can feel my conviction smoldering away in the pit of my stomach, a furnace waiting to be stoked. It is my ability to keep this fire banked, then bring it to life at the opportune moment that makes me an effective tool for the Word.
I hoped that this ability would stand me in good stead, for the K___ family, and the talk that has arisen around this strange clan would make their acquisition quite a feather in my cap, not to mention the good it would do the Word in the minds of the residents of their bucolic district.
Paterfamilias K___ did not spare me another glance until we were on the porch. He propped his gun by the doorjamb, and faced me full on for the first time.
“You come on in.” He had the harsh, unmusical accent native to the region. “You can come on in, but don’t track no dirt in.” He turned and walked into the house, literally disappearing into the preternatural darkness within. I banged my feet against the threadbare doormat, inhaled deeply and followed him in.
Immediately, I was struck by the smell. The warm air was heavy with some sort of musk. It settled in my lungs, a sensation I found disturbingly intimate. I have stepped over many a threshold, and while it is true that most homes have their own distinctive scent, never have I encountered one so animalistic. Unnerved though I was, it did not take long for my surroundings to impress themselves upon me.
The gloom seemed almost a solid thing, in spite of the many windows that let into the room to the left of the door. The light appeared to stop short a foot or so after it entered the room, as though caught in an invisible web. In spite of the smell, all surfaces were extremely clean, and the bare floorboards nearly gleamed. The vestibule I stood in lead directly to a staircase in front of me, and to the room I have mentioned, a parlor by appearances, on my left. To my right was a blank wall.
I stumbled into the parlor, where the dimness was alleviated somewhat, and stood near the doorway, a little disoriented. Mr. K___ had disappeared, either up the stairs or through some unseen door. I took advantage of my solitude and studied the room. It was starkly bare, with the old fashioned, severe furnishings one sees in depictions of the early settlements in this area. The sole decoration was a near life-size cross on the far wall. As I approached it, I became aware of another door further along the wall. It moved almost imperceptibly when I looked at it, and then clicked shut. Shaking off a mild unease, I stepped up to the cross. It was nearly five feet tall, and featured a large writhing Christ figure of unseemly realism. My eyes traveled up its body, straining muscles and tendons studded here and there with droplets of blood and sweat, and as my gaze fell upon its eyes, I was so startled by the naked beseechment I perceived within them that I gave an involuntary cry. I turned away abruptly and unthinkingly headed for the exit when
I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of the door creaking open.
A woman entered. Had I not known Mrs. K___ to be in her mid thirties, I would have taken her to be at least fifty. She was a stout woman, thick middle sloping past a receding bosom. Her figure was not, perhaps, shown to its best advantage in a plain blue frock and fraying apron, and her face, much lined, was framed by faded hair pulled into a severe bun, the many grays uncolored. She sat in a straight-backed chair and stared intently at her feet, hands twisting in her lap. We remained frozen in this awkward tableau for a few long seconds before I regained my composure somewhat.
“Mrs. K___, I do appreciate your taking the time to see me.” Her head snapped back with such vigor that I took an inadvertent step back.
“Look, Reverend, I was raised to respect church folk, and that’s how I’m raising mine. If you came here to preach and share the Lord’s word, we welcome you. But if you came here to put your nose where it don’t belong, my husband will throw you right out.” I looked the woman right in the eyes, summoning all the righteousness I could muster.
“I assure you, ma’am, I am here bringing God’s Love and his Light, and His Great Goodness to your home.”
As if on cue, the rest of the K___ family filed in. First came the three girls, the youngest of whom I had already encountered. All three were fresher versions of their mother, all looked to be pre-adolescent. They ignored me as they made a beeline for their mother and arranged themselves behind her, looking immensely bored.
The two older boys followed, early teens – jeans and T-shirts, longish hair and the scruffy beginnings of facial hair. Mr. K___ entered behind him, and behind this gentleman, the youngest, a boy. This boy, Nestor, was the prize I sought. He was a healer, or so he had convinced many evangelical authorities. It is a fact that the child performed two miraculous healings, restoring the sight of a thirty five year old blind man at the age of four, and healing the broken leg of a young female playmate at the age of five. These feats were achieved simply by the laying of hands. After these incidents, for unknown reasons, the boy retreated into his home, whence he had not emerged for the past year. All those who arrived at the doorstep of the K___ clan seeking healings were savagely rebuffed, until they eventually stopped coming. The stories of the boy’s gift, however, persisted, and took on near mythic proportions.
He was an entirely unremarkable looking child. Short for his age and knock-kneed in a pair of red shorts, he had lank brown hair that fell into the unreflecting, emotionless eyes one sees in many a budding delinquent. His thin arms pressed close to his sides, he perched on the armchair of a sofa, separated by its length from his family, who huddled around each other, faces turned passively towards me.
Now that I had the boy in my sight, all my agitation vanished, and, being careful not to stare at him, I began my allocution. Over time, I learned to begin quietly, for most people expect bombast, and a soft, almost distant tone is the most modest way to engage one’s audience.
“In the beginning,” I said, “There was naught but dark. It is difficult for us today, in this world of both natural and artificial light, to comprehend the true despair, the utter lightlessness that existed before the One, The Alpha and the Omega, the Name.” The first sparks of interest began to flicker in the faces before me, and I quickly forgot my surroundings, losing myself to the Word.
I came to abruptly, and as the room and its occupants clicked into my consciousness, I saw blank boredom in the eyes of the K___ clan. Somewhat disappointed, I attempted to initiate a conversation with the family on the subjects I had touched upon, to little avail. The parents gave short, perfunctory answers to my questions, and eventually the room lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Nearly two hours had elapsed, and Nestor had not uttered a word, nor had he, as far as I could tell, moved a muscle. I made no move to leave, however, until, out of the corner of my eye, I saw that dusk had firmly settled. Mother K___, as I had hoped, reluctantly offered me shelter for the night, and I accepted, jubilant at the facility with which I had gained entry into the household. Many had tried before me, but I was the first stranger allowed to remain in that house for many a month.
The peculiarities of the K___ homestead were not limited to its exterior and front parlor. For years to come, some small oddity I came across there would appear in my thoughts, distinct as the day I first saw it, so vivid were the impressions I formed that night. Mrs. K___ led me to a chamber across a small hall from the sitting room. Apparently the bedroom of the two older boys (for they scurried sullenly past, clutching a few items), it was a small room, barely nine by ten feet in dimension. A military style metal cot bearing a cotton pallet was pushed against a wall, abutted by a pine chest-of-drawers. Except for a glass tile that hung on the wall above the cot, these were the entire content of the room. As I set my bag on the cot, I leaned in to get a closer look at the wall hanging, which turned out to be a miniature version of the same eerie cross that hung in the living room, encased in a thick glass tile. Trying to dismiss any lingering feelings of discomfort, I arranged my meager toiletries alongside my change of trousers and shirt upon the chest-of-drawers, setting my bag down on the floor besides it. Drained by my efforts at ingratiating myself, I sat on the cot, and considered the events of the day.
I must have dozed off, because I snapped to to find the boy, Nestor staring at me fiercely from the door. The child’s plainness of feature surprised me anew, and thus I was even more unprepared than I might have been for the effect his speech would have on me.
“You have them others fooled,” he said, and his voice was so deep and so sonorous it seemed to come from every direction at once, “But I’m on to you.” Swaying slightly, like a cobra in a snakecharmer’s basket, I tried and failed to shake my head. The boy’s voice reverberated, tickling my skin in the still room, then dropped an octave, and I shivered from its deep thrill. “Stay away from me.” I could not answer, or even move, and my limbs were heavy, and I felt a warm wave of sleep wash over me, then I blinked, and he was gone.
A more intelligent man, or, perhaps, a less arrogant one, would have recognized then that the boy possessed an uncommon power, and was not to be an easily bagged spiritual trophy, but I was a blind man, and a fool. My overweening ambition to bring this prize of a child, this healer, into my Church, as my conquest, only increased after our brief encounter.
I lay back on the cot and stared unseeingly at the ceiling., until my reverie was interrupted by the sullen young girl who had first greeted me.
“Grub’s up,” she informed me, “So hurry on up.”
I followed her through the front room and up the staircase to the second floor. We walked down a dank corridor lined on either side by closed doors. The dining room was at the end of this hall. The room was what I had, in my short stay there, come to expect: murky, large and spare, what faint light there was laden with dust motes that never seemed to settle anywhere. A long, sturdy table in the middle of the room bore place mats and settings, and the K___ family was seated around it, eating. I seated myself at an empty setting, and helped myself to the gamy poultry, salty greens and mashed potatoes that constituted supper. Dinner was apparently a silent meal, for my attempts at desultory conversation were ignored, and one and all bent their heads to thorough, deliberate mastication. I was not halfway done when, one by one, the family scraped back their chairs and carried their cutlery and plates out of the room. I sat at my chair, chewing in solitude, considering the futility of attempting to gain the trust of the K___ family. Mrs. K___ reappeared presently, took my dirty utensils, and, bidding me a firm good night, left me to my own devices.
I walked back to my assigned quarters through an unnerving quiet, scurrying past the crucifix in the living room, and felt a great relief as I reached the room, as though I had just run a gauntlet. I lay down on the couch, and considered my options in a state of suppressed panic. It was obvious I had not even established a rapport with the K___ household, let alone convinced them of the Righteousness of the Word. It seemed inevitable that I would fail. I had wanted quite desperately to be the one who would bring a healer, not to mention his notoriously difficult family, into the fold. After an hour of so of prayer, however, inspiration struck. I knew what I would have to do.
Looking back, not only do I feel shame at my naïvely manipulative actions, but I cannot quite fathom the reasoning that led me to do what I did.
I prided myself on staying true to the teachings of Christ, in that I was never desirous of material things, but I was given a straight razor on my fourteenth birthday to which I was uncommonly attached. I never traveled without it. I kept the thin blade sharp and true, and the leather handle that made the razor so unusual was always oiled to a dull glow. I took this razor, my one possession of value, and, not allowing myself the time for thought, I walked through the parlor, up the staircase, and down the corridor, banging on the doors on either side of me, creating as much of a ruckus as I possibly could. By the time I reached the far end of the hallway, the K___ had gathered sleepily, and rather angrily, before me.
I did not hesitate, for fear my sanity would get the better of me, and I inhaled mightily, sent a quick prayer heavenwards, and drew the razor clean across my throat, pressing it hard as my fear would allow.
The pain moved across the incision a hairsbreadth behind the blade, leaving a deep burn in its path that, the moment I dropped my hand, burst open to consume me. I watched like a drugged man as sheets of blood pulsed forth with each heartbeat and time itself stood still yet flew past, eluding my grasping fingers, and every breath lasted an eternity and then was gone in the blink of an eye.
And then the boy was standing above me where I had fallen to my knees, his face hard with anger, and as I was slipping finally away, he laid his hands on the wound.
The instant his skin touched mine the world cleaved open and fell away and I was in an abyss, in a well of darkness that lived and breathed and screamed, and my skull was filled with howls and I saw around me, writhing in agony and shrieking in anguish, all the demons of my nightmares, and blood flowed red over my eyes, and pain ripped through my body till I convulsed and jackknifed, and maddened with pain I screamed for oblivion, for death and then I saw the boy, Nestor, his eyes glazed, tears streaming down his cheek, his face frozen in a grimace of horror, his frail body fluttering as though a current ran through it.
And then it was over, and I was sucked back into the house, and the house shuddered and sighed into place around me, and as I knelt panting with the boy prostrate on the floor in front of me I felt my skin intact against my fingers, slippery with blood as they clutched at my neck. I had no time to recover my breath for the boy’s mother set upon me like a harpy, cursing and clawing at me as if to rip me to shreds.
I heaved her off me with all the force in my body, and staggered past the prone, barely breathing body of her son. The faces of the K___ are still burned into my mind: the sorrow on the children’s face, the hollow eyes of the father, the utter disgust of the youngest girl’s expression.
“Bastard,” she called after my retreating back, “I knew you would do something bad to us, you bastard.”
The house closed behind me as I lurched out, and the cool night air was a benediction against my skin as I careened through the woods like a panicked wild animal, never once daring to look back.
I never went back to my employers, to the Church where I had first learned the Word. My shame at my all-too-worldly ambition and greed for status kept me away.
I lived many a month as a vagabond before I was able to stop running away and many more before I allowed myself to cast my mind back to the events took place in that house.
Having witnessed firsthand the ferocity of what I can only hope was the Divine, I found myself to be unable to bear the reality of that which I so revered in theory. Once, I worshipped in the company of men, in man-made buildings, but the savagery of that which lies above the realm of man was too much for my fragile courage. The fires of my faith have dimmed, and I have turned to a life of numbed triviality. Since that fateful night, I have not entered a house of worship, and I have abandoned not only my former calling, but also all form of religious practice. I fear for my immortal soul. I am a man who has known himself at his most abased, and I awake most mornings dreading the sight of my own face in the cracked mirror atop my wash basin.
Copyright © Anuradha Lazarre 2001
Born in what was then Bombay, Anuradha Lazarre has lived in India, Israel and the U.S. Now twenty four and a resident of New Jersey, she is working on a collection of short stories.
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