Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Walled

It was just after the twenty-second anniversary of her confinement in Dunlop House Hospital on Glasgow’s Carrick Glenn Road that Plush awoke one night and heard the sound of something mewling, trapped inside the wall.

She thought at first it was a young child crying, and, for an instant, it felt as though her heart stuttered to a stop.

She lay there, mesmerized by the sound, which wrenched at her guilt-filled heart with notes as keen and piercing as a shard of bone.

“Forgive me,” she whispered, praying it might be Colleen who cried out to her in the darkness.

But no, not a child at all. A cat . . .

. . . inside the wall.

A dream, she thought, or some kind of auditory hallucination, although, during all her years at Dunlop House, Plush had never been one of those patients who heard otherworldly voices, alien music crooning odes to suicide and mutilation and cantos to atrocity. Her madness, what little had not been leeched out of her by nearly two decades of stultifying imprisonment, was of a different nature.

When the sound continued, Plush got out of bed and tiptoed to the window that overlooked the street. Creeping about stealthily at night was a habit she’d acquired from the years she’d shared a room with light-sleeping Geraldine, whose stroke the month before had resulted in Plush’s relocation to a single room in the north wing of the building. She raised the shade and peered out between wrought iron grillwork of a sufficiently rococo design—vines ornamented with spirals and cunning coils—to suggest more artistic whimsy than its true intent, a method of ensuring that the occupants of Dunlop House stayed caged.

At this hour, the steep and winding Carrick Glenn Road was hushed and almost empty. Wind-whipped litter rustled along the pavement. A pair of punk-haired women, lipsticked and leather-clad, rocked inebriatedly in each other’s arms outside the lesbian jazz club across the street.

Plush took in every crannied door and ledge, each bare branch of the scrawny elm outside the Take-Away shop a few doors down.

There was no cat.

The sounds of feline distress had not diminished, though, nor was Plush any less clear as to their source.

Muffled by the bricks, but still unmistakable, the cries emanated from the wall behind her bed.

Quietly she pushed the twin bed away from the wall. She got down on her hands and knees and crept along the floorboards, searching for some niche or crevice where a cat might hide.

There was no such nook, no acceptably spacious cranny. No place a mouse, much less a cat, could crawl.

And yet the cries persisted.

Plush found herself weeping with despair and helplessness. The sound reminded her of what she wanted to forget: that she, too, was a prisoner. Whatever the circumstances of the animal inside the wall, she was in no more position to help the wretched creature than she was to free herself.

Nonetheless, she put her lips against the cold brick and whispered, “It’s all right. Be brave. I’ll help you.”

* * * *

Although she had been admitted to Dunlop House more than two decades earlier, Plush was certain that she had, in fact, gone mad not prior to, but in the course of her incarceration there.

Madness of monotony and boredom had caught up to her within the very walls of the asylum which purported to be capable of healing her, its claim on her mind increasing exponentially the more closely it was bracketed by the visits of tut-tutting and bespeckled doctors claiming to possess a cure.

But what Plush considered sanity, her doctors regarded as clear proof of its absence and by the time, according to their standards, she was sufficiently dulled and grounded by captivity to pass for sane on their bleak terms, they found her case no longer of sufficient interest to contemplate release.

Neither affluent nor educated and female besides (three conditions that added up to near hopelessness of anyone’s taking her plight seriously), Plush was the eldest daughter of a cattle farmer and his wife from Stromness on the island of Orkney off Scotland’s northern coast. A peculiar and reclusive child, she was close only with her grandfather Mooney, a fisherman who claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary while being held in a Japanese prison camp in World War II.

No one gave much credence to Mooney’s tale, except for Plush, who’d experienced enough visions of her own to perceive such things as ordinary. She had her own name, in fact, for the dull and limited range of perception most people seemed confined to: the Narrows.

She had few words, however, to describe the miracles that sometimes visited her, but would wander the shore alone for hours beside the glittering North Sea, eyes slitted down to the thinness of incisions, bedazzled by the swirl and glamour of her private universe, the haunted murmuring of the wind, the baleful lamentations of the tides.

And, as an artist paints his or her most secret mindscapes, so Plush’s thoughts unfurled like so much blank canvas and let the Universe scrawl across her senses its mysteries and magic, lush secrets that bewitched and titillated, and appalling, wondrous doodles of the perverse and blasphemous.

When her sight was at its keenest, she could slip between the sea and sky at the horizon fold where they converged like silken labia and penetrate a realm of arcane geometry, where time serpentined in bends and coils and seasons were spawned, not in straight lines but spirals, the future turning in upon itself to birth the past and present, all three as singularly knit as a great wave that breaks into several smaller ones upon colliding with the shore.

“A simpleton,” the neighbors said behind her back. “Touched in the head,” muttered her own mother, but Plush knew it was they who lacked for vision, they whose sight was so limited as to be just short of blind.

They saw the Narrows only. She gazed into the whole of time and God’s design.

Thus she had thrived, a charmed captive to her private dance, until, when she was fifteen, a squall churned with fatal suddenness across the North Sea, drowning Mooney and half a dozen other fishermen. Grief and loneliness made Plush unwary, heedless. Over the next few months, she sought comfort in the arms of any boy who offered her a moment’s consolation, conceived a child by one of them, and was summarily evicted from the house by her mother, who said, “No daughter of mine is going to bear a bastard and raise it in my house.”

Plush took a job waiting tables at the Braes Hotel and moved into a small stone cottage near the sea, where she gave birth, a few months later, to a daughter whom she named Colleen. The baby was a comfort and a joy and Plush enjoyed two years of relative tranquility—until the day a woman appeared from Childrens’ Aid, acting upon a complaint from Plush’s mother, who had charged her daughter with being mentally unfit to raise a child and had decided to seek custody.

Plush was distraught, hysterical. She left her job and took to wandering the shore alone, bereft of visions now, beseeching God with panicked prayers to let her keep her daughter.

In the Orkneys, the winter days are eyeblink brief, and darkness never fully concedes its hold upon the land. It was in February, while Plush was meandering along the chilly shore, that Mooney first emerged from the sea to greet her. He wore work pants and an old patched sweater, as if he’d just gotten up from in front of the fire at home, but his form was gossamer and radiant, shot through with smoky light.

“Tell no one that you’ve seen me, but come back alone and walk with me tomorrow,” Mooney said. “Be brave. I’ll help you.”

And he merged back into the glimmer of the sea.

Plush’s ecstasy knew no containment. So much so, that she begged her mother for a visit with Colleen, a boon that, with some reluctance, her mother granted. The next day when Plush returned to the place where Mooney had appeared to her, she brought the child along.

“Your grandfather!” she explained excitedly.

But the toddler screamed in terror and began struggling in her mother’s arms when she saw the old man’s spectral outline emerge from the water and undulate among the waves.

The ghost glided past the breakers, shimmering amid the foam, then hesitated, staring at his daughter with stricken eyes. His edges seemed to fade and bleed away, sucked into the sea like layers of cotton candy licked by an eager child.

“Wait! Don’t leave!” Plush cried.

She charged into the sea, dragging Colleen behind her.

The toddler shrieked and flailed about as the water deepened and the sea spilled over her, knocking her down.

Plush lifted Colleen and floated the child in front of her. Oblivious to the danger, she waded deeper. She could still see the wraith, not more than a few yards ahead now, skimming the pewter water like a low-flying gannet, but rapidly dissolving, draining into the nearly colorless crease of the horizon.

High walls of slate-colored sea crashed over her, cold brine rushing into her throat, numbing her lungs and stopping her breath, and that was when two fishermen who’d been out checking oyster pots grabbed Plush and lifted up Colleen’s small lifeless body and took them both to shore.

They had not, of course, seen Mooney. They had only witnessed a woman battling her way into deep surf, dragging her child face-down through the waves, and they were keen to testify as to the horror of it.

Police were summoned, then a battalion of doctors. Plush was accused of murder and attempted suicide. A trial was held in Inverness on Scotland’s mainland. Plush was deemed criminally insane and dispatched to Glasgow.

Thus she languished for the next two decades in the two-hundred year old house on Carrick Glenn Road that had served, in the previous century, as a monastery. In such an atmosphere, beset with guilt and boredom, Plush’s visions, once her refuge, had seeped away like rare perfume decimated by the stench of offal. The bleak and sterile Narrows had opened up and sucked her down as surely as the cold North Sea had claimed Colleen.

There were no more visions now, no more universe of runes and thralldom, of rotting life and lushly flowering death. Only the stultifying half-life of what others deemed reality and her own burden of self-blame . . .

. . . until the night the cat cried out behind the wall and opened up a tiny rent in the fabric of the Narrows.

* * * *

In the mornings, inmates of Dunlop House were encouraged to spend time in the dayroom, a dingy and bespotted parlor where visitations took place. There were splotches on the walls—the most unsavory of ochers and the gray of clotted sperm—and a heart-shaped stain where a love-struck schizophrenic had once painted her and her lover’s names inside a heart described by her own menstrual blood.

Nearly a fortnight had passed since Plush first heard the cat. The cries were no feebler now than at the outset, though more sporadic, coming at all hours of the night to torment her waking time and permeate her dreaming.

“Is someone keeping a cat?” she asked Sister Lorna, gazing at the nun’s gaunt, pinched face, pale and shiny as a well-licked lollipop. “I thought I heard one yowling yesterday.”

She tried to sound as offhand about this as possible, but one does not spend two decades removed from normal society and still retain the skills of artifice and guile.

Sister Lorna made a “you poor benighted dear” face and said, “You know perfectly well there are no animals in here.”

Plush tried to look forlorn as she said, “Perhaps I’m only lonely and my ears are playing tricks. I do miss Geraldine so much. I was wondering if I might visit her.”

Sister Lorna made a small froggy harrumph, her cue that she felt the request to be an imposition on her already frayed good nature, and said, “Geraldine’s still very ill. She might not be ready for visitors. And her face . . . the stroke she suffered has left Geraldine changed, you understand.”

Plush nodded, but her persistence wore Sister Lorna down. Thus, a few days later, a nurse escorted her to Geraldine’s bedside in the hospital wing of the asylum, where her former roommate lay with one half of her face apparently in peaceful slumber, the other half contorted in a silent, simian howl.

Plush knew the stroke had destroyed the nerves in one side of Geraldine’s face, but she’d been unprepared for the extent of the damage. She’d never dreamed that anything so terrible could befall dear Geraldine who, after all, was a witch, the former Queen of the Lothian Wiccan Order. She had romped skyclad through pagan rituals in her fashionable Edinburgh home and claimed, before she poisoned her drunkard husband into a coma, to converse with the spirits of Aleister Crowley and Saint Magnus. Now she was merely pitiful and old and, until her stroke, had spent most of her time reading the mysteries and history books her children dutifully sent over. Geraldine also functioned as Dunlop House’s unofficial librarian. For those who wouldn’t read or didn’t dare expend the effort for fear of draining minds already sadly overtaxed, she was a source of information, rumor, history.

Now, as Plush stared down at her old friend with frank distress, the woman’s good eye popped open and a silver trail of saliva threaded its way out of the corner of the dead half of her mouth.

“Here you go, m’dear.”

A nurse brought Geraldine her lunch: a bowl of lentil soup and buttered roll, a small, hard brick of cheese. Geraldine complained that it was difficult for her to eat, what with half her face unworkable, so Plush broke up the bread into tiny bits and spooned green broth into the good side of Geraldine’s mouth, wiping her face clean after each spoonful.

“Enough,” Geraldine said finally, pushing the food away. She fixed hawkish, deep-set eyes on Plush and mumbled in her slurred, stroke-victim’s voice, “Something’s wrong. What is it? You got that lost dog look.”

Plush, already close to tears, blurted out, “The new room that they put me in after you got sick . . . there’s something in there with me . . . something alive.

She was afraid that Geraldine would laugh. Instead, she asked, “Which room is it you’re in?”

“First floor,” said Plush, “on the corner.”

“North wing?”

“Yes.”

Geraldine touched a palsied finger to a chin porcine with bristles. “An animal?”

Plush nodded.

“And would it be . . . by any chance . . . a cat that you’d be hearin’?”

At that, Plush’s hand trembled so that lentil soup leaked down onto the bed. “How is it that you know?”

Geraldine gave a ragged smile. “Ah, so it’s true. There was a cat.”

“What do you mean was? Have you heard it for yourself?”

“Not I, for which I thank sweet Gaia. Just something that I read had happened back when Dunlop House was being built. I had no reason to think it true, but now, with this, the story in the history book would seem to be confirmed.”

Plush hated it when her old friend spoke in riddles. “I don’t understand.”

“Ah,” said Geraldine, while the good half of her face smiled and the other half toffee-pulled into something approximating morbid glee, “you weren’t aware that Dunlop House was founded on the blood of an innocent creature?”

“What do you . . . ?”

Geraldine shook her gray Medusa locks and grinned a gap-toothed double-double-toil-and-trouble grin. “Don’t look so frightened. You’ve not gone mad. It is a cat you’re hearin’, Plush, sure as day.”

“But . . . we ought to tell someone, oughtn’t we? We ought to get it out.”

“It’s dead, you goose. Been dead 207 years, since this hellhole was first built.”

“But how . . . ?”

“Bricking a live cat up inside a wall . . . it was a fiendish custom that got started in the Middle Ages. The besotted Christian savages thought a cat had supernatural powers, so they’d sacrifice one to ensure good fortune for the building and all who lived or worked there.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve read a lot of history books these thirty years since I put strychnine in the old man’s haggis,” said Geraldine. “A lot I do forget, but not so terrible a thing as this. A cat was bricked up in the corner of the north wall, to bring good fortune to the Dunlop family and their building.”

“All those years,” said Plush, appalled. “But I tell you, it’s alive. I hear it crying.”

“What you hear, if you hear anything at all, then it’s a ghost.”

“But we must help it.”

“It’s dead, and better off that way,” said Geraldine. “So even if its ghost cries out, you leave it be.”

* * * *

That night when the mewling started, Plush pushed her bed to one side and put her ear against the wall. A cat, a baby, whatever . . . the creature was in terrible distress. She listened to the cries and whispered back consolements. Pain called to pain. Plush’s skin began to roil. Gooseflesh ebbed and flowed along her arms.

She closed her eyes.

For a moment, she had a glimpse beyond the Narrows, of Colleen’s small form being battered by the sea. Colleen’s arms were up above her head. Bright water spattered between her fingers like golden needles, but the child’s back was turned, and Plush couldn’t tell if she were merely romping in the sea or gripped by mortal fear.

She pressed her mouth against the cold wall. “I’ll get you out,” she whispered.

From her shoe, she took the spoon she’d used for feeding Geraldine and wedged the handle between two bricks, nicking the most minuscule of indentations in the mortar. A few grains of plaster dusted down. She scraped again. The mortar was ancient, crumbly.

Plush pushed the bed back into place, lay down.

Be brave. I’ll help you.

It was a start.

* * * *

By the end of the week, Plush’s night-long labors had been rewarded with four loosened bricks, all of which she had been able to dislodge and then replace by morning. She’d also swiped a butter knife from the kitchen while the cook was in the loo and kept it hidden, along with Geraldine’s spoon, inside one of the sturdy black shoes her sister Belle had sent her for Christmas. The work was tedious and painstaking and many times Plush thought of giving up. But then the cat would cry again, and tears would course along Plush’s plump cheeks, and she’d think of Mooney and of the baby daughter she had given to the sea and how that child must call for her across the Void, and she’d resume her work.

There were no more escapes, however briefly, from the Narrows now, except one day when Plush, returning to her room after the evening meal, saw someone had tossed a scarf upon her bed. She reached up for the light switch, then stopped.

The scarf on the bed stirred, uncoiled itself into something vaguely feline, cat-like and yet like no cat, spectral or otherwise, that Plush had ever seen. Its fur, the color of dark marmalade, was intact only in part. Portions of its sketchy anatomy were visible through parchment skin, tissue-paper thin, and when it leaped from bed to floor, Plush saw its head was still unformed, less cat than lumpen papier-mâché mask with mouth and cheekbones missing.

“Oh, God,” she said and reached out to offer comfort to the creature.

At once the ill-formed thing froze with alarm and hackled up what hair it had to raise. It bounded round the room in panicked flight, then leaped up and was gone.

Into the wall . . .

* * * *

“Wake up,” said Sister Lorna. “You sleep too much these days.” The nun yanked back Plush’s window shades, let mid-morning light spring across the room like yellow tigers. “Be packin’ up your things today. You’ll be gettin’ a new room tomorrow and a roommate.”

Plush rolled over, still half wedded to a dream in which a flock of skeletal gulls, their tiny bones luminous in the moonlight, plucked Colleen’s body from the sea and carried it aloft, wheeling and dipping so that the child’s head hung down, revealing empty eye sockets nibbled clean by fishes.

The phantom gulls swooped into the bedroom and tore at Sister Lorna’s head. Plush blinked hard and came awake in terror.

“What?”

“I said you’ll be gettin’ a new roommate.”

“But why?”

As though embarrassed to concede that one of Dunlop House’s inmates had made an escape of sorts, Sister Lorna lowered her eyes to her spare bosom and said, “Geraldine won’t be coming back anymore. She . . . went home last night.”

An image came to Plush: of Geraldine’s soul spiraling smaller and smaller like the whorls of a Nautilus shell, and of that world outside the Narrows where her visions had once led. Gone now, the gateway closed to her.

“She died.”

The translation from euphemism to hard fact irritated Sister Lorna, who began to brush away imaginary lint from her starched shoulders with rapid, swatting motions.

“In any case,” she said, “we’ve decided to use the single rooms for short-term stays, those who’ll be gettin’ out eventually. So we’ll be movin’ you to a double room tomorrow.”

* * * *

Bleak despair dogged Plush throughout the day. That night, the moment that the lights went out, she pushed her bed aside, removed the bricks she’d already loosened and set to work.

207 years away, the cat began to yowl. The sound trembled through Plush’s nailbeds, shivered through the tiny hairs inside her ears.

She labored at the bricks and prayed and dug with butter knife and spoon and fingernails.

The removal of the four key bricks made easier the weakening of the surrounding ones. By ocher dawn, Plush had opened up a foot wide section of the wall. The floor was covered with a thick layer of plaster, Plush’s hands and face dusted with grit.

The cat’s wailing sounded so loud now she could not believe no one else heard, that all of Dunlop House was not awakened by the cries.

Plush thrust her hands into the hole she’d dug and reached in as far as she could stretch.

“Where are you?”

Her hand brushed something stiff and dry that made her think of desiccated flowers pressed between the pages of a book. She gasped and pulled back, tried again. It yielded slightly to her touch, not brick at all, but . . .

Carefully she reached both arms inside the wall and loosened and withdrew the object she had labored so hard to unearth—the body of a cat, preserved and mummified by its centuries inside the wall.

Plush turned it gently in her hands and marveled at it, this thing of almost unreal loveliness and horror. Gossamer ears, translucent, flattened to the head, paws perfectly preserved, right down to the nubs of claws where it had tried to scratch its way to freedom. The eyes were gone, of course, sucked dry by dehydration. Plush gazed into the black and vacant holes and thought she glimpsed the swirl of stars in unknown cosmos, heard strike the first melodious chords of lost and alien sound . . .

. . . and tried without success to follow.

She pulled the wondrous remnant to her chest and rocked it as she used to do Colleen, singing softly. It shivered, almost as if on the verge of awakening beneath her hands. Then its re-exposure to the air proved too much and it crumbled into powder.

A dead thing—less than that, a pile of dust—lifeless as its empty eyes.

“No!” Plush let the dusty fragments sift through her fingers. She put her face into her hands and cried until her sobbing was interrupted by the softest of meows.

She feared she might have fantasized the sound, but looked up anyway.

A cat, translucent calico, its thick fur an undulating tapestry of auburns, was grooming itself on her bed. Preening, corkscrewing its lithe tail in round G-clefs of pleasure. The creature was complete this time, as perfect as it must have been the day the builders of Dunlop House snatched it for its awful fate.

Plush beheld the sight in awe. How long since she had seen a living creature except on the street outside her window.

And yet, not alive at all, of course.

The ghost completed washing one patterned paw, then stretched up in an S-shape, opening its mouth in a stupendous yawn. It leaped down off the bed, caressing Plush’s legs, her buttocks, breadmaking in the soft flesh of her belly without leaving indentations.

“Go home,” Plush whispered. “You don’t belong here any longer. Go.”

The cat swished out smoky figure-eights around her wrists. Its calico design unfurled into a plume of patterned fog, which leaped past Plush . . .

. . . into the wall.

“No. Go home.

Plush reached between the bricks to try to touch the vision one last time, her hand came back damp up to the wrist. She put her fingers to her mouth and tasted salt and moisture.

The section of the wall that Plush had opened pulsed brightly, appeared to widen. Plush pushed her arm into the rent.

From some other bend in time, she heard the tide and smelled it, the beating of the sea on rocky shores, the tang of brine . . . inside the wall.

She felt it roll across her then, the extending ripples of an endless shore, where Mooney and Colleen and Geraldine and a multitude of souls washed up like interwoven strands of some vast and undulating carpet before dispersing back again into the whole.

Plush shoved her head and arms inside the opening in the wall and found herself swept into a flow much fiercer than anything the sea had ever shown her. The current of the dead seized her and pulled her in, swept her up in their chilly torrent. The dead flowed past and through her, tugging at her soul, and she gave in to their entreaties and let her mind sink into the cool dark of their oceanic realm.

I’ll help you, Mummy,” Colleen said, approaching her. “Be brave.

* * * *

When Sister Lorna came to fetch Plush to her new room a few hours later, she found her leaning up against the opened wall, breathing still and strong of heart, but limp and mute, with eyes so blind a light shone directly into them produced no observable reaction. And when they took her to the hospital wing and put her in the bed where Geraldine had died, it was the wraith cat who slipped from behind the wall one final time and padded along the corridors to follow after, not to where they took her body, but into sacred realms of mirth and awe where Plush’s empty eyes saw holiness.

© 1996 by Lucy Taylor.

Originally published in Twists of the Tail,

edited by Ellen Datlow.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Lucy Taylor

Lucy Taylor

Lucy Taylor is the author of five collections and seven novels, including the Stoker Award winning The Safety of Unknown Cities. Her most recent work includes the collection Fatal Journeys, the novelette “A Respite for the Dead”, and the Tor.com short story “In the Cave of the Delicate Singers”, which was selected for Richard Thomas’s Ten Best Short Stories 2015. Her upcoming work will appear in the anthologies Peeling Back the Skin, Fright Mares, Axes of Evil 2, Extreme Horror, and Nightmare Magazine. Taylor lives in the high desert outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, with five wonderful felines and (currently) a kangaroo rat inhabiting the futon in her office.