After Her Blood
By “Jo Delgardi”
The first chapter:
Don’t turn round
The house is unusually quiet, even for the dead of night. There are none of the regular murmurs that signify movement somewhere, no curious creaks or groans of contracting timbers, no mysterious clicks and ticks. But something wakes the woman lying in the bed; some unnamed, unaccountable night-time tremor in her dreams, or in the lived atmosphere of the room maybe, forces her to cross the boundary of soft sleep into the wide awake coolness of the night.
The woman lies for a moment exactly as she had in sleep, on her back, her head directly in the centre of the pillow. The rhythmic sigh of her husband’s breath beside her sweeps around the room as if searching for something. The woman turns her head towards the window. From the gap in the heavy curtains, light from a harvest moon spills along the floor and the bed covers, across the cheap glass chimes suspended from the lamp above the bedside table, softly illuminating the spines of the woman’s books: The Yellow Wallpaper; Birds of Britain and Tibet; The Fabric of the Human Body (Book II).
Then the sound of a dull thud, like something soft connecting with metal, pushes its way into the room from outside. Barely disturbing the bedclothes, the woman slips from the bed and crosses to the window. She can feel her heart making its bump start jolt to wakefulness. She lifts her hand and parts the curtain. Her eyes, still desiring sleep, drift drowsily to the street below and across the village green. Then that metallic contact noise again. The woman’s gaze shifts to its source – to the lamppost next to the gate and the only light that illuminates the road and crumbling path to her house. For a second it feels like her heart has stopped and she cannot breathe. Her eyes widen, and then narrow as quickly as she pushes her face closer to the window, her cheek almost touching the glass.
Standing by their gate, next to the lamppost, so close it is almost part of its rising metal structure, she sees a figure in black, its back turned. The man, thing, creature, whatever it is, is so tall that its head protrudes above the hedge that surrounds the house. Not human height. Not human height; the words repeat like a persistent drumbeat in the woman’s brain as she looks down on the towering dark figure swaying slightly from its impossible height in the circle of burnt orange light, and she feels the frantic bang of her heart in her chest as her eyes transfix on that inhuman form. It is as if an invisible ether surrounds its fearful silhouette, giving off a queer, misty light. Don’t turn round. Don’t turn round. The pleading words go round and round in her head. She is afraid to see it, afraid what the thing might be, what it is. But she is condemned by something unnamed, something unknowable, to her place at the window.
Then she wants to cry out, wants to make her fear known, but is petrified into silence, her mouth wordlessly opening and closing like a waterless fish, as she sees the figure gradually begin to turn in the dull circle of tangerine light, performing an ominous pirouette towards her as if it has now sensed her presence at the window and is trying to locate her. She holds her breath, as if this act alone might hide her from view.
It turns slowly to face her and she tries to scream, but she cannot, terror’s dark clutch on her throat making her mute, so that all she can do is stare unblinking at that thing, her eyes deep hollows of fear in her face. Its hair is jet black, greasy, hanging in shaggy spikes across its forehead. Its skin is as pale as white china and as bloodless, but as it looks up at the house, to the place where she is standing trapped between the hanging folds of the curtains, her jaw drops open in dread as she sees the thing’s face. It has no features, absolutely nothing at all on its face except for a mouth gaping wide as if screaming in horror.
She falls to the floor, her heart racing, sweat pulsing from her skin. She clings to the curtain and is about to turn to her husband, his name already forming on her lips, but a loud thud bangs against the window and she jumps as if she’s been shot and cowers down further onto the bedroom floor. The curtain is half pulled from the window, its rings falling haphazardly onto the carpet as she tries to hide herself in the folds of dusty fabric.
She is unaware of how long she sits curled up, terrified, her body covered by the curtain, but some time later (could be hours, could be just a few minutes) she emerges in the quiet, tentatively, like some cowed hibernating creature appearing from its long winter rest. There isn’t a sound now. The room seems darker somehow. The woman, still shaking, pulls herself up slowly, hardly daring to peer over the sill of the window into the navy gloom of the night. It is really dark now in the room and she senses that the lamp is out in the street; like it was never on. She peers over the sill and down onto the road. It is eerily empty, devoid even of its amber glow. She stands up hesitantly and peers along the street and across to what only minutes earlier had been the moon-washed village green but which is now shrouded in darkness – there must be clouds, she thinks as her eyes skim the shadows. There is nothing. All is quiet.
Slowly the woman pulls away from the window, trying to convince herself she had been sleep walking (it had happened before), but then notices the mark on the glass that she knows had not been there earlier. It is round and oily, she observes, about the size of a football – or a human head. She leans in closer, her breath suspended in her chest. It looks like someone with unwashed hair had pressed its face up against the glass, she thinks, while reaching out nervously to touch it, but the surface feels smooth and cool under her fingers. The mark is on the outside of the window.
Shaking violently now, the woman makes a clumsy attempt to pull the hanging curtains together, but then gives up and turns to the bed. Her husband’s breath still pulses on the air; he has never stirred. She stares down at him, thinks about waking him for a moment but instead crawls back under the covers and, because she is frightened now of something more terrible than him, curls up close beside him.
A spider, big enough you would think to make its presence known on the wall behind her, is inching its way slowly down towards the bed. But, as the woman shifts onto her back and opens her eyes, it suddenly loses its grip on the wall and drops in a tight, prickly ball onto her upturned face. The muscles of her cheeks convulse once but that is all, and as the unfurling spider begins to crawl across her skin, making its creeping way down towards her lips, she simply closes her eyes and firmly shuts her mouth.