Appalachian Fall by Dario Ciriello

Jim Conroy sat in the center of the tiny cabin, his worldly belongings arranged neatly on the bone-dry floorboards.  A ritual invocation, perhaps, of a lost order.

A tattered old wallet: the slots which had once held platinum and titanium cards sagged empty, and three one-dollar bills occupied the equally dilated billfold area.  His New York driver’s license mocked him from behind a dirty plastic window; the evaporation of his belief in the consensus that made driving possible had been one of the first, and certainly the most sudden, symptoms of his ruin.  The inexplicable corruption of his reading and writing skills had followed shortly after.

A Swiss Army knife, ‘Classic’ model, a gift from his brother on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday: the toothpick, tweezers and one half of the scissors were long gone, but he kept the blades well-honed.  He’d removed the trademark red grips so that he could clean the knife, his main eating utensil, by boiling it, or at least washing it in whatever clean water was available.

 An issue of Architectural Review from sometime in the summer, he guessed: it had a photo feature on the new Wentzler center, his last major project; neither the body of the article nor the unguessed-at sidebar outlining the few known facts of Conroy’s fall and subsequent disappearance was legible to him. 

Two simple candles, one new, the other burnt a third of the way down: though the autumn light was failing, tonight he could save these, using the oil lamp instead.  Alongside the candles sat numerous part-used books of matches scrounged from chance waypoints between Manhattan and this gloomy cabin in West Virginia.

A little canned food and a canteen of water; scissors, for trimming the despised beard; a thinning Pendleton picnic blanket, which had various uses; a grimy but spectacularly warm Arran sweater. 

The faded red pack itself went over his feet on cold nights; if he didn’t make a concerted effort to keep heading south, he could look forward to plenty of those in the coming months, enough to freeze a man in the mountains.

But Conroy didn’t think he’d be heading any further south.

***

After a time of fruitless contemplation, the gloom deepened to the point where detail became lost.  Conroy took the lamp from the hearth, lifted the chimney, and turned the knob, exposing an eighth of an inch of fresh wick.  He struck a match.  The flame flickered, caught, and rose to a hot crescent of blue-tinged white.  Conroy replaced the shade and trimmed the wick a little higher, sending the shadows racing into the corners.  He smiled.

Lighting the lamp nudged some half-memory of a woman, and a cabin very unlike this one.  She had been beautiful.  Doh. . .  Don. . .  He almost had a name matched to the memory when her smile decomposed, only to be replaced by the hard, naked lines of hurt.  There had been children, too.  Friends; colleagues.  Obsessed, paranoid, they’d called him, and entreated him to seek help.

But Conroy had known from the first that his psyche was being reforged, hammered and tempered into new forms for a reason; that he had to leave; that very, very bad things would happen if he let anyone stop him. 

     Something caught his eye. 

A glimmer of red, up in the corner of the cabin.  That corner.

***

Wandering aimlessly at first into New Jersey, Conroy had been guided since the spring equinox by a weird and often frightening series of dreams and intuitions.  Like a compass needle finding the pole, his course turned firmly south.  Rivers pulled at him; he stumbled along the Susquehanna, crossed the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry, then followed the Shenandoah, finally veering west into the mountains in the full glory of fall. 

He had first dreamed the cabin as he lay beneath an ancient willow with the moonlight sifting over his eyelids.  No picture-book settler cabin this, but a grim, one-room structure of mismatched, rough-sawn timbers clumsily roofed over with flat stones.  Patches of green furred the timber joints.  The single, meager window was set oddly off-center in the wall adjoining the ill-fitting door.  Drab, monochromatic, the dream-cabin quivered in sullen red light, like a black-and-white image ghosting to existence on a sheet of photographic paper under the intimate glow of a darkroom safety light.

The dream-Conroy was troubled by the place.  He walked around it, his architect’s eye noting the various planes and angles comprising the whole.  All the elements of a structure were there in functional, if rude, consort; but the whole possessed an uneasy gestalt.

Fascinated despite a growing unease, the dream-Conroy tried to enter.  He was about to turn the dented iron knob when the hollow cry of a hunting owl startled his body awake.

Conroy sat upright, ice in his heart.  The waning moon hung at midheaven, with dawn a couple of hours away.

That the cabin was real, and close, he had no doubt.  Nor did he question that he was bound there, or why.  Everything, even his exile, in the grip of his vision-driven geas, from all that had previously comprised his world, had a reason.   There was something he had to do.  Something special.  Something no-one else on earth could do. 

Another night, asleep in a small cemetery on the edge of a tiny town (cemeteries, he had learned, being the only places within the confines of a town where a vagrant could sleep undisturbed), Conroy was visited by visions both prolific and strange.  Luminous motes floated in a place of terrible cold; aeons of time gnawed on an empty, cratered land; black-canopied forms flashed through space, gossamer wings spread not for flight but to gather the minimal sustenance required to sustain life in the endless void. 

Conroy woke, body vibrating, every sense expectant.  It was still dark.  Stiff joints popped in the stretching; cold air scraped in his lungs.  He stood.  Some internal compass aimed him toward the cleft in the hills where the waning moon would find its end.  He shouldered his pack and began to walk.

***

     Portals are one of the rarest phenomena in any universe.  And yet, any infinite or near-infinite series will allow the remotest possibilities to manifest.  A precise combination of geometry and materials, particle paths and geomagnetic field lines, atmospheric and microgravitational influences, and most of all the catalytic action of consciousness itself, can produce the singular resonances needed to birth a portal.

Nature, abhorring a vacuum, has been known to fill the unlikeliest ecological niche.

***

He found the cabin nestled in a gloomy hollow split by a fern-crowded creek.  The vision had been true, except for the sullen red light; in waking sight, the cabin trembled in a shadow-play of gray and green called out against growing pools of darkness by the hurrying dusk.  Conroy’s nose wrinkled at the flat taint of decay in the still, dank air.

He stood on the single, rotting step before the door and tried the dented knob.  It turned. 

The structure’s interior breathed ice at him as he stepped into it.  Floor of dry pine boards, corners and ceiling beams festooned with cobwebs.  How long had it stood empty?  Conroy had no idea, though there were signs of habitation: a hearth smeared with ashes; a narrow pallet bed, limp webbing bridging a wobbly frame; a lamp, still half-full of kerosene and probably usable; a single, rickety, chair; a number of empty bottles of low-end vodka, American, the faux-patriotic labels now faded and covered in grime.  A long time, anyway.  Conroy couldn’t think in months or years anymore: since literacy and numeracy had deserted him, these had become abstractions; anything more than a few days was just fog.  Perhaps, he thought, he would eventually come to inhabit a single point, moving through spacetime in an eternal moment, the ever-becoming now of the Taoists.

Some part of him reached out, probing beyond the commonplaces of surface and materials.  One corner in particular drew him.  To the left of the hearth, where the fireplace wall met the short wall with the window, his attention traveled upward to the juncture of walls and ceiling.  Three planes meeting, three lines edging them — and none of it at all right.  A point where everything coalesced, quick, precise, immutable.

Conroy stood in the very center of the cabin.  The stillness scared him.

On an impulse, he dropped to his haunches, opened his pack, and emptied all his belongings onto the floor, impelled to an act of logic and order.  His hands began to sort and arrange.

***

The first to reach the portal were minor beings of pure instinct, empty of thought, but plentiful in that region of spacetime.  Moths to a flame, they would flit back and forth through a portal and linger nearby.  Most of these were harmless, or at least passive.  

Others, the body-stealers, were more dangerous.  Drawn by intelligent life, the body-stealer’s attentions invariably proved fatal to its host when, after its usual unpleasant mischief, the body-stealer decided to move on.

But these minor entities quickly attracted others, greater ones, the world-eaters.  Gifted of singular intent, these ancients only came fully alive at those times when a portal opened.  Once through, they could — and would — flense a world of higher life with prodigious speed.

The last time a portal had opened to Earth was some 430 million years prior to Conroy’s birth.  Geologists refer to the occasion as the Ordivician extinction event.

***

     The glimmer of red in the corner grew to the size of a dime.

Conroy came to his feet, stepped closer without thought, his whole attention on the glimmering spot just three feet away.  His eyes couldn’t resolve the glow, couldn’t focus on it.  It had to be radiating beyond the visible spectrum, or perhaps not only in this continuum.  And it was getting bigger.

The light grew, dimmed, acquired a murky translucency.  It was over a foot across now, dilating rapidly.  Movement stirred in its depths, like a diver nearing the surface.  Conroy remembered the dream of the cratered land, of night-dark shapes flashing through the icy void.  He understood what he was seeing, and why he was here.  Something had brought him: it could only be to stop them.

A wet, tearing sound like a membrane rupturing, and something big and pale hurtled past him, missing his shoulder by inches, and landed behind him with a heavy thud. It — stood? lay? — in the half-light against the far wall.  He struggled to grasp its form, to fit the utter alienness of it into his catalogue of possible shapes.  It was unfolding a bewildering number of pale appendages – not tentacles, more like stringy, many-jointed limbs — but in a jerky sort of freeze-frame, as if a bubble of slightly skewed spacetime had accompanied it. 

As Conroy’s stomach tried to revolt, another of the things fell through the portal behind him, hitting him mid-thigh.  He cried out as he lost his balance and went sprawling among his neatly-piled belongings.  The thing ignored him and began instead to jitter and uncoil where it had landed, just as the first had done. 

The smell of them came to him then, a high, sour stench, and only the terror of falling helpless prey to the things gave him the strength to force his gorge back down.

The first one had extended the thickest of its limbs and raised its main section, a wobbling ovoid topped with three fanlike crests like marlin’s fins.  It lacked recognizable features, but a dark opening near the underside of its body was expanding and contracting like a sucking, lipless mouth working at speed. 

Conroy snatched the Swiss Army knife from among his belongings and backed against the hearth, clawing open the ridiculous two-inch blade as the second of the things got its appendages under itself and began to raise its body. 

No thought was necessary, none possible.  Driven by far older imperatives, Conroy came forward in a crouch, snarling, slashing at the closest limb.  It parted cleanly, leaving an eighteen-inch section twitching on the ground.  In a transport of terror and revulsion, Conroy thrust the blade into the center of the wobbling body section. 

There was no blood, no spurt of smoking ichor, not even a visible wound.  The thing’s mass just flowed around the blade; when he jerked it back, sick at the cold touch of the thing’s flesh against his hand, the knife remained clean.  

The stink of the thing was overpowering.

Conroy reeled back, his breathing ragged.  The thing not flinched.  He wasn’t even sure it had noticed. The first one had meanwhile got the door open and was negotiating its way out into the moonless West Virginia night, easing its appendages through the doorway by twos and threes in a grotesque ballet.  The second started after it.

The breath of cool, sweet air from the doorway had mercifully dampened the stench a bit.  Conroy turned back to the portal – which appeared to have stabilized at the size of a large refrigerator and now ink-black – in time to feel something like a pressure wave blow through it.  Nothing visible emerged, but several small volumes of air began at once to ripple, like dancing sprites of heat shimmer.  And another of the many-limbed things burst through, this one grazing the ceiling before hitting the floor by the window.

Conroy stared in mute, uncomprehending awe.  His mouth sagged open; the hand with the knife hung at his side.  Whatever the things were, they had left him alone – so far at least.  But, Jesus Christ!  a pair of the many-limbed horrors had escaped into the night, and the third, now unwound, was moving in the same direction.   

Several of the shimmying sprites that bobbed around the cabin had found the doorway as well.  They were all over the place.  He jerked instinctively aside as one came close to his face, and it was as well he did: when an instant later, one of the sprites grazed the floor of the cabin, Conroy half-expected it to bounce like a soap bubble, or perhaps even to burst.  The sprite did neither of those things.  Where it touched the floor, the boards simply blurred and vanished like pencil marks beneath an eraser, leaving a clean oval hole through to the dirt below.

Conroy’s legs threatened to give.  He stared about, tracking the sprites, filled with a terrible certainty that worse was to come. 

His eyes settled on the oil lamp.  Dank air notwithstanding, the floor and walls were tinder-dry.  Could the portal could exist without the cabin?  Was it impervious to flame?

Shadows leapt and reformed as he snatched the lamp off the floor.  He straightened, ready to dash the lamp against the wall, and barely had time to feel the thing enter his mind before it took full control.

The body-stealer, utterly invisible, had followed the sprites, found Conroy, and made itself right at home.  It understood Conroy’s intentions at once and immobilized his body before he could throw the lamp. 

Subtle, older than mankind, the body-stealer had inhabited thousands of beings on hundreds of worlds; it had never met with an intelligence it could not master.  Conroy sensed it track like quicksilver through his brain and ganglia, swamping him in a whirlwind kaleidoscope of memories and sensory impressions.  Nerves screamed, synapses arced and fired.  He saw his mother sewing/took a midnight swim in the Sea of Cortez/graduated from high school/experienced an orgasm/smelt toast burning/corrected a set of plans/took Alexa and Jim junior to a Red Sox game/tasted beer/relived the agony of two broken fingers in a slammed car door/married Donna —

And as it knew him, so he knew it, or the fraction of it accessible to a human mind.  In that sick contact, he understood the truth.  It knew why Conroy was here.  He was the consciousness key, the enabler, drawn to the portal just as, on their side, they had been drawn. Only a brain finely attuned to spatial perception could close the gap, forcing a bridge across the void, searing the portal into full existence.  He was perfect, the chosen one.  His presence had made the portal possible.

The irony sank in: he had given up his job, his family, his dignity, his very sanity – and come willingly, under the proud illusion that he was special, that some power had chosen him, him — for a great and noble task.   

Trapped in the prison of his skull, raked bare by his inhuman captor, Conroy screamed, even as some distant part of him still struggled, groping for the edges of the body-stealer’s thought where they lay across his own, looking for a weakness, a crack, a way.

The body-stealer redirected Conroy’s scream into high,crazed laughter.  The Conroy had been unusually resistant, but now it felt the fight go out of the Conroy, tasted the Conroy’s admission of failure.  In defeat, the Conroy’s thought was fixed on its dual offspring and its absent mate.

The Conroy was weak.  Like all those the body-stealer took. 

The body-stealer sensed movement inside the portal. The first of the Old Ones, the world-eaters, was approaching.  Unless the body-stealer stood directly in their path, the Old Ones would ignore the body-stealer and its thrall.  Spurred on by something not unlike fear, the body-stealer moved the Conroy to clear a way for the Old Ones, still holding the lantern at arm’s length. 

     Two of the little floating ones bobbed toward the body-stealer, borne on an icy gust from the portal.  The body-stealer ducked one and dodged the other, all the while casting quick glances toward the portal.  The Old One was very near.

In that moment of distraction, Conroy saw his chance.  His arm jerked up; the lamp flew.  Even as it hit the ceiling, Conroy felt the body-stealer retake control and suffered its mockery.  No little fire could hurt an Old One or destroy the portal once it was birthed.  Consciousness, not configuration, was the key.

The lamp hit the dry boards.  Glass splintered and kerosene splashed.  Flame blossomed. 

In a moment, the entire center of the room was ablaze; fire engulfed the little piles of items on the floor, and rushed over Conroy’s oil-spattered feet and ankles.

The body-stealer felt the pain through Conroy’s nervous system.  It screamed and gurgled in Conroy’s voice. It reeled into the spreading blaze, heedless of the bobbing sprites, its only thought to withdraw from the Conroy.

In the instant its control began to slip, Conroy drove his body headfirst at the tiny blur in the air where the nearest sprite bobbed and danced. 

Neither of them felt a thing.

***

Conroy’s death collapsed the portal before the first of the Old Ones crossed to Earth.  The many-limbed things are still free, and five of the sprites.  They stay close by the place, hoping in their instinctive way for the portal’s reappearance. 

Very occasionally, a human will come across one of the many-limbed things, but nobody ever believes the tales.  After all, those brooding West Virginia hills have been haunted for as long as anyone can remember, haven’t they?
 

THE END


8 Responses to “Appalachian Fall by Dario Ciriello”

  1. Eric Norton Wrote:

    An excellent piece, very easy to read all the way through. Very nice descriptions of details that helped one envision the environment.

  2. Dario Wrote:

    Thanks, Eric!

  3. Jim Wrote:

    Great story. Hope you keep writing.

  4. Dario Wrote:

    Thanks very much, Jim! As long as there’s breath in me, I plan to 😉

  5. Jordan Wrote:

    I knew in 1979/1980 that you were destined to entertain and enlighten the world. I was RIGHT!!! Way to go, Dario!!!

  6. Dario Wrote:

    Jordan! Wow! Long time indeed — great to find you here. I just found you on the web and will be in touch 😉 Thanks for the kind words!

  7. Issac Pilgrim Wrote:

    Impressive. I’m a big Manly Wade Wellman fan, and The Whisper in Darkness is one of my favourites, so I loved the setting. The “grotesque ballet” of the entity’s exit from the cabin was great, as was the description of the central location; the fern-crowded gully, tec. I thought your story was clever and evocative: far above the on-line average. You have a genuine talent.

  8. Dario Wrote:

    Isaac, my reply is very late… but thanks so much, Very kind of you.

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