The Piecemeal Boy
a story by
J. A. McGowan
Enclosed pleased find the story I mentioned at your grandmother’s funeral, the one I found amongst her intimate effects. It was published back in the ‘30s, as you can see, but from my many conversations with your late grandmother, it is the only story she ever wrote which she claimed was based on personal experience. I hope this will shed some light on the delusions from which your grandmother suffered during her long life, which, as this story demonstrates, took hold of her much earlier than we previously thought. It may also go some way to explaining her reaction when you gave her the news that you were moving to the Dorset coast. Should you wish to republish this or any other pieces of her work, she left you the rights in her will. There is some hope of the National Trust taking on Glenholme, dilapidated as it is.
August Berringly-Orr, Esq.
published in Weirder Tales, May 1938
The Black Isle
by April Darling
I was eighteen and in university when I became embroiled in my uncle’s affairs. He had become increasingly reclusive of late, only ever contacting family and friends by phone, often at three or four in the morning, ranting that he could hear Their footsteps over the roar of the sea, but they weren’t to have him. Which in and of itself was odd, as he lived near the shores of Loch—, which was often stirred by bad weather, but could scarcely be said to mimic the sea.
Just before the Easter holidays I had received an unwonted, terse, and mysterious letter:
I shall be glad to receive you at Glenholme during your holidays. Maybe a quick young mind like yours can help me out of this hell. Your loving uncle T—.
I called my mother, who confessed she had “volunteered” me for familial duties. In vain, all my protestations that I had planned (and paid for) a sojourn on the Côte d’Azur with my girlfriends. I pleaded at least to be able to bring a friend or two with me, though I knew few if any would sacrifice warmth and sand for sunless Scotland. The very suggestion, voiced hesitantly by my mother, brought on a near-apoplectic fit in my uncle, which in turn brought on one of Mother’s migraines.
Nothing, of course, could shift one of Mother’s migraines except blind and unquestioning obedience. And so, like the sacrificial Paschal lamb, I arrived on the foreboding shores of Loch—, shivering and vulnerable in the face of the storm about to break.
Uncle T— met me with his pony trap, his greeting a mere “Well. So you’re here then.” Living as isolated as he did, manners counted for little—unless you should happen to cheek him. Then you were as likely to feel the whip as the poor pony. So, exhausted from a long and convoluted train journey, I risked no speech during the two-hour ride back to Glenholme. Once a dog-fox barked. Uncle T— stopped, listened, and said in a satisfied manner, “Good. They don’t know you’re here yet.” By this time I was three-quarters of the way to slumber, but I would remember that, later, and wonder what he had actually heard.
Two days at Glenholme passed, with Uncle T— not offering any more than casual conversation or criticism about my choice of dress for this time of year (I was very much my age in terms of dress); we met mostly at meals. How I longed for my university chums, no doubt giddy with dissipation in France! The silence, the stillness, the sheer heaviness of Glenholme pressed down on me, till I could bear it no more.
On the third day I rose early, threw some necessities into a hold-all, and stole out with some half-formed scheme to steal the pony and flee to the station. As I quietly entered the stable, the sun was not yet risen, and some godforsaken forest creature, of which many wandered the estate, gave rise to a piercing scream. I, too, shrieked, and then it seemed my uncle was immediately before me, standing in the door and blocking my way out. He met my eyes. I saw nothing but grim determination in his.
“You awake yet?” he asked needlessly. My heart hammered. I noticed his haversack was packed and slung in a corner. He tacked up his riding horse, a beast only he could ride, and asked me to hand the haversack to him, a feat I could barely accomplish, due to its weight. He told me to open the door, which I did.
“April,” he said, light hands flicking on the reins. “I’m going back to Hell. You’ll find all you need on my desk. If you need help cleaning or cooking, Mrs. MacDonald will call in three times a week. I should be back by the time you leave. If I’m not,” and here he hesitated and checked his dancing mount. “If I’m not, God have mercy on us all,” he concluded, looking at me queerly. He spurred his horse to a canter, and called over his shoulder, “You must read what I’ve left for you.You must. And for God’s sake don’t let them in, no matter what you see or feel.” And then he was gone, leaving me alone and barely awake as the sun rose. I had hardly noticed the brace of pistols on his belt. My uncle hardly ever went armed.
The pony’s snoring roused me from my shocked stupor, and an out-of-season pheasant exploded out of the brush, spooking me. I went back to my room, and slept until noon.
I was not a great walker, but I walked that afternoon, all around the estate, tiring myself out. Glenholme was a huge place to be alone in, and the departure of my uncle seemed to sap all life from it. When I got back in at dusk, the house seemed to welcome me enthusiastically, as if it wanted me inside. I mused that an estate of this sort must want a family in it, to fill it with warmth and light. The thought struck me afterwards as nonsensical. So I went to the kitchen, and by the light of a hurricane lamp ate a cold supper. Then, exhausted by my exertions, I slept.
I woke up early the next morning, though daylight had broken. A fine rain washed the outside of the window, daunting the prospect of a walk that day. My enthusiasm had been diminished by the day before, and I was of the age to find comfort in art rather than nature. But, of course, I had brought no books, for what young student wants to work in the holidays? So I wandered Glenholme looking for distraction, feeling, as any young girl does, for the poor animals whose heads were mounted on the walls in all rooms (save, thankfully, the bedrooms), and not interested overmuch in the heavy tomes written and bound by the worthies of my father’s generation. I drifted from picture to picture, but they were no different than those any other old house of the period—watercolours and oils in dark and heavy frames.
The rain continued. Driven by sheer boredom as much as anything else, I entered my uncle’s study. It was a huge room, and untidy in the way only a man can be when he has unassailable rights to his own property, with papers everywhere, and especially shoved willy-nilly into the crannies of the rolltop desk that took pride of place along one wall. I noticed that on that wall several sketches had been tacked wrongly, so the pictures could not be seen. Curious, I turned them over, and saw pencil and charcoal sketches— island views, and two or three scenes of a small village, its landscape bereft of any pylons or wires that might hint it was on either the phone or electricity. The views were done in a strong, if bored hand (my uncle’s), and labelled only, “The Black Isle—view to the north” and the like.
The pictures of the village, though, were done by a hand that showed much perturbation. The pencil marks were more heavily scored upon the paper, and the strokes more angular and slightly erratic. These were simply labelled with names of the houses. At the last, there was one picture of a village green with a maypole about it, and figures dancing about the maypole. The picture had pencil shaded across it as if to give the impression of mist or rain, and underneath in a decidedly disturbed hand was written clearly, ‘HELL.’
Why were the pictures back to front? Had I stumbled upon a secret? The evidence of the pictures could be used to show my uncle was not in his right mind. I shuddered to think what a handwriting expert, such as the police might these days employ, would make of the desperate scrawl on that last picture of the village green.
I started to take note of the books in the room. Many of them were such as you’d find on any gentleman’s bookshelves. But the ones scattered about were of a different nature completely—lists of sacred sites, pilgrimages, Roman ruins—all sorts of antiquarian Scottish history that had come into vogue at the time of the old Queen. There were journals, there, too, in cramped, undistinguished hands, records of intrepid men (or so I guessed) who gathered the information in the books. There were biographies of Somerled, and many books of the history of the Inner Hebrides. These last had lines and heavy underscoring, which I saw corresponded to a large map on the table under the window in which my uncle had drawn five lines in a sort of five-point star, with one of the points in the Hebrides, one off the southwest coast (in the Scillies, I guessed), one on the Isle of Wight, and then one other on the east coast and one that ended at the very top of Scotland with an arrow indicating it needed to go further north. The map bore the heading “THE FIVE CARDINAL (ELDER) POINTS,” with the caveat “NB: all islands—why?” underneath. In heavy lettering the largest isle with the point under it was labelled “THE BLACK ISLE,” with all manner of sketching about it.
I couldn’t properly discern the sketches, as they were done in miniature and I am vain enough not to like to wear spectacles, but the nature of those sketches was like enough to the picture of the village green to disturb me. There was a dot on the island which no doubt corresponded to the village I had seen.
A sudden crack of thunder brought me to my senses. It was dark already. I went back to the kitchen and ate another cold supper, which sat like lead in my stomach as I went up to my room. I couldn’t get my uncle’s sketches out of my head. Hell? He had said he was going back to Hell. We were not a religious family, yet the drawings were unequivocal and spoke of a great perturbation of mind. I fell asleep in the armchair by the fire, wondering.
In the morning, I could see we were headed for a long bout of rain, such as defines rural Scotland in the Spring. I spent the morning pleasantly with Mrs. MacDonald, and gave her a note to compensate her for her trouble in getting to Glenholme in the rain, for which she was effusively grateful. She baked and cooked all day, and I was quite cheered by the time evening came and she left for home.
I went back to my uncle’s study. I had near to forgotten the pictures during the day. I took them off the wall and gathered them in a pile, arranging them by the dates I noticed in the lower left-hand corner. They had all been drawn over the span of a month some few years before. I sat down at the desk to go over them at leisure.
Oh, the dangers of an unoccupied mind! I saw on the desk a large folder, which contained a small book and a great quantity of papers. It was labelled, “April.” These, then, were the affairs my uncle had mentioned. I opened the folder.
The small book appeared to be a diary of some sort, such as a gentleman might keep. I resolved to put that aside, as a gentleman’s affairs are not best looked into by a young woman closely related to him, and I imagined the look on my mother’s face should I dare to read it. But I pulled the loose sheaf of papers closely, and saw that they were mostly portraits.
If I had stopped there—if I had not started to look at the portraits—how much might have been averted! But youth is ever curious, and I leafed through them. They were a series of faces and studies of other bits of anatomy. They started off normally, but oh! what they turned into! They seemed to be organised by families, and traced generations as far as I could tell. The older ones seemed normal enough, but as we got closer and closer to my generation I noticed that the faces became bent, distorted, mockeries of themselves. Eyes became too large, expressions twisted to give the onlooker a sense of such unease! There was a study of one young boy who had one eye larger than the other, and studies on the same page indicated that this young man had webbed hands, as well, and a twisted shoulder. I looked through the rest of the pictures and saw progressive degeneration in all the series of studies, but that one of the twisted boy demanded my attention. I stared at it, fascinated, until I was convinced his expression was one of purest malice.
Distressed and determined to put my mind at rest, I took a turn about the room. My eyes were tired and playing tricks on me, and the wind outside excited me to strange fancies. As the rain lashed against the windows, I imagined that I could see movement—just a little movement—in the ocean views my uncle had drawn, and, whenever I looked at the wall, I seemed to see a portrait hanging there, a boy portrayed piecemeal, watching me.
I retired to bed. My sleep was fitful.
On the morrow I was still haunted by the portrait. I imagined in the hours before dawn that the wet branches slapping against my window made a sound like webbed fingers sliding across them. I shook myself and, despite the rain, resolved to walk out again that day. I wouldn’t go far.
I fought to keep my balance in the storm, and took more than one spill. But I fought my way to a point that overlooked Loch—, and stared across its rain-scarred surface. For a moment I found such peace as may come in extremes of cold and discomfort, and then another dog-fox barked and I realised that the surface of the loch had become in my mind the blackest of black seas. I struggled home, summoned a hot bath out of the ancient boiler workings, and eventually fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.
The next day I felt better. The rain abated somewhat, though it did not stop, and I decided to do some tidying, as Mrs. MacDonald couldn’t possibly cover the house in one day. It needed teams of maids working around the clock just to keep the dust in abeyance. In trunks long-unopened I found not just moth-eaten linens but skins, possibly of the various animals, and one that looked like an entire seal skin, mottled with age. In the late afternoon the foxes were going crazy, barking and howling. By the time dark fell I, too, fell into my bed, exhausted with the effort of merely trying to stem the tide of Glenholme’s imminent decay.
That night’s sleep was not dreamless. Oh no. I dreamt of what I now know to be the Black Isle, shrouded in mists, with treacherous rocks off its coasts. I dreamt I was staying in a small village, much as any poor Scottish village might be that was off the track of travellers, nestled around a village green. I dreamt that the villagers there relied on the sea for their living, and in the darkness of my dreams I saw them dressed in sealskins, barking like the seals themselves, capering wildly in deformed silhouettes against the falling darkness. Several amongst them afterwards slipped down to the sea, where they took the form of seals and swam off.
I woke to a pre-dawn chorus of pheasants, and the barking of the dog-fox again. I realised that I must have heard him barking, and changed that in my dream into the sound of the seals…
Having exhausted my meagre store of cleaning skills the previous day, and with the weather turning for the worse again, I was once again thrown on my uncle’s resources. I visited the pony and did as much as I could to ease its boredom, but to be honest, that was a boy’s work, not a girl’s who was brought up gently. Inevitably, I went back to my uncle’s study. I put the portraits face down on the desk and began reading the other papers, once of which was his will, which required quite a bit of concentration as it was writ in outmoded and lawyerly speech. There were some other innocuous affairs too, which I made myself mistress of. Then I was left with the diary. I took it reluctantly, went to the kitchen, ate, and retired to bed with my uncle’s diary.
April 2, 19–.
Have been recommended to get some proper sea air for my health. Glenholme weighs upon my sorrows like the overaged elephant she is. I need to find one of my family to take over her care. Or marry. Ha.
Have arrived at the small village of Grayburn. Am staying with the MacTavishes near the green, but close enough to the cliffs to hear the seals barking on the cliffs below. The Isle is pretty in a very isolated sort of way—I supposed the doctor thought that more of what I have already would be good for me. I arrived late—will sightsee the Island tomorrow. There’s none of it that can’t be reached in a day’s ride. They looked at me askance for bringing Runnymede, but won’t protest against the coin that fills their pockets, I dare say.
Have been riding about the island, doing sketches. How very worthy of me, and how unutterably boring. Still, I suppose my chest is clear, so that’s a good thing. Mrs. MacTavish’s granddaughter is close to her time. Apparently she’s had a difficult time of it, and Mrs M. keeps going to check on her. Still, as long as I’m fed and there’s a decent brandy…
Have in an effort to engage myself gone around the village offering to do sketches, and in the process have elevated myself to something of a novelty. All of the adults have volunteered, and trotted out those who are confined to their chairs, too. The children are intrigued. I have noticed that some traits breed very true here, but they seem to change over the course of generations.
I was woken by tapping on the door, soft but insistent. As I awoke from my slumber, a young girl came in. She whispered not to wake anyone, or there would be consequences for both of us. I feared for my virtue—ha—but she said she wanted her picture drawn. I said yes, not being fully of my senses, and got my tools. By candlelight she was revealed to be remarkably pretty, but with only one eye. The other wasn’t even sewn shut—it was as if it had never grown in her head, and only a dent where the eye should be. She seemed satisfied, but whispered not to tell anyone that she’d been. Her voice took on an aura of menace as she spoke, or so it seemed. Couldn’t get back to sleep as the seals were ululating wildly.
Less and less sleep. Accursed seals. My days are filled with daytime things, and the nights with increasing unease. What poison dwells in Grayburn? Children come to me in the night each night, sometimes by twos, demanding to have their portraits taken. They are all quite grotesque. Not a one of them seems to have a normal, healthy body, and they seem to revel in the fact. They tell me in echoing whispers how this sets them apart, how they are special, and chosen by the Isle to serve her. The one-eyed girl seems to coordinate them, and seems intent on seeing how much of these poor, deformed creatures I can take. When the last had gone, I heard laughter outside, and carefully looked through a chink in the curtains to see grotesque figures capering on the green in dim light. One of the grotesques turned, and I fancied I could see the baleful glance of the one-eyed girl.
Here I stopped reading. What coincidence was this, that I had dreamt of this sort of occurrence but the night before? I felt flushed, as if the portraits that I had left face-down on my uncle’s desk were hanging on my bedroom walls, staring at me. My face and chest were hot. I would have opened the windows, but the foxes were crying like seals, and the rain would have soaked the carpet in seconds. I washed my face, emptied the basin, and filled my ewer afresh. I could feel the heat rising in the room, even still.
My chest is clear but I have a fever, born of little sleep, I feel, and not much else. I’ve taken to stealing out in the night after the children leave, just to get a little cool air and feel as if I’m not suffocating. I cannot seem to rid myself of the conviction that the one-eyed girl is watching me. I even dreamt that she and the others waited for something on the green, watching my window with wary eyes.
Most of the villagers were out preparing for the Mayday revels, whatever that entails. I feel worse and worse—only long rides on Runnymede seem to help, and the Island seems increasingly smaller—I took lunch at another town and felt better, but I’m paid up for the next two weeks in Grayburn, and I can’t afford to be cavalier with money. MacTavish’s granddaughter has moved into the house for her birthing—whilst they were out I tapped on the door to see if she needed anything. I found her breathing laboured, fever high and her eyes wide with fear. She gestured me into her room, which I did reluctantly, leaving the door open. She whispered to me urgently, “Don’t… don’t let them take it. Please. Don’t let them take it,” and only my repeated reassurances that everything would be all right would make her let go of my hand. No sleep. Out of brandy. Bloody seals.
I don’t know if people have got wind of the nocturnal visits, or whether Mrs MacTavish found out about my visit to her grand-daughter, but I am watched all the time now. They will let me take Runnymede, but I get severe disapproval from all except the boy who keeps the horse. He tells me to come tonight. The granddaughter has started crying, a thin, pitiful sound that goes on forever.
Another boy was waiting when I went to see Runnymede. I have never seen anyone as twisted, as horrible as he. Large, malformed eyes, one higher than the other, a twisted shoulder, and—I swear it—webbed hands. He made me draw them all, while I could still see, he said, and added that it was nearly time. None of his speech made much sense, and though he is but a boy, in my febrile state I am convinced he means me ill. Could not sleep but for dreams of his face, and the one-eyed girl’s, and all of them dancing, dancing…
I have found a knife in the hay where that horrid boy sat. It is twisted and cruel, and bloodstained. I threw it off the cliff. Later I found a long cut on Runnymede’s neck, and a stained tin cup in the hay in his stall. I buried it. MacT’s granddaughter will not stop wailing, nor will the seals.
I woke to screams from downstairs. The girl was giving birth. I didn’t feel well—or welcome–enough to go downstairs, and whenever I looked out the window a child was watching me. So I returned to bed. After a few hours the screaming stopped and so did the seals, so I fell into a fitful slumber. Later I went downstairs for some tea—it was only for some tea—and the granddaughter was sitting numbly in the rocking chair. She looked at me with such hate! “You let them take it,” she said. “It was beautiful, and you let them take it!” I made my escape.
Last night I can’t tell if I dreamt. I can’t tell what is real any more. They were erecting the maypole, and I watched from my window. Then it seems I was either asleep or delirious, that the villagers and children all gathered on the green, those with straight bodies wearing seal skins to mimic the blessed children, and chanting “Ia! Ia! Ila!” over and over, and the noise of the sea over all. And then there was utter silence, except for the thin wail of a child cut off short. I stole out—or did I?—and found a sticky patch on the ground near the maypole. Hot and sticky.
Glenholme. Oh, dear God, what to write? How did I manage to escape? I went to the May Day celebrations, shaking with fever though I was. They slaughtered a lamb before the celebrations, and it made such a feeble wailing noise. The MacTavish’s granddaughter broke down when she heard it, and started shouting that it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair, it was a beautiful baby and they had killed it like they had killed all the others, and what about… when she was bustled away by a dozen or so villagers. I only noticed then that they all had knives at their belts. They asked me to do the Maydance and I refused, pleading infirmity, which seemed obscurely to please them, but said I should watch.
They played drums, which seemed to go on and on in my head, and the blood on the ground from the lamb spread out towards the Maypole where it joined the dried blood from last night, and the villagers danced barefoot weaving over and under, over and under like a net, and the Maypole started to throb like a phallus that rode the undulating earth and then the seals starting to moan like a woman in pain or pleasure…
I ran. I ran to the shed where Runnymede was, with what little I had on me, and I rode for the beach. I don’t know how many times I fell off because of dizziness, or how many times I could swear I heard uneven footsteps, like those of the horrid boy’s coming after me, impossibly fast, knife glinting, but I made the beach, I made it, we swam for hours and I shall never go back to that hell—
Here the entries abruptly ceased. I was shaken and hot, and could not, would not believe it. The dark had come whilst I was reading, but I could still hear the cacophony of the foxes and pheasants, and the high keen of a rabbit being killed and eaten. The tapping of the trees against my window sounded like uneven footsteps. There was a sudden hush and a windy noise, and something slid down my door. Heart in my mouth, I opened it, only to find that a window must have been open somewhere, for the portrait of the piecemeal boy and some of the Isle pictures were scattered up the stairs as if they were coming for me.
I am not proud of the fact that I screamed, nor of the fact that I shuttered my windows and locked them. When Mrs. MacDonald came in the morning she found me in bed, mumbling deliriously in a fever about “the boy, the boy.”
She, more practical than I shall ever be, hitched up the pony to the trap and brought me, nearly senseless, to her place, with its fill of tumbling children. She told me I could not bear to be near the children at first, but they were blithe and bonny and soon began to bring me out of myself.
I spent a week there, slowly coming back to myself. In the clear and full light coming through the windows of her cottage, I felt ashamed of what I had come to feel at Glenholme, for such nightmares as I imagined had been brought on by boredom and loneliness, and no more. Surrounded by Mrs. MacDonald’s family, I mended, and though she offered to let me stay until Uncle returned, I knew I had to go back and settle my uncle’s affairs.
Uncle T— did not come home. I did what I could with the accounts and then, late on the last night before I was to leave (the MacDonalds had volunteered to see me off to the station), I took the pictures that had caused me so much anguish. The rain had started again, not so much a downpour as a wind-driven tempest, howling under the eaves, and yet I fancied I could still hear the foxes barking. Stop it, I told myself firmly, and did what I knew I had to. I burned the old sealskin and fed the horrid pictures to the fire.
As I came to the one of the piecemeal boy, the world seemed to spin. No doubt it was the wind blowing things back down the flue, but the boy refused to burn, and as I chased around trying to catch the picture as it wafted about the room, I heard the scream of a horse, as if in terror, and in a flash of lightning I thought I saw Runnymede silhouetted. I finally caught the piecemeal boy, and as I did, something thudded against the window. I screamed.
It was my uncle! Unkempt and beaten, he scrabbled imploringly at the closed window with his bloody hands, clawing, scrabbling, clawing. Blood ran down his face, drenched his shirt collar, and those damned foxes were yowling again. I took the poker and thrust the piecemeal boy deep into the heart of the flames, and as he burned, my uncle slumped against the outside wall.
I found him there. His arms had been slashed at the wrist, and bound crudely but not ineffectually. His throat, too, was lacerated, and when I went to catch Runnymede I found that he, too, was cut and bleeding. Runnymede I could do nothing for, but I threw my uncle over the pony’s back and started the long trek to the MacDonalds’. He was raving by the time we got there, and he never stopped, tales of human sacrifice and living land and swimming through tooth-edged rocks to escape being the next victim, and always the boy and the one-eyed girl.
When they came to take him away he resisted, turning to me at the last and telling the men that they should ask me for I knew it was all true, all true, all true…
To my shame, I kept my silence. For I could hear the foxes barking, and heard the uneven steps in the darkness, which sometimes I still do, even though I live so very far now from the sea…
previously published in HAUNTED MAGAZINE