by Ian McHugh
Monsters exist. Their numbers and nature vary from time to time and place to place, but they are always near.
More often than not, they are nearer than we like to think.
Monsters do not appear in the world fully formed. They are not angels, fallen from the sky. Monsters grow, here. They germinate, as if from a seed, and we water and nurture the seed ourselves.
For him, it starts with hair.
The smell of his mother’s hair is all that he remembers of her. That is what he tells himself, anyway.
Monsters are supposed to have mummy issues. Heroes tend to have daddy issues. That is the truth, as told in stories.
Most monsters are socialised and reified by the monsters around them. He does not have that luxury. A fabricated memory of his dead mother is something to cling to, at least.
How he got from sniffing hair to boiling down corpses and making wind chimes from their bones may be of interest to some.
It seems, at first blush, a large leap to make.
Large leaps can be comprised of many small steps. The steps are often accidental.
You take enough steps, not planning or even really thinking about where they might be taking you, and one day you look up and find that what started out as a fetish for sniffing hair has morphed into dismembering bodies with an axe and rendering them down in the boiler out back of your house.
It started with sniffing hair, and hair is still the crux of it.
He has a routine.
It begins when the baggage carts are parked out of view of the passengers in the terminal, while he is loading the cases from the carts to the conveyer belts. Those going from the belts to the carts are sometimes tantalising, but of no real use to him.
He touches zippers and handles, sniffing and listening with his fingers. That is how he thinks of it. What his fingers seem to tell him is something other than touch, more like a fading scent and the faintest of echoes. A bouquet and a song, travelling up his arms from his fingertips.
His grandmother, who taught him, would have said that he is sensing the resonances of the souls of the people who own the cases. Scents and voices are the closest analogues he has.
What he is searching for is his mother’s semblance – the fragrance of her hair, the melody of her unremembered voice.
Discarding each case in turn, he lifts them from the baggage cart across to the conveyor belt and moves on to the next. His skims the baggage tags with his eyes, reading the details without really being conscious of doing so.
He lifts a case off the cart and kneels beside it on the tarmac. He pauses, holding the zipper between finger and thumb. His other hand rests lightly on the handle, savouring the moment of anticipation.
He unzips the selected case and flips it open. Inside are a woman’s clothes. This one is fastidiously packed, the clothes neatly folded, the limited volume optimally used. Sometimes the contents are messy, clean and dirty jumbled together, packed with more haste than thought.
It is unerringly a woman’s case that he chooses. Reverently, he places his hands flat on top, his skin pimpling as the thrill runs up his arms. He likes to lift up a petticoat or other piece of underwear and hold it to his face, covering his mouth and nose while he breathes. He feels the song and scent of the soul go inside him, filling his lungs.
He searches deeper, finds the toiletries bag and opens it. Inside is what he is looking for. He plucks hairs from the brush, running them under his nostrils before dropping them into the snap-lock bag he retrieves from his pocket.
He repacks the case as he found it, zips it shut and lifts it onto the conveyor belt. He watches it disappear up the tunnel to the baggage carousel.
He wonders what she looks like, the owner of the soul that is so like his mother’s. He has found it is better not to see. Reality inevitably disappoints. Instead, he stands still and enjoys resisting the temptation.
Then he goes back to work.
In hindsight, it seems blindingly obvious that his grandmother should not have taught him voodoo.
‘Voodoo’ is his word for it, not hers.
It was women’s secrets she taught him, not meant for men. But her daughter was dead and her nieces and grandnieces were far away and beyond her reach. He was all she had.
If she was not a lonely old immigrant, if there had been one other woman – any other woman – within reach who knew the tradition, she would not have done it. But she was, and there was not, and she did. And then she died.
He does not properly understand the nature of what she taught him, or see truly what it is that he does.
That does not excuse him.
You could find the monster seed inside of anyone, easily enough, if you cut them open and if calling it a seed was not just a metaphor.
If the metaphoric seed is fertilised by culture or circumstance, it will flourish.
And the monster will grow, in anyone.
At the end of his working week, he locks up his tiny bedsit under the flight path and drives home. The journey takes him out past the suburbs, up through the hills and down the other side. Past farmhouses and towns. It is well past sunset when he pulls off the highway and hears the crunch of gravel beneath the tyres. The headlights sweep across the whitewashed walls of the old, deconsecrated church, the garden bursting with flowers and fruit.
He kicks off his shoes in the old vestry, uses one to prop open the door. The voices are muted in the still air, a murmur at the fringes of his thoughts. He leaves the lights off, finding his way by memory and touch. They hang in the high space above him, ready to sing. He unbolts the portico door at the far end and pushes it wide.
Gently, the breeze finds its way inside. Softly, the voices begin to sing. Such sadness they hold, such forlorn and touching bewilderment. He lets the tears run down his cheeks as the chorus washes over him and through.
He turns on the lights and walks around, stroking the pale extremities of bone that hang low enough to reach, stilling the chimes for a minute while he caresses the varnished smoothness, marvelling at his own artistry, how he has carved them, assembled them, hung them just so.
Content, he makes himself sandwiches in the kitchen shoehorned into what had been the church’s south transept. He sits on the battered old couch to eat, in the serene space in the middle of the floor, surrounded by his workshop clutter.
After he has cleaned his plate and cutlery, he sits down at his modelling bench, unwraps the end of the clay block and cuts off a slice. He rolls it into a ball that sits comfortably in his fist, then presses the hair he has harvested that day into the middle of the ball. Then he selects a pin from the jar at the back of the bench, touching each one in turn until he finds the right one for now. He pricks his thumb and squeezes out a drop of blood, then presses it into the hole in the clay that he made for the hair, just the way his grandmother taught him.
Carefully, he shapes the clay into a figurine. He feels a stiffening and tightening inside his pants as he squeezes its breasts into shape, narrows its waist and gives a pleasing curve to its buttocks and thighs. Satisfied at last, he sits back to admire his work, pressing the heel of his hand down onto his crotch.
He takes the new figurine and the pin over to the altar table and lies them side-by-side on the cloth. He trails his fingertips over the doll’s breasts, belly and crotch, imagines that he can sense the tremor in response, even over such a distance, as its owner feels an echo of his touch. Then he goes outside.
He leans his back against the old iron boiler and watches the stars turn across the sky, the night air filled with the heady perfumes of his garden.
In the still hours before dawn, he goes back inside. Again, he caresses the new doll, sensing the sleepy response. He picks up the pin and gently pushes its point through the doll’s chest.
He rests a few hours, then drives the few kilometres into town for groceries. There is a woman who works at the general store who he likes, big-hipped and blousy. The scent and song of her are wrong, but she is friendly and maternal in a way that he likes to imagine reminds him of his mother.
Sometimes, his co-workers at the airport observe while he performs his routine at the baggage carts. They mock him, but they never intervene. The men are unthreatened by his eccentric behaviour and the few women are too threatened by the men, should they speak out. Besides, sniffing underwear and stealing a few hairs is not a patch on what some of them do with the luggage.
If most monsters are men, it is because most cultures and circumstances nurture the monstrousness of men.
If most cultures and circumstances nurture the monstrousness of men, it is because most monsters are men.
It is a vicious circle.
The next time he comes home from work, he goes straight to the altar. His palms are sweating, fingers trembling. The past few days have been almost unbearable, as those in-between days always are. Has he captured the soul?
Carefully, so as not to crack the dried clay, he eases the pin from the doll’s chest. The voice is still there, ever so faint. His pulse thuds. He lifts the doll to his face, brushes the clay with his lips, inhales deeply. He finds what he is seeking, a tantalising facsimile, an almost memory of the scent of his mother’s hair.
He stays awake until dawn, although he is tired, then rests through the day. After sunset, he loads his tools into his van and drives back to the city. He rests the doll between his thighs, feels its voice grow subtly stronger, its pleasing hardness against his erection. Its scent fills his nostrils. It draws him along, through the suburbs, past the bright, empty towers of the city centre, past the airport, veering away, out the other side of the metropolis.
The country road dances and twists in the dark, trying to escape his headlights. His hands are sweaty on the steering wheel. At last he arrives at the cemetery gate. He keeps driving, slowly, following a side road that parallels the iron fence, past a service gate. He pulled over, gets his tool bag out of the back and walks back to the gate. He cuts the chain with his bolt cutters and slips inside.
With the doll in his hand, he hurries past the ugly concrete block of the crematorium, that hateful, wasteful place. He lets the song and scent guide him to the right spot. His excitement spikes when he sees the fresh-piled dirt. He tucks the doll into a pocket, slides his tool bag off his shoulder and extracts his shovel.
He digs at the head of the new grave, making a hole big enough to stand in and work. When he strikes the coffin, he throws the shovel out of the hole and clears the dirt from the lid with his hands. The voice of the soul trapped inside is soft but clear in his mind, mournful and sleepily confused. He uses the sharpened blade of his pick to score across the lid, then takes his mallet and chisel from the bag.
The blows ring painfully loud. He knows that the earth walls deaden any sound that escape from the hole, but he pauses, nonetheless, between each blow and listens a few seconds.
Once the lid is split, he hooks a surgeon’s mask over his ears. The stink of the corpse overwhelms the fragile aura of the soul.
He puts on heavy rubber gloves and levers the coffin open with his crowbar. The stench is like an assault. Holding his breath, he loops his rope around the body’s ribs, under the armpits, then climbs out of the hole. He tries to breathe shallowly until he has hauls the body up and seals it inside the bag. Then he slips back down into the hole, sets the broken piece of lid back in place and climbs back out to refill the grave, evening out the surface as best he can to disguise his intrusion.
He heaves the body in its bag up onto his shoulders, bending awkwardly double to gather up his tools. Crabwise, stooping, huffing with effort, he scuttles back to the gate and out to his van. Not until he is back on the road, leaving undisturbed quiet behind him, does he begin to relax.
This all began with a fetish for sniffing hair, remember.
He rests when he gets home, toppling onto his bed for a couple of dreamless hours. His alarm wakes him in daylight. He allows himself only a glass of water before he goes back out for the next part of the task.
First, he gets the furnace going underneath the old boiler. Then, donning gloves and mask and averting his gaze as much as he can, he unzips the body from the bag and strips it. The clothes he throws into the furnace.
He stands, opens the top of the boiler and picks up his axe. He closes his eyes for a few breaths, then he starts to chop, tossing each piece into the boiler as soon as it is separated. He aims for the joints – wrists, elbows, shoulders, ankles, knees, neck – trying as much as possible to avoid damaging the long parts of the bones. Separating the thighs from the pelvis and ribs from spine are the hardest. A cut on either side of each thigh and a practiced twist of the axe takes care of the former, placing the axe blade precisely so and judicious application of a mallet does for the latter.
He wishes he could shut his nose to the stink, shut his ears to the jumbled mess it makes of the song. He will make it whole again, he reminds himself, better and purer than it was before, cleansed of its decaying husk of meat.
The doll he tosses through the furnace hatch after the clothes.
Afterwards, he opens both doors and winds out all the high windows of the church to let the chorus swell as loud as possible and the fragrances of the captured souls swirl into every nook. He sits on his couch in the serene space and lets the reconstructed memory of his lost mother wash over him, cleanse him, remind him that it will be worth it, in the end, once this new soul is purified and shaped and perfected and hung in its proper place among the multitude.
He is going to be late for work, but it is more important that he is calm before he sets out than that he be punctual.
The thought of breakfast turns his stomach.
He dresses in his uniform and combs his hair. Before leaving, he looks up at the bare, elegant, ivory shapes, layers and layers of them that fill the vaulted ceiling space, the dozens of souls he has already carved into such sublime harmony.
He pulls the door shut and checks that it is locked. He decides to stop and buy a coffee and sandwiches from the woman at the general store, who he likes to think reminds him of his mother, before he sets out on the long drive back to work. He is tired but content.
Monsters exist, and they can be dangerous. It all depends where the next leap takes them.
About the Author
IAN MCHUGH is a writer whose first success was winning the short story competition at his local science fiction convention in Canberra, Australia in 2004. Since then, he’s sold more than 40 stories to publications around the world, and his first story collection, Angel Dust, was published in 2014. You can find his full bibliography, with links to read stories that are available free online, including his past publications at Pseudopod, Escape Pod and Podcastle, at ianmchugh.wordpress.com.
About the Narrator
Ron Jon is a writer, narrator and singer. He has written and published children’s books; scripts and screenplays for animation and live action; musical lyrics and libretti. He is a student of strange phenomena/parapsychology, horror and children’s literature. Ron Jon writes short weird fiction under the name ‘the spectre collector’. See his disturbing videos and hear more of his work on ‘the spectre collector’ blog – thespectrecollector.blogspot.com.au. Download his disturbing albums on ‘the spectre collector’ Bandcamp site – thespectrecollector.bandcamp.com. His new album on Bandcamp is called “Decomposition on ice”.