This Scattered Ash, by W.H. Pugmire and Jacob Henry Orloff

(Download the audio version of this story here — read by Chris Dead.  Story illustration by Dana Wright.)

illustration by Dana Wright

Harold Yateley sucked in the mountain air and listened to the song of distant birdcall.  He watched the blanket of mist that crept upward from the valley, toward his mountain home.  He watched the Jacob’s ladder of morning sunlight that fell onto the gathering mist below, but then his brow furrowed as the morning illumination dissipated and darkness filled the sky above him.  The sudden storm clouds were unexpected and unwelcome, and his frown deepened as chill air swept from above and encased his mortal flesh.  The darkness above him seemed peculiar, like the hungry shadow of some cosmic daemon that was passing near Harold’s earthly domain.  Turning, he walked up the porch steps and sought shelter from the heavy rainfall; and he wondered about the color of that rain, and the fact that it had color at all, shades of curious blue-green and phosphorescent blackness.  Harold watched it falling from the sky, until the downpour stopped as suddenly as it began.  His nostrils sucked in the gale that rushed from the land below and brought with a smell that Harold did not like and could not identify.  This incident of nature left him with a weird sensation in his stomach and an ache of numbness on his brain.  Shutting his eyes, he whistled to the wind until the gale melted into a soft breeze, and then he felt behind him for the porch swing that he had erected and fell into it.  With eyes still closed, he pushed himself with his feet planted on the sturdy wooden surface and rocked the swing.  Although the storm had passed, the air was still quite chilly, and he opened his eyes so as to regard the garden some little ways from the front of the house.  The patch of land was in disarray, and he had not been anxious to tend it – not from laziness, but from the thing that had been nailed to the side of the dilapidated wooden shed in which the garden tools had been kept generation after generation.  To approach that shack, its contents, and the husk of skin that had been nailed onto it was to confront the family history that he wanted to ignore and escape.

Harold had inherited the life he had always dreamed of, existing alone and far from human contact, with enough inherited wealth to keep him comfortable for most of his life.  When his few friends had learned of that inheritance and his plans to move to the old house on the mountain, they had told him that he was crazy and that loneliness would soon drive him back to city life.  His friends had never understood him, of course, and were always complaining about his anti-social ways, his desire to spend most of his days in solitude, reading from his vast library or writing the poems he did not deign to share with the world.  Their tedious complaints could no longer reach him, for none of them had been told where the ancestral dwelling was located.  They never understood, those few friends he had made in his various places of employment, that he was sincere when he told them that his books were his very best of friends, and that he would rather spend a quiet evening at home with beloved authors than engaging in pointless activities with some social circle.  His friends had expressed outrage that Harold had never informed them that he had a wealthy eccentric uncle, and he refused to discuss his family background with them, not wanting to divulge the history of witchcraft and sorcery that had tainted his line.  Harold didn’t often dwell on that history, but he could not help contemplating on it now as his eyes studied the small garden wherein his uncle had, no doubt, grown the herbs and reagents that had been used as alchemical compounds.  Perhaps Harold would use that patch of land for saner usage, for the growing of vegetables on which to dine, although his health was not robust and he had no real interest in gardening.  Yet he was determined to rid his house and land of all traces of his uncle’s penchant for wizardry, and had cleansed his house of all such artifacts.  The shed alone remained, and he had not been able to conjure up the nerve to attend to it because of the thing that had been nailed onto one wall, over a diagram etched in what might have been yellow chalk.

The wind became fierce, pushing rain into his face and hair.   Rising to his feet, Harold escaped into the shelter of his home.  Soft lamplight welcomed his eyes, and the poet felt an immediate sense of calm.  He had designed the front room to be a realm of literature, in which he could sit before the hearth with a cup of coffee on the stand beside his armchair and a book in his lap, and had purchased many shelves so that his favorite books could surround him in this room.  A larger room, which had been his uncle’s library, contained Harold’s other books as well as those books that had belonged to his forebear that he had not donated to the library at Miskatonic University, the curator of which had approached him upon hearing of the death of Edmund Yateley.  Harold didn’t like lingering in the library – the room felt too tainted by the aura of his dead uncle, and it had disturbed Harold, when he had rolled up the room’s carpet to have it cleaned, to find a diagram in chalk on the floor beneath.  These thoughts felt like dusty cobwebs on his brain, and he rubbed his forehead with both hands as if to clean the debris from his mind.  Coffee would help, and there was half a pot of hot brew in the kitchen, to which he wandered.  He could hear the storm outside the kitchen window, and was happy for the warmth and security of his home.  Returning to the living room, he got cozy in his armchair and drank his coffee when the room grew chill as the front door opened.  Harold scowled at the elderly woman who stepped into the room and shut the door behind her.  She peered at the tall man with watery eyes and frowned.

“Where is Edmund?” the woman asked in a raspy voice.

“Is it your habit, madam, to enter into a person’s home uninvited?”

The creature ignored his question and patted the bulky burlap bag that was clutched beneath one arm.  “My business is with Edmund Yateley.  I have obtained the volume he coveted and wish to bargain concerning price.”

“My uncle is dead.  You’ll have to take your business elsewhere, I’m afraid.”  Harold looked over the old figure and saw how wretchedly soaked were her clothes, how she shivered from a combination of age and cold.  His voice softened, and he rose so as to place a wooden chair nearer to the hearth and its fire.  “Have you walked in this tempest?  Have you no umbrella?  Come and rest and warm yourself.  I have some soup simmering on the stove.  Have you eaten?”

The woman looked around the room, as if noticing for the first time how its furnishing had altered.  Limping to a bookshelf, she examined the titles and shook her head.  Then she turned to Harold, smiled strangely, and accepted his offer of a chair before the fire.  “Where have you buried your ancestor?”

“I am told that some few of his friends have scattered his ashes in that patch of garden out front, as he requested.  I cannot verify the truth of this, as none of his former acquaintances have bothered to visit me in the short time that I have lived here.  I am Harold Yateley,” he said, bowing.

“Fiona Poole, another of your uncle’s old acquaintances.”  Her eyes gleamed as she looked at Harold, and something in her expression disconcerted him.  “I supplied him with books so as to aid his art.  He was a singular sorcerer, was Edmund.  I shall miss him.  Would it be possible for me to have a cup of tea?  Thank you.  It was our way to share a pot of tea when sharing our love of occult lore.  No, I’ll stay here, where it’s warm and dry.”

Harold vanished into the kitchen and set the kettle on a burner, and then he went to a small closet in which he found a rather battered yet still functional umbrella.  Miss Poole grinned at the sight of that umbrella’s handle hanging from Harold’s arm as he entered the room carrying a tray on which he balanced a small teapot made of porcelain and two cups, cream and cookies.  Placing the tray on a low stand near to where the woman sat, he eyed the burlap bag that had been placed upon the floor.  “I’ve donated most of my uncle’s arcane library to Miskatonic University.  I fear I’m too prosaic to have any interest in esoteric things.”

She sipped her tea and shook her head.  “No.  I could not bequeath this rare volume to an institution.  I must place it into the hands of one who would use it.  Have you no curiosity about your ancestral history, your sinister heritage?”

“None whatsoever,” he informed her, laughing softly.   “My interests lie in poetry.”

“Ah!  You conjure words and imagery.  That is a kind of magick.  Then perhaps this book will interest you, for it is a volume of alchemical verse.”  Reaching down, she pushed a hand into the bag and brought out a very small book, apparently one of many objects with which the bag had been stuffed.   “This is one of some few copies that have survived from the eighteenth century.  Most copies were destroyed by sanctimonious moralists.  I see you have an edition of Shakespeare in Old English, so you are familiar with the language of that time – reading this should then prove no obstacle.”  She handed the book to him, and he set aside the umbrella and took hold of the volume.  He was surprised at how light the book was in his hand, at how smooth its binding felt against his fingers.  “The language is beautifully potent, as the best of poesy is – it tingles the lips when spoken aloud.  You will enjoy uttering the lines therein.”

“Thank you, Miss Poole.  What price was my uncle to pay you for the volume?”

She shook her head.  “No – accept it as a gift in memory of Edmund.  He was very generous with his payments to me.  I mourn his passing.”

“May I give you something with which to remember him?  There are still many of his belongings in this house, paintings and such.  Come with me into the library.”  They rose together, and he walked slowly so as to accompany her limp.  When they entered the spacious library room, Fiona Poole sighed.

“Ah, me – he is no longer here.  You could feel his spirit in this room when he lived, it was like a part of his personality.  We had some wonderful rituals here.”  She glanced at the carpet.

“I’ve removed the chalk diagram that was beneath it.  The house had accumulated so much filth in the time between Uncle Edmund’s death and my moving into the place, I had the entire building thoroughly cleaned.  But, as you see, I’ve left many of his things in this room, as a way of leaving some trace of him here.  I feel sad when I come into this room, I confess – it reminds me that I never knew my uncle, except by the things that were whispered of him when I was young.  My father, Edmund’s brother, died when I was young, and my mother and I had nothing to do with my father’s side of the family.”  Harold shrugged apologetically and then waved a hand to indicate the items in the room.  “If you see something you fancy…”

“You’ve given away the more interesting volumes, I see.  To Miskatonic?  Where they will be locked away from prying eyes and do no sorcerer a shred of service.  Too bad.  May I have the yellow mask that hangs on that wall?  Have you ever examined it, do you know what it is?”  Harold confessed that he did not.  “He had it made when he turned sixty years of age.  It is Edmund’s life mask.  Come, touch it.  Look how smooth his face was at that age.  His flesh was very pale, yet had a kind of yellow cast to it, but not as bright as this.  I have always been fond of that mask.  May I have it?”

Harold went to the wall and removed the mask from it, brought it to the woman and placed it onto her upturned hands.  She murmured satisfaction, as if the mask’s unyielding lips had pressed against her palms.  Giving her host a quizzical look, she lifted the mask next to his own visage and examined them; and then, shrugging, she shook her head and headed for the door that took her out of the house, Harold followed silently.  They stood together on the porch and looked out over the landscape and watched the mist that rose toward them from the valley, and then he followed her gaze to the neglected garden where his uncle’s ashes had been scattered.  She nodded strangely, to herself, and turned to study the figure that had been nailed to the wall of the shed.  “He never buried that,” she whispered.

Harold frowned, not understanding what she meant until he noticed the thing that had been fastened to the shed’s thin wall.  “What is it, a dog or something?”

“Or something,” she cackled.  “Something found, and now neglected.  Well, the rain has stopped, and I’ll be on my way.  Thank you for your gift.  Tend thy book.”

“Are you certain you’ll have no soup and bread?”  She shook her head in refusal.  He watched her hobble down the steps and cross the pathway, meeting at last the mist, to which she held the yellow mask, as if in evocation.  The tall man watched the miasma that enshrouded and concealed her bent form.  Something sounded from the foggy air above, a fowl perhaps, or some lost soul adrift in gathered brume.  Harold watched the place where a portion of the mist began to swirl, like a whirlpool, caught in conflicting currents of wind.  He watched in astonishment, as the tiny cyclone fell towards the shed and shook its frail form, then caught the beast that had been nailed onto the wall and pulled it free.  The dry dead thing danced upon the air like a string puppet manipulated by some unseen hand for a few seconds, and then dropped into the desiccated garden plot, where it lay unmoving.  Harold walked to the shed, the door of which had flown open, and reached for a shovel that tilted against one wall.  Moving to the garden, he bent over to examine the carcass, but found the thing so dry and its disfigured limbs so twisted that he simply had no idea what the thing had once been.  The soil, when he pushed the spade into it, was remarkably pliable, and it did not take long for Harold to dig deeply enough so as to bury the husk of death and cover it with soil.  Returning the shovel to its flimsy shed, he went back into the house and drew a hot bath.  Once soaked and rested, he entered the living room and glanced at the book that had been given him; but the idea of its contents bored him, for he had no interest in the realm of sorcery that had so entranced his ancestor.  Perhaps Miskatonic would be glad to own this new acquisition, for it would certainly do him no good.

Moving into the library, Harold stood beside his golden armchair and glanced about the room before picking up his latest book.  There, on a low table, were some framed photographs that he had vaguely studied when first possessing his new home; now he moved toward the table and bent to study the photos.  He recognized his uncle from the likeness of the mask that he had given to the witch, and the fellow looked normal enough, posing with a group of friends or associates.  One photograph, smaller than the others, gave him a bit of a pause.  It showed a tall figure who must have been his uncle wearing a strange and grotesque animal mask, of a beast that did not exist in reality.  There was an aspect of the mask that disconcerted, for it looked more like the disfigured face of an actual beast that had been flayed and treated in some preservative way.  The masked figure held a huge old book in one hand, while the other hand was raised as if in magical fashion, as though his Uncle were caught by the photographer in the act of incantation.  Beside his uncle stood a dwarfish figure of some inhuman beast, its face an exact replica of the mask that his uncle wore.

Drowsiness overwhelmed Harold, so that he closed his eyes and listened to the storm outside the house.  He knew that the dreams that haunted his nap were very queer, but upon awakening could not remember them.  He opened his eyes and listened, for it was an unnatural cry heard in his dream that had aroused him.  He could hear the rain outside the window nearest him, and then he heard again the awful cry.  It was like the wailing of a beast in torment.  Groggily, Harold rose from the chair and stumbled to the front door, then out onto the porch.  Rain fell in a torrent, and he could not see well into the darkness, although a little of the light that seeped through the doorframe fell onto a portion of the garden in which something moved clumsily.  What was it?  A shapeless beast that was digging into the earth?  The thing raised its face to the light that issued from the house; it opened its mouth and cried, and then continued to struggle out of the pit into which it had been interred.  Whatever it was, the thing was suffering.  As if he still dreamed, Harold stepped into the storm and approached the garden.  He knelt before the creature as it regarded him with inky orbs that were inhuman eyes.  He watched the mouth that opened again, but this time it was not a wail of anguish that issued from it – it was Harold’s whispered name.  He watched the creature shift in the sod, silt that contained an amount of ash and tiny fragments of bones – the cremated remains of Edmund Yateley.

He then heard a sound on rising wind – a voice; and when he raised his eyes he saw his uncle standing in the distance, moving toward him through the heavy rain.  He did not understand why the old man wore feminine garb, until he realized that this was not his uncle’s shade at all, but the witch to whom Harold had given the mask, which now she wore.  She bent so as to kneel next to him and ran her dry cracked fingers against his mouth.  She reached for the bit of bone that was offered to her by the buried beast, and with its sharp edge she sliced a symbol into Harold’s forehead.  Her finger pressed against his wound and brought the taste of blood to his lips, and then she pressed her hand against his wound a second time and offered the crimson smeared thereon to the gnomish creature, which lapped the stuff with its small tongue. The woman removed her mask and spoke his uncle’s name to the storm, and then she pressed the mask against Harold’s face.  He did not like how soft its texture was, the way it clasped his flesh and fastened to it.  Nor did he enjoy the sight of the crone’s eyes as they burned within the face that tilted to him and touched their lips to those of the mask.  How strange that he could taste her kiss, could feel the salty discharge of her breath slink into his mouth and taint his soul.  How queer, the way his memory of life began to fade, and then returned, reorganized, restored.

He stood and laughed into the storm, taking the woman into his arms as their changeling, finally freed from its internment in the earth, frolicked around their feet.

W. H. Pugmire has been writing Lovecraftian weird fiction since the early 1970′s. He sees his work as traditional yet tainted with aspects of modern culture; but primarily he is trying to write tales that would have sold to Weird Tales in its Golden Age. Of his three books to be published this year, THE STRANGE DARK ONE–TALES OF NYARLATHOTEP and ENCOUNTERS WITH ENOCH COFFIN (written in collaboration with Jeffrey Thomas) are Lovecraftian-to-ye-core. His next-published book, UNCOMMON PLACES (Hippocampus Press) is more experimental, being mostly a collection of decadent prose poetry.

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Jacob Henry Orloff is a writer of dark fiction. Dwelling mostly in the genre of Horror, he occasionally branches out to the areas of Science Fiction and Fantasy. His stories have appeared in several anthologies released by Pill Hill Press. Currently he resides in the shadowed plains of the Midwest and is attending the local university in pursuit of an English degree with a Creative Writing emphasis.

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Illustration by Dana Wright.

If you enjoyed this story, let W.H. Pugmire and Jacob Henry Orloff know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

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17 responses to “This Scattered Ash, by W.H. Pugmire and Jacob Henry Orloff

  1. Enjoyable: Pugmire and Orlaff combined their tale well. It would be interesting to flesh out the story. How the uncle lived and died, how he planned to return and how the poor nephew was enmeshed in the plot. You could add a sidebar tale that took the tomes offered to the MU and how they were to be used.

  2. Pingback: Lovecraft eZine Issue #11 « Of My Madness·

  3. The thing I liked best ( loved best ) was how, as the story goes along, it kind of just jumps out and grabs you for a moment, and then lets you go.
    It doesn’t just slowly build to a final climax, but instead has key elements along the way – a good use of peaks and valleys. The thing nailed to the shed, for instance… I love how that was brought out early on, this is a horror story through and through, not just at the end.
    Speaking of the end, twists like that, are what make people like me come back for more.
    Awesome tale, thank you!

  4. Excellent tale! It’s always fascinating to me to see two writers come together to collaborate on a story. Sometimes it is hit or miss, but in this case, both did a great job!

  5. Wonderful tale. I liked the idea of the mask holding power within it, unknown to Harold, only to be used by the witch and the twisted creature for dark purposes.

    -Tim

  6. Great story. Now I will have to read all of the back issues.
    On a side..Is it just me or does the illustration for this story look like Dr House??

  7. This is my favorite of this issue (although although the stories are excellent – as always!) since it evokes H. P. Lovecraft in its phrasing and structure. I feel as though I’ve found a Lovecraft story I didn’t know about – a feeling I often get reading Wilum’s work. Now I have to track down more of Jacob’s work to see if I can tell which part of this story belonged to which of the two authors!

  8. Many thanks for the wonderful comments!! The story as published is based on an outline by Jacob, and then he and I worked together on the final version. If we were successful, you won’t be able to detect the writing on two people, but rather the story will have a smooth wholeness in narrative tone.

    Oh, how I love being published in ye Lovecraft eZine!!

  9. Thank you all for the wonderful comments. It was great working on this with Wilum. Hopefully he and I will be able to produce some more tales for the Lovecraft eZine in the future.

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