Old Wood

Steven Paulsen

Colin Travers went out early one Saturday morning in search of old wood. Heavy beams, kind of weathered and chunky. Timber with a bit of character.
His wife, Desley, was surprised when she heard his car pull up the driveway only two hours later. Colin had told her he thought the search might take all day, perhaps even the following Saturday as well.
"Hey, Des," he called excitedly when he came in. "Check out what I found." He proffered a piece of wood that appeared decidedly old -- mouldering Desley thought.
"A lump of fire-wood," she said teasingly.
"Des, come on. This is just what I want for the pergola out the back. It's unbelievable. I got the whole lot for thirty bucks. And you'll never guess what, but the old codger at the demolition yard where I bought it says it's antique; reckons it came over on the First Fleet." He ran the tips of his fingers along its weathered surface. "Hand hewn I think." Colin squinted at it. "You can still see the tool marks if you look closely." He thrust it at Desley. "Have a feel."
"Come on, Colin." Desley pushed it distastefully aside. "Don't tell me you believe that stuff. It's probably just an ordinary piece of grotty old wood. What I'm concerned about is whether or not it'll look any good."
Colin shrugged. "Maybe the old-boy did spin me a yarn. Either way, it was cheap and this pergola will look just great." He stroked the piece of wood with obvious regard. "I'm going to get started on it straight away."
Later that evening, Desley stood watching Colin through the kitchen window while she absentmindedly washed the dinner dishes. Despite the fact that it was cold and nearly dark outside now, Colin was still working on the pergola.
From the very moment he started work he had attacked the job as if driven, stopping only grudgingly to eat. Now, by the yellowish glow of the outside light he grunted and heaved, positioning the second of the heavy vertical support posts in place.
Desley slid the window over the sink open. "Come on Colin, it's late. Why don't you call it a day?"
"Soon," he snapped. Then more genially he added, "I've got to brace this up-right in place until the concrete sets."
But Colin pottered around for some time more after he fixed the braces in place. By the time Desley had finished the evening's chores and changed in front of the heater for bed, he still hadn't come in.
She was in two minds about Colin's sudden enthusiasm to get the job done. Desley admired his commitment, but couldn't help feeling doubts about the finished product. She had wanted the pergola built from treated pine, but Colin had set his mind on something old and rustic.
Turning back the bed-covers, Desley heard the pitter-patter of raindrops hitting the roof. She sat on the bed for a time, listening, waiting for Colin to come in and then got angry when he didn't. Finally she went to call him, as though he were a child, having to be reminded not to stay out in the rain.
She flung the back door wide and saw him standing motionless in the chilling downpour, staring up at one of the upright posts as though in a trance. She called his name and, just as he seemed indifferent to the rain drops striking his face, he seemed not to hear her.
With no other choice left to her, Desley splashed across the rain-puddled veranda and grabbed him by the arm.
He gasped. "Huh?" He blinked at her, disoriented.
"Come inside you bloody idiot. You're soaked."
"Oh . . ." He looked down at his sodden clothes in confused disbelief. ". . . yeah."
When they made love in bed that night Colin went through the physical motions but strangely his mind wandered elsewhere. Long after Desley had gone to sleep he lay awake in the dark trying to collect his thoughts. There were mutterings, elusive voices lurking in some recess of his mind. The voices were accompanied by fleeting visions, indistinct, but visible to his mind's eye like movements seen from the corner of one's own eye. Yet try as he might he could not focus on these disquieting shadows.
Eventually he succumbed to his tiredness and drifted into a deep sleep, untroubled and dreamless until the early hours of the morning when he began to moan softly, writhing between the sheets. Then suddenly he cried out and he began to wail and thrash his arms and legs wildly about.
Desley sat up, startled, frightened, suddenly awake. She flicked on the bedside lamp and stared at Colin in bewildered amazement. His face was contorted into a grotesque mask and her immediate thought was that he was in the throes of some sort of seizure or fit.
Then it dawned on her that he was still asleep, caught in the clutches of some violently uncharacteristic nightmare. But the moment she reached over and touched him he fell instantly quiet and limp, as though her finger tips had administered some powerful sedative. His face was relaxed and the rhythm of his breathing was easy as he slept peacefully once more.
It was then that Desley noticed the traces of an odour and for some reason it made her feel curiously uncomfortable. It was an unusual yet vaguely familiar smell, dry and dusty, like old hessian sacks. But try as she might she could not recognise it or place its source. In fact at one stage it seemed it might somehow be emanating from Colin himself. Then the odour was gone. She sniffed here and there trying to find it, but the only scents to meet her searching nostrils were familiar and comforting.
For a time she lay awake, wondering what had disturbed Colin, listening to the regular sound of his breathing. Eventually she fell asleep, still puzzled because she was unable to identify the dusty odour.
In the morning when Desley awoke, Colin had already risen. She found him standing in the kitchen staring out the window at the two tall posts he had erected the day before. As she watched he began to rock his head from side to side while he massaged the back of his neck.
"Morning," she said. "Want some breakfast?"
Colin started to turn towards her, then froze mid-motion with a grunt. He grimaced. "Yeah."
"What's wrong?"
"I dunno, I must've slept funny or something. I've got a stiff neck this morning."
"You probably pulled a muscle thrashing about in that terrible nightmare last night. You were yelling out and everything. I was really worried. I nearly woke you up but you went quiet."
He was rubbing the back of his neck again, only half listening to her, his attention on the structure outside. "Yeah? I don't remember a damn thing. Anyway, how long's breakfast going to be? I've got to get back to work."
Ten minutes later, after gulping down toast and coffee, Colin set to on the pergola with similar gusto to that of the previous day. He drilled holes near each end of the horizontal cross beam, making sure the bolts that would soon hold it up passed freely through.
Then, with a lot of heaving and grunting and the aid of an old tow-rope he had found in the garage, Colin hauled the beam up until it was positioned precariously in place ready for fixing.
He would have worked right through lunch but Desley brought out two thick ham and salad sandwiches and a can of beer just as he finished bolting the long cross beam into place. She insisted he stop and eat, then stared in amazement as he wolfed down the meal like a man who has not seen food for a week.
"You really needed that," she said. "Do you want some more?"
Colin slowly stood up to face her. He pulled the ring-tab on his can of beer, threw back his head, and swilled the whole can down his throat so that his adam's apple bobbing wildly. Then he burped loudly and sighed, wiping his chin with his sleeve before he replied.
"Just bring me more ale," he blurted, beer spraying in her face, "then leave me to get on with it."
Desley's bottom lip trembled. "Get it yourself you ungrateful pig!" She dashed the empty beer can from his grasp and ran inside the house.
When she had gone Colin returned to work as though nothing had happened. He cut and drilled two smaller pieces of timber so that he could brace the structure diagonally in each corner. Finally, when the braces were in place, he tightened all the bolts with a pair of shifting spanners until the washers began to make impressions in the wood.
It was solid. Colin walked around the frame admiring his handiwork. He shook one of the vertical posts and there was surprisingly little movement. To anyone watching, his pride was obvious.
Desley looked out in annoyance from the kitchen and thought the frame looked like an oversized soccer goal. As she watched, Colin continued to pace around and around it, stopping to view it from different angles. He seemed entranced, mesmerised by the thing. Gone now was his gusto to continue building. In fact, he did no more work for the rest of the day.
Sometime after midnight Desley awoke feeling strangely on edge, as if half-expecting some impending danger. She had the impression a noise had disturbed her and she listened for it intently: Colin's breathing was easy and regular. Far away a car door slammed, an engine roared into life, faded into the distance. Then the wind picked up and she heard it. An irregular slapping sound somewhere out the back.
She rose quietly from their bed and made her way to the kitchen where the sound was obviously louder. When she switched on the outside light she could see it was the rope Colin had left dangling from the pergola frame. It was dancing in the breeze, slapping noisily against the beams. Cursing under her breath, she returned to bed.
In the darkness she lay thinking about Colin's uncharacteristic moodiness, his irritation and impatience with her; it wasn't her imagination, he seemed to be changing. In the space of two days he had become a virtual stranger.
The sound of Colin's voice interrupted Desley's thoughts. He was talking in his sleep again, except this time his voice was not his own. . . It was a stranger's voice, frightening, rasping, thick with brogue. A voice Desley had never before heard Colin use in all the years she had known him. She listened intently but much of what he said was mumbled or inaudible. She could only pick up snatches of it: "I didn't do it . . . Oh, the pain . . . the ecstasy . . . show him how it feels . . ."
His voice trailed off into an unintelligible growl, unexpectedly changing pitch, alerting Desley something was wrong. Then once again she smelled the unusual odour she had encountered the previous night. Inexplicably, terror struck her. She threw off the bed covers and hit the light switch. Colin's legs began to twitch spasmodically and his mouth was hanging wide open as he continued to make the strange sound.
She grabbed his shoulders and shook him violently but it had no effect. "Colin! Colin!" Still he would not wake. Now the sound he made was like bath water going down a plug-hole. His nostrils were flared and his thickening lips had taken on a bluish appearance.
Desley struck his face with all the force she could muster. Once. Twice. "Colin!" she screamed, and hit him again.
Suddenly his eyelids flew open and he lurched forward gasping for breath. Great chest-heaving, painful gasps that racked his entire body. Gasps that brought a healthy red colour back to his face and quenched the painful burning in his lungs. Slowly his breathing eased and he fell back exhausted.
"Are you all right?" Desley asked earnestly, her fingers digging into his arm.
He nodded between gulps. "I'm okay -- it was just a dream."
"Just a dream! You were choking. I thought you were dying." Tears welled up and glazed her eyes.
"I'll be fine." He rubbed his neck. "I just need a drink of water."
"Oh Colin, I think you should see a doctor. Look at the bed, you've wet the bed."
"I said I'll be fine," he snapped, rising from the bed. "Just change the bloody sheets."
As she replaced the soiled bed linen, Desley heard him at the kitchen sink: the clink of glass, the sound of running water. Then for a long time there was silence. She imagined him staring out the window into the darkness at that structure.
Finally, when he returned Colin rolled over with his back to Desley and went to sleep. She lay awake for a long time both cursing and worrying about him, once again trying to place that vaguely familiar smell that unsettled her.
The next morning was Monday: back to work for both Colin and Desley. As usual, Desley rose about half an hour after Colin because he had to leave first. She felt exhausted, having been awake half the night worrying about him and his strange dreams, and for the first few minutes she moved about the house in a bleary-eyed daze.
Desley first realised something was wrong when she found the kettle was cold. Next she discovered Colin was not in the bathroom and had not taken his usual morning shower. Somehow the house felt abnormally still; she couldn't hear him anywhere. Then Desley noticed the back-door was ajar.
She found him shuffling around outside clad only in his pyjamas. Barefooted, he was stooped and bedraggled, his head low, his hands clasped behind his back. She yelled his name and ran to him, grasping his arm.
He looked at her, eyes blinking, confused, dazed. And she saw his neck.
"Oh my God! Colin what's happened to you? What are you doing out here?"
"I . . . ah, I don't feel too good . . ."
"Your neck, it's all red and bruised! Colin, what's going on? First you act like a stranger, then those weird dreams -- my God, I thought you were going to choke last night -- now this."
"I'll be all right just leave me alone."
"You're not all right! You've got to see someone. I'll stay home and take you to see the doctor." Desley grasped his shoulders, turned him to face the house and walked him towards it.
"No!" He stopped. "I mean, I'm not a child. There's no need for you to miss work. I can go by myself."
"Then promise you'll go this morning?"
"Yeah, now leave me alone will you? Get off my back."
"No, not until you come inside. I don't know what you think you're doing, but you'll catch bloody pneumonia out here dressed like that."
Colin mumbled something about fresh air and then fell silent as Desley led him in by the arm.
On the drive to work a short while later Desley felt a headache coming on and wished she had stayed at home. She already felt sick in the stomach worrying about Colin; in his present state she had real doubts about the glib assurances he had given.
Then there was that peculiar smell that continued to haunt her, like jute or hemp . . . or rope. And that made her think of the flapping rope that had awakened her the previous night.
On top of everything else, this feeling, the importance of the smell, seemed to take on greater proportions than it should have. The hammer continued to pound in her skull and her stomach began to knot with creeping fear. It was too much. At the next set of traffic lights she made a tyre-screeching u-turn for home.
Desley now showed little care for the hazards of the road; once she ran a red light but did not even seem to notice. She skidded the car to a halt in the driveway and fumbled at the front door with the keys.
Inside, she rushed from room to room calling Colin's name until she reached the kitchen. There she came to a sudden halt when she saw the back door was open and fearfully turned to look out the window. She let out a sigh of relief when she saw Colin outside, but it quickly changed into a gasp when she realised what he was doing.
Desley plunged through the door with renewed frenzy, shrieking his name as she went. But Colin seemed oblivious to her; still barefoot and dressed in his pyjamas he was engrossed instead on knotting a hangman's noose at the end of the rope dangling from the pergola frame.
She grabbed Colin by the arm and tried to pull him away, but he growled menacingly. Desley yanked harder and he turned on her, shoving her away with so much force that she fell and twisted her ankle. Rising painfully, Desley broke into sobs, pleading with him, and he growled once more, baring his teeth like some wild beast.
"Colin, it must be something to do with the wood! That damned old wood," she cried. "Listen to me!"
Again she tried to wrench him away from his macabre handiwork and this time he struck her. Red and white sparks exploded behind her eyes. Even though it was only a glancing blow she was stunned and dropped to her hands and knees.
Colin examined the finished noose and held it open so his head would fit through.
Desley cast her eyes despairingly to and fro in search of assistance, anything, and her tear blurred gaze came to rest on the remaining timber Colin had left scattered on the veranda. Painfully, she crawled towards it, grasping a piece about a metre long which she used as a kind of crutch to pull herself to her feet. When she had her balance, she hefted it above her head like a club and lunged at Colin. The beam came down across the back of his neck with a thud, and the impact jarring the wood from her grasp so that it clattered to her feet.
Colin seemed to pause, swaying slightly, caught in the very act of placing the sinister noose over his head, before he crumpled, collapsing in an unconscious heap. The jilted rope swung to and fro in the air above him.
Weeping fearfully, tears streaming down her face, Desley took hold of Colin's ankles and dragged him laboriously away from the makeshift gallows towards the house. Once she slipped and fell, her injured ankle shooting excruciating shards of pain up her leg, but she struggled to her feet and went painfully on. When finally she reached the back door Desley dropped Colin's feet with a mighty sigh and fell on top of him, whimpering, hugging and kissing him, her tears spilling on his face.
Then she left him slumped by the doorway and limped hurriedly about the yard collecting all the unused lumps of old wood, wildly hurling them into untidy piles around the two upright posts. Sobbing in fear and pain, she rushed into the garage for a can of mower fuel and splashed it liberally over the mounds of wood, pausing to pour some down each of the vertical beams. When the can was empty she tossed it aside and hobbled around Colin's prone form, disappearing inside the house.
Moments later Desley re-emerged fumbling with a box of matches. Even from the doorway the smell of petrol from the pyres was pungent. She stepped hurriedly around Colin as he began to stir and groan but she wasn't quick enough. He lunged at her, driven by some instinct, and caught hold of her injured foot. Desley screamed, first in terror and then in agony as she painfully managed to kick her foot free. But the effort threw her off balance and she lurched forward and hit the ground face first.
Matches sprayed from the box with the impact. Desley lay stunned for a moment but even before her senses had fully returned she was scrabbling for the loose match sticks. She found one and struck it but the head failed to ignite. She struck it again, only this time it broke as it flared into life and the burning phosphorous head scorched the back of her hand. Sobbing, she groped for another match as she cast a furtive glance over her shoulder.
What she saw made Desley feel as though something heinous had taken hold of her heart and squeezed it; Colin looked like some enraged wild beast rising to his hands and knees, his teeth bared, his eyes burning with malicious intent. Desperately she found another match, struck it and threw it without a moments pause into the primed timber.
Nothing happened. . .
But as she began to fumble for yet another match the fuel ignited. There was a sudden flash, an explosive thump, and a blast of hot air washed over her. The post crackled as flames licked high into the air. Desley's eyes stung and she could smell the acrid odour of singed hair.
With still trembling fingers, Desley groped for another match, but her search was halted when her arm was suddenly pinned, as though the jaws of a mighty hound had snapped shut on her forearm. She was twisted painfully around and came face to face with Colin. His face was hideous and he snarled.
Desley struck at him, but he raised his arm and easily blocked her punch. She managed to duck under his retaliatory blow and tackled him around the belly, sending them both sprawling on the veranda.
They struggled, thrashing and clawing; Colin trying to get to the searing flames now that he had stopped Desley lighting the second fire, Desley trying frantically to obstruct him.
Then suddenly, despite Colin's intervention, a second explosion rocked them both and halted their struggle. A trail of petrol drips between the two posts had ignited the other pyre.
Roaring with anger and frustration Colin surged to his feet with a herculean effort and dragged Desley up with him. Standing, they began to rain blows at each other.
It was the screaming that stopped them. At first they did not seem to notice it, but it quickly built to such an unholy crescendo, that they fell apart and dropped to their knees clasping the palms of their hands over their ears.
From the flames there came a multitude of screams and wails and shrieks so intense that they drilled their painful way into Desley's consciousness and seemed to explode.
She started to scream herself but fell silent, stricken when she saw the faces. One by one they were appearing in the fire; men and women scrambling frantically trying to escape the flames, imploring, abusing Desley. Their vile curses rising to profane wails.
A flaming beam collapsed, then began to rise as grotesque arms hauled it up. It began to take on a fiery human shape, its legs staggered wildly as it tried to balance, and its arms flayed like a scrabbling wild man. A bestial face, bearded by glowing fire roared at them and lunged forward.
Desley tried to scream, but felt as though an icy hand was squeezing her throat. Her mouth worked soundlessly as the unuttered scream echoed in her mind. Finally, stricken with terror, the last remnants of strength deserted her and she crumpled to the ground before the blazing monstrosity.
The thing teetered, sensing her helplessness too late as the living flames consumed it. Carried by its own momentum the fiery creature gave a hideous roar and collapsed onto the lawn in a shower of sparks, burning, disintegrating into crumbling ashes.
The blaze intensified for a few moments, as though revitalised by some flammable fuel, then gradually the faces began to vanish, burning up, their expressions tortured, hideous, filled with pain, their mouths wailing in torment. The terrible din faded until finally it disappeared with the last of the grisly faces. The only remaining sound was the crackle of old wood burning. The smell of boiling blood -- acrid and sweet -- hung in the air.
Colin moaned and rose unsteadily to his feet, tenderly rubbing the back of his neck.
Cradling her injured ankle, Desley rolled over to face him. "Colin . . . are . . . are you all right now?"
"Yeah . . . I think so." He saw blood trickling from her nose, her eyes teared and blackened. He bent and helped her to her feet, staring slack-jawed at the fires, shocked, disoriented. "Des, my God! What's happening?"
Desley threw her arms around Colin and kissed him, tears of joy and relief rolling down her cheeks. "Help me inside and I'll tell you, you bastard. And next time maybe you'll listen to me when I say I want treated pine."

Originally appeared in Terror Australis #2, July 1990.
Copyright © 1990 Steven Paulsen.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

Eidolon Publications 1995-2005

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