Extract from Chapter 3 of The Crows, introducing RICKY PORTER and his lovely childhood toy, GERALD.
CW: mild gore, horror, strong language, Gothic vibes
FEATURED IMAGE: A detail from Thomas Brown’s original illustration for The Crows
It had been a bloody awful day. His farsight was on the wane, as it usually was this time of year, and Gran had withheld access to the family shrine for the boost he needed.
(No Ricky my lad, no going down the cellar for you, not until you promise)
(Ain’t promising you nothing, nothing, bloody old bitch, I’ll do it another way)
The cottage door slammed, shutting out the world. He didn’t bother to take his hood down indoors – it was as cold inside as it was outside, not that the temperature bothered him. His fever-flushes came and went in waves.
He was in the grip of one now, skin twisting under his clothes, iron-hard bulges pushing against his stretchmarks like writhing hernias. When he Changed for good, he would be a thing of beautiful monstrosity. He would bathe naked in the wintry sunlight on the Weald, drink in the whiplash-sweet salt of the sea and live a blissfully solitary existence.
His thoughts went to the house and its prize, his prize, but the comforting thoughts of future freedom were shattered by his present predicament.
“Richard! What did your gran say?” His mother’s sibilant whisper slithered down the stairs, reminding him he was never alone, spoiling everything.
“Nothing,” he called back, heading for the trapdoor to the cellar. “She’s got her society meeting tonight.”
His mother took this in bad part. “What the pest is the matter with you? Uncle David wants to see the omens for his business venture, have you forgot? He’ll pay us well, didn’t she help you?”
“I said leave it!”
He unlatched the trapdoor to the old coal cellar, taking care not to make too much noise. His mother wouldn’t be coming downstairs. She was too weak. He had seen to that.
Rank wafts rose up as Ricky slipped inside, descending into the damp, fetid gloom. He inhaled greedily, knowing he was too old for this now, but nostalgic visits to his childhood friend relaxed him.
(Burn it, his father said, what if it’s found, who knows what it eats)
A glint of grey light wormed down through the floorboards and played over his needle collection: stainless steel, half-curved, double-curved, straight Glovers and families of circular cutting edge. He took his time to select the best for the task, threading it with care and snapping the length off with his teeth.
“How’s the patient?” He turned to the figure strapped to the wooden wheel, its hooded head lolling forwards. “Easy, Gerald. We’ll patch you up. Don’t you worry.”
There was no sound. Gerald flopped, limp, against the restraints binding him upright. Ricky experienced the usual twinge. He promised himself he would get rid of Gerald – it couldn’t last much longer. Eighteen was antique in stuffed toy years.
The rip in Gerald’s side was quite bad this time, curled brown leaves sticking to the stitches. Ricky fingered these thoughtfully. Gerald never left the cellar. Where did the leaves come from?
He stuck his finger deep into the wound, poking a wriggling mess of maggots and putrefaction. He withdrew it and inhaled the stink that stuck jam-slick to his skin.
“Gran wants me to be her little spy,” Ricky complained, picking out the leaves and starting to sew, stinking gut-ooze coating his fingertip up to the first knuckle. “I know her too well, she’d yank the strings of others’ wyrds about like Punch ‘n’ bloody Judy, even mine, Gerald, even bleedin’ mine. It’s my skill, it’s for me to know. I’m the farsighted, I’m the soothsayer, I’m this fam’ly’s One and Only, they’re all mole-blind like the regulars of the world, were not for me.”
The needle glimmered, stabbing in and out, drawing angry thread behind it like a dark comet-tail. The donkey hide was practically leather and worn smooth and bald in places, but Gerald had had this skin for a long time now, and he liked it.
Ricky sniffed, vision blurring. “Fine, then, I’ll let it fade an’ stay blind myself, let it come back on its own, natural-like, it’ll hurt them more’n it hurts me.”
(Liar, Gerald’s caped skull accused, without your farsight what are you? Naun but a maggot in my belly, Richard Edwin Porter)
“Don’t be like that. I’ll get you more innards, promise.” He gave the hide a little pat.
The deer skull nodded with the tremor, bobbing in mute agreement.
He dashed the back of his hand over his tear-stained cheeks.
“I’m a tool to them,” he sniffed. “Ain’t I? Just a tool.”
“What? You’re not a tool,” Ricky objected, gravel-gruff.
Steel gleamed. The needle pressed a thin indent into his acid-white fingers.
“Nah, that ain’t true. I’ll sew you up and I’ll unstrap you, see? Will you move for me, if I do?”
Gerald only shivered with the movement of the needle, antlers dipping.
Gerald never moved when Ricky was watching.
“Nah, I know you’re a toy,” he muttered. “If you’re a toy I should get rid of you, shouldn’t I? Childish, stupid.”
He stabbed into the hide again, finishing off the repair with a vicious sniff.
“Well, fuck me, hey? Fuck me.”
It had been a while since he had allowed himself a good, self-pitying wallow. He put the needle away, pouting, round-shouldered.
“I don’t know why I keep you around.”
He tilted the wheel on its axis, lying the six-foot figure flat on its back, antlered skull staring up at the floorboards above with cornflower-blue eyeballs. They needed replacing, too.
Ricky loosened the straps.
Long, mismatched canine limbs sagged, protruding awkwardly from the donkey hide.
“Look at you. Bag of bits ‘n’ bones.” He sniffed again, swallowing a lump of mucus. “Heh, look at me. Fucking crying. Hell’s bells and buckets of blood.”
Folding his arms, he regarded his amateur taxidermy creation. Gerald had seen much better days, once a magisterial sentinel in Ricky’s father’s old cape, towering over the much-younger Richard with a benevolent air, his only friend. Now he was a relic, a weakness, a bloated body full of straw and maggots.
“She’ll let me in, soon, her next door,” Ricky said, thinking of the straw-coloured blonde with her long stride and sad eyes. “Then I’ll show them what I can do. I don’t need Gran. I’m not the family toolbox. I’m my own, me.”
Gerald didn’t blink. He stared at the dust and grime above, lifeless, chinks in the boards lancing him with stab-wounds of light.
THE CROWS is a Gothic Weird novel, coming Winter 2019/20, release date tbc. Illustrated by Thomas Brown (professional artist and illustrator, co-creator of the graphic novels Hopeless, Maine).