Monstrous May, Pagham-verse

#MonstrousMay 2: Monster Under the Bed

Credit: Johannes T. Evans

The Smeech Man

I.

The first night it was a light creak of the floorboards, nothing more. The quietest sound, the gentle breathing of wood as it cooled. It happened once, interrupting the lapping waves of sleep. He held his breath, listening. But there was nothing but his own heart and shallow breath, noises from his parents’ room that he recognised, and nothing more to hear. Except that he knew, from the way the silence thickened, that he was not alone in his room.

“There’s a monster under my bed,” Dickie told Belle the next day.

“You’re a liar,” she said, picking daisies. “You’re too old for stories like that.”

“I heard it.”

Belle looked up. “Mebbe tis the Smeech-man, summoned of a candle flame, come to steal your soul and fill your husk full of mist.”

“Did you do it?”

“Don’t be stupid. Why would I?” Belle gazed at him, her pretty face suddenly sly and mischievous, breaking into the cunning smile that made his heart skip. “Why would anyone?”

“You might’ve done it,” Dickie said, “Just to see if you can or not. Just to see if you’re a real witch.”

“Do you think I’m a witch?”

Dickie held out some flowers from behind his back. “I got these for you. For your May crown.”

“I might not be picked for Queen.” Belle put her head on one side. “Where did you get them?”

“Do you like them?”

“Did you steal them?”

Dickie shrugged. “They’re for you. What does it matter?”

“I won’t have you or your flowers,” Belle said primly, standing up and dusting off her smock. “Da says no first cousins.”

“And what do you say?”

Belle shook her head. “I’ll have none of you.”

Dickie burned red. “Who’ve you got your eye on, then? Is it Jack Martin from the farm?”

“None of your business,” Belle said. She glanced back at him as she walked away, daisies trailing from her fingers.

“He’ll have none of you,” Dickie shouted after her. “He won’t have you, Belle! I’ve seen things. Ask me! Ask me how I know!”

But Belle didn’t ask him, and she walked off humming something to herself.

Smeech Man, Smeech Man,
Candle light and leech man
Neath the bed, mind your head,
Smother you and make you dead–


II.

The second night it was a light creak of the floorboards, and he held his breath as soon as he heard it. Something slid against the wood, shifting its weight on the boards. An inch, a short shuffle, lining up with his body as he lay on his lumpy mattress, under the loosening ropes that held it up against the frame. It had been his grandmother’s.

Dickie lay rigid in the dark, and couldn’t tell if he was sleeping or waking.

“It came back last night,” he told Belle.

“There’s no monster,” Belle said. “Stop bothering me, I’ve work to do and so have you.”

Dickie sat on the table in her way. “Done mine. You’re slow today.”

Belle looked prettiest with her hair all in a disarray from grate-blacking, smuts on her nose. She was prim and proper today, folding linen. He could see the curve of her chest better as she bent over, all covered with an apron.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she said.

“Got you roses,” he said, picturing her ankles and the turn of her calf under her long brown skirt. “You like roses.”

Belle arched an eyebrow at him. “I’ll have none of your roses, and none of you. Get out.” But she didn’t try and make him go.

Dickie swung his legs, scuffing the floor with the soles of his boots. “I’m telling you. There’s a monster. I can hear it at night. Moving.”

“And what I should care?”

“You know the story.” He poked at her linen pile to vex her. A stray hair of hers was caught in the folds. “It’ll come again tonight if I been witched. Eat me, lest I’m careful. Was it you witched me, Belle?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Sometimes I think you don’t like me.” Dickie put his head on one side. “Don’t you like me, Belle? Jack Martin has fancy words for a farmhand, but he’ll have none of you in the end. Ask me why. Ask me what I saw.”

Belle turned away. “You better go. Mother’ll box my ears if I don’t finish.”

He left the roses on the sideboard. “You’re better off taking me than Jack Martin.”


III.

The third night, he heard it take a single breath. It was a short inhalation, a suck of air, a half-gasp. The boards creaked.

Dickie stared at the ceiling. There had been nothing under the bed when he jumped into it that night, he had checked. There was nothing to make that sound. There was nowhere it could have crawled from, no place it could have lurked, not without him seeing.

“Did you witch me, Belle?” he whispered.

His trembling hand pulled out a small matchbox from his lumpy pillow.

“Did you send something to scare me with?”

He slid the box open in the dark. A strand of Belle’s hair and a petal from a rose, a pinch of turf, a drop of his blood, the small bones of a chick, a pluck of bloodied down. A single match.

“Did you do it, Belle?” Dickie whispered.

Something below the bed moved. He felt it between the ropes suspending his mattress: a bulk, a solid mass, pushing up against his back.

Dickie struck the match and the contents of the box caught. Belle’s hair burned bright with a pinkish flame. His bed bucked beneath him as the bond broke.

Smeech Man, Smeech Man,
Candle light and leech man…

“Jack Martin,” Dickie whispered to the flame, feeling the pain of the thing beneath his bed. He sucked in the acrid smoke and puffed it out in a tiny ring. Say it once, and once again. “Jack Martin.” Third time’s the charm. “Jack Martin.”

He snapped the matchbox shut and the flames went out.

Dickie was alone.

He smiled to himself. Jack Martin could take his chances with the Smeech Man now.

“Let’s see how brave you are, Jack Martin,” Dickie murmured to himself. He grinned, and fell peacefully asleep.


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