The Ancestors

The Ancestors
image_print
'Wight Sketch' (detail) by Jethro Lentle
‘Wight Sketch’ (detail) by Jethro Lentle

It never stops raining outside the new house. When you are upstairs it sounds like hundreds of pebbles thrown by so many little hands on to the pointy roof. And we can’t go outside to play, so we stay indoors and amuse ourselves with the toys. They belong to Maho, but she is happy to share them with me. My parents never knew about Maho, but she is my best friend and lives in the house too. She has been here a long time.

When my Mama used to come upstairs to put clean clothes in my drawers, or my Papa knocked on the door to tell me dinner was ready, Maho would hide. And wait in my room until I could play with the toys again. Maho sleeps in my bed too, every night. I wish I had hair like her. Maho’s hair is long and silky and thick. When she puts her arms around me and hugs me, I am covered up by her hair. Tucking itself under my arms and winding around my neck it is so warm I never need the blankets on my bed. I think her hair feels like black fur. Like big curtains she pulls them across her face so all I can see is her little square teeth. How can you see through your hair, Maho? I once asked her. It looks so funny. But she just giggled. And with their teeny fingers the toys like to touch her hair too. They stand and sway on the bed and stroke it.

In the daytimes the toys never do much, but we still go looking for them around the empty rooms and in the secret places my Mama and Papa never saw. When we find a toy sitting upright in a corner, or standing still as if suddenly having stopped the dancing on tiny fast feet, we talk to them. The toys just listen. They can hear everything you say. Sometimes they smile. [private]

But at night the toys do most of the playing. They always have things to show us. New tricks and dances all around the bed. I’ll be fast asleep but their little hard fingers will touch my face. Cold breaths will brush my ears as they say, “Hello. Hello,” until I wake. At first I was scared of the tiny figures on the bed, all climbing and tugging at the sheets. And I would run and get into bed with Mama and Papa. But Maho told me the toys just want to be my friends and play. Maho says you don’t need a Mama and Papa when you have so many friends. I guess she is right. Parents don’t understand. Most of the time they think about other things. That’s why they weren’t needed for the playing.

Maho told me that when the other children who lived here grew up and left the house all of their toys stayed behind. And it’s an old house so there are lots of toys. Maho never left either. She never left her friends. Like I did when we moved out here. I told Maho my parents made me move. “See,” she said. “Parents don’t understand about friends. About how much we love our toys. And how special secret places are to us. You can’t just leave them because Papas get new jobs or are sick. It’s not fair. Who says things have to change and you have to go to new places when you’re happy where you are?”

I didn’t want to move here. And I was scared of the new school. But since I made friends with Maho and the toys it isn’t so bad. I like it here now and I will never go to that school. Maho knows a way around that. She’ll show me soon and the toys will help.

There are so many toys. We find them everywhere: beneath the stairs and under the beds, in the bottom of trunks and behind the doors, up in the attic and looking through holes. You never know where they’re going to show up. Most of the time you have to wait for them to come to you. And sometimes you can only hear them moving about. My Mama thought we had mice in the house and my Papa put traps down. Maho was angry when she showed me the traps in the kitchen and in the cellar. Toys don’t eat coloured seeds, she said, pointing at the poison oats, but sometimes they dance too close to the snapping traps. Twice we had to rescue them before the morning. A dolly with a china face got one of her long arms stuck in a trap in the pantry. She was squealing and the thin arm covered in black hair had snapped. When we freed her, Maho picked her up and kissed her cold face. When she put her down the dolly ran behind some bottles and we didn’t see her again for three nights. Then the old thing with the black face and whitish beard got his pinky tail all smashed in the trap by the mop and dustpan in the cellar. When we let him loose he showed me teeth thin as needles then crawled away.

Three nights back, when Mama and Papa were supposed to be sleeping, I know my Papa saw a toy. There were plenty of them out that night, skipping mostly. The first of them came out of the fireplace. “Hello,” a little voice said to me. I was only dozing because I was too excited about the playing, so I wound Maho’s silky hair off my face – it goes in my ears and up my nose too – and I sat up in bed. “Hello,” I said to the little thing down on the rug.

They don’t like lights so you only see them properly when they get real close. But even in the shadows I knew I’d seen this one before. He was the one with the top hat and little suit. His shirt is white, but his face is all red and his eyes are black and shiny like marbles. He went round and round in a circle on skipping feet. In the room I could smell sneezes and old clothes. But Maho’s right: you get used to the smell of toys.

She sat up beside me and said, “Hello.”

The toy stopped his dancing and said, “Hello.”

Then we heard the drum, but we couldn’t see the musician. He was in the room with us. Under the bed I think, playing his leather drum. He shines like the brown shoes I once saw made from alligator and he creaks like old gloves when he moves. As usual, when he plays the drum, the clown in dirty blue and white pyjamas came out to dance also. All around the bed he went with his shabby arms thrown up toward the ceiling and his head flopping back. His mouth is all stitched-up and his eyes are white and bobble on his cloth face.

I leant over the bed to get a better look.

“Best not to touch him,” Maho whispered into my ear and her coldish breath made me shiver inside. “He’s very old. He once belonged to a boy he loved very much, but was taken away from the boy by parents. So he climbed inside the boy’s mouth to fix the broken heart.”

I wanted to ask what happened to the boy, but she turned her head to the door so I couldn’t see her face. “Your Papa is coming.” But I couldn’t hear a thing. I looked at her and frowned. “Listen,” she said, and took hold of my hands.

Then I heard a floorboard moan. Papa was outside in the hallway. Going to the toilet. My Papa was not well. That’s why we came here, so he could rest his head. He never slept very much at night and we had to be careful when we played with the toys. “Some toys are out there,” Maho whispered. “He might see them again.” She was smiling through her hair when she said this, but I didn’t know why.

The man with the top hat skipped back inside the chimney. Under the bed the drumming stopped.

***

The next morning my family sat at the kitchen table. We never ate in the dining room because my Mama couldn’t get rid of the smell. She tried to find cheerful music on the radio, but it sounded all fuzzy so she turned it off. Her mouth was very tight so I knew she was angry and worried too. She gave up on the radio and pointed at my bowl. “Eat up, Yuki,” she said, then looked at the window. Rain smacked against it and just watching the water run down the glass made me feel all cold inside.

Papa said nothing. He just looked at the table next to his bowl. His eyes were red and his chin was bristly. When he kissed me that morning I shouted out for him to stop. All night I’d been wrapped in soft black hair and his chin felt like it was covered in pins. And he still wasn’t looking any better even though he didn’t have to go to work anymore.

“Taichi,” my Mama said. She was upset with him. Slowly he lifted his head and looked at her. “Eat or it will go cold.” She had fried the rice with eggs the way he liked it, with salmon on top that goes warm from the steam. He tried to smile but Papa was too tired to smile. He looked at me instead. “Finished?” he asked.

My spoon was clunking in the empty bowl. It made his eyelids flicker. I nodded.

“You can go.”

I climbed down from my chair and ran into the hall.

“Sit still for a while,” my Mama cried out. “Or you’ll be sick.”

I walked down the hall, then took my shoes off and sneaked back to the kitchen door that my Mama closed behind me. My parents wanted to talk. First thing in the morning they talked to each other but stayed in different rooms for the rest of the day. My Papa would just sit in a chair and stare while my Mama kept busy with washing and cooking and cleaning. One day she was crying in the kitchen by the cook books, which made me cry too. She stopped when she saw me and said she was just being silly. But at night I often heard my Mama shout at Papa. When this happened Maho always held me tighter and put her silky hair over my ears until I fell asleep.

“What is it? Tell me, Taichi. I can’t help if you don’t tell me,” Mama said in the kitchen, in a voice that was quiet, but also sharp enough for me to hear her through the door.

“Nothing.”

“It can’t be nothing. You haven’t slept again.”

“It’s nothing. When it stops raining I’ll go out.”

A bowl hit the side of the sink. My Mama then had a voice full of tears. “I can’t stand this anymore. This isn’t working. It’s making you worse.”

“Mai, please. I can’t… I can’t tell you.”

“Why?”

“Because you would think I’m crazy.”

“Crazy? You’re making yourself crazy. You’re making me crazy. This was a mistake. I knew it.”

“Maybe. The house… I don’t know.”

A chair scraped against the floor. My Mama must have sat down. Her voice went soft and I guessed she was holding his hand.

“Yuki.” It was Maho calling me. Standing at the top of the stairs she waved at me to join her. Because I wanted to hear what Papa was saying, I smiled at her but put a finger against my lips. Maho shook her head and her hair moved across her face to cover all the white bits. “No. Come and play,” she said. But I turned my head back to the kitchen because my Papa was talking again.

“I saw something again.”

“What Taichi? What did you see?”

His voice was all shaky. “I have to go to the doctor again. I’m going crazy.”

“What? What did you see?” My Mama’s voice was going high and I could tell she was trying not to cry again.

“I… I… Went to the toilet. Last night. And it was there again.”

“What, Taichi? What?”

“Sitting on the window sill. I told myself I was still dreaming. I stopped and closed my eyes. And made sure I was awake. Look at the bruise on my arm where I pinched myself. Then I opened my eyes and it was still there. So I pretended it wasn’t. That it was just a bad dream. I ignored it. But when I came out of the bathroom, it was sitting there again. Watching me.”

In the kitchen they stopped talking. And all I could hear was the rain. Thousands of little drops hitting the wood and tiles and glass all around us.

“You were dreaming,” my Mama said after a while. “It’s the medicine, Taichi. The side effects.”

“No. I stopped taking the medicine.”

“What?”

“Just for a while to see if they would go.”

“They?”

“Yuki. Yuki. Come and play. Come,” Maho whispered from behind me. She was coming down the stairs on silent feet.

“I don’t know,” My Papa said. “A little thing… With long legs. That hang over the window sill. And its face, Mai. I can’t sleep after I see its face.”

“Yuki, look what I found. In a cupboard. Come and see,” Maho said from behind me and reached out to take my hand. When I turned around to tell her to be quiet, I saw that her dolly eyes were wet. So I went up the stairs with her. I can’t stand to see her cry. “What’s wrong, Maho? Please don’t be sad.”

She led me into the empty room upstairs, at the end of the hall, and we sat on the wooden floor. In there it’s always cold. There is only one window. Water ran down the outside and made the trees in the garden all blurry. Maho’s head was bowed. Her hair fell over her white gown all the way down to her lap. We held hands. “Why are you crying, Maho?”

“Your Papa.”

“He’s sick, Maho. But he’ll get better. He told me.”

She shook her head, then lifted it. Tears ran down from the one wet eye I could see through her hair. “Your Mama and Papa want to leave. And I don’t want you to go. Not ever.”

“I’ll never leave you Maho.” Now she was making me sad and I could taste the sea at the back of my throat.

She sniffed inside her hair. The rain was very loud on the roof. Sounded like it was raining inside the room with us. “You promise?” she said.

I nodded. “I promise. You are my best friend, Maho.”

“Your parents don’t understand the toys.”

“I know.”

“They just want to play. Your Papa should sleep and let them play. If he finds out about me and the toys he will take you away from us.”

“No. Never.” We hugged each other and Maho told me she loved me. Told me the toys loved me. I kissed her silky hair and against my lips I felt her cold ear.

Downstairs, I heard the kitchen door open and then close. Maho took her arms away and uncurled her hair from around my neck. “Your Mama wants you.” Tears were still running down her white face.

She was right because I then heard feet on the stairs, coming up. “Yuki?” my Mama called out. “Yuki?”

“I have to go,” I told Maho and stood up. “I’ll come right back and we can play.”

She didn’t answer me. Her head was bowed so I couldn’t see her face.

***

“Yuki. What would you say if I told you we might be moving. Going back to the city.” Mama looked at me, smiling. She thought this news would make me happy. But I couldn’t stop my face from feeling all long and heavy. Mama was sitting on the floor next to me in the cold room where she found me. Even though Maho had hidden I knew she was still listening. “Wouldn’t you like that?” Mama asked me. “You’ll see all of your friends again. And go to the same school.” She looked surprised I was not smiling. “What is wrong, Yuki?”

“I don’t want to.”

She frowned. “But you were so upset when we moved here.”

“But I like it now.”

“You’re all alone. You need your friends, my darling. Don’t you want to play with Sachi and Hiro again?”

I shook my head. “I can play here. I like it.”

“On your own in this big house? With all this rain? You are being silly, Yuki.”

“No I’m not.”

“You will get tired of this. You can’t even go outside and use the swing.”

“I don’t want to go outside.”

She looked down at the floor. Her fingers seemed very white and thin where they held my arms. Mama sniffed back her tears before they could come out. She put the back of one hand to her eyes and I heard her swallow. “Come out of here. It’s dirty.”

I was going to say, I like it in here, but knew she would get angry if I said that. So I stayed quiet and followed her to the door. In the corner, in the shadow, I saw a bit of Maho’s white face as she watched us leave. And above us, in the attic, little feet suddenly went pattering. My Mama looked up then hurried me out of the room and closed the door.

***

That night, after Papa finished my bedtime story, he kissed my forehead. He still hadn’t shaved and his lips felt spiky. He pulled the blankets up to my chin. “Try and keep these on the bed tonight, Yuki. Every morning they are on the floor and you feel as cold as ice.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Maybe tomorrow the rain will stop. We can go and look at the river.”

“I don’t mind the rain, Papa. I like to play inside the house.”

Frowning and looking down at my blankets, my Papa thought about what I had said. “Sometimes in old houses little girls have bad dreams. Do you have bad dreams, Yuki? Is that why you kick the sheets off?”

“No.”

He smiled at me. “That’s good.”

“Do you have bad dreams, Papa?”

“No, no,” he said, but the look in his eyes said yes. “The medicine makes it hard for me to sleep. That’s all.”

“I’m not scared. The house is very friendly.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because it is. It just wants to make friends. It’s so happy we’re here.”

My Papa laughed. “But the rain. And all the mice here, Yuki. It’s not much of a welcome.”

I smiled. “There’s no mice here, Papa. The toys don’t like mice. They ate them all up.”

My Papa stopped laughing. In his throat I watched a lump move up and down.

“You don’t have to worry about them, Papa. They’re my friends.”

“Friends?” His voice was very quiet. “Toys? You’ve seen them?” His voice was so tiny I could hardly hear him.

I nodded and smiled so he didn’t need to worry. “When all the children left, they stayed behind.”

“Where… Where do you see them?”

“Oh everywhere. But mostly at night. That’s when they come out to play. They usually come out of the fireplace.” I pointed at the dark place in the corner of my room.

My Papa stood up quickly and turned around to stare at the fireplace. Outside my window the rain stopped falling on the world it had made so soft and wet.

***

The next morning Papa found something inside the chimney in my room. He started the search in my bedroom with the broom handle and the torch, poking around up there and knocking all the soot down which clouded across the floor. My Mama wasn’t happy, but when she saw the little parcel that dropped down from the chimney, she went quiet.

“Look,” Papa said. He held his arm out with the package on the palm of his hand. They took it into the kitchen and I followed.

Papa blew on it and then wiped it clean of ash with the paint brush from under the kitchen sink. On the table my Mama put a piece of newspaper under it. I stood on a chair and we all looked at the bundle of dirty cloth. Then Papa told my Mama to get her little scissors from her sewing box. When she came back with the scissors, he carefully cut into the dry wrappings. Then peeled them away from the tiny hand inside.

My Mama spread her fingers over her mouth. Papa just sat back and looked at it, like he didn’t want to touch it. All around us we could hear the rain hitting the windows and rattling on the roof. It sounded louder than ever before. Then I knelt on the table and my Mama scolded me for getting too close. “It could have germs.”

I thought it was a chicken’s foot, cut from a yellow leg, like the ones you see in the windows of restaurants in the city. But it had five curly fingers with long nails. Before I could touch it, my Mama wrapped it up in newspaper and stuffed it deep inside the kitchen bin.

But there were others. In the empty room at the end of the hallway, Papa knocked another parcel out of the chimney and took it down to the kitchen again. At first my Mama wouldn’t even look at the tiny shoe, even before we found the bone foot inside. She stood by the window and watched the wet garden. Leafy branches moved out there in the heavy drops of rain, like they were waving at the house.

The shoe was made of pinky silk and my Papa untied the little ribbons. It opened with a puff of dust and he emptied the teeny foot on to the table. The rattle sound made Mama look over shoulder at the table. “Throw it away, Taichi. I don’t want it in the house,” she said.

Papa looked at me and raised his eyebrows. We went off looking for more. In the big parlour downstairs while he was poking up inside the chimney, he told me the little parcels belonged to ancestors. “This is a very old house. And when it was built, the people put little charms in secret places. Under the floors, in the cellars and up inside the chimneys to protect the house from bad spirits.”

“But why are they so small?” I asked Papa. “Was it a baby’s foot in the shoe?”

He never answered me and just kept poking around, up inside the chimney with the broom handle. My Papa was very clever but I don’t think he knew the answers to my questions. These things he was finding had something to do with the toys, I was sure, so I decided I would ask Maho when I saw her later. She disappeared while I was eating breakfast and was still hiding because my Papa was going into every room and searching about.

The next parcel we found was a tiny white sack, tied up with string, with brownish stains at the bottom. But right after Papa opened it and poured the hard black lumps on to the kitchen table, he quickly wrapped them up in newspaper and put them inside the kitchen bin with the hand and the foot. “What are they?” I asked him.

“Just some old stones,” he said.

But they didn’t look like stones. They were very light and black and reminded me of dried salt fish.

He stopped looking after that and swept up the soot from the floorboards instead. While he did this my Mama stood on a chair in their bedroom to get the suitcases down from the wardrobe. And I couldn’t find Maho anywhere. She never came out all day. I looked everywhere, in all of our secret places, but I never found her or saw any of the toys either. I whispered her name into all of the tiny holes but she never answered.

But when I was checking inside the attic, I heard my Mama and Papa talking underneath the loft hatch. “A heart,” my Papa whispered to my Mama. “A tiny heart,” was all I heard, then they moved away and went downstairs.

***

That night when Maho climbed into bed with me she held me tighter than ever before and wrapped me up in her silky hair so I could hardly move. But it was so dark inside her hair I couldn’t see anything. I told her to let me go. I couldn’t breathe, but she was in a strange sulky mood and just squeezed me with her cold hands until I felt sleepy.

Outside, the rain stopped and the house started to creak like the old ship we went on last summer. Eventually Maho spoke. She said she missed me. In a yawny voice, I asked her about the shoe, the foot and the little bag with the lumps inside that my Papa found in the chimneys.

“They belong to the toys,” Maho said. “Your Papa shouldn’t have taken away things that belong to the toys. It was a mistake. It was wrong.”

But they were old and dirty and nasty, I told her.

“No,” she said. “They belong to the toys. They put them up there a long time ago and they shouldn’t be removed by parents. They’re like happy memories to the toys. Now sleep, Yuki. Sleep.”

I couldn’t understand this. While I was thinking about what she said, I started to fall asleep. It was so warm inside all that hair. She sang a little song into my ear and rubbed her cold nose against my cheek like a puppy dog.

Outside my bedroom in the hallway I heard the toys gathering. More toys than ever before had come out to play. All at the same time and all in the same place. This had never happened before. It must have been a special occasion. Like a parade. They had one when Maho’s parents left. “Toys,” I whispered into the black fur around my face, as I dropped into the deep hole of sleepiness. “Can you hear the toys?”

Maho didn’t answer me, so I just listened to the toys moving through the dark. Little feet shuffled; pinkish tails whisked on wood; bells jingled on hats and the curly toes of thin feet; tap tappity tap went the wooden sticks of the old apes; twik twik twik went the lady with knitting needle legs; clackety clack sounded the hooves of the black horsy with yellow teeth; tisker tisker tisker went the cymbal of the dolly with the sharp fingers; dum dum dum went the drum; and on and on they marched through the house. Down, down, and down the hall.

***

Shouting woke me up. Through my sleep and all the dark softness around my body, I heard a loud voice. I thought it was my Papa. But when my eyes opened the house was silent. I tried to sit up but couldn’t move my arms and my feet. Rolling from side to side I made some space in Maho’s hair. It was everywhere and all around me. “Maho? Maho?” I said. “Wake up Maho.”

But she just held me tighter with her thin arms. Blowing the hair out of my mouth I tried to move a hand so I could take the long strands from my eyes. I couldn’t see anything. Maho wouldn’t help me and it took me a long time to unwind the silky ropes from around my neck and off my face, and to shake them from my arms and from between my fingers and toes where they tugged and pulled. In the end, I had to flop on to my tummy and then wriggle backwards through the funnel of her black hair. She was fast asleep and very still and wouldn’t wake up when I shook her.

I could only sit up properly when I reached the bottom of the bed. All the sheets and blankets were on the floor again. I climbed off the bed and ran into the unlit hall. I couldn’t see the cold floorboards and could only hear the patter of my bare feet on the wood as I moved down to my Mama and Papa’s room. The door to their room was open. Maybe Papa was having a bad dream and was awake, so I stood outside and looked in.

It was very dark in the room, but something was moving in there. I screwed up my eyes and stared at where the thin light coming around the curtains had fallen. And then I saw the whole bed moving. “Mama,” I said.

It looked like Mama and Papa were trying to sit up but couldn’t. And all the sheets around them were rustling. Someone was making a moaning sound, but it didn’t sound like my Mama or my Papa. It sounded like someone was trying to speak with their mouth full. And there was another sound coming from the bed too, and getting louder as I stood there. A wet sound. Like lots of busy people eating noodles in a Tokyo diner.

The door closed and I turned around to look behind me. I knew she was there before I even saw her. Maho looked at me through her hair. “The toys are only playing,” she said.

She took my hand and led me back to our bed. I climbed in after her and she wrapped me up in all that hair again. And together we listened to the sounds behind the walls, of things being put where they belonged. [/private]

Adam Nevill

About Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill was born in Birmingham, England, in 1969 and grew up in England and New Zealand. He is the author of the supernatural horror novels Banquet for the Damned, Apartment 16, The Ritual, Last Days, House of Small Shadows, and No One Gets Out Alive. In 2012 The Ritual was the winner of The August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel, and in 2013 Last Days won the same award. The same two novels won the RUSA for Best in Category: Horror. Adam can be contacted through www.adamlgnevill.com.

Adam Nevill was born in Birmingham, England, in 1969 and grew up in England and New Zealand. He is the author of the supernatural horror novels Banquet for the Damned, Apartment 16, The Ritual, Last Days, House of Small Shadows, and No One Gets Out Alive. In 2012 The Ritual was the winner of The August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel, and in 2013 Last Days won the same award. The same two novels won the RUSA for Best in Category: Horror. Adam can be contacted through www.adamlgnevill.com.

Leave a Comment

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *