A chilling sort of awful

A strange kind of place
A howling in the distance
A twisted, crooked face

The shadows past the moonlight
The step upon the stair
The monster in the closet
The risk you shouldn’t dare

Where prayers are never answered
Where luck is always bad
Where dreams fall into nightmares
Where visions drive you mad

Prepare, for hope is fading
Prepare, for time is near
Prepare, to hear a story
Prepare, to face your fear…
—–

Welcome, friends. I’m Romulus Blackwood, and this is…

BLACKWOOD THEATER

I certainly hope you enjoy your stay…

Horror of the Week: Nathan Nightfool

The snow had stopped falling, and there was a crimson glow in the late afternoon sky. That soon faded into a heavy blue, shifting to black as the moon crawled silently upward. The families had gathered together for Christmas Eve, and there was loud shouting and great excitement. The children were beside themselves with anticipation, dreaming of presents, candy canes and toys.

Amidst the clamor sat an old man buried off in the far corner, half asleep in an easy chair, gently snoring, slippers dangling. The soft shine of the decorated tree fell like a curtain upon his wrinkled face, blinking in multiple colors, red, green and white. As a rubber ball was carelessly tossed his way by a reckless toddler, he jumped awake as it struck his leg with authority. A young woman fetched the item, scolding the youth, turning to the senior citizen to offer an apology.

“Sorry, Grandpa. He’s at that age. Been throwing everything lately.”

The old man peeped at her with one eye open. “Best to find a cage for him.”

“Oh, great, Dad!,” laughed his daughter from the table. “Mom always said you were no good with children.”

“Some children,” remarked the patriarch. “You were one of the better ones, Margaret.”

The man leaned back and resumed his nap, allowing the group to continue on with their merriment. After dinner a few presents were opened, the rest being reserved for Christmas morning, and dessert was served in the living room, coupled with coffee. As the hour grew late the fireplace withered dim, and a fresh log had to be added to the smoldering embers now fading out fast. The party sat comfortably on their sofas, chatting pleasantly, their offspring seated on the carpet, tired, bored and restless.

“Oh, can’t we turn on the TV?!,” argued a frowning boy. “They’re showing that special we always watch!”

“You’ve already seen it 6 times in the past two weeks,” argued his mother. “We have guests, and it’s impolite to watch television while they’re here.”

“Well, what can we do?,” asked a young girl. “Maybe open more presents?!”

“No,” denied her father. “I never liked the idea of opening gifts on Christmas Eve anyway.”

There was a crackle and hiss from the flickering fireplace as a sudden lull came over the festive holiday conversation. In the silence a soft wind passed by an icy window as the finger of a barren tree branch tapped slightly against the thickly frosted glass. Then a creaking as the house settled, followed by a groan from a water pipe, and a popping as the heating vents expanded. All ordinary, common sounds, to be sure, but on this night…on this night, they were somehow different…

“Well, we could tell stories,” suggested Mother. “We did that all the time when I was a kid. In fact, there was one in particular we told on Christmas Eve, but I don’t recall the name of it…”

“Nathan,” answered a deep voice from far away, coming so unexpectedly that it made everyone jump. All eyes turned toward the corner of the room where Grandpa slept, the old timer now awake and sitting upright. His hands were folded and his attention piqued, and there was a shine on his face that seemed somewhat cold and unearthly.

“The story…Nathan Nightfool…that’s the one you’re talking about…”

“Right! Right!,” replied Mother. “The one you said you heard from your great-grandfather. All I remember is it scared the dickens out of me! Now I’m sorry that I brought it up!”

“What’s it about?,” asked the boy. “Come on, Mom! Tell it!”

“Yeah! Tell us!,” joined the girl. “Is he a helper of Santa Claus or something?”

“I don’t really know the story,” admitted Mother. “I haven’t heard it in years. But maybe your grandfather remembers? Dad, do you want to tell it?…”

Again the gaze of all drifted toward the old mystic, who gave a creepy smile, drawing his tobacco and pipe from a breast pocket. Lighting the crown, he puffed a bit, allowing the smole to encircle his head like a wreath.

“Are you sure, Margaret?,” he warned. “Because once I tell it, the tale can’t be taken back.”

“Tell it! Tell it!,” shouted the children. “Please, Grandpa! We want to hear it!”

The old sage chuckled to himself, pulling his chair closer to the group spread out like an open book before him. Adult and child waited with genuine curiosity as the man stroked his long beard, tilting his head as if trying to knock the memory free from his ear.

“It’s a story from the old country, way back many centuries ago. When our people lived in tiny villages, making their living from the land and nearby forest. It was said that deep within those dark woods, beyond the Danube River, dwelled a cryptic creature known as a kobold. It was the protector of wild animals, lord of the trees and forbidden places, and commanded respect from all who dared venture into its territory. Whenever an axeman arrived to splinter the midsection of a maple or oak, he had to first make an offering of essence to this shadowy being. He must spill a drop of his own blood upon the mossy ground, in order to satisfy the keeper of the eternal glen. If he did not, a visit would surely be made to his home before daybreak, and a punishment would be doled out, most gruesome and severe…”

The children, once enthusiastic, now crept closer to the feet of their parents, faces troubled, mouths dry. The lights from the Christmas tree halted their incessant blinking for a fleeting moment, then proceeded, as if wary to stop.

“Now there was a man,” continued Grandpa slowly. “A woodcutter who went by the name of Klein. A burly fellow, fearful of nothing, who scoffed at the notion of a forest king that demanded blood. On a single afternoon, a Friday, no less, this axeman toppled six slender trees without paying the required tribute. He bound the trunks, dragging them off by horse, chopping them into neat blocks for use in his hearth and kitchen stove. However, in doing so, he left a visible trail upon the scarred landscape, one which could easily be followed all the way to his front door. It was this path which would ultimately doom him. It was this road that the vengeful kobold would take…”

By now the children had slithered up onto the couches, nearly hiding under the safety of their parent’s arms. The old storyteller puffed on his pipe with genuine pleasure, pleased that his chilling words were having their desired effect.

“It was on Christmas Eve, in fact. A snowy occasion not so unlike this one. Klein had celebrated the holiday with his wife and two children, the family warmed by the shimmering blaze of the ill-gotten firewood. In the evening, when the supper was finished, they took to their beds, unaware of the danger. They did not see the figure lurking outside. They did not know who…or what…would pay them a visit that night.”

Grandpa paused, drawing in his breath. Everyone waited, listened, frightened.

“The fire had just died. It is said the creature came down the chimney. There was no sound, no commotion. No cry for help nor muffled scream. The door to the children’s room swung open, and soon the beds of the youngsters were empty. They were carried off into the frozen woods, or, rather, dragged off, like the trunks of stolen trees. In the morning, while their mother wailed frantically, Klein tore through the front door, searching for clues. He found one, the most obvious. Most similar to the crime that he himself had just committed. The woodcutter screamed, falling to his knees, sanity shattered, mind destroyed by what he saw: Blood. Two separate trails of blood in the snow. Headed off in the direction of the dark woods far beyond…”

The jaws of the children had dropped. Even the adults were mesmerized.

“And in the yard, written in the snow with blood, was the name of the culprit, proud of his handywork. In large letters one could easily read:

T H I S   I S   T H E   W O R K   O F  N A T H A N   N I G H T F O O L.  T R I B U T E  P A I D   A N D   A C C E P T E D.”

Grandpa leaned back, extinguishing his pipe, tapping out the contents into a nearby ashtray.

“Now you know the tale. Any questions, children?”

At first the juveniles failed to move, too fightened by the morbid details they had just heard, but finally, the girl spoke up:

“What does Nathan Nightfool look like?”

“No one knows for certain,” reported the old man. “It’s said he resembles a goblin, nearly six feet in height. His ears and feet are pointed. He has a voice which can rattle the dead…”

“Okay! Okay! That’s enough!,” interrupted Mother. “Thanks for scaring them to death, Dad! Come on, you two. Time for bed. It’s late and Santa can’t visit until you’re asleep.”

“But Nathan will get us!,” whined the boy. “Can we sleep in your bed tonight?”

Mother stared at Grandpa, visibly upset. “I suppose so…after all, I’m the one who suggested the story in the first place…”

The party broke up and the visitors went home, leaving the house more empty than it had been all day. Grandfather resumed his place in the far corner of the living room, once again snoozing as the children set out milk and cookies for Mr. Claus. As they snuck away the boy banged his shin on the end table, waking grandpa from his slumber with a grunting snort. The old timer gave a sleepy glance in his grandson’s direction, flashing a quiet smile in the cast of the pale light.

“Grandpa, is what you said true? Is Nathan Nightfool for real?”

“That’s the story I heard, but…my great-grandfather told a lot of tall tales.”

“If you see him tonight, you’ll warn me, won’t you, Grandpa? You promise to warn me?”

“Ha Ha. Don’t worry. You’ll be the first to know. Now hurry…off to bed with you…”

The boy sprinted out of the room swiftly, leaving the old spinner of yarns alone with his pipe. In the dark recesses he struck a match and puffed away, pushing back in his chair with a widening grin. As he did his head turned toward the laundry room and a linen closet, whose door was slightly ajar, showing its contents. Between the folded towels and sheets, barely hidden, was a human arm, sticking out stiffly as if reaching for help. Upon further inspection, if one were to investigate, they would have found the corpse of the real grandpa, cold and dead. His body was mutilated, and his clothing had been stripped away, as if someone needed it…for a disguise…

The figure in the chair continued smoking, only now he chuckled with a growl that could not come from a human throat. His right leg dangled, the slipper fell…

…revealing a grotesquely pointed foot…

Blackwood Theater

 

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