The Old Man On The Hill
The Old Man On The Hill
- A Short Story -
Copyright 2017 Ben Edge
This is a work of fiction.
Any relation to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover design utilised brushes from brusheezy.com
The Old Man On The Hill
Believe me, my love, my hand trembles as I write this. This, the only secret that I ever hid from you. The tale of the old man on the hill. People will tell you that I went mad. That I tried to justify my actions with some story of darkness, a fabrication of a broken mind. But, you of all people must know that I never lied to you. Not ever, and most certainly not now. Not during my darkest hour.
The beginnings of this tale take me back to my youth. The year was 1901, and I was in the winter of my eleventh year. The bitter November winds were shrill, and we, my friends and I, would sit outside of the local public house hoping to catch some drunken soul generous enough to give a group of younglings out in the cold their first taste of a bitter ale.
The date I remember clearly. It was November 23rd, the first of the dates that would chill my very soul for the years that would follow. It was then that I first laid eyes on him. The old man with the flat-cap, who sat on the bench by the old fountain. There he would sit for many an hour, into the very dead of night, staring vacantly at the old house on the hill, with its single window illuminated with the flickering amber glow of a fireplace. My friends around me stiffened, yet I was curious.
“Who is he?” I asked them. And Rhys Davies answered me:
“That’s the old man on the hill,” he told me, “every night he comes and sits on that bench, his eyes vacant and staring up to his house on the hill. Never speaks to a soul, and never moves until midnight, when he makes his way home.”
But, if this old man had really sat on that bench every night, how was it that I had never seen him before? Especially when all of my friends claimed to. I resolved myself that this was another of Rhys Davies’ tall tales, the ones he was famous for. They earned him the lick of the cane at school, and the bitter bite of the belt at home. If ever there was a fabricated tale, this was it. But yet, I found myself curious at this old man’s identity. After all, he was just another lonely old man, seemingly without purpose left in his autumn years, and my heart went out to him. I told my friends that I was going to go and speak to him, and ask his name. But, they stopped me. They warned me of the tales their parents had spoken of this old man, and his dastardly deeds they claimed he had committed. Murder was high amongst their suspicions, and I was regaled with stories of how he was said to have taken the life of his wife and buried her beneath the rose bush in the yard of the house on the hill.
I will admit to you now, these tales chilled me. My very bones felt the cold embrace of fear. They all talked me out of speaking to the old man. But, saving face in front of my friends, I feigned braveness, and told them all how their stories reeked of fallacy. But, alas, Rhys Davies would soon call my bluff, as he always did, as he always does even to this day.
“Well,” said he, “brave are you? Then why don’t we take a wager?”
“How so?” I asked him.
“I wager ha’penny that you would never follow the old man back to his house on the hill,” he said.
At that tender age my pride was a delicate thing, and as most young boisterous young boys would, I put another brave face on and danced the savage waltz of pride.
“Would, too,” I said, “I’ll take your wager, Rhys Davies, and by tomorrow you will owe me ha’penny.”
“You have to prove you went up there, though,” he added, and then with a grin said, “bring back his cap, and I’ll give you ha’penny.” And thus, in front of our friends we shook on it and agreed the wager.
The bell for last orders came from the public house, and a short time later drunken men staggered out onto the street and made their way home. All of them ignored the lonely old man sat on the bench, casting not even a solitary glance his way. My friends departed, too, fearing the wrath of their parents for staying out longer than they should. Admittedly, I too feared what my parents would say, and I feared my father’s the belt, but my pride was too great, and never would I have heard the end of it should I have presented myself at school the next day without the old man’s flat cap.
And so I waited, watching from the corner of the public house. Watching, and waiting, whilst the old man remained still and silent on his bench, looking up at his old house on the hill. The moon was almost full, and high in the clear sky, when the old man finally stood up without a sound and began to hobble along the old road. I kept a close watch on him, yet kept a fair distance between us for fear of being detected.
When I look back on it now I see him walking in a peculiar way, shifting one leg quicker than the other. I can see his crooked spine poking through his clothes and shifting from side-to-side with every step. Although, at the time I’m sure that I saw nothing peculiar. Just another arthritic old man, walking slowly to avoid the pain. This is the strange effect of hindsight, I suppose. Time does play cruel games with the mind.
He walked through the alley between two houses and made his way through the small woods, and up to his hill. Still keeping my distance, I made my way along with only the moon to illuminate my way. The trees seemed to curl over above my head as I passed them, perhaps blocking out the light, or perhaps even warning me, or trying to stop me. ‘Don’t go this way, young man, turn back, now.’ But, no trees could stop me, and no amount of darkness.
I watched from the bottom of the hill as the old man made his way through the old front door. When it was closed again, I dashed up the hill and ducked down beside the rose bush beneath the only illuminated window. I was about to step into the rose bush, in order to get a look through the window, when I remembered the ridiculous story I had been told. I remember looking at the rosebush and feeling the same chill bite at my young bones. Although, I resolved that many people had rose bushes in their gardens, and to think that this one was any different was just plain madness. All the same, I took off my own cap and held it to my chest as I nodded solemnly at the bush. Then, replacing my cap, I climbed into it and stood on my tip-toes to get a look into the house.
The fireplace was burning, alright, although the flames had died down, and only the glowing embers remained. The room was barren, save for a single high-backed chair, which was patched, torn, and moth-eaten. It faced the fireplace, and its back faced the window and me.
I ducked down a little, as the old man shuffled from the darkness and into the room. He made his way across the room, past the chair and the fireplace, and hung his cap up on a hook beside another darkened doorway. Then, he shuffled into the darkness once more. Just as I had thought, another lonely old man all alone on a cold winters night. But my eyes remained fixed on his cap, hanging on its lonely hook. I was an honest boy, and I had never stolen a thing in all my life, but there was ha’penny riding on this, not to mention my pride.
So, I slipped out of the rosebush, and made my way to the front door of the old house. Gingerly, I pushed it open and slipped inside, closing it gently behind me. The wind was shrill after all, and I didn’t want the poor old man to catch his death of cold. I crept into the room with the fireplace, and stopped in the doorway to listen closely. There were no sounds in the old house. No creaking of floorboards, no footsteps in the dark, just the gentle crackle of the burning logs. Boldly, I moved across the room, keeping my steps light and my head down, and I claimed my prize. I remember the smell that came from the cap the moment I took it from its place on the wall. It was like old and damp clothes that had been left to fester in the bottom of the garden. Regardless of the smell, I made my way proudly back towards the front door, when I froze at the sound of footsteps coming from the darkness behind me.
With my heart hammering in my chest and catching in my throat, I did the only thing I could think of, and ducked down behind the armrest of his chair, clutching his cap in my hands. As much as the terror of being caught held me, my curiosity grew stronger still, and I found myself peering around the old dusty chair.
The old man came from the darkness, and stood before the window. There, he stood for a moment, looking out on the world, until he raised his hand to his head, took a handful of hair and pulled. His skin stretched upwards and shifted around his form. Then, he began to pull his skin apart, as if it had some secret seam running down the middle. He tossed the skin aside, and it crumpled on the floor like an old sack. I must have held my breath, for my lungs began to burn, and when I took a shuddering breath I found myself bathed in a cold sweat from head to toe.
The black mass with a human form, that now stood before the window, stood straight and stretched widely. The floor beneath its shapeless feet sizzled, and it let out off a putrid stink like rotten eggs. It turned, and I quickly remembered myself and ducked low again. It made its way towards the fireplace and sat gently in the old armchair, seemingly still unaware of my presence. I watched it with baited breath as it stared into the embers that danced airily in the fireplace. None of the glow from the embers seemed to touch the hideous mass, and its form cut a shape of pure darkness. When my body regained itself, I turned, flattening myself onto my belly and began to crawl slowly across the floor. The cap forgotten, and discarded beside the chair. My only thought was to get away from this— This thing.
I was near the door, when the bare floorboard beneath me creaked under my knee. Something whispered in the air and the embers died suddenly, casting the room into complete and utter darkness. I closed my eyes and held my breath once more.
Something grabbed me, turned me over, and I looked up into two slits that glowed wildly, even in the dark. Its form was so dark, that even against the shades of night, I could make it out in its entirety. I cried, and sobbed. I pleaded with it to let me go, but to this day I cannot remember the words I spoke. But, I remember it speaking. It spoke in a tongue that I had never heard before, and never have since. With each word a hot breath washed over me, accompanied by the putrid stench of decay.
“What are you?” I remember sobbing.
And then it spoke in English, but its voice was low and each syllable dragged.
“I am death,” it said, “the darkness in the hearts of all men.” It began to pinch and poke at my skin, breathing its rancid breath all over me. “Too small,” it rasped, “needs time to grow.”
At this point I remember pleading with it once more, and I lost control of my emotions, as I wept over and over. The creature took hold of my arm. Its grip was icy cold, like a stream in the snow. It placed its mouth against my wrist, a cruel kiss in the dark. But, I remember it burning, and I remember struggling to pull my arm free of this wretched being. When I finally managed to pull myself free, I looked down to my arm to see something glowing against my skin, like the red-hot tip of a fire poker. 42.
“This,” it said, “will be the age I claim you.”
And then, the vile creature vanished into the darkness. I scrambled to my feet, and out of the front door. I ran down the hill as fast as I could, back through the trees, and across the village. I covered up the burning number on my wrist with my sleeve, as I have done ever since. When I got home, my parents were indeed furious at the lateness of my homecoming. Father threatened to beat me with his belt, and even wrapped it around his hand ready. I said nothing, all of the words I knew were lost in that brief moment. Mother talked Father down, telling him to look how pale I was. She put me to bed, but I didn’t sleep that night, and many nights after.
The next day, I paid Rhys Davies his ha’penny, and told my friends that I had been a chicken, and had gone straight home just after them. Rhys Davies was whooping and hollering at the top of his voice. But, I sat there, on the wall beside the public house, in pure silence. When quizzed over my unnatural silence I convinced my friends that I was ill, and perhaps they believed it, for their infernal questioning ceased.
The old man on the hill never came back to his bench after that, and the window in the old house on the hill was never again lit by the burning embers of a fireplace. Until tonight.
Now, on the eve of my forty-second year, the old house on the hill has a single window glowing with the amber flicker of firelight. All these long years I have looked to this date with fear— no, not fear, terror. The branded number on my arm still burns, and these past few days it has burned more sharply than ever. Tonight, when I saw the light in the old house on the hill, I knew. I knew that the time had come. But, I have been prepared for this moment.
I have come to your bedside while you slept, and kissed you tenderly on the forehead without waking you. I have kissed the foreheads of our two children with the same tenderness, and all three of you sleep like angels.
I won’t let that creature take me. Midnight fast approaches, and I have tied a knot in this rope twenty times over. To save our children the pain of finding me, I am going to the trees at the base of the old hill. That is where you will find me come morning.
Please remember, my love, that I love you all dearly.
Goodbye, until we meet again.
A young man discovers evil lurking in his sleepy valley village. What he witnesses will haunt him forever. A short story by Ben Edge.