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In a departure from my more usual style, this story, written almost 20yrs ago and never published, is a tale of the supernatural inspired by the drama and beauty of the mountains which lay in easy reach of my (then) new home. I found the way of life in the remote villages fascinating, like a throw-back to almost medieval times. It made me think of Gothic ghost stories. I’m not sure it’s a genre I have any talent or affinity for but I think it’s good to explore all avenues.

The New Neighbour is almost 3000 words and will take around 10 minutes to read.

Carlos, the farrier, was the first to encounter the new neighbour and his prodigious gift. He had been walking in the mountains, as he always did on Sundays, when, through the trees he spotted a man at the window of the abandoned cottage. At first he wasn’t sure if what he had seen was real or imagined, but as he drew closer, the figure emerged into the sunlight to tend herbs growing beneath his window.

Carlos guessed the newcomer was probably only about twenty years old; his skin was smooth and clear, as yet unravaged by the strong sun of the mountain. His black hair fell in small curls around his ears and across his forehead and rested in languid spirals on the nape of his neck, as if sculptured by the hand of an angel.

Carlos called from the gate as was customary in the north of the island, not venturing onto the path before being invited to do so. The young man turned, smiling, his brown eyes reflecting the sun and revealing hidden flecks of gold. With his hand outstretched, he welcomed the farrier and invited him into the cottage.
“Your accent sounds local,” said Carlos, surprised at the familiar lilt to the young man’s speech.
“I grew up in Arenita,” the man replied.
Carlos was familiar with the little fishing village on the coast some 40 kilometres to the west.
“So what brings you to the mountain?” He asked, his curiosity upstaging his natural reserve.
The young man laughed. “In truth, I’m not sure. I was told to come here by the voices wanting to be heard, and then, once I found this cottage, I felt an inner peace, as if somehow I was meant to be here.”

Carlos nodded his head slowly and deliberately. He knew he ought to make his excuses and leave before he found himself on the receiving end of some sermon or cult-recruitment speech or other but, for some reason, he felt comfortable in this young man’s company and in no hurry to leave.

The new neighbour pulled a stool to the side of the big, stone fireplace and invited Carlos to sit down.

“I’ll light the fire,” he said. “These winter days are cold out of the sun.” He began to place kindling and wood into the grate. “My name is Antonio,” he said.
Carlos pulled his pipe from his top pocket and, motioning the bowl to Antonio, asked: “Do you mind?”
“No, not at all, I like the smell of a pipe.”
Carlos struck a match and held the dancing flame to the bowl, drawing it in with his inhalations until the tobacco glowed red. Then he threw the match into the fire, handed the box to Antonio to light the kindling, and leaned back against the rough stone wall at the side of the fire, his legs crossed, one arm resting across his knee, the other bent at the elbow. Cradling the bowl of the pipe, he rhythmically pulled short intakes on the stem as the room began to fill with the aromatic smell of pipe and wood smoke.

“My name is Carlos.” Today, he removed the stem of the pipe from the corner of his mouth when he spoke. Usually, and on his many subsequent visits, the pipe would remain in the corner of his mouth throughout their conversations, its fragrant presence a constant companion to the two men. For a while, the men conversed about the mountain, the island, how each season brought its own challenges and rewards. They were easy in each other’s company despite the age gap, and Carlos felt as if he was visiting an old friend rather than a new neighbour.

When the pipe became difficult to draw on, Carlos took it from his mouth and began to knead fresh tobacco into the bowl with the thumb of his right hand which was stained brown. As he refilled the pipe, he looked curiously at Antonio who was sitting at the table, his hands resting quietly on its surface.
“Outside, you talked of voices wanting to be heard; whose voices?”
“The voices of those who can no longer speak to us directly,” he said. “Mostly they speak to me of their homes and families, but some speak of their fears for those they have left behind. Those voices are the ones that brought me here.”

Carlos took the pipe from his mouth and looked intently at the serene expression on Antonio’s face. “Who are ‘those who can no longer speak to us directly’? Do you mean you hear the voices of the dead?”
There was nothing self-effacing or defiant in the words Antonio spoke, they might just as easily be words that described where he cut his firewood or how he washed at the rain barrel every morning. He spoke of his gift as if it were the most natural of talents, like carving or drawing.

“There is a voice here for you,” Antonio looked at his new friend and smiled.

Carlos thought immediately of his wife, Sarah, dead these five years. He said nothing, still holding the lit pipe in his hand, and waited.
“She says you have changed your tobacco, she likes it better than the old one. She’s laughing.”
The farrier’s eyes filled with tears and his throat constricted. For a long while, he didn’t speak. Finally, his face broke into a broad grin. “She hated the old stuff.” he said, as if he were speaking while she sat with him still, the three of them enjoying each other’s company.
“She wants to thank you for helping Kris. She knows how much that cost you and yet you gave willingly and with joy in your heart.”
Carlos said nothing. He closed his eyes and let them remain closed, while the tears reluctantly left them and travelled slowly down the terrain of his life’s path, etched on his face. He felt a serenity and a joy, the lightness of being, after a burden he hadn’t realised he had been carrying, was lifted. When his son needed money to pay debts, he had given all his savings.

Antonio let Carlos sit, undisturbed by the need to explain or to pursue further until he opened his eyes and, once again, raised the pipe to his lips, cupped the lit match between his curled fingers, and re-kindled the fire that bound him to reality.

That was the day the village knew they had a new neighbour; when they saw the wood smoke from the abandoned goat herder’s cottage on the mountain. Slowly, one at a time, over the weeks that followed, they made their pilgrimage up the mountain to take their seat by the fire while the young man took them on a journey to their lost loves, some long forgotten, others newly departed, the path not yet overgrown.

“I’m glad you’ve come.” Antonio was already at the start of the path that led to his cottage when Ruth appeared from the veil of pine trees. She was shocked to see the young man standing there. She had taken so long to gather the resolve to come, that the light was already beginning to fade. She had planned on a further gathering of courage at the edge of the woods before venturing to call to the new neighbour from his gate. Her chance lost; she had considered turning back down the mountain, but Antonio’s words stopped her.
“Please, Ruth, come in, I’ll light the fire. You must be cold.” And he reached for her arm to help her to navigate the stony path in the half light.

Ruth watched the handsome, strong stranger as he built the fire and boiled water for tea.

She had not spoken to him since she laid eyes on him and yet, he seemed not to mind, as if it was expected of her. As the flames grew, they lit the small room in sharp shadows, changing the shape and context of the meagre furnishings and sending black fantasies dancing to the roof.
Antonio lit two candles and poured hot, sweet tea into enamel cups; then he sat at the table and waited. Ruth felt a sudden surge of panic and started to rise from her seat. As she did, she saw the faint outline of a child standing at Antonio’s left shoulder. For a moment, she froze, her body half raised from the stool. She blinked her eyes hard to make the vision disappear, but it grew more defined in the firelight. Ruth watched as the little girl’s laced boots and socks appeared, then her coat, the hem of her dress visible below. As Ruth raised her eyes, she saw the familiar blonde hair hanging around the child’s shoulders and the thin contour of her neck. Ruth slid back onto the stool, terrified to continue to raise her gaze for fear of what she would see, yet unable to stop; her eyes drawn inexorably to the dread she had carried with her on her long journey from that hateful day, to the cottage.
As Ruth lifted her eyes, the child’s face came into focus; the slim, fine features, perfect in every detail, the rosebud mouth, the button nose, the wide blue eyes watching the world from beneath the straight, blonde fringe. The child looked straight at Ruth and her gaze travelled like snakebite to Ruth’s heart.
“She wants to tell you she never blamed you for letting her go.” Antonio’s voice was gentle. “She wants you to go away from the bad man who did this to her. She says you are not safe.”

Ruth drew her breath in and trapped it there with her hand, her body shook with the force of her hysteria as she re-lived the horror of finding little Ellie’s body and now, the awful confirmation of who it was that had wrenched her from Ruth’s protection, leaving her empty, failed as a mother, unable to acknowledge the fact that her child had stopped breathing. While Ruth cried, she rocked to and fro on the stool by the fire, her eyes never leaving the apparition before her. Antonio and the child watched silently, understanding the need for grief to have its say before Ruth could begin to listen to talk of a tomorrow. When Ruth saw the image of her child begin to fade, she gulped the air until her chest was sated and her breathing settled to intermittent sobs.

Antonio laid out a sleeping mat, blankets and a pillow on the floor by the fire and quietly left the room to go to his bed in the outbuilding. Ruth sat for most of the night by the dying fire and relived every moment of her precious child’s short life, before finally succumbing to the blankets to stave off the cold and then, to sleep.

Antonio rose before dawn and gathered fresh kindling. He entered the main room and set the fire, working quickly and quietly as Ruth slept on. By the time she awoke, the fire had filled the room with warmth and the sweet scent of tea greeted the dawn.
“Will you leave him?” Antonio passed her the tea and cleared away the blankets and matting.
“Yes, yes I will go. It won’t be easy; he doesn’t let things go easily and he’s strong. But I have friends and family to help me. Can you still see her?”
“No, but I know she’s still here. Her voice is quiet now, it has been heard.”
“I wasn’t prepared for the sight of her. My neighbours told me of your gift but they never said they had actually seen anyone. I may not have taken so long to climb your mountain if I’d known I would see her again.”
“Only those whose death leaves questions, are visible to us. Mostly, they’re just voices.”

“How do you remain so calm and so sane in the presence of such an astounding gift? Aren’t you driven mad by their constant voices?”

“No. They only speak when they have an opportunity to be heard; I present them with that opportunity. I’m happy that I can help them to bring messages to the living world; without me they’re mute.”

As the months passed, Antonio received visits from further and further afield. Sometimes people travelled more than a day to see him. The neighbours brought firewood, tea, and hot food for Antonio’s visitors and sometimes they offered a bed to a weary traveller when the place by the fire was already taken. Carlos remained a constant visitor, always checking that Antonio was alone before calling to him from the gate. They never talked of Sarah again but Carlos always felt she was there, sharing their conversations and their laughter.

One summer evening, as the heat on the mountain reverberated the pines and baked the earth’s crust to brittle, hollow veins, Antonio and Carlos were sitting on the porch, watching the sky. The sun had bowed out to the mountain and leaked its contents across the heavens in a blood red stain. As the two men sat in companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts, the air began to shift and distort in front of them, like the heat haze from a furnace. It slowly erased the trees and rocks behind it into the shape of a body. The two men could see the feet and legs of a man begin to appear.

Antonio sat quietly, patiently waiting for his visitor, but Carlos got to his feet with a force that sent his stool tumbling backwards in a dust cloud and his pipe crashing to the ground, as he struggled to keep his footing on legs that no longer seemed able to hold him. When the face finally appeared, it was grotesquely misshapen on one side, a whole section of skull had collapsed in on itself and brain matter had oozed out of the crumbled defences, settling in a ragged stream on his face, like cold lava on a hillside. The eye and mouth on the left side of the face had been dragged downwards with the force of the blow which had destroyed the skull. Caked blood covered the left side of his face and neck and the front of his dirty white shirt.
“Hello, Father, I’ve been expecting you.” Antonio smiled at the apparition and they both turned to face Carlos.
“Hello, Carlos.” When it spoke, the words were slurred as if spoken by a drunk, and fresh blood trickled from the distorted left corner of the mouth.

Carlos heard a strange, low moan emanate from his parched throat. Sweat mingled with tears and ran down his face, leaving their salty, tight path on his skin.
“I see you’ve met my son Antonio. A beautiful boy, isn’t he? So young, so full of life. How I wish I had been there to see him grow up. I’ve missed his entire life, it was stolen from me, just as my own was stolen nineteen years ago.”

Carlos fell to his knees on the hard ground. He clasped his hands together in front of his heart, praying for the moment to pass, to wake from this vision of hell. Antonio stood, and looked down at the supplicant Carlos, while his father dragged his left leg, pulling it from the thigh with both hands so that the knee moved forward and the foot reluctantly followed; then moving his right foot to join the left.
“You never even knew I had a son, did you, Carlos? After you discovered my letters to Sarah that night and allowed your rage to run its course, you never even bothered to find out if my wife was all right after I disappeared.”
He spat the word ‘disappeared’ with a bright red spray of blood and a sneer that emphasised the fallen corner of his mouth, sending it even further towards his shoulder. “You just ran back to Sarah. She never really loved you, you know that. You took me out of this world that night, but you never took me out of her heart. She sacrificed true love with me to honour her marriage vows but she was always mine.”

Carlos was trembling on his knees in the dirt, his body jerking in spasms, a warm urine stain blossoming across the groin of his jeans. He felt his chest tightening as he gasped air in through his open mouth in a desperate attempt to find oxygen. Once more, the apparition dragged his left foot towards Carlos, the dust behind him lying in an uneven arc like half a sidewinder trail. Carlos began to whimper, his body convulsing, all control of its functions now lost to him as the figure moved ever closer to him.

“I’ve waited a long time to see you again, Carlos.

My son’s gift has allowed me finally to confront you, but I would have gladly waited for all eternity rather than have him here with me now, killed in a road accident six months ago.”

Carlos turned to look at Antonio as the pain in his chest obliterated his senses and the blood red sky faded to black. As the body lay twitching on the ground, Antonio placed his arm around his father’s waist and the two men faded into the heat of the mountain, the new neighbour leaving as silently as he had arrived.


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