IN THE GARDEN OF THE SKULL-FACED MASTER
You are watching TV and the newscaster tells you to turn on your porch light and go to sleep. Only you cannot sleep. You are lying awake in your bed when one by one the lights go out on your street. Every light but yours goes out. So you turn yours off too and hide inside your house, listening for human sounds outside your door, but all you hear are screams. Then, one day, a man shows up on your front porch a bit thin and out of breath, but carrying a briefcase all the same. You think you recognize him. He does not look exactly like the same man you remember, but who knows? You cannot be too careful. Still, you cannot just turn a man away at the door…
Downstairs the bell rings and rings. Valerie Hubbard goes to see who it is. “Can it be?” she wonders, pulling the curtain back – not much, just enough to get a better look at her not so unexpected visitor. “It’s the evil funeral director,” she whispers under her breath. “Finally come with his red shifting moods and rhythms.”
If it had been a week ago when her daddy Elron was still alive he would have said, “Look at the mortician, Val. Look at the man who’s wearing black as distant and unfeeling as a winter night.” Elron would have given her that cross-eyed look of his and said, “Look, Val, it’s a smoked fish with greasy hair like a catfish’s muddy whiskers and his stiff yellow collar is all coming undone!” Afterwards he would have slapped his knees with his favorite Greek sailor’s cap just a bit too loudly, with just a little bit more intensity than was necessary, a bit wild-eyed, like he was off just a bit, not quite dialed in to the same frequency as the rest of us. “Val, will you get a load of that black hat with the arching, wide brim,” she could hear her father like he was standing right next to her. “He’s a Quaker, look a Quaker, a skinny man with a wicked pride!”
Valerie thinks the undertaker is smaller than she remembers, but it’s been forever since she has been anywhere near the old funeral home. “Come in, Mr. Hall,” she says holding open the front door. How bloodless his face has become since she last saw him at her brother’s wake. Valerie is tired, but she knows she has got to put up with the director’s smoldering presence as long as it lasts, she knows she has to welcome in the odd sounds the man carries inside himself like quiet whispers in an abandoned shopping mall garage or the silent rumble of a growing mob of hungry zombie corpses still out of sight. She takes him all in like a deep breath of damp basement smells.
“Look at the head on that monkey,” she can hear Elron’s voice jack-hammering away insides her head like a cartoon robot Woody Woodpecker. She can remember the way his voice would have squeaked just a little with irreverent excitement like a loose floorboard when the mortician’s toothy smile failed to do anything other than amplify his unnatural menace.
For Valerie, however, there was actually a feeling of welcome relief in the arrival of this otherwise stark apparition. (And anyway, Mr. Hall was a local celebrity of sorts – famous for his role as a master hypnotist in the 1940 Bella Lugosi movie Black Friday.) For her the waiting was over. She was, in fact, in a weird way expecting the undertaker. It did not take a rocket scientist to know that someone would have to come sooner or later and it might as well be the funeral director with all his strange slinking about and spitting – the mortician who, at her brother’s wake, repeatedly referred to her as “Little-Miss-Valerie-With-Her-Finger-Up-Her-Nose”.
That Valerie’s dreaded enemy had taken so long in coming, well what can you do? He was after all a slave to Time. The stark appearance of Mr. Hall did not bother her at all. She welcomed it. That it had been the funeral director all along, dressed as a man under God, well so be it, that also somehow made perfect sense to Valerie. After all, God could be a clever front for the master of the conquering worm. It was a convenient enough cover, Valerie thought. You could prove Time with numbers, but you could not prove God, not with a calculator anyway. Time would be wise to disguise its troops as morticians. Anyway, the better to go unnoticed, Time’s helpers might do well not to wander the second millennium still dressed as Knights Templar.
Valerie had her own name for these marching legions that nothing, not in heaven or on earth, could slow down or stop. She called them “Mountain Eaters” because, she reasoned, they just kept coming, like glaciers, eventually destroying everything in their path. Large or small, living or inanimate, it all eventually was trampled underfoot. No matter how silly the costume the Master had decreed for them to wear, whether dressed as the Knights Templar, funeral directors, or, even, Catholic school girls, if it was in their path, they chopped it down. The Mountain Eaters had their marching orders: “Attack! Attack! Attack! And, when in doubt, attack again!” Nothing can possibly outlast them, not man, not the greatest civilization or idea – nothing, not even the mighty Himalayas. They are pure patience, these Mountain Eaters. You can protest all you wish, but Valerie knew, eventually, they would erode your spirit, just as they ate away at rock and stone until there was nothing left but undigested sand.
For sport the Mountain Eaters will make another smaller mountain from the dirt left over. They can make anything they want from the mud – whole planets, sliding continents – even people. “Together Master Time and the Mountain Eaters,” Valerie would warn anyone who would listen, “are one original unstoppable far out cosmic force!” Valerie imagines the opening number in a neo-Expressionist horror show. “Step right up. Welcome to the most burnt show on Earth, starring from left to right the soil from which we grow and love and die, and the Mountain Eaters and their skull-faced Master, like an inter-galactic plantation owner and his astral gardeners. To plant and weed… plant and weed… plant and weed! That is their sole mission. Step right up folks and please be advised. The show you are about to see may contain language and footage which is not suitable for some viewers…”
The screen door swings out into black nothingness. “Please come in from the cold, Mr. Hall.” There is a note of urgency in Valerie’s voice. “Come in,” she says. “I’ll put some hot water on for you. Do you like tea or instant coffee maybe?” But Mr. Hall stands unmoving in the green light that pours out of the house. “What a surprise,” Valerie tries to act cheerful. “We hardly ever get visitors out here. Come on in before you let the dog out.”
It is going to be hard work with the funeral director, she can tell. He is the kind of man who keeps things to himself. She can see it in the way he looks around her, trying to see if it is all clear. Does the skull-faced Master not like witnesses? Valerie wonders. It makes her worried. No man should ever give up so much of himself, no matter how great the cause. She concluded long ago, it just cannot be healthy.
“Mr. Hall, you’ve got nothing to worry about in here,” Valerie says, maybe a bit too jokingly considering the 200 lbs. of dead weight she has got stashed upstairs. But she knows the implications are mostly lost on the undertaker. Mr. Hall has no sense of humor, only some odd sense of duty to a higher cause. She figures him for the kind of man that was always going off by himself on a winter’s day to read heavy tomes by people like Oswald Spengler or the occultist Guido von List, going off to his corner by the stove when everyone else might have gone mad with cabin fever without any cards or games to play or without any television to watch. And the things he probably thought to himself learning all about man’s greed and callousness, Valerie wonders. What evil things he must have thought about other people and their inconsolable boredom. To him they must all have seemed like monsters, talking nothing but nonsense to each other for hours on end. Morality must have come easily to the lips of a boy who saw meaninglessness and corruption wherever he turned. Valerie is almost tempted to feel sorry for a man who needed so much meaning when there was not any to be found. But she catches herself short of telling him. She is carefully trying to get the mortician to talk about himself, and she doesn’t want to sound too outrageous to him. God knows his own ideas about her have probably been formed long ago.
“Don’t you believe in God?” Mr. Hall had asked her ten years earlier when her brother Jed’s body lay in state. To this day, Val was still proud of her answer. Quite plainly and without hesitation she had said: “What does it matter when the Mountain Eaters are coming for us all?” She told him how she had seen with her own two eyes the one who took her brother down by the quarry behind the cement factory. “There were rocks so ancient they’d been left there by volcanoes more than 200,000 years before the dinosaurs.” Mr. Hall stared back at her in disbelief. “Do you want to hear the part about how I got a rock stuck in my sneaker and was looking for a place to sit down and take it out when I looked up and saw all the great big earth mounds around me?” The undertaker stood as ridged and quietly then as he did now in her doorway. “Some of the mounds were gaping wide open, Mr. Hall, and you know what I saw looking into one?” Not a word did he say all those many years ago, but simply stiffened all the more. “Oh, I bet you do, Mr. Hall…”
“What a fertile imagination you have for such a young girl,” the mortician finally conceded, smiling over her shoulder. Daddy Elron was standing behind her listening in. He looked totally perplexed and, considering the solemnity of the occasion, Mr. Hall did not want to seem rude to his daughter. After all, Valerie was nothing more harmful than a little girl with a child’s stormy fantasy.
“But I wasn’t imagining, Mr. Hall, was I? It was Jed’s arm all right, I know I’m not lying. And the mound wasn’t a mound at all, was it? Not any kind of mound I’ve ever seen. Sure as I’m standing here it was a great big mouth! A Mountain Eater’s great big mouth, all black and deep and crawling with wet earthworms, centipedes, ants and miles and miles and miles of stomach!”
For a while afterwards it had bothered Valerie the way the funeral director pretended not to know what she was talking about. To Valerie it was a simple case of bad manners. “City Manners,” was her favorite adolescent phrase for a while. She would use it to criticize anything she did not like. Valerie had read it in a backdated woman’s magazine at the beauty salon. According to the article it meant when folks pretended they were simple minded when they were really just mean spirited. She could not understand how big city folks put up with it, but that was apparently just how they were. No one, anymore, the author of the article asserted, cared about anyone but #1 in those towering ash-heaps they called big cities. They did not believe in anyone but themselves in those places and whom had they learned it from? Valerie knew. It was people like Mr. Hall, that is who. People so sneaky and inhuman it braced her to think she could not even hear them coming down the driveway. Those kinds of people do not do anyone any good. She knew who they were working for, whose side they were really on and it was not hers. They were the enemy Mountain Eaters in disguise and they worshipped a skull-faced monster.
“So,” Valerie asks. She is just talking for the sake of talking, trying to hold back a little, not let everything out at once. But, it is too hard. The undertaker has a way about him. The demon is able to pull words out of her mouth like a midwife bringing a protesting baby into the world. Mr. Hall’s mere presence is draining her of her energy. The way he is starting to frighten her with his standing there in the doorway so accusingly, without saying a word.
“Don’t just stand there. It’s not polite, Mr. Hall,” she says, nervously wiping her wet hands on her jeans shorts and heading back to the kitchen to check on the boiling water. She knows he cannot touch her. The only thing she is guilty of is of loving her father. Where does it even say, she wonders, that everyone has to love the same way? She is making tea for him she decides. “How can I help you, Mr. Hall,” she asks again, yelling it from the stove so the old man cannot pretend he does not hear her. She is being infinitely polite to her guest she thinks. Anyone else would have moved the mortician along a while back. Valerie knows good manners can seem awkward sometimes, but what else can she do? The man in the doorway is the funeral director and a small time outsider celebrity to boot. For the sake of decorum she has got to keep her cool, stay civil. Still, how far can she take it? The prospect of answering any of his lurid questions makes her want to curl up and hide inside herself like some underground bug that only comes out at night.
“Well, Mr. Hall!” She is trying to mask the impatience in her voice with a gruffness she has never quite managed to master. More than anything else she is desperate to assert herself. It is, after all, her house, and there is no good reason for her to be intimidated by a stranger in her own house, is there?
Her visitor cups his withered hands close to his black necktie and jacket in an expression of something like understanding. The undertaker is looking at her like she is a drowned rat. Mr. Hall holds a cold hand out to her. Valerie takes it for the formal gesture that it is intended. She tries to image what he must see when he looks through those dead eyes of his. A wild-haired girl in a torn High Times baseball T-shirt she saved from her brother’s closet, cut-offs, boney knees and dirty high-tops. Or can he see what she is thinking? Can he see her organs moving around inside her body? She really does feel like she is drowning, she realizes, and how incredibly sad to think it, but the undertaker probably is actually the only one who can save her. There is no one else – no father-mother-brother figure out there. Only him to see her desperate clinging to life and he is the one with the lifeline in his hands. Only the mortician is just standing there teasing her with it, waving the rope in from of her face. “Now you see it,” she thinks. “Now you don’t.” The cruelty of it makes her squirm with fear and excitement. To think that his hate has come from so far away, from such distant places she has read about like Atlantis or, maybe even, Lemuria to rest itself inside her ear like a vengeful larva waiting to hatch its thousand-year reign of terror on her mind.
“Ms. Valerie, you’re not well?” The question may come painfully slowly, it may not be very sincere, but the funeral director asks it anyway. Mr. Hall is secretly pleased with his good fortune. Valerie was definitely the kind of adversary he was looking for. The rest had given in so quickly and easily, without putting up the slightest fight. Mr. Hall was definitely disappointed in his fellow citizens – mice, every last one of them. What he needed was a good fight, a spirit to awaken, someone else to understand his infinite hatred of all living things.
Not that Valerie does not sometimes hear voices inside the house, she does, and it happens often enough too. But she knows she is no lost soul. She knows a window has been left open somewhere in the house when it is her dead mother calling out to her, or a cat is stuck in a tree, or it is a field mouse in a night owl’s claws when it is a baby’s crying that she hears. These are not sounds that cause her to doubt her sanity the way the undertaker’s voice does.
“Isn’t it cold in here, Ms. Valerie?” the mortician asks, obviously fine tuning his approach as he finally steps through the door into the green glow of the living room.
How transparent, Valerie thinks. The creep probably wants to change the subject too. She bets herself that the husk of a funeral director would like nothing better than to spend the rest of the evening analyzing her every fault, scratching at her fragile mood with his clinical claws. How like an oversized rodent, she thinks. The undertaker cannot help his instinct to burrow into fertile soil. At least that is the way it seems to her. The question may seem innocent enough at first, but Valerie knows it is only the beginning, only his opening salvo. If the mortician is allowed, she knows full well he will find his way into the darkest crevice of her mind. Given half a chance, he will find a place deep inside her where she cannot reach in to pull him out, and his silent accusations will grow louder and louder until she finally becomes totally paralyzed inside.
“I’ll be happy enough for these cold rooms when the summer heat comes,” Valerie says, still in the kitchen. Mr. Hall is moving around the living room touching things, poking around intimate objects for God only knows what reason. Valerie can see him through the kitchen door. She cracks open a tall boy. The funeral director takes a framed photograph of her father from the mantle and looks at it. He is probably trying to master the tin-pan fury he has been born with, Valerie thinks; inner noise like Vulcan’s hammer that has never let him rest as long as he has been alive, the deadly invocations of the skull-faced monster always ringing in his ears. Valerie pounds her beer. She cannot go on giving the undertaker excuses like this, she thinks, slamming her empty can on the counter. Mr. Hall has got to finish what he has started or he must leave her alone with her accursed fate. Valerie knows these feelings of hate and mistrust are not her natural inclinations. Mr. Hall is most likely already penetrating her innermost unguarded reptile brain with his own special brand of hatred. She feels clammy just being so close to such incredibly negative energy. What can she do but keep a close watch on these telekinetic vibrations lest they completely scramble her mind. The mortician covets her sanity much more than her young body and she knows it.
The funeral director can already hear it, stirring far away at first, and then closer – it is the sound of Valerie pleading for his help. People become a lot like the land they live on, thinks Mr. Hall. Valerie has always lived with the cats and raccoons in her attic.
“Quiet grows wild in an abandoned town like this,” says Mr. Hall. “It grows the way weeds grow on unkempt sidewalks. There isn’t anything or anyone to stop it or slow it down.” The undertaker wants so badly to hear an innocent voice, a voice completely dependent on him. The deafening silencing of those people who cannot bear not to hear the sound of their own voices makes him feel strong and powerful, very powerful indeed, but what he really wants to hear is the muffled noises of those in fear of having their secrets discovered. Valerie, the undertaker believes, could give him just such pleasure as he wants. But he knows she is not yet scared of him the way he needs her to be. More probing must be done. So he continues the charge. “It’s been awful quiet outside your door, lately, Ms. Val.”
“I definitely hope you didn’t come all this way to lecture me about silence, Mr. Hall,” Valerie says, clenching her teeth. The rush of his thin voice over her body is chilling like the air blast released from an underground vault cracked open for the first time in centuries. “I know more about silence than you might have imagined.”
“My dear,” Mr. Hall advances on the young girl. “Your silence does truly betray you. Silence is always found in the shadow of Wisdom’s guiding hand. Men like me, we know. We have given our lives to follow those mighty intellects into the darkest quarters of the human mind. Truth’s unfailing pointer always reveals corruption. Are not the most quiet quarters always the most corrupt and has it not been very quiet around here lately?”
What should she tell the funeral director: the truth? My father is upstairs arranged respectfully on his deathbed and shrunken with eternal sleep – and not only that, but the body has been up there for over a week now! Even if Valerie does tell him, what then? Mr. Hall is not liable to take the news very well, not standing up at least, and she does not want him to take root in the living room. She has made up her mind: the undertaker is not to stay a minute longer than he has to.
“Best to come clean were truth is concerned, Ms. Val.” The words, Valerie knows, are sticky with corrupted sweetness, like a dropped lollipop covered in pine needles. “Your father Elron has not been seen at his place of business nor has he been seen anywhere else for that matter. He has been, shall we say, conspicuously absent these past days.”
“What can I say? Elron’s up and gone,” is Valerie’s best effort at a convincing answer. “Like everyone else in this bone-yard who wasn’t strong enough to hold out, he’s just disappeared into the hills. That just leaves me and some others, doesn’t it?” Valerie was not sure who the “others” were when she said it. It was more wishful thinking than anything else.
She has been so sad here, these last few days, so desperate for her father’s sake. It is not easy having a dead body around the house. Not even if you love it, she thinks. All she really knows is that she is on her own now and she has to be extra smart. “You can’t be too careful,” she has told herself, crying in the bathroom with the doors and windows shut tight so her neighbors cannot hear. If she is to foil the Mountain Eaters, she has to remain strong, resilient, not bend or sway to her fears or to the taunts of her adversary. Her enemy cannot understand. Mr. Hall is, after all, no doubt the one who was sent for Elron, sent for his body for the purposes of some hidden agenda. She sure as hell did not know all the shapes and sizes the Mountain Eaters could muster or who in town they held reign or sway over. Not even her dog was beyond suspicion anymore. It did not look like a gaping whole in the ground, but who knows. Neither, for the moment, did the funeral director. The mad dog’s appetite, however, did hint at miles and miles of insatiable stomach, did it not? The dog had, she had often noticed, a torso at least as large as a person’s. Come to think of it, it even shit human-sized turds. All torso and tiny legs, she thinks, like one huge walking intestine. So, was it not, after all, all stomach, just like the Mountain Eaters? Would it not, given half a chance, gladly swallow her father, return him into the waiting arms of the skull-faced monster and his mythical garden to be mixed back in with the depleted soil. Valerie could easily picture the dog with a white arm sticking out of its mouth at an odd angle – only this time it would be her dad’s. There was always a new crop being planted in the Master’s sprawling domain, so very bright, like the polarized acid colors of the Goldenrod fields she had seen in her sleep. The Mountain Eaters were forever pruning this orchard and tilling its soil.
The thought of losing her father to their greedy, insatiable mouths was unbearable. Valerie did not have a clue what to do without him. He had always been there for her with junk food, videos, and all manner of tall tales that he told her, usually about an epic battle between good and evil in which powerful aliens fight over spirited creatures called “manimals”. Facing down the Mountain Eaters was something she had to do, for her own sake as well as her father’s. She had to hold them off as long as possible or all the things she loved would slip away like a smoking butt caught in the rapid rush of a swelling river.
But she was beginning to doubt herself. What if the Mountain Eaters did not come for you like the mortician did, all arms and legs with a black hat on his head? Valerie wondered. What if they were full of tricks? Like what if they came on the wings of flies and were dropped into the open mouth of their victim like war pamphlets demanding the dead surrender their bodies? Paranormal psychological warfare fought beyond the grave! It was not something Valerie had figured on. How long would it take before her and her father would both crack up under the strain? How long could they last in that dark room with the television going all day and all night, her singing jingles and knowing what the actors would say next, her dead father’s soul bullied and harassed by the unending paranormal propaganda of the skull-faced monster?
Or, far worse: what if the Mountain Eaters were already inside you when you were born? Dormant sleeper cells waiting for the telepathic signal from the Master. “The soil is cold and baron and it needs poor Elron’s body back so it can begin the whole damn cycle again!” At a certain point, Valerie realizes, they would just start eating you up from the inside out, until you were no more human than a compost. What a way to go, she thinks. “Wouldn’t that just suck.”
Upstairs and down the hall, Elron’s body remains stretched on the bed, motionless as a carnivorous plant, his mouth partly open, a fly caught in his teeth. He is dressed in his baby-light-blue best suit that was three sizes too big even before his dead body began to shrink. In his hands Valerie has placed his old Greek sailor’s cap and a bouquet of garishly painted plastic flowers she has “liberated” from the K-Mart rests store on his chest.
Just before the funeral director had arrived she had turned the light in the bedroom off, changed the channel to his favorite daytime show, adjusted his pillow behind his round head, and climbed into the bed with him. The Mountain Eaters would dispatch someone to the house, they most definitely had to. The skull-faced monster would never allow his fields to grow barren. Wrapping her arms around Elron’s stomach, she had said, “We still have just a little longer.” There was not much recognition in his cross-eyes, though they seemed to her oddly penitent for a man who was such a foulmouthed pig when he was alive. Valerie had wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Elron looked so stupid to her. The thick black rims of his prescription eyeglasses were hopelessly out of place looking on his soapy skinned dead animal face. Even though she could not remember him without them, they did not seem right anymore. “What did a dead man need glasses for?” Valerie had asked herself. “They can’t help him now can they? No they can’t, and that’s a fact! What good are his glasses when Elron’s eyes are so far away? They don’t look at anything anymore,” she had said. “They look past you… no… through you… as if they can see something sneaking up just behind where you’re standing.” Right after that is when the doorbell rang.
An empty mill town early in the morning — it is the voice of the funeral director talking. You have been running all night and you see your High School up ahead. For some reason it looks abandoned, but you run there anyway. You know every nook and cranny of the building. You can hide inside from the angry dogs that chase you. You can hear them bark. They are barking like crazed animals outside the windows, pawing at the red brick walls. You can hear them charging the Plexiglas barriers, you can hear the bone-crushing thud of them throwing their bodies against the metal doors as they become angrier and angrier. They want you, Valerie Hubbard. They are trying to get inside…
© Daniel Mendel-Black, 2003, originally published in Meise Nr. 1