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At the Strike of 12

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Let it be known in this wintry hour that the communion shared is of the utmost palpable truth. I should hope not to fall under the cruel counter weights of misapprehension. This letter will be left here to serve whoever stumbles upon this house in the woods, imbued with blood and jagged ivory skull fragments. Do with it what you will. Speak of it what you would speak. I am indifferent to you and your intent. For I am no mad man. And this you will understand. Today I have committed such an atrocity which makes me smile so broadly to remember. Here in this home secluded and neatly tucked into dreary yet beautiful wilds I have rid myself of the corpses that I once held dear. Before I loved them sweetly, and to no cynical belief did I feel they loved me the same. However, the home I was born into and have grown under has lost that sweet love and caring nature. A happy family we were. A small congregation of father, mother and son, who all lived harmoniously and brought warm smiles to each other upon sight and presence. Only recently though have all of that come tumbling down, revealing the bitterness and hatred hidden within the nature of my family.

It began a month prior to the writing of this letter. My father was a tall slim man of little strength and gentle hands who cared for me sincerely as a child. I can’t help but smile remembering it. As a child I stood small and weak as all children should. But when I reached the age of an early young man, I arose high above my father’s graying, withering tufts of hair. As I grew, it seemed an opaque darkness befell on my parents like dusk’s long shadow cast across a hill. They began drinking heavily and often without pause until there were no more bottles of sickly green Italian absinthe in our home. The basement of our home quickly became my father’s recluse solitude, in which constant muttering and chanting could be heard through the slightly ajar wooden door at the bottom of the stairs. I never could understand any of the words spoken so softly, so breathily. But my father, who seemed to sit right in the middle of where the whispers came from, did not give any reaction—nor did my mother, who left our home daily to drink rather than isolate herself inside like my father.

The second time I passed by the stairs and heard the whispers beckoning for me that day I knew I was the only one who could hear them hissing through the cracked wooden floorboards. Still I couldn’t decipher a single word or syllable, so I decided to ignore them. At first I was too afraid. I felt that maybe my isolation in the home so far away from others had taken its toll on my mind. But I was filled with too much fear to even search for the source of the sound, and I dared not speak of it to my mother or father. I tried to ignore the both of their downfalls. I still loved them, but could do nothing for them. They did nothing either, and I decided to let them fulfill their wishes of slow gradual decay. All the two of them seemed to live for was intoxication and the ignoring of everything else in our immediate world. I tried and I tried to make them stop, but they only grew bitter towards me the more I wanted to help—my mother hardly acknowledging my presence, and my father constantly shouting and cursing at me to bring him more absinthe. They were no longer the loving, caring people who raised me. Just two weeks before I rid myself of them they endlessly berated me and treated me like a dog. My mother stayed home one morning just to accuse me of ridiculous crimes, things I couldn’t and wouldn’t have ever done, screaming hotly that I stole money from her handbag. I did no such thing and did my best to relay this to her in a manner that would not further agitate her, but before I could finish my plea she brought the palm of her hand across my face hard enough to put ringing and chiming in both of my ears.

She then stormed out of the house, stomping on each weak wooden floorboard with creaks and bangs. I couldn’t believe it. I refused to. The lovely woman that rocked me to sleep in her pale thin arms had just struck me like a stray dog. I refused to even think it true. It couldn’t be. Surely my mother’s mental and physical stability had been draining slowly but gradually over the days and nights of drinking to no end, but she could never hit me. Not her dear son Cassius. I was a fool then. I wanted to see my family, not for what they were, but for who they used to be. I would still be ignoring the monsters they became had the voices not made me see the truth.

Once my ears quit ringing from how hard my mother struck me, I heard them again. But I could understand what they were saying.

“Cassiusss…” they hissed from the basement.

“Cassiusss…come down and speak with me, Cassiusss.” I knew not what to do other than to stand still and listen for them again to make sure it were my imagination. I did not hear a single whisper again at the time, but I didn’t want to hear it again—not at all. Before that day, the whispers were always just muttering and murmuring. But when its voice spoke directly to me in its deep malicious hiss that day I was terrified. I ran to my room and closed the door, trying to make sense of it somehow, where sense seemed far and away from that place then.

That was a fortnight from today. In the time since, I was not hit again, but both my mother and father ignored me and ridiculed me from behind the wooden walls of their bedroom. I could hear them…laughing at me….mocking kind sweet Cassius. I ignored their words just as I did the whispers calling my name and tried to forget what my mother did.

She left quietly this morning and my father descended the basement stairs. Not one of them even looked at me. Again, I did my best to remain calm and passive in the eye of belligerence, and I did so until noon when I could take it no longer.

The house had gone thick with an air of silence. Not a single whimper in the floorboards. Not a single sound of the wind blowing snow against the smudged windowpanes. I felt today would be normal, maybe more peaceful than the past few. I sat in the living room, quietly reading. The clouds outside that were making little white rose pedals of snow had blocked the sunlight that usually peers in through the blinds and left a dark hue over our house. As it did every day, the grandfather clock that stood tall in the midst of the living room chimed 4 times loudly at the strike of 12. My father yelled impatiently for me to bring him another bottle. I took one from the cabinet in the kitchen and made my way down the stairs carefully, trying to listen for the whispers. None came. I pushed open the door slowly and saw my father as I always did, sprawled out on his cushioned rocking chair under a faint low-hanging bulb in the middle of the room. Behind him mounted on the wall was the taxidermy head of a stag. I always used to dread seeing it in its lifelike appearance. Its beady black eyes seemed to follow me whenever I entered the basement. This was only my imagination of course. I knew not where it came from or when it was hunted and stuffed and mounted on the wall, but I did know it was a stag no longer. Now it was a macabre celebration of murder.

As I opened the door and saw it behind my father I wondered….What would it be like to kill a person and mount its head on a wall? Of course this was only a distant wonder in my clearly tired little head. I could never act on something as that. No. Not kind sweet Cassius. Kind sweet Cassius was a dull timid young boy who reads too much. Kind sweet Cassius wasn’t capable of even standing up to his own mother. Kind sweet Cassius was a feeble coward, undeserving of our nice little home secluded in the woods.

For the instant that my feet touched the chipped stone floor of the basement, these were the thoughts I remember having. They angered me greatly, but at the time I felt those thoughts were right. I was a coward, and I couldn’t stand up to my own mother. Persistently, I still saw the loving, caring nature in her, and not the old hobbling hag that slapped as if I were only a nuisance. I turned my attention toward my father with his graying tufts of balding hair and holey, stained threads of clothing. He looked up at me with a shine in his eyes and handed me a long-necked empty bottle. I handed him the new one, and just as his fingers wrapped around the base, he turned it upside down and broke it over my head with a grunt. The glass shattered, disgusting, poisonous green absinthe seeped into my eyes and nose and mouth. I fell down hard on the cold stone floor of the basement, bleeding from the crown of my skull. “You are no son of mine. You are a worthless bastard. Always taking up space in this house…Reading and writing. Thinking you’re smarter than your mother and I!? I’ll have no more of it. When your mother comes home you’re going out into the snow with nothing on your back but the clothes you’re wearing….Should’ve given you to an orphanage when you were born. Those nuns and priests would’ve surely beaten you into something useful!” He stood up shakily from the chair and went up the stairs, slamming the wooden door behind him savagely. I wiped the blood and absinthe out of my eyes, not even able to process anything other than the pain—the pain in my head; the pain in my eyes; and the realization that no proclivity of family values meant anything anymore. I’d felt it strongly in those two months while my parents began drinking to no end. My mother hitting me was a stepping stone. But what my father had done today at the strike of 12 proved that my mother and father no longer wanted me, no longer cared for me at all. That pain stung deeper and bled more than the gash on my head. Then the whispers came again, closer, clearer, louder than ever.

“Cassiusss.”

I looked up with my eyes squinted and saw that the taxidermy stag head was now looking down on me. My eyes widened with terror, my mouth gaping open, I backed away from it quickly on my hands and feet until my back hit a wooden craft table set against the wall behind the stairs.

“Now is not the time to fear me, Cassius. You must stand up from the ground and stand up for yourself,” its mouth moved with each syllable. I recognized its voice…. It was the source of all the whispers. It was the voice that called me by name after my mother hit me.

“Who are you?”

“I am a spirit of these snowy woodland wilds. When a hunter murdered me my essence was trapped in my skin. The man that hunted me and cursed me to this fate gave my head to your father as a gift. There lie a hammer of steel,” the stag turned its gaze towards the crafting table above me. “Take it and bring it down on those that have humiliated you.” It looked into my eyes again and the corners of its small mouth stretched out into a grin that was far too humanlike to belong on the face of a deer. “I am your friend, Cassius. Do as I ask and I shall help you.” Then its neck made cracking sounds as it strained to pull the head back to its original position on the wooden mount, looking straight ahead near the top of the stairs. I got up off the floor and looked down on the craft table, which held many screw drivers, rusty nails, and in the middle of it all was a single hammer, whose long sleek handle was made of glossy polished mahogany. The head reflected the dim basement lightbulb into a shine stronger than any star I’d ever seen in the night sky. Taking it in my hands I felt strong and righteous. A calm euphoria filled the valves my heart and pumped into my brain. I could no longer feel the bleeding gash on the top of my head, nor did I even take into consideration anymore the hatred and disdain from my family. Now it was time to rid my house of the debased corpses that used to be my mother and father. I sat in his cushioned rocking chair, the hammer in my lap for all eyes to see. And when a pair of old weary eyes did begin hobbling down the stairs, they looked at me with a fury and rage.

“What are you doing in my chair!?” He came running at me and I stood up and brought the flathead across his skull with a scream of giddy joy. The intense crack of his head against my hammer was a sound I wish I could hear again and again and again. His feeble old body hit the floor hard and his limbs began writhing and seizing up in all directions. I began laughing so hard I fell onto my knees.

No longer was he the monster who called me worthless and bastard. Now he was a wounded old fish flopping around aimlessly, trying to touch something that wasn’t there and never would be. I quelled my laughter for a moment. Holding the hammer high above me right next to the lightbulb that let out faint orange light, I brought it down on his skull again. This time blood spat onto my face and chest, and the flathead got stuck inside of his skull. I had to hold his head steady with my heel and pull hard to get it out. Fragments of ivory bone and pinkish gray matter spilled out of the new gaping crater. For a minute I stood there above him with the wonderful tool hanging loosely from my fingers. He lie still with his eyes cold and dead and devoid of their shine. And then I heard the front door of my home open.

I had to think: Who would come at the door after the strike of 12?

And then I heard my mother’s gentle drunken footfalls against the floorboards above me. Her steps against the wood, making them creak and whine, kept coming closer and closer. I could hardly contain my excitement while she eased toward the basement door. I reached for the metal drawstring and pulled it, carefully, trying not to make too much noise as to alert her. The weak little fluorescent flashed and faded, and now the basement was black as pitch.

She opened the creaking wooden door and stumbled slowly down the stairs.

“Cassius…Cassius are you down here?” Step…step…step…Oh I remember being so excited, having to hold my breath and watch her tall lucid figure tread the darkness. I heard the cracking and popping sounds of the stag moving again.

“End herrr,” it hissed.

“Cassius…” She reached for the drawstring and pulled it with a loud click. For a flash of light and a mere second she saw kind sweet Cassius spring up from the floor and slam the bloody shimmering steel into her face. She screamed and her jaw seemed to stiffen diagonally off of its hinges and ligaments. When she hit the floor, dead, her face remained contorted unnaturally, her eyes dry, frozen wide with eternal terror. The stag began to laugh slowly at first, and then ascended to an uncontrollable bout of cackling and then snickering breathily with its snout pointed down. It held onto its human grin and looked on me proudly with its antlers held high.

“Gooood, Cassius. Gooood. Now that you are rid of them, remove their heads and place them next to me on this accursed wooden mount.”

I did as it said without a ha’ penny of forethought. Using a rusty, jagged handsaw I found in the basement, I slowly cut through their necks. I had to hack through their spines laboriously though. The handsaw’s jagged edge was too dull to simply carve through them back and forth. What peculiar sounds the bones did make when being struck by the saw. The sounds were the most fun part, I think. Sounds I remember easier than sights. But the sight of my mother and father’s heads nailed to the wooden board on the wall next to the stag—by many of the rusted nails I found on the craft table through their throats—is one I won’t forget. For it fills me with too much expound joy. After I was finished the stag gave me more deserved appraisal for my hard work, and then carefully instructed me that the only way his spirit could be freed from his skin was if I filled in the rest of the space on the wooden board. So here I wait in my home, patiently counting the hours until someone comes in.

You, you who comes in through my door and reads my letter. I’ve got to add you to the mount. After all the stag has done for me and has shown me, I owe him his freedom, Do I not? I think I do. Don’t make me chase you into the cold. I don’t like the cold. Reader and finder of my letter, why not come down into the warm, welcoming darkness of my basement? I’ll greet you with some hot coffee, and I’ll make your sacrifice—your service—quick. Who knows? Perhaps, when killed and placed on the mount as the stag was, you will be brought back to life.

I hear something now, though…through the floorboards, down into the basement. It sounds like my mother and father…laughing at me…mocking me as they did when they were alive… “Oh kind sweet Cassius, be a dear and bring us a bottle!”



Written by Karen O'neal

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