As far as family heirlooms go, the rug was a singularly ugly one.
Nobody in our family knew who the first owner had been. Probably some very distant ancestor, as it was most certainly old, with faded colours, a spread of unnameable stains, and well-frayed tassels. I’d been told it was Persian in origin, although it didn’t conform to the normal design of such rugs. It was far too large for most rooms, and woven with intricate patterns that would have delighted M.C. Escher himself. As a little girl, it had fascinated me. The dozens of complex, looping spirals had fired my curiosity, and I longed to trace them with my finger, to follow those labyrinthine lines all the way to the centre. But my great uncle would have none of that. Whenever I made a move for the heirloom rug, he’d snatch me up and scold me, telling me not to touch it. He’d distract me with marvellous candies and sweets from different countries, and would tell me stories about little girls who did things they weren’t supposed to. All of them met with sticky ends. I suppose that’s why it came as a shock to me, when my uncle vanished and didn’t return, that I was the relative who inherited the labyrinth carpet.
It was much too big for any room in my rented flat. My uncle had become wealthy in his youth, travelling overseas and returning with great fortunes, claiming he’d won them from foreign dignitaries in games of chance and wit. Certainly, he was rich enough to own a house with grand rooms that would fit the giant carpet. When I was younger I’d believed every one of his tall tales. Apart from anything else, the man was a champion chess player of the highest order, so his stories of emerging victorious from any game he cared to play seemed very plausible. But as I’d grown older, I realised that it was much more likely my uncle was just a gambler.
More specifically, the sort of gambler who cheats. His body was never found, and that bore out my theory. Towards the end, friends and relatives said he’d grown increasingly paranoid, and his dwindling wealth became his greatest concern. They also said he talked constantly of having “Just one more adventure”, which they all assumed meant going back overseas and finding some Iranian prince to swindle.
Whatever the case, he was gone, along with his fortunes, leaving nothing but a carpet that I couldn’t use. So, for the longest time, the heirloom rug stayed rolled up and stuffed into the back of my garage, where it sat in a great awkward ‘U’ shape, collecting dust and moths.
It wasn’t until the fire that I realised that it was much more than just a carpet.
Most of the neighbour’s house had burned down, taking the hedge, the wooden fence and half my garage with it. The fire fighters had sprayed down the side of my own home, to stop the heat and flames from spreading further while they put out the blaze next-door.
Thankfully, there hadn’t been that much inside the garage; some things my landlord left behind, a few boxes of junk and garbage bags full of old clothes, a rusty bicycle I never used, and the Persian rug. I was almost relieved that the thing was gone; every time I thought about moving house, I dreaded the idea of lugging it along with me.
But when I saw the lumpy tube on the back lawn, grey-brown tassels and dusty spirals soaked with sooty water, I felt a strange sense of dread and relief, all mixed together.
Somehow the carpet had survived.
“Don’t understand it myself,” said one of the firemen, stripped down now to just his pants and a t-shirt, “should have burned up with the rest, but it’s not even singed.”
“Probably got asbestos fibres all through it,” said his colleague, a short, stocky woman with soot on her face, “might want to get it tested, could be dangerous.”
“I will, I’ll get it checked out,” I assured her.
After they left, I stared at the rolled up carpet for the longest time, before spreading it out on the grass so it could dry in the sun.
The morning light was kind to the carpet, picking out highlights of gold and silver thread. Still faintly damp, it seemed that the water from the fire fighter’s hoses had done it some good – it looked cleaner than it had since I was a child. It’s funny how a child’s mind works; because I swear it seemed smaller when I was a little girl, which is the opposite of what I would have expected. That morning, the carpet seemed more enormous than ever, covering the entirety of the back yard.
It was still an ugly thing. The dozens of spiralled mazes did strange things to the eyes, and made me feel slightly sick if I looked at it for too long – but it had an odd kind of allure now that its threads were cleaner. Deciding to make the best of the situation, I took a scrubbing brush and a bar of laundry soap to it, then hosed it down again, to wash off the suds and grime I’d lifted away.
Once I was finished, the spirals stood out starkly; a curious labyrinth of interconnecting circles, a singular path wending its way through the intricate patterns.
Gazing at it, I felt something shift in my head, and right on the edge I could suddenly see where it all began – the entrance to the labyrinth.
As soon as I put my hand to the threads, I knew something magical was happening. Something impossible – for as my finger began to trace the path, the carpet seemed to expand and rise, until I was standing inside the pattern, the tapestried walls of a labyrinth springing up around me.
Now I understood why my uncle had always been so quick to stop me touching it.
I didn’t stay long, that first time. Shocked by the sudden, dizzy transformation, I stepped abruptly backward – and out of the maze. The carpet sprawled across the lawn, gleaming faintly, an eldritch presence that didn’t belong in a back yard in suburbia.
Trembling with excitement, I went back inside the house and made a cup of tea to soothe my jangled nerves, trying to decide what to do next. Either I was going suddenly and completely mad, or that had really just happened. Either way, I had to try and go back in, there was no question. I didn’t feel mad. Impossible or not, it seemed like my uncle had known this secret since I was a child, and the fact that he’d shared it with no one meant something – though as yet I wasn’t sure what. I recalled the tale of Perseus and the Labyrinth, from a hefty book of myths and legends I’d read as a child. In it, the hero had carried a ball of twine and his father’s sword – the first to trace his path back out, the second to slay the beast that lived within the maze. Taking a ball of string from the kitchen drawer, and a knife from the wooden block beside the microwave, I ventured back outside and tied one end of the string around the remains of a tree stump in the corner of the yard. Tucking the knife into the back of my jeans, I bent down and began to trace the path. Fear and excitement thrilled through me as the world started to recede, and the Labyrinth grew up around me once again.
The walls, I discovered, were made of the same stuff as the carpet itself, and the gold and silver weft glittered in the uniform light that shone from above. Great spiral patterns scrolled across the threaded walls, while the ground upon which I stood was a white road bordered with more of the same spiralling designs. It felt springy and tough beneath my feet, but I could not have said what it was made from. As I walked, my string dangling behind me, the walls seemed to grow taller, more imposing. Soon they loomed over me, letting in very little light and leaching all colour from my surroundings.
Just before my string ran out, I saw something on the road ahead of me, shining in the dimness.
A golden coin.
The air was chilly now, cold enough that I began to shiver. There was no wind, the labyrinth was eerily still, but just on the range of my hearing, I fancied I could hear a sound. My mind couldn’t quite interpret what it was, but it registered as something very wrong.
I snatched the coin and hurried back, coiling the string around my arm as I made my hasty exit from the maze.
The coin collector gave me a thousand dollars for my find, and apologised that he couldn’t offer more. When he asked where it came from, I explained that I’d found it stitched inside an old Persian rug I’d inherited from my great uncle. Of course, I omitted mentioning that I had been inside the carpet when I found it. With the money in my pocket, I felt strangely calm. I wouldn’t have to worry about rent for several weeks and I could pay a couple of minor debts. I’d never been very good with money, and this was the kind of windfall I’d only ever dreamed about. But I didn’t quite spend all of the money on rent and debts. I kept a few of those dollars to buy a large quantity of brightly coloured string.
On my third and fourth trips into the maze, I found nothing but empty and endless corridors flanked with towering, threaded walls. It became so dark that I needed a flashlight to see the way forward, and only the thinnest strip of grey sky showed far, far above me.
But on my fifth trip into the labyrinth, I stumbled across something new. That sound was persistent in the distant now, barely audible, just loud enough to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. My mind had been picking at it as I walked, trying to unravel what it was, and why it was familiar. I realised that I’d heard a sound like it once before, when I was a child, visiting my grandfather’s farm. It had woken me in the middle of the night; a strange, shrill noise that was a cry for help, but inhuman. I’d crept out of bed and clambered out my window, following the eerie noise through the gates and over the fences of the farm, across two creeks, until I found the origin of the sound.
A bull, impaled on an iron fencing post. Its mournful cries tore through the silence of the night as it rolled its eyes at me, mad with pain. Its body heaved and steamed as it tried to pull free of the metal stake, blood flowing freely down its flank.
The sound in the labyrinth was the same, but somehow bigger, darker, and much more angry.
As that memory clicked into place, I realised the corridor had opened into a courtyard, ringed by the colossal carpeted walls. Bones lay scattered all about the grey flagstones, a great mess of them surrounding an empty stone plinth. But the beam of my torch also picked out a handful of gold and silver coins, strewn near the entrance around my feet.
Stuffing them into my pockets, I gave the charnel courtyard a last, fearful once-over, then left, hurriedly retracing my steps.
It's interesting, what sudden wealth can do to a person. I found several collectors online who purchased my coins – two for truly exorbitant amounts – and rented a larger place, nearer the city. It caught my eye for one very particular reason; it had one room large enough for the carpet.
My explorations took up a lot of my free time now, as the further in I travelled, the longer it took me to get in and out. Braving my way past the courtyard of bones, I eventually discovered another one laid out just like it. But instead of being strewn with bones, the flagstones of this courtyard were spattered with dark stains, and the stone plinth was smashed to bits.
The shrieking, undulating cry of pain in the distance became louder and louder. I was undeterred, forced onward by my greed. The maze became familiar to me, as did the weight of my new backpack full of string, dribbling twine behind me like the distended abdomen of a spider. I was grateful for my forethought; because in an instant, you could become disoriented in the maze, not knowing if you were going forward or backward.
By the time I found the third courtyard, the swelling groans in the distance no longer bothered me so much.
The flagstones of this one were unsullied. The plinth was intact, and upon it rested a small ebony chest, bound with bands of bronze.
I knew what was inside it, before I even lifted the lid. When my eager eyes fell upon the glint of bright coins, there was no surprise, only the heady, satisfying buzz of fulfilment.
The penthouse had several rooms large enough for my carpet, but I kept it locked away from guests – and there were now plenty of those. It seems that wealth buys friends very easily, although they may not be the kinds of friends you want to share your secrets. When I’d grown tired of parties and expensive clothes, and when I’d fucked my way through most of my new companions, I realised that there was only one prospect that truly thrilled me now: accumulating even more wealth. The casinos welcomed me at first, but when money stuck to my fingers rather than leaving them, they didn’t seem so friendly. Egged on by my own success, I started to wager greater and greater sums, as though I were testing just how far I could push Lady Luck before she decided she’d had enough of her latest lover. And eventually, she did. In a single night, with one throw of a pair of Perspex dice, I lost my entire fortune.
Of course, I was not as concerned as most people would have been, finding myself in that unfortunate position; I ran straight back into the Labyrinth. Still dressed in my red, watered silk dress, my heels were discarded at the entrance, and I padded barefoot through the corridors. The noise of the wounded creature was just an irritation now, no longer something to fear; only a distraction from the pull of the wealth ahead of me.
But something was wrong.
I was well past the third courtyard, seeking the fourth one that I knew must exist, when I realised I’d forgotten my backpack. The walls loomed around me, black and threatening – and somewhere nearby, anger and pain mingled in the terrible shriek of the beast, echoing through the curving passages.
Just as real despair began to creep down my spine, I realised that ahead of me was an opening. This courtyard was full of dead leaves, completely still in the stale, breathless air of the labyrinth. Piles of them were heaped up around the familiar shape of a stone plinth. Weeping with relief, I saw the unopened ebony box atop it, and I ran through the orange and brown drifts, kicking them out of my way in my eagerness to crack open the lid and survey my new fortune. But this time I was surprised.
No coins greeted me. Instead, I found a small bronze knife, its handle inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and a message carved inside the lid of the chest. I would swear the crude characters did not belong to any alphabet I knew, yet I could clearly divine their meaning:
With a cut, the way is revealed
I swore then, loudly and profanely. As if in response, the mad scream of the wounded beast echoed through the maze – closer now, close enough to make me afraid. But I didn’t know which way was out; the leaves had settled, and the walls all looked the same. I chose one passage at random, running for a full ten minutes through those identical corridors before confusion set in. Was I going deeper into the maze, or was I leaving it?
Pushing onward, I reasoned that I’d know soon enough – either I’d reach a fifth courtyard, or I’d find my way back to the third.
When instead I emerged back into the courtyard full of leaves, I screamed in frustration.
Twice more I ran off, twice more I came back to the courtyard of leaves. But was it the same courtyard? What if the fifth courtyard was also full of leaves, and also contained an empty box? What if the sixth and seventh did too? I had no way of knowing.
Dimly, I registered that a new sound now accompanied the mournful, maddening howl in the distance. A faint rumble, as though something huge was moving through the maze.
Frightened, I tightened my hand around the blade of the little bronze knife, cutting my palm.
As I yelped in pain, bright blood spilled from my flesh. No, not blood; thread!
It spooled to the ground, looping into a pile, then shot off into a corridor, and I knew it was showing me the way home.
The rumbling was thunderous now, and a faint breeze, the first I had ever felt within the carpeted maze, stirred my dress. The trickle of blood slowed, then stopped.
The blood thread carried on only a few hundred metres, and so I cut into the meat of my palm again – deeper this time. Four more times I opened my flesh before I followed the red trail into the third courtyard, the one where I’d found the box of coins.
I could feel the ground trembling under my feet now, a steady, pounding shudder in time with the rumble growing ever less distant. I pricked the pulsing vein at my wrist with the knife, just enough to let out a steady stream of blood – and then I ran, the path of thread flowing and racing ahead of me.
When I reached the courtyard of bones, the nearest wall shuddered and deformed, with a deafening roar from the other side. It shook again, then again, before the beast stopped trying to rip its way through the seemingly impermeable carpet. The thunder resumed, the flagstones jumping under my feet.
I was weak now, but the entrance was close. My vision swam, and the roaring rage of the beast rang inside the vault of my skull. I stumbled back from one wall as it rocked under my hand, the thread bulging as something tried again to force its way through.
The height of the walls was shorter now, so I knew the exit was very near. But my left foot no longer felt right; with every step, I sank and listed, as though the ground had grown soft.
I looked down. It wasn’t the ground that had grown soft; it was my foot. Threads spooled from my toes, the flesh itself unravelling into the same stuff as the labyrinth. My veins were thin strings of red wool, my sinews glittered gold and silver.
Cursing and weeping, I pushed on. I had no other chance. I heard a great rip as something gave way in the fabric of the maze, but I limped and dragged myself steadily onward, clawing my way along the wall as my leg unravelled to the knee.
And then I was lying on the floor in the artificial light of my penthouse, a mess of ragged threads dangling from where my knee had once been.
But I was safe. I was alive.
I tried to stand, but something pulled.
A single thread was still linked to the carpet, and it was being tugged from the inside.
Screaming, I grabbed the thread and pulled back, but it spooled through my fingers, burning a line across the bloody flesh of my palm as it tore through my grasp. Past the knee and up my thigh, my skin continued to spool away as the beast inside the carpet yanked it inside with superhuman strength.
Weeping, I realised that I couldn’t win.
As the last threads of my leg spun away, I cut through them with the bronze knife.
The prosthetic fits me well enough, and I’ve adjusted to life with one leg. But I still have nightmares about the labyrinth.
The penthouse is gone, along with all the clothes, the shoes and the friends who weren’t really friends. Only the cursed, persistent, ugly carpet remains. Today I filled it with scrap lead and bound it with wire – and tomorrow I will row out into the sea until my arms can’t take anymore, then I will toss the evil thing into the ocean, where I hope it will never be found again.
I have a feeling I’m wrong. I have a feeling it’s going to turn up somewhere were someone will find it. Probably someone who isn’t very good with money. Someone who really needs a break. If that someone is you, then I advise you to be very careful.
And don’t forget your string.
￼Credited to https://www.reddit.com/user/Cymoril_Melnibone