A single glimpse was enough to doom me.
Yet all I did was tiptoe across the drifts of yellow fallen leaves, towards the inviting glow of hospitable light, and peek through a house’s window.
My glimpse lasted no longer than a heartbeat.
I saw her standing beside a roaring fireplace, her hair braided in golden plaits, glimmering in the fire light, tumbling over the shoulders of her loose white nightshirt.
Then I saw her bum; captivating, beautiful, pert pink globes – with a crook-handled cane wedged between her cheeks, hitching up her nightie, exposing her to my prying eyes.
It was only the merest glance. Sudden movement drew my eye: a menacing black blur, advancing quickly. Startled, I recoiled from the window, acutely conscious I’d just seen something I was not supposed to see.
Instinctively, I turned and ran.
That fateful day, I’d been walking home through the woods. Autumn’s touch had ignited a silent forest fire, I wandered through an impression of burning trees, sizzling reds and blazing yellows of every hue dancing on their swaying branches like boughs of flame. Whilst all around, mist billowed and swirled in the wind like smoke, choking every winding path.
In the nebulous gray gloom I must have wandered right past the landmark gnarly old oak tree – veering left rather than right, down a path I’d never explored before. This untrodden trail narrowed into a avenue of orange-leaved sycamores, guiding me, almost funnelling me.
I smelt the presence of the house well before I saw it. A seductively sweet aroma, resin-rich logs on a roaring fire, congenial and welcoming. A striking gothic house began to emerge incrementally from the mist, as if someone was describing it. First its steep pitched roof, clusters of stubby chimneys, then ornamental arches, archaic turrets and dark brick walls, before I saw the planked veranda, and a glowing window that radiated an aura of golden light into the mist outside.
Lest you think me some kind of voyeur, I’m not normally in the habit of peering into strangers’ windows. But here, that warm, inviting glow enticed me closer. The cloud of gold in the murky gloom seduced me, as if it was the reflected gleam from a cache of treasure. So I crept up to the window, and peeped inside.
And that’s when I saw her.
Just a glance. The merest glimpse.
Stolen in the blink of an eye.
Yet enough to sear the scene into my memory.
A golden haired maiden.
A cane between her cheeks.
So still, as if frozen in time.
And someone else.
A dark figure.
A chill ran through me, a sudden recognition that I didn’t belong here.
Instinctively, I turned and ran, hurtling through the mist, leaves and twigs crunching underfoot, barrelling down the narrow avenue of sycamores – until I almost collided with the old oak tree. I stared back into the haze, heart racing, half-expecting a dark shadow to rush at me from the mist.
But nothing followed.
With a sigh of relief, I turned right, walking quickly towards the sanctuary of home, looking over my shoulder with every step.
* * * * *
That night, as I lay awake in bed, that one glimpse came to dominate my thoughts. It began as curiosity, who was she? I’d never seen her walking along the track that ran through the woods. Had they lived there long? How strange that I’d lived in this wood all this time, and never even known there was a house down there.
The wind rattled my windows, blowing in a draught that made my bedside candle flicker. I shivered and snuggled underneath my blankets, and in my mind’s eye, I recalled her nakedness.
She had been a naughty girl, and she was about to be caned – on her bare bottom too. I began to wonder what misdemeanour could deserve such punishment. Had she neglected to do her chores? Perhaps she’d brought home a letter detailing her misbehavior at school? Or maybe she’d been caught playing show-me-yours in a forest den?
My glimpse had lasted no longer than a heartbeat before the sudden pouncing movement in the corner of my eye had spooked me and forced me to recoil from the window. Now I bitterly regretted my lack of courage. I began to imagine what I would have seen had I stayed.
The figure in black could have been her dowager aunt, nothing sinister, just a widow still dressed in the colour of mourning. She would have taken the cane from between her young charge’s cheeks, telling her to grasp the mantelpiece and push her bottom out. Then I would have seen a glint, as the varnished cane was raised into the light, then a soundless swish, and a muffled cry. And just beyond the window I would stare, rapt – eyes locked on her beautiful bottom, now pushed out expectantly again, newly adorned with a thin pink line.
Outside the wind howled, and a forceful gust whistled through the rafters, extinguishing my candle. It shames me to admit that as I lay there in the dark, my hand began to wander beneath my sheets, and my mind began to sour with darker thoughts.
In my fantasy, I returned to the strange gothic house. In my mind’s eye the mist had lifted, and the woods glowed gold and scarlet in the bright autumn sunshine. I stepped up onto the porch, where a coarse straw-coloured mat bade visitors “Welcome”. Taking a deep breath, I pulled the bell cord, and a faint tinkle sounded beyond.
The door was pulled open by a woman in black, who smiled as she saw me. She was of a similar age to my own mother, her black hair neatly tied back, her black satin dress elegantly attractive rather than morosely sombre.
“Good day!” I imagined myself saying, “I live just down the path, in Bramble Cottage…”
The ensuing doorstep conversation was perfunctory, this was – after all – my fantasy, and the focus of my visit was waiting indoors. So the lady welcomed me enthusiastically, and insisted on inviting me inside.
I entered and followed the lady down the hall into the living room. My imagination furnished it sparsely, just a few airchairs, a low table, some bookcases and some wall hangings. The focal point of the room was the vast granite fireplace, which occupied an entire wall. And beside the fireplace was the golden-haired girl, dressed in a bright white nightie, with a cane between her bottom cheeks.
“This is Freya…” the lady said apologetically, “Freya has been very naughty. I was about to spank her bottom when you called. Oh do sit down, let me get you a nice hot drink.”
I imagined sitting down on one of the armchairs as my host hurried out of the room. I stared ahead at the crackling log fire before my eyes were inevitably drawn to the young woman’s bare bottom. She wore a simple white nightgown, whose hem had been hitched up above her waist by the thin cane between her buttocks. I ensured her hands were clasped in front of her,
allowing my imagination to linger on this glorious sight, whilst my hand worked diligently beneath my sheets.
By now, I was engrossed in my story, oblivious to the wind gusting against my bedroom window. Keen to advance events, I imagined the lady in black returned with a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
“Do forgive me” she told me, “But it’s time Freya was spanked. I hope watching this won’t make you uncomfortable. It’s just how we do things in this house. Come here, Freya.”
The golden girl turned towards me, showing me her face for the first time; as beautiful as I could possibly imagine. Her eyes were downcast as she shuffled slowly into the middle of the room, keeping the cane between her cheeks – until the lady in black plucked it from her. Then, without being asked, Freya turned her back to me, spread her legs and bent over.
I could not have imagined a better view, as the lady’s cane swished and swicked across poor Freya’s pretty little bottom. She took her caning with almost angelic grace, never crying or making a scene, instead mixing her gasps with admissions of how naughty she’d been, and how much she deserved a sore bottom.
I was getting so close now; and somehow, my imagination improvised a final devious twist. I imagined a clock chiming.
“Goodness me! Is that the time?” exclaimed the lady in black, “Dinner will be burned!”
She hurried towards the fireplace, placing the cane on the mantelpiece, before moving back to scrutinise her young charge’s rear. Then she looked across at me expectantly.
“I do hope you don’t mind, but Freya isn’t pink enough yet, would you be so kind and spank her whilst I attend to the oven?”
I tried to imagine responding to her outrageous request with as much dignity as I could manage, nodding my head nobly as if to say: why, of course. Whereas in reality, I would have just gawped back dumbly.
And so Freya obediently climbed over my lap, submissively placing one hand on the small of her back. I grasped her wrist, pinning her down, and began spanking her, softly and slowly at first. Whereupon the lady in black smiled contently and left us alone.
“Harder! Please. Spank me harder! Please. I’ve been a very naughty girl”, Freya implored.
I quickened the force and tempo of my slaps, until the girl’s supplications were replaced by stifled cries. I spanked until her whole bottom was pink, until my hand began to hurt.
I spanked her until her legs began to flail, and part…
I came in throbbing gasps as I imagined the dew glistening on her slit.
* * *
Exhausted by the vividness of my fantasy, I fell asleep soon afterwards, into a deep, disturbing sleep.
I visited the strange house again in my dreams. But this time I was a spectator, no longer in control of my mysterious visions. For reasons unknown to me, my visit took place at night, yet I carried no lantern, relying on whatever moonlight had struggled through the stormy clouds to light my way. I felt my way tentatively through the darkness, acutely aware of the blackness, and the peril of veering off the path.
Soon, moonlight glinted off the frosty trunks of the avenue of sycamore trees, like some eerie silver colonnade. It was cold, but I did not feel it; only a compulsion to reach the house. I remember approaching the porch, but there was no door, no welcome mat, no bell to ring. The house reflected no moonlight, it seemed blacker than the darkness around it, unable to see, I began edging around the side of its walls, my fingertips probing its slimy bricks for anything that might be an entrance.
I reached the corner of the wall, and saw a dim halo of light ahead. The light seemed to come from the house, but did not illuminate it, a weak puddle of light seeping out of a fissure in a void. It felt like a lure, there to attract rather than enlighten its surroundings. It drew me towards it.
Now I was standing in front of a familiar window. Inside, a prodigious pile of logs burned fiercely but silently in a vast granite fireplace, radiating a surprisingly feeble light. The golden-haired girl was there too, this time facing me; she looks straight at me, with wide, pleading eyes. Without her lips moving I hear her voice in my mind, imploring: Help me.
I became aware of a sinister presence in the room with her. A black cloaked figure without a face. Its weirdness confounded me as I tried to make sense of what I saw, to name and understand it. This fiend, this spectre, this witch – whatever it was – seemingly held the girl captive, and I was her only hope.
Help me, her voice pleaded. Help me.
Her pleas emboldened me. Suddenly I knew it was my duty to protect her. I felt valiant, as if I’d donned a glimmering suit of impervious mail. My heart swelled, I would challenge and banish this wicked witch, and rescue her. Noiselessly, my hands hammered and shook the window, frantically attempting to find a way in.
A roaring gust of wind rattled my bedroom window, startling me awake.
I lay in the dark panting, soaked in sweat, as the details of my disconcerting dream ebbed away like water spilt on sand, until only the memory of the beautiful golden-haired girl remained.
Before I drifted back to sleep, I resolved to revisit the strange house on my way home tomorrow afternoon. I would introduce myself. By happy coincidence, tomorrow was Halloween, and there was a party at the Allen’s house. I could invite her, we could go together.
* * * * *
That afternoon, I hesitated by the gnarly old oak tree. I prevaricated about returning to the mysterious gothic house; perhaps it was the embarrassment of my first furtive visit, or the unnerving indescribable weirdness I’d felt on waking last night, or perhaps more likely still, the dispiriting possibility that she might decline my invitation.
By now the sun was sinking low in the sky, painting the fluffy clouds gold and making the trees around me gleam. The beauty must have seduced me, inspired me; I started walking, turning left, down the path to where she lived.
Today the mist was thinner, just thin wisps that drifted through the yellow and russet branches like arboreal spirits. So now as I approached, the whole house loomed above me in all its gothic imperiousness. Yesterday the mist had concealed its scale, now I could see it was much larger than I’d thought. I walked through a wide clearing of dead dry leaves, noticing how nothing grew any closer than the surrounding wood. It had no garden, no lawns, no bushes, no walls, not even any hedges or ornamental trees. It was as if the house had just, appeared.
I was a stone’s throw from the house now, and could see a glow radiating from a downstairs window. I ignored it, I intended to introduce myself politely this time, and strode up to the porch, mounting the 3 small wooden steps to reach the door.
The door was archaic and unwelcoming, its huge black beams joined together with giant rusted studs. Above the lintel was an etched ebony plaque, a single word in cursive script:
I didn’t recognise the language, I thought it was the house’s name. How I wish I’d known it was the house’s curse.
I puffed myself up, ready to introduce myself, and lifted and dropped the rusty door-knocker. A deep, dull boom resonated through my bones, like a boulder dropping from the sky.
I waited at the porch apprehensively for someone to answer, expecting at any moment to hear a bolt clunk, or hinges creak.
I glanced at the light coming from the window, it seemed impossible anyone could fail to hear that deafening knock; someone must be home.
A dark thought seeped into my mind. What if, right now, the head of the house was busy? Busy administering a caning to the beautiful girl I’d glimpsed by the fireplace. At this very moment, she could be bending over, the cane tapping against her bare cheeks, being scolded for her naughtiness. It shames me to admit this, but my yearning to surreptitiously witness this gratuitous spectacle overwhelmed my better judgement.
So I stepped down from the porch and walked over to the glowing window. I rose on tiptoes and peered inside – but this time, my prying eyes were foiled. The window had misted over, denying me a view of what lay beyond.
Emboldened by my obsession, I crept around the side of the house, looking for another window. That’s when saw the back door. Yesterday I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying the door of a stranger’s home, but now a strange compulsion had overtaken me, and I felt I’d do almost anything for another glimpse of her.
I pressed down the door latch, as subtly as I could. A faint click. It was unlocked.
I nudged it open, praying that it would not betray me with a creak, opening it just wide enough to squeeze through. Now I was in what seemed to be a small pantry, though its shelves were surprisingly barren, with a few small sacks and empty crates strewn casually on the floor. But my attention was immediately drawn to the orange flickering glow underneath the far door. Firelight.
I tiptoed to the door; it had no keyhole, only a round tarnished brass knob, which meant if I wanted to know what lay beyond, I’d have to open it. Hardly daring to breathe, I twisted the doorknob slowly, pulling the door inward slightly, creating enough of a gap to peep through.
And there she was, beside the fireplace, the cane between her bottom, her nightie hitched just so – everything as I’d glimpsed yesterday. It was as if nothing had changed, it’s funny how that didn’t strike me as odd at the time.
I looked around the room nervously, for any sign of another occupant, but it seemed we were alone. Then – suddenly – her head began to turn towards me, perhaps alerted by the draught I’d introduced to the room. I had only an instant to decide what to do. I did not want her to think I was spying on her nakedness, even though I had been; so I stood tall and strode confidently into the room, determined to present a good first impression.
Her face blanched when she saw me, her eyes widening in shock.
I held my palms up, as if to forestall any screaming, adding by way of explanation, “I’m here to help…”
She opened her mouth slowly, as if remembering how to speak.
“You shouldn’t be here…” she said at last.
At the time I thought she meant I shouldn’t be intruding into her home. But in retrospect, her observation was much more profound.
“Why?” I asked dumbly, only realising how idiotic it sounded coming from an interloper after the word had left my lips. Her reply was disturbingly unexpected.
“I sneaked in here too, once. I’ve never been able to leave.”
I still didn’t understand.
“Then I’m here to rescue you!”, I said nobly, transformed in an instant from pathetic skulking prowler to chivalrous hero. I understood now, I was answering a calling, to liberate this beautiful girl from her nefarious captor.
I reached behind her, plucking the cane from between her cheeks. It was seductively warm, just holding it made me feel strange, a weird authoritative confidence, like I had the power of mastery, the ability to bend the wills of others. I set the cane down carefully on the mantelpiece, with the reverence due an arcane artifact.
I looked into her wide blue eyes, and stretched out my hand, but she remained motionless. So I reached forward to grasp hers, only to flinch as we touched. Not only was her skin startlingly cold, but her hand was surprisingly light; it felt bizarrely insubstantial, like if I squeezed it, my own might pass through it.
Something else was wrong, the room had darkened noticeably. The late afternoon sunlight that had been glimmering through the foggy window had vanished. I’d only been indoors for a few minutes, yet now it was dark outside, the oddly noiseless fire now providing the only source of light.
Motion in the corner of the room caught my eye. An antique grandfather clock, its minute hand moving perceptibly, counting off minutes as if they were seconds.
“Time is wrong here”, she observed flatly, in a tone that made me shiver.
It was clear that this was not a place to linger.
“Let’s go!”, I said, pulling her by the hand towards the door I’d entered.
It only took a couple of strides to cross the pantry to the outside door.
I pushed the latch.
The door opened into utter blackness.
There was no moonlight, no wind, no swaying trees.
And there were no leaves on the ground, because there was no ground at all.
I looked over the doorway threshold into a void, and was struck dizzy by a terrifying vertigo.
A primal fear overwhelmed me, and I knew without knowing that I was standing at the edge of an abyss, a bottomless pit.
I staggered backwards, nauseous, crumpling to my knees. My arms flailed frantically, reaching out to clutch a nearby column beam. I clung to it like someone drowning, as if my life depended on it, desperate for the reassurance of something solid.
“W…w…where are we?” I asked, still shaking.
“We are nowhere.” she answered dully, “In Ginnungagap, the yawning void.”
I had no idea what she meant. But some primal part of me understood; that anything that fell into that abyss would fall and fall and fall forever. If I fell, I would die of thirst or fright after several terrifying days of tumbling through the unending darkness.
Even then, my corpse would continue falling.
Eons would pass, and long after my body had disintegrated into dust, I would still be falling.
I crawled away from the open doorway, and the incomprehensibly frightening inky blackness beyond, back towards the reassuring golden glow of the fireplace. I was still getting to my feet when I noticed someone – something – else in the room with me.
It was all over so quickly.
I only had time for a glimpse.
Just enough time to perceive a black presence, the size of a person.
It looked like a hole in reality, as if a void had opened in the middle of the room.
The edges of the hole flowed, giving it the appearance of a floating black gown.
It had no limbs, no head, no face or teeth.
Just a floating black shape.
It was utterly horrifying.
It hurtled towards me.
I felt myself being enveloped by an oppressive smothering pressure.
Then everything went black.
* * * * *
Sometime later, I was dimly aware of light again.
I was standing by a fireplace.
As my eyes adjusted to the light, I began to scrutinise the grey stone hearth in front of me. Massive ancient granite blocks that looked like they’d been hewn by giants. The fire itself was a towering pile of logs, which burned without roaring or crackling, emitting a unexpectedly feeble heat.
I was freezing cold. I could feel some warmth where I was nearest to the fire, but the heat was weak, like winter sunshine. As sensation slowly returned to my skin I became aware I was only wearing a thin white nightshirt. There was also something between my buttocks; something long, thin, and warm. With horror, I realised it was a cane.
I tried to reach behind me, to throw this violation on the floor in disgust, but my hands remained clasped in front of me. Perhaps the cold had paralysed me, petrifying me like a statue. All I could move were my eyes, scanning across the blocks of the vast fireplace that dominated my vision, watching how small imperfections in the stone cast tiny dancing shadows in the firelight.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her. Just a glimpse, a white blur – but with that unmistakable bonnet of braided golden hair. I strained my eyes to gain a better look, only to experience an excruciating pain, as if I’d strained my eyes trying to stare at the back of my own head. Am I cursed to be frozen here, tantalised and tormented, knowing my obsession is just barely beyond my sight?
* * *
And so I stand and wait, watching the shadows dance. I have had plenty of time to rue my impetuousness, to regret my foolhardy incursion into this infernal place, this trap for the unvirtuous.
Then, just when I think time itself has forgotten me. I hear the grandfather clock behind me chime. Twelve doleful clangs.
I have come to dread the chimes.
When the chimes sound, the Gown appears.
I call it the Gown in an effort to conceal its true horror from my mind.
A faceless, limbless shape, as black as the void beyond, it moves through the room like a stain. When it appears, I can move again. I can look across the fireplace and see the golden-haired girl standing on the other side, her eyes wide with fear.
I can also look around the room, but I do all I can to avoid it. At a glance, my prison appears to be an old-fashioned drawing room, picturesque and homey, elegant furniture, brass fittings, bookcases and ornaments. Yet if I let my eyes linger, the room’s disgusting decrepitude is revealed; I witness the passing of a thousand years in a single glimpse. Hideous black spiders shroud the walls in web. Furnishings tarnish, rust and rot, decaying before my eyes into a foul morass of mold, insects and sawdust. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, the repugnant scene always forces me to recoil in disgust.
So I stare straight ahead, just waiting for my turn.
I hear the voice in my head, not my ears. Sometimes it sounds like a loud authoritative man, other times a sensual domineering woman. Every time it makes me feel like a recalcitrant teen, deserving of discipline for all my past vices.
I obey without question, shuffling into the middle of the room and bending over. I feel the cane being taken from my cheeks, and being tapped against my rear. I look back through my legs to see the cane floating in the air, orchestrated by the limbless Gown. Then the whacking starts. Each stroke is an excruciating fiery lash, making me want to cry out in agony. But cruelly, when I attempt to yell in pain I hear myself exclaiming encouragement instead: “More!” or “Harder!”, “Again, please!”. My infernal disciplinarian is only too willing to oblige.
Eventually, I am sent back to stand beside the fireplace in shame, my bottom streaked with burning, searing marks. But the pain soon fades, and I feel the heat of each fiery whack spreading through my chilled body, warming me in a way the weak firelight never does.
Then it’s her turn. As she bends over, our eyes meet; but just a glimpse. She gaves me the same look every time, I wonder what she is trying to say. I’m sorry for luring you here? We’ll get out of this? Thanks for trying to rescue me? Or, you stupid fool, you’ve damned us both?
The cane dances in the air behind her, swishing and whacking, making her back arch and her knees tremble. I see her delight in the warmth of her discipline, she prances, rising on her toes, stretching her calves, spreading her legs, exulting in each painful stroke, as she enjoys the only sensation she can still feel.
I had always wanted to see her being caned.
Now I’m damned to watch; every night for the rest of eternity.
* * *
Time is indeed wrong here. I’ve been here so long, yet my appearance hasn’t changed, my hair and fingernails do not grow, my skin is still unwrinkled and youthful. I sometimes feel my own pulse throb faintly in my throat, but I’m no longer certain if I’m alive or dead.
We exist in a limbo of perpetual night. The only evidence of time the grandfather clock’s hands circling inexorably towards midnight, and the dull chimes that herald the appearance of our tormentor.
Then, when all hope seems lost, daylight miraculously seeps through the window behind us, illuminating a square on the stones before our eyes. Only then can I hear the outside world again, the wind rustling nearby trees, the short faint chirps of sparrows, and sometimes even the shouts of distant voices. I long to call out to them, to run from this wretched house, but I remain petrified, frozen, cruelly tantalised by a freedom I can never reach.
I’ve begun to notice the sunlight always has the same golden glow, as if we reappear in the world at the same time of year, just before Halloween, when they say the barriers between realities are at their thinnest. Then, all too soon, we vanish back into the eternal night of the void.
Sometimes I swear I can hear distant cries. I wonder how many others have been enticed and entrapped here, held captive in the myriad rooms of this infernal place.
And so here I stand, by the fireplace, trying to keep my heart from freezing, hoping against hope for salvation. Perhaps my pleas will echo in a stranger’s dreams, a saviour more virtuous than I. Someone who’ll stumble across this eldritch place one Halloween, and who’ll think to free us from our curse, rather than spy on our nakedness.
Until then I will be punished, in a house, all alone, in the dark.