THE SMELL stirred a memory, long forgotten, in Jack Macalister’s mind. A moment pushed into the recess of the unconscious mind, yet it brought a taste to his mouth.
The taste of fear.
He felt tired as he stepped through the door of his childhood home. Three days ago he received the news, that his father had died.
Nothing had changed since he was last there, fifteen years ago. The thatched roof needed a new layer of reeds. Smoke from the open fire still filled the kitchen.
Mourners made a passage for him as he entered the house, except for an old woman dressed in black. She stepped forward, blocking his way.
Pulling the mourning shawl away from her face she looked up at him, giving a toothless smile. “I’m sorry ye have to come on such a sad day, Jack. He’s laid out in the parlour.”
He nodded his thanks and walked into the room she called the parlour. The dark shiny coffin sat on a table in the middle of the room. Beside it, stood a black suited man, holding the lid. Without a glance at Jack he started to cry out in a sing song voice.
“Come all ye gathered! Come and have a last look at the remains of Kevin Macalister. Say a prayer for his soul. So that he may have a safe journey to heaven. Come! Come! before I nail down the coffin lid!”
Two women in the corner started to wail, tears rolling down their cheeks. People forced their way into the small room, pushing Jack closer to his father’s coffin.
“Wait! Mister Undertaker, wait!”
The old woman was suddenly standing beside Jack.
“Hold for a while, Mr Undertaker. This is Jack, his only son, who has travelled a long way for this funeral. Give him five minutes with his beloved father!”
Silently, the crowd left the room, leaving Jack with the pale body of his father in the coffin.
As he looked down, the smell invaded his mouth and mind, unlocking a memory from the subconscious of his brain.
He looked down, not at his father but, at his mother.
He is six years old.
His father is holding him in his arms. They are looking down at his mother’s body, lying in a coffin. She is still and cold – so cold.
His father is whispering to him, ‘Say goodbye to your mother Jack, she’s going to heaven.’ Say goodbye son.’
The smell. What is the smell? It’s on the coffin. It’s in the kitchen. It is in his nose. The smell is everywhere.
They bring the bucket into the room and start to daub it around the edge of the coffin. Thick, smooth, black tar.
Then he saw it. He screamed at his father. He tried to tell him.
Her eyes. They opened. Jack saw her fear as they lowered the lid on the coffin.
Over and over he told his father, she moved Dada, she moved!
No son, he said, she didn’t move.
Why dada, he asked, why are they sealing mama in with tar?
His father cried into his son’s small shoulder. You’re too young to understand son, he said, but for all our sakes they have to seal her in. We have to be sure.
For months, his mothers’ eyes haunted him, then slowly faded as other things came into his life.
His father’s face came into focus but the smell remained. He swallowed, trying to keep the bile from rising.
Two old penny’s held the eyes shut. Jack wanted to remove them, but the thought of touching his fathers cold, pale skin made him shudder.
“Come and say a prayer, and bring the tar!” The undertaker’s voice rang through the house.
Jack closed his eyes as the lid was placed on the coffin. His nerves jangled at the sound of the screws being twisted down. He opened his eyes and saw two men enter carrying a large pot. Smoke billowed out, filling every corner of the room
Tears rolled down his cheeks. He wasn’t sure if it was from sorrow or the smell that assaulted his lungs.
“Right lads, put it on nice and thick.”
With one man on each side of the coffin they started to trowel on the thick black tar along the crack where the lid joined the bottom.
Mute, Jack forced his way through the mourners, his stomach heaving. Outside, he gulped a lung-full of fresh air. He sat down on the low stone wall at the front of the house. He put his head in his hands and wept.
“Ah, Jack. Ye don’t understand, do ye!” The old woman patted his shoulder.
He shook his head. “No, I don’t. They did the same thing to my mother. Why put tar on a coffin? The person inside is dead, they can’t come out!”
The old woman sighed. “We just want to make sure, Jack.”
He made to stand up but the old woman put a restraining hand on his arm. Her frail body belied her strength.
“Sit down Jack, and hear me out. Have ye ever heard of a ‘Madra Allta’?”
Jack searched his childhood memory. Her hand could not stop him this time. He stood up and faced her. “Madra Allta….Wolf? What has a wolf got to do with my mother and father?”
The old woman sighed, and pulled at his sleeve.
“Sit down will ye, my old neck can’t take the looking up at ye and ye so tall!”
He sat down not sure he wanted to hear what the woman had to say.
She gazed to the distance hills.
“Now,” she said, taking a tight hold of his arm, Don’t interrupt me ’till I’ve finished. As ye know, we have no wolves in this country. Yer father married a woman from another country and brought her back here. A year before ye were born strange things began to happen.”
“What are you saying. That my mother was some sort of a wolf!?”
“Let me finish! Then make up yer own mind. Now where was I? Ah yes. Strange things started to happen around the farms. Something never heard in these parts before. On a full moon, the howling of a ‘mactire’. A wolf. In the lambing season, everybody keeps their dogs on a rope – Manning, who owns the farm on the other side of the hill saw it.
“He said it was the biggest thing he had ever seen, covered in long matted hair. He lost seven lambs that night. Then, came the summer, it disappeared, leaving no trace. The next winter, it returned, only this time it got more bold. It came into the village attacking other dogs. The men set up search party’s but they always lost it. Some said it was an Irish wolf hound gone wild, but no one has a dog like that for sixty miles in any direction.”
Jack stood up and took off his coat sweat was starting to run down his neck.
“Woman! You’re full of old stories! The next thing you’re going to tell me is that it was a werewolf! I never heard of them when I was a child.”
The old woman covered her eyes.
“Sit down Jack, I can’t see ye, the sun is in my eyes. Hear me out, just hear me out. Then ye might understand why ye never heard of the wolf,” she continued, “The next year, two babies were taken from their beds and disappeared without trace. People were afraid to go out at night but, that didn’t stop the killing. It seemed this wolf had some sort of power to be able to get into houses without been seen!
“One morning, Manning came across a terrible sight. He found Josephs, his neighbour, dead on the side of the road. His throat had been ripped out, the head nearly severed from the body! Not wanting to be next, the people decided to do something about it.
“They brought a few bloodhounds from the next village and on the night of the full moon they circled the village. Making sure they were in sight of each other, they waited. Ye must have been about five then.”
“Six,” Jack suddenly felt cold.
The old woman’s hand gripped hard on his bare arm, the nails digging into his flesh as she continued her story.
“Then the cry went up! Someone had seen it. The chase was on. The dogs were useless, they refused to follow the wolf. So it was left to the townsfolk. Across the fields they went, into the woods, drawing the circle tighter. Finally, they cornered it in the yard of the farm house. This house. They knew it couldn’t get away, so, they closed in, guns at the ready. But it was gone! Nowhere could it be found.”
Jack sat shaking his head.
“Fearing the worst, they hammered on yer fathers door, until he opened it. He stood there in his nightshirt and yer mother behind him. Then they saw it, blood on yer mothers mouth! Red as the sunset, all along her bottom lip. She said she cut her lip when the lid of the pot slipped from her hand and she tried to save it. She said it flew up and hit her in the mouth. They had to believe her. So they decided to lay a trap. The next full moon, they surrounded the house and waited.”
Entranced, Jack listened. “What happened?”
“There was no wolf wandering the countryside.”
Because it was trapped inside the house, yer fathers house. That proved it, even to yer father.”
“Are you telling me, “Jack stood up, shaking in anger, “that you condemned my mother just because a supposedly mad wolf didn’t bother going out on the night of a full moon! My God! What did you do?”
The old woman shaded her eyes, not looking up at him.
“They knew a silver bullet would kill a werewolf, but, who around here could afford to buy one? ”
Jack grabbed the woman by the shawl.
“You keep saying they. Where were you all this time?”
“Sadly, Jack, I was here. We did what we had to do. They could not afford any bullets so, they poisoned her.”
Jack reeled back, he felt faint. The ground heaved under his feet.
Once more, he was six years old, in his fathers’ arms looking down at his mother.
He knew he had missed something. It wasn’t the smell of the tar that made him sick. It was the garlic.
Strewn around his mother’s body were cloves of garlic. Leaf upon green leaf, twisted into a rope tied around her hands, and joined to another around her neck.
That was the stench that made him sick.
“My mother was still alive when you closed the lid! I saw her eyes move. You buried her alive!”
“Ah…Jack, we can’t be sure of that. If she was still alive, no air would have got in after the tar sealed the coffin.”
“Sit down, Jack. If yer mother was, and I say if, she was still alive when the coffin was sealed, it would have been over very quickly.”
As he sat down, Jack put his head between his knee’s.
“I’m going to the police…I’ll have the lot of you charged with murder!”
“Jack…it happened thirty years ago! Anyway, everyone from around here was involved – Everyone.”
Tears clouded his eyes as he looked at the old woman.
“My God! Everyone? My father? Is my father. . .?”
“No, no, yer father died of a heart attack, but we have to be sure. We don’t know if he was infected.”
The mourners slowly filed out of the house and walked past Jack. No one spoke to him.
“Come, Jack, there’s plenty of food on the table for you. The undertaker will come for your father in the morning.”
The only evidence left of the tar was the ring of black where the lid joined the base of the coffin.
“I’m going now, Jack, be sure to eat something.”
As she was about to walk out the door, he stopped her.
“Old woman, what about me….When I die?”
She patted him on the arm.
“Ah! lad, that’s not going to be our worry. After tomorrow ye’ll be gone from here. I’ll see ye in the morning.”
Jack sat staring at his father’s coffin. His mind in a turmoil, the only sound was the crackle from the dying fire.
The long shadows from the evening sky turned the silent, dark coffin even darker.
He roused himself and made his way to the kitchen. He sat down and started to eat.
Hunger overtook his grief.
When he finished he moved away from the table. Jack sat and stared at the embers of the fire that glowed in the dark kitchen.
Suddenly, he became aware of another light. A light from the parlour. His body had become numb. He jumped at the screeching sound that came from the other room. He found strength in his legs to stagger over to the door.
He stared in disbelief at the state of the room.
The candles were alight, standing on the table where the coffin had been. His father’s body lay on the floor like a broken doll, the shiny black coffin shattered.
He saw a dark shadow in the of the corner of the room,
“Who’s there, who has defiled my father’s body?”
The shadow snarled. It moved along the wall toward Jack. The candle’s threw a thin light across the table leaving the rest of the room in darkness.
Jack held onto the door frame as he felt his knee’s grow weaker.
The voice came in short bursts, like a dog panting.
“Ye. . feeling . . a. bit tired…Jack?”
It reminded Jack of someone trying to clear their throat of phlegm.
“Who are. . .!”
His words died as the shadow moved toward the table. Hands slid into the circle of light. They were covered in hair and the long nails screeched across the timber – reaching for him. Slowly it came out of the shadows
Bare canine teeth dripped saliva onto the hairy arms. Its elongated ears lay flat against the long narrow head.
The eyes – terrified Jack. Glowing yellow, they stared at Jack with a mixture of hunger and hatred.
He felt his fingers go numb as he slowly slid to the floor. In a panic he tried to drag his body across the floor to the front door.
Something hit him on the back, he stopped, winded.
Wolves can’t get past garlic! Jacks hopes lifted
As if reading his mind, a snarl came from behind him.
“There – Was – No, garlic in yer Father’s coffin Jack. Garlic is just myth so it won’t stop me”
Two feet appeared in front of him.
He recognised the broken shoes.
Jack moaned in horror and disbelief.
One foot tucked under his shoulder and turned him over, he was too weak to resist.
The face was changing back. The teeth had disappeared behind the gums. The hands were normal.
“Old woman, what have you done to me, I can’t move!”
“Ah! The poison works well Jack. It did the same for yer mother. Soon, ye won’t be able to move or speak but ye’ll still hear me!”
The old woman did a little jig around him.
“Why did you do it?” Jack’s tongue felt sluggish in his mouth.
She howled as she sat at the table in full view of Jack.
“See Jack, when I was young, I could travel a long way from here in search of blood, but even a wolf’s bones get old. So when yer father brought a strange woman into the village, I knew I could work closer to home.”
Through heavy eyelids Jack could see the old woman stretch her neck and head toward the ceiling.
A long grating howl filled the house.
“I had my fill of blood, first on small animals but, that was not enough, I had to have more. It had to be human. At the same time I started the whisper about yer mother.
“I led them here on that night. No one bothered to ask an old woman how she got here before them. After they buried yer mother, I dug her up. She was alive for a week after that! I had a feast! Ye will give me a feast too, Jack.”
Jack tried to scream but nothing came from his paralysed throat.
The only sound in the house was the snuffling of a wolf.
“If yer thinking the tar will stop me, Jack, it won’t. Tar becomes brittle when dirt is mixed through it! I mix the tar, Jack…I mix the tar!”
The yellow eyes studied him for a while.
“I know ye have a lot of questions ye’d like to ask me but ye can’t can ye! When the people come tomorrow it will look like yer father came back to life and ye had a fight. Two wolves killing each other!
“I’ll come fer ye on the night they bury ye. Oh! Ye’ll be alive, and I’ll be waiting. The poison slows down yer breathing but, ye’ll be alive waiting fer me, Jack!”
He wanted to be sick but could not feel his stomach.
He wanted to scream but could not find his voice.
He wanted to lift his hands but they were dead.
He could hear, and what he heard sent him mad.
Before he blacked out, Jack saw through closing eyelids, the old woman coming toward him, dripping fangs bared.
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© John W. Kelly