Creatures - Short Story 10 - The House of the Scolopendra by Nicola Lombardi

Translated from Italian by J. Weintraub

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Marco knew that there should have been ten little candles on the apple tart, but like every year he found only one, and he wasn’t surprised by it.

On that occasion, Mama always used the same one. She stuck it into its center as soon as the pastry was out of the oven, waited for him to make a wish and blow it out with a single breath, and then she put it back in the cupboard where she would find it for the next year. And Marco followed the script obediently. Thankful and smiling, he brought two fingers to his forehead and closed his eyes, finally blowing on the small flame and releasing from the wick a grey thread that foundered in the half-light of the afternoon.

For a few moments, the small, shadowy parlor was filled with the pungent aroma of the smoke, quickly diluted by the warm fragrance of the tart and the ever-present moldy scent seeping from the wood of the walls.

Marco raised his eyes to his mama, and despite everything found her beautiful. With each passing year she was always a little thinner, always more listless, like her eyes, sunk in the paleness of a face that struggled to capture the glimmer of a smile and reflect it back in turn. Marco could have thought of it as an appreciable gesture, if only he had known the meaning of the word. Come on, Mama, smile back at me, he thought. The quivering upturn of the woman’s mouth was the best he managed to get in reply to that silent appeal, and it had to be enough. Like that single blue candle that always seemed the same while losing a few millimeters each time it appeared before him.

“Do you want to tell me what you wished for?” Mama asked. She asked him that on every birthday, despite knowing that Marco would not tell her. Even that was part of the tradition. She knew quite well what her son wanted. And it wasn’t one single desire, but a jumble of dreams and hopes that year after year were knotted, fused, wedged together inside his young head to form an entangled clump. A clump from which one face ultimately emerged, the face of his father, a father Marco had never known, but whose face he had triedfantasizing from his own reflection thousands of times in the mirrorto imagine growing older.

“Will Papa come back someday?” a question he was by now tired of asking his mother. The answer was always the same, “I don’t know, my love.” And if not even Mama knew, then it meant he probably wouldn’t ever be returning. Even if at times he found himself suspecting that he might somehow still be... Instantly, he drove away that troubling thought, which, after all, was only little more than an itching in a small corner of his brain. Pure nonsense.

In any case, there were so many things in his life he would have wished to change. Of course, he would have liked to be able to go out now and then, get somewhere away from there, or be able to invite friends over—friends he didn’t have—to play with him in that always too dark great house, far from the rest of an unknown world, lost in a countryside that Marco could almost no longer bear to look at from the window of his room.

And then, naturally, they were there. The scolopendra, the giant centipedes.

One of them was right there on the table, at that very moment. It was moving with supple agility, scurrying right next to the plate of pastry. Marco watched his mother, now intertwining her hands and returning his gaze with the most affectionate expression she could manage. One of the scolopendra was in her hair. It was creeping beneath some strands, making them undulate as if being moved by some nonexistent breath of air. With its cluster of tiny, spindly legs, it vanished swiftly, and the woman casually readjusted her stringy hair.


***

Marco would have very much liked them to go away, every last one of them, to stop crawling about everywhere, nesting in every nook and slithering in the middle of every cranny, rustling about when the silence of the house was at its deepest and most impenetrable. Years before, he had fooled himself into thinking he could actually count them and manage to distinguish one from the other. But he had realized very soon that such an idea was really stupid.

He had never liked them, although not because they did him any harm. They had never done anything like that to him. But there were so many. At times he felt impelled to think that the house belonged to them, and that he and his mother were only two guests, simply tolerated. But certain things he could not say to Mama. She did not want him to say anything bad about them. And once when Marco had cut one of them in half with a knife, just from curiosity to find out how it would react, to observe the two parts twisting and turning as if they were two distinct and separate creatures, his mother had begun to cry and then had run off to shut herself in her bedroom. He heard her muttering by herself. Praying, perhaps. In any case, when she came out, she again seemed calm to him, but it was only on the surface, since she approached him without saying a word and slapped him across the cheek. Then it was his turn to cry. From that day on, naturally, he had always avoided killing them (or at least in front of her).

Clearly, there were occasions when it actually proved impossible not to crush them. In bed, turning around in sleep, for example. When in the morning he found some of them on the sheets or on the pillow, reduced practically to a pulp, but at times still quivering, he got rid of them by scraping them off and letting them fall between the cracks of the floorboards. It was unlikely his mother was never aware of it, though. When she was washing sheets and pillowcases, she could not help but notice the faded brownish stains sometimes left on the fabric by the small shattered bodies. Marco imagined that she would understand in such cases, also because it was very probable that it happened to her, too.

For as far as his memory could take him back in time, these small animals were always a permanent presence in that house and therefore in his life. The need to coexist had implanted a variety of habitual behaviors on the part of both sides; and so, it was a very rare thing for the scolopendra to wander across the floor, at least when Marco or his mother were moving about from one room to the next. The result was that they could walk almost completely at ease, without having to watch over each step in fear of feeling underfoot a repulsive, clammy crunch. Marco by now was neither surprised nor frightened anymore when at the edges of his visual range the walls were animated by spindly, sinuous blurs or when the brightness of the lights dimmed or were swarming with shadows if the creatures dropped from the ceiling or purposely slipped inside lampshades or fixtures.

He still struggled a little, it’s true, to repress a shudder of repulsion when the rapid and unexpected scratching of their little claws crossed over the back of a hand, or worse yet climbed up along his calf. In those cases, after having made sure Mama was not nearby, he dealt several sharp taps to the pants on his leg, and then it could result in the scolopendra getting out in a hurry, to quickly vanish over a baseboard or beneath a cabinet, or else falling down motionless, perhaps not entirely in one piece, on top of a shoe.

At times he envied Mama, who didn’t seem to feel the least discomfort. She let them scamper over her when she was relaxing in an armchair, reading a book. And it didn’t matter to her if they climbed up an arm or onto her neck or along a cheek. Often, they even paused over the open pages—resembling the swollen lines of an alien script—but it didn’t bother her. It took only a slight jolt to the back of the book and they were on their way off with their usual wavering gait.

Moreover, as much as the creatures were by their nature completely independent in their ability to subsist and survive, Mama seemed to draw satisfaction from sometimes feeding them with her own hands. Here and there curly strips of grimy flypaper were hanging from the house’s ceilings. Once they became saturated with captured insects, Mama carefully detached them, and with precision and a pair of tweezers stripped off flies, gnats, small moths, placing them in a squat, transparent jar, the kind used in preparing conserves and jams. And then, afterwards, she liked very much to sit on the edge of the couch, the jar held on her lap, and to call the scolopendra with a sort of dull and repetitious whistling. After a short pause, they began to swarm about, as if coming from nowhere, materializing from out of every shadowy puddle that seemed to fragment into a thousand little agitated bodies (and when there were so many of them, they all together produced that very same irregular droning simulated to attract them).

Mama, at that point, plunged her hand into the jar, and, in small doses, dispersed sprinklings of dead insects along the floor. During those times, Marco stood aside transfixed, keeping quiet as he watched the scene. Invariably, he recalled the illustration seen in an old book of children’s stories, where a peasant, from an apron gathered up like a sack, was scattering kernels of corn for the poultry. In the picture, hens and their chicks seemed to be bursting with excitement, fluttering and hopping about every which away among clouds of dust and feathers. The scolopendra, too, must have found that downpour of food to be exhilarating, and they could be seen twisting and slithering one on top of the other in a frenzy of legs, articulated backs, tiny jaws. Even Mama, while she was carrying out that curious service, considered it intently, almost with fascination. And when the supply from the jar ran out, and the creatures had consumed the very last of their rations, she then rose slowly to her feet, and that was the signal for the scolopendra. Within a few seconds, all of them vanished, fully satisfied and probably grateful (or, at least, that was what Marco assumed).

The fact is, if it had not been for the noises that were often heard at night, coming from the deepest and most obscure corners—those noises that awakened him with a start and drove his heart to clog his throat—Marco would not have been able to say, in all honesty, that life in that house was actually bad. Certainly, he missed so many things, things he had only read about in the illustrated books whose weight curved several of the long shelves in the little parlor: playing with other kids like him, taking hikes outdoors, running around in the fields, household pets (he once had a puppy, Toby, some time before, but one day, all of a sudden, it had vanished, and Mama had told him, although without explaining the reason for it, that it was best not keep any more cats or dogs in that house).

Of course, he also understood that his own state of health would not permit him to do everything he would have liked. Mama had repeated that so many times to him that by now the idea was rooted in his head like the moss on tree trunk, so much so that it no longer weighed on his mind. He only knew that if he went out he would surely be running up against unpleasant—if unspecified—consequences, at least according to Mama. And he had absolute trust in her. When she left him alone to go into town to earn, by ironing or doing the cleaning in private homes, what little was enough for them to get by, he never even dreamed about poking his nose outside the front door. “Don’t go out. Never. For any reason.” So she had told him and told him over and over again, and so many times were enough for him. Also, because she had once added to that peremptory caution, “If you do, they’ll tell me.” Marco still remembered how those words scared him almost half-to-death. He was clearly much smaller then, and the idea that they could actually act as spies for his mother was a chilling thought.

In fact, he still didn’t know what to think about it. The fact that the scolopendra could “tell” something to Mama seemed rather bizarre to him, and even if the opposite were bound to be true, he had heard her, on several occasions, speaking in her room. He never wanted to eavesdrop, yet he could not help but hear. She was speaking to the scolopendra, probably. After all, there was no one there but them. She was using a soft tone, lethargic, and only a few words or small, broken phrases emerged clearly from that subdued chatter. One of these was “love.” But there was also “solitude,” and “for a little while longer…” It happened especially at night when the noises resonated within the silent recesses of the house.

The noises, right...

But it was not only a matter of noises. No, it was not only them.

There was the shadow—low, swollen, agile, and yet heavy, that more than one time Marco had seen out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t know what it was, and he asked his mother if she also had ever seen it. Mama had firmly denied it and she made it clear to him, in any case, that she did not care very much for the topic. Marco did not persist, especially since she seemed so disheartened on her own account for the thousands of obscure reasons only an adult can know, and it didn’t seem right to him to burden her with additional concerns. But...

There was something in that house, surely. An animal, perhaps. He gathered that from the fact that the shape he glimpsed was low and he had spotted, not infrequently but just barely, the flicker of a tail, black and pointed. It was living there with them, and even if Marco had never actually seen it, he often sensed its presence. Behind a wall, at the bottom of the stairs that led into the cellar, or other times in the attic, where he imagined it nesting behind trunks and piles of junk. He heard it moving around (there it was, at night, shifting about, making those noises), dragging itself over the floorboards, bumping against chairs in its path, pushing doors that strained against hinges whose creaking ran like needle points along exposed nerves.

Sometimes, in the morning, at the breakfast table with his mother, Marco had tried to test the waters, asking, “Mama, were you walking around the house last night?” Her reply was invariably in the affirmative. Mama was thirsty, Mama was hungry, or she had to go to the bathroom, or she couldn’t fall asleep. The same answers to the same questions. That’s the way things were in that house. Always.


***

Mama helped him cut a pair of slices from the tart. Then she placed them on two small plates, and together they began to nibble on them using small forks that had been a little blackened. Marco forced himself to smile as he chewed.

Poor Mama, he found himself thinking, all of a sudden realizing how much such a thought made him feel older. Feeling sorry for your own mother was not stuff for kids. Perhaps having reached the first decade of his life had actually changed him. Maybe only a little, but just enough to enable him to begin thinking in new ways. To be able to make his own decisions, perhaps.

I want to know, he thought, looking at the thin woman sitting in front of him. I want to find out, I want to help you, I want to change. But no, there was still too much confusion inside his head. Just then, ten, twelve scolopendra were wandering about on top of the table. It seemed they didn’t know where to go, and yet they must have instinctively been following some precise path. Marco thought about skewering one with his little fork and popping it into his mouth. Who knew if in that way—eating one of them!—he would have been able to gain that clarity, that light, which he still lacked. He smiled at that fancy, and Mama returned it, for no apparent reason.

Ten years. Yes, it was time to do something.

And swallowing with some difficulty a mouthful of warm apple, he promised himself that something would be done. Anything, just to turn the page. It wasn’t pleasant still to feel the weight and stale odor of his everyday life. Not at his age. If he heard those noises at night again, he would no longer tuck himself inside his sheets like a cocoon, pretending not to hear. And if there were something to discover, he would do it. Without any further delay.

He would not have long to wait, since within a few hours, night for him fell.


***

Once alone, in the silence and dim obscurity of his small bedroom, he lay with wide-open eyes riveted to the darkness that hung over him. The usual rustling, everywhere. Always them, of course. But didn’t they ever sleep? Surely they did, but never all together. That was the secret of their incessant swarming, their eternal running, crawling, creeping…

Nor did he want to sleep. It had been an intense day, if only from the chaos that the fact of having completed ten years had ignited in his brain. And the shadowy darkness, like a blanket of scolopendra, was cradling him in its warm, comforting embrace. I must not fall asleep. The room was rolling on a pivot with the same unrelenting cadence of a clock’s minute hand. I have to wait. A slight rustling on his pillow. He knew he had some of them next to his head, and he was quite determined not to move. He did not want to crush them. Stay if you like. I just have to wait. To wait…

When the door of his room began to open slowly, allowing a whitish beam of moonlight—that a small window free of curtains invited inside to fade and die along the corridor—to filter into the room, Marco bit down on his lip. He had not heard it approaching. It had been cunning, or perhaps just considerate. Without taking his eyes from the shadowy cove where the ceiling rafters were hiding, he listened with a feverish intensity. Something was coming inside. It wasn’t Mama. She had already gone to sleep some time ago, and he would have easily recognized the sound of her door if she had opened it. Something was approaching his bed, advancing on all fours. In any other circumstance, the idea would have chilled him to the bone. But at that moment it seemed just a curiosity to him, to think about at a later time, with a clearer mind. And when the glow that delineated the edge of the half-opened door was obscured by a black shape rising from the floor, getting up on its feet, only then did he choose to close his eyes. He had the impression, however, from the moment he continued to see the same things that had been floating about in his field of vision just seconds before, that his eyelids had become transparent. It’s you, he thought. And he felt his own smile being moistened with tears. A figure, that of a man, who was bending over him, who was placing a gentle kiss on his forehead. You’ve come back…

He wanted to raise his arms, but the sheet and blanket prevented him from moving. He wanted to embrace that shadow, hold it close to him, but he wasn’t able to do it. He knew that if he hesitated even a little, it would go away, silently, leaving him alone again. He tried to speak, but it was as if he had a stone embedded in the middle of his throat. The figure turned to get up, eluding the embrace Marco could not manage. Then a strange noise was heard, something like the sudden collapse of a statue made of wet sand. And the towering shadow by the side of his bed completely lost any sense of human form, instantly fragmenting into hundreds of scolopendra that poured, squealing, all over Marco’s immobilized body.

His mouth gaping, he abruptly inhaled a breath of fresh air and the night, filling his lungs with both while he turned to open his eyes wide into the semidarkness of the room as he freed himself from the blanket with an instinctive shake of his arm. Drawing himself up to sit on the bed, he brought the palms of his hands to his heart, as if to prevent it from breaking through his ribs and leaping from his chest. By then he should have become accustomed to the nightmare, and yet…

And when his blood ceased unleashing rhythmic and reverberating pulses behind his temples, there they were again, carving out a space in his consciousness. The noises.

The thing must have come out from its lair, from its hiding place, wherever it was, and within the silent darkness that took possession of the house, it was moving about. In which case, Marco would do the same.

Despite the frightful pit of dream into which he had tumbled and from which he had just emerged, he knew he could not change his mind. He would not back down. He had already done that, so many times in the past, but now he was ready—because by now, from the summit of his ten years, he was convinced that he could no longer continue living without knowing.

He got out of bed, feet bare, and, trying to contain his breathing and with the utmost care to avoid raising any alarms, he opened the door and stretched his head outside. Faint yet dark particles were scurrying along the yellowish ochre walls.

The noises were coming from the room at the end of the hallway, his mother’s room. He stood there motionless, wondering why that realization did not surprise him at all. Perhaps because he had always suspected it.

On tiptoe, he set out down the hallway, accompanied by the thousand whisperings of invisible scolopendra. He reached the door where, on the other side, something was stirring. He lay his forehead against the wood, restraining behind clenched teeth the courage to do what he could not avoid.

Coming from the other side, like little rubber hammers beating against the floorboards, were muffled blows striking the ground. Creaking, a scraping rustling, a dull, gurgling wheezing could also be heard, and barely perceptible beneath that unpleasant carpet of sound, a very human moaning filtered through at intervals, along with hurried and fragmented whisperings.

There were no keys in that house. No door was ever truly locked. His small hand on the handle, he pressed it downwards, and, with halted breath, he pushed the door and looked inside.

He knew it. In his heart he had always known it. And even so, a fear so great it could not be confined within the narrow limits of his consciousness, offered him the experience of bursting and fragmenting into the nothingness of a universe made only of darkness.

He didn’t understand what he was looking at right away. Flooded by an ashen iridescence filtering in from a skylight, a dark but shiny body was stretched out, face down, on his mama’s bed. It wasn’t a human body. In its fluid, rhythmic motion, it was throwing off brown and violet flashes from its scaly back. An intangible number of pointed, flexible legs were composing, with their fluttering, an undulating, almost hypnotic pattern. But only one half of that unnatural body, the front part, was lying on top of the mattress, while the rest was flowing over the foot of the bed and pattering on the floorboards with its clammy lower appendages.\

The wooden frame of the bed and its springs creaked under its weight, and merging with those noises was a low grating rasp spurting out from the pincer-like jaws of that impossible being. Marco watched with bulging eyes, filling them to the brim with that sight. Never, never would he have imagined that one as large as that could ever exist. But while his brain was stuck trying to deal with the unacceptable, what his mind really opened to was the first thing Marco had actually seen, there right before him, as he looked into the room, although, instinctively, he had put off interpreting it. Even before accepting in and of itself the irrefutable truth of that creature’s existence, with his very own eyes he had seen Mama.

There she was in the bed, too, on her back. Marco could only see one of her arms and a bare calf emerging from the tangle of those legs that were rubbing up against her, stroking her, caressing her; and also her head, lying on the pillow. The woman’s ecstatic expression seemed in total conflict with the presence of that monster who weighed down on her like a nightmare come to life. A prolonged, modulated moaning was filtering through her thin, parted lips. And perhaps that sound was worse, more unbearable, than those hoarse cries coming from the creature.

Marco was unaware of the choked sobbing that erupted from his throat. In response to that inadvertent display of anguish, his mother, with a painful slowness, turned her head towards him and opened her eyes. The two remained staring at one another. An inscrutable expression was cast across the woman’s face, as if she were looking inside an endless tunnel and saw nothing there except darkness. But her eyes were clouded by the tears she was struggling to hold back.

Marco felt enwrapped by a bitter chill that was now gushing forth from his heart. At its edges his visual range began to contract, choking around that image that surpassed all bounds of reason and madness. Deprived now of any mental anchorage, free to float adrift on an ocean swarming with the shadows surrounding him, he closed the door slowly and, exhausted and emptied, he returned to his room, hoping he could lose himself in the ultimate solace of sleep.


***

He was standing in front of the full-length mirror hanging between his bed and wardrobe when his mother entered.

The morning was pouring through the window in a cloud of pale and dusty light that cloaked everything in a drapery that was cold and vaguely mournful.

Without turning around, Marco stood transfixed, gazing at the woman’s reflection. Quietly, she approached him, and reaching from behind, as if moving in a dream, she encircled him in a loose embrace. The two of them looked each other over for several long moments, making of the mirror a neutral ground to avoid a direct meeting of both eyes and souls.

Finally, Mama spoke.

“You’ve grown up, my love. I’m very sorry about it, but that’s what’s meant to be.”

Marco, his heart pounding, turned his attention away from his mother’s pale face and turned to stare at his own, his enormous eyes, watery, completely black. His head was crammed full of questions, but he would not give voice to a single one of them. Not anymore.

He raised his hands and tenderly entwined his long fingers—too thin, too dark—with those of Mama.

“You really have your father’s eyes…” she murmured gently into the mirror.

And Marco did not know whether to feel proud or to begin screaming.


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Copyright Nicola Lombardi 2019

A member of the Horror Writers Association, Nicola Lombardi has published the novels Gypsy Spiders (2010), The Black Mother (2013), and The Tank (2015) as well as six collections of stories since 1989. In addition, he has published novelizations from the films of Dario Argento (Profondo Rosso and Suspiria) and translated F.B. Long’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft, Dreamer on the Night Side, for the Italian market. Several of his stories have appeared in English, including in the anthologies The Beauty of Death: I & II. A full bibliography can be found on his website at www.nicolalombardi.com.

Nicola is a repeat author with Tell-Tale Press. His work is also available in the Horror Library.

J. Weintraub, translator of Mr. Lombardi’s story “The House of the Scolopendra”, has published fiction, essays, translations, and poetry in all sorts of literary places. A member of the Dramatists Guild, he has had plays produced throughout the world, and his annotated translation of Eugène Briffault’s Paris à table: 1846 was published in 2018 by Oxford UP. More at: jweintraub.weebly.com.

J. Weintraub is also an author with Tell-Tale Press. His work is available in the Horror Library.

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