Sunday Archive: The Siege at Eldritch House
The house was located deep in the woods, a rich man’s playground hidden far from city and civilization. Most places like this have long since been reclaimed by the elements, fallen prey to vandals, or simply vanished into the forgotten wilderness. I’ve seen many such places, often parts of lonely communities that once thrived along a now defunct rail line or abandoned two-lane. Eldritch House was an exception. The family who owned the house and gardens had gone to great lengths to have it declared a historic treasure. Their latest move was to turn the house into a 32-room “wilderness retreat.” It was a stroke of genius. One year into the project and the house was not only paying for itself, but it was producing a tiny profit.
I had been on friendly terms with Samantha Eldritch while in school. After her unfortunate death, the Eldritch family had kept in close contact with me. It was thanks to them, and an unusual break in my busy schedule, that I found myself spending an exclusive all expense paid weekend at the House in early April.
The Eldritch family had old money and prestige, but they were a strange lot. Rumors of Great Uncle Mortimer’s biological experiments at Eldritch House were passed off as tourist kitsch, but I remember cold winter nights in bed with Samantha as she provided the facts behind the tall tales that followed her family name. The eccentricity was fairly widespread, as one could tell from their choice of friends and companions. Thus, I found myself sharing the vacation with two jewel thieves, a foul-tempered savant of Egyptology, and a be-patched Boy Scout.
The siege began on our first night. We had all met at dinner, after unpacking and settling in, and discovered that we were the only guests. Most of the staff were still on winter leave. With the exception of the cook, the winter caretaker and the desk clerk, we were alone in the old house. The two jewel thieves, a husband and wife team, seemed to take particular joy at this discovery. The husband, Hector, a lisping Spaniard who traveled with a large sea-chest full of Cruzcampo cans, continually asked where the safe was in an unconvincingly humorous tone. He drank from the small cans constantly and became increasingly unruly as the evening went on. With the exception of a bizarre fondness for certain unmentionable European right wingers, he was a pleasant drunkard. It became apparent, as we moved through dinner, that he was related in some way to the Eldritch family; a cousin or member of some offshoot branch that had remained behind when the family had migrated to the United States in the 1800’s.
His wife, a mouse-haired girl from Portland, Maine, only spoke when asked a direct question. She avoided eye contact and her shyness proved to be an intriguing counter-weight to Hector’s bravado.
When Hector reached a lull in his post-dinner drunken ramblings, I turned my attention to a conversation between Dr. Martin Alberts and the young Boy Scout, Jack Dawson. They had been discussing the current research on Egypt’s so-called “Dynasty Zero” which predated the ancient list of Egypt’s founding kings. When the discussion seemed in danger of devolving into an argument about the validity of professional wrestling as an entertainment medium, I drifted towards the window and gazed out at the twilit woods.
At length, Hector’s wife joined me.
“It’s peaceful,” she murmured gently.
“Name’s Melissa.” She extended the delicate hand of a jewel thief and I shook it, sparing her a smile, though my thoughts were moving through mist-shrouded woods. It was a pleasure to escape for a weekend, to look at something else besides heartless brick and concrete buildings. Melissa returned the smile and looked out the window. She leaned forward, pressing her head against the glass, and looked down at the white-painted porch which wrapped around much of the south wing. A look of consternation crossed her brow and I let my eyes wander down her back for a brief and weak moment.
My thoughts had no time to stray towards the carnal leanings of my masculine soul for a great uproar suddenly burst forth from the kitchen. Conversation in the dining hall came to a standstill as all of us, drunken Spaniard and awe-struck Boy Scout alike, turned to look with fear and confusion at the double doors leading to the kitchen. None of us moved to investigate, for in the startled silence following the explosive shouts and clattering of pans, it seemed inhuman and unnatural to break ranks. This strange and somewhat primordial fear held us for only a few heartbeats, though it seemed a silent eternity to me. Finally, Dr. Alberts took a bold step towards the doors. He was followed closely by young Dawson. Before they had cleared the tables, however, both of the swinging doors burst open and the cook, a man by the name of Eberts, came hurtling into the room. My ears rang with Melissa’s dry and stuttering scream and my own breath shuddered high in my throat as Eberts flung himself onto the nearest table, destroying a fine, Oakwood Lakes setting for twelve. Dr. Alberts, after pushing young Dawson clear, stumbled back from the scene with wide and terrified eyes.
For Eberts, the poor bugger, was covered head to toe in a writhing mass of large black ants.
Hector, in an attempt to assist the wretched man, grabbed a bouquet of flowers from the famed Eldritch greenhouse and began to thrash Eberts royally, a multi-colored cloud of snapdragons and Daisy-Do-Rights fluttering through the air with each downward thrust of Hector’s powerful forearm.
The ants showed no sign of restraint, shifting across Eberts’ body in a single, roiling mass.
Hector reached for a pitcher of water, throwing water then pitcher against Eberts with considerable force. The cook shouted as the glass shattered against his back, but the ants seemed unperturbed.
Finally, Hector reached into his jacket pocket and produced a silver flask. He emptied the contents onto Eberts, tipped over a nearby candle and leapt back as Eberts, table and all ignited into a pillar of blue-red flame. A starfield of crackling ants rose on the current, capturing my unbelieving gaze.
“By the broken teeth of Osiris, man!” Dr. Alberts barked. He rushed forward with another pitcher of water, but Hector extended his tattooed arm and stopped the would-be savior.
“Ants,” he muttered, his words made even more arcane by the clipped Spanish accent.
Gripped again by that strange terror which, no doubt, afflicted our very distant ancestors, we watched Eberts and the ants burn. When the fire began to subside, Hector looked over at Melissa. The mousy woman pulled away from me, ripped a large nickel-plated revolver from her handbag, and moved beside her husband.
“We will find where the ants are coming in,” Hector said, “and we will destroy them.” He turned sharply and walked through the double doors into the kitchen, followed closely by the heavily armed Melissa.
“He’s dead,” young Dawson muttered, staring at the charred corpse of Eberts.
“Fire can do that, kid.” I replied, walking over to the table and picking up a can of Cruzcampo from beneath Hector’s chair.
“I’ve never seen ants attack like that…” Dr. Alberts whispered, coming up to my side and nervously filling his glass with water.
“I’ve never seen a man burn alive before.” I finished the Cruzcampo and started on another one.
“Where’s the desk clerk? The caretaker?”
“I suppose we’d better check.”
Dr. Alberts led the way. I followed with young Dawson. We headed to the game room, which had been set up with a small wet bar, a pool table and a series of wraparound, vinyl benches. The room was dark and empty, with the exception of a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue which I liberated from behind the bar.
The good doctor moved through the entrance hallway and opened the front door, only to be confronted by a scene of purest horror. For me, the horror was fortuitously blunted by the mixture of Cruzcampo and Johnny Walker that now careened against the walls of my stomach.
On the white-painted porch an army of ants seemed to have taken root. With the assistance of the failing light, I was unable to see even the smallest patch of white paint. The foul, black ants covered floor, rail and post. They moved and seethed like some strange ocean that had come to the edge of the door. Amidst this black mass lay two intact skeletons – glaring and frightfully stripped of clothing, flesh and blood. I am unsure if I noticed the skeletons first or the mass of ants, but my eyes widened and my brain seemed to rebel against the entire image.
Dr. Alberts, beside himself with fear and dismay, fell back from the door and began to emit a series of guttural noises. Young Dawson reached inquisitively towards the ants and, perhaps, was only spared because I grabbed the back of his scout uniform and yanked him forcibly back into the foyer.
I, meanwhile, continued to stare at this strange spectacle. Soaking in what I could, then I slammed the door and strode purposely back to the dining room.
There, a pale-faced Hector sat at the table, three empty Cruzcampo cans at his feet. Melissa, looking equally shaken, stood watch at his shoulder.
“We are surrounded,” he muttered, confirming my worst fears.
“The clerk and the caretaker are dead.” I reported.
Hector nodded, “Like all of you cowardly English, they tried to run only to meet a horrific end.”
“I’m not English.” I replied.
“Then what are you?” Hector peered suspiciously at me.
“When did your family come from Scotland?”
I hesitated. “Three hundred years ago.”
“Then you are not Scottish, you are American, which makes you English. You are all cowards who meet horrific ends.”
“What are we gonna do?” Young Dawson asked.
“Burn them,” Hector hissed under his breath. “Burn everything…” a grin broke across his face and he reached for my Johnny Walker, but I lurched back just in time.
It was at that moment that a strange chittering seemed to echo through the house; an unearthly, insect-like sound piercing the air in a series of long and short clicks. We all listened, terrified yet each experiencing the clarity of thought that comes during extreme moments. There was something familiar about the clicks, something just beyond my grasp. Dr. Alberts noticed it as well, the sense of recognition bright in his blue scholar’s eyes. It was young Dawson who finally identified what Dr. Alberts and I were on the verge of deducing.
“Morse code!” he shouted, pointing eagerly at his merit badge, “I can do this!”
He ran to the host’s podium near the entrance and returned with a pen and paper. All eyes watched young Dawson as he bit his tongue thoughtfully and began writing down letters.
After nearly ten minutes, the clicks grinding into every nerve in my body and dispelling the previous clarity I was enjoying within my fear-rattled skull, the alien sound came to an abrupt end. As before, the silence was absolute and powerful, such a delicate web that I expected the house to turn to dust if anyone spoke.
Young Dawson, over-excited to have finally discovered a practical use for something learned in school, was oblivious to the silence and brandished the paper into the air.
We stared at the boy curiously for a long moment, waiting for him to elaborate.
“They want sugar,” he said. He looked down at the paper and read, “Deliver sugar to front porch. All sugar in house. Not miss one small bit. Hoarding sugar long enough. No longer masters. Deliver now. Maybe poison along edge of door and windowsill, maybe not. Find out hard way, yes? If not deliver then devour corpse and find sugar ourselves.”
Hector rose, “We must get the sugar immediately.”
“Hold on,” I raised the bottle of Johnny Walker in the air, “are you telling me that these ants said that?”
“Yes!” Young Dawson seemed frantic, as if the ants had chosen him to be spokesman in some way.
“Young Dawson,” I said, “Ants don’t communicate via Morse code.”
“Nor do they eat people,” Dr. Alberts hissed.
“I will more readily accept man-eating ants, which do exist after a fashion, than sugar-starved ants communicating via 19th Century codes.”
“But communicate they did,” Dr. Alberts insisted.
“Forgive me if I cling to the wall of skepticism in a feeble attempt to preserve my wits, Dr. Alberts. Either way, I suppose it won’t harm us if we fetch the sugar.”
Hector and Melissa ran to the kitchens while Dr. Alberts and young Dawson began to empty the sugar from the dining room tables into a large bowl. I sat with my scotch and read the note several times, staring at the block letters written in young Dawson’s somewhat effeminate print.
Hector and Melissa soon returned with three pounds of sugar from the kitchen. They grouped together with Dr. Alberts and young Dawson, the entire company moving with a nervous and thoughtless speed. Without looking back at them, the note still gripped in my hand, I raised my head slightly. “Should we poison the sugar?”
“You are mad!” Hector barked, “There are more ants out there than poison! It is because of that attitude that all English meet horrific ends!”
“Perhaps it would be worth negotiating with them before we hand over the sugar,” I suggested.
“Negotiate!” Hector yelled. “Then rape and pillage! That is why your empire collapsed, English!”
He and the others hurried out into the entrance hall with the sugar. I listened as the door opened and held my breath. A minute later, all returned unharmed.
We sat in silence for several hours. Night fell and darkness coated the windows, reflecting back the lights of the dining room. In many ways, it seemed safe. We all knew, however, that the ants had no barriers.
The clock was fast approaching midnight, when witches and gypsies came out to play, according to Hector. It was within 15 minutes of that forbidding hour when the insane, alien clicking resumed. Young Dawson rushed to the table and began writing.
When the sounds stopped and we were left with our hearts pounding in our ears, young Dawson read out the words he had transcribed. His earlier enthusiasm had dissipated; his voice was now dry and hollow.
“Our queen has decided…that sugar tastes better with…with…” young Dawson’s voice broke and he began to sob hysterically. Melissa stepped forward, taking the paper tenderly from the boy. Her thin arm wrapped around the Boy Scout as he turned and hugged her, his sobbing unabated. She read the paper to herself.
“By the muscular chest of Horus!” Dr. Alberts exclaimed, “With what? What’s it say, woman?”
“It says,” Melissa looked up at each of us, her eyes hollow and sad, “blood.”
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