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Ghost Stories And Tales of Terror
By Emily Hill ~ The Red-Eyed Beast of Bodie.
Bodie, California is a ramshackle ghost town of wooden buildings that lean toward each other; and dusty roads that warble into the unknown – the unknown world of tales of terror. The sparsely populated moonscape that is Bodie is replete with wide expanses of sagebrush-dotted land, coyotes that howl at a garish moon and disgruntled spirits that roam the night desert in search of a portal to the world of The Living.
I was wandering through an antique shop near Bodie a year ago, edging my way around and over, stacks of vintage magazines and equipment used for panning gold, Victorian style bassinettes, and over-sized pictures framed in ornate gold frames, heavy and overdone. A musky smell of objects long stored in the attics of the elderly hung in the air. Dust particles sparkled as they floated down shafts of bright sunlight coming through the stained glass windows of the shop. I found myself staring at a faded painting in a roughhewn frame – the type of painting that might fill the wall of a dining room of a turn-of-the century home. The subject of the painting was as interesting as it was disturbing. Cherubs dancing, as they curled lengths of ribbon around the ankles of devils – classic red devils with horns and hooved feet, waxed mustaches and tails. The scene took on an air of Spanish surrealism. And the story I was to hear was as bizarre as the painting that caught my attention.
The shopkeeper stood at my elbow, eager – it turned out – to share the tarnished history of the painting.
“Odd subject matter, isn’t it?” I solicited her opinion, curious about what she would offer.
“Yes, as odd as the story of how it came to be here.”
Are all writers naturally curious? I bit. “Really? Do tell!”
And she began. “Well, this is what I was told by Malika Browning’s granddaughter last year when she brought it in. Evidently it had been stored in the crawl space of her grandmother’s home for many years.”
Bodie had been a gold mining town during the California Gold Rush. The saloons were full, the dancing girls were generous with their charms, and the whiskey bit the lips of anyone who sampled. The cacophony of rinky dink player-pianos drifted out over the wooden buildings on Saturday nights and toward the home of Douglas and Ruth Browning. Mr. Browning was in the newspaper business. He and his wife settled in Bodie in 1859. It was back in 1919 when he lay dying that this incident occurred.
Douglas and Ruth’s son, Michael, was married to a Hungarian girl, Malika. Malika was superstitious and frequently sought out the advice of a Hungarian Shaman who lived on the other side of the rail tracks. She visited him against her husband’s wishes. That her father-in-law lay dying, rasping out his last breath, propped up on pillows on the day bed in the parlor was extremely upsetting to her. As her husband stroked his father’s silver hair and her mother-in-law cooed at the dying man, Malika decided that something must be done. So, she tiptoed around the house gathering candles and divining a plan.
That late afternoon as the sun fell toward the horizon, and the desert cooled, Malika’s brothers-in-law arrived – Andrew from Prescott, and Mathew from Phoenix. Andrew was an accountant – Mathew a Sheriff. Ruth and her sons took turns comforting each other and soothing Mr. Browning. He didn’t look good; his white hair matted, his skin molted. Mr. Browning’s eyes darted from one family member to the next, his eyes wide with the terror of knowing he was about to enter another realm. At each breath, the four family members braced themselves, waiting. But, Mr. Browning continued to breath
By early evening Malika began setting the dining room table. Surely they would all sit down and eat a proper meal, even if Douglas could not join them. But, what would compel her mother-in-law, husband, and the two brothers to leave the patriarch and have a meal together? Malika possibly recalled her own grandfather’s death and the rituals the shaman performed during the old man’s last days. And then, she knew what she must do.
She went into the big 1890s era kitchen and got out pots and pans. She stacked the china, and set the table with Mrs. Browning’s fine china. Malika also set out three white tapers, arranging the candles in a triangular pattern in the middle of the table. As she worked she cast worried looks over her shoulder, knew that death was creeping closer. Over the next hour, Malika hurried from kitchen to dining room, back and forth, busying herself setting out a very special meal.
It was a meal intended to fortify her in-laws for the days ahead. And, to whet Mr. Browning’s appetite, she encouraged the aroma of simmering bay leaves, onions, and veal. Malika chopped the veal and built a thick lamb stew one layer of fragrant ingredient at a time. Chop! Chop! Chop! Everyone in the house was taking notice, everyone.
Nightfall approached slowly and with it the unsettling rasp of Mr. Browning’s breathing. He remained alive – on this side of the living.
“Please, won’t you come to dinner?” Malika asked standing in the archway leading to the parlor. “We can gather as is the custom in my family,” she pleaded.
Ruth Browning patted her husband’s hand and placed it gently on his chest. The matriarch then led the way to the dining room. Her sons undoubtedly took turns to looking back, and cast furtive glances around the table. She sunk into her chair, facing Mr. Browning’s cot. She looked into the faces of each of her sons, before smiling at Malika. They began to pass around a basket of warm, yeast-fragrant bread.
Malika ladled the lamb stew, stirring up the onions and bay leaves, causing the paprika to swirl through the thick mixture. She handed the first serving to her mother-in-law.
“Thank you, dear. You’ve done a nice job. Even the candles are a nice touch.”
“Andrew, would you please light the candles?” And the youngest member of the family leaned over and held a match to each wick. The candles flared, and each flame burned strong and bright. Ruth watched in fascination as Malika bowed her head and began an incantation.
“What was that, Malika?” she asked.
“A prayer, taught to me by the Taltos. I prayed that the portal of the Upper World would open and Douglas’s journey would be made easier.”
“Oh, Malika…how sweet.”
Just then a bolt of lightning lit the desert floor creating an instant of daylight. Ruth yelped, and Mathew half-rose, reaching for his holster.
“It’s alright, Ma,” he said.
But it wasn’t. The fuses blew as a roll of thunder crept along the desert floor and approached the house. Then, the mourners were cast into sudden darkness – except for the illumination from three candles.
Ruth looked around the table at her family. How macabre. Her children’s profiles appeared grotesque to her. Each face was half lit by candle light and half cast in darkness – a contrast of good and evil – of heaven and hell – and so on.
Ruth Browning stood up, scraping her chair across the plank flooring, the leg of the chair caught in a groove. Then the chair clattered to the floor and the bereaved woman, soon to be widow, stumbled backward.
But for the quick action of Mathew, she knew she would have taken a bad fall. Her oldest son had saved her.
“Thank you, Mathew. Michael, the fuse box. . .”
“Andrew, check on your father. It’s too dark. . .” Ruth peered at her husband who lay in the darkness of the parlor. Just beyond the glow of the three candles.
As the Sheriff moved to upright his mother’s dining room chair, Ruth let out a piercing scream.
She tasted blood as she bit down on her fist. Did they see it? She pointed and Mathew gaped. She realized that Andrew was staring at her instead of in the direction of her husband. She raised her arm, pointing to the threshold of the parlor – turned infirmary. There, pacing back and forth, between her and her husband, was a foul-smelling animal.
“Jesus Christ! What is that?” screamed Michael as he scrambled to scoot his chair backwards.
It hissed at Michael, and then turned its red eyes on Ruth.
“What the F**k!”
“Andrew!” Mathew admonished, as he rose very slowly, gauging the . . . the. . .
“Is it a black raccoon? The stench is killing me.”
It hissed again, and opened its mouth exposing razor sharp teeth. Glistening spittle hung from its jaw.
“It’s a wolf. . .or rather a coyote!” Whatever it was it paced a line between them and the nearly departed. It lowered its head sniffing the ground and seemed to be daring someone to challenge it.
Ruth wailed, “It’s drawing a line between me and my own husband.” Her breath came now in short, sudden gasps. But if that wild animal turned on Douglas. . .Is it a black raccoon?
“Mathew, dear God! How did it get in here?” It was a raccoon, wasn’t it? The creature turned a belligerent stare at Mathew. Then, it moved its head in a circular motion, gnashing sharp fangs before it hissed at the Sheriff staining the polished floor with snot. Its red eyes flashed in the candle light.
“No, it’s not a raccoon! It’s a God-damned reptile! Look at its tail!” Andrew screamed shrilly as he picked up his dinner knife – and held it as though ready to make a stab at the wolf-like beast.
“For F**k’s sake, Andrew. Pardon me, again, Ma. It’s got a wiry black coat!”
Eyeing the diners, whose meal it was interrupting, the beast turned in a circle. If it were a Collie, or a Labrador, one might imagine it was about to bed down. But it wasn’t – and – it didn’t.
“Mathew, please! Do something! It’s right next to your father!” Ruth pleaded with her son who responded by unclipping the strap of his holster.
“I’ll take care of it, Mother. You and Malika get into the kitchen! Just back away slowly!”
At that instant, the beast began to bay loudly. Of course it would disturb Douglas. It was obvious its intention was to upset everyone – including Mathew.
Ruth noticed Michael and Andrew trade looks.
“Mathew, I’m saying it’s not a reptile, in spite of its tail. Look down! It’s got hooves, for Christ’s sake,” observed Michael.
“Michael, be calm. Everybody be calm while I get it out of here or blow it away!”
As the beast continued patrolling, its hooves clattered on the bare wood floor. Once again it hissed at the family, this time causing venom to spray toward Michael, who held his hands up to protect his face. It seemed to be claiming the territory between Ruth and her husband. The fiend was winning. One of the candles sparked, flared, and went out, catching everyone’s attention. Darkness loomed closer.
Mr. Browning continued to take tiny breaths, the shallowest breathing possible for a living soul. Ruth wiped her nose on an apron in the kitchen and clutched at Malika, “What is it? Get it out of my house before it hurts Douglas,” she begged Mathew.
Malika cried out, “Ördög!” “Édes Istenem” Dear God, indeed! The evil Ördög is causing a visitation on my husband’s father who was suffering so much – but why?
Everyone turned. They stared at Malika.
The creature bayed, answering Malika’s prayer.
“Malika! What in hell are you God-damned chanting?” Michael demanded.
“Please, let’s not be cross with each other, children,” Ruth pleaded afraid of anything that would distract them from the stench-laden creature that was taunting them.
“It’s evil, from the Under World,” Malika was sobbing, her face contorted.
“It’s a god-damned racoon and I’m going to shoot it!” answered the Sheriff.
“Mathew! Are you nuts? You’re going to shoot that thing in mom’s house with dad laying there on his death bed?” Mr. Browning stirred.
The beast snarled, and the Sheriff backed away. As it became more excited, the devil-being emitted the smell of rotting meat. Andrew gagged and backed into the kitchen away from the sickening odor.. Then, a second candle flickered, no flare this time, it simply fizzled out. One candle remained as the family’s sole beacon. Mr. Browning now lay in complete darkness. The only indication of his waning life was the rasp of shallow breathing, somewhere beyond the meager light.
“Mother, where are the fuses? Michael asked. “This candle won’t last long and then we’ll be in the dark with this thing!”
Ruth began sobbing as the reality sunk in. Malika stood to the side biting her nails.
“I don’t know, for God’s sake. Your father would. . .know. . .” her voice trailing.
“Michael! Move to the kitchen with the rest! I’ll hold off this thing while you fix the fuse box,” instructed the Sheriff. Michael moved away from the dining room table and skittered into the kitchen.
Ruth shifted from watching Michael rummage frantically through drawers and cabinets to hoping that Mathew would not be forced fire the gun so close to her husband.
“I trust your judgment, Mathew,” she whispered as she coaxed Andrew away from the sink where he had just finished vomiting. She wrapped her arm around his shoulders.
“The fuses have to be somewhere close. . .logical,” Michael offered weakly looking over his shoulder toward the thing. It wasn’t coming closer, was it?
The Sheriff put his hand on his gun, but kept the weapon holstered.
“Michael, I’m sorry. I was praying, but I don’t know. . .” Malika offered.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The shaman, the prayers we would recite…in. . .my father’s country.”
The last candle sputtered, as if joining in the conversation. And, then, it slowly dimmed, and went out. The family was left in total darkness with the Sheriff stumbling around the dining room table in the direction of the pacing beast.
“Son of a bitch!” he tripped on an over turned chair. The rest of the family cowered in the kitchen. No one rushed to his rescue. He, after all, was the one in possession of the gun.
In the absolute pitch black, the only illumination came from the angry, possessive red eyes of the monster. No one dared let it out of their sight. Then, in the pitch black, the eyes began to rise. The beast was levitating.
“Douglas!” Mrs. Browning screamed for her husband’s safety. Malika wailed.
“Jesus Christ!” It was too dark to determine who had uttered the epitaph.
“Please, pray everyone. Please,” Malika begged her relatives.
The creature’s eyes glowed like embers, hot, angry, coal-burning eyes, wanting to claim its prize. The Sheriff fumbled for the serrated bread knife and swiped the air toward the foul monstrous being. Nothing. He hadn’t stuck a blow at all. It was too dark – his depth perception was non-existent in the blackness. Something slapped against his face – in the dark. Bristles. His face stung, blood was drawn. The Sheriff turned to his right. Two angry red eyes floated directly in front of his face, he stumbled backward away from the rotting stink of death. He swiped the air again. The creature moved back, drawing the Sheriff further into the living room.
Moving around his father’s sick bed, the loyal son stabbed the air, again hitting nothing. The ferocious red-eyed beast swirled in front of him, emitting a piercing, mocking squeal.
Ruth screamed, and Malika cried even harder, covering her ears. The Sheriff imagined Andrew untangling from his mother’s grasp and sinking into a chair at the kitchen dinette.
“Andrew, where are you?” he hissed, impatiently.
“Over here! Just kill it, or something!”
There was frantic shuffling in the kitchen, drawers opening and shutting. The Sheriff couldn’t really concentrate on that now. He couldn’t take his eyes off of this, this – no longer did anyone believe that it was a raccoon. Something stepped on his foot, something possessing the weight of a horse, crushing it painfully. But it seemed that the beast was across the room. What pit full of imps had invaded the sanctity of his parents’ home?
Not sure whether he was backing this evil into the corner or being led to its lair, the Sheriff hoped for the former. And hope caught up with him just as the fuse box door slammed shut, and that tinny metallic sound reverberated through the house. Suddenly the lights came back on.
The Sheriff was blinded by the sudden glare and stumbled backward. There were no glowering red eyes floating before him. He spun around full circle just to make sure. His eyes passed over his father who lay perfectly still; his mouth gaping open, his wide eyes blind to the deep crevasse of death he had fallen into.
“Is it gone, Mathew?” Ruth whimpered.
“I don’t know.”
Her nerves shredded, she leaned on Michael and made her way back toward the brightly lit parlor to stand beside Mathew. There was a rustling sound from under the coffee table. She grabbed Mathew’s arm, and flinched.
The mother and her two older sons stared in disbelief as the bristled beast skittered across the parlor, suddenly on the move. It began dodging furniture and scattering the throw rugs. They trembled in horror as the shadowy creature scampered over the back of the sofa, clawing its way forward. It vanished into the landscape of the painting that I was now standing in front of.
Unless the shopkeeper has sold the painting that was removed from the home of Ruth and Douglas Browning I’m sure that it remains right where I saw it; in the antique store to the east of Bodie, California – a virtual ghost town. # # #
Want more Ghost Stories by Emily Hill? They are available on Amazon