The knife doesn’t slip in easily, I have to really force it.
During the summer months, the hotel is bustling with life. People from all over the country holiday in our little slice of heaven. People from other countries come to pay us a visit, too. Our fields are green and expansive. Our mountains – albeit small – instil a sense of peace and wonder in the hearts of the tumultuous. Our rivers and lakes caress the soul, and the waterfalls have inspired many a song and poem. There is also the sea, all but a stone’s throw away. The beaches are grey and rocky. The ocean fades between shades of slate and azure, and is often rough and choppy. But there is beauty to be found here, should you seek it.
Between the start of spring and the end of summer, our little hotel is always packed. On many occasions, we’ve had to turn last-minute arrivals away, since we had no rooms to spare. During the height of summer, if you don’t book in advance, there’s a good chance you won’t get a room at all. Those months are chaotic and wonderful – full of new and familiar faces. I get so swept off my feet with the work, the days fly by in a flash. I like being busy, it’s so much better than being bored.
However, we close in early autumn, as do all the other resorts in the area. And for good reason.
In, out, in, out. The blade is now soaked with the thing’s gore; the smell of its insides starting to perfume the air.
The place is called Gwesty’r Meirw. The other spots in the area have similar names, to varying degrees. A few miles down the road is a bed and breakfast called Yr Ymadawedig, and the nearest beach resort is called Cân Yr Ysbrydion. We all tell the people who visit that they mean something other than what they mean. God knows why nobody has bothered looking them up. I guess you tell someone that something means something, and they just accept it. God knows why we haven’t decided to change the blasted names, either. I suppose you can’t really change the name of a place that has stood for centuries. After all, these places are listed buildings. All it’d take is for some kid to look them up in a foreign language dictionary, and bam! Although, I suppose it doesn’t really matter – a name’s just a name, right? Who cares if people know the real name? It’s not like they would automatically know the truth about us. After all, there’s a place called Devil’s Bridge, and everyone knows that The Devil doesn’t reside there (or does he?), despite the name. It’s just an old legend. Yeah, I suppose that’s probably what people would think – it’s just a legend… although I guess one or two of our old visitors might ponder as to why we sold them a mistruth.
Anyway, I’m getting a little side-tracked. My name is Frankie, and I am the groundskeeper of the Gwesty’r Meirw. My father before me was the groundskeeper, and his father before him. And so on, and so on. All of the groundskeepers around these parts pass their jobs onto their children. We inherit the job. We do not hire outside help. Ever.
This is because, 1) I doubt there are many people who’d believe us – which could lead to tragic consequences for them, and, 2) they might spill our secrets, which would attract unwanted attention.
No, we pass the jobs on to our children. You might think that a mean thing to do, to plan a child’s life for them. But it is necessary. We teach them that it is necessary. And they almost always understand. Almost always.
I grab the top of his head and pull. There is a brief ripping sound, as strands of skin and flesh tear, and then… POP! His head is in two pieces – the top quarter cut away.
I am fifty-seven years old, and I have been working full-time at the Gwesty’r Meirw since I was sixteen, and before then I helped out my dad in between schoolwork and on the weekends. For many years we worked side-by-side – father and son. We shared the duties equally, until dad started getting too old to do some of the work. From then on, I took on most of the tasks, and he just pottered around and gave me a hand, here and there.
The day my old father retired was a sad one and a happy one; he had more than earned his final vacation, and it also meant that he was officially handing me the keys to the hotel. I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up a bit, that day. I’m sure my dear old dad would say the same.
I was once married, but it didn’t last. I do have children, but they have long since left these parts, and I doubt they’ll ever return. Perhaps the next time they come back it’ll be for my funeral. I often wonder who will take on the duty of Gwesty’r Meirw once I’m gone, but that’s still far away, yet. Or so I hope. Perhaps one of the neighbour’s children will take up the job? They’re good kids. Honest and hardworking.
I wonder if they scare easily.
My hand dives into his skull and I grab the squishy stuff inside and rip it free. I repeat this many times – fistfuls of the mess get tossed into a bucket I have ready at the side of the table.
When my father first explained what happens in our little valley during Halloween, I didn’t quite believe him. I remember the day vividly. I was fourteen years old, and he said I was old enough to know. My mother protested, saying I was still a child, but my father would not be swayed. Looking back on it, I think it was the perfect age. I was still young enough to believe in the fantastical and the unimaginable, yet old enough to deal with the horrors.
He was a straightforward, reliable kind of man, my father. And wasn’t the type to entertain flights of fancy. So, at first, I was a tad confused. Practical jokes and the like weren’t his usual fare. He said what he meant, and that was that. He wasn’t a harsh man by any means – he was warm and loving, and I cherish the memories I have of him – but to spin a yarn just to pull the wool over someone’s eyes as a lark… well, he just didn’t do that sort of thing, even in light-hearted jest.
“You’ll see, Lad,” he said to me when I didn’t wholly accept what he was telling me. “You’ll see.”
His hollowed-out head sits on the desk in front of me. I take up the knife again and begin to carve his face up. Eyes, nose, and a mouth full of teeth.
The importance of The Groundskeepers in our part of the woods cannot be overstated. For without them, the local people would be in real danger. And who knows how quickly it could get out of hand? Spread to neighbouring towns and villages, and so on and so forth?
That first Halloween I spent at Gwesty’r Meirw with my father began with us carving a pumpkin. We had done this lots when I was a child, but I thought it was silly for two men to be doing such a thing, but my dad insisted. We shared the duty – scooping out the insides and cutting the features into the face.
“This’ll keep us safe fer tonight, Lad,” he had told me. “Never forget ol’ Jacky.”
We placed the jack-o’-lantern on the stoop of my father’s shed and watched the fog come rolling in from the coast.
I remember what he said, as we stared at that wall of grey slowly obscure the world around us. It chilled me to the bones. He said it very quietly, barely above a whisper, and the reverence in his voice caused a hiccup in the DRUM-DRUM-DRUM of my beating heart.
“The veil grows thin.”
His face is finished, the blade is placed on the table. I take up a handful of tealights and drop a couple into his head. With hands that are starting to show a few liver spots, I flare up a match and light them. His features bloom with the flame inside his head. I admire my handiwork. I think I’ve done a good job, this year.
Gwesty’r Meirw was built in the 1800s, and it was initially conceived as a home. Quite a grandiose one at that. Nobody quite knows the history of the place. Not exactly. And nobody is sure what went wrong.
But something did. Something went terribly wrong. Shortly before the turn of the twentieth century.
I heard a rumour about it, in school. I must’ve been about fifteen or so, at the time.
They said that a large, wealthy family lived there, with many children, servants, butlers, and the like.
Apparently, one Halloween in the late 1890s, as a thick fog rolled in from the coast, the entire household fled from something. They found their bodies – men, women and children alike – scattered over the acres of the property, each of them torn to pieces, frozen in death poses that gave the distinct impression that their final moments were agonising and terrifying. And each was alone. From the oldest man to the youngest child, each occupant of Gwesty’r Meirw was found all alone.
I asked my father about it, once.
“Best not to speculate, Lad,” he told me. “We know what we know, and we don’t what we don’t.”
It took me a while to understand what he meant, but I think I grasped it, in the end. I’m still pondering about some of the things he said. He wasn’t an educated man, my father, but he was wise. I’m still unpacking some of it, even after all of these years.
I take the jack-o’-lantern outside and place it on the stoop of my shed. The night is cold and still, and a low fog hangs along the ground, clinging to all that it touches. This is how it is every year.
The first Halloween with my father, I’ll never forget it. Ever. From the smell of the burning wax to the chill in the night air, from the way my thudding heart seemed to reverberate throughout my entire body to the way my father shuffled restlessly. It’s all seared into my mind. I can picture everything. I can see the stubble on my dad’s cheeks. I can smell the scent of the freshly carved pumpkin. I can feel the cold, damp fog clinging to my bones. I can remember the anticipation in the air – like a flammable gas that’s waiting to be ignited. I can remember the sensation of pure and utter fear.
My stomach churned when my father opened the cabinet in the work shed – the one that was always padlocked – and brought out a 12-gauge shotgun. It was an old coach gun, with a walnut stock and a break action. The wood was dark and polished. Guns weren’t illegal, but it was hard to get a permit if you weren’t a farmer. I have since learned that the local police force has an agreement with every groundskeeper in the valley. They understand our duty and respect us. They let us go about our work unhindered.
“I’ll be using this fer tonight, Lad,” he said. He nodded to the cabinet. “Now you know where she’s kept. I expect you won’t be touching her without my guidance or permission.” And then he placed a hand on my shoulder. “But I’ll be teachin’ yer how to use her in due time, Lad. All in due time.”
I sit down next to Jacky, watching the way the flickering light is distorted by the carvings that make up his face. For now, the glow from the pumpkin is enough to illuminate several metres ahead, but I know that’ll change. It always does. But as long as the glow is there, no matter how dim…
“Stand yer ground, Frankie,” my dad told me, as the shapes in the fog began to loom. “Stand. Yer. Ground.”
All around us were shuffling silhouettes, moaning and gasping. The mournful chorus filled the air, dampened only slightly by the ever-encroaching cloud of grey. Arms were extended towards us, hands were reaching, grasping…
“The important thing,” said my father, ever so calmly, “is to not lose your nerve.” Slowly, he brought the shotgun up to his shoulder. “If yer start to panic, that’s when yer in trouble.”
KA-BLAM! The roar of the gun was deafening. One of their number went down, with a gasp. One. The rest kept coming, inching closer and closer. I tried to count how many there were and lost track at around twenty. “And remember to always keep yer shells handy, Frankie my lad. Oh, and keep count of how many shots you’ve fired.” KA-BLAM! Another one was blown backwards, collapsing to the ground with a fading snarl. And then he broke open the shotgun, letting the casings fall to the floor. “We’ll have a lot of cleaning up to do, come daylight, Lad.” Then he pulled two shells from the breast pocket of his coat, fed them into the shotgun and snapped it shut again.
And so, the night progressed. My father toiling away at the unending crowd that bayed for our flesh, barely visible in the muffling fog. Firing. Reloading. Taking one or two calculated steps backwards or to the side, here and there. Constantly checking that our jack-o’-lantern was still lit. The work never ended. It was exhausting and cold, even just to watch.
“Always make sure that yer Jacky’s still aflame, Lad. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but given the choice between the gun and the pumpkin, I’ll take the pumpkin every time.”
I still don’t know if that’s true or not. I always feel like the gun is the best tool for those Halloween nights. I can’t imagine facing the things that come with the mist unarmed. Having said that, I haven’t once forgotten to carve a jack-o’-lantern. Once or twice, I thought about not doing it, out of curiosity – just to see what’d happen. But each time I lost my nerve, and I never have done it. Not yet, at least. But the older I get, the less gung-ho I become. I feel that perhaps it’s sometimes just best to stick with tradition, even if you don’t fully understand how that tradition came to be in the first place.
I can hear the ringing from the local church tower. Witching hour is fast approaching. I know that everyone in the village will have locked their doors tight – they all know to do this. On the off chance that I am slain in the line of duty, a locked door would unlikely protect them from the things that walk on All Saint’s Eve, but it’s still a barrier between their sleeping families and the horrors that would feed upon them.
I am the only one who is out, at this time of the night. I must bear the burden. Must face the dangers alone. Perhaps if my marriage hadn’t fallen apart, my son would be here, with me. Maybe next year I’ll bring one of the neighbour’s kids along with me – their eldest will be thirteen this December.
In between the metallic clanging of the bell, I can hear the other noise as well. The sound of soil shifting. A low moan that starts to fill the air. A few snarls and guttural growls.
I still don’t know fully how Gwesty’r Meirw came to be a hotel. I mean, who’d want to turn that sort of place into a place where more victims could appear? If those rumours I heard way back when were true, it sounds almost obscene to make money off of the building. I’d think razing it to the ground would be a better choice.
This was a topic of conversation between my father and me many a time.
“Aye, perhaps, Lad… perhaps. But this place… she hibernates during the summer. She sleeps. And you know fer yerself that there ain’t too much keeping this town alive. Making a few bob, here and there, is that really such a crime?”
I had no answer, and I still don’t.
“And as fer burning the place down, I wonder what’d happen to the spirits that are trapped here. Would they perish in the blaze, or would we simply free them?”
That last thought keeps me up at night.
As the night comes to life, as the things that should not be cross over, the temperature begins to rapidly drop. I am prepared for this – I am wearing a thick woollen coat that goes down to my knees. My ex-wife bought it for me, many moons ago.
Slowly, I get up from the stoop and bend over to check that Jacky’s candles are all still lit. They are. They should burn all night, these candles. And if they are doused by something other than me… If they are extinguished before the first rays of dawn… Well, best not to dwell on that.
My joints crack and pop as I get to my feet. I examine my equipment. I have my shovel. I have my flask of coffee. And I have my shotgun.
It’s time to try and endure another Halloween night at Gwesty’r Meirw. But, perhaps more importantly than ensuring my own survival, it’s time to try and guarantee that the world of the dead does not make its way into the world of the living. At least for one more year.
“Happy Halloween,” I whisper, watching as my words float away in a cloud of vapour.
31st October 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest