The house at that corner sags into its tangled garden of brambles. Ivy strangles one of the windows and gropes towards the chimney pot. From where they stand, Suzanna can see a triangle of yellow curtain falling across one of the windows. Behind that only black shadow. That was a child’s room, Suzanna thinks and the thought causes cold to skitter across her skin. She shivers. Beyond that little sliver of yellow a void squirms. A huge, sucking mouth of wet blackness.
Suzanna’s grandmother suddenly curls her thin fingers around the little girl’s upper arm and turns her to face the old, abandoned house. ‘See the house there?’ She says. ‘See it; it is haunted; possessed’. Suzanna feels the same fingers of dread scrambling over her skin.
The whole village knows that the house is cursed. Indeed, many years ago, when grandmother was a young woman, she and some friends crept into the house jut before dusk and scattered flour over the floor in the top bedroom. ‘That bedroom there,’ says grandmother, pointing to the window where the tatter of yellow peeps out from behind rotten frames.
‘When we went back the next day, the flour was full of footprints. Cloven hooves, like a goats, but only one set’. Whatever had walked there that night had done so on two feet. ‘See’, says Suzanna’s grandmother, ‘that’s proof that the Devil strolls through that house at night.’
Suzanna is older now; a tall, blonde, elegant woman, who I have met at least twice at dinner parties. She lives in Britain and the possessed house and her grandmother’s small Polish village are anecdotes – dark-edged fairy tales to recount across the white clothes of Middle England’s dinner tables. Britain has a large Polish population, and the stereotype is a nation of dispossessed plumbers and builders. But you do not have to dig beyond this easy banality to find how readily we English will accept Poland as a land of dank pine forests, where silent peasants stand watching suspiciously from their austere doorways. We dinner guests all sit and listen, transfixed.
It is a perfect story. Suzanna tells it well. She tells it in a way that is half belief it, half gentle mockery. It is that dose of the incredulity that makes it all the more believable. She is reaching back to be the little granddaughter again, suspicious that her grandmother is pulling her leg. Yet that crust of disbelief is a thin veneer over her darker childish faith that eldritch forces stalk this world.
While I believe the story of the story is true, I do not believe that the old house was imbued with the presence of evil; that the devil was callow enough to trot his foot prints through the flour. Instead, this sounds like a mischievous tale told by a grandparent to scare and beguile a child. That malicious act of love: abusing your position of trust to tell a tale that will live with that person through their life – so much so, they are telling it to a relative stranger twenty years later, on the other side of Europe. Although I doubt it is a conscious thing, it is an amazing thing to transmit that feeling of wonder and the excitement of real dread to someone for whom those emotions are real and vivid and alive. Probably in the way that Grandmother’s own grandmother gripped her arm and pointed to a ramshackle old place, falling in to ruin, and told the story of the foot prints in the flour.
Then again, this is me placing my own reasoning on the tale. I would tell it because it was scary, not because I believe it. I think it’s fun to be scared. Nothing more. Perhaps Suzanna’s grandmother told the story because she believed it was true. It is not so extraordinary that people believe in the supernatural is empirical and real – a measurable and discoverable force. I work with a young man who grew up in a deeply religious household. He believes in spirits, in the real worldly existence of demons. So when Suzanna’s grandmother grips her thin arm, her fingers squeezing hard through the material of the little girl’s coat, and whispers a story of the little group hurrying from the house, their hands white with precious flour, it is not a story to amaze and startle. Perhaps the whispered words are a warning: stay away from the devil’s house. For what is more precious and irreplaceable in this world than your granddaughter’s soul?
Again, I do not believe that it was the devil’s feet, part of me does not even believe in the scattered flour. I think that we grant agency to things, motive and intent beyond their solid objectivity. An argument erupts, a disease strikes, people die. And why? The fact that there is no reason, no agency behind people’s lives can be more terrifying than a foolish devil, slinking back to hell to scrape flour off his hooves.
What sort of story is it to say that was the house where Patryck and Marta lived. He became sick and died. Marta moved away. See, there is his grave, there in the church yard. Now no one wanted to live in the house where Patryck died. So the house sits empty. Wood warps, the house begin to slouch on its foundations; it looks cold, untended. Now it is an unlucky house. Tiles slip from the roof, birds live in the rafters, people can sometimes hear their noisy avian lives: the sudden scratching and shuffling; the house creaks as it settles into its dereliction.
One day a board breaks with a loud crash. All of the people in the village freeze, caught by the sudden violence of a sound from such an empty place. It is no longer Patryck and Marta’s house, it is no longer unlucky. Instead it is cursed. Grandmothers clutch their granddaughter’s arms as they walk past. Beware. Three brave children steal a small sack of flour and the next day find the empty house is alive with creatures (who now sit in their nests licking flour off their feet). Our minds create their own uneasiness about a place where the humanity has left, but the structures remain. As if the house itself should disappear along with its residents. But their own beliefs mean that they don’t see the birds, only the dark and sinister edge of emptiness: feel the shudder that says it is the devil stamping infernal patterns across the floor at night.