A Halloween Story - Almost
This evening, just before I was due to leave the house for a dance class, a story dropped into my head. So I sat down to write it out, and got about half way through before having to be forcibly dragged out of my seat and driven to the bus stop, to catch my bus, to go into town, to walk through the graveyard to the studio, to wait half an hour only to find out that the class had been cancelled, walk back through the graveyard, find that most of the buses had also, now, been cancelled, to finally catch one and make my staggering way back home to collapse in a heap with the bitter realisation that I should have just stayed where I was and finished writing the thing.
So, with a couple of hours left of Halloween and nothing else to do with my time, I finished it.
It's not quite the same as the rest of my stories, for all that it's set in the same world and told by the same narrator: it's decidedly grimmer for one thing, and less funny; probably if I had a while to refine it I'd change so much that the end would be completely unrecognisable from the beginning.
For another thing, it hasn't been edited, proof-read, or even read through once: what you see here is exactly what I scribbled down, as it came, into my head and out through my fingers. So for what remains of Halloween, here, in all its rough and ready glory, is my horror story. It was Belle’s fault, most people said. Others said it was Natty Michaels’, or claimed it was “just one o’ them things, nobody’s fault at all,” but strangely, whatever they said, nobody thought to blame Victor. And it was Victor who started it, Victor who put everything in motion, Victor who ended up…well, that would be telling. It was Belle who finished it, though. The way Old Man Morris told it to me was this. Victor Stout was sitting on an old log, tormenting a black-beetle. He had got a piece of black thread — probably pulled out of one of his stockings, which his parents would *not* thank him for — and had tied one end to the beetle, and the other to an old nail that had been hammered into the stump years ago for goodness knows what purpose, and had remained there ever since, barking shins and catching hems and generally making a nuisance of itself.
What it was making a nuisance of itself to today, was the beetle.
While Victor sat there gloating over his gruesome little game, Natty Michaels came by and asked what he was doing.
Victor demonstrated: “Round and round he goes, see, but he can’t get away: he just winds himself tighter and tighter!” And he laughed, in a way that suggested it was only a matter of time before Himself With All The Apples would have another bright eyed acolyte hanging on every over-emphasised word. Natty, meanwhile, looked at the beetle, and at the thread, and at Victor, and in incurious tones asked: “Why?” Victor had not been expecting this reaction, and didn’t quite know what to do with it. “I mean,” Natty added, warming to the subject; “it’s not very impressive, is it, exerting power over a beetle?” Victor supposed that it was not. “So what’s the point?” Victor didn’t know how to explain, and at any rate didn’t fully understand himself that it was the feeling of control that made him feel powerful, or that when your life is small, and mean, and predictable, then taking all of that out on something even smaller and more helpless can make you feel big and impressive.
Maybe if he had understood all that then he wouldn’t have done it.
It’s nice to think so. Anyway speculation is, in this case, pointless, because he didn’t understand it, and couldn’t have explained it if he did, so all that he did was to shrug, give the sort of grunt that could have meant almost anything, and stare at Natty with the kind of dead-eyed look that means “You are boring and in my way, so go.” Natty, as it happens, did not go.
Instead, Victor found himself crouched there, trying to watch his beetle, while Natty, in turn, watched him.
This was very uncomfortable, so after a few more blank stares failed to make any impression he got up, gave a heavy, much put upon sigh, and shambled home. After a moment or two Natty untied the beetle and left as well.
Which would have been all there was to it, except that somehow, try as he might, Victor couldn’t quite get those words out of his head. “Not very impressive, is it?” They rattled him. Victor Stout was not a boy used to being rattled. The question, of course, was what *would* be impressive. Victor was not a brilliant logician, but even so, it struck him that tying up another of the village youth would only end in trouble; whether that came in the form of a furious scold from the parent of a younger child, or a punch in the mouth from an older one.
No, stick to those who can’t fight back, that was the ticket.
He tried a spider first.
It did not work out.
It had seemed the obvious choice when he thought of it: spiders were always spinning webs, so catching one in *his* web had a sort of…Victor had never heard the words “Poetic symbolism” but if he had, he could have told you that that was what he meant.
Three hours later, when he finally caught the spider, all symbolism had well and truly gone out of the window.
It wasn’t entirely Victor’s fault — except in that it was his rotten idea in the first place — it was just that he hadn’t known, and subsequently failed to notice, that while a spider will always run away when it perceives a predator, it will in doing so always run into a nearby shadow.
In this case the shadow in question was Victor’s own.
It took him so long to navigate this unanticipated state of affairs that when, after three solid hours of swooping in, rearing back, snatching fruitlessly at his own ankles and almost squashing the poor thing flat, he finally managed to *catch* a spider, he forgot all about the cunning machinations of mortal traps as regards nails and thread, and just threw it at his sister, more or less on a reflex. She called him several names that will not be printed here, and that, so far as spiders were concerned, was the end of that.
Clearly, Victor thought, what he needed was something that could not run away.
Or at least, that couldn’t run fast.
It was pure bad luck that he was walking past Belle Morris when he thought this.
Because it is impossible for anyone who lives on the Island, or even who has merely visited for a short while, to so much as look at little, curly-headed Belle and not immediately think: “Bees.” Bees were what Victor thought of. To be specific: Belle’s bees.
Belle’s bees, thought Victor, were exactly what he needed.
Partly because they were renowned throughout the Island for being large, slow, fumbling creatures that spent half their lives drunk on pollen and the other half drowsing among the dandelions with the clear intention of returning to the former state as soon as possible; but mostly because he felt, dimly, in some un-researched, unacknowledged part of his mind, that a triumph over one of Belle’s bees would be, in some symbolic way, a triumph over Belle herself.
And this, for reasons as unspoken and unexamined as the rest, was something he wanted very badly indeed. No, he’s not a very nice boy is he? It’s probably just as well, in a story like this.
He couldn’t just snatch up a bee, mind you: he had no intention of being stung.
Instead, showing once again his fitness for a role as one of that maiden’s father’s particular hangers-on, he proceeded to lurk.
He hung around the hives whenever Belle was out there, watching as she smoked and cleaned, as she changed out the combs, and whispered the days news to their murmuring inhabitants.
Occasionally he would call out some comment or other, either teasing or flirtatious — or what passes for flirtatious on the Island — just to give some sort of excuse for all the hanging around, but apart from that he waited, and he watched.
Belle ignored him, which was only to be expected from Belle, at least when there were bees around.
Eventually, he saw his chance.
Belle was doing something complicated, deep in the bowels of one of the older hives, and was standing, head and shoulders out of sight, surrounded by scraps of framework.
And those scraps were filled with smoke-drunk, sleepy bees.
Victor moved in at once.
He didn’t bother to excuse his presence now: he just walked in, looked around, fished his waiting jam-jar from his pocket, and in one quick swoop snatched up and deposited a sleeping bee.
The *biggest* sleeping bee.
You can tell what’s coming, can’t you? By the time he was half way home, the bee was waking up.
He picked up his pace, but either the jogging helped to bring it — or rather *her* — round, or else the smoke just wore off quickly once it was wearing off at all, because by the time he was home he had a very alert, very irritated, very *large* bee.
He should probably just have let her go at that point, but by now he was committed to the thing.
He put on a pair of stout gloves. He got out the thread and the nail.
He opened the jar.
He grabbed the bee. And with a care and diligence that would have astounded his friends and neighbours, he tied the end of the thread around the middle of the bee.
It would have been better for him if he’d exercised a little less care, actually.
Or a little less diligence perhaps.
At any rate, whatever it was that made him focus every ounce of his attention upon the bee in his hand, he could have used a good bit less of it.
Because it meant that he totally failed to notice the stream of angry bees pouring in at his window. He was in the process of fetching a hammer, preparatory to fixing the nail to his mother’s good kitchen table, when he finally looked up and saw the furious swarm coming at him, their eyes alight with rage and no thought in their tiny apian hearts but to reclaim, or to avenge their queen.
It was at this point, of course, that he let go.
And perhaps that would have been an end to it, except that the same fate that places muddy puddles in front of carriage wheels, and causes sleeves to catch on doorknobs, was there in his cottage that day and the nail, instead of obeying that natural law so recently laid out by one I. Newton, decided to catch in his shirt.
To recap: at one end of the string, an angry queen bee, at the other, Victor.
I will not describe what happened next, for I am not given to dwell upon such horrors, and besides Old Man Morris tells it much better.
So I shan’t talk about the way tiny, angry bodies crawled like fire to cover every inch of his flailing, writhing flesh.
I won’t mention that his screams were muffled by the roiling press of bees that filled his mouth until he choked on the murderous stinging mass.
I shall let you imagine for yourself the horror that was left when Belle, with the calm of one who has endured many dozens of stings and who will no doubt endure dozen more, picked her way across the room, plunged her quiet hand into the seething mass, and walked away with the queen held safe in her hand and long banners of black and gold streaming away on either side behind her.
You may believe, if you wish, that it took only a few long, painful weeks of cold compresses and soothing drinks for Victor to emerge, a wiser and less cruel young man.
The ending I leave to you.
I should just mention though, how odd it is, that even on the Island, where blaming the victim seems almost enshrined in local law, not one person thought to say a word against the boy.
Maybe they saw something: some swollen, distorted, purpled lump of barely-human flesh, perhaps, that stilled the condemnation on their lips. Maybe we’ve just grown as a people.
Maybe it’s something else entirely.
You can make of it what you will.