Low Prowls The Goblin King

Low Prowls The Goblin King
by David Barclay

The room is quiet and still, quiet and still save for The Goblin King, who stands high in the corner on the shelf, the one above the old chest which once upon a time held all of William’s worldly things, including The Goblin King himself. Now he stands high in the corner, high in the corner where the wood meets the wall and the shelf brace hangs crooked, the place where the carpenter’s nail is bent imperceptibly where it joins the wall and bends the shelf down at the end, ever so slightly.

In the doorway, Tucker Bill Atley stares across the musty threshold at The Goblin King, stares and stares and musters his courage to cross the room.

In two quick strides, he stumbles forward and throws open the drapes, letting the gray Pennsylvania sun into the tiny bedroom. Beside him, the covers lay undisturbed on the bed, the vanity sits closed and locked. All is as he and Alice left it when they closed the room and tucked the key into the nightstand next to their bed, when it had been their bed, in the time before.

Tucker knows all of William’s toys. He knows the He-Man dolls, the Power Rangers, the hobbits and the dwarves and the orcs. He knows they are sleeping now, piled in the chest in a mishmash of arms and legs and swords, just as he left them. William is gone now, but he left The Goblin King, his favorite, who now stands high in the corner.

The bottle in Tucker’s hand rises with gravitational certainty, and the bourbon washes down his throat like warm fire. He snorts. The bedroom key drops from his hand and onto the rug beneath his feet, drops into infinity amongst the endless patterns of spiraling brown and white. The key is lost in an instant, lost like William.

In this moment, Tucker thinks he is too young to be an uncle, too young to be guardian, to have lost the one person in the world who he was sworn to protect. He thinks he is too young to be a drunk. In spite of what he and his friends used to say, 31 is not old, surely not old enough to be damned. And yet here he stands alone, staring high in the corner at the old yellow walls and the crooked shelf where The Goblin King now rests.

The Goblin King stares back, stares down the length of his horny, crooked nose, down the length of his hairy, knobbly chin. His glass eyes shine impetuously in the morning light, his left hand cast out in front of him, cast out accusingly. Upon one finger rests a ring, the coiled image of a serpent eating its own tail. The Ouroboros. The cycle of life and death, the cycle condemning Tucker Bill to repeat each day without his nephew, without his William, with only The Goblin King and a broken promise to keep him company.

I’ll protect him, George. As your brother, I swear I will.

Standing in the middle of the room, gazing high into the corner, Tucker has another drink. As the bottle crests his lips, a strange fragment of poetry skirts across his consciousness:

Low comes the wind over roof and eave
Low comes the serpent, the wyrm of ring
Blows the wind through the dry and the dark
Whispering the wiles of the horned king

Tucker is a simple man, a logger from the green hills of the Adirondacks like his father before him and his grandfather before. He is a simple man but not a simpleton; Tucker Bill Atley has the soul of an artist, the curse of an artist. Many a night he has been up with the masters, with Frost, with Stevens, with Eliot, with Yeats. And yet this poem, he knows, this poem is not from any of the tomes on his shelf. Where does it come from? It taunts him, this verse, it makes him feel strange. It makes him feel

“Low,” he says to the empty room. “Goddamn low.”

And then behind him comes the familiar pitter-patter of footsteps, the sound he knows so well, the sound which he has surely heard a million times now, echoes down the hall, a ghostly reverberation inside his subconscious. Tucker knows it is not real and yet still he turns, turns to the sound of his nephew running down the hall.

“William?” he calls. “William is that you?”

No, of course not. The boy has been gone these three long months, gone like the wind on the cool autumn day on which he disappeared. Tucker was in the backyard when it happened, out in the great green expanse behind the cabin. He had been working on a new sculpture, chainsaw in hand, chipping at the old oak log. The old oak log he planned to sell to Myrtle Hawkens at the antique store on Common Street, once it had been shaped and cut.

In the grass, he had been chipping at the bark, chipping and chipping with the soul of an artist, when Alice had come from the back door yelling William’s name. She lives up north with her mother now, Alice does, lives up north in the cold and the dark on the east side of the train tracks in Southrun, far from the cabin. The last time she called was to tell him the cops were moving on, moving on and sending his file to cold cases. William was just a cold case, a dead case, and Tucker Bill needed to find him, to get off your ass and find him, Bill, find him!

The Goblin King points to the hallway, points with his accusing hand, and Tucker can take no more. He lunges forward and grabs the toy by the waist. Just then, he hears William’s footsteps echoing once more, this time from the basement.

Through no will of his own, Tucker’s feet carry him across the hall to the old oak door leading down to the cellar, down to the cellar and the low earthen room beneath the cabin. Smells of mud and concrete drift up the stairs, smells of old wood and old paint and old jars and something else, too, something not quite old but not quite pleasant. Something Tucker can’t quite forget even through the liquor haze.

“Uncle Tucky! Uncle Tucky, come and see!” William says.

But William is not there, not really, and Tucker does not want to go and see. He does not want to go and see, and yet he must, because when he hears William’s voice and hears the footsteps, he starts to think it all might be a dream, a terrible dream, that he is still in the backyard working on his sculpture, carving the log to sell to Myrtle Hawkens, and little William is not low.

One foot steps down upon the stair.

Careful.

Careful now.

Tucker Bill swerves and sways and has another drink to steady himself. Somewhere above, he can hear the breeze creaking and craning against the old roof, and he can feel that verse, that strange verse, creaking and craning in his mind.

Low comes the wind.

If he knows one thing, Tucker knows he is low, he is goddamn low, and he doesn’t need a book to tell him. His feet plod down the stairs, and the liquor takes over, and the verse takes over, and he forgets about the third stair from the bottom, the third stair with the loose board, and he goes sprawling.

Tucker crashes to the floor, crashes and cracks and clatters. The bottle rolls from his hand and skirts off into shadow, lost to the darkness.

Tucker finds himself down amongst the cobwebs, amongst the old furniture. Down amongst dirt piles scattered randomly on the floor. He is wet now, bleeding. For a moment he thinks he might be bleeding to death, but it is only a puddle, a large pancake puddle beneath the rusted red pipe with the duct-taped joint, the pipe that hangs crooked, crooked like the shelf in William’s room.

For one blissful moment, his head spins and he forgets why he is here. Then the fog clears and he remembers The Goblin King, The Goblin King in his hand. He rises, wet and freezing.

Something wriggles across the floor, and he thinks it is a snake, but it’s only a length of rope spilling from a box overturned in the tumble. It is portentous, that rope, long and coiled and knowing, somehow knowing.

Low comes the serpent.

Then Tucker’s gaze falls all the way down, and he sees the rug. Another rug with the same spiral patterns as the rug above, the one that always reminds him of the ring, of the snake eating its tail. With one quick motion, Tucker yanks that rug from the floor, yanks it like tape on flesh. With the bottle lost to the dark, he is too sober, far too sober to do what comes next.

Staring at the hole beneath, Tucker thinks how perfect his name is, how apt. Each night he tucked William into bed, tucked him beneath the covers and read to him, not Frost or Eliot, but children’s books in a child’s tongue. He tucked him in like a father, tucked him in until that moment in the backyard, the moment when William ran up behind him, and Tucker slipped with the chainsaw.

And then Tucker Bill didn’t tuck little William into bed but brought him here to the cellar and tucked him into the hole beneath the rug, tucked him low, low, low. Tucked him in before anyone could see.

Gently, he places The Goblin King next to the body of his nephew. William with his favorite toy.

Complete.

Tucker scrapes the piles of earth back into the hole, scrapes and scrapes until the hole is filled. He thinks he is finished, thinks the worst is over, when he gazes into the puddle and sees a shape reflected back. What he should see is a haggard man with a bloody lip, a man with thick, knotted arms and an old Steelers cap and an old steely gaze. An old man of 31.

What he sees instead is a thing with gnarled, green skin. The horny, crooked nose, the hairy, knobbly chin, they are his now. He has become the monster, a king whose kingdom is despair.

When at last he looks away, he sees the rope on the floor, and he knows there is but one fate for monsters, one fate for those who crawl and slither and prowl beneath the earth. One fate for those who kill the only thing in the world they love.

Tucker threads the rope through an eyehook in the ceiling, then wraps the cord around his neck. As he steps up onto a box, he hears William’s footsteps, hears him running up the stairs and laughing, laughing. Then he hears the sound of the chainsaw, and the short scream that follows.

“Low,” Tucker says.

And drops.


Copyright © 2015 David Barclay