By Alex Cuvelier
To say that my accommodations were modest would be a generosity beyond compare. The water stains on the crumbling plaster walls replaced elegantly brush-stroked canvases, serving as the artwork adorning my new abode. The maddening drip of rainwater from the ceiling and the blustering of wind through the cracked and rotting windows had replaced the familiar din of the bustling city. It’s not as though I was accustomed to living in the very lap of luxury, but my position did afford me a life of relative comfort. How strange that it would be this same position that resigned me to living in this hovel. This backwater hamlet, whose name would be of little consequence to anyone other than myself or a passing traveller, was where I would spend the next few months surveying plots for my company’s records.
At first, it was my displeasure to be here, to be away from my ambitions and responsibilities back home, that I attributed my uneasiness to. It was the long days of unrewarding work and unpleasant surroundings that I blamed for the sleepless nights. Then, one night, as I sat at the small table in the front room of my dismal abode, penning letters back home by candlelight, my head was turned upward by the sounds of skittering in the attic. I shuddered to think what manner of filthy provincial vermin I might be sharing this space with. This continued throughout the coming nights, leaving me bleary-eyed and weary each morning. Gradually, though, as the loneliness set in, I began to think of it as something of a pet. Though its nature was unknown and unseen, whatever was in the attic was my only company through the long nights.
In truth, I had all but begged to not be chosen for the task. I was the sole caregiver to my ailing mother—a responsibility that required much of my time and attention, and one that my soon-to-be wife was not fond of. Even less so now as the task passed to her in my stead. Nevertheless, my protests fell on deaf ears. I was assured that this task was of the greatest importance for my future success at the company. I was told by my supervisor, a man for whom I had little respect and even less admiration, that I was “rather fortunate,” as I would be sent by locomotive and would arrive at my destination in just a few days. I was told that I should “relish the opportunity,” and that this was a journey that would have taken my predecessor weeks by carriage. It was made clear that I was in no position to refuse.
After a particularly long day of dealing with the unhelpful locals, I returned to my small apartment to find a letter from my fiancée saying that my mother had mysteriously passed, taken by a sudden onset of illness. I wept long into the night. My desire to return home grew to an unbearable weight. As I sat drafting tear-stained letters, both to my fiancée thanking her for being with my mother in her last moments when I could not, and to my employer requesting to return home in light of her death, I heard the nightly skittering grow louder. Loud as the footfalls of a child running overhead. Exhausted, I passed it off as an overtired mind and a broken heart. I sealed the letters shut for tomorrow’s delivery and laid down for another restless night.
After a few more days of dreary work and wakeful nights, I received another letter, this one from my employer. I opened it eagerly. I had been awaiting their response allowing me to return home and attend to the matters of my mother’s funeral arrangements. To my dismay, I had been refused under the condition stated by my superior, that my mother, “would be no less deceased upon your scheduled return in one month’s time.” I crumpled the letter furiously, casting it into the sputtering fireplace. How could he be so callous to a simple request? My anger was quickly tempered when I heard the constant footfalls above me cease. For a moment, I paused. I had grown so accustomed to them that their absence was unsettling. My ears strained against the rain outside as I thought I heard a whisper.
It was as though whatever, or whoever, had been running through the attic above me had found something to consider. As though there was much hushed discussion. I sat fearfully in silence and listened. When I finally decided that the stress had simply gotten the better of me and stood to go to bed, the voices stopped. Had it all been in my head? Or had my rustling paused their contemplation? As I drifted off to sleep, on the very edge of dreaming, I could just barely hear the whispering resume.
This pattern continued for a time. For how long I cannot remember, as the days bled into one another, and I was happy enough for it. I had resigned to finish out my stay here, for as heartless as my employer may be, I still had a house and a wedding to pay for back home. I would allow whatever was conspiring in the attic to go about its business as long as it allowed me to do the same. This new agreement seemed to work for us. I went about my daily tasks as dispassionately and disconnected as an automaton, then returned home in the evening and listened to the whispers in the attic. With each passing night, I could hear the secrets with more fidelity and clarity. With every hour I lay sleepless in my bed, staring at the ceiling, I deciphered another line of this inscrutable code. Then, the third letter arrived.
This one again from my betrothed. Inside was a short, impersonal letter informing me that my belongings would be removed from our home and sent to my mother’s estate for collection at my earliest convenience. Included was the small diamond band for which I had saved my modest wages for months. As it turned out, my supervisor was tending to more than just my professional affairs. To my surprise, I laughed. Not the hearty laugh heard in joyous company, but the thin and strained laugh found only at the end of things. As I read the lines again and again, my laughter mixed with welling tears. What else could I do? Nothing mattered anymore. I had no reason to stay any longer. I would simply pack my things and leave at first light. As I lifted my eyes from the page, a chill colder than my resolve ran through me. I was certain I saw the shadow of a figure in the bedroom doorway. Just as soon as it appeared, it was gone. But the fear and dreadful curiosity remained and propelled me to investigate.
With candle in hand, I crept down the hallway toward the bedroom. Only a misshapen straw mattress, a small side table, and my travelling trunk furnished the chamber. Gazing around the room by candlelight and moonlit window, I followed the water-stained walls like a river up towards the ceiling. There sat the hatch into the attic. What could lie beyond those worn wooden boards? How my mind raced to fill in every dark and dismal terror that might await me in the confines above. With a trembling hand, I pushed open the hatch, inching ever so slowly. Assured that with every movement, some spectral fiend or maddened delinquent would reach out and seal my ill-fated end. Still, I pressed on. I had to know what terror was lurking above me all this time. The candle flame flickered as I crested the barrier. There in the empty, cobwebbed attic, the wind whistled through a rotten window, gently rapping the shutter against the night.
Alex Cuvelier is a writer from Nova Scotia currently enrolled in the Professional Writing program at Algonquin College. He fell in love with poetry in school and published his first poem in Jump Over the Moon at the age of 11. “Letters From Home” is his first piece published in the many years since then, but his love of writing and storytelling has never changed.
“Letters From Home” will be featured in By the Fire: Tales from the Ashes, the upcoming fiction anthology to be published by Algonquin College Professional Writing students in spring 2024. Follow Spine Online on Facebook at facebook.com/ACprofessionalwritingprogram or Twitter/X @ourspineonline for updates on anthology launch dates and ordering information!