GHOST STORIES

It rose from shadow and became shadow again.

At the far end of the attic the silhouette sat upright and completely still between the two sides of the angled roof. Crowded and lightless, the place it occupied pooled with darkness above and below the moving torch beams, which seemed frail in here, powdery at their furthest reach but strong enough to pick out the dust and silvery webs on an old black hide. In the patches of hair moistened by drops of rain from the roof beams, it glistened.

One beam of torchlight dropped to the area from which the figure emerged. A small wooden casket the size of an infant’s cradle revealed itself in the dusty yellow underwater light. A coffin possibly, built from wood and dark with age, or painted black.

The other torch – Luke’s – lit up the horns that rose from above two dark eye sockets. Brownish bone, long and thick. Two thin rear legs ending in hooves, jutted out from the body then bent at the bony knee joints. The hooves looked as if they were poised upon the sides of the casket in readiness of the horned thing rising out of its box.

Black lips were pulled back above long yellow teeth; a grimace to last for all time beneath nostrils that still appeared curiously wet. Up and down the chest, small pink teats parted the fur. This was the most unpleasant thing of all, worse than the ivory mouth which Luke imagined was about to open and then snap shut with a clacking sound.

The thin black forelegs, or arms, were raised to shoulder height and bent at the elbow. Blackened hands were upturned, the palms facing the ceiling, as if it were commanding all before it to rise, or as if the figure had once been holding objects that were now long gone.

Luke could not speak. Did not know how to react or what to think. He just existed before it and within the terrible presence that filled the cramped space of the attic. Hutch only spoke after he began picking out the pale objects on the floor with his torch beam. ‘Bones.’ Looking down, Luke saw the dead things, scattered about the wooden casket, as if dropped after the flesh had been eaten from their tiny bones. Rabbits perhaps, and large birds with broken wings and papery skulls. Some of them were still covered with a hairless grey parchment of skin.

‘Over there.’ Hutch shone his torch at the scratch marks on the timber roof. Cut deep into the wood, were childlike symbols and circles, like on the rune stones they had seen in Gammelstad. The inscriptions appeared randomly, at different heights on some beams, in long lines like Chinese script.

‘What . . .’ Luke could not finish the sentence. Questions seemed foolish. How would any of them know what this meant or why it was here?

Hutch walked forward. Luke flinched at every step his friend made, as if he were provoking something terrible and sudden to happen just by moving. Things crunched under Hutch’s feet. Holding his torch higher, Hutch then cast light onto the torso and the face of the upright thing in the box.

‘If it moved, my heart would stop.’

‘Goat?’

‘Looks like it.’

‘Jesus.’

‘Quite the opposite.’

‘I don’t get it.’

‘Who would? It was some kind of temple. Effigy and sacrifice.

I reckon it’s supposed to be the Goat of Mendes.’

‘The what?’

‘This thing is stuffed. At the back here’ – Hutch leaned inwards and Luke held his breath – ‘the mice have had a go.’

Luke shook his head. ‘What do we do?’

‘Madness.’ Hutch was talking to himself. ‘Just imagine the craziness of the fuckers.’

Luke wasn’t sure what Hutch meant.

‘The little hands are human. Mummified. Stitched on.’

Hutch turned to Luke. In the illumination from Luke’s torch Hutch’s eyes shone. ‘Just as mad as hatters. Crosses on the walls downstairs and a bloody goat in the loft. A dead man’s hands sown on. Mixing metaphors. Lunacy. Swedish lunacy. It’s the darkness and the long nights. Send anyone mad.’

Luke turned. ‘Let’s go down.’

‘Phil was right. It is a bed.’

‘You’re messing with me.’

Hutch shook his head. ‘I’ve seen them in the housing museum at Skansen. The first time I came over. And in Norway. They used to build these little wooden box beds into the rooms, then fill them with hay. You put a lid on and it becomes a bench during the day. The people must have been tiny back then.’

‘Who’d want to lie in that?’

‘This guy.’ Hutch grinned and shone his torch right into the goat’s leering face.

‘H!’ It was Dom calling out from the foot of the stairs.

‘H!’

Hutch nodded at the staircase. ‘Come on. Let’s split.’

Luke resisted the temptation to take the stairs to the ground floor in two bounds.

Behind him, the flash of Hutch’s camera lit up his retreat.