*

Stumps

posted Wednesday, 30 January 2008

A series of interlocking attics where nobody below the age of consent was allowed to venture or, even, in some cases, know about: but I knew of them. My father had led me up there on the eve of my wedding, yet I never reached the top until…

The house stood at the edge of the eastern marshes, overlooking, at some distance, the inland sea where, on clear days, faint triangles of white could be discerned skimming along the blurred horizon, indicating schooners on spice trails, seeking hidden channels to the outer oceans.

Like most houses, it was a building. Being stationed on foundations that would soon sink it, no clue would be left as to the rich history that once passed through its dark, dank corridors. On the other hand, it had outlasted even its own expectations. But, the cracked masonry, the over-sloping roofs, the windows tilted in their frames, the many leaning stairway chimneystacks, the ill-fitting doors, the off-shoot stables and, above all, the aging Fitz family who lived in it – all such things pointed to an inevitably encroaching dynastic end.

I was, as I knew in my heart, the last of the Fitz fathers, despite my children having aged quicker than myself: many of my sons growing brawny before their time and most of my daughters bearing ill-conceived creatures. The latter we bundled off to the Peninsular Wars as cannon fodder, rather than allow my legitimate sons and daughters to be conscripted themselves. As long as we paid our dues with this self-perpetuating practice, the press gangs would pass our headcount on the nod. However, in hindsight, it was all a losing battle.

One mutant creature that my daughter saw fit to bear was not worth even sending off to the wars. We called him Stumps and decided to retain him as a slave, albeit a poor one. (There were a few female-aligned creature-births whom we also kept back from the wars, since they were useful in acting as night-soil maids, oven stokers, general dogs’ bodies and, even, meal supplements).

Meanwhile, I simply needed to explore the attics. Of all the household, I was the only one who knew of their existence. My sweet wife once knew, but she had more children than was good for her (or them) and had suffered particular hardship bearing down upon her last baby, which had such a large head it nearly split her body from neck to bottom. (This child was indeed later suspected of having grown up to be the father of Stumps. So, even my wife (with her brain thus semi-dislodged) did not credit my stories of the upper parts of our abode. She humoured me, when I told of the likely passing from one cobwebbed half-darkness to another, where probably abounded ancient artefacts, trunks, stuffed animals, paintings, rusting machines of unrecognised use, clocks that still ticked ponderously, metal boxes playing mechanical music with merely one turn of the key, long wooden crates that would be suspected of once being used as coffins, dusty tea chests full of God knows what, and lists of other things too long to itemize.

“As you crawl through each hatch into another area,” I continued to tell her, “the lighter it will grow so, if you should crawl up there one day, my dear, don’t be put off by the darkness of the first set of attics. Soon you will see (shimmering through spaces in the roof) the sky and the sea, much closer than from down here. But the last attic will be shuttered beyond my own strength. I’ll need someone with a hefty shoulder to come with me on my trip.”

“I’m not coming, dear,” she replied with a bemusement in her voice. “I’m too old for that kind of game.”

“If I take Stumps with me, I can leave him up there.”

“That’s a good idea, dear,” she said. “But what good will he be with just his stumps?”

“I only need the strength of his back. I will do any handiwork and hatch trimming myself.”

Stumps spun round on his rump in the scullery, making a mutant she-cousin gurgle behind her webbed hand: she had one breast loose to the air, squirting pink milk towards his open mouth.

“Stumps, come with me,” I said.

He seemed to understand, for he shuffled across the floorboards; his foreshortened appendages raw-red from the effort. He looked pitifully up at me…

Most of the family, that day, were out fishing in the marshes. So there were few questioning glances as the pair of us made our way from landing to landing. It was surprising how quickly Stumps could manage to swing from banisters, but it was an art he had perfected in his spare time, using his random flippers.

He had never before entered the master bedroom. His mouth gaped wide, revealing a cumbersome tongue. The walls were covered with oils of the Peninsular conflicts, painted by war artists on the very fields of battle. Some had red paint oozing over the gilt wooden frames and even upon the surrounding flock wall-paper: symbolising to my mind that not everything was necessarily contained within the frame of reality.

The double bed, where my dear wife was now continuously ensconced, was beyond any luxury that Stumps had before witnessed. He bounced up and down on its springs, startling his illegitimate grandmother with snorts and guffaws. With a remonstration, I took him by a flipper no bigger than an ear towards the large open fireplace…

The initial clamber up the flue was the worst part, until we reached the first attic: a large room equivalent to the master bedchamber below it, with dark oaken beams, about the width of a warrior’s thigh, leaning from corner to corner. We had to take care not to put our feet through the ceiling of the room below, which event would have startled my darling wife. Indeed, I could hear her timid voice faintly from beneath us, telling me to be careful and not to leave Stumps up there alive but put him out of his misery first. She was always a kind soul. I’m sure she did believe, after all, that there were upper reaches of the house beyond her comprehension.

We slid up one of the triangular beams, through a hatch my father had trimmed on a previous occasion, into the second attic. A little lighter, now, and I could just discern the innocently staring eyes of Stumps. The bric-a-brac around us remained a mystery, however, until we reached the fifth attic.

As I followed Stumps, pushing his stub of a backside into the cavity, I heard him scamper across the rafters with whoops of joy. As soon as I forced my old aching body into the new space and my eyes accustomed themselves to the reduced darkness, I saw him mooning at a painting of a young girl. It was not exactly a masterpiece, in my judgement, but more a naive depiction of the artist’s loved one (probably a great great grandmother of mine). Her eyes were the best part, large unwavering orbs with hints of tears at their edges. The silken dress revealed very little of the shape of her no doubt lovely body: uncannily, however, I thought I saw it breathing, moving in and out: simply a trick of the shuddering darkness on the canvas…

A music box in the corner suddenly started moving its band of braille through a comb of tuneful spikes. Stumps and I must have knocked it, upon entering. I hustled him into the next attic, for we had a job to do which, momentarily, I forgot, but which, nevertheless, should take precedence.

The latest space was glowing with a strange luminous darkness where the coffin-shaped crates rested against and upon one another, forming their own henge of impenetrable darkness in silhouette. Ignoring them, I stepped over to the under-roof which I knew we had by now reached. I slid aside one of the slates, shattering my eyeball in the process with unadulterated sunshine. It had been a gloomy day when we had set off on our adventure, after having previously watched the distant forms of my real sons and daughters straining at their fishing-lines amid the roiling mists of the marsh. Perhaps, the degree of light was less changed than my reaction to it. I could now view the sea through the slate slit (and even smell it) with the fishing-smacks nearer than I had ever seen them. I could even view the men on board waving their arms like small insects. Also, the more distant schooners freighting spice between the pirate enclaves drew nearer like “floaters” within my watering eyes…

I heard belching and snuffling behind me. I turned with some degree of premeditated shock, to find Stumps had slid open one of the “coffin” lids with the biggest flipper I had previously seen him summon from his body. He pretended it was a bed (like my wife’s, no doubt), for he had discovered something soft inside and he was gurgling sweetly to himself as he proceeded to lie down upon whatever it was, as if he were floating in the distant sea during his own peculiar version of a holiday. I had once promised him a holiday trip, in a fit of good humour…

“Come, Stumps, no time for larks. We only have a few more attics to negotiate.” He looked askance at me.

We reached the shuttered attic by late afternoon, as I could judge by again peering through some more loose roof slates, before making the attempt of forcing our entry into that shuttered space. Now, the sea was hidden by a chimneystack. Fleetingly, I thought I saw a movement by the chimney-pots, a flicker of a tail, or was it smoke? In fact, the whole of this area was steeped in thin smoke, escaping in short gasps from the gaps in the chimney wall which formed one side of it.

“Put your shoulder to that, Stumps.”

I pointed at the shuttered hatch. We both heaved against it, his flippers gaining purchase from the leaning rafters nearby. It would not shift. It would never budge, I feared.

We looked at each other in the luminous darkness, despite being nearly dusk. We had been struggling with the wooden planking for longer than I had thought. Abruptly, the hatch opened outwards in our direction, without a creak, as if on freshly oiled hinges. We had been stupidly pushing it the other way.

There was merely sufficient light to reveal a naggingly familiar face, tears streaking her cheeks with doleful grime, eyes wide in fear and sweet innocence. So like my wife, but so so different…

Her dress, that was evidently the same one as she had worn in the painting we had seen in an earlier attic, was now in tatters, exposing a body that would feather any brain. It oozed dark lumpy slime from every inflamed pore. A pink-veined blubber pumped from fleshy protuberances not unlike the flippers of Stumps, but these clumsy weapons of manipulation had more kinship with a body’s innards than its outside. How could the face have been so beautiful with such a vile perch? The lower limbs, heavily empurpled with broken seeping arteries, tapered to twitching plum-tip nipples. A swatch of greasy black pubes shanked down in morling rat-tail strands and dripped something that did not exactly resemble my mutant grandchildren’s swill breakfasts but more the spewed up versions that we often served up again for their lunch … and high tea.

She, whoever this creature was, simpered and held out a perfectly whole human hand towards Stumps’ nearest flipper. As I skedaddled from the entrance of the topmost attic (or what I took to be the topmost), I heard the shutter close with the sound of a rusty bolt…

During my bruising escape through the flight of attics, at the bottom of my heart, somewhere, I hoped Stumps was to be happy with the creature of the under-roof. That thought unaccountably would make me less miserable in my last few years, as Fitz House slid imperceptibly into the marsh, with me and them still in it. I never of course ventured up there again. Even if I had my youth again, I would not consider it. Nor will you, dear wife, if you have any sense.

But, wait, my dear wife, of course, never knew I had returned from the upper reaches (the existence of which she disbelieved, in any event), for I found her a-bed in a peaceful death, head resting on a Gothic romance by her favourite author. In those pages, there were good and wholesome things going on. I was pleased she never really knew the degradation I had discovered everywhere to exist … except in her sweet soul.

My legitimate children? Well, the press gangs, disguised as fishermen, had evidently swarmed off their smacks, and dragooned them to the battlefields of history, from which they would never return.

I sometimes wonder if there are any mutant grandchildren remaining in the middle reaches of the house. They’re probably dead, with nobody left to feed them … unless they suffer, like myself, our family’s disease of self-perpetuating metabolism.

I, William Fitz, sit alone now, in the lowest cacky cellar, listening to the watery noises within and around me. Still some of my small stumps left uneaten. Happily, the gurglings are often like laughter.

NOTE

The above appeared in the Australian magazine ‘Daarke World’ in 1993. It is a different version of ‘Digory Smalls’ in the ‘Weirdmonger’ book (2003), where Digory Smalls is another name for the character Stumps. The ‘Daarke World’ version was a rewrite of the original version ‘Digory Smalls’ in ‘Dagon’ #24 magazine (1989). However, today, upon comparing this version with the ‘Dagon’ one, I note there is a whole chunk of material at the end which has appeared nowhere except in the relatively rare ‘Dagon’ version. Why it was not included in the ‘Weirdmonger’ book version is a mystery! Here it is for the first time since 1989:

 

When I read the manuscript, I knew it was a fantasy, but with threads of reality fanning out its pages, that I could not help pondering over in my mind from time to time.

The quiet, unassuming man with whom I work, who spends his whole time shuffling piles of insurance documents . . . his only name happens to be Digory Smalls, too. I always laughed at this, as did my husband, for it seemed quite fitting . . . I don’t exactly know why.

Digory said he was a foundling, or at most an orphan, brought up by God knows how many children’s homes, ever since he was discovered originally in a telephone box, abandoned as a baby in a small dusty tea chest; evidently left there by one of those distraught mothers who, more commonly than most people think, abound in this part of the city.

I was the only person to whom I believe he really spoke. He had no clue as to his blood-line at all.

So, when I showed him the manuscript, he went white as a sheet. My invalid husband, who had written it in a moment of uncharacteristic day-dreaming, had died soon after, mercifully, for both our sakes. This momento (sic) was a strange inheritance for a wife to keep, for I buried everything else that had been attached to him (including the clothes wherein his smell still lingered), maybe through disgust, but more probably through a deeper love than most wives can feel for a dead husband. The manuscript was to be burnt…

My colleague Digory Smalls can no longer concentrate on insurance documents, I can tell. He will be given the sack, before long; better than waiting for “dead man’s shoes” as far as I am concerned, if I can admit to such a thought. In truth, I should never have showed him the manuscript, for he had drawn from it more than just fantasy, I could tell. Still, I could have told him (though I never did) that my own maiden name was Fitzsimmons*.

Ah well, most people you see walking along the city streets have secrets lingering in their souls which they find difficult to reveal even to themselves.

(*Fitzsimmons was the ‘Dagon’ and ‘Weirdmonger’ versions for Fitz in the STUMPS ‘Daarke World’ version.)

NOTE TO ABOVE NOTE

There were two other versions of this story:

‘Gurglings’ in ‘Wicked Mystic’ (1992): This seems roughly to follow the ‘Daarke World’ ‘Stumps’ version, except the names Digory Smalls and Fitzsimmons were used.

‘Digory Smalls’ in ‘Twisted’ (1996): again roughly like ‘the ‘Daarke World’ version, but with the names Digory Smalls and Fitz used. Strangely, the word ‘gurglings’ appears here in the story’s last paragraph as it does in the ‘Daarke World’ ‘Stumps’ version, but NOT in the ‘Gurglings’ version! There may be other imponderabilities of comparison I’ve not noticed.

Neither of these two additional versions had the ‘insurance documents’ ending reproduced above. That only appeared in the original ‘Dagon’ version (1989).
In 1989, I worked for an Insurance Company.

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