* * *
Standing in a tomb-dark hallway just inside the door, I stared frozenly at what looked for all the world like skins hanging from hooks. After a queasy moment in which I imagined some twisted cannibal leaping from the shadows with knife in hand, I realized they were only coats rotted to rags and green with age. I shuddered involuntarily and took a deep breath. I’d only explored ten feet of the house and was already about to foul my underwear. Keep it together, I told myself, and then slowly moved forward, heart hammering in my chest.
Each room was a disaster more incredible than the last. Newspapers gathered in drifts. Scattered toys, evidence of children long gone, lay skinned in dust. Creeping mold had turned window-adjacent walls black and furry. Fireplaces were throttled with vines that had descended from the roof and begun to spread across the floors like alien tentacles. The kitchen was a science experiment gone terribly wrong—entire shelves of jarred food had exploded from sixty seasons of freezing and thawing, splattering the wall with evil-looking stains—and fallen plaster lay so thickly over the dining room floor that for a moment I thought it had snowed indoors. At the end of a light-starved corridor I tested my weight on a rickety staircase, my boots leaving fresh tracks in layers of dust. The steps groaned as if woken from a long sleep. If anyone was upstairs, they’d been there a very long time.
Finally I came upon a pair of rooms missing entire walls, into which a little forest of underbrush and stunted trees had grown. I stood in the sudden breeze wondering what could possibly have done that kind of damage, and began to get the feeling that something terrible had happened here. I couldn’t square my grandfather’s idyllic stories with this nightmare house, nor the idea that he’d found refuge here with the sense of disaster that pervaded it. There was more left to explore, but suddenly it seemed like a waste of time; it was impossible that anyone could still be living here, even the most misanthropic recluse. I left the house feeling like I was further than ever from the truth.
Once I’d hopped and tripped and felt my way like a blind man through the woods and fog and reemerged into the world of sun and light, I was surprised to find the sun sinking and the light going red. Somehow the whole day had slipped away. At the pub my dad was waiting for me, a black-as-night beer and his open laptop on the table in front of him. I sat down and swiped his beer before he’d had a chance to even look up from typing.
“Oh, my sweet lord,” I sputtered, choking down a mouthful, “what is this? Fermented motor oil?”
“Just about,” he said, laughing, and then snatched it back. “It’s not like American beer. Not that you’d know what that tastes like, right?”
“Absolutely not,” I said with a wink, even though it was true. My dad liked to believe I was as popular and adventuresome as he was at my age—a myth it had always seemed easiest to perpetuate.
I underwent a brief interrogation about how I’d gotten to the house and who had taken me there, and because the easiest kind of lying is when you leave things out of a story rather than make them up, I passed with flying colors. I conveniently forgot to mention that Worm and Dylan had tricked me into wading through sheep excrement and then bailed out a half-mile from our destination. Dad seemed pleased that I’d already managed to meet a couple kids my own age; I guess I also forgot to mention the part about them hating me.
“So how was the house?”
He winced. “Guess it’s been a long time since your Grandpa lived there, huh?”
“Yeah. Or anyone.”
He closed the laptop, a sure sign I was about to receive his full attention. “I can see you’re disappointed.”
“Well, I didn’t come thousands of miles looking for a house full of creepy garbage.”
“So what’re you going to do?”
“Find people to talk to. Someone will know what happened to the kids who used to live there. I figure a few of them must still be alive, on the mainland if not around here. In a nursing home or something.”
“Sure. That’s an idea.” He didn’t sound convinced, though. There was an odd pause, and then he said, “So do you feel like you’re starting to get a better handle on who your grandpa was, being here?”
I thought about it. “I don’t know. I guess so. It’s just an island, you know?”
He nodded. “Exactly.”
“What about you?”
“Me?” He shrugged. “I gave up trying to understand my father a long time ago.”
“That’s sad. Weren’t you interested?”
“Sure I was. Then, after a while, I wasn’t anymore.”
I could feel the conversation going in a direction I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but I persisted anyway. “Why not?”
“When someone won’t let you in, eventually you stop knocking. Know what I mean?”
He hardly ever talked like this. Maybe it was the beer, or that we were so far from home, or maybe he’d decided I was finally old enough to hear this stuff. Whatever the reason, I didn’t want him to stop.
“But he was your dad. How could you just give up?”
“It wasn’t me who gave up!” he said a little too loudly, then looked down, embarrassed and swirled the beer in his glass. “It’s just that—the truth is, I think your grandpa didn’t know how to be a dad, but he felt like he had to be one anyway, because none of his brothers or sisters survived the war. So he dealt with it by being gone all the time—on hunting trips, business trips, you name it. And even when he was around, it was like he wasn’t.”
“Is this about that one Halloween?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know—from the picture.”
It was an old story, and it went like this: It was Halloween. My dad was four or five years old and had never been trick-or-treating, and Grandpa Portman had promised to take him when he got off work. My grandmother had bought my dad this ridiculous pink bunny costume, and he put it on and sat by the driveway waiting for Grandpa Portman to come home from five o’clock until nightfall, but he never did. Grandma was so mad that she took a picture of my dad crying in the street just so she could show my grandfather what a huge asshole he was. Needless to say, that picture has long been an object of legend among members of my family, and a great embarrassment to my father.
“It was a lot more than just one Halloween,” he grumbled. “Really, Jake, you were closer to him than I ever was. I don’t know—there was just something unspoken between the two of you.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Was he jealous of me?
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you’re my son, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
He paused. Outside the clouds shifted, the last rays of daylight throwing our shadows against the wall. I got a sick feeling in my stomach, like when your parents are about to tell you they’re splitting up, but you know it before they even open their mouths.
“I never dug too deep with your grandpa because I was afraid of what I’d find,” he said finally.
“You mean about the war?”
“No. Your grandpa kept those secrets because they were painful. I understood that. I mean about the traveling, him being gone all the time. What he was really doing. I think—your aunt and I both thought—that there was another woman. Maybe more than one.”
I let it hang between us for a moment. My face tingled strangely. “That’s crazy, Dad.”
“We found a letter once. It was from a woman whose name we didn’t know, addressed to your grandfather. I love you, I miss you, when are you coming back, that kind of thing. Seedy, lipstick-on-the-collar type stuff. I’ll never forget it.”
I felt a hot stab of shame, like somehow it was my own crime he was describing. And yet I couldn’t quite believe it.
“We tore up the letter and flushed it down the toilet. Never found another one, either. Guess he was more careful after that.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t look at my father.
“I’m sorry, Jake. This must be hard to hear. I know how much you worshipped him.” He reached out to squeeze my shoulder but I shrugged him off, then scraped back my chair and stood up.
“I don’t worship anyone.”
“Okay. I just … I didn’t want you to be surprised, that’s all.”
I grabbed my jacket and slung it over my shoulder.
“What are you doing? Dinner’s on the way.”
“You’re wrong about him,” I said. “And I’m going to prove it.”
He sighed. It was a letting-go kind of sigh. “Okay. I hope you do.”
I slammed out of the Priest Hole and started walking, heading nowhere in particular. Sometimes you just need to go through a door.
It was true, of course, what my dad had said: I did worship my grandfather. There were things about him that I needed to be true, and his being an adulterer was not one of them. When I was a kid, Grandpa Portman’s fantastic stories meant it was possible to live a magical life. Even after I stopped believing them, there was still something magical about my grandfather. To have endured all the horrors he did, to have seen the worst of humanity and have your life made unrecognizable by it, to come out of all that the honorable and good and brave person I knew him to be—that was magical. So I couldn’t believe he was a liar and a cheater and a bad father. Because if Grandpa Portman wasn’t honorable and good, I wasn’t sure anyone could be.
* * *
The museum’s doors were open and its lights were on, but no one seemed to be inside. I’d gone there to find the curator, hoping he knew a thing or two about the island’s history and people, and could shed some light on the empty house and the whereabouts of its former inhabitants. Figuring he’d just stepped out for a minute—the crowds weren’t exactly kicking down his door—I wandered into the sanctuary to kill time checking out museum displays.
The exhibits, such as they were, were arranged in big open-fronted cabinets that lined the walls and stood where pews had once been. For the most part they were unspeakably boring, all about life in a traditional fishing village and the enduring mysteries of animal husbandry, but one exhibit stood out from the rest. It was in a place of honor at the front of the room, in a fancy case that rested atop what had been the altar. It lived behind a rope I stepped over and a little warning sign I didn’t bother to read, and its case had polished wooden sides and a Plexiglas top so that you could only see into it from above.
When I looked inside, I think I actually gasped—and for one panicky second thought monster!—because I had suddenly and unexpectedly come face-to-face with a blackened corpse. Its shrunken body bore an uncanny resemblance to the creatures that had haunted my dreams, as did the color of its flesh, which was like something that had been spit-roasted over a flame. But when the body failed to come alive and scar my mind forever by breaking the glass and going for my jugular, my initial panic subsided. It was just a museum display, albeit an excessively morbid one.
“I see you’ve met the old man!” called a voice from behind me, and I turned to see the curator striding in my direction. “You handled it pretty well. I’ve seen grown men faint dead away!” He grinned and reached out to shake my hand. “Martin Pagett. Don’t believe I caught your name the other day.”
“Jacob Portman,” I said. “Who’s this, Wales’s most famous murder victim?”
“Ha! Well, he might be that, too, though I never thought of him that way. He’s our island’s senior-most resident, better known in archaeological circles as Cairnholm Man—though to us he’s just the Old Man. More than twenty-seven hundred years old, to be exact, though he was only sixteen when he died. So he’s rather a young old man, really.”
“Twenty-seven hundred?” I said, glancing at the dead boy’s face, his delicate features somehow perfectly preserved. “But he looks so …”
“That’s what happens when you spend your golden years in a place where oxygen and bacteria can’t exist, like the underside of our bog. It’s a regular fountain of youth down there—provided you’re already dead, that is.”
“That’s where you found him? The bog?”
He laughed. “Not me! Turf cutters did, digging for peat by the big stone cairn out there, back in the seventies. He looked so fresh they thought there might be a killer loose on Cairnholm—till the cops had a look at the Stone Age bow in his hand and the noose of human hair round his neck. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
I shuddered. “Sounds like a human sacrifice or something.”
“Exactly. He was done in by a combination of strangulation, drowning, disembowelment, and a blow to the head. Seems rather like overkill, don’t you think?”
“I guess so.”
Martin roared with laughter. “He guesses so!”
“Okay, yeah, it does.”
“Sure it does. But the really fascinating thing, to us modern folk, anyway, is that in all likelihood the boy went to his death willingly. Eagerly, even. His people believed that bogs—and our bog in particular—were entrances to the world of the gods, and so the perfect place to offer up their most precious gift: themselves.”
“I suppose. Though I imagine we’re killing ourselves right now in all manner of ways that’ll seem insane to people in the future. And as doors to the next world go, a bog ain’t a bad choice. It’s not quite water and it’s not quite land—it’s an in-between place.” He bent over the case, studying the figure inside. “Ain’t he beautiful?”