I am delighted to welcome Sheila Williams to the festival with a story taken from her latest collection The Siren and other Strange Tales. Six short stories spanning the twentieth century and each with a spooky twist.
Boy with a Harmonica – France 1943 – by Sheila Williams
They came silently, stealthily down the mountain-side and into the gloom of the forest, pausing and listening before creeping through the soft carpet of leaf mould and pine needles. They were used to the sounds of the forest; the rustle of tiny night creatures in the undergrowth, the gentle step of a deer delicately picking its way through the trees, the murmur of sleepy pigeons roosting in the branches overhead. That night they heard no sounds that did not belong.
At the edge of the forest they paused again, three shadows in the night. The woods encircled an ancient stone farmhouse built on a plateau half way up the mountain-side. The smell of wood smoke from its chimney drifted towards them. They waited and watched for the signal.
A glimmer of light appeared at an upper window of the farmhouse. It remained for a few moments, glowing in the dark before it was extinguished. The three ran swiftly across the small meadow between the forest edge and the farmhouse, ducking and weaving, hearts pounding.
Three taps on the weather-beaten door. It opened and they filed in. One of the men, the leader – tall, fair-haired, with an intelligent face – nodded to the old man standing in the doorway who led them into the kitchen. He pointed to the scrubbed table in the middle of the floor where bread, dried sausage and wine waited for them. Exhausted, cold and starving the three men fell upon the food, devouring it with quick sharp bites. No words passed. In the shadows of the room the old man’s wife busied herself between the deep stone sink and huge fireplace where she was heating up water for coffee. Every so often, she stopped to peer anxiously out of the window over the sink.
Eventually the leader spoke.
‘What news from the village?’
The old man shrugged.
‘They’re everywhere. You’re mad to come here.’
‘Where else should we go mon père?’
‘You were ambushed?’
‘We were. Someone was careless…or is collaborating. The Bosche were waiting for us.’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t know how many of us got away. We won’t stay long. It’ll be dawn soon and we’ll be off.’
In the village at the foot of the mountains the inhabitants were awakened by the snarl of engines and rumble of wheels. Two German army trucks pulled up alongside the village square. Soldiers tumbled out of the back of them and immediately searched the village.
Banging on house doors with gun butts, they pushed and shoved everyone into the square. There, the villagers huddled together, shivering in the chill air; silent, watchful and afraid. Among them was Jean Fourrier, the butcher; a big man in his forties, wide strong shoulders and a belly that hung over the broad belt around his waist. He stood a little apart from the others, thumbs hooked into his belt watching the soldiers.
At the edge of the huddle was the Boy, shifting nervously from foot to foot. His name was Christophe but everyone called him the Boy. An orphan, he lived, supposedly, with an elderly aunt but, like a cat, he came and went as he pleased roaming the woods and mountains around the village, returning only when hunger drove him. He was different from the other boys. Some dismissed him as simple-minded – perhaps because of his stuttering speech. However, they were wrong. In his head his thoughts and ideas jostled and raced for expression and perversely, tied his tongue in knots. He loved the country around him. He knew intimately the forest tracks, the grey mountain rocks, the hidden places where he sat watching the birds and dreaming his music – for the Boy had a passion and a rare talent. He took the sounds of the land, of animals and birds, of voices, of everything around him and, with his harmonica, captured them, blending them into cascades of sweet notes that rippled down the mountain side and filled the valley. He carried the harmonica with him everywhere.
He waited at the edge of the square watching as the search continued and the soldiers looted the houses bringing out food, blankets even clothing to be loaded onto the trucks.
‘Bad’ he muttered, ‘bad, bad men.’
At that moment, a German officer approached the huddle, searching for the one face he knew.
‘You’ he pointed to Jean the butcher, ‘Come with me.’
Jean stepped forward. Without waiting, the officer walked back to the truck. Jean obediently followed.
‘What is that place, up there?’ and the officer pointed to the farmhouse whose outline showed faint in the grey of pre-dawn light.
‘It’s my brother’s farm’ Jean replied.
‘Why would there be smoke from the chimney at this time?’
‘He gets up early your brother?’
‘I suppose so.’
The Boy shuffled closer to the truck where the two men were speaking. He could not hear all the words but he picked out their tones. He was puzzled. They gave out a false note…as if they were reading from a script. He shook his head. But he saw where the officer pointed and knew the farm. He liked the old man and his wife, they were kind to him. He knew too, of other men, hiding in the mountains, who visited the farm now and again. He recognised some of them, especially the tall fair one who used to live in the village. He was kind to him too. He frowned, still puzzled. He heard the officer say loudly
‘Well, it’s time to pay your brother a visit.’
Now the Boy recognised the tone – menacing – and he knew what he had to do. All the while watching the soldiers, he backed slowly and carefully away from the truck until he reached the wall of the church that formed one side of the square. He pressed himself into the shadows, slipped quietly across the narrow alley way at the back of the church to the small churchyard. There he dodged between the gravestones until he came to the furthest corner from the village. He readied himself to leap the small wall that encircled the churchyard when a dog set up a frenzied barking. He froze. He heard shouts. Torch lights flashed, outlining his pale face.
‘There, over there.’
Knowing he had been spotted, the Boy leapt the wall and ran like a hare for the track through the woods. He stopped once to look back, saw the flash of torchlights and heard the crash of boots.
‘Oh no, oh no’ he mewed and continued to run until he arrived almost at the place where the three men had emerged from the woods earlier. There he collapsed. The soldiers found him sitting on a tree stump, shivering and, between gulping sobs, playing his harmonica – loud, strident, fretful bursts of notes. One of the soldiers snatched the harmonica and back-handed the Boy twice across the face. He stared up at them with wide hurt eyes, a trickle of blood curled slowly down his chin. The soldiers gestured with their rifles towards the farmhouse and marched him across the meadow.
The old lady in the farmhouse watched from the window. The three men sat around the table slumped in a stupor of fatigue. Suddenly she leaned closer to the window, peering across to the woods. She gestured to her husband.
‘Lights, I saw lights in the wood.’
The old man pushed the window open and stared hard.
‘Ssh, do you hear something?’
The men at the table stirred, shaking off their sleep.
‘What is it, mon père?’
The sound of the harmonica cut through the still air.
‘It’s the Boy, Christophe’ the leader said. ‘A warning. We must go. Make everything tidy, maman.’
Giving her a quick hug and kiss, he and his companions ducked out through the back door and disappeared once again into the forest.
In the village, the officer watched his two men running after the Boy. He took out a cigarette holder, carefully inserted a dark, thin cigarette, lit it, inhaled and remained silent for a minute or two. Finally he spoke to Jean.
‘Who was that?’
‘It looked like the Boy, Christophe he’s called. He’s an odd lad, a bit simple and harmless.’
‘Maybe, maybe not.’ The officer shouted to his men. ‘Back in the trucks six of you. The rest stay here, make sure no-one else leaves the village.’ He turned to the huddle still waiting in the square. ‘You peasants, you can return to your hovels. Anyone caught trying to leave will be shot.’
‘And me? Should I stay here?’ Jean asked.
‘No, you come with us to the farm. After all you still want your brother’s fat cattle don’t you?’
Dawn was breaking and slashes of pink and silver ripped through the dark grey sky as the truck lurched along the stony road out of the village. Halfway along, Jean pointed to the cart track leading up to the farm and the driver swung the truck onto it. They pulled up in the farmyard, the men spilled out. Jean remained in the truck.
‘Search everywhere’ the officer commanded before sauntering to the farmhouse door. He knocked politely but walked straight in.
‘Good morning my friends. You are up early.’
The old couple stared at him.
‘I believe you have had visitors? Where are they? Please save us all time and trouble.’
The couple remained silent.
The officer laughed.
‘Well I can wait until you’re ready to talk. We need to wait for the others anyway.’
The old man stepped forward.
‘I don’t understand sir.’
‘Oh, I believe you do.’ The officer sat in a black oak chair at the head of the table. ‘Some coffee?’ he nodded towards the old woman. She took the pot off the stove and poured a small cupful.
Outside, as the men rampaged through the barn and around the back of the house, Jean climbed out of the truck. He headed for the barn where his brother had three fat bullocks, ready for slaughter. They would fetch him a good price on the black market. He saw the Boy and the soldiers emerge from the woods and cross the meadow. The Boy stumbled as one of the soldiers pushed him along with his rifle butt.
The officer emerged from the house.
‘Everyone seems to be up and about early this morning and it bids to be a fine day.’
The Boy, still making quiet little mewing noises, stared at Jean as the officer waved his hand and said, ‘You, Mr Butcher-man may take those beasts you told me about and leave.’
Jean, unable to meet the Boy’s gaze hurried past him, head down.
‘J…Ju…Judas’ the Boy hissed because now he fully understood the treachery that had taken place.
‘Shall we all go inside’ the officer gestured to his men. One of them stepped forward and held out the harmonica. On seeing it, the Boy cried out and reached for it.
‘Ah so that was it’ the officer nodded. ‘A signal, a warning. A bold idea, Boy but you will never play this again.’ He threw the harmonica to the ground. Again the Boy cried out.
Back in the house the officer seized the old man.
‘Where have they gone, the Maquis scum? Where are they?’
‘Who sir, I don’t understand.’
The officer gestured to one of his men.
‘Bring her here’
The soldier dragged the old woman across the room, twisting her arm up behind her back. She gave a little moan of pain, soon bitten off.
‘Now for the last time, old man, where did they go?’
Imperceptibly, the woman shook her head.
‘I don’t under…’ the old man began but before he finished speaking the officer whipped out his pistol, put it to the woman’s head and pulled the trigger. The Boy wailed and rocked from side to side.
‘Yes, you have something to say?’ The officer asked him.
The Boy shook his head, closing his lips firmly.
The officer aimed his pistol at the old man. He pulled the trigger. The old man fell backwards to the floor. ‘Now it is just us, Boy.’
For an hour the officer tortured the Boy, finally leaving him tied to a chair, fingers broken, his face a bloody pulp, his body scorched with burns. The officer left neither knowing nor caring whether the Boy was still alive.
‘Torch it, burn it all’ he ordered as he climbed back into the truck.
Once the Germans left, the village people, in ones and twos, emerged from their homes. Grim-faced they stared up the mountain side to the farmhouse where they saw thick plumes of black smoke and heard the crash of falling timbers. In the evening a few of the men walked to the farm. Heat from the fire radiated towards them as they approached and fine grey ash swirled about in the evening breeze, powdering their faces. The building still smouldered and smoked. The roof had collapsed inwards and all the windows blown out with the heat. Here and there a flicker of flame licked around a length of fallen timber, flaring up momentarily as the breeze caught it. There was no chance of entering the ruins that night.
The following morning and in anticipation of the horror to come, the men took a donkey and flat cart, loaded with sacking up to the farmhouse. They set about their macabre task of finding the corpses – no-one was in any doubt that there would be corpses to find. They recovered three charred bodies from the ashes and gently loaded them onto the cart. As they worked one of the men spotted Jean the butcher approaching. He alerted the others and they all stopped their grisly work. Jean ignored them. He stood silent in front of the burnt-out ruin, covering his nose and mouth with his hand. He scuffed at the ashes and kicked the discarded harmonica. He picked it up, studied it a moment and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
‘They made me bring them here. I couldn’t refuse’ his voice was rough and aggressive. ‘I didn’t know this would happen’ he shouted, ‘I swear it.’
The men ignored him. They covered the bodies and led the donkey back to the village. As they left one of the men spat in front of Jean and snarled, ‘I see you’ve got your brother’s bullocks in the field by your slaughterhouse. I hope it was worth it.’
Jean the butcher set off with his gun to try for a deer or even some rabbits up in the woods. Meat was scarce and his trade had dwindled away. The villagers refused to bring their pigs or sheep to his slaughterhouse and other sources of meat were hard to find. Although he had done well on the black market from the sale of his brother’s bullocks, now, Jean struggled to make a living.
As he walked up through the woods he found himself on the path running towards the burnt-out farmhouse. He crossed the meadow to the ruin. He poked around amongst the debris and rank weeds, His nephew, the Maquis leader, had not been seen since the day of the tragedy. Jean wondered if he was still alive. ‘If not, I’ll claim this land as my own.’
Suddenly he got a feeling that he was being watched. He spun round. There was no-one there. He heard a slight rustling and little clouds of ash puffed up around him. He shivered.
Silence. Uneasy, he left the ruin behind him.
All that day Jean could not shake off the disquieting feeling of being watched and followed. He returned, empty-handed, to his cottage at the edge of the village.
Jean was not a man given to great imagination nor was he of a nervous disposition. Yet, in the following weeks he was unable to free himself of the sense of someone-or something watching him. Wherever he went he felt a presence near him. He was afraid. Every shadow threatened danger.
One night Jean awoke sharply. He shivered in the icy cold of his dark bedroom. A strange smell – acrid, smoky – hung in the air yet there was no fire in the house. Fumbling on the night stand for matches, he lit the candle he left there. In its flickering glow he peered fearfully around the room. In one corner where he hung his clothes, his jacket swayed gently on its hook.
‘Ha! Must have left the window open’ he muttered, trying to convince himself that all was well, yet knowing that he would never open the window on a winter’s night. He got out of bed, went to the window and, as expected, it was tightly shut. As he stood there the smell of smoke grew stronger. In the reflection of the panes he saw a dark shadow standing behind him. Forcing himself to turn around he let out a terrified scream. In front of him, emitting little puffs of smoky sooty breath was the charred and blackened figure of the Boy.
‘No, no’ cried Jean holding out his hands as though to ward off the apparition. ‘What do you want with me? It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t…know. What do you want with me?’
The Boy came close to the terrified butcher. The stench of smoke and scorched flesh enveloped Jean and he collapsed to the floor, senseless.
The first rays of a thin wintry sun pierced the bedroom window when Jean revived. At first he wondered how he came to be lying on the floor before remembering the visitation. He shuddered.
‘No, no it was all a bad dream’ he mumbled dragging on his clothes. As he pulled on his trousers he trod in a little heap of something grey and powdery on the floor. He bent over and rubbed a finger into it. His normally ruddy face paled. The powder was ash.
From that day Jean Fourrier the butcher became a haunted man. His confident stride diminished to a hesitant creeping shuffle. He muttered and mouthed constantly to himself. Sometimes, when walking through the village, he stopped and, looking over his shoulder, he would shout, ‘I see you. Go away. It wasn’t my fault I tell you.’
He lost weight; the fat belly melted away until his belt slipped uselessly to his ankles. He locked himself in his house, slumped in a chair in the kitchen drinking away the days.
Winter took a firm hold and the distant Pyrenees were glazed with brilliant white snow. In the forests sere brown leaves and pine needles tinged with frost formed a soft-rustling carpet. Usually Jean kept to his cottage but on one day of sunshine he ventured into the village, creeping along, peering behind him, mumbling, drooling a little. When he returned to his home he opened the door, rushed inside and locked it with bolts and keys. In the kitchen he gave a long wail of despair. Cupboard doors and drawers gaped open, their contents strewn on the floor. Crockery and glasses smashed, tins bent and battered. He ran upstairs. Here too, in his bedroom all was ransacked. The bed and mattress tipped over, his clothes ripped off their hooks and torn out of drawers and everywhere a trail of powdery ash. Jean wailed again, banging his head with his fists.
‘What? What is it you want of me? What?’
In one corner of the room a dark shadow, slowly took the shape and form of the Boy. It moved towards Jean…
‘Please no! Go away. I’m sorry; I tell you I’m sorry. There was nothing to be done.’
In reply, the Boy lifted his poor broken hands and cupping them across his mouth blew soft smoky breaths into them. Suddenly Jean understood.
‘I have it’ he cried, ‘I’ll get it for you.’
He wrestled with a floorboard in front of the window, prising it free. He drew out a tin and searched feverishly through its contents. His hand trembled as he held out the harmonica. The Boy grasped it, put it to his mouth and blew a long jarring blast. The sound struck terror deep into Jean’s soul. He covered his ears,
‘Don’t’ he whimpered, ‘I can’t bear it. I can’t bear any of it anymore.’
The Boy blew another screeching, grinding note. Jean fled downstairs; the discordant notes of the harmonica filled his head. He ran out to his slaughterhouse. Inside, he went straight to the butcher’s table with its thick scarred top where his knives were laid out in a neat row. He picked up the slender filleting knife, bent back his head and slashed the knife across his throat.
From time to time, in the stillness of a spring morning or the cooling evening of summer, a soft, gentle cascade of notes floats on the air, drifting through the forest to the village below and the villagers stop work to listen and those who remember nod wisely and say,
‘That’s the Boy with a harmonica.’
Two of the early reviews for the Siren and other Strange Stories.
This collection is a perfect choice for those short moments of literary respite – the coffee break, the train journey and the like. They are easy to read, brimming with twists, turns and intrigues and for some readers, quite thought provoking. The description and scene setting in the Siren was particularly good. That plus Toussaint and Boy With The Harmonica were my favourites.
Does exactly what it says on the cover, delivers six supernatural stories that kept me reading. Enjoyed all of them, but particularly The Siren, The and Boy With The Harmonica. All six stories are economically told, and entertaining. Good value for money, I think.
Buy the book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Siren-Other-Strange-Tales-Supernatural-ebook/dp/B071Y4214S
Also by Sheila Williams.
Read the reviews and buy both books: https://www.amazon.co.uk/sheila-williams/e/B013G9O87C
About Sheila Williams.
Sheila Williams, author, slipped into this world on Guy Fawkes night, under cover of fireworks and bonfires. Outraged to find other nurslings in the nest, she attempted to return to her own world but found the portal closed.
Adopting a ‘make the best of it’ attitude she endured a period of indoctrination to equip her for her place in society. This included learning a language that no-one ever speaks and making complex calculations of no perceivable value.
Freeing herself as soon as possible from such torture, she embarked on a series of adventures – or to use the vernacular – careers; hospital manager, business consultant, life coach, sheep farmer. She attempted to integrate into society by means first of marriage and then partnered before setting out alone to discover another world, known as France, where she now resides.
Always fascinated by these humans amongst whom she dwells, she has developed an interest in psychology, magic, the supernatural, ghosts, Ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. Dark thoughts and black humour lurk within her.
In her quest to understand this world she pursues knowledge of its history; not of kings and queens but of its ordinary people and how they lived and worked. To this end, she haunts events such as boot fairs, vide-greniers and sales rooms where many ancient artefacts can be uncovered.
She lives without the box of sound and pictures known locally as television and hence her already limited social skills are further curtailed not having a clue who came dancing with whom or who had talent…or not. She does however have access to something called DVDs and hibernates over winter with a large stack of them. When spring arrives she may be found cherishing the plants in her garden, whistling with the birds and holding deep meaningful conversations with the resident toad who, one day, she hopes may turn into her prince and keep her in the manner to which she would like to become accustomed
Her outlets from this unfathomable world include nature, animals (especially funny videos of), books and writing stories. This latter occupation enables her to create her own worlds, populate them and dispose of the residents as she thinks fit. She finds holding the fate of these poor souls in her hands immensely satisfying.
Connect to Sheila Williams
My thanks to Sheila for sharing one of the stories in her new collection and I would be grateful if you could share. I will be back on Monday to respond to your comments. Thank you Sally