Ishmael House stands along a small stretch of gravel road leading up a hill away from our town. A two-storey granite brick sentry that appears, alongside an old and dying ash tree as no more than an accent stretching out onto desolate sky. The boundary, not that it is needed, is a fence that seems as ancient and mortal as the tree it surrounds. At sunset, from the road at the perimeter of the town, the house’s castellated silhouette gives the impression of some immense and godless tower behind low castle walls.
Four rooms, four large windows and a door scattered along the face, two more along its westward wall to catch the sun, and an oddly accented rear with the curtains always drawn. Its occupant, a man of some sixty odd years, or forty very bad ones: a frail, gaunt fellow named Abel Barra.
Old Abel Barra, whose small, slender frame and dark, deep-set eyes always seemed to be regarding you from a thousand miles away, sometimes shambled away from the town, his shadow disappearing beneath the outline of the hilltop, though never before dusk. Old Abel Barra never came down from that hill, not to the barber Ol’ Sal nor the bar, the old Nest & Eagle. Not to LaVue’s butchers nor the grocer. Never down to The Wellspring for a meal. Our community had not heard word nor whistle from the man for perhaps ten or fifteen years, when he still could have been considered a relatively new face. Nobody really remembered.
Those years ago, when he might occasionally visit, he might nestle in a corner in the early evening nursing a neat Scotch or three – a quiet man, quiet company – or queue in LaVue’s for some steak or some lamb, or sit in Ol’ Sals for a shave and a trim, but rarely did he speak but for gratitude and small queries: how was your day, your wife, how have you been.
We saw him as quite the curiosity, moseying about in a fitted but well-worn suit, leaning lightly on a cane with smart but weather-beaten shoes, eyes usually laid low behind his brass-rimmed glasses, beneath the brim of a trilby or a flat cap, no jewellery but for a gaudy old watch or, on occasion, a slightly nicer one on a chain.
One evening, early, intrigue and ale overcame our courtesy. Cooms and I joined Old Abel Barra in his corner, over at the Nest & Eagle. The only place in town, and it was a fine place. Dark stained oak walls, deep brown leather seats, all illuminated in a calm warm glow by the open fire and soft pendant lights, the smell of cigarettes, liquor and beer, the ambiance of never less than two dozen voices and as many conversations on any given night. We carried him over a tulip of Clynelish 19 year, neat. Surprised but thankful, or perhaps obligated, he invited us both to take a seat.
He knew how to speak in such a manner so that a man could learn little about him without being a mute. His slight accent, puzzling, pleasant and foreign. We three mused briefly on topics such as how he liked it here: (“Oh, I like it fine, it’s such a quiet, pleasant place.”): how he liked his drink (“Oh, it’s lovely, how did you know I liked it neat?”), what his hobbies were (“Oh, me, I like really old movies. The black and white ones where they sing.”). He complimented my watch, a Nomos Zurich Weltzeit Nachtblau (“such an elegant complication…”) and asked after Cooms’ auto repair on the other side of town (“Such a wonderful way to make a living. Out here, so far from everywhere, nobody would be able to do anything but for you.”).
After an hour or so, as he laughed at our jokes and nodded along politely, Old Abel Barra thanked us, quietly paid our tab and had the barman bring us three more each after he took his leave.
We saw him for another few months after this, occasionally. The same kind of shallow and polite speak, and then it seemed he vanished into the air for a while.
Months passed, and we’d see lights behind windows at the face of the house shift from room to room. At dusk we’d occasionally see him slowly amble east over the hill. We’d see him cleaning his garden within his rickety fence or we’d see him struggle to tend to his tree, dying though it may have been.
Old Abel Barra became an object of some macabre fascination. It gets dark around here early, and not a great deal happens.
Old Abel Barra never strolled down to the barbers, nor the bar, nor the butcher nor the grocer. Not a soul in the town ever again heard him speak.
This was, of course, unheard of in little places like ours, where names were as well known as the stories that carried them, where secrets were an impossibility, a liability and a burden.
Ishmael House and Old Abel Barra became an object of some macabre fascination. It gets dark around here early, all year round, and not a great deal happens. Understand, this house, which is after all just a spectral outline looming on an otherwise blank horizon, its tenant a stranger overlooking our presumptuous town, behind ghostly lights, backlit by sunset tending to a dying yard or a dying tree or a shadow simply melting beneath the hilltop as it walked away. After a year, the Nest & Eagle, Ol’ Sals barbers, LaVue’s butchers, the grocer, The Wellspring, the schools, any place of opportunity for small talk or big talk or bigger ideas became a source of speculation as to what was happening up at the strange house and the strange man atop the hill. Hell, Cooms Auto Repair on the other side of town even got wind of the whispers.
So it became that we couldn’t help but notice those strange goings-on, up on that hill at Ishmael House.
One, maybe two nights a week, a truck would come up from the road leading out of town south by the house, drive by the fence and around the rear, its headlights framing that dead old fence and its cracked peaks. Just as quickly as it arrived, it would pull away again, staying never more than a few minutes.
“What do you think that is?”
“Could be drugs, or maybe… I mean, who does that? Simply passed by for a few minutes and drives away to do the same the following week?”
“He’s too old for all that!”
“Honey, we have no idea how old the man is.”
So the man might have been running some operation a few towns over. Three drinks deep at the bar it seemed to make sense. He never left for work. Old Abel Barra didn’t seem to have a car and hell knows he didn’t work down here. A man of indeterminate age and some source of income nobody could figure out. How can a man make a living if a man never leaves his house?
Leigh LaVue mentioned he’d always found him strange, always wondered why Cooms and I would occasionally spend some time with him, never knew quite what to make of it all.
That was not a solitary oddity by any means.
Far past Ishmael House, up some ways along that gravel road, when you reached the wood, to the south there was a spring. Tucked comfortably in a grove, it was the closest thing our idyllic little town had to a lovers’ lane in the evenings, or a source of entertainment during the day, outside of the bar or the tiny movie theatre or the flat green expanses that lay north, which played host to any sport you can name.
Whoever would walk by or walk home would return with yet another odd story: new wild rumours.
No shortage of passers-by would happen by Ishmael House, though, it must be said, if it was dusk or past and we could see that shadow in his yard or by that tree, or his outline sinking south into that hill, people tended to wait. Whoever would walk by or walk home would return with yet another odd story, regardless. New wild rumours.
At night, as had been noticed, it was fairly common for one room to have a light on, an ethereal and subtle sepia pouring through the glass onto the yard.
More than once, it had been seen, a shadow at the window that did not wave, nor move but for the head following those who made their way toward or from the spring.
Folks coming down by the road often stopping for a moment, but no matter which room of those four, no matter which floor, the shadow would always stay. Over the years, it may have unsettled a few people and ruined many an optimistic boy’s evening.
This was not just limited to nights. People – children, families – ambling by in the light of day came back with reports of an outline of a shadow within the shadows of those windows.
And we all wondered, had Old Abel Barra gone mad? Was he terrified, struck dumb by paranoia so that anyone who might stroll by must do so under his gaze? Did he have a shotgun perched beneath the window frame? Or a pitchfork right near, should anyone try and take from him? Perhaps an old man alone was just being cautious.
Talk spread that maybe he was ogling the women as they walked by, thinking himself a stealthy voyeur, unaware how clearly he could be seen behind the pane. After all, nobody had seen him with another person in a year. Perhaps his lusting was after the men. After all, no one had ever discerned his preference for either.
Some snarled questions of if they should be concerned with the children. Whispered questions about whether Old Abel Barra was, in fact some kind of shorteye and about whether maybe they should give him a reason to stop staring out of windows as people made their way.
Stories arose of how ghostly lights flickered, not the pale citrus sepia but misty strobing flashes, but that ever-present shadow still stood. Was this stranger a man who was trying to frighten people away?
The town was a well of murmurs and rumours that were not soon to pass away.
Why but for the trucks visits, and the silhouettes of tending trees and roots and the shadow in the window or disappearing was the man never seen? How did he spend his days? Whispers of heroin or alcohol or hiding from the law came about, positing that he had slain his wife or some poor man and perhaps he felt it was for the best to never be seen, never be heard lest some old familiar recognise him and send the authorities his way. A thousand revelations born of drunken nights and years of wondering why and who and what Old Abel Barra became, our morbid fascinations buffering the sails of the mill our community had made.
All a seed needs is time, and our seed had plenty.
Some months later, in the soft glow of the pendant lights amongst all the leather and oak and firelight and smoke, Laura Jayne St. Claire spoke of a late night when she had happened upon him at the cusp of the hill, speaking in tongues, staring at the moon. Whatever narcotic prayer or alcohol-fuelled curse had taken him that he acted like a wild man, and sounded like a beast. Naked but for his boxers and oblivious to her presence as she hid by a bush halfway down the hill.
It was a tumultuous storm: rain and rain and rain again all through autumn.
The Nest & Eagle hushed quiet as she took her stage and our conversation turned to what a strange man Old Abel Barra was, indeed. Well, we said, surely he’s become unhinged, or surely it’s drugs, or surely it’s drink. He must have cases of Scotch or mountains of junk or too much time to think. This man who hides from us or the law, with his strange visitor coming once a week, presumably to deliver whatever devil the man needs.
Soon after came the rains, and the difficult year.
It was a tumultuous storm for a few days, and then weather like we had never seen. Rain and rain and rain again all through autumn. All of us dashed from doorways to wherever we were going, completely unprepared for the worst bout of weather in some two decades. Darkness came even earlier those days, the sky ever mottled black and grey, sometimes veined with sapphire lightning roaring through the opaque thunder that seemed to make the walls tremble.
Weather like that will bring a town like ours to a standstill. Not much to do but visit one another or watch films at the theatre, the occasional lunch at the Wellspring and of course, evenings spent in the warm firelight of our beloved Nest & Eagle.
Talk of Old Abel Barra died down, with nobody outside to keep an eye on him, or his weekly visits or his lights and shadows flickering. Until one particularly thunderous evening, Ol’ Sal walks in, and announces, “That madman is tending to his tree, atop a ladder, in a storm like this.”
So we all decided the poor fellow had lost his mind. That’s what it had been all along. Until Ms. St. Claire, who’d been drinking gin and tonics since mid-afternoon, stands and announces, “What if it was that evening I saw that lunatic screaming his madness on the hill?”
Speculation made for good conversation but no new revelations came of it. The idea that the quiet old man had somehow cursed the town seemed, even for all of us, too far-fetched.
The man may be taken by madness or be taken by drink, too good to visit the town but good enough to watch us all from the windows. He may be a hermit on the edge of the town, but to dabble in witchcraft? Ms. St. Claire. Please sit down.
Soon and later, Mrs. Xū lost her husband. Woke to find him cold in their bed. Ran in to the town centre screaming for a doctor or a priest or a miracle, collapsing to her knees, still in her gown. Nobody knew what to do, and the town sank into mourning. Bohai Xū had been one of the pillars of the community, founding The Wellspring with his beloved wife some twenty years gone, as well as being the one to loan Ol’ Sal the means to open up the barbers.
He had been in perfect health, barely breaching fifty-five and never a smoker nor a drinker. His death even baffled Dr. Glen, the town’s respected surgeon, who could find no trace of malady or malign influence nor a reason for his passing.
In shock-gilded grief, we made our way north to the cemetery, and observed a sombre service. The whole town was there but for a solitary man.
The weeks that followed cleared the weather. Evenings in the Nest & Eagle, chit-chat over at LaVue’s butchers, especially at Ol’ Sal’s barbers where every haircut came with a complimentary bleating about Old Abel Barra, all gave way to more fated murmurs. Every resident of the town had been more frequent at The Wellspring in an attempt to try and support Mrs. Xū in her time of need. All of us to a man, woman and child, as a good community should.
All but for one, who had yet to even pay a visit.
Whispers sprung up of his peculiarities, for what kind of a person doesn’t walk down to a town for over two years, for how could anyone bear not to come and pay their respects to poor Mrs. Xū? So freshly bereaved. He may be too good for us all but he might at least traipse down from his old tower between drinks.
What kind of a person doesn’t walk down to a town for over two years?
What kind of a man watches children from the window? A demonic shadow in spectral flickering lights. A ghost who’s only ever noticed when he’s in his yard or has his back to the town. Keeping strange hours and with his strange visitors, never emerging in the daylight or uttering so much as a whisper.
The children began to chatter. We’d hear the stories they carried home from school. Old Abel Barra, boogeyman on the hill. Best behave or mother will send you up to Ishmael House to be eaten by the grey man with the cane. Get to bed early, for that man in the suit stalks the town at night to take children away, sell them to the collectors who visit and it’s the last you’ll be seen. Careful now or the ghoul on the hilltop will feed you to his tree.
The imaginations of children have always been remarkable things.
And that was the beginning of how it began. Old Abel Barra became the malady of the town.
When the Paige farm’s crop failed, new mutterings sparked, for it had never happened since the plowing of that two hundred year lot.
The town started to grumble, for without the long drive south the grocery would be all but as barren as the fields. LaVue’s butchers would fret about the slendering animals, no grain, smaller pigs, smaller cattle. Where would the wonderful produce come from that The Wellspring relied upon for their delicately prepared foods? The community knew that we would have to pull together with strenuous effort to get our idyllic little town through.
And beneath the hazel lustre of the Nest & Eagle, as we drowned our frustrations. Ms. St. Claire’s wild accusations seemed a little more tame. In the history of the town we had never heard or seen such trouble.
“I hear that old man dabbles in the occult.”
Those flickering lights that didn’t quite spill from the curtains as much as push against them in futile attempt to escape. Old Abel Barra, who tended to a dying tree in the dead of dark. A villain never seen in sunlight. What if he had thrown his hands up and cursed the town? Summoned a storm that lasted weeks, as if to cripple us. He must have known that it would paralyse our contented lives? Could he have laid waste to poor Bohai Xū? Slowly and slowly, insights born of ill tempered and inebriated speculations began to make sense, before the fire and the oak and the pendant lights and the leather.
He was biding his time. Waiting for Abaddon to send him the right woman or child to pass by Ishmael House alone at night. He had cast some spell so that nothing grew, or conspired with his visitor to salt the fields, that mad old drunk in that strange old house with its dying old tree. He looks down on this town in the passing light, or the dead of night.
Of course, in the morning, these murmurs passed away with the lingering headaches, and we as a community struggled through. Driving up that gravel road, over that hill and to the town down south, past the tree and the fence and that old grey house.
That mad old drunk in that strange old house with its dying old tree. He looks down on this town in the passing light, or the dead of night.
We’d notice that shadow by a window in sidelong glances, never slowing, never stopping. We’d pass again at or after sundown and see that sepia glow, or those fluttering wraith-like whites, and that silhouette by the window. We’d see him tending his yard or his tree, but never letting his eyes fall or rise to ours. Old Abel Barra, an odd one indeed.
Around this time, at the Nest & Eagle, and LaVue butchers and Ol’ Sal with his haircuts and spite, or down at The Wellspring, at the schools and the fields, our conversations fell often on Ishmael House and its malign tenant. It wouldn’t be long before some brazen people in the town began to take matters into their own hands.
It began innocently enough, with the games of children who braved their curfews, their mothers’ furies and the threat of being gathered up by the Grey Man to throw eggs at his house.
The next day, there he was, as soon as the sun began to set. Old Abel Barra up on his ladder, cloth and bucket of soap in hand, cleaning up the mess.
“Serves him right,” some said of this man who looked down upon us. Each time it happened we waited for him to visit upon the village and demand some respect. Wait and wait we did.
Though no word ever came.
Not long after this began, Anna Bell Souchere’s cat went missing, nowhere to be found. Not a trail on the road, not a stain, not a sound. The Nest & Eagle began to grumble again beneath sienna pendant lights. It had to have been that madman’s fault, some vengeance for the eggs and the paper. Or he’d captured poor Mao as a necessary sacrifice for some witchcraft or ritual, something that didn’t bear thinking about.
The town bristled still. Why had he not come down? The children’s efforts redoubled. Flung eggs and arcs of paper, some oddities and crucifixes heaped into his yard.
Each time this happened, we’d see him up there, silhouetted on his ladder, pulling paper from his tree or against his house with soap and bucket, gathering the debris they’d left into a dark bag.
Again, we waited for his descent to rage against the village. How dare we vandalise his property? Can we not control our children?
No such anger ever came.
On nights without incident, he’d be seen, outlined by the sunset, tending his garden or his tree or sinking into the hilltop on his cane on the gravel road south.
Our mutterings began to include the idea that no man could be so patient. No man could be so silent. No mere man could abide such frequent inconvenience. So it became that when a child fell ill it was on the wings of some demon that he had sent, his pleasure being our discomfort, our confusion his revenge.
When the school caught fire, our eyes fell again to the top of that hill and we began to ponder.
When Ellie Reeds Percheron fell to equine dysautonomia it was at the behest of the archon who lived in that house. When the school caught fire and all those children had to be rushed to the playground or be razed asunder, our eyes fell again to the top of that hill and we began to ponder.
We’d have to tread lightly lest he bring a plague upon our town.
“If he wants to be alone, we’ll leave him alone.”
“If he can’t join us down here, let him stay where he is. Leave him to his drinks and his madness and his devil worship and his tree.”
“If he wants to, let him make his prison become his home”.
So we did. We warned the children to stop bothering him, to leave his house alone. No more eggs, no more paper, no more chicken bones.
So there was peace for a time. Murmurs beneath the pendant lights of the old Nest & Eagle made brief conversation of the shadow at the window, the silhouette in the tree or the shadow slinking down south, that cautionary tale. It became that the maladies that plagued our town subtly quieted.
Until one day there was nothing. And another. And another.
Conversation began. Old Abel Barra is nowhere to be seen. No flickering lights, no lights at all, no one tending to the tree.
Maybe he’s just had too much to drink. Doesn’t trust himself with a ladder. Or he’s taken a trip with his visitor. So we came to agree.
So passed the week.
On a Tuesday evening, as I nursed my drink, I heard a tiny storm of whispers and murmurs behind me. There was a woman standing outside of Ishmael House. A stunning blonde creature, you just have to see her. I, being married, stayed in my seat.
Ol’ Sal’s young son was the first to the street. We stepped outside, curiously, and watched him run up the hill like a dog in heat.
We watched their silhouettes as he introduced himself to the young woman, all hands and smiling gestures, then stillness and nodding, then sullenly looking down at his feet.
Quiet words were spoken, often glancing at a corner and an empty seat. There was no more rumour…
Little Sal looked downtrodden, hands in his pockets as he slowly mumbled something to Cooms, passing by as he watched the base of the gravel road. Cooms’ eyes widened, and he looked to me. I raised my shoulders and hands, unsure what he could mean.
Young Maya Barra descended the gravel road. Her blonde hair shone amber, haloed by the sunset and she with her glacial almond eyes looked over all who gathered of our little community.
Night came in the Nest & Eagle beneath sepia pendant lights and backs warmed by the fire, though there was no real revelry. No wild stories. No fingers to point so much as cradle glasses or steeple or kneading at temples. Quiet words were spoken, often glancing at a corner and an empty seat. There was no more rumour, no more anger, no more grinding of teeth.
Words rose of Old Abel Barra.
Perhaps he was a man who moved town, all those years ago, out of grief. Who could not stand to stay where he had lived within all those memories. Whose wife of thirty five years passed away and, overwhelmed by grief, a grief that he could not abide nor believe, he simply decided to leave.
The man that became prone to depression, who had never wanted to be a burden, to his daughter or the community or to Cooms and I.
In fact, perhaps he had been a man who talked for a month about Cooms and I buying him a drink. A sensitive man to whom a glance or a word could mean the world or undo everything. Perhaps he was the kind who needed to keep himself busy, be that making a watch for some money, a fine watch that could take him a month, or a very fine watch that may take him three. Maybe when the light got too low for his delicate complications and minuscule machinations, the kind of man who’d tender to his garden or tend to his tree. Even in the rain.
A man whose daughter brought him groceries once a week, every week when after one evening he managed to call up the courage to amble down that old gravel road, wandering into a bar called the Nest & Eagle and hearing some strange fiction about himself from a table with Leigh LaVue and Ol’ Sal. After this maybe Old Abel Barra didn’t feel like talking much anymore.
A man who walked south so he could look at the spring by the grove, or walk to a town twenty miles further so he could see his grandkids, an old man who had never asked for a lift. Nor was offered one.
A man who stood by his window when he heard the gravel rustle, so lonely that he couldn’t summon the courage to wave. Yet who just desperately wished to see people that weren’t on a screen.
A man who liked to watch old black and white movies where people dance and sing.
A man who was the subject of a lie told by Laura Jayne St. Claire after she’d had too much to drink.
A man who had no idea Mr. Xū had died, or that the crop at Paige Farm had failed, or that little cat Mao had ever run away.
A man who didn’t understand why people would throw things at his home, nor leave oddities in his yard, who simply shrugged it off thinking, children will be children.
A man who never took another, because he never got over the death of Mrs. Sandie Barra, all those years ago.
Old Abel Barra, who died profoundly alone, and went unnoticed for a week because not a soul came to call on him at his home.
Those are the stories we spoke of then. Those are the stories we speak of now.
Those, and a story about how that house may not have been the thing that was his prison.
Image credit: Geoffrey Teece