Since it’s Halloween, I figure it’s a good time to post a full-text version of “Voices,” a horror story that was featured last year on the excellent podcast Pseudopod. As a bonus (or minus, depending on your take), I’m including my original ending. It was cut from the podcast version of the story on the advice of the editors. I’d gotten the same feedback from several other readers and editors, so I was fine with the cut and subsequent cliffhanger, but I’ve kind of always liked the original ending. It’s the italicized passage at the end of the piece. Feel free to hit me with feedback, whatever way you feel about the ending or the story as a whole. Thank you for your consideration.
By Ira Brooker
It was just after sundown when we heard the first voice, a faraway voice, whispery, wheezy, barely distinguishable from the howl of the wind that bore it. “Lessss… innnnn…” was what I heard. Not quite words but near enough that I ran to Mother on the other side of the room.
“Mother, did you-” I began. She silenced me with a raised index finger.
“Yes, I heard it,” she said. Her face was cautious, a look that was not quite fear but concern that soon it would be time for fear. Tomas huddled close to the hem of her skirt, happily pushing a stone around the barnwood floor. “Hush now and listen,” Mother said.
I kneeled beside Mother and we listened. The wind was strong, stronger than I had heard yet this season, screeching across the prairie in a fury that told us snow was imminent. We listened hard, trying to ignore Tomas’s occasional babbles and squeals. After a few moments the voice came again, clearer this time, closer, but still that eerie whisper. “Let… usss… innnnn…”
“There is someone out there!” I gasped. “Mother, someone is out in that wind!” I leapt to my feet and strode toward the door. Mother’s hand shot out and gripped me by the wrist, squeezing tightly enough that I winced.
“Nein!” she hissed. “Do not open the door!”
“But someone is out there!” I said. “They may freeze to death on a night like this!”
“Nein!” she said again, this time with a ferocity I had never heard from her. Her eyes stared straight ahead, burning into the thick wooden door as though she could see through to the other side. The look on her face sent a chill rolling from my scalp to the pit of my stomach.
“Let us in!” The call came again, this time sounding as though the speaker was just outside the door. “We are cold! Have mercy, as a Christian!” The voice was hoarse, croaking, just as could be expected from anyone traveling through a tempest such as this. I turned my pleading face toward Mother. She sat stern and resolute in her wooden rocker. Tomas had heard the voices now and looked up at us querulously. Mother’s lips were drawn tight, her nostrils flared as she stared and listened. A faint tap-tap-tap began at the door.
“Mother, what is wrong? Who is at the door?” I asked.
“Vampyr,” she whispered. “They have come for the sick.”
We were a week into the harvest when Father fell ill. It was a good year for wheat. It had been a pleasure to watch the heads shimmering fat and golden as the sun rose over the plain. Father and Peter and I were in the field every morning when the first light fell, Father handling the scythe while Peter collected the grain and I guided the mule. This was the first year I was allowed to help in the harvest, as I was now eight years old and finally strong enough to keep the mule in line. The work was hard and I ended every day so exhausted that I fell asleep as soon as I finished my supper, but I was elated to be of use and to spend the day sweating with Father and Peter rather than helping Mother with the washing and baking and keeping Tomas out of trouble.
I had never seen Father happier. I had heard he and Mother talking at night, speaking softly in a mix of German and the halting English Father insisted they use around us children, she lamenting ever having left Germany and he assuring her that these 10 acres of Minnesota prairie land would be our fortune yet. They had come over the ocean from the Kempen district, in the West, Father bringing a small purse of savings from his own family’s wheat farm and Mother bringing nothing but the scanty dowry her parents had pulled together. They had planned to push as far as Nebraska but Mother’s pregnancy with Peter was difficult and so they broke off their travel here on this Minnesota ridge, amidst a small settlement of other Germans who pitched in and helped Father build a sturdy log house before the winter settled in. It was no mansion, just two rooms with a table and chairs, a fireplace, a bed and palettes for each child. The hickory rocker had been Father’s gift to Mother the previous Christmas. I knew the story of the house very well because Father never tired of telling it on windy nights such as this.
When Father took sick he tried to make us believe it was only a passing cold. He stayed in the field all day, swinging the blade and pausing frequently to cough and blow his nose into handfuls of chaff. He carried on like that for two days until he finally collapsed on the morning of the third. Peter and I helped him to his feet and guided him back to the house. Mother put him to bed while Peter rode for the doctor, who arrived that evening with a bottle of vile-smelling medicine. Three days later Peter was on a palette beside Father, both of them sweating and tossing and catching fitful bouts of sleep. Mother and I tried our best to comfort them while taking turns harvesting what wheat we could and tending to Tomas. Two or three times a neighbor stopped by to help in the field, but when a week had passed and Father and Peter showed no improvement, the neighbors stopped coming for fear that the sickness would spread. Now the wheat lay rotting in the field and the cold had come upon us.
The tapping at the door became louder, faster. Mother rose from her chair, stepping over Tomas as he began to whimper. I knelt beside him and stroked his smooth, golden hair. “Let us in,” the voice croaked again, not quite menacing but calm and insistent. “We are cold and we are hungry.”
Mother walked to the door, turning to me and raising a finger to her lips. She stood before the door with her mouth slightly open, as if searching for the words that would make everything right. “We have no room for visitors and the baby is sleeping,” she finally said. “You may rest in the shed so long as you are on your way before morning.” I could hear a tremor in her voice but only just slightly.
There was silence in the room, broken only by the wet sound of Tomas sucking on his knuckles. Mother and I looked at each other, neither daring to breathe. The fireplace cast a meager glow across the room. Then the hissing voices erupted anew. “Let usss in! We must come in the house. The shed will never do!” The words seemed to come from several voices yet they all spoke as one. “We are cooooold. Let us innnnn.”
“Demons!” Mother snapped. “You shall not enter this house!” Her voice was suddenly savage, rasping with an intensity far beyond her usual soft-spoken, almost timid diction. She turned toward me with her eyes aflame. “Fetch your father’s rifle!”
I swallowed hard and ran to the bedroom. Tomas toddled past me, his chubby hand reaching for the hem of Mother’s dress. Even though I was not yet allowed to take the rifle out hunting myself, I knew just where it was kept. The house was small and spare enough that we all knew where to find anything that was put to regular use. Even in my terror, I still hesitated a fraction of a moment before opening the heavy wooden door and stepping into the bedroom. Every time I laid eyes on Father and Peter lying there in their misery my insides swelled with an awful dread. I edged my way through the darkened room, the dull stink of their sweaty bodies and sour breath filling my nostrils. The tapping at the door kept growing louder. I fumbled in the shadows beside Father’s bed, trying not to glance in his direction, until my fingers found the cold metal of the rifle barrel propped in the corner. I lifted it carefully, cradling the heavy wooden stock against my shoulder as I scooped up the box of shells. I turned to hurry back toward Mother. The voices were hissing again, their tone piercing deeper than the howl of the wind. “Let us in. We must come in. We smell your sickness. We hunger for it.”
I stopped cold in my tracks. Suddenly I felt a slimy hand grasping at my arm. I shrieked out loud, my legs nearly giving out underneath me. I looked down to see Father’s hand tugging at my sleeve. “Are they come?” he wheezed. “Are they come for me?” I forced myself to gaze into his face, his cheekbones sunken, his rusty blonde beard thick and matted with spittle, his steel-blue eyes almost glowing up at me out of the darkness.
“No, father,” I said, laying the back of my hand against his sallow cheek. “No one is come. There is a coyote bothering the hens, that is all.” My knees wobbled pitifully as I slid out of the bedroom.
Mother was moving from the door to either window and back again, checking and re-checking that all were fastened securely. Father had built each window with thick, wooden shutters as a defense against windy nights such as these. The door was even thicker, four inches of hard pine with a bulky metal bolt sealing it shut. I told myself that if a prairie wind couldn’t penetrate these walls, neither could whoever was out there.
“Mother, who are they? What do they want?” I whispered, handing her the rifle. She held Tomas tucked in the crook of her left arm, him staring at the door, his lower lip trembling.
“We smell your sickness!” the voices howled. “We hunger for it! Let us in!” After each outburst they went silent for a long moment, save for the steady tapping at the door. Their quiet was somehow even worse than their shrieking.
Mother passed Tomas to me and began loading bullets into the rifle with shaking fingers. “Vampyr,” she said softly. “They feed on the sick. I thought they would not follow us to America.” She looked at me and for a moment I thought she would break down crying. She took a deep breath to regain her composure.
“Back home there was a rich family. They had a large farm overlooking the valley where we lived. I was friends with their little boy, Rolf. Almost every day after I had finished my chores he would come down the hill to my house or I would walk up to his and we would play. One day I reached his door and his nurse came out and told me that Rolf was very sick and would not be able to play for several days. I was sad but I went home and played by myself. Three days later I went back up the hill and was told that Rolf was still sick. I was bored with my games at home and so I explored the woods behind Rolf’s house until it was nearly dark. As I walked down into the valley in the dusk I saw three people making their way up the path. Something about their movements made me very frightened. I left the path and hid in the tall grass alongside the ditch. Soon I saw they were dressed all in black, with hoods pulled up over their heads. The closer they came, the colder the air around me seemed to grow. They moved so strangely, lurching more than walking. My legs wanted very badly to run away but my mind would not allow me to move. As they drew even to me, the one nearest me turned its head in my direction. Its face seemed to glow beneath the hood, white and dead-looking like the belly of a fish. It was like a man’s face but also like an animal’s. A lizard. A bat. An insect. Something horrible. It smiled and I knew it saw me in the grass. Then it spoke to me, with the voice of the things you hear outside tonight. ‘Not today, child. But we shall see you again.’ They continued on up the hill and I leaped out of the grass and ran for my house. I sobbed in my mother’s lap and she tried to comfort me but I knew she was frightened too. Later that evening Rolf’s father came to our door. He was weeping and his shirt was stained with vomit. He said the Vampyr had come. They had tricked the nurse into opening a side door and Rolf was dead. No one had seen them come or go but all had heard the voices. ‘They smelled his sickness! They smelled his sickness and they have fed on my son!’ he shouted. I had never seen a man cry before. It frightened me even more than knowing that my friend was dead. I think of his wailing face always.”
Mother had finished loading the rifle. Tomas had begun crying in my arms some time during her story but I had not noticed it until now. “What… what can we do?” I asked.
She hoisted the gun onto her shoulder and stared at the door. She shook her head somberly. “My mother told me that they cannot enter a place unless someone opens a door to them. She said that they cannot walk in the sunlight. I cannot say if she was correct. Perhaps they will go away if we keep the doors closed until morning. For now, Tomas is hungry. I will watch the door while you feed him.” The fear was gone from her face now that her story was told, replaced by something cold and unrecognizable.
I nodded and walked to the pantry, bouncing Tomas against my chest and murmuring to him. Outside the tapping at the door ceased suddenly, only to be replaced by a dreadful grating sound, as though claws were being pulled along the walls of the house. “Let us iiiiiin,” the voices hissed again. I shuddered as I poured a small bowl of meal, setting Tomas down on the floor as I lifted the kettle from over the fireplace and stirred hot water into the bowl. In the bedroom Father and Peter rolled and rustled. Suddenly Father’s voice called out, “They are come for me! Keep them away!” Peter began to moan, a low, pained whine that pierced my ears nearly as painfully as the voices outside.
Mother rushed past me, still toting the rifle. “Feed the baby!” she barked. “I will care for them.” I pushed a spoonful of the hot meal toward Tomas, who gobbled it eagerly. I could hear Mother speaking to Father and Peter in the low, soothing tone she had been using to calm their fever-terrors for days now. The scraping of claws against the wood kept on, like racoons fighting their way into a silo. I continued feeding Tomas, trying my hardest to think of anything else.
Then I heard the voices again, closer this time, almost as if they were whispering into my ear. “Chiiiild…” I whipped my head around but found no one there. “Child. Please help us. The woman is confused. Her memories are blurred by time and fear and superstition. We have come to help you. We smell the sickness within. We can eat it away. We can make your sick well again. We need only your permission. Let us in. Let us in.”
I sat quietly, not daring to respond. Tomas whimpered and I mechanically scooped another spoonful at him. I had no reason to believe the voices. I had no reason to doubt Mother. And yet, something in their words rang true. Had we not been praying every morning and every night for the Lord to send us a miracle? Did not Jesus teach that he might come to our door as a downtrodden beggar? Was it unthinkable that angels might appear in the form of demons as a test of faith?
Mother stepped back into the room with a heavy sigh. Father and Peter still groaned and jabbered in the bedroom. The clawing at the walls grew louder, the voices seeming to come from all sides. “Let us in. Let us in. Let us iiiiiiinnnn.” Tomas knocked the spoon from my hand and began wailing. My head pounded as though something inside was trying to kick its way out. Mother scooped Tomas up and whispered in his ear, cradling his head against her left shoulder with the rifle barrel tucked against her right. His cries did not abate. The cacophony in the house was overwhelming. “I- I- I need to use the outhouse,” I gasped.
Mother’s face spun toward me. “Nein! You will not leave this house tonight. If you must, there is the bucket in the bedroom.” The skittering scrapes of the claws had made its way to the roof now. “Woman,” the voices hissed. “Let us help you. Let us heal your sick. We want only the sickness. We will do no harm.”
I stood up and staggered toward the bedroom, my eyes still fixed on mother. She jabbed toward the ceiling with the rifle, even though she must have known no one could see the gesture. “I have buried two children already!” she snapped. “I will not give up another!” I winced at her words. Mother never spoke of my dead sisters, the two babies born between myself and Tomas. I had no memory of the first one, who had died after two weeks when I was still a baby myself. The other, named Ava, I recalled only faintly, although I was never certain if I was really remembering her or confusing her infancy with Tomas’s. She had been a little over a year old when she went to sleep in the afternoon and simply never woke up. Father had dug small graves for both girls behind the house. I had seen Mother lingering by the plot on many mornings.
In the bedroom I groped for the wooden bucket, the smell of it only slightly more rank than the smell of sickness hovering in the air. I was relieved to find it empty. Father rolled slowly back and forth in the bed, still murmuring, “They are come. They are come.” I had no reply for him. The clatter of feet and hands ran all across the house. I thought the things must be scaling the building like spiders. I knelt in the dark and squatted over the bucket without a thought toward my modesty. There had been no secrets in this house for a long time. I clasped my hands over my ears as I emptied my bowels and tried to think of anything but what was happening around me.
I placed the lid back on the bucket when I was finished and began stumbling my way back to the front room. As I passed Peter’s palette, I felt a sudden swell of pity. I knelt down beside him and placed a hand on his sweaty shoulder. “Don’t worry, Peter,” I whispered. “They will go away when the morning comes.”
Peter stirred in the dark. I could not see his face but I knew he was looking up at me. “Please, do not make them go away,” he groaned. His words sounded as though they were being dragged across a bed of rocks on their way out of his mouth. “They can help. They have been speaking to me. They can take away the sickness. They can make the pain go away. Let them in! You must let them in!” His voice rose to something close to a shout, his hands grasping air. I recoiled and fell back against the wall. Father sat up in bed and began to wail. “They will have us! We cannot keep them out!”
I had not cried yet despite the horrors of the evening but now I began. The tears burned down my cheeks like hot rain, my sobs mingling with the cries of Father and Peter. The voices pierced through the wood and mortar of the walls. “Let us help your sick! Give us the sickness!” Suddenly Mother’s frame filled the doorway, a black silhouette against the feeble firelight. She gripped the rifle in both hands. I wiped away my tears with the back of my hand, trying to appear strong for her sake. She did not speak, the only one of us capable of silence. She made a slight, slow motion and for a moment she appeared to be leveling the rifle. She turned toward father, then toward Peter, and finally toward me. I sat perfectly still, my back against the hard wood, eyeing Mother’s slight figure as it tapered down into the rifle barrel. For several long seconds neither of us moved. Father and Peter’s moaning faded into the background, though I was still very aware of the sound of claws scrabbling along the walls. Finally Mother took a step into the room, lowering the gun as she entered. “See to Tomas,” she said softly.
I rose carefully and rushed past Mother, not daring to look her in the face. Tomas was lying on his stomach on a woven blanket, rocking back and forth the way he usually did just before falling asleep. I knelt beside him and stroked his back. I knew I would not be sleeping this night but I was glad that one of us could find some peace.
“Child!” the voices shrilled again, penetrating my head with splitting force. “Time grows short! Your sick need aid. Let us in. Let us fill our bellies and ease the suffering. Let us in. Let us in. Let. Us. Innnnnnn.”
“But… but Mother…” I murmured.
“The woman does not understand! She is blinded by fear and superstition. You alone can help your sick. Let us in!” And now the voices rose in pitch, their words becoming a wild, howling chant of “LET US IN LET US IN LET US IN LET US IN LET US IN LET US IN LET US IN” until I knew I could bear no more. I took my hand from Tomas’s back and stood, moving shakily toward the door, my eyes fixed on the thick metal bolt holding it closed against the wind. I saw my hand reaching out as though it belonged to someone else. Behind me I heard Mother enter the room and gasp. “Nein!” she shouted. “You must not!” I did not reply nor even turn my head. The voices swirled into an unintelligible frenzy of sound as my hand fell upon the bolt and all went black.
The first thing I was aware of when next I opened my eyes was silence. The voices were gone, the noises from the bedroom stilled, an absence of sound that filled me with a profound sense of peace. I was standing near the door. The first red beams of sunlight were beginning to filter through the cracks. Morning had come.
I became aware that I was not alone in the doorway. I looked up and saw a very large man peering down at me with a broad, expressionless face. He wore the same plain brown jacket and dark denim trousers as most of the farmers I had met, but I did not recognize him. I realized that I was not frightened to find this strange man standing in my home. Slowly, I also realized why.
“You are here to take me,” I said.
“I am,” he answered.
“The voices in the night… Were they truly the Vampyr as mother said?”
“They were not. They were something far worse.” He spoke plainly, his voice much gentler than his massive frame would suggest. I stood silently for a long moment and he remained quiet by my side. Finally I spoke again.
“And the sickness they hungered for, it was mine?”
Something flashed in my head, a vague recollection of vomit and fever and agony. “Have I been sick for a very long time?”
“You are asking questions to which you already know the answers.”
I was quiet for another moment, understanding that he was correct. “Are we going to… to a better place?” I finally stammered.
“We are going to another place,” he said.
“And Father? And Peter?”
“They may join us soon, or perhaps later, or perhaps not at all. For now it is only you and I. We must be going. The journey ahead of us is long.”
I wanted to look back at the house, to lay eyes upon Mother and Tomas, to hear Father’s troubled breathing from the next room, but every time I turned my head my eyes fell only upon the heavy wooden door, as though the room was moving to match my gaze.
“May I at least say goodbye?” I asked.
“Goodbye is useless,” he said, not unkindly. “It is time.”
He turned toward the door. In an instant I found myself outside the house. The wind still blew bitterly but I did not feel the chill. The large man beckoned. I lowered my head and began to follow him up the road as the sunrise spread its cold red light across the fields of rotting wheat.