The abandoned house on the hill is haunted. All the children in the town know it. The adults don’t visit the place, and they don’t talk about it. Dirgle says the adults don’t talk about it because they are afraid. It’s why they don’t go up there. Plisk says it is because it isn’t haunted, and they don’t visit or talk about it because it is just an old building of no interest to anyone. All the other children in the town agree with Dirgle. The abandoned house on the hill is surely haunted.
One day, middle of a summer’s afternoon, some children are exploring the forest on the hill and come upon the clearing and the remains of the house stand on the brow of the hill in stark daylight. They poke sticks in the ground, kick the dusty ground, lie around watching the ants carrying bits of leaf and seeds amid the long grass, while the idea is mooted that they should go up there. So they do. Dirgle is one of them. He’s first to push open a shutter and peer into the darkness, the other children asking him what he sees. He waits a moment while his eyes get accustomed to the dim light. There’s shafts of light from cracks in the shutters enough to see by, a door is open and light is visible on stairs probably from a hole in the roof. He climbs inside.
There’s a table, an assortment of chairs, tattered tapestries on the walls, a large stone fireplace, and what looks like a mound of cloth or leathers and furs stuffed into the fireplace. A strange smell lingers, thick, a waxy heavy scent. Another child pokes their head through the shutters, whispers to Dirgle who points at the mound at the fireplace and then carefully creeps over to the door and peers through. There’s a small tree growing in a hallway beside the stairs, a large shaft of light from a hole in the roof as he first thought. Dirgle is the first of three who explore the inside of the house, the kitchen and two other rooms on the ground floor. They pluck enough courage to climb the creaking wooden stairs to the balcony with three rooms on the floor above. Only one of the children had been on a raised floor, it was strange to think of the air beneath the wooden boards. There’s furniture in the house, old linen, but no ghost.
Once out in the sunlight, walking down the hill, the two adventurers talk loudly, their chests sticking out, confident, recalling how they courageously explored the house. There was no ghost. But the other children suggest that ghosts only appear at night, not during the day. The three valiantly declare they would go at night, that night, and by the time they reach the forest’s edge they decide on who would bring a lantern. But when evening came, the group did not reassemble, no lantern was brought, and of the two brave adventurers only Dirgle was present. He couldn’t go to the house however much he wanted to without a lantern. So, over the next few days, the children gathered in different groupings and the story of Dirgle’s adventure spread, and recriminations between them as to who was afraid of going up to the haunted house at night.
After many days, and deep into summer, a small group of three, two boys Dirgle and Plisk and a girl Merit, walked over the open ground up to the abandoned house which loomed large and forboding black against the stary night sky. It was Dirgle who was again first. He snuck in and was told to lay the lantern on the ground so avoid the moving shadows as he turned one way and the other. The still yellow light from the lantern woke shadows from the objects in the room, and once it was all still, the others crept in through the broken shutter. They waited in the silence. But it wasn’t silent. As their ears got accustomed to being indoors, they heard small creaks from the walls, rustling from the ceiling, creaks from within the house. They stood crouched for a while like this.
“There is no ghost,” said Plisk, though he was afraid. His voice sounded thin in the dark. Shadows flickered as the flame from the lantern’s wick trembled. The darkness seemed alive.
That was as far as they got. They were too afraid to continue, and so they left the house, scrambling to be out first, then running down the hillside together, their muscles pumping, feeling their courage return. Once they told them, the other children were impressed by their adventure, and it became the highlight memory of that summer.
Years passed, the children grew, the house on the hill passed from conversation just as it did with adults. Nevertheless, incidents were reported. Sounds from the house one night when a shepherd had gone looking for a wandering goat which had found the grassland on the hill. Illicit visits by travellers who reported that something was indeed living up there, but it was only heard not seen. And even once when a child went missing, the townfolk had climbed up the hill with torches and lanterns and stood outside the house while the father and his brother had looked within. There was a suggestion to burn it down before they left, but they thought this might bring something worse down upon them, it was Imperial property, and if the owners ever returned there would be hell to pay if they were responsible.
“Let’s burn it down ourselves,” said Dirgle one morning. They were young adults now, Dirgle, Plisk and Merit, grown to be good friends who dreamed of life beyond the town. Each had daily tasks to complete, whether Plisk’s endless weeding in fields, gardens and orchards, or Merit’s drudgery of collection of wood from the forest, or Dirgle’s town work at his father’s tannery. They hardly had any time for themselves. Yet the thought lasted throughout summer like a candleflame in their minds. Only when they decided that the following year they would leave and seek their fortune in the city, did the thought of burning down the house on the hill flare into a real possibility. It would mark the end of their childhood. It would get rid of the old house and the fear associated with the place once and for all. It would be their service to the town, a beginning of their new lives together. Nobody would find out, it would be an accident.
Towards the end of summer, the three of them met at the fringes of the forest as twilight fell. They spoke furtively, swapping their worries of whether they had been seen by their families, or whether any had witness their supplies of oil depleted. As the shadows deepened and the stars appeared, they talked of the long summers they had lived in the town, the surrounding forest, the adventures they had. They all knew it was going to end, and if they did not leave next year, they would remain in the town, working at their parent’s shops in town, their fields, they would never leave the town. The house on the hill was black as a hole, and it took on all their fears about staying, the certainty their parents had, the repeated days, the sameness of life. It became a symbol to them. By changing this one thing, they were doing something significant. They were freeing the hill and themselves. And so they spoke deep into the evening as the stars appeared, and they waited until the moment arrived that action was required or the moment would pass. None of them felt the urge to start up the hill, and yet between them, they found themselves hurrying up the hillside worried that they would be spotted. They knew nobody was out there, not without a lantern which they could spot easily. It was dark around them. They were alone. As they approached the black house, they crouched as the childhood stories of the ghost arose in their memories, competing with the fear of their intent — they were going to burn down the house — and the anxiety they all felt that if they didn’t, they would remain in the town for the rest of their lives.
They had discussed the plan beforehand. Once in the house, they were to spread oil around, Merit the tableroom, Plisk the kitchen, and Dirgle would take the floor above. The summer had been long and dry, the old wood would take to fire quickly. It was important that they start the fire in order, first Dirgle in the first floor, then Plisk in the kitchen and lastly Merit in the final room which they would leave. Each would light a part of the fire, each would be responsible for the house burning, each was commiting to their future together the following year.
There was a problem with the plan. The tree which had taken root in the centre of the house had grown larger, pushed against the stairs and breaking the wooden boards, so Dirgle had to grab hold of branches to pull himself up what remained of the steps. Plisk and Merit watched his precarious ascent from below, their candlelight casting flicklering shadows from the branches of the tree like black arms across the walls and ceiling. Dirgle finally made it to the balcony where he dowsed the wick of his candle in some oil and tried to light it. The three strained to make out any sound in the house above the sharp clash struck flint. Finally the flame caught and they all breathed a sigh of relief. Plisk and Merit separated to their rooms below while Dirgle walked tentatively along the creaking balcony to one of the upper bedrooms.
The door was jammed, the hinges must have rusted. Dirgle pushed twice until it gave with a groan and something collapsed behind the door. A white cloud rose suddenly and Dirgle stood stock still, hand frozen around his candle, his eyes wide, ears straining. The cloud blew over Dirgle and he felt it settle against his face and around his ears, on the hairs of his head and down the back of his neck. From behind him he heard a whisper, “Who…?”
He wanted to jump round, turn to face it, but he couldn’t. He was paralysed. He had to force his body to turn, agonisingly slowly — and then he saw it! In the corner of his eyes a dark shape above the bed rising. His eyes flicked to it immediately, but it dispersed just as quickly. It escaping his vision, slipping into the shadows around the bed, along the edge of the door, and seemed to rise behind him. “Who calls me here?” came the voice again, louder.
Dirgle dropped his pot of oil which broke at his feet. The noise of the smashing pottery released him from his paralysis and he jumped back from the doorway. One foot fell through a partial hole in the balcony and he fell to the ground, he called out as he involuntarily dropped the candle which was in his hand, it flew through the air and rolled to a stop near the spilled oil. Dirgle’s eyes rose to the black rectangle of the doorway which seemed to swell and spread itself around the doorjamb and across the ceiling. Dirgle cried out in fear as a black form coallesced before him which the candlelight could not penetrate. The wrongness of it made his skin cold, a sickness in his stomach. And within the eyes of this black shape, for there was undeniable intent issuing from it, Dirgle saw himself, kneeling, his face stricken with fear. “You shall not leave this place,” came the voice like a whisper shouted loud. “You shall not leave!” Dirgle struggled to his knees and leaped from the balcony.
Plisk saw Dirgle leap through a break in the banister and into the tree, his foot slip off a branch and his body spin and crash against the remains of the stairs which collapsed and they all fell to the ground: branches, steps, banister and Dirgle. Plisk ducked to protect his candleflame from the cloud of choking dust which filled the hall. As the last of the noise of the collapsing stair passed, Merit appeared at her doorway, fear in her eyes. Plisk passed Merit his candle who had to awkwardly nestle her pot of oil in the crook of her arm so she could hold both candles. Plisk stumbled into the pile of broken wood and began pushing away broken bits of wood. The shadows flickered around them madly, the arms of the tree seemed to reach out to grab them, as Plisk finally managed to take hold of Dirgle and began dragging him from the debris. “There is no ghost,” said Merit, repeating Plisk’s childhood phrase, trying to fight her fear. She stepped back into the table room momentarily submerging Plisk in darkness, the shadows pressing against him, the body of Dirgle heavy on his shoulder. Plisk stopped for a moment in the pitch black and breathed deeply. “Only Dirgle,” he said through gritted teeth. “Fat bugger should drink less!” and dragged him after Merit into the table room. Merit was already at the broken shutter, one of the candles on the ground before her. Her eyes were wide as she cried, “It’s coming!”, and she ducked out the window.
“We’re going,” said Plisk, as if to disagree, shaking his head. Sweating, Plisk dragged the lifeless body of Dirgle across the room, slumping Dirgle’s unconscious body over the sill and felt Merit pull from the other side. And they were out. Together on either side of Dirgle they shuffled across the grass down the hill to the safety of the forest. As their feet thudded against the uneaven earth, the weight of the body seemed to increase, while the further they got from the house and with the open sky above, their load seemed to lighten. Finally they reached the cover of the trees where they laid Dirgle’s body against a trunk and recovered their breath. Dirgle did not regain consciousness, his leg was damaged, bent the wrong way. Merit tried to put to words what she had seen of the living shadow, but Plisk didn’t want to hear it. They made their way back to town in silence after first ridding themselves of the oil and candles, and dunked Dirgles body in the stream to wash away some of the oil. Fallen from the bridge, they would tell his family.
Dirge was never to speak again. His leg healed though he limped for the rest of his life, but he was never the same again. He was a shell of himself, hollow, capable of only the simplest tasks, carrying things from place to place. His eyes were dead. Plisk didn’t want to talk about the experience, the loss of his friend weighed heavily on him. Merit told a few friends of what had happened, and but her friends thought what they had done was stupid and wrong, after all look at what had happened to Dirgle.
The following year, Dirgle, Merit and Plisk remained in Upper Tapton and never travelled to Bizapul. They did not talk of the house on the hill and when the children asked for stories of whether there was a ghost there, they did not answer them. Nevertheless, rumours spread and not a few travellers came to Upper Tapton to seek out the mystery of the house on the hill.