THE SNATCHER
By Andy J Campbell

 

It has longsince been a regular occurrence - one might even call it a tradition - for my wife and I to remain awake well into the premature hours of the morning, flicking the pages of ancient books, scribbling notes and calculations into pads as dense as dictionaries, contemplating deep philosophies. Our studies are executed in the most luxurious, dedicated fashion. The lights in the front room of our bungalow are extinguished in favour of two church candles, which guard the marble fireplace. The fire is well-fed and frequently prodded and casts a coppery glow over a variety of lethargically melting chocolates which await lapses in our torrid attention. Our minds, acutely aroused during these sessions of thought-fullness, often give birth to discussions of a passionate and exciting variety. Skimming our paperwork aside we gorge on fundamental beliefs, churn through the chaos of history, revel in radiant hopes for our planet's future.

Such behaviour might be considered abnormal - even quite sad and ridiculous - amongst couples as youthful as ourselves, though it has to be said that my wife and I have never yearned to be accepted into the mainstream. It was long before marriage that we gave preference to the solving of the mysteries of the universe over the gargling of small-talk in sweaty corners of pubs. The absence of social demands during our leisure time has resulted in a staggering increase in our happiness.
Cuddled away from the claws of convention, our once disordered minds have come to rest at a frequency of pure, contented peace. We no longer ache to be showered in riches, nor do we indulge in the hoarding of possessions. Our lives have been welcomely invaded by a child-like curiosity for the unknown, the unanswered, and it is has become our quest to exploit its potential.

It was shortly after one of our most enjoyable intellectual ventures that I first heard the scratching on the back door of the bungalow. My wife and I came to a satisfactory conclusion on the theory of the immortal soul, before deciding to retreat to bed; even when we were tucked up under the quilt, our quizzical ramblings had a sly tendency to blossom.
"I'll see to things in here," I told her, scooping up the remaining treats and blowing out the candles.
"Alright," she said, yawning. "I'll warm up your side of the bed."
"Okay, see you shortly," I trundled out of the room and nudged open the kitchen door with my feet. I dislike having to stray from the snuggish warmth of the livingroom, especially on these cold winter nights. Alas, there were a half-dozen slimy pans awaiting my attention and I am not the kind of man who lazily abandons such chores until morning - no matter how late the hour.
"Don't forget to draw the curtains in there,"
"I won't," I called, snapping on a pair of pink rubber gloves. "Not that there's much point, it's almost daylight."
I was washing the last few items in the bowl when I noticed a noise coming from the old back door - a coarse, bitty scratching sound, like glass-paper rubbing against perspex. I rinsed a cup, emptied the water, and then, stretching off the gloves, turned my full attention to the door, which was locked, pale blue and windowless, with a letterbox set in the middle. It was a door that was very rarely opened.

For a while I heard only the gentle sounds of my wife climbing into bed and wondered if perhaps I had imagined the brutish racket. But it promptly resumed, this time in the form of a harsh dragging noise, as though there were a person on the other side scraping their fingernails across the wood. I tossed the rubber gloves onto the worktop and moved closer to the door. Just as I did this, the flap of the letterbox beganto rise slowly open.
Quickly, I retraced my steps back over to the sink and hooked my fingers around the handle of the most prominent knife. "Who is it? What do you want?" I said, my voice booming in the dead of night. The letterbox slammed closed and the scratching became hysteric. "Who ever you are you'd better-!"
The grating transformed into a series of soft bangs... Then faded. I released my grip on the blade, walked over to the door and placed my ear against it.
"Daniel? What're you doing? Was that you just then? I heard somebody shouting."
"Oh, it's nothing," I replied, bending down to peer through the box. It offered me an icy gust of air and a rectangular view of the brickwork of the neighbouring building. I shivered and let it snap shut. "Just ah... Just a stray dog doing its stuff in the garden."
"What, at this hour?"
I gave my hands a quick wipe on the teatowel, closed the curtains. and switched the light out. I then remained in the doorway, listening...
"Are you coming to bed tonight or what?"
"Yes, in a minute Catherine." Yet still, I did not move.
"Did you see to the curtains?"
"Yes."
"Is the kettle off?"
"Yes."
I waited a while longer, then turned the light back on. There was a key hanging on the first of three hooks beside the cookery calendar - I snatched it off, carried it to the back door and inserted it into the rusty keyhole.
"Daniel have you got another woman in there?"
The lock made a heavy click. "How did you guess?" I replied jokily, pulling my dressing gown together and tying the belt. "I'm just turfing her out, right now." Catherine tittered.

I pulled the door open, wincing as the cold took bites out of my bare feet, and discovered a tall tower of dirty pond stones piled up on the doorstep. I had no idea why the stones were there, nor had I a clue why they were stacked in the manner of a stunted, miniature staircase. When I had been standing in the dark silence of the kitchen, however, I had sensed the presence of... Something odd lurking behind the door; not a psychic vision as such, but rather, a powerful feeling of certitude.
Hissing through my teeth as my toes made contact with the freezing flags, I delicately manoeuvred around the small structure until I was outside, vulnerable beneath a narrow canal of night and stars, sandwiched between dark, damp walls.
Pressing my gown tightly against my body with one hand, I leaned over the stones and drew the door closed. Then, rubbing my chin, I crouched, as if these actions combined might assist my contemplation of why the crooked little staircase came to a level-end merely inches below the silver flap of the letterbox.

When at last I climbed into bed that night, Catherine was purring softly, her head poking out of the sheets. Although I considered it, I did not awaken her. I simply settled down and gazed up at the long spikes of streetlight emanating from the curtains.

Morning arrived in a sluggish blink, stamping out all but a few random, disjointed memories of dream. Like a driver who has adjusted to the shade of a lengthy tunnel and is now nearing the blinding white exit, daylight became an enormous irritation. I sheltered my face beneath my cupped hands. Still disgruntled, I moaned, rolled the other way and snuggled up against Catherine's warmth. "What were you doing last night?" she said in a sleepy croak. She was facing the same direction. All I could see of her was a fountain of black curls and an earlobe.
"Mmmm? Oh... I heard somebody outside."
"I thought you said it was a dog."
"Perhaps it was," I stretched, musing over the idea that a canine had somehow assembled the pile of stones.
"You're being a bit vague, Daniel. You would tell me if something was bothering you...?"
"Yes," I lied, though it was not an intentional lie. The word just slipped out, like "thankyou" upon being handed a receipt.

It was nearing one o'clock when we ate breakfast, approaching five before we were hungry enough to have dinner. I was nominated as the Chef - another tradition - and the vegetarian dish chosen from this month's page of the cookery calendar.
After the meal we lit the candles and spent an hour or so meditating. For Catherine, this was a successful exercise, for she gained new insights into her studies and set about recording them down. For me, it was a chance to dwell furiously on the incident that had caused a ripple in my contentment.
But the harder I tried to focus my thoughts, the greater their insanity became. I saw garden gnomes trotting down the shadowy passage-way, their pallid, plastic faces damp with sweat as they struggled to
support rocks from the frozen pond. I saw a retarded child climbing out of next door's window, tip-toeing through the alley with a moonlit grin. The stones themselves floating towards the back door like asteroids, lowering into position. I jerked awake.
Catherine sat up, pen in hand.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm fine. Everything... Suddenly became quite vivid, that's all."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Catherine inquired, adding a tinge of eagerness. She picked up her book and shuffled closer, stealing a couple of chocolates on the way. "Tell me," she said, pressing a sweet against my lips. I gently resisted, smiling.
"What's wrong?" This time there was hurt in her voice. "Daniel, did something bother you last night? Please tell me. Don't keep it a secret. I hate it when you keep secrets."
For some unknown, agonising reason, I could not bring myself to reveal to Catherine anything at all associated with the scratching or the tower of stones. I had labelled the experience as hugely personal, the way one might keep to themselves the discovery of a boil around the genital area, and thus relating it to Catherine - to anyone, in fact - would require the shattering of enormous, mental barriers.
"I'm just feeling a bit rough," I told my wife, stroking one of her smooth, white hands. "I think I'll get a glass of water. Perhaps then we can have a little talk."
"Alright," she nodded. "But let me, you stay there-"
"No, no," I insisted, rising to my feet. "I'll get it."
Although I had previously exaggerated my physical discomfort, when I entered the kitchen I felt genuinely nauseous. Massaging my temples, I moved over to the fridge and leaned my back against it.

One of the primary reasons for my evacuation, I came to conclude, was the fact that I was frustrated to the point of deception that I could delve so confidently into the puzzles of existence, attempt to solve the crises being faced by humanity, and yet I could not tell my wife about a pile of stones I had found behind an old door. Why? Fear of humiliation? Fear that I had temporarily gone insane? But Catherine was my beloved companion, now and hopefully for the rest of my existence! What kind of husband refused to share an intriguing mystery with his own wife?
Moments from pouring myself a glass of water I was not quite sure I really wanted, I noticed, not to my particularly great surprise, that the letterbox of the back door was tilted open.
Slowly, I slithered my hand into the back pocket of my trousers and produced the required doorkey. Then, with the grace of a free-floating astronaut, I began to close in on the door, easing my shoes meticulouslyonto the lino with every stride and taking care not to wander into the view of the person - or thing - that appeared to be spying into the privacy of my kitchen.
I was doing very well until:
"Daniel? Are you seeing that woman again?"
The letterbox clinked shut. Then, the familiar scratching sound, followed by stones bumping against the frame. I slammed the key into the lock, turned it and wrenched the door wide open. Cold wind ravaged my hair. Two rocks tumbled into the kitchen. An animal, vaguely humanoid but with a head shaped like a greyish corn-on-the-cob, pelted away from the demolition in a fading clamour of slaps and grunts.
"Bastard!"
I leapt outside. The creature - dwarf, goblin, whatever - merely two yards away, tripped, fell flat and dropped something - it looked like a matchbox - before scrambling up and racing off into the shadows.
Barely able to comprehend what had just escaped my vision, I scampered hurriedly down the passageway to where the creature's possession lay discarded, crouched down and carefully picked it up. It was a booklet, about the size of a credit card, with possibly a hundred tiny pages crammed between its coffee-brown sleeves. On the front cover there was a black symbol which looked like two C's placed back-to-back with a
horizontal line slashed through the middle; the opposing side was smudged with dirt, but blank.

Tilting my head towards the stars to release cloudy breaths of air, I scanned the gloomy passageway. Icicles, hanging from the trough like dead fingers, were oozing silver sparkles, and the wind, trapped in a soft, dying wheeze, was kneading the bushes in the narrow slice of garden visible straight ahead.
"Hello?" I called. (Although there were no signs of the mysterious little creature, I was experiencing the same indescribable certainty of a presence.) "Who ever you are, you... Ah, you-you dropped something. Do you want it back?"
Under normal circumstances I greatly despise the invasion of privacy. However, I thought it an innocuous form of revenge to peruse the minute scribbles contained within the being's journal. It had, after all, been unwantedly watching me for an unknown - possibly enormous - length of time. Flicking pages with finger and thumb, I wandered back towards the glow of the doorway, where I met Catherine, cuddling her nightgown and staring at me with bewilderment.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"It's alright," I said, hopping over the stones, pushing my wife back into the kitchen. "It's okay, I think it's gone."
"You think what's gone? The dog?"
"Good God Catherine you'd never believe it. Never. I thought I was going mad."
"The jury is still out," exclaimed Catherine, gazing at me from face to feet. With a short sigh, she slumped against the worktop. "This is ridiculous, I thought you said nothing was the matter."
"I... I know, I'm sorry, I-"
"No, Daniel," My wife struggled out of reach. "Tell me what's going on, right now. Why are those stones there?" She pointed. "And what's that you've got in your hands? What is it?"
"Catherine please, forgive me," I held out the petite journal. "Look, last night and a few moments ago, there was something... Peeking throughthe letterbox. A little man. A goblin. I don't know. I opened the door just now it raced off, dropping this by accident. Take it... Look at it, go on, take it."
Catherine blinked, as if rousing herself from deep contemplation. She engaged my eyes for a few seconds before accepting my offer.
"Will you shut the door, it's freezing in here."
"Yes, of course, I'm sorry," I said, turning to do as I had been told. I did not only close the door but also locked it, through a secret worry that the humanoid might return with company or vicious intent - or both.
"These are ours," said Catherine, holding the little book inches from her face. "Daniel where did you get this? These are our words, things we've said."
I scuttled up beside her. "What? What do you mean?"
"Look, there... That's from our conversation the other night... You said those exact words. What is this?" She came close to giggling. "Are you playing a joke? Daniel this is silly, what're you doing?"
"Let me see," I whispered.
"Daniel, where did you get this? Did you write it? I never saw you write it."
"I did not write it!" I insisted. "I swear to you that I did not! Now please, let me see... Oh Jesus... Catherine this is amazing. I can't believe this..."
My words were drowned by a deep rumbling that at first I assumed was thunder, or a lorry down on the main road, or maybe even a low aircraft soaring overhead. But then it became so loud that Catherine slammed her hands over her ears and the draining-board began to rattle and the cookery calendar leaned to one side and dropped onto the breadbin...

I do not remember the exact moment in which my wife and I looked up to see the light flooding under the door, nor do I recall the precise manner in which the booklet was stolen back from us. Often I dream of a legion of insect-eyed figures standing like carved stalagmites against a radiant circular glow... From this sillhouetted population comes theflutter of a thousand anonymous voices, each one desirous to share with me an inner-knowledge that somehow I feel I should already possess.
Catherine speaks of slender, three-fingered hands, scorched with burns and ridden with pulsating veins, but mostly, like me, she does not speak and tries hardest not to dream. Information can never be kept a secret. Whatever your thoughts, desires, dreams, somebody will always try steal them, learn them, exploit them.
We venture still into the perplexities of existence to this day, hiding snugly beneath the rug of convention. I believe our discoveries have taken a revolutionary step forward, mainly due to an increased understanding of ourselves and each other - though we are reluctant to share these findings with the rest of our species. For the while, I am happy to prepare meals at midday and clean the pans at midnight, though I have found it necessary to seal up the letterbox of the back door with powerful insulation tape.

copyright: Andy J Campbell 1998

Andy J Campbell can be contacted at ajc@ajco.demon.co.uk

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