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By Christina Durner
On October 1, 1957, Callie purchased the small cottage overlooking Cimmerian Bluff. She was quite alone in the world. Having just lost both her parents in a head-on collision three months ago she felt it was time to make a life for herself, to move to a new town where no one knew her, a town where she wouldn’t be accosted daily by the well-meaning people who offered their sincerest sympathies despite the fact that they had never bothered to acknowledge that she even existed before the accident. She had no other family. She had no friends. The only things that truly belonged to her were her dog, Hodge, her new job as a page at the town’s library, and the broken-down little cottage that she’d purchased on a whim.
Turning the cottage into her personal sanctuary would be a grand task. But the inheritance that she’d acquired would make that possible. From the looks of the exterior it appeared to be a shell-like ruin. But having gone inside she realized that with some initiative and a little elbow grease she could fix it up in no time.
“A diamond in the rough,” she kept telling herself. “Once I clean it up and have the water turned on Hodge and I can move right in.”
It had been uninhabited since the late 1920s, when a tragedy of heinous nature struck down the elderly woman who had lived there with her cat, and it had remained empty until Callie discovered it. According to the citizens of Cimmerian Bluff a traveling tramp had been blamed for the brutal slaying. The old woman’s throat had been viciously torn open in what the police believed to be an act of desperation when the hobo had broken in to the woman’s cottage and been caught stealing. They never did find the cat. The tramp swore ignorance, claiming to never have been near the cottage. But despite his protests he was found guilty and hung for his alleged savagery. The townspeople swore that the old cottage was unfit to live in, that it was haunted and did not want to be lived in.
But Callie detested superstition as much as she detested unwanted guests. So she bought the house despite its sordid past with the hopes that the legend of the tramp and the old woman would deter townspeople from making unwelcomed visits. Callie paid to have the water turned on and the roof and floors repaired and by the seventeenth she and Hodge had taken up residence. True, there was no electricity at this point. But Callie enjoyed the warm glow and snug atmosphere that candlelight and the stone fireplace provided.
She’d enjoyed her first two days at work. Shelving books required very little human interaction and allowed Callie to listen to her audio books which always made the time go faster. The only problem she’d experienced thus far was the spotting of a field mouse scurrying into the stacks on her way to the lunch room. Callie had always loved animals, more so than people. But rodents gave her a fright. As a child her mother had always been cruel to her, insisting that if her room was not spotless the mice would come into her room at night and bite her toes. Callie’s mother maintained that they would scamper into her room every night searching for a reason to get her. Since then the very thought of a mouse could cause her to freeze up and panic to wash over her in tidal waves.
Thinking of her mother saddened her. She’d spent most of her life trying desperately to win her approval and affections. While her father on the other hand had been the most loving person she had ever known. He was the only person that she enjoyed being around and now he was gone. She refused to upset herself any further and cuddled close to Hodge as she sipped warm cider in front of the fireplace.
“This could be a lovely little cottage,” she said out loud, talking to both herself and the dog. “We just need some new carpeting, perhaps some floral drapes, maybe I’ll put in some window boxes to really spruce it up around here.”
Hodge sneezed, bringing her back to the here and now then plopped his little head back onto her lap. She peered through the cottage windows to see the autumn leaves coming down from the trees that surrounded her new home.
“Every single one of those villagers must be the town idiot,” she chuckled to herself. “The house doesn’t want to be lived in,” she said in a mocking tone. No cottage could ever make her feel more comfortable and at home. No cottage could ever be more welcoming.
On October nineteenth the first incident occurred, though she’d taken it lightly and dismissed it at the time, it would be of great significance in relation to later events. Lying in bed that night, somewhere between the half-dreaming and half-waking world, Callie heard the familiar scratch of claws on the bedroom door. Since he’d been trained as a puppy, Hodge used this as his means of communicating that it was time for her to take him out. The electricity wouldn’t be fixed for another two weeks. So she found her way to him with help from the moonlight. Throwing the pudgy Jack Russel over her shoulder she felt her way down the hallway and made her way carefully to the tiny staircase. A loud snap jolted her upright as the dog leapt from her arms and down to the floor.
“Must’ve been one of those rat traps I set this morning,” she whispered to the dog, kneeling down to stroke his soft coat. “A place that’s been vacant this long is bound to have vermin. Glad I thought ahead.”
The thought of a rat in her beloved dwelling made her feel nauseous. What made matters worse is the thought that she would have to go look at the trap and possibly find the disgusting half-dead little pest squirming to get free. Then what would she do? Worry about that in the morning is what she would do. That vile little interloper would surely be dead by morning and she would be able to handle the matter more easily.
The following morning, she’d discovered an enormous rat dead inside the trap. Thank God she thought to herself. Hodge growled at the grotesque corpse until Callie mustered up the courage to pick up the trap and throw it in the outdoor garbage bin. It had been the size of a small trout and left her shaking as she ran back into the house to get as far away from it as she could. She set another trap that evening, hoping that they wouldn’t hear anymore loud snaps in the middle of the night. Living in a house that was supposedly haunted did not bother Callie in the least. But living in a house that was infested with rats was enough to make her skin crawl. Remembering her mother, she wore her shoes to bed that night.
Several nights passed and each morning Callie had discovered dead rats in the traps that had been placed. She phoned an exterminator while she was at the library but was disappointed to learn that he would be unable to make it to the cottage for another three days. No matter, Callie would not allow those disgusting varmints to scare her out of her own house. Not when it had become the biggest part of her new life.
Around midnight Callie had heard Hodge’s tell-tale signal scratching at her bedroom door. It was a moonless night and she had forgotten to bring a candle into the room with her. As she crawled out of bed, feeling her way through the darkness, she could just make out the shape sitting in front of the door. She lifted him onto her shoulder and started carefully toward the stares. His weight bore down on her heavier than normal.
“Whoa, buddy. You’re getting heavy! Guess we better cut back on the Milk Bones, huh?” Callie stroked his coat lovingly. Something was wrong. It felt harsh, coarse, grimy.
“Hodge?” she managed to utter through trembling lips.
She turned her head to look at him. What she saw glowering back at her sent ice through her veins. Frozen in place, Callie saw two beady red eyes and whiskers that unmistakably belonged to a rat. But this rat was larger than any she’d ever seen. It was slightly bigger than Hodge. Where was poor Hodge? As she felt its naked sinewy tail thumping against her chest and bare arm she could smell the scent of blood mingled with the rat’s own musty stench. Its whiskers brushed against her cheek, leaving streaks of blood in its wake as it inched its snarling snout closer to her neck.
What was it going to do to her? It had already eaten Hodge. Why was it perched on her shoulder so calmly, almost calculatedly? Her mother’s words popped into her mind. Scampering, she’d said. They scamper in looking for a reason to bite. But this rat had not scampered. It had waited calmly as if it were waiting for Callie to figure something out. Suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. It had not occurred to her because her own mother had been so disconnected from her. She did not wish to protect Callie from anything. But her mother did not follow the laws of nature. This monstrous rodent that lay heavy upon her now, however, did.
It’s their mother! The voice inside her rang out. She’s the mother of the rats that I caught in the traps!
Callie didn’t know if it was the rat’s reaction to the fear the seemed to pulsate from her body or if it somehow realized that she had figured out why it was there. But before Callie could find the strength within herself to try to fight it, the mother rat sank its grizzly needlelike teeth into her throat. As she fell to the floor the last thing she saw were those piercing red eyes and the blood soaked muzzle dripping all over the beautiful new flooring of her beloved cottage.
The next morning the police found her lifeless body at the top of the small staircase. They concluded that a prowler must have attacked her and ran frightened out into the night. After all, whoever it had been didn’t bother to use the door to escape. The downstairs window had been smashed to pieces and none of the wild animals in that area were big enough to do that kind of damage. They’d tried to warn her before she’d purchased the cottage. This place was haunted. It did not want to be lived in. The old lady found that out and sadly Callie had found out too.
“Oh but that’s just a silly old legend,” the real estate agent said with a halfhearted giggle. “Something cooked up by the local busy bodies because they had nothing better to do back then.”
I eyed her suspiciously. My husband’s job had just transferred him to Cimmerian Bluff and we were in desperate search of a reasonably priced home where we could start a family. A small cottage set back in the woods away from the hustle and bustle of the town. When we’d heard the story of Callie and the old woman from his new boss we’d thought it was a sick joke. The realtor’s reaction to our account of the tale calmed my nerves as she invited us to walk into the cottage. It was lovely, cozy, just the type of place that we were looking for. Not to mention the price was right. We signed the paperwork and were more than ready to move in. But it’s funny. As we made our way back to the car, I am certain that I saw a rat scamper underneath the front door of the cottage.
Credit: Christina Durner