Yesterday, I read an article on the discovery of a mysterious black stone in the southernmost part of Antarctica.
Several expedition members investigating the climate changes on site had noticed a large penguin colony that had been gathered around one specific spot for a few days. It was as though they were being hypnotized by a supernatural power and were shielding that one spot like they would their chicks. When the expedition members had chased away the penguins to see what they were hiding, they caught a first glimpse of the stone and its magical black glow.
While admiring their discovery, the team stumbled upon the body of a red-haired man, not far from the stone. The fact that the corpse was frozen in the surface ice and had not yet been snowed under indicated that it could not have been there for more than a few days. Though it was well preserved due to the cold, no one has succeeded in identifying it to this day.
After thorough examination at the NASA research center it turned out that the stone, which measured no bigger than half a human body, was composed of a material unknown to scientists. The material was solid one moment and fluid the next. In addition, it contained peculiar inscriptions unrelated to any other signs or symbols found on earth. A series of mysterious deaths of those who came into contact with the stone is hampering the research that scientists, archaeologists, historians and linguists are currently conducting. Fearing for their lives, but driven by passion and curiosity, they are applying themselves to deciphering the characters in the stone. According to unofficial sources, they are unique in their designs and do not show resemblance to any known language. Some suggested the discovery of a whole new civilization, while others looked beyond our planetary boundary.
However it may be, this unlikely news instantly reminded me of the terrifying occurrence I witnessed a long time ago, which still gives me chills and even anxious dreams twenty-two years later. Back then I was still living in Kiel, an Antwerp neighborhood, in a large, old house where I ran a successful medical practice on the ground floor. The other floors held various vacant rooms, five of which I rented out to college students. In all those years, more than a hundred students lived under my roof. I wouldn’t even recognize most of them if they were sitting right in front of me, but I’ll never forget one of them: Andries Verhulst and his bright red hair.
It was 1985. Andries was studying at the Faculty of Natural Sciences. I had always sensed that he was a special person, different from all my other guests, even though I never had the opportunity to really get to know him. He was too withdrawn, too quiet for that. He wasn’t timid, but he had a considered repulsion for in-depth human contact.
Andries often skipped classes, but I remember precisely how during his first two academic years he would visit the university library every Wednesday without missing a single week, and returned with a stack of books that would take any normal person months to read. Not Andries. He devoured them like they were magazines.
Andries was obsessed with everything related to the vast cosmos and our planet’s position in it. The books he borrowed brought back from the library were only on that subject. Sometimes I wondered how there could possibly be that much reading material on the topic.
During the first two years of Andries’ stay, everything was quite normal. Although he hardly went to class, I was under the impression that he took his studies seriously, be it in his own quirky way. After all, he spent day after day studying and reading in his room, from early in the morning until late at night, and according to him he had little trouble taking his final exams. Consequently, I wasn’t surprised that he had passed summa cum laude two years in a row.
It wasn’t until Andries was in his third year that the problems began. At least that was when they became visible to me and the other students staying in my house. His weekly visits to the library came to a halt and contact between us, which was already very shallow to start with, disappeared completely. He rarely left his room and if he did it was in the middle of the night, when not a living soul was to be found in the streets of Antwerp.
After a few weeks I attempted to intercept him during one of his nightly outings. I waited for him in the complete silence of the pitch-dark stairwell. He hardly looked surprised when I suddenly turned on the lights the moment he wanted to leave the house. An obvious physical and mental decline was written all over his grimace. I wanted to ask him what was wrong, whether he was having trouble with his studies, or with something else. Without saying a word he looked at me from behind his dusty glasses with an impenetrable gaze, as though he was in another world, a world torn away from reality. Subsequently, he simply walked past me, into the cold night. After that I decided to drop the matter. Ultimately, he was a good tenant who always paid on time and never caused a nuisance, so I had no reason to throw him out.
Only when the other students started complaining about Andries’ strange behavior a few days later, I was forced to approach him again, albeit with much reluctance. I didn’t like to meddle in other people’s business. It happened during the harsh winter of 1987. Due to persistent snowfall, my tenants and I were forced to spend our days inside by the comforting warmth of the fireplace. Around that same time, the atmosphere in the house changed.
The students staying in the rooms adjacent to Andries’ complained to me about the fact that the endless tapping sounds coming from his room, regularly vibrating through the plaster walls, were causing them sleepless nights. The tapping never stopped they said, day nor night, as if Andries was constantly plucking at the keys of a typewriter like a madman. It makes sense that it never bothered me, since I was sleeping on the ground floor at the time, but I thought it necessary to intervene before the problems would escalate.
On December 14th I made a first attempt to talk to Andries about the nuisance he was causing. I seldom went up to the other floors myself, unless I was asked to look at damaged radiators or sanitary facilities before having repairs carried out. The steps of the oak staircase creaked underneath my feet as I climbed up to the attic floor, determined but slightly nervous and scared about confronting Andries.
The hard blowing wind had discovered some joints in the old walls and had forced its way into the staircase. An unpleasant symphony could be heard. The higher I climbed, the more ominous the wailing wind became and the more I became aware of the cold coming from Andries’ attic room. It felt even colder than outside. It wasn’t until I came within three feet of his door that I realized that the icy draft blowing through the staircase actually originated in his room.
That was also the first time I heard the rhythmic tapping the other students had told me about. It was clearly audible, but not excessively loud. After a while the persistent, hypnotizing rhythm did set your teeth on edge. Even though I only listened to it for two minutes, I could understand perfectly why the tapping was causing my tenants sleepless nights.
After pacing back and forth a few times, I knocked on the door. No one answered. I hesitated whether I should call Andries, but decided not to and instead went back downstairs to write him a letter I would slide under the door later that day. Something inside of me was telling me this solution was better than a direct confrontation, if only because I lacked the courage.
It had taken me half a day to find the right words for the letter. By nightfall I moved up the stairs once more, headed for the attic room, in hopes that after reading the letter, Andries would do something about the constant tapping that tormented his neighbors so much. Upon approaching the top floor, I was overcome by the ice-cold air flowing from his room just like earlier that day. The penetrating cold cut through my body and made it hard and painful for me to climb the final steps. A layer of hoarfrost had formed on the landing. In that short time my fingers had become so numb with cold that I barely succeeded in taking the letter I had written to Andries from my cardigan pocket.
Once in front of his bedroom door, I noticed how my own shadow silhouetted against a diffuse violet light coming through the cracks. The keyhole, too, was illuminated by this unearthly shine. Again I heard that annoying tapping sound, which was still filling the room unrelentingly. The strange scenes that seemed to transpire behind the door made me stoop down to peer through the keyhole. The circumstances had stunned me to such an extent that I could no longer resist the urge. The cold, the light and the ongoing tapping were just a fraction of the surreal spectacle taking place in Andries’ attic room.
Amidst colorful, fluorescent mists and deep chasms of pitch-black darkness keeping him in a stranglehold, he was frantically chiseling into a big, black stone which was located in the middle of the room. It was as though for a moment his attic room had turned into the epicenter of the vast cosmos, where powers immeasurable and unimaginable to earthlings stirred. Andries himself didn’t appear to acknowledge the dangers targeting him; on the contrary, he was focusing all of his attention on the black stone he was carefully engraving with strange non-euclidean symbols. The symbols meant nothing to me. If it was even a language, it definitely had not originated on our planet. It was a language only Andries seemed to understand, though in my fear and wonder I was under the impression that it wasn’t him creating this cosmic piece of art, but a higher power which had taken possession of his body.
I stared at this impressive spectacle until I could no longer bear the cold, to finally return to my living room where I could warm myself by the fire, overburdened with amazement. I then considered going to the police that same night, but given the curious nature of events the chances of them taking me seriously were non-existent. As a prominent physician I had a reputation to maintain. Furthermore, I was starting to doubt my own senses so badly after witnessing that supernatural spectacle, that I decided to go to sleep or to at least try.
I lay awake the entire night, partly plagued by fear of the immeasurable powers that were hiding in my house, partly elated due to the incident and yearning for a listening ear to share my fantastic tale with. In the morning, when I went to have a look at the attic room accompanied by the other students to see if the cosmic powers were still at work, I saw that the door to Andries’ room was slightly ajar. The insufferable cold and tapping were gone. I warily peered inside. The room was empty and bare. There was no furniture, books, or personal belongings left. Even the bed was missing. Andries himself was nowhere to be seen. He, too, was gone.
Of course I can’t prove anything and it all sounds so surreal, but upon reading that particular article I immediately got the disconcerting feeling that it was Andries. The black stone and the body of a red-haired man; it couldn’t be a coincidence. Perhaps no one will ever know the full truth, even if researchers continue investigating for years to come. All I know is that I saw something that day, something inexplicable, something intangible.
(Translated to English by Myrthe Meisner)
Tom Thys, born 1983, is the Belgian author of Volmaakt monster (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24259420-volmaakt-monster?from_search=true&search_version=service), a collection of short stories. His frightening stories have won several prizes in Belgium and Holland. At this moment, several of his stories are being translated into English. His first translated story (Stopover) has been published recently by Massacre Publishings (issue 8) and Under the Bed vol. 04 no. 06. He is praised for his bizarre imagination and the ability to blend genres such as horror, dark fantasy and humor into compelling stories about the decay of both body and mind.
Tim Bougger is an artist living in Des Moines, IA. See his artwork at www.virtualtim.com.