Kept on the landing by the residents, the two headed dog was carved of bog oak. One eyeless face stared toward the blank wall, the other toward the stairs curving down through the house. High on the ceiling a single bulb twitched, its light reflecting on the dog’s teeth of made of mirrors.
When a member of the public came to the house, wanting to buy a curse, one of the residents hammered a nail into the wooden dog. If the curse was for love, the nail was hammered into the head facing the wall, for money into the face looking toward the stairs. There were no other reasons people bought curses.
While the percussion echoed through the rooms the residents worked on their specialisms. Whether that was the charring of the victim’s hair, searching out their hiding places using oak galls or burning away lines of descendants with saltpetre and mercury. Each knew their task.
At first the stranger seemed no different from the trickle of spurned suitors and bankrupt debtors. His shoes were scuffed to threadbare, as was his jacket. Walking past the nail-hackled dog, he paused. From his pocket he took out a length of red silk, the length of a finger. Leaning down, he searched for a single iron nail, the oldest, its head snapped off from misstrikes by the near-blind spell-tearers. Spotting it hidden on the dog’s jaw he tied the silk around it. A double knot so the fabric would not loosen.
So close to her mouth, her real mouth, the sightless dog tasted the silk, tasted the dress it was once part of. The life she once had. She remembered sliding into the outfit. The scent of cabbage roses in her hair, feet cold from the terracotta floor she danced upon. Back when she had skin to feel hot and cold.
She remembered the taste of Tullamore whisky and of Silk Cut cigarettes. The kiss at the end of the night that lasted twenty years. And in the last taste of the silk she remembered the gambling debts she ran up to a group of residents who tore magic from cold hearth ashes and tore her from her life.
They both knew he could not take her from that place, could not be more than a stranger. They both knew that when the next nail was hammered in, either to curse for love or money, she would forget him. But for that moment, that one moment, before he became a stranger once more, she knew he remembered her.
Archaeologist and writer Steve Toase lives in North Yorkshire, England and Munich, Germany.
His work has appeared in Scheherezade’s Bequest, Not One Of Us and Cafe Irreal amongst others. In 2014 Call Out (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year 6. He is also a regular Fortean Times reviewer.
Recently, Steve worked with Becky Cherriman and Imove on Haunt, about Harrogate’s haunting presence in the lives of people experiencing homelessness in the town.
Image by rjp