Copyright 2016 Sunrise Publishing
This story is included in the short story collection Under the Willow Tree and Other Stories.
It was an ongoing chatter of squawks and barks that rattled Ian McAllister from his sleep. This noise woke him the same time every morning, but there was no one to blame for it except Ian. Two weeks earlier, he had nailed an empty soup can onto the outside ledge of the kitchen window and filled it with handfuls of corn. Two lively squirrels had accustomed themselves to this routine and were awaiting their daily handout.
The old man opened his eyes and looked high above to the square, wooden ceiling beams running parallel with his bed. They ran from one wall to the other, adding to the sound structure of the one room cabin.
Slowly, he swung his legs over the side of his bed and slid his bare, boney feet into his house slippers. He yawned, stretched, and stood, joints stiff and cracking.
“I’m coming, you rascals,” he said, scratching his round belly from over his nightshirt.
He grabbed his walking cane that was beside his bed and paced wearily to the kitchen cupboard. He opened the door and scooped a cupful of corn from a small burlap sack. When Ian raised the window, the squirrels leaped to the snow-covered ground and returned to the ledge after he filled the can and shut the window.
“There you go,” said Ian, looking on as if he were a proud papa.
With pleasure, the old man watched the squirrels—the large red one, which he had named Arthur, and the smaller grey, dubbed Maxwell—nibble yellow kernels between their tiny paws, standing on the window’s ledge.
What fascinating creatures, Ian thought, standing in front of the frosty glass. Lifting his gaze, he looked past the furry squirrels beyond the grey fencing that surrounded his front yard, and out to the wooded hillside. Ian marveled at the pine trees blanketed with fresh fallen snow. He loved this secluded countryside that he had called home for more than thirty years. He reveled in the wonderment of the morning, and shortly after, stepped away from the window and sidled over to the coffee pot.
It had always been these little things—the playful squirrels, the beautiful landscape—that had brought comfort and joy into Ian’s life. Such were the small pleasantries of a lonely writer, whose wife had died long ago, and who was without anyone to call a friend.
After making his coffee and pouring himself a cup, Ian ventured a few steps over to his roll-top desk. He set his cup on top, eased down in a cushiony chair, and leaned his cane against the side of the desk. The desk had been his grandmother’s and the smell of her stale pipe tobacco still permeated the old wood, which hurled him back to his youth every time he sat down to write.
The old writer pulled out his notebook, and with pen in hand, he stared down to yet another intimidating blank page. He contemplated a plot line that he had been mulling over, but found it weak and disposed of the idea.
“That’ll never work,” he said. This was his common response to any inkling of creativity that he had had in recent months. It was the mindset that had ruled his thinking much of the passing year.
Creating stories had become a struggle for Ian. He had run into nothing but disappointing dead ends. However, he had never given up. This life, the one of a writer and storyteller, was all he knew. Every day he drudged forward, hoping to revamp his creative talent which he fervently believed was lying somewhere within.
He grabbed his coffee cup, sipped, and again glanced over to the kitchen window—adjacent to his desk—to watch the squirrels devour the kernels of corn. The squirrels were the only reliable entity in Ian’s life. They brought him comfort and happiness.
Again, Ian sipped and then placed his cup on top of his desk. He returned his concentration to the vacant page of his notebook and tapped his pen mindlessly, searching for the slightest glimpse of hope.
“If only I had a muse that I could count on,” he said while twisting the end of his white mustache.
Several minutes passed and still no words or ideas came forth. He rotated his neck, trying to unbind the stiffness which was setting in faster than usual. An hour went by and then another and not a single scribbling of a sentence or word occurred.
Becoming frustrated, Ian slumped in his chair and said, “Damn you, muse! Where are you? I need you more than ever.”
With his fingertips, he massaged his head at the temples and again he glanced to the kitchen window and noticed the squirrels were gone. They had gotten their free meal and headed back to the wooded hillside.
In a small way, Ian felt used. Maybe it was loneliness causing his feeling of dismay. Maybe it was his inability to create the marvelous stories for which he was once widely known. Whichever the case, he had never felt this way about the little woodland squirrels.
“You creatures are like all the rest,” he said. “You’re no different from the agents and publishers who are constantly putting their grubby hands into my pockets.”
As Ian finished his complaining and looked again to his notebook, a discharge of knocks came from the front door of his cabin. He was not one who startled easily, but he jumped slightly and expelled a few obscenities under his breath. He grumbled and rose from his chair.
More knocks came and Ian grabbed his cane and walked across the one-room cabin. When he turned the deadbolt and opened the door, the old writer’s eyes gazed upon a being that made his bitter heart flutter and dance.
“Good afternoon, Ian,” said the visitor.
Ian stared giddily. Standing before him was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen—a woman with hair as black as the night sky and complexion equal to that of the fallen snow behind her. She wore a long, elegant red dress that sparkled in the sun’s reflection. Draped over her shoulders was a shawl fashioned from the fur of an exotic animal.
“It’s you,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
She walked through the doorway, going past him.
“My goodness,” said the woman, “someone could catch a deathly cold out there.” She rubbed her arms, as if trying to induce circulation back into her limbs. Ian shut the door behind her, and his enchantment of her soon turned to irritation.
He asked, “Why are you here, Tamara?”
The elegant woman unfastened her shawl, exposing vast cleavage and ample breasts. Ian took notice of her sexual allure. It had been years since he had witnessed such erotic splendor. From the tips of her shiny high heels to her long, straight locks, he absorbed it all with much delight.
“My, aren’t we getting touchy in our old age?” said Tamara. “Can’t a person stop by and see a dear friend whenever she wishes?”
Ian said, “I’d never realized we were such dear friends.” He turned his eyes from her enormous bosom and headed back to his desk.
“Surely you don’t mean that,” said Tamara. We’ve been friends for so many years. Don’t be so bitter, Ian.”
He said, “How am I supposed to feel? You’ve been away for a long time now.”
“Yes, I know I’ve neglected you,” she said with a voice absorbed in guilt. “But I’m here now, aren’t I?”
Ian ignored her out of spite. He grabbed his pen and thought he might write a line or two. For a moment, he had truly felt a jolt of inspiration. And at last, he did write. He jotted two brilliant sentences.
He had loved her dearly. The pain and agony grew within him each passing day.
Ian stopped writing, sat back in his chair, and stared down to the page.
“I haven’t been able to do that in months,” he said, astonished.
Tamara said, “It feels wonderful, doesn’t it, Ian—to produce your prose once again.” While she spoke she stood behind him, watching over his shoulder.
“Yes, it does. I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time.”
“I know you have,” said Tamara. “I heard your wish. That’s why I’ve returned to you. As you said, you need me. And there are plenty of wonderful stories floating around inside that magnificent mind of yours, waiting to make you a best seller once again. I can make that happen, Ian, just like before.”
Ian turned in his chair and with suspicious eyes stared up at her.
“How can I be sure you won’t leave me again? How can I be certain that I can trust a muse like you?”
“Muses do come and go, Ian. We all know that.”
“True,” said Ian. “But I don’t care for that uncertainty. I’ve lived this way for far too long. I need to know that you’ll always be there when I need you. And I’m old. I don’t have much time left.”
Tamara leaned over, pressing her large breasts on the back of Ian’s neck. She breathed heavily and seductively into the old writer’s ear. Ian’s old heart thumped in his chest.
“Now, Ian,” she softy whispered, “we’ve been through this all before. We both know what it will take so that you’re able to write your stories at will. Better yet, so that we’ll be together forever. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Nothing has changed, Ian. My offer still stands.”
The feel of bare cleavage on his neck and the smell of Tamara’s exotic perfume sent a pleasing chill down Ian’s back.
“But why must I sign over my soul?” he asked, remembering the terms that she had introduced the year before. “There must be another way.”
The seductress sank her hands into Ian’s shoulders and neck and intricately massaged his old, tired muscles. And again she lowered herself, whispering into his other ear.
“I wish there were, Ian, but I’m afraid there isn’t. The gods of the underworld will need your immortal soul if you wish to write as you did before. That is the only way. You owe it to your fans.”
For the old writer it seemed like ages since he had published any respectable works. It had also been ages since he had received his last piece of fan mail. Ian missed that connection with his readers, the corresponding back and forth. He missed touching their lives as he had done when he was a young, prolific writer. He wanted to be the free-spirited writer from the days of old.
“And you can promise me the words will flow as freely as I please? No more struggling. No more misery?”
“Of course,” said Tamara. “I promise all that—for the rest of your days.”
Ian pulled away from the muse’s persistent pawing, grabbed his cane, and pushed up from his chair.
“I’m still not convinced,” he said, walking over to peer out the kitchen window. He hoped to catch another glimpse of his furry friends, and he wished he had not felt so bitter toward them earlier.
“How can you say that?” asked Tamara. “Wasn’t that wonderful feeling of writing a few moments ago convincing enough? Ian, you can have all that again and so much more. All you have to do is give up your soul. Hand it over and write as you’ve never written before.”
Staring out the window to the snowy hillside, Ian listened to the words of his muse. She continued her swooning and coercing. The longer she talked, the more sense she made. He was tired of this burden of being unable to write, but most of all he was heartbroken because he was unable to enjoy his craft.
Ian turned to Tamara. “Okay, I’m ready.” After a moment of silence and a deep breath, he said, “Take my soul and do with it as you wish. I don’t need it. Just give me back my will to write.”
Tamara walked over to Ian, her high heels clacking on the hardwood floor. Smiling, she placed her soft, pale hands on either side of the writer’s whiskered face and caressed gently.
“You’ve made a wise decision, Ian,” she said in a caring tone. “Your love of writing will return as will an outpouring of story ideas that will indeed touch your fans, just as you have wished.”
She pulled her hand away from his face and darted toward the front door.
“Wait. Where are you going?” asked Ian. “I thought we were going to be together forever.”
Stopping at the front door, Tamara refastened her shawl and turned to him.
“I’ll always be with you in spirit, Ian. And I’ll drop in on you from time to time. When you awake tomorrow morning, everything you’ve wished for will be as it should be.”
Tamara walked out the front door leaving a skeptical old man in her wake. Ian did not attempt to write any more that evening. Instead, he would wait until morning to see if the muse stayed true to her word.
After a night of unsettled sleep, Ian rose again to the squawking sound of the squirrels. He was glad to see they had returned.
“Here you are,” said Ian, dumping the corn in the soup can.
This time he did not admire the critters while they ate. Instead, he brewed his coffee and quickly took his seat at his desk to continue with the wonderful story he had started the day before. Relaxed and confident, he pulled out his notebook and pen.
With little effort the words and ideas streamed from Ian’s pen onto the page. He could not contain the huge grin emerging on his creased face.
“Remarkable,” he said to himself, energized as he continued to write.
After only an hour, Ian had completed an entire story. And it was not just any story; it was one of brilliance. He felt as if it were one of his best. Reading over the finished work, he basked in the joy and comfort of something he had not been able to do for a long time. Most importantly, he felt no different. He did not feel like a man who had lost his soul. He was not even certain that he had. He was however convinced of one thing: he could write again. To Ian, this was all that mattered.
Day after day, until a week had passed, Ian repeated his routine of feeding the squirrels, preparing his coffee, and writing his stories. Each story, saturated with the old writer’s style and flair, possessed a quality unlike any story of the present day. To Ian, each one appeared almost lifelike. And in true Ian McAllister fashion, each story covered his favorite subjects: chaos, death, and destruction. He had written many stories of this nature throughout the years, but none as magnificent as the ones he had churned out in the past days.
One evening while in the midst of another writing session, Ian stopped briefly to read over his work. This story was starting out to be even better than the one he had written the day before. He thought this could possibly be the greatest work to date.
His starry eyes scanned the page and again he noticed the intricacies of his writing, possessing realism unlike anything he had ever written before. It had been so long since he felt this way about his craft and he sensed his talent as a writer was improving day after day. The old writer fed from this natural high and felt Tamara had indeed held true to her word; although, he still did not feel like a soulless scribe.
While Ian wrote, Tamara, all charm and allure, again appeared at the front door wearing the same dress and shawl that she had worn on her original visit.
“I’ve noticed you’ve been a very busy man, Ian McAllister,” she said, walking into the cabin, high heels clacking on the hardwood floor.
“Oh yes. More than ever. You’re truly remarkable, Tamara. I won’t doubt you again. Thank you for all that you’ve done for me.”
The muse walked over to Ian’s desk and gently ran her hand along its top and down the side.
“I’ve come to thank you as well, Ian,” she said, admiring the craftsmanship of the wooden desk.
Perplexed, Ian said, “For what? I’ve done nothing—nothing that I know of.”
She picked up Ian’s notebook that lay on his desk.
“Your stories are changing the world, Ian—even as we speak. The gods of the underworld are extremely pleased with you.” She quickly flipped through the pages of stories.
“Please forgive me,” Ian began, “but I haven’t submitted anything to my publisher. My fans, or the rest of the world, know nothing of my stories.”
Tamara threw the notebook back on the desk and laughed.
“You really have been busy, haven’t you,” she said. “Even too busy to know what’s going on all around you.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ian.
“Turn on your television.”
“My television? Is this some sort of joke?”
“It’s not a joke. Just turn on the TV,” Tamara said again.
The old writer shuffled over to the end table by the sofa and picked up the remote to the television. Hesitantly, he aimed and pushed the power button.
When the screen’s illumination was at its fullest, Ian saw flashes of brutal chaos and destruction. This was something often showed by the news stations so it was nothing unusual for Ian. He glanced over to Tamara.
“What is it I’m supposed to be witnessing?” he asked.
“Flip to the next channel,” said Tamara, watching the screen, intently, enjoying the scenes as each played out one by one.
Ian did as she said, and again the screen displayed the same bloody suffrage.
Breaking News, the headline stated. Many Dead after Today’s Catastrophic Earthquake.
Somewhat rattled, Ian flipped to the next channel.
“Bodies burnt alive,” said the news anchor. Again, the old man changed the channel.
Every station depicted mayhem—nothing but widespread death and chaos. The old writer became uneasy and sensed something was not right, in fact, something was eerily wrong. He turned off the television and tossed the remote onto the sofa.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked.
“You’ve gotten your wish,” said Tamara, elated. “Your words have once again made a huge impact on the people of the world.”
It was then Ian understood her. All the turmoil on the television mirrored that of the stories in his notebook—the topics Ian loved to write about most: pandemonium and destruction.
“You mean I’m responsible for all of this?” He gave a nod to the television.
“I’m afraid so,” said Tamara.
Ian stood stone-faced; not wanting to believe the moment was real.
“You fooled me,” he said through a trembling voice.
“Nonsense,” said Tamara. “I’ve made you the most prolific writer in the world—just as you wished for. There was no trickery involved.”
“You are evil in the purest form,” said Ian. “How could you have allowed this to happen? Innocent people are dying!”
Tamara said nothing. Instead she walked over to a painting hanging on the cabin wall.
“For an old man you are naïve,” she said. She bumped the frame a little to the left, squaring it with the other pictures hanging on the wall. She turned back around. “Evil is everywhere in the world, Ian. Don’t you see that? It’s greedy people like you who spread evil. If you hadn’t bargained your soul for your precious writing career, none of the destruction would be happening right now. You’re the only one who’s to blame. Not me.”
Ian was not sure how to respond. He thought for a moment, and then stood up a little straighter and blurted out the first logical thought that came to his mind.
“Then I’ll quit writing.”
Tamara laughed. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. You’ve made a deal with the gods of the underworld. They will force you to write your stories. And even if you try to stop, you won’t succeed. You are without a soul, Ian. You have no choice in the matter.”
Ian was in disbelief. He had always been a gentle, caring man. He had never wished any harm on anyone. He had always loved Mother Nature and the woodland creatures, and he respected his fellow man. He had no idea that one day his words would lead to worldly devastation.
Walking to the front door to leave, Tamara said, “I hope you understand this has nothing to do with you personally. Good and evil have always existed in the world, Ian, and it’s always been a balancing act between the two. I hope you understand. And I want to thank you for your contribution.” She walked out, shutting the door behind her. The old writer dropped his cane and quickly walked over to turn the deadbolt.
Distraught, Ian nervously ran his fingers through his white hair. He walked to the kitchen cupboard, pulled from it a bottle of whiskey and a glass, and unscrewed the lid from the bottle. With his shaking hand, he poured a generous shot into his glass and gulped it. He poured another and drank again. Ian tried not to think of his stories but was unable to avoid them.
With every attempt to sway his mind, Ian found himself steering back to his latest story. Ian grabbed the bottle of whiskey and his glass and made his way back over to his writing station. After sitting, he poured another, this time filling the glass to the top. He took a large gulp and then placed his glass where his coffee cup normally sat. He opened his notebook and with pen in hand he began to write.
Even with concentrated effort, Ian was unable to stop himself from writing and so he eventually gave up and let the muse’s influence prevail. Subconsciously, he was aware that the story was of pure evil, although he did not mind. It was the writing, the act of creating, the act of producing art, something that he had missed for far too long, that took over his being. He had always loved and valued the art form, and did so as he scribbled out the words in his notebook. But at the same time he loathed it as he never had before.
On and on, into the early hours of the morning, he wrote with nothing holding him back. Finally, Ian stopped and looked down to his words when a welling tear broke from his eyelid, rolled down his whiskered cheek, and splashed onto the page of his notebook. He wrote one final sentence, scooted from his desk, and made his way to the bedroom area of the cabin.
It was an hour later when the sun started rising above the wooded hillside, just past the grey fencing that surrounded Ian’s front yard, that the frolicking squirrels were already at the window’s ledge, wanting their morning ration of corn. For a solid half hour they squawked, barked, and played, trying to capture the attention of the one who had been feeding them regularly for the last couple of weeks. Even with the squirrels’ playful persistence, the one who filled the soup can did not come to the window this time.
Through the frosty window, past the old, roll-top desk, a shadowy figure gently swayed from one of the square, wooden ceiling beams of the log cabin. Ian McAllister’s lifeless body hung suspended by a stretched rope that had elongated his neck to unnatural proportions. No more would he hurt anyone else. No more would this caring man have to worry about wreaking havoc on the world with his words. Ian McAllister had written his last story.
On the desk with the half-filled bottle of whiskey and empty glass, sat Ian’s notebook, and on the bottom of the last page of his final story was his final request:
God, forgive me.
And someone please feed my squirrels.