by Harold N. Walters
“You’re a grown boy so don’t be afraid,” Granny said. Her wrinkled eyes twinkled with a darkness Festus had found unsettling since childhood. “There are no wolves around here. It’s always safe to come through the forest when an errand requires you to visit me here by the sea.”
Festus smiled uneasily and supped his tea. Granny beamed enigmatically while stroking the dark sack he had delivered.
The evening passed. Granny cradled the sack in her hollow lap.
“You sleep in the loft,” Granny said at bedtime.
Slowly, Festus climbed the narrow, shadowy stairs. He thought of the sack, secured with knotted string, that his father — Granny’s least favored son — demanded he place in Granny’s gnarly hands. He thought of young men such as he, sent on quests to prove their mettle.
Inside the attic bedroom of Granny’s ancient house, Festus removed his jeans, folded them and laid them on the bedside chair. He climbed into bed wearing his T-shirt, jockey-shorts and, because the icy floor had chilled his feet, his worsted socks — last year’s itchy Christmas gift from Granny that he had worn today as if a sop to please her. Reaching for the string attached, Festus pulled the chain that extinguished the single, swaying light bulb.
In the pitch darkness, the house, its clapboard weathered grey from a century of sun and storms, hunched its shoulders against the North Atlantic, against the harassing northeast wind.
Festus burrowed his head into goose down. His sock-bound feet soon grew too hot under Granny’s feathered quilt. Using his sweating toes, Festus skinned them off beneath the covers. Yet, as he had feared, just as the Sandman claimed him, Festus felt his naked soles being tickled by something akin to whiskers or fur or the Sea Witch’s stubbly kiss.
All his childhood Festus had known Granny kept no domesticated cat or dog. He knew Granny had no friendly pets but always suspected she housed familiars.
Festus howled and kicked out with his right foot as bestial jaws champed onto his left foot and commenced to gnaw. Jack-knifing, he gripped hairy ears sprouting from — he felt for sure — a snouted skull. He lunged. Festus and his nightmare beast rolled and tumbled across the haunted Land of Counterpane.
All night, tossing, turning, like Jacob wrestling the Angel of God, Festus fought his hirsute demon.
It was pointless to yell for Granny’s help. Two floors below, she slept like a corpse on her favorite side, her deaf ear turned to the ceiling. Besides, apparently she’d opened up the sack. Festus recalled her reassuring voice speaking in his boyhood: “The darkness shrouds no monsters — other than those one somehow has offended.”
Outside, the wind screeched encouragement to one combatant or the other.
At dawn the fracas ended. The sun shone on the sea and the wind abated.
Exhausted, and feeling safe in the daylight, Festus rose to dress in the chilly morning. Shivering, he discovered that somehow during the night his toes, now still feeling chafed and raw, had wiggled back inside his scratchy worsted socks.
Sheepishly, he scuffed downstairs to find that Granny, bless her heart, had prepared his favorite breakfast dish, Quaker Oatmeal porridge.
Copyright © 2008 by Harold N. Walters