A man returning from a day’s hunt stepped from the forest into the clearing surrounding his woodland homestead. Long shadows from a westering sun reached from the tree line and wrapped around the small cottage. Light spilled through the open door and spread across the empty yard.
“I’m back” he called out.
He had expected his boy to be waiting, eager to see what game he had caught. Or at least the dog to come bounding out. But all was quiet.
A disappointing homecoming for a disappointing hunt. All he had to show for the day were two quail. They made a fine dinner for tonight, but he needed to start putting away stores for the coming winter. Not that he was worried about insufficient food. In another two weeks it would be cold enough to slaughter the hogs and smoke the hams and sausages that would last them until spring. But more variety meant a less bleak winter.
As he approached the cottage door, he heard soft crying. He stepped inside.
His son sat on a chair near the fire of the kitchen hearth, legs pulled up, knees under his chin, arms wrapped around his shins. His eyes were red and puffy.
“What’s the matter son?” he said. “Where’s your ma?”
The boy looked up and took a shuddering sniff. “She ain’t got back from the market yet.”
The man’s throat clenched. She should have been back hours ago. He glanced over the empty cottage.
“Where’s Burley?” It was unlike the hound to leave the boy, especially when he was distressed.
“He runned off when the monster showed up.”
The man blinked.
“The monster.” The son buried his face behind his knees. “It was horrible. I was so scared pa.”
“Monster? What are you talking about?”
The son looked up, his voice now prideful. “But I caught it pa, I trapped it in the smokehouse. You’d be proud of me. I caught it, Pa!”
“What nonsense are you talking? You’ve got some animal in the smokehouse?” It was typical of his son’s boyish imagination. He probably trapped a raccoon in there. And the rafters were still hung with smoked trout from this summer’s fishing trip. The critter would be gorging itself. The man flushed with anger. He dropped the quail on the table next to his son and walked back out the front door, leaving it ajar.
He walked around to the smokehouse. The small outbuilding was constructed of stout oaken timbers, grayed with age and streaked with black stains where years of smoke found exits through chinks in the boarding. It was meant to keep out scavengers and protect the precious contents during the long smoking process. Now it was holding something in.
The man paused at the door and listened. He thought he heard something faint, like rope stretching against wood. What could the boy have caught in there?
He slipped his hunting knife from its sheath and pushed the door open a crack. The setting sun no longer reached through the surrounding forest, and the growing darkness, coupled with the black, smoke-stained interior of the smokehouse made it impossible to see inside. The man waited a moment, satisfied to let whatever animal was inside run free into the forest, no doubt with a belly full of fish.
But nothing emerged, and the man heard no noise from within.
He pushed the door open slowly and stepped inside. He could make out nothing but smoked fish hanging from the closest rafters. He moved further in, and as his eyes adjusted to the dark, he discerned a tall shape suspended from a rafter in the back of the room. He stepped closer, gripping his knife.
His wife’s body dangled from the rafters by a rope that bound her wrists. Next to her, their only son was similarly suspended. Behind him, the dog hung from its hind legs.
His son’s head lifted slowly and one eye opened.
“Pa, there’s a monster,” he said hoarsely. “It looks like me.”
Stars exploded before his eyes as a tremendous weight impacted the base of his skull.
His face hit cold, packed dirt. He tasted soot. He was vaguely aware that he was on the floor of the smokehouse.
As if from a great distance, a voice cackled, “Oh, how well I will eat this winter!”
Blackness consumed him.