The China Family

It has long been my practice to write a horror story on Halloween, and share it with my friends.  I posted last year’s effort at Hot Air, along with an essay about horror entitled The Very Witching Time of Night.  I thought I would share this year’s story as well.  Happy Halloween!

The China Family

By John Hayward


The Autumn Leaf rolled through a thirteen-foot wave, listing so far to port that half her rigging came up dripping seawater.  Lightning popped overhead, momentarily brighter than the sailboat’s emergency lighting.

“Tell me that was land I just saw!†Ben shouted over the wind.  The ship’s wheel twisted out of his hands for the third time in the past ten minutes.  He swore and brought his boat under control again.

Angela checked the GPS display, then wrapped one arm around a railing and aimed her binoculars into the night.  A new lightning flash lit up the horizon.  “It’s there!†she screamed.  “There’s an island dead ahead!â€

A seasoned sailor would have considered it unsafe to make landfall in such weather conditions.  Ben was young.  He took in the terrified expression on his wife’s face, felt his churning stomach pump acid into his throat, and aimed the bow of the Autumn Leaf at the dark mass of rock and trees ahead.

An hour later, Ben and Angela left their six-figure sailboat dug into the wet sand of a narrow beach, and peered through driving rain at the house which dominated the little island.

It was a formidable pile of old Spanish architecture, much bigger than a typical Caribbean plantation house.   There were no lights.

“Nobody home,†said Angela.  She leaned against Ben.  He felt her shiver.  Her skin was cold, and she was soaked to the bone.

“Or the power’s out,†he suggested.  He snapped on a powerful halogen flashlight, and played the beam over cracked plaster and faded paint.  “It might be abandoned.  Come on, let’s get you inside.  You need to be out of this rain.â€

Angela grunted her agreement.  They carefully mounted a flight of wet stone steps.  Ben gave Angela the flashlight while he pounded on the sturdy red wooden doors.  When there was no answer, he took the light back and played it through the windows.  Angela produced her own smaller light and had a look around the front porch.

When he was satisfied the house was deserted, Ben tried the door.  It was unlocked.  He had to fight decades of rust on the hinges to pull it open.

The great room was filled with antique furniture.  There was dust, but not too much, and no cobwebs.  “Somebody lives here,†Angela said nervously.

“Maybe they cleared out before the storm hit,†Ben suggested.  He shined his light around, and found no light switches or electric fixtures.  A match from the waterproof case in his pocket brought an oil lamp to life.  “Everything is old fashioned,†he observed.  “I think this might be a historical site, probably owned by the Mexican government.  We should be careful not to touch anything.â€

“I’m getting a fire started,†Angela said, producing her own matches and heading for the fireplace.  “The Mexican government can settle up with me later.â€

Ben found some old, dry wood stacked in a wrought iron frame.  “Think this is historical firewood?â€

She snorted.  “Throw it in.â€

The fire spread light and warmth through the room.  The wind and cold rain lashing the windows grew more distant.  Ben was digging through their emergency rations, and thinking about returning to the Autumn Leaf to make some more distress calls, when Angela put her hand on his arm.

The fire had nourished her.  Dull fatigue was replaced by bright curiosity and captive firelight in her big brown eyes.  “Ben.  Look.â€

He peered through an open door into a sitting room.  At just the point where orange firelight blended with charcoal shadow, he saw a row of beautiful china dolls, dressed in colorful Mexican clothing.

He followed Angela into the sitting room.  There were a few dozen dolls neatly arranged on shelves, and seated in doll-sized furniture.  The girls wore dresses, ranging from homespun cloth to elegant silk.  The boys were dressed as farmers, musicians, and soldiers.  An old spinning wheel in the corner looked to be the source of the beautifully tailored clothing.

“These are all period,†said Angela.  She carefully ran a doll’s skirt through her fingers.  “Honey, this stuff has to be better than a hundred and fifty years old.â€Â  She used her flashlight to examine a few of the dolls more closely.  “There’s a name stitched into each of their outfits.  Marguerite.â€

“Marguerite was a hell of a seamstress,†Ben said respectfully.  “Hey, there’s more over here.â€

Beyond the sitting room was a larger room, arranged as a diorama.  The walls were painted to resemble the island, with a somewhat distorted rendition of the great old house silhouetted against a lovely Caribbean sunset.  Actual rocks were piled against the mural, making the image come alive.  There was even sand poured into a wooden frame on the floor, creating an artificial beach.

The diorama was decorated with more dolls, but these were much larger.  The biggest one might have been three feet tall.  Their proportions were oddly distorted.  Some had limbs of different length or thickness, while others had extraordinarily large or misshapen heads.  The quality of their costumes remained consistently high.  They were dressed as laborers and fishermen.  A better-dressed couple sat higher upon the rocks, taking in the scene with happy painted smiles.  Their porcelain hands were touching, and they had been posed with their heads resting against each other.  The male doll had a big, furry moustache, while the female wore her long dark hair in a braid.

Ben went back into the living room to fetch the oil lamp, giving them a better look at the diorama.  “There’s a plaque on the wall with some writing in Spanish,†he told his wife.

Angela translated for him.  “This is our happy home, which we built with the fortune Esteban earned upon the high seas.  We prayed to God every night for a child, but Marguerite could not conceive.  This broke her heart, and Esteban resolved to mend it.â€

“It’s a history display,†Ben whispered.  “Like Disney World.â€Â  His light found another door.  “And there’s more.â€

They went into the next room, gasping in astonishment when the flashlights and oil lamp showed them what it contained.

This room had a high domed ceiling.  Its walls were painted with blue sky and sunset clouds.  The floor was laid with blue and white tiles, which resembled waves on the open sea.  One of the walls was dominated by a huge model of a sailing ship, complete with canvas sails and rigging.  The years had eaten away some of the craftsmanship, but it was still a remarkable sight.  The crow’s nest was a good fifteen feet above the ground.

The toy boat was crewed by more of the large dolls, including another version of the man with the furry beard, who must surely have been Esteban.  He was now dressed for adventure on the seven seas.  His face had been painted with an expression of unbreakable resolve.

Angela found another plaque.  “Esteban sailed to the far corners of the world, looking for a medicine that would make his wife’s belly fit to hold a child.â€

Ben shook his head in wonder.  “This is great,†he said.  “We gotta get our cameras from the boat later and take some pictures.â€Â  He noted the door to the next room was on the right-hand wall.  “We’re going clockwise through the ground floor of the house.  Let’s finish the tour.  There should only be a couple more rooms.â€

His wife readily agreed, and they took their flashlights and oil lamps into the next chamber.  The fire was now a distant memory, and Ben felt the cold seawater soaked into his skin.  He was about to ask Angela if she wanted to spend a little more time by the fire, but she was already stepping past him, playing her flashlight around the room.  “Looks like Esteban found his medicine in the South Pacific,†she said.

This room was decorated to resemble a jungle.  A painted wall showed Esteban’s ship riding at anchor in a lagoon.  Dolls representing the intrepid captain and a few of his men were trading with the natives.

“Oh, my God†said Ben.  He leaned close to look at the native dolls.  “These guys are horrible.â€Â  The natives were even more misshapen than the other dolls, and their faces were carved from wood instead of china.  They were made to look diseased, perhaps even leprous.  Many had been provided with ugly tumors of painted wood, and the wood was oddly stained, to suggest discolored skin.  Their painted expressions hinted of shame and predatory cunning.

Angela found the room’s plaque hidden among paper trees, silk vines, and wax models of South Pacific fruit.  “They sold him a potion that would let a barren woman carry a child,†she said.  “They told him it was the blood of a god who lived beneath their island.â€

The twisted native dolls made this exhibit Ben’s least favorite part of the tour.  He was already pushing through the next door while Angela was reading the plaque.  He left the oil lamp on the floor, in the middle of the South Pacific room, and took in the next chamber in a spray of cold blue halogen light.

Ben froze.  It took him a few minutes to process what he was seeing.

“Angela,†he said.  His throat was so dry that it hurt to speak.  “Honey.  Get in here. “

Angela had been studying the deformed native dolls with the appreciative eye of a fellow artist.  Her interest in the craftsmanship far exceeded her revulsion over the subject matter.  She came to join Ben in the next room, her pace slowing as she saw its contents.

This room was not a diorama.  It had been kept mostly in its original state.  It was a bedroom, dominated by a four-posted bed draped in white silk.  The bed was empty, but the wall behind it was painted with black shadows against white paint, as if the image of a dreadful event had been burned into the wall by a powerful flash of light.  It was the silhouette of a woman, her back arched in unspeakable agony, mouth open in a jaw-breaking scream.  A male silhouette sat vigil at her side, head bowed in prayer or grief.

The wall across from the bed was dominated by a work bench, from which a dozen china doll faces peered back at them.  Some of them were unpainted, pale white ghost faces with cataract eyes.

Angela’s light found a plaque next to the bay windows, which were sealed by tough wooden shutters.  She walked slowly into the middle of the room to read it.

“She died,†Ben guessed.  He walked to the side of the bed, and stood where Esteban would have knelt a century ago, to cast the shadow of his lowered head upon the wall.  “The natives screwed him over and sold him poison.  He gave it to Marguerite and she died.â€

“No,†breathed Angela.  “No… it worked…â€Â  Her eyes danced across the plaque, reading each of the Spanish words carefully.  “He didn’t understand what it was… not the blood of a god but the seed of a god… the children came out of her by the dozens…â€

“What?â€Â  Ben spun around to put his own flashlight on the plaque, even though he couldn’t read the words.  “That’s…â€

“They were twisted and small,†Angela whispered.  “Their faces were so terrible that Esteban hid them, to hide his own shame. “  She quoted the exact words of the plaque: “Now I am alone, and I will spend my last hours preserving my shame forever, so that God might accept my contrition.  I leave behind also the blasphemous children my wife brought into this world.  They will also dwell here forever, for they are eternal, and so is their…â€

A rending snap of wood ripped through the room like a gunshot.  The old floorboards beneath Angela’s feet gave way beneath the weight of her body and survival gear.  She screamed and fell, but the hole was small, and she was able to catch the edge and save herself.

Ben was at her side in an instant, howling her name.  He grabbed her arms and tried to pull her back to safety… but then he saw her flashlight lying on the floor of the room beneath her.  It revealed a basement filled with human bones.

Ben remembered the first diorama, and its depiction of the island house in happier times.  There had been many fisherman, farmers, and servants living here.  They were all in the basement.  Every one of the skeletons had been pulled apart.

The door to the bedroom slammed behind him.

Still fighting to hang on to his wife, Ben looked over his shoulder.  There was just enough light to see what had joined them in the room.  He started screaming before Angela did.

Every doll from the diorama chambers had slipped silently into the bedroom.  They stood shoulder to shoulder: sailors, peasants, and natives.  There were dozens of them.  They were shivering with excitement.

The Esteban doll from the first chamber stepped forward.  The thing behind its painted china face was panting.  A thick line of drool bubbled between its cold porcelain lips, and pooled at the floor between its misshapen legs.

Ben wore a knife on his belt.  He held his terrified wife with his left hand, and made a play for the knife with his right.

The children of Marguerite were capable of moving with perfect silence, and remaining utterly still for long periods of time… but when they moved, they were fast.


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