Thought I’d get in early this month with my entry for Glempy’s Pictonaut Challenge, and remind you there are ten whole days to come up with a 1000-ish word story based on this lovely picture.  I wrote mine across two, so I don’t want to hear any excuses!

My arm is so tired.

In my weaker moments, I genuinely think it might drop off.  Part of me hopes it does – there’s no way she’d be able to explain that

Except actually, she’d probably just sew it back on, with that smug look she reserves especially for me. 

She never looks at Marcus that way.  I don’t think he’s noticed, though.  Marcus doesn’t really have the capacity for things like that, he’s more interested in improving his insect collection.

I hate The Collection.  He thinks he’s going to be an entomologist, but all he really seems to be doing is pinning moths to a cork board.  Walking by it makes me shudder, I always think I can see their wings still moving.

There are no moths down here, of course.  There isn’t much life at all really, except for the occasional scratching in the walls, and a couple of spiders.  No insects for Marcus to chase with his net and the hat pins appropriated from various visitors and household staff.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been here exactly, but it feels like a very long time.  She made sure there would be no clock, and no windows, and nobody is allowed to come down till I’ve finished.  It could have been days, or it might only have been a few measly hours.  Except it has to be longer than hours, because I’ve nearly finished.

The only thing that spurs me on is the thought of being done soon.  The grubby sight of the floor at the bottom of the fourth wall is the most beautiful thing in the world; when I’ve covered that up she has to let me go.  I can pretend I’ve learned my lesson, let her think she’s won, and keep my head down till father returns.  It’s stupid of her to punish me this way really; all she’s doing is presenting an entire roomful of evidence of her spite.  There’s no way they’ll be able to ignore me once they’ve seen it.

The room is cold and grey, with the only light coming from an ancient lantern that burns with black, choking fumes.  I’ve got used to it now, but to begin with I coughed so much my throat bled.  It has crossed my mind she’s hoping I get consumption or something of that nature when I’m down here, so she can retire me to bed and have me permanently out of the way.  But there are too many variables in that scheme for it to be her main plan.  I think the idea is probably just to break my spirit.

The words she has me writing out are strange.  They look to be in a mixture of different languages – I recognise a few bits of French and some half remembered Latin from when the tutor still came, but I can’t build them together into anything recognisable.  It’s mostly gibberish. 

At first I was determined not to think about it at all.  It’s just the sort of psychological torture she revels in – she wants to get into my head so that I’m constantly thinking of her, questioning her motives and trying to guess what she’s going to do next.  Instead I told myself stories, and scraped her nonsense words into the wall with the knife she gave me as if in a dream, not really paying attention at all never mind attempting to decipher the code.

But gradually my concentration started to go, and I spent more and more time wondering what it all meant.  Could it really all be totally meaningless?  Does she want for me to try and work it out, to keep going until I go mad and turn the knife on myself?  Bad luck there, it’s so worn down by this stage it wouldn’t pierce butter.  The words on this last wall aren’t so much carved as lightly scratched into the plaster, and at the end of the last line – una tormenta komt για σας wenn der Mond hoch ist – I ended up casting the knife aside and using my fingernail.  It works just as well.

Or maybe it’s some kind of formula or spell – I’ve long suspected that she is a witch, and she’s never denied it. I have accused her three times in total, and every time she has stared at me, a hint of a smile playing around her mouth, unflinching and wordless. 

When first I broached the subject, Marcus told me flatly that she couldn’t be a witch.  Her dresses are grey, not black, and her hair is yellow with threads of silver running through – like a damsel, if anything. Her skin is free from pock marks and warts, her nose is not large and hooked but average in size, and when she laughs she doesn’t cackle horrendously but hiccoughs quietly to herself.  Her outward appearance is, to all intents and purposes, meek and demure. 

Of course this is the best disguise she could possibly have, but I can understand why others cannot see it.  I’m hardly more perceptive than the average person – the difference is she wants me to know what she is.  Otherwise she’d treat me as she does them.   And I wouldn’t be stuck down here in the dark, copying her fiendish runes from a mouldy old parchment. 

Tutti saranno consumati nelle fiamme, obscurci dans la brume, gegessen durch den dessen Namen des Monsters trauen uns wir nicht zu sprechen.

It must mean something.  But I can’t bear to ask her what, she’ll take that as a sign she has won.  I’ve tried so hard to be aloof, nonchalant, to give the impression she cannot get to me.  Until the night she put me down here, of course.  I lost my cool, then.  The look of delight in her hard grey eyes when I shouted at her that she was a stupid bitch, that she wouldn’t get away with it, that I was going to push her down these stairs if she didn’t get away from me this second…  It was all the excuse she needed and more.

I rub my elbow, remembering the feeling of her nails stabbing into my arm.  She drew blood, but there was nobody there to see. And I had just threatened to push her down the stairs – some might say she was justified.

“You’re going to write something out for me,” she said, pushing me in to this tiny basement room so hard I fell onto the floor and slid across it, tearing my trouser leg and skinning my knee.  “It’s going to take a while, so it’ll give you plenty of time to reflect on what you’ve done.”

She produced a scroll of parchment from the folds of her dress, covered on both sides in tiny handwriting.  When she produced the knife I screamed a little, which made her do her silly, hiccoughing laugh. 

“This is your quill,” she informed me.  “You can’t just write these words, you need to carve them in to the walls.  They have more portent that way.”

“You can’t just leave me down here,” I said, “someone’ll miss me.”

She smiled insidiously.

“I doubt it. But if they do, I’ll tell them you’re ill in bed and not to be disturbed.”

“What about food?”

“You can catch your own.  I’ve heard that cellars are always full of juicy rats.”

I shivered at the thought.

“It’ll get cold.”

She gestures to the corner of the room.  I can just about make out a dusty old sheet lying there.  Little do I know that a time will come when I’m glad of the slim protection it can offer.

The governess smiles at me and steps out of the room.

“Wait,” I say, hating myself for the fear in my chest as I hear the key turn in the lock, “I’m… sorry.  I’m sorry I lost my temper and said those things.”

I can hear the smile in her voice as she says, “too late now, Daniel.”

I hear her footsteps clack away on the flagstones, getting fainter and fainter till I’m left alone with the silence, the knife, and the foul smelling lantern.  Later on, when I’m feeling my way around every nook and cranny for the third time in search of an escape route, I hear the scritch-scritching of the rats in the walls.

And that is when I begin my work. 

The writing on the wall.