Richard Wiles sighed and tilted back on his chair, arms furled behind his neck.
He looked down at the carpet. It was of a design he did not favour - but who cared? Having come with all the other fixtures and fittings, he did not have a wife to worry unduly about mixing and matching the colours.
He laughed to himself, for if stupidity had been dosed out at birth, then his spoonful had been as from a ladle. Why had he bought this crumbling old house at all? Not that crumbling was something which could easily be attributed to it, despite its age, unless feelings were stranger than observations.
He stood up to peer through the semi-frosted glass at the desolate surroundings of creek and marsh. He had yet to spend his first night here, tonight in fact, and he shuddered, his flesh seeming fleetingly to work loose from the bones.
Little could he afford this strange edifice but, let it be said, he had been shot through with the solidity of the walls; they gave off an earth magic he could never have explained, even to himself. The walls were standing thick and mighty, indicating, beyond too much argument, that the house had been planted at this spot in an indefinably distant past and would still be there at the end of Adam's line. The place was riddled with it. But at the back of his mind...
Folly! Folly! Rich as he might be, he would find it almost impossible to upkeep such a spread. Loneliness was not to be the only other problem, either, for he believed, he was sure, in ghosts: he did not know whether this was as the result of influences outside himself, but he suspected that a whole hive of them lurked in the upper galleries of the house ... a situation he viewed with mixed feelings.
He was started awake by a loud scraping sound rising from below stairs. He had chosen one of the bedrooms in the top storey as master over all the other ones and he had laid his troubled brow there on the pillows plumped up by the batting-lady during one of her late excursions from the kitchen areas. The log fire had long since died away; the ashes crumbling into the grate had earlier disturbed his beauty sleep.
The noise was of someone scrubbing the kitchen's stone floor - but surely not now at this time of night! Too loud by half. He scrambled further from the grasp of dreams, for the ghastly scraping continued its growing din - chafing against a frightful grain. It was climbing the stairs! Rubbing two rough-cut granite blocks together, climbing the stairs? Wiles tried to calm the pangs and cramps which were taking purchase of his limbs. Not yet reconciling himself to the fear that was stirring up his imagination, he heard the scraping nearer and nearer, louder and louder, until it actually passed right outside his bedroom door.
Cutt House gradually retained its respectful silence. But Wiles failed to sleep for the rest of the night, stewing, fretting, threshing...
Morning came with the sun shafting through the open beams of the bedroom window, dissipating the final remains of night and its attendant fears. Wiles was remarkably freshened at the sight of a golden-eyed breakfast, brought to him by the batting-lady and, as he admired the well-turned coddling egg, he asked whether she had heard any ... peculiar noises in the night.
She had slept like a log, sir. She couldn't, Wiles felt, be stirred even by her husband's lovemaking.
She had been batting-lady to the old Cutt family until they sold up to Wiles. The last of the Cutt masters, the seventh in the line, had died unexpectedly. How? Wiles had failed to discover; the batting-lady continued to assume an air of ignorance and indifference on the subject. Wiles had gained the impression that the Cutt family had literally fled the house. However, he could not remember whether he had learnt this before or after his committment to the house.
The batting-lady returned every morning with stacks of crusty bread and pancakes dripping with molasses. But the scraping itself did not return ... for a while.
In the intervening days, he researched the Cutt family history by visiting the house's cellar library. The earliest reference was in "The Annals of Time" by William Mather, dated 1687. There was one particular passage which came off the page at him, telling of a certain John Cuthe who had built this very house. He had wanted a really solid construction and, although the book grew vaguer here, it had evidently been designed with certain experiments in mind. To this lonely marshy spot, Cuthe had transported mighty blocks of stone that would have set the toters of Stonehenge cringing ... thick and solid, impenetrable, already tested by eons of undecaying. The floors and rafters were made meticulously of the most tightly grained oak. This peerless strength was shafted into the deepest foundations that it was possible to dig. How many labourers werehired remained unclear ... but they could not find billets enough for them in the nearest villages.
Another rotting volume with "War in Spain" by Charles Dipp on the spine, had within a manuscript, presumably a diary of John Cuthe himself, dated 1681. The words had been fading for centuries, but Wiles managed to glean a few strings of sense from it, viz. "rock hath hardness on the Sabbath", "my wife doth not like that which I do", "the core didst suck well tonight", "there is a cuckoo which pecketh ever", and further such cryptic phrases meandered across the badly foxed pages, as if the fluid Cuthe used as ink still possessed a life of its own.
Mystification on the heels of folly! Wiles shrugged at such arrant nonsense, but the cellar library itself bothered him - it was bitten deep into profound bedrock and vaguely, instinctively, he began to think he felt the bowels of the earth pulsating beneath his feet ... as if a stony heart were throbbing.
Another disturbance of the night was to follow ... and yet another a few weeks later. Wiles sat bolt up like an automaton at the first hint of scraping. Teeth on edge, a desultory dream of chalk screeching on a blackboard, turning into some insidious joker scratching his uncut nails along a plaster wall and, finally, into an anguished mockery of reality itself. Every nerve of his bones, every cavity of his skull winced ... and his nails were likely plucked one by one from his fingers and toes. Hideous friction within the otherwise loose-limbed fibre of his soul. Up the stairs, past the bedroom door, dying away into relative silence, scraping, grating its time-worn course.
Then Wiles met Eugene Cutt, heir of the late James Cutt. He had to be sought out in London, where he had fled following a particular fracas at the house, the superficialities of which even the batting-lady had cause to remember (but pretend she had forgotten).
Wiles could not easily sell up. Nor could he forget the troubles of Cutt House since he felt a force driving him to plumb the intrigues and unseasonable hauntings of the night. If he left without attempting to rationalise it all, and thus creating an acceptable smokescreen context to the wrenching in his very gut, a force which he had no option but to call Terror would then tread on his tail till his life's end and into death. He had to open that bedroom door, even if metaphorically, at the height of the scraping and he would do it, come what may, with Eugene Cutt by his side.
Wiles did not have reason to like this last human remnant of the Cutts called Eugene but, not being able to put his finger on it, he trusted him. This was despite the outlandish tales that Wiles forced from him.
Cutt was shamefaced to learn that the house had not shaken off its troubles, following the departure of he whose ancestors had set it all in motion in the first place. He should have come clean at the outset. He murmured behind his hands so Wiles could not catch it all.
"I thought us Cutts were the only ones to be cursed by the Infinite Cuckoo..." Eugene touched his temples, as if to say he had the bird in there anyway, to forgive himself talking poppycock. "Yes, I must tell you all. I should have told you before you instructed your solicitors yes, I will explain myself, sir, not before time, as you say ... yes, yes, you have the right to know, I'm so very sorry. I don't know where to begin..."
The dawn chorus in London comes even sooner than that in the country, and for a time Cutt's voice was hindered by the many parkland squawks.
"Yes, I'll try to begin ... the first of the Cutts made a pact with the Core of our earth. He called up the power of the Core ... the legend goes that there is an unholy force at the centre of the earth, a knot of stone needing sustenance. A sick force..."
Wiles winced as he felt his own stomach crawl towards his throat. His toes curled, for the ground shook with the passage of a tube train.
"The core lusts for everything, to be the core of nothing, if you see ... well, legend, true, but my ancestors died for it. The Core feeds on humanity, on mineral, on anything. Soaking them down through the white stone of the earth's inner crust, to the curdling oceans of cream. The story goes that it has allies amongst humanity, like my original forebear, and it has given birth to its own allies, to provide food for it, such as the Infinite Cuckoo..." Again he lightly touched his temples.
Wiles complained to himself that ghosts he could even barely begin to believe in ... but this was undreamable!
"I tend to agree with you and, seeing you here, has persuaded me that the mystery must finally be solved. The curse of the House of Cutt must be lifted, it's my obligation."
Breakfast was stony silent, for they were in communion. Wiles envisioned a chaos that gave birth to the cosmos. He saw the Core sucking in all in its path, firstly things on the earth, then the earth itself, turning it inside out as it were. Then gobbling the rest of the universe.
Out of the Core came life, space and time, and now it was lusting for its original nature, God to Dog without passing Go. No wonder his mind raced out of control, in paradoxicons of fear and awe. But hardly more than sub-intellectual concepts ... hardly a solution for Cutt House!
They travelled across the wild marshes, late in the afternoon. The flatness was so vast, only broken by an odd malformed tree, Wiles chuckled at ideas that God must have entered a horizon-throwing competition when creating this part of the world, and had won it hands down. The first glimpse of the house was a travesty of such fennish nothingness.
Little to do that night ... and they retired early, not without noticing that the batting-lady had been busy peeling wallpaper in the hallway. Richard Wiles and Eugene Cutt were as ready as they could be for what was about to unfold...
The following afternoon, they began a systematic exploration of the whole mighty structure of the house. They ripped up floorboards, tapped the walls, including those recently stripped by the batty; they left no stone unturned, but nothing was to be found. They knew instinctively that the cellar library was a prime place to concentrate their efforts. Day after day, they chiselled at its stone floor, chipped away at the rutted wall, only breaking off to delve deeper into the mouldering volumes interminably lining its cavern walls.
Then success came. Cutt, re-examining the floor more closely, discovered a swirling-shaped knot in the stone, a flaw created at the beginning of time in earth's raw material, no doubt. Wheeling his finger around it several times, he received what he felt as a touch of power, but this was soon forgotten by a fever of activity, since a part of the stone surface had slid away, to reveal a pit of white mud.
"Richard! Richard!" he shouted, forgetting formalities in the mode of address, and Wiles came running. Glancing downward with a shudder, he saw the hole in the actual bedrock of the earth full of shifting slime, even now starting to burp and seethe as it met the air of the library.
"O, my dear God!" blurted Wiles. "It's so ... utterly pure white!"
It heaved and twitched, put out sticky fingers and melded lumps of pink-veined fat.
"O God, please shut it! For the sake of sanity, shut it!" moaned Wiles, turning away in disbelief from the cacky blubber.
Cutt, re-tracing the convoluted knot of stone in the floor, closed the rocky cover above the nightmare albino pus. All he could say, like a visitor in a dream, was "Cuckoo-spit! Cuckoo-spit!" over and over again.
Both men soon recovered from their shock. They simply now knew that they had discovered the power house of the building. They must keep watch over it, at all times. The disturbances had not occurred since Cutt's return to the house, so one was to be expected at any time. That night, they both sat by the "hole", furnished with revolvers, a net and a heavy-duty pick-hammer. What they inteded to do with these they had not the slightest idea. But nothing happened on that, the first night after discovering the "hole".
The second was a different story. Or they wished it had been.
The hurricane lamp threw distorted shadows across the rocky walls. Then, they heard it, after a long night of diffident conversation. Very faint, at first, and still vilely slow: it was the scraping sound which Wiles had heard on the first night in the house, initially like the scrubbing of a stone floor and then sickeningly like two ill-shaped granite blocks being rubbed together. It seemed to rise from the very soul of the earth, nearer and nearer with every gasp bursting from their lips.
"Let's get out of here!" screamed Wiles.
"No, wait! We can only see this thing out!" shouted Cutt in an attempt to be heard against the rasping din, his eyes afire with terror's orgasm of fear.
From that point on, all was very simple, so simple it more or less describes itself, with merely the lightest narrative intervention by one whose memory survived the affair.
The stone lid moved from above the ungodly scraping, revealing the turmoil of gulping whiteness below. Out of these churning separates of blinding muck, there rose a beaked head. Its huge elbows levered up the bony branches of its malformed body.
A mammoth bird, insidiously cuckoo-like, vented from the depths of its muscle-ripped chest those musical notes that usually welcomed Spring, but here meant death.
It was the grisly beak champing which was the appalling snicker-snacker of its scraping.
Congealed in its runnelled flesh was the white juice of its birth, of its hideous hatching and, although moving in concrete, it migrated from the poultry devil of mediaeval art to twentieth century's version of reality with the greatest of ease.
Wiles screamed and screamed as the birdish thing clambered from the roiling pit and grated over the floor towards them. Cutt was silent, but quivered and twitched uncontrollably.
Simultaneously, the earth throbbed apocalyptically and, many horizons away, a volcano lost its guts.
On and on came the clucking beast with stone bones, on and on, and took Cutt into its beak, raised him from the floor and whiplashed his body with a sabre-rattling yelp. Wiles saw the blood pumping from Cutt's mouth and striping the creature's creamy breasts; and Cutt's head, severed at the root, fell into the sickly curds of the Core.
The cuckoo sank back, duly satisfied. And finally, all Richard Wiles could see was the slime surging, imploding...
He could not budge, for he realised, realised that what he ridiculed was in fact ridiculing him, realised that the universe was doomed, if not already extinct; and, with an insane shriek, jumped into the virgin pit, to forget that to which he had now sacrificed himself.
Published 'Auguries' 1988