Our vines have tender grapes—and hideous guardians! [Weird Tales Contest Co-Winner]
|May Heaven forgive the blasphemous testimony I am now compelled to give. I expect no mercy from this court of inquest; and my own legal counsel, after strenuously objecting to the statement I prepared, has resigned. I am on my own. I expect shortly to be arrested, and if I am not hanged on a charge of murder—falsely hanged, I must stress—I shall certainly be confined to the asylum. I pray for the former; the latter would only prolong days blighted by the hideous meditations I have suffered since that night in the vineyard.
For Betjeman—my best friend from childhood—is dead, and I am called to account for his death, for it was I who delivered his rent and shivered remains to the police. The supposition, naturally, is that I killed him, when I am responsible only for bearing away such of him as remained before he could be further savaged in those vineyards of abomination.
This court knows the vineyards whereof I speak. They are the wonder of the country, for no vines should thrive in our stony Massachusetts soil or our cold New England clime. Yet its emerald-green vines are prodigiously thick and ropy, and bloom with fuchsia-tinted leaves as large as palm fans, and they bear grapes large and glistening. Yet none has ever eaten of a cluster of them, nor drunk their juice nor imbibed their wine. For that vineyard is surrounded by a high brick wall embedded in the top with cruel glass shards. Such precautions against poachers may seem unneighborly in a village such as ours. But I solemnly urge all to abjure every intent to explore within those walls, for I suspect now they are meant to protect us from the vineyard and not the vineyard from us.
It and the attached villa, as we all know, belong to the man Krallenfische, who reportedly came here from Innsmouth about a year ago. "Reportedly," I say, for our only conversation has been with the close-mouthed, fish-eyed servant he brought with him. From that servant we learned that his employer was the breeder of a new and prodigious strain of grape, and that from it he makes his own wine, which he ships exclusively to the same secretive town from which he emerged.
But Betjeman was an amateur botanist, and I a man with a dangerous taste for adventure. Curiosity at last aroused him; animal spirits agitated me when he proposed our raid.
We fixed on the first moonless night of the month for the expedition. It was damnably easy getting over the wall. We scuttled up a ladder, laid a protective plank over the glass-encrusted top, then descended a second ladder set upon the inner side. The earth was soft and loamy when we fell into the vineyard, and the furrows were like rippling waves upon a dark and seething sea.
Betjeman was all for instantly snagging the first cluster of grapes he could find, but I more adventurously explored toward the villa. It was, I confess, a morbid curiosity that drew me, for none had so much as glimpsed the face of the man Krallenfische. He invariably swaddled his head in an opaque beekeeper's bonnet when he appeared in public; always, too, he encased his hands in gloves. His servant, when asked, put it down to a skin condition that left his master hideously sensitive to light. So I wished to put my eye to a window, so as to finally glimpse the face of the vineyard's owner.
I heard Betjeman call out softly that he had his grapes and would next attempt a cutting, but I only crept on toward the nearest window, behind the shade of which burned a purple-hued light. I speculated to myself that this color of the spectrum only failed to agitate the unfortunate Krallenfische.
I was just hunting for a gap in the shade when I heard a loud rustling, and a muffled cry behind. When I looked back, I saw that Betjeman had vanished from the path, and that a furious commotion had broken out amongst the vines.
Alarmed, I ran back, thinking that the alert servant had surprised and caught Betjeman. Would that's all it had been!
Instead, when I uncovered my lantern, I found my friend lifted off his feet and wrapped with grappling vines as thick as a brawny man's arm. And they moved, too! Quick and lithe they coiled and tightened, and they squeezed him so closely he could only let slip the faintest of moans.
At first in my horror I could only surmise that the vineyard was infested with pythons, and that these had caught my friend. Rashly I reached out to touch one, but was saved from this folly when one of the blind things reared up, and showed itself to be covered underneath with—I beg you to believe me!—the kind of suckers one finds on the arm of an octopus!
The tentacles twisted, and tore my friend in twain.
Before I could yell, another movement caught my eye and— Heavens! at the window stood Krallenfische, gazing calmly out at us!
He had shed his damnable bonnet so that I looked upon his face; and on beholding it I felt my scream shrivel in my throat. His skull was large and bulbous and bare, like the head sac of an enormous cephalopod. Like too were his livid, lidless eyes, large as saucers, with pupils black as the illimitable trenches of the ocean abyss. He had no nose, and his mouth— I shudder to express the thought, but I do not know if he had one, or had not instead the snapping beak of a cuttlefish buried behind his collar.
Yet as unutterably hideous as he was of aspect, still worse were the hands he laid on the windowsill. For he had removed his ever-present gloves, and from the cuffs there extended neither hand nor finger, but the writhing tips of four, sucker-tipped tentacles!
Entry for the Weird Tales Contest: March 2018.