by A. R. Deleanu
translation from Romanian by Nigel Walker and Gianina-Aniela Câşleanu [MTTLC student]
click aici pentru versiunea română
When the creature went past his car, flashing on and off, like lightening in the night, the traveller knew he had to pull over. He couldn’t see what it was. A dog, a fox maybe? He had no idea, nor did it make any difference – he had been driving for over twenty hours, and made a few wrong turns, left, right – crossroads, he dreaded those – even if he had a map, he wouldn’t be able to find the road he was driving on, as it led to nowhere. He strived to keep his eyes open for a few more hours, maybe minutes, hoping to get to some junction, an opening, a station carved in the street, a motel, anything at all, but his hands wouldn’t listen, so after taking one last sip of water, he drove on full throttle, disappearing into the darkness.
At some point, however, he thought he saw a sign out of the corner of his right eye. He was driving at high speed, so he couldn’t just brake or make a turn, and yet he knew, or at least assumed that his mind wasn’t playing tricks on him, and something would break the tedious monotony of this dark road in the middle of the forest.
His anticipation was well-founded: only two minutes passed and a few lights appeared in front of him. On his right there was this narrow space, large enough to shelter a small motel with two lit windows, and all the others in the dark.
Thank God, he whispered and felt his muscles voluntarily relax, an indication of the fact that if it wasn’t for this miracle, his only choices were spending the night in his car, or driving on, and both seemed to lead to a gloomy end: the deep, eternal sleep.
This thought made him shudder so he pulled the steering wheel, parked his car and took a closer, bleary-eyed look at the motel. More than half of the building was hidden in mist and darkness.
He could hear frogs croaking in the distance. The air was damp and the night was cold. The moon was hidden behind the thick trees, suspended in the branches like a fly in a spider’s web. But it didn’t matter, nothing did – he was tired so he stepped on the wooden stairs and listened. After one click, the light from one of the rooms went out, one of the doors closed and the front door opened.
The silhouette of a man appeared in front of him.
The concierge took two steps forward so the traveller was able to see him: he was tall, dark-haired just like him; he had big black eyes, and a very pale skin. Out of breath as if he had been running, the concierge kept looking around for someone or something, he did not know what, nor did it matter.
Have you got any free rooms, sir? the traveller asked.
The hotel manager looked at him and, with an ambiguous gesture, as if flicking something away, he invited him inside. He drew himself up behind his desk and leant over the huge notebook in front of him.
The traveller noticed his hands were shaking.
What’s your name? the concierge asked.
The traveller revealed his name and the hotel manager wrote it down.
And what is your name, sir? the traveller asked
The concierge looked like a trapped animal. His eyes stopped on the nameplate on his desk. He read: Toma.
Under the name: Concierge at The Valley of the Snare.
The traveller wanted to sleep for a few hours so he could set out first thing in the morning, leave the forests behind and drive to a place where there is food, water. He kept telling himself he had to be somewhere, so he had no time to waste.
Well? he asked
Oh, the administrator winced. Yes, the key. The room…
He looked in the box on the wall.
Room 19, he said.
The traveller took the key and turned around.
Excuse me, Sir, the administrator said. Please take the car out of the alley, and take it to the back of the house. We wouldn’t want to block the guests’ access…
He said all that looking down, blankly, still trembling, bashfully, and trying to avoid eye contact.
Sure, the traveller said and then left.
He turned the headlights on and drove through the gravel walk until he reached a courtyard.
The moonlight seemed brighter as there were no trees, only cars, some of them new, others very old, vintage even. Some of the cars were in a good shape; others were rusty and moss–covered. He parked his car and got out. He inspected the surroundings and saw the path winding through the cars to the heart of the forest, where you could hear the distant sound of frogs croaking and the rippling water. Overpowered with fatigue, he eventually gave in, determined to banish any useless questions and retire to his room.
He climbed the interior staircase of the motel, trying not to get overwhelmed by the terrible smell dwelling in the dark hallway. It’s just for one night, he told himself, then got in the room, groped for his bed in the dark, and fell asleep in his clothes.
He woke up a few hours well past midnight, seized by this strange inquietude. He thought he heard a long roar and flinched. He looked around. His eyes were accustomed to the dark, so he was able to easily distinguish the bleary shapes in the room. The furniture was covered by large, black sheets that looked like some chaotic mass or a mountain, hidden in the shadows.
It was only when he looked out the window that he noticed movement outside. The concierge was heading toward the forest through the track made by cars, wearing rubber overalls and carrying a black nylon bag shinning in the moonlight. The bag looked heavy, and the hotel manager was huffing and puffing at every step.
The traveller watched him from behind the curtains until he disappeared under his window. He opened it slowly and looked down where he saw the concierge disappearing into a basement of some sort, dragging the bag behind him, wheezing and panting.
Petrified, the traveller closed the window and laid on the bed. He tried to close his eyes but the image of the concierge dressed in rubber overalls and dragging a black plastic bag kept haunting him.
He was tossing and turning in his bed, wondering if he had better left, whether he had slept enough or it was all a dream, the product of his imagination.
He jumped out of bed and opened the door. He heard noises coming from downstairs – the front door, footsteps, and then a squeaky door. He quietly went down the stairs, tiptoeing, and stopped in front of the concierge’s room. The door was half-open so he could see him taking his overalls off, all drenched in sweat, with bated breath and shaky hands.
He kept walking and carefully opened the front door. He went round the house and stopped in front of the basement, where he noticed a wet trail coming from the forest and going into the basement.
He went down. It was dark and the moonlight couldn’t pierce through. He looked for a switch by the door, but by the time he found it, he heard a rustle and a disgusting splashing sound. Blood was rushing into his head while he was groping for the switch with both hands until he found it.
The basement was invaded by light and the traveller could hardly believe what he was seeing: the basement floor wasn’t asphalted or paved, but covered with soft soil, and in the middle, a huge toothless mouth with thick muddy lips, munching some disgusting chunks of grey meat.
Right next to it there was the black plastic bag, untied, half-empty and lying on the ground, and inside, some hideous, slobbery, putrid creatures, which looked like enormous eyeless, limbless tadpoles, swarming through smoothly.
The traveller turned around determined to run, but the concierge was waiting for him in the doorway. There followed a moment of silence; the smacking of the mouth and the rustling of the bag were the only sounds in the night. The concierge looked just as frightened and nervous.
Let me go, the traveller said.
Wait, you don’t understand, said the concierge. Let me explain. I…
No! Shut up! the traveller cried and pitched into him, pushing him away from the door.
He raced up the basement stairs and went around the house. He went inside and got up in his room to get his belongings and the car keys, determined to leave the motel as soon as possible. He reached the corridor and bumped into the agitated and shivering concierge, who tried to stop him.
Wait, he said, you don’t understand. I must…
Leave me alone! the traveller cried and tried to get away.
I had to…, he was shouting while grabbing onto the traveller, snatching him, gripping his arms, his legs, and the back of his head.
Leave me alone! Let me go!
The concierge grabbed his face, while his wet fingers, covered in the mucus of those greasy creatures, got in his mouth and nose.
The traveller punched him in the stomach and laid him out on the floor.
Hardly had he taken a step, when the concierge grabbed his feet and they both fell on the endless stairs of the motel. Then there was darkness.
He woke up at the bottom of the stairs, over the concierge’s body. He drew near – he wasn’t breathing. Blood was dripping from the back of his head.
The traveller got up on his feet and looked around. It was only after a few moments that he realised where he was and fear seized him all over again. He lifted the concierge’s lifeless body and carried it in front of the closest room. He opened the door and the smell hit him right in the face. He turned the light on: in the huge room there were two long tables with fancy food, all mouldy and rotten, full of worms, moss and moths. Countless decomposing bodies of men were lying on the chairs with swollen bellies, greasy skin, raw gums and bones, and dried eyeholes. The reek was unbearable, and the traveller bent down to throw up, but his stomach was empty, so he just stood there for a second, feeling sick, with tears in his eyes and his mouth open in awe. A fly landed on his lips, then flew away. He came to his senses and pulled the concierge back inside.
He lifted him and laid him on one of the free chairs, and noticed that around the tables there were beds, sofas and armchairs and chests, full of viscous mummies. He left the room and closed the door behind him. He fell on his knees, with his face in his hands.
Oh my God… what…
His arms and legs were numb, his heart stopped beating. It was as if he was looking at himself from above, sitting in a corner, crying, trembling, wailing.
And then he heard the roar… It was a low-pitched sound, coming from the depths. He realised it was the same roar he had woken up to earlier. He got up and listened. The echo passed across the corridors, hit the walls, then melted away in the darkness of the upper floors. It climbed up the basement, mightily, grievously, like a cry over centuries, carrying along the grimness of the rocks, the overlapping plates, the cool depths, and the miasma of the earth.
The traveller listened and finally understood.
He went down to the basement and laid down next to the mouth of clay. The plastic bag was rustling and the traveller observed that one of the sticky creatures was struggling to escape. It was the last one that got trapped while trying to get free. The mouth was crying with hunger.
The traveller lifted the bag and released the creature. He then took it in his arms, and started caressing and cradling it. He kneeled down next to the mouth and sang a lullaby, accompanied by the roaring of the ages, like a monolithic organ. He lifted the creature over the mouth and let it fall.
The roaring stopped and the mouth began to munch, devouring the giant tadpole.
The traveller startled at the sound of a car. The first shafts of morning light pierced through the basement’s door. He went up and then round the house, stopped in front of the car that was just coming down the alley, but remained silent. He was nervous and quivering.
A young man got out of the car. The traveller gazed and invited him in with a hand gesture. He opened the notebook and felt the paper shaking between his fingers.
Good morning! the young man said.
The traveller didn’t say anything; his face flushed while beads of sweat popped on his forehead. He grabbed a pen and asked:
What is your name?
The young man told him his name and the traveller wrote it down.
May I know with whom I am speaking? the young man asked. The traveller’s eyes fell on the nameplate on the desk. He closed the notebook and said: