Monday, 29 December 2008

The Flying Head


THE FLYING HEAD

by A Hyatt Verrill

First published in June 1939 in the magazine Strange Stories, this comes from the book, The Mummy, stories edited by Peter Haining 1989, with credit to Better Publications Inc for the story. Digitized by Doug Frizzle December 2008.

It was indeed strange, Dr Stokes thought, that his Indian labourers should appear so loath to dig into the mound. They worked half-heartedly, hung back, and appeared nervous and ill at ease. Dr Stokes had excavated hundreds of burial mounds in Peru and had disinterred countless Inca and pre-Inca mummies; yet never before had the Cholos showed the least hesitation in digging into graves of their forefathers and dragging out their dessicated bodies.

When the archaeologist questioned them they merely muttered and mumbled in their native Quichua, saying something unintelligible about supay, or devil; and when at last the posts and adobe bricks marking a grave were exposed, the men demanded their pay and deserted in a body.

'Looks as if we'd have to do the rest of the work ourselves, Tom,' Dr Stokes said to his assistant.

Presently the last of the bricks were removed, and the scientist uttered an exclamation of delight as he saw the contents of the tomb. The mummy-bundle itself was magnificent with silver and gold ornaments, and grouped about it were splendid specimens of pottery.

'By Jove!' he cried as he examined one of the jars. 'An entirely new motif! See here, Tom!'

Painted in black and scarlet upon the cream-coloured surface of the jar was a grotesque, winged figure resembling an owl, with a horribly fiendish expression on its almost-human face. Never before had Dr Stokes seen anything like it, and his enthusiasm increased when he discovered that every piece of pottery in the tomb bore the same strange design.

All impatience to learn the contents of the mummy-bundle, the two men took it from the grave and packed up the pottery. Loading their discoveries into their ramshackle car, they started on the long drive to San Isidro where, in the scientist's temporary laboratory, the mummy could be unwrapped. It was late when they arrived, but so anxious was the archaeologist to learn what might be hidden under the wrappings of the mummy, that he could not wait until morning and Tom's assistance before getting at it.

With notebook at hand he began removing the layers of coarse cotton cloth, and his enthusiasm increased at the splendid robes and ornate decorations revealed beneath. Never had he seen anything to equal it! Carefully removing and labelling each of the many gold and silver ornaments, folding the delicate robes and making copious notes, Dr Stokes chuckled with delight at the chased silver mask covering the face of the false head, and mentally preened himself on the turquoise and lapis lazuli beads.

Then, as he lifted the last of the gorgeous robes, an ejaculation of wonder came from the scientist's lips. Resting between the drawn-up knees of the mummy, and clasped in the shrunken hands, was a human head.

'By Jove!’ Dr Stokes exclaimed. 'A trophy head, and a marvellously fine one at that!'

Triumphant at having made such a remarkable discovery, he stood gazing admiringly at it. The head was perfectly preserved and the eyes, apparently of some dull green, jade-like material, which had been inserted in the sockets, gave a most lifelike effect. On either side of the skull, long black hair hung from beneath a tightly fitting leather cap with long ears or tabs, and this together with the snaky locks and cold, green staring eyes, lent the mummified head a most horrible and fiendish expression. An expression of unspeakable malevolence and cruelty!

'Whoever you were, you were no beauty,' Dr Stokes muttered to himself a little grimly. 'But you're a wonderful specimen, all the same.’

Then, as he carefully moved the mummy's shrivelled hands and lifted the head, preparatory to placing it in a case, the scientist almost dropped the gruesome thing in his sudden astonishment. He stood there staring incredulously, dumbfounded with wonder. Attached to the fearsome head was a tiny, shrivelled body! A body no larger than that of a newly born infant, but unspeakably repulsive with its covering of dark, curly hair.

For a brief instant, his first astonishment over, Dr Stokes thought that the dried body was that of a monkey attached to the trophy head as a decoration; but only a glance was needed to prove this surmise wrong. The body belonged to the head itself. It was the mummy of a strange, horrible freak; a being with the body of a hairy midget, barely a foot in length and with the head of a full-grown man!

Here, indeed, was a momentous discovery. Very carefully placing the unique specimen in a covered tray upon his laboratory table, Dr Stokes switched out the lights and went to his bedroom, highly elated at the results of his latest excavations.

He was not a nervous or excitable man, and through years of disinterring and handling the earthly remains of human beings he had come to regard bones and mummies merely as specimens. He was not addicted to day-dreaming, and there was not a trace of superstition in his makeup. Otherwise his rest might have been disturbed by most unpleasant dreams; but as it was, he slept soundly until suddenly he found himself awake, fully conscious, listening for some sound which he felt sure had awakened him. Then he heard it. A rustling, scratching noise from his laboratory, followed an instant later by a crash.

'Confound those cats!' the scientist exclaimed, leaping from his bed. 'Now one of the beasts has upset something.'

Switching on the lights he glanced about him. Upon the table was the overturned tray, the mummy of the freak beside it, and on the floor was the cover where it had fallen.

'Damn!' Dr Stokes exclaimed aloud. Then, to himself, 'Lucky it wasn't the mummy the beast knocked off. Strange I should have forgotten to close the shutters.'

Replacing the mummy in the tray, he set it upon a shelf; then armed himself with a stout stick and commenced a hunt for the offending feline. But he could find no trace of a trespassing cat. Satisfied that the creature had been frightened by the crash of the falling tray and had dashed out through the barred window, he closed the wooden shutters, switched off the light and again went to bed.

He did not know how long he had slept when he was awakened. For an instant there was no sound, nothing to have disturbed his slumbers. Then from the darkness came a soft, swishing, fluttering noise, and he felt a breath of air against his face as if some moving object had passed swiftly by.

'Bat,' was his mental comment, as he fumbled for his flashlight. As the beam stabbed the darkness he caught a glimpse of a shadowy, indistinct form, two feet or more across the wings, as it flitted through the door leading to the laboratory.

'One of those big fruit-bats,' he decided as he rose. 'Probably that's the nuisance that knocked over the tray. I'll finish him in short order.'

But there was no sign of the bat in the laboratory. Deciding that the creature had found a way out through some aperture under the eaves, Dr Stokes resumed his interrupted slumbers and slept soundly until aroused by Tom's knocking on the outer door.

'I'll bet you sat up all night working on that mummy,' Tom said, as Dr Stokes, in dressing gown and slippers, admitted him. 'Still in bed at this hour and you look all ragged out. Really, you shouldn't—'

'You're wrong, Tom,' the other interrupted. 'I went to bed early enough, but I had a bad night. First a dratted cat came in— I'd forgotten to close the shutters in the laboratory; then one of those big fruit-bats, or maybe it was the bat both times. Anyway, cat or bat, the pest made a racket. Knocked over a tray on my table and —

'Great Scott, I'd forgotten you didn't know. Tom, my boy, that mummy we dug up is a most marvellous discovery! Absolutely unique. Magnificent robes and ornaments — but nothing compared to what was buried with him. Another mummy? Why, the most amazing mummy ever found in Peru! Just wait till you see it.'

Anxious to witness Tom's astonishment and enthusiasm when he saw the dessicated freak, Dr Stokes led the way to the laboratory and reached for the tray in which he had placed the mummified midget during the night. As he was on the point of lifting it down, there was an exclamation of surprise from Tom.

'Oh, I say, that is a find! What a magnificent trophy head!’ Dr Stokes wheeled. 'Trophy head?' he cried. 'What —' His words died on his lips and he stood staring, dumbfounded, incredulous. Resting in the lap of the mummy, just as he had first seen it, was the mummified freak! How had the thing come there? He was positive he had placed it in the tray on the shelf after the trespassing creature of the night had upset it on the table. And he was equally positive he had not replaced it in its original position. Was it possible he had walked in his sleep and, while unconscious, had replaced the shrivelled midget in the mummy's lap? Or had the incidents of the night been merely a dream?

But even so, that would not explain the matter; for he had lifted the supposed trophy head from the mummy's lap and had placed it in the tray on his table before he had retired for the night. Yes, he must have placed it there in his sleep. That was the logical explanation.

All these thoughts flashed through his brain in a fraction of a second. Then, recovering himself with a bit of an effort, he stepped forward with a simulated chuckle.

'Trophy head!' he exclaimed. 'Just lift it carefully, Tom, and for heaven's sake don't drop it in your amazement.'

Somewhat puzzled, his assistant gingerly lifted the gruesome green-eyed thing, and a long whistle of astonishment came from his lips.

'Good Lord!' he cried. 'It's a freak! Ugh!' He shuddered. 'It's a perfect horror! I'd hate like blazes to see or meet such a nightmarish thing alive. But it's a marvellous specimen —nothing like it in the world, I suppose. But what do you make of it, Doctor? Why was the other chap buried with this hobgoblin in his lap?'

'I think the explanation is simple enough,' replied the scientist. 'The other chap, as you term him, was unquestionably a noble of high rank — his robes and wealth of gold prove that; and undoubtedly the malformed midget was his court jester, as you might term him. According to the accounts of Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, and his fellows, dwarfs or hunchbacks or human freaks were quite commonly kept by members of the Inca court. But I believe this is the first ever to be disinterred.'

Tom had replaced the repulsive thing and was examining the other objects take from the grave and mummy-bundle.

'Gosh!' he exclaimed. 'Did you notice the resemblance between these figures on the pottery and that — that beastly midget? See, Doctor, the heads are almost identical; green eyes, hair, painting and all. And the hairy body! All that horrible thing needs is a pair of wings to make the design a perfect likeness.'

'Hmm. Yes, there is a striking similarity,' agreed the other. 'Very likely the designs were intended to portray the creature. Somewhat conventionalized, of course. Wings added for symbolism, perhaps; or possibly, in fact I should say probably, the midget was unable to walk — don't see how he could with the immense head and undeveloped legs — and the artist felt he should be given wings to make up for his handicaps. But just look at this robe, Tom, and start cataloguing the items while I get dressed and run over to Joe's for a cup of coffee.'

Throughout the day the two men worked at the specimens, Tom numbering and cataloguing them while Dr Stokes wrote minute descriptions of each. But busily occupied as he was, a corner of his brain was ceaselessly struggling to straighten out the events of the preceding night. He fought to solve the mystery as to why the mummified freak had been in the mummy's lap, in spite of the fact that he distinctly recalled having placed it on the shelf on the other side of the room.

To Dr Stokes the only logical explanation appeared to be that he had walked in his sleep, a thing he had never done in his life before, and with the remarkable midget's mummy on his mind he had placed it where it had been found. Yet this seemingly reasonable solution of the matter did not entirely satisfy him.

As there was no other possible way to account for it he finally dismissed the matter for the time being, while he took time off for a good dinner and a pleasant evening at the home of the alcalde, the local mayor. But when he went to bed his thoughts reverted once more to the events of the previous night. But not for long. He was very sleepy. This time he flattered himself that no cats or bats would disturb him, for he had carefully closed and barred the shutters. Presently he was sleeping soundly.

Dr Stokes awoke from a dreamless slumber to find himself tense, expectant, listening. Something, he couldn't say what, made him feel nervous, apprehensive. Could it be, he wondered, that there had been a slight earthquake shock? Then once again he heard it — the same soft rustling sound of the night before! Something was moving about near him, flitting back and forth in the darkness; and an involuntary shudder passed over the scientist.

But the next instant he was himself again. It was only that confounded fruit-bat, or another one of its tribe. But how the deuce did the thing get in? Probably never went out, Dr Stokes decided. No doubt the beast had its hideout somewhere in the roof and was trying to get out, but found it impossible with the windows shuttered. Well, he would soon put an end to that nuisance.

Rising, Dr Stokes fumbled for a stout stick. Grasping the club he snapped on his flashlight and aimed a vicious blow at a flapping shadow. But the weapon swished harmlessly through the air, and the flitting creature vanished in the darkness of the doorway. Intent on knocking the thing down, the scientist shut the door and, flashing his light about the hallway, entered the laboratory and closed the door behind him.

As he did so there was a swish of air past his head. He involuntarily ducked, and the flying creature swept by within an inch of his face. Wheeling, the scientist struck blindly. There was a soft thud, an agonized cry so filled with mingled pain and anger that Dr Stokes shuddered as he heard the thing striking the floor.

'Got him!' exulted the scientist, and swung the beam of his flashlight in the direction whence had come the sound of the creature's fall. The torch almost dropped from his hand when he staggered back wide-eyed, chills running up and down his spine. On the floor, staring up at him with green eyes ablaze with fiendish fury and hatred, was the horrible mummified freak! The thing was alive!

It was impossible, incredible; and for a brief instant Dr Stokes felt that he must be in the grip of a horrible nightmare. He must break this unholy spell! Controlling his shaken nerves with a tremendous effort, the scientist raised his stick for the fatal blow. Keeping his light focused upon the fearsome thing on the floor, he took a step forward.

A scream of abject terror came from the man's lips. He sprang back, the stick clattering from his hand. Chilled with horror he stood there, powerless to move. The awful head with its diminutive hairy body was advancing! With terror clutching at his heart, icy cold, while beads of cold perspiration oozed from his forehead, he stood transfixed, powerless to move as if hypnotized by the harsh, malignant green eyes in that demoniacal skull. Dr Stokes saw the long tabs of the thing's leather cap tremble and — No, not the flaps of the cap but wings — soft, leathery wings that were attached to the nightmarish head of the apparition!

Yet even in his mad, helpless terror the scientist noticed with vast relief that one of the thing's batlike wings was injured, torn, and useless, where the stick had struck. And so this spawn of hell, this awful being, this mummified freak that by some supernatural means had come to life, could no longer fly. But it was creeping toward its attacker!

Uttering strange, uncanny, gibbering sounds, its lips drawn back above sharp, pointed teeth, its baleful green eyes fixed upon the scientist, the loathsome, hideous monstrosity was dragging its attenuated body across the floor; pushing itself forward by its shrunken legs, balancing its great head by its batlike wings and tiny hands; moving slowly, inch by inch, but steadily toward the spot where Dr Stokes stood back against the wall, gasping, choking, dumb with utter horror.

He strove with all his will power to move, to escape, but not a muscle responded. If only he could recover his stick, could crush this devilish spawn of the nether world to a shapeless pulp! But the scientist's limbs, his arms were nerveless, limp, incapable of control. Within two feet of where he stood, the stick rested where it had fallen from his shaking hand.

At his feet, the torch lay on the floor, its beam still directed at the malignant, awful monstrosity that was moving nearer and nearer. Dr Stokes, however, was paralyzed, frozen into immobility with hypnotic terror. Yet his brain was active, his mind receptive, functioning sanely enough. Or was he sane? he asked himself.

Did the thing actually exist — or was it but the figment of a disordered mind? His common-sense scientific brain told him it could not be real, that a mummy thousands of years old could not be endowed with life, that a semi-human freak could not possess wings and fly. It was too preposterous, too supernatural to be real. Yet Dr Stokes' staring, horror-filled eyes contradicted the arguments in his brain. The awful thing was there, and it was alive, and every moment it was dragging its repulsive, fiendish being nearer; a ghastly, demoniacal thing conjured by some black magic back to life.

Nearer and nearer it crept; in the silence of the room, the scraping, shuffling sounds of the thing's movements seemed loud and distinct. It reached the fallen stick and, in a sudden mad fury seized it in its teeth and shook it as a terrier worries a rat, mouthing and growling, biting splinters from the hard, tough wood. Then, dropping the inanimate club, the ghastly thing gathered itself together, bared its needle-pointed teeth and, with a sudden harsh flap of its wings, leaped at the man!

With a shriek of abject terror the scientist came to life and sprang aside. He stepped upon the torch, reeled backward and fell heavily to the floor as the shattered light plunged the room into inky blackness. As he fell he felt the loathsome, horrible thing strike his leg, and there was a sharp stab of pain as the strong keen teeth of the devilish creature bit into his flesh.

Then he was struggling, fighting madly, clawing and striking with his fists at the misshapen, incredible, indescribably vile semi-human monster that clung to him like a leech. Heedless of the frantic blows rained upon it, the thing was crawling, dragging its way across the scientist's chest, closer and closer to his sweating throat and face.

Dr Stokes' clutching hands grasped a leathery wing, only to release their grip as fanglike teeth bit deeply into his wrists. Screaming with deadly fear, he saw the thing's eyes glowing like green fire in the blackness. In the scientist's nostrils was the musty, fetid odour of ancient, ravaged tombs. His tortured nerves gave way at last. Something seemed to snap within his mind and he sank back limp, inert, unconscious. . .

There was no response to Tom's repeated knocking on the doctor's door. Wondering, thinking it most strange that his employer should be out so early or should be sleeping so soundly, and vaguely troubled, the young assistant walked around the house. The bedroom windows were tightly shuttered, but to Tom's surprise the shutters on the laboratory windows were ajar. Raising himself on tiptoe he peered between the iron bars into the room, only to reel back, feeling faint and nauseated at what he had seen.

Lying upon the laboratory floor in a great pool of blood was the body of the scientist, an expression of unspeakable terror in his dead, glassy eyes, his head twisted horribly to one side, exposing a fearful, ragged gash in his throat.

Trembling in every limb, Tom rushed to the office of the alcalde and in scarcely coherent Spanish babbled that Dr Stokes had been brutally murdered. Battering down the heavy doors, the native police, with the alcalde and Tom, dashed through the short hallway to the laboratory.

'Madre de Dios!’ exclaimed the first man to reach the room, and crossed himself. 'What devil's work is this?'

Steeling himself for the effort, Tom bent over the forlorn body of Dr Stokes.

'Some savage wild beast did this,' he declared, his voice shaky. 'It must have entered by the open window. Perhaps it is still here.'

Whipping out their revolvers the police began searching the room, but no trace of another living thing could be found.

The alcalde shook his head. 'Strange things happen,' he said in lowered tones. 'The Senor Stokes desecrated the tombs of the ancient ones. Perchance’ — he glanced furtively about him - 'perchance it was no beast, no creature of flesh and blood that destroyed him. The Indios tell of unholy things, Senor. They tell of captive devils buried with the ancient dead to protect their bodies and their treasures from being disturbed. Perchance — quien sabe?'

'Nonsense!' exclaimed Tom. 'You may believe in such occult things, but I don't!'

Involuntarily Tom glanced at the mummy as he spoke. A half-suppressed ejaculation came from his lips and a cold chill ran along his spine. Resting between the knees of the mummy was the horrible mummified freak, its jade-green eyes cold and expressionless — yet with its dead, shrunken face and lips smeared with a moist, dull red!

Whether the alcalde or the police had noticed it, Tom could not tell. He hardly thought so. Stepping forward, breathing hard and holding his nerves under iron control, he gently drew a corner of a robe and covered the horrible, gruesome thing.

Doctor Stokes' mutilated body had been removed and was resting in its casket, awaiting the aeroplane which had been summoned to carry it to Lima, when Tom re-entered the laboratory. Clenching his teeth, summoning all his self-control, mentally cursing himself for a credulous fool, he hastily gathered the robes and ornaments taken from the mummy, flung them over the shrivelled, dessicated monstrosity, covered it with a blanket and, trembling despite himself, loaded the unwieldy bundle in the ramshackle car. Several hours later he returned, the car empty, with an indefinable feeling of vast relief.

Far out in the desert, amid the crumbling ruins of the forgotten pre-Inca city, the mummy again rested in its ancient tomb.

The End

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.