The Pure World Comes by Rami Ungar Genre: Horror, Thriller
Shirley Dobbins wants nothing more than to live a quiet life and become a head housekeeper at a prestigious house. So when she is invited to come work for the mysterious baronet Sir Joseph Hunting at his estate, she thinks it is the chance of a lifetime. However, from the moment she arrives things are not what they seem. As she becomes wrapped up in more of the baronet's radical science, she realizes something dark and otherworldly is loose within the estate. And if left unchecked, it'll claim the lives of all she holds dear.
Wake up. Throw out any night soil you might have made in the night and clean out your chamber pot. Open the curtains for the day. Serve breakfast to the master and the siblings. Eat a quick breakfast yourself. Get the tasks for the day from Mrs. Preston. Try to get the first half of those tasks done before lunch. Serve luncheon to Lucinda and Griffin. Have a small nibble for your own luncheon. Get the other half of those tasks done. Fail to get a quarter of those tasks done or done adequately because the house is too big and there’s not enough staff to accomplish everything in a single day. Sigh and move on, because, as everyone assures you, it doesn’t really matter. Serve supper to the master and his family. Use whatever’s left over for your own supper. Close the curtains and put out the fires. Go to bed.
Except for Sundays, when Sir Joseph took Griffin and Lucinda and the staff to church in the Closer Village, and Mondays, when laundry took up most of the staff’s attention, Shirley’s days took up a busy but predictable routine.
And despite the overwhelming workload, she found she liked working for the baronet, strange as he was. No matter how many of her daily chores were left unfinished or not even touched, she was never reprimanded for it, and she was still paid handsomely. The staff were kind to her, once they got over the shock of her lazy eye, and she got along well with them. Or at least, she had not rubbed the wrong way with any of them so far.
And her employer barely paid any attention to her, which in its way was a Godsend.
However, leaving her work unfinished nearly every day left her with a niggling feeling of dissatisfaction. Yes, she liked that there was no pressure on her to finish everything in a day. In fact, compared to the pressure and workload of the Avondale home, it was not just a relief but a delight.
At the same time, however, she was a maid by profession. Not only that, but she was a maid who dreamed of being a head housekeeper someday. How was she supposed to advance in her field if all she could say about her time working there was that she never finished her daily tasks?
Well, there was no point in complaining. Everyone on staff knew it was impossible to get the Hunting Lodge back to the state it had been in during Sir Joseph’s father’s day with only four maids. So long as she finished some of her tasks every day and the house remained in at least a habitable condition, that would have to do.
In the meantime, Shirley had other problems requiring her immediate attention. Currently, that problem was the flush toilet in front of her.
What was wrong with it? Absolutely nothing, as far as she could tell. The ceramic bowl was beautifully decorated with painted scenes of swans at play on a lake. The water in the bottom of the bowl was clean and clear. And, unlike the outhouse, there were no awful smells. There was even a basket of newspaper strips on the floor beside the base for after one had finished. Much more disposable and sanitary than the corn cobs and sticks one normally found in outhouses.
All told, there was nothing to prevent her from using the flush toilet. So why am I so afraid of this thing? she wondered.
Shirley had been at the Hunting Lodge for nearly three weeks, but in that time, she had not used any of the flush toilets in the house even once. Which made her an outlier because, as far as Shirley could tell, everyone else used them and seemed no worse for wear. Sir Joseph used them; Griffin and Lucinda began using them after the third or fourth day; Milverton used them; the two other maids, Hilly and Beth, found them rather luxurious; and she had good reason to suspect both Garland the cook and his son used them when they needed to relieve themselves.
Only she and Mrs. Preston, who was an older and much more traditional woman than Shirley was, refused to use them. And Shirley was starting to feel silly for doing so.
However, today she had been tasked with cleaning all the water closets in the house, and she happened to need to relieve herself. Now seemed as good an opportunity as any to try out the newfangled thing. So why am I just standing here staring at it? She knew why: because in the back of her mind, a terrifying moving picture was playing. The picture depicted the inside of the pipes connected to the flush toilet, and a black smoke rising through them, exiting into the bowl and into the washroom. The black smoke was disease and plague and death personified, and it would harm anyone who breathed it in. Like a maid standing there staring down at the ceramic bowl like it was an enemy.
Shirley shook her head. To hell with this! she thought, her inner voice a snarl. You’re being so childish! Just sit down and use the damn thing!
With a huff, Shirley set down her cleaning supplies, held up the skirts of her uniform, and sat, spreading her legs over the bowl. Her knickers, made of two separate articles of clothing tied to her hips and to each other with strings and snaps, were untied and unconnected above her crotch. As she spread her legs, the gap between the two articles of clothing widened, exposing her private parts to the open toilet bowl.
Shirley shivered as she felt the cold ceramic touch her bare skin, but endured and concentrated. A moment later she felt the rush of urine inside her and heard the stream hitting the inside of the bowl. When that had passed, she squeezed the muscles in her backside. There were a few small plops and then one big plop. She exhaled. This isn’t too bad, she thought. And it’s less of a bother than the outhouses. I could see these becoming more commonplace.
Her business finished, Shirley leaned over to grab a strip of newspaper from the basket. Below her arse, something gurgled.
Shirley froze, ears pricked for sound. When she heard nothing, she let loose the tension she had not been aware she had been holding and continued to lean over for the newspaper. Must have been bubbles, she thought. After all, there’s water in the bowl.Perhaps when piss and shit mixes with water, it let out bubbles with a distinctive noise. I’ve seen enough bubbles in the shit and mud outside the Avondales’ home to know bubbles sometimes appear. Perhaps I’ve never heard anything because I was always on the second floor.
Another gurgle sounded from the bowl. Shirley ignored it and grabbed a strip of newspaper.
Something scraped along her arse cheek.
Shirley bolted upright with a shriek and spun around, clutching several strips of newspaper in a clenched fist. Nothing was in the bowl except her own waste. She was tempted to lean over to make sure and thankfully stopped herself. Her shit was too small for anything to hide behind, and the yellow water offered no hiding places for anything in there. She must have just imagined feeling something touching her arse. The thoughts of bad smells and miasmas rising through the pipes was making her imagine things. But it felt so real. Like the tip of a fingernail across my skin.
With a scowl, Shirley turned around and lifted the back of her skirt. She would not look at her waste to confirm nothing was there. Instead, she would clean herself up, throw the used newspaper strips into the bowl, and flush it down. Then she would clean this water closet from top to bottom and move on. Whether or not she used a flush toilet again would be determined the next time she had to relieve herself.
Carefully wiping herself, she threw the used newspaper into the bowl and began to lower her skirt. Two large hands grabbed her arse cheeks from behind.
Shirley screamed and tried to pull herself free. In response, the hands clutched her tighter, their long fingers digging into her flesh through the fabric of her knickers. With another scream, Shirley beat on the hands holding her prisoner and pulled again. With a violent scraping of nail through cloth, she broke free from the hands’ grips, stumbled forward, grabbed the washstand to steady herself, and turned around to face her attacker.
Rising out of the bowl were two long, skeletal arms, wrapped in tight, dead-looking skin. The arms reached for the ceiling, bending in places human arms weren’t supposed to bend, sending piss and toilet water flying in every direction. The arms reached for her, their long fingers grasping for her face.
With another scream, Shirley ran backwards out of the water closet, stumbling and falling as she crashed through the closed door. The arms continued to reach for her, several meters long now, the hands were crawling across the floor like large, skeletal spiders.
From the bowl came a whisper in a voice Shirley recognized. Don’t grow up to be a poisoner, little girl. Or I’ll come back for you someday.
“My dear girl!”
Hilly, Mrs. Preston and Lucinda appeared by her side. They all wore concerned faces as they bent down and asked her what was wrong. Shirley tried to answer, but found herself unable to speak, so instead she pointed into the water closet. All three women followed her pointing finger. After a moment, Hilly said bemusedly, “What are you pointing at?”
Stunned, Shirley looked back into the water closet. The arms and skeletal hands were gone. All the scattered piss and toilet water had disappeared. The only objects in the room were the flush toilet and the washstand.
Shirley gawped. When she finally found her voice, she whispered, “Where did they go?”
“Where did what go?” Lucinda asked.
“Did you see a spider, Shirley?” Hilly asked. “We have lots of them around here. Comes with being in an old building and all. But don’t worry, you get used to them.”
“Hilly, how dare you,” Mrs. Preston chided. As always when in front of her employer or one of the Avondales, Mrs. Preston spoke with her Queen’s English accent. “Speaking that way in front of the Young Miss is unacceptable!”
“Um…” Shirley did not know what to say. Had she just suffered a hallucination? Was she losing her mind? No, she thought. No, I’m not losing my mind. I can still feel where I was grabbed.
Indeed, she could still feel where claw-like fingers had dug into her skin. Blood had not been drawn, but the indentations left by those nails still burned. Like someone had poked her several times with a hot wire. She would have to check later to make sure whatever had grabbed her had not done anything more than poke holes in her skin and undergarments.
In the meantime, there was still the quandary of how to answer the women who had come to her rescue. Should she tell them the truth? All she would have to do was show them the marks on her arse and then—what? Expect them to believe her? If you show them your arse, they’ll think you’re crazy, she thought. Even if they see the marks, they’ll think you did them to yourself. You’ll be out of a job and halfway to an asylum by nightfall.
“Um…yeah, spiders,” she said in a monotone. “I mean, yes ma’am. A couple of spiders startled me. They’re gone now, though. Probably went through a crack in the wall.”
“I did not realize you were afraid of spiders, Shirley,” Lucinda commented. “But I sympathize. I’m afraid of rats, after all. Nasty little vermin.”
Despite her state, Shirley had enough bite left in her to think, I don’t care what you’re afraid of! I just got attacked by a pair of arms coming out of a toilet. And anyway, have you ever thought that the reason you don’t know my fears is because you never bothered to get to know me? If you had, you might know I don’t actually mind spiders, so long as they’re not visible.
“Are you sure you’re alright, dear?” asked Mrs. Preston, helping Shirley to her feet.
She almost replied, “Yes, I’m fine,” but stopped as she took in the housekeeper’s face. The angle of her eyebrow, the scrunch in her forehead, the anxious line of her mouth. She was not concerned about Shirley; she was concerned about something else, though what Shirley could not say.
Deciding to err on the side of caution, Shirley coughed and said, “I’m fine. I better get back to cleaning.”
Mrs. Preston still looked unsure but sighed and told Shirley to let her know if she was unwell or anything else happened before bustling off. Hilly gave some inspirational babble about working through fear before going off to tackle her own list of chores, and Lucinda merely smiled before heading back to whatever she did to occupy her time.
Alone again, Shirley reentered the water closet. Other than some black and gray dust scattered everywhere around the toilet, nothing seemed amiss. She checked the bowl and saw only her own waste and the used newspaper strips. No sign that a pair of arms had come out of the pipes and grabbed her by the arse. If that actually happened, a voice in her head reminded Shirley.
With an exasperated groan, she pulled the chain and watched as the contents in the bowl were sucked away with a watery roar she found a little unsettling.
As new, clean water filled the bowl, Shirley set to cleaning the room as quickly as possible. She wanted out of this water closet as quickly as possible. And given what she had experienced, she had a feeling it would be a long while before she used a water closet again.
If she ever did.
Rami Ungar is a novelist from Columbus, Ohio specializing in horror and dark fantasy. He has published three books previously and has a new collection, Hannah and Other Stories, being released from BSC Publishing Group. When not writing, Rami enjoys reading, following his many interests, and giving people the impression he's not entirely human.