This is a work of fiction intended to emulate Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece short story “A Tell-Tale Heart” (1843). Enjoy!
Everyone said it was the work of a deranged mind. Indeed, even the police likened the ferocity it took to rip the old woman’s jaw from her head to that of a gorilla. The papers latched onto this image of course, like rabid dogs snapping for a lead- Animal, they called me. Bloodthirsty Cannibal, etc. Shrinks across the nation looking to capitalize on the event blamed it on cabin fever. Snowed into a one room shack up high, and forgotten in the Rockies during the long gray of winter, with no one other than a sweet old lady for company must have driven me insane from sexual frustration. Or so was the popular theory.
My parents, too, made an appearance on an evening talk show and explained I had always been a shy, and- quiet youth. Said I heard voices and all that. It was a real shit-circus event, they even excavated some of my old teachers, and other members of various authoritative stations during my youth to testify on this show.
Truth is, I’ve never been violent. Never! The only voices ever manifested in my head were those screaming through my headphones, and then, they were too often lost in the percussion of my thoughts to notice anyone long enough to ever be bothered by them. What’s more, I take high offense to these claims, what, even as I sat, and listened with such patience- biding my abhorrence for her unremitting speech, but even then, I did not attack the old woman. Nor, did these events occur over a grueling period of weeks, for, as you will see, dear reader, such an amount of time would have no doubt, rendered me incapacitated with madness! In truth, the events of my tale did not even span the period of forty-eight straight hours!
While, it is indeed an accurate description of my host to call her kind, or selfless, it is also terribly incorrect to accuse me of being sexually perverse, or a blood-crazed murderer. Oh, if you could have been there to witness the endless droning of her senility, hour, upon hour, harkening all the way back to the moment of my arrival- you too would smirk at the thought that Momus had made me audience to a driveling fool, and delighted in testing my resolve.
And still- I upheld empathy, and brought forth my deepest reserve of compassion for this kindly, most beloved host for whom not, I would surely have long succumbed to Death’s hypothermic kiss. Nevertheless, it was the ceaseless movement of her jaw, this blind, incessant need to open and shut her mouth for every thought, that disturbed me. Perhaps aiding the influence for my disgust of the old woman’s mouth, was in the jaw itself. You see, it had a way of opening and then snapping shut, gum on gum, resounding a loud slop, each time.
I first became aware of its mannerism shortly upon entering her blessed hovel. Indeed, for the snow was still fresh within the crevices of my jacket when she started talking. Niceties at first. Low, brief mumbles about ‘what a relief to be out of the blizzard’, that sort of thing. But, even then, as she spoke these most basic of formalities, her voice never sounded above a low droning inflection- like a monotonous stream made of jumbled words, curiously interjected by a series of soft mummers, that I came to understand as laughter. Anyway, it was during these intermittent moments that I noticed the jaw’s tendency to flop when shut; as if its only form of motion was that of a broken Marinette whose head must be jostled vigorously to offer an illusion of speech.
It was then, I resolved, and so nurtured this foreboding desire to free the appendage from its sinews and so too, finally relieve the dear old woman of its fatigue.
Later that night, she offered me a pathetic bowl of questionable paste, which she had stewed up in a large Dutch oven cooking in the hearth of the one room shack. She then sat upon the edge of her bed and proceeded to noisily slap her gums with each mouthful. I watched with horror as her tongue seemed to morph into a strange parasite, rolling and writhing the mash about its body as if it were bathing in it. She gnawed at her gums between sloppy mastication to squeeze mashed bits from their rotting orifice. The whole time she was doing this, so too, had the jaw been continuing its endeavors to disgust me. And then, for no apparent reason at all (for she was staring into the fire) the old woman began to talk in her usual, indiscernible custom. Over the course of this episode, I realized that she had indeed run out of anecdotes, and so to stave off the consuming loneliness, she simply began repeating our initial greeting, starting again with formalities.
After she finished her supper, she set the bowl onto a battered end table, and then got into bed and pulled up the covers. Not a moment later however, her head shot up again and the jaw began to flop in its usual grotesque as she mumbled something in my direction by the hearth, and then her head fell back and she closed her eyes. I, seated by the hearth, waited through the hour, and then rose from my chair, assured by her snores that she was indeed asleep- to better examine the alien movements of the jaw as it flopped still between noisy exhalations. Despite these movements, she looked so at peace in character- resembling an old porcelain doll, with each fold of skin conscientiously fashioned for authenticity.
A sudden urge came over me, a terrible, yearning desire to grasp the jaw in my one hand, and crush it there, while she slept. Eagerly, and ever so cautious, I placed a firm, but delicate hand beneath the chin just before it had an opportunity to open and then slop shut. I pressed it and held it in that position for not a minute- but in that time, I swear! I felt it, struggle! As if it knew I were there, keeping it from its purpose. As if- as if it knew I wanted to destroy it!
I discovered the old woman the following morning as I opened my eyes. She was bent over a sooted pot, and appreciating its bitter roasted scent released with each stir.
Oh, wonderful- blessed coffee!
The pot swayed from a makeshift iron hook and chain which had been crudely screwed into the hearth mantle and now, long rusted firm. The smell of the coffee over sweet pine emanated from the comfort of the warm fire as I lied there, too, appreciating the delicious familiarity of the morning custom. I shut my eyes again and in my mind, I was transported back to my warm, soft, and clean bed. Better still, to my relief, for the first time since my arrival, I had forgotten the jaw entirely.
But this was a fleeting reprieve, for then, as I stirred, lying so near to the hearth, the old woman sensed my efforts and her eyes were upon me as if upon a scurrying rat. They were large, graying in color and just terribly bloodshot. Her lips spread into a thin smile, and then all at once she began with her familiar rambles, accompanying chuckles which in turn encouraged the jaw’s gross handicap. But then, amid a brief chuckle, the old woman suddenly stopped, as she did, the jaw flopped once or twice more and then she became quiet. Her eyes grew dark, suspicious, and her head cocked like a chicken’s inspecting a fresh egg. Then, in a visible moment of rage, she began mumbling and the jaw started to flop at a ferocious pace. Her voice sounded accusatory, almost belligerent, as she began spitting unintelligible words in a quick, fearsome heat.
“Excuse me,” I interjected, and as I did, she became more agitated and her rambling quickened, blending now into a mumbling mash defined only by slapping gums, and dry, syllabic moans. “I’m terribly sorry,” I attempted once more, this time gesturing to my ear. At last, for the hint of an apology by mouthing the words “terribly sorry”, the old woman did lessen her tone and resolved her eyes once more to their silent conspiracy as she spoke and chuckled sloppily into the coffee. Suddenly, an uneasy feeling came over me, and with it came an uneasy thought. What if? What if the jaw had warned her of my previous efforts? What if it had exposed my desire to rid both of us of its presence? What if she knows, and so, to preserve the sanctity of their union, they are now plotting against me, instead?
When the coffee had finished its brew, and after the old woman took her cup, I removed my thermos from my pack and reached for the pot. No sooner than I had, did a frail- yet, strong hand grip my arm and swing me around. It was the old woman, of course, only she was in a dreadful rage. The jaw flopped so close to my face now, I could feel each breath from her mouth as if they were truly its breath, and the sour disgust of its air put me reeling. During the sudden chaos of the moment, the angry old woman’s face paled and blurred into the threatening gnash of the jaw, until, all that I saw became imperceptible to its raucous slapping.
My head began to swim and I knew now. I knew, that she knew, and the jaw was indeed my informer. I cannot tell you, dear reader, how good it felt at that moment, to openly grip it in my hand. To hold it against its efforts and finally cease its flapping, and to know that I am the cause of our relief! It struggled against my grip, no doubt! Indeed, it struggled. It struggled when I shoved my fingers between its gums and slammed a fist just above the old woman’s ear to free the joint. It struggled again, and again as I hit, and by the time it had ceased its struggles altogether, my knuckles were a bloody sore and the old woman’s temporal lobe had caved into an unrecognizable fracture, but, at last! The jaw hung loose, and was forever unable to wag accusations, or further incite paranoia in this poor, miserable creature. There was a disgusting crack, and then pop as I proceeded to fully disjoint the jaw, and then rip at its pale flesh, and bloody sinews to finish removing it wholly from her face.
Once it was free, I threw it in another large pot which until now, sat neglected in the corner of the shack. I did not want to risk its reanimation, and so I filled the pot with snow which, during the storm had piled high against the door, and then sat it heavily beside the fire.
The aroma of the meat as it cooked filled the hovel, and soon wafted out the cracks and down the mountain. Inside, I was now so enthralled with its scent, that I removed the jaw when cooked, and without so much as a thought for my host, I began to eat. Its tender, steaming meat fell from the bone simply by me lifting it to my hungry mouth. When I had finished, I realized how truly hungry I had been, and so I commenced with carving the old woman’s corpse into quarters, and then further into smaller pieces. As I did, I hummed a little tune to delight in my endeavors, merrily tossing whole chunks of meat on bone into the pot, until all was inside, including the old woman’s head which, had to endure further disfiguration due to its interference with the lid.
Now, throughout the remainder of the day, and the entirety of that night, the rich scent of her juices wafted and settled about the mountain like a pleasing aura of sweet fat. Then, in the pale hours of morning all the residents who lived in its valley began to wake, and as they did, they licked and smacked their lips with a delicious inquisition toward the once forgotten hovel. The townsfolk soon wasted no time clearing a path up the mountain side and when they had bulldozed the final remaining barrier of snow, the sheriff was first to knock upon the rickety old door.
Meanwhile, all that night a dreadful aberration rooted in my gut, and then quickly spread to my mind. In my dream, I was a child in a field, and the field was wild with all the manner of spring. I lay upon the earth, savoring the sun’s warm rays, and running my fingers through wild flowers and tall grass, when suddenly, a foul smell blew in upon a freak winter gale. With it, the storm brought a fierce black cloud that stretched and formed into the gnashing of the jaw. The violence of its enormity was too great, so that even lightening resembled mere sparks within its contrast. Then the jaw began to flop, only, instead of flopping, the cloud distorted to give the illusion of movement. As it did this, so too did it begin spitting icy accusations hard onto my head and face. I shot to my feet and ran for a neighboring tree offering protection beneath a wide, umbrellaed canopy, but when I got there its leaves appeared to shrink away from the harsh icy pummels. My eyes frantically searched the field until by luck, they happened upon a gazebo rising from a mound within its heart, and so I wasted no time braving the elements for its cover. But alas, upon reaching its entrance, an usher appeared and demanded I purchase a ticket from the tree where I had come. So, begrudgingly, I ran against the current of hail and wind, back to the tree, only when I got there, a sign had been crudely scrawled onto a piece of weathered parchment and hammered into its trunk. The top of the paper read as follows:
“For those intending to visit the gazebo, you must first complete these listed tasks to earn a ticket…”
But here the words faded and jumbled into a series of unintelligible squiggles and letters fit together with no discerning order. The hail hit harder now, until each impact resounded into a great, and frightening commotion upon the hollowing earth. It was for these knocks, that I was roused from my nightmare to the hammering upon the old woman’s door.
“Are you the owner of this hovel?” the sheriff inquired breathing deep as the delicious scent of my host rushed from the house in a violent burst of flavor. “No,” I replied standing in its entrance. At first I was calm, greatly assured, and had all but completely forgotten the old woman, but then, my heart became an uneasy lump which quickly rose to my throat, and there it lodged. “She left yesterday,” I began, completely ignoring the storm that had only now passed. My voice was dry now, and it scratched angrily with each inflection of my speech, and I erupted in a terrible fit of coughs into the sheriff’s shielding hand. “She said she needed something from two towns over…” I continued. “for… her stew. Yes. It was a special ingredient that she utterly refused to tell me, being that the recipe is a family secret, or the like.” As I spoke, I encouraged the lie with an indifferent yawn, accompanied with several hand gestures as if trying to recall its fantasy. The sheriff, and all the townspeople’s faces became dismayed, though while they were turning away, I could tell my response had indeed satisfied their curiosity. Suddenly, for absolutely no reason other than sheer audacity for my craft, I invited the old woman’s guests inside for a delicious bowl of hot stew.