Back when I wrote mostly horror, I accumulated quite a collection of reference books of ghosts, spirits, and various and sundry monsters. (This was before we could just hop on the Internets and pull information out of the worldwide series of tubes.) One of my favorite reference books was The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, which listed literally hundreds of ghouls and beasties from around the world. “Underground with the Mouthless Girl” is about a rather nasty ghost from India called a churel, which is the restless spirit of a woman who died in childbirth. “Underground with the Mouthless Girl” appeared in “The Earwig Flesh Factory” from Eraserhead Press in the summer of 2000.
This story is not particularly gory, but I’ve always considered it one of the most creepy and unsettling things I ever wrote. You have been warned.
The girl catches Michael Osborne’s eye as he comes out of the men’s room. She’s sitting on a tall stool at the end of the bar, with one long, impossibly shapely leg extended toward the floor, like a dancer doing a pirouette. Silky black hair flows over her shapely neck and shoulders with the grace of a waterfall, concealing what her scanty red summer dress would otherwise reveal.
Osborne slides onto the stool next to her; it is inexplicably unoccupied on this noisy, crowded night. She looks at him and smiles. Her skin has a lustrous walnut sheen that goes perfectly with her jet hair. Her eyes are wide and dark and shaped like some exotic nut. For a moment Osborne finds himself speechless.
“Hello,” she says.
Osborne finds his voice before he begins to stutter or babble. “Hi. I’m Michael. You can call me Mike.”
“I’m Madhur.” She has a slight Indian accent. Aren’t they the ones who do all that kinky Kama Sutra stuff? “You can call me …” She looks him up and down. “… anytime.”
Just who is picking up who, anyway?
They walk out of the bar a few minutes later. Osborne hails a cab; Madhur supplies the destination. They’re going to her place, a downtown apartment building. She leans into him during the ride, squeezing his thigh and nibbling at his ear. The cabbie steals glances; Osborne is too enraptured to care.
Entering her building hand in hand, they cross the lobby to the elevator. It’s one of those grand old structures, a century-old landmark. Madhur presses a button. The elevator lurches into motion. Several seconds later it stops; the doors open onto a parking garage, a grey concrete underworld lit by flickering fluorescent lights. Startled, Osborne looks at the elevator display. It says B3: the lowest sub-basement on the panel. “What are we doing down here?” he says.
Madhur looks at him slyly. “More exciting,” she says. “Come on.” She takes his hand and leads him out into the garage. Only a few cars are parked here; they’re big ones, mostly, the kind old people like to drive. The air smells of oil and old dust. They go to a distant corner; ancient wooden pallets are stacked nearly to the ceiling, a monument to some huge migration in a long-past year. She takes Osborne behind the barricade, into a dark and musty four-foot space. A large, clean sheet of cardboard lies on the ground.
Osborne looks at Madhur. “You’ve done this before.”
“A few times.”
They spend a moment looking at each other and then she presses herself against him. Their lips meet. Hers are hot and dry and soft. Osborne opens his mouth to probe with his tongue, but as it emerges it presses against moist, puckered flesh. He gags on the taste of mud and decay. He tries to push Madhur away but her arms lock around his back and hold him fast; he tries to scream, but her mouthless face against his muffles the sound.
He feels her leg move as she kicks the cardboard out of the way. She releases him with a backward shove. He stumbles and falls through a hole in the concrete, landing supine on the muddy ground at the bottom of a three-foot hole. Madhur stands over the opening. The beauty he arrived with is gone; she is a graveborn thing now, tattered and decrepit. Her eyes are black in her mouthless face. She jumps down to join him, landing solidly on the squishy earth; she plants her foot on his chest and gives him a shove that sends him shooting down a mud-soaked slide into darkness.
The chute is straight and steep, except for one brief flat section; the ride ends when he splashes into a morass of deep mud. The muck is cold and wet and stinks of excrement. Water drips steadily onto his head; he crawls out of the way, bumping into something that feels like a person.
A dry voice says, “Be careful.”
Startled, Osborne reaches into his pocket and pulls out his cigarette lighter. He flicks the wheel. Sparks shoot before the gas catches. The flame is low and blue and ghostly; a cry goes up at its appearance, as if he’s turned on a floodlight in a room where someone was sleeping. He looks around. The small subterranean chamber is occupied by a gaunt, filthy, shivering old man, as well as by a couple of bodies that lie against the back wall; one is little more than a skeleton.
“What the hell is this?” Osborne says.
“This is the pit,” the old man says, shielding his eyes. His accent is similar to Madhur’s. “Put that thing out.”
Osborne snuffs the lighter. “Did the mouthless girl throw you down here too?” he says.
“Yes,” the old man says. “The mouthless girl. She is a churel.”
Osborne doesn’t know what the hell a churel is, and he doesn’t really care. “What about these other two?”
“One was alive when I came. The other was alive when he came. Soon I will be dead, and when the next man arrives you will point to me and say, ‘He was alive when I came.'”
“Yeah, well, I’m not going to be here that long,” Osborne says.
There is a momentary silence, as if he’s walked into a church and started swearing. “You can’t get out. You can’t get away from the churel once she’s got you. She’ll keep you until you die down here, like me.”
More silence. Osborne wonders if the old man is mentally defective. Then he thinks that maybe the air down here has a stupefying effect; the foul miasma of stenches and God-knows-what gases could easily combine to dull the intellect. If that’s the case, he doesn’t have long to escape before he becomes like his fellow captive.
As if reading his thoughts, the old man says: “You try to escape, and she’ll kill you.”
Osborne is willing to chance that; it beats sitting down here waiting to die of starvation. He crawls through the stinking muck, feeling around for the mouth of the chute. When he finds it, he digs his fingers into the sludge that coats the bottom. They go in up to the knuckles before reaching firmer ground. That won’t work. He turns onto his back and feels the walls, the ceiling. Drier. He finds handholds and pulls himself into the chute, bracing with his feet to keep from sliding back. The minor exertion leaves him gasping for breath. It is the atmosphere, he thinks; there’s not enough air down here. If he stops in one place too long, he’ll never get out.
The old man’s voice comes from below: “I warned you! You’ll see what comes of trying to escape!”
He stays put until his breathing gets back to normal, not wasting strength on an answer. He begins to climb again. The walls are crumbly and chalky; he has to take care not to lose his footing or his grip as he inches upward. It’s not quite as steep as it first looked but it’s still a slow and strenuous climb. He inches upward, pauses to rest, inches upward again, his lungs straining to find oxygen in the foul, fetid air.
At last the chute levels out. Once he’s safely on the flat part, he strikes his lighter. The match flame burns its normal orange-yellow up here, giving him a better look at the slick, narrow tunnel. Makes him think of good old Alice going down the rabbit hole. He wonders how the mouthless girl dug it. With her bare hands?
Why not? After all, she’s a churel, right?
Whatever that is.
He realizes suddenly that somewhere nearby, someone is humming. It’s a soft and gentle sound, like a lullaby. It must be the mouthless girl. He recognizes the tune; he remembers his mother singing it to him, years and years ago. The longer he listens, the less it sounds like humming and the more it sounds like his mother’s voice. After a few minutes he finds himself whispering the words. Hush little baby, don’t say a word …
He’s turning into a mush-head like the old man. He starts crawling on his back again, pulling himself with one hand, pushing with his feet, heading for the sound. His muscles feel like cheap taffy, but he keeps the cigarette lighter burning.
… Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird …
The chute turns up sharply again. The air smells a bit fresher. He wishes he knew how much farther he had to go. He wishes he could scream for help but the only one who’d hear him would be the mouthless girl.
The humming is getting louder.
… if that mockingbird don’t sing, Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring …
Osborne pushes himself into the chute. It’s more like a chimney here, but the side walls are slightly ribbed, giving him decent hand and footholds. Mud trickles down the back of his shirt. There’s a small, black opening in front of him, just above his head. The humming seems to come from there. He climbs up a few feet to get level with the hole, then shuffles around so he can look inside. He wedges the lighter into the dirt, turning the ring to lock the button down so it keeps burning.
Why is she humming this lullaby? Surely they don’t sing it in India.
Maybe she’s pulling it out of his head.
… if that diamond ring turns brass, Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass …
Beyond the opening is a small, squalid cubicle dug into the earth. A ragged-looking creature sits several feet away, facing the corner. The mouthless girl. She’s hunched over, rocking slowly, back and forth. He can see her long, filthy, matted hair, black as the darkness beyond his lighter flame. Her dress is torn and muddy; it’s the same summer dress, once red but now crusty brown, suspended by a single frayed strap over her bony collarbone. The other strap is broken, exposing most of her back and right shoulder. Her walnut skin is streaked and livid and clings to her spine and ribs like shrink-wrap.
He doesn’t realize that the humming has stopped until the creature in the corner begins to unfold herself from her sitting position. The earthen chamber is too small for her to stand erect and so she squats, her bony legs sticking out like toothpicks broken in the middle. Her feet are on backwards but that doesn’t seem to affect her balance. In her arms she holds a tiny corpse: A baby, shriveled and puckered. Its lids are closed over sunken sockets, its twig-like limbs hang limp and flaccid.
The mouthless girl shuffles toward him, cradling the infant corpse. The front of her dress below the waist is caked with ancient dried blood. She starts humming again, the same tune as before. The sound is soothing and hypnotic; words surface in Osborne’s mind again, new ones:
Hush little baby, rest your head,
We are sleeping with the dead.
Hush little baby, don’t you cry.
Papa will join us by and by.
She bends over and holds the baby’s body out to Osborne. He finds himself reaching to take the tiny, shriveled thing. It is cool and dry and feels like some kind of leather doll, like an exotic craft you might find at a flea market of the macabre. He mimics the mouthless girl, cradling the cadaver to his chest. The tiny corpse stirs then, stirs and turns toward him; its eyelids flutter open over its empty, dusty sockets. The small hands dig at the buttons of his shirt with surprising strength, pulling them apart easily. The dry, gasping mouth seeks and finds Osborne’s left nipple and begins to suckle. He feels a guilty quickening of his pulse, a shallowness in his breath. He begins singing to it, and wonders if this is what it felt like for his mother when he fed at her breast.
The mouthless girl leans over to coo at the little corpse. Her filthy hair falls in a cascade over her face. The withered expanse of skin beneath her nose suddenly splits wide open, revealing rows of jagged, yellow teeth. Putrid breath washes over Osborne as she leans toward him, jaws wide. The tunnel of her throat seems as large as the chute down which he fell.
He doesn’t know whether Madhur means to kiss him or kill him, but Osborne is too caught up in the lullaby to try to escape. Just as her teeth brush his face, her hair falls into the lighter flame. Instantly her head is alight. She pulls away, leaving a streak of fire through the darkness. She screeches as she beats at the flames with her hands; they, too, become incandescent, torches at the ends of her arms. Her cry trails off as her face is engulfed. Osborne can see the skin crackle and blacken beneath the thin mask of fire. He pushes away from the opening, flattening himself against the back wall of the chute. Miraculously his footing holds.
The mouthless girl pitches through the opening of her lair. Osborne feels the heat as she falls by and then she is gone, shooting down the slide, leaving him in the dark. A few seconds later, Osborne hears the old man scream once; this is followed by a muffled explosion. Hot air erupts from below like the fiery breath of a volcano. In the wake of its passage there are no more screams; there is nothing but the faint crackle of fire, and then, not even that.
He begins, cautiously, to climb. It’s more difficult because he’s doing it one-handed, but the walls are firmer up here and he feels less likely to slip. Still, it seems like hours before he emerges into the hole below the parking garage. He hauls himself out of the underground, and pauses at the lip of the abyss, listening. There are no sounds from below. No screams, no cries. Nothing.
The old man was half-dead anyway, he thinks, as he kicks the cardboard back into place; the fire certainly finished him off. And besides, how could he possibly explain this to the police?
Osborne slinks out from behind the pallets. His clothes are caked with mud, they stink of rot and decay. Not much he can do about it, and besides, nobody on the subway will think anything of it. Just one more smelly weirdo. He buttons up his filthy jacket and heads quickly for the stairwell. His footsteps echo in the empty garage.
Back in his apartment forty-five minutes later, Osborne stands in front of his bathroom mirror. A shoebox sits on the sink in front of him, lined in tissue paper.
Osborne slowly unbuttons his jacket.
The baby’s corpse is still affixed to his chest, still suckling, totally oblivious to what has happened. He gently pries the thing loose. It falls still. A single drop of blood slides from its lips. Osborne has a bruise all around his nipple where its little mouth had been.
He lays the small body gently in the shoebox, puts on the cover, and tucks it on a shelf in the bedroom closet.
He showers and goes to bed, and dreams of the mouthless girl, singing him a lullaby.