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Fools! I see you hanging on every one of my nephew’s self-serving words. You think he is a raving lunatic? No! He is unnerved by your presence but is as sane as you and I. His “disease” gives him hearing sharp enough to hear everything in heaven and hell. Judging by the way you converse with him, listen to him, dote on him, you accept his ego-centric viewpoint. Forget him. This is my story, not his. I’m the one. Who. Is. Dead. Let me tell you what really happened.
I hadn’t seen him for over fifteen years when he arrived on my doorstep a few months ago, jobless, homeless, and destitute. He had worn out his welcome everywhere else after his father, my own brother, threw him out a year or so ago. For what? Who knows. Outraged that some had the nerve to call him insane to his face, he claimed everyone — his parents, roommates, landlords, and rooming house managers — all refused to accept his “illness.”
Naturally, I assumed he embellished his account, as he had been histrionic from a young age. Tsch! My nephew was such an unlovable, annoying child. Nevertheless, with his tattered clothes, dirty fingernails, and noxious aroma, I saw he wasn’t exaggerating his assertion he had been living rough. I took pity on him and welcomed him into my home. What did I know?
All I asked was that he assist me by keeping house. For longer than I cared to admit, I had been unable to do for myself, what with my blind eye and creaking bones. Agreeable at first, he undertook any task I set for him. Always bidding me to sit, have tea, while he bustled about, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes. He was assiduous with all his chores, refusing to pause to have tea and a chat with me. I began to think the insufferable child had grown into a tolerable young man.
You believe when he says he loved me? Hah! My dear nephew wasn’t loving or particularly grateful for any generosity bestowed on him as a child and was even less so as an adult. No surprise, then, that he did not return my affection and gratitude for his thoughtfulness. Why, he never even thanked me for taking him in. What’s worse is, he began to act odd, plying me with tea and a comfy chair one minute, shying away the next. The strangeness came on so gradually, I couldn’t tell you when or how it began. It was little things. Almost unnoticeable.
For example, if I dozed in my easy chair after a meal, I would awaken to find him sitting directly across from me, staring at me. He always averted his eyes so quickly, I thought I had imagined it. But once, I awoke and remained motionless, controlling my breathing, so he would think I still slept. I peeked at him through the lashes of my good eye and watched him watching me. After a couple minutes, I yawned and stretched, so he wouldn’t know I had watched him. He wasn’t staring at me when I finally opened my eyes, but he never made eye contact with me again. In fact, he avoided me.
My nephew no longer took his meals with me and stopped preparing my dinner at noon. Instead, he brought tea early, sometimes as early as two thirty in the afternoon. And, when he would bring the tea and sandwiches, he flinched if my hand brushed his. He wouldn’t set the pot and plate right in front of me, as you do. He put them scant centimeters away, making me reach. Every day, he set them a tiny bit closer to the middle of the table. I didn’t notice at first. Who would?
I finally realized the lengths to which he had gone to evade my accidental touch when I had to raise myself out of the chair to reach my food. Grabbing his hand before he could retract it, I demanded that he put my food on my place mat. He said that’s what he had been doing and insisted I had pushed it away. Told me I was crazy for thinking otherwise. Maybe so, I thought. I had to admit to him that, after I lost sight in the one eye, I wasn’t able to judge distances very well. I even apologized for thinking poorly of him! The wretch.
After we had that little discussion, he seemed to return to his old self — calm, helpful, solicitous. My nephew resumed the routine started when he first came to live with me and introduced a surprising new habit: He awakened me each morning at dawn. Knowing I was fearful of burglars, he asked every day if I had slept well. The boy was a new man. I thought we had put the strangeness behind us. Until last night.
A noise jerked me awake. I thought the burglars had come through the shutters I had drawn tight before I slept. But, once awake, I heard nothing. I saw nothing. The closed shutters still blocked the entry of even a ray of light. Trying to reassure myself that I must be alone if moonlight could not reach me, I sat in bed, swaddled in blankets, too afraid to investigate. Imagining what could have produced the racket that awakened me, if no person came through the window. Wondering if it might have been the house settling or a mouse or some other creature living in the walls. Maybe the wind. Terrified the inhuman sound would come again. I heard only silence, but I could feel the Presence of … Something. Petrified, I waited in the dark, hugging my knees, rocking, listening, barely breathing, for what seemed like hours. Too frightened to lie down, to lay my head back on my pillow, to sleep.
A sliver of light from the doorway cut the dark. Where was it coming from? How was it there? I had left no light in the hall. There was no sound, only the unwavering light shining in my face. I was paralyzed with fear. Heart beating so hard, I thought it would break through my chest. The room so quiet I could hear every beat of my heart, louder and louder. I was panic-stricken that the Presence would hear it too and attack. Held my breath, hoping to quell the loud heartbeat. The light on my face never moved. Time never moved.
The door flew open.
Someone yelled, pulled me off the bed, and yanked the mattress onto me. Crushing. Squeezing the air from my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. Darkness closed in. Silence.
I floated above. Watching him, watching me. He put his hand on my heart. After both hand and heart were motionless for several minutes, he left, returning with a cleaver and washtub. My nephew hefted my body into the basin. I could not look away as he severed my limbs from my torso. Witnessed as he cut off my head. He chuckled as he defiled the body of his uncle, my body, my corpse.
While my blood drained into the tub, he tore up three floorboards, waiting to put my parts in until the blood flowed no more. He laughed full-throated after he finished, then dragged the tub away, closing the door softly behind him.
Now you’re here. Listening to him. Encouraging him. Mesmerized by his lies. You call yourselves police officers? Ignore him. Do your job. Investigate. Search. Find me. Find Me! Find. Me. Find. Me. Find. Me. Find. Me. Find. Me. Find. Me. Find. Me. Find. Me. Find. Me. Find. Me. Find. …
“‘Villains!’ he shrieks, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — Tear up the planks! Here, Here! — It is the beating of his hideous heart!’”
Interview with J.E.M. Wildfire, Author of “The Heart Tells the Tale”
What inspired your story?
Actually, I responded to a StoryADay prompt to rewrite Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” from the old man’s viewpoint after his murder.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
My grandmother gave me two books of poetry for Christmas when I was around 8. One was clearly for children only. In the other, a diverse collection for all ages, I discovered my two all-time favorite poems (gothic or otherwise): Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” Both tell romantic, evocative stories in beautiful, musical language. I suppose, at age 8, I was drawn first to the cadence but the language kept me enthralled.
How long have you been writing?
I wrote my first story for a class assignment when I was 12. Although I chose classes and careers that involved writing, I wrote very little fiction until about two-three years ago. On the other hand, working in sales and later as a lawyer, much of my writing was necessarily creative.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
Not that I know of. Maybe I just haven’t written enough yet. My writing generally does have a fantasy or speculative element to it.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.
What are you working on now?
Trying to climb out of the psychic morass of 2020. That it has spilled over into 2021 so far isn’t a good sign.