The Man from Puglia: A Short Story

Here’s one of the ten short stories I wrote during my Short Story Challenge. With fall creeping in, and Halloween almost upon us, I thought this one would be a fun read. It was inspired by the real-life belief that werewolves exist in Italy that I heard about on some television show. So, I took to the web to do a bit of research and this story came pouring out. You can read more about the Puglia werewolves here.

Did I ever tell you about the man who came home from the war with Granddaddy? I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about that. The man’s name was Marrok and we thought he was a German. But why would a German come home with an American? I thought about that years later, and it didn’t make much sense.

Marrok was actually Italian. I once asked him where his family was from, and he said Puglia. He had a thick accent. He knew English very well, but it was still hard to understand him.  I always thought he was saying Petersburg or something like that. It sounded like it could be a German town when he said it, so no one questioned it.

Marrok was taller than my Granddaddy. He was very thin, with dark hair and a scruffy jaw. He was a very handsome man. He didn’t look like your stereotypical Italian, but he didn’t look like a German either. When I pointed this out my daddy said, “We all come from some place.”

Years later in high school, after Granddaddy had passed and Marrok disappeared, I was looking at a world map in my Geography textbook. I was admiring the shape of Italy and how it looked like a boot. I noticed the region that makes up the heel was called Puglia. I could hear Marrok’s voice saying it in my ear again. Puglia. That’s when I knew he must have been Italian.

We liked him because he’d tell me and my brother, Grant, stories about the war. Granddaddy didn’t like to talk about the war. “I fought the Nazis,” was about all he’d tell you. It became a retort for when you complained about something.

“Why do I have to mow the yard?” I’d whine.

“What else do you have to do in life? Boy, I fought the Nazis!”

I wasn’t sure what that had to do with my rebuttal for doing household chores, but he said it so much and often out of context that we had to try hard not to laugh in front of him. Grant and I used to mimic him.

“Did you brush your teeth yet?” Mom would yell from the kitchen.

“No, too busy fighting Nazis,” Grant would say under his breath.

“Finish your eggs before they get cold,” Dad would tell us at the breakfast table.

“Can’t. Gotta fight Nazis,” I’d whisper just to try to get Grant to laugh.

Granddaddy lived in an old farm house across the street from us. It was set back from the main road quite a bit, and there was usually corn growing out front so you could only see the second story from our porch. It was a good five minute jaunt from our side of the street, down the dusty driveway cut through the corn, to Granddaddy’s house. Grant and I used to race each other from one house to the other and back.  He always won. Grant was a good runner, a track star in school. We’d both collapse in our yard to catch our breath when we’d both made it back to our house.

Sometimes, when we’d go have dinner with Granddaddy and Grandmama, we’d hear sounds coming from deep within the house. We could feel the sounds, deep thuds and the clanging of metal, in our feet so they had to be coming from the cellar. Grant and I would lock eyes to confirm each of us had felt it. Granddaddy and Grandmama never seemed to notice, and we were too afraid to ask. Sometimes Marrok ate with us.

“Have you noticed we never hear those sounds coming from the cellar when Marrok is eating with us?” I asked Grant one night as we lay in our twin beds.

“Do you think he’s making those sounds?” Grant asked.

“I don’t know, and I feel like we better not ask.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but Granddaddy let Marrok live upstairs in the farmhouse. They always sat on the porch together during the day, and we just thought Marrok was always visiting. The two men had fought together in the war so they had lots to talk about, but they both always stopped talking if someone else came around. It wasn’t until Grandmama disappeared a few months later that Daddy began to question Marrok’s reasons for being there.

Granddaddy told the sheriff that Grandmama had taken his truck to town to buy groceries but that she never came home that day. Witnesses confirmed they’d seen her at the grocery store. The following morning, Daddy found the truck just a few miles from home. It was parked on the side of the road facing toward town instead of as if she was on her way back home. Her purse was still in the front seat, but there were no grocery sacks in the back.

The sheriff put together a group of men to search the woods near where the truck had been found. Grant and I wanted to help, but Daddy made us stay home. The search party soon found one of her shoes, and then a man found her apron. A trail of clothes led them right to her. Besides being nude and very confused, she seemed to be okay. She was a mile deep into the woods and sleeping by a creek that ran parallel to Granddaddy’s property. Closer inspection from a doctor revealed a dog bite on her thigh, but it was an old wound that had healed.

“Was your mother recently bitten by a dog?” the doctor asked Daddy.

“Not that I’m aware. We don’t have a dog, and I’ve never seen any come around. I’ve seen coyotes and foxes before.”

“This bite was bigger than a coyote or a fox, and I think they would go for a leg or a hand first anyway.”

“Maybe it happened before I was born?”

“No, this scar is only a few months old.”

“Is she going to be okay?”

“In regards to the bite, yes. We tested her blood. No rabies or anything. She doesn’t remember going to the grocery store or how she ended up in the woods, so I’m afraid it could be Alzheimer’s.”

Saying she had Alzheimer’s disease would explain why Grandmama might have pulled off the side of the road and got lost in the woods. It did not explain why people swore they saw her at the grocery store. Nor did it explain the dog bite.

When Daddy brought her home, Grandmama was prone to fits of rage. She didn’t know who Granddaddy was anymore. She would scream and throw things. She didn’t know where she was. I noticed when she saw Marrok, she fell quiet. I recognized the look in her eyes. It was fear, the same fear Grant and I had when we heard those noises coming from underneath the dining room floor.

Granddaddy had no choice but to admit Grandmama to the senior center in town. We would visit her and she would always whisper things while she slept. The nurse told Daddy that it was common for Alzheimer’s patients to talk in their sleep.

“Does she say anything that sounds important?” Daddy asked.

“Not really. It’s just jumbled words most of the time,” the nurse said.

“Does she ever say a word that sounds like Puglia?” I asked the nurse when Daddy walked out of the room.

“Yes!  Yes, she does say that,” the nurse said, “sometimes she wakes up screaming it.”

Puglia! Puglia!

I never told Daddy what the nurse confirmed. Grandmama died just two months later. That was when Daddy discovered Marrok had been living with Granddaddy and Grandmama. He told Marrok he needed to leave, but Granddaddy told him he could stay. My mother encouraged him to leave the two old men alone. She thought Granddaddy was lonely and could use a friend, but I knew Daddy secretly blamed Marrok for what had happened to his mother.

After Grandmama died, we never ate dinner in their house again. Granddaddy would come have dinner at our house, but Marrok never came with him. The two men still sat on the porch together throughout most of the day talking about the war or whatever two old men talk about. Grant went off to college on a track scholarship. I no longer had anyone to race across the street and back. I’d stopped going around Granddaddy’s house long before that anyway.

“Granddaddy and Marrok must be sleeping in this morning,” I said one day, walking out the front door on my way to school.

“Why’s that?” Daddy asked.

“Look,” I said, pointing to the farmhouse.

Marrok and Granddaddy were always sitting on the porch by the time we left each morning, and I always waved at them. Today the porch was empty. Daddy took me to school, but then he went back home. He told Mama he was going to check on things at the farmhouse. He found Granddaddy in bed. He was dead, and Marrok was gone.

I was sitting in the funeral home parlor with Grant, who’d come home from college, while Daddy and Mama made the arrangements.

“Can you tell me if he has a scar on his thigh?” I heard Daddy ask the funeral director.

“A wound from the war?”

“No. A dog bite.”

An autopsy revealed there was no foul play. Granddaddy had gone quietly in his sleep. Marrok did not attend the funeral, and we never saw him again. Daddy wouldn’t let us go upstairs, but we overheard him telling Mama that the rooms were empty. No clothes. No belongings. Not even a bed or a chair. They assumed Marrok had packed up and left. It appeared he had just vanished, or as if he’d never been there before anyway. We never spoke about him again.

The house sat empty for several months, maybe a year even. It was the summer after I graduated high school and was preparing to go off to college myself. We’d sold Granddaddy’s old farmhouse and the fields around it. Daddy said the new owner was going to tear the old house down.

Daddy left for work as usual one day, and Mama went to town. I was feeling older and braver, so I decided to venture across the street and have a look around. I took a drywall hammer from Daddy’s toolbox to use as a weapon. It was silly but I felt secure. I walked across the street and down the weedy path where the driveway had been. I stepped up onto the porch. Granddaddy and Marrok’s old rocking chairs were sitting there, empty and still.

The spare key was still sitting atop the architrave of the front door. I went inside. The rooms were empty. We’d slowly moved a lot of things out and sold the rest. I did not know what I expected to find, but I wanted to have a look for myself. I crept up the stairs and wandered around the bare rooms on the second floor. There was indeed no evidence of the odd man who had lived there.

The cellar door had a padlock on it. I remember Daddy said he couldn’t find the key and wasn’t worried about clearing out the cellar. “Probably just full of mason jars and junk,” he’d said, but I didn’t believe him. Granddaddy kept his keys on his bedroom dresser. There was no doubt the key had been on his key ring. Maybe that’s the real reason I’d brought the hammer; I couldn’t remember.

The lock was easy to break open. When I opened it, it revealed a small landing just inside the door and small narrow steps that led down into a well of blackness. There was a light switch on the side of the wall that still worked. It lit the stairwell and as I walked down I could see lights on across the cellar.

There was junk, just as dad said. Jars lined shelves on one wall, filled with preserved jams and homemade pickles that Grandmama used to make. The contents of the jars were cloudy with age; the food inside was unrecognizable.  Boxes of Christmas decorations and an old sewing machine sat against the opposite wall. I suddenly remembered coming down to the cellar and helping Grandmama take the decorations upstairs to decorate the farmhouse for the holidays.

I could recall this memory very well because I liked to play in the cellar. Grant and I pretended it was an army bunker. Its below-ground musty smell and cool air made the cellar strange and exciting to us, as such odd places often are to small children that age. But this memory did not contain the odd partition I saw in one corner. If it had, we surely would have wanted to explore it.

Its outer walls were exposed lumber as if someone had not finished building it. Its door had three latches for padlocks, but no locks were there. The door opened with ease on large barrel hinges. When I opened it, I could see the outer walls were almost twelve inches thick. The frame was exposed and sheets of galvanized metal appeared to line the inside of the walls. The inner walls were made of steel. From the inside, it looked like some type of large safe or vault.

A set of heavy chains hung inside the chamber on the outer wall of the cellar. A closer look revealed shackles at the ends of the chains. There were four smaller ones, intended for wrists and ankles, and a larger one possibly to go around someone’s neck. Touching the sides, I could feel small dents in the steel walls where something or someone, who had been wearing the shackles, had beat them against the walls.

I picked up one of the smaller shackles to examine it and something tickled my fingers. I held it up so I could try to examine it in the light and noticed long woolen hairs caught in between the links of the chain. It was too course to me human hair. It made me think of the dog bite the doctor had mentioned after examining Grandmama years ago.

I dropped the chain and ran up the stairs and back home as fast as I could. I don’t remember much after that. I knew that something evil had been kept there in that chamber in the cellar. I knew it had something to do with Marrok. I wanted to tell Daddy and Mama what I had found, but it wasn’t important by then. I was too afraid to tell Grant because I knew he wouldn’t believe me. I kept my silence as I watched a bulldozer crash through the walls of the farmhouse a few weeks later and bury its secrets in the ground.

I never told anyone about what I found in the cellar of Granddaddy’s farmhouse until now. I try not to think about it, but those days from my youth have always haunted me. I try not to think about Marrok either, but the memories creep in from time to time. Here, let me show you something. It’s a scar on my thigh. I don’t know how or when I got it, but it’s shaped just like a dog bite.

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