By Daniel Finkel
Nothing seemed to be much amiss in the little town of Malgrotto. Certainly, during the day, the people were cheerful, the market prosperous, and the streets crowded. But at night that all changed. As darkness began to encroach, the bustle ceased. The chatter stopped. The people no longer smiled. And shortly after that, the townspeople all repaired to their homes, where they locked and barred and bolted the doors, and shut all the windows. Every crack was blocked, every blind drawn and every shutter closed. There was not a soul to be found on the streets of Malgrotto by sunset. And why did the townspeople act in such a peculiar fashion? Because every night, when the moon was up, a monster came to Malgrotto. No one had seen it. No one had dared to look. But they knew it by what it took. Garbage. Each night it came and cleaned out every trashcan in that little town. By morning, there was not a scrap left.
This did not, at first, worry the townspeople overly much. But then the monster struck again, and this time people were afraid. It got into a house when the occupants were elsewhere, and tore up all the floorboards, and ripped off all the plaster, and carried it off. And after that, every house was locked and occupied when night fell on Malgrotto.
Every house, that is, save for one. There was one soul who did not lock his doors, and did not, indeed, believe in the monster. This bold fellow, this uncommonly keen individual, was none other than Mr. Octavian Block. He had a butler named Jeffers, and Jeffers was of such a dull temperament, such an unimaginative mold, such an unintelligent mind and such a trusting heart, that Mr. Block utterly dominated him.
“Am I to understand,” Mr. Block said with cold civility one day, while eating a steak with onions and cream, “that my neighbors lock up their doors every night, stuff their cracks with cloth, shut their windows, draw their shutters, close their blinds, and generally hide themselves from the world, because of a monster?” And here he glared at Jeffers. “Am I to understand that? Am I to believe it in this modern age? A monster. Hah! I tell you Jeffers, I have half a mind to wait up myself for this monster, and give it a good beating if it comes.”
“Really, sir?” Jeffers said, his eyes glowing. Here Mr. Block paused, for though he might have made half of his mind up, the other was still just a little bit tentative. But there was something so pleasurable in Jeffers’ admiration, in his own boldness, and in the idea of disproving the myth once and for all, that Mr. Block simply laughed and said, “Of course.”
That very night he resolved to wait up for the monster, and Jeffers resolved to wait up with him. They sat, shivering, on the doorstep of Mr. Block’s home, with a long row of streetlights stretching on either side of them. All too quickly, night approached. The sun sank below the horizon, and darkness came. Mr. Block’s breath steamed and billowed forth, as if his mouth were a hot red chimney, and his eyes strained into the infinite black, looking for some hint of motion.
“Tea, sir?” Jeffers asked.
“No, thank you.”
“Oh really sir, it would only take a moment. I’m very glad to prepare it for you.”
Mr. Block looked at his butler. Jeffers seemed very thin and pale under the glaring light of the streetlamps.
“Something wrong, Jeffers?”
“Well, sir, I think that your plan to wait up for the monster is very, very brave and all that, but what if it actually should come?”
“Oh, Jeffers, Jeffers,” Mr. Block said, shaking his head. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. There is no monster.”
“You’re quite sure, sir?”
“Of course I am. You see, Jeffers, monsters don’t exist.”
“No, Jeffers, they do not. No monsters exist. And I’m going to prove that tonight.”
“We are, you mean.”
“Yes, yes,” Mr. Block agreed vaguely. “That’s what I said.”
They waited. It grew colder. Then, in the distance, a streetlight flickered and went out. Another followed. And another, and another.
“What do you think that is, sir?”
“Must be some sort of confounded power outage,” Mr. Block said. “It happens all the time, you know.”
They sat and watched as the gloom marched towards them. Slowly, somewhere in the night, the darkness began to creak.
“D-d-do you hear that, sir?” Jeffers asked squeakily.
“That creaking, sir, that creaking.”
“I don’t hear anything. Absolutely nothing, that’s what I hear.”
Above them, the streetlight flickered and was extinguished, like a flame plunged into water. Then they were awash in the black. There was a liquid quality to the darkness. It passed, it whispered around them, hissing in their ears, shivering down their backs, clotting in their hair and clumping up their eyebrows. It was like swimming in a pool of warm oil. The creaking grew closer and stopped. A greenish light flared in front of them, and the darkness passed, sighing, out of sight. A figure appeared before them.
“W—w—what is that, sir?” Jeffers whispered.
“D-d-don’t worry, J-Jeffers,” Mr. Block hissed in a high-pitched voice, “It’s only—only an animal of some sort.”
The greenish light flared again, and they beheld the monster. In terror their eyes wandered from smooth, egg-shaped skull to creaking jaw, from cyclopean eye to black-and-white grimace, from cadaverous chest to clicking stomach, from hook to claw to pipe, until the horror had almost blinded them. Terrifying, it loomed above them, tall, ugly, fierce, evil, wrapped in shreds of ragged finery, a ghastly apparition that glistened in the light. And then, quite suddenly, Mr. Block looked closer, and the illusion shattered. This was not some ghostly hobgoblin, sent from the netherworld to torment the unrepentant; this was something altogether different. It was a machine, he felt almost sure of that, but a machine entirely composed of trash.
It had a skull of dented copper and a hinge for a jaw. Instead of teeth, it had black-and-white piano keys. Instead of eyes, it had a spotlight. Instead of shoulders, it had broad, rusty plates of metal. Instead of chest and stomach, it had a jumble of grumbling wheels, and its arms were all twisted vents and pipes. One arm ended in a hand with forks and spoons for fingers. The other concluded with a hook. It had a hump on its back and a limp in its walk, and its feet were big and cold and chicken-like. In one fist it clutched a grimy lantern, and it was from this object that the greenish light issued. Overall, the monster was beaten, battered and skeletal, with patches of rust dappling its twisted frame. A palpable sense of evil came from this terrible apparition, an aura of malice and cunning and malevolent purpose. It was so powerful that Mr. Block and Jeffers were transfixed. And then the apparition spoke.
“Evening, gentles,” it said cheerfully. “Lovely weather this evening, isn’t it?”
They stared at it blankly.
“Please disregard me,” the creature continued happily, grinning and bobbing and shaking its horrible head. “I am only here to collect your—your—your trashables, your derelicts, your refuse, your rubbishes.” And as it said this, it turned to the trashcans clustered on the edge of the street. It circled these trashcans with predatory elegance, all the while talking to itself. “Yes, yes, yes,” it said, “what’s this, what’s this? A patient left alone, out in the cold, untended, uncared for, deserted? That won’t do. Into the white room it goes. Now then, the source of the infection. The source, Doctor Farnswurk, the source. What do you think, Professor Maladictos? Oh, professor, please stop, you know I can’t abide flattery. What’s that, Doctor Farnswurk? You think the problem is in the patient’s brain? Well then, let’s explore that hypothesis.”
And as it said this, it rushed forward all at once and tore the top off of the trashcan. It peered inside cautiously, as if afraid a predator would leap out and attack. What it found seemed to please it immensely, for it hopped about in grotesque glee, clapping its hands and cackling, “Prime stock. Prime stock!” Then it snapped its fingers imperiously and shrieked, “Whistleblower. Whistleblower. Out, out, monstrosity. Come forth, I command you. Move, slowpoke. Dimwit. Dullard. The patient exhibits disturbance in its cerebellum. Careful examination is required. Therefore, off with its head! So move, beast of burden, move.”
As it continued to hurl insults into the night, a huge tractor rolled creaking out of the darkness. A pincer-like appendage extended out of the tractor, grabbed the trashcan, emptied it into a vast bin on top of the tractor, and set it down again. The creature leaned against a lamppost and grinned charmingly at Mr. Block and Jeffers, obviously quite at its ease. “So anyway, ducklings,” it said, “the other day I was throttling a frog, and you know what it did? It croaked.” It slapped its leg, threw back its head, laughed heartily, and then was overcome with a brief fit of coughing. By then the tractor was done. The creature straightened up, hummed a tune, tapped its foot once or twice and smiled.
“Evening, gentles,” it said briskly, and walked away.
“S-s-stop,” Mr. Block whispered. The creature did not turn. “Stop,” Mr. Block said again, but his voice was only a sigh. The creature paused and looked back. Then it grinned. For the last time, Mr. Block and his butler were struck by the brooding evil of that black-and-white grimace. Then the creature moved on, heading off with its lantern and its tractor and its bin full of rubbish. Soon it had passed away into the darkness, a lonely sanitation worker on his nightly rounds.
And ever since that day, Mr. Octavian Block has locked up his doors very punctually at night, stuffing every crack and shutting every window and drawing every shutter and closing every blind. And just like his neighbors, he does not venture out of his house again until the night has passed and the sun is fully in the sky.