We first heard about the child one evening at The Mon­day After­noon Club from old Mat­ter­son, last heir to an empire of sweat­shops. We’d been going round in a cir­cle offer­ing up sto­ries of the super­nat­ur­al to pass a drea­ry winter’s eve. The ones we’d come out with so far were of a pedes­tri­an nature — the haunt­ed gov­erness, the young woman who sees her father in an art muse­um in Italy at the moment of his death three con­ti­nents away, the romance of cer­tain old shoes — but then it was Matterson’s turn, and the poor codger seemed to be expe­ri­enc­ing some bout of inter­nal dis­tress. Well into his fourth whiskey and pass­ing wind like a bel­lows in Hell, he came out with it, and when he did, he gave an unfeigned shiv­er, as did we all.

The tale held us cap­tive in the face of its teller’s over ripe depar­tures from deco­rum. Mr. Steel pinched his nos­trils with thumb and point­er and begged a jot more speed in the telling. Mat­ter­son was not to be hur­ried, though. “All in due course,” he said, and paused to run his fin­gers through his prodi­gious side burns, like a pair of kit­tens, while from his south­ern hemi­sphere there issued a long slow rip­ping noise, proof that his trousers had seen their last. It was at this point that my man, Hubert, reached for a hand­ker­chief. I’ll admit, I was also rather faint, but the lure of the har­row­ing saga won out over self-preser­va­tion, and I dare say we all, Steel, Hubert, Mr. Cipus, and myself, tears form­ing in the cor­ners of our eyes, for­feit­ed no mean par­cel of our respec­tive life spans to hear it.

Mat­ter­son gave ample evi­dence of his own prox­im­i­ty to doom, and yet some infer­nal genius still burned and bur­nished his descrip­tions of the evil child, the man­ner in which the scamp emerged from the mist, his drip­ping pale­ness, the sharp teeth. And the set­ting, with its glis­ten­ing gas-lit cob­ble­stones and shad­owed alleys gave the thing a ring of the gen­uine. His tech­nique abol­ished all dis­be­lief, even when we learned that the boy curled him­self up, small as a squir­rel, in a woman’s hand­bag out­side the opera one evening and was fer­ried, unknow­ing­ly, to her apart­ment. We accept­ed this strange­ness grate­ful­ly as if it were fresh air. Even after the woman had gone to bed, and the sick­ly lit­tle phan­tom let him­self out of her bag and crept to her side, we had no care for why or how, but wished only to know what was next to hap­pen. Mat­ter­son took great pains with the scene of the woman’s dis­em­bowl­ing. Every grim detail was gild­ed with adjec­tives as the boy clawed his way into her womb. “Ungod­ly,” said Mr. Cipus, in his unfail­ing abil­i­ty to state the obvi­ous, and if I’m not mis­tak­en, my good sto­ic, Hubert’s, hands trem­bled slight­ly. I’d heard few things more ghast­ly, but this out­landish­ness was exceed­ed soon after when Mat­ter­son revealed the num­ber of vic­tims and recount­ed the specifics of their bloody deaths, punc­tu­at­ing each episode with a sul­furous stac­ca­to note rem­i­nis­cent of the pic­co­lo.

Too much,” cried Steel.

There is ever more,” replied Mat­ter­son, and with a vol­ley of thun­der, and a cru­el smile upon his lips, he launched into the biog­ra­phy of the spir­it. “Tom­my Tim was the lad’s name.” He told us that in the neigh­bor­hoods around Wes­sel Street, a dit­ty was sung about the specter. I prayed he would not sing it, but he did, in a mock child’s voice, accom­pa­ny­ing him­self with a com­pli­cat­ed score like some mad Bach of the pos­te­ri­or.

Tom­my Tim, Tom­my Tim
Look below, it is him
Climb­ing up your lady’s leg
Climb­ing for your lady’s egg
Rip, rip, rip, and then
Tom­my Tim is home again.

Most dis­turb­ing. And yet not the last word, for Mat­ter­son went on, dis­pens­ing hor­ror from both ends, relay­ing the dis­mal life of the boy who would rise from a lone­ly, unmarked grave to wreak fear upon the liv­ing with his desire to be born again and seek that love which had been absent in his first go round. By this point I’d bro­ken into a full sweat and had grown dizzy amidst the bar­rage of the sto­ry teller’s fro­mage. It was in that stag­gered con­di­tion, my thoughts ver­i­ly whirling like a pin­wheel that I learned that only min­utes after birth the lad had been trun­dled in a dirty blan­ket and left upon a doorstep — not a lucky one. He was raised in a drab orphan­age where he was reg­u­lar­ly beat­en. Upon reach­ing the age of eight, he was sent to labor at The Gas Works. Although I swooned in and out of con­scious­ness, I saw it all in my mind’s eyes, a tapes­try of des­ti­tu­tion, deprav­i­ty, and sod­den depres­sion. When, in Matterson’s recount­ing, poor Tom­my Tim, weak from incip­i­ent star­va­tion, slips on the ledge above the putre­fac­tion vat at work and plunges head­long into the boil­ing slur­ry of detri­tus, I, unable to draw a decent breath, also fell for­ward. I could feel Hubert catch me and heard his voice, “Bring the smelling salts… and for God’s sake, a fan.” Over­come by Matterson’s wicked craft, I went out cold.

Per­haps not even a minute lat­er, I came to with a sweet breeze of brisk air lav­ing my face. Hubert had dragged me bod­i­ly to the win­dow at the oppo­site end of the par­lor and opened it halfway. Steel, Mr. Cipus, myself and my trusty man, all crowd­ed around the por­tal. Behind us, still bela­bor­ing the atmos­phere with rau­cous indis­cre­tions, Mat­ter­son retrieved a cig­ar from his jack­et pock­et. As he cut the tip and tamped the end, he laughed and said, “I’ve reserved the most dis­turb­ing part for last.”

I’m sur­prised you’ve got any­thing left,” said Steel.

Mat­ter­son lift­ed one cheek off the chair and snarled angri­ly. He took out his box of match­es and set­ting one against the flint, said, “Are you famil­iar with the cuck­oo bird?”

We four remained silent.

The cuck­oo,” he said, “invades the nest of anoth­er species of bird while the adults are out hunt­ing, destroys the exist­ing eggs and lays its own in their place before van­ish­ing. In a sim­i­lar way, Tom­my Tim hoped to trick some woman into rais­ing him, into lov­ing him. In his ghost­ly child’s mind he can­not com­pre­hend how his bru­tal incur­sions into the wombs of the liv­ing, the stran­gling of the expect­ed child, etc. negate his desires as he tries to ful­fill them.”

Mat­ter­son struck the match but it failed.

Mr. Cipus under­stood before the rest of us that a spark might be fatal. “Duck, gen­tle­men,” he said.

We did just that as Mat­ter­son, expelling a parade of gur­glers, struck anoth­er. This one lit and a heart­beat lat­er he explod­ed in an impres­sive fire­ball that con­sumed his chair. He burned fierce­ly and we fran­ti­cal­ly sum­moned Emmonds, the club’s retain­er, to bring bot­tles of soda water with which we extin­guished the blaze. In the bil­low­ing smoke that result­ed, Tom­my Tim’s fig­ure appeared briefly. We all saw it. He held his arms out to us and called, “Dad­dy.” We all con­fessed to feel­ing a chill. Then he van­ished with the smoke, and Mat­ter­son sift­ed down to a pile of ash.

Pho­to cred­it: Eric Rosen­field.

Jef­frey Ford is the author of the nov­els, The Phys­iog­no­my, Mem­o­ran­da, The Beyond, The Por­trait of Mrs. Char­buque, The Girl in the Glass, and The Shad­ow Year. He has three short sto­ry col­lec­tions — The Fan­ta­sy Writer’s Assis­tant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life. Ford is the recip­i­ent of The World Fan­ta­sy Award, The Edgar Allan Poe Award, The Neb­u­la, and The Shirley Jack­son Award. He lives in south Jer­sey and teach­es writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­dale Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege.