The peddler limped along, pulling his heavy wagon a few steps at a time. The heat of the noon day sun beat unmercifully on his bald pate, which he mopped with an oily rag slung around his neck. Occasionally he would pull it up and over his head, temporarily shading his reddening scalp but the relief was short-lived as with every other step his gait hitched and with a jerk it slid back down to his shoulders.
What a fine time that old nag chose to go lame he muttered to himself, tugging the cart over a stone projecting from the little used road. In truth, it was more of a lane with tufts of grass sprouting here and there between the old paving stones. Little to no traffic traversed the road; in fact he had not seen a rider or wagon the entire morning and he had packed up and left his campsite at first light, anxious to get to the nearest village to trade in his horse.
The sorry beast limped along behind, nosing hopefully at the sack of oats the peddler had stashed at the bottom of the cart. With her teeth, she ripped a tiny hole in the exposed corner of the bag and happily lapped at the trickle of feed that spilled out with the lurching of the cart.
The road turned westerly, bringing the sharp rays directly into the peddler’s eyes. The road stretched on for miles, straight as an arrow, although hilly. With a groan, he pulled the cart to the roadside and flopped down onto a log, swiping at the rivulets of sweat running down the sides of his fleshy cheeks.
The nag whinnied and tossed her head, thinking that they were done for the day, anxious to be untied.
With a sigh, he hauled himself to his feet and limped over to the beast, untying the reins looped around the frame of the awning then following the sound of running water, took a path that lead off the main road.
The thick underbrush clogged the faint trail, still damp with the morning dew and cobwebs draped the path, shimmering in the occasional ray of sunlight that peaked through the leafy canopy overhead. Great, now I have to beat off spiders too he grumped, muttering to the nag as he pushed through the soggy growth.
The sound of the running water grew louder as the trail twisted around some boulders and eventually opened onto a small clearing. A fast running stream twisted around a large stone outcropping and splashed over fallen logs and rocks smoothed and rounded by the water’s passage. Tight beside the stream was a hut with shuttered windows.
“Hello!” shouted the peddler, as it was quite rude to barge into someones homestead without announcing ones presence. “Hello! Is anyone home?”
Silence greeted his words even as they rebounded off the stone face of the rock by the hut.
He tugged at the reins and pulled the nag along behind him, walking down to the water’s edge. She thrust her muzzle into the cool water and slurped eagerly, taking big gulps of water.
The peddler’s gaze was drawn back to the hut, taking in the decrepit state of the building. The porch floor boards sagged, creating a basin in which leaves and sticks and debris had accumulated, giving the appearance that the floor was even. A rough railing was nailed in place and this too sagged, giving the impression of a fleshless skull, jaw curving into a mirthless grin.
A cold gust of wind made him shiver; it tickled his neck hairs and froze the beads of moisture on his brow. As it passed, the wind moaned, low and urgent.
The peddler jerked as a feathery touch caressed his cheek. Stop it, you old fool, you are jumping about as though this clearing is haunted.
Nevertheless, he peered around the clearing, checking to see if anything stirred, but nothing moved. Nothing moved at all. Not a leaf, not a stalk of grass.
Sweat broke out on his forehead once again.
He pulled the nag’s head out of the stream and cautiously approached the hut. As he got closer, he could see that the windows were non-existent, the shutters hanging by one nail. He rounded the side to the front porch and stumbled to a halt. Nailed to the front of the heavy wooden door was a shrunken head. A heavy iron bolt was nailed through the scalp into the door, holding the head in place. Dead as a doornail, he surely is, thought the peddler.
“Dead as a Doornail” also dead as a dodo or herring. Totally and assuredly dead; also finished…The first, oldest, and most common of these similes,all of which can be applied literally to persons or more often today to issues involves a doornail, dating from about 1350. Its meaning is disputed but most likely it referred to the costly metal nails hammered into the outer doors of the wealthy (most people used cheaper wooden pegs) which were clinched on the inside of the door and therefore were “dead’, that is could not be used again.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer
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