Wrapped in her fluffy pink robe she glides into the beautiful bathroom. Hot water gushes from swan-shaped tabs into a large claw-footed tub. The light is subdued. Rose-scented candles glow seductively, reflected in the slightly-smoked full length mirror with its glittering frame of hand-picked pink quartz tiles. She pauses and turns around. What has she forgotten?
Moments later she reappears carrying a large crystal glass containing her favourite mouth-filling red wine.
The white-tiled floor is glossy, and slippery with an unnoticed sheen of steam. She strides forward and suddenly…
She’s on the floor, prone on those pricey ice-white tiles. She hesitates for just a moment and then rises to her feet. She stands facing the mirror, but something’s wrong. Where’s her reflection? She focuses on the one missing tile on the far corner of the frame, still not mended, but when she looks back, her face is still absent.
Her gaze travels down the misting mirror. What’s that on the floor behind her? She turns and sees a pink robed figure. Spilled red blood mingles with spilled red wine. She raises her hand to her mouth to suppress a scream, but there is no hand, no mouth.
There is nothing.
Written in response to The Haunted Wordsmith’s ‘Main March Madness‘ 13 ‘A Ghost’
and with a nod to a scene from Michael Connelly’s ‘Dark Sacred Night’.
Even for a Catholic Church there are a lot of statues. Not just the usual suspects: Our Lord on the Cross, Our Lady Weeping (touch of woodworm on those toes), and good old Saint Francis with a mouldy-looking bird on each hand and a rabbit missing half an ear at his feet. All have been subjected to some dodgy touch-up jobs. Nail varnish on Saint Anne? You shake your head.
There are newer statues too; peopling the perimeter like extras from a low-budget film. They stare out from the shadows, waiting for the action.
You drop a coin in the shabby wooden box, select a candle, light the wick and place it among its fellows. You pause, looking like you’re offering a prayer; for form’s sake.
You glance at your watch. Surely he should be here by now?
Perching on a pew near the back of the nave, you survey the altar. The altar cloth is rumpled and askew; the silverware huddled together at one end, as if something (someone?) had been resting there and was suddenly removed.
A shaft of sunlight falls on the golden lectern, illuminating the outstretched wings of the malformed eagle which support a heavy leather-bound bible on its wings. You notice a chain and padlock securing the stand to a ring-bolt in the floor. You can’t be too careful these days. Something catches your eye; movement reflected in the eagle’s wings. You glance over your shoulder. The statues appear closer; one of them, a young man, has a hand raised as if in greeting. Was it like that before?
The clouds move over the sun and the lectern fades in the gloom. A door scrapes open and a pool of yellow light spills onto the flagstones alongside the altar. There is a shadow too: an elongated arm with an extended finger touches the edge of the altar cloth. Then ghost-sounds of shuffling feet, whispers of words and the rasp of heavy breaths echo across the nave. You suddenly notice that the statues are lined up along the central aisle. They watch you; empty-eyed. How did they get there? You close your eyes, shake your head and open them again. Are you dreaming? You don’t think so.
A door slams somewhere and a black-garbed priest appears carrying violin case. The man for whom you’d been waiting: the one who says he has a story for you. He sets the case down on the altar and opens it, taking out a strange-looking rifle. He glances at the statues and stares back at you. Now he smiles and flicks off the safety catch.
They say you never hear the bullet which kills you. Father Anselm’s petrifying bullets are different.
I was sent to the Valley in my fourteenth year. I was given a little attic room and assigned as apprentice to the Herbalist beyond the Green.
She set me to work in the Storeroom, where I organised the shelves, made labels and lists. She was impressed with my lettering. Gradually I started to learn Herb-Craft: where to gather the freshest ingredients, what to plant and when to harvest, recipes for teas and tinctures, poultices and potions.
A year later, following the midsummer feast, she put me to work on the Book. I copied out new recipes, made illustrations, noted where and when certain plants could be found. I began to assist in the Dispensing Room. She was pleased with me and with my work.
I learned that certain things displeased her. If she found me chatting too long whilst I was dispensing remedies, she would stand at the door, arms folded, tapping her foot. My friends soon took the hint. Or if she saw me spending time at a particular market stall, she would take me firmly by the elbow telling me to ‘come, leave that now’.
I worked with my pen and brush in the Storeroom at a little desk among the wooden shelves on which the flasks and jars were kept neatly in rows. Even on the hottest of days the Storeroom doors remained shut. No prying eyes were tolerated; the work was secret. I was sworn to keep those secrets.
One afternoon, I’d made myself a cup of herbal tea using leftovers from a poultice. She came in and sniffed my teacup. “What is this?” she asked. I explained. “Is it in the Book?” “No, it but was only a handful of leaves.” Her eyes flashed, “There must be no omissions from the Book.” She stabbed at the cover with fingers clenched and walked out.
Two years passed. My knowledge grew. I followed her rules; made sure she had no cause to admonish me. She taught me a little rudimentary Spell-Craft and the Storeroom prospered as never before.
One morning in late summer, when the dew was still fresh on the ground, I took my basket up to the head of the Valley to the source of a little stream I knew. There I found newly growing belladonna and wolfsbane. I picked a sprig of each and hurried to back to the Storeroom.
Later that afternoon, I settled down at the little desk with my brush and pen and my new specimens. I opened the Book and turned to the poison plants section. But it was missing. I checked again, carefully, page by page, but it was as if the pages had never existed.
I hurried over to her little house and called her. She followed me slowly and sat down at the desk. I showed her where the missing pages should have been; how they seemed to have disappeared into thin air. I thought she’d be cross and give me that look, so I prepared myself. But she looked up at me and said “Never mind now.” She laid her wrinkled hand on my arm: “Go home; I’ll see you in the morning.”
The Storeroom was unusually busy the next day and my morning was spent making up and dispensing remedies. It was only in the afternoon that I took the Book down. The moment I opened it, I could see something was wrong. Strange symbols had been written in the margins and there were untidy blots and crossings out. I didn’t understand.
I heard the Storeroom door open. She appeared in the doorway and came over to the desk. “Something’s happened to the Book,”’ I said, showing her.
“Only you use the Book. No one else has touched it.” She brought her face close to mine and I saw pure hatred on her face. “Why have you done this?”
“I haven’t done anything.” I felt myself starting to shake. I knew I hadn’t done anything. I stared up at her. “It wasn’t like this yesterday.” My stomach churned under her gaze. “We looked at it together, remember? The missing pages?”
“I know you did it.” Her voice was like gravel.
I stood up, facing her across the little desk. I held her stare; not this time, I thought. There was a burning smell. I looked down. Smoke was rising from the edges of the Book. The paper began to curl and suddenly the pages ignited. She slammed the Book shut.
“Go!” She pointed to the door. “Just go!”
I grabbed my basket and cloak and fled towards the Green. I looked back just once. There she stood, framed by the doorway. She glared back at me for a moment; then she slammed the Storeroom door shut.
I never went back. I avoided that part of the village and only went to the market during dispensing hours when I knew she’d be occupied. I could never rid myself of the memory of the expression of loathing on her face, or the power I’d felt that moment when the Book had ignited. I had been changed forever.
She’d taken a dislike to me, made that doll-thing with the pins stuck in it. I stole it from her house while she was out, but she saw me on the way back. She knew.
I tried to make one of her, as a precaution; sure she’d make another one of me. But I couldn’t get the likeness. She didn’t though. Those pains never returned; the ones from the pins. Just that sick feeling whenever something reminded me of it.
Folk in the village cottoned on; others had suffered too. I never said much; smiled, nodded and moved on.
The following spring, I was visited by a crow. He sat on my washing line and looked at me, his head on one side. He came every day. I fed him titbits; told him my troubles.
Other people had crows visit too; the ones who’d fallen out with her.
One spring day more arrived. First a couple; one alighted on the church spire, the other on the maypole – mine, I thought. More came, settling on her roof, on window ledges and door frames, covering the house in a black shroud.
Folk gathered on the village green. Windows cracked, wood splintered. No-one went to her aid. We drifted back to our houses.
In the morning, they’d gone. The little house had been stripped bare. The small, stooped skeleton pecked clean inside.
Some called it a murder of crows. I called it revenge.
I’d been watching her secretly for quite a while. I knew that she routinely went out at this time and would be gone for a while; that she kept a spare key under the flower pot by her back door.
I crept into the house and listened. But where to look? Where would she keep such a thing?
It was a small house: kitchen, sitting room, an alcove for a bedroom. There it was. I picked it up and examined it: a kind of doll crudely made from sail cloth. Wool defined the features; brown for the eyes, black for the hair. Just like mine.
Two thick pins stuck out of the knees. Gently I pulled one out. My right knee relaxed. Then the left; my pain had gone.
There was a pin cushion on the shelf as well. I knew exactly where those pins had been. I saw the pin holes in the soles of its feet; a nick in the fabric of its dress over the stomach. And there was a burn mark on its left arm. Like the one on mine.
I put it in my pinafore pocket; left the house, locking the back door and replacing the key.
Then I saw her; coming towards me across the village green. Walking it that quick, determined way she had. ‘I know you took it,’ she said, as she drew level with me. Her eyes flashed. ‘I can easily make another.”
Ashley woke up. Her little sister, Bethany, had been calling out to her. As Ashley rolled over to check on her sister, she felt her body push up against something hard. As she looked across their bedroom, she saw that Bethany’s sleeping form had become entwined by the tendrils of some exotic plant which were growing from a giant seed pod which lay on the bed next to her. Ashley looked down; a similar seed pod rested next to her. As she moved her arm to pull back the covers, a thick, green tendril snaked out from the pod and wrapped itself around her wrist. She gasped and tried to pull herself free. Another tendril shot out and bound her left leg. Ashley screamed out as she heaved herself over the edge of the bed, knocking ‘The Big Book of Fairy Tales’ which she’d been reading to Bethany onto the floor, the cover ripping as the book fell. She groped her way across to Bethany’s bed, dragging the pod behind her.
Ashley was pulling herself up onto the edge of Bethany’s bed when, Hodge, the housekeeper, appeared at the door. Hodge rushed over to the bedside. Ashley had managed to free her arm and was desperately tugging at Bethany’s bonds.
“Help me, Hodge, get it off her,” Ashley cried. “Quickly, it’s choking her.”
Hodge grunted as she tried to loosen the tendrils which were tightening around the little girl. Her strong fingers drew back the growth around Bethany’s face and neck. Ashley kicked at her own seed pod, freeing her leg. The pod rolled under her bed, hitting the wall with a dull thud.
“Go and fetch Tom and get him to bring something to cut this off,” said Hodge, gesturing toward the door with her head, as she continued to pull on the vegetation. Her voice rose: “Hurry, Ashley!”
Ashley hurtled downstairs and out of the kitchen door. “Tom, Tom!” she yelled, running down the garden to the potting shed where Tom was usually to be found.
He emerged carrying a watering can. “What’s the rush, Miss Ashley? You’re not even dressed.”
Ashley explained the situation to the puzzled gardener, who nevertheless grabbed his shears and secateurs and hurried into the house after her.
Ashley watched as Tom carefully chopped away at the plant. Soon there was a pile of cut vegetation next to the bed and Bethany was free. All the time while Tom had worked, there had been no sound from the little girl. They could see she was breathing, but she was unconscious.
“What’s wrong with her,” cried Ashley. “Why won’t she wake up? And these things..?” she pointed to the cut tendrils.
Hodge and Tom exchanged glances. “Tis Faeries’ work,” said Tom shaking his head. “That’s a spell that is.”
Hodge nodded gravely. “Aye, so it is.”
“Surely fairies are only in stories?” said Ashley, picking up the book and smoothing the torn cover.
Hodge didn’t answer. She turned to Tom. “Get all of this out of here,” she gestured at the pile of foliage. “And burn it.”
Tom nodded. “Every last piece.” He started collecting up the debris. Ashley bent to help him. “No, Miss Ashley, leave this to me.” He turned to Hodge. “Will you go for Ceridwen?”
“Aye, I will.” She turned to Ashley. “You just sit here with your sister until I come back. She’ll come to no more harm just now. I won’t be long.”
Ashley climbed into bed beside her sleeping sister and stoked her golden curls. She must have fallen asleep as it seemed just a few minutes later when Hodge came bustling through the bedroom door followed by a tall, slim woman, dressed in long, flowing garments and carrying a large cloth bag.
“Hello child,” the woman said softly to Ashley. “I am Ceridwen,” she laid a pale hand over Bethany’s forehead and smiled.
Hodge cleared the table which stood between the sisters’ beds. Ashley watched as Ceridwen unpacked her cloth bag and carefully placed a long red candle in a star-shaped holder on the table. Next she took out an ornate silver chalice which she filled with a clear green liquid poured from a little glass bottle. Hodge left the room and closed the door quietly behind her. Ceridwen started to chant.
The following day, Ashley was awoken by her sister. “Wake up, Ashley,” Bethany said as she nudged her shoulder gently. “Come on, you’ve been asleep for hours.”
Ashley shook her head, trying to clear the fog of sleep from her mind.
“You must have had a very bad dream last night,” continued Bethany. “You were tossing and turning as if you were trying to fight something.”
Ashley frowned. Had it all been a dream? Like in their ‘Big Book of Fairy Tales’? She glanced at the cover of the book which lay on the bedside table. The cover was torn. She picked it up to examine it, noticing a blob of red candle wax on the table surface.
“Come on, Ashley, Tom’s making a bonfire. We can ask Hodge if we can toast some marshmallows later.” Bethany rushed from the room, the door slamming behind her. Ashley heard her clattering downstairs and calling out to Hodge. Under Ashley’s bed the forgotten seed pod rocked gently from side to side.
Ashley laid aside the book she was reading, slid off the bed and walked across to the window. She leant out. Her little sister was waving at her from the garden.
“It’s the little tree. It’s got flowers. Come and see!” Bethany cried, hopping from foot to foot.
Ashley slipped on her sandals and ran downstairs, through the open French windows and into the garden. Bethany grabbed her hand and hurried her towards the orchard, passing the pond where a fish was leaping to catch a fly. Normally Bethany would stop to admire the fish, but this morning she ran straight past, urging her older sister along.
Once inside the orchard, both sisters skidded to a halt. The little tree, which had mysteriously appeared a week ago, did indeed have flowers. From a smattering of foliage the day before, the tree had burst forth into flower. Huge, burgeoning blossoms with thick white petals and purple stamens covered the tree. More buds were unfurling as they watched. Hand in hand the two sisters approached the tree. Then Bethany cried out and pointed. A swelling was forming behind one of the flowers. As it grew they could see it was some kind of fruit. Then another appeared, and another. White petals were falling all around them like snowflakes, the scent, sweet and intoxicating, filled the air.
The sisters watched wide-eyed as the ripening fruit grew larger; long, smooth-skinned and a deep, rich purple. Then from behind the slender tree trunk, a small figure emerged. He was a little shorter than Bethany and wore a broad-brimmed hat and pointed shoes. He held out his hands to them, a luscious purple fruit in each one.
Much later in the day, the girls awoke. They couldn’t quite remember how they’d come to fall asleep in the orchard. Each recalled a delicious dream but neither girl could properly remember the details. They looked around at the little tree. It was just as it had been the day before, but when they looked at each other the front of their white pinafores were stained a delicate violet colour.