Tag Archives: short story

What Lies Beneath

She straightens slowly, having finished digging the hole in the earth. With a small gesture she wipes the dirt from her hands, glancing a final time at what remains at the bottom. It will not be like this again.

As if to greet an unseen companion, she raises a hand palm outward, only to brush the sweat from her eyes. Nothing to do now but pack the dirt in gently, a solid softness sifting from fingers to fill the gap of earth at her feet.

The last of the silty soil settles into place, and she thinks about how no one passing by will ever be aware of the life buried here. She supposes that most will be too busy grasping after the glittery things glimpsed above the ground, grabbing their attention, to ever ponder over whether anything significant might lie below their flurried doing, their hurried footsteps.

For now, this does not matter. For now she begins the waiting, the patient tending. She will return here, day after day, watering the earth, as people do with their tears. She walks home, leaving the little life to rest in peace, cradled in a cocoon of clay.

For a second, she forgets whether she has taken part in an ending, or a beginning. Does such a distinction matter, she wonders? How much of a difference is there between still living, and living, still.

One day, a little life will rise, tiny and trembling, springing into the season that bears the name of its becoming, up and up from the seed of its growing. Tomorrow, she will plant another tree.

The Collective: A Short Story _ Part 2

After a few moments, I realized I was holding my breath. Stomp, stomp, stomp. The mysterious thudding in the basement continued to reverberate up through the floor. “Let’s get out of here,” I commanded. “Where’s the other brother?”

We found him in his usual location, still stuck in his book, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The brother who was recently playing the game snatched the book from the other’s hands, and placed it on the coffee table.

“What?” asked the brother who was recently reading.

“We got to get out of here! Let’s go, all of you.” Mom dragged the brother to his feet and began ushering us toward the back door, but not before I had time to glance at the book title. The Collective. Had that always been the title? I couldn’t be sure.

Astonishingly, mom pried open the door. My mouth fell open as, just for a moment, I glimpsed a bit of the outside. All my instincts told me to run and never look back, but we were missing a person. “Wait,” I exclaimed. “Where’s dad?”

In answer we heard footsteps on the basement stairs. We turned from the door, never to remember it was there again. Around us, the air began to thicken. Almost passed the edge of my awareness, I thought I saw condensation begin to form and slide down the nearby wall.

“What’s going on?” Dad asked. I noted that the stomping in the basement had stopped.

“I don’t know,” mom said, dazed, and rubbed her eyes.

“I heard the noise in the basement and went down there to look. Nothing is there.”

“That’s nice,” mom yawned. “What noise?”

Dad shook his head. “I…”

His words were interrupted by a large crash way above our heads. In horror, we all looked up toward the origin of the sound. Silence. I was breathing a sigh of relief when I heard a brother give a shout.

“Mom!” his voice a mixture of fear and anguish

We all turned. Mom was gone. One moment she had been there, and the next, no sign of her remained. Frantically, we searched the room for her. We even began to search the rest of the house, though it hardly made sense to do so. What could have happened?

Finally one of the brothers suggested that we go down to the basement and try stomping on the floor. After all, he explained in response to our bewildered faces, that’s what was said to be helpful in the game. What else did we have to go by to try to get mom back?

So that’s what we did. For hours, and hours, and … we yelled and stompped ourselves silly , having convinced ourselves there was no other solution. In truth, we could not remember whether there was any other solution.

Finally, dehydrated, malnourished and exhausted, we collapsed on the floor, and fell silent. But the room would not be silent for long. At first, I could not determine the location of the many voices. Men, women, and children of all ages spoke at once together, in perfect unison. Chills ran down my spine.

For a moment, I thought I could pick out my mother’s voice from among the many. How? I wondered whether I could be sure. After a moment I decided I couldn’t be. I had already forgotten what she sounded like.

I tried to warn my brother to not go looking for the source of the sound, but he was practically compelled. Upon discovering it I heard him exclaim, “They’re communicating through the vents!” Then I lost track of him.

I had to focus instead on not listening to the voices. Somehow I knew that if I paid too much attention to them, I would bring attention to myself. But inevitably, I tuned in. “The people who previously stayed here ran away before we had the chance to welcome them face to face,” toned the united chorus. “How rude of them, really. For years, there was nothing here for us but to wait. Our number grew malnourished and weak. But the waiting was worth it, for you came. We have greatly appreciated your memories. We were hungry. You belong to us, now. We are the collective.”

I heard, and a cauldron of defiant anger began to bubble up inside me. It threatened to overflow, and for once I did not check my emotions. Belong to them? Who on earth did they think I was? Certainly no one who would ever put up with being in someone else’s control.

I jumped to my feet, which I noticed was oddly an effort. “Get up!” I hollered in frustration at my remaining family, who sat as if hypnotized on the floor staring in the direction from which the chorus of voices had come. “Move! Shout! Don’t stop. You have to throw yourself into your actions, those can’t be taken from you. Insist on your life as your own. At least we can put up a fight!”

I continued yelling phrases like this and staying in motion, although I did not know how I came by the words, although the air was getting thicker, although my body protested every attempt at moving and it took all I had to not slow down. I kept going like this accompanied by four strong other moving bodies and voices … then three … then two … then …

Slowly the silence grew louder and louder, until I was hushed still by the deafening recognition of absence. I was alone. Where was I? With growing terror, I opened my eyes which I did not remember closing.

I had never seen the room before. I tried, but couldn’t place it. The solid four walls mocked me. No escape. No way out. I screamed, and my voice was muffled, even to my own ears. It was as if this entire space was sealed shut. Who would hear me? In desperation I screamed one more time, before panic robbed me of the ability to speak.

Around the time I realized that no one would ever find me, even if they went looking, I began to feel like I was being watched. I blinked. Something was odd about the grey shapeless patterns on the walls. Were those eyes? At my thought of the eyes, they turned simultaneously, and fixed me with a calculating, heart-wrenching stare. I froze. And then it, they, came for me. I had put up a valiant fight. Now I would have to accept defeat.

***

The next thing I knew, I was lying in a bed. A woman sat beside me, talking to me quietly, gently wiping sweat and tears away from my face with a wet cloth. My first instinct was to panic, and I began to scream again. But over time, her calm voice and assuring presence dissolved my fears.

“It’s okay,” she soothed, “I’m your neighbor from next door.

“What happened?” my voice came out a shaky croak.

“I heard a racket at your house and came to see what was the matter. I kept hearing the scream, and your back door was open, so I went inside. I found you lying wet and cold on the basement floor, barely breathing. It was very odd. I continued to hear the scream, but it was certainly not coming from you. I could not pinpoint the origin. You smelled like plaster and ancient mold, though the basement was spotless and well ventilated. I hurried you over here as fast as I could. It’s all right, you’re safe now.”

“Mom, dad, the brothers?” I inquired with dread in my heart.

“I found no one else, just you. I’m so sorry. Can you tell me anything that happened which could help us find them?”

“I can’t remember.” I answered miserably.

My neighbor looked worried. “I’m very concerned about you, can I ask you some questions?”

“Sure,” I gave a weak nod. I felt suddenly exhausted.

“Can you tell me your name?” she asked, and the long silent response was somehow louder than screams could ever be.

“What’s your name! Emily, tell me your name!” she demanded, unable to hide the alarm in her voice.

“I don’t know,” I said at last, saddened to not be able to give her the answer she wanted. “Who’s Emily?”

***

It took many, many years for me to regain my memory. But once I had, there were times I wished I’d continued in my ignorance. I miss my family the most: their voices, their love. Since my escape, the house has been demolished. The bodies of my family were never found, and eventually all investigations ceased.

But I know better than to think it is over. Sometimes, late at night in my dreams, I find myself again alone in that dark forsaken room, with no windows or doors. I look around. The grey wallpaper is punctuated at intervals by sets of staring, hungry, haunted eyes. Slowly what looks like the wallpaper begins to peel away, sliding silently, until a disembodied mass surrounds me with single-minded purpose. In unison eager hands reach for me, but I am transfixed by the eyes, which seem to be the only remnants of individuality allowed to remain, nameless now. They watch me intently with an aching longing, pleading with me to give them back what they lost, what they barely remember had once belonged to them. But I cannot. And then I wake, full of an intense gratitude that I am free to be my own person.

But the collective is still out there, seeking to assimilate any it can make its own. It lurks in the shadows of the forgotten, just waiting, biding its time. Remember not to be next.

You can read Part 1 here:
The Collective Part 1

The Collective: A Short story _ Part 1

I can’t recall the day we moved into the three story house. It was the first house I lived in which had a basement and an attic, not to mention more stories than one. I do remember the basement being quite friendly. The previous owners built it up into almost another floor, with real walls and carpeting, and even a tiny bathroom. My brothers and I used it as a general playroom and often hid down there from our parents.

The rest of the house was standard enough. We settled into the three bedrooms upstairs, my brothers sharing a room to themselves, and I, being the oldest and only girl, taking a room to myself. On the middle floor above the family room, mom set up a warm and welcoming kitchen area, and at first, I would sit at the table, talking to her while she made our meals. My brother, Billy, seemed to have an almost permanent claim on the desk in the dining room, where he played computer games with his new expensive surround sound speakers. Carl, my other brother, was far more quiet and serious. I remember that sometimes I would find him reading on the couch, a distant look in his eyes.

At first, nothing was odd or out of the ordinary except for the story of the people who lived there before us. Apparently none of the neighbors ever saw them out and about, and then one day, the place was abandoned. The woman next door walked home one night to find the doors wide open, the family car feebly idling in the front yard, and a lone child sized flipflop forlornly lying on the cement, apparently not important enough to come back to retrieve. Concerned, the neighbor cautiously peered inside, turning on a light.

“It was the strangest thing,” she explained to us on the day before we moved in. “The place looked as if it were in the middle of being lived in. A book on the coffee table, all furniture in the usual places, an untouched casserole sat on the counter, a day past its prime. The TV chattered away in the living room with no one to watch it. The only thing missing from that house were the people who lived there. They just… disappeared… and took nothing with them but the clothes on their backs.”

After the house remained abandoned for several months with no sign or communication from the family, the landlord went in there to clean it up: sold what he could, took quite a bit else to the dump. Then he went up into the attic, shocked to discover what appeared to be an entire family’s belongings, the kind of items someone would have owned 70 or 80 years ago. Much of it was rotten and molding, to the point that it would be dangerous to breathe the air up there. So he sealed it up with plaster, and that was that. We didn’t mind. This house was bigger than any we had lived in before, and we didn’t need the extra storage room.

For two weeks after we moved in, dad went to his new job, mom ran errands and cooked meals, and we went to school. But each morning when we’d wake to start the day, it became harder and harder to leave. The closer we got to the door, the thicker the air around us became, until it was hard to think, or move. For a while we pushed doggedly ahead, ignoring the lethargy and our increasing lack of motivation and focus.

Thus began the great forgetting. At first we forgot our lunches, our backpacks, our keys. Then, gradually, my parents for got to go to work. They forgot to get the mail, buy groceries, pay the bills. After that, my brothers nd I could barely recall our school. Its recollection seemed to dissolve at the first touch of thought, like a footprint in sand washed by a wave.

Life became disjointed, unintelligible, without rhyme or reason. Occasionally I would come to with a start, with the feeling that something was very, very wrong, and we needed to leave. I would try to rally everyone else, but it was like attempting to teach sleep walkers to surf, and I gave up shortly after any feeble attempt, due to a pervasive exhaustion which would inevitably come over me.

One day I woke to find my brother Billy on the computer game, and Carl reading his book… the same book he’d been reading for … with a start, I realized I could not remember how long we lived here. I could not remember where we lived before this. Perhaps we lived here all our lives, and never lived anywhere else? I tried, but could not picture anything that could possibly exist beyond our four walls. The idea that there was a thing called somewhere else felt absurd. This was all there was. There was no outside. As I felt my feet turn from the path to the door back into the hallway, I shook my head in bewilderment at my ridiculous musings.

Slowly, as the memories of the outside world slipped away, so did the memories of who we were. At first, we forgot our ages, but soon afterward, we forgot what we liked and didn’t like to do. We forgot our goals and dreams, we forgot our extended family and our friends, even our earliest childhood friends. Recalling past experiences became more and more arduous, exhausting, and futile. And then, at some point, we could not remember our names.

And then we ran out of food. Our hunger seemed to jolt us back into some semblance of linear time, as if suddenly waking from a dream.

Mom ran into the living room. “How many days have you been playing that computer game!!” she shouted. I looked up, interested. Days? I hadn’t heard that word in so long, I had to rack my brain for what the word meant. I turned to look at my brother. He was thin and had black circles under his eyes. He was filthy. His hair tangled and matted on his head, and his clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in … days, indeed. Maybe weeks had passed while he endlessly played his game.

“What’s so interesting about it?” I asked, eager to break more of the silence which I now noticed had been slowly crowding out conversation from our house. I could not remember the last time we spoke to one another.

“It’s about a family who moved into a three story house. I’ve almost reached the last level of the game. The family is slowly dying, but can’t remember how to leave.”

“That’s a strange game,” I admitted uneasily. “Why can’t they leave?”

“I’m not sure. But the reason has to do with the attic.”

The thought began nagging at me that this was not your typical sort of game. “What does the house look like?” I asked, not sure I wanted the answer.

My brother furrowed his brow. “Strange enough, a lot like ours. But that’s purely a coincidence. It’s not about our family. I mean the characters in the game have … names … like Billy and Carl.”

“Oh,” I replied, suddenly yawning and feeling rather listless and bored. What’s the game called?” .

“The collective,” he replied absently. Then a moment later his mood brightened. “I’ve reached the level where I can win the game,” he announced excitedly.

“Well then, how do you win the game?”

“You have to go down to the basement and make a lot of noise,” he said, as he expertly scrolled the mouse around the screen.

With growing trepidation, I listened to the surround sound speakers as they broadcast the tap of his character’s footsteps down the basement stairs, the hurried feet of the other children running down behind him, and the stomp, stomp, stomp of their feet on the basement floor.

“You need to get up and do something else!” scolded mom, who was standing a few feet from me.

Somehow, my brother obeyed. I heard the sound of the computer shutting down the game and the speakers. But the stomping continued, several floors below.

Returned Unwanted: Short Story of a So-Called Fallen Woman

Crouched behind the boxes, the frightened girl huddles further into herself. She decides her head can’t be seen above the dusty wood. The dank cloying scent of encroaching mildew assaults her nostrils. Obviously, her parents and siblings have not lived here for some time, the house as left behind, as bereft of care and warmth as she. Small fingers and dainty hands grasp tighter around her knees. She has managed to crawl carefully, making no noise as she moved. Despite the tense atmosphere about her, she smiles cautiously at her accomplishment. Somewhere in the small corner of her psyche she notes that her smile has not been instantly slapped from her face. At this realization, she smiles again.

. Her drab colored skirt spills in folds upon the floor, hiding her long nickers and rounded shoes beneath. Painfully slowly, she sucks in musty air to catch her breath. Too slowly. Her head spins dangerously. She has been running for a fortnight.

Each cold fireless night she spent scavenging for table scraps from strangers who pitied her. Some had offered for her to stay the night, and always she refused. She was certain someone would match her to the picture of the missing runaway; it was a risk she could not afford to take. So far, upon each morning, she awoke stiff and shivering, but still a free person.

Free? Was this what freedom would be like, then, days of silent screaming fear? She has no other reference point from which to answer the question. But she knows it is better, much better, than what she left behind.

She had run across the cobbled courtyard and passed through the heavy iron gate, surprisingly left unbolted, unscathed. Hurrying straight for the dormitory had been a mistake, but an understandable one. She can only vaguely recall a life outside the confines of the reformatory, and what she recalls of it, she wishes to forget, just like her family chose to forget her. As much as the girl needed to hide, become invisible forever, part of her longed to be recognized, to have her name kindly spoken. She dared not hope she would be loved. But she did dare one last glance at the place, however repugnant. At least it had once been her shelter. She would not speak of it as home. She has never had a home.

But the dormmates didn’t recognize her. She had spent too many years trapped within the penitentury’s high forbidding walls, a fallen woman who was told she was worthless and deserved the treatment she got, who dared to disagree. Strict rules and barbed words were not good enough for her then, but solid bars.

Those hands which built such high and mighty convent walls blessed the forsaken who entered them within inches of their lives. And yet they have not won, not yet, the girl thinks now to herself. By the blood in her veins, she is still living.

At least, within this meager existence of hunger and terror, she can choose the circumstances of her confinement, she can breathe in the cold morning air, she is allowed to think and to move and run. She can run through her confusion and her grief and her shame and her pain, and exhaust the memories out of her body.
She could…

Thoughts are interrupted. A board creaks above her head. Her heart almost stops beating. She knew her small taste of freedom couldn’t last long. Someone would see her and turn her in. But so soon? Should she try to run?

She almost makes a bolt for the door. She knows doing so will make noise and give away her position, and worse things happen to those caught running than found hiding. With a sense of despair, she chooses to stay. She is weak in body and spirit now, she knows she will be outrun.

The sisters will overturn the whole house until they discover her. Then they will take her back with them in chains. She refuses to think about what might happen after that. She does not know.

Then, with a start, she realizes they must have suspected her destination and were here in waiting for some time. It explains the mess strewn all about her, her hiding place only granted due to unheeded respect for other’s belongings in a frenzied attempt at a search. Why hadn’t she read the signs? It is too late. This time, the betrayer is no one but her self.

To keep alert against her mind’s cries to shut down, she slowly begins counting backward from ten to one. Footsteps sound upon the stairs. She shuts her eyes.

Sky Hunter: A Ghost Story

Here is the song to play with the story, which will make it even spookier.
Samhain Eve by Damh the Bard

Outside, the wind rustled the many colored fallen leaves, golds and browns, fraying at the edges, as if even after death and drying, disintegration could continue with its own haunting sentience. Outside, the large maple tree scraped its branches together slowly, ominously, while the clouds that had begun their traversing across the sky after several hours of clear and quiet blue, moved like migrating birds in strange pattern formations, onward, away. Outside, the world breathed, silently, expectantly, hushed.

Inside, the girl’s room felt safe and familiar. She was twelve years old, in that strange liminal place her parents called the ‘tweens, the age of not believing. The girl’s window was shut against the October cold, as well as the piles of snow that came in early the night before. The desk did not face the window. Instead, the window opened out along the wall to the girl’s left as she sat at her laptop checking email. The door to the girl’s room stood slightly open behind her, and she could hear her parents’ murmurs, the low somber tones of their voices that characterized their talk during this season, in contrast to their more buoyant, joyful and louder registers which lasted from Winter Solstice through Fall Equinox. “This is not a time to draw attention to ourselves,” her mother would often tell the girl, along with the girl’s younger brother, in years past when ghosts and goblins and witches with pointy hats and long root like fingers, boney and gnarled as if pulled ruthlessly from the earth, had seemed imminent and real. But her mother never told her why. Now, the girl thought adamantly, she was too old for such foolish things. At least this is what she told herself, safe and sheltered in her room, the light casting a 4 o-clock shadow across her carpeted floor, and the comforting noises of her parents’ conversation and the ding, ding of her brother’s video game floating in to her from down the hall. But blood runs cold, even for such a girl, now presumably freed from the night terrors of a child.

“Hello, little girl,” read the subject line of the newest email she was looking at, from an unknown address. How odd, the girl thought, for an email from an unknown person to have come in just now, with a subject that sounded like a greeting specifically for her. Was it spam, she wondered. The subject made no claims of false dire needs for help or an advertising scam. She opened the email. “You have caught my attention,” it said. That was all. The girl blinked uneasily. She looked again at the “from” line. From: 4231I936. No name. Was it her imagination, or had this email come in exactly when she had been thinking about her mother’s warnings about drawing attention to yourself? The coincidence did not go unnoticed. She glanced quickly out the window. Nothing strange could be seen, only the clouds had moved closer, darting across the roof of the house as if chased by the wind.

October 31st dawned with a sky that for several minutes appeared blood red. More clouds came to cover the girl’s view, clear to the horizon, and around noon it began to rain. The girl had been wary about turning on her computer and looking through her email, but it was Saturday, and she wanted to talk to her friends. There were very few emails from friends, and too many from 4231I936. With increasing fear and trepidation she read the messages. “I have sent the wind to find you.” “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are. I know you. I will be waiting for you.” “I am not as far from you now as you might think. I wish for company… I will come for you.”

The girl’s blue eyes paled. Someone was stalking her. A secret admirer? A man? Could he see her from the window? She closed the blinds tight. Was he that close? How did he know her? Feeling slightly sweaty with fear, the girl ran to join her parents. They were in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and marinating meat for the feast of Samhain come evening.

Samhain for the girl had always been a mysterious, slightly terrifying holiday. It marked their family’s observance of the New Year, but that would be officially celebrated tomorrow, after it was clear that the pursuers in the wild hunt had passed by the family household without snatching a hapless soul. Tonight the vale between the worlds grew ever thinner, so that the chill of the storm felt like it must have originated straight out of the otherworld, the land of the ancestors and the sidhe.

The girl shivered despite the warm coziness of central heating and the security of home. They would set a plate of the feast her parents were preparing out on the lawn for their ancestors, light several candles and wish well the departed whom they could name, and then go trick-or-treating with their friends. The girl wondered whether she was getting too old for trick-or-treating, but was glad that the nebulous status of her age made it still possible for her to bravely step into the night, safely flirting with the possibilities of begrudging fairy folk and vengeful hags without ridicule.

As she approached the kitchen, the girl overheard her parents talking about the status of the sky. “A fierce storm is brewing for tonight,” her father was saying, “Dy you think we’ll see more than we bargained for this year?”

“Hush,” her mother shushed him, spying their agitated daughter standing in the doorway. Turning to her she said, “What’s wrong?”

Alarm danced along the girl’s down-turned mouth, and in her narrowed eyes. She sat heavily on a stool near the gas stove. She didn’t know how to explain the stalker, the emails, or the dread threatening to explode from inside her. “Has anyone ever been caught by the hunt across the sky?” was all she could ask. If she said more, she thought, she might upset her parents too much.

Her mother smiled. “Oh no, darling, it’s just a metaphor for the seasons, the death of summer.” Children have such endearing fears she thought, wistfully.

It was just after eleven when the girl slogged through the front door, done with her breathless night of trick-or-treating. She had left with a cloth sack to keep her candy dry: the rain came down fiercely, and now it was beginning to snow. Without knowing why, once the girl had gone into her room to change out of her wet clothes she had an irresistible urge to check her email to see whether another message was waiting for her. At the sound of the tone indicating new messages, a large clump of snow fell heavily off the maple tree, smacking the window with a loud thump. The girl jumped, and almost screamed. She could have sworn it sounded like a knock at the window.

“”We’re going out to watch for the sky riders!” her brother hollered down the hall at her. This was another of their Samhain traditions. She remembered Samhains past when she was small enough to be carried in her father’s arms, and how she had squinted up at the sky secure in his sturdy embrace, hoping, and yet not hoping, that the hunter and his hounds would appear. It was fifteen minutes to midnight. She glanced at the email from the strange address that was sitting in her inbox, as if drawn to reading it through some magnetic pull. There was now a picture attached to the email of a cloaked figure wearing a set of antlers, carrying a club and a spear, and under that, the words, “Don’t you want to live an extraordinary life, little girl?”

“No!” and, “not anymore,” thought the girl, startled. A moment later, terror tore through her. What if this being, whoever he was, could read her mind, had read her mind? She shut her eyes. Extraordinary was definitely over rated. The girl wanted from now on to spend every day eating cereal for breakfast, hugging her parents good-bye as she left for school, doing her homework, and promptly going to sleep afterward. No more day dreaming about the world out there, running through fields, making a huge difference, and whatever else might draw any attention to her inadvertently. She wanted to be left alone, forgotten.

The girl ran out of her room without looking back. Joining her brother and parents on the back porch out of reach of the snow drifts and the howling wind, she proceeded to cram herself between her mother and father who had been standing with their arms around each other. They were startled by her sudden need for affection, but held her close anyway.

“Look!” her brother shouted excitedly., “The sky hunter! I see him, I see him!”

“What’s that…” the children’s mother began, but trailed off into stunned silence.

And then, unbelieving, the girl raised her eyes, too, from where they had been squarely fixed on the various types of rock in the pavement. Far off, perhaps a mile off, a dark shadow loomed on the horizon. Slowly, deliberately, it came striding over the sky, through the clouds, as if for this strange being air had a solidity it would not lend any other. From the direction of the dark figure came a mournful, eerie howl, only partly masked by the gale of the storm picking up around them. The far off sound seemed to originate from everywhere and nowhere, ebbing and flowing, a tide of baleful voices that were decidedly not human. It seemed to the girl that the wind suddenly found an awareness of its own breathing, wailing it’s sorrow through the frenzied clouds for the first time.

The humans on the ground stood motionless, too shocked to move. As the figure approached, it grew larger, but still just as darkly undifferentiated. It appeared to be clothed by shadow, wrapped in it, like a great umbral shawl. The howling grew in intensity, now made out in individual voices, snarling and baying, hungry for the living. The girl shivered and tried hiding in her mother’s down jacket, but she was not quite small enough for that.

“Run inside!” the father shouted above the unearthly calamity over their heads. But at that moment the clouds dispersed, and the moon, still almost full, shown bright and piercing through the sky, its light like arrows, sharp and defining. The girl turned, dazzled by the sudden appearance of the light, that aberrant brightness incongruously illuminating the darkness beyond her, and saw the great hunter in the sky, poised in mid air. The fact that he hunted without companions and had no horse with him, made his image more eerie, his pursuit more ominous. He carried a spear on his back and a club in hand, his long, unruly black hair streaming out from under a full set of antlers, his ancient face grave and mocking. The long beard gave him the look of one with wild authority, as he hovered gracefully around fifty feet away and twice as high above besides. Three hounds stood on either side of him, and though they were temporarily stayed, they continually pawed the clouds with impatience.

For a second, action failed the girl, and she simply trembled violently. Then the family vanished indoors. The clouds returned with a vengeance. The door slammed. No words were exchanged. All entrances and windows locked. Candles and lights turned off. The parents and the children huddled deep under their covers and fell asleep. The girl slept next to the window, the blinds drawn against the moon, and the images of that haunted scene, now seeped into her dreams.

Outside, the ground lay heavy with mist and a deafening silence. Outside the maple tree shuddered and shook in the frenzied encroaching dark. Outside, he was waiting… waiting… until the third hour, he waited. Inside, the family began slowly to stir, and then to wake. Inside the girl’s room, nothing stirred, not even the air, and only emptiness remained to greet the day. She was gone.

***

This story is almost entirely based on a dream I had many years ago, long before I ever heard Damh the Bard’s song on the same subject. In that dream, I became the little girl, even though my waking age was around twenty-four. I awoke before she disappeared. For those who dare curiosity, go and ask the hunter of the sky what fate has befallen her, for there is always more than one version of a story to be told. However, I advise that if you do get his attention, you should probably not even bother with the locks on your windows on Samhain Eve. He’ll be waiting for you …

***

Click here to read about the wild hunt as told in different ways around the world:

4: The Specter At The Edge _ Song of Sun and Sea

Far beyond the reedy kelp beds, far beyond the tide of the large salmon and the playing pool, and the open water that drifted with the wind in the patterns of whispered dreams, Bean numbly made her way. As it turned out, the edge was named such for a very practical reason. It was, Bean realized, just as the elders had said it was: imposing and dangerous, a great divide indeed. In fact, with surprise and fear, she swam backward a ways as to not get swept up in the large current torrenting past her with an unforgiving speed. The wind had picked up, and a mournful howl cast itself across the churning water as if the air were mourning an abandoned child.

Is é, the child. Bean was so captivated by the great stream in front of her, and so frightened of slipping into it to be lost forever beyond her home and kin, that she forgot for a moment why she had come. But the immensity of the edge, white bubbles frothing at its surface, rushing onward with a gurgling tumble toward the unknown, could not leave Bean riveted for long. She must find the child, Aisling’s child. And across the cold dark water, the moan in the wind, too familiar to be the song of the air, too haunted and unfathomable to belong to any of her own, surely, cut the forbidding boundary once again with its keening.

Bean turned and swam toward that eerie call, wondering why she had disobeyed her mother and the elders, wondering why she was here: here at this gods- forsaken place with the phantom of the sea almost swept away by that fierce tidal stream beside her, she feared that courage would fail her, she longed for that morning, for laughter, even for her mother’s scolding. The elders did not lie about the edge. Doubt crept into Bean’s mind then. Doubt and shame for acting so rashly, and for so readily dismissing her mother’s warnings and the elders’ words. Might the elders have been as honest about the child as they had been about the edge? The elders surely would punish her now, and Bean would welcome it, for to endure the consequences of your actions, mo leanbh, is far better than to be denied the privilege of justice. In punishment the person is validated, is acknowledged, and without this the person would be rendered invisible. Like us, Bean’s clan did not practice cruelty. They left banishment to what is unforgivable but gave the rest the gift of belonging at the heart of the trials to repay their wrongs.

Anois, now, mar tharlaigh sé, as it happened, though Bean disobeyed the elders, she rightly obeyed the truth inside her. For suddenly, still at some distance, she saw a scene that gripped her in disgust and horror. Two seal women huddled around a small bundle floating on the water. The bundle bobbed up and down almost rhythmically, and it made no sound. Both women had a flipper on the strange bundle, and it was the one to the right of the other who keened so, wailing like a lost and languishing spirit who wandered out of some other world. Bean shivered despite the warmth of her body which was so well adapted to the cold Irish Sea.

Very quietly, as to not be seen or heard, she swam toward this surreal scene, mesmerized in some unspeakable way by the strange bundled specter and the grieving woman. Then she froze. Shock gripped her, so suddenly that she was temporarily paralyzed, and it was hard to keep herself upright.

She saw now no strange phantom object, no mysterious wailing woman, but an elder whose name escaped her knowledge and Aisling, who with wide eyes and fierce sorrow began again to keen her song of love and loss far beyond the end of the known world. That bundled specter bobbing quietly between was Aisling’s child, but to Bean’s bewilderment, the child was not in the water. She wondered in some distant, remote part of herself, at the how of it, checking to see if her eyes deceived her yet again. But no, the child appeared to be wrapped in the reeds of the sea, folded into them, lying upon them like… like… Bean wracked her brain for the object of this likeness which she had seen only once before. Like the vessels that carry humans over the sea, like a boat.

As Bean watched, now deeply perplexed and concerned, the elder woman began to try to gently take Aisling’s flipper off the little boat that carried the child. Aisling refused to let go, which caused the boat to thrash about in the water violently. At that moment, the child began to scream. Bean’s heart broke, but her sadness quickly turned to anger.

Here she had thought the child dead, but its cries told a different story, a story Bean knew would be worse than death. How could they? How could the elders tie a child up out of the water, and send her away, to starve and be forgotten, nameless, perhaps some meal for another creature? Hatred welled inside her then, as strong as the relentless flowing water beside her. For this was no dead child, but a living baby selkie, one of their own, still breathing, still tossing its human-like voice into the turbulent wind which was beginning to gather itself like some wild animal, perhaps thinking in vain to defend an pháiste beag, the little one who would, Bean assumed, be forced to live a half life far beyond the main stream.

And then the mother was no longer weeping, but speaking. “Let her be!” she shouted above the blasts of wind, “I carried her into this world, let her be!”

The elder tried to be kind. Bean saw grief snake-coil in the elder’s eyes, but she also saw a grim finality within them, as if fate’s hand had already rested the decision from the living long ago. “Your child has died,” the elder said softly. “This is the body of your child, yes, but your child lives in it no more. It is an evil changeling took up place in where your child once lived, who looks out from your child’s eyes, who calls like a phantom through sea and sky.”

“No!” Aisling protested, her voice growing horse now from the effort of so much grieving aloud. “I know what is said of the changelings, but this little one will not put a curse on our clan for she is no changeling. She is my infant and she lives still. Please, let us be.”

But at that moment, with a look of terrible resolve, the elder pushed the little craft holding the selkie child toward the edge, and picked up by the wind it glided effortlessly and perilously toward the indifferent mass of water waiting to swallow and consume anything or anyone lying in its path, taking it far beyond where any selkie dared attempt to survive.

Bean’s paralysis broke. Before she had time to think, she was swimming faster than she had ever swum before, not caring about the edge, or even about survival. The current took her by surprise, tearing at her body and threatening to overpower her as she fought to continue moving sideways through it, in hopes of catching that little boat and perhaps rescuing the endangered child. But she was, she realized in frenzied frustration, practically going nowhere, while the little boat moved farther and farther away. If she let the current carry her, she knew, she would never make it home, and would probably die, alongside the child, out in the open sea with no refuge from the harsh winters and no family to speak of. With an overwhelming sense of defeat and despair, Bean looked one last time at the boat now almost out of sight. It had turned slightly, and in that moment she saw an emptiness where the infant’s flipper should be. The child, Bean realized, was born with only one flipper. Was that enough, she thought despondently, to send her to her death before she knew anything of life?

But she could not ponder that question now. She would later, much later when she could take time to process all that she had seen. But now, in her immediate present, exhaustion was upon her and so was the tidal current, tugging her tired body ever further from everything she had ever known. With a last desperate mustering of energy, she turned herself around and paddled for her life toward the calmer stretch of water beyond the edge. When she finally made it to safety, she thought to look around, to make sure Aisling and the elder hadn’t seen. Whatever happened after the child disappeared, they were no where to be found now. Anois ar a féin, on her own, she turned her eyes to the sky and screamed, like a Ban sidhe in the night, one long bloodcurdling scream, for the undead child with no name whose life could have gone better had she actually died. Ansin, then, she put her head on one flipper and just lay there for a moment, heart racing, unsure of what to think or where to go or what to do. She no longer felt so proud to be counted among her people.

After a while, a voice came to her from a long way off on the wind. “Bean! Bean Alainn? Cá bhfuil tú! Where are you! Bean?” Her mother’s voice drifted through the haze that was Bean Alainn’s mind, until she recognized it for what it was. Without much emotion, Bean began slowly swimming wearily toward that familiar voice that she longed, and yet never wished again to hear. It is time to face what I have done, she thought solemnly. She would welcome the consequences of her honesty. She knew she had more than one truth to tell.

3: The Naming Ceremony _ Song of Sun and Sea

Bean sang quietly to herself, combing her sleek fur, and dawning her overcoat of brightly colored shells and sand dollars. From time to time she glanced above her head. The day had dawned early, and already soft threads of golden hue shown bright and clear, tangling into strange and familiar shapes before her eyes. A cormorant cried overhead, and the wind gusted across the open sea, leaving waves and ripples in it’s wake. Wind rattled the sea reeds that sheltered Bean and her family, and the young selkie’s song began to take on the rhythm of plant and wind and wave.

As the sun began it’s diurnal climb of the sky, joy filled Bean’s heart, for today she would be attending her first naming ceremony. Aisling, who so recently welcomed her first child into the world, had glowed with pride as she made the announcement of the Naming Day to her clan. And now that day had come.

“Are you ready to go, Bean?” her mother, Iona, called as she finished her delicious breakfast of shellfish. “You are in need of food, and I have yet to see your face in the kitchen! Hurry, or you will hunger.”

With a jolt, Bean came out of her reflections and finished the task of rendering herself presentable with swift efficiency. Her mother would have saved some shellfish for her, and she would see to it that today would not be the first to miss such a delicacy. “Beidh mé ansin anois díreach! I’ll be there right away!” She hollered back, gliding a moment later into the reedy cove where she and her family often made a meal. The long stringy kelp shielded the family from the eyes of sharks, as well as bears and people, who might seek harm on them.

Iona wondered to herself whether now would be the time to tell her daughter of the elders’ decision as they had a moment alone. Arán, Bean’s father, had decided to travel ahead for there was opportunity then to speak with one of his closest friends—an opportunity that did not arise as often as wished. Alone with her daughter now, however, Iona could not coax the shy and difficult words she wished to say into streams of coherent thoughts, let alone into the more structured permanence of speech. Besides, she mused, Bean looked so beautiful and radiant, the light dancing in her eyes betraying her excitement, as she moved gracefully with the transient playfulness of a child. Eithne’s pronouncement would have to wait, and this seemed well enough, as the telling of it would be apt to weigh down the heart of the girl just as it had her own.

Instead, mother and daughter laughed and spoke aimiably as they made their way to the Naming, finding friends to travel with along the way. A new child was a gift and an honor, no matter whose child, no matter if it was a selkie’s first or fifth. On this spring day, with the sea gulls soaring above them and endless depths of water beneath them, there could be no thoughts of grave and weary things. All such had flown with the dawn, and the song of sea and sky effortlessly pervaded all spaces so that sorrow’s shadow could not linger, and any anticipation was purely the possession of that poignant possibility of life anew which a newborn brings with her into the world.

And so it was, that the friendly group chattered and laughed among themselves, speaking of their own children’s namings and that bone deep validation that came from hearing the name of their child spoken aloud in a chorus of welcome. And it was in coming up to the gathering at last, that all laughter halted at once.

A cold clamby grief was settling on the gathered selkies, as if rain clouds were plucked from the sky and dropped without care on top of them each, so that their tails drooped and their fur flattened dully and covered itself in meaningless grey, the kind that is empty and hollow and too depleted to keep up any appearance of lustre. And it was clear to Bean and her companions that something was dreadfully wrong, for where the child should have nestled itself within the special bed of water reeds the women had all prepared for it, there the emptiness lay the heaviest. The child was not there.

Distressed, Bean tugged on her mother’s flipper. “What is wrong, ma?” she whispered in earnest.

“I do not ken,” her mother answered, unable to hide the fear encroaching on her voice, “But hush now, we shall hear from the elders soon enough.” Yet even as she spoke to soothe her daughter, Iona could not quell the unease steeling over her. Whether the elders would decide to proclaim the truth about the whereabouts of the child, Iona knew not. She knew enough to trust that whatever the elders said would be best for the clan, but also knew well enough that veracity did not always coincide with what is best.

Anois, fan go fóil agus ná bac leis, mo leanbh, now wait yet a moment and do not worry my child, for Bean kept the truth higher than all things, including the pronouncements of elders, and children have a way of picking out a falsehood which many older folk have lost throughout in their growing and becoming. So it was that when stillness crept over the crowd like a fierce and fecund fog, and the elders announced that the selkie child was dead, a sharp chill ran through young Bean’s body and she realized she had not believed a word of it. Why she did not, she could not say, but that the elders lied she had no doubt, and she began to wonder what to do with this disturbing realization.

As it happened, ó am go ham, from time to time, Bean was not always out playing with the other children, without care and concern, wiling away her childhood in laughter and games. Sometimes she was found off by herself, brooding and staring off into the distance, and would not break her reverie until someone, usually her mother, shouted her name at least five times. No one guessed her thoughts, but they were in fact of the distance quite literally. For Bean remembered infant children who everyone else seemed to have forgotten, who had inexplicably vanished, whose names were never spoken again. Sometimes the same mysterious fate would befall an older child, and it would be said that the sharks had their way with the unfortunate little one. Bean had tucked these observations away and kept them a secret, for surely to speak of them would greatly displease her family, not to mention the elders who would see to her punishment for her questioning of their judgments.

Anois, now, Bean stared blankly at the empty bed of water reeds and the even emptier stretch of water beside it where the child’s mother would have swum. Strange, Bean thought suddenly, that the mother of the child is not here to announce the child’s death herself. It was an honor, albeit a bitter one, to allow a mother the last words for her babe who never made it to a naming. Had the elders forgotten this custom in their own sadness and pain? Bean thought not. Then why was the mother not there with the clan… unless…

“Ma?” Bean asked, her voice shaking with the horror of the question she was about to ask, “Why can we never speak of the edge? Where is Aisling? What if…”

Bean’s mother splashed the surface of the water so hard that it made the child flinch and hastily swim a bit out of distance. “Dún a bhéal agus bí ciúin! An gcloiseann tusa?” she roared in a whisper. “Shut your mouth, and be quiet, you hear? If I ever hear you say such a thing again!”

Bean lingered stunned in the water near the outer circle of the gathered selkies for a moment, terrified to disobey her mother and pay the penalty, and terrified to stay where she was and wonder, always wonder, at the pieces of what happened that did not fit together, at what really happened and whether there was still time. The clan was taught that nothing left the mainstream alive, that monsters lurked across the current, that no one should ever go to or speak of the edge accept for in prophecies. But what of the missing children? What of Aisling’s unnamed child? For an undead child who could not receive a naming, if such was possible, would be given a fate worse than death. Bean could not bear the thought of doing nothing at all, not with stakes being as high as they were, if there were any hope yet having, that the child might be recovered to her family.

What Bean did next would change her life, and the lives of her clan, forever. She surfaced to take a deep breath, closed up her ears and nose to keep out the sea, and dove out of site. She would not surface again until she came to the edge.

When she was born, Bean Alainn was indeed a beautiful girl. Her seal fur was softer than that of her siblings. It glowed slightly, almost as if it were being lit from inside out, especially when rays of light from above burst apart like shooting stars in streams of greens and golds. Her beauty far surpassed outward loveliness, however. For Bean’s eyes were like harbors, pooling calmly and quietly into deep fathomless blue: eyes that at once contained compassion and elicited awe. For to look into them was to not only be well met, but to be suddenly immersed in something indisputably beyond your ken, and yet discover that far from losing yourself in that vastness, you would instead recognize yourself reflected there. I met Bean Alainn myself only on several unforgettable occasions before life flew from her, and I have never forgotten those eyes and how it was her very soul that looked out from them and somehow always sought and found my own.

Anois, now, there is yet one further thing to be said about Bean’s birth. For though Bean was páiste beag, just a wee child, her soul had in fact lived a very long time. Bean’s soul had traveled at least three life circles between this world and the next before arriving here, or at least, that is what the druids told Bean’s parents upon her birth. For even the seal folk have their keepers of the wise who know the patterns of the stars and can sing of the loom on which new life is spun and how, among it’s threads of many colors, the strand of fate is woven throughout. And this is what the keepers of the wise said, that Bean Alainn’s soul was very old indeed, and that upon her lay the fate of three worlds, and no matter how carefully she chose her actions, she would bring much joy to some, and much sorrow to others.

And so Bean’s parents kept this knowledge to themselves, and neither to any kin nor even to Bean herself would they speak of it. The druids’ pronouncements were not ordinary, and they feared their daughter might be found to be displeasing and destructive to their underwater world and be sent to the edge. So they brought Bean up as ordinarily and uneventfully as possible.

Young Bean grew strong and well alongside her many brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, parents and friends. She ate with them, sang with them, and laughed with them. She learned to count by sifting grains of sand, and learned the names of the stars by how their figures appeared on the surface of the water. She learned how to stay out of reach of sharks and fishing boats, how to hunt for fish, how to swim gracefully, and how to put a mist on the sea that would muffle the selkies’ voices so human beings would not realize that they often spoke to one another.

She and her siblings would often watch from some distance as their mother would dance out on the rocks and sand bars at midnight with the other women of the clan. The ability to shed a seal skin and take human form did not appear until selkie children came of age. Boys and girls alike grew into their power as shape shifters, but it was quite rare for the men among the selkies to come to land. Roomer had it that a selkie father and his son were killed in a hunt off the place the humans called Sule Skerry, and that had the father not come to land to fetch his son himself, such ill fortune would have not befallen them. So it was that the only men who ventured onto land were childless and had few immediate kin, and they were pitied by the rest.

By the time Bean was six summers old, she had won a reputation for herself despite her parents’ intention that, other than her stunning beauty, she be plain and unremarkable. Anois, now, selkie children learn their people’s sacred songs from the day they can speak, and to a human person even the most unskilled singer among the selkies would take your breath away. All selkies have haunting voices that make the human heart ache for a home it cannot name until a person is filled with such longing that her dreams are of nothing but sliding silently beneath salty spray and frothy foam, yearning after some lost and forgotten island mirrored beneath wave and sea. But it became apparent quite early on that Bean would be one of the greatest bards within many generations. When Bean sang, the very rocks of the land heard her song, and the mountains echoed her high clear tones so that stopping in a field, a person might turn her head and wonder at the voice reverberating upon the wind. When Bean sang the waves grew quiet and still, and trees bent to catch her words, letting them linger for a moment in their leafy hands. When Bean sang, birds cried overhead circling and calling to her, until she could imagine the current of a river and the silent authority of a forest.

Anois feiceann tú mo leanbh, now you see, my child, the elders had never forgotten the words of the druids, and so they took notice as elders should. And it was decided, as often these things are without the person present, that Bean Álainn ought to learn the ways of the clan early, for the knowledge holders had come to the elders saying, “This girl will be among those from whom we will one day choose a new leader, and it is fitting for such children to begin training early so that when the time comes, their responsibility will not weigh so heavily upon them.”

So it was that when the girl reached her seventh summer, Eithne, a well respected elder, sought the child’s parents and instructed them to take Bean and come with her to the next council which was held after every third rising of the moon.

The Unexpected Origins of Caoilte Mac Ronan _ Song of Sun and Sea

The little boy, only eight summers old, burst through the doorway of the house at his mother’s call, but only after she had hollered his name at least five times. His thick dark red hair was wind-blown and tousled, and he was very much out of breath. Once again his mother was hollering, now from much nearer by, to get back outside with those shoes before she got to him first.

“What have you made of the morning, mo leanbh?” she asked, attempting to continue to scold. Attempting, that is, because just at the corners of her eyes danced a hint of a smile even while her lips turned into a frown. The boy had never been able to learn the art of a seer, but he knew the secrets hidden in a person’s face better than anyone. It always surprised his mother, but he did not know why. All you had to do was open your eyes and look. No one bothered to look. But he had, and it was there he met a person’s soul.

He had seen the smile and knew his mother’s anger would only be for show. “I was out running, ma. I went to the edge of the woods,” and here he pressed on hastily, lest his mother interject with the familiar warnings about the woods, “I did not see the shadows of the tallest trees, the sun being so bright just after dawning, so I just kept running. I made it to the fork in the river. When I got back it was still morning, so I ran it all again.” he finished proudly.

His mother only shook her head. “Ten miles, go sábhála Dithe sinn! Isteach leat, in with you and wash your hands and feet. I have hot tea for you when you’re done,” she thought for a while as the boy left his shoes outside and came in to scrub the dirt and sweat off himself. “I fear we won’t have you to ourselves much longer,” his mother continued.

“Will I get to join the older boys and learn how to fight, then?” the boy asked eagerly. “I already run faster than any of them.”

His mother sighed. “One should never run too quickly out of childhood. You would put an end to your growing before it has begun. No, you will wait until the next year like all the rest. Three times three is the year of power, when potential comes into it’s own.”

The boy listened intently. He had never heard his mother say so much at once, with such earnestness, conveying so much meaning. “What truth in the direction of your words do you wish to share, ma?” he asked quietly, sensing his mother meant to say more than repeat the druids’ law of three. He took a long sip of tea and patiently sat waiting for his mother to sift through her thoughts for whatever story wished to be told. For when she got that pensive look on her, a story was in formation. The boy loved the outdoors, loved to run, loved to play games with the other boys, especially the older ones. But if truth be told, he cherished his mother’s stories most .

“I am glad you are sitting down, son,” she said finally. “It is time you learned your origins.” A chill ran through the boy’s body, and he made sure he was sitting tall and making eye contact. This would not be like his mother’s other stories. This would be different, lasting, changing.

“Do you know the meaning of your father’s name,” she asked for effect, for the boy would know. “He is called Ronan, little seal, and here is the why of it. You see, he is a child of land and water. His mother was a selkie.”

The child gasped audibly. He had not been expecting this, but felt he should have. He had never known or met his grandmother. But he had heard his share of stories of the wild and strange seal folk who danced out on the rocks at midnight, their eerie song floating out over the waves like a soundscape’s shadow. Were their song something seen and not heard, it would have glowed iridescent and luminous in the darkness. “Tell me of her people and how she came here.” the boy encouraged, softly.

Across from him, his mother sat still and silent, as if the story wrapped itself so thickly around her that speech would be difficult. Finally she brushed her long wavy hair out of her clear blue eyes, eyes the boy thought now were so unlike his hazel eyes which mirrored tones of the water or land depending on which he was near. Taking a breath slowly, his mother began:

“Once, fada ó sin, long long ago, lived a small and young selkie girl by the name of Bean Álainn, Beautiful Woman.”