What We See in the Woods, Part Six: Isobel’s Tree

What We See in the Woods, Part Six: Isobel’s Tree

The stories kept most people out of the woods, but for some people, those stories are what draws them in. Isobel was no ghost hunter or folklore enthusiast. For her the stories spoke of a world beyond our own that was calling out to be visited. If the woods were a portal to that world, Isobel intended to step through it.

She chose a warm summer day, and still being of this world, she took a bag with a drink and sandwiches. At first it was a struggle to make a path in, because the undergrowth of brambles and bushes was so dense. Once she got through the outer edges, the undergrowth thinned out beneath the trees, giving way to broken, nettles, and stands of horse tails like miniature primeval forests. Birdsong filled the air. It was all lovely, and very ordinary. As far as she could see, there was nothing sinister here, only an old piece of woodland going about its many lives in peace, happy to be neglected by human beings, left to grow and rot and grow. Everything was as it should be.

Isobel kept on walking, hoping to see spirits, or the Old Lady, but only seeing what anyone would expect to see on a summer walk in a wood near a small town.

Sometimes she had the feeling of being watched, but there was no-one around, and she put that down to her unfamiliarity with being alone in a wild place. Gradually, she got used to it, and began to relax into the idea that she really was alone, no other person nearby. No-one to watch her, judge her or threaten her. She walked slower and slower until she stopped and stood, quiet in the midst of the green.

All around was the pulse of life and death. The crackle of drying leaves, the whisper of stealthy fungal growth, the streaming of sap in the trees and bushes, the hurried rush of mice and insects in the mulch of decaying matter. Sometimes the heavier tread of the fox or badger, and above and among it all, the endless singing, fluttering busyness of birds.

In the town, life was life and death was another thing altogether. Here, in the woods, they were the same, with no dividing line between them, turning hand in hand in the endless dance.

Isobel dropped her bag and, secure in her aloneness, began to take off all her clothes until she stood naked, her toes curling into the leaf litter, her eyes seeing only the green of moss growing on the trunk of a fallen tree.

As she stood all of the chatter in her mind faded away until there was nothing there. Perhaps not even Isobel remained, only quiet being with awareness of the whole world about her. An ant began to climb her leg and she recognised its existence, but she was as still as the sapling ash tree at her left hand.

The sun moved past its zenith and began to travel down towards the western horizon. The skin on Isobel’s legs began to crackle and dry. She had found the portal. From her feet to the tips of her fingers bark covered her soft skin, hardening in the cooling air. She lifted her arms and watched new growth leaves spring from her fingers. Her hair turned to moss and leaves. Bark grew over her eyes, but then she saw everything.

It was many days before anyone thought to search the woods for her. They found her clothes and her bag resting against a small but sturdy tree. She was never found.

At certain special times of the year, a small group of women go into the woods to lay flowers and offerings at the foot of this distinctive tree. They are often overcome by a profound stillness and drift into a trance, hearing a voice whispering to them. One member of the group must always stand back, stay alert, and when she feels a certain danger point she rings a bell to end the communion.

To go there alone would be to risk never being seen again.

Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming

The Shuckleigh Women’s Wild Swimmers were rebels, lawbreakers. You could deny them permission to swim in your bit of water, but they would do it anyway.

This lovely lake was part of the old Mosse estate, and was strictly off limits to all swimmers. Sure, there had been past drownings, but what stretch of water has never had someone drown in it? The women of the club swam everywhere, and always had an eye to safety, knew what they were doing, and were all strong swimmers — and were very buoyant, too, most of them. Something to do with cake, no doubt.

Maureen was the treasurer, a post which required no more than collecting a small contribution from each member towards the cost of the apres-swim cakes, and the purchase thereof. It was she who had suggested this lake for their next swim. They asked permission, of course, but received only a simple refusal without explanation, except that the lake was dangerous.

‘How can it be dangerous?’ said Elly, the club secretary. ‘It’s not that deep, there’s no outflow to cause currents. I don’t know what he means.’

‘It’ll be the mere-maid,’ said Nelly, the oldest member, tiny, white-haired, and with a headful of local stories.

‘Mermaid?’

‘Mere-maid, like the pub. She’s supposed to guard a treasure in the lake, and sometimes appears to young men, luring them to a watery death with the promise of her beauty.’

There was general hilarity, laughter spreading in waves through the cafe where they were meeting, breaking over the heads of the other, disconcerted customers, along with cries of ‘She won’t be interested in us then!’, and ‘Unless she likes ladies too!’, followed by many dirty jokes about the sexual leanings of mermaids. Several customers drank their coffee and left.

Now, with the waters of the lake lapping at her ankles, Maureen felt an unfamiliar sense of unease. the lake looked far deeper than it was supposed to be, the waters black in the early morning light.

Elly and Nelly and half a dozen others were already up to their waists in water, chatting and giggling, but quietly, since they were here without permission, trespassing with intent to swim.

Maureen watched the others plunging into the water, striking out towards the centre of the lake. It did look good, but there was something else she could feel, creeping up from her chilling feet through her bloodstream to her heart.

‘I’m not brave enough,’ she thought, and then wondered where that had come from. ‘Buck up,’ she told herself. Pushing aside all anxiety, she waded in, feeling the silty, slimy mud oozing between her toes. Stretching forward, she plunged into the water and breast-stroked her way towards the others.

In the middle of the lake she paused, resting in the water, sweeping her arms gently around her, feeling the silky liquid passing through her fingers. The others were swimming nearby, breaststroke, backstroke, crawl. Maureen’s thoughts drifted away into nothingness and she found the great peace of an empty mind for a moment.

Then something brushed against her leg. It felt like a hand. One of the gang playing tricks. She scanned about to see who was missing, but they were all in sight, and besides, not one of them was noted for their underwater swimming skills. Probably just a fish. Or the mere-maid. She laughed, and began to swim. Again, a hand brushed her leg. She stopped and pulled herself into a ball, which caused her to tip face-forwards into the water. Floundering, she opened her eyes and saw, down in the dark brown water below, a pale face looking up at her. She thought it was a corpse floating there, suspended below the surface somehow, dark eyes open — but the face smiled at her, the eyes widened.

It is not advisable to scream underwater, but she tried it. Tannic liquid in her mouth advised her otherwise and she reared back to the surface, gasping in air.

She was not sure that she had seen what she imagined, and nobody was close enough to speak to. Maureen began to swim towards the shore, afraid of what might be below. For speed, she was doing the crawl, not her best stroke. She had not gone far when, on the downstroke, her left arm was grabbed and she was pulled to a stop. This time she screamed in the air, and then managed to pull in one last deep breath as she was dragged under.

Down, down, how deep was this lake? She thought of the cake and flasks of hot tea waiting in her car, she thought of home, then she forgot all of that.

The mere-maid was leading her down, the grip on Maureen’s arm strong and unrelenting, but it was not dark down there. Black streams of the mere-maid’s hair obscured Maureen’s vision, but would drift aside to show wonderful things, all ablaze with light.

She forgot about the bother of not being able to breathe underwater, filled with elation at the great blooming of truth she saw below.

Someone grabbed her trailing hand. There was a short tug of war for possession of Maureen, then the mere-maid let go, gazing after her with sorrow in her eyes. ‘No,’ said Maureen as the vision faded.

Choking up water, lying on the grass with towels thrown over her and Elly pumping away at her chest, she gasped back into the ordinary world. All the women in bathing costumes and one angry man were standing around, looking down at her.

‘I informed you that this lake was dangerous,’ the man was saying, but no-one was listening to him.

Maureen wondered if he knew why the lake was dangerous. She closed her eyes and remembered and began to cry.

‘It’s all right, Maureen, you’re okay now,’ said Elly, not understanding when Maureen shook her head.

They sat her up and gave her hot tea, and then an ambulance arrived and a nice young paramedic took her pulse and listened to her watery lungs and insisted she go to hospital.

‘I don’t want to see any of you here ever again,’ said the angry man.

Just before the ambulance doors closed, Maureen thought she saw a pale arm rise from the centre of the lake, and she imagined swimming with the mere-maid again.

The House That Wasn’t Haunted

The House That Wasn’t Haunted

The estate agent was quite open about the double murder.

‘It was right here in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘Dave was over there and Kevin by the door. Kevin shot Dave through the head and Kevin shot Dave through the heart. Very messy.’

I looked at Mike and he raised his eyebrows.

‘They must have shot each other simultaneously,’ I said.

‘What? Oh, yes. Some people thought differently though. They thought Norman, the third brother, he did it. The police didn’t think so in the end, but some around here still do. He cleaned it all up himself and carried on living here. It was their family farm. But then he hung himself from that beam two years ago.’

She pointed up to a black oak beam at the back of the kitchen with big meat hooks hanging from it. I admit I shuddered a little.

‘The land was sold off, but the house and gardens had to go separately. The property has been on the market a while now. The price is very good, but I think if you make an offer there will be a willingness to negotiate. Oh, and I almost forgot.’ She pulled out a sheet of paper from her briefcase and handed it to me. ‘This kept coming up as an area of concern, so we advised an exorcism. The place is certified ghost-free.’

The house was old and squat. No architectural finesse had been used in its design, if it had been designed at all. There were two stories and a steeply gabled roof which was out of balance with the blocky grey walls under it — but the house with its baggage of violence was very cheap and it had large gardens.

Mike and I took half an hour to wander the house alone, and finished back in the gloomy kitchen.

‘Could we use this kitchen without being reminded of that nasty picture we were painted just now?’ he asked.

‘It won’t be the same kitchen. We’ll remodel it completely, wipe away its past. Besides,’ I said waving the paper, signed and dated by the exorcist, ‘certified ghost-free.’

We laughed.

Neither of us were sensitive to that sort of thing anyway. There might have been a hundred ghosts dancing about us, but we would not notice, we thought. We made a ridiculous offer. It was accepted immediately.

Our builders were locals, and they did not like the place, but I framed the certificate of exorcism and hung it in the hall where they could see it. They worked far quicker than any builders I’ve ever had dealings with, and there was only one hold-up.

Removing cupboards in the kitchen, they found a large brown stain on the wall and downed tools immediately. Mike went in and convinced them that it was a rust stain from some old nails in the plasterboard. They came back, and our kitchen was installed in record time. it looked as if the reputation of the house was working in our favour.

We had the grey exterior painted a cheerful pale yellow, and inside made the place as colourful as possible. I hung large mirrors in the dining room and lounge to make the rooms lighter, but somehow they seemed to suck in light instead, and the reflections in them were dark and dull.

The kitchen was a bright, airy space with clean lines and modern fittings. The old beams were still there, of course, but the meat hooks were gone. Even so, I always felt a sense of profound emptiness if I spent much time in there. A bleak, cold feeling even on a sunny summer’s day. Mike felt the same, and one evening, he took all the knives out of the knife block and put them in a drawer out of sight. He said he kept thinking of cutting into his own flesh if he could see them.

Things were going well for us. We had a beautiful home, our work lives were great, Mike got a promotion, we should have been happy. We were not.

Day by day, hope and happiness drained away from us until everything seemed as dark and dull as the reflections in the mirrors. I took the mirrors down, but nothing improved.

The only thing I could think of was to call the exorcist back in, his name, Charlie Moore, and number being handily supplied on the certificate which still hung in the hall. When I opened the door for him he smiled, but hung back.

‘I’ve already done this house,’ he said.

‘I know.’

I pointed at the framed certificate.

‘Is there a problem?’

‘That’s what I hope you will tell me.’

He came in then, carrying a canvas messenger bag that I supposed contained his exorcism kit. I had sort of expected a priest, but he was just an ordinary-looking middle-aged man. He went from room to room, performing some sort of ritual chant and meditation.

‘I’m not finding anything,’ said Charlie. ‘when I came before, there was nothing then either, in spite of…’ He waved a hand vaguely, not wanting to refer directly to the unpleasantness in the house’s history.

I took him into the kitchen.

‘Oh, you’ve made it really nice,’ he said, but he shivered.

‘Cold?’

‘No, not at all.’

There was a cake, and I made coffee to go with it and we sat down at the kitchen table. While he made headway into the cake, I explained the general baseless feeling of depression that was gaining on us day by day, and Mike’s problem with the knives. The cake knife lay on a plate between us and there was a silence as we both stared at it. I thought how ineffective it would be if I tried to stab myself with it. I pulled my attention away to find Charlie looking around the room, wide eyed. He shook his head.

‘There must be something here,’ he said. ‘I’m feeling something, but it’s not a presence, it’s…’

‘An absence,’ I said.

‘A void,’ he said.

He stood up and got dowsing rods out of his bag. I was glad that Mike was out at work. He would have hated this.

Charlie walked the room with his rods and they waved about a bit, but when he passed them over the table, they swivelled together violently.

‘It’s the cake,’ I said, trying for levity.

He ignored me and began dragging the table away. I helped, and then he got down on his knees, examining the floorboards.

‘Look,’ he said.

I knelt down and looked. it took a moment, but then I saw it — a fine seam between the boards, a square separate from the rest. Charlie went to look in the knife drawer. The Chinese cleaver he came back with was worrying enough, but then he started to hack at the floorboards.

‘We just paid to have this floor sanded and varnished!’ I said, but he was not listening.

Once he had cut out a notch one side of the seam he stopped.

‘Feel that,’ he said.

I put my hand over the little hole and felt cold air. Charlie pushed his fingers into the notch and pulled. The floorboards moved. I helped and soon we pulled away a square of boards. Underneath was a flat stone with rune-like markings on it. The stone was crumbling, almost half of it gone, revealing a deep pit underneath. I leaned forward to look down into the darkness. Far way down there, I thought I heard a voice calling to me. The cold sucked at my body, my mind. I thought I could dive in and fly down forever.

Charlie pulled me back and shoved me across the room. He struggled to push the floorboard cover back into place, muttering something all the while. I was no help, rigid with fear, pressed against the cooker. All I did was watch him scribble something on a page from his notebook and use the folded page to block up the notch he had cut. Then he got me out of there and called for emergency occult help.

When Mike got home, he didn’t believe a word of it, and marched right into the kitchen saying he would get the builders in. I stood at the door and watched him pull out the folded paper from the notch, cursing about the damage.

I could feel it from where I stood. Mike went pale, shoved the paper back and ran out.

It cost us a lot of money. Occultists do not come cheap. We had to get a new capstone cut, engraved with appropriate sigils and laid down in a ritual carried out by some very peculiar people. For extra protection we had the floorboards stripped out and a thick layer of specially formulated concrete laid down.

We were told that the pit was probably cut as a well originally and then stopped up when people came to understand that there was more than water down there. After the house was built over it, people preferred to forget. The brothers probably never knew.

The house is fine now. I put the mirrors back up, and they do make the rooms brighter. We are reasonably happy, but we are stuck, aren’t we? How can we sell a house with a lethal structural fault?

It is fine now, but how long will it take the corrosion from below to eat through the new defences? We have become unwilling guardians of a deadly secret.

What We See In The Woods, Part 4: The Nemeton

What We See In The Woods, Part 4: The Nemeton

Lost in the woods —but how could he be? This wood was not big enough to lose anything in. Just walk straight in any direction and you would be out of it in five minutes. He had been walking straight for half an hour now, or at least he thought so. Perhaps he was walking in circles. No matter how hard he tried to keep an eye on where the sun was behind the canopy, he was being deflected. That must be it.

Keep the sun to the right, he thought, and wasn’t there something about the side of the tree the moss grows on? The north side. Or the south side. Trying to remember, he noticed a dog standing a few metres away, looking at him.

He stopped and assessed the problem. The dog did not look aggressive, but it was not wagging its tail either. Those stories about the spectral black dog came to mind, but this dog was a dusty grey colour. It looked like a wolf, but there had been no wolves in these woods for four centuries or more. Just a big grey dog.

‘Hey boy,’ he said.

The dog turned and walked away. Jacob followed, convinced that it would show him the way out. Dogs rescued people. This one would rescue him — though he was in very little actual peril, lost in a small wood.

‘It’s just that the trees all look the same,’ he said out loud.

Then everything changed.

There was a clearing filled with bright sunlight. The dog stopped at the centre of it and looked back at him. Jacob stepped into the light.

The clearing was roughly rectangular without any small trees or bushes. Grass grew in the sunlight. Jacob stood at one of the short sides of the rectangle and at the other, directly opposite him, stood what appeared to be the trunk of a massive dead tree. He looked up into the sky, but could not see the top of it.

He looked down again, and the dog was gone without a sound. Alone in the clearing, he felt compelled to approach the tree trunk. Laying his hands on the warm reddish wood, he felt vibration. Pressing his face and then his right ear to the tree, he heard a rushing sound inside, as of sap pumping upwards to an invisible canopy. The tree was not dead at all. It was enormous and he — he was tiny, insignificant.

Pressing himself close to the tree, he wanted to be absorbed into it, to live here forever, feeling the sap rushing through his veins.

He kicked off his shoes and began to climb. The wood was smooth and shiny, but Jacob was no longer human. His body became supple and sinous, his hands and feet stuck to the wood and allowed him to climb, to go on climbing, up and up until he reached the branches and leaves and fruit that were somewhere far above.

Walking back home in the late evening sunlight, Jacob felt the joy of life in his bones. He was smiling, thinking what a beautiful day, what a strange dream.

As he put his key into the lock, the door was pulled open and his wife was there, crying. His brother and sister were behind her. They were talking all at once, pulling him into the house, touching him.

‘What’s going on?’ he said.

‘Where have you been? What happened to you?’ they asked.

‘I went for a walk. I climbed a tree.’

‘You’ve been gone so long!’

‘I did stay out a couple of hours longer than I meant to, but—‘

‘You’ve been gone three days.’

‘Three days?’

He caught sight of himself in the hall mirror, hair sticking straight up, face sunburned, eyes wide and crazy.

He could smell the scent of the tree, feel the warm smooth wood under his alien hands, hear far away overhead the promising rustle of foliage and the cry of a strange bird.

Realities lurched and crashed together.

‘I climbed a tree,’ he said.

The Gift

The Gift

I have told you of Sir Thomas Elkin Mosse and his fairy wife. After his passing his lands were split between a number of cousins and this story concerns a descendent of one of these branches of the family, one Henry Elkin.

Henry is a poor name for a passionate man, but Henry Elkin was determined to be passionate. He inherited his portion of the former Mosse estate when he was still a young man of twenty-six. This was in the eighteen-thirties when Romanticism was washing across the land and Henry took it up with enthusiasm. He married for love, so he thought, a beautiful girl of only seventeen who was as willing to give herself up to passion as was Henry. Her name was Letitia, and she was unafraid to wear her hair loose and a little wild. There is a portrait of her still hanging in Old Elkin Hall even today. She is standing on a hillside with an idealised landscape behind her and her hair flowing loose in the wind. How slender she is, how fragile. The wind might blow her away like the seeds from a dandelion clock.

So it proved. They had been married less than a year when Letitia died of a fever. Henry was distraught. As she lay in her coffin he placed into her hands a valuable family heirloom; a large gold cross studded with very fine emeralds and pearls, a jewel that had been in the family for at least two hundred years. Letitia was laid to rest in the family vault, her hands clasped around this precious jewel. A fine gesture of love.

Henry went to pieces, as a passionate Romantic ought. He began to drink. He neglected the estate. Worst of all, he began to gamble.

After a couple of years, he began to find this conduct very tiring. He also noticed that he was in financial peril.

His gambling had been satisfactorily unsuccessful, but now that he no longer felt the need to demonstrate the turmoil of his tortured soul, he began to think more fondly of money, and to cast about for some way to restore his fortune, without which he would not be able to get another wife, and he did have his eye on a particular lady.

There was one obvious solution, which gradually grew into the only solution in his mind.

He took a manservant and, for good measure and respectability, the reluctant vicar of his parish, and opened the family vault.

The vicar prayed and the servant opened the coffin. Due to the good construction of the vault repelling the damp, the body of Letitia had mummified rather than rotted and she lay, somewhat wizened, surrounded by the mass of her lovely hair, still clasping the cross.

Neither the servant nor the vicar would do what was required, so Henry was forced to retrieve the cross himself.

Letitia’s hands had dried, the tendons shrinking so that she had a firm grasp on the cross, and Henry had to use some force to take it from her. There was a loud snap as her fingers broke. Henry felt sick, but did not show it. The vicar prayed louder and the manservant winced and backed away. The cross came loose into Henry’s hands, and he had the coffin and the vault resealed.

But something followed him out of there.

Henry Elkin sent the jewelled cross to a respectable auctioneers in London where it was listed as ‘Property of a Gentleman’ and sold for a large sum — more than enough to clear his debts and restore the estate to comfortable profitability.

He was at breakfast, contemplating the letter which brought him this satisfactory news, when he heard a most uncomfortably familiar snapping sound.

‘What was that?’ he asked.

The butler, the only other person present in the room, had not heard anything at all. Henry shrugged and put the incident to the back of his mind, though he had seen, as the snap sounded, the vision of Letitia’s delicate mummified fingers breaking as he took back the symbol of his devotion from them.

Henry invested his money wisely and rebuilt his estate. He asked the suitable young lady to marry him and she said yes, but she was momentarily disconcerted by his flinch and look of alarm at her answer. It was nothing, he said, just a momentary twinge of pain from an old injury. He knew she would not have heard the snapping sound.

Each time a blessing happened to him, Henry heard that sound and saw that vision. When his wife told him that she was with child, when that child was safely born, whenever his wife said she loved him, when news of a good investment, or any other happy event occurred — snap, and he saw broken bones and flakes of dried flesh falling onto the bodice of a once-lovely gown.

His wife noticed the coincidence of these convulsions of pain and the delivery of good news. She became wary of telling him anything positive. His estate manager and butler also noticed. Gradually, all those around him withdrew from telling him good things, and thus the blight spread from him to them, all joy marred by a sound that only he could hear.

The trouble intensified until, if Henry so much as smiled, the noise sounded in his ears and the vision flooded his mind. He removed the family to London for a spell, but the trouble followed him.

He tried to discover who had bought the cross, but had no luck. Finally, his wife confronted him and forced him to explain the source of his affliction. Convinced that it was the result of a bad conscience, she commissioned a replacement cross, not as costly as the original, but quite as pretty. When it was ready, she persuaded her husband that he should open the family vault and place the facsimile into his first wife’s hands.

As Henry, his wife, the vicar and a manservant approached the vault, Henry cried out and fell to his knees, hands over his ears. He heard issuing from the family tomb the continuous sound of snapping dry bones, which did not cease, even when they took him back to the Hall.

For three days he suffered this constant torment, and at the end of the third, he evaded his watchers and hanged himself from an oak tree in the garden.

As he lay in his coffin, his wife laid the facsimile cross in his hands. She thought she saw a dark shadow as she turned away, something drifting into the coffin with her husband, and she heard a faint dry snapping sound.

Two-Face

Two-Face

We thought we were lucky to find this house. It is small for a family of four, but the rent is very low. We moved in about a year ago. There are only two bedrooms upstairs so our nine year old daughter, Sally, had a room on the ground floor, while our son Paul who is eight, has the tiny second bedroom upstairs.

It was working well for a few weeks after we moved in, but then one night about 2pm our daughter came running into our bedroom and shook me and my wife awake. There was someone in the house, she said, walking around downstairs and looking into her room.

Confronting burglars is in the job description for a dad, isn’t it? I had hoped never to have to do it, but I was out of bed and on my way down there before I had time to think about it. Alison, my wife, started to come too, but I told her to stay upstairs and be ready to phone the police.

Putting all the lights on as I went, I searched the whole ground floor, kitchen, sitting room, Sally’s room, even under her bed. It didn’t take long. All the doors and windows were locked and secure and there was no-one down there.

Just a nightmare, we told her, but we let her sleep in our bed because she was so scared.

The next night, same thing. I searched again, not expecting to find anything. I didn’t. I even took her with me and showed her that there was nothing there. She slept with us again.

The third night she refused to sleep in her own room at all. We put her to bed in our room and I told her that I would sleep downstairs to prove that there was nothing to be afraid of.

The bed was way too small for me, but I got to sleep okay.

I don’t know what time it was, but I woke up suddenly, hearing what sounded like footsteps. Just the creaking of an old house, I told myself. Then the bedroom door opened slowly. I couldn’t move. I watched the door open and someone looked into the room. It was an old man, with a very miserable expression on his face. Lying still, I pretended I couldn’t see him, that I was still asleep. The door closed slowly.

I pulled the covers up over my head, but that uncovered my feet, so I curled up into a ball. Then I realised that I was reacting like a nine year-old child, so I forced myself out of bed and out of the room.

The old man was at the far end of the hallway, near the kitchen, looking right at me, but there was something all wrong about him. He started to walk towards me and I panicked and ran upstairs. I was heading for my bedroom, for my wife, running like I was my own child.

‘Just a minute,’ I thought, ‘I’m a grown man, not a little boy.’

I sat down at the top of the stairs to try to get some control over myself. Dragging footsteps sounded in the hall, and then the miserable-looking old man was there at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at me.

‘Who the hell are you?’ I asked. ‘What’re you doing in my house?’

Then — well, then he turned his head right round and on the back of his head there was a different face looking at me. Not the same man at all. This one smiled, but not in a friendly way, and his eyes had a sharp glint in them. There was a smell, too, sweet and rotten.

I lost the ability to breathe.

He stood there looking at me for what must have been only a few seconds, but seemed much longer. Then he began to fade away. The last to go were the eyes. They hung in the air, looking at me, blinked and vanished.

When I could breathe again, I was shaking all over. I went and got in bed with Alison and Sally.

Sally said, ‘Did you see the man, Daddy?’

‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘it’s okay.’

But it wasn’t, and we both knew it.

Really, why was I so afraid? He did nothing to me. It seems like he can’t even climb the stairs — but I only have to remember his head turning like that, the eyes, then I can’t breathe and I start to shake.

We moved Sally’s bed up into our room. Most of the day, the house is ours, but during the hours of sleep, the ground floor belongs to him. I hear him walking most nights, and when I hear him, I see his first face turning to show me his second. He is a piece of wrongness in the world, and if he was to touch me, I think the wrong might get into me. I might do harm.

It is me he wants. I know it.

In The Darkness of the Well

In The Darkness of the Well

There are several old wells in Shuckleigh, every one with a story.

In the garden of the vicarage of St Mary’s Church there is a brick-lined well that was capped over in the 18th century with a thick oak lid bound down to the well wall with iron bands. The old wood looks very weatherbeaten now and the iron bands are pockmarked under several coats of black paint, but the structure is strong and solid. If there is perfect quiet in the garden sometimes the swishing of water can be heard, as if there is something down there, imprisoned in the dank darkness.

This well used to be the primary source of water for the vicarage, but the water turned bad, they said.

The vicar at that time was the Rev. Eldridge Manners, a man who could not bear the presence of women about him. His only servants were a man called George who did general housework and cooking, and a boy who came in daily to help out.

In church of a Sunday, Manners would glare at any woman who caught his eye during his sermon, and direct all his general ire concerning the sinfulness of humanity at her and her alone. It was soon the case that all the women preferred to sit as far from the pulpit as they could.

The very front rows were reserved for a few notable families, and it came to be that the women of these families would often become unwell on Sundays and stay at home – all except one young woman, daughter of a local landowner, Sarah Burns. Soon she was the focus of Rev. Manners’ fury, but she met his eyes with a cool gaze that only enraged him more. She never blushed or looked away at all.

Manners called upon her father, and told that gentleman that his daughter was showing all the signs of being a dangerous sinner, but her father denied the accusation.

‘My daughter is the sweetest, most virtuous of girls,’ he said

‘Sin often clothes itself with the outer appearance of great virtue,’ The Reverend told him, and would not be swayed by any argument to the contrary.

Mr Burns left, declaring that he would no longer attend St Mary’s. His daughter, however, insisted on taking her place every Sunday, sitting alone in her family’s pew while the vicar poured vitriol and the blame for all the sins of the world in her direction.

The rest of the congregation were eager to see how this would end, and some of the other women were emboldened to sit a little nearer to the pulpit, since all the vicar’s anger was directed at Sarah and he had forgotten about the rest of them.

As Manners grew more and more furious, Sarah grew more serene. Those who could observe her closely said that there was always the slightest hint of a smile on her lips, even as the vicar predicted eternal damnation for her and all her sex.

One day she arrived at the vicarage, asking to see the Rev. Manners. He would not have her in the house, but came to meet her in the garden, his manservant George with him.

‘Have you come to repent?’ Manners asked.

‘I have little of consequence to repent of,’ Sarah said. ‘I was only concerned for you, Sir. You seem to be making yourself ill with your hatred of womankind.’

The Reverend was taken aback.

‘You presumptuous hussy,’ he said. ‘I am a man of God, and I preach his truth.’

‘No,’ Sarah said, ‘you do not. You preach the word of a different kind of being. I can see him hiding behind your eyes.’

This was the last straw for Manners. He lost control of himself and lunged at Sarah, taking her by the throat. His manservant stepped forward quickly and laid a hand on his arm.

‘Sir-,’

Manners lashed out and struck George so hard that he fell to the ground.

For a moment it seemed that he would kill Sarah, but she remained calm, and he suddenly gained control of himself and let go of her throat.

‘I have a friend,’ said Sarah, her voice shaky and hoarse from the manhandling, ‘who lives with me. She has seen that you have an enemy who lives with you. She is going to stay with you for a while.’

Sarah walked quickly away from that place, but where she had stood, Manners could see a silvery wraith, indistinct and transparent, but with a female form. He backed away, but the wraith approached. He ran past his manservant, who was just picking himself up off the ground, and into the house. The wraith followed.

For days afterwards the wraith, which no-one else could see, was always with him, whispering things that he could not properly hear. He felt as if his soul was being torn from his flesh, and could not eat and would not sleep. Night and day he talked to the invisible being, and George began to think that perhaps Sarah Burns was a witch after all.

Sunday was coming around again, but there was not likely to be any sermon that week.

‘I see,’ shrieked Manners, ‘I see!’

He ran into the garden, pursued by George, and threw himself into the well. While George was frantically running about getting a rope strong enough to lower himself down to retrieve his master, terrible noises were coming from the well – screaming and raging, and the sounds of a torrent of water, like a mighty wave crashing against rocks.

George finally descended, afraid of what he might find. In the darkness at the bottom of the well, he thought he saw three people entwined in a furious fight. He grasped the one he recognised as his master, threw the man over his shoulder and, strengthened by terror, climbed out of the well as fast as he was able.

‘Cover the well,’ Manners gasped as George lowered him to the dry earth.

George needed no more prompting. The well had an oak cover which he pushed into place. Just before the cover slid home, a soft breeze and a silvery mist issued from the well.

Once the cover was on, George weighted it down with half a millstone that was used as decoration in the garden. He said later that he didn’t know how he lifted it.

Manners was weak for a month after that, but not unwell. He looked younger, people said. He would not, however, preach in St Mary’s again, but he was able thereafter to look upon women as people, rather than as vessels for the sins of the world.

Of Sarah Burns, he was terrified. No-one understood why. Gone mad, they said.

He had the iron bands put on the well cover, and soon after left Shuckleigh forever, leaving something behind in the well. No-one has ever tried to find out what it is.

The Spiral Path

The Spiral Path

In a small field near Shuckleigh there is a symbolic labyrinth. It consists of a spiral of grey stones, and a few white ones, sunk into the earth to make a pathway. Labyrinths similar to this one were used in churches for people to walk and pray, instead of undertaking long and difficult pilgrimages to holy shrines — but the labyrinth in the field is no Christian thing. No-one knows who made it, and it has been there for at least three hundred years.

The stones have a little growth of pale green and yellow lichen, but the grass has not overwhelmed them, even though the landowner says he does nothing to keep them free of weeds.

Sometimes local children come to play the game of ‘Beat the Devil’ here, running as fast as they can around the spiral from start to centre avoiding all the paler coloured stones. The game originates in the story associated with the stones. It goes like this:

A girl stepped onto the spiral stones one day, intending to walk the whole thing. She stood on the first stone, looking ahead and seeing how some of the stones shone white, unlike all the others. She assumed that these were the sacred stops on the route to whatever destination lay at the centre.
As she approached the first white stone she saw a small, ugly man, dressed in ragged clothing, standing on the stone.

“Could you stand aside, please?’ she asked.

‘What will you give me?’

‘What do you want?’

‘I want one hair from your head.’

The girl had very beautiful long hair that she was proud of.

‘Why?’ she asked, not happy with the request.

The tiny man gave a strange, angry smile and jumped up to pluck one long hair from her head, and she squealed. He tied the hair in a knot, and threw it onto the white stone at his feet, where it turned into a fat, juicy, pink worm. Tied in a knot.

The little man disappeared.

The girl had to pick up the worm to stand on the stone. She held it in her hands, where it wriggled slowly, trying to untie itself.

A little afraid, she carried on over the stones along the spiral.

The next white stone had a large grey toad squatting on it, which, when she asked it to move, just looked at her and smacked its jaws together.

She threw the fat worm onto the stone in front of the toad. He snapped it up and moved aside.
When she stepped onto the toad’s stone, the girl was sorry for throwing the worm to be eaten. Perhaps she should have tried to un-knot it and let it go into the grass, but then the toad would not have been fed.

Oh, well. Too difficult to work out the right of that. She moved on, and as she did, the stones rose into a staircase ahead of her. One step after another, steeper and steeper, up and up, like a mountain, into the clouds.

When she got to the next white stone, a big black raven stood on it, with a beak like a shining axe.
Afraid of the bird, but unable to go back because the stones behind had vanished, she was forced to approach.

‘What can I give you?’ she asked, spreading her hands to show that she had nothing.

The raven leaned forward, and with one quick lunge snipped off her little finger and flew away with it.

The girl screamed and cried, wrapping her wounded hand in her handkerchief. After a few minutes, she gathered enough strength to carry on, trembling and still crying.

Once she stepped onto the raven’s stone, the stones before her began to descend back to the ground as she set foot on them.

She was not happy to see the little man once more, standing on the next white stone, but she took a deep breath and walked on, holding her wounded hand against her chest.

‘What can I give you?’ she asked, afraid of what he might want.

‘The Raven is greedy, but I am not,’ he said. ‘All I want is one hair from your head.’

This time the girl did not argue, but plucked a nice long hair for him. He took it, twisted it about as if he was knotting it. The hair turned into a fine gold chain which he wound about the girl’s wrist. He stepped aside, and she proceeded to the next white stone, the last, at the centre of the spiral.

She stood on that last white stone, and her tears and her blood dripped down onto the stone in front of her. There was a hissing sound, and a great white bird rose up from the stone, the blood and the tears.
The bird looked down at the girl with its golden eyes, curved its neck and coughed, one, two, three times. Three large, perfectly white pearls fell from its beak.

The ugly little man ran up and leapt onto the bird’s back, laughing.

‘You have your thanks,’ he called as the bird beat its vast wings and rose into the air.

They were gone in a moment, and the girl was alone in the field, a gold chain about her wrist and three pearls at her feet.

To this day there is a hole where the central stone should be. The locals say it leads straight to hell, and the little man was the Devil.

The Strange Dancer

The Strange Dancer

This is a story told to me by a very old lady, who wished to be anonymous.

When I was a young girl, back in the 1930s, our family lived in a very old house. It was big and rambling, and because my parents didn’t have much money, the house was in a poor state of repair. They were ‘doing it up’ bit by bit.

There was a whole upper floor that we children were not supposed to go anywhere near. They said it was dangerous, but they went up there sometimes, because they used it for storage.

When you are a child, of course, the forbidden looks very attractive.

Our bedrooms were on the first floor, and the forbidden floor was right above us. I shared a room with two of my younger sisters, and lying in bed at night when they were both asleep, I would sometimes hear the quick patter of footsteps across the floor above my head.

I told my parents about it, and they said it was mice, but the footsteps were too distinct to be little scurrying creatures. It sounded more like a small person running across the floor.

I used to lie awake in the dark, listening to the sound of little feet above my head. Whatever it was used to run from the side where the door was in our bedroom over to the window. In the daytime I looked from the garden at the little window above my own bedroom window, expecting, hoping, to see a face looking back at me, but there was never anyone there.

I was never afraid, only curious to know what it was.

One Saturday in July my parents, my brother and sisters were all out in the garden having tea and playing games. My Mother was busy deadheading the roses, which were very beautiful that year. I went inside to fetch a ball from my bedroom. It was right at the bottom of my toybox. Just as I found it, the footsteps ran across the floor above, to the window.

I suppose that I thought that this was my chance to catch whatever it was, so I ran as quietly as I could up the stairs to the forbidden floor. I turned left towards the room above mine, and I remember that the door was open just a crack. Pulling it all the way open, I went in, and found that the room was filled with boxes. There was a narrow, winding path between the boxes, but it was difficult even for a small girl to squeeze through. There was no way that anything, not even a mouse, could quickly and directly run from the door to the window – but I could see a dark shape in front of the window, looking out.

I shouted ‘Hey’ and it turned around. The sun was behind it, very bright, and I couldn’t make out anything but a dark silhouette, like a small person, no taller than me.

Just as I was about to go into the room, I was grabbed from behind and I squealed. The shape at the window disappeared, and my Father, who had stopped me from going in, started to tell me off for being up there at all. I told him what I had heard and seen, but he thought I was making it all up.

He sent me downstairs. Back in the garden, I looked up to see him at the little window. That seemed wrong to me somehow, and I called to him to come down. A couple of minutes later he was in the garden with us again. I asked if he had seen anything, and he told me not to be silly, but there was an odd look in his eyes.

My parents took me aside before bedtime and very seriously told me not to go up to that floor because the boxes might fall on me, and some of the floorboards were old and rotten and might break under my weight.

I did stay away, but the footsteps would sound every might, waking me up. They became odd little prancing noises.

One night I woke to hear pattering on the floor above. For a few days I had been feeling strange and light-headed, and then in the middle of the night, waking like that, I was dizzy and everything felt unreal.

I got up out of bed and went upstairs. The door to the room was shut. When I opened it, I saw that all the boxes were gone. Moonlight was streaming through the little window and someone was twirling around in the middle of the floor, across a carpet patterned with flowers.

I stepped into the room this time and saw that the person dancing was a large cat, as tall as I was, upright on its two back legs. The cat danced towards me, put its paws into my outstretched hands and danced me across the room. I remember now the feel of its warm furry paws and the slight pricking of partly extended claws.

The cat’s eyes were large and glowed amber in the moonlight. Though I could not hear any music, I could feel music in my bones as we spun and danced together across the carpet of flowers.

The next time I woke, I was in a hospital bed. They told me I was unconscious for days with a high temperature, and everyone had expected me to die. I was dancing all that time, but could not tell anyone. There were five tiny prick marks in each of my palms from the cat’s claws.

Back at home again, my sisters were moved into another room while I stayed in bed to recover. I was very weak for a long time and could hardly stand, except when the cat visited me at night and we danced together.

When I recovered my health he stopped coming and I have never seen him since, but I would love to dance with him again. Perhaps I will.

My parents repaired the floorboards on the top floor and took all the boxes out of that room. When I was allowed to go up there, they had laid a new carpet, like a flowery meadow. Exactly the carpet I danced over with the cat. Even today you can see the little pinpricks on my palms where his claws bit into me.

The Long Way Round

The Long Way Round

On Friday and Saturday nights the pizza delivery bikes in Shuckleigh are always busy. Even after midnight, there are still people who want greasy, cheesy toppings on a deep pan base. With or without pineapple.

Jamey was working late one Friday night. He rode a Honda scooter, with a cubic insulated bag on the back. Being a pizza delivery guy on minimum wage in the gig economy was not the height of his ambitions, but he saw it as a temporary thing, and better than being shut up in a hot kitchen for hours, slathering dough with tomato sauce and random dodgy bits and pieces.

That night an order came in around midnight. Another driver was ahead of Jamey for the next delivery, but he took a look at the address, shuddered, and decided to finish for the night, so the job went to Jamey.

Shuckleigh is a small market town in a very rural setting, and this order was for somewhere just a bit out of town. Jamey put the postcode into his phone and set off to find the place before the pizzas got cold.

He had to turn off onto a tiny unclassified road, about the width of one car with occasional passing places, which is not unusual around here. Jamey’s phone told him that he would pass a farmhouse and then go on half a mile to the very end of the road, where his destination lay. He could not miss it, because the road did actually end, with no further to go and no turn offs, so when, just after the farmhouse, he lost phone signal, he was not too bothered. Outside the town coverage is patchy, nothing strange about that.

There was a little light from a gibbous moon, but otherwise Jamey had to depend on his scooter’s headlight. For that reason, and the narrowness of the road, he had to go slowly. A hedgehog santered across the road in front of him, gave him a dirty look as he just missed it, and disappeared into the undergrowth. Then a badger crossed his path in a hurry, so he slowed even more. Even so, the road went on far longer than half a mile. He saw two miles tick over on the milometer, but still had not come to the end of the road.

It was so dark, and he was so alone, that he grew increasingly uneasy.

Instead of open farmland, he was now surrounded by tall trees, the thin moonlight just filtering down through the almost leafless branches.

He had to keep his eyes on the narrow strip of road, but a sudden movement between the trees registered in the corner of his eye, and he glanced that way.

There was something there, darting from tree to tree. Something large. Not a deer, because it was on two legs, but it did not move like a person, either. Jamey speeded up. He did not want to know what might be out there, but he could tell that it was following him, keeping pace with his speed. On that narrow dark road, he did not dare go faster. He told himself that it was just shadows seen from the corner of his eye, nothing more.

Jamey preferred rationalism, it being so much pleasanter to believe in a simple, normal explanation for all things, so he did what most people would not do. He stopped, and looked directly into the woods to assure himself of the thing’s non-existence.

As he stopped, the following thing also stopped. He looked into the trees, and in the moonlight all he could see were shadows, and because there was no wind, the shadows were all perfectly still.

Then one of them moved.

A shock of fear went through Jamey, but he still told himself that it was nothing. He turned the scooter so that its headlight shone into the trees. Everything within its beam was illuminated, except for one shadow, blacker than the night, in the shape of a huge man-like creature. There were no features, only a blank shadow shape that did not give way to the light. It stepped towards him, one, two strides.

Jamey’s reassuring rationalism fled into the night. Without thinking he accelerated away down the road as fast as he could, forgetting to care about wandering hedgehogs, or anything else. He did not dare look anywhere but at the road, even though he was convinced that the shadow was still following him.

Suddenly the road came to an end at a small red-brick house. Trembling, he took out the pizzas and rang the doorbell.

An ordinary-looking man opened the door and accepted the pizzas.

‘You took your time,’ he said.

‘The road was longer than I thought.’

‘Did you come through the woods?’

‘Yes.’

‘Go back the other way.’

‘How–?’

But the man had shut the door.

Jamey looked out into the night along the only road, and shivered. Knowing that he could not stand on a stranger’s porch all night, he summoned up all of his disbelief in spooky things, started up his scooter and set off back to town.

Riding along, he looked for possible side roads, but finding none, dreaded the approach of the woods. It was only a few minutes before he saw the lights of the farmhouse, and a couple of minutes after that he came to the main road. He had travelled a little over half a mile and there were no woods.

His relief was mixed with puzzlement and even a little touch of disappointment. He looked back the way he had come, and he swears that he saw the shadow standing in the middle of the road, looking at him with invisible eyes.

He broke the speed limit on the way back to the comforting lights of the town.