There are some who would label me a madman for my actions and where I find myself now, though I have wondered much the same. I have decided to write down what I can of this adventure, in the hopes of retaining my own sanity and maybe even elucidating other readers of my state of mind. For it is not madness that has driven me into this forest of unparalleled darkness and compels me now to wait for the dawn huddled in the backseat of my trail-worn automobile. No, not madness, but something quite similar; it is love.
I was traveling from Boston towards the destination of Pleasant Lake, isolated on the peninsula to the southeast. This passing through coastal countryside was part of a yearly exodus to visit my wife, Anna’s, family. The major highway we travelled on continued uninterrupted to our journey’s end, and thus was our usual route there. I never cared for these trips, but they were unavoidable family being so important to Anna. I always tried to make the most of the quiet in the car before we arrived.
Our customary path was blocked this year by some sort of wreck several miles down the road. We had just passed Plymouth, and though the remaining journey, which would take less than an hour without the traffic, couldn’t have been lengthened more than a handful of minutes by the impetus, my wife insisted we exit the highway and find a way around. I expressed my doubts, stating that any attempted shortcut could very well end up costing us more time, but her arguing redoubled as we came up on a large road leading off to our right to the due south. We pulled onto this new path at her complete insistence, bickering all the way.
I headed south, a sign on the side of the road announcing that a town called Nostre was a few miles ahead, which I had never heard of. I continued searching for a road that would take us back east toward the highway at a point after the roadblock. As we searched, the border between civilisation and wilderness passed so quickly, I scarcely saw it at all. Soon we were traveling down a road shared as much by overgrown shrubs and bushes as by motor vehicles. My wife told me to turn, an unwieldy map splayed out on her lap, and, not wishing to reignite any heated discussion, I did so without question. The road turned from pavement to gravel to dirt within a few revolutions of the tires.
It took a few more miles before Anna admitted tersely that she could make no sense of the map in relation to where we were. This sparked further debate on what to do when we stumbled upon a run-down rest stop consisting of a large wooden building, not unlike a drab, brown barn, which was surrounded by several smaller structures akin to numerous sheds and a single gas pump directly in front of the main building. I snatched the map, trying to decipher exactly where we had gone wrong, but could scarcely blame Anna for the gaff as we seemed to have taken roads unprinted on the map. With a curt word to my wife, I got out of the car to ask for directions.
A muffled bell rang as I pushed open the door of the shack. A kindly gentleman with a thick accent greeted me at the counter. I asked him how to get back to the highway, and he enthusiastically informed me as I wrote down his directions. As I thanked him profusely and paid for some gas to fuel the journey back to civilisation, Anna strolled in and asked for the restroom. The attendant raised a wizened finger towards the back, past several shelves of sundry items. She immediately turned and walked towards where he had pointed, while I awaited her return and passed the time perusing the items available for sale here. Amongst several rusted farming implements, snack items, and coolers full of drinks, my gaze rested upon some newspaper clippings toward the back of the store. I slowly shuffled toward them, wondering at their apparent deliberate order and rather ominous presence.
As I approached and the clippings became legible, I realised they detailed several accounts of some local folklore. It was believed a witch roamed the wilderness near Nostre since, by some accounts, colonial times. There were some reports on missing persons, some presumed deaths, and others of generally strange happenings, though none named the witch specifically. It was evident their place within the collage was no accident, however. I felt rather enthralled, my curiosity piqued by the idea of blending myth that had persisted for generations to explain events that seemed to lack any rational resolution. I turned away with some difficulty, moving back to the counter where the attendant bustled about.
I inquired about the surrounding countryside, the nearby towns, any particular gossip a traveler passing through might find interesting. He answered my questions politely, seemingly pleased to have someone to chat with who was interested in the area he called home. After a time, I casually mentioned the clippings I had seen in the back and asked of the tales of this Nostre witch, at which point the clerk narrowed his eyes until they were only the vaguest slits. He leaned in closer to me, not a sound emanating from him as if all breath was caged within his chest, creaking and straining to unleash some terrible secret. I jumped at the sound of my wife clattering out of the back and yelling my name, and the moment was over. I looked at the man and nodded brusquely before following my wife back to the car.
I never saw that place again but for its shrinking image in the rearview mirror, finally obliterated by the trees and foliage that swallowed all civilisation in this place. I followed the directions and soon found a path that eventually converged back onto the reassuring highway winding down the coast. The setting sun found us at our destination in Pleasant Lake, a cold brick house indistinguishable from its neighbours on each side. My thoughts never strayed for the entirety of the night, through dinner’s revelry all the way until my last waking moments; I could only think of her.
This persisted for months. I fell into research in my spare time, often haunting the local library in Boston after work to find more information on this supposed witch of Nostre. There was some factual evidence of witch trials in the area, Nostre having been founded some years after the landing at Plymouth and persisting as a farming community through harsh winters and squabbles with native tribes. Intermingling with these tribes over time and the collusion of European religious sentiment with native customs gave way to strange rituals, so the stories said. One woman, unnamed as she was in an altogether eerie fashion, was confirmed by several sources as having been hanged in 1698, and it was from her that the legends seemed to stem, of which there were numerous accounts.
After hours of research, the most cohesive narrative of events I could discern through the endless recording of oral folklore, diary entries, biographies, and newspaper clippings throughout the centuries was that of an unnamed woman in Nostre who was regarded as possessing an unnatural beauty, wholly unlike any who lived in that area. Rumours abounded of her hand in certain esoteric and dark rituals, until she was hanged by her fellows for charges of black magic. Thinking her visage some sort of product of the devil unto itself, the people of the village carved her face from her skull and buried it in an unknown location, while her body was buried behind her home on the edge of town. This house would be burned down some years later, though none could account for the source of the blaze. It wasn’t until 1756 that stories began to surface of some unholy presence in the woods of Nostre, a spectre of a beautiful woman who lured men to death or still worse fates, for to gaze upon her face was a sentence of mortal peril.
Consumed as I was, I could no longer seem to taste, to see anything in life but through a gloomy haze. That gorgon in the woods mesmerised me, the mystery and intrigue of such a thing far beyond my power to resist. Though I attempted to hide my powerful displeasure, I knew my wife noticed. She would look at me across the dinner table, eyes full of some strange emotion, as I solemnly ate in silence. Strange how such a simple thing could change so much for me, something as simple as a a few newspaper clippings, as simple as an idea of a woman more beautiful than mortal eyes could bear. The realisation of what I needed to do, the seeds of which had been planted that day after an ill-conceived shortcut, ensnared my mind like a tangle of weed more and more. And then I could stand it no longer.
I told not a soul where I went, or why. No note, no letters, my wallet left at the house. I took the car, and I drove south towards Nostre. This is where I find myself now; cramped in the back seat of my automobile in the middle of a dark forest, having vaguely followed any path I could find that led deeper into the fabled realm of the witch until no road plunged farther than this clearing. I hope to record these days as they go by, as I feel that of all the days I have lived, these are the ones most worthy of memory.
I had a dream last night. Through the wind whistling past the dark trunks of trees, I was roused by a jubilant laughter. I opened my eyes and craned my ears for the giggling, confused at first, which gave way to a perverse sort of eager curiosity. Exiting the relative safety of my vehicle, I cautiously crept towards the trees and soon was traveling deep into the wood, the moon full and illustrious enough to light my way. Suddenly, I became aware of a presence behind me, and my body went rigid as a soft movement disturbed the air on my spine. A gentle cooing sounded in my ears. It was her, I knew.
She took my hand, and begged me wordlessly to lead on, her will somehow palpable to me and ringing in my mind. I did so, completely sure in that moment where I was meant to go. I began to turn my head to gaze back at her, but she pleaded with me not to, not yet, only when the time was right. I acquiesced without question, and, like Orpheus himself, led Eurydice onward through the shadows of the underworld. The shadows shifted formlessly around us for incalculable distances, but we traversed it as one, warm and sure. I could see a light slowly growing in the distance, and as we walked towards it, the shadows shifted and took solid form once more to reveal a lonely cabin in the midst of the wild forest. I called back to her, to tell her we had nearly arrived, but she didn’t answer. Approaching the door of the cabin, I pushed forward and it swung noiselessly inwards as I stepped over the threshold, turning back as I did so. All I saw was a soft, white hand receding back into the vast darkness.
I woke with a start. I was surprised to feel my cheeks were wet with tears, seemingly wept as I lay in slumber. The image of her had not left my mind, even through the veil of darkness and sleep. The coolness of her touch seemed imprinted upon my fingers, as if still present there in a form beyond that of the physical world, a mark that branded me chosen by the wild witch of Nostre. The night seemed still young, the moon having yet to pass its apex while the stars winked around it quietly.
As I lay down once more, closing my eyes with the intention of earning more rest before beginning my search by light of dawn, I suddenly became aware of a sound, muffled as it was by the confines of my vehicle. I fancied myself dreaming once more, for it was eerily akin to the cachinnations of my previous vision, though it presently twisted into a faint melody of trilling notes that echoed through the trees. At once I stumbled into the night air, more clearly able to discern the singing as coming from a direction fiercely protected by gnarled trunks and mutinous briars. With unrepentant zeal I pushed through, following the source of that dulcet refrain until I saw a form just ahead, weaving in and out of vision.
I chased her fleeing figure through the bent and twisted trunks, stumbling blindly over protruding roots and battling underbrush that tore at my legs. The pervasive sound of a light-hearted verse beckoned me onward, each playful note more tempting than a serpent’s gift of an apple, promising revelation of mind and spirit amidst the stark, unholy darkness of the forest. So possessed was I in my pursuit, I was barely aware the trees had receded into a large clearing; I did note, however, that the woman stood at the center of it.
The moon lurked ominously in the now open sky, bathing the scene in a morbid glow, while the trees formed a perfect circle around the clearing and the ground was strewn with wizened, black branches. It was as if some imperious beam had blasted down from on high to scorch the earth for some grave sin. And yet, the woman seemed at ease here. She stood with her back to me, gazing stolidly at the night sky. A loose, thin white garment clung to her alabaster skin and a stillness almost palpable exuded from her diminutive form. There was no sound of nocturnal insects, nor any wildlife out in the trees. Not even a single breath of wind disturbed the air. I crossed the space between us slowly, fear gripping my heart; a perverse fear to break the spell I found myself in.
I was but a few steps away when she turned to me. I don’t know what I had imagined, what my wild fantasies had conceived awaited me mere feet away, but I wasn’t prepared for her. It was Anna. She smiled coyly at me, and a numbness overtook my limbs, a haze settling over my mind penetrated only by the eldritch gleam of her green eyes, like a cat’s, leering out from the gloom. I saw only venom in them, her smile and laugh were derisive, piercing my heart as it bled into a well of lonely misery as it had so many nights before as we lay in bed together. A sick anger overwhelmed me, filling the void left by those feelings of betrayal and disgust.
My hands, shaking uncontrollably, found her throat of their own malicious volition. Her countenance shifted as I started to squeeze, all smugness erased by growing alarm. She started to claw at my wrists, her sharp claws tearing skin and drawing blood that fell in rivulets down my arms. I held firm, my grip inexorable, driven by hate hotter than hellfire, inexplicable as the force that scorched the clearing I strangled her in. Anna’s eyes rolled back, and her face turned purple, any remaining movement in her body now composed of twitches of the digits as her body fell into a heavy slump. She had stopped moving entirely before I realised I was screaming, like a beast in the night howling at the moon.
I awoke to the morning sun encroaching like an insect across my eyes, rousing me from a deep, but certainly fitful, slumber. My memories from the night before filtered back slowly, with my recognition of the clearing I found myself in being especially acute, thought there was no sign of Anna’s body or, indeed, any other presence other than my own there. Dried, brown blood caked my arms, but my thoughts turned immediately to my quest. Thinking it best to regain my bearings, I headed back in the direction I thought I had most likely taken in the dark, in an attempt to find the road again and perhaps grab some supplies I had left in my vehicle in my utter haste to chase that figure.
It was difficult to ascertain just what distance I had covered in the midnight hours, but after a measured amount of time walking at a brisk pace, I felt certain I had been turned around by the homogenous composition of the forest. A gnawing doubt and fear possessed me, though strangely it was not one of death by exposure or starvation in the vast wilderness, but one of failing my intended purpose in coming here. The thought of not finding the witch of Nostre after travelling this far was unbearable, and I panicked in no small measure as I stood there alone. I wished now more than ever for guidance, but I knew that none would come.
I suddenly became aware of some sort of chilling sensation upon my hand, the limb that had so peculiarly held the hand of that woman in my vivid dream, the woman I thought I followed into the clearing. Even now, I could still feel that touch, and as I focused more readily upon it, I realised it beckoned me to some unknowable place, leaving a trail my mind could follow. The revelation shook me, for surely that spectre of Anna had been the one who led me astray all along, taking me deep into the unknown for some nefarious purpose. Not like the hand that guided me now, which reached beyond the physical realms to pull me ever onwards like a rope that tethered divided dimensions.
I followed, and with mindless intent circumnavigated the woods that sprawled infinitely in all directions. I pondered a lifetime of choices and conceit, always being sure of my decisions and feeling so right in what I accomplished. I followed for so long what I had seen as the right path, because I had been raised to believe in such a thing, a normal life full of education, friends, marriage. And now it all seemed so hollow compared to what stood before me, what I could feel right now in the palm of my hand, the force that I could scarcely conceive of merely weeks prior. What changes had come over me, I could not guess in their entirety, but I would not be where I am now had they not fully overtaken me.
There is such an apparent weakness in men, for they are so easily seduced. Like Adam, and Paris, and Epimetheus, their passion leads only unto ruin. But are women not also seduced? Did Eve not hearken to the serpent, Helen to the gentle hands of a Trojan prince, Pandora to the keen mysteries of a box gifted by the gods? Though seduction may take the form of a woman in story, the temptation is offered by powers truly out of human control and comprehension.
I wondered what power had tempted Anna. She was having a night out with her sister, she said. The early morning twilight heralded her return, disheveled and exhausted, a cold sigh her only greeting. I don’t remember how I felt. I’m not sure I knew what to feel. What power, then, tempted me now? What brought me here into the wild, pursuing rumours and legend for the sake of some passionate fantasy? Surely Aphrodite quickens my heart, and the Devil gives speed to my feet. Surely this is out of my control.
Dusk fell, and I trekked ever onwards. The light of the falling sun filtered through the canopy of trees, giving way to a haunting eldritch light that lent the floor an otherworldly glow. The familiar warmth of my home and all the possessions therein felt planets away now, as if every hour that I had walked, my feet had found purchase on the stars and sent me swimming into some unknowable void far beyond the reach of man, far beyond the earth that binds its inhabitants in body and soul. I do not remember how long I trudged in darkness when I suddenly found myself gazing ahead at a bald termination of the treeline that gave way to a gulf of some unknown origin.
I parted ways with the vegetation and found myself on some sort of loamy shore, the gulf revealing itself as a vast body of water that stretched to the horizon in all directions, forwards and to the sides, still and ominous as a mirror. As I looked deep into its depths, I beheld the twilight cosmos gleaming brighter than I had ever witnessed, and I wondered just what remote place this was to allow such an unpolluted and clear view of the heavens. The moon itself was full, and larger somehow than the sun at its zenith, stretching to ponderous proportions unheard of on this earth.
I sat full of awe, imagining again that I somehow found myself on some distant world of altogether alien quality. The perfect, unbroken line between lake and sky mesmerised me, and it seemed to me the the water held no mere reflection; as it were, the stars twinkled and flickered in the deep as if they were composed of a flame that lived within it, incomprehensible as the sickly illumination of the moon which lurked like a giant, submerged beast.
As I marvelled at this, echoes stretching across the vast deep reached me, faint and impossible to discern. I shut my eyes to the fantastic sights that drew me and listened, recognising the sounds as the ever playful laughter that so haunted my journey. I gazed once more across the water and espied a figure bounding in the centre of the water-cradled moon. It danced a ballet of sorts, leaping and spinning across the surface in a haunting display. Even from this distance, it seemed to beckon me with its movements. The witch called me to her.
That siren song which pulled me irresistibly for so long was within reach, if I could only but stretch my hands out to grasp it. Without a thought for the consequences, I stepped forward. And again. And again. I gained speed, first loping, then sprinting, then veritably flying over the water. The woman who lurked in my dreams at night, whose face I had never beheld, but whose voice soothed like a melody crooned softly in the night, drew closer with every step.
As I passed over the breadth of the moon’s reflection, she turned motionless to face me, thought the light from above and below obscured her features to a mere blur. As I drew closer, I heard her giggle one last before raising her arms like a puppet being drawn into the air by its strings, then falling flat backwards as if they had been abruptly cut. There was no splash, no noise, just the oppressive silence left in her wake as her figure sank from sight beneath the surface. With a few swift movements I followed her, diving head first into the depths.
What followed was an indescribable sensory experience, one which I could not hope to fully convey through the medium of words. Rather than the familiar feeling of water enveloping my body, I instead felt as though my entire frame was stretched over some incalculable distance, feet still raised above my head as I reached out with my hand. I felt as if I could simultaneously grasp the bottoms of the deepest ocean and the farthest stars above my head, had I been in such a state on the earth I had known. This place was something altogether different, composed of lights that trailed by both at lazy, meandering or blazing fast speeds, accompanied by a feeling of incredibly thick air, almost liquid in its composition, that slid over the length of my body as it was sucked farther and farther. The pressure was immense, and I felt as if I was being slowly crushed by this hideous vacuum, a ringing festering in my ears that cracked my head asunder and caused me to cry out in horror, though it made no discernible sound. My vision faded utterly, my limbs cracked under the incredible strain, and my skin was ripped from my bones from the friction of the aqueous atmosphere; I lost myself in that void.
Consciousness once again found me facedown on some sort of soft terrain, the measured rush of water behind me. When I finally picked myself up, I saw that I had washed up on a small beach, the sound I had heard being the tide of the water gently lapping at the shore. My clothes and body were completely dry, a fact I puzzled over but was immensely grateful for given the chill that hung in the air, which was corroded with a mist thicker than any I had witnessed on the New England coast. Cautiously, I penetrated the fog and walked along the shore, leaving shallow footprints behind me as the only mark of my presence. I had walked for no more than ten minutes when I saw ahead of me my own footprints, leading me to conclude I had landed on a small island of approximately one mile diameter.
I plunged further inland, sand quickly giving way to tall fronds of a sickly grey grass that came up to my knees, the moisture on it clinging to my trouser legs as I walked. I saw nothing but white ahead, at first, but then a large shape loomed up, a great shadow in the mist that ached of something wholly unnatural and caused me to shiver, clutching my arms tight against my sides. Soon I saw scraps of wood and stone foundations, blackened by soot and blasted apart, realising I had found that fabled abode; that which was burned by an unexplained fire centuries ago, crumpled to utter ruin now in the midst of an unseen ocean, and erased from the world for the sins which had been committed there.
I passed a threshold I imagined was once a doorway, noting the dilapidated and scorched remnants of wooden walls and floorboards that marked the sanctum of the forgotten home. Numerous scratches and marks adorned several of these, depicting strange figures, beasts, and hieroglyphics altogether unintelligible and unlike any I had seen. Limping around every room, I finally spied a square plank on the floor, peculiarly well preserved compared to its surrounding furnishings. It was indeed a trapdoor, with a heavy, cast-iron ring that I grasped in my hand and flung open. Wooden steps descended into darkness, and I knew in an instant she was there, for a haunting laughter seemed to drift up to me.
I strode down the steps slowly, allowing my eyes to adjust to the dark in the cellar, before I reached the bottom and found another door, which swung open at my touch. A ghastly, fetid odour assailed my nose like a foul breeze as I gazed into an inky void, though here a soft light flickered several feet away, produced by something that waited on the other side of the spacious room, orange rays peeking out from some door frame. Disoriented, I stumbled in the darkness, noting the floor seemed to be wet with some unknown fluid, causing me to slip and tumble to my side only to make contact with some large object. I found my balance quickly against the lump, pushing myself back up only to freeze with alarm; sounds of worried creaking chilled my blood before I realized whatever I had crashed into was swinging from some chain no doubt suspended to the ceiling.
After a few tense moments, I reached out, feeling for the object and finally brushing it with my fingers. It was soft, and I recognised it was covered with some thin cloth. The shape was familiar, though I couldn’t quite picture just what it was, and I hastily withdrew my hands upon encountering a patch of something sticky and wet. I turned back to the light, noiselessly traversing the dark and brushing past several more objects whose touch filled me with supreme dread as the stench of the room caused my eyes to water and panic to well up inside me. I reached the door at long last, opening it and causing the light of several candles to illuminate the space behind me. A grim realisation had struck me, confirmed in no small part by the rivulets of red liquid I could see at my feet, and I dared not look back behind me, lest madness seize me completely.
Closing the door behind me, all the while keeping my body pointed ahead at the candles, I walked forward and beheld a small, wooden box, crude in design but well made. Two latches held it closed, and I undid them with trembling hands. As I lifted the lid, a sense of final ruin found me there, alone as I was in this dark cellar on a haunted island in some hellish dimension far removed from the earth I once knew; for I had finally found what I was looking for.
She’s still here, you see. I saw her. She’s beautiful, even more tragically beautiful than I had imagined. I can hear her screaming now. Do not weep for me, for now we shall finally be together, in this place ripped from time that drowns in mist and the sound of her banshee wails. For this is what I wanted.
Samuel Canerday was born in Loveland, Colorado USA. Drawing inspiration from nature, history, and the night sky, Samuel hopes to craft stories that are lasting, impactful, and, above all things, human.