A roiling, biting agitation took me when I first began to see her. A figment, a shade, her presence just out of sight. Always out of sight. My heart would give a lurch, though I knew not why, and despite my best attempts to capture sight of her movement, she would always flee in the flickering of an eye, leaving confusion and a disquieting sense of isolation in her wake.
Upon coming to the village, almost too small to warrant even that generous a title, I found a kind of spirit shared among its people that I had never before seen. A nameless, nagging worry seemed to weigh on them, dusting their shoulders in a film of secrecy that could not be cleansed away, no matter how scalding the water, or abrasive the scourer.
Each pale, drawn face told a story of the quiet terror gnawing upon their bones; tired muscles coiled well past exhaustion twitched every now and again in response to something I could not yet even begin to fathom, and fear carved permanent valleys across brows that should have been smooth. Even the most hollow of gazes could pierce me through if I challenged the wisdoms they believed would safeguard them.
Don’t give her your name!
They spoke with voices raw and strained as they tried to make me understand whenever I attempted introductions. I wanted to ask why they did not leave, but before I could take breath to voice the question it curdled on my tongue, leaving a bitter residue in my mind. My head ached from their warnings, which beat against the confines of my consciousness like ravens, caged and furious.
With sloping shoulders and haunted gazes, a crazed fervor would come upon the villagers, compelled at times to speak by brief moments of acute lucidity. Arms once slack proved strong beyond measure when they groped for me, tearing at my clothes and flesh as epithets of caution flew from their lips in harsh whispers. Their warnings seemed to burn in my ears.
Don’t listen to her!
She sang the melodies of a child with a melancholy that turned my will to sorrow and set a glaze over my eyes that let me see through distant veils to a time that was not my own, to a life beyond me that I could only sense in blinding flashes of loss and regret. In these moments, my body was taken by a violent terror born of the wicked cold that filled me to the point of madness, and of the strain it put upon me to shut her out. Each time it seemed I might succumb to her call, my heart slipping further and further into the welcoming frost of her child-song, something Other would haul me back from the brink.
The nights passed with silent meals taken in a quiet hall with dead-eyed men and lonesome beasts, their attention focused only on that which lay before them. My attempts at pleasantries and conversation were met universally with the same empty expressions; that heavy-lidded determination to keep me at arm’s length, lest my ignorance seal their fates. It set my heart to racing and my nerves on edge just to watch them all like that, night after night, until an uneasiness dwelt within my stomach, too, like a stone around which all my meals churned until I could not even sleep.
Don’t look at her!
I saw her shadow. She crept upon me in the lonely streets and slithered through my thoughts. The sound of her voice filled my veins with ice until my hands and feet went numb. I drifted through the moonlit alleys like a revenant, walking the precipitous line between the world of the living and the world of the lost. Beckoned into the darkness by her singular lullaby, I found myself wandering more often than not, unconscious of my own movements until I stood mere meters away from Czern Lesovitsa’s lone bridge, which led to the bleak Black Forest, for which the village had been named.
The wood was old, dark with age as wood should not be, and the sight of it filled me with such a formless foreboding that no hearty meal, nor resolute hearth-flame could chase away the biting cold that grew inside my bones. There was nothing especially sinister about the bridge on its own, but the eye had a habit of avoiding its presence, of sliding away to anything else it could find in the moment. I found this to be especially true of the posts to the left and right of the bridge, which faced the village as grotesques upon a cathedral might face the world around them. Here, old engravings bore forgotten symbols, which hovered just beyond the realm of human understanding, and conjured images of spirits and creatures so strange that no amount of remembering could reproduce. The terrible glimpses of unfathomable horror became the half-remembered instinct tied to hopelessness and dread once one turned their back upon the crude carvings. I could only believe the bridge stood as a grim reminder of the things no man should ever understand.
Don’t let her in!
I came to fear her song, though it tempted so sweetly. I startled at the most innocuous of things, suddenly gripped by the conviction that it could be no other, that she was coming to prey on me in a moment of inattentive weakness. She called to me, and the longing I fought to see her face railed against my resolve until only a battered framework of determination fueled my thoughts and activities. Pleasantries and conversation I found exhausting to even contemplate, and an unusual silence rose up within me to fill the space that had once been occupied by the adventurous curiosity of youth. No more the flush of excitement in my cheeks, nor the bounce of life’s zest in my carriage. It was effort enough to merely exist, and even that much stretched me to such a degree that I felt as thin and insubstantial as a sheet of velum caught up in an endless storm of howling silence, where lightning strikes mute and sourceless across the raging vortex sky.
A fog gathered in my mind, a weary mist that shrouded who I had been. Memories jumbled themselves together like the shattered fragments of a once majestic stained-glass masterpiece, its pieces moldering and tarnished where they had fallen. I began to forget why I had come to the village. What had been so vitally important that I drop what I had been doing at the time and come immediately to investigate? My eyes grew dull, and shadows the shade of bruises lingered beneath them as I adjusted to the kind of half-sleep I managed to achieve through the endless, hazy nights.
I lost the will to think, to question, to do anything but trudge from one pale obligation to the next. Eating and sleeping, these were obligations. I couldn’t remember what pleasure was, what it meant to enjoy a meal, or the feel of a good night’s sleep. I understood my village companions now, and why it was that echos lived, echos that had once been men.
She told me to watch, then, her voice more familiar to me than my own. Beneath the moon’s cold light, two men, in the grips of fever-visions no doubt, stood upon the bridge, that lone, forsaken bridge that memory could not place. I lingered, transfixed with no outward expression upon my face. I felt my stomach roll as it does when one is jolted awake by a dream of falling from a very great height. From this nightmare, however, there was no waking.
She told me to watch them, and I watched.
One man, one gaunt, frail figure, had made it nearly to the bridge’s center. A younger man, presumably his son, stood behind him, closer to the village by several steps. Together they stopped just shy of the bridge’s apex, and for a moment it appeared as though they were listening to something. I heard only silence. They grew still, as still as the grave, with distant eyes as they listened to what I, and the villagers around me could not hear. They listened. We listened.
In the silence, I thought I heard the thin playing of a reed flute, and then the screaming began. The sudden violence of their clamorous wails brought such pain lancing through me me that I thought I would go blind. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath beneath the oppression of the sound, and my body was overcome by such a tremor that I swore I would shatter on the spot if it did not soon relent.
The men moved as if on fire, though nothing the human eye could perceive burned upon them. They appeared to be fighting through some substance thicker than air as they fled the bridge for the relative safety of the village. Their voices rose up over the evening mist, a keening, piercing melody of torment that ripped away the shredded scraps of humanity that had not yet fled the soul. With halting steps, their movements disjointed and erratic, they stumbled toward salvation. Narrow arms wheeled and flailed about, striking their owners and each other, the sick snap and distant crack of bone against flesh played a horrifying cadence to their ghastly dance. The men lashed out at each other and at the bridge, kicking and battering and bloodying themselves to pieces in their attempts to escape an unseen power.
Above their voices I could discern the sound of singing, the same agonizing, otherworldly singing that made a body long for winter’s sleep. The child’s lilting song hovered above and in between the screams, which filled the village with the essence of their suffering, yet the delicacy of her mirth tempted me closer to that dark precipice of loss and abandon than I had ever been before. I felt her sorrow and her rage, I felt their torment and their pain, and I smiled.
I watched as the younger man reached the village soil before his companion, where he dropped to the ground in a miserable, moaning heap of crumpled legs and useless arms. Collapsed and barely conscious as he was, he would never see how, when her singing came to an end on a single, shrill note, his companion’s silhouette dissolved into a dark mist before a breeze that could not be felt by mortal flesh scattered it into the night.
Don’t let her in!
If terror had a physical body, it surely must be that of a terrible wave. Dread swept in before it like a cloud-shadow over the moon, bringing with it the knowledge that when it crashed it would be far worse than that for which I could possibly prepare. I stood, entranced by the sight of the now empty bridge, my heart racing as though I, too, had sprinted for my very life.
Don’t look at her!
She stood beside me. I could feel her, like the moist kiss of an autumn night, hovering at my hip. I looked down. An innocent face –beautiful despite the swollen purple veins tracing aimless paths across her cheeks – gazed back up at me with a loving smile too desolate for words. Something shifted inside me, like the lock on a door slowly turning, and I felt the door ease open.
The village was in a murmurous turmoil, oaths and prayers rising in fits and bursts as those who had assembled at the source of the screaming closed in around the prone man, still unconscious and broken at the foot of the bridge. Lost in the lightless onyx pools that were the little girl’s eyes, I could hardly bring myself to care. She reached out to me, her skin a sickly mottling of white and gray with the appearance of lace, and I rejoiced. I had no memory of moving, but found her delicate, frozen fingers pressed between my own, and an ominous peace spread from the hole in which I knew my soul should be.
Don’t listen to her!
She spoke to me, her voice a brittle whisper, as fragile as winter’s frost. A smile upon my face, I found myself kneeling at her side as a new kind of wailing rose up behind me. The villagers gathered around to perform the complicated gestures they believed would keep them safe, and I closed my eyes to listen to her sing. Visions of empty spaces too vast to comprehend, of hollow men with darkness where their mouths should be, and a creeping, crawling landscape of the sins of man swam through my mind, as pleasant to me now as any summer dream had been, once upon a time.
Gliding through these strange, pastoral horrors, her question shone, warm, inviting, and glistening as a heart still beating, though it rested in the palm and not a chest.
Don’t give her your name!
“My name,” I began, feeling shadows press around me like an embrace. The villagers gasped and reeled away, scattering to their homes to save what remained of their own pathetic souls. Though my eyes remained closed, I could feel the chilling reassurance of her smile, and a black euphoria welled within my core. I knew what I had become.
“My name is . . . .”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Adalind Monroe lives in beautiful Southern Oregon with four cats, two dogs, two other dogs, and a lizard named Obi-Wan. The lizard is definitely a Jedi.