A man reluctantly returns to his home after many years because his mother is dying...
|The Shades of Willow's Creek
My black crow quill scribbles out these lines reluctantly. The ink flowing out over the parchment in symbolic futility, for no language, written or spoken can capture the true horror of what I have experienced. Just as shadows on the wall convey only a dark reflection, a silent mockery of the living breathing beings who cast them; so my words like shadow puppets act upon the pages of my tale giving only a semblance of life, of experience, but not their true substance.
My mind has not yet fully recovered, I doubt it ever will. A merciful numbness has settled over me; like a child shielding its eyes from shadows in the dark, I dare not see, nor face, a reality so unwholesome and dismal to dwell upon it could only invite madness.
I watch with fascination as the flames ebb and flow eerily over a candles' blackened wick. The candle, once firm and graceful has been oddly distorted over time, devoured by the enveloping heat of the flames. My mind lingers in meditative contemplation of candle and flame and their crude resemblance to body and soul. From the open window comes a chilling breeze that makes the flames dance and flutter, struggling to remain alight, just as fate makes a man struggle and falter upon the unrelenting stage of his life.
But I have forestalled the dreaded task too long. No matter how much I should like to forget the events at Willow's Creek, the story must be told, if only to relieve the terrible burden of guilt that weighs so heavily upon my weary shoulders and causes me to suffer such bitter pangs of grief and deep regret. I must gird myself, strengthen my resolve and dredge up those painful memories, and at last, set pen to parchment and write.
Chapter 1: The Exile
I'd vowed never to return to my father's house. Our bond had never been strong and with my decision to enlist in the militia that bond had been severed forever. I'd been away for nearly ten years, but the pain and bitterness I felt was still as fresh as the day I left. Those years away brought me my first real taste of freedom and the hope of a life far from Willow's Creek.
If not for a letter from my dear sister, Amelia, I would never have returned. A lonely teardrop stained the rose scented envelope. Her despair flowed with the ink over every graceful letter, imbuing every word, every line, with hidden depths of melancholy. She wrote that our Mother was dying, just barely holding on, and praying to see me one last time.
How could I refuse? I am a proud and stubborn man like my father before me. But unlike him, I am not a reptile, not a cold-hearted snake. I'd adamantly refused to return for his funeral. I could not feign grief; nor could I so easily go back on my word, for me, it would have been a sacrilege.
But I could not leave my dear sister alone to face the burden and grief of our mother's death, nor could I abandon her again or willfully disregard my mother's dying wishes. I felt I had absolutely no choice.
My only companion on this journey was Sweet Medusa, an aging black quarter horse. Her hooves clopped in the soft mud as we rode slowly along the deeply rutted and overgrown trail. Solemn tears fell from the dreary clouds that somehow seemed to share my own gray mood. The wind softly whispered a warning in my waiting ear or perhaps it was only a vague premonition from somewhere deep within me.
Medusa and I trod the lonely miles together until, at last, we came to a fork in the road. I turned her head down a once familiar path. It led to a secret place where I often went to be alone, to hide after a cruel beating or to escape one. At the end of the path was a clearing overlooking the valley. From the ledge, one could see Willow's Creek as it wound through the marshland and disappeared into the tangled wilderness beyond.
I dismounted and stood on the edge, listening closely to the wind rustling nervously in the trees. Water ran over the ledge in ever-deepening channels exposing the roots of old trees. The roots grasped the earth, holding on for dear life like gnarled arthritic fingers.
I filled my pipe and smoked as I watched those dismal clouds move slowly across the eastern sky. Then tapping out my pipe, I reluctantly mounted Sweet Medusa again and we resumed our journey. Higher and higher we climbed into those densely wooded hills until at last, we reached the rocky soil of the winding path that led to Willow's Creek. I looked up from the trail and it loomed over me, dominating the landscape, the highest point for miles around.
Willow's Creek had seen better days; tall weeds grew around it, the gray paint was peeling and the wooden slates on the exterior hung loose and disjointed. Oaks had been planted there long ago, to form a barrier against high winds and to lessen the effects of erosion on the ancient foundation. Like almost all houses built at the turn of the century, it had a roofed front porch wide enough to accommodate a swing. But in my thirteenth summer, the swing had fallen from the rafters and was burned in the great pit behind the house.
Somehow the house gave me a strange impression as if it had been waiting for me. Watching from its' many high towers and windowed-gables. I'd been drawn back, as surely and inevitably as the pale moon draws the rising tides to shore.
I tied Medusa to the scarred old hitching post before the porch. My heart beat heavily within my chest as my riding boots thumped loudly on the wooden planks of the steps. The sound somehow strangely exaggerated in the dwindling twilight. I stood there like a lost man. Then summoning my resolve I knocked. I heard muffled footfalls coming quietly towards the door. It flew open and without a word, my sister, Amelia, threw her arms around me. She smiled deeply at me with tear-streaked eyes, sparkling lambent green. My senses were filled with her sweet warmth and the soft innocence of her embrace. It touched me deeply and made me regret the foolish pride that had kept me away so long.
"I knew you would come, I knew it," Amelia sighed.
Breaking my vow, I stepped across the threshold into my father's house. There, before me, in the hallway, stood the ancient longcase clock of polished black walnut. I remembered it tolling the hour both day and night. The familiar smell of the old house brought back painful memories. I had tried so hard to forget. To the right was the once elegant sitting room, a fire crackled softly in the hearth. Above it hung a portrait of my father; tall, hard and wiry, his features sharply chiseled, his eyes burning with an almost feral intensity. The artist had captured him well.
"Let me get those wet things off you, you must be freezing." Amelia took my coat and hung it there in the hallway. "Would you like some coffee?"
"That would be wonderful."
Amelia brought the coffee and we sat down on the red velvet love-seat, hardly speaking, it seemed to be enough that we were together. "Come -- you must see Mother. She's been waiting so long." Amelia lit a lantern and led me up the narrow, creaking stairs and then down the long darkened hallway to our mother's room. She looked up at me, nodding her head, encouraging me to enter. When I hesitated, she slowly opened the door for me.
There on the bed lay Mother. The light of the kerosene lantern played softly over her round womanly features, drawn now with age and pain. Her skin was pale and the veins showed through in unnerving shades of blue and red. Mother’s eyes were closed and she was barely breathing. I sank into the chair next to her and slowly leaned over. "Mother?" I whispered. Her eyes opened gradually and kindled like a flame when she recognized me, as if all the vitality left within her danced there in her eyes.
"Son," she sighed. I held her dry, yet velvety hand and looked into her eyes.
"There is nothing to forgive."
"Yes there is, " she said, insistently squeezing my hand. "Say you forgive me."
"I forgive you."
"You don't know what your father was like. When I first met him he was as gentle and honorable a man... until his dreams crumbled around him, life has a way... and he took the loss of our first so hard and it was fear of losing another that made him so harsh and unyielding with you." She stroked my hair, and whispered, "Son, son. Don't hold onto your anger."
The long case clock tolled dismally and I dropped my head into her lap and began to weep. "There he is - he's come from purgatory to see us. He says he is sorry now and we'll be together soon." I sat with her till Amelia said to leave her be; Mother needed her rest.
As we left her room, my sister noticed the look in my eye and said, "She's been talking that way ever since one of those mediums came through town. We had a séance here."
"In God's name -- why?"
"Whatever you may think brother, she loved him."
I took Medusa to the stable, unsaddled her, and dried her with a blanket. The conversation earlier that night had left me strangely uneasy and I found some forgetfulness, some solace, in caring for her. But when I returned to my room I was still agitated and couldn't sleep. The tolling of the longcase clock was nearly unbearable. I lay there reliving my past and brooding over my fading hopes for the future.
When suddenly I heard an anguished cry. Tossing the heavy quilts aside I scrambled from the warmth of my bed; threw on a robe and ran barefoot down the hall. I thought Mother was in dire need, but the voice I heard when I reached her door stopped me cold.
"It's my shame that I never stood up to you in life -- but this time -- this time! I will stop you." I could hear no other voices in the room and so I could only conclude that she was suffering from delirium. I was so terribly upset, something in her words struck a deep chord within me and my hands began to shake. Not wanting to disturb her in the midst of an episode, I quietly returned to my room.
As I climbed into bed, I caught a fleeting glimpse in the rain-splattered window of my father's face, leering obscenely at me, but when I turned back again it was gone. I told myself it was only an illusion, my mind playing tricks on me, distorting the oak outside my window into the image of the father I had feared so much in life. I couldn't bring myself to extinguish the lantern beside my bed. I cursed myself for being irrational, superstitious, but no amount of intelligent reasoning could match the blood-quickening fear coursing through my veins.
Chapter Two: The Draining
My Mother's condition deteriorated rapidly; fearfully she stared at shadows and mumbled to herself about the child she'd lost and long-dead relatives, some of whom I'd never known. Sometimes Mother would jerk suddenly as if she were being cruelly pinched. Through many a long night, I sat beside her bed, too worried about her condition to leave her alone. Heartsick, I watched as her life slowly drained away before my eyes.
Amelia took care of her during the daylight hours. Feeding her with a spoon, and wiping her chin as you would for a baby. She changed Mother's sheets every day and bathed her with kindness. Amelia never complained. She was always cheerful and pleasant even under the most trying of circumstances. My respect, my love for her grew stronger with every passing day. But the strain on her was all too apparent; dark circles formed under her once bright eyes and her silky rich hair became frayed and brittle.
Between the dismal tolling of the longcase clock, and my mother's bouts with delirium, my life became a nightmarish vigil. With dawn, my mood would lighten, but to rest, to sleep was only a forgotten dream. In the afternoons I would find myself nodding off, only to be awakened by that accursed clock. I began to despise it, but it was a family heirloom.
One cool and misty afternoon, I looked from the window of my room and saw the doctor's carriage in the yard. A quiet humble man he greeted me with an earnest handshake at the door and we went upstairs. I watched quietly as he examined Mother. Afterward, we sat in the kitchen and chatted over a pot of hot coffee.
He told me, sadly, that the village was plagued by consumption. I will never forget his words, "It's the damnedest thing." He sipped his coffee slowly, put it back down on the table and resumed, "Never thought I'd be attending the funerals of three children in one blessed week! There's talk of digging up corpses! There was case though -- I remember reading about it. Mercy Brown, I believe, in New England. When they dug her up she was still fresh as a daisy -- the consumption stopped, but that was a hundred years or more ago. Damn strange -- well, all this crazy talk is getting to me."
Several days later, I saw Amelia sitting on the stairs with her head in her hands. I sat down beside her. She looked up and said, "She's gone." My sister cried as I put my arm around her and she buried her head in my chest.
It was a small funeral. The few mourners there talked about my Mother's charity and whispered about the years of suffering and heartbreak she'd endured at my father's hand.
It was on the morning of the third day, after the funeral, that I began to notice signs of infection in my sister. Amelia was weak and lethargic, she tried to hide it, but I could tell she was developing a serious cough. I can't tell you how the anguish tore at my soul. How could I stand by and watch my dear sister waste away as my mother had?
In less than two weeks she was almost completely bed-ridden, it was only then she began to confide in me. I would sit at her bedside and listen to her simple dreams, dreams of a kind husband, a warm home, and lots and lots of children. We both knew she had very little time left, but we pretended. The doctor came whenever he could, but really, there was nothing he could do for her, other than deaden the pain and suppress the terrible cough.
Then one night with a weak and trembling voice Amelia whispered that Mother stood before her bed at night. Mother tried to drive him away, but she just wasn't strong enough. I couldn't make my sister understand that was impossible, they were both dead and buried. Amelia put her hand gently to my face, looked into my eyes and sighed, "The spirit lives on, dear brother." I wanted to believe it was only the influence of my Mother's delirious rambling, and my sister's obviously weakened condition that made her say such inconceivable things, but I feared she was losing her mind.
The following evening I must have dozed off in the chair beside Amelia’s bed when an ominous tolling of the long case clock awoke me. I heard her desperately crying out, "Get off me, get off me!" I leapt from my chair. Her arms beat the empty air, her hips ground up from the bed. I stared in helpless disbelief. I tried to wake her, shaking her shoulders and her eyes flashed open with unbelievably harsh anger in them.
"Oh, I'm sorry, " she said, the anger fading from her eyes, "hand me my bottle -- will you?" She gulped the powerful sedative desperately as if it were a glass of cool water.
"Do you love me?" Amelia asked with her head turned away, setting the bottle down gently.
"Of course I do, you know that."
Amelia turned her head back to look at me and said, "Then you must do something for me."
"Mother says you must stop him and there's only one way."
"You must open the coffin, cut off his miserable head and burn the body."
"Amelia -- I can't."
"I'll die if you don't! What harm could it do, if he's already dead? But if I'm right - you can end this."
"No harm? You want me to desecrate his grave and burn his corpse!"
"I want to live!" Then she asked with an edgy glare so unlike her. "You can't? After all he did to you! You hated him!"
"It's insane," I pleaded helplessly.
Amelia sat upright in the bed and grabbed my arms forcefully. "If you really loved me, you'd do it!" The strain was too much for her, and she began to cough convulsively and spit up blood, it spilled slowly over her lips and down her chin. She lay back; squeezing her eyes shut hard against the pain and whispered, "You said anything. Anything -- please you must... soon."
Chapter 3: Golgotha
I needed to get out of Willow's Creek the atmosphere was abysmally thick and heavy. Medusa and I spent the late afternoon in the hills. As I rode back, Amelia’s words played over and over again within my mind. So I decided to visit the family cemetery. As Medusa and I neared the little white picket fence that enclosed the graves she began to neigh, and retreat, tossing her head, half-bucking. I couldn't get her to go anywhere near those graves. Feeling a little betrayed and angry with Medusa, I rode her back to the stables and unsaddled her. She gave me a guilty look then and nuzzled my shoulder. I stroked her neck as she ate an apple from my hand. I couldn't stay mad at her.
I heard the long case clock toll as I climbed the lonely stairwell. Something in those reverberating chimes played eerily upon my nerves. The tolling grew more and more unbearable with every beat of my quaking heart. As I stood at last, at the top of the stairs it tolled again with a final heavy note. Suddenly desperate, panic-stricken, I ran down the hall to Amelia’s room and threw open her door. I saw her lying on the bed with her head and arms draped over the edge. Her eyes' were cold and frozen, staring reproachfully at me. Blood stained the sheets and the delicate ruffles of her satiny white gown.
I pulled my dear Amelia up from the bed, cradling her there in my arms, rocking her back and forth. "Forgive me, child, forgive me," I wept. How long I held her, I couldn't say, but then a squirming queasy feeling arose from my belly and the thought of holding her suddenly became abhorrent to me. I stood slowly and wiped the tears from my face.
The moments dragged on agonizingly, as I tried to touch her again. Reaching out my hand, then, withdrawing it quickly, like a child testing the heat of the flames, until it's burnt. I should have been stronger. I'd seen untold numbers of the dead, nearly ten thousand at Appomattox alone. But this... this was immeasurably different. This was flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, the still warm body of my lifeless sister lying before me.
Then cursing myself, ashamed of my weakness. I grimly set my jaw, steeling myself for what needed to be done, out of respect, out of love for her. I slowly neared gently touching her body, and then carefully arranged it there on the bed, folding her arms over her chest and lightly closing her eyes of cold fire.
Madness seized me then like some rough beast, and in the grip of monstrous insanity, I vowed to dig my father from the dank and dismal earth. I strode angrily to the barn, grabbed the wheelbarrow and threw in an ax, shovel, and some kerosene.
Gray clouds boiled in the angry sky and the ancient oaks swayed darkly overhead as I walked up the hillside to the family cemetery. I stared at the silent graves of my long dead ancestors. Opening the white picket fence I walked irreverently over their graves. Hour after hour, I dug in the rocky root-bound soil, until at last, my shovel hit the coffin lid.
The sunset just as I began scraping dirt from the dark surface of that oblong box. The lid groaned as I pried it free with the tip of my shovel. A sudden realization of what I was about to do swept over me, a last twinge of rationality. I laughed with mirthless abandon and tore the lid from the coffin.
Thunder rolled tempestuously across the heavens. Lightning speared the dizzying skies momentarily revealing the cadaverous face of my father. The skin was a ghastly pink, stretched tightly over the sharp contours of his skull, accentuating the angular harshness of his features. His hair always cropped short in life was now long and snaky, the nails grown long, curling and claw-like. A cruel smile twisted his thin lips. Fear, hatred, loathing, regret, a dozen emotions plagued me at once, but none so powerful as my insatiable desire for vengeance.
I dragged his remains from their resting place, slipping in the mud, struggling recklessly in the growing darkness. Grabbing the ax from the wheelbarrow I stood over the corpse and placing the edge on his throat -- I measured my stroke. Lifting the ax back, I swung down with every ounce of my strength and the stroke fell with sick thud, the force driving his now broken and half-severed neck deep into the muddy earth. I swung again and the ax cleaved through.
I stood in the storm staring at the grisly head, as it lay half-buried in the mud, rain-washing dirty rivulets down over his morbid features. Was it over, was it finally over, but what did it matter? My mind wavered precariously on the brink of utter lunacy. I knew I would never be well, never whole again. I would never escape the memories, the shades of Willow's Creek.
I pushed the corpse-laden wheelbarrow through the mud to the edge of the char-blackened pit and wearily dumped its' grisly contents. The headless corpse rolled down over the scorched earth to the bottom. I stacked firewood over it and poured kerosene on it.
As I lit the blaze it woofed loudly, sucking the oxygen from the air. The stench of burning flesh was horrific; yet, I stood there for hours in the rain, feeding the flames as if it were a living thing until only white-hot coals and bones remained.
Then I tossed in his miserable head. I watched as it cooked in the glowing coals of the pit. The tongues of flames licked at it, blistering and peeling flesh from bone.
Tired, wet and coughing, the mud clinging to my knee-high boots; I staggered back to the house. Willow's Creek waited breathlessly -- empty, still and cold. Wearily I opened the door and crossed the threshold. I climbed the winding stairs, pulling myself ever upwards by the strength of my will alone. With great relief, I finally reached the top of the stairs and walked slowly through the darkened hallway.
With a palatable dread that shook me to the very core, I suddenly realized I'd forgotten to close the door to Amelia’s room. I wanted only to absolve my mind of the memory of her death! Not to re-live the nightmarish vision, the spectre of her lifeless form, and yet, my head turned... and I saw her lying there so still, like sleeping beauty waiting to be awakened by a lover's kiss. An abysmal chill ran along my spine at the thought. I turned quickly away, stumbling over my own feet and scrambled down the corridor desperate to reach whatever sanctuary afforded by my room.
My endurance had been driven to its limit; I barely had the strength left to stand. I fell heavily onto the bed in my drenched clothes. I slept, really slept for the first time since my return to Willow's Creek.
The brassy tolling of the long case clock awoke me. I bolted upright in bed, wild-eyed and trembling. It was then I saw it, an unnatural wavering in the corner of the room, a deeper shade waiting among the encroaching shadows. There before me was a dark and misty vision of my own beloved sister.
Blood stained the lacy ruffles of her satiny white gown and a scarlet trickle spilled from her moist and pale, rosy lips. Her raven black hair stirred restlessly, flowing softly about her head. But I felt not the slightest hint of a breeze. How I prayed that I was dreaming or insane. Even insanity was preferable to the nightmare reality that confronted me.
My heart beat heavily within my chest; till I thought surely it would burst asunder, and yet, as the blood thundered in my ears a strangely curious hope awoke in me. Had I been wrong? Was she still alive, still breathing? Her body had been so tension-less and chill like a puppet without supporting strings, a wineskin sans the wine.
She moved slowly, languidly, catlike. I noticed that her bare feet hardly seemed to touch the floor; gliding as if she rode those same strange currents that played so freely, so wantonly, in her dark curling hair. Now she stood at the foot of my bed with a reproachful, yet hungry look in her eyes. She smiled eerily and spoke in a chill hollow voice, "The spirit lives on dear brother."