Effie Wickes finds herself struggling to deal with her mother's death...
Effie unlocked the cabin door and was greeted by a chorus of meows and trills as Nimbus bounded toward her from the kitchen. She picked the kitten up and snuggled her against her chest. She hadn’t forgotten to find a small toy for her companion and reached into her pocket to pull out a twig with a few leaves still attached.
‘Hopefully this will do for now, Nimbus. I couldn’t find much else worthy of your time.’ She laughed, placing the kitten on the floor with the stick. Nimbus went for it, batting at it with a ferocity only a kitten could muster. ‘How about a nice warm bowl of milk while I drink some tea?’ No response from her furry friend, Effie decided to warm the milk anyway, knowing that Nimbus would be grateful in her own feline way.
The house was cold, but as she loaded another log into the stove and lit a match, she had a feeling in the pit of her stomach that she was not alone. A chill ran down her spine as she attempted to ignore the thought, but her mind would not allow her to push it aside—there was someone, something, there, watching her. As if to confirm her suspicions, a creak from the back porch alerted her and she stared through the window into the night.
Nothing. No one. She was alone save for Nimbus, but the feeling of being watched was growing, becoming more and more undeniable. As she moved to pour the boiling water into her cup, she heard another creak, this time just in front of the window. Refusing to look up, refusing to acknowledge it at all, Effie turned away and put down the milk saucer.
The word made her jump, and Effie turned to face the window, placing her hands on the counter to steady herself.
Theola… it came again, this time closer, deeper, laced with both curiosity and longing. There, as if it were a reflection, appeared a face in the window—a man, no older than his thirties, stared at her. She screamed, backing away from the window, falling over a chair that sat near the dining table. The face disappeared, but a creak on the porch signalled that whatever it was—whoever it was—had moved toward the back door. The knob turned and rattled against the lock, the door shaking with the force the proposed intruder put against it. Effie scrambled out of the kitchen, still on the floor, and pulled her cell phone from her purse. She dialled the emergency number, her hands shaking.
‘What’s your emergency?’ A voice asked from the other end of the line.
‘There is a man trying to break into my house.’ Effie breathed into the receiver. ‘He is at the back door.’
‘All right, ma’am. Where are you currently located?’
‘Number 1732, off Norswood Road.’ She answered. She heard typing on the other end, and then the operator made a sound acknowledging the location.
‘I have a unit en route now, ma’am. Would you like me to stay on the line until they arrive?’
‘Yes, please. I’m alone except for my kitten, and I’m concerned.’
‘Of course. Why don’t you tell me about your kitten?’
For the next five minutes, Effie described Nimbus to the emergency line operator, all the while splitting her attention between the woman’s hems and haws. It seemed like an eternity before she heard the siren turning onto her driveway. A knock on the door echoed in the house, and the rattling back door stopped. Effie dropped the phone, expressing to the woman that the police had arrived, and jumped toward the door, unlocking and throwing it open.
‘Hurry, I think he is leaving!’ She begged, pointing at the back door. The officers entered the living room and made their way through to the kitchen. One of the men checked the window over the sink, looking back and forth, while the other unlocked the door and stepped cautiously through to the back porch.
Effie remained in the living room, Nimbus sitting on the arm of the couch beside her, her cell phone still on the ground.
‘How are you feeling?’ Vincent asked—Effie adjusted the phone, holding it between her shoulder and her ear, as she stepped into the dress she had found in her mother’s box.
‘I’m still a bit rattled from the whole experience, but I think I’ll be fine once I’m out of the house.’ She responded. She still had the feeling that whoever had been trying to get in was still watching her.
‘Why don’t I head on over and wait downstairs while you finish preparing for the celebration?’
‘I’d like that, thank you.’ Effie said, smiling at the phone. ‘I’ll see you in a few minutes, then?’
‘Indeed.’ He responded, laughter in his voice. ‘I’ll be there soon.’
‘Thank you, again. I appreciate it.’
‘My pleasure, Miss Wickes.’ He disconnected the line, and she put her phone on the vanity. In the pit of her stomach, she felt a knot form, completely different from the fear she had felt earlier—no, this knot was twisting and turning, causing her grin into the mirror in innocent excitement. She clasped the pearl around her neck and straightened her dress, smoothing the fabric around her waist and hips.
The sound of a gentle knock on the front door alerted her to Vincent’s arrival, and she made her way downstairs to let him in.
‘I dropped Wyatt at the Anderson’s estate earlier—he wanted to be there to meet his date.’ Vincent laughed. ‘He has a crush on a girl in his class and asked if he could escort her to the celebration.’
‘Did he actually use the word escort?’
‘He did.’ They both laughed as Effie offered him a seat on the couch.
‘I’ll only be a few more minutes.’ She explained, stepping onto the bottom stair.
‘Take your time, milady. The adult festivities don’t begin for another forty-five minutes.’ She gave him a smile as she disappeared up the stairs and into the bedroom. As she sat at the vanity to finish her make-up, she noticed a small box sitting on the bed, which hadn’t been there before.
Her heart raced, pounding against her chest, and she gasped in a breath of air. Someone had been in the bedroom, someone had been in the house—had they been in the room while she was dressing? Had they been watching her? She turned on the bench and looked at the box, her eyes wide.
‘Vincent?’ She called. There was no answer, so she stood from the vanity and, without taking her eyes from the box, moved toward the bedroom door. ‘Vincent!’
Footsteps ascended the stairs and he appeared at the door, reaching for her—she extended her arm, pointing at the bed.
‘Someone left that.’ She whispered.
‘Are you sure you didn’t leave it there and just don’t remember doing it?’
‘No, it doesn’t look familiar.’
She moved aside to let him into the room, and he lifted the box from its spot in the centre of the comforter. There was a piece of paper, no larger than a business card, on the top of the box.
‘For… Theola.’ Vincent read. ‘That’s your mother’s name, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. And the man that was trying to get into the house earlier was saying her name.’ Her voice shook, and she gripped the pearl around her neck, searching for comfort. ‘Do you think they’re related? The man and this box….’
‘I’m not sure.’ At least he was honest. Effie reached for the box and opened it, pulling out a small glass phial filled with something dark. As she held it up to the light, the liquid emitted a red hue.
‘Is this… blood?’ Neither Effie nor Vincent, had an answer. With a shiver, she replaced the phial in the box and closed the lid. ‘Whatever it is, and whoever it is from, I’ll deal with it in the morning.’
‘Why don’t you stay with me tonight, Effie. This house may not be safe.’
‘I appreciate that you are concerned, Vincent, but I’m sure I’ll be fine. Just… help me lock all the windows?’ He nodded in agreement and left to secure the downstairs as she finished at her vanity and locked the windows in the bedroom.
Music filled the night air, and from the front of the property, Effie could hear the joy and excitement of the celebration. Vincent closed the car door, his arm around her waist, and guided her to the candlelit path that led to the back of the house.
‘Trust me, I’ve been to a few of these, and they aren’t all that terrible.’ He whispered to her as they rounded and corner and were greeted by the Andersons.
‘Welcome, Miss Wickes! We are honoured that you accepted our invitation. Mr Kerslake, how kind of you to escort Effie this evening. Has young Wyatt already been settled inside?’
‘I brought him before I retrieved Effie, Mr Anderson. There was a bit of a scare out at her cottage earlier, and I went to give her piece of mind. I didn’t want Wyatt there just in case the situation escalated again.’
‘Oh dear! Young lady, what happened?’ Mrs Anderson drew Effie away from Vincent and led her to a table covered in a golden cloth with shimmering glasses and a fountain of wine. ‘Do tell me what happened.’
‘There was a man trying to get into the house. I called the police, but they weren’t able to find anyone around the property. I was still shaken when Vincent called to confirm our ride situation tonight. It really wasn’t anything to be worried about, Mrs Anderson—’
‘Carolyn, darling, please.’
‘Yes, of course. There’s no need to worry, Carolyn. I’m sure it was just a hiker, curious about a cottage in the forest.’
‘Of course dear, but please be careful alone out there. The forest is not a safe place most nights.’
Effie found her warning odd but put it out of her mind as she sipped the wine. The liquid warmed her body and tasted faintly of blackberries and lavender and chocolate.
‘Do you like the wine? It is another one of Norswood’s hidden treasures. We have a vineyard right here, and Mr Mason Burress is an expert at mixing flavours to create the most unique barrels of wine. This one is...’ Carolyn checked the label on the bottle that sat next to the fountain. ‘This one is Amour. I should have another bottle in the cellar if you would like to take it home?’
‘Really? Thank you, Carolyn. I appreciate that.’ Effie felt out of sorts, having been taken off from Vincent by the mayor’s wife and now having the woman offer her expensive wine. ‘I do think I should get back to Vincent before he wonders where I am.’
‘Of course, child. I do have a few friends I would love for you to meet, but that can wait until later. Go find your date.’ Effie waved and left the table to find Vincent, who had found a moment to slip away from Nels Anderson. He sat at a table, near a row of rose bushes, a glass of wine in his hand.
‘You were able to get away from Carolyn this soon?’ He laughed; Effie sat beside him and linked her arm in his. ‘I was sure she would have taken you on a tour of the house and the grounds before letting you go.’
‘You were my excuse.’ She responded, laying her head on his shoulder. ‘I also think that most people here would rather not be around me, no matter what they say. It isn’t a secret how my mother died, Vincent.’
‘I know.’ He leant his head on hers. ‘But, just so you know, I enjoy your company, regardless of all of that.’
Effie followed the crowd through the field to the tree-line, her hand grasped firmly in Vincent’s. Though she had enjoyed the dancing and the food and the wine, she was unsure about the ritual they were about to experience. Her mother had described the rite as simple and honouring the passage of time, but there was an ominous feeling to the air around her. She glanced back at the estate, the burning lights of the lanterns around the garden and beyond, the illuminated house where the children played, and for a moment longed for the naivety of childhood.
‘Hurry, we’re falling behind.’ Vincent whispered, tugging on her arm. She turned away from the house and followed the procession into the forest. They continued down the path, turning this way and that, around twists and bends and over fallen trees. Effie watched the line of people, each third member holding a lantern with a fresh candle; most of the people carried a small plate with an apple and a bite of bread (Vincent had explained that the food was an offering to be left at the end of the ritual), and two men carried a roasted pig hanging from a thick branch between them.
‘Come round, come round.’ Nels Anderson called, waving his arm in the air. Effie, her hand still gripping Vincent’s, stood beside him at the back of the group. ‘We are gathered here, at this sacred site, in the light of the moon, to celebrate the season and rejoice. Autumn is a time of harvest, a time to be thankful, but also a time for reflection—on life, on death, on the past and the future. May the next turn of the Wheel bring us love and compassion, abundance and prosperity, and fertility and life. Let us take a moment to remember our loved ones that have passed before us.’ The group fell into silent contemplation, their heads bowed—Effie had never witnessed anything like the gathering, and though her heart went out to her mother, she could not draw her gaze away from the people around her.
‘Now, we offer our best apple and our first bite of bread to the spirits of the season!’ Carolyn Anderson called, her voice jubilant. One at a time, each member of the group stepped forward and left their plate as an offering at the base of the large tree. Effie hung back, letting Vincent approach by himself. She was unsure about the entire situation, but knew that her mother had participated every year for as long as she remembered, and likely before her birth as well.
Once everyone had gone before her, and she was left alone to place her offering, she advanced on the tree with trepidation. There was hardly any room left, but Effie squeezed her plate at the base of the tree and took a step back and found Vincent waiting for her. She slid her hand into his and their fingers laced together, sending a jolt of warmth through her arm. He offered a smile but remained silent as Nels Anderson took his place at the front of the group.
‘We have a final offering for the spirits this evening. The prize hog, chosen today during the Festival. Carol-Mae?’ A young woman stepped forward, followed by the two men carrying the roasted pig, and she turned to address the gathering.
‘It has been a long time tradition to offer our best harvests at this celebration—apples, berries, grains, and meat. I would like to extend my thanks to those of you who have tended the orchard and the fields, and to those who have raised our livestock with love and grace. Our town depends on your hard work and dedication every year, but doubly so during the cold Autumn and Winter months.’ She turned and lifted her arms to the tree, and the men moved around her to lay the carcas on the ground before the tree. ‘May our offerings and our sacrifices bring satisfaction to those that watch us from these woods.’
A strong wind roared through the trees, picking up dirt and leaves and scattering the group in mock terror through the forest, back to the estate and the celebration. Only Effie, Vincent, and Carol-Mae remained at the tree. The young woman turned and clasped Effie’s free hand between her own, looking into her eyes.
‘I am so glad you were able to come, Effie Wickes. I understand that your mother has passed on, and I offer my deepest condolences. Perhaps the Gods will bestow you with a gift, as a compromise for your hardships.’ She left the grove and disappeared into the trees without another word, leaving Effie confused and Vincent silent beside her.
Effie woke before dawn, rubbing her eyes and stretching. The cottage was dark, and the forest beyond the windows and walls and doors was silent as she tied her robe around her waist and descended the stairs to the kitchen. The logs in the stove were still warm, and there were a few red coals left from the night before—she loaded a fair sized log and a handful of kindling into the belly of the stove and stoked the coals until a gentle flame roared to life. Placing a full kettle of water on one of the burners, she turned and rested her hands on the thin strip of counter in front of the sink.
She remembered the way her mother had tiptoed into her room, a warm cup of tea in her hands and a song on her lips:
Dawn greets the day,
Sparkles of sunshine,
Rays pour down through the trees,
My senses come alive,
They are moments to be enjoyed,
My life to be lived.
When the sun rises above the horizon,
The sky bathed in golden light,
A calmness settles over my soul;
I think of you,
My little angel,
And all the moments
That you have brought light into my life.
My heart sends love to you
And feels your love in every gentle hug;
Your smiling face,
Your ringing laughter,
A sunrise every morning in your shimmering eyes.
Effie hummed the melody, remembering how it felt to wake up to her mother’s soft voice whispering the lyrics, how comforting it was to open her eyes and see Theola’s smile. She fought back tears as the memories faded from her mind, overtaken by the sound of the kettle whistling and the mewling from the living room.
She poured the hot water into her cup and left it on the counter to steep—Nimbus found her sleepy way into the kitchen and sat just inside the doorway, her eyes still half closed.
‘Someone looks like she needs a warm pocket and some poetry.’ Effie giggled, swooping the kitten into her arms and kissing her on the nose. Nimbus sneezed against the kiss but let out a powerful purr as she nuzzled under Effie’s chin.
Cup and kitten and book of poetry in hand, Effie unlocked the back door and slipped onto the porch. She settled into the deck chair and propped her feet on the railing, letting the cup sit on the small table at her side. She opened the book to a random page and rubbed her cheek against Nimbus’ side, whispering to the kitten the poem she had found:
A dented spider like a snow drop white
On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth -
Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight? -
Portent in little, assorted death and blight
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth? -
The beady spider, the flower like a froth,
And the moth carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The blue prunella every child's delight.
What brought the kindred spider to that height?
(Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.)
What but design of darkness and of night?
Design, design! Do I use the word aright?
As she turned the page and continued reading poems to her companion, the sun shot its first rays through the trees, casting odd and somewhat terrifying shadows over the ground. She had sat with her mother, only two years before, in that same spot, watching the sun rise and reading the same poetry. There had been a time, once, that the day after the Autumn Celebration brought joy and a deep reverence in Effie for the seasonal shift and the land around her—but this dawn, sitting on the porch without Theola, seemed to inspire only pain and mourning.
Nimbus seemed to sense Effie’s emotional change and she stood on her chest just to nibble on her nose in that gentle yet playful way that kittens do. This show of trust and love brought a gentle laugh from Effie, and she gave the kitten another kiss on the nose.
‘I’m all right, baby. I just miss her so much.’ She ran her hand over the felines back and stared at the trees as the sun reached through the trunks.
She must have fallen asleep—Effie opened her eyes to the mid-morning light and heard the birds in the trees and the soft humming of the late-season bees. Nimbus had moved down to her lap, and she reached her arms out in sleep, releasing her claws to tell Effie not to move. With a soft laugh, she rubbed the tip of her finger on the bridge of the kitten’s nose and hummed in appreciation of the adorable ball of fur in her lap.
The sound of a snapping twig drew her attention away from her companion and to the far left side of the yard. There, bare feet caked in mud and a white dress tattered and torn, stood the same woman from the orchard. Her arm was stretched out in an invitation, and her eyes darted over the lawn, left and right and centre again as if she were anxious about her surroundings.
Effie lifted Nimbus from her lap, and in the most gentle manner possible, placed the still sleeping feline on the chair. She closed her book and left it beside her tea, only half gone since she had fallen asleep. As she descended the stairs of the porch, the woman took a step back—with every step Effie took, the woman moved deeper into the forest until she was running down the path. Effie followed, taking off at a full sprint, her intention to catch up with the strange woman. It seemed that, no matter how hard she pushed herself, Effie was always a few steps out of reach of the woman.
Effie watched as the woman disappeared around a bend in the path, and there, at the end, was the wispy grass of clearing. She could not see the strange woman but noticed that the clearing was the same one from her first day at the cabin. Hesitating only slightly, Effie picked her way into the clearing and saw nothing—the woman was gone, and in her place sat a water-logged, leather-bound journal surrounded by small patches of blue and mauve Asters. She took a few slow steps toward the book, but found herself apprehensive of the object—there was something in the air that inspired suspicion in her mind, and she turned in place to ensure that she was, indeed, alone in the clearing. Satisfied, Effie bent to retrieve the book and found it heavy with water and sagged under the weight of itself.
The woman did not appear to her again—not in the moments, she spent in the clearing, breathing in the crisp air, and not in the time it took her to walk back to her porch. Nimbus had remained on the chair, though she had woken while Effie was in the forest.
Effie took a last, long look at the entrance to the forest path, hoping to catch a glimpse of the strange woman, but there was nothing. With a final breath, she ascended the stairs and opened the back door and took her cup, the book of poetry, and the journal inside, followed by Nimbus.