6st June, 1989:
Rob managed to get to sleep that first night after visiting the Witch’s Brew but not since. Sleep was only a memory now. They’d come home and Rob had run to the bathroom mortified at wetting himself. He ran passed his shocked mother, his dad on his heels, holding up a hand to his mum saying, “Don’t ask. Just don’t ask.” But of course she would.
Rob woke up screaming and his mum came rushing in. Then his dad woke up screaming hours later while Rob stared at his bedroom ceiling. That’s what he did every night now. He’d go to bed and listen to his parents arguing. It was just like it was before they moved from London. Once his parents were in bed he would turn his light back on unable to sleep, scared of what the dark would bring.
Richard Peters wasn’t sleeping either and four nights later they ran into each other in the kitchen. Both had sneaked down to get more water. They sat at the table, their eyes rounded with hollowing, grey rings. “It’s only a ghost story,” said Richard. “Our minds were just playing tricks on us.”
Rob nodded but didn’t believe him.
“I’m so damn thirsty all the time. You too?” asked Richard.
Rob nodded. They sat in silence for a long time before anything else was said.
“I’ll sort this out, Rob. I promise, I’ll sort it out.”
Rob nodded once more but neither of them believed it.
The following night, Rob lay as he always did, staring at the ceiling, with images of the Witchopper’s white face and black eyes staring back at him through his imagination, until one word cut through.
“Curse,” his mother screamed at his father. “Curse. Oh come on, Richard, for once in your life face up to it. You scared the boy stupid that’s all; and now you want to justify it with another story, another lie? When are you going to stop lying?”
“I’m not lying. I need to go to London to track down a specialist, an occult specialist. The Telegraph said I could use their archive and contacts,” explained Richard.
“Why don’t you just fuck off back to your little whore,” screamed Jane, a glass shattering against a wall.
“Jane, please, it’s not that. I…” another glass smashed against the wall. Doors slammed. Rob heard his dad run up the stairs. His mother came shortly after. Their argument raged through the wall. Richard stuck to his story. For once he was telling the truth, the whole truth, but with an irony an award winning journalist should appreciate he wasn’t believed. Ten screaming minutes later he was gone. The front door slammed and the blue Sierra’s door opened and closed. Then the front door opened and Jane stood shouting, “That’s right, run away, run back to your little floozy,” she screamed as the car drove off.
A family friend found him a week later, coming back from holiday after letting Richard stay in the spare room. He was on the floor of the kitchen, a glass smashed on the tile-effect linoleum floor. A man in his late thirties, the police and coroner were involved but death by natural causes was determined. The coroner suggested it was renal failure due to an undiagnosed congenital condition. Tim from the Advertiser helped Jane Peters collect the body in London to then follow the undertakers back to the funeral home in Newark, in a lachrymose procession up the motorway. In the seven-hour round trip Tim could remember nothing of what was said. It was silence interrupted by only a handful of automatic platitudes. That silence would persist until Jane found her voice again at the funeral.
29th July, 1989:
The gravestone hadn’t been put up yet. Rob laid some flowers he’d collected on the grave’s raw turf. Apart from the dandelions and daisies, he’d didn’t know what they were, just wild flowers or something that stuck out through a garden fence.
His mother still sleeping, Rob had got up at first light, sleepless as ever. There had been a manila letter addressed to him on the doormat. The handwriting on the front looked unfamiliar and when he opened it there was another envelope inside. This one white with his own name written in his dad’s handwriting. There was also a single sheet of paper folded in two. Rob opened it: A Daily Telegraph headed letter. Beautiful cursive script floated across the page:
I found this among your dad’s things at the Telegraph. He meant you to have it. I don’t know what it means.
Your father seemed very distracted and on edge the last time I saw him, which was only at the office when he came for research. There was nothing more to it, I swear. He loved you and your mother very much.
I hope it helps and I am very sorry for what happened at the funeral. When you are older perhaps I could explain.
The second letter was typed pages, with handwritten annotations in the margins and between the lines. Rob decided to go and read it, packing a flask of water and the letter into his school rucksack that lay idle since it was now the summer holidays. He closed the front door quietly, leaving a note on the kitchen table for his mum to read when the sleeping pills wore off. He picked the flowers on the way to the Minster’s graveyard. It was a glorious summers day. The grass was dry. Rob sat cross legged next to his father’s grave and began to read, trying to ignore his thirst.
Richard had summarised his research for Rob, however, it started bleakly with ‘I have nothing concrete.’ Rob had heard much of it before but there were a few new pieces about the Reverend Mosely and Giles Brennan. The Brennan stuff was too vague, just that he was a blacksmith, seemed to lead the mob along with the Reverend and that he died in his forge two weeks after the lynching. The Reverend lasted a month, only to be found collapsed next to the Minster’s great font, a cup in his hand and water spilt across the floor. Interestingly, the Reverend’s diary, though mad and rabbling in its final days, made reference to an ‘old god’ and the chapter house. Richard thought this referred to the Green Man or Jack in the Green, an ancient Pagan icon carved all over the Minster’s chapter house. The only other new detail was about the willow tree. Richard had found multiple references to it in the magistrates’ and doctor’s diaries as that was where the children’s bodies were buried.
It was a warm morning and Rob couldn’t resist his thirst any longer. He drank deeply, finishing the flask in one go. It left him feeling as thirsty and fearful as ever. No matter how much he drank it was never enough. Tired, he folded up the letter and placed it back in the envelope.
“I don’t know what any of that means, Dad,” Rod said over the grave. He looked around. The town was only now beginning to wake. “I guess a good journalist follows the clues.”
The lethargy gripped him and it was an effort to stand but the fear, which still squatted like a toad in his belly, propelled him on, slowly shuffling to the side of the Minster. His heart pounded in the quiet of the great church.
The chapter house was at the end of a short corridor off the main nave. Around its edge, about the width of a large willow tree canopy, were wooden seats set into the carved stone walls. Rob sat down and sighed. He was so thirsty. The green man looked down at him from all around. Was he a tree or a man? Rob couldn’t tell. He didn’t look scary, not like Mary Hooper had looked in the Witch’s Brew. By the measure of most medieval carvings, gargoyles and the like, he seemed almost friendly to Rob.
He couldn’t take it anymore, he needed a drink. His flask was empty and no shops were open yet. His mum would still be sleeping; her pills would wear off in an hour or so. It was less of a decision, more of an imperative, something inexplicable that drew him on. He left the church and headed back through the town. He passed the Witch’s Brew, then through the old market square and down the hill to the Burgage. He passed the old gaol and kept walking towards the derelict Victorian mill on the edge of town, where the stream ran.
The mill was boarded up with signs saying, ‘Development Opportunity,’ around it dust and gravel and pieces of rusty ironwork. Rob picked his way down the bank of the stream. The water was low but ran cold, sparkling with morning sunshine. He walked a little farther, his thirst gnawing at him, until the stream freshened away from the Mill. It pooled, twirling in welcoming eddies. Rob stepped into it up to his ankles, soaking his feet. He took out his flask and filled it from the stream. Birds sang: blackbirds, finches and a pair of courting wood pigeons. The water was cold and earthy but a whole flask didn’t quench his thirst. Rob sighed, filled up again and began to walk down the middle of the stream.
The stream edged the town, perhaps welling up from some ancient spring. Rod didn’t know. He just followed the flow of the water. He had nothing else to do, nowhere else to be.
Steeper banks became more mild, arching sensuously up from the waters across a field to the inviting shade of a dell. Rob picked his way up, feet squelching, passing hedges with the new bursts of elderberries and nettles that called in butterflies: Cabbage Whites and Red Admirals. Dock leaves sprouted here and there, in case any child should sting themselves on the nettles they could rub the leaves on the pimples. When he entered the speckled shade of the dell, wild garlic and cow parsley scented the air. It had the feel of a temple, vaulted and quiet, with halls and spaces separated not by walls but by tress and the natural undulations of the land. The older teenagers came out here. Drawn to somewhere away from the town’s eyes, to drink and smoke and hold each other. Their mess told of their petty-bacchanals, Friday and Saturday nights in the Springtime of adulthood.
At the far end of the dell, where the trees began to thin before opening to farmland is where it stood. Rob wanted to stop, to sate his insatiable thirst, and the old willow tree looked like the kind place he was looking for: an end.
Parting the branches revealed more rubbish from the teenagers. Empty cans of cider and beer, cheap glass bottles of German wine and cigarette stubs lay everywhere, but mostly in the small hollows that indented the circumference of the willow’s weeping canopy.
Needing a place to sit, Rob began to clear a space against the moss covered trunk. He picked up glass bottles and papers and moved them to the side and then grabbed a couple of crushed beer cans.
“Ow!” he exclaimed, sucking air in through his teeth. One of the crushed cans had sliced deep into Rob’s thumb and it was already bleeding freely. He plonked his backside down against the trunk, holding out his hand so as not to get blood on his clothes. It was thick due to his dehydration, falling in viscus droplets on to the roots of the old willow and on to the earth where the worms and the beetles writhed beneath, churning life back into life. He flicked more blood onto the ground, while fumbling inside his backpack. Rob found an old gym sock. Not the most hygienic thing but who cares he thought, wrapping it around his thumb. He’d bled on the old tree and he might as well take a rest there too.
Looking up through the canopy, soft greens and translucent yellows, it reminded him of stained glass windows in the Minster. He put the flask of stream water to his lips. He was so thirsty and he drank. He drank steadily and deeply from the waters of the town, from the waters of the land that had been there long before the town, and for the first time in a month his thirst was quenched. He was so tired, so terribly tired and only wanted to sleep. Rob’s eyes drooped in the dappled light, heavy with burdens.
Rob dreamt he was sitting against a trunk of a sacred willow. In front of him seven children played. They wore plain clothes of autumnal cloth, browns and greys, some with tattered shoes, some without. They silently giggled, creeping slowly, occasionally trying to bump into one another on purpose, always tiptoeing towards the back of a woman who stood with her hands over her eyes. Her hair was jet black and her shoulders rose and fell with the words of a nursery rhyme she sang.
If you see the Witchopper
Then you’ll come a cropper
Never mind how hard you try
If you look in her cold black eyes
Three of the children were nearly at her back, fingertips creeping out to touch her and end the game.
When it’s time to go to bed
Rob was now one of the children, his hand inches from her tatty crocheted shawl.
You’ll be sure to wake up dead
On that final word the woman spun around, coming face to face with Rob. Her eyes were preternaturally black within black, her face disfigured with a broken nose, her front teeth missing and her mouth in a rictus sneer. Rob wanted to scream and wanted to wake up. He wanted.
Once Dan was an academic but the sentences proved too long and the words too obscure. Northern Ireland is where he now lives. But he was born in England and raised in Byron’s home town, which the bard hated but Dan does not. They named every other road after Byron. As yet no roads are named after Dan but several children are. He tries write the kind of stories he wants to read and aims for readers to want to turn the page.Dan’s work has featured in The Incubator, Storgy and the horror magazine Devolution Z.
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Check out Daniel Soule‘s previously published fiction below: