This is the first of seven strange short stories that I will post this week. The idea came to me yesterday and it was all written today. It’s not easy writing a short story in a day…but if you work hard enough, anything is possible. I hope you enjoy it.
I am thankful for the first heavy frost of the year. It came during the night, and settled itself silently on the roofs in the village, the surrounding hedgerows and deeply furrowed fields. When I was a little girl, I would try and stay awake to see the frost arrive, to watch Father Winter cast his cloak across the darkened lands. But I was never awake by the time he passed. Waiting for the first sign of winter was something I always wanted to do with my young ones.
I need this cold weather to ice away the pain of the past years. My head had little respite before the cancer came. It has been a sore and broken place since the illness barged uninvited into the skull of my soul mate, and killed him within weeks, not months, as the big city doctor had said. If the dog wasn’t around, that would have been it for me. I would have found a quiet place in the woodland and ended it. I would have pitied the person who found me, but I couldn’t die where I’d lost everything.
It’s dusk by the time I’ve made it to the front door, and the dog is inpatient. I look in the mirror that has, for over forty years, hung in the hallway. It’s the first time I’ve done so in months. There’s been no need to. No school runs to do, no man to impress. But I can’t see my face for dust. My mother would have a fit if she was around to see the state I’d let her house turn into. I think dad would have been more understanding. He had a motto, my dad, ‘cleaning doesn’t fix everything.’
It’s four and a bit miles to Gallows Hill from my doorstep. It’s normally where I turn around with the dog and make for home. When I was a girl, Gallows Hill had the best slope for sledging, but even climbing the fence was forbidden.
Back then, I asked my dad why it wasn’t allowed. All he would say was, ‘the farmer will come get you from your bed. He’ll take you away, grind you up and make you into feed for his cows.’ I couldn’t have asked for a scarier deterrent. And despite the aching longing for just one long, fast sledge ride down Gallows Hill, I always turned away.
In later years, when we’d taken up making out in the bike shed over sledging, our English teacher told us why our parents didn’t want us on Gallows Hill. Our English teacher never brushed her hair and wore a necklace made of chicken bones. It was a day when we wouldn’t shut up. She stood on her desk and stamped her Dr Martens to get silence. She then relayed the story about how the last witches to be hung by the neck until dead were two children, the youngest to hang in all of England’s history. Their crime? Nobody knew. Perhaps they had spoiled their neighbours milk. Perhaps they had been seen navigating the village lake in an egg shell. Perhaps they had blighted the crops. No record was found of their crime – just the words witch after their names on a document packed with the names of other fated innocents.
The old PRIVATE sign from when I was a child is still here, though the farmer and his cows are long dead. The dog strains on the leash. He wants to get home. He starts to wine. The dark is falling fast. But I need to climb the hill. I put my hands on the fence. The old wood is damp and soft. I climb over. It feels like it’s going to collapse. I gesture for the dog to follow, to squeeze his body through the gap. My Irish Wolfhound refuses.
I leave him be. The grass cracks under my walking boots as I ascend. I feel my calves strain against the slope and then…then I see it, a wooden structure with stairs leading up to a platform and, struggling against thick rope noses two small children. I can’t breathe. My heart shudders in my chest. I reach out. I take one hand of one child, one hand of another. They feel hard and bitter cold. Their little nails dig into my palms. I let go, stagger backwards and I am alone on Gallows Hill. I turn to see the dog bolting down the lane. When I arrive home he is there, cowering by the back door. Leash in his mouth. I know he will not go back. The next morning, I give him up for adoption.
I’d have never imagined myself even educating the notion of going to a spiritualist church before this, before I climbed Gallows Hill. But I don’t know if I have any other choice if I’m wanting answers. I’ve watched umpteen programmes on television, demystifying it all, saying that the mediums are power hungry, greedy exhibitionists who prey on the grieving and the vulnerable. I take the bus to the next village over where it’s happening. It is the first time I have left the village in over four years.
The low roofed community centre is heaving and stinks of damp wool and bad coffee. I see and avoid some familiar faces and take a seat in the back row. There’s about fifteen geriatrics sitting in the front two rows, notebooks and pencils in hand. Three Goths hang around by the coffee machine. The rest of the audience is made up of odds and sods. The medium, who comes out to light applause from the geriatrics, is a woman. Middle aged with a tight top knot, Her hair looks too well groomed and her outfit too well matched for someone who apparently spends most of their time communing with the dead. But spirit by spirit, she unveils the dead. I can hear people whispering. I see them quickly jerk their head in my direction. They all know.
When she talks about the twins, I say nothing. I stay in my seat and keep my hands in my lap, one crossed tightly over another. She brings the twins up three, four more times. She looks in pain, and her palms rarely leave her forehead as if she’s experiencing a terrible migraine.
One woman raises her hand, but the medium dismisses it, before finally ending the event early. She makes a beeline for me, and the agitated audience starts to disband towards the tea and coffee, but I hurtle outdoors and into the dark. On the bus home I sob openly. The driver doesn’t look back once. That’s just how it is around here. Outside, the first snow of the year starts to fall.
The winter night has muted all sounds. As I move through the snow and up the hill in broken steps, I think of stories I can tell to calm them in their tight struggle. Every night the struggling eventually stops, and they are still as still can be. I take this time to look upon their faces. Sometimes I sing to them, sometimes I cry.
The winter drives on. The worst we have had in over a century. But I have a purpose now, snow or no snow. Frostbite isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I never needed my big toes anyway. I tell the children stories of castles, of open fires and feasts with turkey and cake. I tell them they are much loved. I tell them that it wasn’t their fault. Every evening, I stand with them and wait as the hours drain away. I wait until the sun steals them for another day.
At night, the villagers gather at the bottom of the hill and point. They hold torches and flasks of tea. I can see their cups steam. Nobody knows who owns the land now, the farmer left no will that could be found. Some of the villagers shout, but the only words I can make out are ‘lunatic’ and ‘death.’ They think I’ve lost the plot. They never stay for too long, and they never climb over the fence. One by one, they all turn around and make their way back home, leaving me standing, hands full, on Gallows Hill.