This Week’s Prompt:130. N.E. region call’d “Witches’ Hollow”—along course of a river. Rumours of witches’ sabbaths and Indian powwows on a broad mound rising out of the level where some old hemlocks and beeches formed a dark grove or daemon-temple. Legends hard to account for. Holmes—Guardian Angel.
The Prior Research:Witches’ Hollow and Devils Den
Martin Alexander was an unwelcome sight in the town of Fairbrook. Now, the people of Fairbrook considered themselves hospitable and properly so, offering food and shelter to those in need—often without question of why they found themselves in need. But Martin’s story was known to them already—had been for months now. Maritn had been involved in some unfortunate business down river, and set out on his own rather than make peace about the matter.
As he had no kin in town, and little money, he had been a lingering shadow over the town for months. He helped where he could—he repaired roofs, he carried parcels, that sort of thing. Martin had never planned on staying in Fairbrook long. It was close to home, which meant people knew him. But it was close to home, and people knew of him. So once he had some money saved up, he left town with his dog. He had all he needed to try and raise his own farm out of town some.
Back then there wasn’t as much worry about buying deeds to land or the like. That happened, sure, but not everywhere—plenty of places that if you asked the law, no one lived on and never had. Martin made his way to one of these places, in the shade of a large hill. He figured, rightly, the hill would give some clouds pause, making sure it rained around his farm.
He built himself a house near that forested hill—the trees on the hill where thick, and he considred if they’d make for good timber. But something about the blackened bark and heavy shade convinced Martin that it was best they were left where they were.
Often we talk about places in that way, with regards to how they are changed by people. This is especially true of natural places—great mountains are mined, forests cleared, fields furrowed. We talk of places explored, and settled, and shaped. We deny places the power they have, the material’s capacity to shape the maker.
Martin’s dog, Darling, started barking one late autumn night. It stirred the lonely exile from his sleep, groggy and irritable. But the dog would not cease her warnings until Martin stood and came to the door. She scratched and whined and he cursed and swore. When that did nothing he lit his lantern, to see past moonlight, and opened the door. Out she shot, and Martin took in the serene and chilling autumn air.
And on the hill, he saw the trees sway—great storm winds from the sea pressing against their darkened timbers, the spear like tips bending about. The clouds over head passed and stalled over the moon as he looked—and faintly he saw dancing lights in the shadowed depths. Mostly he saw Darling rush and bark at the trees some, before trotting back proudly to the door.
“Did you get it?” Martin teased, staring into the black where Darling barked. Darling wagged her tail and sat at the door, ready with ears to defend the house hold. And the night passed, with only the thundering disturbances of a storm—the clouds over the hill having swelled.
The exception we make is when those places have persons in them. When a friend returns home, they return to old habits, old thoughts, and old patterns. We notice, when we see them again—they have their old accent for a time, their old way of moving and holding themselves. It is a part of humanity, not only to adapt our surroundings to our needs, but to adapt to our surroundings. To be both shaper and shaped, like a sculptor made of clay.
The next day, Martin decided to climb the old hollow. The lights last night were strange to him—he had heard tale of will-o-wisp and ghost light and others, but paid those story little attention as years went on. More worrying was the idea of strangers nearby. Conspiracy or other shapes in the woods were never good, and he wanted to know if there was something he should forget.
Darling came along, sticking close to Martin’s feet, ears down and pressing ahead. She growled at the occasional squirrel or other small rodent in the roots and branches, barked at a bird sitting on a dying branch. Martin scratched her head every now and then as his feet crushed grass and leaves. The orange and red strew across the floor, whipped by the wind, looked like a paper inferno.
At last, Martin found the spot—a pair of rocks rising like walls. Behind them, the top of the hill opened up—and down into yet greater depths. Martin stood at the edge and gazed down—into a deep pit that reminded him of a frog’s gaping mouth. Darling circled round, tail pressed down as she barked into the dark. The sound echoed down and down and down.
As he stepped closer, the ground cracked like glass—and looking down he saw a dried puddle of glass and white ash. The sunlight that trailed down into the dark shimmered against other strange drops.
Now Martin was not an educated man, but his mother had raised him to be smarter than most. And he knew not to meddle in things he didn’t understand. Things he didn’t grasp where best left to other folk. Despite Darling’s barking, he went down the hill and shook his head. Some damn party or something, nothing else. Probably just lamps in the storm.
But when discussing the shaping of man, we leave out his non-human counterparts. Or at least, in part. We talk often about how a pet might help one recover from grief, how surrounding ourselves with plants makes us more relaxed. If it is something we invite in, we accept that it could have sway over us, influence us. If we return somewhere, it may change us.
Martin’s first harvest was hard work—he was alone on his farm, except for Darling. He didn’t have the cash to hire out help, nor did he want it. The people of Fairbrook and him kept at something of a distance—he would come and buy or sell as he needed, and they’d oblige him. Sometimes they’d send for him, if there was some old job he’d done once that needed doing again.
Fall came with its storms shortly after. And again, a year past the strange lanterns, Martin foundhimself stirred from slumber—not by the barking of Darling, but by the roar and crash of thunder. It rumbled and rolled—rain danced on the roof, crackling on the wood and ready to slip in if it could find a crack. The wind was too heavy, the rain too strong, for Martin to consider again venturing out. The darkness and howling was overwhelming.
Martin had heard stories of locusts—buzzing masses of insects over a farm land. He had seen dogs as a boy, tame and wild, that roamed free in fields. He’d seem them hunt and chase, barking after a rabbit or raccoon. Martin didn’t know what had the wind so hungry as it howled, so enraged as it buzzed and battered about. He hoped it wasn’t him.
What roused Martin out of the comfort of clinging to his bead, staring at the ceiling as the storm shook the entire world around him, was something comparatively small. A knock at the door. Three quick and heavy knocks. His mother had raised Martin right—that in desperate times, you should help those around you. And anyone out in the storm, well, they would certainly need some help.
Now, Martin didn’t mingle much with the high society, such as it was in Fairbrooks. He knew a man and woman of no small means, however. They had layers of fine clothes, and the man took off his beaver cap and smiled at Martin.
Far less freely comes the acknowledgement of how those surroundings, still wild, still unkept, might shape us. How the mountains and forests might imprint upon a man certain dispositions. How even the patterns of wind and rain might shape the mind. These we exclude in the modern age—we embrace them only when we discuss the material forces accepted into culture. The way one gathers food, this we permit to shape us. The shape of the river itself, we are loathe to admit.
“I hope not to intrude too much, good man.” The man at the door said, his arm around the young lady, helping her stay steady. Martin glanced at them, his hand still on the door. “But we have had a most unforuntae accident. We need a place to stay, only for the night.”
Darling, at his side, growled at the two. She did not like there smell, it smelled of rotting things to the old dog.
“I’d love to, I would really love to sir, but I’ve only got the one bed. We don’t get many guests out here at any time of the year.” He said, scratching his head and opening the door some so they could see the small size of his little cabin.
The man waved his hand aside.
“We need only a night—only a night, good sir, until the storm passes. Can you spare a blanket for the lady, and a store room to sleep in?” He made his way in, Martin stepping aside out of some reflexive politeness.
Despite himself, Martin couldn’t deny he had a floor and some blankets. And if they were really out in the storm, at this hour, this desperate, he couldn’t in good conscience turn them away. The storm was dreadful outside, and Fairbrooks was a fair bit away. So he showed them to his store room, offering the two a blanket he had. The man thanked him.
When he went back to bed, Martin thought on that some. It was strange that the woman never said a word to him. Didn’t even look at him.
Stroking his beard and scratching Darling’s ears—the poor girl was nervous with strangers, and the thunder had her on edge. Eventually, they managed to get some sleep—though Martin fastened the door shut. He wasn’t sure he trusted those two quite yet.
Yet can we deny that the regular flow of the Nile, its floods every year so predictable that one can mark a clock by it, shaped the divine images of the Egyptians? Can we not see how the turbulent Euphrates and Tigris gave rise to equally petty gods in Ur, unpredictable and ravenous? We are not metal shaping clay, we are clay shaping clay, and shaped by it in turn.
Martin never saw the man and woman leave. He woke when it was past noon, Darling’s barking hoarse. The two of them had left, that was certain—nothing but the blanket was in the store room. The blanket and a small bag, tied tight. He lifted it and felt its weight—heavy for its side, and full of something soft like sand—and something heavy in the middle, bout as round as his thumb.
Martin shrugged off the strangers departure, after checking that nothing of his had been stolen. Not that he had much to steal. As he stepped out onto the grass to begin his day, he heard the familiar crack of ash-white glass beneath his feet.
So this story is one where I ran into the deadline fairly quickly. I hope I captured something uncanny here, a feeling of wrongness instead of just horror. I could see turning this into a proper novel or longer form story at least—there are ideas I wanted to play with that simply didn’t have the time to examine. Next time, we’ll be going back to strange lights in the night—the faux fires that flicker in the woods! See you then!