This Week’s Prompt: 114. Death lights dancing over a salt marsh.
The Prior Research:Death Lights on the Marshland
My mother told me this story, which her grandmother told her. The fens on the other side of the wood, down the hills from us, have never been lived in. Everyone asks, when they get old enough to ask questions but still young enough to expect answers, why we avoid the fens. Surely, going through the old marsh would be faster than around. Especially in the Summer, when it was dried out.
They would tell us then of George, Geffoery and Gerald—three hunters that were out in the woods near the fens. They were well off men, the kind who could afford to spend their summer chasing a stag through the woods. It was a lucky day, despite the fog. Gerald had consulted an almanac for the weather before, and George had asked a local woman how the winds would be. So they set out into the fogged wood, with their hounds and their guns, looking for a stag or dear or bunny.
Yet they found nothing as they searched—not even a sparrow was in the woods for the day. The dogs were confused, barking and chasing shadows. Still, the three persisted in the woods, and out onto the empty fen. And it was there, among the grasses, that the dogs started barking—and soon gave chase into the high grasses and bleakness.
The three hunters turned to run another, and raced after their hounds. They had not seen such eager dogs on the dry fens. There was little that lived there, except rabbits and birds. But they followed the dogs, chasing and shouting after them encouragingly until at last they saw a deer running ahead, their hounds darting behind it. The creature’s horns were the most beautiful ivory white, like someone took down the moon and put it around its head like a halo.
The white-eared deer ran in circles round the fen, round and round. Round and round. But they could not catch the starling beauty, and night was fast upon them. So the three paused, alone on the fen that night, and turned to one another.
“I will go home—the stag is fine, but we have lost her.” George said, lighting his lantern.
“No, no I can hear the dogs barking—we are not far yet from the stag. And think of those horns!” Gerald said, shaking his head and lighting his. “I will chase it, if I have help. The fen is not so big that we could get lost.”
“Ah, I will help then.” Geoff said, taking up his lantern. “We can follow the strange thing across the fogs and mists until morning—then we must retire. I cannot spend two days hunting one deer, no matter how wondrous.”
And so, they parted ways, on the misty marshland—two chasing the strange deer, one wiser and heading home. But it mattered little—for through out the night, the mist grew in every way. The sky grew heavy with clouds as Gerald looked for a way home. The rain began to rumble as George and Geoffery found their prey. And at last, the fen flooded—faster and with greater vigor than it had ever in the past. And all three men were swallowed, their dogs too, leaving only their flickering lanterns to float on the waters. On misty nights in the fens, you can see the three men still sometimes—Gerald trying to climb the hill to the forest for safety, Geoffery and George still racing in the marshland, the sound of dogs still barking.
And that was the story I was told about the fen. As a child, I at first could never dream of someone walking in such a haunted place. But as I became a teen, and less likely to believe my elders, I wandered into the woods and marsh on mist-filled nights. It was a rite of passage, marking the end of pre-teens, to go and see the lights. Or rather, the lack there of.
No one I knew saw the lights, the deer, or anything of the sort. Some saw fire flies, some saw rabbits. But it was an empty fen. So, when it was my time, I had little to fear. I was coming back from a trip the next town over, and with some ceremony I said I’d take a short cut through the foggy fens. There was some laughing at my dramatics as I headed out, tipsy and confident, to see cross over back home again.
It was a full moon that night. There was nothing but the sound of grasshoppers and the small flicker of fire flies. And the sound, the squishing sticking sound, of mud sticking to my steps. I stumbled home, torch in hand and coughing from the effort of walking in something like a straight line. It was then, on the edge of the fen, that I saw it.
It was bigger than I thought it ought to be. It was big for a deer, like a moose more than a little scared thing. An elk I guess, red as blood and with sickly glowing horns. Now I’ve not seen many a stag or elk. I don’t hunt, I stay from the woods usually, and their skittish things. But I know horn. And those were so smooth. Looked like someone froze milk into a steel mold.
It stomped a foot at me, spooking me back a bit. I know people who get punch happy with some liquid courage, but that isn’t for me. Thing was tall as me, and horns looked dangerous. I stumbled back, held my hand up as it watched me. Kept my hands where it could see me as I shuffled and tripped over a rock. I heard a thud of bounding legs, and for half a second expect the thing to trample me in a moment of weakness. Yeah, I know elk or deer or moose or whatever, big horned things don’t eat meat. But still, out of it like that, I swore it would take an arm off. I mean, you know horses think fingers are carrots, right? What do I know.
Hands around my head I shouted, and felt a shadow over me—like walking through a cold patch. When I opened my eyes, I turned about to see what I’d been missing. I stared down into the mists, where the horns still shone, dancing away as it bounded. I knew then and there I could chase it if I wanted—and maybe, if I was quick, I’d catch it. And they were amazing horns.
But I saw them then. Two at first, then three, then four—then a dozen or more, dancing lights, flickering in and out of view. They chased after, dancing from place to place. Only one stood steady, far away—small like a star. I stumbled and tripped and chased that stationary solitary star. Up I followed it, up and up to the hill and then the forest—and there it stopped, and fell back into the mists, sinking away.
The woods was long shadows and sharp winds, leaves rustling and snaking across the ground. Dark and empty except the street lights filtering from home. Sometimes the fog was thick, and the light seemed dim—maybe that was the lights I saw, that I imagined where men and dogs in my drunken haze. When I made it home, I didn’t understand what I’d seen—I scribbled on a scrap of paper what I remembered, so I could tell Josh all about it. It was crazy, I thought.
The next day, when we were all together again, everyone asked how I’d made it—did I see anything? How’d I get around the fen? Josh thought he saw my torch going off on the edge of the water when they got there. A bit after I left the rain started coming down, cold enough to shock even a drunk like me to my senses.
It was then that I remembered the bright red dear with the dreadfully pallid horns, like someone stole the moon. Though I laughed with them over the idea of haunts and hunters, I will never set foot in those fens again.
This week’s story fell a bit victim to deadlines. I decided to go with more a ghost story and feel like the narrative could have been expanded some—layered, so that you, the reader, were diving into these various folktales about lights on the fens. It could create a sort of patchwork feeling, but unfortunately I ran out of time to expand on the idea. Aw well, that’s what Patreon is for!
Next week, waterfalls and castles!