There were still a couple of hours of daylight left when we set off for the wood. I was wrapped up against the chill in a heavy coat and gloves, but Bill wore only his threadbare jacket. I’ve bought him gloves and hats in the past, but he refuses to wear them. He says he’s used to the cold, though the state of his skin belies this, as his cheeks are red and threaded with veins and his hands dry and sore-looking.
“I can’t understand how it’s gotten so cold,” I shivered, as we stepped out from the warmth of his cottage.
“It’ll snow before long,” Bill looked up at the sky. “Mark my words; we’ll have snowfall before the month is out.”
“So early in the year?” I asked.
“The seasons are changing,” he said. “The earth is rebelling against the misuse and don’t bother telling me that you recycle, it’ll take a lot more than that to heal the damage that’s been done.”
I hate it when Bill speaks like this, because I know he’s right and it frightens me more than any ghost.
“We’ll go by the bog,” he changed the subject. “It’s quicker that way.”
Bill had mentioned the Wailing Wood in passing and I’ve heard stories about it since I was a child. I’ve seen it in the distance, but never thought anything about it, until now. It’s a strange group of trees, more copse than wood and stranger still; it grows on the edge of the bog. Since I’ve started to record Bill’s stories, I’ve grown wiser and now wear a pants and flat shoes when I go out with him. The land we trek across is uneven and dangerous to those it catches unawares. We crossed a few fields, the earth bare, and the land shorn of its crops, in hibernation until the spring. The sun sank a little as we walked and its dying rays were blinding. The leafless branches of the trees offered no protection from its light, but the beauty of their skeleton forms would gladden the eye of any artist. As we moved closer to the bog, the land turned harsher and its neglect was obvious, as no crop would grow in the marshy earth and the farmer wasted no time in its upkeep. We climbed over barred gates, the bolts rusted into place. Bill pulled back the thorny bushes and it was hard to imagine these barren, brown branches would hang with heavy fruits once the winter had passed.
The bog spread out before us, and we stood panting from our last climb in order to get our breath back and admire the beauty. Purple moor grass vies with gold and brown heathers in a vast array of autumn colours. Other plants grow on the hummocks, the higher, drier parts of the bog, and Bill named each one as we passed.
“Stay beside me and don’t go wandering off,” he still thinks of me as a child who needs warning.
I know the bog well, but not in the way Bill does, and despite its beauty, it can be treacherous. In the numerous hallows, deep pools have formed, some of them bottomless, according to my guide, and the white bog cotton surrounding them masks their danger. Other than the small hummocks, the land is flat and there are no trees to welcome the nesting of birds. To the untrained eye, it seems a dead place, but it is, in fact, teeming with life and Bill calls out the names of every bird we come across. Imagine the thrill of a city dweller like me, to see the Red Grouse foraging among the heather, its gold and crimson coat making the other plants look faded. The bobbing Snipe hops from place to place and takes no notice of the human invasion. It looked up at us and decided we were no threat, before going about its daily business. In the distance the call of the curlew echoes over the bog, its notes haunting in the silent air. Bill says he’s seen Kestrels hunting here and I would love to see one swooping over the ground in search of prey, but my luck was out.
“Look,” Bill whispered.
A red streak ran across the mosses, the fox’s body so lithe, that his movements seemed fluid. I was so taken by all this wonder around me, I had lost track of our reason for being there, and it wasn’t until Bill nodded at the dark shape ahead, that I was jolted back to reality.
The Wailing Wood stood like a dark shadow against the sky and not even the setting sun could pierce its denseness. It is a small growth of trees that overlook bushes and wild undergrowth. Though many of the branches are bare, some leaves still remain and hang like sleeping, black bats. While the trees in the more fertile fields have been stripped bare by the wind, they nevertheless stand proud against the sky. Here, in this veritable, almost petrified forest, they droop limp and drained of life. I started to move closer, but Bill’s hand on my arm stopped me.
“Don’t try to go inside,” he said. “There are thorns big enough to tear through your skin.”
“What is it?” I wasn’t aware that I was whispering.
It’s difficult to explain the wood. It had a hallowed ground feeling, like walking into a church, or a place of the dead.
“I wanted you to see it for yourself,” Bill said. “Before I tell you the story behind it.”
“Can’t you tell me now?” My eyes scanned the undergrowth, looking for signs of life.
“It’s not a story that wants telling in the cold and dark,” Bill said. “I’ll tell you all about it when we get back to the cottage. I wanted you have a look at it first. The bones of a young mother and her children are buried in there,” Bill pointed a quivering finger into the darkness. “I want you to search them out and feel their despair, go on,” he nudged me with his shoulder, as though pushing me into the arms of those waiting trees.
The wood is dark and I saw in my minds eye the centre, the place housing the mass grave. The branches of the overhead trees have tangled together to form an arch, so the grave is always in shadow. Despite its solitude, no birds sing and the usual black shapes of crows’ nests are missing from the branches, but it’s the sadness of the place that makes me catch my breath. For the first time, I am aware of the sun sinking below the horizon and I am totally alone and lost within the tangle of trees and bushes. Everything is lost, I have no one left, all those I love are dead and I’m trapped in a maze of thorns. No, my mind screams for release from these terrible memories and it is the feel of Bill’s arm around my shoulders that pull me back and turn me towards home.
I don’t speak, because I can’t. My throat hurts from the tears I’m trying to hold back.
“I’m sorry, girl,” Bill’s breath is warm on my chilled cheek. “I forget sometimes how strong the power is in you.”
“That’s OK,” I managed to whisper. “I just got a bit carried away.”
I knew by his next sentence that Bill was trying to change the mood and it worked. He’s said the same thing to me a thousand times.
“You know, in the olden days you’d have been burned as a witch.”
“And I know who’d be wielding the first flaming torch,” I said.
“Best thing really,” I sensed his smile. “Put you out of your misery.”
“You’re just pure evil, aren’t you?” I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and saw his face crease up with laughter.
We better get you inside,” he said. “You’re pale as death. A drop of brandy will bring the colour back, and you’ll need it when you hear the story attached to the wood.”
“I can’t drink, I’m driving,” I reminded him.
“Phone home,” he suggested. “Tell them you’re staying the night here. Get yourself a bit of a reputation.”
We were still laughing, when we reached the cottage and saw the welcoming light of the fire inside.
That’s it for this week, dear reader. I can tell you that our laughter soon ceased, as Bill retold his tale. I now understand the sadness of the wood and next week, you will too. Oh, by the way, my reputation remains intact.
Milly stood at the small window of her cottage and watched the children at play. She smiled at their antics as they chased one another round the yard. Francis, her eldest at just eight was pretending to be a monster and his lumbering gait had his sisters Jane aged six and Maura four, screaming with excitement and terror. Milly shook her head in awe of their innocence and wishing she could remember such a time. Her husband Pat was due in soon for his dinner and there was work to be done. Selecting a few potatoes from a stack in the corner of the room, she put them on to boil. Tonight their meal would be a fine one, as Father Thomas, the priest she cleaned for, had chicken for his dinner. The old man had very little appetite and insisted she take what remained of the bird home with her. She imagined the children’s faces when they saw the feast and felt a rush of happiness. Even though they were both working, times were hard and the summer of 1845 was proving to be worse of all. Blight had hit the potatoes and over half the crop was rotting in the ground.
“It’ll pass,” Her husband said, when she told him how worried she was.
Still, Milly wasn’t so sure, but she tried not to think about it. They had money put by with the intention of one day owning their own cottage and a small parcel of land. They would have had enough saved by now to buy the home of their dreams, if only Pat would stay away from the pub. The clatter of feet on the path outside the door heralded the arrival of her family. The children, as always hung on to their father’s every word, as he told them stories about his day up at the big house. Pat worked in the stables at the manor house, and the children lived in awe of the many tales he spun about the place, some real, but most imagined. He came up behind Milly as she strained the water off the potatoes and kissed the back of her head.
“How was your day?” He asked, as he plunged his hands into the basin of water laid out for him.
“Very good,” she motioned at the children to follow their father’s lead.
While they were busy washing their hands, she took the chicken from the cupboard and placed it in the centre of the table. Her family’s exclamations of delight were exactly as she expected.
“Well, thank god for Father Thomas and his bad appetite,” Pat said, as he pulled the bird towards him.
“Pat, stop that now,” Milly laughed.
The children watched wide-eyed as he carved the bird with expert ease, as though they were used to having a whole chicken every day.
“Will you have a leg?” Pat asked her.
“No, give one to Francis,” she smiled at her son’s delight. “He loves a leg.”
“Thanks Ma,” he whispered, as he stared down at the prize on his plate.
As they ate, her husband regaled them with tales from the big house. Milly picked at her food, lost in thought, but smiling in all the right places, when he made a joke. Her mind was troubled of late, but she was too frightened to confront him about the stories she’d heard from the gossips in the village. There was a new kitchen maid up at the manor; they said Pat was paying a bit too much attention too. She had heard many such tales over her ten year marriage and always dismissed them as idle gossip, though at times, she had known there was some substance to them. Her family meant more to her than her life, and if ignoring her husband’s odd flirtation meant keeping them together, then so be it. This latest dalliance was more worrying than any of the others and she had a bad feeling about the whole thing. There were many who said that Milly was one of the most beautiful women in the district and one of the most hardworking, but this in itself was not enough for her husband. While she never doubted his love for the children, she wasn’t so sure when it came to her.
“Ma, did you hear what Da said?” Jane roused her out of her musings.
“Sorry pet, I was miles away,” Milly said.
Jane then went on to recount the story her father had just old. Milly smiled at the way she looked adoringly at her father as she spoke. Of all the children Jane was the one who loved him the most. To her he was a hero, her father who could do anything and was afraid of nothing.
“Can we go out to the wood after dinner, Ma?” Francis asked.
“Just for an hour,” Milly said.
The children had a few wild rabbits they’d managed to capture in a makeshift cage and they spend most of their spare time tending to them.
“I love it in the wood,” Jane said, as they got up from the table. “I wish we could stay in there forever.”
Outside a cloud crossed the setting sun and the room was thrown into shadow. Milly shivered, as a cold hand clutched at her heart and she knew that there was something bad about to happen.
The winter was hard and the loss of the potato crop meant everyone was scrabbling about trying to find what food they could. Milly’s saving meant she could buy what little food they needed, and Father Thomas was as generous as ever with his leftovers. Pat now came home each night with tales about poachers being caught in the grounds of the manor and Milly listened in horror as he named neighbours who were being transported to Australia for stealing a rabbit. She had no idea at the time that those who were being sent away would one day count themselves among the lucky ones. Christmas came and went with the usual excitement for the children, but for Milly it was a time of great sadness, as she felt her husband moving further and further away from her. He still lay beside her at night, but as far away from her as their small bed would allow. As she listened to his thundering snores, she wondered how long it would be before she was lying there alone. Shelia, the kitchen maid from the manor, had a hold over her husband that seemed unbreakable. Each night, when the children were in bed, Milly waited for him to tell her he was leaving, but week after agonising week passed and he kept silent.
Milly loved Father Thomas’s house and its fine big rooms. The parochial house was huge compared to her cottage with eight rooms to house just one man. Her cottage was on the edge of the bog and always felt damp no matter what time of year it was. Her cloth flew over the shiny mahogany table in the dining room and she wondered what it would be like to sit there and eat some of the food she prepared each day for the priest. The clatter of the carriage arriving at the front gate brought her back to reality and she walked to the window and looked out. Father Thomas had just started on his usual rounds to visit the sick and dying, but he was back already. Frowning, she walked down the hall and opened the front door.
“Have you heard?” He brushed by her and went into the library.
“Heard what, Father?”
She had no idea what could have upset the old man so, and she followed him into the room. His hand shook as he poured brandy into two glasses and held one out to her. She took it and gazed down at the amber liquid in wonder.
“Sit down, woman,” the priest ordered.
Milly sank down into the chair beside the desk and watched as the priest drained his glass. As he reached for the decanter to refill, he noticed her drink was untouched.
“Take a sip,” he nodded at the glass. “You’re going to need it.”
The brandy burned her throat and it took all of Milly’s self control to stop herself from coughing.
“The crops have failed for the second year,” the old priest words hung in the air like a death knell.
“No?” Milly didn’t feel the glass slip from her hand.
It bounced onto the heavy woollen rug and rolled onto the timber floor with a clatter.
“Sorry, Father,” she stood up to clean the spilt drink.
“No, leave it,” the priest said. “You go home to your family, I’ll see to that.”
Milly couldn’t remember afterward if she thanked the man for his kindness. All she could recall was grabbing her shawl and running for home. There were many like her doing the same thing and the fields and roads were spotted with figures running as though their life depended on it. For the first time she noticed the sickly sweet smell in the air and she knew the crop they all depended on was rotting in the ground.
Pat was already at home when she got there and sitting round the table with the children. Instead of the usual laughter, there was a heavy silence and she nodded at her husband to show she’d heard the terrible news. The girls were too young to understand the severity of the loss, but Francis understood and put an arm round her shoulder when she sat down beside him.
“The family are talking about leaving for England,” Pat said.
His employers, expecting the worst, were abandoning the sinking ship.
“What about your job?” Milly asked. “They’ll still need someone to take care of the horses.”
“They’re talking of taking the animals with them,” Pat ran a hand through his dark hair. “It might not come to that, but we have to be ready when it does.”
What they imagined came to pass some months later. As the supplies of potatoes dwindled, the gentry took fright and abandoned their homes. A few of the staff remained at the manor, but there was no need for Pat and the other men, who worked the grounds. The price of food rose until it was out of reach of the common people and the amount of beggars wandering the roads in search of work increased daily. Disease spread as those dying of starvation feel victim to a worse fate, typhus. Milly kept the children inside the cottage and lived in fear of them catching the disease. Pat spent more time in the pub, coming home with tales too horrible to relate to the children.
“How much money have we left?” He asked Milly one day.
She took her meagre saving from its hiding place behind a loose brick in the wall and shook it free from the old sock she’d stored it in. The coins rolled across the scarred wood of the table. Pat grabbed them and counted each one, before placing them in a pile. When he was finished he sat back, shook his head and sighed.
“There’s not enough.”
“Not enough for what?” Milly asked.
“Our fare to America,” he said. “There’s only enough for one of us to go and the children.”
“You go,” Milly’s mind was made up in an instant. “You can find work once you get there and send for me.”
“No, I want you to go and take the children,” he said. “I heard there’s work going up north. I can go there once you’re safely away, and I’ll follow you out there once I’ve saved the fare.”
Milly opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand to stop her.
“It’s no use arguing, my mind is made up,” he said. “I’ll be able to work all the quicker without having to worry about all of you.”
Milly’s eyes filled with tears and she hated herself for ever doubting that he loved her.
“When will we go?” She asked.
“First thing tomorrow,” he said. “There’s a ship sailing in two days time and it’ll take us at least a day to walk to the port. Pack everything you need up tonight. I’ll tell the children myself, if you don’t mind?”
Milly called the children in from the bedroom, where they had been playing. She left them alone with their father while he broke the news. Their excited squeals meant they took it well, and she knew her husband’s skill as a storyteller, was making it sound very exciting. There was little to pack and in the end all she had to take with them to the New World was two small bundles of clothes.
The worry of his family’s departure didn’t affect Pat’s sleep, but Milly lay beside him wishing the dawn would never come. How long would it be before she saw her husband again, she wondered and would the forced separation mean the end of her marriage? How would they survive in another country without a man to protect them? Her head swam with a thousand other thoughts as the hours ticked slowly by.
She used the last of the food to make the breakfast the next morning. They would need it to give them strength for the journey ahead. It was agreed that Pat would take the children into the wood to let the rabbits go free, while Milly went to say her goodbyes to Father Thomas. It was cold that morning, but the sun was bright and the sky was clear of any rain clouds. Milly parted with her family by the wood and stopped just once to wave to them before they disappeared among the trees. Father Thomas was sad to see her go, but he assured her she was doing the right thing. She told him about Pat staying behind until he saved the fare, and her worries about surviving once they reached America. The old priest listened to her fears and blessed her, asking god to give her strength. As he walked her to the front door, he pressed some money into her hand.
“I won’t see you go alone,” he smiled.
Milly looked down at the coins and her heart leapt. Too overcome to speak, she looked up at the priest with eyes filled with tears.
“You take that man of yours along with you,” the priest’s eyes mirrored hers. “I’ve little need for the money, and I wouldn’t like to think of you starting out alone in a strange country.”
Milly ran all the way back home. She wanted to shout, to scream her happiness to the world. There was no one there when she reached the cottage and she started out for the wood. They had probably lost track of time, she thought, and Pat was as bad as the children for playing with the rabbits. As she came closer to the wood, she saw the figure of her husband stagger out from the trees.
“Francis is hurt,” he called.
Milly ran past him and into the small group of trees. She hadn’t time to notice the sheen of sweat on her husband’s face or the hard look in his eyes. The children were all sitting together beneath one of the trees, and she thought for a moment they were playing a trick on her, until she saw the dark stains on the front of their clothes. The sting of her husband’s knife on her throat felt cold and she pulled away from its touch. She tried to speak, to ask him why, but the blood gushing from the wound made her gasp, as she stumbled deeper into the wood. Weak from loss of blood, she fell and was aware of her husband’s dark shadow overhead. He stood watching as she bled out and there was no emotion in his face. Before her eyes were dimmed forever, Milly saw him wipe the bloody blade of his knife on a leaf.
Before he left to join his mistress at the port, Pat gathered the bundles of clothes Milly packed and took them back to the wood. He threw them in among the trees and left them to rot with the bodies of his family.
“So that’s the story,” Bill said, as he threw another sod of turf on the fire.
“Then why is it called the Wailing Wood?” I asked.
“Because she’s still seen from time to time, Milly that is,” he said. “Wandering around the wood and wailing for the loss of her children.”
“How were they found?”
“That’s the interesting bit,” Bill said. “It seems that Pat caught the typhus while on board ship and begged the captain to record his dying confession. Months later the letter reached Father Thomas and he went in search of Milly and her children. He found their skeletons huddled so close together that it was difficult to tell where one body started and the other one ended. He recorded in the parish records the condition of the bodies, the matted hair and the bundles of rotten clothes. The graveyards were filled to capacity by this time and he thought it wiser to bury them where they lay. So with the help of some able-bodied men, they dug the grave and placed the unfortunates inside. One thing that always struck me as sad,” Bill paused. “Is that when they moved the larger skeleton, they found the coins that the priest had given Milly to pay her husband’s fare.”
“Why did he have to kill them?” I asked. “He could have just run away and left them live.”
“Who knows what went on in his mind,” Bill said. “From what I gathered Pat was a selfish man who put his own needs above those of others, but there must have been a madness there that he’d kept hidden.”
“When did the haunting start?”
“A long time ago,” Bill said. “Even as children we lived in fear of the wood and there are countless stories associated with it, but do you know the strangest thing of all?”
I shook my head.
“Remember I said Milly had staggered away after the dreadful blow fell?” Not waiting for an answer, Bill continued. “She was a good way through the wood when she died. Pat even drew a map to show the old priest how to find her, but she was with her children when they came to bury them. How do you suppose that happened?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “And I’ve heard enough for tonight, so I’m going home.”
Bill walked me to the car. The moon was full and made the yard seem bright as day.
“It’ll soon be Halloween,” Bill said. “I bet you’re looking forward to it.”
I didn’t answer as I got into the car and let the window down.
“I’ll see you next week,” I said.
“I might see you before then,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ll look out for you at Halloween. Be sure and wave as you ride your broomstick across the moon.”
His laughter followed me all the way out of the yard and up the lane to the road. He really does think he’s the funniest man alive.
I tried not to think about Milly and her children as I drove down the dark roads, but it was impossible. I couldn’t help, but hope that the children’s deaths were quick and that Jane, who adored her father, didn’t see the look on his face as he drew the knife across her throat. As I passed the bog I saw the outline of the wood in the distance. It was nothing more than a shadow darker than the night. It’s sad to think of the young woman who was so terribly betrayed by the man she loved. It’s sadder still to think she still haunts the place, mourning her loss until the end of time. When I first saw the wood it seemed impenetrable, as though the trees and bushes had gathered together to protect the grave. Even the fallen branches lie as a barrier, perhaps to warn those who would dare attempt to disturb this lonely place, that she has suffered enough and must be left in peace. I know I will forever see the wood in a different light and should I ever hear a cry echoing across the bog on a winter’s night, I’ll put it down to the cry of a vixen, as I couldn’t bear to think of it otherwise, could you?