Celia’s new friends loved to sing. She could still remember the first time she heard them, out behind the old stable. It was late afternoon, and the sun was just beginning to dip beneath the wall of willow trees that lined the gravel drive. She remembered the excitement she felt, drawn to the sound like a moth to the light. She remembered the dampness of the grass beneath her feet, the nervousness growing and flitting in her tummy like ice-covered butterflies.
For the whole week, Celia had been exploring the yard. Her new house had a big one, and for the time being, it was all hers. Outside was good. There was a lot to do. She didn’t like being inside. It made her antsy. To be honest, she didn’t like her new house. It was old and smelled like musty paint and mothballs. She didn’t like the way the wallpaper peeled like the skin of an old banana, or the strange hum of the rusted radiators that made the floors go click, creak, click, creak. It sounded alive, moaning and groaning like a sick person. And it was always worse at night.
She didn’t like how big all the rooms were, how empty and hollow they felt, or the old, dusty paintings that lined the walls, pictures of long-dead people in strange clothes and eyes that looked angry. Nothing seemed right. Half the lights didn’t work, and the ones that did would spark and sizzle if you flicked the switches too fast. Even the water in the tub came out reddish-brown, and the kitchen didn’t have a refrigerator. Celia was actually getting tired of eating pizza and Chinese delivery every night. And all the soda was giving her tummy aches.
Mommy and Daddy had bought the house so they could “flip” it, though she wasn’t quite sure what that meant. First she thought they were going to live there forever, but Daddy said it was only temporary. Him and Mommy wanted to fix it up, and once they scraped and hammered and painted enough, some other family was going to move in. Celia wished they were that other family. It’d be nice to live in a house that wasn’t falling apart.
She watched Daddy up on the scaffolding on the front porch, working the paint roller up and down the giant columns. He told her that it was a special kind of house. A plan-tay-shun. Celia repeated the word over and over until it got all jumbled and didn’t make sense anymore. It was like a man-shun, he said, only a bit different. One lucky family lived in it, but there were a lot of other families who worked for them. Celia thought that sounded nice, but Daddy said it was a very, very bad thing, and that she’d learn about it in school. Celia just nodded.
As she watched him slop on the fresh paint, she heard a sweet lilt of voices in the distance. The sound carried across the breeze, soft and gentle as a sparrow’s song. Celia skipped along down the drive, following it to the stable. It was an old, run down thing, the wood half-rotted and covered in thick, prickly moss. She stopped and kept perfectly still, straining her ears. The voices swelled. Children’s voices.
“One little, two little, three little Indians
Four little, five little, six little Indians
Seven little, eight little, nine little Indians
Ten little Indian boys”
Celia crept over to the side of the stable, making sure to keep low and quiet. She peered around the corner and saw them, a small group of kids, hands interlocked, slowly moving in a circle. She’d never heard that song before. It sounded old, like a grandmother’s nursery rhyme.
“Ten little, nine little, eight little Indians
Seven little, six little, five little Indians
Four little, three little, two little Indians
One little Indian boy”
She watched the smiles on their faces, the warmth in their eyes as they slowly spun like a nine-headed top.
She gasped as her foot landed on the dried twig.
The voices all paused as one, and the only sounds Celia heard were the crickets in the trees and the beating of her own heart.
She kept her eyes trained on her feet.
“Someone’s there,” one of the boys said.
“It’s a girl!” another chimed. “I saw her.”
“She was watching us,” a third piped up.
Celia closed her eyes. She didn’t want to be caught spying. Making new friends was hard enough, and she didn’t want to get a bad rep-yu-tay-shun. Mommy said those weren’t good for little girls to have.
“It’s okay!” the first voice called. “You can come out, if you want.”
“We won’t bite!” another chirped.
Celia gathered herself, taking a deep breath before marching out around the corner. She found the children still standing in a circle. They were all smiling.
“I…I heard you singing,” She managed, “and I….I-“
One of the girls broke away from the circle, her pale dress billowing slightly in the breeze.
“It’s all right,” she giggled. “We were a bit loud. I’m glad you found us.”
Celia let out a deep sigh of relief. She didn’t want them to be mad. There was something about the way they spoke, something about the way they dressed, that made her want them to like her. Though she couldn’t put her finger on it, there was energy around them, some invisible aura… as if they were angels, or living dolls sprinkled with fairy dust.
The girl pointed to the house in the distance.
“You live there?”
Celia looked over her shoulder. The plan-tay-shun seemed so far away. She could still see Daddy with the paint, though he was only a speck.
“I…I only moved in last week,” she sputtered. “But we’re not staying very long.”
One of the girls pouted. “That’s a shame.”
“She seems nice,” one boy said to another.
Celia felt her cheeks redden, trying in vain to stop herself. She hated when she blushed.
“You have very nice voices,” she said.
“Thank you,” the girl replied. “We do like to sing, sometimes.”
“It’s one of our favorites,” the smallest boy added.
“Though it’s not as fun as swinging!” a second put in.
Celia’s heart fluttered when she gazed at the boy who spoke. He was so handsome that her knees suddenly went lax, as if they’d been sculpted with melting butter.
He smiled as their eyes met.
“Perhaps you can swing with us, some time.”
“Oh!” the first girl said, “There’s so many great places to swing around here.”
The handsome boy shyly dug his shoe into the grass. “We can show you how to do it. The right way. If you want, that is.”
Celia thought back to the playground at her old school. Aside from her friends, that was the thing she missed most. Whole afternoons would be spent on the swing set, and Celia would pump her legs till her thighs felt like they were on fire, forcing herself up higher, higher, higher until she nearly swung up above the bars. She could still remember the sound of the air whooshing in her ears when she’d lean back and close her eyes, clutching on tight to the creaky, metal chains. When she’d get high enough, she’d hold her breath and count down from ten before launching herself off the rubber seat, flying through the air like a bird, crying out in joy as her tummy leapt up into her throat and the green grass came up fast from below.
Maybe these new kids had their own playground, somewhere. Some magical place where the swing sets weren’t quite as rusty.
“I’d like that very much,” she said, cheeks burning as the boy smiled.
Before Celia could ask where their playground was, she heard Daddy’s voice calling in the distance. She looked to the house, then back at the children, fighting the urge to pretend like she didn’t hear him.
“I have to go,” she said. It was almost painful to take those first few steps away from them.
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” the girl said.
“Will I find you here?”
She only shrugged. “Maybe. Follow the song.”
Celia nodded before she turned and ran back to the house.
Dinner was takeout, again. Celia hovered over her white cardboard box, delicately prodding the chunks of lamb drowned in brown curry sludge, scrunching up her face as the spicy scent stung her nose.
“Daddy, can you make me a swing?”
Her father looked up from his food. “A swing?” He paused for a moment as he finished chewing. “Sure,” he said. “I have the perfect place for it, too.”
Celia smiled, and as she went to bed that night, her dreams were filled with playgrounds and children’s songs.
The next morning she found Daddy out by the old sycamore tree next to the drive, looking up at the gnarled, thick branches that reached out into the sky like giant’s arms. A thick rope hung from the lowest one, chorded and wide as Celia’s wrist.
Daddy gave it a good tug, testing the strength of the branch before he turned to her, patting the piece of wood he’d set into the bottom as her seat.
Celia was so happy she didn’t know what to say.
Daddy stepped aside as she hoisted herself up onto the wood, holding onto the rope as she settled herself. Her feet dangled off the ground as she balanced and looked up to the branches above, up into the empty spaces between the leaves where blue sky poked through like ocean water.
She swung all morning and into the afternoon, sailing up to the boughs of the sycamore, feeling that same, familiar burn in her thighs as she propelled herself up and down, forward and back again. She leaned back on the swing, eyes still closed, and pretended that she was a shooting star falling through space, travelling at the speed of light as she skipped across galaxies like a stone across a calm, still lake.
She passed by Jupiter, heading full speed towards Saturn when a voice cut through the darkness and pulled her back to Earth.
“That’s not how you swing.”
Celia opened her eyes and found the children standing in a ring around the sycamore. One of the girls stepped forward and grabbed a hold of the rope, helping to steady it. Celia caught her breath as she settled to a stop.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
Again, the girl shrugged. “There’s a better way to swing than that. Once you try it, you’ll never want to do anything else.”
Celia shimmied herself off of the rope swing, dusting off her jeans before stretching her sore legs.
“Come on,” the girl said, beckoning her forth with the wave of an arm. “We’ll show you the best place to swing. A secret place. Our place.”
Celia looked around at the smiling faces and noticed one was missing. The handsome boy from the day before. She looked around to the other eight.
One of them noticed and gave a sly grin. “Henry’s there already. He’s with the Moss Man.”
Celia frowned. The Moss Man?
“Oh,” the boy said with a wistful look in his eye. “The Moss Man showed us how to swing.”
“He’s very friendly,” another said.
“Come on,” one of the girls cooed. “Let’s go meet him! I’m sure he’ll like you.”
Celia looked up to the sky and watched as the red sun dipped below the trees. It’d be nighttime soon. Mommy and Daddy said she couldn’t be out after nighttime.
“I…I can’t, right now.”
The children frowned.
“No?” the girl said. “That’s a shame. The Moss Man would really love you. I can tell. You have kind eyes.”
“Thank you,” Celia managed, unsure of what to say.
She stepped forward and took Celia’s hand. It was so warm.
“That’s all right,” she whispered. “Tell you what…since you can’t come with us, how about we send him to meet you?”
Celia felt the butterflies rumble in her tummy.
The girl nodded. “It’s simple,” she said. “Do you have a candle?”
Celia wracked her brain. Mommy had a bunch. They were wrapped up in boxes in the basement.
“I think so.”
The girl’s eyes brightened. “Perfect. Take one and put it in your bedroom window before you go to bed. That way the Moss Man will know which room is yours.”
Before Celia could respond, the girl turned and skipped away. The other children followed suit, marching off into the woods like a row of ducklings. Celia could hear their voices fade into the trees as they sang.
“One little, two little, three little Indians…”
She did as the girl said, though she wasn’t sure why. There were so many questions she wanted to ask. Even as she lit the candle and set it on the windowsill, she wasn’t quite sure if she wanted the Moss Man to come. What was a Moss Man, anyway?
Celia closed her eyes and tried to picture it, and when she did, all she could see was a creature with a big, green beard, with hands like tree branches and clothes made out of leaves. Maybe the Moss Man was just a silly name, and he wasn’t strange at all. If they liked him so much, he couldn’t be that bad. Maybe he was like the Tooth Fairy, or Santa.
Celia got in bed, pulling the covers up around her face as she watched the candle burn in the window. The soft, orange flame danced in the breeze, casting a hazy, pale light across the smudged glass.
How long would it take?
How would he even get in? Daddy always made sure to lock the door before he and Mommy went up to bed. Celia thought about sneaking down and opening it, but the old, wooden floors were so loud she was sure they’d wake up.
And if she got caught, she wouldn’t even be able to explain herself. Mommy would get worried, and Daddy would just say it was her imagin-ay-shun. According to him, Celia had a big one. But that was okay. Kids were supposed to have those.
She waited for another hour, watching the flame flicker in the dark until her eyelids grew heavy and she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
woke her, first.
Celia’s nose flooded with the scent of dirt and mulch, sending her springing up from beneath the covers. She searched around the room, eyes adjusting to the dim light of the candle. It smelled like the woods. She brought her fingers up to her nose and gave them a sniff. Her nails stank like she’d been digging through weeds. But she hadn’t. A cold, icy sting settled in her tummy.
Then she heard it.
The front door opened, hinges squealing, echoing up the staircase and down the hall. Celia pulled her knees up to her chest and scooted further onto the bed until her shoulders hit the headboard.
She thought about running to Mommy and Daddy’s room. But she couldn’t. They wouldn’t understand. She was a big girl. That’s what Daddy had told her the last time she went to them after a nightmare. Big girls shouldn’t be afraid of nightmares. But this was real.
They came slow, moaning up the stairs, one after another. Celia’s heart was beating so fast she feared it would burst out of her chest.
She pressed her ear to the wall.
It was walking by the bathroom.
Past Mommy and Daddy’s room.
By the linen closet.
Thump. Thump. Creeeeeeeeeeeeak.
The smell grew even stronger. Celia tried to wipe her nose and breathe out of her mouth, but it was no use. She couldn’t escape the stink of soil and leaves. Twigs and mud. Roots and bark and stone.
When the last footstep faded, she sprang off the bed and sprinted to the door as silently as she could, twisting the lock shut with a snap.
She slowly backed away, hiding herself behind an unpacked box of clothes by the closet.
She could see the door handle moving in the light of the candle, jiggling soft at first, then harder.
She gasped as the pounds grew frantic, the sound booming in her ears until her head hurt.
“Please,” she whispered, “please, go away.”
A tear rolled down her cheek and into her mouth, cold and salty.
The pounding stopped.
Breathing, now. Loud, behind the door. Rattling, heaving breaths, deep and ragged. The floor shook as they rose and fell.
Celia curled herself up in a ball. Something bad was outside that door. Something nasty. Something mean.
She waited all night, scared to move a muscle until the candle burned down to the last of its wick and the sun began to rise.
The breaths stopped, then. She could hear the thumping and creaking down the hallway as the footsteps retreated back through the house. The jiggle and slam of the front door.
The smell faded from her nostrils.
Still, she waited. Another hour, she told herself. Then she’d get up. Then it’d be safe.
Slowly, she moved to the door, hands shaking as she went to undo the lock. She pulled it open, holding her breath before poking her head out into the hallway.
Everywhere, she saw footprints. Big footprints. Even bigger than Daddy’s workboots. They went from her door all the way through the hall and down the stairs.
Footprints made of moss.
The children were waiting for her when she went outside to the rope swing.
The boy was there, too.
She said his name was Henry.
Celia felt the butterflies rumble in her tummy as he walked over to her, leaning up against the swing.
“You didn’t let him in,” he said sadly. “The Moss Man wasn’t happy.”
Celia wanted to tell him how scared she’d been. How frightening the sounds were, and the smell. But she didn’t want him to think she was afraid.
“Tell him I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to go like that…honest.”
He smiled. “You can tell him yourself.” He held out his hand, urging her to take it. “Come with me.”
Celia looked down at the hand. She wanted so badly to hold it. To feel how warm it was. To see him smile.
“He’s much friendlier in the daytime,” he said. The other children nodded in agreement.
Celia wasn’t sure. Yet she wanted to make them happy. She took his hand.
They marched single file into the woods.
Celia looked up at the trees. They grew larger, the further they walked. Their branches reached out and blocked the sun, shrouding the forest floor in creeping darkness. It was a strange feeling, like walking in a basement with broken lights.
Again, the children sang. It was the same tune Celia had heard before, but the words were different.
“Ten little Indians standing in a line,
One toddled home and then there were nine.
Nine little Indians swinging on a gate,
One tumbled off and then there were eight.
Eight little Indians gayest under heaven.
One went to sleep and then there were seven.
Seven little Indians cutting up their tricks,
One broke his neck and then there were six.
Six little Indians all alive,
One kicked the bucket and then there were five.”
Celia didn’t like their new song. It made her feel uneasy. She didn’t like how mean it was, and how their faces were still lit up even though the words weren’t nice.
She tried to speak up, but something made her voice catch in her throat like she’d swallowed a golf ball. She tugged on Henry’s sleeve. He looked over his shoulder and just smiled, then gave her hand a little squeeze. Celia followed, tripping over the roots and broken twigs, listening as they sang even louder.
“Five little Indians on a cellar door,
One tumbled in and then there were four.
Four little Indians up on a spree,
One got fuddled and then there were three.
Three little Indians out on a canoe,
One tumbled over and then there were two.
Two little Indians fooling with a gun,
One shot the other and then there was one.”
The song ended as they entered a small clearing. Celia looked around at the mossy, earthen floor dappled in pale sunlight, the deep green vines wrapped through the rocks like serpents.
In the center stood an oak tree.
It was the biggest one she’d ever seen. The roots rose up from the moss like the tentacles of some giant, subterranean beast. The trunk was so wide she didn’t even think all ten of them could wrap their arms around it. Its branches were knobby and gnarled, the bark grey and sick looking, like a lumbering old man with a thick, mossy beard.
“He’s here!” Henry whispered. He let go of her hand.
Celia watched as the children faded into the glen. Some of them scrambled up the limbs of the tree. Others disappeared behind the brambles and thickets. Some sat down on the mossy outcroppings of rocks, permanent smiles etched on their faces. Like angels, she thought. Or living dolls sprinkled with fairy dust.
“The…the Moss Man,” she said, voice trembling,
“Oh, yes,” Henry said.
He jumped up and grabbed a hold of the lowest branch of the oak, pulling himself up the with grace of an acrobat.
He sat down, knobby knees dangling over the edge.
Celia gasped when she saw his eyes.
They stared deep into her own, though they seemed to be looking everywhere and nowhere at once.
The other children appeared on the limbs of the great oak, each with beady, black eyes. Still smiling. Watching like a murder of crows.
“He’s waking up,” one of them said. His voice was hollow, rattling like a whisper on the wind.
“This is his home,” another spat.
“Where he brings us to swing.”
“He wants us to teach you.”
Celia would never forget that clearing in the woods. The hazy sunlight beading off the moss. The limbs of that tree rising like a monster from the pits of her darkest nightmares.
She would never forget the fear she felt as the black-eyed children watched her from the branches, or the sight of the thing that reared its shadowy head from behind the trunk of the oak.
Even as she turned and ran back to the house, pumping her legs as fast as they could carry her, she knew she’d never forget the sound of their voices, and words of that song.
She’d never forget the smell of those woods, the darkness of that forest floor.
The children’s faces.
And in their hands, the ropes.