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The Way We Were

By Glenn Winkelmann Jr. All Rights Reserved ©

Horror

The Old Country

When a traveler takes the fork off the main junction onto the coastal trail he'll step through a crease in time towards the unkempt, wild country. The ground rises as the sea level crawls underneath the mountainous ranges, and the stone walls hewn close to the footholds crumble under the neglectful watch of time. The trees of the frequent pine belts seem unnaturally barren, and the wild brambles and thorns mesh into a homogeneous wall of sickly vegetation not often found in settled regions. At the same time, planted fields and worked mills are altogether absent, while the sparsely scattered houses wear a surprisingly uniform aspect of dilapidation, as if a precise time of expiration is shared between them.

One is best to avoid the solitary locals if they so happen to be found. Their sunken visage and dismal hovels reflect a silent warning that there is no law except their own, and that there is no safety but in passing. The shuttered windows, bolted doors, and taciturn demeanor of these dwellers reminds me that I am truly alone. There is confrontation with sacred knowledge, implied by certain statues and runes that dot their landscape, with which it would be best to remain ignorant of.

Past the low country the terrain rises as it also becomes drier, where an envious view of the pallid blue Atlantic quenches the eyes of the monotonous autumnal herbage that stretches on for miles. Through the highest canopy of trees the ramparts of an ancient rectory carve upward like a seated gem upon a crown. The scenery here is more than beautiful. Paradoxically there is no influx of new settlers, not for any environmental reasons, but rather because an event of horror stripped it bare to one haunted in grim legend.

This darkly seeded story was first discovered by various historians before it festered into the land like cancer, neglected to linger until it twisted a nervous caricature out of what once was. To retell it is to invite the crawling shadow of memory to swell over the peaceful oblivion we use to reconcile the truth; that there once lived a man by the name of Samael, who claimed the office of “Witchfinder,” which tended to the area through a ring of Protestant churches. When this land was populated it was called by another name, but now it is only known as the “hollows,” the namesake of a singular cliff-side valley. There, gray grass is turned to dust under foot; ashen pines feebly crack in the lightest breeze; a dried out riverbed runs to a cliff edge overlooking the ocean which, haunting in it's immemorial beauty, almost seems to turn the other way. The hollows are of problematical depth because the land was impressed by heat that deformed the terrain and melted the flat top stone to strange, amorphous shapes. Where the cliff drops off to a jetty of rocks below there are scars of blackened sand and dead earth that one instinctively dislikes.
That evening unseen whippoorwills chattered in a dismal chorus as the fireflies came out in abnormal density to court among the insistent rhythms of piping bull-frogs. The shining edge of the Atlantic's upper reaches had an oddly serpentine quality as it wound away past observable distance. I sat in silence when I opened up camp here, reading again the only written account of that hideous slight against humanity that took place so many years ago.

There was a massacre when the Puritan folk took protest against Samael and his blasphemous teachings, violent tortures of the people, and his persecution of 'witches.' Taken prisoner, set in ropes and placed in piles, the populace writhed hopelessly as an enormous cleansing fire overtook them. All the myriad souls sprawled out and bound on the valley were condemned to die by the man they turned to for succor. Those who did not burn to cinders instead rolled off the cliff-edge, extinguished by the high tides below, witnessed only by a thin waning moon.

Only perplexed merchants spread word of the mass abandonment in the region. Indeed, plague or heresy was speculated, and when visited, the taciturn Samael did not answer on any callers. He sent his report to the Church in private before he retired to his rectory. He tended not to the persecution of witches ever again, nor to the gentle worship he was known before in another reality.

After I finished reading I turned to my meal. It comforted me above a dwindling fire while I sleeplessly recounted my objective. The following morning I would take the western trail towards the rectory and find him. The walk, however, was a calm one, as the path I remembered arrived precisely at that aged doorstep. His rectory was once incredible. Lined in gold sections and constructed of both marble and oak, it presented itself to be a beautiful testament to the Lord's faith in his people. Now, shuttered and desolate, this obelisk is more of a tomb – a sarcophagus of distant memories waiting to be struck open since their inception. Born on the wind was a perceptible chill, and I couldn't help but hear the thousand voices with no air to carry their screams. Rising up the hoary and worm eaten steps, I tried the door, and it encouraged an immediate entrance. The main hall was lost to any recognition. It was apparent a small fire overtook it, as the furniture crumbled in a mass of cobwebs, and the paintings were all scratched out by hand. An inch of dust and mildew lined each step proceeding upward to the steeple, so I knew that he could not have traveled down here in a long time. I followed my instinct up and tread where no man had in centuries, on towards a flickering light I could observe from this distance under the cracked door of his chambers.

I opened the door and announced my arrival. Immediate, though slowly, the object of my hatred pulled itself upward with the assistance of a cane. Moving as if dormant for centuries, he turned to face me in abject hatred. Betrothed to the impact of time, his face stared through me with piercing gray eyes beset in a skull of deep lines and fissures. Skin flexed thin over bone as his posture shook to a faded shadow of a former self. Around us, smoke swirled through congeries of molded tomes, some open and burnt. A few candles weakly illuminated an open paper he had been reading before my intrusion. Wordlessly, I took to removing the bag from my back, emptying the contents upon the floor. I presented a length of rope, a canister of oil, and matches before him. He observed, nodded in understanding, and looked at me again with narrower eyes. His voice, hoarse and obscurely accented, became audient in the void.

“I knew the waves that took you away would bring you back to me.”

“Is there anything you wish to say Samael?” I asked, reservedly.

The room decreased in temperature and a frail noise piped from far within the forest. Streaks of moonlight refracted through the curtains, highlighting the inexplicably ancient garment he wore, still charred and crimson in various sections.

“They won't let me die, John; the voices,” he continued breathlessly, “the wind carries them from the west. I hear them in the water. I hear them in this hearth next to me. Even now. There is no solace. My penance is eternal. Every day I, too, burn. Prayer cleanses the soul, and pain cleanses the body, but I no longer possess either. Tell me… is it time?”

A stout, gibbous moon pierced brightly through the lurid overcast that mounted high in the heavens. Beneath, the hollows were illuminated in a small fire. Between the plumes the fireflies danced, while the piping night life cheered an engulfed object onward over the gray grass. The fireball overtook the edge and plummeted down in a spiral that seemed to suspend itself in descent. Finally, it struck the jetting rocks twice before landing in the tides below. Above, a star fell, where not a soul was there to see.

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