It became my ghost, that lullaby—its virulent strain infecting not only the cloaked woods that surrounded us, but also the ears upon which it fell. It haunted us all, wormed its way into our brains and cored our frightened eyes to hollowed orbs. Unlike the other girls, who mewled in dread as those tinny chords crackled out from the absolute darkness, I sought to discover its origin.
I was as terrified as the rest; perhaps more so, for I managed to keep my mind threaded to reality while preventing the lullaby from wholly poisoning my thoughts. I needed to if any of us were to survive.
The other girls shoved into a uniform mass of shuddering limbs against the bars of our cage whenever the lullaby serenaded us, yet I remained apart, prone and flattened atop the floor, face pressed against the cold, slickened bars, focusing on its source. At first, tracking it eluded me, my emaciated stomach becoming its own troublesome din. Eventually I learned to ignore my hunger growls, as well the sobs from our band of captives. Soon, I gained a morsel of information; useful as it was. Somewhere—from an old phonograph, perhaps—the lullaby popped and hissed its chords away into the night. This had to mean the old woman lived in a dwelling close by.
As for the creature, that remained another mystery altogether.
By my measure, captivity had defined me for nearly five months. Abducted in spring as I took my morning stroll through the park—a chemical soaked rag ripped me from my normal life. I had since stopped wondering if my husband and children believed I was still alive. Even if by some miracle I managed to escape, I knew I would return home a husk of the woman they once knew. During this past week, a chill threaded our nights of imprisonment under the stars; autumn made herself known, and my gut instinct whispered that I would not come to feel winter's grasp.
Within the cage, I remained the only grown woman; the others ranged in ages from seven to sixteen, their body development my only means of guessing. Fear had worn our faces down to indistinguishable masks. I used to glow whenever my husband told me that I looked much younger than my years. I always smiled when mistaken for my oldest daughter's sister. Such cruel irony that my youthful appearance served to bring this misfortune upon me.
Tonight, a breeze rose again from the sentient woods and while our sunburnt, naked bodies trembled under its touch, a scent of something fetid clogged my throat. Though dirt and feces caked us, this horrible stench was not that. It had soured my stomach on many occasions before; ultimately, the precession to the lullaby. And so I steeled myself.
I stretched flat atop the cage floor, and peered between the bars out into the nothingness and waited.
"What are you doing?" A whisper from behind.
Katie—perhaps only sixteen. She reminded me so much of my oldest daughter that my soul ached. "Listening."
The woods then crackled, releasing a static charge into the air. Behind me, the girls scuttled like manic bugs.
Baby mine, don't you cry
Unreasonable terror descended upon us all. The girls' high-pitched shrieks pierced the night, but my gaze remained unwavering through the bars.
Baby mine, dry your eyes
Katie threw herself down beside me; she was shivering like a leaf. I gripped her hand. "Let me concentrate," I said. She nodded, teeth chattering inside her skull.
Rest your head close to my heart
The girls screamed as one.
Never to part, baby of mine
Soon thereafter, the footfall of the creature pounded through my chest. Katie must have felt it too, for her breath drew ragged in my ear. "What do we do?"
"Pray that neither of us is taken."
Little one when you play
Indifferent to the hysteria within our cage, the lullaby wafted in its heavenly timbre. It betrayed us every time.
Don't you mind what they say
A lantern's glow floated to us from the darkness, its purpose one we knew all too well.
Let those eyes sparkle and shine
The creature's footfalls resonated stronger through the floor. Desperation suddenly gripped me—the lullaby, the constant and promised threat of death. I turned toward the girls, the churning mass of desperate bodies, those agonized faces cast under pale moonlight, and sobbed against the bars. But Katie squeezed hard upon my hand and snapped me back into focus.
Never a tear, baby of mine
An apricot radiance fell upon us. The girls' shadows swayed all about, and I did my best to hide within their shallow pools; I hoped it would be enough to detract attention from Katie and myself. The old woman emerged from the thicket, face shimmering at the door of the cage. Much like us, she wore no clothing; her skin affected, however, not by the elements, but by age. A ragged sack hung from her hip. Her puckered mouth moved to the tune of the lullaby.
If they knew sweet little you,
They'd end up loving you too
She placed the lantern at her feet. The keys to our prison jangled within her fingers. "Who's my lucky one tonight?"
The hysteria resumed. The old woman stared through the bars, oblivious of it all. Oblivious of us. Now unlocked, the cage door squeaked open and she shuffled in, the lantern behind her silhouetting her hunched form. From her sack, she withdrew a tattered, old nightgown as well as a six-inch bladed knife. I pressed myself down hard onto the floor of the cage. Beneath us, the ground tremored, and I could hear the snap of tree boughs as something advanced.
"You," the old lady spat, her gnarled finger jabbing toward a girl whose knees were drawn to her chest as she rocked back and forth upon the floor. "Put it on."
She was no more than seven. I am confident those crippled eyes of hers once carried the warmth of the sun, but not anymore. The little one wet herself in distress. With a deftness that always astounded me, the old woman lunged and seized her by the wrist. In wide arcs, she swung the knife with her free hand, keeping any would-be rescuers at bay. In one motion, the old woman draped the nightgown over the girl's soiled head and then dragged her from the cage. Aside from the desperate gouges her fingers dug through the loose dirt upon the floor, the girl offered no resistance.
They never did.
All of those people who scold you
what they'd give just for the right to hold you
The creature's roar shattered the night. Girls bayed; cries for their momma went unanswered. Worse still, the cackle from the old woman's lips, and the glint of lantern light captured within her beady glare. She slammed and locked the cage door behind her once more. Off she lurched, the point of her blade at the young girl's back, the lantern's glow bobbing along. Together, they disappeared into the woods. They left us alone with the chill gnawing our bare shoulders, the metallic resonance of the lullaby failing to soothe our ears. From somewhere out in the coagulated canopy of darkness came a deep-bellied roar.
Then awful, earsplitting silence.
The following morning, Katie pulled me to the far side of the cage. Sometime during the night, after we had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion, the old woman had returned and thrown ladles of porridge through the bars. At least, I assumed it had been the old woman. The girls ate, scooping breakfast from the churned dirt with their hands. "You said you were listening. For what? Maybe we could have saved Monica and the others before her. Maybe we could still save ourselves. We can't let the old woman take us away like she does."
"Please, keep your voice down." I surveyed the cage. While some of the girls shoveled dirt and porridge into their mouths, most sat with empty gazes. "Something is out in those woods, we know that. The old woman must summon it with that lullaby. And whatever is out there obviously hasn't harmed her."
"There must be more people helping her."
"One would tend to believe, but there is no certainty. All the times I've listened, I've yet to hear anyone else."
"The girls who've been taken. Do you think they might still be...?"
"No," I said, far more curtly than I wished. "It's time to stop dwelling on the maybe's and the why's. We need to focus on finally getting out. And I may have an answer."
A glimmer of hope flashed within Katie's eyes. She must have been a beautiful girl once; I wondered if she ever had the opportunity to kiss a boy. "The old woman's peripheral vision is nonexistent," I continued. "She's never noticed me lying on the floor. It unfortunately took me some time to realize. But as the oldest one here, I've still some wits left about me."
"Oldest? You're no older than I am."
For the first time since my abduction, I smiled. "Katie, I'm old enough to be your mother. It's what got me into this. It's what might get us out."
Six days had passed since my conversation with Katie. On the third day, the skies opened and so we drank from putrid shallows of mud. My strength had ebbed considerably. I paced the corners of the cage, keeping my limbs as agile as possible. No one spoke; we huddled in cold discomfort. Six days...and on the sixth night, the lullaby crooned anew.
From your head down to your toes,
you're not much, goodness knows
A cacophony of turmoil gripped the cage. The girls were beyond reason. I grabbed Katie by the shoulders, and pulled her face to mine. "It's time," I said. With that, my desperate plan was set into motion.
I crawled along the floor, Katie beside me, and then pressed my face against the bars. Like a clone of my panicked heartbeat, the creature's heavy footfall assaulted the ground.
But you're so precious to me,
sweet as can be,
baby of mine
The lantern approached, the knotted woods sputtering in its glow. Beneath the melodic beckoning of the lullaby, I thought I heard the creature snort. "It'll be alright," I soothed Katie, wondering if I lied only to appease myself.
A rattle of keys—the crinkled face appeared at the door of the cage, once more wearing a crooked smile. "Who's my lucky one tonight?"
Katie waited until the old woman entered, and then rose from her position beside me. Cautiously, she entered the fringes of our jailer's vision exactly as I had instructed.
The old woman's misshaped head snapped toward her. She scrutinized Katie for a moment, and then drew the nightgown and knife from her sack. Katie glanced at me nervously as I held my breath, praying she would not reveal my position. The old woman tossed the nightgown at Katie's blackened feet, and I exhaled. "You. Put it on."
Side to side the blade swung as Katie placed the nightgown over her head. I sprang from the ground then, pushing my withered body to its limit; the sheer action of launching from my bare feet ignited agony in my joints. Whether or not the old woman saw me attack from the side, her blade still managed to slice my brow; now my own vision was compromised by blood.
I tackled her, clumsily wrapping my thin arms around her leathery body. Far stronger than I deemed natural, the old woman stood her ground, and I screamed my throat raw as her knife pierced my shoulder.
I collapsed—the whinnies of the girls surrounded me, and a growl sounded from the creature in the woods. Above it all, my ghost, that lullaby, sang to me.
If they knew sweet little you,
they'd end up loving you too
I staggered to my feet. The old woman suddenly yelped—Katie had done as told. Through the scarlet mask covering my eyes, I glimpsed Katie yanking the nightgown over the old woman's head, which caused her to drop her knife and keys in surprise. I scooped both from the floor, spun her around and jabbed the tip of the blade into her back. "Walk," I demanded and shoved her from the cage. By the lantern's glow, I quickly shut the cage door, locking the girls in behind me. I tossed the keys between the bars. "Keep yourselves locked inside until daybreak," I ordered Katie. "If I don't return by then, free yourselves."
I grabbed the lantern, then pushed the old woman forward. She howled, understanding her predicament—if she removed the nightgown from her body, I would kill her in cold blood. Like an obedient calf, I prodded her along; she babbled uncontrollably, but the lullaby and the snorts of the creature smothered her pitiful sounds from my ears.
We trudged deeper into the woods. The brush tore at my feet but still I pressed on; to where, I did not know. The lullaby seduced me as the lantern flame flickered and gradually went cold. The dark suffocated my senses; only then did I question whether my surmises held merit.
Then it emerged, a blackjack oak snapping at its feet, something so huge it threw the very pitch of night aside. Its foul stench rolled from its mass as it stooped over us both. "There, there," the old woman whispered.
The creature sniffed my body. I gagged upon its putrid breath. Its moist snout moved slowly along my neck as a sharp talon grazed the top of my shoulder. Feeling. Touching. Pinpricks of white twinkled in one eye—the starlight reflected within its inky, remorseless orb. It peered upward, measuring my response. Urine trickled along my legs and I dropped the knife to the ground.
All those same people who scold you,
what they'd give just for the right to hold you
"That's right," the old woman cooed.
The shadowy outline of a thick, knobby arm touched my bare skin. It hesitated, and then reached for the old woman, tugging at the nightgown. "There, there, baby," her voice suddenly becoming strained.A horrendous growl burst from the creature's jaws, then it knocked me aside. In an instant, all faded—the old woman's cries for mercy, the thump of the creature's footfalls as it dragged her deep into the woods. I lay there shivering atop the moss and lichen. Eventually I rose, praying I could find my way back to the girls, the chords of my ghost, that lullaby, keeping company at my side.