The First Stop
To the finder of these words……
I must begin this letter by expressing both gratitude and a sincere apology. I realise that in sharing this with you I am handing you my burden. For that I am sorry and will be forever in your debt.
I don’t know how you came across this, but as I write It strikes me that though we have never met and we are separated in space and time, we are nevertheless connected through these words. That in its self is a kind of magic don’t you think? I am being too cryptic here and I know it. Indulge me a while. Let me explain.
I found a similar note to the one you are now reading, on my way home from work one night. Though it seems so long ago, the memory of it has not faded in the slightest. It was a particularly cold night in November. I had finished work at the Institute, and I was late. This was not uncommon. My shift ended at ten, but by the time I had finished my duties and handed over to the night shift, it was gone eleven o’clock.
I loved my job. It had always felt like a calling, not really work at all. At least it used to. On the night I found the letter the job had lost any sense of purpose it had once had.
I was tired. This too was nothing new. I had grown accustomed to physical fatigue. There is, I feel a nobility in labour. It feels good to ache from honest toil. However, I had become so consumed with a mental malaise that it was becoming difficult to bear.
By the time I had made the journey from my desk to the bus stop the day service had ended. Fortunately the night bus was never late. I would at least be home by one in the morning. I found pleasure in the most meagre of comforts back then.
I climbed to my seat on the upper deck, and probably would have drifted straight off to sleep, had I not noticed the envelope tucked into the gap between the cushion and the frame.
Naturally curious I lifted it out and saw that someone had written, in beautiful cursive I may add, the words ‘Please forgive me for what lies within.’ Well, believe me when I say I am not usually given to prying into the affairs of others, but I confess my curiosity did run away with me. The penmanship was as impressive inside as it was outside. I soon found myself completely absorbed in it. It disturbed me greatly, just as I know my words will disturb you. I can only hope you can understand even if you cannot forgive.
It was both mentally and physically painful to read. The words offended reason. They told of persecution and terror, of possession and unspeakable things. It was one souls descent into an abyss that I could never have imagined. I no longer need to imagine such despair, as I am living it.
Now I confess, I skimmed the last paragraphs of the letter in an effort to diminish the horror. I would caution you against the same error. You need to read my words carefully, because within them lies the clues to your sanctuary.
I lacked the will to persevere that night, and as I danced by the words, the strangest sensation distracted me. It felt for all the world like a cold hand resting on my shoulder. I wondered at first if I might be hallucinating. I had read somewhere that such phantasms are often tactile as well as visual. However, this feeling was as tangible as the ripped seat cushion pressed into my back. I spun round but, perhaps predictably there was nobody there. Back then it had been easy to dismiss it as a symptom of tiredness and hunger. Naivety is sometimes a blessing.
Nevertheless I was sufficiently shaken by the experience to feel a pressing need to get off that bus as quickly as my legs would carry me. I folded the letter up and inserted it into the pocket on the inside of my overcoat. Admittedly I gave no though to what I was going to do with it. I just knew I couldn’t leave it behind for someone else to find.
It was almost one in the morning, and my stop was coming up. Sleep was a distant land that night, but I had no idea then, that insomnia would be the least of my worries.
The hand that gripped my shoulder was just the beginning. Soon after it began to feel like a something dark and dank had taken possession of my life. I have since come to describe this as the Hag. I had caught glimpses of her standing in the shadows. Sometimes, I would catch site of her standing behind me, in a reflection in a window.
In the days and weeks since that night on the bus she has drained me of all but the basest need to survive. My compassion and ethics have been completely consumed by her. I still know right from wrong, I just no longer care. I am driven only by the need to be rid of her, before she takes everything from me.
At first she stalked the fragmented dreams that came with my fleeting encounters with sleep. I would wake to feel her sitting on top of me, pressing me into the sheets, suffocating me. The panic would rise until I felt my heart would explode and then she would dissipate, leaving me unable to control my fear. I would scream for hours.
This continued day after day, until I began to fear sleep. That’s when I turned to stimulants. First it was just coffee, lots of coffee. Then as the fatigue took hold even a dozen cups a day couldn’t stave off somnolence. Back then I was still going to work. I really couldn’t risk drawing attention to myself if I happened to fall asleep at my desk. I feared they would cart me off to the mad house if that happened.
A colleague procured me some amphetamines. I spun him a story about having a sleeping sickness and being fearful for my job. In truth I don’t think he really cared so long as I handed over the money. They helped up to a point, but the Witch was always there. The merest glimpse of her peering around the half closed bedroom door would terrify the wits out of me.
I suppose there is a point when the body or the mind has to find a release when placed under such stress. That would normally be in the form of rest or relaxation. However, the narcotics wouldn’t allow this to happen. Instead I began to experience states of fugue. I would become aware of missing time. I knew I couldn’t have been asleep, because as I emerged into consciousness, I would notice my feet covered in mud from the garden, yet I had not the slightest recollection of ever having left my chair.
Sometimes strange cuts and bruises would appear, or my clothes would be torn. Occasionally there would be blood and skin beneath my fingernails. Had I been causing my own wounds?
I think I suspected that this wasn’t the case all along. It took clumps of flesh and even hair that wasn’t my own, turning up on my hands to make me face reality. I had done something terrible.
I began to trawl the papers, and kept my ear to the radio. It became an obsession. If I had hurt people, it would surely make the news. Each time I opened a newspaper, or turned the dial to the local news bulletin my stomach would sink. The anticipation was sometimes too much, and I would switch it off quickly, only to force myself to return to it again and again, until I found it.
Eventually I came upon a story buried on page seven of the Gazette. It was just a few paragraphs. A story told with a casualness that betrayed a deep lack of empathy for the victim in the report. In fact it went beyond that. It suggested the person had been devalued. Was this really all they amounted to, a few inches inside a local rag, that wouldn’t be read unless someone went looking for it?
The victim was found under a railway bridge, by some poor unfortunate walking their dog. They had apparently been deceased for several hours. It was the nature of their injuries that struck me. The journalist had left little to the imagination, and seemed to glory in the gruesome detail. Someone had beaten the poor soul to death. A sense of terrible inevitability descended upon me, and the last line in the article seemed to drop on my like a hammer blow.
‘Police are refusing to rule out a link between this, and several other murders in the last month involving the homeless.’
I knew it was the Hag. It was beyond comprehension that I could be doing this. Somehow this thing, this evil creature had entered my body during those fugue states. Once there it had taken control of me. Perhaps in spectral form she lacked the strength to do her own dirty work.
Trust me when I say that I take no comfort in the knowledge that my actions had been guided by some external force. Nor do I seek to mitigate or excuse my deeds. This is not the insanity plea of the cornered serial killer. I am merely stating the facts as I see them.
To me the reality was inescapable, and I had to make it stop. Though I know it is a mortal sin, and I was risking damnation I am afraid I did try to take my life. This to me was infinitely preferable to continuing my heinous crimes. Surely a merciful God would feel the same way. In any case I couldn’t go on.
I had taken delivery of a little brown bottle of pills only a day earlier, it was still full. A bottle of Glen Douglas sat in the middle of the kitchen table uncorked. I had arranged the pills in a neat line and began to wash them all down with the whiskey. I had read up on the effects of these drugs when mixed with alcohol, and expected that my heart would, at some point simply give out. The living nightmare would be over.
I emptied the bottle and took all the pills, whilst continuously fighting off the urge to vomit. I can only assume that I was overcome again, because my next recollection was of staring at the kitchen clock, and trying to fathom where the last six hours had gone. My head ached and my chest hurt. I had survived. The bottom of my trousers was caked in mud and my socks and shoes soaked through.
My hands were again smeared with a brownish substance and I knew only too well what it was. There was a coppery taste in my mouth and throat, and it made me nauseous. I climbed the stairs and went into the bathroom to inspect my face in the mirror. Blood stained my teeth and I could not control my urge to vomit any longer.
It was obvious to me that I would never be free of her. In despair and rage I cried out. I swear to you I heard her laughing inside my head. Even now I can not explain what motivated me to return to the letter again, but I did. I went to my overcoat and fished it out of the inside pocket. It had sat there since that night on the bus. I slumped into my armchair, tears streaming down my face, and began to pour over every word once again.
The answer was in those last paragraphs, the ones I had skimmed over in my haste to escape the dreadful text. As I read them again I came to understand the truth. A devil had infested me. It was weak when placed outside of a human vessel, but grew fearsome in the warmth of the human soul.
It is best likened to a virus, a parasite if you like and it uses its host to get the food it needs to live. I’ll wager that when my body eventually gives out it will find another to occupy, and in this sense the creature is immortal. It has always been, and will always be among us.
There is however hope in the letter I read that night. If only I had taken the time to read it properly, I may have spared myself at least some of the misery I have endured. I can not change that now. I can not waste energy worrying over things that are beyond my control. Especially now I know the truth.
You see the Hag is a story-teller, although she writes her tales in the blood of the vulnerable, and with the hands of the infected like me. In her own way she is an artist seeking immortality in the pain and misery she creates. It is we though who ultimately suffer for her art, and she will keep us alive for as long as we continue to tell her tales.
No matter how much our hearts and minds may ache she will not let go. My failed suicide attempt is surely proof of that, but again I must return once again to those last few lines of the letter I found. In those word I have found a way out, and this will explain my need to apologise.
It seems the Hag will gladly leave you, if you find her a replacement. After all she only needs a body. She doesn’t care who she takes. She is forever seeking out new stories and new hands with which to write them. Of course dear reader, that’s where you come in. She is yours now. You must write her stories. At least for a little while.
Please know that I am truly sorry. Soon you will feel that icy hand on your shoulder, that is if you haven’t already. Do not ignore it as I did. Act fast, for although you are now infected, I have at least shown you the cure.