Mountain road, night coming on, but Josh doesn’t slow down. He’s a good driver, used to all sorts of roads in all sorts of conditions. But the car, as if it has its own opinions on the road and the evening, slows to a gravelly stop.
Tank’s empty. No use cursing (though Josh lets a few slip) — these things happen. It just means hiking back to the last town, and…
Stepping out of the car, Josh sees how the left front tire is balanced just at the edge of a spot where the road’s washed out. A bit more gasoline, and the car would have gone over the edge and down thirty feet, probably ending up jammed in those hemlocks, there, by that big rock. Josh pictures the chassis crumpling, imagines a strut slicing through the seatbelt and catapulting him through the windshield. He imagines himself tangled in those same hemlocks, or maybe lying among the ferns a few feet on, blood soaking into the moss. He looks away from the drop. Considering the might-have-been, today’s a good-luck day after all, but it’s still getting dark, and at the end of October the air’s frosty, so it’s time to start walking.
“Need a lift?” It’s a woman in a pickup truck, maybe Josh’s age, maybe some years older, from the lines on her face. She’s probably been driving this truck since she was fifteen and hasn’t ever left these mountains.
“I’d appreciate it. Just back to the gas station would be great.”
The woman shakes her head. “It’ll be closed by the time we get there. My husband can drop you back in town tomorrow morning — assuming he gets back home tonight; otherwise I will. I’m Audra.” She offers a hand.
“I’m Josh. Pleased to meet you. And thanks.” He climbs in the truck. Audra tells him she works in town at the supermarket and that her husband is a lineman who’s been busy these past two days, restoring power after that amazing thunderstorm (the one that washed out the road where Josh’s car now sits). When she hears that Josh is in a master’s program, studying folklore, she grins.
“Then you must’ve heard about the October witch. I’m surprised you got in the truck with me.”
“October witch? No, I think I missed that one,” says Josh, returning the grin, wondering whether Audra’s spinning a line or if this is a real folktale he’s about to hear. “I guess she comes out on Halloween? And maybe, what, grabs drivers off the road?”
“Well she mainly stalks newly departed souls, the confused ones not sure which is the narrow way up to heaven and which is the wide path to hell. When she spies the soul of a fine-looking young man, she invites him home to be her husband for a year. I don’t have to add that she don’t take no for an answer.”
“Guess I’m lucky she prefers her men dead, then.”
“Oh well. If she takes a shine to you, she’ll find a way to get your soul, whether you’re living or dead.”
Josh laughs. “Sounds like the type of story mothers tell their sons to keep them from getting into strange women’s trucks.”
They’ve turned off the road onto a steeply climbing track. The truck labors a little, then relaxes into a clearing. The headlights sweep over a small cabin. The dog on the porch lifts his head and pulls itself to its feet. Audra kills the lights. Nothing visible now but the inky silhouettes of trees against the tiny circle of sky above the clearing.
“Let me guess: the October witch lives in a tiny cabin in a clearing on the mountainside,” Josh says.
“That’s what she’d like you to see,” Audra replies, getting out of the truck and walking, without benefit of flashlight, toward the cabin. Josh follows her, treading carefully. His night vision’s not what it might be.
“But really her place is just some tumbledown tree, half rotted out. It’s only by witchery that she makes it seem homelike, with butter-yellow curtains on the windows and a pieced-star quilt on her bed,” Audra continues, opening the door to the cabin. It’s pitch black inside. “Sorry about the dark; we lost power in the storm too, and my husband hasn’t repaired the cable. Too busy getting everyone in town sorted.” She lights a hurricane lamp and several candles on the kitchen table, then lights the wood stove.
“Have a seat,” she says, indicating the kitchen table. “I’ll heat up some soup.”
It’s thick split-pea soup, smoky flavored, with bread on the side.
“Now see, the October witch, she feeds you only meat caught in the hunt. Venison, grouse, turkey. You eat by candlelight with her, just like we’re doing, but she don’t use Walmart utility candles. Hers are pure beeswax, and she lights so many of them that the air smells like honey. Helps with her spellmaking, that sweet smell and flickering light, and she looks more beautiful by candlelight.”
Audra looks more beautiful by candlelight. Her lean face seems softer now, and her eyes seem as deep and dark as the night sky, with the points of the reflected candle flames for stars. The glossy wood of the table reflects the flames too. Josh runs his hand along it. Smooth as still water, but with a split running the length of it.
“It grabs your eye, don’t it,” says Audra, nodding at the split. “They say the good Lord broke the October witch’s table with a lightning bolt. They say he sent it down to keep her from profaning his name with her false mealtime grace, one Halloween when she had some poor soul in her clutches.”
“Did that one get away?”
Audra shakes her head. “Don’t nobody get away. Not that I’ve heard tell, anyhow.”
“Where’d the split really come from?” asks Josh.
“You don’t like the story I just told you? You an atheist?” She sounds amused. “Well, the truth is, that table’s old, very old. Been in my family since forever. My grandmother told me that her grandmother’s grandfather made it, for all his children and grandchildren to eat around. He was so heartbroken when the Civil War divided the family that he took an ax to the table. When the war was over, he mended it, but it’s had that scar ever since.”
The old dog from the porch comes over to Audra’s side, whining.
“Sorry Buster, Daddy’s got a busy night tonight,” she tells it, stroking its head.
“How old’s your dog?” Josh asks.
“Buster? This old fella’s going on sixteen. Just lays around and sleeps, nowadays.”
“Not a very October witchy sort of dog,” remarks Josh, coaxing the dog over with a piece of bread dipped in soup.
“Not Buster, no,” says Audra. “But the October witch don’t need flesh-and-blood dogs; she’s got a pack of former husbands to do her hunting for her, when she’s got a mind to hunt.”
Josh’s yawning now, and he lets Audra move him to the couch by the wood stove in the other room. She sets a mug of cider on top of the stove, saying something about how it ain’t like the October witch’s moonshine, which is real fire water, with actual hellfire flames in it, but Josh’s already dozing. He barely notices when she covers him with a crocheted blanket.
“I’ll wake you when my husband gets home,” she tells him.
And the next thing Josh hears is Audra saying, “There he is, Ev. He’s a folklorist, he said.” And so Josh rouses himself and gets up to greet his host, and blinks, because the cabin’s bathed in light. Then he remembers what Audra said about her husband needing to repair the cable. That must be it: the electricity’s back on. But no, this light bends and twists: it’s candlelight, but from many more candles than before. So many candles now: hard to see what surfaces they’re perched on, the cabin’s so flickering bright — could be they’re floating. Almost threatening, all those hungry little flames, needing something to consume to make the darkness dazzle.
In that dancing light, Josh sees a big man in a reflective vest, with a utility belt around his waist and a helmet under his arm. His cheeks are unshaved and there are circles under his eyes. Audra leads him by the hand to Josh.
“Evan, meet Josh, my future husband.” Then, leaning in so her lips touch Evan’s ear, “Only minutes and you’ll be free. But you’ll miss me, won’t you?” A mischievous smile on her lips.
“Can’t say that, in honesty, no, but there’ve been moments I’ll miss,” Evan replies. He denies her a return kiss, and his lip wrinkles a little at her touch, as if there’s a bad smell in the room. Josh feels dizzy, puts a hand on the couch arm to steady himself.
“Look, the story of the October witch was great,” he says, grasping for sanity, “but I’m not interested in — I haven’t — Evan, I’m only here because my car ran out of gas, and Audra said — What I’m trying to say is, absolutely nothing’s been going on here; I just — ”
A clock on the wall interrupts him, chiming the midnight hour, and the candle flames shake and bow as the cabin door opens and more men file in, each one vaguer and less distinct than the one before.
“Here’s Austin, who died in a snowmobile accident,” Audra says, beckoning the newcomers closer, “and Nick, who got careless with a chainsaw, and Andy, who had a little too much to drink and stumbled onto the train tracks, and Darrell, who got set upon by three men, and Tyler — he tried to run, but they brought him to me; there’s no outrunning my pack — and Kevin, whose car went off the road, just like you, and — ”
Josh claps his hands over his ears to muffle the litany.
“I didn’t go off the road; I ran out of gas. You saw the car — you picked me up. I’m dreaming this. I’m still asleep on the couch.”
Audra strokes his cheek ever so gently. “Aww, you did too, honey; you know it in your heart, don’t you? But your poor spirit just couldn’t bear to face it and made up another story for you instead. Car ran out of gas, just in time. Sure it did! You didn’t bounce down thirty feet, didn’t go flying through the windshield, didn’t bleed out all alone on the side of the mountain. Course not.”
Honey, she said, and her warm breath smells of it, honey and moonshine. It’s confusing: Josh almost wants to grab her by the shoulders and kiss her, but he feels something else, too: deep dread. A sense of drowning, a sense of chains.
“Run, you dumbass,” one of the ghosts says. “You got legs; use them.”
“Don’t torment the man,” says Audra coldly. To Josh, voice warm again, “Don’t you listen to Tyler; he just wants to visit on you the suffering he brought on himself by running.” But another voice speaks right in Josh’s ear, a ghost from so long ago his body’s barely a glimmer.
“Don’t let her bewitch you, boy. You still feel the blood in your veins and the breath in your lungs? Then maybe you’re still living. But whether you’re living or dead, your soul’s a pearl of great price, and you can’t let her have it. Run for it, and run fast. If you make it to morning, you’re free.”
So Josh pulls away from Audra, pushes through the crowd and out the door into the blind midnight dark and frosty cold.
“Fetch him back for me,” the command rings out, even as Josh stumbles over a clod of frozen earth. He hears baying, and blanches. They’re hunting dogs now, each and every one of Audra’s husbands, hell hounds calling for him, eager to tear out not his throat but his soul. Terror makes Josh nimble: he scrambles to his feet and flees, heading for morning, praying he can last till dawn.
|Francesca Forrest has published a handful of short stories, including “A Land of Deepest Shade” (The Colored Lens 2012), “Tilia Songbird” (Giganotosaurus 2012), and “The Yew’s Embrace” and “Cory’s Father” (Strange Horizons, 2011 and 2010). She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband and varying configurations of her four children, plus a cat and guinea pigs.|