(This is the complete story)
The wreckage of the plane had lain there since I was a boy. It had aged as the moving sands scoured it and the sun bleached it like the bones of the dead. We were told never to go near it, that it was haunted by the spirit of whatever it was that scared the pilot into swerving and crashing that day.
I yearned to go to the burnt-out fuselage, climb onto the top, and get a glimpse of the world from above. I often dreamed that I flew. That I had been in that burnt-out piece of wreckage. That I had walked, unharmed through the flames to safety and watched it burn.
The adults always became very quiet when I told them of my dreams. Grandmother would spit and trace a sign of safety in the air. My mother scooted me outside to play whenever talk turned to the crash site and what was to be done about it. I would go outside into the vegetable and herb garden that was our subsistence. I wasn’t allowed to have friends over. Except for the odd grocery delivery no one ever came over.
Our whole house – our whole village – was covered in signs and sigils to ward off the evil that lingered outside our borders. But inside our small house I felt safe – dilapidated roof and all. In the garden I also felt safe, though I was only allowed to look at the vegetables, not to help turn the ground or plant the seedlings. Everything that I touched seemed to die, after all. But I would sit between the lettuces – I didn’t mind the lettuce dying – and read books about faraway places and people. Books I could not kill, at least.
On my twelfth birthday I decided to go on an adventure like the one group of kids in a book. I took my notebook – for field notes – stuffed some food into my pockets and crept outside.
I could see the fuselage in the moonlight from the back door of the house and for a moment just stood and stared. Then I slowly crept down the weed-ridden path to the gate and climbed over the rusted gate. Slipping over the road, I headed for the burnt-out plane, the feeling of freedom tingling in my fingertips.
When I reached the moon-bathed wreckage I made the sign to ward off evil and glanced back at our home. From here you could see the whole village. You could even see the world beyond. There was no sound around me except for a few crickets that sent trills shrilly through the night. I walked closer to the fuselage and stretched out my hand. It was still warm from the day’s sunlight. My fingertips brushed over soot-stained metal and I shivered. There was one last test I had decided on for this night – to go inside the burnt wreckage.
I walked to the ripped-off door and climbed inside, tearing my knee open on one of the twisted spikes of metal. I cried out and my voice echoed through the interior. I clasped a hand over my mouth, my heart churning in my ears. A good thing I did, because the sight inside almost made me scream again.
They sat where they had when the plane crashed that day. Now turned to ashen, dust-covered mummies, their empty eye sockets and grotesque open mouths gaped at something in the front of the plane.
I managed to get all my courage together and walked towards the place they were staring at. A single moonbeam lit an old teddy bear. I stooped and picked it up. The moment I did, the recognition flashed through my mind. It had once been mine.
The teddy was covered in dust. A few cobwebs stuck to the ratty fur and the loose filaments tickled my fingers. I saw myself again – younger, though – clutching at the teddy as the plane shuddered and the engine noises stopped. Before that moment, I remember nothing.
No fire had penetrated the interior of the plane, it seemed. But, as I turned around and looked up from the teddy bear, I saw the corpses as they truly were – as if I saw them for the first time. The men looked strange next to the veiled women who all wore crowns of plaited baby’s breath flowers in their desiccated hair. Fresh baby’s breath.
I stepped up to the woman closest to me and reached out to the flowers, my fingertips brushing the unfaded petals. Half the face of the woman was gone, the jaw half-missing and what was left of it hanging open as if in a scream. Shrunken eyes stared at nothing through a torn and tattered veil. The woman next to her not only wore a crown of flowers, but was also fully veiled. A long almost see-through cloth veiled her hair and face. I ached to lift it, to see what was below the veil, but could not bring myself to squeeze past the corpse in the aisle seat. When I looked back, I saw that the aisle-seat-corpse’s crown of flowers had faded. I stepped back, felt a hand on my shoulder, and spun around.
It was her – but as she would have been before her body dried out and became a mockery of the human form. Her face was bloody, though, her jaw slack. It didn’t move when she spoke. The voice seemed to emanate from inside my mind.
“You should not have visited us again,” she said.
An old song came to my lips unbidden, unlooked for, yet in a language I could not recall hearing before.
“Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!”
As I sang, she slowly faded and I was left standing in front of faded baby’s breath lying on the floor. In the distance I heard the church bell strike the hour of twelve. The teddy bear fell from my grasp.
I stepped back, brushing against one of the corpses, and made the sign to ward off evil. Somewhere, someone started to laugh. It was a dry laugh, the kind adults do when a child has done something silly or said something they were too young to understand the true meaning of. I looked around me, but all I saw was the motionless corpses. Again I made the sign.
The laughter was louder this time. Closer. I swung around and kicked the teddy bear by accident. It skidded over the floor. I don’t know why I lunged after it, but the laughter increased in volume as I picked it up and ran blindly, holding the teddy close as I staggered-jumped from the wreckage. As I landed outside, pain shot through my leg and I fell in the dust. I realised that the wound had only now started bleeding.
I clamped a hand over my bleeding knee for a moment as tears of pain mingled with fear burned my eyes and throat. In the doorway I saw the figure of the slack-jawed woman again. She stood without stirring, the crown of faded baby’s breath in her hands.
Was it she whom had laughed at me? Mocked me?
As I made the sign to ward off evil, she spoke.
“We will wait for you to come again. Only on the ninth night you visit us will we be free.”
I felt bile rise in my throat as her voice pounded in my head. Then she made the sign to ward of evil and faded from my sight. The tiny flowers fell down on me like grey snowflakes. I brushed them from my clothes as if they were spiders or scorpions and struggled to my feet.
The pain that shot through my injured leg made me cry out again, but this time I was able to muffle the cry behind my fist. I wobbled home as fast as I could, dragging my leg behind me the last part of the way. I cried freely then – from pain, from fright, from the sight of the slack-jawed woman and the falling flowers.
I stopped short when I saw there was a light burning inside our home. The door was opened by my mother before I had even reached it.
Instead of berating me as I thought she would, she gathered me into her arms and I knew she had been crying.
“Let me look at you,” she said after a few moments. “Come, come in where it’s safe.”
I saw that she made the sign against evil before she closed the door and checked the sigils carved into the wood before turning back to me and seeing the gash on my leg.
“We’d better clean that,” she said. But, as she spoke, her voice seemed to fade and I could hear the laughter of the slack-jawed woman again.
All went dark, and I knew nothing further.
The slack-jawed woman haunted my fever-dreams but my mother remained at my bedside and helped me to fight her off. But whether this, too, was a dream I knew not as I had never thought of my mother as a warlike woman. But in my dreams I saw her standing next to the bed with my father’s pistol in her hand, pointing it at the slack-jawed woman and making the sign against evil over and over with her free hand.
The woman grabbed the teddy bear from the bed and plunged her sharp-nailed hand into the teddy’s chest as if she wanted to crush it’s heart.
My whole body convulsed. Mother shot at her and she disappeared.
I tried to ask where father was, but I could not speak and could not form the words. I could barely move even my fingertips and I could not wake from the nightmare. At one time I was sure that I heard shots outside in the street.
It took me seven days to fully wake and sit up slowly in bed. I saw that I was not lying in my own bed, but in my parents’ bed. The room smelled like burnt sage. Mother was sitting by the bedside, dressed in simple gingham, but I saw her hide the pistol in the drawer.
She praised God when I was awake at last and there were tears in her eyes.
“I dreamed,” I said and tried to explain, but she shushed me and tried to get me to eat some clear broth. It tasted like heaven in my parched mouth. She nodded with every sip I took, as if it was the proof that the world was slowly returning to normal.
When I ventured outside our door, I saw that the town had changed. The sigils were everywhere, carved into the direction stones next to the road, carved into the wood and stone of the houses. Fresh marks. Small sigils of iron hung around the necks of the children who passed our home. They pointed and whispered and then ran on, frightened. I thought I caught the word ‘witch’ before they ran out of earshot.
“You are safe. We are all safe. That is all that counts,” mother said before I could say anything.
Then I saw father. He was walking towards us from the crash site, his shotgun in his hand and a bloodied rag bound around his one arm. I wanted to run to him, but was too scared to pass out of our little garden gate that was now also carved full of fresh sigils.
When father saw us, he smiled and his eyes wrinkled at the corners. And somehow I knew that everything was all right in the world again now that he, too, was back.
As he hugged me, the smell of meadowsweet and sweat enveloped me.
“Meadowsweet?” I asked.
“They will bother us no more,” father said, motioning to the crash site.
“Then all I saw was true?”
“And the teddy bear?”
“What bear?” mother and father both asked and I saw the blood drain from mother’s face.
“My teddy bear. I found it on the plane. I brought it back here -“
“Inside,” father said and I obeyed immediately. The smell of meadowsweet clung to me.
I heard a sound outside after mother and father had kissed me goodnight and left my room for theirs. I slowly crept from the bed to the window and peered out into the garden. There, beyond the row of stunted beans, I could see my father digging in the ground with the big shovel he kept for gardening.
The moon shone down and even in the darkness everything was lit with silver. I saw him pick something up from the ground and hold it for a moment as he wiped sweat from his brow.
The stuffed bear! My blood ran cold and sweat pricked at my skin.
He dropped it into the hole he had dug. He bent down again, stood upright with a container in his hands and poured some kind of liquid into the hole with the bear. I realised it was oil when he lit it and watched it burn. His hand made the sign against evil in the air in front of him and fear gripped my heart.
Acrid smoke rose into the sky and I wanted to choke when the smell reached me. It seemed unclean, not like the homely smell of the wood burning in the kitchen stove. As I watched, father made another sign in the air and the smoke dissipated, bright blue flashes of light following unseen lines in the sky. As the blue light died away, he shovelled the dirt back into the hole, covering the burnt teddy bear and smothering the flames that still licked at the stuffed toy. He nodded, then, as if to say to himself ‘job well done’.
As he turned and started walking towards the house, I ducked down out of sight.
I crawled back into bed shivering and drew the covers over my head, creating a cocoon where my fearful tears would be hidden. A fitful sleep overcame me even as my limbs still shivered and tears wet my pillow. Always the plane’s wreckage loomed in my dreams. But this night, there was something — someone — else. Someone who wore my face but was not me. Someone who laughed and held the teddy bear father had burned in their arms.
“Who are you?” I demanded, but the me-not-me only laughed. He reached out an ice-blue hand to me and, before I could pull away, touched my chest.
I woke up screaming in the darkness.
Both mother and father came running, though both acted like they had just woken when I screamed. Father still had dirt staining his nightshirt and I knew I had really seen him burying and burning the teddy bear.
Mother sat with me and held me, rocking back and forth while father went to make me tea to calm me. She murmured a song while she rocked me and I could feel my tensed muscles start to relax.
“When the nyhtengale singes, the wodes waxen grene…” she sang softly and I wondered at the words that seemed to remind me of days long forgotten.
She only stopped singing when father handed me the mug of dark tea sweetened with honey. The first sip of tea burned my lips but I didn’t mind. The pain seemed to tether me to the present and keep the me-not-me and slack-jawed woman from my thoughts.
“What was the nightmare about?” father asked when the mug of tea was halfway drunk. My mind felt tired, yet clearer than it had been in days. I stared at the floor when I spoke.
“It was… ghosts… the ghosts of the plane that came to me.”
“We bound them,” father said. “You need not fear them.”
I nodded. I opened my mouth to tell them of the me-not-me, but decided against it and rather gulped down the last of the tea.
“There,” mother said. “You should be able to sleep now.” A sad smile pulled at her tired eyes.
They left the lamp burning in my room, the light lifting the shadows of the night. Once the door had closed behind my parents, I turned the light up as bright as it would go. I wanted to banish all the shadows from my room.
I fell asleep when the dawn had already started to banish the darkness outside. No dreams or ghosts bothered me this time. It seems the tea and light had banished the shadows for now.
Little did I know then that, over the buried teddy bear, seeds not sowed by any mortal hand were sprouting and growing, stems were knotting together, and all to keep us from harm.
It was near midday when I at last woke and stumbled from my room hoping for something to eat. Along with my wits the restful sleep seemed to have also brought back my appetite. I went into the garden, munching on a simple cheese sandwich. While mother was inside the house, father was nowhere to be seen and I took the chance to go to the place I thought of as the teddy’s grave site.
The sun burned on my arms and face as the smells of the garden overwhelmed my senses. But today, other scents hung in the air as well. The air itself seemed to have a metallic taste. When I came to the grave site and saw the plants growing over the spot I realised what the different smells were that I couldn’t place. Five plants grew upon the grave as if they had been there far longer than only a few hours. I bent down and brushed my fingertips over the flowers and leaves. Angelica, betony, dill, mugwort, and rue. Everyone knew that they were used to keep evil at bay. My heart hammered in my ears. Where did these plants come from? Mother loved betony flowers, but they were only allowed in the gardens of those rich enough to afford the seeds themselves.
“Betony!” I heard the voice behind me and swung around. I had not heard my mother coming up behind me. Mother looked ready to scold me, but could not take her eyes off of the purple flowers.
I reached out and picked one for her. As the stem broke and the scent filled my senses, I suddenly remembered seeing a black cloud on the plain just before the plane crashed.
A woman from town, leaning over the low fence, shook me from my memory.
“You are not allowed betony in your garden,” she said, glaring first at the plants and then at the flower I held in my hand. “It is bad enough we had to give up out meadowsweet again. And for what? A forgotten grave?”
Mother grabbed a clump of dirt and threw it at her. The muddy clump crumbled against her shoulder, leaving a brown mark on the pattern of red flowers.
The woman moved on then without looking back, muttering to herself.
I don’t know why I spoke when I saw the tears in mother’s eyes.
“I saw father bury the teddy bear. I saw him burn it and the strange lines in the acrid smoke.” I pointed down at the overgrown patch of dirt. “Why? And why hide it from me?”
Mother reached for my hand as she sat back on the ground next to the stuffed toy’s grave and pulled me down beside her. She wiped at her eyes with the hem of her apron before clutching my hands in both of her own. She stared into my eyes, new tears forming, as she said: “It was never your bear, it was your brother’s.”
“I don’t have a brother,” I said and pulled my hands from her grasp, afraid that my mother had lost her wits.
“Come inside,” she said and reached for me as she got up from the ground. Her eyes flickered towards the crashed fuselage. “Come inside,” she begged.
“Tell me what happened at the crash site!”
“First come inside, where it is safe.”
A wry laugh escaped my lips as I turned back to the house — and stopped short. The sigils drawn into the wood and stone of the house itself were glowing blue. My mouth fell open.
“Come!” Mother commanded and dragged me inside. With one last look behind me, I stumbled after her, amazed at her strength. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a white figure moving, but, when I turned my head, there was nothing there. Tears pricked at my eyes and blurred my vision.
The inside of the house seemed dark after the bright sunlight outside. It was made even darker by mother pulling the shutters closed, making signs against evil as she went. I stood in the centre of the living area shivering and with the hairs on my arms standing on end.
“Are the ghosts coming for me?” The question just slipped from my mouth before I could bite down on the sour words.
“Ha! They can come all they want!” mother laughed. “You yourself saw that we are safe here inside the house. Inside these walls nothing can harm us.”
“But what about my nightmares?”
“Nothing more than shadows. Come.”
I followed her to the kitchen and the comforting heat of the wood burning stove. I had thought that the heat would be too much today, but not so. I felt cold after what happened outside and sat down cross-legged in front of the stove to warm my hands. Mother sat down on the rocking chair and picked up her knitting. She formed and counted the stitches deftly as she spoke, the yarn weaving forward and backward between the two needles. It was hypnotising watching her.
“I will not wait for your father,” she started. “Though I know he would have preferred it. But he and the other men went to reinforce the sigils around the perimeter of the town.” The needles clacked against each other in a steady rhythm so that my heartbeat slowed and I relaxed as I listened to my mother’s voice and the click-click-click of the wood.
“The plane crashed in the fields eight years ago,” mother said. The ground there was not always as barren. There used to be a wood there… but it burned to ashes that night. It was as if nothing could do anything to stop the flames. So we turned to the town and wet the buildings as best we could and some ended up fleeing… It was a night from hell. Your father wanted to see if there were any survivors he could help… The strange thing, he always said, was that the plane did not burn. Not like you would have thought. Inside the passengers all seemed dead where they sat, but there were no flames inside.” She finished a row and turned her work, starting a new row.
“But the children… the children were fine.” She frowned. Her hands moved faster, the click-click-click speeding up. “I — we had been barren. Most of us in the town had been since the Darkness came to live in the wood. It’s the lines, people whispered. Some of us lived too close to them. Some of us had no choice — we did not have the money to live anywhere else. And we knew not the price we were going to pay.”
“So you took us?” I said.
She paused, nodded. “Your brother was injured. You were identical twins. He did not make it.”
“Where is he now?”
“We buried him beneath the oak tree in the corner of the garden,” mother sobbed. “We could not afford a grave in the graveyard.”
I had never wanted to go to the tree, I realised. It had always felt… strange to me somehow. Yet there was no tombstone, no marker. But that, too, cost money, I guess.
“The — one of the ghosts spoke to me,” I said. “They said that they will be free on the ninth night I visit them.”
“That is the choice we had to make,” Mother said. “Our children or their souls. The Darkness will be unleashed should their souls be set free. You cannot go back.” She sat the knitting down and covered her face with her hands. When she took them away her eyes were filled with tears.
“Forgive me, but I wanted to keep you safe.”
I stood, stepped over to her, and put my arms around her. We cried freely as the sigils glowed blue around us.
“I swear I won’t go back,” I told her. “I swear.”