Day breaks; a cool, clear morning. The sing-song colloquy of robins and wrens flits between the aspen and hornbeam trees edging the side garden. Lawns glisten with dew and pastel skies bear breezes that pass by in whispers, promising weather to balm the soul.
I draw the window in against its frame, shutting out the morning’s ambience, its promises empty.
Stripping off my sleeping gown, I garb myself in heavier layers; stormy grey stockings and a long-sleeved layered cotton dress of chrysanthemum red—designed for weather far more bitter than the balmy autumn haze outside. Taking an ivory comb to my hair, I weave the ash blonde strands into low, loosely braided buns and pierce them with matching silver pins. I cast only tentative glances at my vanity’s reflection, discomforted by the softly stinging memories my dark, sloping brows, hazel eyes and faded nose freckles evoke. I lace my boots, my fingers faithfully following through the closures and knots even as my eyes stare without focus at the scuff marks on the curved toes of the leather. My mind focuses inward, wary of the weighted gloom gathering inside me.
As I head for the bedroom door, I extend an arm toward the scarf and hat rack which stands astute like a multi-armed butler by the doorway. Unbidden, my hand reaches for my plum-dyed woollen shawl. I stop within an inch of the fabric and curl my fingers back, and instead retrieve Colette’s pale-yellow silk neck scarf.
I wrap it in place. The fabric brushes the back of my neck with cold strokes but embraces the warmth of my skin by the time I descend the stairs. The corridor air swims with the aroma of freshly baked bread and eggs sizzled and soaked in Grandmother’s signature butter and oregano paste. I am lured toward the warm light which permeates the open entrance leading into the kitchen.
Mother and Father are well into their breakfast routine, both seated at the table, framed by wafts of steam rising from their bowls and plates. Mother offers me a welcoming smile and gestures to the teapot heartily steaming beside an awaiting cup and saucer. Father remains engrossed in his stacks of creased paperwork, a brooding bear.
I fill my porcelain cup with a gentle vortex of amber-brown liquid and assemble a small collection of edibles onto a flower-embossed plate—a rash of curled bacon, two eggs, a honey-smothered bread slice and three fig halves. I join my parents at the table, wading into the invisible mire of their shared mood. Father raises his head once, eyeballing the scarf around my neck. He says nothing. His face tips back down into shadows, his attention boring over the dog-eared documents scattered around his plate. The brief, burning glint in his eyes did not escape my notice. The knot in my stomach expands with a flutter of nausea. He’s going to attempt another eldritch ilk hunt.
Light pulses with a quiet intensity from the gas lamp crooked in its decorative glass and brass casing on the wall adjacent to the pantry. Sunlight slants through the windowpane on the far side, painting a dust-flecked beam across the room. The three of us sit between the luminous sources, leaning inward as if to remain untouched. We eat in the fog of silence.
‘Are you going to visit her today?’ Mother glances in my direction. The warm expression offered by her smile doesn’t reach her eyes.
I nod and swallow back the sudden dryness coursing down my throat. My pause to smile back buys me the time I need to recover my voice. ‘I do every year, Mother.’ Only once. And only on this day.
Mother nods, approving. Her expression withers into something wistful. ‘The anemones have flowered especially well this season. I’m sure she will appreciate a fresh bouquet.’
The ache played on her heartstrings plucks on mine. I reach my hand to place over hers but startle when Father abruptly pushes from his chair. It grinds against the wooden flooring, emitting a barking groan.
‘The day is yours, Lillian,’ he says, his tone gruff as old bark. His lumberjack build is both imposing and piteous as a grand oak tree split by a lightning strike. ‘Do with it as you will.’ He swipes at his papers, scooping them into a messy pile pressed between both hands. ‘Just don’t go near those blighted woods.’
I tell him what he wants to hear. ‘Of course, Father.’
He turns to leave, but Mother snatches at his arm, catching his sleeve.
‘Gerard, please.’ Her sigh wafts like a frayed spider’s web. ‘Lily knows better. You, on the other hand …’
‘Wesley and the others do what they do for the sake of the village,’ he growls. ‘I do it for the sake of our daughter.’
‘Which one?’ she retorts, her tone rebuking. ‘You cannot help Colette. And your meddling with those … those creatures will not help Lillian.’
He wrenches his arm free, countenance dark and blustery. ‘Enough of your barbed scepticism, woman. I will not be dissuaded. This time we will get results. This time we will succeed.’ He swivels and stomps from the room.
Mother abandons the rest of her breakfast and follows him out into the hallway and deeper into the house, her voice a ewe’s bleating competing against the bear-paw tromping of his retreating steps.
‘No good can come from blindly hunting their ilk, Gerard. No one knows for sure what happened. Yours and Wesley’s actions could bring calamity to us all!’
‘And doing nothing will only encourage their wicked wiles—’
The slamming of a door smothers the argument. A heavy, clenching weight creeps over me. I remove myself from the dining table, sucking in shallow breaths and massaging the bead bracelet around my wrist, trying to shake the feeling. I scuttle through the kitchen, passing through the cold room, the mudroom, and out onto the side porch where I am greeted by a startling burst of morning light.
Fresh air washes over me, and the weight peels loose. My breath comes steadier as I pass from the porch to the cobbled garden path. I spy the small mound of Grandmother’s shoulders draped in the crocheted blue of her favourite shawl. Hunched over the herb bed, she plucks at weeds skirmishing for soil territory with the chives and tarragon. As I wander nearer, she looks up and rocks off her knees to stand; her stature not much taller for it.
‘Ah, derlin’,’ she coos and shuffles to her garden barrow, where atop a pile of lawn litter sits a collection of freshly picked anemones, tethered around their stalks by hemp twine into a neat little bundle. She retrieves the bouquet and holds it out to me. ‘I picked from the best and brightest and made sure to match the count with yers and hers in years.’
I smile and take the flowers as my own, grateful for her pre-emptive thoughtfulness. ‘Thank you, Grandmother. You’ll cover for me in case I am not seen where I am expected?’
‘I always do, derlin’,’ she replies. The weathered map of her face crinkles around grey-blue eyes bright and sharp with well-forged knowledge, and a knowing. ‘But I daresay it be a slight against yer parents, to speak of visitin’ one place when yer intend to visit another.’
‘I know. But … they won’t understand.’ I shuffle my feet, indicating my intention to move on. ‘I am always careful.’
‘That yer are, derlin’,’ she huffs in resignation.
I barely make it past the garden barrow when cold dirt-clotted fingers latch onto my forearm. I jolt and turn to meet her suddenly piercing gaze.
‘Yer bracelet—do yer wear it?’
I lift my right arm and tug two inches from the long sleeve to fully expose the band. The polished beads gleam with the morning’s autumn light—black tourmaline and green fluorite—a gift she bequeathed over a decade ago; of a matching pair, one for me, one for Colette.
‘Never take it off, derlin’. Not for any exchange. Not for all the promises of glamour ‘n glory.’
I nod, wearing a mask of attentive compliance. The words are a tedious caveat, given each year, on this day, at our morning meets before I take my leave. I indulge her belief of its warding powers, despite knowing better. Colette was wearing hers that day—proof it was nothing more than a pretty bauble.
‘Be well today, Grandmother.’ I lean in and give a sparrow-light peck to her cheek.
She issues a grimalkin’s purring mutter and waves her hand through the air between us, dismissing me.
I take the garden path to the rear lawns and slip through the pilings of the picketed horse fence. I walk the nearest goat track in the direction of the eastward road. The ground slants behind me, casting my shadow back toward our quaint estate. If Mother glances through a windowpane, she will see that my steps take me toward Restful Lane and will think nothing more of it.
I pass over the rise and continue another forty paces. A backward glance reveals the house no longer in sight, which, in turn, assures I am no longer in sight. I change direction with a skip, bobbing down the roadside gully and up and away across unassigned turf. There is no chance of Father catching my deviation. He will saddle Piccolo and ride northeast into the village. I fight off dark imaginings of what he and Wesley and the other neighbourhood watchmen plan for the day. Hunting creatures of the ilk is an aegerman’s job. They need to hire a professional. I likely won’t see Father until nightfall; last year, he did not come home until the following morn. I whisper under my breath a prayer for his safe return.
The wind follows me as I steal my way across Kipp’s Meadow, my hem swishing over feathered dandelions, scattering their un-wished wishes for the temperate breeze to dally and play with. Ahead the sun-bathed field slopes away under a congregation of thick-foliaged trees, where the light bows to the shadows.
The village sagis-woman claims the woods are ain ne plesveiln—a place of passages, where ancient energies intersect—a crossroads of sorts for all things of the eldritch ilk. Her declaration proved an effective deterrence for the village folk. Contrary, Colette and I were naïvely fearless and made the place our own—playmates to imaginary fantasies, princesses of a hidden realm. Within this kingdom of dappled shade, the boughs passed voices between their leafy greens, shadows took on shapes and danced between nooks and hollows, and the air hung with gossamer substance, and breathing it in was like tasting something pure and ancient and unknowable.
Here we collected treasures in the form of acorns, river pebbles and fairy tales, and hid secrets in the form of trinkets broken by careless hands and feelings broken by careless schoolboys. Crane Hollow was our sanctuary; until it wasn’t.
I pass under the first line of trees and the heaviness of their shade, the bulk of their forms pressing against the air, the scent of countless autumns captured and capsuled within their soil, creates fissures in my carefully sealed memory vault. The memories push against the weak points of their assigned prison and squeeze free, vivid, raw and wrenching.
The phantoms of Colette and I scurry through the trees to our favourite haunt, a clearing watched over by alder and ash trees and flanked by an opaque stream.
Colette gambols to the bald bump of stone protruding by the water’s edge, her own little woodland stage. She tucks the anemone she’s been carrying into her braided locks—a yellow and white hairpin crowning the left ear—and then bursts into laughter-riddled song and swirls into pirouettes.
Unable to resist the spell of her joy, I join in, my platform a patch of grass soaking in autumn’s hazy glimmering, my audience the wall of alder and ash. The woodland whirls around me, a blur of grey-browns and greens cast in light and shade, and Colette’s sunflower dress flashing in and out of the kaleidoscope of my vision. And then there is only grey-brown and green, cast in light and shade.
I stumble out of my spin, my laughter gently tumbling toward quiet breaths; which clot to silence. The rocky verge of her woodland stage is empty. The waters of the stream alongside are dead still, save for the single retreating ripple where the anemone lays—floating, drifting, a white boat on black water.
That day, Crane Hollow, the place where my childhood bloomed and thrived, became the place where it died.
Upon my distraught return home, the village men were rounded up in a fiery flurry and stormed the woods as if an enemy castle. Colette was never found, nor surfaced any trace of what had taken her.
Father forbade me from ever entering Crane Hollow again. I obliged, grief-stricken and terrified … until the seasons turned through their cycles and the day of disappearance arrived again, echoing its everlasting events. Instead of visiting her empty grave, I visited her empty stage—in part to defy and spurn the new darkness of the woods, but also in a forlorn and futile hope that I would find the bald stone platform filled with her summer-bright dress and moon-bright smile once more.
Sometimes I speak to the hollow, asking the trees for a sign to offer closure, or pleading the dark waters for their deeply guarded places to unfurl and open a path for Colette to return to me. An absurd, tragic request, but no sign has been unveiled to confirm her lost to me forever, which in itself is an abysmal mystery.
Evidence of folk swallowed up in unnatural snatchings is a foretellable occurrence; always left behind within three days, and in one of two forms. Either something worn by the person appears with deliberate placement near the location of the taking—a sign that the ilk has them, and prisoner or patron, ornament or plaything, they now belonged to the other realm. Or, something of the person themselves is left behind—a finger or ear, or torn liver—in morbid mockery and confirmation of a terrible demise.
I am left with only the unknown, but that is enough to feed my mournful, naïve persistence that she still lives.
I leave anemones at the place where her last footsteps fell, and add one to their number every turn of seasons to remind the woods of the years it has stolen from her. And from me.
I’ve kept to this secret tradition ever since. And Grandmother has been my clandestine advocate—the only one to believe in my intuition.
I count this anniversary’s anemones in my hand—sixteen to match the age she and I would have celebrated next week. I imagine us celebrating the new season of vibrant youthfulness festooned in dresses of our favourite colour—me a chrysanthemum and she a daffodil.
I wear both red and yellow today to honour that impossible fancy.
I wander, mute, beneath Crane’s sprawling arms. My feet follow familiar fungus-flecked paths. The air whispers in the language of leaves and boughs. Dappled shadows shift and shudder. A raven’s caw echoes through the ways, chasing my footsteps. Ahead, shafts of sunlight focus on a spread of soft ground guarded by alder and ash, the trees a little older, a little taller, infused with a little more knowledge and secrets—the same as I.
The scent of the stream invades my breathing and steals a small gasp of air from my lungs. I brace against the pangs pawing inside my chest as I enter my childhood haunt. Old quietude hangs from the branches, and infant vigour from the fresh shoots of grass, but something else grips the air beyond the sun’s reach—a coldness and stillness that carries a near-tangible weight, and the sensation of leaning inward with a claustrophobic presence. I turn toward the clearing’s bald rock stage. The twined anemones slip from my grasp as my sadness is squeezed from me by a rolling dread.
The stone glistens wet with recent disturbance from the stream. And it’s no longer bare.
There, gleaming mutely upon the flat, grey surface is a beaded circle of black tourmaline and green fluorite.
My breath catches, turning cold in my throat. Moth-wing flutters invade my chest cavity. I slide my feet along the grass, inching toward the object under the heaviness of trepidation. My gaze briefly darts from the bracelet, seeking unnatural shadows or movement from the waters or trees. Nothing. Legs flinching and fingers trembling, I kneel upon the stone stage and rescue the band from its discarded state. It shimmers within my palm, unweathered, without scuff or smear.
Crane Hollow has finally given its answer. The eldritch ilk have my sister, and they don’t intend to give her back.
But now I know for sure. She’s alive.
My eyes glance from the glistening beads to the black water. An irrational urge lures me to lean over the bank and cast my reflection. Something behind me moves. My body seizes up as the heat in my skin shrivels, inundated with cold clamminess. Boughs shift without wind, bending with unnatural flexibility, drawn into twisted knots and coils around something unseen. Using the trees as a frame, it takes shape, something large, barbed and antlered. Motes of light collect and hang in the shadowed spaces within the craggy cloaking of branches and leaves—two orbs floating, staring.
It leans over me with an archaic weight—pulling the forest with it—the air brittle and charged with a transfiguring presence, a dark intelligence.
I dare not turn around; cannot turn around, caught as in a web, transfixed to stare at its reflection looming over my own.
Its voice comes in the form of deep roots and unsurfaced stones, forged with a nameless technique into the simplicity of human language.
‘You come. Always come,’ it says. ‘And leave behind petals daubed with grief. To what end? What is it you desire?’
Colette flitters in fractured memories through me, but a sharp prick of dread—instinct tolling its warning bell—reins me in and I expel a breath without words. Her name becomes a lump at the back of my throat which I tentatively swallow back down as my mind, jittery, bustles through the stored knowledge of ilk lore. I must not reveal anything intimate; anything tied with deep emotion. The eldritch ilk seek after such things. Once able to glean a person’s name and face, or worse, their innermost desire, an ilk can enchant, trap, and spirit them away into bottomless burrows.
The entity watches me with its unblinking light motes. Waiting.
I herd my thoughts into a cluster and pull away from them, thinking beyond my heart’s forlorn and fettered yearning. An inspiration bubbles to the surface. I have pleaded in the past for the deeply guarded places of Crane Hollow to open their paths to enable Colette to return to me. I cannot reveal my longing for Colette, however …
I suck in an unsteady breath and reply, ‘I desire passage.’
No clarification is required; I feel a razor-edged understanding leach from the energy pressed between those ghastly-shaped branches.
‘And in exchange?’
An exchange. I tread a perilous path, deigning to bargain with an ilk. Regardless, it fills me with dreadful, dangerous hope. I could see Colette again. I could bring her home.
A fateful juncture in this bizarre encounter looms. I risk offending the thing if I offer something trivial, like jewels or a dowry. My mind traces over images of my family, of Mother and Father, and shrewd, kindly Grandmother. Aches clench over my heart at the portent to their sorrow of losing both daughters to the wiles of the ilk.
I cannot abide being the cause of such despair … and understand the required sacrifice.
I stare into the glazed determination and bright-eyed terror in my reflection’s eyes. ‘In exchange,’ my words flitter out as wren-whispers, ‘you may have the world’s memories of me.’
Silence gathers over the creature, growing weightier. Shivers scurry under my skin, cold and sharp with mounting unease. The air stirs, rife with the scent of leaf litter, peat, and crackling anticipation.
‘Then you will away—away into the ain ne plesveiln.’
Branches retract and uncurl in eerie groans, dismantling the ilk’s outline. But its eyes linger, unfurling wider, brighter.
I stare into them, and the blackness of the stream. Heaviness cramps through my limbs and folds over my shoulders, a cloak of unrelenting weariness. My body leans over the water, ungoverned, surrendering its weight to the air. The motes are so bright, the water so dark.
Mother. Father. Grandmother. At least they will not mourn for me. They will only ever remember Colette.