The sky was whited out that morning, like a great ashen blanket thrown out over to the horizon. You couldn’t make out one cloud from the next. The day was pale, and a thin vaporous mist had settled over the wet grass. The trees and bushes were soaked through with rain from the night before, everywhere about was wet and sodden through with mud. Even with all that, he had decided to go for a walk. He pulled on his boots and raised his coat collar up high around his ears. The cold was biting and numbed the tips of his fingers until they turned a bright red and his nails whitened.
There was a light spray of rain which was lashed against his face as he went along the road at a heady pace. His feet came down heavily on dirt-strewn road and crushed a shard of glass as it lay in the gutter, half hidden beneath a mash of leaves. The water trickled along the pavement and gurgled eagerly, like a happy child, as it swirled head-long and was sucked down into the inky-black drain.
The water splashed beneath his heels, and no sooner had his feet found earth than he felt them sink deep into the sopping dirt. As he moved further toward the park, the mud squelched and slapped through the path and swelled the water through the toe of his boot until it chilled the flesh to make him wince through the discomfort. As he neared the bench, he thought he glimpsed what appeared to be a bundle of old blankets. In fact, what he saw was an old woman. She was trussed up to the throat with a coat and scarf and draped about her shoulders was a heavy woolen cloak. She was all over black, her shoes and stockings were a deep and shining ebony colour, while her eyes – adorned with a double-sided eyeshade – were like glittering fragments of black diamond. She remained absolutely still, and he thought that he could not make out her breathing in the folds of heavy material. Approaching closer still, and with great caution, he extended a finger and touched her gently on the shoulder. The woman started suddenly, her breath was caught and snorted in her throat, and she shook her mess of silvery-grey curls.
“Och!” She exploded in surprise. “My apologies, sor. I have not slept these past three days and so settled was I, that I paid no mind to gentlemen such as yourself.”
He excused himself and raised his hand to head as though to doff the brim of his hat. His mother, a daughter of Bath, had taught him his English manners, and so it could not be said that he was ever without his niceties.
“And a gentlemen it is too, I knew it as soon as I laid eyes on ye.”
He was a little embarrassed to hear this, but as he still endeavoured to be kind to the old cove, he smiled nonetheless. The old woman leered up at him, revealing two rows of gums blackened to match her cloak. There was an absence of teeth in those gums and what few tushes could be seen were yellowed with her age and, he thought, every touch of the creature. A thin strand of spittle hung from her lips, and she with her darkened eyeshade, resembled some terrible creature eloped from legend.
Despite his unease, he felt compelled to manufacture further conversation.
“Are you not troubled by the rain my good woman?”
“No sor. I mun take me constitutional, even as the days grow so bleak. Besides, why do ye speak of rain?”
His brow furrowed, and with a wave of his hand he indicated the thin and miserable shower of rain that cascaded down about their heads and shoulders.
“Ahh – hahaha – oh sor, what a thing to think. ‘Tis not what ye would call rain – but is the tears of our Lord in Heaven as he weeps for the sorry state of this world.”
Had he not an inkling before, now he was quite certain that the woman was mad. He proffered only the slightest of nods and a short, gracious bow. Begging her pardon, he turned quickly on his heels and walked away, the woman behind him uttered a low cackle and it seemed as though her toothless guffaws followed him. Hanging on the still air and echoing just behind his ears.
The trees were thick of trunk and their bark was as course as serpent scale. The branches were all bare of leaves, with their stalks intermingled from end to end, twisting and coiling about one another, creating a false canopy of splintered shadows. Black patches were cast hither and thither, swelling in the notches of trees and in furrows of beasts. The ground was uneven, the heavy roots of those trees ran deep beneath the ground, and they distorted the earth above, creating their drops and starts – that so deceived pedestrians – nooks and crannies for all beasts who slithered and crawled. Nature held sway in this place, and though gentlemen walked there, and a length of good iron gate had formed its border, it remained as wild as it had been in centuries past where had walked the Celtic warriors of old.
He bunched his shoulders up close to his throat and felt himself sink deeper within the warming confines of his coat. The chill, it seemed, had only grown heavier and made his extremities to tremble. He had suddenly come over rather anxious and felt as though he were surrounded by rows of spectators – well, if you might call a tree a spectator – or certainly he felt as though there was some witness to his actions, as though some observer hitherto unseen was watching him. He craned his neck around the hefty trunks of the trees to see whatever might be seen, but of course, there was nothing.
He chalked up the odd sensation to his nerves and concluded that the cold had affected him rather more severely than he imagined. He rubbed the whited tips of his fingers against the wet fabric of his coat. He could no longer feel the water. Its cold could not hope to beat the numb of those frigid appendages. He had always found it rather curious that he hardly ever felt discomfort from the elements. He trudged back along the path and the thought struck him that he might be walking over the graves of those nameless, forever ago Celts. To think that his modern foot should march over their ancient bones. Would their pettish gods weep to see their unmarked graves and abandoned bones? Do they weep to see that world of magic, sword and shield ended? To think that they now have turned in their druids for the papacy. That in place of runes, they now have factories, and the great stacks that belch out the fumed billowy smoke of industry. But even now the old myths persisted. Had there not been the man who had murdered his wife on the account he had mistaken her for a fairy changeling.
Would that their Roman church permit divorce, he might have found their separation to be a good deal less troublesome.
Now his earlier fear returned to him; he was sure now, not only of his being watched, but that he was followed. Followed by a gaze that was attached to an eye that came along the ground as invisibly as the air and intangible as the mist. He broke into a run. His breath stung his chest and he slipped in the mud. He would have cursed had his laboured breath not prevented him.
The trees reached for him, for their branches loomed down at him like an offensive hand that meant to strike him. All the while those invisible eyes followed him and no matter how quick his pace always seemed to come nearer and nearer. It was as though he were suspended in time and the thing, whatever it was, retained its motion and used it against him.
When at last he returned home, he barred the door and drew the curtains. Shuttering himself into his rooms, he settled into his easy chair and folded a blanket across his knees. It did little to warm him, the chill had settled through his skin and into his bones, every follicle along his arm stood erect like burning arrow heads, he could feel them even through the heavy cloth of his jacket sleeve.
It was, in that moment, that the face of the old woman returned to him. For he had a sudden, and quite strange, premonition; there was, he perceived, an extraordinary sense of anticipation, as though he were awaiting some visitor. As though he expected that there would soon be a knock upon the door. But there was to be no visitor, for he led an altogether solitary existence and had few friends as would call on him. The memory of the old witch persisted in his mind, for now that he had to opportunity to reflect on it further; her strange manner and curious attire – much the same as one dressed for a funeral – he now believed that she may have been one of those women much celebrated for keening at gravesides. It was such a curious thing to imagine, those mad old fools who stuck to their ancient habits and wailed for disconsolate corpses.
He himself was much worn with the day’s fears, the dim room grew darker as his eyes grew heavier. Soon, he was cast adrift in the black well of sleep, his body felt as weightless as smoke and every nerve was as soft as melted butter.
He was stirred back to waking by a sound like the low whine of an animal, perhaps a cat caught in some terrible misadventure? No, no, he thought to goodness it could not be. It was much too high, even for a cat. The sound began to spin, it whirred and grew louder. It was a vile, discordant squeal, a wretched squall. Before, it had seemed to be far away, but as he came slowly to his senses; the wailing may well have been in the room alongside him. For now, much like the sensation of the invisible eyes, there was a second invisible appendage – mouth that could not be a mouth – uttering its piteous shriek. He was frozen to his seat in terror, his arm stiffened, was clutched at the arm of the chair as the bawling holler reverberated in his ears.
What struck him the most was the awful lamentation of the thing. It conjured thoughts of tombs where the earth was most suffocatingly thick and heavy. The reek of the charnel house and the grimace of death-heads, their grisly eternal smirks opening wide and the sound which issued forth was that same constant howl.
He remembered his stories from the nursery, the tale of the Banshee, that mournful maiden whose cries were an omen of imminent demise. He dismissed such thoughts, all that talk of Banshees, ghosts and goblins was nonsense. He could not believe it; he would not believe it! No, it must surely be some animal. After all, could not a gull make such a cry as one would swear came from a child. This would be no different.
The seconds passed almost like hours, he waited to gather every wit and every nerve to move, to cross the short distance between the chair and to the door. He would leave this place tonight, he would go, perhaps to a boarding house, somewhere with people and cheerful bright lights.
It was but the work of a moment to pull himself from the cushion. He fled to the door. His footfalls thumped dully on the worn carpet.
No myth would claim his life; no ancient terror torn from its Feinian mooring would kill him. He would not have it!
The frightful screech rose in frequency until the frame of the door began to shake as though it were in the grip of earthquake. But the room remained still, the sound was in his head, echoing in the corridors of his mind, as his vision became blinkered with it. So vertiginous was he, so rumbled that his knees began to buckle beneath him. The world around him, he now perceived, had been thrown into the cylinders of a kaleidoscope. The oak panels in the walls shone like the prisms of a diamond. The darkness was glittering before him as though the pits of hell were yawning wide open below his very feet. For a second, he thought he beheld the image of a woman, that could well have been the woman, her face so much more withered and worn. Her eyes were a fatal bloodshot and transfixed him with a stare that burned like smouldering iron. Her garments hung about her in torn and ragged strips, stained with earth and running with the burning tears that poured from those piercing, desolate sockets.
Then, that glowing realm of hellish dark fell away. His body collapsed and tumbled downwards into the gaping black beneath. And still that scream, still the urgent cry of unheeded death. His life slipped from him, swallowed up in the Banshee’s mournful wail. They discovered him the next day at the bottom of the stairs, his body broken, his head split apart. The buried him in a nameless grave, his final ceremony was conducted in the midst of a sluggish downpour, attended only by an old woman in blackened vestments. She did not thank the priest, but only offered her view that the Lord wept still as she kneeled to keen by the fresh plot.
Benjamin Wylde is a writer of horror fiction from Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He styles most of his stories on classical Victorian ghost tales, taking influence from the likes of M.R James and Edgar Allen Poe. He likes his stories to have an industrial setting, and psychological aspect that leaves things more open to interpretation. He regularly posts his stories to his Facebook page and has recently completed his first novel.