Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: whatever

Vae Victis!

Listener, are you familiar with the sayings of soldiers? They say “A soldier can only be defeated in battle or in bed”. Are they right – who can tell? But no matter where defeat comes, there is a sadder, more terrible saying that encompasses it: Vae victis – Woe to the vanquished!

I have seen these things and I swear to these things, sir, by Mars, by Jupiter the Best and Greatest, and by Mithras, in whose service I hold the rank of Lion – I mention this only in case there are brothers present who can vouch for my honesty, sir. My name is Marcianus Gallo, I am a Roman citizen, an Optio – chosen man – attached to the fourth Flag Unit, second Century of Gaulish Auxiliaries, stationed at Bertha, where the Almond joins the Tay. I beg leave to report, and to state my case.

It happened at the last winter solstice, sir. My unit had lost the lottery and drawn duty manning the watchtowers along the road to the south west, where it runs along an old ridgeway used by the natives for gods know how long. It is straight, like one of our roads, and had been cleared of trees for fifty paces each side, and the tree trunks used for the watchtower stockades.

My boys – my unit, sir – grumbled a bit about missing the celebrations in the native settlement around the camp, but they’re good lads… well, sir, they were good lads, I mean. We all get on well with the natives. It’s easier when the soldiery and the natives pray to the same gods – to Belenos and to Cernunnos and the like – and when the languages are close enough to get by, with a bit of camp Greek and Latin thrown in. At solstice, the natives light great bonfires, sir, and they sing, and dance, and drink, and everyone has a good time. If you ask them why, or what god they are honouring, they’ll shrug, and say it is to keep bad things away – bad thoughts, nightmares, things like that – but they won’t say anything more than that. No, they’ll grab you by the hand and pull you away to dance with them.

Anyway, it was our luck – our fate – to miss out on that, and we marched out of Bertha on the eve of solstice, up over the place they call the Badger’s Den, and on to the ridge road. The boys we were relieving were all smiles, and hurried off back down the road. I split us up into threes, sent most of them on to the other watchtowers with instructions who was to man which one, and I stayed in the first with two of the auxiliaries under my command, sir. Their names? They had Gaulish names, sir, but their Roman names were Rufus – he had red hair, sir – and Aper, the wild boar. Good lads both, sir. I sent them for more wood for the beacon and for our own camp fire, and stood a watch on the step of the palisade.

The last of the returning guard we had relieved marched back along the road – a little more smartly when they saw an Optio was watching them, sir – just as dusk began to fall. I watched the beacons light up further down the road. You can see a long way down the road because of the trees having been felled.

It was a clear night, sir, and while there was still a smear of dirty orange on the horizon, where the sun had gone down, the stars came out like some god had thrown a great handful of road grit into the sky, and the moon shone like a lantern. It was freezing cold, and we wrapped ourselves in our cloaks and stayed close to the fire. Whoever was on watch stood as close to the beacon as he could. We ate a little of our rations – nothing to drink, sir, because no one wants to go to the latrine when it’s that cold! You cant really sleep either, not when it’s that cold, but Rufus and I were propping each other up, back-to-back, and Aper was up on the step, stamping his big feet and blowing on his hands, maybe cursing under his breath, wishing his watch was over and that it was Rufus’ turn. Yes sir, I know, most unsoldierly, but you have to realise that sometimes discipline has to be light when it is cold and there are few of you, and if it kept him awake and alert, I wasn’t going to pull him up. Begging your pardon, sir.

I was getting drowsy, sir, and Rufus was elbowing me to keep me awake – as per my instructions – when I suddenly realised that Aper had gone silent, and wasn’t stamping his feet any more. I thought he had fallen asleep propped against the stockade, when I heard him speak.

“You’d better take a look at this, Boss,” he said… I know sir, but like I said, it’s informal up there on a winter night.

I got up, stretched my aching legs, thought myself a fool for getting stiff and drowsy, and joined him on the step. I looked out to the south west, where he was looking. I couldn’t see anything.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?” I said.

“The dark,” he said, and pointed.

I looked, and then I could see what he meant. It was like an obscuration by fog, sir, but it was like no fog I had ever seen. With fog on a moonlit night, in this part of the Empire, you get a sheen first, as the moonlight reflects back off it. This bank of fog was black as Tartarus. Blacker. It was as though someone had built a wall, or thrown a dark curtain up between us and the stars in a section of the sky.

“I’ve never seen weather like that,” said Rufus, who had joined us on the step, to see what we were looking at.

“I don’t like it,” said Aper. “Is it getting closer?”

We stared and stared at it for several minutes. At one moment, yes, it seemed as though it was moving, at another it seemed stationary. We couldn’t tell, and we couldn’t agree, whether it was a long way off and towering into the sky, or much nearer to us and closer to the ground; but we were staring into the dark at something dark, and our eyes were playing all kinds of tricks on us.

Then Rufus said, “How many beacons should we be able to see from here?”

“Five,” I said. “Why?”

“Count them, Boss,” he said.

I did. There were four beacon fires visible down the straight ridgeway, burning brightly and fiercely against the blackness. Number five should have been in sight, but it wasn’t there. We strained to see it, hoping it was something simple – maybe the lads manning that watchtower had let it go out, and would re-light it in a moment. We waited, and waited, while nothing happened. Then number four suddenly winked out.

We looked at each other, then back towards the south west.

“It’s closer,” said Aper. “I’ll swear I can see fewer stars.”

“If something is happening, like an attack from one of those marauding tribes from the North,” I said. “Then there’ll be a runner back from one of the towers soon. It’s standard drill.”

“Even the wild Picts from the mountains have no magic to make the stars go out,” said Aper.

We waited and watched. No runner came. I wondered whether to send one of them along the road to see what had happened, but they were both peering at the sky, as though they were watching for more stars going out. I didn’t fancy my chances of being obeyed if I gave that order. Rufus and Aper were standing as still as statues. They must have been cold – I was like a block of ice myself – but they gave no sign. They just watched, with their faces turned half upwards, a look on them which was one part attentiveness one part fear, like two hounds sniffing the air for the wolf-scent.

Then the beacon on watchtower number three seemed to flicker. We held our breath, and watched as it faded to an ember, and died. None of us spoke, none of us really knew what to say. I felt that if I broke the silence at that moment, it would not matter what words I said. I could offer no explanation, no encouragement, not even a supplication to the gods. I could not even have brought myself to say what each of us saw and knew, but dared not admit we saw and knew – that the darkness now appeared to fill at least one third of the whole sky, and had crept nearer along the road, and was moving, moving towards us.

The beacon of the second nearest watchtower went out when none of us were looking. One moment it was there, and none of us seemed to have looked away; but then it simply wasn’t there. Rufus gasped, and the sound choked off, gurgling and dying in his throat.

“Lads,” I said, as calmly as I could. “There is an explanation for this. The cloud comes low along this ridge, and heavy rain comes with it. In a few minutes we’ll all be under the canopy in here, watching it drip, watching it put out the beacon.”

“Where there’s rain there’s wind,” said Rufus. “Do you hear any wind.”

“The wind’ll pick up,” I said.

We strained to hear wind, to smell rain on the native pine trees. There was no sound, and the air which we breathed in was freezing cold, and numbed our sense of smell. Then the beacon at the next watchtower disappeared.

“What was that? Did you hear that?” said Aper.

“What? What?” said Rufus, catching at the sleeve of Aper’s tunic and shaking it.

“Quiet – listen!” I hissed.

We thought we caught the sound of a scream.

Maybe all three of us should have run at that moment. We didn’t. We just got down from the stockade step, sat beside our camp fire, and did nothing. We sat there and waited, instead of standing and waiting. None of us dared say the things we were thinking – that the nearest watchtower was only one thousand paces away, and that was how close the darkness was now, closer maybe. I didn’t dare give them any words of encouragement, I didn’t say we’d sit it out, let the darkness pass, and go to find out what had happened at first light. I sat there, struck dumb, between my two soldiers, also struck dumb, feeling as though we were hunched together on a small island of fire-and-beacon light in a great, dark ocean…

Then suddenly Aper sat bolt upright. His sharp ears had caught another sound, and his right hand went to the hilt of his sword. I looked at Rufus, wondering if my face looked as white as his, we began to hear scratchings and low voices outside, and then a scrape, as the gate to the stockade began to inch open.

We scrambled to our feet, pulling out our swords and pointing them towards the gate. We stood shoulder to shoulder, and I shouted – maybe more loudly than I should, and with a bit of an edge to my voice – “Halt! In Caesar’s name, who goes there?”

The gate swung slowly open, and there were two figures standing there, barely lit in the light from our beacon. For a moment it seemed they could have been shades, sent from the Underworld – it was the night for it – as the flickering flames made grotesque shadows on their faces. It was as though their features swam before our eyes for a moment or two, before resolving into something more recognisable – the faces of two young native, a girl and a boy of maybe twenty years of age. They looked cold and frightened, at least the girl did; the boy was huddled under her cloak, leaning against her, his eyes not showing any emotion, barely showing any sign of life at all. For a while we forgot everything else, put our swords away and pulled them inside. Aper put the bar on the gate, while Rufus and I got the two youngsters to sit by our fire and take some of our rations. The girl ate like she was starving, but the boy just mumbled a bit at his food. Rufus is the best of us at the native language, and got names out of them. The girl was Guenhumara, or something that sounded like that. The boy’s name was unpronounceable, but Rufus said it meant Son of the Bear, and he was her brother. Aper laughed, threw an arm round the lad, and declared him his brother too.

“Bear and Boar, that’s what we’ll be, young warrior, eh?” he said, and yes, he got a flicker from the youngster’s eyes and the ghost of a smile.

For a good while, their presence cheered us. We talked. Well, mostly Aper, Rufus, and I talked. We couldn’t get much out of the girl, and nothing out of the boy. She would answer questions with a word or two, and it seemed they had been hurrying up from the next valley, trying to get to Bertha, where their family were, for the celebrations. But they’d got lost somewhere, and found themselves on this ridgeway, in the dark. When Guenhumara ran out of things to say, she was content to show us the metalwork of the brooch, or the carvings on her bead necklace, and to encourage us to talk about our soldiering equipment and weapons. And as we talked, and shared our rations, it felt as though everything was going to be all right. The beacon stayed bright, the camp fire was warm, and even the boy was nodding and smiling a little.

Then there was a lull. I looked up at the sky, to see if I could see any stars, but all I could see was the moon, dimly shining high above us. Then a shadow seemed to spread over it, and its face was hidden. We became silent, and in our silence we heard a sputtering and hissing, and we watched in horror as the beacon fire was extinguished, as though an unseen hand was slowly pouring water onto it. The brightness of our own camp fire dulled to red, and threatened to go the same way as the beacon. Suddenly the girl grabbed the neck of my tunic with both hands, and shook me, crying out in bad Latin.

Orate ad deorum! Canete! Canete!” she shouted. “Pray to the gods! Sing! Sing!”

She knelt before the fire, started clapping her hands, and singing an absurd little song in her own language. Rufus and Aper picked it up, and I went “La-la-la” with the tune. The boy rocked back and forward in time to his sister’s clapping. The fire flared up, and for a minute or so burned brightly again, and we grinned at each other – forced grins to go along with our singing – willing the fire to stay bright and keep us safe. But the brightness was only short-lived, and soon began to redden and fade. Our singing became desperate. I could hear panic in the girl’s voice, and it felt to me as though a metal band was tightening around the stockade. I knew that the darkness was closing in on us again. Guenhumara’s singing turned to a moaning.

Suddenly the bar on the gate shattered, and it was flung wide open! The last thing I saw as the fire died, was the boy jump to his feet, dash to the opening, and immediately fall backwards like a felled tree. Something… rolled towards the fire… Guenhumara screamed… and everything was black.

I can remember very little else, sir. The darkness pressed on me like a great weight, a living thing, and I thrust and slashed at it with my sword… I’m sure… I think.

They tell me I reached Bertha, alone, babbling like a man demented, just before dawn. They tell me I had gashes on my legs, which I suppose I must have got scrambling up and over the stockade in my panic, and scratches all over my face and hands, from tree branches ripping at me. I had one great gash on my neck, which no one can explain, sir. Look, you can see the scar from it. I told the Centurion and everyone what I remembered, and in the morning he marched me, under escort, up to the ridgeway to investigate. There was no sign of anyone in any of the watchtowers – the men were all recorded as deserters – except in the one from which I had escaped. There they found the bodies of two auxiliary soldiers and two young natives.

The heads were missing from all four bodies, sir.

I told everyone I hadn’t done it, sir, but there was blood on my sword, and they didn’t believe me. I know you don’t either, sir. I knew from the start you wouldn’t. But it is all true, I swear, by Mars, and by Jupiter, and by Mithras the soldiers’ god. Sir, I am not a coward, no matter what they say. Send me now to a battle, order me to charge alone into the thick of the enemy and die a soldier’s death, and I will do it. Even, if I must, sir, I can face the shameful death of being stoned by my comrades. I am not afraid, sir. Death will blank out the memory of that awful darkness that pressed in on me, that night at the watchtower. It was a darkness of terrible power. It robbed me of my name, of all my memories, all knowledge of sunshine, the power of speech, of thought itself, and replaced them all, sir, with fear… total, utter fear. I felt in my head, rather than heard in my ear, terrible words repeated and repeated….

Woe to the vanquished… woe… woe… to the… vanquished… sorry sir… can’t stop the tears, sir…

Listener, it is nothing to you that many lifetimes ago, a forgotten soldier was executed for cowardice and murder. Much of the old, straight road he matched along is now under your hard, grey asphalt, and the fierce headlights of you car push back the thickest darkness. But there is a point where your road turns left, and if, on a clear night in midwinter, you are tempted to stop by the wooden gate, and take to footpath which runs straight along the Gask Ridge, just to see the bright stars without the ghastly glare of your town lights, make sure it is not the one night of the year when it is the custom to sing and make merry in your towns and villages. If you do not, it is not stars you will see, but utter darkness, and you will hear those words “Woe to the vanquished… woe.. woe to the vanquished.”. For I am She Who Walks The Ridge, on the longest night of the year. The solstice… is Mine!

__________

©Marie Marshall 2008-2020
Yes, I know the story is more appropriate to midwinter, but I couldn’t resist telling it to you.
The image is a detail from an illustration by the late Ron Embleton.

The Legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline

Never, never go anti-clockwise!

I’ll tell you a wee fairy story, if you would like to listen for a few minutes, if you’re not dashing away to watch TV, or play with your computer. It was told to me by someone who we always knew as “Aunt Sheena” when I was a girl on Mull.

You thought I had always lived here in Glasgow? I know I’m old myself – I shall be ninety-one next month – and I seem like I’m Glasgow born and bred, but until I was ten years old I lived on the island of Mull. My dad came here looking for work in the shipyards, and my mum and my two brothers and me followed him.

Aunt Sheena – she was a Gaelic-speaker – wasn’t anyone’s aunt really, that’s just what we called her; and when I knew her she must have been as old as I am now. I mind well how she came to wave me and my brothers goodbye the very last time we got on the bus from Killiechronan, on our way to Craignure for the ferry to Oban, and the train to Glasgow. I mind seeing her getting smaller and smaller in the back window of the bus as it headed down the Salen road. I waved until I couldn’t see her any more. I promised I would try to remember all the stories she had told me.

She was more like everyone’s granny. I suppose she really had been someone’s aunt at some time, but I don’t know whose. And on the occasions when she would come from her cottage to ours, during those long summer holidays when we didn’t have to trek into Salen to school, and when dad was away working and mum was shopping in Tobermory or doing her typing job at the doctor’s surgery, Aunt Sheena would tell us stories, usually about the fairy folk, or spirits, or ghosts.

Och, I knew you would say that fairy stories are for wains. But just hear me a moment. When we lived there in Killiechronan, my brothers and I had no radio –  there wasn’t even electricity, and it was years before television came to Scotland. So we had to live in our imaginations. In the winter time it would be books borrowed from the school library. In the summer we would range around the countryside, playing games of cowboys and Indians, Jacobites and Redcoats, Boers, Zulus, knights of old – even I would wield a stick torn from a tree as a musket or a spear. One of our favourite places was the Mausoleum of an old Major General at Gruline, which would be a fort for us to defend or attack, depending on what game we were playing. We would wage our mock battles there until the ghillies from Gruline House came to chase us off. So tales of fairy castles, elf knights, and wandering ghosts just fed that imagination of ours.

And of course the whole landscape of our part of Scotland is full of fairy rocks, magic trees, and so on, if the place names are to be believed. There are things which must be said at odd times, little rituals such as kissing the tip of your fingers and touching your gatepost each time you left home, to make sure you returned safely. These were all part of our lives, and we imagined that they belonged to that time before people came to Mull, when there were magic folk here instead, who hadn’t really gone away, but who slept, or kept guard over the doorways between our world and another world where magic still ruled, and who had to be kept sweet so that they would not creep in to our world and do us harm. I remember how, on the last day that I left our cottage, I kissed my fingertips and touched the gatepost…

Listen, I’ll tell you how I know there are such things as ghosts. A mile or so down the road from our cottage there is a wee kirk, dedicated to St Columba. I was walking towards it one afternoon, and I was about one hundred yards from it when I saw a man open the door and go in. I don’t know whether he actually looked at me, but I could see that he had turned his face in my direction. I thought he must have been the minister. But when I reached the kirk and tried the door I found it shut fast – locked – and no sign of a light inside, no sounds. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I walked round and round the building, jumping up to look in the windows, but it was deserted. Just then a cloud covered the sun, there were a few spits of rain, and a wee wind sprang up. The leaves on the trees started to rustle and rattle, as though hundreds of tiny hands had started to shake the twigs and branches, and I realised what I had done. I had gone round the kirk anti-clockwise. You must never do that, never go round a kirk, or a stone circle, or an ancient cross anti-clockwise. It is such bad luck! As the rustling and rattling grew louder, I felt I had insulted the spirits or elves that guarded that place, and if I didn’t do something very quickly to put matters right, I would be struck blind, or dumb, or daft.

So I ran back round the kirk, but this time clockwise, like the sun in the sky. I ran round twice, three times, and the rattling stopped, the wind died down, and the sun came out again. Each time I passed the kirk after that, I dropped a curtsey to whoever guarded it.

But that’s my story, not one of Aunt Sheena’s. The trouble is that, despite my promise, I can only remember snips and snaps of her tales, apart from one. I’ll tell you that one. It’s the legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline.

One rainy day when my brothers and I did not want to go out, Aunt Sheena was there, in my dad’s armchair, nodding, and pursing her lips, the way she always did when she was thinking of a story. I was just bringing a cup to her, and I decided to nudge her towards the story.

“Aunt Sheena,” I asked. “Do you know anything about the standing stone by the road to Knock?”

“Do I know about the Grey Lady?” she said. “Of course. I know all about her. Why – do you want me to tell you her story? All right, gather round, just let me take a sip of my tea. Now then…”

And this is the story she told us:

There once was a man from Ulva, called Ewan MacDaid. He was handsome enough, but very quiet, hardly spoke. At the age of fourteen he had taken work at the Ben More Estate, working for the Factor as a labourer He worked hard in all weather, never complained, always smiled but said very little to the other workers on the estate. He loved to be given work that meant he had to wander up Glen Clachaig, or along Glen Cannel to the shielings at Gortenbuie, whether it was to look for stray sheep, mend a wall, or simply take a message. Solitude was his joy, the quiet countryside of Mull was his love, and work was his excuse for enjoying both. Not that he complained when the Factor partnered him with another man, or put him in a team under one of the ghillies. He simply went along with that, pulled his weight in the job at hand with that good-natured smile, but sat apart to eat his midday food. That was always some grey bread – his mother’s own oat bread made in her oven at home – and a can of water from Loch Ba.

When he was old enough to be let a wee cottage of his own, in the row of cottages in Knock where the other estate workers all lived, his mother used to come all the way from Ulva with a basket of grey bread for him. Of course it wasn’t all he ate – he was allowed his share of snared rabbits from the Estate, and fish from Loch na Keal – but his mother’s grey bread made his eyes light up most of all.

It was a shock to his workmates and to the Factor when Ewan, on hearing of the war between Turkey and Russia, announced that he was away to join the army, and would be leaving soon for the Crimea. He left, an unlikely soldier, remembering of course to kiss his fingers and touch them to the gatepost of the cottage.

He was gone for three years. His mother was often heard to say, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread? Do they have grey bread in the army?” She, poor soul, died before he came back. Neighbours found her on the floor of her cottage on Ulva, her hands covered with oat flour, her bowl full of dough.

Ewan did come back, still smiling but with the boy’s look in his eyes changed into a man’s, and a man who has seen things which no one should see. The news that his mother was not there to welcome him made that look softer, sadder, but still he smiled and said very little. His workmates said, half-joking, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread?”

The answer was that he took two days off work, arranging with the Factor to go without pay for those days, took the next boat to Oban, and returned with a wife. The new Mistress MacDaid – Elspeth – was a bonny lass with high cheekbones, dark hair, and a ready tongue. His workmates teased Ewan for keeping her a secret, and though they all found out that he had courted her while he was billeted in Oban, always intending to ask her to marry him, they let him have his own little joke – “I wed her because she makes good grey-bread.”

For a few years the couple were happy enough. But then Elspeth began to notice that the handsome soldier she had first met was content merely to get on with his job in the hills and glens of the estate, to enjoy his luncheon of grey bread, and to come home to her at night for quiet companionship.

“Have you no ambition, Ewan?” she would complain, and Ewan’s workmates on either side of their cottage could hear her plainly enough, because her voice had become shrill. She chivvied him endlessly – why did he not try for the Head Ghillie’s job, and then even for the Factor’s. He would shake his head, saying he was content with things the way they were, much to Elspeth’s anger.

“I’m the man you married, Elspeth,” he would say.

The day came when he said that once too often, and Elspeth seethed. When Ewan’s next remark was to wonder whether she had ready his wee bit of grey bread for next day, she boiled over into the most terrible rage. She chased Ewan out of the house, cursing, and pelting him with the dozen or so wee loaves she had just baked.

“Grey bread? Grey bread? Is that all you care about Ewan MacDaid? Is that all you can offer me – a life of baking your grey bread? The man I married, are you? Well I don’t see him here, I don’t see the soldier who fought at Sevastopol and Balaclava, and faced Russian guns, the man who courted me bravely. All I see is a little baby crying for his grey bread! God knows why I ever married you, I wish I could be rid of you!”

And she chased him round and round the cottages, pelting him with the loaves. When she had run out of loaves she pelted him with clods, stones, anything she could pick up, with his astonished workmates peeping out of their windows.

And she chased him… anti-clockwise.

That night they lay in bed, he on his right side, snoring, and she on her left, weeping. At last, after two hours of tears, she began to slip into that state where images from dreams begin to crowd in on the familiar things of waking. It seemed to her that there was a draught in the room, and that the door had been half-opened letting in a grey light, a little like dawn but somehow harder; it seemed as though the bedclothes were sliding off her, or as though little pairs of hands were pulling them back.

Then there came the sudden shock of these little hands’ being placed over her mouth, and more dragging her from her bed and into a nightmare.

There was a noise of chattering and laughter, dry as old leaves and pine-needles; the tread of dozens of pairs of feet; bumps and bangs as she was carried out of the bedroom. She tried to call out to Ewan, but he just snored more loudly.

Out of the bedroom she was carried, and out of the cottage into the cold moonlight. She could see the dark shadows of the creatures who carried her, as though they were the silhouette of a thorn-thicket. She hoped she was dreaming, but when they clumsily collided with the gatepost and she felt a pain in her foot, she knew she was not. A wind blew as they carried her along, round and round the row of cottages… anti-clockwise… and leaves and twigs from the nearby trees pelted her face.

Then it seemed that a hole had opened up in the ground, and she was carried down a steep slope and out of the moonlight. How long that terrible ride lasted she could not tell, but at last she felt herself being thrown down, and she sprawled on a hard, stone floor.

But at least she could see. There was a glow from a fire, and from many torches round a hall. And her mouth was at last free. She shook her head to clear it and looked up. Instantly she wished that she couldn’t see at all, and that the hands were still over her mouth so she couldn’t cry out. Around her, leering at her, were the Brownie folk.

Now, put out of your mind the wee lasses who dance around at the kirk hall; and put out of your mind the pretty fairies in story books. These folk, these creatures that surrounded Elspeth McDaid, mocking her, scorning her, were the real Brownie folk. They are not really of our world, they don’t think the way we do, they don’t have the laws of God, much less the laws of science, to rule them. They have no sense of justice or fairness. Oh they can be kind to those folk who respect them, but they can be wilful and wicked too, to good and bad folk alike, especially those who show them no politeness at all.

In the hall where Elspeth grovelled on the floor, there were imps and elves and trolls of all shapes and sizes. There were goat-footed, goat-horned demons; there were tall tree-spirits with skin as white as birch-bark; there were tiny mayfly-fairies like dancing points of light that flittered up to her and pricked her with needles; there were misshapen gnomes and fierce elf-knights; there were nut-brown bauchles who laughed and threw things at her. Worse than all those was the one who sat on a throne in the middle of the hall – the Brownie Queen. She was terrible, beautiful, she shone like polished brass, and her eyes flashed with burning, red anger!

“Who do you think you are, Elspeth MacDaid?” she said, in a voice like the roar of the water that falls from Eas Fors. “Who do you think you are to rage and rage, and chase a man widdershins round your croft? Who are you to throw good food away in your anger? Who are you to shout aloud against the joining of you to your man according to the magic of your land? Give me one good reason why I should not dash your brains out, open the trap door in the floor of my hall, and throw you into hell!”

If Elspeth could have grovelled any more than she was doing, then she would have.

The Queen spoke again. “What have you to be angry about, you who can spend her life in the sunlight as we once did?”

“My man…” stammered Elspeth. “My man… he wanted his… grey bread.”

The Brownie folk laughed, but the Queen silenced them all with a voice like a rainstorm.

“Is that all? Is that all? A man asks for his food and you throw it at him? Very well, your punishment shall be that you will work forever, in MY kitchen, baking oat-bread for me and for all my courtiers here. It is the next worst thing to hell, Elspeth MacDaid, and you will never see daylight again.”

“Pity… some pity…don’t forbid me the daylight,” cried Elspeth.

The hall went quiet. The Queen seemed to think for a long time.

“I will have mercy,” she said. “You may have daylight.”

“Oh thank you, thank you,” cried Elspeth, now upon her knees.

But the queen walked over to her, and whispered an enchantment in her ear. She would indeed have daylight, she would have sun and moon, rain and stars. She would stand forever, her back hunched against the cold and heat, in the cow-field by the Knock road. And in that instant Elspeth was transformed into a grey, dour, lonely standing-stone, the one we all know to this day as the Grey Lady.

Of course all Ewan MacDaid knew was that she had gone. He was sad for a while, but his workmates’ wives baked grey-bread for him, and took much solace in the beauty of the lands around the Ben More Estate. And that is the end of Aunt Sheena’s story.

Och I know what you’re going to say. But let me just tell you something else. My own grandson took his wains to Mull last summer for their holidays. One day they parked their car outside St Columba’s kirk, and took a walk down the road. They spotted the standing stone – the Grey Lady – in the field, and my grandson took his new digital camera as far as the barbed-wire fence, steadied his foot awkwardly against a squelchy tussock, and tried five or six times to take a photograph. None of them seemed to come out better than a blur, and the stone seemed to become more and more hunched, as though offended to be disturbed in that way. As he continued to try, he tells me that the sky clouded over and he felt a few drops of rain on him, and the leaves on the trees began to rustle as though hundreds of little hands were shaking each twig and branch. He says that his wains pulled him away, back to the car, wanting him to find a café where they could have chips, and that as they walked away the sun came out again and the wind that had stirred the trees died down again.

But that was just a coincidence, and Aunt Sheena’s story about the Grey Lady is just an old fairy tale. Isn’t it?

__________

©Marie Marshall 2011-2020

The photograph of the ‘Grey Lady’ is indeed from Mull, but from Quinish, not Gruline. Naturally enough, I couldn’t find one from Gruline!

On the Platform

Here is another tale for you in the run-up to Halloween. This little railway station in Scotland seems so clean and modern… but is it haunted?

I looked at my watch. I don’t know why, some reflex action I suppose, habit, almost automatic. It had stopped of course, it was showing the same time as before. I guessed it was some time after midnight, though, and I was alone on the station platform. At least, I couldn’t see anyone else, but it was as though someone else was there, or if not actually there, then expected soon.

I looked up and down the platform. The lamp at the far end was flickering on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, and throwing a pillar, a bench, and a rubbish bin into sharp relief. The lamp above my head was steady, as was the one at the nearer end of the platform, to my left. The indicator board glowed amber, showing the time of the next train. Not for hours. Not due until morning. The sign said ‘On time’ and the intermediate stations were scrolling right to left across it. The seconds were ticking away. I looked at my watch again. Why? Why look at my watch when the time was up there?

I heard a sound as though the sole of a shoe scraped against the platform surface. The lamp at the far end of the platform flickered on and off. There was no one there, not that I could see. The hash from the lamps seemed to accentuate the dark outside them, making it seem as though nothing existed beyond this station platform. There was no movement except for a piece of litter being blown across the platform and spilling onto the track, out of sight, making a scratchy, fluttery noise against the concrete edge as it went. Was that what I had heard?

“Hello,” I called. “Is anybody there?”

There was no answer. And yet I still felt as though someone else was there, or was expected soon. Maybe the bloke from Scotrail would be here shortly. Maybe his shift was an early one, and he would soon turn up and switch on the strip lighting in the glass-fronted ticket office and waiting room. Maybe he would unlock the door to the waiting room and switch on the vending machine. I could get a Mars Bar. I wasn’t hungry but it would pass the time. I peered into the dark, willing a set of headlights to illuminate the station car park. Nothing happened. No one came.

I pulled my coat collar snuggly to my neck, smoothed my skirt, and crossed my ankles. I wished I had a book with me. I wasn’t cold, but I pushed my hands into my coat pockets. In the left one, my fingertips found something small and hard. Whatever it was – a piece of grit, I don’t know – I rolled it in between my fingertips, pressing it, squeezing it, deliberately trying to find sharp edges to graze my fingertips. Anything to occupy some time. I had nowhere else to go. The seconds on the indicator board ticked away. I uncrossed and re-crossed my ankles.

What is it about stations? They should be busy, there should be coming and going. I was certain that this little place with its up and down lines, and its two platforms, and its footbridge, would be full of commuters during daylight hours, people bound for their offices in Edinburgh, or wanting to make a connection to Glasgow. Mid-morning and afternoon there would be shoppers, maybe the occasional out-of-season backpacker. Late afternoon there would be children and teenagers coming back from school in town, and the car park would have four-by-fours or a mini-bus waiting for them. people would be sipping coffee and eating Twix bars from the vending machines, or munching bridies from the wee Co-op. The wee Co-op that was somewhere out there, in the darkness beyond the light hash here on the station. Then in the evening, late commuters, folk going out for the evening, folk coming back, the last train. The lights being turned off in the ticket office and waiting room. The bloke from Scotrail getting on his moped. The sound of its motor dying away. That’s how this station, this platform came to be a little island in the dark, a place where things waited to happen, where someone was expected. Maybe.

But now, on this little island, I couldn’t even see over to the other platform. All the lights seemed to be off over there. There was an indicator board. It glowed, just like the one on this side, but it was slantways on. It gave no real light. I couldn’t read it. If I got up and walked a little way down then maybe I could. I could cross over the footbridge, walk into the dark, and go and read it. It would pass the time. From there, from that dark platform, I would be able to look over at this one, the lighted one. I could, but I didn’t. Here I felt – what? – safe. I waited. There wasn’t really anything to do except wait.

“Is anybody there?” I called again. I still had this feeling that someone was here, or expected. If I sat here, right where I was, the spot on the platform I had become used to, I would see anyone who came. The platform entrance, the ticket office, the footbridge, all of them were to my right. The entrance just this side of the flickering light, the footbridge just beyond it. They were all in my field of vision.

I looked at my watch again, then realised what I was doing and made a little “kah!” sound in my throat, annoyed with myself.

Then I thought I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. The light flickering? I looked back along the platform. Yes, it was still flickering, on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, still throwing the pillar, the bench, and the rubbish bin into sharp relief, and making a silhouette of a man. He was standing there, a tall shadow, hatted, and with a bag at his feet. I hadn’t seen him arrive. Maybe I gasped in surprise, or maybe he had heard my little syllable of annoyance, because he seemed to turn towards me. I heard the sole of his shoe scrape on the ground. I watched as he bent to pick up his bag and began to walk my way. His steps were slow, light, deliberate, almost cautious. He seemed to be made completely of shadow, all I could see of him was three pale patches where the nearest light caught his cheekbones and his chin as he got closer.  Nothing more. As for those measured footsteps, I seemed to feel them rather than hear them, except for that occasional scrape, maybe as the sole of his shoe scuffed a pebble or a loose piece of tarmac.

In my left pocket I squeezed the little piece of grit hard. Harder, the closer the man came to me. He stopped a pace or so away from the bench where I was sitting and put his bag down. He gestured towards the bench. He wore gloves. They were dark, like the rest of his clothes. Dark as shadow.

“I hope you don’t mind if I sit here,” he said. “I would have taken the other bench, but the lamp…” There was something old-fashioned about the way he spoke he wasn’t a young man, that was certain. I nodded, and he brought up his hand to tip his hat. Old fashioned again. He sat down, not too close to me, not touching distance, and I was glad. I like my personal space. Once he had sat down I could see nothing of his face at all. He was directly under the nearest lamp, and the shadow of the brim of his hat covered his features entirely. His hands were folded across his lap. His coat was long and shapeless, down to his knees. An overcoat, with the collar turned up, as far as I could see. I couldn’t see much. He didn’t look at me. I turned my head away and looked into the darkness where the other platform ought to have been, but occasionally I glanced at him without moving my head.

It was strange. Even though I was sitting next to him, on the same bench, I felt exactly like I had done before he arrived. I felt that I was alone, but that somebody was there out of sight, maybe watching, or somebody was expected soon. I kept wondering what I would see if I got up and looked at him from the other side. I kept wondering if I looked away and looked back, would he not be there. Would he go as quickly as he had come.

“What time is it?” he asked suddenly.

I looked at my watch. It had stopped, of course, it was showing the same time as before. Why did I keep doing that? I suppose it’s what you do when someone asks you.

“I don’t know,” I said. “My watch… it’s past midnight.”

“Oh aye, it’s well past midnight.”

“The indicator board. It shows the time.”

“Of course. Of course it does. Sorry to have bothered you,” he said. To me it was as though his voice came from a long way away. He seemed to have been cut out from shadow and pasted onto the world. He, the station, everything in it, all now had a flatness, a two-dimensional quality to it.

“No trouble,” I said. I thought I must be getting tired, but for some reason I knew it was important to stay awake. This funny flatness of everything, it must be like those hallucinations you get when you’re about to fall asleep. I didn’t want to fall asleep. I had been waiting here and I wanted to keep waiting and to keep my wits about me. The man was old, strange. Part of me hoped he would go. Part of me felt like if he got up to go I would beg him to stay.

We sat in silence. Another piece of litter scraped and scratched its way across the platform. It teetered on the concrete edge and fluttered as if caught there. I watched it. I kept very still, as though if I breathed I would influence things, I would tip the piece of litter over the edge. I would be like the butterfly wingbeat in South America that causes a storm in Europe. In the flatness, it felt as though I could reach out and pick it up, just like pulling it off the surface of a picture.

“Causality,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

He didn’t repeat what he said. I realised I hadn’t moved since he had sat down. In my left pocket that little piece of grit was still tight between my thumb and index finger. I peered into the dark. I could make out nothing. He said nothing. He was silent for at least ten minutes, motionless. The piece of litter still fluttered at the edge of the platform.

“I know this will sound strange, but I have something I want to say to you,” he said suddenly. I looked at him. He might have turned his head towards me, but I still could see nothing. His hat still shaded his face. Looking at him was like looking into the darkness where the other platform should have been. I peered, I tried to make out something of his features as he talked. I listened to his old, faraway voice.

“Ghosts. Ghosts do exist. The spirits of dead people, spirits that can’t rest. The French call them revenants. That means the ones who come back. The ones who keep coming back. They can’t help coming back, again and again, to a place, to a particular place. They are compelled to come back because they have left something undone, something incomplete. Sometimes they know what it is, often they do not. But they all want one thing. They’re all aware of this wanting, some more than others, for some it is just a vague restlessness. But that one thing they want is someone else, someone to tell about what they have left undone. They want someone to listen, or to see. Some tell their story, others act it out, running through the events up until a certain moment, in the hope that if someone hears or sees they will understand. Then the ghost will be able to rest. But often this telling or showing becomes a puzzle, pieces that don’t fit, a mystery, incomprehensible, and even the ghost does not understand. That is why we hear stories about ghosts wailing. So much pain. Such endless torture. Like rolling a stone up a mountain only to see it roll down again.”

“Sisyphus,” I said. “Yes, Sisyphus. I know that story. It’s familiar.”

He paused, and then went on.

“Again and again they come to one particular place. They don’t know why. That’s the stone being pushed up the mountain. Between their visits to the place, they forget. That’s the stone rolling down. If there is someone there, in the place, a ghost will appear to them, may try to make them feel the same pain, or understand it somehow, or perhaps try to make them the one who gives them rest, assuages their pain. Who can say what ghosts really think or feel? I don’t think they want to frighten anybody, but they do. That’s their curse. So people stay away from those places. The ghost’s pain will then be like the tree falling in a forest. Because there is no one there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound. But it falls nevertheless.”

I looked at him, at the darkness and shadow, at the platform, the flickering lamp, the pillar, the bench, the rubbish bin, as it all seemed to become flatter and flatter. Why was he telling me all this?

“Why are you telling me all this?” I asked. “Have you got some kind of unfinished business yourself?”

“You could say that,” he replied. “You could say there is something I need to do. You could say I need to… reach out to you.”

“I don’t understand.”

It was true, I didn’t. How could I? How could I understand this strange man whose face I couldn’t see, who seemed to have been cut out of shadow and pasted onto the surface of a flat picture. This man with his old-fashioned manners and bizarre stories. This man in the little island of diffused light in the middle of a great sea of darkness. I kept my left forefinger and thumb tight on the little piece of grit. It hurt. There was such a lot of pain in my left hand. I couldn’t understand the man so I focused on that pain. I think I cried out.

I heard the rails begin to whisper and sing. Somewhere in the darkness there was a pinprick of brilliant white light. It quivered. It grew bigger. It was coming… nearer. As it came the singing in the rails grew louder. Suddenly the flatness was shattered, the white light burst upon my eyes, flashed, passed, roaring, screaming, so fast… so fast… a terrifying noise that filled the whole world, filled my head. A body, a vast, hard, long body like a beast, an insane beast, howled and hurtled past. I was standing. The man was standing too. His face was lit up by the passing lights. It was just a face, nothing more. A man’s face. I could see his lips moving.

“The sleeper to Inverness.”

I reached out my hand to him. He did the same. Our hands passed through each other. The beast, the train, had gone by. The forgotten pieces of litter spiraled in its wake and fell back into the darkness. The singing in the rails died away.

“It would be so easy for someone to stand too close to the edge of the platform,” he said. “Someone with news to tell. Someone with people waiting at home, people to make smile. It would be so easy to trip or to slip and to be caught in the bow-wave. Or it would be so easy for someone who could see nothing but pain, to look into the darkness over on the other platform, and simply to walk towards it. So easy.”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t.

“The sadness of ghosts is that they are awake while most of the world sleeps. They slip back into nothingness with the day. They sleep, if you like. It’s a sleep without dreams. It’s a sleep in which they forget everything. They know this. They know it’s going to happen. It’s part of the pain.”

I still said nothing. I still couldn’t think of anything to say. I knew I ought to say something to him, but it wouldn’t come. I knew I ought to reach out again, but I couldn’t.

“There is so little time,” he said, his old face lit up by the amber lights of the indicator board as he looked at it. “Ghosts sleep at dawn. It’s almost dawn.”

Dawn? I looked at my watch. I don’t know why, some reflex action I suppose, habit, almost automatic. It had stopped of course, it was showing the same time as before. I guessed it was some time after midnight, though, and I was alone on the station platform. At least, I couldn’t see anyone else, but it was as though someone else was there, or if not actually there, then expected soon.

I looked up and down the platform. The lamp at the far end was flickering on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, and throwing a pillar, a bench, and a rubbish bin into sharp relief. The lamp above my head was steady, as was the one at the nearer end of the platform, to my left. The indicator board glowed amber, showing the time of the next train. Not for hours. Not due until morning. The sign said ‘On time’ and the intermediate stations were scrolling right to left across it. The seconds were ticking away. I looked at my watch again. Why? Why look at my watch when the time was up there?

I was alone on the platform. Waiting. Waiting.

__________

©Marie Marshall 2012-2020

The End of the Feud – a Christmas story

This is how it all happened. Leastways, this is how I heerd it. See, there were two families – the McCratchits and the Scroogefields. The McCratchits lived up on McCratchit Mountain, and to say they were dirt poor is to give disrespect to dirt. And they didn’t take kindly to folk trespassing on the mountain. The Scroogefields lived down in the valley where the river runs and the land is sweet, and old Eb Scroogefield was rich, by Appalachian standards that is. Now, old Eb Scroogefield and Paw McCratchit didn’t much like each other, didn’t have no reason to like each other. Both families were Scotch, like you folk. Leastways, Paw McCratchit’s granddaddy and old Eb Scroogefield’s daddy had both come from Scotland to America, but the Scroogefields were what you’d call Low-landers and the McCratchits were High-landers. That was bad enough, but old Eb Scroogefield held the mortgage on the McCratchit place, and as the land didn’t grow much cepting rocks, the McCratchits owed old Eb Scroogefield and owed him big.

Old Eb Scroogefield, last of his line, could have afforded to be generous, he could have cut the McCratchits a whole lot of slack. But he had a tight fist, deep pockets, and short arms. He was a by-word and a hissing in the valley when it came to meanness, and a plain cuss to mountain folk. Not that people would say so to his face. He counted every cent, made an inventory of all his possessions, and wouldn’t spend if he could mend. If charity began at home it stayed there as far as old Eb Scroogefield was concerned. If anyone was collecting for worthy causes they knew to walk right past the Scroogefield house. If you knocked on old Eb Scroogefield’s door and asked him for a drink of water he’d tell you to lie on your back, open your mouth, and pray for rain.

Not that he was much for praying. I guess you could call him a rationalist. Yeah, he rationed everything. He had been a church-going man oncet, but folk could remember when the preacher took as his text “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” and Eb Scroogefield walked out.

From that moment on nothing metaphysical bothered him much. That is until one night when he got metaphysically bothered big. It was a cold night in December, the threat of snow was in the air. Old Eb Scroogefield shut his ledger, shuffled out of his coat, his shirt, and his pants, and into his night-shirt, blew out his candle, and huddled into the blankets on his bed. He had calculated that two blankets was enough to keep in his body-heat, no sense in having three on the bed – they’d only wear out quicker. Anyways old Eb tried to settle to sleep. Sleep never came easy to him, but this particular night it eluded him entirely. In the darkness the figures from his ledger seemed to dance the polka with dollar bills right in front of his eyes. He lay there and worried. First he worried on his right side, then he worried on his back, then he worried on his left side. It seems like he stayed awake for hours, but then maybe he did fall asleep, because he suddenly heerd his daddy’s old long-case clock downstairs strike midnight.

Old Eb Scroogefield started and sat up in bed. He was no longer alone in the room. Someone was standing by the side of his bed.

Eb began to reach for the old flintlock pistol he kept by his bed, but then stopped. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up like bristles on a hog. The man standing by his bed was his former business partner, and that was impossible, because he had been dead for seven years.

Old Eb Scroogefield pinched himself. “Ow!” He tried to look away from the apparition but his eyes were drawn back in-exorably.

“Jake? Is that you?” he asked, his voice scarcely above a whisper.

“Well it sure ain’t Thomas Jefferson,” said the apparition. “Yep, it’s me, it’s Jake Marley come back to haunt you.”

“Horse-feathers!” said Eb, a collecting himself. [By the by, it weren’t exactly ‘horse-feathers’ – like I said old Eb Scroogefield was mean and he wouldn’t waste two syllables where one would do.] “You’re dead, Jake. How in heck can it be you?” He pinched himself again, and sure enough it hurt again.

“I’m a sperrit,” said Jake, raising his arms and looming over the bed. “I’ve come to you with a warning. If you don’t want to spend eternity wandering the world as a ghost, you have to change your ways.”

“Horse-feathers,” said old Eb again, but with more uncertainty.

“I knowed you would be hard to convince, Eb,” said Jake. “But heck, just look at me… I wasn’t half as mean as you are, and yet I’m a-floating round in limbo and a-dragging these here chains after me, never peaceful, never resting. It’s no way to spend eternity, Eb. You’re not getting any younger, you’re running out of time to change your ways. If you could just do one act of generosity, then maybe… maybe…”

“What kind of act of generosity?” said old Eb. By now he was commencing to get frightened. But his meanness was fighting with his fear. “Not a big one, just maybe a little one?”

“The size doesn’t matter, so long as it shows a change of heart,” said the apparition. “You’ve got to change, Eb, really change! Aw, I knowed I wouldn’t be able to convince you. I’m going to hand you over to three other sperrits, Eb…”

“No! No!” begged old Eb, now getting really frightened.

“Too late, Eb… they’ve been summoned… they’ve been summoned… they’ll visit you one by one, on the stroke of midnight…” The words of Jake’s ghost faded as he himself faded.

With the disappearance of the apparition old Eb Scroogefield began to regain some of his composure. He must have been dreaming, he surely must. It was dark in his room and his shoulders were cold, so he huddled back down in the blankets and shut his eyes. He still didn’t sleep, though, because Jake’s words would not leave him be. He heerd the clock strike the hour and opened his eyes in surprise. Surely it was only one o’clock? But the clock was striking two… three… four… Old Eb held his breath and counted all the way to… twelve!

A figure stood beside his bed, and again old Eb Scroogefield’s eyes were drawn to it. “Who in tarnation…” he began, but couldn’t get no further. Jake’s ghost had come as a shock, this here second sperrit added confusion to that. One moment it seemed like a youngster, the next a grizzled old-timer. Eb rubbed his eyes, but couldn’t look away. “Who… who in tarnation are you supposed to be?” he managed to say at last.

“I ain’t supposed to be nobody. I am the Ghost of Christmas Past,” said the sperrit. “Ya’ll ready fer a ride down Memory Trail?”

The sperrit didn’t wait for any answer, but touched Eb Scroogefield on the arm, and suddenly there they both were standing outside an old log cabin. Eb recognised it, but more’n that he recognised the two young people setting on the bench outside it. “Why, that’s the old McCratchit place, and that’s Mary Lou McCratchit and… me! That’s me when I was no more’n sixteen, and we were sweet on each other.” Well, the young couple were a-gazing into each other’s eyes and a-talking, and they didn’t notice when someone else arrived on the scene – Grandpaw McCratchit. Well, he wasted no time in ordering Mary Lou inside and telling young Eb to git. Old Eb watched as his young self ran away and Grandpaw McCratchit followed Mary Lou inside, taking off his big leather belt. Old Eb went to call his younger self back, but the sperrit told him, “Won’t do not good, he cain’t hear ye.”

The scene changed, and there was the young Eb setting at the table in the Scroogefield house, while Big Daddy Scroogefield paced the room. Old Eb and the sperrit stood by like lollygaggers at a medicine show.

“Eb, boy,” said the patriarch, “I jest had Robert McCratchit Senior come to the front door, with his shotgun, giving me a piece of his mind that he could ill afford. I resent it when the likes of that mountain trash come to my house armed and loaded, but if what he told me is true then jest maybe he had reason. About you and Mary Lou McCratchit – that true?”

“It is, sir. We love each other. We aim to get married.”

“And if I say to you, here is a silver dollar,” said the patriarch, putting a coin on the table, “and it’s yourn if you give up the girl, what would you say?”

“I’d say no, sir, I love her,” answered young Eb.

“And if I put another silver dollar on top of it?”

“No, sir. Wouldn’t change a thing.”

“And another?”

“No, sir.”

“And another?”

This went on until there were forty silver dollars on the table in front of the young man. It was more’n he’d ever been told was his in his life. When he answered “No, sir” that time there was hesitation in his voice, and when he heerd that, Big Daddy Scroogefield grinned. Well, the pile got to forty-eight before young Eb changed his answer.

“I’d think about it, sir…”

“And another, then… makes forty-nine?”

Young Eb stretched a hand out towards the money. Old Eb wanted to cry out and stop him, even though he knew he wouldn’t be heerd. Jest in time the youngster saw his daddy’s hickory switch come down – didn’t exactly miss, caught him a stinging blow.

“Merry Christmas, son,” said Big Daddy Scroogefield, shoveling the silver dollars into a leather bag. “And no need to thank me.”

“Merry Christmas? Thank you fer what?”

“A valuable lesson I jest taught you,” said his father, grinning more, and leaving the room, while the young man sat nursing his stinging knuckles.

“Horse feathers!” he said.

Those were the very words old Eb Scroogefield said as he came to himself, setting on his own bed, alone in his room. But he said them with far less conviction than usual. He was thinking about the time in his life he chose money over love, and wondered whether it had been as wise a decision as his daddy had convinced him. Still, saying “Horse feathers” again gave him some comfort.

But then he heerd his old clock striking, and again it was striking the full twelve. Eb looked around him for another sperrit, but he couldn’t see nothing. After a few minutes, maybe there was a chink of light under the door, though, and from outside the room was that the sound of laughter?

“Ya’ll fixing to stay in there all night, Eb?” said a voice.

Cautiously, Eb Scroogefield got up from his bed, crossed the room, and opened the door. He expected to see his staircase, but what he did see instead was a big room with a big chair in it, and in the big chair there sat a big, big man, quite the biggest man old Eb had ever seen. he was dressed from neck to toe in fringed buckskins, with a coonskin cap on his head and a couple of eagle feathers stuck in it. His buckskin shirt was open to the waist, and round his neck there were strings of Delaware beads. He had a skillet in his right hand, and he was frying chicken wings in it over a roaring fire.

“And who in tarnation are you supposed to be?” asked old Eb.

“I ain’t supposed to be nobody,” answered the buckskinned apparition, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present, and I’ve got something to show you, Eb Scroogefield.”

Eb was about to ask him what that something was, when the sperrit reached out and touched his arm. The fire and the skillet and the chicken wings disappeared, and Eb found himself staring  at a table in a mean room. Around the table sat a crowd of poorly-dressed critters, and at the head of the table… why, that was Bob McCratchit Junior, head of the whole McCratchit tribe. He rose to his feet and spoke.

“Brothers, sisters, cousins, McCratchits all. Today’s Christmas day, and this here’s our annual Christmas dinner. Now, times is hard, game is scarce, and money’s even scarcer. So all we’ve got fer dinner is squirrel stew, same as yesterday, same as the day before. But as it’s Christmas, I’m a-breaking out the moonshine, so at least we’re gonna get a mite merrier than usual.” There were cheers all round the table, as he reached for a big old fruit jar, and splashed a helping of mountain dew into each McCratchit’s cup.

“We’ll drink a toast,” said Bob, “to old Eb Scroogefield!”

Well, that surprised Eb, to see each one of the whole tribe of his enemies raise their cups to their lips and take a mouthful. It was less of a surprise when each one of them spat that mouthful on the floor and cussed!

“Is this supposed to make me feel better towards this trash?” he asked the sperrit.

“Hush up and watch and listen,” the sperrit replied. Eb did as he was told, and he saw a look come onto Bob’s face like he never saw on any McCratchit. It was a soft look, with a smile concealing deep worry, as he looked down on the little boy setting hunched on the next chair.

“Hey, Tim-Bob,” he said, gently. “How’s my little man?”

“I’ll be fine, Daddy,” said the boy. “I’m jest a mite tired I guess.”

“Well jest you go and sit next to the fire, and I’ll get your maw to bring over a bowl of stew.”

“Thank you, Daddy,” said Tim-Bob, throwing his arms round his daddy’s neck and kissing him, before hobbling off to the fireside on a home-made crutch. Bob McCratchit drew his wife to one side and spoke quietly to her with tears in his eyes.

“He ain’t getting any better.”

“No Bob, he ain’t. To speak the truth he’s getting worse. Bob… Bob… can we not ask the doctor to call?”

“Now Mary-Jean you know we cain’t. Doc costs money, and the next mortgage repayment’s due.”

Eb looked at the Ghost of Christmas Present and was about to ask him a question, when the sperrit touched him on the arm again, and Eb found himself in the middle of a desert. A man in ragged clothes was crawling over the stony ground, gasping “Water… water…”

“Sperrit, will he find water?”

“He might,” said the sperrit, “if he lies on his back, opens his mouth, and prays for rain.”

Eb put his chin in his hand. “I suppose you’re telling me that nothing good happens without somebody making it happen?” But there was no answer. The sperrit and the desert had gone, and Eb was standing in the dark outside his own bedroom.

Well, he went back inside, but he didn’t get near his bed before he heerd the clock begin to strike. He didn’t have to count, he knew it was going to be twelve. On the twelfth stroke the room became cold. Eb didn’t quite see, more like felt the presence of someone… something… in his bedroom, over in a dark corner. The moon came out from behind clouds, and a shaft of moonlight fell on the frock-coat of a figure, dressed entirely in black. Old Eb was rooted to the spot with fear. Of all the sperrits that had come to him, this one was the worst by a long mile!

“I guess you’re supposed to be…” he began. “Darn it, I know you are the Ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come. I also know this ain’t going to be no picnic!”

The sperrit moved forward noiselessly. He was dressed in mourning clothes, and his face was in shadow. He said nothing but pointed out of the window with one hand and touched Eb’s shoulder with the other. Window and night melted, and there they were outside, in the main street of the town. A buckboard went slowly by with a coffin on it, followed by a whole line of mountain people, and a couple of townsfolk stopped to watch it pass.

“There’s been some deaths this past month,” said one.

“True enough. And some mourned more than others.”

“I reckon so. There goes that poor little critter. And two weeks back it was the old skinflint.”

“Him? Oh yeah. Well no one went to see him buried, that’s for sure.”

“Who’re they talking about, sperrit?” asked Eb. “Not that little McCratchit? Not Tim-Bob? Heck, I know I’ve been no friend to that family, but he’s just a kid, a harmless, sickly child. What does he know about feuds and such? Tell me it’s not him!” As though in answer the sperrit touched him on the arm again, and there they stood in the town graveyard. Right in front of them was a tidy little plot with a bunch of mountain flowers placed lovingly on it. There was a plain wooden board placed at its head, and in neat pokerwork were the words “Timothy Robert McCratchit, beloved son of Robert and Mariah Jeannette McCratchit.”

Well, old Eb shed the first tears he’d shed in a long time, and they were like fire in his eyes.

“Sperrit, tell me these things ain’t fixed. Tell me they’re just things that might happen, and all it takes is for someone to…”

The sperrit pointed to another grave, and Eb approached it in terror. There were no flowers, the earth was piled on it in a tumble, and already poison ivy was spreading its leaves-of-three there. A single plank was stuck in the ground at a crazy angle. As the sky darkened, Eb strained to read what was written on the plank. It was hard in the twilight – the words appeared to have been cut crudely with a bowie knife. There was a peal of thunder and a flash of lighting, and Eb could make it out…

“EBENEZER SCROOGEFIELD”

“No!” he cried, falling to his knees. “No! Look here, sperrit, surely all it takes is for one person to do… well… something, and all this could be different. Couldn’t it?”

There was another peal of thunder, and Eb found himself kneeling on his bedroom floor. Outside it was light, and he could hear townsfolk shouting “Merry Christmas!” to each other.

He stood up.

“The feud has to stop,” he said. “It’s brought nobody no good for three generations. I’ll stop it. I’ll start by cancelling the McCratchit mortgage and giving Bob the deeds to his family home.

Now folks, this is the point I’m going to have to take you to that same McCratchit home, up McCratchit mountain. You got to see things from their point of view. So, there’s Bob McCratchit setting by the fire, and there’s his eldest, Pete, standing by the window.

“Hey, Paw!” the lad calls out. “Here comes old Eb Scroogefield on his horse!”

“The heck you say!” says Bob. “Here? On McCratchit mountain?”

Bob got his hunting rifle, opened a window, aimed, and fired. Shot old Eb right between the eyes.

What? What? You were expecting a happy ending? Heck, this is the Appalachians. These are mountain folk.

It was the end of the feud, though. That enough “happy ending” fer you?

The ghost-caller

The last of my old offerings for the season of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, of bauchles and bogies and long-toothed flesh-feasties, and shadows that torment your sight. Go do Halloween, but have a care for your immortal souls…

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The ghost-caller

Where once the sunlight filtered through a curtain
The woman sits, abandoned and alone;
See how such solitude is iron-certain
In deeper-darkness, and how late it’s grown.

But wait a while – though many tears are falling
And though the lonely, moonlit hours are long –
To shifting shades the woman’s voice is calling,
And ghosts and demons hear the drifting song.

These spectres are the woman’s own creations
That crawl into penumbras, opportune
And evening-timely come these apparitions,
As heat’s a trusted herald of monsoon!

But will these things of darkness leave at morning,
Or will they haunt the woman through the day?
That’s not for us to know – so heed my warning,
And from this place of sadness… come away!

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In the Echo-hall of Randomstone

Woe to you who venture too near to my old, old, Gothic verses as Halloweentide nights draw in…

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In the Echo-hall of Randomstone

I trod a wild and sunless mountain path,
for many leagues and many days, alone.
It led by rowan grove and elvish rath,
up to the echo-hall of Randomstone.
Within a silent, lofty-ceilinged room,
there stood an altar of obsidian,
on which I placed things stolen from a tomb
where lay an eon-dead Dravidian.
I summoned, from the arsenal of my faith,
such strength as I could muster in the night;
but more than that – I summoned up a wraith
that answered to my esoteric rite.
Such was her might that she took shape, whilst I
forever in this fetid vault must lie!

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Old stones that lead from heaven to the sea

From the dimly lit chamber emerges the ghost of lost love – another of my old Gothic treats – as Halloween lurks behind the graveyard wall…

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Old stones that lead from heaven to the sea –

the steps which are well-worn by bitter tears

that fall upon their grey severity,

and weathered by the winds of countless years –

they are the causeway linking love and death;

thus only stricken lovers’ solemn tread

upon this stairway sounds above the breath

of God. But still I walk in silent dread,

and downwards, downwards to the ocean cold,

yet for a reason that I long forgot,

I go; still from the roses that I hold

fall petals. Ah, she loves me… loves me not…

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The crystal ball

The plunge towards Halloween, no matter how our fingernails scrabble at the granite walls as we slide, is inexorable. So here is another gothic offering from 2006, the year I scaled the Mountains of My Madness. This one was inspired by a painting by J.W. Waterhouse…

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             The crystal ball

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Where has the seeress lost herself?
In what relentless seas
Sails she, with helmsman sprite or elf,
To seek elusive ease?

What worlds are cupped within her hands?
And where her steady gaze
Falls, are there rich, exotic lands
In sunlit ancient days?

Her lips that seem to wish a kiss,
Her beauty gowned in red –
Is all her being wrapt in bliss,
Or does she see the dead?

Lo, there! Her grimoire and her wand –
Behind, a grinning skull –
Are spirits summoned to respond,
Or are her senses dull?

What knowledge, what enlightenment
Seeks she in realms arcane?
Beware, my sweet! All’s transient,
Your loveliness will wane!

Whatever is the magic lore
Whose secrets now entice
You through a dark and one-way door –
You pay too high a price!

So lady, lay that art aside,
Forswear your mantic ball
For mind’s health, beauty’s morningtide –
Or, hazarding, lose all!

O Darkness, be my friend

Another poem from my old gothic collection, disinterred for the approach of Halloween. These poems have been greying in my family crypt, behind the rusting, wrought-iron gate that hangs off its hinges but opens just wide enough for a fearless – or reckless – adventurer to squeeze through, down the dark steps lit only by a faint phosphorescence, inside an ancient sarcophagus in which there appears to be nothing else but dust. If you want to snatch the manuscript, be quick! There are rustlings in the darkness, and the echo of what might be eldritch laughter…

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O Darkness, be my friend

O Darkness, be my friend;
come, sheath my searing shame
in shadows. Comprehend
the scarlet of my name,
the flames of which transcend
the tinsel-gold of fame!

O Darkness, take my sight;
with cold penumbras bind
these brimming eyes, contrite
in error, hard-maligned
in judgment. Take them – blight
their seeing, make me blind!

O Darkness, unto death
walk with me; with thy wand
strike dumb my Shibboleth –
my tongue dare not respond!
Be this my final breath;
who knows what lies beyond!

 

The Marseilles Diligence

In the run-up to Halloween, I thought I would dig out some of my gothic poetry from years ago, just to chill your blood. Beware the ghostly march of brides…