Ancestor (A Short Story)

They say it all started with the boys. Two little boys dead in a barn fire, tucked into wooden coffins with beautiful, painted masks covering their burned faces. It’s quite an image – one account says they looked like dolls – and I can see why people remembered it.

I’ve been a descendant of Callie Belle Warner my whole life. Some people don’t believe me when I say that, because to them, the Green Witch of Highgarden is nothing but a fable. She’s the monster under the bed, the warning to naughty children. She’ll stalk you through the woods at night. She’ll trap you in a dark place, and you won’t come out the same. She’s a legend. She isn’t real.

I can promise you: She is.

See, that’s the thing about stories. They all start somewhere. Callie Belle Warner was just as real as you and me and Highgarden.

“And I think it’s about time we separate the woman from the witch.”

I’m standing at a podium in Highgarden’s Town Hall. I can tell by the faces in front of me, a combination of boredom and worry, that this speech of mine is not going well.

“Of course, to do that, we’ve got to accept that there was a woman named Callie Belle Warner, and that she lived at Green Hollow Farm, and that she had children who had children, and that eventually led to me.”

The mayor taps his pen to his yellow legal pad and gives the smallest shake of his head. This is, apparently, a hard sell.

“And I’m here tonight to ask that we, as a town, make an effort to tell her real story, my family’s story. Surely now, after what we’ve all been through these last few years, we can agree that a painful truth is better than a fancy lie. And that’s all I’m asking for tonight, that we tell the truth.”

I take a breath, and look down at my notes.

“She was just a woman, a young widow, and we’ve turned her into something awful. No one deserves that.”

I look back up. I trail my eyes down the line of Town Council members on the dais.

“And so, that’s what I came to say, and thank you for your time.”

Later, my mother drives me home.

“I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with this,” she says. “It makes absolutely no difference how people talk about this woman. She’s been dead for two centuries.”

“I’m just trying to be a good ancestor,” I say.

“You’re making our whole family look crazy,” my mother insists.

And maybe I am.

“I don’t understand why everyone always looks so worried and scared when I talk about this” I tell my mother.

“They’re not worried or scared,” she says. “They’re annoyed with you. You’re wasting their time.”

“The truth doesn’t feel like a waste,” I say back. “How long does this go on? How many more generations of us have to live with it?”

“You could just move,” she tells me. “You’re not stuck in Highgarden.”

“This is my home,” I say. “I shouldn’t have to move away to live in peace.”

“We do live in peace,” my mother snaps. “You’re the only one who can’t let this go.”

“I know,” I say. “That’s clear after tonight. I meant at peace with myself. I can’t live in peace with myself until I know I’ve cleared her name.”

My mother stays silent, and we leave it there.

The next day, I walk to the only café in town for coffee and breakfast. I sit down, and before I’ve even put down my bag, on the table next to me, I see it. The headline on today’s paper is big and bold and it reads: JUSTICE FOR THE GREEN WITCH.

“You did that,” May says, as she drops off my egg sandwich. “And here I thought no one cared.”

May’s family has lived in Highgarden as long as mine. No one knows quite how old she is, exactly, and I’m pretty sure she babysat me, my mother, and my grandmother. And maybe my grandmother’s grandmother.

“I don’t think they do,” I say.

I’ve scanned the article while she’s been standing beside me. It’s not friendly. People really do think I’m crazy.

May puts a firm hand on my shoulder and says, “Sometimes you have to fight harder.”

I nod.

She starts to walk away, turns back and says, “And sometimes it’s best to know when to quit.”

“It just doesn’t sit right with me,” I say to her back, as it gets farther and father away from me.

May’s around the corner, out of hearing distance and doubtless already busy with some other task. Outside, it’s started to snow.

When, I wonder, did all of this start? When did I become obsessed, because truthfully, I think my mother’s right and that’s what I am, with Callie Belle Warner?

I know when it really started for Callie Belle. It wasn’t the boys, not that anyone cares, it seems. For her, it was before she even arrived in Highgarden, on a ship across an ocean, where she met James Warner. He brought her here, built a farm, and died before he turned forty. He left her alone with four boys and no help. And then two of their boys died in the fire, and she shouldered the blame. Only a villain, someone truly evil, would have allowed such a thing to happen to her own flesh and blood. And when two more children died, one of fever and one in the river, she was blamed for that, too. And it only got worse from there. Even after Callie Belle died, every little misfortune was somehow all her fault.

I know this, because I’ve done my research.

I don’t know how it happened that Callie Belle Warner, the real woman, became Callie Belle Warner, the legend. And I don’t know how to fix it. But at least I know the truth.

At this point, I feel like I know Callie Belle’s story better than my own.

And so, with nothing else to do, and no one willing to listen, I open my laptop, and I write.

My mother, I write, she named me Calliope Belle…

************

I’m sitting in a chair, and a woman who talks fast and moves faster is applying powder to my face.

“Just be yourself,” she tells me. “Everyone’s so obsessed with this book. You’ll do fine.”

And then I’m in front of a camera, and the lights are hot and bright. I don’t know quite where to look. It’s like a dream, but it’s real.

Someone beside me asks, “So, tell me where you got the idea for this story.”

And from somewhere far away, I hear myself answer, “Well, I was just trying to be a good ancestor.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the eleventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first ten, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

Tabula Rasa

The Day My Grandfather Met the Devil

Ghost Light

The Tale of Beauregard the Brave

Witch Hunt

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story, this year’s last, will be posted at the end of December.

Witch Hunt (A Short Story)

A large black cat curled itself around the corner of the newly-opened bakery and came to a stop by the back door, where it sat, still and straight, waiting. The door opened, and an old woman stepped out with a bowl of milk in her hands.

“You be careful tonight,” she said. “No trouble, no tricks, and no stealing souls.”

The old woman winked.

The cat blinked once.

“Stay out of sight,” the woman added, and smiled, and patted the cat’s soft head right between its ears. “And be good.”

She turned and closed the door, and the cat was alone. It blinked again, lapped at the milk, and was gone.

************

No one actually believed what we said about the old blacksmith’s house. Or the soldier on the bridge. Or the witch’s cave in the woods. Or the Mill, for that matter. Oh, I’m sure there were some ghost fanatics and pretend-mediums who did, but by and large, the village knew that the stories we told were just that – stories. Silly ghost stories to get people out here, wandering around, spending their money and time, funneling cash into our pockets. Stories are powerful like that.

You can call me cynical, I guess. I just don’t think there’s all that much wrong with giving people what they want in exchange for a tidy profit that keeps a village alive. But I digress. My point is, we were not what you’d call a superstitious lot.

Everything changed the morning that Rosie Blankenship didn’t open her eyes.

It happened the day after Halloween. The village’s children had spent the night collecting candy, parading from house to house, a whirlwind of color and giggles, and Rosie, as she always did, had led the pack. Rosie always led. She never followed. She lived her young life in perpetual motion, a bright star to light the way, talking, singing, dancing, laughing, and so when the news broke that she wouldn’t wake up, none of us really knew what to say.

“But she’s still breathing?”

“There’s color in her cheeks.”

“I’m sure it’s just the flu or something.”

“She’ll wake up soon. I know it.”

But Rosie didn’t wake, and as the days ticked on and turned to weeks, somewhere under the concern, the well-wishes and wishful thinking, something darker and more dangerous started to stir.

“You don’t think…?”

“How would it even be possible?”

“No one would ever want to hurt Rosie.”

“Right?”

Everyone became a suspect, even me. A wave of paranoia washed over us, all of us, until one day J.B. Michaels went to the chief of police and said:

“I think the baker did it.”

“The new one? Don’t know much about her, but she keeps to herself and no one’s complained about her shop.” And he added, “Mighty fine apple cider donuts, too.”

The chief crossed his arms, meant to close the conversation.

“The kids were there last,” J.B. went on. “She gave Rosie a special treat, my boy said. Made him awful jealous. Said she liked her costume best.”

“You know as well as I do that your boy tells stories, J.B. Remember the bear in the school hallway? Cost me a lot of time and manpower.”

“All I’m saying is, I think she has something to do with it, and if you don’t do something about it, then I will.”

And J.B. did. Came to my place first and told me all about his talk with the chief, and his certainty that this outsider was to blame, and weren’t we going to do something about that?

“J.B.,” I told him, “I think you’re jumping to conclusions. She seems like a nice old woman, and I like her red velvet cupcakes.”

“I tell you, I think she had something to do with it. And what else could it be? It’s like she’s bewitched that poor little girl.”

“Now,” I said, and fixed him with a level, serious stare, “you’re talking like a crazy person. All that stuff, witches and ghosts and haunted houses, you know it’s not real. That’s a show for the tourists, J.B.”

“I don’t know anything anymore,” said J.B., “except that Rosie won’t wake up, and I don’t want my boy to be next.”

To this day, I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know how he turned made-up stories into real life fears, but by the next week, J.B. had rallied an angry crowd in front of the bakery, and they demanded the baker come out and explain herself.

“If you have nothing to hide,” J.B. yelled through the closed shop door, “then you have nothing to worry about.”

The baker did not oblige, and the chief showed up to break up the mob.

“You all go home and leave that woman alone,” he yelled over the murmurs and the protestations.

But all that anger needs a place to go, and J.B. did not give up.

There were small incidents. Someone spray-painted “WITCH” in dark rust red on the bakery’s front window, and later someone threw a rock through it. The baker had it replaced, though with what money, I don’t know. No one ever walked into her shop anymore.

Things came to a head once the weather turned truly cold. I don’t know if he had help, if he did it himself, or if someone, or several someones, worked with him. I honestly don’t know if he even did it at all. But on the first night of December, under a new moon and plenty of darkness, the bakery caught fire. And the fire spread fast, too fast for anyone to help.

In the smoldering ashes the next day, the police and firemen searched. If the baker was in there, the fire had burned hot enough to leave nothing of her to find. And if she wasn’t, she was lucky. Either way, she was gone. Not a trace of her.

“Chief,” I said, “you know who did this.”

“It’s too early to say.”

“It’s not, and you know it.”

“I know that this town has seen enough suspicion and sadness lately.”

And on a bench across the street, there sat J.B., looking as smug and self-satisfied as a dog in possession of a fresh new bone.

The ultimate cause of the fire, I learned later, was never determined. And J.B. moved away the next month. Good riddance, I say. And as soon as he was gone, things calmed down. People started talking to each other again, pretending they weren’t part of that mob, going about their business as if nothing had happened. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

And so that’s it. The baker’s gone. I realize, I never even knew her name. She’s not forgotten, and she likely never will be, but we don’t talk about her. J.B.’s gone, too. We never could prove he did it. We’ll never know if he did it alone. I think I’m probably the only one who really wants to know, at the end of the day. We carry on our October traditions, welcoming travelers and ghost hunters to the village. What else can we do? But there’s a wariness now, a dark cloud over us, a thick, heavy fog that just won’t lift.

And still, Rosie sleeps.

************

In a town, somewhere far away, a large black cat curls itself around the corner of the newly-opened bakery and comes to a stop by the back door, where it waits, patiently, expectantly. The door opens, and a young woman steps out with a bowl of milk in her hands.

“You be careful tonight,” she says. “Remember last year.”

The cat blinks. Its tail twitches.

“I mean it this time,” the woman says, and smiles. “Be good.”

She turns and closes the door, and the cat sits, alone. It blinks once more, laps at the milk, and is gone.

************

Thank you for reading! This is the tenth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first nine, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

Tabula Rasa

The Day My Grandfather Met the Devil

Ghost Light

The Tale of Beauregard the Brave

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of November.

The Tale of Beauregard the Brave (A Short Story)

The air had turned crisp and the leaves had only started to fall when the news reached the Burrow about Lady Enfield.

“They say it could happen any day now,” said Bronwen, Beau’s mother, as she fretted with her apron. “I wish we’d heard sooner!”

“How many is she expecting?” Beau’s sister, Betsy, hurried around their tiny kitchen, clanging pots and pans and moving in an almost perfect imitation of their mother.

“They say fourteen.”

“Fourteen!”

From his seat at the table in the corner, Beau watched quietly as the two of them clamored around pulling carrots and potatoes from the cupboards. He had just started to wonder what his job might be in all this ruckus when Betsy whined: “Beau’s daydreaming again!”

“I am not,” he replied. “I was thinking about how I might help.”

Bronwen twitched her nose and thought for a moment. “Somebody will need to take the basket over, once the pies are done and cool enough.”

“I could do that,” said Betsy.

“No,” answered Bronwen. “Beau can do it. It’ll be later in the evening by then, and I’ll need you here to help put the little ones to bed.”

Betsy sulked, but Beau was happy enough with his assigned task. It would be dark once he left Farmer Hutcheson’s place, and the moon was set to be full tonight.

“All right, mother,” he said. “I’ll go and get ready now so you don’t have to wait for me.”

The fact of the matter was this – though he hadn’t been daydreaming just then, Beau did have a dream. A big dream, and one that his mother and sister called ridiculous and impossible. But Beau knew that he could make it happen, only he didn’t quite know how.

“You big dummy,” Betsy’d said, the night he told her about it. “No rabbit can jump as high as the moon.”

“One rabbit did,” Beau had replied. “And if he could do it, then I can, too.”

“And what would you even do up there?”

“I don’t much care,” said Beau. “All I know is, I’m sick to death of brambles and foxes.”

Betsy had only shaken her head, and it hadn’t taken long for his gossip of a little sister to share his dream with every creature big and small from the Burrow all the way to Little Washington.

It didn’t bother Beau that he became a laughingstock. He figured everybody laughs until you prove them wrong. And he was intent on proving everybody wrong. He’d let them talk their empty talk, and then he’d give them something to really talk about.

And so, on the night he took the basket of pies and fresh-picked crabapples over to Lady Enfield, it happened like this.

He had just started out on the path to Enfield Farm when he met Felicity Fieldmouse on her way home from seeing the Lady herself.  

“Evening, Mrs. Mouse,” he said.

“Good evening, Beauregard,” she said. “On your way over to see Lady Enfield?”

“Mother and Betsy made pies,” he said. “I’m only the delivery boy. Is she all right?”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Felicity said. “Just fine. But you be careful now. It’ll be full dark and fox hour by the time you head back.”

“I will, ma’am,” he said.

“And Beauregard,” she added, “don’t you go on worrying your mama with your big talk and silly ideas.”

She nodded at him and moved on.

Beau walked a ways longer, almost to the farm. The shadows had grown and the sun had dipped below the horizon. Soon, the moon would rise.

“Almost time,” he said to himself.

“For what?” a voice answered.

“Who’s there?”

“I’ve gotten myself all tangled,” came the reply.

“Who might you be?” Beau asked.

“Well, I’m not sure I should say, on account of I don’t think you’d help me if you knew.”

Beau wasn’t a scaredy-hare, but he knew better than to get too close to a carnivore, especially alone and in the dark. And so he asked, “Well, do you plan to hurt me if I help you?”

“No,” the voice answered.

“And if I help you, you won’t change your mind?”

“No, sir,” said the voice. “I’m a bird of my word.”

Well, Beau thought to himself, that sure could be useful. But he didn’t have a chance to reply before the voice cried out, “Oh! I shouldn’t have said that!”

“It’s all right,” Beau said. “As long as you won’t harm me if I get close, I’ll help you get unstuck. But if you’re a bird like you say, I wonder if you might do me a favor in return.”

“I reckon that’s fair,” said the voice.

“All right, then,” Beau said.

“Oh, thank you,” said the voice. “Thank you very much! I’m just over to your right, I think.”

Beau placed the basket gently on the side of the path, and made his way toward the right, into a thicket of dead twigs and creeper vines. As he tiptoed carefully along the ground, he saw the stranger. He gasped and said, “You’re an eagle! How’d you get all twisted up in this mess?”

And the poor eagle was sorely stuck.

“Well,” said the eagle, “the truth is, I just wanted to see what was down here. My ma says I’m too curious, but I’ve always wondered what it might be like, just to walk around on the ground. Don’t do much of that, you see?”

“I see,” said Beau, and he set about getting the eagle untangled. It was quite the job, but Beau was patient. And the eagle was friendly, as it turned out.

“My name’s Everett,” he said.

“Beauregard Bunny,” said Beau.

“What’s got you out so late, Mr. Bunny?”

“Well,” Beau explained, “the Lady Enfield’s about to have piglets, and my mama and sister baked up a storm this afternoon so she’d have some nice treats once they’re born.”

“That’s mighty nice,” said Everett. “My ma’s not much of a baker.”

“Neither am I,” said Beau, “so I agreed to take them over. But, and here’s where I need that favor you promised…”

“I’m listening,” said Everett.

“Well, see, you might think I’m crazy.”

“No crazier than an eagle who wants to live on the ground.”

“I have a dream,” Beau started, and then stopped. “It’s a big dream. See, I think we’re only as small as our dreams, and I know I’m a small animal, but this dream is pretty big. And I think you might be able to help me, just like I’ve helped you.”

“And you have!” Everett crawled out of the vines and fluffed his feathers. “I was worried I might be stuck in there forever. I surely do owe you one, Beauregard Bunny.”

“Okay, then I’ll just come right out with it,” Beau said quickly. And added, “You better not laugh at me.”

“I would never,” said Everett. “You didn’t laugh at me.”

“I want to hop as high as the moon.”

“The moon?”

“Yep,” said Beau. “And I figure, if you fly me up as high as you can, that’ll give me a good head start, right?”

“Why would a rabbit want to go to the moon?” Everett asked, and cocked his white head to the side.

“The same reason you want to explore the world down here on the ground, I reckon. It’s something different, right? And some people say there’s already a rabbit up there, and maybe even a goddess, and I’m just so tired of doing the same thing every day.”

“All right, Mr. Rabbit,” said Everett. “You helped me, so I’ll help you. Climb on up.”

“Well, I’ve got to drop this basket off at the farm first. Would you want to walk along with me?”

“That sounds nice, actually. Real nice.”

And so the two new friends walked along the path together until they reached Enfield Farm. Later on, several of the Bunny family’s neighbors reported seeing them, an odd pair, laughing and talking together. They remarked that Beauregard had always been a bit different, and that they weren’t surprised at all, and what probably happened was that that big old eagle ate poor Beauregard for dinner. But Beau and Everett didn’t notice anyone at all. They found they were a lot alike, really, and then they laughed about that, too.

Lady Enfield had indeed delivered fourteen little pink piglets, and she was grateful for the lovely basket, she said, and for the apples, too. Beau said she was welcome, and wished her well, and told her to send a message if she needed anything.

Everett hid on the edge of the farm. He didn’t want to scare anyone. But when Beau was in sight, he called out, “All right and healthy with the Lady and her littles ones?”

“Right as rain in summer,” Beau said.

“I’m glad,” said Everett.

“Me, too,” said Beau.

“Now,” said Everett, “about that favor. Are you sure you’re not afraid to fly?”

“Oh, I am afraid,” said Beau. “But I’m going to do it anyway.”

“Then climb on up, and hold on tight.”

Beau had wondered what it would be like, to rise up and soar through the sky. It was better and scarier and more amazing than he’d ever imagined. He trembled to be so far off the ground, but he also breathed in the cold air and looked up at the stars.

“I’ve never seen them from so close,” he yelled over the rush of the wind in his ears. “They twinkle like diamonds!”

Higher and higher the friends climbed, until Everett said, “This is about as far as I can go. Is it enough, do you think?”

Beau shook off a wave of fear and doubt. “It’ll have to be,” he said.

“You’re sure about this?”

“I am,” Beau said. And then again, louder and firmer, “I am.”

“Then I suppose I should thank you before you go. I’m glad it was you who happened upon me in that awful mess.”

“You know,” Beau said to Everett, “you’re awfully nice, for a bird of prey.

“And you’re awfully brave,” Everett said to Beau, “for a tiny rabbit.”

“I’m glad you got stuck in that thicket,” Beau said. “Thanks for helping me.”

“Thanks for helping me,” Everett said, his voice thick with tears he was determined not to show. If little Beau could be brave, then surely he could too. So he just said, “Now hop, and hop high, and I just know you’re going to make it. And when you do, I’ll look up every night and I’ll think of you.”

And Beau did hop. He hopped as hard and as high as he could, right off of Everett’s back. And as Everett watched his new friend go up higher and higher into the night sky, he couldn’t help but shed a tear.

“You’re right, Beau,” he said, but to himself, because Beau was much too high up to hear him. “We are only as small as our dreams.” And with that, he flew away.

There are some who say that Beauregard Bunny never made it to the moon, that he fell back to Earth, just like he should have known he would. They say he was a foolish rabbit.  Others believe he’s still up there, and on the brightest nights, when the moon is a round, golden orb in the dark sky, you can see him. Everett, for his part, looks up every night, even to this day, and smiles at his unlikely friend.

And Beau? Well, he’d tell you that it’s an awfully good view from up there.   

************

Thank you for reading! This is the nineth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first eight, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

Tabula Rasa

The Day My Grandfather Met the Devil

Ghost Light

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of October.

Ghost Light (A Short Story)

The last dress rehearsal did not go well. In fact, it went very, very poorly.

“You know what they say,” Mitch told me.

“You know I don’t,” I answered.

Why would I? Years of restaurant experience had led me down a dead-end path and straight into the wings of the Old River Theatre. Desperate times, Mitch had said. And anyway, I’d only be the assistant to the Stage Manager. He thought it was funny that I was going backwards.

“You’re supposed to wait tables while you try to make it,” he’d said. “You’re working the other way around.”

Now, as we closed up the final dress for the season opener, he clapped me on the back and said, “I forget sometimes. Feels like you’ve been here forever.”

“Is that a compliment, boss?”

“Frank’s been here forever, too, man.” And he pointed up towards the catwalk.

Frank managed lights, sound, and all other things technical and sundry. And he drank himself into a stupor every night. He was probably at it now, somewhere up there, taking swigs from his hip flask and tapping his foot to music only he could hear.

I rolled my eyes. “He’s a liability, Mitch,” I said. “Anyway, tell me, what do they say?”

“Bad dress, good opening. Should be a great show.”

I didn’t feel so confident.

“Don’t worry, kid,” he said. “We’re all professionals here.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Even Frank,” he added. “Let’s finish out and go grab a beer.”

This year, Old River decided to open its fiftieth season with The Sound of Music. The playbill proudly proclaimed it “America’s favorite musical!” Could have fooled me. Ticket sales moved fast enough, but the cast and crew came in every day looking like they’d rather be anywhere else.

“Twenty fucking minutes of ‘Do, re, mi,’” the director said, one evening, after a particularly grueling dance rehearsal. “What do you even do with that?”

The production so far honestly seemed sort of cursed. We’d been hit with a volley of issues starting on day one. Bolts of fabric that never arrived to the costume shop, a music director who lost hearing in one ear halfway through, three von Trapp kids coming down with the flu on the same night. Just one thing after another, culminating in a last dress rehearsal from hell.

“Is all of this normal?” I asked Mitch as we started on our second beer at the dive bar down the street.

“I’ve seen a lot,” Mitch told me, “but this one does feel sort of different.”

“Different how?”

Mitch sat for a moment, and then took a deep gulp of the rest of his lager. “Every show has a few issues,” he said. “I had a lead actress a few years back who used to get laryngitis during every tech week. But this cast, I don’t know. Normally, it starts to feel like a family, you know?”

I nodded. I did not know, but I thought it might be nice to see, one day. Lots of restaurant owners say that about their staff. It’s never true.

“This one just feels off. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve never liked this show.”

I hummed an agreement.

“Next up is Midsummer, and I’m looking forward to that one. Shakespeare’s wild.”

“I think I read that one in school,” I said.

“Trust me, it’s better on stage. Fucking funny.”

I did trust Mitch. I didn’t know what to think, at first, walking into this new world. Actors are a weird bunch, but I’d enjoyed this job so far a lot more than my last three. And the hours suited me fine. Servers get used to late nights and slow mornings.

“Isn’t one of his plays cursed?”

“Shakespeare’s? Oh, yeah,” Mitch said, and laughed. “The Scottish play. Don’t let anyone hear you say the name, ever.”

“MacBeth?”

Mitch bobbed his head. “I think it’s silly,” he said, “but lots of people believe it. I should give you a rundown of all that shit.”

“All what shit?”

“The legends. The bad luck and shit.”

“I don’t believe in that stuff either,” I said. “But I also don’t want a reason to get fired.”

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Mitch said. “After things calm down. For now, we ought to get going. It’s late.”

I looked at my watch. Just after 2:00, and with an early call tomorrow. I left some cash on the table and stood up.

“I think I left my coat in the green room,” I said. “Sorry about that.”

“No problem,” Mitch said. “I need to run back and grab my notebook anyway.”

We walked back at a pretty slow pace. The weather had just started to turn. The days still felt summery, but in the evenings, the temperature and the humidity dropped. It was a relief, after the summer heat, to finally feel a bit of fall.  

“I bet September’s chilly this year,” I said.

We reached the stage door, and Mitch fumbled with the key.

“It always sticks,” he said, and shook his head. “It’s like the ghost doesn’t want us in there late at night.”

He pushed the door open and flipped the lights to the green room.

“The Old River’s haunted?”

“Every theatre has a ghost,” Mitch explained, a little like he was talking to a child. “That’s why we always leave a stage light on.”

We made our way into the left wing, where Mitch’s station was set up by a small podium.

“We do?”

“Geez, kid, I know you’ve seen me do it.”

I thought back and realized I had. I just hadn’t really thought about it before now.

“Or, at least, that’s what they say,” Mitch added. “Really, it’s for safety, but people love their ghost stories.”

“It’s not on right now,” I said. And sure enough, the stage was dark. The house was pitch black.

Mitch turned to check, and I think he actually gasped. We walked to center stage and I looked up.

“Maybe Frank turned it off,” I offered.

“Frank!” Mitch walked to the right wing, and called again. “Frank?”

“Or maybe he went home,” I said, quietly.

“Nah, he’s here somewhere. Go up and check the catwalk.”

“He’s not on the catwalk, boss,” I said. “He’s out in the auditorium. Er, house.” Now that my eyes had adjusted, I could clearly see someone out there, seated towards the middle, looking straight ahead. I pointed, “You can see him, right?”

Mitch shook his head. “Not Frank,” he said.

“What do you mean, not Frank?”

He didn’t answer.

“Who is it, then?”

Just then, the stage light flickered on. I looked out into the house again.

“He’s gone,” I said.

“Let’s go,” Mitch said. He turned on his heel and practically ran back to his station. He grabbed his notebook and stuffed it into his bag. “Come on,” he said.

We hurried toward the door. At the stairs to the catwalk, Frank met us, smelling like he’d swallowed a whole distillery’s worth of whiskey.

“You’re here late,” he wheezed. Poor Frank.

Mitch just nodded.

“Have you been up there this whole time?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Yeah,” Frank answered. “Just came down when I heard you on stage. Ghost light was out. Got it fixed.”

Mitch didn’t say a word, and the three of us walked out together as if nothing strange had happened at all.

************

Just as Mitch predicted, opening night went off without a hitch. The cast hit every beat, nailed every song, and the orchestra played like they’d practiced together for years. For all I knew, some of them probably had. Even the kids were perfect. It was exhilarating, being part of this kind of magic.

Mitch took us out for a drink after the show. “I’m buying,” he said. “You did a good job tonight.”

“Thanks,” I told him.

“So, are you hooked?”

I thought about it. I’d never been part of anything quite like this before. And so I answered, “I think I am.”

“Okay, then,” Mitch said. “Then there are definitely a few things you need to know, if you’re sticking around.”

“Okay,” I said.

“The first thing is, you never look directly at Mr. Holly.”

“Mr. who?”

“That’s who you saw last night,” he said. “You know I said every theatre has a ghost? Well, he belongs to the Old River.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. I put my beer down.  

“I’d never seen him before last night,” Mitch told me. His flat tone indicated to me that he was, in fact, completely serious. “And I’d like to never see him again.”

“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” I thought about it again, and nodded once. “Okay. Well, tell me the rest,” I said.

And Mitch smiled. “You’re one of the good ones, kid.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the eighth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first six, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

Tabula Rasa

The Day My Grandfather Met the Devil

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of September.

The Day My Grandfather Met the Devil (A Short Story)

My grandfather was a deeply religious man, but he never went to church. Grandma went every Sunday, in her best clothes and her favorite jewelry, but Grandpa always stayed home. I asked him about this once, when I was younger, before he passed away.

It was a summer afternoon, and we sat together, rocking back and forth slow and lazy on the front porch swing, looking out at the mountains.

I pointed to the little steeple in the distance, the one that belonged to my grandmother’s church, and asked, “Why don’t you ever go?”

Grandpa answered. “This is God’s own country. Why would I want to be stuck in there,” he said, and pointed to the steeple, “with all those other people, when I could be out here,” and he gestured around us, and towards the ridge, “where it’s just the Lord and the land and me?”

And then he told me a story.

I don’t know, to this day, whether this story is true, but he told me, and now I’m telling you. Maybe someday, you’ll tell someone, and they’ll tell someone. Stories have a way of keeping themselves alive, don’t they?

“You know where I grew up?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, that’s where this story happened,” my grandpa said.

My grandfather grew up not far from a crossroads called North Fork, on a lonely strip of Appalachian land the locals called Hell’s Half Acre. He knew that his future was tied to that land, whether he liked it or not. And he didn’t like it.

Walking home from school every day, he’d wonder if it would be the last time he’d make the trip. And then one day, it was. He left school in seventh grade and started work at the coal mine right outside of town. It was that, he told me, or be sold to another family. So he worked, hours and hours in the dark, damp underground, laying wood for mine shafts. And each day, walking home, covered in coal dust and exhausted from head to toe, he’d stare at that fork in the road, and wonder if he’d ever get to really choose any direction at all.

And then one evening, as the sun dipped below the mountains and the holler grew dark and alive with lightning bugs and cricket song, Grandpa met a stranger at the fork.

“Evening,” the man said.

Grandpa nodded and kept walking. In all the years he’d walked this road, he’d never met a stranger on it, and this stranger was certainly strange. Dressed to the nines in July weather, a nice suit, starched and pressed, and dark hair as slick and shiny as a crow’s feathers.

“The name’s Scratch,” the man said.

“Evening, sir,” my grandfather said, and kept walking.

“I’m looking for a young man named Jim,” the man told him.

My grandfather stopped. He was Jim. Jim was his name, and he most definitely didn’t know what this man might want with him. So he answered, “No Jim’s around here, Mr. Scratch.”

“Oh, well, ain’t that a shame,” the stranger said. “Had some good news for Mr. Jim. Sure would have made his day.”

Here was a choice, my grandfather thought, standing stock still, staring at this outsider in church clothes. Confess or keep quiet and start walking. Learn more, or go home and get some sleep.

“Had a deal to make with Jim, I did,” said the man. “Could change his life.”

“All right then, I’m Jim,” my grandfather said.

“I thought you might be,” said the stranger. “Figured there couldn’t be that many teenage boys called Jim in a place like this.”

My grandfather nodded.

“It’s nice to meet you, Jim” said the stranger, and stuck out his hand.

My grandfather shook it, and felt ashamed for the fine coating of black dust his own sweaty hand left behind.

“Like I said, my name’s Scratch, and I’ve got a deal for you, if you’re interested.”

“Don’t know much about deals,” Grandpa answered.

“Well,” the man said, “this one’s easy.”

Grandpa nodded again. Easy sounded good.

“I heard that you were looking to get out of here, maybe do some traveling, and I might be able to help. I’d just need you to do me a favor.”

“What favor?” It didn’t occur to Grandpa at the time that he’d never told a single soul about wanting to leave, and how he hoped to travel.

“Well, I’ve been looking for a woman named Ella, and I think you could help me find her.”

Grandpa raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Ella was the preacher’s wife.

“Do you think you could do that? I need to find her, and if you can help me, I can give you some money and a ticket to New York. You’d just need to get yourself up to Roanoke to catch the train.”

“I know Ella,” Grandpa said.

“Oh, good,” said the stranger. “Can you tell her I’m looking for her? Do that, and meet me here tomorrow. I’ll have that ticket all ready for you.”

Grandpa nodded one more time.  

“And one more thing, Jim,” said the man.

“Yeah?”

“If you take the ticket and the money, there’s a chance I might need your help again. But I bet you’d be okay helping me again, right?” The man smiled then, and that smile, my grandfather said, just looked all kinds of wrong.

Grandpa didn’t nod this time. He just stared at the man and his too-white teeth and his not-right smile.

“I thought so,” said the man. “I’ll be waiting for you here tomorrow. Have a good night, Mr. Jim.”

So dismissed, my grandfather walked away, replaying every bit of their conversation in his head.

“Grandpa,” I asked, “did you go back? Was he there?”

“Of course not,” my grandfather answered. “I went home and thought about it and it didn’t take me too long to figure out just who that man was.”

“What do you think he wanted with the preacher’s wife?”

“Nothing good,” my grandfather said. “There’s only one person in the world who uses the name Scratch, and he’s not a person at all.”

“Wasn’t he there waiting for you?”

“No, he wasn’t,” said Grandpa. “I’d made up my mind that night that I wasn’t gonna help him, and I reckon he knew. The devil has ways of getting into your head.”

“Did you ever see him again?”

“No, and good thing. But you keep your ears open and you’ll hear stories about Old Scratch. He’s always out there, trying to make deals and collect souls.”

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I said.

“He doesn’t much care whether you believe or not,” Grandpa answered, with a tone of finality. And then he went quiet, and we went back to swinging in silence, looking out on the hill country.

“Is he the reason you don’t go to church?”

“Nah,” Grandpa said. “But every time I see a man in a suit, he’s who I think about.”

I wonder, sometimes, if my grandfather really thought he met the devil, or if it was just a story for a lazy Saturday afternoon. He’s been gone a long time, so I’ll never know. But I do sometimes hear stories about a man named Scratch, and I figure, if he’s real at all, he’s still out there. Grandpa was a good man, and he’s gone. But they say evil lives forever, don’t they?

************

Thank you for reading! This is the seventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first six, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

Tabula Rasa

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of August.

Tabula Rasa (A Short Story)

“What were you like before you were my mama?”

I cradle Daisy to my chest, and we rock back and forth to the gentle rhythm of my breathing.

“I was different.”

I smooth her hair, trace my fingers along the hollow, soft spot just below the crown of her head.

“Were you scary?”

“I might have been,” I say. “I might have been lots of things.”

“Like what?”

“I think we’ll never know for sure, little dove.”

“But why not?”

I’m quiet for a moment. I say, “Because we all get to make our own stories, and this is the one I’m making.”

Daisy’s room smells of peppermint and lavender, a combination of my tea and her soap, and something else. Something old, damp, and dusty, but familiar, like home.

“Mama, can you sing to me?”

I hum a soft lullaby, and as Daisy drifts off in my arms, I think of the decision we made, all of us. The decision to be careful with our words, to let our children tell their own stories. We felt like it was a mercy, in a cruel world, to let them make their own history and their own future.

One day, far away from now, maybe I will tell her: There’s power in words. That’s your first lesson. And there’s power in their absence. That’s your second.

Or maybe I won’t. Right now, she is free and new and utterly, completely herself. How long can this last? Time will tell.

I don’t think anyone ever really, truly knows whether the thing they’ve chosen is the right thing. When all of this started, I didn’t have Daisy. At least, not completely. She was a blip in the universe, just a tiny thing knitting herself into my body. I only had myself and a collection of painful memories, existing within a world that didn’t seem to want me. The thought of starting over, of starting anything, and of creating a better place, washed over me like a warm summer breeze, and I was certain, in that moment, that I’d made the best decision for myself.

But for Daisy?

I worry.

She’s sleeping now, curled around her favorite crocheted bunny. I hope she has good dreams, always. I hope she grows up carefree and happy. I hope she is strong.

But I worry.

What is strength without adversity? Courage without knowledge? Wisdom without history?

There are nineteen families here, all of us raising children, all parents carrying burdens we never want them to see. We all have our reasons. They are good reasons, I think, but they belong to us, not to our children.

I asked Daisy a few days ago to tell me about her bunny.

“What does Bunny do when you’re busy at school?”

“Bunny stays home,” she said.

“Yes, Bunny doesn’t go to school with you. But what does Bunny like to do when he’s not with you?”

“He sleeps in my bed and hops around my room,” she said.

“What else?”

“Sometimes, he likes to look out the window.”

“That’s fun!” And then I asked, “Is there anywhere he wants to go when he looks out the window?”

“No,” she told me. “He’s happy here.”

Daisy’s world is so small. She’s got me and our cottage, Bunny and her friends at school, the green grass and the blue sky. But there’s so much she’s missing.

“Doesn’t Bunny ever want to go places? Maybe to the beach?”

“What’s the beach, Mama?”

I didn’t tell her, not really. I only said it’s far away and warm.

We’re supposed to let our children make their own worlds, to use our words and our knowledge sparingly, to give them space to create. I don’t know if anyone else questions the goal, or the method we’re using to get there, but I do.

I do.

Because they need us, don’t they? They need our stories, they need our wisdom and our experience. Don’t they?

I hear Daisy on the steps.

“Mama,” she calls.

“Yes, baby?”

“I had a dream.”

“Tell me about your dream,” I say.

“It was a bad dream,” she tells me.

“Come and sit with me,” I say. And then, before I can stop myself, I add: “I’ll tell you a story.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the sixth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first five, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of July.

Sally’s Mill (A Short Story)

May 1, 2019

Here’s how I imagine it happened, back in 2001:

The weather outside was almost unbearable. An early heatwave loomed over the fields, and the storms that rolled through that afternoon left behind a swampy, balmy soup of thick air and hovering mosquitos. Bad as that was, the atmosphere inside the mill was worse. Thirty some bodies crammed into a dark, dusty space, all breathing and dancing and spilling drinks, jumping around to music so loud it shook your brains, yelling and singing, and just hot, frenetic chaos.  

“I’m going outside,” Jo Whitney said to no one in particular, because no one could hear her, anyway. At least, that’s how I imagine it. I’ve been told I have a good imagination.

People wondered later where she’d gone, and no one told the police about the party when they came around asking questions. A bunch of kids drinking alcohol in an abandoned, condemned building on the night before graduation? Not one of them said a word, and they wouldn’t have had anything to say, either, because Jo slipped out of the mill and into the night, and that was the last any of them – or anyone at all – ever saw of her.

May 2, 2019

Joanna Whitney’s was the tenth disappearance associated with Sally’s Mill. It wouldn’t be the last, and I think we’re on number thirteen now. Or so the rumors say. And still people go there. Kids party, the curious search, police patrol, and every few years, some unlucky soul goes missing. It’s not our town’s oldest tradition – that would be the Winter Hunt – but it is the most talked about. Well, that would probably also be the Winter Hunt, but Sally’s Mill is a pretty close second. There’s even a rhyme we say, when we’re young and more amused than afraid: “Stay away from the hill, and from old Sally’s Mill.”

It’s not much, I know.

May 5, 2019

As it turns out, my dad got caught up in it once, all the Sally’s Mill craziness, when he was about seventeen. He told me this story today, and I’m recording it here, in my second journal of the year, because I feel like someone should write this down, and because he never reads my journals and so he won’t know I told on him.

Here’s what he said:

It was a stormy night, heavy and damp and dark. Thunder rumbled through the trees, and on the horizon, lightning flashed bright and white against the black sky. My dad was at a party, and went outside to get cigarettes from his car. As he stood outside the door of the mill, smoking (gross, Dad!), he heard hounds and the call of hunting horns, howls and yelps, and people shouting, and the braying and steady gallop of horses. He heard them over the music from the party, and the rush of the wind. He said it sounded like they were only down the hill, so close by, but he didn’t see anyone. And as the sound moved closer and closer to him, he said it was like the air froze, and all he could think was, “What in the hell?” And then he ran inside, and he never told anyone. Not because he was scared. He never told anyone because he dropped his cigarette when he ran, and it started a small fire in the brush, and everyone had to run away and the police investigated and declared it an arson. The good news is, no one got hurt, and the fire didn’t do too much damage. The bad news is, my dad’s guilty of arson, I guess.

They say nothing good ever happens at Sally’s Mill. I guess they’re right, huh?

May 11, 2019

It shouldn’t be ninety degrees in early May, but here we are. Today is Saturday, but you couldn’t pay me to go outside in this. Today will be a reading day for me.

I feel bad for writing down what my dad told me. I think it’s sort of a silly story, but I wouldn’t want him to get in trouble for something that happened so long ago, especially when it was an accident and it didn’t hurt anybody. I’m thinking about tearing out that page.

May 12, 2019

I did some reading yesterday on fox hunting. I’m surprised it’s not obsolete. But I did learn that it never happens at night, so I don’t know what my dad heard. He was probably drunk. It was dark, and the weather was awful. He was just a kid who made a mistake, and I wonder if he made up the whole story just to justify what he did. It’s a horrible thing to think, isn’t it?

May 18, 2019

I just can’t help but wonder why people keep going to the mill. I guess people just can’t get enough of scary stories, but still: I wonder, I wonder, I wonder. My grandmother always told me she was proud of how curious I am. I’m starting to think it’s actually a curse. There are always more questions than answers, and every time you get an answer, it just leads to more questions. It’s enough to drive someone crazy. Not me, but someone.

May 20, 2019

Okay, so I’ve done some research. It’s interesting, actually. There’s nothing in the history of Sally’s Mill that makes it a haunted or a frightening or an unsafe place, other than the fact that it’s condemned, of course. It was built around 1810 by the Marsden family. They’re still around. Named for John Marsden’s wife, who lived long and happy, and tended by that same family or their relatives until it closed down for good in 1981. John and Sally had several children, kept a couple of houses in the state, and were involved in all sorts of local issues and events. The only thing I found that made me nervous is that there was a Civil War battle in the area, and some of the soldiers did hide in the mill at one point. They got caught, of course, and carted away as prisoners.

And then, I guess, there are the disappearances, but maybe that’s just coincidence? I should do some research on those, too, but I’ve got end of school exams and essays and such coming up, so I don’t know when I’ll have time.

May 25, 2019

There’s a party at Sally’s Mill tonight. Should I go? I’m not actually invited, but one of my friends is, and I’m sure I could tag along unnoticed.

May 25, 2019 (later)

I’m going. Even though it’s hotter than Hades right now and I’m not really invited, I’m going. But I’m going in smart. I’m bringing supplies: a flashlight, a whistle, a camera, a recorder, and just because I know it will be loud and miserably sweaty, some earplugs and my portable neck fan. I know I’ll look like a dork. I don’t care. People don’t really notice me, anyway.

I’m nervous, though, still. Maybe because I’m not a social creature, or maybe because of the disappearances, or my dad’s story. I’ll update tomorrow. If I come home, that is! (Oh, God, why did I even write that?)

May 26, 2019

What an absolute waste of time! A big, fat, annoying nothing. I stood inside, I stood outside. I waited. I saw nothing. There was nothing. Just the mill, and the hot weather, and a bunch of kids drinking warm beer. My head hurts. I dripped enough sweat last night to fill five buckets, and I came home with a bruise of my knee from falling down a set of rickety old stairs. And I ripped my favorite jeans.

Never again, Sally’s Mill. You and I – we’re not friends.

May 26, 2019 (later)

I spoke too soon. I feel awful. I can’t believe it.

Jackson Fletcher disappeared last night.

He never came home after the party. I did see him there, in a corner with his buddies, but I don’t remember if he left before me or not. I did see him go outside. Did I see him come back in? I’m not sure. I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW. Maybe he’s just at a friend’s house. Maybe he crashed his car and he’s in a ditch somewhere. That’s not better, is it?

WHY DOES ANYONE GO TO SALLY’S MILL?

And why him? Why him, of everyone there? Why not anyone else? Why not me?

May 30, 2019

I’ve considered ripping out all of these pages and burning them. I don’t know where I’d burn them, but I just don’t know if I ever want anyone to read them. I’m only a few pages into this journal, anyway, and I could scrap the whole thing.

Jackson Fletcher is still missing. I don’t think he’ll ever come home. I see it in my head. His mother saying goodbye to her son for the last time on Saturday evening, his face at the party, laughing and bobbing his head to the beat of the music, and not one of them knew. Not one of them knew it would be the last time, that he wouldn’t come home. It’s just horrible.

I looked back today on my entries about Jo Whitney, and I just…I can’t believe I wrote about it like that, like her life was a story. I can’t believe it happened again. I guess it just never seemed real.

I don’t know what I’ll do with this. I don’t know who I can tell – about this journal, my dad’s story, Jackson, the mill. Any of it. But if I don’t trash it, and you find it, and you read this one day, I’ll tell you, because now I know it’s true, what they say. I hope you stay away. I hope they tear the whole building down. I hope it burns. I hope it collapses. I hope it rots away and becomes just a distant, terrible memory. I hope you believe me.

Nothing good ever happens at Sally’s Mill.

************

Thank you for reading! This is the fifth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first four, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of June.

April’s Short Story

It’ll be up tomorrow! In the meantime, here’s a preview. Enjoy!

**********

I don’t like the term “monster hunt.” Humans can be monsters, but everyone goes on and on about Bigfoot. Spare me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We set out around noon on the first warm day of spring. There were two of us. There was me, and there was Ty, my best friend. Ty carried the map, the tent, the food, all the other “useful stuff” (his words), and the dog’s leash. So, I guess there were actually three of us – Ty, me, and Septimus.

I asked Ty once why he named the dog Septimus.

“Because,” he said, “he looked like a Septimus. Just look at him”

In front of us now, walking up the trail into the woods, Septimus sniffed and explored, nose to the ground with his floppy, pendulum ears dangling into the leafy brush, drool trailing along behind him in a silvery, viscous path. He didn’t carry anything.

I held the camera.

“I don’t know what you think you’re going to find,” Ty said, craning his neck around to get a glimpse of me behind him. “And I don’t want to be in whatever video you make when this is over.”

“‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep…’” I replied.

“You didn’t come up with that.”

“No,” I said, “that was Robert Frost. But it makes my point.”

“Which is?”

Ty walked on ahead.

“Which is,” I said, “that you’ll never find anything if you don’t go looking, and there’s no place like the deep, dark woods to get started.”

Silly Superstitions (A Short Story)

Addie had never put much stock in silly superstitions. They existed all around her, from her mother’s belief that you should enter and leave by the same door, to her father’s insistence that you must always leave one apple in the orchard at the end of a harvest. Even the local preacher, who steadfastly believed that hearing an unattended church bell meant a parishioner would die. He’d had the bells taken down last year. Don’t do this, always do that. Lest you invite bad luck, lest you tempt the devil, lest this and that and the other thing that never, ever happened.

“Stupidity and fantasy,” Addie told her mother, as they swept the front porch one cool day in the early spring. “Y’all will worry yourselves sick over nothing and then celebrate when nothing happens.”

“I taught you better than that, Addie May,” her mother said.

“You taught me to gather acorns in a thunderstorm. What kind of nonsense is that?”

“The smart kind,” her mother answered. “Now be careful where you sweep. Watch your sister’s feet.”

Addie’s older sister, Emmy, seventeen and pretty as a peach, sat in an old rocking chair near the door, humming and stringing green beans for dinner.

“Or what, Ma?” Addie said. She stopped what she was doing, held the broom upright and put her other hand on her hip. “What’ll happen if I sweep under Emmy’s feet?”

“She’ll never get married,” her mother said. “That’s what.”

“That is absolutely ridiculous,” Addie said, and with a grand gesture, she swept the broom right under the rocking chair, brushing the bottoms of Emmy’s shoes.

“Addie!”

That was both her mother and Emmy, in a tone she knew all too well. The tone meant trouble. As in, she was in it.

“Oh fine,” she said. “I’ll go inside and peel potatoes.”

“Yes you will, Addie May,” said her mother. “And you will apologize to your sister, too.”

“What for?” Addie whined.

“Right now, Miss Priss.”

“She’s not even engaged!”

Her mother answered by way of a stern look and a raised eyebrow.

Addie sighed and turned to Emmy. She said, “I am sorry for sweeping under your feet, lest you never get married and end up a lonely old crone.”

She dropped the broom and ran inside before either Emmy or her mother could reply. She went to bed that night with a fresh scolding from both her parents, and without supper.

In the morning, Addie stayed in her bed for a little longer than usual. She listened to the breeze and the birdsong, and watched the world wake up from her window. When the sun hung high enough to cast shadows on the fields, she snuck outside – easy, since her family had already started their daily chores – and climbed the old oak tree in their back yard. She sat on a thick branch, twirling a leaf in through her fingers.

“Who cooks for you…”

That came from somewhere above her, she thought, and looked up, scanning the branches and searching the leaves.

“Who cooks for you…”

And she spotted it, perched about ten feet above her head, a Barred Owl, looking out ahead with its wide, dark eyes.

“What are you doing out here?” Addie asked.

The owl did not reply.

The second Addie moved to climb higher, the owl flew away.

“Well, that’s disappointing,” she said to herself. “Guess he didn’t want to talk.”

Addie sighed, something her mother said she was unnaturally good at, and climbed down. Sooner or later, she’d have to get this day started, and now was as good a time as any. As she made her way back to the house, she fell in step with her mother, coming back from the barn.

“Hi, Ma,” she said. “I’ll go get the eggs here in a minute.”

“We’re going into town for groceries around lunch, so don’t take too long,” her mother told her. “Where’ve you been this morning?”

“I didn’t feel good,” Addie lied. “I slept in, and then when I felt a little better, I climbed the oak tree to get some fresh air.”

“My little monkey,” her mother said. “You feel all right now?”

“Yes ma’am,” Addie said. “And I saw an owl when I was in the tree.”

Her mother said nothing, but her eyes grew wide.

“It was real pretty, Ma. It almost talked to me.”

Her mother grabbed her arm and pulled her through the kitchen door. Addie stumbled behind her.

“What is it, Ma? What’d I do?”

“Are you absolutely certain, Addie May Bailey, that you saw an owl in that tree?”

“Yes, Ma,” Addie answered.

“Not some other bird?”

“No, ma’am. It was definitely an owl.”

“God protect us,” her mother said. And then, “You stay here. I’m going to get your sister and Pa.”

“Ma! What’d I do? Am I in trouble?”

Her mother hurried out the door without answering, and all Addie could do was wait. She sat down at the table, and wrung her hands together. She didn’t think she’d done anything wrong. She was a little late getting started on her chores, but she had time to get them done, and she hadn’t stained her dress or hurt herself climbing the tree.

About fifteen minutes later, her mother returned, this time with her father and sister in toe, and said, “Now Addie, you tell your Pa what you saw in the tree.”

“An owl,” Addie answered.

“Are you sure?” her father asked.

“Yes, sir. It hooted at me. It had big eyes.”

Her mother and father shared a look, and her sister sat down beside her at the table.

“Why do you always make trouble?” Emmy rolled her eyes and rested her chin in her hands. “Had to go and climb that tree, didn’t you?”

“Emmy hush,” her mother said. “What do you think we should do, Giles?”

Addie stared at her father. He looked calm, but she could see the little vein in his forehead that always popped out when something worried him.

“We’ll just be careful,” her father said. “Nothing else we can do.”

Addie couldn’t take it anymore. She stood up, and the chair she’d been sitting in fell behind her.

“Pa, what’s wrong with me seeing an owl? I don’t understand.”

Her mother answered, wrapping her arms around herself. “They say,” she said, “that if you see an owl in daylight, that means a death is coming.”  

Her father and sister were silent, but they looked between Addie and her mother. Emmy picked up the chair.

“Are you serious?” Addie asked.

“As a heart attack,” her mother answered.

“Oh, good grief!”

“Addie,” Emmy screeched.

“More silly superstitions and stupid made-up stories!” Addie fumed. She turned on her family and pointed a straight, stiff finger at all of them. “You’re all crazy!”

She stamped out of the room to the chicken coop, and by the evening, with her chores done and her family still walking on eggshells, she felt exhausted.

“You just watch,” she said. “Nothing will happen. Nothing ever happens, and y’all just sit there and worry your lives away. Not me!”

She went to bed without supper again.

The next day, from down in the town, a bell rang. It rang every few minutes, all day.

“I thought Pastor Cory took the bells down,” Emmy said.

“He did,” her mother answered, and shuddered.

“Must be from somewhere else,” Addie said.

The day after that, Mrs. Williams, an old widow from their church, hobbled up to their house and knocked on the door. Addie saw her coming from her window, and walked downstairs just in time to hear her say that it was terrible, what had happened. Addie stayed hidden, just around the corner.

“What happened, Mrs. Williams?”

That was Emmy.

“That poor boy, Jonah Evans,” Mrs. Williams said. “Fell in the silo.”

“What?”

Her mother, Addie thought.

“Nothing the doctor could do,” Mrs. Williams said.

 “So he’s dead?”

Emmy again, her voice shaking.

“Poor boy,” Mrs. Williams said.

Addie walked into the room and said, “That’s terrible.”

Emmy turned on her. Addie had never seen Emmy in such a state. Red eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. Addie moved to comfort her, to put her arms around her, but Emmy flinched away.

“This is all your fault,” she screamed, and she ran out of the room and up the stairs.

Addie just stood there, dumbfounded, waiting for someone to explain.

“How…” she started, and then stopped.

Her mother looked over in the direction of the stairs. “Addie,” she said, “go to your room.”

And so Addie did.

That night, she crept down the hall and padded into Emmy’s room.

“Emmy,” she whispered.

Emmy lay in her bed, tucked tight beneath the covers and facing the wall.

Addie crawled in beside her, and pulled her into a hug.

“I’m sorry,” Addie said. “I’m sorry about what happened to Jonah.”

Emmy sniffled and said, “We were going to get married one day.”

“I didn’t know he liked you that way,” Addie replied.

“He didn’t,” Emmy said, and Addie could tell she was crying. Her shoulders shook, and her voice sounded thick and tight. “Not yet, but he would have.”

Addie didn’t respond. She just held Emmy as she cried. She fell asleep with her sister in her arms, and when she woke in the morning, Emmy was gone.

Weeks went by, and then months. The weather turned warm, and though the world around them felt alive and in motion, Addie and Emmy barely spoke. In April, Addie left a four-leaf clover on Emmy’s pillow. In May, Addie saw the owl again as she spent a morning lounging, or perhaps hiding, in the oak tree. She told no one, and as far as she knew, no one died and nothing bad happened. And then, in June, Emmy pulled Addie aside one day as she kneaded dough for their dinner.

“I have something to tell you,” Emmy said.

“I’d be happy to hear it,” Addie answered, and smiled.

“I met a boy,” Emmy said. “His name is Robert, and I think I want to marry him.”

Addie thought for a moment, and remembered something her mother had told her a very long time ago. Another silly superstition, yes, but perhaps, in this particular case, the right one. A dream that meant good fortune, and a sign of good things to come. Something happy.

She smiled, and took Emmy’s hand in hers, covering both in fine, white flour.

“Emmy, that’s wonderful,” she said. “And I have to tell you, because I think it’s a sign.”

Emmy looked at her with all the hope she thought she’d ever see.

Addie said, “Last night, I dreamed of bees.”

Emmy squeezed Addie’s hand and said, “You know what Ma says about dreaming of bees!”

Addie had never put much stock in silly superstitions, it was true. But right now, in this moment, she wanted to believe in this one.

“Yes,” Addie said. “I know exactly.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the third of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first two, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of April.