Twilight seems the favorite time for ghosts. In those last few minutes, as day surrenders to night, they are allowed to roam. It’s understandable, when you think about it, as the sun sets and shadows deepen. They belong to this place, the land of shadow, caught between light and dark, in a world of endless night. We must pity these poor soul and leave them be. Nothing could be worse than their timeless wandering, and we must pray that our own fate never mirrors theirs.
The air in the attic smelt musty, mould hung from the rafters, trailing green tendrils that touched her face. Nora brushed them aside and shone her torch around the room. The trunk she was looking for was in the farthest corner and she chose her step with care, picking her way across the joists. If she put one foot wrong it meant plunging through the ceiling. Placing the torch on a box, she fumbled with the ancient lock and nodded in satisfaction as the lid groaned open. The smell from the interior was more pungent than the one surrounding her and she wafted her hand in front of her face. She knelt down, the wood as rough as glass on her tender knees, but she had to find the things she needed. They were all there, just as she’d left them many years ago; the herbs and dried roots, the potions still safe in the bottles and most importantly the grimoire, the book of power that would show her what to do. She stuffed the small bottles and herbs in to the pockets of her cardigan and tucked the book under her arm.
Her eyes travelled to the old suitcase beside the trunk, but she willed herself not to look. It held the few baby clothes she kept and she couldn’t bear to view them, not now. Her daughter, like many of the women in her family, had died before her time.
“Six months,” Nora muttered. “That’s all the time we had together, child.”
No, she could not think about it. She tore her eyes away. There was work to be done.
She was panting as she navigated the joists and relieved when she reached the top of the wooden ladder.
“Move, Seth,” she called to the dog, who was standing sentry at the bottom.
He got out of the way just in time, as the huge book flew down and landed with a thump on the floor. Nora didn’t bother to close the attic door. She would put everything back when she was finished. Seth followed at her heels as she made her way down in to the kitchen. She sat at the table and started to leaf through the book’s yellow and brittle pages.
“Yes, this is the one,” she read aloud words written in an ancient language and the dog cocked his ear at the strange sounds.
Nora spent the next few hours grinding and cooking the things she needed for the spells. She had been a child when she last seen the book put to use and her husband had forbid her to practise any of her strange arts, as he referred to them. She was descended from women of power, a power that lay dormant within her until now.
Dusk was falling by the time she was finished. The few streetlights that still had unbroken bulbs came on and a cold mist descended. Nora picked up the animals feeding bowls and scraped food from a tin in to each one. Next she poured some of the potion and mixed it with the food. Before placing it on the floor, she filled a small glass with the same potion and swallowed the lot in one quick gulp. It ran like fire through her body until it reached her stomach where it lay for a moment before spreading its warmth until her senses swam. She gripped the cold sink until the room steadied itself once more.
“It’s all right,” she looked down at the worried faces of the cat and dog.
Placing their bowls on the floor, she urged them to eat.
“Finish it all, my pets,” she smiled as they tucked in.
She felt better than she had in years, empowered, she thought. The hand that stroked the dog’s head was no longer veined and spotted with age. She held it up to the light and wondered at this. There was only one mirror in the house and that hung in the dark hallway. Nora turned on the light and gazed at her reflection. She was seventy-four-years-old and up to a few minutes ago looked every one of her years. Now, she looked younger, not girl young, but the fire within her had knocked at least twenty years off her age. She brought a hand to her face and felt the smoothness of the skin. She had never been a beauty and no one would call her such now, but she looked better. Turning off all the lights, she picked her way through the dark shapes of the furniture in the sitting room and stood at the window. So far no one had called at her house looking for treats, which was just as well, as the yob had taken her meagre few. She dreaded to think what those who were refused would do if they did call. There were childish screams as a small vampire, witch and mummy ran past her gate. They looked like wraiths scampering through the white mist. She sighed and waited for the night to deepen. It was cold in the house, cold and damp. There was no central heating and other than a coal fire nothing to banish the icy fingers creeping along her skin. It was too early in the year to spend money on fuel, so she put on more layers and went to bed earlier when the nights were longer.
She sat on the threadbare couch and pulled a shawl around her shoulders. The cat came in and leapt up beside her and the dog huddled down at her feet.
“There’s nothing to do but wait for them to come,” she patted the cat. “And they will come. Why wouldn’t they? The street vermin need to have there blood-lust fed and picking on an old women is the easiest way they know.”
The curtains were left open so the blaze from the nearest oil barrel reflected off the glass. Dark shapes circled the flames and cars drew up from time to time, their occupants in need of the poisons that fed their cravings. The chimes on the mantle clocked counted out the hour. It was cold on the stroke of midnight when she heard them outside her door.
“Wait here, my pets,” she stood up straighter than she had in years and went to answer the fist that was beating on the wood.
“Yes,” she was looking straight in to the face of the yob who had scarred her.
He drew back a little, not sure for a moment if it was her. He was with his friend, his right hand man, as she’d heard him referred too and behind him stood his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, a tight top proudly displaying her swollen belly.
Mark Jones, the yob, could not lose face, so rolling his shoulders back; he started his usual tirade of filth. It began in the usual way.
“Your dog nearly bit my little brother,” he jabbed an accusing finger at her. “You better keep the fuckin thing under control, do you hear me, you old witch or I’ll cut its throat.”
I must say I’m surprised,” Nora caught the look between Mark’s girlfriend and his right hand man.
“I’ll give you surprised, you old cow,” he made his fist in to a ball.
Before he could strike, Nora words stopped him.
“I think you words belie your true natural, after all you are willing to raise another man’s child as your own.”
“What?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he struggled to speak.
“Am I the bearer of bad news?” Nora smiled. “So sorry, but the truth must out.”
“Forget her,” his girlfriend pulled at his jacket. “She’s mad, everyone says so.”
“Fuck off,” he shook her off. “What do you mean?” He asked Nora.
“Ask her,” Nora nodded to the girl, who was retreating down the path.
“Hey, come back here,” all thoughts of Nora were forgotten as he took off after her.
She watched as the girl placed both hands beneath her bump and tried to run.
“There’s going to be fuckin murder,” Mark’s right hand man muttered, as he took off after them.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Nora smiled.
Purgatory Part 3
A thin mist hovered over the grass and the air was chill when Kitty opened her bedroom window. The sun was a hazy, orange ball against the backdrop of the surrounding trees and it struggled to dispel the last of the night’s lingering darkness. She could have stayed in bed for another hour, but her sleep had been restless of late and it was easier to get up and not lie about tossing and turning. The house was silent and other than the first calling of a songbird there was nothing to disturb her morning prayers. Kneeling down beside the bed she made the sign of the cross and laced the worn rosary beads between her fingers. She asked the usual things of God, protection for her family and those she loved and peace for those lying beneath the earth. Her last plea was one she had repeated over and over for the past three months, but she knew it would not be answered; not now, if the screams echoing across the fields were anything to go by.
Running to the window, she looked across the garden and the wraith-like figure staggering through the mist. The Mister would hear her for sure and then there would be hell to pay. She tip-toed down the stairs in her bare feet, cringing at each creak of the old boards. The cold, stone flags on the kitchen floor burned her warm flesh, but she ignored the discomfort in her need to get outside. The grass was wet with morning dew and sharp stones nipped at her feet, but she took no notice as she ran across to where Ruth had fallen.
“What happened?” Kitty tried to pull her up, but she refused to move.
Ruth’s sobs echoed in the still air and Kitty cast a furtive glance back at the house, praying the Mister wouldn’t hear.
“Stop,” Kitty shook the weeping girl. “Your brother will hear you and you know what will happen then.”
There was no need to ask again what was troubling the girl. It was as Kitty had suspected since the beginning.
“He’s left me,” Ruth beat her hands against her face.
“Stop that,” Kitty pulled her hands away and held them before she did herself harm.
Ruth’s cries had woken Joan and she came running across the grass, her expression a mixture of confusion and fear.
“What in the name of god is wrong with her?” She looked from Kitty to the weeping girl.
“The gypsies have gone,” Kitty hugged Ruth closer as she struggled to break free.
They half carried, half dragged Ruth towards the yawning mouth of the barn. The hay-filled building would be more soundproof and help to muffle her cries. They laid her down in a pile of hay and stood looking at one another, unsure of what to do.
“He said he would take me with him,” Ruth sobbed. “I was to meet him at dawn, but he had already left.”
“I knew this would happen,” Kitty whispered to Joan. “There was something not right about that man.”
She knelt down beside Ruth and took her hand.
“It’s going to be all right,” Kitty said.
“No, it’s never going to be all right again,” Ruth took a handkerchief from the sleeve of her dress and wiped her nose. “I loved him, I really loved him and he said he loved me.”
“Aye, they all say that,” Joan shook her head at the girl’s ignorance.
“I thought he meant it,” Ruth’s voice was hoarse from crying. “We were supposed to get married. I ran down the road trying to find him, but there was no sign of the caravans.”
For a while the two women sat beside her and offered what little comfort they could until Joan said.
“I’ll have to go back inside. The Mister will be up soon and expecting his breakfast.”
Kitty walked with her to the door of the barn.
“What am I going to do with her?” She looked back to where Ruth lay.
“Keep her here until he’s gone. I’ll come back once the coast is clear and we can get her to her room. At least the Mister doesn’t know about this and that’s one thing we can be thankful for.”
“He may find out,” Kitty’s eyes were wide with fear. “She’s been sick these last few mornings.”
“No,” Joan brought a hand to her mouth to still her cry. “You don’t think…?” She left the sentence unfinished.
“I do,” Kitty felt her own eyes fill up with tears.
From inside the barn Ruth sobbed and cried out.
“I don’t want to live any more. I want to die.”
“She should be careful what she wishes for,” Joan said. “When the Mister finds out there’s going to be murder.”
Ruth’s pregnancy became impossible to disguise and by her sixth month her brother was beginning to notice that something was wrong. He teased her about growing fat, but his eyes strayed from the few morsels of food on her plate to her ashen face. Joan and Kitty stood outside the dining room door and listened as he roared with rage. “How could she bring such shame on the family?” He bellowed.
Ruth sobbed and begged him to forgive her, but he would not be placated.
“You’ll name the culprit,” John said. “And by god he’ll marry you.”
The women edged closer to the door and tried to hear Ruth’s reply, but it was obvious from what happened next that she told him the truth. There was the sound of furniture being overthrown and the door crashed open.
“I suppose you knew about this?”
He didn’t wait to hear the women’s answer, but rushed by them and out in to the yard. He returned in seconds holding a bamboo cane.
“Please, Mister,” Kitty tried to catch his arm as he passed, but he shook her aside.
He went in to the dining room where Ruth still sat in shocked silence and slammed the door. Her screams mingled with the swishing of the cane as it fell again and again until the women could bear it no longer.
“Stop,” Kitty screamed, and grabbed on to the arm welding the cane.
He was so strong he lifted her off the floor, but she held on.
“You’ll kill her and the child,” Joan said, as she helped the injured girl to her feet.
“Good, I hope she dies,” John was crying with temper. “Her and her bastard.”
He was so overcome with rage and disgust that he made no attempt to stop the women as they led his sister from the room. They took her upstairs and pulled off the torn clothes to get a better view of the damage. Ruth’s back, legs and arms were criss-crossed with the marks of the cane. In many place the skin had split and was bleeding. Joan went to the kitchen to fetch the things she needed to tend to the injuries.
“What’s going to become of me?” Ruth looked up at Kitty.
“I don’t know pet,” Kitty reached out and brushed a lock of Ruth’s sweat-soaked hair from off her forehead. “We’ll have to wait until your brother calms down.”
“Look,” Ruth lifted the blanket that the women had covered her with. “He even hit the baby.”
An angry-looking welt was raised high on Ruth’s swollen belly.
“The baby will be all right,” Kitty assured her, but she was wrong in that assumption.
John did relent in the end. After much pleading from Kitty and Joan he decided that his sister could remain in the house, but she was never to step foot outside the property again. When the child was born it was to be sent away for adoption. Ruth had no other choice than to agree to these conditions at a time when there was no outside help for women in her position. From the moment John learned about his sister’s pregnancy, he never spoke another word to her unless absolutely necessary and this would remain so up until the day he died over forty years later. From then it became a house of whispers and long, dead silences. It was worse after the birth of Eve, Ruth’s daughter. Kitty and Joan looked down at the newborn and crossed themselves with fear. It was obvious from the child’s face that something serious was wrong. They went to the Mister and begged him to get a doctor, but he refused. Still, the child lived.
“Such a strange-looking baby,” Ruth stared down at her sleeping child. “Don’t you think she looks like a fairy?”
“If you say so,” Kitty did not want to voice her opinion.
The child would remain with her mother as John realised no one would want to adopted, what he considered, a monster. He spoke to Ruth just the once on the day after Eve’s birth.
“Your baby is cursed,” he told the distressed girl. “You will be reminded every day of your sin, when you look in to her face.”
As the time passed the child’s disabilities became more obvious. She was unable to sit up unaided until she was a year old. It was later still when she took her first tentative steps on legs not designed for walking. Ruth saw none of the child’s flaws and greeted each action as any new mother would, but soon even she had to admit that there was something very wrong with her daughter. Eve’s eyes were mere slits and a large forehead dominated her little face. Her mouth was twisted so her teeth grew crooked. She dribbled when she tried to form words that never made any sense. Despite her suffering Eve was a pleasant child who thrived on the love and support of her mother and the other women. She knew nothing but love as she played around the house and the small section of garden that John made available to her. There were never any callers at the farm now as John had erected No Trespassing notices. He had also sold all of his stock, so there was no need to take on any more seasonal staff. He planted crops where the sheep had once grazed and other than the few farm hands tied to the cottages on the estate; there was no one to witness what he called his shame. Eve had no idea who he was, and other than running from him whenever he appeared, she stayed out of his way. Something primeval warned that he was a bad man. Sadly, this was true. His sister’s shame had changed him and he was bitter and spiteful. The anger he felt came to a head one particularly bad winter when the trees hung heavy with snow and the crying of the bitter north wind heralded many to their graves. Eve’s coughing echoed through the house until he was forced to shout at his sister to “keep that bastard quiet.”
Ruth sat in bed holding the child and listening to the wheezing that accompanied each gasping breath. Kitty and Joan gave what little money they had and sent for a doctor who diagnosed pneumonia. The child would need medicine and certain foods if she was to recover. Despite the cold, John had forbidden the women to light the fire in his sister’s room so the air was freezing, the bedclothes damp to the touch. This was just one of the many tortures he liked to inflict on Ruth and her child. Worried to distraction, Ruth went to him one evening as he sat beside the blazing kitchen fire. She explained her need for money and begged him to help her. Without replying John stood and went in to the room he used as an office. He returned carrying an old shoe box and sat back down beside the fire. Ruth felt her heart swell with relief when he removed the lid to expose its contents. Layer upon layer of banknotes lay inside.
“I don’t need much,” Kitty and Joan heard her say. “A few pounds will make all the difference. Just enough to buy the medicine that Eve needs.”
“Let me show you exactly what I think of you and your bastard,” John said.
Ruth watched in open-mouthed horror as he picked handfuls of the notes out of the box and threw them on the fire. The green of the pound notes, the red of the ten shilling notes were scattered in to the fire where eager fingers of flame reached out for them. She ran sobbing from the room unable to watch such an evil act, sure that because of it her daughter would die. John did not get his wish and Eve, despite his worst efforts, recovered. She lived in to her fifteenth year and during that time the women never left her side. They surrounded her with love and guarded her like feral dogs. It was because of this care that she lived as long as she did. It was obvious from her disabilities that she was not meant to reach adulthood and her passing was a gentle one. She went to sleep with the feel of her mother’s kiss on her cheek, but she never awoke. Ruth was by now in her thirties and all signs of the beauty she once was had flown. The death of her daughter aged her still as she mourned her loss for the rest of her life. Kitty and Joan paid for the small plot in the graveyard and other than Ruth; they were the only ones there to mourn a child that few knew existed.
Decades passed, seasons came and went, but everything stayed the same within the house. Joan became too old to continue with her work and went to live with her sister in the next county. The loss of her going was hard on Ruth and Kitty and they moved like silent ghosts between the kitchen and the bedrooms, the centre of their world. What money they had came from the few geese and turkeys the Mister allowed Kitty to breed in one of the outbuildings. Any leftover milk was churned to make butter that she sold when she went to market each Saturday. John no longer cared where his sister went so Ruth had free rein within the yard, but she went no further. She was terrified of the neighbours prying eyes and pitying looks.
John became ill. It started off as a cold and then, like his poor, neglected niece it turned in to something much worse.
“It’s the consumption, I’m afraid,” the doctor informed the women.
Everyone knew about the disease called Tuberculosis and the way it ravaged the sufferer’s body.
“It’s bad,” the doctor continued. “I can’t see him lasting for much longer. The only thing you can do is keep him warm and try to get him to drink plenty of fluids.”
Kitty felt her blood turn cold when she saw the way Ruth’s eyes hardened at the news.
“We’ll see to him,” she assured the doctor.
That night the women, both by now in their early sixties, sat by the fire and listened to the barking coughing overhead.
“I’ll take him up a cup of tea,” Kitty eased her way out of the chair.
“Stay there,” Ruth waved her back in to her seat. “Remember what he did when I asked him for help?”
Over the next few days Kitty tried to smuggle the odd pitcher of water in to the sick man’s room, but more often than not Ruth stopped her.
“I’ll see to him,” she told the frightened woman.
John’s bed was awash with blood. It stained his pillows and sheets and had caked on to his slivery whiskers where it lay like fire on snow.
“Will you get me a drink for god’s sake,” he rasped up at his sister.
“You want some water?” she held out the pitcher.
“Yes, please, I’m dying of thirst,” his lined tongue licked parched lips in anticipation.
“Here’s your water,” Ruth tipped the pitcher and allowed the water to cascade on to the floor.
Her brother looked up at her in confusion.
“Remember the night I came to you asking for money for my child,” her body shook with anger. “Remember what you did with the money?”
She didn’t wait for a reply, but hobbled away as fast as her aching bones would allow. By morning he was dead.
As his only surviving relative Ruth inherited the estate. Those who still worked on the farm were paid off and given the deeds to the cottages they lived in. There were sufficient funds to keep Ruth and her faithful Kitty in comfort till the end of their days and at first they enjoyed the freedom this gave them. The luxuries they had so long been denied were ordered and the wine cellar restocked. The first few months after John’s death were not the happiest that Ruth had ever known, because she would never be truly happy again, but there was a sense of peace. Until the anniversary of his death. It was winter and a fire burned brightly in Ruth’s room. Outside an angry wind screamed around the house and the first patters of snow rapped on the window pane. She was sleepy after a good dinner and a few glasses of port, when the gentle rapping on her door roused her.
“I think there’s someone downstairs,” Kitty poked her head in.
Living in such an isolated area, the terror of intruders was never far from their mind. Slipping on her dressing gown, Ruth reached for the loaded shotgun she kept under her bed.
“Stay behind me,” she whispered, as they made their way down the creaking stairs.
The hallway was dark and freezing, much colder than seemed possible. Their breaths rose in white plumes before them as they inched their way towards the light that was coming from under the kitchen door.
“Did you leave a light on?” Ruth whispered.
“No, and the fire was low, so there must be someone in there,” Kitty’s said.
Placing herself in the centre of the closed door, Ruth raised the rifle.
“Open it now,” she whispered.
Kitty pushed hard on the wood until it swung open and bounced against the wall behind it. The sound of the crash hung in the air, but did nothing to distract the intruder.
“Sweet Mother of God,” Kitty brought a trembling hand to her heart.
Ruth lowered the gun and staggered against the wall, where she stayed leaning for support. Neither woman could believe what they were witnessing. The fire was blazing as it had in the past and seated before it was the ghost of John Nesbit. His face was as young as it had been on the dreadful night and his actions unchanged as he threw handfuls of banknotes in to the leaping flames. Once again the green and red fluttered in some unholy draught before being shrivelled to ash. Seemingly pleased with his work he turned to where the old women stood and his smile was a leer of pure evil.
How long the vision lasted Kitty doesn’t remember, but it faded within seconds she imagines. I shivered and tried not to look out at the darkening sky. The pattering of rain on the window seemed amplified in the quiet of the kitchen.
“How’s that for a story?” Tom asked.
I shook my head, too overcome to speak. Kitty sipped at her whiskey before wiping a tear from her eye.
“Not done with tormenting her in life, he wouldn’t leave her alone in death,” she sighed. “Every year after that, on the anniversary of his death he comes back to haunt her. Well, not any more,” she looked again at the empty chair beside the long-dead fire.
“Why didn’t she leave?” I asked.
“She was as stubborn as he was, and it was only the one night.”
I couldn’t believe what she was saying. Only the one night!
“I used to lock myself in my room, but Ruth, she went down and faced him every time,” Kitty said.
“It’s terrible,” I said. “And in a way they were both cruel.”
“Oh, I make no excuse for Ruth, but tell me something,” Kitty leaned closer to me. “What would you be capable of if someone harmed your child?”
I knew she was right. None of us knows what we are capable of in such circumstances, but still, I like to think I’d feel some compassion.
“It’s stopped raining,” Tom looked towards the sky and small ray of sunlight trying to part the dark clouds. “We better be off. Do you want to come with us, Kitty?”
“No, I have a few things to sort out here and Timmy Rush is coming to collect me and take me to the station.”
I shook her small hand, the flesh paper thin so I felt the bones beneath.
“I hope you’ll be happy,” I said.
“I will, child,” she assured me. “Ruth left me well provided for and the sale of the land will make sure I never want for nothing.”
“What are you going to do with all the furniture?”
There were some fine antique bits and pieces lying around and it seemed a shame to let them rot.
“I’m sending the bigger pieces to auction,” Kitty said. “You’re welcome to take something as a keepsake if you like.”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I didn’t know Ruth well enough for that.”
“You’ll see to that?” Kitty nodded at the chair in the corner.
“I will indeed,” Tom assured her.
With that we left her and walked out in to the welcoming coolness of the evening breeze. The world had that fresh washed feel that it does after the rain and it was glad to be free of the cloying confines of the kitchen.
“It’s a strange old place,” Tom said, sensing my unease.
We stopped for a moment and looked back at the house. I could have been taken by its beauty, had I not known its history. It is beginning to show signs of neglect and nettles grow along the walls. Once we walked out through the gate I was aware of the silent fields surrounding us and imagined the past ghosts of grazing sheep.
“I remember I saw Ruth once,” I linked my arm through Tom’s. “She was in the shop in the village. Tell me about her?”
“No one knew her really well other than Kitty,” he said. “She seemed old before her time. I can’t say I spoke to her more than a handful of times and only then to pass the time of day. She had a nice face. It showed little of her suffering, but she had a resigned look. I imagined her as kind, I don’t know why. She appeared to be one of those women who wouldn’t dream of putting anyone to trouble on her behalf, do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I remember her as tiny and sort of bent,” I said. “She was dressed all in black when I saw her.”
“That was the way she always dressed,” Tom said. “She never stopped mourning the death of her daughter. In later years her shoulders were slumped under the weight of her grief. It was a sad, little life.”
“What does Kitty want you to do with the chair?” I asked.
“She wants me to burn it,” he smiled. “She’s afraid that if it goes to auction it will be haunted.”
“Don’t you think that’s possible?”
“No, he’s done with tormenting her now. Well, in life that is. None of us know what happens in the next world.”
Our voices startled the birds as we walked beneath the archway of trees. They rustled the leaves and squawked their annoyance at our intrusion. The canopy provided by the trees, that I once thought pleasing now seemed to be closing in on us. The darting shapes of the birds overhead provoked anxiety rather than pleasure, and I was glad when we reached the end of the lane and heard the normal, everyday sound of traffic.
Copyright©2012 Gemma Mawdsley
- Purgatory Part 2 (gemmamawdsley.wordpress.com)
For all those who died-stripped naked, shaved, shorn.
For all those who screamed in vain to the Great Goddess, only to have their tongues ripped out by the root.
For those who were pricked, racked, broken on the wheel for the sins of their Inquisitors.
For all those whose beauty stirred their torturers to fury; and for those whose ugliness did the same.
For all those who were neither ugly nor beautiful, but only women who would not submit.
For those quick fingers, broken in the vice.
For those soft arms, pulled from their sockets.
For all those budding breasts, ripped with hot pincers.
For all those midwives, killed merely for the sin of delivering man to an imperfect world.
For those witch-women, my sisters, who breathed freer as the flames took them, knowing as they shed their female bodies, the seared flesh falling like fruit in the flames, that death alone would cleanse them of the sin for which they died-the sin of being born a woman who is more than the sum of her parts.