Most people fear the darkness but we have learned to dread the light. Our village, tucked away in the mountains on the edge of the forest, has just six hours of daylight during the winter months.
When the snow falls, those six hours become an eternity.
The predators that we keep a respectful distance from during the warm months hibernate during the winter snows. Their instincts know intuitively to hide for those long months. It is a skill that we cannot master.
It started before I was born. Some say fifty years ago, others say eighty. The details of the tale have shifted, no version quite matching the other, the way stories passed from mouth to mouth often do. The core remains the same regardless of the intricacies. The rules never change.
When the snow flurries fall, She is coming.
When the sun rises, She is here.
If you walk in the light, She will find you.
If She catches you, She will kill you.
We learnt the rules by route from birth, reciting them like nursery rhymes by the fireside. Toddlers too young to participate listen solemnly, pudgy fists in mouths and blankets clutched to their sides. The rules are our prayers, our commandments.
The rules cannot protect you if She chooses you.
Every year, She gains her prizes. Every year, five people leave the safety of the darkness. Stepping into the daylight, summoned by the sound that haunts our dreams.
Yearning for the warmth of sunlight, unable to resist the haunting melody that weaves its way through their minds, seizing their muscles and seeping into their bones, they throw open the doors of their houses and step out into the brightness. They do not return.
The adults do a good job of hiding the bodies from the children. They board up the windows during the day and we wait in secluded shadows for the sun to fall. When I was eight, desperate for a glimpse of daylight after weeks of darkness, I pried apart the boards on my window. Perched on tiptoes, I peered out through the narrow slit, eyes screwed up against the bright sunlight to take in the view. Piece by piece, the scene below swam into focus, my vision slow to adjust after so long spent by candlelight.
The town square, still and poised.
The compact row of houses with their windows barred and doors firmly shut lining its edges, silent witnesses to the horrors of the daytime.
A thick black slash through the middle of the square from the fire pit where we light the nightly bonfire.
Fresh snow that covered the marks of the previous night’s movements; a stark, smooth beauty that hurt my eyes with its glare.
A series of footprints churning up the pristine snow.
They emerged from the house opposite us, leaving a trail of steps that were at first measured before weaving erratically across the square. My eyes had traced them to their end before the realisation dawned on me.
The tracks had been made in the daylight.
That was Her domain.
My screams pierced the stillness, drowning out my Mother’s thundering footsteps pounding up the wooden staircase. She ripped me from the window, pulling my face into her chest and stroking my hair as though that could erase everything I had seen.
Eight years later, it is still etched into my mind. My neighbour, Calvin Dale, spread eagle on the ground. The snow around him stained a bright crimson. His chest ripped open.
His heart removed.
Every year She takes five of us. There is no pattern to who it is, to when they will be called. All we know is that when the snow begins to fall, She is coming. We sit in darkness, straining our ears at every sound, hoping against hope that we will not hear her melody.
The Elders say that She is the ghost of a witch, a powerful sorceress who tormented the town with her vile spells. They tell a rousing tale of how a small group of brave men captured her and burned her at the stake in the town square. She cursed them from the pyre, swearing to seek revenge for eternity. That is why we must hide when the snow comes.
My mother told me a different tale.
My family has always been unusual. We are skilled in healing, in herbs and tinctures. The other villagers scorn us for it even as they seek our remedies in times of need. They would often request my mother’s counsel, and her mother’s before her. Ours is a house where a young woman can seek herbs to prevent a pregnancy and not be subjected to humiliation and judgement. It is where debilitating monthly pains will not be dismissed as hysteria. We are often visited in secret, whispered about once we have passed by groups of people who have previously crept to our door under cover of night. We are both shamed and sought after for our skills. When I was ten-years-old, a group of boys cornered me and pelted me with rocks, calling me Witch. Sobbing, I fled home to my mother.
‘Why do they think I am like Her?’ I asked through tear-streaked fingers.
She pulled me close to her, arms wrapped around me as we sat by the fire. ‘People fear which they do not understand,’ she said. ‘Especially if it appears to give someone strength. There is nothing more terrifying to many than a powerful woman.’
‘But She cursed the Village. All we do is help.’
I felt her sigh as she weighed up her next words.
‘The official story is not always the truth,’ she began. ‘There is another version of this tale, passed down from generation to generation in our family. They say She was the eldest daughter of a wealthy townsman. The Elders wanted to seize their land for their own gain. They accused her father of a crime that he did not commit and executed him in the village square, in broad daylight. The townsfolk watched, certain of his innocence yet no one dared to oppose the Elders. They stood in the winter snow silently observing, so firmly under the thumb of their rulers that they let an innocent man die. His blood pooled in the square, staining the snow under their feet. The snow eventually melted, but their guilt left a mark that could never be removed.’
Her eyes studied me carefully as she took a deep breath and continued.
‘That afternoon his wife and two of their children were in the house when it went on fire. An accident, caused by a stray ember from the kitchen fire, the Elders said. His third child, a young woman of eighteen, was out walking in the woods, collecting herbs for her remedies. Distraught to discover the destruction of her family, she confronted the Elders in the village square. She pointed out that the front of the house, the opposite end to the kitchen, had burned first and that the doors had been bolted. She decried their corruption, their greed. They needed a way to discredit her. To silence her. She had a child but no husband and, even more scandalously, was not ashamed of this. That was enough to convince the town to shun her, but not to convict her.
I turned my head to look at her as she paused again, a thick silence weighed down by grief. She was staring into the fire, eyes staring past the flames as though she could see something I could not.
She continued, her voice soft and brittle.
Everyone knew that she had always been sought for her healing hands, her herbal skills and her knowledge of the old ways. So they called her Witch and burned her.’
Her mouth twisted in a grim, bitter smile I had never seen her make before.
‘She cursed them as they lit the pyre. “People so heartless do not deserve to keep them,” she said. She sang while they burned her.’
Mother described the aftermath, how the Elders pushed their own version of events, and eventually that became the accepted truth. Maybe that’s what the villagers needed to believe, to alleviate their own consciences. To solidify the horror of her legacy they also said that she killed her own child, a newborn daughter, to fuel her dark curse.
Mother said She hid her. She knew that she was going to her death and wanted to protect her child.
Five villagers are taken each year as retribution for the family destroyed for greed. A payment taken from those too cowardly to help them. Unless someone strays into the sunlight, a rare occurrence now, she selects her victims. There is no escaping her, no way to avoid being reaped for her vengeance if you are chosen. The rules exist to give us the illusion of hope. A chance that there is something that we can do to avoid the fate so many have met. She sings at their door, a sweet haunting song only her chosen tribute can hear. It summons them, pulling at their feet, whispering urges to step outside. No one can resist her call forever. Patiently, day after day, she waits on the doorstep, singing and humming her melody, merrily summoning you to your death. It is a song that is not just heard but felt, deep into your bones.
Or so they say. I hope I will never hear it.
That is how we spend the snows, huddled in the darkness, hoping against hope that we will not hear the growing sound of her song. Craving the daylight, but yearning to live even more. I heard from the traders who visit during the summer months that, in other places, winter is a time of excitement. Snowfall is something longed for and celebrated. It is sign of festivity and joy. Here it is only a herald of death.
The snows are beginning to ease now. Soon, we can throw open the doors and unbar the windows. We will bask in the sunlight, revelling in the knowledge that we have survived another snowfall. Quietly, of course. There will always be five families mourning, five families that we comfort while secretly celebrating that it is not us who have had to light the pyres. That it is not us who have lost someone to pay for crimes of long ago.
My family is the only one from the village to have never lost anyone to Her. We have had deaths, devastating yet ordinary deaths during the summer months and the snow-strewn nights. My own mother passed just two years ago, all of her knowledge and herbal skills unable to save her. The other families still resent us. I see it in their eyes, the flickering suspicion reflected in the flames as they file out of the houses when the moon rises. The crackling of the bonfire can’t hide the whispers. Why are we unscathed when others have lost two or three?
‘I hear they made a bargain.’
The mutinous tone stops me in my tracks as I pick my way through the forest looking for winterberries. My eyes are sharp and I excel at spotting them in the moonlight. I often spend entire nights roaming the woods, clad in a pair of my cousin’s breeches so that my skirts do not get tangled in the brambles. I can pick my way through the frozen twisted branches without a sound, guarded by the shadows.
Holding my breath, I creep closer to the voices.
‘How else could they have lost none while other families are plundered?’ The voice catches. I know it well. Jack Hewitt, my best friend Ava’s father. A founding family, they have lost many over the years. Last week, it was his wife Cora. Ava told me that she complained of hearing a melodic humming for two days. Then they caught her trying to leave the house during the daylight. They begged and pleaded with her to stay indoors, locking her in her room during the day. One night, she disappeared from the bonfire just before sunrise. They could not find her before they had to retreat to the house. That night they collected her body and fresh snow fell to cover the blood.
‘The niece works with herbs and the old ways,’ Hewitt continued. ‘She could easily know a way to make a bargain with Her. They say she learned her skills from her mother. Who knows how long this pact has gone on?’
A river of ice runs down my spine. I have the touch, as my mother used to say before she passed. My aunt and uncle took me in after her death and we live quiet lives. My skills have only ever been used to help. Jack Hewitt was not complaining when I nursed Ava during the influenza, or when I helped ease the arthritis that was affecting his ability to farm.
Fear and grief do powerful things to people.
‘The snow will stop shortly and She has only taken four. Soon, She will come to someone’s door to sing her siren song of death. Whose door will it be? Yours, Prewitt? Yours, Doyle?’
‘What are you suggesting?’ Molly Doyle’s voice is rough, challenging. She will make him say it out loud.
‘We make the choice for Her. We leave one of them outside during the day.’
The silence is so thick I can feel it stifling my lungs.
‘That’s as good as murder,’ Prewitt whispers.
‘Why should they stay intact while we mourn?’
‘We are Her victims, not Her jury.’
‘Do we even know that she’ll take whoever we select?’
Doyle’s question is a death sentence. It is uttered in a voice still thick with grief from the loss of a child two years before, a curious child summoned by a glint in the snow and a far off echo of a nursery song.
‘There is only one way to find out.’
Fire replaces the ice in my veins. I need to warn my aunt and uncle and tell them to barricade the door day and night, against both the living and the dead. As I turn to leave, my chest squeezes. I freeze and screw my eyes shut, silently entreating my body not to betray me. I have had a choking cough for days that has resisted all of my strongest herbs. My uncle told me not to go foraging tonight but days of confinement combined with a dwindling pantry and a sick cousin drove me out. I shove both hands across my mouth, trying desperately to stifle the traitorous cough. The sound squirms through my fingers, cutting through the silence with razor sharpness.
They are on me in seconds. Rough hands muffle my screams. I kick and bite and scratch, fear and fury lending me momentary strength. It is three against one and they truss and gag me, throwing me shaking on the forest floor. Wet snow seeps into my clothes and sinks into my spirit. I stare up at them, hatred and reproach shooting from my eyes like flames. They keep me hidden on the edge of the forest until just before dawn. By the time anyone realises I have not come back, it will be too late. Too often have I waited until the shadows began to fade before I return home. I curse myself for it.
They tie me, still gagged, to a pole in the corner of the square, out of the line of sight of my house. The glint of eyes shine through small openings in the windows of a few houses. Hope swells, the brief warmth in my chest fading as, one by one, they turn from the windows, replacing the boards. The doors stay firmly shut. My captors rush inside before the first rays of light break through the sky, their doors slamming behind them as though thick oak can shield them from their actions.
Ava’s face appears at her downstairs window. Her eyes meet mine and hope rises once again, catching in my throat. We have been inseparable since birth. We have laughed together, mourned together, and shared all of our secrets. She will not abandon me.
She turns from the window and replaces the board.
The sun rises slowly, the steady light falling across the square and illuminating a path to my grave. Each new beam is a grain of sand falling in an hourglass, ticking away the moments of my life. They took my cloak, hat and gloves to make sure that I was tied securely and I shiver in my shirt and breeches, sagging against the ropes with exhaustion born from fear and cold. My hands are numb and awkwardly twisted behind me, bound tightly around the pole. My toes are wet, my boots soaked through with snow.
I straighten up, throwing my head back in case they are watching me. I want them to see me standing tall, defiant to the end. Is this how She felt all those years ago, waiting to burn? Heat was her end and cold may yet be mine. Even if She does not come for me, I will not survive these temperatures for long. I begin to hum around my gag, a mindless melody to distract myself from the aching pain in my limbs and what is still to come. The square is dazzling, the snow almost blinding in the glare from the sun.
Time passes. The waiting hurts as much as the cold. My coughing grows stronger, my body convulsing, my back arching from the pole with each one. Every wheeze makes me gag on the thick rag stuffed tightly in my mouth. I may suffocate before She comes for me. The weak winter sun lightly caresses my face, the strands of gold in my brown plait gleaming in the beams of light.
I hope She will do it quickly.
She appears so silently I wonder if she is a hallucination formed from cold and fever. A young woman only a few years older than me, She stands in the centre of the square, her face solemn as She watches me. Long brown hair is draped over one shoulder in a thick plait and she wears a forest green dress. She walks towards me one slow, deliberate step at a time. She leaves no footprints. It takes an eternity for her to reach me, or perhaps no time at all. I can hear her humming softly, a soothing song that would be more suited to quieting a baby’s cries.
Will She rip my heart out with her nails? Will She sing as she does?
The ends of her skirts brush my boots as she stops just in front of me. Ragged, painful breaths escape in puffs of cloud around the gag, betraying the fear that has seized every part of my body
I shut my eyes.
A gentle hand cups my face.
My eyes snap open and meet her green ones. They are the mirror image of my own, shining with grief.
‘Before I confronted the Elders, I took my daughter to our neighbours’ house,’ she says quietly in a low, melodic voice. ‘They were good people and had lost their newborn the night before. No one knew. They took her in and raised her as their own. They protected her, and thus were immune to my vengeance. Our line continued.’
Icy fingers work the gag from my mouth.
‘And once again, the village has betrayed one of us.’
Her voice radiates cold fury and her face changes, revealing thick burns that spread down her neck and across her body. The exposure has killed me. Even if She does not take me, I will not survive. We both know it.
‘They will come for my family,’ I whisper.
‘We will not let them.’
‘Those who are heartless do not deserve to keep them.’
I understand now.
A merciless smile spreads approvingly across her face.
‘Come, child,’ She says, taking my hand as I step forward out of my body. It sags lifeless against the pole it is tied to. I have never felt more powerful.
‘We have work to do.’
Flames form on her fingertips. Long blades of ice grow from mine. Humming together — an instinctive melody that has always been in the far off corners of my mind — we cross the square to a house that is boarded up and holding its breath. Its inhabitants will be huddled by the fire waiting for night to fall. Waiting to see if their plan has worked. Perhaps they think that their betrayal will not incur retribution. They are sorely mistaken. The Hewitts will be the first that we summon to the daylight.
I will sing while they burn.
Amy Clarkin is a writer from Dublin. Easily startled and constantly caffeinated, she can generally be found reading, writing or watching stories. She is on both Twitter and Instagram as @AmyClarkin