The woodsman had many talents, but caring for newly-born baby girls was not among them, so he did the only thing he could think of – he took the child to the village church. The pastor’s wife was in the garden picking tomatoes for their breakfast when he rushed from the woods holding the screaming bundle.
“Oh Lord! What is this, Tom?” She rushed from the tomato beds and took the child from him.
“Ma’am, I have no clue. I found it in the woods. It’s covered in blood, is it hurt?” The burly woodsman looked flummoxed as he held the bundle out in front of him, nothing like the composed young man he usually was. “I didn’t know where else to take it.”
“That’s alright then, Tom. You did the right thing bringing it… erm…” She took the still screaming baby from him and laid her down on her gardening pillow to unwrap the stained blanket. “You did right bringing her here, Tom.” Her brow furrowed as she turned the baby over and lifted each limb in turn to thoroughly inspect the child. “No, she does not look to be hurt, merely the birthing blood and gooey mess that goes with it. Nothing a good old fashioned scrubbing won’t fix.”
“So it will be okay, ma’am?” He stood twisting his hands anxiously. “I didn’t know where else to take it.”
“It’s a little girl, Tom.” She smiled down at the baby, her eyes alive with wonder as she silently thanked God for the miracle He had sent to her doorstep. “And she is beautiful.”
The pastor stumbled from the kitchen, still in his nightgown and cap, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “What’s the ruckus about then?” He barked gruffly. Then, noticing the woodsman, nodded toward him. “Tom.”
“I didn’t know where else to take it, Pastor John.” The woodsman had the good grace to look apologetic.
“Well, what is it then, Hester?” The pastor was not a patient man, so he stomped out into the garden to see what his wife was kneeling over. “Heavens! What is this?” He glared at the woodsman as he spoke.
“I didn’t know where else to take it, Sir.” He shrugged and took two steps back.
“Oh stop your grumbling and help me up. I need to warm the wee thing up; she’s positively frosty from being out in the cold.”
The pastor helped his wife to her feet, then shot one last glaring look at the woodsman as she cooed and clucked at the baby on her way into the house. “You should not have brung it here, Tom.”
Pastor John paced the confines of his tiny kitchen, his annoyance growing with every step. A wailing child had pulled him from his sleep, his breakfast was late and the twinkle he had seen in his wife’s eyes spelt nothing but trouble. He had always known of her desire to have a child, but their inability to have one was not something they ever talked about – to be fair, he was the one who always avoided the matter. Now there was a child who was not their own and it was about to turn his world upside down.
“Well, don’t just stand there, get us some milk.” Hester sat down at the kitchen table, cradling the clean, freshly swaddled baby. “Well, get on then, the goat won’t milk itself.”
Pastor John grabbed the pail from behind the door, turning to face his wife before stomping out the door. “We’re not keeping it.”
“Oh don’t you pay him no mind, wee one.” She recounted all the nights she had prayed for a miracle, a child she could call her own. God’s ways were indeed mysterious and as Hester sat there, looking down on the baby, she shed a tear for the young mother who had to die for her miracle to happen.
The woodsman and two other men from the village headed back into the forest to find the mother. They brought back her body slung over a pack mule and buried her in the village graveyard. Her hastily carved headstone read – Mother ~ Died 31 October 1642 ~ Rest In Peace – and there she would rest for less than one day.
Later that night, icy winds drove the villagers into their homes. Windows and doors rattled as the windstorm that had come out of nowhere swept through the tiny village. That night, Pastor John, while looking out the kitchen window, noticed something peculiar – while the storm battered everything in the village, the trees of the forest just beyond the ridge were as still as if he were staring out at a landscape painting.
“Hester, there’s devil’s play afoot.” He turned to look at her, but she had nodded off rocking the child to sleep. “Steer clear of this place, demon. Take your last night and be gone,” he whispered into the darkness.
In the distance, he could hear the howling of wolves, closer to the village than he had ever heard before. Pastor John was by nature not a superstitious man, but three things he believed in firmly – the power of God, the existence of the devil and the curse of the nights of Samhain. He could not wait for the night to be behind them, then he would have another year of peace. As he turned from the window, he could’ve sworn he’d seen the glow of red eyes at the edge of the forest, but when he turned back, all was black as coal again.
By the time the second night of Samhain gave way to morning, the grave of the young mother would be found desecrated, her body nowhere to be found. The townsfolk blamed it on wolves; since they had been heard howling the night before – some even claimed that they’d seen a wolf the size of a man with eyes that glowed red.
“We’re not keeping it. And that is final!”
“Husband, we’ve been sent this miracle of life. Look at her…” she took a step closer to him. “Look at her!”
Pastor John turned from his wife, his shoulders set in that familiar stubborn way Hester recognized all too well. It didn’t bother her in the slightest, she always had one more card to play.
“Fine. We will do it your way then. Here,” she placed the baby in his arms, “you take her out there. Be sure to carry her deep into the forest, so we don’t hear her screams as the wolves drag her off.” She squared her shoulders and turned for the bedroom. “And when you come back, you can explain it all to the good Lord, I’m sure that He will understand. He is after all a merciful God.”
Thus, it came to be that Pastor John and his wife, Hester, became parents of a little baby girl. They named her Mary.
Baby Mary grew into a quiet, well-mannered child, with hair as dark as a moonless night, skin pale as the moon herself and eyes that shone violet. Mary wasn’t like the other children – while they were running amok digging things up and tearing them apart, Mary would be sitting quietly, listening to and observing the world around her. She did not fit in anywhere, not with the children, who would sometimes tease her, nor with the adults, who did not really know what to do with a child like her.
There was something magical about Mary – you could feel it in the way she looked at you when you spoke, like she felt every word, rather than heard it. Even nature felt a connection to her, bending itself to her whims like she was conducting a symphony written by the gods themselves. By day, she would sit at the forest edge surrounded by woodland creatures that by nature were skittish around humans. She called them her friends. By night, she would sit atop a grassy knoll beside the parish and look up at stars she claimed were the spirits of immortal souls smiling down on her.
Then a day came – a day as bitter as the night was dark – when all that she knew and held dear would be taken from her. She felt the lure of something strange as she sat at the forest edge, something dark and dangerous, yet compelling. Something that whispered to her in a tongue she had never spoken, yet she understood every word. Her fingers traced the lines of the pendant she wore around her neck, the one her mother had given her on her seventh birthday. It was an unusual design, three interlinked spirals that always brought Mary comfort. She felt the compulsion to step beyond the tree line, but her will was strong and her mind sharp enough to fight it. She felt it pull and she pushed back hard. She felt a curiosity, as if it had suddenly become aware of her presence.
She ached to tell her father about it once she got home, but she knew that it would only get her into trouble, for his rules were clear – she was never to go near the forest on her birthday or the day after. Mary had always wondered about his reasons for fearing the forest on those days, but she obeyed him without question.
Another young girl was not as lucky. Hours later, Mary watched in horror as the girl she knew as Lizzie walked past her and into the forest at the dead of night. She could not explain her panic, but it consumed her like a fire raging from deep inside.
“Lizzie!” She called after the girl, not wanting to enter the woods herself. “Lizzie, you have to come back!” It appeared that Lizzie could not hear her, for she kept walking, her eyes staring unblinkingly ahead.
Mary ran for home. “Father! Father! Please, you have to come. She’s gone into the woods. Father!”
As Mary drew close to the house, screaming at the top of her voice, her father came rushing from the house.
“What is it? What’s wrong, Mary?” She heard her mother calling from inside the house.
She tried to speak, but she was breathing too hard for the words to form, so she pointed toward the trees, her eyes wide with panic.
“Child, you best speak. Now! What has frightened you so?” Pastor John grabbed her slender shoulders and shook her lightly.
She took a deep breath and gushed, “Lizzie walked off into the forest and I called to her to stop father but she didn’t stop she just kept walking and her eyes looked funny but not the funny that makes you laugh the other one like how mother’s eyes looked that day we found her in the garden and something else is in the forest with her.” She gasped for air, then continued. “You have to save her, father. She is in grave danger.”
Pastor John sighed. “Thank God. I thought something had happened to you. That you were hurt.” He looked at her sternly. “Don’t you give me a fright like that ever again, you hear.”
“John? Mary? What is the matter?” Hester called again.
“But… but father, she’s in there. In the forest. You have to help her.”
“I will, child. I need to get my coat. I will go over to the butcher’s house and tell him that his daughter has snuck off into the forest at night. I would imagine to meet that young stable hand from across town.” He sighed again. “No decency left in this world.”
“Father, please. She doesn’t have much time.” By then tears were welling up in Mary’s eyes. “Something is in the forest.”
“You saw something?” Pastor John glanced at the darkened tree line, his brow furrowed, expression unreadable.
“N… n… no…” she stammered, knowing how strange she sounded, but not caring if her father thought her mad. She needed to save the girl.
He put his hand on her head and ruffled her curls gently. “You are indeed a strange one, our wee Mary.” Her father smiled down at her, a smile that both warmed and troubled her. “Don’t go near the forest tonight, Mary. Promise me.”
“I should be back soon, but if I am not…” he sighed. “Go into the house and bolt the door after I leave, child. Do not enter the woods, for it is a place of dark terrors.” Then he left to go into town.
Once her father had left, Mary went into the house to reassure her mother.
“Are you alright, child?” Her mother fussed. “What was the ruckus about?”
“Nothing that should concern you, mother, I saw the butcher’s daughter go off into the woods is all.” Mary squeezed her mother’s hand reassuringly.
“Oh dear, the woods at night is no place for anyone, least of all a young girl.” Hester tutted softly and shook her head.
“I’m going back outside now, mother.” She hugged her mother.
“But your father said…” her mother started to protest, but Mary was already out the door. She knew that her mother could not follow; her voice was the only part of her that could travel beyond the confines of their small parish cottage.
Mary waited anxiously, pacing the small garden her mother had tended daily while she was still alive. She sighed with relief once she saw the light of two torches crossing the field that separated the village from the forest. She could make out five dark figures in the gloom, all grown men, yet her heart was not yet at ease.
She had felt the same unease the night her mother died, three years past to the day. It had been Mary’s birthday, the first time her mother had baked a cake – one made with fresh honey and chunks of dried fruit. The cake had been delicious and because it was her birthday, Mary had been allowed to stay up late listening to her parents tell stories about their childhoods. She could not remember a happier night.
Later, she sensed that something was awry, so she slipped out of bed and from her window, saw her mother lying in the garden. A chill ran through her slender eleven-year-old frame as she rushed from the house. Eyes that always sparkled with laughter stared blankly up at her out of darkened sockets. Mouth that always wore a smile was open wide, as if grotesquely frozen in a near scream. Hands that used to ease any discomfort she had ever felt were cold as the ice that sometimes formed on the pond. Mary wailed; a sound that echoed every ounce of pain she felt in that moment. She could not remember when her father joined them nor for how long she wailed, but even the sun’s morning rays felt like icy fingers raking her soul by the time the ladies from the town pried her free of the grip she had on her mother’s lifeless body. Henceforth, Mary vowed never to celebrate another birthday.
It was once again the night of her birth and while she no longer celebrated the fateful day, its significance shadowed her every thought. Mary would not give her mind any rest until she knew that Lizzie had been returned safely back home. Lizzie would not be the first village child to disappear on the night of Mary’s birthday. She remembered others and once overheard the grown-ups talking about the devil roaming the woods on the nights of Samhain. That was the first time she’d heard the name spoken out loud, but it sparked a memory of something she’d never knew lived inside of her.
The night grew darker, something she could not explain in words was in the air, it surrounded the house, but somehow Mary sensed that it could not enter the parish grounds. There were screams coming from the forest, screams that chilled her blood.
“Mary,” her mother’s voice was shaky.
“I know mother, I can feel it too.” Mary could sense her mother’s anguish, so she rushed up the steps and shut the door. “It’s come for me. Same as it came that night… that night…” Mary sobbed. “Oh mother, my sweet mother,” tears were streaming down her face as a long dormant realization hit her.
“Hush now, child. It was not your fault. I am your mother, I am meant to protect you. Banish those thoughts, they serve no purpose.” Her mother smiled at her, the way mothers smile at daughters they love beyond measure. “I am still here, right by your side.”
Mary had never given much thought to the cause of her mother’s death after the doctor had announced that apoplexy had killed her mother, something common in women her age. Never before had she considered that there could have been dark forces at play that night.
The soft light of dawn clung to the sky in shades of pink and blue, its beauty belying the horror of what was yet to come as Mary watched the men approaching from the east. The first thing she noticed was that only four men were returning. She ran out to meet them, yet she already knew what she was about to see. As she drew closer, she identified them as the butcher, his son, Alfred, the miller and Tom, the woodsman. Tom was dragging something in his wake – someone.
Mary sank to her knees, oblivious to the thorny debris piercing her flesh. “Nooooooo…” she wailed. “Oh dear God, say it isn’t so. Nononononooooo…” she sobbed quietly.
The men could not meet her eyes, instead they continued on, dragging her father’s corpse past her and into town. The miller patted her head as he passed and Tom mumbled a soft, “I’m sorry, Mary.”
Once her tears had run dry, Mary walked back into the house she used to share with her mother and father. What she needed to do next would be the hardest thing she had ever done in her short life, but she knew that it was the only way she could protect the people she knew and loved.