Life off the grid, miles from even the tiniest of the region’s villages, provides an envious view of the sky on cloudless nights, but for most of the dark half of the year there is only a sense of the moon in all its phases. The rains are frequent, and when the clouds part, the fog encroaches. Isobel’s solitude appeals to those naïve souls who say they wish to retire from the hustle and bustle of modern life, but seclusion is not the answer in most cases. Peace and quiet is unachievable to those who hear every little noise and fear the unseen creatures that lurk in shadows and fog.
With only an oil lamp, two candles, and the fireplace embers, the room where Isobel sequesters herself during these endless evenings is cast in darkness. Light falls only where she sits or walks when she bothers to take the oil lamp with her. There are no insulated windows to block the sounds, and on moonlit nights Isobel Ryan likely hears the recognizable chorus of coyotes. In spite of her experience with these sounds, the forest’s mischievous acoustics deceive her. She’s unable to pinpoint the exact location of their lair. By the sounds of the eerie howling, these shy creatures could be anywhere, but she suspects they are near. She’s seen signs of them during the day. They eat the fallen apples, and occasionally there are clumps of fur on the trails where rabbits recently foraged.
The mind conceivably plays tricks on someone with no distractions like television, radio, electronic devices, or even the whir of trivial noises like refrigerators and fans. The closest the rest of us come to such off-the-grid silence is when the power goes out all over the neighborhood. But even then a city dweller hears traffic, sirens, and the sounds of other people bemoaning the inconvenience. Yes, the mind can play tricks on the isolated, but 27 years in her crumbling house in the clearing near the marshes, Isobel is attuned to nature’s noises. She has no reason to let her imagination run wild. She knows the silent steps of the deer. She can distinguish between the rustling of raccoons and that of the occasional bear. She knows of the big wild cats that occasionally move through the area, and she has come face to face with a wolf near the woodbin more than once. She’s cautious, but unafraid.
It was because of her peaceful existence that the urgent pounding startled her. Had she been dozing? Otherwise, why had she not heard footsteps on the porch? She couldn’t recall being so shaken. The cards on her delicate table went everywhere. Whether she had been playing a game or divining a message, the layout was ruined. With a rapid heartbeat, she remained frozen in her chair, her ears straining to hear the intruder. She rarely went to town, and she’d had fewer than a handful of visitors in a decade. The crumbling hermitage sat so far from the most primitive road in the county that it was unlikely anyone would bother to find it or figure out their way back without Isobel at their side to guide them.
The widow rejected the knock and told herself that something had fallen near the door. There had been no steps preceding the knock, but her body remained rigid as she stared into the dark and mentally inventoried the porch. An afternoon rain shower had interrupted her work, and she’d not bothered to put away the shovel and the hoe in the shed since she’d need them again the next day. The tools had somehow fallen over. Perhaps a raccoon had disturbed them in its search for food.
Another pounding knock! It was louder than before; the firmness and repetition indicated urgency. This was not the sound of fallen tools. Anyway, Isobel remembered having left the hoe and shovel at the back door. The front porch was as tidy as ever. Someone was standing outside, expecting someone to answer. What did they need? Shelter? Help? A telephone? Shelter was the best she could offer under the circumstances, but what if the visitor demanded more than she could provide? There was nothing worth stealing, but an incredulous thief could prove destructive.
How long before the unexpected visitor stopped knocking and broke in? Fortifying herself against the unknown, Isobel rose from her seat and quietly moved toward the window near the front door. She left the oil lamp on the table so as not to give herself away. She wanted to study the figure from the darkness before it could see her. With no porch light, inspection was difficult, but misty moonlight illuminated some of the visitor’s clothing. Was that a scarf or a cape whipping in the breeze? She concluded that the visitor was a woman and posed less of a threat. The fact that the unexpected caller had already knocked twice might be a sign that she – was it, in fact, female? – didn’t intend to break in. Or perhaps the trespasser remained outside, assuming that people who occupy lonely houses in the woods are heavily armed.
Isobel stepped back from the window, picked up the lamp, and approached the door. Just as she touched the knob there was another series of urgent blows. Isobel recoiled. Why doesn’t she realize that no one is home and go away? In more populated areas an unexpected visitor would have realized by now that no one was home. Even if they needed help, they’d move to the next house. But in this case there was no other house.
“Yes?” Isobel asked as she opened the door slightly.
“Oh! Someone is home,” came a pleasant young voice from the shadows.
“Can I help you?” Isobel strained to see the face, but she didn’t want to step outside and place herself at a disadvantage. Not that a woman of her age holding an oil lamp in her dominant hand while maintaining a light grip on the door with her left could prevent a determined intruder from barging in.
“I hope so. You see, I was walking in the woods tonight, and I slipped on some loose ground. I slid down a muddy slope, and I’m a mess.”
“Are you hurt?” Isobel extended the lamp in an effort to see the woman’s face, but she was unsuccessful.
“I don’t think so,” said the woman. “I’m just a mess, and it’s a long way home.”
“How did you find your way here?” Isobel was dubious.
“Could I come in and get clean? Perhaps you would let me dry off by your fire?
“The moon may be full, but the mists have obscured the trails. How did you find your way to my door?
“I really would like to come inside. It is rather cold.”
Isobel raised and lowered the lamp. The stranger wasn’t dressed like a hiker with gear. She wasn’t even wearing boots or jeans. It was as if the woman had decided to traipse through the forest wrapped in a bed sheet.
“What’s your name?” Isobel asked.
“I won’t stay long. I promise.” Had the woman not heard Isobel’s question or was she simply ignoring her?
“Young lady, I’m asking you again.” Isobel’s voice was abrasive. “How did you find my house? I haven’t had visitors in many years. Not a single person has reached my door uninvited. Identify yourself and tell me how you came to be here.”
“I’m such a mess, and I feel so foolish. Sliding down that muddy slope.”
“It’s no wonder. Look at how you’re dressed!”
“But if I could only come in for a few minutes to get clean and dry, I’ll be on my way.”
“You shouldn’t be out here dressed like that, and if you need a telephone to call for help, I’m sorry. There’s no phone here. The cistern is over there,” Isobel said as she gestured with the lamp toward her withered vegetable garden. Isobel instinctively felt that she should make the woman remain outside.
“I’d like to come in, please.”
“There’s no running water, and I haven’t hauled any up. Nor have I chopped wood to heat any for a bath tonight. The cistern water is cold, but it’s the best I can offer.”
“Then all the more reason to let me come inside.”
Isobel’s heart was still racing. The creature simply refused to identify herself no matter how she was pressed. No sane person would glide through this wilderness on an October night dressed so inadequately.
Gliding was the best way to describe the intruder for she had made no sound before each knock. The voice contained no discernable accent, but its pleasant quality was beginning to sound more determined. How much longer until she became enraged and pushed her way in?
“I’ve told you where you can find water.” Isobel was irritated. “I can offer you nothing more! Clean yourself or not. Just be on your way!”
“Madam, I really must insist that you let me come inside.” The voice had become seductive and slightly Gaelic. “After all, this used to be me home.”
Isobel softened for a split second, but regained her presence of mind. “Liar!” she shouted. “I’ve lived here almost thirty years, and my husband’s family was here for two generations before that. Though I can’t see your face, you don’t sound old enough to have lived anywhere that long ago.”
“But it’s true,” said the trespasser. “I’ve been away for many years, but I’m back and would like to come inside and warm me bones by your wee fire.”
“Go away! I might seem old and weak to you, but if you take one step closer you’ll regret it!”
“Madam. I only want to come inside.” There was a pause, but suddenly the creature advanced from the shadows. Isobel saw its sunken eyes contrasted against its luminous skin, as it begged to be let in.
Isobel gasped and cried, “Be gone you malignant phantom!” From the depths of her memory it occurred to her that a Liahnhan Sídhe [lan-hawn shee] had found its way to her door. Her late husband had described his father’s encounter with a similar apparition that had once emerged from these woods to approach the house. The fiend’s wretched prey soon lost his faculties and died within the year. Isobel had doubted the tale, but she couldn’t deny the creature standing before her. Was this the same Liahnhan Sídhe?
“Please forgive me,” the creature pleaded. “I didn’t mean to offend. If you’ll just let me come inside to get warm, I’ll be happy to repay your kindness.”
There was a distinct brogue this time, and Isobel knew for certain. She remained immobile, calmly trying to remember what her late Irish husband had taught her about the various creatures living beneath the forest’s canopy.
Suddenly his words of protection came back to her, and with great faith and without a hint of skepticism, Isobel shouted with all her might: “BY WIND AND FIRE AND WATER AND SOD, THOU ART DEVIL AND NOT A GOD! I BANISH YE INTO NIGHT, UNHOLY SPIRIT NOW TAKE FLIGHT!
A gust of wind whooshed through a pile of leaves under the old oak, and the chill of night grew even icier as they rose in the air. A trio of rats in the garden squealed and scampered, and Isobel fought to keep her door from opening further. The wind seemed to be pushing against her, but it might have been the creature. The placid face of the Liahnhan Sídhe contorted into a sneer before morphing into an anguished visage. Isobel closed her eyes and braced for retaliation, keeping them shut tightly until she heard the scream. There was a blur of white or a flash of light. The sorrowful shriek peaked quickly and faded over the course of a full minute before Isobel was left standing alone in her doorway.
It was past sunrise when the widow finally woke in her chair. The candles had burned out, and the fireplace was cold. The cards were still scattered on the table, and the globe of her lamp was smoky. As she became aware of her surroundings, Isobel gradually remembered the terror of her nocturnal visitor. She hurried to the door to look outside. There was frost on the ground and a chill in the air, but the yard was undisturbed. The bucket at the cistern had been left untouched. The leaves were still piled beneath the oak.
The experience seemed like nothing more than a horrific dream, and Isobel would have believed that to be the case were it not for the muddy footprints on the porch.
© 2019 by Patrick Brown
To learn more about my books, the two featuring Maggie Lyon and two that are not as scary as this story, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1