I wrote this short story in October/November of 2016. It was an attempt of mine to write in a vaguely similar vein of horror/creepiness as Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft. This is also the story that got me accepted into The Black Box Writers Residency, a writing program hosted by Texas A&M University:
It takes a village to raise a child, that’s how the old saying goes.
It was a beautiful village for my equally beautiful daughter to have grown up in. A little over a hundred people lived in red-roofed houses at the bottom of a heavily forested valley. A small river ran through the town. Half the town lived off of logging and fishing. The other half worked for me. I ran a small vineyard that produced what I can say, with minimal bragging, was the best wine for a hundred miles. It was really a humble little thing, as far as vineyards go. Still, I was proud of my vineyard. I was more proud of the product it made. I was even prouder, still, of the view overlooking the village that my home gave me. What I was most proud of, though, was my daughter.
Strictly speaking, she wasn’t my daughter. A baby was left on my doorstep late one night almost eleven years ago. I had never married, as options were rather limited in a village as small as ours. At first I wanted nothing to do with the baby. I picked up the sleeping bundle and almost walked back to the village to return it. The problem was finding who to return her to. I decided, as it was a rather chilly night, to just find the child’s real family in the morning.
The next morning came, and I just got too busy with tending the vineyard, and caring for the hungry child to make the trip down into the valley. So it was the next day, and the next, and the next. After almost two weeks I realized that I no longer wanted to give Adela up, as I had begun calling her. With no children of my own (that I was aware of) she had become my only family. So, I fell in love with her.
My love for her grew as she did. It was as if I blinked and she was already a hyper girl of seven years, helping me and the workers with the harvest. The rest of the village fell in love with her, as well. Whenever I made a trip into town, she would trail behind me laughing and skipping. Adela brought a smile to the face of everyone she passed. Even Hans, the blacksmith, who I had never seen so much as smirk, was not immune.
She would play with all the other kids while I would conduct business or visit with friends. She, like all the children, loved to play by the river. I, like all the adults, would constantly warn her against it. Not that anything would ever happen, of course. Nothing bad could ever happen, could it? Not to sweet Adela.
Adela was ten when it happened. The village had a large party every year to celebrate the coming new year and beginning of spring. It was near the end of winter, with snow and ice still on the ground. Bonfires roared across the village, music played, people were laughing, and everyone was in the streets enjoying life. I had even broken out the New Year’s Cask, a special barrel of wine I make every year to give away at the celebration. It was a tradition I had started long, long ago for good luck. Adela enjoyed helping with the tradition, too, filling people’s cups for them while I pushed the barrel through the streets in a wheelbarrow.
Of course, kids will be kids, and she soon wanted to run off and throw snowballs and drink hot cider with her friends. I kissed her cheek and sent her on her way, with the usual warning of, “Don’t get too close to the river.”
I went on my way, pushing the New Year’s Cask through the town. It was a long journey since I got stopped every four or five steps. I was in a terrific mood. The atmosphere, good friends, the music, and possibly a little too much of my own wine had gotten to me.
I made my way to the old cobblestone bridge near the center of town. The village children had turned it into a warzone. Barricades made of snow and ice lay scattered across the bridge, snowballs flying back and forth in volleys. High-pitched war cries mingled with laughter. Several adults had stopped to watch the battle, out of range of any snowballs, of course. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw my daughter leading the troops on the far side of the bridge. Snowball determinedly clutched in one hand, she waved her hat on a stick like a banner, rallying her forces. She gave a yell, which was joined by yells from all the other kids on her team, and she leapt over the barricade to charge.
One of the cobblestones must have been loose, or covered by ice, I don’t know. My laughter died in an instant, as I watched my daughter slip and tumble off the side of the bridge, hat falling where she was standing only a second ago.
The charge she was leading skidded to a halt, laughter changing to cries of horror. I realized a second later one of those cries was my own. I was sprinting to the bridge, throwing my thick coat off. I was only a step from jumping off before getting tackled to the ground. I don’t remember clearly who it was, I think it was Hans the blacksmith.
“Get off me, you idiot!” I screamed, trying to shove him off me.
“So you can freeze to death, too? If you don’t drown you’ll just bash your head on the rocks!”
Finally I was able to get into a standing position and I peered over the edge of the bridge. The river had swelled in the past few months and its icy, black water was sweeping away in a fast current, taking Adela with it. Everybody reassured me that they would find her, Adela was a good swimmer, she was probably just down the bend and in need of something warm to drink.
They found her body two days later. I buried her out in the woods, near a spot I knew she loved to play in.
That was a year ago. I’d been plagued with nightmares every night since then. At first it was just that one moment, Adela slipping and falling out of sight, replayed over and over, maddeningly slow. Every time, I would already be running to grab her, even before she started running across the bridge. I was always an inch too far away, or a second too slow. Adela would slip from my grasp and plunge into the water.
After a while, the dreams began to change. One night, in the corner of my eye, I saw a strange shape standing on the riverbank as I tried and failed again to save Adela. A few nights later, I saw it again, and got a good look. It wasn’t a person, but it wasn’t anything else, either. Wisps of black smoke curled around the vague outline of a human. It was like the absence of a person, like someone had taken a pair of scissors to a sheet and cut out a paper doll.
The smoky figure began to speak to me after a few nights, in a whispering voice. “Better luck next time,” it would say as I missed my daughter, or “so close.” “Want to try again?” “You’re almost there.” “You just can’t save her, can you?”
“What are you doing?!” One night I screamed at the figure, “Why do you just stand there?!”
“Why do they?” The figure pointed behind me.
I looked over my shoulder. The entire village was standing there. The children, the adults, Hans, even the stray cats and pet dogs, all just standing there, doing nothing. Just watching my daughter fall to her death.
Rage filled my gut. I screamed till my throat hurt, “Why didn’t anyone help?! Why did it have to be my girl?! Why Adela?! You did nothing!”
The figure only chuckled. I woke up in a cold sweat. I swallowed and winced, my throat on fire. I realized I’d been screaming in my sleep. Sleep didn’t come back to me that night. It felt like that shadowy figure was somehow still watching me.
After that, the dreams were no longer just about Adela. Now the villagers in my dreams were actively stopping me from saving her. Sometimes one would trip me, other times they would just form a wall and sneer at me. Sometimes Hans would tackle me when I knew I could save her if I just jumped after her. My hatred for them grew every night. The dreams kept changing, becoming more bizarre. The only constant, soon, was the dark figure.
“Why do you keep trying?” It asked me one night. “She’s gone.”
“She can’t be. She… She just can’t be…” Was all I could say in response.
“No matter what you do, you can’t get her back.”
I shook my head. “There has to be something. There has to be something. There has to be something.”
When I woke up I realized I had been sleepwalking. I’d wandered to Adela’s grave in just my nightshirt. The woods were almost pitch black, save for the streaks of moonlights breaking through the trees.
“There has to be something,” I repeated.
I turned to walk home, and I swore for a second I saw the figure standing beside the grave in the corner of my eye.
Winter had come again and the nightmares got worse. They no longer made sense. Just feelings of rage and sorrow, flashing images of my daughter, the village, the river, the dark figure looming over it all.
The last dream came the night before the New Year’s festival. I was almost relieved when it looked like one of my regular nightmares. There was Adela, slowly tripping over the edge of the bridge. I took off, painfully slow, to run after her. As I ran, I bumped into a villager, shoving him aside. For some reason, I turned to look at him. As he fell, his body turned into a corpse, decomposing into a skeleton as he hit the ground in slow motion. I didn’t feel like I had control over my body as I reached out and touched another villager. She died and hit the ground, too. Person by person, I walked through the entire village, touching people and killing them.
I made my way back to the bridge, still not truly in control of my body. I stopped in my tracks. Adela stood there, unharmed and alive. The smoky figure stood behind her, dark hands on her shoulders. For some reason I looked down at my hands. They were drenched in blood.
“I think you’re starting to put it all together,” he whispered with a laugh.
I woke up in the woods for a second time. Almost immediately I began to shiver. I don’t know how long I had been standing there, but my bare feet were almost completely numb in the snow. I looked around and thankfully was able to get my bearings. The sun was just beginning to rise, and the stars were slowly fading. I started walking back in the direction of home when I saw something strange. A clump of pinkish-purple flowers were sitting in a snow bank in defiance of the dead plant life around it. I was wondering how it could still be alive in the tail end of winter when I heard a whisper in my head.
“Consider it a gift.”
I recognized the flowers. It was Autumn Crocus. Very beautiful, but also highly toxic. My body acted before I could stop to think. I ripped each flower out of the snow by the roots and ran for home.
The sun had just peeked over the mountains into the valley by the time I made it back. Stopping only to grab a lantern I went for the wine cellar and locked the door behind me. All the tools necessary for turning plants into something consumable were there, and in a matter of minutes I had ground the Crocus flowers into a fine, though somewhat sticky, powder.
I went to the deepest part of the cellar and pulled out the oldest barrel I could find. It was labeled as over a decade old, almost the same day Adela had shown up on my doorstep. I pried the barrel open and stared at the dark purplish liquid, then back at the bowl of poison I had made.
It takes a village to raise a child. Taken literally, that was a very steep price. Was I mad? Had my dreams made me insane? No, that couldn’t be it. Thinking I was mad was a sure sign that I wasn’t. The shadowy figure, somehow, could bring Adela back to me if I paid the price… But was it worth it?
The image of Adela slipping and falling into the river flashed before my eyes. I poured the powder into the barrel and resealed it without a second thought. The festival would be starting soon.
So that’s why I did what I did. You can understand that, can’t you, sweetheart? Please, you have to understand…