Norah stared into the darkness, watching the shadowed outline of the sheep as they settled into sleep, huddled nearby her. Light from the lamps around the town shone through the pulled fluff of their wool and highlighting the shuddering drops of dew that hung among the tangled curls. She hadn’t felt like going back home after the service. She’d wanted to forget what she had done. She had almost managed it, as well. But the banshee had known with just one look, she must have been leaking guilt, everyone had probably worked it out by now. But what could she do? There was no way to make it any better. Kill it, the banshee had said, and then she could escape this curse. She didn’t know where it was though. Undoubtedly, it would kill her first. It knew where she lived, hell, it probably even knew where she was right now: in the middle of the field just near the town. Not on the forest side, that banshee had made the forest seem even more unsettling than it had in her childhood, she wasn’t going to risk getting near it again in case she came back, or something worse came out, while she was alone.
She was going to have to go back eventually, she knew that. She even wanted to, it was human nature to feel safer with others after all and it wasn’t like these sheep were going to help her out if something happened. Before she realised she was doing it, she had already started pulling up chunks of the dry grass from the ground around where she sat. Ripping it from the ground in fistfuls, along with dripping clumps of sod and roots. It was anger, frustration. It was fear too. The glowing white eyes of the sheep looked up at her, chastising her for the noise with a chorus of baas. She glared back at them and started pulling at it even more aggressively, leaning over it and pressing her hands to her eyes to stop herself from screaming. She was going to die. She could be dead any minute now. Every second she spent out here, the more likely she was to be caught. But she couldn’t hide anymore, what good was it even doing? It was just avoiding the inevitable, if it just found her now at least it would be over. It wasn’t as if she was happy like this, she was unhappy, unhappy enough that she was angry about it. And all because of one bad decision ten whole years ago and one that she couldn’t change no matter how much she regretted it.
She lay back, though the grass scratched the back of her neck and she could almost feel the tiny crawling movements of the bugs that no doubt infested it on her skin, and looked up at the starry sky. The lights speckled the wide expanse like a smattering of freckles, or the little speckles on a bird’s egg, there were too many, so many that just looking at them made her dizzy. She reached up a hand, as if to touch them, and wondered how far away they were and why you could only see them at night. They were the best part of the sky, she was sure, they made everything else, all the fluffy clouds and the flaming pastel colours of the day sky, seem insignificant and mundane. Something close enough that she could understand it. But when those clouds parted, and the muted colours turned to grey, what was revealed was so much deeper, darker and more amazing. It made all those little things she worried about: the bugs on the back of her neck, the sting of the grass on her skin, the people in town she constantly tried to impress, seem wholly insignificant. It didn’t last though, she knew that the minute she went back there all her earthly concerns would come back, suddenly she’d have to pretend to be like everyone else again and think about cooking and farming and keeping the house clean, even as her mind was rising, thunderous, above her, screaming with fear and frustration about the death she knew would come. She would go back though, she always did.
Still she wanted to lie out in the field for a while longer and imagine that everything was okay. She did and, despite her impromptu bed being uncomfortable to an almost obnoxious extent, she fell asleep.
Then, sometime in the night, she awoke. She couldn’t work out why for a bit, too out of it to even remember where she was or why. She glanced around, sitting up onto her elbows and wincing as her back ached from being curled up on the hard ground. There was nothing, just cold and dark and a hollow hooting noise from the forest: an unsettling nocturnal call that made her shiver to think she had been out here all this time. Hiding, perhaps, but all the more exposed for it.
It was then that she heard a noise, a splashing close by, near the gate of the field that led to the edge of the town. Nervous as she was, she waited to see if it would stop, but the noise continued, if not getting louder. She frowned, she was going to have to see what it was. She couldn’t help it, curiosity was truly a curse. So, she got up and stretched her legs, hunching her back and trying to ignore the angry bleats from the sheep as she disturbed them. At least they had stayed close to her, somehow that made her feel better, less alone even though they could do nothing to protect her.
As she had thought, the sound was coming from the fenced area near the gate, fenced because inside was a deep pond covered in some slippery green weed that the sheep had mistaken as solid ground so often that the farmers had chosen to cover it. But still they tried to clamber over and into the plunging pool, the farmers were puzzled, especially when they found them all gathered around it some mornings, so they put chicken wire around it to ensure there would be no more casualties. She crept closer, not sure why she was being so careful but quite sure that she didn’t want to risk anything, and reached out to clasp her hands to the twisted chicken wire, ignoring the rusty pricks in her palms. Leaning close, she peered through the wire and at the glistening weed below. It really did look like land, she could see where the animal had stepped in, where a gap had formed revealing the black water beneath. She scanned the fence for where it had gotten in and sure enough there was a gap at the bottom of one section that it had obviously crawled under. It was too small for her but when she pulled at it, it could be bent upwards enough that she thought she may be able to slip underneath. Her head and the top half of her body fit just fine, as expected, but the hips of her dress were another matter, catching in the loose spikes at the bottom, not to mention that going in head-first meant that if she slipped now she would fall straight down the little bank, with nothing to hold onto but some plants growing in the damp dirt. She dug her palms into the mud and tried to shift her way out, pushing with her legs as she had no hands free to pull with. She pushed and pushed and eventually she heard it tear and her face fell into the mud. Just great, she had already looked a mess when she left the funeral, now her dress didn’t even have a chance of being repaired and she had a face-full of dirt.
Still, she scrambled up to her feet, crouching to keep her stability on the slope, and looked towards the shape of the drowning lamb, its front legs sticking straight up like bone white branches as it struggled among the pond-weed. Shakily, she reached out, hoping to catch a flailing hoof before the poor thing stopped moving. It wasn’t making it easy though, throwing its little head from side to side and screaming desperately for its mama whilst drifting further and further from Norah’s reach.
“Be still, you stupid thing.” She grumbled, as she grabbed onto the fence with one hand so that she could lean out further towards the little creature. What was she doing? She cursed at herself. She could fall in any moment, and for what? A single lamb? If she fell in there she doubted even she could get out, the pool just went straight down and the sides were already slipping out from under here even as she was anchoring herself on the fence, if she was trying to stay afloat at the same time there’s no way she’d be able to climb up. Sure, someone might find her, in the morning but, as early as the famers awoke, she’d probably be dead by then. The lamb too. Maybe she really was suicidal because this was one of the worst ideas she’d ever had. She used to be practical, maybe even a bit too much, something about her impending doom must have knocked that part out of her. Suddenly she was rescuing drowning lambs, talking to banshees, running away from home and sleeping in fields. She had gone crazy for sure, if the neighbours could see her now how they would talk! Not that she could bring herself to care at the moment. Sensing the cold sweat that had begun to drip from her brow, she rubbed her face on her shoulder and strained to stretch out her arm even further, closing her eyes as she teetered dangerously over the edge of the water. Her heart almost jumped out her chest as something touched her but she could have sighed with relief when she realised she had finally brushed the animal’s hoof, though it was instantly pulled from her grasp as the lamb twisted around in the water. More determined now, she looked up and clasped a solid palm around its shoulder, dragging it by one leg towards the bank. It protested weakly but she had soon yanked it from the water and was proceeding to try and find a way to carry it out without being kicked in the face. As she struggled with the thing she heard another splash. She looked over in one jerky movement, thinking that if it was another sheep, it could just drown already. But it wasn’t. She saw nothing, except maybe a few bubbles in the strip of dark water that had been revealed when she had dragged the lamb from the pool’s depths. Surely there were no fish in there, she thought. The water was still and she was pretty sure that weed blocked every bit of light, not to mention that it was at least ten years stagnant and stank like an outhouse. Then again, the sheep kept coming to drink it, so maybe it could support some kind of life. Still, she wanted to be away from it, she wasn’t quite sure if it was because now she’d thought about the smell, her nose was feeling particularly assaulted by it, or if that little niggling feeling in her gut telling her there was something wrong was having more of an effect than she had thought.
“Baa!” The lamb protested as she began stuffing it under the fence.
“No, you’re going back to ma before I regret saving you.” She muttered, resisting the urge to hold her nose at the pungent odour that soaked the poor beast’s sodden curls. “Only a ma could love a disgusting thing like you.” As soon as it was out, she pulled the fence down so it couldn’t nose its way back, strange how it did that, and waited as it stood there, shaking water from its head with a startled snort. She watched until it turned away, shaking and tiny under all that fluff, and wobbled away, not quite as spritely as it had been earlier, she was sure, but no worse for wear after the ordeal. She watched it for a bit, just to make sure it didn’t come back. It huddled up to its mama with a whining bleat and appeared to fall back asleep. She sighed at that, wishing sleep was still just as easy as closing your eyes now that her every moment seemed to be so stuffed full of worries that sometimes even closing her eyes felt impossible.
Then there was another glub from the pond. She whipped around but, again, there was nothing but bubbles which had frothed to the surface like scum. What was she worried about? She should just get out of here. Only, she was curious, what if something did live in the water? What if it was what drew the sheep in? So she sat, careful not to let her feet slip into the water and watched as the weed spread out and left water, like a black mirror, in its path. As she leaned over she saw a shimmering on its surface, her own face looking up at her. Look at her! Hair pulled free of the tight bun in frizzy knots, bits of grass entangled like scraps within a bird’s nest, a face caked in stale-smelling mud, and even her eyes had a wild look about them: wide with shock as they were. She looked like she was on her way to becoming that banshee girl, she made and attempt to rub the mud off but somehow that only made it worse, smearing it with blood from the re-opened dog bite on her arm. She couldn’t go back like this! She needed to at least wash some of this off before she was seen by anyone, daylight was already creeping up the hills with its exposing daylight, so, quickly, she reached down to cup a handful of water. She knew it stank but it would do for now, it was not like any one was going to smell her if she got back into the town soon, before all the farmers woke up. As her hands sunk into the water she felt them stiffen. Strange, the water wasn’t even cold, kind of warm. It didn’t feel that wet either, and when she lifted up her hands it ran from between her fingers thick as treacle. Odd. She brought it to her face and rubbed, sure enough the mud dissolved like sand and, as she held her hands out, and slipped back down into the water in a fascinatingly slow stream and tinged with red. Mindlessly, she wondered why it was red, but then she saw the blood from her arm tracking a glossy stream down her arm and mingle with the thick mud of the water as it fell.
And as it dripped into the shining water below, more bubbles rose in a flurry to the surface. And slowly, ever so slowly, a hump broke the flat film of the pool, and the water trickled like music as it ran, fleeing, from the emerging form. A dark lump covered in bright green dots of pondweed and clumps of melting mud stood higher and higher from the water, stopping when it reached a foot high. Just as the mud had slipped from her face and hands, the form dripped the stinking brown slop until it was clean and pale again. A glistening sheen of water covered it, and slimy weed still nestled upon it, but, as clear as day, it was a human face that looked back at her, those were human eyes, she could swear they were.
“Help.” It whispered in a voice so quiet it sounded more like a gasp and reached up white arms from the murky water.
His eyes were new-leaf green, bright and watery, wide but not fearful. His skin so white it looked like wet paper and hair as dark as the water below, crowned in those purple weeds.
“I’m drowning.” He sighed, and reached up a little towards her before letting his arm drop back into the water with a slap.
The sound seemed to wake her, she tried to scramble to her feet and threw her hands back in search of the fence so she could leverage herself and not fall into the water. She realised, with a sinking feeling, that the only way to get out was going to be the same way she got in: she would need to crawl under. From how long it had taken her to get under it the first time, she knew this was not going to be an easy, of fast, escape. She wouldn’t even make it to the fence at this rate, her feet had no grip whatsoever, the shoes kept sliding down on the mud-slipped bank, falling into the edge of the water.
The boy looked down, at them, and then back at her. She knew what he was going to do. She made a last attempt to get to her feet as he calmly reached for her ankles, he was a lot more mobile than the lamb so reached her in an instant. With fingers splayed she saw the thin purplish web between them, a water spirit, and he was going to pull her under, she could already tell that he could do it easily, one yank of his arm and she would come down, her hands too slippery to grip the chicken wire much harder than she already was and his grip, by contrast, felt strong as rock. Why did all these fairy folk have to be uncommonly strong? She wondered as she felt him pull and her fingers slip a little more on the metal. It seems God gave them an advantage in that respect, we are helpless once in their grasp. She kicked out but all that achieved was her whole body falling further down the bank. Soon she was flat on her back, up to her knees in the water, with the little demon pulling at her. It was so unfair she almost wanted to laugh. The one good thing she does, and that’s how she gets caught. She should have known better than to try and change who she was. Who was she kidding? She knew she wasn’t the type to go around saving anything, she knew she cared more about herself than anyone else. Maybe she had wanted to change things, make up for the past, but she should have known better. It was fixed now, it seemed that her fate was to die for what she did. As she felt that icy grasp she knew that this must be what God decided for her, he made these monsters, after all, he knew what they would do. Water, though. It wasn’t exactly how she’d wanted to die. She’d always pictured being buried deep in the soil of the Churchyard, under all that dying grass and with a stone to tell people who didn’t much care who she was, or who she had been. Though she didn’t want ‘murderer’ on her gravestone either, maybe this was the way to go, at least, in this muddy pool, no one would ever find her, and they couldn’t bury her like they did that O’Breen boy, letting every dog and cat walk all over his grave and without a single person who cared to wave him off to the afterlife. She deserved hell. Perhaps, at the bottom of this pool, she would get it.
Still, she couldn’t help herself from kicking, flailing, wordlessly screaming like the lamb had been. Perhaps this is the being that caught the poor blighter. Maybe that was how it got its food. Thinking about it like that, did that mean she was going to get eaten as well? Okay, she was fine with being drowned at the bottom of this disgusting pond, she had accepted that, but getting eaten? She didn’t think she deserved to be this thing’s lunch, no matter what she had done.
It must have felt her change in thought plan because, rather than lazily coaxing her in like it had been, it began to grin and loosen its grip. Its teeth were like daggers studding its mouth, to be eaten by those…no, she definitely didn’t want that. It threw back its head, its face tense and its fist clasped and then its skin began to shimmer and melt, like the mud had done earlier. She watched the flesh fall and the bone below began to shift and lengthen, repressing the urge to cry out in disgust, she pulled herself to her feet with strength she didn’t think she had, gripping the fence and digging her heels into the muddy bank. Whatever it was doing, she wasn’t going to stick around to see it. She turned and clambered up. No longer caring about the mud and her ripped dress, she wriggled under the fence, feeling the skirt of her dress tear as she did. At least if it was stuck in the gap that thing wouldn’t be able to get out so easily and reach her. She had hardly even cleared it before she was already on her feet and running again, desperate to be away, though she couldn’t resist taking one look back. She almost fell when she saw what would have been waiting for her there had she not got out. It now resembled a horse, black as the water it wallowed in and with the same green eyes as the boy. Its mane was long and dripping in the foul water, and it was watching her with its strangely forward-facing eyes, anger pulling its mouth back in a terrible sneer and revealing those pointed teeth that curved like a serpents within its gaping muzzle. As it saw her watching, it threw back its head and made a terrible noise, an outraged whinny combined with a sobbing, like a child’s. And then it rose up, for a bit she thought it was intending to follow her, but instead it lifted its weed-covered front legs and dove into the water with a bang like thunder. And it was gone, at least for now. She ran towards the town, not caring that she looked like a crazy person or that some people might have awoke by now and would see her looking like a crazy person. She did slow when she reached the street light though, it was comforting in its way, speaking of the human and mundane, a world she hated and longed for at the same time.
She walked the eerily quiet streets for a while before she heard someone approaching, their footsteps echoing among the high-walls. Without even thinking about it, she ducked into a side street. She closed her eyes, hearing them pass. Why did she still care what people thought? She had almost died just moments ago, and still she was scared she would be laughed at, or worse, pitied. Surely her life was more important than all of these stupid worries. But no, this was the human way. It was inescapable. All that mattered was to be accepted.
When she was sure whoever had been walking past had turned off the street, she re-did her hair quickly and tried to straighten her dress, though at this point only the underskirt was undamaged, and even that was mud-rimmed from her run through the fields back here. She then ducked back into the main street and tried to look dignified whilst walking as fast as she could back. It took her a while to realise that she’d been walking in the wrong direction for a while now, she’d concentrated so much on getting away that she’d not been thinking about where she was going at all, just walked down every street that looked dark enough to be unoccupied and with the house lights of so she knew no one would look out and spot her.
She found another alley way and stopped, not hearing the soft padded footsteps that were currently stalking up it until they were upon her. The hit to the back of her head had her on her knees immediately, dizzy and disorientated and shivering, both from shock and the cold that was seeping through her wet clothes. It took her a minute to think to look back to see who had done it, or what, but she was lucky because the person still stood there like he had been waiting. He was wearing all black, a cloak, she noticed because of the swirling shape that disguised his legs.
“What…?” She croaked, not quite sure what had happened, but mid-sentence he lashed out again, aiming for her face with a large leather boot. It almost struck her but she leaned back just in time, feeling faint and as if the whole world was spinning around her. She tried to stand up but, yet again, she could not, her legs just wouldn’t let her.
He lifted his foot high, so that she could see the metal nailed to the sole high above her face. He was going to stomp down on her. She closed her eyes, she couldn’t fight any more.
But, as she heard the whoosh of air as he brought it towards her head and she cringed for the impact, it stopped. There was nothing. Had he missed? She ventured opening a single eye, expecting to see the darkness of a shoe just above her, but it was gone. The man was gone. She sat up, slowly and painfully, and looked around the alley way. He’d left? That didn’t make much sense. And it didn’t, because he was still there, there in the shadows, but now there were two. Two cloaked men, one backed up against the wall and the other with his hand at his throat. They were fighting. The one that had the other pinned against the wall pulled back his fist and struck him in the face with such force that his head cracked against the brick behind. He slipped down the wall with a sickening groan and the other man turned to her.
Oh God. She thought. Whatever curse she was under, it sure was something. She couldn’t even walk down the street without multiple people trying to murder her. As he came forward she tried to shuffle backwards, as if he’d leave her alone if only she could reach the street, but, of course, he reached her before she made it. She winced as he reached out a cloaked arm, bringing her arms up to guard her face. Again, nothing happened, no hand hit her, she felt no impact. So she looked back, not bringing her arms down but relaxing them slightly. His hand was reaching down, open palmed, inviting. Hesitatingly she moved her arms so she could see. There was nothing in it so what did it mean? Was he trying to help her up? Thinking he would take it back if she reached out to take it, she waited, staring at it. It didn’t move though, instead he leaned forward and spoke with it still outstretched.
“You’re safe for now.” His voice was soft, smiling, almost feminine.
He turned away from her, towards the dark recess of the alleyway where the man still lay. “Be careful.” And then he walked away and was gone.
She had to sit there for a few minutes to get her heart back under control, the man had stopped groaning so she looked towards him. He must have been the one that hit her, she supposed. She wondered if he was still alive. She crept forward on her hands and knees, just a bit, not close enough for him to grab her if he was still alive. She felt the bile rise in her throat. No, he was dead. You couldn’t lose that much blood and still be alive. It shone in the street light like a glossy slick of paint. She swallowed down the sick and tripped back onto her shaking legs with desperate abandon. She was not going to be found looking insane in front of a dead man, she didn’t need any more murders next to her name. She hurried back into the street and found her way home before daylight fell over the town, and as she walked she thought of what had happened. She had almost died, twice, and someone had saved her. She thought of the words of the Father the other day, a hero, he had said. She laughed, mockingly, a hero, sure. But somewhere inside of her she hoped it were true.
They were all going to ask her what had happened when she got home like this. And she was going to tell them. Everyone could use a little hope after all, to take some of those worries away.
In the distance, there was a howl.