By Caleb Hunter
Mist shrouded the forest before and behind as I waded through, leaving a swirling, fading, shifting path in my wake.
The day had been dark, so the darkness of twilight rendered no substantial change.
Shadows had become my only companions, and now, like a grimy coven of dwarves, they surrounded and accompanied me on my trek homeward.
I had never been the least bit disturbed by these shadows. On the contrary, I often found myself anticipating their company as I walked along the well-worn path.
On this night, however, I began to sense a change in the atmosphere. A tingling sensation that seemed wholly unfamiliar…and chilling.
A tangible malevolence.
I tried to simply disregard this alien fear as a mere figment of my own tired imagination, but alas, the foreboding was as evident to my senses as the damp mist moistening my blackened nose and soaking my coal-dusted brow.
At length, I began to perceive the faint, yellow beacon of home piercing the swirling mist; a sight that alleviated the foreboding atmosphere which had encroached with every boot-fall. And as I made my transition from the forest path to the pale carpet of dead grass, I barely perceived my fears fading themselves into shadow. Welcomingly driven away by the charming, crooked face of home.
Leaving my sooty boots on the porch, I immediately set about the routine tasks of lighting a fire, setting a pot of mutton on the stovetop, and heating a pot of water for my rusting bathtub.
After shedding my damp work clothes into the laundry basket and shedding the grime of the day’s work into the welcoming bathtub, I hungrily immersed myself in the comfort of the mutton and a pint of warm beer by the fireside.
At the satisfying conclusion of my meal, I felt sufficiently prepared to converse with the night once again.
And so, equipping myself with my pipe, I exited to the steps of the porch, plopping down beside my resting boots.
The match flashed a brief wave of illuminating heat against my nose and cheeks, and once its life had sufficiently descended into the pipe, I began to casually survey the misty darkness.
Then…out near the forest border…I saw what appeared to be a singular, thin shadow cast against the leaf-strewn lawn.
At first, I merely gazed with mild curiosity, however, my attention sharpened as I become aware that the shadow seemed to be moving, under the dim face of the harvest moon, away from the forest-line and towards the center of the lawn.
A dark silhouette, silently gliding across the pale earth.
I watched through a timid cloud of pipe smoke as the slender silhouette came to a halt. Standing
at the exact midpoint between myself and the dark, fog-ridden forest beyond.
Fear shivering across my skin, I rose and reluctantly called out to the figure.
My voice crackled into hoarse fragments as I said, “Are you alive?”
The bizarre nature of the question surprised me, even though it had proceeded from my own chapped lips. Why had I not simply asked, “Hello? Who’s there?”
Nevertheless, the shadow remained motionless.
I slowly descended the creaking steps, and had no sooner placed a quaking foot onto the damp earth when the silhouette, as silently and smoothly as it had approached, receded towards the forest border, gliding with an eerie precision that was characteristic of neither man nor beast.
Tingling, I stood with one foot still planted on the last step and the other pressed into the soft pale lawn, and watched as the thin, black shape slowly cloaked itself with the night, vanishing completely into the pitch darkness of the forest beyond.
I paused momentarily and surveyed the carpet of dead leaves.
Resolving, hopefully, that the unwelcome visitor had indeed gone for good, I took a final drag from my smoldering pipe, bid a tremulous farewell to my boots, and returned to the welcoming warmth my tiny living room.
The fire lowered into an almost flameless, orange glow, and sparked sleepily as I settled down into my old chair. The tattered, faithful, comforting chair that gently embraced my weary bones.
I tried to push aside the fearful events of the evening, forcefully ushering them into a remote, unseen corner of my mind.
Like the match had flashed to life on the porch, this struggle arrived with a hot, blinding intensity. But just as the small flame had descended into the dark tobacco, this struggle soon diminished, and I found myself falling into the lulling void of slumber.
* * *
I awoke to the dim light of morning creeping in pale streaks through the curtains.
The disturbances of the night before now all but forgotten, I set about the morning ritual of bacon, eggs, and coffee, with a bitter, delightful side of yet more coffee.
After breakfast, I gathered my lantern and a small, greasy packet of chewing tobacco, and stepped out into the dank morning to cheerfully greet my worn boots, still perched atop the porch steps. My leather companions wrapped themselves about my thick stockinged feet, and we set off: the boots, the lantern, the pouch of tobacco, and myself. Thoroughly content with each other’s company, and thoroughly prepared to face any adventure the misty day might present.
This contentment came to an unexpected end, however, for upon entering the forest path my cheerful mood began to transform into a strange melancholy.
The morning mist seemed to weigh heavily, surrounding me in a soggy blanket as the ashen sky lowered menacingly.
Shadows began to present themselves. Vague, fearful sensations scurrying at my right and my left, yet vanishing when I turned to see them fully.
The breakfast that had so satisfied now began to churn stubbornly in my belly. Obstinately refusing to cooperate, and sending bitter ooze up into my mouth as a token of rebellion.
After what seemed like hours of trudging, I finally spotted the orange glow of a lamp hanging outside the mineshaft. And coming into full view of the mine carts, picks, shovels and buckets, I hailed my colleagues who I assumed were just out of sight. Possibly gathered just inside the cavern.
And yet, no response could be heard save the faint echo of my own greeting as it reverberated back from the dark entrance.
Upon reaching the mouth, I noticed a note scribbled hastily on a plank of lumber and nailed into a beam: “None have arrived. Going into town to find more men. You must go it alone until I return.”
The message, though obviously written by the foreman, seemed completely absurd. Not only was it unheard-of for anyone of my colleagues to shirk an entire day’s work, but all six of them had certainly never done so on the same day.
My vexation intensified by the casual attitude my foreman seemed to take at the prospect of me going forth into the dangerous throat of the mountain alone.
Nevertheless, the day’s work remained completely unaltered, so sighing indignantly I stuffed a portion of tangy tobacco into my cheek, lit my quivering lantern, and entered the black shaft.
Silence hovered throughout the dusty, subterranean air. Much unlike the lively sounds of toil that usually permeated the cavern.
Picks digging into the soft earth.
Picks coming to a sharp halt against the solid earth.
Calls for another bucket, or for a light.
Now there was only eerie silence, broken merely by my own soft footfalls.
Descending further, however, I began to imagine a second, separate set of footfalls echoing from behind. I paused to investigate, raising my lantern which flickered and dimmed, apparently sharing in my reluctance to face the dark possibilities lurking behind. The faint glow illuminated no more than a few feet about the dirty shaft, so I waited…listening. But upon hearing nothing except my own heavy breathing, I spat a streak of tar into the darkness, then briskly turned to continue my descent.
At length, I reached the spot where I had left off the day before, and after looking behind once again for any sign of a hidden pursuer, I set about my usual toils.
The work served as a welcome distraction from the unease of the day, and for a while the melancholy that had overtaken me on the forest path seemed to alleviate.
Yet, as I heartily dug into the mountain’s throat, I could not escape the occasional, fearful sensation of being observed from some deep, shadowy corner. Sometimes I would pause to look up in the direction of the cave entrance, the light of which was far beyond sight, and other times I would briefly glance with paranoid reluctance into the darkness that seemed to reach eternally downwards.
Despite the ever-present paranoia, I remained entirely undisturbed in my labors throughout the day.
When at last I had sufficiently stripped my location of its jet-black treasures, I picked up the still dimly lit lantern, stuffed more tobacco inside my cheek, and began the journey upwards.
The silence, which seemed strange at first, had now transformed into something that seemed…right.
Rounding the final curve, I saw a vibrant Beacon of orange suddenly appear in the darkness ahead. Like a small, glowing eye, that seemed to gaze searchingly down into the shaft.
I drew closer and began to see what appeared to be a campfire situated at the cave’s mouth, burning with an unnatural intensity. But then, nearing the exit, I realized that this was no mere campfire, but instead was a roaring blaze, generously casting waves of warmth upon the damp forest floor and reflecting off the cave walls in mystical flashes.
My rigid joints began to thaw as I stepped out of the mine, and into the soothing atmosphere.
I had not realized just how cold I had been until now. A tingling shiver scurried across my skin as The Great Fire’s breath passed over me. Banishing the cold.
My lantern cowered and dimmed, as if bowing in hopeless reverence to the superiority of the glorious flames.
I briefly pulled my eyes from the fire to survey the surrounding area and found that I was still very much alone.
But how could this be? For this fire had been erected recently, and surely those responsible would not traverse far from such a magnificent thing as this.
Nevertheless, the conjurers were nowhere to be seen, and so, I settled down onto a nearby stump and began to warm my calloused palms in the welcome heat.
* * *
Enchanted, I gazed upon the spires of yellowish-orange as they danced with erratic grace.
Like a thousand writhing goddesses leaping in unquenchable exultation.
I found myself both unable and unwilling to be released from this fiery spell.
I began to long for the goddesses.
Simply sitting here in the soothing atmosphere became wholly insufficient. Were these flames to only be gazed upon? To merely be observed from a distance, even if that distance were but a few inches?
To compare the magnificence before me to any of the so-called fires of my past seemed absurd.
To be satisfied with merely experiencing this fire as these other weak imitations had been experienced was inconceivable.
No…no I must feel the leaping spires.
I must pass my hands through their swaying silhouettes.
I must embrace the goddesses, and join in their sacred dance.
A searing pain coiled about my hands, sending an unearthly shriek up through my lungs and out into the night.
On my knees in the moonlight, I opened burning eyes, and looked around unbelievingly, for not only had The Great Fire gone away, but any indication of a fire whatsoever was nowhere to be seen.
The area outside of the mine entrance was undisturbed, dark…and damp.
Remembering the pain, I raised my hands and expected to find charred flesh.
Astonished, I realized that not only were they devoid of any wounds, but they were still just as cold as they had been when I exited the mine.
At this revelation, the memory of the pain diminished under a sudden, crushing sadness that lowered me back down onto the stump.
The Great Fire had left me utterly alone and unprotected against the cold, moonlit silence.
I do not know how long I sat there on the dark stump, silently rocking to-and-fro as the wind rustled the leaves of my hair. Like the coal-dusted ghost of the tree that once stood there.
Finally, I rose, reluctantly accepting that the fire was not coming back.
As I attempted to light my lantern, I noticed for the first time just how small, rusted and inadequate a thing it was. The faint light that proceeded out of it was feeble and merely served as a painful reminder of the absent fire’s magnificence.
Nevertheless, I raised this rusted apparatus to my face and began to slowly, silently traverse homeward.
* * *
Like the rusted lantern, the once hopeful sight of my leaning shack now presented itself as a faint, disappointing thing. Pausing at the forest border, I regarded the lawn and the shack, disbelieving this had been the same charming scene that had so often welcomed me in from the darkness.
The frosty mist had been relentless; seeping in through my clothing like a multitude of ghoulish, icy fingers. Even my once dependable boots were no match against the frost. Mounting the porch, I removed them hastily and tossed them with careless dejection into a dark corner.
The interior of the shack was even colder and darker than the forest, and upon entering I cursed the rotting structure for failing me as abysmally as the boots had. The thought of slimy mutton caused my stomach to lurch, so I turned my attention towards the silent fireplace.
The flameless grate filled me with a blinding disgust.
I hurled a malicious tirade of curses into the soot-stained mouth, even going as far as to ram my head into the opening, and howl a final, personal insult into the shaft of the chimney. Jamming two armloads of cold, grey logs into the grate, I even cursed the tiny, shivering match as it timidly struggled to do my bidding. A small flame slowly began to crawl up the side of the bottom log, sending a sad glimmer of faltering light into the dank living room. It seemed to take hours for the tiny light to creep across the full length of the log and finally encase the others in a weak series of reluctant flickering.
The struggling flames seemed only to increase the biting cold. I sat mere inches from the logs, my shivering palms raised in desperation, but to my disgust, I couldn’t extract a single morsel of warmth or comfort from this poor imitation of true fire.
My discomfort notwithstanding, fatigue began to overcome me, so I curled up like a freezing child before the grate. Achingly mulling over the now distant memories of The Great Fire’s golden warmth.
I awoke violently to a dense, icy darkness.
My joints creaked with the dry sound of a corpse rising from its broken casket as I stood. My eyes searching in the pitch for some reassurance that the night and the cold had not rendered me a corpse in the literal sense, awakening in the freezing void of eternity.
Instinctively, I moved to the pale window, peering out to observe the porch, the lawn, and the misty, black forest border. I knew what I was looking for, and no sooner had my eyes landed upon the forest border when six tall, thin, pointed shadows began to emerge onto the lawn, gliding in morbid unison towards the porch.
Towards the window.
A bleak, vile atmosphere seemed to exude from these mysterious beings.
An atmosphere that somehow felt otherworldly…and ancient.
I began to imagine they had risen from some deep, nightmarish pit, and now intended to reach through the window, wrench my freezing heart from my chest, and cast it down to the grey porch planks, shattering it into a thousand tiny, blood-red shards.
However, just as the solitary figure the night before, these visitors came to a soundless halt at the exact midpoint between myself and the deep darkness beyond.
And there they stood.
Like gothic spires.
* * *
A piercing, animalistic sound which tore through my dejected shack like the pitiful cry of a thousand dying wolves.
Pulling the curtains to, I stumbled back, falling against the cold floor, and half crawled, half scurried into the corner, cowering against the fireplace I had cursed only hours before. I pressed myself against the cold stones, desperately seeking asylum from the night…from the cold…from the shadows. A desperate longing swelled from deep inside until it reached the threshold of my shivering eyes. And then…like an infant abandoned in the darkness, I began to weep. Sobbing with blinding remorse for the vile torrents of abuse I had spewed against my now silent fireplace.
Against my now unrecognizable home.
The atmosphere of the shack seemed to grow colder in response to my cries.
I knelt, numb and trembling before the gaping black of the grate. I knew that if I could but fill this shack with the crackling light of my own hearth, that it would then shine out into the night and send the evil shadows…and the evil cold…reeling back into the deep darkness beyond. Like vampires fleeing the golden face of the sun.
But this hope. This simple, desperate hope was immediately cast down.
For as I reached for fuel to fill the now dead grate, I realized with a mournful shock that there was none to be found.
I had used every single log earlier in the night.
Desperate, I reeled back, and bitterly took hold of none other than my own chair.
The chair that had so often caressed my weary limbs.
I raised this faithful companion up and brought it violently down against the fireplace. It shattered with a sharp, sickening crack, like the bones of an old man, murderously hurled down stone steps. Hurriedly, I jammed the broken pieces into the grate, and after a brief search discovered the almost empty box of matches still in my pocket.
My hands trembled uncontrollably as I forced a match between my numb fingers and attempted to strike it. Yet my frozen hands proved to be altogether useless as the box fell from my shivering grip, scattering the few remaining matches.
I had but one match left.
One tiny, slender twig of hope.
Unwilling to chance it, I shuffled to the table, grabbed my rusted lantern, and shattered its contents into the hearth. Mingling its rust and glass with the bones of my destroyed chair. I knelt, smelling the fresh fuel soaking into the wood, and with one careful stroke slid the match head against the black stone. A few dim sparks appeared, but the immense cold immediately snuffed them out. I wrenched back screaming and lunged for the corner where I thought the other matches had scattered, but as I did this some unseen object struck my barefoot and sent me sprawling onto the icy floor.
I lay there for a moment, sobbing dryly, and begged the corpse of my home for help.
But my cries only echoed back against the dark, rickety walls in a series of moaning creaks.
And then, a new terror began to overtake me.
Were these walls…the very walls that had once stood around me in protection…now enclosing upon me? Were they pressing around and against me in cold, threatening moans?
I scrambled to my feet and began to slam into the encroaching walls, beating against them madly. But to no avail. The shack had finally done with me, and in defiance to my pleas for forgiveness sought to eternally encase me within its rotting self.
In a final effort for freedom, I charged the pale window, bursting it into icy shards. Landing with a sickening crash, my torso sunk halfway through the decaying porch as planks dug their broken claws into my sides, trying to force me back into the creaking mouth of the shack. Blood splattered around me as I struggled and kicked at the grasping boards. My flesh so numb that the pain was faint and dull. Finally, I dealt one last, splintering blow to the planks, and stumbled down the steps. Hitting the frosted grass below with a thud.
* * *
Bleeding and shivering, I stood. The coffin-shack moaning and creaking behind me. A grotesque mockery of the comfort that had once shone from its now shattered window.
Stiffly, I looked up into the sunken face of the moon, which seemed to look back with bleak indifference. I was cold beyond belief and knew it would not be long before the cold would crawl in to take hold of my barely beating heart. With this knowledge, I resolved to stand there, motionless, staring up, until I had become as dead and frozen as the skeletal moon-face that stared back.
But then, to my astonishment, I began to feel a warmth.
A warmth that gently breathed against my outstretched neck.
A warmth that rested upon and began to reach into my heaving chest.
And then…bringing my eyes down…I saw it.
At the exact midpoint between myself and the dark forest, like a roaring Beacon of hope, The
Great Fire billowed.
Immediately I began to feel my flesh loosen as sweat rolled in beads down my skin.
The writhing goddesses leaped and danced in erratic circles, as if to say, “Come! Join us!”.
I drew closer, and as I advanced The Great Fire seemed to grow, to expand and heighten with every step.
When at last I stood directly before it, The Great Fire had become so vast that my sight could not reach around its blazing walls, nor climb above its ardent towers. So, I gazed through streaming tears into the very heart of The Great Fire. Where the goddesses danced and flared.
They had not forgotten me after all.
The cold and the dark no longer existed. They had lost.
Here was eternal warmth. Eternal comfort.
Reaching forward, I closed my eyes…then…confused, reopened them. For my hand had touched nothing. And the warmth was distant again.
I looked up and in disbelief saw that the fire had moved, and now stood blazing just within the dark tree line beyond.
The vile cold began to creep up my legs again.
I cried out in desperation and ran towards the tree line. But this time, instead of growing as I advanced, the fire seemed to diminish; and as I reached the forest border, it disappeared completely.
The cold continued to crawl up to my back, intent upon reaching in to take hold of my pounding heart.
I cried out again, with a pitiful screech that echoed throughout the darkness, and as if in response, a small, distant glow flickered to life from somewhere ahead.
Cursing, I ran into the forest, swaying to avoid dark trees. But to my mounting dismay, the blaze diminished as I drew nearer, and when I reached the spot where I believed it had stood, I found nothing save more darkness.
The pattern was tortuous.
The fire would appear, blazing deep in the dark forest, yet as I drew near it would diminish and vanish. Only to reappear further away. This cycle seemed to go on for hours, and each time the fire disappeared the cold would sink its icy fingers deeper into my flesh…and closer to my heart.
But then…finally, after vanishing for the last time, The Beacon reappeared.
This time, however, it appeared not as a fire…but as a round glow. As if it were housed in some encasement…like the light of a lantern.
The moon shown on a pale clearing ahead, and stepping out of the black forest, I realized that the round glow was coming from the mouth of the mine shaft. The Great Fire had led me all the way back to the place where it had first appeared, its warm breath flowing out of the cave’s mouth.
Without hesitation, I stepped into the shaft, and began to descend.
* * *
As beads of sweat rolled down my back, I realized that I was completely naked. I had no recollection of casting my tattered clothes aside, and yet…this did not seem strange to me. For how else should I approach the frolicking goddesses? How else could I truly embrace their bosoms of light?
As the golden atmosphere flashed and danced around me, I began to hear a droning hum from somewhere ahead. A primitive, musical sound that made my wet skin tingle.
As this lulling song echoed and mingled with the flickering warmth, I rounded the final stony corner, and there, waiting for me at the absolute end of the subterranean path was The Great Fire.
For a moment I noticed drawings and symbols etched by forgotten hands into the cavern walls, but then my eyes returned to the sight for which they had so desperately longed.
The goddesses twirled and pranced to the musical drone, as they opened their luminous arms in flowing gestures.
This time, I did not gaze, stupefied and motionless. No…this time I leapt towards their tender embrace.
Fear and cold were all but forgotten as I was taken up in ardors of golden, lifting ecstasy.
I too swirled and pranced with the flames. Frolicking as the zealous spires careened and whirled around and through me. Their tender, soothing arms writhed across my dripping flesh, fervently igniting my hair, and passionately caressing my heaving chest.
And then, as their searing hands reached inside…I felt my throbbing heart burst.
In agony, I crumpled down to my knees.
The dance had ended, and I was burning to death in the blazing clutches of The Great Fire.
My screams dissipated into a mere distant echo deep within the cavernous walls. And as the flames boiled my melting heart…in those final moments of clarity…I saw the six tall, pointed figures emerge from the shadows. Their cloaks black as a deep void against the flashes of orange and yellow.
They stood in a circle around The Great Fire, and I watched as they raised their arms. The humming had been an ancient, grotesque chant that now grew louder, overcoming the roaring, crackling blaze.
And then…with their arms outstretched, the cloaked figures began to sway.
In unison with the flames.
* * *
I awaken to fathomless cold.
I awaken to a longing.
A longing that languishes deep within the frozen crags of my soul.
I do not know how long I have been in the darkness.
How long I have been in the cold.
I know only that I must return.
I glide through the stony darkness and emerge into the moonlight.
I swirl through the dark silhouettes of the pines.
Ahead… glimmering through the darkness…through the trees.
There is light inside.
There is warmth inside.
I come to the clearing.
Emerging soundlessly upon the silver lawn.
How long have I been in the darkness?
How long have I been in the cold?
I am halfway there.
Halfway between the darkness and the light.
Yet…reaching the midpoint, I find that I can go no further.
Something prevents me.
As if the shack is saying, “No…I have chosen another.”
A solitary figure slowly descends the creaking steps.
A timid voice calls out into the night.
“Are you alive?”
About Caleb Hunter
Caleb Hunter is a husband, a father, a book nerd, a Batman aficionado, a metal-head, a purist, a coffee imbiber (he’ll always take his as deep and dark as possible, thank you very much) a lover dark, misty days, and a lover of scary movies.
Caleb Hunter is a writer.
A disciple of Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King (just to name a few), you can usually find him reading/writing sci-fi, fantasy and/or horror.
He recently had a piece of flash fiction entitled, “I See It” published by Underwood Press. Please go check it out, and send him your thoughts!
Caleb Hunter currently resides in the green, mountainous regions of Northeast Georgia with his wife Shelley, and their imaginative daughter Adelaide. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram (kringl), Facebook, or GoodReads.