[The whole of it, together at last. If you wish only to read the new bits, they are highlighted at the bottom. Also, this story, is very much related.]
“…It was not simply the austere, earnest demeanor of young William which committed me to this endeavor. Despite the unyielding consistency of the boy’s claims, and his tired and almost numb delivery of the tale when pressed, the outlandish nature of his narrative would have predisposed me strongly against its validity. That is, of course, had I not begun dabbling in real estate some years ago.
Nevertheless, the lad’s story of glowing coal eyes, impossible infernos, and narrow escape beggared belief. Still though, I shall never forget the empty distance within the rough little fellow’s eyes as he described to me the terrible screams of his father. That such a young child could so vividly describe his own father’s agonizing final moments as a blanket list of emotionless facts, it twists knots into my chest still. Perhaps not all those bruises came from his tumble through the roof.
More shocking still, I had read such a tale before. In a dusty journal, inherited from a former tenant, I came across such an astonishingly surreal passage.
The unfortunate Mrs. Brinkley had lost both her husband and only son to the ravages of the relentless sea. Her parents, in-laws, and other possible relations remained a world away when she too passed. It was a sad story, netting me little beyond sighs.
I thumbed through a worn journal while my hired men carted away her meagre possessions. Therein I discovered a strange passage, situated within the normalcies (one imagines) of a young lady's diary…”
“…Saving that she wrote to her diary in a uniquely epistolary fashion, far beyond the convention of ‘Dear Diary.’
Young Ms. Bennet asked it questions, for one thing, and seemed to regard them as answered the day after. Why she even made frequent requests to be kept in the book’s nightly prayers!
Conspicuously absent were any references to actual friends. It was difficult to reconcile the gregarious Mrs. Dolores Brinkley against the quiet, demurring character of young Ms. Dolores Bennet.
Mostly she wrote of stolen moments; monotony quelled by observations of tadpoles, beetles, and small lizards. A childhood, it seemed, much like my own. A speck more isolated, perhaps, but much like my own
Until Whispering Embers slid like oily smoke into Ms. Bennet’s strange new world…”
“…Ms. Bennet first remarked upon the creature thusly:
‘…strange and noisome visitor to my room late last night. At first I thought it father, in one of his moods, but soon the smell of cracklings came on very strongly. Oh diary, it may well have knocked me down were I not already abed. Two tiny flames, like faltering candles, looked at me for a long time. Oh I don’t even know how I knew they were eyes. Have you ever just felt that you were watched?
I pretended to sleep. I didn’t know what else to do. Finally I screwed up enough courage to call out to it. “Go away!” I shouted in a whisper from beneath the linens.
“Sorry, Dolores,” it said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I suppose that if I must have a ghost, I would prefer a polite one.’
Slowly, in the subtext of her rambling conversations with ‘Dear Diary’, it seemed the creature gained the confidence of young Ms. Bennet. “Long conversation with Whispering Embers last night. She is so funny, and she really listens. I think you would like her, diary…” Such sentences and sentiments became increasingly frequent as her diary slowly faded into an occasionally updated journal.
Her final three entries were of particular interest.
The first of them was written in atypically plain script.
Spoke at length with W. E. last night. I don’t think father is a good person.’
The second looked jagged, abrupt, and peppered with hesitant puddles of ink.
‘The fire came with her. I was not I had no way to be ready. I couldn’t do it. I got too scared and climbed out the window. Whispers looked at me from the window, from up there, wings of of (sic) fire. She smiled at me, but sadly. Father continued to scream.
Aunt Meredith is on her way.’
The Final was written in with a palsied hand, with a different pen and much thicker ink.
‘I saw her at Ryan’s wake, while most of us slept surrounding his empty coffin, W. E. came out from the shadows. She offered her simple sympathy and left me with a rose and the stink of rendering lard.’ ”
“It was settled then, my course of action. The clarity of the vine, a spent pouch of tobacco, a sheath of maps, and a quiet considered evening brought about the specifics of the matter.
It had been a pair of years since I retired from Highport to our tiny village and one more besides since I had read Mrs. Brinkley’s journal. Add to that the year she lived post Ryan’s loss at sea, and it appeared the creature moved quite slowly, or perhaps wandered broadly. By hired horse and chartered boat, it should’ve taken me short of a month to arrive in Highport.
From there I would take the more direct, if much wilder, overland route, seeking any and all clues of the creature. For it was then that my curiosity overleapt and my desire for motion waxed full; the idleness of retired country life had sat poorly upon me for some time. (I, of course, miss idleness terribly at present.)
Between dangerous men, uncooperative equines, and petulant spring storms, I arrived in Highport somewhat worse for the wear, six weeks later.”
“The trail of the creature was quite cold. I floundered and stewed for some time, cursing this as a fool’s errand. Trips to outlying villages netted nothing: no memory of mysterious fires, no legends of smoke-stinking monsters. What had I hoped for? To befriend some dowager and sort through her thorough collection of regional newspapers?
Many miles of trackless wilds and scattered settlements lay between myself and home. After my unfortunate journey there, the daunting trek back weighed upon me.
Should I have even concerned myself with the creature? I wondered.
It seemed intent only upon destroying wicked men.
But then there was Edith, young William’s sister.
I had to go on. I needed more. I needed to know.
I resolved myself with the aid of a well-traveled whiskey and plotted a circuitous route homeward. Village upon village, tiny trackless towns, and abandoned crossroad public houses all lay in wait for me.
As word of my eccentric search spread faster than my hired coach, I gradually found myself better directed towards those with interest or knowledge of occult matters. Upstanding citizens more quickly dismissed me as a loon, and the queer folk whose words I sought more readily accepted me as one of their own…”
“…She was whispered to be a witch. She called herself a sorceress. I remain uncertain, even after all I’ve seen, if I could tell any difference between the two. However, it is difficult to imagine kind eyed Angelique to be in collusion with Old Scratch.
Nonetheless, she certainly kept strange company: one eyed hunchbacks, pale skinned pygmies, women so wild and hirsute their eloquent tongues beggared belief. These odd folk?, creatures?, perhaps I shall turn further back for a more appropriate term: These gentyl wights were the most courteous and civil houseguests I have ever observed. Still yet, they politely demurred away from my questions, and I was well enough raised not to press the matter.
It was the whistling of birds, chattering of squirrels, and ominous cries of the whip-poor-wills which served as my ultimate guide: none of which would have been possible without Angelique’s uncanny translations.
We took a long winding tour of lonely charred cabins and fire-wrecked cottages within abandoned towns. The further I trod upon this unusual path, the deeper and deeper a sense of haunting yet palpable rage did fill the air. I began waking in fright at the popping of my increasingly diminutive campfires. I slept less and less once Angelique announced her abandonment. Without any to watch over my sleep – for the teamster had long ago left my employ – I slept but little.
Still yet every morn thus far, an hour ahead of dawn, the whip-poor-wills have cried me to the necessary path. Though there are now far fewer amongst their ranks. Today, I believe, only a single pair remained…”
“I write to you in haste. I have gathered such notes as survived my interaction with the creature.
It is mad. It has no regard for human life. It seeks only to recreate the accident of its horrid birth.
Even as I pleaded for the lives of the children it once defended, it ruthlessly burned alive the very last of the helpful whip-poor-wills. I swear by God’s wounds the bird cried out in human agony.
It told me those children were already dead, ‘marred and scarred beyond kind and ken.’
The creature’s only expression? A resigned and empty smile. Whatever humanity once held within it has long ago evaporated under overexposure to conflagration or perhaps simply to the passage of years.
It will not cease. It will only become more dangerous. I alone know its destination and only for this eve.
My time in Highport was not wasted. I believe the wire rope, imported at some cost via a mining supply consortium, will serve well enough. The father is a sawyer. The family lives above his mill. My hopes are not high, but success is far from impossible.
Wish me luck. And let us both hope wishes can move backward through time.
This remains the last known correspondence of Bertram Harrold.
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