The Ritual

Jane hadn’t wanted me to come with her to the cottage at first. But I had always liked her mother. Now the old woman had died I would miss coming to see her. I came to help her clear the cottage of her mother’s belongings, so it wasn’t the happiest of times for Jane or for me.

The days were still warm and full of sun, although September had now given way to October so we spent some days out in the garden.

‘Will you sell it?’ I asked on our first day there.

Jane just shook her head. She had found an old photograph album and was sitting out in the garden with a cup of that strange herbal tea she likes, leafing through the album, every now and then touching a picture as she turned the pages.

That night something woke me.

That was not unusual now. Over the last few nights in the cottage, something had disturbed me each night. Jane said it was because I wasn’t used to the countryside. Maybe there was some truth in that. Like any other naïve city dweller, I’d expected the nights in the country to be… well, not silent, but far less noisy than those of the city.

But that was not the case.

There were animals out there at night. All of them involved in what sounded like a battle between those that needed to eat and those who wanted to avoid being eaten.

It wasn’t that which had awoken me though.

Although, once awake I heard something like a snort of laughter from the woods that edged the cottage garden. I rolled over, my hand reaching across the bed for Jane. She wasn’t there. I lifted my head, but the bathroom was dark, silent.

Then I heard the back door. The cottage back door had its own distinctive creak. One noise I was familiar with now. I lay there for a minute or so, or at least that’s how long it felt. There wasn’t much sense of time passing, but Jane did not return to bed and the back door did not creak again.

I got out of bed, lifting the curtain. It was less dark out there, than I – a city boy – expected. I saw movement at the edge of the garden where the woods begin.

I recognised the flash of Jane’s red hair, dark in the moonlight.

Her pale skin.

She was naked.

Running into the woods naked in the middle of the night.

I hurried into my clothes. Obviously, her mother’s death had led to some kind of breakdown, or a nightmare, or sleepwalking… sleeprunning.

I ran too. Dashing out through the creaking back door and up to where the path led into the woods.

I thought about calling out to Jane. I could see her moving swiftly, and with sureness of foot, through the darkness of the woods, dodging trees, brambles and  everything else I stumbled over or through as I lumbered in her wake.

Something flickered orange through the trees. I slowed, smelling wood smoke. Then I panicked, thinking it was an out of control forest fire.

I ran, crashing through into a clearing.

There was a fire.

A bonfire in the centre of the clearing.

Jane stood with two other women. All of them naked. They held hands, forming a circle.

The women started moving, chanting something in a language I’d never heard before. They circled faster.

Then in the middle of the circle stood Jane’s mother, the dead women we had buried only the day before.

She saw me and pointed. The three women broke their circle, turning to me.

The dead woman gestured to me. I found myself walking forward towards her.

‘You should not have come,’ Jane said.

I nodded as the dead woman grabbed my hand to take me with her. Then I understood I would never see that cottage, or Jane… again.

 

Published by David Hadley

A Bloke. Occasionally points at ducks.

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