Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
Please check out the Shadows of Shallowbrooke series tag for prior installments!
If we have to begin anywhere, I’d say we should start with Peter Hemphill. I need to remind you however, that although this story may start with him, the shadows that linger in Shallowbrooke did not. They resided there when Peter’s great grandfather, who were reputed to be the oldest man in town and perhaps the entire region, was nothing but an afterthought in the dim candlelight of a wedding bed. They existed even before that, long before the natives were driven to exile from their home, and strange settlers reworked and rebuilt the land. One of the villages they raised was Shallowbrooke, and even then the shadows waited patiently in the surrounding swamps, woodlands and lakes. What we speak of I cannot reveal to you, because it’s a door which remains shut, even to me. I dare not open it, because even if it’s closed, whatever’s on the other side gazes through the keyhole. Shallowbrooke was just unfortunate enough to be built in its shadow.
Let us instead focus our gaze on little Peter, who were indeed small compared to the revolving mysteries of the shadow. Peter was not a man of the world, actually barely a man at all. This was a fact he tried to deny by telling himself otherwise, yet in his heart he knew the truth. He was not in any way unique or different from all the other boys who balanced on the threshold between manhood and childhood, yet in the larger sense I suppose he was. He was the only child who hadn’t been born in Shallowbrooke, but moved there from Mournstead a couple of miles up the road.
He’d spent his adolescence trotting the summers and the winters on the village’ spooky grounds, and he was the only one who’d ever dared to ask about its twisted and obscure past. He’d only been thirteen after all, and rumors of Shallowbrooke were plenty outside its foreboding boundaries. Outsiders tended to avoid the village, a place around which travelers had a tendency to disappear, and as people always do when they’re afraid, they talked about it. Dark whispers and strange rumors, some true and some not, seemed to bloom everywhere except for within Shallowbrooke itself. This chilled young Peter, because his questions were met not only with silence, but with a sinister sense of superstitious dread. Everyone fell quiet for a while, as if in reverence to some God to which worship had been banished, and then resumed their conversation of the harvest, or the weather, or nothing at all. After some time, Peter had quit making his inquiries. Instead he had moved forward with the world, and taken up the habit of not asking when the people who volunteered for night watch disappeared or no one entered the mines because there was singing in the dark. In his mind he labeled it only as “the strangeness”, and went on to ignore it as everyone else
“What’s that, Pete?” Brian Hook asked him, one eye closed against the midday sun and the other peering at him through one swollen, sleep deprived hatch of a socket.
“Nothing,” Peter replied offhandedly and tugged his cigarette back to the left corner of his mouth. He did this with some care, as if it was a chore worth a certain amount of consideration. They’d been up since the break of dawn, thinking they were to help their fathers tend the western fields and maybe clean out the barns, but it had turned out being so much more than that. With aching backs and sore muscles, they’d come to the agreement to meet down by the brook after work, smoke a cigarette away from their benefactor’s prying eyes and maybe catch a peek of the lovely Marietta Bradle doing the laundry. She’d inherited her good looks from her mother alright, but the intelligence shining in Lucile’s eyes must have skipped a generation. Lately Marietta always put the laundry down too deep and soaked a little more than was called for, coming back up with her blonde braid dripping and the front of her shirt stuck to her breasts.
It had become something of a ritual for the boys, and even one or two men I might add, to sit on the other side of the brook and spy on the girl. Her occasional breast dipping gave room for aroused giggles and hushed laughter from the onlookers, as well as a few low whistles and sexual endearments. The possibility that she might have been aware of her witnesses all along and dipped her breasts on purpose was a thought which never crossed their minds. This afternoon however, they’d been unlucky.
“Think she’ll come down later?” Brian asked hopefully, one eye still shut against the bright golden light.
“Nah, I think Mrs. Bradle must have done it earlier.” Peter replied with the tone of a man who’s thoughts are in the far away and long gone.
“Wouldn’t mind seeing her dipping her breasts either.” Brian mouthed and plucked a tall straw from the ground which he shoved into his mouth.
“Hey, what’s that?” Brian called out and gestured to something floating in the water. Peter pushed his hat back on his head and gazed out over the brook, a patch of scruffy blonde hair falling down to cover his brow.
“What?” Peter asked as he was ripped from his thoughts, but it was a just a reflex. A large sheet of white cloth floated slowly along the stream, expanding as it went like a torn sail.
“Looks like someone dropped something.” Brian added with a shrug. “Was probably big-tits-and-no-brains.” He continued with a distasteful smirk. Peter lost patience with him. He balled his hand into a fist, extended the joints of his fingers and struck Brian hard on the right shoulder.
“You don’t need to be an ass.” Peter said, scowling at him with a judging glint of retribution in his dark eyes. Brian shrugged again.
“We ought to fish it out and return it to Mrs. Bradle.” Peter said, and Brian nodded at him, sore after being scolded.
Peter grabbed a tall twig from the underbrush and fished the cloth out of the water. He held it out in front of him before dropping it in the dirt with a sudden shriek.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Brian asked, annoyed, something which might have had something to do with his earlier scolding. Peter didn’t answer, just stared down at the cloth with his mouth open in an O and his eyes wide and staring.
“What’s wrong, Pete?” Brian asked and took a step closer, worried now as well as curious. There was no need to ask anymore, he saw it, and his own lips parted in surprised horror. Half the sheet had bloomed with blood, the crimson now faded from the extensive time under water, but it was still almost black in the center. ‘That’s where the victim bled’, Peter thought, his thoughts slow and clumsy as if dragged through mud.
“Maybe…” Brian began tentatively. “Maybe Mrs. Rathburn had her child?” He finished hopefully.
“She’s not due for another five months. If she’d had a miscarriage we’d have heard about it.” Peter said slowly, a part of him wanting to believe very badly Mary Rathburn had a miscarriage. He actually found himself wishing it so bad he was afraid he might cause it if she hadn’t. What was the alternative after all, murder? It was an insane thought, one he tucked away deep in his mind and locked away. No one would murder anyone in Shallowbrooke. They’d all been neighbors, friends and family since the beginning of time. No, it couldn’t have been murder. He would bring this cloth up to his father and ask, he would know what to do. His father always knew what to do.
Peter was essentially a kind boy, but as we’ve established he was not a man of the world. There had in fact been plenty of murders in Shallowbrooke. The village was built upon them like a memorial to death and anguish. Its bloody history reached back through thousands of years, reached through civil wars and witch hunts, through human sacrifice and cannibalism. It touched upon the ancient men’s first taste for bloodshed, continued onwards through insanity and despair, splashing the pages of its past with rivers of corpses and insane acts. The tiny speck of blood found on Lucile Bradle’s sheet was just a drop in the ocean, or in this case the brook.
None the less, something had begun to go very wrong in Shallowbrooke. Even in a town accustomed to wrongness, there was a time when everything peaked. Now that time had come again. Oh lords and ladies, bring out the scythes, because it’s harvest time. Something was preparing to bring in the crop alright, and it all began with sweet Marietta Bradle. She was not sixteen, as her mother had been when she wandered off into the forest and came upon the shadow, but two pristine years older. For us, time might have stood still, but for poor Lucile it has not. Twenty years have passed since we saw her last, and they have treated her well. She married and had Marietta barely two years after her return from the woods. Her scarred mind has mercifully clouded most of her memories, even those of the woman in the hut and the horse she left behind. Now she’s no longer sure if she walked or rode on that path, and she can just barely remember how something could have gone so horribly wrong. In the starless dungeons of the night however, she dreams about the meadow. She dreams of the dead eyes of the sheep staring endlessly upon a dark sky, their fleshy ruins infecting the air with death and stink. Most of all it is the singing of the crows she remembers. It follows her as she wakes sweaty and panting in the dim dawning hours, cawing with evil glee at the horrors of the world.
“I liked it!” She’d wake and cry with her mind still trapped within her twisted and muddled memories.
In the feverish gleam of her subconscious, the complexities of the human mind wiped away the lens, removed the illusion and showed her what it had known but not been allowed to tell. She saw the bowl with the corpse eaters, yellow and squirming, born from the carcasses of dead children. She knew then, knew in the half second she was allowed to have this uncovered knowledge, that something was inside the hut with her, something unspeakable that said;
“Did you like the mushroom stew?” And its voice was dead, toneless and hideous, but worst of all; it wasn’t entirely lacking humor. Somewhere underneath the black sewers of cruel lies and sinister tunes, a giggle lay buried.
She’d stay that way, sitting up in bed with the tears streaming down her cheeks, no longer any idea what she’d dreamed or why she was crying. Her husband would stir beside her. Sometimes he woke up to comfort her, but more often than not she was alone with her terror. If we move forward a bit, because as much as I’d like to tell you differently, there really is nothing we can do for Lucile. She’s alone, and we have to let her move on with the world. Instead we look upon her daughter, Marietta, who is not her mother’s spitting image but close enough for government work. She has inherited the often flushed round cheeks her father brought to the mix, and while her eyes are brilliant blue like Lucile’s, her hair is curly and tarnished gold instead of bright blonde. She has a slow walk, as if she’s always careful where to put her feet, and she regards the world with an inquisitive shyness. Despite what Brian Hook might believe Marietta is in no way stupid. Her intelligence is a quick greased lightning, honed by her curiosity and completed by her passion for school work. If any of the boys and men who enjoyed watching her from the other side of the brook had done a little thinking of their own, they would have seen there was something terribly wrong with the girl. It was not an old thing either, for she had begun to change just in the past month.
It didn’t begin with the voices. If anything, I’d say it began with the dreams. Business such as this always begins in dreams, and the ones Marietta had during those chilly autumn nights were truly something extraordinary. They were as a matter of fact not really dreams at all, but more like messages. I won’t tell you from where, I don’t dare to go down that path, but I can tell you what they said. She dreamt of a large oak, centered in a clearing littered with human bones. Mossy vines danced in the wind, and the wood creaked solemnly in the gusts of cold air. She was not alone either. There was a girl there, young and beautiful, at the peak of her physical perfection and blooming with vitality. Her hair was bright blonde, straight and beautiful as it flickered in the wind. Lucile spoke in her older voice, the one of the mother rather than the girl, and she said;
“You should have gotten my face, love. The younger should always surpass the beauty of the older, don’t you think? You should have been prettier than I am.” In her sleep Marietta nodded slowly. Her lips parted and a gust of sleepy words escaped between them.
“Yes, mother… I should have inherited your face.”
The dream came back, not only once a week or every now and then, but every night. She thought about it during the days, thought about how right her mother was, how she should have inherited that face. Eventually she began to make plans. Maybe her mother’s face could still belong to her? The voices that came with the dream told her so.
It was a beautiful voice, but in the beginning it had frightened her. It was melodic and kind, but there was darkness underneath it, something terrible she didn’t want to think about. It was the voice that told her to drench her breasts and give the boys a good look. It told her it was all she was worth after all, that she was just a whore like her mother. Lucile thought she had gotten away, the voice said, but no one ever gets away. It also told her that Marietta deserved her mother’s face, and as she drenched the front of her shirt in the slowly trailing brook, she really couldn’t agree more. So on her way home, her basket of laundry cradled in her arms, she passed Leslie Doogle, the blacksmith, and ordered a pair of shears. She was going to cut something which was tough but very delicate, she told Leslie. She was going to cut something which needed a great deal of care and precision. So Leslie, grinning at the lovely young girl whose mother he’d once been in love with, made her the sharpest shears ever made in his shop. Two days later he had it delivered to her home. Had he known she was going to use it to cut off her mother’s face, he might have been somewhat reluctant to fulfill his work.
Marietta’s father was dead. Not in just any way either, but had ironically enough disappeared in the mines just like her grandfather. As such, there was no one to stop her the night she decided to inherit her mother’s face. She crept up to Lucile’s bed and placed a hand on her cheek. Her lips curved upwards from the love and tenderness woken by her mother’s resting form, and as the woman on the bed opened her eyes, Marietta slit her throat. She struggled to sit up, a horrifying gurgle of blood rising like bile in her massacred airways, but her daughter held her down. Still smiling Marietta whispered;
“Hush now, mother. It’s alright; it’s all going to be alright.” Her hand caressed Lucile’s cheek, now lined where it used to be smooth, but still possessed by a curious youthful beauty. Her life gushed from her throat in heart curdling gasps for breath and soaked the white sheet Peter and Brian would later scoop out of the brook.
“You know I deserve your face, mother.” Marietta whispered, her smile growing wider. “You’ll see its all for the best. I love you.” She then kissed her forehead, and Lucile wept as the world first grew dark, and then vanished all together.
Marietta hummed softly as she got to work. She would possess what always should have been hers, and she was sure her mother truly approved. If she’d wept for anything, it must have been joy. The shears were indeed sharp, fitting perfectly in her right hand, and it cut through the skin like wet tissue paper. However, even though Marietta was a proficient tailor, she was not a surgeon. Getting the face off a human being is not something you can accomplish very well with a pair of shears. It didn’t matter to her however, who had fallen so deep into insanity that her mind marveled at the twisted, distorted piece of flesh she eventually pried from her mother’s corpse. She walked over to Lucile’s bedroom mirror and sat down with the face mask in her lap. She got needle and thread from the top drawer and sewed a thin strap of leather to each side of the shredded skin. She then slid the mask over her face, not even noticing the thin trails of blood running from the freshly cut tissue and across her chin.
She yelped in surprised joy as she gazed upon her reflection in the mirror. The result was a twisted, distorted and horrifyingly malformed piece of skin which slightly resembled a face, but wasn’t anywhere close to Lucile’s likeness. It mostly looked like a bloody piece of leather which had been stretched too wide and was about to give in. Marietta loved it however, and the ugly yet beautiful voice in her mind approved greatly.
“There!” It said, and the malicious darkness behind its words had grown stronger, more dominant. “Now you’re truly beautiful!” Marietta couldn’t agree more, and she couldn’t remember a time in her life when she’d been happier.
Two days later, when Peter had shown the blood stained sheet to his father, and he in turn had taken it to the village priest, most of the town stood gathered in front of the Blue Badger in. It was a tavern which had once been somewhat prosperous, but had decayed and lost most of its clientele over the last fifteen or twenty years. The nature of Shallowbrooke being what it was, most merchants chose the longer route along the coast instead of the more direct road through the woods of “that place” as it was called by outsiders. Travels to the capital were never easy, but not many dared put the strange rumors of Shallowbrooke to the test. Despite this, some did, and many of these “some” disappeared as a result. Fifteen years ago many had still been brave enough to try, but one and a half decade was a long time of disappearances, and eventually traffic had ceased completely.
John Edgecombe, a devout and dutiful priest of Aeren’s church, held the cloth up for all the people to see. The red flower of blood which had bloomed at its center had faded even more in the passing days, but no one mistook it for something other than what it was. Low gasps and murmurs floated upon the air and fell silent as the priest began to speak. He was not a man used to be interrupted or even contradicted, and when he spoke people always listened. He was the closest thing to a leader the village had ever known. So how could anyone ever have suspected that he, the purest and the spiritually strongest man in the township, had begun to go insane?
“Who knows of this!?” He chanted like the village crier rather than the priest he was. “Something has run afoul in our village! Someone has been murdered!” He yelled, his voice rising with each syllable as if to pose a question. Peter, who stood next to the old priest, peered somewhat unsettled in his direction. Sure, there was a lot of blood, but was murder really the first assumption to make? Well, it was the first thought he’d had himself after all, and if there was that special someone who always knew best, it was Priest Edgecombe.
“Scathe! That ancient serpent, the timeless enemy of our beloved lord Aeren, is loose in this village! She slithers among you like a snake made of stone, spitting her blasphemies and whispers in your ears!” He was very loud now, his wide eyes sparkling with some intense feverish light, and Peter wondered for the first time if there wasn’t something wrong with him. He swallowed the thought. If anyone was protected by the higher powers, it was certainly priest Edgecombe. If he wasn’t safe, someone so close to the one true God, then whoever else would be?
It was raining. The sky had abandoned its brilliant blue skin and covered itself in a coat of filthy grey clouds. It opened its sorrow and wept upon the world with large, bloated tears. The rain splattered upon the roofs of the wooden buildings, the sheepskin farmer’s hats and the rawhide working trousers of those gathered. No one heard the tiny footsteps approaching from the rear, but as they saw her they parted like the sea before a religious legend from another world. Their faces twisted into horrified masks of terror, and their mouths parted in awe of the horror they witnessed.
Marietta strode silently through the crowd, the remains of her mother’s decaying face strapped to her own, smeared with drying blood and surrounded by the unmistakable stink of rotting flesh. Without a body’s natural remoistening capabilities, the once beautiful skin of Lucile Bradle had wrinkled and dried to an ugly husk. It was a sight I cannot properly relay to you. Just believe me when I say it was horrible beyond belief, and it struck the sad fate of Shallowbrooke’s inhabitants with a fresh bout of nightly terrors.
Priest Edgecombe silenced at once. With an expression of reproach as someone stole his momentum, and the more understandable reaction of shocked terror, he seized Peter’s arm in a painful grip with one gnarly hand. Peter who was still holding the blood soaked sheet didn’t notice. He was too busy staring at the new star of the evening.
“Am I not beautiful?” Marietta exclaimed, her eyes now lit by the lunatic which had come to dwell within her. She cackled wildly as she made a pirouette upon the wet soil, the heels of her boots digging into the mud.
“I inherited my mother’s face!” She chanted wildly as she spun around in front of the crowd. “I inherited my mother’s face! I inherited my mother’s face!” On and on she went for what seemed like several hours. No one else said anything at all, simply watched the lunatic girl as she spun around, cackling wildly at the sky with the face of her mother rotting upon her own.
“Take her away…” Priest Edgecombe exclaimed silently, his voice strained and hoarse from fright as well as dried up from his previous shouting. “Take her way and lock her up… She’ll be hanged by the morrow. No sermon.” He then turned and strode off down the high road as the guard grasped Marietta’s arms and legs, ignoring her confused cries of outrage. Only Leslie the blacksmith wept. He wept silently, without sobs or bouts of hysteria. His tears ran down his cheeks in trailing rivers of sorrow, knowing now why she’d bought the shears.
The days after Marietta’s grotesque performance, dawned vital and undisturbed. Each day’s sky slipped onto the black heavens in a brilliant birth of bright gold and feverish crimson. It then shed it for the deep blue of peace and good dreams. The lakes and swamps around the outskirts swept the village and the woodlands in a thin webbing of woven mist. It hovered above the ground in the way the elderly called “fairy dance”, embraced the township and its inhabitants in a false sense of peace and calm comfort. Everything seemed to have been undone by the world, as if it had forced hell to open its mouth and reclaim what it had set loose. Yet the corpse of a young girl swayed lightly in the wind from the branch of a willow outside of town. Her eyes had resigned to a milky white, now staring endlessly at the calm sky like two useless marbles. Her skin had grown pale, her lips a bruised and filthy blue reminiscent of winter and harsh upbringings. A slug slid across the landscape of her smooth face, and the tip of her tongue had fallen out between her lips in a blistered black contrast to the grey of her cheeks. The rope creaked in mellow agony as the corpse swung from side to side. Soon the crows would gather upon the rotting flesh and fill their bellies, singing the tune which had hounded Lucile as she was ripped from her nightmare by the cruel points of newly sharpened shears.
Something had gone horribly wrong in Shallowbrooke. Deep beneath the coiling, dark shadows of this world and the twisted slither of the next, something ancient had opened an eye. Within the tall grass of the western fields all life had fallen still. The birds of the woods had departed for brighter lands, and the wolves sat covering in the blackness of the night. The door had opened, if only very slightly, and harvest time had come again.
Credit To: Catcid