Estimated reading time — 27 minutes
My name is Julien Serrault. It is the 7th of January, 1882. I am an innkeeper outside the mountain town of Briancon, at the base of the French Alps. The inn does not do much trade, and in the winter months I am sometimes alone for days at a time. In recent times I have earned a pittance delivering dry goods and sundries once a month to Abbey St. Genest eight miles west. The abbey is housed in Castle Archambault, a somewhat forbidding edifice deep in the forest, accessible only by a winding road that is often made impassable by snow. In the time of Napoleon’s rule, the castle had been the possession for twenty years of Count Archambault and his wife, well-respected in their day and generous with their wealth. They were found dead in their bedroom after having disappeared from public for many weeks, the victims of suicide by poison. It was rumored that the countess, Nadia by name, had dabbled in the occult and brought doom to herself and her innocent husband by seeking immortality through demonic visitations, turning the castle into an impure, accursed place habitable only by those with total purity of spirit. All nonsense, of course, a tale conjured by fools to cruelly cast doubt upon the sincerity of the count’s donation of his land and riches to a church neither he nor his wife had any dealings with in life.
The abbess of St. Genest, Mother Henriette, was a gregarious woman who invariably came out to meet my wagon during a delivery and always insisted on helping me with the load while she entertained me with the latest joke she’d heard from the man who helped the sisters tend their expansive gardens. I grew fond of her over the two years I delivered to the abbey, sometimes taking the sisters’ handmade crafts and pies back with me to sell at the inn. One afternoon in November I loaded up my wagon with barley, rice, cabbages, and pears and began the ninety-minute trek to the abbey to drop off the month’s supplies. I got an unusually late start, and night fell as I went, the remnants of a recent snowfall settling in the woods all around me. As usual, I passed no one on my journey. The weather in these parts is unpredictable enough from October to April to dissuade any casual travelers from venturing too far into the forest. I arrived at Gola Road as day became night. The tall spires of the castle became visible through the trees a half-mile away. The road sloped upwards gradually, and a man on foot would be exhausted upon reaching the castle’s front gate.
This time Mother Henriette was waiting for me just off the road, most likely having spotted the wagon from one of the castle’s high windows. She laughed at my tardiness and informed me that the abbey was not accepting overnight guests no matter the color of my coin. She opened the gate so I could proceed to the storehouse, where two of the sisters would assist me in unloading the goods. I never felt less than humbled on the castle grounds, small before its immensity, although it was surely of modest size when compared with some in the Alps.
When we were done and I was to be on my way, Mother Henriette approached me holding something in her arms, something swaddled in a blue blanket. She introduced me to what she called her ‘little friend,’ a baby deer that had wandered onto the grounds seeking shelter. She held it fondly and maternally, explaining that the sisters had little choice but to watch after it until it could survive on its own, as its mother had never appeared. Peering through the growing dark, I saw that the deer was sleeping, its head almost completely enclosed and snug under the blanket. I told Mother Henriette I was surprised the baby wasn’t awake and alert in the bitter cold, and she said she worried about that too; the poor creature often slept for hours and hours at a time. I reached a hand under the blanket and touched its little head. For some reason the deer’s body was incredibly warm to the touch, disturbingly so. I mentioned this, too, to Mother Henriette, and she concurred. All they could do was pray for the beast and take care of it as best they could. And that was my November visit to the abbey. I reached the inn by seven o’clock and settled in for the night with a book.
After falling asleep I fell prey to some terrifying dreams. I came awake well past midnight, trying to shake a vision of a gigantic undersea monstrosity crashing through the bow of a ship on which I was a mate. At the sound of a crewman screaming and the bow splitting, dooming all on board to death in the ocean, my eyes opened in my bedroom. I managed to fall asleep once again, but yet another nightmare came for me. I was tied to the ground in the woods at night, and a man whose head was encaged in a bizarre metal apparatus approached me, holding a baby high above his head. I was begging this man not to harm it, but he then stood over me, the baby crying and kicking, and without a word he slammed that poor little child down upon my left arm, undoubtedly killing the infant with the awful force of the strike. I awoke at that exact moment, a dog howling somewhere far away in the forest. I lay in my bed quite still for a moment, feeling a tingling in my left arm, as if in fact it had been struck. Then, perhaps five seconds after this terrible dream ended, an excruciating bolt of pain leapt up my arm from fingers to shoulder. A second bolt followed the first, and I rose from my bed in a panic, moving my arm into the moonlight that streamed through my window.
What I beheld caused me to cry out in horror. My arm was twisted around so drastically it was as if God himself had attached it to my body incorrectly. It had also broken in two places, white bone protruding just below my elbow. I managed to stagger three steps forward but then collapsed to my knees, weeping in agony, having no understanding of what could have happened to me. The thought that perhaps an intruder had broken in and assaulted me flitted in and out of my fevered mind, but it simply could not be. There came a final grievous bodily injury I did not even feel at first, but which asserted itself there in the dark only when I began to stumble down the stairs to the inn’s bottom floor: some of the fingers of my left hand, and my entire palm, had been burned red as if I had dowsed it all in hot water. Only three or four days later did I become certain that the afflicted flesh corresponded exactly to that which had touched the tiny deer brought to me by Mother Henriette.
Not ten minutes after discovering my injuries, I made my way out to my horse and climbed onto his back with great effort so as not to have my arm strike his side. I had made no effort to wrap it; it would have been too painful. I somehow rode four miles to a veterinarian whom I knew lived in a small cottage by the main road, urging my horse to a gallop despite the fact that such jostling caused me great agony. I simply could not take my time. The veterinarian’s wife answered my plaintive knocking. Though the man himself was away, she had learned much from him over the years, and somehow she was able to set my arm just well enough so that I could get two hours’ rest beside the hearth and set off at dawn, she plying me with narcotic whiskey from the moment I entered that saintly woman’s home.
My injuries were slow to heal, but heal they did. It was immensely difficult to operate the inn with just one young hired hand as I recovered, but I hosted only three guests in late November along with the semi-nightly visitors whose numbers I could normally count on one hand. I told those who inquired that I had fallen off a ladder while conducting a repair on the roof of the building, always privately musing upon what could possibly have caused the affliction. Nothing made any sense. Especially puzzling was the conundrum of the burns on my hand; the pain from these marks had faded quickly, but the redness remained for almost a week.
On the 12th of December, a carpenter named Gorsky delivered a message to me from the abbey. It was in Mother Henriette’s hand. In the note she told me that illness had overcome many of the sisters, including herself, and that it was best if I not make my monthly goods delivery at all. She explained that they had more than enough stores to last another few weeks and that it was not worth the risk to my health to come out and make contact. I asked Gorsky how Mother Henriette had given him the letter, and he said it had simply been nailed to a post beside the abbey’s front gate with a request that it be delivered to me. I thanked him, a bit worried, as the nature of the illness Mother Henriette mentioned remained a mystery. Most likely a virus had laid them low, perhaps almost all of the nineteen women who lived in the castle. More troublesome was the possibility that a sudden snowfall might cut me off from the sisters for an extra week, or even two or three possibly. If I was not able to get there on schedule and such a storm occurred, I knew they might go hungry, being desperately poor. Despite the worth of Castle Archambault, its inhabitants themselves possessed nothing beyond what they needed to survive, and I knew them often to be in ill health because their most basic nutritional needs sometimes went unfulfilled.
I awaited further news, but the next time Gorsky passed by, he said he’d seen no more communications outside the abbey’s gate as he’d made his way past the day before. Sitting with a glass of Schnapps, he did mention he’d seen one thing that had given him pause. He labored to describe it to me, uncertain as to how to convey the image in words and unsure of what to make of it. The sun had been low in the sky as he’d trotted on his horse up Gola Road, the horizon orange and red, throwing everything into sharp relief. In a high room he’d seen two silhouettes, feminine ones. They were engaged in a frenetic sort of dance, he thought, though that wasn’t quite right; they were locked at the arms and were spinning fast, their heads cocked back, one body urging the other toward greater and greater speed. There was nothing in this act, Gorsky said, that suggested playfulness or joy. Trees had blocked his view rather quickly, and he had been unable to get another look at this anomaly. I asked him to tell me the story again, more carefully this time, but again it led nowhere except into the parts of imagination that pondered such enigmas only in the lonely minutes before sleep.
It was approximately the 23rd of December when a most unusual visitor came to my establishment. At that time, after a snowfall of fourteen inches over the course of a single Saturday, no guests were staying at the inn, and no one at all had come in for a drink or refreshment in two days. Only when the weather warmed in late April would the inn become busy again, my life less afflicted with banal solitude. On the night I write of here the front door opened at about ten o’clock and a tall man entered, kicking snow off his boots. He offered a subdued greeting and asked if I had a room available for the night, and if I could tend to his horse. He was traveling to Font Christiane and would set out again in the morning, but he simply could not abide the wind and cold he’d come through under a waning moon. I offered him a key, and he asked me to prepare him any sort of meal if it was possible, a cold one being adequate. After I stoked the fire, I went into the kitchen to fix him turtle soup and boiled potatoes.
When I emerged into the front room with this modest repast, my guest was sitting at the table closest to the fire, gazing into it, appearing utterly exhausted. His face and his hands were chapped from the cold. He was perhaps fifty years old, had a thick red beard and somewhat sad eyes. I asked him how far he had traveled on this night, privately amazed that he should be out at all with the snow still so deep on the road. Six or seven miles, he said, especially concerned that his horse be well fed. I went to complete this errand, assuring him the animal would be given a suitable place to sleep for the night. He had finished his meal by the time I returned, and he thanked me softly as I cleared his plate. I led him to his room, which was just down a short hallway.
As I was taking my leave of him, he asked me something, finally speaking more than a few words. He asked me if I had any dealings with the abbey at the northern end of Gola Road. I said that yes, for almost two years I had delivered dry goods there on a monthly basis. He frowned severely, became keenly attentive. And had I gone there recently? he wanted to know. I explained that I hadn’t, and told him about Mother Henriette’s note. He advised me then to stay away from the abbey even if I did not hear from her again. He had just come from there this very night. A terrible sickness had befallen the sisters, he said, and it was vital that no one go near them. I asked him when it would be safe to visit them once again, expressing my fears that they might not have enough to eat. His response, spoken in a tired and deeply sorrowful voice, was that I should consider the poor women lost. I was flabbergasted. Lost, he said again. He had not been able to heal them. So he was a doctor then, I realized, and the satchel he carried was his medical kit. He bade me goodnight and closed the door.
I walked back to my own room, unable to fully internalize the ghastly news. I did not even worry for myself, my own health. I wondered what sort of God would allow this to happen to such pious women, but of course, disease has taken away many people of my acquaintance. The abbey was a most difficult place to live, its unfeeling stone a cruel conductor of the winter chill. I would try to learn more as time went on. The thought occurred to me that perhaps the nuns’ adoption of a wild animal, even one so seemingly harmless, had brought them a devastating illness. I still remembered its odd and inexplicable warmth to my touch and the troubling imprint it had left upon my person.
It was the very next day, after my guest had left the inn without a word before I even awoke, merely leaving payment on a dining table, that someone came after him. I was asleep upstairs at nine in the morning, having drunk too much the night before while musing upon the fate of Mother Henriette and the sisters. I roused myself upon hearing a faraway knock, wincing at the residual pain in my left arm that accompanied my every hour, and opened the front door to find a lad of perhaps eighteen standing on the doorstep, weighed down by a heavy saddle bag. He asked me if Father Cerf were still here or if he had ridden on across La Durance. I told him I did not know a Father Cerf, but the lad seemed to believe he had stayed at the inn the night before. Soon enough it became apparent from the young man’s physical description of my guest that the man had not been a doctor at all, but a servant of the cloth. The lad wanted to deliver a message for him from Pramorel. He shortly went on his way, visibly upset at the thought of having to follow him through the snow all the way to Font Christiane.
As the days passed and the precious few who came to the inn seemed to have no more information about the abbey, I became more and more troubled by the silence. Despite Father Cerf’s warning, I knew I would have to at least ride past the castle to confirm to myself that there was no way I could help the sisters, no way at all. I had decided upon a Monday morning to set out on this task, but upon stepping outside an hour after dawn, I could see the mists over the mountains swirling ominously, and I knew the snow was about to blow in on high winds. Eleven inches fell before nightfall, and the wind screamed as it swept down Clemencigne Road, stranding me at the inn for another three full days filled with loneliness and troubled thoughts.
On Tuesday night I set about a thorough cleaning of the inn’s five empty rooms in an attempt to take my mind off such disconcerting matters. In the room that had been most recently inhabited, by a young and very friendly scholar who had been passing through and compiling notes for a book about the episcopacy in western Europe, I found two books that he had left behind in haste or absent-mindedness. One of these was a colorful local history of our region, penned by a man named Dufresne. I knew of him, actually; he had taught at my school when I was but a lad of seventeen. I took a chair by the fire and paged through it, ashamed at my lack of knowledge of the area where I’d lived and done business for more than twenty-five years. When I caught sight of a mention of Count Archambault, I read more slowly and observantly. There was a detailed account of the count’s improvements to the land and the general area around it during his life, as well as the revisions he had engineered concerning the way the people of Briancon were represented in government. But the pages also bore mention of his curious death beside his wife, who had also expired from poisoning, almost certainly by their own hand.
Five years after they passed, and one year before the Catholic church officially took possession of the land according to Archambault’s will after much legal dispute, the castle was inhabited by a respectable family named Roucet. They became the center of a mystery, as all nine family members disappeared without a trace sometime in the year 1809, including two young children. Those who came to the castle in response to a curious lack of communication found the place well-appointed as always, but completely empty, the family’s horses unfed and dying. No explanation for their vanishing, and no trace of any of them, was ever found. It was at this time that whispers of some satanic influence within the castle took hold as never before, and those who believed that Nadia Archambault had been a witch had their notions entertained for decades. In the minds of the superstitious she was a craven temptress whose true ambition had been to reach out from beyond the grave to consume the souls of the living. From what Dufresne could surmise, much of the slander that stained her name had grown as a response to her social reticence and her rather frightful appearance. She was described as a wisp of a creature, pale as sleet, with a piercing gaze.
Then there was the apocryphal tale of a soldier boarding in Briancon who, struggling on foot through the great storm of 1801 to reach his declining mother, saw the castle rising in the distance against the stars and trudged up Gola Road in the hope that someone there might offer him a bed for the night. According to the legend, dutifully reported by Dufresne’s rambling history, the soldier saw through the blowing snow a small woman, wearing neither coat nor hat nor gloves, standing with her back to him in the center of the road. When he reached her she turned and touched his chest with bony fingers, issuing him an invitation to lay with her in the castle, where she would show him all the passageways she had created for one she called ‘the Conqueror.’ On her forehead was marked an inverted cross. The soldier fled this woman and, upon seeing a portrait of Countess Archambault long after her death, swore it had been she whom he’d seen that night. Had he not supposedly been one of Napoleon’s most trusted captains by that time, the story would certainly have been resigned to the ages without a fuss.
As I write these words, it is 4:10 a.m. on the 7th of January. I find myself writing as much as possible about what came well before the last four hours so as to put off the final accounting of what I have so recently seen and heard. Nothing matters in the end but what is real, not conjecture or rumor. After finally making it to the castle and witnessing all my mortal heart could bear, I have now returned to the safety of the inn and can do nothing now but tell the truth, and report all that I saw on this mournful, godless night, if only to this journal.
I could not leave for the abbey until my hired helper came to the inn to host anyone who might visit, so it wasn’t until almost eight o’clock that I set out for Castle Archambault. I loaded my wagon with some goods for the sisters in the unlikely case the information I had been given was completely wrong and they could use the assistance. The weather was passable when I left, with low winds coming from the east, a crisp but not terribly unpleasant night. On the way I saw someone coming down the road in the other direction, a solitary man on horseback who was singing very softly to himself. Aside from this man I saw no one.
I reached the abbey’s gate at about nine-thirty, having traveled more slowly than normal, giving myself every chance to turn around, thinking of all the reasons I should not be on this errand. Moving onto Gola Road, I actually stopped briefly when I could spy the upper part of the castle against the sky. But in the end I overcame my superstitions. The first thing I noticed through the trees that fronted the castle, troublingly, was that there was not a single light to be seen in any of its windows. Usually the sisters lit candles well before dusk and placed one behind every pane, more for the benefit of travelers than themselves. It had always been a comforting sight to see, an image of warmth and humanity on this frigid, somnolent road that stretched for miles in either direction without any glimpse of something welcoming. Now there was just a bloodless phantasm. The building looked as if it had been empty for a hundred years. It would be very cold inside, the stone walls chilling one to the core.
The low iron gate in front was closed but not locked, not a terribly unusual happenstance. I left the wagon and my horse behind and moved through it, approaching the front door, which I had never actually parted. In my right hand I held a kerosene lantern, having prepared myself for the dark. Embedded in the door was a heavy knocker shaped like an owl, which I struck five times against the wood. I waited. No one came. I had not expected a response. I pushed gently on the door and realized it had not even been fully shut. There was no visible gap between the door and the jamb, but someone had obviously not noticed that it had never been closed. Or perhaps it had intentionally been left open. I entered Castle Archambault for the first time.
All was black within. Closing the door behind me against the light wind, I found myself in a long, draughty front hall that stretched left and right. The gloom enshrouded me, and my lantern could not show me anything that was not less than five feet in front of me. The walls around me were hundred-year-old gray stone, virtually devoid of ornamentation of any kind. I called out a greeting, my words echoing with a sad hollowness, and I received nothing in return. I chose to move to my left down the hall, stepping carefully, my eyes trained mostly downward. The floor was scratched and in many places not quite level with the earth. My foot came to rest on dead winter leaves once or twice, a sign that perhaps the front door had been left open wider and longer than it had even first seemed. The sisters would certainly have swept them out right away. I knew it was true then, that they had all perished. I needed little more proof. I wondered if Father Cerf had at least sent men to give them all Christian burials before leaving the castle to its uneasy repose.
The hallway ended at a short flight on curving steps. I ascended them, surprised at the din of my boots on the stone. Before me was a short corridor with a single room on each side. I moved forward. That was when I heard something, a faint musical note coming from the end of the corridor. Someone was at a piano, and from the depths of despair my heart leapt with hope. The same high G was being keyed again and again at three- or four-second intervals, meaninglessly. I followed the note down the corridor past closed doors bearing empty sconces. This hallway ended up ahead in a room with no barrier to entry. Holding the lantern high, I began to make out the shapes of furniture, and then its details. What I entered was a sitting room with two straight-backed chairs and little else. Turning and casting the beam of the lantern to my right, I beheld the origin of the music. One of the sisters sat at a small piano, the index finger of her right hand resting gently on that G key. She lifted it and reset it, striking the note again, for the seventh or eighth time.
There was something deeply wrong with the woman, as I saw instantly. She was completely unclothed from head to toe as she sat there in this tenebrous enclosure. My puny light revealed a naked and emaciated body. I would have looked away in shame had my eyes not been drawn irrevocably to her face. The sister, one of the younger ones at the abbey, appeared blindfolded—but then, looking harder, I saw the truth of the matter was that she had been crudely and haphazardly bandaged around the eyes. She was utterly blind as she sat there, naked and unaware of my presence. She must have been freezing, but of it she gave no sign. I did not know what to say, or if I should say nothing at all and meekly withdraw. But then she sensed my presence and took her finger from that solitary key. The sound of the note faded to nothing, and there was silence save for the sound of the wind sighing through the castle’s hidden crevices. Slowly she turned her head in my direction. The bones in her face protruded unflatteringly, and her lip had been bloodied. She said to me, softly and pleasantly as if nothing in the slightest was wrong, ‘Who is it that has come to visit the sisters?’
For a moment I was too taken aback to respond. Finally I managed to nervously utter my name, and state where I had come from, the plume of my breath visible before me. I apologized for my presence and assured her I would withdraw from the abbey immediately if she wished it. Out of shame I raised the lantern higher so as to direct its feeble glow only above her neck. But instead of asking me to retreat, she offered a slow, sickly smile. Even though she could not see, she seemed to be looking directly at me. She bade me stay, stay and meet the others. I swallowed hard. I could see a drop of moisture high on her cheek, and moving just a little closer could determine that what I was looking at was blood.
I asked the sister if she desired a blanket, or food from my wagon, or medical assistance. I could not stop myself from asking what was wrong with her eyes. She tilted her head strangely. She said that of course she had torn them out as soon as she’d been able. Certain that I had misheard, I leaned in ever closer and asked her to repeat her words. When she did, in a chiding tone that made me feel like a child caught not paying attention, I asked her why she had done such a terrible thing. I was barely able to get the words out. She said that the nighttime was a tolerable time but that in the day, all the sisters saw much too much of this hideous world.
I stood in stunned silence. I was about to offer my coat, nervous at the very thought of getting so near to this deranged woman, when she rose from the wooden bench in one swift motion. She was more emaciated than I had even thought at first, and a streak of wet dirt ran from her exposed hip down to her right knee. She excused herself, told me she was terribly late for vespers, and suddenly took off in a run past me, moving trustingly into the dark, arms outstretched. Instinctively I reached out to her, my fingers only brushing her shoulder, which was so cold to the touch that I would have believed her to be a corpse. She left the room and moved down the hallway, intent on leaving me behind. Mortified, I remained where I was. The light of the lantern gave me the last glimpse of her I would ever have, her short, ragged black hair matted to her skull as she vanished, feet making soft padding sounds on the stone.
It was fear that kept me in place, fear that had already overwhelmed my sense of concern and compassion. Being there in the abbey felt like being in a tomb. I knew that if I turned fully in the direction the sister had fled, I would continue out the front door, climb into my wagon, leave and never return. So I forced myself to stand perfectly still and reclaim my nerves. Thirty seconds passed, then a full minute. I shone the light around the room. There was a thin door set into the rear wall, and I went to it. As I touched the knob I felt a gelid draft swirl around my legs and heard the sound of a single dead leaf tumbling across the stone nearby. I moved through the door and closed it behind me, trying intently not to let it make a strong sound as it latched. I do not remember the turns I took then, never daring to venture up the stairs that sometimes concluded a hallway’s length. Climbing deeper into the castle before I was aware of all that was truly around me seemed a daunting, frightening undertaking. I dreaded the way the castle so effectively hid what lay ahead of me, reluctantly revealing itself in cryptic patches and sections before the slowly weakening kerosene flame.
I had no more than five more minutes navigating the lonesome abbey’s narrow passageways before I received another, more ghastly shock. Suddenly the lantern’s light fell upon two livid faces in the dark. I stopped short in my tracks, my heart thrumming. A pair of women stood under an archway, their backs against a cragged stone wall. They too were naked, scrawny, and they too had crudely bandaged their eyes with strips of torn cloth. Moving the lantern slightly to my left caused three more faces to appear, all of them sisters of St. Genest, once serene and humble servants of God, now unclothed, sick with some illness that had no name, and perhaps utterly insane. Almost all of them possessed a sinister grin that belied their sorry condition. The oldest of the sisters, perhaps seventy years in age, spoke. She said how delightful it was that someone other than Father Cerf should visit them and perhaps bring them treats. She hoped whoever stood before them now would be kinder than Father Cerf had been, less given to judgment.
I did not respond until another sister asked my name. I gave it. One of them offered apology that Mother Henriette was not here to receive me. When I asked where she was, another replied that she had been among the first to ‘offer herself up for feeding.’ I asked what that meant, and the older sister barked out hoarse laughter. ‘We must show him!’ she said. ‘It is almost time we fed the baby in any case!’ One of the group, a woman whose scarlet hair hung down completely covering her face, clapped her hands like a schoolgirl. She said in a voice almost completely strangled by pneumonia that it had become very difficult to decide who was to be fed to the baby because everyone wanted so much to be chosen. Perhaps I could decide for them. It would be a kind of game.
Feeling my own voice about to abandon me from fear, I summoned it forcefully and told the sisters before me that I was ready and willing to transport them all to the care of doctors, and that I felt there should be no delay in this regard. ‘We hear so much of doctors!’ the oldest exclaimed harshly. ‘But we are so happy here, until the last of us has been eaten.’ Another stepped forward. Her bandage was cinched so tightly around her eyes that the flesh on its borders had gone red, perhaps from infection. I jerked back as if a snake were approaching me. Perhaps, this one said, the first among them to find me and touch me in the dark would be allowed to experience the feeding this time. This thought occasioned a titter among them all, and my very blood slowed in my veins. Giggling, two more stepped forward, reaching out playfully. Their hands were filthy, as if they had been clawing in the dirt in the frozen garden outside. I shouted at them to stay back. At this they seemed to freeze in mid-motion, and expressions of surprise and genuine offense crossed their sallow faces. There was silence. Then the eldest said if I did not wish to play, I could not speak during the choosing. ‘Come, sisters, to the great hall, so we can finish tonight’s event!’ she said.
They all turned to the north, toward the direction I had originally been set on, and moved as swiftly as their blindness allowed toward some unknown destination. I followed, amazed and dismayed at how easily they made their way, as if they’d been blind since birth. Only one of them seemed to need her hands to feel her way, and I wondered in some dim corner of my mind if perhaps she had been the most recent to take out her eyes, or beg another to perform this task. The agony of that act must have caused their frail bodies to decline that much more quickly. All were near death, I knew. At what point Father Cerf had given up on these wretches was a mystery. Perhaps he had been here for only a few minutes, or perhaps even days before he had judged the sisters beyond hope, living cadavers to be abandoned. But it seemed bizarre to me that he’d simply not had them taken in, committed, to be later healed. There was nothing contagious here, it seemed. The real illness nested deep inside their minds.
I followed them until dim light appeared up ahead; then I hesitated before moving forward again. We were entering the center part of the castle, the great main room where Count Archambault and his wife had once staged lavish balls. The room was gigantic, cavernous, and full moonlight shone through frosted windows built into the high ceiling. The furnishings here consisted of nothing more than seven or eight wooden tables ranked along the wall so that the entire floor space was open, lending the place an intense echo and a miasma of gloom and desolation. The brainsick sisters gathered in the center of the space in a pool of that moonlight, seeming to know just where to stop. The eldest clapped her hands and said, ‘Now, who shall it be tonight?’
One sister spoke up quickly, offering that she should be the one to end her life, since she had been the coldest for so many nights, and sometimes she could still make out shadows through one of her eyes, which was too great a burden to bear. This woman’s bandage had slipped down some from her brow, and I had seen a terrible indentation and scar there that had not fully healed. Despite the protests of two other sisters, the eldest silenced them and said it was just that this sufferer be released from her bonds, and should be offered to the baby tonight. At these words the volunteer beamed, but then expressed her concern that the baby might not be awake to receive her. The eldest said they must all call to him to make sure he awoke.
There came the most horrible, most haunting hymn I have ever heard expressed by human voices, as the sisters began in unison a grim performance of some song I feel no man on earth has ever heard, an eerie, atonal convocation in a language utterly foreign to my ear. They all knew every word by heart and sang with their faces to the ceiling, their bodies rigid. I cannot prove, but would swear on the King James Bible that the sky as glimpsed through the windows above us changed ever so slightly, becoming tinged with a murky crimson color for just a moment as the song faded blessedly into nothing but a ghostly echo. It might only have been an anomaly in the adjustment of my night vision to the unfamiliar surroundings, but it had been so vivid that this change in the sky and nothing other was what had caused me to look upwards. No sound I would ever hear again could be so disturbing, or so I thought in that instant, for what followed was indeed worse.
At the eastern end of the space was a pair of huge oaken doors that must have led out into the courtyard where I had sometimes left my deliveries. Bordering that courtyard, I remembered, was a lovely garden that in spring hosted a profusion of daffodils and irises. The eldest sister turned in my direction and said that if I was still here, now I would see how well they had all fed the baby who had come to them as a tiny and wounded victim of this unforgiving world. Almost immediately after she spoke, I heard from beyond those doors a shifting movement as of something of great size coming forward. After that came the sound that sent a thunderous shiver all through me, causing my recovering left arm to ache and my flesh to tingle so sharply it was as if I had been stung by a thousand bees. There was a baritone animal grunt from the courtyard, and then a low, shaky growl throatier than a grown lion’s. I should have fled then, but instead I watched as the naked volunteer strode without hesitation toward the doors, even the soft pads of her feet creating echoes. The sisters encouraged her as she groped clumsily for the heavy wooden beam that served as a locking mechanism and barred whatever beast that crouched in the cold outside from entering the castle.
With whatever strength she had left in her broken body, the damned woman lifted the beam and pushed her way out into the night. Leaves rushed in and the wind curled its icy fingers around me. The sisters seemed unaffected as they clapped and called out happy goodbyes, never calling the poor volunteer by her given name. The right-hand door swung backward and, aided by the wind, slammed heavily shut. From outside there came a high-pitched, twisting, rising animal shriek, causing me to seal my eyes shut and turn away, tears spilling down my cheeks. The creature, the baby that had gorged itself on human flesh and soul to become a behemoth, snarled, and I thought I heard a wet clamping sound and a thud of something hitting the earth.
I ran then, abandoning the women to whatever horrors fate had in store for them. Thrusting the lantern forward, I forced myself to move as fast as my feet would carry me. The worst thing I could possibly do was take a wrong turn in that accursed labyrinth, and yet it happened. Beyond the sitting room where I had encountered the woman at the piano, I went stupidly in the wrong direction, which I realized quickly when I came to an intersection that would take me either east or west from a wall on which hung a painting depicting the selling of Joseph into Egyptian slavery. As I turned I looked behind me to quickly make certain I was not being followed. The light fell across something in the shadows, something only three feet in front of my face. I had missed it in the dark. I was looking at a pair of legs, legs attached to a nude body hanging from an overhead beam. One of the sisters, whom I recalled as an enthusiastic helper in assisting with my deliveries, dangled at the end of a piece of shredded blanket, her eyes open and gazing directly at me through soiled black hair. I looked at her for no more than a moment, sparing no more time for pity, then retraced my steps.
Soon I found myself again in the front corridor. There the temperature within the abbey was at its coldest, digging into the very marrow of my bones, yet I felt impossibly graced to make out the main door with my ever-evolving vision. My lantern, which by now produced no more than a candle’s glow, extinguished itself just then, having lasted exactly as long as I had needed it, for which I will be eternally thankful to whatever force delivered me from that interior hell. I pushed on the door and went out into the night. The droplets of snow that had been sifting down from the sky upon my arrival had become larger flakes, promising a prolonged fall. As I neared my wagon I endured the final jolt of seeing two human shapes coming towards me, nothing more at first than indistinguishable shadows. I halted and prepared to defend myself however I could from harm, but was immeasurably relieved to find that these were two healthy men, heavily fortified against the winter conditions by many layers of heavy clothing. One of them carried a hunting rifle. He commanded me to remain where I was while they approached. I did as he requested, and it was now a stranger’s turn to raise a lantern to illuminate my own terrified face.
After I identified myself to the gun-bearer, who was quite young while his companion was well advanced in years, he told me they had come at the behest of Father Cerf, and they intended to do what needed to be done inside the abbey. Understanding at once that their intention was merciless violence, I urged them to reconsider their course, pleading for mercy for the sisters, however insane they had become. And did they realize, I asked them, that there was a force here beyond our comprehension, something monstrous and perilous that might even now be roaming the castle grounds? To this the younger man replied that they were aware of precisely what they had come to confront. Father Cerf had instructed them carefully, and as representatives of the church their hands and hearts would be sure. Just as I had mistaken Father Cerf for a doctor, so now I had mistaken priests for common men. They would not leave until it had all been resolved and the abbey was cleansed of the Devil’s touch. With this they brushed past me and headed in. I watched until they parted that heavy door, the old man following the younger, carrying just the one lantern between them. The time had come to preserve my own life and never return to the abbey. And I did not wish to hear a single gunshot ring out in this once holy place.
The ride back to the inn held nothing fearful beyond the harsh elements and the hidden mysteries of the forest. I sit here now in my room as the first blue hints of dawn tinge the sky, marking it exactly seven hours since I left the abbey. I wish now that I had urged the men to come to the inn when they had completed their infernal work, so that I could know they had managed to leave the sisters without coming to mortal harm. I have no way of knowing if they were successful in returning the abbey to the state it knew after the strange death of Count Archambault and before four generations of nuns called it their home, a state of emptiness and hollow echoes, neither good nor evil. How I wish two strangers would soon knock on my door seeking food and drink and rooms where they could sleep off their exhaustion. I cannot rest tonight knowing there’s still a chance that Father Cerf himself might be the next to come, to stand on my doorstep and inquire after those men, ask me if I knew why they had never returned from their nighttime journey into the forest. Worse still, perhaps the knock that comes from outside will be softer, weaker, that of a frail and eyeless woman who wishes me to visit her once again before she offers herself to a sinister entity no one living dares name.
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