06 May The Elderwood Cradle
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"The Elderwood Cradle"Written by D. Compton Ambrose
Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
Lost lovers Jake and Christine Headrick plowed down the windy mountain roads without a care to have or a fuck to give. They needed no reality-augmenting substances, merely their presence was enough. In love, stupidly-so, they sought refuge from their noisy and rambunctious lives in the city.
Christine would be woken at 5 AM, every morning, to the leaf-blower outside their apartment. Jake had to be awake at six, so even if she got to sleep through the nocturnal denizens of Richmond, she would still have to contend with the schedule of her husband’s pizza-delivery job.
But, now was not the time for senseless lollygagging in the past. They were here now – in Roanoke, Virginia.
“I love you,” she cooed, watching her man pilot their tiny locomotive into the wilderness, away from civilization. Roanoke became their primary choice for vacation simply because of its namesake.
The town was named after the Roanoke Colony, just over the state line in North Carolina, which had mysteriously vanished in 1590. There were many mysterious theories with equally-mysterious mythologies surrounding the disappearance of the colonists. The most predominant of these theories was that of the Dare Stones. These Stones were believed to have told of how the colonists were killed by ‘savages’ – land folk who wielded a power of will that transcended the physical realm into the spiritual.
But, Christina wasn’t sure she wholly believed that mythology.
They went sightseeing in the mountains and foothills, watching the leaves change color and the first snowfall. They then went into town, bought many bottles of wine, and then ventured out onto the county line. It was here that they were intercepted by a misshaped old man in black, who began telling them of the dangers of the apple orchard that ‘mysteriously’ appeared there. “You can’t go in thar t’day,” he’d drawl.
“What’s wrong with it?” inquired Jack.
Without much further than some muttering, the man left the couple to their own devices. Jack and Christina decided it wouldn’t be much harm to go into the orchard.
They rolled in the grass, stretched themselves out against the setting sun, and smoked hashish. They made love beneath a willow tree, and afterward – as they ventured further into the woods – Christina ventured off on her own.
Eventually, she came to a clutch of trees ripe with apples.
“Strange. They don’t usually come out this time of year,” she said to herself.
* * * * * *
The disappearance of the couple would be on the front page of the next day’s local paper. Peter Murphy, caretaker of the Rosewood residence on the bayou outside of town, merely shook his head as he looked it over.
“God-damn adolescents,” he muttered between bites of the apple he held. He gnawed it down to its core; clutching the batch of wood he’d salvaged from the old barn off Forty-Four, tossing it away and situating the two-by-fours in both hands.
The year was 1961, and the world had changed a lot in the decade-plus since the end of World War II, but at the same time, it hadn’t. The pick-up he’d had since he was a teenager during the Depression was sturdy, but the years were wearing on it. It always had the gumption to haul his materials though, which he – absent-minded – tossed into the truck bed. He climbed into the cab, slammed the door, and started the engine.
About halfway into his thirty-minute drive out of town back toward the residence, he began to see things that weren’t there. Couldn’t have been there.
Orbs of light and small humanoid forms that appeared as silhouettes of shadow scurrying about, and other small anomalies began popping up out of nowhere from behind trees and shrubs. Then one appeared on the dashboard in front of him.
“What the fu-…”
The truck careened off the road about a mile from the residence.
Peter was thrown through the windshield where he was instantly mauled and killed in the tree limbs.
* * * * * *
“I’m sorry, Kevin,” Officer Marie said, putting a reassuring hand on the realtor’s shoulder. Kevin Palmer had moved to Roanoke with his stepson, Christian Rosewood and his daughter, Lucy, after the passing of Christian’s mother – Emily. “I know this isn’t the best time,” he added. It was right around the time Marie said this that Kevin noticed Christian staring at the body.
“No! Christian,” he grabbed him up and put his head in his arm.
“He’s seven, Daddy,” said Lucy, who was three years his elder.
“You,” he mouthed, pointing at the truck, “get in, now.”
He nodded to Marie solemnly and packed his family in. They sped off.
“Dad,” Lucy began.
Kevin looked out of the corner of his eye. “Yeah, hun. You doing okay?” Lucy nodded.
There was a moment of silence before she added, “Was Peter drinking again?”
Kevin slapped the steering wheel, and Christian flinched a little. “Goddammit, Lucy…” he exhaled sharply. “Yes.”
Another moment of silence.
Lucy started laughing boisterously at Christian’s comment. Kevin started laughing, too, unable to help himself. As they pulled into the driveway, however, Kevin started to cry as well. “Hey, Daddy… Dad?”
“I’m sorry, hun. I’m–” he sniffled. “I’m okay.”
He nodded, half to himself, half to his family. Lucy nodded back. “I’m okay, I’m good. You good?”
“Okay. Let’s go see Grandma and get well.”
* * * * * *
Although the kids were fairly familiar with the Residence, Kevin had only been once for Christmas back in 1953. They dashed maniacally into a game of tag that would surely encompass the entire floor plan, and the weary Kevin – who still had a meeting with the DMV to change his tags ahead – thought it best to let them spiral out for a few hours. Clementine Annis Rosewood, born the sixteenth of August, 1882 – approaching her 80th year on this planet – wasn’t one to put up much of a fuss about two children playing, even back when she had the energy to do so. Christian decided to climb the giant dead tree outside, which infuriated Lucy, who was afraid of heights. “You’re just doing that to annoy me,” she shouted, accusatory.
He responded by sticking his tongue out and continued to monkey around in the branches. Lucy shook her head and went inside to make a sandwich.
Grandma Annis was in the kitchen already and had something in the oven. “Why, hello Lucille. I’ve got something special in the oven. It should be ready by the time Kevin returns,” she cooed.
“I’m not four anymore, Grandma,” Lucy said silently. Annis merely chuckled and set Lucy up at the table. She looked around after a few minutes, realizing Christian wasn’t with them. There was then a low thump followed by wailing. Lucy’s heart dropped and she darted outside, the 79-year-old hobbling after her. “Christian!”
He was in tears and holding his ankle. Grandma soothed him and gingerly lifted his pant-leg. “Ooh, there, there. It looks like a sprain,” she explained. Kevin had arrived and exited through the back door, rushing up to them as she did so. They got him in bed, bandaged, and had a quiet and solemn meal that evening of soup and meatloaf. Dad and Grandma bantered infrequently about the funeral costs, the move, and other things she understood fairly well unbeknownst to either of them. Grandma was nodding her head as Dad began to focus his attention on the carpentry opportunity, something that made him happy and got his mind off of recent events. However, she noticed something off out of the corner of her eye. “My …altar,” she said impulsively, trying to stand up. Dad sighed. “No, no… Anne. Anne, sit down.” She pointed in the direction of the altar, before collapsing into her chair on the precipice of fainting.
While Dad was sitting her upright, Lucy looked behind her at the decoration of the stones and toadstools and flowers.
The flowers were dead and blackened, and the toadstools were misshaped. The stones had been arranged to spell out, “The Kelpie’s Bridge”.
The next day, on her way home from school with her friend Gracie, they decided to stop by the river and skip stones.
“No offense, but your grandma’s kinda creepy,” Gracie muttered.
One of Lucy’s eyebrows shot up. “Creepy?” she inquired as she skipped what must have been her eighth stone. “Annoying, maybe… but…”
Lucy trailed off when she noticed a bridge.
“H-how long has that bridge been there, Gracie?”
Lucy directed Gracie’s attention to the old covered bridge with moss hanging from it. The structure wasn’t large or sturdy enough to support vehicles, so she deduced it was a walking bridge.
Just as Lucy was about to speak up, a hand on their shoulders caused them to burst out in shrieks of fright.
“Haha! Oh man, I got you good!”
Ronald chuckled maniacally as Gracie slapped him.
“That was stupid, Ronnie,” said Lucy. She looked over her shoulder to see the bridge looming at them like a hulking wooded dragon. She then turned back to the trio. “Let’s go look inside,” he said.
“NO! Only if you go first,” whined Gracie.
From the moment Lucy set foot on the first plank of the bridge, the image of the stone words, “Kelpie’s Bridge,” kept intruding into her mind. However, they walked the length of the bridge, and nothing out of the ordinary happened.
But then they got to the other side, and Ronnie noticed it first. “That log looks like its moving,” said Ronnie.
It didn’t take them long to realize it wasn’t a log. It was a horse head. “Uhh,” Gracie grunted, her voice trembling. “Do horses usually swim like that?” Insects clung to the liquid of its eye, its ear flapped, and its nostrils would geyser a black fluid with every forceful exhale. The girls backed away, but Ronnie was never lacking in bad ideas. The boy picked up a long stick.
“Ronnie! We should go!”
But he wasn’t listening. Ronnie, his face contorted with mischievous childish wonder, prodded the beast.
The snout snapped up to reveal rows of teeth and tendrils, which encircled the stick and yanked Ronnie into the depths of the body of water. The girls screamed, particularly when the form re-emerged, with two arms and two legs, drenched and encompassed by a massive coat and top hat, at the other end of the riverbank.
The two girls walked home swiftly as it began to storm, with Lucy having to be a strong shoulder for Gracie, who couldn’t stop crying. When they got to the Rosewood Residence, Lucy did the talking.
“Lucy, he probably just fell in.”
“NO, Dad, no! It grabbed him and pulled him under. HE, it was a MAN, Dad, but not at first!” Kevin obviously wasn’t buying that the man was a shape-shifting monster, but he was beginning to suspect a kidnapping. “You two stay here; I’ve already called your mom, Grace. I’m gonna run over to the police station and talk to Marie.” There wasn’t much said after that; their father had left them in that over-sized, mysterious, archaic house with Grandma. To pass the time, Gracie and Lucy decided to explore the labyrinthine third floor of the tumbledown structure. The floorboards creaked and the house breathed, as if it were somehow conscious of its old age.
Of the six doors lining the main hallway, just one of them would budge, and it only led to a cobwebbed broom closet. However, there was a doorway at the end of the hall leading to the attic.
It was slightly ajar, and emanating from it was a green glow. “I’ll go first, Gracie.”
They edged down the hallway as quietly as possible, edging to avoid the loose floorboards. As they arrived, and Lucy began to push on the door, there was a deafening slam following a clanging. Lucy’s heart skipped a beat as she realized a book had been pushed over the edge of the nearby shelf by an overturned glass jar. Within the translucent container was a stuffed poppet, but despite how strange that visage was, what really caught Lucy’s eye was the title of the thick book now lying on the floor – “The Kelpie’s Bridge”.
She picked it up and brushed the dirt off. “I have to show this to Christian.”
“…And then,” she concluded, “there was the bridge, and the monster that got Ronnie.”
Christian pulled the covers up to his chin. “I don’t like this story.”
“It’s not a story,” said Gracie as she produced the poppet. “Someone in this house has been casting spells, bad ones, like curses.”
This is when they heard the voice of their grandmother from the door.
“Curiosity killed the cat.”
A roll of deep thunder followed immediately after.
“Whatever are you doing with my poppet?”
As she moved to enter the room, there was a loud crash coinciding with the second flash of lightning. The wind sped up, and right as Grandma was leaning out of the door, a black silhouette appeared behind her, and in the brief illumination Lucy made out the glint of a blade.
“Don’t… move,” the figure said. Grandma shrieked and turned to see the intruder. “Back up slowly,” she added. As Grandma entered the room, the impostor followed her. And as she stepped into the light, Lucy realized she was the woman from the paper.
“Christine,” she whispered.
“What?” interrogated Gracie.
“Annis, are you Annis? Answer me, Annis!”
Grandma Annis shrieked and bobbed her head quickly. Christine kept the elegant dagger inches away from Anne’s nose. “Now, tell me, what this is–” she snatched the poppet from Anne’s hand. “And where the hell those people are, because one of them is… was… my husband!”
“What do you mean ‘was’?” Gracie asked.
“Leave my grandma alone!” Christian shrieked.
“It’s not your grandma, hon.”
“Yeah she is, look at–”
“Look again,” Christine interrupted.
When Lucy refocused her attention on Grandma Annis, she wasn’t Grandma Annis anymore… she was tall; her skin dark, her fingers long. She was shrouded in all black, with a hood that drenched her face in darkness… save for the edges of a crooked smile and a long, misshapen nose. When she spoke, her voice tore through octaves and auditory dimensions that were never meant to be perceived by the human ear.
“I – Annis Clementine Rosewood – am a WITCH!”
As the final word of that sentence shot out of her mouth, a wave of psychic energy swept through the room, sending Christine to the floorboards. As Annis hovered over to her, Christine was back on her feet with the knife at arms-length. Annis withdrew from the object.
“Yeah. Well, I guess I am, too… bitch. Get behind me.”
“I WANT the GIRL, she knows too much.”
“Tough shit. Run.”
Lucy picked up Christian and Gracie was the first one out the door. With Christine in tow, they took the steps two-at-a-time, already on the ground floor in under a minute. However, the house had rearranged itself; they were now at the back of the house, with a labyrinth of corridors and rooms between them and the foyer. They took a left turn and ended up staring at a dead end with Black Annis hovering in midair, cackling.
They passed the stairs and went straight through the first door in the hallway. Red light and skinless bones protruded from the other side, grasping for Gracie. Christine responded by hacking its hand off with the dagger.
“I serve the Storm Trees for one reason, and one reason only – they are the ancestors of this land. I must do this to uphold the balance between the curse my mother placed on my father, and the future of this land.”
They got to the door leading to the foyer, but when Christine finally got it open, standing on the other side was Kevin.
“Who are you, and what is going on?”
“We need to go,” said Christine grabbing his arm. “I’m Christine but your stepmother is trying to kill Gracie.”
“WHAT?! Into the truck, we’re going for a ride.”
“To the bridge.”
“Just drive,” Christine said, piling the kids into the cab and hopping into the truck bed. “I’ve got to return something.”
* * * * * *
Over the bridge, and into the woods along a hidden path, Christine led them past an old warehouse to a small clearing near a grove. In the center of this grove was a circle of pale toadstools which seemed to be emitting a dull green glow. “Here’s the portal,” Christine said, walking past the circle and putting the dagger into the middle of a form that Lucy began to make out as belonging to a human, or something that was human, once. His legs looked like they were made out of wood, and in place of hands and head were tree branches.
“That used to be my boyfriend, but then he ate one of the apples… and I had to kill him.” After she said this, the dagger removed itself from the lifeless tree-man corpse and hovered over to the circle of mushrooms. Christine looked over to the others and then stepped into the circle, reaching out to grab the knife – and then vanished.
* * * * * *
Kevin and Christine caught the children as they came out the other side. Gracie came through first, followed by Lucy and Christian simultaneously. “Wow, it’s all… glowing,”
Christine nodded at Lucy. “Yeah, it’s pretty bright here. But still weird,” she looked over at a tree, behind which lurked a man with the head of a goat. In a split-second, he was gone. She led them back up the path, Lucy realizing they were still in the same place, just in a different version of it. And as they followed, strange light orbs hovered around them, a small humanoid moth creature landing on Christian. A butterfly creature licked Lucy’s arm with a proboscis. Tiny rock and lizard beings peeked out from behind their tree homes in terror at the monstrous ape men and children coughed forth from the Mundane.
The entities hovering around them appeared to be leading them somewhere. They passed the warehouse, this version of it encased in a large crystalline formation, and passing into the ground beside it was a crystalline cave which the entities were leading them into. Brilliant blue and white light burst from within and extravagant rays and rings, glinting off of itself. Passing through the first room as the beings zipped by, Kevin was compelled to look at something especially shiny. As he got closer, the number of eyes looking back at him multiplied beyond his own and he began to get scared as they multiplied further and further, until a hand caught him.
He shrieked and turned to see Christine. “Don’t… you’ll see everyone who’s ever looked into it looking back at you. Come on, we’re almost there.” They continued down into the cavern until it opened up into a subterranean glowing forest, and centered around the largest tree were thousands upon thousands of entities like Christmas lights.
“Wait here,” said Christine. They did so as Christine brought the dagger down to the tree. The dagger hovered through the air and became an orb of light in the center of the cavern. Then, every living thing in the room began to hum, including Christine. They formed a circle around her, and they all then felt themselves elevating into a great light.
* * * * * *
Christian opened his sore, tired eyes. He hadn’t realized he’d been squeezing them the entire time, but as he came to, he realized he was in a group hug with everyone.
“W-what happened? That’s it?”
“What do you mean that’s it?”
“You just had to give them their knife back,” said Kevin more as a statement than a question as he put his hands on his hips.
“It was the only way to save her from Annis.”
“Annis was not trying to kill Gracie, okay… does this have something to do with the guy who’s been killing people? Because people have been going missing, and I think you and those critters have something to do with this, and what the hell were those things, anyway? Some kind of bug creature-”
All eyes were now on Christine, some in bewilderment and others in disbelief. “Faeries?” repeated Kevin.
“Yes, Faeries. The Seelie Court. They’re here to protect us from the other Faeries… the bad ones. The ones your Annis let escape into Roanoke for the first time in centuries… the Storm Trees. Walk with me,” she added, nodding at the path.
“It was a form of Voodoo black magick,” explained Christine as they neared the warehouse. “Now, because she cursed the land, she has to repopulate it… with the souls of Non-Magick Folk.”
“You mean… she’s turning people–”
“Into trees, yes. Specifically, a Storm Tree. It is a form of hobgoblin that–”
Narrowly missing Christine, a glistening midnight green “tree trunk” slammed into the ground between her and Kevin. They looked up, and up, and up… and up, to see the contorted vaguely-humanoid monstrosity bristling with prehensile whip-like appendages that had at one point been made of bark. What Christine and Kevin could identify as a ‘head’ split open to a maw of jagged edges.
Gracie wailed, Lucy scooped up Christian, and Kevin and Christine were close behind as they pounded dirt. The Storm Tree was clumsy and had to contort its limbs to odd angles to get its tentacles into a transportable position. But it was over seventy-feet in length and height, and with a few clumsy strides, it was right over them. They knew they had to hide in the warehouse. Christine pointed them at the side door, where they slipped through.
The only objects in the massive room were a staircase leading to a platform, and a car body suspended thirty feet in the air. Outside, the creature could be heard wailing. It began banging on the roof, and the walls. As they were climbing the stairs, the Storm Tree burst in through the side window, sliding across its slimy tentacles out onto the floor. Now separating them from the door, Lucy knew there was only one way they would get out of there.
“Dad, the car!”
He squinted at it to see there was a space between the front of the car and the lift so small that he wouldn’t have noticed it if his daughter hadn’t been pointing. As the creature got nearer the stairs, Lucy handed Kevin the glass jar of the poppet Gracie had been holding onto and furiously slung it as quickly and directly, square at the front of the car, as he could manage.
The car budged but did not slide back as far as he’d hoped, now on a see-saw. “SHIT!” screamed Kevin. He looked around furiously, before realizing that he was out of options. Kevin then began climbing over the railing. “Dad! What are you doing!?”
He then jumped from the ledge, grabbing onto the lift jacks, and began to climb up to the car. The Tree noticed him and began to climb up after him. “Christine, go. Take them, NOW!” “I don’t wanna go, Dad!”
The Tree bellowed, wrapping a tendril around Kevin’s ankle as he reached the car. Right as the Tree turned its attention to the girls, they were going back outside. It roared, possibly in anger, possibly in despair, but either way, Kevin had slipped out of its grasp.
It had started to rain about fifteen minutes after they heard the crash of the vehicle and the screams of the Storm Tree and their father. They stood there until it started, waiting for someone… or something… to come out. But that was the last they saw of their father, and… luckily… the Storm Trees.
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