My town is one of those back country middle-of-nowhere places in which word-of-mouth folklore and wild superstition defines its population. It’s the kind of place a visitor might hear ethereal music in the woods, or catch a glimpse of an out-of-place animal roaming the empty fields. If your senses are attuned to such things, then you might even notice strange graves carved into the slopes of gullies, or old ropes tied to the limbs of withered trees; their trunks riddled with bullet holes.
But we know of something else, ineffable horrors dwelling in the depths of an abandoned, isolated coal mine.
Local legend tells of a pit: a dark place in which some three hundred miners lost their lives in a colliery disaster over a century ago.
So the story goes, a number of miners had complained about the perilous conditions in the mine on several occasions, many citing bad omens, including the presence of carrion crows in the subterranean depths, and some even claiming to hear the unlikely neighing of startled horses in the ghastly, myriad passageways.
But the miners’ pleas went unheard, resulting in the catastrophic explosion that led directly to their deaths.
Whispers exchanged over an ale at the Painter’s Greyhound tell of survivors: starving miners entombed in the labyrinthine tunnels honeycombing the cold earth beneath our town. Occasionally, the ground opens up and swallows things: dilapidated sheds and the corners of houses… sometimes people. Fodder for the ravenous miners?
And pets abandon their owners: dogs disappearing into shadowy recesses and cats straying deep into the wilderness; never to be seen again. As the saying goes here in my town, “All victims o’th pit.”
The location of the pit-over the course of a century-was mostly forgotten; knowledge of the disaster itself conveniently buried by those with more pressing political and financial interests. The ‘owdies’ though-as they’re known in these parts-are still in possession of memories, and often recount unsettling tales passed down through the generations.
If it hadn’t been for my grandfather, I, at the tender age of fourteen, might never have set out to find the pit that day. The route related to me was both protracted and disorienting:
“Seekers of the pit must first descend into the old ravine,” my grandfather muttered through false teeth, “a route at one time commonly frequented by my sort. Follow the oaks and the silver birches along the old trail marked by the red bricks of Scoothe’s cottage and you’ll reach the bald ‘ills. You know the Bonnies don’t you boy?”
I nodded, for I did know the Bonnies, and still do: unnatural rucks carved out by the long-perished miners; barren and unwelcoming; suggestive of untold mysteries and the forbidden knowledge they serve to protect.
My grandfather continued:
“That awkward terrain boy, coupled with those dark ponds can lead one to Dog Wood, a forested area intersected by confusing, abandoned lanes leading deep into what we call the sterile heart of the backcountry. You’ll know Dog Wood by the density of the underbrush, though you’ll have to look closely if you want to find the accursed entrance.”
To this day I still don’t fully understand why my grandfather encouraged me to seek it out. His warning as I left that day often returns to me on dark, foreboding, autumn afternoons:
“Boy, ‘tis nothing to look, ‘tis everything to see. See yourself and know thee escaped the darkness.”
But I was just a fourteen-year-old lad.
How was I to know what he meant?
My best friend, Key, knocked on my door at 7:15 a.m. that fateful October morning. We walked the length of Park Road, and plunged headlong into the old ravine. The thing we sought, somehow, was already with us, and was working to discourage us, descending upon the golden brown foliage in the form of mist.
We pressed on.
The discovery of the silver birches was fortuitous, for beyond them we soon observed the red bricks of Scoothe’s derelict cottage. Moss and creeping ivy caressed the old stones joylessly, consuming what had once been the jewel of the ravine. Just like Scoothe, its time had passed.
The cool, morning air met us as we climbed the slopes and stepped out onto Bonnies (also known as the bald ‘ills). It’s quite a thing to experience both the absence and evidence of man, simultaneously. But that was just how it was, standing there on the old rucks, a manmade landscape, abandoned, nature working to reclaim what it once possessed. The gravelly mounds hissed at us, exposed to the brisk, autumnal wind.
Key and I traversed the hills hastily, avoiding the ponds: motionless bodies of water concealing horrible depths; depths rumoured to connect directly to the old tunnels; flooded passageways where the ‘survivors’ were said to roam. In a moment of hesitation, we shuddered.
We saw the treeline on the horizon: dense foliage forming a seemingly impenetrable wall. A cloud of mist hovered above the forest threateningly.
It whispered, “Turn back.”
But we didn’t turn back. We happened upon that most sought-after location, Dog Wood.
Brushing the nettles and brambles aside, we discovered an old pathway; the tiniest amount of gravel still visible beneath the grass and weeds. Mist shielded much of what lay beyond, so we stepped onto the path and made the conscious decision to keep to it.
Deeper and deeper we drove into the underbrush, working hard to clear the path of shrubbery and other hindrances, blind to the inherent dangers one should be aware of in the proximity of a disused coal mine. A capped shaft presented itself as such a danger; several rotten timber planks straddling its hideous mouth. Luck was to thank for preventing an unfortunate tumble into the blackness beneath.
The remains of an old railway line brushed against our boots as we closed in on our destination; the innumerable limbs of large trees clawing at the rusty tracks zealously.
Key was the first to note the change in the air: a staleness; a rancidity that had visibly affected the flora of the wood. As we neared its source, we saw fewer and fewer nettles, brambles and ferns; vegetation in general seemingly afraid to flourish in what my grandfather had referred to as ‘the sterile heart of the backcountry’.
Withered trees stood defiantly, though the souls the roots might once have harboured had long since departed. Even the soil-gelatinous mud-had been affected by the otherworldly blight.
And then we saw it, the great arch, marking the entrance to the site of the pit. The arch-an iron monstrosity-once beheld the name of the mine, though upon our observations, the bold lettering had mostly eroded. Three rust-nibbled letters remained: P, I, T.
Trepidation begged us to flee, to return to the familiar comforts of home: the quiet town centre host to Marge’s Sandwich Shop and Gilbert’s Newsagents; the ancient, sprawling cemetery on Church Street; and Pollack’s School for the deaf under the willows on Grundy Street. Even the lone silhouette of Lightning Tree standing atop Broomhead’s Hill was an image I would’ve happily traded for that of the dark, deathly visage of deepest Dog Wood.
We trudged onwards, until we came upon the mere.
It filled us with dread.
My father, a regular up at the Painter’s Greyhound, said the seniors often spoke of an ‘old mere’, a pond but a stone’s throw from the pit. Allegedly, the old miners used to wash their hands and faces in it, steadily darkening the water with coal. Other kids, in times gone by, who had set out in search of the mine, had happened upon the mere.
Alarmed by the shade of the water, most had turned back, though some strayed too near and were never seen again. One lad-the owdies would say-caught a glimpse of something strange in the still water, and in the grip of some inexplicable mania, fled and threw himself into the pit. Witnesses-two of them-returned from the wood in a near catatonic state, claiming the lad was pulled into the mouth by dark, ashen hands. The lad-like the others-was never seen again, and there was no investigation into his disappearance.
The owdies say the lad was cursed:
“That there mere’s a ‘flection er that there pit! That lad shoulda kept ‘is eyes off both! Thee’s got firt see theeself if thee wants firt live!”
Braver than most, Key and I approached the old mere and glared into the murky water. I swear to this day I’ve never seen water as dark. The face that looked back at me, a strange, warped version of my own, haunts me to this day. As for Key, he offered no description of what he saw in there.
Stepping away from the mere, we scanned our immediate surroundings. Beyond a smattering of withered silver birches, a trail marked by a rusty chain-linked fence led to our destination.
Tentatively we approached, mindful of the eroded metal fencing poking up out of the gelatinous earth; sharp and menacing.
Some fifteen paces further and we were upon it.
Blackened, charcoal-like trees loomed eerily above it, their poisoned limbs hanging limply, pointing towards the untold depths below.
I still have difficulty describing it. Not in terms of its outward appearance, as, quite simply, it was nothing more than a hole in the ground, some fifteen feet in diameter.
No, it was the inexplicable sensation that gnawed at my nerve-endings and tugged at my faculties. That’s what I have difficulty describing.
To say the urge to flee was overwhelming, would be an understatement. Staring into that black abyss, evoked an emotional response unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was as though Key and I had discovered the eye of Mother Earth herself, and to look directly into it was a sin, a sin punishable by a fate worse than death. And we had been warned: the folk who fell into sinkholes; the curious kids who mysteriously disappeared; the pets that strayed too far from their owners; all victims of whatever it was that roamed those unfathomable passageways at the bottom of that accursed pit.
As the eye glared up at us, my thoughts returned to that peculiar reflection I’d gazed upon in the mere.
And then there was movement below.
I looked to Key and shivered. There was no conceivable way down into the pit, and as such no conceivable way up out of it… Was there?
The movement came in the form of a sound: a shuffling, laboured progression; the sound of frail, ashen hands clutching blindly at the roots of dead trees.
As the unsettling imagery sketched itself in my mind’s eye with an incredible urgency, the all-consuming, rancid foetor grew in its potency, so much so that I could almost taste it, my senses utterly assaulted by it.
The clamour neared the surface, threatening to make eye contact with us in a matter of moments.
Key and I stood, frozen to the spot, lips cracked, throats dry, inhaling the foul odour as it crept towards us. Seekers of the pit, the two of us, sincerely regretting our inquisitiveness and impudence.
As the nameless thing neared the surface, I turned and fled.
Moments later, Key was at my rear.
Heedless we were, of the metal fragments strewn across the trail. Ignorant we were, of the shadowy mere, and the boggy underfoot as we raced out of Dog Wood. Oblivious we were, of the strange absence of fauna throughout the bald ‘ills. Unconcerned we were, as once again we plunged into the old ravine, passing Scoothe’s cottage and the silver birches. Thrilled we were, as we made it to the safety of Park Road, gasping and collapsing to the merciful tarmac of a familiar thoroughfare.
As Key and I walked home, not a single word was exchanged.
Key and I attended school together the following day, but neither of us discussed the pit. That was our unspoken agreement, both secretly terrified, afraid that spoken acknowledgment of the thing we both knew was out there would confirm it; invite it back into our lives.
But our pact didn’t last. It should’ve lasted till the end of our days.
We bumped into each other, some five years later, at the bar in the Painter’s Greyhound, on a dreary, autumn evening. The memories spilled out of us, and though several owdies were eavesdropping, none of them had a word to say.
Like the church steeple at the heart of our town, one memory stood out above the rest: a memory the both of us had attributed to the sordid weaving of a nightmare, or folie à deux. There in the quiet pub, we described the strange sounds and the hideous foetor we sensed in that instant before we took flight.
But as I spoke of the moment I turned and fled, Key spoke of something else. Something deplorable.
From out of the pit had emerged the ashen hands and charcoal face of a long dead miner. He claimed the very same face had replaced his reflection in the mere. Its empty eyes studied him, and as it pointed a pallid finger in his direction, it whispered, “We are coming.”
It was with those fateful words Key had turned and fled.
At the bar, his face fell, the colour running out of it completely.
He looked up at me.
“They’re coming for me,” he muttered. “I know it.”
The next day, I received a telephone call. I recognised the caller as Daniel Tately, Key’s younger brother. Daniel was morose, his voice but a whisper at the end of the line.
There had been an incident at the Tately bungalow, one involving a sinkhole.
I shuddered at the implications.
The family had awoken in the early hours of the morning to a series of tremendous crashing sounds. Daniel and his parents-the latter of whom still refuse to discuss the incident-rushed to Key’s bedroom, flung the door open and stood aghast, as their son, brother and my friend was dragged, kicking and screaming, into a gaping hole; malnourished, ashen hands clutching his head and arms.
All this Daniel muttered in hushed tones. He spoke of Key’s paranoia in the weeks leading up to the incident: an apparent preoccupation with the subterranean mines beneath our town; fears relating to the distant, muffled sound of pickaxes; and the latent idea that a nameless thing from the heart of the mines had spent five long years searching for him.
In his mind’s eye he had watched as it traversed the flooded depths, clearing collapsed corridors, looking for the precise location in which to dig hundreds of feet upwards.
And he had listened as the encroaching clamour fuelled his imagination, coupled with what Daniel referred to as an odour, an overpowering foetor that even the family had noticed in the days leading up to the incident.
“It got him,” Daniel said.
And it had.
The occupants of the pit.
Life in my town carries on. The few of us who remember such horrors exchange our tales in whispers over quiet ales in the Painter’s Greyhound on chilly, autumnal nights.
Occasionally, I revisit that fateful moment Key and I gazed into that old mere.
I saw myself.
Key saw something else.
As my grandfather once said, “Boy, ‘tis nothing to look, ‘tis everything to see. See yourself and know thee escaped the darkness.”
Now, finally, I know what he meant.
Credit To: Muted Vocal
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