Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
“Well…” Saga paused and took a long drag of the hand-rolled cigarette, letting the smoke linger in her lungs before exhaling. “There are many ways to get to the spirit world, many ways to get there but few of them lead back.” She looked us over with a crooked brow over her pale blue eyes, as if she was trying to decide if we were just asking her about this to make fun of her. Our stern expressions and attentive eyes must have been enough to convince her of the former because after a moment she continued: “some people believe that it´s a matter of perspective, that you can move between planes of reality and the places in between them by using drugs or forms of meditation” Saga leaned to her side in the hammock lifting her legs and setting them down to rest on top of the rusty table between us. Her brightly colored sari and the blond dreadlocks made her look like an ancient hippy goddess in the flickering lights.
All around us on the porch were lit candles and burning incense illuminating the cool summer night. In front of her, on a beanbag and a lawn-chair respectively, sat two twelve years old boys. Myself and my best friend Jake.
I was a thin boy, and short for my age while Jake was taller and looked considerably older than I did. With his grand stature and apparent maturity Jake had gained a sturdy sense of confidence. Something I was sorely lacking.
“But what about portals?” Jake asked. “Or, like, are there any actual places where you can get… through?” He looked at me for support but I re-payed him with a look as if to say “really?…” raising my eyebrows but keeping my eyelids halfway shut.
Ever since we found the pond out in the woods, Jake had been convinced that it was some sort of portal to another world. The crude carvings on the smooth rocks surrounding the dark body of water had been enough too intrigue us both but I was still skeptic of his theory. Jake, however, was certain.
“Portals?” Saga asked, raising an eyebrow but continuing. “I don’t know about portals but there are places that work like doorways, ordinary places that become openings, kind of like portals I guess…” She nodded to Jake “…when they are treated in a certain way or at certain times”. “What kind of places?” Jake eagerly asked hoping he was about to prove his theory to me. Saga shrugged and put out her cigarette. “Some hillside caves, willow-trees grown with a hole in them, stone arches and even mirrors are believed to be potential gates to a world beyond ours.” She made an open gesture to the stars above us reaching out with both her arms to the cosmos. Her many bracelets clanging like bells in the silence. She smiled and it struck me how beautiful she was in the warm light that surrounded us.
Saga was forty eight but looked a lot younger. Despite her constant chain-smoking and the overall hippy lifestyle she led, the years had been kind to her. She was often mistaken for someone in their twenties. When my father had first introduced us I could immediately understand what he saw in her. Where had he found her? The woman was almost a decade his senior but looked old enough to be my bigger sister.
At first, however, I had hated her. Her but mostly my father for bringing someone new into our home but when I saw how happy she made him I had decided to give her a chance. After my mother had died my father had a hard time handling the grief and the sudden responsibilities of being a single parent. On the surface he had seemed okay, putting on a strong face for me and my little sister but some nights I could hear him crying when he thought we where asleep. Until he met Saga that is.
It took me a few years to accept her as a part of my life however. Although my mom had died before I was old enough to really remember anything and more than five years before my father met Saga it still felt wrong to treat someone else like a parent. Like replacing my mom.
Saga never tried to be our mother tough. She never treated me or my sister like children or talked down to us and I think in large that was what made us eventually accept her. A mutual respect. She wasn’t our mom, she was just Saga.
When she had moved in with us it had quickly become apparent that she was a bit odd. Bringing with her nothing more than a couple of suitcases. One filled with clothes and personal items, the kind of basic things people need to survive and one filled with all kinds of spiritual and occult parafernalia. That had been it. Her entire life packed into two bags.
She would often tell us stories about the supernatural, magic and folklore. A lot of the stories where folktales from Scandinavia, where her family were originally from, but some of them were about Voodoo, paganism and Sufism.
My dad was never a fan of her stories and at first he didn’t like us hearing about all those things but Saga ensured him that she never told us anything we were not ready to hear. Some of the tales did terrify me. Her tales of djinn, dwarves and elves strayed far from the kid-friendly versions and some even left my sister in tears but we never told our father. As scary as some of the stories where we still loved them. Saga had a way with words that could spellbind you and sometimes I was even convinced that she believed every word of the stories she was telling.
All her tales and supposed knowledge of myth had of course resulted in a reputation of her as something of a mystic among my few friends. Whenever someone came over they usually wanted to see her collection of spiritual and occult things, a collection she kept displayed on a bookshelf in her bedroom. It didn’t matter how many times they had seen it, a dried monkey-head and venomous snakes preserved in clear liquid does not really get old when you are twelve.
It wasn’t long after she moved in that the entire school knew that my “mom was a witch”. That is why Jake had been so adamant that we go ask Saga about the pond when we found it. He knew that if anyone knew what that strange place was it would be her. Of course he also wanted to prove to me that it was an passage to another world.
Jake had gotten the idea that the pond was a portal from the inscriptions on the rocks surrounding it. On a bolder on one side of the pool crude etchings showed a figure walking into the water until disappearing and on a rock on the other side it showed a figure emerging. To Jake this was clearly an instruction. “Its obvious, its got to be like a wormhole or something” Jake had enthusiastically exclaimed when we first found the place a few days earlier. “The only question is: how does it work” I had been doubtful already then, pointing out that even if there where such a thing as portals or wormholes or whatever, the figure emerging on the rock across the pond looked different from the one entering. Jake had scoffed at this and insisted that we at least ask my “Witch-mom”, as Saga was nicknamed, about it. I had frowned at his words, not comfortable with anyone referring to Saga as my mom regardless of the word before it (even when it was just “step”) but agreed that if anyone knew something it had to be her. Jake had insisted however that we should not tell her about what we had found. He did not want anyone else to get the credit or, even worse, to be forbidden from returning to the pond.
We decided that we would ask her about it later that evening and tried to come up with an excuse for why we where asking. Together we invented a story about seeing something similar in a film. It seemed like a plausible excuse to two twelve-year-old kids. Jake made a crude sketch of the figure disappearing in the water as well. “For reference” He said. In case she knows it. I remember thinking that the sketch looked nothing like the carving on the rock but I didn’t tell him. I didn’t think it mattered.
As much as Jake wanted there to be something magical happening in those woods I honestly found it all a bit childish. Even at our age. As many stories as I had heard, and as much as I had initially wanted to believe them, they had eventually served to make me jaded. It was like a broken puzzle. The more of it I put together the more obvious it became that there where pieces missing. The supernatural didn’t make any sense. Magic didn’t make sense.
We waited until after dinner. Saga was meditating on the back porch and we sat down silently in front of her. Planning on waiting until she was done.
After a few minutes, without opening her eyes, she greeted us and asked us what we wanted. Jake had been surprised, not thinking that she knew we where there but I just asked if she would tell us a story. Saga opened her eyes and smiled. She sat up in the hammock and started rolling a cigarette. Jake looked at me confused, most likely wondering why I had asked her for a story. I knew better than to ask about the pond straight away. Better to ease in to the questions. My friends often wanted to hear her tales and she was usually happy to oblige. Besides, It was a nice night for a story.
She told us about the Lantern-men. Lost souls who wander trough the marshlands on cloudy nights. “They are said to be the spirits of people who lost their way down in the marshes and drowned. Now they wander the sunken grasslands in the shape of kind old men. The Lantern-men each carry a small lantern, carved from the skulls of rabbits, foxes, badgers and the like. They use them to light their way, searching for a road to the afterlife. If you are ever unfortunate enough to see a floating light pierce the darkness on a foggy night, don’t ever go near it. Whatever you do. The Lantern-men may not be evil by nature, in fact some people who have been lost claim that the lanterns have led them home. Those people, however, are the lucky few. You see the Lantern-men may not be evil by nature…”. She paused for dramatic effect. “…but the eternal search for the afterlife can get so very lonely.”
She lit her cigarette and looked at us with a grim expression. I smiled and Jake chuckled a little. We were almost teenagers, way to old to be scared by such lame tales. I asked her if the lantern-men ever found their way to the afterlife and if there was a way for people to go there just to visit. This steered the conversation in the right direction and we eventually got to ask the things we wanted.
After Jake had asked her about the portals and she had told us about the kinds she knew about I found myself stuck on one. Jake was just about to say something else when I interrupted. “Mirrors?” I asked “Like regular mirrors?” She looked surprised. “Yes, well, usually they are altered in some way, you might have to wright something on them or reflect something in them like a sacrifice but…” “Like Bloody Mary” Jake enthusiastically exclaimed. I continued, ignoring him. “But what about other reflective surfaces?” “Like what?” Saga replied visibly curious as to where I was going with this. “Like maybe a calm water surface?” Jake finally realized where I was going and could barely contain his excitement. “Yeah”He chimed in “Mirrors can´t have been around forever, I mean magic has got to be way older than they are.” “Sure” She nodded “I suppose it´s at least possible but why do you ask?” She gave me a questioning look but I was quick to answer. “Oh, it´s just something we saw in a movie…” Saga waited a moment expecting me to continue but we just thanked her for the story and walked back in to the house. Just as I was about to close the door she shouted something after us: “Don’t believe everything you see in films”.
Well in my room we started planning our return. Jake was now absolutely certain that we had found a magic portal and wanted to try it out as soon as possible. It would have to wait a while however. It was Sunday and Jake’s parents would come to pick him up in a couple of hours.
We lived a few miles apart from each other and had to rely on our respective parents for transportation. Something both of us found quite frustrating. Living so far away from each other meant that we could rarely see each other after school. Jake would often complain about me living “In the middle of nowhere”. He loved to compare my house to the house in that TV-show, Courage the cowardly dog. In that joke I was usually Courage.
My father loved the country and had bought the house just before he met Saga. I had been reluctant to the move at first. Living so far away from my friends in the city. It had felt like a prison for the first few weeks. As time went on however, I had come to love the feeling of freedom and adventure found in the deep forests surrounding the house. As much as Jake complained I knew he felt the same. A sense of adventure discovering the seemingly endless woods. It was like a separate world. Our world. A place of infinite possibility where we were kings, gods or whatever we wanted to be. We would get lost in there for hours just wandering around. The forest was like a second home to me. Of course, that was about to change. Everything was about to change.
We spent the following week at school planning our return to the strange place we had discovered. Writing lists of things we would bring and researching the paranormal in the school library. I say researching but truth be told we would mostly google pictures of alleged portals and read stories. When the weekend finally rolled around we weren’t any wiser than before.
Jake was going to come over Saturday afternoon and during the week his excitement had rubbed off on me. I couldn’t wait to go back to the pond and a part of me had started to become convinced that we had actually found a portal. Saga had asked me about our questions earlier in the week but I had lied. I had said we were just curious for no particular reason. I didn’t think she had bought it but I didn’t really care.
When Jake finally showed up at my house he was four hours late. I had been waiting in the kitchen while dad and Saga cooked. I saw his parents car pull up through the window and rushed out to meet him. “Where have you been? If we want to get there before its dark we have to g…” I interrupted myself when Jake´s mom stepped out of the car and came after him. “Go where boys?” She asked in a suspicious tone. “I hope you´re not going to play in the woods after dark, that place is filthy”. She caught up with us and added, “and full of animals”. “That´s kinda the point mom” Jake replied noticeably embarrassed. “Don’t talk back to me Jacob” She replied handing him a bottle of pills he had forgotten “…and don’t forget to take these before bed”. Jake´s mom hurried back to her car shouting “Say hi to your parents for me” waving goodbye to us both.
“Sorry I´m late” Jake mumbled as we returned to my house. “my mom´s crazy, she forgot what day it was”. I laughed and forgave him. Jake´s mom was known for being a bit neurotic. We went back to my room and went through our inventory. Flashlights, water, sleeping bags and canned foods. I brought my wilderness knife as well. Just in case. All though nothing might actually happen we had made sure to be prepared for a long adventure.
Just as we had crossed everything of our list and were heading down the stairs, ready to leave, my dad called. Dinner was ready. We groaned, realizing that we would have to wait even longer.
Dinner didn’t take to long but it was already dusk when we finished clearing our plates. As we were leaving the house my dad called out after me: “Are you going to the woods?”. We stopped and turned. Standing in the doorway, my father´s massive frame was almost eclipsing the light coming from inside. “Yeah…” I replied. Dad fell silent for a bit. I prayed that he wouldn’t see the backpacks we had borrowed from him in the dark. “ Alright” he said, breaking the silence. “But don’t you stray to far, and be back within the hour”. I promised that we would be. It would take us almost an hour to get to the pond, especially in the dark, but I figured a scolding might be worth it this time.
Entering the woods we quickly understood that we would have to rely on our flashlights. The sun had completely set now and the night sky was covered in a coat of clouds. No stars shone above. I realized that this was the first time i had been in the forest at night. Not that i was not allowed to, I just wouldn’t go further than our back yard after dark. Mostly because i had never wanted to I suppose.
The woods looked different in the flickering beams of our flashlights and more than a few times we had to backtrack to find where we were. Things that seemed so inviting during the day, so familiar to me was now alien and strange. I shuddered. Jake, seeing me shake, laughed and called me a wimp. I told him it was the cold but I honestly didn’t know for sure. Jake charged ahead and I felt a chill thinking about the endless depths of the forest. We had reached the end of the parts I knew well and were venturing into lesser known territory.
We had stumbled upon the pond when we had gotten bored and started exploring deeper into the woods. I had found a small animal-trail and had wanted to see where it led. Originally hoping to find deer. Jake had wanted to go back and I had been just about convinced to turn around when we came out into the clearing with the deep pool of water.
Now we were walking in the area where I had first found the trail and we where both searching for it in the undergrowth. We had been gone for more than an hour and a feeling of discomfort made its way through my body. I secretly wanted to go back. I was just about to suggest it to Jake in a way that wouldn’t make me seem like a coward when a loud noise broke the silence. “Here it is!” Jake cried out proudly pointing to the trail with his light. “I knew we would find it”. I looked at my smiling friend feeling some of my apprehension disappearing. Jake was a rock, dumb as one sometimes but always a brave son of a bitch.
He led the way in between the bushes and I followed. The trail was narrow and hard to see during the day. The fact that he had found it at all in the night was quite impressive. We walked for a while, stumbling through the shrubbery, following the path with our focused circles of light. Pushing away branches we marched on until the woods suddenly fell away behind us. We where there.
For a moment we just stood there, shining our flashlights around the small clearing. The trees surrounding it on all sides stood so close together that they almost formed a wall around us. Our cones of light finally settled on the body of water in the center. The pond was still. Despite a cold breeze blowing through our hair the surface remained calm like it was glass. Like a dark mirror. Jake took a few slow steppes toward it but I stayed behind. A feeling of deep dread crept its way up my spine. I whispered to him to stay, to turn back, but he didn’t seem to hear me. At least he didn’t care. He took a couple of defiant steps further when suddenly both our flashlights flickered and died. We were instantly swallowed by darkness. I cried out after Jake, backing away and fumbling for the treeline. I shook the flashlight desperately trying to turn it back on but it wasn’t working. The darkness was impenetrable and I fell backwards in to the bushes among the trees. I curled up next to a trunk and peered out into the night listening for Jake or anything else out there. My heart was pounding and I felt nauseous from the adrenaline. I opened my backpack and pulled out my knife. It felt good, like reclaiming an ounce of power. I clutched it in my right hand trying to control my breathing, It was all I could hear. The forest was quiet. No wind rustling trough branches no birds calling through the night, no crickets whistling in the grass. I was alone in absolute silence and darkness.
I remember thinking that this must be what it feels like to be buried alive when suddenly a twig snapped behind me and an arm reaching around my chest pulled me further in behind the trees. Panic ruptured in my mind and I tried to scream but a hand was pressed against my mouth preventing any sound from escaping. I struggled, fighting for my life, waving the knife around when suddenly a familiar voice broke the silence. “Ssshhh, relax, be quiet!” Saga hissed softening her grip around me. She took the knife from my hand and slid it in to her pocket. “I could have stabbed you” I whispered, confused but endlessly relieved. “What is going on?” She hushed me again and made me promise to be quiet before completely releasing me from her arms. I waited, crouched along side her in silence for a moment and was just about to ask again when the clouds parted and a beam of cold moonlight flooded the clearing in front of us. Jake was still there. He was standing by the pond with his back straight like a soldier. His flashlight laid by his feet and he seemed almost frozen where he stood. I wanted to yell, to run to him but I was transfixed by the strange scene. Saga grabbed my arm and turned me towards her looking in to my eyes. Her expression was a grimace of fear and stern-concern. As if she knew what was about to happen she whispered: “Don’t move or make a sound”. I nodded, returning my gaze to the clearing ahead.
The moon was perfectly reflected in the pond when suddenly a bulge at the center of the surface started to rise. Slowly, as if the water was a sheet of cling-film, it rose to the point of breaking and a head pierced it from below. I gasped, reflexively covering my mouth with my hands staring at the emerging figure. The head, framed by long golden-blond hair, was followed by a torso and the rest of a body until a figure was standing on the surface of the pond. It was a woman. Pale as the moon itself and completely naked. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The woman turned to Jake who fell to his knees at the edge of the water. He bowed his head and his arms hung limp by his sides. The women looked at him and started slowly walking towards him across the water. Ripples dancing around her feet.
I did not know what was happening but inside me I felt a calm more profound than anything I have ever felt. Sagas grip on my arm tightened and the feeling started to fade.
The women walked up to Jake, reached out a hand and lifted his head so he could see her. He looked into her eyes and rose to his feet. The woman reached her slender arms around him and held him in a firm embrace.
For a brief moment I felt an intense jealousy. I wanted to be Jake more than anything in the world. But then things began to change.
The delicate arms of the woman began to bulge, growing wider and thinner in different places, as if her muscles where being replaced by bones. Bones to large for her body. As her grip around Jake tightened her face began to change as well. Her perfectly sculpted features where elongated as if her skull was morphing in to that of a horse and as her chin and pallet grew to long for her lips to contain them they tore and hung like shedding paint from her face. Her teeth, now visible grew large and flat. Her Back arched as she grew and her spine protruded through her skin. Skin that had turned a sickly gray. As she was changing she clutched Jake harder and harder in her arms. At some point the pain must have alerted him to what was happening as he began to struggle and whimper like a trapped puppy. The thing in the pond had him locked in its arms and with a final squeeze it crushed his bones. It sounded like wet sticks snapping and he let out a final cry of pain quickly turning in to a muffled gurgling.
The shock and horror of the scene unfolding before my eyes paralyzed me. The hair on my neck stood up and I bit my tongue trying not to scream.
The thing held him for a moment. Like a mother holding a child. Then it ate him. The thing in the lake, the women in the water, ate him.
Her long jaws bent around his mangled body and like some perverted parody of a snake she began to force him down her throat. Chewing his crushed limbs with her big flat teeth. That was the worst sound I had ever heard. It still is.
I sat with Saga, helpless, watching the monster finish its meal before slowly returning to the depths of the water. This time crawling backwards in to the dark pond. Leaving nothing but ripples on the surface behind.
I don’t remember much after that. I know Saga led me home through the woods. She told my father she had found me by the edge and that Jake and I had gotten separated. Someone called the police. They searched the forest for almost a month but found nothing. I knew they wouldn’t.
Saga later explained that our questions had made her suspicious and that she had followed us after finding Jake’s sketch of the etchings by the pond. I would later ask her what had made her suspicious and she told me that she knew a lot about what dwells in the woods. “Don’t tread dark waters” she said. Giving me a serious look. “You never know what you might kick up”.
I wanted to ask her more questions, there were so many things that were not adding up but Saga didn’t want to talk about it any more. Truth be told, I wanted to forget as much as I could as well.
This was almost sixteen years ago. I moved away as soon as I could. I ended up moving to a different city for my education and that’s where I live now with a family of my own. My father died a few years ago and I haven’t heard from Saga since. From what I heard from my relatives she sold the house and moved away.
I hadn’t even thought about any of this for several years and I probably would have continued to leave those memories blissfully repressed if it wasn’t for my resent nightmares. You see lately I have been having these dreams. I am back there. In the clearing, by the pond. Only this time its me standing by the edge of the water. I watch the surface break and as the woman emerges I fall to my knees staring into the ground. I see her bare feet approaching me and that feeling of intense calm washes over me. As she stands before me she reaches out a hand. I feel the the wet cold of her fingers under my chin and a feeling of sheer terror runs trough my body. The woman tilts my head up and I look into her eyes. Her pale blue eyes. I cry then, incapable of doing anything else but she just smiles. It is always the last thing I see before I wake up. That strange familiar smile on Saga´s lips.
CREDIT : E Eld