Author's Note: This was written for the moodboard prompt on writeblr-monthly Discord. I couldn't work everything in, but I tried. And it went off in a pretty weird direction. (Why did my brain look at a moodboard that had nothing to do with ghosts and immediately decide it was inspiration for a ghost story?)
A Dark and Heavy Weight
...A dark and heavy weight
Despoiled of silver plumage, its voice forever stilled, –
All of the wonder
Gone that ever filled
Its guise with glory.
– William Rose Benét, The Falconer of God
Stories are told of the house in the forest. Stories of ghosts, mysterious deaths, lights with no obvious source. No one knows when or how the stories started.
Well, two people do. But no one's asked us yet.
It began eighty years ago, with a boy lost in the woods.
My mother warned me never to go into the woods. "There are no paths there," she said. "You'll get lost and never find your way out."
I'd never thought of going into the woods until she warned me not to. The very next day I sneaked out when she wasn't looking and ran to the forest. I would stay close to the edge, I thought. I wouldn't go in too deep. But when I turned to go back, I couldn't find my way out.
For hours I wandered around and around in circles. I tried to climb a tree and look around, but I only cut my hands. I tried to follow a stream's course, but I stumbled into a bog. I heard something moving, but it was only a fox. Everything looked the same. There wasn't a trace of a path anywhere.
And then I saw a light ahead.
When I drew nearer I realised it was from a house's window. A house built at the edge of the forest; the other side to the one my house was on.
I was considering whether or not to knock at the door and ask for directions when the door opened.
That was when I first saw him.
It's been so long that I forget what he said to me. Or did I speak to him first? However it happened, the next thing I remember is sitting in the house's living room; the living room I sit in now, so many years later. He brought me a cup of tea and bandages for my hands. All the while he told me at length how stupid I'd been to walk through the forest without a map.
"Who are you?" he asked when he could think of nothing else to say.
"I'm Theodore," I said. "I live in the village–" I pointed vaguely in the direction I thought I'd come from, "–over there."
"I'm Alan," he said. "I live here."
At the time I didn't think to ask why he lived alone – for there was no sign of any other person living in the house – miles away from everywhere.
It was too late to go home that night. I stayed in the guest room, just down the hall from Alan's bedroom. No ghosts came to disturb me then. There were no mysterious deaths, and not a single light except the moon. I slept soundly, disturbed only once by a sound of rustling paper.
Mice, I thought, and went back to sleep.
The next morning Alan showed me a path through the forest, back to the village. What I remember most about that walk is how the forest suddenly seemed much less sinister, and how the sunlight caught in Alan's hair and seemed to turn it from brown to gold.
Weeks passed before I saw Alan again. Our next meeting was at my aunt's house. She had a guest, a very famous painter. The entire countryside found some excuse to visit my aunt while her guest was staying. When my mother and I went to see her the house was full of people I'd never seen before.
I've forgotten how it happened. My memory never was perfect, and the years have not made it any better. But I got lost in the crowd and found myself at the foot of the stairs. When I looked round I saw Alan walk out of the dining room.
He saw me a second after I saw him. He started. A look of surprise and guilt crossed his face. It was gone so quickly I'm still not sure if I only imagined it.
"I didn't expect to see you here," he said with a smile.
The memory of that smile blots out the rest of the conversation.
But I remember that the next day, my aunt discovered a priceless antique vase had disappeared.
After that meeting I started visiting Alan's house regularly. I told my mother his house was closer than it really was so she wouldn't worry. I never told her about the path through the forest.
Alan had a large assortment of curiosities from all over the world, and a never-ending collection of stories to go with them.
"This clock was made over five hundred years ago and has never needed repaired," was one of his tall tales. Another was, "It's said that mirror will show your future if you look in it at midnight."
Once I did look in it at midnight. I saw only what I expected to see: myself as I was then, standing in Alan's house. Looking back now, it did in fact show my future.
The house was – and still is – unlike anything else I've ever seen. There are two stairs down into the kitchen, and another two stairs up into the living room. There are no end of unexpected turns and corners. The bannister at the top of the stairs was very rotten – it's long since broken now – and beneath it is the tiled floor. In a spare room is an old wooden chest with a very heavy lid. I try to avoid both bannister and chest nowadays.
Most of the house is two storeys tall. But above the living room and the master bedroom there's a small, low room that's not quite a third storey but also not an attic. It has a curiously-shaped oblong window above a low bench. It sticks in my mind more than anything else in the house, because it was where I first kissed Alan.
I spent more time at his house than at my own. My mother shook her head and joked I might as well move in with him if we were to be so inseparable. So that's what I did.
Dates blur together in my mind. Was it a week or two later that I found it? However long it was, I stumbled upon a pile of receipts at the back of a cupboard. They were receipts for the sale of antiques. One of them was for a vase that matched the description of the one my aunt had lost.
I would like to forget the argument that followed. We both said some very cruel things. It ended with me storming off into the woods.
Again I got lost. Again the light at the window led me back to the house.
For days we refused to speak to each other until finally Alan relented.
"I'll buy the vase back," he said.
"This is about more than the vase!" I protested. "You've stolen so many things!"
"It's my job." I can still hear how exasperated he sounded, as if he thought I was being very stupid. "I can't just give it up, not even for you."
The argument ended with some sort of truce. Alan wouldn't steal from anyone I knew, and I would turn a blind eye to where his money came from.
He retrieved the vase he stole from my aunt. I didn't ask if he bought it back or stole it.
When did everything go wrong? Good question. I can't point to an exact date or time no matter how hard I try. I can't remember if there were warning signs before or if everything went to hell in a second.
What does stick in my memory is how loud the doorbell sounded when it rang one afternoon. I'll never forget how pale Alan turned when he heard it.
"Stay here," he said. We were both in the little attic-room, reading together on the bench. I remember how I tried to see who was at the door through the window. All I could see were the trees a short distance away. "I expect it's an old… acquaintance. He said he might stop by."
Something in his tone warned me this wasn't a normal visit. I waited until he'd gone downstairs before I followed him.
I heard raised voices from the doorway. One was Alan's. The other belonged to a stranger, a man I'd never seen before. I stood on the landing, hidden from below by the wall, and listened to what was said.
"You said you'd have them ready a week ago!" the stranger shouted.
"Acquiring them took longer than expected," Alan said. "Stealing jewels isn't my forte."
Fury filled me at those words. I thought of all the things I was going to say to Alan when our unwanted guest left. I hardly noticed both Alan and the guest were walking across the room until they reached the stairs. I turned and fled into the spare room at the end of the hall – the room with the wooden chest.
So much happened afterwards that I can't remember why I climbed into the chest. It must have looked like a good hiding place in case someone walked into the room. Or perhaps I wanted to listen without the risk of being seen. I don't know. All I clearly remember is the click of the lid closing over my head.
Inside the chest the air was stale and all sounds were muffled. The faintest sound of angry shouting reached my ears, followed by a distant crash. After that the house was silent. My lungs burned from the lack of air. I tried to push the lid open.
It refused to move.
Why is it that the things I wish I didn't remember are the ones that stay with me forever? I pushed frantically at that lid. I screamed for help. I clawed at the wood until I had no strength left.
No one answered.
Everyone has long since forgotten Alan and I. Our house is the setting for ghost stories or fairy tales. The truth has been lost beneath the stories. But in a way, the stories are true. There are ghosts. There are lights at that window; you can't expect us to spend eternity in the dark, after all. And there were mysterious deaths, if you stretch the definition to include accidental suffocation and being pushed off the stairs.
My first few days after death are a blur of panic and confusion. My clearest memory is of Alan and I looking down at his body.
Alan shook his head and said, "I should have had those bannisters repaired."
"You should have listened to me and given up stealing things," I retorted. Or maybe I didn't speak at all, and my mind added that remark afterwards. It was such a long time ago.
Eventually someone noticed we had disappeared. My mother and a group of other villagers came to investigate. There was an uproar when they discovered Alan's body. It took them longer to find mine. A murder investigation began. Suddenly we had to share our house with an endless stream of detectives. But within a year they gave up. Not enough evidence, they said. Impossible to tell what happened.
We could have told them what happened. But no one can hear us now.
Years have passed, and almost no one visits our house. We're alone here, with the lights and the antiques and the woods outside. If we want to we can leave and see how the rest of the world is doing. Being a ghost isn't nearly as bad as I once would have thought.
Stories are told of the house in the forest.
We're the only ones who know the stories are true.