STORY: ‘The Wampus Mask’ by Asher Elbein
Anna O’Brien could never say how she knew that something was wrong. It was not the first time she’d woken to find the other side of the bed empty of all but tangled sheets and his musky scent; Tom often left in the earliest morning, sliding out of bed carefully so as not to wake her when he went out hunting. She’d rise and make the bed and do the chores that needed doing, and by afternoon he’d return, his broad brimmed hat pulled low, a dead hog on one shoulder and his rifle on the other. Sometimes he came back with nothing. But he always came back.
But on that day, when she stared across the rumpled bed to the empty spot where he’d laid the night before, Anna felt a strange disquiet. She was not a worrier by nature; serious, yes, and quiet, but she’d never been prone to a fluttering stomach or nervous airs. And she’d never in the year they’d been married had to worry about her husband. Tom was widely held to be the best hunter in town, with a good head on his shoulders and quick enough feet to get him out of any trouble he found himself in. She lay there for a while, staring at the threadbare pillow, her grey eyes furrowed as she tried to work out what was wrong. Finally, with the morning bird song ringing in her ears, she hauled herself up.
She washed her face with water from the rain barrel, the cool air raising gooseflesh across her arms. The trees whispered overhead, leaves spinning past the windows, the light yellow and strange between the massive trunks. On the slopes above the cabin, the granite cliffs loomed high against the wan light, cracked folds of rock towering above the canopy.
You still found bones and bullets up there, they said. Scraps of blue and grey cloth left over from the War Between the States, empty skulls cracked and broken in the gullies. A lot of blood had been spilled in the North Carolina Mountains. Sometimes people said they saw shapes in the trees, or felt eyes watching from the shadows.
Anna caught herself staring at them and shook her head. He’d be back soon enough. No use worrying.
She went back inside and stripped the bed, shaking out the sheet and quilt. She was in the process of replacing them when she heard footsteps outside the cabin. Her heart skipped a beat and she half turned, expecting his rumpled hunting jacket through the window, the sleeves rolled up regardless of the weather. But it was Milly’s round, earnest face peering in at her, dirty blond hair waving in the morning breeze.
“Good morning!” Milly said as Anna opened the door. She swept inside, her dress trailing twigs across the wooden floor. A sack draped under her arm. “Where’s Tom?”
“Hunting,” Anna smiled. “How’s Sam?”
“Fussy,” Milly said. She set the sack down on the wooden tabletop, the trim new floorboards creaking underfoot. “That child will run me ragged. I don’t know how you do it. When my John’s out in the woods with his rifle, I’m worried sick.”
“Yes, well,” Anna’s stomach gave an odd little twist.” I–”
“I brought you your flour,” Milly rushed on. “John wants me to ask if you have any salted meat left. Where does Tom find such good hunting, anyhow? I never heard of anybody else having that much luck.”
“Should be some meat in the cupboard,” Anna said, picking up the sack. “He goes up under the cliffs, I think. He says no one hunts that way.”
Milly smoothed her hands on her dress and frowned as she stood. “No one hunts that way ’cause it’s not safe, Annie. He shouldn’t be going up there. He’ll break his neck or worse.” She made a face and went over to the cupboard.
Anna laughed. “He does all right.” She dumped a load of flour into a wooden bowl for later. From behind her, she heard Milly snort in satisfaction as she located the meat. “Tell John I said thank you for the flour. We’ll have more meat for you when Tom comes back.”
She sat for a while after Milly left, staring out the window. Then she roused herself, took up the broom, and swept the floor, losing herself in the motion of the bristles. When she finished she looked out the window at the trees and then swept again. Worry coiled like a snake in her gut. Leaves rattled and spun in the air outside. And Tom did not come back.
She set a load of washing on the floor and went out to the creek to carry water. When she returned she sat and tried to scrub the cloth, but the smell of him was all over it and she stopped.
“You’re being a fool,” she said to herself. “He’s fine. He’ll be back soon enough.”
So she scrubbed half-heartedly at the linens and hung them on the line to dry. The cloth flapped and fluttered on the breeze as she returned to the cabin. There she set about baking a few loaves of bread, kneading her frustration and worry out in the dough before putting it aside to let it rise.
But it did not rise. The sun dropped toward the rocky cliffs, the blue gloom filtered through the woods, and still Tom did not come back. Anna paced between the kitchen and the porch, staring out into the forests, her dress rustling against the smooth floor. Once or twice, she thought she heard gunshots carried down the slope by the wind, but they were gone before she could be sure.
The mountain grew blue, then purple, then black with shadow. She lit lanterns and hung them in the windows, and started a fire, and stared at the ghostly shapes of the washing shuddering on the line. Something oppressive and tight spread itself in the space behind her eyes. The worry in her gut had frozen into fear.
Something screamed out in the dark, a long, desperate, miserable wail that echoed down the slope before choking off. She ran out onto the porch, her hand closing over one of the kitchen knives as she went, and swung a lantern high. Tree trunks and twigs shone in the flickering light, the rasping calls of tree frogs echoing through the gloom.
It exploded out of the woods in a shower of bracken, pale and staring, its mouth stretched wide, arms tearing at its own flesh. She yelped in surprise and jumped back, holding up the knife, in time to see it trip over the side of the porch and fall heavily against the boards. It lay there, shivering and twitching, and looked up at her with wide eyes that rolled in their sockets like a panicked horse.
“Tommy,” she whispered. Her husband jerked at the sound of his name, and now she could see the blood streaming from the cuts and bruises that lined his arms. His clothing was in tatters, his prized hat missing, the hunting jacket ripped to shreds. His mouth worked soundlessly, and as Anna stared down at him, she realized he was trying, and failing, to scream.
She lost track of how long it took to coax him into bed, and it was many hours before she could calm him enough to stop his violent shaking. Instead he quivered under the covers, eyes flitting wildly back and forth, and there she nursed him until the blue light of dawn came creeping through the trees. Only when the sun crested the top of the mountain did he give a ragged sigh and fall asleep.
Anna hesitated a while, afraid of leaving him, but when she saw he was sleeping deeply she drew her shawl about her and rushed down the path toward town. There she cried out her story for those who were awake to hear it, and soon a crowd of people followed her back to the cabin to look at Tom. They spoke in low voices, so as not to wake him.
“Something scared the life out’a him,” Nora said, laying a wrinkled hand against Tom’s forehead. “He’s still shaking, poor man.”
“Maybe a catamount,” said Carpen’ Jim. He ran nervous fingers through his tangled beard, dislodging wood shavings.” No claw marks as I can see, though.”
Nora pursed her lips. “There’s worse in the woods than cougars. Haints and yee-wahs and–”
Tom shifted in bed, jerked, and his eyes opened wide. He stared at the people surrounding him and curled up into a ball beneath the blanket.”Ewah. . .” he whispered through cracked lips.
Nobody said anything. Those in the cabin rocked from one foot to another, and those on the porch whispered to each other and shook their heads.
“Tom,” said Anna, rising. She knelt beside him and put an arm over his quaking body. He flinched at her touch. “Tom, it’s me. What happened?”
“Ewah,” Tom hissed again. His eyes twitched.”Ewah.”
“He’s seen the devil or some such like,” one of the old men rumbled, resting his hand on her shoulder. “Lost his wits. It’s a shame, Anna, but he ain’t Tom no more. Ain’t a proper man at all.”
“A doctor–” Anna tried, but Norra shook her head.
“No use,” she said. “No preacher or doctor can help your husband. He’s too far gone.”
Anna rounded on her, “You can’t know that!”
Norra’s lips pressed tightly together. “You’re bare eighteen years, Anna O’Brien. Don’t be telling me what I can and can’t know.”
“There’s the old witch woman,” Carpen’ Jim mumbled, raising his calloused hands. “Some folk could run down the holler and ask–”
“Nobody’s seen her in years. Don’t give the girl false hope,” Nora snapped. She turned back to Anna and her voice softened. “I’m sorry, Anna. We’ll do what we can.”
They left her there with him. All the rest of the day people came up the path carrying food, condolences, and offers to help, and through it all Anna sat and stared at the form huddled under the covers. Never once did the poor broken thing in the bed look at her with Tom’s eyes. She cried for a while, great choking sobs that grew smaller and smaller as her tears dried up. Then she went out and sat on the porch and looked up at the darkening cliffs, and in the place of her grief bubbled up something cold, hard, and angry.
She pulled Tom’s big boots onto her feet and wound her shawl tightly around her shoulders, twisting her fingers in the tassels as she looked back inside the cabin. If the doctor couldn’t help, and the preacher couldn’t help, then Anna would find someone who could. And everyone in town, from the youngest children to the oldest men, knew where to find the witch woman.
Lantern swinging in her hand, she followed the path down toward town, walking the wide winding trail past the buildings and out onto the road. Bracken crunched and snapped under her feet. She turned down a fork, and turned again at the next. Wind rasped at the branches, wooden claws scraping against each other in the dark. The path grew narrow and rutted as it wound down the slope, rocks thrusting up from the dirt to trip her. The dim lamplight beat feebly against the shadows.
“Anna,” whispered a bat flying overhead on silent wings. “Go back.”
But Anna only pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulders and went on. With careful steps she made her way down the slope, lantern bobbing. From somewhere nearby she could hear the rush of cold water tumbling through a crack in the rock. Twigs caught at her dress as she pushed through the brush and came at last to the pebbly bottom of the ravine.
The cabin loomed by the side of the creek, its timbers warped and worn by countless spring melts, saplings growing through the broken windows, foundations devoured by tangled ferns. The door creaked half-open in the breeze and a light pulsed inside, like that of the embers of a dying fire.
Anna squared her shoulders and stepped up onto the porch. Toads hopped away from her boots. The boards sagged under her weight, groaning with rot under her every step. She put a hand on the door, pushed it open, and put her foot down on empty air. She fell: then cold soil smacked her face and the lamp went out with a jangle of breaking glass.
“So,” breathed a voice. “Here you are.”
Anna opened her eyes. A dull red glow flickered against the darkness, barely illuminating the scatter of wood and broken shingles lying in the dirt. Saplings stretched up into the gloom, flickering light playing against the bark. A hunched form shifted on the other side of the fire.
“Anna O’Brien,” whispered the witch in a voice as soft as owl wings. “I’ve been waiting.”
“How do you know me?” Anna said. It was cold in the cabin, and she felt herself starting to shiver. She got up, her fingers sinking into the loam, and sat down beside the fire.
“I know many things,” said the witch. “Some I hear. Some I’m told. I know your grandpa took a Cherokee to wife. I know you took Tom O’Brien for husband. And I know something terrible’s happened to him.”
Anna clenched her fists and opened her mouth, but her voice failed. She took a shallow breath. “What? Something’s broken him. Scared him so bad he screamed his own voice away. He can’t speak for nonsense.”
Water rushed and babbled in the dark beyond the cabin. Toads croaked in the reeds.
“They say that once there was a thing of terror,” said the witch. “A mind eater. No warrior could stand before it and no hunter could escape it, for it drank their dreams and left them mad and foaming and screaming its name.”
Sickening understanding slithered through Anna’s mind.”Ewah,” she said.
The witch nodded, ivory jawbone ghostly in the gloom. “A thing old and cruel. The shamans bound it once, but too much blood has been spilled beneath the cliffs. It has come back. It took your husband’s mind.”
“Save him,” Anna said. “Please.”
“I can’t,” sighed the witch. She leaned forward into the dim light, spiderweb shadows crawling across her face. “The townsfolk are right, Anna O’Brien. Go home. There’s nothing left to save.”
It was as if a hole opened up inside her. Never again would she see him laugh, or feel his arms around her, or hear him say her name. She rocked back, physically stunned, and for a moment she almost lost herself to grief. Then she felt the cold anger seep up again and she clung to it like a drowning man to a log. “No,” she said quietly.
“You must. Go home and tend to him. Warn the people that the Ewah walks. That is all you can do.”
“No!” Anna snarled. The heat of the coals washed across her face. “That’s not enough. It has to be stopped.”
“The Ewah cannot die,” said the witch. “You cannot revenge yourself on it. You will never see a drop of its blood spilled. And even if you drive it off, it will cost you dearly.”
“It already has,” Anna said. “And what about Milly’s husband? He hunts on the slope. What about Carpen’ Jim? He cuts his wood in the hollow. What happens when the Ewah comes for them?” Her voice rose to a shout, echoing around the dark cabin. “How many get hurt before you help me?”
Glowing eyes studied her for a long moment. Embers guttered in the fire pit, their light playing on the ragged trunks of the saplings. There was no sound but the water.
“There is one thing I can give you,” the witch hissed. From the shadows behind she drew out a twisted object and held it over the coals. “The Ewah is an old, cruel spirit. No rifle or knife can harm it. But it fears this.”
Anna reached forward hesitantly, and felt brittle fur brush across her fingers. As she closed her hand over it a scalding sensation rushed up her arm for the briefest of moments, and as she turned it over red light glinted off of carved wood and yellowing bone. “What is this?”
“A Wampas Mask,” said the witch. The coals glowed brighter. “Woven from wildcat hide and sinew by a true shaman of the Cherokee. Old medicine magic. It will hide you from the devil’s gaze. Go up into the tall forest beneath the cliffs tonight. You’ll have to be clever and quick–if it catches you unawares, then you’ll never come back. Find it first, and maybe you’ll live to tell of it.”
Anna stared at the Wampas Mask, running her fingers over the cruel eyes and sharp wooden fangs. “Thank you,” she said, making to rise.
Fingers as hard and cold as bone seized her arm. “Wait,” the witch rasped. “The mask has its price and it will be steep. Perhaps more than you wish to pay.”
“I’ll do what I must,” Anna said, pulling free. She unwound her shawl and wrapped the mask in its folds. “Thank you for your help.”
“Go,” said the witch. The coal burned low, gloom shrouding her bony face. “Good luck.”
Anna O’Brien stepped up past the hanging door and out into the night. Behind her the red glow faded, dwindling into the darkness before it finally went out.
She stumbled back up the path, a hand outstretched to guide her along the tree trunks. The moon filtered down through the leaves, giving barely enough light to see by. Several times she tripped and fell, and by the time she reached the road her arms were scratched and bleeding. Narrowing her eyes against the pain, she walked up the road through town and past her cabin, twigs crunching under her boots. The wrapped mask throbbed against her hands like a living thing.
She paused at the edge of the deep woods and stared back at the little home, thinking of Tom lying curled in the bed. For a moment the hole in her heart threatened to rip open again, but the anger was there to force it down.
“Go back,” crooned an owl diving on a mouse. It pinned its prey in cruel talons and drifted away into the dark. “Go back, Anna O’Brien.”
“Not yet,” Anna said. She took one last look at the cabin and then, mouth set; she turned and waded into the deep forest.
It was pitch black in the woods. The trees grew close together and the branches blotted out even the faint moonlight. Her breath sounded ragged and loud in her ears. She struggled up the slope for what seemed like hours, her legs burning under the strain, her dress rustling the leaves. Several times the fabric snagged on sharp limbs and gave way with rips of cloth that echoed like gunshots to her frightened ears.
Finally, she ducked down behind the roots of a great gnarled tree and ripped half of the dress off. She tied the fabric around her waist, the air cold across her bare knees, and tucked the wrapped mask into the makeshift belt. Sound was her enemy now, and she fought it with all the ferocity she could bring to bear. She slipped through the undergrowth, soft step by soft step; throat tight, hands up as if they could somehow lighten her tread. Ahead she could see the great shadowy slabs of the cliffs jutting up above the trees.
“Beware,” hissed a copperhead, coils glinting dimly in the hollow of a rotting log.
Anna’s eyes widened and she froze, pressing her body against the nearest boulder. Cold rock sent shivers down her skin. For long seconds she hardly dared to breathe, heart pulsing in her chest, the prickle of tiny legs inching down her flesh. The darkness pressed in on all sides.
She took a deep breath and swallowed. The air had a foul taste, slimy and slick, and now when she drew it into her lungs she nearly gagged. Reaching down into the bolt of cloth, she drew forth the wrapped mask and pulled it loose from the shawl. The crawling sensation was growing, a thousand invisible insects digging into her skin, tunneling down into her bones. Her blood hammered in her ears, and she could feel the wood pounding against her flesh like distant drums. Closing her eyes, she slipped the mask on.
Her flesh burned where it touched the wood. There was a snap inside her ears, and when she opened her eyes, it was as if the moon had come out from behind the clouds. The crawling sensation slipped off her skin as she gulped at the cold air.
But something was wrong. The pounding in her ears was growing louder, closer, and it was not the sound of her pulse but heavy footfalls reverberating through the gloom.
She inched around the boulder, cloth rustling against the stone, and peered around the other side. Snags towered on all sides, white and brittle and split by whirling shadows. The footsteps grew louder, echoing along the slope, and beneath it she could hear the wet rasp of quiet breath. Closer and closer they came, and as they did the mask grew hotter on her face until it almost scalded. They might have been coming from any direction. She shrank against the rock.
Suddenly the footsteps stopped. For long moments, there was no movement but the wind in the branches, as if the thing in the dark were listening intently. Then a laugh echoed through the forest, as cruel and cold as the snapping of rotten bone.
“I smell you there in the dark,” said the Ewah. Its voice made the flesh on Anna’s neck writhe. “I’ve fat myself on white man’s mind this night past and I am sated. Run, girl, and I will let you go undrunk.”
She felt a sudden urge to run, as fast as she could, to lock herself away in the cabin and never again go out into the black forest. But her legs were rooted in place and there was a roaring in her ears. Leaning around the boulder, she stared out over the slope. Even with the aid of the mask, she saw nothing but long straight trunks and tangles of dead trees. Above the heavy black cliff face blotted out the sky.
“Stay then,” the Ewah chuckled. The sound rasped and bubbled in the cold air. “You have the blood in you, little girl. Cherokee blood like I have not smelled in long, long years. I miss them so. Let me have a look at you. Let us be,” the voice gloated, “civilized.”
Anna gritted her teeth, sweat trickling down her forehead. Long bands of shadow tangled across her vision and she saw nothing. And yet the voice was so close, almost as if it were right on top of her—
The thought coiled in her mind. Slowly, she turned around and looked up, up, impossibly high, into a pair of grinning, shining white eyes.
Her heart stopped for one long, terrifying moment. The shadowy forest before her shifted and moved. A leg as long and thin as a tree trunk stretched overhead, black against the cold stars. Long wicked claws scraped across the top of the rock. The Ewah stepped over the boulder and crouched on the far side, spindly arms folded like a spider against its sides, teeth glinting in its grinning skull.
“Come out,” it hissed. Strange designs roiled and spun over its pale flesh. Clawed fingers dug at the dirt. “My patience will not last.”
It hadn’t seen her, Anna realized. It had stepped right over her, staring with its white eyes, and yet it had never looked down. She brought a hand to the mask and felt it throb against her fingers. The beginnings of an idea were drifting into her mind, but her limbs were leaden with terror. Slowly, with aching care, she began to slip back into the trees. Maybe she could vanish into the dark, slip down the mountain—
Something soft buckled under her feet. She look down in spite of herself, bent down and picked up a battered, broad brimmed hat, the side crushed where she’d stepped on it. Tom’s hat. A piece of him torn away and left abandoned in the trees.
“I smell the white man on you, little girl. His mind screams still in my stomach.” Shining eyes swept back and forth over the forest. Its long tongue slathered and slapped from its jaws. “He screamed so loud. Tell me, were you his? Did you like my work?”
In that moment all of the fear drained out of Anna O’Brien, and hatred welled up eagerly to take its place. Her fingers dug into her palms, locking his hat in an iron grip. With smooth, deliberate steps, she moved into the shadows.
The voice grew menacing.” I tire of your rudeness. I think I am hungry after all. Soft flesh. Ripe. Soft mind. Riper. Oh, but I will make of you such a horror.”
There was no response. The wind rattled in the branches.
“Where are you?” The Ewah snarled. Its head swung back and forth, long arms searching. Trees bent and cracked as it pulled them over. Boulders went rolling down the hill as it yanked them from the soil. So busy was the thing that it failed to notice the small figure running from tree trunk to tree trunk, keeping behind its back.
“Where?” Its voice rose to a cruel roar. “Where?“
Anna O’Brien stepped out behind it and screamed. “HERE!”
The Ewah whirled around, mouth open wide, claws raised. Instead of a soft frightened girl, instead of prey, it found itself staring into the burning eyes of the Wampas Mask.
An ear-splitting shriek echoed off the cliffs. The Ewah reared, claws swiping in agony and terror, and stumbled back into a stand of dying trees. The trunks came down with a crack of wood and snapping bone, and the Ewah screamed again. It rolled repeatedly, scrabbling as far away as it could on its long legs, gouging deep furrows into the rock and soil. Leaping up, it fled in a crackle of falling trees and exploding underbrush. Its shrieks lingered in the dark, growing fainter and fainter, until finally they too faded away.
Dawn was breaking by the time she finally limped out of the woods, bone weary but burning with a strange joy. She had worn the mask all the way down the mountain, following the game trails it had revealed, slipping through boulders and thickets until she emerged on the path that led to her cabin. As the light had grown, so too had the throb of wood against her face.
For the second time in as many days there was a crowd milling about the small cabin. Milly and Nora cast worried glances at the woods with tired faces, talking in low voices. Two ragged old hounds lay at their feet, noses moist in the morning sun. Several of the old men sat on the porch, staring off with narrowed eyes toward the cliffs. They jumped up when they saw her come out of the trees.
“Anna!” Milly yelped. “Anna, is that you? What happened? What was that sound?”
“Damn noise shook us out’a bed,” Carpen’ John said. “Where’ve you been?”
“What’n hell have you got on your face?”
One of the hounds stared at her with dim brown eyes. “Doomed now, Anna O’Brien.” Nobody else seemed to notice.
“What were you doing?” Nora said. There was a troubled twist to her mouth as she took in the sight.
“I went to see the witch woman,” Anna said. “And then I went and settled with what took Tom away. It won’t come back.” She glanced toward the cabin, her fingers tightening nervously against Tom’s hat. “How is he? Is he awake?”
“Sleeping peaceful,” Milly said.
“Thank God!” Anna said. She rushed toward the cabin only to find Nora blocking her path. “Let me see him.”
“You can’t go in there with that,” Nora said. “You’ll scare his life out again. Get it off.”
Anna pulled the mask away, stepped forward, and stumbled.
A blinding flash of heat boiled across her skin. The world tilted wildly, and she found herself on the ground, coughing. She tasted blood and tried to struggle to her feet, only to fall back again.
“. . . can’t,” she choked, trying to fight her way through the mist clouding her eyes. From somewhere far away came the hollow pounding of drums. She pushed herself up on her arms and retched, her gorge rising. The townsfolk faded in and out of sight, horror and fear branded on their faces. She heard a scream from somewhere and wondered if it was hers. The drums were deafening now, pounding through her ears like a heartbeat. A foot dug at the ground as she tried to rise.
People shouted somewhere in the distance. Pebbles and leaves pressed against her cheek.
I can’t feel my leg, Anna thought dimly. A shudder of pain passed through her body, but she barely noticed it. It was as if it were all happening to someone else, the moments stretching out and out toward forever. I have to stand up. I can’t feel my leg. There was no sound but the drums, and the world was dark with coiling fog. Her eyes rolled back in her head. She fell into the blackness and knew nothing more.
When she woke, there was sunlight on her face and crisp linen against her body. She exhaled, shuddering. Her limbs ached, long scratches carving their jagged ways over her arms. She stared at the rumple of quilt before her, at the shallow fold where her brain said her left leg should be and her eyes swore was not. Numbly, she groped at her leg beneath the covers. Her hand slid over the thigh, scratched and scarred, fumbling for the knee, the calf, the foot. But there was nothing.
She took a deep breath and let it out as slowly as she could. Her throat felt raw. She looked around, taking in the sunlit cabin, and stopped.
He stood by the side of the bed, his hands in the pockets of his trousers, looking down at her with concerned eyes. His hat and tattered hunting jacket hung behind him on a chair.
“Tommy?” She whispered though dry lips.
He smiled at her and sat down on the chair, leaning forward to watch her. Behind him the door creaked open and Milly bustled in from the porch. She sat on the other side of the bed, her tired face wrinkling into a weak smile when she saw Anna move. “Good morning,” she said, passing her a tin cup filled with water. “How are you feeling?”
Anna drained it all in one gulp and passed it back. “Bad. What happened?”
“You had some kinda fit when that devil mask came off,” Milly said. Her mouth twisted.”Carpen’ Jim smashed it up and you fell asleep. You been asleep since. . . And. . . well . . .”
“My leg,” Anna said. “What happened to it?”
“It melt–” Milly began, then screwed up her face as if she were remembering something horrible and stopped. “Well. No sense dwelling on the bad.”
“No,” Anna said, her smile as bright as the sunrise on the cliffs. Birdsong filtered through the open door like gentle music on the breeze. “There’s plenty good this morning.”
“Now don’t be short, Anna O’Brien. Carpen’ John’s working you up a new one,” Milly said with desperate cheer. Her worried eyes flicked to the chair. “You can polish it and all.”
“You’d like that,” Anna said, wrinkling her nose at her husband. He stuck his tongue at back at her. “How’s he up and about?”
Milly’s eyes widened as she followed Anna’s gaze. “Who?”
The silence stretched for a long, terrible moment. Tom shifted in the chair, finger tapping his knee. Anna stared at the chair, at its empty shadow, and then at her husband’s blue eyes. “Tom,” she said. The light was too bright on her eyes. She looked back at Milly, a cold blade of dread sliding into her stomach. “He’s right . . .”
The look on Milly’s face told her everything she needed to know.
“How long?” Anna whispered.
Milly’s eyes were wet. “They buried him last night, Anna. He never woke up. We tried to wake you but . . .” she wrung her hands and her breath choked in her throat. “I’m so sorry.”
There were no tears, no screaming, no pain. Anna O’Brien felt only a curious numbness as she lay against the sheets, her hand grasping the quilt as she stared at the chair. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “Please go.”
“Right,” Milly said. She stood up and smoothed her hands on her skirt. “I’ll be on the porch.”
“Yes,” Anna said. She closed her eyes and swallowed, struggling with herself. She heard Milly close the door, wood rattling against the frame. Long seconds passed. Then she shook her head. “You should go too,” she said, and breathed out.
Her eyes opened. She looked.
A chair sat before her, with battered hat and torn coat hanging to one side. Nothing more.
She dreamed that night. The mists swallowed her up and when they faded she was back in the witch’s cabin, sitting by the fire as embers whirled and danced in the dark around the sapling trunks. Her hands rested on her legs, and her left leg was whole. Frogs chirped and whirred in the rafters.
“I told you there would be a price,” said the witch. Anna looked up to see glittering eyes watching her across the flames. “And I told you it would be steep.”
“It’s done,” Anna said. Twigs crackled and popped in the fire pit. “I’ve paid it.”
“You’ve paid some,” said the witch.”You lost a leg. You lost a love. But there’s more. The price of medicine magic is medicine magic, Anna O’Brien. When you put on the Wampas Mask you traded your life away. You can’t set the task aside once you start, any more then you can stop breathing. Do you understand?”
“The mask’s broken,” Anna said.”Carpen’ John smashed it.”
“He smashed a mask,” the witch hissed. The embers flicked and spun amid the rafters. “And nothing more. You heard the whispers of the voiceless. You broke the pale ghost with your will and your courage. You saved your townsfolk, although they’ll never know it.”
Twisted hands spread up, knucklebones shining dimly. “The mask helped. But the power’s in you, girl. And there is much more work to be done. The spirits grow hungry in the black woods and come forth to prey on the people, and who is there to stop them?”
“You,” Anna said, crossing her arms. “You’re the witch.”
“I’m long gone,” the witch said. The firelight caught her face and for the briefest of moments the only thing there was bone. “Nothing but an old ghost. And now you’re a witch too.”
Anna was silent for a long time.” I don’t know how.”
The witch’s face was unreadable in the gloom. Then a hand reached out over the dying flames, took Anna’s, and squeezed. “You saw your husband’s ghost?”
“I saw him smile,” Anna said softly.
“Hold on to that,” said the witch. The coals flickered out, one by one, and the shadows slowly moved in. “Hold on to his smile. Hold on to some piece of him. And then, when you walk the moonlit road with a wooden leg and the spirits at your back, you can remember why you took up the Wampas Mask. And you can stop the world from making others suffer a fate like yours.”
A light flared in the fire pit. The cabin melted into nothing, saplings spiraling into columns of mist. In the glow she saw a woman, battered hat pulled low over clear grey eyes, hunting jacket flapping soundlessly in the wind. Spectral things pressed about her, clawing and biting, and shrank back as blue fire rippled along her hands. The woman looked up, and in the dying flicker of light Anna saw herself.
The glow dissolved. The last coal dwindled and died. The dream faded into the dark.
“Can you do that?” called the faint echo of the witch’s voice as she opened her eyes.
“Yes,” said Anna O’Brien, though the room was empty and there was no one there to listen.” I think maybe I can.”