A House by the Water
by Ron Van Sweringen
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The next day was cold and blustery. Holly was at the public library when it opened, and the librarian directed her to the section on historical records for Barrington. He was a frail man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a gray wool cardigan.
“Aren’t you the lady who bought old man Willard’s cottage by the lake?” he asked, tilting his head to get a good look at Holly over his glasses. “I wondered how long it would take you to find out how the old man died and the rest of that claptrap about witches and all. You know that place was on the market for five years because folks say it’s haunted.”
Holly let out a sigh. “How did Mr. Willard die?” she asked.
“He drowned in that lake, right behind his house. Folks couldn’t believe it. He was tangled up in rope, almost like it was done on purpose. Of course you could ask his cat Lucifer. There’s a rumor he can talk and knows everything.”
Holly took her time going through newspaper clippings and various assortments of books and pamphlets on Barrington’s historical connection with witchcraft. One large book caught her attention. When Holly attempted to check it out, she was informed there was a fifty-dollar deposit required for its release. She quickly wrote a check and slid the book into her canvas shopping bag.
The pinpricks of cold rain were refreshing on Holly’s face when she left the library; she needed something to bring her back to reality.
When Holy got home later that afternoon, she found a note in her mailbox.
Come and see me as soon as you can. You are in danger.
Maude Parker, #13 Oak Street.
“Now what?” Holly said to herself, slipping off her damp shoes and turning the teakettle on. “Tomorrow’s another day. Maude Parker can wait a little while longer, danger or not. I need time to think.”
Whenever Holly was upset or anxious, the thing that calmed her most was the thing she’d done all of her life: baking. A sheet of hot cross buns was soon in the oven and the wonderful aroma brought back memories of Holly’s little bakery as she sat in front of the fire with Lucifer at her feet.
An hour later, the hot cross buns were neatly covered by a dishtowel and placed on the kitchen counter. It was another night of heavy rain as Holly and Lucifer climbed the stairs to her bedroom. When they entered the small room, the table lamp suddenly flickered and went out, throwing them into darkness.
“I had a feeling this might happen some night,” Holly said to herself. She lit a candle on her bedside table. The orange flame sent strange shadows dancing on the walls, and she climbed into bed with Lucifer close behind. It had been a disconcerting day, and Holly couldn’t help anticipating what tomorrow might bring.
* * *
The next morning the sun was shining, and Holly was happy to see it after two soggy days. She opened the cottage door and Lucifer disappeared immediately. Twenty minutes later her coffee was ready and she removed the dishtowel covering the hot cross buns she’d baked the night before. She stood for a moment staring at the pastry in a state of shock.
The white icing in the shape of a cross had been scraped off of each bun. “How is that possible?” she said to herself. “Who or what could have gotten in the house during the night and done this?”
A chill ran through Holly. Something told her that whatever had done this was not of this world.
#13 Oak Street was nearly impossible to find. After # 12, the block became a tangled overgrown mass of vegetation. Several “Keep Off” and “Private Property” signs were nailed to the trees every few feet apart. Holly circled the property twice before she was able to discern the makings of a path leading onto it.
Whoever she is, Maude Parker obviously does not receive many visitors, Holly thought, picking her way along the remnants of a path. Finally the outlines of an old wooden structure became visible through the thick undergrowth. Holly gave a sigh of relief; she had been about to give up the search.
The person who answered the door after a long wait caused Holly to take a deep breath. She appeared to be from another time. Her clothes, her hair and even her skin were varying shades of gray, giving Holly the feeling that she had been dusted in powder. Her hair was long and thick, standing out from her head in a tangled mass.
Holly decided the only normal thing about Maude Parker were her blue eyes, until for a moment, they suddenly rolled back in her head, twitching and showing only the whites.
“Come in, I’ve been waiting for you,” Maude said in a voice slightly above a whisper.
Holly had the inclination to leave, then and there, but she realized she couldn’t. She’d used most of her savings to buy the cottage. Like it or not, she was going to have to solve the mystery surrounding it or die trying.
Holly followed Maude Parker inside the dilapidated dwelling with more than a little trepidation. The room they entered was permeated by a musty odor and semi-darkness. A lone candle burned on a sideboard giving just enough light to see by.
Holly was startled to find Lucifer standing in the middle of the room. He quickly moved toward her, rubbing against her legs with a plaintive meow.
“He is protecting you for the time being,” Maude said. “Has anything strange happened in the last few days?”
Holly immediately told her about the incident with the hot cross buns. “She is playing with you,” Maude replied. “Soon it will become more serious.”
“Who is this spirit?” Holly said, agitation in her voice. “What have I done to make her angry?”
“You have intruded on what she considers sacred ground, the place where she and others of her kind were put to death for being witches. Her name is unknown, but she is a malevolent soul who drowned in the dunking chair. Her body was never recovered from the water and burned as the others were. That is why her spirit remains in the lake.”
“I was told that Mr. Willard, the last owner of the cottage, also drowned in the lake,” Holly replied.
“That cottage was built sixty years ago. At the time, there was controversy in town as to whether it should be built on that spot. But the Henderson family owned the land and built the cottage anyway. Over the years more than one of its owners has drowned in the lake. That is why many consider it haunted. ”
Maude turned toward the window as a streak of lighting flashed, turning the room a blinding white. “You had better go now,” she said. “A storm is coming.”
* * *
After dinner, Holly began reading the book she had picked up at the library. It was quite old, bound in red leather and the pages inside were yellowed and brittle. There was a title printed in gold on the cover: Witches, Their History and Secret Lore. Holly took her time and read carefully, careful not to miss anything that might help her fight her enemy.
She came upon one paragraph that might hold the key. “All malevolent spirits may be destroyed by fire if they can be forced to manifest in their human form first. This will not be an easy task, as the spirit is well aware of its vulnerability in such a state.”
An hour later, Holly had dozed off, the book in her lap. The pages suddenly began turning themselves, and Holly woke to freezing air swirling around her. The front door was standing wide open.
Lucifer was ensconced on the window ledge, hissing. His yellow eyes opened wide as if he was aware of something that Holly could not see.
“Is she here?” Holly asked him.
His reply was instantaneous. “Yes.” He leapt from the window ledge to the center of the dining room table where an oil lamp lit the room.
“Show yourself. I’m not afraid of you,” Holly shouted, summoning all of her courage. There was silence in the room except for Lucifer’s hissing. Holly noticed a faint outline at the bottom of the stairs. It seemed to be made of smoke, appearing and disappearing at will. Slowly the illusion floated through the open door out into the cold night.
“Be careful,” Lucifer warned Holly. “She is trying to mesmerize you into the water. If you do not follow her, she will lose her power and be forced to assume her human form. Then I will destroy her.”
Holly moved away from the door until the illusion was out of sight. The sound of soft wailing and choking screams came from outside the cottage and a strong light slowly began to fill the open doorway.
Holly could hardly believe her eyes as a figure stepped out of the light into the center of the room. A sharp scream followed when Lucifer threw his body against the oil lamp, causing it to shatter on the floor.
Flames from the oil immediately began consuming the now recognizable figure.
“I curse you for eternity,” the figure screamed before suddenly turning to a mound of smoldering black ash.
A voice from behind Holly startled her. “Her curse is idle. You have nothing to fear now.” Maude Parker stood, holding Lucifer in her arms. “You have destroyed her.” Maude smiled. “There is nothing left to do.”
“Oh, yes there is,” Holly, replied. “I’m not leaving a pile of witch’s ashes and a pair of red jogging shoes in the middle of the floor all night.”
Copyright © 2016 by Ron Van Sweringen