ONCE AGAIN


 


I returned there a year after she had died; it seemed the most natural thing to do. I don't quite know what I was expecting - a sense of loss more profound than that which I had already been feeling, more meaningful perhaps, a sense of something remaining - maybe she was not completely gone, maybe I would feel that I wasn't alone anymore in this living hell. Maybe I would even come away with the feeling she had forgiven me.

The house was still hard to get to, still seemed oddly situated set way back amidst the trees in the old woods. I walked slowly, head down, not enjoying the countryside as I used to do with her - every sight and sound would have been wonderful in its childlike amazement to us. We used to see squirrels, many of them. Soft browns and greys, huge black eyes and massive tails. They would stare at us for what seemed like ages before darting off into the trees.

I huddled into the upturned collar of my overcoat; hands stuffed deep into its warm pockets and neck wrapped in a thick grey scarf. My breath formed like vaporous spectres before my eyes, all too briefly, and then dissolved into the chill December air. My feet crackled on dead leaves, an odd icy patch. A strange time of the year we had chose for a forest outing that night twelve months ago. Not really, Winter. She had always wanted to make love out of doors in the winter - not many people around, a time of peace and quiet, almost dead calm, a time when two people stayed close for warmth. A time for ghosts.

Ghosts. All rumours and legends, we'd thought. The tiny little house in the woods, we'd seen it many times on our countryside walks. Never went near it, although never thinking that it really was haunted, that people did die there when they ventured too close. A small crumbling building which may have once burned down, long ago.  Holes forming faces in the beaten roof, doorway sealed shut with age, window frames collapsed in upon themselves - a fairy tale cottage given a disturbing makeover.

I thought back to the childish thrill, which had run through us both when we came up with the idea of visiting the lonely old place at night. Safe and warm in each otherís arms and in our bed, a contented glow emanated from within our very bodies to surround us, false security as our thoughts formed words and we agreed a loverís pact. Just a bit of fun, a nocturnal visit to the woods, with an exciting twist. Not quite an element of danger because of course the stories about the place weren't true...

Today I saw no squirrels.  Of course there wouldn't be many about because it was dead Winter. But even on the snowiest of days, the ones we'd spent in magical Christmas walks, we had seen the tiny creatures darting about; feeling concerned for them, wondering if they would survive the bitter chill. Never for one moment thinking that it was we who were in danger, not the natural inhabitants of the woods.

The sky was showing the first signs of grey, night was approaching and would be here within the hour. All day the sky had been impossibly white above the treetops, as though trying to falsely assure me of the day's innocence. Now I was nearing the house it must have been giving up its pretence. That night it had been dark, of course, but the forest had been lit with an eerie pale light from the bone-white moon and glimmering blue stars in the clear sky overhead. She'd thought it was beautiful, the most romantic and exciting night of her life. And last.

Wrapped up warm, protection against the weather and nothing else. What else could we have needed? Once in the deepest parts of the woods however we should have acknowledged the sudden overpowering feeling of dread which washed over us both, but we both kept quiet - putting it down to nerves and excitement. Gripped each others gloved hands tighter, walked slightly faster, our eyes sparkling like the stars, our breath clouding our faces, wiping away the traces of fear there as we looked at one another. And then there it was, the house. Even today the house looked exactly the same, curse it. Old and crumbling and collapsing in upon itself, hidden within a small, cramped clearing, totally out of place but this made it look disturbing instead of charming. On that fateful night we couldn't see it, it was just a black bulky shadow in front of us, strange really as the moon and stars had illuminated everything else so well. But we didn't think about that for any length of time, something was urging us on - perhaps even the house itself, calling out across the centuries with its evil siren song.

Returning a year later I could see the place for what it was; cursed and evil beyond belief. Could all that really have happened on that night twelve months ago? I found it hard to understand; perhaps it had all been imagined, perhaps... No! The house was getting to me, working its evil influence and trying to make me forget. I shuddered despite my winter clothing, tried to turn away from the tiny old building. How could anything make me forget? However much I may have wanted to.

It had been silent that night; an unearthly quiet one would not normally associate with the countryside, especially one so dense and wild as this. All we had heard was the occasional crackle of frosted foliage underfoot as we skirted the building, and our nervous breaths, deep and fast like huge engines. I seem to remember we'd gained entrance through one of the back windows, the bricks around it had collapsed to leave an even bigger hole that the one which had once existed within the rotten window frame. We slipped inside, into the impenetrable blackness.

I saw that window now in the fading daylight, it looked much smaller, as though it were sealing up like a mouth which had now been fed. Even though I kept my distance from it I could tell that anyone larger than a small child would have had difficulty to squeeze through it now. And I breathed a silent prayer that nobody ever would. I could sense darkness seeping from the gaps in the old brickwork, wrapping itself around the hovel like evil magic. There must have been some kind of magic at work that night, to keep us both so entranced. As we found each other in the darkness of the room, hand to hand, chest to chest, mouth to mouth, the fables (surely they were nothing more) concerning the lovers who had come here many years ago on nights as dark and cold as this one, and who had never returned, slipped from our minds as we warmed ourselves with passion. We fell against a wall that should have been icy cold, but was comfortably warm and dry. Our hands slid over one another's bodies, finding the joints and edges of clothing and digging in to reveal the warm skin beneath.

A tear was coming to my eye as I remembered the night, a single lonely tear which prickled as it formed, but I was unable to blink it away, mesmerised as I stared at the ruined little house, an action-replay running through my mind.

Our breaths warm in each other's mouths, on each otherís face, kisses hot and feverish. The fingers that ran across now half-naked flesh did not raise the slightest of chills, not one goose-bump, not one moan of anything but ecstasy. And somehow there had been a light, a low and warm orange glow seeming to emanate from within the building, as though from an unseen log-fire or candle flame, flickering and dipping and sending shadows crawling across the walls. But we two, lost in unstoppable passion, were somehow oblivious to it all.

As the last traces of daylight are fading now in the winter sky I curse myself for coming back. I should have left it alone; nothing good could come of this return journey. But surely I had known that all along? I still remember...

The warmth we found within each other upon the floor of that cottage, as though every movement and action and sound were stoking our own fires, higher and higher, hotter and hotter. We had never known love like it; it slipped by fluidly, unreal yet overwhelming in its detail. I felt everything so strongly, each sound so loud and echoing, as though all my senses were on overload. And then the shadows.

The shadows were growing thick about the building now, coating it like paint, yet these were natural effects on the evening time. If anything could ever have been natural about this place. That night, the night when I lost her, there certainly hadn't been.

I first noticed it as the height of our pleasure was nearing, our eyes were fixed one another's, our mouths locked, our bodies entwined, moving like fluid and creating sparks of magic. In my head, loud and resounding, I'd heard her breathe the three words "I love you", yet was unable to respond. For I saw reflected in her eyes huge flames towering above us. My eyes broke her gaze and turned away and I saw no flames, but the shadows on the wall forming themselves into grotesque abominations of human bodies, paired up like ourselves but screaming silently in terror as something unseen tore them apart, twisted them out of shape. As I watched this macabre show, I heard a crackling like that of plastic and lifted my head away from hers. Then I saw the flames.

They had started as a spark of light in the furthest corner of the ceiling, like a twinkling star in the darkness, but had flared up and ran down the wall and were now heading across the rubble-strewn floor towards us. Only these flames were blue, icy blue. And everything they touched frosted over. Gone was the magical warmth and the orange light, now revealed to be nothing more than an evil spell woven by this place to lull us into a false security. As the flames raced across the floor in a single, straight line, rising high toward the ceiling, I leapt up from her, but she still hadn't seen any of this and just stared up at me, suddenly lost and frightened. So very frightened.

I wanted to yell at her to get up, get out, but no words would form in my throat. The last words I had meant to say to her bare moments ago were still there, unspoken. I staggered back, grabbing my coat from the bundle of strewn clothing upon the floor and using it to shroud my now chilled body. And I could only watch in utter terror as the flames reached her, touching her hair and turning it icy white. As she screamed her face froze into one last terrified expression, the skin, which had been so hot and alive only seconds ago, now marbled over and cracked with frost. The icy flames rushed over her naked body as it twisted and thrashed upon the ground, freezing it into an icy sculpture of human despair.

Suddenly the room was alive with the ice fire and I was turning, fleeing back towards the collapsed window through which we had entered. I heard something groaning from within the shadows of the building, huge and unseen and ancient, but then it was overpowered by the icy crackling as the fire swept after me and in one last attempt to save my life, I dived towards the window.

The bricks slammed into my uncovered sides, chilling me instantly, but I didn't hesitate and pushed myself through, scraping open my skin in numerous places. And the bricks drank my blood. I tumbled out onto the icy woodland ground outside just in time, a massive explosion of icy fire licked out through the window, mere inches above my fallen body. And then it was gone, as if nothing had ever happened.

The house was as quiet as the night; no sign of the terror that had just taken place. I lay there, half-wrapped in my coat, shuddering and frightened on the hard ground, looking up at the dark stone building as though trying to catch it out, even daring it to get me. But nothing happened.

Eventually I managed to stand and looked in through the collapsed window-hole into the house. I could see nothing but darkness for a while, and then I noticed frost glimmering upon the floor. It sparkled and brightened and shone like stars, illuminating the whole room, showing it to be devoid of any signs we had ever been there, our clothes, everything... gone. The starlight of frost rose from the floor, into the air and swirled round like a vortex and I thought maybe I had seen her face within, but maybe I was wrong. Then the frost seemed to move towards the nearest wall, found a patch that wasn't already iced over, and settled there, leaving darkness once again.

And now after a year of the incident playing upon my mind day and night I know she has gone to join the pitiful shadow creatures in the walls, lovers once like ourselves overcome by the ice fire and damned to an eternity in some frozen hell, but at least they were together. She had been taken, alone, when I was meant to go with her too. The thought of her alone in that infinitely cold damnation is too much to bear, but the house will not take me alone, there is no way of ever joining her now, as lovers we are separated forever, as tortured souls we both exist in our own nightmares, mine a living one and hers beyond anything imaginable.

I have not spoken now for a year, the last words still frozen in my throat. My last words to her, which I had never returned in time. As I stand on the threshold of that ruined prison of tortured souls and stare into its darkness one last time I find my mouth moving, finally speaking and releasing me to turn and walk away forever.

"I love you." I say, and hope that  these words can somehow ease her eternal suffering.

 




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