Do Unto Others
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. The O’Conners reported it first. They had been camping down by Lake Hudson when the flame ignited through the trees. Little Siggy saw it as soon as it lit, transfixed and pointing through the dense forest to the tiny little beacon. His parents, Fran and Martin, thought it was just a firefly or maybe even some swamp gas ignited, but when it didn’t extinguish, when Little Siggy sat there staring straight into it for hours until they had to haul him into the tent and zip it tight, they grew worried. Fran called the cops as Martin started the engine and hauled the family back into town.
“Prolly just some kids playing a prank, Miss O’Conner,” the officer said. “But we’ll send someone on down there to check it out.”
Police were dispatched, but they found nothing. The cabin was as bare as it always was. No speck of dust was disturbed. No wax dripped by any window. No flame shone inside.
The following night, it happened again: one tiny spark of light, deep within the wood, burning brilliantly against the dusty glass of the abandoned cabin’s window.
The Faulkners, the Weltys, and the Fitzgeralds all called in to the police station.
“My son John hasn’t come home,” Mr. Welty wailed.
“Gracie knows to be in when the street lights come on,” Mrs. Faulkner cried.
“Please, please find Mabel,” Jason Fitzgerald screamed.
A patrol car found their bikes, all ditched to the side of Harvest Grove. The children were thirty yards into the brush, staring into the distance at the candlelight. Their pale faces shone in the shadows, but they did not answer when their names were called. They did not speak until the officers had carried them back to the road, buckled them into the backseat, and driven them to their homes along Spring Street. Their necks craned as the car careened down the streets, twisting so that their eyes remained locked on the candle they could not see. By the time the officers returned to the wood, flashlights in hand and walkies at the ready, the candle was gone. No speck of dust was disturbed. The cabin was as it always was.
By Wednesday, everyone in town was talking about the light. News of it hummed over the growl of hairdryers at the salon downtown. The ice cream shop scooped stories into waffle cones and handed them out like samples. Grocery store shelves were stocked high with tales of what had caused the strange light to appear, how it had captivated the children of the town, what it could mean for the future.
“Ask me,” Mr. James, the local florist said as he pushed wisps of Baby’s Breath between his Foxgloves and Hellebores, “it’s the ghost of Old Mr. Wilkens come back to haunt that place where you know what happened.”
The butcher, Miss Joyce, wiped her blade on her towel before using it to break through the ribs of the swine. “I heard it's a beast,” she said. “Something like out of mythology with one single eye that burns so bright it captures you and brings you to it so it can swallow you whole.”
“I think it’s just a man,” Miss Shelley, the young school marm opined. “A man with Death in his eyes and Lightning in his bones taking refuge from these hot Summer nights.”
The tales grew more elaborate with each passing midnight, each new lighting of the flame, until it seemed the entire town was engulfed within it. But it was the children who were most captivated.
Each night, as dusk fell over the land, its darkened tendrils stretching like talons to twine around the white picket fences of the town’s idyllic streets, to knock upon the windows of newborn’s bedrooms, to slink into the crevices no one ever thought to explore, all the children stopped their play and turned toward the candle. Their faces went pale within the darkness. Mouths gaped and eyes grew hazy as they stared—through windows, through walls, through forest—all toward the abandoned cabin, the lone candle in the window.
Parents grew weary of their attempts to break the children from their trances. They shuttered windows and bolted locks to their front doors. They offered toys and sweet treats, but the children did not budge.
The children awakened with the first rays of dawn, no memory of the night’s dreams within them.
Townsfolk set upon the cabin, but there was never any trace of wax, no sign of life, of disturbance. The cabin was as it always was, as it always had been.
One month past the first sighting of the candle, at precisely midnight, the children stood. They made such a racket as they worked to unlock their doors, to push themselves through the windows, their parents—who had long since given up on breaking the curse—awakened from their dreams. They rushed to seize their children, to stop them, but as each left their homes, they seemed to disappear.
Distraught, angry, and terrified, the entire town marched toward Harvest Grove, toward the cabin and the candle and the source of whatever malevolence had enraptured their young ones. Nightgowns flowed in the crisp, black air. Slippered feet padded the asphalt. Whispered memories of Old Mr. Wilkens who, decades ago, had retreated from Main Street to the cabin with his son caught on the breeze like the scent of jasmine decaying. The shame the town felt for what they had done—how they had ridiculed the young son for his difference, for his deformities; how they had ignored the wails of grief and sorrow as the Old Man watched his offspring die slowly, shot through with an arrow as hunters mistook his gallivanting through the wood as the movement of a beast—mixed with their fear as they trudged through the thickening darkness.
The forest groaned as they entered it. Branches snarled and tugged at their bodies, roots rose from the earth to trip their feet, but they were undeterred. They reached the cabin just as the last of the children trickled inside. Little Siggy O’Conner turned as he reached the door. His entire being glowed in the dim moonlight, pale and broken and barely there. His eyes were hollow as he raised his gnarled hand as if to say goodbye.
And then he was gone.
The cabin door closed, the candle went out, and there was stillness.
The townsfolk searched the cabin, but no children were found, no speck of dust seemed disturbed. It was as if they had never been there at all. They searched through the night, and, when morning came, they dismantled the cabin—nail by nail, board by board—until all the was left was the disfigured skeleton of a thing too hideous to be human, too dexterous to be beast, which had been perfectly preserved beneath the floorboards.
Defeated, and with night falling, they left the wood. Some swore, as they neared the road, they looked back to see the cabin, the one they had destroyed, still there, nestled in the trees, but no light burned in its window. Aching and sore of body and heart, they returned to their houses. One by one, the candles lit in their windows, begging for their children’s return, until it seemed the entire town was on fire.
Morning came slowly, timidly, with dark clouds shrouding the sun and threatening to overtake the town. The smell of burnt cotton settled onto the wind to fill the air with the rot of what-was. Wax pooled and hardened on the window sills, thick and viscous as blood. The townsfolk stumbled to their kitchens in search of hope, but settled for the black of coffee.
Then the children arrived. All of them—John and Mabel and Gracie and even Little Siggy—careened into their kitchens, sharpened smiles carved across their faces. Their angled hands and jagged fingernails twisted around the thighs of their parents as they pulled themselves close. Tight. Haunted, empty eyes peered upwards. Teeth glistened as their lips parted.
“I’m hungry,” they growled.
About the Creator
Andrew Forrest Baker
he | him
Southern gothic storyteller.
My new novel, The House That Wasn't There, is out now from April Gloaming Publishing.
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