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The Ballad of Sham Ian

by Matthew L Cohen 2 months ago in Horror
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A Campfire Story

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. This was different from the night before, and the night before, and the night before, and on and on, because Ian Burnside had never seen a candle burning in the window of the abandoned cabin. Ian walked by this cabin every night on his way home from mining coal in one of the last working coal mines in West Virginia. Coal mining was all the Burnsides had ever known how to do. Well, that, and playing the banjo. Ian’s dad, Clyde, was a coal miner and a banjo player, but he was markedly better at the music. Ian, though not a bad banjo player and singer, was no Clyde. Despite that, you can be certain that Ian always had his banjo on his back—he took it every day to the coal mine to play songs during his dinner break. Here comes Ian with his banjo to murder us with music! the other miners would say every night as if they didn’t say it every night. He’s no Clyde Burnside! they’d say. He’s a sham! Sham Ian! Sham Ian is here to murder us with music! And they would laugh and laugh. Ian ignored them. He didn’t know anything but how to mine coal and play the banjo, and one of those things kept him sane.

This path that Ian was on was a shortcut through the dense woods of Lost River, West Virginia, from the Tunnel Ridge Coal Mine to Ian Burnside’s small house on the other side of the hill near the pump station. None of the other miners took the route because most of the other miners lived in town or closer to the river. Ian suspected that even if they did live near him, they would be too scared to walk through the dark woods at night. Sure, the miners talked a tough talk, but Ian knew that it was all talk. Anytime something especially risky needed to be done at the mine, Ian always did it. Ian Burnside was never scared.

It goes without saying, then, that the appearance of a candle burning in the window of the abandoned cabin he’d walked by for years didn’t scare him, either. But because he wasn’t expecting it, he found himself compelled to look at it. But was it even a candle at all? Maybe it was the reflection of a firefly on the dusty glass of the window? But Ian knew that fireflies were usually gone by July, and it was the first of November. Maybe the light was just in Ian’s mind? But it was still there after he blinked his eyes, and it was still there after he blinked again, and it was still there after he blinked again. Maybe it was a monster, or a spirit, or a werewolf. Maybe, sure, except Ian believed in none of those things because none of those things existed.

Ian listened for a sound or a voice or anything coming from the cabin, but he did not hear anything. He only heard the usual sounds of the crickets and owls and frogs, and the wind rushing through the trees. He suddenly smelled a hint of sulfur in the air, but that wasn’t too unusual. Occasionally, the wind was strong enough to carry the hydrogen sulfide emanating from the mine. Ian continued to stare at the candle in the window—it was definitely there, and it was definitely a candle. Normally, Ian wouldn’t really care about such an anomaly, however real it was. He was always just anxious to get home to play a few more tunes on the banjo and then sleep. But he found himself standing completely still, fixated on the candle, mesmerized even.

As he looked at the candle and considered its small, shifting light, he heard the mine’s steam whistle in the distance. This was strange because his shift had already ended. The whistle had already sounded. He had said goodbye to Huntsford, the foreman who especially hated his music. Hantsford. Hansen, the foreman. Hunstford? Ian couldn’t remember the foreman’s name. Hansard, for sure. No, Huntsman. Certainly Huntsman.

How strange that he couldn’t remember Hinson’s name. They both had worked at the mine since Ian was 19, and now he was 26.



He was 29. His birthday was May 13th. May 23rd?

May 66th. His birthday was definitely May 66th, and he was absolutely 800 years old.

Ian, still entranced by the candle in the window of the abandoned cabin, also still wanted to go home. He didn’t feel good. No, he didn’t feel right. It was time to walk on.

Ian couldn’t walk on. He couldn’t make his legs continue down the dirt path. It was so strange. He knew where he wanted to go, but he couldn’t go there. Was he paralyzed? Was he having a seizure? Panicking? Try going back toward the mine. Where the whistle had come from. The whipple? Where the whimple had come from.

Ian’s legs wouldn’t go toward the whimple. His ledges would, however, go toward the cabin. He could move them toward the cabin. Actually, he wasn’t even doing that. It was happening, but he wasn’t doing it. It was like he was being impelled toward the cabin. He was certainly walking with his two lefts, but he wasn’t thinking about going toward the cabin because he didn’t want to go toward the cabin. He wanted to go home to play the baby and go to sheep.

The wind rustled the leaves in the tall trees, and the smell of sulfur grew stronger in the air. And Ian was moving toward the cabin with the candle burning in the window. He felt unsteady, unsure, dazed. As he got closer to the cabin, not by choice, he noticed that there was something in front of the closed door. What was it? It was white and misshapen. Ian moved closer to it. He didn’t want to see what it was, but he also needed to see what it was. He felt sickened and drawn to it at the same time. When he got close enough he could make out the object.


There was bread in front of the door. And sand. No, not sand. Salt. Bread and salt. There was bread and salt in front of the door of the abandoned cabin.

Why was there bread and salt? Why was there a candle burning? Why was Ian’s arm moving toward the door’s handle, and why was his hand grasping it to open it?

Ian thought to himself, Do not open this door.

Ian thought to himself, Open this door.

Ian’s hand turned the door handle, and Ian’s arm opened the door.

Ian was pulled into the cabin, which was empty inside except for an enormous old mirror leaning against the back wall. The mirror seemed almost too large to be inside the cabin.

Ian got closer to the mirror because his legs made him get closer to the mirror. He stared at his reflection in the mirror, his dirty clothes, his banjo on his back. His face looked like his, but it also was trembling. His whole body was gently trembling. His hands and legs vibrated. His heart raced.

—You made it, Ian said.

Ian knew that he said these words because he saw his mouth move in the mirror and he heard the words in the cabin. But it was not quite his voice. But his mouth moved and the words…works…worms came out. But they weren’t his worms. But they were. When he tried to say more worms, he realized he couldn’t. His brain was getting froggy. Foggy. Figgy. His brawn was figgy. He was losing his worms.

And the smell. The spell of sulfur was almost overwhelming now.

Ian Burnside stared into the mirror. His eyes looked yellow. His skin looked worn. He was just a shell. A trembling shelf. A trembling, slumping shawl.

—I am sorry about this, but there is no way back for you, Ian said.

But I am you, Ian said, except he hadn’t.

—No, I am you, Ian said.

What? Ian said, except he hadn’t said it, he’d just thought it.

—You do not have much time left, Ian said.

What is happening to me? Ian said, except he hadn’t said it, he’d just thought it.

—I am happening to you, Ian said. You fade as I emerge.

Ian realized the now sickening smelt of sultan was coming from his own clones, from his own skim.

—You chose this path, Ian said. You heard the call. You saw the light.

Ian’s head turned to the candle, and the light burned his eyes.

—Leave a candle in the window for me. Leave bread and salt at the door for me. Those stupid kids did it as a prank. But now I am in you, and you are fading fast. You do not have much time left at all.

The candy in the windblow. The blood and soul by the carbon’s front dog. All to beckon him. Me. Us?

Who are you? Ian said, except he hadn’t said it, he’d just thought it

—I am called Samhain, and I am almost you now. And we have work to do!

But I want to go home, Ian said, except he hadn’t said it, he’d just thought it.

Ian looked back in the mirror and saw a reflection, but it was only faintly familiar.

—One more song before you go? Ian said.

Ian’s harm immediately grabbed the bungee from his bark, and brought it around to his jest. He began strumming a card and the worms flew out of his moth like varmint.

There was once a miner from Hardy County

Whose name was rewritten when darkness set in

Two kids and their offerings pried open the seam

And so was “sham Ian” transformed to “Samhain”

So keep your eyes open, but do not believe them

Yes, it looks like the miner whose song never ends

Here comes sham Ian to murder us with music!

You’ll wish for his banjo as the pickaxe descends

The playing and singing abruptly stopped, and Ian Burnside was no longer holding a banjo. The banjo was now his pickaxe from the mine—its point black from years of dirt and coal. Ian’s body jerked away from the wall where a mirror used to be and moved toward the cabin door which opened slowly onto the night. The smell of sulfur pervaded the air as if coal were burning everywhere, on everything, in every space. There were no more sounds of crickets or frogs, and the wind no longer moved through the trees. Ian moved silently to the small dirt footpath, but instead of continuing home, he turned back toward the mine. And as the cabin door slammed shut behind him, swiftly extinguishing the candle, the pickaxe was heavy in his fetid hands, and murder was hungry in his rotten heart.


About the author

Matthew L Cohen

Author, essayist, musician living in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his pint-sized rescue dog named Oliver.

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