The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. It produced just a tiny glowing speck, which, being the only visible light beneath the stars, insisted on being seen. Damn kids, Jack thought. He was tired. The many years that led him to be there that night had been a struggle, to say the least, robbing him of optimism. From his car, he surveyed the neglected and vandalized property as well as the darkness would allow. The land was barren now, cursed, as was the entire region. It was a wounding sight he could not reconcile with the indelible memories of its better days. As a child, he camped out in those woods. He would never forget how the summer sunlight poured through the miles of trees until nightfall, when swarms of fireflies would give their sparks to the darkness. And it was not so long ago that the thick morning mists would dissipate to reveal the colors of autumn or when deer were easily spotted enjoying the blankets of new winter snow. None of that would ever be seen again. No more fragrant spring wildflowers or burbling brook. No birdsong. It was all gone now, replaced by a bleak wasteland. Worst of all, it was allowed to happen. And he knew who was to blame.
No one knew how Letha Morana came to live in the cabin outside the small, west-central Massachusetts town. That alone was unusual for the residents of the tight-knit community; they knew one another from school events, park picnics, and church services. In the town, whose population was little more than a thousand, it was common practice to share stories and keep one another abreast of comings, goings, and happenings about town. But no one had an explanation for Letha.
She was first spotted on a busy weekday afternoon when a child pointed to an odd-looking figure approaching Main Street. Initially, to the onlookers, it wasn’t clear what was headed their way, but when Letha came into view, what began as mild disquiet turned to a trembling dread. She was inestimably old, and her appearance was reminiscent of another age, a century or more ago. Atop her tall, brittle figure was a gaunt, gray face, which wore an expression sour enough to crack mirrors. She was dressed in a floor-length, long-sleeved black brocade dress and veiled hat and required a cane for balance, thanks to a severe limp at the hip. She sluggardly inched along, scaring birds from the trees and sending dogs into hiding. Though her stride was disturbingly slow and abnormal, she displayed a proud determination.
The air seemed to change each time she came to town, becoming heavy and dry. Everything in viewing distance of the old woman came to a halt. No one offered the stranger a welcome or smile, afraid to engage such an unsettling being. Soon, Letha’s whereabouts were spoken of as often as the weather but with greater concern. Has she been seen today? In which direction was she headed? They went out of their way to avoid her. Even the kind, grandfatherly Miles Cobb, who took her grocery orders at his store, was frightened. He was the only one in town she interacted with, and when their business was complete, she would begin the long, slow hobble back to her cabin, nearly a mile away. There, she survived on the oatmeal, turnips, and tea left at her door each week by a terrified delivery boy.
Invariably, all of Miles’ customers left his store whenever she entered. Letha was bad for business. He had no choice.
“Ms. Morana, since we’re delivering these things to you, the same things, I’ve noticed, why don’t we just set up a standing order, and if you want to make any changes, you can just call and let me know. That way you won’t have to come all the way down here.”
With eyes like black marble, she stared at him for a long while, never once blinking, which caused him to fidget and sweat. She wouldn’t even shoo a fly away, content to let it land on her face and explore.
“I’ve no phone.” Her voice was thin and raspy at little more than a whisper, and her speech was as slow as her walk.
Miles was shaken.
“Well, tell you what, you can leave me a note for the next week’s order in the empty delivery crate that’s collected. With your payment.”
She continued to stare without expression or movement. A worried Miles was about to retract his suggestion when she turned to unhurriedly limp away, parting onlookers in the street, some of whom spit on the ground as she passed or expressed joy at her riddance. For Miles, her departure was a relief, but he second-guessed his actions. She was, like it or not, part of the community. He added a complimentary bag of oranges to her usual three-item delivery.
The following week, the fruit was returned with a note instructing him never again to send anything she hadn’t ordered. Miles was deeply offended by her ingratitude, but as long as she continued to pay for her deliveries, he saw no point in giving the matter any more of his energy. He discarded her note and, in resuming his duties, noticed his fresh strawberries, placed on offer that very morning, covered in mold. Impossible, Miles thought. He looked around. A number of the apples were speckled and mushy, while his bananas, not yet ripe that same morning, were as black as coal. He frantically began to dispose of the bad fruit, but by day’s end, the produce bins had started to draw flies and emit a rotten stench. For weeks, fresh deliveries of perfectly ripe produce would shrivel and spoil upon receipt.
As requested, Letha kept her distance, but occasionally, at dusk, she could be seen walking the outskirts, circumnavigating the entire town. No image could chill the blood more than her distant figure, slowly limping along, with her cane lunging forward, her hat’s long, trailing ribbon blowing behind, and often nothing but the moon to light her way. It wasn’t long before the townsfolk discovered the earth along Letha’s walking route had fallen ill, becoming a gray, dead soil that the wind would send in every direction. Not even century-old oaks along her path survived.
Miles was the first to use the word.
“She’s a witch!” he declared, bursting into the police station. “That’s the only logical explanation. A witch. Just look what’s happening to the land. And my rotting produce? That was a curse.”
“Now, Miles, you know that’s not possible.” Sheriff Jack Delphy was a practical and measured man but had no taste for alarmists. “Step up about three hundred years. I’m sure everything can be explained without having to burn anyone at the stake.” Jack had been comfortably biding his time in the position. The police, in an often-idyllic town, have little to do, and with early retirement in mind, he hoped it would stay that way. “Fruit rots, Miles. And the land is probably responding to town runoff or pesticides. That seems far more likely. There is no such thing as a witch.”
“Well, there are a number of healthy trees surrounding this town that have suddenly dropped to the ground,” Miles reminded him. “How can you explain that? We all need to open our eyes, Jack. Get rid of her. Or we’ll be dealing with things we can’t even imagine.”
A few weeks later, the temperature dropped abruptly. The first snowfall would soon coat the fields and the skeletons of trees that were growing in number. Caroline Cooper gleefully set out for school, finally able to wear her puffy pink coat. Her long ponytail swung from side to side as she walked with a spring in her step. The 11-year-old was always the first student to arrive, a full half-hour before her peers. She loved going to school, especially on chilly mornings that required her favorite coat.
Rounding the corner to the school’s entrance, she noticed her principal standing in solemn conversation with Jack Delphy and Daniel Roose, pastor of the only church in town. Caroline continued her peppy jaunt and began to wish the men a good morning. Instead, she simultaneously released both a chilling scream and her books.
There, on the pavement, amid a pool of blood, was a cat’s decapitated head, positioned to look upon its former figure, which was curled up and teeming with flies. Caroline was whisked into the school, where her breakfast met her coat. To prevent a commotion among the soon-to-arrive students, the scene was swiftly cleared, and a mat was rolled out over the blood stain. As the school began to fill with students who were none the wiser, Jack went to the nurse’s office to see a softly sobbing Caroline.
“We need to find out who did this,” he began. “It will do no good if everyone made a fuss about it. Caroline, would you help us keep things calm by not mentioning this to your friends? Your principal tells me you’re one of the very best students, so I think if I can trust anyone, it’s you.”
The distressed girl gave her word and kept it. Daniel Roose, however, saw an opportunity. Week after week, the fat pastor delivered stale lessons of forgiveness, love, and tolerance while his congregants struggled to remain awake. A murdered cat, he thought, might help him recapture his audience. From the pulpit that Sunday, he passionately addressed the church.
“Blasphemous acts, such as the one that occurred at the school, have no place in a peaceful and friendly community like ours. That was no one’s work but the Devil’s!” His strong voice and broad gestures, punctuated with an occasional pounding fist, demanded attention be paid. “We must all unite in a righteous fight to deny evil, to deny Satan!” With sweat and phony tears rolling down his face, he looked out at the riveted faces and announced a gathering at the end of the week where the community would be instructed on how to combat evil and keep families safe.
Nearly the entire town crammed into the high school gymnasium, where Jack attempted to describe what had been discovered at the school. He assured everyone an investigation was underway and there was nothing to worry about and then turned the microphone over to Daniel. For the next three hours, the pastor lectured on the virtues of modest dress, the dangers of fantasy role-playing games, and the sin that was rock music, the Devil’s preferred entryway to the hearts and minds of the young. He even introduced what he claimed was evidence of Hell’s encroaching forces by playing several popular songs in reverse, identifying the garbled sounds as declarations of allegiance to Satan and instructions for carrying out murderous acts. But the presentation was not to the liking of more than half of the attendees, who walked out in droves.
Jack held his head in his hands as the pastor opened the floor to questions from those who remained. Is there a suspect? Should kids be kept at home? What if they were already listening to that music or playing that game? Whose cat was it? The crowd was tense with fear.
Miles rose from his seat, smoothed his mustache and goatee, and voiced what many were thinking.
“It’s her. Morana. That old witch. I told you, Sheriff! And now it looks like we’re part of one of her rituals. She has to be stopped.”
Daniel interjected just in time to stop Miles from demanding they run the old woman out of town.
“Friends, let’s not jump to conclusions. The safest thing we can do is to leave Ms. Morana be. There’s no sense in disturbing an old hornet. Jack will continue to investigate this and take appropriate action if need be. The way to defeat evil is to keep God in your hearts, and if you join me at my Sunday service, I can help you do just that. In the meantime, keep an eye on your children. Now, let us pray.”
That evening, cat owners all over town returned to their homes to find their pet’s ninth life had expired, though none in as grizzly a fashion displayed the previous week.
A variety of citizens routinely called upon Jack to remove Letha from town. Be patient and available, he reminded himself. Whether or not they had good reason to be, people were scared. He could hardly blame them; after the spate of odd incidents, there was little to be sure of. What did they really fear, he wondered. An old woman? No. Something more terrifying. The uncontrollable. The unknown.
It had been a month since the town meeting, time the pastor spent developing new fear-inducing sermons and meeting with Jack for updates on the investigation.
“Can I tell my congregation anything new?”
“You can tell them to thank God the only murder this town ever had on its books is a damn cat,” Jack said. “But no, nothing new. Too much time has passed. I doubt we’ll ever know who did it.”
“A lot more folks are blaming Letha Morana. A lot more.”
“I’m aware. I think maybe I’ll go out and have a talk with her. At least then I can come back and tell everyone she’s just a harmless old woman. Strange, but harmless.”
“Now, remember what I said. Don’t you go disturbing the beast. She’s to blame for everything.” Daniel pointed downward in a warning.
“Give me a break, Dan. I got real things to worry about. That storm the other week caused a lot of damage, and then the water main break. James McRory lost four chickens last week. Gone. Nothing left but a few feathers. Now, no offense, but I don’t believe for one damn minute that the old spinster out in that cabin is some kind of demon responsible for any of it. Storms and floods happen. And I’d bet money that some four-legged bandits stopped off at Jimmy’s coop for a midnight snack. Everyone is on edge like they’re waiting for the next hex to drop, and that’s on you. You get them rialed up every Sunday.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Tone it down before we have ourselves a lynch mob. This town needs to grow up.”
“Fine. But if you want me to tell everyone that she’s nothing to fear, I need to see it for myself. I’ll go.”
“I won’t stop you,” Jack conceded. “But do something that no one in this entire town has done.”
“Be nice to her.”
Daniel’s car crept along the seldom-traveled dirt road. No one went to the campgrounds anymore, which were adjacent to Letha Moron’s property. Daniel realized what he was about to do and struggled to keep his fears in check. As he drove, the growth along the road, and even the woods themselves, showed increasing signs of decline—green to brown to ash. Pulling into the Morana property, Daniel was glad his visit had the sunlight’s protection. But as soon as he stepped out of the car, the light was shaded by a cluster of clouds. The property looked glum. There was no yard or clearing and no walkway. Only fallen foliage of the season stood between him and the cabin, which appeared to be in good order—rustic, to say the least, but sound. Each window wore blackout drapes, but no other sign of occupancy could be found.
Something scurried through the dead leaves at his feet, causing him to jump. A squirrel, maybe, or mouse. He sighed with a nervous laugh and reminded himself that Lethe was just an old woman. What harm could she do? Nonetheless, he took the cross necklace hanging beneath his shirt and instead displayed it on the outside.
As he approached the door, the clouds multiplied and continued to darken the day. Daniel took a deep breath and gave a gentle rap. Nothing. He thought about retreating to his car when the door drifted inward, a movement that at first was barely noticeable. He cautiously peered through the opening. A faint light inside led him to conclude that one of the windows at the rear of the cabin must be uncovered. The door offered nearly two feet of entryway before it stopped.
“Hello?” He used his everyday speaking volume as though hoping not to be heard. “Ms. Morana? It’s Pastor Roose.” He pushed the door open and took a step inside. Then another. A third. The somber interior was sparsely fitted for utility, not comfort. There was no artwork on the wall nor a single photo on display, only a wall clock offering the incorrect time. He jumped the instant he heard its pendulum click, which was dreadfully slow and inconsistent in pace. Another step. No television, no radio, no books. An oversized rocking chair, the only furniture piece, sat in the center of the lifeless room. Another step. Drapes, rugs, and walls were all in dark shades. He took three more steps toward the rear, where he could see a kitchen area. It was quiet, too quiet for such a structure. The planks beneath his feet offered no creaks, and no outside birdcalls or breeze-rustled leaves were audible. Daniel felt cold. He stopped, overcome with the feeling he was treading on evil ground. He shook his head and turned to the door.
The old woman stood in silhouette between Daniel and his exit. He shuddered and clasped the cross hanging over his chest.
“J-Just stopped by to see if you are al-alright. Out here. On your own.”
Leading with her cane, Letha took a single step into the cabin. Her rail-thin figure was in full view. Blotchy skin hung from her face, and her bony neck was growth-ridden; her wiry, silver hair was stuffed into an upturned cloche hat, and her lips were tightly pursed. As the darkness grew outside, he could hear her breathe, a dry grating on both the intake and exhale. Another pendulum click shook him. Daniel took off through the door and ran as though she were on his heels. He locked himself inside his car and looked up to see the cabin’s door closed. After three panic-filled attempts, the engine turned over, and he tore away.
Jack was impatient with worry. The pastor, who seldom gave him a moment of peace, had not answered his telephone for two days. Something had to be wrong. As he searched for his car keys, news arrived through the radio. Daniel’s car had been discovered. The brakes failed, or so it appeared, sending him off the road and over an embankment. He did not survive.
The tragedy was another blow to the community, but it wouldn’t be the last. Letha continued to walk, and with every trip around the town, the ring of deactivated soil spread outward, reaching into farmland and crossing highways. A movement to expel the old woman was growing, but most remained silent, relying on a dispassionate belief that, sooner or later, the situation would remedy itself.
There were no signs of spring. No birds sang, and not a single flower could be found in the few shrinking patches of green. Nonetheless, the annual spring picnic was held, bringing many who sought a taste of the happiness they used to enjoy with their friends and neighbors. The children were lucky to have a cloudless, albeit unseasonably hot day to play, while adults engaged in tentative conversations with their friends, avoiding talk of recent events. Slowly, tensions eased, laughter and music began to build, and the community, for a few hours, wouldn’t wonder what darkness would befall them next. They enjoyed the picnic as they once had, as much as before their lush park had become bare soil.
The children were the first to notice. Letha was headed toward the park, black dress and cane, and moving at a glacial pace. As she approached, silence fell, and everyone froze in place at the grill, in the game, or mid-bite. Even the children who were too young to know what was happening remained silent. Letha hobbled down the center of the street, looking straight ahead. They watched closely, the scowl, the black dress dragging on the ground behind her, the horrible rise and fall of the hip like a great piston. All eyes were on her as she approached. She stopped at the park and stood for a long while before turning to face the captivated picnickers. Again, she stood in terrifying stillness, so long that the crowd began to express their fear, some crying and holding one another. Then, abruptly, her head fell back, her mouth opened to the sky, and she collapsed on her side.
No one approached. Silenced by the old woman’s fall, they stood and watched. Finally, Jack walked to the figure. As gasps were heard in the park, he took her wrist.
Though Letha Morana’s death was seen by many as a reason to celebrate, the town’s circumstances did not improve. There were outbreaks of strange illnesses. Nearby, a once-vibrant brook diminished to a trickle. Violent storms increased in number. And the wasteland forged by Letha’s encumbered steps spread faster in every direction. With no solution, it seemed there was nothing the citizens could do but adapt. It wouldn’t be easy. The days of the good neighbor were over, thanks to a quarreling population. They fought over food, clean water, and garbage. There was a substantial increase in the crime rate, and suicide became one of the leading causes of death. Having to police this new way of life, Jack’s job was aging him faster than time. None of it made sense. He often wept for all that had been lost and would likely never be again. Could this nightmare have been prevented?
Jack kept an eye on the crumbling Morana cabin with an occasional drive-by. It had become a dangerous place once it was left to the elements. The town took notice after the roof partially collapsed and installed a tall chain-link fence around the property until it could be demolished, but red tape and lack of resources left it in its dilapidated coma.
The cabin’s haunted appearance and tales of its one-time resident made it an alluring challenge for teenagers and fright-seekers, giving Jack a reason to patrol the property. Many had ventured into what had been dubbed the Witch House, leaving behind graffiti-covered walls and a floor littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts. A highly sought souvenir was any item used by the witch herself, but all scavenging ended when a young man scored a small candlestick and returned home to find it engulfed in flames.
Jack drove out to the cabin on the dirt road, passing the spot of Daniel’s crash and the old campground that meant so much to him in his youth. Finally, the cabin. He stopped his car at the property’s edge, where the fence stood. He immediately saw the candle burning in the window, its tiny flame disturbing the darkness and calling attention to itself. Jack fished a pair of binoculars from the glove compartment, grumbling about teenagers. He scanned the scene until the window’s flame was in his view.
A figure. Jack dropped the binoculars with a shudder and tried to convince himself he was wrong. He took a second look, adjusting the lenses to focus on the face lit by a single flame.
Impossible, he thought, shaking. She was dead. Of course, she was; he had been witness to her cremation. But there was no mistaking that death stare in the dim candlelight.
Letha Morana was there to stay. And they were all to blame.