"Take their teeth and boil their eyes,
Never wash to catch the flies.
Steal the boy to boil his bones,
In our basket, store their groans.
If you hear this, you should flee,
The Linton sisters came for me.
I was sleeping in my bed,
I was alive, but now I’m dead. “
Growing up, we all knew of the Linton sisters. The rhyme was known in every schoolyard around town. They lived in an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street in our very, very ordinary town. Everybody had a story about them, and, to be honest, I doubt any of them are really true because, as much as everyone knew of them, I don’t think anyone really knew who they were or had even seen them. I had, though, only once, and it didn’t seem that unusual to me. I was actually quite surprised at how normal they looked. Admittedly, they were not particularly fashionable in their dress, and they had clearly been cutting their own hair for many years. But in my opinion, they were just a couple of middle-aged spinsters who kept to themselves and had somehow had a set of myths attached to them.
The funny thing was, I had heard the myths from my dad when he was regaling me with his terrible schoolboy anecdotes. He talked about the Lintons as if they were old then. On a scout camp, our leader used to love giving us ghost stories around the campfire, and his most infamous story, which he told every year and had done as long as anyone can remember, was the story of the Lintons.
"When I was a lad, there was a boy named Danny, and we all called him Broomhead because he was as daft as a brush. He had no sense of consequence, that boy. If there was something you needed doing that had a bit of danger, you asked Broomhead to do it, and he would do anything you asked. Any ball in a garden or frisbee on a roof, you got him in. I'm not sure whether he was brave or had a death wish. We dared each other to go into the Lintons' garden to look in their windows. Even Broomhead was scared to do it, but we would stand by the gate at the bottom of their long front garden and try to spot them. Occasionally, you might see movement, but very rarely, and any hint of a person sent us scattering. Broomhead kept saying he was going to ring the doorbell, but he never got there because one day he just disappeared. He went out on his bike and never came home. Nobody knew what happened to him. Neither he nor his bike was ever found. The whole town looked for him for weeks without any luck. The belief was that he fell into the river on his bike because they didn’t find either. The thing was, a few weeks later, a mound of earth appeared in the Lintons' garden. We started to call it 'Broomhead’s Grave.' It’s still there if you look. It’s grassed over now. But next time you walk past, you’ll spot it."
He told us that story every single camp, and I suspect he still does. He had another story about witches, but living in a town that has been at the center of the witch craze, it was inevitable. There was even a plaque in the town center commemorating the hanging of five women who were accused of being a coven that had cursed the local Lord. The Lord's son had died while crossing the marshland on his horse in the 17th century sometime. There were stories about their ghosts, his ghost, and even the Witchfinder’s ghost.
While the Witchfinder’s ghost was a story told to scare kids, the story about the Witchfinder himself was true and pretty grim. After the local coven had been uncovered and subsequently executed, the Witchfinder, who had gained himself a brutal reputation, was murdered by the remaining undiscovered members of the coven, and his body was left in a ditch on the outskirts of the town, unfound for weeks. When he was eventually discovered, he had been eaten by various hungry creatures. This was documented fact, and my history teacher at school had delighted in telling us the story. Supposedly, his eyeless ghost wanders around the car park of a local supermarket on misty autumn evenings, as that is where the ditch was.
However, the Lintons were real and genuinely scared the local kids, despite having never done anything to warrant that fear. I’m not sure I ever felt scared by them until they gave me reason. It was unusual to see any movement at their house, but one day in the middle of November, I was walking home from school when I saw an ambulance taking what appeared to be a body from the house. As I passed, I stopped and asked one of the paramedics if one of the Linton sisters had died, to which the paramedic replied, "No, it was an elderly uncle of theirs."
We still didn’t see the sisters despite this, and I, for one, felt a bit sorry for them. There was inevitably a renewed interest in them and their house, and my friends very deliberately decided that we would play football within view of the garden in the hope that they might come out. I suppose it was quite predictable, and at some point, our ball would land in their garden. It did, and I found myself as the designated ball retriever. It had landed right on top of Broomhead’s grave, which was about 5 meters from the gate. Even though I knew it was ridiculous, I felt quite scared opening that gate. I opened it slowly and carefully, making sure to keep my eyes on the front door. I lifted the latch slowly so that the click was barely audible. I eased myself around the gate, not opening it too far in case the hinges creaked. Then I walked briskly toward the ball. What I had failed to realize was that there was a collection of shrubs to the left of the gate that obscured part of the garden from the footpath. I climbed to the top of the grave and picked up the ball. As I did, I turned and saw one of the sisters walking across the garden with her arms outstretched. She had cut off my route to the gate, so I turned and ran toward the path that ran around the side of the house. As I did, my foot caught on something cold and metallic sticking out of the bottom of the mound. I fell to the floor, and as I looked back, I could see the rusted pedal of a bike sticking out of the ground.
Scrambling to my feet, I looked up and saw the woman gaining on me with no other option. I dashed down the side of the house, hoping to find another way out. I was wrong. It was a dead end. As she moved toward me, I noticed the side door to the house was open. Maybe, I thought, I could go in this door and run out the front door. I'd be out of the gate in an instant. I slipped into the door before she got down the path into a dark room, lit only by the cracks in the curtains. I could just make out a table and chairs and the thin, glowing outline of the door to the rest of the house. I felt my way around the table and to the door opening. I opened it quietly, hoping to find myself in the corridor leading to the front door. When I got there, to my horror, I found it was locked, and there was no key in the door. I whipped my head around to see if I had been followed this far. To my relief, I had not, but I knew that my route to the back door would now be blocked. Then, from upstairs, I heard a voice.
"Alice, my dear, is that you?"
I heard a creak as a foot touched the top step.
Without thinking, I dove into the nearest doorway and found myself in a strange-looking sitting room. Despite this house being fairly modern in its construction (the whole estate had only been built in the 1960s), the room looked like I had stepped back into the 1700s. The furniture was antique, with only wooden chairs, and the fireplace was not like any I had ever seen in a modern house. The chimney breast had been opened, and there sat what I can only describe as a massive cast-iron cauldron. Underneath it was wood, and it was burning. Even though most of the smoke was flying up the chimney, the room had a thin mist of smoke swirling around my feet.
The room was lit by the flames of the fire and the dozens of candles scattered around the bare walls and battered furniture. Wax dripped down every surface, and the pools on the floor suggested years of continuous use. There was a window opposite the door, completely covered by heavy black curtains. In front of them was a thick wooden table that was more cluttered with candles than any other piece of furniture. There was a space in the middle, and in that was gouged a star-like shape. Pushed under the table, but slightly sticking out, was a wicker basket. It was dusty, old, and bound tightly with a cracked and stretched leather strap.
"He must be in here. Come on, Agnes," came the sinisterly resolute voice from the corridor. I panicked; there was nowhere in this sparse room to hide.
Maybe the basket.
I loosened the strap and held open the dusty old basket. I looked in and saw there was barely enough room for me to squeeze in. It was filled with dozens of horrible little dolls. I squashed them down and carefully lowered the lid of the basket over my head. As I did, I heard the door to the room creak open.
"He's not in here."
"What? He must be."
"Did you check the holding room?"
"Not since the boy died. He must be in there. Actually, if he is, put him in the cage. We need a replacement."
The door shut, and I could hear the voices heading away. I lifted the lid and climbed out. Before I did, I looked back into the basket at the grotesque little things I had been lying on. They were made of scraps of cloth, had straggly hair that looked real, and the features were painted on in a deep red that could easily have been blood. Each had a scrap of paper pinned to them.
"1983, blood of the boy, hair off his head, one more year's life, make him nearer dead."
I heard a door slam and footsteps move up the corridor. In a flash, I realized my only hope was the window. I turned and wrenched open the curtains. Light filled the room and tugged at the old, broken latch. It snapped in my hand, but the window swung open. I clambered up onto the table and dragged myself out of the window. As I did, my foot smashed into one of the collections of candles, and they tumbled over, rolling around on the table, onto the floor, and one dropped into the basket. Almost immediately, the flames began jumping from doll to doll. The hair was singeing, and the smoke coughed across the pile of dolls.
I scrambled across the window sill and slid headfirst onto the ground. I shuffled quickly to my knees and spun around to see the gaunt-faced women dashing toward the window. With each step, the smoke thickened, and their faces grew paler. Their skin stretched tighter across their cheekbones, their gums retreated, and their teeth began to drop like petals from a wilting flower. The closer they got and the higher the flames, the more they withered until I couldn’t see them anymore.
I ran to the nearest phone box and called the fire brigade. They came, but the fire was already out. It seems that only the basket and its contents were burned. Those who arrived at the scene found the badly decomposed bodies of two women lying next to the basket. The reports in the local paper suggested they had the appearance of having been dead for many years. They concluded that the eccentric sisters had been collectors of a sort. They found many amazing artifacts in the house, some as old as the 1600s, and the bodies were part of the collection. Some believed them to be the missing members of the coven. The sisters themselves never turned up.