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Temple Guardian

An Irish Horror Story

By Jennifer Lorraine - Bloch McGeePublished about a year ago 16 min read
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Entrance to the Great Cairn of New Grange on the Boyne

The mirror showed a reflection that wasn't my own.

I rose just before dawn. A bit of grey moonlight swirls around me like fog. I blink several times, as though my eyes are blurry, and I need to shake free of the previous night’s shadows.

My fear of drowning does not extend to whiskey it seems. James, my elder cousin, promised a Samhain celebration to remember. If the ceremonies didn't raise the hairs on my neck, he wisely noted,

"It will be a triumph in overcoming your nervous tendencies. You could actually be useful." His smile is crooked, and almost infectious. Except that he is insulting me, as usual. I simply sigh and nod that I will attend.

On the way to the Samhain celebration, he only displays a sneer. As we approach the crowd he turns to me and spits out,

"I only invited you along because your beau has the good juice." I raise my eyes at him and shrug my shoulders,

"I know. Don't care. You can go now." Eyes rising in indignation, James meets me toe to toe, his breath raining down on my face. His lips curve into a wicked smile,

"You are lucky I am half drunk, or I would have you on the ground for that." James takes a deep drink from the dusty bottle clutched in his left hand. His head is turned to the side, one eye still focused on me. He burps loudly then claims,

"Punishment will come later." Turning on his heel he trudges off to find his friends. I yell at his back,

"He is not my beau!"

Even though James is an ass, I follow along. Mainly out of curiosity, but also, I have a desperate need to put space between my aunt Fanny and me. Her crazy cup had overflowed, following her last trip to The Exchange.

Fanny had often gone to trade for silk, exotic spices, ivory combs, various types of glassware and even, a gaudy bit of fur. She was so desperate to continue the illusion of her family’s societal status. My father and mother were barely in the ground before she moved onto the property and established herself as mistress of the household.

She always loved to come by the cottage when she returned from The Exchange. She would perch in a chair and talk in detail about all the things she had that I never would. She made a point to mention the interesting people she saw, who she then explained, I would never be.

The last time was different. I squirmed in my chair as she declared,

“I saw the most amazing baubles and talked with such fascinating people!” She actually spun, in a circle, and I almost vomited. She continued,

“I found the answer to all my problems!” Was she…happy? I had never heard my aunt say a single kind word in her life. She hates people. She displayed giddiness, but it was…infected.

Even more frightening, she had brought back a sampling of exotic foods for me! She gave me a basket of treacle and jam, fresh baked bread, figs and dates, cherries and pomegranates and even walnuts. Giving her orphaned niece a gift was like the sun and moon rising together. It didn't happen. Moments like those had occurred with more frequency over over the last few years.

Interrupting my thoughts, my head screams,

You look like a tree!

I focus my eyes once more. I do look like a tree. Yes, a Hazelnut tree. My aunt grew one from a seedling, mistakenly tossed in her trade basket. I adore Hazelnut trees.

I can picture the broad, oval leaves. My fingers ache to touch what appear to be soft, fuzzy veins. A winter-green scent wafts out of nowhere. I note the sensation of my feet nestled in the soft grass. I shudder, momentarily lost in the memory of my first kiss.

My head shrieks:

TREE! Focus!

With a degree of concentration, I scrutinize my reflection, head tipped to the side. Something is wrong with the tree. Stark white branches give way to purple-red leaves poised, like cobras rising to strike. The trunk is bent, leafy head scratching the ground. The arms...my arms a conglomeration of twisted branches and leaves pointing directly upward. My legs are a cracked trunk, roots partially exposed and black.

I am surprised to see a second mirror behind my reflection. The images are not the same. In this mirror, the gradual curve of a burial mound rises then falls. Sunlight streams into the roofbox at a perfect angle to illuminate the entire passage. Except, someone is standing in the entrance. Half his face is missing.

Taking a jumpy, stutter-step backward, I close my eyes and breathe deeply. A squeak of fear escapes my lips and I shake my head before peering through lowered lashes. The image is gone. I exhale a calming breath only to realize that the feeling of anxiety remains. No - not anxiety - terror. Does this mean something is wrong with me? Is it a portent?

More likely a night of whiskey decrying my stupidity. I really needed a better way to escape my life. Although, a drunken water fight in the river, followed by roasted hazelnuts was worth a few visions. My favorite part of the evening was when James left the campfire to crawl into the burial passage with some of his friends. It was quiet and I could relax without fear.

Shuffling out of my bedroom, I nudge the creaky wooden door as I pass into the tiny kitchen. Massaging my temples, I sit in my chair and prepare for another day of work. I enjoy writing. When my aunt doesn't force me to write for her ridiculous agenda, I find I even love it. Too bad I write, at my aunt's whim, every day but Sunday.

I dip my quill and carefully record my thoughts:

Ignoring the suffering of women at the hands of their male counterparts is entirely deplorable. Perhaps households would thrive, as opposed to wasting away to nothing, if women were permitted to inherit property.

Since most found a lady writer distasteful, my aunt forced me to live in the old worker's cottage. Fanny had heard about an influential female novelist, in America, who stood up for the rights of women. She decided she would do the same. As she often stated:

In order to preserve my families middle-class status. She left out that it was my family’s middle-class status that she endeavored to preserve. Also, Fanny can't write. In fact, her ability to form a cohesive thought is quite dismal. She makes up for these shortcomings through intimidation and disdain.

I dip the pen once more and prepare to return to my work. I jump instead, startled. The cat crests the table and dashes across my hand, drawing blood.

"What the hell Clover?" I hiss angrily at the cat,

"I don't have time for your antics!" I realize Clover is not paying attention to me. My bloody hand forgotten, I notice her tail twitching furiously. I reach out to smooth her milky brown and white fur, but halt when she lets out a growling meow. She is staring behind me.

"What is it fur baby? Did the door close on your tail again?" Running gentle fingers across her back I continue to coo calming words to her until a thought interrupts my caresses.

"James!" No response.

"James! What did you do to the cat?" Silence. Undeterred, I shout, loudly,

"James!" He yelps an annoyed response,

"What?! I am sleeping!" I shout back,

"WHAT did you do to the cat?"

"I didn't do anything to that bitch!" I roll my eyes at his endearing term and turn back to my journal. I whisper to the cat,

"You are not a bitch; you are simply selective in love." I place a kiss on the top of her furry skull.

I would make James suffer a bit for sleeping on the dirt floor in the basement, rather than stumbling into his mother's house drunk and sick. It would likely be the only opportunity I would get to bully him.

***

My aunt stops by at mid-morning, to bring bread and a thin, brothy soup. Normally, my nose would have curled at the slimy brew, but it is likely all my stomach will allow. She sets the soup bowl down as she chastises,

"You were up late today!" I keep my head down, intent on my writing. My best option is to stay silent. I had been up earlier than normal, due to my pounding headache. It never mattered. This was simply my daily interaction with Fanny. She continues,

"You will work two extra shifts at the bakery this week to make up for it!" I silently curse and keep my head down. Fanny gives me her usual diatribe:

"I pay to continue your studies and raise you as my own. You will earn your place here!" If by "studies" she means making me do housework and gardening - in the place that I grew up in - then, sure, she nailed it. My thoughts drift quickly away from her speech. I pretend to be intent on my notes, as a conversation I overheard between my mother and my aunt surfaces:

"Fanny, trade these goods to ensure Eliza's future." I look just like my mother: long, wavy black hair. Jade eyes, set under dark lashes. Except that my mother is guant and wasting to nothing. Fanny perches on the bed near her feet. She delicately cradles the trade items in her hands. She shakes her head in response to her sister's final wishes,

"I am sorry it has come to this dear sister." I scoff at the word "dear".

"You can be sure that I will use this to give your daughter all that she deserves."

"I wish I didn't have to ask this of you, but with your connections...", Fanny cuts her off,

"I can make the journey one last time; I am not afraid." Fanny attempts a sage nod as my mother adds,

"But the Silk Roads are dangerous for women..."

Fanny quiets her, "You need rest. I will make you a promise: I will bring back a gift that will leave Eliza breathless." Mother puts her head back on the pillow and lets out a shuddering breath.

My aunt never took that small handful of jewelry and trinkets to The Exchange. She enjoyed keeping me meager and underfed. She had always been envious of her sister's wealth.

Satisfied that she has put me in my place, Fanny opens the door. She pauses, turning back to add,

"You are lucky we could take you in. Even though your father refused to provide for my family financially, I will not hold that against you, even in these difficult times. You should be grateful." With a haughty sniff, she leaves, whispering under her breath.

***

A few hours later, I notice that the scratches across my hand have begun to throb. I push back from the table, cross to my bedroom and grab the pitcher from the water basin. I slam the front door loudly - for James's benefit - and pad on bare feet to the well. I pump water into the pitcher before returning to the cottage.

Once the cool water is in the water basin, I dip my hand in and rub lightly across the curve-shaped scratches. I trace them with a finger under the water. They are slightly distorted and raised with redness and I wince from the pain.

While standing, I realize how tired I am. I continue to rub my sore hand in a counterclockwise motion. The movement stirs a memory of the previous night. As it builds, my mind runs swiftly after:

I can smell smoke and... burning flesh!?! My screams rip into the night. You would think that someone was paying attention but all I heard was laughing. Once I am able take a deep breath, my eyes dart toward one voice that sounds familiar. The one who caused me pain. I yell,

"Why did you do that?!" James's laughing face appears in the crowd.

"That's your lesson: for earlier." I glance in anger at the spot where the hazelnut burnt my skin, then turn the look back at him. He gets closer, whispers, "And just wait until you see what comes next." Then he howls in my ear and runs off with his friends towards the burial mound.

A fresh throb of pain brings my mind back to the bedroom, where my hand reclines in the basin. I stand numb. My mind is racing. Why didn't I remember that moment until now?

I look down, watching the water lap across the injury. I am surprised to notice that the redness has changed color and become a mossy shade of green. Fuzzy, like...

I gasp as I make the connection: the scratches look just like leaf veins! Before I can react, the veins turn a deep red-purple and begin to pulse. I yank my hand from the basin covering it with my other hand. When I am brave enough to look, the scratches look normal. I lean both hands on the table and pant in terror. A few moments later, I look up.

My Hazelnut tree reflection has returned. It looks the same, only, the twisted arms are moving, as if fanned by a strong wind. Drawing in another breath to calm my mind, I am horrified to realize that the arm movements are too erratic to be driven by wind power. They are flailing - as in terror - hair branches tearing in an attempt to rip the leafy head from the ground.

The figure who stood at the entrance to the burial mound, has come closer. There is only one mirror now. He is holding a club in one hand. It is flat on one side with spikes. The reverse side is a curve, sheathed with a thin metal. In the other hand, he holds a sickle. He isn't missing part of his face. It is caved in. He mouths, barely a whisper,

You took what is mine.

I stumbled backwards, nearly falling.

Now I will take what is yours.

I run, heaving noisily, from the room. James is at the table eating the food his mother left for me.

Around a mouthful of soup he declares,

"Do you always have to be so stupidly nervous? No wonder mother keeps you in here. What an embarrassment." Releasing an angry huff, I plop into the chair across from him. My ink bottle has tipped and spread across my journal pages. James eyes my journal with a sly look,

"Oh, sorry. I accidentally bumped your ink well." Ignoring his attempts to stir a response from me, I begin to clean the mess as best I can. I need information, so I refuse to rise to his needling.

"James, do you know where your mother got the mirror?" He pauses, thoughtful, then says,

"Why, did you break it? That is bad luck, you know." Letting an exasperated sigh slide through my teeth, I respond,

"No. Did she get it on one of her trips to The Exchange?" Finished with the soup, James sets the bowl on the table and wipes his mouth with his sleeve.

"How should I know and why do I care? I don't know why she gave a gift to such a lazy sloth. That is coin that would have been mine to inherit." James throws his legs up on the table, dried dirt flying off his boots and into the ink. He continues,

“Besides, you have more than enough. I even brought you back something from inside the burial mound.” He shakes his head in mock confusion.

My fingers instinctively go to the tiny necklace at my throat. It was a gift from my mother, but the stone had fallen out. James had brought back an old, dusty bit of pink-hued, phenacite gemstone.

Last night, James had tossed it on the table in front of me, declared he was sleeping in the basement, and threatened my life multiple times if I said anything to his mother about how much he had drank that night. Fanny did not approve of the "good juice", as James called it.

"And, would you just call 'The Exchange' what it is?" James's head lolls to the side and his eyes scream: idiot! Unbothered by his tone, I tip my head to match his and in a raspy whisper, reply:

"Because it sounds dirty." His eyebrows raise and a scoff tumbles out of his mouth.

"What? The Silk Road?" I look him directly in the eyes:

"Yes." Now he out right laughs.

"You know, perhaps when mother is gone and I inherit father's property, I will take the mirror for myself." Looking pleased with himself he leans back in his chair, still staring at me,

"And...it may be amusing to keep a child, such as you." I huff out an angry breath but chose not to retort. He closes his eyes and chuckles. Accepting defeat in this pointless conversation, I examine the ink stains that have settled on the page.

The ink has dabbled and smeared a clean, blank page. Blots have formed into the exact shape of my tree-self from the mirror’s reflection; However, there is a slight turn of the leafy head. The edge shows a splotchy iris, the white space high and wide.

***

As I sit on my bed for the evening, I ponder how strange the last few months have been. Strange behavior, unexpected gifts and even a kind word or two? Could I be missing something? Father had always said the family had a touch of insanity. I just had never seen it so close, or so often.

That didn’t explain the mirror though. Fanny must have traded for it. Most likely, she picked it up during the trip where she discovered the Hazelnut seedling in her basket.

Why had she given the mirror to me?

Feeling sorry for myself, my emotions swirling the drain of misery, I sink my head into the pillow and stare at the candlelight flashing on the ceiling. Whatever is happening has nothing to do with whiskey. I think back to last night:

Following the celebrants across the cleverly constructed cursus - burial mound on the left, an expansive field stretching to the right - I lag to run my finger along spirals cut in wood and stone.

Crossing through the woodhedge, I walk the semi-circle of stones at the end. I stop at the flat side and peer into the water of the river Boyne. Hazelnuts drift and bob in the water. I glance back to the burial ground where the Hazelnut trees sway beneath fat, puffy clouds displaying hues of red, gold, and purple under the setting sun.

As I watch, the trees begin to bend and the colors - splashed across the clouds - darken and appear to collect like missiles aimed at the earth.

Even in my dream state a wisp of memory surfaces:

I did as they asked and gathered Hazelnuts

from the river, to roast on the fire. "Roasted

are best!" They cry. On the way to the river,

at the edge of the valley, I notice a short, squat sign

in odd letters which reads:

TEMPLE HAESIL NUTZ

I hear a sound akin to a siren's wailing. The warbling pitch rises. I squeeze my eyes shut.

I gasp, bursting awake. I am tangled in the covers and sweating. I had fallen asleep, only to be awoken by my aunt's screams of rage as the cottage door slams open.

"What did you do?" I lean up in bed, heart hammering and dumbly mumble,

"Wha…?"

"The Hazelnut tree! What did you do to it!"

"I didn't..." Fanny cuts me off.

"I should have expected this! You have always coveted that tree!" She stabs a finger in my direction repeatedly,

"You couldn't have it, so you killed it!" Straightening in condemnation - despite my repeated attempts to interject that I did nothing wrong - she states,

"No food from my table will pass your lips for the entire week!" Looking me up and down she adds, "You are getting plump anyway. It will be good for you.” She sniffs, then adds,

"You will spend the day tending the gardens as punishment." I blink, and she appears in front of me. Teeth gritted her voice writhes,

"Never eat the hazelnuts of a god child!" A wicked grin splits her face as she nods at her final declaration and stomps out of the cottage, leaving as quickly as she came.

I sit up in bed, bite my lip in confusion, and then shrug. Dressing quickly in a simple skirt and apron over a worn chemise, I head outside. On my way to the garden, I stop, examining the shriveled Hazelnut tree. I expect it to be bent and twisted, just like my Hazelnut tree reflection, but it is standing straight up. All the tree's leaves pool at the trunk. They are shriveled, grey-black and brittle. A crunch sounds at my feet as I step closer.

The branches are not white but black. Charred. No ash. The trunk and branches appear petrified. I reach out, as though I can mend what is broken.

When my palm curls around the trunk of the tree, I become the Hazelnut tree. I become my reflection. Leafy hair stuck in the ground, I am only able to see the world between the split trunk of my legs.

The man, with the caved in face, appears upside down. Then I know:

They planned this. It was the perfect devil's snare: hazelnuts of a deity, enchanted mirror, a stolen object and a sacrifice. My final thought comes; Will it be the club, or will it be the sickle?

His voice is the last thing I hear:

You stole from the dead. Now, you belong to me.

My arms writhe above me. I now know something that my mirrored tree reflection never showed me: my knothole mouth is thrown wide in a yawning, silent scream.

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About the Creator

Jennifer Lorraine - Bloch McGee

*Imagination is the plaything of fairies. Without imagination we are doomed*

My heart and soul goes into my writing. If I don't bleed a little, I haven't done it right.

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