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The Old Woman
[Title:] Sweet Dreams
I am left standing in the dark with nothing but my jagged breathing to keep me company. I rest my head against the cool stone wall, waiting for it to be over. No, I think bitterly. It will never be over. She will never let me rest, that wretched woman!
She haunts me, cursing me, saying, “ Why should you live? My son is dead.” Every time she says this and I hear it now echoing through the hall.
I shut my eyes tightly as if this somehow will keep her away, keep me safe. It is useless. Her cruel voice enters my mind just like before.
“ I will find you, Isabelle,” It hisses. “ You will die. Until tomorrow… good night.”
My mind burns with her words and I find I can no longer stand. I slide to the floor and weep. How long until she finds this passageway? This castle has become my prison, but even here in my own home I am not safe. She can hunt me anywhere, she cannot be stopped. I had thought I was rid of her. She had left me alone for two years. But now she is back to make me miserable. My only comfort in confining myself here is that I know this territory and she is lost in it. I just wish I knew why she has decided to torture me so. She speaks of her dead son but I know nothing of him.
All at once light fills my dark sanctuary. I am suddenly frightened, as I always am, but it is only Jarrod. He stoops down beside me.
“ It’s alright,” he whispers, “ She’s gone.”
He offers his hand and I take it gratefully. As he helps me to stand I can’t help but murmur “ For now.”
He looks at me with a mixture of regret and pity. I know he wants to say something to reassure me, but what can he say that hasn’t been said before? I’m sorry, for what? She won’t hurt you, he can’t know that. There’s nothing he can say to make it better and he knows it. But he is only looking out for me. He is father’s apprentice but he has become my good friend. He is like a brother to me.
“ I’m alright,” I tell him even though I’m not.
“ You should rest, Isabelle.” He says.
I nod and walk over to my bed. It is beautiful, with its carved wooden frame and delicate blue pillows. I will not sleep, I will never sleep again because of her. But I sit on it anyway, just to feel the smooth silk beneath my fingers.
“Would you like something to drink?” Jarrod asks timidly.
“Yes, thank you.” I am not really thirsty but I need time by myself.
He leaves and as soon as the door closes I jump off my bed. I slide my hand underneath my mattress and my fingers find the hard surface of my writing journal. I pull it out and lay it in my lap. I have written down all that has happened since the beginning of this horrible nightmare. This book holds everything.
I open it to the first page: February 6, 1801. Six years ago, the day she first came to me.
I was asleep. I did not see her, but she has told me everything. She walked through the door and saw me lying in my bed. In her hand was a dagger and with it she cut my arms. She made several tiny scratches all in a row. In my mind I see her wicked grin as she pierces my flesh with her cruel knife. I didn’t feel a thing. Then she left, and that was it. When I woke I could not understand what had happened. I stared at my bleeding arms, mouth wide in shock, when her voice came forcing itself into my mind.
“I have come, Isabelle. You cannot stop me, I will come again and I will kill you.”
“Why?” I screamed.
There were footsteps in the hall but I did not hear them.
“My son is dead, and soon you will be too,” she told me.
I began to cry and could not stop. Even when Jarrod and my father ran into the room I could not stop. They saw the blood covering my arms and they called for a nurse. They believed I had done it to myself. I tried to tell them but father wouldn’t listen. He insisted I had done it.
My father still didn’t believe me until one night Jarrod came in to check on me and he saw Her standing above me with her dagger. I had thought I was going to die before Jarrod came in and she disappeared. He apologized many times for not believing me. My father believes me now but he still won’t admit that he had been wrong. He won’t even talk about it.
I hear footsteps in the hall so I quickly shove my book back under my mattress and sit before Jarrod enters with a cup of tea.
“Thank you.” I say as I take the warm cup in my hands.
Jarrod promises to watch over me so I try to sleep. My dreams are filled with images of her. She chases me down a narrow street, laughs at me, then I am back in my bed. Her face stares at me through a thick veil. Her voice echoes in my skull, speaking words of hate and vengeance.
I roll over on my side and groggily open my eyes. I see her looming over me, a dark shadow. I scream but the only sound I make is a tiny squeak. Jarrod rushes over and I realize there was nothing there but an old coat draped over my dressing table. I tell Jarrod it is nothing and I try to sleep. I lie awake most of the night.
When I wake Jarrod is gone. I sit up and look to the window. The sunlight shines on my face and I feel instantly warm. The curtains are open. I look out over the hillside and the old wood below, a slight breeze ruffles the trees and the forest looks almost alive. On the other side of the hill there is a lake. Its glossy surface reflects the sky in detail making it look like there are two skies, one above and one below. I hear a knock on the door and I freeze. The familiar terror takes hold and I cannot move. Jarrod rushes in and goes quickly to the far wall. He presses in the hidden latch and a door springs open. My passageway. I hurry inside and Jarrod mutters a quick, “Don’t worry, Isabelle. It’ll be ok.” before he closes the wall behind me. And I am left in darkness again.
A few minutes pass and I hear nothing from downstairs. I press my ear against the wall and still hear nothing. Maybe she doesn’t come today, I thought. I begin to get anxious. My eyes scan the familiar darkness but there is nothing there. I wait.
The hidden door slams open and standing there is a figure silhouetted against the bright light outside. It moves closer and I can see the face of my enemy. Her mouth is contorted into a snarl showing every one of her ugly yellow teeth. I move away from her, and she draws closer. My back hits the wall and I am trapped. Suddenly she flies backwards, held around the neck by Jarrod’s strong arms. He pulls her away from me and I run.
I don’t know where I am going, just running. I have to get away from her. Soon I am outside but even then I cannot stop. I keep moving, feet pounding against the ground, not even paying attention to where I am going. The wind whips my face and stings my eyes until they water. My heart is beating faster and faster. Cannot slow down, my mind tells me, you can’t stop.
When my legs cannot take anymore I collapse on the ground. I brace myself with my hands upon the earth. It feels cool beneath my fingers. I lower my head and try to breathe normally.
When I am no longer feeling dizzy I lift my head. Tall dark trees surround me blocking out all sunlight. Panic grips me again and I struggle to regain control. This is not the passageway, it is only the wood. She is not here… she is far away. I try to stand up but my legs are completely drained of their strength. I have no hope of making it back home tonight.
Once my eyes have adjusted to the darkness I can see a hollow in one of the tree trunks. My legs ache with the effort but I am able to crawl over to the tree and rest against it. It is not comfortable but it is the best I can do for now.
“What am I doing here?” I ask the darkness.
Why am I so foolish that I have run blindly into this forest? I have no food, or water. How could I be so stupid? My eyes begin to water but I stubbornly hold back my tears. I begin to feel dizzy. My vision blurs, the trees becoming stretched and distorted in a swirl of dark brown and green.
Suddenly I am in a meadow. I look around and see beautiful trees with silver leaves stretching towards the sky. Their trunks glitter in the bright sunlight. A few steps away there is a pool of water. It looks so clear and blue. I kneel down beside it and slowly lean forward to look into the sparkling liquid. I am startled when I do not see my own reflection. Instead I see people, a man and my enemy, the old woman. I cannot see the man’s face but the woman is angry. They are arguing but I can’t tell what they are saying. I reach out my hand to touch the water and when I do I can hear their voices.
“Why are you doing this? Do you think it will bring him back?! Do you think it will bring you back?” the man yells. His voice sounds familiar to me but I cannot place it.
“What do you know about any of this?” she screams back.
“ It’s over, it’s been over Irene! I keep telling you to stop but you won’t ever listen to me!”
The woman’s body ripples and her form disappears for a moment. She looks defeated. Her face falls and she looks at her hand for a minute.
“Oh.” The woman whispers sadly.
The man reaches out to her but then pulls back quickly. Now he looks sad too.
The image changes and now I see two small children, one a girl and the other a boy with dark brown hair. The children are playing near the water. Then she walks out, Irene, but she is not the sad evil creature she was before. Here she is smiling. And I notice her resemblance to the little boy. With a shock I realize this must be her son. I watch and the girl runs from the boy and he chases her, but she trips near the waters edge and the boy had no time to stop. He stumbles over the girl and lands in the dark water. His mother screams and throws herself in after him. But she is too late, he is already dead. I wait for her to resurface but she doesn’t. She is down there too long. The little girl sits there staring at the water but the woman does not reappear.
The image fades until I am left staring at an empty pool of water.
My eyes slide open warily. The sun sends bright shafts of light through the trees illuminating small patches of the ground. I cannot keep running. I have to go back. I clutch the tree trunk with my hand as I try to stand up. My legs shake dangerously but I do not collapse immediately and so deem it safe to make my way back home. Luckily I remember the way I came into the wood and I find my way out easily enough.
When I step out of the forest’s shade the sun blinds me for a moment. I look for the castle but when I find it I am not reassured. It is so far away that all I can see of it is a small speck in the distance. I hold up my hand, it looks about the size of my thumb. With a sigh I begin my walk home.
It is a lot longer than I had expected and soon my feet drag with fatigue. My throat is dry and it hurts to swallow. Next time I stupidly decide to run away I should remember to bring water. And food, I add as my stomach growls for the third time.
The sky darkens and I wonder if I will make it home before dark. My legs are throbbing but I refuse to be stuck out here another night. I keep walking. To keep my mind off the pain I reflect on my strange vision. That woman, Irene, was the same woman who has been terrorizing me for years. But the man, I did not see his face. Who could he be?
Suddenly a thought hits me. In my vision the boy had fallen into the water and the Irene had gone in after him. But she did not come back up. She died. My head swims and I stumble. I force my self to keep moving. If Irene died then…Then, I have been haunted by a ghost? This cannot be! But it does explain how she was able to enter my home so easily. But ghosts can’t hurt you, can they?
I look up and find I am standing in front of the castle. Here already? I wonder. Then I collapse on the stone floor.
Jarrod is shaking me.
“ Isabelle! Isabelle, are you alright?”
I’m still lying on the ground outside. I look up and stare into his deep blue eyes.
There is something I had wanted to tell him. My mind is a bit fuzzy, I must have blacked out. I just look at him, trying to remember.
“Oh god, Isabelle. Are you ok?”
It comes back to me in a flood of memories. My vision, the woman, “She’s dead,
“What? Who’s dead? Isabelle!” Jarrod panics.
“ The woman, she was a…. ghost, or a spirit” I stammer.
I realize I am still staring at him but I need to see his reaction.
“How can she be a ghost? I saw her.” He wonders.
I don’t answer. I don’t know either, but it is the only explanation that I can think of.
“ I need to lie down.” I tell him shakily.
He nods and easily picks me up and carries me inside. I am already half asleep when he brings me into my room and by the time he sets me down on my soft silk covered bed I’m out cold.
In my sleep I return to the silver meadow. Again I go to the clear pool, but when I look I only see my own reflection. I look tired. My eyes have faint purple bruises beneath them and my mouth seems to be stuck in a permanent frown. My face is drawn and thin, like a person only half alive. Disappointed I turn away from my reflection.
Sitting on the ground behind me is Irene. I have the urge to run, as fast as I can, to get away from her. But I stay where I am, I will not let this horrible old woman control me. I look at her. She is not old, now she is the young smiling woman I saw in the pool before. She just sits there frowning at me like she’s trying to figure out what I am. Then she smiles at me, but when my gaze remains cold her frown returns.
“ Who are you?” I demand.
“He never told you?” she hisses menacingly.
“Who?” I ask. I feel like kicking her.
“Your father.” She sneers as an evil grin appears on her face.
I stare at her. “I don’t understand.”
“Look” she says as she waves her hand over the water in the pool. It ripples and an image appears.
I don’t trust her so I am careful to keep her in sight. I look in and I see the same two people I saw before, there’s Irene and… I gasp. The man turns away from her and I see that he is my father. I look up at Irene. I never knew my mother, I never even thought about her. Could this woman, the one who has been trying to kill me, really be my mom? I start to cry, I can’t help it. Why is this happening? I feel a cold hand on my shoulder.
“Get away from me!” I scream.
She looks at me sadly. My mind is not functioning properly anymore. Everything is wrong, how could my mother be the one who is trying to kill me? No parent would try to kill her own child. I don’t care what she says, I hate her.
“It’s true,” she whispers.
“You’re not my mother!”
She giggles and she is gone. Vanished from my sight like she was never really there.
When I wake I find I have slept for three weeks. Jarrod is sitting beside my bed in an old wooden chair. I jump out of bed and run towards the door. I have to find my father. Jarrod wakes up when I open the door.
“Where are you going? Lie down!” he says, flustered.
I ignore him and run out the door before he can stop me. I stomp angrily down the stairs and through the hall. When I reach the door to father’s study I push them open without bothering to knock.
“Who is she?” I ask angrily.
Father just stares back at me.
“Who is the woman named Irene?” I insist.
A look of recognition crosses his face.
Father clears his throat, “ She was your mother.”
I want to panic again but I stay put and try to stay in control. I will not run anymore.
I take a seat in the big armchair next to his desk. He continues:
“ She was your mother. But when you were only two your brother fell into the lake. She dived in after him but she couldn’t save him. I came outside and saw you sitting near the edge staring at the water. Your mother never came back up. They both died that day.
“ You were so young, I thought it would be better if we tried to forget them. You wouldn’t be able to remember. It was a mistake, Isabelle. I don’t know how she did it, but she came back. When Jarrod described her to me I didn’t want to believe it. But then I saw her. She came to me and told me that it was your fault, that you killed him. I argued with her and I told her to leave you alone. She refused, at first. She said she would never go back until she knew you were dead.
“ Soon, though, she realized that she couldn’t stay here for long. She was not living and so her form could not be sustained here. She was forced to return to death. I thought it was over then, but I was wrong. She has come back. I am so sorry Isabelle. It was never your fault.”
I look at my father. I know why he did not want to believe me before. How crazy I must have sounded. This must be hard for him, I realize. He lost his wife but now she comes back as some sort of evil creature. I wonder if he still thinks about the way she used to be. He looks so sad now.
I leave my father in his study and walk up the stone steps to my bedroom. I stop at the door when I hear the soft sound of laughter coming from inside. Do not run, I tell myself. I take a deep breath and open the door. There is Irene, standing in the corner, laughing. She looks insane, her wild hair in knots around her face.
“ Why hello, Isabelle.” She giggles.
I glance to the mirror near my bed then back at her ugly face. She holds her dagger up so I can see it.
“ Time is running out Isabelle. You know I will get you sooner or later. Wouldn’t you rather just get it over with?” she hisses.
“ Never!” I scream.
She flies at me and I sprint towards my bed but before I get there she slams into me. I fall backward and she is on top of me. She pulls back her dagger. I raise my knee and shove her. She loses balance and she falls to my side. Her dagger drops to the floor. I get up and run to the mirror. On the table is a hairbrush and I use it to break the glass.
I am shoved into the broken mirror and I cut my cheek. Blood oozes out and drips onto the table. I turn around as she runs at me again. I grab a piece of broken glass in my hand. It slices into my palm as I grip it tightly. At the last second I hold the sharp edge out in front of me and she runs into it. At first it feels like it is slipping through a cloud but then a few inched in it makes contact. She looks down at my hand and laughs. I stare at her not sure what is going to happen. She’s already dead; can you kill a dead person?
Her body goes pale and her form becomes transparent. She looks up in shock. She raises her dagger and thrusts it at me. I close my eyes, waiting for it to hit. Seconds later I hear a small thud near my feet. I open my eyes and she is gone. I search the room but can’t find a trace of her anywhere. My foot nudges something hard and I look down. Her dagger is sitting there on the floor. I smile. She’s gone, she’s really gone. I slide to the floor exhausted but relieved. My nightmare is over.
She did not return to the castle and after a few months I was allowed to go outside again. Father was still being cautious. Jarrod watched me, smiling, as I ran through the garden. I had forgotten the fresh scent of spring flowers. I screamed with joy at everything I saw, glad to be free of my cold stone prison.
One day I was able to go into town with Jarrod. I had not seen it for over six years and I hardly recognized any of the people, but Jarrod introduced me to a few that he knew. As we were walking home I saw a woman looking at me. Her face was covered with a thick black veil but through it I could see the face of the woman who haunted me for so many years. Irene. I thought I had gotten rid of her. I tensed, not sure what this meant. She looked at me and then smiled showing all of her ugly yellow teeth. Then she turned and walked away. As I watched her disappear I felt sick. She was leaving me alone, But for how long?