The Cloak

December 21, 2007
By Caitlin Hines, Winston-Salem, NC

As I peer into the thick and gloomy undergrowth of the shadowed forest, I ponder with trepidation the dark and treacherous path before me. It is for the sake of my father that I stand so reluctantly at the edge of this dangerous wood in the dead of winter. My father has been gravely ill ever since my mother died – he is detached from his surroundings, nearly blind and completely mad. He refuses to eat, to drink, to move; he simply stares silently out the window at my mother’s grave. He recognizes me only when I wear the pure white cloak which once belonged to my mother.

Many miles through the forest, my aging grandparents dwell in an isolated cottage, and only their knowledge of herbal remedies, potions, and spells can possibly save my father’s life. I have no choice but to traverse the forest in a desperate effort to cure him. Two immense trees mark the edge of the wood, the gateway into an unknown and terrible future. To pass between them is surely to confront Death itself; to back away is to open the door for Death and lead him directly to my father’s side. I pull my mother’s cloak tightly around my shoulders, shivering not with cold, but with apprehension. I inhale deeply, seeking comfort from the scent of my mother which still lingers on her cloak, and enter the forest.

A fog has settled with a melancholy and nearly audible sigh over the forest; it smothers the very trees themselves and leaves me squinting and straining to distinguish a path among the naked branches and frozen trunks. The trees cluster closely together, huddling for warmth, and I struggle to pass between them as my mother’s cloak snags on their icy fingers. I shudder again and draw the cloak even closer, glancing over my shoulder as a sudden sense of foreboding chills my spine. I quicken my pace, impatiently shoving aside icy twigs that snap indignantly, and flinching at the loud crunching of the dead leaves beneath my feet. Soon I find myself running, darting among the trees like a madwoman, unable to shake the unconquerable terror that grips my heart. As my mind races, I determine that I will reverse my direction, exit the woods, and never look back; I am ashamed to admit that I fail to do so not out of determination to help my father but rather out of cowardice – I cannot bear to turn and face the dreadful horror from which I flee.

I soon become too exhausted to continue and collapse in a shaking heap in the middle of a small clearing. A single beam of liquid sunlight materializes suddenly, dripping warmly onto my cheeks and calming my quivering heart. I begin to feel very foolish – I warily turn my gaze in a circle around the clearing and find myself to be completely and utterly alone. I sigh heavily with relief, stand unsteadily on still-quaking legs, and continue down the path, but my mood does not lighten – my beam of sunlight fades behind me, and the oppressive gloom of the wood bears down upon me once again.

I travel doggedly for the better part of the afternoon, though the sun remains obscured by heavy gray clouds. My feet ache from walking, and I become ravenously hungry, miserably regretting that I have neglected to bring any food with me. I notice the distinct glint of frozen water in the distance. Suddenly quite thirsty, I digress slightly from the path and head for the ice-covered pond. Upon reaching the shore, I heave a sizeable rock from the bank and drop it on a patch of particularly thin ice – it enters the lake with a loud splash and leaves in its wake a rippling pool of clear water. As I kneel to drink, a harsh wind rips through the trees around me, tugging impatiently at my cloak and chilling my cheek. To shield myself from the cold, I pull my hood over my ears and fasten it securely beneath my chin. Shivering, I lean over the water with my hands cupped, preparing to take a drink. As I catch sight of my reflection in the slightly rippling water, I gasp and jump back from the pool with my hand clutched tightly over my breast. Breathing heavily, I rip my cloak off and hold it in front of my face, inspecting every inch carefully, unable to believe what the water is reflecting. As I look directly at my mother’s cloak, its color is a white so pure as to rival that of the glistening snow around me – but my reflection had been clothed in a cloak of deepest red.

I back slowly away from the pool, my thirst forgotten, my eyebrows furrowed in confusion and my legs quite unsteady. Suddenly, the suffocating silence is broken by a terrible noise, a gut-wrenching howl as desperately pained and inhuman as the tormented shriek of a soul damned to hell for all eternity. I turn to face the horrid sound and am met with a brief but terrifying glimpse of a distorted, snarling face, twisted with ferocity and cruel appetite. As saliva drips grossly from the grimace of this beast, I am momentarily struck by the disturbing humanness of its visage – it is undoubtedly a human face, but so horribly ugly and disfigured as to make it monstrous. The intelligence in its eyes frightens me most.

I am unsure whether this creature intends to attack me, or indeed whether it has noticed me at all. I stand frozen at the edge of the lake, staring at the hunched figure in trepidation, bracing myself to face pain and Death. The monster, however, turns and lopes awkwardly away, its gait uneven but surprisingly rapid. It soon disappears from my sight – I allow myself little time to recover before determining that I should continue towards my destination as quickly as possible. I wrap myself in my mother’s cloak once again, staring intently at the snow white threads, and find my way back to the forest path.

I travel rapidly and warily for the remainder of the day, checking over my shoulder often, dreading the sight of that gross human countenance and yet curiously half-yearning to see it once more. At dusk I finally reach the border of the woods and spot my grandparent’s cottage in the distance – all at once the heaviness of my mood lifts, and I begin trotting merrily towards the lonely little cottage. As I approach the front gate I glance upward, wondering why no smoke pours invitingly from the cottage chimney. Craning my neck forward, I fail to pay attention to where I am placing my feet – I trip over something wet and warm and fall heavily to the ground. Glancing curiously at what has caused me to overbalance, I feel nausea rise in my throat and scramble back quickly. I have fallen over the body of a man whose face is so badly mauled and torn that it is impossible to identify – I recognize, however, the rough plaid shirt and aged, callused hands; it is my grandfather sprawled at my feet in a pool of blood, knuckles white as he grips a sharpened axe. I realize that I, myself, am covered in a wet, sticky, substance, and suppress another wave of nausea upon observing the red bloodstains blossoming like roses on my mother’s beautiful white cloak.

As tears cloud my vision, I compulsively pry the bloody axe from my grandfather’s grip and stagger to my feet, noticing that the front door of the cottage is hanging off of a single hinge. I step over the threshold, my eyes sweeping every corner of the one-room house, but find no sign of my grandmother. As I turn to exit the cottage I hear a hollow scratching sound so slight that I feel I surely must be imagining it. I pause, listening attentively, gripping the axe and feeling the dried blood on my knuckles crack grotesquely. The scratching becomes louder and more distinct, and I realize with horror that it is coming from beneath my own feet. I leap backwards and use the axe to pry open the wooden slats of the cottage floor, throwing splintered wood aside and wiping my sweaty palms across my forehead, heedless of the trail of blood smeared across my cheek. As I tug the third board away, I am met with the sight of my grandmother’s body, and my eyes are drawn to her fingertips, raw and bloody from scratching at the floorboards. I feel a dying pulse in the icy skin of her neck and look on helplessly as her pained expression slowly relaxes into the terrible stillness of death.

I hear a snarl from behind me, and suddenly I know that the dreadful creature from the woods has been following me, watching me, tormenting me all of this time. It is a monster. It is a murderer. Rage consumes me and I swing around, wielding my axe before me like a club. The already blood-soaked metal embeds itself in the neck of the monster before me, and for a terrible moment I see myself reflected in its eyes.

I release the axe in shock as the beast’s horribly intelligent features contort in anguish. I stumble backwards, breathing heavily and staring at the dying creature as it whines pathetically. An awful ache suddenly pierces my heart like a poisoned arrow, an ache as powerful as the pain I felt when I watched my own mother die. Unable to bear the agony, I turn and run, out of the cottage, through the open gate, and back into the woods, crying as I imagine the poor creature sprawled in a corner, slowly dying. My mind fills suddenly with blurred memories of my mother: There she is, twirling me around in her arms and kissing me sweetly on the forehead. She smiles and laughs as I bring her a basket of mushrooms I’ve gathered in the woods, just for her. I insist that we have our very own picnic, right there in the clearing. I won’t eat any mushrooms…I hate vegetables! The twinkle in Mother’s eyes fades to confusion as she struggles to swallow my mushrooms. Her eyebrows furrow as she chews, and she begins clawing desperately at her throat with widened eyes… Now we’re at home, and she lies pale and gasping upon sweat-soaked sheets. Father kneels beside her, ashen-faced and panicking as she tosses and turns in terror. The doctors shake their heads, frowning grimly. Mother lies still. Her eyes are glassy and cold as she is lowered into her coffin. Father’s eyes are clouded and dull. He sits in his chair, stares out the window, doesn’t speak. I sit alone in the woods. What have I done?

My knees suddenly buckle and I collapse. I feel blood flow freely from a fresh wound in my neck, deep and throbbing, as if an axe has penetrated my own throat. As darkness begins obscuring my vision, I turn my gaze towards the cottage. Through the thick trees I glimpse the creature lying in the doorway, blood staining its shoulders like a crimson cloak, its eyes clouded with tears of remorse.

I open my eyes. Tangled, bare tree branches intertwine above me and wet snow chills my back. I sit up, immensely confused, and find myself in a clearing not so very far from my own house. I gingerly touch my throat and feel smooth, dry skin – no sign of the gaping wound that I was so sure had killed me. Upon further inspection, I discover no blood on my hands, no bruises on my feet, no bile in my throat. Much relieved, I stand up shakily and remove my cloak, prepared to pass the entire episode off as a fantastic nightmare. It is only as I run the soft fabric of my mother’s cloak between my fingers that I notice it is no longer pure white. The cloak now shines with a rich red hue, a deep scarlet created not from bloodstains, but from tightly woven crimson threads. It still smells of my mother.

I cannot force myself to travel any further into the woods, yet I cannot bear to part with my mother’s old cloak, despite its inexplicable color. I turn in the direction of my house, the scarlet cloth draped carefully over my shoulder, sighing with relief as I finally exit the woods. To delay returning to my house and facing my father’s stony silence, I walk to the clearing where my mother is buried. A chilling coil of air wraps around my shoulders as I kneel beside her grave and run my fingers over the smooth, gray headstone, tears gliding unbidden down my cheeks. The wind picks up, whistling through the trees and whipping my hair around my face. I unfasten my mother’s cloak and drape the red cloth carefully over the headstone. “Forgive me,” I try to whisper, but no sound escapes my lips. I try again, but the now howling wind snatches my words away before they can emerge. I begin to sob uncontrollably, to pound my fists on the ground like a little child, as violent twisters of dead leaves swirl around the clearing, and I am filled to bursting with an emotion that I cannot name. I leap to my feet and lift my chin defiantly to face the gray skies and I scream, begging forgiveness with all the air in my lungs until my voice cracks, my throat closes and my tears run dry. I fall to my knees in despair and bury my face in the smooth red cloth of my mother’s cloak.

The sun bursts through the clouds in a shower of golden sparks, and its rays tumble and swirl downwards to fall upon my wet cheeks, to caress my face warmly and dry my tears. I feel a firm hand grip my shoulder, and turn in surprise to meet my father’s steady gaze. He stands upright and proud before me, his face warmed by the sun and his eyes bright and clear. He embraces me so tightly that I feel as though I cannot breathe, but I’m not sure it really matters.

“I was so worried,” my father whispers into my hair, and I can feel his shoulders shaking.

I smile, feeling safe and happy for the first time in years. “Everything will be all right, father, now that we are together.”

He steps backwards at the sound of my voice and stares warily into my eyes, a look of utmost disbelief spreading across his face. “But the doctors said…” he whispers, his voice hitching with relief and joy, “the - the madness...?” He hesitates, tears welling in his eyes. “Daughter…you - you are cured!”

Behind me, my mother’s pure white cloak gleams in the dimming light of the winter sun.

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