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The Visitation of Warbler Glen
In the westward reaches of Colorado there is a place where foothills nestle in prelude to a white-capped sea of mountains, where the shadows of clouds progress like boats over the rippling land and the boundaries of sky and mountaintop become indefinite. The sunken valleys and roughhewn crags hold silent testament to time, that fickle thing which gives and takes and makes a swift past of the present. In their memory alone exists a long forgotten tragedy.
Years and years ago, the foothills had the same soft complexion in the dry breath of late summer. The remnant hint of warmth had parched the petals of asters and black-eyed susan in the lowlands, and left fir trees brittle in their dryness. Had one looked closely at the landscape, one might have spied a faded streaking of yellow upon an inconspicuous bluff. Between the gapping limbs of trees, the rusted machinery of a mine could be glimpsed. A crude barrier of planks was inset into the ashen rock, masking the mineshaft accountable for the feathery spill of minerals. Within the amber dust there was a sudden movement- a dark liquid line began to race downhill, disappearing under the cover of leaves.
It churned up from the very inner workings of the earth, vivid and sputtering. The sunlight revealed it to be a most potent, gem-like shade of green as it came forth from the lips of a sizable hole beneath the door.
The runoff bled in a glistening emerald rivulet, cascading with an alarming rapidity down the ravine. It flowed unwitnessed along ancient mountain trails, around occasional ruins and through gulches, eddying about fallen trees and boulders. In its trail, the withering flowers and dried grasses almost seemed to regain their color, but perhaps this was a trick of the eye. Shade enveloped the fluid, rendering it snake-like as it channeled deftly into the densest part of the woods.
Ahead lay a wrought-iron fence that had been all but engulfed by vine and thicket. The runoff serpentined beneath, trickling through the overgrowth, and paused in front of a worn gravestone that was barely legible:
"GIRARD M. LEFOU. UNKNOWN-1863. LONG-TERM INMATE OF OLIVINE COUNTY ASYLUM."
And then, then the gurgling green liquid began to seep ominously into the ground.
Autumn came unseasonably early that year to Warbler Glen. It came in a measurable onset and a parade of colors, breathing an earthy crispness that lingered in the forest and in the very air of the place. The ash trees enveloping the ancient mines seemed to adopt a more sanguine hue each day, and in the stealth of the night a chill left telltale etchings of frost upon the windows.
The village itself was a remote ruin, one of the countless mining towns that had roared to life with the industry and died just as suddenly. It was comprised of a few haphazard clapboard houses, sparsely scattered along a rutted dirt road that wound parallel to a ramshackle fence.
It was along this road that a lone girl in a gingham dress was making her way. Her hair was gathered at the nape of her neck in a measure of chartreuse ribbon, and it gleamed flaxen in the meager sunlight. She found a familiar place in the fenceline and clambered over it, then followed a twisting trail through the underbrush up the side of the mountain.
When she finally came to a halt her breath was coming heavily in the frigidness, curling upwards in great wisps. The view was spectacular. She seated herself intently on a stump and smoothed her dress. Out of her knapsack she produced a length of charcoal and a canvas-bound sketchbook that bore "Property of Ms. Louise Albridge" in sprawling cursive.
She had been sketching for the better part of an hour when suddenly her hand stilled. She looked in query about her, seeing nothing awry. The mountainside retained its dormant silence, yet she felt an inexplicable unease. She sighed and cautiously returned to her sketchbook.
The second time she came to alert, it was no longer questionable. Faintly audible in the dead leaves behind her was the staggered muffle of footsteps limping ever closer.
She rose to her feet and retreated with difficulty down the steep trail, the hem of her dress snagging on seemingly every available thorn and brier. She glanced warily over her shoulder, but failed to glimpse her pursuer. Her fear escalated. The ribbon had become undone and fluttered unnoticed in her wake to alight in a bramble.
The footsteps seemed nearer, if she was not mistaken.
Something in her instinct begged her to run. Louise scaled the fence and picked up as fast of a sprint as her dress would allow.
Darkness encroached with swiftness as she fled, her petticoats billowing wildly like ghostly shrouds in the fading light.
The morning was reassuring and in remarkable contrast to the previous evening. Louise woke at a late hour, her hair in furious knots but her soul in relief. The daylight was dancing in buttermilk shafts upon the walls and warmed her cheeks as she admired it. She hadn't seen something so beautiful for a long time. Beads of condensation hung in the window like radiant pearls- her grandfather had tiptoed in earlier and opened the sashes, revealing a luminous world that bore not the slightest hint of what had happened.
On the mountain, a fierce wind was picking up. It swept through the forest without cease, rallying the trees and teasing leaves from them in explosive flurries of color. The tempest traced its way along a deer trail, chasing squirrels with invisible fingers and howling in its brisk pace. Near the very summit, it flew over a trail of fresh footprints and made a conspicuous pile of bloodied feathers take flight. In a surge they whirled into the air, dancing involuntarily in lofty blurs of brown and cruel scarlet.
A week later there was a knock at the door. Mrs. Bernice was standing on the porch, her plump frame swaddled in an oversized apron.
"Why hello there, Louise- what a pleasure!"
She smiled until her dimples became sizable indents in her rosy, wrinkled cheeks.
Louise bade her come in out of the cold, but she remained at the threshold.
"Well, I just had a quick favor to ask of you," she explained. "I was wondering if I might borrow some flour- I'm a half cup short for my biscuits, and I figured a trip out of town would be quite the waste."
"Of course, Mrs. Bernice." Louise obliged.
She returned from the pantry and offered her an amply filled brown bag.
Halfway across the yard Mrs. Bernice hesitated, something having crossed her mind.
"Pray tell me, you haven't seen any loose chickens?"
Louise shook her head.
"My, I swear a few have gone missing from their pen." she paused "Oh well- I'm getting on in years, so perhaps I'm imagining things. I shan't take up any more of your time, dear." She gave a polite wave and set off bustling in the direction of her house.
November arrived before long, and hints of the coming winter were increasingly visible in the countryside. The trees were skeletal and constant plumes of smoke rose from the handful of houses. Louise had reluctantly begun wearing a bonnet and woolen gloves when she left the house, an occurrence which was becoming less and less frequent. She had not dared return to the mountain since the incident, and did not intend to. The recollection frightened her and she kept it pushed to the farthest outskirts of her mind, where it couldn't trouble her.
In the weeks since, she had instead developed a pleasant walking route that strategically stayed in sight of the village. Oftentimes she brought the mutt along, for his presence made her more comfortable. He had a habit, as most dogs do, of running off in the pursuit of intriguing smells and small animals.
It was on one such walk when the mutt, at a fair distance from her, suddenly halted in interest and buried his nose in a stand of shriveled weeds. She took her time catching up to him, and he had already bolted ahead by the time she reached the spot. The object was difficult to distinguish from the yellowed stalks, yet it was instantly familiar. At her feet lay a tattered chartreuse ribbon.
Thirty-six miles to the East, dawn broke in the town of Wisteria. The morning was ushered in as it was every day, by the harnessing of horses, the sizzling of johnny cakes and bacon in stirring households, and by the little newspaper boy who rode his bicycle up and down the streets with a great sack on his back, pretending he was a star pitcher in the National League.
The Olivine Chronicle landed on countless porches and well-groomed lawns, and thick stacks smelling of fresh print graced countertops in the post office and general stores. The townspeople, still groggy but bound by routine, occupied themselves in leafing through it. From over morning tea and crumpets, in barber shops, the plush reaches of armchairs, in outhouses and even bathtubs alike, curious eyes befell upon the same words:
GRUESOME MAULING CLAIMS MAN'S LIFE
Warbler Glen- A man lost his life Tuesday in what has been called the county's bloodiest killing in twenty-one years. The victim was Mr. Samuel Maddox, 66. He was a lifetime resident of Warbler Glen and a former logger who lived with his wife, Ingrid, in the small one-story he had been born in.
The incident took place sometime after 7:30pm Tuesday evening, according to officials. Maddox was last seen by his wife, who claimed that he had gone hunting in the woods behind their home and had intended to return later that night. Mrs. Maddox declined further comment.
His remains were found in a secluded area on Garreth Peak late Wednesday morning, following an extensive search. He appeared to have been dragged a great distance and his shotgun, found later more than a half mile away, was missing two rounds.
The body was subjected to heavy mutilation and identified solely by the contents of Mr. Maddox's pocketbook. It is important to note that the teethmarks found on his flesh did not resemble those of an animal.
The county coroner has not released a conclusion to the press.
Meanwhile, residents of Warbler Glen and surrounding areas are strongly cautioned to stay indoors and avoid traveling alone.
The people of Warbler Glen were in shock. Mrs. Maddox had left with haste Wednesday for her sister's house, a wreck of tears and utter disbelief. Attempts to console her had failed miserably, for the unspeakable incident had thrown her into a place of anguish and horror that she would never return from. Her condition had unsettled the village, as did the sight of her husband's coffin being carted past to the cemetery.
Excuses began to create themselves, all artful expressions of the terror and wariness that the surrounding hills now inspired. Mr. Sullivan had to catch an Eastbound train at 10 o'clock sharp the next day. The Hendersons accordingly decided that they had "grown too old" for such a rural life, and the widowed Ms. Cane became suddenly fixated upon the idea of a nice little pink townhouse. Villagers slowly trickled out over the course of the following week. No one was definite on the prospect of their return.
"It was clearly one o' them coyotes, girl," the old man reckoned. "Rabies is runnin' like wildfire in them woods this time a' year."
He reached up and fondly swept the hair from her eyes.
"We'll be fine, I is promisin' ya."
And so they stayed.
She sat on the porch with the mutt curled up at her feet and watched the last neighbors hurriedly lock their doors. Mrs. Bernice passed on a wagon laden with precariously piled belongings and an assortment of furniture. She pursed her lips as though she might say something, but her husband touched her arm and she gave Louise a look of pity that spoke more than any word.
Her eyes followed them until they were swallowed by the distant treeline. There was a knot in her throat that refused to go away, only intensifying. The old man busied himself with household tasks and was completely at ease. He had scoffed on multiple occasions and shook his head with a chuckle, repeating the same words under his breath:
"They's gonna be back, just ya wait... they's gonna be back."
The afternoon set in without incident, and the sun was throwing lengthy shadows when the man decided to collect more firewood. He made a point of retrieving his hunting rifle from the broom closet, and told her he'd return before nightfall.
She let the mutt out to catch up with him, and eyed the dimming valley with suspicion before drawing the door closed. The lock made a satisfying click. She was apprehensive, for whatever was lurking out there certainly was not friendly.
It was just a coyote, she told herself. Just a coyote.
She tended the fire unceasingly to keep her thoughts from straying. After a while, she simmered a broth for the old man and raided the kitchen for every last ingredient to add. The flames licked upwards in vibrant flashes, crackling and consuming vehemently until the very last of the firewood was gone.
She couldn't bring herself to eat. The soup was lukewarm, and began slipping by degrees until it had lost every trace of heat. He still hadn't returned. The sky outside was an impenetrable black, as dark and steadfast as a pooling of ink.
She lit the candles on the mantel and kept an anxious vigil by the fireplace, her brow creased with worry. Every nerve in her body was acutely tuned to the door. She kept convincing herself that maybe, just maybe, the next minute he would knock or try the handle. He didn't come.
Midnight had passed by the time she hesitantly rose and rechecked the lock for the tenth time, then blew out the candles and traced her way into her bedroom. Sleep was evasive but when it finally came, it brought soothing tides of relief and rescued her from a reality that was becoming difficult to bear. She slept blissfully, the coverlet drawn up about her chin and passing dreams flitting through her mind.
It was the clawing noise that woke her. The mutt had a habit of scratching at the window in the midst of the night, imploring her to let him in. She was eager at the prospect of company, be it human or canine- just anyone to free her from the aching solitude. Perhaps they had lost their way on the mountain and he had led the old man home?
Still in the vague clutches of slumber, she roused and drowsily lowered herself onto the bare wood. Out of routine she found a match and the lantern in the darkness. The scratching began again, more insistent this time.
She drew back the window sash, expecting to be greeted with a hopeful brown and white nose.
The grisly visage she was met with bred indescribable terror in her heart.
A corpse, horribly and very much animate, was facing her on the other side of the glass. He was overwhelmingly gruesome to behold, yet she couldn't tear her eyes from him. The flesh had withered into a pale yellow leather with the years, and contoured the man's bones in jutting angles where it remained. His filthy suit was riddled with wormholes and a large sum of bullet marks peppered where his heart should have been. His face was the most sickening of all. His cheeks were impossibly hollow and all that remained of his nose and mouth were hideous holes. What she had assumed were his lips, on second glance, were instead fresh ruby bloodstains. His eyes were deeply sunken in their sockets and so glazed that in the lantern light they appeared to glow like two lucid fixtures.
The cadaver raked his fingers down the window pane with a feral menace, and leaned towards her with his crooked teeth exposed in a sneer.
In utter horror she stumbled backwards, scrambling over the hem of her nightgown. She bumped the far bureau and in her haste the lantern fell with a shatter to the floor, leaving her to an unbearable darkness. She trembled uncontrollably, growing hysterical.
For a moment there was only silence. She held her breath and the world seemed on edge, time at a fragile and final standstill. Her pulse throbbed relentlessly as she waited, ... waited...
Then there was the creaking of the window as it was drawn slowly upwards. The blackness spun dizzingly and a gust of frigid air rushed in, carrying the unmistakable scent of decaying flesh. The floorboards began to groan slightly under his weight...
She took a panic-stricken step toward the door, but glass shards gouged searingly into the sole of her foot.
That was the first of the screams.
"INCONCLUSIVE", The coroner finally printed on the form.
He stood for a moment longer in the midst of the road, exasperated.
The gilded watch on his wrist made a quiet ticking noise, but other than that he was emerged in a pristine silence that denied to offer any explanation.
He gestured to the sheriff and wordlessly they trudged back to the coach. There was a faint click as the doors were drawn shut, then the fading patter of horseshoes on the frozen ground.
Warbler Glen was abandoned to its own fate, left to remain with the decrepit mines and the rutted dirt road beneath a vaulted iron sky. Tiny snowflakes fell in meandering spirals here and there, dusting the lopsided housetops and the spindly limbs of the ash trees in a fine facade of white. They whirled down but were fleeting, unable to hold places in the vast emptiness.
Hidden away somewhere, a mutt began to whimper.