Short - The Quiet, Part I
Updated: Nov 7, 2020
Arlene stood at the edge of her property looking out into the misty darkness of the forest around her. She loved the eerie twilight creeping through the canopy, the damp smell of wood and leaves composting carried on the wind.
The smell would always linger in her hair after a long day’s work, but she didn’t mind it. It reminded her of her late husband, Richard, and the 40 happy years they’d spent keeping the cabin. She’d thought she would get lonely out there after his passing, but there was always so much wood to chop, chores to do, not to mention the endless stream of eager customers visiting their carpentry shop.
Arlene was good at making furniture, but Richard had been the real artist. Although, over the years she had become an expert at copying his work. It made her feel close to him. As if her hands were Richard’s. He was all around her, in every single notch of wood he’d carved for them.
Sometimes Arlene would create her own designs, but really these were just parodies of styles she’d seen while living in South America. After so long living in the Pacific Northwest, Arlene could barely remember the scorching sun of Mexico City or the delicious cachaça of Brazil. She’d been wilder then. A new-age wiccan using the pursuit of ancient magics as an excuse to drink mezcal and smoke peyote all day.
She’d given all that up the day she met Richard. She’d fallen over him, while dancing at a street Festival in Rio, and landed straight in his arms. Arlene would have found the whole thing corny had it not been for Richard’s ice-blue eyes staring down at her. He’d apologised to her, before gallantly shielding them from a passing Carnival water spraying truck. She’d known that day that he was the best thing that would ever happen to her. He'd died after a long battle with cancer, and now it was just Arlene, haunting the life they had made together.
A breeze picked up, rustling the leaves, and poking its chilly fingers through the mesh of her thin sweater. She was mostly used to the cold winds so far north, but this wind felt relentless. Rubbing the chill from her arms, she turned to return to the cabin, convincing herself that there would still be wood waiting to chop tomorrow morning. Something caught Arlene’s eye and she stopped dead.
In a clearing just ahead stood a child, a little girl, no older than six or seven. She had rich ebony skin and a tight bundle of afro curls held back with a rose-coloured ribbon. She wore a Hello Kitty T-shirt and light blue jeans. Arlene might have thought her darling had there not been something sinister about her presence there.
The child held her with a sharp unwavering glare, a look far too hard and serious for a young girl. As if carrying a weariness unearned from such a short life.
‘Are you Ok there, hon?’ said Arlene, forcing a smile. How long had the girl been there watching her? Arlene had heard no crunch of leaves or crack of twigs from the usually vocal forest floor. It was as if the girl had just appeared from nowhere.
The girl did not speak but stepped forward in unblinking observation. There was a loud crack that echoed from somewhere deep among the trees, which caused Arlene to flinch. It was then that she noticed the wind had ceased, leaving them in unnerving silence, punctuated only by the errant caw of birds preparing to roost.
Who was this child? Suddenly Arlene was reminded of all the omens she had believed in as a young woman. Was a little dark-skinned girl an omen? She couldn’t remember.
‘Are you alone. Where is you mommy?’ Arlene said, wanting nothing more than to run back to the safety of the cabin.
‘I assume she’s still in Nigeria’, the girl said bluntly. She had a British accent, but one that seemed too mature for a child her age. Arlene was struck speechless, feeling a hot prickle of fear crawling up her spine.
‘How old are you?’ the little girl said, stepping forward again more bravely than before. Arlene instinctively stepped backwards to keep at a safe distance.
‘How old are you?’ the girl demanded.
‘67’, barked Arlene, preparing herself to flee from this odd trespasser.
‘Wow. That is old’.
Unease gave way to indignation as the fear-spell was broken. After this Arlene stood her ground, drawing up to her full height and furrowing her brow.
‘You are a very rude little girl’, she snapped, crossing her arms tightly across her chest.
‘Is that any way to speak to your elders?’ the little girl said with a smile.
‘It most certainly is not!’
‘So, we’re agreed..?’
‘What?’ Arlene spat. Who was this girl? How had she entertained such an exchange with this boisterous little brat? Arlene was tired, wishing that customers would keep their kids on a shorter leash.
‘The cycle recycles forever the three, until all rise at once and the third will be free’, the little girl sang. She then gave an expectant look that made Arlene feel like she should know the ditty, except she didn’t.
‘You’ve lived too long in this life, my dear’, the girl then sighed.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I can see you in there, sister, but you cannot see me’, the girl said gently.
‘Sister?’ Arlene felt the butt of a tasteless joke. Who’d put this girl up to this, she wondered. Coming here and telling me these silly riddles.
‘You have settled into this form’, she went on, ‘You practiced magics as a young woman, did you not?’
‘…I dabbled’, fear was starting to bubble up from Arlene’s stomach again. Maybe she was staring into the eyes of an omen.
‘Do you still practice the magics?’
‘I grew up’.
Quite unexpectedly the girl clapped her palm against her forehead and groaned, ‘You always do this’, she said into the air with an exasperated growl, ‘Why we’re so out of sync I will never understand. I blame myself–’
‘Excuse me!’ Arlene interjected seeing the girl had become lost in her own ramblings.
A smirk lit the girls face, ‘I shouldn’t scold you. We always forget’.
‘Look kid’, Arlene said, ‘You obviously have some problems. Maybe you should just run along’.
The girl shook her head, ‘Have you ever heard the tale of the Applewood sisters?’ the girl moved forward but Arlene found herself welded in place, having once again been struck dumb.
‘There were once three sisters, witches, who communed with nature hoping to keep the old magics alive despite the growing influence of the new religions. After seeing members of their coven tortured and burned during the trials in Salem one of the sisters, Catherine, wanted to take revenge on those who had wrong them.
‘Unwilling to help Catherine in her quest, her sisters thought they had no choice but to cast her out of their coven. However, this did nothing to diminish her magics, and after months of rampaging Catherine had become more powerful than any of them could have imagined. In an effort to disarm Catherine, her sisters called upon dark spirits to help them remove her power. Do you know how they did that?’
Arlene felt numb, ‘They made her mute’. The little girl gave a knowing smile that made Arlene want to faint, ‘It’s just a story…’
‘Is it?' Gasped the girl excitedly, 'Tell me how it ends?’
‘Catherine, needing a way to break the spell, cursed she and her sisters so that they could never pass on. They would each live to a great age, then be reborn again and again until finally the sisters all existed at once and Catherine would finally have a chance to break the spell’, Arlene recited the words as if she had been compelled to. Her breath kept catching in her lungs and she could feel her whole-body shuddering with fear.
‘Who told you that story?’
‘My… mother?’ Arlene couldn’t remember. She had always known that story. ‘I think you should leave now…’ she said, feeling her chest tightening.
Dr Morgan had told Arlene she should avoid stressful situations and this was definitely one of them. The girl said nothing when Arlene turned to walk away. It’s just a prank, she told herself looking back over her shoulder she saw the girl was gone.
‘I think you should stop being difficult’, said a voice nearby.
Arlene screamed louder than she ever had, seeing the little girl now standing on her decking smiling at her. The forest became animated with birds and other creatures noisily fleeing the scene. Leaving Arlene and the girl staring at one another waiting for silence.
Up close, Arlene did feel like there was something familiar about the girl, despite being sure she had never seen her before. There was a sharp wisdom behind the eyes that she found comforting. Without understanding why, Arlene reached out and placed her hand atop the girl’s head as if to pet her.
In return the little girl scowled, grabbing Arlene’s wrist tightly and holding it aloft, ‘I’m not a cat, Sarah’.
Sarah? Arlene mused seconds before the girl’s grip became like a clamp. Then there was a tingling up her arm that quickly became a fiery electricity coursing throughout Arlene’s body. Was she shrinking? No. The little girl was growing. Rapidly aging in front of Arlene’s eyes, until she was a tall, willowy teenager staring down at her.
Shocked, Arlene yanked her arm away so forcefully that she fell backwards. Catching her reflection in the French doors, Arlene saw that she too had changed.
‘I’m…’ she stuttered, staring at herself in the glass, ‘I’m…’
‘Young enough to pass for my mom, hopefully’, said the girl somewhat distracted by the need to hold her jeans in place, which had ripped in several places due to the sudden growth-spurt. Luckily, her T-shirt had fared slightly better, although now more resembled a tube-top.
‘Wear looser clothes, Nancy’, she scolded the air, ‘How many times have you done this?’
‘What did you do to me?’ said Arlene, struggling to her feet, relieved not to have seriously injured herself in the fall. Then she paused. Something else felt different.
Somehow the air felt fresher, as if she could actually feel the trees sighing oxygen into the atmosphere. She had never before felt so rooted into the earth, wanting nothing more than to take her shoes off and go running in it.
She had felt nature’s energy more acutely as a young woman, but never with such vibrancy. Arlene was summoned back to attention by Nancy clicking her fingers impatiently in her face.
‘I think we need to have a chat’, said Arlene dopily, opening the door and ushering Nancy into the cabin.