The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
by Suzanne Madron
Tradition is stronger than progress in the hidden backroad places, and the tradition of the Ritual was at least as old as any of them could remember, going back generations. The rag-tag group trudged through the cold and muddy streets to the backbeat of frozen raindrops on their plastic masks. They carried with them a bag of their trick-or-treat spoils and an assortment of objects to appease their nightfears – objects meant to fulfill their obligations for one more year until the next generation would carry the burden.
One boy held a carved pumpkin with a lit candle to light their path through the darkness. A girl carried a sugar skull, the decoration on the sweet, hollow face running like tears down the sugar cheeks to coat the girl’s lace gloves. Another child, nondescript in a mummy costume, carried a plate of food that grew soggier with each step the children took through the October rain. The oldest child carried an ancient besom. She brandished it before them as if to clear the rain from their path.
“How much further?” the mummy asked, its voice muffled beneath the bandages.
The witch pointed with her besom. “Just down that street.”
“Where the haunted house is?” asked the boy with the pumpkin.
“Where the haunted house was.”
Their conversation ceased as they turned down the street leading to their final destination. Their feet stumbled over holes in the asphalt. After the house at the end of the street had burned down, the other houses along the lane had been subsequently abandoned soon after until the street itself was little more than the nightmare left in the wake of an American dream.
Potholes in the lane went unfilled until there were muddy water sinkholes to twist their ankles and soak their shoes. The sidewalks were all but gone with only a glaring space like exposed vertebrae here or a crumbling curb there to indicate there had ever been a walkway at all. Dead vines reached for the small group as they passed through and the children avoided the thorns of the wild blackberry brambles and creeping ivy as they kept their focus on the thing at the end of the lane.
The troupe’s steps slowed as they passed between the rows of vacant and staring windows of broken houses on either side. A shroud of misgiving settled over them and they glanced, one to the other, silently confirming their shared thoughts.
“Let’s keep moving,” the witch whispered, her words muffled beneath her mask. “The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can go home. Pay attention when we get there.”
This year would be the witch’s last year for performing the Ritual. After this final night, the younger children would be on their own.
They came to the dead-end and stopped at the base of a large, gnarled tree. A ragged kite whipped Morse Code in the wind, the SOS torn from the jagged cloth and tangled tail. The tree’s massive trunk was blackened with what looked to be pitch oozing from crisscrossing slashes up and down its length.
At the base of the tree was the remnants of a pumpkin patch. The orange of the gourds was blackened and sunk with rot, the tendrils and dead leaves of the vines drifting toward an old chimney stack of crumbling brick.
“Stay close, and do not go near the chimney.” The witch adjusted her mask so she could better see through the eyeholes.
“Are there monsters in it?” asked the mummy.
“No, there’s a stone foundation under all that mess around it and if you don’t watch out, you’ll fall in and break a leg or worse. Now help me light these candles.”
She handed a candle to each of the children and the boy with the jack-o-lantern placed his grinning pumpkin on the ground to better hold the candle. When they all had lights, she told them the story, though they knew it all by heart.
Years ago, on Halloween night, a man had come to town. He had stolen children and killed some. The others he took with him and they were never found. Some adults in town said he had been killed by townspeople as punishment, others said the ghosts of the dead children had gotten him, and still others said he had had an attack of conscience. In the end, they found him dead and his house burned to cinders.
As the years went by, the story evolved to include the tree. Some said he was found at the base of the tree, others said he and the children had been hanging from the branches, and in the version the witch told, he had been found clutched by the tree, its branches closed around his crushed body like a fist.
The gashes in the tree’s trunk were first from the Grim Reaper’s scythe when it came for the man’s evil soul and then from the axes of the townspeople as they tried to release the body from the branches. None of it worked.
When the children of the town came to see their bogeyman’s body, they brought offerings of thanks for the tree. As each of the treats and treasures was placed at the base of the tree, at last it released the man.
And so the Ritual was born. Every year, on Halloween, the relatives of that original group of children brought offerings to the tree. A broken telescope now half-buried in the mud leaned against the base of the tree along with mounds of old candle wax and faded toy cars and trains. Newer dolls poked dirty faces from the hollows of the trunk, surrounded by a halo of squirrel-chewed candy wrappers.
The witch indicated where the children should place their candles and offerings, then reached into her trick-or-treat bag. She wrapped a fist around the candies within and threw a handful of sweets up into the branches. The other children followed suit and the tree glimmered with rain and foil wrappings.
“One last thing,” the witch told them, her voice stern now. “Never look back. No matter what you hear or what you’ll see, never ever turn around to look back at the tree.”
“The man will get you.”
“There were more of us five years ago,” she pointed out and the children gasped. “So… Don’t look back. OK?”
They nodded and one by one, they removed their masks and hung them on the tree. The mood was solemn now as they made their way back up the lane, toward the lit streets and houses. Behind them, they could hear a mournful sigh and see the glow of a housefire reflecting in the puddles of the street before them, but none of them turned to look back.
Fiction © Copyright Suzanne Madron
Image courtesy of Christina Sng
More from Suzanne Madron:
The house across the street seems to go on the market every few months, but this time nothing about the sale is normal, including the new owners. No sooner has the for sale sign come down and the neighborhood is thrown into a Lovecraftian nightmare and the only way to find out is to attend the house warming party.