Wild Fell (Excerpt)

Check out Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell, available now from ChiZine!

The crumbling summerhouse called Wild Fell, soaring above the desolate shores of Blackmore Island, has weathered the violence of the seasons for more than a century. Built for his family by a 19th-century politician of impeccable rectitude, the house has kept its terrible secrets and its darkness sealed within its walls. For a hundred years, the townspeople of Alvina have prayed that the darkness inside Wild Fell would stay there, locked away from the light.

Jameson Browning, a man well acquainted with suffering, has purchased Wild Fell with the intention of beginning a new life, of letting in the light. But what waits for him at the house is devoted to its darkness and guards it jealously. It has been waiting for Jameson his whole life—or even longer. And now, at long last, it has found him.

Author’s Note: This section of Wild Fell is taken from the prologue, “Nightswimming, 1960.” The year is 1960, and the last weekend of summer vacation in the town of Alvina, Ontario deep in the northern Ontario bush country. Sean “Moose” Schwartz and Brenda Egan, two local teenagers, are on their last date of the summer. To surprise Brenda, Sean has driven them to a deserted beach out of town, on the edge of Devil’s Lake. In the center of Devil’s Lake is Blackmore Island, reputedly the site of the ruins of a mansion owned by a powerful 19th century political family. Having teased her about ghosts, Sean has tried and failed to convince Brenda to row out the ruins with him. Instead, the two teenagers build a fire and make love. Lulled by the fire and the afterglow, Brenda feels herself falling asleep in Sean’s arms. Conscious of her curfew, Brenda promises herself that she’ll just close her eyes for a few minutes…

 

 

 

Brenda woke shivering in the cold. Her closed eyes stung from the smoke of the dead fire trapped behind her eyelids. She sat up, then rubbed her eyes with her knuckles like a crying child in a cartoon. Sean let the fire go out, she thought stupidly. How did the fire go out that quickly? It’s only been a couple of minutes. We just dozed off.

“Sean…”

For a moment, Brenda thought she had gone blind, because she couldn’t see anything: not the fire, not the lake, not the trees, not the sky. The world as she had known it before she dozed off had simply… vanished. She might have woken up in the blackness of space. She knew, without being able to see, that he was not beside her. Brenda felt around with her hands. The blanket had fallen off her shoulders and was gathered around her waist. Her fingers located the pile of clothes next to the fire. She found her sweater and pulled it over her head. It felt damp and slimy against her cold skin, and she felt her waking confusion and disorientation give way to the first stirrings of genuine fear.

She whipped her head around. Someone is there. I can feel it. Someone is watching me. This time, Brenda didn’t call out Sean’s name: she whispered it, suddenly, crazily afraid that if he wasn’t close enough to hear her whisper, someone or something else might answer her from the darkness instead of him.

As her eyes grew accustomed to the dark, Brenda realized that the shoreline of Devil’s Lake was enveloped in deep fog, the densest fog she had ever seen in all of her sixteen years growing up in Alvina. Sure, there had been fogs before, certainly the sort of mists anyone living near large bodies of water knows well. They came, they went. At worst they were an annoyance for boaters and drivers on roads, especially at night. But this? She had never seen anything like this.

And how much time had passed? Half an hour? An hour? Two?

Brenda looked up and, for a moment, thought she saw stars in the sky through the ceiling of fog. They comforted her, orienting her in relation to a world she knew instead of this murky alien landscape. She ticked off a mental checklist. Stars are up, the ground is down. Lake is in front of us, car is behind us. Good, good. I know where I am. But where’s Sean? She looked up again, but the stars had vanished and she was in darkness again, damp darkness that felt like the breath of a large predator with infinite patience.

And she felt the eyes again, just out of sight.

The Devil is always a thief, Brenda.

Unbidden, an image eddied in her mind. It was the image from Sean’s stupid ghost story about the woman with no eyes who rushed across the road from behind the locked gate of the desolate country cemetery.

This time not caring who heard her, Brenda screamed out, “Sean! Sean, where are you?” but her voice was lost in the deadening weight of the heavy fog. The dullness of it mocked her, isolating her with its brutal, forced quieting. She felt her rising fear flip over into the terror zone before she was even able to understand why it had. Brenda started to cry. Had she been further away from the edge of hysteria, she might have wondered why the thought that perhaps Sean was playing a trick on her, or hiding, or going to the bathroom up against a tree hadn’t even occurred to her as an outside possibility, a logical conclusion at which to arrive in these circumstances.

No, Brenda knew two things clearly, internally, on a primal level that did not require external verification. Firstly, she knew Sean was nowhere nearby. She sensed he wasn’t hiding, playing a trick, or anything else. He was simply not there. His presence had been cancelled. Brenda’s conscious mind may not have been able to ride that particular horse but her subconscious mind had already processed it. Secondly, she knew just as strongly that she wasn’t alone, that whatever she felt peering at her through the fog wasn’t Sean.

Brenda groped on the ground at her feet till she found her pedal pushers and her sandals. She dressed herself blindly, frantically, feeling for buttons and zippers. She knew her panties were somewhere nearby but she couldn’t find them, and didn’t care if she ever did, or if anyone else ever did either. She briefly flirted with feelings of concern for Sean’s well-being, but they dissipated as she remembered that this whole stupid idea had been his from the beginning. And if he was playing some sort of trick on her, then he deserved whatever he got for getting her in trouble with her folks. All she wanted was to be dressed, to find the keys for Sean’s truck, and to be away from Devil’s Lake.

She remembered that she couldn’t drive the truck, but discarded that realization as quickly as it came to her. She could try to drive it, at least. She’d watched her father drive. Insert the key in the ignition. Turn the key. Press the gas pedal. Reverse. Drive. How difficult could it be? Or she could sit in the cab and blow the horn until someone heard her. She could lock the door, both the doors, and make so much noise with that horn that they’d hear her all the way back to Alvina and send someone to rescue her. She would blow the horn till God heard her.

But Brenda knew she was a long way from Alvina, and it was late at night now. No one was coming for her. No one knew where she was. She’d told her parents she was going for a drive with Sean to the town beach with a group of their friends to watch the moon rise. That’s where they would look for her, not here. Not wherever here was. She remembered her delight in her disorientation as they’d driven to Devil’s Lake, her triumphant pleasure at feeling lost, at the absurd notion of travelling without leaving her town.

Weeping, Brenda stumbled, feeling for branches. The branches would mean the edge of the path leading up, away from the shoreline, back to the truck, back to safety. Blindly, she flailed her arms, meeting nothing but the empty fog.

And then she distinctly heard a muffled splash behind her. She pivoted on her heel.

“Sean, is that you? Sean?” It must be him! Who else could it be? The relief that washed over her nearly brought her to her knees. Another splash came, louder this time. “Sean? Sean! Answer me! I can’t see!”

Brenda took a few halting steps towards the sound, then stopped. Her feet were wet. She had been nearer the edge of the shore than she’d realized. Cold water engulfed her toes across the tops of her sandals. She squinted across the water, willing herself with every fibre of her being to be able to see. The ciliary muscles of her eyes tightened and strained, and her temples throbbed with the effort of focussing.

And then, as if the omnipresent fog had abruptly thinned or parted in the gloom, Brenda could see. Not clearly, but at least she could see outlines: the bulk of Blackmore Island, darker than the water surrounding it, the edges looking like smaller pine scrub islands of smooth, rounded granite layering in the lake, grey on grey on black.

A sudden subtle shift of shadows on the surface of the lake drew her eye to a place maybe fifteen yards offshore where a figure stood pale and unmoving in the murky starlight. Brenda drew a sharp intake of breath, covering her mouth with her hands to keep from screaming. As she watched, the figure moved deeper into the lake. This time there was no splash, just a susurrating displacement of water. Brenda saw that the figure was male, and nude. Of course it was Sean. Who else would it be? Before tonight, she might not have been able to recognize his body in the dark, but at that moment she still felt its ghost-imprint on her own and she knew it was him.

Again, the impression of cancellation came to her. While she could see Sean through the fog, in the water, she could not feel Sean. Whatever he was doing in the lake at night, he wasn’t swimming. Or if he was swimming, he didn’t know it. She could see the tips of his elbows rising whitely out of the surface.

The thought came to her, as clearly as if a voice had spoken in her brain: Sean is drowning himself. He’s committing suicide in the lake, right in front of your eyes.

Another step deeper, the water now just at his shoulders. The fog began to thicken again, sweeping across the surface of Devil’s Lake from the direction of Blackmore Island, the island itself now hidden from sight.

Then she saw the woman strolling across the water.

Brenda blinked, and looked again at what must surely be a trick of the fog, or the residual starlight, or her own exhausted imagination.

Her first instinct was to call out to the woman to save Sean, to pull him out, to wake him up if he was sleepwalking. She was right there! But she knew the woman could not be right there, because what she was seeing could not possibly be real, because nobody ever walked on water except maybe Jesus Christ a long time ago, and there was no way in hell this was Jesus Christ. Not out here, not at night, not in this godforsaken place in full sight of Blackmore Island and the house behind the small forest of windswept white pine.

This is not happening, she thought. I’m not seeing this.

“Sean! Sean! Stop!” Brenda screamed his name over and over, waving her arms to catch his attention. “Sean, no! Come back!” She picked up a piece of driftwood at her feet and threw it as hard as she could into the lake in his direction, hoping to hit him with it, to shock him, to wake him up. When she looked again, Sean was alone in the lake. The driftwood landed uselessly in the water not far from where she stood. The sound of the splash was weak, absorbed by the fog.

Then Sean’s head disappeared beneath the water.

Brenda screamed again, taking five lurching steps into the water, kicking up waves as she ran. She would swim to him, to where he had disappeared. There was still time. She realized the folly of that as soon as the water reached her knees. It was cold. Terribly, terribly cold. Not August-cold, but cold like it became in late fall when you realized you’d taken one late-season swim too many and the ice of it shocked your heart and made you scream in a high, warbling voice that seemed to come from the top of your throat because everything below your throat was impaled by the chill coming up from the sediment of the lakebed.

She stumbled backward out of the water and fell, twisting her left knee painfully. White-hot bolts of pure agony shot up from her kneecap, pinning her to the ground as surely as if she’d been nailed to it.

The fog came alive around her in a whirling swarm. Something landed on her face. Then another something. Then another, until her entire face was covered with what felt like tiny scabrous feathers crawling across her nose and eyes. Frantically, Brenda scrubbed her face with her hands. They came away covered with moths, some crushed and broken by the movement of her fingers, others still fluttering, crawling with dreadful insectile determination across her wrists and up her arms. They came in relentless numbers till it was impossible for Brenda to tell the moths from the fog, or where one grey miasma ended and the other began. They swarmed across her mouth, crawling inside. The dry, dusty body of one of the moths caught in her throat. She gagged, coughing and spitting, with her fingers in her mouth, scraping the moths from inside her cheeks and along her gums, the roof of her mouth. Her world was reduced to the chirruping sound of what seemed like the thunder of a million insect wings. She swatted them away with her hands. Her only thought was to get the moths off her body. Then it came to her— she would drown them in the lake. She would swim out to where she’d seen Sean, where the water was deep enough, and she would drown the disgusting things. They couldn’t swim, but she could.

A good plan, she thought, crawling laboriously across the ground towards the water’s edge, feeling lightheaded and weak and teetering on the edge of a different sort of blackness. The edge of her palm struck the water and sank into the sedimentary mud, grainy with ground rock and sand that oozed between her splayed fingers. Pulling her weight with her arms alone, dragging her injured knee behind her, she launched herself into the lake. She fell face-forward. Lake water and sand surged into her nostrils and her mouth, but she still felt the moths wriggling on her wet skin.

When Brenda reached deep enough water, she flopped forward into it weakly, scrubbing herself with her hands beneath the surface. Then she coughed. And coughed again.

That thing is still in my throat, she thought. Oh sweet Jesus.

She coughed again and again, trying to dislodge the carapace of the moth that had lodged in her windpipe, or at least swallow it down. Her throat filled with water on the intake. She rose to the surface, and then slipped below again, taking in water through her nose and mouth. Frantically, she clawed her way up, treading water to stay afloat, coughing and inhaling more water involuntarily as she rose, retching. Her larynx constricted, sealing the oxygen channels to her lungs as water entered her airways, driving out consciousness, and Brenda began to drown.

Suddenly, the scent of camphor and dried violets was everywhere. The fragrance reminded her of the sachets in the drawers of her grandmother’s mahogany vanity dressing table, in her bedroom at the top of the old house in Stayner. It was the extract of dim hallways with shuttered windows and high ceilings; of dresses of silk and long woolen coats; of sun-warmed wood panelling, candlewax, unwound clocks, years spent indoors—in essence, the attar of time itself sleeping.

Brenda had a sudden, vivid impression of her grandmother’s fine and white hands, smooth as bone, gently brushing Brenda’s hair out of her eyes as she tucked her in under the duvet and reached over to turn out Brenda’s bedside lamp.

The thought was a comforting one, and it even distracted Brenda from the realization that she was dying. It made her smile, even as she felt her grandmother’s hands grasp her ankles and pull her beneath the surface of Devil’s Lake, her body spiralling downward, her lungs taking in one final deep breath of lake water, driving the last bit of life out of her in a fine spray of bubbles that floated to the surface, then disappeared.

 

Two days later, accidentally succeeding where volunteer trackers from Alvina and the RCMP had failed, an out-of-town day boater from Toronto named Denis Armellini found the bodies of the missing teenagers everyone had been searching for.

Armellini was coming around the leeward side of Blackmore Island in a Pacific Mariner Stiletto borrowed from the owner of the cottage he was renting. He caught sight of a bright red bag on a deserted stretch of rocky beach. He cut the motor. Through binoculars, he spied a pile of clothing near an overturned rowboat, and the remnants of a campfire. Barely keeping his excitement under control, he made a note of the approximate location, then pointed the Stiletto’s bow in the direction of Alvina.

Before he could start the outboard again, Armellini heard the rap of knuckles against the hull of his boat—a sound not unlike a request for entry. He was startled enough to drop his binoculars into the water, cursing his clumsiness and skittishness. He lurched over the side of the boat, scrabbling madly to retrieve them before they sank, and found his fingers entwined with those of Brenda Egan.

At first, Armellini hadn’t been sure what he’d touched—poached driftwood perhaps, or a tree branch bleached white by the sun. When he realized it was the waterlogged and puffy hand of a teenage girl he held, the sound of his screams ricocheted across the water, cracking against the smooth rocks and boulders of Blackmore Island like rifle shots. Sufficient gas from bacterial decomposition had built up inside the girl’s bloated body to make it buoyant. She floated face down in the water, half-submerged, as though she were the searcher in a game of Fish Out of Water.

Armellini wrenched his hand away and rubbed it frantically against his jeans, but not before noticing that bits of the girl’s hand had been torn away, as if by needle-sharp teeth that had been small, vicious, and unrelenting.

Fucking northern pike will eat anything, Armellini thought, then vomited.

The girl appeared to be wrapped in a white gossamer veil but Armellini realized he was looking at the sodden husks of what seemed to be thousands of drowned moths, legs and wings intertwined, clinging one to the other and to the girl’s body like a shroud, woven into her hair like interlaced garlands of white graveyard flowers.

 

Legends begin in small northern towns on the edge of places other people only drive through on their way to somewhere else, in station wagons and vans full of summer gear: Muskoka chairs in bright summer colours, coolers full of beer, canvas bags bursting with swimsuits and shorts and t-shirts, and dogs who slumber on blankets in the back seat and are bored by the entire process of long car trips.

Towns pass by that are the sum of their parts, and their parts are bridges, barns, fields, and roadside stands where home-baked pies or fresh ice cream are sold in the summer, and pumpkins, sweet corn, and Indian corn in the autumn. These towns are for gas stations that are distance markers for exhausted parents, where the kids can have one final bathroom break before the last stretch of highway leading to driveways that in turn lead to front doors and lake views.

But of the lives of the citizens of these towns—the men and women who live and die in them, who carry to the grave entire universes of their history and lore, and the happenings of the century—these urban and suburban transients know nothing, and care even less.

The towns they pass might as well be shell facades, their residents merely extras in a movie called Our Drive Up North to the Cottage, a movie with annual sequels whose totality makes up a lifetime of holiday memories.

 

In 1960, the drowning deaths of Brenda Egan and Sean Schwartz tore Alvina apart and destroyed two families, each of which blamed the other’s child for inadvertently luring their own child to his or her death through irresponsibility, wantonness or malice. There was no peace for either side. The psychic wounds each sustained through their losses and their lack of forgiveness would fester for decades, never fully healing. The funerals had been on separate days, and a lifetime of grudges and feuds would spring from jaundiced notations of who in town attended which funeral, not to mention those traitors who attended both.

The tragedy briefly made newspapers across the country, though the story was a smaller and smaller news item the farther away from Georgian Bay it was written or told. After two days it had disappeared from the news altogether. The deaths of two teenagers in a town in northern Ontario no one had ever heard of weren’t going to hold anyone’s imagination for long.

In Alvina however, the fact that Sean had been found nude, washed up on the landing beach of Blackmore Island, lent a salacious note to the tale, one that ensured its longevity through gossip—at least behind the backs of anyone from the Egan or Schwartz families.

Had the girl been a secret slut in spite of her goody-goody veneer? Had the boy tried to rape her, drowning them both in the attempt? God only knew. Anything was possible. Besides, it happened out there, near that place.

The police had apparently searched Blackmore Island. The big house up there had been locked up tight and shuttered, and it looked like it had been so for a very long time. The grounds had been wild and overgrown. No one had been living there, and there was no evidence that anyone had lived there for decades, much less that either of the two had been on the island the night they died.

Still, nothing good had ever happened near that place. Not ever. It might not be a haunted island, but it sure was a goddamned unlucky one.

In 1962, Brenda Egan’s aunt, a martyr to the deepest possible grief over the loss of her niece, accidentally set herself on fire on Blackmore Island. Gossip had it that she had rowed out to the island to lay flowers there in Brenda’s memory, and had died trying to build a campfire to stay warm while she drank herself into a stupor.

The Egan family prevailed on the local newspaper not to print the details due to the grief they had already endured. The editor, a family man who had seen the gruesome media feeding frenzy that had resulted from the original tragedy, took pity on the Egan and Schwartz families and kept the story out of his newspaper, reporting the woman’s death only as a heart attack, thereby ensuring that most of the gossip would be stillborn, except for local word of mouth.

After a time, people in town stopped telling Brenda and Sean’s story, because it could only be gossip, and it seemed cruel to gloat about the deaths of anyone that young, no matter what they’d been up to out there in the dark when they were supposed to be watching the moonrise on the town beach.

Tom Egan died in 1972, and his wife, Edith, moved back to Selkirk, Manitoba where her people were from. The memories of what she had lost that terrible night were too much to bear alone.

John and Gladys Schwartz lived quietly in their house in Alvina. They kept Sean’s room as a shrine. Gladys dusted his wrestling trophies daily and never passed a photograph of her son without touching it. John never set foot in Alvina United Church again after Sean’s memorial service. He maintained that no god who’d seen fit to take his beautiful boy was worth more than the shit straight out of his arse, and wouldn’t get any worship from him, not in a hundred years of frosty Fridays in hell.

Gladys, on the other hand, became devout. She brought her grief to the Lord and laid it on his shoulders, putting her faith in the comforting notion that there was a plan that she didn’t understand yet, and that she would see Sean again someday.

They died within a year of each other, in 1990 and 1991 respectively.

By 1995, thirty years after the tragedy, the story had passed into children’s campfire lore, no more or less real than all the other stories about the haunted island “near here,” stories of drowned children, mysterious flickering lights in the water, sudden fires, dark ladies, covens of witches and devil worshippers, and so on.

By 2005, Brenda and Sean had become “the boy and the girl” who went skinny dipping after having sex in the woods and had met their deaths at the hands of demons, or a serial killer, depending which version was being told at any given time. Apparently, the house was still out there somewhere on that island, but there were tens of thousands of islands. It could be any one of them, assuming it even existed. Besides, it was almost spookier not to know. In town, no one remembered their names, which most of the old-time residents of Alvina would have said was just fine had anyone asked them. But no one ever did.

Life moved on, and it had all been so very long ago.

 

And this is how legends begin in small northern towns on the edge of places other people only drive through on their way to somewhere else: with a scream in the dark, and half a century passed in waiting.

 


Wild Fell © Michael Rowe, 2014

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