By Steven J. Rolfes
When the distinction between 'lover' and lunch' become blurred, trust me: you have a really big problem!
This was one bit of worldly wisdom that I learned, one which I learned as I learn most of my lessons, the hard way. However, this is ne lesson that I shall never possibly forget. I see it every time I close my eyes in the dark, before sleep either takes me to a more pleasant place, or transports me back to that place of horror.
I can look back and in my mind relive every bit of that horrid experience. It was in the year 1864, the year that I made that fateful trip to the highlands of Scotland.
To fully understand how such strange things could happen to me, I must first explain to you why I was in Scotland in the first place, and how my mind had come to such a point as to allow the devil in so willingly.
I married my beautiful young bride Adeline in 1862. It had taken me three years to win her hand, and when I finally took her to the altar I could not believe how lucky of a man I was! For three days I was the happiest man in the world; a man filled with a future and a small household filled with love.
Oh, she was the most wonderful person I had ever known, as pretty as a Spring morning, with a smile as radiant as any flower in the Queen's garden. I take no shame in stating that I considered myself to be quite blessed to have her as my wife. But God who had given her to me had other plans.
Three days- that was al that I would have. By the fourth day she awoke as normal and happy as the first three days. It was a Sunday, and of course we attended church. She became ill in the late morning. At first we dismissed it as a stomach upset.
But it was not just a queasy stomach. It was the cholera, that dreadful pestilence that had made its way across continents, travelling on our trading ships from India. It had been reported in the slums, but we thought that we were immune from this demon. We would learn very differently.
Throughout the day her condition worsened at a speed that was unbelievable. By the time the last purple rays of the sun faded she looked like a corpse, wasting away before my eyes!
The doctor, of course, could do nothing. Both she and her family begged me to stay away from her, lest I catch the terrible pestilence myself. But I refused. Before the clock chimed in the next day she had died in my arms.
I beg you to forgive me for what you shall read next- but to understand how I could become so immersed in the grip of the devil; you must understand where my mind was at the time. Apparently, the kingdom of darkness knew very well. Satan has no greater weapon than despair.
Two days after her burial, I went to the cemetery with a bouquet of the finest flowers I could afford. I walked past rows of mute stone angels staring forever to heaven, silent crosses, and small markers whose names had been obliterated by the English weather. I glanced at a pathetic small obelisk with a bunch of wilted flowers lying in front of it. Then something happened to me.
I arrived at her grave, but for how long I cannot say I just stood there staring at the slab of sandstone with her name freshly engraved words:
1846 - 1862
For the longest time I just stood there like a fool, holding the pathetic flowers in my hand, staring at the writing on the stone. The happiness in my life, my joy for living, my purpose to being, all of that had been thrust away from me as if in some bizarre cosmic joke. The writing on that stone could never convey how wonderful of a person she was, nor could it express the grief and anguish I felt over her loss.
I never even placed the flowers on her grave. I threw them down on the ground n anger and resentment. I turned around and walked out of that field of the dead.
I was angry and hurt. I blamed God for my pain- I hated God and all that He stood for! From that moment on until my fateful trip north to Scotland I did not see the inside of a church. Even the bells of the churches in my neighborhood in Manchester seemed to be mocking me.
In my grief and anger I rejected anything to do with God or the spiritual and turned all of my energy to business. Now my only goal in life was to gather as much gold as possible. The wealth of the world became my sole purpose in life. I had rejected God and embraced Mammon.
I would imagine that those so unfortunate as to work underneath my authority must have quickly come to hate me. Yes, I will confess that I was a dour, humorless, demanding and lonely person. I drove myself relentlessly in order to forget my grief. Along with that, I drove those I had authority over to the same degree. Yes, they must have detested me, a humorless sour young man obsessed with selfishness, who never had a kind or even common word beyond that of business. I could not even discuss the weather outside of the window of my desk, for I never looked at the window. I looked only at the ledgers in front of me.
God forgive me.
Thus in 1864, as cotton futures were going wild due to the American Civil War, I was sent by my employer to handle a business situation in Glasgow, Scotland. I am happy to say that I handled the matter very suitable, making the firm a great deal of money with the strong potential for more business. As I was ready to return to England, my employer asked me to pay a 'courtesy call' upon a client in Inverness- since I was 'in the area'.
Mr. Laytenstone, my employer, then gave me a curious directive. There was a matter of business that would require my talents, but would not be for another month or so. To my utter amazement I found myself under strict orders from Mr. Laytenstone to, at the completion of my visit to Inverness, take some time and relax. In his exact words I was to report to the office in a month, and not a single day before that! He forwarded me a draft for more than enough funds to spend a nice vacation in the highlands of Scotland.
Allow me to caution you. Do not labor under the misconception that the kindly Mr. Laytenstone was in the least bit worried about my mental health. No, he wanted me in tip top shape for the upcoming matter. He was neither blind nor deaf, and knew that the grief I felt over the death f my young bride had affected my personality. I am equally certain that some of the braver or more senior clerks under my authority had spoken to him. But it was for his benefit that he wanted me in the best shape mentally for the storm to come. I really can't say that I blame him!
Thus supplied with adequate funds, I went off into the wilds of the highlands of Scotland, to at least try to enjoy a bit of recreation and holiday, to recover from the grief of my dead bride.
And thus it was there, amidst sacred ruins in that untamed wildwood, that I met the glaistig.
I was travelling in the wild district near Loch Cluanie, along mountain pathways. I was staying in an inn at the town of the same name, but throughout the day went wandering far and wide into the countryside looking for something to sketch. That was my only pastime, as I did not hunt nor was I able to fish without getting incredibly bored. Ever since I was a child I had talent to render drawings of things, and this was the one way that I was able to relax and lose myself and for a short time unburden the grief that I carried within me.
It was while going south of the village through the high passes, that I noticed on top of a ridge the ruins of a marvelous building, or rather what was left of it. Obviously it had once been some manner of majestic church. Now the walls were collapsed, the roofs fallen down, the ground littered with ivy-covered pillars and stones. Of what were undoubtedly the once-beautiful stained glass windows there was nothing but shards of varied colored glass. Mostly there were just opening where a window should have been.
It was a marvelous sight, and I would have stayed and sketched it right then and there, but I was quickly losing the light. I knew that I had to return to the village lest risk losing my way altogether in the twisting mountain trails.
Upon returning to the pub, I asked some of the local people about the ruins.
"Oh, that," said a bearded man with a particularly obnoxious pipe (I think he had crammed a dead sheep in there and was smoking it). "Now that would be the ruins of the monastery of St. Regulus, it would be. Been deserted since the sixteenth century."
"Oh sure and you've heard of St. Regulus," said another as he sipped some very fine ale that I had paid for. "Why he would be one of Scotland's greatest saints."
"No. I had not heard." Personally I had very little patience for saints.
"Aye. Now you know that good Saint Andrew came to Scotland to convert the heathen tribes. He, of course, is the patron of Scotland."
"Yes, I have heard of him of course. But what..."
"Well now, after the Roman world became Christian, it was decided to take the bones of good Saint Andrew and deliver them to Constantinople of all places. But we people of Scotland loved our saint, and certainly did not want his mortal remains taken away to such a place as that. Let them get their own saints! Well, old Regulus snuck in at night and removed the bones of the holy man. Thus when the men came to remove the saint's body, there was nothing there."
"So, let me see: this man became a great saint by robbing a grave?"
"Protecting," came an authoritative voice from behind me. I turned about to see a minister in a very official collar sitting with a tankard of ale in front of him.
He stood up, walked over to me, and extended a mighty hand. "Reverend MacDuggan, but you may feel free to call me 'Tom'."
I was delighted! There was nothing that I liked better than to get into a good argument with some ignorant backwoods country preacher. Even though this fellow looked like a giant who could wad me up and stick me in his back pocket, I figured that mentally he was a midget surviving only on the faith of these fools. With the delight of a hunter I pounced and quickly began to argue the finer points of Christianity.
And thus did we begin our mental joust, locking horns with great relish. Apparently the preacher was not trying to convert me to anything, but I got the distinct feeling that he enjoyed this mental sparring as much as I did! I must also confess that while country preachers usually fall quickly and hard, this man was able to stand with me point for point, item by item, article of faith to article of doubt! He was an extremely well educated man, quite adept not only of the Bible and theology, but history and other cultures as well. I must confess that he was one of the smartest men I had ever engaged in discussion, and one of the nicest. Even though we were in mental combat, he never lost his charm and good humor.
He should have been a bishop in a grand cathedral rather than a vicar in some backwoods parish. But he was a good man and I loved debating with him!
It was well after midnight when he confessed that as much as he enjoyed talking to me, he had an early service to conduct the next morning. I had not realized the time, and after a click of my pocket watch I immediately apologized for keeping him so long.
I walked with him to he door, talking now about inconsequential things. Suddenly he stepped out he turned to me with a serious look on his face.
"You are going to the ruins of the monastery of St. Regulus tomorrow I take it."
"Yes. I would like to sketch the scenery. It is magnificent."
"Aye- that it is." He reached in his pocket and pulled out two items. "I would be honored if you would do me the small courtesy of taking these with you tomorrow when you go there. I beg you to forgive our Highland superstition, but... there are tales told of that place. It is believed by some that the ruins of that monastery are the haunt of the glaistig."
"No!" I said almost laughing. He, however, was not amused.
Oh yes, I had indeed heard of the glaistig. When one is an outsider spending time in pubs, then one hears a lot of ghost stories. I heard of the kelpie, that demonic horse creature that will entice people to ride him- then rush headlong into the water and drown the unfortunate traveler. I heard talk of the pukah, the eerie ghost that casts a torch in the travelers pathway, leading them into bogs. I heard of the evil denizens of hell known as the urisks. I head about the evil elf known as Glam, who leads travelers astray in the moonlight. I head of the baen sith, the fairy woman who washes bloody clothes in the stream and cries out when another of her clan is about to die.
And yes, I had heard of the glaistig. Some of the people said that these creatures were satyrs in female form, others that they were beautiful women who would entice men into a romantic situation then drink their blood.
"Now Reverend, surely you're not going to try to convince me that there is such a thing as a glaistig, are you?" I laughed.
"I could not believe that there is a wall there, but if I were to try to walk though it, then I would find hat sometimes reality does not care what one's beliefs are. I just want you to do this. Carry this small Bible in one of your pockets. In the other pocket carry this."
He handed me a small leather pouch. I looked at him in wonder, and then slowly opened it. There was a white powdery substance inside, glowing like tiny diamonds in the moonlight.
"Yes, my young friend, it is salt. It is said that no substance is more baleful to evil spirits than common salt. I want you to take these things with you when you go up to the ruins of that monastery. And, by all that is holy, please be back to this inn by nightfall."
"I have every intention. You certainly cannot sketch in nighttime."
"Very wise. That is certainly no place to be after the sun has gone down. And, just one more thing: should you run into any strangers up there- human, that which appears human or otherwise, under no circumstances should you deem to accept any food from them. Do not, under the penalty of your almighty soul, take even the slightest morsel of food. For if you take even one small bite, they will have control over you forever."
"Aye," said a local man through his ale glass, "Just like poor old Tom Duncan."
"Really? And what, may I ask happened to Tom Duncan?"
"Well," said the Reverend, "As the story goes, old Tom was a fiddler, one of the best in these parts. He was 'hired' to play for a banquet on the night of Samhain, what you city folks know as 'Halloween'. Well, the 'banquet' turned out to be in the ruins of the monastery of St. Regulus. It was a strange and weird crowd of creatures in attendance, but they paid in gold and old Tom could use the money. But to his damnation, they offered him some food as you would any fiddler at a party. He accepted- and when it was time to come home at cockcrow, he found that he was their prisoner. Some say that every so often you can still hear his fiddle playing up on that peak, amidst those broken walls and ruined pews. Some have even heard him calling out for help, but no one can see him. And it appears that he will be up there until doomsday, playing his lonely fiddle to the host of dancing demons and lost souls."
"Quite a story," I laughed, "But pray, good reverend, how can all of this evil and haunting take place in a spot that should by all rights be consecrated ground, a monastery."
"Oh yes," said the clergyman, "It was indeed sacred ground- once. Let us just say that now it is under new management."
The next morning I was up bright and early, despite the late hours and the ale of the night before. I wanted to try to catch the ruins at the early light shining through the broken walls and toppled statuary.
I was not disappointed. The ruins were marvelous to behold. There is something incredibly spiritual in being in a church that has no roof, is open to the heavens above. Although at the time I no longer believed, or more correctly had any time for God, I could not help but to be struck by the beauty and spiritual essence of this ancient place. Moss and ivy had run rampant, pant life had intruded into where many a man had once knelt in prayer, brought his children to be baptized, came with a mate to be wed, and finally carried in as his remains made their last journey. The walls were indeed crumbling; ivy covered the cracked plaster, weeds protruded through the flagstones.
There were a few statues of saints and such- but these were indiscernible. I examined one, I assume a likeness of Saint Regulus himself, but found that there was little left of the moss-covered statue. It as then that I realized that weather and time alone could not do this. Upon closer examination I found that parts of the image had actually been smashed, as though by a great hammer.
I looked about and saw that the other statues were in the same condition, all destroyed deliberately by force rather than by erosion. Although this had once been a monastery, there was not one standing relic of the Christian faith. Then I looked at the ground.
In some spots the flagstones had been so worn away that only bare earth remained. In these I could clearly see the imprints of what appeared to be goats' hooves!
As a kind of lark, perhaps wishing to restore my sanity, I shouted out, "Tom Duncan, are you here?"
I expected to be greeted only by the sound of birdcalls and the wind in the ruins. However, I could distinctly but very distantly here the lonesome sound of a violin!
Not that I was frightened or anything, but for purely artistic reasons I left the ruins and made my sketches some distance away.
I sat on a rock, sketching away madly. Around noon it became quite hot. I stopped and ate the small lunch I had brought with me. After that I sketched a little more, and checked my pocketwatch. 2:30.
Well, I had promised the good Reverend that I would be out of the area before nightfall, and honestly I was feeling rather uneasy- as though someone were watching me. I packed up my books and started back down hill towards the loch and the village.
I cannot explain it- at least not naturally. Before I had gone too far, as I passed the loch and an old churchyard, I became enveloped with an urge to sleep! I felt as though there was no more strength in my body. I was so exhausted that I could only sit down on the soft grass for a moment.
I know now that what I should have done was to pray- perhaps to ask good Saint Regulus to help a poor man who had stumbled into some deviltry. But my mind did not work that way, at least not then.
I was convinced that the only thing I could do was close my eyes- just for a moment. And that, God help me, is exactly what I did.
I had closed my eyes looking at the sun reflecting in the waves of Loch Cluanie. As soon as I closed them I opened them again- or so I thought. But when I opened them, to my shock I saw the full moon being reflected n the still waters!
I jumped to my feet. How could this have happened? I only closed my eyes for...
Obviously I must have been more exhausted than I thought, and perhaps even a might hung over. Now I had to find my way back to the village in the dark! And the reverend had told me not t be out in the area after...
Wait! Something was happening.
I stood on the edge of the loch, hearing the waves lapping against the shore, watching a strange glowing in the water. Amidst the moonlight and a bit of uncanny mist, something was rising up out of the water!
I did not know what to do, so I just stood there like a fool.
The water bubbled and was troubled. Slowly, ever so slowly, a young woman rose straight up out of the water! Amazingly, as she rose, she was completely dry!
The girl was naked, young, crowned with bright scarlet hair and eyes that seemed to glow a curious shade of violet. As soon as she reached the surface, she started to glide towards the shore!
The instant she stepped onto the shore something came out of the sky. It was like a gigantic crow, or rather something a bit human that uncannily resembled the shadow of a crow. Whatever it was it placed a green cloak about the girl. She covered herself up modestly in a rich, tapestry-like cloak in which all of the patterns and colors of the designs were different shades of green. This was a luxurious cloak that could be worn by a queen or a very wealthy woman- just to give you an idea as to how I still thought about things. Even the impossible had a price tag to me!
There was no doubt that she had seen me, for the uncanny girl turned her head towards me, studying me for a moment with those glowing wine-colored eyes. She said nothing but started to walk up the hill towards the churchyard. I knew that, despite my logical mind that was shouting for me to run away, I had to follow her.
I stayed at a respectful distance, as though thinking that she somehow had forgotten about me. The girl made her way through the tall grass of the overgrown churchyard. I dared not speak, and she did not look to the right or the left, but kept on walking, intent upon some mission.
We came to the very edge of the cemetery- then she stopped.
She stood for a long time, just looking at the ground. I could not see, but apparently there was a very old weatherworn sandstone maker in that place. Then, without warning, she looked up and spoke to me.
"This is my grave," she said in a hollow, sad voice. "As you can see, my body is not buried here, but this is my grave. My family placed the marker here. My body, what is left of my skeleton, is in the loch, out there."
"Who are you?" I asked in a stammering, hesitant voice. How I found the nerve to speak to this thing I do not know, but she had spoken to me and I had to say something.
"You cannot read the inscription on the stone any more. Too many harsh Scottish winters. Once I was Agnes MacDonald. For more than half of the seventeenth century I was what you might call the local healer." She spoke in a light, strangely calm voice. "Oh yes, people would come to me from five different villages and all of the farms in between. I cured all of them, I delivered their babies, I helped them when they were dying, I took away their fevers and their pain.
"Then, one day, one terrible day, a man rode into the village. He was a minister and a lawyer. He said that he was hunting witches. Well, I don't have to tell you what happened after that.
"I never knew who denounced me. Perhaps it was some old bitty who spent all of her time in prayer. Perhaps it was someone seeking a reward or favor. Perhaps it was someone threatened with arrest and torture. But, it does not matter now. I was the local healing woman, and in the eyes of that righteous man of the cloth, that made me a witch."
Her voice began to quiver a bit as she described the ordeal, as tough it was painful for her to describe it. "They performed the old test on me. They stripped me, then tied my hands and feet, and threw me into the loch. According to their beliefs, if I were indeed a witch, then the water would reject me and I would float to the surface. Then they would have their proof, and would burn me at the stake in the town square.
"Of course the water rejected me. I started to float to the surface, but somehow I thought things through. Why would I want to be saved from drowning, merely to be taken to the square, and put on display for all of the people that I had healed all of those years? Why should I give them the entertainment of watching in morbid fascination as I screamed in agony at the flames, and tried desperately to gulp as much smoke into my lungs to kill me before the burning made me die in unspeakable agony? No, I figured that I was already under the water, and there was no way to save my life. I might as well die then and there.
"Thus I caught my bound hand on the branch of an underwater tree. Oh, it was frightening and painful for a moment or two. Despite what I knew, my body still yearned for life. But then I could stand it no more, I breathed in water- and here I am.
"Thus I was legally judged to be innocent of the charge of witchcraft. Relatives of mine paid for this small marker, even though my body was not found. You can still see a bit of the writing: Agnes MacDonald 1611- 1672."
"But, that would make you..."
"Yes, over sixty years old when I left this mortal life. What you see before you is how I looked at seventeen. I can appear in any age. Why would I want to be an old woman again?"
"But... how could you possibly see in that murky water to wrap the rope around a branch?"
She smiled in a strange and mysterious way, somewhat bashful, somewhat sinister. "Let us just say that I had help."
She moved a bit towards me. As she did, in the light of the full moon, I saw her feet protruding from beneath the robe. Her legs were the hindquarters of a goat! She saw that I noticed this and stepped back in anger.
"It is not proper to look at a young woman in such a way!" she snapped.
"I'm sorry... I didn't know."
Her angry expression melted at once. She looked about behind her, as if listening for something. I could hear her sigh in frustration. She turned back to me, her sapphire eyes nearly glowing.
"My time is short- they are coming for you now. But I want to be with you. I have been so lonely, so cold, so wet, so forlorn in that loch. I want to spend just one night with a man of life... and blood. I pray you, kind sir, come tomorrow eve at midnight to the ruins of the monastery. We hold festivals and dances there, and tomorrow shall be a grand feast in your honor! There we shall engage in dancing and love and all of the things of life that have been stolen from me for so many years.
"I promise you, that you shall have a night of great pleasure- and profit."
"Profit?" Yes, that was all that was needed to coerce me into running into the pit of hell as a child into the surf at the beach.
"I am not a merchant such as yourself, but it does seem to me that someone in your position could benefit financially from knowing the correct things."
"Correct... what kind of things?"
"Ships and sailings, when things will arrive, when the ships will never arrive. Perhaps you would want to know about the war in America- when it will end and how you benefit. The situation in Russia, the Franco-German situation- oh, there are many things that we could tell you. A clever and industrious young man could put this wisdom to great good."
I just stared, the possibilities flying about in my head. The idea of being with a pretty young woman, even if she were dead for more than a century and had the legs of a goat, were enticing enough. But to think that I might get rich off of this!
Yes, all sense had abandoned me. I imagine now that if I had had a loving wife at home waiting for me, I would have run away when she first started to rise from the water! Why did I stay?
Why did I not run now?
I was about to speak when she turned her head again towards the road. Her seductive expression was now one of anger and hate. She turned back to me.
"They come now," she said, "They are seeking you. Come to me at the monastery tomorrow night at midnight. Take care that you tell no ne in the village that you are coming. Tell them that you are leaving. Your eve shall be both pleasurable and profitable- you have my word on it!"
Before I could say anything more she started to back up into the forest. She had an angry expression, like a fox cornered by hounds. She said nothing more, but continued to back up into the darkness of the forest, and in a moment the darkness and the mist swallowed her up.
It was then that I heard the voices and saw the glimmer of their lanterns through the trees and the mist.
"Mr. Wright! Mr. Wright!" I heard the barking of dogs. Apparently they had indeed sent the hounds after me!
"Over here!" I called out, not certain of what I should do.
"See, Ben, I told you 'ol Lady is never wrong," came one of the voices.
"Mr. Wright," said one of the men who were just coming into view, "Thank God we found you! Are you okay, sir?"
"Oh yes, thank you so very much! I... I fell asleep by the loch, and when I woke up it was dark. I certainly didn't mean to cause you folks such trouble."
"Oh, no trouble sir. You are all right, aren't you?"
The man with the dog on the leash spoke in a quivering voice. "You didn't meet anyone, did you?"
"Oh no. Just you nice men."
He looked at me as though he didn't believe me. "It's just that... well, Lady was acting mighty..."
"I saw no one."
I returned to the Inn with the men, went to bed, and slept. My sleep, to no surprise, was troubled by dreams of that poor old woman being drowned as the villagers looked on, probably laughing and cheering her anguish. No wonder she had given such an angry look when the voices came. These men were probably little different from those who had murdered her so long ago.
The next morning I had my bags packed and paid my bill, with a little extra as a reward for being 'rescued'. I left the inn, said my goodbyes to the people I met, then moved out on the road. As far as anyone knew, I had left town. They would not come searching for me this night!
As soon as it was safe, I turned off from the only road leading to the village and wandered through the thick forest towards the loch. The woods were thick and covered in a heavy morning mist. A number of times I thought that I heard footsteps following me, like the footsteps of a child. But when I turned around, there was never anything there. Nonetheless, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was being watched.
Finally I found a secluded glen overlooking the loch. I sat in the soft grass and watched the moist seeping slowly over the water. As I sat, I ate some of the food that had been prepared by the landlady of the inn.
Watching the ghostlike swirling of the mist on the still water, I could not help but to think of my beloved Adeline. Is that what her soul was like when it left her body? Was she still about, watching over and protecting me?
Was I being unfaithful to her by going to meet this curious Agnes? Could one be unfaithful if the person one was meeting was dead for two centuries? Could one be unfaithful to one who was dead herself, thus releasing me from the vow that I took so earnestly in that church?
What would Adeline want me to do? Should I rise from the soft grass and return to the road, resume my journey and forget that beautiful, alluring Agnes?
My mind was almost made up, I was about to leave this place and let my nightmares be the proper dwelling for the dead healer or witch Agnes MacDonald. Then, before I could rise, I fell asleep.
No- I did not fall asleep- I was pulled into it!
And there I slept until near midnight.
I was awakened by a girl of about eleven years, holding a torch.
"Mr. Wright, it is time", came a voice that sounded like distant bells. "I will lead you." Then, in a bit of a naughty tone she added, "Agnes is most anxious for your arrival." I sat up, astounded that every bit of sleep was gone from me.
In the flickering of the torch I could see the little girl quite clearly. She was dressed in a fine silken robe, adorned with sparkling gems. Her hair was the color of straw, but so long that it nearly reached her feet. Her face was young, filled with freckles- but her eyes were such an intense shade of emerald that they nearly glowed translucent in the darkness. I was certain that it must have been the reflection of the torch.
She had a curious look about her, like a child up to some kind of mischief. She had a curious, perhaps even malicious smile about her.
"Come," she said a bit more firmly, "Rise from your slumbers and deign to follow me. After all- the banquet is in your honor, and the lady is most anxious for your arrival."
There was little else to do at this point. I rose as commanded, and gathering my knapsack, followed the little girl with her torch up the mountainside towards the moonlit silhouette of the abandoned monastery.
Soon I was back at the same building I had sketched the day before- but now it was entirely different. It was no longer ruins, but a great hall with light and music and raucous laughter from inside. Two knights of old in full plate armor stood by the massive oak doors, holding halberds. The little girl gave the doors just the slightest touch of her hand and they opened wide. As I approached, the little girl bowed low, the two knights clanked to rigid attention as though I were a king.
Inside was a marvelous party. The ruined interior that I had walked through the day before, moss covered flagstones, broken statues and crumbling walls with no ceiling, was now a massive and delightful ballroom. Thousands of candles swung from chandeliers. Where earlier there had been vandalized and eroded statues of ancient saints, now stood statues of fine marble.
But these were not saints. I saw statues, embroidered in gold and trimmed with silver, of Nero, Diocletian, Attila, and a very large image of Judas clutching his money purse. In front of these icons to deviltry were numerous votive candles.
I had little time to gaze upon the statuary as the hall was absolutely overflowing with guests. There were lovely young women in fine dress; more attuned the middle ages than the present time. There were men bedecked in robes that would befit a prince. A small orchestra played gay and delightful dance music. Yet most of the people in attendance stopped their dancing and greeted me warmly, as though I had been expected.
"Oh, but you have been expected," said one young lady in an orchid gown trimmed in silver, "You are the guest of honor."
"Am I?" I said trying to get my bearings amidst this dancing revelry and gay music. I remembered that the curious little girl had said something to that effect...
"May I present our host?" she said with a low voice. Immediately she bowed low to the ground as a man approached.
He was thin. Indeed, to say that he merely thin would be an understatement. Scarecrows have more flesh upon them than he did! His face was slightly out of proportion to the rest of his body, somewhat larger. His head looked just a bit like a skull. He was dressed like a king, in thick robes of ermine, and even had a small silver crown upon his head.
"Herr Wright," he said with not so much of a German accent, but rather continental. "You came at last. We are so honored by your presence this evening. All of this festivity is in your honor."
"Is it now?"
"Oh most certainly, you are a young and full-blooded man of the world, a guest most worthy of honor. Come, we beg you, celebrate this evening in our company, and do not disdain any pleasure you should desire."
"I do not believe that I..."
"Ah, you are so correct. We have not been formally introduced, have we? Well, what name should I go with this evening? I have many, you see. How about 'Loki'? That is how I was once known in these parts. Yes, Loki will be just fine for this evening's activities."
"I have heard that name before."
"You are a man of commerce, a merchant. I can respect such a person. You see, I too have made many business transactions. And I do believe that there are some things that you will profit greatly from, information that may be used to one's advantage- provided, of course, that you are shrewd and ready to pounce at the right moment."
"And why would you give me, a perfect stranger, such valuable information?"
The one who called himself 'Loki' laughed. "Oh, my young friend, it is very valuable to you. I fear that it means little or nothing to any of those you see assembled here. The joy you bring us from your presence is more than just compensation. This may seem a bit unusual, for you who measure all by profit and loss- but you do not know the joy that you have brought to our beloved sister Agnes. What makes her happy makes us happy. And, if I may be so bold, she desires much to make an entrance for you."
"How like a woman."
"Exactly- although you may have trouble understanding. For her to be, even for just one night, a woman once again, means more than you could begin to imagine! Remember that she suffered a terrible death, being mocked and reviled by those people she had sought to help and assist during her life. An elderly woman, stripped naked in front of her former neighbors, bound like a calf to be helpless, then tossed into the frigid waters of the loch. And then, amidst the green darkness of the water, to purposely force herself to end the torment by the miserable death of drowning. Yes, our beloved sister Agnes more than deserves a night of joy and a remembrance of human pleasure. What I five to you in the form of information may be much less than the delight you give us by being with our sister Agnes. Ah, here she comes now!"
The crowd parted, and indeed it was Agnes. As she had been before she was young and beautiful, even more alluring and seductive than before. Again she was decked in green, a lavish gown the color of emeralds, trimmed with lighter shades of lime and turquoise. The gown cascaded down to the floor, completely covering the goat legs which I knew were there.
I felt Loki pat my back as I went to her. She curtseyed as I bowed. In a moment I was dancing. Whether we danced for a minute or an hour or all night I do not know. She was more beautiful than any mortal woman I had ever seen, even more (God forgive me) than my beloved wife! Her eyes held my gaze like a simple beast caught in a trap. I never wanted the music to stop; I never wanted to let go of her.
There was only one time that I chanced to glance away towards the orchestra. Amidst the musicians was a haggard and sad-looking man playing a fiddle. Immediately I remembered what I had been told at the inn concerning some old fiddler named Tom. The man looked at me in desperate eyes, and carefully mouthed two words: 'Don't Eat'!
Eventually the music stopped and Loki called everyone to the long banquet tables filled with food- tables that I could have sworn had not been there moments before. We all proceeded to the tables, where I was seated at Loki's right, and Agnes was placed at my right. It was most certainly a place of honor.
A silver goblet, bedecked with huge gemstones, filled with wine was placed before my by the same little girl who had led me to the monastery. Again she gave me that strange look.
Loki stood up and made a small speech, stating how delighted he and the company were to have me in their company. Cryptically, he hoped that I would remain with them for a long time.
Then it was time to drink. I glanced over again at Tom the Fiddler. Our eyes met, but only for a second. In that second, he repeated his unspoken warning.
I did not drink, but pretended to.
Luscious and rich foods were brought about. Again I pretended to consume their fare, but in truth I dropped the foodstuffs into the pockets of my waistcoat. As I was 'eating', Loki fulfilled his promise to me and spoke of things. He mentioned a number of ships filled with valuable cargo, ships who would never reach safe harbor. He spoke of Queen Victoria and of the American Civil War. He said to watch fore the names 'Amelia Courthouse' and especially 'Appomatox'. When I heard those words the war would be ended and cotton would again flow. This was information that would make a speculator very wealthy.
Soon the dinner was over, and once again the orchestra struck up a wild and ferocious reel. Once again I was dancing with Agnes, but now she had changed her demeanor. In fact, she soon changed more than that!
All that I remember is that she said, in a gravelly and sinister voice, "Now thou shalt become as we art!" In that very instant she began to change! The beautiful scarlet hair seemed to disappear, revealing a skin not unlike that of the scales of a serpent. Her eyes became narrow and glowed intense maroon. She opened her mouth, opening it far more than was humanly possible, revealing row upon row of needle-like teeth. Meanwhile her neck began to stretch and become flexible, like a serpent. Her lovely hands had become talons.
She made a cruel, hissing sound as I heard from cobras when I served in India. But then she stopped and looked at me in confusion then anger.
"Thou art not transforming!" She then shouted to the others, "He did not eat!"
"Begone demon," I somehow summoned the courage to say.
For some reason she stepped aside. However, all of the lovely ladies and regal gentlemen at the satanic cotillion had, by now, transformed into hideous creatures. All about me was a ghastly conglomeration of uncanny beings, mostly reptilian, all with glowing eyes, many with horns protruding from their misshapen heads. Some scurried abut like spiders with multiple appendages; others flew with horrid bat like wings. The air was filled with the screeching sound of their voices as all directed their attention towards me.
I was certain that I was done for, about to be dragged into the pit of hell by this devilish brood! My only regret, after all of this time of hating God and trying not to believe, was that when they took me to their infernal kingdom, I would never see my beloved Adeline.
I heard a voice whisper, "Your pockets!" Whether the voice was from Adeline, from that poor doomed fiddler Tom, or some guardian spirit I'll never know. Sometimes it is best not to question too thoroughly.
I reached in my right pocket and pulled out the small Bible that Reverend MacDuggan had given to me for my protection. I held it in front of me, trying desperately to erect some kind of barrier between myself and the creatures that were slowly making their way to surround me. They moved back at the sight of the word of God, but they did not flee as I had hoped.
Suddenly they parted- just like the Red Sea for Moses. That diabolic host, that demon who referred to himself as 'Loki', was moving towards me, obviously unafraid of the tiny Bible in my hands. Apparently, the power of the book to ward off evil spirits is related in some way to the amount that one personally believes in what is contained in the book. In this case, I was in real trouble!
When he got too close, I quickly reached my hand in my other waistcoat pocket. Instantly I pulled out the packet of salt and with a quick prayer threw it at the demon.
I am sorry, but try as I may I cannot truly tell you all that happened next, for I do not know. All that I remember is that there was a blinding flash like lightning and a sound as though a mighty cannon had been fired right next to me. I had the sensation that I was falling...
I must have indeed been falling, for in the next breath I landed.
And I landed hard!
All that I know is that I had the sensation of falling, after which there was this loud splash. I felt wetness and the air was knocked out of me. I was underwater- no, it is not water...
I raised my head up. To my shock I realized that dawn was breaking. I could hear a cock crowing not too far away. But where was I?
I quickly took stock of my situation. I was face down in mud. I heard the oinking and squealing of pigs. I had been tossed into a pigsty!
Then I took note of yet another unpleasant revelation. This was not only mud that I had been thrust into. This was apparently the part of the sty that the pigs went to perform a certain biological function. And now I was absolutely covered in it!
As I raised myself from the, er, mess, I received a second surprise. Sitting on the fence right next to me, calmly smoking a pipe was none other than Reverend MacDuggan!
"Think of things differently now, do you?" he asked calmly.
"You knew I was coming?"
He smiled, nodded, and took a deep puff on his meerschaum pipe with a grinning harlequin head on it.
"I was in their company!" I stayed. And from here I explained, in excited, frightened, and utterly amazed words, all that had happened. My mouth just exploded with the account, I could not help myself! And as I spoke, the clergyman simply sat there, smoking his fancy pipe, barely even looking in my direction.
I was beginning to think that I was not being believed when I remembered something.
"Wait!" I nearly screamed, much to the dismay of my pig neighbors, "I have proof!"
"The food they gave me! I put it in my pockets. Little tasty bits of meat and bread. I took your advice and did not eat even a morsel. Look, here is the food of the..."
I screamed- I screamed like a frightened little girl as I threw the tidbit away. I reached in my pocket and with a frightened hand tossed asunder all of the other things I had stored in them.
They were not morsels of delicacies. What I had pulled out was a rotted and decayed finger from a human corpse!
"Well," said the reverend, in a calm voice, "What do you suppose the wine was?"