We were outside in the rain, a miserable, driving storm pouring down upon Will and I as we stumbled back home on a dreary Halloween night. It was a long while ago now, a haul of sweets and two empty cans of Silly String all we had to show for such a thorough soaking. I was thirteen, young and tired and a little too old to trick or treat… too stubborn not to. We were cutting through as many alleys as we could, taking as many short-cuts as possible in order to get home before what felt like terminal levels of drenching had occurred. As we were stumbled between the allotments and the cricket pitch (along the uneven gravel path overshadowed by lurking trees and lit only by the light of the moon) we heard whispering voices from around the corner, hidden by massively overgrown nettles and other weeds under the shelter of a tall, dead tree . The smell of mud and damp became suffused with a subtle undertone, the stench of rotten eggs, a filthy stink standing out against the overwhelming power of the roaring storm.
We stopped then, blinking as the rain pelted our faces and the wind shook our bones, Will leaned in close enough for me to feel his breath on my ear and whispered ‘what the hell is that?’
‘I don’t know’ was my honest reply, the curiosity of youth fighting with the fearful atmosphere of the alley. Rivulets of water were streaming down my face at this point, the acrid taste of my ghoulish make-up dripping into my mouth. I realised then that I could not back away, I would never hear the end of Will’s speculation and accusations of cowardice if I had done so; ‘I’m going to have a look’ I hissed as I ducked into a gap in the greenery. I didn’t wait for a reply, trusting that Will would make his own mind up, he would either stay where he was and keep an eye out or he would follow me into the mud.
I remember it so clearly, the tunnel of undergrowth, stinging my hand on a nettle poking into the tiny corridor, my jeans tearing slightly on the roots, the dryness of my hands as the mud sucked the moisture from them. I crawled on all fours toward the end of the tunnel, a visible light illuminating the base of the vast, dead, white tree which loomed over the surroundings. It had been without leaves or maintenance for so long now that it creaked in the wind, a long low moan; as if the old tree was complaining about having to bend and flex, as if it was slowly cracking with each light breeze passing through it.
I couldn’t see much from the edge of the clearing around the base of the old oak, my hearing was hindered by the scraping noise of Will following up behind me and muttering something about wanting to go back, to go home and get away from whatever was going on ahead. All I could see was the gap in the shrub directly under the shadow of the branches and a line of entwined wicker branches on the floor. The light was emanating from guttering candles spaced evenly along the line, a line which looked to me like it encircled the ancient tree. But it wasn’t what I saw that stopped me dead in my tracks and forced my heart into my throat.
From behind the thick trunk first heard the chanting, the sound which has haunted my dreams ever since. It was harsh, guttural, a language I did not speak and felt I should not have heard.
Will was pushing at me, trying to get a better view so, knowing that I would not be believed without a second witness, I shuffled to one side and craned my neck in the hope that clarity would come. Someone was there, less than four feet away from me and doing something I knew, with a certainty I can never understand, he should not be doing. I held my breath as he came into view; a tall, balding man with a few days of stubble on his face. He was barefoot, even in the terrible weather, and wore a long black robe with a trim of intricate, patterned designs. In his left hand he held a stick of hazel carved with a looping, repeating pattern, in his right hand a leather tome he tried to shield from the rain even as he read from it. Occasionally he would stop and gesture toward the dark, or the oak. It sounded then like he was pleading.
I noticed that Will was holding his breath before I realised that I was doing the same. We were unsure whether to laugh or cry in fear at the alien nature of the tableau before us. Only for a second though, we were mischievous children and the grin that broke out upon Will’s face was a sign he had some trouble up his sleeve. I saw him glance at me and take a deep breath and I couldn’t help but grin at what would come next, he would shout out from the darkness and terrify the man under the old oak tree. He never made it that far.
Right then, right then, the rain stopped. There was no warning, no gradual release as the clouds drift away, a simple and total cessation of noise. Even the chanting had finished. The wind ceased to blow, not even the sounds of distant traffic were puncturing the air of utter silence which enveloped us. My breathing seemed deafening. Then the terror began.
In the distance sound began to return, distant screams wound their way into our surroundings. The smell, that sulphurous stench, became stronger, almost overpowering. The dancing candle flames flared up and the shadows in the undergrowth seemed to push against the blazing light. Will and I made ready to flee but the darkness which surrounded us was too cloying, too terrifying to retreat… and then it spoke. The darkness spoke. A great, booming voice that rumbled in our stomachs and charged the air with static. I did not know the language, I don’t ever want to know what it said, but I know that when it bellowed its blasphemy into the world plants writhed and nettles whipped around, the ground shook and shadows bowed to it. I did not want to be in the dark any more.
I leaped forward, over the rim of the wicker circle and stood next to the robed man. He was startled and confused but beckoned me to come closer saying ‘step deeper into the circle, you need to be far from the darkness now.’ I did as I was told, obeying a stranger in an alley in a city, terrified and surrounded by mystery.
He spoke again, holding his book high, but the candle flames were retreating, they seemed to be sucked back into their wicks, the darkness was becoming a mere absence of light rather than the force of malevolence it had been. Then Will burst out of the bushes running with a terror I have never seen in anyone before. He screamed something about ‘the gnawing darkness’ as he hurtled towards us, and I saw with growing dread that he had caught his boot in a tangle of wicker twigs.
The stranger shouted ‘no! Get back! Obey!’ and stepped between us as the circle snapped and Will’s eyes darkened, from green to a deep and bloodshot brown. His already screaming mouth gaped open and extended downwards, the cracking and popping of his distended jaw replacing any human noise and turning his scream into a long, low, bitter growl. He stumbled once and then righted himself, a new dread showing in his bearing. He was not in control of himself, he could no more direct his actions that I could hold back the tide. I saw with horror that he was running faster, poised to leap and attack the stranger in the clearing – and I could not move for fear.
Still running, he spread his arms out at his sides, as if he had been crucified with balled fists, but his fists kept drawing back to land a as hard a blow as possible. The look of dread became a look of agony as his arms continued their backward journey, cracking and popping noises coming from them. His left arm blossomed with blood as a splinter of bone ripped through his flesh from the inside and both arms bent completely backwards at the elbow. He leapt, trailing blood and emitting a high-pitched, keening wail into the night. The ruin of his arms wrapped themselves around the stranger, knotting together at his back, as his shattered jaw bit into the flesh of his face. The quivering sight of human muscle stretched beyond breaking point and the fountain of blood which arced into the night will stay with me, as clear as day, forever. Then Will began to gnaw, tearing great strips of flesh from the writhing, ruined man on the floor. As the stranger struggled, twitched and breathed his last Will began to slow. He began to slow, to stop. His arms broken and knotted behind a stranger’s back, his mouth full of gore and jaw shattered. Will screamed then, a scream of pain and madness. He has never stopped screaming from that day to this.
I have never understood what happened in that clearing, but now I stay away from ancient oaks, I twitch at the darkness in the night. I keep to the world of concrete and steel, rain and wood and undergrowth have a power I will fear forever.