It had been two weeks since Eric Harthrow had seen another person and while he was enjoying the quiet days and silent night, he was beginning to feel a bit lonely.
The woods this time of year were humid with the summer rains that fell almost nightly and while Eric normally welcomed the cooling rain; each drop felt as hot and sticky as the woods themselves. Every so often he would chance upon a clearing, a small strip of land where the canopy of trees that shielded him from the baking sun would break away and open to a large area filled with tall grass. The sun would catch him but the breeze would wash over him like an ocean tide cooling the wet pools of sweat that accumulated beneath his backpack and under his arms. In these spots he would find a soft pile of grass and take a short nap in the summer sun, a smile plastered on his face at the simplicity and joy that moments like this offered.
All things considered the trip had been shaping up to be the adventure he had hoped for. It was an itch he had needed to scratch since his father’s passing and save from the occasional excessively hot day he had no real complaints – other than “that smell”. Every so often, more so when in those nice sunny clearings, the wind would pick up and “that smell” would hit him; bitter and yet sweet, warm and hot like the air but off-putting. It usually only lasted an instant but it was foul enough to always put a scowl on Eric’s face, “not enough to ruin your day but enough to slow your step,” his father would have said.
In truth there was little to complain about out here, he may have felt lonely but it wasn’t any different than when he was at home and most importantly he was happy for the freedom.
Though he always had a general sense of where he was going, keeping track of his direction wasn’t exactly simple. Every so often it felt like he was heading north but large trees and impassible streams meant that he was constantly course-correcting his path, so it was always his best guess. He happily would have brought a compass but the letter and map left to him by his father were crystal clear on how he was meant to find his destination.
Occasionally, during the nights, he’d think about how much quieter the woods were from the city – it was a reoccurring thought and no new ground was really made when he thought on it but for some unknown reason it was comforting. He thought of the city, the shop below their apartment, the bustle of the streets during the morning rush hour and, more and more with each passing day, his father.
Eric was born to Edith and Warren Harthrow, a working class couple who decided late in life to have children; however a poorly trained surgeon and a lack of quick decision making left Eric an only child and his father a widow.
Throughout his entire life Eric was immeasurably close to his father and because of this they developed a special bond that often seemed strange to others. They worked side by side for years in the small hardware shop that Eric’s father owned, first as Employee and Employer but eventually as equal partners in the business. They were not without their arguments and disagreements but they were as close as any father and son could be; sharing dinners, decisions & the small apartment above the shop. Though Warren meant well by his son, keeping him close cut him off from certain parts of his childhood. He never developed friendships other than the people that came to the store and besides his father he had no one in his life that he was close to.
Warren never shared much about his own history, not wanting to burden his son with his past, but all that changed when Warren became very ill. The details of his Father’s past and his Grandfather’s convent were never a welcome topic of discussion and really were of no interest to Eric that much until the morning following the death of his Father when Eric received the letter he now carried with him into the woods.
For a long time after Warren’s death Eric was not okay.
He closed the store, lost months of business because of it and spiralled into a pit of despair. Above everything else Eric had lost his best friend and felt lonelier than ever. Often he’d walk the streets looking for people to talk to but years of inexperience left his conversations awkward and uncomfortable. It was the toughest thing he had ever done but after months of wallowing he decided to leave the city.
The instructions his father left for him were vague; a crudely drawn map accompanied by a sparsely worded letter that explained to Eric, in his father’s words, how he wished to have his ashes spread in the place of his birth.
Though he had been told about his Grandfather and the convent he had built in the woods Eric knew neither where it was nor what to expect when he got there, all his father had ever said was that he was a deeply religious man devoted to his God and that he never forgave him for leaving them all those years ago. In truth it was why Eric and his father were so close – his father did all he could to be everything his father was not.
Besides that, the letter said little else, except the reiteration that his Grandfather abhorred technology of any kind, thus the “no compass” (which was specifically mentioned). At the time Eric thought it a quirky and interesting request that he had no interest in following but soon came around to admiring the challenge of trying to find the convent without the use of a compass. Now, as he lay on his bed roll beneath the stars, with no confirmation as to which direction he headed but the brightest star, the direction of the sun and plain old luck, he questioned whether that was the right call.
He thought on it briefly and decided that it was better this way, “after all” he thought, “one can only truly find themselves if they are first lost,” he smiled coyly and fell asleep.
In the morning light Eric opened his eyes to the canopy of trees above his head and woke with vigour, greeting the morning with a cheery smile. After a quick breakfast he tucked the large plastic baggy containing his father’s ashes into his bedroll, packed his knapsack and kicked out the still smouldering coals in the fire pit before heading north.
The day was quiet and overcast but a welcome change from the hot sun and noisy birds that chirped loudly in the trees during the day. After a long and winding path ended at yet another stream Eric took off his pack and looked to the far side of the river with curious regard. He took out his grandfather’s map, re-reading the scribbled note as he had many times before, and nodded at the marker he had been searching for which now sat on the far side of the river. “Just past the dying Willow,” was written in his father’s hand on the map he now held, “the last marker before the convent” he said aloud. With a quiet smile he tucked the map back into his pack and tapped softly on the bed roll with his father’s ashes safe inside as if you say, “we’ve made it, Dad.”
Eric crossed the stream and began approaching the tree at a quickened pace. The massive trunk of the tree rose up higher than any Willow tree he had ever seen, dwarfing his own size. He ran his fingers along the trunk of the tree, the same way he imagined his father might have done years earlier. After a short pause he continued past and as he reached the edge of the wood he could see the massive clearing up ahead hoping just beyond that lay the rolling green hills and the buildings of the convent.
He had planned to stop himself before leaving the woods; he wanted to take a moment in order to ready himself so that he could properly see the convent through his father’s eyes. He wanted to erase his preconceived notions of the quaint and quiet life; the noiseless work of an elder weaving a basket, the almost Amish-like building structure, he wanted to erase that all and let the convent life speak for itself. There was no doubt in his mind that his Grandfather had long since passed but he was curious to hear the tales of what his Grandfather meant to these people and what history they shared. He wanted to stop and review all of this before moving ahead but as he approached the edge of the wood he couldn’t slow, he felt his feet excitedly carrying him closer and closer to the clearing and before he knew it he had burst through the trees and was standing at the edge of a large vacant field.
It wasn’t the simple handmade fence that bordered the field nor the natural wood siding of the houses a little up the way that hit him first – it was the stench.
The bitter almost bile-like stench of rot bit his nostrils with such force he felt as though it had come from within. The vile scent felt as though it was clinging to the hairs of his nose, lingering in his mouth, on his tongue and now metastasizing along walls of his lungs and for a moment Eric felt nauseous. As the breeze shifted he gasped for air and while the stench still lingered the initial shock had worn off enough. He spit on the ground, clearing the putrid taste from his mouth and wiped a bit of saliva from the corner of his mouth. The smell was familiar, almost reminiscent of the scent that had followed in through the trees for the past few days but that was miles away from here. Eric again spit on the ground, this time in little spurts as if removing a hair from his tongue and once he was sure the taste had left his mouth he looked to the clearing before him.
The field was barren and overgrown; there was no sign of any recent work done on the fields which he could have easily pictured at one time lush with corn and other vegetables. His felt his stomach knot and turn, not just from the stench but from the sudden realization that something here was very wrong. He turned towards the group of houses a little up the hill as the overcast sky began to grow darker and as he did he felt a chill run up his spine. The houses were quiet and felt devoid of all life even from this distance.
For a moment Eric turned back to the woods, to the dying willow and the streams, to his last camp and as he did he thought of his father and the letter. He swallowed hard, still harbouring the faint stench within his mouth and began towards the buildings as the sky softly cracked with thunder in the distance and the first drops of rain peppered the tree line to his left.
In all the ways this had played out in his head he had never thought that they town would have been abandoned.
As he walked toward the buildings he spotted a gabled roof just past the smaller set of buildings he was closest too. The rain began to fall faster and in large droplets but Eric kept his slow pace up the now muddying hill towards the buildings. Slowly he grew closer to the smallest of the buildings which bordered the trees to his left, hiding what he could only imagine was the town square from his view and with a hand out he approached it.
There was a little give as he pressed his hand softly on the wet siding of the house, leaving slight indentations of his fingertips in the rotting wood. He brought his hand back as if reeling from touching a corpse and instead rounded the house with his right hand free at his side. With the forest to his left and the rotting house to his right a small part of the square came into view but as he stepped forward the smell once again hit him in a wave.
This time he keeled over, falling on all fours barely able to keep back his vomit. His hands slapped against the now wet ground to stop him from falling flat as he closed his watering eyes. He quickly brought his now mud-covered hand back up to his lips hoping to hold back the vomit but after only a few seconds the stench passed. For a moment he stayed on all fours in true animalistic fashion swallowing the warm saliva that pooled in his mouth, his stomachs way of urging him to vomit. After a moment the urge passed and he opened his eyes to see, squarely between his knees and his right hand, a doll stuck in the dark brown mud.
For a moment he froze, he blinked hard through his wet eyes thinking he misinterpreted a bit of hay for a child’s toy but sure enough it was a crude doll made with straw and twine. Slowly he picked it up from the mud, looking at the doll with wide eyes. For the first time since setting out Eric thought on the people of the Convent, he had always known his grandfather would have long since passed away but he had never considered that so had everyone else. The realization that this may be a village devoid of any and all life suddenly hit Eric.
Then he felt a finger poke him squarely in the back.
His entire body ran hot as every muscle in his body tensed and he quickly rose in the now rapidly falling rain. Behind him there was nothing but the darkening sky. He glanced over the fields which were devoid of all life and as his eyes searched the barren land for movement he felt another boney finger poke the top of his head. For a moment he didn’t move, too frightened to react but after a second he began shaking his head as a wave of realization washed over him. With a coy smile he took a half step back and held his hand out as an open palm, sure enough a large droplet of heavy water collected from the roof above him smacked down on his palm with a loud “plop”.
Eric shook his head again and took a step forward before realizing he still held the doll in his hand. Reactively he reeled back ready to toss the doll aside but stopped himself, something felt cruel about casting the toy into the woods. For a moment he studied the doll; its faded straw head was bent back and affixed with twine, its crudely drawn smile was broken and worn and as the heavy drops patted against his shoulders and the straps of his backpack he started to cry.
The flood of emotions that overwhelmed him were not specifically tied to any one thing; the thought of his father, the general dreariness of the day and the vacant, abandoned nature of the town all washed over him as the feeling of utter abandonment was now too strong to ignore. For a long time leading up to his father’s death Eric had begun to feel more alone in the world than ever before and while he rarely allowed himself to acknowledge such emotions here in the middle of nowhere he felt, at the very least, that he could cry without fear of what others would think. It may have only been two weeks since he had talked to another person but it had been months since his father’s passing and years since he had someone to call friend and it weighed on him, dragging down his soul like an anchor.
Wiping a tear from his cheek he crouched down and placed the doll back where he had found it then stood up and walked around the house and into the square.
The afternoon light struggled to find cracks in the overcast sky making the day look almost as dark as a brightly lit night and as Eric rounded the corner he felt uncomfortably exposed, as if unseen eyes were watching his every move.
The town square was vacant; he imagined that it was once filled with stalls and people going about their day but quickly realized that with a village this small he doubted they used the town square for much other than storage in the summer. On the edge of the square he could now see the large building with the peaked roof for what it was: a church, as detailed and sprawling as a small catholic church though much less impressive in its construction. As his eyes darted over the building he surveyed the damage; the fallen roof and destroyed siding exposed large holes in its body yet something peaceful and honest came from the building. Thunder rolled in the distance and the rain drops continued to fall thick and wet as Eric patted his backpack and, in his mind, his father’s ashes within and headed across the square towards the Church.
As Eric crossed the square he eyed the houses which seemingly mirrored each other, each with a closed door hiding whatever secrets may be within. For a moment the idea of peaking inside one of the houses flashed through Eric’s mind but he quickly dismissed it; whatever fate had befallen the convent there was no chance they were still here. As he thought on the houses thunder cracked sending chills up Eric’s spine and he quickened his pace.
The church lay straight ahead with its crumbling roof like jagged teeth against the darkened sky. It sat with an ominous and ancient energy that made Eric’s palm wet, though through the now pelting rain one wouldn’t have known the difference. As he reached the bottom of the steps he glanced at the last of the houses, this one closest to the church, and stopped. The house was plain like the others, with wood siding and a flat roof and through the rain he watched it with a furrowed brow.
Unlike all the others this ones’ front door was open.
For the first time Eric noticed how silent the convent was, nothing but the patting of rain on his head, the rooftops and the straps of his backpack could be heard. He stood there silently watching the open doorway with a nervous expression, his heart beating loudly in his chest, when he heard a creaking. It was almost indistinguishable from the rain at first and all at once he felt a terrible drop in the pit of his stomach. Slowly he turned, facing the way he came and saw the other houses.
Their doors were now either open or ajar.
Before he could react a loud clanging sounded out, cutting through the now pouring rain and nearly made him spill over into the muddy ground. He reeled back, looking up to the large church bell which now clanged aggressively against the dark sky.
Every muscle in his body fired as he spun back to the woods ready to run but instead he froze when he saw something move at the edge of the wood.
Through the thick, now torrential rain he saw a figure standing at the edge of the wood, its long arms out and to its sides in an inhuman almost monstrous way as if too long for its body. Eric stood there motionless, his eyes transfixed on the being at the edge of the wood as the rain poured down between them painting a distorted and horrific tableau.
Then the creature began towards him.
A tidal wave of terror shattered his daze and he felt the blood rush back to his feet as he spun around on his heels and ran towards the church. The church steps were damp and cracked, years of use had worn them out and Eric used them gingerly, careful not to break them. He stepped quickly and felt them give a little beneath his feet, the humidity making them soft and malleable but nonetheless strong enough to support his weight. He leapt from the steps and entered the church in stride, spinning around only to see the beast a few feet from where he first stood.
Through the rain he would’ve called it a malnourished, diseased animal had it not been for the thinning hair and almost human eyes it had. The pale skin that covered its body hung from its bones like a sagging sheet that wriggled with each animalistic movement. The creatures jaw hung open and loose, almost absentmindedly swaying back and forth as the figure plunged its sharp boney fingers into the mud he stood only moments before as if confirming its prey had left the spot.
Acting on instinct Eric moved to shut the Church door which hung heavy and weak on its hinges and as he did the creature listlessly snapped its thin neck in his direction again flashing its dead, soulless eyes.
Eric grabbed the door and with both hands went to slam it shut but a large column sat awkwardly between the jamb and the heavy door causing it to crash against the beam and bounce back. The loud thud echoed through the vacant church as the door swung back revealing Eric to the creature again which now stood on all four at the bottom of the stairs. It bounded for the top of the steps as Eric reached down for the beam. As he lifted it he kept his right foot holding the door in place so that it wouldn’t open any further. With adrenaline coursing through his veins he lifted the column to chest height just as the creature made it to the top of the stairs and with a crackling of thunder that shook the small church Eric looked up to see the creatures face inches from his own.
For a moment Eric felt nothing.
The vacant, ravenous stare of the creature cut through Eric like a knife; its head slightly turned in almost animalistic curiosity, its mouth riddled with sharp, carnivorous fangs as it sat agape. The creature eyed Eric through the still ajar door as lighting flashed against the overcast sky behind it. Slowly the creature’s curiosity melted as its eyes turned to fiendish slits. With all the energy he could muster Eric tossed the beam straight up and threw his body into the door, slamming it shut before the creature, which let out a guttural screech that cut through the still pouring rain. The beam landed heavy dragging itself along Eric’s right leg, popping and cutting his wet flesh as it did. Eric screamed in agony as the blood quickly began pooling on the rotten floorboards, the fresh scent of blood lingering in the air.
With his back to the door Eric panted heavily before keeling over and vomiting, but not from the pain. With adrenaline coursing through his veins he had somehow completely ignored the absolute, gut-wrenching stench that invaded his senses, pouring in through his mouth and nostrils – a stench so vile and putrid that he felt like he was about to pass out.
Through watery, half opened eyes Eric looked up towards the front of the church and saw what had caused the putrid stench he had smelt upon arrival, the rotting scent that he had met in the woods days earlier as it was carried on the southern breeze…
The pews were pushed to the either side of the church; stacked upon each other, broken and discarded like the convent itself and in the centre of the church where a large vacant area would have been was a hole. The large pit was crudely and angrily carved out of the floor boards revealing the damp brown earth below. Eric crawled forward as the door behind him shook under the creature’s force, blood hemorrhaging from his gaping leg left streaks across the dampened boards as he did. The door hinges rattled as the beast repeatedly rammed the door; the caustic, gurgling sounds intensifying with each hit.
Eric stood up putting as little weight on his wounded leg as possible and wiped the vomit from the sides of his wet lips. He removed his backpack and in reached in side, removing his father’s ashes. Eric’s eyes were wet with tears, his clothes soaked through and through and as the banging from the front door grew louder he unravelled the bed roll dropping it by feet. He continued slowly towards the pit with his father’s ashes in hand, blood dripping from his leg as he did.
As he stood on the edge of the pit he looked down towards the bag and carefully, almost peacefully unravelled the plastic bag that contained his father’s ashes. The door behind him rattled angrily as the creature struck it over and over again and through the broken roof another creature began skillfully climbing down into the church as the blood from Eric leg began pooling beneath his feet. With an outstretched hand he dumped his father’s ashes into the pit alongside the rotting, maggot infested corpses of the convent who lay motionless and silent below him; their twisted and horrific final expressions plastered upon their faces as a reflection of the horrors they endured.
Eric drew a deep, putrid tasting breath and smiled, knowing his father was finally at peace.
Eric did not turn around at the crashing of the Churches front door, nor did he react at the long boney fingers that ran along his back; instead he looked down smiling at the hollow before him, tears blurring his eyes for the smell no longer bothered him.
As the creatures dragged his body down towards their nest; down amongst the eggs laid within the rotting corpses of the covenant with care, the eggs which would soon hatch and feast on his own rotting flesh as their parents had done, he smiled.
Eric no longer felt alone.