Short Story Exercise Week #8

This week’s painting is by Henry Ossawa Tanner and I really like it. It’s called Abraham’s Oak. I’m a bit late again, but it still counts if I wrote it on Monday and didn’t post until today, right? Well, bottom line is I need to stop procrastinating. This one took a little while to get going. As much as I like the painting I wasn’t getting any ideas. I decided to start with the characters and after awhile things opened up. Apparently I’m on a supernatural kick lately. Maybe next week I’ll try for something a little more realistic. 1099 words.

Despite the bright sun, the air still had an edge that cut through their clothes as they walked. Agnes muttered quietly to herself, which only made Maria more anxious. They were crossing the open plain now, past the ancient oak tree. She hated walking by the tree, hated the feeling it gave her.  Its dry branches seemed to claw at her soul, seemed to be always reaching for her. The tree had been there forever, or at least very close to it. The first written accounts of the area told of the tree, even then a giant sprawling thing.  Now its massive branches spread even wider. Its gnarled bark jutted out in places, looking like gargoyles surveying their domain. Maria swore she felt the eyes on her.

Agnes stumbled and cursed loudly, snapping Maria to attention. She was still new to the abbey, still trying to make a good impression on the sisters, and didn’t want to miss something directed toward her. She was getting used to Agnes’ epithets, but her ears still burned at the violent language.  She had never said as much, but Maria supposed that Agnes felt harsh language was appropriate out in the wide cruel world. Maria disagreed. She felt that one of her calling should always act as such, whether inside the walls of the chapel or not.

As they hurried across the brittle autumn ground, Maria glanced back at the tree. It stood there, quietly watching her as she went. She knew it was just waiting for her to take a step too close, waiting for a chance to snatch her up. She said a silent prayer that it would never happen.

Maria was still looking backwards when she ran into Agnes, who had stopped dead in her tracks.  Maria feared a reprimand, but she looked to Agnes’ face and saw it was frozen in terror.

“Oh my…” were the last words Agnes ever uttered. Her lifeless body crumpled to the ground. Maria took a step back, covering her mouth to stifle the scream that tried to erupt. She stared at the body for what seemed like eternity, unable to move, until finally a sound brought her to her senses. She looked up, and this time her scream couldn’t be stopped. The Night Watchers were slowly gathering around Maria.

Their black hairy robes were littered with leaves. The hoods over their heads concealed their red eyes and beaks. Maria had seen a drawing of what was underneath the hoods once. She hadn’t been able to sleep for weeks afterward. Now her stomach lunged as the image crowded into her mind.

The Watcher nearest Maria began to pull his hood back. She slammed her eyes closed and dropped to the ground. Agnes had been caught unaware, unable to shield her eyes in time. The shock of what she saw had stopped her heart. Maria would not make the same mistake.

“They just want the satchel. That’s all” she thought to herself. “If I let them take it they’ll leave me alone.”

She heard them shuffling around, heard one of them rifling through Agnes’ robes, heard the disgusting noises it made as it found what it was looking for. She lay still, praying that they would ignore her, that she would be allowed to return to the abbey. They’d gotten what they wanted, so they should leave her alone now. That’s what the stories always said.

But the stories were wrong.

Instead of muffled footsteps fading into the distance. Maria could hear them growing ever closer to her. She could almost feel the air around her compress as the Night Watchers closed in. She shivered as something brushed her hair. Her heart hammered in her chest. Her breath was ragged.

Then she felt it. Cool and moist and slippery, a hand under her chin. She inhaled sharply, her stomach turning at the stench. She kept her eyes clenched tight, but now there was another hand on her face, and another. The slimy fingers felt their way to her eyes, and began to pry them open.

Suddenly their was a great swishing noise, and an unearthly cry, and something warm and wet splashed across Maria. The smell was horrible,  but she still dared not look. She could tell there was a struggle of some kind. Sickening noises were joined by the grunts and screams of the Night Watchers, and everywhere the great swishing noise. Maria clamped her hands to her ears.

It had been quiet a long time when Maria finally opened her eyes. The ground around her was trampled down, and there were crimson spots everywhere, but there was nothing else to show that the Night Watchers had been there. Even Agnes’ body was gone.

Maria  took off in a run back toward the abbey. They had failed to deliver the satchel, and worse, Agnes was gone. Her eyes scanned the ground as she ran. She tried to calm herself. Whatever had happened, she just needed to get home. The abbot would know what to do.

Something caught the corner of her eye and she ducked underneath it just in time to avoid hitting it. Then it registered what it was: the satchel. She skidded to a stop, and slowly turned around. The satchel was hanging unharmed and unopened from a branch. Then Maria realized what tree the branch belonged to, and her blood ran cold. It was the old oak tree. She was much closer to the trunk than she thought she’d ever be. Her knees buckled and she fought to stay upright. So this is how it would end. Survive the Night Watchers only to be killed by a tree.

She looked up high at the large branches, waiting for them to snatch her away, ready for it to be the end. And then she saw crimson.  Half the branches were bright and still wet, covered in Night Watcher blood. The whole tree seemed to sway slightly, and a low groan came from the trunk, now just a few yards away.

Maria slowly stepped toward the trunk. Without believing what she was doing, she reached her hand up, and gently touched the rough bark. The tree shuddered softly, a few leaves falling around Maria. Her eyes filled with tears. The satchel suddenly dropped beside her. She took it in her arms and slowly backed away, whispering thanks as she went. As she reached the head of the path, she took one last long look at the tree. It stood proud and regal against the crisp autumn sky.  Maria smiled and turned for home.

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