My Dear Miranda,
We have chased the hag through the cornfield, past Anderson’s Pond, and deep into the pine tree forest north of the burned-down schoolhouse. The dogs have lost her scent, but we will search every inch of these woods. Do not worry, my love. She will not escape.
Tonight we are camped in a clearing next to a stream that is not on our maps. Only Mr. Porter claims to recognize it. Some of the men are growing apprehensive, whispering that the hag has lured us here, that we have fallen into her trap. Mr. Bridgeway has taken ill and is suffering from fever. He is moaning from his tent, yelling in delirium that the forest is a maze that changes at the hag’s whim, and now we are lost forever. Three of the dogs are howling, no doubt distressed by his fevered wails.
I do not mean to frighten you, my dear. Mr. Bridgeway has a weak constitution, and his paranoid babbling should not cause undue concern. If you will remember, I objected to his inclusion in this expedition on the grounds of his frail nature and penchant for theatrics, but as his uncle is the pastor, my protest was overruled. Had the council heeded my advice, we may have avoided this current unpleasantness.
Furthermore, though this forest is dense and untamed, it is certainly no maze. Our maps are simply outdated, and if nothing else, we can navigate by the stars, which are still shining brightly above us. But even if the stars were to fall from the sky, my love, I would find my way back to you.
As for the hag, we have nothing to fear from her. Candles have been lit outside the entrance to each tent, and as long as they burn, the hag can have no power here. The men will sleep in shifts to ensure that the candles stay lit throughout the night. I have volunteered for the first watch, and it is by the light of my tent’s candle that I write you this letter. We have agreed that in the morning Mr. Collingsworth will escort Mr. Bridgeway back to town. Mr. Collingsworth, as you know, is a dependable man, and I will ask him to deliver this message to you upon his return.
When the two men depart in the morning, that will leave five remaining to see the pursuit to its end. A smaller party should move more quickly through the woods, so I expect we will find the hag before nightfall tomorrow. What a relief it will be for the village to be purged of her malevolent presence. No more dead rats raining from the sky, no more buckets drawn from the well teeming with leeches, no more calves born with the head of a dog or the craggy orange legs of a crab. We have been afflicted long enough with the hag’s curses: three months now since she bore that wretch into the world.
Even one as soft-hearted as you, my love, could see no other recourse. The child came out with the mark of the beast on his throat. It was evident to us all. What choice did we have but for Father Herrick to take him to Anderson’s Pond? But she wouldn’t see reason. For weeks we listened to the wailing from her hut out by the dead nettle tree. And then the unnatural events began.
But for now let me rid my mind of these dark concerns. The dogs have fallen silent, and the night is exceptionally calm. Even Mr. Bridgeway seems to have succumbed to sleep. It is in quiet moments such as this that my thoughts turn to you. I long for the touch of your skin, for the sweet fragrance of your hair. In a day or two, my dear, we will be together again, and not even your father will stand in the way of our love. He cannot withhold his approval when I return from this expedition with the hag’s head in a cedar box.
As I pause to compose my words, it strikes me as odd that I can no longer hear the trickle of the stream, flowing as it does so near our campsite. I cannot see it through the darkness, but its sound was in the air only minutes ago, I am sure of it. What could cause this sudden silence? The stillness sends a chill through me. Now a thick cloud has blackened the sky, and I can no longer see the stars.
Here before me, in the center of this very letter I write to you, a most unwelcome omen: the first drop of rain.
I must go now. Do not be afraid.
All my love,
Robert Hinderliter’s fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, decomP, Pinball, Night Train, and elsewhere. He teaches English at Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea. You can find links to more of his stories here:roberthinderliter.wordpress.
–Art by Menerva Tau
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