22 Nov The Widow’s Walk
“The Widow’s Walk”Written by David Feuling Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 13 minutes
The evening would arrive before long, but Marian wanted a bit more time outside. She hoped to study the birds that still hopped and pecked at the dusty grounds around Ernstmoor Estate. Sometimes, they would turn their heads, directing one of their black and focused eyes at Marian as she approached. If she drew any nearer, they bounded effortlessly into the air and then arrived elsewhere after a brief, swooping arc through the sky. Just a month earlier, Marian had been given a water whistle for Christmas. It was meant to imitate the sounds of a canary when the air was blown through. She used it now and again as she walked, creating a loud and piercing trill like the song of a bird. Marian observed intently how the noise drew the interest of some birds but not of others.
The whistle had been a gift from her grandfather. Grandpa Tom was Marian’s favorite guardian and her hero in numerous ways that no other family member could match. Marian often felt as though Tom Ernst were the only person she could trust with her whole heart. She loved her grandfather, and every new gift or lesson he imparted to her became immediately precious inside her mind. Each day they would talk about something new. Marian would learn from Grandpa Tom, or she would be allowed to share her feelings with him. Tom was the only person who allowed Marian to talk to her heart’s content. The water whistle she held now was the latest in a long line of cherished connections between young Marian and her grandfather.
Although Marian was only eleven years old, she had already been taught many things by her grandfather. She had learned crueler lessons from others living in Ernstmoor Estate but had also grown somewhat adept at avoiding those in the house who did not have her best interests at heart. There was mean old Hector, for example. He was one of Tom Ernst’s sons but never treated Marian as though she were part of the family. Marian often wondered about what made Hector so unfriendly toward her. Her memory provided no hint as to why it had always been this way. She did not feel that she had ever done anything to make Hector dislike her.
The light from the setting sun was fading around her, and it cast everything in a kind of half-monochrome. The former brilliance of the birds’ feathers was now muted to shades of gray. She sat for a moment, pensive, and observed her joy to be surrounded by the peaceful flow of nature around Ernstmoor’s grounds. She trilled another soft whistle out into the air. She remembered that Grandpa Tom had warned her against staying outside until very late, but there was still a glow of twilight illuminating everything around her for now. There was still time to enjoy nature before the things that Grandpa Tom called the night wanderers would begin to stir. He had not elaborated the first time that he warned Marian about this. Seeing how the name alone had disturbed her, Tom dropped the subject and did not discuss it further. Nor had Marian pressed her grandfather on what specific form a “night wanderer” might take.
He had only said that they came to Ernstmoor Estate from the woods. The closer you were to the woods at night, the closer you were to dying in a way that nobody deserved. That is what Tom Ernst had told her. Marian remembered that his warning had been prompted by her presentation of a spider she had caught one evening. Were the night wanderers a kind of deadly spider? It was doubtless that they were some manner of creature that became plentiful only after darkness had fallen. Marian shuddered to imagine what Grandpa Tom might have meant, and so she pushed the story out of her mind. There was still perhaps half an hour of the day’s waning light left for her to enjoy. She would surely be inside before it grew too dark.
Aside from the unprompted cruelties of old Hector, the world was finally beginning to make sense to eleven-year-old Winnifred. Her grandfather taught her all about the world and the different kinds of people in it. Together they explored all over the painted, oaken globe that Tom Ernst kept in his study. Grandpa Tom explained there were honest and dishonest people everywhere in the world and that it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between these two types of personalities. He taught her about business and about the ways to be successful in a changing world. Tom said Marian could be whatever she wanted to be when she grew up, but she should start thinking about what that meant now.
Marian sent another soft trill of air through her whistle as she thoughtfully observed the sky grow darker. The night was coming by small but rapid degrees, and Marian knew she should soon return to the estate for supper. She did not notice Hector approaching to stand behind her. He had not called to her, nor had he approached her in his usual manner. Hector usually tromped loudly on heavy feet and huffed out his breaths as though perpetually exhausted by the effort of moving. This time, however, Hector had been deliberately quiet. He snuck up on Marian, intending to startle the child. Gripping the back of her dress’s collar and yanking roughly backward, he pulled Marian off her feet and forced her to land, sitting against the muddy grass.
“You’ve gone and ruined your dress,” he grumbled. “And you’ve wasted my time as well. I’ve been sent to gather you for supper when instead we should both already be eating.”
“I’m sorry, Hector,” Marian answered automatically. Any other response would only enrage the brutish man. “Let’s hurry to supper, then. Will that be alright?”
“Oafish girl,” Hector replied as he turned to begin his huffing-and-puffing march toward the estate’s main entrance. They walked together only a short distance, and yet the darkness was swiftly arriving. By the time that they had reached the sturdy double doors leading to the estate’s foyer, the dusk had turned fully to night.
At the dining table, Hector’s attacks on Marian did not relent. “She’s an indolent child,” he grumbled through a mouthful of food.
“She isn’t,” said old Tom Ernst. His tone was calm but firm and authoritative. Marian smiled with gladness that her grandfather was there to defend her. She said nothing in response, though, and neither did Hector. Everyone ate in silence for the majority of the meal, although Grandpa Tom did initiate conversation a few more times. He asked Marian what kinds of birds she had seen while adventuring outside and whether she knew the proper names for their anatomical features.
Tom recommended that Marian learn to draw the birds that she saw. He added that he would soon obtain a notebook and set of coloring pencils for his granddaughter to have. This, he said, would allow Marian to begin journaling the things that she discovered. Marian thanked him profusely and earnestly. She noted as she did so that Hector’s scowl deepened with each kind word shared between Marian and her grandfather.
Hector stalked Marian through Ernstmoor most evenings, harping with pleasure on her every action. She began to learn how to evade him through the house’s many rooms and corridors, though. Just staying in motion was usually enough because the older man eventually slumped into a reclining chair or onto a couch rather than continue tracking her. If Hector could not keep up with Marian, he often allowed his attention to fall to other things. It was simply a matter of staying ahead of old Hector or else of staying nearby to her grandfather. Tom Ernst retired to bed soon after supper, however. So, for the majority of each evening, Marian and Hector mainly were left alone with each other.
Hector’s mistreatment stemmed from misplaced anger at his own father, Thomas Ernst. To see Marian showered with praise and affection made Hector sick to the pit of his stomach. The natural desire that Marian should thrive was exactly what Hector envied about her relationship with Tom. Hector despised that anyone should enjoy this kind of nurturing love from the man whose success Hector so severely wished to emulate. Marian was too young to understand this, but she sensed the form of his resentment in the way he treated her. In later years, Marian would understand more fully why she had been punished with such abhorrent eagerness by Hector. It was simply because she enjoyed Tom Ernst’s love.
The widow’s walk had become a favorite area where Marian could be free of Hector, at least for a while. He loathed to follow her upstairs from the ground floor to the rooftop of Ernstmoor Estate, and Hector’s laziness often surpassed his desire to track the child. Marian thought joyfully about the many stars that the outdoor walkway could reveal to her on a night like tonight. Marian enjoyed the quiet and solitude that could be found up there. She would sometimes watch the stars or bring a lamp by which she could read a book in the crisp nighttime air. Tonight, however, she had brought no light. She carried only her water whistle and now added a long, woolen scarf which she began lacing around her neck and shoulders for extra warmth in the frigid outdoor air.
She looked for the moon, but tonight it had waned to new darkness. It was an orb of deep gray on a field of otherwise perfect black. The stars, though, were crisp and bright. They were countless and yet discretely permanent in their formations. Marian thought to the promise of a notebook with which she could draw all the things that she saw each day in vibrant colors. She wished already that she could preserve the constellations above her, enjoy them, and continue studying them during the daytime. Marian felt powerfully at peace and remained to stare upward until she heard the sound of heavy footfalls trumping up the stairs to the widow’s walk.
The door was thrown open suddenly by Hector, as she had guessed it would be just before he appeared there. Especially keen on disturbing Marian tonight, he now huffed with the effort of climbing up to the roof of Ernstmoor. “Give me that whistle,” he demanded. In her stargazing, she absentmindedly held the gift from her grandfather between her fingertips. Marian remained motionless and allowed Hector to pluck the toy from her hands. “I wouldn’t want you making a racket up here,” said Hector. “Not while I teach you this lesson.”
It took Marian a moment to realize what he meant. Those seconds of confusion were all that Hector needed to put his plan into motion. He turned and passed back through the door that led to the widow’s walk from inside. Standing to block the doorway, he spoke sternly to her. “You should not flee from your elders, especially when they only wish to provide you with wisdom and guidance.” Even as he pretended on this point, Marian could hear the superficiality of it. There was only malevolence dripping from his voice and nothing else. She searched for words that might save her before she was locked out, cast into winter cold which would only worsen as the night continued. She took a silent step forward and found that she could think of nothing that might convince the hateful man to spare her. Hector was behind the door and locking it before Marian could say a word in response.
Marian felt herself hyperventilating. She was suddenly coming to grips with the material terror of knowing that Hector would certainly let her freeze to death rather than release her from his domineering ways. He would come to retrieve her in the morning, and if she had frozen to death, he would feign shock and tell everyone that “Marian must have accidentally locked herself out.” If she survived, Hector would claim that he had taught her a valuable lesson about respecting her elders.
Marian looked around herself, seeking desperately for a source of heat by which she might spare herself the torment of an icy winter’s night. Thin wisps of smoke were rising lazily from the nearby chimney of the estate. The fire which heated the house would certainly be tended to all night, or else the chill would soon wake Grandpa Tom to start the fire anew. Marian could count on the meager warmth from that, at least.
Climbing over the railing of the widow’s walk to crouch and then sit with her back against the chimney, she felt the temperature of the air rise by a few degrees. Still, her hands and her feet cried out in their discomfort. Those extremities warned her that they would be frostbitten within a few hours unless they were protected from the cold. Marian huddled herself into a sitting position and then used her long, woolen scarf to bundle her hands beneath her armpits. To warm her feet, she tucked them securely underneath her folded legs.
She would not sleep well, but she at least would be warm enough not to freeze. Marian knew that morning would come sooner if she could pass into slumber, so she did her best to quiet her mind and forget her surroundings. Her grandfather had taught her about poise and patience during hard times. He shared stories about times when he had been freezing and hungry. “At least I’ve eaten,” Marian told herself. Soon she was asleep.
It was much darker night when Marian woke up again. Had she even really awoken? The atmosphere felt surreal, as though something important was now changed from the way it had been before. Was she still trapped outside, perched atop the rooftop walkways of her own home? Marian dared not move her body from the warmth-preserving position in which she had fallen asleep, even though her nose was numb and she wished badly to rub some feeling back into it.
Her eyes began to adjust to the blackness around her. In the colorless contrast of her low-light vision, she could see the estate’s grounds extending out beyond the house. Everything was motionless except the gentle sway of the trees whenever a wind came through. Marian then suddenly noticed another subtle source of motion that existed at the limits of what she could see.
It looked to Marian like a man was standing idly near the perimeter of the Ernstmoor property grounds. The figure was just beyond the estate’s outer fence, near where the untamed woods began. She strained to see whether it was a real interloper or simply a hallucination. As she struggled to define the details of the motion that she saw, the shape of the man seemed suddenly to spring onto the tall, wrought iron fence of the estate’s property border. Moving like a spider, the form of whatever Marian was seeing moved over the top of the fence and was on the other side with impossible speed.
She tried to cringe back against the chimney in fear, but her muscles did not respond readily. She felt paralyzed and remembered suddenly that Grandpa Ernst had once told her a story about being rendered immobile by a half-waking nightmare. In Tom’s case, the terrible state had been induced by him falling asleep while lost in the woods. Marian tried to remind herself that she was likely only hallucinating the monster she had seen approaching Ernstmoor Estate. It must undoubtedly be a waking nightmare, she insisted inside her mind. It did not matter if her senses screamed out that what she now witnessed was terribly real.
Moving only her eyes, Marian confirmed that the scrambling figure was now moving toward Ernstmoor Estate with unnatural speed. It moved like an injured spider, limping dramatically on four limbs that seemed to be bent at extreme and irregular angles. The form crawled in a way that kept both its body and head close to the ground. There was nowhere she could flee or hide if, by chance, the invader that she had spotted eventually noticed her atop the roof. Marian pressed her eyes tightly closed and tried to pretend that she was not there at all.
There came a clamor of skittering noises that sounded like hailstones falling rapidly against the tin and wooden portions of the estate’s roof. Marian had heard this sound many nights before. She always assumed that acorns or something similar were simply raining down onto the house from a mundane source. Had it always instead been monsters scaling the outsides of the estate? Marian pressed her eyes even more tightly closed and felt two hot teardrops roll down her face. These were the night wanderers that Grandpa Tom had warned her about. Now she was likely to be lost to them. Hector was killing her in a way that her grandfather had said: “nobody deserved.”
The pulsing agitation of her fear broke Marian out of her paralyzed state. She felt driven to stand and search for a means of escape. The door leading back inside was too thick to be pounded down. Nor was there any window to be smashed open and then climbed through. If she began crying and shouting and beating on the door with her hands, it would only be Hector that she awakened and not Grandpa Tom. He would strike her and then barricade the door with something to muffle the sounds coming through it. Worse still, all that noise would likely bring the crawling things straight to where Marian was still trying to hide.
She climbed from her place near the chimney over the railing of the widow’s walk and then again over the walk’s other side. Moving toward the edge of the roof, she could feel that the numbness in her fingers and toes would surely cause them to fail her. She would tumble to her death if she tried to scale the estate’s exterior. Still, she pressed forward a few bold steps towards the roof’s edge. Just below her were vine trellises and windows to pry open for hope at getting inside. As Marian’s foot landed at the threshold of the overhang, a loose shingle came free beneath her shoe. It clattered down the slope of the roof until it went sailing over the side.
Marian yelped as she caught her balance. She had barely spared herself from tumbling down to the ground along with the roofing tile. In response to her outcry, Marian heard the various clattering sounds of strange things climbing the house suddenly all stop. The silence then turned at once into the noise of a dozen or more heavy limbs gamboling in her direction. The sound became like an engine, pressing methodically toward her location to investigate when previously there had only been wandering melodies of sound.
Marian hurried back toward the chimney. She hoped to hide against the shape of it and moved quickly and quietly to do so. Climbing back across the rails of the widow’s walk, Marian turned to press her back tightly against the brickwork of the flue’s exterior. She worked to steady her breathing and remain quiet. The din of pounding limbs reached the place on the roof where she had cried out. Although the creatures were drawing nearer in their investigation, the rooftop noises soon returned to the aimless jaunts she had heard before. With painstaking care not to dislodge another shingle or tap against the roof too loudly, she once more used her scarf to tuck her hands and feet warmly against herself.
“It all isn’t real,” she said silently in her head. “I’m half-awake but still dreaming.” She tried to remember poise and patience and focused on counting out a few seconds between each of her breaths. It seemed to draw frightened, ragged breaths heedless of her instructions that it should slow down. After countless minutes, she passed once more into an exhausted state of sleep. It was finally morning when she awoke again.
In her dream, before the dawn came, more humanoid forms were moving in the dark all around the estate’s grounds. They lurched and cantered forward on uneven appendages, keeping distance from each other but patrolling in a terrible unison of purpose. It seemed to Marian that they were combing Ernstmoor Estate, methodically searching for something under cover of nightfall. Just like the stars above, they were countless and yet distinct in their formations. Her fearful dream told a story where the demonic things found their way up to the widow’s walk. They crawled in rows that were like unnatural ant trails, and they were coming to collect her. Marian envisioned hellish faces revealing blood-soaked teeth to begin devouring her, and then she awoke with a gasp to find the sun had finally arrived.
Hector arrived to retrieve Marian just before breakfast was served. He knew that the child’s absence would draw Tom Ernst’s ire and earn Hector new condemnations for what he had done. Marian felt half-frozen and very hungry by that time. She had shivered and slept all night fretfully rather than resting. Hector feigned magnanimous authority as he unlatched the lock to appear there on the widow’s walk. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson about sneaking off near bedtime,” he told her.
His tone and expression then shifted into something more malicious and playful. “You saw a few of those crawling fellows moving around the Estate grounds late last night, I’d wager.” Marian’s blood ran cold. How could Hector have guessed the nature of her terror so perfectly? Had the events of last night been some kind of prank? Impossible, Marian realized. She had seen at least one of the shadowy forms scale a tall fence with inhuman speed. Hector indeed did not have the agility to frighten her in this way.
Her mind raced to make sense of things. Hector leaned forward and brought his face very close to hers. Widening his eyes and clicking his teeth together, he performed an excellent imitation of the things from her dream. It was just how she imagined the creatures would look before they devoured her alive. Hector’s face returned to a dour, condescending expression as he straightened his back once more to tower over her. Marian wondered for a moment if she was becoming delusional. Hector moved aside to let her back into the warmth of Ernstmoor Estate’s interior.
“Just count yourself lucky that it was so cold last night,” Hector murmured as she stumbled inside. “Otherwise, they might have smelled you up here.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableDavid Feuling Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A