ACROSS NIGHT FIELDS
by DW GILLESPIE
he old man never had much use for superstition, and long ago did he put away his childish things. His place—which is to say his concern—was the hardscrabble patch of land his father’s father had planted the first stake in, and so it would be until his days were done. He grew cotton and tobacco in his youth such as the ground would allow, but no child did he sire as his wife—now long dead—would take no seed.
So he tended the affairs of the land such as they needed tending, until the days of acres upon acres of cotton and tobacco had drawn to night, little more than half-dreams remembered through the haze of decades. All the same, there were things to tend. He kept a handful of cows, and as much garden as he cared to, and he spent most days afield, wandering the land as much as caring for it.
It was work, but a different breed than the work young men know. Gone were the bustling days, when every moment led to the next in an endless string of aching joints, tired bones, work that wasn’t work at all, just an involuntary reflex as unremarkable as breathing or blinking dust out of the eyes.
He’d wave at the lady down the hill, a kindly thing a few years younger than he, but still as gray as dawn. Even now, years past, he could remember her as she was, wondering on what could have been. After all, she had kept a garden, children and grandchildren all her own, and she tended them well. With his elbow on a long handled piece of birch, he’d give his hat a tip and summon a smile as they drove past on Sunday afternoons, the air rich with casseroles and pies. It was just a short walk down the hill, through the field of sway grass that brushed against his knees. In her nightly silence, when kin had gone home to tend to their own, would she turn him away?
He never did such a thing, of course, but the whistle wind at night would lead a mind to wander so. Long days led to sore bones as often as not, and so he would take to walking, lightless and fearless, because he had long put away childish things. He’d think of his brother as he ambled along familiar paths by starlight, the foolish man who killed himself so very long ago.
“Strange things happen when the moon is full,” he would say, both of them still boys with hairless chins, legs dangling off the back of a flatbed. He was always afraid, always mistaking things that were with those that were not, and even now, the old man could feel the childishness rising off his brother like stove heat. “I read it in a book,” his brother said when confronted.
The old man didn’t read.
The world was his book, every step, every stone, every moss grown footpath waiting to be read. It was the same world by day as by night, and only a fool would think different.
So it was, a thing cast in stone, unbroken for the better part of a century until that night in late spring. His bones ached from the day in a way they never had prior, and the old man stepped out onto the porch to breathe in the night air. His breath blew in curling puffs as the chilly breeze bit him almost playfully. He stretched low, straightening his back like a coat hanger, and then he saw the light on the horizon, a fire burning on the ridge, little more than a candle glow.
It wouldn’t have been the first time that teenagers had made his place their own. The beer bottles and trash showed up from time to time, but the old man never got so lucky as to catch them in the act. He considered the shotgun he kept next to the door, and decided against it. They would be easy enough to scare without much effort, of that he was certain.
And so he set out, weaponless as well as lightless, as the full moon was bright and clear, and he knew the woods well. The air was still crisp and full of promise as he marched down the well worn lanes and deer ruts, but as he walked, an inexplicable weight seemed to burden him, the very earth dragging him down. He fancied he heard soft voices in the leaves and briers, and he found his old feet carrying him faster than normal, shuffling just so. But this was his land, and he knew how minds liked to wander in the dark, so he pressed forward.
Down into a valley of trees, tall and bare ash, and back up the other side into a flat span of brushy acres. The pond just there, the one his father dug out so long ago, shining, a glistening pantomime of the moon. It kept fish as well as any he’d ever seen, and from time to time, he’d dip a line and have catfish for dinner. The bullfrogs sang in their strange chorus that died the closer he drew, and he heard them, dozens of heavy splashes fleeing from the danger, whether true or perceived.
Closer he drew, a small fire from the looks, and he expected to hear them at any moment, the sounds of teens, radios and laughter, young girls giggling just so. But he heard nothing as he approached the spectral light, only the reformed chorus of bullfrogs and the whispers of wind through the grass, soft and eager.
He topped the rise and stopped as the scene came into full view. The orange glow made an aural silhouette around the single figure that sat on his haunches, leaning over the small blaze. He could make out odd angles of shoulders and elbows, a dark jacket that hung low onto the dusty ground, and an ebon hand twisting a stick onto a bare patch of dirt. That leafless branch twitched and danced, sketching something into the earth itself, a message, a secret, told to the land, to his land.
So strange and off putting a scene it was that the old man couldn’t find his voice for a few moments. He considered the queer man before taking a half step back, cracking an old branch as he did. The figure turned by half, showing the old man a slice of dark face before he raised a hand to the fire which blinked out in the span of a second.
The sharp change from light to dark left him blind, and the old man stumbled back, falling sharp onto the grassy ridge hard enough to clack his teeth, hard enough to see white stars. There were voices now, playful whispers that seemed to rise all around as if the previous firelight had somehow quelled them.
Shouldn’t be here. Not tonight. His night.
They giggled on, one overlapping the other until the old man felt he might scream. But he didn’t dare, not now, not as his vision returned to him slowly and he saw the silhouette, slender and black against the pearl backdrop of the full moon.
The old man scrambled up and ran back down the ridge, heedless to all but escape. Footsteps were gaining close behind, but he never looked, even as his neck grew warm and wet with breath and his lungs burned with frozen air. Down mossy hills, over sharp points of rock that threatened to end his life should he lose his footing, he ran. Never before had he felt the age in his legs as he did at that moment, as the shadow blotted out the moon’s light, wrapping him in a cold shroud of darkness thick enough to touch.
The ground leveled and bulged, and he very nearly lost his feet. Each step was new. The years of familiar footpaths meant nothing, and he knew that this wasn’t his land, not anymore. A second moon—pale and shimmering—rose on the ground before him, and he ran towards it without a thought or wonder as to how such a thing could be, ran until he plunged into it and the dark, freezing pond swallowed him whole. There was no up or down, just a dead womb where he floated in icy confusion. His head rose above the water just long enough to see the weird angles of the stranger’s shoulders, an irregular slit cut into the very eye of the moon.
His feet found bottom, and he began to plod on towards the opposite bank, the mud gruel around his heels. His boots filled as the muddy earth grasped and gripped with slick hands that wanted him to stay, wanted him to never, ever leave. On he pressed, his heart thumping hard enough to crack ribs, his breath a steam engine that could die at any moment. The reflections below illuminated the scene behind him as the stranger stalked back and forth, a coyote circling a rabbit.
There was no escape, the old man knew it, but there was no stopping, no other clear path. He clambered to the edge, boots left behind in a foot of rotting muck, and he tried to run. Even in bare feet, even with his frozen, aching limbs, even with his pitiful, old man legs, he tried to run. He gained his footing just as he saw it barreling down on him, as voices sang, ringing out joyfully at the impending end.
The old man fell.
Down the far edge of the bank, he tumbled, bumped, and finally stopped flat on his back hard enough to blast the air from his lungs. He stared up at the midnight moon, wondering how such things can happen under the gaze of a thing so beautiful. And then it was gone, replaced by the dark outline of a head, a head that leered so close that he could see the face even in the darkness.
But there was no face.
There was only a black slate as empty as an old chalkboard, a face of charred wood, something pulled from a long dead fire. Long fingers brushed his cheeks and a whisper rose through his mind, coiling and snaking there.
“Mine,” he said with no mouth to speak of.
“This night is mine.”
The old man awoke at first light. He was all but frozen, soaked clean through to the bone and barefoot, but he was alive all the same. He shambled back on aching feet, wondering and hopeless at it all.
Hours later, after showering and brewing a boiling pot of black coffee, he stepped outside. The sun, bright as it ever had been, shone down on him warm enough that he could remember that summer was coming on sooner rather than later. He sipped and stared and felt his body bristling with deep fear. A boy’s fear.
Atop the ridge, he found a few burned logs, the remains of a small fire, and next to that, he found a picture sketched out by a dead, slender stick. A face leered up from the dirt, solemn and silent, drawn by a creature with no face at all. The wind whipped, and the old man snuffed the picture away with the tip of his boot, and by the time he reached his house again, he couldn’t be sure it was ever there to begin with.
They found the sweet lady down the hill dead that afternoon in her little garden, the spring tilling too much for a heart so old. That’s what the papers said anyhow. No one mentioned the look of terror on her face when they turned her over, the black dirt packed tight in both lungs.
The old man still tends things such as they need tending, but he has no qualms as to who the land belongs to. Even so, he walks the fields by day, a shotgun under the crook of his arm, a gesture empty and foolish and comforting all at once. But at night, even under the brightest moon, he locks his doors and draws down the curtains, because he’s finally old enough to understand that some childish things can never really be put away.
DW Gillespie D.W. Gillespie is a longtime horror writer and fan who lives in middle Tennessee. When he's not at his day job, he spends most of his time wrangling his two young children, two dogs, and two cats. Most of his nights are spent lying in bed and dreaming up awful, twisted things to write about. These stories, in turn, are read by his loving wife who immediately wonders whether or not she is sharing a bed with a crazy person. Dustin may be found on Facebook: dw.gillespie or email: dwgillespie1@gmail. Dustin's story Still appears in the August 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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