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THE HIDE-BEHINDS

     True to its dark-sounding name, Shade Lake was usually immersed in shadow. During early mornings and late afternoons the steep rocky faces along the eastern and western shores blocked all direct sunlight from reaching the lake. And more often than not, a thick fog would linger over the lake until the mid-afternoon sun could burn it off. So, it was at night and at night alone when this north Georgia Lake chose to reveal itself.
     This night was no exception.
     Without the moon, the stars that were littered across the night's black field were considerably bigger and brighter. Their twinkling countenances loomed over the dark water like low hanging gas lamps or corpse-lights, sirens to lure flittering moths to a watery doom. The night was able to do for Shade Lake what the day could not; it opened itself up to the cosmos and unleashed upon this brackish water the entirety of its heavenly glow. In turn, the dark tarn swallowed up that modest light and provided little or no reflection off of its oily surface.
     On a sandy point to the north a lone bonfire burned.
     Sitting rather close to it in a hooded gray sweatshirt and faded jeans was a small ten-year-old girl.
     Her name was Edwina Toombs.
     Under the hood, her brown eyes were stolidly fixed upon the fire's yellowish-orange tongues and how they flicked at the chilly October air. She was hunched forward with her chin on her hands and her elbows planted on her panted knees. In her lap were two items; a long, black flashlight and a large, leather-bound book.
     Edwina sighed.
     I know Dad didn't send me down here just to start a fire on the beach, she thought. He wants me out from under foot and away from all the funeral talk.
     She was sure that her father had kept her brothers at home for that very reason. But, he had brought Edwina along. He saw her differently somehow. Always had. She knew he sometimes preferred to have her close by. After all, she was her daddy's little girl.
     Edwina reached down and tossed another piece of pinewood on the fire. A shower of sparks and glowing cinders erupted from the stack. As her eyes followed the fireworks they happened across the three lights on the hill that were the lit windows of her grandmother's cabin.
     Gram, Dad was right, she thought. I don't want to be up there. But, I do wish I knew what was going on. They haven't told me anything.
     She snatched up a pebble and flung it at the night.
     I just wish they'd quit treating me like a little kid, she thought.
     Edwina leaned over in her seat and picked up another small stone and threw it toward the lake. A second or two later she heard a splash from out of the darkness.
     They're probably drawing straws to see who's going to get your teeth, she thought.
     She laughed to herself initially at the thought of it, but then felt her smile wane when pangs of guilt came over her for having such an inappropriate thought.
     I'm sorry, Gram. I shouldn't have said that. I know. It just sounded like something you would have said. You used to make me laugh so hard, Gram. I miss you, she thought. Gram, I miss you a lot.
     Edwina sat in silence for several minutes, that is, until she remembered that her grandmother's book was lying in her lap. She sat up straight, switched on her flashlight, and directed the light on to its cover.
     In heavy, scrolling script the title read: "The Derwen Town Register, 1790-1810".
She wondered why her Grandmother had left it for her. Why this book? It was true that they both had shared more than a passing interest in the history of Derwen, but her Grandmother had never been one to allow Edwina to browse through her personal library. A matter of fact, she had been quite guarded about her private collection.
     Edwina opened it slowly; the binding on the old book was very stiff.
     On the inside of the cover were the words:
     "Dutifully recorded by my hand, Llewellyn Danforth Toombs, Ninth Registrar of Old Derwen Town, on this first day, of the sixth month, in the Seventeen-Hundred and Ninetieth year of our Lord. I hereby swear this Registrar's Oath before all that is holy and true that what is and will be written here is as it was."
     Underneath the Registrar's Oath was the signature of Llewellyn Toombs.
  Llewellyn Toombs? Obviously a relative, she thought. He must be like my great-great-great-great-great-great something or other.
     Edwina flipped the hood back off of her head, allowing her long, brown hair to spill out on to her shoulders.
     This is a journal of my town, she thought. A written record of what was happening here in Derwen over two hundred years ago.
     Her brow furrowed as she began to scan the pages from top to bottom. Llewellyn's handwriting was difficult to read. His thick, flourishing script was certainly elegant but was also occasionally impossible to decipher. Every now and then, she recognized a prominent family name or street. For the most part it was very tedious. A majority of the text referred to daily weather, local commerce, and matters of law. She began to idly flip from one page to the next out of boredom, until finally; she was stopped cold by a dark piece of artwork.
     An old charcoal etching of the town square occupied the entire page. Figuring prominently in the center was the Old White Hand. The Old White Hand was the name the settlers of newly-created seventeenth-century Derwen had given the massive white sycamore that stood in the center of their village. The Old White Hand (or the Old Hand as it was known today) now stood in the middle of modern day Derwen's town square. Because the Old Hand had been struck by lightning numerous times over its long life, much of the bark on its thick trunk was a combination of new growth and dark, charred scars. Despite the trees frequent brush with lightning storms it continued to produce an abundance of leaves and give every indication that it was in the very best of health. Not only had it survived the forces of nature but it also had witnessed most if not all of Derwen's historical milestones. In midsummer of 1699, it had been standing there in all of its leafy, green splendor when Brennan Derwen and his clan had brought their weary horseteams to a halt and had decided to build their stone cabin on the nearby banks of Spirit Creek. In the harsh winter of 1777, the Old White Hand was present when a mysterious plague overtook the young town and threatened all of its thirty-six residents with extinction. In 1809, the sycamore had been there when Isobel Grimond was tried and hanged for the theft and subsequent slaughter of several newborns. The tree had quietly observed, as much as any leafy thing can, the best and worst in man and beast for many, many years. The Derwen Forestry Council, headed by Brennan Derwen's descendants, determined that the Old White Hand could be as much as five-hundred years old. Not to be outdone by the Forestry Council, the town's Historical Society and Preservation Committee hired several expert Arborists out of Augusta for an official age of their own, their findings concurred with the Councils. By the time it was all said and done, most of Derwen's citizens agreed, the Old White Hand was old.
     A stick broke.
     Edwina paused to look up, to stare out beyond the firelight in to the thickening darkness. She squinted and finally frowned, unsure if she had actually heard anything other than the crackling sounds of the campfire.
     She glanced down at the picture in the almanac. There near the top, in quotations was the title of the etching: "The Hanging of the Derwen Coven, 1809".
     Edwina reflected for a moment.
     I remember this being discussed in class, she thought. Her teacher, Mr. Bellecruis loved to discuss the darker periods of local history. He had stated to the class on more than one occasion that he felt the coven had been unfairly tried by their peers. His contention was that they had been executed with extreme prejudice and fear resulting from intolerance.
     Edwina studied the lower half of the drawing.
     It wasn't just the artist's stark rendering of the tree itself that caught her attention, but it was also the dozen or so black cats that were carefully positioned under the tree's many massive branches. Each and every feline was portrayed as a dark creature: black as charcoal. Edwina also noticed that all of the cats were looking up in to the tree above.
     There was a good reason for that, she thought.
     Above each cat there was a body.
     Thirteen bodies in all. That is, thirteen condemned witches. Each hung from their own branch by a thick rope tightly cinched around their stretched necks. In 1809, these thirteen men and women were condemned to the rope and later burned at the stake for practicing the dark arts and performing heinous crimes against nature. It was clear that the artist had gone to great pains to accurately portray the agony and suffering in the faces of the witches, as well as depict the actual circumstances of the event. But, one of the fated seemed to be the focal point of this rendering.
     This person swung from a branch directly in front of the tree trunk, adorned in a dark, solid-colored robe. Her distended neck was twisted and turned so that her head was pointed in the wrong direction, that is, her face was backward-looking.
     Her neck was broken, Edwina gasped. It was the woman that Dremen capitalized on every Halloween season for its meager tourism dollar. It was the woman many parents of Derwen still spoke of to their young children, invoking her name to make them return home before dark and be in bed on time. It was the same woman who had sleathily entered the homes of Derwen's citizens by night, snatched their newborns out of their cribs, and then secreted off with them for a moonless night sacrifice to her master.
     None other than Isobel Grimond.
     It was a face that was dark and twisted from the constrictions caused by the taut noose. Her eyes were bulging from their sockets and her tongue was draped over her lower lip. Her dark, wiry hair was matted to her skull and the few strands that were free were dangling in front of her face. But, there in her contorted face she held a small, ghoulish smile.
     More like a grin, Edwina thought. A smile is a pleasant thing. But a grin, a grin came with a touch of the sinister while pretending to be a smile. It was the grin of someone who knew a nasty secret, she thought. It was the expression of someone who was demented.
     Edwina remembered now what Mr. Bellecruis had said about this depiction of Isobel Grimond's hanging. He had referred to it as "Isobel's Victory". He had said that the artist had given Isobel Grimond in death what she couldn't attain in life. With a grin he had turned her wretched existence in to that of near legend. The smile had been her last stab at those puritans who had found her guilty of practicing witchcraft and heresy and had presided over her hanging those many years ago. Even in death she had found a way to scoff and mock those who had condemned her in life.
     Edwina turned from Isobel's ghastly face to look at the very bottom of the page. What appeared to be the beginning of the artist's scrolling signature was abruptly ended with a missing corner of the page. The corner had been torn off leaving a jagged paper edge and only a hint at the first letter in the artist's signature.
     Edwina heard something move on the other side of the campfire.
     She snapped upright, dropped the book to the ground, and shined the flashlight beyond the dancing shadows of the firelight.
     It was close.
     Edwina felt a cold clamminess wash over her.
     In the distance, she saw a pair of ocher eyes staring at her from the tree line. They were no more than twenty feet away. The bright, shiny orbs were low to the ground, just above the thick leafbed, and unblinkingly trained on her.
     The body behind the eyes was as black as midnight.

  

(An excerpt from The Hide-Behinds)
© RH Summers 2009



Please choose from the following links to view samples of the author's writings...

The Hide Behinds - The Marionette - Deep - Monster - The King Of Three





© RH Summers 2017