by John W. Steele
Sarah grew up on Mystic Lake. The beautiful lake and its pastoral surroundings were all she ever knew. She enjoyed a quiet and idyllic childhood. Her parents treated her with great kindness, and Sarah always felt sheltered and protected. Her mother, Emily, guarded her as if she was a priceless treasure. Every morning Sarah’s father, William Taylor, drove off to his job at the lumberyard, and Sarah walked with her mother to the end of the road where the bus would pick her up and take her to school down in the valley.
Sarah grew to be a tall, rather frail girl. Her hair was soft, blond and hung to her shoulders. Her features were fine and delicate, like those of a sculpted cherub that sits atop a tombstone. Her lips were thin and her face pale and expressionless. She looked at things as if they gave off a painful light that bothered her eyes. Sarah was quiet, refined and intelligent; a thoughtful girl always alert and very composed. She was a model student, praised and admired by her teachers.
These traits were part of the conditioning her parents instilled in her. But inside Sarah was anxious, confused and angry. The nagging feeling tormented her that something dreadful was about to occur. Her hidden paranoia gave way to a gloomy outlook on life, and by the time she reached puberty, her nature had grown dark and melancholy. Sarah’s mother judiciously monitored her behavior like an overly concerned chaperone and diligently pointed out to Sarah her numerous offenses whenever she stepped out of line.
* * *
Mystic Lake wasn’t a big place. It was little more than an ancient pocket of rock surrounded by limestone walls and cliffs, tucked away in a depression, on a large mountain. Its water was deep and green in color. A few seasonal cottages sat on the side of the lake near the dirt road. They were little more then two bedroom boxes with screened in porches and outhouses. Tall weeping willows ran the whole length of the road, which led out to the highway.
The far side of the lake was pristine and undeveloped. The mountain that ran along the other shore was covered with old growth hardwoods. There were no roads on the other side of the lake, and only an occasional hunter or hiker ever ventured there; but the lake had a sinister reputation, and few ever did.
The Indians called the lake Aryoga after a malefic spirit they believed lived there. Since the turn of the nineteenth century a number of people tried to settle on the lake, but most of them left, and some of them just disappeared. The residents in the close-knit mountain village of Mystic Lake knew about what happened at the lake long ago, but many tried to deny the rumors as an old wives’ tale.
Sarah had been isolated from the legendary curse of Mystic Lake, and her parents never discussed the subject.
The Taylors were among a small handful of people that lived at the lake year round. They owned a large tract of land at the end of the road and resided in a spacious clapboard farmhouse that had been built there over one hundred years ago. The doors of the old structure were made of solid oak with leaded beveled glass windows. A large cobblestone porch stood at the front of the house and was comfortably furnished with Adirondack chairs and a wicker porch swing.
What stood out most about the house were the witch balls that adorned the roof. There were a dozen of the colored translucent glass balls perched at the crest of the roof and a few on the old barn as well. Some of the balls were green, and some of them were blue. Sarah’s mother told her that her great grandfather, Aza placed them on the house long ago to balance the energy in the area.
The witch balls would often explode in the middle of the night creating a rumble so frightening it sounded like an unexpected clap of thunder. Bits of colored glass were scattered throughout the yard, and William needed to replaced one of the glass orbs almost every month.
The old farm had been handed down in Emily’s family for decades. Seven generations of Yeagers and their spouses and descendents all lay buried in the family’s plot at the top of the hill. Emily loved Mystic Lake and would never consider living anywhere else, but William loved only Sarah and Emily, and they were his world.
William was tall sturdy man with kind blue eyes and a phlegmatic persona. His face had been worn down by too much patience. He wanted to sell the farm and leave Mystic Lake. For years he tried to convince Emily they needed a new life, but her will was indomitable.
“We’re a family, this is our home. I was born here, and I’ll die here,” Emily would often say.
One day Emily and William sat talking in the dining room, and a heated discussion developed.
“What about Sarah?” William said. “I’m concerned for her welfare. I’m sorry but your love for the dead has blinded you to the realities we face here. Where is your love for the living? I want us to get away while we still can, Emily.”
A silence filled the room, and Emily hung her head, convicted. Once again she pondered the idea of leaving the only life she’d ever known. Emily was a good woman, she sang in the church choir and helped the less fortunate. Her devotion to Sarah was sincere and complete. But her link to the past was obsessive, and she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her home, or her ancestors.
She stared at the tabletop, her lips pursed, and her face lost all expression. With a trembling hand she smoothed out a wrinkle in the lace tablecloth. When she spoke her voice was thin and anxious,
“I love you, William, I’ll always love you... If you must leave, then go. But Sarah stays with me, and if you abandon us, I won’t let you return.”
The die was cast, the corner turned; the subject dead for so long had suffered its final resurrection and now lay buried, Emily had delivered its eulogy. William let out a long painful sigh; he knew he had to choose. He chose to stay, and the issue was never brought up again.
* * *
Every year Sarah’s best friend Lisa and her family would come to spend their summers on the lake in their cottage down the road. Through the years Lisa and Sarah grew to be very close, and they shared all their secrets. They saw each other in school, but the summers on the lake were special, and they bonded during this tender period in their lives.
One day in July they were sitting in the picnic pavilion on the small beach near the end of the road. A gentle breeze sighed in the large maples in the grove, and the water of the lake was smooth and placid. It was hot, and the cicadas buzzed a sonorous chorus in the trees. Sarah was reading the adventures of Nancy Drew, and Lisa sketched a rock shelf, which stood on the other side of the lake. Her fingertips were black from the soft charcoal she used on her sketchpad.
Lisa looked up from her artwork with a mischievous grin on her face and said, “Did you ever hear the rumor about what happened here a long time ago?”
A wrinkle appeared on Sarah’s forehead, and she pretended she wasn’t interested. “I’ve heard a few things but my mother refuses to talk about it. Why do you ask?”
“Well.” Lisa said. “My mother told me that long ago there was a coven of witches that lived here. They would sneak into town late at night and steal people’s children. Then they’d bring them back to the lake and cut ’em up.”
“Cut ’em up?” Sarah said. “What do you mean?”
Lisa drew her finger to her throat and made a sound like one of the fat bullfrogs that sat in the mud by the lily pads and croaked late at night. “Ceeckkk ... cut ’em up!”
Sarah raised her hands and placed them over her ears. She’d heard bits and pieces of this tale but she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the whole thing from start to finish. “I don’t want to know,” she said.
“Alright,” Lisa said, and she continued to draw her picture. There was a brief silence. The only sound was water trickling over the little dam at the end of the beach. Sarah lowered her hands from her ears and blurted out,
“Aren’t you going to tell me?”
Lisa smiled. “My mother says your great grandma and grandpa were here the night they caught the witches and burned them alive in a fire. The townsfolk tied them all together to a large tree somewhere near where we’re sitting now. The leader of the clan was a man named Milo. Before they died Milo cursed all of the vigilantes and swore he’d seek revenge.
That’s when your great granddad Aza stuck him with a hayfork. As the witches howled in the enormous flames, Milo chanted a curse on your family and swore to Aza he’d return. My mother says many people still fear the lake, and some of the descendants of those that were here that night remember what Milo said: as the fire scorched his flesh, he bellowed,
“Hear and consider my words, Aza Yeager. I vow by the powers in my command, I shall not be denied my destiny. I will remain forever in your presence, and my voice will haunt the mountain until the chosen one beseeches me. Then my spirit will descend upon this place and as a ravening and roaring lion, I shall devour thine own.”
“Mom says there were six women in the clan, and Milo was their warlock.” Lisa said. “The next day when the farmers searched through the ashes they found six skulls, but Milo’s skull was never found. Some of the townsfolk swear they saw him walk out of the fire and float across the lake. After the witches were destroyed the children stopped disappearing, and the citizens of Mystic Lake tried to put it all behind them.
A chill ran down Sarah’s spine, and she tried to hide her fear. “I don’t believe it,” Sarah said. “I really don’t want to know any more about this foolishness.”
But Sarah burned with curiosity. Pieces of her past and all of the secrets she’d always wondered about started to fall into place; like shards of a shattered mirror reassembling itself. She now understood why her mother and father never raised their voices. Whenever they spoke to her it was always in a very controlled manner, usually little more then a whisper. And they would never let Sarah raise her voice or yell around the farm; that’s the way it had been for several generations.
Sarah glanced at her book, but she was unable to concentrate now. The enigma of the curse had awakened within her and she knew she could no longer tolerate the artificial environment at home. She had to know what else Lisa knew. She closed her book and said, “Even if everything you’re saying is true, I’ve lived here now ever since I was born. If there was a curse how come it hasn’t harmed us?”
Lisa chewed the inside of her lower lip and thought about whether she should reveal all she heard to her friend.
Sarah sensed she was hiding something. “Don’t hold out on me Lisa. We’ve gone this far, what else do you know?”
Lisa placed her sketchpad on the table. “I’m going to tell you what I heard, because you’re like a sister to me, and if things were reversed, I would want you to tell me.
“But first I need to ask you something, Sarah. Why is your Mom’s hair so white? Her hair is like silver but she’s only in her fifties.”
Sarah’s mind wandered back to a time in the past, and the memory unwound like thread from a spool.
“We were sitting in the living room one evening,” Sarah said. “There was an awful thunderstorm that night, and Dad was at work. A lot of trees had blown down on the roads, and he was unable to make it back up the mountain. The whole valley was paralyzed. My mother feared a tornado was coming. Mom decided we’d be safer in the cellar so we went downstairs. We lit up a kerosene lantern, wrapped ourselves in a couple of heavy horse blankets and sat curled up in the corner of the cellar waiting for the storm to pass.
“At the height of the storm we heard what sounded like someone pounding on the door. Mom thought perhaps one of the neighbors might need assistance and she said, ‘You wait here, Sarah. I’m going to see who it is. I don’t want you to leave the cellar is that understood?’
“It all seems like a bad dream now, but I remember nodding my head. I watched Mom walk up the stairs. For a while all was quiet.
“I heard a blood-curdling scream followed by a heavy thud on the floor above. I knew something happened to Mom, and I wasn’t going to leave her alone. I picked up a hatchet and went upstairs. When I found her the door was wide open, and she was lying in the middle of the living room. She seemed to be in a trance, and she looked horrified.
“Drool trickled down her face, and she was unable to speak. But what scared me the most is that her dark hair was now gray like tarnished silver. Something scared her half to death. She spent a month in the hospital. The doctors said she’d suffered a conversion reaction, but Mom refused to discuss with anyone what she saw that night. She tried to color her hair once but the color just wouldn’t take, like she’d been marked.”
Lisa’s face grew ashen. “That explains a lot. Did your mother ever tell you about the witch balls or the voice on the mountain?”
“Very little,” Sarah said. “If I even go near the subject she becomes upset to the point of hysteria. So I’ve learned to avoid it.”
“Well.” Lisa said. “I became so intrigued when I listened to Mom and Dad talk about the curse of Mystic Lake that I decided to do a paper about the witch balls for English class. According to folk tales, witch balls would entice evil spirits with their bright colors; the strands inside the ball would then capture the spirit and prevent it from escaping.”
“So that’s it,” Sarah said in a whisper.
“What are you talking about?” Lisa asked.
“The shards of glass in the yard. Whatever energy lurks around here can’t be contained in the witch balls. That’s why Dad’s always replacing them.”
“What do you know about the voice?” Lisa asked.
Copyright © 2007 by John W. Steele