It begins with a creak.
That much I now know to be true.
A creak. Nothing more. Simple really. A sound. A delicate outline on the wind. The slightest, and most innocuous, of creaks.
But soon the creaks begin to increase. In both volume and frequency. They begin to bite. Jarring against the breeze. Scratching at your mind. Your skin. Tearing at the imagined layer of sensitivity coating your spine.
And then comes the image.
The image you know to be false. The one you know to be untrue. One that goes against the grain of common sense; that collides with the fabric of reason.
The tree swing.
A crude, antiquated rope and wood concoction.
Swaying. Jolting. Flapping in the breeze. Creaking. Creaking. Creaking.
To others you know the scene remains untarnished. Undisturbed by the swaying, creaking image. To the naked, untroubled eye, it will appear simply as a tree. And nothing more. A robust, isolated tree. It sits in the centre of an immaculately-kept field. The barest outline of a long-forgotten path scurries its way through the wheat to the base of the tree.
In another tale I could call it beautiful. In another life I would even deign to call it harmless. But not in this life. Not in this tale. Not with the creaking. That relentless, unceasing creaking. Back. And forth. Back and forth.
It does not, and will never, stop.
Shall never fall silent.
Not to my ears at least. Not to me.
And who am I, you may ask? What is the name of this harbinger of the morose? The one who brings you this murmured lament? Well, my name is of no consequence to you. Not now. And it shall be as equally insignificant, if not more so, by the time this narrative draws to a close.
Who I am bears no relevance.
What matters only is that I have been, for lack of a better word, chosen.
It is my time. And my burden. Mine alone to bear. I am the one to hear the creaking. I am the one to see the tree swing. I am the one to catch a glimpse of her.
The woman in white.
Although ‘woman’ might not be strictly accurate. Girl may be closer to the truth.
An ageless entity. Appearing and not appearing. Seemingly to her own choosing. Flitting between this world and another. Her image and appearance mercurial. Yet when she does appear her presence calls to me. Beckons me. Like a siren call. Steering me towards my end, towards my fate.
I knew not why.
At first I fought. Chose to resist. Chose to question.
I stayed away from this sight. From this place. With all my being I endeavoured to remove myself from her image, from her calling. But the draw was too forceful, the pull too unyielding.
During my self-imposed, and increasingly fragile, exile I researched. Tried to find meaning. Context.
What I discovered chilled me. A girl, a young girl, was murdered at this spot in the early 1800s. Mutilated. Seemingly by a vagrant. Her white dress ripped from her pale body. Her flesh flayed. Her bones, her hair scattered across the surrounding countryside. Meticulously, no. The barbarity of the act clear for all who witnessed the aftermath. The horror of the incident, of the report, absolute.
But I discovered more.
Disappearances. Frequent disappearances. Throughout the years. Sporadically across the centuries. Always apparently near this spot, near this area. Young children. Boys, girls. Adults. Men, women. Of all ages, standing and creed. Every couple of decades or so another soul would disappear into the morass of time.
On occasion bones – sometimes scattered, often clustered – would be found near the base of the tree. Some buried deep within the hovel burrowed into the mound beneath the tree itself.
No-one seemed willing to connect the events. No reporter, nor historian, able to tie the pieces of the emerging pattern together. Hamstrung either by ignorance or self-preservation.
So I resolved to enshrine my exile in permanence.
To stay away. Always.
But the creaking.
It called to me. Louder than before. With a greater sense of urgency. With an added intensity. My defences failed. My resistance dissolved. I needed to return. I had to return. I must.
And so here I stand.
Within sight of the tree swing.
Her pale, youthful complexion, bedecked in that white dress, slowly swinging back and forth. Each creak of the swing wrenching into the early-evening air.
The light begins to fade ever so slightly.
I walk slowly forward. Each step a step closer to my fate.
An act possibly of foolishness you may think? An act without logic, perhaps? Almost entirely. On both counts. Yet my submission to the calling feels preordained. My actions prey to the predatory force of my inevitable conclusion. Another soul to be claimed. A victim to be consumed.
My crime? Simply being seen. Simply walking along this quiet woodland path as I had done a hundred times before. All without incident. All without variation.
Until the creaking.
That gnawing, scraping, haunting creaking.
The girl in the white dress continues to flit in and out of visibility as I close in.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.