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Posts : 554
Join date : 2013-08-24
Age : 62

Will-o-Wisp Empty
PostSubject: Will-o-Wisp   Will-o-Wisp EmptyWed Oct 16, 2013 7:05 pm


The horse plodded on, head hanging low, the sound of its hooves muffled by the muck. Its two riders no longer knew what time it was, or even if time existed. The leaden sky and the overhanging trees dripping down kept them from knowing whether it was dawn or dusk, mid-day or midnight. It had taken nearly five days of hard riding to escape the posse; when it finally seemed they had lost it, the Kid’s horse hit a hole and went down hard. The Kid had injured his shoulder – his left, thank goodness for small favors, not his right – and Heyes had to put down the horse. Since then they had been riding double on their remaining horse. All three were exhausted.

Now they were lost in a swamp.

“Heyes there’s a light over there.”

“No, Kid, it’s just a will-o-wisp. We don’t want to go there.”

“A will-o-what?”

“Will-o-wisp. Remember? Grandpa Curry used to tell us about them. He said growing up in Ireland, they believed they were spirits that lure travelers off the paths and into the peat bogs, never to be seen again. I read somewhere that it really is just some gas escaping from the swamp that lights up when it hits the air. Either way, we shouldn’t follow it.”

“Oh. But look. Over there – that’s not the same thing – it’s bigger, steadier.”

Heyes looked where the Kid was pointing. Sure enough, there was something there, something large and glowing, pulsating in the low light, but not moving. After staring, he thought he could make out what appeared to be windows.

“I think it’s a house, Kid. Let’s go see. It can’t be worse than this and we have to find shelter, however poor, or the horse will drop, and we’ll be stuck here.”

Picking their way carefully through the muck, they found themselves in front of a large house built of some greenish white stone that seemed to breathe with a life of its own. Dread crept through them. Knowing they had no choice, they dismounted and knocked on the door. When the door opened a man stood there, worn and gray, peering apprehensively out.

“What to do you want? Why have you come here?”

Heyes put on his friendliest expression, “We’re sorry to bother you but we’re lost and my partner’s horse was injured. We were hoping we could put up here for the night or that you could direct us to the nearest town.” The Kid smiled as innocently as possible.

As the man examined them, Heyes and the Kid felt cold. It was as if they were naked and he was looking into their souls.

Suddenly the man's eyes widened and he grinned. “Han! Jed! I don’t believe it. How are you? How did you find me? I can’t believe you remember me after all these years. Come in, come in. You’ll stay for a while, right?”

The two pokered up. “Uh, remember you? My name is Joshua Smith and this is Thaddeus Jones.”

“Well it used to be Hannibal Heyes and Jed Curry. Don’t you remember when we were kids? I came to stay with my aunt and uncle for the summer. They had a farm by your folks’ farms and we spent the summer roaming the fields, fishing the stream. It was the best summer of my life. Surely you remember me, Roderick, Roddy Burton? Oh hey, don’t worry I won’t tell anyone who you are. Who would I tell way out here anyway?”

The two paused. They rarely thought back to their childhoods, and when they did the memories were dim and focused on the families they had lost. But now they reached back and into their minds came the image of a pale child who had come one summer. He had grown stronger and bolder as the summer progressed, but all too soon it was time for him to go home and they never saw, or thought of, him again -- until today apparently. But was this gray man really their friend? Roderick was about their age; this man seemed many years older.

Deciding they had no other options, Heyes grinned “Oh sure we remember you. It’s been a long time. This is where you live, huh. All by yourself?” With that he entered the house, finding the hallway well lit and warm.

The Kid tied the horse to a ring on the side of the house and after a brief hesitation followed Heyes, but his right hand reached for the comforting feel of his gun.

Roderick smiled, “Come have a drink and warm yourselves by the fire.” He paused, and looked worried. “I usually live here alone, but sometimes, sometimes my sister Madeline comes around. I won’t introduce you. She didn’t like that I went away without her that summer. She won’t like you.” He brightened again, “But I don’t hear her now, so we can be comfortable.” He led them into a book-lined room with a roaring fire in the fireplace and lit by what seemed to be a hundred candles and lanterns.

“Do you want something to eat? Sorry I don’t have a cook or anyone around – they never stay – but I can do the basics, and I get by.”

“First, we need to take care of our horse. Do you have a barn where we can put him?”

“Oh, sure, Jed. There’s no barn anymore, but there’s a shed against the side of the house, you can put it there. There’s some hay there, too. I’ll show you.”

The three men went back out the front door. Roderick went up to the horse, who began to buck, the whites of his eyes rolling up and his ears flattening. “Yeah horses don’t seem to like me much,” he lamented. “Anyway, the shed is around the corner there; you can’t miss it, and there’s a door straight into the house. Han and I will wait for you there.”

As soon as Roderick went inside, the horse calmed down. Kid led him to the shed, talking as they walked. “I know boy. It’s pretty strange here, but at least you can rest and eat something. We’ll get goin’ in the mornin’, don’t worry.”

The three men ate, drank Roderick’s brandy, and talked. Roderick talked about that summer long ago but would not discuss his current life. Roderick and Heyes discussed the books they had both read. Eventually, Heyes said, “Roddy, it’s great to reminisce and all, but we’re exhausted; we need to sleep. Is there a room for us?”


“Here’s a room. There’s another down the hall if you don’t want to share.”

“We’re used to sharing.”

Roderick looked down the hall, peering in the shadows then turned back to them. “Yeah, probably better to stay in the one room. You know where the library is, just come there once you wake. I’ll be there.”

After Roderick left them, the two got ready for bed, but the oppressive feeling grew. “Heyes, we should take shifts. Somethin’ doesn’t feel right.”

“I know, Kid. Go ahead and sleep. I can’t sleep now. I don’t like this either. Let’s get some rest then move on.”

After sleeping they arose and went back to the library. Somehow that day passed without them leaving, and the next. It was always the same, the same brightly lit room and hallway – to the library and the shed.

Normally, the two would have explored the house to make sure they knew who was around and to find escape routes – but this dark brooding house warned them against that. Views of the outdoors were shrouded by the heavily curtained windows. Yet whenever they caught a glimpse, it was the same dank, gloomy timelessness through which they had traveled before reaching the house.

At times, one would sleep while the other stayed watch, calling this time "night." By unspoken, but mutual agreement, they always left a lantern burning in the bedroom, even while they slept. Light seemed to be necessary against the anger that always hovered beyond the lights. Their waking moments they spent in the library or caring for the horse, calling that time "day."

Roderick clearly feared the unseen Madeline. He told them how unhappy she had been when he went to Kansas without her. He told them how the next time his parents spoke of sending him away, to school, she insisted that he not go. His parents pursued the plan, but they died. Their nurse and her family left, although it was her grown children who now brought supplies every month so that he did not need to go into town. “It’s better that way -- that I don’t leave Madeline.”

In their room, Heyes and the Kid would try to talk, but always the house seemed to be listening, waiting.

“Heyes, how long have we been here? My shoulder doesn’t hurt anymore. We have to leave.”

“I know but I can’t work it out. Roddy’s worried about this sister, but we’ve never seen her, never seen any sign of her. Yet, I don’t think we can just go.”

“Heyes you’ve got to work this out. I can’t shoot a girl – however crazy.”

“I know, Kid, but it’s not just Madeline. I hate to admit this, but it’s the house too, and I don’t think it likes us.”

“Well, I can’t shoot the house either – I can, but you can’t really kill a house, can you?”


The next "day" Heyes was adamant. “Roddy, it’s been great visiting with you, but we have to move on. Kid’s shoulder is better, and there’s this sheriff in Porterville who’s waiting to hear from us. Also Big Mac down in Texas has a job waiting for us. It’s time to go.”

“You can’t go. It’s been so much fun.”

“We have to. Why don’t you come with us?”

“Leave here? I don’t know; Madeline wouldn’t like that. But to never be here again. To see people? Have a real life? I don’t know. Maybe I could. You won’t tell her, will you?”

“We won’t say anythin’.”

But Heyes feared that the house already knew they were leaving. "You get the horse ready, Kid. With three of us, I guess we’ll have to walk.”

“Yeah well the horse won’t let Roddy near him anyway.”


The Kid readied the horse while Heyes packed their gear. Shouts erupted. Startled, both grabbed their guns and ran into the hall towards the sounds.

“I have to go, Madeline; you can’t stop me this time. . . . No, it’s time. Don’t. Don’t! DON’T!”

“Roddy, what’s wrong?” Heyes and the Kid rushed into the library, guns drawn, but all they saw was Roddy cowering behind a chair.

When he saw them, he drew a deep breath and stood. “Let’s go. I told Madeline I’m leaving but we need to leave NOW.”

Heyes and the Kid rushed down the hall to the shed, Roddy coming behind them, carrying a lantern. They turned to urge Roddy on but he had stopped and turned back.

He blanched and cowered. “Madeline, don’t,” he screamed.

Suddenly his lantern exploded, turning Roddy into a tower of flame. “Run” he screamed, “Go . . .”

Heyes and the Kid hesitated, guns out, searching for a target. Roderick, flaming, blundered into the curtains and chairs, setting all on fire as he went. Finally, the house ablaze, Heyes turned and pushed the Kid out to the shed; they grabbed the horse, now wild with fear, and fled. Heyes looked back and blinked, but all that could be seen was flame.


When they reached a safe distance they turned and watched. It seemed as if the burning house gave a great sigh, bulged out, then collapsed in, the sides falling inward. The house sank back into the murk on which it had sat. Once it was gone, there was no sign that it had ever existed.

The two men looked around. It was as if the fire had lifted the gloom. In the distance they saw a road. Without speaking, they mounted the horse and headed toward the road and, possibly, a town.

Still, Heyes looked back. ‘Ya know, Kid, I could have sworn at the end there… I could have sworn where the flames that consumed Roddy were, there were two people. But that couldn’t have been, could it?”

“Just a will-o-wisp, Heyes, don’t follow it.”

Author’s note: A "will-o-wisp," which goes by many names, including "jack-o-lantern," is a light sometimes seen at night or twilight over swamps and bogs. It appears as a flickering lamp and some say it moves as one approaches it. In Celtic folklore most commonly it was believed to be caused by a spirit, pixie, or leprechaun who would mischievously lead unwary travelers from the path then vanish, leaving them lost. More scientific explanations for the phenomenon include that it is caused by phosphene and methane gasses released by decaying organic matter igniting when they contact oxygen or that it is a form of phosphorescent fungus.

Obviously this story was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." The story was originally published in 1839 in Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine, then revised and included in Poe's 1840 collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.

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