[Editor's Note: The Witch of Wellesley Island, Chapters 1 and 2: The Scream and A Brush with Evil, are longer than usual articles and once published will be placed on a page of its own: Stories/Plus. Over the winter we hope to add more material to this section including fiction, artwork and poetry.]
For me, the summer season ends too quickly each year. Just as the leaves begin changing, we pack up and winterize the cottage in Clayton, NY, pull the boat, and head south to Pennsylvania. This Thousand Islands story, however, begins on Halloween.
When I was a kid, a television commercial for a popular candy, often handed out for Trick-or-Treat, boasted that it featured two great tastes (chocolate and peanut butter) that taste great together. That's what I'm aiming for here; a somewhat scary (but fast-paced and fun) mystery set in the heart of the Thousand Islands.
And what better setting? The St. Lawrence's scenic beauty is an excellent backdrop, along with charming river towns, ancient forests, granite cliffs, castles with towers and secret passageways, ghost stories, and legends of all sorts!
However, I do have an admission to make. As I write this introduction, I'm not entirely sure where this story is going. My 9-year-old son, Lee, and I talk about it. He has contributed some pretty good ideas. During this strange COVID-19 year, I have made writing this story and enjoying Halloween a priority, as traveling along this road seems to make everything else seem a little less weird by comparison!
So please join us on this journey and together we will find out where it leads! Patrick Metcalf
“I’m going with you,” said Sarah. She didn’t want to, but she couldn’t manage Pete’s chronic adventurism by staying behind at the boat. She would chaperon this interaction between her brother and his own wild imagination. Sarah tried to think of something insightful to say that would help constrain him and somehow plant a seed of caution. Perhaps she could recite the old adage that, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” But Pete wasn’t so much brave as he was impulsive. He was a like a terrier chasing squirrels, reacting without much thought, and pursuing relentlessly. He sometimes benefited from a shortened leash.
Pete shrugged at Sarah’s announcement. “The more the merrier,” he said as he grabbed two flashlights from a storage compartment. He had his back turned, but she was sure he was smiling. He always found a way to drag her into this sort of thing. There was little doubt that he was amused right now.
They pulled the boat up onto a small gravel beach and set out the anchor. The Narrows was aptly named; it was a slender strip of water that separated the southwestern edge of Wellesley Island from neighboring Murray Island. The tall cliff on the Wellesley side loomed above them in the moonlight. A small goat path snaked between trees and boulders and made it possible for hikers to ascend, and in the daytime, enjoy a fantastic view of the mighty St. Lawrence and the many islands in the vicinity. That night the sheer granite wall looked like the foreboding ramparts of an enemy castle, bristling in an uneasy silence, and threatening to repel any advance.
“Let’s keep these off,” whispered Pete, handing Sarah one of the flashlights.
“That seems a little unsafe,” she said.
“It’s not,” said Pete. “Look around.”
Only at that moment did Sarah start to take it all in. It was far brighter out than she had ever experienced at night, and she could see every pebble on the beach in vivid detail. Sarah turned and looked out across Eel Bay and up at the sky. The full moon was peaceful and pure, a comforting presence. A few stars sparkled happily in the dark sky beyond.
“It’s like an illustration in a children’s story book,” said Sarah. The quality of the light was exceptional. It sparked the imagination and gave life to an otherworldly dreamscape that was awash in a pale glow. For some reason the moon seemed especially graceful and feminine. She had shed her orange skin and was rejoicing in her own reflection, which was smiling back up from the river beneath. She hovered like an electric pearl, defying gravity, and emanating a soft light which shimmered and danced on the surface of the water. Sarah was struck by the beauty and strangeness of it all.
“Let’s go!” said Pete enthusiastically. It jarred her from her reverie.
“Alright,” she said. “Let’s get this over with.” She took one last look around the moonlit beach, and readied herself to begin.
Two large trees marked the trailhead, one on either side. It was a well-defined threshold, just past which Sarah could see a length of the serpentine path winding uphill. She noticed how different it looked in there. In the forest, the contrasts between light and darkness were sharp and chaotic. The boundaries between the real and the imagined crumbled, as shadows took on a life of their own, and crawled down from the trees in the form of twisted and disfigured apparitions. The entrance to the forest was a dark and unwelcoming doorway that offered no certainty about what resided within. Beginning this journey was something akin to purposefully entering a very bad dream. Pete trudged straight in. Sarah took a deep breath and followed.
Sarah tried not to think about the screams that they had heard earlier. She tried not to think about what potential tragedy had befallen some poor soul out here in the darkness. But she had to. That was, after all, the purpose of this mission. She tried to tell herself that they would climb to the top, and there they would see a group of teenagers around a campfire. They would be talking and laughing, and doing their best to scare one another. That was the logical explanation for all of this. It was just some innocent Halloween fun. As much as she wanted to believe this, she did not. Her gut told her that there was something sinister waiting for them, something dangerous. Her instincts were usually right, and she had learned over the years to trust them.
Sarah thought to herself, “What if we find a dead person?” The thought of tripping over a corpse in the darkness was overwhelming, and she felt fear welling up within her. She wanted to say something to Pete, but she couldn’t. She didn’t want to look weak. But the feeling was growing, and she couldn’t stop envisioning a terrible scene in her mind. There was a body, and lots of blood. She was sure of it, something horrible had happened. The fear came in waves and it constricted her breathing like an icy hand wrapped around her throat. Sarah stopped and took a deep breath, and made a concerted effort to push it down. But it was still there, trying to deprive her of rational thought. It meant to paralyze her. She put one foot in front of the next, willing herself forward. They climbed upward, through the trees and rocks and shadows, and neared the top.
Over the millennia, erosion had exposed the granite spine of Wellesley Island. Along the forested summit there were numerous moonlit clearings on top of solid stone. Most of the trees, oaks and yellow pines, were bent and stunted from the frigid winter winds blowing out of Canada. A few had died during summer droughts, and their wind-tortured postures seemed frozen in time. Pete and Sarah wove their way through the maze of boulders, tall grass, and trees. Occasionally they would stop and listen, but they heard nothing.
“We shouldn’t go too much further,” Sarah whispered. “We’ll get lost.”
“Ok,” said Pete. “Maybe another 100 yards or so.” They walked a little further, and soon they could see a flickering light ahead through the trees. They should have heard conversation and laughter, but instead there was only silence. Clearly, there was no happy gathering of revelers. Sarah was disappointed. It wasn’t what she had hoped for. They exchanged a glance and moved forward cautiously.
“Not much of a party,” whispered Sarah. It was difficult to see, but they could make out a lone figure by a fire.
“If someone screams now, we’ll definitely be able to pinpoint it,” said Pete optimistically. The thought made Sarah shudder. It would be so much worse up close. It would shatter the silence, and there was no doubt in her mind that if the scream was a response to fear or pain, they would know it. An element of suffering would emanate, and in an instant they would know if this was some sort of game or not. She feared they were going to discover the commission of some horrible crime. The tightness around her throat returned. She took a moment to calm herself, and reminded herself to stop imagining the worst possible scenario. She really hoped someone was just clowning around.
Whatever was going on out there, the explanation had to be near that fire. But the distance was too great, and they needed to move closer to see. They had to proceed slowly. The tension started to build. It was very quiet out, and breaking a twig would sound like a rifle shot. It was critical that they advance undetected. They needed to know with what they were dealing, and at the moment, they had the advantage. Each step was chosen carefully, and they pushed forward until they were as close as they dared to go. They knelt down.
From their improved vantage point, they could see that this person, alone out here in the middle of the forest at night, was a woman.
“What’s going on?” whispered Sarah. The woman, dressed in a dark robe, was working intently near a small fire. Shadows obscured her face. There was a cup near her feet, and she was scratching at a granite slab near the fire with a burnt stick. They stared harder, trying to find a clear line of sight through the tangle of intervening brush. Sarah’s mind resisted the obvious. And then it hit her like an arrow striking a target. This woman was pretending to be a witch.
“This is a joke, right?” She turned and glared at Pete. “You set this whole thing up.”
“Not a joke,” whispered Pete. Sarah tried to search Pete’s expression for some sign of guilt or mischief, but she couldn’t see his face well enough to draw a conclusion. Her mind started going back through the entire day, sifting for some detail she had missed that would have uncovered this plot. Sarah thought about running over and confronting the woman. She was certain that this was a hoax. This story would be told and retold countless times in future years, and Sarah wanted everyone to know she saw right through the nonsense. It would be one more victory for her in this never-ending sibling prank war. It was a bold move, but she had once shaved off one of Pete’s eyebrows while he slept. There had to be consequences for antagonizing her. She knew how to play the game.
More importantly, she was sick of this whole situation, sick of being more afraid than she would ever admit, and sick of doubting Pete. This had become too much. It would all magically go away when Pete and this stranger, who he had somehow recruited, would admit that it was all a wild goose chase. She could hear him now … “Awww man, we really had you going! What gave us away?” Her decisive action in this moment would deliver both relief and vindication. It was time to put an end to this game.
Suddenly, there was a collision of sounds. Something was coming, and fast. It crashed through the forest recklessly, creating an onslaught of noise. Their heads snapped to the right, and they turned to face the threat. Pete and Sarah tried to see it and track its position. But it was moving so quickly that it was no more than a blur amongst the shadows. Their hearts started to race. At first it was moving parallel to them, toward the fire. Without warning it changed direction, and closed the distance in a few seconds. It was coming straight at them. They jumped to their feet.
“Turn on your light!” Pete yelled. Panicked, they both pointed and clicked on their flashlights just in time to see a terrified deer charging toward them. Sarah screamed, and jumped back and threw up her arms to protect herself. She gritted her teeth and braced for impact. It swerved at the last second, barely missing them.
As quickly as it had appeared, the deer was gone. Sarah realized that her eyes were still closed and opened them, and took her hands away from her face. Pete and Sarah looked at each other in dismay.
“Holy cow…” said Sarah.
“Too speedy for a cow. Probably a deer …” said Pete as he was panting and trying to catch his breath. He smiled and put his hand on his chest. “I almost had a heart attack!”
“What was it running from?” asked Sarah, breathing heavily and looking in the direction the deer had come from.
“No clue,” said Pete. “I thought it had us!”
Just then, the light of the fire disappeared almost as though someone had flipped a switch, and it was replaced with a soft hiss. Billowing smoke started to fill the stagnant air, limiting their visibility. They used their flashlights to probe the area the best they could. The fire had been put out, and the mysterious woman had vanished.
“She’s gone,” said Sarah. The smell in the air was unusual. It was more than just that of an extinguished campfire. Sarah thought it smelled almost like the scent of copper. She couldn’t quite place it. It was one more question in a long string of questions about what taking place on this most unusual night.
“Let’s go see what she was doing,” said Pete.
“Are you nuts?” exclaimed Sarah. “Let’s leave now!” Sarah was frazzled and feeling like they had pressed their luck too far. She wanted to leave while they still could. Pete took off toward the fire.
“C’mon!” he said, trotting in the opposite direction she wanted to go.
“Dammit, Pete!” she said as she followed. When she caught up to Pete beside the smoldering embers, he was shining his flashlight on something drawn in charcoal on the stone a short distance from the remains of the fire. It was like nothing she had ever seen before. The symbol, written in thick, black curving strokes, undoubtedly had a clear and specific purpose. Though the meaning was cryptic, it projected a malicious intent. Sarah stared at it, and its image became seared into her mind’s eye as clearly as if she had taken a photograph.
“Weird, huh?” said Pete.
“That can’t be good, whatever it is.” Sarah gathered herself, and then said forcefully. “We need to go,”
“It does look kind of evil,” he said, still staring at it.
“Pete, this is too much. We really need to…”
Her words were stopped short by something chilling that sliced through the air. In the nanoseconds before the unmistakable sound could be identified, something primal clicked inside each of them. It was the sort of thing that makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck, the heart quicken, and adrenaline gush through the veins. Their ancient selves were reminded that there once was a time when humans did not sit at the top of the food chain. It echoed and then faded in the distance.
“I think that was a howl,” said Pete, stating the obvious.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.” In that moment, Sarah was both annoyed and afraid. “In addition to everything else, now we have a wolf problem?” She was convinced Pete was to blame. She didn’t understand how, but it was the only plausible explanation. Even still, it rattled her. Her anxiety started to escalate.
“Coyotes, maybe?” suggested Pete. “There are coyotes in New York State.” She glared at him. “Coyotes are smaller … so that’s a good thing,” he offered. Sarah completely snapped.
“Pete, you need to stop this! Right now! Stop it!” screamed Sarah. She shoved him backwards.
“Sarah, I swear, this is not a joke,” Pete said. She stepped forward and shined her light in his face to interrogate him, to see the telltale signs of guilt in his eyes. But what she saw caught her off guard. She saw fear. Sarah had only seen that look on her brother’s face a few times. She remembered when they were 11 years old, and their next door neighbor, Jimmy Ross, ran into the street to retrieve a baseball. There was a squeal of tires. The quick reactions of a motorist spared the boy, but Pete thought he was witnessing his best friend’s death. Pete had that same expression on his face now. He stared down blankly at the dying campfire.
“Oh my God,” she said. “You’re telling the truth.” Her stomach sank. The implications made her head start to swim.
“Sarah, look …” Pete’s voice was strained. He pointed his flashlight at the fire. There was blood everywhere. The crimson stain didn’t show up in the moonlight, and they had been distracted by the strange symbol and the howl. They realized that the fire had been extinguished with blood. That was what caused the smell and the hissing sound.
“The scream,” said Sarah. “This blood is from the person who screamed.” The visions she had earlier flashed through her mind. The corpse was probably nearby. If they looked they might find it. She pictured a gaping wound inflicted with a knife, and felt her stomach twist into a knot. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“This is crazy,” said Pete. “What the hell happened here?”
“I don’t know.” Sarah put her hands over her eyes. She was trying not to shut down. It all seemed so impossible. She needed to pull herself together so they could get out of there, and she needed to do it now. She commanded herself to find the necessary focus.
“Hey, what’s this?” Pete used a long stick and picked up a metallic object that was covered with blood. “It’s a neckless or something.” They looked closer and noticed that there were strange inscriptions on it.
“Keep it,” said Sarah. “If there’s been a murder, that is evidence.” The thought of sticking a bloody clue found at a crime scene in his pocket was not appealing to Pete. He was squeamish sometimes. He looked at Sarah and raised his eyebrows.
“Really? Do you have a tissue?”
“Yes, in my imaginary purse that I always carry in haunted forests.” Sarah said. She was obviously irritated and her nerves were shot.
“Sarah, it’s just …” He gave her an apologetic look. “Well, you know … it’s gross and stuff.”
“I’ll take it,” she said. Sarah grabbed it and stuck it in her front pocket, leaving a smudge of blood on her jeans. She thought about the word she had just used. Murder … It was the ultimate violation of a human life. She knew they had to flee, to get help, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was so cruel, and so disrespectful, and unfair. And so final. Her mind was racing, but somewhere down deep inside, a small kernel of fear caught fire and was transformed into something else. It became anger.
Just then, from down below in a ravine, came another howl. It was closer than the last. Whatever it was, it was hunting.
“We need to get back to the boat,” said Pete. “Fast!”
And then they did the only thing they could do. They ran.
By Patrick Metcalf [All rights reserved ©2020]
Patrick Metcalf began vacationing in the Thousand Islands, more than 20 years ago, when his grandmother and her two sisters rented three houses for a week, each summer in Fine View on Wellesley Island, and invited their families from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida. Patrick spends as much time as he can each summer, on the River, near Clayton, NY. He began writing to entertain his son Lee, who is now nine years old. Patrick resides in Shippensburg, PA, holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration, and is a Marine Corps veteran. See all of Patrick Metcalf's TI Life works here..
Illustration for The Witch of Wellesley Island: Chapter 2, "A Brush With Evil" is by Marie-Anne Erki ©2020, Kingston, ON.
(The final chapter will appear in our January issue.)