Bill Hartzia - The winter woods were empty but they were not silent as I...

The winter woods were empty but they were not silent as I trudged past ancient trees, pulling a small cart behind me.  Voices, ghosts of memories, whispered and sang in the branches, sorrowful and cold like the season.  They chilled me in a way that the frosty air around me could not; I could hear the voice of my mother lamenting that she couldn't find the locket my father had given her as a wedding gift, and I could hear my father's voice, broken and sobbing, wishing he could be free of pain.  I rounded a bend in the path, and now I could hear my grandfather's voice, cursing the gods and wishing that he'd never had a family, and the screaming I heard after that was surely my grandmother, trapped in the flames of a burning house.  But when I took the next bend, and heard my sister's voice, softly reciting a nursery rhyme we'd learned as children I stopped dead in my tracks.  I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that my sister was still alive.

I turned around, and looked at her, perched on the step on the cart, and she looked back at me, icy-blue eyes wide with shock.

"You hear it too?"  I said.  She nodded.  "So what does it mean?"

She stepped down from the cart and embraced me; her hands cold against my face but her breath warm on my neck.  "Perhaps I'm dead, and I don't know it yet," she said solemnly.  My shock showed on my face, for she stepped back suddenly, bursting into laughter.  "You're a fool, Phillip," she said.  "Of course I'm not dead.  It means what I've always told you, that these woods prey on your fears.  The voices you hear are not real."

I shrugged reluctantly, still able to hear my grandfather's cursing if I strained my hearing.

"Let's continue on," she said, stepping back up on to the cart.  "When we're through these woods, it'll seem less real."

I nodded, picked up the handle and we pressed on, the cart creaking rhythmically behind me and my boots ringing against the frozen earth.  Her voice soon faded and was replaced by many more, none of which I knew, bewailing losses, whispering terrible secrets taken to the grave and muttering strange curses and imprecations.  Then, surprisingly, I heard her voice once more, reciting the same nursery rhyme.  I quickened my pace to draw away from it, but the voice grew louder.  Realising that she was once again teasing me, I turned to confront her, reprimand her for her childish joke.

Sat on the cart behind me was a yellowed skeleton, wired together and barely dressed in fragments of the clothes my sister had been wearing.  Even as I stared, its jaw bone lolled open and the nursery rhyme's words came trickling out, and tiny blue points of light lit up in the sockets of the skull.

I didn't scream, but I did turn and run, not stopping until the woods were an hour behind me and my feet were bleeding.

The End

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