By Georgette Graham
I never really believed in the supernatural. It was my opinion that everything had a scientific explanation; we only had things for which no explanation had yet been found. But, while I was a denier of the supernatural, it was also my fascination, my endless curiosity to find the real-life origins of those supernatural beliefs.
This curiosity had led me to dig up graves in Eastern Europe to look at bloated corpses with blood at their mouths, to see first-hand why the native villagers believed that the dead had come back to drink the blood of the living. I spent weeks on boats looking at carcasses the sailors said were the remains of monsters or mermaids. I spent sleepless nights in houses thought to be inhabited by ghosts and spirits, to see where the stories that spread across the town had been born.
It was the reality of the monsters and ghosts that I wanted. It was the natural from which the unnatural had sprung that fascinated me, and I’d loved every moment of it.
“So what happened then? Tell me about this crow girl you keep speaking of.”
I looked up in answer to the voice.
I’d nearly forgotten someone was in the room with me. Yes, the crow girl: my final investigation, the one that lead me to this asylum. I turned in my chair to look up at the face watching mine.
“I believed the crow girl was a myth, yes. I didn’t even consider her a genuine mystery worth investigating. I mean, feral humans growing up among animals are common enough. Take the case of the boy that was raised by wolves…”
“Had it not been for my boredom, the lack of cases that year, and my partner’s fascination with the stories of her, I never would have gone.”
“And that was your assistant, the late Mr. St. John Padget, correct?”
“Oh yes, St. John was quite taken with the tales of her. I told him she was nothing special, merely a feral child, but something about her grabbed hold of him and would not let go. He was convinced she was the one genuine mystery we could not explain. Though, for the life of me, I could not explain why. It seemed such a silly thing. I hadn’t the first idea why he thought she was even worth investigating, let alone something that could not be explained.”
“And what was the relationship between you and Mr. Padget like at the time?”
“Nothing like what’s been implied, if that’s what you mean!” I felt my anger rise in me as I remembered the lurid insinuations that had come out, after the terrible incident had found its way into the papers. Why had the need been felt to invent such things? Human beings love filth, I suppose.
“All right then, whatever you say. Tell me about him then.”
“St. John was a bright young man, eager to learn, with an appetite for understanding and an ability to charm people. He liked to talk… to listen… He was open to people, but also strangely susceptible to them. He took eyewitness accounts far more seriously than he should, and I was always concerned that he was too trusting of the strangers we met while traveling. I worried that he would fall prey to robbers and con men, but he never did.” Suddenly I felt snappish. “Why are you asking me this? Why don’t I just tell you what happened to him?”
“Very well then, tell me what happened to Mr. Padget.”
I began to speak of the events that lead up to the tragedy, starting with the day St. John had burst into my study with another three photographs in hand.
“Look! Even more have surfaced!” A smile was broad across his handsome face as he dropped the pictures onto my desk, directly onto the files I was organizing. He was nearly dancing from foot to foot as he awaited my reaction, his grin blinding.
I pushed them away. “Now St. John, really, I don’t see any merit in wasting time…”
“You’re not doing anything now. You’re just sorting some old case documents. Please?”
“Honestly, these are merely blurs. I can’t even see what you’re…”
“Oh, do look again! If you isolate the shadow just there and if you outline this shape you can see…”
He edited the amber-toned photos verbally for me, but I still didn’t see anything.
It was more to placate him than it was to satisfy any curiosity of my own. I for one did not find this figment worthy of investigation. I still maintained that she was at best, a myth, and at worse, a dangerous wild person, most likely without her wits intact. Either way, I had no interest in pursuing her.
At the time, I did not understand what it was that captivated my young companion. Since the first time he’d heard of her, he had been like a man possessed. He kept saying that he needed to see her with his own eyes. I offered to take him to an asylum and show him many Ophelias just like her. St. John took some offense to that. I think the real reason I offered to take that trip with him was simply to get it over with, to return his mind to what I saw as more worthwhile pursuits.
Had I known then what I know now, we never would have made the trip.
Before our journey began, St. John had been practically giddy every time he made a new discovery regarding his muse. I’d expected him to be delighted as we began our journey. But, it didn’t happen. The moment we left on our way, St. John changed.
We took the train out of London on the first of the month, and traveled deep into the countryside. Usually talkative and energetic, it came as a surprise to me when St. John merely sat, shifting listlessly through his transcribed accounts of eyewitness sightings or sometimes just gazing at one of his photographs of sepia colored shadows and light. Any efforts I made to draw him out into conversation or contact were met with uncharacteristic sharpness.
Obsession was beginning to consume him.
By the time we arrived at our destination three days later, St. John had given up sleep entirely. I still remember the look of him, pale with purple shadows under his eyes, as he stood on the railway platform in the early morning light. His gaze over the remote platform was empty. I could barely recognize him, once so beautiful, now so spent and wan looking.
“You’ve got what you were after, aren’t you pleased?” I asked him gently, laying my hand on his shoulder as he surveyed the countryside. “We’ll see what we find, all right?”
He only nodded.
For another three days we stayed in the woods. We lit fires, slept on cots under trees, and searched for St. John’s crow girl. On the third day I finally spoke up.
“Let’s go home, St. John. There’s nothing here.” I had kept my doubts to myself. But, watching the sun struggle bleakly through the cold fog as it rose, I found the thought of another day of watching him search for nothing unbearable. Also, the state of my companion’s health was becoming an increasing concern. “You look ill, and you seem perfectly miserable. I don’t like seeing you this way, St. John. Let’s go home and forget all about this nonsense.”
“It isn’t nonsense!” His voice had more force to it than I had heard in days. He lowered his head and let his eyes slide shut. “And we’re not leaving… not yet.”
Dawn continued to break, cold and hard. I wish now that I had told St. John that enough was enough; that we were leaving. I wish now that I could have foreseen what would happen in the next few hours.
We found her.
Well, we found something. Even I will admit that there is no explanation for what I saw happen.
“But wait.” I found my words interrupted. “You know that the coroner found that Mr. Padget had been dead for approximately a week, yet you claim you traveled with him for three days, and were in the woods with him for three more, and that you saw him alive on the day the body was found. What do you have to say to that?”
“I say that if I was not telling the truth, I’d change my claim in order to correspond to the coroner’s findings in order to make my lie more believable and less fantastic. However, the truth is that it was three days, and three days I am saying. St. John was with me on the trip for those six days.”
I did not respond, and sank into my remembering and my monologue. My interviewer fell back into silence.
Fog had erased all color from the woods. The air was wet and heavy as the morning light struggled to reach us. St. John was deathly pale now, eyes sunken and cheeks wasted, but he seemed strangely alert, keen on something, like a hunting dog that noses a grouse.
“St. John, please. You look ill. We’ll come back when you’re…”
He’d seen something. As he stood ashen and motionless as stone, I followed his line of sight. I wanted to scream, but my mouth merely hung open in terrified silence.
A young woman, clothed only in the mist, stood in-between two enormous ash trees. Her skin was as pale and dusty looking as the fog, and her hair was as black as ink and hung in matted elf locks over her shoulders and down her back, nearly down to the backs of her knees.
“There, you see? She’s merely a human being, probably abandoned or orphaned. We’ll simple take her to an asylum and that will be that.” I could hear the tremor in my own voice betray me.
The girl opened her little round mouth and let out a noise like the cawing of a crow.
“St. John! Come away, clearly she’s mad. We’ll notify the authorities and…” but the scene before my eyes clearly told me that St. John was lost to me.
He walked closer and closer to the darkly ethereal girl. She opened her mouth again and made clicking, purring noises, oddly similar to a contented hen. I felt my stomach turn. It was like watching the butterfly drift into the web of the spider. He drew closer and closer, until he was very nearly able to touch her. I remember thinking it odd that a feral child would allow him to get so close. Yet, her movements looked as though she was drawing him in for a kiss, like a lover. I saw their mouths meet.
I bolted forward to stop the atrocity, only to be met by a wall of black feathered bodies that seemed to come out of nowhere. Ink-black crows flew around me, their cries deafening, their black feathers blinding, and their beaks and claws tearing. I fought through them, I believe I attempted to scream St. John’s name, but too soon everything turned black and I knew no more after that.
“They found you unconscious in the woods, and Mr. Padget dead.” The remark was blunt enough to sound obscene. “The condition of his body was quite shocking. Though, I find it interesting that you reference an appearance of a kiss. The damage to Mr. Padget’s face and jaw indicated…”
“Stop it. I don’t want to hear.”
“Well, the reality is that they have yet to determine how Mr. Padget died. He’d been dead too many days and had been picked over by beasts. That is why we were hoping you’d come to your senses and shed some light on the subject.”
“I told you what happened. My head is clear.”
“And you maintain that the marks of a struggle on you were from when…”
“When I rushed through the crows to get at him, yes, I said.”
“That’s not possible. There’s no way this story…”
“That’s what I would have said if you’d told the story to me.” I smiled. “And would you like to know something else?” I pulled St. John’s photographs out of my breast pocket.
“What is that?”
“I can see them now, what St. John saw in the photographs. I can see her quite clear.”
“They’re just shapes and shadows.”
“Oh yes, it’s very plain to see. And the only thing I want right now is to see her again.”Tags: Allison Dunlap, mystery, horror