The Ritual

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My moth­er knocked on my door and stepped in with a lit lantern. Her wide grin was set into her wrin­kled skin and glow­ing from the whoosh of the flame in her hand. She beck­oned me for­ward, and I looked on with con­fu­sion, then won­der. I had almost for­got­ten. It was the 20th already.

I set my book down, what­ev­er sen­tence I was read­ing before she entered erased from my mind, and slipped into my shoes that I always kept at the side of my bed for this occa­sion. They were my nicest pair: a dark leather boot that went up to my ankles, and on the cuff, pink and red flow­ers wrapped them­selves down to the toe. It was impor­tant, my moth­er had told me when she gave them to me. When you go out into the woods at night, you must be sure that your feet are cov­ered. That was after my father passed away, near­ly five years ago, and short­ly before my moth­er start­ed hear­ing them.

I set my book down with­out mark­ing my place, it was late and the night of the 20th wasn’t infi­nite. We had to make it out there, my mom said, before the day turned.

“Come, come, love. Can you hear them? They just started.”

I bent my ear like I always did, and closed my eyes tight. All I could hear was the creak­ing of the wood in the rafters, the slight whoosh that the lantern made, and my breath­ing. I want­ed to hear, so bad, but I couldn’t. Moth­er didn’t have to know that.

“Yes! I can hear them,” I said.

“Then we must hur­ry, come on. Grab the supplies.”

She opened the door wider for me as I jumped back and forth to get my boots onto my feet. They were a lit­tle tighter now that I’d grown over the past year, but I wouldn’t give them up until I bust­ed through the heel. I final­ly got them all the way on as I entered the main part of the house where the kitchen and our chairs were. They were love­ly chairs, with spin­dle backs carved by my moth­er. I was care­ful to lis­ten in the wind as I gath­ered the sup­plies. Three can­dles, and a bun­dle of match­es, all went into the sack that I threw over my shoul­der. Even a bot­tle of wine my moth­er let me try. I didn’t like it the first time, but she said it was good for me, so I drank it every 20th of the month, and not too long, l fell in love with the vine­gary taste. She made the best wine in the village.

We made our way out of the door and into the warm air of the evening. The only sound that seemed to come from the woods was the rustling of the leaves. All of the ani­mals had stopped call­ing, as if they had heard what my moth­er heard, too. I felt alone at that moment, but when my moth­er took my hand and led me far­ther into the for­est, I felt bet­ter. The lantern lit the way well, oaks trav­el­ing by us like ghost­ly pil­lars. It felt wrong to be out at night. But I loved it.

The trees part­ed fifty feet ahead and led to the cir­cu­lar mead­ow my moth­er carved out years pri­or. She walked me to it one ear­ly evening, when she had start­ed to hear them, and said we need­ed to come out here every month, or else. I didn’t dare ask what or else meant, because her nor­mal­ly cheer­ful demeanor slipped into a grip­ping fear that shook her shoulders.

She set the lantern down on a small log at the edge of the cir­cle. It was lined with smooth stones from the riv­er at the edge of our property.

“C’mon, quick, my love. They’re get­ting louder.”

I set the bag on the ground and start­ed gath­er­ing the can­dles in my arms. My moth­er hummed to her­self, stopped and bent her ear to the sky, and hummed again. Every time we came out here I was as qui­et as pos­si­ble, so I could get the chance to hear what she was hear­ing. I’d asked her mul­ti­ple times what they were, and the expla­na­tion con­fused me.

“They are every­where, and nowhere, my sweet child.”

How could some­thing be every­where and nowhere at the same time? I only nod­ded and for­got about it. One day, I’m sure I’ll understand.

The can­dles were all set in the cir­cle, even­ly spaced like a tri­an­gle, with their wicks danc­ing in the wind and cast­ing gar­gan­tu­an shad­ows of our bod­ies on the trees.

“Are you ready to get start­ed?” my moth­er asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

My moth­er gath­ered her dress around her ankles while I did the same, we stared at one anoth­er, me wait­ing for my moth­er to give the sign, and she nod­ded. We began to spin. My mother’s hair whipped from side to side as she danced in the light of the can­dles, her feet crush­ing the wet foliage below us. I tried to dance qui­et­ly, so I could hear them, and when we had been going for near­ly two min­utes, breath­less and gig­gling, I did hear some­thing that made me stop.

Out in the woods, some­thing shift­ed in the night. Not a small ani­mal like a rac­coon or a fox, but some­thing large. I felt as though we were being watched, and that same feel­ing that we were doing some­thing wrong sprang back up in my brain.

My moth­er stopped as well, anger grow­ing on her face, then happiness.

‘They’re loud tonight, aren’t they?“ she said and con­tin­ued to dance. But my feet stayed still. Out in the dis­tance, among the thick bush­es that lined the riv­er, I could see the out­line of some­thing mov­ing, tall and thin in the trees. Some­thing was watch­ing us. Could it be them, I thought, the things my moth­er had been talk­ing about all of these years? What could they want with us? Was the danc­ing not keep­ing them away? I want­ed to run, but my moth­er grabbed me by the arm as she danced past me and yanked me into a twirl.

“We’re almost done!” she said. “I can feel them fad­ing.” But as we danced, I saw that being saunter off into the woods toward the village.

•••

The next morn­ing I woke up scared and parched in my room. I had a dream about mon­sters sur­round­ing our house, and tak­ing us both with them into the dark. It was sil­ly, though. What I and my moth­er had done all of these years had kept them at bay. Why now should I think that they want to hurt us? I shook my wor­ry from my sleepy head and got ready to go into the vil­lage with my moth­er for goods.

It was always excit­ing, and scary, to go into the vil­lage. We didn’t live in it, but I always liked to think we were a part of it, even if the peo­ple didn’t treat us like we were. Our home was on the out­skirts of the small Vil­lage of Lau­rel­ton, Con­necti­cut. It had been built short­ly after I was born, my moth­er told me. Even though she and my father were already estab­lished there, the set­tlers decid­ed to cut down an area of sprawl­ing woods for their new home and used that wood to build the many homes that were there now. My moth­er said it was because they thought the land was bet­ter and more fer­tile, but they were nev­er able to grow any­thing unlike my moth­er, who grew bar­ley and pota­toes, pump­kins, and squash­es. That always con­fused me, but as I grew old­er I saw the stares and the way they all looked at us.

My moth­er was wait­ing for me out on the small wood­en steps of our home and jumped up joy­ful­ly as I walked out of the door.

“Beau­ti­ful morn­ing, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes,” I answered.

The walk to the vil­lage was quick. Only a quar­ter mile from our small home. The hous­es were in two rows. A dirt path was carved into the earth with riv­er-like ruts, made by the wag­on wheels and the hooves of hors­es, that divid­ed each side of the vil­lage into sec­tions. Two hous­es and the Riley’s barn on the right, two hous­es on the left, and the church which sat at the end of the road and capped the town like the cork of a wine bot­tle. It wasn’t like the trees, the qui­et land­scape filled with soft crea­tures and bugs. It was loud and full of won­der­ful, and hor­ri­ble smells. Smells of the bread bak­ing in the Thompson’s, and the manure of the cows that the Rileys kept. It was exciting.

The sec­ond we stepped onto the road from the leaf-dark­ened canopy, the town seemed dif­fer­ent. It was qui­et. No bread was bak­ing, chim­neys bare­ly whis­pered smoke. Unbe­knownst to myself I quick­ened my pace towards the town cen­ter. What if they had got­ten to the peo­ple last night? The rest of the vil­lage didn’t dance. 

My moth­er yelled from behind. “What are you doing? In such a rush today, hmm?”

I scanned the vil­lage to find a sign of lanterns in the win­dows and saw none until I made my way past the first house, and behind it, where the large barn stood, was a group of peo­ple in a cir­cle. I must have caused a rau­cous run­ning through the street because they all turned to me, and their already hor­ri­fied faces hard­ened. It made me want to shrink down to the size of a pix­ie and dis­ap­pear back to our home.

My moth­er final­ly caught up, and waved gai­ly to the group, who con­tin­ued to whis­per in hush­es. “I won­der what’s the mat­ter,” she said and pulled me along.

“Greet­ings, every­one! Won­der­ful morn­ing, isn’t it?” she said.

The man who seemed to be lead­ing the con­gre­ga­tion, Nathan, stepped for­ward with his hands on his hips, and a scowl so fierce that even my moth­er shrunk back slightly.

“No, Lydia, it is not. My daugh­ter Har­ri­et has gone missing.”

“Oh, my word,” my moth­er said, plac­ing her hand on her mouth. “What happened?”

“That’s what we’re try­ing to find out,” piped up anoth­er, Samuel, stout and red-faced in the heat of the morning.

“Well if we see her we’ll be sure to let you know,” my moth­er said, and off they went.

I looked back, and all their eyes stayed upon us, until they cir­cled back around, each one pok­ing their heads out of the cir­cle, like prairie dogs on the look­out for preda­tors. I thought of the thing in the dark­ness the night pri­or. Despite the heat of the day, I felt frozen.

•••

It was night when I gath­ered the courage to ask my moth­er about what hap­pened. It had nagged at my mind all day, tak­ing any joy from my nor­mal activities.

“Moth­er?” I said as we sat in our chairs. The fire coughed and burped in the hearth.

“Mmh­mm?” she said.

“I heard some­thing in the for­est last night.”

“We always do on the twen­ti­eth, my love.”

I set my book on the floor and turned to her.

“Not like that, I heard some­thing crawl­ing through the woods. Some­thing large, and then it went towards the village.”

She turned her head slow­ly. Her face had gone a sick­ly white in the fire­light. “Crawl­ing?”

She stood abrupt­ly. Her knit­ting pit­ter pat­tered to the floor, where the spool of red twine unwound as if it were blood pool­ing on the floor. “Oh, dear,” she said. “Danc­ing is not enough. They are here now.”

“What is here, mother?”

She ran her hands through her hair, and went to the win­dow to stare out, snap­ping her head back and forth. “We must do the rit­u­al again. Tonight.”

The idea of going out­side and danc­ing, drink­ing wine with my moth­er, while those things were out there caused me to slith­er down in my chair, as if to hide myself from the world.

“Must we, Moth­er? What if they were the ones who got to Harriet?”

“The vil­lagers do not hear as we do, child. They wouldn’t under­stand. Come, grab your things.”

I didn’t move and instead looked out into the dark­ness. They could be out there, wait­ing for us, and if the danc­ing didn’t work the night pri­or, did it ever work at all? My moth­er scam­pered around the liv­ing room, gath­er­ing her things as I sat, pray­ing we wouldn’t have to go. My whole life, I believed what my moth­er had told me about the things in the night, the things we kept away from us, but if it didn’t work, what if those things had nev­er been there at all, and what I heard last night was some­thing else? I got light­head­ed and felt my heart rate quick­en. Beads of sweat formed on my brow, and just as I was going to tell my moth­er I didn’t feel well, she knelt beside me, and with her usu­al­ly charm­ing, bright eyes, she pierced into me with a fury I had nev­er seen.

“Do you want to be the rea­son your moth­er dies, Lidia? Hmm?”

My voice came out shaky. “No.”

“Then get up, and grab the can­dles,” she said and stepped out of the door and into the night.

My moth­er bent her ear to the sky when I walked out into the cool air. This time was dif­fer­ent. She was twitchy, talk­ing to her­self in a low mur­mur. I had been afraid the night before, but now it wasn’t them that I was scared of, it was my mother.

She walked far ahead of me, a sil­hou­ette in the night. I lis­tened, too, for them, but now I knew what sounds I need­ed to hear. Some­thing moved out in the for­est again, and I yelped, and ran back towards our home, leav­ing my moth­er. The thought of young Har­ri­et miss­ing, some­where out there, was all I need­ed to leave. She didn’t even notice, at first. My feet hit the ground with rapid, fran­tic beats, snap­ping twigs and slip­ping on stones. I could feel some­thing behind me, mov­ing fast now, and when I turned I saw it was my moth­er. Her teeth were bared as if she were a wild ani­mal, and it near­ly stopped my heart. I ran to the left, just miss­ing a tree as I heard her mur­mur­ing to her­self behind me.

She was get­ting far­ther back, I could tell by the sounds of her boots fad­ing. I stopped behind a large oak and tried to catch my breath. Why now? Every­thing had been fine. Did I do some­thing wrong? A twig snapped near me, and when I bent to look around the tree, I didn’t see my moth­er, but what I saw the night pri­or, in clear­er vision. It was Nathan, Harriet’s father, on his hands and knees caress­ing some­thing that lay on the damp soil, hid­den by the shad­ow of the tree. He must be out here look­ing for his daugh­ter. But with­out a lantern? I almost called to him but thought oth­er­wise when he stopped and stared off in the dis­tance to see my moth­er trudg­ing through the for­est. He ran off. He didn’t look like a man who was look­ing for his daugh­ter, I thought, wouldn’t he have stopped and asked us if we’d seen her? 

I was yanked from behind the tree and thrown to the ground by my moth­er. She was breath­less, pant­i­ng and sweating.

“Mom–” I tried to explain, but her hand reached back and swung. The sound of her palm hit­ting my cheek was like the crack of a whip. I crawled, with my front towards her. She had nev­er struck me. Ever. She seemed to be shocked her­self, hold­ing her hand up in the light as if it had been dipped in gold, and she want­ed to see it glisten.

“I was afraid for you, my love. I… we need to dance, for them, or else they’ll do what they did to your father. Please.” She trailed off. Her ear raised, lis­ten­ing again, but I did not try to lis­ten with her. I was start­ing to think that there was noth­ing and nev­er was. My entire life we had danced on the 20th, or at least as long as I can remem­ber. Now, that was taint­ed, and so were the boots that left my feet bleed­ing into my stock­ings, for­ev­er ruin­ing them, as the 20th always would be.

“Come with me, my love,” she said and held out her hand. I shrunk back and shook my head.

“No, moth­er. No. There is noth­ing out there, not them, it’s who. I saw Nathan out there! He was look­ing for Har­ri­et, like we should be, not danc­ing in the woods. It does nothing!”

My moth­er wasn’t even lis­ten­ing any­more. She shiv­ered, shook her head as tears fell down her cheeks, and walked towards the cir­cle to leave me in the dirt. I stood. Despite my fear, the sounds of the creak­ing trees, and my sore feet, I had the feel­ing to go over to where Nathan had been. It was irra­tional. Against every one of the feel­ings in my body, but I need­ed to know, I need­ed to know what he was doing. I stepped out under a ray of moon­light, and that is when I saw what he had been caress­ing in the dirt. Blond hair, and a dirty, gray dress near­ly in half. It was Har­ri­et. She was beau­ti­ful and dead. Her skin was pale and bloat­ed, her throat slit and full of mag­gots. Tears filled my eyes. She was so small. So love­ly. It wasn’t fair. I stood and scanned the woods for my moth­er. She was in the cir­cle with just the lantern to illu­mi­nate her wild danc­ing. I almost approached but stopped. Some­thing was car­ried in the wind. A sound, so faint, that it took every­thing for me to con­cen­trate on it, and not the body of poor Har­ri­et behind me. It was a chant­i­ng, a furtive roar that grew and grew. Was this what my moth­er heard on the 20th? I near­ly col­lapsed. It was Nathan, all this time. Was my moth­er crazy, is that why she hears things? The sound grew loud­er, hun­dreds of voic­es on the wind. I had to go and warn her because the sound was not them, it was them, the vil­lagers, angry with lanterns held up in front of their faces.

“They killed her!” Nathan yelled. My moth­er seemed to not hear them. I screamed for her, and she looked up as the mob sur­round­ed the cir­cle of stones, each one angry like a beast. I had to tell them what I had seen, that I had seen Nathan out there with her. I ran to them, pushed one of the men aside, and took my moth­er by the hand.

“Don’t you touch us! We did noth­ing wrong. I saw Nathan. Out there with his daugh­ter. How would he have known where she was? He did it!”

“They lie,” Nathan yelled. “That’s what witch­es do best, is lie. I saw them last night, as I was look­ing for my daugh­ter and they were per­form­ing a rit­u­al.” The crowd gasped and inched back from us. “Why do you think their land is fer­tile, while ours is a bar­ren waste­land? Not even the cows have grass to feed on. And now they take my daugh­ter from me?”

Nathan reached out and snatched my moth­er by her arm. Tears streamed down her blushed cheeks. I cried out.

“There must be a tri­al! Is that not customary?”

“The jury has made up their mind!” A man yelled. The crowd agreed with screams of anger.

Samuel stomped over to grab me. I swung my arm wild­ly, hop­ing to land a sol­id blow, but it was not near­ly enough to stop the man. He snatched my wrist out of the air and bent my arm behind my back.

“We will burn them for their crimes,” Nathan yelled.They dragged me and my moth­er from our cir­cle, and when they did, I heard them. The rest of the vil­lage turned to stare into the woods, where they heard them too.

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Con­tribut­ing Author

Tyler Markham (he/him) is a writer from the Mid­west and has a par­tic­u­lar obses­sion with small-town hor­ror. His writ­ing jour­ney began at a young age, and cou­pled with his love of the para­nor­mal, the hor­ror writer he is now was born. You can see him in the Kaidankai Pod­cast Decem­ber 2023 and Wicked Shad­ow Press’s Halloweenthology.

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