The All Hallows Witches
Tuesday, nothing special, same mundane day dragging on as usual. Then I get this phone call from my aunt. Not the nice social sort, she and I shared every week but borderline hysterical.
My aunt Jeanette, lived on a remote croft in the Scottish highlands. It was at the end of October, when I got the panic phone call from her asking me to come up urgently to Scotland. I didn't give it a moments thought. I immediately said, “Sure. I'm on my way.” And began to make arrangements for the 300 mile drive from my home in London. I was intrigued because she wouldn't tell why she needed my help so pressingly.
If I was going to make it to Scotland, driving my clapped out banger of a car all the way there, was not an option. Poor old thing had only just scrapped through it's MOT test. Perhaps it would have been better if I had driven my own car, as it was, I hired, what I thought was a tougher, newer, and more reliable transport. I hired a 4x4, and set off confident I'd have no problems.
I had driven to my aunt's cottage many times, but the delay caused in hiring a car made me leave London later than I should have. It was almost 10 pm and very dark when I finally arrived at her single story farm house.
My aunt opened the door looking harassed and with a troubled expression on her normally calm face.
“What took you so long?” She asked peering into the blackness quickly ushering me through the door and slamming the bolt in place, something she never usually bothered to you.
“Heavens – what have you done to yourself?” I asked. She was on crutches with a plaster cast on her right leg that went up to her knee.
“Had an accident with the car. It's a lot worse off than I am. I'll tell you all about it later but first help me with these bags. I've booked us rooms at an hotel for the night. It's about 20 miles from here, so we better get going.” She answered talking rapidly as if speaking any slower was wasting time.
Without offering any explanation Aunt Jeanette, pointed a crutch at a holdall, and small suitcase sitting by her front door.
I hauled the luggage to the car, settled her in. With my curiosity at bursting point, I said, “Okay, I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what on earth is going on.”
“I'll tell you as we drive. We canny stay here any longer. It's getting too close to the time. They'll soon be here.”
“Who will be here?”
“I said drive. We can't stay here any longer.” The terror in her voice made me do as she told me. I put the key back in the ignition, and started the car. Except I didn't. The car growled, spluttered but refused to turn the engine over. I tried three more times. Each time I got the same response. Noise – no movement.
“We'd better get back inside and protect ourselves.” She scrambled out of the car, and hobbled as fast as her injury allowed back into the house. I followed, my curiosity reaching its limits.
Inside she began barking orders at me, “Close all the shutters and make sure the outer doors are barred. I'll re-stoke the fire. There's more wood in the back lobby. As soon as you've barred the door, bring all the wood there is, in here. We need as big a blaze as we can get, and me mustn’t let the fire go out. ”
“Auntie – will you please tell me what on earth is happening here? What is after you?”
I saw in my aunt's eyes a cavernously deep terror. Her face became drained of colour as she whispered, “They are coming not just for me – they are coming for us.”
I squeezed her hand and asked as gently as I could,” What is coming for us? Why are you so frightened?”
“Because of what my ancestor did. Please don't waste time. First we must make the cottage safe from anything getting in, then I'll tell you everything.”
My aunt's cottage had heavy wooden shutters covering every window of the single story building. I had always thought they were there to keep out the harsh highland winter. It wouldn't be long before I learnt the real reason, and I was going to be terrified beyond my imagination.
Each window had a shutter either side of it, and each shutter opened down the middle, with a thick iron bolt on the inside running across the centre, making it impossible for anyone to open the shutter from the outside. The ceiling hatch to the roof attic had a thick iron chain and double padlocks securing it from being opened from inside the attic. The front and back doors of the cottage were protected by a stone porch that had a heavy wooden door opening outwards with the same iron bolt configuration across the middle, and strong metal bolts top and bottom. The front and back doors of the cottage mirrored the porch doors.
I went through the cottage closing the shutters, and bolting them. As I shut the the windows I realised the double glazed units were made from unbreakable glass. I drew the curtains, and wondered what on earth had my aunt so frightened that she had turned her cottage into a mini fortress.
The house on total lock down, we sat by the now roaring fire drinking coffee to keep us awake. My aunt talking – me listening.
“Your great grandfather Hamish MacDonald, a few times back, was a man of strong religious views who believed in the devil as strongly as he believed in God. In 1647, the burning of witches was a familiar occurrence in these parts. The victims nearly always women. On a particularly cold wet November night, there was a knock at the cottage door. Four women, one heavily pregnant were outside begging for sanctuary. Hamish's wife, Jean MacDonald, did what any decent person would do, she let them in to warm themselves by the fire and fed them hot broth. Hamish had been away in the local town, and on his return he recognised the women as witches who had been tried and sentenced to burn at the stake. Somehow they had managed to escape from their accusers, and fled into the hills looking for a place to hide until the storm passed.
Jean, pleaded with him to help them. She begged for the unborn child's sake to let them stay.
He'd have none of it. “That creature nestled in her belly is the devil's child. It should die along with her.” His heart as hard as stone, Hamish threw them out into the cold dark night.
Quietly, Jean, told them to go to the barn where they would at least be warm until morning, when she would try and help them get away.
During night the pregnant woman went into labour in the barn. She died giving birth to a stillborn baby boy. In the morning Hamish found the bodies of the mother and child in his barn. Unrepentant at his cruelty he went into town and alerted the witch hunters about the other women. The three other woman didn't get far before they were caught. Guilty of witchcraft, they were burnt at the stake, and as they burned, in their agony they cursed Hamish MacDonald, and all his offspring.
The following year, on all hallows eve, Hamish and Jean were sitting in front of a warm fire, when there was a a knock on the door. Hamish went out to see who it was. I don't know for sure what happened. Nobody does other that Jean found him in front of the barn. A terrorized expression on his face, and his hands curled as if clutching at something.”
“Auntie – it's just a story. Who knows what really happened back then. He could have been drunk and died of exposure.” I said rationally. My aunt came back straight at me.
“There were others. After Hamish died, Jean moved away and gave the croft to Hamish's younger brother. He never lived there but on his death the cottage and land was inherited by his son. Joshua MacDonald died the same way as his uncle on all hallows eve. After that, although the croft has remained in the MacDonald family, no one in the family has ever stayed here again on Halloween. Until tonight.”
The shiver than ran down my spine chilled me to my bones.
“They will come for us and we have to be ready.” As if to emphasise her point she threw a large log on the fire. We sat in silence as the flames caught hold of the wood.
I felt the heat of the fire as if I was inside it. And was it my imagination? Did I hear a scream on the wind? The agonised sound of a woman burning to death. I'm sure I did. Whatever I thought I heard, the noise of someone knocking on the front door was heard by us both.
The cloak on the mantel above the fireplace showed 10pm.
Our night of horror began.
Several loud raps in succession ripped into the silence between us.
“It's them.” My aunt whispered in a terror soaked voice.
“It could be a neighbour calling to see if you are all right.” Neither of us believed what I was saying.
We sat still, not daring to move, straining our ears against the clamour of the highland wind whistling around the cottage, praying to hear retreating footsteps.
My heart was pounding so hard, it vibrated against the inside of my skull. Fear dried my throat that I couldn't breathe. Then the knocking stopped, and for a long time there was an eerie expectant silence.
The scratching began softly at first. On another night, we'd have dismissed it as mice – but this was all hallows, and something was outside wanting revenge. The scratching became a deep clawing. We saw in our imagination the gouges cut in shutters, and the owners of the long talons that were ripping into the thick wood.
I shivered, and for the first time in my life wished I wasn't a MacDonald.
Dead fingers turned the door handles, rattling the locks, trying in vain to enter.
Fear shot down to my bladder. I had to pee. Then I remembered, the bathroom was the one room where I had forgotten to close the shutters.
I was going to have to open the window, lean out, grab the shutters, and then pull them together before I could close them. The window was typical of a bathroom, narrow. It would be a squeeze. Getting stuck a possible reality.
My brain yelled at me to scramble to my feet and repair my mistake.
I glanced at my aunt. Her eyes were red rimmed from tiredness. The skin across her cheeks pinched and sallow, dark circles under the redness, accentuated her fearful expression. I felt awful in forgetting the shutter, I'd let her down. I brightened for a moment. The window was triple glazed with security glass. Surely nothing could get through that? Did I need to tell her? She'd find out when she used the bathroom. No point in hiding what I done.
“Auntie Jeanette. I didn't close the shutter over the bathroom window. Surely that's okay? After all the window itself is as strong as Fort Knox?”
What little colour she had left in her face drained to pale ashen.
“Oh Alison. You have to shut it. It's not the shutters themselves that are important. It's the runes written on them.”
“But I didn't see any runes.” I defended myself.
“They are old and faded but they are there, and they are our only protection. You have to close those shutters. If you don't they will get in, and we will die.”
Filled with that cheering thought, I sped to the bathroom. I no longer needed to pee. My fear saw to that.
The glass in the window was clear. I had always thought it was another of my aunt's odd foibles, now I understood why. A light hanging directly above the window gave an unobstructed view of the outside. Pressing up against the glass, I could see everything in a ten feet circle. Enough to warn me of approaching witches – I hoped.
My dry throat ached for relief. The sink taps' tantalizing allure of water tempted me – but I daren't drink. I wasn't going to alert whatever was out there to where I was.
With the same thought I left the light switch turned off. I didn't need the light anyway. There was enough brightness coming in from the outside.
With trembling fingers I slowly lifted the handle of the window until I felt a slight opening. Not daring to breath I gently pushed it open and leaned out as far as I could, both arms extended. The force of the biting cold curled my fingers, slowing me down.
There was something circling on my left. Movement caught the edge of my vision, then I heard the footsteps close by. Too close.
Another movement to my right. Panic swelled up my abdomen, hitting me in the chest. I stopped breathing but I didn't stop thinking. I threw myself as far forward as I could, grabbed the shutters, and I yanked as quickly as I could to close them. Inches from my goal two pairs of hands, the fingers blackened and burnt down to the bone in places, seized hold of each shutter, forcing them open again.
I heard myself scream as I saw their faces or rather what was left of their faces. Black eyes, mad with vengeance. Scorched flesh hanging down in fire savaged ribbons. Lip-less teeth snarling hate at me. There was not a glimmer of humanity left in the creatures, only a raging fury against the living.
Somehow I managed to keep my mind, and hang onto the edge of wooden shutters. Hard as I tried, my physical strength was no match for their ethereal anger. The shutters flew open and the witches screeched into the bathroom.
My memory of what happened next is sketchy. The rubber end of a crutch was push under my arm. Seizing the lifeline I somehow made it to the open doorway, and my aunt. Balancing on one crutch she slammed the door shut behind me with the other. On the side facing into the hallway, she had hurriedly chalked a set of symbols.
“These should keep them out for awhile.” She said of her work.
“What do they say?”
“I've no idea. I simply wrote what is written on the shutters. I only hope I remembered correctly.” She had.
The wind calmed to a low monotonous drone. It would have been better if it hadn't. The quiet brought with it another horror.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight, and a cold dread crawled up my spine, sending a tingling sensation all the way to my finger tips. I no longer felt simple fear, a far greater dread took hold of me as I listened to the creatures running up the side of the cottage, and onto the roof. Moments later roof tiles began to cascade like rain down onto the ground. We held hands as the bolted hatchway to the attic shook from a tremendous force hitting it over and over again. The chain strained, and one of the padlocks split apart. Horrified we watched the hatch opening.
“The kitchen steps. Go get them.” I understood immediately what my aunt planned to do. I pulled the steps directly under the hatch.
Fire ravaged fingers curled tightly onto the wooden attic door pulling it upwards. What was left of an arm pushed through the opening swatting the air.
Ducking the arm, and ignoring the pain shooting through her foot my aunt managed to balance herself on the top step. Giving no thought to the harm to her already broken leg if she fell, she stretched upwards far as she could, and wrote the same strange words as she had on the bathroom door.
The last symbol drawn, a piecing shriek sliced the air, howling profanities the creature was thrown backwards by the forceful power of the ancient spell.
As long as I live, I hope never again to hear such a sound as that scream.
Then everything went quiet. We piled more wood on the fire sending the flames high up into the chimney. Exhaustion pushing us towards sleep, we drank more black coffee to stay awake, and waited, praying we'd heard the last of the witches.
“If the runes stop them getting into the house. Surely there must be a some way of stopping them from coming here at all?” The runes worked at keeping the witches out of the cottage, so it stood to reason there had to be a way of lifting the curse.
My aunt nodded a slow tired nod, sighed deeply and said, “Maybe there is a way to stop this – I don't know if I have the courage to do it.” She was talking more to herself than me.
“And that is?” I asked when she didn't continue.
“It's too frightening. And besides I don't know if they will do as I hope.”
“Aunt Jeanette, what happens if you get trapped here on Halloween again, and I'm not here to help you? Are you going to face these creatures on your own? Please - tell me. I'll do whatever it takes to rid us of this curse.”
My aunt looked washed-out and on the verge of collapse - but I had to know. I pushed, “Tell me. At least let me try.”
Her light blue eyes had taken on a slate grey, and there were newly appeared streaks of white in her hair. Shrugging something to herself she said, “Many years ago, my father consulted a medium. She told him we had to face the wronged women. We had to atone for the crime Hamish committed. We have to make amends.”
“And how do we do that?”
“We have to invite them into the cottage, and let them stay the night with us. And we have to do it before midnight.”
The clock on the mantel said we had fifteen minutes to decide.
Had it only been two short hours since I'd pulled my hire car up in front of my aunt's cottage. It seemed like days.
I made the decision for both of us. I did not need to look at my aunt to see her expression as I walked toward the front door, the chill of her terror was driven into my back.
What choice did I have?
After the blazing heat of the cottage the night air was cold on freezing – but it wasn't the cold that made be shudder. Standing in the pool of yellow light cast outwards from the porch, stood the four women. I saw them as they had looked in life. Two of them were so alike they had to have been sister. Wild red hair that tumbled down their backs in rivers of fiery curls. High boned cheeks, and wide green eyes, gave a a frame to their full lipped mouths. Tall and willowy slender with high full mounded breasts shown off from underneath low cut bodices. They were beautiful, how anyone could have imaged them to be witches was beyond me. The other two were completely different. The one with the baby, so very young, not more than seventeen, dark haired with grey eyes that had seen too much pain beyond her years.
The last of them, an old bent woman who could not have been less than seventy when she went to the fire. She may have looked the part of a witch, grey streaked hair, hanging in dirty unkempt clumps around her shoulders – but her only crime was being old.
“My name is Alison MacDonald, I am a descendant of Hamish MacDonald, a cruel man who caused you great harm - but I am also the descendant of Jean MacDonald, who tried to help you. We have his blood in us but not his cruelty. Please come in from the cold and warm yourselves.” Anticipation gripped my senses. I swallowed hard and stood to one side as the women walked passed me into the cottage.
My aunt frozen with fear, sat upright in her chair, unmoving, as the macabre quartet formed a semi-circle around her.
She looked over to me, a solitary tear began to journey down her face as she said, “I lied. There was no medium. I just wanted this to end. And there's something else you need to know.”
Before she could finish saying what it was, the women turned to me and said,“You are no MacDonald.”
My aunt nodded, “Your mother couldn't have children.” It was one helluva way to find out I was adopted.
“We are Margaret and Ellen Curran.” The two who looked to be sisters said.
“I am Mary Douglas.” Said the old woman.
“I am Flora Murry, my son would have been Ian.”
“We have come for justice against the last line of Hamish MacDonald.” They all said together.
Even though the fire blazed with a yellow blue ferocity, an intense cold enveloped the room. I felt the undiluted white fury of their souls, wraiths of the underworld consumed by vengeance had come for my aunt – and I had let them in.
“No. You won't take her. Not while I've got anything to say about it, you won't.” I had a sudden understanding of what was about to happen to my aunt.
If I couldn't stop them before the clock struck midnight, they would take my aunt's soul down into hell.
I rushed a glance up at the mantel, I had ten minutes before the clock reached midnight.
Snatching one of my aunt's crutches I hit wildly outwards with the it, aiming at the nearest witch to me.
By luck I got a direct hit on Flora, she doubled over clutching at her stomach in pain.
Taking my lead, from her sitting position in the chair, my aunt stabbed at them with the other crutch.
“It's the night of all hallows.” My aunt shouted swishing her crutch in mid-air, “It's the only night they can take human form, and the only night we can fight them.” She laughed at the crazy understanding that for all years the MacDonalds had lived in fear of Halloween, it was the one night they could have rid themselves of their curse.
Flora stumbled backwards towards the fire, I saw my chance, and took it. I lunged at her. Catching her squarely in the middle, I pushed her into the roaring fire. The flames leapt to embrace her, consuming her body in a spiral of thick brackish green smoke.
With a mind to the ticking clock, I wasted no time in attacking the other three. This time is was not so easy. They weren't going to go anywhere near the fire. My aunt, bless her, had other ideas.
Pulling herself up from the chair, she balanced her side against the armrest and continued to stab at the three women surrounding her, pushing them back from her, and closer to the hearth.
Intend on my aunt, and seemingly forgetting about me, I managed to give Mary Douglas a heavy crack across the back of her head. She was the next one that went with the help of the crutch into the fire.
There we were, the four of us. Both sides intend on the final end of the other.
The short hand on the clock was perilously close to midnight. If I didn't do something and quick, my aunt would be lost to the real world forever. There are times in your life when something so extraordinary happens that you find a strength you never knew you had. This was one of those times.
Out from somewhere I found a strength, I didn't know I had. Three minutes to midnight.
I threw the crutch away from me and grabbed hold of the two sisters. Digging my fingers firmly onto their arms, I drank deeply from that unseen thing that gives you a strength far beyond your norm, and hurled them one after the other into the crackling flames.
We watched, my aunt and I, as the things that had once been human women were consumed by the fire just as the clock on the mantel touched midnight.
After that night. My aunt Jeanette, sold the cottage, and came to live with me in London.
Will the all hallows witches no longer seek revenge? I'm not so sure. It's become a tradition with my aunt and I, to spend Halloween together, we drink black coffee and stay awake until after midnight – listening to the sound of whispered moans just outside our front door. The door with the bolts and the runes written across it.
thanks for reading this post
Josephine Sanchez Vanner
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