Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#46



What wouldn't we give to know the future?  But even foresight may not be enough to prevent the tragedy we call...

 

"Behold, In the Ashes!"


 

By Jeffrey Blair Latta



THE SKY OVERHEAD HUNG BLEAK AND DARKLY CLOUDED, a sombre reflection of the solemn gathering of Bavakian peasants in the old cemetery beneath.  The wind sighed a funereal dirge and, somewhere in the back of the throng, cluttered with pitchforks, straw hats and shawls, a woman sobbed as if in unconscious harmony to the wind's mournful tune.

Slowly, carefully, the body of Albrech, the Burgermeister's son, was lowered into the cold February ground, the grave hacked from the frozen soil as if an epitaph carved on a tombstone.  The village was poor and even the Burgermeister, better off than most, could ill afford the rude wood coffin in which his son was interred.  But he had loved that son, loved him with a passion few fathers could boast, and there was no length to which he would not have gone to see that his boy was buried right.

The ritual complete, one by one the villagers drifted back to their homes, scattering like leaves, until only the Burgermeister and a few close friends remained by the open grave.  For a time, no one spoke.  The others knew too well what the Burgermeister was thinking.  Three children -- three children in three years.  Mein Gott, it was a terrible blow -- for any man, yes, but more so for a man who cared for his progeny as this man did.  Three sons had passed away, the first from a disease, the second had drowned, and now this third, struck by a run-away horse, of all things.

It was too much.  Far too much to bear.  They all felt for him.

But they knew what had to be done.

"We must burn the straw!" squawked the voice of Gretl, the spy-wife and seer of the village.  Though none called her by the name, she was in truth a witch, and her haggish appearance well suited the part.  The crone shuffled forward now, almost to the edge of the grave, her wrinkled visage nodding pensively, gnarled fingers working at the knot of her headscarf.  She turned and scanned the others with two glittering eyes, one mildly opaque and squinted.  "We must burn the straw and consult the ashes -- come!"

Like mindless corpses themselves, the group dumbly trailed the witch across the cemetery to the straw-covered altar where the Burgermeister's son had lain in state.  It was a common belief; the straw on which a corpse had been displayed must be burned to ash after the funeral.  Bad luck might follow otherwise.  But still they all dreaded the task.  For they knew what might come after.

A liquidly flame surged up on the end of a brand, lit by the witch's hulking, idiot son.  Far too eagerly, the old woman thrust the torch to the tainted straw, watching as the fire caught and the sparks crackled and clapped like evil, manic applause.  The flickering light played upon the faces of the gathered friends, and reflected in the tormented eyes of the Burgermeister.  And then, in minutes, the flames dwindled away, leaving behind only a bed of grey-white ash that sluggishly stirred in the evening air.

The witch passed the torch to her son and shuffled closer to the altar.  She studied the ash with a squinted, predatory glare.  Behind her, no one spoke.  The Burgermeister himself turned his face away.  And then the witch gasped.

"Behold!  In the ashes!  I see it -- yes, I see it in the ashes!"

They all knew what the old woman had found.  It was a common belief, not only in Bavakia, but throughout Eastern Europe.  It was said when you burned the straw upon which a corpse had lain, in the ashes you might see the footprints of whomever was next to die within the following year.

Three times the truth of that belief had proven itself.  For each of the
Burgermeister's sons, the footprints had appeared in the ashes after a funeral a year before the son's death.  The first time, when the footprints of the first son had appeared, the Burgermeister had scoffed, calling the thing a wive's tale, a silly superstition.  The second time, he had been less inclined to mock, and the third -- he had turned white.  Now there was no doubt in his features, none at all, only wretched dread, as he numbly turned to see what it was the witch had found.

Still though, he told himself that it could be anyone, any member of any family in the village.  It would not be his child, not his one remaining child.  Gott im Himmel, it could not be --

He cried out, a high exhalation of horror and despair.  His hands leapt to his paling face.  There in the ashes, clearly imprinted, were two footprints.  Both were the prints of high-heeled shoes.  There could be no doubt.  In such a poor village, only one girl wore such expensive shoes with high-heels.  His beautiful, sixteen-year-old daughter Nastasha.  The glory of his life.  His one remaining child.

For a moment, the Burgermeister stood there frozen.  His eyes were wide, almost starting from his head.  Then, slowly, a new look came into those eyes.  A look of fierce angry determination.

"Nein!" he said suddenly -- and the others glanced at him in startled alarm.  Then, louder: "Nein, she will not die.  I won't let her.  Do you hear me, whatever it takes, I won't lose my daughter, too!"

The witch cackled hideously and her idiot son grinned in vacant, gapetoothed glee.  "You cannot change what is to be, Herr Burgermeister!" the crone sneered.  "The ashes never lie!  She will die within a year!  There is nothing you can do to change that!  Nothing!"

Furiously, the Burgermeister raised his hand to strike the old woman,  then stopped and drew it slowly back.  "We will see," he said.  "Perhaps the future can be changed."  And, with that, he whirled and, drawing close his heavy cloak, stalked away into the gathering gloom...

***
The first thing the Burgermeister did was to swear to secrecy all those who had been present when the high-heeled footprints were seen in the ashes.  He would not have his precious daughter learn of this terrible prophecy, this black curse hanging over her very life.

Then, without explanation, he forbade the girl herself to leave his house, at any time, for any reason until one year was past.  Thus, he could watch over her and see that no harm befell her.

Though Nastasha was an obedient child, and rarely one to question, still this restriction astonished even her.  "But why, Papa?" she cried, aghast.  "What have I done?"

He was quick to assure her, even as he knew there was no way he could tell her the truth.  "Nothing, Liebchen.  It is nothing you have done.  This is for your own good."  Gently he folded her delicate white hands to his lips, kissing each slim finger in turn, then looked imploringly into her questioning eyes.  "I have always cared for you, Nastasha.  I love you and you are my one remaining child.  Can you not trust me?"

And she did.  The young girl accepted this restriction because she loved him and knew he loved her, and knew that, whatever his reasons, he would not have placed such a stricture upon her freedom if not for her own good.

Months then passed, six in total, and Nastasha remained a virtual prisoner within her own home.  The rude wood walls of the hovel, the sod roof, the diamond-shaped panes of glass in the windows, all these became as irons bars to her.  But still, she obeyed.  Day after day, week after week, month after terrible, lonely month, she remained confined, sheltered from the sun and the breeze, the grass and the laughing brook.  And slowly, steadily, her confinement took its toll.  Like a blossom trapped in darkness, she began to fade and wilt.  Her lovely features grew wan and bleak; they no longer shone with that glorious inner light which had hitherto been remarked upon by more than one who had met her.

Seeing this, the Burgermeister knew something must be done.  He would not see his daughter suffer so.  And so he decided to hold a party in his home, a party just for his daughter, to which he would invite both friends and strangers, in fact, anyone who cared to attend.

The matter was soon arranged and, on the night of the party, the revellers arrived in droves.  They came from the village, and from the village down the road, and from the village beyond that, and even beyond that.  They came by ox-cart, by plodding pony, by sled and on foot.  They came because they knew of poor Nastasha, trapped within her home -- though most of them, like her, did not know the reason why.

It was a great success, this party, with gay Bavakian music furnished by a roving band of minstrels.  They squeezed accordions and furiously sawed their fiddles.  The peasants danced the night away, whirling and prancing about the thumping wooden floor, laughing and singing until the clock, in the distant village, chimed the midnight hour.  And then, at that precise moment, all music stopped and the whirling faltered.  The dancers turned in shocked surprise to hear a voice cry out as if in sudden horror:

"Nastasha!  Where is my Nastasha?"

The Burgermeister rushed from the crowd, his eyes wide, frantically searching the wondering throng.  "Where is she, I say?  What has happened to my daughter?"

They all looked around, but the girl was nowhere to be seen.  This confirmation merely increased the Burgermeister's distress.

"Schnell!  Find her, damn you!  Find my daughter, before it's too late."

Though only a few knew the reason for his concern, they all hastened to comply.  They searched the hovel, both upstairs and down, searched outside amongst the nodding blossoms and under the sprawling oaks.  And then, suddenly, from out of the darkness, she appeared.  She was walking over the bridge, placidly strolling arm in and arm with a handsome young swain from the next village down the road, Heinrich Semmelweis by name.

At the sight of her, the Burgermeister rushed forward with an inarticulate cry.  He seized one slender arm and dragged his astonished daughter all the way back into the house.  All those who witnessed it, were horrified by the violence of the display, moreso because they knew how well he loved the girl.  What could have caused this madness? they all wondered -- or, at least, all except those few who had seen for themselves the terrible high-heeled prints in the ashes, the mark of her certain doom.

Alone in the house, Nastasha tried to explain.  "I'm sorry, Papa," she gasped, standing there shaken almost as much as he.  "I met Heinrich at the party and he suggested we go for a walk.  I meant no harm."

"Meant no harm?!"  She had never seen her papa so filled with emotion, with fear.  She drew back, as if he were a stranger.  "You promised me never to leave the house, not until a year has passed.  You promised me!"

"But, Papa, I didn't go far, just over the brook?  What harm could there be in that?"

At last the Burgermeister saw: there was fear in her eyes, fear of him.  What had he done?  Oh, what, oh, what had he just done?

Compassionately, he took her hand and drew her closer.  "Forgive me, Nastasha.  I told you, I can't explain the reason, but you must trust me.  You must stay in this house until a year is past."

"But what about Heinrich?" she asked with guileless innocence.

He started.  "What about him?"

"I want to see him again, Papa.  I like him very much.  In fact, I think I... love him."

"Love him?"  The Burgermeister shouted the word, a sort of derisive laugh made with such force that the girl stumbled back a step in wide-eyed surprise.  "You just met him tonight.  Love him?  Why, you don't even know the meaning of the word."

Now, perhaps for the first time in her life, Nastasha dared to speak back to her papa.  Her voice was stern, almost imperious.  "Nevertheless, I think I do love him, Papa, and I want to see him again."

"I forbid it!"  His eyes blazed, his voice shook.  "I forbid you to see him again, do you hear?"  Then, quickly he amended: "That is, you may not see him until the year is ended.  It was he who convinced you to leave the house.  I will not risk his presence a second time."

"But, Papa --"

"When the year is through, we will discuss it again,"  he commanded.   "But not before!"

***
But the Burgermeister had not reckoned for the determination of a young girl in love.

From time to time, over the following months, he caught her at the window, gazing out into the night.  And, each time, though there was no one there when he looked, small things gave the truth away.  A swaying branch without a breeze, the scattering petals of a blossom -- he knew the boy had been there, out there in the shadows.  And he knew what thoughts must have passed between those two young conspiring lovers, thoughts of moonlit walks along the silvery brook, of strolls in the dream-haunted woods.

The boy was a terrible temptation.  Oh, yes, an evil siren calling his lovely daughter to her prophesied doom.

Gradually, the Burgermeister's fear grew until it was a living thing, eating him from within, driving him nearly mad with worry for his lovely, only remaining child.  At night, he dreamed again and again of those terrible high-heeled footprints in the ashes, her footprints, her prophesied death.

One year.  If he could but protect her for one year...

More months passed, and still more, until there was but a single week remaining before his daughter would be free of the curse.  Yet, the closer crept the end, the more terrible grew his fear -- for had it not been at the end of the year that each of his sons had died?  He could not take the chance.  More and more often he caught her gazing out the window into the darkness.  He sensed that even so short a time as a week was too long for her passion to remain in check.

There was only one solution.

From the village, he hired the blacksmith to fashion bars for the windows and a strong lock for the door.  His daughter watched in wretched disbelief, in despair, her eyes enormous, tears trailing down her satiny cheeks.  But he hardened himself to the look and saw that the deed was done.  And when it was done, then at last his beautiful daughter was truly a prisoner of his love, locked in by iron bars.

It was only for a week, but, to the girl, who did not know the reason, it was a horror beyond imagining.  Her papa, now, was a monster in her eyes.  She had thoughts for only one thing.  To escape this Hellish prison.  To escape into the arms of her lover, Heinrich.  To escape from him...

***
The week seemed an eternity to the Burgermeister, each day a lingering, unending torment of dreadful suspense.  He watched over his daughter, never leaving the locked and barred hovel he called home.

Now he would not even allow her to gaze out the window, but kept it shuttered, forbidding her to open the window no matter how close and stifling the air in the house might become.

Five days, then six, then, at last, the seventh crept to its long-awaited conclusion.  It was an ominous day, the near twin of the one a year before.  The February sky was thick with angry black clouds.  And then, the wind began to rise, and thunder rumbled ominously in the distance.  The wind became a gale, and then a hurricane...

And, suddenly, there came a frantic pounding at the door.

When the Burgermeister answered the summons, unfastening the massive lock, he found a young man from the village panting breathless on the step, barely able to stand against the gale.

"Mein Herr, the wind!" the man cried, holding down his hat.  "The wind has blown down the school.  Das kinder are trapped!  You must come quickly, we need all the men.  You must save the children!"

All his fear for his daughter was momentarily forgotten in the rush of excitement which followed.  He grabbed up his cloak and bounded out into the night -- forgetting in his haste to lock the door behind...

With his help, all the children were saved from the wreckage of the schoolhouse.  But it was a near thing and, without him, many would surely have perished.

Then, even as he started home, riding on the buckboard of a wagon, he saw a brilliant streak of light reach down out of the ebony clouds ahead.  A bolt of lighting.  There was a tremendous crash, and then, more light, flickering light.

A fire!

He slashed at the horse with a whip, but, even as he approached his home, he knew his worst fears were realized.  The hovel was aflame.  A hungry roaring inferno engulfed the sod roof and wooden walls.  And the door -- the door was closed and locked.  His daughter!  His daughter was trapped inside!

Leaping from the wagon, he tried to reach the front door through the wall of flame.  But other men were already there and they caught him and wrestled him to the cold hard earth -- earth nearly as hard and cold as the iron bars which he himself had used to seal his daughter's fate.

He screamed and howled, begging them to release him, he pleaded -- but they held him fast, for his own good.  Others tried to put out the fire with buckets of water from the nearby brook -- but it was all in vain.

At last, with his home in ashes, they allowed the Burgermeister to rise.  He stared dismally at the black, shattered ruins for several long moments, then slowly, without a word, he walked away, headed back to the village.

Only moments later, one of the peasants, who had helped fight the fire, looked up and exclaimed as if on seeing a ghost.  The others turned to look, as well.

Flying over the bridge was the Burgermeister's daughter, flying like a leaf caught by the gale.  She was followed closely by young Heinrich Semmelweis.  The boy looked nearly as horror-struck as she.

"Mein Papa!" she cried.  "Where is mein Papa!"

She rushed toward the smoking ruins of the house, evidently thinking her papa had died in the fire.  But another man caught her.

"Your father is fine," he assured her quickly.  "It was you he had thought had died in the fire."

"He left the door unlocked," she replied sheepishly.  "I couldn't help myself.  I went to meet with Heinrich."  She looked around searchingly.  "Where is he?  Where is papa?"

And they found him soon enough.

The Burgermeister had hung himself from the ceiling beams in a barn.  Nastasha was there, turning away with a sob of horror.  And, for the first time, they told her of the high-heeled prints in the ashes, of the prophecy of her death.

"Your father loved you," one man assured her, when they were done.  "Perhaps he loved you too much.  And the thought that he himself had been the cause of your death was too much for him to bear."

"But the prophecy didn't come true," the daughter sobbed, with tears flooding her eyes.  "A year has just now passed and I am still alive.  The old witch was wrong."

"Was I?" and the old crone shambled out of the murmuring crowd, vindictive triumph flashing in her squinted eyes.  "Look there.  What do you see?  The ashes did not lie!"

And following her gesture, they all turned to look.  And they saw.

There in the soft dirt directly beneath the hanging body of the Burgermeister, his last footprints were clearly marked.  And in the heel of each print were the marks of high-heels.  No, not high-heels.

The marks left from the legs of the stool which he had toppled in his final grief-stricken drop...

The End.





 
 

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Behold, In the Ashes! is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)