A lantern burned in the woods, held up by a pale white hand, shedding its amber light upon the forest floor beneath her feet. She waited nervously, excited by the darkness. Her breath came out in plumes of moist air, dancing in front of her face before lifting off to join the cold winds above her head. She waited for him, anticipation eating at her heart, her limbs shaking. The trees above her head leaned over; their bare limbs stretched out above her like a canopy, as if they were listening to her wishes. The stars above were hidden by the clouds of a storm brewing to the west, its lightning bolts darting among the mountain tops.
The silence was broken by the sound of hoof beats. She grew quiet; she knew it was him, and at long last he emerged from the direction of the town. Her gelding whinnied at the sight of his horse as if to greet it. He grinned down at her, his eyes huge and filled with love as he dismounted, leading his horse over to where hers had been tied up.
His breath had been stolen from him. His knees shook, and his heart hammered so hard in his chest he thought it might burst forth, killing them both. She came—his love, his soul, and soon-to-be wife. She was beautiful in the flickering lantern light, her hair falling upon her shoulders. He walked to her and took her hands in his as he kissed her on the mouth.
“Are you ready, my love?” he asked, his Irish brogue lacing the words he spoke.
“I am, Riley,” she whispered. “I love you.”
“I love you, Veronica. You look beautiful.” He stepped back, soaking her in. His heart burned for her like no other woman he had ever met. Her wedding dress was hidden underneath the black riding cloak pinned shut at the neck. Her eyes glittered with the light of the flame.
She blushed at his words and felt them roll through her body like molten rock, deep into her bosom. This rogue who had stolen her heart, who’d turned her from the home of her father, was now to be her husband. He was strong, smart, and sure, and tonight, he was going to belong to her forever.
He walked over to his horse and reached into a saddle bag from which he withdrew something and brought it back to where she stood. Taking the lantern from her, he set it down on the ground near his feet and sat her on the trunk of a tree that had long since fallen. Sitting next to her, he placed his arm on top of hers, entwining their fingers.
She looked down the hill to the small town below and could see her father’s church, its steeple rising towards the heavens. Her heart twanged with regret that he couldn’t be here—that he hated Riley as much as Riley hated him. She’d left the house silent as a ghost, at a quarter past eleven, while he snored down the hallway. She’d waited until she reached the edge of the wood to light her lantern, to avoid neighbors’ prying eyes. The moonlight, which had hidden itself prior, appeared and guided her path to the spot where they had planned to meet.
Riley had come to town a year ago, traveling with a small band of men, looking to make a home. Her father welcomed the three to the town, making sure they had work, and a place to lay their heads. She met him one day by chance as he passed her school house; she had just let the little ones out to play in the afternoon sunlight when he walked by. His long, blond hair and green eyes caught her unprepared and she nearly stumbled under his gaze. He stood still, head tilted to the side, considering her as if looking at some sculpture or piece of art. Then he smiled, wide and warm, and her heart belonged to him.
He tried to court her, pleading with her father, but all his attempts were thwarted. Her father, who had grown cold and unfeeling after the death of her mother, did everything he could to keep them apart. The arguments that ensued were terrible; he insisted that she never see Riley, demanded it. And she demanded that he respect her wishes and be damned what the town thought about him. He was from Ireland and was considered a Papist—a Catholic. Oh, if they only knew he wasn’t even a Christian but a child of an older religion.
As he tied ribbon after ribbon around their arms, he thought, like her, of the days leading up to this moment. His initial sight of her, her raven-black hair and blue eyes, her beauty nearly striking him dead on the spot. The attempts to call on her, her angry and spiteful father, and the love that burned beneath his chest. Finally, their plan to marry and elope back to his home in Ireland. He loved Veronica with all his soul and wanted her to be the mother of his children. Indeed, when they met in secret, as she would sit next to him, holding his hands and staring into his eyes, he could see forever looking back at him.
He began to whisper words in Gaelic as he tied the multicolored ribbons around their wrists, binding them together in life. Their attention was so focused they didn’t realize they were not alone. Slowly, from the shadows, three figures crept forward, one of them brandishing a club. They came upon the two figures sitting on the log. The man with the club raised it high in the air and brought it down heavily upon Riley’s head.
Veronica screamed as her lover fell forward silently and turned her head. Standing a few feet behind her, her father raised the lantern that she had brought with her, its light illuminating his angry face. He sneered at her as one of the men, one of the miners, grabbed her by the arms. She raised her hands and tried to fight him off, noticing that the ribbons had snapped. In fury, she spat in her father’s direction.
“Harlot!” he accused.
“Let us be! Damn you,” she bellowed angrily. He stepped forward and backhanded her, hard, causing her vision to swim and her body to sag. As she slipped into unconsciousness, she felt her body being carried down the hill towards town.
“Put them in there. Let them sit in there while I fetch the law. I’ll have the boy hung for this.”
Veronica started to come to when she was carried down into the cellar of the church, her fury reawakening. She struggled and lurched, sending her assailant stumbling backwards as she pitched herself forward. She landed on her feet and took three strides towards her father, her hands wrapping around his throat. His eyes bulged, and his breath caught as he struggled to throw her off. He brought a knee up into her midsection, forcing the air from her lungs. She collapsed on the floor and rolled onto her side.
Her eyes fell upon the other man carrying Riley and watched as he simply tossed his half-conscious body down into the cellar. She cried out in despair. A hand reached down and grabbed her by the hair, jerking her upward, and she screamed. Her father pulled her towards the open cavern of the cellar and threw her down with Riley. She landed hard on her knees, pain shooting up her legs, causing them to go numb. She crawled to Riley, who was murmuring incoherently, and gathered him to her, laying his bloody head in her lap.
“As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Her father’s voice floated down to her. She raised her eyes to meet his to find her father’s distaste apparent on his face. She felt the love in her heart turn cold, as cold as the harshest winter, and the flame that had burned for her beloved turned black as the darkest night.
“Remember those words, old man. Remember those words, you old fool. I’ll make you pay for this.”
The venom in her voice pierced his heart and he took an involuntary step back, fear etched across his face as his self-righteousness staggered to maintain control. She smiled, slowly, diabolically, from her place on the floor of the cellar. Her father motioned for the men to close the door and they did, bathing both her and her lover in darkness.
From above them, she heard her father instruct the men to keep watch until he returned. They murmured their agreement and she heard his horse make way. In her lap, her lover turned cold and, before long, ceased to breathe, succumbing to the fatal blow upon his head. Deep inside her heart, the cold winds blew. She prayed to every being known to man, to every god that ever walked the world, and every demon that had crawled up from the furnace of Dante’s hell. Something answered her. As her anger leapt from her body, spreading throughout the church and out of the basement door, causing the two guards to flee in horror, and throughout the town, it soaked itself into the ground.
Her curse spilled over the town and through the mine, sweeping its deep shafts and cracking its supports as it passed. Down deep into the bowels of the earth it spread and caused the ground beneath the town to shake. As she seethed, the earth trembled and then roared with her displeasure, opening its mouth to swallow it whole. As the buildings crumbled, and she lay pinned underneath the rock, dying, she swore her revenge on all who would dare to fall in love. She cursed her father to the purgatory of walking the earth helplessly watching her wrath.
* * * * * * * *
The firelight crackled, popped, and orange sparks jumped into the air as the children sitting at his feet stared up at him in rapturous fear.
“Oh, Papa,” Mrs. Dorothy Woodbridge muttered shaking her mane of gray hair.
“It’s true, I tell you,” the older man growled and leered at the children.
“It is not.” She laughed, wrapping her blanket around her body.
“My grandfather’s grandfather told him that story when he was but a boy,” David said, sniffing as he reached down for his pipe tobacco.
Dorothy smiled as the old man’s hands disappeared inside the plastic and pulled a pinch out and lit it. He lit the bowl as the children watched him; the lighter caused his face to glow eerily orange for a moment, deepening the already deep lines and shadows on his face.
“Is it true, Grandpa?”
Dorothy looked at her grandson Philip, whose parents were busy packing their home right now for their move to Oregon. Her son had taken a job as a high school principal out west, and she knew it would be a long time before they got to spend any more quality time with them, hence the “camping trip” in their backyard tonight.
David turned his head in the direction of lake and sat there thoughtfully for a moment puffing on his pipe. The fragrant pipe smoke wafted and curled into the breeze before it disappeared above their heads. Dorothy wondered if he, too, was feeling the sting of their four grandchildren leaving. It was 1971; the world was a lot different from the world from the story he told and deep down she regretted it.
Maybe Veronica’s father didn’t want her to leave him all alone.
Was that so bad?
“They say that Old Veronica still haunts the lakeside looking for lovers foolish enough to be caught out on nights like tonight.”
“Lovers? Gross!” Bethany wrinkled her nose.
Both grandparents laughed at that as David gave Dorothy a conspiratorial wink.
“You’ll change your mind about that one day, young lady,” Dorothy said, reaching for her husband’s hand.
David snorted. “Yes.”
“But what if she comes tonight?” Philip asked, looking around the backyard that was lit up with firelight. His eyes were filled with worry.
“Well, Philip, you don’t have to be afraid of that. Grandpa said that as long as someone was around to remember the old story then nothing bad can happen to them. All right, you three, time for bed.”
“Aww,” they all said in unison. They knew their lives were about to change and it hung heavily in the air between them.
Dorothy ushered them into their tent as David watched from his chair. After she’d tucked them in, kissed them all goodnight, and zipped the tent shut, she rejoined him by the fire. Surprised, she saw the tear stains trickle down his worn and weathered face in the firelight.
“David, whatever is the matter?”
He shook his head, removing the pipe from his mouth, and gazed into the firelight. “I’m afraid.”
Dorothy sat up in her chair and grasped his arm. “Afraid of what?”
He looked at her. “That no one will be left to remember.”
Dorothy had never seen her husband this upset before. Perhaps it was him simply wrapping his grief for the children into the story. Perhaps it was his age and his mind beginning to slip. She’d heard the old story a thousand times. It had been told to her when she was just a kid as well. But it was just an old legend that people told their children when they wanted them to behave, right?
Despite herself, she looked in the direction of the lake and wasn’t sure if it was the cool wind, the unusual emotional stirring of her often-stoic husband, or the idea that after they were gone, the children would carry the legend away from home and away from the lake where they’d grown up.
Either way, a shiver coursed down her spine as they sat in the dying firelight.