A shadow slipped out of the trees, into a clearing where the moonlight fell and froze upon thick midwinter snow. There it paused, casting a rather rotund shadow of its own. Twisting its body about, it looked back, anxiously, along the soft trail it had left behind, and on into the woods. Then it looked ahead, to the curve of the bridge over the stream, and on into the town of Putney. The water in the stream was set like stone; the stones of the bridge were glazed with ice. In the crisp blue light, the bridge and the water seemed part of each other, fused into one by the cold. On the blanket of snow, the shadow turned, and moved towards the bridge.
The man wore a heavy black overcoat, and a tall black hat upon his head. One chubby hand reached inside the coat, fishing for a pocket-watch; then it abandoned the attempt, apparently deciding that the hour had grown so late that there was now no point in measuring it. His bushy white brows were perpetually raised, as if in an attempt to hold open his eyes. His round cheeks were reddened by the cold; frost was settling in his moustache, like a sprinkling of cold sugar. As he panted across the bridge, his eyes snatched details from out of the gloom: the copper-green moss between the stones; the shape of a white owl in the arms of an oak; the flicker of firelight in a window up ahead.
A small grey inn sat huddled at the edge of the town, roofed now with a heavy mantle of snow. A curlicue of smoke wound lazily from the chimney, and in the frame of a downstairs window a warm red light was dancing. Inside, dark against the flames, something moved, and then moved again. For an instant, a wrinkled face appeared at the window, pressed to the frosted glass. Then it was gone. Moments later it appeared once more, this time in the doorway. Beneath it, a bony hand held a stub of candle, the young flame trembling as cold air coiled about it.
‘Who’s there?’ he called out, squinting through the flame. The words froze as they met the air.
The shadowed figure took a step back, and turned aside, as if to flee into the forest. Then he looked up, so that the wavering light fell upon his round and ruddy face.
‘Cauldhame?’ he ventured. His voice trembled, perhaps from the cold.
‘Huntingdon!’ the old man exclaimed. His voice seemed very harsh in the silence. The lines in his face deepened as he smiled: a smile of welcome, or perhaps only a smile of relief. ‘It had grown so late that I thought you must have turned back, or stopped off somewhere on the road.’
‘Ah.’ Huntingdon paused inside the door, momentarily blinded as his eyeglasses misted in the heat of the fire. ‘To tell you the truth, I was lost. I took the last train from Moreau Rose, and it left me on the edge of the wilderness. I came through the trees from the station, and wasn’t entirely sure of the way. I might have been tramping down towards London, or out into the marshes, or…’ He faltered, and finished, rather lamely: ‘Or somewhere else altogether.’
‘Well, you’re here now: that’s what matters. There’s a fire going, and some quite respectable food if you want it; and an even more respectable brandy, if you’d prefer. You look as if you need it, after your little adventure. You look as if—’
‘It wasn’t an adventure,’ Huntingdon interrupted; but then, for a long time, he refused to say any more.
Inside the inn, the coat found its place on the coat-rack, and the hat upon the hat-stand, and before long Huntingdon himself was planted in his proper place: a comfortable armchair, not too close to the fire, with a footstool before him and a glass in his hand. His eyeglasses were clear once more – he had polished them vigorously with a cloth – and his feet were beginning to thaw. Still he remained silent, brooding, which was not in his nature, until his companion began to show signs of impatience, shifting in his seat, tapping the bowl of his pipe absently against the heel of his palm, even clearing his throat once or twice, all without any discernible effect on the other.
‘Now look,’ Cauldhame said at last, as Huntingdon swirled the brandy in his glass for the hundredth time and stared glumly into the hearth, ‘this isn’t like you at all. I want to know what you saw. It can’t have been a wolf, not so close to London. It wasn’t a beggar or a brigand, or you would have spoken of it at once, and huffed and blustered about it, or had me call out the constables, instead of sitting there like a stone. We know each other pretty well, I think; I know you’re not one to be easily frightened. So: what did you see?”
‘I can’t be sure,’ the other replied, and suddenly he turned, snaring Cauldhame’s gaze with his own. His hooded eyes, trapped behind the little round spectacles, and his elevated brows, generally lent him an air of bemusement which was almost comical. Now, however, there was nothing amusing in his look. He took a breath, as if to speak, but only held it a moment, his lips pressed tightly together. In that moment, Cauldhame knew that his friend had seen something out of the ordinary.
There was a snap, and a rush of sparks, as a log shifted in the fire. ‘It began on the train,’ Huntingdon said, his gaze following a grey plume of smoke as it danced sinuously up into the chimney. ‘I was anxious to make sure that I stopped at the right place; I don’t travel much these days, as you know – not since Elizabeth died – and the trains aren’t what they were. If I’d missed the station, and been carried on into London, I would have been stranded there; I doubt there would have been another train back tonight. I had a carriage to myself, and I sat beside the window, counting the quarter-mile posts to pass the time.
‘All at once I was struck by a wholly irrational fear: I imagined I had boarded the wrong train altogether, and was hurtling through the country, further and further from my destination. I had travelled this line before, but the view from my window seemed unfamiliar. In the darkness between the quarter-mile posts, I expected to see the lights of London in the distance, like a heap of sullen coals in the arm of the valley. Perhaps, I thought, I would see the gloomy towers of smog that stood above the black bodies of the factories, or a silver glint of moonlight on the surface of the Thames. I saw none of these things. Instead, the land rushing past seemed uninhabited. All was dark: I could not see a light from a single window. The only light was the gleaming of the moon upon the snow. Worse, I could see no roads, no farmland, not a single patch of tended ground. The trees grew wild and crooked, their limbs twisted, their dry fingers raking the wind.
‘A white shape rushed past, close to the track: not an owl, as I thought at first, but the painted marker of a quarter-mile post. I was oddly relieved to see it; it was a sign that all was well, a sign that even in this wilderness, wherever it was, the hand of man had touched the earth, and imposed a semblance of order.
‘I set to thinking where I might be. It was obvious that the train had not even come within sight of London. I might have been tired enough to board the wrong train, I reasoned, but surely I was not so tired that I would have missed the glow of the city outside my window. I concluded that my train must be travelling on another line altogether, and since I did not recognize the place we were passing, I had no way of knowing where I might be. The sensible thing to do would be to seek out the guard, or at least another passenger, who might be able to assist me.
‘Leaving the carriage, I wandered along the train a while, but saw no one, not a single soul. I was not much surprised: this must have been the last train of the night, on what was most likely an obscure branch line, and I might well have been the last passenger left aboard.
‘I came to the last carriage, and still I had seen no one. I was about to turn back, and make my way up toward the engine, when something odd, and yet oddly familiar, caught my eye. I moved to the nearest window, and peered out, certain that I had seen something, that I had recognized something, but unable to say what it might have been. Then I realized, with a shock, that the quarter- mile posts were gone. Wherever I was, it was a place not ruled by man.
‘The train began to slow, and I thought for a moment that it was about to grind to a halt, in the midst of the wilderness, with no station – no sign of human life! – in sight; but it had only reduced its speed for safety as it rounded a bend in the track.
‘I forced open the window, and leaned out, breathing in the rich, dark taste of the forest on the air. Between the nearest trees, I saw the land fall away, opening out into a great, shallow valley. Amidst a pool of mist and shadow, an army of trees stretched away down to the valley floor; and there, in the distance, I thought my eyes had caught a glimpse of silver, an icy sparkle, as of bright winter moonlight upon the surface of a river. In that moment, I knew that I was no longer in England – or rather, that the view from my window was not the England of our century. This was not some acreage of fields left to run wild, nor some stretch of pleasant woodland left to grow as it would. This was a forest greater, and older, and wilder, than any yet surviving. This was London, but a London before the land was tamed. I was certain of it, and with that certainty came a kind of awe of what had come before man, and a kind of joy that it would never come again, a pride that human hands had shaped the land, and turned it irrevocably to our purpose.’
Huntingdon frowned, and fell silent. He raised his glass to his lips, and was surprised to find it empty. Waving aside Cauldhame’s offer of another, he set the glass down, and took a deep, slow breath.
‘And then?’ prompted his friend.
‘I stumbled to the nearest seat, and closed my eyes a moment. Only for a moment; but when I opened them again, I sensed that something had changed. Outside my window, a white shape rushed past, close to the track: a quarter-mile post. I had been relieved when I had seen it before; now I almost cried out, so glad was I that it was there.
‘There’s little more to tell. The train came to a halt, and deposited me on the empty platform. It left me there, alone; and even though I was alone, I was glad to be close to civilization once more. I hurried from the station, and turned my steps toward the town; at least, I hoped that was where my steps were taking me, for I was unsure of the way, in the moonlight, and in the snow. I was late, and I wondered whether you would have waited, or done the sensible thing and retired. I followed my nose, unsure for a while whether I was nearing the town or wandering out into the wild; but soon I saw a familiar shape by the side of the road, a Putney milestone. I climbed a shallow hill, and crossed a grove of dark pines, their needles dusted with snow- a small grove, well-tended, the very antithesis of the endless wilderness I had glimpsed from the window. Yet the forest was close, and I couldn’t help but to look over my shoulder, once or twice; I was nervous, as you might imagine. Even now I’ve not finished trembling.
‘I hurried out of the trees, into a clearing just outside the town, on the other side of the bridge. The snow rested in a thick, heavy blanket, and I struggled across, leaving a cold, wet trail in my wake. Everything was still: it was as if the entire world was frozen in the cold of the moon.
‘I am not sure what made me tum, then, and look back into the trees. There was no sound to break the stillness; but there may have been a sudden movement, a white shape flickering at the corner of my eye. I thought of the quarter-mile posts, of how they had suddenly vanished, and left me alone in the wild. I looked back anxiously, along the ragged trail of my footsteps, and on into the woods.
‘A figure stood beneath the trees: a figure wrapped in skins, with a huge grey dog at its side. I saw its face clearly now: it was a young woman, her pale skin smudged with earth, her hair tied back beneath a rough brown hood. Her gaze met my own, and she frowned; and then, though her expression had not changed, she seemed suddenly on the point of tears.
‘Then they were gone, and I was alone once more, or almost alone: a white owl was perched nearby, on a limb of some tree or other, watching it all.’
Cauldhame leaned forward in his chair. ‘So the figure you saw…’
‘An apparition. They are common enough, they tell me, so near to the marshlands. I saw a ghost in the valley; and worse than that, I saw something of the world in which it lived.’
Cauldhame shook his head. ‘I think you’re wrong. If the valley was ever as you described it, I am sure there would have been no one living there at all. Surely the land would have been tamed a little by the first of the settlers, whoever they were.’
‘Perhaps you’re right; but that is what I saw.’
‘I don’t doubt you, Huntingdon, but something about your experience strikes me as odd: something more than the fact that you saw a ghost in the valley. To catch a glimpse of the past is common enough, as you said – too common, perhaps, for comfort – but these things tend to fade, with time. Why should this woman still be walking the valley, so many thousands of years after her death?’
Huntingdon did not reply; and presently, by unspoken consent, the two friends made their way to their beds.
‘Quiet, girl.’ Kneeling down, Mara took the dog’s handsome head in her arms, and scratched its grizzled fur. ‘Whatever it was, it’s gone now.’
She had glimpsed something moving through the trees, trailing smoke from its mouth and roaring as it came. Something huge, and black, with a long armoured body that caught the dead rays of the moon. She had seen a face peering from a hole in its side, a plump, red-faced man in strange black clothes. His bushy white brows were raised, as ifhe were surprised by what he saw. His cheeks were very round, his whiskers very white.
Then the thing was gone, as insubstantial as the smoke it left behind. But Mara had seen the man again, slipping out of the trees and into a frozen clearing: a sad-looking figure, walking as if he bore some dreadful weight. He had turned, and seen her; but then his gaze had slipped from hers, as if he could no longer see her, and he had turned away, and made his way across the bridge. Then he was gone, and there was nothing to mark his passage, not even a ragged trail of footprints in the snow.
It was late, and Mara knew she should be seeking shelter for the night. Nevertheless, her curiosity was aroused by the apparition, and she led the hound down across the clearing, to the edge of the frozen stream. Kneeling between two shoulders of cold stone, lined with threads of copper-green moss, she tested the icy surface with her fingers. It would easily bear her weight; it seemed to have become fused to the land. Perhaps the black-clad spirit had passed this way on a night like this, a night where the deep cold of winter weighed heavy on the days, twisting them out of shape. Perhaps he had crossed the frozen stream.
Shaking her head, she rose to her feet, and climbed back to the trees, the hound at her heels.
‘Nothing to see, girl. We’d best be getting back.’
As she made her way along the ’s edge, something flickered at the corner of her eye, a soft white shape. She was reminded, incongruously, of the bushy white brows of the ghost. Turning her head, she saw no white bird nearby; but her gaze slipped out across the valley, and what she saw there drew a gasp from her numbed lips.
There were lights in the arm of the valley, burning like 0 s a heap of sullen coals. Huge, grey fingers of smoke rose from stern black towers, and the river glittered silver in the light of the moon.
Then the vision was gone, and all she saw was the forest, full of mist and shadows.
As she made her way home, she wondered whether she could have imagined it. But then she came to a place where the snow had melted, where the white blanket was torn away. Something was revealed beneath it: a long iron scar, a rod of rusted iron that stretched out as far as the eye could see; and, a short way away, its twin, running along beside it. Mara had seen the scar before, of course, but she had thought nothing of it until now. The first apparition, the creature of darkness and smoke, had been following the scar – for what reason, Mara would probably never know.
She turned away, and hurried home, with the hound at her side. The ghost in the valley was gone. It was curious, but nothing remarkable; and Mara was tired, and longed for her bed. Glancing up at the smiling face of the moon, she made her way with care through the world her grandfathers had made. ∎
Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
You can read Alexander Glass’s essay ‘The Sadness of Entropy’ here on IZ Digital.
Richard Wagner is a graphic designer and illustrator living in the
United States. His academic schooling consists of a Bachelor of Fine
Arts degree with an emphasis in painting and drawing as well as training
in graphic design and illustration. For seventeen years he taught
college level graphic design and photo-illustration classes while also
freelancing. He now works on his own and enjoys focusing on being a
designer/illustrator. Richard can be contacted at: email@example.com
Become a member of the IZ Digital Ko-fi for exclusive stories, classic Mutant Popcorn film essays by Nick Lowe, and an invite to the IZ Digital Discord server. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated.
You can also subscribe to the bimonthly print Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered directly to you. Postage free, planetwide.
Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of independent, small press magazines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!