by David Mohan
Some said the Talbot woman had started out as the breath of the wind swept across slob lands. Some dark magic had made her into substance—scarecrow remnants scattered by vandals across a field, a discarded coat turned inside-out, then flicked over and over, until, one night, caught in thicket briars, it captured her form.
Where she lived was a mystery—it might have been fields and thickets. She didn’t seem to feel the cold. If she was seen on a person’s land it was always distantly. By the time you arrived where she’d been she would have melted away into the blue dusk.
The town’s constabulary had no time for her like. She had been seen too often near the grounds of the big house, loitering. For safety’s sake she was accompanied out of town by two sergeants of the law. Some said she spent the night in a cell, though it was hard to imagine such a woman so contained. She had railed at them, apparently, transforming into a wild thing, and was beaten for her trouble. Others claimed that she had been shot in the head, and dumped into the ditch she’d crawled out of originally.
Good riddance, some muttered.
One or two strange ones, who had notions about such things claimed she was, in fact, an ordinary young woman, nursing a child under her long, black cape, and had only ever gone to the big house in the first place to beg a pittance off the child’s father. This was an odd heretic notion not many suffered.
The parish majority agreed she was and had been since time immemorial a terrible-faced hag that would curse you as soon as look at you.
After her expulsion from the district the stories blew apart from each other for a while, storm-driven by stark Decembers, never settling long to let a mind play out a theory. Soon, it became hard to find a shape to the old stories and knit them together.
But then the woman returned in ways no one could explain. There she was in fox kills spotting the winter fields with blood. Surely the Talbot woman was to blame for that? Ruined crops followed, then weeks of unbroken rain. All summer the midlands cowered under looming mountains of cloud.
All signs and portents, some said. There was glass broken at the big house, a robbery, and then the grandmother ailed and died. Then, soon after, a child fell sick with fever.
A girl out walking alone one night saw a white owl. She swore afterwards it had a woman’s face. Floating free through the trees it was, she said, like a lost kite at the front of a storm. Word was passed around like the Confession basket that the strange cries haunting the fields near the big house was the woman’s ghost. It was not the wind, not cats, or a wounded fox, not an infant, or an actual weeping woman. Instead, it had a sound akin to all of these things and some other quality that was eerily indefinable.
Sickness spread like wildfire that summer, death bed to death bed. But for once the devilish blight stayed out of the fields: this time the sickness crept indoors.
Across a piteous year the seat of the county was turned into a plague house, peasants standing like sworn witnesses at the threshold, the wind outside a lamentation.
David Mohan has been published in PANK, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matchbook and The Chattahoochee Review. He has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize.