How do I describe Old Lady McCaw? Well, her surname is aptly suited to her as she resembles a crow. Skinny doesn’t quite cover it; try skeletal. I’d guesstimate she was around eighty years of age, from her saggy, lined skin. She spends much of her time inside, so no sun damage discolours her skin. She is sickly pale. And when she does venture outside, she carts around a gothic umbrella.
Her hair is mostly white, with streaks of black from her youth stubbornly tangled into her frizzy, untameable mane. It kind of looks like a wig. Maybe it is? Maybe she has a room of wigs? Eurgh. Creepy.
She hobbles around with the aid of a walking stick. Not a high-end plastic or metal one, but an old-fashioned wooden pole curved at the end. Her wrinkled, arthritis-lumped knuckles slot into the hook as if the wooden walking aid was custom made for her.
Her attire doesn’t stray from frumpy and dark. Long obsidian dresses billowing in the wind are her thing. She is essentially a flag, what with the hair lashing in the breeze and her loose-fitting ensemble flapping around.
In the neighbourhood, her reputation isn’t the greatest.
She’s freaky. She gives me the creeps. Why does she stay in that house all the time? She’s a witch! Those are merely a few of the colourful comments used when referring to Old Lady McCaw.
Personally, I don’t mind her. Every Sunday, at ten a.m. sharp, she brings my mother and I freshly baked treats. Sometimes scones, other times muffins, and on occasion, cookies. They have one thing in common though: they are always utterly scrumptious.
She’d been good to my mother since my father left with a whore of a waitress. How cliché can you get? She would bring herbal calming remedies, talk to my mother for hours, and bring her unusual but thoughtful gifts. They ranged from sculptures of, let’s say, shapes to not entirely unpleasant jewellery which my mother liked. Old Lady McCaw claimed the necklace crystals were for strength and healing. I’m not sure how much I believe when it came to spirituality, but it seemed to be working. As long as my mum feels good, that’s all I want.
I should probably mention the wind chimes, too. They decorated the deck of her one-story home. An array of them hung from the roof, dangling over the wooden deck. Some were nailed to windows. Others were hammered to doors.
A withered shed stood aside her home. I’d never been in it, in fact, I’d never been inside her house. But from my second-story bedroom window, I’d clocked her going inside it late at night. News of her nightly activities had spread like wildfire around the school. Why is she going into a shed late? What’s she doing? Hexing people? Casting spells? I wanted to discourage the rumours, but I also didn’t want to be singled out and inevitably bullied.
One night I grew curious. I had to know what she was doing. And, I found out.
Her home sat beyond our backyard, discreetly nestled into the corner of our street and concealed behind a bustle of bushes and hordes of high-reaching trees. Lady McCaw’s house was made of ageing wood, fractured and peeling paint, and stained windows. I tried not to judge; she was ancient, after all.
One night, in my baby-blue pyjamas, I stepped into my fluffy slippers, slipped into a denim jacket, and headed to her shed. I crept downstairs, cautiously avoiding the creaky spots. I snuck out the backdoor and scurried to her yard. The bushes became my companions as I dashed by, hugging the green growth in case I needed to dive into their prickly but concealing embrace.
Her house came first. Silent. No lights. The zing of faraway streetlights sang into the night, along with the hum of the occasional passing car and unsettling coos of owls. The smell of nature rushed into my nostrils.
My hand met with the bannister of her deck. Cold, crusty, splintery. I would have held on for balance, had I not been concerned about splinters. Also, I didn’t trust the posts to not snap under my weight.
Instead, I hunched along, remaining incognito, or so I hoped.
I was almost invisible in the navy sky and gentle lick of the moon. The rays of streetlights were obscured by trees and fences. The shed was married to the dark.
I couldn’t help but think: Why am I doing this? What do I really think she is hiding? Do I think she is cooking and eating children? Summoning the dead? Sacrificing goats? Nope, none of the above. I was curious. And despite what happened to the proverbial cat, I didn’t stop.
As the grass crunched beneath my fluffy slippers, a twang rang out. Twang. Creak. Twang. Creak. It became the chorus of the night with verses of animal noises and weather. Was she making a bow and arrow? Was she secretly some vigilante superhero? Yeah right. If she was, her day performance as a withered old spinster deserved an award.
As I drew closer to the mysterious shed with suspicious sounds, the smell of nature was dominated by a strange aroma: burning and dust. A bizarre combination.
I pressed against the shed lightly. The structure creaked, dust rising as if it were ready to crumble under my touch. I slapped a hand over my mouth to prevent any dryness tickling my throat. The last thing I wanted was to break out into a flurry of coughs.
Shuffling sideways, I shimmied to the door. Luckily, there was a slight gap, enough for me to peek through. An orange glow danced inside. Fire? It certainly would explain the burning smell.
Grabbing my intrigue by the horns, I swivelled my head around and pushed one eye to the gap. I let my sight travel the room, while simultaneously adjusting to the light. Swaddles of yellow-orange light rinsed the room, exposing wood in disrepair. Cobwebs clung to the corners. Other than that, I didn’t see much.
Then my eyes landed on her. She sat, hunched in the corner. The edges of her silhouette played on the wall, dancing from the assortment of flickering flames. She snatched something off the floor and dropped it into a large can of flames. Lady McCaw repeated this many times. Pick up, drop, sizzle, and again, and again. She was burning something, but what?
I caught sight of a neat pile aside her feet. The dim light didn’t offer much assistance. Spindles? Webs? Criss-crosses? Targets? These words – and more – swirled in my mind until I soon realized what lay in the pile: dreamcatchers.
My face creased. What the heck? Dreamcatchers? What the actual heck?
If history class served, these originated from Indians, or as we are supposed to refer to them, Native Americans. They were devices to trap bad dreams so one could receive a peaceful night’s slumber. Why on earth was she burning them? And why so many? There must be hundreds in that well-organised pile.
From a speckle of light from the raging fire, I caught sight of something else just as peculiar: nails. I’m not talking about nails holding this shack together, I’m talking about nails protruding from the walls. Were they to hold something up? The dreamcatchers? It made sense, somewhat, but again, why so many? Nails embellished every wall; a mouse could reach every inch of the shed using those as a climbing apparatus.
Oh shit. I’d said those words aloud. Relax, maybe she didn’t hear. To my dismay, she turned and set her eyes on mine. She didn’t look pleased.
“Jacob?” she croaked, as if she’d spent her life chain-smoking ten packs a day. To my relief, the irritation on her face dissolved. Curiosity replaced it. I huffed. I know the feeling.
“Sorry Miss McCaw.” Nobody called her ‘Old Lady McCaw’ to her face, or any of the other delightful nicknames kids and adults had coined.
“What are you doing out here? It’s late!” Her eyebrows drew close together.
“I’m so sorry, I got…curious. I know I shouldn’t be here. I see you coming in here. I got nosy I guess. I…I’ll go. Please don’t tell my mum.” I eased back.
“No! Don’t be silly. You’re young. It’s in your nature to get curious, about life, the world, everything. It’s how people learn.”
So much kindness and wisdom. If townsfolk saw this side of her, they’d never even consider her a cauldron-whisking witch.
“Thanks. Can I ask what it is you are doing here?”
She let the dreamcatcher she held plummet into the fire. A squeak and grind erupted before the crackling of flames resumed.
“I’ll tell you child, but it’s a secret. Understand?” Her gaze tightened. No room for negotiation. This was a secret.
“I understand. I will not tell a soul,” I promised.
“Well, come in, it’s chilly out there. You’ll be nice and toasty in here in seconds.”
Inside was stifling and there was an overwhelming reek of burning. That smoky scent wavered in the air, irritating my eyes.
“Take a seat.” Her ageing hand guided me towards a small stool in the corner.
My ass only just fit onto it, and not without objection. It sang resistance with creaks and squeaks until I found a position of reasonable comfort.
“Now, I know what everyone says about me,” she confessed, grabbing a bunch of hair and tossing it over her shoulder. It moved as if it were one object, not many tiny strands. The flickering firelight didn’t flatter her face. It fell into the heavy wrinkles and sank into the gaunt dents of her cheeks. It made previously unnoticed chin whiskers visible.
“They think I am crazy, a witch, a crackpot, a Satanist, and on and on. They question the fact that I’ve never been married or had children,” she continued, not with sorrow, but with awareness. She didn’t care what these gossipmongers thought, she was simply oblivious to it.
“But I am not crazy. Sure, I have certain beliefs in the occult, true and factual beliefs. I like my space, I believe in healing crystals. I love to read, and I enjoy movies. I don’t get out much. You and your mum of all people should know I am a good person behind the veil of quirkiness.”
“Oh, we do,” I barged in to defend her.
“You know I like wind chimes, right? That’s fairly obvious from looking at my house.”
I nodded with a smirk.
“But you don’t know the reason I like them, do you?”
I shook my head, my smirk sliding away.
She adjusted her position on the wooden chair, releasing a symphony of cracks and pops. Old skeleton. Once she’d found a comfier position, her eyes found mine again, piercing my pupils with seriousness.
“Wind chimes warn us of supernatural things Jacob,” she whispered with an air of fright.
“I know how this will sound,” she coughed. “Demons.”
I shivered despite the fierce hotness. I didn’t believe in that stuff; but she wasn’t crazy or delusional. I tingled in dread.
“D…d…demons?” I stuttered, hoping I’d misheard.
“I know how that sounds, but it’s true. My mother and grandmother taught me. We have been passing down this lesson for generations. I have diaries dating back hundreds of years, written by my ancestors.”
“About wind chimes and demons?”
“When a wind chime chimes without a breeze at all, it is a sign. A demon or harmful entity is coming.”
I gulped. “But how is it possible to tell when you hear a windchime that it isn’t caused by the wind?” Wind can be sudden and gentle. How can you know that it was an otherworldly warning?
“Oh, you pick it up easy. Plus, I have made all these wind chimes in a certain way. They don’t make sound easily. There must be an aggressive wind to make them sing. So, if one rings, you look outside, and not so much as a branch is stirring, it’s a warning.”
I did a quick recap of whether I’d ever heard one of her wind chimes sing without a stiff blow from Mother Nature. I couldn’t remember. It’s not something an average person searches for.
“I gave you and your mother some a few times. Remember?”
Among the many strange items she’d given us, a variety of wind chimes were among them. I didn’t have the heart to tell her they sat in our basement. Maybe we should have them outside?
“Do you have any outside?” she inquired.
“Errr…. no. All inside. Pointless, right?” I shrugged.
“Not necessarily. Sometimes inside chimes can be a clearer indication if no windows are open. But often people overlook it as a sudden gust through an air vent. People will rationalize before accepting something insidious. Believe me.” This wasn’t her first rodeo.
“But…why are you burning dreamcatchers? What do they have to do with chimes?”
“You see, wind chimes indicate their arrival. You have minutes maybe until something harmful is coming. Maybe not for you, or maybe exactly for you.”
A shudder travelled up my legs. This wasn’t the best time to hear spooky stories. We were alone, at night, in a weak shed, defenceless. I was a child. She was an elderly woman with a walking stick.
“But dreamcatchers are the way to catch them.”
My throat made a ‘hmm’ noise.
“The belief that they catch bad dreams is a myth, what they actually catch is monsters.”
I wiped a bead of sweat from my lip.
“Somewhere in history that message got garbled and miscommunicated. But at least if people have them in their homes and rooms, they are safe, for the most part. Even if they do just think they are protecting them against bad dreams.”
“For the most part?” I had to ask.
“Well, yes they do protect us. The demons are sucked into the webs and trapped there. But they are more efficient if we hold them out before us, kind of like you hold a cross out to a vampire.”
“Yeah I…. wait. Please tell me vampires aren’t real.”
My throat dried almost instantly. Heat, wood, smoke, and dust weren’t helping.
“Oh no, they are fiction, I think. Who knows? But more than likely they are just the result of a creative author wanting to freak readers out.”
I puffed relief, itching at my forehead. I wanted to hear her stories, but this heat was ridiculous.
“So, I hold it out and the demon gets trapped in it?” I sought clarification.
“Correct.” She pressed a fist to her mouth and broke into a fit of barks.
She didn’t sound well, and being outside at this time of night couldn’t be conducive to a good bill of health.
“Do you want to get inside Miss McCaw?” I offered, concerned.
“That’s sweet Jacob.” She smiled. It wasn’t often she smiled, but it suited her. Her teeth weren’t as haggard as her skin and hair. Or maybe they were just realistic dentures? Either way, it added warmth to her face. Oh crap, don’t think warm thoughts! I am sweating my hairless balls off in here.
“But I need to burn these.” She pointed to the pile of various dreamcatchers, or I should say, demon catchers.
“But why?” That seemed to be the last question of the evening.
“Well, if a dreamcatcher breaks, the demons are set free.”
Another chill racked my spine.
“But, if I burn them, the demons are destroyed.”
“Oh,” I mumbled. “Wait, how often do you do this?”
Her shoulders danced. “Sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly.”
“Weekly?” I blurted. “So, you have to buy dreamcatchers all the time?”
“I make them Jacob,” she corrected.
“Make them? Is that expensive?”
“It can be,” she grumbled.
Guilt tugged at me. Maybe this is why she lives in a run-down house. Maybe this is also why she is alone and childless. She claims to enjoy solitude, but this is a big responsibility, maybe she wouldn’t have time for a relationship, let alone a child, even if she did want one or the other?
“But I get by.” She offered me a slight smile. I’m no fool. I may be a year shy of a teenager, but I can read people’s expressions.
“Right young man, I think it’s time for you to get back to bed.” She wagged a finger at me. “Don’t you have school tomorrow?”
“It’s Sunday tomorrow, Miss McCaw.” I tried to remove any patronising or belittling tone from my response.
“Oh of course it is. My apologies. It comes with age. Enjoy your memory while you have it young man. Anyway, school or not, I am sure your mum doesn’t know you’re out here.”
I chewed words through a scrunched mouth. “Not exactly.”
“I thought as much. Now get to bed, I will see you in the morning. And if you have any further questions, I am always home.”
I was awoken by a wind chime. I instantly panicked, jerking from bed and springing to the window. The window came open surprisingly easy as I reached an arm out. No breeze.
Bolts of dread stabbed my stomach. A demon was coming. Then something considerably worse happened: all the wind chimes at Old Lady McCaw’s house trembled violently. They jangled. They jingled. They wore reflections of the creamy moonlight. They sang horror into the night.
So, not one demon, but an entire clan of them. She was in big trouble.
I hauled ass downstairs barefoot. Fortunately, Mother was a heavy sleeper. I barrelled through the kitchen and exited out the back. I sprang over the three deck steps. I didn’t even bother laying a few polite knuckles on Lady McCaw’s door; adrenaline had kicked in.
The door fell open with the slightest nudge, bringing me into a gothic living room. Mahogany furniture lay around, up-turned. Books were askew on the floor. Occult symbols and knickknacks were scattered along the chocolate-wood floor.
To my left stood a long wall, embellished with dreamcatchers. In fact, I struggled to see an inch of plaster not crowded with those demon snatchers.
Among the tumult, sprawled with the small statues and open books, was Old Lady McCaw. Her hair spilled across the floor, while her baggy ensemble made it seem as if she lay in a pool of blackness. Her body was contorted in an unpleasant position. Legs were turned inwards. Arms were spread open wide. Her neck had snapped, leaving her head to loll to one side.
A hand closed over my mouth: my hand. At first, tears came. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind; she was dead. Then an even stronger sensation took charge: fear.
This wasn’t a robbery. This wasn’t a domestic disturbance. This was evil. This was the behaviour of a monster. But, there were thousands of catchers nailed to the walls, how was the entity able to harm her?
My heart chipped as my eyes fell on a larger dreamcatcher with a golden shaft attached, inches from her reach, drowning in the tumult.
Just as my mind churned ideas of my next move, a creak came from behind me. I swung around.
Pictures of red-skinned demons and shadowy shapes occupied my mind. The door issued a long creak before thumping into a wall. My scalp tingled. I needed a dreamcatcher. Now!
I dropped to the ground and snatched the fancy golden one. I held it out as if it was a gun.
A shadow stood before me. Despite holding the catcher, I stifled a scream. Could I do this? Was there anything else I need to know? Did Lady McCaw tell me everything? Then it approached me.
“Jacob?” it asked. How the hell does it know my name? Wait, I know that voice.
“Yes dear. Oh no, what in the world happened here? Is Miss McCaw o-”
The rest of her sentence was stolen by a deep-cutting realisation that she wasn’t okay, not in the least. Her eyes landed on the old lady’s corpse. A heavy gasp left her mouth. Had her gasp been any stronger, she’d have sucked the contents of the room into her mouth.
“Oh, Miss McCaw,” she wept.
I stuffed the catcher into my pyjamas bottoms and rushed to wrap my mother in a comforting hug. Besides me, Miss McCaw had been the only constant in our lives. We didn’t have much family. Dad left. It was us and her. Now, it was just us.
I would sure miss her strangeness, and those insanely good treats she baked us.
“Wow, what’s with all the dreamcatchers on the walls?” she asked, voice soggy from tears.
I shrugged, pulling away from her hug. “Old lady superstition, maybe?” I lied.
“She was an odd one,” Mum laughed whilst wiping away tears. “Well, I guess we’d better call the police. Come on, you should be in bed.”
“Mum, how can I sleep now?”
She munched on her lip for a second. “Good point. Okay, but still, you shouldn’t be around this. Go home and make us hot chocolate or something. Or maybe this would be a nice time to use one of Miss McCaw’s herbal sleeping concoctions? Kind of a tribute to her?”
“That’s a good idea, Mum.”
As I was about to wander home, a violent rhythm of chimes commenced. That served as a much-needed reminder. The thing that killed Old Lady McCaw was still free.
“Wow, Jacob, calm down. It’s only wind chimes.” She ran her fingers through my bedhead.
“Mum, this is gonna sound crazy, but please grab one of the dreamcatchers from the wall.” I advised firmly.
“Please Mum, just trust me.”
She reluctantly reached out and unhooked one from a nail. A look of befuddlement held her face. “What now?”
As if answering my mum’s question, there was a guttural growl. It shook the walls. It sent books flying through the air and slapped windows, the panes danced in their frames.
“What was that?” she asked, the look of confusion no longer creasing her face. Now, her features were taut with angst.
“Stay quiet, and hold the catcher out like this.” I held it, strangling the golden base.
Mum nodded, and mimicked my actions.
Curtains whipped, books continued to be tossed around the room, and ornaments shattered. Shelves collapsed from the walls, snapping into splintery pieces as if the weight of novels and decor had become too heavy for their wooden arms.
Through the chaos, a rush of wind hit us.
“Keep holding the catcher, Mum. Whatever you do, don’t let it drop.”
She nodded, her lower lip trembling. Her eyelids had retreated behind both eyes; a look of total fright.
Then it came. It assaulted us. I struggled to hold onto the golden shaft. I did waver somewhat, but maintained my grip. I watched the crisscross of the catcher as it pulsed. The artfully tangled ropes developed a beat.
“What the hell is that?” Mum enquired, referring to the respiring rope.
“Just keep holding mum. It will be over soon.” I hoped. For all I knew, this took hours.
Yet thankfully, it ended in minutes.
The furniture stilled. The vicious wind stopped, and we breathed a little easier, the clamps of horror loosening from our lungs.
“Okay, what the heck is going on here?”
“You know my Grandma? You always said you wanted something from her side of the family.”
“Inheritance? We have an inheritance from Miss McCaw?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
Although, in the deepest caves of my mind, I was half-convinced this was more of a curse. Whatever the case, I’d never look at a wind chime or a dreamcatcher the same way again.
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