It was on the eve of the Samhain that the first child disappeared.
Parents kept their children close after that but still they would disappear, without trace, from the playground at school and their beds at night, never to be seen again. With every disappearance the fear grew in the village. The night the Grey Lady was seen Mrs Cullen slept in her little daughter’s bed to protect her but the next morning both had vanished.
The Grey Lady had lived amongst us once, a very long time ago. No one knew where she came from. The villagers often saw her standing on the harbour wall, looking out as though she was waiting for something. One Samhain night she was seen walking down the street and into the sea, and she was never seen living again.
The winter after she disappeared a fishing boat dashed against the rocks in a storm. Only the fisherman’s young son survived. He said he saw the Grey Lady on the water, standing still as though she were on solid ground, her pale skin and grey dress shimmering in the moonlight, undulating like the waves. The elders said the boy was shocked from the accident and the cold, but her image was seen again that winter. It was a hard winter. Many people died unexplained deaths, especially children. My grandfather saw the Grey Lady once, as a young child, and the fear of it never left him until the day he died. He was on the beach at twilight, playing in the rock pools underneath the high stone wall. He looked up and she was there, a tall, slender woman in a long grey dress looking down at him. She flickered in the fading light so that he could see the sea wall through her, and he knew then that she was not human. He screamed and screamed and then she was gone. The locals stayed away from all the places she had been seen, especially as it was getting dark. On the night of the Samhain she could be seen walking barefoot down the village and into the sea, and the village folk would bolt fast their windows and doors and ne’er look out for the fear of her.
As more and more children vanished, the elders were convinced there must be a witch amongst us. We had a new religion in the village, led by a man we had to call Father. Father Jones led the witch-hunt and before long we were as terrified of him as we were of the Grey Lady. He arrested a girl from my school. “Witches don’t bleed,” he said. So he had three men strip her and prick her all over with long sharp silver needles to find the place where no blood flowed. They found no such place but he sentenced her to hang anyway. She was ten years old.
I was an orphan, or so I was told.I was found, a newborn, wrapped in a grey blanket on the beach. A farmer and his wife took me in. They are loving and kind but I have always been lonely in their home and their village.
I was playing with the farmer’s son in the rock pools under the high wall at twilight. He was an angelic little child of three, with a chubby face full of love and wonder. He put a fat baby hand on my face and giggled and I felt myself fill so full of love for this little child I thought my heart would explode. A shadow fell across the pale winter sun and the most dreadful fear took hold of me, even before I looked up and saw what I did. A huge, hulking black beast of a dog was prowling on the stone wall above us, larger than a man. I knew this was no normal animal and sensed its evil, even before it turned its blood-red eyes to me and spoke in a man’s tongue. “Give me the child,” it rasped. “No.” Spoken not in defiance, but in desperate, pleading fear. He – it – laughed, and in one bounding leap left the stone wall and landed at my feet. I cowered back, clutching the child to my breast, all hope abandoning me.
I felt wind in my hair as something jumped over me. It could only have come from the sea. The she-wolf’s pelt shimmered like moonlight on water. She snarled and the demon answered in kind, black snout pulling back to reveal the most terrible teeth, sharp white stained with red, red eyes ablaze above them. The wolf growled a savage threat and tensed, ready to pounce. I thought about what the elders said when they warned us not to go into the woods. “Knock a grown man down and have his throat out in a second, even a small wolf would.” The demon disappeared and the wolf turned her face to me. Human eyes in a wolf’s face. Grey eyes, like mine. Then she was gone.
That night my adopted brother slept in my bed. I dreamed I saw red eyes in the darkness, but when I woke I looked out the window and saw a grey wolf prowling outside, and I felt safe. No more children vanished that year, and the pastor led no more witch hunts.
The next Samhain the villagers gathered together in the church. At midnight, we heard a terrifying snarl outside and although we couldn’t see the evil that was lurking there, we all felt it. The townspeople gave thanks for the church they sheltered in but I, having seen him, knew that no stone walls could keep that demon out. I picked up my brother and cried tears of hopelessness and fear as I promised him I would protect him. I knew the promise was empty. I felt myself giving in to blackest despair as we crushed together in that church, hoping and praying to whatever faith we each lived by. Father Jones had frightened us into paying lip-service to his holy book with a zeal born more out of fear than faith, but without him, the villagers prayed to the old pagan gods and goddesses, appealed to the spirits of their ancestors, prayed to anything that would give them hope on that blackest of nights. On the other side of the flimsy wooden door there was a growl, low and guttural, answered by a snarl. In my mind’s eye I saw it, the she-wolf snarlingas she stalked up to the beast outside, cold grey eyes meeting fiery red, shimmering grey matched against blackest black. There was a fierce growl, terrifying and evil, followed by a subdued whimper. And that was all. We waited out the rest of the night in silence, no one daring to move or speak.
When dawn’s first rays came through the window some brave men went outside. In the gathering light they saw a monstrous dog lying dead on the ground, its eyes blood-red, a she-wolf sitting calmly back on her haunches beside it, waiting and watching. I looked into her eyes and knew then that I loved her, and always had. As the sun touched the demon it lost its shape and size, seeming almost to melt back into the body of Father Jones, dead eyes blood-red and open, priestly garments as black as the demon’s pelt, throat torn asunder. The blacksmith touched his face and where he had touched crumbled into black ash. All fled but I. I don’t know what it was that made me stay. I looked to where the she wolf had been and saw instead a lady, more beautiful than any woman I had ever seen, tall and slender and clad in a long grey dress. Her eyes were grey like mine and she seemed to flicker in the grey pre-dawn.
The villagers wonder why I spend so much time standing on the stone wall, looking wistfully out to sea. Soon, I will walk down in to the sea under the light of the full moon. If I am seen I will seem to shimmer, as I become one with the black waves. They will never see me living again and think that I have drowned.
But I won’t be walking into the sea to end my life. I’ll be walking into the sea to go home. To go to my mother.