“Grandma? Are you listening?”
Dorothy suppressed a sigh and put down her binoculars, turning away from the kitchen window to look at her granddaughter. She enjoyed Rachel’s visits, but today was not a good day for her to be here.
“You were saying something about college,” she said, making an effort. “What was it?”
Rachel shook her head. “Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter.” The disappointment in her brown eyes told Dorothy otherwise. She grappled with the familiar feelings of guilt in her stomach, but the draw of the window was too powerful. She picked up the binoculars again and looked back out at Mount Clamor.
“I wish you’d tell me what was so interesting out there,” said Rachel. “You live in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like you have any neighbours close enough to spy on.”
“Just keeping an eye on things,” Dorothy muttered.
The clouds around the mountaintop were definitely growing thicker and more agitated, swirling around the sky with a peculiar intensity as she watched. It was not her imagination – or her eyesight, she thought grimly. The sky held a feverish hue.
“Mom wanted me to ask if you were still doing okay on your own. She was looking into that senior’s home near town –”
“Tell her I’m fine,” said Dorothy abruptly, getting up from her chair and leaving the kitchen. She went into the narrow hallway, pulling her walking shoes, knapsack and wool coat out of the closet.
“Nobody is saying you actually have to go live in a senior’s home, it’s just…” Rachel trailed off as she reached the hallway, frowning in confusion. “Where are you going?”
“Out,” said Dorothy.
“But it’ll be dark soon,” Rachel protested. “And it looks like bad weather.”
“That’s why I’m going out.” Dorothy paused to look at her granddaughter, feeling her concern. She reached out and laid a hand on the girl’s arm.
“I’ll be fine. Stay here and wait for me,” she said, but Rachel shook her head.
“I’ll come with you.”
Dorothy hesitated, but urgency drove her onwards.
“Fine, but stay close,” she said, stepping out the front door.
The wind had changed. Dorothy pressed her face against it, walking steadily toward the mouth of the mountain trail nearby. She ran through the knapsack’s contents in her mind: lamp, blanket, water, chocolate bars, binoculars and road flares.
Rachel caught up easily.
“Look, is this because of Mom’s suggestion? I know the two of you don’t get along, but –”
“I’m not angry at your mother, but she doesn’t understand why I need to stay here,” said Dorothy. “I tried to explain it to her, years ago, but she didn’t want to hear it. For her, this place is just a reminder of how her father – your grandfather – died.”
“Mom never talks about it. Granddad fell, right? Some kind of accident?”
Dorothy was silent, her breath coming faster as they climbed past dark spruce trees.
“No,” she said at last. “Your grandfather didn’t die in a climbing accident. He was trying to do what his family – our family – has done for generations: keep the mountain in check.”
Rachel said nothing, the confusion clear on her face. Dorothy slowed to a stop and turned to look at her.
“Let me tell you a story that your granddad told me,” said Dorothy. “A long time ago, there was a spirit – a nasty one – plaguing the towns and villages in this part of the world. It killed farm animals, lured children into the woods, sent nightmares that drove people mad. And every year, the spirit was getting stronger.
“Something had to be done. The townspeople called in a priest, but his scriptures were useless. They called in a witch – a powerful sorceress – but her book of spells failed. So the people came together and decided that, if nobody else could help them, they would have to find their own solution. They found a way to trap the spirit – right here.”
“In Mount Clamor.” Dorothy nodded up at the towering outcrop of rock.
“Okay…” Rachel said. “Interesting story. But what does it have to do with us?”
“Nothing holds forever. Somebody has to do the patchwork.”
A thin wail of wind picked up above them, thrashing its way through the tree branches. Dorothy tensed. She grabbed Rachel’s hand and started walking again, pulling the two of them up the path ahead. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?” Rachel asked.
“Up. As far up as we can get.”
“Because it’s best to meet things head on,” said Dorothy.
“Meet what?” Rachel exclaimed.
Her grandmother stopped for a moment, feeling the sudden weight of clouds above them pressing down. The air around them was becoming hazy, thin layers of precipitation forming.
“The thing that destroyed your grandfather,” said Dorothy, looking up at the sky.
As if responding to her presence, the clouds around the mountaintop plummeted down towards them in a silent, roiling mass, enveloping the old woman and her granddaughter in a fog as cold as the ocean. Dorothy gasped, shuddering at its touch. She could see nothing through the greyness. Somewhere nearby, she heard Rachel cry out.
“Stay close to me,” Dorothy shouted, but her fingers trembled in the cold, and fear made her head spin. Stay close to me. She was flooded with the memory of another night, another panic-filled darkness. Despite all her preparations, everything was unfolding just like the last time, all those years ago. Shadows writhed in the gloom, and leftover impressions of faceless things filled Dorothy with horror – but worse still was when she recognized a face.
“Jack,” she breathed.
Her dead husband’s face gazed back at her from the depths of the fog.
You left me to die. His voice pierced her. You abandoned me and ran away.
“I was a coward,” gasped Dorothy. “But you lied to me. You said it would be easy – just a few words that had to be spoken to keep the spirit contained.”
And you believed that?
“I… I shouldn’t have. But we were both young. We thought we knew better than the stories.”
Jack sneered at her, the expression alien on his face, and Dorothy knew with a pang that she was not speaking to her husband, a kindhearted man. This apparition was the mountain spirit itself.
You’re just as much of a coward today. Admit it. You’re afraid now.
Dorothy was afraid.
But she was now seventy-six years old. She had survived loss and guilt, anguish and loneliness, pain and regret – and this time, despite the pounding of her heart, her thoughts turned instead to her granddaughter, lost and alone in the darkness.
Reaching into her knapsack at last, Dorothy pulled out a road flare, holding it away from herself and clumsily setting it alight. The brightness was sudden. Sparks broke through the suffocating grey.
“You cannot have me,” she shouted. “And you cannot have Rachel. Let her go!”
The fog burned. For a moment, Jack’s apparition flickered.
Dorothy saw a more solid shape stumbling towards her, and she reached for it, grasping Rachel’s coat and pulling her close. Her granddaughter held on tightly, gasping and choking.
Pathetic, said the spirit, its voice dripping with scorn. You cannot keep me here.
“Oh no? Spirit, we cast you back into your bonds…”
The sneer disappeared, and Dorothy felt the shadows intensify around her. She took another breath and kept speaking.
“The mountain holds you, our will binds you…”
The words echoed back, and Dorothy realized that her granddaughter was repeating them, a young voice that grew stronger with each phrase.
“For we know your secret – that our own fear gives you strength…”
The spirit twisted and thrashed, all traces of Jack’s face now gone.
“And we’ll give you no more. Be off with you,” Dorothy ordered the darkness, straightening up, and as she did so she felt the fog lifting. The spirit shrieked, fighting her command, but finally obeyed. The clouds swirled back up to the upper atmosphere and then stilled, anchored in place once more by the mountain.
All was silent.
The old woman and her granddaughter stood together, breath heaving. They let themselves sag to the ground. After a moment, Dorothy dug through her knapsack and pulled out some chocolate bars, unwrapping one for herself and handing the other to Rachel. The girl laughed shakily and took it.
“Jack would have been proud of you,” said Dorothy. “I know I am.”
Rachel squeezed her hand again. “I think he would have been proud of you too.”
When the two of them were able, they got to their feet and began their descent together, leaving the mountain behind.