Short Story Runner Up - January 2013

P.J. Hodge - A Tale Of Chirbury

Cowering under the deep shadow of St Michael’s church lies the little village of Chirbury, its population rarely venturing beyond the crooked line of buttresses that maintain its walls. Equal in number are those that will not pass through its cemetery; for here, the tendrils of time have reached across the ages to bind brick and soil to an ungodly power, a power diffused into the village conscience. Step into its realm and one feels touched by a sense of suffering, a gateway to the past.
Yes, the description is far removed from those headlining the guide books and pamphlets on sale in the little shop near the post office. And surely not the sleepy idyll you were hoping to find. No, indeed!
Well, let me tell you more of Chirbury and its history, for in recent times I have become quite the expert; and, you never know, it may just save you some time and trouble if you ever fancy moving this way.
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In the small square, outside the entrance to the church, stands Bishop Swinfield, pointing his nose with disdain at its aging walls. What he sees, he does not like. The church, in his opinion, has become complacent and its wardens are an unruly bunch.
The only peace this place knows is that of the cemetery.
The elders are rounded up and led into a small anteroom at the back. There, the bishop informs them of his charge:
‘I visit today with the authority of the church council, but what I find is a house unfit for purpose — a house unfit to be inhabited by God himself! The Lord’s church needs elders who will stand for that which is right, at any cost. But here I find wolves instead of lambs, blindly and arrogantly following new ways; false teachers leading the flock astray. It is our duty to ensure we teach and exhort the faithful, leading them towards the light. If it were not for my leaning towards cure not condemnation I would be leaving here today and sealing the door behind me. Instead, you have but one year to put your house in order and bring the flock back to health.’
A year passes and the churchmen achieve little, complaining the parishioners are poor and the land is unable to raise crop nor funds. The bishop is furious; on leaving, he will submit a report to the council: the building will be condemned as “no longer a fit place for the celebration of the divine mysteries.”
Thomas Newton, one of the elders, leaves the meeting to report the outcome to the crowd gathered outside.
Newton works his way through the frowning parishioners, finally coming to an old woman who stands aside from the gathering, one he does not recognise. He whispers to her as he has done the others, all of whom now stand in mute awareness; but unlike them, she moves away, circling the crowd, taking the steps to stand before the assembly.
The woman presses against her stick, and though her back is naturally bent she stands upright, stretching her hand to point a finger towards the church. Her mouth opens and she speaks with the power of one delivering an important speech.
‘Your church shall be saved if you heed these words. Tell the bishop to pay me a visit. I shall be waiting at the end of the lane. Tell him that I have some important information I wish to share.’ She pauses, bringing down her arm. ‘Persuade the Bishop to meet with me and I guarantee this house will remain a place of worship.’
The toothless old crone makes one final statement before disappearing off across the churchyard and along the lane: ‘For this help, I ask only one thing: that every year, on the evening of All Hallows, there shall be no worship in this house nor persons using its grounds.’
Though presenting as a raddled hag, the people are quite certain the woman is some sort of witch, but uncertain as to whether her words are as black-hearted as the devil himself. After consideration, Newton enters the church and informs the visiting bishop that he is due some important news. At once, he is intrigued, assuming the counsel to be further evidence of illicit affairs at the house — exactly what he has hoped for.
With vigour in his stride, he leaves the building, hastily making his way down the lane.
Not long after, the elders learn of Newton’s promise and they are furious. Yet, they know of no other means to remedy the situation and decide to leave their fate entirely in the hands of the old woman.
Days slip by as the men anxiously await news; but no report comes their way. Weeks pass and the bishop nor the woman returns. The villagers are mystified.
In time, they turn to optimism; assuming their fate to be as spectacular and mysterious as the tale of the missing pair; and ultimately, nearly all come to believe that their place of worship is saved from the condemning power of the council.
With a year almost passed, the inhabitants of Chirbury use the church more freely. Some assume the Bishop to have changed his mind; others suggest that his fate lay in the treacherous waters of the river Camlad; but more whisper that his fortunes traversed the moment he left with the hag.
It is not until the week before All Hallows Eve, as the villagers turn to their annual preparations, that Thomas Newton makes it his business to remind them of the promise they have made. But most are too busy to concern themselves with the forgotten words of an old woman, for they have bread to bake and soul cakes to prepare; all to be completed in time to honour the saints and pray for their worthless lives; for, without so, they would give the dead one last chance of vengeance before moving beyond the veil.
Soon it is the Eve, a bitterly cold night with dense grey mists weaving through the tiny village. Thomas Newton has done his best to persuade people to stay away from St. Michael’s, ordering them to their homes for the entire night. He takes comfort that they heed his words.
Yet, unbeknownst to Newton, a meeting is taking place. Several have gathered in defiance of his admonitions, angry that their right to pass through the church has been denied. With resentment boiling, they press ahead with a parade through the cemetery, the most important of traditions associated with All Hallows Eve.
Shortly before midnight, the rebels assemble at the entrance to the church. Each lights a candle to guide their travel; each hides his face behind a mask. A call to walk is ordered, the gate is swung wide and the troupe begin a slow, meandering shuffle along the path. The candle flames flicker and dance, illuminating the surrounding mist. No sooner do they reach the entrance to the church when a blast of wind, violent and from nowhere, blows out the candles. The procession stops suddenly, each of the hunch-framed bodies consumed by an ice-cold chill. One of them screams and points into the near distance. Ahead, through the swirling mist, they make out a dark shape. It is moving towards them. As it approaches, the apparition grows; and from its black mass stems a gnarled, grey hand, the outstretched fingers of which drum out an invisible beat. Worse still, deep within its shapeless body comes a cold whisper; a voice that calls each of their names in turn: Henry Edwards, Matthew Bradeley, John Thynne, Martha Thynne… the unseen tongue continuing until all twelve names have been spoken.
And then as quick as it appeared it was gone, leaving the terrified souls running for their lives, clambering frantically across jagged graves and nameless stones.
It is no surprise that when morning comes, the conversation is dominated by events of the night before; that is apart from the twelve who remain in their beds, shivering. And shiver they continue, for it is only a matter of weeks before all succumb to fever. And though they fight their afflictions — stauncher constitutions fighting longer — three months after All Hallows Eve, all twelve had been laid to rest in the churchyard.
And now, all at once, Chirbury is a place cursed.
The grounds of St Michael’s soon become a land rarely trodden. More so, on All Hallows Eve the village becomes deathly quiet. Few venture out and less speak as to the reason why.
Several centuries pass in uneventful slumber, when two foolhardy men, worse for a night’s drinking, take a short cut through the churchyard.
The day is All Hallows Eve.
The path remains unhampered until they near the walls of the church; for, there, a filmy mist has descended, veiling all that lies ahead. The groggy pair retrace their steps but try as they might they are unable to find their way beyond the boundary wall. Instead, they find themselves endlessly stumbling around the broken rocks and graves, their blithe spirits waning. The more they walk, the more confused they become; and so they stop and nestle by a tree.
It is then that one mentions to the other that he has heard a voice, calling somewhere beyond the mist. The tone is shrill and threatening, and grows closer.
It is a hushed voice but one so powerful it dominates their senses. With regular rhythm they hear a name spoken. For each insistent beat, a shaft of mist stabs towards them. Finally, the last name is revealed, the shroud lifts and they are released from torment.
It is only the last name that is familiar; too familiar. It is the name of a mutual friend.
Though alarmed by the supernatural encounter, the two are urged to visit the third. But when the true purpose of their visit is revealed, he scoffs and tells his messengers they should pay more attention to finding decent ways home than in the bottom of their beer tankards.
A year passes and, as foretold, the following Halloween their friend is dead; a freshly filled grave in the churchyard. As to the fate of the others, no one can be sure. The witnessing pair swear more names were spoken to them that night, and it is not such a coincidence that a similar number lie newly buried in the shadow of St Michael’s; but in the absence of sobriety that evening, no one really believes what they say.
Yet to this day, on Halloween, very few have dared walk through the churchyard – lest walk amongst the stones – for it is said that souls do not rest in St Michael’s until a roll call of impending death is renewed, each and every All Hallows Eve.

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And there you have it. My tale told. But what of now?
For me, it is too late. Enlightenment to shadowy deeds of the past has brought me understanding, not comfort; for I have heard my name on the wind. Yet, I do not understand whether it has dominion over my fate or simply delights in it.
And though, by day, I keep myself busy, it is towards the evening, when I look across to the church, that I begin to count the shadows. I sit, a candle by my side, wrestling with the darkness, unforgiving of myself for venturing beyond unhallowed walls. There is but one month to go; eleven have passed but a far greater period appears etched upon my features. Little joy remains – my life now measured by the hour. And, in these darkening moments, every instance of sound around me fills me with dread, for I am certain it will come.

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About The Author

P.J. Hodge left London and came to reside in Hampshire armed with the collected works of MR James, Kate Bush and Nigel Kneale. He now trawls the dusky corners of the country seeking stories to entertain (and scare). These form part of his own collected works, Freaky Folk Tales.

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