To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month.
Winter has finally come to North Germany. And since winter is also traditionally the season for spooky stories, this month’s free story is a wintery tale of historical horror called The Ghosts of Doodenbos.
So let’s travel back in time to the Spanish occupied Netherlands of the year 1571 AD, where the young widow Ann and her little son Florentijn have a close encounter with…
The Ghosts of Doodenbos
“Never go into the woods, especially not alone.”
Like everybody in the Dutch village of Doodenbos, Ann had grown up with those words, had heard them since she was old enough to walk.
“Don’t go into the woods alone or they will get you.”
Ann didn’t know who “they” were. No one else did either, since no one had ever seen them and lived to tell the tale. All she knew was that something fearsome and terrible lived in the woods that surrounded the village of Doodenbos.
Oh, the road that led to the neighbouring villages and the nearest market town was safe enough. Though even on the road, it was safer if you travelled with a caravan or armed guards and never ever by night.
But take one step off the road and you were doomed. Like Jan Renneboom, who’d gone into the woods on a dare and never returned. Or Dineke de Boer, who’d followed a runaway cow into the woods and never came back and neither did the cow. Or so many others from the village who had ventured too close to the woods and had been taken by the creature that lived there.
Ann didn’t know whether any of those stories were really true. But better to stay safe and keep to the village and the roads. So Ann had been told since she was a small child.
She was no longer a child. Ann was a grown woman now, a mother herself and — at twenty-six — a widow before her time. Her husband Martijn had gone off to fight for Willem of Orange, fight to throw the Spanish oppressors out of the Low Countries. He had never returned.
But at least he’d left Ann a gift to remember him by, the child she’d carried under her heart when he left, her little son Florentijn. He was three now, a pudgy golden-haired boy who was the joy of her life, her sun and her moon, her everything.
Once the mourning period ended, there had been other suitors. Widowers from the village, looking for a wife and mother for their orphaned children. Farmers in need of a wife and even the occasional merchant passing through. But Ann had turned them all down. For even though it had been three years now, she still wasn’t ready to forget Martijn, still wasn’t ready to move on and find someone else. Maybe she’d never be ready.
After all, there were stories of men who’d been thought lost in war or at sea and who’d nonetheless returned home, after years or even decades. What if Martijn was still out there, still alive, languishing in a Spanish prison, hoping to escape and return to her someday.
“It’s not good for a woman to live alone,” one of her would-be suitors, a widowed farmer named Pieter Ten Bos, had said, “Especially not in a house that’s so close to the edge of the woods. You know that they are out there, waiting, hunting.”
“Yes, they’re out there, in the woods,” Ann had replied. Sometimes, she thought she could see them, strange shapes moving around between the trees at dusk, watching and waiting. “Not here, not in the village, not in my house. I keep the fire and the lanterns burning all night, so we’re perfectly safe.”
And besides, she wasn’t alone. After all, she still had Florentijn.
When her little boy started to walk, it was a challenge. For like all children, Florenitjn was curious and eager to explore the world around him. And like all children, he was fascinated by the big trees at the edge of her small plot of land. He was quick, too, running on his little pudgy legs as fast as they would carry him.
There had been a few near misses, where Florentijn took off towards the woods and Ann only managed to catch him at the very last moment, so close to the deadly treeline that she could already hear them shuffling and moaning among the birch trees.
As a woman living alone, Ann had to be inventive. And so she took a piece of string, bound one end around Florentijn’s waist and the other around her own. That way, he had enough freedom to run and play like a little boy should, but she could still keep him close, keep him safe.
And besides, it was only for a few years. For soon, Florentijn would be old enough to understand that he must never ever go into the woods, especially not alone, that he must always keep to the village and the roads. Besides, it wasn’t a bad life for a child. There were plenty of things to do in the village, lots of places to explore, lots of children to play with.
So Ann and Florentijn lived peacefully in their little house at the edge of the woods. In summer, Ann tended the vegetable garden and in winter, she did needlework. And every morning, when she woke up at the crack of dawn, the first thing she did was to milk the cow Klementientje. Florentijn always tagged along, firmly bound to his mother by a piece of string.
It was a cold morning in December of the Year of the Lord 1571. Snow had started to fall overnight, the first snow of the winter, and continued to fall throughout the morning. Thick, fluffy flakes were swirling around the little house at the edge of the woods, like women in lace caps dancing in the freezing air.
Florentijn was beside himself with joy. He ran in circles around the yard, giggling and chasing snowflakes, the string that connected him to his mother tugging on Ann’s waist.
Ann would have loved to chase snowflakes with her little boy or maybe have a snowball fight or build a snowman. But first things first. For Klementientje was already mooing in her pen, her udder heavy with milk. So Ann headed for the stable, pulling a reluctant Florentijn behind her.
She grabbed the wooden stool, placed a bucket under Klementientje and began to milk. Occasionally, she felt a tug on her waist, as Florentijn reached the end of his rope in his quest to chase snowflakes. She heard him laugh and giggle and promised to herself that they’d build a snowman later on, once she’d milked Klementientje and done the other household chores.
The bucket was nearly full of fresh, still warm milk, when Ann realised that she hadn’t felt a tug on her waist in a while now. Nor had she heard Florentijn giggle and laugh and play. Instead, the stable and the yard were deadly silent, the only sounds the satisfied chewing of Klementientje and the beating of her own heart.
Filled with dread, Ann turned around and looked out over a silent yard, where the snow was already covering Florentijn’s little footsteps and her bigger ones. She looked down at herself, at the string that was always tied around her waist, linking her to Florentijn just as the umbilical cord had once linked them together. She reached for the string and found only a frayed end, where the cord had snapped.
Ann jumped to her feet, kicking over both the stool and the milk bucket and causing Klementientje to moo in protest. She dashed out into the yard, looked around. No Florentijn. And then she ran, ran towards the woods where she knew he must have gone, because that was where he always wanted to go. She ran and prayed, prayed to the good Lord above that he’d keep her little boy safe from the things that lived in the woods.
Ann reached the edge of the forest. At the treeline, she stopped and called Florentijn’s name, again and again. But there was no answer.
“Don’t go in,” a voice inside her mind said, a voice that sounded suspiciously like her father, dead five years now, “Run and get help. Run over to Pieter Ten Bos or Henrik de Klerk. They’re big strong men and Henrik even has an old musket. They can help you.”
But running over to the Ten Bos or De Klerk farms would take time, time that she did not have. For every moment that she hesitated was a moment that Florentijn could venture ever deeper into the woods and ever closer towards doom.
So Ann took a deep breath and crossed the threshold she’d sworn she’d never cross. She stepped into the woods.
In the thick, fresh snow, she could barely make out the little footprints that had to be Florentijn’s. Nonetheless, she followed the faint trail. It took only a few steps, then she was completely surrounded by birch trees, their white trunks melding with the snowy ground and their barren branches stark against the grey sky. She turned around and looked back, towards her house, towards safety, only to find that she could not see the house anymore. High above, a jay circled, calling out its warning.
Onwards, she trudged, deeper into the forbidden woods. Branches slapped her in the face, leaving angry red marks. Snow seeped into her wooden shoes and her toes became numb, but still she went on, following the trail that was getting fainter with every step.
By now, the undergrowth was getting thicker, making her progress more difficult. Brambles grabbed for her, tearing her dress and scratching her legs, as if they were trying to trap her in place. But Ann always tore herself loose again.
Undaunted, she went on, ever deeper into the woods. At times, she felt as if someone or something was watching her. But whenever she turned around, there was nothing there. Nothing except for trees and brambles and undergrowth.
Once, Ann spotted a movement between the barren branches. She froze and braced herself for an attack, but it was only a crow that fluttering away, croaking in protest.
And then, just as Ann was about to loose the trail for good, she heard something. Florentijn. He was crying.
With renewed speed and vigour, Ann followed the sound and stumbled upon a small clearing in the middle of the forbidden forest. And there was Florentijn, sitting in the snow and making snowballs, oblivious to the cold and the danger as only a child could be. And he wasn’t crying, he was laughing, laughing and clapping his little hands in delight.
But Florentijn wasn’t alone. For there were others with him. Creatures vaguely shaped like humans, with arms and legs and bony hands. Their faces were skeletal, their flesh grey and crumbling. They stared hungrily at Florentijn with hollow black holes, where their eyes should be.
Once, when Ann was but a young girl, heavy rains had flooded the small cemetery of Doodenbos and washed up coffins and corpses. She remembered seeing a corpse in his broken coffin, remembered the grey decaying flesh, the hollow eyes and the wisps of strawy hair that still clung to the skull.
The things that encroached upon Florentijn looked just like that washed up corpse Ann had seen as a child so long ago. They looked like the dead, because that’s what they were. Revenants, unquiet corpses, the dead returned to prey on the living. And now they had come for Florentijn, their bony hands reaching for him, stroking his beautiful golden hair.
Ann burst into the clearing, heedless of the danger. “Leave him alone,” she cried, “If you must take someone, take me, but leave my boy alone. He’s just a child.”
Florentijn turned to her and smiled his broad baby smile. “Mama?”
“Leave him alone,” Ann cried again. She dropped down to knees in the snow and tried to pull Florentijn away, pull him away from the dead hands that gripped him. But the dead held him fast, hissing at her with their tongueless mouths. More of them emerged from the woods all around, steadily advancing upon her and Florentijn, surrounding them.
One corpse, a woman wearing the remnants of a lacy cap, grabbed Florentijn’s little hand, hissing and spitting. Ann recognised her or at least she recognised the lacy cap.
Her name had been Mieneke van Zand, a wealthy widow, skilled lacemaker and secret heretic who would not abandon the Protestant faith. Three years ago, the Spaniards had sentenced her to death by drowning. Normally, heretics were drowned in ponds, rivers and creeks — those that were not burned at the stake, that was. But it had been the depth of winter and icy cold and so the Spaniards had simply drowned her in a large barrel of water. Mieneke van Zand had gone unrepentant to her death, with her head held high, wearing her very best lacy cap. The same cap that the undead corpse was wearing.
Ann forced herself to look at the other corpses and saw more evidence of violent death. There was a woman with long black hair clad in the tatters of a penitent’s gown, the mark of the garotte still visible on her throat. A girl with a swollen belly and deep cuts on her wrists. A man who still wore the hangman’s noose around his neck. A soldier, half his arm torn away by a musket shot. A man in fine, if tattered clothes, carrying his severed head under his arm. The charred body of a heretic burned at the stake. And suddenly, Ann understood.
These were the bodies of those who’d died violently — by the hand of the hangman or at the end of a musket or a blade or maybe by their own hand. They’d been sinners, criminals, heretics, suicides or soldiers who’d fallen in battle and they’d all been buried in unconsecrated ground right here in the forest. And because they hadn’t been given a proper Christian burial, they had come back to avenge themselves upon the living.
And now they wanted to take her child, her one and only, her Florentijn.
“Let go off my boy, Mieneke,” Ann yelled at the corpse with the lacy cap, “You made a cap for my Florentijn, when he was but a baby, so have mercy on him now.”
At sound of her name, the thing that had once been Mieneke van Zand paused, almost as if her rotting ears could still hear, her rotting brain still understand.
Encouraged, Ann continued. “My Florentijn is just a child. He’s not to blame for what happened to you. Take the Spaniards or take me, if you must, but leave my boy alone, I beg you. After all, you were human once, all of you.”
The corpses paused and seemed to confer amongst themselves, confer in a language no living ear could hear. And while they did not let go off Florentijn, not yet, they no longer held him in a death grip either. Ann took the opportunity to pull the boy to her, to crush him to her chest and wrap her arms around him.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her voice hoarse with crying, “I… I’d help you, if I could. Cause what was done to you is wrong.”
But how, how could she help those who were already dead and doomed to roam the woods of Doodenbos for all eternity?
“If I bring the priest — not the papist priest the Spaniards foisted on us, but the proper priest, Father van der Poort — and he blesses the ground, blesses you, will that help?”
The thing that had once been Mieneke van Zand nodded, the rotting lace cap bobbing on her head.
“I’ll come back with Father van der Poort, I swear. Just let us go, please.”
The corpses stood still for a moment, then they suddenly parted. Ann picked up Florentijn, though he was almost too heavy to carry by now, and made a run for it. But before she could get away, a corpse stepped in front of her.
It was a man or at least, it had been one once. A tall man, with dark hair that fell to his shoulders. He’d probably been handsome in life, but now he was dead like all the others. And like all the others, he’d died violently. Part of his chest and shoulder were missing, torn away by a musket shot or maybe even a cannon ball. The scorched and tattered remnants of his doublet hung over the wound. It was a fine doublet, made from good thick wool by loving hands. Ann recognised it at once. Because those loving hands had been hers, more than three years ago.
“Martijn…” she stammered, “…is that really you?”
The corpse did not speak. It could not. But it nodded. And then it reached out, its long bony hands, hands which had been so wonderfully gentle, when he’d been alive, touching her cheek. And though Ann knew she should be afraid, she found that she wasn’t.
“Oh my God, you tried to get back to me, to us, didn’t you? Only that you never made it. A Spanish musket ball found you and then they just dumped you here in the woods, not even a mile from home.”
Martijn looked at her and Ann thought she saw a flash of sadness in the hollows where his eyes had once been. His hand still touched her, tracing her face. Then he reached for the son he’d never seen, the bony fingers gently ruffling the child’s golden hair.
“This is our boy. I named him Florentijn, after your father, just as I promised before you left. I would have named him after you, but…” Tears were streaming down her face now, choking off her voice. “…I still thought, still hoped you’d come back.”
Martijn patted Florentijn on the head once more. Then he reached out for Ann and gently wiped the tears from her cheeks. He nodded at her in encouragement and stepped aside, joining the ranks of the undead once again.
And Ann ran. She ran through the woods, carrying her little son, tears for the husband she’d lost more than three years ago streaming down her cheeks. She ran from the dead, cold winter woods, ran for the little house at the edge of the wood, where there was warmth and life and love that even death could not extinguish.
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.