Kirsten awoke to the sound of the wind moving swiftly through her window, billowing the sheer blue curtains and bringing the scent of fallen leaves to her nose. She wondered how long had she been asleep. It occurred to her that the moonlight shining into her room was brighter than she would have expected. The new moon had emerged just last week, but it looked to her like a full howling moon was bathing the world with an almost garish glow.
She pulled the coverlet back from her thin pale body and felt the coolness immediately through her flannel gown. It had been an unusually warm November night when she laid down in her twin bed, but now it felt chilly. She wondered if she had missed the weather report that day, if a front had blown in unawares. She trudged over to the window to close it, but first she craned her neck to look up at the night sky.
The moon was indeed full.
Impossible, she thought. It was a feeling not unlike dread but more like doubt that rose up in her chest as she contemplated what she was seeing. Hopeful doubt. This isn’t really happening doubt. Perhaps she was dreaming.
She began to shut the window and had it closed halfway when she heard it. A thin piercing whine, shrill and reverberating. She wasn’t quite sure she had heard anything, really. It was more like she felt it. She stopped to listen. Nothing. She started to shut the window further and the noise came again, this time perceptibly louder.
It was coming from outside. She poked her head out to listen to it more carefully, trying to determine the source. The wood shop. She was certain of it. The sound was coming from the wood shop and suddenly that made sense in a way she would rather not have comprehended.
The day before, Kirsten had been gathering the last of the wild berries that grew in the paths behind her house, which sat on the edge of a birchwood forest. This was something a sixteen-year-old girl could still do safely. There were stories of kidnappings and highway boogeymen that floated around from time to time; but in the quiet community where Kirsten’s family lived, nothing of the sort had ever happened. Except for one strange disappearance, nothing ever would happen.
In all of her gathering trips since she was little, Kirsten had seen every sort of animal one might expect to see, from rabbits to deer, skunks to opossums. She had never run into a stranger. Neighbors, yes; kids she had seen at school but perhaps did not know well, certainly. The woman she encountered that morning, however, looked like she had stepped out of fairy tale.
She was quite old, to begin with. She looked exhausted and uncertain, her head pivoting about here and there. She was thin and frail with skin darkened by decades of sun. Her silver hair flowed in long tresses about her head and over the back of her tunic, which was a deep purple that reminded Kirsten of starry nights. She wore silver chains and bracelets with jeweled charms dangling about, and she had faded leather boots that had seen better days. She smiled through closed lips and bright blue piercing eyes when she saw Kirsten approaching.
“Hello. Are you lost?” Kirsten asked her when she was sure the woman was within earshot.
“Lost?” the woman answered. “Now there is a hopeless word. I prefer words of possibility, young lady. I am, as they say in my homeland, in a state of high wandering.”
Kirsten smiled. As odd an answer as that was, she liked the old woman instantly.
“You just looked like you could use some help,” she offered the woman. “I’m Kirsten. People call me Kirstie.” She strode toward the woman and offered her hand to shake.
The woman looked at Kirsten’s hand for a moment, and then softly grasped it with both of her hands and held it gently while she spoke.
“Young Kirsten. You have a pure heart. I can tell that already. When you have walked the earth as long as I have, you learn to recognize a pure heart. They are not as common as they once were.”
Kirsten noticed two things simultaneously. The woman’s hands were as soft as if she had never worked a day in her life, utterly out of place with her hard scrabble appearance; and secondly, her hands were incredibly strong. Kirsten had the distinct notion that she could not have pulled her hand back if she had tried.
“I am Salome. People call me Salome,” she said with a softly cackling laugh. Kirsten obliged with a small chuckle of her own.
“Pleased to meet you, Salome,” she said politely.
“We’ll see, won’t we?” remarked the old woman, still smiling.
What an odd reply, Kirsten thought.
“As a matter of fact, young lady, I could use some help. I’m famished, actually. My last meal was the day before yesterday,” she went on to explain.
“There are still berries around,” Kirsten said. “Have you been outside this whole time? See here, I have some in my basket.”
“I’m not from around here, as you may have guessed,” the woman said. “I don’t know which berries are good to eat and which ones will put me in the ground.”
“Well these are perfectly safe. Here, have some,” Kirsten offered.
The woman smiled and stretched out her hand to receive the basket. She took one of the berries and nibbled on it, sucking the juice out of it. She closed her eyes as she did this and then she gazed outwardly, distantly, as if she were remembering something from the ancient past.
“These are good,” she said simply. Then one by one, she popped each berry into her mouth and chewed each one slowly. Kirsten didn’t mind. The woman looked near to starving and Kirsten waited patiently as she ate her fill of the dark blue morsels.
Finally, the woman handed the basket back to Kirsten.
“Thank you,” she said kindly. “Like I said, pure hearts are getting so hard to find.”
“Will you come to my house?” Kirsten inquired. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s getting colder every day. My folks could help you find a place or something.” Kirsten wasn’t sure why she was saying any of this. As kind as the woman appeared, Kirsten wasn’t sure that inviting a complete stranger to her house was a solid idea.
“No child. You are very kind. But I’m on a mission and you have helped me enough. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure there’s nothing else I can do for you? I have more food at the house. Can I bring you something?” Kirsten offered.
“No, indeed. You’ve done more for me than you can possibly know. In fact, let me give you something for your kindness,” the woman answered.
“You don’t have to give me anything,” Kirsten started.
“Child, I am an old woman. You can’t take things with you when you leave this world. Here, I want you to have this,” the woman said.
She rummaged through a leather satchel she wore around her shoulder. It was as rugged and wrinkled as she was. It was covered in markings that Kirsten had never seen before, not quite pictures, but not quite letters of any sort. The woman pulled out an object.
It was a carved green sphere of stone. It was unremarkable, something you might find at an antique jewel and rock shop, in a bargain bin. It was dull with gray veins and flecks of quartz.
“Oh I couldn’t take that,” Kirsten said, attempting to be polite.
“I know, child. It’s nothing special to look at. But I insist you have it all the same. For your kindness,” she added, holding out the stone to Kirsten.
Kirsten didn’t know what to do except to hold out her own hand. The old woman dropped the stone into it and immediately Kirsten noticed how warm it felt. It was utterly smooth, despite its plain appearance. Perhaps it was a finer gift than what she had first perceived.
“Thank you,” Kirsten said.
“You are very welcome,” the woman replied.
“I have to go, now,” Kirsten explained. “I hope you get to wherever it is you are going. It was nice meeting you.”
The woman turned and trudged off into the trees. Kirsten noticed that she looked more frail than ever, stooping now and laboring through every step, as if the berries had given her no nourishment at all. But the woman didn’t stop or turn back and soon she was out of sight.
Kirsten walked back to her house, foregoing the thought of picking any more berries that morning. As she ambled up her porch steps and reached for the front screen door she noticed that she still had the rock in her hand.
She pulled the screen door with her left hand and was about to step into the house when she felt the oddest sensation. The stone vibrated. She was sure of it. She looked at it in her hand for a moment. Suddenly, bringing it into the house didn’t seem like a good idea.
She wasn’t sure what to do with it. It was a gift, although reluctantly received. She walked over to her father’s wood shop at the end of the driveway. For some years now, she had her own little corner of the shop where she kept her set of carving tools and various little projects. She walked up to her storage cabinet where she kept odds and ends and pulled out one of the little drawers.
She dropped the stone into it and closed the drawer, strangely relieved to not have it in her hand anymore.
Kirsten went inside the house and set about doing her chores. As the day wore on, she thought less and less about the encounter in the woods. By evening the next day, she had almost forgotten it completely.
Now as the chilly air enveloped her blonde locks and coursed over her shoulders, Kirsten knew what was making the sound. She wondered if anyone else could hear it, it was getting louder by the minute.
She pulled her head back inside and shut the window. But she could still hear it. It was pulsing and piercing and it seemed to reside inside her own head as much as it came from outside.
She crept quietly out of her room and went down the hallway to her parents’ room. They always left the door open. She peeked inside and saw both of them sleeping soundly, a soft snore coming from each of them in turn, as if they were playing pitch and catch warmup.
The sound was continuing to increase in volume. Yet her parents seemed unaffected. She thought about waking them, but decided against it.
A feeling began in her mind at that point. It wasn’t fear. Nothing much scared Kirsten. At Halloween parties and teenage girl sleepovers, she was the one telling the ghost stories. It wasn’t quite dread, either.
She felt a mixture of annoyance and curiosity. What had this woman given her? She wasn’t even sure the sound was actually coming from the seemingly innocuous stone; it was tucked away in a drawer a hundred feet away. She had to know for sure. She had heard of tinnitus. What if this was just all in her head?
She decided to investigate. A quick trip to the kitchen to find a flashlight, and she was out the door, briskly approaching the wood shop to put this matter to rest once and for all.
She walked toward the shop entrance and opened the heavy oak door. It was never locked. As she swung it open, the sound leaped in intensity. Now it was pulsing hard, making her somewhat dizzy. At the far end of the shop, on her bench, she could see that one of the little drawers was glowing with a green sickly light.
She hesitated. Kirsten. She heard her name. Kirsten. Yes, she definitely heard her name. It wasn’t a fell voice from some ancient crypt in a cheap horror movie. It was soft and soothing and beckoning. It was coming from where the stone was glowing.
She stepped slowly toward her bench and heard her name twice more before she reached toward the little wooden drawer and pulled it open. The light shined brightly and now the sound had reached its apex.
She reached for the stone and picked it up. It was warm, like before when the woman had handed it to her. It felt alive in her hand.
Kirsten, it seemed to say.
“I’m here, Salome,” she heard herself say.
You have a pure heart, Kirsten.
Kirsten clasped the stone in both hands, feeling its warmth course through her limbs. Soon it grew hot in her hands. She wanted to put it down, but found that she could not move. The stone grew hotter and hotter and Kirsten was sure she would be burned, but still she could not flex so much as a muscle. She felt the heat radiating through her body and as it did, the sound she had heard began to fade. Her whole body felt like if was on fire, but still she could not move. She couldn’t utter the scream that was building in her throat.
Finally, it subsided, and with it, the sound that had beckoned her.
She made up her mind to get rid of the stone. She would find the river and cast the stone in it. She should have never accepted it.
As she turned to face the door, she realized with a cold terror that something was profoundly wrong with her legs. They ached terribly, every bone and sinew protesting. She reached down to feel them and that’s when she noticed her back ached as well. Bolts of pain coursed down her spine as she stooped, and she realized immediately that getting back upright was going to be a challenge.
The flashlight was still on her work bench, shining at the wall. With some difficulty she reached out toward it to pick it up, but ended up knocking it down to the floor. Its beam now pointing toward her, she knelt down slowly to retrieve it and that’s when she saw her own hand.
It was shriveled and dark and ancient.
She tried to scream. But no voice was coming from her tightening throat. She wanted to run out of that room, but she could not pull herself up again. All she could do was crawl toward the door.
The stone, now cold, was still in her hand. She couldn’t open her locked fingers to let it go. She crawled desperately toward the open door and pulled herself through it with all of her dwindling strength.
As she inched her way over the path that led from the house to the wood shop, she heard footsteps.
She looked up and saw the silhouette of a woman gliding toward her in long easy strides.
In the bright moonlight, Kirsten could see that she was tall and had long flowing black hair. Her face was strong and proud, not unkind. She wore thick leather boots that thudded deeply as they pounded the ground beneath her. As she drew near to Kirsten, she looked intently at her; and even in the pale light Kirsten could see that her eyes were a bright shimmering blue.
“I’ll take that,” she said, stooping down and prying the stone out of Kirsten’s outstretched hand.
Kirsten looked up at her for a moment and formed a word with her dried lips: “Why?”
The woman looked at her for only a moment longer. She reached into her satchel, a leather bag with curious markings, and pulled something out. She held her hand over Kirsten and dropped a handful of berries on the ground in front of her. Then she turned and strode away down the path and toward the woods.
As the woman’s figure shrank away, the moonlight faded, until Kirsten looked up and saw that it was back to its first quarter shadow. She could feel her breaths getting shorter and shorter. Then the light faded out altogether.