A Memory on the Moors
There was still nothing on the canvas. I had been increasingly displeased with the paintings I produced in the city and was in need of inspiration. Consequently, my ever-considerate host parents, Jim and Molly, thought a trip to the Yorkshire moors might get my brush moving again. I agreed, so Molly, James, their ten-year-old, Anna, and I all packed a long weekend’s worth of clothing and took up residence at a cheap but charming inn. All this effort had been employed to stimulate my mind, still nothing was on the canvas.
It wasn’t as though the scenery was unsatisfactory. Around noon, yellow sunshine, blue sky, and miles of magenta heather almost compelled me to raise my hand and begin; however, something held me back. I felt the scene deserved to be rendered in as much detail as possible, and since I neither had Vermeer’s time or skill, I left that job to my cell phone camera. As the hours went by, the hue of the sky deepened, and contrasting rays of orange and pink appeared as the sun sank beneath the horizon. I did not attempt to recreate this spectacle, reasoning that there were already enough paintings of sunsets in the world. Eventually, the sun disappeared from view, some of its light remained to brighten up the horizon and keep the sky more pastel cobalt than navy. As the temperature dropped, vapor rose from the untamed heath and covered the Earth in a misty veil. A figure appeared in the distance, its form blurred by the fog. This, I decided to paint.
I got to mixing pigments hastily, needing to get a preliminary idea on the canvas before it became too dark to see. I stared into the pallid air, trying to discern the shade of gray needed for the lone traveler. The figure dipped in and out of sight as they traversed the knolls, but before I could determine if I wanted to tint their designated color with blue or green, they slipped behind a hill and failed to reemerge. I sat squinting into the fog for several minutes before becoming anxious. The valley the stranger had entered was surrounded by higher ground on all sides, so if they had continued walking, I would have seen them by now. I stood up and pulled my pepper spray from my small purse. When Molly had given it to me, I thought she was being a bit over-cautious. Who or what would attack me that I couldn’t see from a mile away on the moors? Now I thumbed the trigger nervously. I didn’t expect to use it on the individual I had been painting, but on whatever, whoever was keeping them between the hills. I walked briskly but didn’t run. I hadn’t quite decided if I expected danger to be approached with caution or someone in need of immediate medical treatment.
When I finally peered down into the depression, I only saw grass and heath. I spun in a full circle in search of any sign of nearby activity, but it appeared I was alone. Thoroughly confused and frightened, I rushed back to my makeshift art studio, hastily grabbed my supplies, and practically jogged back to the inn.
The inn wasn’t one large building, rather a series of small, two-bedroom cottages. I walked through the small living room of my host family’s cabin and found them setting the table for dinner.
“Just in time, Clara,” Jim said enthusiastically, “We’re having spaghetti Bolognese and Yorkshire puddings.”
“I know people usually don’t eat Yorkshire puddings with pasta, but we’re in Yorkshire,” Anna explained as she pulled a muffin tin from the oven.
“Did you make them, Anna?” I asked, trying to hide how out of breath I was.
“Mhmm,” she replied proudly as she turned to look at me, “Why are you sweating?”
I let out what was meant to be a chuckle, since I knew what I was about to say would sound ridiculous to my host family, but it came out more like a wheeze than anything.
“It got foggy on the moors, and then I saw someone on the horizon,” here I held up my unfinished painting so the Allertons could see the gray figure atop the hills, “They were walking towards me, but then they went into a dip and didn’t come up. I went to see if they needed help-”
“Did you bring the pepper spray?” Molly asked.
She nodded in approval and I continued.
“But they weren’t there when I looked in the valley.”
“Spooooky,” Jim joked as he wagged his fingers in my direction, “Maybe it was Heathcliff or Catherine. Perhaps it was Bertha Mason!”
“Stop teasing her,” Molly interjected, “It was probably just a trick of the light. And you’re an artist. Your kind are known to have particularly active imaginations.”
I shrugged, deciding to accept this perfectly sound explanation, and took a seat at the dinner table.
The next evening, I set up in the same place on the vacant upland. For a while, everything was fine. Haze once again filled the air and I continued to create my rendition of the British countryside. I considered painting over the figure in the center of the canvas since I hadn’t had good experiences with its inspiration. Eventually, I decided that the enigmatic shadow, as uneasy as it made me feel, was the most compelling part of the picture.
A few minutes later something in the distance caught my eye. It was a blurry apparition, identical to the one from yesterday. I shuddered. Immediately, I began packing my supplies. I reasoned the thing in the distance was probably another trick of the light, but I wasn’t going to stick around to make sure. I was set to book it back to the inn when I heard a distant scream. The figure had slipped behind a hill, just like before. I tried to turn, to go where I knew it would be safe, but the scream came again. Someone was hurt, so I was forced to investigate.
As I drew closer to the mysterious valley, I could hear the agonized cries of the wounded. The howling varied between high pitched wails and sustained, low grunts that could have come from a man, woman, child, or beast. In any case, the sounds of suffering compelled me into a sprint. In the ditch, I found a boy of about nineteen or twenty. His skin was wet with perspiration and the dew of the grass on which he laid. These same liquids darkened his dirty blond hair and matted clumps of it to his forehead. From the navel down, he was wrapped in what I assumed was once a white sheet but was now covered in blotches of green and brown. Most notably, he was lying in a pool of blood, shiny and viscous as oil.
I rushed to his side.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, unsure what to do.
He emitted a hoarse scream in reply.
In retrospect, I should have immediately called medical professionals, but the shock of the situation filled me with confidence. My empathy for the bleeding creature, not much older than me, also lead me to try and aid him in whatever way I could.
“What can I do?” I begged, as he clenched his fists in pain.
“Emily!” He cried.
“Shh, shh,” I urged, “You’ll lose blood quicker if you exert yourself.”
“Emily!” He called out again. Tears rolled down his cheeks, adding to the collection of moisture on his face.
“Who’s Emily? Where is she? I’ll go get her,” I said frantically.
“Emily!” he cried once again.
With this, some of my reasoning skills returned and I pulled my phone from my pocket. It was nothing more than a plastic, black, rectangular prism Jim had found in a junk drawer. Its only attribute was that it worked in the UK unlike my American iPhone. To my dismay, the object I had been given for emergencies had no service.
“Stupid damn loaner phone,” I grumbled through gritted teeth.
I placed my hand on the injured boy’s shoulder in a fruitless attempt to comfort him. His skin was wet and cold. I shivered. I had never touched a corpse, but I was certain the sensation would have been identical to touching that pitiable young man.
“I’m going to get some help.”
He responded by whimpering and rolling away from me. From this vantage point I could see that he wasn’t suffering from one wound, but dozens of gushing holes spotted his back. I had never considered myself squeamish before, but my stomach turned at the sight. I tore my eyes away and started my run back to the inn. I hadn’t gone far, when I realized the moaning had stopped.
“He’s dead,” I thought miserably. A painful lump formed in my throat, distracting me from the fire in my lungs.
While the hotel couldn’t have been more than half a mile away, it felt as though the darkening moors stretched on forever. This place which had seemed so beautiful and serene an hour earlier, now felt like a godforsaken wasteland. Coughing and wheezing, I reached the inn. My hosts whipped their heads in my direction when I burst through the door of the lodging.
“Oi! Is something wrong, Clara?” Jim asked as he shifted to the edge of the sofa, ready to act in an instant if need be.
“Call 999!” I gasped.
“What? Why? What’s happened?” Molly inquired, concern causing her voice to raise an octave with each word.
“A man’s...been shot...on the moors.” I explained between pants.
“Jesus,” breathed Jim as he retrieved his phone from the coffee table in front of him.
I leaned against the wall, trying to catch my breath as Jim phoned for emergency medical services. Molly went looking for a first aid kit, and Anna sat, looking around, unsure how to make herself useful. I made eye contact with her and tried to communicate that everything would be fine and all she could do was wait. Evidently, she got the message as she gave me a nod, sunk deeper into the couch, and closed her eyes. I presumed she wanted to be roused when the man was safely packed away in an ambulance.
“Alright, I’ve got it,” Molly announced as she re-entered the living room, wielding a black case, “Clara, come on.”
I pushed myself off the wall, but Jim interrupted me before I could exit the room.
“Wait, Mol, do you think she should be seeing that?”
“She’s already seen it. Besides, she knows exactly where he is. This will be quicker than if I just wandered around, shouting for a reply.”
“And what do you plan to do when you get to the man? You’re a teacher, not a nurse.”
“The very least I’ll do is keep him from dying alone.”
Anna’s eyes snapped open. Molly noticed.
“I won’t let him die, sweetheart. I’ll try my best.” she said in that soothing tone only mothers can fabricate.
Anna returned to her restful state.
Night had fallen outside but I had no trouble finding the spot where the man had been lying. As we neared the crest of the hill, I steeled my nerves for the sight of blood or a lifeless body. However, when we looked into the valley, our eyes beheld nothing but grass tinted blue by the moonlight.
“Are you sure this was the spot?”
I was too preoccupied with shock to register what Molly had said.
I continued staring into the empty pit with my mouth agape.
“Clara, perhaps this is the wrong spot.”
“No,” I answered finally, “He was right here. I remember the shape of that hill over there.”
“Maybe he went to get help himself.”
Ignoring her, I walked into the depression to investigate. I dropped to my knees in the same spot I had kneeled earlier. There was no indention where he had been lying, no pool of blood to make me nauseous, no sign that he had ever been there.
“But there was so much blood,” I said, looking to Molly for some sort of reassurance, “What happened to it?”
My host mother shrugged and looked at me with pity, sympathy, and a hint of confusion. Her expression only amplified my uneasiness and I returned my gaze to the mysteriously vacant space in front of me.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said after letting my mind settle a bit, “But he was in pretty bad shape. He couldn’t have gotten far.”
“Let’s go back and call the police. They’ll find him.”
I knew that Molly was struggling to believe I had actually seen what I claimed, so I nodded in agreement and clambered out of the valley. Insisting that we go looking for a stranger, one who had seemingly disappeared into thin air, would have made me seem obsessive as well as delusional.
It was three in the morning when the police knocked on our door again. The rapping startled Molly from her sleep but Jim simply stirred in his recliner and continued snoring. Having been restless all night, I practically leapt to the door as soon as I heard footsteps outside.
“Did you find anything?” I asked hopefully.
“Nothing. No body on the moors, no one reported hearing a gunshot, and no one saw a half-naked boy in the area,” answered one of the three officers.
He seemed slightly peeved. I supposed my report suggested an interesting night, but it had only resulted in wasted time.
“We’ll keep an eye out for anything strange,” replied a second officer.
I nodded, too perplexed to communicate with words.
“Thank you, officers,” Molly said. I hadn’t noticed her get up and stand beside me, “Goodnight.”
The officers politely returned the farewell and headed off.
“I wasn’t lying,” I insisted as soon as the door clicked shut.
“Who said you were lying, Clara?”
“I know it doesn’t add up. I say I saw something and then there’s no evidence. You have to be suspicious.”
“I am suspicious, but I don’t for a second believe you’re at fault. Strange things happen in this world, and some of those things are never explained.”
I was again rendered mute. The thought that I would have to go on without knowing what had happened to the figure in the painting was immensely frustrating.
“Go to bed,” Molly said. Her tone was meant to be soothing, but my mind was not receptive to mollification.
Nevertheless, I bid her goodnight, entered one of the cabin’s two bedrooms, and crawled into the twin bed adjacent to Anna’s.
Sleep did not come. Not even when I popped a couple of Benadryl. It turned out I wasn’t the only insomniac in the house because I heard whispers coming from the other side of the thin bedroom wall. At first, I tried not to listen. I figured the muted, early morning conversations of a married couple were too intimate for the ears of an exchange student, but I heard my name among the hushed words and couldn’t resist eavesdropping.
“They didn’t mention her having schizophrenia or anything like that,” Jim murmured, “Maybe she’s just trying to play a prank.”
“She doesn’t seem like the pranking type,” Molly responded, “Quiet, polite. And if she were to pull a prank, I hope it would be more entertaining than this crap.”
“I didn’t seem like the pranking type in school. That’s why I never got caught.”
“You always got caught, Jim.”
Jim chuckled as nostalgia derailed his train of thought.
“School was a bloody riot wasn’t it?”
“Jim, can we talk about the issue at hand for a little bit? What are we going to do about Clara?”
Jim let out a long bilabial trill as he considered the question.
“Let’s call this strike one,” he said eventually, “She does something weird again, that’s strike two. We have a chat with her and call her parents. Strike three, we send her back. How does that sound?”
“Yeah, works for me. God, I hope we don’t get to strike three.” Molly lamented.
By this time, I had a plan that would allow me to get answers without progressing past strike one.
The next morning, I returned to my usual spot just long enough to set up a few supplies I had no intention of using. I would have left them in my room but that would have been a clear indication to Molly and Jim that I wasn’t doing what I said I’d be doing. After dropping off my things, I set out toward the horizon from which the mysterious traveler had emerged, armed with my pepper spray and malfunctioning phone.
After what I estimated to be a mile, I encountered the remnants of a large, Edwardian mansion. There was no plaque detailing the house’s history or significance. If the building had been important to anyone, the roof wouldn’t have caved in and the surrounding land would have been littered with tourists instead of dislodged stone bricks and miscellaneous twentieth century garbage. The entryway was still intact, but I decided against wading through clunky debris in a maze of centuries old walls. Twisting an ankle or getting crushed by falling bricks would completely derail my plan. I began walking around the house, observing how the goliath of a structure changed with each new angle. It wasn’t until I made it to the back of the ruin that things got strange.
I heard…voices. The words were unintelligible, but the timbre of the sounds made it undeniable that what I was hearing was human conversation. At first, I thought there might be people in the house, but the voices had a strange quality, as if the unseen speakers were underwater. This should have frightened me or at least creeped me out, but it didn’t. In fact, I was relieved to be getting more information, even if that information was leading to a conclusion that didn’t jive with what I had been taught all my life. I moved closer to the dilapidated edifice, hoping the voices would become clearer. As I approached, the voices got louder, and I could detect inflections which suggested the involved parties were upset. I backed away, not wanting to distress anyone further. I looked toward the heath stretching away from the house to see the sun was dipping toward the ground. The fog would be back soon. I also noticed there was a small graveyard on the property situated a couple hundred yards to the west.
The anxiety I should have felt when I first heard the voices finally manifested itself as I unhurriedly approached the eternal resting place of strangers. The first headstone I reached was essentially a granite wall. It was as tall as me and about three times my width. Carved into the rock in ornate letters were the words: “Emily Mary Anne Abernathy, loving daughter, light of our life, 1813-1832”. I cringed at the date. She was only four years older than me when she passed. The plot next to Emily’s was marked by a much less conspicuous memorial. The headstone was small, and gray, and shaped like the ones in the cartoons. It read: “Edward Grant, a good servant, 1832”.
“At least they managed to mention he was good at his job,” I scoffed.
Looking at that pathetic testament to the long dead man’s life, I realized that this was where my answers were. I squatted before deciding that was too uncomfortable, and instead fell to my knees, grass stains be damned. Nervously I placed my hand on the cool headstone and closed my eyes.
Everything came to me in flashes. The first image I received was of Edward, the dying boy from the moors. He was smiling even though he seemed to be carrying a heavy sack of flour or some similar product. I could tell that this was what he typically looked like. Happy, despite the constant manual labor. The next thing I saw was Edward talking genially with a girl. It was Emily. She was pretty enough by nineteenth century standards, but Edward didn’t seem to be drawn to her for her looks, and Edward’s jovial demeanor seemed to attract Emily more than his boy-next-door face. A montage of Emily and her parents chatting with various fancily dressed young men played in my mind’s eye. No matter how content Emily appeared during these courting sessions, she always sought out Edward afterward. At this point, I could guess where the story was going, but I couldn’t bring myself to remove my hand from the grave. In the next scene I saw Emily crack her bedroom door to reveal Edward. He looked nervous, and excited, and terrified all at once. He had come to confess what Emily already knew and to make a proposition he knew she would accept. Emily invited him in and abandoned the boundaries set in place by her society, her parents, her religion, and even herself.
A maid discovered the couple in the morning and soon after, Mr. Abernathy was chasing Edward across the moors with a shotgun while his daughter collapsed into hysterics. About a month later Emily succumbed to a violent illness. Her parents were reluctant to call it a broken heart.
Removing my hand from the stone and opening my eyes was like waking up from a nightmare. I wiped my now moist cheeks with my palm and returned to my painting. I stared at the lonely shadow in the center of my canvas for a while before rendering another silhouette to accompany the first on his journey.