The Woman in the Shawl

This is a short story I wrote after being given a challenge by Breifne Earley on the Leitrim Daily Podcast. Check out more about that on my post here, or listen to episode 76 of the Leitrim Daily podcast over at www.leitrimdaily.com! On with the tale!

Sarah ran up Main Street, weaving and bobbing between members of the crowd. She could feel her heart thump in time with the beating of the samba drums. Her pulse raced as she was deafened by the whistles and screams around her. She twisted through, trying to force her way through the crowd as fast as she could.

To escape her.

Sarah turned again and looked around her for a moment. Between dancing demons and cackling witches, she could just about see a cold face staring at her. It was a woman with a ragged shawl up and around her head. She was further down the road, just outside McKenna’s. Sarah fled and pushed through the mob with stronger fervour.

Suddenly a tiny hand grabbed her around the wrist, its nails digging into her. She turned and saw a hideous face. The thing was repulsive. The lips were non-existent, its teeth bared, and tiny red eyes glared at her.

“Stop! No get off!” Sarah snatched her hand away, and a sad tiny voice came out from behind the mask. 

“S…sorry.”

The child danced back into the Hallowe’en parade and Sarah shoved on past, trying to get to the Market Square and hopefully find somewhere to hide. The samba drums were starting to fade away and now followed a float that was blaring Thriller out over the street. Some people cheered again when they saw friends and familiar faces on the float. Sarah darted towards Market house and hid in the entryway. 

She leaned against the door, her hands on her knees. Her heart raced as she tried to catch her breath. It billowed up in front of her, the cold October air chilling her throat. Sweat pumped down her face and a drop slipped off her nose and onto the ground. What was she going to do?!

***

“Come on Isabella it’s not that bad!”

Sarah laughed as her friend Isabella posed for the picture. She had just fallen into some sheep shite and it was all over her hands. It took everything she had not to double over laughing. 

Although she’d known her for barely two months, Sarah had become quite close to her new friend from college. Isabella had come up with her for the Hallowe’en weekend. She was a pure blue Dublin girl through and through and kept making the joke that Sarah was the first person she’d ever met from Leitrim. 

“Seriously Sarah, you set me up!” claimed Isabella, her nose crinkling as she wiped her hands on some grass. Sarah shook her head as she snapped another picture of her friend. They were on the top of O’Donnell’s Rock, admiring the amazing view of Manorhamilton, nestled amongst mountains and valleys. Sarah brought them here for the view alone.

They walked and talked for an hour or two, chatting about everything and nothing. They complained about college assignments, traded funny stories and compared favourite films, tv shows and books. Their laughter rang out across the hilltops, bogs and fields. After some time they began the descent down the other one side of O’Donnell’s Rock and into the Stone Pound. On they walked until a dirt path emerged from between the heather and peat. They followed it as it twisted down into a valley, eventually coming across:

“The Giant’s Graves!”

“The what?” asked Isabella.

“The Giant’s Graves, it’s a stone-age burial site or something. My cousins and I used to be up here playing all the time.”

 The Graves were almost indistinguishable from the limestone popping out of the ground all around them. The stark barren landscape was almost like the Burren in Clare, with heather reaching up and creeping through the cracks in the rock. The ‘graves’ were actually four court cairns, four large sheets of limestone assembled into rectangles, creating small roofless chambers. Sarah showed them off with pride. 

“At some point, people used to think that this place was where the ‘fairies’ lived. There’s some old story about a guy never being able to get off the turn in the road just there. Or something.”

Isabella climbed up on top of a boulder. “Fairies?” 

“Yeah. But the creepy Irish fairies, not like Tinkerbell.”

“Look over there,” Isabella pointed across the Burren like landscape, “Is that a house?”

Just a few metres away from the graves was a ruined house. Sarah remembered seeing it all the time growing up, but could never recall going into it. It was a small two-room a cottage really. made of stone. The roof was long gone and parts of the walls were caved in. It was merely a shell, a suggestion of a house. Nothing more. Of all the countless times that she had been up here playing as a child, why couldn’t she remember playing in that house?

“Ehm… Yeah. It’s a house. Let’s go, we’re nearly done.”

“No come on, we’ll see if anyone’s home in the house. Maybe they’d make us a cup of coffee and we can watch some tv!” Isabella laughed and started walking across the limestone surfaced ground, straight for the cottage.

Sarah, unable to explain her unease, followed her friend. 

“I don’t really like this Izzy, I think we’ll just head on. Come on, we’ve to get ready for the Samhain parade tonight in town.”

“I think it’s so random you’ve Halloween parades in such a small town. I don’t think there’s any major ones in Dublin. Come on I just want a quick look!”

Isabella ignored Sarah’s pleas and just hopped inside the doorway. The blue-grey stonework was the same colour as the ground surrounding it, and Sarah wondered if it was considered wise to build your house right beside where the fairies were said to have lived. 

Not that she believed in that sort of thing.

She stepped into the house after her friend. There was nothing to explore really. The once dirt floor was now covered in grass and weeds. Any plaster that was presumably on the walls at one point had long crumbled away. A central wall clearly had a fireplace at one stage, but most of the ruin was long destroyed. 

Standing there, Sarah felt uneasy. Like someone was watching her. All she wanted to do was leave and never return. 

“Who do you think lived here?” Isabella emerged from the only other room.

“No idea… To be honest I’ve never been in here. It always felt like it wasn’t… allowed?”

Izzy continued to explore for a moment or two, but there wasn’t much to see or find in a few barely standing walls. Sarah waited outside the ruin. 

On her way out, Izzy tripped and tried to steady herself on the doorway. A few stones came loose and fell out of the wall.

“Izzy!”

Isabella stumbled out of the ruin as Sarah grabbed her. She pulled her away while more stones and pebbles began to fall out of the wall, destabilising it further. It shook. Each stone that fell seemed to take two more with it until even the hearth fell in. Within seconds the ruin was no more, and all that stood was a pile of rubble.

“Holy shit! Oh god!”

“Are you okay?!”

Isabella patted herself as if looking for injuries.

“I… I think so! Seriously oh my god…” 

“Should… should we tell someone?” Sarah’s heart was still racing, almost panicking over the near-miss. 

“Why?! We’d only get in trouble or something! It’s not like anyone was hurt and I doubt whoever owns this field like, wants it up there forever… come one… I want to get out of here.”

They left, walking along the edge of a forest that was planted right beside the ruined house and Giant’s Graves. Isabella was staring between the trees as she walked when she grabbed Sarah’s arm. 

“I think I see someone.”

“What?”

“Yeah… Look. A woman. She’s in a big black dress or something…”

Sarah tried her best to find what Isabella was describing but couldn’t see it. 

“Are you su-”

“HELLOOOOOOOO?” Isabella shouted into the trees. Instinctively Sarah hushed her as her voice echoed through the endless conifer corridors. The girls stood for a moment and listened as the voice faded into the dark. The silence that swallowed her up was eerie. A simple breeze was amplified and transformed by the pine needles into the lightest and most gentle scream. 

Sarah pulled her scarf up closer to her face.

“Come on Izzy. We’ll go.”

“I saw someone.”

“I know. Just… just come on.”

****

Sarah got down low and looked through the legs of the crowd, her eyes peeled for a long black skirt floating just above the ground.

Her heart raced as she scanned the feet of the mob. It was impossible to make out anything. She’d have to stay hidden. She didn’t want to end up like Isabella. Her heart almost skipped a beat as she thought of her dear friend, the girl that was now dead because of a stupid mistake. Sarah stepped further back into the doorway of the Market House and pressed herself against the door, trying to stay safe, trying to stay hidden. 

****

“It’s fine. I’m fine. I just got spooked… that’s all.”

Sarah was standing in the doorway of the spare room in her parents’ house, panting. Isabella had let out a blood curdling scream, so Sarah came running.

“Are you sure Izzy?!” Sarah stepped into the room and looked out the window that her friend was staring at. “Did you see something?”

Isabella’s eyes were wide, and she was paler than before.

“Y…No. No I think it was just my reflection. But I could’ve sworn it was that woman from before. The one in the woods?”

Sarah arched an eyebrow. 

“We didn’t see anyone in the woods pet. I’m telling you there’d be no-one up there at all, especially in the woods themselves. There’s nothing to see there except pine needles and trees.”

Sarah gradually calmed her friend down as the pair of them got ready to head into the town itself. Sarah’s parents had gone in an hour previous with her little brother, doing what would probably be his ever last round of trick or treating. He was then going to take part in the Samhain parade, a Manorhamilton tradition. Crowds gathered as the local artists, actors, children and volunteers put on a terrifying and entertaining display.

Eventually the pair made it to the town and Sarah parked her mother’s car on Park Road, walking along the New Line to find the parade. She shoved the keys with the Leitrim GAA keyring in her pocket.

“Sarah, I… I don’t think we should. I keep seeing her.”

“What?!”

Isabella’s lip was quivering.

“I keep… I keep seeing her everywhere. In the woods, outside your house… She’s following me. Like she wants to punish me for knocking over her house.”

“Izzy you’re scaring me. And not because I believe you but because there’s no way that a woman is following you from the Stone Pound over a ruined house. Look, I’ll ring the farmer that owns that part of the land, explain what happened. Would that calm you down?”

“Maybe…”

Sarah couldn’t get over it. Isabella was a fearless person, never letting other people’s opinions or comments affect her, took confrontation in her stride. But this… this was different. Isabella was… was scared. Terrified.

“Sarah I’d like to go back to the house.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Not your house though. The house we knocked over. I think I need to apologise or something. I keep seeing her and she keeps chasing us. We need to-”

Just as Isabella was begging her friend to leave, Sarah saw a woman standing right behind Isabella. She was wearing a thick black woollen shawl that wrapped up over her head an all around her body. Her face was impossibly old, wrinkles and crevasses on her face made her look inhuman. She was stern, cold and angry.

“IZZY!” cried Sarah, grabbing her friend by the hand and pulling her away. Isabella let out a cry of shock and made a move to run, but as Sarah moved Izzy was frozen still.

The Woman had grabbed Izzy’s other hand, and now the two of them were battling for the girl. 

Izzy and Sarah screamed as the Woman slowly raised her other hand and pulled the shawl aside. Sarah pulled and pulled at her friend to free her but nothing worked. With the shawl open the Woman began to slowly pull Izzy inside it, her face unmoving the entire time.

Sarah fought and fought.

“SARAH! SARAH HELP ME PLEASE!”

“I’m trying! HELP! HELLLLPP!” 

The sounds of the parade drowned out anything they could do.

The Woman was impossibly strong. Nothing Sarah could do was helping. She pulled and pulled but all she could see of Izzy was her face and arm.

“SARAH! NO! NOOOO!!!”

The Woman casually pulled her shawl back into place, and Isabella’s screams. Sarah ran towards the parade, desperately trying to find somewhere to hide.

****

Tears were falling down Sarah’s face, some of them mixing with her sweat. All she could do for now was hide, until she could figure out some way to rescue Izzy or at the very least, save herself.

Izzy wanted to go back to the Stone Pound…thought Sarah. She must have wanted to fix something. It must be the house. It has to be the house!

Sarah peaked out from the entryway of the Market House, to see if the coast was clear. She didn’t want to risk being found by the Woman again, so she decided to sneak down around the Commons Road and escape that way. 

She ran from the Market House, the crowd thinner here, and bolted for the Commons, hoping to not be seen by her pursuer.

Her feet smacked the ground and echoed against the buildings on either side of her, the cold night making everything louder. She was just sprinting past the old Protestant church when she turned the corner, right into the Woman herself.

“NO!”

A cold bony hand reached out and grabbed Sarah’s.

“HELP! HELP! SOMEBODY!”

Sarah put all her strength and bodyweight into getting away from the Woman. She pulled. The Woman raised her other arm. Sarah kicked and scraped and bit as she tried to pull her arm free, but now the Woman was taking her in slowly… slowly… until…

She was gone.

****

The cold winter air began to form frost on the tips of the heather of the Stone Pound. A Fairy, in the form of a woman wearing a black shawl, drifted over the bog and fields, illuminated by a full white moon. The Fairy swept past a fake forest, past a ruined human home, and to her own home, a place the human’s called the Giant’s Graves. Her shawl unfurled from her body like smoke, and she herself became a mist. 

The mist seeped into the ground and drifted back to the underworld, the place where fairies dwelt. For tonight, Samhain, was the only time she could come and go from her home as she pleased, and this night she had made two new friends.

Forever.

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