No one was around when the cracks first appeared. No one was around when they turned into probing tendrils. And no one was around when the wall surrendered and the waters it held rushed forth to cleanse the townspeople of their hubris in trying to contain its power.
Officials debated repairs to the dam, while one person watched over the valley whose secrets had been drowned in tears for nearly two centuries. She watched as grey trees and grasses, inexplicably brittle after their submersion, reemerged like a blight in one swath of the newly revealed countryside. And when surveyors and intrepid hikers began reporting an odd whispering wind and impossibly luminescent flora bordering the grey, she stopped watching and closed her door and windows and waited.
It didn’t take long before more strange things began happening. There was talk, but the words only stirred up motes of fairy tales best forgotten. There were pleas, but no one wanted to explore the desolate valley to find missing people or unwanted answers. Instead, scholars began digging through newspaper and Miskatonic University archives.
What they didn’t find was the truth. Nearly 75 years before emancipation, Massachusetts reported no slaves in the state. But everyone knew they were there, if not in name than in deed. In the valley, black men and women and children who had survived the horrors of formal bondage lived on compounds promising them a bridge to a new life. Instead, they found they had taken the half-step up from slavery to indentured servitude.
Most of those people fled Essex County as soon as they could. The others drifted to the edges of local memory. None of them returned to the valley proper. And none of the migrants who approached the valley would stay. They had known much darkness in their lives and could feel the great sorrow of the place. A half-century later, the valley was flooded, and its legacy submerged. But the land did not forget the terrors it had previously hosted. And it certainly did not forgive.
And so it was that a man with buried sorrows now entered the valley. He was one of the researchers, and he’d read ancient reports of a farmer who found meteorites with a strange substance inside that seemed to spark a series of tragedies. The scholar considered himself open-minded but did not believe in the inexplicable. Whatever had happened to the farmer Nahum and his family nearly 200 years earlier, and whatever was happening now, must have an explanation.
He set a course for the former farmland. Pragmatic as he was, as he approached the area in question, he couldn’t help but be enchanted by the contrast of the grey foliage and the glowing otherworldly plant-like forms beside it. Looking further, he saw the broken lip of a rather large well, and what may have been a farmhouse foundation a short distance away.
He moved forward, stepping gingerly over the waving plants and ducking under clutching vines until he reached the well. When the toe of his boot struck the decrepit stone, the valley went still. There was no whispering wind or dancing plants or scurrying animals or any other indication of life around him.
But there was something in the well.
He could hear it move. A massive slithering, like hardened flesh rubbing over rough rock. He could feel it reaching toward him, doubling upon itself to climb higher and higher from the depths. As if in a dream he peered over the edge into the abyss, but at first could only see shadows shifting from one side of the shaft to the other.
Then he saw the first hint of pebbly tissue, like sandpaper skin fused to rock. One moment it curled upward like an impossibly graceful and weightless cloud. The next moment it crawled the walls like a ghastly husky shuffling spider. He could see no distinction between parts. It seemed to be one pulsating body that smelled of something old and ugly and intentional.
As he continued to watch, the entity changed from a murky charcoal to a swirl of darting colors. They matched the plants on the periphery of the farm, and he realized the chanting wind had returned and the thing swelling up the well was thrumming to its beat. The lights under its skin were brighter and faster and he could start to see more clearly that the creature was shaping itself into a multi-limbed beast most akin to an octopus.
Then it opened its eyes. They were everywhere. The lumps and bumps he’d taken for imperfections across its surface stared back at him now in an infinite array of colors. He leaned further into the well because they beckoned, welcomed, commanded.
Just then the thing’s mouth opened, and he saw how impossibly large it really was. On the outside, it filled the full width of the well. But inside was like looking into infinity, down beyond the confines of the well and through the darkness of the earth out the other side to the vast vacuum of space. As he imagined himself falling past the regiment of jagged teeth, bouncing against razor-sharp edges until he was a tenderized piece of flotsam in the flow of the universe, he was suddenly blind.
Small warm hands covered his eyes and, attached to strong arms somewhere behind him, pulled him back from the precipice. When the hands fell away, he turned to see a woman about his height, cropped white hair contrasting sharply with her ebony skin. She was of an indeterminate age but when she spoke her voice carried the gravitas of eternity.
“You’ve come to find answers,” she said. “But just like the others, you’re asking the wrong questions. Do you know why this land looks this way? Feels this way? Acts this way?”
He shook his head.
“Because it holds the weight of all the pain and blood and sorrow of our people. The cruel lashings, the cowardly lynchings, the turning of a deliberate blind eye and deaf ear to the misery of those who were first enslaved and then freed into a new form of bondage.”
He was mesmerized by her words and tone. And the way the ground heaved with sighs and the song of the surrounding vegetation turned to moans and screams in sympathetic chorus with the story. Underneath it all, however, he could hear a clacking sound. When he looked toward the old foundation, he saw bundles of bare bones scuttling from corner to corner.
“All that agony soaked into the soil here,” she continued, “And when the soil couldn’t hold it anymore, it gathered itself together. Into the well,” she waved her arm in that direction. “Into the stones on this land.”
“The meteorites Nahum found?” he asked.
The woman chuckled. “That poor man and his family. Poking at things they didn’t understand until those things poked back. You know his name means ‘prophet?’ Yet he did not foresee this fate.”
She shook her head. “Those rocks didn’t come from beyond the stars. They came from the beyond,” she said.
“And the bright places inside those so-called meteorites? The ones that match the colors of their plant kin?
Those are the souls of all the brutalized slaves and their offspring.”
“How do you know all of this?” he asked. “It happened centuries ago.”
She smiled, and it was like catching a glimpse into the book of all answers for all things. “I am the Original Mother,” she said. “And though I do not play favorites among my children, it is time for a long overdue reckoning.”
As he looked around, he could see the strange phenomenon spreading across the rest of the valley. The glowing plants drew life in, the grey blight snuffed it out. The bones behind him were racing from foundation corner to corner, clattering out an ominous rhythm. Yet it wasn’t until he heard the moist slap of a tentacle limb hit the outside of the well rim that he ran.
“Welcome back, my loves,” the woman cooed as she began sauntering away in the footsteps of the departed scholar. She was not there to direct or guide the vengeance to come. In this valley of the lost, one had to find one’s own way.
Soon the grey grasslands seemed invisible under the setting sun and the shrouded moon. The wind hummed an aged dirge. The glowing plants seemed dull in comparison to the sparkling creature that continued to ooze from the well.
It was like a nightmare sideshow act made real; the undulating creature spreading slowly across the countryside, seeking reparation, accompanied by the rattle of ancient bones in search of playmates. At such a pace it was hours before the first screaming started, yet the depth of that suffering foretold much more to come. And while others peered from their homes to see if this unknown destruction was coming their way, the old woman closed her door and windows and waited.
I have been published in nearly two dozen speculative fiction anthologies and magazines and my first story collection, Down by the Sea and Other Tales of Dark Destiny, was published in April 2018. I am currently completing work on my second collection. ~ Michelle Mellon