It was some time past eleven, as far as he could guess, and Jacob was regretting the decision to ride through the night. Beside him, Phillip rode with his head bent against the wind, his dark riding cloak plastered with snow.
They’d both agreed to this plan, hoping to reunite with their families all the sooner. Jacob and Phillip were business partners, and the engagement from which they were returning had been a miserable one; all parties had left feeling either disappointed or cheated. Jacob and Phillip were encouraged only by the thought of their own comfortable beds, and any measure that returned them swifter to that reward seemed a good one.
But that had been in the early moments of dusk, before the sky had grown black with storm clouds. Now, as ice pelted his face and his horse staggered through snowdrifts, Jacob wished they’d rented a room in the last town. It would have been worth delaying their homecoming by a few hours to avoid this blizzard.
The men’s spirits were low enough thanks to their stinging faces and numb fingers, but what really had them depressed was that, some time ago, it had become apparent that they were lost. Their road had been buried beneath the rising snow, and the horses must have veered off at some point. It was Phillip who first noted the unfamiliar surroundings. They had sought to regain their way, but only succeeded in becoming more lost. They passed through strange woods and vast fields, none of which they recognized. But what alternative had they? They couldn’t very well stop and camp for the night; they and their horses would be frozen by morning. So they rode. Jacob could barely see his horse’s head in front of him, but still they rode.
Jacob firmly believed that things couldn’t be worse. The thought had barely escaped his mind when he heard a CRACK. His horse lurched and Jacob leapt from the saddle as the animal toppled over. Phillip was doing the same, scrambling away from his steed as it kicked and screamed amidst a churning chaos of broken ice and black water. The men watched helplessly as their horses vanished beneath the surface of a hidden pond.
When the last echoes of the animals’ cries had been swallowed by the water, Jacob asked, “What now?” His question was nearly lost beneath the roar of the snowstorm.
“We can’t stay still,” Phillip answered through chattering teeth. “Walking will help keep us warm, at least, and we may find some natural shelter.”
It was the only plan they had, so the two men decided on a direction and began walking. The snow was up to their knees, but they pressed forward, driven by survival. Jacob couldn’t feel his feet.
After several minutes, Phillip stopped them and said, “Listen! Do you hear that?”
Jacob tilted his ear into the wind. Yes, he could hear something. A hollow, metallic swell, as if the storm itself was singing for them. It pulsed like an organic thing, rising and deepening above the howl of the wind before fading again.
“We should follow it,” Phillip said. Jacob, having no better ideas of his own, agreed. Wherever that noise was coming from, it couldn’t be worse than their current environment.
The sound repeated itself at regular intervals: wwONng…wwONng…wwONng. Jacob and Phillip struggled after it, like it was some phantom in the desert, beckoning with the promise of a drink, always drifting ahead and just out of reach. Each step was harder than the last. Jacob didn’t think he could go any farther. A warmth blossomed in his numb legs, and he thought how soft the snow looked, how nice it would feel to rest his feet and lay back on the white blanket—
The sound came again, clearer than before: bwONng…bwONng…bwONng.
“We must be close,” said Phillip.
And he was right. A few minutes later, the wind settled enough that they could see through the blizzard. Before them stood a small country village. The geometric forms of houses were silhouetted amidst the snowflakes, and the crooked, black spike of a steeple reached against the sky. The sound was now clear as a bell—in fact, it was a bell, the church bell, tolling over and over: BONG…BONG…BONG.
Jacob was too exhausted to wonder who would be ringing the church bell this late at night in such dreadful weather; his feet seemed to weigh a ton and his entire body felt like an icicle. He followed Phillip through the village streets to the church. All the houses they passed were dark, and not a wisp of smoke rose from any of the chimneys. Jacob didn’t care, though. The thought of reaching the warm church was all he knew.
They came to the great wooden doors and pushed them open. The hinges resisted with a squeal. As soon as Jacob and Phillip stepped inside, the bell stopped ringing. Silence filled their ears and their heads and Jacob felt very sleepy. Although it was dark, the church was warm after the blizzard—not the fatal warmth of overexposure, but the genuine comfort of thick walls and a roof over one’s head. Jacob wanted nothing more than to collapse right there and go to sleep, but Phillip said, whispering because they were in a church, “Let’s at least use the pews instead of the floor.”
It was too dark to see anything, but they moved by feel and found the back row of pews. They each picked a spot and settled down, the wooden bench creaking and groaning beneath them. Phillip lay down and was quiet. Jacob closed his eyes. The pew was hard and uncomfortable, but it was so much nicer than being out in that snowstorm. After a few minutes, he drifted off to sleep.
Jacob awoke and thought he heard a rustling sound. The church was still dark, but it seemed the blizzard was abating. Storm clouds drew back from a silver moon. The inside of the church slowly materialized out of the darkness, a sketch of pale slivers and highlights. It was a narrow sanctuary, taller than it was wide, decorated sparsely with cold candlesticks and dusty portraits of the saints. But none of this held Jacob’s attention, for as his eyes adjusted and he sat up, he saw the church was not empty.
The pews in front of him were filled with indistinct figures, mere shadows in the weak moonlight. They sat straight and motionless. Each of them seemed to wear a long veil that obscured their shapes.
Jacob held his breath. His heart beat furiously against his chest. The congregation was so still, so unnaturally still. He was about to wake Phillip when he heard a quiet voice.
It was faint, as if from very far away. The words, which Jacob couldn’t understand, echoed mournfully through the air. Jacob peered forward, toward the pulpit, but that was too far for the moonlight to reach. The front of the church was drowned in shadows, and from somewhere in that darkness droned the voice. At times it seemed to moan rather than speak, and at times it plunged deep and angry. Jacob did not like it; goose bumps ran down his arms. He turned to where Phillip slept, reached out his hand—
Phillip wasn’t there.
Jacob turned this way and that, looking for Phillip. There was no sign of him anywhere. Not by the doors, not in either of the side aisles, not in the midst of the veiled congregation.
The unseen preacher continued mumbling and groaning and snarling somewhere in the darkness ahead. The congregation sat still as statues, shrouded heads and draped shoulders outlined in thin strokes of moonlight. All their breathless attention was focused on the preacher’s incoherent phrases.
Jacob’s palms were sweaty and his knees shook. The walls of the church seemed too close, and yet the door seemed too far, and the air in between was chilled and heavy and smelled of mold. Jacob wished they’d never entered this church, never come to this village, never set out on that business trip in the first place. But it was too late for that now; they were here—or Jacob was, at any rate. He still couldn’t find Phillip, and he was too scared to get up from his pew to go looking for him. If he got up the pew might creak, and those silent worshipers might turn and see him, and that deep, babbling voice might speak directly to him, and though he couldn’t understand the words he dreaded their meaning.
Then a second voice joined the preacher’s chant. This one was a high whimper, faint and distant. Jacob heard tears of fright, and ice shot through his veins because he knew that far-away voice: Phillip, somewhere in the darkness, sobbing.
The preacher’s intonations echoed in Jacob’s ears, and he realized he could now understand snippets of liturgy: “This is my body…”
From the darkness beyond Jacob’s sight, Phillip’s voice screamed, “Help! Jacob, help me! It’s going to—no, NO—”
“…which is broken for you…”
There was a pop, then it sounded like someone had dumped a pail of water on the floor.
“…this do in remembrance…”
That was enough for Jacob. He had to get out of that church, so he jumped up from his pew—which creaked as he’d expected. One of the figures directly in front of him turned toward the noise; the fabric of its veil twisted in perfect folds and waves, and Jacob glimpsed its face, shadowed and hazy through its gossamer shroud. Pale cheekbones protruded beneath great black pits, and where the fabric should have been pushed out by the lump of a nose, there was only a sunken void.
Jacob screamed and ran for the doors. He was aware of a great rustling behind him, of the deep, thundering voice of the preacher echoing after him. Jacob made it outside and pulled the doors shut. He expected to hear the pound of a great many bodies against the inside of the wood, but there was nothing. He’d expected the congregation to chase him, but they didn’t. What they were doing instead Jacob didn’t dare ponder. He remembered the preacher’s words and Phillip’s screams and those other wet noises, and he had to fight to keep from being sick.
The church bell began to ring. BONG…BONG…BONG it went, and that startled Jacob into a sprint. He thought about running to one of the houses for help, but then he noticed what he’d failed to before: every building was dark and quiet, and in the moonlight he could see windows either shattered or boarded up. Walls and roofs had collapsed, and snowdrifts from the storm had swept in to fill the gaps.
No one lived in this village.
Jacob ran as fast as his cold and tired legs could carry him. He left the ruined houses behind and ran through fields of knee-deep snow. He ran until he came across a road, and kept on running. He kept running until his legs went numb and he fell. He could go no farther. So he lay there in the snow and waited to die.
Jacob realized someone was carrying him. He tried to struggle, but he was too weak. The man set him down in a horse-drawn sleigh and asked him his name. Jacob tried to explain what had happened. The sleigh driver only shook his head and said, “The nearest town is Carn Hill, nearly five miles yonder. There’s nothing else around here. You must have dreamed it while you were freezing to death.”
The sleigh driver took Jacob to Carn Hill where he was seen by a doctor and treated for exposure. After that, Jacob caught a ride home.
Some weeks later, Jacob returned to Carn Hill. He wanted to find Phillip’s body and bring it back to his family for a proper burial. He asked around about a ruined village, about five miles yonder, with a church that had a crooked steeple. No one seemed to have any idea what he was talking about, except for some of the older folks who got frightened looks in their eyes and refused to say anything.
In the end, Jacob gave up his search. He decided it was just as well, for if he guessed correctly about what he’d seen and heard that night, there’d be no body to bury anyway.