by Robert S. C. Cutler
The harmonious sound of distant bells echoed across the snow laden woods and fields of central Wisconsin. Mitchell Koehler stood on the front porch in the cold December air, too occupied with his girlfriend to notice.
He felt as if he were living a dream. Never before had he brought a girl home to meet his grandmother -- Becca was the first. Thoughts of asking her to marry him on Christmas Eve gave him butterflies in his stomach. The ring was tucked away neatly in his suitcase. He now only needed to explain about his family, but that could wait for later.
Mitchell was lost in thought when Becca's sweet voice broke through the haze. "I'm sorry. Did you just say something?"
"I said, aren't those sleigh bells beautiful? They just make the night."
"Sleigh bells? Oh, no!" Mitchell gasped. "What day is it?"
"Thursday. Why?" Becca said.
"I mean the date! What's the date?" Beads of sweat started to form just above Mitchell's brow.
"December twentieth," Becca said, glancing at her watch. "Oh, it's just past midnight. I guess it's actually the twenty-first...Mitchell, what's wrong?"
Mitchell released Becca and ran to the front door. "Oma!" he yelled for his grandmother. "Oma, we're late!"
Gerda Weis, Mitchell's sixty-two-year-old grandmother, came running out onto the front porch drying her hands on the daisy print apron tied around her waist. Her usual rosy complexion was void of all color.
"Are we too late?" Mitchell said. His face was equally ashen.
"Not if we act right away," Gerda said with a steady voice. "You'll have to do it for me -- I won't make it in time. Do you remember the way?"
Mitchell nodded his head. "Which one should I take?"
"The nasty, little speckled one. He bit me twice last summer," she said with confidence. "They're getting louder -- you better hurry." Mitchell obeyed and was headed for the barn before another word could be said.
Becca stood on the front porch watching her boyfriend run down the snow covered drive, trying to figure out what on earth he was so upset about. She felt a gentle touch and then a forceful tug. Gerda had Becca by the hand, pulling her into the house.
"You don't want to stay out in that cold wind, dear. You'll catch your death!" Gerda said. "How about a nice cup of tea? You need something to warm those bones of yours."
"Tea would be nice," Becca said. "What's going on, Gerda? Why is Mitchell acting so strangely?"
"Just family business, dear. Just family business."
The ringing of the bells became more distinct. The distant baa of a goat made Gerda pause. Her weathered hands shook as she filled Becca's cup with hot water from the stovetop kettle. The goat's protest, loud at first, was covered up by the increasing intensity of the bells.
"Are those sleigh bells I'm hearing?" Becca said.
Before Gerda could answer, Mitchell burst through the front door. He was out of breath and his right hand was covered with blood. The bells became deafening, prompting him to take up refuge with Gerda and Becca in the kitchen.
"Oh, my God, Mitchell! You're hurt!" Becca said. She rushed over to him and attended to his hand.
"That damn goat," he laughed, shaking his head.
"I told you he had bitten me last summer -- twice!" Gerda said. "Was it done proper?"
"Yes, Oma. I did it just like you taught me."
"Good...I can't believe I let it slip my mind. Too much going on I guess," Gerda said. "Maybe I'm just getting too old."
Becca had never heard a goat scream before. She wasn't aware that they were capable. Terrified by the eerie sound, she turned toward Mitchell and Gerda who each wore an expression of fear on their own faces.
Gerda gripped Mitchell's arm and closed her eyes -- the floorboards rumbled beneath their feet -- the bells sounded as if they were in the very room they were standing in. In an instant, the goat's screams were gone as were the multiple tones of the bells. A sense of calm washed over Gerda, knowing she had six more months of peace.
Mitchell walked calmly over to the kitchen sink and began to rinse his injured hand. He had already changed his mind about proposing on Christmas Eve, knowing Becca would have definite second thoughts after what had just happened. She would want an explanation and he wouldn't be able to offer one.
Spring semester at the University of Wisconsin had been lonely for Mitchell. Three months had passed without as much as a glance or word from Becca. Although she missed him, Becca couldn't get over what had happened that past December. Both Mitchell and Gerda had refused to talk about it making a tense situation even worse. After a heated argument, Becca demanded that Mitchell take her back to Madison on Christmas Eve, causing a bitter riff between them.
An awkward pairing as partners in their statistics class forced the couple back together. Becca warmed up to Mitchell once again and the two of them started dating. On the day after finals, Mitchell proposed in front of the library where they had first met. Becca accepted, but with one condition: Mitchell would tell her everything about that strange night in December.
"I don't understand," Becca said. "What does your dead grandfather have to do with it? I wanted an explanation about the sleigh bells and the goat, not what pact Grandpa Weis had with an Indian tribe."
"I'm getting to that part," Mitchell said. "Like I was saying, the land that my grandmother's farm is on was once sacred to the local tribes. The small hill about a hundred yards behind the barn was used for ceremonial sacrifices."
Becca's eyes grew wide. "Sacrifices? Like human sacrifices?"
Mitchell shrugged his shoulders and winced. "That part I'm not completely sure about. I think they only sacrificed animals. I'll have to ask Oma."
"So they sacrificed goats to their gods?" Becca said.
"More like spirits. One spirit to be exact."
"And the bells? I'm assuming the sleigh bells I heard was the spirit...and the spirit ate the goat?" Becca said.
"That's about it."
Becca searched Mitchell's eyes for the truth. He looked more like a ragged teenage boy to her, with his shaggy brown hair and thin freckled face, than a twenty-one-year-old business major. "If you're not going to be serious, Mitchell, then...I don't know." Tears started to well up in her eyes. All she wanted was an honest explanation. She thought about that night and the sounds she had heard. The fear on Mitchell and Gerda's face was so sincere, but her Midwestern common sense wouldn't allow her to accept the answer she was given.
Mitchell reached out and gently touched her arm. "If you don't think I'm telling you the truth, then speak with Oma. She'll explain everything a lot better than I can."
"I don't know..."
"Don't know about what? You know she'll be more than honest with you. There's nothing nonsensical about her," Mitchell said.
"It's not that I don't trust your grandmother," Becca said, shaking her head. "I'm afraid to go back to the farm. I was so frightened that night -- you have no idea." Tears flowed freely down her cheeks.
Taking her in his arms, Mitchell whispered into her ear. "I'm sorry." Her body trembled against his. "Oma wants us to come out in about a month -- on June twentieth -- if that's okay with you."
"I guess that will be fine," she said, wiping her eyes. "It will give me more time to think."
"About your answer?" Mitchell fretted.
"No, silly," she smiled. "I already said yes!" Becca threw herself at Mitchell and wrapped her arms tight around his chest. "I love you so much, Mitchell."
On the evening of June twentieth, Mitchell and Becca arrived back at Gerda's farm. She was waiting out on the front porch to greet them -- her face aglow with happiness for her only grandchild and the sweet girl he was going to marry.
Becca was still apprehensive about being there. She emerged from the beat-up, red-primer Corolla with a smile for Gerda, but on shaky legs.
"Hello, you two!" Gerda said, waving and smiling back. "Supper's still warm. You're just in time."
"Gerda! Look!" Becca said, showing off the half-carat diamond ring Mitchell had given her. "Isn't it beautiful?"
"Oh my, yes it is!"
"Bring in the bags, Mitchell," Becca said. "Gerda and I need to visit in private. You know...girl stuff." He watched with great curiosity as the two women disappeared around the side of the house.
"I need to know something, Gerda," Becca said. "I need to know what happened that night I heard the sleigh bells. Mitchell tried to explain but I don't know whether to believe him or not."
"Oh, dear me," Gerda sighed. "I guess if you're going to be family, then it's better that you know." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Tell me what Mitchell told you and I'll try my best to fill in the gaps."
"Well, he mentioned his great grandfather back in the eighteen hundreds, and some Indian tribe...and that the tribal leaders sold this land to your family."
"That's right. My husband was a direct descendant of the first Weis to set foot on this land -- a farmer named Augustus," Gerda said. "As the story goes, the tribe that once lived here was a very desperate people and almost gave the land away."
"Why would they do that? Were they forced off by the settlers?" Becca said.
"Didn't Mitchell tell you? They had no other choice," Gerda said.
"You're talking about the sacrifices, right?"
Gerda hesitated. "Adoration more than sacrifice... As the folklore goes: all those who occupy theses lands shall pay tribute to the Great Spirit or suffer eternal darkness."
"Great Spirit? You don't believe in the sort of thing -- do you, Gerda?" Becca said.
"What you heard that night, Becca, was the spirit," Gerda said. "At the sound of the first bells we must be inside with all of the doors and windows shut until it passes by."
"What would happen if you didn't...if you just stood out on the porch?"
"I'd rather not discuss that part. I can't...," Gerda's eyes became moist with tears.
Seeing she was becoming upset, Becca tried her best to divert the conversation to the goats. "So...you tie a goat to an old post on the rise just south of the barn and wait?"
"Yes," Gerda said, nodding and wiping her eyes.
"Is that what the Indians did? Sacrifice a goat?" Becca said with a confused look on her face.
"No. They didn't keep livestock. They believed all of the animals belonged to the land...and that the people belonged to the spirit world. Every six months on the eve of the winter and summer solstice, the tribal elders would choose an infant child by way of a system very similar to a lottery. The baby was then separated from its mother and placed on the top of the rise as an offering to the Great Spirit."
"That's awful!" Becca gasped.
"The winter before Augustus and his family arrived, there was a wide spread plague that greatly decimated the tribe's population. Only a handful survived. There simply weren't any babies left to offer, so they either had to flee the land or face annihilation by the spirit."
"Augustus didn't sacrifice any babies, did he?" Becca said.
"Of course not! He thought it was all just silly Indian folklore and put it out of his mind. It wasn't until the eve of the summer solstice that he found out it wasn't. At midnight, he heard the same bells that you did. Curious, he ventured out of the small cabin he had built for his family and walked toward the rise in the earth. The cabin was located roughly where the barn is today. The noise became so loud, it shook the ground. Augustus's teenage son heard it also and joined his father outside.
"Over the hill, a bright, white light hovered. Augustus stood mesmerized -- unable to move. His son, however, couldn't help himself and ran toward it determined to find out what it was. Augustus's pleas for his son to turn back were ignored. As the boy reached the mound, his body became engulfed by white flames. He let out a high pitch scream and then he and the light simply vanished. Augustus was never the same after that night, blaming himself for not listening to the tribal leaders. He spent many a day searching for his lost son.
"By the winter solstice he was ready for the spirits return. He placed a post in the ground -- the very one that is there today -- and then tied a calf to it. He and his family waited in their cabin with all of the lanterns and candles extinguished. When the eerie sound of the bells echoed across the land, they braced themselves for the worst. The vibration was so great that it broke windows and knocked dishes onto the floor. The calf let out an unnatural cry and then there was only silence."
"Why didn't they just move on after they lost their son?" Becca said.
"They had spent or traded almost everything they owned. There was no place to go. All of their family was still in Germany."
"So your family has been carrying on the tradition for more than one-hundred-fifty-years?"
"Not a tradition," Gerda corrected. "We are more or less paying for the privilege of using this land."
"Why use a goat instead of a calf? Doesn't this spirit-god care?" Becca said.
"It doesn't appear so. My husband's family started using goats around sixty years ago because they were simply cheaper," Gerda laughed. "It worked the first time, so they just continued."
The conversation had started to give Becca a headache. She had an overwhelming urge to hop into the car and leave -- with or without Mitchell. "Why are you still here?" she asked, turning abruptly. "You married into the family...like I'll be doing. I don't think I would stay."
"This place is all I've known for the past forty-four years. I gave birth to Mitchell's mother right in the very same bed where I lost my husband. They're both buried on the north side of the farm with the rest of their family. I hope to join them there one day, but not too soon," Gerda said.
"I'm sorry, Gerda. I didn't mean any disrespect," Becca said.
"I have a wonderful idea!" Gerda said, clapping her hands and slightly bouncing. "You can help with the goat! That is you can help Mitchell. All you have to do is walk it up to the post and tie it off."
"I don't know...," Becca hesitated. "We might not have time to drive all the way back here."
"Drive back? Oh....no, dear. You don't understand. The summer solstice starts at midnight. The Great Spirit will be here in less than five hours."
Becca became lightheaded -- the ground spun around at her feet. Beads of sweat formed all over her face. "I don't feel well, Gerda. I need Mitchell."
"Mitchell...Mitchell!" Gerda yelled toward the house.
Mitchell came running from the backside of the house just as Becca sat hard on the ground. "Becca! What's wrong?"
"I think it was my fault," Gerda fretted. "I mentioned that it would be nice if she could help you with placing the goat. I don't think she knew it was tonight. Didn't you tell her?"
Looking quite guilty, Mitchell shook his head. "I didn't think she would come out here if I did. I'm sorry, Becca. I should've told you."
Becca grabbed hold of Mitchell's arm and looked into his eyes. "Just take me home. Please, Mitchell. I can't stay another minute in this place."
"All right. I'll get our bags," he exhaled. "I'm sorry we can't stay, Oma." He was too embarrassed to look at her.
"I can't do this by myself, Mitchell." Gerda's voice was flat and steady. "My heart isn't as strong as it used to be. My doctor told me that any stress could bring on an attack. It's all I can do to get myself around to tend to the goats. I need the both of you to stay. I can't..." She trailed off and turned away with her hand over her mouth, trying to conceal that she was crying.
Mitchell looked at Becca, pleading with his eyes for her to change her mind. Before he could say a word, she sat up and answered for him. "Don't worry, Gerda. We'll stay."
"Are you sure?" Mitchell said.
Becca stood up and dusted herself off. She ignored Mitchell and walked directly over to Gerda. "Just this one time, Gerda," she said, holding Gerda's hands in hers. She turned her head and spoke directly to Mitchell. "I won't stand being deceived -- especially by one whom I love so deeply." She let go of Gerda's hands and walked into the house without another word. Gerda left Mitchell kneeling on the ground. She shook her head, clearly disappointed in her grandson.
Becca stayed in the guest bedroom until eleven-fifteen in the evening. She politely refused an invitation from Gerda to have some supper and ignored all requests by Mitchell to talk. Walking through the dimly lit house, she passed Gerda asleep in her easy chair with a wind-up alarm clock set to eleven-thirty close to her on an end table. Mitchell was nowhere in sight so she figured he must be at the goat pen getting prepared.
Outside, the scent of rain traveled on a cool breeze. Flashes of lightning illuminated the southwestern night sky. Becca walked hesitantly along the overgrown pathway wishing she had never agreed to stay. Although she was angry at him, the sight of Mitchell standing in the lantern-lit goat pen calmed her down. He was messing with a rope fashioned into a lasso, mumbling something inaudible to the goats.
"Is that how you're supposed to catch them?" Becca said, trying hard to be nice.
"Oh, hi," Mitchell said -- his face flush with embarrassment -- too ashamed to look at her. "No. I'm just goofing around, killing time."
"For a minute there, I thought you went ahead and did it without me."
"Did what? Oh...the goat. It's not time yet. They have a tendency to eat through the rope and get away."
"What do you do to stop them? I wouldn't think it would take too long for one of them to get loose," Becca said.
"We wait until we just hear the bells and then dash up the hill and tie the goat so close to the poll it doesn't have room to chew at the rope."
"That's a long way to run. No wonder you were out of breath that night." She climbed over the fence into the pen and was instantly mobbed by a group of young goats in search of a hand out. "Oh, my God! They are so cute! I could never tie one of these sweet, little things up to a post just so some ancient god could eat it up. It would break my heart. How do you do it?"
"It's easy. We use the adults." Mitchell said, smiling and feeling a little more at ease. "Usually an older one -- that's how my grandfather used to do it."
"How did he die?"
"Opa? He had a heart attack...about five years ago," Mitchell said.
"He couldn't have been more than sixty-years-old, right? Did he have heart problems too?"
Mitchell didn't answer. He looked away hoping Becca wouldn't push. How his grandfather died was the last thing he wanted to tell her.
Becca placed her hands on Mitchell's shoulders, sending shivers through his entire body. She turned his head and they gently kissed. Her soft lips on his melted his heart. "I can't tell you. You'll leave and I'll never see you again." He was close to tears.
"No I won't. I promise." Her eyes were sincere. "I told Oma that I would stay and help. I'm not going to break my word," Becca said.
Mitchell felt sick. The thought of how his grandfather had died frightened him as much as it would Becca.
"It was the spirit, wasn't it?"
Mitchell nodded. "He and Oma overslept and were late getting the goat. By the time he had tied it to the post the spirit was already there. He started to run but tripped just as he stepped away. When he looked up the spirit was standing over him. Oma heard my grandfather scream and ran after him. It took her almost an hour to get him to their bed. Before the ambulance could get there, he was gone."
Becca scooped up one of the younger goats and scratched its head until it kicked to be let go. "Which one?" she said.
"You're not frightened?" Mitchell said.
"No. Not really. I feel kind of numb."
Surprised by her reaction, Mitchell simply pointed to an all white female standing in the corner of the pen by itself. "That one -- it's either really old or really sick."
A clap of thunder exploded over their heads announcing the arrival of the storm front. The deafening noise caused them both, as well as the goats, to jump. Becca glanced at her watch and announced it was fifteen till midnight.
"Already? We need to hurry!" Mitchell made quick work of placing the noose around the goat's neck. "Come on, Becca. We have just enough time to place the goat and get inside the house."
She followed him out of the pen and past the barn. The ground lightning from the storm, that would in most cases make her nervous, was of no concern. She could think of nothing else but getting the goat to its destination and then running as fast and far away as possible.
The pelting rain soaked through their clothing and made holding onto the rope exceptionally difficult for Mitchell. Which each clap of thunder the nanny struggled to break free. Mitchell had to drag her the final few yards through the wet grass and mud.
"Help me hold her down," Mitchell said as he applied all of his weight against the struggling goat. He wrapped the rope several times around the post and pulled tight.
Becca grabbed the animal around the mid section. The smell of wet goat tasted bitter on her tongue. "Are you almost done? This animal stinks!"
Mitchell took her by the hand and guided her back down the hill in the direction of the barn and house. The sky let loose soaking their already drenched clothes. "I don't know if we'll be able to hear the bells in this weather," he announced. "We better go straight into the house and wait."
Becca didn't say a word. She just wanted to get out of the rain and have it be the next day so she could go home. She had had enough of the family stories, the spirit, and the goat ritual.
Halfway to the barn they were passed by a small, white animal dragging a rope behind it. "Shit! That was the goat!" Mitchell said.
"Grab the rope, Mitchell! Hurry!"
Mitchell took off ahead of Becca. He splashed through the long grass and mud puddles, kicking up debris in his face. As if sensing his presence, the goat looked back and picked up speed. She didn't let up until they were back at the pen.
Cautiously approaching, Mitchell took hold of the rope -- another clap of thunder rumbled directly over their heads. The goat spooked and bolted forward catching Mitchell off guard, causing him to lose his footing and the rope. His left foot became caught up in the fence railing -- his ankle turned and snapped in two places sending a jolt of hot pain throughout his entire body.
"Mitchell! What happened? Are you okay?" Becca said. "What happened to the goat?"
The faint melodic tone of distant bells echoed across the fields in-between rumbles of thunders. Mitchell's face, red from anger, turned white in a second from fear.
"Oh, no! It's coming!" Becca said. "What do I do?"
"Grab another goat! You have just enough time before it gets here!" Mitchell said.
Becca climbed over the fence and grabbed hold of the first one she saw. It slipped from her grasp, scraping up her forearms. She tried desperately to catch the others but they were all too fast.
"Becca. You've got to do it now!"
"I'm trying! They're just too quick for me!"
"Grab one of the younger ones. They're easier to catch." Gerda said, approaching swiftly from the direction of the house. She too was soaked. The sun hat she used for gardening was tied around her chin in a neat bow.
Becca reluctantly picked up a young black and white patched goat that was nibbling on her tennis shoe laces and climbed back over the fence. "There's a new rope hanging by the shovel and rake," Mitchell said.
"Got it!" she yelled back.
"You need to hurry, Becca. There isn't much time!" Gerda said, trying not to panic.
Becca ran full out with the young goat wrapped tightly in her arms amidst the thunder and increasing intensity of the bells. Her legs pumped hard and her feet slapped against the saturated prairie grass. The small hill seemed miles away -- stretching out before her -- making her feel as if she were in a nightmare.
"How bad is it, Mitchell?" Gerda said while watching Becca disappear around the barn.
"My ankle's broken. I don't think I can stand."
"Just stay still. I'm going to help Becca. She shouldn't be doing this all on her own."
"But, Oma. What about your heart?"
"I've already lost my husband to that thing. I refuse to lose my future granddaughter! I'll be just fine." She took off running through rain puddles filled with mud and muck -- vanishing into the dark night.
Becca collapsed as she reached the post and almost dropped the goat. She struggled to tie a noose around the squirming animal's neck. Its hind hoofs dug into her thighs. "I'm sorry, sweetie. I'm trying not to hurt you."
Reaching for the post, she suddenly stopped. Her heart sank. She couldn't bring herself to do it. She couldn't kill that innocent baby. Even as the incessant clamor of bells grew closer, she sat in the mud holding the goat close to her body.
"Becca!" Gerda's voice broke through the wind and rain. "Becca! Tie the goat to the post and get out of there!"
Becca turned toward Gerda shaking her head. Behind her, a few hundred yards out, the sky and ground became illuminated by a white, pulsating light. Like a shadow on the earth, the light traveled swiftly across the field in their direction.
"For God's sake, Becca! You've got to do it now!" Gerda yelled as she ascended the hill. She fought through the saturated ground with all of her strength -- her chest tight with burning pain.
Becca saw her lurching for the goat and tried to turn away, but was too slow. Gerda snatched the struggling kid from her arms and wrapped the rope around the post the best she could. A bright flash of ground lightning momentarily blinded her causing her to drop the rope. The goat worked itself free of the poorly made noose and ran back down the hill in the direction of the pen.
"Catch it, Becca!" Gerda yelled.
Becca started back down the hill and was stopped by a terrifying cry. She turned quickly toward Gerda who was cowering behind the post. The bright light was upon them both. The bells were so loud she could no longer hear the wind and rain.
Standing before them was a hulking figure over ten-feet in height, adorned in ornamental feathers. It had the face of a gray wolf with its teeth bared. A shimmering golden bow and arrow, clutched tight in its massive hands, was pulled back and aimed directly at Gerda's heart. Gerda pleaded for mercy, but her pleas were only met with the black, lifeless eyes of the spirit.
The ground shook violently causing Becca to tumble backward. She raised her head just in time to see the arrow release and plunge into the center of Gerda's chest. Gerda let out a primal scream -- her frail body consumed by white flames. And then as if neither had ever existed, the Great Spirit and Gerda were gone. The storm had traveled to the east and the skies were once again clear.
Becca lay on the small hillside soaked with rain and covered in mud. "Gerda! Where are you? Gerda!"
She managed to pull herself back up the hill only to find the post with the rope still wrapped around it. Frantic, she searched the surrounding area close to an hour, never finding a trace of Mitchell's grandmother.
The weeks following Gerda's death, Becca helped Mitchell with everyday life while his ankle healed. She also made sure Gerda had her own grave marker next to her husband's. In the absence of her body, Mitchell placed photos and mementos from her life in a shallow grave. Unable to fully forgive Becca for his grandmother's death, he grew cold and distant, eventually breaking off their engagement.
Becca returned to Madison at the beginning of August in hopes of gaining control back over her life before the start of the fall semester. She could never forgive Mitchell for dragging her into his family's nightmare. She should never have been there -- she wasn't ready. In her mind, his lies had cost Gerda her life. Now one person was dead and two people's lives would never be the same.
In the long days to come, Mitchell sat alone in the house and waited for the first moments of winter when he must again obey his earthly duty and serve the very thing that had blessed his family with the rich land that he now owned, and then with great malice had taken the persons he had loved most in the world. His last thoughts of the day were often filled with the horrid cries of his grandmother -- his dreams filled with the haunting, melodic tones of the bells. Although he could have abandoned the land and left it far behind him, a sense of duty urged him to stay, so Opa and Oma would not have given their lives for nothing. But there was something more. What Becca had described had been something far greater than human. As much as he hated the spirit, he also felt awe, and wonder -- and an overwhelming sense of adoration.
© 2011 Robert S. C. Cutler
Bio: Robert S. C. Cutler is an unpublished writer with two finished novels ready for submission -- "Resurrection", a horror set in present day New Jersey, and "A Whisper in the Shadows," a paranormal set in present day Kansas. He enjoys writing in the genres of suspense, paranormal, horror, and science fiction.
E-mail: Robert S. C. Cutler
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