Do you know where the babies go?
When the sun is set and sinking low?
Crying all day, quiet at night
How many babies are the down hag’s delight?
Every little girl in my town knew the down hag’s diddy. We’d chant it while jumping rope, counting off how many times we could jump without a misstep. Nobody thought much about the words: it was just something everyone grew up with.
I was about ten when I finally learned where it came from.
I’d been annoying my brother a lot that day. My friends and I had been running around, laughing, making noise. Freddie stuck his head out his window and shouted at us to knock it off. I just stuck my tongue out at him. When we started jumping rope to the down hag’s diddy, he came stomping downstairs and shouted at us from the porch. He was trying to study, he said. I knew he was really just reading comics.
“If you don’t pipe down, the down hag will come and eat you!”
We laughed at him. Freddie continued to fume. He leapt off the porch and snatched the jump rope from Cassidy’s hands. He wagged the plastic end at us, warning us again that our noisiness would get us eaten. My friends complained at him to give us the rope back, but I wasn’t so interested in our game anymore. I’d always been drawn to creepy things and, from the way my brother was talking, there was a story behind our jump rope chant that I really wanted to hear.
I chased him back inside, up to his room, and stood in his doorway demanding to know more about the down hag. Freddie told me to buzz off, but I planted my hands on my hips and stared him down until he finally relented.
“You know Goosedown Hollow?” He asked.
I did. It was what everyone called the woods just outside of town. We spent our summers swimming in its pond.
“You know where its name comes from?” Freddie pressed.
I shook my head.
“There’s a grave there,” he said.
He was talking in as dark and ominous a voice as a twelve year old could manage.
My brother told me that a hundred years before, shortly after our town had been founded, a lady had lived in those woods. She’d been one of the villagers, but after having a baby, she’d changed. She became short tempered and violent, and there was nothing she hated more than the sound of her own child’s cry. One night, her husband came home to discover her sitting in front of the fire in her rocking chair. She was smiling for the first time since giving birth. And she was covered in blood.
When her husband asked what had happened, she just looked up and said, “What glorious quiet.”
The whole village searched for the baby, but he was never found. They chased the woman out of the village, but she continued to live in the woods nearby. They thought she’d die from hunger or exposure out there, but she didn’t. She thrived in the silence. But as the village grew, more babies started being born, and their cries carried.
One by one, the infants began to vanish from their cradles, until only the quietest remained. The villagers knew it could only be one person. They stormed the woods and spent days and days searching for the woman, until they came upon her little campsite in the very middle. It was in the center of a ring of trees, each with a hollow in their trunks. Goose down filled the openings. While the men kept the woman from fleeing, the women dug through the hollows. The feathers inside were stained with blood.
But they didn’t find the babies.
They demanded to know what she’d done with their children, but she could only laugh and cry, laugh and cry.
In their rage, the villagers hung the woman from one of the hollow trees. Once she was dead, they burned her shelter down and buried her beneath its ash. After, they carved crosses into the trees around her to bind her spirit to that spot. They left, hoping to never speak of her again.
It was said, though, that if a particularly fussy baby was born in the village, they’d hear restless pacing coming from the woods and a woman’s low voice moaning for silence.
“And if you go into the woods and find where she’s buried, you best leave as quick and quiet as you can. You also better hope you don’t have a baby with you. She still can’t stand to hear them crying. If she’s disturbed, she’ll claw out of the ground and snatch you up!” Freddie crowed, and I gasped when he jumped at me.
Now, I had a bad habit as a kid: I’d get ideas in my head and I wouldn’t be able to shake them (not that I tried very hard). And when the down hag story took root, it was all I could think about. I asked my parents about it, but they thought I was a bit too young for such a gruesome tale. Freddie had told me all he knew about it already. I tried to discreetly look into it at the school library, but I was nervous that Ms. Powders, the prickly librarian, wouldn’t approve and she’d kick me out, so that didn’t go anywhere either. All I really wanted to know was how true the story was, but getting that information wasn’t going to be easy.
I decided if I wanted to prove or disprove the down hag, I’d just have to figure out where in the woods she was buried.
The first thing I did was try to recruit some friends into helping me. I told them the same story Freddie had told me and explained that Goosedown Hollow was named that on account of the feather-filled trees. Most didn’t believe me and some were too scared of the story to want to try and find the hag’s grave. Only my best friend, Cindy, agreed to help me look.
We were able to find a few maps of the area in our houses, but neither of us knew the first thing about reading them. We tucked them in the old backpacks we planned to bring anyway, just in case we suddenly figured them out. We reasoned that the town had to be bigger than it was when the hag was killed so long ago, so we wouldn’t have to go looking as hard as the villagers had.
For the next week, we planned in secret. We snuck snacks and water bottles to our rooms and tried a few more times to make sense of the maps. We also asked for books on local history, hoping to find something about the down hag, but it was all boring stuff about people with names like Josiah and Elijah.
When Saturday arrived, we told our parents we were going to the pond. The weather had started to warm up, so they allowed it, but told us to keep an eye on each other and not stay out after dark. Cindy and I rode our bikes across town, to the pathway leading into Goosedown Hollow.
It was hard to think of those woods as “creepy”. I’d been going in and out of them since I was small and the well worn trails were familiar. Especially the ones leading to the pond. I’d never seen anything like what had been in Freddie’s stories, a ring of trees marked with crosses around a clearing. Cindy hadn’t either. But we rode around, going down all the dirt pathways we both knew so well.
“We’re doing it wrong,” Cindy huffed after we’d covered all the usual ground. “We gotta go into the woods!”
“We are in the woods!” I said, gesturing to the tall trees all around us.
She shook her head. “No, we gotta go off trail.”
“We’re not supposed to.”
It was the first twinge of hesitation I’d felt. Of course I should have realized it wouldn’t have been as simple as just going up and down existing trails, but Mom had very plainly told me not to go off track. Cindy was insisting, though, and I really did want to make a genuine effort to find the hag’s grave.
We left our bikes tucked against a thick tree trunk and headed deeper into the woods.
After a while, all trees start to look the same. We argued over what actually constituted a “clearing”, whether certain scrapes on bark looked like crosses, and which direction we’d come from. What had started as a fun adventure was quickly becoming annoying and tiresome.
Cindy was even more fed up with it than I was.
She yelled at me for dragging her out to hunt for a stupid urban legend. I yelled back that she had volunteered to come. We continued to snip and squabble, until I just wanted to go home. I told Cindy I’d had enough and she grumpily agreed. We turned around and started back.
Except “back” wasn’t right. We walked for what seemed ages, but couldn’t find our bikes or any of the paths. We’d wandered farther than we’d meant to and completely lost track of where we were. The more the day dragged on, the harder it was becoming not to panic. The down hag was forgotten. All I could think about was how much trouble I’d be in if I wasn’t home in time for dinner. Cindy’s frustrated grunts and groans were getting higher pitched and frightened.
“What if we can’t find our way out?” She asked. Her voice squeaked.
“We will,” I said.
But by sunset, we still hadn’t.
Cindy had had enough. She dropped to the ground on her backside, her face screwed up in an effort not to cry. I tried to comfort her with some gummy bears and water, but she pushed them away. Tears were leaking down her cheeks. I put an arm around her shoulders and tried to reassure her again, but it just seemed to make things worse. She started to sob.
No matter what I said, Cindy just cried harder and harder, until her face was red and her eyes were puffy. I just sat next to her, helpless and fighting off my own tears.
Leaves rustled, disturbed, off to our side.
I looked toward the sound, but didn’t see anything and assumed it was a squirrel or something similar running across the ground. I was too concerned with Cindy and our predicament to worry about it. Cindy didn’t even seem to notice it.
The leaves crunched again.
It was a heavier sound that time, and there was something odd about it. An agitated quality, like someone was walking back and forth. I put a hand on Cindy’s arm and pressed a finger to my lips. She continued to hiccup and sniffle loudly.
The first time I heard the moaning, I thought it came from her. She went quiet though, her bloodshot eyes wide, and she stared up at me.
“Was that you?” She whispered.
A deep, gurgling moan from behind some nearby trees cut off any response I might have had.
I don’t know if I just imagined it, or if I really heard the word “Silence” whispered harshly, but I was up and screaming. Cindy was beside me, even after I’d started running. I was sure of it. I could hear her frantically fumbling to keep up, the way she shrieked.
But I didn’t look back.
I just kept running, wild and blind, and the whole time I kept hearing that awful, gasping, gurgling moan. The kind a woman with a broken neck might make. Maybe there was a rush of footsteps behind us, I can’t say for sure. I just know I kept going.
And I didn’t look back.
It was nighttime when I stumbled on to a trail. I was choking for air, barely able to stay upright, but I dragged myself along it, until the lights from the street lamps were visible. When I heard a voice calling my name from up ahead, I started to scream again, but this time, I wanted to be found.
My dad caught me just as I started to collapse and I clung to him, begging to go home. He hugged me tight and then forced me back so that I had to look into his pale, stricken face.
“Where’s Cindy?” He asked.
The woods were thoroughly combed by cops and volunteers. Dogs were brought in. For three days, I sat in front of the television, watching the search for my best friend unfold. No one blamed me for what they saw as an innocent venture turned tragic. They assumed we’d stumbled across a drifter-type who’d become violent. I was told I’d been lucky to get away and that I’d done the right thing.
I didn’t believe it, nor did I think I was so blameless. I’d kept running. I didn’t look back.
Cindy was never found.
Only her blood, recovered from goose feathers stuffed into the hollow of a tree.
Do you know where the babies go?
When the sun is set and sinking low?
I don’t. But wherever it is, I’m certain that’s where Cindy is, too. And I’ll never forgive myself for it.