The Unfortunate

I’d been told and told and told not to take the path through the woods. It was a gnarled route of twists and turns, a slice of solid dirt cutting through deceptive swaths of peat that covered dark, swallowing depths. Nan warned me every morning before I left the house.

“Don’t you leave the main road after dark, Maggie. The unfortunates will have you if you cross through the trees.”

Her tone scared me enough that I never asked what, exactly, the unfortunates were.

But Nan became elderly and addled, and by the time I was nineteen, I had stopped listening to her stories.

I was coming home late from the shop where I worked. It should’ve been a straight walk home, same as it always was, but there were men out that night. A noisy lot of them, all drunk and loitering in the street. I hesitated while they were still unaware of me, and the longer I stood and watched their stumbling antics, the more certain I became that I did not want to cross them. With the most direct way blocked, I only had one option left to me.

Until that moment, I’d never before set foot in the marsh after nightfall. The woods were dark, and I slowly picked my way along the narrow path. Ahead, the black outlines of trees against the moon’s pale glow. Behind, the fading light of the village. My footsteps sounded loudly in the quiet night, my heartbeat louder still, and as the realization that those were the only two things I was still hearing set in, so too did my desire to turn back.

No insects. No birds. No raucous laughter from the men I’d left behind.

Only my footsteps. My heartbeat.

And the gentle rippling of water just off the path.

I turned toward it, the hair rising along my arms. But the surface had gone still again. I took a clumsy step forward, unable to look away from where the sound had come from. 

“It’s cold,” a voice, shivering and soft, said behind me.

“Help me,” another whispered. “I’ve lost my way.”

A third voice moaned, “Please, please.”

Fingers, cold and clammy, closed around my arm, tugged at my clothing, pulled me viciously downward. Their mournful cries, demanding warmth and a way out, drowned out my screams. I dug my nails into the earth, but it gave way, the dirt crumbling into nothing as I grasped at it. The scream that had clawed its way into my throat became lodged with the shock of icy water around my ankles, up to my knees, at my waist.

“Help me!” I managed to cry before their grasping hands dragged me under.

Another unfortunate who never made it home.

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