Sometime late, or very early, in blackness except for a candle’s last flickering, Kelly’s phone rang. Holly woke just enough to feel grateful that it couldn’t be for her.
But then Kelly shook her, whispering, “Holly, it’s for you. It’s Heather.”
“Heather?” She sat up and drew blankets around herself, unwilling to accept the phone. He had the mouthpiece covered. “What does she want?”
He shrugged bony shoulders. “I don’t know—she sounds hysterical. She asked if I’d seen you.”
“Fuck.” She took the phone. “Heather? What is it? What’s wrong?”
Heather could barely restrain herself. “They’ve come for you, Holly! They’re out there! They think I’m you— they—please come over, Holly, please!”
“What are you talking about? Who’s out where?”
“In the trees, they’ve been coming closer all the time, but this is the first time … around the house. They think you’re here and they’ll come after me if they can’t have you.”
“Jesus, do you know what you sound like? Call the police if you have peeping toms.”
“They’re not—they’d just melt away. I wanted to explain but it took too long and you ran out before—please, Holly, you have to come!”
She pulled the phone away from her ear and sighed, shaking her head at Kelly.
“You want me to come with you?” he asked.
“I don’t know if I’m going anywhere,” she said.
Heather must have heard her: “You have to!” she screamed.
“I think you better,” Kelly said. “Come on, I’ll drive you.”
“This better be good, Heather!” she yelled into the phone. She slammed it down.
Kelly was already dressed by the time she got out of bed. He shoved her clothes at her in a wad. “I’ll start the car. “
She dressed clumsily, anchored down by a cumulative exhaustion that wouldn’t let her come completely awake. She needed a good twelve to sixteen hours of sleep. It was like a dream, standing here swaying over Kelly’s bed, but that was a more reassuring dream than the thought of seeing Heather in this state.
Fifteen minutes later they rounded the curve before the old house, and the headlights of Kelly’s car picked out a glint of chrome, a flash of a windshield. For a snapshot instant Holly saw a new model pickup truck parked a few dozen yards down the road; in the cab, a young man was frozen on her eyes in the act of raising a bottle to his lips. As they passed the truck, the kid ducked out of sight. They turned into the driveway, the headlights flushed several figures from the trees near the house.
“Hey!” Kelly slammed on the brakes and jumped out to intercept them. They were boys, faces bright with liquor and laughter. Kelly didn’t even get close to them; they hooted derisively and fled down the road. A moment later the pickup sped into view, made a dramatic, tire-screeching one- eighty, and tore back toward town. The bed was crowded with passengers now, chanting into the night, their voices fading with distance: “Hol-ly! Ter-ror! Hol-ly! Ter-ror!”
“Fans of yours?” Kelly said.
She turned toward the house, wondering why all the lights were off. Suddenly Heather emerged from the gloom of the doorway and ran across the grass to meet her, sobbing.
She felt cold and damp as the lawn in Holly’s arms.
“Okay, okay, Heather, they were just kids.”
“I thought—I thought—”
“ But she was too shaken to speak.
Holly and Kelly led her back to the house, trying light switches as they went. None worked until they got into the kitchen. She sat Heather at the table while Kelly filled the kettle.
“You should’ve called the police,” he said.
“That’s what I told her,” Holly said.
“No … I’ve called them before. They don’t come out here anymore. Or if they do come, they just laugh at me.”
“You mean this happens all the time?” Kelly asked.
“Not . . . not exactly.”
“They’re only bothering you because of me,” Holly said. “Why should they be coming around all the time? They know I’m never here.”
Heather shook her head so minutely that Holly almost missed the gesture. She read her sister’s intent, though.
She wouldn’t speak further in front of Kelly.
Fortunately, he didn’t seem anxious to stay. When they heard the first birds singing, he allowed himself to be led to the door. “You sure you’re going to be all right?”
“She’s my sister, Kel. I’ll be fine just as soon as I get her in bed.”
“Well, call me when you’re up again, I’ll pick you up and you can get your car. Maybe we can have dinner or something?”
She watched him drive away. It was still pitch black outside. The birds didn’t make another sound.
Heather paced restlessly across the kitchen floor. “I couldn’t talk with him around.”
“I know. I know what you want to talk about.”
“How could you?”
“Because I know what’s on your mind. This whole ’emergency’ of yours. You think somehow these kids know you write my songs, you believe I told somebody, and now they’re coming around to wreck your privacy. Isn’t that it? You think they’re your fans.”
“I didn’t tell anybody about you, Heather. If you want to know why kids come around bothering you, it’s because you’ve made yourself into some kind of institution around here—the weird white lady. You know, in the sort of house kids dare each other to visit on Halloween.”
“It wasn’t kids before tonight. If you’ll listen, I’ll try to make you understand.”
Silence. Black night. The wall clock’s ticking was unnaturally loud.
“Well?” she finally said.
Heather went to the window. Holly saw nothing in the glass but her sister’s reflection, as in a black mirror.
“It’ll be light soon. Safe to go. We’re at the shallow end of night.”
“The shallow …. What are you talking about?”
Heather moved toward the back door, gesturing for Holly to follow her. “It’s easier to show you.”
“You want to go outside?”
“Yes. You can see for yourself. You can decide what you want to do.”
Holly couldn’t find the strength to resist. The sooner this ended, the sooner she could drag herself up to her barren room and sleep. She followed Heather onto the back
porch, which was dark and damp as the outdoors and suddenly she was outdoors. Pine needles brushed her face, leaving a trail of cold tears. She glanced back and saw the bright kitchen windows far behind them, though she had no memory of stepping over the threshold.
Exhaustion was making her delirious.
There was just enough light to see the trunks of trees around her. Her shadow fell dead ahead, pointing the way from the house. Heather was a pale shape weaving through the pines. She sensed that the sky was growing light, and she could just make out the scratchy glitter of wet needles and the curved gleam of resinous branches heavy with rain. Their footsteps were padded, muffled, and made a crumpling sound, as if they were wading through tissue paper.
She looked up and saw Heather staring at her with a forlorn expression. She started toward her, then saw it wasn’t Heather at all. Heather was far ahead, in another direction, moving guickly—though she stopped when she heard Holly’s gasp. The other face she’d seen was gone now; as if it had never been.
“What is it?” Heather asked, coming back to her.
“I thought I saw your face, but it wasn’t you.”
“No, it wasn’t. Take my hand. Don’t be afraid, it’ll soon be light.”
And if it weren’t? Holly wondered. What then? What if this were the deep end of night?
To Runick, the house was a dark shrine, and the coming of the headlights could not have pried him loose from his place of worship. The others scurried like bugs, taking their sacrilegious comments with them. It was a relief to have the darkness to himself. He crouched low among the pines, finally rewarded for his vigil by the sight of her walking through the headlights. When they darkened a moment later, he blinked furiously and tried to track her through the night, but it was impossible. Then he heard a door shut, and the waiting began again.
He hardly felt the chill, or the rain that came and went. He dozed. What woke him was the sound of another engine starting. He saw the car pulling out of the yard. A figure appeared at the bright kitchen window, not Holly but the pale one—her sister. He feared for a moment that she had seen him, but she backed away slowly, no alarm in her gestures. Moments later he heard voices in the trees behind the house, and a gentle crunching sound exactly like that which preceded his descent into the dark valley…the
popping and clicking of the slightly scratched album. But this time the sound was actual footfall. He slipped through the trees, following, until he saw their shapes ahead of him. The darkness was easing a bit, sloping into morning, which added to his anxiety. He needed darkness to face Holly, needed the strength and security it brought. He tried to will it into being, and then remembered where he was.
He was the guardian of this place. The darkness was nothing less than his wings. All he needed to do was spread them, let the black pinions unfold, and then the music would begin and they would all be swept down into that place, that furrow in his dreaming brain.
Runick shut his eyes to evoke the feeling of darkness.
He imagined himself at the very mouth of the valley, about to start his descent. He was the needle sliding into the groove. He was darkness covering over all.
The trick was working, owing perhaps to all his practice, his discipline. It was a reflex shared by the night; a vision he had brought into the world. He could hear the music now, coming up from a deep cleft just ahead of him; and as the sisters descended into it, he swept along behind them on a black wind.
Heather moved quickly, surprisingly strong and surefooted in the dark woods; and with one arm she lent some strength to her sister, who kept stumbling. Holly just wanted to lie down.
“Where are you taking me? Please tell me something. I’m so tired.”
“Don’t you remember coming here?” Heather said.
“I almost never … I was afraid of the woods.”
“That was later. You weren’t when you were younger. The difference between us seemed much greater then. Now you’re practically the older one. So well-traveled, so worldly.”
“You’ll always be my older sister, Heather.”
“Believe me, there are times I wish I weren’t.”
“When my fans come around?”
“Baby sister, I have fans of my own.”
Heather edged them around a rhododendron black and huge as a shaggy beast, on a trail she could never have found on her own. On the far side of the huge bush, Heather
hesitated. Something made a sound inside Holly’s head, a single note that sounded stark and sinister against the general muzziness of her thoughts. It woke her slightly, though she hadn’t realized she was falling asleep.
“Heather, do you hear music?” she asked.
“Music? No, Holly. I hear words. You hear music.”
“What are you talking about?”
Heather raised a hand, indicating the land directly before them, and said, “Don’t you remember?”
Just ahead was a deepening of darkness, and also of the earth. The ground fell away before their feet, a black incision with the sound of water somewhere down inside it.
The sides were rock and mud and brambles, but already Heather was moving toward a trail of stepping stones that might have been placed for this purpose. With one hand she helped Holly down, step by step, below the roots of the trees, away from the promise of the sky. It was dark again here, dark as midnight, the dawn negated. Her eyes dilated but there was little to see except the untrimmed, frightening forms of wildness, enormous shapes looming overhead like the shifting shadows of vast birds of prey. She remembered, dimly, a childhood nightmare; and the memory was one with the sensation of that very old dream. In her fatigue, it seemed she had never stopped dreaming it. It had been a dream of strange sounds in darkness, an eerie music that seemed to come simultaneously from far away and from deep within. And Heather had been part of the dream, just as she was part of this waking dream; Heather calling out strange words that seemed like part of the music, words that drew faces out of blackness and shadows and nothing, faces that were not faces at all despite the mouths, despite the fact that they came to look at Holly, thrusting as blindly as the roots of the old pines; and in the dream she had screamed and screamed to get away from them, screamed and twisted and writhed about trying to wake, calling for allies, for friends, for anyone who might hear—but there was nothing, no one came to rescue her, and the dream just went on and on as the music grew, and the blackness grew, until finally, much later, it all receded and she was awake, possibly. Though it seemed that the dream had never really ended, the darkness had never ebbed, she had just grown used to it.
They stumbled along through weeds and vines, slipping on slick stones. Mud sucked at her shoes. She sensed the walls growing steeper, or else she was shrinking, falling into the ravine. She cried out and grabbed at her sister, who jumped and let out a faint gasp at her touch.
“Heather, what is this place?”
Heather silenced her, listening to the darkness. “Did you hear that?”
“Something following . . . .”
Holly listened, but there was only the trickling gurgle of the cold stream. No morning birds. The sound of the water was faintly musical; it set off a corresponding harmony in her mind. She fought to silence it, but it seemed to spill out of her now, flooding the dark. She spoke to drown it out.
“I don’t hear anything!” she cried. “Where are we going?”
“It’s so dark,” Heather whispered. “It shouldn’t be this dark. I thought we would be safe.”
“Then go back. Let’s go back.”
For a moment Heather seemed to consider this, but then they both heard it—a grating sound, rocks rattling, somewhere behind them. Heather instantly turned and fled, abandoning Holly. Ahead lay a greater darkness; Holly felt certain the valley grew deeper and narrower here. But she was afraid to remain here alone—and even more afraid of what might be following them.
She hurried after Heather, and suddenly the ground dropped away beneath her. Her feet slipped on mossy stones; she landed hard on her back, and went sliding down a wet chute, a waterfall. Her screams and Heather’s were mingled, though she realized that she had shot far ahead of her sister, far deeper. When she landed, sprawled on a bank of what felt like rocks and moss and decayed wood, she heard Heather somewhere above her, calling down:
“Where are you, Holly?”
Holly moaned. “Down here.”
At first she thought Heather answered, “All’s well.”
Then she said it again, louder: “At the well?”
Well? Holly thought. What well?
Her legs were still in the water. Curiously, she kicked them, but couldn’t find the bottom. At the base of the falls was a deep pool. The water felt strangely warm and stagnant. Suddenly afraid, she jerked her limbs out of it and scrambled backward till she came up against a wet wall of stone.
“Heather?” she called. “You’ve been here before. How do I get back up?”
“Don’t worry about that. This must be where they wanted you.”
“Don’t you remember? This is where the songs come from. This is where the music began.”
Holly crouched down in a ball, hoping to shelter in the crannies of the rock. The pool made an evil lapping sound caused by the constant sloshing of the falls. By some trick of exhaustion, her faltering senses, it seemed to splash in time to the music in her head. There were little echoes of more complicated tunes implied in every trickle, melodies she might have worked out eventually, given time.
“Do you remember, Holly? I brought you here a long time ago. It was a special day for both of us. I knew we’d have to come here again someday. And they’ve been calling— wanting you. I had to get you to come back. I didn’t mean for it to happen now, this morning—but I guess they couldn’t wait. It’s been too long already.”
Holly suddenly felt that it was critical that she not answer. A single sound would betray her position. She tried to stifle even the sounds in her head, the dark music, fearing that there might be something nearby that could hear even that.
Had she been here before, as Heather swore? She had no conscious memory of the place, though there was something like it in her thoughts—a place she’d thought her own nightmarish invention. No … in fact it was Heather’s creation. Heather had planted the scene in her mind: this very place.
“How Black Was My Valley,” she whispered.
And suddenly the music in her head died out completely. Silence filled the darkness, blotting out even the sound of the falls.
Silence, until Heather began to sing.
The words came irregularly at first, as if wrenched from her. Then Heather broke off to query her sister:
“Do you hear them, Holly? Words and music this time? They ought to allow it. You’ve served them so well. We both have.”
She commenced singing again, her voice rough and quavering, picking out words. Holly realized with a chill what her sister was doing. She was not inventing the words, not making them up as she went along—she was transcribing them, seizing on the odd echoing patterns of sound that seemed to float through this place, rendering them in human speech though they were anything but human. They were emanations of rock and water, of the trees and the air; and it was not a healthy conjunction of elements that operated here. This pool lay at the bottom of some of process she did not grasp; it was a receptacle for certain evils that trickled down from the world above, things that could not nourish the roots of trees, things the earth could not absorb. Listening to Heather, she began to perceive the untranslated meanings of the sounds, deeper than words. No wonder the songs had filled her with fear—they were pulled from this well of darkness, this catch-all for the fallen and decayed. And no wonder that her music had suited the words so well, for it was woven of the same substance. She had heard it, long ago; it had never left her for a moment since the time Heather brought her here; this dark place had always been part of her, its sounds directly inspiring her music.
Yet she felt no sense of reunion, of coming home. There was no welcome, though she did sense a sort of recognition, a quickening in the dark around her.
“They could have taken us then, Holly,” Heather called from above. “They let us have a good long time, but I always knew they’d want us back. Well, you were too young to realize what the bargain was; you might not think it’s fair, but really, you got the most out of it. Music runs so much deeper than words.”
Holly shook herself, as if trying to throw off a thickening spell. “You’re insane!” she called. “You’re saying you . . . you sold your soul to write those songs?”
Heather laughed, and the last traces of warmth were sucked from Holly’s body. The darkness seemed to thrust its faces at her, and something rattled on the shore of the deep pool.
“No, little sister,” Heather called. “Not my soul.”
Runick knew the way by heart, but he had never had to travel it encumbered by a body as clumsy as his own. Where previously he had always glided down cleanly on a wind of music’s making, now he scrambled and stumbled, gouged by- thorns, and was soon coated in slippery mire, his fingers webbed with the scum and algae that grew between the rocks. The valley had reguired the sacrifice of his invulnerability, but it was worth it. Perhaps in the act of submitting to the place, it would raise him to those black heights he had long ago been promised. He had no doubt that he was crawling still among the lobes of his dreaming brain; that he had found some part of the world that expressed what was deepest and truest in himself, where for the first time he truly belonged and need no longer shut out the rest of creation.
He was coming home to the bottom of the world, and as he advanced a muted, maddening music began to play around him, stirred up by the rattle of stones underfoot, the swirling of water around his ankles.
A voice sounded just ahead, an intruder on the dark fantasy, and suddenly remembered that he was not indeed alone here. He had almost forgotten Holly Terror—that it was she who had brought him here in the first place, she who had introduced him to this portion of himself.
He advanced more cautiously now, forever suspicious of the tricks reality played. In his visions this moment had always been accompanied by a spark of light, but in the actual valley there was no light; he might as well have been born sightless for all the good his eyes did him now. He carefully gauged the location of the voice, decided that it lay just ahead of him, inevitably blocking his way.
Suddenly the voice broke into song, to match the music that curled around him, but it was an ill voice. If this were Holly, then the valley had robbed her of beauty; her voice was sick as death. It sounded as if she were dying, wasting her last bit of life on this awful moaning that hadn’t quite found a form in words.
The reflex of the dream came back to him then. There was no light to pollute the perfect dark sanctity of this place, but the song was even worse than light. The sound drew something terrible out of him; it brought forth the strength of the guardian who had been born to protect the perfect peace and silence of the valley.
Reaching for the horrible shrieking noise, determined to put an end to it, he stumbled forward with all the power of darkness rising in his heart. He could feel his nails growing longer, sharper, his wings spreading wide. He was almost himself again.