There were rumors of varying extremity, all in great and enthusiastic detail describing the fantastical on-goings on the island. Locally, we called it “The Estate”.
Its name dated further back than most local bloodlines. Several hundred years ago, before the industries took over, the small patch of land had been the site of a large mansion and rather famous, surrounding gardens. Not only had they attracted tourists from across the entire state, but also Kentucky and Virginia. The soil grew flowers of exceptional allure and the island’s name lived on, somehow befitting our held romance towards simpler times.
I’d grown up in Charlestown, the youngest girl out of three. I was always told sternly not to mind the rumors; the stories were nonsense, after all. In particular the gruesome few about people who had gone missing. But I knew more than society surfaced. I knew that where there was smoke there was also fire.
Mother insisted it wasn’t appropriate for a young Christian girl such as myself to run about with—and listen to the ramblings of—the older neighborhood boys. They were unenlightened rascals, bordering to hedonistic, depending on who specifically was being described. When judgment day came, mother said, I would want to stand before God with a clean slate, with as little of their devilish imprint as possible. She would have been proud if she had known with what diligence I heeded her words.
Once, you see, a group of us decided to challenge the unknown and cross the river.
A faint hum, occasionally layered with a high-pitch screech, many would describe it. It would drive the town animals mad: the dogs, the cats, the few cattle in the outskirts. Around dinner on some weekends, but not all, the persistent noise would commence and run until darkness fell; it would sometimes run through the night. In other parts of the country, people found it difficult to sleep through the full moon — here, we blamed The Estate. The local insanity asylum had its government grant ensured for decades ahead solely on the account of the eerie noise and the people who fell victim to madness.
Johnny Barberman was the eldest of us. He’d strung his younger brother Ethan along with him. Ethan and I were a lot alike. We were both a few years younger, curious, and naive. We wanted to be included.
Philip Roose, the dentist’s son, was there too. I still think there had been a parental agreement between the Barbermans and the Rooses, or Johnny would’ve never allowed Philip to join. Johnny was of the popular variety, with avocations ranging from mechanics, cheerleaders, and football, to smoking the rare few cigarettes he’d stolen from the newsvendor down the main street. Philip, on the other hand, was as timid as a fawn, sporting thick braces and more freckles than a polka dress. He didn’t have any friends. Well, aside from the ones his father had paid for.
None of them were church-goers. They were the kind my parents would explain, rather unshyly, were making the world a worse place.
“You’re late!” Johnny hissed when I came rolling over the hill, leaned forward, and sweating like a pig. I jumped off before I’d come to a full stop and threw the bike to the side of the road.
“I’m sorry,” I pleaded. “I couldn’t leave early from dinner today. Out of all days!”
“No problem, I guess, it’s what it is.”
We waded through the high grass and entered a narrow stretch of birch that was in between the road and the river. Johnny and Ethan had procured a rowing boat. I didn’t ask where from and neither did Philip.
“Come on, then!” Johnny said to Philip, who was scared. He stood on the shore with his scrawny arms crossed, shivering. “You wanted to join, so don’t be a burden!” Johnny wasn’t known to be temperamental, but he didn’t have much patience for Philip, a person he rather wasn’t there at all.
As all evenings, Charlestown had succumbed to the island’s ominous hum. I peered across the calm waters, through the light evening mist. The Estate was mostly dark. A single yellowish lantern of some sort could be discerned on the horizon but provided only a very limited amount of information regarding its surroundings.
“It’s probably a refinery,” Philip theorized. “Father’s said it’s a machine that makes the noise. That’s what we’ll find there, I’m sure of it.”
“Machines don’t channel the voices of hell,“ Johnny said, panting in-between the cumbersome rowing. He laughed in a clear attempt to scare Philip.
Philip tried to laugh it off. It was a natural defensive mechanism of his, but his deep dread shone through when I later told him about my dreams. Ethan, in the other hand, remained quiet and listened eagerly. I couldn’t tell whether he was terrified or stupidly ignorant. He showed no inclination either way.
“I’ve had the same dream almost every week for the past year,” I said. “It’s making me fear to sleep, you know. I’d rather there was no night than the nights I’ve had.”
“Tell the others,” Johnny said. “It’ll be a good scare for when we get there.”
“But it’s silly.”
“Come on, Becky,” Ethan said. “I want to hear.”
I gave in. Besides, it felt good to share. The dreams—nightmares—were a burden after all. The first time I dreamed of The Estate, I told them, it had overwhelmed and shocked me. Over time, in light of a persistent inevitability and its growing corporeal essence, the shock had grown into terror.
The dreams always started the same way. I was walking up a dark gravel path. I wandered with determined steps, towards the old mansion, the one that wasn’t there anymore. I held three chains in my right hand, each tied to the neck of an apathetic, nearly lifeless dog. The dogs had behaved very badly, I explained, and the chains were justified. Dreary branches from barren beeches reached down and tore into my grey dress, my skin, and my face. I didn’t feel them and I didn’t mind them. When we came to the mansion gardens, hellish statues—totems of fallen gods—towered up above us. They sang my worship in some kind of demonic tongues, “Bordo baal! Bordo agamor! Bordo k’sh!”, and while I didn’t understand the words, I fully understood that there was a bizarre significance to them.
Finally, I explained, I arrived at the foot of a copper dish. It stood in front of the mansion, a piece of art; an extended welcome and invitation. The dish was held to the height of one’s torso by the arms of a bear and the body of a snake. It carried, on top of it, three constructs of crosses. They were wooden. Would burn easily. I took the dogs in my arms, one after the other, and tied them to the crosses. I did so without empathy and without emotion. They squealed. They wept and growled.
“That’s enough!” Philip cried. “What cursed fairytale is this? Are you possessed?!”
“It’s what I’ve dreamt,” I said. “You wanted to know.”
“That’ll stand for them! I for one don’t want to hear another word,” Philip said.
“And you’re not going to,” Johnny replied. “We have arrived, so lower your voices.”
The dull hum presented itself with a stronger body now. It felt close, and the continuous noise had been accompanied by regular thumps, resonating with the water, forming small circles. They emanated from the shore in a pattern of twos; thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud.
Ethan tossed the boat’s rope around a moss-clad stone, securing it with a knot Johnny had taught him long ago and proceeded to help the rest of us across to land. “What do we do now?” he asked.
Johnny stopped and signaled for us to remain quiet. He listened, to give bearing, eventually turning around and setting his eyes at a nearby marsh. “This way,” he said.
We wore waterproof boots and could plod through the brief wetland with relative ease. As we walked, the menacing hum grew louder, and so also the entrancing thumps.
“There is something sinister about the sounds,” Philip said.
“How could a refinery make a sinister sound?” Johnny mocked him. “Did your father explain that, too?”
“Are you happy you joined yet?” Ethan added.
Philip didn’t reply.
After some time we regained vision of the light we’d first spotted from the river. It shone in a flickering pattern, as were it a living flame rather than of electricity. We stopped and listened for a moment. It was difficult to discern anything other than the hum and the thuds, but when we put our minds to it, we could also hear a group of remote voices. A twig broke in our vicinity.
“There’s someone there,” Ethan whispered.
“Let’s go back,” Philip silently cried. “Let’s get to the boat and go back home.”
“It’s probably nothing,” Johnny said, but I could tell he wasn’t fully at ease. “A bird, or a small animal. One of them rabbits.”
Young, rebellious and brave, we decided to continue. We walked for a short while until arriving at a small road. Now that the trees had cleared and we could see the sky, we saw it was exceptionally black in this part, from industrial smog spewed out of enormous pillars still in the distance. Ethan brought our attention to an equally black gate. A string of numbers and what was most likely a name had been inscribed on a forward-facing, quite extravagantly decorated, metal plate. Unfortunately, the name had been rendered unreadable by some sharp, destructive force.
“This is not the sort of thing I’d expect out here. It’s too townsy,” Johnny said but maintained sights on the fiery light we’d spotted from the woods. It was clearly visible now—far up the gravel path. It was a pyre of some sort, its flames climbing in aspiration towards the angels above. Meanwhile, the island’s noises grew increasingly audible, and as they did, the voices we’d previously heard grew increasingly distinct — distinct in discord, conveying some sort of indescribable wretchedness. Thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud.
“We should really go. I don’t like this one bit,” Philip said. “What if they see us? I mean, what are we really doing here?”
“He’s got a point. We don’t want to get in trouble,” Ethan agreed. “If they catch us, father will punish us for sure. It’s too risky with people on the lookout. And those people, with the noises, over there, or whatever they are, give me a bad feeling. It just doesn’t feel right. There’s something… blood-curling… about the whole thing.”
“Fine, wusses,” Johnny gave in. He seemed discontented by the group’s lack of moral, yet still relieved. Fear was growing inside of him, one that he tried not to share.
Suddenly, another branch cracked just behind the nearest trees. Johnny jumped from fright and escalated his directive. “Go, go, go—get back to the boat,” he hissed, stumbling away from the road in the opposite direction.
We hobbled at each other’s heels, once more trudging through the boggy marsh. This time with a higher pace and sense of urgency. Since I had been the last on land, I was now spearheading the group back to the boat. Johnny turned around at regular intervals to ensure we weren’t being followed. I wasn’t used to seeing him like this. He wasn’t the type of guy to ever be scared.
“The boat isn’t here,” I said when we’d once again arrived at the shore. I looked at Johnny and he looked back at me.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s gone. The boat is gone.”
“Are you kidding me?!” Philip yelled. “We need the boat!”
“Keep it down, for fuck sake,” Johnny ordered. “Don’t yell!”
“How could it—,“ Ethan lamented, but Johnny interrupted: “The rope’s been cut.”
He bent down over the mossy stone and held up the end of the rope, cut off with near clinical care. Philip and Ethan paled to the notion that someone living—an intelligent person—had sabotaged their return journey. More than anything, they were confused and horrified. Philip was shaking again, on the brink of tears, and Ethan’s face was slowly conquered by nervous ticks and twitches. “Becky?” Johnny asked, “Do you know anything about this?”
I didn’t reply. Johnny neared me, repeating my name. I refused to answer; I refused to speak to him now. There’d be no more grace.
He grabbed my arm, which I’d held around my back, concealed. I pulled away, tumbling backward. That’s when they all saw that in my hand, tightly buried, was a knife.
“Why did you want us to go to the island, Rebecca?” Johnny asked. I saw the wonder and terror eating him from the inside. I cherished the impending doom of this embodied heresy. “You are the one who wanted to go, Rebecca. Why did we come here?”
“Heretics,” I said. “They’ve seen you. They’ve judged you.”
“What are you possibly talking about?”
“Don’t you see, Johnny?”
Thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud.
Johnny couldn’t reply as his tongue was stiffened and his mind was in utter chaos, entranced by the sounds, paralyzed by a demonic force that strung him along in an unearthly leash.
“Bordo baal, *thud-thud*, bordo agamor, *thud-thud*, bordo k’sh, *thud-thud*,” I sang and launched my knife against his chest. I struck him once, twice, three times. And then the others. They fell to the ground, weakened, yet not fully departed.
I attached a sturdy chain around each one’s neck. I tenderly caressed their cheeks.
The pyre in front of the mansion shone all the way across the river that night, and the distressed hums of the dying echoed louder than ever before.