Bogleech.com's 2016 Horror Write-off:
The Dead Village
Jenne Kaivo (email)
There is a dead village in rural Sweden, in the woods of Norrland, which lay unremembered for centuries until the early 20th century, when a wealthy man training himself in the atavistic art of archery fired an arrow into the woods, and was surprised to hear a ringing tone. He had struck the bell of what was first assumed to be an ordinary Medieval church, long-abandoned, at the center of a small cluster of remarkably well-preserved buildings. Concluding that the town had been killed during the plague years, he thought it a remarkable find for scientists hoping to analyze the life of day-to-day people in the recent past.
A small team of archaeologists was dispatched from the local university of Bjornabacksjon, but what they found was not typical at all. In the rude peasant houses, they found scraps of rotted paper and leather, even a few near-complete books. Books, in the Middle Ages, had been rarer and more precious than gold, and the literacy rate was practically nonexistent. However, in this town of an unknown name, every household seemed to own a small library. Several other archaeologists from around the world joined the dig, claiming they wished to assist Bjornabacksjon, with its limited resources, and not to snatch the great discoveries for their own. Findings made their way onto the internet rather often, appearing in various special-interest news-feeds before the formal reports were completed.
The paper in the village was home-made, of onion-skins and such matter. The writing was in Old Swedish, Latin, Greek and even Arabic, and what little remained unrotted told an interesting story of the philosophical lives of these peasants. There is one, a collection of small stories and aphorisms, which traces of were found in most households: it seems that it was a primer of sorts, with fairly simple language to train the young in reading, and with stories meant to be contemplated much in the manner of a fable or a Zen koan.
Scraps of poetry were found, speaking of matters unheard of in the Middle Ages, nihilism and the loss of reason. The Christian philosophy and faith, omnipresent in works found in the rest of Europe in the same era is utterly absent. The interior of the church was significantly redecorated, possibly as early as a hundred years before the disappearance of the population.
The technological achievement of the town was consistent with others found under similar circumstances, discounting the abnormal tendency towards literacy. There was, however, a notable tendency to avoid iron in later years. By the time the town was abandoned, many of the most essential iron tools of the time had been replaced with stone, and a layer of rusted scythes and knives and pokers and such was found when excavating the midden-heap.
I had been following the reports on this village, whose name was still undiscovered,with great interest. Part of this was due to my own ancestry. My mother was greatly fascinated with genealogy, and had spent years tracking down all the family history she could, finding no fame or nobility, but plenty of interesting and occasionally quite sordid details.
Among these details was the story of my great-great-grandmother, a Catholic Swede. Catholicism had been highly illegal in Sweden at the time she emigrated to America, and according to my mother, her paper trail simply vanished in the old country- if her church had kept baptismal records, they were never shared with the ruling government.
After arriving in New York, this ancestress had married an Irishman named O'Brien on the grounds of common religion, but this eventually proved to be a mistake. They had seven children. One day, the two eldest boys were out on some errand, and O'Brien came home with a gun, shot his wife, their five youngest, and himself. The children and husband died, but Mrs. O'Brien nee Swenson survived, with a bullet in her brain, and according to family lore, never had a good word to say about anybody for the rest of her life. How much of that personality change was due to trauma and how much due to the physical location of the bullet in the brain is anybody's guess.
My interest in this story eventually transferred, rationally or not, to an interest in underground religious practices in old Scandinavia, especially Sweden. As such, I was highly disappointed when, without warning, research into the Medieval village stopped completely, or at least was no longer shared. Some effort was taken to expunge information related to the site's location from the academic sites, but the careful observer could still locate it among the satellite images of Google Earth. Information is remarkably difficult to suppress in the modern world.
A year or so after research on the curiously literate hamlet had ceased, I discovered an amazing opportunity to study abroad, for a full academic year, in the University of Bjornabacksjon. I was accepted into this program, and, by luck or merit, secured a scholarship with the Swedish-American Institute which paid for both tuition and living expenses. My luck was compounded further when I realized the extreme patience the Swedish university system apparently had for the American monolingual handicap. I enrolled in a beginning Swedish course, but for that first semester, was able to fill the rest of my academic roster with courses taught in English.
I arrived at Bjornabacksjon in the last days of summer. Although I did my best to study local habits and be friendly in ways appropriate to my new location, my attempts to befriend my new classmates were not immediately successful: in particular, I seem to have offended a fellow named Acke Anderson by explaining that, due to my Swedish heredity, I considered myself a Swede in America. This concept of pride in diverse ancestry had frustrated him with Americans before, and I could not seem to explain how, as culture is a means of constructing personal identity, Americans will construct identities based on the cultures of their various ancestors. I explained that the superculture of the American mainstream is not, by itself, enough to fill the need people have for self-definition, which lead to habits of identification such as had distressed him, as well as the formation of various subcultures.
In answer to this, Acke called me pretentious, and parodied my attitude.
"Oh, my great-great-great-great uncle's grandpa's dog was a Sherpa, I can guide you up Everest!", were the particular mocking words he put into my mouth. I resolved that I would not make identification with my ancestry a major topic of conversation during the rest of my time in the country.
The others I met, I got along with much more easily, save for one odd and common detail. My fellow-students were rational, level-headed and largely atheistic, but I found secret belief in trolls and other such fairy tales to be widespread, although it only came up in conversation after a great deal of drinking. Maybe it was due to the thick forests that still fill Norrland, or to the darkness that fills half the year.
Kajsa Alfven, a girl who had become my friend due to our shared interest in the old and hidden religious practices of the country, seemed to regard the stories of our classmates with a mix of anthropological amusement and proud half-belief. Her opinions were primarily resentment of the centuries of Christian monopoly, and though she did find interest in the story of my great-great-grandmother, the murder and brutality impressed her more than the persecution of Catholic Swedes: she considered the old gods and folk religions much more worth her time.
She, too, had been quite keen on the excavations in the old village.
"The best part," she said, "is that they seemed to have an entirely unknown religion, but it must have been built on an ancient tradition. The Latin and Greek writing proves the faith did migrate here. There are no runes, as you might expect with Scandinavian paganism, no traces of Norse thought in those books they found, but it's clearly not Christian, so what is it? And did you read about the huge stone altar-block in the middle of the church, with traces of what looked like blood? There might have been human sacrifice. Brutal."
After several weeks of discussion with Kajsa, we both had developed an even greater fascination with the village that had so recently been the university's archaeological prize. The leaves that turn yellow yellowed, and the weather chilled: it was decided that we should embark on our own private expedition to the place, before the snows set in, since after that time, the country would be snowbound until late Spring, and I risked returning to America before the thaw: and for a good while after the snow melted, the ground would be tremendously muddy, impossible for navigating through back woods.
As quickly as we had come to this decision, we began to pack Kajsa's ancient car, and left on a Friday morning: I regret to say that I did miss a class, but I justified this with the comforting thought that my excursion was in the interests of science. We drove on paved roads as long as we could, me in the passenger's seat, navigating with my phone, and her behind the wheel, singing along to the loud and incomprehensible music that played on her tape-deck. Many times, she had explained to me about the technical complexity and variety of religious perspective of the music she loved so much, but it only ever gave me a headache.
After miles and miles of driving through back roads and evergreen forests, we came to the spot where my calculations said we must stop. The university had, with the government's permission, cut a narrow dirt road for access to the nameless village, which lay many miles deep into the wood. However, although the road had been in use not so long ago, it was all but indistinguishable now: somebody had apparently gone through the trouble of planting trees and native plants in that bared soil. It was only by finding where the trees were youngest that we could make out the road.
At this point, it was late afternoon. The diminished daylight of Autumn was already waning. Kajsa, who had been expecting her very used Volvo to bring us much closer to our destination, cursed, or I assume she did, based on her tone: nobody had taught me most of the particular words she used. Nevertheless, we had packed pretty well, with what was probably all the gear we needed to walk there and back, so the setback wasn't major. We donned our backpacks and took our flashlights in hand, at the ready, and took off to pick our way along the trail of small trees until it was too dark to go any further.
I must admit that I let the circumstances of walking through unfamiliar woods, in a strange land, in the growing darkness, work on my nerves a little. My friend always adopted a tough, fearless attitude, having a certain desire to be associated with the Vikings of old or some such, but I believe I saw her shudder once or twice, although it may have been the cold. There was, occasionally, a sound I mistook for following footprints: all my previous hiking had been through tame California parkland, and I'd never been around the sort of wildlife found in Sweden's northern interior.
I don't know how near we were to the village when we made camp. My phone had long since been turned off to preserve battery life. I know, though, that the wildlife proved especially numerous around the area, although we never caught a glimpse of a single animal by the light of our fire. I know, too, that when I slept, it was not well.
Sleep paralysis is an interesting phenomenon, responsible for all sorts of human folklore. It is a rare state wherein your mind grows partially conscious, but your body remains utterly asleep, and you can't control anything, from your breathing to the opening of your eyes. They remain closed, but conjure up an image, a dream or an hallucination, of your actual surroundings as you understand them, and there, in the dark, unable to move, you grow frightened. Your mind responds by dreaming up a shadowy figure that stalks up to you slowly, intending to do you harm, and often ends up crouched sinisterly on your chest. From these shadowy figures, we have variously created incubi and succubi, aliens and imps. I was glad to have read on the subject, because I had my first sleep paralysis incident that night.
Lying in my sleeping bag, under the stars, my face exposed to the cool bite of Autumn, I seemed to see a figure lurking behind a dead standing spruce. It was indistinct and shadowy, but seemed to have the form of a woman, although something about her back was, in a way I'm not quite able to remember, wrong. She noticed my eyes on her (although I know my eyes were truly closed), and began to approach, in an odd stalking crouch. As she came closer to the firelight, I saw that her clothes were a rough and ragged homespun, the sort a peasant might have worn hundreds of years ago, and there were dark stains down the front. After what seemed like quite a long time, with me staring at her, unable to shift away in the smallest degree, she came to me, crouched over me, and grasped my helpless wrists with hands that were cold and seemed to have talons. Her face, pretty in the firelight but with an expression of animal madness, leaned close to mine, and she whispered a passage I recalled from one of the books translated in the studies of the old village.
The dream of eternity is close. Great sacrifice brings great reward. Worlds unknown stand open before us. No joy is greater than the spilling of blood. No joy is greater than life for eternity.
It was from the primer that had been so popular. Although I understood it in Modern English, I knew, with the knowledge that comes with dreams, that she was speaking an old tongue, much older than Old Swedish, older, in fact, than any language in the texts that had been released before the investigations stopped.
My mind saved me by dreaming up Kajsa leaping at the woman with a fierce hunting knife. Beautiful Kajsa, black hair contrasting with her blonde eyebrows, wearing steel-toed boots in her sleeping bag. I probably wasn't far off by dreaming that she would have such a thing.
When we woke the next morning, I felt notably drained, but she looked well. The vile instant coffee we had packed seemed to satisfy her, but it didn't wake me up in the slightest. Influenced by her company, I was determined not to show weakness, and thought that perhaps the day's hike would bring me back to myself.
It was much easier going in the daylight. After very little time, the difference between the old forest and the new growth shone like a beacon, and the animals from the night before had all retired. We walked for hours, resting occasionally, talking just the right amount, and the pain in my legs and feet just felt like proof of accomplishment.
Some time after noon, as the non-road lead us down a hill, Kajsa spotted the old church tower, its bell black and rusty. From that point, every step seemed like the one that would bring us into view of the ancient town, but by the time we reached the first sagging, strangely well-preserved building, the short hours of daylight were running low again. We first saw it by the light of dusk, such a small cluster of houses by modern standards, with the streets so full of small weeds, and the doorways so short that Kajsa actually laughed, and I laughed with her, and when we had recovered we didn't quite know what to say.
She brought out a camera I didn't know she carried, resolved to use the last of the sunlight photographing these ruins, and I turned my phone on again, ready to follow suit. Some bits of the view were spoiled by the straight and methodical excavations of archaeologists, which was understandable, because you can't know something without taking it apart. I peered into a rectangular hole, and thought I saw a surprising number of bones among the potsherds, but it could have been the location of an old graveyard. Then, taking my flashlight, I ducked inside a little house, which was still littered with books, whole and partial, all much more complete than I could have imagined. I gingerly opened one hide-bound volume, and had to stifle a scream. The first page I turned to was an illustration, very well-done for its time, of a female creature exactly like the one in my sleep paralysis hallucination of the night before. I could see clearly that there was something wrong with her back. It looked as though, if I can describe it properly, she was a hollow shell, and the back not filled in, and from the hollow that was left, there leaked tendrils of a black substance or energy, the biggest one at the bottom of the hollow, curling around her, lending the appearance of a tail. She was crouched over a body that was etched with bleeding symbols, and there was a caption, in an unfamiliar language and an unfamiliar alphabet, which my head ached to look at: without knowing how, I knew it said something like "what we can become".
Before I could turn the page, Kajsa screamed. I ran outside. In the beam of my flashlight, I saw her, surrounded in the middle of the street by the female things, and some other, more hideously deformed creatures, with bulbous noses and bodies covered in what must have been hair. All seemed half-formed, half-visible, the something that leaked from the backs of the hollow females flickering unnaturally.
My friend wielded that knife she had used the night before, in what I had tried so hard to tell myself was a dream. It was the metal, I realized. Something about the metal. She had her steel-toed boots, and her spiked leather belt, and her fierce steel knife. But I had nothing metal at all. Why did they not swarm me?
I rushed the circle, broke the ranks of the things, ran to her side. She was so pleased to see me. Until the words that I had read from the books started running through my mind, and the thoughts of the villagers buzzed through my blood, bringing memories, memories of a distant ancestress who had learned of the gift, rejected the gift, and fled from the village, and instead of eternal life had children, and those children had children, and eventually some became underground Catholics, and one married an Irishman quite happily until he learned, whatever way, of the rejected glory from so long back, and I struck her head with my flashlight until she collapsed, and took from her all the iron and steel incompatible with the glorious rebirth, and threw the cursed stuff so high and so far that I think the bell must have rang, and my people taught me the sacred signs to carve into her flesh that turned me immortal, elevated me into the new form, took me to the deathless world they had discovered so long ago, that other plane, where I now can dance and rejoice as my train flickers behind me, sometimes one long tongue flaring out so far it wraps about me like a luxurious tail.