Three friends sat at a campfire in the dark beneath trees thrashing in the mountain wind. It was a cold night and had been a cold day during the search for the missing woman. Groups camping nearby had already doused their fires and retreated into tents for the night. The three friends by the fire took turns telling stories, huddled under blankets, with one friend recounting a tale from her youth in which she believed a ghost occupied her basement.
She said: I can’t express the doom I felt, the darkness inside my chest every time I went down there.
The second friend told a story about a small boat that set sail from her childhood town in Virginia and was never seen again. A storm had arrived just before the boat departed, and the vessel had likely been swallowed up.
She said: A handful of times through the years, and only at night, when the bay was particularly foggy, people have claimed to see the boat cutting through the water just off the shore, as if it were searching for land, searching for home, for a place to dock.
The third friend, the male in the group, spoke of an encounter that happened to him years earlier. He’d been repeatedly visited by a spirit as a child, he said.
He said: It wore a dark cloak and it was tall. Its face was always hidden in its hood. He — I don’t know why I assigned it a male identity — he would suddenly appear by my bedroom window and just stand there watching me. I was terrified in place, unable to move.
The man seated near the fire readjusted his body in the chair. He reached down for a thermos on the ground and hefted it to his mouth. Wind gusted at them, through them. The fire tossed orange ribbons and splashes of light into the air.
He said: The figure appeared at my window less frequently as I grew into adolescence. My life became more like a normal boy’s. I moved away from my childhood home and enrolled in college. Eventually I pushed those early experiences so far into the depths of my memory that I forgot about them entirely. I forgot about the figure and the terror he caused. I forgot about the nightmares, the fear of being alone in my bedroom at night.
He continued: Then on my 40th birthday, just a few months ago, I woke in the night to use the toilet and grab a snack. My feet were cold on the wood floor. I remember feeling something strange in the air of the kitchen, like an inaudible hum or threads of invisible waves pulling tight around me. It reminded me of when I was a kid, the feeling I’d have just before the cloaked figure appeared by my window. All the hairs on my body stuck out like needles from my skin. There in the half-light of the kitchen I made out the shadowy figure that had often visited me in youth. It was just as tall, just as terrifying. I acknowledged it and closed the refrigerator door, surprised to see the faint but identifiable features of a human face deep in the hood.
He continued: I wasn’t scared like I’d been as a child. I was only curious or interested as I stepped toward the figure and peered into its face. It did not move as I approached. I looked past him to the window and out to the snowy expanse of my backyard. I was close enough to smell him (he smelled like the whisper of a tree) and to feel the odd vibration emanating from him. When at last I leaned in to peer closer at the face in the hood, I realized it was a woman’s face. The room was too dark and her features too gray and indistinct, but I could tell it was a woman. Then it began to communicate with me, it spoke without words, without sound, her ideas transmitted directly to me from her mind.
The man stopped talking to wrap the blanket tighter around himself. Both women watched him with their eyes wide. One woman took a long drink from her thermos while the other bent forward to toss another log onto the fire.
Friend Two asked: What did the figure say to you?
She told me she was a witch, he said. And that she was probably two hundred years old, but she didn’t know exactly how old because she stopped counting long ago.
Friend One asked: Do you know what she wanted from you?
The man stared into the fire. Its light reflected on his face.
He said: She told me that her face would be the last I’d see in this life.
The three of them listened quietly to the wind rushing through the trees. They watched the fire dance before them, hypnotized by the heat, the flashing light, the unpredictable movement. They each thought of the missing woman and how they’d spent the day combing the mountain for her. Not one of them would speak about it, but they all thought the missing woman was already dead, that they’d likely stumble into her carcass rather than hear her crying out for help or see her waving from a distended rock. Each of them hoped secretly that it wouldn’t be them to find her.
They agreed to extinguish the fire and retire to their tents. The following day would be long and exhaustive. The man had a strange dream in the night in which the cloaked figure from his past returned to him. In the dream he was seated at the fire just as before, except his two friends weren’t there. He was alone. A noise behind him made him turn in his chair to behold the cloaked figure standing tall and facing the light of the fire. She reached an arm up to remove her hood and reveal the half-decomposed, worm-eaten head of the missing woman.