The Woman in the Churchyard
by Amanda Cecelia Lang
There is a woman who dwells in the churchyard. She lingers as a fixture behind the abandoned, moss-webbed gates and peers out at the road. She waits there every day as I follow the leaf rot and cobblestones from my cottage to the schoolhouse. Her presence invokes in me spells of dreadful awe, this woman robed in winter rags, heavy swaths of wool. Beneath her hood, where more imaginative types might find grinning skulls or an endless abyss, her face is just a face. Though if pressed, I confess, I cannot describe the specific details of her eyes or nose or mouth. When I near the gates, the woman recedes without fail and her countenance goes to fog.
Some might suppose she is a specter either of my imagination or of the grounds she walks. But specters are notorious in their eccentric schedules and interactions—are they not? They are creatures of the night and of the corner of the eye. They are fickle in the company they keep. But this woman, she stands boldly in the sunlight, and though she retreats at my approach, she does not vanish. Only watches from afar. A specter not.
Others witness her as well. The townsfolk gossip about her on the regular. I often hear whisperings as I pass their socials with my eyes and chin lowered. The younger ones throw rocks at her—several times they’ve missed and nicked my cheek instead—all the while laughing and pointing and supposing. A bitter loon they call her, an orphan others say, and even more decide she is a spinster who makes a bed of the graves. They are wrong on all counts, I believe. They speak as experts on the matter, but they have not walked this path the entirety of their lives as I have. Most come from other localities and leave after only a few impoverished years, off to better boroughs.
But I have taken to this same path every day.
And every day, I have witnessed the woman standing there.
I saw her as a child while rejecting my papa’s ailing hand to splash rain puddles and rush ahead without him. Saw her as a growing girl tormented by the mysterious changings of my body and darkening of my moods. Passed her as a heart-sore young woman while ripping petals off daisies in futile fits of romance—for I loved them not! I witnessed her still as I became the inevitable apprentice of the schoolmarm, and every day as I tread the path of decaying autumn leaves back to my barren, fusty cottage.
The woman stood always in the churchyard.
There as the seasons cycled from ice to fire and back again.
My peers discarded their tiny lives like cocoons and flitted from our common path, chasing the sky to broader, far-off vistas. Fools. They boast of foreign lands in their letters and their books. Often, in my passing, I hear cruel rumors of their expanding families and their multitude of blithe adventures. They have a world of bawdy self-indulgence and pompous achievement between them.
Yet they forget the woman in the churchyard!
But not I.
How many countless times have I walked this path, raising my eyes from the ground long enough to glimpse her ragged shadow retreating from the gate? How many days was she the only soul at all for whom I raised my head? And oh, those many hours I spent standing embittered before the chalkboard and ungrateful schoolchildren, how my mind lingered on the woman’s iron bars, pondering the force that keeps her imprisoned. Always there with the mist and grave soil, the most reliable part of my unkind routine.
Before her, I have transformed from a schoolmistress with vague and lackluster dreams to a spinster with broken prospects.
Now winter has come once more, and the cane in my wizened hand barely keeps me upright on this icy footway.
The road alongside my path runs busier these days, the opulent, providential families in their carriages hurry past. Life hurries past. Faster-faster every moment. Though one thing never changes.
One thing always proves certain.
Yet tonight, as I raise my hooded head, something is amiss.
Tonight, the gates stand open.
The long dreadful awe in my bones becomes an awful dread.
The woman awaits me there, and tonight her face does not recede. Tonight, the fog lifts and the doleful, watchful eyes beneath the woolen rags are clear.
I gasp and lose my breath, for at last, I recognize her.
She is me.
She nods and beckons me inside. I am powerless to refuse.
The cobblestones I’ve followed all these many years crumble and vanish around me, and the only stones that remain are those in the churchyard—stones which rise from the soil to meet the unforgiving mist. They are mine to wander.
My wretched destiny. I see it now, my whole frivolous life, my very existence as empty as death. I follow myself across the threshold. The mossy gates groan and lament behind me, and I witness the street beyond from a new perspective. Only now, too late, do I notice the majesty of the sky. It shines brighter than their books and rumors let on. An endless horizon dusted with wings and stars and possibilities I never chased.
Such a breathtaking view, the vast glittering worldscape, I feel moved to share it with another. But when I turn, I stand alone.
The gates have closed.
I dwell in the churchyard, peering out through my tattered hood of winter wool.
The morning sun rises and winter melts into spring, and on the other side of the gates, my young self passes me by.
AUTHOR BIO: Amanda Cecelia Lang is a horror author and aspiring recluse from Denver, Colorado. She lives with her life partner, two ancient cats, and an ongoing existential crisis. Her horror stories currently haunt several podcasts, including Tales to Terrify, The Other Stories, Thirteen, and Creepy, and the best-selling anthologies Night Terrors, The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, and Mix Tape: 1986. You can stalk her work at amandacecelialang.com—just don’t be surprised if she leaps out at you from the shadows.