Lure by Oliver C. Seneca

It was nightfall by the time the cloaked woman approached the house. She moved like a shadow beneath the purple gem sky, weightless with her walk, seeming to hover just above the earth.

“She’s coming,” Elizabeth said from the window. Sweat caked her palms. She wiped them on her faded apron.

“Are you sure this is such a good idea?” Catherine, Elizabeth’s mother, asked from the bedroom. Her voice was quiet and concerned. She soon appeared in the doorway, clutching a lit candlestick atop a brass handle. Like her daughter, she was a sturdy, brown-haired woman with smooth, pale skin. “You know your father’s past decisions. I’m sure this witch—”

“Mother, please refrain from using that word.”

Catherine closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m sure this…woman is aware of your father. Although you and I took no part in the vote back then, she may do more harm than good once she sees us, sees him. Oh, do you think there’s any connection? Perhaps we’re asking for trouble. I don’t know how those…women operate. We don’t even know who she is and what she’s capable of.”

 “It’s been years, Mother. Quite a long time.” Elizabeth’s gaze didn’t move from the woman outside, the phantom of the dark floating over the chasing leaves on the ground. “Besides, we have no other choice. If no one else can cure Father, she’s the only hope we have left. We cannot give up on him when he needs us more than ever. I’m sure she will understand. Her coming here tonight proves she has a heart.”

Catherine looked at the floor and sighed. She grabbed her chest, her fingers running over the cross pendant hanging from her necklace. “Very well. But if this fails, I’m afraid of what’s to come next. Lord, please watch over us…”

Three knocks came from just outside. Elizabeth gave her mother one last glance before picking up her lantern from the floor and approaching the door. She slowly reached for the knob and turned it, inching the creaking door open to reveal a weathered, older woman dressed in all black. Her nose was crooked and long. A hood covered her head, almost concealing her dark, piercing eyes.

The three women were silent at first, staring each other up and down until Elizabeth invited her inside.

“Please, come in,” she said.

The woman entered the humble home, inspecting her surroundings, taking in the atmosphere. The walls and floor were made of aged wood. A small table and chairs were to her right. The fireplace in the dusty parlor was aflame, giving off a warm, orange glow.

“I’m Elizabeth, and this is my mother, Catherine.”

“It’s best we do not share our names,” the woman said, raising a wrinkled hand. Her voice was a crackled whisper. “You’ve summoned me to your home to aid a dying man. That’s what I’ve come to do, but I’ve come to do it in secrecy, for the mere fact I’m here before you is a risk to us all. No matter what happens, tonight’s meeting goes unspoken. No one should know of my visit, and I shall be paid my reward as we agreed in the letter. Are we understood?”

Elizabeth and Catherine nodded. For a moment, the three of them didn’t speak or move until Catherine broke the silence.

“My husband’s right in this room here,” she said, leading the woman across the whining floorboards toward Simon’s room. “Please be warned as you enter, for the sight is quite startling.”

There was no hesitation in the woman’s steps. Confidently, she followed Catherine into the bedroom with Elizabeth close behind. The candle and lantern sent shadows dancing across the walls, which were growing strange spores by the moment. Up and down the slats were oddly shaped mushroom heads, brown and maroon spots poking out from curved stems unnaturally planted on the wood. They became thicker and more clustered as the three women approached the bedridden man in the corner of the room.

“My husband,” Catherine said in a whisper, looking down at Simon as if he were already deceased. “He’s fallen seriously ill with a strange sickness no one has ever seen before.”

She lifted her candlestick and illuminated a black-haired, bearded man lying heavily in his bed, his face contorted and covered in the darkened mushrooms. Stems and spores were growing from his flesh, slowly pulling his forehead apart, exposing raw skin beneath. The corners of his lips stretched back toward his swollen ears. His eyes were hollowed, discolored into an ominous black as the mysterious fungus dug deep beneath the sockets.

The sickness was alive, imprisoning Simon as it grew and spread in real-time across his body. All he could do was stare up at the women, breathing long, low wheezes from what remained of his mouth. He did not speak or move, for the spores had spread around the bed and the sheets, crawling up the headboard and along the posts, creating an arch of gathered mushrooms above him that spread to the room’s four corners. His body would soon be morphed into the walls, becoming entirely overcome by the disease.

“And it’s not just his face. His whole body is covered. I won’t show you for the sake of your supper, but I’m sure you can already see how serious this is,” Catherine said.

The woman eyed the spreading shrooms, following them from Simon to the end table, in and out of his cup of water, to the walls. Her eyes flickered in the flames as her gaze returned to Simon.

“It’s getting worse every day, too,” Elizabeth said, clutching her lantern tight. Her eyes were fixated on her father’s suffering. “We tried moving him to different rooms around the house, even the cellar. But no matter where he is, these mushrooms sprout everywhere. Mother and I have tried to cut them out of him, but they reappear.”

The woman stood still, not turning to face Elizabeth or her mother.

“Such power,” she said unexpectedly. Her grayed teeth matched the color of the strands of hair that hung down from her hood. “Nature has shown us its secret strength by turning itself into such a hideous creature. Truly unbelievable. Almost like a work of art the way it’s consumed this man and the home he inhabits.”

Simon wheezed. Elizabeth and Catherine were silent.

“About when did this illness begin?” the woman asked, turning to the mother and daughter.

“A week ago today,” Catherine said. “It started with a rash on his chest. Nothing helped, and it spread quickly all over his body. I think he must’ve gotten an infection while he was cutting the trees in the woods behind the house. He’s been out constantly, preparing for winter. Even at night, frantically working despite my worry.”

The woman rubbed the tip of her chin.

“The town doctor told us it could’ve come from a blight fungus or a poisonous species of mushroom. His body may be having a severe reaction to the plants in the woods,” Catherine said. She shook her head. “But we haven’t found any cure to even begin to heal him. Please, is there anything you could do for Simon? Oh…forgive me for speaking his name. I didn’t mean to…”

For a while, the woman stared down at Simon, mouthing his name to herself. Over and over again. Her thick eyebrows curled, but when she spoke, there was no anger in her tone. “Have you seen these mushrooms before? Could you take me to where he was working?”

“Yes, but it could be dangerous at this time of night. What if we come in contact with the fungus or the poisonous plants? It’s already been difficult enough to keep away from the ones covering this room. Lord knows if we’re already exposed,” Catherine said.

“I can take her there,” Elizabeth said eagerly. “It’s not far out at all. My lantern will guide us.”

“Elizabeth, you could get sick,” Catherine objected. “No one should go out into the woods if that’s where the disease came from.”

Simon heaved and wheezed as the spores and shrooms continued to pull on his head, exposing more of his raw flesh and the stems that grew from within. The walls crawled with the mushrooms inching closer to the door, waving their caps.

“If you stay here with Father, we can find the source, and maybe she can study them and create a medicine, a natural remedy. A…potion of some sort. I don’t know.”

“Your daughter’s right,” the woman said, her crackling voice ending the argument. “If I can get a better look at your land and the surrounding foliage, I can perhaps discover the origins of Simon’s demise.” She spoke the name despite her previous rule of working anonymously.

“Demise?” Catherine said, moving closer to the woman. “Is he destined to die? Will I lose my husband?”

“Only if you refuse my help. Show me the woods so I may see what nature’s brewing in the earth.” The woman’s demeanor changed. Her wrinkled face was straight and serious, her eyes sparkling, piercing.

“Very well,” Catherine said, before motioning to Elizabeth. “But come back quickly. I don’t want you out there in the dark for long.”

“I’d prefer if you took me,” the woman said to Catherine. “Leave your daughter here to watch after her father.”

Catherine swallowed hard. “If that’s what you wish.”

The woman nodded, her eyes reflecting the candlelight.

Without any further discussion, and with desperation in her soul, Catherine took her daughter’s lantern and led the woman from the bedroom to the back door of the house, where they exited to a yard of patchy, dead grass. A rusted shed stood just before the treeline. Beside it was a stump with an axe sticking out from its center. 

“Just through here. This is where he was working,” Catherine said, cautiously stepping over twigs and crunching leaves. The woods grew deeper and denser. Above, the twilight sky twinkled, showering the trees in a faint white glow. The cloaked woman followed. “He’d be out here for so long that I’d worry he’d work himself sick. Of course, I didn’t think it would be a rash and the ravenous illness we have now.”

The more the women ventured into the woods, the more mushrooms appeared. Red and brown caps. Curved stems. Baby spores sprouting from the soil. First, there were a handful scattered about, poking up from the dying grass and fat leaves from the barren trees. Then, as the two of them approached a clearing, they became clustered, growing thicker in their groups and more vivid in their colors, brighter under the reflection of the moon and the lantern.

“Oh,” Catherine said. “Watch your step. I think we’re coming to where my husband must’ve come across the poisonous…” She stopped in her tracks, unsure of how to proceed. The surrounding fungus, which was not dissimilar to how Simon’s bedroom looked with its monstrous invasion, overwhelmed her. There was a sense that she, too, was about to be consumed by the encroaching nature, that the bright mushrooms would sliver out of the dirt and latch onto her boots, crawling up her legs and arms until her soul was snatched. It wasn’t until a sparkling red light up ahead caught her eye and pulled her from her trance. Catherine stepped forward and lifted her lantern, finding a cluster of ruby-red mushrooms sitting on the edge of the clearing.

“You know, I had a daughter once,” the woman said as Catherine went farther ahead. “A long time ago.”

Catherine did not hear the woman’s words, for she was fixated on the shining, shimmering mushrooms before her. They glowed like gems, beckoning her with their odd beauty. Their shine merged into a kaleidoscope of rubies beneath the lantern’s light.

“Yes, a long time ago,” the woman went on, watching Catherine fall to her knees. “She was younger, much younger than your daughter, Elizabeth.”

“What in heaven’s name…” Catherine whispered. In her trance of the mushrooms’ aura, she couldn’t help but reach out and run her fingers along the beaming caps. Her fear of any poisonous fungus was gone. Catherine was under a strange and sudden control.

“Although they look quite similar. The full, brown head of hair. The pale, smooth skin. Very beautiful. You’re lucky to still have yours. As for me, I’m not as lucky, for the people who have lived and are still living in this town have not been too kind.”

Catherine felt the sides of the mushrooms until her hand met the stem. She followed the smooth texture down into the dirt, where she dug and began to pull.

“I’ve often wondered why they chose my daughter over me, why they didn’t let me burn with her.” The woman crept closer to Catherine. With every step she took, her dark eyes turned red, shining like the top of the mushrooms. “But the people, your husband included, were to set in their ways, too fixated on their own darkness, their hunger to torture and kill. And for what? Because there exist women who have been blessed by Mother Nature? Who have been born from magic and bathed in the earth’s power?”

Catherine held the beautiful ruby mushroom close, her eyes delighting at the shine. She didn’t see the glow of the cap floating off the surface, attaching an aura to her chest, just above her cross pendant.

“And where were you, Catherine? Were you not willing to stand in Simon’s way to save the life of someone’s child all those years ago?” The woman was standing behind her now, hovering her crooked, wrinkled hands just above Catherine’s shoulders. They trembled slightly in the chill of the night’s breeze. “How about the others? Didn’t you watch them burn? Of course, you did. You were fixated on the flames. The red, hot fire. It drew you in, infected you. It infected everybody. And yet you had the nerve to call on me to help your dying husband, the same monster whose choices led to the execution of my child.”

Catherine wasn’t aware of anything but the mushroom she held before her lips. A sweet scent of cherry and sugar emanated from it.

“But what you didn’t realize back then was that it would be you who would become the spectacle for all to see, only instead of the townsfolk who will watch with delight, it will be me and the other outcasts banished into the dark.” The woman grabbed Catherine’s shoulders with a firm grip. “I’ll surely make your demise much quicker than your husband’s. His had to be a slow suffering. I was sure to make it so. He was an easy one to lure.”

Catherine bit into the mushroom. The cap and stem snapped as her teeth chewed vigorously. She munched and munched before swallowing the mushy fungus. It slid down her throat in a thick lump. The ruby aura on her chest faded through her apron and shirt, spreading a red splatter of cracking lines across her flesh. Soon spores appeared on her skin, popping and crawling up her neck, her chin, her cheeks, her face. A darkened substance stained the sockets of her eyes as the disease rendered her blind.

“What? What’s happening? Hel…help me!” Catherine cried, her voice turning into a coughing wheeze. “Please, what is…”

“There’s no help for you now, my dear. You may as well surrender to the forces of nature, the dark magic of the earth.” The woman let go of Catherine, who turned to face her.

“What have you done to me?” Catherine felt all over her body, trying to stop her flesh from sprouting the mysterious mushrooms, but it was no use. Pretty soon, the brown hair on her head parted as her scalp peeled away, exposing raw flesh and more spores growing at a rapid pace. “No…”

“You’ve done your part, Catherine. My work here is done. You and your husband will be reunited soon.” The woman turned and began to make her way back toward the house. “As for my reward. I believe your daughter, Elizabeth, should suffice. I’ll give her the life I never got to give to my own.”

“No…you can’t…you can’t…” Catherine’s words faded away until they were nothing more than wheezing whispers in the night. Her body contorted and pulled on itself as the mushrooms grew inside and out of her. She attempted to crawl across the clearing but was stuck in the soil. Her legs were ravaged by the spores, connecting to the earth as stems planted her firmly in the ground. She reached out her hand as it froze in place, the skin and bone hardening in an instant. Not another sound escaped from her fungus-clogged throat as her last sight was the cloaked woman vanishing through the trees.

Picture of Oliver C. Seneca

Oliver C. Seneca

Oliver C. Seneca is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University. His novels, When the Sky Goes Dark and Faces in a Window, were published by Sunbury Press. You can find his short fiction and poetry included in Scare Street’s Night Terrors, Open Minds Quarterly, and Black Hare Press’s Anthologies. Author photo credit: Brandon Ulp.

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