A Hollow in the Moment
A Story of the Crow Witch
by Mike Phillips
“Craig, wait up,” Jason shouted to his older brother.
Though he could still hear him as he crashed through the thick undergrowth ahead, Jason wasn’t exactly sure in which direction his brother had gone. He was afraid of getting too far away from camp and getting lost in the mountains.
“Craig, come on, wait!”
“Move it you slow poke, it’s getting away,” Craig’s voice sounded from a direction Jason hadn’t expected.
“This is weird. Something’s not right,” Jason shouted as he ran toward the sound of his brother’s voice. “It’s going too fast. It’s not natural.”
A sliver of the setting sun lay gently on the mountaintop, casting dark shadows that would soon darken to night. Pushing through the last of a thick growth of brush, Jason could now see his brother in the dim light. He was maybe fifty yards ahead, mostly in the straight up direction. The porcupine was barely visible, nearly to the top of this steep part of the mountain.
“Come on Craig, it’s getting late. Something bad is going to happen.”
Craig looked over his shoulder every now and then to make sure Jason didn’t get too far behind but he kept climbing, grasping thin tree trunks and branches to help him on his way.
“What are you afraid of?” Craig asked in a disgusted voice.
“I don’t know,” Jason said quietly, following. “I just don’t like it. It gives me the creeps. I don’t know what we’re chasing the stupid old thing for anyway.”
“Come on! It’s getting away.”
Craig waited for his brother at the top of the rise, helping him up, but he complained about losing precious time all the while. They had come to a flatter part of the mountain where they didn’t have to use their hands to remain upright. There was even a little path, a slip of a foot trail cut into the rock that looked as if it hadn’t been used by anything but bears and wolves for the last hundred years.
It had grown dark during the climb, making Jason even more nervous about the situation, but Craig insisted they keep going, quoting leaf and stick lore to support his case. Jason was too tired to argue.
“Look at that. There he is, almost like he’s waiting for us,” Craig said, untying an old shirt from his waist and wadding it round his hand. “I’m going to get a few of those quills. I’ve never seen anything like that. The color, it’s so cool, almost like magic.”
“Yeah, magic,” Jason replied, but with dread rather than awe.
“You can be scared all you want. I’m going after it.” With that, Craig was off once again, leaving his younger brother behind.
“That thing’s too fast, you’ll never catch it,” Jason shouted discouragement from behind. The more he saw of the porcupine the more his feeling of apprehension grew, but he followed his brother all the same.
Then the porcupine stopped. Even as Craig grew closer, the animal didn’t move away. It just kept licking its paws without an apparent worry in the world.
“Look, we tired it out,” Craig called out greedily, coming within ten feet of the thorny monster.
The porcupine stirred, moving slowly toward something that Jason couldn’t quite make out in the growing darkness. Craig made his move, closing the distance, coming close enough to be within reaching distance of the creature’s back.
“No, it’s evil. Run! Run away,” Jason called out suddenly. “It’s a monster. It’s a trap.”
But it was too late. Without a sound or a sight to mark their passing, Craig and the porcupine were gone. Jason was alone in the forest.
“Craig!” Jason shouted, but his echo was the only reply, answering again and again as his voice treaded from stone to stone and then faded away.
He bit his lip and began to cry, but hearing a noise in the direction of the disappearance, he turned and ran away. Running wildly, without knowing where he was headed, Jason left the trail, going heedless into the forest. He didn’t know that part of the mountain very well, had always followed his brother’s lead on their adventures anyway. Now he was on his own and he felt certain that something terrible was after him.
His feet coming out from under him, Jason slid down a steep slope, finding at the bottom what he thought was a familiar bush and outcropping of rock. Optimistic, he pressed on in that direction for what seemed hours, no longer running, but walking and often sliding downhill as fast as he could go. His only hope was to find camp, take his bicycle to the road, and find help.
Something followed. Jason heard it first as only a rustle behind him. Then it seemed to be at one side or another, sometimes both sides at once. The sound grew louder as he neared the camp, just as he was able to see the last flicker of light from the unkempt fire through the trees.
“That’s it, I know that’s the camp,” he told himself through his fear. “All I have to do is get my bike and I’ll be out of here before anything can get me.” Finding strength from he knew not where, he started to run again, determined, desperate.
A fierce roar beat him back from his path. He looked up and there was the biggest black bear he had ever seen, standing between him and the camp. Everything he knew about bears was forgotten as he turned and ran away.
The bear snorting huskily behind, Jason ran for only a short while before he tripped and fell, branding his knees and palms with pain. Any moment he expected the crush of heavy paws upon his back or the bite of powerful jaws at his neck. Neither wound ever came. The forest was again quiet.
The bear was gone, but now he had no idea where the camp was. Thinking the bear followed at a distance to make a meal of him once he had tired, Jason stood and kept going. A bear could smell blood from a mile away, said the old men at the feed store. Jason felt his hands and knees and discovered a wetness that he knew would mark his fate.
From that moment out of reckoning, every little sound startled him into a new direction until he wandered hopelessly and completely lost. At length and to his great relief the forest ended, and in the light of the quarter moon, Jason came upon what looked to be a farmhouse at the edge of a field.
All the lights were off inside, but the boy hoped he could rouse someone from sleep. He didn’t know what he would tell the people who lived there, surely not what he had seen. His brother had simply disappeared into a shimmer of darkness, as if he had been pulled into a rip in the fabric of time like in some bad science fiction story. Fearful of the bear, he knocked on the door anyway. No one answered.
A crow cawed from behind. Jason turned and saw the black bird sitting atop a scraggly old oak tree, leering at him with piercing black eyes. He turned away to knock again, but before he could set flesh to wood, he heard a voice.
“Jason Kelso, what brings you to my doorstep tonight, even though it is a fine summer evening for unexpected visitors?”
It was a woman’s voice that spoke, and though he remembered the voice from somewhere, Jason couldn’t place it. He turned, but the shadow of the tree on which the crow had perched made it so his view of the woman’s face was masked.
“Hello? Who are you?” he called.
“You’re confused because you’re lost,” the voice replied, though Jason thought he heard other things spoken, ancient words that were lost upon the wind. For some reason, he felt better. The voice was soothing. It let him forget his fears.
“How do you know?”
“That’s not important now.”
“My brother,” Jason stammered, “a bear got my brother. It was the biggest black bear I’ve ever seen.”
“No, you and I both know it wasn’t a bear,” the woman said gently, still hidden by the moon shadow of the tree. “I’ve had word of your troubles.”
“Word? What do you mean?”
Patiently, the woman explained, “Friends, I have friends in the forest. They sent word of your troubles, that an evil being of some kind has taken your brother captive. My friends set you on the path to me so that we might liberate him.”
“Friends? Oh, I’m so confused. I still don’t know what friends you’re talking about. I don’t even know who you are.”
“No? You don’t recognize my voice then?” she asked, stepping from under the tree. “I’m Miss Weigenmeister, the librarian.”
“Shouldn’t we get the cops or something? Maybe we should get my dad, he has a gun.”
“No weapon of that type will do us any good. This is magic we’re dealing with.”
“I knew that porcupine was trouble,” Jason said, giving in to his fear and crying.
Miss Weigenmeister stepped forward and drew an arm around his shoulder. “Now then, we’ll put this to rights. This is a task for you and me, not for the police.”
“What can we do?” said Jason, his voice small and trembling.
“More than you think,” the woman said, laughing. The sound of her laugh was kindly, bright and warm as a spring day, and it pierced the darkness with words that were fortifying to the spirit, like her secret voice had been. The laugh gave Jason the strength to face his fears and do what he knew he must. “Shall we go?”
“Yes, I’ll do it. I’ll go, but I don’t know where to go.”
“Follow me then, we’ll chase the steps you made in coming here.”
Jason wiped his tears and smiled. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet. The night has yet to reach its halfway mark and there’s still much to do! Let us go.”
And with that, Miss Weigenmeister took Jason’s hand and they began to run, back into the wilderness. They ran so fast that Jason felt as if he were flying. Even after all the pains of his earlier efforts he was invigorated somehow, like he could go on forever without food or rest. Before Jason knew it, they were at the base of the mountain where he and his brother had chased after the porcupine to thief its pretty quills.
“Now, be quiet,” Miss Weigenmeister said, without even breathing hard from the run.
“It’s not far. You’ll have to show me the rest of the way. Do you remember?”
Jason was surprised to find that he wasn’t breathing hard either. He nodded in reply to the question, but in the dark thought better of the gesture and whispered, “Yes.”
He led her up the slope by the same sad way in which he had lost his brother, almost as if he were being drawn. He found the place where Craig had helped him climb, where the little path was lost to time. Then at last they stood near the very spot where the porcupine had sprung its trap.
“Here it is,” Jason said. “What is it?”
“A hollow in the moment. Tell me, what do you see?”
“See? I don’t see anything.”
“Do you mean you see blackness? Do you see a distortion?”
“No, I mean I don’t see anything.”
“Interesting. Then how do you know it’s there?”
“I don’t know,” Jason said. “I just feel it. Is that strange?”
“Possibly. Have you ever encountered anything like it before?”
“No. What’s a hollow in the moment? What is that thing?”
“If you’re looking for a rational explanation I don’t have one. I use a translated name that comes from a native tribe that once inhabited these lands.”
“What does it do?”
“That depends on who’s controlling it.”
“Can you control it?”
“Yes, but then we wouldn’t find your brother inside. That place would not be the same place in which your brother is being held. He is inside a place that was created by whatever abducted him. It will be a reflection of that creature. If it is very adept, once we’re inside it will be able to change our surroundings at will.” Miss Weigenmeister added warily, “It may try to confuse us.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Well yes, I do think so. It has taken your brother captive. That’s not at all a friendly thing to do.”
Looking away, Jason replied, “Yeah, I guess.”
“I must send for help now that we have found the exact location. Will you wait? My summons will take but an instant.”
“Sure,” Jason said, but he barely spoke the words before he lost sight of her. He turned his head to see where she had gone but as he turned back, Miss Weigenmeister returned as if she had never left. “Wow, how’d you do that?”
“I’m a librarian. Most of the world’s secrets are open to me.”
“No time for questions and answers, we must go now. Gather your courage.”
“How about I gather a big stick and a few rocks instead?”
“Violence is not your place in this,” Miss Weigenmeister said with a forcefulness that was not unkind. By those words Jason was strangely reassured, however. He nodded and followed her into the hollow.
What was once night became twilight. The sounds of the insects and frogs and birds suddenly stopped. They were in what seemed a cave, but the rock somehow didn’t look right to Jason. The floor was smooth as pavement. The walls were rough but were more like the stage set for a school play rather than any cave he had ever been in.
“This won’t be much trouble,” Miss Weigenmeister said in a low voice, but with a surprising confidence. “Whatever created this has little imagination. Of all the places in the entirety of creation that could be made of this, we end up in what could be expected to be here anyway.”
She brushed a hand against the wall, talking to herself as if thinking, “There’s an utter lack of detail. The rock is hard but not solid. The walls vary little in gross shape. The finer detail doesn’t vary at all. It’s like we’re walking through the same five feet of cave over and over again. Whatever did this probably doesn’t even realize that it is in control, that this cave came about because of its will.”
“Good,” Jason said.
“Mind you, it is still in control.”
“Then how do we find my brother?”
“There haven’t been any branching tunnels. I think we’ll find him at the end.”
“I may have a trick or two that would be helpful.” She paused a moment. “Hush now. See the light ahead, the glow? That seems a fire’s light to my eyes.”
“Yes, I see it.”
“Time for my trick then. Close your eyes and say a prayer for guidance.”
Jason did as he was asked without question. When he had opened his eyes, Miss Weigenmeister was gone. In her place was a crow and a crumpled pile of clothes, the floral print dress the librarian had been wearing.
“My tricks are my own, thank you,” Miss Weigenmeister said curtly. “Now, take my clothes and come with me to the edge of darkness. I will distract whatever it is. I want you to grab your brother and run. Whatever happens, just keep going until you’re outside. You’ll be safe then. I’ll be right behind you but you mustn’t stop. Promise me.”
“I’ll do it, but what if he’s tied up?”
“That won’t matter.”
“But nothing, we must act.”
They crept quietly down the cave until they came to a wider area, a chamber about the size of Jason’s bedroom. There they lingered for a moment at the edge of the ruddy light cast by the fire, trying to see inside, but they could not do so and remain hidden. With a reassuring nod to Jason, Miss Weigenmeister hopped into the light.
“What? Who’s that?” came a harsh voice, the source of which was not seen by the boy. “Don’t come no nearer or I’ll bash ya’ brains in, stupid bird.”
There was a moment’s pause. “I said go away.” Then angrily it said, “All right then, take this!”
Something shattered against the wall. A crow’s sharp caw filled the cave.
“I’ll get you stupid bird!”
Jason pushed his head into the light, finally able to get a look inside the small chamber. There was his brother, resting on a floor piled with old bones, his head down, possibly sleeping. His arms and legs were cast into heavy chains.
The thing chasing after the crow was no longer a porcupine. It was a little man, about a foot shorter than Jason, with a thick beard and mustache that were flaming red. Its black eyes were wide as river stones and marbled with fine greens and grays. It had broad shoulders and its arms and legs were gnarled as the rock under a waterfall. From bedtime stories long forgotten, Jason would have named the little man as a troll.
As it ran about the chamber, chasing the crow as she flitted about, the troll bashed a stone club against the walls, missing its target time and again. The troll was distracted. It was time for Jason to act.
Gathering his courage, Jason burst into the room and took hold of his brother. Fingers tingling, he thought he heard Miss Weigenmeister speak strange words. The chains fell away. Craig suddenly awoke, confused, but with Jason’s urging they were off, back up the cave as fast as they could go.
“Hey, come back here!” the troll howled after them, furious. “I’m gonna eat the both of ya’s. Come back here!”
“No!” Miss Weigenmeister said sharply. “You wicked little man, you can’t have them, not as long as I draw breath to protect them.”
“A talking bird?” the troll said in surprise. Then in gathered anger he said, “That’s it, uh? Come back. I’ll get you. Come back here you rotten bird!”
That was all the brothers heard. They fell out of the hollow and into the forest once again. Heaving with fright, they ran away down the trail and into the night.
“No! Stop! Miss Weigenmeister, we must save Miss Weigenmeister,” Jason said to his brother. Tired and frightened as they were, the two boys picked up rocks from the path and headed back toward the hollow.
“Here I am, safe and sound,” Miss Weigenmeister called from above. Upon a branch she sat, her wings folded gently at her side, her feathers darker than the darkest night, a shadow amidst shadows.
“Not so safe!” shouted the troll, appearing from the nowhere of the hollow. The rough voice called out in delight, “Ha ha, time for dinner and it’ll be roasted boy meat tonight for me.”
There was a great roar. A gigantic black bear appeared from the darkness. It grabbed the troll by the scruff of the neck, lifting it high from the ground. The troll struggled at first, kicking and swinging its arms, but with a hard slap to the back of the head with a humongous paw, the troll struggled no more.
“Jack, you are a fine friend indeed,” Miss Weigenmeister said with a laugh, “and as punctual as ever. Thank you.”
The bear gave a low growl in reply that almost seemed to the boys to carry some meaning. Like a foreign tongue, the words were just at the edge of their understanding.
“Yes, I do believe that we have finally apprehended the culprit,” said the crow with a self satisfied air, the statement directed to the bear. “But it is sad as well. Many little ones of the forest are missing. That is the way of life in the wild, I know, but it doesn’t make it any easier, neither to me nor to their parents, I suspect. They may at least see that justice is served.”
The bear groaned in assent.
“A bear talks?” Craig asked.
“And a librarian flies on crows wings,” Jason said in amazement, having that night learned many things about the world that he had never before suspected.
“Or is it a crow that reads books and enjoys an occasional slice of strawberry rhubarb pie?” Miss Weigenmeister said with a conspiratorial chuckle. “You boys are safe now, but take this as a lesson. Don’t go chasing off after any more of the inhabitants of the forest. No one likes to be harassed and you never know what you’ll get for your trouble in return.”
“I promise,” Craig said.
“Good, now I have to go. I have other matters to attend to. My friend here will lead you back to your camp.” Climbing into view on a nearby rock was a porcupine.
“What about the hollow in the moment?” Jason asked as the crow had taken to the endless night sky.
“For now, that is for you to explore. Make the best of it. Learn what you are able of its magic. I may need your help some day.” And then she was gone.
Mike Phillips is the author of Reign of the Nightmare Prince and The World Below: Chronicles of the Goblin King, Book One. His short stories have appeared in ParABnormal Digest, Cemetery Moon, Sinister Tales, The Big Book of New Short Horror, World of Myth, Dark Horizons, Mystic Signals and many others. Online, his work has appeared in Darker, Lorelei Signal, Midnight Times, and Fringe. He is best known for his Crow Witch and Patrick Donegal series.