For some years now, come September, Ofara the Witch would take a month off her regular occupations and go for a retreat to the highly wooded Hills of the Moon – thus called because of some strange rock formation around their top.
She was in her middle age now, a small, compact, city woman, who always wore dark clothes; but she had known those wooded hills from her youth. When she had finished her final high school exams, at that time still called by her original appellation, Clara Piers, she was called one day to the school’s Principal, Ms. Aileen Courtney, who presented her with a surprising suggestion. There was a camp, the woman had said, set on the Hills of the Moon on a slope by the edge of the forest, where certain people go and spend a few weeks before they make their next move in their lives. To Clara’s question, What kind of people? The Principal’s vague answer was, that the girl would fit in perfectly among them. Having no particular plan for herself, or any idea what she wanted to do with her life, she agreed. Only when she got there – having been picked up by a special transport together with other girls around her age – she found out to her great astonishment, that the camp was a base for holding a beginners course for Witches… She had no way of going back, as the transport stayed at the camp for at least two weeks, and by that time, she was too well assimilated to want to go back. At the end of the course she had changed her name to Ofara, and the course of her life had changed in a way she could never describe.
Memories of the camp and its wooded surroundings remained in Ofara’s mind as the best period of her life; but only in recent years she had the idea of returning there. She had found out that in the month of September the camp was usually empty, the instructors went on holiday and let their cabins to former students who wanted to stay there for a short period of seclusion, meditation, and communion with Nature. She had been doing it for the past ten years now, although the previous year she had been ill and did not go; so, this year, she had made a special point of going there, whatever comes.
Nothing came between Ofara and her plan to go to the Hills of the Moon, and on the first of the month she had hired a car and driver to take her there, with the understanding of coming to take her back at its end.
Things had not changed much since she had been there two years before. The hut was made up of two rooms, a large living room and a small bedroom. It was well stocked with dried and tinned food, some logs for fire and fuel for heating up water for a shower. There was no electricity, though, but she liked the use of candles or lamps for lighting. With no television or radio, and not a very good light for reading, it was easy to spend the time in reflection and meditation. Sometimes, there were other guests in other teachers’ cabins, but Ofara consorted very little with them, her main purpose was to get away for a while from people who, as a rule, filled her every day life.
As soon as she got to the camp in midmorning, Ofara threw the bag that had contained the necessary things for her stay on the bed and went out. It was such a change from her usual city environment, that she breathed the fresh air as some strange and attractive perfume. On three sides of the camp were the woods, pristine and wild, with no human hand touching them to cut down trees, no houses built among them to disrupt their natural environment. At some distance from the Witches camp there was a Hunters camp, and here also people came every September to hunt in the forest; but the two sites had very little to do with each other.
A stream of water flowed not far from her cabin, and after dipping her hands and drinking deeply from the cool water, Ofara went into the woods. The mere spending time among the tall trees and the thick undergrowth, filling her eyes with all the colors of autumn, listening to some birds chirping and insect buzzing, and watching silently the small animals or a deer or two passing by her, were enough to refresh her soul and calm down any turmoil that might have come to her heart just from everyday living.
Toward evening the Witch came back to the cabin, washed, prepared a meal and ate her supper. It was a warm night and she stayed outside by the brook, reflecting her thoughts and absorbing the forest’s sounds until it was time to go to bed.
It was far into the night when a loud noise awakened her. Ofara sat in bed, listening to shouts getting nearer and nearer from the direction of the forest. As the shouts sounded human, she did not think she had anything to worry about, so she rose, put her dressing gown on, lit the oil lamp and sat to wait for the people to come. In her mind eye she could see them, as she had always been able to, a group of hunters with their shotguns thrown over their shoulders, hurrying and half running toward the Witches camp with no clear purpose in their minds.
At last, the loud knocks came, and she opened the door for them. One of them burst in followed by two others, while three or four stayed outside, undecided. She left the door open and came up to the man who seemed to be their leader, who was pacing up and down the cabin’s living room.
He stopped his pacing and looked down at her from the height of his own tall stature; he was a well-built man and decisive in his approach, but now he was looking shaken from some inner emotions.
The man put down his gun and, without letting go of the barrel, said in a voice that sounded cultured but roughened by inner turmoil. “We have encountered a problem we’d never had before and I thought the best place to go for help about it would be the Witches camp.”
“Will you sit down,” Ofara said, calmly, trying to use it to influence the agitated hunters. A little unwillingly, as if by compulsion, they congregated around their leader as he sat on one of the chairs; their colleagues outside, though, continued to walk about and talk in loud voice. “What is it, then?” the Witch asked.
The Leader coughed and cleared his throat, as if embarrassed for the very question. Ofara waited patiently for him to talk, as he did at last. “I’m not sure how to describe it, that phenomenon, as we’ve never encountered anything like it before. It looked like an apparition…” His words hung in the air, as if he was not sure how to express himself in the right way.
“An apparition?” Ofara repeated. “Do you mean, a ghost of some kind, or anything more frightening?”
“Can there be anything more frightening that a ghost in the middle of the forest at night, when you’re on the hunt for live animals?” he looked at her with disbelief.
“Well,” replied the Witch, “I wondered if it was not any kind of monster, in which case it could have been mass hysteria, a product of someone’s imagination, or even a mask, an artificial object of some kind or other.”
“Would you, then, accept a ghost but not the other kind of thing?” he still doubted her.
“Well,” she said again, “I’ve had some experience with ghosts, and they would be more difficult to fake, if looking genuine, than any substantial monster.”
“You’ve had experience with ghosts, then?” the Hunter said, sighing with relief. “In this case, we’ve come to the right place, because that what it looked like, out there.”
“All right, then,” Ofara said, “tell me about it.”
So he told her. They were alternating their hunt between a day and a night chase. That night, they were following some tracks they had seen during the day, when one of the men thought he saw something and signed to the others. It looked like a light moving in the darkness of the wood, and they tried to approach it to find what was it that had disturbed their plans.
The Leader had then stopped all movements, and they watched the light closely. It had no definite form, nor any source they could discern. It seemed to be dancing about, close to the dark earth, but it was not reflected from rocks or leaves as ordinary light would. Shining in great contrast to the darkness around it, it danced among the black trees, moved in circles all round the hunters, bursting toward them occasionally in motions of attack, then retreating again among the trees, just to come back again. The men were both enchanted and apprehensive; once or twice, when any of them tried to move away, the apparition came at them as if preventing them from leaving the spot.
For a while all this was done in silence, then they began hearing distance sounds. These were like barking of dogs, and soon enough they got closer and closer, joining the ghost in its dancing. Now the hunters got really scared, as the unseen dogs barked at them furiously, and the apparition danced to the sound of the barking, preventing them from getting away.
“How did you managed it, then?” Ofara asked with interest.
“I used my whistle, and they vanished – both ghost and invisible dogs. But we were too shaken to get on with our business, and I’m not at all sure of what will come next, so I made a decision.”
“To ask a witch…” she smiled at him and he nodded, adding by the way, “though some of us preferred going back to our camp.” Silence fell in the room as Ofara fell into reflection. Then she said, “Let’s go out, I want to include the others in our talk.”
They came out of the hut into a night, where the sickle of the waning moon hovered on top of their heads. Ofara sat herself down on the step in front of her door; some of the hunters sat down on the ground around her, but others stayed at a distance, as if keeping away from her unfamiliar character. The Leader stood not far from her, creating a kind of barrier between the Witch and his people.
“What do you want to talk about, then?” he asked, gruffly, not altogether happy with the arrangement; Ofara thought he might be regretting coming to her for advice, though knowing it was too late to back out now.
She looked around at the men. The moon sickle afforded only a faint light, and they appeared more like silhouettes than detailed figures. As was her wont, though, she did not need to see their outer form to understand their minds, and she searched for those she could question profitably. Apparitions did not appear, to her knowledge, out of nothing and without a cause; there must have been some connection between the hunters, dogs and a certain human being represented by the ghost, and that was what the Witch was looking for in the minds of the hunters.
She concentrated in search for it and, finding after a while in two of them signs of some frenzied barking of dogs and great unhappiness, she said to the Leader, “Two of your men know something that happened here last year. They are crouching over there, a little apart from the rest of the hunters. Please, bring them over so that I can ask them a few questions.”
“You think that apparition has something to do with them?” he asked with astonishment. “Why?”
“I don’t know why, that’s why I need to question them.”
“All right. Barker, Grevitch, come over and talk to this woman.”
“You can’t command us to do that, Walker,” said one of the men as he stood up. “You’re our leader in the hunt, but not outside it. Come on, Barker, let’s go back to Camp.”
Walker looked after them as they walked away in the direction of the Hunters’ camp, then turned to the Witch, “I’m sorry, it does not look as if we can do anything tonight. I apologize for waking you up and I’ll see what I can do on my own. Good night. Come on, people,” he turned to his men, “Let’s go back. There will be no hunting tonight.”
For a long time Ofara remained sitting on the step in front of the cabin, deep in meditation. At last, when the sickle moon had sunk low above the treetops, she went back inside, closed the door and went to bed, slipping easily into a deep sleep.
By the time she got up the next day, Ofara had come to a certain decision. She would go into the forest, looking for some experience that would lead her to a better understanding of what had been happening. She had known the part of the woods not far from her cabin, but did not usually venture more inward, knowing the danger of losing her way in the thicket, where it was difficult to be sure of the direction from which the sun was shining. For that reason she had decided to follow the brook, which on one end flowed down the slope into the valley, but on the other it was flowing from its source, which was a fresh water lake inside the forest. The Witch had been that way once or twice before, but not recently, and she had never gone there on her own. Still, she had enough confidence in herself and her abilities, so she took some provisions with her, intending to spend the best part of the day along the stream and at the lake.
The day was lovely, and promised to become as warm as autumn days could. The sky was clear with only some white feathery strands scattered on the deep blue background that shone above the multicolor forest. Ofara put on her walking boots and a pair of jeans, threw a light jacket on top of her light weight back bag, and set out on her way without looking forward to any particular adventure.
The walk was supposed to take her between one and two hours, depending on her speed. She started with vigorous steps, knowing the near by part of the wood quite well and not expecting anything new to appear. After half an hour she slowed down to a regular walking pace, paying more attention to her surroundings and learning something about the goings on in the natural woods. She noticed the lively movements all around her, for it was rutting time for animals large and small, while some birds were preparing for migration, and others were gathering food to last the winter. Ofara had a knack of effacing herself to near invisibility, which she used at times among humans; it was also a good quality to be used among non-humans, so as not to disturb them from the activity they had been absorbed at.
After a while she stopped walking and stood listening. Accompanied by the forest sounds, she thought she heard something different – human voices. She concentrated, then knew in her mind that two men were walking in her direction, perhaps meaning to join the flow of the stream as well. She decided to wait for them, hear about their intentions, and soon they appeared from among the thicket. One of them Ofara recognized immediately as the tall, ruggedly handsome figure of Walker, the hunt Leader from last night. The other was less familiar, and only when Walker presented him as Barker, she recalled he was one of the men from last year, whose friend did not want him to talk the night before.
“Are you going along the stream toward the lake, as we are?” Walker asked after the initial greetings.
“Yes, I haven’t been there for sometime and just felt like visiting again,” she answered calmly. She saw a glint in the other man’s eyes and knew her hunch was correct and she was on the right track.
But the man Barker did not let it lie at that. “Why!” he demanded in a harsh voice. He was a smaller man that the Leader but with a strong body, and face that had been scarred by some long passed brawl.
“Why what?” Ofara asked in an innocent voice.
“Why are you going to that lake? What do you know?” He insisted.
“What is there to know?” asked the Witch, while his mate admonished him at the same time, “Come off it, Barker; what is it to us what she’s doing on her vacation? It’s a free country, isn’t it?”
The man fell silent and Ofara said softly, “I once was there with someone dear to me, which I like to remember, that’s all…”
Barker grunted, and the three turned to continue together, following up the brook in an awkward silence. Soon, they heard a sound that stopped them abruptly. The sharp voice of dogs barking pierced the jolly chattering of the woods.
“Are you going hunting today?” Ofara asked, looking with wonder at the two hunters.
“Not today, not after last night,” Walker said. “The men needed their rest, and they had barely got up when the two of us left the camp.”
The Witch looked at them closely, especially at Barker, who scowled and turned his gaze away from her. “The two of you?” she asked, as if saying, What have you two got to do with each other?
“Barker is one of the only two men who were here last year, and I wanted to hear from him if anything happened then.”
“And did it?” The man shrugged and she let it go. “The dogs wouldn’t go out on their own, would they?” She asked, as they could hear them now quite clearly.
“Never!” Barker said. “We left them all tied up and they are too well trained to go on their own, aren’t they, Walker?”
“Sure,” the Leader agreed, “but to be on the safe side, let’s try calling to them.” He put two fingers in his mouth and emitted a sharp whistle. They waited a moment, but nothing happened except the continued distant barking sound.
“Can they belong to another group of hunters?” asked Ofara.
“Not so close to our designated area!” he answered decisively. After a moment silence he said, “I suggest we continue on our way to the lake, and take it from there.”
They did that, and after another half hour reached the lake; while they were walking, the sound of barking came closer and closer, growing louder and louder, until it became deafening. As they came out of the wood into the grassy, leafy bank of the lake, though, there was nothing there, but the barking of the dogs was raving around the still water.
“What is the meaning of all that?” asked Walker in a fierce whisper.
He was answered by his mate who whispered back, his voice trembling, “That’s how it was last year…”
“What’d you mean?” the hunt Leader asked aggressively, but at that moment the Witch cried out, “Look!”
Out of the calm water reflecting the green shade of the forest, a figure rose slowly. It was formless, transparently whitish, like a ghost out of some fantasy stories.
“That’s her!” Barker burst out shouting. “I’m sure that’s her! And the dogs’ barking, just like last year!”
“What happened last year, then, man?” Walker demanded. “Speak up and tell us about it!”
The hunter, though, seemed unable to speak, only shook his head wildly, then he turned and ran into the forest, shouting some gibberish words the others could not understand. As the Hunter started with the intention of running after him, Ofara uttered a curt command, “Don’t!”
He stopped and turned, the question freezing on his lips. Ofara didn’t look at him but at the ghostly shape that was performing a hideous dance full of fright and pain on the surface of the lake, to the wild barking of the unseen dogs; but the Witch’s eyes were closed, dead to the world, and Walker realized that she was concentrating with some unknown intention. After a while she opened her eyes and looked at him. “You were not hunting here last year, were you?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I’d been invited to join another group somewhere else. Why? What’d you think happened here last year?”
“That’s what I was trying to find out,” she told him.
“Find out? How? From Whom?” He was both confused and enlightened at the same time, as if not wanting to understand what she meant.
“Her,” she pointed at the ghost.
“Can you converse with such a strange apparition, then?” he asked, full of doubts. He did not understand what was going on, but it seemed to him that the woman did, and he was ready to give her the chance of explaining.
In the meantime, the scene over the lake had changed. The barking of the dogs became faint again, as if coming from a great distance, while the figure on the surface of the lake had changed her frightful dancing into a different kind of movements. It now looked more definite, alternating between bending down, straightening up, and stretching her arms, as if picking things from the ground and from the trees; she was also humming softly as if singing to herself, as if happy in what she was doing.
“What is she doing?” the Hunter asked after watching the apparition for a while in her new act.
“She is repeating what she was doing in the forest that day last year…”
Suddenly, the ghost straightened abruptly, as they heard the dogs’ barking getting closer again. “There they come,” said Ofara, tensely.
“The hunters, after her?” the Hunter said.
“Not intentionally, at first,” the Witch replied.
“But they went after her, with the dogs…” he continued, insisting on the horrible idea that had appeared in his mind.
Ofara shrugged. “The hunter’s instinct, would you say?” She looked at him, then decided, No, not under his leadership. Never!
“They chased her,” he whispered, shuddering at the sight in his mind’s eye…
“By that time,” the Witch said, “the men went berserk, running with the dogs, shouting and urging them on instead of pulling them back… She was frantic, and in her fright she came up to the lake and jumped in. The dogs continued to run around the banks, barking madly, while she was caught by some weeds and, unable to swim ashore, drowned…”
“She drowned…” The Hunter repeated Ofara’s words, closing his eyes.
Walker accompanied Ofara on her way back to her cabin. “Are you going hunting tonight?” she asked.
“No, we’re going out tomorrow morning, at dawn.”
“With the dogs?”
“Yes, of course! You don’t think anything bad may happen again?”
She paused a little before answering candidly, “I don’t know. I have no idea at all what may happen.”
Ofara woke up but continued to lie in her bed, listening, trying to figure out what had wakened her. From a distance, she heard the faint barking of dogs, and she knew. It was dawn, and the hunters were setting out into the woods for their chase. There was nothing she could do, either to stop the hunt or prevent any calamity that may happen. All she could do was stay where she was and watch the happenings in her mind’s eye.
The hunters were going after one of the mature deer with its precious enormous antlers. They had planned it all in the previous day and night, had found the tracks and were following them into the woods. The animal was clever and experienced and led them a good chase, which was half the fun for men and dogs. They were running together, shouting and barking, intent on tiring the deer until it could run no more. Perhaps it would turn round to fight them, then the fun would be even greater, and they had great expectations in their hearts for the tall tales they would tell at home when they were back.
Two of the hunters were the keenest, and they were those who had been there the year before, not liking to miss any such meeting. They were Barker and Grevitch, who now ran at the head of the group, urging their dogs more than anyone else.
Then it happened. The ghostly apparition appeared again, right before the hunters’ eyes, dancing its ghastly dance, with the ghostly dogs answer the real ones with their barking. Everything stopped. The bark of the real dogs turned into a whimper, the men started shaking, crying out for help instead of shouting on, with their leader Walker helpless to know what to do. To turn back in shame, or to try to overcome their fear and move on regardless? He tried to do the latter, urging the men to pay no attention to the apparition and go right through it. It did not work, as if a physical barrier prevented them from moving on.
At last, some of the men started getting back, calling for their dogs, giving up the chase. The hunt was obviously off for the day, but Walker stayed on, watching, expecting, he did not know what. Then it happened. Somehow or other, the two hunters at the head of the group, Barker and Grevitch, got separated from the rest of the hunters. Now they seemed surrounded by the ghostly dogs, whose barking became stronger and stronger, sounding as if they were actually attacking the two men, jumping onto them and biting their very bodies. The men cried out of fear and pain and started running. Nothing seemed to prevent them from doing so, and they ran through the forest with the transparently whitish ghost chasing them, jumping on all their sides and urging them on, and the ghostly dogs running with and at them. Walker, now curious but unable to stop what was happening, came hurrying after them. They ran and ran and after a while he discerned their direction as toward the lake. They never stopped when they came to it, plunging right into the water, as if it could save them from the dogs and the apparition…
He appeared at the cabin sometime later that day, finding Ofara busy around it with no intention of going out.
“I watched them drowning,” he told her, and she nodded, having seen it all in her mind’s eye.
“You couldn’t help it, I know,” she affirmed. “You might say that their bad conscience drove them to it…”
“They did not have any conscience!” he replied harshly. “They deserved what they got!”
Ofara shook her head, not believing in violence of any kind. “Did the ghost disappeared after that?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Vanished, as if it had never been there,” the Hunter smiled grimly. “I’m glad of that, at least, I wouldn’t want to see anything like that again.”
“Are you staying on, then?” she asked, just for the conversation. At last, she could have an ordinary conversation with that man, as she really did like him.
“We’ll see, but I don’t see why not. Accidents do happen, don’t they… Now, what are you cooking for lunch? I wouldn’t mind a meal made by a woman for a change.”
Tala Bar – I am a writer and artist and I live in Israel. I studied Hebrew and English languages and literature and I hold a Master of Philosophy degree in literature from London University; before my retirement, I was a teacher of Hebrew and English languages and literature. I am interested in anthropology in general and in mythology in particular and I write with these subjects in mind. In literature, I am particularly interested in fantasy and science fiction and I have written and had published stories, novellas, novels and essays both in Hebrew and English. A list of my published works in English can be found (I hope) in this address: http://www.myspace.com/537888539/blog/541695998
Samples of my art works and some family photos can be found in the following address: http://cid-27cbdd735d2a1560.profile.live.com/details.