Behold, The Wicked Wind
By: A.P. Miller
Wolf Rocks, Appalachian Mountains – Halloween, 1910.
Bad magic usually comes with a few rules: utmost faith and keeping your mouth shut about what you had seen is usually chief amongst the unwritten regulations to be followed. Keeping that in mind, the long line of people waiting to get inside of the cabin was much longer than should be, if everyone had been abiding by the rules. The night was thick with unseasonable humidity, a bad moon had cast a wicked glow over everyone that was waiting, and a dense mist was rising from the stream that flowed nearby. The combination of cool grass underfoot and the beads of sweat pouring from the brow was a tad disorienting.
The people in line were the saddest herd of sheep – they were all in line because the complete lack of hope and options had driven them to trust in forces they would never embrace in the light. To peruse over the queue was to see faces that were dejected, slouched shoulders, poor posture – the aspect of the line that really turned one’s resolve to pudding were the faces and countenances that were bright. Those people had a real expectation that this encounter would improve their quality of life or deliver an ability to cope with something that had been unlivable until this day.
Every soul that had collected in the line were waiting to be seen by Naba Balala, best described as an elderly mountain cleric. Despite her white hair and deep laugh lines, the woman looked remarkably youthful. She always dressed in shawls in the pattern and colors of the flag of her native Philippines; she always had intricate beaded necklaces around her neck.
For three-hundred-sixty-four days of the year, Naba Balala was a good woman to know. She always checked on her neighbors and their cabins before winter storms, she had the best homeopathic remedies for whatever ailments may have befallen their children, and she refused to take any thank you (outside of a full belly and an appreciative belch) when she delivered bowls of her wild game stew. To date, she had accurately predicted the gender and birth weight of every child born on the mountain – she could tell when the Widow Foster would remarry, she knew when George Vincent would be maimed in the logging accident, and she warned the neighbors when the winter storm would destroy their farming efforts and how to prepare.
The one day of the year when Naba Balala wasn’t a blessing was a day to be spent indoors. The winds around her cabin were sour and wicked, birds didn’t sing, and the woman was not herself. Naba would be in her garden, digging angrily at the Earth and shouting curses at someone (or something) that wasn’t visible to the neighbors passing by. Ask anyone who had known Naba – it’s just how she was and it had always been like that since she built her cabin.
According to Nathaniel Matheson, Naba had been outside of the cabin dressed in black robes that were unusual for her character and her face was painted white and black. Naba was throwing handfuls of herbs at a stone that she had placed in the yard, shouting at it in a language that he hadn’t heard before, almost like she was taunting the rock. What had shaken Nathaniel to his core was that something was looking at him from inside of the cabin – it was large and seemed to be a shadow overfilled with bad intent. Naba snapped her head sharply to Nate and pointed at him, continuing her shouting in a language he didn’t understand. Nate tried to reason with her and she was having none of it – the only words that she spoke in the Queen’s English were “Adultery rules your house.” Nathaniel hadn’t told anyone about his infidelity; he confessed to God and his wife before he did anything else that day.
The very next day was business as usual – Naba removed the stone and spent the day burning the sweetest smelling leaves inside her cabin and in small piles on all four corners of her homestead. Naba invited anyone who had traveled past her cabin to enjoy a bowl of stew – a goat of hers had to be put down because of a broken leg and she couldn’t eat all of the meat herself; the act of sharing the goat’s contribution to sustenance was to invite good spirits and good energy to those who partook of the meal. The fearful cast accusations in silence and conversations of gossip; they believed that she sacrificed the goat and that it had not broken its leg as she had claimed.
It’s hard to say exactly when the hopeless began lining up at Naba Balala’s cabin, but most of the neighbors agree on a few loose details. A traveler was walking through the paths in the mountains near Naba’s cabin – he was out of work, homeless, and looking to find work with the coal mines of the area. Night had fallen and the stranger was lost beyond hope – the poor soul had the misfortune of happening across Naba Balala on that one day that she should be avoided. The stranger felt that Naba was looking at parts of his soul that only the Lord Almighty should have been able to see; she was speaking in a strange tongue that he couldn’t understand. As the stranger was trying to leave, Naba made him an offer in English: she would guarantee he would find work if he would trade her the one thing he held most precious. He said that all he had was his health and she said that she would take it. The stranger was offered a cup of foul smelling tea and went on his way. He was hired at the Appalachian Coal Company the next day – he didn’t work their long, cancer had set in his lungs and he was buried alone with nobody to mourn him.
The next year, three sisters showed up to Naba Balala’s on the night that the mountain folk called “the Eve of the Wicked Wind.” The sisters wanted to be married to wealthy men so badly, so they could escape the dense poverty of mountain life. They offered Naba what meager possessions they had: tarnished gold necklaces, a wedding dress, and a piglet from the farm. Naba wanted none of these things – she promised they would all marry wealthy men, but she wanted their sense of sincere joy; if they would agree, they would never feel complete happiness ever again. The sisters agreed after a moment of reluctance. Tea was served and they were married within the year. Their father had bankrupted himself trying to get his daughters married – gratitude being a major component of joy, the sisters could not bring themselves to be grateful for the burden their father had welcomed upon himself and their relationship remained strained until their father passed away. Mother wouldn’t look at her daughters with any sort of affection ever again.
Each year after became more and more popular until lines that flowed for hundreds of yards were the custom.
* * *
Uwe Jaeger had been ordered by his father to corral the livestock; something had been agitating them and their bleating and cries were causing a ruckus that was wholly unnecessary as the family tried to worship God in their home, reading from the Bible. The transition from living in Germany and trying to make a living as farmers in America had been a difficult transition – the family held themselves up on their faith and the Sunday Sabbath had no place being interrupted by fussy farm animals. Uwe opened the door to do as he was told and the wind that blew in was chilled, sour, it was wicked. Uwe’s father, completely unfamiliar with the mountain legend of Naba Balala uttered a phrase in German that roughly translated to: “Behold, the wicked wind blows.” Uwe had been filled with fear for the remainder of the night – the next morning, Uwe threw the doors open and his nose was filled with the sweet smells of something wonderful burning and cooking. The wicked wind that had blown was gone from the sky now.
The Jaeger family had garnered themselves a reputation in town; they didn’t talk much, but there was no one in town that could out-work the boys or out-mother the girls. When a neighbor was in need, the Jaeger family responded in grace. When a neighbor needed a barn raised, a mid-wife for a birth, or any other kindness that could be fulfilled, the Jaeger family responded without delay. They wouldn’t take payment either, Papa Jaeger would always politely refuse and say “to do the Lord’s work for a neighbor is reward enough.” This neighborly demeanor resulted in the Jaeger family being embraced by the community and invited to a church that they took great joy in fellowship.
Uwe was in the last years of being a boy and in the first of being considered a man. He had taken a special shine to Madelyn O’Connor. The red haired woman was so full of spirit and life that she actually filled a room with her personality – she was mothering to her younger siblings and would take no disrespect from any male that crossed her. She was the polar opposite of Uwe Jaeger and he fell in love with her for it. Uwe would hand carve her trinkets; he loved the way she would marvel at the things he could carve and how easy he made it look. She would return this affection by baking for Uwe, at first as a polite gesture of gratitude, then out of genuine affection. Madelyn’s father put his foot down on the romance as soon as he could tell it was serious. No good Catholic daughter of his would marry a Protestant man with no hope for a future in heaven with Jesus and his daughter. Uwe was crushed.
On Monday evening, Halloween, nineteen-ten, Uwe Jaeger found himself in line to be seen by Naba Balala – he had no choice. Uwe tried to forget about Madelyn, but the curse of a small farming community is that everyone is in your field of notice at all times. His days seemed darker with Madelyn filling them with her insurmountable spirit, anything his mother baked tasted bland because it didn’t have the love that Madelyn baked with; even the prospect of having children seemed pointless if those children didn’t have Madelyn’s red hair. Uwe tried to protest with Madelyn’s father, to no avail. Life itself had become meaningless.
When it seemed like all the hours of the night would be spent before Uwe could see Naba, his opportunity came, and not a moment too soon. Naba’s cabinet had a dark heaviness inside of it. The elderly Filipino woman sat in a chair in front of a fire, a kettle whistled for attention and found none from Naba Balala. Her head was rocking side to side as if she were in the grip of a fever and she was mumbling to herself. The shadows that were being cast on the wall looked like dozens of devils dancing around the flames of hell. The whole cabin smelled of sulfur and rotting animal. Naba’s rambling became louder and more agitated; Uwe sat in silence.
Naba’s eyes shot up to Uwe’s, her incoherent mumbling became even angrier and seemed to be pointed directly at Uwe. Uwe had never seen anything like it before – red circles formed around the amber irises of the woman’s eyes; she wasn’t looking at him as much as she was looking into him.
“Do you know what consequences are?” Naba asked, in English.
“I do.” Uwe answered.
“Do you really know what consequences are?” Naba insisted, her voice was throaty and coarse, “I know what you are going to ask of me and I know what you have to offer me in exchange. Do you know what the consequences of accepting the terms of the unholy really are?”
“If it’s my own damnation, I have already paid that debt.”
“Damnation. You know nothing of it, boy,” Naba spat. “But, you will.”
“Whatever the cost, I will pay it.” Uwe insisted.
“I cannot collect payment on what is not mine to sell.” Naba’s mouth twisted into a smirk.
“What do you mean?” Uwe asked.
“There are rules for these kinds of things: I cannot promise entry into heaven, I cannot grant immortality, and I cannot sell the same promise twice.”
“I do not understand.” Uwe pleaded.
“The woman was already here to see me, she bargained for love; she paid and I delivered. You will be married once Spring arrives.” Naba said.
“What did she pay?” Uwe asked, “What did she offer?”
“The price that is paid remains a secret, I insist on that.” Naba answered.
“But why? Why can’t you tell me? Why can’t she tell me?” Uwe was angry.
“Because the price one pays may seem like a bargain to another, then the sacrifice loses its meaning. If someone feels that what they are giving up is less than what someone else gave, the offer loses its value.” Naba explained, “Go home now; prepare to leave your father’s house, you will be married in the Spring.”
And so Uwe left.
Madelyn’s father died in the Winter; he was the only opposition to their relationship. With Madelyn’s mother’s blessing, the two wed in April of the next year. They had three beautiful children, all three with red hair like their mother’s. Uwe built his own farm and upheld the family reputation of being a supreme worker. Madelyn embraced the reputation of being a Jaeger Woman and imbued it with her own spitfire personality. The women of the town eventually looked to her as a leader amongst them. She was pious in her religion, diligent in the way she cared for her home and children, and was an equal partner in her marriage.
When the eldest had turned ten years old, Madelyn had taken ill. Scarlet Fever had taken hold of her and refused to let go. Uwe didn’t know how to tell his children that their mother had passed in the night, electing to tell them that she had been sleep walking and hadn’t returned yet. When he would leave the home to deal with her funeral arrangements, he’d tell the children that he was out looking for her. On the day of the funeral and the internment, he had continued the lie and said that someone had seen her and that the fever was making her hallucinate. If the children saw her, they were to alert him at once.
Uwe should have known something bad was on its way the next year – the wicked wind had blown, just like it had when he was a boy. The children came running in, clamouring that they had seen their mother walking through the woods near the home. She looked younger than she ever had, peaceful, yet lost. Uwe followed the children outside, trying to catch a glimpse of what they had seen in the dusk defeat of the daylight.
Uwe put the children to bed and eventually began roaming the woods in search of Madelyn. He didn’t need a lantern, the moon was already full and bathing everything in pale luminance. The moon seemed the make everything shades of blue – for the miles that he wandered, everything was blue.
The woods had been unfamiliar until now. Uwe recognized that he was in the general vicinity of Naba Balala’s cabin, where he and Madelyn bargained with forces unholy in the sake of love. In the distance, Uwe caught a glimpse of a long mane of red hair. Uwe followed and didn’t close any ground on the red haired vision. This ghostly figure was leading him somewhere
Eventually, she’d turn around and surely, it was Madelyn. Her emerald eyes were filled with regret, her mouth downturned in sorrow. Something in the night barked, and Madelyn’s attention snapped towards it – Madelyn turned and waved goodbye, taking retreating steps, and then resumed her path through the woods. Madelyn wasn’t leading Uwe anywhere, she was following something, something sinister. Uwe’s legs froze and his wife vanished before his eyes.
Uwe knew of only one thing he could do. When his legs thawed from the emotion that had frozen them, he marched towards the cabin. In this time of night, the line that would be waiting to see her would be long, but they could wait. Angry steps marched forward, until Uwe reached the clearing. What should have been a popular line of people trying to negotiate with the dark forces was now abandonment. No people. No fires. There were no lights inside of Naba’s cabin.
Uwe broke out into a spring towards the cabin door; he was running so fast that he couldn’t properly stop himself when it was time. He slammed into the front door of Naba Balala’s cabin. The cabin was as lifeless in person as it had been at a distance, nothing had changed. All that remained was an envelope on the door with Uwe’s name on it. Uwe broke the wax seal and devoured the letter that had been left:
I know that you’ll be coming here because you will have questions. The only answer I can give you is that the darkness needs a guide here on Earth. It can join our realm once a year and when it does, it needs someone to make it familiar – I was that guide for the longest time. When your wife came to bargain, the Darkness saw a spirit that could be its guide forever, a guide that didn’t need to be alive to fulfill its duty. When your wife passed, the Darkness would allow me my freedom. I know that you’ve come to bargain for her freedom, but sadly, there are no more deals to be made. Take care of those children. I’m sorry.
Uwe made a practice of keeping the children inside on the night that the wicked wind would begin to blow. He never could bring himself to tell the children that their mother died; in fact, he never remarried. Uwe Jaeger died peacefully at home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. By all accounts, he died happy.
After Uwe passed away, locals and neighbors would tell stories about a man who wanders through the woods looking for his wife, but that’s a story for another day.
“Behold, The Wicked Wind”
© 2018 A.P. Miller