My grandfather remembered the last Shadow Spring, he told me it happened when he was just a boy. 108 years old and he shared his recollection with me as though it had happened in recent memory. He told it as spry and coherent as he’d ever told me anything.
Bradenville is a small town. The type of place where everybody knows your name and rumors run unchecked. Everyone here’s heard of the last Shadow Spring. It’s a ghost tale all of the parents here tell to keep their children in line.
“You have to stop playing out on Mr. Josiah’s farm.” A mother will say as she tucks her little one into bed. “It’s almost planting season. If you don’t behave, the Shadow Ones will take you. Do you remember the story of the Shadow Ones?”
The child will hesitate with covers pulled up to their chin, not wanting to provide an answer to the question.
“The Dark Ones are the ones who make the crops not grow.” the mother will say, “they’ll make the corn stalks stunted and short, and the beans won’t sprout.” She’ll pause in the telling for effect before asking, “what else do they do?”
The child will hesitate, not wanting to answer, but the mother will wait until the uncomfortable silence penetrates even the protective covers of the comforter pulled to their chin.
“They take the bad little boys and girls to the shadow fields.” Eventually, they’ll reply.
The mother will nod then, “that’s right.” She’ll say, “and what happens to the children taken off to the shadow fields?” she’ll ask.
“Nobody knows.” the child will answer.
She’ll nod, “oh but they do … at least they think they know.” she’ll pause again for more effect, hoping the message will sink in and that her child will behave once-and-for-all. “What do they think happens to the children, once they become swallowed by the shadows?” She’ll ask.
“They’ll tend the fields forever,” the child will reply, “but nothing will ever grow. If it does grow, it doesn’t grow the same.”
“That’s right,” she’ll say, “at least that’s what they think will happen. The last Shadow Spring happened over a hundred years ago. Your grandfather remembers, because he was a good little boy. That’s why they didn’t take him. You need to be a good little boy too. Understand?”
And the child will nod and his mother will cut the light on the bedside table and with a parting kiss, she’ll leave the room.
I remember my own mother telling me that story when I was very young, and that’s exactly how the exchange went, insofar as I can recall.
My grandfather lived to the ripe old age of 111. It was almost unheard of. He didn’t lose any of his mental faculties. Until the day that he died, he was coherent. His last words were even a final complaint about the way that his nurse was constantly popping her gum.
Pop-pop hated gum for as long as I could remember. We were never allowed to have it anytime he was around. He said that it was something that irresponsible people did; chewing gum. That’s why you could always find it on the bottoms of restaurant tables — why you should expect to find yourself stepping in it at any moment, inappropriately discarded on the ground.
As an adult, I discounted most of the things he said as the nonsensical ravings of those of a man of a “certain age.”
I chose not to threaten my own son with Shadow Springs. He was well behaved enough and the rest of the town may be keeping the tradition alive, but as for me, I was ready to let it die. Nobody had seen a true Shadow Spring in over a century — that is if they had happened at all.
I began to question this logic, sound though I may have considered it, earlier this month.
Children in Bradenville had begun disappearing and the stories we were told as kids seemed to fit the bill to the formula we were taught to avoid.
I didn’t want to tell my own son this, because it felt like an old legend without much merit to qualify it…
Then his friend Kaleb Cole disappeared. The last place he’d been seen was somewhere near the old Josiah Farmstead.
He’d apparently been riding his bike, off-road, through the freshly tilled dirt of that old field. Who tilled that dirt to begin with, nobody could say. That old farmhouse and the land that surrounded it had been abandoned in the 90’s. It stood abandoned even when I was still just a kid his age myself.
I didn’t put much stock in the old legend or the disappearance of my son’s friend until the day that all the birds took flight from the trees that surrounded that old, discarded land. All at once, they took to the air, squeaking and squawking as they abandoned their homes; all flew in the same direction, as quickly as they could away from the place and whatever seemed to have begun to happen there.The rabbits and deers were next, leaping unmended fences and sprinting across busy highways. All of the native fauna seemed intent on escaping this place.
I passed those abandoned acres everyday, overgrown and untended for as long as I could remember. Then one day, the overgrowth was cleared and the ground was tilled.
It was that day that I first noticed the animals, large and small, as they began to flee those accursed acres.
Grandfather told me that was how this all started in the times that he could remember. The recollection of the story hit me the day the birds took to sky, in an unnatural band of multicolored feathers. They weren’t of the same species or ilk, yet they’d left all together and all at once all the same. This was a field where nothing could ever grow, no matter how hard that the Josiah’s tried to recover it and plant and now a boy was missing.
But my Jacob was a good boy. It took some time, but I’d managed to convince myself there was little to worry about.
Around the time that Kaleb disappeared, his dreams began. He began to wake after midnight screaming in the dark about the Shadows.
“NO!” He screamed. The sheets would be knotted at his feet and his skin, soaked in sweat was clammy and cold. This went on for weeks.
More and more children disappeared.
The next to go was Hillary Sharp next door.
Her mother, Janet told me that she watched it happen. She said she watched Hillary climb up to the roof of their old farmhouse and jump. There was no impact with the ground. No sound to indicate that she’d landed. Her mother told me that shadows seemed to have formed, like a dark swirling mist that swallowed up the light of their porch lamps and bathed the ground below in darkness. When Hillary jumped, she disappeared into the dark mist. Janet said the mist dissipated and she watched her daughter’s shadow, move across the ground, cast by a form that could be seen. The shape of her daughter walked slowly into the fields. She watched her recede from view until she reached the treeline and disappeared. It had taken her a long time to call the police and report the incident — more than likely this was because of the shock of seeing something so preternatural and unlikely before her very eyes as it unfurled. She told me she could tell the police suspected her of foul-play, but without evidence to corroborate their suspicions, she wasn’t charged with any crime.
This continued throughout the last month. Seedlings that had begun to sprout in the month prior began to wither and die without explanation.
When the deer began to emerge from the forests around town, I began to know for sure that the Shadow Spring was real. The things that came out from the trees could barely be described as deer at all — not anymore. They were skeletal things, some missing eyes, most missing skin. Several hobbled out from the trees with broken legs that soon fell away from their bodies and the creatures that remained hobbled along through the deadened fields three-legged or worse, crawling along the ground. They dug the hooves that remained into the earth before them and dragged themselves to the lights of the nearest homesteads.
Many of the farmers claimed to have seen them coming. Many claimed to have shot them over and over again in the dark. Nothing seemed to stop them.
The news claimed they were victims of the wasting disease plaguing many of the animals in the area. They urged the people in town not to eat the meat of any of the deers they killed. Not that anyone would. Those that were lucky enough to emerge from the shadows of the trees were more often than not marred and scarred by tumorous growths that covered most of their faces. Even those that were not entirely whole had the same goiters throughout their bodies.
The first thing that died on our land was the begonias that his other father had planted outside of our front door. They died even before the Shadow Spring took our son. Before he even jumped like the others. It was like something had crept there in the night and made them curl into nothing.
I should have warned Jacob throughout his life like my mother had done me. I didn’t accept what was going on in Bradenville until I found Jacob on the roof on the last night that I saw him alive. Like Hannah, he jumped from the highest height of our home, diving into the waiting pool of shadows below.
Marshall stood there with me, watching. We tried to stop him, but we’d seen him too late. We’d only awoken in the last moments as Jacob tread heavily on the roof above our bedroom. By the time we’d made it outside, he was already at the edge of the awning, precariously balanced on the limit of the shingles — perched at the final edge of a two story drop off. We called out to him in the dark. We’d begged him to take a step backwards and climb back inside through his bedroom window … and then he was gone.
My husband Marshall and I were baffled when we came out the next morning — our eyes still puffy from lack of sleep and a night of confused crying and all of his flowers were shriveled and dead.
“Scott,” he asked, “what is happening?”
Marshall wasn’t from here. He was from the city. He’d never heard the small-town legends that we’d all grown up with. I tried to explain it all to him without sounding ridiculous.
I could tell he didn’t believe me.
The next to go were the flowers in the boxes at the windows. After that, the vining plants that hung in baskets on our porch.
Leaving Bradenville was not an easy choice, but slowly the town was turning black. Slowly the plants were withering and dying and turning to dust, to be blown away on even the most gentle of breezes. Slowly, the plants all faded and wilted to dust and began to blow away, out to litter the dead fields that would not yield crops this year. Not with the Shadow Spring unfolding at full swing. Before long, the police began to find the parents of those missing children, withered and mummified against the frames of their bones.
Marshall and I decided it was time to leave. We left town, packing nothing. Leaving our house fully furnished and most of our belongings behind. We planned to return in the fall and remove it all. Take it all someplace else. Someplace where these things didn’t happen.
We never wanted to abandon Jacob to the shadows, but there was little we could do to save him. I’m still unsure where we went wrong. We thought that Jacob was the best child that two fathers could have asked for. We had no idea of the things he was doing behind our backs. We only learned as things began to grow worse and the rest of the town began grow more malicious in their words and actions. Most of the town seemed to believe that he was just a cog in the giant catalyst machine.
We heard he cheated on a math test.
We heard he’d stolen money from another kid’s wallet.
We wondered if any of that was true. We wondered at the same time, whether or not his heart and thoughts were impure. Perhaps he dreamt of murder and hurting those around him. If that was the case, than perhaps it didn’t matter. Maybe he was targeting us this entire time.
The answer didn’t matter. Whatever the case the Shadows had come and in this town, nothing would be allowed to grow.
We felt what remained of our hope fade from green to black. It blowed away in the wind in a cloud of ash as we got into the car and left this place behind us in the dust. We couldn’t risk the darkness of the Shadow Spring finding us like it had those other parents. We couldn’t risk it drying us to husks or the two of us turning to piles of ash to be carried away on the wind with the rest of them…