I wrote this for NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction contest this spring. It had to start with the sentence, “She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.” It didn’t win. Here it is, slightly revised.

~

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.

It was the book that had opened the door, and already, it had begun to smolder. Soon nothing would be left but a useless heap of ashes and the iron clasp that had long kept it securely closed. The door, however, would remain open until she used it, and she had wanted to be sure.

The mice in the rafters would now have to take their chances outside. There would no longer be anyone to leave them morsels or to sustain the shaky truce between them and the owl that eyes them from its perch in the open window. The chickens would also have to adapt to the wild or perish. She had already propped open the pens, but whether that was for the birds’ benefit or for the foxes’ she was uncertain.

The goat had met its end days earlier. The best pieces of that stubborn, ugly thing were now salted and dried and packed along with what few essentials she could easily carry in a gunny sack. Other articles, including an oil lantern and a cracked vanity glass, were considered too bulky or impractical and were left beside the black book to be forgotten.

She looked once around the cabin, and, without further ceremony, rose from her stool, and cinched her load close to her body. She strode easily into the churning vortex of thick, grey smoke and was gone. In moments, the smoke was also gone, the last of it drawn into the cracks between the stones of the otherwise featureless stone wall.

The odd, young woman had lingered too long. Rumors were circulating in a nearby village of a woman living in the outskirts in collusion with unnatural forces. She had thought it ironic—it was nature that sustained her and kept her so improbably young. She had only turned to the dark arts when the intrusions of civilized society made it unavoidable. She had wanted only to escape. When the men of the village came soon after, waving their Bibles as angrily as their picks and torches, they were discouraged to find only an empty cabin to burn as they screamed their prayers.

The stones cooled, and, in time, they fell. Nature slowly reclaimed the old interior and a young tree took root. Over the decades, it twisted from the ruins into an ominous shape, like a tortured soul yearning for the sky. An innocent man was one day hanged from one of its deformed boughs and he continued to live on for several days in agony. Stories of his ghost were later told around a fire pit built from the remnants of the old chimney. However, the tellers were no more aware of this fact than of the unseen things that watched them from beyond the firelight.

More recently, a young scout aided by a sophisticated metal-detector came to posses a curious, metal clasp that he unearthed near the base of the tree. He later used it in a school art project and, unfortunately, gave the final creation to a sweetheart. She cherished it deeply, but did not identify it as the source of the bad luck that tormented her for the remainder of her short and tragic life.

Across an untold distance, in a shimmery pool deep in an ancient and unspoiled forest, the odd, young woman stood mournfully watching the reflection at her feet. In it, she saw these bleak events unfold and the promise of far, far worse things to come. It was a small consolation knowing that she was only partly responsible.

Perhaps she will forgive herself in time.