By JD Miller
With Photography by Jairus Hills
It was the picture-perfect autumn. The colors were all extraordinary, the wind cold but the sunlight warm, and every early sunset seemed to throw a spell over the world. But tonight was the night of the Witching Moon.
It seemed to Camber like this year the warnings were even more extreme than in years prior, leading up to the day of. Last year, eight people had vanished, all in the course of that one night, all from his tiny town. Who knew how many disappeared in the lands beyond his small world. They were gone without a trace. No clues as to where they went, no bones found, not so much as a shoe. But it was always right on time.
This year, there were signs and posters hung on every post, on every door or fence or carriage that read: Don’t Look.
Whatever you do, don’t look.
This time, people weren’t just drawing their shutters tight in preparation. No, as he walked down the street, Camber could see them plastering up the insides of windows. Someone went so far as to fill the cracks under their door with cement. And everywhere he went, they said the same thing, like it was a greeting, a farewell, and a warning all in one:
“Good morning, boy—don’t look at the moon.”
“Camber, it’s good to see you, lad! Don’t look at the moon.”
“Hey, boy! Don’t look, y’hear?”
On their own, he found those words ridiculous. They were glib, gibberish nonsense—at least, every other day of the year. Every other day of the year, you could stare as long as you like.
Not a month since, he’d squatted over a telescope to stare right into the craters of that very moon, and he did so with the intention of spotting whatever ghoul or demon might’ve inhabited that strange surface. But it was to no avail. The astronomer, who lent them the telescope, and who went to such great lengths to aim and calibrate it just right, laughed when Camber confessed,
“There’s nothing up there.”
“I wouldn’t say nothing,” said the astronomer, who’d then gone on talking about the tides and gravity, though none of the other children were listening any better than Camber. One by one, every child in the orphanage was given a chance to peer up into the heavens. Some had to stoop down to fit their eyes to the little lens, others had to stand on boxes. Mrs. Galp stood nearby, wrapped in at least three blankets and still shivering, as they all climbed up.
The astronomer was not from here. Camber could tell that just by looking at him, or hearing him talk. But he’d stayed around, for some reason, spending his nights in one of the inn’s forward-facing rooms, and his days seated despondently on the porch, reading and smoking. He was often dropping by the orphanage, for one reason or another, though all the children knew by now that it was to call on Mrs. Galp, though it was much harder to get a read on their caretaker than it was on the astronomer.
Today, he was sitting on the porch, reading a pamphlet, the likes of which Camber had seen about a hundred times since leaving his room that morning. There were as many pamphlets as leaves. On the front, it yelled a warning about the Witching Moon—on the back, it had an homage to the eight people who disappeared last year, along with a poem that was both deeply laughable and deeply disturbing to Camber.
It was laughable when he read it aloud, especially to Peter, who slept in the bunkbed below his, but that’s because Peter laughed at everything he said, so long as he said it in any kind of funny voice, and Camber was a master of voices. He always seemed to discover a new one just when he was supposed to be getting to sleep.
But read in the quivering, bell-tower voice of Reverend Prichard, it sent chills even to Camber’s resolute bones.
The astronomer noticed Camber as he walked by, and was the first person who didn’t greet him with the warning. He said, “What do you think of all this nonsense, my boy?”
Camber scratched the spot behind his ear that always itched. “What’d’ya mean?”
“I mean,” the astronomer shook the pamphlet, “this is a bunch of hillbilly claptrap. The moon—what?—steals people? Kidnaps them away to somewhere?”
Camber shrugged. He’d been giving the moon situation a bit of thought himself, and finally said, “Reverend Prichard says it’s the devil who takes them.”
The astronomer rolled his eyes and put another cigarette in his mouth. “Oh, I’ve read what the dear reverend thinks.”
“What do you think it is?” asked Camber.
“Oh I’ve got loads of theories.” The astronomer shook the flame of the match out and flicked it off the porch. “Some sort of organized murders, for one. Wild animals for another. Most likely, this is all some sort of sinister plot—though whose it is, I’m not sure. But think about it: what couldn’t you get away with, if you convinced everybody to hide away in their houses, hm? You could get away with anything.”
Camber looked down the street. All of the children from the orphanage were standing outside the front door, looking up at the reverend, who shook both hands in the sky, his long white hair blown all crazy in the wind. There was Mrs. Galp standing by, as always, but looking more worried.
“I guess,” he said.
“Only one way to know,” said the astronomer, looking both pleased with himself, and morose at the same time. He stamped his foot on the porch. “I’ll be right here when the sun goes down. It may be I’m the only one in this town with any sense.”
Camber frowned, not because he had any particular aversion to the idea of the astronomer disappearing, but because this only made the question inside of his head seem even louder and twice as confusing. He scratched at the back of his head, right behind his ear.
“Well, good luck,” he said, and feeling fiendish added, “Hope the devil don’t getcha!”
To which the astronomer balked, as the boy walked away toward the gaggle of other kids awaiting him, “I’m a man of science, boy—the devil has no power over me.”
Camber found Peter in the back of the crowd and poked him in the ribs to say hello. Peter made an agonized grimace that lasted well beyond any pain he could’ve felt.
The Reverend was still waving his hands, and now he was reciting that chilling poem, asking everyone who knew it to join in. Camber, like everyone, knew the words—but there was no way on earth he was going to add his voice to all the other awkward ones, trying to keep pace with the old man’s pedantic tone.
“Every month, in time and turn
The full moon lights the sky—
But once a year, when dark draws near,
The Witching Moon comes nigh.
“When the Witching Moon is full,
The tempters come and go
To stain the swollen light above
And serve their lord, below.
“‘Hush,’ they’ll say, and ‘come away,’
to steal a little look!’
But peek not at the Witching Moon,
Or else ye shall be took!”
When he finished, the old man climbed down from the porch, and Mrs. Galp thanked him, and wrung her hands. The other kids scattered, but didn’t stray too far—they’d all received more than ample instructions in the past week, and knew what today had in store. Within an hour or so, they’d all be ushered back inside, where all the windows had already been sealed, and they’d squat around in the dark until morning, so their caretaker seemed willing to let them stretch their legs for a moment.
Peter elbowed Camber, but not hard, so as not to be elbowed back. “Where’ve you been?” Peter asked.
“I don’t know,” said Camber. “Just wandering around. Like I do.”
“Like you do,” said Peter. “Just don’t be wandering around tonight, hm? Or you’ll either get taken, or Mrs. Galp’ll skin you alive.”
Camber nodded, but the problem was that he’d already all-but decided. Tonight, devil or no devil, he was going to see the one thing he wasn’t allowed to see.
That had always been Camber’s problem. Not that he’d gotten into any real trouble—he’d never peeped into any of the girl’s rooms, or gone through Mrs. Galp’s drawers, or anything like that. But he couldn’t stand not knowing things. He couldn’t lay in his bed and sleep when he knew that there were wrapped presents beneath a tree. It was like he could hear them talking, each tiny gift speaking right through its paper, calling him. Once, he’d expressed that particular feeling to Mrs. Galp, who must’ve conveyed it to the reverend, because Camber found himself used as a very public example of temptation during a particular sermon.
He just couldn’t live with not knowing things. A single secret, passed between two girls at recess, was more than enough to rob him of several nights’ sleep. And now here he was, presented with a question he couldn’t even pretend to avoid, and the effect it had on him was so strong, he felt like his bones were going to come right out of his flesh—with or without Mrs. Galp having to skin him.
Before evening had even begun, Mrs. Galp had already ushered all the kids back inside. Though the walls, Camber could still hear the ringing of hammers as windows were boarded over, or the call of people walking down the street in wide-brimmed hats, yelling:
“Witching Moon Tonight! Whatever you do, don’t look at the moon!”
Peter laughed when he heard them, his ear pressed up to the door. “You hear that? As if anybody didn’t know already.”
Camber laughed, too. But on the inside, his stomach felt like a greasy bag full of snakes, all trying to get out his throat.
They ate quickly and silently. Not a window in the house hadn’t been papered over, with old newspapers and pamphlets, like endless reminders of the danger that lurked without the walls of the house. Every time he saw one, it was like the candle, burning in Camber’s head, just got hotter.
It got infinitely worse when they were all told to go to bed. Mrs. Galp believed that there was no better way to avoid the danger than to just sleep through it. But not an ear in the house wasn’t preened for any sound of the world beyond. Camber, laying flat on his back and hearing only the thunder of his heart, stared at the paper on the windows and watched the twilight turned into a pale, hushed shadow of light.
Downstairs, Mrs. Galp paced restlessly. Camber could hear her stoke the fire through the floor. The wind creaked in the eaves, and it seemed like everyone jumped. In the rooms down the hall, he could hear the quiet patter of girls’ feet springing out of bed and flocking together. Mrs. Galp climbed the stairs, and shushed them gently. She must’ve stayed with them, because the pacing stopped.
Camber couldn’t hold still. His feet twitched endlessly at the end of the bed, as he watched the branches of a tree cast shadows against the papered window. Were there really tempters? If so, their voices were inescapable.
Nobody was downstairs. The doors, though locked, were accessible. He could get out, if he wanted. But what if he met Mrs. Galp in the hallway? Or what if one of the boys tried to stop him, and made a ruckus?
He could always run for it. Getting outside wasn’t really the problem.
Being outside was the problem.
Though the room was full of air, it seemed impossible to breathe.
“Hey, Camber,” Peter hissed from the bunk below.
“Hm?” Camber replied.
“What do you think is out there? Do you think it’s evil spirits? Or monsters? Or is it actually the actual devil, like reverend said?”
“Hard to tell,” said Camber, whose twitching feet were shaking the bed-frame.
“But you do think it’s something, right?” asked Peter. “Because Dr. Cal—”
Camber rolled over and hung his head over the edge of the bed so he could see Peter through the dark. “Of course it’s something,” he said. “That old phony thinks he knows everything, but he don’t.”
But just the thought of the astronomer was more than Camber could stand. Was he really out there? Sitting right on the porch where he’d been hours ago, smoking and scowling and seeing whatever there was or wasn’t to see? The thought grabbed Camber like a hand grabbing his throat and wouldn’t let go.
Peter’s face was small and round in the dark, like a silver coin. “Well what do you think it is?”
Camber looked around the room, wondering if all the other boys were just as awake as he was, or if they’d somehow gone straight to sleep. In the time it took him to look back at Peter, he’d already made up his mind.
“I’m gonna go look.”
He swung down from the bed and landed on his tiptoes, as Peter propped himself up on his elbows. “You’re what?”
Camber went to the door. Nobody stopped him. He peeked down the hallway, but it was empty, and so was the stairs. He climbed down in his bare feet, so slowly that he could barely hear himself. The fire in the foyer was rust-colored, and gave off a dull warmth as he crept past it.
Peter’s feet squawked down the stairs, and the boy appeared a second later, his face aghast, his pajamas too short for his legs. “Camber, what on earth are you doing?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing?” Camber hissed. He undid one lock and then another lock on the door, sliding them as quietly as he could.
“Are you crazy?” Peter wheezed. His face looked like reverend Prichard’s, all shadowy and strained in the firelight. “You can’t go out there!”
“I’ve gotta know,” said Camber. “I’ve gotta see for myself what’s out there, or it’ll drive me mad! I’ll go crazy, Pete, right out of my skull!”
“Better to be crazy than…” Peter started, and ended with a shrug, his eyes bugging out of his face.
Camber reached for the last lock. There was no noise from the top of the stairs. Peter reached for the door handle to stop him, but Camber pushed him back. “Pete—if I don’t go this year, I’ll just go next year. What’s the difference? Now turn around so you don’t have to see it.”
Peter looked like he’d just stepped on a screw, but he covered his face with his arms and turned around. Camber’s heart beat so hard, he could feel it in his eyelids. He closed his eyes, opened the door, and stepped onto the porch. His feet carried him off the porch and onto the street.
The wind blew quietly through the trees. Pamphlets and posters rattled, all down the street. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the sounds of wolves, howling.
He opened one eye, first, then the other.
The street was darker than he expected, and the sky obscured by a tissuey avalanche of clouds. He looked up, at the pale white lines in between the drifting cloud-cover, where the moon should’ve been. The thundering fear in his arms went dull, and all of the sudden the sweat-stains, that glued his shirt to his back, just felt prickly and cold.
Boards creaked nearby, and he turned to see the astronomer, leaning over the railing of the porch, still smoking.
“Nice night, huh?” The astronomer quipped, knocking gray ash from his orange coal. “Looks like your friend the Devil isn’t so good at keeping his appointments.”
Camber looked up and down the street, and back up at the sky. The feeling in his stomach was even worse, now, than it had been the day that he crept all the way down to the Christmas tree, and dug through the presents to find his. With careful fingers he’d gotten the strings off without cutting them, and he unfolded the paper without tearing or wrinkling it, to find new socks and a pair of pants. The glorious feeling of finally coming across the bare, naked secret, withered like a plucked flower in the sun.
He felt the same way now, like all of the bubbling heat in his blood turned to sludge and stink. The astronomer must’ve noticed his dejection, because he laughed again. “I guess not even the Prince of Darkness himself can control the weather, what do you think?”
The wind blew again, hard and strong. And as Camber turned his eyes away to avoid the sudden cloud of dust, he watched the shadows grow darker, and the street grow brighter. The astronomer rose from his seat.
The frog in Camber’s chest was resuscitated and jumped up to his tonsils. He looked up, as somewhere behind him, the astronomer stepped off of the porch and into the street.
In threads and pieces, the clouds came apart. The moon seemed bigger than it had seemed even through the telescope, Camber thought, and it was so bright he could see the individual leaves on the trees at the edge of town. It was almost like he could feel the light, not like heat, but a weight, pressing down on him, closing around him. And then—
Peter stood in the empty room, listening to the emptiness. The fire crackled and his heart beat quietly in his chest, afraid to make any noise. The floor over his head creaked, and wind hummed over the chimney. But there was no sound from the street. No screams, or howls, or devilish sounds.
He pressed his ear right up to the door, but couldn’t hear past his pulse. “Camber?” He whispered, then louder, “Camber? Are you out there?” He stepped back from the door, trembling. “Oh no, oh God,” he said, and thought about throwing up on the rug for a second or two.
Finally, he reached for the latch. “Camber,” he hissed into the crack of the door. “You idiot, get back here! Camber!” But there was no answer.
He closed his eyes and grit his teeth and opened the door a half inch, then a whole one, then two inches. He pressed one eye up to the crack and pried it open, though his knees felt weak under him. Outside, clouds had covered up the moon. The street was dark and quiet. But there was no Camber, and no sign that he had ever even been there at all.
Peter stepped onto the porch, looking right and left. Camber was probably waiting just beyond the railing, he thought, ready to jump out and scare him. “That’s not funny!” Peter yelled. “Camber, this isn’t funny! Come back inside!” Crickets chirped, and the wind rattled the posters on the wall, and swayed the trees. Somewhere a wolf cried, and the sound of it was so baleful and so startling, that Peter ran back into the house and slammed the door. Upstairs, he could hear Mrs. Galp’s footsteps, and her reedy voice crying,
“Boys, what’s going on—Camber? Peter?” Her scream rolled down the stairs, but Peter couldn’t shout back. He was too busy redoing every lock and latch with shaking hands, and repeating with cold lips,
“Or else ye shall be took, or else ye shall be took.”