Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017



The Woman in the Hill

November 11, 1907
Elm Cottage, Tauranga
Waikopua Creek, New Zealand

Dear Dorothy,

This is the last time I intend ever to write to you. Though you may take this letter as a freak or crank, I ask that you reconsider how likely it is that I would write such madness—that is, unless I knew it were the truth. In my need to convince you I will lay out the events using only fact—what I saw with my own eyes and have subsequently acted upon based on rational belief—and at the last, pray to God you believe me.

I know you heard the gossip and the insinuation surrounding my young friend Elizabeth W—. I will emphasise again her workaday nature and good common sense, not at all given to the morbid or fantastic; the model of a farmer’s wife. This concerns last April, when she had been recently married and had moved to the property opposite the old Broomfield slip. Regarding my silence on the scandal that surrounded her afterward, I may only defend myself by saying I thought it none of my business to relate.

It must have been eleven o’clock one summer’s night when I was startled from sleep by a fearful knocking. It was such a frenetic scraping and hammering that I would have been up and dressing at that alone, and with Kenneth’s gun, even had I not recognised Elizabeth calling for help. Her voice was so slurred that for a moment I thought her drunk, and when I let her in I thought worse. She was shivering and febrile in my kitchen for a long time—so unable to talk and so fearful that I half-convinced myself that the foolish rumours were true, and we were under invasion by the Māori. After a strong cup of tea and some whisky, she told me this:

An old friend of hers had lived on the Peninsula and her sad story was well-known there. The husband worked in transporting wood down to the estuary and was often away and she left alone. This friend, Alice N—, missed a visit to Elizabeth one day, and the postman found the house empty. Everyone thought she had been called away and thought too little of it, but then the husband came back months later and found his wife gone, and being a grim and miserable man, made any number of accusations. It was a sad, short scandal. I did not think it unusual in this country, where English brides come to marry and then regret, but Elizabeth found it uncharacteristic and went herself to the Peninsula cottage. The house was shut up by then. The husband had left for Auckland and no trace of Alice remained. But the whole preyed on Elizabeth’s mind, and she found something so unwholesome about the mystery that she determined to investigate.

It being early in the day, she took to the bush behind the house. I acknowledge that this would be foolish for most, but in Elizabeth’s defence it was dry weather, no chance of slips. She had enough bush-sense to know when she had to turn back. She was sufficiently suspicious but not so alarmed as to get assistance. She knew there was no danger in Clifton and certainly not from the local tribes. I cannot blame her for it now. She examined the back of the property and past the Waikopua into the hills. There was nothing of Alice—or it seemed so—and here, Elizabeth quit her story and let out a trill of laughter.

It made me jump; Dorothy, it was the awful laughter of a hysteric. She would not be calmed until I locked the door and lit the fire. When she looked at me her eyes were red as though she had been weeping, but there was not a tear-stain on her face. When more composed she told me that, deep in a hot and untidy part of the valley, she had seen a door in the hill—not the remnants of a pā or even an old raupo hut—but a door.

When I questioned her on this she described a portal—a cave-entrance that had been propped with slabs of stone, one atop two others like a mantel, and that the stone had been crudely worked. The carvings did not resemble native carvings, and Elizabeth could not really describe what they did resemble, except that they were ugly and looked as though they had been done in violence: as though someone had taken a chisel and scored cuts to no purpose. I gave her another blanket and I asked if she had gone inside.

Yes, naturally. She had prowled around the outside and found that the earth around did not crumble, and that the doorway was wide and tall and could have easily taken a man twice her breadth and size. I did not chide her for going inside, for I was too appalled and bewildered, and she continued in a mutter and did not look up from her tea.

She had gone inside. She had found the passage quite spacious. She had meant to turn back once reaching the end of this corridor, but that it had made a steep turn and she had seen a light at the end: not torchlight, but the sickly radiance one sees in the Aranui grottoes. And it was not a cavern at all, she said, but made. I questioned her on this. Elizabeth did not answer. There were many corridors leading off from a main chamber and her assumption at this point was that she had found some horrid smuggling cave or tuckaway. There were things in the alcoves but she said she had not touched them and repeated this as though it was important, that she had not touched them.

All this time she had been calling for Alice and not listening, and then she became aware of a sound. It was the incessant lapping of water on stone. She pushed on down until she reached the cathedral-room of this catacomb, very high and square, and here there was a great pool of slow-moving water sloshing up against the rock. Here also there was a stone block she described as being about hip height and an enormous basin. Standing there was Alice, said Elizabeth. And after that she fled.

I was greatly puzzled, Dorothy. When I asked her to explain, Elizabeth began to shake again and would not drink, and she pushed off the blanket as though she were hot. She kept muttering catches of nonsense. She said that Alice was not right. Unwell, I asked, or somehow injured? No; but all the same she was not right. The two had talked, and Alice had claimed—and I confess the word gave me a thrill of strange horror—that she was imprisoned. Elizabeth could not say any more. Now indeed I thought that I had unearthed the source of all her misery—that in an uncharacteristic terror she had fled back out into the bush and the upper air, and left her friend behind. Now she was consumed by guilt and shame. I told her that I would fetch the men from Whitford Hall and we would go to the cave at once.

Dorothy, here Elizabeth screamed. Her voice was the idiot squeal of an animal. No! she said, no! It was too late, Alice had gone now. Elizabeth crawled from her chair and kneeled in front of me and clawed at my floorboards beyond reason until I saw her fingernails split, and she cried out again, and what she said made me afraid in all the ways it should have made me pity her hysteria:

“But I’m here—tell me I’m here, Caroline—for the love of God, keep me here!”

I gave her what comfort I could give a madwoman, put her in the spare bedroom and sent for her husband at first light. Come morning, she was so weary that she was biddable, though also hollow-eyed and stupid, like a dreamer waking in a strange room. Looking back—the madness in me to let her go!—but what choice did I have? It was nonsense. She had experienced a cruel scare for someone else’s benefit, or a nightmare of the subconscious, or some other sad and inexplicable reason that would come to light eventually. She needed rest and not pandering. Yet as she was led away, my palms were tight and hot, for there was a look in her eyes that is inane to describe, yet I must describe it: it was the dead terror of a man before the Pit.

Time lulled me into an uneasy security. My evenings never recovered. I had even ventured with Elizabeth one hot day to the Peninsula, in order to lay her fears to final rest, though she startled like a white-eyed colt the whole venture. Naturally, there was no door. We re-traced her steps and found the valley she had come to in her story, and there was nothing but dead trunks of the rough tree fern where a door had been in her memory. I even pushed hard at the earth and scrabbled around at the rocks to show there was nothing beneath, but at this she shuddered and pulled at my sleeves to stop.

“Don’t! Lord, don’t, Caroline,” she said lowly. “We’ll find nothing.”

The next three months I heard from her seldom, and after six I heard nothing at all. She had grown increasingly withdrawn and was “out” to callers when neighbours knew perfectly well she was in, and would plead migraines when it came to the monthly church meeting, even though she had been such a pillar of the Christian Women’s Society. She returned my letters in a cursory fashion, then stopped altogether, and I felt such a curious admixture of rebuff and relief that I became derelict in my duty and quit all attempts. I had not written for two months before I realised she was gone. Her husband had been too mad with worry and pain to think of singling me out in the scandal. His mare had returned without her on it, rolling its eyes and nearly dead with sweat, and that was all he knew.

How could I voice my suspicions? I could barely voice them to myself. It seemed the saddest and most likely happenstance was that Elizabeth, wasted from months of nerves, had come to grief alone in the Bush; that spectres and nightmares had led to her death, but the sort that were immaterial, borne from anxiety. I told this to myself every evening and morning and scourged my thoughts of that benighted valley—that squatting, phylacteric depression, that mad hallucination of a waiting door—ready for grief to take its rightful place and forgetfulness to come after.

Grief and distance did not mount their rightful thrones. My nights were pitiable, Dorothy, my days worse. I have lived forty years and not let morbidity touch me, I have never maundered or taken freaks, yet I could not escape imaginings of a darkened door, Elizabeth struggling down filth-smeared corridors in the dark, Elizabeth as waxen and afraid as she was the day I set to the side of the hill. I was sleeping with the door barred and with Kenneth’s gun. I would wait by the window in the most profound darkness and watch for some figure to crest the hill—Elizabeth’s, or faceless Alice’s, they were all one. Perhaps you are now saying to yourself, “Caroline, you should have sent for the doctor and diagnosed a guilty conscience.” But guilt had never troubled me either.

That June, I made for the Peninsula. The hills were grey and wet with drizzle. I had left a note explaining where I had gone, to be picked up by the postman if I did not retrieve it before morning. I had made sensible arrangements. I had supplies. Thus fortified, I went to the valley where I had gone with Elizabeth; to a slanted part of the hill, in a clinging mist—and sunk between the cringing branches of fern was a door.

It was made of two slabs of violently worked stone with a third sitting on top. The earth around this stone was churned and grey, with fresh gouges cut out of the hillside. My lamp made little impression on those clouded shadows within, instead bouncing the darkness to and fro. When I looked more closely at the carvings I found them grotesque, forming faces the one minute, then meaningless gibberish the next, somehow aggressively gross and foul. I examined them little. Like Elizabeth before me, I chose to make my way down that long, breathless passage to the bowels of the hill.

The corridor was so steep that I had to hold my lamp at waist height to descend. And it would suddenly zig-zag—break off at an angle, double in on itself, more of a passage laid down by a burrowing creature than one by an architect—so that I scraped myself badly on irregularities in the wall, for I am a bigger woman than Elizabeth. I held out my lamp to them at one point and was repulsed. They seemed like meaningless notches until I pulled back to see them in toto, and there I saw the repeated graffito of a figure in chains. I thought it was a patterned line of yoked animals, each holding the beast ahead’s tail in its jaws, but the carving was an undeveloped scribble. The animals continued on and on and down the stairs in their endless march. Their eyes bulged and their manes tangled in their teeth. It was not worth looking at. A final drastic descent forced my eyes away from the carvings and to attend the more urgent business of not breaking my neck.

The bottom level opened up into a narrow room with eight sides. An alcove was set into each, with each alcove pock-marked with niches. An archway led into the dark main artery and a half-arch into two connecting rooms. My lamplight was increasingly sulky despite the fresh oil and wick, and in this light, like Elizabeth had, I took the whole for a smuggler’s den. Inside each niche was an irregularly wrapped bundle of rough sacking or crudely pounded flax.

I took my knife and eased out one of the bundles, not liking the greasy sacking or the oily stains it left on my fingers. If there had been filthy remains in there, I might have been less disturbed than I was by what I found: an unfamiliar calico dress, with a blouse, jacket and boots. A quick slash of another bundle proved to similarly hold a woman’s clothes, neatly folded. The next room was so peppered with niches it looked like a beehive, and each contained more of these effects. Some of the clothes were of an antiquated style. One bundle held a fibrous patterned wrapper such as some Māori still wear. My guttering lamp hinted at more chambers ahead—more chambers, and deeper, that I never visited—alcove upon alcove, and God knows they were all probably full.

I took my lamp away from those miserable artefacts. Trophies, I thought then, pointing to some grotesque kidnapping or slavery spree.

I continued on down the main passage. It sloped down sharply, and I had to press on the ice-cold, slippery walls in order not to lose my footing. The final descent took me to an enormous chamber, Dorothy, as Elizabeth had described, only more vast and empty and black than she could ever have communicated. I set my lamp down and it shuddered and spluttered in the face of such enormous shadow. Here I became aware of the hush only a great and quiet body of water can make. My sight slowly adjusted to some dim braziers filled with what looked like greenish coals—flameless and crawling, moving independently of each other somehow—and the light cast weird ripples on a pool of wide, drear, fathomless water. The light also fell upon a great stone slab where the water sloshed down into carved channels and washed about its base, and fell on a basin big enough for a child to curl up inside it, and it fell also on my friend Elizabeth.

But not Elizabeth’s miserable corpse: Elizabeth alive and well and living, Elizabeth as fresh as though she had come through the door with me.

“Oh, Caroline, thank God,” she said, as naturally as ever. More naturally, even, than she had been of months previous; something like her of old, with that same familiar ease. But it was wrong, Dorothy. I cannot describe, as she could not describe either. It was dim in that room, but I could see the stark whites of her eyes and the hairs rose on the back of my neck. “What a relief you came.”

Of course I asked her if she was all right, if she was hurt in any way; she gave me a brief, almost lipless smile, and this was not an expression I had ever seen her wear. She denied injury. She was fine, she said; she’d tell me all about it later. What was important was that I could let her out.

I asked her why she needed to be let out and she said she couldn’t get out alone. I couldn’t see why not, as it wasn’t as though the corridors were so labyrinthine and nothing seemed to bar her. The water washed close to her bare brown feet. I grew impatient. I demanded to know where had she been and by what means was she now here, in the very place she had feared most?

“Caroline,” she said calmly, “I never left.”

Then she walked toward me. I cannot write clearly of how she moved because every time I think of it my head pounds and my nose often bleeds. But yet she moved and the manner in which her bones shifted inside her skin, and in contrast to how you or I would move—

I believe there is a part of the mind that decides upon courses of action without requiring conscious thought. I also believe that these are left over from the antique days when Man was preyed upon, before cities and civilization. I told you I had been sensible, Dorothy; it was a matter of conscious decision that I had brought Kenneth’s gun. But it was on this aforementioned instinct that I lifted it, took aim, and shot Elizabeth dead.

I did not wait around to see her fall. I could rely upon my accuracy. I fled into the lapping darkness while all around me the sound of water filled my ears—deafened, driven mad by a sound I did not know if I was conjuring up, desperate to find light as a swimmer to break water. I scrambled up the narrow steps and through the angular shaft, convinced that if I stopped to heave for breath or look over my shoulder I would meet my end.

Did I murder a young woman, or did I avenge her? Did she die there down in the dark, Dorothy, or is the very idea I could have killed her a laughable one? Perhaps it would have been cleverer to search in those insidious bundles until I found the one that had been hers. Certainly everything down there should have been burnt. But not by my hand, Dorothy, not by any hand I have met in this life, I think, nor yours. What is down there should not be sought, not even for purposes of expurgation.

That place showed itself to me in my dreams and did not leave me after waking; it simply widened its window to the very edges of my vision. I have seen the cave and the water and the altar constantly since then. Even if I take the medicine that the doctor prescribed, the one to help me sleep, it never comes to any good. I was never a beauty, but I have grown twisted and haggard for lack of peace. It’s little wonder that they all think I am ill. At least I have no husband to wonder at my malaise and my megrims, like poor Elizabeth’s. I may sit and tremble alone every time I think a door in my house creaks open. I never go anywhere without Kenneth’s gun now. It sits next to me as I write.

And yet I know I must go back. I will go back. I have held on this long, but it has been unbearable suffering. I have concluded that the door is a disease, and that the act of passing through its foetid dark is enough to invalid one. Perhaps I had nothing to fear from what Elizabeth had become. I am not sure. Maybe you are not meant to go back until the place is ready for you and your own alcove is empty. I am ready now: last night I took all the drugs Dr. Miller had left and I still woke at the end of my garden, digging at a slope there with my bare and bleeding hands. I will not sleep again.

Dorothy, I took that place with me. It is inside me now. Whosoever is its master is well-versed in claiming victims. You are the one to whom I may try to communicate it and therefore, I will warn you before I succumb. You must not come. The only woman you may save now is yourself. You have been a rare friend and correspondent. If you deem me a madwoman I won’t care, just so long as you stay in town and never set foot in Tauranga. It is too much like you to come and investigate if I disappeared from hearing. If I present you the facts to begin with, it may quell your desire to procure them. Do not come. This is not your mystery.

I do not know my purpose. I do not know what I am to be, nor Elizabeth, nor Alice—those numberless alcoves, Dorothy, where have we gone? Elizabeth was the merest child. The cruelties it could do with you I cannot imagine. When I think of how she moved—this country is so new to us and so old to the world, and its emptiness should have been a warning rather than an invitation—there are terrible things in the darkness and I will not let you become another of them.

My final wish is this: that you respect our long friendship in the face of derangement. Do not come. Do not question. Live a long life and go into the hills as seldom as possible. Remember me kindly and for my sake, remember Elizabeth kindly, and for hers a woman called Alice and hundreds else. We passed through the door. We have been trapped and set loose. I wish to be the last.

If by awful chance you see the door—if it comes to you invidiously in its defiled stone and darkness—the entrance to the water and to the holes where we go, you must think of me within. Then use dynamite.

I remained
Your faithful friend
Caroline B—.

This letter was found concealed in the effects of Auckland resident Dr. Dorothy L—, eight months after her May 1908 disappearance.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

Tamsyn Muir

Tamsyn Muir

Tamsyn Muir is based in Wellington, New Zealand, where she divides her time between writing, teaching and dogs. A graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2010, her work has previously appeared in Fantasy Magazine and Weird Tales.