The Willows, Part 3 of 4

By Algernon Blackwood

Tap arrow button above to hear theme music called Monster at the Door, by Sir Cubworth.
Tap arrow above to listen to this story.
Swede
Oddest thing about that otter last night.
Me
  Ha-ha. I had expected another of your scary chat stories or at least something totally different.
Swede
I mean—do you—did you think it really was an otter?
Me
What else, in the name of heaven?
Swede
You know, I saw it before you did, and at first it seemed—so much bigger than an otter.
Me
The sunset as you looked up-stream magnified it, or something.
Swede
It had such extraordinary yellow eyes.
Me
That was the sun too. I guess you’ll wonder next if that fellow in the boat—
Swede
You just decided not to finish that sentence, I noticed.
Me
Damned if you are not listening for them again, turning your head to the wind, with something in your expression that makes me wonder. 
Swede
I did rather wonder, too, if you want to know, what that thing in the boat was. I remember thinking at the time it was not a man. The whole business seemed to rise quite suddenly out of the water.
Me
Excuse me but I must laugh, only this time out of impatience, and a strain of anger too.
Swede
You are angry at me?
Me
Look here now, this place is quite queer enough without going out of our way to imagine things! That boat was an ordinary boat, and the man in it was just a man, and they were both going down-stream very fast. And that otter was an otter, so don’t play games!
Me
And, for Heaven’s sake, don’t keep pretending you hear things, because it only gives me the jumps, and there’s nothing to hear but the river and this thundering wind.
Swede
You fool! That’s just the way all victims talk. As if you didn’t understand just as well as I do!
Swede
The best thing you can do is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as possible. This feeble attempt at self-deception only makes the truth harder when you’re forced to meet it.
Me
Well, please don’t sneer! (Thinking: I do know your words are true, and that I have been the fool, not you. Up to a certain stage in the adventure you kept ahead of me easily, and I think I felt annoyed to be out of it!)  
Me
But you’re right about one thing, and that is that we’re wiser not to talk about it, or even to think about it, because what one thinks finds expression in words, and what one says, happens.
Me
A good thing the wind has died down.
Swede
Come and tell me what you make of it. Hold a hand to your ear. Now do you hear anything?
Me
I hear only the water’s roaring and hissing. 
Swede
Wait. The willows for once are silent, so it should be a good chance to hear the other sound.
Me
Yes, faintly I hear a peculiar sound—something like the humming of a distant gong. It is repeated at regular intervals, but it is certainly neither the sound of a bell nor the hooting of a distant steamer. I can liken it to nothing so much as to the sound of an immense gong, suspended far up in the sky.
Swede
A fair description.
Me
The wind blowing in those sand-funnels, or the bushes rubbing together after the storm perhaps.
Swede
It comes off the whole swamp and from everywhere at once. It comes from the willow bushes somehow—
Me
But now the wind has dropped. The willows can hardly make a noise by themselves, can they?
Swede
It is because the wind has dropped that we now hear it. It was drowned before. It is the cry, I believe, of the—oops!”
Me
Oh, the stew was about to burn! No wonder you dashed back without finishing your thought. Come and cut up bread for the pot. This stew-pot holds sanity for us both, and that silly thought makes me laugh. (Thinking: He has emptied the entire contents of the provisions bag on the ground-sheet!)
Me
Hurry up! It’s boiling.
Swede
There’s nothing here! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Bread, I mean. It’s gone. There is no bread. They’ve taken it! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
Me
You’re kidding.
Swede
Hah! Ha-ha-ha.
Me
Hah-hah, hah-ha. Must be the strain, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
Swede
Hah-hah, ha-ha-ha.
Me
Hah-hah, hah. But, no! How criminally stupid of me! I clean forgot to buy a loaf at Pressburg. But that chattering woman put everything out of my head, and I must have left it lying on the counter or—”
Swede
The oatmeal, too, is much less than it was this morning.
Me
There’s enough for tomorrow, and we can get lots more at Komorn or Gran. In twenty-four hours we shall be miles from here.
Swede
I hope so—to God. Unless we’re claimed first as victims for the sacrifice. He-he, Heh-heh, he. Mumble, mmmph –.

Our meal was beyond question a gloomy one, and we ate it almost in silence, avoiding one another’s eyes, and keeping the fire bright. Then we washed up and prepared for the night.

Me
There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction. We are in unsafe modes, somehow.
Swede
I don’t think a tape recorder would show any record of that ‘gong.’ The sound doesn’t come to me by the ears. The vibrations seem to be within me, which is precisely how a fourth dimensional sound might be supposed to make itself heard.
Swede
I agree that we have strayed into some region or some set of conditions where the risks are great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lays close about us. 
Me
What made you decide to become the spokesman for it?
Swede
Face the terrible facts. This is a new order of experience, of horror, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.
Swede
It’s the deliberate, calculating purpose that reduces one’s courage to zero. Otherwise imagination might account for much of it. But the paddle, the canoe, the lessening food—
Me
Haven’t I explained all that once?
Swede
You have; you have indeed, however unconvincingly. These outsiders have demonstrated a plain determination to provide a victim. 
Me
I can’t disguise it any longer, I don’t like this place. There’s something here that beats me. I’m in a funk. If the other shore was—different, I swear I’d be inclined to swim for it!
Swede
(Staring me down) It’s not a physical condition we can run away from. We must sit tight. There are forces close here that I expect could kill a herd of elephants in a second as easily as you or I could squash a fly. Our only chance is to keep generally still. Our insignificance may save us.
Me
That seems rather far fetched. What do you mean?
Swede
I mean that so far, although aware of our disturbing presence, they have not found us—not ‘located’ us, as the Americans say. 
Swede
They’re blundering about like men hunting for a leak of gas. The paddle and canoe and provisions prove that. I think they feel us, but cannot actually see us. 
Me
We must keep our minds quiet—it’s our minds they feel. We must control our thoughts, or it’s all up with us.
Me
Death, you mean?  
Swede
Worse—by far. Death, according to one’s belief, means either annihilation or release from the limitations of the senses, but it involves no change of character. You don’t suddenly alter just because the body’s gone. But this means a radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible loss of oneself by substitution—far worse than death, and not even annihilation. 
Swede
We happen to have camped in a spot where their region touches ours, where the veil between has worn thin—a horror portal! 
Me
But who are aware?
Swede
All my life, I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region—not far removed from our own in one sense, yet wholly different in kind—where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs, the rise and fall of nations, the destinies of empires, the fate of armies and continents, are all as dust in the balance; vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with more expressions of the soul—
Me
I suggest just now you hold back — stop your exposition!
Swede
You think it is the spirit of the elements, and I thought perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is—neither. These would be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending upon them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings have absolutely nothing to do with man, and it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own.
Me
Your words somehow are so convincing, they’ve set me shaking a little. So what do you propose?
Swede
A sacrifice, a victim, might save us by distracting them until we could get away, just as the wolves stop to devour the dogs and give the sleigh another start. But—I see no chance of any other victim now.
Me
The gleam in your eye is terrifying.

Look for Part 4!