Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening.” She is a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, the author of four novels and over 150 short stories, and a world-class Halloween and paranormal expert. Her recent releases include the Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances and The Art of the Zombie Movie; forthcoming in December 2023 is Placerita, a novella co-written with John Palisano. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and online HERE.


by Lisa Morton


Scotland, near Cassilis Downans
October 31, 1785

Merran felt her insides curdle as she watched her father sell her to another man.

She knew that was ungracious; her father only wanted what he thought was best for her, his eldest daughter. She also knew that there were any number of reasons that he might have just taken Andrew Bell’s hand and then shared a toast with him; it could be a simple business transaction, a sale of livestock or grain. But she’d seen how Andrew had looked at her since his wife had died. Poor Jean, who gossip said had been worked to death by her ambitious husband. Jean, dead at 26.

As of today, a year younger than Merran.

It hadn’t been much of a birthday so far. Merran, of course, had spent her life sharing her birthday with Hallowe’en celebrations. Truth be told, she preferred it that way because she could pretend that the thirty friends and family filling the house tonight were here for her, even though she knew they weren’t. In fact, many of them viewed her with suspicion.

“Born on Hallow’s Eve,” she’d hear one old goodwife whisper to another.

“Sure an’ she’s got the gift of second sight,” would come the response.

That part might actually have been true. Even as a child, Merran knew she was different, that she saw and felt things the others didn’t. At six years of age, she’d awakened one night to see another girl in her room, about her age but dressed strangely, in clothes Merran had seen in old picture-books. The girl began to appear every night; when Merran worked up the courage to speak with her, the girl hadn’t answered, but in the morning the name “Nell” was written in the mist on the bedroom window pane.

Young Merran came to consider Nell a friend, to look forward to her nightly visits. Even though Nell couldn’t answer, Merran talked to her, told her about the day, about her family, her meals, the animals in the barn, and Nell listened, her dark eyes sometimes crinkling in appreciation. She never said a thing, though, or stepped into any light.

One night Mother came into the room. “Who were you talking to?”

Merran’s eyes shot to her friend, but Nell had already vanished. “No one,” Merran answered.

Mother looked around before planting a scolding look on her daughter. “It’s far too late for the likes of you to be up. Now, no more of this.”

Merran nodded, snuggled down into her bed, and Mother left.

From then on she whispered to Nell.

Three months passed, October came around, and soon enough it was both Hallowe’en and Merran’s seventh birthday. That night, as cousins and neighbors played their Hallows’ Eve games, waiting for nuts to pop on the hearth or pulling cabbage out from the garden to read their futures in the stalks, Uncle Jamie had gathered a circle around him in the front room to tell a ghost story. Merran, hidden behind a large armchair, had listened as he leaned forward, holding a candle just beneath his chin to cast his face in an eerie glow.

“Did you know,” Jamie began, “that a child was murdered in this very house?”

He waited for the resulting gasp before continuing. “Here it was, sixty years ago, on this very eve. This was a year after the house was built by a prosperous farmer named Will Fleck. Even though he was barely thirty years old, Will had done well for himself, and his wife and their young daughter. The house, as you know –” Jamie raised the hand not holding the candle and looked up at the solid beams overhead and the fine white walls – “is a fine one indeed, and at first the farmer and his family were happy here.

“But then it all took a bad turn. Will, you see, had worked hard for his wealth, and soon his comely young wife, Mary, grew restless. Their little one kept her occupied during the days, but Will worked into the nights, threshing and repairing and tending to his workers, and as the nights grew longer so did Mary’s restlessness.

“Before long, Mary turned her roving eye on a handsome farmhand named Rob, and Rob was too weak to turn down her advances. Soon they were cuddlin’ in the hay when Will was away.

“But Mary couldna hide what happened four months later, when even the tightest gown wouldn’t hide her swelling belly. Even then, it took that farmer too long to notice, but finally one night he did.

“That night was Hallows’ Eve – like tonight.” Jamie paused dramatically, letting the tension build in his listeners, before going on.

“Now, hardworking as he was, Will Fleck possessed a black temper, but Mary had fire of her own. They argued on that Hallowe’en night, in the room right above our heads.” Jamie looked up, as did all of his audience, including tiny Merran. For just an instant she fancied she could hear the screams overhead.

“A party was going on below, and many an eye turned on Rob. When the shouts above turned to screams, Rob rushed up those stairs. A few seconds later, gunshots –” Jamie took a breath, and then nearly shouted, “BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!” His listeners jumped with each utterance, leaving Jamie to finally lean back in satisfaction.

“When they finally got the courage to go up the stairs, they found that Will Fleck had shot all four of them – himself, his wife, Rob, and their daughter, little Nell.”

Merran’s blood froze at that. She was dimly aware that Uncle Jamie was finishing the story with something about all of them still being in the house, that if you listened very late at night you could still hear their footsteps creak-creak-creaking. He ended with a solemn, silent stare before blowing out the candle as his listeners clapped. At some point Jamie spotted Merran as she stumbled back, and her uncle leapt from his chair to go to her, kneeling. “Oh, lass, your old Uncle Jamie didn’t mean for that to fall on ears as young as yours.”

Merran turned, then, and ran up the stairs to her room. In the darkness she crouched on her bed, waiting, moonlight streaming in through the window, the sounds of the party below.

“Nell,” she called to the shadows.

Her friend appeared, and Merran knew. “You should go on, Nell.”

The window opened, a chill breeze swept into the room, and Merran never saw Nell again.

She thought of that now, twenty years later. She thought of all the other strange things she had encountered, while those around her stood by blissfully unaware. By the time she was in her late teens, she could look at someone sick and tell what ailed them, she could see dead loved ones around them, or know part of their future. She rarely played the Halloween games with the others, and they rarely asked, because by then she’d become “Unco’ Merran,” the neighborhood wise woman who could offer cures to those who were willing to be (unfairly, she thought) scared by her.

Now she stood watching Andrew Bell, a man who was fifty if he was a day, stare at her across the room with undisguised desire, and she felt completely powerless. She wondered if she could run, maybe take her favorite horse Maggie from the barn, pack just a few things, ride to Glasgow, or Edinburgh, maybe not stop there but keep going, take a ship to America or Europe or India or China, get as far away as possible…

“How are you, lass?”

The voice at her side startled her, and she turned to see Mike Hamilton there, sipping from a glass of whiskey. The sight of him, her former suitor, now a married father, both alarmed and comforted her, taking her away from her black thoughts.

“Mike,” she said simply. “Where’s your Annie?”

He shrugged. “At home tonight, down with pains from the one to come.” Annie, the woman he’d married after what his proposal to Merran failed, was eight months pregnant with their second child.

Merran asked, “Would you like me to pay her a visit, see if I can help?”

Mike smiled. “That’d be kind of you.” Just then a fiddler started a reel, and within seconds dancers were whooping and stomping, filling the house with happy noise. Mike nodded toward the front door and shouted, “Can we…?”

Nodding, Merran followed him outside, a short distance away from the house, warm light and music spilling from its open doors and windows. Nearby, she spied two couples walking through the cabbage patch; one of the men – she thought it might be Mal Richardton – clutched a newly-pulled cabbage with a short, black stalk dangling below the head, and she knew that Mal couldn’t be happy about the glum prospects that foretold.

“I’m sorry to bring you out here, but I’ve got to know: why, Merran? Why did you run from me?”

As she looked into his eyes, saw the pleading, saw how he yearned for her still even while his wife lay abed with their next child, she felt a moment of pity, even if she’d never felt anything more than mild affection for him. “I…” She trailed off, looking away, remembering how she had run when Mike had asked her father for Merran’s hand. She’d taken Maggie and a small satchel of belongings – a change of clothes, a blanket, her most beloved book of poetry, extra food – and she’d ridden anywhere, nowhere, into the hills. She’d ridden half a day until she found a small cave in the side of a low barrow-hill near a spring, and she’d stopped there, disregarding folktales about how the cave was home to fairies. She’d found no magic in that cave except that it kept her hidden for three days until her sister had spotted the horse and followed it. Father had reprimanded her for weeks, but Mike had at least not demanded the marriage proceed, and soon thereafter had wed another, much to Merran’s relief.

“Mike, I don’t…” She wasn’t sure how to say that she desired no man, that she wanted to remain herself, by herself, unencumbered by matrimony’s bonds, because when Merran turned her second sight on herself she felt she was destined for more, although she couldn’t say what. Not knowing the nature of that destiny frustrated her, but she knew that it was a destiny for her alone. “…I’m not meant to marry,” she finished.

“Lass, how old are you tonight?”

“Twenty-seven,” she answered.

He took her hand, a gesture meant to be one of kindness and concern but Merran nonetheless fought the urge to pull away. “Are you sure? Soon you might regret that decision.”

She did pull away, then, but gently. “It’s not a decision, Mike. It’s how I am.”

He nodded as he stepped back, away. “You know I’ll always be here…as a friend.”

She smiled, trying to appreciate the gesture but finding herself somehow unmoved.

Mike gestured at the house. “Will you come back in with me?”

“In a while.”

He turned and went back to the house.

Alone now, Merran turned to inhale deeply of the night air, calming and centering herself. It was, after all, Hallowe’en, and she tasted magic that she knew the others didn’t feel. Her ancestors, going back generations to ancient tribes, had called tonight Samhain and believed it was a time when the veil between worlds was at its thinnest, when ghosts and fairies might walk our world…and other things that were far worse.

“Merran?” From within the house Father called for her.

Panic surged up and Merran had to control an urge to run, run into the night until she crossed over, into a realm of enchantment where she might see Nell again, and Granny, and all the others she’d lost during her lifetime, her long lifetime of twenty-seven years…

No. She wouldn’t run again. But she needed some kind of guidance. She knew that simply saying “no” to Father and Andrew Bell wasn’t an option; Father (and then Mother, and then sister and friends and everyone else in her life) would tell her that Andrew Bell was rich and she’d be well cared for and the rumors about his first wife were just that – rumors started by jealous minds who craved his money and comfort. They’d be relentless, hounding her with his name day and night until, worn down, she’d say, “Yes.”

Maybe, some part of Merran said, it’s even the right thing to do.

But it didn’t feel right.

Guidance. It was Hallows’ Eve, a night when even those inside the house could call on magic to show them the way, and Merran possessed far more of that ancient, wild talent than they could ever know. She would seek guidance as they did, and trust that what was given to her was right, no matter what direction it pointed.

Looking ahead, Merran saw, in the near distance, her family’s barn. She’d been there earlier today, feeding and tending Maggie and the pigs and chickens, moving among the newly-harvested oats. She’d even stopped to take some of the oat stalks and make a dolly for her little niece Chloris, who was delighted when Merran told her that it was good luck to receive a corn dolly on Hallowe’en. Now, though, Merran remembered one of the oldest and darkest divinations, one that could only be performed in a barn and that might yield dire results…

Her heart already pounding, Merran walked to the barn, thankful no one else was near; it wouldn’t do to have what she was about to try interrupted. She opened the main door of the barn, swung it back and stepped in. Maggie, in her stall for the night, neighed a greeting. “Hello, dear one,” Merran said, offering the horse a nose rub.

Then, moving on past the other animals, she walked to the far end of the barn where the other door was; this door, which led out onto the fields, was harder to open, causing Merran to strain slightly but at last she had it pushed back. With both doors open now, she felt a gentle breeze course through the barn. Around her, the animals had all quieted, waiting.

Remembering the next part of this old ritual, Merran walked to a wall where equipment hung from nails and removed a large square wecht, the sieve used just earlier in the day for threshing the oats. Merran had never tried this herself, but she recalled what Granny had told her before passing away years back.

“It’s all fine to play at guessing the future on Hallows’ Eve, girl, but be careful what forces you engage. You’ve no doubt heard tell of winnowing the corn, how you open the barn doors and pretend to winnow three times, and then supposedly you’ll see your future intended walk in and out. What they don’t tell you is that you may see something else.”

Seventeen-year-old Merran had asked, “Like…the Devil?”

Granny looked away, her rocking chair’s motion abruptly anxious. “Old Sawny likes his little jokes on Hallowe’en,” was all she said.

Now Merran hesitated, remembering that conversation. She’d always thought that Granny was like her – she hadn’t been born on Hallowe’en, but she’d been able to diagnose illness and predict the weather.

Perhaps those with second sight brought the Devil on themselves.

Or perhaps she would see Andrew Bell stroll in through that barn door, and know what path her life must take.

She inhaled deeply, called out, “One,” and jerked the wecht up in imitation of the motion used for separating grain from chaff.

“Two.” Another mimicked toss.

Three times. So many of the old ways involved threes.

She was silent for the final imagined winnowing.

Nothing happened.

She set the wecht down and waited.

Merran felt it before she saw anything: the very air seemed to change. The temperature fell at least ten degrees, although her shiver wasn’t due to cold. It was the indefinable way the air seemed to move around her, as if adhering to her. She restrained a sudden urge to run, to try and brush off whatever seemed to be attaching itself to her body, her head.

She saw, then, a glow outside the barn, growing in intensity with each passing second, an amber hue. Something was coming, something that emitted its own light, already so strong she had to squint against it.

Sound, next: a deep rumbling vibrato, coming up through her feet, through the earth beneath her. It felt as if everything was in motion.

Frozen in terror, Merran watched, paralyzed, as a form entered the barn…but whatever she had expected, it wasn’t this: it was a deep golden shimmer coming from a roughly human form that was twice the size of the biggest man she knew. But, as she viewed the thing through her shielding fingers, Merran saw that it was no man, but rather feminine in shape. It halted perhaps twenty feet from her, floating above the ground.

That was when Merran felt it inside her, and her mind was flooded not with words but with knowledge. She knew that what was before her had gone by many names: Gaea, Guanyin, the Morrigan were just some of them. And yes, the Devil, because some of those who had met it/her had been unable to process what they were experiencing and had resorted to old clichés.

Merran, though, understood that it was not evil, although it was also not truly good. It was beyond such simple conceits; it was pure life.

It made her understand the importance of this night: that she was twenty-seven…three times three times three. Three, the most sacred of numbers. Three three’s. Her life had built to this exact moment.

And it was offering her a choice.

She could stay here, accept Andrew Bell’s proposal. She could become a wife and a mother, and have a good, decent life, the same lived by untold millions of others.

Or she could accept the destiny granted to her by her Hallowe’en birth and become something more, something truly rare and powerful. She would become what some might call a “witch”; she would live apart from others, be hated and feared by those who could never accept, but she would be herself.

“Yes,” she cried out as her fears vanished.

The Great Mother enveloped her, awakening every fiber of Merran’s being, aligning them all into perfect union.

Merran barely noticed when her feet left the ground.

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