Estimated reading time — 38 minutes
His voice echoes through my conscience over and over again. I remember his face was a sickly, yellow color. The corners of his mouth were veiled with blood; the sound of the air- pacemaker was just as I’d imagined it would sound. The oropharyngeal airway stuck out from the corner of his mouth with clear, flexible tubes in his arms, the catheter and noiseless nurses repeatedly coming in and out of the room wearing teal and blue scrubs. His chest rose and fell in jagged cycles like a conveyor belt ready to give out. He looks like a Holocaust victim as my dad would say. I was in agony seeing him in this condition; it was not my brother I was seeing. What I’d seen was something no human should have to bear witness. The staff at the hospital told us he would not be leaving his hospital bed alive, my mother fell in her chair and began to weep. As we sat with him, we simply could not bear to watch him suffer any longer.
“If we remove the pacemaker and ease back on the dopamine he’ll be able to hear your voices; however, if we do that he will most likely die within minutes.” The doctor said. “If that is what you wish…”
We wanted it to be over with, all of it. My father nodded and gave her permission to proceed. When his eyes finally opened, I felt unwell; his eyes were just as yellow as his skin was. The blood vessels in his eyes were touched afire. The struggle, the gasps for air, the suffering on his face filled me with contempt and resentment towards everything in this existence. I cursed God; I damned him for everything, I damned all the Son’s of Adam and the daughters of Eve.
“We love you, Brian; we’ll always be a family of five.” My father said.
Finally his face went slack and his body became still. The doctor came in and checked his vitals. His eyelids were slightly parted; I could still see the sickly, yellow color in his eyes. She looked up at my mother with a disdainful look that made my heart sink all the way down into my belly.
“I’m sorry, he’s passed…” she said.
I grabbed hold of my mother and brought her close to my chest the way she did for me when I was young. We stood there and she sobbed in my arms for the longest time. Just like yesterday he was gone. My whole family wept, but for some unknown reason I could not. I did not understand why, I should have been crying like a travailing woman, but I didn’t. Instead, I knelt beside his bed and clutched his hand for a little while, just wanting to feel him one last time. His body was still warm; I could still feel the life that once coursed through him. Not the cold, stiff, synthetic feeling it would have after being caked with embalming fluid.
I leaned in and kissed his forehead, “I’ll always love you. You’ll always be my big brother…” I whispered.
I can’t speak for elsewhere, but here on Earth there is a fair supply of everything. We manufacture chairs, transistors, scissors, teacups, and dams. There are the goods in life: clothes fresh out of the dryer, singing in the shower, breaking perforated seals on just about anything, peeling a clementine in just one peel, a perfectly popped bag of popcorn, seeing a woman slip into a pair of jeggings, when the Starbucks barista spells your name right, a box of corgi puppies. The world is filled with these things, but it is also filled with the bad stuff. House fires, thoughts of suicide, divorce, cancer, the New York stock exchange and Rupert Murdoch. For me the bad stuff never seemed to end, but one solemn day in October I saw how much worse things could get. Things turned for the worst imaginable and on this day Death was rapping away at my door asking for me.
It had been a little more than a year since that night in the hospital. That day I’d been driving for longer than I could remember. The east was not wedged with apartment complexes, gridlock traffic jams and boisterous barking dogs. Freetown was an urban area which resembled something out of a colonial painting; the town itself lied on the southeast region of Bristol County. Most of the houses were built with vinyl sidings; there were newly paved roads and families walking hand-in-hand down the sidewalk. I looked down at the navigation system on my phone; I was just a few miles away now.
“Turn left on Sesame Seed Avenue then follow for three-quarters of a mile.” it broadcasted.
The closer I got the less of people I saw. Residents in these parts were more spread out than others elsewhere in this neck of the country, but when I got closer to the woods border it became more perceptible to me.
I drove up to a four-way intersection and came across a very old, tumbledown wood-sign settled just off to the side of the road with the words “Wampanoag Indian Reservation”. The paint was eroded by years of rainfall and other attributes. Then I noticed a fallen marker sign with the words inscribed on it “Freetown State Forest-1.5 miles”. The sign was corroded with rust and overgrown in moss, but it was still legible enough to read. Odd no one fixed it I thought, you would think the town would try and replace it, but they did not.
A few minutes go by and I came up to a small shoppette, “Main Street market”. It looked like an establishment out of the pioneer era. The twenty-by-ten market fortified with chicory sidings and a hitching post out front; the only thing that was missing was a billboard sign mounted above the store’s entrance titled “Guns. Pistols- Ammunition. Hardware and Tinware” and a little sub-note that said “Guns & pistols repaired”. There was a neon sign advertising Coors Light fizzing away in the window. I thought it’d be wise to stock up on snacks and maybe a spare set of batteries. I pulled into the dirt lot, my vehicle rose and fell like an ocean current kicking up clouds of dust. The lot was completely empty; no sign of any other vehicles, not even the store owner’s vehicle, but the sign clearly read “Open”. When I walked in I found myself greeted by a man with a shit eating grin who looked like he had just crawled out of a bottle of gin. His face was old and haggard, his hair and skin was as white as the blossoms of an almond tree. He whistled an indistinct melody, the likes of which I had never heard before, the tune was rather daunting as if forewarning its listeners about something. He wore a blue smock brandishing his store’s logo on it. Another man with similar features was in the far corner stocking shelves with cans of pickled okra. The room had a strange aroma to it; it reminded me of moldy Roquefort cheese (odd but more pleasant than one might think).
“Hi there!” the man exclaimed.
Not being rude I replied with, “Hello, sir.” while offering a tentative smile.
The man grinned widely at my response, “What can I do for ya, son?”
“Jus’ lookin’ for a few things is all.”
“You lemme know if you need any help, k?”
“Yes sir!” I replied. Our conversation following that introduction would not be so pleasant.
Fifteen minutes pass by and I gather what provisions I feel I would need for my journey. I returned to the counter where the old store clerk was posted.
“What’s your name, son?” the man asked.
“Scott,” I replied, “Scott Connors.”
“Please to make yer acquaintance, Mista Connors.” The man’s accent was very thick. It was the accent of your standard Eastern New Englander. He extended one hand over the counter in an effort to shake my hand, like what most men in this part of the world do when making introductions. I grasped his hand, they were just as worn and damaged as his face was, and his fingernails were yellowed, probably from years of smoking Rothman Royals. I could tell he was a smoker; the moment I walked up to the counter I immediately picked up on the scent of nicotine; the man was a walking ashtray.
“Name’s Rich, Richard Wright; but people call me Dick fur short.” he replied.
“Please to meet you, Mr. Wright.”
“Neva seen you around dese parts befo’, son. And I’m one ta notice a face when I’ve seen it a time ur two.”
“I’m originally from a little town out west called South Hadley.”
“Neva heard of it.”
“Not too many people have.” I replied.
“What brings ya all the way out here to the Bridgewater Triangle?” he asked.
I saw no harm in his question; I felt no reason not to tell him, so I did. “Just takin’ a little excursion on my day-off; I like to hike, especially this time of year with all the foliage.”
He glanced at me peculiarly while he packaged my items. “I thought it’d be nice to go on a little trek thru Freetown forest.”
The sound of falling canned items from one of the shelves behind me caught my attention. When I looked over my shoulder I noticed the other man sprawling out onto the floor to retrieve the fallen canned items. The look on his face was one I will not forget; it was one of abysmal frozen horror. A bemused looked dawned on my face; when I turned back to Mr. Wright I found the expression on his face was one much similar to that of the other man’s. At first I could not explain the livid terror which had dropped over his face at that moment. Mr. Wright stared down at me from behind the counter; he looked at me like I had tree branches growing out of my ears. The pallor on the man’s face was uncommonly difficult to explain.
“Now what business das a youngin like yerself hava goin’ out into dose woods?” he asked me.
“I’ve been searching for something. No treasure or any other fiddle-faddle of that sort. Just
searchin’ for some closure is all.”
He rubbed the stubby wattles on his chin; I could see he was searching for the correct way to tell me something rather important. Being a stranger and all there was always some folklore the ol’ timers in this neck of the woods had to tell any passerby or “outsiders” was perhaps the more preferred terminology people had for us these days. This wasn’t my first experience being an “outsider”, every time my family and I went out to eat at Fish Tails in Whatley we were always greeted by a roomful of unpleasant facial expressions. People from that region did not take too kindly to anyone who was from outside of the area, or was not one of German or Polish decent.
“Son, I promise you dere ain’t nothin’ in those woods worth vistin’, its jus’ a bad place…”
“What are you gettin’ at, ol’ timer?”
“There are places in the world where strangeness seems to gravitate and dis be one of ‘em.” he replied. “People go missin’ in those woods all the time and neva turn up. It’s like they walked off the face of de earth.” He confided in me.
“How can that be?” I asked him skeptically.
“I can’t say whether it’s the topography, geography or jus’ some other enigmatic power that causes dese tings, but they just keep happenin’.”
“Well, ol’ timer, you got my attention. So why don’t you tell me what lives in Freetown Forest?” I said sounding somewhat condescending, but the ol’ timer overlooked my pompous behavior for more important things were happening here.
He exchanged glances with the man from across the room for a moment then returned his gaze toward me. “Awe I hate dis, but it got to be done…” he said, and then he sighed. It was the sigh of a man who had set down a heavy burden and knows he must now pick it up again. “Evil, my boy…” he said sharply, a short silence befell the room. I thought for a moment the old man was having me on but then I realized by the look in his eyes that he was as serious as the fifth act of a tragedy. “Originally tis here land belonged to the Whamp-anu-gg or Whamppuag or whatever dem here calls It.”
“The Wampanoag?” I asked.
With one crooked finger the old timer pointed it at me and shook it vigorously with approval, “Dat’s the one!” he said. “The Wampanoag tribe, in da early days of the new world the Wampanoag tribe was driven from dese parts. Rumors floated around dat tis town was settled on an ol’ Indian reservation. They say the valley is cursed ur somethin’. Jus’ a plethora of unexplained occurrences happen fro’ time ta time. The place just has a foul aura about it.”
“I’ve heard the stories.” I could hear just how sardonic my voice sounded.
“Have you been told about the murder of Mary Lou Arruda in ‘78?” he asked me.
I shook my head, “I can’t say I have.” the name did not sound familiar as I feel I would recognize a name such as Mary Lou- Arruda.
“November 1978, da poor girl was found tied to a tree. Her killer beat her within an inch of her life then left ‘er for da wolves. Autopsy said when she los’ consciousness the weight of her body caused stress on her neck an’ ensuing asphyxiation.”
“They ever find who did it?”
“Fortunately, yes. A man by the name of, James Kater, a donut maker in Raynham, Mass. It wasn’t the first and it certainly wouldn’t be da las’. Dere are otha things crawlin’ around in those woods. I would not venture dere alone or after dark.”
“Well, Mr. Wright, I’m all ears.” I said. There I go again with the condescending tone of mine, I just can’t help myself, can’t I?
“Bout ten years ago, two young backpackers were hikin’ along Haskal path when a tree gave way. Da roots must’ve gone sour; dat thing came tumblin’ down on top of ‘em both, killin’ them instantly. When the firefighters managed to lift the damn thing off of ‘em they looked like a steamroller had plowed over their poor bodies. The funeral parlor had to make the services closed casket. Then jus’ six years back, Maggie Lawrence, over on Bolton Avenue lost her dog, Chipper, in doze woods. Three weeks later he turns up at her front door step, bloody to a pulp and mad wit’ disease. He came back not the friendly cohort she raised but an abomination whose only intentions were ta rip her throat out. Da thing wreathed wit’ an odious stench. Maggie says he smelt like somethin’ that had been festering out in the hot sun for too long, like decaying flesh or somethin’. Animal Control came by an’ put two rounds in ol’ Chipper’s head. But a minute later, da damn thing got back up and started chargin’ da feller who shot ‘em. Poor sonuveabitch lost an eye. Took two men to pull the damn thing off of em, they put two more rounds in its head then they cremated the body. I don’t know very much, son; but I do knows when somethin’ doesn’t go down after two slugs in da temple, dat it’s not somethin’ of this world. Then again a few years back, a family I tink dere name was Fitzgerald ur somethin’ and there three kids” he pronounced three like tree, “came tru ‘ere lookin’ for stuff for a family hike. I remember da children so vividly. De eldest’s name was Mark, the middle was Alex, and den tere was the youngest, Brenna.” He said as a look of despondency dawned on his face in that moment, “Sweet lil angel she was. I tol’ da father about dat place like I done wit’ you but he wouldn’t have any of it.”
“What happened?” I asked now intrigued by the ol’ timer’s story.
“Two hours went by, I was gettin’ ready to close up shop when da father kicked in da door wit’ his lil girl in his arms. Her head hung like a dyin’ flower when he carried her, her eyes were wide and her body was swollen all over.” That wrinkled look on his face worsened the more he spoke, “She’d fallen into a pit of rattlers.”
Rattlers? I thought questionably, “Owe, you mean rattlesnakes?” I asked.
“Dat’s what I mean, rattlers.” he replied. “Poor child was bitten from head ta toe and died from the venom before da parents had a chance to get her to the car.”
I sighed, it was a tragedy nonetheless and I know a thing or two about tragedies. “Well,” I replied, “I think I should be safe from rattlers. The cold this time of year has surely driven them underground till the spring.”
“The Devil’s pawns also occupy tem woods; Devil worshipers, Satanists, or as like to call tem wackadoodles. People see dem every now and again at night from the light of their fires committing strange and unspeakable deeds. The wickedness of dat place draws them to it.”
“I’ll be cautious about where I go, sir.”
“You bes’ also bring protection with you, people usually do specially when they go walkin’ around before sunset. You hear strange noises after sundown.”
“What kind of strange noises?”
“Sounds like cryin’ ur wailing comin’ from the tree tops. Locals who live nearby thinkin’ maybe the Pukwudgie is close by doin’ a bit of swift traveling.”
“And what is the Pukwudgie, pray?” I asked a bit irritated because I could not prevent that sudden shiver of the nerves when I mentioned the word itself. I knew I was close upon the man’s terror and the cause of it.
“Jus’ an ol’ wives tale they use to tell around campfires in lumber camps back when I was a boy. Nothin’ but what those lousy fellars believes when they been hittin’ the whiskey bottle too hard. A sort of great animal dat lives up yonder.” He said jerking his head northwards, “Quicker than lightening in its tracks, smaller than most that lives in the bush but is said to be very dangerous, and ain’t supposed to be too good to look at is all.” The ol’ timer sighed, this time sounding a bit flustered and took out a pack of Rothman Royals from his blouse pocket. He packed them, took one out and put it between his lips. He continued to speak while he searched for his lighter.
“Don’t let em catch you, son. If it does it’ll split you open from mouth to anus and wear your skin like a raincoat.”
I tittered at his remarks, thinking this was child’s play the ol’ timer should have grown out of years ago. For a moment nothing else was said, I just looked at the old man contemplating whether he was a gifted liar or whether he had a few marbles rolling around upstairs. He found his lighter, lit the end portion and drew deeply on it.
“I’ve heard it all before and I must say all of it is more farfetched than I could have imagined.”
I continued snickering but the ol’ timer just stood there not amused by my lack of seriousness.
“Maybe it is.” he said. I could tell by the look on his face that none of my previous experiences would tread water against what lied in store for me. “But I’ve lived here since it was jus’ flatland and dirt roads and in that time I’ve learned to keep an open mind.”
I nodded at his remark; accepting him for what he may believe is living or not living in those woods.
“You still intend on goin’, donchya?”
“I do.” I replied.
“I can see dere’s nothin’ I can say that’ll change yer mind.”
“Listen carefully, son.” said the ol’ timer “Stay on the trail, no matta what do not float off da path, or else you’ll be lost in dose woods an’ neva be found.”
I could not take his warning seriously. These woods were not as vast as they once were; the forest couldn’t be more than fifty or sixty miles in size. It seemed very difficult to get yourself lost in there for all eternity.
“And stay away from Hockomock swamp. Da mist and da marsh can tinker wit’ your mind.”
I had heard rumors about Hockomock swamp; people around these parts refer to it as “The Devil’s Swamp”.
“I’ll wait here at dis counter till sundown. If you don’t walk thru dat door.” he said pointing his crooked finger to the doorway I entered, “I’m callin’ the police chief and tell ‘em we got owselves anotha transient who went stickin’ his nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“I hear ya, ol’ timer.” I replied, “I promise, I’ll be out of those woods and on the road again before dusk.” but ol’ Mr. Wright did not believe a word of it; he just stared at me with the stone-cold, hazel eyes of his. As I walked out the door and back toward my car the two men continued on with the conversation as I left.
“You had no business lettin’ em go.” said the other man across the room.
“Dere was nothin’ stoppin’ him from goin’.” Mr. Wright replied, “This is somethin’ he’ll need to figure out on his own.” he drew deep on his cigarette and held it for a moment or two, as he exhaled an opaque cloud of smoke wafted across the room.
“Boy’s really brave, really stupid or really ignorant or all of de above.” Wright said.
“I’d go wit’ option D.” the other man replied, “Typical millennial generation, am I right?” and giggled at his response. Ol’ Wright looked over at the other man stacking cans of pickled okra and smiled a bit but he did not laugh. Ol’ Wright just stood leaned over on the counter looking like he was coming down with a fever. In his eyes you could see the fear looming inside of him. That maybe the las’ anyone will see of dat boy he thought to himself.
What kinda of fool did he take me for? I asked myself, what a load shit that was.
“The Pukwudgie?” I asked, just the way it rolled off of my tongue sounded wacky.
A few more minutes in that place and I would’ve turned crazy like Casey Anthony.
As I turned off onto an unpaved side road a metal frame sign was posted up at the intersection, it read “Copicut Road”. The ground was eroded and still laved by the runoff from the rainfall the night before. The placid water splashed my windshields leaving my field of sight veiled with an accumulation of lumpy, mush. I continued driving, passing the occasional pick-up truck veered off to the side of the road and even a group of hikers marching along both sides of the road in staggered formation; it reminded me of an army ruck march. Make sure you’re careful and make sure you wear your neon strap around your backpack, its turkey and pheasant season, those woods will be teemin’ with hunters my granddad told me the night before. I wasn’t entirely sure what my reasons were for coming this far out of my way just to walk these trails, but I knew it had something to do with Brian. I needed closure and I knew I would not find that anywhere close to home, but what would I be proving by traveling out here.
I found a spot that looked rather promising. I parked my car off to the side of the road and loaded my backpack. Last minute accountability check, a roast beef sandwich, two Special- K pastry bars, two tangerines, a banana, a bottle of water, a bottle of PowerAde, a nutrigrain bar, a flash light (with a spare set of batteries), a spare pair of socks, my vanguard buck knife which I strapped to my belt for easy access, a portable med-kit with a cylindrical canister of Rawleigh antiseptic salve I bought at the market. Lastly there was my Smith & Wesson .38 Snubnose revolver, or as the golden agers liked to call “a lemon-squeezer”. While at the time I was not swayed by Mr. Wright’s outlandish ghost stories, I was still not one who liked to venture out on his own without a contingency plan. What’s that old sayin’? The pessimist looks down and hits his head, while the optimist looks up and loses his footing, and the realist looks forward and adjusts his path accordingly.
I took the revolver and tucked it into my back waistband for quick access purposes.
I looked and saw the marker sign hammered to a tree trunk, it read “Hathaway trail”. There was no ulterior motive behind my choice; I just felt I was far enough away from people now and I could be with just myself. I started meandering down the trail’s long path. I looked up and saw the crisp, copper leaves on the trees; they swayed back and forth in the autumn wind, my cheeks were flush red by the harsh cold, but it did not trouble me in the least bit. At last I thought, peace and quiet.
Hours go by and nothing thus far. I was beginning to think I was right about ol’ Mr. Wright being off his rocker. The forest was content; all except for the just barely audible noise of cars on the highway, meaning I wasn’t entirely cut off from civilization. The clouds lingered overhead like schooners, sailing slowly above me, trailing their shadows like wakes. I came across an old ‘58 Plymouth Fury with most of its original character despite its rusted exterior. The vehicle’s naturally red exterior was scorched by decades of rust, its corroded color was like carnelian or perhaps more like red velvet cake. What was once an extravagant piece of luxury was now just a piece of scenery reclaimed by nature and completely buried in foliage and pine straw.
I then noticed something, it didn’t mean anything at first, but it struck me as being out-of-place. It sounded like a tree branch snapping. Not a light snap, but more of a heavy break like something forcing its weight down on top of the fallen limb. I looked over my shoulder and listened for a moment or two, there was nothing after that. Perhaps it was just another hiker, or an animal passing by but it sounded too heavy to be anything small like a possum, or a raccoon. It had to be something fairly large, but I did not let that idea hang around in my mind for too long.
I proceeded walking for a little while longer then made haven on a broad table of rock that was positioned up a steep slope overlooking the lower basin. I could not see very much as the trees and undergrowth obstructed my view. Black bear and white-tailed deer once roamed this valley many decades ago. Nowadays, the black bear population had been depleted due to excess hunting and while white-tailed deer were still native to this valley and places west of here, they were scarcer due to mankind’s yearning for ownership of land. Places this far east were mostly colonized, so moments like these in places like this were in short supply these days.
I unlatched my bag and took out the bottle of water. By the time I was done sipping the bottle I had managed to drink nearly three quarters of it. I then proceeded to eat one of the tangerines, the nutrigrain bar and one of the Special-K bars I brought along with me. I was about ready to eat my sandwich when I decided my appetite wasn’t quite there yet. I rested my head against a slab of rock that protruded out of the hilltop. I leaned back and shut my eyes for a little; I wanted to catch my breath before I continued on. I set the timer on my phone to wake me in about fifteen minutes. I closed my eyes and then I awoke to the sound of my alarm going off. The birds in the trees still sang confidently, the crows were cawing in a vexatious manner and I felt as if I had just shut my eyes a few moments ago, but that was just a natural feeling people have when they’re tired. While it was tempting to stay in that area for a little while longer and go on sleeping like Rip Van Winkle I had places to be right then. I brushed myself off, shouldered my bag and continued walking.
I’d been walking for a long time, by then I had explored those woods for hours searching for anything to substantiate its reputation for an unholy ambiance. Soon enough I came across an open field sheathed with what appeared to be barberry bushes, but I was not entirely certain. The crimson color reminded me of a burning field painting by a woman named Karin Goeppert. I’d seen the painting once before hanging at the Mount Holyoke art museum. Its vastness and ashy, murky colors were mesmerizing. It felt like there was some unknown force inside of me telling me to go take a walk. The next thing I knew I was off the path and into the field of barberry bushes.
Walking along, taking in all its beauty and splendor. Then again my journey was interrupted; I heard what sounded like footfalls moving just up ahead in front of me. It didn’t sound like chipmunks. No, whatever this was it was much too large to be any small game. A buck maybe, or a coyote perhaps, but it sounded like bare feet galloping across the grubby forest floor. Something was definitely moving out there-something big. The sound seemed to be emanating from the cover of tree branches about twenty yards ahead of me. I could not see anything as the long tree trunks and branches thwarted me view. The trees were covered in dim shadows allowing the interloper to move about unseen. I stood frozen to the ground for a minute, waiting, listening, and watching. Whatever it was, I was beyond certain it was still there and it was still watching me; hunkered down to the ground, staring at me with great intent. I slowly moved my hand back towards where my .38 was posted. I wrapped my fingers around the warm, leather grip, tinkering with the hammer on its backside. I waited another moment till finally I drew the pistol out and fired one round into the air. The crash of the bullet cleared my ear drums and sounded like a rocket launch. I heard it again; the interloper was now moving away from me, each passing second it retreated farther and farther back into the forest.
I stood there for a minute listening to the sounds of its footfalls against the underbrush and falling tree branches. Whatever it was its gone now I thought to myself. But what if it comes back? A wary voice in my head asked me. If it comes back, then next time I won’t shoot up…
The sun was now falling over the Appalachian Mountains; I was walking up a steep slope. The trails were swathed with trash; Starbucks Styrofoam coffee cups, bags of Lays potato chips, Doritos, Fritos and candy wrappers. There was graffiti on some of the rocks that jutted out of the hillside; some rather insightful and some rather cliché. One piece of scripture that stood out to me was a message on a boulder embedded into the hillside that read…
I could not help but laugh out loud; I thought it was sort of an impractical thing to write, kids will say anything to sound insightful these days. While the quote was very ambiguous
I had my ideas as to what the writer was projecting to his readers. Kids these days thinking there was nothing they could not achieve; that they were limitless, impossible to measure. It was all just a load of rubbish, nothing in this world lasts forever and nothing in this world is perfect (I should know that better than most people) but I digress.
I walked along listening to the sounds of the birds on the tree tops, the crickets were itching their legs into an autumn humming, and frogs were throat swollen like ladies with goiters shouting up into the evening sky and the occasional rattling pitch of a woodpecker. Then suddenly, I felt coldness in my veins. A loud wailing sound from up ahead, as soon as I heard it I teared up, consider me “pussy” but I knew something was approaching from uphill. Not an animal or a person but a sound that seemed rather distant but was closing in fast. It was moving so fast that I would expect to see the origin of it at any moment. There was no grotesque shape or large unthought-of beast, but instead a maniacal laughter flew down the hillside in frenzied cycles. I could hear the voice on the wind calling my name, it was so close now and I feel as if the origin of the laughter was without form, no embodiment to call home, just a loud and sharp voice that might make an incriminating shadow along the seam of my pants. I listened to the sound as it moved all around me. The wind began to pick up speed; heaps of leaves drew out from the forest and flew right past me. The revolver tucked into my back belt loop felt useless now. The voice rose and fell into a guttural, chuckling before it faded out all together. In that moment I felt as if I had just seen (or heard was perhaps the more suitable way to describe it) a poltergeist.
The cold laughter was gone and the monotonous whine of the wind returned. I struggled as a wad of spit lodged itself in my throat, my chest rose in jagged cycles as I forced out a murky, yellow wad of lung butter onto the rocky surface. I stood staring stolidly into the abyss of the woods asking myself what it was that I just saw happen. Then I decided to not to let ol’ man Wright’s fairytales get the best of me.
“A loon,” I said, “just a loon…”
A loon, a voice inside my head asked me, at this time of year?
“Yeah…” I whispered; just a flock of them on their annual migration south to the Carolina’s or Georgia maybe.
The sky was painted with mahogany, orange and purple as the sun drowned in the horizon, the clouds held the promise of a calm and peaceful night. It’s time I start headin’ back.
I looked down at my wrist watch and doubled back for a second when I realized the time was incorrect. My watch said 3: 25 PM but there was no way that could be true. Damn things broken again I told myself. But I didn’t falter, I reached for my phone in my back pocket, unfortunately I was all out of juice there, just one problem after the other. I was a man in the woods without any way of telling time or any form of communication. No matter, I’ll just double back the way I came and eventually I should hit the main road, easy-peazy-lemon-squeezy.
I was nowhere closer to where I’d parked my car. Everything looked the same; the night sky loomed in the far distance. My heart ached when I realized I had not seen any mile markers, or any sign of people for at least an hour. I found myself inadvertently peering back over my shoulder from time to time, as if I’d hoped to find a man in a black hood and cassock standing behind me. After all, the ol’ timer mentioned the devil’s pawns occupied these here woods. Had there been any, surely I would have seen them by now, wouldn’t I? A million follow-up questions grazed across mind. My brain was so rattled that I couldn’t tell which way was up and which way was down. I stopped on the trail just for a sec; I unstrapped my sack and began to dig through it. A large word in neon red letters lit inside my mind at this point, the word was Eureka! I’d found the flashlight I’d brought with me. I turned it on; its radiance exceeded my expectations. I proceeded down the slope, the forest was now without sound, and while it struck me as being odd, it didn’t put a damper on my confidence. I was still not convinced there was anything supernatural going on in Freetown forest.
I was worried but I’d remembered looking at a map before I came out here and on that map I remembered there was a brook somewhere nearby, Rattlesnake Brook. The thing I remembered most from survival training in the army was if you ever find yourself lost in the woods and do not have access to a compass, a map, a protractor or a pencil then search for running water. Running water always leads to the ocean, where there is ocean there is civilization, and where there is civilization there is people. I felt as if my confidence was restored. Shouldn’t be too hard to find, all I have to do is be patient and listen for running water, I thought to myself.
My field of vision grew dim and I was losing the light quickly. Then I heard something, something I felt I should not hear this far out in the woods. It sounded like laughter, like a child’s laughter. I turned and did a one-eighty spin. Where was it coming from? I asked myself.
“Is someone there?” I called out shyly, but no one replied.
Then just up ahead something entered my peripheral vision, a blurry mix of grey and white ran from one side of the path to the other. It moved on all fours like a chimp, but the thing I remembered definitively about it were just three bony fingers on each hand passing through the bush. I’d never seen my own two feet work like they did that day; I began sprinting in the opposite direction howling with uncontrollable fright. I went off the trail and started fumbling through the tree branches and thorn bushes. I did my best to keep my speed on pace, I was moving faster than an old maid trying to catch the bridal bouquet. As the brush thickened I soon couldn’t tell which direction I was running now. My pant leg got caught only for a moment or two, but I managed to shimmy myself free and kept on moving.
I saw an opening just up ahead where the darkened sky peered down on top of me. I jolted through those bushes and leaped out into the open, but when I realized I was not standing in a field, my heart sank. I felt as if I’d stepped in some runoff from a sewage pipe. The stench hit me first, the mixture of something rotten and something dead. I’d realized I had stepped into a bog; the mist draped itself around my knees, the ground was loose and moist. My feet had sunken maybe ten inches into the loose, grime ridden earth. I struggled to lift my ankles out from the mud; a loud suction noise followed by an outward rupture of mire and grunge as I pulled my feet free from the earth’s clasp. I lost my balance only for a moment, but it was enough to send me tumbling backwards into the tree line. I felt like a bottle of suds that was shook too hard. I felt as if my mind fabricated everything out of thin air, sheer desperation or another part of me that took pleasure in watching me struggle; feeding off my anxiety. There was no more containing it, I was frightened and I was lost.
“GOD DAMNIT!” I yelled, “Owe Jesus find me in the Alps. What do you want from me?!”
It wasn’t until afterwards I’d discovered I had stepped into Hockomock swamp. Something overcame me, I felt fatigued all of a sudden, as if I’d just ran the Boston Marathon. My eyesight doubled, I shook my head trying hard not to pass out. A regiment of black moths clouded my vision; I could feel myself beginning to tip backwards. My stomach felt bilious, this was a fight between me and my stomach and I was losing badly. Remember what the ol’ timer said, the mist and the marsh tinkers with your mind. I had to get out of that place and quickly, had I stayed there any longer I would have fainted and fallen face first into the marsh and would be a late night snack for whatever came passing by. I turned back and tried to find my bearings, but I froze when I saw it.
“The Hell is that?” I asked myself. An animal My conscience replied. The thing was tangled in the weeds and the forest’s undergrowth. I moved cautiously towards it. It’s dead. It was a deer at one point, but now it was just a memory. It was split open like a piñata; its face was half-gone, a whole section was torn out from its chest, its ribs were picked clean, its entrails lay on the ground partly eaten, the blood was hardened and black like a woodchuck’s asshole. Its eyes…What happened to its eyes? I thought. In the place where its eyes should have been were two vacant, black holes. It took its eyes. This wasn’t hunger, this wasn’t instinct this was…rage a raspy voice in my head replied.
Abomination was the first word that came to mind. Only something so horrible could do something so evil. Then I began contemplating what might have actually been the wrongdoer in this act. A coyote I considered it for a minute, but I knew right away I was wrong. No, not a coyote, coyotes don’t do this; A lynx if large enough, perhaps? Then I heard an indistinct voice join in the conversation. It was a voice I had no association with before in my life. The voice sounded prim and proper with an icy undertone that was overflowing with pique. You know what did this…the cold voice replied. It’s been watching you…
“There’s no such thing as a Pukwudgie…” I said and would continue to repeat to myself over and over and over and over again.
Must we play games, my inquisitive friend? We both know you are just lying to yourself the voice said tauntingly. It takes their eyes so no one has to bear witness to its revolting appearance.
“Why don’t you just piss off already?” I said now trying to shoo away the voice.
Just like that it left, did not put up much of a fight. Perhaps my frustration was enough to drive it off, but it would be back, that much I was certain. It would let me win this round, but it would be back.
Beside the animal’s remains in the marsh I saw what appeared to be deep impressions like something on all fours had bolted off. They proceeded northward in the opposite direction from which I’d come. Whatever it was it’s since moved on elsewhere. Lord knows whatever mauled this deer may come back. Let the meats ripen some more before it comes back and finishes the leftovers. The sun was almost entirely gone now and I was still no closer to finding my way out of this forsaken place. As I moved further and further away from the marsh I felt my vision begin to restore itself. The mesh of knots in my stomach vanished but I did not feel well again for in the back of my mind I knew something was with me back there in the bog, I could not shake the feeling that I was under surveillance, that something was watching me carefully from the trees.
I’d managed to find my way back onto one of the trails, but with there being very little daylight leftover from the afternoon I could not tell if I was going the right way (back towards the road) or the wrong way (further into the forest). My light flickered a time or two, the batteries were beginning to die but I was in no real danger of losing the light just yet for I was wary enough to purchase an extra set of batteries back at the Main Street market before coming into these woods. It may have been the best decision I had made thus far in my day, or possibly the remainder of my life I thought to myself.
I stopped along the trail, when I moved away from my mind and took a moment to listen to the sound of the woods. I was startled when I realized there was no sound. The sound of the birds in the tree branches were gone as well as the delicate movement of squirrels and chipmunks moving in the bushes. To the untrained eye (or ear) that seemed like nothing, but to a man such as me, nature does not go quiet unless there was something foreboding nearby. I opened the cylinder to my .38 and checked to make sure I got a good count on the number of rounds I had left. Four unused rounds still loaded in the cylinder along five more spares I had tucked away in my front, right pocket. I closed the cylinder and held the gun at the low and ready. I kept my finger outside the trigger guard; I did not want to risk startling myself and inadvertently waste a round. I had only nine casings left so I had to make them count. I lifted the flashlight and pointed it ahead. Then to the trail behind me something moved. I whirled around with the flashlight pointed down the trail and the revolver this time up and at the ready with my finger wrapped over the trigger. I was caught off guard by a man standing in the middle of the path about ten yards back. His arms were folded; he wore a long, black cassock and a hood like those satanic cultists ol’ Wright talked about. Was this one of ‘em, I asked myself, is this one of the cultists Mr. Wright spoke of?
“WHO ARE YOU?!” I yelled. The man did not reply he just stood there staring at me unresponsively through the black hood.
“SHOW YOURSELF!” I demanded, “LET ME SEE YOUR FACE!” I was now blaring orders at my concealed visitor. The man did not step forward nor did he speak, he merely withdrew his pale, white hands from the sleeves of his cassock and pulled back the cover from his face. When I finally saw what lied beneath the hood, the hand which wielded the revolver fell to my side. What I saw beneath the hood was something I could not fathom. It was the face of my deceased brother, Brian.
“It can’t be?”I whispered. The man in the cassock said nothing; he just continued staring at me.
“But I saw you die…” I said to the man. The woods was silent, the light in the sky was now gone and turned to a perpetual grey. The gentle wind blew up piles of leaves in dancing dervishes.
“WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?!” my voice was no longer demanding but was enraged. “YOU CAN’T BE HIM! SO TELL ME WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?!”
Finally the man in the cassock spoke, not with the same voice as my late brother but with the same cold voice that had spoken to me earlier in the back of my mind, “I am the Keeper of this place…”the voice was just as prim and proper as before but it did not sound so hateful like before. “I’ve lived in these woods for a very long time…”
“Why do you look like my brother?” I asked.
“I had to take the shape of someone you knew, I can appear as others if you’d like?” said the man in the cassock.
“Don’t…” I replied. While it was rather difficult to see his face again, it did me some good seeing him in good health and without the sickish, yellow tinge he wore on his skin in his final days.
“What do you want with me? Are you the reason I am lost?” I asked.
“I have not nor have I been responsible for any such ill-will acts.” the man replied. “As you’ve seen, I am not the only one who dwells within these woods. I am how you might say the warden here, the custodian, the curator, the guardian or just simply the keeper of the woods.” The man in cassock said in resentful tone. “There are other spiteful specters that live in these woods. You should’ve listened to the ol’ timer…this place is cursed.” I felt as if I were on the verge of crying, but my pride was every bit as important to me as the life which I held dearly to right then. Whether this man was real or not, balling in front of others was truly degrading in my opinion; I could not remember the last time I cried in front of others, not since I was young was my supposition. Not at the wake or the funeral or any other event following, or even that night when the pain hurt the most.
“That is what brought you here. Whether you believe in them or not you came here because of the reputation this forest holds. You may say that it is all rubbish, but before you answer that remember who you are speaking to.”
While I wanted to deny his claims, I could not lie to the man in the cassock; if he truly was what he says he was then lying to him would be as useful as a screen door on a submarine.
“I wanted to see if the myths were real or not…” I said in a husky, whining whisper, “I just wanted proof that there was something after this life, but-”
“But you did not anticipate your speculations would be true?” the man interjected.
I breathed deeply then asked the man, “What is it…The thing in the woods, the thing that’s been stalking me?”
The man in the cassock stared phlegmatically at me for a moment or two then he replied,
“It was once human…” I felt my heart skip a beat when he spoke. The thought of whatever it was out there and the thought that it was once a human frightened me dearly. “Now it is just a thing in the woods.”
“Will it kill me?” I asked now feeling like I was on the brink of falling onto the cold, dirt path and begin crying.
“Perhaps…” the man said questionably, as if he was not sure what the answer was himself.
“Is there any hope for me?”
“Dammit is that all you can say to me?!”
The man did not reply this time, he just continued staring at me intently. Everything went quiet again for a minute then he began to speak.
“Why have you not visited him?”
“Your brother’s grave, you have not visited him since his funeral.”
“Is this why you’re here? You’re here to chastise me?”
“No…” the man replied. “I simply want your answer, and then I will decide.”
“Decide on what?” I asked. To this the man made no reply.
I looked at him till my face turned red, then I decided not to waste anymore time.
“I-I don’t know…” I said as if I was on the verge of tears. “I’ve asked myself that same question so many times and so many times I come back with nothing. I feel as if I am a bad person, how much can a person love someone when there are no tears worth shedding? Part of me resents myself because of it. I wished I had sobbed like a little boy at his funeral, I wished I could release all of this hate I should feel…but instead I feel like a hollow shell. Just an empty space on the inside…”
We stood for a moment without saying anything. “Now,” I replied. “Are you satisfied?” I asked the man in the cassock.
“Yes.” The man replied.
“Now tell me, what is your answer?”
The man went for the longest time without saying anything, I thought I would have to yell at the top of my lungs but finally he said to me. “No…” he replied.
“No?” I asked.
“My answer is no. I cannot help you.”
“But you said-”
“I said I would hear your story that does not mean I will be the one to help you. Whether you survive or not is not up to me, son. That is up to you.” He said pointing one pale finger toward me. “I can’t guarantee the beast will keep away or that the vengeful spirits of this place will stay at bay, but in the end the decision falls on you…”
The more I listened, the more I felt I was speaking to my brother again and not some manifestation of a man in a black cassock.
“What happens is between you and him…”
“Who?” I asked.
“Him…” he pointed towards the sky, I looked up anticipating that I’d find the answer above me, but all I could see was the dark, blue atmosphere. Then I realized what he’d meant.
“You’re talkin’ about the big man upstairs?”
“To me he has no name, he is simply just him.” I laughed at his response.
“The last time I spoke to him for a favor, my brother died…so I do my best to stay out of his way.”
“I understand your animosity; humans are always so vindictive when a tragedy befalls them.
The soul’s journey is one of grace and pure misery. The cosmos guides us and nurtures us, much like a loving parent…”
For a man who resembles a cultist he seems so gentle.
“But that parent knows the value of tough love. Often it leads us into a place that brings us suffering and where that suffering can deepen our wisdom. And it is perfectly willing to allow us to make irrational choices which can lead to unbearable outcomes. Do you understand what I mean, son?” I did not respond to his question though.
The Keeper of the woods I thought to myself.
I had so many questions I wanted to ask but the next thing I remember, I was laying against a tree trunk off to the side of the trail. It was just a dream I told myself. An hour maybe an hour and a half had gone by no doubt, the sky was pitch-black and my flashlight flickered more frequently than before. Before I proceeded with anything else I quickly took out the spare set of Duracell AA batteries and replaced the ones in my flashlight. I felt comforted by the idea that the man in the black cassock was never real; however, I was not fully convinced that it was a dream. For no matter how hard I tried I could not remember falling asleep. I could not remember resting, (hardly seemed like the right time for it) I could not remember any break in my consciousness and it didn’t feel like a dream, that was what worried me most.
Suddenly the stillness of the forest was shattered by the most uncommon of sounds; it came without warning or audible approach and ricochet through the pine tops. It was a voice no doubt, a voice that was almost human-gruff yet despondent. It was a soft roaring voice overhead in the trees rather than on the ground. The sound reminded me of the time my family and I went to the Southwick zoo and visited the lynx habitat, this voice in some way resembled the sounds of those creatures. The voice rang out in three distinct notes, and then all at once they vanished, the sound was cut off like a phonograph needle lifted from a recording. I spun around, my gun drawn pointing in every direction. These sounds were awful and made me want to curl up into a ball and wait for someone to come and save me; but no one would save me now, there was no else around but myself and the thing in the woods. A choked cry for help forced itself up into my throat, but nothing came out. The woods was preternaturally silent again but then a sound not like before came rushing from beside. A scrabbling noise followed by the rustle of dry brush, something was coming.
Run my mind told me. Run and keep runnin’ till you can’t run no more. So I did, I ran with all my might up the path’s steep slope. The sound was ringing in my ears, it was all around me, and it swarmed over me. My lungs were set afire by the exertion and my muscles began to ache and grind like cogs in an old machine. Till finally I could run no more; I could not stand upright, the weight of my bag in conjunction with the terrain tired me out more quickly than I had anticipated. That awful sound still rang in my ears like wind chimes, but wind chimes played a pleasant jingle, the sound of the beast was lamentable. Then a new sound followed the screeching, a loud and vile cackle. It was in the trees laughing manically, savoring in the moment, letting the meat mellow in fear before gorging on my flesh like a dog gnawing at a piece of steak.
The thing in the woods was catching up to me quickly; I tried to catch my breath and keep moving forward, unfortunately I did not notice the tree root jutting out of the ground at my feet. I put one foot forward then to my surprise the next thing I knew I was falling forward; my hands were flailing through the air as I tumbled over onto the gravel path. The pain was excruciating, my ankle was filled with fire and ice. It felt like a swarm of wasps was stinging me all at once. The thing climbed through the trees, I could see it hobbling forward like a man with a bad limp. My flashlight had fallen out of my reach and my pistol was lost somewhere in the dark now, I was vulnerable and I was unarmed. I picked up a stone and threw it into the brush hoping to strike the beast hard enough to drive it away but I missed. I scrabbled around searching for more stones; I continued chucking one after the other into the blackness. One after another missing my target, I ran out of stones to pitch, as they say I was out of ammo.
Then at length of the darkness, having thus laboriously conceived brought forth an obscure figure. It drew forth into the uncertain light where light and shadows mingled, not six feet away; then it halted and stared down at me. In an instant it started forward again with the spasmodic motions of a puppet being moved on wires. The thing couldn’t be more than three maybe three-and-a-half feet in height, its hands and its feet were unusually large for its body. Its skin was pale white like a ghost’s, its blackened teeth in broken stubs; they resembled old tombstones, it was mostly skin and bones but with a savage bundle of muscles in all the right places. I attempted to crawl away and build space between me and the thing but it stepped out from the brush and onto the trail. Its back right leg was gnarly, and misshapen. Clear signs of a gunshot wound probably from some hunters round which was unfortunate enough not to strike it through the heart.
“God in heaven…” I whispered.
I froze, I could not scream. I tried to bellow out a shout for help but nothing came up. It rushed forward at me; with the use of my left foot I booted it in the face. A fresh film of blood spat out the corner of its mouth. Now it was more riled than before. I tried bringing my foot forward again but it leaped on top of me. I could feel its icy fingers against my belly’s bare skin. I tried to wriggle myself free of its touch but it was stronger than it appeared. Its fingernails were long and uneven, they grazed against my skin before I felt a sharp penetration followed by the odd smell of iron and pennies and a warm runny matter trickling down my abdomen. Am I dying, I thought, is this how it ends for me? I felt its warm breath on my face and on the dip of my neck; this made my hairs stand on end. Its mouth began to open, with my one free hand I reached for my knife. I ripped the blade from its sheath and brought it forward into its left thigh, blood flew all over. Its blood was different, some kind of dark matter, somber grey like an overcast sky and thick as molasses in December.
The gun was too far out of my reach. I forced myself to flip over onto my stomach; the thing in the woods mounted my back and began tearing away the fabric and Velcro of my bag. The violent thrashing as it dragged me across the ground; the straps of my bag were torn from my shoulders. But its interest was not in me but the bag, it searched through every crevice, every compartment, as if it were searching for something in particular; till finally it pulled out a small, translucent, plastic bag. It was the sandwich I had packed for my trip.
The meat! A voice in my head cried.
This was my only chance. It took the bag in both hands covetously and began tearing the meat and spitting out all the nonessentials. I scrambled for the gun searching all over for it. I could hear its blunt teeth rip into the meat; the sounds of frenzied feeding and the appearance of the abomination behind me reminded me of George A. Romeo’s fright fest film, Night of the Living Dead. I could hear strangled cries of people in my head, the smell of the decaying flesh in my nostrils and I could see the mangled bodies of victims all over the ground. The sound of my heartbeat in my ears was like thrumming wings of a caged bird; I yearned for the cold, metallic cylinder of the weapon, praying for the feel of it somewhere. Next thing I knew the thing was on me again.
I could not fight back so well due to my ankle; it pulled me back towards it with one strong hand, it would paint the forest red with my blood. I cried out, screaming till my voice grew hoarse. My arms out by my sides looking for anything to grab hold of. That’s when I felt it, the cold, steel barrel of the revolver. With one last surge of energy I forced the animal back and scrambled for my weapon. It came back at me, this time standing on two legs like a man, arms fanned out like a scarecrow and that despicable cackle of it was the last thing I heard before the sound of the woods was replaced by the thunderous boom and an ear shattering crack like lighting with a bright orange, red and blue blaze that lit the air. That ungodly scream, I did not hesitate, I fired two more rounds. In the wake of the light I saw the animal driven backwards into the tree line. It cried out in agony, the sound of its scream was almost human. I wanted to shut it out, to cover my ears and wait for it to stop but I would not be able to no matter how hard I tried; I could not erase that sound from my memory. I waited; my field of vision was clouded by blue, red and yellow blemishes. I listened to the sound of its feet on the dry forest floor, moving farther and farther away until the sound was subdued by the chirp of crickets. I didn’t kill it, I just drove it away. I drove it away just as God drove away Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
The gash on my belly was not as deep as I had imagined, but the sight of the blood was nauseating. I took out the med-kit from my bag, I smeared the wound with Rawleigh salve and put some gauze over the wound and wrapped it with a bandage. I did not want to spend any more time than I needed there. I picked up my flashlight and my .38 and moved on. The beast was gone but I angered it.
Time went by like it did before and like it would do so after. I remembered the throbbing pain in my ankle worsened the more I moved it. That pain was so intense it threatened to obliterate all thought. Sometime a half-hour later as I came to the top of a steep slope I felt as if a stone tablet had been lifted from my heart. Twenty maybe thirty yards ahead of me I saw a road gate and beyond that was asphalt surface. Civilization! I chanted in my head.
I moved as fast as my body would allow me to. The agonizing pain pulsating through my joints and my muscles fired on all cylinders. As I got closer to the gate I felt my body grow stiff again. I stopped just a few feet away from the threshold of the forest. I looked back and standing just ten feet behind me in the center of the trail was the man in the black cassock. I was not sleeping this time (this time I knew for sure). His hood was pulled back, his brow was furrowed and his lips were pursed. He was smiling; so genuinely sweet with just the right touch of shyness, just like how Brian use to. On this face, it was a sign of bliss. My throat got dry, and my chest felt light. I turned my back on the man in the cassock as my eyes welled with tears, I tried sniffing discretely when I realized that a great passage of my life had come and gone. I did not cry then, but I would cry now.
“I loved you, Brian.” I said aloud.
Then I began walking towards the road. I walked until the man in the cassock was recaptured by the darkness of the forest.
Credit: Connor Scott