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The house was nestled into the depths of the woods, and from a certain distance the only evidence it existed was a small column of smoke in the evenings. No one ever went that deep, though. The woods themselves were believed by the locals to be haunted, though the specifics of the hauntings vary to the point of over-active imaginations. A cow flying, for instance. I’ve heard that one many times. What the story-teller fails to realize is that to give his tale credence, it requires a semblance of truth. The amount of ethereal power a ghost would require to lift a cow would have to be incredible. That’s why in most cases we see smaller objects moving. A picture frame falling to the floor. A tea cup rattling at an empty table seat. Bearing these things in mind, the story of this mysterious house is quite unbelievable.
I arrived on one such evening where the smoke column was visible. The gray wisps died off in the sky and melded flawlessly with an orange and purple sky. The town itself sat safely five hundred feet away from the woods. It contained all your typical small town commodes, and the local inn was no exception. I stayed the night, and, to pass time, amused myself by inquiring the origin of the smoke. I was not disappointed.
The eldest man in the room required little motivation to spout out bits of information in the form of a faded recollection of past events. Past events that happened before his time; missing children, mutilated bodies, rapes, objects moving. You know, the usual. But, the one alarming occurrence he related was that of the woods itself. He claimed that, in the early hours of the morning before the sun has risen, the believed-to-be-former occupant of the house, a Miss Delsy, a woman who was trying to invent a flying house based on works by da Vinci, attempted to make contact with her recently deceased husband. Her chosen method, the elder reports, was using a spirit board. In my experience, such reckless methods end with either disappointment or a one-way trip to an asylum. Regardless, he continued to say that Miss Delsy had in fact communicated with her late husband, but that he was not the only one to hear her call. After a brief reunion, the Delsy home shook violently, causing a local gale within the house, tossing belongings here and there. Miss Delsy was horrified, naturally, and got up from her fallen position to run from out her front door. However, she stopped dead in her tracks after having opened the door. Her house was flying! She stood spellbound as she watched the town get smaller and smaller. Soon she was over the woods, and her wails went unnoticed by her neighbors. Then the house stopped moving, and fell to the ground. To this day, one hundred and fifty years later, no one has dared to enter the woods to discover the fate of Miss Delsy.
I thanked the old man for his tale and retired to my room. The only window in the room gave me a lovely view of the woods. The full moon shone brightly over the treetops, but the smoke remained. It was to this view I fell into troubled sleep.
I was surrounded on all sides by a squadron of menacing trees, their bark as black as tar and their leaves dripped a mysterious maroon liquid. The moonlight glittered on the ground in front of me, the silvery beams barely piercing a blanket of leaves. In the distance, I heard a terrible scream. Only, it wasn’t a single scream. It was as if a great many people were meeting their demise. The branches of the trees bobbed up and down with a mute laughter, and I ran with haste to escape this haunted wood. At last I came upon a small clearing whereupon a lonely house stood with smoke lazily lifting itself into the atmosphere. The scream resounded again, and to my horror it was emanating from within the house. The ground beneath me began to shift, and I found myself being pulled towards the house as though it contained a powerful gravitational center. I tried running away, but in my haste I tripped, and I felt strong hands grasp my ankles. Soon, my own scream melded into the symphony as I was dragged to the door.
I awoke with a cold sweat to find myself once again in the safety of the inn. As I removed my blanket, I stifled a scream. On my ankles were large red hand prints. I quickly gathered my things and rushed out of the inn, but not without leaving a few coins for the innkeeper. I was just about to exit when a hand grasped my arm and pulled me back. It was the elderly man who had I had talked with the night before. He saw the look of fright in my face and inquired, “You dreamed of it, didn’t you? You dreamed of the house?” I could only respond with a nod, as proper words wouldn’t find their way to my lips. He released his hold on my arm. Before I could ask any questions myself, he spoke again. “Running will not save you then. All who’ve had the dream have two choices; Death, or the venture into the woods to find the truth themselves.”
“Death by what?”
“If you try to leave the town boundaries, your heart will simply stop beating. Likewise, none who’ve gone into the woods have ever returned. I’m afraid you’ve condemned yourself by visiting this town, sir! Woe is I who have to look upon the living dead!” he cried as he took a seat at the empty bar to stare into his empty palms. I assumed the man to be senile, and made to leave the town as quickly as possible.
I had just passed the final house of the town when I felt a sudden light-headedness. I put a hand to my chest and despaired to find my heartbeat failing. I went back into town and the feeling went away, and my heartbeat regulated. I determined my only hope of survival to be a journey into the woods.
My brisk pace brought me to the edge of the woods in less than an hour, and the morning sun of September brought welcome solace to troubled mind. I turned around one last time to view the town, and found a visage in every window, some of which were praying. All were watching. After a deep breath, I entered the woods.
Sunlight pierced the frail covering of the treetops, and my heart calmed significantly at the pleasantness of New England in autumn. Birds sang from hidden stages, their curtains a pleasant weave of green, orange, and red. I assumed a leisurely pace, taking in the beauty and convincing myself all this was a good omen.
I had walked in a straight line for what seemed like hours. My legs were weary, and I decided to sit down. I rested my back against a tree. It wasn’t long before the tranquil aura set my mind to rest and my body to sleep.
When my eyes opened, the sun was beginning to set. The peaceful atmosphere was dissipating, and the woods were starting to resemble my dream from the night before. I decided to move with all haste to the house using the smoke as a guide. I could barely make it out through the trees. I began to walk at a brisk pace towards it, and, just as the sun removed itself from sight, I came upon the clearing with the lonely house.
Before the invisible forces could start to pull me towards the house, I decided to go forwards of my own free will. The door knob was ice cold, and before I could turn it, it turned itself and the door swung open, tearing the knob from my grasp. I entered and found it to be a rather cozy one room home. However, not a living soul could be seen. The door slammed behind me and I jumped. The screams echoed once more, and I covered my ears with my hands in a vain attempt to mute the sound. Once it died down, I tried the door. To my despair, it didn’t open. I tried to ram it open, and an invisible force threw me to the ground. I was too dazed to stand back up. To my left, from under the bed, a rotten arm reached out to pull the body it belonged to out. I scuttled to the far side of the room. It was then that I realized that I’d left my pack in the woods. I didn’t even have my crucifix with me. I was defenseless. A second arm reached out.
The hands had found their grip and began to pull itself out from under the bed. It was halfway out when it finally lifted its head from the floor. An empty face stared at me with pitch black eyes. My fear had left me paralyzed, and all I could do was shudder. It had finally reached me and grabbed hold of my foot when I could hold onto my scream no longer. And, as I did so, it screamed as well, until I found that my voice had melded into its Hellish orchestra.
I awoke once more at the inn, and found once again I had a cold sweat. The elder had told me I could discover the truth or accept death. What truth was there to be found? And that putrid being beneath the bed, who were they? I once again walked down the stairs and found the old man in his usual seat. I took the stool by him and he turned to me at once, the bags beneath his eyes a most hideous shade of purple and red as though he’d recently taken a few good hits to his face.
“You’re back. Most who experience the dream even once decide to accept death. Twice, now. Twice you’ve met her and still retain the will to go on. I admire your courage, stranger.” He stretched out a liver spotted hand and I took it wearily. “Linwood.”
“Burke,” I replied, releasing his hand and folding mine on the counter. He pushed a cup of tea in my direction, but I let it sit for a bit. “You told me to discover the truth or let death take me. The truth of what?” I asked, pacing my questions so as not to overwhelm him or seem eager, despite my being so.
I heard a sigh escape his lips, a sigh of remembrance and pain. “The truth, no one knows. A man who wandered here a few years ago had the dream. The woman spoke to him, telling him he must find the truth or face his end. He lasted not two days afterwards, tearing the town asunder with desperate questions. Alas, he made no progress.” He regarded my face. “You want to know who she is. My good sir, she is none other than Miss Delsy herself. Surely you could’ve presumed as much so far.”
I brought the tea closer to me, frivolously striving to preserve its warmth. “The wretch is no woman, Linwood. ‘Tis an unholy beast, a mockery of beauty and life. If I am to face her again, what am I to do?” I sipped the tea, feeling the heat slither down my throat and into my stomach.
Linwood finished his own tea, and I could see the bitter taste warp his lips slightly. “Muster your courage. Scour the house she lives in. Speak to her, if you are able. I fear another night will be necessary, Burke. God be with you,” he said, and I could hear his genuine sincerity. He looked once more into his empty teacup, lost in thought. I left him sitting there, and prepared my mind for another journey to the evil heart of the woods.
I moved faster this time, and stopped for nothing. I would have plenty sleep should I solve this mystery, and plenty more should I not. I made it to the dim hut in half the time as before, the smoke trailing to the sky as a ghastly serpent. Determination filled my spirit, and I strode to the home as a man with nothing to lose. Once inside, I found the interior to be much the same as before. I checked under the bed firstly, not wanting to be caught unawares again. Gingerly I took the sheets and steeled myself for what might be beneath. In a swift motion I removed the sheets and peeked. Nothing but cobwebs and dust. I breathed a sigh of relief, but what was on the bed caught me by surprise.
It was none other than an ancient spirit board, its letters barely visible through the fade of time. A planchette sat beside it. Daylight came in through the window and fell upon the board, as though Heaven itself were willing me to use it. In my heart of hearts I knew, however, Heaven had no place here. Regardless, I sat on the bed and turned the board so the letters were facing the correct direction. I focused on my breathing, and took the planchette in my hands, my thumbs on the bottom side while my fingers rested on top. I wasn’t sure of what to say, so I moved the planchette to the center of the bored and simply asked if anyone was here. Despite my earlier notions of these devices as nothing more than lies, I still felt chills tickle my spine as well as a strange increase in my awareness. I could hear wind caressing the leaves of the forest, could hear each crackle of the fire and the smoke forcing its way to freedom, and every color seemed more vibrant. Even the gray paper on the walls seemed worthy of further inspection. I was about to do so when I felt her. Her physical presence I could not see, but I could feel decayed and cold flesh place itself on my fingers. I knew better than to ask who it was, as Linwood had filled me in. Instead, I had a far more important question.
“Why do you haunt these woods so? Why do you haunt me?” I asked to the seemingly empty air in front of me. With a gentle force I felt the planchette move, and I was so deeply entranced I almost forgot to look through the glass at the letters.
“Trees,” it spelled. I pondered a moment, then came to the realization her body was lying in the woods, presumably unburied by her manner. I nodded my understanding, not quite sure how to communicate so. Then, it moved in answer of my second query. “Clean.” This stumped me, as I had bathed only four nights ago. Unless, she wasn’t referring to my skin. My spirit, mayhaps? That must be so, but what of the rest of the town? I spoke that aloud, and was treated to, “Native.” I wasn’t sure how that was supposed to make sense, but at the same time I made sense from it. For whatever reason, only travelers were afflicted with this dream. That must mean the locals took no interest in Miss Delsy’s fate, and relied on foreigners to save her. That was the truth I must discover.
I congratulated myself on my wit in the situation and said goodbye to Miss Delsy’s spirit, when the icy hands clenched my wrists and held them to the planchette. I struggled in vain, and read the words, “Look at me”. The hands moved mine and the planchette up into the air, and when I looked through the glass, the fight went out of me. Looking at me, from beyond, wasn’t Miss Delsy at all. Instead, a man looked at me. He disappeared, and I could hear a voice crying from the next dimension. “Save my wife”.
The sun was laying itself to sleep to allow the moon its time on the stage when Mister Delsy left me. So he’d found rest, and was bringing wanderers into the woods for them to save his wife, who apparently was having trouble moving to the great beyond. I knew then what to do. Bury Miss Delsy and pray for a safe voyage to join her husband. But where to look? The woods were vast indeed. I dared a glance at the sunset and was treated to a glimpse of the man who was Mister Delsy walking under the canopy of leaves. I was eager to move on and get this over with, but as I got off the bed, the sound of laughter stopped me.
It had come from just outside, on the other side of the window I had just peered through. As I looked back, I caught the barest trace of long hair. Then, a knock at the door. Linwood’s words of courage came back to me, and I answered the door, silently telling myself that no ghost would garner one more ounce of fear from me.
I opened the door wide, and Miss Delsy’s horrid face greeted me. Her body was elsewhere, however, as the only thing beneath her head was an incredibly long neck. Worms and maggots creeped along the flesh of her neck. She released her vile scream upon me, and I responded with a swift hit to her nose. Her head flew back a few feet, and her neck followed like a string to a ball, flapping oddly in the breeze. I took advantage of her position and ran into the wood where I’d last seen Mister Delsy.
The trees were black as they had been my first night, the red liquid still streaming off their leaves. I was no longer afraid, even though the liquid fell upon my skin. When I wiped it off, I realized it was blood. I heard Miss Delsy shriek again behind me, and I dared a backwards glance. My courage failed me when I saw her. She was flying towards me, her feet barely touching the grass, though her head had found its way back to her shoulders. She wasn’t what caused my heart to sink, but what was falling in line behind her.
The house had fallen into a great chasm in the ground, fire bursting forth with an intensity that rivaled the very sun itself. A black, clawed hand took grip on the cold earth, destroying the life beneath it. Another hand found its way as well, and pulling itself upwards I could feel my hope as a tangible essence, being pulled forcefully away. Its head I’d seen before, in a French encyclopedia I’d perused from mild interest. Belphegor arose, his head a motley mix of red and pink, black goat horns, a large nose, and a mouth which contained teeth that seemed to come from a creature which dwelt at the very bottom of the sea. His beard was as black as his horns, and his fiery eyes were fixated upon me. Miss Delsy had fallen in league with a prince of Hell, for what purpose I could only imagine.
My mind found its sanity, and I ran with all speed through the dreary trees, following sights of Mister Delsy as I went. The anguishing wails of Miss Delsy mixed with the ground quaking steps of the demon, and soon the crash of trees followed. My lungs were failing me until finally I saw a corpse in a circle of moonlight. There was a strange beauty that I could not put my finger on. For a few moments, it was only me and Miss Delsy’s body, and the softest breeze carried blood red leaves gently downwards, the moonlight giving the body a gloomy, saddening spotlight. Almost all her skin had been rotted away, hair long gone, but some flesh remained as well as some clothing. And, though I couldn’t see him, I knew Mister Delsy was there, weeping for his fallen angel.
I came back to myself quickly, the beauty of the moment gone. Miss Delsy and the demon were closing in, and I hadn’t the slightest clue of how I was to bury her with so little time. I hadn’t even thought to bring a spade with me. In answer, a crucifix that had once been on the wall of a home and a shovel that had once shoveled coal into a fireplace fell from out of the trees. If that wasn’t a gift from the Heavens, I wouldn’t know what is. Frantically I dug into the earth, finding the soil easily moved. With every heap of dirt moved, I prayed a word of thanks.
I had a decently sized hole for Miss Delsy’s corpse when her spirit was upon me. I could feel her presence chilling the sweat on my back. “Let me help you, miss,” I spoke, almost out of energy. Her response yet another scream, but she was cut short. A peaceful blue light emanated from behind me and I turned to what it was. It was none other than Mister Delsy himself, holding the raging spirit of his wife in a loving embrace. He had his nose in her sinister locks, and her head was pressed against his chest. He bothered himself to grant me a nod, then returned his full attention to his wife. Belphegor’s thundering steps grew closer, but I took no heed. God himself was with me, I was sure of it. That, or by His will he sent Mister Delsy to guide me. Even the blood curdling roar of the beast had no effect upon me.
I took Miss Delsy’s body in my arms with all the care of holding a new born infant, and laid her to rest. I replaced the soil, and planted the crucifix just above her head. I knelt down and spoke the Lord’s Prayer, and after I did so, I could hear Belphegor’s retreat to Hell. He was attempting to claw his way out, but to no avail. I rose to thank Mister Delsy, but his specter, as well as that of his wife, had vanished. In their place was a small crucifix, a child’s version of the one I’d planted, only its silver caught the light in such a way that reminded me of the blue light that had radiated from Mister Delsy earlier. I placed the token in my pocket, and began the long trek back to town.
I returned to the inn just as the sun decided to wake, a yellow sphere barely peeking over the woods. Linwood was walking down the stairs to take his seat as I entered. He stopped dead in his tracks and made the sign of the cross. “My God, Burke. Have you done it?”
I was exhausted from the night before and the lack of sleep, so I gave him the shortest explanation I could. At the mention of Belphegor, he simply nodded and said, “Ah yes, the prince who helps people in their discoveries. He must have appeared to the widow Delsy when she wanted to make her house fly. The poor woman…” I finished my story, and told him the couple now rests in peace. I begged his pardon, and promising to speak more upon the subject when I awoke. I returned to my room at the inn for well-deserved sleep. I closed the curtains, feeling weariness overcome my body. The simple cotton bed seemed to me a fitting reward for the night’s accomplishment. I fell upon the bed, sleep taking me instantly. And, when I dreamt, I saw not demons or ghosts, but Mister and Missus Delsy, in each other’s arms and giving me their thanks. The woods were gone from the dream, and the sky was the gleaming gold of a dragon’s horde. A lovely gate sat on a cloud, its keeper greeting the couple with open arms. They bid me a fond farewell, and that they awaited for the day when I could join them.
Credit: David Majewski