Welcome, friend. Come on in, it’s storming out there. We’ve lost power, but it’s dry and warm inside. Grab a blanket and join us by the fire before you freeze, we got plenty of room. It’s not safe to be wandering around in the dark. Not out here where the closest town is five miles away by foot. You won’t see any cell towers, I can promise you that. No WiFi out in these woods either. Folks in town like to call it a lake, but make no mistake, this here is all swampland. If you get lost, you’re likely to end up as gator bait… or worse.
Never you mind though, you’ll be safe here. Long as we have this fire, we can ride the storm out til morning. I’m Alex, and that pretty thing in the green sweater is my wife, Trish. Our nephew, Ethan, is the shy fella staring at his feet like he wasn’t raised with manners. Personally, I think he was dropped on his head before he had that wiry mop of curls to cushion his fall. Now, what did you say your name was?
Great, nice to meet ya. I won’t ask how you came to be out here all alone on a night like this. It’s none of my business, but I hope you won’t take offense to an old soul’s ramblings. I was just about to educate the young one on some local history when we heard your knock. I’m not embarrassed to say I nearly jumped out of my skin, but you’re not one of them. I could tell soon as I saw you.
Tell me, do you believe in ghosts? You know, spirits? Ah, that’s ok, what better time to learn? Nobody knows how it started. Before Columbus sailed across the ocean, the Indians already knew to stay away. Not even Braves ventured into these woods, afraid of Bad Medicine as they called it. The first white settlement – no, not Roanoke – the first settlement. Few people heard of it, no historians ever came, that’s for sure. Unlike Roanoke, there was no one to come looking for these folks. You know what? Let me start from the beginning, we have plenty of time.
The year was 1565, decades before Roanoke. Peasants weren’t allowed to hunt, all game was property of the Nobles. When times grew hard, desperate men – mostly outlaws and laborers – decided to take their chances on the ocean. They heard sailor’s tales of paradise where the land is open and fertile. A single, stolen ship carrying men, women, and children fled Europe in the dead of night, never to return.
The treacherous journey lasted 8 months, and many perished along the way. The dead were thrown overboard with little ceremony until food rations ran low. In the end, fifty-eight survivors made it to the New World. Desperate to be away from the smell of death, they went ashore as a group. The sandy beach was empty, and the surrounding woods were vast. Their leader was a large man named James Smith. He and First Mate Grant Cooke lead their people into the forest. They cleared land and built a settlement near the lake; it really was a lake back then. The water was clean and clear; not green and smelly like it is now.
Nothing strange happened in the first year, almost like something waited until they were trapped. Letting them get nice and cozy while they scrapped the boat for parts; while they built their homes and planted their crops. They had no need for law or politics, but James held the final word on all decisions. Until the 13th month, those usually amounted to where to plant this or build that. Then a little girl, Ester Jones, vanished. Her disappearance was the first of many terrors to befall the community. I can tell you their whole story, you see, Pappy Grant kept a journal.
June 13, 1566
As we sat to supper, loud, desperate knocking sounded at the door. I instructed Martha and the children to continue eating as I rose to greet our late visitor. Knowing only ill tidings come at such a time, I relinquished my meal to the hounds. Indeed, I was met with the despairing sobs of Widow Jones. Her girl, Ester, failed to return from picking berries. The young ones never ventured far, but even so, they always stayed together.
I made quick work of speaking with the children as James gathered men. We ventured into the forest with one hour of light remaining to us. Unable to burden the women with our true findings, we blamed wolves as the culprits. I will record our true findings here in case – God help us all – a true account is useful to future generations.
The children confirmed their location in the west woods, past old man Herbert’s farm. They departed together, but Ester returned alone to retrieve a lost ribbon. The dogs delivered us directly to the berry patches at which time they turned circles, whimpering. Ignoring all calls to heel, they tucked tails and ran home. Our best hunting dogs, known to challenge bears, behaved as if whipped!
It was then we felt the weight of the silence. No birds sang, no insects stirred, and no winds blew. From the safety of my home it seems foolish to say, but it felt as if we were being watched. James summoned our best tracker, William Reed, to determine Ester’s trail.
In minutes he discovered the lost ribbon, but as he retraced the child’s steps he became visibly distraught. After confirming his findings with the Owens brothers, he reported the following:
“The children came down the path, scattering in front of the bushes. Ester is the oldest among them, making hers easily discernible from the others. You can see where she turns back, and this is where she kneels to search. Here are markings left by her hands and knees, but that is where her trail ends. It is as if she is standing before us, invisible.” William waved his arm through the space as if to prove she truly was not there.
Joshua Owens confirmed the analysis adding, “There are those capable of disguising a trail, but it is impossible to erase one. Maybe a giant bird came and scooped her up.” He said the last in jest, but looked up as he spoke. “What… is… that?”
Following his line of sight, I became aware of a white and red object caught in a tangle of limbs above us. William set to work climbing, and in minutes was directly below it. He crossed himself, nearly falling when he released his grip to do so. We watched, breath held, as Reed untangled the item.
Once brought for further inspection we could not deny it was cloth torn from the child’s dress. More disturbing than its location was the dark crimson stain which covered the white material. If she climbed, footprints would lead to the tree, and its bark would show signs.
Suddenly William ran to the next tree, studying its branches. Understanding his logic, we searched high in surrounding treetops until Horace Wright discovered the child’s location. As he spoke, he stumbled forward, losing his supper in a violent reaction to the grotesque sight awaiting us.
There, tangled in the branches were the remains of little Ester. Out of respect to the deceased’s mother, I shall not describe the horrible manner in which she surely perished. I suspected large cats, for they often hide their prey in this manner, but Reed was quick to rule it out. Again, easily visible tracks would remain. I developed a terrible coldness in my bones that still has not left me. I fear it never will.
We debated how to proceed as the last light faded. Anything short of bringing the child home for proper burial would be a disgrace, yet for her poor mother to see this fate… how little remained… she has already lost so much. I found myself imploring the men to spare Mrs. Jones this additional pain, suggesting we bury the child beneath the very tree in which she was found. I truly believed it it kinder to carry home a tale of instant, painless death.
It took little convincing and was a relief to us all. Widow Jones is a kind, caring woman and our hearts ache for her loss. I am forever shamed to have failed her daughter in both life and death. With torches freshly lit, William climbed the tree easily as the first. Upon reaching the remains, a deep, guttural roar emanated from the darkness. It sounded like no beast I have heard before, causing every hair on my body to stand erect. James ordered William out of the tree at once.
Descending quickly, clutching Ester’s small, shredded shoe, Reed jumped the last four feet. Another roar followed, this time from above, closer and angrier. It was accompanied by the sound of branches cracking under the weight of something heavy. It required all my resilience to stand fast as we braced for the unknown terror to attack.
We held our torches high, but the light would not reach more than a foot away. Dancing flames should have illuminated the clearing, but the darkness was almost tangible. Even more strange was the temperature. The warm, summer night bit into us with a harsh, winter wind.
No man spoke, we merely huddled together, staring into the impenetrable darkness, waiting. How to describe the sound of that beast as it stole Ester from us a second time… alas, I cannot. I can only tell you of the shame we felt as we stood in place, for the monster went without haste, mocking our cowardice. It is my greatest shame, mortally wounding to my heart and pride.
When all fell silent once again, James commanded we return to the village at once. We eagerly agreed, ready to leave that horrid place. As we approached the path home, William surged to the front, insisting we were entering the wrong trail. I spoke harshly, anxious to be on our way, walking with my torch aloft to show no other path existed.
Reed led us to the place he believed our true path to be, but nothing was there. He walked between the two locations, listing the ways he could tell the difference. If he was correct, the path we walked daily was overgrown with weeds as if unused for years. It was a twisted root which several men recalled stumbling over that convinced us.
It was a slow journey as we struggled through the thickets, but we made it home safely thanks to Reed’s keen eyes and knowledge. I cannot stop wondering where the other trail would have taken us had he been less observant. Unfortunately, we were only able to return Ester’s shoe to Mrs. Jones. May she find comfort knowing the child is with her father in a better place.
Until tonight, our greatest fear was being discovered by outsiders. Should King Henry ever learn of our Paradise, he will surely want it for his own. We are prepared to defend ourselves to the last man should the occasion call for it. Alas, I believe we can rest easy in that regard. After what I have witnessed this night, I am certain whatever plagues us is no mortal man. We are resolved to explore the strange path in full tomorrow. I shall record my findings here upon our return.
What’s that, friend? Of course, the bathroom is down the hall, second door to the right. You go on ahead, we need to add a few logs to the fire anyhow. Oh, and if you hear a tapping at the window, just ignore it. Best not to pay them any attention, but whatever you do, don’t open the curtains.
…There, perfect timing! The fire is… oh my! Are you alright? I say, you are pale as all get out! Here, sit down, I think we’re in for a long night. I guess you peeked… I tried to warn you, but they say seeing is believing. There, there. I know it can be upsetting, but you really are safe in here. We don’t have a vehicle, but if you like, I can walk you to town come sunrise. Until then, maybe it’s best I continue the story.
June 15, 1566,
I write in the early morning hours, before the sun has yet risen. May God have mercy on my soul. By my hand James is dead. What have I done? It should have been me! I will never be half the man he was. Martha, if you or the children should one day read these words, I shudder to know what you will think of me, but I must keep going to ensure a record of what has happened here survives. Whatever evil is in these woods has made me murder my closest friend, I must do all I can to prevent others from the suffering similar fates.
At dawn we armed ourselves with every available weapon, intent to traverse the strange, new path. To our astonishment, the trail had vanished. The foliage was so dense, it would have taken several men most of the day to recreate what we saw the previous night. We explored where possible, venturing farther than ever before, but found nothing. Wishing to be well away before nightfall, we returned home to find the women gathered and waiting for us.
They were terribly panicked, all speaking at once. After learning what transpired, I cannot say I blame them. We have taken the safety of our homes for granted, we have forgotten these are strange lands of which we know nothing.
As instructed, the women remained in the village, keeping the children close at hand. Martha invited Mrs. Jones to join her in our home, not wishing her to be alone at such a time. It required much persuasion. Mrs. Jones preferred to grieve in solitude, but in the end, agreed for Martha’s sake.
Shortly after morning chores were complete, Nathaniel, our youngest, cried out. Martha discovered him by the staircase, pointing at Mrs. Jones. The woman was attempting to unlatch the door, but panicked and clumsily. Martha tried to intervene, stepping in front of the door, but was roughly pushed aside.
Mrs. Jones began screaming, “She’s out there! They lied to us, look, see for yourself! My girl is alive, move! We have to go get her! She cannot swim!”
Martha regained her feet and ran to the window, unsure what to expect. At the same moment she laid eyes on the ghost of Ester Jones floating above the lake, Mrs. Jones freed the the last lock. My wife was left to watch helplessly as Mrs. Jones ran to her daughter.
Martha called after her in vain, continuing to give chase even after Mrs. Jones disappeared beneath the water, never to emerge. I shall thank God each day she did not enter those murky depths herself. I have no doubt she would be lost as well.
Several others report strange tappings at the windows and voices calling from the forest, but no sightings upon investigation. Thankfully no one else was lost, for we now fear each incident as deadly. It was then James recalled the Gypsy ancestry of old man Herbert. None of us know his true name, but his knowledge has been invaluable since fleeing our homeland. What ever shame exists in his past are of no consequence here. Now, it seems, his knowledge may save us once again. We absorbed his every word, which in summation:
“If the legends are based in fact, I fear we may have something far worse than mere ghosts among us. You see, spirits are souls of the departed. They are what remain of those who perish but cannot pass to the other side. They can be a nuisance, but they cannot physically harm us. Malevolent ghosts may attempt trickery, such as what befell Mrs. Jones; but had she not run into the lake, she would still be among us now. As for the forest, I am certain we are dealing with something far more insidious than a spirit. It may even hold dominion over the ghouls, I do not know for certain. I do know what ever stalks those woods is something much worse… perhaps a cryptid… possibly a demon. Either way we do not possess the tools or skills to defeat it.”
The remaining light of day was spent fortifying our homes. We burned sage as the Gypsies do to combat evil spirits, but I have seen no evident results. Nothing else of note happened until nightfall, after we locked ourselves indoors. It was agreed no one would leave the safety of their home until morning, but that is the precaution which became our undoing.
Hours passed without incident until the shutters rattled violently as if someone were trying to gain entry. We first checked the children, finding them huddled together under the blankets. Without opening the curtains, I barred the window with the wardrobe. With the heavy oak furniture in place, the noises stopped at once, leaving a pause of silence before a devastating crash sounded from downstairs. I bade Martha to bar the door behind me as I ran toward the sound.
I descended the stairs with pistol drawn, foolish man that I am. Mr. Herbert warned our mortal weapons could do no harm to spirits and little if any to a demon of substance, but I was a weak coward. I thought only of protecting my family upstairs, disregarding all warnings of the spirit’s trickery.
My first sight upon reaching the bottom step was a ghastly image. A corpse reached through the glassless window, shutters torn asunder, attempting to unbar the door. He was pale white, but not transparent. His face and arm bore deep, wide gashes, the worst being across his throat. It caused his head to tilt at an odd angle as if it would fall off any moment. When the thing saw me, he abandoned his effort with the door in favor of clambering through the small opening. I did not think. I did not hesitate. I fired my one shot straight into his center.
I was surprised when the ghoul fell backwards, into the dirt. Fearing the injury as deception, I approached slowly, cautiously, wasting precious seconds as the best man I ever knew lay dying. The full weight of my folly crushed me as rushed to his side, but he would hear no words of apology. With his dying breath, he tried to absolve me of my crime, blaming his death upon the devil’s trickery. Let his last words serve as further warning, so others may avoid repeating our deadly mistake.
“I never looked outside until I heard the crash. I saw a dead man. His head nearly severed, standing before your open window. When he attempted entry, I shouted a warning, but feared you would not hear. I should have known better. Should have listened to the old man. It fooled us, my friend. I followed, thinking it the demon of substance due its actions, but I fear that was its intent all along. I lost sight of it only a moment, yet when I peered inside, I saw you lying on the stairs, unconscious. The monster no longer in sight, I feared the worst for Martha and the children. I am sorry my friend. I’m afraid I have failed you. No! You will not let the evil win by sewing doubt into your heart. Come sunrise, you must assume leadership. Tell them I died at the hands of malevolent forces beyond our control, nothing more. You must swear it.”
The fool was as stubborn in death as ever in life. I will honor his wishes as I must, but once our people are free of this curse, I shall insist another man be chosen to lead. I do not deserve the honor or respect, but I shall not break my word. Martha and the children were able to find sleep when nothing more occurred after my return. I feel as if I have seen too many horrors to ever enjoy sleep again. Sunrise is only an hour away, at which time the village will wake and I will be forced to feign shock and ignorance upon “discovering” our true leader’s corpse.
So you see, friend, as long as you ignore them, you’re perfectly safe! I know it can be a lot to process, especially if you’ve spent your life believing this kind of stuff only happens in movies, but your handling it better than most. Why, I’ve seen people run right out the front door into death’s arms after hearing less! I knew I had a good feeling about you.
How many, you ask? Oh, don’t worry yourself with the minor details, I sure don’t. Who knows where my visitors come from or why? You shouldn’t be surprised if you find your own memories a little… fuzzy… while you’re here. I find it’s best not to force it, there’s still so much we don’t know about these strange woods. You just keep ignoring those sounds outside, nothing is really coming down the chimney, not with that fire roaring. They tend to get more desperate as dawn approaches, but they’re harmless long as you don’t pay them no mind.
Time can work a little differently here, especially on a stormy night like this, but I think we have enough time to finish our story. You can tell this is where Pappy Grant starts losing his marbles a little bit, but you really can’t blame the man.
June 17, 1566
It has been days since I last wrote of the events which plague us. When we fled our homeland, never did we dream it possible to find ourselves in worse positions than we started. I rue the day I set sight upon these cursed shores. This is our last night sleeping on these hellish grounds, and I will never step foot upon its soil thereafter.
I made the burial of our dead the highest priority, refusing to discuss matters of business until all were at rest. James was not the only casualty of that horrid night – three women, two men, and one child met similarly violent ends. All were blamed on the demon of the forest, but I fear I am not the only man who succumbed to ghoulish trickery. I am mortified to find myself grateful James’ wife and child died before our voyage, for I know my facade would crumble before them. Oh how the people begged me to take his place! It sickens me how they mistook my reluctance for modesty! I am no man, I am as much monster as the things that stalk our nights.
For only after nightfall do we suffer their torments. Had Martha not seen the ghost of Ester Jones with her own eyes, I would discount the incident as a grieving woman’s delusion. Aside from the feeling of being watched, which I freely admit is possibly paranoia, there have been no occurrences in the daytime. Perhaps the sage held some effectiveness after all, but that is merely guesswork.
I took no chances in learning this. No, the moment burials were complete, I set about moving all the women and children into the church-house under guard of a dozen men. I told them if anyone tried to leave they were to be held by force if necessary. I was determined not another soul would be lost. It comes as no surprise I should fail that endeavor as well!
Old Herbert says these otherworldly beings are most often confined to the land on which they reside. He believes we have invaded something’s territory. Whether we woke something which slept or it lured us here we do not know; but if we leave, it should not follow. Many legends make note of natural boundaries, such as rivers or mountains. I conceived a plan! I would not battle the devil, that is a fool’s game, and I was done playing the fool! Let it have this piece of land, we hope to never see it again!
I commissioned William Reed and Joshua Owens to travel into the south forest with provisions for three nights. Their mission was to find new land, beyond the forest, past the river we have never crossed. They would be well past the river before nightfall, a position many envied. They should return tomorrow to lead us to our new encampment. We have salvaged all we can and are prepared to travel in the morning. How terrible it will be to tell Joshua his brother has died.
I was so sure of my ability to protect them, so cautious! All slept in the church-house that night, crammed together over every square inch. We slept in shifts, keeping eight men on guard at all time. I slept soundly as eight of our best men, Martin Owens among them, vanished silently into the night. We followed their tracks far as we dared, but knew them lost to the forest. I cannot fathom what false visions could lead eight men placidly to their demise, but find myself preferring ignorance.
Another day passed without incident as we continued dismantling our homes. We built wagons to increase our supply capacity, knowing there will be no chance to return later, but we only have enough men to pull two. With Reed and Owens away, forty souls remained under my care. None openly blamed me for our losses, for none wished to wear the burden of leadership, but I could feel their disappointment as another day slowly faded to night.
We decreased the number on guard to four, having each man tied to a man who slept. The hope was, if a man on guard became entranced by deceit, he would rouse the sleeping man in his attempt to leave. I was to take watch before sunrise, believing it to be the most dangerous. Instead, we all woke to smoke and flame engulfing the church-house.
The doors were barred from the outside. Panic ensued as men tried to break through to no avail. The dry wood burned like kindling as smoke filled our lungs. Mothers threw children through the small windows, but few were able to follow. Thankfully, Betty Davenport kept her wits about her. As others lay gasping and crying, she ran to the wagons, retrieving an two axes and a mallet. Enlisting the help of Susan Collins and her son, Timothy, they were able to open one of the doors. It was too late for many, Herbert is dead and his knowledge with him, but twenty-two of us survived thanks to their bravery.
James’ ability to put our people wholly first in his heart was a defining trait of his leadership, but I found myself unable to meet the same standard. Amidst the chaos, I was consumed by worry for only my family, useless to the others. How much shame can one man carry?
We discovered a single, small set of footprints leading to the forest though we are unable to determine their owner. Many of the dead were burned beyond recognition, but knowing which hand the devil used to do his deed is irrelevant. Had we not needed to bury our dead we would have fled across the river this day. As it is, we are a broken people, but we keep moving for sake of the surviving children.
Mine is the only intact family, and I can feel the unspoken resentment brewing in my grief-stricken fellows. I do not blame them, but I fear it is not by luck we are spared. I fear I have become a special project for the evil in this place. Nothing I do will stop it. We will lose more tonight. They understand we mean to leave, and they want to keep us. If Reed and Owens do not return, I will take those who remain beyond the river anyway.
We have decided not to sleep this night. We have filled every available container with water and barricaded ourselves indoors, spread among the remaining houses. Hopefully we will be less dangerous to one another. At the very least we should not be taken by surprise.
June 19, 1566
This will be my final entry, damn these records. I write only to report William and Joshua returned. We were not alone in this New World. All this time a primitive tribe of dark-colored men lived just beyond our borders. The ten of us who survived the night were met with fear and reverence as if we were some otherworldly beings descending upon them. Imagine! Perhaps it for the best they fear us, for they speak not a word English. With great difficulty we attempt to understand each other by acting out charades. Whatever they think of us, they have fed us and provided shelter so I am grateful beyond words.
I have burned down every timber in that wretched village, but the flames died before reaching the demon’s forest. Martha and Elizabeth are dead. I was miserably accurate in my premonitions. Of course, the blame is solely and completely of mine alone for I fell asleep against all efforts. I woke to Martha strangling Nathaniel, Elizabeth already lost. She insisted the undead were risen, attacking the children. I tried to tear Nate from her grasp, but she had a grip of steel. I tried reason, but her eyes were rolled backward and I could see the life slipping from my son.
I killed her. I had to kill my wife. I revived Nathaniel just barely, though he will wear the marks on his neck for some weeks to come. Of course, that is nothing of the mental anguish he will suffer as a result of his father killing his mother as she tried to strangle him after murdering his sister. Perhaps his recovery would be best served by my absence.
I will destroy that evil place if it the last thing I do upon this earth. I believe answers lie beyond that missing trail, so that is where I shall go.
August 30, 1574
My name is Sly-Fox but it use to be Nathaniel Cooke, and today my tribe recognizes me as a man. I have received my father’s journal, which he left in the care of Chief Hawk-Eyes. My father returned to the Cursed Woods daily despite our tribe’s insistent warnings, and it proved to be his end.
That forest is full of Bad Medicines. All know death awaits those who seek its power. Father was determined to see them destroyed, but the place drove him mad. He left every dawn and returned every dusk for two weeks before he disappeared forever.
Chief Hawk-Eyes adopted me as a son, and I am happy traveling with the Cherokee. Maybe I will write of my life one day as father did, but now is the time to count coup and earn my place among the hunters.
So you see, those last dozen settled with the Cherokee and life went on. Sly-Fox grew to be a respected man of their tribe and had a family of his own. Over the decades as more white men came, he grew worrisome in his old age. He tasked his sons to return him and their people to that first place they fled beyond the river.
As the country grew, many tried to settle this area by the lake, but none stayed. With each new sacrifice, the land was poisoned, turning the soil infertile and the lake putrid. When survivors fled to Jamestown, they were welcomed without question. As wars for territory savaged the countryside around them, they remained just out of its reach, always in the grips of their own, private war.
So that’s how our little town was founded! I can even point to where they built the first house if you like. Though, let me tell you, it was over a century before they allowed a bridge across the river. They worried something terrible might decide to use it, but nothing has so far. Anyway, I think the storm is finally over if you’re ready to hit the trail…
You know, I was starting to think you weren’t going to ask why we live here instead of in town. Most people start wondering pretty early in the night, before they get a chance to know us. Not everyone is kind as you are, they don’t understand not all spirits are bad. Why, if it weren’t for the likes of us, there wouldn’t be so many to make it to Jamestown in the first place. Now come on, let’s get you out of here before the next rains come. I can’t cross the river with you, but I can see you to the bridge. I’ll show you some… huh? Are you sure? It be no trouble t’all. Well, alright then, if you insist.
It’s been a pleasure, y’all come back now, ya hear!
Credit : Page Turner
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