Sharon K. Gilbert ©2003
October had iced the ground with a glittering layer of early frost, and I, little more than a slip of a girl, had awoken with the exuberance known only to children. Nine years old and counting, I hastily dressed in threadbare corduroys and my father's flannel shirt, turned the chilly brass knob that decorated the ancient door to my tiny, upstairs bedroom, and then bounded down, two steps at a time, to the oatmeal smells coming from the kitchen.
My mother, a sullen woman who rarely smiled and seemed perpetually weighed down by some invisible force, nodded a morning greeting and reminded me to finish my chores before heading out to play. Thank the Lord for Saturday, the one free day of the week! For days, I'd plotted and planned how I might best use this perfect day to further the cause of childhood! All other days would have dictated my use of time: School, where budding imagination is sapped from a nine-year-old brain or Church, where heaven sounded lovely but butterflies rarely stopped to play.
Concealing my joyful thoughts from mother, for too much joy in her presence merely served to cause her further inner anguish, I promised to complete each assigned task as soon as breakfast was done. True to my word, I helped clear the two bowls and glasses, mother's cracked coffee cup with the hand-painted roses, and even scrubbed out the oatmeal pot. Together, we washed the kitchen floor, gathered the stiff, dry clothes from the clothesline, stacked the day's wood near the cook stove, and peeled apples for a pie mother had planned for supper.
Once all this was done, Mother removed her only apron and hung it carefully on a hook by the back door. She gave me a slight hug. Ever since Father's death last spring she'd been like this. Something in her thin bones had died with him, I suppose, and she lay buried with him up on Brand's Hill. She'd been little more than a ghost since then, and ghosts find it difficult to smile or laugh or hug a child.
Still, I hugged back as best I could, and gave a friendly kiss. "Bye, Mom!" I called as the spring-hinged door hit my small back. Already the bright sun had begun to melt the lovely blanket of frost; the day was quickly burning into memory. Mother must have stood near the door waving, but my eager legs had no time to stop. October beckoned me explore her dying world, and I had no choice but to say yes.
Now, our farm lies at the end of a long lane that is bordered on either side by thick stands of old forest. Many's the time a new school bus driver has asked me if I really lived down that lonely road or not. I had a friend over to spend the night once, Becky Howard, a nice enough girl with buck teeth and a shiny nose, and even she thought it remarkable that anything might exist at the end of such a long, winding lane.
Halfway up the lane, toward the oiled road marked on maps as County Road 450, stood a ramshackle bridge. The bridge had been built, I've been told, by Amos Smith, my something-great-grandfather, and it served as the only means of getting all the way back to our isolated farm. Beneath the crumbling, old stone bridge, flowed Smith Creek, named for Amos's renowned father, Isaac Smith of local fame. More than once in my small years, I'd seen the creek rise so high that it covered the Amos Smith Bridge, nearly burying it in dirty, black creek water.
Not so today! On this glorious day, no such disaster awaited, for weeks of drought had robbed the evil creek of its pleasures, leaving a bed of dry rocks, like rotting bones upon the impotent ground. And I, coatless and careless, felt free to scamper down that twisting lane to discover what adventures lay upon the civilized shoulders of County Road 450.
Half a mile down 450, and just a heartbeat to the right, stood Meyer's General Store, where cinnamon candies and butter pecan ice cream could be purchased by any child with a little silver and a smile. Three nickels and seventeen dimes rumbled in the right patch pocket of my green corduroys. I'd saved my milk money for two weeks, a secret kept from Mother, just for this special day. Today, you see, was the last day in October, a day of witches and candy, a day of hauntings and pumpkins, a day for wishing and praying all at the same time. It was a day of magic. A day for laughing at death, while praying for deliverance from all evil.
Wishing I'd worn a coat, but resolving not to think upon it further, I skipped along the pebbled path betwixt thorny towers of gold and orange, ancient trees restrained only by the thin wooden fence my something-great-grandpa had built a century before. The sun had not yet risen above the tree line, and a smoky fog danced around my feet and into the nooks and crannies of the hollow. Ghost Hollow. That's what my father had called it. Ghost Hollow Road.
"Why's it called Ghost Hollow Road?" I asked him often, itching to hear the tale again and again. Father had a gift for storytelling, and his deep chestnut eyes would light up whenever he'd recount the old stories.
"Well, Kitten," he'd say, for Kitten was the name he always called me, though Mother always called me Katherine Louise. "Well, Kitten, this is how my father told me, and how his father told him. Your ancestor, Amos Smith, a good man and Quaker who helped establish this county back in the early 18th century, staked a claim for this large parcel of land where our farm sits. He wanted to put the farmhouse up on Brand's Hill, but it wasn't practical, so he built it further down, and that's where it sits of course. But the old forest here didn't want him to build anything."
I would always laugh here. "Oh, Daddy! Forests can't talk!"
My father would hug me tightly, then stroke my long blonde hair thoughtfully. "Not the way you and I talk, no. But they can make plain their thoughts, and Amos Smith could hear them. In his head, he could hear their dark thoughts, and he knew the forest hated him. Hated the axe. And it feared being torn down, so he made a deal with it. He'd take only a few trees, cutting the old winding path to the farm, if the trees would promise to leave him and his family in peace."
"And did the trees leave him in peace, Daddy?" I would ask, knowing full well what the answer was. But Father loved to hear me ask.
His eyes would gleam, and his mouth turned up at each corner into the brightest of smiles. "You know the answer," he'd tease, "but I'll tell you anyway! Old Amos and his wife and three children established the farm, and all went well for many years. But one October day, when one of his kids decided to chop some wood for a fire, everything changed. It was Tom, the oldest, who did it. He left early one morning and took two of his younger siblings with him, little Patricia and William, so they could help carry the wood. Little Amos, Jr., my ancestor and yours, was too small to go.
Now, it must be remembered that Amos, Sr. had promised
the trees he'd take only from the young brush that grew along the inside
of the path, that he'd never take wood from beyond the fence he'd built."
"He did," my father would answer. "He certainly did. Tom looked upon the tall, majestic trees that stood just beyond the fence, and he coveted the trees. He wanted the hard, hot firewood that he knew the old trees would provide. He didn't believe trees could talk, and he didn't believe his father's crazy tale about a pact. So, he crossed over the fence, and he laid his father's sharpened axe to the root of the first black walnut he saw."
At this point in the story, I would always hide my eyes, for the tale here grew dark and frightening. "He didn't!" I would cry.
"He did," my father would insist. "He did. And to his great shock, Tom's axe bit into the tree's hard flesh and blood gushed out! Soon, he and his brother and sister were covered in blood, and Tom could hear the trees laughing. The creek, too, rose up in anger, and it reached out for the children, pulling them into its black, rushing waters. And Tom, Patricia, and William were never seen again."
"Never?" I asked, my high voice trembling and my heart racing.
"Well," Father would go on, "not seen alive, anyway. Every Halloween, they appear near the bridge. Three lonely figures of mist, covered in blood and water. It's said that if anyone sees them, then either he or someone he loves will die before the month is out. It's a true story, Kitten. That's why we're very careful about where we chop our wood, and how we clear the land. We leave the old trees alone, for they have life in them that we must respect."
I remember how my father would get a faraway look in his eyes whenever he'd talk about the trees. Mother never believed in the stories, and she had little patience with my father's tall tales, as she called them.
Now with Father dead, she had little to say about the
The morning sun had continued his climb toward the golden-haired tops of the tree line, so I quickened my pace. By noon, I'd made it to Meyer's store, where I savored a double dip cone of creamy butter pecan, then bought a nickel Coke and a pack of peanuts for the road home. Mr. Meyer threw in two homemade pieces of seafoam candy (courtesy of Mrs. Meyer) and wished me a Happy Halloween as I made for the open air.
Meeting Andy Sheets outside, we sat on a wide yellow bench that guarded the front entrance to the store, its peeling yellow paint and honeycombed legs making it seem like a wise old friend. I shared my Coke with Andy, and the two of us managed to wile away two hours, just swapping yarns about ghosts and goblins. And so we lingered, swinging out short legs in the wind, both of us killing time until the afternoon shadows grew long, and Halloween had finally arrived. Andy shared his plan to dress as a pirate, and I my plan to transform into a fairy princess. For one night, we could become anything in the world, a magical night indeed.
Our arms had grown warm in the afternoon sun, and the sugar of our snacks had worn off, so Andy and I decided to head back to our farm to see if Mother had baked the pie yet. Hot apple pie with fresh cream sounded especially good, and I suspected we might entice Mom to make some hot chocolate for us as well. Although she carried depression with her every step, my delicately framed mother loved me. This I knew. And so, we turned our small feet westward toward Smith Farm and the promised smell of baking apples.
The wind picked up as our steps took us into the grove of trees that bordered our land. The sun had passed over County Road 450 and now hid his face from us. I was glad for the flannel shirt and rolled the sleeves back down to cover the gooseflesh that sprang up on my forearms. Just the cold, I told myself, wondering if Andy felt the stabbing cold, too.
"Guess I shoulda worn a jacket," he said with a hollow laugh, and I nodded. Andy put an arm around me as we walked, and we must have looked like a pair of old lovers on a pilgrimage to youth.
We talked of school and of our futures, of our friendship, and how we'd marry one day. We talked about lucky charms and crawdad holes, and we communed in ways that only nine-year-olds can. We touched souls with no fear, and we laughed with abandon.
Coming up on the crooked mailbox that marked the end of our lane, Andy stopped and gazed into the trees. "Did you hear something?" he asked. Of course, I'd never told him the tale of Ghost Hollow Road, for that is our family's secret story.
"Just the wind," I replied, and we turned south onto the rough gravel. The bridge lay just beyond the first bend, and I could already hear the brush slapping against the crumbling stone.
"Did your mom use those real tart apples?" he asked, pushing his hands into his pockets to keep them warm. "And lots o' cinnamon?"
I nodded. "Lots. You ever notice Becky Howard likes you, Andy?" I asked, hoping to take his mind off talking trees.
Andy blushed, and I giggled at his embarrassment. "Becky Howard eats bugs," he replied matter-of-factly. "But don't you tell her I said that."
I promised not to, and he smiled, taking my hand protectively as we reached the bridge. Now, I've told you that we'd had no rain for weeks, and the creek bed had long since dried up, but I'd have sworn as we approached that I could hear water bubbling over stone.
Andy kicked at the rocks that bit into our thin-soled
shoes. "Kitty Smith, I hear something! Don't you?"
I dashed ahead, sure that Andy would follow me, for
he loved racing just to prove boys were always faster. But as I reached
the next bend, I realized Andy had not taken my challenge. Instead, he
had remained by the decaying bridge, gazing into black waters that bubbled
up from hellish springs below.
Andy looked pale, and he blinked twice. "Who are they?" he whispered through a cupped hand. "Kitty. They're lookin' at me."
I closed my eyes, knowing I mustn't look, for seeing the ghosts meant someone had to die. Daddy had always told me that, and sure enough he'd seen them a week before he fell off the top rafter of the barn. He told me he had seen them, and Mother had begged him to keep it to himself. But he didn't, and he fell like a stone, headfirst, and no one knows why he fell, but me and Mom. He landed on the tines of a pitchfork, and it had taken two men to remove it for his burial. Mother had found him like that, pumping blood into the hay from his ruptured heart.
Now Andy could see them, and someone had to die.
"He's trying to talk," Andy said, his voice like a sigh in the wind. Around us, trees began to moan, and words, angry words poisoned with ancient hate, filled the air.
"Andy, don't look!" I cried, tugging at his arm, but his feet had grown to the earth, like old tree roots. "Andy! Come on!"
Andy's face had paled into a moon of bloodless fear, and I knew the trees had chosen him for their next victim. Fear welled up in me, tearing at my resolve, and I felt my feet longing to run home, run to safety, run from the awful sound of the trees.
"Andrew Carter Sheets, you listen to me and you run!" I screamed, pulling with all nine years of my strength.
Andy budged an inch, but something pulled him back to the spot.
I froze. In the distance, I could see a mist take shape, and three singular figures formed before my terrified eyes. The children. Three lost children, mouths agape and eyes torn from their lifeless sockets, shimmered before us, taunting us toward the bridge.
This is what Andy could see.
This is what I could see.
And we had no choice but to die.
"No!" screamed a voice from beyond my vision. Turning toward the farmhouse, toward the sound of the voice, my eyes grew round with shock to see my own mother, my father's axe in her tiny hands, racing toward the fence.
"Mother!" I shouted, realizing in one hellish flash what she intended.
Andy moved slightly, and I heard laughter rise up from
Suddenly, my mother leaped over the four-foot fence in one super human jump, and her dress caught on a rusty nail. Frantically, she tore at it as the creek's black waters rose up over the road, and rushed toward Andy and me.
They're both ours, the trees taunted, their crackling voices echoing back and forth.
Mother yanked the dress free, and made for the giant
oak in front of her.
"No you won't!" she screamed, and laid the axe to the tree's gnarled root. Black blood gushed into her eyes, covering her dress and face, but she kept cutting. Long branch-like arms swept toward her, scratching at her hands and threatening to pluck out her eyes, but still Mother kept cutting.
Behind us, the waters rose up to snatch us.
"Take me!" she wailed, her fingers bleeding and the naked axe biting.
The waters rose higher, and Andy seemed to come to himself, and I heard him scream a high-pitched scream of unimaginable terror.
Then all went silent.
The sun, now filtered to the west, again warmed the air. The wind stopped. The voices grew silent, and the creek, the hungry creek that had burst forth waters of death from underworld pits, was now dry and empty. A mere skeleton of life with bony, lifeless, stones.
Mother lay near the oak, her clothes black with blood, the axe now mute against her thigh. I ran to her, leaving Andy to wonder behind me. "Mother!" I screamed, as I reached her dying form. "Oh, Mother! You saved us!"
For the first time in many months, my mother smiled at me. "I love you, Kitten."
I touched her damp hair, and hugged her. She embraced me as best she could, her arms draining life into the selfish woods, and she smiled once more.
Then she was gone.
Andy appeared behind me, his hands on my shoulders,
and he let me cry. Nine years old with the wisdom that only those who
have faced death can boast, Andrew Carter Sheets held me, and we wept.