“Violet,” Willis was calling, softly.
Todd Aubrey was awake in the tent, and there was someone outside. He quickly slid out of his sleeping bag and out of the tent.
There was a form in the darkness, and it was not expecting Violet’s father to come out.
“Who’s there?” he barked as loudly as he could without waking his family.
The figure in the dark took a hesitant step backwards.
“Sir, my name is Willis Wood. I am a friend of Violet’s.”
“A friend of Violet’s? I don’t recall her ever mentioning you. Did she invite you to come camping?”
Todd’s voice was still rough with sleep and suspicion. “It’s the middle of the night, young man.” Now his eyes were beginning to pick up details—rather shaggy hair and odd clothing did not ease his mind.
“Uh… let me try and explain.” A few awkward moments passed, during which Todd Aubrey decided at least that the young man was not dangerous, anyway. Still, coming to see his daughter in the middle of the woods, in
the middle of the night… Todd crossed his arms and waited.
“Sir, I mean your daughter no harm. I live here, and sometimes I have come by when you are camping, now and again, and we’ve talked. If she’s never mentioned me, it’s because she doesn’t remember me. It’s not easy to explain. I am… something of a ghost, I suppose you might say…”
“Hold on a minute. You’ve been here before, and talked with my fifteen year-old daughter, and you’re saying that she remembers nothing? Ghost? Are you on drugs, or just crazy?”
The boy looked genuinely pained, and Todd almost regretted his harsh words. Still, what rational person would say such a thing?
“Just a minute, young man. Don’t go anywhere.”
Todd crawled back inside the tent, past his sleeping daughters, and gently shook his wife awake.
“Jess, Jess, wake up,” he whispered. “There’s some guy outside. I think he’s harmless, but call the police just the same.”
Jessica Aubrey was a nurse, one of those people who slept soundly but woke up sharply, ready for any night emergency. Without a word, she found her cell phone and called 9-1-1. Todd heard her voice speaking softly with the dispatcher while he crawled back out of the tent, where the young man was waiting as instructed.
Todd decided to act casual rather than confront the boy. “So, Willis, how long have you known Violet?”
“Seven years—no, eight.”
“Do you come here often?”
“I live here, sir.”
“I mean, Willis, do you often come and visit my daughters in the night?”
“It’s only Violet—Mr. Aubrey, is it? Her father?”
“Yes, I’m her Dad. You understand—“
“Yes sir, I do understand that you are probably very affronted with me, and wish me to make some account of myself.”
“Very well, sir. The long and short of it is that I am under a curse. I cannot leave this wood, nor am I alive in the daytime. I entered the forest in 1817. You may still find my name in church records. I was born 1797 in East Wentham. My family still owns the farm up there, but I’ve not been in contact with them for, well, several generations.
“I met Violet when she got lost in the woods one night. I—I befriended her, thinking no harm in it. In the morning, she forgets even my name, and thinks it was all a dream. As will you, sir.”
Crazy as a loon, or high as a kite, thought Todd, speechless with alarm. Yet Willis’s presence was not threatening, just odd. His white shirt was long with complicated tucks down the front, with a long vest hanging open over that, and he wore handmade-looking brogan shoes, and his golden-brown hair was rather long. Just some hippie kid who is too high to judge any better, he thought. His alarm abated and he began to feel sorry for him.
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
“I was born here. My parents were Scottish. I spent most of my childhood on the farm with them, so I sound a bit like that.”
“Willis, do you live with your parents?”
“Do you have a job?”
“No sir. I used to work on my family’s dairy farm. Also I used to carve wood. I even spent a year in Portsmouth Shipyard, carving figureheads and scrollwork and such, for ships. And I went to sea for a time. But I came home and made furniture with my uncle after that.”
“Where do you live?”
“As I said, Mr. Aubrey, I live here in these woods.” His manner had become somewhat dejected, Todd noticed. “Sir, I understand it is impossible for you to credit what I am saying. But it is God’s honest truth.”
“Well, son, I can see that you seem to believe it, at least right now. But it can hardly be true. No one can live for two hundred years, cursed or not. So maybe when you have a few hours to come down off of whatever you’re on, you’ll be ready for truth.”
Willis sat silently. After a few minutes he said, “Well, I’ll take my leave now, sir.”
“No, son, I’d like you to stay here. There are some people coming who I’d like you to meet.” And who’ll get you off my property and away from my family, with maybe a nice restraining order to nail things, thought Todd.
Willis seemed to shrug slightly and settle in to his seat. Todd relaxed a little.
They sat for a long while in a tense silence. Todd prayed about what to say next.
“Willis, do you believe in God?”
“I do, sir. My family attended Valley Wesleyan Church, but that one burned down in the 1920s or so. They built the East Wentham Methodist Church on the site.”
He has local history down pretty good, anyway. Consistent, for a crazy, thought Todd. He decided to let that pass. “Church membership doesn’t guarantee heaven. Jesus didn’t die on the cross just so that you could join a church.”
Willis looked interested and wasn’t objecting. And he wasn’t trotting out the usual granola philosophy about many-paths-to-God, either.
“Christ’s death on the cross was to pay for your sins and mine. He rose again to demonstrate that the price was paid, and to give us hope of having eternal life by believing in Him. It doesn’t come by church or anything we do, it is a gift of grace.”
“I believe all that, sir. The thing being… I’m not sure but what I’m not already dead.”
Todd quoted, “‘You were dead in trespasses and sins…’”
Willis filled in the rest for him, in pure King James English. “‘Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.’” Willis lowered his head to his knees. “That spirit holds me captive, and I am a child of disobedience, that I know right well. That is exactly what got me into this situation.”
“Then maybe you recall how the rest of that passage goes,” Todd went on. “‘But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, has made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved.’”
Willis was silent for a time. “Can God still love me? Can grace save me? I cry to the heavens, and no answer comes. I search for my release, but find only darkness and loneliness. I die every morning, and wake to darkness. God knows, I am so lonely.”
Willis lifted his head and looked Todd in the eye, seeming to have collected himself.
“If I worried you by coming here, sir, I am sorry. It is only that I see your family, the companionship that I have missed for so long. It was never my intention to disturb that. And I am sorry to have bothered you. Friends are hard to come by, when you’re a ghost.”
This last was said, not pitifully, but matter-of-factly. Todd sought vainly for a reply, but then Jessica Aubrey was crawling out of the tent, cell phone in hand. “They want to talk to you,” she said. She handed him the phone, and sat eyeing the stranger who was sitting quietly a few feet away, near the faintly glowing embers on the hearth.
“Yes, he’s still here. No, but he is trespassing, and he seems…” he walked few feet away, talking in low tones on the phone. Then he came back, and handed the phone back to his wife. “Willis, let’s walk out and meet some folks, all right?”
Todd murmured a hurried “Don’t worry” to Jessica.
Willis stood with a resigned expression and followed Todd meekly away from the tent.
They walked by the light of Todd’s flashlight and met the county sheriff and Frank Cronin, who lived nearby, coming down the trail. Willis winced away from the brilliant beam of the outsized flashlight the sheriff carried. Terse introductions were made and the sheriff examined the young man’s face, muttering that his pupils were normal. He performed a drunkenness test on Willis, who submitted quietly and passed with flying colors. Willis carried no identification, but a turn of his pockets revealed no drug paraphernalia, either. The sheriff took his knife, bow and quiver, which Willis handed him without objection.
Sheriff Amundsen told Willis, “Well, son, you’re trespassing, and you will be escorted off this land. After that where you go is your business. Do you have any personal items back there in the woods you need to fetch?”
“What are your plans for tonight? Are you staying in the area?”
Willis looked ahead to where the trees gave way to goldenrod and meadowsweet, alive with fireflies in the night, backlit by lights from the Cronin’s house and the Sheriff’s car.
“I’ve no place to go.”
The Sheriff looked dissatisfied. “How about I take you down to the station where we can have some hot coffee and answer some questions.” It was a statement, not a suggestion, and they all turned to go.
Willis walked, Todd noticed, with quiet dignity next to the Sheriff. He and Frank Cronin followed behind a few paces.
In a few moments, they reached the edge of the trees. Willis stumbled but kept his feet. Couldn’t keep faking forever, Todd thought. Sheriff Amundsen’s light revealed his pale and stricken face. His hands were on his thighs, and he was trying to keep marching ahead. His breathing became labored. Todd caught up and took Willis’s left arm and the Sheriff grabbed his right. Between the two of them they hauled him, stumbling, up the lane.
Gradually, Willis ceased struggling ahead and his feet were dragging. Frank Cronin called to them, “Shall I call an ambulance?”
“By the time they got here, we might as well run him to the E.R. ourselves,” huffed Sheriff Amundsen, cursing under his breath.
They dragged him to the sheriff’s car and got him into the back seat. The dome light shone on a white face and open mouth. Todd leaned into the car and put two fingers to his neck. “I can barely find a pulse, and he does not look too good. Maybe I should get my wife, she’s a nurse.”
“No, let’s just get him to the E.R. quick,” said the Sheriff. They said goodbye to Frank, and Todd jumped in the front seat of the car. The sheriff radioed ahead as he pulled onto Blackbirch Creek Road that they had a possible drug overdose coming in, e.t.a. 20 minutes. After that Todd explained briefly what he and Willis had talked about in the woods. After muttering “nut job”, the sheriff made no reply and the remainder of the breakneck ride was quiet. Todd glanced into the back seat, which was partitioned from the front with expanded steel, but there was no sound or movement from the young man.
The Sheriff’s flashlight was on the seat next to him and Todd picked it up after a few minutes and switched it on, to see how Willis was doing.
“What the--!! Sheriff, stop the car!!” Amundsen looked at him in disbelief. “Seriously, stop the car now!!” The Sheriff pulled the car to the side of the road quickly and turned to look at the back seat of the car.
Where a strange young man had lain was a withered corpse with only shreds of ragged raiment falling away from the leathern skin. Yellowed bone protruded at the nose, the wrists. The parchment mouth was pulled back in a grimace over long teeth.
The Sheriff bolted from the car, leaving a string of colorful expletives in his wake. He yanked the back door of the car open. Todd came around to his side of the car and shone the flashlight in, although the dome light was bright enough. The men stood there for several minutes, no idea what to say.
Then Sheriff Amundsen turned on Todd. “What the heck kind of joke is this? Where is the boy?”
Todd was speechless, and Amundsen went on, his voice gaining rapidly in volume. “I know you out-of-towners think the whole ‘Wentham Ghost’ thing must some kinda big joke and the local yokels are all a-quiver in their beds every time the wind picks up—”
“Sheriff, I had nothing to do with this! My grandparents told me the ghost stories, but I’ve been staying here every summer since I was a kid and have nothing but respect for the local people—my grandparents and my parents were local people. All I know is, some random guy shows up at my family’s tent in the night, claiming to be a couple hundred years old and what would you do?? He wanted to visit my teenage daughter, for crying out loud! I just thought he was some local kid, wasted on homegrown. Maybe he’s playing a joke on us both, but I’m just as freaked out as you are!”
Amundsen looked back at the car. “Well, that ain’t no joke in there, that there is a genuine dead guy, and I’m darned if I know how that got in there and where the live fellow got to. These doors can’t be opened from the inside.”
“What about the trunk? Does the seat open to the trunk?”
“Nope, no access from the car.” The men stood staring. After a moment the Sheriff began aimlessly scanning the surrounding trees and fields with his powerful flashlight, running through his inventory of expletives once again.
The radio started squawking with ten-codes, wanting to know what was the status of the possible drug overdose.
Sheriff Amundsen swore some more, and went to answer the radio. “Ten-sixty-six, E.R., this one’s for the coroner… Absolutely positive, this guy is dead. We’ll bring him around to the morgue door. E.t.a., seven minutes. Out.”
Todd closed the back door and got back in the passenger side of the front seat. The sheriff sat silently, and finally put the car in gear and moved back into the road. “I’ve seen some weird things in my time in this county. But…cripes…” He took a last glance into the back seat of the car, and Todd was sure that he shivered slightly before accelerating to an unnecessary speed.
Todd had no idea what to say or think. The car arrived at the back side of the hospital at a utilitarian carport by a blank double door with only a small sign that said “MORGUE”.
Amundsen cut the motor, left the car without a word, and went to the door. Todd smelled a rank and musty smell that could only have come from what was in the back seat. He got out and stood by the sheriff’s car, bent slightly over a hollow and horrified feeling in his stomach. The night was hot and insects swirled under the harsh fluorescent lights of the carport. The morgue refrigeration compressors churned away noisily, but Todd could still hear katydids in the tall spruce trees that lined the parking lot.
Two men in scrubs rolled a gurney out of the plain door, accompanied by the sheriff. They opened the back door of the car and stood there, staring. They joked grimly with the Sheriff about how he ought to bring them in a little sooner. Todd turned away while the professionals handled the remains.
Amundsen came to Todd’s side. With a motion of his head, he indicated that he wanted a private conversation. They walked a few yards away from the car.
“Look, uh, Mr. Aubrey, Todd, isn’t it? I have absolutely no way of explaining this, so if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you let me do the talking. I’ll give you a ride back to your family in about an hour. Let’s just treat it like you didn’t have much to do with this. I’ll smooth things over with the E.R. and all that. Meanwhile, they have a coffeemaker in the E.R. nurse’s station, and if you ask for Nancy and tell them Bob Amundsen told you she was good for a cup, she’ll get you hooked up.
“If anyone asks, you found that corpse in the woods. Guy looks to have been dead for a hundred years.”
“You want me to lie?”
“Todd, look at this way. If we give the full story, you think anyone will believe us? And trust me, it’ll be nothin’ but aggravation for you, me, your wife, and anyone that’s involved. I’ll handle dispatch, and I’ll talk to Frank Cronin first thing in the morning.” He reached into a pocket inside his jacket and handed Todd Aubrey a card. “If you see that Willis Wood character again, call me personally. But I doubt he’ll show his face again after a stunt like that. He has to know he’d be in a world of trouble.” Amundsen looked angry and tough, but decidedly freaked-out as well, in the cold light.
Todd glanced over at the car. The morgue attendants were gingerly handling the crumbling bones, shifting them by clumps from the car seat onto a white sheet. A breeze stirred, and much of what remained began to blow away. Simultaneously, he and the sheriff blew long breaths.
Although he was uncomfortable with the deception, he could see no helpful alternative. He turned away from the crumbling remains and walked to the E.R. waiting room door.
It was after three in the morning by the time he slipped back into the tent. Jessica was still sitting awake. He begged her to let him explain in the morning, he was exhausted. After laying awake for an hour, the events of the night still buzzing in his head, he drifted off for a while.
Dawn comes early in the northern summer, and Violet and Jill were giggling and tussling by 5:30. He groggily wondered why he was so tired. He usually slept like a log on camping trips.
Jess turned over next to him. “Weird dreams,” she groused.
“Me too,” said Todd.
There was a sensation both of pain and delight in awakening.
Through a veil of late snow, moonlight gently probed the sleeping biotic life of the earth. The snow surrendered to increasing sunlight and became only a skin of ice which dripped with bracing cold water, distilled of earth and winter sky. It was light, and chilblains, that stirred the dark traces of his dreams.
The sweet rousing of sap into sunlit branches trickled down into the rootstocks and rootlets, gripping the earth like embracing hands. But the sweetness was marred, for with it roused the murmurs of discontented things that dwelt among the rhizomes and sleeping cicadas. Impatient things, but not the impatience that longs to spring forth and grow, the way the mosses and ferns longed; but rather a bitter wanting to be shed of the hindering frozenness. These too entered his slowly waking consciousness.
His own pain at the cold and darkness was consoled greatly by the sensation of awakening life, of the hope of blue sky and clear sunlight, sweet warm rains and caressing breezes, that all the green life of the woods shared. The trees could speak from wisdom of storms and long summer days golden with sun; the seeds with childish fervency for blessings not yet known. These
unheard voices Willis chose to listen to, and pay no heed to those other, wraith-borne mutterings.
Even in finally waking to find his body yet unchanged and alive and clothed and above ground, Willis chose to savor those daily changes in the earth’s condition that composed the cyclic song the earth’s Creator had taught it to sing. She sang it faithfully, year by year, and it gave him no little courage to himself keep faith. For that was not always easy. His life returned inexorably to yet another night, another spring, another season of growth and burgeoning, and then slow resignation to another time of cold sleep.
Especially Willis savored the month of May, when the wildwood flowers bloomed beneath the budding trees, enjoying the face of the sun before the canopy leafed out and cooled the forest floor with shade. Even under the moon, the mayflowers and speedwell and bear berry opened sweet faces to the woods. They spoke of sunlight, and Willis listened well, for he would not see it for himself.
As the years passed on, some things did change. The night smell of wood smoke gave way to coal, and then to oil. The roads grew hard and acrid with tarmac, and the whine of motors changed the night. The scrape of the fiddle, or the banshee cry of bagpipes, was replaced by radios playing in the night, and the drone of airplanes high overhead. The locomotive’s churning became the hum of the diesel train.
Houses rose and fell. Farms were cleared and reverted to second growth forest. Factories arose by the rivers, jammed with machines and workers who lived and died by the poisoned waters; and the brick factory buildings moldered with broken windows, home to sparrows and rock doves who bathed in the clear shallows of the forgotten brooks. Tracts were timbered, flourished with raspberries and bunchgrasses the deer loved, then grew up again with poplars and firs that gave way to oaks and maples. What would happen if he were trapped under a grove that was cut and left open to the sky, Willis was unsure, so he migrated to thick woods when the jeep roads edged near.
But the stars overhead, the Leonid showers, the faithful moon, the night moths fluttering at the river margin, the white-crowned sparrow crying sweet sweet charity-charity-charity at all hours of night—these never changed. The Great Bear arose to claim the summer night, and in the autumn Orion returned to signal that winter was coming to claim the land again.
And Willis did not change, at least in appearance, unless one could see the mark in his gaze, how he saw the world with a look older than any man, or the way he stood when he was still—more still than trees. For he had learned to live without any of the kind of hope that keeps most people going. If he had any at all, he could not have named it.
Therefore on occasion he had yielded to the darkness and cast himself into the roiling spring flood of Blackbirch River, or run headlong out of the woods into an open field, to find a dreamless quiet of death. But in vain, he knew. There was no hope there.
He had a name, although he almost forgot it from time to time. He had experiences and memories and loves, even if those who shared them were gone. He was strong and alive, and his hands were quick. He could carve, and sing, and walk, and dream.
And while he might have denied it even to himself, he still looked for a way into daylight, and never stopped believing in that. Walking in darkness could not be all there was. The moon’s reflected sunlight seemed to promise him that, and the swelling of green leaves confirmed it, and the white-crowned sparrow’s cry prayed for it.