I. Dead Wood Living
David Smith had heard the tale of the Witch of the Woods countless times, but always paused to listen whenever one of his brothers or sisters would jump into it, either to frighten other children of the family in on holiday (which seldom worked), frighten the slaves (which never worked) or to frighten him (which nearly always worked). Charles was the first tell it, hearing it himself in passing from a stranger at a tavern in town, but it was Father who added so many of the critical details, and confirmed it was indeed as old as memory can be in such a young and wild area. To David old meant “true,” and old enough to be legend mean old enough to certainly be true. One night, Charles told the story again by the old fireplace in the big house, and David listened, gripping his knees to his chest.
When he was finished, Michael, David’s second eldest brother, said, “I know where the grave is.”
“No you don’t,” David said, still clutching his knees.
Michael chuckled. “I do too! Me and Ben found it when we were fishing. Just like Pa said, it’s a giant rock that’s half-buried. Nothing grows there.”
“I suppose you heard her whisper, then?” Charles said.
“No. That only happens when it starts getting dark,” Michael said.
“How would you know unless you stayed until nightfall?” Charles said.
Michael guffed at his brother and said, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“You’re scared!” David said. “You’re really scared!”
“I’m not scared of nothing,” Michael said. “Besides, I bet you wouldn’t even be able to stand the grave in the day.”
“Yeah I would,” David said. “I’m not afraid.”
“Good, I’ll draw a map. You can go there right now.”
“What’s wrong with now? You’re the one who is afraid.”
“No!” David said. “I just… We’re not supposed to go out after dark is all. We’ll get in trouble.”
“And you know why,” Michael said, smiling deviously.
“It’s just a story,” Charles said. “We keep children inside for practical reasons, not because of ghosts.” With that Charles hurried his brothers off to bed and joined his father in the study to discuss the business matters of the plantation. David lay awake for a long time watching the moon out his window and wondering if the wind had whispers for him. He strained among the whistling in the eaves to hear a voice. For a time he thought he did, but it faded away when the wind died down. Eventually, his mind no longer cared for the fantasy and he fell fast asleep.
The next day was a cold one. Spring had been threatening to burst forth in radiant warmth all week, but at last it was pushed back by a cold morning rain. With the fields wet and the slaves unable to do the early work of the season, Father released his sons from their work for the day, telling them to attend to their studies before setting out on any adventures, as the boys were known to do. Michael had it in his mind to leave immediately, but David went first to the big house’s study and set himself to work. Reluctantly, Michael joined his younger brother and went to study, which for him involved mostly flipping absently through the pages of his textbooks.
At noon the rain broke into a drizzle and Michael again wanted to go exploring with his brother. With slight trepidation, David closed his schoolbooks and followed Michael out the door, putting on his large hat to keep the water off his face. The ground was less than sodden, the morning rain being light compared to the frequent deluges of the region. The two brothers had an easy time picking their way along the edge of the cotton fields and getting to the creek that ran nearby the plantation.
They spent a few minutes walking beside the water, swift moving after the rain. They watched the fish teem under the water. Michael carved for them with his pocket knife a few spears from twigs. As they walked they would occasionally thrust the spears into the water in an attempt to catch a fish, but they never succeeded. After enough failures to tickle their bellies, they sat down for a lunch of bread and cheese, with a little dried beef Michael had nicked from the pantry.
“I’ll show you where it is,” Michael said as they ate.
David sat silent for a minute, trying to think of an excuse to avoid following Michael. “You sure it’s the spot?”
“Can’t be sure,” Michael said truthfully. “Unless we’re willing to wait around till dark like the story says.”
“I don’t want to wait,” David said. “Call me what you will.”
Michael smiled and said, “Don’t worry. I don’t want to catch hell from Pa either.”
With the decision made, David followed Michael into the woods. They struck a narrow game path for a while, then came across a larger horse-way. It was a little muddy from the rain but useable if they walked along the edge rather than through the middle. Michael paused at a cross-way with another path winding through low-hanging hardwoods.
“I think this is it,” Michael said. They followed that path for the better part of an hour before Michael paused again.
“Something wrong?” David said.
“I didn’t think it was this far is all,” Michael said. He had an odd look to his face, as David watched him, and he wondered if his brother really did know where he was going. The way became a little boggier, and the woods became denser, but they trekked onward. Eventually they came to thinning of the trees and a meadow of soggy, peaty grass.
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