What follows is the first part of a tale that is much bigger than just this story, which serves as background to the larger narrative. It is a work of what I call “Original Folklore,” that is, it is a new work but is intended to harken back to older styles of stories generated by telling and re-telling. In this case, it is a type of ghost or witchcraft story – the kind one might tell around a campfire to frighten others in jest. As always, updates will be approximately 1,000 words. This part of the story will run for seven days and should end on the 5th of July.
A Walk at Dusk
An American Ghost Story
Prelude: Witch of the Woods
Dusk is a dangerous time in the Piney Woods. The forest has become less of itself as the years have rolled down the Mississippi to the Gulf, but once upon a time it was a thicket of great repute, for ill much more than good. At dusk the birds clack, the mosquitos swarm, bats flap, and the wolves come out of hiding. The woods are not dangerous because of the wolves or the bears, or even the alligators that lie in the wetlands, but because of the whispered fears of things far less natural.
Once, when Arkansas was new-settled, and the edges of the wood were still being beaten back – before the plantations were built and the hard work of growing cotton had begun in earnest – a young couple built a house together. Back then there were precious few people, other than the Indians, who avoided the area except to pass west and back again. They were a happy couple for their part and preferred the frontier to the eastern colonies where they were not tolerated. One day the woman’s husband left her to fight in a war, promising to return by winter. Winter came, but he never returned.
In the spring, a group of settlers came down from the Ozarks and encountered a group of Cherokees camped in the hill country by the woods. Being travelers themselves, they warned the settlers of a homestead they came across containing an evil air.
“Something beyond death lingers there,” the eldest said, a man called Black Feather. “Spirits are God-sundered in the woods for miles. We hunted game there a week ago, but the meat is not fit for a man. It is already rancid when still warm. I suggest you pack what you can on your horses and oxen and make North. There is a good road there, and a few towns of white men.”
“Leave our wagons?” said one of the settlers. It was Clay, an older man and de-facto leader of the train. “We certainly will not. And we came this way to till new land, not old.”
“All the land is old,” Black Feather replied. “Older than me or you. And I tell you as I would tell my sons that the woods carry a taint. As for your wagons, the lowlands at the end of the road are flooded this time of year. Your wagons will not get far in the mud. You had best take my advice.”
Clay and the other settlers thanked the Indians for the advice, but ignored it, thinking it to be savage superstition and believing that the Cherokee were trying to con them into abandoning their wares to them, and so continued down the old road to the flood plain at the edge of the woods. Soon they found their wagons stuck in a thick, sticky, black mud. They pulled what they could to a dry, brushy hill amid the marshy sparse forest and made camp. Winter stuck a finger out that night and chilled the lot of them. Even a good fire, with what little dry timber could be mustered, seemed to do little to the chill, especially for the women and children.
The next day the men set to exploring on horseback and trying to work the wagons out of the mud with triple oxen teams. A few of them went afield to the woods, riding along between thin trees and avoiding large pools. On the edge of the wood they found a house, small enough to be a hut, though well-made, with a shake roof and timber boards for walls. The door stood ajar and was swinging in a cold wind. The forest around it was cleared, but the fields were fallow. A thin water lingered on the ground, an inch deep in most places, making the little house look like it floated on a still lake. Curtains flapped in glassless windows, the shutters gaping and hanging from rusted hinges in rotten window frames. At first the scene misgave the settlers and they were inclined to move on, but two of the men mustered up their courage in defiance of the words of the Indians, and went inside.
What they found was a scene that ever after haunted them. A woman was inside, her hazy eyes staring out blankly as she sat in a roughly made chair. Her lips were agape and a pale shade of blue. Her small hands hung limply beside her. Her dress was tattered. A lone fly crawled over her pallid skin. The house was set as if lived in, but a season of wind had moved things about and left a layer of dust on every object. A black kettle hung in a mud-brick hearth containing rotting wood and charcoal. The table had empty cups, one of which was blown over and held a dark ring from long dried tea. A bed was made neatly in a corner, the sheets set against a straw mattress.
“She dead?” Bill, one of the men, asked.
The other, a younger man named Tom, stepped closer to look and confirmed it. “Looks like she died this morning. She’d be puffed up and eaten to bits in woods like this if it was any longer.”
“But look how torn up the dress is,” Bill said. “And look at the wood in here. It’s all rotten-like. That fire hasn’t been lit in a month or I’m a frog.”
Just then a cold wind blew through the open windows, and to the two men it seemed as if the dead woman let out a long groan. The two men jumped away, failing to silence short screams.
“It’s just the wind,” Bill said. Then they saw the eyes had moved, and regarded them with an eager light. The hands of the woman were no longer dangling, but in her lap. Her mouth was closed and twisted into an oddly beckoning smile. The wind blew again, and they thought they heard voices among whistles in the eaves. Without another word, the men dashed out of the house, splashing water and mud on the way to their horses. They didn’t bother with their muskets, but instead leapt into their saddles and rushed away east. As they splashed through the flooded field, the wind picked up again, blowing their coats over their heads and chilling their spines. Through the gale they could hear, faint and indecipherable, yet somehow tempting, words in a high voice.