Beware the forests of Pennsylvania. They’re dark but they’re watching you. You can feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end because you know that something is waiting in the darkness between the trees. Watching and waiting for you to turn your back. Just for a moment…
I grew up in an area of northeastern Pennsylvania that was struggling from rural to suburban in the early 1970s. New housing developments elbowed their sterile green lawns into seventeenth century farmland, upstarts shaking their fists at the old Pennsy Dutch hex signs and traditions. In many ways, it was a culture clash, but it also provided an interesting fusion. Much like turn of the century railroads, telegraph and automobiles invaded the old west – with Model-Ts chasing horses past swing-door saloons, modern times were hot on the heels of the stubborn Pennsylvania Dutch agrarian ideologies.
These same ideologies had deep roots in Germanic storytelling. Grimm’s fairytales, the original German ones, lived up to their author’s namesake for they often veered into dark waters. Consider Ashenputtel (Cinderella) in which white doves peck the evil sisters’ eyes out at the conclusion. And who can forget the adorable ending of Schneewittchen (Snow White) that finds the evil queen locked in a pair of red-hot iron shoes and dancing herself to death. Fusing the dark, traditional tales with modern interpretations and mutations, I heard plenty of creepy stories, deviously attached to the real places and characters around me. Compound that with my childhood home being legitimately haunted (just ask the rest of my family). Perhaps that’s part of the reason I gravitate toward dark corners of the psyche with my content. Or perhaps I’m just a bit twisted.
Tales From The Boschard was born of that fusion – the name Boschard is a mash up of old and new. The ‘bos’ from the Old German for a wooded area (Bosc) and the new English word, orchard, providing the ‘chard’ part. I’ve tried to re-create that linguistic fusion in some of my characters as best I could as well – particularly for the old-timers who routinely lapsed from English to German to Pennsylvania Dutch, often in a single sentence. Here’s a commonly used example of Pennsylvania Dutch that my father asked me to decipher when I was a kid:
Saville der dago
tousand buses inarow
nocho demis trux
summit cows and summit dux
Here’s the translation:
Say Willie there they go
a thousand buses in a row.
No Joe, them is trucks,
some with cows and some with ducks.
Many of these tales are haunted folklore passed down from family members and acquaintances and others are based on actual events. I think that all of them will give you a glimpse into that place where my darkest dreams routinely came true – haunted, weird, northeastern Pennsylvania.
Chapter 1 – The Mound
He had us corralled like sheep – trapped between the garage and a chain-link fence too high to scale. His snow white hair, breeze-blown up in the back, completed the portrait of a mad white rooster. He squinted at us through black, beady eyes, barely visible between the leathery creases of his withered face. His skeleton right hand clutched a hefty cane – that bone-white instrument of retribution. We had all seen him hurl that rod with frightening accuracy at cats, dogs and wicked children. He clutched the polished weapon with hands covered in worn, yellow gardening gloves. It was strange, but we had never seen him without those gloves, even in summer. His long sleeve shirt hung on his gaunt frame like rags on a scarecrow. Even his work trousers seemed two sizes too large for his wiry legs.
“Naah I got yous!” his gravelly voice rumbled.
Pappy Zanders had finally caught us. Nearly a month of torment at the hands of three eleven-year-olds had come to an end, right here and now in the old devil’s yard on a sunny day in July. Not that we didn’t deserve a show-down with our nemesis – we had surely earned his attention through apple thievery, tomato tossing and numerous other pranks that would likely have resulted in lawsuits in today’s world. Perhaps it was the challenge that lured us to this moment – Pappy was old, but he was angry and very agile for man of his years. The thrill of the chase and the ultimate satisfaction of eluding a mysterious old man was just too good to pass up.
I glanced over at my accomplices, Steve and Ritchie – their eyes were as big as pie plates. Steve’s lip trembled beneath his enormous nose. Had I not been so scared, I would have chuckled at the sight of an eleven-year old boy with the face of Jimmy Durante, twitching and pale with terror. In that distracted moment, however, Ritchie , the smallest but arguably the most daring of the three of us, decided to make a break for freedom. He darted to the right of the old man, his spindly legs slipping on the dewy grass. I watched with astonishment as Pappy wheeled around and brought his cane down across the shins of the floundering young boy who dropped to the grass, clutching his legs.
“Get in the garage, naw yous hooligans!” Pappy shook his cane and hissed through crooked yellow teeth. We pulled the groaning Ritchie to his feet and shuffled through the open door and into our purgatory – the garage of Pappy Zanders.
My eyes took a moment to adjust to the dark interior. The smell of auto tires and turpentine with a just a hint of Pine Sol bullied the air. The tools were meticulously arranged – hung on pegboards in perfect symmetry. The boxes were neatly stacked and aligned with precision. The floor, painted and buffed, seemed clean enough to eat from. There were glass jars of nuts, bolts, nails and other hardware tidbits, carefully arranged along the top of a massive wooden workbench with a giant iron vise anchoring the left hand corner. To most, the immaculate workspace would have seemed shocking. But to those familiar with the ways of Pennsylvania Dutch craftsmen, this garage was more the norm. Old Pappy Zanders was no exception. His garage was a model of cleanliness and order – the pride of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
“Sit daun!” he snapped and waved his cane toward a bench against the wall.
We complied and Pappy slowly approached, tapping the cane upon the shiny concrete floor.
I saw a grin begin to twist it’s way across Pappy’s gnarled face and I stared up at him, my mind racing with images of a sadistic old man beating the consciousness out of my head and then burying me in the back yard – only to have my own father dig me up and rescue me so that he could beat me again for my indiscretions. I heard a raspy chuckle wheeze it’s way through Pappy’s leathery throat.
“So yous like my apples, huh?” Pappy reached up and pulled a dark, dusty bottle from a high shelf. “Me too.” he sniffed and pulled the cork from the top with hollow “plunk.” “Bet yah never had apples like these!” He handed the bottle to Ritchie.
“Go ahead, have a swig – puts hair on your chest.”
Ritchie took a sip and grimaced but managed to swallow a solid gulp. He coughed and sputtered.
“Ha!” Pappy laughed and took the bottle back. “Here, you try it!”, he said and handed the dusty bottle to me.
I looked down the barrel at the silvery liquid and gave it a sniff. It smelled good, like apple cider. I put the bottle to my lips and took a mighty swig. Instant fire raced down my throat and spread warm fingers through my stomach. I felt my dinner begin to stir and try to come back up but I managed to cough and choke back the urge to vomit.
Pappy chuckled again and yanked the bottle away. “Naw that’s good apple jack!” he hissed. It was Steve’s turn. Pappy pressed the bottle into his hands and bade him drink. Steve took a big, deep swallow. He paused and looked up. His eyes began to tear, his face turned pale and his stomach began to heave. He dropped to his knees and spewed a seemingly endless waterfall of chicken pot pie all over Pappy’s clean garage floor.
“Naw you’re cleanin’ that up, yah hooftie!” He snarled and tossed a shop towel to the wretching boy. And then Pappy began to laugh. He swung his can back and forth and laughed loud enough to echo through the rafters of the garage.
I glanced at Ritchie who shrugged.
“I remember ven I vas your age. I used ta do the same dumb stuff as yous do.” the old man mused. “I would hop on da trains and ride ’em all da way to Wilkes-Barre and my mom would give me such a beatin’ ven I got back! Onced, I even stole da cow from Shitzy Emery’s barn.”
He pulled a stool over and sat down. He pointed a crooked finger at me. “I know you, your Cheralt’s son from up the hill on first awenue. I know your pop.”
‘Well naw. Tell yous what. Sit here for bit and listen to an old man’s story and maybe I’ll keep dis incident chust between us. ‘stehen sie?
We all nodded.
“Vell then. I’ve got a real good one for yous today. You know that mound up the hill in the cemetery?” He pointed his cane out the window toward the graveyard beyond the woods. “Ever vonder vat’s inside that thing?”
We nodded again, recalling the thirty foot hump of grass in the middle of the graveyard affectionately known as “the mound.” It looked like a big sodden pimple in the middle of Fairview cemetery. We had tugged on the chains that kept the massive gray slate doors of the crypt closed. We’d even shouted down the vent in the top – calling to the dead that we presumed were listening and waiting patiently for someone to set them free so they could haunt the tombstones and neighboring woods. We all imagined hideous things run amuck inside the mound after sundown.
“Ahh, I see yous all know the mound real well. Did cha know I was the caretaker when I vas younger?”
We looked at each other. Steve was still a bit pale, but he shook his head. I nodded and spoke up. “I think my dad may have mentioned it to me.”
“Vell, what dit he tell ya?”
“Not much, just that you worked up there when you were younger.”
“Ha – I worked up there every summer until I vas twenty-two. I used to clean that mound every other Saturday. One Saturday, July 7th, I got locked in that place ower night.”
Once again, old Pappy Zanders had us – but this time, we were happy prisoners of the old man’s story. We leaned forward, eager to hear the secrets we had only been able to imagine. Even Steve managed a grin through his vomit flecked lips.
“It was summer, so I was up there later than usual. I always kept the mound for last – I don’t know why. Naw yous boys know that place is cursed, doan cha?”
We looked at each other.
“Well it is. The West Catty Witch cursed that whole cemetary in the early twenties. And the Delaware indians before dat. Ever notice how cold it is up dere? Always a good ten degrees lower than the rest of da woods around. But that’s another story.” He shifted in his seat, settling in for the long haul.
“So it was gettin’ dark and I was chust finishin’ everything up for the evening. I unlocked the padlock on them big chains and pulled doze heavy slate doors vide open. Naw remember, there was no real lock on them doors, chust the chainz and padlock and I always brought dem inzide with me.”
Steve cocked his head. “How could you get locked in then? And what’s it look like in there? Are there coffins and stuff? Can you see dead bodies?”
Pappy’s eyes became slits and his nostrils flared. He thumped his cane into Steve’s chest.
“You gonna yap all through MY STORY?” he snarled.
Steve clutched his chest and recoiled, shaking his head. “No” he sulked. “I was just curious…”
Pappy interrupted, “That’s Okay. Everybody wants tah know what it’s like in there, but I’ll get ta that in a minute, chust keep your shirt on, Gibby.” He pointed his cane at Steve who returned a nervous grin.
Pappy took another swig from the bottle and exhaled. “So, I remember takin’ them chains in with me that night too. I put ’em on da bench chust inside the doors. But when day showed up to get me aut that night, they was on the outside, wrapped up und padlocked shut chust like I vould ah done.”
Ritchie had recovered from his shin whippin’. He leaned forward. “So what happened in there?” he queried.
Pappy’s face seemed to change before our eyes. The ruddiness of his skin gave way to a more ashen tone and his eyes softened. His voice changed as well. It no longer carried the ferocity it had moments ago. Even his shoulders seemed to slump forward as he rested his cane on the garage floor.
“Yah sure yah vanna know?” whispered Pappy.
We glanced at each other and nodded “yes” in unison.
“Vell alright then. I’ll tell yous the story. Like I said before, I saved cleanin’ up the mound for last. It was around sewen-thirty or so und the sky was getting that pink glow chust before the sunset. I unlocked da doors and took them chains in an set ’em on a bench in the back. Now it’s alvays dark in the mound ’cause there ain’t no lights, but with da doors open and the sunlight comin’ in, you can see pretty good in there.”
Steve raised his hand. “What’s it like in there, Mr. Zanders?”
“It’s like nothing you ever seen. There’s one big room in there with wooden drawers all round da sides. The ceiling is made of big wooden arched trusses, all hand carved with the strangest stuff I ever seen. Old pagan symbols from ancient times, indian words, stuff in languages I never recognized. Looks like a bunch of weird totem poles them indians used to make. In the middle was this brass bowl on a vooden stand and a five pointed star was painted on the floor – musta been five feet across – in dark red, like blood it looked.
“Now them wooden drawers along the edges, that’s where the bodies are. And the fronts of them is all carved up wit strange symbols and other words I couldn’t make no sense aut of. I didn’t like to get too close to them anyways ’cause I know them bodies were right there.
Pappy took another swig of apple jack and swallowed. “Anyhow, I went over to the right side where I kept the broom and I headed to the back of the mound – I used to sveep it aut from the back to the front an chust sveep all the dust aut them doors. But when I got to the back and before I could turn around, them doors slammed shut and I heard the chains bein’ wound around the handles. Everything vent pitch black chust like that” Pappy snapped his fingers. “The only light was chust that little sliver that leaks through the vent way at the top of da mound. I thought “somebody is playin’ a joke on me. And not a wery funny one”.
Ritchie spoke up. “What did you do?”
I ran in the darkness to them doors and threw my veight against those big slates. I pushed and pushed but I could hear them chains clinkin’ on the other side, so I knew I was locked in for good. But I kept on pushin’ until I chust about passed aut. I slid down against the cold doors and sat on the damp floor. And that’s ven I heard it.”
“What?” I gulped. “What did you hear?”
Pappy’s eyes narrowed and he took another swig. “I heard this soft swishin’ kind of sound. All muffled, like sandpaper rubbin’ together inside a shoebox. I thought maybe it was rats scratchin around in the dark but then I realized what it was. It was breathin’ – real slow and raspy, comin’ from inside of them coffin drawers.”
Steve shook his head. “You’re fulla crap.”
“Naw, you’ll change your tune whan I’m done, I’ll guarantee that! ‘Cause then I heard them drawers slidin’ open. I couldn’t see nothing in the dark, but I could hear everything and it vas comin’ from all around me – all da drawers was creakin’ and slidin’ open. I grabbed my broom, the only thing I had to defent myself with. And then I heard this other sound – like a long hissing visper. And I smelt da most awful smell I ever smelt. It was like earth and rot and mildew and sawdust all rapped up in one – and it was gettin’ clozer und clozer.”
“Holy cow”, I muttered and looked at Ritchie. He was leaning closer to Pappy, his eyes wide. Steve had a smirk on his face. “I’m not buyin’ it,” he whispered.
“So I stood up and and kept my back against the doors and started screamin’ and swingin’ that broom. I could hear what I imagined were five or six pairs of rotted feet, shuffling across the floor – all headin’ straight for me. So I started svingin’ as hard as I could.” Pappy demonstrated with his cane, swinging it wildly through the air of the garage.
Ritchie was smiling. “Did you hit any of ’em?”
“Well”, Pappy stopped swinging his cane. “I ain’t sure ‘cuz of the darkness in there, but I hit somethin’ and I swear I knocked somethin’ loose, cuz I heard it fly off and clatter across the floor. Maybe it was an arm or a hand. I kept svingin’ an hittin’ and svingin and hittin until my shoulders nearly popped off. But they kept on comin’ at me – gettin clozer und clozer. That’s wen the got damn broom snapped in two.”
Pappy dropped his cane. So I started svingin’ my fists.” Pappy threw wild hooks and upper-cuts in the garage air. “It felt like I was punchin’ flimsy, rotten fabric with brittle twigs packed inzide that would crack with each strike. The smell was almost too much and I started gettin’ goofy. I could hear ’em breathin’, raspin’ and shufflin’ and then, one of ’em grabbed me by the arm. The hand vas nothing but bone and dried grizzle but the grip was like iron. I tried to get loose, but a couple more grabbed my arms and legs and held me still. Then, dey started to moan. Low at first, but then they got louder and louder and I could feel my hearbeat gettin’ slower and slower. My chest felt like it was in a vice and I couldn’t hardly breath. I remember this burnin’ pain climbin’ up my arms and wrappin around my ribs. I felt like they vas drainin’ the life outa me and I finally must’ah passed aut.”
“But how’d you get out?” I asked.
“My parents called the cops when I didn’t come home at the regular time. They searched the cemetary and finally got a pair of bolt cutters to get the chains off the doors of the mound. They said I was layin’ on the floor, unconscious against the doors ven they finally got in.” Pappy took another swig of apple jack.
Steve stood up. “That story’s a load of crap. There’s nothin’ but old, dead bodies in that mound and you were never locked in.” Steve smirked and walked out of the garage.
Ritchie and I looked at each other. “Did that really happen? Did you get locked in there that night?”, I asked Pappy.
Pappy frowned. “What I didn’t tell your goofy friend is that when the cops found me, my hair was the color you see right now – snow white! But when I went in it was chet black. It had changed in the time I was trapped in there.” He paused. “How old do yous think I am?” grinned Pappy.
“I dunno, Seventy or Eighty?” Ritchie shrugged.
“I’m thirty-eight” , whispered Pappy, the smile withering from his face.
“Holy crap, that’s just six years older than my dad!” I said.
“Them things in that mound drained the life outa me that night. And anyone who spends any time with me gets drained too. Every woman I ever courted died after a month. All my dogs and cats, dey don’t last two veeks with me after I pet ’em. Here, look at my arms where they grabbed me.” Pappy rolled up his sleeves. I gazed in horror at the black marks that criss-crossed Pappy’s arms. Deep indentations furrowed his skin where the boney fingers had grabbed. The black color spread from those furrows like vines winding their up way past his shoulders where they disappeared beneath his sleeves. He lifted his shirt to expose his chest. The black vines swirled around his ribcage and encircled the center of his chest – surrounding his heart like a thicket of doom.
“What da ya think ah’ them apples, huh?” Pappy chuckled and pulled his shirt back down.
Ritchie and I backed up towards the door. “Ah, Mr. Zanders,” I stammered. “Um, I think I gotta get home now. Thanks for the story.” We ran out of the garage and up the hill to my house, not stopping once to catch our breath or look back. From that day forward, we never went near Pappy Zanders again. We would wave to him and say hello if we saw him, but we never played any pranks on him. He passed away 2 years later – my parents told me it was a heart attack.
Now it’s possible that ole’ Pappy Zanders had some kind of weird disease or heart condition and very possible that he was NOT thirty-eight years old and that he made the whole thing up. Perhaps it was the dim light or stagnant air of the garage that made our imaginations run wild, or maybe there were some tailings left in that apple jack that made us hallucinate the whole thing. Years after that, we ran around that cemetery and played in the nearby woods, but none of us ever ventured anywhere near that mound again – just in case. To this day I still remain uneasy for having shared a bottle with old Pappy Zanders and I can’t help but wonder if someday the black lines will appear on my skin and begin to drain the life from me just as they had done to that old man.