The Trestle

 

The Trestle

Haunted iron and wood.

The November moon washed the leafless trees with blue silver. The air was cold and damp, chilled by the black rushing waters of the Lehigh river. Frosty plumes flowed from Dave’s mouth with each phrase, like wispy ghosts carrying his words into the autumn night air. He smiled that smile that I knew so well. Though we were both 13 at the time, Dave was about an inch shorter than I, with dark wavy hair of medium length. His blue eyes blazed with pale fire in the moonlight. He was a tough and scrappy kid, with some boxing training that gave him quick hands and a powerful jab. I knew not to get on his bad side, which, luckily, was quite difficult to do, since his demeanor was rarely aggressive or angry.  He was a curious person by nature, with a peculiar habit of complimenting you while at the same time gathering information that he could use for his own benefit, a sort of cheerful inquisition through friendly bonding and universal truth. It was that quest for answers that led us to this particular place on this particular night.

“All right. We wait until 10:30. Then we go out to the middle. That’s where stuff’s supposed to happen.” said Dave, waving his kerosene lantern toward the old railroad trestle before us.

I had known Dave since first grade.  He was a middle brother, sandwiched between older and younger siblings, and mostly ignored by his parents.  He spent a substantial amount of time at my house, often into the later hours of the evening, with seemingly little concern from his family.  His company was always appreciated and his inquisitive nature always refreshing.  I often felt particularly privileged to count Dave as a friend of mine.

I stared at the hulking iron bridge known as the West Catty trestle. Its frame had rusted to a dark purplish-brown from decades of sun and rain. Big round rivets, as large as our fists, still held all the trusses and plates together. The rails had been removed, leaving silvery wooden railroad ties from one end to another. There were large gaps where some of the ties had fallen off into the river fifty feet below. Dave and I had crossed that old bridge many times during the day. We knew how to walk toe-to-heel, arms out for balance, along the frame where the ties were missing. We had mastered the “West Catty Wallenda” despite our parents’ warnings to stay off the old relic. But this was different. This was at night when the spirits of the wreck of ’39 were said to walk the bridge in search of souls.

“The accident happened after 10:30, so that’s the best time to go out and see the ghosts.” Said Dave. He blew hot air into his fist for warmth.

My grandfather had told me the story of the great wreck. It was back in 1939, just before the war. A few steam engines were still in service along the route from Allentown to Scranton. Those tracks paralleled the Lehigh river on both sides for hundreds of miles. The trestle provided opportunity for trains to switch from the southbound side to the northbound side and vice versa. The problem was that it could only accommodate one train at a time. The switch masters had to stay vigilant so as not to send two trains across the bridge simultaneously. Of course, that’s exactly what happened on a cold moonlit night in 1939. The night before Thanksgiving.

America was still reeling from the depression and bands of vagabonds rode the rails in search of employment and adventure. Several had found the switch man earlier that afternoon, then alert at his post, and bartered their homemade gin for his lunch. The switchman gladly obliged when presented with the more unsavory alternative of a beating. Shaken, but not deterred, the switchman remained at his post after the rowdy bunch left. To calm his nerves, he drank some of the gin, but alas he underestimated the strength of the spirit and passed out at his post around ten o’clock that night.

The two trains collided just after 10:30, leaving five dead and seven injured. The switchman was arrested for negligence. A week later, after being released on bail, he committed suicide by leaping from the trestle to his death in the river below. His body was never recovered. The legend says that on the anniversary of the crash, the spirits of the dead can be seen on the bridge, waving large black railroad lanterns, pacing back and forth in search of souls. The legend also recounts a more malevolent spirit, that of the Conductor, who walks the trestle in search of the switchman in order to exact some manner of revenge. It has been said that an encounter with the Conductor by any living person is deadly, with several accounts of brave adventurers never returning from a late night pilgrimage on the anniversary of that fateful night.

My grandfather warned us years ago to stay away from the trestle, even during the day. He said that all the death and sorrow had poisoned the iron and nothing good could ever happen near the bridge. Several years later I realized that it was just a story to keep kids away from a deteriorating and dangerous old structure.

So now I stood here with Dave, shivering on a cold November night, gathering my nerve to walk out onto that bridge and put an end to an old ghost story and prove to my friend that this whole thing was a lot of nonsense.

“What time is it?” I said.

“Ten twenty-five.” said Dave.

“Well, let’s do this, then, so you’ll finally understand that this is all a bunch of crap.” I raised my lantern and led my friend out onto the trestle.

The roar of the river forced us to raise our voices a bit as we stepped carefully across the old railroad ties. One of them shifted beneath my tread, throwing me off balance for a moment.

“Watch that one!” I shouted, and pointed to the loose tie.

Dave nodded and stepped around. I did this several times, to keep Dave from tripping. We proceeded slowly, carefully calculating each step before committing our full weight. The roar of the river grew louder as we neared the midpoint. A large gap in the ties was before us, revealing two thin iron rails, running parallel about six feet apart, for about five yards. I looked at Dave. He smiled.

“After you!” He said, swinging his lantern over the chasm. I stared down into the gap. The river looked like a great black serpent in the moonlight. It hissed below us, angry that we were just out of reach. Slowly, I began the high-rail act. One foot, then the next. I kept my arms out for balance, wobbled twice, but finally made it across the chasm.

“C’mon Dave!” I said.

Dave stepped gingerly out onto the narrow rail. He held his arms out and inched forward.

“I got this.” Dave said, concentrating. He was halfway across when I heard a distant sound, like a bell clanging. I checked my watch. 10:30 on the nose. The trestle began to vibrate. It started low, but quickly intensified. Dave looked up and lost his balance. He dropped the lantern which shattered upon the rail, spilling fire across the iron between us. He fell to his knees and grabbed the thin rusty rail with both hands. I reached out across the gap, but the fire had flared higher, creating a gold and orange barrier. I could see Dave’s face between the flames, a mask of panic and confusion, distorted by the heat.

“Hang on! Stay down low and inch back away from the fire!” I shouted, motioning Dave backwards.  A strange sound rose in the cold night air. I lifted my head and heard a steam engine, chugging above the din of the river. It seemed to come from behind us, growing louder with each second. And then I heard another engine, approaching from the opposite direction. Dave and I looked all around, but could see nothing.

“Holy crap!” shouted Dave.

A phantom steam whistle shrieked and echoed from the river banks. The trestle began to heave and moan. I heard what sounded like metal bend and buckle as if under some immense strain followed by a cacophonous thunder of iron colliding with iron. The bridge shook and knocked me to my knees onto the wooden railroad ties.

I looked up and saw Dave nearly shaken from the rail upon which he now clung. He fell, but caught the iron beneath his armpits. He wrapped his arms tight to his chest, while his legs dangled and flailed high above the dark rushing river.

“Hold on!” I shouted but I doubted he could hear me over the sound. The bridge shuddered and shook and I felt air rush past, as if large objects were careening close to me. Several loose railroad ties dropped into the river. I instinctively covered my head and ducked down, crouching for safety atop the vibrating timbers.

The sound reached an unbearable crescendo and then stopped with one last metallic groan and a release of steam. I looked up and saw Dave, heaving himself back up onto the rail. The fire had been blown out by the wind, allowing him to crawl to safety next to me on the wooden railroad ties. He exhaled and rolled over on his back.

“What the hell was that?” Dave said, exhausted. “And don’t tell me it was an earthquake!”

Before I could answer, a low moaning sound filled the air around us. I looked up and squinted to focus down the length of the trestle. The moans transitioned to sobs and I began to make our dark forms strewn about in various places along the bridge. They looked like bodies, some on the timbers and some suspended in mid air, a few feet from the railroad ties. They appeared to be intermittently solid and vaporous, vacillating between form and formless.

“Holy crap.” I whispered. “This is not happening!”

I looked at Dave and his blue eyes were wide, his mouth agape. Suddenly, he gasped and pointed at something behind me. I turned and recoiled in horror. A burley bearded man, dressed in coveralls, was reaching toward me. His face was covered in blood and his hands and arms black with soot. I noticed that his body had been severed just below the rib cage and his entrails spilled out behind him like a grotesque wedding train. He clawed at the air and turned his palm up, as if begging for something. His mouth opened and released a moan that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I tried to back away but couldn’t for I was at the edge of the railroad ties, with nowhere to go but down.

The moaning man began to drag himself toward me, his ribcage scraping across the wooden railroad ties.  Slowly, and with great effort, he pulled his half body toward me. I waved my lantern and yelled, hoping to change his course, but to no avail. His hand reached up and touched mine. I tried to pull back but was unable. In that moment, that brief touch, I felt the searing pain of his injuries followed by an infinite emptiness. I saw the life of a young railroad worker, his family, his mother and father, his children all whir by In a flash. I felt an uncontrollable scream well up inside me. I closed my eyes and screamed as loud and and as long as I have ever screamed in my life. I opened my eyes and the apparition swirled into black vapor and disappeared into the night breeze.

“Are you OK?” said Dave, clambering next to me.

We paused and looked around. The other apparitions had begun to move. One young man with a missing leg groaned an hopped toward us. Another one with a crushed head that drooped to one side staggered in our direction. David and I surveyed the situation for an escape but realized that we were trapped, caught between the mangled spirits and a deadly fifty-foot drop to the river. Dave reached down and pulled an old iron railroad spike from one of the timbers and readied it for a defensive launch. I did the same, preparing to fight off the creatures with whatever means available.

Just as the dead were drawing near, I noticed a light at the far end of the trestle. It was suspended about shoulder height and swayed back and forth as it moved toward us. Loud footfalls shook the railroad ties and the iron of the bridge frame groaned as if it were under the stress of something massive.

Dave and I stared, petrified. We could only make out a dark silhouette behind the light, but soon recognized the outline of a conductor swinging his railroad lantern. The other spirits which now surrounded us took notice as well. They stopped and turned their attention toward the approaching specter. As I stared, the creature howled a deep and mournful cry that reverberated through my body. The sound made my legs tremble.  Dave and I dropped our iron weapons to shield our ears from the horrible wail. We fell to our knees, hands over our ears, and cowered beneath the unearthly onslaught.

The other spirits whirled into black wisps of smoke and vanished into the air, as if scurrying away from some deadly predator. My heart raced and I realized that this must be the legendary Conductor. That very same mythical creature that my grandfather had warned me about. I knew we had to move quickly and with the other spirits gone, we were once again safe to traverse the bridge.

I grabbed Dave by his coat and pulled him along the trestle, back the way we had come. We practically ran across the open railing. We nearly lost our footing several times, but managing to safely reach the other side. I looked back over my shoulder and the Conductor was getting closer. I heard him growl like a beast from some dark region of hell what sounded like the word “switchman”. Dave ran ahead of me and we were nearly two-thirds of the way to the other bank of the river when suddenly the Conductor appeared directly in front of us, our exit from the trestle now blocked by the evil thing.

Dave tried to stop, but stumbled and slid right up to the feet of the phantom spirit. He cried out in horror as the Conductor grabbed him by the throat and lifted him from the ground with one hand. Dave swung his fists in a flurry of punches that passed right through the apparition. I ran forward and tackled Dave, driving him through the creature and breaking its deadly grip.

Dave tumbled forward and was able to get off the trestle. I, on the other hand, had captured the attention of the Conductor. He grabbed my neck and lifted me close to his face. In the lamplight I could see his burnt and blistered skin, charred red and black in spots and hanging in loose, peeling shards. He had the traditional conductor’s cap and round wire rimmed glasses. His eyes glowed blue and milky, with no pupils. With his head cocked to one side, he hissed the word “switchman” through broken teeth and carried me back toward the middle of the trestle.

The grip around my neck was like a cold steel vise. It chilled my soul like nothing I had ever felt and churned my stomach with icy fear.  I couldn’t breath much less scream. I flailed my arms and kicked my legs but all efforts passed right through the phantom being that carried me.

“Switchman!” The Conductor hissed again and stopped.

We had reached the middle of the trestle and he dangled me over the hole where the railroad ties had long since fallen away. I felt dizzy and the world began to fade as the creature’s hand closed tighter, choking the consciousness from me. I struggled one last time and twisted my head around in time to see Dave, just behind me. He reared back and hurled a railroad spike at the Conductor. The rusted iron tumbled end-over-end through the night air and struck the the evil entity squarely between the eyes. To my surprise, it stuck, jutting from his forehead, nearly half its length sunk deep into the skull of the Conductor!

I was immediately tossed backward onto the wooden planks next to Dave. The Conductor reeled, staggered and nearly fell from the trestle. I remembered some folklore about spirits and iron and thought how clever Dave had been. The Conductor paused for a moment and regained his balance.  He reached up and began to pull the spike from his head. I glanced at Dave who pointed to the other side of the bridge where another dark figure had appeared. It shuffled forward, dragging one badly mangled leg behind, but advanced quickly toward the Conductor who had just put down his lantern in order to get both hands on the offending iron spike.

The placement of the lantern revealed the identity the other figure. In that golden shaft of light I discerned a man about six feet tall, with blue coveralls, thick black boots and a long beard. He was soaked in water from head to toe and his skin, which had come loose from his bones in places, was pale white and hung in rubbery flaps, often revealing the bone beneath. I had seen bodies pulled from the river after weeks of exposure and I immediately recognized the same condition here. I stared into his eyes, which were black holes that seemed to absorb light. His mouth hung open in a silent moan.

Remembering the legend, I guessed that this was the Switchman who had thrown himself from the bridge in a fit of guilt. Dave and I exchanged glances and slowly backed up. In that moment, the Conductor wrenched the spike from his forehead and tossed it into the river. His blazing eyes found us again and he lurched toward us. He floated above the  wooden railroad ties, and covered the distance between in the blink of an eye.

Once again, both Dave and I were in his clutches, strangled without breath or voice. The Conductor laughed a laugh that sounded like gravel and steam wheezing through a haunted harmonica. His breath, a cold blast of decay, washed over us like a toxic tide. My eyes burned and I closed them for a second. When I opened them again, Dave was punching with all his might, delivering rabid-fire blows like a golden gloves champion.

Unfortunately, his fists again passed through empty air, leaving the apparition unfazed. What happened next is still unclear as I had begun to black out. I remember a terrible pain in my legs that pulled me back to consciousness. When I had regained my wits, I was on my knees a few feet from the Conductor. I blinked for moment, not comprehending what I saw. The Conductor appeared to be locked in the grasp of the Switchman!

As they lurched from side to side, I swear I heard the Conductor’s gravelly voice exclaim “You!”. In the next moment, the Switchman lurched and twisted, dragging the Conductor into the gap and down to the black river below. I expected a splash, but heard none. The Conductor’s lantern, which was still on the trestle, vanished in a swirl of black vapor.

I rubbed my eyes and looked over at Dave. He stared, slack jawed, at the spot where the struggle had just ended. We wasted no time getting off that trestle. I checked my watch and the time was 10:31.  Could all that just transpired have really taken only a minute?  It made absolutely no sense at all.  Perhaps we were caught in some time warp of repetition, a spiritual wrinkle in the space time continuum.

I was still shaking when I got home and Dave and I often conjecture about events of that night in November. Did this drama play out every anniversary of the great wreck of thirty-nine, or was this a one time thing? Did the Switchman save us to atone for his sins? I fear we will never know as we never set foot on that trestle, day or night, ever again. One thing is certain, the scars on our necks, particularly the handprints, are proof that what happened on the trestle that night was very, very real.  Needless to say, roast turkey, stuffing, Cope’s corn and cranberry sauce never tasted better than on that particular Thanksgiving.

—-This story is dedicated to the memory of David Bandle who left this world far too early.  Rest in peace dear friend.  West Catty 4ever.—

skulldugjerry

SkullDug Jerry

Santa’s Little Helpers

Santa's Little Helpers

Santa’s Little Helpers

“Daddy, what’s with all the weird Santas?” said my daughter Alexandra, pointing to the hand-carved and painted wooden figurines staring back from the shelves, end tables, book cases and countertops.

Nearly every surface of our first floor was populated with little Santas. Short, tall, fat, thin, every size and shape imaginable, from four or five inches to a foot or two tall. Each one had a distinct personality. Some looked suspicious or paranoid, while others appeared blissfully silly. There was a Mr. and Mrs. Santa, locked in an embrace, eyes leering affectionately at one another. Some had their eyes shut, some frowned, some smiled and some were even laughing. Each one was as unique as a snowflake, different yet all part of one giant wooden family of miniature Christmas figurines.

“Well,” I said, “Your grandpa carved them just for you, right before he passed away. We like to call them Santa’s little helpers.”

“But I never met him.” said my daughter.

“That’s right. He passed the same year you were born. On Christmas eve, six years ago today.” I paused and looked around at the little faces.

“He made so many. How long did it take?” said Alexandra.

“I think it was a couple of months. Grandma said he locked himself up in his workshop for weeks and weeks, carving and painting. He wasn’t feeling well, so it helped distract him from being sick. When he was done, he packed them up in boxes with your name stenciled across them. He made Grandma promise that you’d get the Santas. He said he made them especially for you. He said he made them so they could watch over you and protect you.”

“Sometimes I think they’re a little scary.” said Alexandra, rubbing her eyes.

“No, they’re just a little funky, that’s all.” No sooner had I finished those words when the lights flickered.

“What was that?” said Alexandra.

“It’s just the ice storm outside. The weatherman said it could cause power outages.” I listened as the sleet and rain battered the windows and siding, clicking and clacking, like popcorn popping all around the exterior of the house. The storm had been raging since sundown and the world outside was now encased in an inch of ice. The smaller trees were bowed with the extra weight, some bending to the ground, some breaking or losing limbs to the glossy glaze, often dragging power lines on their way down.

”Don’t worry, we’ve got the candles and flashlights ready. It’ll be just like camping!” I said.

“I’m not really crazy about camping.” said Alexandra. “Last time I got poison ivory.”

“You mean poison ivy.” I corrected.

“Are they magic?” she said, pointing to the Santas.

“Well, grandpa said they were. He told me they were filled with a special protection spell for his only granddaughter.”

“But what if the magic wears off? There doesn’t seem to be much magic around anymore. Not like in the old days.” said Alexandra.

“I think we just have different magic now. Magic from technology. Folks in the old days didn’t have technology, so they used other magic. Magic from nature and the spirit.”

“I don’t think they’re actually magic. They’ve never said anything or moved or anything. I think the magic has worn off.”

“Well, you have the right to believe anything you like, but let me tell you a special story that I was saving for when you got a little older. I guess tonight is as good a time as any to tell you, since it’s Christmas eve and all.”

SantasHelpers2

“Is it scary?” said Alexandra, moving closer.

“No, not really, but it could have been, if it not for those Santas.” I said, pointing to the little carved Saint Nicks. “Let’s see, it was February and you were just one month old. A late winter storm had dropped about an inch of snow on the ground and your mom and I were finally able to get you to sleep. You didn’t like to sleep when you were a baby. I always felt it was because you were nosey and never wanted to miss any action, no matter how small or dull. Anyway, we had taken down all the Christmas decorations except for the Santas. I think we wanted to keep grandpa in our thoughts a little while longer, so we left all those tiny guys lounge around the house.”

The lights flickered again and the wind howled outside. Lexi drew closer.

“Keep going, dad. It’s just the icicle storm.” she said.

“Okay, where was I. Oh yeah, this was back when we lived in a townhouse in the city. We had a tiny little front yard with a tall, skinny maple tree and a little blue birdbath. Nothing like the big yard we have now, with that giant oak tree outside your window. It wasn’t a bad home, but the neighborhood was not always the safest place. Especially for a little baby girl like you.”

“I don’t remember that house.” said Alexandra.

“No, we didn’t stay there very long. Anyway, Mom and I went to bed and were sleeping for a while when we heard a terrible smash downstairs. I got up and grabbed the baseball bat next to the bed and your mom dialed 911. I could hear someone, a man, shouting outside. I rushed to your room and saw snowy footprints on the carpet just outside your bedroom door. My heart pounded with fear. I opened the door and your were fast asleep. I closed the door quietly and followed the footprints down the stairs. The living room looked like there had been a big struggle. One of the windows was broken and the curtains were torn down. There was broken glass and furniture tossed all around. The Santas were scattered about the living room floor and our TV was in the middle of the room, somehow undamaged. I made my way down the stairs and noticed that the front door was wide open. Carefully, bat in hand, I walked across the disheveled room and out the front door.

What I saw was confounding. A young man was tied to the Maple tree. His hands were bound behind him and his feet and torso were lashed to the trunk of the tree with twine. He was gagged with a napkin from our table, but I could still hear his muffled shouts. He thrashed wildly about, but the twine held tight. I just stood and stared for a moment, unable to make sense of what I saw before me.

“What did you do? Who tied him up?” asked Alexandra.

“Well, the police showed up and they arrested the man. When they removed the gag from his mouth he shouted “Santas! Them Santas got me! It was them Santas!” over and over again as they took him away. The police said he was hallucinating. They said he had taken all sorts of bad drugs and it made him see things that weren’t there. And while that may be true, there was one thing that no one could ever explain.

“What was that, daddy? What couldn’t they explain?” said Alexandra.

“All those little footprints out in the snow of the yard. They were all around the tree to which the burglar had been tied.

“It was the Santas!” said Alexandra. And then she smiled and cocked her head to one side. “That’s just another one of your stories, daddy. None of that is true, is it?”

“Well, you never know. There’s lots of strange things in this world that people can’t explain.” I said, smiling. Just then the lights went out. I grabbed a flashlight and flicked it on. My daughter hugged my arm. I could hear my wife upstairs, fumbling for her flashlight and mumbling.

“That story scared me!” said Alexandra. “Now I’m afraid to go to sleep! Tell me it’s not a real story, daddy. Tell the truth!”

My wife came down the stairs to the living room. “I almost got it all done. Stupid ice storm.”

“Daddy scared me!” said Alexandra, as she left my side and clung to her mother.

“Ok, ok. You got me. I was just pulling your leg. That story is totally made up.” I said as the lights flickered back on.

“Seriously. On Christmas eve? You’re gonna go put her to bed and undo what you’ve done! Come on sweetie. Daddy was only fooling. You’d better get to bed before Santa gets here. Remember, if he sees you’re awake, no presents!” said my wife.

“Yeah, you’d better get your little butt in that bed right now!” I said and scooped my daughter up into my arms. She giggled as I carried her up the stairs to her room. I told three more happy christmas stories, one about a bunny that was half kitten named “Bitten” and one about a rabbit that was half cat called “Rabbicat”. I finished it all off with a tale of silly bedtime nonsense courtesy of the “Bed Hogs” – a family of swine who want ALL of the bed.

With my daughter finally asleep, I helped my wife finish wrapping the presents. We piled them beneath the tree, set out the milk and cookies and the carrot for the reindeer, and had a glass of wine. We sat in the quite, listening to the storm fling ice at our windows.

“I hate ice storms.” said my wife. “I always worry about that big oak tree outside her room. That one branch goes right over top.”

“It’ll be OK. I said. I think it may be slowing down a bit.” I said. “I am wiped out. I think I’m ready to hit the sack.”

“Me too. I can’t believe you told her that story on Christmas eve! That whole thing STILL creeps me out when I think close that wacko was to her room. He was a murderer. A wanted murderer was in our house!”

“I know. I still get that weird feeling every time I open her door when she’s asleep. I’m takes me right back to that night.” I said. “And his face when they took him away. His eyes were really freaky, remember how he stared at us in court?. What was his name again?”

“Raymond Rankaler.” said my wife with a shudder. “I’ll never forget that name. He killed that family up in Carbondale, just for kicks. He was a real psychopath.”

We fell asleep quickly and the storm intensified. Just after midnight, however, we were awakened by a sudden massive impact to the house. It was as if a giant had karate chopped our roof. I jumped from the bed and ran to my daughter’s room. My heart seemed to drop to my feet as I threw open her bedroom door. A blast of ice, sleet and cold air stung my cheeks as I stared. A giant oak branch had torn loose from the trunk of the great tree outside and sliced through the roof of my daughter’s room. I could hear her crying from beneath her covers, so I knew she was alive. That she was un-touched by the mighty wooden arm was miraculous enough, yet it was the manner in which she had been spared that dropped me to my knees. I knelt down and pulled my sobbing six-year-old daughter from beneath her sleet and rain soaked covers. I brushed the bark and ice from her face and held her tightly in my arms.

“You’re OK, you’re ok, sweetie.” I whispered and checked her ams and legs for injury, but found nothing out of kilter.

After a moment, she stopped crying and looked up at me. A smile spread across her face and she pointed to the floor around her bed.

“Daddy, look! The Santas saved me again!”

She had seen what I had upon entering. The little wooden Santas had amassed themselves into a ring around her bed, arranged and piled into a barrier that was just high enough to prevent the giant icy bough from crushing grandpa’s only granddaughter.

Merry Christmas, and thank you again, Santa’s little helpers.

SantasHelpers3

Tales from the Boschard – Chapter 2: The Hooligritz

Skull Stick

The Hex of the Hooligritz

I stared at it and it seemed to stare back, peering into my soul, listening to my thoughts. Deep, hollow eye sockets regarded me with cold intelligence.  The polished ebony stained wood, the hand carved teeth and the deathly grin generated a sinister aura around the black wooden walking stick with the skull handle, propped upright against the door to the shed.  It loomed like an evil sundial, casting a long shadow in the low morning sun.  My breath flowed and swirled, floating for a moment before evaporating –  white wispy fingers of steam in the crisp Pocono mountain air. I rubbed my bare arms to keep warm.  It was late September and the nights often dipped below forty degrees, leaving the grass and leaves wet with dew by dawn. Uncle Charlie stood next to me, his chest heaving slightly.  Beads of sweat glinted from his forehead, in defiance of the cool air.  His eyes darted from the skull stick to the nearby forest.  He pulled a red handkerchief from his back pocket and mopped his head, flattening strands of jet black hair against his pink scalp. Wide blue suspenders kept his trousers snug beneath his enormous round stomach – all held captive by a white t-shirt.

“What is it, Uncle Charlie?”  I asked.

His eyes darted back and forth.  “It’s bad. Gerald, very bad,” my uncle said as he bent down to get a closer look.

There were three leaves tied with delicate vines just under the jaw, one brown, one red and one gold.  A strange symbol was carved on the top of the skull.  It looked like the hex signs that decorated nearby barns.  But it was different, more angular, with small letters from some language I couldn’t identify.

I had never seen my uncle in such a state.  His fingers trembled slightly as he tucked his handkerchief back into his pocket.  He coughed and put his hands on his hips, dark eyes dancing about like twitchy flies searching for a landing spot.  It was Saturday, the first day of my weekend with him.  Just Uncle Charlie and me, fishing, chopping, sawing and stacking wood, playing cards, watching TV – a weekend treat that I enjoyed every September since I was seven.  I was eleven now, and a stark uneasiness began slither up my spine, like a vine, spreading its tendrils upward to my brain.

“Is it a hex?”  I asked and reached to touch the stick.

“Gerald, don’t touch it!”  Uncle Charlie grabbed my arm and jerked me backwards.  I stumbled, shocked.  Uncle Charlie had never shown an ounce of hostility toward me.  He was always as happy as a rooster in the morning, and just as loud, but in a jolly manner.   He was part Cherokee and his Native American genetics bubbled through an ever-smiling face, strong cheekbones and squinting, corner-wrinkled black eyes that twinkled with kindness and good nature.  He sported a textbook beer belly, but never touched alcohol.  His girth came from an unbridled love of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.  I had seen him eat two corn pies, a cheesesteak, three hot dogs, and half of a shoe fly pie just for lunch.  He usually washed it all down with a couple of bottles of my grandfather’s home made birch beer.   But all that good-nature seemed to have been spirited away with the arrival of the skull stick.  His grip on my arm still ached long after he had released and my apprehension blossomed into fresh fear.

Uncle Charlie spat and rubbed the scars on his crooked right arm.  My eyes lingered for a moment on his forearm which ran straight from the elbow to about midway to the wrist where it took a thirty-degree jog and then zig-zagged straight again.  Two years ago, he had been working with a mortar mixer, a big blue one with paddles that mixes the mortar to perfect consistency.  One of the paddles got stuck so my uncle reached in to un-jam it without turning off the power.  The mixer resumed and a paddle caught Uncle Charlie’s arm.  It broke it in 3 places and nearly tore it off.  The surgeons did the best they could, but it still looked like something Dr. Frankenstein had re-assembled from spare parts.  Luckily, Uncle Charlie had the use of his arm, however his hand had lost a good deal of strength and dexterity from the damage.  His dauntless spirit just switched gears and re-trained his left arm to do most of the work, leaving his right arm to less difficult chores.

I was with him on the day of the accident. The memory of his agony, his mangled and twisted arm and the merciless power of that machine had a particular effect upon me.  I suppose the trauma gave rise to a fear of mechanical devices.  I was unable to use or even approach nearly any type of power equipment after that day.  Drills, leaf blowers, even lawn mowers terrified me.  I refused to get within ten feet of anything with a motor or spinning blades or gears.  I harbored a particular phobia regarding the old red chainsaw that Uncle Charlie used for fall clean-up and found myself shying away from the roar of its loud engine.  I would take shelter behind the shed or a large tree trunk until he he was finished cutting.  I wasn’t quite old enough or strong enough to handle that dangerous tool anyway, so my uncle was content with my wood-stacking and raking duties, though he often teased me about my aversion, kidding that the chainsaw was going to get me in my sleep.

“It’s a dark pow-wow.” Uncle Charlie mumbled.  I stepped back.  I knew about pow-wow.  My Nana would invoke the ancient Pennsylvania Dutch ritual whenever we were sick.  I remembered something about the sixth and seventh books of Moses called “The Lost Friend.”  It was rumored to have been filled with practical prayers and remedies, incantations to cure illnesses and perform general healing.  I had never heard any mention of “dark” pow-wow.

“What’s dark pow-wow?” I asked.

My uncle frowned. “Somebody wants to put a hex on me.  And them leaves is callin’ the Hooligritz.  Probably that hooftie Eline.  He still blames me for swampin’ his goddamn boat, that son-of-a-bitch!”

Uncle Charlie’s Pennsylvania Dutch accent usually invaded his speech whenever he was truly upset.  I generally knew enough words to follow along.  For instance, I knew that a “hooftie” was a derogatory term for an uneducated country bumpkin.

“Hooligritz?”  I queried and looked deep into the forest.  There were thick trees and foliage as far as the eye could see, with a fresh carpet of orange, brown and gold leaves betraying the approach of autumn.

“Yeah, the beast of the woods.  We gotta get ready to keep him away when it gets dark.”

Hooligritz? my brain was on fire.  Something coming? At night?  A beast?  Now I started to sweat.  “Uncle Charlie?  What is the Hooligritz?”

“We only got about ten hours of daylight to get ready.  I’m gonna need your help.”  Uncle Charlie grabbed my arm hard again. “This is very serious stuff, now.  You gotta really pitch in and help me, OK? And do everything I tell ya, right?”  He let go of my arm and ducked into the shed. A moment later he emerged with a burlap bag, tied shut with a small length of rope.

I nodded and we hopped into his Jeep Cherokee Chief, a 1974 model with wood panel sides and a crank on the back to open and close the big tailgate window.  He tossed the burlap sack onto the back seat and dug through his pocket for the car keys.

The inside of the vehicle smelled like old cheese and smoke.  A pair of handcuffs dangled from the emergency brake handle beneath the dashboard, a glinting testament to Uncle Charlie’s secondary duties as Constable.  His first passion was as chief of the local volunteer fire department.  His reputation for valor in the face of flames was legendary. He winked at me as he reached up on the dashboard and grabbed the emergency light.  With a loud magnetic “thunk” he slapped it onto the roof and hit the button labeled siren.  Stones flew in all directions, churned from the spinning tires as we roared down the bumpy mountain road.

“This here counts as an emergency.”  he said, eyes fixed on the winding gravel path ahead.  “We gotta get some special stuff before dark.”

In a flurry of dust and stones, we hit the blacktop of Route 6, tires shrieking in tune with the wail of the siren.  We wound along for a few miles, and then made a sharp left exit onto a tiny backwoods road that twisted through Dekkar’s Hollow, a natural preserve maintained by the Pennsylvania State Fish and Game Commission.

Dekkar’s, as we called it, was one of my favorite places on Earth.  It was a boggy, wooded basin for a slow trout stream that wound lazily between the mountains.  Beavers had dammed it in places, creating serene pools that served as natural labs to a variety of zoological wonders.  It was an endless supply of newts and efts, tiger frogs, snakes, turtles, stick bugs and all manner of things which young boys find fascinating.  I remember relentlessly nagging my grandfather to drive me there nearly every waking hour during my summer visits.  Most of the hollow was designated as state protected game lands, home to wild turkey, deer, bobcats and even black bears.  Thick vegetation formed a curtain of quiet sanctuary around the bog and it was often nearly impenetrable.  There were old wooden bridges, cascading waterfalls, and even quicksand in some areas, all of which added up to adventure of the highest order.

I gazed out the window as we sped along the narrow two-lane road.  My eyes searched the landscape that whizzed by, scanning the mammoth limestone rocks that skirted the shoulder, their gray stoney faces bearded with green moss, ferns and lichens, dripping with dew and spring water, mouths open, revealing dark caverns of intrigue.  We called them bear caves, and imagined families of the black beasts bedding there for the night.

“Where are we going Uncle Charlie?” I asked, staring at the side of his face.  The skin on his cheek looked like worn leather, ruddy and criss-crossed with wrinkles.  Sweat zig-zagged its way from beneath his scalp and ran along the crevasses, changing direction as it found its way down his face.

“The witch’s house.”  Uncle Charlie glanced at me from the corner of his eye and switched off the siren.

“What?”  My body shuddered and my blood turned cold.  “No!  I don’t want to go!”  I shook my head in protest, feeling a little dizzy and nauseous.  “Uncle Charlie, please!”  I pleaded and my mind raced in a frenzy of panic.  Were we really going to visit that place, the witch’s house?

My fear was born at the far end of the hollow, where the great gorge of the Lackawaxan river formed the boundary to the state game lands.  A two-hundred foot canyon carved into the gray limestone by the rushing water, the gorge was a favorite fishing spot for my uncle and me.  The witch lived at the far end of a clearing, just before an old railroad trestle that led to the gorge.  Of course, as kids, we had dubbed the house “the witch’s house” because it looked like the kind of place where a witch would live – clapboard siding with peeling paint, a roof in need of repair and vines and moss decorating the walls, a rickety porch with rotted timbers and an old rocking chair positioned just ahead of the ever-gaping front door.  For a time, my sisters, cousins and I were satisfied that it was just an abandoned shack, with an imaginary witch owner, until one day, as we drove by, we spied the old lady who actually lived there, sitting in that chair on the porch, long raven tresses streaked with white, black eyes sunk deep into her weathered skin like two lumps of coal pushed into a leather glove, wearing a tattered black dress from the last century. I swear she was even smoking a pipe!  It was dusk when we caught that first glimpse many years ago, which further shrouded the event in magical trepidation.

“Naah, don’t be scared.  She ain’t no witch like you guys believe.  She just knows pow-wow.”  Uncle Charlie kept his eyes on the road as we wound along the wild twists and turns.  “Betty’s a real nice lady, you’ll see.”

Betty?  Did he say Betty?  I swallowed hard as we rounded a tight turn.  The trees surrendered to a grassy field, dotted with scrubby pine trees and swimming in ferns and mountain laurel.  Uncle Charlie slowed down as we approached the house.  It was set back about 50 yards from the road at the end of a gravel driveway.  It still looked abandoned, with moss and vines weaving along the surface, diving in and out of holes in the walls and eaves.   The front door grinned open as usual, a black portal to the inner-sanctum.  My heart was pounding as we pulled up next to the porch.  A slight breeze stirred the rocking chair, creaking it back and forth on the rotten porch floor.

“She ain’t gonna hurt ya!”  Uncle Charlie said as he grabbed the sack from the back seat and pulled me along behind him.  We ascended the porch stairs and the ancient wood groaned beneath our feet with each step.

I smelled chicken and cabbage and heard a strange melody from inside the house.  As we passed the rocking chair and crossed the threshold, I could hear more clearly and realized that it was an old woman’s voice, lilting a melody as if sung through vocal chords of burlap and clay, raspy and growling, yet somehow pleasant.  It was something I recognized from church, a hymn, perhaps, but in German.

It took my eyes several seconds to adjust to the dark interior.  There was an oval rug in the middle of the room, with a couch and two chairs in a semi-circle around one side, all facing an enormous stone fireplace at the back of the house.  The mantle was a thick piece of oak and the stones of the fireplace were singed black around the mouth of the hearth.  A low fire glowed beneath a large cast-iron pot suspended by a chain from a hook that was anchored in the top of the masonry.  The smell of cabbage filled the room and seemed to originate from that great black cauldron.  An old woman stood with her back to the door, preparing vegetables and a chicken on the stone counter in the corner of the room.  Her hair was long and jet black with silver-white streaks.  It swayed well past her shoulders and slithered midway down her back in a tangled cascade.

“Charles.” said the woman without turning around.  She tilted her head back and sniffed the air.  “And you’ve got the younger Brunner child with you.”

My heart was pounding as the old woman turned around.  She smiled, baring mostly gums with a few irregular teeth sprouting at various angles.

“Aaah, little Gerald!  You look like a healthy fellow!”  She pointed her boney finger toward me and tilted her head to one side.  “Last time I saw you, you wasn’t doin’ so well.  Your dad brought you here when you was chust a baby.”  She nodded and looked up, remembering.  “You had impetigo.  But ole Betty fixed you up, real good!  Now look at you!  A fine fellow, alright!.  He don’t remember, he was so little!”

“Naw, he don’t remember none of that.”  said Uncle Charlie.  “Betty, I need your help.  Eline put the Hoolagritz on me.”

Uncle Charlie and Betty began speaking in Pennsylvania Dutch and German, most of which I couldn’t follow, so my attention shifted to the room in which I stood.  There were all kinds of jars with mysterious contents of every color imaginable.  Old magazines and books were abundant, but all neatly placed on shelves and in cabinets.  The neatness and absolute cleanliness of the interior was striking, given the relatively shabby, rundown nature of the exterior.

“You’re in for a rough night, all right.”  said Betty, gathering several jars from a shelf above the sink.  “Here, this is bloshter for the thresholds, doors and windows.”  She held out a small mason jar filled with an orange-crimson colored jelly-like substance.  “Smear it across every one of them in the cabin.  Then make a circle in the middle of the room and wait inside of it.  This won’t stop it alltogether, but it’ll slow it down chust long enough.”  She held up a small jar of yellow powder.  “Mix this pulvertranken mit some hot water.  Put two tablespoons in a cup and drink it after sundown.   And this last one is the difficult one.”  She paused and handed Uncle Charlie a bag of what looked like purple and grey dried barley, clumped into fluffy tufts that resembled the insulation commonly blown into attics.  “This is the gashenk, the offering that it must devour.  You MUST feed it from your own hand and you MUST repeat these words while feeding:  Vater, sohn und heiliger geist.  Do you understand?  Keep repeating until it finishes and goes back to the woods or until the sun come up, whichever happens first.”

“Jesus Christ, my own hand?”  Uncle Charlie looked pale as he stuffed the potions into his burlap sack.

“If I was you, I wouldn’t be using the Lord’s name in vain right now, Charles.  You gotta show no fear and hold your hand real steady and let it eat until it’s had enough.  The bloshter will give it pause at the thresholds and outside the circle and the pulvertranken and the words will protect you as long as you stay steady and calm.  Wait for it to break the circle, then slowly, very slowly feed it the gashenk.  And remember, slow, NO SUDDEN MOVEMENTS! Just make it to daybreak and you’ll be OK.  It can only be called for one night, and only once in someone’s lifetime.”

Uncle Charlie’s hand trembled as he cinched the bag shut.  “I’m not sure…”

“You gotta be sure.”  Betty said.  “That’s the one thing you gotta be tonight.  And not chust for you, but for young Gerald’s sake too.  Dat beast has been sent for you, Charles, but sometimes they get confused when things don’t go right.”

Then Betty lowered here eyes, clasped her hands together and mumbled something in German.  “All right naw, you best be headin’ back before dusk.”  Betty’s bony hand grabbed my arm.  Her strength was surprising.  “And you help your uncle, junge mensch.  Do as he says tonight!  It’s very, very important!”

She followed us halfway down the front porch as we walked to the car.

“Merken sie, vater, sohn un heiliger geist!” Betty repeated, hands cupped around her mouth, shouting above the din of the Jeep as it roared away on the gravel driveway.

My uncle drove the entire way back to the cabin in silence. I had a vague disconnected hope that I might wake up and realize this was just a bad dream.  But I knew better.  I could still feel Betty’s grip on my arm and my clothes smelled of cabbage.  I don’t ever remember smelling anything in a dream.

Back at the cabin we immediately began smearing the thresholds with the bloshter.  It smelled terrible, like rotten wood, old soap and fetid swamp scum.  I held my nose but smeared gobs of it across every doorway and window.  Luckily, the cabin was small.  It had 2 bedrooms, a living area connected to a tiny kitchen and a bathroom.  There were only two doors, one at the front and one at the back and half a dozen windows so we were done in less than ten minutes.  Finally, we rolled the carpet up in the living room and painted a circle in the middle, just big enough to hold me and Uncle Charlie and a card table.

“Uncle Charlie?”  I said, quietly. “I’m really scared.”

“Now don’t you worry, little guy.  Chust stay behind me keep your eyes shut if you have to. It’s almost dusk, so help me get the drink ready.  Here, hold the Gashenk.”  He handed me the bag.

Uncle Charlie filled a big, tin camping kettle with water and lit a burner on the stove.  I stared out the window into the forest.  The sun was dropping behind the trees, sending golden fingers of sunshine between the branches.  I wished that I could hold the sun up to keep it from plunging into night, but I knew I had no such magic.  I was powerless to halt the approaching darkness.

Uncle Charlie grabbed two chairs from the kitchen and a small card table and flashlight from the closet.  He took three candles from the bathroom and placed them inside the circle.  He set a large thermos full of coffee next to the candles and then hurried to the porch.  He returned moments later with his fireman’s axe and leaned it against the table, within easy reach.    After a minute, the kettle began to boil and Uncle Charlie poured some steaming water into two big, gray ceramic mugs.  He pulled the pulvertranken from the sack and carefully measured two tablespoons of the yellow powder into each mug.  He mixed them with a spoon and set them on the table inside the circle.  We sat down and waited for the sun to disappear.

“Here we go,” my uncle whispered as darkness spread through the forest.  He lit the candles  and we drank the concoction.  It was pleasant at first, like tea, with a slight bitterness.  But by the third gulp, it started to burn, like liquid fire roaring down my throat.  I gasped.

“Keep going, I know it burns but you gotta drink all of it down!”  Uncle Charlie said as he tipped my mug back to my lips.  “Whoo hooo!  That is hot stuff!  But not as bad as the last batch of horseradish I made!” said Uncle Charlie.

I felt woozy.  My face was hot and my head felt like it was inflating.  I thought it was going to burst.  I closed my eyes, swallowed hard and just like that it subsided.  In fact, I felt a soothing, cooling sensation spread throughout my mouth and throat.

“Wow!”  I gasped.  “That is some weird stuff!  Why did I have to drink it?  I thought it was only for you, anyway?”

“Well, I thought better safe than sorry.  Just in case the Hooligritz gets confused.  I thought a little insurance in your system couldn’t hurt.”  Uncle Charlie chuckled and slapped me on the back.

“Now what?”  I said and looked out the back door.  It was a full moon, and the forest was awash in dim silvery-blue light.  I could hear the “Geeky Birds” – the collective cacophony of frogs, katydids and other assorted nocturnal insects and amphibians that sang to each other each night, belting out their mating tunes like some primeval dating service in the trees.  It was a soothing sound, and it usually lasted until dawn.  The air was still, not even the slightest whisper of a breeze disturbed the leaves.  I looked at the Budweiser clock on the wall.  It was 9:30 p.m.

“Now we chust sit and wait,” he said.  “And play cards!”  Uncle Charlie pulled a deck of cards from his pocket and we started to play.  We played blackjack, war, and go fish.  Hours passed and we played gin rummy.  I looked at the clock.  It was 3 a.m.  My eyes began to burn, the lids quivered shut, my head nodded and jolted me back to consciousness.

“Gin!”  I said and laid down my cards for the 10th time in a row.

“Got dammit!  These cards are SOUR!”  My uncle slammed the cards onto the table.  “Why don’t you take a nap for a bit.  I’ll stand watch.”

“Are you sure Uncle Charlie?”  I asked, rubbing my tired eyes.

“Absolutely.”  he said.  “Chust lay your head down and take a snooze.”

I put my head down and closed my eyes.  I felt I had not even had a chance to doze when I was awakened by a rumbling vibration that shook the table.  I sat up and looked at the clock – it was 4:30 a.m.  I’d been asleep for an hour and a half.  I looked at Uncle Charlie.  He was slumped in his chair, snoring loudly.  I looked around the room.  Everything was as we had prepared it.  But there was something wrong.  Beyond Uncle Charlie’s snoring, the forest was silent.  The “Geeky” birds had ceased their singing and there was still and hour before sunrise.  I looked out toward the back door.  The wind began to rush through the trees, howling like a banshee.  The lights of the cabin flickered and then went out.  I could see leaves and loose twigs swirling and gathering in the moonlight outside, whirled together by the spinning air.  They seemed to coalesce and then pull apart, gathering mass after each iteration, until finally, they spun together into a hulking form; A great beast of leaves in the rough shape of a giant grizzly bear, but with a death’s head of twisted branches and vines nearly two feet across.  The vines tangled into a pointed jaw, with smaller areas corkscrewing into sharp black teeth, glazed with sap.  The arms and legs were tipped with giant claws of the same twisted branches and vines and it’s eyes were two milky white orbs that glowed from within deep set sockets of the grinning skull.   Its mouth gaped wide and an unholy bellow echoed forth, shaking the walls of the cabin and rousing Uncle Charlie from his slumber.

Hooligritz

Did you remember to rake those leaves?

“Holy Jesus!”  Uncle Charlie shouted and stood, knocking his chair back to the floor.  “Get behind me!”  he shouted as the Hooligritz lumbered forward towards the back door, creaking with each step like a giant wicker basket of evil.

“The bag!  Hand me the bag!”  he yelled as I grabbed the sack from the floor.

The creature was at the back screen door.  It paused for moment, sniffed the air and roared again.  Uncle Charlie crouched down and I did the same,  remaining close behind him.  He reached down next his left foot and pulled his axe closer.

The Hooligritz reared up and crashed through the screen door, knocking it from its hinges straight forward to the floor with a crash of splintered wood and broken glass.  The damp night air washed in through the open portal and across the beast, carrying the scent of rotted wood and eons of forest decay.  I stared as it creaked into the kitchen, its massive form scratching deep furrows into the wood paneling of the walls.

Uncle Charlie opened the bag and grabbed a handful of the gashenk and held it out in front of him.  A waft of night air stirred the dusty stuff into the air.  The swirling particles tickled my nostrils and I fought back a sneeze.

“Steady now.” Uncle Charlie said, trying to calm his trembling hand.

The beast entered the living room and creaked up to the edge of the circle.  Slowly, it pushed its chin across the threshold of the bloshter circle and opened its mouth.  A wave of chilled breath spilled forth, bearing with it the reek of rotted leaves and a damp, foul odor of worms and earth.

“Vater, sohn und Heiliger Geist.”  Uncle Charlie began to repeat, over and over as he unclenched his fingers and dumped the first batch of the purple and grey Gashenk into the toothy maw of the creature, which responded with a low, raspy hiss of approval that seemed to come from everywhere.

Uncle Charlie reached back into the bag and pulled out another handful, slowly extending his fist back into the mouth of the Hooligritz.  Again, the dark breeze stirred the dusty Gashenk into the living room air, tickling my nostrils.  I remembered the witch’s words to remain still so I shut my eyes and pinched my nose, desperately fighting the urge to sneeze.

“Vater, Sohn und Heiliger Geist,”  Uncle Charlie repeated and dropped another handful into the creature’s mouth. Its round milky eyes closed halfway, as if in some state of bliss, and it began to make a rumbling sound from deep within its throat.  Was it purring? I thought.

My uncle reached into the bag and pulled another handful of gashenk and extended it forward.  A strong gust of night air blew the whole handful into my face.  I struggled against a sneeze with all my might.  I held my nose and swallowed.  I could feel my throat and sinuses burning with the urge.  I closed my eyes and concentrated and slowly the sneeze waned and drifted away.  I opened my eyes.  The Hooligritz was in a crouched position, its head swaying slightly back and forth to the cadence of Uncle Charlie’s chant.

Without warning, my nose erupted in a massive sneeze.

Instantly, the Hooligritz reared up and roared, spraying sap across the room.  With flick of a giant paw, it tossed all two-hundred and fifty pounds of Uncle Charlie across the room as if he were a toddler.  I scrambled backwards as the creature lurched toward me, milky blue eyes shifting to bright orange, jagged mouth gaping wide.

I closed my eyes and curled into a ball, trying to get as small as possible.  I thought perhaps I could just melt into the paneling, disappear from view in some magical way, waiting for the  jaws of the Hooligritz to feast upon my frail frame.

Suddenly, I heard a thudding sound, like someone chopping wood, and a voice hollering, “Get yourself back to hell, you horse’s neck ya!”

I opened my eyes to see Uncle Charlie, straddling the neck of the Hooligritz, and hacking away at its head with his fireman’s axe.  He clung to the creature’s neck-vines with his crooked arm, hanging on for dear life like a rodeo star.  Shards of vine and branch flew as the axe rose and fell.  Dark sap sprayed against the walls and flowed from the wounds that he inflicted to the head of the beast.

Uncle Charlie chopped with the fury of a mad lumberjack.  The Hooligritz arched its back and let out a bellow of agony that shook the earth.  It bucked and twisted, trying to toss Uncle Charlie from its back, but to no avail.  One of the vines snapped loose and whipped across my chest, tearing my shirt and slicing my skin like a quartermaster’s lash.  I felt warm blood spreading from the wound and clamped my hand across my ribs, pushing hard to stem the blood flow.

“Run Gerald! Get out now!”  yelled Uncle Charlie.

I stood up but the fray blocked both doorways.  I was trapped.

The Hooligritz began to buck, like a bronco, whipping Uncle Charlie up and down; straining his damaged arm to its limit and ultimate release.  He flew straight up and slammed into the ceiling, then crashed back down to the floor in an unconscious heap; chunks of plaster from the ceiling rained down upon his motionless body.

The Hooligritz loomed over Uncle Charlie’s still body for a moment, head cocked to one side.  In that brief pause, I had the flash of and idea.  Slowly, quietly, I edged around the beast and made a mad dash out the back door toward the shed.

The Hooligritz wheeled and bellowed.  I could hear its claws scratching the hardwood floor in a wild effort to gain traction as it rumbled toward me.  I ducked into the shed, swallowed hard and grabbed the chainsaw. I began pulling the cord like I had seen Uncle Charlie do countless times before, but the saw refused to start.

The Hooligritz bashed through the back door of the cabin, its wide shoulders grazed the frame in a shower of splinters as it ambled forward, closing the gap with surprising speed for a creature so large.  I doubled my efforts, yanking on the starter cord as fast and hard as I could.  From the corner of my eye I could see those giant orange eyes getting closer – I could smell the beast’s foul breath.  He was close – nearly upon me.  My arm burned and I doubted I could complete one more pull when the chainsaw roared into life.

What happened next is still a bit hazy.  I remember jamming the saw into the mouth of the Hooligritz.  I remember a horrible bellowing sound competing with the scream of the chainsaw as I dug the blade into the twisted vines and branches. I remember sawdust and sap clouding my eyes and clogging my throat.  I remember slashing and leaping and screaming.  And then the saw was quiet.  I sat down, surrounded by piles sawdust and cut brush, vines and branches.  I was covered in sap, my arms ached and I had scratches and scrapes everywhere.  The Hooligritz, now a pile of yard waste, was no more.  My throat burned and I began to sob.  I turned toward the cabin, tears washing sawdust and grime down my cheeks.  “Uncle Charlie!”  I rasped.

Before I could muster another thought, the wind stirred, swirling the sawdust and twigs into the air.  It spun and twisted around me, like a dust devil, raging faster and faster.  In a moment, the pieces began to re-assemble, forming the Hooligritz once more.  The beast was restored to its previous form, with the addition of sawdust and wood chips as the majority component, making it seem even more solid and formidable than before.  It reared up on its hind legs and roared, eyes blazing orange once again.

I pulled on the chainsaw cord but nothing happened.  Somewhere, in the far reaches of what was left of my rational thought, I knew that it was probably out of gas.  I began to tremble and backed up against a tree as the Hooligritz closed in, jagged mouth gaping to devour me.

I stared into that black maw, a void lined with wood particles, sawdust, leaves and vines.  So this is it.  I thought.  I die in the belly of this ancient forest creature.  This sucks!  I crouched down and closed my eyes again, one last time.  I felt its chilled breath on my face and smelled that rotted forest scent.  Warm sticky sap dripped and rolled down my arms and the laceration on my chest began to burn. I held my breath and waited for the end.

Nothing.  No viney forest teeth mauled my flesh.  No bone-crushing jaws ground me to pulp.  Just silence.

Then I heard birds chirping in the trees and felt a spot of warmth on the back of my neck.  What the hell?

I opened my eyes.  Rays of sunlight streamed through the trees behind me, across my shoulders and onto the forest floor.  A pile of sawdust, wood chips, leaves, branches and twigs lay in a massive heap before me.  Floating dust particles danced in the sunlight, stirred by the cool morning breeze.  It was dawn and I remembered  what Betty had said,  that we just had to make it through the night.  “Sunlight!” I whispered.

I chuckled to myself at the thought of something as simple as sunlight destroying that evil creature.  The chuckle devolved into an uncontrollable laugh-spasm born of desperation and trauma.  When it subsided I stood up and brushed what was left of the Hooligritz from my arms and legs.  Blood from my chest gash had soaked through my shirt, coagulated into a crusty stain that formed a giant crimson backslash across my torso.  I stumbled across the back yard and into the cabin.

Uncle Charlie was lying against the wall, his back to me.  I walked over to him, bent down and shook his shoulder.  Nothing.  I shook it again, harder.  Still nothing.  I felt tears welling up in my eyes.  I shook him again and he coughed.

“Uncle Charlie, you’re OK!” I yelled and pulled his arm.

“Vell, now, OK’s a pretty strong word for how I’m feeling right now, but yes, I’m still alive.  “How are you little fellow?  What happened?” he asked.

“I think the sunlight killed it.”  I said as I helped him up.

“Yup.  That’ll do it.”  he said, stretching his neck and shoulders.  “Good old sunshine.  Oh boy, looks like you got a nasty gash there.”  Uncle Charlie said pointing to my bloody chest.  “Hold on there a second.  I’ll get you all fixed up.”

Uncle Charlie ducked into the bathroom and returned with some gauze, adhesive tape and a bottle of disinfectant.  I pulled off my torn shirt and he swabbed the long gash.  In five minutes I was patched up with gauze and tape across my chest.  Years later, that seven inch scar would become a grim reminder of the fury of the Hooligritz.

“Tell your mom you got cut climbing a tree.  I think it’s best that we keep last night just between you and me,” Uncle Charlie said and squeezed my shoulder.

We took a walk around to survey the aftermath of the struggle.  There were long claw marks across the hardwood floor, rough furrows dug an inch or two deep in places.  The paneling had been scratched by the wide shoulders of the beast and the rear screen door was smashed and flattened on the floor.  We walked outside.  The chainsaw lay in front of the shed next to the pile of sawdust, twigs and branches that had been the beast.

“What’s with the chainsaw?”  said Uncle Charlie.

“Well, I kinda used it to cut up the Hooligritz.”  I said.

Uncle Charlie started laughing.  His face turned red and he laughed harder until he began coughing.  “You little bugger!  I thought you were afraid of that chainsaw?”

“I was more scared of the Hooligritz, Uncle Charlie.”  I said.

“Well, you done good, kid.  I’m real proud of you.”  Charlie said, gazing around at the chaos.  “That’s fireman’s valor.”

“What is?”  I said.

“When you ignore your fears and and charge into the fire, like you did there.”  said Charlie, winking.

“Really?”  I said, shrugging.

“You betcha.” said Uncle Charlie.  “Anyhow, this place is a real goddamn mess.  Whadda say we get it cleaned up?”  He pulled his red handkerchief out and blew his nose.  “Now we’re gonna need paneling, hardwood flooring and a new door.  And that doorframe looks pretty verhuntzed! he said with a chuckle.”

We worked all morning, hammering, sawing and sanding until the cabin was back to its former self.  We raked the vines, sawdust and leaves of the disintegrated Hooligritz into a pile in the yard and set it ablaze.  We stood still for a moment and watched the flames roar; an orange, red and yellow pyre reaching high into the crisp blue sky.  The fire hissed and popped, sending wild sparks into the air.

“Well, now, that ought to do it.  How about a cold birch beer?”  Uncle Charlie said, dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief.

“Yeah!”  I said. “That would be great!”  I smiled and wrapped my arms as far around his big beer belly as I could manage.  We never told anyone about what happened that night.  Perhaps Uncle Charlie was a little embarrassed that he got his butt kicked by a pile of leaves and vines.  I think it’s more likely that the whole incident would have just invited ridicule and questions regarding our sanity, so we kept the tale to ourselves.  We always maintained a special understanding between us from that night forth.

Uncle Charlie passed away decades ago and was honored with an epic fireman’s funeral.  Dozens of fellow fire fighters delivered heartfelt eulogies for their fallen chief and 20 fire trucks led the final parade to Charlie’s resting place; a fitting send-off for a lifelong hero of public service.  I can still picture him on that night, swinging his axe and whooping like a wild Cherokee warrior on the back of that creature from the Pennsylvania woods.

The events of that night have slowly dissolved into the past and I now have a family of my own, living far from that cabin in the Poconos.  Sometimes, however, when I find myself alone, gazing deep into the night forest, I feel a tingling sensation from the scar across my chest.  It’s as if I carry a piece of that dark creature within my skin, forever connected through some ancient blood bond to the primeval night forest.  And I always make sure to keep my chainsaw ready with a full tank of gasoline, just in case…

Chainsaw

Gassed and ready!

The Riverboy

They say he drowned there around fifty years ago, and they say sometimes he comes back to the surface in search of companionship. They say so because they’ve seen it, and they’d be willing to swear on the good book that it was true. And for the last fifty years, kids kept disappearing, gone for days, and suddenly turning up dead in the river, looking like they’d been dead for weeks. Every time one body turned up, another kid seemed to go missing.
That’s what they say, anyway. And they blame it all on the Riverboy.

When I was eight years old, I was unusually brave for someone who was terrified of everything. I was a regular oxymoron, the bold coward, the pathetic hero. So it was natural that I would be afraid of being drowned by the Riverboy, but intrigued by the legend surrounding him. Mom always told me to stay away from the river, but it was a good place to play. During the day, there seemed nothing wrong with it. It moved too fast for skipping stones and too slow for makeshift rafts to be any fun. There used to be a swinging rope, but some grown ups complained it was dangerous and the parents of victims sobbed at the sight of it, so they had it taken down.

I never swam in the river, anyway, so that didn’t bother me much.
Kevin Pearsley and I used to play there. Sometimes we tried fishing. We never caught anything. Other times a police officer would come by to make sure we were okay, and we were always fine. Usually he asked us to go home anyway, or go to the park across the street because it was safer.

But the river was so much fun. There was something about it that made us want to go there. Maybe it was the way the waters sang, whispering over the rocks. Maybe it was the way it rippled in shapes unlike any other body of water I had ever seen. It was like another language. It was like art.

Once I thought it spelled out my name. There, in the shapes and curves of the waves, I saw it; “Bridget.” I asked Kevin if he noticed, but he didn’t. He never really saw what I saw. It said his name once, too.

It was June. I overheard Mom tell Dad another body turned up. Gracie Maydale this time. She was older than me by two years, so I never really knew her. Mom talked about moving. They had listed the house months ago, but I guess nobody wanted to move here. Dad said it was just the economy, whatever that meant. I thought it was the Riverboy’s fault.

Three days following Gracie’s death, I realized Kevin hadn’t called or come by or anything. He didn’t live very far, so I walked to his house and knocked on his big red door. His parents didn’t answer it, so I walked home.
“Mom?” I asked. “Have you talked to Mrs. Pearsley lately?”
“Oh, honey,” my mom replied in the voice she always used when there was bad news. I had heard it twice before; once, when she told me my guinea pig “ran away,” and again when she told me one of my old relatives that I never really knew had died. But this was different. This wasn’t a pet or a distant relative. This was Kevin. This was my best friend.
She told me he went missing three days ago. The same night Gracie’s body was found. How come they found Gracie, but not Kevin? Where had he gone?

There was only one place missing kids in my town were ever found.
The river.
The Riverboy’s river.

I waited for my parents to fall asleep, and even though I was more frightened than I had ever been, I found the bravery to run to the river in the black of night.

The streetlamps were dim, but they were enough. I flew past them, my sandaled feet hitting cold pavement. The farther I ran, the harder it was to make my legs move, like little weights jumped on with each passing yard. But I didn’t stop for anything.
When I reached the river, I stopped at the edge on a dime. The waters roared around me.

“Kevin!” I shrieked, cupping my hands around my mouth. The rushing water still drowned my voice. “KEVIN!” I tried again. “KEVIN PEARSLEY! You aren’t funny! Come out! Kevin!”
I heard a voice.
My best friend’s voice.
Kevin.

“Bridget?” he said.

It was so quiet, I thought it was impossible that I had heard it over the water. Yet it reached my ears clear as day, as if I had thought it myself, right there in my own head.
And then I saw him. Tiny Kevin Pearsley, standing stock-still in the middle of a rushing river. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he didn’t feel the water at all. And he was coming closer, hands outstretched, fighting the current effortlessly. His skin looked blue in the light of the moon, reflecting off the water.

“Kevin! What are you doing in there?”

“Bridget, it’s cold.”

“Where have you been for three days, you big dummy?” I cried.

“It’s cold,” he said again. His voice was monotone, and his eyes were dull, his face was expressionless. “It’s cold. Help me.”

He reached out his hand. I hesitated.

One more word, flat, emotionless. I didn’t even see his blue lips move. “Help.”

I reached down and grabbed his hands. It was like grabbing ice; he slipped, and he froze, and I shivered. I felt him come up out of the water, and for a moment I felt a sense of total victory. My heart rejoiced. I smiled.

But then I fell in. The water crashed around me, numbing my skin, filling my ears, my eyes, my lungs.

I watched Kevin float to the surface, drifting away from me, but as I sank deeper, I still felt icy hands gripping mine.

Kevin Pearsley’s body was found on the riverbank the next morning. Bridget Allan’s was gone.

I was Bridget Allan once.

I’m the Riverboy now. It was Kevin Pearsley before me. Gracie Maydale. Countless others. Like good children at the playground, we take turns. We share. We wait.

I’m still waiting.

RiverBoy

He’s waiting…

 

Little Miss Mad

Little Miss Mad