Alan Shapiro published two books in January 2012: Broadway Baby, a novel, from Algonquin Books, and Night of the Republic, poetry, from Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt. This essay first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review (subscribe here). Our thanks to Shapiro for allowing us to reprint it here, and for sharing an update on Nat’s life (see the postscript below).
“When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. And when I wasn’t writing or reading, I was staring out the window, lost in thought. Life was elsewhere — I was sure of it—and writing was what took me there. In my notebooks, I escaped an unhappy and lonely childhood. I tried to make sense of myself. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I didn’t know that becoming a writer was possible. Still, writing was what saved me. It presented me with a window into the infinite. It allowed me to create order out of chaos.”
“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail — not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime. “Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It requires what the great editor Ted Solotoroff once called endurability.”
Cited from the wonderful personal blog( as I have said so on many occasions) Brainpickings by Maria Popova:
Awoken by the sound of a biological clock
Planning, preparing every morrow
The same dull, mundane routine
Such as the flat stretch of the road
To the everyday destination we follow.
As we drift towards the familiar location in space
The same pavement beneath our feet
Caught in by the shimmering morning asphalt
Faces whirring by at a mile a ‘beat.
The tick of the biological clock
Signals the gears’ turning
As the ghost of a memory transposes itself
Before our eyelids over the mourning
It remembers the past frame of time well
Though graced with the presence of slight differences
Of whose absence the second tick reminds us
As the faltering memory ages.
Oh, how the inner self is painfully aware
Of the uncertainty tomorrow brings
And how it silently laments what we fail to acknowledge:
The loss of the sombre fragments,
The loss of the simple things.
A collaboration of blood and sweat with the mastermind behind the plot, dreamtalia. The same story has been posted on his blog too, since the collaboration has been equal parts blood and equal parts sweat.
Originally finished on September 4, 2015.
It was a dark, cloudy evening with a presently brewing storm as a man silently trudged through the dense undergrowth of the ghost of a path that ran through the hills over the eastern side of the wheat fields in and around the stretch of the otherwise uninhabited land. Towering walls of deciduous trees stood on either side of the path, effectively concealing the stranger from view, had anybody been looking this way. Having traveled this far, to this part to the south of the hills, the traveler was prepared to spend a few days simply wandering and exploring as much of the countryside as time would allow. After the day’s exhaustingly long journey, the man was starving, sleep deprived and more than eager to slumber through the frigid night in a warm bed, with a contented stomach. As the gales continued to blow through the high-standing branches of the cedar-trees, howling their way past the moss-covered trunks of the giant beings, a solitary stallion emerged through a bend in the trees ─ making its way towards the man at a furious gallop. In the split second the fawn hued stallion held the wide-eyed gaze of the then intensely alert traveler, appearing ghastly majestic in the fading twilight; an apparition that went as quickly as it had come…disappearing into the meadows like a shadow dissolving into the shades of the cedar trees made by the softly shimmering light of the sun that managed to escape through the gaps in the ever-present menacing clouds.
The stranger stood in his tracks an instant, momentarily disoriented, looking around for traces of the riderless stallion that had so abruptly dashed past him but finding none. Dismissing the incident as a conjuring of his obviously worn out mind, he continued onward with his journey only to realize that an old manor now stood in plain sight, suddenly there, perched directly in the mid of his line of view in the embrace of the somber trees at the end of the woods. He was bewildered, for how a soul could inhabit such an odd place…so far off from the nearest civilization?
In response to this thought, came the sound of rustling leaves somewhere close by. Oddly enough, he stumbled upon the silhouette of a short, bent form with a bundle of logs in his hand, completely immersed in the simple task of collecting firewood. Sensing the traveler’s presence, the figure turned around to greet the stranger with the good-natured, wrinkled smile of an aged man.
“What brings you here, son?” asked the old man cheerily.
The stranger decided to act cautiously.
“I was travelling through the woods, only wanted to explore the countryside,” he responded.
“Oh,” said the old man, taking in the exhausted appearance of the traveler. His welcoming smile never faltered. “Got an explorer, have we?” he asked jokingly.
“Hmm, I do love travelling,” followed his reply. Since the younger man was being cautious still, he asked the man in front of him if he knew of any places around there where he could lodge for the night.
“Not ‘round here, no. Nobody lives within 3 miles of this place except for me and my wife over there in that manor behind me.” The old man informed him, turning to point at the ancient looking façade which was the first thing the traveler had noticed when he emerged from the woods. “But you can always come stay with us for a while, if you’re planning on staying here long,” he offered.
The traveler felt wary of the invitation, yet the welcoming ease of the older male disarmed his suspicions…And so he agreed to stay with the old couple; adding, at the end, that he would get out of their hair as soon as he was well rested.
“Ah, you can stay as long as you like, son.” He paused to pick up a kerosene lantern from the ground, “ You must be worn out by walking as such; come now, we were only preparing for supper, come and eat with us, for as I tell you, son, my wife Doritha cooks a hearty meal.” The old man gushed.
Pulled in by the pangs of hunger, the stranger readily followed his host towards the manor, already forgetting all about his encounter with the apparition of the stallion only some minutes ago. Even though a strange feeling tugged at his mind, the protests from his fatigued feet silenced the nagging. They continued up the small hillock leading to the manor, where every detail of the ancient building now came into plain view.
The manor’s facade was, as many would say, one that had seen much wear: it had the aura of an aged being ─ much like the old man himself ─ only moderate in size as compared to other country manors but large enough to provide comfortable living quarters for two people, the traveler supposed. Also, the house was not entirely good-looking which was readily visible in the weather-beaten appearance of the manor ─ bent shutters, crooked frames on windows and mundane white and fading, dull blue hues adorning the outer walls.
The traveler was ushered inside, a fire was stirred with the freshly brought in firewood, while the old man made small talk with the traveler. It was then, when the old man courteously informed him that he was going to go help his wife; so when he left, the traveler stood in front of the window by the stone fireplace while waiting for supper.
Looking out the clear glass window, he could see that it apparently faced the backside of the house as he noticed a new detail he couldn’t have seen before —the backyard of the manor harbored a vast stretch of a lake that held reflections of the trees on its millpond surface as they looked down on the waters— only drastically adding to the gloomy aura of the place. Drawn in by the reflections of the cedars he did not notice when the old man’s wife, an even more aged being in appearance than her husband with her tiny frame bowed down under the weight of all those years she had seen, had entered the room. She cleared her throat good-naturedly and informed him that dinner was ready. The sight of the old woman’s pleasant smiling face seemed to dispel any foreboding thoughts the stranger might have had regarding the strangeness of his present situation. As the evening progressed, the traveler found his hosts were overwhelming congenial people, who seemed more than happy to be having his company. The old lady, he noted, was much like his husband in her gentle and welcoming disposition. He attributed their joy to their loneliness in these otherwise uninhabited woods. It was certainly eerie how two elderly people seemed so unperturbed by the idea of living by themselves in the middle of the woods where for many miles lived not a soul. Even as much, just the thought of traversing those many miles every day for staples seemed ridiculous. But all the traveler’s musings were put on a hiatus, because, as for now a scrumptious dinner was served: of turkey with gravy and a mouth-watering apple pie for desert which he devoured gratefully.
The elderly man named Hensley now spoke, “Heaven’s food, I tell you son, heaven’s food.” He patted then, his fully-filled belly for good measure.
His wife, who the traveler had found out was named Doritha, laughed a tiny, melodious laugh and said, “It’s been forty years you have been eating this turkey, Samuel,” and then she turned her face towards their guest and said conspiratorially, “Lying is now his habit.”
The couple was waiting for a response from the traveler, and so he obliged them with his mouth still full, “No, ma’am, I have to agree. The food is delicious. It isn’t every day you get to eat food like that.”
“And, by Peter’s grace, I have been blessed with a beautiful home and a beautiful wife, and delicious food to fill my belly—what more can a man wish for, eh?” said the old man, slapping the traveler jokingly on the back. He kept rubbing his stomach contentedly.
To this, his wife now cut in happily, “Let our guest eat in silence now; he must be starved by walking for so long.”
Meanwhile the traveler was lost in his own thoughts, as he watched the old couple bicker with each other cheerfully, for as his guest had put it, he indeed was starving. Though, the unusual size of the turkey did register in his mind and before he could have second thoughts, he blurted out,
“That’s a pretty big turkey.”
The old man now turned to him, his chest swelling ever so slightly with mock pride , “ Hunted it myself, son.” He flashed a toothy smile at him now, “…Perks of living in the woods, you see.”
The traveler made small talk with his hosts throughout dinner, after which the couple directed the traveler to the guest room on the first level where they wished each other a goodnight and then everybody in the old manor retired to their quarters and the candles were put out. The manor house was then, entirely quiet afterwards, not even a leaf stirred. Sometime during the night, the clouds opened up and gave way to heavy, torrential rain.
The next morning, it was still early, the sun had merely begun rising over the horizon, throwing its golden rays over the tips of the cedars and hemlocks and spruces as the stranger left his guestroom, heading downstairs to look for the old pair but finding the manor eerily quiet. As he was passing along the corridor down the stairs, he thought he had heard muffled sounds emanating from somewhere behind the wall along the passage. For a minute he wondered if his morning stupor was to be blamed, but on remembering his encounter with the stallion from the previous night, he decided to seek out the origin of those strange noises.
Wandering deeper into a section of the manor he hadn’t seen last night as his gracious guests had led him on a brief tour, he—following the faint trail of whispers as they progressively grew louder—stumbled upon a little locked door embedded into the wall down the middle. The stranger pressed his ear against the wooden surface of the locked door to decipher the sounds and he was alarmed to find out that the voices held a slight hint of sobbing in their periodicity. But the moment he had this revelation, before he could even process his next chain of muddled thoughts, an unexpected tap on his shoulder sent his heart into frenzy. His primary instinct guided his reflexes to brace himself for the unanticipated attack of their own accord. Whirling around in a panicking motion, he was prepared to follow through with his instinct when his delayed realization was met by the lanky frame of the old man standing directly before him— one bony right hand holding onto the long handle of a splitting maul with the sledgehammer side of the tool firmly resting against his shoulder and the heavy iron blade projecting straight into the air. The stranger was so shaken by this encounter that it took him a while to regain his senses; a dazed frame of time in which he involuntarily missed what the old man apparently had just then said to him.
“Are you okay, son?” repeated the older male slowly this time, “I went to wake you up but you weren’t in your room.”
The traveler felt extremely mortified for his furtive behavior, heightened by the innocent tone of honest inquiry on the old man’s part.
Swallowing the guilt in his voice, the young man replied, “I was searching for you, sir, when I thought I heard some voices…” he let his sentence trail off, embarrassed.
“This old manor has all kinds of wind problems you’ll find,” the old man informed him. “Everything squeaks, but it’s all fine until it roars.”
The odd choice of words confused the stranger and so he ventured ahead to inquire his host about the oddity: “What do you mean roars, sir?”
In response to this, the old man merely patted the traveler on the shoulder twice, dismissively saying, “Wild animals, son…perks of living in the woods.” He then proceeded to leave, and as he did so he called over his shoulder— “And call me Hensley,” almost as an afterthought. “Come, or breakfast will get cold.”
In the afternoon the stranger returned to the path in the woods leading to the meadows where he had seen the apparition of the stallion in hopes of finding tracks of the horse on the forest floor, trekking slowly along the damp earth of the woods with light, rhythmic footfalls— eyes alert for traces of the footprints of a horse’s hooves in the mud. The traveler walked a while, venturing deeper into the labyrinth of green than from where he had started by the bent pair of hemlocks at the end of the woods. Chasing after the evasive evidence of its presence for a longer while than he had initially figured but finding none, so immersed in finding the stallion’s tracks was he that he lost his sense of direction, and the young man wandered deeper along the winding trails of the woods to happen upon a strange place at the heart of the sea of vegetation.
A sort of square formation existed on part of the forest floor there: with four giant cedar trees claiming the four vertices, the alignment aiding to the formation of something akin to a crossroads. He stood in the middle of the intersection and gazed aimlessly into the distance where each of the four paths individually converged on the unseen horizon in different directions. Much to his surprise, the traveler in the strange place realized that this might as well have been the same place he had gotten lost on the evening he arrived at the old manor— an evening that his mind failed to believe had occurred only yesterday, out here in the middle of the woods. As the uncanny arrangement of his surroundings began to register in his head, another confounding detail about the place occupied the forefront of his train of thought— directly below each of the cedar trees grew a herb comprised of multiple tiny disk flowers adorned with fragile, pastel white ray flowers all around them, bound together in a cluster that occupied the central portion of the flower head, the inflorescence. Where the sight of the cedar trees, those that claimed their place in the earth in an unusual square formation might have struck the stranger as ineffably odd in itself for something that thrived so naturally in this part of the world, his rational mind was further stupefied by the sight of these flowers springing above the earth singly below each coniferous tree— not only for the sole inexplicable reason for their growth pattern, but for the much outweighing question of their identity. As he drew closer to look at the pale-hued flowers intimately, one name rang reluctantly strong and clear through his mind like lightning: Devil’s nettle.
The stranger had once during one of his travels come across a small village located in the distant parts of a valley north of the river up there, a secluded village with little population and the concentrations in the diversity of beliefs of people as few one would witness anywhere else within such a tiny number of inhabitants. Strangely enough, the village had yet more surprises in store for the young man. In a miniature antique shop housing all kinds of bizarre articles of fascination: ranging from the finest fabric embroidered by hand with the most intricate caricatures narrating fairy stories, to rare herbs and priced personal belongings of people from all walks of life. But one object among the plethora of them actually caught the man’s experienced attention—it was an old volume of leather leafs sewn together by a strong thread (one made from the resin of some wild plant as the eccentric lady behind the counter had told him) that ran along the spine of the slowly decaying tome. Carefully lifting the fragile book jacket, the man had been greeted with four words written in ink on the first page:
History of Demonology and Witchcraft
Leafing through the pages the traveler had found that the volume contained every myth and legend there might be concerning the witches of yore, all the diverse forms of demons there existed— in heaven or on earth, that was another matter altogether— potions and concoctions used for inflicting harm or remedy and their ingredients; the herbs, the plants, the bark, gums or resins of rare trees and whatnot. It was a collection of all the legends and myths that ran the length and breadth of the native superstition. Of course the man had wanted to claim the tome for himself as a souvenir but the same eccentric lady hadn’t been very complying. He tried negotiating but the woman was unshakable. She refused to let him buy the tome for the world’s worth of gold. He questioned her as to why she would keep it alongside articles for sale if she did not intend to actually sell it, to which he received an ominous answer of “keeping things like that close at all times”. Though in the end the stranger had not gotten what he wanted but as he had been leafing through the volume, he had bothered to read a few entries, one of which had been about the same flowers that stood bravely in the dirt before him now— the Devil’s nettle.
Otherwise known as yarrow flowers, they were used in many practices from divination to herbalism. In Greek mythology, yarrow grew from the rust that Achilles scraped from his spear to help heal a man he had wounded. But there was one other use for the magical plant and that was its utility in hoodoo practices: it could be used as a protector, grown on crossroads to trap demons.
And the inked sketch that specified the details of the necessary arrangements for accomplishing the deed had described a similar alignment of the devil’s nettle as the one the young man was looking at then before his eyes.
Could the flowers be growing here at the roots of these trees by mere coincidence?The stranger thought, upon his recollection of the plant’s many diabolical uses.
Countless puzzles and doubts inhibited his mind further. If the man’s mind had been running in answerless circles of baffling questions before due to the evasive stallion and the voices from the manor, he was left more petrified than ever as the ominous workings of the sinister place gradually unfolded before him.
That evening for dinner, turkey was served again.
The old man Samuel then spoke patting his belly, “Heaven’s food, I tell you, son—heaven’s food.”
Doritha laughed a tiny, melodious laugh and said, “It’s been forty years you have been eating this turkey, Samuel,” then she turned her face towards the traveler and said primarily to him, “Lying is now his habit.”
The conversation being exchanged at the dinner table had eerily felt, as if a déjà vu, to the befuddled traveler. Though he attributed the unexpected repetition in their conversation to their old age, he was particularly baffled by the repetition of the same large turkey being served for dinner twice in a row. Samuel Hensley, apparently catching the traveler eyeing the turkey meaningfully, proceeded to gloat with the same self-satisfaction he had the night before, “Hunted it myself, son.”
This struck the traveler as ineffably odd, for he did not recall the elderly man going for hunting, though his host could have gone out when he had spent the afternoon chasing after the stallion’s non-existent apparition. But even then, there were chances their paths could have crossed in the woods where the traveler had been lingering furtively, which did not happen. He began to suspect the uncanny behavior of the pair; he questioned the absurdity of how they could survive by themselves out here all alone in this wilderness. What also he could not fathom, was why their family was never around. They couldn’t be living here entirely isolated in the middle of nowhere.
Don’t they have any children? He thought to himself, puzzled. He did not realize that he had subconsciously asked his question out loud, to which he received a suspiciously evasive response.
The old man Hensley had coughed loudly, and the couple had altogether ignored his question as if their guest had not spoken at all.
The elderly lady scrambled to cover up the odd exchange, “Samuel is not well today, I think. I will escort him to his room.” That was when she helped his husband lift himself out of the chair and, wishing the traveler a “Goodnight, son” quietly slipped out of the dining room. A minute later, the sound of a closing door resonated down the staircase leading to the first level, and all was silent afterwards.
The events taking place at the Hensley Manor were gradually building up to something mind-boggling in Irving, the young traveler’s mind. It was a few hours into the wee hours of morning and he lay there under a mess of blankets on his bed, entering a realm of darkness in his dreams:
He was standing at the top of the staircase on the first level, looking down at the deathly stillness on the floor below him. He slowly descended the stairs, one footfall following the previous one, until his feet carried him to the base of the staircase ̶ of their own accord as it seemed. At the end of the flight of steps stood an unassuming wooden door; though he failed to admit it to himself, he felt a faint tugging at the walls of his mind—one that told him that the house he was treading inside in the dark was none other than the Hensley manor itself. A shaking hand grasped the cold, metal door handle and the wooden doorway lazily turned on its hinges, emanating a creaking sound in the process that sounded deafening to his ears in the quiet of the night. Inside, a dark room with a shutter window for air passage from which faint moonlight was streaming in greeted him. By the forsaken sight of the room and the slight dampness to the air inside, Irving decided that the dark room was, in fact, a basement somewhere around the hind side of the old manor for he could see the reflections of the pastel moon glimmering on the lake waters, casted on the moldy basement floor. He stood there in the darkness for a while, looking at the moonlight dancing and shimmering at his feet. But soon his trance was broken by the sensation of movement in his peripheral vision. He looked up. Hanging there by the basement wall, chained by their hands were two corpses clad in decaying rags—one male, another a female—swinging under the draft brought in by the open shutter window as the wind continued to violently howl outside in the branches of the trees by the lake. The blood curdling sound of the rusting metal swinging with the breeze made Irving cover his ears tightly with his shivering hands as he shrieked himself awake through the unearthly nightmare.
The stranger awoke abruptly, with a start, frantically looking around to search for the ghastly slaughtered bodies, dreadfully expecting them to be hanging there by the bedroom wall, but realizing, to his relief, that the entire vision was merely a conjuring of his troubled mind.
He threw off the blanket over the bedside, placing his feet on the stone cold floor in a maneuver to find solid foothold for his trembling feet and shake the horrific nightmare away. His throat felt parched and warm droplets of moisture dotted his forehead from the extensive dreaming. He made a decision to go and fetch himself a glass of water in order to preoccupy his mind and find an escape from the over thinking.
But he realized there was no refuge from the malediction and the morbid for as he was descending the same flight of steps from his dream, he could not help but perceive with undiluted fear the awful happenstance. He passed the window by the stone fireplace, pausing to peep out the reflective surface, to find a sombre night sky hanging over the still waters of the lake. Something about those perpetually tranquil waters clawed at his conscious every time he ever stole a glance their way.
Guided by the overpowering dryness of his throat, he downed two glasses of cold water from the pantry and quietly slipped out of the kitchen through the living room. He turned around the corner to embark the timber staircase again when his feet missed the friction from the cold floor for a split second. He had stepped onto something fluid and warm that slightly stuck to the soles of his feet. What troubled him was the large area of the floor that fluid seemed to cover, as he walked around a little, feeling the changes in the texture of the ground with his feet. Fetching a wax candle mounted on a weathered candlestick from the chest of drawers in the corridor he had left behind, the stranger set out to identify the vague, clingy substance. It reflected a deep, crimson hue under the mellow flame of the candle. Surprised, he was subconsciously pulled by the traces of blood— his mind braced for the worst case scenario. The narrow trail of blood followed parallel to the floor of the passage in its wake, a trail that suggested perhaps, someone or something had been dragged or had dragged itself as it streamed behind a galleon’s worth of the crimson, viscous fluid.
And, for the ever so baffling reason, the trail had led him back to the same locked door he had accidentally stumbled upon on the previous morning—the room wherefrom had been emanating the strange sobbing voices. Though now that he had arrived there, he reconsidered his previous supposition: that, if perhaps, somebody or something had dragged itself or had been dragged away from here rather than to here… for the trail came to a brisk end right before the unflinching entrance as if a path coming to an end at the edge of a sheer abyss. And there, just as he turned around, with that possibility leading, to return to the corridor beside the staircase where he had initially discovered the blood traces that it occurred to Irving that it had disappeared from the floor as if vaporizing into thin air—the disappearance of which left him questioning his sanity.
“Am I hallucinating?” whispered he, frustrated, to the grand abyss of blackness before him. It was then that he had heard a stirring upstairs, and thus he quickly scrambled to blow out his candle and hastily proceeded to press himself against the wall of the corridor, holding his breath in apprehensive anticipation.
But even after a while of being still and pressed up flat against the wall, seeing as nobody approached the deserted staircase, Irving, walking on glass splinters throughout, brought the half-burnt candle along with him up to the first level and quietly slipped inside the guestroom, where he stayed for the remainder of the night.
It was the late morning of day two for the stranger staying with the Hensleys and the sun shone bravely high up over the horizon now, in spite of the persistence of the storm over the last few days. After the sumptuous breakfast of bacon and eggs with whole wheat bread made from harvest from the fields, the stranger had decided to go on hunting in the woods when the old man had insisted on going with him.
“It’s a fine, cheery morning, lad; ought to make the best of it,” he had said to Irving in a joyful tone.
“Wouldn’t you rather—” The old man Hensley had abruptly left the room in the midst of Irving’s unasked question only to return with two shotguns held firmly in each if his hands. The readiness of the old man for an activity he would not exactly consider him physically or mentally capable of surprised the stranger, but to the effect of which he said nothing. To say he was reluctant to go anywhere with the old man armed with a loaded gun would have been an understatement for he had begun to grow suspicious of the fact that he might be hiding his true intentions after last night’s events, but, yet again, he dared not voice his thoughts to the eccentric elderly man. And so, together they both had left for the woods with a loaded shotgun each, cheery and hopeful for big game— the cheerfulness being present mostly on the old man’s part.
They went round the lake in order to do so, taking a detour walking along the edge of the water as Hensley informed Irving that the other side of the lake was overgrowing with treacherous weeds.
All the while that they were within hearing range of the house, the stranger could hear the elderly lady, Mrs. Hensley, as she sang in a soft, morbidly enchanting tone some native melancholy melody.
By the waterside in the woods
A solitary tree once stood
For he bore fruits such sweet
Loving hand with he did greet
Aiding the weary that did stray
from their unto his way
They had almost reached the edge of the forest fringe now. She was standing on the other side of the frozen lake, immediately behind the manor house, with her back turned in their direction; oblivious and immersed in hanging damp clothes on a wire hung between two spruce trees on the bank.
There came such evil man one day who the noble tree did slay so as the tree fell into the bay, the waters came to ferry him away.
There was a chilling strangeness to her words, almost as if they were recounting the story of her and her husband, who were the noble tree in the tale, ever congenial and welcoming.
But the evil man’s curse was much strong
and since the tree has slept their long.
They soon entered the woods where the stranger could no longer hear Mrs. Hensley’s sorrowful song— as he was enveloped by the thick walls of conifers all around him that effectively blocked out the sounds from beyond.
It was some hours later, walking into the embrace of the profound woods, at one point Irving seemed to remember his venture on his very first day on the land and with it memories of the ghostly encounter with the stallion’s apparition came flooding back. Decidedly, determined to find out the answer to its existence, he deliberated asking the man walking a few steps ahead of him the same.
“Say, are there many horses roaming about the land?” inquired he, to which the old man replied, without turning to face Irving, “Used to breed a few—folks before me—but no, there ain’t any now,” he had said in a non-committal manner. Further, he went on, “Why do you ask?” It seemed like such a harmless question.
“Oh, nothing, I just thought I’d heard one passing by the other time. It was ̶” but then the old man had shushed him and proceeded to stand still, poised, with the loaded weapon ready—tightly gripped in both hands for the apparently oncoming prey…or so Irving thought.
Throughout their hunt until that point, they had managed to hunt a wild boar for meal between the two of them. Irving had been carrying the dead animal on his shoulder, so as the old man stood eerily still on the forest floor, he had not let go of the animal’s cadaver, expecting the oncoming game to be an easier kill. But something about the tense posture of his companion had Irving’s brain reeling for alternate possibilities.
Being quiet for a few seconds, he could then hear a stirring somewhere nearby—the periodic rustling of dead foliage approaching closer by the heartbeat. With an audible gulp he dropped the boar, and gripped the handle of his gun ever so tightly. Even then, all his premeditation could not have prepared him for the large gray wolf that sprang out from among the hedges, probably pulled in by the still warm scent of the unfortunate animal lying inanimate by his feet. Irving was too late in acting, for the wolf leaped out of the undergrowth, and for the oddest reason, was held back for a second by gunfire from somewhere nearby him, when, he realized, that it came from the shotgun gripped tightly in the old man’s frail hands.
Taking cover, the old man continued to ward off the gigantic wolf with the momentum of the incessant bullets being hurtled at the wolf’s lunging body, and soon Irving joined him in their fight for survival as he eventually got past his initial shock. The ferocious beast running wild in front of them however, seemed unfazed by their shooting and continued to fast close in on its prey; in the next split second that it dodged the bullet was when the wolf, baring all its malicious canines, made one giant leap towards the old man hiding by a cluster of ferns, itsfangs aimed for his jugular. For a while there was stillness in the woods, as the motionless form of the elderly man lay buried under the humungous wolf on the forest floor. Some heartbeats later, as the traveler stood frozen in fear, the wolf budged. Irving then feared for his life, considering whether or not to abandon his host and run for his life, lest the beast should decide to turn around come chasing after him. But it wasn’t the wolf that was moving then, it was the old man himself, seemingly frail and weak, who had somehow just slain a beast ten times his size and there he stood beside the now motionless form of the monster, its ferocity lost in stillness, with a dagger in hand, the blade of which was dripping crimson from the dead animal’s blood.
Suspicious still, was the fact that the old man had emerged entirely unscathed from the fight.
It was from whence; they hastily proceeded to grab their haul— shaken
haste on Irving’s part—and headed back home through the slowly darkening forest before they could acquire the honor of encountering another blood thirsty intruder. Even though the old man walked in indifferent silence, as far as the trembling traveler was concerned, he was only horribly stupefied by the sheer impossibility of what he had just witnessed…but he dared not voice his disbelief.
Taking the younger man’s shock as concern for himself, the old man proceeded to comfort him, “Don’t worry about me, son, I have grown up in these woods. I know my way with a knife.” He said unflinchingly.
I know my way with a knife…is exactly what he had said when Irving had complimented him on carving the turkey beautifully during dinner.
On reaching the manor, the shock of the near-death experience for Irving in the woods had gradually begun to evaporate into a heavy stupor that clouded his vision now. On finding his way to the basement of the manor where the old man Hensley had instructed him to put away the shotguns for he said that he felt slightly ill, Irving stumbled upon the same staircase, the end of which harbored the door to the horrid basement from his unexplained dream. He cautiously went in and found the claustrophobic space in the same moldy conditions with the same shutter window as the only adornment in the room, as he had in his fleeting nightmare. Frightfully, he scanned the small space for any signs of the shackled cadavers hanging by chains from the walls but he found none. How odd. I almost thought…but he let his contemplation trail off. The longer he stared at the damp walls, the more the room seemed to develop an eerie vibe much potent than before; he felt his ghoulish dream come back to him all at once and as he felt his sanity slowly evading him, he let the weapons drop on the floor of the basement and hurriedly ran out its treacherous door—never bothering to close it behind him.
Over the next long hours, Irving lost his appetite. He had told the Hensleys that night that he would skip dinner, in response to which he had received the same sane, programmed words they seemed to repeat to him time and time again. He had attempted to ease his slowly deteriorating state of mind by trying to chase away troubling thoughts through a recuperating slumber, but to no avail— sleep had evaded him entirely. And much to his further agitation, only a million or so questions flew through his mind, traversing a mile a minute inside the now agoraphobic space of his head: questions that ran in incessant loops, failing to find any concrete answers.
Were they mentally retarded, psychotic murderers, or were they a superstitious family that practiced hoodoo (which would explain the devil’s nettle in the woods and the stallion’s apparition)…were the voices I had heard near the basement those of their children whom they had tortured and kept in captivity lest they decided to reveal their much darker reality?
To this thought, surprisingly, his heavy lids gave way, as what seemed to be the most macabre dream of his life began to unfold before his unblinking eyes.
He dreamt of himself being dragged from his room to the horrid basement of the manor; he was aware of a sharp pain on the back of his head that throbbed unbearably, telling him that he had been hit on the head with something heavy. He could then also feel multiple stab wounds marring his bleeding stomach, his senses were slightly dulled as his brain fought to send him into unconsciousness to deal with the insurmountable pain…the fading beats of his frail heart thumped loudly. He could make out the sound of the bones holding together his broken body cracking as he was dragged down the stairs like a rag doll by some invisible force. He ineffectively struggled to get out of its vise-like grip. The invincible force proceeded to chain and then hang him to the basement ceiling, leaving him bleeding and half dead when somebody who looked somewhat like the old man Hensley, only younger, his congenial host stepped forward to serve his guest and, in one swift movement, cruelly beheaded his already suffering mortal body.
But that was when a brilliant light streaming in from the open windows blinded his eyes, and he awoke back in the room he had been sleeping—or not sleeping—in for days now or at least that was what it felt like. He could not deny the nagging feeling that his gruesome experience was more than just a mere dream, as he ran headlong out the door of the cursed manor and did not stop until he reached civilization—far, far away from that wretched old place.
He ran like the stallion’s apparition through the fields that took up the land.
Somewhere down the decelerating frenzy of his mind that determined to escape for dear life within inches, he met a young lad who was feeding his horse in one of the fields there who, upon listening to the crazed galloping man’s woeful account of the morbid manor atop the hillock, went ahead to recount to him the stories about that manor that had made the local gossip long before:
“The manor has been abandoned for 30 years now, there have been many cases of such haunting in that dreadful old manor, for anybody unfortunate enough to ever dare wander too close,” he said in a voice saturated with understanding and compassion, full of sadness at the poor fortune of everything surrounding the manor. He assured the stranger that he was no longer in danger anymore—since he kept chanting fearfully of his horrid experience and the horrid Manor—but that he had come close to being in mortal peril.
“Thirty years ago,” continued the blessed young soul then, “That kind old couple had lived on those fields in that very manor; they were the nicest of all people, and were very always welcoming to all those who stumbled upon their property unknowingly in search of temporary shelter, since they were old and alone, they longed for company, poor souls.
But once, a wicked, psychotic killer came across their humble living thirty years ago, they showed the same welcoming hospitality and affection like they had to so many others before him. They never knew the kind of evil they were giving a temporary home to…how could they?”
The traveler grew more bewildered, and more poignant as the young groom continued to tether him back to the old couple’s gruesome reality.
“It was a thanksgiving night that day, and they had prepared turkey for dinner which they wholeheartedly offered to the killer, but the wicked man was not interested in the food, he had already been planning to murder the unsuspecting couple and claim their souls—for as rumors ran, he was some sort of a satanic worshipper. When they had gone to sleep that night, he killed them in their sleep by hitting them on their heads with a sledgehammer, they say, and dragged them to the basement where he chained and beheaded them…that was the last time they would ever wake up again.
And, people even say, ‘legend runs that their tormented spirits are bound to repeat that fateful day of their life for the rest of eternity due to the killer’s curse’.”
After listening to the macabre reality of the couple’s misfortune and realizing the gravity of his own could have been situation, which he had barely escaped within inches of his life, the strange traveler was filled with only heartfelt sorrow for the kind couple’s undeserved fate. All the incidents that had happened to him living in that manor came back to him, and he realized, that those tormented voices crying out for help inside the locked basement were, after all, the old couple themselves.
After borrowing a loaf of bread from the groom, both the men climbed over the fences to gather some lavender wild flowers and quietly slipped back outside, heading once again, towards the melancholy, ancient manor. The groom had agreed to accompany the traveler to allow both him and the Hensleys, to find some closure.
The traveler was petrified to find out the same manor he had been living in for the past few days, under much more horrid conditions than he had realized— the only remaining inhabitants of the old building being spiders and bugs crawling in the corners, with curtains of cobwebs adorning the walls everywhere—it was no longer the warm and welcoming home that had given his tired self shelter on his first night here. He realized, to his utmost horror, that he had been living and breathing the toxic air of this infested place for the last two days without ever being conscious of it.
“The curse,” the gracious fellow standing beside had said, in a knowing whisper.
Going around the back of the manor to look for signs of what had happened to the poor couple’s dead bodies, the men ransacked around the hind side of the cursed place by the lake a bit when something that made Irving’s blood curdle deep inside the crevices of his bones stared back at him from a shallow pool of the eerie lake by its bank, closest to the manor. His feet had slipped on the slippery ground there when, as the wind breeze blowing over the surface of the lake water quieted …he saw two faces staring up at him, as if pressed up against the glass of a window, from the bottom of the shallow lake’s reflective waters .
He dared not call out the groom to draw his attention anywhere near the lake, for he had the awful feeling that he somehow might be immune to the faces that stared unblinking at the horrified traveler then. After that, he no longer wished to spend a minute longer on that cursed land. He let the wild flowers they had obtained from the fields drop into the water at his feet, rippling the tranquil surface, slowly sinking down towards the bottom —letting the reflections dissolve in their wake.
Mounting the groom’s young steed, the two men raced the wind in the soft light of the setting sun alongside the wheat fields, on their way to a saner civilization. With the groom seemingly oblivious to it, Irving had heard the sound of a parallel pair of hooves clacking against the earth somewhere close by.
As they passed by another of the many fields around there, he saw the same apparition he had seen on the night of his getting lost in the woods, gracefully weaving through the fields to his right, majestic in the fading luminance of dusk. The apparition seemed to follow them awhile, after which it vanished again, tethered to the melancholy land where it belonged.