Sunday, April 21, 2024

Appalachian Nights

 I shine my light toward the deep thicket that borders the backyard of our cabin. On a night like this with the moon hanging brightly the forest would normally erupt in a chaotic choir of frogs, insects, and night birds all seemingly competing for my attention. That isn’t the case tonight. Tonight, every natural-born creature fell silent at once as though someone just flicked a switch and shut them off.

I inch closer to the fence line and hear it again. The sound sends me stumbling backward and I nearly lose my footing on the dewy grass.

“it’s a pig. It must be a wild pig,” I whisper to no one.

The low groaning continues followed by the muted sound of footfalls.

I shake off the chill that runs up my neck and step closer again. This time shining the light straight down at the leaf-littered ground beneath the trees. At first, nothing, then a shadow. Something is tucked away behind a tree.

“Too long to be a pig,” I whisper as I measure the shadow with my eyes and try to imagine the creature that made it. “Hello? Come out so I can see you,” I shout giving away my position.

The air is stiff and silent. I don’t even know if my heart is beating and then, “Hello?”. A tiny voice calls back to me from the darkness.

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” I wasn’t expecting that. It sounds like a child.

I don’t know what to do now. I pause, slow my breathing, and begin convincing myself that I didn’t hear what I know I heard.

“Hello?” the voice calls out again.

“Who are you? Why are you back there? You need to come out, now!” I shout trying to assert my dominance and hide the fact that my legs are shaking.

“I need help. Come and help me,” the voice responds followed by the sounds of a little girl weeping.

“Fuck,” I can’t just walk away. What if there’s really a kid hurt out there? If anything happens to her I won’t be able to live with myself.

“Can you step out into the light?” I shout.

“Please, help me,” the voice calls back.

I shine my light on the old rusty gate. I don’t know why it’s here or when it was used last. I don’t even know if it will open but I tug on the latch until it creeks and lifts off the post that secures it. The gate scrapes the ground that’s grown over its path and I open it as far as I can. With just enough room for me to slip through the opening sideways, I step into the forest.

“You have to show me where you are. I’m not coming any closer until I see you,” I demand but the tiny voice just sobs harder and louder, “Can you talk to me? What’s your name? How did you get out here?”

All of my questions go unanswered and I take another step into the darkness. The pine straw is slippery beneath my feet and I wonder if I could run on it should I need to make a hasty retreat. I begin brushing it away as I walk exposing the dirt beneath it.

Almost there. Her sobs are so loud I know that she’s right in front of me. I reach the tree where I saw the shadow and step around it. I gasp as my light reveals the tangle of thorns and shrubbery at the base of the tree. There’s no little girl in distress and no sign that anyone has been here. The sounds have stopped, too, and I’m standing alone and bewildered.

I turn to make my way back home and a rush of air stops me in my tracks.

“You’re it!” I voice whispers into my right ear and my feet take flight. I run until I trip up the cabin steps and throw my body into the back door.

Once inside my trembling hand fumbles to lock the door and I step backward through the kitchen. I can’t take my eyes off the door as I’m certain that, at any second, it will burst from its hinges and the devil will rush through.

Hours pass with me seated, motionless on the kitchen floor. Then, I summon the nerve to look outside. I open the door carefully and peer out into the night. The moon is still high and my ears are assaulted by the choir of creatures that have resumed their nightly performance.

Days pass and I begin to think this was all some crazy fever dream. Then, by chance, I meet one of my neighbors at the local market.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” the old man asks me.

“No, Sir. I’m new to the area.”

He looks deeply into my eyes and says, “Do yourself a favor and learn the rules. You don’t go into the woods after sundown and if you hear anything out there, well, no you didn’t.” He winks at me and saunters off.

Now, I close all the curtains and lock the doors each night when the sun goes down.