by Gary Szelc

There’s a sad wind blowing in the sand pit hollow in the unholy Pine Barrens where the willows now be broken. Sadder yet are nightmares that ride in fear of night as darkness continues to swallow the day. And I, silly I, the saddest of all stands here trembling in a high tree branch like a puppy plucked from cold water.

What was I thinking? No, the truth be that I was not thinking, I who tarried too long at the woman’s bedside, whose husband fights in far-off lands, a woman seeking simple companionship and found me instead.

It is not totally dark, azure blue and green glow on the western horizon, even as the moon’s red-orange scowl begins dancing upward in the east. Do I run or do I stay ’til morning-tide when the sun’s new light may take me safely home? Indecision haunts and curses me at the same time. Curse too mid-autumn leaves clinging to the branches, blocking the view of all that surrounds me, yet are dry and raspy, rattling to the slightest movement be it from cool breeze or something passing by.

Perhaps I’ll gently slip down and bolt with the fear of God in me, or more appropriate, with demon possessed speed to the woods road that binds me home. Reaching down, extending my leg, the leaves shake with madding loudness, I stop, legs quivering like jelly dumped from a jar. I am incapable of climbing down the tree, let alone running anywhere. Breaking branches crack somewhere down below. I hug the tree tighter.

Despair drips into my eyes. The sweat mixing with blood droplets from scratches in my cheek etched from the bark. Is that a mistake? Perhaps it can smell blood. I control my shaking enough to hear at first nothing, then the clatter of leaves, then the sound of something dragging itself across the ground, a foul smell drifts with the decaying leaves. The old crone, the witch of my youth, she may be the one.

The shortcut through the woods, the secret path to my lonely lover, passes by the old woman’s place. Playing in the woods as children do, we thought it haunted, her cottage we declared haunted too. We imagined demons in her bedroom and worse lurking in the woods. The cliff cave behind the cottage where her illicit offspring lived, products of unholy unions that did evil work in the Stygian night. My friends and I knew when children from the “other side of the valley” disappeared something was feeding. We were brave in the bright sunshine, but when afternoon shadows grew long we all scurried for the refuge of a lamp lit home and fireplace burning bright.

When I brazenly strode past the self-same cottage this afternoon on my lustful quest the old woman rose from her garden, looking unchanged and as old and wrinkled as she did in my youth. With an evil smile she strokes one forefinger atop the other to me. I am taken aback to see not the expected crooked canines and toothless gaps, but a row of perfect teeth. I have learned nothing since my callow youth when we called her names and threw stones upon her slate roof.

“You disgusting old hag!” I shout. “Don’t you shame me! Go back to your evil spells and demon lovers! I seek beauty!”

I am surprised at the hurt in her eyes. But they quickly narrow, replaced with a venomous stare, her lips bending into grinning sneer. Shuddering, I hurry on, but by the time I slip through the gate and then to my lover’s boudoir, I am laughing at my reckless bravery as I recount my story to her. But she puts a finger to my lips and tells me to hush of such tales. Her ardor now cooler, our afternoon is listless, though she will not tell me why she broods and thinks, my silver-tongued words clang tarnished and powerless to the floor.

When the western sun is at the horizon, she begs me to stay to the morning light, but without her nightly passion. But I will not, the annoyance at the lost opportunity to quell my fire, stir my ire. We do not kiss and her eyes, once the color of warm tropical seas, have turned to the deep blue of the northern ocean.

I hurry off the way I came, though with loins still burning. I enter the woods with no regrets for this horrid day — ’til now. In the hollow, behind the old woman’s cottage, before the cave, the grove of thick willows that hid the entrance are smashed and broken, the sap oozing like the wounds of a dying barbarian warrior. The wind stops and I hear noises. I think it is chewing I hear, the chewing of flesh, then the snapping of bones. Turning I dash into the woods through bushes and brambles before crashing into the tree. Delirious with panic I climb, branches slapping at me, clawing at me, pushing me back, but not stopping me.

From my solitary perch I hear more than I see, and different noises are coming closer. Then, back the way I came, I hear a soft voice, calling out a name. It is my lover! Go back I want to shout, but the words are stopped quickly by my fear as I think, the thing will know where I am. No, if I say nothing, perhaps it, the thing below me somewhere, will seek her, and I can make good my escape.

What am I hearing — the name she calls is not mine. Through a gap in the leaves that protect me, I see my lover walk forward and there, she meets and embraces the old hag.

My lover is crying softly. “Oh grandmother I am so sorry, so very sorry. On this day my… my…. the man that has visited me these many times spoke such cruel things about you that my eyes were opened anew. Can you forgive me? Can I be forgiven? Truly for these past few months evil spirits, a demon has grabbed my soul, though I have been a willing companion.”

I am stunned, she calls the hag grandmother! Have I been consorting with an underworld creature in human form? No, her breath is too sweet and the silken softness of her naked skin too smooth and yielding to my touch. Yet she speaks of being possessed — surely she does not mean me!

“Hush my sweet,” says the grandmother. “I have herbs and potions to clean your body and soul. The stain shall be removed.”

“But grandmother, I have thrown my honor and promises down and ground them into the dust. I feel that stain darkening my soul for which I am responsible, one that cannot be erased by kind words or new promises.”

“Nay my child. You were bewitched by a cunning creature with the power to twist words in mid-air, enfolding and entangling you with webs of deceit and desire. Loneliness and fear of events happening far away allowed evil to jump over the wall around your heart. But there will be a sacrifice this night to the earth and all will be healed.”

“Still my grandmother, I did beg him to stay with me this night for fear of what might happen to his flesh if he should take to the woods in the dark.”

“Aye, so you did — from the sweetness of your gentle soul, the innocence that you still possess to find goodness where little exists. Come my child, I will brew a potion that will dim your memories of this accursed encounter ’til you think it nothing more than a bad dream.”

“And what about him? Has the ‘Thing’ come forth?”

The grandmother looks in my direction. “Ah yes, the one that hides has with his fear brought forth the beast that will consume him. It will wait. It will wait for as long as it is necessary, and the world will be cleansed.”

My lover looks upward with one hand raised as if to blow a kiss my way, but thinks better of it. They turn and walk away.

The night air is hushed. The horizon’s orange moon has given way to a cold, blue-white orb painting the world an odd black and white, though the thick forest keeps its light away from the ground. Ere long I think I hear the splintering of wood close by and something I’m sure comes to rest at the base of my tree. But what? Some misshapen human like thing? A hungry wolf? Perhaps it is the old woman, shaking the bushes with her cane. But then, perhaps it is some grotesque creature, her demon of cruel and nightmarish intentions.

I hold tightly to the trunk with the left side of my face pressed against the ancient bark. There is a rapid pounding sound. My stifled laugh comes out as a cough as I realize it is my own heart I hear. I push back from the trunk. What if it hears my heart too? I think perhaps I can wait it out. Yes, surely the rising sun will chase it away; all looks different in the light of day.

But what if it doesn’t go back to the cave? I could descend in foolish joy to a mouth of pointed teeth or worse. What if it isn’t there, but waits along the path I must take? I would see my fate coming and be powerless to stop it. Perhaps if I stay here it will slink back to its cave to eat… something else. Alas, I remember the tale my uncle told me of the codger who one day ran into the village screaming that the old witch was coming for him because of some misdeed he committed to her person. Soon after his broken body was found below the cliffs. The sheriff declaring to one and all that it was more than a fall that wrenched the old man’s body into such smashed and splintered bone. So my uncle swore as I sat on his knee in awe, that the ‘Thing’ gets its due in time.

No, that will not do, it has time on its side. I do know that the thing below will wait. It will wait ’til the leaves fall and the winter snows quiet the world. It will wait until the crocuses and daffodils of spring push skyward and the summer heat dries the grass and the river slows to a trickle. It will wait.

But I cannot wait that long. I, who knew everything, know nothing. Not anyone, not myself. My time here is no longer my own. Too late my remorse over foolish lust. Should I climb down and be done with it? No! Why give myself so willingly to this nightmare? I should jump, yes that’s it, jump and be done with it! Perhaps I would be lucky and crush its skull, though more likely a large branch would crush mine. But no matter, I would feel nothing, there would be nothing but blessed relief. I grab a branch chest high and slide my feet along another seemingly sturdy branch. As I slowly move the branches begin bending and bending more under my weight.

No! I almost shout out loud. What if all I do is break my legs? Lying there helpless as it walks or crawls to me. It could play with me, like a tomcat maliciously to a mouse. Perhaps pulling my limbs out, to suck the marrow from my bones, the last thing I would see in my agony. Go back, I must go back! The branch beneath me cracks and my whole body sets to shaking. The indecision grabs me and my shivering body sends cold sweat into my eyes. I am frozen in time and in place. Do I go back or do I jump?

Gary W. Szelc, a civil engineer and planner, a former adjunct instructor at NJIT, and editor for an engineering trade journal, has long worked with poetry, short stories, and screenplays. When not working, climbing mountains, or contra dancing, he serves as a member of the Fanwood Arts Council and its Carriage House Poetry Series, and is a trustee for the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.

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