I’ve never told anyone this before, except my older brother, and back then he thought I was just a nutty kid who was afraid of the dark. Years later, I told my wife, and maybe she thought I was nuts, too, but she kind of swept it under the rug, and accepted it as one of those idiosyncrasies that you don’t find out about until after you’re married. She must have loved me a lot. Now they’re both buried out at Pleasant Green Cemetery back at our home town of Compton, and there’s a spot right next to Mildred waiting for me.
There comes a time in a man’s life when he has to get anything he needs to off his chest, stuff he’s been carrying around for a long time – uncork the bottle, so to speak, and let it all out. That time of your life when at any moment, the sun might go down for the very last time. So, I’m going to uncork the bottle, and let it out. I’m going to tell you everything. That is, if you really want to hear about it. I’ll tell you right now, I never told anyone everything. If I had done that, they would have locked me up in the State Hospital, where I’d have to wear one of those hospital johnnies with my ass hanging out the back, and draw pictures of kitties and doggies and flowers with my trusty box of crayons. Life is a cabaret.
Anyway, I guess I’ve run out of reasons not to tell everything. So, if you think I’m crazy, or senile, or if you want to laugh at how ridiculous the whole thing seems, then be my guest. I don’t care anymore.
I just don’t.
So how about lending an old man a few minutes? It won’t take too long. Shouldn’t, anyway.
Let me ask you a question: When you where a kid, were you afraid of the boogey man? I was. But you never saw the boogey man, did you? Your parents, or your brothers or sisters used to scare the crap out of you with it, I know my brother did, but you never really saw the boogey man.
And I’ve seen him every year for the past seventy years or so, right out in those woods, and always after dark. In fact, I’m looking at him right now. From right here, at my second story bedroom window. He’s right down there next to that huge maple, same place he’s always at. You see him?
No, you wouldn’t, would you?
But I’ll tell you right now, he’s as real as the sun, the wind and the rain. And he’s looking right at me. Now, don’t get me wrong, he’s not the boogey man in the traditional sense; you know, the guy hiding under your bed waiting for your bare leg to plop over the side so he can grab your ankle and yank you under the bed, or the thing that watches you through the crack in your closet door, even though you were sure, absolutely positive that you had closed that door all the way. Even heard the latch click.
No, this is a different kind of boogey man, although I never knew why for the longest time. And I’ve never seen him anywhere else but out in those woods, next to that maple just back far enough so I couldn’t make out who he was. Just a dark, shadowy shape. But he’s there, and those woods are his home.
I don’t remember the exact year I saw him the first time, but I can tell you it was back around the thirties, sometime after the Great Depression. My father told me I was too little to remember the Depression, but at that age, I really didn’t care. I don’t remember it affecting our family, but now that I’m older I realize there are a lot of things a kid just doesn’t understand.
Back then, we had an old flatbed truck with wooden posts fastened around the sides so we could haul stuff around in it, and it was in that truck that my father used take us to the cabin up in the mountains for our yearly fishing trip.
That cabin had been in the family for years, and even back then it was old. That was the original cabin. This one is the new and improved model. At some point I got tired of not having an indoor shifter or running water. I mean, that’s roughing it a little too much, don’t you think? Anyway, the old one looked like it was about to fall apart, so I tore it down around 1960 or so, and built the new and improved model, designed by yours truly.
I thought so.
My father had a little row boat stashed at the side of the cabin, and I would stand by and watch as he would attempt to load it into the back of the truck with the help of my older but nonetheless scrawny brother. When I think about that now it almost makes me laugh. My brother was in the way most of the time, and my father probably wanted to knock him out of the way, but he never did.
Anyway, after the truck was loaded up, we’d head to the reservoir for a day of fishing and batting at the flies that always seemed to be eating us alive. My mother never came with us; she used to say that it was a good time for the men of the family to be together. I think the idea of sitting all day in a leaky row boat swatting flies and smelling like fish just wasn’t her idea of a good time. Women are weird, aren’t they? Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
We used to catch some pretty big trout out there, catfish too. My father used to tell us how he had caught some that were really big, I mean, big as dogs. That’s what he used to say, big as dogs.
And they thought I was seeing things.
It was after one of these expeditions that I first saw the man in the woods. It was much later in the evening, after the three of us had returned tired but happy with our catches, ready to clean fish and eat. I remember that night well, how the whole cabin had stunk so badly offish, even up in the loft where my brother and I slept. It was always so hot up in that loft, cozy in the whiter, but damned uncomfortable in the warmer months, so we always kept the small window up there open to let some of that cool night air in, which in the mountains can be blessedly cool, I’ll tell you. And my bed was closest to the window, so my brother always made it clear in his special little way that it was not entirely impossible for a bat to fly in for a suck off my neck. And he always made it clear in his special little way who the top gun of the loft was. I always had to fetch water, or a leftover piece of the day’s catch. I was also the one who had to open and close the window, at the boss’s convenience, of course.
“Go open the window, runt,” Robby would say, “runt” being his favorite name for me. But that’s brotherly love, isn’t it? It’s funny how that part of me seems so far away, so many years ago, another lifetime. My, how the years have gone by.
I remember how that window swung open like a door, and if you were standing next to it there was a good chance you’d get clobbered. One time I got up in the middle of the night to close the window, and it had somehow swung over to where it was sticking straight out, and POW!, I walked right into it headfirst. I had a nice goose egg on my head the next day, maybe even some dried blood, I don’t recall.
But that particular night when I opened the window and leaned on the sill to look at the moon, I saw something down in those woods, something that made me jump back from the sill and catch my breath for a moment. There was a man out in those woods, down by that old maple tree.
It scared me so badly, that I went and woke up my brother. I kept telling him to get up, there was a scary man out in the woods, and he told me to shut up and go back to bed. I must have made a lot of noise, because my father came up into the loft to see what was the matter. He had to stand in the very center of the loft, where the roof came to a point, if he wanted to stand up straight. Otherwise, he had to bend over to move around. I’ll bet he had suffered a few goose eggs in his time, too.
He went to the window and looked outside. There was nothing there, he told me. My brother even ran over for a look. Nothing. My father said that the shadows were playing tricks on me, there was nothing in those woods but dumb animals. He told me to come over for a look. And when I did, there he was. Out there by that old tree just standing there looking at me. I even pointed him out to my brother and father, but they saw nothing. Nothing at all.
As soon as my father had left the loft, Robby began to tease me. The boogey man was outside, and he was coming to get me. And bats, too. I was in tears. My father yelled from downstairs for us to shut up, and we did. Mum was the word. I wrapped myself up in my blanket with my back to the window, as if ignoring the boogey man would cause him to lose interest in me, and go away.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
Did I say that I had been up there every year? I take that back – the year we put the new and improved cabin up, the was no cabin to visit. But I knew he was there, just the same. And waiting for me.
Anyway, the year after I first saw him we came back. That very night, Robby wanted to go night fishing, and father readily agreed. And they wanted me to come along. Me. I told them I didn’t want to go, and my brother started teasing me about the boogie man again. Naturally. For a moment, I thought my father was actually going to make me go.
“Is that what it is,” he had asked, “that boogie man business?”
“No, I just don’t want to go,” I had replied.
I heard them drive off in the truck, and as I stood at the loft window I saw the headlights splash across him, and then they were gone. They still hadn’t seen him. But I saw him as plain as my hand in front of my face. And just when I thought that maybe I was going crazy, that my father had been right, the woods were playing tricks with my mind, I saw him move, revealing that pale, bloodless face. Just a slight movement; as if he were shifting his weight from one foot to the other. But it was real. That one little movement confirmed it. He was real.
If only you could see him.
I wasn’t always afraid of the man in the woods. In fact, it turned into a game of cat and mouse over the years, but I had been chasing shadows, ghosts. As I grew older, I grew more daring. I must have been about twelve when I started to actually go outside the cabin after dark. Not far, mind you, just far enough to peak around the corner at that tree, but he was never there; even when I would see him from the loft window, and run outside for a peek there would be nothing.
Robby would still bother me, but I was getting older, and answering to him less and less. One thing hadn’t changed, though. He could still pound on me, and he always made it a point to remind me of that little fact from time to time with a swift knuckler to the arm that would leave it bruised and hurting for days. I’ll tell you what, I could have knocked him flat when I got older.. .but I never did.
When I got a couple of years older, I got gutsy enough to run right up to that maple tree, right to the spot where he’d been standing, and look around with a flashlight for any sign that he’d been there. I never found anything, and I found myself going farther and farther out in those woods, which was pretty crazy. I mean, have you ever been in the woods in the middle of the night? Pretty scary, especially after all the films about serial killers stalking the woods looking for camp counselors to maim and mutilate. I tell you what, that never made me feel any easier about the situation.
My father used to get a little concerned, me running out in the middle of the night like that, but I told him I was chasing animals, and he would simply reply how animals had a way of turning around and attacking people, if they were hungry enough, that is. But deep down I knew this animal was not going to come after me -1 was after him.
You’ll have to excuse me for a moment.
Thanks for waiting. At my age, a trip to the John can be a chore in its self, but I manage. A lot of men my age can’t even make it past their Depends. Hell, a lot of men don’t even make it to my age. I guess I should count my self as one of the lucky ones.
Anyway, let’s get back to what we were talking about. I’ll tell you, it was an odd feeling when my father got older to the point when we were bringing him up here to the cabin, instead of the other was around. But he still got around pretty good, one hell of a fisherman, always teaching the grandkids everything he knew. Robert had one boy and a girl, and I had two boys, and they all seemed to like the trips to the cabin.
I always brought up to father the idea of building a new cabin, but he wouldn’t hear of it; I think all his best memories were in that old broken down cabin, and I think he wanted to die there. And one year he did. We buried him in a special place we cleared out for him and mother, and I know they are both happy there. A special place cleared out by the tree line, where they both rest in peace in probably the most restful place on Earth.
My father left everything to me, I suppose he thought that as Robert grew older he had more important things on his mind to occupy himself with the responsibilities of taking care of a cabin. I, on the other hand loved it up here; I sometimes came alone to be with my thoughts, other times I would bring the wife and kids, hoping that the kids would take importance in what the world had to offer. I never brought up the man in the woods or even any kind of boogie man story.
But year after year he was there. Sometimes I caught him standing over my parent’s graves, as it if prayer. I really believe deep down inside that my father knew something was going on with me, something that while I kept it quiet most of the time, was always still there with me, a part of my life. I think he knew that.
Sometimes, I would take trips out to the cabin to be alone, and my wife never questioned my reasons because I think that as with my father, she knew I had something inside I had to deal with from time to time. I would always sit at this very window watching that man down in the woods. This was about the time that I was first feeling the onset of my sickness, although at the time I didn’t know what it was, except maybe old age.
It was during these trips when I would go straight out into those woods, right past that old maple, and walk around talking to no one in particular, or maybe I was talking to someone, trying to make some kind of contact, trying to make sense of the whole thing.
Oftentimes I took walks in the woods even when my family was with me, and my wife would always be looking at me through the corner of her eye, watching for whatever it was that was bothering me, but I always pretended I didn’t notice. She was just looking out for me, God bless her soul.
“I got to know those woods out there pretty well, you know, and I mean miles and miles of territory. And I always wondered if he was watching me. Have you ever walked so far out into the woods that you thought you’d never make it back? No? I did. All the time. But I always came back. And I was getting on in years by then. I found places that I could swear no one had ever been to before. You just got this feeling that it was a place of nature’s perfection, a place so alive, so perfectly formed, in such synchronized motion with nature that to put a person into the picture would utterly destroy the whole effect. They became sacred to me, these places, and maybe that’s why I always returned unharmed, and with a kind of glow in my heart.
Except one time I didn’t return, not right away anyway, but I believe it was God’s grace that saw me home safely.
I walked for hours that day, most of it uphill, so 1 would form a diagonal pattern, zigzagging up mountainsides, because I’ll tell you what – try walking straight up the side of a mountain and see how long you last.
Mildred had come along that trip, and if she hadn’t have been there at the cabin, I might have died that day. I got the feeling that as we went into our final years, she liked it more up there in that cabin than in the city. She never felt more at peace than at the cabin. That’s why when she passed on to her reward, I had her buried up here near where my parents were laid to rest. Her family was dismayed at the whole thing, but when I brought them up here to this particular part of the mountain and showed them where she lay at peace, as my own parents had for a long time, surrounded by nature only God could create, they fell to their knees and wept. I had built a large semi-circular shelter of solid oak that spanned over the graves to protect them from the elements, with oak cherubs that I carved myself hanging overhead in eternal remembrance. It was then that I asked Mildred’s family if they would put me in the empty slot next to Mildred when my time came. Her daughter could only cry and hug me and reassure me that yes, it would be an honor to do this one favor for me. I even asked them if they would like a spot of their own, and you know, I think they’re actually considering it!
Anyway, wasn’t I talking about something else? Oh yes, the day I almost didn’t come home from one of my walks. Let me say first that I think you have always been my best friend, you accept me, you always listen to me, and man to man…well, I love you.
I’m just a sentimental old man.
Ok, then. Back to what I was telling you. Mildred was back at the cabin, reading as she always did, those romance novels of hers, she loved them. I left for my walk and told her I would be back in a few hours, which was nothing unusual. I was sometimes gone all day. But this time I didn’t come back until after dark, and I think I was more worried about Mildred than she was for me. Hell, I was in my seventies and still going strong. But not that day.
Every time I went for my walks I tried to find a new direction to follow, and I don’t mean along the well established paths, which there weren’t many of anyway. This was one part of the mountain that had yet to be overrun by folks trying to make their weekend escapes from the big city. There were the hunters, of course, and every now and then we’d bring a few inside and let them taste some of Mildred’s cooking. They always left happy, sometimes bringing back slabs of venison to put in our freezer.
I’m drifting again, aren’t I? Sorry. Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we. On that certain day, I set off through the woods, fighting leaves and climbing over deadfalls, my only weapon was an old Navy machete a friend had given me years ago, before I had ever even heard of Mildred. I kept it clean, and hid it under my bed for protection. I never did own a gun, and I don’t think Mildred would allow one in the house anyway.
The machete was really a weapon, more a tool than anything, a necessity if you want to walk through these woods, which were pretty unruly at times. But I suppose I one day might have run into a bear or something, but I tried not to think about it.
I tried to take a direction I had never taken before, and it proved to be a little difficult, as I found myself in virgin territory nonetheless, a little more than I had bargained for, but I pushed on anyway. In fact, this direction was so new to me that I almost walked off the edge of a stone cliff that dropped at least a thousand feet below in the rocky, swirling river that I recognized as White River Falls, named for the various treacherous falls and twists and turns the river took for several hundreds miles. But from what I understand, folks love to take these runs down White River, and always come back begging for more.
Where was I? Oh yes, the falls. At my point, I was looking straight down at one of the higher falls, and it was breathtaking. The water smashing into the rocks below reminded be of boiling water, and yet with so much more power and crushing force.
I walked along the edge of the granite cliff, noticing the water growing somewhat calmer as it grew more distant from the falls. The beauty of the high granite cliffs on both sides, so majestic and indestructible, the sparking water. I felt my heart fill with a love that only a moment like that could produce. The spectacle was overwhelming. And I think this is what started the real problems, and made me realize that I needed to see a doctor.
First came the familiar pains in my stomach. Not my whole stomach, mind you, but the localized pain on the upper right side. And I knew from experience that it was best to find a comfortable place to sit down until the pain subsided. I’ve had these pains for a long time, and they’ve gotten increasingly worse, but I hate doctors. Mildred used to tell me, even beg me, to go see a doctor, even made appointments for me, which I would promptly cancel. It used to make her quite angry, but I’d tell her that if I started on a regime of healthy foods and exercise, my stomach problems would go away.
This calmed her down quite a bit, and she even joined me in some with some of the exercising, and the changes in my diet. I gave up on the greasy foods, all the fast foods, all the junk food, and began eating healthy grains, vegetables, cereals that were more like dog food. But I can truly say now that all of it helped to keep me alive as long as I have been. I even outlived Mildred, sad to say, but it’s the truth. She would have been happy for me. It’s ironic, isn’t it? I was the one who was sick, but Mildred’s batteries just ran out one day, and she was gone.
When I felt those pains that day, I quickly moved away from the edge of the cliff toward the tree line, where I fell to my knees and vomited up blood. I have to tell you, my heart was pounding. There was so much blood, I thought I would die right there on the spot. But that would have been too easy. The pain grew so intense, filling my abdomen with fire, that my eyes rolled to the back of my head and I passed out.
I woke up hours later, part of my head stuck hi the congealing pool of blood vomit. I thought only alcoholics woke up in a pool of then- own vomit, but apparently there are exceptions. I remember trying to stand, and having to grab onto the nearest free to keep from falling down again. The pain in my mid section was still there, though not quite as bad, but I still had to sit down with my back against the tree until some of the pain subsided. Dusk was falling. Mildred would be worried.
After a short while I stood up, and although the dizziness in my head had cleared, the pain in my stomach hadn’t. I just could not stand up straight, so I did the next best thing -I walked bent over for hours, holding my stomach as tight as I could, as if at any moment it all might come tumbling out.
When I finally reached the cabin, it was well after dark. Mildred was on the front porch with a forest ranger, and when she saw me she almost bowled him over to get to me. I was still slumped over, so when she ran up to me and put her arms around me I cried out in pain. The next thing I knew I was in the forest ranger’s truck slumped over next to Mildred, and we were barreling, I mean flying to the hospital, which was quite a drive from the cabin. I remember that later Mildred had told me it had taken at least forty-five minutes to get there, maybe longer.
The next day they told me about the cancer. I had been too out of it the night before, with all the pain meds they gave me. I did a lot of sleeping. When my wife and the doctor came into the room that morning, I could tell something was seriously wrong. I mean really wrong. Mildred had been crying, and the doctor, whose name I don’t even recall now, didn’t look much better.
Because of the lack of going to the doctor all those years, the cancer had become a free-for-all. It was everywhere, my stomach and intestines mainly. And it was inoperable. I wasn’t very surprised to hear the news, I mean after all, I had known something was wrong for a long time, but I didn’t want to worry Mildred. Or maybe I just didn’t want to admit it to myself. Either way, my time here suddenly had a limit, a finish line. You can think about it a million tunes over the course of your life, but you still don’t know what it really feels like until you’ve got one foot stepping over the line that divides this world from the next.
Don’t look so glum, my friend. We all have to leave sooner or later, and besides, I think I had a pretty good life. But, you know what they say: All good things come to an end. Mildred passed on six months ago, God rest her soul, and I’ll be joining her very soon. I’ve spent most of my days here at the cabin, and every one of those nights I’ve been right here, watching that man out there, that elusive character that had always been there, always watching me from the cover of the trees.
I gave up long ago trying to chase him down, playing our little cat and mouse game, and became satisfied with sitting here at this window trying to figure him out. And I’ll tell you what, when I gave up the chase, I realized that had been the answer all along. I wasn’t supposed to go after him, he was supposed to come for me. That’s why I asked you up here, my friend, to take care of things after I’m gone.
You see, my time has finally come. I can literally feel the life draining from my body right now as we speak. Sometimes, a man just knows these things. And the man in the woods is no longer standing in the shadows just out of sight, but out in plain view now. Maybe one day you’ll see him, maybe you won’t. As for me…well, my mysterious character is standing out there in the clearing, plain as day in the glow of the flood lights on the side of the cabin, beckoning for me to join him, waiting patiently as he has all these years to lead me into those woods out there, to whatever awaits me.