nearing a century old, Edger Nickels is recalling his life.
| THE WOMAN OF THE WOODS
By David Rattler
Beyond my window lighting rips across the western sky, a thunder bolt rolls softly in the distance as the thunder storm approaches. At my feet an old space heater rattler’s and struggle’s to give warmth, but it’s not the change of seasons that chills me, but the memory of the distant moment.
I was born Edger Nichols and this happened to me when I was nine years old. I’ve never told this story to another living soul and never will again—well, at least not in person. I started recording my life on one of those recorders a grandson bought me one Christmas. Which grandson, which Christmas? I can’t recall, least not now.
Each tick of the clock brings me closer to that finality—death. I’m not afraid to die. Everyone thinks of it at least once in their life, but at my age, it’s a constant thought.
I’m an old man now and my hands shake and my memory fades. There are days I can remember the names of the nurses in the nursing home and a few patients. And there are times I can’t remember any of them. But even then, I can still see her in my mind’s eye, coming nearer and nearer; a dark star in the constellation of my mind. You’d think a man nearing a century would have no fear of childhood horrors. But my eyes still water and the hairs on my neck still prickle; when I think about the woman of the woods.
After my death these recordings will be the only evidence of times long gone. Some may believe them, but to others their just the ramblings of an old man; whichever, you choose is up to you. With her face clearly in my mind’s eye, the recorder in my shaking hands, I push record.
I grew up in the Arkansas delta, at a time when radio was new, long before inside toilets and spigots of running water were household norms. Before telephones and TV’s were on the minds of their inventors. At a time before streetlights, when you could still see the stars and ghost stories were told by lamp light.
Eleven miles south of Marianna and twenty two miles north of Helena; Rondo was a small community of black farm workers that carved out meager livings on farms owned by whites. There were no big I’s or little u’s, we were all poor and oblivious to the meaning.
Summers in the delta were brutal. By mid-morning mirages of water undulated across cotton fields, the occasional dust devil twirled aimlessly before dissipating into nothing. My father James died when I was very young. My memory of him is limited to his thick mustache, horn rimmed glasses, a few stories my mother told, and a little red wagon—his last Christmas gift to me.
After my father died, me and my mother and my older brother Oscar, moved farther out into Lee County with my grandmother Abilene. At a place call Ebos Hollow. Few people in the County had electricity back then, but those that did had radios.
There were only two houses in the Hollow, my grandmother Abilene’s that sat a mile off the county dirt road, and a woman named Erma that sat a mile down an old dirt path. Ms. Erma, as we called her, was about the same age as my grandmother, but fleshier. She always wore black; her hair was always tucked neatly in a bun.
In the backyard at my grandmother’s was a Well we drew water from twice a day, an outer house, next to the old dirt path, and an old shed, where grandma still kept grandpa’s old farm tools. The old dirt path led to a fork. The left fork led to a narrow bridge over a fast moving stream that dumped into Bear Cheek, then on to Ms. Erma’s house. The right fork trailed the edge of a large cotton field and led deeper into the dark woods.
We all had chores. My grandmother and my mother tended the garden, did housework, and cooked. Mine was to feed the chickens and gather eggs. My Brother Oscar drew water —mornings and evenings—and gathered firewood. Every evening after the chores were done, and the radio station went off the air. We’d gather around my grandma’s rocking chair and listened to ghost stories. At the end of every story, grandma would always say, ghost can’t cross running water, so run to the folk in the road and cross where the water runs fast.
We adapted well. Hardly a word of was spoken of my father. Every morning after the chores were done, Oscar and I would head toward the old shed to play until evening, but one morning, it all went terribly wrong.
It was during the morning chores. Oscar was drawing water when he slipped and fell in. He was unconscious for two days, my mother stayed by his side. The doctor visited twice, but on the third day—Oscar died. Life was never the same. My mother became distant and my grandmother stop telling ghost stories. She said they were just old wives tales and soon the old stories begin to fade from my mind.
For my birthday I got a golden retriever. I named him Tag after our favorite game, and day after day, after the morning chores, Tag and I would head to the old shed to play much like Oscar and I use too.
Time passed, the infernal heat relinquished its hold on the delta. The air became cooler, lush green summer leaves turned bright yellow and soft brown, as summer turned into fall. The farmers harvested the cotton and planted soy beans. My grandmother and my mother canned fruits and vegetables for the winter. But for me life didn’t change. After the morning chores were done, Tag and I still headed to the old shed.
It was early October on an evening when the sun was mid-way the western sky. My grandmother Abilene packed a few jars of apples, pears and apricots in a box and instructed me to deliver them to Ms. Erma, “take the left path.” She said, as she placed the box in my tattered little wagon. I started toward the old path. My grandmother watched from the back porch, “hurry back before dark,” she said, was the last words I heard her say.
I stopped at the edge of the yard and called Tag. He came and stood there whining softly, but refusing to go any farther. I started down the old path, leaving Tag whining and watching me from the edge of the yard.
The woods was quiet, except for a squirrel scurrying up a tree, a woodpecker in the distance, and the squeaky wheels of my little wagon mixed with rattling Mason Jars. Before I round the bend, I looked back. Tag was still standing at the edge of the yard—watching.
I came to the fork in the road and took the left path. The sound of fast running water dumping into creek grew louder. The ghost stories my grandmother used to tell crossed my mind; sending a chill and prickling the hair on my neck. I paused at the bridge for a moment and gazed over into the stream. My grandmother’s words about running water and ghost returned. After a moment, I crossed the narrow bridge and continued on to Ms. Erma’s house.
A rusty tin roof with large patches of tar appeared on the horizon through the still dense trees. I turned down a narrow path and soon a small white house with blue shudders came into view. There was a front porch with a swing and closer got, I could see Ms. Erma sitting on the swing. She was clad in a black dressed with her hair tucked in a bun. Her hand was shading her eyes from the dying autumn sun, as she gazed toward the sound of my squeaky wagon and rattling Mason jars.
I stopped at the porch and after a brief exchanges of hellos, I said, “My grandmother Abilene sent this to you.” Ms. Erma came down off the porch, she took the box out the wagon and headed toward the door, but before going through, she said. “Don’t run off. I have something for her.”
While I waited, I noticed there were no sounds of insects chirping or birds singing. Only sound was the fast running water and a faint smell of burning sulfur. Ms. Erma returned with a large box and placed it in the wagon. After we said good bye, I headed back down the narrow artery that led to the old dirt path.
The sun had sunk lower in the sky, the air was still and hot, but an icy chill raced through me. I glanced back toward the house. Only the top was visible, the rest hidden behind the last of summer’s foliage. The old ghost stories came to mind. I glanced toward the creek, but when I returned my gaze to the road, between me and the bridge stood a woman that seemed to flout above the ground. She was clad in a long black dress, her stringy gray and black hair waved in a breeze that I could not feel. I stopped. Every hair on my body prickled.
She flouted toward me. Her skin was deathly pale and where eyes should have been, only canyons of darkness existed. Long bony fingers with blackened nails moved in no particular motion and the smell of burning sulfur churned my stomach.
The woman came to a stop a few feet away and stared at me. She moved closer, her face only inches for mine. “Your grandmother and your mother both are dead,” leaning forward; she smiled showing rotting, jagged yellow teeth.
I didn’t respond, but the icy chill inside grew colder; my body weakened and shook uncontrollably.
“Right after you left,” she went on to say, “Abilene’s dress caught fire,” she exhaled a fetid breath. The stench of burning sulfur, the smell of death raced another icy chill.
“Her skin seared from her bones. She screamed your name. Edger…. but Edger wasn’t there to help her,” the woman’s shake-like tongue flickered aimlessly, as if to taste the humid evening air. “Your mother tried to help though, but Tag attacked her.” The Woman’s finger trailed my flushed cheek, leaving a burning sensation in its wake. “Tag tore out her throat out, than lapped her blood on the kitchen floor. Your mother died choking on her own blood, while being eaten alive. It was a horrible sight.”
My knees weakened to the point of collapse, “she’s not dead!” I yelled, my tears streaming my cheeks. Remembering what my grandmother said about ghost and running water, I glanced toward the stream.
“You’ll never make it.” The woman said. “It was just an old wives tale.”
She grabbed me by the collar and pulled me closer, her mouth stretching wider, her forked tongue flickering faster. I dropped the wagon handle and felt a warm sensation traveling my leg, quickly turning cold.
The woman gazed down and laughed hideously, then said. “Rubies, Diamonds, Pearl and Jade; I smell Edger’s lemonade,” her mouth stretching even wider as the shilled laughter spilled out. She pulled me closer to the blackness inside her stretched mouth.
Somehow; I broke free, before the bite. I run as fast as I could toward the sound of rushing water. I could hear her coming behind me, calling my name in a shrill raspy tone. I looked back and fell.
The woman grabbed my foot. “You’re going to die like your grandmother and you mother,” she shrilled, dragging me away from the running water.
I screamed and struggled frantically, her grip tightened. I scratched and clawed in dry dirt grasping for anything to help escape. My foot suddenly slipped out the shoe and I scrambled to my feet. I ran as fast as I could toward the bridge. My lungs burned, my leg tired and with each step I was on the verge of collapse. But I kept running, refusing to stop, refusing to look back. I knew she was there flouting close behind me, I could smell her fetid breath on the back of my neck. She was getting closer, reaching for me with those long bony fingers.
I could see the bridge; hear the sound of running water coming closer. She let out a loud hellish shrill as I ran cross the narrow bridge and the fast running stream.
I kept running until I rounded the bend where I met my grandmother Abilene coming down the path. Wet and shivering, “you’re not dead,” I yelled, with almost empty lungs. I ran around behind her and gripped her dress. It was the first time I looked back down the path. The woman was gone.
“Of course I’m not dead. What on earth gave you that idea?” as she wrapped her arms around my shivering frame.
I explained to her what happened. I told her about the woman I met on the path and how she tried to eat me. My grandma shook her head. “Where’s the wagon?”
I pointed a quivering finger attached to a shaking hand back down the path.
“We’re going to have to go get it,” she said, as she took me by the hand. “You won’t see the woman again—I promise.”
I walked close to my grandmother but my legs were shaky so, I felt my joints needed tightening, and with every step I was sure they would shake a loose. In my mind's eyes, I could see the woman’s hideous face lurking behind trees, and in the shadows of the dense woods. We crossed the narrow bridge. I saw my shoe was lying in the dirt where it came off. The wagon was also there also, but the box Ms. Erma placed in back was gone.
“Is everything alright?” a voice asked, “I heard screaming,”
I looked up. It was Ms. Erma coming up the path from her house. Clad in a black dress, her hair still tucked neatly in a bun.
“He’s fine,” my grandmother said, “his imagination ran away with him. That’s why I stopped telling ghost stories,” as she picked up the wagon handle.
I picked up my shoe on the way back, and noticed the claw marks, I could still feel the woman’s firm grip on my foot, and in my mind, I could see her hideous face, smell her fetid breath, and the tingle on my skin where her finger trailed.
At the house, Tag came running out from the old shed, wagging his tail in jubilation, but I ran past him, and into the house. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table when I rushed through the door. “You’re alive,” I said, as I ran and embraced her.
I was still clinging to her when my grandmother came in and sat at the table next to her. I was sent to my room to change, and while I changed, I could hear my grandmother telling my mother what happened. Needless to say, I never went back down that old dirt path again.
Lightning rips the night sky, thunder bolts rolls, the storm drew closer. As the horrid memory of the woman faded, her dark star growing dimmer, the sound of her hideous rhyme, Rubies, Diamonds, Pearls, and Jade, I smell Edger’s lemonade, and hideous laughter slowly dissolved into the catacombs of my feeble mind. I turned the recorder off laid it on the night stand and let the memory fade completely. The only sounds were the coming storm, the rattle of the space heater, and the tick of the clock rushing me toward that finality--death.