by Scott Cooper
You can only believe in something for so long before it becomes real.
|In the spring of 1994, the house of one Mr. Jacob Lee was found empty and abandoned. The house sits in a small clearing in the forest off of Roanoke Trail. A hiker stopped at the house to ask for directions and for a refill of his water bottle, and found the door open. The house had evidently been empty for quite some time, as dust had gathered on the furniture, and leaves carpeted the hardwood floor. A phone call was placed by the hiker to the local police, who upon further investigation, combed through the house and collected several pieces of evidence, namely: an empty prescription bottle of Clonazepam, a .357 magnum (all chambers were empty, police ballistics reports suggest the gun had never been discharged), a leather-bound journal, and 13 white candles. The contents of the journal were, after some substantial debate, declared by investigators to be evidence of some kind of mental breakdown, and after several weeks of half-hearted searching, Mr. Lee was declared dead. Nevertheless, before filing the case away, the journal entries were recorded, and in the absence of any estate or surviving family members, they were made public record at the library archives in the nearby town of Maple. What follows is a transcription of each entry, in chronological order, with minimal commentary:
The house is nice enough, and the country has a certain beauty to it, although it is a bit dreary. There’s certainly a sense of loneliness, but that was to be expected in the forests of Appalachia. The house is centered in a small clearing of green wet grass and moist earth. One path runs into the trees to the east, and eventually leads to the road a few miles away. Another leads into the forest in the west, only a little wider than deer trail. According to the deed, I own the land in a fairly large radius, though I can’t seem to recall the exact acreage. I’m mostly concerned with the house itself. It’s clearly ancient, built with sturdy gray stone, and in fine shape structurally, but the windows are cracked and the floor is blanketed with dirt and leaves. I’ll have to clean it before I stock the food; I have two months’ worth. I’ll have to make trips to the nearby town every few weeks to restock on supplies. My car is parked in a small lot up the eastern path by the road, hidden from view but easy to find if you know where to look.
I like it well enough, and it should be a fine place to continue my writing peacefully. However, there is an air of blandness about it. The sky is often gray, and it’s a pleasant surprise when the sun breaks through the clouds. Also, a thin mist creeps over the ground in the early hours of the morning, drifting over the greenery and into the woods, where it disappears by noon.
Overall, I am satisfied. The royalties from my last book are still streaming in steadily, and I should have plenty of money to last until spring. After making the house livable again, perhaps I’ll start to explore the rest of the property. I’m rather anxious about tonight though. I still suffer from those night terrors you remember, although I’ve since seen a doctor. I’ll have to remember to see about a pharmacy while I'm in town.
I suppose you might enjoy it here during the summer. The sun is out more often, and I discovered a soft green glade in the woods near a babbling stream where we might’ve had a picnic. At night time larks sing, and the air is sweet and comfortable. I’ve taken to going on walks in the evening, exploring the winding paths that twist through the western woods. The cool air feels good after hours of writing indoors, or working on the house in the sun. The soft earth beneath my shoes lends a feeling of adventure and independence.
After returning from a walk, I usually settle down in the recliner with a book of poetry. I often fall asleep with Thoreau in my hand, or leave a copy of Whitman or Wordsworth by the fireplace. Something about the verse seems to soothe my mind. My hands don’t tremble as much anymore, and the last of my nightmares have receded, fading away to unpleasant memories in the dark corners of my mind. The dreaded and beloved orange bottle sits confined in the corner of my medicine cabinet, largely unused.
I promised myself I would not give in to sentimentality when writing these letters, but I must indulge in the confession that I miss you. I know that I could be content here in my solitude, as I take a certain pleasure in being alone. I know you always found that strange, but it’s simply my nature. If I could, I might live out my days here with no more than perhaps a dog for company. But then my mind drifts to you and the illusion is shattered.
I know what you must think of me Violet, leaving so suddenly, and I can’t say that I blame you. Deep down, I know it was the right decision, however much it pains you to hear it. Still, I can’t bear the thought of you alone and depressed. I’m determined to stay here until next summer, but afterwards, my heart will follow you, though my mind begs me to stay away. I can only hope that someday you will understand, and can bring yourself to forgive me.
Here there appear to be several pages torn from the journal. All that remains are a few jagged scraps of ripped paper, their edges lined with indecipherable scribbles. The entries for the rest of the month of July, and of those for early August, are missing.
The shadows grow longer of late, and a feeling of unfamiliarity surrounds the house. The mist that crawls up during the night now remains throughout the morning, and the birds who once sang with vigor are silent. I’m beginning to feel isolated out here, away from everything, and my poetry books provide little solace. I find that my hands are starting to tremble once more, and more often than I'd like to, I resort to the medication that has lain untouched in the cabinet for months. My writing has grown forced and labored. I would wish for you to be here beside me, but that would be selfish, as I feel this oppressive atmosphere would suffocate your lively nature that I love so much.
I still find some small comfort in my evening walks, although I rarely extend them past twilight, preferring instead to walk in the light of the sun. I hesitate to write this for fear you may think me losing my senses, but I must tell you that sometimes it seems like the paths in the woods shift and change. I know I sound like a madman, and I do not truly believe it myself, but I could swear that trees are there one day that aren’t the next. A fork in the road where yesterday there was none. A sudden sharp turn that I couldn’t recall for the life of me. Perhaps I’m just tired, and these are nothing more than the ramblings of exhaustion.
I must tell you that my nightmares are returning. But they are not the same. What used to be emotional experiences from which I would awake relieved are now vague shadows that are usually forgotten by morning. But the ones I do remember are riddled with dread. A subtle but raw sense of unease that gives me chills and thoughts of darkness, even in the middle of the day. These dreams, if that’s indeed what they are, are fearful things. I would try to recount them on paper, but I cannot. The most I can bring myself to write is that I am in the forest. And there are eyes.
Something is wrong. I can’t say what, but something is wrong. The sun rarely comes out anymore, and there seems to be an air of unease about the house. The walls sag with weariness, and the trees are full of tension, or so my mind convinces me. They bend back and forth at night as I stare out the window. More often now, I find myself closing the curtains and going to bed early. You will think me foolish, but sometimes it feels as if the trees reach for me. Their branches continually stretch towards me, calling. It’s as if when I enter or even look toward the woods, I become some sort of focal point, with the trees leaning in towards me wherever I go. During one of my walks, I could almost swear they were aware, of what I don’t know. Perhaps of me. Perhaps not.
The paths change. God help me, the paths do change. I do not know why I decided to go into the woods yesterday, but the air became still and calm when I did. I had gone farther down the path than usual, making careful note in my journal of each turn I took, every fork and doubling back of the trail. The earth was moist, and I could hear a faint scuttling, some insects most likely. After some time, I came upon something in the path that caught my eye. It was white, gleaming against the mud. I picked it up and examined it. A tooth. A single tooth in the deep of the wood. Human. I shuddered, and let it drop from my palm. There was a sudden crackling of branches, a rustling of leaves. A finger of dread traced between my shoulders, a barely perceptible feeling that something was coming. For the briefest of instants, I considered waiting, thought about facing whatever it was, be it just a woodland creature or a dark manifestation of my troubled mind. Then a shadow fell across the path, and I turned and ran.
It was a full minute before I realized the path was not the same. I consulted my journal hurriedly. I was at a fork in the path, but instead of splitting off in separate directions as they had when I had first come this way, the left trail now ran apart for only a few yards, then converged with the right to form a single path again. Violet, do not dismiss this as the ravings of a lunatic, I swear to you upon my life that the path had twisted in on itself while my eyes were elsewhere. I panicked, and began sprinting down that nightmarish dirt trail, picking directions at random until my legs ached with exhaustion, and still I ran. I don’t know for how long I ran among those hell-trees, searching desperately to find my way back before the sun went down. I only remember the blur of brown and green racing by, and finally waking up in the clearing, just a few dozen feet from the house. The grass was cold and wet, and felt strangely nice against my skin. I lay there for a few minutes, drinking in the cold night air with relief. Then came the sound of a snapping twig from the woods, and the briefest shimmer of movement. My eyes drifted over something bony and white disappearing into the undergrowth, but when I blinked and focused on the spot, there was nothing. Now, writing this in the comfort of my bedroom, I am not so sure the whole episode was not some deranged or fevered dream. I must remember to take my medication more regularly.
The handwriting here becomes slightly less organized. The letters are sharp and hurried, and the pen-strokes are heavier, darker.
Something enters the house at night. Of this, I am certain. It started coming almost a week after waking in the clearing, after fleeing from the woods. A week after catching a glimpse of something pale before it vanished among the trees. In the days after, the house feels cold and empty, and the silence is deafening. As the days drift by however, I am slowly becoming aware that come dark, I am no longer the sole occupant of the house. There is another. His footfalls creak through the hall in the dark of night, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot get out of bed. My legs are iron, my body paralyzed in a pool of cold sweat that stains the sheets. Then comes the terror, the gnawing, screaming pit of fear as I hear his footsteps outside my door and then stop. The knob has never turned, but I can feel his presence, standing silent in the hall. An ancient, primitive presence. It worms into my insides, starting at my groin and creeping up through my chest with the malice of a disease. I cannot describe it with mere words. It is beyond the feeble grasp of language.
In the mornings, when pale sunlight pours through the windows, the terror fades away, and his coming becomes nothing but a dream, a vague shadow of the lurking dark. I write this as the sun falls beneath the forest and tension grips my body because I know when the night is over it will all seem ridiculous and I’ll have convinced myself his arrival was simply a broken piece of my subconscious. But deep down, I know he is real. Things happen in the house that have not happened before. A subtle scent of dank earth and pine hangs in the bedroom, always dissipating by noon. Doors locked the previous night are left wide open. But these could be dismissed as errors of my memory, my senses betraying me under the stress of fear. There is only one thing that truly disturbs me. Many a night I have woken up after he has left, right before dawn, to find a small white candle at the foot of my bed, flickering gently in the darkness.
I summoned the courage to venture into the woods last evening in an effort to find the car, and have vowed never to do so again, for whatever lurks out there in the trees was aware of my presence. I now realize that the changing of the paths is his work. He sees me from some hidden place in the forest and weaves a labyrinth to prevent my escape, an endless network of paths leading into identical copies of themselves. The road is gone, the lot where I parked just another shifting path in his ever-changing maze. I think the woods have swallowed it, that I am now more isolated from the world than I have ever been. Perhaps if I were to quickly run out, without thinking, there wouldn’t be time for him to hide it and I could escape this place. No. The woods are too dark, and he is there somewhere, watching, and waiting. He is in every hollow log, every knothole in the tree trunks. He peers from beneath the undergrowth, from high above the leaves. I can feel him.
It won’t be long before he starts coming into my room at night, I know. I’m not sure what he wants with me, but I can feel him watching almost constantly now. Soon, the knob will turn. It won’t matter if the door is locked, the knob will turn and he will be in the dark with me. I can’t escape him. I will try boarding up the windows, but I doubt it will do much good.
Still he comes. The mornings show no sign of him forcing his way in, but still he comes. No matter how much the windows are blocked, he comes, with dawn bringing no sign of entry. Perhaps you believe I have gone completely mad, and that he is but a shadow, a waking remnant of my nightmares, but I know different. The screech of him pulling open the window is unmistakable, and the soft tread of naked feet across the floor outside my room brings me more terror than a dream ever could. My nightmares have returned in full force, but no longer as the vague feelings of dread I recounted to you weeks ago. They are much darker now. I wake in the early morning, stars still hanging faintly in the sky, with memories of a black hole in the dirt, of trees rushing by, wet earth beneath my bare feet, and something following me.
The knob finally turned, as I knew it would, and he now watches me every night with dark eyes. Often I see them at the foot of the bed, unmoving. Just staring at me, as if I am his jailer and hold the key to his escape. I have no such thing, I promise you. He comes of his own will, possessed of his own furtive desires. It’s strange, I admit, that I can fall asleep with prior knowledge of his coming, knowing that sometime in the dead hours of the night, with no sound but the rustling of leaves, the soft squeal of a window and the creaking of the door, I’ll awake to his eyes, watching me with that dead glare. I suppose some part of my mind, some dark and unexplored region, has become accustomed to his presence. My heart hasn’t though. It races with dread at the thought of his arrival, and I’m wracked with chills at the sight of him as I throw off the chains of sleep in the small hours of the morning. He never does anything but watch, but sometimes my tired mind convinces itself of more. A long pale hand, reaching, searching for my warm foot under the sweat-stained sheets. A guttural growl, and tiny, tiny teeth. I always try and look away, but the death in those eyes is drawing. I can see still water in them. A cave among the trees, a grotto with dark rocks, mist, and the skeletons of fish. As he looks at me, I feel myself aching to move, to hide. But I can’t. His gaze haunts me. I wake up every night, expecting it, but I am never ready for its pure wrongness. His eyes are not alive, they are something cold and animal-like. Yet they watch.
On some nights the moon shines through the window, illuminating his face. He has no nose, just two thin slits surrounded by pale flesh. Somehow I know that it’s cold and moist, like the dirt underneath the rocks in the heart of the forest; the twisting, pulsating, rotting heart that is his domain. He is hidden in the daytime by faded bark and dead trees, white as bone, tangled with tattered leaves and brittle branches. All this he tells me, silently, with his eyes, those black pools of still water and the fish bone cave hidden deep within the shifting woods.
Here the writing becomes frantic in tone, the letters barely more than panicked scratches against the helpless paper. More than once, the pen has punched holes in the pages of the journal, and everywhere words are scribbled out and then rewritten in a barely legible manner.
He speaks. God help me, he speaks. When I awake in the night, his impossibly long alabaster fingers are curled around the bedpost, and he talks. Not in English, nor in any other language I recognize, but in soft, growling whispers. Whispering murmurs that go on for minutes, sounding like nothing and everything. Often I imagine I hear rushing water, and the wind blowing through the reeds in a desolate pond, out beyond the forest. Sometimes I think I can make out words, but come morning I can’t remember what they are.
It will be over soon now. I can’t bear to see his dead eyes so close to me anymore. He has begun to crawl in my bed at night. Now, along with the pad of feet and the creaking of the door, there is the rustling of sheets. And then those black pools. They call to me Violet, they summon me. The woods grow darker every day, and the trees reach out to me, beckoning. A cold compulsion grows in the pit of my stomach, and strokes the back of my mind with cold fingers. It fills me with simultaneous dread and hunger, and I feel a need, a lust, to wander out into the forest and let the dark trees guide me where they will, twisting me along the narrow paths until I come to the dark water that haunts my dreams. The thought fills me with excitement and horror, constantly whispering in the back of my consciousness, begging me to give in. I want to, desperately, but I can’t. The woods are too deep. I am too terrified of him. I cannot even say his name, the name he whispered to me in the dark one night. Even thinking of him evokes images of sharp stones, of cold flesh, of shadowy pines looming overhead. Thoughts of him disturb my every waking hour. My mind often conjures up nightmarish fantasies of him at the foot of the bed. Visions of his gaunt body lurking towards me.
I still remember when it began, when there was nothing more than passing waves of foreboding in the night. The memories are vague, but I’ve kept them alive through these letters, which I read almost obsessively, trying to puzzle some secret out of my own words. I know, from the dates on these writings, that it all began only several months ago, but somehow it seems like I have been here forever, have been haunted by him since before my own birth. I fear that someday soon, I will forget it all, because when he comes, there is nothing but him. I have woken in terror, with no memory of who I am, my identity only returning after long minutes of staring in the mirror. So I read, in hopes that the speculations of my past self will protect me from the lure of those dark eyes. But deep inside, I know nothing can. I will not last much longer. Soon, the woods will call, and I will answer.
There are dead things under the house, he once told me in his ancient tongue, and now I can hear them, speaking to me. Sometimes before slipping into my room he visits them, and I hear the growling murmurs and wet padding of feet from the foundations. On those nights, my heart beats faster than usual, anticipating with depraved pleasure the turning of my doorknob.
I must go soon. The trees whisper to me in soft tones, revealing to me the dark secrets that lie below their twisted roots. The air itself seems tainted with the bittersweet scent of pine, intoxicating me, and I crave the embrace of the dark conifers. Even now, I look out the window toward their reaching branches. When I first arrived here, what seemed like eternities ago, the trees looked to me to be a deep emerald green, needles waving gently in the wind. Now, in the gloaming, I see them as they truly are, a hungry black. Black like the bone pool I see in his eyes every night. Their bark is as white as chalk, rippling with the promise of damp earth and cool air. He is waiting for me in the heart of the woods, as he always has been, and always will be, with his dead eyes and pale fingers. I fear his icy clutches no longer, and long for just a glimpse of his white skin among the trees.
The last entry is the shortest.
I am going into the woods tonight. When the sun falls below the trees, I will be his. I leave these letters here, that whoever comes to this place seeking solitude as I did might have a warning, and that one day you might know why I did not return to you. I no longer believe in prayer as I once did, but I have prayed for you nonetheless, for as I lay in bed awaiting his coming, I heard his voice, and amidst the soft growls of his primordial tongue, I heard him speak your name.
Several weeks after the search for Lee was called off, it was suggested that the house be given one final search. During the search, one of the men fell through the floorboards in the pantry, and discovered that house had a sizable crawlspace. Investigators were disturbed to find that the earthen floor of the space was littered with bones. In the days that followed, 13 complete human skeletons were found beneath the house, in addition to the osseous remains of perhaps hundreds of small animals. Another investigation was opened, part of which was an extensive search for the addressee of Lee’s letters, the mononymous Violet. She never came forward, and no leads were ever found as to who or where she might be. However, a local urban legend persists among the people of Maple that should you visit old Jacob Lee’s house on the edge of the woods on a certain cold November night, a small white candle can be found in the bedroom, burning softly, with a human tooth sitting beside it.