by David E. Jones
Once, there was a tall, thin lad, named James Whitmore. By all accounts he was a nice young man who worked as an apprentice clerk in the town’s post office. On Sundays after church, he enjoyed taking lazy walks through the countryside, where he would discuss the weather with his neighbors or skip stones across a pond with the their children. One hazy, humid day in early August, James decided it was far too hot to walk through the open fields in the sun, so instead, he sought out the cool shade of the woods near his home. A thunderstorm the previous night had left the trail behind his house a muck of slushy red clay — and not far down that treacherous, gully-riddled path, he found what he was looking for — an old trail winding off into the woods.
As he walked, James admired the curling fern fronds that grew around the trees and soon, the path became a moderately steep incline, sloping toward a shallow creek. Majestic old oaks rose before him, spreading their leafy canopy overhead, casting a gloom over the path. He remarked at how broad the old road was here. In fact he couldn’t recall the old path being this wide anywhere along its length. It was rare to find a trail in the woods that could accommodate anything larger than a running buck, but this was definitely wide enough for a horse-drawn wagon to navigate.
“Have I perhaps strayed onto the road to the old mill on Rocky Branch Creek?” he wondered to himself.
James continued walking, admiring the twittering songs of wrens and mockingbirds while swatting at an occasional mosquito. At some point, he began feeling unusually tired and even somewhat dizzy.
“It must be the heat”, he thought.
James hiked for several more hours through the ever darkening woods as the sun fell lower and lower in the sky. Finally, he found himself on an old wooden bridge and realized that for the space of half an hour or more, he had been walking in a delirium with no knowledge of where he was or to where he was going.
“Where am I?” he asked aloud. He stared down into the currents of deep dark water swirling beneath him and realized it was Rocky Branch Creek.
“I’ve been going the wrong direction all this time!” He tried to recall the last half-hour but discovered that he wasn’t really sure exactly how long he had been walking. His memory of the entire day had become a muddled confusion of bewilderment, enlightened by brief moments of lucidity. By now, the sun was so low behind the trees that it cast only a faint glow of dying light into the woods. In another moment of clarity he noticed that he was extremely hot. He was burning up with fever.
Without any awareness of his surroundings or the direction he was traveling, James wandered on. Soon he was no longer on the road, but instead was trampling through briers and brambles. At some point, he removed his shirt. Crooked streaks of blood mixed with sweat, ran down his arms and chest from the numerous scratches he received from the thorns. By now the sun was a distant red circle, setting forlornly in a dark band of haze, behind the leafy branches of popular and sweetgum trees. Soon, the evening’s first stars began to appear. An owl hooting in the distance was joined by a chorus of mournful whippoorwills and chirping cicadas. The song of the cicadas soon became a ringing in his head, then a buzzing and finally a fierce clamor of blinding pain. In the gloom before him, James could just make out the dilapidated form of an old house beneath the tall pines. He stumbled toward it, but fell down after just a few steps.
When he regained consciousness, James was lying on a bed in a sparsely decorated room lit by a single candle. A woman he had never seen before was leaning over him, holding a cup of water to his lips. Once he had sipped a little, she placed the cup on the table beside the candle and disappeared into the darkness of an open doorway. He heard cicadas singing beside him, so he turned his head and saw that the window was open. It was night outside. Stars twinkled through the trees and fireflies flashed here and there. A soft breeze blew through the open window, perfuming the room with the sweet smell of honeysuckle. Soon the mysterious woman returned with a chair and placed it beside his bed. She sat down and watched him with obvious concern. Her dark hair was pulled behind her head in an old-fashioned manner that was no longer common. The candlelight cast harsh shadows across her face. She seemed sad.
“How long have I been here?” he asked. The woman did not respond, but simply raised a finger to her lips as if to whisper, “Shhhhhh,” but she uttered not a sound. She reached behind her neck and unfastened a locket, which she removed and placed on the table beside a small wooden bowl. The lady then rolled up her sleeves and removed a wet rag from the bowl, which she then touched to his chest. The water was cold and he jumped a little. James understood that she was cleaning the cuts he had received while stumbling through the woods in his delirium. He was beginning to enjoy the ministrations of this fair angel when his fever took hold once more, sending his consciousness into oblivion.
When James awoke again from his feverish sleep, the woman was standing across the room at a table with a vase filled with flowers. He took this opportunity to admire his silent hostess who was unaware that he had awakened again. She was wearing a plain yellow dress that well-suited her small frame. He continued watching as her slender white hands artfully arranged the flowers in the vase. Suddenly, James became aware of something which until then he had not noticed and which he found disturbing: the blooms that this lady was arranging were dead and withered. She did not seem to care, but kept about her work. He glanced over at the table beside him and noticed the locket still lying where the woman had placed it. He picked it up and out of curiosity opened it. Inside was a fair likeness of the lady before him. At this moment, she heard him stirring, then turned and smiled. Her expression was warm and reassuring, but there was something strange about her eyes. They were devoid of light, dark as the deepest pools in Rocky Branch Creek. Was it just a trick of the flickering candle-light? James observed her now with growing interest, as she crossed the room and picked up the glass from the table beside his bed. The lady leaned over to help him sip the water, when suddenly the angle of the candle-light caught her face and stripped it of all its shadows. James gasped in horror… She had no eyes! Just two terrifying and lifeless orbs staring at him as she smiled!
When James awoke again, he was lying outside on the ground, wet with dew. The sun was up and the sky was hazy. He had no memory of the previous day and didn’t know where he was or how he had gotten there. Looking around, he surmised that though surrounded by woods, he was lying in one corner of a grassy clearing. Across the clearing from where he lay, were the crumbling moss-covered stones of an old chimney. He had been sleeping in the foundations of an old house! James stood up and began walking. Not far away, he perceived a road and stumbled toward it. Still in a daze, he tripped on something and fell face-first onto the ground. He then realized that he was clenching something tightly in his hand… it was a small locket. When he opened it and saw the portrait inside, vague memories, like half-forgotten dreams began crowding into his confused brain. He turned the locket over and saw that there was a name inscribed on the back: “Clara H.” Still lying on the ground, he rolled over to see what had made him fall. It was a gravestone. With a sense of dread he pulled the concealing grass and vines from the weathered monument. Chiseled into its surface and eroded with time was the following:
Suddenly remembering all, he scrambled to his feet, and ran screaming in blinding terror through the trees.