By Brendan Verville
Linda was over for her weekly visit at my cabin, her pant legs still wet from the long canoe ride, and we were trading ghost stories. Strangely enough, out of the hundreds of conversations we had shared there in my cabin, we had never tried to scare each other as we were, or even touched upon the spiritual realm. We usually just cooked food, talked about nature, listened to music on my transistor radio, or made love. Maybe there was something about that night, like a thickness, without a single breeze to scratch the branches outside, or an animal to grace the well-worn trails. Or maybe it was because the sun had set so quickly, and it was too dark for Linda to travel home. So we curled up on my grandpa’s couch with the lights as dark as the windows, and wondered what we should do.
“That radio is a dinosaur,” Linda said to me. She was right. Even a “grizzly man,” as Linda liked to call me, knew that the cinderblock sized contraption sitting on my shelf would be refused by any pawn shop, even if it was given away for free. “Did you know that they make radios now that are—“
“Hey, that sounds like outside talk,” I interrupted playfully. She laughed, but did not persist. She knew it was a lost cause with me. Sometimes she would come over and mention in passing something from the news, or a new technology that interested her, and I would always cut her short. Twelve years ago I had left the world, to distance myself from those distractions, politics, money, technology. I wasn’t that old of a man, only in my late thirties, and Linda was just a little older than me, old enough to understand my strange fascination with the wilderness, and my reluctance toward society.
The childhood summers at my grandpa’s cabin were some of the happiest memories I still keep, fishing in the lake, hiking up the hills, chasing squirrels up and down trees. He had built the cabin with his own hands, and then later settled there to live a life of simplicity, completely alone, yet content. After my grandpa died twelve years ago, leaving the cabin in my name, I vowed that I would live completely self-reliant in the forest like him, growing my own food, hunting my own meat, and finally rejoining the nature I had been born into as a dandelion seed. If only that cold wind hadn’t stolen me away and dropped me into an even colder world.
I only kept the radio around for Linda, in case we wanted to listen to some music. Hell, I didn’t even have power. The radio ran on batteries and the lamps in my cabin were oil. Still, she enjoyed visiting my cabin. She felt like she was going back in time whenever she stepped through my door. She was used to it by now. You see, whenever we met, she always crossed the lake to visit me, but I never crossed to visit her. She stopped trying to convince me to visit the town on the other side of the lake. Even though it only had a population of a few hundred people, I considered that town civilization, the same civilization I had given up years ago.
Linda was my final connection to the outside world, the one guilty pleasure I could not do without, even after all the things I had given up for my life in the wilderness. And although I forbade her from bringing her gadgets and her newspapers into my cabin, I loved to hear her speak.
That night Linda stared longingly out the window, at the dark trees that appeared as cracks in the wall of the forest. She shivered to herself and I felt the aftershock up my own body.
“I can start a fire if you’re cold,” I told her. I reached over to brush the gray hairs away from her forehead. She looked at me with a set of deep green eyes, which I imagined had once been a stunning olive color in her youth.
“No, I’m not cold,” she said. “I just remembered an old story I once heard. It scared the hell out of me when I was a little girl. Maybe you’ve heard of it, the story of the gaunt man.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“It’s an old Japanese folk tale about a tall, spindly man that lives in the woods, disguised as one of the tallest trees. He only shows himself to children as they hike through the woods at night. He follows them home and steals their souls from their bodies as they sleep, and then traps them inside the trees for all eternity.”
“Jesus, that’s pretty grim,” I said.
“The trees at night have always spooked me. I know it’s ridiculous. I think my dad only told me the story so I wouldn’t go outside at night, or else the gaunt man would get me.”
“I know I’ve heard a story like that,” I said, trying to clear her mind. “It plays off the belief that when we go to sleep, our spirit leaves our body to wander the earth. One day a man sat down under a tree in the forest to sleep, and he decided to leave his body to explore. When he returned to enter his body, it was missing. A deer came by and told him that a cougar had eaten him. The man’s spirit entered the deer’s body instead, and he lived for many years as an animal in the woods. Then one day his path crossed that of the cougar, and he ran into a lake to escape, but he drowned, or something. I can’t really remember it now.”
“What’s the moral of that story?” Linda asked with a laugh.
“Just because you can swim as a human doesn’t mean you can swim as a deer,” I offered her. “That’s about the only scary story I have.”
Linda tapped an elongated nail against her lip. She rested her head on my shoulder and tucked her legs under our blanket. “I got another. I don’t know where I heard it, but someone once told me that when you die you’re visited by three spirits, who judge your sins and prepare you for the afterlife.”
“Like the ghosts of Christmas past?” I laughed, but she was too consumed in her own thoughts to hear me. “Wait, speaking of ghosts,” I said, pushing up from the couch. She watched me with interest as I rooted around in an old bureau and returned with a faded Polaroid picture. I handed it to her and she squinted in the darkness. I brought over a lamp and we looked at it in the halo of light. In the picture, my father and his brother were inside the cabin, standing by the fire and holding the head of a deer up for the camera to see, their trophy from a day of hunting. Standing beside them was a faded image, blurred, yet still crisp enough to make out. I didn’t even need to point out the period attire, the head, shoulder, and the clear facial features for her to see it was the transparent figure of a man. She gasped and looked me in the eye.
“My grandpa,” I said. “This picture was taken only days after he died. My dad and his brother came out here one weekend in his memory, and this is what they found. Their father posing in the picture with them.”
“Oh my God! That’s so … creepy!” she blurted. I almost had to tear the picture out of her hand to return it to the drawer. “Do you still think he’s here?”
I looked around the living room as if expecting to find my grandpa leaning up against the fireplace. “I don’t know. I sense him sometimes, but that may be because all this stuff was once his, and it still holds his scent … his energy. If he was still here you’d think he’d say hello some time.”
A crack of lighting lit up the room and we both jumped. We looked at each other with our hands on our hearts, smiling and breathing hard. She hurried to the window and looked outside. Already there was the pitter of pin and needle raindrops on the glass. She cursed and hurried to find her coat.
“Whoa, I thought you were spending the night,” I called after her.
“I left all the windows open in my house. I didn’t expect it to rain tonight,” she said, opening my door. “And we both know when it rains here, it rains.”
I followed her outside with my collar turned up. We strode down the hill together and onto the wooden dock over the lake, now choppy with dark ripples of water. Linda’s canoe bobbed in the surf, tied to a post with a length of rope. The rain was picking up now, and the clouds had covered the moon completely, snuffing out all natural light. We only had the soft haze of the houses on the other side of the lake, where people sat around electric TVs and glowing light bulbs.
I had a flash of the first day I’d met her, there in the lake, right outside my front lawn. I was swimming and she happened by in her canoe. I remember coming to the surface near her boat, surprising her so much that she dropped her paddle. My face tensed with a smile, but then dropped again.
I kissed her sadly and she sensed my distress. “Come across with me,” she said.
“Linda, you know I can’t.”
“Come on, I can’t walk home alone, not with all those dark trees. Who will protect me from the gaunt man?” She prodded me with a smile, and that smile was so lovely I swooned into her.
“I don’t know.”
She nodded her head, the raindrops trickling down the length of her bangs and the wrinkles on her face. She kissed me again and climbed into the canoe. Before she could go, I felt my body duplicate into two separate doubles. My double stepped out of my body as if it were only shrugging off a coat, and stepped into the canoe with Linda. She squealed happily and threw her arms around him. Both of them selected a paddle and set off across the dark lake, which might as well have been an ocean for me, standing on the dock, watching them go. This private island would be the death of me, surely.
A week later I was in the woods behind my cabin in the late afternoon, watching a deer through the telescopic lens of my rifle. I thought about Linda and the last time I had seen her, stepping into her canoe in the rain. I hadn’t seen her since then. More than a week had passed and she had missed our date together. I had waited by the shore of the lake, hoping to catch a glimpse of her canoe, but it never came. What worried me was that she never missed a date. I couldn’t call her because I didn’t have a phone, and I wasn’t about to paddle over to her side. Was she angry with me? Had something happened to her?
I cursed myself for not getting into that canoe. It hadn’t been the first opportunity I’d passed up. It used to be that my promise to my grandpa was enough of a conviction, the promise to take care of his cabin and live there for as long as I could. At the end of his life he worried so much about his land, and it later became my major fear, a shared burden that was passed down for me to carry. To leave it for a day would be to abandon it, and with the abandonment of the cabin would be the abandonment of my duty. My isolation from society was nothing short of a sacred oath, like something a monk would devote his life to, knowing that it was for some greater good, not yet fully realized. If I was to cross that lake, it would be like undoing all the long years I had proudly carved into those cabin walls. It would be like a smoker disciplining himself for a decade and then suddenly giving into temptation. After that, what is there? I had gone too far to give up now, and that was what killed my grandpa in the end. Once he had disciplined himself to that point of no return, his destiny was already sung, and when he did pass, he died in the upstairs bedroom of his cabin, without a single loved one at his bedside.
As I held my rifle, I thought of my grandpa, and how he had first taught me to handle it, with the stock comfortably nestled against my shoulder. I sat on the upper bough of a tree with my legs dangling down, listening to the pops and cracks of an animal in motion. Then a deer strode into the clearing ever so carefully, a female doe, older, with a thick pelt and murky eyes. I watched the deer through my sight, counting my heartbeats. I held my breath and applied pressure to the trigger. I thought about the deer head from the ghost picture, and how Linda had responded to it, shaking excitedly like a child.
The deer looked right up at me and I choked on my breath. It didn’t move. It just stared at me with those dark eyes. I knew that if I stayed completely still it couldn’t sense my presence. Then it spoke to me in a deep and raspy voice.
“She’s not coming back,” the deer told me.
I panicked and squeezed the trigger. The bullet struck the deer in the shoulder and I watched its flesh ripple as if a pebble had been thrown into a body of water. It collapsed to the grass without a sound. I didn’t stop to gather the carcass. I didn’t even look back at it. Jumping down from my perch, I sprinted back to my cabin and charged inside. With the gun still in my hand, I collapsed on the couch. I tossed it aside and it skated across the hardwood floor, to rest by the hearth of the fireplace. I put my head in my hands and gulped for air as my world spun behind my eyelids.
I needed a splash of cold water on my face, so I stood up to find the kitchen. The room spun and I caught myself against the dining room table. Right when my vision started to clear, I watched a man materialize at one of the chairs, only a shadow at first, and then slowly gathering dimension and shape, as though developing on a sheet of film. I jumped back with my heart seizing in my chest. It was my grandpa as a younger man, as I remembered him from when I was a boy, and he was as solid as me. His blonde hair was slicked back and he wore a crisp vest over a red turtleneck sweater. He smiled at me brightly and offered me to sit with him. I plopped down hard into an open chair.
“How’re you doing, son?” he asked me with a voice that didn’t quite match his lips. The voice sounded distant as if it were underwater or imprisoned inside a seashell.
“Gran?” I croaked, and he nodded his head. “Are you really here?” At this point all feeling had trickled off my body to pool around my heels.
“I’ve always been here,” he said. “You have to cross the water. Nothing keeps you here, or me.”
“What’re you saying?”
“Sometimes we stray too far from our roots, and can’t go back. We all carry darkness with us, and hers ran deep. It’s what carried me to this dark corner of the world, but I couldn’t escape it. Not really. It’s when we sleep too much, and hold fast to these dreams, that we’re not sure what’s important anymore, what’s truly real.”
Before I could speak, my grandpa was already fading out of existence. I watched him go, and felt my energy return to my body. I bolted outside and looked out across the lake. Usually I could see the houses on the other side, but today they were obscured by a heavy mist over the surface of the water. I’d never seen anything like it in all my years at the cabin. I stood on the edge of the dock, wondering how I was going to get across. As if to answer my question, a lone canoe came drifting into view, empty and somewhat unsettling. It bumped with the dock and I reached over to grab hold. I fell inside and struggled to right myself in the chaos of splashing water. I found a lone paddle and waded forward into open water, putting my grandpa’s cabin at my back. I hadn’t left my little island for twelve long years, but strangely enough, I didn’t look back, not that I could see anything in the thickening fog.
I felt like I was out there for hours, which didn’t seem right, judging by the size of the lake. I watched as the fog turned to a solid grey, and then into a black screen. The sun had left me with nothing but a chilled wind and a wet pair of pants, too cold for comfort. The lake was so still and quiet. I had never heard it that silent, not without the incessant chirping of the crickets. The dip of my paddle into the water hardly made a sound. I started to breathe through my mouth, just so I could hear something.
Finally the mist cleared and my canoe grinded with the shore. I fell onto cold grass and inhaled the night air. I looked up, and illuminated in the soft light of the moon, was Linda’s cottage, only a doll’s house from where I was, but I knew it was hers. She had often pointed to it from across the lake, sometimes through a set of binoculars for a better look. The house with the red trim, and the cherry tree in the yard. It was her favorite tree in the garden, she told me. A strange grove of trees separated me from the house, which I hadn’t noticed before. I walked slow, watching as the naked trees scratched their branches together. Then I was right underneath them, their bodies nothing short of brick towers, and their arms like the complicated workings of a spider web, weaving and knitting into one collective canopy over my head.
Then something moved to the left while all the trees blew to the right. It appeared as only a crooked figure stepping out from behind one of the trees, and once it joined my path, I saw that this creature was all legs, and they were long. It moved toward me with the delicacy of a spider, another set of thin lines extending from its body in the shape of arms. Long spindly fingers curled and uncurled within its hand. In the night it was only a black figure without any real substance, but I could see what appeared to be a roundish head set atop its twig of a body. I could see the reflection of light in its eyes, only dimes from where I was standing.
I watched panic-stricken, rooted to the spot as the creature slinked toward me without ever making a sound. It stopped a few yards away, standing fifteen feet tall at the least, its legs spread, and its arms hanging low to the ground, fingers curling and uncurling. It was hunched over, head bowed as if in prayer. It stood perfectly still. One might have mistaken it for a tree growing out of the very path, if it hadn’t spoken to me of course.
“We don’t speak of such stories, not even when the trees are not themselves, when they are shadowed,” the gaunt man said. His voice was but a whisper, a breathy exhale of air, which mimicked the sound of the wind through the trees. “Don’t we know such stories act as prayers, drawing the darkness in rather than the light?”
I had nothing to say. I stood below the creature, waiting for it to do something, anything. Even its fingers had stopped moving. I blinked my eyes a few times, and the more moisture I brought to them, the more the creature resembled a tree in the middle of the path. After awhile I realized that its spread legs were actually two different trees touching, and the arms were only low hanging boughs with branch-like fingers. The head was nothing more than a knot in one of the trunks.
I slowly navigated around the trees and ran the rest of the way to Linda’s house. It was dark, and all the windows were closed. I ran past the cherry tree, and into the house, skating up the stairs as if I was on a track. I passed through another door and there was Linda, sleeping in her bed with the moonlight spilling in through the un-shaded window, throwing crazy shadows across the ripples of her blankets. And I was lying in the bed with her, at least my body was, my arm around her waist. I looked at the window and the pane of glass was still speckled with fresh rain.
I hurried to Linda’s bedside, my hands reaching out to touch her face, but passing right through. I saw that she wasn’t breathing, and her skin was so pale, her mouth hanging slightly ajar.
“I went home with her that night,” I said out loud. “She didn’t go out in the dark alone.” My face filled with tears, and I didn’t know if they were real or not. I wasn’t even sure that the fingers that wiped them away were real. They felt solid.
I kneeled by the side of the bed for some time, staring at Linda’s vacant face. I wondered whether I should reenter my body and try to shake her awake. I wondered whether I should call an ambulance or perform CPR, but I couldn’t sense the slightest flicker of life in her face. I stood up and floated out through the window, hovering above Linda’s tidy little garden and cherry tree. I was sad that I hadn’t visited this garden earlier, that I hadn’t helped her trim those hedges or plant those flowers into the soft soil. I was sad that I hadn’t seen her at her best, happily standing below that tree, picking the cherries like candy, maybe saving a few for her pantry, or popping a few into her mouth right then and there.
Even though the wind had died down and the night had gone still, the cherry tree waved at me, its branches clicking against Linda’s bedroom window. It seemed to groan at my presence, every bud and leaf on its body trembling with life. Light filled my senses and I placed a hand on the trunk, so warm to the touch. I felt her stir inside her earthly shell, her voice coming to meet me across a long distance. I smiled and pressed my face against the bark, feeling her lips kiss my cheek.
Something insisted on rooting me to this world, at least for a little while longer. Everything I needed was there in nature, only not in the nature I had always envisioned on my distant island, forever swimming in the lake and chasing squirrels. I found everything in the warm embrace of a cherry tree in the rain soaked garden of my deceased love. And to think a town was right there at my back, where people still shopped in stores and woke up to the morning news. It had been there all along, and just like my grandpa and his cabin long faded on a crumpled Polaroid, so had I.
Brendan Verville is an English student in Denver, Colorado. Good horror stories were some of his first introductions to reading, and then to his writing. His love of the macabre has gotten so bad that he can’t enjoy a dream unless it’s a nightmare, just so he can experience the relief of waking up from it. Recently his works have been published in the Metrosphere and From the Depths literary magazines. “Too Much Sleep” is dedicated to fellow ghost storyteller, Phil Gudgel, who first showed him Slender.