By Michael D. Griffiths
Everything changes when you are lost. The vibrant trees and valleys become mysterious things with hidden malice. The forest seems to hold its breath, as though it is waiting for you to make a mistake. It is a silent living thing, full of secrets that it chooses not to share.
My name is Blake Thompson and I have spent the majority of my life living in the outskirts of Boston. The summer after my graduation from college I sought at least one solitary adventure, before being forced to settle down and embark upon my journey into responsibility.
I have always hiked and explored the woods. As a youth I grew used the forests inevitably disappearing into farmland or a series of new houses. Open expanses of forest were becoming anomalies in New England and I worried little about finding my way, for I knew that any direction I took would lead me to a road sooner than later.
A friend of mine, Jack McBreen, told me that Maine’s northern forests were still vast and free of mankind’s influence. Miles remained untouched and unexplored.
Loading up my meager camping gear and a few days of food, I headed into the depths of Baxter State Forest. My friend Jack promised to pick me up at the trail head in three days. If only it had been that easy.
During the first day, my compass disappeared.
Then, somehow, I lost sight of the trail. One moment I was on a narrow path that snaked through the forest, and the next – nothing. The path had vanished completely. I tried to backtrack, but found only a game trail that led nowhere.
As the hours passed fear began to tie knots in my stomach. I was lost in the largest expanse of forest in the northeast. Without a compass, my only guide was the sun, but the thick forest canopy blocked out it out, only allowing a diffuse light to reach the forest floor. I tried to head east, but these weren’t suburban woods. This was real forest full of ancient trees that had been here long before the first tribe ever found its way to the new world. I hoped to find a logging road, but after four days I was still trudging through trackless wilderness.
As my luck diminished, my sanity seemed to go with it. How could this happen to a healthy man in these modern times? At times doubting my own reason, I would retrace my steps or try to follow a river only to have it plummet into an unclimbable ravine. It all seemed so impossible and as the food began to run out, I found myself questioning my senses.
With my food supply nearly exhausted, my depression deepened with each new setback.
Wet branches fought against my battered fingers. My boots churned up mildew and less savory smells. Thick bushes pulled at my clothes and tangled my hair. The forest became a decaying tomb closing in around me.
I came upon a path. Whether it was the original trail, or not, was impossible to say. One direction seemed vaguely east and this was the way I chose. Almost at once the forest began to change. It became darker and more shrouded. Long patches of sickly gray lichen enveloped the bent trees. Moss hung from the twisted branches in huge clusters, some as long as I was tall. The place had a sense of untouched age, as though my hapless wanderings had somehow led me into the heart of the forest.
I almost considered leaving the moldering trail; such were the misgivings that this region of the forest was giving me. Still if nothing else, the path itself was aiding my progress and in my weakened state, moving the occasional patch of hanging moss aside was far easier than forcing my way through uncharted underbrush.
As though things had not become discomforting enough, a light mist began to encircle the bases of the decaying trees. It did not take long for the mist to become a true fog that enshrouded the dark woods with its clammy wet fingers. Its ominous source became readily apparent, as the trail entered an area rich with brackish bogs. Rotting trees thrust their warped forms from the muck, looking like forgotten skeletons. Soon only the trail remained free of the swamp’s hungry grasp. Stretching like an earthen snake, the path rose from tangled marsh, just high enough to keep my boots dry.
Darkness was now beginning to claim the land and the idea of having to bed down in this dismal region filled me with a creeping dread.
Looking ahead as darkness began to claim the land, I saw a dim light dancing in the distance. Like a will-o-the-wisp it beckoned. Having heard of such swamp lights, I was cautious, for lights such as these had been said to lure men to their doom. Yet this one appeared to be located in the direction in which the path led. Trying to convince myself that this was a good thing, I found such optimism was becoming ever more difficult to maintain.
Then I saw it, a structure, trapped in time. At first I thought that the crumbling thing could have been old enough to somehow be a building that had survived from the time when the natives ruled this dark land, but the walls were too angular and the house had some kind of decayed paneling. Gray rotting paint feathered from the walls in the areas that were free of the encroaching molds. Thick layers of soft decay sucked at my boots. The odor of wet wood, mixed with the lingering scent of swamp as I drew closer.
Approaching with caution, I was not sure whether I should run or knock upon its black door, though my instincts begged I do the former.
An area long since cleared of trees had been claimed by undulating gardens of molds and moss. Whatever outbuildings the place might have once had were dissolving into humps of putrefying lumber.
The only thing hinting that life could still be lingering here was the dim light, which could still be seen through the grime-covered panes.
Despite my trepidation, I pressed on.
Overcoming my lurking dread, I was somehow able to force myself to approach the sagging front of the dilapidated structure. Knocking on the door brought no results. Assuming that whoever lurked within the old house would have heard me stumbling outside, I was surprised when the knocking was not answered. Harder rapping brought similar results. Beneath my knuckles, the wood moved much as a wet sponge does and gave off an odor not unlike that of forgotten soiled dishes.
Against my better judgment, I tried the handle. Not surprised to find it unlocked, I pressed inward and the door opened. As if I had broken the seal of a crypt, a sick air, fouler than anything I had ever experienced, blasted my senses harshly. Rotting meat left in a wet cooler for a month would not have even compared to this stench. Could the owner of this horrid place be dead and rotting away in some forgotten back room, yet if this was the case, who could have lit the archaic lantern that I could now see sitting on a stained table?
I moved into a large shadowy room, which the dim lantern did little to illuminate. The whole first floor appeared to be one large room. The place had no visible exits or doors other than the one I had entered through, although a steep stair led up to a second floor. I left the front door open in the hopes of removing the horrid stench.
“Hello,” I shouted. “Please is there anyone here?” Nothing answered my cries. “I am lost and I need help.” Again, the house loomed silent and empty.
Beyond the rickety table, was a series of wooden chairs that looked about to collapse on their own. One piece of furniture was out of place; it might have been a more modern type of sitting chair, even though, by now, it had to be over fifty years old. Threadbare and leaking stuffing, it appeared to have suffered from great use. Old weathered tomes surrounded it.
Moving closer, I picked one up at random. It was written in some language, which I could not even identify. The next one was probably German, but I was no expert. The following one was Arabic. What sort of person locked away in this forgotten wood could be able to read so many different languages? The hairs on the nape of my neck were standing on end, as my fingers hurried through the pile. At last I came on a book written in English, but its discovery did little to calm my nerves.
Loose leather covered the yellowed pages of this time worn tome. It had the disquieting title ‘The Nameless Cults of the Americas.’ Leafing through it, the primitive woodprints showed scenes beyond my imagining. Images of human sacrifice, mixed with things even more foul. Limpid shapes not quite seen, lingered on the edge of madly dancing savages. My hands froze, as I came upon a print of a dark mist covered marsh. From this marsh rose a black humped mass. It was almost formless, like a heap of animal skins thrown into a bloody pile, except for its large glowing eyes. These eyes had no pupils and remained a soulless white.
I know it seems irrational, but I could not help but wonder if I could have come across such a horrible thing in the bogs that I had just passed through.
Chancing to look out the window, I saw that the fog had thickened and was now completely surrounding the festering house.
A thud sounded from above.
I remained motionless. It sounded again, then again. Something was moving above, heading towards the stairs.
Terror filled me. What sort of foul man could be living here, reading these old books again and again?
I wanted to flee, but then I thought about the swamps and unbidden, the image on the woodcut I had seen sprang back into my dazed mind.
The thumping had reached the head of the narrow stair and I thought my heart would burst. The dull sound continued, slow and uneven. I could not move, as my eyes gazed at the stair. Light wisps of torn gray clothing, almost resembling the mists floating outside, came into view first. As it continued, I saw that the figure wore little more than rags that were stained with decay and filth. Once I could see its withered clawish fingers, I knew the figure was aged beyond all belief. Its grayed hands were covered in sickly spots. They clutched and unclenched spasmodically. How I remained there, I do not know, for as his face finally came into view, it was almost too much to bear.
The visage was attempting something that could have been a smile, but came out looking vampiric and insane. The ancient man’s face was a stark white and pulled taunt over the bone, so that there was little difference between it and the skull underneath.
Proceeding down the steps, like a corpse just exiting its coffin, his black eyes were the only thing that looked alive. Tilting his head to the side, he tried to grin again, as though he was happy to have company. The ancient man moved towards the table, in a tangle of creaking bones. Once there he reached for a pad and pen, which had gone unnoticed. Long spiderish fingers moved pen to paper, and then I had the sheet of aged vellum pushed into my trembling hands.
My name is William Lynn and the years have robbed me of both my voice and hearing. You are welcome to stay the night. For I have visitors few.’
My hands shock so badly that I could barely write, but I managed to jot down.
‘My name is Blake Thompson and I am horribly lost. Might you be able to point me back towards the nearest road?’
The haggard old crone nodded happily and began to draw me a map. While he did, he pointed to the chair. I refused to sit in the chair, which had been used to take in those unholy books and chose to inhabit a frail chair that sat with its back to the wall.
For a long while I watched his fingers dance across the page, far too nimbly for someone of his age. The movement of his fingers mixed with his shallow breathing creating a strange rhythm. Then somehow the impossible happened, my exhaustion overcame my fear and I fell asleep.
My sleep was troubled and filled with a myriad of terror driven nightmares. Humped beasts rose from the swamp claiming half naked warriors with bronzed skin. Many of these had been pinned to the earth with wooden stakes, while others were bound to the twisted trees with lengths of leather and hide.
As my dreams progressed, white settlers replaced these men. The hardy folk dressed in colonial garb were no match for the horror emerging before them and most lost their minds, long before the thing of the swamp could reach them.
I saw women and children begging for their lives, until they laid eyes on their true fate, then there was nothing left but the screaming.
Awaking with a start, I found myself on the floor of the room. The old man had even gone so far as to cover me with my own sleeping bag. As I slowly opened my eyes, they came to rest on Lynn where he sat in his old chair. He was looking through the book with the grin of a madman painted across his withered face. He looked over at me with burning red eyes that glowed in the fading light and I knew true fear.
What happened next, I know not. Perhaps I fainted or maybe that vision had been a dream as well. Whatever the case, I awoke stiff and sore the next morning with my empty stomach clutching in pain.
Of William Lynn, there was no sign.
Making it too my feet, I stumbled to the old table. The lantern had burned out, but there on the table was the map that the old man had made for me. Looking it over, it seemed clear enough. I was to follow the path past the house. From the looks of things, it might not even be that far to the nearest road.
Snatching up the map, I packed my things as quickly as I could and headed towards the door. The thought that I should thank my benefactor lingered in my thoughts, but the idea of heading up those stairs was something I could not abide. So turning my back to the stairs, I rushed out of the house. Discovering the path was not difficult and I happily put the eerie house behind me as quickly as my tired legs would allow.
The swamp was much as before, murky and reeking. It did not deter me. Staying my course, I followed the path.
Soon, however, the memories of the wood cut and then my nightmares began to come flooding back to me. The sun had never emerged from the clouds and a light mist was once again beginning to play over the marshes. My breath was coming in gasps, as I forced myself to continue.
The path was becoming ever more muddy, but in my rising fear I barely noticed. It was only when the path dead-ended in the middle of a particularly large expanse of filmy swamp that I was forced to stop.
The path was gone. Like before, it had dwindled before me, but this time it was caused by the pooling black waters. How could I go back to being lost? I was not sure I had the strength to go on, but what really caused me pause was the idea of heading back towards that evil house.
Then I heard a sluggish splashing. Turning, my mouth opened in terror, for there before me was a sight too horrible to be true. The heaping mound was looming up from the swamp. The foul thing was covered with a mix of strings that could have been swamp grass, lanky hair, or thin tentacles.
But its eyes, they were what burned into you. No normal creature of Earth was this. Instead it leaked a foul corruption, for it was something that should not have existed, but yet it did.
It had fed on the flesh of humans for countless generations, a dark spot, some mistake of creation. There was a wrongness, which I felt on some primal level, like when a wild animal sees its first car. It was foreign and perhaps in its own way somehow more evolved than I.
Advancing slowly, pulling ropes of muck behind it and the image blurred as lines of darkness rose from it, like waves of heat. Its wide white eyes owned me and I could not move. When the hairish tentacles began to lash out at me I found my will to fight at last, but now it may have been too late. The ropy vines thrashed against me. The more I struggled the harder the blows fell. I tore one of them in half, but this brought forth a stunning blow to my skull. Soon things were growing dark as my consciousness faded.
The last thing I remember was hearing a loud thumping, which at the time, I assumed was my struggling heart. Then it began to go louder. Was this the creature approaching ever closer or was my heart truly about to explode before it even reached me?
I awoke in a hospital in Kennebunkport, shocked not only to be alive, but also somewhere warm and safe. Even more shocking was to find Jack by my side.
“Look, he is coming to,” Jack was saying to a nurse working at the edge of my vision. Jack’s tall form leaned over me, his face beaming happily. “Glad to have you back in the land of the living.”
“What happened?” I asked weakly, still trying to regain my senses?
“It was a lucky thing. Had you gone out into that treeless swamp on purpose? If you had, it was a good idea. We had been searching for you for two days, but the forest is so thick, that we had nearly given up hope. Then right when we went out that morning, there you were, in the center of that swamp. Like I said, it was a lucky thing.”
“What about that thing in the swamp?”
The smile left Jack’s face. “That thing?”
“The monster, did anyone see it?”
“I’m not sure…”
“I’d better go get the doctor,” the nurse said, hurrying out of the room.
Looking to make sure she was gone, Jack leaned in closer. “There was some trouble there Blake. One of the men on the rescue team drowned. They were not sure what happened. While the rest were focused on you, he disappeared. They are saying that some kind of quicksand got him, but they still have not recovered the body.”
“Did anyone see the old house, with that crazy man living in the middle of the woods?”
“Ah…I’m not sure.”
The doctor appeared and asked Jack to step outside. Through the walls, I heard them taking about lack of food and delirium. The nurse had come back in with two little red pills that I was supposed to take.
I looked at her and said, “I’ll take those if you do me a favor first.”
“I don’t usually make deals.” I saw now that she was not unattractive and possessed shoulder length brown hair along with a trim figure.
“This one is easy. I just want you to look into my shirt pocket for me. There should be a piece of paper there. It, uh, has some phone numbers I need on it.”
“Alright I’ll get them, if you promise to take these pills.”
“Sure,” I said, but I was thinking about what they were saying outside. They thought I was imagining things and the lack of food had made me go crazy, but I knew different. That thing, when it arose from the swamp, needed to claim someone. It was only the intervention of that poor rescue worker that made the monstrosity forget me long enough for me to be rescued.
“Here, is this it,” the nurse was saying. I took the crumpled piece of paper from her hand and slowly opened it. As I thought, it was the map the ancient man had drawn for me!