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           Whispers In The Woods

 

            Legend says if you hear whispers in the woods, run.  Those were the last words the realtor said before she pulled out of the driveway.  I had begun the final unpacking in my new house only hours earlier.  The realtor, Sharon Owens, had been with me from the first showing to closing.  Several times, she did something un-realtor-like; she tried to talk me out of the purchase.  Perhaps I should have listened.

            I stumbled upon the property first while driving in the countryside.  There were at least three or four miles between neighbors.  I pulled into the dirt driveway, which split a large yard with knee-high grass.  The scattered, mature trees were bare, and the late fall air was crisp and refreshing.  There was no sign of anyone or anything suggesting human presence.  There was, however, a small sign by the drive entrance.  Covered by high grass, I didn’t notice it coming in, but I spotted it from the porch of the old farmhouse.  Perhaps that should have been a warning.  The sign was Sharon’s realty company, phone number, and the words, For Sale. 

            Company life had taken its last piece of me almost a year ago.  I walked out with what was probably my last hope for sanity.  Those years and that life had eroded so much of my soul that I ached for change.   It was good to settle down and forget all the travel, this destination and that destination where work was all-consuming.  But more so, my soul needed to be healed, and I could feel that this kind of life, and this kind of place, was how it would happen.  There were a few random boxes still, but they could wait for the morning.  The day was waning, and I was growing tired—time to relax. 

            I had looked forward to the fireplace the most.  The wood was dry and sparked right away.  I added a few small twigs, and then, as they began to burn, I added pieces of split seasoned firewood.  The fire grew and filled the room with a warm glow, and the chill was gone.  A fire’s warmth cannot be compared to central heating, whether gas or electric.  It reaches into you, and the chills melt.  With the quiet, the ambiance of crackling burning wood, and the simple peace of a full-size recliner, I was more at peace than I had been in … well, ever.  Since leaving for this life, I promised to write my memoir or perhaps write my confessions.  It would be a book, twenty years in the making.  The notebook and pen I had bought at the store in town sat next to me.  It could wait.  I slipped off to sleep.

            Almost bursting from my chair, my heart raced, and an uncontrollable sweat soaked me.  I dropped to the floor, and then, waking, I gained control.  I ran over to the living room window…nothing.  I realized it was just another of repeated nightmares that racked my spirit and my nerves.  It was late, but the nap and the nightmare had me wide awake.  I caught myself still gazing out the living room window, now mindlessly and without purpose.  A chill ran up my back, and the hair on my arms stood on end.  It all felt disturbing.  Where did the peace I enjoyed earlier go?  Tea.  Some tea would be nice. 

          I always enjoyed tea made the old-fashioned way.  Boiling the water on the stove in an actual teapot was somehow part of the experience and not just a means to an end.  I could relate.  It was somewhat of an anticipatory experience as you could hear the water getting hotter, working itself up to a boil, and then the reward of the whistle.  As I waited for that reward, my eyes drifted out the kitchen window.  There it was.  The figure was standing just inside the bush line.  Wild berry bushes bordered the woods in the backyard.  I could see a silhouette and basic features in the low light, but the tangled web of leafless branches obscured the creature’s details.  I could neither determine what it was nor who I was looking at, but I could see it was looking at me.  I opened the window and yelled at it, hoping to reveal its identity.  The cold evening air struck me.  Dread filled me.  It was gone, leaving only the brief sound of whispers.

          I retrieved the long black case from the back of the bedroom closet.  It was the only weapon I retained from my past life.  Peering out the upstairs bedroom window, the night scope allowed for a certain level of viewing into the dark woods; the thermal scope was better.  Nothing.  Not a sign of anything.  I could feel my heart rate increasing and the feeling of anxiety as the rifle settled into a familiar position.  Nothing, but then there it was again.  It had not seen me up here on the high ground.  It appeared to be looking still at the kitchen window.  It was no more than 50 meters away, and just stood there.  It showed very hot through the thermal scope, too hot.  The air rushed over my arms and face, bringing back the chill—a quick wipe of the sweat off my eyebrow and back to the scope.  Unintelligible whispers wafted through the branches, and then, again, it was gone.

          The sun peaked over the horizon.  Rifle leaning against my chest, I had fallen asleep at that window.  I gathered myself and headed for the woods.  I hadn’t felt that kind of drive in quite a while.  I was on a mission.  The dry leaves covering the ground were both a blessing and a curse.  I would hear it coming, but it would hear me, too.  I entered the woods with a hyper-awareness.  I listened to what was there and was mindful of what wasn’t.  I carefully slipped through the trees and undergrowth, but the forest floor was unforgiving.  Further in, I hiked, and as I did, the sounds of woodland life became muted and distant.  It’s funny how the peace of the woods can be replaced by anxiety by simply removing background noise.  I pushed on.

          A clearing offered a respite from navigating saplings, fallen trees, and bushes.  I rested on a log, my rifle close by, and wondered if maybe I had imagined it all.  I asked myself what I would do if I found this thing or if it found me.  Then, the whispers came.  More this time and louder.  So loud.  I stood immediately and centered myself in the clearing to get the best defensive position, not knowing which direction it might come.  Then it was there.  Then another one.  And another one.  I swirled around, trying to identify and track each one, but they kept appearing, and the whispers kept getting louder.  I fired a warning shot into the air.  It was the only warning shot I had ever fired.  Switching positions over and over, I could not keep up with them as they filled in a perimeter around me, a hundred at least, each standing still staring at me.  I could see each now, different sizes and shapes.  They looked human, but somehow, they were blurry, details hidden from me.  The sounds of their whispers got louder and louder, overlapping each other and all focused inward at me.  I could feel their intensity, as if their voices created an actual force pressing on me.  There were too many talking over each other, and I could not hear what was being said.  I screamed at them, and as if they understood my plea, their whispers came together.  I almost wished they hadn’t.  All their whispers were in sync, from the chaos of too many sounds to a nearly rhythmical chant.  A whispered chant of one phrase, a question.  “Why Me?”  Then silence. 

          I remember falling to my knees, the wet ground bleeding through my jeans.  Their faces became clear.  Their bodies were bloody.  I knew each one.  The victims of me “just doing my job” for the last twenty years.  Twenty years of killing.  Each one of these, not the death deserving others, but these I remembered the most.  They were the innocents.  They did not deserve to die.  And then I offered a whisper of my own.  “Forgive me.  I was just doing my job.” 

          It was three months since that day.  I was still there in those woods.  I could see her somehow.  Sharon was showing the house again.  The new buyer asked, “What happened to the previous owner?”  Sharon, with a reluctance in her voice, said, “He took his life back in those woods.” Then, shaky, she whispered, “He didn’t run.”

© 2023 by Philip Swartwood

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