by Ezra T. Gray
part 1 of 2
All things, both real and imagined, have a beginning, a point in time when they were not — and then they were. So it was with the grove. Sequestered by a small clearing, yet hidden within a vast ocean of green, the Aspens of the grove huddled together, an island of white bark and golden leaves separated from the rest of the wild by happenstance... or destiny.
I wouldn’t have even gone to the grove that day, but that was where the well was. And he might have been in the well.
I had heard stories of hauntings and strange lights in the night sky, but they were just old wives tales and I didn’t put much stock in them. Nevertheless, in the bright light of day, I explored the grove thoroughly.
Unable to find sign that any structure had ever been built there, I finally concluded that the well had been dug for the sole purpose of watering the grove, perhaps in its infancy. Who dug the well was beyond my scope of knowledge, though somehow I knew it was ancient.
I tied up my horse about a quarter of a mile down the little dirt track that ran along the forest’s edge. The well trained Appaloosa hated the grove and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make him go near it.
The sun sank below the horizon as I walked the distance to the grove. The first autumn leaves crackling faintly under my feet were the only sounds I heard. I passed quickly through the Aspens to the small clearing in the center.
Moss-covered blocks of granite made a wide ring around the well and grass grew right up to it, as though no one ever walked there. I scanned the ground as I crossed to the well. There were no footprints. With some trepidation I leaned over the rocky edge and cast my lantern light down on the water below. The black walls seemed to absorb the light and I had to lean uncomfortably far down to see that the surface of the water was unbroken.
I stood up and looked around. Twilight had set in and the darkened tops of the trees seemed hunched, their lower branches reaching down. I hurried outside, unwilling to admit that the haste in my steps had anything to do with the gathering gloom, but at the edge of the grove I paused and looked back.
In the daylight the grove was a place of some discomfort; in the gray-blue light of dusk, discomfort matured to dread. I felt that something was going to happen. Something bad. The .44 caliber pistol I wore on my side afforded little reassurance against my rising anxiety.
I made myself stand for a moment, fighting the absurd urge to bolt back to where my horse was tied, swing up into the well-oiled saddle and urge the old Appy into a full gallop. I reasoned with myself, berating myself for acting the fool. But the grove was not a reasonable place.
I walked away, stubbornly maintaining a deliberate stride. Seventy-five more feet and I would reach the dusty track down which my horse waited. Fifty feet. Forty feet. From the corner of my eye, I saw him, just for a second. He was gone in a flash, faster than any human could move.
I spun on one heel, but there was nothing there. Was it a trick of the light? An illusion brought on by my nervousness? Had the missing boy for whom I was searching actually been there and run off? Where could he have gone that quickly?
I was unable to answer any of these questions as I held my lantern high and looked about me. I saw no bent grass, no sign of any passage other than my own. I must have imagined it. As I turned again to leave, a high pitched giggle floated out from the trees. The maniacal undertones in the chilling sound touched something primal in me and at that point my desire to remain in control of my fear was overcome by the urge to run. I ran. Openly and unashamedly, I ran from the grove.
As I reached the dirt track my survival instinct was finally overwhelmed by my natural curiosity. I stopped and looked back. There was movement in the small clearing around the well. Something was circling the edge of the clearing, clockwise. It was moving so fast it was really just a blur. I had never seen anything like this. I doubted anyone had. As I watched, the streak seemed to increase its speed. It went around and around, reminding me of the carousel I had seen once at the state fair — but an out of control version.
The thing was moving so fast it was hard to tell where it ended, when a blinding light burst forth from the well. At the same moment came a sound like the crack of a hundred guns, then nothing. All went silent, still and dark.
That was the beginning. Or maybe the beginning came much earlier, eons earlier. I don’t know.
* * *
My dad was waiting on the porch when I pulled up in the yard.
“They found him.”
“What?” I asked, puzzled.
“They found the McFarland kid. You know? The one you’ve been a’ huntin’.” He narrowed his eyes. “You okay, boy? You look as if you’d seen a ghost. And you’ve been runnin’ that horse hard. What’d you do, run into a pack of injuns?” Dad laughed at that. It was 1939 and all the ‘injuns’ were long gone, living on reservations now. “Now I’ll tell you, boy, your old granddad, he had some injun stories, he — ”
“Uh, Dad?” At his sharp look, I apologized. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you, sir, I just...”
He gave me a worried look. “You just what, son?”
“I... just... I think something startled my horse, that’s all.” I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell him what I’d seen. “Where did they find the McFarland kid?”
“Oh, hell! Little fart fell asleep in the hay loft and then wouldn’t come out when they were yellin’ for ‘im! Afraid of a whuppin’ I expect. Needs a sight many more than what he gets is my opinion. You mark my word, that little hellion is gonna be mean as a rattler if someone don’t lay down some law over there. What are there, nine or ten of them kids? They run over their pa something fierce. Tell you what, I wouldn’t put up with that, no sirree! And I’ll tell you something else, I wouldn’t put up with that woman he has neither!”
I smiled and let Dad’s words wash over me as I climbed down from the saddle and loosened the cinch.
“You know what old Chad Withers said? I shouldn’t ought to repeat it, but he said that whole bunch of kids are bastards!” I shot a sideways glance at him. “Well, he said it. Old man McFarland and his wife aren’t married, no sir!”
“But Dad, I’m eighteen and ever since I can remember, they’ve lived together-”
“That don’t make no never mind. Man and woman gots to go to the preacher and do it right. I did! Your ma and me, we went. That could explain a lot...” He rubbed his chin. “I mean, living in sin, and all...”
“Who’s living in sin?” my mother asked as she stepped out on the porch.
Mother furrowed her brow. “Which ones?”
“The old man and the old woman!”
“Good God ‘a glory, Sherman, who said that? You didn’t say that did you? Good Lord, I hope not!”
“Well, if it’s true-”
She put her hands on her hips and said, “Sherman, it’s not true. I was at their wedding. They are from over in Lincoln County. They got married in Pastor Beisley’s church.”
“Are you sure? Because old Chad Withers said-”
“Chad Withers is plumb full of beans! I was young, but I think-”
“See! You don’t know!”
The conversation faded from my hearing as they went inside. I was left alone in the yard with the Appaloosa. I pulled the saddle off the big horse and led him to the barn. I flipped on the electric lights — a relatively new addition — and led the horse into a stall. Dad kept a radio in the barn, mostly for the noise, and I flipped it on before I rubbed down the horse.
The classical strains drifting softly from the speaker couldn’t distract my mind from what I’d seen. Should I tell my dad? No, he’d just think I’d been drinking, not that I was much on drinking, or that I’d gone plumb loco. I decided to keep it to myself, for now.
I finished up with the horse and closed up the barn. Outside in the yard, I stopped to listen to the night. I could hear the cows in their pasture and the faint voices of Mom and Dad still arguing over the legitimacy of the McFarland children. Underneath it all, I could still hear that giggle and all I could think about was the grove.
* * *
Days grew to weeks, weeks to months and months to years. I steered clear of the grove, though several times I thought to return. But for reasons I knew not, I did not. Then a darkness came upon the world, the kind of darkness that could only be spawned in the depths of men’s hearts.
World War II broke out. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, I knew I must leave Montana for places far away, perhaps never to return, except for burial. I sat alone on the porch one night, then Dad came out to join me. “Dad,” I said, as I looked out across our peaceful pastures, “I have to go.”
“I know, boy” he answered sadly. “I had to go, too, in my time. I was much younger than you.” He looked away for a long time, the planks under his rocking chair creaking gently, then spoke again. “You’ll see things... things that change a man. It’s always been that way, I guess.”
I spoke softly so Mom wouldn’t hear. “Dad, if I don’t make it back-”
“Don’t even think that way! You may not even get over there!”
“Dad, if I don’t get back, bury me in that grove of Aspens up on Thompson’s ridge.”
Dad stopped rocking and gave me a puzzled look. “Are you sure? I mean, that place...”
“Well, I would use another word, but if that’s your wish... Hell, it’s not even gonna come to that. You’re a fine woodsman and the best shot I know! I hate to admit it, but you’re better than me! You’ll do fine.”
“I hope so,” I said. “I hope so.”
We sat in silence for a moment, then I said, “Tomorrow I’m gonna go down and volunteer.”
Dad patted me on the shoulder then stood up and went in the house. In all my years that was the only time I saw him cry.
I sat for a moment longer, then went out to the barn and saddled the Appaloosa. I had to go back. We walked in darkness, the horse and I, but he seemed to know where we were going. For the first time he trotted all the way up to the grove.
I climbed down from the saddle, still unsure why I had come. I carried a battery powered flashlight, but the moon was bright so I left it off. Inside, the grove seemed brighter somehow. I looked around without knowing what I was looking for. I still felt uneasy, but there was a strange sense of comfort to the grove tonight. I stepped out into the clearing in the center. It may have been a trick of the light, but it seemed that a moonbeam shone directly onto a stool sized rock. I sat down on the rock. Nothing happened.
Above me, the moon shone impassively. I stared at it, knowing that however far I went, the moon would still be the same. Feeling silly, I spoke aloud, “I’m here. Show yourself.” Still, nothing happened. Perhaps I had imagined everything.
I sat for a long time, looking at the night. It was peaceful and calm, though a bit too quiet. As I rose to leave a movement to my right caught my eye. I reached for my flashlight, then decided not to disturb the night. I walked to my horse, picked up the reins and prepared to mount. A soft, warm breeze caressed my face and a voice behind me whispered, “You will return. I will see to it.” I spun around, and this time I used the flashlight. There was no one there.
I flipped off the light and climbed on my horse. “We will see,” I said. I turned the big horse toward home. I finally knew why I had gone to the grove. I had to overcome my fear.
That night was a beginning. I had a lot of fear to overcome and I was right about going far. I went all the way to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Ezra T. Gray