The Story of Old House Woods
“No one knows much about the ghosts or at least, as with most ghost stories, we all only guess as to why they are there.”
“I’ve read a few stories in local ghost books and on the Web,” Barnaby interrupted.
She looked puzzled at this comment and Barnaby assumed she knew nothing of the Web or any of the past twenty years’ technological advancements.
She blinked away her confusion and continued on, dismissing his comment. “I’ve probably read the same stories, but all are based on old newspaper articles and the sightings of an old Mathews’ man who once lived near here. Reporters wrote the last of those articles in the late 50’s and every tale you read will have more or less the same information based on the accounts in those stories. If any reporters ever came knocking on my door, I could give them many pages of new material!” she huffed.
She crossed her arms, insulted no one ever bothered to speak with her. Barnaby knew why no one bothered. Her house’s unwelcoming appearance would dissuade the casual observer from believing anyone inhabited it or perhaps they feared her gaze would turn them to stone.
“Perhaps they did come by, and your dog ate them,” he joked.
Without missing a beat or even smiling, “Well maybe that would explain where those bones he gnawed on came from.”
Barnaby’s smile faded.
“You probably know the woods are named for an old house that once stood inside,” she continued. “The house caught on fire once and supposedly put itself out but those things can happen. It caught fire a second time and burned down to the foundation. I don’t know anymore about the house, but it is unimportant. The ghosts have existed in the woods long before the house went up and I would imagine whoever lived in that home got quite a startle when they saw their first one.” Her eyes sparked with the thought.
She smiled for a moment at this notion and looked like someone does when they daydream of being rich. “I don’t know what the oldest ghost is, but I’ve seen old soldiers. Like the Spanish I believe, from the time when Spanish, English and French first explored the east coast. The Spanish are probably the likely origin for the potential of treasure to be found in the woods.”
At the sound of “treasure” Barnaby shifted towards her.
“Ahhh, so it is the treasure you’re after,” she said with an old, sly smile that would have appeared playful coming from a younger woman but looked more creepy coming from her withered face. “People are always looking for the treasure. The ones who believe in it at least.”
“I’m looking for an interesting story and the talk of treasure, like ghosts instills fascination in most people. I don’t believe in buried treasure either but it makes for a good read and I try to write about what I think people will want to read,” Barnaby explained.
“You write books?”
“I write though I’ve never been published,” he responded frowning. “I need a good story and this one,” he pointed to the woods, “is pretty much in my back yard.”
She continued, not pausing to show the slightest interest in his dream occupation. “I saw the first ghost about thirty years ago which would still be about 20 years after the last written article on this place and I’ve been seeing them regularly since then.”
“I was looking out my window here at the road because kids had been driving up and down it all night, going to the beach obviously to neck.”
Barnaby smiled. He had not heard anyone use the word “neck” to describe making out since his great aunt passed away.
“Back then, the woods ran much closer to the road. The trees had not been cleared away from the power lines like they have today. A car had just passed and when it did, I noticed standing on the other side of the road, next to the woods, a man. He wore armor and carried a gun over his shoulder but the gun and armor were both old.
“I looked the armor up in books. He had to be a Spanish soldier. Initially I thought a teenager was playing in the woods. I watched him walk down the road towards the beach and disappear from sight around the bend. As long as he wasn’t bothering me, I was fine, but I locked my doors anyway.”
“A few minutes later while filling a pitcher of lemonade in the kitchen,” she paused for a moment and pondered. “Can you believe I can remember that?” she asked smiling as though this were the most interesting part of her story.
Barnaby, having a closer view, could see that if her teeth were even still the color of lemonade, she would be doing well compared to their current state.
“I guess I would remember everything I was doing the first time I saw a ghost too,” he suggested.
“Maybe,” she said, then sighed and looked off down the road. “I can’t even remember what my husband and I ate at our wedding but I can remember drinking lemonade when I saw my first ghost.”
A smile began to form and Barnaby could tell the thought of her husband instilled a good deal of emotion in this woman. Given the condition of her home Barnaby deducted he no longer lived with her or lived at all. Curious as to what happened to him but not wishing to side-track her with a stroll down old woman memory lane, he resisted asking any questions regarding his whereabouts.
“When did you first figure out it was a ghost?”
She shot him a glance, annoyed his interest in her husband did not equal his interest in ghosts. A moment past and her face softened. “A few minutes later when I made the lemonade I saw another soldier in the same spot along the edge of the woods once again walking towards the beach. Then I realized he was the same person from earlier, so I went out on my porch and called to him. ‘Are you lost?’ He turned and started toward me with a wave. ‘Is this the King’s highway, I’ve lost my ship?’ he asked. I had no idea what he was talking about but I never forgot his words.
As he came closer I could see he looked different than any man I’d ever seen,” the old woman looked to Barnaby with wild eyes, and he wondered if she wasn’t embellishing her emotions for added effect. “He had pale skin and you could see the darkness of his bones moving underneath. The sight might make a weaker woman vomit. My husband compared it to seeing fruit inside a gelatin mold. I could not tell you why he looked so but I don’t think any living man could move about in such a condition. The armor alone is enough to make you wonder whether or not he was real, but when you can also see a man’s bones through his skin, then you’ve encountered a person who doesn’t belong here. ”
“Your husband saw him too?”
“A year after I did give or take a month. He and Aries saw him while walking at night. My husband jumped into the ditch and watched him walk by. Aries sat next to him and trembled. Our dog barked at anyone and everything. If a pine cone fell in the woods he barked for five minutes but when that man came strolling towards them in the dark he didn’t even utter a growl. He had never doubted the story I told him and when he saw the man coming he hid quickly. The man carried a sword he said and it scraped along the road as he walked. My husband didn’t move until the man was long gone.”
Barnaby thought about the incredibleness of her story and wondered if this woman possessed the imagination to make up such a tale. Could she be telling the truth? The stories he had read did mention a specter searching for the King’s Highway. If so the possibility of such a being wandering this road at night chilled him.
“I read of a similar account in regards at least to a ghost looking for the King’s Highway,” Barnaby added.
“I have as well but what you don’t know is that a few hours after he disappears around the bend in the road,” she pointed towards the beach, “he reappears at the beginning and starts on his walk toward the beach once more. I saw him walk down the road two more times after my first encounter with him but he’s only heading toward the beach. You never see him make his walk back down this way.”
“Interesting,” Barnaby remarked. He hadn’t heard this portion of the tale. Most likely anyone who saw the specter ran in fear. According to the newspaper article Barnaby read, a phantom approached a man changing his flat tire and asked, “Is this the King’s Highway? I’ve lost my ship.” The man fled in fear at the sight of a skeletal figure in armor but the story made no mention of whether anyone believed him or not.
“Do you see him every night?” Barnaby asked.
“No. I can’t figure why he shows up or at what hour. I have seen him two nights in a row before and I have also gone a whole year without a sign of him. I have seen him at full moon and new moon, on rainy nights and clear nights at 10:00 and 3:00. I don’t know what makes him show up,” she threw her arms in the air and the loose skin wobbled.
“You read these other ghost tales and they marvel about one ghost wandering a highway or train track but that Spanish soldier isn’t alone. I have walked these roads at night with my dog and for an animal as big as a bear he would tremble over seemingly nothing. We never met a stranger on this road that he would back down from but certain times he would lower his back and cower. I’m sure he saw something I couldn’t.”
“Animals often have a sense for those things,” Barnaby agreed. “There is a tale about a young man riding his horse to town past the woods. He said his horse refused to walk past them and at that moment the trees came to life with glowing lights. A man approached him in the dark, the horse reared back and the next thing he remembered was his family’s faces peering down at him after he woke in bed.”
She nodded. “I would dissuade anyone from going in to follow their greed, curiosity, or whatever else overtakes them,” she stated like a principal speaking down to her students.
“May I ask why then you live next to the woods?
She sighed and as the air left her body she looked even smaller and frailer then before. “Because I want to go nowhere else. This is my home and I have found nothing from the woods crosses the road to this side. Besides if I left, who would feed my wasps?”
She smiled again, this time showing off all her teeth which looked as “seasoned” as her house and body. Barnaby guessed the moment she died the house would collapse into rubble as though they shared a spiritual connection.
“What do you mean nothing in there crosses the road to this side?”
“Nothing dead is what I meant. They can’t leave the woods. I don’t know why. The boundaries trap them and the road it seems is the boundary.”
“How do you know that?”
The old woman frowned, a little detested because Barnaby would not take her word for it. “Because my dog Aries saw the Spaniard one night, gathered his courage and barked at him so loudly that he got the spook’s attention. He came to cross the road but made it no more than half-way before he vanished. I saw the whole thing from my window. Strangest thing I ever saw other than the Spaniard himself of course.”
“He just vanished?”
“Yes!” the woman snapped, insulted by his in-credulousness. “Poor Aries didn’t know what to do with him self after that. One second the ghost stood a few feet from him, the next he had vanished. I think Aries wanted more of a confrontation or perhaps he just pretended so.” She grinned at the memory of her dog.
“I have seen other things in the woods late at night wandering around, shadows and lights but they never leave. I don’t think they can. I’m sure of it in fact.”
The road as a boundary made sense to Barnaby. Why else would a ghost linger in one place unless they were bound to it? Why or how Barnaby could not determine though he would make a sensible guess for his story’s sake. What would make a ghost go away he wondered? What would free them from such a task as forever searching for a ship or in the case of the West Point ghost, their head along the train track? If even possible, would returning the head or providing a ship to these ghosts set them free?
“Have you seen anything else?”
“Lights, lots of lights in the woods on certain nights, and the sounds of breaking branches like people walking through. Occasionally you will hear people running and the noise rattles you because it sounds like they are chased or chasing someone. What a ghost would run from or what motivation it would have to chase something worries me.”
Barnaby didn’t respond. The thought of spirits fleeing in those woods left him uneasy. “Probably just scared teenagers,” Barnaby suggested.
“That would be easier to deal with. You’ve heard of the pirate ship I suppose,” she asked eyeing him.
“Yes. It comes up Whites creek, hovers above the trees, and they say you could hear men disembarking from the ship and begin digging in the woods. Of course the speculation is they are digging for their treasure but I’ve read pirates didn’t bury their treasure. That’s a wives tale. Did you know that?”
“Well Aries used to bury bones in the yard all the time but for what reason I didn’t know. I’m not a dog so I figured he had motives. Why a pirate would bother burying treasure and come back for it later never made sense to me. Why loot and plunder, only to bury your treasure in a place you might not likely find again?”
“That’s right!” Barnaby exclaimed. She was old, feeble, and unconcerned with her gross appearance, but she possessed a degree of intelligence or at least common sense. “Pirates spent their money quickly considering the dangerous life they led. They didn’t have so much money lying around that they could bury it here and there.”
She nodded and sighed with a gurgling noise. “So you think no treasure is in there?”
“Well who’s to say?” he answered. “Certainly not me, but it’s probably not pirate treasure if any exists. Spanish treasure as you said is more probable or maybe war funding for the revolution,” he speculated thinking about British soldiers running through the woods but he couldn’t conjure why they would bother to bury treasure. “Have you ever seen a pirate ship?”
She shook her head, “I’m on the wrong side of the woods. Whites creek is down the road towards the beach though with erosion I can’t imagine it’s much of a creek anymore. I haven’t walked to the beach in years you see. Twice I have seen a faint glow in the woods at night and heard the clank of their chain when they drop anchor. It is louder than it should be. The chilling sound echoes throughout the whole woods. When you hear that sound I reckon if there was ever a time to steer clear, that would be the time to do it. I’m sure pirates are right possessive of their gold.”
She leaned towards him and spoke like his grandmother. “Don’t go into the woods looking for treasure or even a story! Ghosts from every era wander through those trees and I’m fearful for why that might be.”
She looked at the woods and began to rock. The handles on her chair popped out of the spokes each time she leaned back then fell right into place when she came forward again. He was surprised her legs had even the strength to push her. She was so old he could see her speckled scalp through her snowy hair. She did not smell nor could he detect a foul odor coming from her home which he expected due to her and its unkempt appearance. She looked ninety years old and her house appeared as though it had cancer, but her insightful conversation indicated her mind still fired.
“Have you heard of Tom Pipken?” Barnaby asked recalling the name of a treasure hunter mentioned in one of his articles.
“Before my time, but yes. No one has seen him since he went in looking for treasure. His boat and a couple of gold coins were all they found. Why anyone would bother going in after he vanished is beyond me.”
“Perhaps he fell off his boat and drowned. His disappearance could be unrelated,” Barnaby proposed. He didn’t want to jump to supernatural conclusions. “What about the storm woman or little witches in the woods?”
“Boulderdash!” she snorted. “Drunks who used to wander along the beach hoping to see ghosts make up those stories. Hell, people around here have called me a witch once or twice in my time!”
Barnaby raised his eyebrows in mock surprise.
“Even scared a couple of kids one night when they saw me standing near the edge of the road. Aries had run in after something and I went calling after him. A car came around the bend and when their lights hit me they took off as fast as they could go.”
Barnaby considered this. He too probably would be scared if he rounded the corner at night and saw her spindly body staring at him from the road’s edge.
A minivan passed on its way to the public beach kicking up dust as it went. In the back children leaned forward in their seats with towels in hand, anxious to get in the water.
Barnaby looked to the woods, “What is in there do you suppose? Why these woods?”
“I couldn’t tell you. Spanish, English, pirates, and even cattle from what I understand. Dead, all of them! Why can’t they leave and what brought them all to this place? I know men who have gone in during the day and even for a brief period at night, but none have made it all the way through. Too scared I suppose.”
“Have you ever gone in?”
She shook her head with vigor. “Never have and never will! The edge of the woods is as close as I ever got!”
“It does not look so threatening to me.”
“Of course not! The day is warm and sunny. Families are on their way to the beach and you have my friendly company,” she joked. “What happens though when it’s dark, the beach is abandoned and you’re all alone? You’ll start to hear the wind whistle and the trees moan. Suddenly a branch snaps behind you and up ahead a gloomy light moves to where you stand. How strong will your courage be then?”
“You have a point,” he conceded. Everything did look rosier in the light of day but at this moment, with this challenge facing him, he felt the courage building. He felt the trees could not be so scary. He possessed intelligence, athleticism, and courage; why couldn’t he last the night when so many others had fled?
“What is the Kings highway?” he asked. “The Ghost on this road keeps looking for the King’s highway.”
The old woman shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know but I wish he’d find his ship and get the hell out of here!”
Barnaby laughed out loud which earlier, when entertaining the prospect of sitting with this woman, he would have thought unlikely.
“Why do you stay here? Do you not have any family you can live with?”
“I stay so I can remember my husband. I’m ninety-two years old. I’ll die soon enough and be rid of the woods.”
“I guess your husband has passed away?”
She remained expressionless for a while before nodding. “Yes, and on some nights I swear I can see him wandering near the edge of the woods.”