Levi and Victoria sat at the entrance to the woods and listened to the digging and conversational roar of the pirates. She shuddered with each clank of their shovels and bellow of their laughter. Levi pulled her close and sang a song to her from his time. She didn’t recognize the tune but it calmed her. Levi planned to wait until they finished and prayed God would show him the way.
He imagined at the rate time passed, the pirates would finish soon and then he could again begin his search. The digging lasted no more than minutes before it stopped and all lantern lights vanished. The sudden silence and darkness scared him more than the sounds of their echoing laughter. Levi stood and listened but heard nothing; no digging, no voices, not even the sound of the cicadas. The hair on his neck stood up as he stared into the blackness and he grew aware of how unusually dark it had become as though the moon had vanished. His heart raced and his increasing paranoia told him something unseen in the dark stared at him.
Erupting from the darkness a shrill, terrified scream punched Levi in the heart. Another followed and then another. Levi snatched Victoria, turned and tore through the branches. She cried and he covered her mouth with his hand. More screams of slaughter ripped the atmosphere. He ran beneath a giant Holly tree and lifted Victoria into the low hanging branches. He climbed next to her and guided her up, scraping and tearing his face along the way. He chose a Holly, despite the sharp leaves, because of its numerous, strong branches.
“Hold on to my hand!” he said panicked. “Don’t let go! It’s going to be okay.”
“What’s happening?” she cried.
“I don’t know but don’t let go.”
“Don’t leave me!” she pleaded as Levi climbed to a branch above her.
“I’m not leaving you honey. Just giving you room to climb. Take my hand and try to climb up next to me.”
“I think I can do it!” she replied with determination. “I can’t see your hand though.” She waved her hand back and forth hoping to grasp Levi’s but she saw nothing.
A shrill scream mere yards away rattled the darkness.
Victoria raced through the branches on her own to Levi until she grabbed his leg.
“Good Victoria. We need to go higher now. Do you think you can climb on your own? I won’t leave you behind, I promise. Reach out and feel for the branches in front of you!”
“Yes, I think I can.”
“Okay, I want you to go above me. Do you think you can? I will hold you steady so you don’t fall.”
She nodded “yes” which Levi couldn’t see and groped for the branches above her.
She and Levi climbed the tree as fast as Victoria managed while Levi remained below her in case she should fall.
“Is this high enough?” she whispered.
Another pirate cried out in terror and Victoria in response scrambled further until they clung near the top.
“That’s good enough Victoria,” Levi assured her. He reached into the darkness and groped for her leg.
“Is that you?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s me. I wanted to know exactly where you were. We have to be quiet now.”
Once they had climbed high enough above the ground they froze and tried their best to control their rapid breathing. Levi couldn’t see the branches or the ground for the darkness. Nothing stirred. He strained to listen but heard little over his loud breathing. All remained quiet like something had killed the forest. No mosquitoes buzzed, no bats chirped, no owls hooted, and the breeze did not breathe. All creatures, like Levi, feared to move or whisper.
A man at the bottom of Levi’s tree cried out for mercy but his scream diminished to a gurgle as his throat filled with blood. Victoria slapped her hand over her mouth to muffle her cries. Levi debated on whether to climb higher but he wouldn’t risk shaking the tree or dislodging a dead branch, so he held on and prayed that whatever killed the pirates would not discover them.
A silent flash of lightning illuminated the terrifying shadow of the storm woman floating above the pirate ship. She did not scream but Levi knew she caused the horror on the ground. A few more flashes woke the sky and Levi saw a few men trying to climb back aboard their ship but the vessel rocked above the trees as if a violent tempest hammered it. Two of the men fell from the ladder to the forest floor. Within seconds they cried out.
“Help me, Dear God help me! Please nooooo!” His voice expired.
Inside her home Doris Callis had moments ago turned on the infomercial and raced into her bedroom on legs barely strong enough to support the weight of a five year old. She had not moved so fast in ten years. Under her covers she crawled and trembled like a terrified child. She wanted her husband. He always comforted her on nights like this.
He removed his shotgun from his closet and sat on the edge of the bed with it pointed at their bedroom door until the sun rose. She laid there watching him as he smoked one cigarette after another. He never left her, never made her feel her safety wasn’t his number one priority.
She still pretended he sat at the edge of their bed protecting her as she shook beneath the protection of her sheets.
“Oh Father,” she prayed with her ancient, trembling voice, “please protect me. Please help me survive this night so I may one day live to find the answers I am looking for?”
Lightning burst around the ship and the sails snapped to attention but Levi felt no wind and heard no sound. The ship rolled and pitched as though tossed on a spoiled ocean and Levi witnessed its destruction through flash bulbs of brilliance. Men jumping overboard and within a few seconds Levi heard them crash through the branches and hit the ground. An unseen specter efficiently moved among them and finished off the remaining ghosts. Levi shook with each terrifying howl.
Skyward the ship fared no better. One of the masts had broken and dangled from its base along the ship’s side like a splintered toothpick. The boat began to roll and Levi heard more branches breaking as the dislodged pirates crashed through the trees.
A violent storm swallowed this ship after they had buried William and Mary. Doomed for their treachery, they experienced the same fate repeatedly above the woods.
The ship floated upside down and as it took on unseen water, it sunk beneath the sky and submerge into the woods. The boat did not plummet as did the men, rather its giant glowing mass of sculpted clouds sank like a flat pebble. A few seconds later it rested on the forest floor but it disturbed not a single leaf or pine cone. The vessel remained still for a moment before settling on its side in between flashes of lightning. This ghost ship suffering a ghost death instilled more awe, horror and fear than any occurrence thus far. He remained fixated on the doomed ship fearing that whatever killed its crew would soon find him but with one more flash the ship vanished. Levi scanned the sky and no longer saw the storm woman. He closed his eyes and whispered “thank you” to the Lord.
The moon reappeared and once again blessed the woods with its pale glow. An insect near Levi chirped and then another until the whole woods buzzed to life with the songs of its animals.
He heard nor saw signs of specters on the ground or in the trees around him and felt confident this frightening supernatural episode had ended. Despite the calming sounds of the insect orchestra, his heart still thumped in his ears. He had never heard such terror and pain. What happened to those men who fell to the ground? What force moved among them and carried such menace? Would it return to stalk Levi and Victoria or did only the pirates interest it? If the thing found the pirates in the pitch blackness, it could find Levi and Victoria clinging to the upper branches.
“Victoria,” he whispered but she did not answer.
He grabbed her leg which he now saw in the pale glow and gave it a little shake.
“Is it over?” she squeaked.
“I think so. Did you see it?”
“I didn’t open my eyes.”
“It was a sight.” Levi scanned the ground. “I think it is safe to go down now,” “Are you sure?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“Are you going to go down?” she asked.
“Yes, I think so,” he returned. “Do you want to wait another minute to make sure it is safe?”
“Okay, we’ll wait a couple of minutes and then we’ll go down okay?”
He put his hand over his heart and breathed in and out deeply. He closed his eyes and tried to think of pleasant, calming things but every thought that came to mind such as his wife’s embrace or a soft bed on which to lie, only made him more anxious, more desperate to leave the woods. He decided then to think of the Lord and picture himself and Victoria sitting in his hand as it floated through the trees. The Lord provided peace. The Lord bestowed protection. The more his confidence grew with this thought, the calmer he became until his heart slowed.
“You know you were pretty good climbing this tree. Did you used to climb trees?” Levi whispered.
“Sometimes. I was scared. That’s why I climbed so fast.”
“I was really scared too. I’m not sure I would be as brave as you at your age. I don’t know how you have handled all this scariness for so long.”
“How long has it been?” her eyes darted between Levi’s. “I can’t tell. Sometimes I fall asleep and when I wake up everything seems different, like I fell asleep for a long time.”
Levi frowned, feeling deeply sorry for her. “You have lived here for a long time honey but I’m going to send you to a great place where you’ll never be scared again.” He spoke his promise with more conviction this time. He started to believe more in himself.
She slapped a mosquito on her face. “Will there be mosquitoes there?” she groaned.
Levi smiled. “No, there won’t be any mosquitoes. There won’t be any pain or suffering.”
“Will I live in my old house again?”
“No, the Lord has prepared for you a mansion in which you can live. You will see soon enough. I think it will be greater than anything you have ever seen!”
“I can’t wait!”
“Then what do you say we get out of this tree and see what we can do about getting you out of these woods?”
They climbed down taking their time not to miss a branch and crash to the ground. His scratched face throbbed and itched in absence of the adrenalin.
His feet had barely touched the ground before he heard the hollow clang of a bell in the distance. At this point he would have ignored his curiosity and made his way towards the road but the sound unfortunately came from the road. The woods had depleted him physically and emotionally and the sound of yet another approaching phantom drained him further. He felt if he were a few years older the night would have done his heart in as it had poor Tom Pipken’s. As a result, he did not run. He had no desire to go deeper into the woods and even less to return to the beach and its dreadful occurrences. He thus decided to slump behind a tree and wait for the bells to pass. His decision carried risk. He didn’t know what drew near, but for some reason, the clanging of loud bells did not stir within him the same dread he had often experienced throughout the night. He would let the specter pass and once out of earshot, make his escape before more ghosts surfaced.
“I’ve heard that noise before,” Victoria said. “Those are cowbells.”
“Cowbells? Cows come through here?” He then remembered Doris making mention of it.
“Yes, but they won’t hurt you I don’t think. A man takes them through the woods.”
“What about this man; does he scare you?”
“No, he isn’t scary. I have never talked to him though.”
“I am too tired to run, Victoria. Do you think we will be okay if we sit behind this tree and wait for him to pass?”
Victoria shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. I’m tired too though.”
Levi sat next to the base of a large pine tree and cleared a place with his hand for Victoria to sit.
Levi pulled out his Bible and tried to separate the soggy pages.
“What book are you reading?” Victoria asked.
“It’s a Bible. Did your mom and dad ever bring one of these to church?”
Victoria nodded. “We didn’t go a whole lot though because the walk was far and father didn’t like walking through the woods early in the morning.”
“I understand,” Levi replied sympathetically. He imagined a trip through the early morning darkness may have brought surprises Victoria’s father did not want his family to encounter. The woods probably terrified him enough but more so when he had to think about the safety of his family. “It sounds like life in the woods wasn’t always fun.”
She shook her head.
“Would you like me to read some to you?”
“Sure!” she said with her face brightening.
He opened the Book of Joshua for no apparent reason and read the first chapter, stopping occasionally to take account of the cow bells’ approach. When he crossed a tough verse, he stopped and explained it to Victoria which she appreciated.
As he strained to read Chapter One under the moonlight he paused on verse nine and read it again. He sat up, cocked his ear to listen for the bells which did not sound so far off, and read the verse once more. “Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” He paused to absorb the comfort this passage provided during the most horrifying night he ever experienced. Every attempt he had made to exit the woods frustratingly ended with another ghostly encounter. Yet he had to be thankful he still lived. The numerous ghosts he had met thus far provided proof of all those who had died among the trees or on the beach but the Lord walked with him and protected him. He also had to be thankful for Victoria, the key to Levi’s purpose in all of this. He understood now the reason she had remained with him but his purpose still eluded him. He only knew Victoria was a part of it.
“Do you understand what this verse means?” he asked Victoria.
She frowned like an unprepared child called upon by the teacher, “Does it mean I don’t have to be afraid because God is always with me?”
“That’s exactly what it means! You are very bright!”
She beamed at his compliment.
He laid his head against the tree and yawned. He had been chased or on the run so often through the night, he did not realize how tired and hungry he had become.
“Are you sleepy?” she asked.
He rubbed his eyes and smiled. “Yes I am. I’ve been awake all night.”
“I don’t know how long I’ve been awake.”
“You’ll get your chance to sleep,” he replied and put his arm around her. “I promise.”
Despite the impending approach of a phantom, he yawned from fatigue. What a terrible and thrilling night! How could such a thing only happen to him? The idea others had entered on numerous occasions and hunted deer seemed reasonable considering the popularity of hunting in the county. These hunters likely too had seen ghosts unless their appearances were not as common as old locals in the area had proposed.
He did not have long to ponder his theory. He heard now not only the bells but also the crunch of the leaves and breaking branches as the phantom approached with heavy steps. The noise grew in strength and he knew they were almost upon him but he dared not look and reveal his position.
He half expected them to walk within feet of his tree but they came into view about ten yards to his left. A young man and his dog led a pair of cows through a narrow path in the woods. Where they headed Levi couldn’t assume but the man and his animals strolled through the woods as though he often walked the path.
“How many times have you seen him?” he whispered to Victoria.
“Only about four or five times but I don’t walk into the woods much. I wanted to see if he would help me but his dog always scared me.”
The dog paused and stared in Levi’s direction. Levi didn’t make a sound. He thought he heard the dog growling but he ignored him. After the dog fell behind a few yards, his owner whistled for him. The dog looked to his owner then to Levi and hesitated while contemplating what he should do. He took a step off the path towards Levi than chose to move on and not trouble himself with Levi’s presence. Levi waited and watched them meander down the path and around the pond. No ill came of them while he watched.
“Do you know where he goes?” Levi asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve only seen him going that way.” She pointed towards the pond. “I’ve never seen him going the other way. I tried to follow him once but his dog saw me and barked so I stopped and hid.”
“I don’t know why anyone leads cows through the woods at night. It seems odd to me.”
Victoria shrugged her shoulders. “Do you want to follow him, and find out where he goes?” her eyes widened with eagerness.
Levi did not know where else to look for answers so he consented. “Why not?”
She gave a little joyous clap.
“Do you want me to carry you?
“No thank you. My legs aren’t tired. But if the dog chases me then yes I won’t mind if you carry me.”
“You can hold my hand though,” she suggested and held it up for him.
“I’d be happy too.” He took her hand and they walked after the new ghost.
“Can we skip?” she asked.
Levi laughed once more. “After all we’ve endured you are in the mood to skip?”
“Yes. We don’t have to be afraid anymore do we? God is with us.”
“Yes, that is true but we must be careful not to test God,” he cautioned. “God doesn’t want us to be dumb in how we do things because we think he will save us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well there are still things that can hurt us. For instance, we climbed out of our tree, right? We didn’t jump because we knew we would get hurt. If we jumped and said, ‘I won’t get hurt because God will save me’ then we are testing God. You wouldn’t stick your hand in a fire even though you believe in God, right?”
“No,” she answered.
“Neither would I. If I got burnt that wouldn’t be God’s fault. He didn’t make me get burnt. My foolishness burnt me but God has given me the ability to learn so I don’t make careless mistakes. He gives us our wits and our abilities to avoid harm. He didn’t scoop us up and put us in the tree did he?”
“But he did make it so we climb the tree away from danger right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And maybe the darkness though a problem for us blessed us as well. It kept us hidden from the specter or maybe something else protected us, but whatever, we are still okay.”
“See we have to learn things on our own,” he continued. “We aren’t puppets God will swoop in and save whenever we put ourselves in danger. We don’t honor him through hurting ourselves. He gave us life and he wants us to do our best to take care of it.”
“I guess I understand.”
“Okay, good. If you don’t, let me know.”
“So you’re saying we shouldn’t skip and let the man know we’re coming.”
“Exactly!” he replied impressed. “You really are smart. Maybe after we talk to him, we can skip back.”
“But we do need to move a little quicker if we’re going to catch him so let’s try to walk faster.” Levi increased the pace and swung Victoria’s hand up and down. She giggled and swung his hand in the same manner.
“Okay, okay, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten you started,” he said with a smile, “we have to be quiet now.” He understood their need to be stealthy but he felt he needed to allow Victoria a little fun. She had endured so much loneliness and misery over the years that he wanted to inject a little bit of happiness into her life.
As she swung Levi’s arm with her left hand, Levi noticed she maintained her hold on the daffodils he had picked for her.
“Did you carry the flowers up the tree with you?” he asked.
“Yes. I put them in my mouth so I could use both hands,” she replied with a smile.
“Those flowers are important to you, huh?”
“My dad picked me flowers before he left. He laid them on my pillow next to me before I woke.”
“So the flowers remind you of your dad?” Levi concluded.
“I guess. I guess they remind me of my dad and my mom.” She held up the flowers. “I pretend each flower is a part of my family. This big one is my dad. This one is my mom and this one is me. I don’t want to lose any of the flowers.”
They rounded the end of the pond to the other side of the murky water for the first time that evening. Small frogs hopped from the edge and disappeared with a tiny splash beneath the surface as they approached.
“Yes, I see them. Let’s not be too loud okay,” Levi whispered.
“Oh, I forgot. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It is neat to see frogs. Especially when they look like a family playing.”
“I didn’t have brothers.” She hung her head. “My mom had another baby but he died when he was little.”
“Oh no, I’m really sorry to hear that.”
“Me too. I wanted to have someone to play with. My mommy couldn’t have children after he died.”
“Yes, that happens sometimes. I’m sure your mommy was sad.”
“My father too. I think he wanted a boy.”
“Some dads want boys especially when they already have a girl,” Levi replied. “I’m sure he loved you very much!”
“He did,” she replied with no doubt in her voice. “Do you want boys?”
“A boy or a girl would make me happy although I’m not sure I can afford either one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well I don’t have enough money to get all the things a little baby needs.” Levi thought of all Victoria didn’t have and how he could easily afford a child if his families’ demands were no greater than Victoria’s. She wore the same dress over and over and yet he and his wife had numerous outfits so they could wear something different every day of the week. Victoria held her greatest treasure, three flowers she had picked for free. What treasures did he and his family seek: a larger house, a better car, a bigger tv? All those things cost thousands and in the end they would hold them no dearer than Victoria held her free flowers.
“When my dad left, my mom and I didn’t have much money either. She wanted to buy me new shoes but couldn’t.”
Levi eyed her bare, dirty feet as she walked through the pine straw and prickly holly leaves and gave thanks for his good fortune. His family had a house, heat, food, clothing, electricity; all the essential necessities this girl could not dream of having and yet he worried constantly because he could not provide all the extras. He consistently compared himself with those around him, those who had obtained or achieved more in life than he, and because he did this, a sense of inadequacy poisoned him. If he focused more on what he already had, he might feel more fulfilled.
“Would you like me to carry you now?”
She didn’t reply. She pointed straight ahead.
Levi followed her finger and saw two cows standing alone about fifty feet ahead of them.
Levi picked Victoria up and held her close. He spun looking for the young man and his dog. They stood behind him and stared at Levi and Victoria. Obviously, the man heard them coming and hid but the open way Levi and Victoria walked gave the man no cause to accuse them of trying to sneak up on him.
“Hello,” Levi said.
“Hello,” the man answered. Acne spotted his cheeks and a soft stubble grew from his chin. He wore denim pants and a checkered, collared shirt which hung un-tucked over his waist. His eyes darted between Levi and Victoria.
“I am Levi and this is Victoria.”
“I’m his daughter,” Victoria said proudly, maintaining the charade started earlier with Tom Pipken.
“Yes,” Levi agreed with a laugh as he set her down. “Your dog is nice?” Levi asked.
“Oh yes,” the young man said petting his dog and relaxing a little. “He won’t bother you.”
“We were walking through the woods and heard your cow bells so we thought we would take a walk to see what was making all the noise.”
“Those are my momma’s cows. I’m bringing them back from grazing in the fields. My momma does not have suitable pasture for them near her home.”
Levi nodded his head. “I see. Well we had never heard cows in the woods before so we were curious.”
“We live in the old house over there,” Victoria said.
The man turned. “Which old house? The only house I know of is the Old Haunted House at the other end that no one lives in.”
Victoria frowned in her confusion.
“What she means is,” Levi explained trying to cover, “is we live in an old house outside of the woods. We don’t live in Old House Woods.” Levi put his hand on Victoria’s head and stroked her hair.
“Ahhh,” he replied.
“May she pet your dog?” Levi asked trying to change the subject.
“Oh sure, he likes people!”
“Do you want to pet him Victoria?”
She smiled and nodded then strolled up to the dog. The dog took a step back and bowed his head as she approached but she bent down to ease his concern and the dog immediately trotted to her with his head lowered and tail wagging. She giggled and clapped her hands in front. He fell over and bared his stomach.
“He likes his tummy rubbed.” The young man blushed, embarrassed by his dog’s solicitation.
Victoria scratched the dog’s stomach and he kicked his leg. When she stopped, he stared at her with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, then flipped over and licked her on the face.
“Ew!” she giggled and pushed him.
“Okay Jasper,” the young man said and pulled him back a little.
Victoria stood and clapped her hands for the dog to come to her. The dog ran with his tail swishing and put his front paws on her dress. She struggled but laughed as she held him upright.
Levi enjoyed watching her have so much fun.
“Will there be dogs in heaven?” she turned and asked Levi.
The young man smirked.
“Yes, there will be honey.”
“Well let’s hope none of us get there too soon,” the young man said smiling.
Victoria who eagerly wished to go frowned at what she thought to be a strange statement.
“Well I need to get going and get the cows into the barnyard before my momma sends a search party looking for me.”
“Of course. Nice meeting you.”
Victoria pet the dog one final time. “Good-bye Jasper,” she waved.
“C’mon boy,” the young man called and ran over to his cows. The dog pranced after him with tail high in the air. Levi watched him lead the cows through the woods until he disappeared but he never witnessed anything bad happen to him and he couldn’t figure why he, the dog, and the cattle still lingered.