Barnaby 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. Barnaby pulled her close and sang a song to her from his time. She didn’t recognize the tune but it calmed her. Barnaby planned to wait until they were done and then make his way back through the woods but towards what he didn’t know. He prayed God would reveal to him the answers.
He imagined at the rate time passed, the pirates would soon be done 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 flickering glow of their ghostly lights and sounds of their echoing laughter. Barnaby stood and listened but could hear 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 back at him.
Erupting from the darkness a shrill, terrified scream punched Barnaby in the heart. Another followed and then another. Barnaby snatched Victoria, turned and tore through the branches. She cried and he covered her mouth with his hand. More screams ripped through the night and Barnaby knew someone was killing the pirates. He ran beneath a giant Holly tree and lifted Victoria into the low hanging branches. He climbed next to her and began guiding her up through its tight branches, 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 Barnaby began climbing 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 Barnaby’s but she could see nothing.
A shrill scream, not very far off shot through the darkness.
Victoria began racing up the branches on her own to Barnaby 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 do that? I will hold you steady so you don’t fall.”
She nodded “yes” which Barnaby couldn’t see and began groping for the branches above her.
She and Barnaby climbed up the tree as fast as Victoria could go while Barnaby remained below her in case she should fall.
“Is this high enough?” she whispered down.
Another pirate cried out in terror and Victoria in response scrambled further until they were near the top.
“That’s good enough Victoria,” Barnaby said. 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. The sky was so black Barnaby couldn’t see the branches in front of him and because he couldn’t see the ground, he didn’t know how high up they clung. Nothing stirred. He strained to listen but heard little over his loud breathing. Many minutes past and all remained quiet like something had killed the forest and everything in it. No mosquitoes buzzed, no bats chirped, no owls hooted, and the breeze did not breathe. All creatures, like Barnaby, were too frightened to move or whisper.
A scream below ripped the air and he gripped the tree in fear. Victoria slapped her hand over her mouth to muffle her cries. The scream lasted only a second as though a man, who decided to hide behind the very same tree was struck down and ended quickly. Barnaby debated on whether to climb higher but he couldn’t risk shaking the tree or dislodging a dead branch, so he held on and prayed that whatever was killing the pirates would not discover them.
He looked skyward. A silent flash of lightning illuminated the terrifying shadow of the storm woman floating above the pirate ship. She did not scream but Barnaby knew she caused the horror on the ground. A few more flashes woke the sky and Barnaby 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 back to the forest floor. Within seconds Barnaby could hear their gut wrenching screams.
“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 would remove his shotgun from his closet and sit on the edge of the bed with it pointed at their bedroom door until the sun rose. She would lay there watching him as he smoked one cigarette after another but he never left her, never made her feel her safety wasn’t his number one priority.
He was gone but 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 to 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 Barnaby felt no wind and heard no sound. The ship rolled and pitched as though tossed by a spoiled ocean and Barnaby witnessed its destruction through flash bulbs of brilliance. Men began jumping overboard and within a few seconds Barnaby could hear them crash through the branches and hit the ground. An unseen specter efficiently moved among them and finished off any ghosts still alive. Barnaby 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 Barnaby could hear the sounds of 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 began to sink beneath the sky and submerge into the woods. The boat did not plummet as did the men, rather for what unknown supernatural reason, it sank slowly like a flat pebble through the trees as a giant glowing mass of sculpted clouds. A number of seconds later it came to rest on the forest floor but it disturbed not a single leaf or pine cone. The vessel remained still for a moment and Barnaby watched it settle on its side in between flashes of lightning. No thunder or sound of any kind existed. This ghost ship suffering a ghost death was the most awe-inspiring occurrence he had seen all night and it instilled within him, horror and fear. He remained fixated on the doomed ship fearing that whatever killed its crew would soon find him until one more flash revealed the ship was present no more. Barnaby looked above and could no longer see 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 Barnaby began to chirp and then another until the whole woods buzzed back to life with the songs of its animals.
He heard no saw signs of any specter on the ground or in the trees around him and Barnaby was 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 could move among them and carry with it such menace? Would it return to stalk Barnaby and Victoria or was it interested only in the pirates. If the thing could find the pirates in the pitch blackness than it may be safe to assume it also saw Barnaby and Victoria clinging to the upper branches but yet it did not attack them.
“Victoria,” he whispered but she did not answer.
He reached up and grabbed her leg which he could now see in the pale glow and gave it a little shake.
“Is it over?” she whispered back.
“I think so. Did you see it?”
“I didn’t open my eyes.”
“It was a sight.” Barnaby scanned the ground again and looked about as far as he could.
“I think it is safe to go down now,” he said.
“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 would give him peace. The Lord would protect them. 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?” Barnaby whispered.
“Sometimes. I was scared. That’s why I climbed so fast.”
“That’s okay. I was really scared too. I’m not sure I would be as brave as you if we were the same age. I don’t know how you have handled all this scariness for so long.”
“How long has it been?” her eyes darted between Barnaby’s. “I can’t tell. Sometimes I fall asleep and when I wake up everything seems different, like I fell asleep for a very long time.”
Barnaby frowned, feeling deeply sorry for her. “You have lived here for a very 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 was starting to believe more in himself.
She slapped a mosquito on her face. “Will there be mosquitoes there?” she groaned.
Barnaby smiled. “No, there won’t be any mosquitoes. There won’t be any pain or suffering of any kind.”
“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. The adrenaline started to wear off and his scratched face began to throb and itch.
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’s direction. 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 go back to the beach that would remind him of all the deaths he had witnessed. He thus decided to slump down behind a tree and wait for the bells to pass. It was a risky play. 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 through out the night. He would let the specter pass and once out of earshot he would make his escape before more ghosts reappeared.
“I’ve heard that noise before,” Victoria said. “It comes from cow bells.”
“Cowbells? There are cows that 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 doesn’t seem 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.”
Barnaby sat down next to the base of a large pine tree and cleared a place with his hand for Victoria to sit down.
Barnaby pulled out his Bible and flipped through the soggy pages. They were clumped together and difficult to separate.
“What book is that?” 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 dad didn’t like walking through the woods early in the morning.”
“I understand,” Barnaby 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 very fun.”
She shook her head.
“Would you like me to read some to you?”
“Sure!” she said with her face brightening.
He was uncertain why, but he stopped in the Book of Joshua and began reading the first chapter, stopping every so often to take account of the cow bells’ approach. Every now and then when he came across a tough verse, he stopped and explained it to Victoria which she appreciated.
As he strained to read Chapter One by 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 very 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 stopped on this passage and went no further. He felt it was not mere coincidence he should discover this verse in the midst of the most horrifying night he would ever experience. 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 were 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. She was the key to Barnaby’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 on by the teacher, “Does it mean I don’t have to be afraid because God is always with me?”
Barnaby smiled, “That’s exactly what it means! You are very bright!”
She beamed at his compliment.
He laid his head back 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 found that he was still bored enough to yawn, funny. What a terrible and thrilling night he thought. How could such a thing only happen to him? There was a hunting blind in the woods and the idea others had entered on numerous occasions and hunted deer seemed reasonable since hunting was popular within the county. These hunters likely too had seen ghosts unless their appearances were not as common as old locals in the area had proposed. Could coincidence have thrust Barnaby into the woods on an unusually active night?
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 could tell 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 actually came into view about ten yards to his left. A young man and his dog were leading a pair of cows through a narrow path in the woods. Where they were going Barnaby couldn’t assume but the man and his animals looked natural strolling through the woods as though it were a stroll they had taken many times.
“How many times have you seen him?” he whispered to Victoria.
“Only about four or five times but I don’t come into the woods much. I wanted to talk to him to see if he could help me but his dog always scared me.”
The dog paused and looked in Barnaby’s direction. Barnaby did not move his head or make any 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 than back at Barnaby and hesitated deciding on what he should do. He took a step off the path towards Barnaby than chose to move on and not trouble himself with Barnaby’s presence. Barnaby waited and watched them meander down the path and around the pond. Why they were there or how they died he couldn’t speculate. No ill seemed to come of them while he watched.
“Do you know where he goes?” Barnaby 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 would lead 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 were wide with eagerness.
Barnaby did not know where else to look for answers so he too shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose we could.”
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 said holding it up for him.
“I’d be happy too.” He took her hand and they began to walk after the new ghost.
“Can we skip?” she asked.
Barnaby 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 very 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 from the top because we knew we would get hurt. If we jumped from the top and said, ‘I won’t get hurt because God will save me’ then that is 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 would it? He didn’t make me get burnt. I got burnt by being foolish 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 get away from harm. He didn’t scoop us up and put us in the tree did he?”
“But he did make it so we could get up in the tree and we were safe in it 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 it was, 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 by 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.” Barnaby picked up the pace and swung Victoria’s hand up and down. She began to giggle 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 back into her life. He wanted to take away the image of the cold little girl who sat in front of her worn down house, crying.
As she swung Barnaby’s arm with her left hand, Barnaby 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 and held them up for Barnaby to see.
“Those flowers are important to you, huh?”
“My dad picked me flowers before he left. He would lay them on my pillow and when I woke up they would be next to me.”
“So the flowers remind you of your dad?” Barnaby concluded.
“I guess. I guess they remind me of my dad and my mom.” She held the flowers up again. “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 and Barnaby realized this was the first time all evening he had circled to the other side of the murky water. Small frogs hopped from the edge and disappeared with a tiny splash beneath the surface as they approached.
“Look, frogs!” Victoria exclaimed.
“Yes, I see them,” Barnaby replied. “Let’s not be too loud okay,” he 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 any brothers.” She hung her head. “My mom almost 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 anymore after he died.”
“Yes, that happens sometimes. I’m sure your mommy was very sad.”
“So was my dad. I think he wanted a boy.”
“Some dads want boys especially when they already have a girl,” Barnaby replied. “I’m sure he loved you very much though.”
“He did,” she replied with no doubt in her voice. “Do you want boys?”
“Right now it really wouldn’t matter to me. My wife and I haven’t been able to have children. A boy or a girl would make me very 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.” Barnaby thought of all Victoria didn’t have and how he would easily be able to afford another child if his families’ demands were no greater than this small child’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’s greatest treasure was three flowers which one could pick 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.”
Barnaby looked at her bare, dirty feet sympathetically as she walked through the pine straw and prickly holly leaves and gave thanks to 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, he felt inadequate. If he focused more on what he already had, he might feel more fulfilled.
“Thankfully I probably could afford shoes,” he replied feeling a bit ungrateful. “Would you like me to carry you now?”
She didn’t reply. She pointed straight ahead.
Barnaby followed her finger and saw two cows standing alone about fifty feet ahead of them.
Barnaby picked Victoria up and held her close. He spun looking for the young man and his dog.
They stood behind him on the path and stared at Barnaby and Victoria. Obviously the man heard them coming and hid but since Barnaby and Victoria were not extraordinarily quiet, he knew the man couldn’t accuse them of trying to sneak up on him.
“Hello,” Barnaby said.
“Hello,” the young man answered. Acne spotted his cheeks and a soft stubble grew from his chin. Barnaby guessed he probably wasn’t more than twenty. He wore denim pants and a checkered, collared shirt which hung un-tucked over his waist. He wore a look of concern.
“I am Barnaby and this is Victoria.”
“I’m his daughter,” Victoria said proudly keeping up with the charade that Barnaby had started earlier when he told Tom Pipken Victoria was his child.
“Yes,” Barnaby agreed with a laugh as he set her down. “Your dog is nice?” Barnaby 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.”
Barnaby 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 and looked in the direction of where Victoria pointed.
“Which old house? The only house I know of is the Old House at the other end that no one lives in and that is haunted if you didn’t know already.”
This time Victoria looked confused.
“What she means is,” Barnaby explained trying to cover, “is we live in an old house outside of the woods. We don’t live in Old House Woods.” Barnaby put his hand on Victoria’s head and stroked her hair.
“Ahhh,” he replied.
“Can my daughter pet your dog?” Barnaby 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 to his back and bared his stomach so she could scratch it.
“He likes his tummy rubbed,” the young man said a little embarrassed.
Victoria scratched the dog’s stomach and he kicked his leg. When she stopped, he laid on his back staring 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 away.
“Okay Jasper,” the young man said and pulled him back a little.
Victoria stood up and clapped her hands for the dog to come over to her. The dog ran back with his tail swishing and put his front paws up on her dress. She struggled but laughed as she held him upright.
Barnaby enjoyed watching her have so much fun.
“Will there be dogs in heaven?” she turned and asked Barnaby.
The young man smirked as though he thought it were a strange question.
“Yes there will be honey.”
“Well let’s hope none of us get there too soon,” the young man said smiling.
Victoria who couldn’t wait 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 starts to worry.”
“Of course, it was nice meeting you.”
Victoria petted the dog one final time. “Good-bye Jasper,” she waved.
“C’mon boy,” the young man said and ran over to his cows. The dog pranced after him with tail high in the air. Barnaby 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.